3 The Tiger
No one remembered when or how the Karainas came to breed rheas, or why the birds only answered to them. Outsmarting and outrunning horses, the plumed beasts were elevated to an almost legendary status among humans.
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They were also the making or breaking of a Karaina.
It wasn't common for the rheas to reject a potential Karaina, but it had happened before. And Scarlett was the first person to attempt this without having any fire magic. What if the birds saw through her, and none of them wanted her as their rider?
Lost in thought, Scarlett didn't realize that the ceremony had begun until a thundering roar filled the air. Green, blue and red smoke billowed out of the pylon, and spirit beasts of all shapes and sizes appeared on the arena. They moved slowly towards the trainees, leaving no footprints on the sand.
Analyzing the situation, she hoped the spirit beast she'd have to fight would be the boar. Her shield would protect her from its tusks, and she was confident she could outrun it if it came to that. The bull and the elephant spirit beasts towered over the trainees, and she'd never be able to fight the phoenix without any magic. She prayed she wouldn't get either of those.
But the worse one was the tiger spirit beast. Three Night of Flames ago, it had been the undoing of one of the most promising trainees of the year. It was a common joke among the potential Karainas that whoever the tiger picked was undoubtedly cursed. True to its nature, the tiger fought to the end. It would never concede a fight, and its fangs and claws were fast and possibly lethal.
Scarlett scanned the arena, searching for the boar. At the other end of the arena, it moved in towards a girl whose name Scarlett didn't remember. Before she could react, the elephant strode towards her.
Panicking, Scarlett moved out of the way, brandishing her sword and placing her shield in front of her. But the elephant didn't turn around. It had his eyes set on Mimbi, who was running and positioning herself so she could fight back.
Chaos erupted in the arena as the spirit beasts charged. Fire spewed from the bodies of the trainees, crashing into the spirits and lighting up the world around her. As she stood there, dazed and confused, she almost didn't see that the spirit beast who had chosen her was not the kind of beast that charged into you head on.
It pounced on her from behind.
The tiger leapt into the air. Scarlett only got a chance to see something flying towards her in the corner of her eye. Before she was able to move out of the way, one of the tiger's claws sank into her shoulder, knocking her to ground.
Using her shield as support, she got back up almost immediately, lifting her sword towards the tiger. It seemed in no hurry to attack, relishing in the hunt of new prey after almost a year of no play.
Around her, the encouraging chats of the crowd filled the air, as well as the occasional screams from the trainees. Each one fighting the spirit beast that had chosen her. And of course, of all the beasts, the tiger had chosen her.
Human and beast circled each other; the tiger crouching and bearing his teeth as he grunted and roared. Scarlett scowled, trying to look as fierce as the beast facing her. Her shoulder was bleeding through her leather armor, blood flowing down her left arm. She had to hurry before the blood reached her hands. It would make it harder for her to have a firm grip on her shield.
She thought of the dew filled mornings where she rose before everyone to do laps around the village, training her body to fight the weariness of sleep. She remembered the pain of her muscles breaking, later reforming to be stronger and harder. She heard the voices of the people she'd have to leave behind if she could not defeat the spirit beast. She thought of Mimbi, of the love she had shown her since they were both little girls playing at being Karainas.
She'd go to hell and back for her.
So she charged.
The tiger was ready, and it sped towards her, flinging his clawed paws at her. She dodged and parred, dancing with the spirit beast. It landed a scratch near her knee, but she couldn't feel anything anymore. All she saw was the eyes of the tiger, locked in with hers, as it continued to attack her.
Then it took some steps back and jumped at her, trying dig its fangs into her neck. That was its fatal mistake.
The Karaina's sole reason for being was to fight the Hova, and the first thing they were taught, even as children, was to defend their necks. Like vampiric batlings, the Hova went for the soft spots, where veins and arteries were easier to puncture, making blood spurt out so they could drink it with ease.
Scarlett drove her sword straight through the tiger's rib cage, just before his mouth reached her head. It fell back, the sword still embedded in him, and faded into smoke. Scarlett's sword fell on the sand with a soft thud.
Her armor was torn and bloodied, and she panted as if she had just run from the village to the wall, but she had won. She had survived the worst of all the spirit beasts.
Around her, three girls were still fighting their spirit beasts, but the skirmishes were all in their last stages. The phoenix spirit beast fighting Pakuri let out a howl and disappeared in the air, right after she hurled a fireball at it.
The sand in the arena, which had been undisturbed before the chaos, was littered with broken shields and arrows, and patches of dark blood marked the places where the fights had been the hardest.
Scarlett's left hand was now drenched in the blood that fell from her shoulder. She could barely lift her arm, so she dropped the shield and tried to asses the damage the tiger had made. There was a large gash that had ripped through her armor, but the blood was already drying. It wasn't too deep, but perhaps it might need some stitches.
The crowd erupted in cheers as the last spirit beast was taken down. Near Scarlett, Mimbi was panting and trying to hold herself straight. Her hair, which had been perfectly braided just a few moments ago, was filled with sand and blood.
"Come forth and drink the draught of embers," yelled the High Chieftess. There was no time to check wounds or gain strength before the second trial. The trainees formed a line by the pylon. Mimbi got behind Scarlett, smiling at her. The girl in front of her had her armor ripped in the back, and she was almost naked from the waist up.
One by one the girls walked up to the high Chieftess and took their cup of the draught. Then they moved towards the far end of the arena, some limping and others barely standing. Pakuri seemed to be the one in best shape, and she was the first one to get there. When they were all placed in their places, the horn rung. It was time.
The liquid inside the cup was bright red, almost like phosphorescent blood. Most girls took the cup in both hands and drank the liquid in one go. Scarlett couldn't move her left arm, so she brought the cup towards her mouth with her right hand, and downed it.
Then the world went dark.