Zeelo is eighteen years old and a member of the catfolk village. Now it’s time for him to visit their sacred grounds, the Forest of Passage, and take the Rite of Development.
The Rite of Development
It was time to get this over with.
Zeelo rose from his bed in the morning and let out a big yawn as he stretched. His room was pretty small, being part of an old wooden house but it wasn’t like he did anything but sleep there. Well, that and get dressed. Zeelo grabbed a simple blue cloth from a straw basket containing several such cloths. He then wrapped it around his waist, tied it and made it into a loincloth.
Like most catfolk Zeelo didn’t really have a sense of modesty when it came to nudity. The loincloth was there for the sake of the humans who came to town to trade or those that settled in the catfolk village. It was kind of funny, the human and catfolk bodies weren’t all that different. Zeelo’s skin was maybe a bit lighter in tone than average for most humans, but a large part of that was his village being in a thick forest and so he never got a lot of direct sunlight. He had human-like hair, light brown in color, short and kind of a mess. The only thing that separated them from humans was being slightly shorter, the fact they had ears like a cat, a tail, digitigrade paws with fur up to their knees, and sharp claws on the tips of their fingers and fur down to their elbow. Zeelo’s fur was a darker brown on his tail, ears and paws than his hair, but other than those extra features he was human. And yet humans seemed to get uncomfortable about certain parts of the body. And so most catfolk wore some minimal form of clothing or a loincloth to keep the humans comfortable.
But Zeelo wasn’t going to be dealing with any humans today, other than those he might pass on his way out of town. He was going to spend most of the day in the woods by himself. He was finally taking the Rite of Development.
It was a ritual every catfolk was supposed to do once they became eighteen years of age. There was a section of the forest that was sacred to them. They referred to it as the Forest of Passage. Every catfolk was required to come to this sacred forest and complete the Rite of Development to be recognized as an adult. It was said those who could not complete it could never truly mature into an adult. Zeelo had turned eighteen a few months ago. He had been putting off for a while now and he knew he was being judged for it. But, he had no idea what the ritual actually was. No one was allowed to talk about what actually happened! And sure plenty of people came back and said it was super easy, but there was no way to tell if they were lying or not.
Well he was about to find out.
Zeelo left his small home. Despite not passing the rite yet he lived by himself and being smaller made it feel less empty. It was really more of a hut than a house, made of wood from this forest. It wasn’t much but it was his, and he really hoped he’d be coming back to it tonight.
He worked his way through town, with it being mid-morning it was already alive with activity. The town of Oaken Grove was not a big one by any means, but it got its share of traders. Despite being in the middle of the forest roads had been dug leading in and through the town. The catfolk relied on trade for a lot of things. The forest provided a lot of their needs. They could hunt for food or fish at the river, and of course had the wood to build their homes. However they lacked the resources and land for grains and produce. Sure, there were berries growing in the forest but not enough to reliably feed an entire village. And there would be no room to grow grains unless they clear cut a section of the forest which was absolutely not going to happen. So instead they relied on trade for the items they couldn’t produce themselves. Providing fresh meats and fish, herbs said to have magical qualities and of course the same wood all the houses in the village were built from. That was what people really came from. Zeelo’s house may be old, but it was sturdy enough to hide out during a tornado. The forest around Oaken Grove was full of trees that were so hard they couldn’t even be chopped but by special axes treated with magic. Such a sturdy building material was in high demand in the cities. And the catfolk had a claim on the entire forest.
Zeelo had to cut through the market to get out of town. It was packed as usual. People shouting out to sell their wares. Some catfolk who had traveled to other towns offered jewelry and other luxury goods that couldn’t be made here. Zeelo pushed himself past some salesman trying to get him to buy a bottle of some kind of foul smelling substance. Well… The smell wasn’t actually foul, there was just too much of it that it was overpowering. Other than that incident most people left Zeelo alone. Some knew he was taking the trial today, and others noticed that though he had a loincloth on, he had no belt with a money pouch and therefore could not buy something even if he wanted to. Better to cater to the customers who have money.
