The days and nights blurred. The fledgling continued her exercises with the other avians, her failures with them all the more painful. The alphas whispered together late in the night, wondering if the littlest fledgling really would surprise them all to become a Warrior, as her hatching had predicted.
The fledgling in question began her fasting ritual. It was only a few more weeks before the Initiation Ceremony, and she had to fast to be rid of the toxins in her blood. She had to bleed clean, the others warned her, or else her scar would not heal in the proper shape, ruining her future.
In the meantime, she lost the last of her downy hatchling coat. She used it to line her nest as the days grew shorter and colder. Her adult plumage was a subtle mahogany, turning red in the sunshine and black in the darkness. Her bright green eyes stood in marked contrast to her feathers, making her a unique avian beauty to behold, for most females had dull brown or yellow eyes to match their dull plumes.
The moon began its final phase, turning from a nearly full orb into a darkened mass. It was then that the Initiation Ceremony began.
A soft cooing call from the alpha female alerted the littlest fledgling that the ritual was to begin. The other female avians heard it and wandered toward the exercise ring, their movements slow, as if in a trance. Fasting made them easily angered or slow to respond, the littlest fledgling noted.
The alpha female avian faced each fledgling one by one, encircling them, fighting them, and pinning them to the dirt. Ra would approach from the shadows, tracing his hindfoot talons gently against the struggling female’s facial flesh, carving their destinies with delicate precision. Each scar was a symbol of their unique fates—the feather for the Seekers, the gingko leaf for the Healers, a single brutal scratch for the Alphas, and an ammonite for the Warriors. Most of the females were fated to be Seekers this season, with some Healers, one Alpha, and, as tradition dictated, only one Warrior. So far, no Warrior had been marked.
The littlest fledgling was the last to become initiated. Her heart was in her throat as she began the fight against the alpha female with an awkward bow.
Wadjet lunged at the fledgling, her jaws agape in a menacing hiss. The fledgling flinched, pulling her head back and leaning backward to avoid the snap of the alpha’s jaws. Clack! The jaws shut millimeters from her facial lores.
The fledgling darted away from Wadjet, her toes sinking into the soft mud and sand of the exercise ring. She turned right, then left, jerking away in spasmodic movements that Wadjet found infuriating.
Wadjet leaped over the fleeing fledgling and pivoted. Her enlarged talons raised and flexed downward as she shoved the fledgling roughly into the dirt, pinning her.
One of Wadjet’s feet moved to the fledgling’s chest, to keep her head still, while the other remained on her thigh. Ra strode into the clearing, his crest fully flared and eyeshine an eerie white.
“Hello, littlest one,” he grunted, and gazed into Wadjet’s eyes, waiting for the signal to proceed. His left foot pinned the fledgling’s muzzle to the dirt, and the other was raised above her right eye.
Wadjet nodded. Ra lowered his recurved talons to the fledgling’s facial lores.
Swift, gentle strokes caressed the fledgling’s right eye. Her facial lores were removed, exposing the bare skin to the cool night air.
The next sensation was excruciating pain. The fledgling shut her eye tight and let out a muffled squeal, squirming under Wadjet’s firm grip. Ra’s talons delicately cut into the fledgling’s flesh. First, an endless loop, the outer edge of a spiral. The fledgling began to lose consciousness as Ra continued his carving, licking away her blood with each precise mark.
Wadjet gazed at the fainted fledgling with deep sorrow and pride. “yeeeee-arr-uh,” she sang in a haunting melody. “yeeeee-arr-uh…Iara… in this dark time…may you flow as water, as the Warriors will teach you.”
Dawn broke, the sunlight spilling into the exercise ring, stinging Iara’s face and eyes. She was still weak from the Initiation Ceremony, as she had lost the most blood among her sisters.
The other avians, including the alpha pair, had left, returning to their own nests after the Initiation Ceremony was complete. From this point forward, Iara was on her own.
“Ah good, you are awake.”
The Guardian’s voice filled her head, which still swam from last night. Iara squinted, tilting her head back, and found Flash was behind her, perched on a branch and preening.
“You snore,” he grunted, tugging at some loose down on his chest. “And drool.”
Iara shook the spittle from her face, her crest fluffing with the movement.
“Well, some cheerful greeter you are,” Iara croaked, her exhausted state preventing her from preening much less doing more than sit up.
The Guardian chuckled. “You are still weak from the Ceremony. I wouldn’t move, if I were you.” He flew off his perch, landing in front of her. He opened his beak, spitting some meat on the dirt. “Breakfast.”
“I haven’t eaten regurgitated meat since I was young,” Iara countered, turning her nose up at the glob before her.
“You need to regain your strength. Eat it.”
Iara sighed. She reluctantly licked at the glob, shivering with disgust.
“You will feel better in a few days,” Flash continued his preening, pulling loose feathers on his back into place.
“Why are you here?” Iara wondered.
