Tales from the N'yrthghar III: Lightbringer
The jagged peaks of the H'rathghar Mountains, frosted by eternal snow and sculpted over the millenia, towered over the landscape. Compared to other locations in the N'yrthghar, they were a rather hostile and unforgiving geographic feature.
The danger they posed to living beings was rivalled by their unflinching beauty and adamantine endurance. All but immune to the scouring sands of time, the great shadows they cast upon the glacier that bore their name were a testament to their grandiosity.
Despite their inherent disregard for the fleeting lives of mortals, one valiant soul took up residence in a natural cavity just below the icebound summit of the highest peak.
The female barn owl, Ivanna, hailed from the incredibly distant and quiet Shadow Forest. Soft-spoken and introspective, her personality was far from typical.
Conceived in the midst of a relationship that withered away, her upbringing was similarly unconventional, and not in the positive sense.
Her father, Lucian, was overcome by lust and strove to dominate their mother, Thea, mentally and sexually. She resisted his incessant advances and he grew incensed with her rejection.
One night she snapped and evicted him from their hollow by force. She did not regret drawing his blood and leaving a permanent scar on his flank.
Unable to comprehend the disappearance of her father, Ivanna suffered from constant confusion, heartache, and guilt.
Where is Da? Is he not coming back? Does he not love us anymore? she kept asking herself.
The torment she endured as an owlet had a lasting effect on her character. She matured into an attractive yet cynical Tyto.
A couple males she encountered while living in that gloomy woodland expressed interest in her. She shunned their advances, unwilling to be faithful to them and risk being betrayed as her mother had.
She struck up friendships with a few resident owls who sympathized with her, but that was the extent of her involvement with others.
Ivanna maintained a stable bond with her siblings and mother. The loyalty she exhibited towards her father was arguably weaker.
Eventually, the Time of the Copper-Rose Rain draped its amber and burgundy cloak across the S'yrthghar.
It was the first Ivanna witnessed since hatching. Unsurprisingly, it was the season she considered the most magical.
She bid her family and companions farewell and embarked on a challenging journey to Northern Kingdoms. Guided by the helpful inhabitants of the Southern Kingdom's various regions, she arrived at the Ice Narrows after two nights of flying.
She asked the puffins that populated the Narrows where she could find a quiet, secluded place to live. Being as the dumpy, flightless creatures never traveled beyond its confines, they failed to provide her with a suitable destination.
Disappointment washed over her, but she convinced herself it wasn't the puffins' fault. They were designed to be simple-minded and lack intelligence.
A gadfeather she happened to encounter was her saving grace.
After expressing her desires to the snowy owl, she received this response: "Travel northeast from here, past the Ice Dagger and Dark Fowl Island, until you reach the Ice Talons. Then fly north, following the Firth of Fangs, which will guide you to the Lagoon of Moss. The H'rathghar Mountains should be visible by then. Good luck and safe travels!"
Ivanna heeded her instructions and spent the night on the wing, stopping only to eat and drink. The gadfeather's directions proved to be accurate and led Ivanna to her isolated home away from home.
She found a sheltered tunnel that extended roughly 25 pytes into the rock. The tunnel sloped gently downward for its entire length and was slightly sinuous.
It also sported two side branches 10 and 20 pytes from the primary entrance, arising from the starboard and port walls respectively.
The former was mostly straight, save for a slight bend near its origin. The cavity it funneled into was used for storing food and materials.
The latter was more serpentine and its cavity served as her sleeping quarters.
Peace and stillness reigned supreme, except when swirling tempests assaulted the peak with snow-and-ice-laden winds. Fortunately, not even the most ferocious of storms could penetrate the abode's sheltered interior and bother its sole inhabitant.
The roomy chamber marking the end of the main tunnel served a different purpose.
Whenever the weather was calm, Ivanna reclined belly up on the floor and spread out her wings. After assuming this relaxed pose, she shut her eyes and purged all thoughts from her mind.
She slipped into a trance and meditated for hours on end.
She heard nothing but the hushed sounds of her breathing and felt nothing but the pleasurable churning of her gizzard as it ground up her evening meal.
A quarter moon after settling in, however, Ivanna began to sense something strange.
Tendrils of mysterious energy seemed to drift up the Firth, dance above the Lagoon, and weave between the scattered peaks before dispersing throughout the N'yrthghar.
They traveled through the ether with purpose, like sentient golden threads surfing on an invisible current. The manifestation of said tendrils was accompanied by a slight-yet-noticeable fluttering in her gizzard.