Squeezing between a human and another catfolk who were arguing about the price of something Zeelo finally made his way to the other side of the crowd and stood at the town gates. He took one look back at the town before leaving. The entire place was built into the forest instead of clearing space out, so buildings were spaced out wherever there was room that nothing important had been growing. The catfolk knew lumber was their livelihood and so had very strict rules about how much could be harvested and for what reasons an area could be cleared.
Once Zeelo was out of town he was in thick wilderness. He followed the main road for a little bit, the same one used by horses and vehicles. After about a half hour he paused and glanced around. He moved to the side of the road and pushed a few low hanging tree branches and bushes aside. Behind them was a hidden trail, much smaller intended only for walking. The only way to find it would be to already know about it or fall into it by luck. But now Zeelo was on the trail leading to the Forest of Passage. He felt anxiety building as the time of the trial grew closer. He quietly reminded himself everyone else had done it and came back fine. Well, everyone he knew. If someone didn’t come back there was a high chance he had no idea who they were. He tried not to think about it.
After another thirty minutes he reached the Forest of Passage. It was obvious at a glance that this place was special. The vegetation was more vibrant and had unusual color hues to them. Blooming flowers released small balls of light which flickered and dispersed into colorful dust raining down. The place simply felt mystical.
Before stepping over the threshold into the Forest of Passage Zeelo untied his loincloth and hung it on a branch. It was important you take nothing into or from the Forest of Passage. That meant going in naked, which Zeelo didn’t mind, but he would have liked to at least have a weapon for self-defense if the trial turned out to be combat based.
“Hello?” Zeelo stepped into the sacred forest. “Anyone here? I’ve come to do the Rite of Development.” The trail ended giving him no idea where to go next. However he heard the sound of giggles from somewhere in the trees. Not sure what else to do, Zeelo advanced forward beyond where the trail ended. He climbed over branches and crawled through underbrush. He tumbled over a rock then froze as he saw inches from his face a great beat.
It was a jaguar, but its fur glowed with a golden light. At first Zeelo thought it was going to attack him, but instead the jaguar spoke.
“Welcome Zeelo. Your Rite of Development has begun.” The jaguar spoke in a deep voice.
“Oh…” Zeelo picked himself up from where he had fallen then sat down with his legs crossed. “Are you some kind of spirit animal?”
“That is… A close enough approximation.” The jaguar seemed to smile. “You will meet three spirits and each of us will give you a task to complete. So long as you follow directions and do not deviate the tasks will be easy to complete.”
“Oh…” Zeelo gave a sigh of relief. So this wasn’t going to be so bad at all.
“Your first task.” The jaguar turned and faced westward. “There is a well in that direction. All you need do is fill a bucket of water and bring it back to me and the trial is complete. There is but one condition, you mustn’t look into the well.”
“What’s in the well?” Zeelo asked.
“You don’t need to know, and you should not see. Now go, your trial has begun.” The jaguar laid down. “I shall await your return.”
“Okay this is simple enough.” Zeelo followed the direction the jaguar had pointed, and sure enough there was a stone well in a small clearing. The bucket was tied to a rope and it was trivial to send it down and fill it with water. He was done in less than a minute. He grabbed the bucket off the rope and now all he had to do was return with it.
He should have started walking immediately but he hesitated. He was curious what was in the well that was so bad. But if he looked then he would fail the test. He turned away from the well.
“So, you’re not going to take a look?” A high pitched voice sounded from a nearby bush.
“The spirit told you not to. And like a good little child you’re following directions.” A second voice sounded from the trees.
“I just have to take this back and I pass though.” Zeelo objected.
“Are you sure?” A third voice asked.
“Think about what is being tested.” A fourth chimed in. “Get a bucket of water from the well. Not exactly a trial. So, what is it that’s really being tested?”
