Nyletak peered around the corner of her room, crouched to the ground to make sure no one sees her. Her father was still out hunting, and the only ones left in the main hollow were her mother, Renae, and her younger sister, Eilyk. It's been a half moon since she hatched, and just as Nyletak had predicted, she was loving the legends of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole. She even had her own battle helmet... made out of leaves, and twigs of course. Nyletak enjoyed playing with her younger sister, always thinking of Soren, and his younger sister, Eglantine, playing like they used to a long time ago. 

Now, Nyletak saw her chance with Eilyk's fluffy white back turned to her, and her mother talking to her so she was focused on her youngest daughter. Running up as silently as she could, Nyletak jumped into the air with a playful yell, and aimed for Eilyk. The smaller owl spun around, and screeched in surprise as she was pinned to the ground. Nyletak and Eilyk rolled on the wooden floor of the hollow, ruffling down, and feathers before Eilyk managed to shove Nyletak off of her with a loud grunt. Nyletak flipped in the air, using her wings to spin around before landing on her feet, and skidding across the hollow with her head lowered, and her wings spread out. Eilyk copied her, her eyes narrowed to a challenging, but playful glare.

Nyletak smiled. "There's no chance for you, Metal Beak! Your army is weak, and small. The Guardians will triumph!" she exclaimed.

Eilyk did her best to laugh evilly. "You dare call my army weak, you impure Tyto scum? Come here, and I'll show you a Pure One's true strength!"

Accepting the challenge, Nyletak ran at her sister, leaping into the air to swipe a talon gently across her face. She aimed another swipe, but Eilyk ducked underneath the incoming talon, and wacked a wing at Nyletak, forcing her to the ground. Eilyk leaped on top of her sister with one foot on her chest, and another on her wing. Nyletak let out a ferocious screech before throwing Eilyk off, and leaping into the air. For a moment, she felt lighter, as if a current of air was lifting her up, and Nyletak could feel the terrifying thrill of battle. Then, she slammed onto the ground, forcing Eilyk to step back. Not waiting for Eilyk to react, Nyletak lowered her head, and rammed into her younger sister before she stepped out of the way. Nyletak lost her balance, and found herself against the wall of the hollow. Eilyk ran at her sister, her amber eyes bright with playfulness, and fake anger. Nyletak raised her claws as Eilyk leaped into the air, and caught her, pretending to jab her talons into Eilyk. Eilyk gasped, then closed her eyes, and fell to the floor, playing dead. 

Nyletak jumped to her feet, and raised her wings in triumph. "And as it was in the old ages," she said, "so it was in the new. The Guardians upheld their oath that night. They made strong the weak, and mended the broken, and when the sun shone again that morning, all could say that they had vanquished the evil!" Nyletak preached the words as Soren had told her in her dreams. She's seen the Battle of the Burning many times before, and it was one of her favorite stories at night, her favorite part being when Soren dives into the fire to light the torch, and blow up the flecks. She wondered if Eilyk was visited by Soren at night too, but doubted it.

When Nyletak finally finished her nightdreaming, she noticed her da, Wayne, standing at the entrance of the hollow with a mouse in his talons. Also, there was down everywhere, scattered all across the hollow. Nyletak suddenly felt embarrassed.

Wayne smiled. "Well, looks like we'll have to clean up again," he said good-naturedly. 

Nyletak looked at her wings. Her downy fluff had begun to molt, a sign that her flight feathers would be coming in, and she would soon be branching. Nyletak was ecstatic about learning how to fly, especially now since she could see the beginnings of her flight feathers through her fluff. Patches of golden feathers dappled her pure white fluff, and they were growing every day. 

Eilyk suddenly leaped to her feet, and began jumping up, and down. "When will I be ready to fly, Da?" she complained.

"Don't worry, Eilyk. You're time will come," Wayne said reassuringly.

Eilyk spun around to look at Nyletak, a smile on her beak. "Can you imagine that, Nyletak?" she asked. "When we learn how to fly, our play-fights will be even more fun!"

Nyletak opened her beak to agree, but before she could, her da interrupted her. "Now, don't go, and try to learn how before you're ready. A raccoon might get you. Or a wolf. Or a bat."

Nyletak shivered. She didn't like the way her da scared her, and Eilyk into not trying to learn how to fly before they were ready. Nyletak knew she wasn't ready, though she longed to spread out her wings, and fly into the stars with her family by her side, and maybe Soren if he felt like joining them. 

