Tales from the S'yrthghar VI: Beyond Onyx Eyes
The cold grip of a cloudy, moonless night descended upon the regions of the Southern Kingdom.
Its winged inhabitants, the owls, embraced its inevitable return. Their specialized adaptations allowed them to survive and thrive within its eerie folds.
The night was indeed their preferred element, and they were its uncontested masters.
One such being, however, was not pleased by the current weather conditions.
The female barn owl resided in an old eucalyptus tree in the northwestern corner of the Beaks. Her name was Ginger, and in moons past, she had served under Nyra as a covert agent for the Pure Ones.
She'd managed to fool the Guardians into believing she could be trusted. Having infiltrated their stronghold, she'd succeeded in shattering an oblivious Tyto named Eglantine.
Ginger's superior thus obtained valuable knowledge regarding the "higher magnetics" of flecks. Though Nyra praised her efforts and regarded her highly, their mutually positive relationship was not meant to last.
She was partially to blame for the destruction of the Sacred Orb. Rather than suffer Nyra's wrath and be slaughtered for her failure, Ginger severed her ties with the moon-faced owl's army and went into hiding.
She feared that she was being hunted and that her life was at stake. She was thus constantly forced to relocate from region to region to minimize the risk of being caught by the Pure Ones in a purely chance encounter.
That period of her life was tainted by unending paranoia and a depressing sense of loneliness. The former waned when the Pure Ones all but vanished, an observation she attributed to the Guardians.
The latter emotion persisted despite her attempts to curtail it.
She lived a life of isolation, lacking the heart and willpower to befriend other owls. Melancholy became her closest companion as she matured into an adult.
Ginger felt as though she had no purpose in life except to exist.
On that particular night, the biting chill in the air did nothing to improve her mood. She cursed the unfavorable weather conditions and departed her hollow to hunt.
Random flashes of lightning spawned rumbling peals of thunder that spooked the rodent fauna. Locating prey items was rendered that much more difficult.
She managed to catch a plump squirrel and stuff her gut with warm, bloody meat.
She took to the sky and headed back to her hollow. As she drew near, a brilliant blue-white flash blinded her temporarily and a crack of thunder assaulted her sensitive ears.
When her vision returned to normal, her gizzard sank. The upper one third of the tree she called home was in ruins, having been violently ruptured by the direct lightning strike.
Needle-clad branches and the splintered remnants of the crown lay scattered all around its base. She wheeled around and left the doomed tree behind, her mind reeling.
As she flew north, a second tree directly in her path was ravaged by another scarily accurate bolt from the heavens. The tremendous surge of energy flashed the water within its trunk to steam and it, too, exploded.
Fragments large and small were launched in all directions. One such fragment tumbled through the air and dealt a powerful blow to her skull.
She went limp and plunged toward the earth, her world spinning in dizzying fashion. Upon colliding with the ground spine first, everything went black.
When she came to, she found herself caught in the middle of a chaotic wildfire.
Walls of rippling orange and red flames hemmed her in on all sides. The radiant heat of the inferno was stifling.
Countless embers danced in the smoke-poisoned air, blown about by errant gusts of wind.
I must escape or I will fall victim to this blaze! My life isn't meant to end here!
Ginger staggered to her feet. Blood trickled from her head wound and ran down her facial disk.
She did her best to ignore the throbbing pain and clumsily propelled herself into the air.
Concentrating on staying airborne was a challenge. The turbulence made it that much more difficult.
The Guardians are trained to fly through fires like these. They'd have no trouble at all. Why didn't Nyra ever teach me how to do the same?!
Shoving her thoughts aside, Ginger fought to gain speed amidst the buffeting winds. Struggling to pump her wings in synchrony, she flew headlong into a whirling updraft.
The insidious blast of heat took her breath away and knocked her completely off balance. Spun and flipped head-over-tail by the geyser of air, she was on the verge of vomiting.
It carried her above the treetops before weakening. She suddenly broke out of the updraft and began to plummet.
The fire below opened its raging maw, hungering to consume her. Panic flooded her mind and she flailed her wings erratically in a futile attempt to regain control.
I can't go yeep… I can't go yeep! If I do… I won't survive!
The earth rushed upwards and, with great effort, she righted herself at the last possible second. Her talons grazed the ground and she pulled up sharply.
Fingers of flame licked at her belly as she skimmed just above them. With great effort she pressed onwards, ducking under a collapsing tree and narrowly avoiding being crushed.
A curtain of flame sprang up before her. Frightened, she braked hard and slowed to a crawl.
What are you doing? Don't stop moving you fool!
Ginger came to her senses and charged straight through the intangible wall. The heat of the fire faded and Ginger assumed she was safe at last.
She twisted her head backwards and her gizzard clenched in horror. Her tail and innermost flight feathers had been ignited.
