On her eighteenth birthday it is time for River to go to the sacred cavern to receive her wings. But before her mother presents her to the firebird council and the gods, she tells River of her birthing.
Commander Dalondo secretly witnesses the firebird gathering and the initiation of a beautiful young blonde woman. Who is she? What he hears in the cavern shocks him to the core…
River followed her mother through strange rock formations until they suddenly faced a crystalline pool. All twelve elders were already there, sitting on a white sandy shore surrounding the water. More strange rock formations flanked the pond, and some strange plants and ferns grew behind the white sand and bushes with beautiful white flowers. Behind it all stood a tall marble statue of what looked like a human woman.
“Is the goddess like the humans?” River whispered to her mother, wondering vaguely who had made the statue and put it there.
“Hush, child. Yes, she is.”
“Who made the statue?”
“It was always there, from the beginning when the gods first led us to this temple. Now stop talking.”
One of the elders stood. “Greetings, Zoyalina and River. Please approach.”
Her mother took her hand and pulled her toward the sand. “Greetings, council,” she gave a slight bow. “My daughter is ready.”
River felt fear gnaw at her stomach. Another forbidden weakness for the firebirds. She trembled a bit. Her mother squeezed her hand, then let go.
“River, please step into the pool and wade to the center.” Elder Kronkal swept his hand toward the crystalline water.
After a little nudge from her mother, River began to wade into the tepid water. The bottom felt crunchy, as if there were shells beneath her feet. Carefully, she walked to the center until the water was up to her neck. Then she stopped and turned to face the elders, waiting for what would come next.
The eleven seated elders, mostly men with a few women, began to hum.
Elder Kronkal stepped to the edge of the pool and raised both arms. “God of love and mercy, goddess of the firebirds, we bring before you River, child of Zoyalina, who is ready for her wings and her feathers, for her transformation to an adult firebird. Please show her your mercy and remove her anomalies and allow her to become one with our tribe. We praise you and adore you and thank you for your protection. Shower this young woman with your grace?”
The humming increased, and Elder Kronkal chanted loudly in a foreign tongue. Suddenly, he stopped and waded into the water to stop right in front of her. He was much taller than her, so the water only came to his waist. He began to chant again, then placed both hands on her head and pushed her down until she was completely submerged.
River had no idea what was going on above the surface. She held her breath until she could no longer and thought for sure she would drown. A strange feeling surged through her body, and a prickly sensation attacked her skin as though a thousand firebirds all pecked at her at once. She squirmed and tried to surface, but the elder’s strong hands still held her down. Water entered her nostrils and mouth, and as she drew it into her lungs, everything started to fade, and malaise began to overwhelm her body and brain.
She was sure the elder had seen fit to eliminate the abomination living among their tribe once and for all. He was effectively drowning her.
Suddenly, he removed his hands, and she shot up and surfaced, spluttering and gulping in big breaths of air. She opened her eyes to find Elder Kronkal had left the pool. The humming had stopped, and all twelve elders, including her mother, stared at her with a look of shock as if she were now more than an abomination. The tiny spark of hope that her mother was wrong and that she would receive wings flickered in her heart. But the shock on the council members’ faces told her that something unimaginable had happened, and it wasn’t what she’d hoped for.
Reaching behind her, she gingerly touched her back but found no wings. She ran her hands over her body and looked down. The course stiff hair was gone. Her body felt strange. Where there should have been beautiful red and gold feathers like her mother’s, her hands felt only smooth, soft skin. But after what her mother had told her, she knew she could never be a firebird…she was still something else…