After a moment of silence, Wayne said, "Nyletak, come here."

Casting a nervous glance at Eilyk, Nyletak approached her da. Did I do something wrong? she wondered. She couldn't think of anything. She hadn't injured Eilyk like she did before when they were playing "War of the Ember". Nyletak had accidently made her sister bleed a couple of nights ago, but the scab was now hidden by her sister's fluffy down.

She looked up at her da, glad to see that he was smiling. "Tonight is your First Fur on Meat Ceremony," he announced.

Nyletak gasped in surprise. Already? she thought. It just felt like yesterday when she first tasted shrew meat with no fur or bones. Now, she was about to have her First Fur on Meat Ceremony. How exciting!

She turned her head away as Wayne began to de-bone the mouse. Though she enjoyed the taste, she didn't like seeing the creature get its bones ripped out. She witnessed it before during her First Meat Ceremony; she almost yarped a sad excuse for a pellet. After a couple of moments, Wayne pushed the limp body of the mouse toward Nyletak. She stared down at the meat curiously before finally ripping into it, feeling the fur tickle her tongue. Strangely, it was good! Nyletak buried her beak into the mouse to take another bite.

As she ate, she heard Eilyk complaining to Renae behind her, "Why can't I have my first Fur on Meat Ceremony?"

"Because your gizzard's not ready for that. Besides, you need to have your First Meat Ceremony first," Renae explained gently.

"When will that be?" Eilyk continued to whine.

Nyletak had to resist sighing. Ever since Nyletak's First Molt Ceremony a few days ago, Eilyk's been jealous that Nyletak was getting to do things first because she was the older sibling. Nyletak couldn't help that she was born first. That's just the way things were. Nyletak tried to make Eilyk feel better about being the younger sibling by giving her one of her own first flight feathers, reminding her that soon, Eilyk will be as big as Nyletak. She doesn't know where the feather is now, but assumed that it was in Eilyk's nest somewhere. 

Soon, within an hour after the ceremony, it was time for good light. Nyletak followed Eilyk to their room, calling "Good light!" to her parents over her shoulder. Nyletak climbed into her nest, and watched as Eilyk climbed into hers, which was across from Nyletak's right next to a drawing of the Forest Kingdom of Tyto. Nyletak drew that about a week ago so that she would never forget where her family came from. Eilyk was staring at it too. Nyletak smiled at her sister, glad to have such an amazing sibling.

As Nyletak began to cover herself in moss, which was a strange sleeping habit of hers, she heard Eilyk move in her own nest before asking, "Nyletak? Was there really such a place as Tyto?

Nyletak stared at her sister, trying to hide her astonishment. "Of course there was!" she exclaimed.

Eilyk blinked her big, orange eyes. "Where is it?" she asked.

Nyletak had to think about that for a moment. Soren hadn't exactly told her where Tyto was located, or how far it was from her home, the Kingdom of Arax. Arax was a pine forest like Tyto, so... "I dunno. It might be close though."

"Well, if it's close, why don't we just go there? Why don't we live where our family came from?"

Now, it was Nyletak's turn to blink. "Maybe it's too far for us since we can't fly. Maybe when we grow older, we'll move there. And if our parents don't want to go, then we'll go. Just you, and me. We'll find the hollow that Soren lived in, and we'll stay there for a while before heading out to Ga'Hoole, just like Soren."

Eilyk opened her beak wide in a huge yawn before closing her eyes, and turning away from Nyletak to sleep. "I hope so," she murmured, and Nyletak thought she heard her mumble something else, but she was too tired to ask what it was.

Nyletak turned away from her, and looked up at the drawing of the Great Tree by her nest. She smiled up at it, knowing that one day, she, and Eilyk will go there, and become Guardians just as their ancestor, Soren, did. 

As if the thought had summoned him, Nyletak sensed a presence in the room. She swiveled her head around to look at the back corner of her room. Sure enough, there he was, a tall, handsome golden-brown owl with brilliant golden eyes. He smiled at Nyletak, and Nyletak smiled back before turning away, and closing her eyes. Soren, show me the Battle of the Burning again, please? she asked him before she began to feel herself slip away into the void of sleep.

