Iara dozed next to Atum-Bennu and Tawaret. The bright orb of moonlight cast shadows between the trees.
A musky odor startled Iara from her sleep. Her emerald eyes flashed a brilliant green in the darkness, searching for the source of the scent.
Flash growled furiously, his body tensed. Before Iara could turn to fend him off, he pounced, knocking her into the ground roughly. Atum-Bennu and Tawaret were too deep in sleep to notice the commotion.
“You have won half the battle!” Flash snarled quietly, his weight pinning her to the earth. “Now you need to take me on to finish what I started!”
Iara placed her clawed feet against her previous Guardian’s crushing belly, and gave a rough shove upward as hard as she could. “This is my path to take!” Iara hissed in challenge.
Flash pressed down, his muzzle inches from her open, hissing maw filled with recurved, sharp teeth. Iara’s pupils were constricting and dilating in turns, her killing claw twitching spasmodically, her feathers fully raised. “It takes but one blow to your jugular to take you out, wretched avian,” he snarled savagely. “I’ve waited years to do this, to have your blood spill and to have you leave me forever.”
“I don’t believe you,” Iara choked, pushing her feet harder into his soft underbelly, tempted to rip out his guts then and there. “You wanted me to live, knew I was a Warrior from the very beginning…you had faith in me…I was there for you when all others failed…”
Flash’s eerie, deep guffaw filled the tense silence. “You miserable wingless fool! You really believed all that? You really think that I cared an iota for you and your safety? Ha! You were another pawn to use and send to her imminent death!”
His last words were a sharp, harsh howl of rage, and he opened his jaws for the killing strike.
Iara took a deep breath inward. Suddenly, a warmth erupted from inside her, a hot anger, a white hot plume of flame from within rallying against her past Guardian’s false claims. “I will choose my own path,” she whispered, her eyes watering and dilating. “Whether you think it is fit for me or not!”
Flash closed in on her jugular…and suddenly snapped his head backward in pain. Half his whiskers were singed, as if they had caught on fire. He noticed Iara’s scar was bright red, with yellow glimmers, as if it were a hot coal against her flesh.
The sounds of the fight lured Scylla to Iara’s nest site. He warned Flash that an act of revenge would only serve to push Iara away, but Flash was obstinate. Scylla followed Flash from a distance, wondering if Iara would survive the attack. He tensed, stunned by what he saw Iara become.
Iara felt numb beneath her flickering feathers, which had instantly become a living flame, scarlet and white. Her eyes were as green as the forest at high noon. Iara’s body was levitating above the forest floor, her tailfan upturned and her wings spread wide.
“The Warrior we have sought for half an age!” Scylla whispered, in awe at her transformation.
Iara’s heat began to subside suddenly. Her feathers returned to their normal coloration. She sank to the ground, her primaries spread around her head, her eyes rolled back as if dead.
“Iara!!” Scylla burst through the trees, running toward her in his avian form. Atum-Bennu and Tawaret awoke, startled by his presence. Anahita began whimpering in fear. Flash had turned tail and run, terrified.
Scylla reached her, surrounding her with his primaries protectively. He looked at her with deep concern.
Atum-Bennu snarled at this newcomer, protecting Tawaret and Anahita with his own spread primaries. His crest rose in irritation. “Who are you?! How do you know Iara?!”
“I am Scylla, Guardian of Warriors.” Scylla didn’t look at the avians, only at Iara. Her scar ceased glowing, resembling embers that died on the wind. Scylla dared to press his tongue against her scar, a delicate and tender gesture he normally reserved for his mates.
Iara’s eye slowly fluttered open. “Sc—scylla?”she stammered weakly. “What—what happened?”
“You achieved the State of the Phoenix, Warrior,” Scylla simply said, his tone gentle, as a brook meandering across the quiet wood. “It is time.”
“Time for what?!” Bennu challenged, afraid and concerned for Iara.
“Follow me, Iara,” Scylla nudged her gently, urging her to stand. Her weak state forced her to lean on Scylla’s side.
Atum-Bennu and Tawaret instinctively backed up on facing Scylla. The avian was enormous, at least twice their height and length, with short and thick calves and large, hooked talons. His huge wings were folded, his dark crest silvered with moonlight. His opalized ammonite pendant glimmered as he breathed and moved.
“I must take Iara to my sensei, the first Warrior,” Scylla explained to Bennu and his family. “She cannot stay with you, for wherever she goes, she will be hunted down by the Seekers, like Flash. The Seekers find and kill Warriors.”
Bennu and Tawaret looked at each other in disbelief. “Avians don’t murder one another! It violates The Way!”
“The Seekers want to destroy that, too,” Scylla sighed. Iara began to regain her strength, warmed by Scylla’s plumes. His scent overwhelmed her, a pleasing odor much like burnt cedar. “I will lead her to the Lonely Trail, and she will need to find the Oasis where my sensei is located.”
Bennu and Tawaret were saddened. Bennu embraced Iara, their necks entwined lovingly.
“Be careful,” Bennu warbled. “May your path be clear and true, Warriorfeather.”
The sun rose. Iara found herself next to Scylla’s enormous wing, and jumped, startled.
Scylla winked at Iara, his grin smug and confident.
Iara skittered out of his reach, her crest raised in alarm. “What! Where--?!”
“The whys and wherefores, yes,” Scylla chuckled, preening. “You feeling better?”
“My head is killing me,” Iara groaned, squinting at the sunlight.
“It happens,” Scylla grunted, standing. “Drink,” he tilted his head to the nearby stream.
Iara did so, glancing nervously back at Scylla, who studied her, bemused.