Ivanna believed that she'd either developed the capacity to detect magen, or awakened an innate sixth sense via her forays into that serene state of mind. She knew not how or why she possessed such perceptive aptitude, but she deemed those questions irrelevant.
With each passing night, her sensory capabilities expanded and evolved beyond mere detection. Further meditative sessions attuned her perception to the extent that she could detect slivers of magen roughly a mile away.
Soon after, she was able influence the trajectories of individual slivers using her willpower alone. Doing so allowed her to clear away dark clouds and redirect storms, for example.
Many nights later, she could triangulate the positions of other creatures, in three dimensions, also within a one-mile radius. She did this by detecting the eddies that spawned as strands of magen drifted around and/or through their physical forms.
Conversely, magen was deflected around areas where nachtmagen pooled, clear proof that the opposing forces repelled each other.
Eventually, her link to its flow became so intimate that she was granted the ability to consciously draw it to herself. Not only that, she could concentrate it within her and channel it through her being, steering it wherever she wanted it to go.
Once again, the reason behind her extraordinary talent was a mystery. The excitement brought on by her newfound mastery of magen trumped any need for an explanation.
The initial surge of enthusiasm soon waned. Ivanna realized she must keep her power a closely-guarded secret.
The world, nor its winged denizens, were not prepared for her emergence.
Based on her observations, she concluded that the forces of magen and its counterpart, nachtmagen, played a role in shaping weather patterns, among other natural phenomena.
Yes, the implications of her magen manipulation were equal parts inspiring and disturbing.
This is as much a curse as it is a blessing, of that I am certain.
Her dreamy days and carefree nights were a thing of that past. From that moment on, she would have to tread carefully on the trail of life.
She had not voluntarily chosen to head down that trail; it had chosen her and she could not rewind time.
Her only option was to forge bravely onward, unaware of what the future would bring. She hadn't expected it, but in the span of a single moon, the complexity of her existence had increased substantially.
On a crystal clear, frigid night, Ivanna perched on the very tip of the mountain she called home.
From that commanding vantage point, she could make out the western boundary of the H'rathghar Glacier and the spur of land jutting out into the Firth of Fangs.
She literally stood on top of the world.
Deprived of the moon's silver radiance, the land was a featureless expanse of pale white snow and deep blue ice. Ivanna sighed.
Will this world welcome me with open wings, or attempt to take advantage of me? What purpose am I meant to serve?
Ivanna took flight and drifted casually to the base of the mountain. She hunted for roughly an hour to take her mind off those cryptic questions.
She tracked down two lemmings by listening for the sounds they made as they scurried through the tunnels previously excavated in the snowpack. Her strikes were accurate and deadly, her talons impaling the creatures and swiftly dispatching them.
She ate to her heart's content and caught two additional lemmings, which she cached for later consumption. She stuffed snow into her beak to slake her thirst; it melted in seconds and cool, refreshing water trickled down her throat.
Feeling fully alert and refreshed, she journeyed south to the Ice Talons. Closing her eyes, she proceeded to view the landscape through her mind's eye instead.
Magen did not flow straight as it swept through them, but traced out convoluted paths and tied itself in fancy knots before continuing on.
I wonder if the Ice Talons harbor some sort of labyrinth. I must investigate.
Decreasing her altitude, she sailed past the trio of sheer ice cliffs and looped back around. At the base of the southernmost talon, she spotted a dimple in the cliff face. Upon closing the distance, she realized it was the entrance of a passageway penetrating into the cliff itself.
It reminds me of the tunnels dug by the lemmings, except on a much larger scale…
Ivanna drew her wings close to her flanks and slipped inside. The corridor was roughly circular in shape, its height double that of hers and its width slightly larger than her wingspan.
Whether it had formed naturally or was a deliberate creation was unknown to her. The low light level proved to be no hindrance, given the resolution of her sensitive eyes.
It would be frighteningly easy to lose one's way in here. The ice appears the same from all angles, and maintaining a sense of direction is nearly impossible. I, however, won't make such a foolish mistake…
Every sixth pace, Ivanna paused and carved three parallel furrows into the floor with her starboard talons.
No matter where I go, these telltale marks will allow me to retrace my steps.
Strolling ever-deeper into the labyrinth, Ivanna's gizzard quivered in anticipation of what she might discover. Having no idea where she was going, she stumbled upon a throne room by pure chance.
Stalactites were scattered across the arched ceiling and the walls sported a few portals to the outside.
She flew over to the throne and alighted on it. It was large enough to accommodate a great gray owl and clearly artificial.
Unbeknownst to her, she'd ended up in the heart of the Ice Cliff Palace. It was once home to the late H'rath and Siv and, in the later stages of the Pure One/Guardian conflict, occupied by hagsfiends.