Black soot covered the rocky spires of The Beaks far below the Band as they soared quietly through the kingdom. Nyletak could see them as if she was there herself, yet she wasn't really there. She flew beside Soren, who was flying unevenly because of the single battle claw he wore. Nyletak could feel the danger in the air as if it was a branch hitting her in the face. The Pure Ones were near.

Suddenly, Digger gasped. "I see something," he whispered, and pointed at the ground with a talon. "There." Nyletak followed Soren's gaze, and recognized a Pure One's helmet surrounded by feathers. 

A heavy silence fell of the Band before Soren broke it. "We should check out that smoke," he suggested. 

Nyletak looked up as the owls rounded one of the spires. Not too far away, a tower of smoke climbed into the sky, and they were suddenly hit with an immense heatwave. A fire raged up ahead, threatening to engulf The Beaks. Nyletak followed as the Band swooped closer the ground so as not to be seen. There was evidence on the ground that the fire had been through here; some embers still glowed, and a few twigs were still alive with flame. When Nyletak looked up, she saw a blue haze of light that almost blocked out the red sky of The Beaks.

At the same time that Nyletak looked up, Gylfie's quiet voice sounded on Soren's other side. "Soren, look," she whispered, pointing at the blue light with her beak. A look of horror came across Soren's face when he saw the blue light.

They continued to fly down the ravine before turning the corner, and following an air current onto a stony cliff high above the rocky valley. Slowly, the Band approached the cliff, and looked down at the devestation. Nyletak followed, and felt grief pierce her gizzard when she saw the Guardians writhing on the ground, the tremendous power of the flecks digging into their gizzards. Across the valley, protected from the dangerous metallic pieces, was Metal Beak, his helmet reflecting the blue light like a dazzling star. Nyra stood beside him, her white feathers now almost sky blue.

"Well, we can't just leave them down there, writhing in pain," Twilight pointed out, breaking the silence that hung over the Band before adding, "Can we?"

"No, wait. You don't understand," Gylfie said. "When we were at St. Aggie's, we saw what those things could do to an owl. They do something terrible to your gizzard! Isn't that right, Soren?"

Nyletak swiveled her head in the direction of Soren. Instead of staring down into the valley where his heroes were suffering, he was observing the raging fire in the forest neighboring the valley with a thoughtful look on his face.

"Soren?" Gylfie asked, unsure as to what Soren was thinking of. Nyletak smiled. She remembered what was going to happen. 

Suddenly, a bloodcurdling screech ripped the air, piercing Nyletak's ears. She looked at Metal Beak and Nyra, who had raised her head, and was releasing a screech, the signal for the bats to come out, and bleed out the Guardians. Hundreds upon hundreds of bats streamed out of the stone spire, climbing into the sky like a black cloud, and filling the air with their high pitched screeches, and the leathery snaps of their wings. Nyletak felt dread begin to creep over her.

At the same time, Digger spoke up. "Uh... we've got bats inbound!" he exclaimed.

"Not to worry! I can down a hundred of those bloodsuckers!" Twilight boasted.

Digger shook his head slightly. "Uh... oh... H-how about a thousand?" he stuttered as the number of bats grew significantly larger within moments.

"Well, we won't find out sitting on our tail feathers, will we? Come on!" Twilight exclaimed, ready to head off into battle, but Gylfie blocked him, doing the best she could with her tiny wings. 

Nyletak realized that everyone was staring at Soren again. She turned her head, and saw a look of understanding on Soren's face. "Soren, what is it?" Twilight asked, concerned for his friend.

Nyletak knew the answer before Soren even said it. "The flames. That's it! I think I see a way to free the Guardians!" he exclaimed.

Shock came over the Band when they heard the words coming from Soren's beak. "No, Soren! You can't fly into fire!" Gylfie screeched.

"Listen, Gylfie. I need to trust my gizzard," Soren said reassuringly before turning to Twilight. "Twilight, can you take care of the bats?"

"Friend, I'll give you as much time as I can. But hurry, and be careful." With that, the massive Great Gray lifted into the air with an uncertain Digger and Gylfie following him. Nyletak longed to go with them, but she chose to stay with Soren, knowing that this was where the excitement happened. 

She watched as Soren flew up to another ledge where a torch hung from a jutting piece of stone. He pulled, and pulled, but to no avail. It was tied up to the stone. In the distance, Nyletak could hear Twilight begin his battle song.

