The moons were high above, one cast orange in shadow and eclipse, the other, bright and Argent in its full phase. Timing was everything, and already, they had tarried too long in reaching the secluded ritual site.
“Come! Here, before the stones. Lay flat, arms out.” The shaman ordered, waving his staff in a broad arch to encompass the sky and standing stones all.
Eldritch green energy gathered at the end of his gnarled and twisted staff. The Chieftain had insisted it must be completed tonight! The volunteer was one of his finest warriors after all, but the powers that were waited on no living being, least of all on a night as rare as this.
The ritual began, the shaman’s golden eyes darting from his subject’s supine form to the sky above, gushing the phase of the eclipse as it passed. There would be enough time, surely. A near thing, but enough…
Runes on the standing stones flared to life as he chanting, sweeping the energies like smoke across the warrior on the stones, conjuring up changes, making him stronger, bolder, taller. His talons lengthened into vicious obsidian hooks, feathers lengthening upon his arms into feathers of silver and black. When all was done, he would be one of the finest that the shaman had ever overseen the task of creating.
A sudden owl call from the woods distracted him for a heartbeat. It was a foul omen. Even as he watched, the mighty woodland watcher perched on the bone-like branches, sitting almost directly above them, it’s shadow cast upon the ground beside the warrior’s head, threatening to obscure the mother moons radiant glow.
It spread its wings, and cried into the night. Shadow eclipsed the warrior’s hazel eyes.
At once, the runes that had been glowing winked out like a snuffed candle. The owl took flight, but its damage was already done. Tremors racked the warrior’s newly transformed body, making him tremble and jerk as if in seizure. His beak snapped open and shut wordlessly, though his features contorted in agony, worse than any imaginable.
The shaman pressed his body down, restraining him until the violence of the transformation ceased. At last, the warrior lay still, breath heaving from physiology changed, broader, larger even than he had been before.
“Brother? Can you hear me?”
The shaman gasped as he was tossed aside like a leaf before the might of a gale, the warrior unaccustomed to the newfound strength of his moon-kissed form… But he was also twisted, the shaman could now see. When he stood, it was hunched over on all fours, using his arms as if they were the forepaws of a stalking beast to steady those first, shaking steps in the new body he had been blessed with… or cursed with.
His eyes opened, and in them, the shaman saw instantly the hunger of a feral beast, no light or glint of recognition at all. Whatever had been the warrior before was gone, replaced by a beast that knew naught but instinct and hunger and prey.
Those dark eyes narrowed, and the beast let loose with a Hawks cry that deepened to a growl at the end, startling flocks from their roosts. Then, turning to the waning eclipse, it called out mournfully.
The shaman saw none of this. He was already fleeing into the woods, retreating to warn the tribe what had become of the new initiate to the Arvian’s kin.
The walnut feathered Arvian stalked low through the brambles, using his spear and sheer bulk to clear the path ahead. Behind him, one of the older fledges followed closely, dark of colour with vivid red hackles. The younger’s icy blue eyes observed everything, and admired nothing, as he had been taught while hunting.
Today though, they hunted in the sunlight. So accustomed to hunting at night under the moon, it felt almost unnatural to stalk prey at such an hour, but it had been necessary. A precaution.
One didn’t hunt the moon touched in her pale white light. The younger Arvian with him had been told only what he needed to know.
While they were large and hulkling avian looking beasts, imposing in their own right, so too was the old hunter’s prey. They had ranged far from their tribe’s settlement, through the thick woods and into the wilderness beyond, nearing their tribes territory boundaries.
His apprentice had done well to keep pace, though perhaps he had been a fledge too long. Opportunities to prove oneself worthy were few and far, so when the shaman of their tribe approached Kleng with the dark secret he had to share, he knew it would be the perfect chance for his apprentice to prove his worth.
This would be his initiation rite. He had learned all that he could as a fledgling Arvian to the tribe after his transformation, and was more than ready to begin teaching his own charges the ways of their kind. He was well adapted, strong, and had a mind as sharp as his talons.