Ignorant of its history, she was thus captivated by its innocuous beauty. She spent half the night wandering the palace's darkened innards.
By no means had she explored the maze in its entirety. Soreness in her leg muscles and excessive thirst drove her out.
As she approached the exit, her sixth sense activated subconsciously and revealed the presence of a nearby owl. She limped out onto the ledge and stepped aside to make space for the male snowy.
"Greetings, madam. I rarely encounter Tytos this far north who aren't kraals. Torvald is my name."
"Greetings, I am Ivanna. I came here to escape the monotonous environment of the Shadow Forest."
"Can't say I've heard of such a forest. I take it you aren't a N'yrthghar native?"
She shook her head.
"That explains why your feathers retain their natural color."
Ivanna shivered and fluffed up her plumage. Torvald was conversely unaffected by the bitter cold air.
"What brings you to the Ice Talons, if I may ask? Were you exploring the Ice Cliff Palace, perhaps?"
"That's what it's called? Interesting. There isn't much to do here, so I had to busy myself somehow."
"I can't argue with that. The lives of gadfeathers and kraals are far from boring, but for the rest of us…"
"Unfortunately, I must go. My legs are aching rather badly, as I am not accustomed to walking for so long."
"That is understandable. We are owls, not mice, after all. It was nice meeting you, Ivanna. Be safe."
She returned home, yarped up a pellet, and toppled backwards into her nest.
The discomfort was too excessive for her to consider meditating. Sleep was not feasible either for obvious reasons.
A half hour later, her legs once again supported her body weight painlessly. She stepped outside to relieve herself and moisten her parched throat.
She eagerly meditated for the remainder of the night. She sank into unconsciousness as the dawn broke and snoozed dreamlessly the entire day.
The following night, she ventured back to the Ice Cliff Palace to explore additional uncharted areas. Aware of the prospect of diminishing returns, she chose not to enter the Palace a third time.
She thought it pointless to waste additional time and energy doing so, having observed the majority of all there was to see.
As the Time of the Copper-Rose Rain wore on, Ivanna crisscrossed the Northern Kingdoms on a self-guided tour. In doing so, she compiled a mental map of the N'yrthghar for future reference.
She interacted with gadfeathers on occasion but steered clear of kraals. Their uncouth disposition and crude lifestyle were repulsive to her.
Inevitably, the season changed, signaling the end of her stay. Ivanna clogged the mouth of her abode with snow, masking its presence from any wandering owls who would be tempted to seize it.
Bittersweet was the exhausting trek to the woodland she grew up in. She wagered she'd shed a fifth of her body weight.
Fortunately, her old hollow had not been disturbed during her extended absence. She discarded the degraded nest and constructed a superior one.
The Tyto failed to stifle her tears of unbridled joy.
In the wake of a seven-night acclimation period, a potent desire to speak to her siblings gripped her.
No doubt they are eager see me again. Perhaps I should reveal my powers to them. I see no harm in doing so, as they are a part of my family. Why shouldn't I trust them?
Her sister's home was somewhat closer so she elected to head there first.
Hm, she isn't here. This is the perfect opportunity to ambush her!
Ivanna pressed herself against the wall immediately to the left of the hole in the trunk. She did not have to wait long for her victim's return.
Her sister's wingbeats grew ever-louder and Ivanna tensed her muscles. The moment she set foot in the hollow, Ivanna leaped out of hiding.
"Guess who!" she screeched.
The female Tyto, who hardly resembled Ivanna, jumped back in shock. From her beak erupted an ear-splitting screech characteristic of their species.
Recognition swept over her facial disk and she hurriedly calmed herself.
"Ivanna? Is it truly you?"
"There is no one quite like me in this world, Elisa."
Her sister smiled and hugged her tenderly.
"The Forest hasn't been the same since you left. I've longed for your return."
"Did you doubt I wouldn't?"
"Of course not. How have you been?"
"Wonderful. The Northern Kingdoms was a majestic place."
"I'll take your word for it. I won't be going there, it's too far and too cold for me."
"I don't blame you. The weather can be quite chaotic at times."
"Don't reveal all the details so soon. Our kin would love to hear about your stay in that frigid land. Come, we must reunite with them while the night is young!"
The barn owls flew southwest to the hollow of their sibling, Gabriel, and startled him.
"My goodness, you two! I nearly choked on the vole I was eating!" he exclaimed.
"Forgive me, but I couldn't resist," replied Ivanna.
"Neither could I," Elisa put in.
"Anyhow, I'm glad you're here. I've missed you."