"Into battle, we do fly!

No matter if we're going to die!

A nasty, scary death that hurts quite a lot,

Even if our wings are ripped clean off!"

Suddenly, snap! Using the battle claw on his foot, Soren cut the ropes that bound the torch, and instantly dropped under its weight, but managed to lift clumsily into the air. Nyletak followed him as Soren made his way over the raging fire that enveloped the poor forest below. Nyletak could feel Soren's urgency as if it were her own. She could hear Twilight, Gylfie, and Digger battling the bats as she, and Soren made their way to the heart of the fire. Soren suddenly slowed down, a thoughtful look on his face which slowly dissolved away. Nyletak felt her heart beat faster. This was her favorite part of the story!

Slowly, Soren leaned forward, and folded his wings, letting gravity pull him down to the fire. Nyletak followed, feeling the thrill of flight go through her. She flew side by side with Soren as they swooped beneath a falling tree, which nearly took off their tail feathers. Nyletak watched as a wave of fire leaped over them, arcing above their heads. Soren tilted a bit so that his wings met the arc, and his feathers were merely inches away from the fire. Nyletak smiled as she saw a dream-like look come across Soren's face. Slowly, he closed his eyes. Nyletak looked forward, and did the same, feeling as if she was being surrounded in a fiery euphoria. 

Suddenly, she heard the torch crackle as it caught fire, and her eyes flashed open at the same time as Soren's. The fire crashed down over the two Barn Owls, threatening to engulf them, but at that moment, the fire released a warm updraft, carrying Nyletak and Soren high above the valley. They hovered there, staring down at the devestating valley. Bats were now surrounding the Guardians, creeping closer, and closer, ready to bleed them out. The only one who could prevent this devestation was Soren, and Soren alone.

Suddenly, in a flash, Soren was plummeting down the cliff, the fire from the torch streaming behind him, turning him into a living comet. Nyletak folded her own wings, and followed her ancestor down to the valley below. Blue light engulfed her, and she could almost feel the flecks piercing her, but up ahead, Soren was struggling to stay steady, keeping his eyes fixed on the contraption that held the flecks in place. But he pulled through, and with a mighty battle cry, he spread his wings, swung his talons forward, and released the torch. A silence fell for what could've been two seconds or two moons before it was broken by a loud explosion, flinging bits of metal, and wood into the air. Nyletak watched, mesmerized until she was blinded by the fire.

Nyletak's eyes flashed open, silver moonlight flooding down into the hollow through the hole above her nest. It's been a week since her First Fur on Meat Ceremony. Tonight would be her First Bones Ceremony, and tomorrow, she would begin branching. Nyletak had completely molted her owlet fluff, and now possessed radiating golden feathers, and a pure white chest, untouched by any black specks. And her wings seemed to grow quite significantly. In her, and Eilyk's room, when she had them spread out, Nyletak's wings barely fit in the small space. Her parents had said that her wingspan would make her a better flier. And of course, Eilyk was jealous of that, because she still hadn't molted. Hopefully, she'll be in a better mood today because it was also Eilyk's First Meat Ceremony.

Suddenly, Nyletak remembered the dream she had last night, and also remembered that Eilyk hasn't heard the story of Hortense yet! Nyletak leaned toward her sister. Her breathing was strong. She wasn't sleeping, but she was trying to go back to sleep. 

Nyletak leaned closer, and whispered, "Psst, Eilyk. Hey, Eilyk! Wanna hear a story?" 

Eilyk shifted in her nest. "No," came the grumbled reply. 

Nyletak blinked in confusion. Her sister had never turned down a story before. "But it's a new story!" she exclaimed. "You haven't even heard of Hortense!"

"Don't care," Eilyk grumbled. "Now, let me sleep."

Taken aback by her sister's rudeness, Nyletak stepped out her nest, shaking moss from her tail feathers. Slowly, she stepped around the corner that lead to the main hollow where her parents slept in their nest. The nest was empty. They probably went hunting for something for my First Bones Ceremony, and Eilyk's First Meat Ceremony, she thought. Nyletak approached the edge of the hollow, and stared out over the forest, the Forest Kingdom of Arax. It was beautiful. Tall, towering pine trees blended into the sky which was grazed with stars. Silhouettes flitted through, and under the trees, and in the distance, Nyletak could hear a couple of owlets playing. Oh, how she longed to spread her wings, and fly over the forest just to hear every noise there is to hear. Tomorrow, Nyletak, she reminded herself. Tomorrow, you'll lift into the air for the first time...

