Wings and talons, the gifts bestowed upon owls by Glaux, were crucial to their survival and domination of the food chain. They were the true masters of the night – and in some cases the day as well.
These tools, in combination with sharp eyesight and sensitive hearing, enabled them to be swift, stealthy, and effective hunters.
Nature can be cruel at times and bring misfortune to beings with the best intentions, however. Take, for example, the female masked owl known as Faith.
One of four offspring in her parents' first clutch, she liberated herself from her egg minutes before her siblings did. They chose that name for her as they were confident she would mature into a lovely and fruitful adult.
Residing in a stately pine tree on the border of the Beyond and the Shadow Forest, she was a self-taught collier who had developed impressive skill in the six moons since her hatching. Having received the rare and mystical power of firesight, she was a well-known and well-respected Tyto in that corner of the Southern Kingdoms.
Naturally, she forged a profound friendship with the rogue smith named Gwynneth, who lived not too far away and was a skilled coal harvester herself.
Alas, in an awful twist of fate that not even she could have predicted, Faith fell victim to the callous whims of the perilous and unforgiving Beyond.
One night in the Time of the Copper-Rose Rain, she sought to improve her flying prowess in adverse conditions. Seven moons of age at the time, she chose to surf the roiling thermal arising from the bubbling cauldron of magma within the volcano Morgan.
It was her third attempt at maintaining stability while punching through the turbulent column of stiflingly-hot air. She was understandably nervous, as one mistake could possibly send her careening into the crater.
Despite the haunting prospect of being burned alive on contact with the pool of liquid rock, she steeled her will and flooded her gizzard with confidence.
Plowing headlong into the thermal, she was immediately buffeted from multiple directions at once by the chaotic winds. The magma in Morgan's rocky throat sloshed around and splashed against the crater wall.
The unexpectedly fierce gust that billowed upward sent the masked owl into a spin. Panic gripped her mind and she flapped frantically, unbalancing herself further and entering a head-over-tail tumble.
She shrieked as she plummeted to the earth, too disoriented to think straight and recover. Unfurling her wings and flaring her tail, she managed to level out at the last possible second.
The intense braking action slowed her velocity just enough to render the impact with the ground serious, but not lethal. After striking the ground breast-first, she bounced, flipped twice, and landed several pytes away.
White-hot agony shot through her an instant later, as her starboard wing had come to rest on a tongue of lava seeping from a fissure in Morgan's cone. The feathers ignited and were consumed by flames in mere seconds, and her flesh literally began to melt off the bone.
Her ear-splitting screech sliced the air like the sharpest of blades. Subjected to unspeakable suffering, she stood and separated her wing from the lava's surface as quickly as possible.
In doing so, she accidentally plunged her port foot into that same rivulet of lava. She screamed again, tore it free with a jerk, and promptly collapsed, falling flat on her back.
Her charred, ruined appendages ceased to generate pain signals, as the nerves linking them to her brain had been destroyed.
Having been in such close proximity to the planet's molten blood, the radiant heat had inflicted severe burns to her port flank. Pulsing waves of pain emanated from her seared integument, leaving her incapacitated.
Each gasping breath stretched her skin, triggering another intense surge of pain. Morgan's watch wolf and a few gnaw wolves within earshot dashed over to the stricken owl.
"Bite them off… or kill me... and end my torment… I beg you!"
The watch wolf crunched through her humerus and severed it near the shoulder. Her blackened foot was likewise severed at the ankle joint.
They were disposed of in the lava. The bloody stumps were then cauterized by dipping them into the boiling ooze for a few seconds.
Her world spun and she slipped into unconsciousness. When she came to much later that night, she saw another masked owl looming over her and realized she had been taken to Gwynneth's abode.
She was incredibly lucky to be alive, but she had lost two of her most vital tools. The distraught, teary-eyed rogue smith apologized multiple times.