"I missed you more."
"Fair enough. Anyhow, why don't we pay mother an unexpected visit? I can think of nothing more splendid than that."
"Agreed. It's been moons since we've all gathered in her hollow."
"Lead the way, dear sister."
Tapping into her memory, Ivanna navigated to their creator's dwelling, which lay to the north of their current position. They flew at a brisk pace for a solid minute and caught sight of the all-too-familiar pine they were raised in.
The trio braked hard using their tails and filed into the spacious tree cavity. Their mother, who initially had her back to them, sensed their presence and turned around.
The moment her gaze met theirs, she flashed a heartwarming smile.
"If it isn't my precious children…"
She smothered them with a loving embrace, sparkling tears welling in her eyes.
"I feel so alone without you. Your company is irreplaceable and so very uplifting…"
"We love you too, Mother…"
She released them and locked eyes with her eldest child – by a few minutes, mind you.
"Ivanna… my beautiful daughter… I'm so thankful you're alright…"
"You nurtured me since the night I hatched. You granted me strength, confidence, and intelligence. I was once a weak and vulnerable owlet, but I have changed."
In more ways than just my age and physical condition, as you will soon discover…
Thea wiped the liquid pride away, clearing the blurriness from her vision.
"That is true. It seems I managed to do something right for once."
I haven't said this in a while, so I shall say it now. I love you."
"As do I, Ivanna. My love extends to you as well."
"You need not remind us, Mother. It is an unwritten law," they responded.
Thea relocated to her nest and Gabriel and Elisa joined her. Ivanna stood before them, their anticipation electrifying the air in the hollow.
"Tell us about your stay in the Northern Kingdoms, daughter. Be thorough and descriptive."
"With pleasure, Mother."
Ivanna gave a detailed account of the three rewarding moons she spent there, beginning with her arrival at the Ice Narrows. At the appropriate point, she ushered them outside and demonstrated her power as discreetly as possible.
Three pure sunbeams shone briefly through the canopy, bathing them in golden radiance. Her kin were speechless, at a loss to comprehend how she came to possess that type of awe-inspiring talent.
Their adoration for her had magnified tenfold.
At the conclusion of her long-winded retrospection, the four Tytos partook in a blissful feast, dining on fresh squirrel meat.
At Ivanna's polite behest, they swore to hide the existence of her magen manipulation. It was they least they could do and they did not question her reasoning.
Drowsiness set in as a sublime sunrise unfolded. Thea's progeny bid her goodbye and reluctantly dispersed to their homes.
Ivanna exposed her back to the light of the rising sun and nodded off in no time flat.
The day inevitably relinquished its dominion to the night. The waxing crescent moon initiated its odyssey across the sky.
Ivanna stirred and ran through her usual post-slumber routine.
Oddly enough, peculiar thoughts echoed in her mind. Said musings were not her own.
I am hopelessly smitten. I can't imagine my life without her. Tonight, I shall find out if she feels the same by asking her to be my mate.
Shame that so few short-eared owls live in this woodland. Perhaps I should befriend a long-eared owl or two. They seem equally amicable.
Mum and Da say the Guardians are real, but they've never seen one. I haven't either. I guess I should trust my gizzard instead of my eyes…
Good Glaux, I have a terrible headache. I can't eat anything until it clears, or I'll simply vomit it all up.
Now where did that sneaky mate of mine go? I hope he went out to hunt for us. If he's playing a trick on me, I'll have his tail feathers!
Oh my… am I reading the minds of those around me? I don't wish to invade their privacy! This is not fair to me or them.
Distressed, Ivanna quelled her powers and launched out of the pine tree.
I suppose I shouldn't exclude my father, even if we aren't on the best of terms. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be alive.
The old, weathered pine he dwelt in was situated a good two minutes to the northeast of Thea's. He purposely settled in that conifer to express his aversion toward his former mate.
Ivanna spotted him perched on a mid-level bough. The austere male Tyto, Lucian, did not acknowledge her until she alighted on the needle-clad branch.
His tone lacked any hint of enthusiasm.
"You emerged from the Northern Kingdoms unscathed?"
"Yes. Would you like to hear about my experiences?"
Ivanna swallowed her dismay and changed the subject.
"Alright. How have you been?"
"Just fine. I'm in a relationship with another female Tyto."
You weren't satisfied because my mother refused to be your slave, so you're replacing her, is that it?
Ivanna tightened her grip on the limb and held her tongue.
She purposely left out the phrase "I suppose."
"Is there anything you'd like to talk about?"
"No," he responded flatly.
"As if I must explain myself to you."