Lost in her euphoric nightdreaming, Nyletak didn't notice her parents approaching until she could hear their wingbeats. Backing up a few paces to allow them inside, Nyletak noticed Eilyk standing behind her near the entrance to their room. Her expression was impossible to read. 

Nyletak's heart quickened with excitement when her parents landed in the hollow, Wayne with a mouse, and Renae with a shrew. Nyletak found herself eyeing the mouse. 

Their parents turned toward Nyletak and Eilyk, and smiled. "Well, here you go. And may I say," Wayne added, "that today is a very special day. Nyletak gets her first whole mouse, and Eilyk gets her first taste of shrew meat. Enjoy, my lovely little owlets!" With that, Wayne stepped back from the mouse while Renae skinned, and de-boned Eilyk's shrew.

Nyletak stepped forward eagerly, staring down at the mouse. Just what I was hoping for! she thought excitedly. Gentle, she grabbed it by the head, swallowing the mouse whole just as she had seen her parents doing. They said that swallowing prey whole, and head-first was a much more clean way to eat rather than tearing into the flesh. 

Nyletak heard a jealous sounding "Hmph" behind her before Eilyk walked up to her chunk of meat, and began to tear into it, the blood staining her beak. 

"Eilyk, you're making a mess!" Renae exclaimed. "Don't make your First Meat Ceremony messy! Swallow the meat whole; don't tear into it like a raccoon."

Nyletak tensed up for a moment, expecting Eilyk to snap at her mother, but instead, she just narrowed her eyes slightly, and did as her mother told her, doing her best to grab the meat, and swallow it whole like Nyletak. Nyletak watched as her sister gulped down the meal, staying eerily quiet the entire time. I hope she's not too jealous, she thought, knowing that in a few hours, she herself would have her First Pellet Ceremony. She could already feel her gizzard working on packing the bones, and fur together. 

Once Eilyk had finished her food, Nyletak remembered that she wanted to tell her the story of Hortense. "Do you wanna hear the story of Hortense now?"

Eilyk snapped her beak, the owl way of smacking lips. She stared off for a moment before sighing, and turning to Nyletak. "Sure," she said.

Nyletak smiled, excited to tell the story of Hortense, quoting the exact words that Soren told of the brave Spotted Owl. "She was an owl like none other... Her face both beautiful, and kindly, her deep brown eyes warm, and with a glimmer like tiny suns. Her wings, however, for one reason or another were crippled, and it was from this, her weakness, that she drew her great strength. For this was an owl who wanted only to do good, who clung to dreams of freedom while giving up her own, and, from a stony perch in a lawless place, she did find a way to wage her own war."

As Nyletak told the legend to her younger sister, she noticed her parents staring at her with both pride in confusion. Pride at the fact that Nyletak kept these almost forgotten stories alive, but confusion about how she came to know these words. What kind of owlet, who hadn't even begun branching, knew how to create such a beautiful introduction to a legend? Nyletak wished she could tell her parents about Soren's early morning visits, and the legends he shows her, but she knew that she never could. She just couldn't. 

"And so, to honor the great deeds that Hortense did, owlets all over Ambala became her namesake, be they boy or girl. Hortense, however, had long since disappeared. But eventually, reports of strange sightings of a scroom began to spread across Ambala. This scroom was described to be a Spotted Owlet, but others claimed it to be a miniature Spotted Owl. In reality, this was no scroom... that is, if it was the living scroom of Hortense: Mist." As Nyletak finished the legend, an image passed through her head briefly. It was of a Spotted Owl, her lucious brown feathers now a water vapor gray. With her, in a nest high in the mountains of Ambala, were two Bald Eagles, and two Flying Snakes. Nyletak could pick out every one of them by name: Hortense, or rather Mist, Streak, his tongueless mate, Zan, Slynella, and her mate, Stingyll. They seemed so real when she saw them in her dreams, and she longed to meet them. But she would have to wait until she went to Glaumora before she could. 

