Skadi and Annika glared daggers at their attackers but remained still so as not to endanger Katarina's life.
Aevar taunted, "Did you think you could hide from us?"
Erika added, "Did you think your home was a safe place to go?"
"We convinced a so-called frisen of yours, Skadi, to reveal its location. He was resistant at first, but once I broke his legs and wings, he wasn't so brave anymore," Johanna remarked, flashing a sinister grin.
The female long-eared owl wilfed a little and quivered with rage.
"We warned you we would be seeing each other again. That wasn't a threat, but a promise. The flute no longer matters to us. Nunchat, this time it's personal."
"Frinking sprink you," Skadi shot back.
"So quick to lose your temper. Amusing, but just as pitiful."
"Some kraals don't know when to shut their beaks," sneered the male snowy owl. "We'll be fixing that issue of yours soon."
Erika pinned Katarina against the snow belly-down. The boreal owl's middle talon glued itself to Katarina's nape, its tip pointed directly at the base of her skull.
She then bent over, positioning her beak disturbingly close to Katarina's port ear slit.
"This is the end for you, gadfeather. They will have their revenge on your friends, and so will I."
Erika then stood up straight, her gaze trained on her chieftain.
"As you're so fond of saying, let's dance."
The female great-horned instigated the decisive conflict with a rasping screech.
Skadi and Johanna clashed to pit their brute strength against one another, whereas Annika was determined to nullify Aevar's size advantage using her wit.
The battle claws their enemies wore increased the effective range of their attacks, tipping the odds in their favor.
Skadi was forced to play defensively, waiting for an opening she could exploit. Johanna's assault was relentless; Skadi dodged or deflected the first few attacks but her luck ran out.
She was dealt a slash to the flank.
"And so, your downfall begins!" she taunted. "There will be plenty more where that came from!"
Annika was in troublesome straits as well, for Aevar had adapted to her agility and movement patterns. She could not hope to confront him head on; his physical fortitude did not equal Johanna's, yet it exceeded hers five-fold.
Her flanking strategy was not proving fruitful either, as Aevar was keeping pace with her attempts to outmaneuver him. He was slightly too slow and she too nimble to be struck, yet she could not land a meaningful blow on him either.
Her energy reserves were being sapped, little by little.
This blasted snowy owl is the most aggravating one I've ever faced in combat! I should've known I'd encounter a worthy adversary one day. Think, Annika, think! There must be something I can do!
Hoping to throw him off via a change in tactics, she executed a tight loop and flew directly at him. Aevar imitated her reckless charge.
When she was one wingspan of hers away, she extended her talons. She expected him to veer out of the way… but he did the exact opposite.
He braked hard by flaring his wings and tail, then shifted his orientation from horizontal to vertical. At the last possible moment, he inhaled a deep breath, swelling his breast to create an air gap.
She plowed straight into him, her talons embedding themselves firmly in his skin. Countering the stinging pain through willpower alone, a wicked smile spread across his beak.
By allowing himself to be injured, he'd turned her own Glaux-given weapons against her. The instant she worked her talons out, he grabbed and subdued her in his iron grip.
"That hurt, irritating little pest… but some victories are only possible through sacrifice!"
Aevar landed hard, compressing her against the snow. The pressure he exerted made it almost impossible for her to breathe.
He forcefully unfurled her port wing using his starboard foot.
"Skadi! Help Annika!" she shouted too late.
In one swift, calculated motion, Aevar bent the terminal part of her wing 160 degrees counterclockwise. An audible crunch was heard as the wrist joint was destroyed by the excessive hyperextension.
A tortured scream cleaved the air, only to be silenced as abruptly as it began. Her mind imploded and she fainted nearly instantly.
Gripped by an irresistible urge to avenge her comrade, Skadi broke away from Johanna. Her vision turning a furious red, she streaked towards Aevar faster than she'd ever flown before.
Each flap of her mighty wings kicked up whirls of sparkling snowflakes. By the time the snowy owl noticed her hurtling towards him, he'd run out of time to react.
Skadi skewered his back with all eight talons, her momentum thrusting him face first into the snow. His cry of pain was tantalizing music to her ear slits.
No sooner had they skidded to a halt did Skadi yank her talons out, raking him from his nape to his tail with both feet in alternating fashion. His scream lodged itself in his throat, for the agony he registered could not be expressed vocally.
Johanna bowled into her nemesis from behind in turn, sending herself and Skadi sprawling three pytes away. Roughly half of Aevar's spine peeked out from beneath his feathers.
The pure white column, exposed by the long-eared owl's unrestrained savagery, contrasted strongly with his bloodied plumage.
Mortally injured, he trembled uncontrollably for several seconds then lay completely still. The clenching of his talons signaled the snuffing out of the flame that was his life force.
A seed of desperation and indignation had been sowed within her still-surviving comrade. Fueled by unbridled anger, she renewed her assault on the long-eared owl.
