Iara awoke as soon as the sun rose. She wandered the trails toward her hideaway, the tranquil pool where she had met Flash long ago. The morning air was heavy with mist, the trail obscured by gingko leaves and pine needles.
She nearly tripped over the branch in her path.
The branch was smoothed out and hollow at each end, grooved with claw marks. It appeared well worn, as if left to sit in the sun and be washed by the rain over hundreds of years. Iara tilted her head to inspect it, taking in its scent. The bark was unfamiliar. She hesitated.
She looked up, aware of his presence.
The melanistic jaguar stood several feet away, a similar branch in his powerful jaws. He blinked once, in a playful greeting, his blue eyes flashing for a moment as the clear sky between the trees.
Iara leaped over the branch. The jaguar shook his head, and then swung the branch down, smacking the earth.
Iara paused, turned back toward the branch. She worried it would be too heavy for her to carry in her jaws, but it was surprisingly light. She lost her balance slightly as she tottered toward him, grinning madly.
He grinned in response, saliva pattering onto the worn earth below them. He then narrowed his eyes at her, and leaped forward, nearly knocking her down.
CLACK! The sticks collided as he bolted past. Iara instantly swung her wings out, balancing herself just in time as he turned about, rushing by her once more.
Iara leaped to the side, swinging the branch against his, avoiding his maneuver gracefully. CLACK!
The jaguar growled, and scrunched back on his hindlimbs. He then launched skyward, the stick allowing him to keep midair longer than usual. Iara’s eyes widened. He landed and pivoted toward her, his head down and jaws rigid.
Iara leaped up at the last second, her wings keeping her aloft. For a moment, she felt free.
The whistling of the branch filled the air as Iara landed and whirled about to face the jaguar, her heart racing.
He vanished with the morning mist, his pugmarks leading away into the forest.
Iara spat the branch out, panting to catch her breath. She peered into one end of the hollowed branch, huffed into it. The whistling noise returned.
Flash warbled in response, circling on the thermals above the canopy. He landed in a nearby gingko, chuckling.
“Can you catch his pendant?” Flash nodded toward Scylla’s ammonite pendant, which had become entangled in a nearby evergreen branch. The branch in question was some twenty feet above the forest floor.
Iara grunted. “I can’t climb!” she protested, glaring at Flash. “And where have you been?”
“Nevermind that! Get the pendant, youngling!”
Iara sighed. She stared up at the pendant, and spread her wings. Her claws slipped on the bark as she attempted to climb. She returned to her spot on the trail, frustrated.
She looked at the smoothed branch she was sparring with. She looked up at the pendant again.
She trotted over to the smoothed branch, and carried it in her jaws to the tree. She tilted her head to the side. The branch was still too far away from the pendant. She readjusted her grip on the branch, moving her head and neck closer to the earth. She struggled to reach the pendant, nearly toppling over.
A few swings of the branch in her jaws and she struck the pendant loose. It fell toward the earth.
Flash flew down and caught the pendant in his talons before it hit the trail, cawing harsh laughter.
“Come find me!” he called to Iara. Iara hissed softly to herself, then ran after the errant Confuciusornis.
Iara ran along the trail, losing sight of Flash now and then. She decided to follow the jaguar’s pugmarks, as their presence betrayed the correct path. She eventually found herself near Flash’s den, along with dozens of other dens worn into the sandstone cliffs in a large clearing.
“Welcome to the Shifters’ Copse, Iara,” grunted the melanistic jaguar.
Flash landed on his shoulder, taking the pendant in his beak and offering it to Scylla. Scylla accepted the pendant, scooping it around his neck gently.
Iara narrowed her eyes at them both. “Okay. Why am I here?”
“You’ve returned my pendant!” Scylla smiled, loping over to her. He chuffed and rubbed his body lengthwise against Iara, grinning. “Thank you kindly.” He returned to Flash, who settled on his shoulder once more.
“Besides that,” Iara huffed, rolling her eyes.
“Scylla is from the Warrior Clan,” Flash informed her, shaking himself and rearranging his plumage absentmindedly. “He is to be your Guardian as you make your way in the world.”
“I don’t need a Guardian,” Iara turned away from them, irritated. “I can make my own path.”
Scylla grinned at Iara’s rebelliousness. Flash sighed.
“Every initiated avian has a Clan and a Guardian of that Clan,” Flash explained. “You have a name and an initiation scar. Your path has been chosen, and that is of the Warrior.”
“My destiny is not decided by a stupid scar!” Iara whirled on Flash, infuriated. “You haven’t been by my side at all, like a Guardian should be! You’re too busy to pay me any mind! What of that?!”
“Ah,” Flash nodded. “Well, contrary to what you believe, I have been watching you, youngling. You haven’t seen me in the trees? In the evening sky, on my way back to the roost?”
Iara grunted and looked away. She sat on the trail, longing to return to her nest.
“Yes, I have been keeping my eye on you. You are doing well, but my path is not yours to follow. Scylla and the other Warrior Guardians sense your potential…” Flash continued.
“Why does everyone I meet want to help me somehow?!” Iara growled. “I am capable of surviving on my own. I don’t need a Clan, or a Guardian, or a flock of my own. I can be alone if I wish.”
“Few avians can survive alone, and those are the strongest of all,” Flash countered, his anger rising. “Iara, Ra and Wadjet knew this path was yours from the moment you hatched. I sensed your abilities long ago. You need to hone them, use them, to grow and become great. Right now…right now you are weaker than the others. But I know you can be strong! The Warrior Clan will help you in this.”
“I am no Warrior,” Iara sighed, frustrated. “Flash, I can’t mate. I can’t be a part of avian society, I trip over my own two feet. You somehow sense I am great but I need all this help…and then, you hide away when I need you…I don’t know…it doesn’t seem right!”
“Enough!” Flash roared, morphing into the jaguar and pouncing on Iara, his rage clear to see in his ocher eyes. “You fool! You will follow this path!”
“Leave her alone!” Scylla countered, swatting the elder jaguar away as Iara readied her terrible claws in defense. The blow caught Flash by surprise. “I warned you, Iara needs to determine this destiny for herself!”
Flash snarled menacingly, hurt by this betrayal. He then straightened, and sat, staring coldly at Scylla and Iara.
Scylla sat by Iara, who still faced away from the shifters despite the fight.
“When you are ready to heed the call, find me,” Scylla grunted softly. Iara’s gaze briefly met Scylla’s in acknowledgment. He then left, heading for the Warrior Clan’s dens.
Flash was silent, his ears pinned back.
Iara faced away from him, his rage making her plumage rise and stand on end.
“No one rejects me,” he rumbled.
“Well, I have,” Iara stood tall, staring Flash down. “I can choose my fate, and I will do what I feel is right when I am ready.”
Iara walked past Flash, toward the trail into the forest once more. Flash simply glared at her, unable to understand the exchange of power.
Iara suddenly felt strong, something she rarely experienced. She kept on the path, headed for home.
She paused before the hollowed branch she had used that morning to spar against Scylla. She took the branch gently in her jaws, and carried it back to the nest.
“What is that?!” Tawaret exclaimed on seeing the branch. Anahita, the hatchling, chirruped and snapped her tiny jaws at the branch curiously.
“A gift,” Iara solemnly warbled. “A weapon, a tool, and a symbol of strength.”
Tawaret blinked. “Why must you always speak in tongues?!”
Iara sighed, shaking herself as she settled into her side of the nest. “Nevermind. I will see you tomorrow.”
As she drifted off to sleep, a gentle murmur:
Circles within circles, lines within lines, you have made your fate, hear my cries…