When she finally brought her story to an end, Nyletak noticed for the first time the way that Eilyk was staring at her. For the entire time she had been talking, Eilyk had this blank stare on her face as if she was barely paying attention to Nyletak at all. For the first time, Nyletak began to realize that Eilyk was changing. She used to jump for joy when Nyletak told her new stories. Now, she seemed... almost uninterested.

After a moment, Eilyk finally spoke. "I don't get it," she said. "How do little tiny bits of metal cause deformities among owls? That seems unlikely."

Nyletak blinked. "Because the magnetic energy gets inside of the eggs, either deforming the owl, or giving them unusual gifts."

Eilyk shook her head. "It all seems strange to me," she said in a quiet voice.

Nyletak did her best to contain her shock. Strange? Unlikely? Eilyk has never questioned anything in the legends until now. Why is she doing this? What's causing her behavior?

Over the next few hours, Nyletak tried to get Eilyk to play with her. She managed to do so, convincing Eilyk to play "The Rescue" with Nyletak as Soren, of course, and Eilyk as Eglantine. While Nyletak was enthusiastic, and into character as she always was, Eilyk was boring, not putting emphasis into her roll as Eglantine. By the time they were going to start play fighting, Eilyk left, saying she was tired. 

Nyletak swiveled her head around to look outside. The moon was barely beginning to set. "But it's not even tween time!" she exclaimed. 

Eilyk ignored her, but she did come out about an hour later, right before good light, when Nyletak yarped up her first pellet. 

When it finally popped out of Nyletak's beak, she stood there, gasping for air while staring down at her pellet. Her throat hurt from stretching out so that the pellet could escape. Her parents stood beside her while Eilyk stood at the entrance to her, and Nyletak's room. 

After a moment, Renae spoke. "Well, look at that. There it is! Your first pellet."

"And a perfect one, too," Wayne added. "That means your gizzard's nice, and healthy."

Nyletak felt proud of herself, but was still trying to breathe. When she finally caught her breath, her first words were, "My throat hurts."

Renae churred. "Yes, it'll be like that the first few times, but congratulations!"

"Yes, well done, indeed," Wayne added.

Nyletak smiled, and looked at her parents, thankful they were so wonderful.

But her happiness dissolved when Eilyk said, "I don't see why it's such an accomplishment. If yarping pellets is natural for owls, why celebrate it?"

Her parents turned to her with wide eyes as if they couldn't believe what she said. "The first pellet is a mark in an owlet's childhood. It symbolizes growing up as does branching," Wayne explained with a sharp tone in his voice.

Eilyk glanced at the pellet, and shrugged before complaining, "When do I get my first mouse?"

"For the last time, Eilyk, you won't be able to have your First Bones Ceremony until you're Nyletak's age," Renae snapped. "I'm sorry, but that's the way it is."

Eilyk glared at her mother for a moment, her orange eyes sparking, before stomping back into the room. Nyletak stared after her younger sister. She didn't understand why she was so erratic, and stubborn. Nyletak tried to be a good big sister, but Eilyk seemed to be acting as if she was the older sister, as if she was trying to control Nyletak. A pit opened up in Nyletak's heart. What did I do wrong?

After an awkward moment of silence, Wayne finally said, "Here, I'll bury this at the roots of the tree. It'll help keep it healthy." Slowly, he grabbed the pellet with his talons, and leaped out of the hollow. 

Nyletak thought about asking her mother why Eilyk was acting this way, but instead, she decided against it, knowing that if Eilyk heard, it would make her worse. She approached the edge of the hollow, and leaned out, her talons gripping the bark. She was barely conscious of her da when he appeared again, and slipped past her into the hollow. Nyletak just stared up at the starry sky, wondering what she did wrong. Slowly, she closed her eyes, hoping that Soren would show her something that might help with the situation.

After a moment of quiet, an image played before her eyes. It was Soren and Eglantine in their nests. Eglantine's eyes were wide as her older brother told her of the Battle of the Ice Claws. He was just wrapping up the story. "And then, they returned home, to the Great Tree of Ga'Hoole." Soren spoke in a whispery, dreamy voice. 

"Wow," Eglantine breathed. Nyletak smiled when she saw Eglantine. Eilyk used to be like that...

Soren continued. "But some say the evil king still lives, and wears a metal mask to hide his missing beak." 