This was one final lesson.
Kleng halted for a moment, sharp, golden eyes scrutinising the forest floor. Tracks had been trampled into the autumn leaves, great gouges of earth and moss torn by the creatures path.
The elder hunter had tried twice now to herd their quarry into a more favorable position over the last few weeks, using fire and scarcity of prey to force it’s movements. Now, it seemed, those efforts were being rewarded.
“Isiat, here. Tell me what you see.” He motioned to his apprentice, gesturing the other over to the tracks.
He was almost fully as tall as Kleng, and just as sharp of sense. His mind was for wonder, but also of sense and logic. He would make a fine addition, assuming they survived.
“It is large… talons and…” He paused, leaning to inspect the tracks more closely, realisation crossed the apprentice’s face, as well as trepidation.
“He is one of ours, yes. Your eyes do not deceive. Trust them to show you truth when you see it. I have hunted him for three moons now. Today, we finish it.” Kleng spoke with a grim air of finality, crossing his broad arms, the butt of his spear resting in the peat.
“His own transformation was not as successful as yours. If he had a name, it is lost to the tribe now, but I once taught him as I teach you. Haskir… he was an honor guard to the Chieftain, proud, strong. But the moon did not smile upon him, as she did you.” Slowly, Kleng began moving forward, speaking softly as he beckoned the fledge along after him.
“You are taught that these things do not happen. Advancement to Arvian does not fail. We tell you this for your safety. Those who are not blessed by the moon die outright if they are not worthy of the gifts. We tell you this for your safety.” He halted again, turning back to the apprentice.
“This is the result of what happens if they do not die. Physically, he has the gifts of strength and size that you and I share, but his mind is tormented, reverted to that of a feral beast of instinct, craving food and shelter and flesh. Reason does not work. Anything that was left of who he was died that night his ritual was disrupted. You shall not speak of this outside of myself. If any ask, we stalked an iron boar, and slew it by the cliffs, where we lured it over the edge. None will question you brought it down.”
The younger nodded without word, and followed the master hunter further into the woods.
The cave was ringed by a clearing, far from their tribe’s home, enough that none would stumble upon it by chance.
The Arvian was stalking on knuckles and feet, tearing at a fawn when they found it. Old mud and sticks and blood stained what had once been a proud coat of ebony and hazel. His vicious beak was tinted red where evidence of its prey’s demise had gone unwashed.
Together, the pair stalked it, and gained its attention with stray arrow shots from their hunting bows that barely pierced its hide. The broadheads, even with the tremendous strength of the warriors behind it, did nothing more than make the massive, moon-cursed creature flinch and growl in fury as some new meat came to interrupt his meal.
It gave a defiant screech into the afternoon light, bellowing challenge to those who dared approach it. With another cry, it barreled towards Kleng with great, lopping strides, closing the distance with alarming speed for such a massive foe.
The beast was cunning, and Kleng circled with it before it struck. It had little regard for its own safety, recklessly pressing where a trained warrior would have withdrawn. He couldn’t afford to see the twisted Arvian snapping mindlessly at him as his old apprentice.
It lunged at him and threw its full, significant strength behind the attack, raining blows and talon slashes at him. The elder hunter masterfully parried each in turn, dancing backward on nimble feet, slowly attempting to wear the cursed beast down.
The walnut coloured warrior rolled beneath its next attack, fending off its snapping beak as the cursed one sought to overpower him. In lunged again and knocked his spear aside, before bodily tackling him to the earth, attempting to peck his eyes out behind his bloodied talons as he fended the blows off.
His apprentice however, took the presented opening and drove his spear between the monster’s ribs, twisting the silvered blade sharply, and with a whimper of pain, it slumped in Kleng’s embrace, calming as if it understood it’s death was assured now. No longer the moon cursed beast, but merely the fallen apprentice, he spoke softly as the life left its dying eyes.
