Chapter 4: Liberation

"In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you." - Buddha

"You are living proof of that," replied the male sooty owl.

"You look incredible! I… I don't know what else to say."

"I hope this isn't a dream," quipped the female masked owl.

"I am entirely real, I assure you," Ivanna stated cheerfully.

"Anyhow, Sterling, Ashe, I assume life has treated you well since we last saw each other?"

Ashe replied, "Why yes, it has, though it seems like life has treated you even better!"

"Where have you been all these moons? Tell us everything!" pleaded Sterling.

"I will satisfy your curiosity, but you must calm yourself first."

"Sorry, sorry, I am prone to becoming over-enthusiastic."

"At least you're honest. I find that quality admirable."

"Oh, you do? That's, um, very nice."

He chuckled sheepishly.

Ashe gave his port flank a playful nudge.

"What's the matter?"

"I'm not used to… well… females complimenting me…"

"Get used to it. Ivanna is a generous Tyto."

"I can't argue with that."

"I suppose you get comfortable, because this is going to take a while."

Ashe and Sterling reclined against the trunk of a conifer. The latter vomited up a pellet and tossed it away.

"Alright, let's hear it," the female said.

"Spare us no details," declared the male.

"As you wish!"

Ivanna thus launched into a comprehensive recapitulation of her life, beginning with her foray to the Northern Kingdoms. Given the fantastic nature of her tale, her friends were enthralled from the very start.

Unfortunately, she was rudely interrupted in the near the end of her narrative.

A female great-horned owl, flanked by a boreal owl of the same gender plus barred owl of the opposite, came swooping in. Ashe and Sterling immediately recognized the intruders and sprang to their feet.

"Well sprink me, I had no idea monsters actually existed," remarked the great-horned owl.

And these lowly Tytos are speaking to it! They must be deranged," added the barred owl.

"What are you doing here?" Sterling demanded.

The boreal owl spat, "Ruining your pathetic get-together, that's what. Just like old times."

The female great-horned owl, obviously the ringleader of the band of miscreants, approached Ivanna in an intimidating fashion.

She instinctively crouched and tilted her fanned out wings forward, assuming the defensive pose of a thronkenspeer.

Her adversary wasn't fazed in the slightest.

"Amusing, but pointless."

Ivanna's friends brazenly planted themselves in front of the bad-tempered owl. She stopped in her tracks.

"Leave her alone, Morgan. You know nothing about her."

"Oh, I believe I do, you dim sooty. She's clearly part hagsfiend, a truly vile creature."

"Why would you associate with something so foul?"

Ashe retorted, "Shut your beak, Jett. You're no different!"

The barred owl countered, "I figured you would say that. You are sorely mistaken."

"If you two aren't going to deal with it, then we must do so ourselves. Step aside, or else."

"No, Amara. There is no reason to be cruel to her," he protested.

She and Jett planted themselves on either side of their chieftain.

"We do not tolerate dissent, let alone from pathetic owls like you," sneered Morgan. "You will soon regret resisting us."

The trio drew even closer, looming over their nemeses.

"And I do not tolerate those who torment others for their own twisted pleasure."

Ivanna rose to her full height, affixing the aggressors with a hostile glare.

"Get behind me."

Sensing the rising irritation in Ivanna's gizzard, the wary Tytos backed off a dozen paces.

"You dare challenge us? The odds are not in your favor."

"How wrong you are," she replied, her tone as cold as northern ice.

The smoke rising from her plumage thickened and the subtle glow grew brighter.

Morgan thrust her starboard talons into her opponent's belly and wrenched them out in one swift, brutal motion.

Ivanna screamed as scarlet fluid squirted onto Morgan's feet and the ground. An invisible impulse knocked all five owls off their feet, sending them flying a good ten pytes away.

A whirling geyser of energy spontaneously engulfed Ivanna.

"What… what have you done?! I can't control it! All of you… must flee!"

The supernatural sight struck fear into the hearts of her friends and foes alike. Ashe and Sterling hurriedly took cover behind the trunk of a stately pine.

Just as the unruly owls got their feet and unfurled their wings, three javelins shot out of the maelstrom at blinding speed. The projectiles transformed into tangible snakes while airborne.

A split-second later, the serpents struck them in their breasts. Their fangs, concentrated needles of arcane energy, pierced the owls' hearts, causing them to rupture.

The chaotic whirlwind swiftly dissipated and the snakes disappeared into nothingness. Ivanna toppled forwards, paralyzed by the destructive surge.

Immeasurable agony was written upon the facial disks of her rivals. As their life force evaporated, they uttered their last words.

"My dream… of starting a family… is slipping away… and I am too…" said Jett.

"My parents abandoned me… all I've ever known… is loneliness… and hatred… forgive me…" Morgan confessed.

"Never again… will I see… the beautiful moon… or feel the softness… of my mother's wings…" Amara whispered.

The luster in their eyes faded and hollow moans escaped their beaks. One by one they collapsed, dead before hitting the ground.

"I… I killed them… I stole their lives… I cannot bear… the weight of this tragedy…"

Pushed past her breaking point, Ivanna resolved to do the unthinkable.

"I… do not deserve… this power… I am not… strong enough… to tame it…"

Using all her willpower, she siphoned every last drop of magic from her soul. The reckless extraction inflicted severe damage to her internal organs.

A sphere of swirling energy manifested above her, burning a hole in the canopy as it swelled to an enormous size. Stunned, the Tytos nonetheless dashed to their friend's side.