Mesmerized by Soren's great story-telling voice, Nyletak nearly jumped when she heard a voice shout, "Stop!" Soren and Eglantine turned to look at their older brother. Kludd was in his nest opposite the room with his back to his siblings. "You're gonna give her daymares."

"But this is my favorite part!" Eglantine exclaimed.

Kludd rolled his eyes. "I know. We've heard it a thousand times!" he pointed out with a scornful voice. He turned toward them, and rested his amber glare on Soren. "Look, you've got a soft head, Soren. I think Da has filled it with stories, and dreams."

Nyletak felt anger rush inside her when she heard Kludd say this, and nearly yelled in agreement when Soren calmly said, "There's nothing wrong with dreams."

"Well, that's the difference between us, brother. I have mine when I'm asleep. Now, would you just go to sleep?"

Soren stared at his brother with confusion in his eyes. Nyletak widened her eyes when she realized what Soren was trying to tell her: Eilyk was turning out to be like Kludd. But why? What did Nyletak do to make her sister like this?

Calm flooded through her when she saw Eglantine press herself against Soren, and say sleepily, "Soren, Da says that dreams are who we are." 

Nyletak felt slightly reassured when she saw Eglantine and Soren together, two dreamers outcasted by their brother. They had each other, but Nyletak had no one. Her parents weren't telling the stories as often as they used to, and Eilyk was growing further from Nyletak. Nyletak only had Soren's scroom, but not a living owl. She sighed as the image disappeared, and she opened her eyes to the present again. 

Nyletak was nearly jumping out of her feathers. Tonight was the night, the night she's been looking forward to since the moment she hatched: her First Branching Ceremony. She stood in the hollow, waiting for her da to come back from hunting, and she was nearly shaking her flight feathers out. Her mum stood beside her, pride in her green eyes. 

"Remember to listen to your da whenever he gives you instructions, and do exactly as you're told. And just because you're learning how to branch doesn't mean you get to try to fly when you're not ready." Renae was rambling off on all the rules she could think of.

Nyletak rolled her eyes good-naturedly; she knew that her mum was just worried about her. "Mum, it's fine. You know I'd never try that," she said reassuringly.

Renae sighed, and blinked. "You're right. Sorry. And don't worry. With that wingspan of yours, you'll be an exemplary flier."

Nyletak felt herself blush as her mum praised her. Just at that moment, Wayne flew in with a couple of mice for Renae. Placing them on the floor, he turned to Nyletak, and said, "You ready?"

Nyletak jumped. "Ready as I'll ever be!" she exclaimed. Her heart was pounding. This would be the first time she ever stepped out of the hollow. It was going to be grand! "Mum, do you think I'll be as good a flier as Soren was?" she asked.

Renae smiled. "You know, the legends say that he could fly upside-down in a thunderstorm!" she said.

"Really?" Nyletak gasped. Soren never showed me that!

Suddenly, Eilyk appeared from the room. "Flying upside-down? Isn't that impossible?" she asked.

"Well, no owl has tried it since the old ages, but legend has it that Soren could fly through almost anything in any sort of manner. Even backwards," Renae explained.

"I wanna do that!" Nyletak exclaimed, wondering what it would be like to fly backwards through the forest. The first word that came to her mind when she thought of that was confusing

Eilyk huffed. "But no one knows for sure if Soren really could do that," she pointed out. "After all, it's just a myth."

"It is not!" Nyletak exclaimed, dumbfounded as to how her sister could think that. The image with Kludd from yesterday was still in her head, and it made her scared for her sister.

Eilyk quieted down, but glared at Nyletak as she stepped to the edge of the hollow. Outside, her da said, "Come on, Nyletak. We don't have all night."

Nyletak ducked out of the hollow, and tentatively stepped onto the branch outside. Instantly, her worries about her sister disappeared. Her blue eyes widened when she looked down. Far below her, the ground was shrouded in darkness. New noises flooded toward Nyletak, and were so overwhelming that she nearly lost her balance.

"Nyletak!" her da snapped from where he was standing on the end of the branch.

Shaking her head, Nyletak made her way toward her father, growing more tense as the branch grew thinner until at last she was standing beside Wayne. 

Immediately, he began to lecture. "Now, as you know, owls are reknown for their silent flight. Eventually, you'll learn how to fly without making even the slighest feather ruffle. Now to start off, you're going to fly to that branch over there. Don't worry about the noise..."