“We agreed to talk after the Initiation Ceremony, remember?”
“Oh.” Iara watched as Flash finished preening and fluffed himself.
The wind rustled through the evergreen trees, carrying their scent to her. It was a cold wind, one she knew would bring change.
Iara finished her meal and waited patiently for Flash to continue. He studied her scar.
“Do you know what shape your scar is?”
“All I know is that it hurts.”
“Mmh, to be expected.” Flash tilted his head to the side, inspecting it carefully. “What is your given name?”
“Iara,” she breathed, keeping her gaze away from Flash’s stare.
“A lovely name. Unique. Most Warriors have fierce names, like Bloodlust, or Sharptongue, something to that effect.”
Iara swallowed, “So…I am a Warrior, after all…”
“I told you, I do not err in these things, Iara.”
“What is my scar in the shape of? Some kind of circle…?”
“Circles within circles, and lines within lines,” Flash cryptically remarked.
“No wonder it hurt so much…”
Flash chuckled gently, hopping around her as he did when they first met.
“What did you wish to discuss with me?”
“Ah, you like to cut to the chase. Very well.” Flash settled onto the dirt, tucking his legs beneath him, his tailfeather train spread flat behind him. “Have you ever wanted to go on an adventure, Iara?”
“An…adventure?” Iara tilted her head, wondering what this meant.
“Yes, a long and perilous journey awaits you, if you are to become the Warrior you have the potential to be.”
“It’s dangerous!” Iara cried, aghast.
“Oh, very, to be sure,” Flash shrugged it off, nonchalant. “You can handle it. You’re sitting up and eating already. Few Warriors can do this so soon after Initiation.”
“But…but what of my home? My pack?”
“You are an omega. Most packs do not miss an omega.”
“There are many what ifs, many doubts. Do you doubt me, Iara?”
Iara covered her muzzle with her wings, shutting her eyes, trying to drown out the pounding in her head and the gentle thrum of his voice. “I…I don’t know…”
Flash’s voice became deeper, more guttural. It nearly sounded like a grumble, a sound an avian could not easily produce much less replicate. “You fear what you do not understand.” The feather around Flash’s neck began to twirl in the sunshine, its barbs turning from ebony to azure and back again in an instant. “You doubt my abilities?” The feather twisted faster as Flash’s feathers began to fuse together, their bright green hue fading into a dull ocher. The edges of his plumes darkened, widening into spots.
Iara opened her eyes slowly, her headache lifting as his growl caught her attention.
Flash was no longer an avian. He was a jaguar, his gaze just as intense as before. Iara shivered with fear.
“I will not harm you, Iara,” he rumbled, reaching his heavy paws toward her, kneading them in the dirt. His retractable claws slid out as he pawed the earth. He stopped the motion and folded his paws, one over the other. He continued observing Iara. “Do you believe me when I say this?”
“Y-y-yes,” Iara squeaked. Flash smiled, a toothy grin.
“Good,” Flash grunted. “I will protect you at all costs, for I am your Guardian. I was sent by the Warrior clan to protect you. That is my duty, until you become one of them. Then I will leave you.”
“I…I don’t doubt your abilities, Flash. You understand magic better than I ever will.”
“One role is not better than the other. That is your first lesson, littlest one. Some never learn it. Keep it in mind, the next time you feel small.”
Flash took in a deep breath, and his fur twisted into bright green plumes, his muzzle became a beak, and he was the avian Iara recognized once more.
“Will you teach me how to do that?” Iara wondered. Flash shook his head.
“Only Guardians can shapeshift. That is not your role. Another lesson learned already.”
“What of the Lek? Will you protect me then?”
“From amorous males?” Flash huffed in croaking laughter. “Ah, Iara…the Lek is a challenge you must face alone, I’m afraid. But you will do fine.”
“I thought the Lek was another exercise ring!” Iara blurted aloud. Flash flew over her head, landing in a nearby tree branch.
“You will have to select a mate at one point,” Flash warbled. Iara scooted on her pelvis and turned toward the Guardian. “That was what your exercises were for…to prepare you for adulthood.”
“What if I am not ready? Or unfit to have a mate?”
“Every avian secures a mate, Iara,” Flash reassured her. “Did Wadjet not teach you this?”
“She did…it’s just…”
“Banish your doubts as the sun dissipates the mist,” Flash grumbled. He tilted his head to the right, to look at her with his better seeing eye. “Asking questions is good! Ask too many and you will begin to doubt yourself.”
Flash spread his wings and glided over to another tree branch. His landing caused the needles on it to scatter to the forest floor and the wind.
Iara watched the sun climb into the sky, darkness descending on the forest floor as the shadows of the trees lengthened. Her strength began to return after several more days, Flash’s gentle presence soothing her. Still, something deep within bothered her. She could not describe it, but she felt unprepared for the Lek and the trials she knew it would bring. If she couldn’t handle the Lek, how could she ever be fit to become a Warrior?