She shrieked in fear and pain as the flame fronts proceeded to burn her skin.
No! This can't be happening! I don't want to perish! Not here, not now!
The sound of crashing waves poured into her ear slits and she beat her flaming wings furiously. The sandy boundary dividing the Beaks from the Hoolemere Sea melted into view.
With one final agonized cry, she flung herself onto the beach. Icy cold water swept over her, extinguishing the flames and submerging her simultaneously.
When the wave retreated, she inhaled a gasping breath and turned herself around. She then crawled out of reach of the sea's oscillations and lay still, her stamina sapped.
Glancing back over her shoulder, she noticed her tail was missing, the plumes eaten away down to her rump. Her wings were in similarly poor condition, their secondaries and tertials consumed.
The rest of her feathers were scorched to varying degrees and patchily covered with ash. She could easily be mistaken for a sooty owl.
Her head wound had since stopped bleeding, but that was of little consolation. Her wings and lower back throbbed incessantly and she broke down in tears.
"Someone… anyone… help me… please…"
What she intended to be a piercing shriek was nothing more than a feeble whimper. Fixing her gaze on the tangerine glow in the near distance, she let her head sink onto the sand.
Eventually she succumbed to the pulsing pain and slipped into unconsciousness.
She felt weightless, as if floating in a void throughout which unintelligible whispers echoed.
Gradually they became clearer, transforming into words and phrases. She could make out the distinct voices of several owls.
Good Glaux, who is this?
We haven't a clue, Matron. She isn't a part of our chaw, that much is certain.
I don't recognize her either.
We found her lying on the shore of the Beaks and feared the worst. We realized she was still breathing and brought her here.
A wise decision. There is hope for her yet.
Is there anything else we can do?
Yes. Inform the king and queen.
Of course, Matron.
Be careful out there, lest you end up here as well.
Silence manifested once more. A strange sensation akin to being stroked by some soft object stimulated Ginger's brain.
She clawed her way out of the void and groggily roused. A groan flowed out of her beak as she forced her eyes open.
Her head swam momentarily. She glanced around, realizing she was lying belly-down on a padded bed in a cozy hollow.
"Thank Glaux you're awake. That is a good sign."
She spied a time-worn female short-eared owl hovering over her.
"Where… where am I?" she stammered.
"The infirmary of the Great Tree."
There was a slight delay, but the memories of her then-delicious betrayal came rushing back.
She flinched, almost rolling off the bed, but the owl stopped her in the nick of time.
"You must be careful. You are in no condition to be moving about. What is your name, and where are you from?"
"Gin… Ginger. I live… used to live… in the Beaks…"
"Can you recall anything prior to being brought here?"
"I remember my home… being destroyed. There was lightning… and thunder… and fire. I tried to escape… but then… I was on fire too…"
"Oh dear. It all makes sense now."
Using a wad of moss, she finished drying Ginger's feathers and wiping the soot off them. Her true ivory plumage showed through at last.
Next, she inspected the barn owl's dorsal surface thoroughly, her touch as light as a leaf. Ginger moaned whenever the moss contacted one of three specific spots.
"I'm terribly sorry, I know it must be painful."
Matron concluded her inspection as quickly as possible so as not to torment the Tyto further.
"You've clearly suffered moderate burns to your tail base and wings. Fortunately for you, treating them is rather straightforward, though it does take time."
The experienced nurse stepped away and scrounged up the materials she would need from an adjoining storage chamber. Returning to Ginger's bedside, she prepared the dressings she would use to mend her afflictions.
First, she scrubbed away the dried blood encrusting her feathers and applied an antiseptic paste to the laceration. She then covered it with a pad of moss, which was held in place by a length of milkberry vine looped around Ginger's head.
As the matron focused on creating the soothing salve for Ginger's burns, a pair of Tytos trudged into the infirmary.
"Greetings," the nurse said.
"Greetings, Matron," replied the grizzled-looking male.
The short-eared owl halted what she was doing and explained the situation to her superiors.
Before she could reveal the Tyto's identity, the king met her gaze.
"Excuse me, Matron." He took two steps in her direction and stared into her eyes.
"I would never forget your face, Ginger."
His tone was entirely free of spite, sprinkled instead with honest surprise.
"You know her, dear?"
"I am familiar with her to some degree, yes."
Soren elaborated that she had been a Ga'Hoolian prisoner of war in the distant past, before he had even attained Guardian status. Unbeknownst to them, she was a slipgizzle for none other than Nyra.
He went on to add that she'd warped Eglantine's mind with flecks, who unknowingly helped Nyra obtain dangerous information on their magnetic properties.
"I see," Pelli responded calmly.