“If I can…” Zeelo paused, he didn’t know the answer. The test was too simple. It couldn’t be this easy. Yet the voices had given rise to doubts in his head. Was that really the test? Or was there something else? Maybe it was a test of courage. Maybe he was supposed to look into the well despite the warnings to prove his courage? Or maybe it was testing if he could resist temptations and these new voices were just here to lead him astray. “I can’t.” He said firmly.
“Will you be satisfied with that?” One of the voices asked. “To pass the test but never learn? Will that make you leave here happier.”
“I…” Zeelo paused. They had him, once the trial was over it would be the only thing he could think about. And the test couldn’t just be bring back water. It had to be more complicated than that. And through those mental gymnastics Zeelo convinced himself to look. He creeped close to the well, then peaked over the edge.
And saw it was just a normal well with nothing special inside of it at all.
“Huh.” Zeelo was surprised. It was nothing at all, then why even warn about the well? Zeelo picked up his bucket of water and started carrying it back. As he went though he noticed it was starting to feel a lot heavier, and the forest was looking a bit bigger. “What?” And his voice higher pitched. He nearly dropped the bucket as he looked down at himself, seeing his slender frame became smaller. He was getting younger! He sat the bucket down on the ground and stared at his reflection in the water. He had to be about nine years old, he had literally had his age cut in half. “How… How did?” Zeelo wasn’t sure what to make of it. He needed to see the jaguar and find out more. He grabbed the bucket and lifted it up with two hands. It was heavier now and eventually he made it back to the jaguar.
“So you looked.” The jaguar spoke as he looked over Zeelo’s younger body. “Two trials remain, two chances remain.” Without further words the jaguar exploded into a brilliant light that rained golden sparks down along the area.
“W-wait! I wanted to ask-“ Zeelo realized it was too late. “How I got younger… And how to change back.” He kicked at the dirt. This was frustrating. Did turning into a kid again mean he had already failed the trials? Well… He supposed if he was a kid then he didn’t have to take them! Silver lining! Except… The jaguar had said there were two more. “But two more where?”
Since Zeelo had been to the west where the well was he went east. Climbing through underbrush was easier with his smaller size and so he managed to not fall on his face when he encountered the second spirit.
“So you have arrived.” It was a tiger, and like the jaguar it had a booming voice and glowed with a radiant golden light. “Your second trial will now begin.”
“I still have to continue? Looking like this?” Zeelo gestured at himself. “I’d really like to ask a few questions.”
“It is not your place to ask questions, but to simply complete the tasks. Go north from here.” The tiger turned to indicate which direction was north. “There is a river between you and the final trial. Swim to the other side of the river and the final spirit will meet you.” With that the golden tiger exploded into light just as the jaguar had done. It didn’t even wait around for Zeelo to begin the trial.
“Yeah thanks for that.” Zeelo muttered. He followed the direction as indicated and indeed came to a river that was flowing through the forest. It was wide too, and looked like it had a moderate current. He’d have quite the distance to swim and would have to be careful not to get washed down stream.
“There’s places where the river is thinner.” One of the high pitched voices from earlier spoke.
“Even places you can cross without getting wet. Just a little upriver there are stones you can use to hop right across.” One of the little voices spoke.
“You got me in trouble last time, pretty sure I shouldn’t listen to you.” Zeelo put his hands on his hips. “I’m better off swimming here.”
“So, you will do exactly as you’re told. Even if it means you risk drowning for no reason?” One of the voices asked. “Your younger body isn’t fit to swim this distance and he never said -WHERE- you had to cross the river.”
“That doesn’t-“ Zeelo started to object. But the voices were right on that part. And what if turning into a child was part of the ritual, to make you weaker for these parts. At the very least it couldn’t hurt to look for a place where the river was thinner.
Zeelo walked upstream remembering the advice of the hidden creatures. The further upstream he got the narrower the river became. However, the river was now full of rocks presenting a new problem. If he tried to swim across he might get bashed against the rocks. Zeelo looked over the area then paused as his eyes caught something. Five perfectly flat rocks laid in a row going from one side of the river to the other. Those must be the stepping stones. So the voices were telling the truth about that.