Enraged by the callousness of the deceased snowy owl's actions, Katarina turned the tables on her unsuspecting aggressor.
With a great surge of effort – one that utilized every last ounce of strength in her tiny body – she rolled 180 degrees. Before Erika could react, she thrust her talons upward, burying them in the boreal owl's exposed belly.
All the talons on her port foot hooked themselves into something firm and muscular. Fiery pain raced up the boreal owl's spine.
A shrill scream erupted from her beak, its suddenness and volume momentarily halting the battle. The kraals spun their heads towards her.
Erika leapt into the air with a reflexive flap of her wings, lifting Katarina in the process.
The tug of gravity caused her talons to slide out; Erika's gizzard was dragged along with them. That vital organ, along with a portion of her intestines, were pulled through the hole that had opened up in her belly.
Katarina's talons worked themselves free and she fell unceremoniously to the soft, cushioned substrate.
Overcome by indescribable agony, Erika went yeep and plummeted to the snow, landing flat on her back. Hot scarlet ichor streamed steadily from the wound, coating her bowels and painting her plumage bright red.
Her vulnerable mind succumbed to the miasma and she lapsed into convulsions. The repeated arching of her back was accompanied by choked, barely-intelligible vocalizations.
Johanna impaled Katarina with a malevolent glare that conveyed nothing but murderous intent.
"You! I swear to Glaux I'll feast on your heart… if it's the last thing I do!"
The sheer hostility of her declaration flooded Katarina with fear, freezing her in place. Johanna beat her powerful wings and charged directly at the hapless owl.
Skadi intercepted the enraged kraal, slamming into her flank. The impact knocked the burly owl off course, winding both momentarily.
Skadi planted herself defiantly between the female great-horned owl and her target.
"I won't… let you lay a talon… on her. Your opponent… is me!"
"Fine! I'll send you to hagsmire first… so you can wait… for her to join you!"
"Easier said… than done. Let's dance!"
The able-bodied females crossed swords once again, metaphorically speaking.
Skadi's stamina was gradually draining with each passing second. This was amplified by the blood leaking from the injuries she'd suffered thus far.
I can't hold out like this forever… but I know she can't either. I must wear her down… as she is doing to me. It's my only hope. I can't allow her to be my undoing! I must live for my friends' and family's sake!
Coming to her senses, Katarina hauled her unresponsive sibling to the mouth of the cave. Involving herself in the fight would be a foolish, and fatal, mistake.
Dispatching rodents was simple, but she would be nothing more than easy prey herself for those battle-hardened, not to mention vengeful, warriors.
Furthermore, her presence would only complicate the battle. Annika had been vanquished while trying to protect her, and now Skadi was putting herself in harm's way to do the same.
Though she was no longer being subdued, she was nonetheless restricted to spectating the high-stakes engagement. As violent as it was, she welcomed the distraction.
Catching even a glimpse of Annika's mangled wing sickened her to the core.
By then Erika's convulsions had ceased; her breathing was shallow and irregular.
I fear she isn't going to survive. Is… is this what it feels like… to murder an owl? It's awful… terrible… Glaux help me…
A bilious sensation surfaced in her gizzard and she thought she might vomit.
While she languished beside her sister, Skadi and Johanna continued to brutalize each other.
After three arduous minutes of near-uninterrupted combat, the belligerents were forced to go to ground. The exertion and numerous wounds they'd received had taken a great toll.
The blows they traded were weakening, their movements growing more sluggish.
The one-versus-one confrontation persisted for two additional minutes, the females swiping and jabbing clumsily with their feet and beaks, respectively.
Ultimately, both owls had pushed their endurance to the limit. A stalemate had been reached.
Johanna collapsed, utterly exhausted and unable to support her own weight. Skadi, similarly fatigued, clutched tightly the last bit of strength she needed to settle the score.
Limping on over to the incapacitated owl, Skadi rested her starboard foot on Johanna's heaving breast. Her middle talon took aim at the white patch of feathers overlying the owl's throat.
She shifted her attention to Erika's prostrate form momentarily; the boreal owl's breast had ceased to rise and fall. Heartbroken, she locked eyes with the owl looming over her.
"Go ahead… kill me… put me out of my misery. I've lost… and everything I've lived for… has been stolen from me…"
Skadi said nothing, tensing her leg muscles for the final lethal strike. Several tense seconds passed.
"What… are you waiting for? Please… stop tormenting me… and do it!"
A heavy sigh of capitulation escaped her beak and her muscles relaxed. Skadi fell gently backwards, adopting a seated position with her stout tail sticking out behind.
"No…" she declared sullenly.
Confusion, indignation, and despair swirled together in her tear-filled eyes.
"Why? Why won't you… do what I want?"
"I may be a kraal… but unlike you… I haven't sacrificed… the capacity to be merciful…"
Johanna's temper flared weakly, but she could not act on it. Her head sank to the snow, her delirious gaze directed skyward.