Nyletak was barely paying attention. She had her eyes on the branch that her da was talking about. It wasn't too far away, but it wasn't too close either, and was slightly lower than the branch she was standing on. Nyletak could feel the air beckoning for her, urging her to just jump. She looked at the branch, and saw a flash of golden-brown feathers. Soren was waiting for her. Without hesitation, Nyletak jumped, and spread her wings. Expecting to fall, Nyletak nearly panicked, but when she felt the air cushion around her wings, she felt as if nothing could be better than this. Not stirring a wing, Nyletak glided down to the branch, landing perfectly.

Her da was beside her almost instantly. "That was lovely, Nyletak! Good work!" he praised. "Now, do that a few more times, and we'll wrap up your first night."

Nyletak smiled, and nodded in determination. She swiveled her head around, and spotted a good branch directly across the one she just landed on. She crouched down a bit, wanting to make a good jump. Then, she leaped, and spread her wings once more, feeling the air surround her, and carry her toward the branch. This was a bit further away, so Nyletak had to flap her wings a bit before she landed successfully. 

She kept at this as she went around the entire tree, taking her time leaping from branch to branch. Each time she jumped, she felt much more confident about what she was doing, growing used to jumping, and spreading her wings, and each time she jumped, Nyletak knew that Soren was beside her, guiding her around the tree. She was glad that he was here with her. 

At last, when Nyletak went completely around the tree, her da called to her, "Okay, that's enough, Nyletak. Time to come inside."

Nyletak stood on the branch, panting, and her heart racing inside her chest. Disappointment flooded through her. Already? It feels like I just started! As Nyletak waited for her da to get to her so he could carry her back to the hollow above her, she felt the urge to spread her wings once more. Looking upward, she saw a good branch above her head. It wasn't that high. Maybe...

"Nyletak, don't do that," Wayne warned. He was making his way toward Nyletak, and was just a few wingspans away, but Nyletak barely heard him. She wanted to. She wanted to do it so badly.

She gave in. Ignoring a yell from her father as he landed on the same branch, Nyletak jumped as high as her legs would allow her, and began flapping her wings rather well. She felt the thrill of flying course through her as she lifted upward, and landed on the branch.

Wayne fluttered up beside her, and stared at her with wide eyes. "That was incredible!" he exclaimed. "Usually, owlets don't learn how to do that until their final branching nights. But you did it all on your own. Congratulations!"

Nyletak did her best to smile while she was still trying to catch her breath. Her wings really were coming in handy. She hadn't realized just how powerful her wings were until she performed that takeoff. 

By the time Nyletak got back to the hollow, the sun was rising, turning the sky pink. Nyletak couldn't wait to tell about her first branching! Leaping into the hollow, she exclaimed, "That was amazing!" 

Renae looked up from where she was preparing the nest for sleep. "I'm glad you think so. And it'll get better," she added. "By the time you know how to fly, it'll be the greatest feeling in the world."

Nyletak gave a little jump of joy. Real flight... sounded euphoric. Nyletak could just imagine it, flying among the stars glittering in the sky. She couldn't wait to tell Eilyk!

Racing into the room, and leaping into her nest, Nyletak woke Eilyk. The smaller owlet grunted, and turned her head toward her older sister, her amber eyes groggy. "Really, Nyletak? Must you make that much noise?" she complained.

Nyletak ignored her complaining. "Eilyk, it was amazing! I just spread my wings, jumped, and woosh! I was gliding through the tree. I even managed to do a takeoff that owlets don't learn how to do until their final branching days, but I did it!"

Eilyk rolled her eyes, and stretched her wings. "That's great, Nyletak," she said in a low voice.

Nyletak froze, realizing too late what she had done. She had been so pumped up about her first branching that she forgot how easily Eilyk could get jealous. Taking a deep breath, Nyletak tried to reassure her sister. "Sorry, Eilyk. I didn't mean to rub it in. But believe me, when you start branching, there's no other feeling like it. I know you'll enjoy it!"

Eilyk didn't respond. She had her back turned, and her beak tucked into her chest. Sighing, Nyletak dipped her head so that her beak touched her chest feathers. Although confusion about her sister's behavior still boggled her mind, she was filled with excitement about learning how to fly. The sense of adventure bloomed inside Nyletak's heart, and as she slept, she could almost feel the air carrying her through the clouds in a first flight.