“Ugggh.” Zeelo was frustrated. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. But he didn’t want to drown or get his head bashed open upon a bunch of rocks so he decided to use the stepping stones. He hopped across them and no sooner did he land on the other side of the bank did he start to regress again. “Not again!” Zeelo spoke in a high pitched voice. His features became even rounder as he started to show more baby fat. He was down to four or five years old now. Four and a half most likely he realized. He had lost half going from 18 to 9. So half again would make him four and a half years old. “Why did I listen to them! Look at me!” Zeelo shouted.
“But you’re safe. You’re alive. Is that not worth more than passing some trial?” The voice asked, then the bushes rustled and there was the sudden sense of being alone. They had left.
“I mean yeah but if I had done the first one right…” Zeelo sighed. One challenge remained. The jaguar earlier had said two chances remained. Did that mean if he passed the last challenge he would go back to being eighteen? Or would he stay four and a half. Maybe the third spirit would answer that.
“So you chose not to swim” This was the greeting the third spirit gave Zeelo when he finally found him lazing about atop a tree branch. He was a lion, and just like the other spirits glowed with the same light.
“Well I didn’t want to drown!” Zeelo objected.
“You could have made it, if you tried.” The lion let loose a yawn as if bored of the conversation. “It doesn’t matter. Your final trial is underway.”
“Wait! I have questions! If I pass the final trial will I change back to my normal age? Or will I stay like this? Or when I leave the woods do I change back to normal… Or what?” Zeelo hoped asking before the trial got assigned he could get an answer before the spirit vanished.
“It is not your place to asks questions.” The lion spoke sternly. “You need only follow directions.” The lion gestured a paw in the direction behind him. “Head deeper into he forest and you will come across a clearing with a single large tree. Climb to the highest branch and pick a fruit. Return immediately. Take no detours or other actions. Simply grab the fruit and return.”
“You know none of you spirits are exceptionally helpful.” Zeelo sighed and followed where the lion gestured. It didn’t take long to find the clearing. The tree certainly was impressive, but even at his young age Zeelo wasn’t afraid of it. All catfolk were great climbers, and some could climb before they could properly walk. It was child’s play for him to hook his claws into the bark and start his way up the tree. An appropriate metaphor given his current body.
Zeelo was up at the top in no time at all. There at the end of the branch was a single apple. Zeelo plucked it then looked for how to get down the tree. Having all four limbs would really help the climb down. He waited for a moment, expecting to hear voices that would tempt him into doing something wrong but there was nothing.
Zeelo could just drop the apple to the ground. But there was the risk of a wild animal running off with it. Or of the apple splattering and then he’d have no way to take it back. After a bit of thinking he reached a decision. He opened his mouth and bit down on the apple and then started to climb down the tree.
This proved to be a mistake. He could taste the fruit now, and it was sweet. His stomach rumbled. It was well past lunch time, and here was food right here he couldn’t eat. He tried to ignore the sensation of the juices dripping into his mouth and how good they tasted. This was no ordinary apple.
Luckily he finally got down to the ground and moved the apple back to his hand.
“Okay… All I have to do is return with the apple now.” Zeelo hesitated, waiting for the voices to start up again. But they didn’t. He expected them to try to lead him astray again and then he’d wind up a toddler! Where had they gone?
Wait… Did he want them to tempt him? Did he want to be younger? The thought popped into Zeelo’s head and suddenly wouldn’t leave. After the first trial it should have been obvious not to listen to the voices. And yet he had done so a second time. He had disobeyed direct orders both times and gotten younger as a result and…
And he liked it.
There was a sense of freedom from responsibility that came with being a child. A freedom he realized that he would lose the moment he completed the rite and officially became an adult.
Zeelo looked at the apple in his hand. He had been told to get it and come straight back, take no other actions. Zeelo considered for a moment. He then wondered if considering was considered an action. If so he was in a lot of trouble because he was thinking way more than he should. His stomach grumbled angrily at him while he thought about the different trials what they meant and tried to understand why he liked being younger. That was the weirdest part. He was trying to get answers from the spirits on how to get back to his normal age, but deep down he didn’t want to. He was just doing it because this was what he was supposed to do. The rite was what he was told to do.