No owl, let alone her closest friend, deserved such a terrible fate. Faith's gizzard twisted itself into a Gordian knot, metaphorically speaking, and she began to feel sick.
Dreading the very real possibility that her colliering nights were permanently over, she vomited up the half-digested remains of her earlier meal.
Peering hopelessly into the flickering flames of Gwynneth's forge, she observed nothing concrete regarding her future. Her life had fundamentally changed in the blink of an eye and she would never be quite the same.
Though Gwynneth had stifled her tears, Faith sank deeper into her friend's nest and wept until she fell asleep.
Over the course of the next three moons, Gwynneth nursed her back to health. In time her external injuries healed, but the wounds marring her soul did not mend so easily.
Gwynneth cared for Faith as if she was her very own child, feeding her, disposing of her pellets, and offering emotional support whenever necessary. Faith learned how to move around by hopping on one leg, but she was nonetheless confined to the two-dimensional earth.
Gwynneth worked her tail off but did not allow Faith to feel as though she owed her any compensation. Eventually, she devoted herself to restoring a sense of normalcy to Faith's existence.
If she couldn't help her companion fly and hunt like a typical owl again, then no one could.
Gwynneth sketched Faith's starboard foot from various angles, supplementing the drawings with the appropriate measurements of its dimensions. She repeated the process with her port wing.
Tapping into her intimate knowledge of metal properties and manipulation, Gwynneth devoted many mentally, as well as physically, draining nights to creating artificial limbs.
She forged a set of lifelike battle claws, plus an entire wing, out of light-yet-durable nickel alloy.
Each of the talons was jointed and all four were linked by an internal spring-loaded hinge mechanism. Two small toggle levers projected out of the shaft that slipped over her leg.
One allowed her to snap the claws open or shut at will. The other disengaged the tensioning spring, allowing the claws to fold when suspended and splay apart when pressed against a flat surface, mimicking the movement of an actual foot during locomotion.
Gwynneth's ingenuity could not be more apparent, as she'd combined aesthetics, complexity, and functionality into one apparatus.
The replacement wing was an equally praiseworthy device. To minimize weight and maximize lift, the number of tapered metal flaps acting as feathers had been reduced significantly.
The individual layers comprising the wing were all accounted for. The alula, a fan of three specialized flaps whose purpose was to generate extra lift, was also incorporated into the design.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the leading edges of the primary blades featured tiny serrations, whereas their trailing edges were finely divided into short, thin strands. It, too, possessed hinge joints at two key locations, enabling it to unfurl and collapse.
A locking mechanism, also controlled by a lever, ensured it would not switch configurations without her intervention. Its base slid over the stubby end of her humerus and was secured in place by means of a metal harness contoured to her upper back and breast.
The prototype wing, being the first Gwynneth had ever crafted, was far from perfect. It failed to get Faith off the ground, no matter how hard she flapped.
The rogue smith wasted no time in fabricating a second model from scratch, taking Faith's observations and complaints into account. This version enabled her to rise a short distance off the substrate, but true flight was still out of reach.
Gwynneth tailored the design further, and the third iteration achieved the expected results. Faith practiced for a quarter moon straight, experiencing a few rough landings before she adapted to her new augmentations.
Her exhausting struggles paid off and she finally managed to stay airborne indefinitely.
The wing's inherent rigidity meant that most acrobatic stunts were out of the question, loops, barrel rolls, and power dives were not. Euphoria coursed through her being as she wheeled about, ecstatic vocalizations spewing forth from her beak.
Tears of elation trickled freely down her facial disk. Upon burning through a large portion of her stamina, she returned to Gwynneth and embraced her, dampening the rogue smith's feathers.
"Mere words… cannot convey… how incredibly grateful I am… without you… my life… would have lost… all meaning…"
Gwynneth could not help but send forth joyful tears of her own.
"There isn't anything… I wouldn't do… for a dear friend…"
The pair spent one final, heartwarming night together. They then said their bittersweet goodbyes and parted ways, albeit not before promising to reunite in the near future.