"What a strange coincidence that we should cross paths again. For what it's worth, I have long since forgiven you, Ginger. You were young and weak-willed, which is exactly why Nyra manipulated you and coerced you to do her bidding."
Ginger was initially unable to conjure up a decent reply.
"You're right… I'm sorry for everything I did… to your sister. I just wanted… to be respected… and be useful… to someone. It was all my fault…"
"It seems that your desires led you down a less-than-ideal path. That is not to say you can't learn from your mistakes and redeem yourself," stated Pelli.
"Would you be willing… to give me that opportunity?"
"Perhaps, but it is not a decision I can make alone. I must consult with the parliament. Once you are healed, then we will discuss your future," Soren announced.
"Furthermore, we will not forsake you, despite you being a former enemy. We shall treat you no different than we treat our own subjects," Pelli remarked.
Soren nodded and gestured for his companion to come forward. She complied and stood beside him.
"Ginger, this is Pellimore, my mate, though she also goes by Pelli. We have three daughters named Sebastiana, Bell, and Blythe."
The queen smiled and waved.
"Nice to meet you..."
"I'm afraid we cannot stay longer. A storm is brewing out over the sea. It is an excellent chance to teach our Guardians-to-be how to fly in inclement weather."
"I understand, my king. Don't let me keep you."
"Take great care of this owl, Matron. She's lived a harrowing life and deserves nothing less."
"Your wish is my command, my queen."
"Wait. Before you leave... I would like to ask one question."
"And what would that be?" Pelli replied.
"What do you see behind my onyx eyes?"
The queen leaned forward and peered deep into Ginger's glossy black orbs.
"An aching soul, trapped beneath despair and loneliness, but buried within those dark emotions, a faint glimmer of hope flickers."
"I can't argue with that. Perhaps… a new chapter in my life is being written."
"Perhaps, fellow Tyto."
"Farewell to both of you, and Glaux bless," Soren commented.
With that, the monarchs turned tail and strode out of the infirmary.
Matron painted the restorative salve onto Ginger's reddened skin, protecting the burn sites with a layer of cool, fresh moss. She bound them in place with additional lengths of vine, their free ends tied into secure knots.
"I'm feeling… slightly better already."
"That is to be expected. I've done all I can for now. The rest is up to your body's natural repair mechanisms."
"Would you mind staying and keeping me company?"
"Not at all, Ginger. I have no other duties to attend to elsewhere in this wondrous tree."
"You have my gratitude. Nyra never would've treated me this way."
"In war and in peace, I am committed to upholding the Guardian Oath. You need not thank me, for this is my passion."
Ginger sighed and rested her head on the comfy cot.
"Are you hungry or thirsty, by any chance?"
"Some water would be nice."
"Very well. I shall be right back."
Matron slipped out of sight and returned with a ceramic teacup made by the Others. She presented it to Ginger and the latter slurped it down in earnest.
"That was wonderful."
"Would you like some more?"
"Suit yourself. Go ahead and rest, dearie. I'll be around."
She sighed and laid her head on the comfy cot. For the first time in what seemed like moons, Ginger affected a content smile.
The next night, Ginger could stand and walk without much pain. Flying was nonetheless out of the question.
Once one week had elapsed, her missing feathers were actively being regrown.
In addition, her burned integument had been shed and replaced by new, healthy skin. By the following week, the burns had completely healed.
Three and a half weeks after the harrowing incident, she'd been granted a splendid, fully functional tail and two sets of flight feathers. She bolted outside and spread her pristine wings with a shriek of elation.
Zooming and wheeling about above the Ga'Hoole Tree's leafy crown, she danced in the sky until she exhausted herself.
Ginger's recovery had been relatively swift. According to her caretaker, that was a consequence of adequate nutrition and, more importantly, a positive mentality.
She'd forged friendships with many of the Great Tree's inhabitants, namely the parliament, the three B's, and the Chaw of Chaws. Included among them was Eglantine.
Rather than shun the owl who had shattered her, she welcomed her friendship with open wings. Both Tytos knew that their bond was genuine.
Ginger had changed fundamentally, in no small part due to the overwhelming compassion and hospitality shown to her.
As the nights came and went, the suspense of waiting on the parliament's decision was becoming too much to bear. Somewhat early on the 26th night of her stay, Soren and Pelli wandered into her hollow unannounced.
Her heart soared the moment they came into view, for she knew exactly why they had come.
"Listen closely, Ginger. Pelli and I have uplifting news, and disheartening news."
Her enthusiasm drained away.
"Which would you rather hear first?"
"The disheartening news, I guess."
The king cast a peculiar sidelong glance at his mate.
That was odd. They must be up to something…
"After hearing our testimony and discussing the matter amongst themselves, the parliament has chosen to grant you permanent residence here," the queen stated.