"Sprink you… you weak… cowardly… owl. You are a disgrace… to every kraal in this land…" she spat.
Her vicious insults glanced harmlessly off Skadi's conviction.
"You have a family… don't you?"
"Yes… but they were… my family as well…and now they're gone…"
"Their deaths… will haunt your conscience… and that is punishment enough. I refuse to… steal you away… from your real family…"
To this, Johanna failed to conjure up an adequate retort.
"I don't need… to end your life… to defeat you. But… if you ever attempt… to attack us again… I won't spare you. Consider this… your final warning…"
Johanna groaned in immeasurable frustration but said nothing further. Succumbing to fatigue and blood loss, she spiraled down into the numbing void of unconsciousness.
"May Glaux forgive me…" Skadi muttered.
She, too, fainted in that very spot, her wings going limp and her head hanging.
A leaden silence descended upon the battleground, emphasizing, rather than diminishing, the aftermath of the skirmish that had recently concluded.
Annika came to with a drawn out groan.
Katarina whimpered, "Don't move… you're badly hurt…"
Feeling an incessant throbbing, she glanced at her port wing. Seeing for herself the damage that had been wrought, she turned away with a distraught gasp.
In that moment, she came to the shattering realization that her future had been permanently altered.
"It seems my life as a kraal… is finished. Not even Torin would be able… to save my wing. I guess my only option… is to become a gadfeather like you. You'd be the most skilled teacher… I could ever ask for."
Despite the grim situation she was in, Annika managed a halfhearted chuckle. Her mangled wing quivered, swamping her mind with a wave of crushing pain.
She ceased chuckling immediately and emitted a quaking moan.
Tears spawned by dread and grief trickled down Katarina's facial disk.
"Skadi… is she…"
"She's alive… but unconscious… as is Johanna… who she spared. But Aevar… and Erika… they're…"
Her voice trailed off, yet the meaning behind the unfinished statement was obvious.
"There was no… other way it could end… for them… as well as me…"
"I'm so sorry… there was nothing… any of us… could do…"
"You said it yourself… times change… and we change… along with them…"
"Oh Annika… I love you… please forgive me…"
"There is… nothing to forgive. This is… a small price to pay… for my survival… and yours. Perhaps… this was always meant… to happen…"
Desperate for some sort of consolation, Katarina searched for her prized instrument, keeping well clear of the still-warm corpses.
Upon locating it, she dug it out of the snow and returned to her sister's side. Inhaling a few slow, deep breaths, she brought the flute to her beak and began to play.
A languid, haunting melody wafted into the air. Each hollow whistle embodied the despair and sorrow that had engulfed her soul.
It was a mournful tribute to the lives that were forever altered – and lost – on that fateful night. As she wove her beautifully sad tune into its velvet black folds, the gadfeather committed it, note by note, to memory.
A song of remembrance for the changed and the slain was to be its sole purpose. Indeed, no more fitting title could be ascribed to it than Katarina's Lament.
Five moons later…
A healthy crowd of a dozen owls sat huddled in the grog tree, snowflakes caught in the light breeze swirling casually by outside. Their eyes fixated expectantly on the entrance, they began to fidget with anticipation.
They did not have to endure the pleasant torment for long.
A female long-eared owl drifted inside, a pair of saw-whet owls clinging to her back. She bent over, and they hopped gracefully to the floor of the hollow.
The steward, a grizzled male long-eared owl, welcomed them. The slender being then wandered over to a specific table in the center.
She happily took a seat, squeezing in-between a flammulated owl and a barn owl; both were male kraals.
The female saw-whet owls at the front of the room, being sisters, were virtually identical. The main difference was that the female on the right was missing half her port wing.
Her identity, like that of her sibling's, was hardly a secret to the majority of the Northern Kingdom's inhabitants.
At the tipsy steward's behest, the spectators proposed a toast to the famous gadfeather duo. Raising their nut cups in the air, they clicked them lightly together and downed the bingle juice inside them.
The necessary formalities complete, they hushed themselves in deference to the esteemed musicians.
The elder flutist focused her mind, closed her eyes, and began to spin a gentle, upbeat song. Her equally skilled companion joined in at a predetermined time, the jovial harmony she created blending perfectly with her sister's melody.
The spirits of all the owls in that confined space were lifted by the blissful nocturne flowing into their ear slits. One's life was not truly complete without having heard the wondrous tunes they brought to life.
None were prouder, however, than the trio of kraals stationed in the middle of the hollow.
Basking in their dearest friends' serenade, they were almost brought to tears.
It was a testament to the latent power possessed by music, power that could be unleashed by those with sufficient aptitude. It was evident they were Glaux's gift to the world, an extension of his divine will.
None were more suited for the task of influencing and improving the moods of others than Katarina and Annika, the most talented musicians in all the N'yrthghar.