“Where are my nestmates? Where am I?!” she demanded to know.
“We are leaving them, and headed for a path known as the Lonely Trail.” Scylla joined her in drinking the water, his huge head obscuring the bright sunlight. His crest took on an otherworldly glow. Iara felt her heart pound a little harder as she watched him drink, her thirst sated.
He bowed to her, his smirk evident.
“Come, m’lady,” he warbled theatrically, waving his primaries to the trail beneath their feet.
Iara rolled her eyes, fluffed herself. She wandered alongside Scylla tentatively.
Suddenly, Scylla ran, weaving effortlessly through the brush and trees. He spread his wings and leaped off the edge of a cliff. Iara ran after, crying, “Scylla!!”
Scylla landed, turned about, and strutted victoriously. He tilted his right eye upward, his ammonite scar plain to see. Iara glared down at his cocky display.
“In order to move forward, you must overcome fear,” Scylla called up. “Fear is what drove Flash to hurt you, to cause you anger and pain. Fear is our base instinct. Rise above it, phoenix! Channel your energy and know you can move forward!”
Iara trembled, terrified. “I hate heights! And falling! And maybe you!”
Scylla laughed. “Come down, youngling. I will be here. It’s alright.”
Iara shut her eyes as she flung herself downslope. Her wings instantly flared open as she did so, slowing her fall. She twisted her tail upward before she landed, keeping her balance in mid-air. She landed almost on top of Scylla, but she made it unharmed.
Once she had recovered, Scylla laughed gently. “You see?” he cried. “You did well! We will reach the end of the forest enclave soon, and then our real journey will begin.”
Iara gasped for breath, her eyes dilated. Scylla nudged her shoulder gently, nearly knocking her down.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Oh, I am just fine,” Iara sarcastically shot back. “I only fell down a huge cliff!”
Scylla guffawed, a blend of a jay’s shriek and a crow’s cackle. “That?! That is a gully, not a cliff. Come along!”
He leaped away, and Iara hustled to catch up.
“I don’t understand what all this has to do with Flash,” Iara went on as they wandered through the forest. “Are you saying…he was threatened by me? Me?”
“Yes,” Scylla snorted. “You have inner power that is stunning to behold…hence your initiation scar.”
Iara did not notice it, but as they walked, they were moving in a large, slow loop, steadily moving toward the center of the forest, which was seated at the bottom of a deep basin. No avian had wandered along the Lonely Trail in ages, and few knew what was at the center of the forest…some hinted at lost civilizations, founded by the great saurians and avians of old. Others hinted at a deep hole that went into the center of the Earth itself. Scylla knew what was there, though, and as he led her toward the start of their journey, he continued to study Iara’s scar.
Scylla went on, “You see, shelled creatures grow from within. They start out very small, moldable. Over time, they harden on the outside, yet never let go of the softness and joy of their youth on the inside. Such things are considered naïve by pessimists. To Warriors, it is the ultimate expression of inner strength and love while wielding outer armor.
“ Flash never tapped into his potential the way you are tapping into yours. He fears that you will be the Warrior my clan seeks. When you faced him at last, despite your anger, you confirmed his fears.”
Scylla paused, testing the air with his nostrils.
“Is he following us?” Iara’s crest rose in anger at the thought.
“Perhaps,” Scylla muttered. “Then again, perhaps not. Flash knows better than to cross my sensei.”
Iara, came a gentle nudge in Iara’s mind. It was the female voice, the one she had heard in her dream before she confronted Flash.
Iara stepped away from Scylla and noted an ocher ripple moving through the trees. She craned her neck, trying to see—and Scylla instantly distracted her by snapping his jaws near her ear.
“Come, Iara! We must not delay!”
“But—there’s something in the forest, something I haven’t seen before—“ Iara protested as Scylla gently nudged her shoulder with his muzzle, moving her back to their path.
“We must move toward the Great Stone Circle.”
The avians continued their slow descent, stopping to sense impending danger or relieve themselves. Eventually, as the sun began to set, they reached the bottom of the basin. The forest completely thinned, except for a large circular stone in the middle of the expansive clearing.
The stone was massive, about as tall as the avians themselves. It was made of a weathered gray limestone, and carved lines decorated its edge. Had Flash seen it from above, he would have surmised it to resemble an ammonite—the same shape of Iara’s scar. Beneath and on top of the stone crawled lichens and fern fiddleheads, twisting and folding in the fading sunlight.
Iara moved around the circle, sniffing it and examining it. Scylla suddenly leaped up and landed in the center of the circle. He bowed his head to his chest, as if in sleep.
“Circles within circles, and lines within lines,
Let time slip away, past your chambers,
Door after door will open anew
Let the Warrior Clan, as water, take us through!”
The stone rumbled, and the lichens and ferns snapped free of the shifting blocks. Scylla leaped off just in time, as segment by segment the stone sank into the earth, revealing a gaping hole.
“Welcome to the start of the Lonely Trail,” Scylla explained softly, his eyeshine aglow in the sudden darkness. “I will guide you through the Curled Chambers beneath the earth, and then out toward the desert. Beyond the sands is the Great Oasis, where my sensei waits for us.”
Iara looked down into the tunnel. It seemed dark and foreboding compared to the open, warm space she was used to in their forest home.
Do not be afraid, little Warrior, came the female voice once more. She squinted at Scylla, trying her best to tell him to jump in first. Scylla simply cocked his head to one side, and blinked. Iara’s lores flushed, and she looked away, embarrassed.
“Come!” Scylla shrugged off the odd exchange, and leaped into the tunnel that led to the Lonely Trail.
Iara followed, the darkness swallowing them inside and out.