Ivanna's gizzard clenched in irritation. She could feel her blood pressure rise.
"I am your daughter, and yet you treat me like a stranger."
"A certain Tyto named Thea is to blame, not me," he spat.
"You have no shame, do you?" she retorted.
"It doesn't matter. Iris loves me."
"You've never been to the Northern Kingdoms, and yet you have a heart of ice."
"Poetic, but incorrect. I believe this conversation is over."
"As is our relationship," she said spitefully.
"You won't be ruffling my feathers anymore? Excellent."
"I hate you!"
The anger pooling within her burst forth. There was a flash of light and Lucian began shrieking in agony.
"Agh! It burns! Stop! I beg you!"
Ivanna gasped in shock.
A cloak of golden flames bloomed around her. The searing aura had no effect on her but relentlessly scorched Lucian's skin.
She suppressed the magen surging through her being with significant effort. Lucian plummeted to the earth, landing hard with an audible thud.
"You're a monster! A heartless fiend! Curse you!"
A bilious feeling arose in her gizzard.
No… it can't be… what have I done?!
Dread shot through her system and she fled like an ivory rocket. She hoped no one had saw her escape.
She glided into her hollow and slumped against the wall. Her pounding heart threatened to explode out of her breast, or so she thought.
"I… I lost control of my emotions… and unleashed magen upon my own father. He'll never forgive me…"
Tears of consternation tricked down her facial disk and splashed onto the floor.
"Oh Glaux… what am I supposed to do?"
Either the owl deity hadn't heard her or failed to provide a response. Despite having unlimited power at her disposal, she felt more powerless than ever.
The temporary paralysis subsided and Lucian staggered to his feet. The act of doing so stretched his inflamed skin and caused him to wince in pain.
A female Tyto rushed to his side to support him.
"Argh… be gentle…"
"Why? What's going on?" she demanded in exasperation.
"Ivanna… she did something terrible to me. My entire body… is burned…"
She escorted him to the nearest conifer and reclined him gently against the trunk.
"I will avenge you," she declared, her voice infused with rage.
She took off like a bat out of hagsmire.
"No… you can't… she will…" he croaked, but his significant other was long gone.
Iris hurtled through the forest at a dangerous velocity. She silently thanked Lucian for informing her of the location of his daughter's residence.
Thea betrayed him, and he has betrayed you. The cycle is complete.
Iris homed in on Ivanna's whimpering and swooped into the cavity.
"How dare you! Don't you realize what you've done to him? I will make you pay!"
"I couldn't help it! Please don't hurt me!"
Iris splayed her port talons and swiped at her cowering adversary. Ivanna slammed her eyes shut in fear.
A brilliant flare blinded Iris momentarily. Something pierced straight through her midsection and she halted mid-swipe.
Ivanna gingerly opened her eyes.
Surrounding her was a translucent, glowing barrier. A golden spear impaled Iris through the gizzard.
An agonized moan escaped her aggressor's beak. The Tyto collapsed in a heap.
The intangible aegis dissipated yet the shaft of light did not. Iris, incapacitated and silenced, stared blankly at Ivanna.
Release me… or end me… please…
"I'm so sorry… I never intended to hurt anyone. I cannot bear this misery…"
A nearby pair of flammulated owls heard the commotion and tracked it to the source. They could not make heads or tails of the scene.
"What in Glaux's name happened here?!" spluttered the male.
"Why I never… this doesn't seem possible!" the female exclaimed.
"You'll never understand…" Ivanna vaporized the spear and trudged out of the hollow.
No, they wouldn't ever grasp her predicament, but she knew someone who would.
She cruised without pause through the eerie gloom to Thea's dwelling.
No sooner had Thea acknowledged her did Ivanna fling herself into her mother's soft wings.
"What's wrong, dear daughter?"
"I crave your guidance… more than I ever have before. I'm done something awful… I am cursed… and I feel so guilty…"
Thea enveloped her heartbroken child in a soothing embrace.
"It's alright, Ivanna. No need to be upset. Once you're calm, we shall talk. I promise to help you any way I can."
"Thank you, Mother. I'd be lost without you…"
She nuzzled the rim of Ivanna's facial disk with her own.
"I love you, and I won't forsake you. We'll figure this out together, no matter what."
Ivanna buried her beak in the feathers covering her creator's starboard shoulder.
I'm not a mean-spirited Tyto. I want to use my power to improve the lives of others…
Breathing deeply, she slowly-but-surely reigned in her emotions.
Perhaps I misjudged its value… and perhaps... everything will turn out alright, just like Mother said. When has she ever been wrong?