“Go now brother. Your mortal duties are ended. You fought well. Go, Haskir, warrior and guardian, and sing to the moon spirit of your end, that she may list it among the stars…” One last wheezing breath left the ebony hackled Arvian, and at last, he was still.
Almost reverently, Kleng let his former apprentice’s head come to rest upon the grass. There was sandness in the old hunter’s eyes, but also gratitude. Relief perhaps, that this small wrong in the world had now been righted. He stood, and looked to his new apprentice, now a full Arvian warrior in his own right.
There would be a ceremony and celebration when they returned, but that was for later. For now, they had one last duty to perform.
“Fetch wood for a pyre. We’ll stand vigil till nightfall, and then burn his remains when the moon rises… Remember this lesson, Isiat. We do not leave our own to suffer. Be true in your teachings, and wise in your choices, that you may avoid having to give the final rites to one of your fledges.”
"Welcome, clanmates, those with ties to clan and hearth and home. Welcome, wanderers, those whose souls are pulled by the wider world. Welcome, supplicants, those looking to shed their old lives for something new. Welcome."
The elder stood tall in front of the bonfire, the firelight flickering off the silver in his pelt, his feathers red and gold against the dark. Despite his age, the arvian stood proud, his arms wide, welcoming, as he intoned the ritual welcome to the gathering of beasts arranged around him and the softly roaring fire.
The gathering stayed silent as the elder paused. Far in the back the hulking brutes, almost invisible in the forested shadows, crouched, ears of all shapes tilted forward to catch the elders words. Closer in the smaller arvians, hunters and gathers, sat on logs and rocks. One or two sat sharpening spears and fletching arrows as the elder welcomed in the silence after the opening. Closer still, and much fewer in number, supplicasnts of a number of other races sat, some leaning in to catch the elders words, others looking around them slightly nervously at the walls of muscled fur, feathers, and sharp beaks around them.
"Tonight is the long night, the night when darkness holds sway over the world. You have awaited this night, feasted to it's approach, celebrating the anticipation of the coming new year. But tonight is not a night of celebration." The elder paused, looking around the gathering of clan and guests to his fire. "Tonight is the rememberance of the old. The night of tales and stories. The telling of tales of epic hunts and the ones who got away. Of life changing events and stories from afar. But most of all, the telling of the stories of where we come from."
The gathering was silent, all eyes on the elder. Even the nervous supplicants had stilled, watching, for to them the stories of the arvians was something only whispered about. The elder turned, taking them all in.
"There are some that say we were created by a ritual built by an evil wizard, whose tower lives deep in our wood, as a race of merciless beasts to extend his dominion into the world. A mix of true gryphons and other creatures, with hands to handle weapons and size to break armies." The elder spoke, his fur raising as he did, feathered crest brisling as he became larger, more animal like, more vicious sounding. Those that had heard this before grinned, gaping their beaks in silent laughs at those that hadn't, who cringed back from the suddenly looming creature. "If that is true," continued the elder, his fur suddenyl settling, falling back into place, "then we have taken the ritual for ourselves, and cast him and his works to ruin."
"There are others that say that the ritual that created us was gifted by forgotten gods to a tribe that lived in these woods long ago. This tribe was hunted, attacked, and the first of us were brought into being through willing sacrifice to protect our kin who could not protect themselves." Another pause, as the elder cast his gaze down, sadly. "If that is true, then those who helped bring us into being are lost to the mists of time, with only the ritual of our creation to remember them by."
"And then there are those few who say that it was those who sought someplace quiet, someplace to commune with the wood and the creatures within, who were gifted the ritual from the gods and spirits of this place. That we brought ourselves into being through our desire to be seperate from the rest of this world. If that is true, then the ritual of becomming was always ours."
Another pause, the fire crackling and crunching as the wood shifted and burned. Even those who knew the story, who had distracted themselves with sharpening weapons or stitching hides, had stopped in their work to listen.