Faith sailed back to her once-abandoned hollow and a rush of cheerful memories swept through her. She had no more reason to curse her misfortune or lament her loss.
Part metal and part flesh-and-bone, she was a genuine Tyto regardless. Her personality was no less valuable than her external appearances anyhow.
Survival was somewhat more difficult than it used to be, as she could not fly as silently as a Tyto should. She adjusted her hunting tactics and persevered, catching enough rodents to sustain herself.
One moon later, her life changed yet again, in a positive sense, mind you. It was as if Glaux had rewarded her tenacity in the face of adversity.
She crossed paths with a male of her species named Ezio.
Hailing from the Tyto Forest, he introduced himself as "a wanderer seeking to reveal his true purpose in life."
The two masked owls struck up a casual friendship, yet with each passing moon, their attraction to one another shifted from platonic to romantic. He had never met such a unique Tyto before, and her determination to make the best out of every night charmed him.
It was wrong to claim Ezio pitied her; he merely strove to lend a talon whenever she needed assistance. Not once did she reject his aid.
To Faith, his humility and compassion tugged at her heartstrings.
The way Faith's gizzard quivered whenever he met her gaze or touched her was an irrefutable sign of her infatuation. Ezio's gizzard reacted in the same manner whenever she drew near; his fondness for her was too pure to repress.
Five moons after their initial encounter, in the Time of the Golden Rain, they confessed their feelings and swore undying loyalty to each other.
"I was once a solitary Tyto, but my perspective is much different now. I want nothing more than to have you by my side."
"I believe I have discovered my purpose in life, and that is to treasure you for the rest of my days."
"Oh Ezio… you have stolen my heart. I love you."
"And you have likewise stolen mine. I love you too."
The dawn broke and the masked owls kissed passionately, affirming the permanence of their relationship. They were not mates in the physical sense, but it was of no consequence.
Their hearts now beat not just for themselves, but for one another as well.
There was a certain beauty in meandering down the winding path of life with a partner, and the Tytos resolved to do exactly that.
Countless tomorrows awaited them, and they would no doubt cherish every moment to the fullest extent.
Faith awoke and felt the toasty night air wrap around her. Opening her eyes, she glanced to her left and saw that the space beside her was empty.
She stepped out of the nest and arched her back, then gave her wing and leg a good stretch.
She equipped her artificial wing and poked her head out of the hollow. A thorough scan of her surroundings yielded no clues as to the whereabouts of her significant other.
I wonder where that sneaky Tyto could have gone…
Stepping out onto the bough just below the cavity, Faith decided to wait patiently for him. She preened herself to pass the time.
He hadn't appeared by the time she completed the task.
Just as she prepared to begin searching for him, a familiar male Tyto swooped in, perching in front of her on the branch.
"Ah, there you are. Good evening."
"Good evening, my dear. I wanted you to hunt with me, but I didn't dare disturb your slumber."
He lifted his starboard leg and showed her the two voles impaled on his talons.
"Please, help yourself."
"You are too kind, Ezio. Thank you."
She claimed one of the limp rodents and devoured it in a single gulp.
"No need for that. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you."
"You remind me of Gwynneth. She said the same to me once."
"I can imagine. She is an exceptionally caring Tyto."
She took a step towards him and nuzzled the rim of his facial disk.
"As are you."
"Never shall I tire of your compliments."
"I must give credit where it is due."
He nuzzled the rim of her facial disk in return.
"There is a magnificent lake in the southwestern corner of Silverveil."
"Is that so? I've never been there."
"In that case, I would love to show it to you."
"That would be splendid. Lead the way, my love."
Faith locked her wing into the extended position and took off after him. Weaving through the labyrinth of conifers, they crossed over into Silverveil in roughly twenty minutes.
An extra five minutes of flying brought them to the region's only large body of water. The reflection of the crescent moon hovered on the surface of the velvet black liquid.
"Tonight, we shall relax and savor each other's company."