What he was told to do. The voices had brought that up. Zeelo thought for a few moments. He was already down to four and a half years old, so if he was failing these trials it already was too late. And as he thought about it, he didn’t want to do things simply because he was told without understanding why.
Zeelo bit into the apple. His stomach thanked him as it ceased growling and he quickly devoured the entire thing except the core.
“You failed to follow a single rule.” Suddenly the jaguar spirit was standing directly in front of Zeelo. He nearly fell backwards when it happened.
“You did not follow directions.” The tiger appeared two on the other side. The two began to walk in a circle around Zeelo.
“You deviated from the task.” All three spirits were now walking in a circle around Zeelo who was now sitting on the ground. He suddenly felt very small and vulnerable as they surrounded him. It didn’t help the feeling that he started getting younger again.
It wasn’t a surprise. It had happened after the first two trials. And as he shrunk, becoming a toddler he had a pretty good guess of his age. About two and one quarter, half of what he had been previously.
“You have failed the Rite of Development.” The three spoke at once. “And having failed all three tasks will never attempt the rite again. For your failure you shall forever remain a child, never aging, even by a day.” And as fast as they had arrived they vanished in explosions of golden light.
“Wait so I’m going to be a toddler forever?” Zeelo enjoyed being younger. But being stuck this way? And how was he going to explain things to others in the village when he got back? And he could hardly live on his own at this age.
“You didn’t follow directions unquestioningly.” One of the voices from earlier spoke up.
“You didn’t put yourself a risk simply because an authority figure told you too.” The voices were getting closer.
“And you chose to follow your own destiny instead of that laid out for you.” As the last voice appeared, the source three of the voices appeared. They were small winged catfolk, each one the same age as Zeelo. Their fur was more vibrant though, and they had translucent wings that glowed faintly with the same color as their fur. They were also very small, Zeelo estimated about two inches tall. They were faeries. Or… faerie catfolk?
“You passed a more important test.” The first faerie spoke, a girl with green fur and wings. “And so you may not become an adult, but you will always be free.”
“You already ate the fruit after all.” The second voice giggled. This one was a boy with orange fur. “The transformation will start any second.”
“And then you can join in games if you want! We have quite a few at this point. It’s especially fun to mess with people in the forest.” The final one was also a boy with pink fur.
“What do you mean transformation?” Zeelo asked. He got an answer soon enough. He was shrinking again. But this time he wasn’t getting younger. His fur and hair also began to change color. His tail, ears, and paws becoming a deep dark blue while his hair became a more faded shade of blue. Wings sprouted from his back, and the edges of them glowed with a faint blue light. Soon he was looking up at the faeries who were all flying above him while he was on the ground. All three faeries flew down and landed around him, and now they were all eye level.
“It’s an adjustment at first.” The orange furred faerie offered Zeelo a hand. “But it’s quite a bit of fun. We usually stay in the forest, but you’re free to go wherever you want. And you get to learn magic too.”
“Wait, I’ll be able to cast spells?” Zeelo had heard of mages before and a few times even seen them from a distance when there was someone important visiting the town. He never dreamed he’d be able to use magic.
“Indeed it’s a lot of fun!” The pink faerie grinned. “We like to use our magic to play tricks on people throughout the forest.”
“Nothing too mean.” The green faerie said sternly. “The rule is we always leave them better off or equal to how they started.”
“So… What do you say?” The orange faerie asked. “It’s your choice, you’re free to explore the forest on your own, go back home, go anywhere else. Whatever you want. So… Will you come and play with us?”
“Yes.” Zeelo said without hesitation. Even he was surprised how fast he had said it. He had only been a faerie for a couple of minutes and already he was preferring it to his old life.
And with that all four faeries took off from the ground and flew through the forest in search of mischief.