The southern part of Kamore was split into three distinct regions: the southern desert to the west, Fernwen and the Capital Forest to the east, and the red rock formations in the middle. Juno Benjan hailed from the city of Mesa, in the middle of the red rock formations of the south. He had spent much of his boyhood exploring the places of his ancestors and running through the rocky arches and steppes.
But the time had come.
Mesa was as integrated with Magicae as the capital city Fernwen while Juno was growing up. Life moved slower than in the Capital, but the markets and city center still bustled during the early mornings and late afternoons. The intense sun during the middle of the day had most people, Magicae and Mortal, scrambling for shade or a dip in the reservoir. There was no discrimination between the two regarding city leaders, business owners, craftsmen, or school demographics. The people of Mesa were proud of their city and the ancestors that built it.
Those ancestors included Magicae and Mortals and nobody in the city could fathom a world where they didn’t live together within the red rocks and under the clear dark skies.
The Benjans were a prominent line of Shifters able to trace their roots back to the founding of the city. They permeated every aspect of life in Mesa; from the market stalls to city hall to the fields outside of town. They were an honored family that prided themselves on the traditions they still upheld.
One of those traditions included sending their children into the wild for at least six months to become one with the second form they could take. As soon as a child turned thirteen, they traveled by themselves to the place where they could find their animal form in nature. The challenge was spending the extended time in their Shifted form. It wasn’t uncommon to never return.
This tradition was two-fold in its purpose. It gave the newly minted teenagers time away from society to truly understand and explore their animal forms, but also put them to the test on whether they could master their animal form.
Shifters had a unique burden to bear because the magic running through their veins was as powerful as it was. Along with the physical changes, they had to contend with the changes of mind. Spending an extended amount of time in their animal form determined whether they could keep the instincts and animal part of their mind in check enough to make the Shift back after the six months.
J had turned thirteen yesterday and today he would leave to go northward and find the herds of elephants that roamed the southern grasslands.
He was doing his best to delay it as much as possible.
They may let me stay one more night if I stay out here long enough. He thought to himself, laying in the hammock on the roof of his family’s clay house. The young Shifter looked up at the blue sky and sighed.
J knew it was useless to hide, since his father always knew where to look. But he would savor these moments as best he could until then.
J wasn’t afraid to spend six months with the wild elephants. It was the only thing pulling him to leave. He was afraid of leaving his family. His mother was so sick… What if she doesn’t make it another six months?
The Shifter trembled as he considered his worst fear. They can’t make me do it. Surely, Da will petition Grandda for an extension and I can stay here a little longer.
J let himself hold onto that last bit of hope as the wind rocked his hammock back and forth.
J’s father was not one to disregard tradition so easily, but he loved his wife and family more than anything. If he was to be flexible about anything, surely it would be this one thing.
“I thought I’d find you up here.”
J instinctively sat up and swung his legs over the hammock and made to get up.
“None of that, Son.” His father held one hand out and sat next to the boy. J waited in silence, unable to form the words he wanted to say. His father put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him into his side. J felt a tear slip down his cheek as he leaned into his Da’s familiar warmth.
“Juno, you need to leave today.” His father’s tone was gentle but firm.
J squirmed, trying to get out of his father’s grasp, but the hand on his shoulder held tight. Letting out a cry of frustration, the young Shifter said, “Da, I can’t—”
“You can and you will.” His father interrupted, turning to look J in the eye. “You will head north, find the elephant herds, and stay there for six months. At the end of those six months, you will be forever changed. You owe it to the Gift in your veins to do this. When you return, your Ma and I will be waiting.” He gripped J’s forearms. “But the sooner you leave, the sooner you come back.”
“But what about Ma? What if she’s gone when I come back?” The tears flowed freely down J’s cheeks as he put his worst fears into words. “Can’t you talk to Grandda and push it back?”
His father’s eyes softened as he pulled the boy into another embrace. “I know this is hard, but have faith. The Goddess will keep your mother safe just as the Huntress will keep you safe in the bush.”
J pulled out of his father’s arms and wiped roughly at his face. The pit in his stomach made itself known once more as he clenched his fists. He looked into his father’s deep brown eyes that filled the entirety of his sockets. No whites showed in the eyes that gave a glimpse of the elephant form his father could take.
Animal forms ran in families, but were not guaranteed. J had always been proud to share a form with his Da, but today, those eyes only served as a reminder of what his future held.
Taking a deep breath, J gave his father a terse nod before making his way to the steps that would take him down to say his goodbyes to his mother and the family gathered to send him off.
“Juno.” His father called. After J turned back, he continued, “I am so proud of you. Never forget that.”
J nodded in response and made his way down the stone steps.
J took one more deep breath, cast one more look over his shoulder, and took the first step of his six month-long journey. He stepped off the stoop of the only house he’d ever lived in and walked the streets of Mesa to the northern part of the city.
His heart was pounding as he walked through the streets he knew, like the back of his hand. Every so often, a cheer sounded from the windows or doors that lined the street he walked down. Most were from family friends or peers from school.
It seemed as if everyone from his life knew what was happening, and he couldn’t decide whether it assuaged or heightened his anxiety. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes, but he squashed all the emotions inside.
His farewell to his mother had been excruciating, but thinking about it would only bring those emotions back to the surface.
He could only keep praying to the Goddess for his mother’s safety until he returned. It was out of his hands and all he could focus on was the journey in front of him.
The pack on his back was filled with light provisions to sustain him until he reached the herds. Tradition dictated he make the journey in his human form in order to garner more appreciation for the ease of travel in his animal form.
He made it to the edge of town and gave one more glance at the place he had spent his entire life. Raising one fist to the home he would always hold in his heart, Juno Benjan sent a last prayer to the Goddess.
I will do anything, just keep her safe.
With that final thought, J turned and stepped past the city limits into the wilderness.