Ginger was dumbfounded. She comically stood there with a blank stare on her face. Her gizzard executed a cheerful flip in her belly.
"But I thought… you said…"
"It was merely a ruse," admitted Soren.
"I don't care that you tricked me. This is simply wonderful!"
"We had a feeling you would say that. As for the uplifting news, you have also been granted the option to become a Guardian," said the queen.
"You don't have to provide us with an answer immediately. It is a decision that mustn't be made hastily," intoned the king.
Ginger stared at her naked feet, lost in fervent thought.
Attaining Guardian status was a prestigious achievement, but it would require at least two dozen moons of dedicated effort, both physically and mentally.
She knew she wasn't the fittest or most intelligent owl either, compared to the Tytos before her at least. Guardian training would no doubt open doors to a wealth of knowledge. She was tempted to accept the offer.
It is a decision that mustn't be made hastily.
Yes, becoming a Guardian was tempting indeed. However, she felt an even more potent attraction to a different, less demanding calling.
"With all due respect, the Guardian lifestyle isn't one I am comfortable pursuing."
Pelli blinked and looked at her mate.
"Did you expect her to say that, dear?"
"To be honest, I did not."
They affixed their curious gazes on her.
"Very well, we shall respect your wishes. What do you have in mind then?" he inquired.
Ginger took a deep, calming breath.
"I am determined to be a healer, just like the one who nurtured me," she declared confidently.
"Do you now? I find that surprising, but to each his, or in this case, her own," quipped Soren.
"I am sure Matron would love to pass on her knowledge to you. She is rather old, and someone must take her place when she departs this world. I believe that someone should be you, Ginger," Pelli asserted.
"You have that much faith in me?"
The queen gave a firm nod.
"I don't doubt that you will be a valued member of our society in the future."
"Guardians are the foundation of the Great Tree, but you need not be one to contribute," Soren added.
"Mastering the healing arts is not simple by any means. It requires a dedicated mindset, not to mention a resolute gizzard. Are you up for the challenge?"
She did not hesitate to respond, her tone laden with enthusiasm.
"Indeed I am."
"It's settled then. Come, let us inform Matron of your decision."
Ginger pursued them to the all-too-familiar infirmary, where they found her slumped against the rear wall. Pelli approached the snoozing owl and tapped her lightly on the shoulder.
She awoke with a start and jumped to her feet.
"Taking a nap in the dead of night, Matron? That's hardly typical owl behavior."
"I was cleaning and must've dozed off. Forgive me, my queen."
"No need to apologize. Anyhow, Ginger here has a special request."
She stepped forward and explained her intentions to the short-eared owl.
"I've taught quite a few owls since I settled in the Great Tree, but never have I considered it a monotonous task. I would love for you to be my student."
"You are too kind. I don't mean to sound overeager, but when may I start learning?"
"Tomorrow night. You have my word. Meet me here as soon as you'd like."
Joy and anticipation blossomed in her soul.
"Tonight, you are free to do as you please. I suggest you get plenty of sleep, however."
"I certainly will, Soren. I won't be able to concentrate with a foggy mind after all."
"That is definitely true."
"Behind those onyx eyes of yours, the darkness has vanished. I now see gratification and bliss unbridled."
The poetic nature of Pelli's words caused liquid to well in Ginger's obsidian spheres.
"Be content and make Matron, as well as us, proud. That is all we ask of you."
"I promise I will, Soren."
"Excellent. I suppose cheerful tears are preferable to somber ones."
Ginger wiped them away with a chuckle.
"Unfortunately, Soren and I must go, as we have not yet eaten. We can't lead our chaws effectively with empty gizzards."
"I know what you mean. Hunger can be a very distracting urge."
"Until we meet again, may Glaux bless you, Matron."
"May Glaux bless your family all the same, Soren."
"If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask us, Ginger. If we happen to be busy, you know who to ask instead."
"I'll keep that in mind, Pelli. Goodbye."
The trio of Tytos went their separate ways.
Ginger navigated to her hollow and perched on the rim of the porthole. She gripped the wood and peered out across the placid Hoolemere Sea.
The reflections of the myriad stars twinkling high above the S'yrthghar peppered its inky black surface.
A fountain of melancholy sprang to life within her and her eyes watered yet again, blurring her vision.
Pelli was right, I was weak-minded in my youth, and Nyra preyed upon my weakness. My days as a Pure One are finished. Happiness is abundant here and I don't need to fear murderous retribution for any mistakes. I never imagined I would end up here, but I'm not leaving, as I have nowhere meaningful to go. No matter how long it takes, I will show everyone that, instead of ruining the lives of those around me, I can improve them.
A streak of light zipped from east to west, fleeting yet beautiful.
My name is Ginger, and I will spend the rest of my moons doing what I can to leave a positive mark on this world.