A yawning void of emptiness had developed within her. She could feel hot liquid pooling in her abdominal cavity and seeping into her lungs.

Her strength was diminishing by the second, as was her consciousness.

"Get up, Ivanna! You must get up!"

"I… I can't… Ashe… I'm so tired… once I fall asleep… I shall never wake…"

"No, you mustn't say that!"

"Someone help! Our friend is badly injured!" Sterling shouted.

They cried profusely, pelting her head with droplets. Pulsing waves of agony assaulted her mind, but she herself was frigid and numb.

"I have… no place… in this world. This… is how I must… pay for… my mistakes…"

The thin strings binding her to the mortal plane broke until one insignificant thread remained.

"Oh Ivanna… please… don't leave us… who are we… without you?"

She tilted her head just enough to gaze up into their tear-filled eyes.

"Cherish my memory… and all the moons… you have left…"

They wiped the blurriness from their vision and tenderly stroked her back with their wings.

Blood filled her airway and the sensation of drowning triggered an innate reflex. She spasmed and ejected a large volume of the frothy fluid from her beak.

Sterling and Ashe nearly fainted.

"Tell my father… my siblings… and my mother… I'm sorry…"

The final filament snapped and Ivanna sank into an ocean of eternal solace. Her companions broke down, their mournful wails slicing the night sky like the sharpest of blades.

"Excuse me, may I enter?"

"Of course."

"Forgive the sudden intrusion, my king. The Navigation Chaw has returned earlier than expected."

"Oh? Why is that?"

"An unusual anomaly has emerged in the Shadow Forest, my queen. They believe it to be magical in nature. It appears to be destabilizing and may not persist for much longer."

"Is that so? My mate and I must investigate as soon as possible. Inform the parliament of our intentions."

"Understood, my king."

"Otulissa must accompany us. She is most likely in her hollow. Tell her to gather her writing supplies and meet us here. There is little time to waste."

"As you wish, my queen."

"A magical anomaly in the Shadow Forest? What could it mean, dear?"

"For better or for worse, we shall soon find out, my love."

The Ga'Hoolian monarchs and the Great Tree's most prestigious one-eyed scholar made for that ominous woodland at a brisk pace. The anomaly was visible from as far away as Silverveil, a miniature star on the horizon.

Intrigue and anxiety bubbled up in their gizzards. The recon team dove beneath the sphere and spotted six owls in the clearing.

They assessed the situation and determined it was best to clear the area. Carrying the corpses was a grim task, but a necessary one.

The owls retreated to a safe distance and watched as the orb's rotational rate steadily increased. Otulissa diligently scribbled down her observations on sheets of parchment.

More and more beams of brilliant light erupted from its core, sweeping around and around at an ever-increasing speed. Not a sound could be heard, yet they knew it represented the calm before the storm.

Without warning, a blinding flash of light converted night into day as the orb imploded. Compressed down to the size of a milkberry for a split-second, it then detonated with tremendous force.

A plume of smoke similar to that spawned by a volcanic eruption billowed into the sky. The shockwave flattened a wide swath of trees and bowled the awestruck spectators over.

"Is everyone alright?" the king asked.

"Thankfully, yes," responded the spotted owl.

"I'm fine, dear," affirmed the queen.

"More or less…" said the Tytos.

The owls gingerly returned to ground zero to survey the area. The explosion left behind a crater with fractured edges and scoured the ground bare around it.

In its center, about two pytes above the earth, hovered a serene onyx-and-gold flame.

Ashe and Sterling told the Guardians heartbreaking tale of what transpired prior to their arrival. They also passed on the details given to them by Ivanna regarding her magical powers.

"She devoted her life to helping others less fortunate… but in the end… she couldn't help herself…" Ashe croaked.

The king said quietly, "So much beneficial potential wasted, and a precious life lost."

The queen added, "Fate is far too cruel at times. She will be sorely missed."

Soren, Pelli, and Otulissa bowed their heads, solemnly asking Glaux to grant the deceased owls peace.

Treating them with utmost respect, their bodies were laid to rest within the crater.

"This shall forever be their memorial and a place of remembrance. They will not be forgotten."

Convinced the calamity was over, nearby owls exited their hollows and began gathering at the disaster site. One such visitor caught the queen's eye, as she bore a striking resemblance to the Tyto down below.

"What in Glaux's name happened here?"

"Are you the mother of Ivanna?"

"Yes, why? Oh no…"

"Your daughter… is gone. I'm so sorry."

Pelli walked with her to the crater rim.

Thea's eyes darted to the still form of her child. She burst into tears and leaned on the queen for support.

"No… not my Ivanna… please no…"

"It was a terrible accident. Her torment is at an end. She has found peace in the wings of Glaux."

A jagged rift tore across Thea's spirit. Her daughter had been liberated from the chains of mortal suffering, yet Ivanna's departure afflicted her with misery.

The wound would linger until her own passing, as it was one that time itself was incapable of healing.

Their hearts heavy with sorrow, the onlookers cleared out as the night relinquished its dominion. The Guardians likewise sailed home.

The creamy hues of a new dawn spilled forth as the sun rose once more.

A spectral owl coated in atramentous and Aurelian feathers crawled out of the Tyto's hollow shell. Ascending out of the crater, it perched on the rim of the depression for a moment.

Glancing over its shoulder at the eternal fire, it dipped its head ever-so-slightly and floated off into the forest.