Ezio waded a few pytes away from the bank and lay down on his back. The warm water submerged his tail, wings, and talons, but didn't overtop his breast or beak.
Faith removed her artificial appendages and hopped over to him, pelting his face with droplets.
"Sorry," she said as she lay down beside him.
He wiped them away and replied, "That's quite alright, my dear."
Gazing upward at the infinite, star-spangled blackness overhead, a cloak of tranquility enveloped them.
"I hope my family is doing well. I haven't seen them since regaining the ability to fly."
"That would be the wise and respectful thing to do. They will no doubt be emotional at first."
"There will be a lot for them to take in, yes, but it is for the best."
"Pardon me for changing the subject, but would you like me to teach you how to harvest coals?"
"To be honest, I'd rather watch you. We need not be identical in every regard."
"Fair enough. To each his own."
Deafening silence descended upon them, punctuated by the occasional hoot or screech of an unseen owl. Draping his sopping-wet wing across her breast, Ezio pulled Faith close and treated her to a drawn-out, sensual kiss.
The female emitted a soft moan of pleasure. Eventually they parted to catch their breath, locking eyes.
"I can't imagine my life without you. I love you so much it hurts…"
"My love for you is no less potent…"
The pair engaged in a second round of sensual kissing. Afterwards they cuddled and continued basking in the balmy liquid for nearly an hour.
Ezio picked her up and carried Faith to the bank, earning a cute chuckle from her. They shook themselves dry and took turns preening each other, stripping as much moisture from their plumage as possible.
Minuscule beads clung to her plumage, glistening like tiny diamonds in the moonlight. Spellbound, all Ezio could do was stare.
"The moon itself is jealous of your beauty…"
"Must you flatter me so openly? It makes my gizzard tingle."
"Precisely." "Hm, clever and handsome. It seems I've chosen the ideal partner."
"I am a very fortunate male."
Ezio helped her re-equip her metallic limbs. Faith took the lead and they flew not to their shared abode, but her personal forge.
The pile of coals had cooled, but a couple squeezes of the bellows injected fresh oxygen and revived them. A curtain of flame sprang up with a flourish.
Faith bored deep into its core with her eyes, momentarily entering a trancelike state.
Ezio stood still and held his tongue, lest be shatter her concentration. No definitive images coalesced on the flickering canvas.
The flames died down and Faith turned to Ezio with a sigh.
"Firesight is a scrupulous talent. It reveals slivers of the future at random. I have no influence over it."
"I see. Perhaps, in time, it will offer you a glimpse."
"Firesight is as much a curse as it is a blessing. What if I witness my demise, or even worse, yours?"
Ezio failed to offer a sufficient response. Faith shook her head.
"Ignore my unsettling remarks. It is not my intention to ruin this sublime night."
A faint rumble was heard and the earth trembled, rattling their bones. Ezio's plumage puffed out, an indication of his anxiety.
"What was that?"
"The magma beneath the surface is shifting around. Nothing to worry about, it's a common occurrence."
Her reassuring words caused his plumage to lay flat.
"Oh. Thank Glaux it's normal."
"If you find it uncomfortable, we don't have to stay. There's no reason to linger anyhow, since I have no source of new coals."
"If it's all the same to you, sure."
"Let's raise the stakes. I'll race you there. Go!"
He raised a talon and attempted to object.
"I don't think-"
She dashed outside and vanished.
"Good Glaux, she's so impulsive. Wait for me!"
He took off after her like a rocket. She sliced through the air at a borderline perilous velocity, churning it with powerful wing strokes.
Try as he might, Ezio failed to overtake her.
Repeatedly he closed the distance and nearly succeeded in touching her tail feathers. She employed a burst of speed and pulled away.
Faith barreled into the hollow a full ten seconds before he did.
Breathless and exhausted, she collapsed belly-up into the nest. He slumped to the floor beside her, plopping his head onto the edge of the nest.