"In the end, it does not matter which of these stories are true. They could all be, or none of them could be. What matters is that those who came before us have gifted us the ritual that has made who and what we are possible. It has brought us the peace of this woods, and caretaking of it. It has brought us distance from the wider world, and the calm to contemplate our place in it. It has brought to us new brothers and sisters, and companionship we would never have otherwise known. It has brought to us a new way to be, and we should endeavour to always remember those who gifted us the ritual that has brought us this."
A softer, different silence fell over the arvian group, as each in their own way remembered and gave thanks on this, the longest night, to those who had weathered all that had come before to arrive at this moment. The elder held his breath for a moment longer, then broke the silence with a clap of his large paws, his beak dropping in a grin.
"But this is also a night for remembering ourselves, and the year that has passed! So who wishes to step into the circle first, and tell us their story?"
The twins had been brought before the shaman, both hatched from a single egg. Strays. Orphans. This in itself wasn’t a rare or remarkable occurrence. Traveling hens sometimes had their fun, and simply left an egg for the father to raise, or traveling males did likewise to the local females. It was simply the way of the world. This in itself was also not a remarkable occurrence.
Nor was the fact that nobody seemed to know who the parents of these twins were. Eggs were sometimes left with the shamans or on the cusp of another’s nest, shed of responsibility by its parents. Such things were unfortunate, but it happened. Their care was still a duty of the tribe after all. To leave an innocent chick to wither in its shell was a cruelty, and not one that was done lightly if avoidable.
No, what was remarkable, was the Shaman slamming the door to his hut as soon as the confused looking goshawk female showed the newly hatched Arvian’s to him and he all but yanked her inside.
Now, the pair of chicks sat quite attentively on his rug in the warmth of the fire, watching as his dreampal, in the form of a springing otter, entertained and delighted them by seemingly swimming through the air, leaving wispy trails of its ethereal spirit as it merrily rolled and danced around the pair of russet brown Arvians, their curious golden eyes following the spirits movements with delight.
They were Arvians.
Not any kind of moonspirit touched were-bird. Not simply bulky avian children. Arvians. They had all of the signs of having made the secret ritual transformation, and even the energy that they gave off from what spells he deemed safe to check with confirmed as much. Already, they were as large as if they had been born last spring.
“And you’re sure you’ve no idea where they came from?” The tribe’s shaman, Hvard Three-Oak asked for what must have been the fifth time, resting heavily on a gnarled, oak wood staff.
“No. The egg was left without explanation three days ago, and hatched in the witching hours of the morning. I brought them here since they’re…” She paused, twiddling her talons. He had no time for her dallying.
“Out with it.”
“Well, they’re changed. Like you, but… how could that be? They hatched before my eyes like this!” She exclaimed, tossing her wings up in exasperation. He waved a massive, taloned hand and bid her sit.
“It’s not unheard of, though it’s a rare occurrence. Perhaps once a generation, if not more infrequent. Arvians do not breed naturally, not for lack of trying. Such offspring are seen by some as a curse, unnatural, such as by our sun touched kin. One does not become Arvian without the spirits help and blessing… These two…” he paused, the elder’s face furrowed in though, long hackles across his name rising and falling with his breaths.
“They are blessed already. I had not thought to see such a thing in my lifetime. Even my mentor knew of only one such birth when he was a fledgling still…”
“Well, what are we to do with them?” The goshawk asked the most obvious question before them.
“Well, what else is there for it? Introduce them to the tribe. I’m not so foolish as to cast off a blessing when it is brought to my doorstep, no matter how unexpected… And I suppose, ultimately, we shall just have to see what becomes of it.”
The pair of chicks chirped in delight as Hvard’s dreampal settled on the floor before them, the spirit otter nodding it’s enthusiastic acceptance of this proposal.
Máni and Behtar, as the twins came to be known, grew fast among their peers.
By 4 summers they were already as large as most children reaching their first decade. By ten, they stood among the elder teens by size, and by fifteen, there was no longer a reasonable excuse not to accept them among the tribe as fledges in their own right.