"Hah… I win!" she exclaimed. "Female Tytos… are meant… to be superior… to males…"
"You had… a head start!" he countered. "Perhaps… you truly have… me outmatched…"
"Better luck… next time… my love. Your effort… is commendable…"
While the pair waited for their stamina to replenish, a thick blanket of clouds rolled in from the north, blotting out the moon. In a quarter hour they were fit to fly.
Ezio's wish was granted: they went on a hunting excursion together. As luck would have it, they scored a simultaneous kill on a careless squirrel nibbling away at a pine cone.
Prior to eating it, the female yarped up a pellet. The male imitated her.
Ripping chunks of flesh from its bones, they feasted to their heart's content. The blood dripping from the muscle quenched their thirst.
The clouds piled up and electrical charges amassed within them.
"Was it delicious?"
"Certainly. Nothing beats a gut stuffed full of squirrel meat. What shall we do now?"
"Good question. It's obvious I won't be colliering tonight, as the Shadow Forest isn't burning. That's not to say I want it to be set ablaze and owls to be in peril, but…"
"Your displeasure is understandable. One can't have it both ways."
"That is true."
All of a sudden, an errant bolt of lightning split the sky, accompanied by a peal of thunder.
She approached Ezio and ran a talon down his spine. He shivered in delight.
She stowed her starboard wing away and planted her port wing on his shoulder.
"Dance with me."
"I'm, well, hardly a decent dancer," he replied sheepishly. "I'll most likely end up embarrassing myself."
"You'll do fine. Show me what you can do."
"Alright, if you insist."
Gingerly, the Tytos executed a slow-paced tango. Ezio stepped on her talons twice and nearly tripped over his own, which made the interaction that much more satisfying.
He attuned himself to her movements and she to his. Before long they fell in sync.
Waltzing and shuffling for a quarter hour, fatigue overcame them. They were forced to stop and rest their tired legs.
Faith stumbled on purpose, knowing he would break her fall. He caught her deftly.
"That smirk on your face tells me that was intentional."
"Stop talking and kiss me, my love," she demanded.
"Ah… that's more like it."
"I find your allure difficult to resist. Does that make me gullible?"
"Perhaps, perhaps not."
"I don't care either way. I am hopelessly smitten."
"You aren't the only one."
He stood her up and released his grip.
"Your coordination could use some fine-tuning, but you are far from a below-average dancer."
"Teach me your secrets," he quipped.
"Slowly-but-surely, I shall help you improve."
Another jagged bolt cleaved the firmament. Gentle rain began to leak from the waterlogged clouds.
The masked owls retreated to their cozy hollow. They conversed idly while the storm ran its course.
The rainfall event lasted two prolonged hours, yet the lightning and thunder persisted in its wake. She exited the cavity to relieve herself and he did the same.
Nature's sparkling nectar covered every exposed surface.
Ezio inquired, "Shall we take a walk?"
Faith responded, "That would be lovely."
He meshed the primaries of his starboard wing with those of her left. Strolling casually through the woodland, the duo exchanged sweet nothings in the form of silken whispers.
They traced out a teardrop-shaped path that brought them back to their abode. Ezio sealed the entrance with a curtain of moss dangling from a crude frame of twigs and vine.
Weary, yet content, they snuggled in their nest and prepared to fall asleep.
The clouds cleared away as twilight manifested, the inky black sky morphing to a rich sapphire hue.
"What a night this has been…" the female muttered, yawning.
The male replied, "Happiness shared is happiness doubled."
"Indeed. Glaux meant for us… to be together…"
He touched his beak to her cheek.
"Sleep well, my dear. I love you."
"Likewise…" she mumbled.
Comforted by his presence, she drifted off in a matter of minutes. Her steady heartbeat, a muffled drumming in his ear slits, merited the same effect.
The planet turned its face to the sun and dawn broke across the S'yrthghar. As it had for eons, the cycle would continue, and the cloak of night would ultimately return.