This week's suggestion is from Alexandria:
It would be Oxford, he thought, to unwittingly discover the ultimate threat to life itself. Only those who thought themselves the best learned revealed themselves as the worst of fools.
Barnabas ghosted over the campus, ignoring the sounds of the revelry drifting up as a greeting. His pinions throbbed with effort and he blinked in the dawning moonlight. It was very early for an owl, after all. Through bleary vision, he sought the name of the great university library. Circling down, he allowed himself a small peep of relief as his talons gripped the domed exterior, his wings folding to his sides.
He never expected it would happen during his lifetime. As the latest Keeper, he was, of course, well-versed in the protocols and procedures and he followed them to the letter, but he certainly never imagined himself to be carrying them out on a mild summer’s night. They had always been theoretical, pure hypothetical practice. He was far too young for such a heavy burden, but he wasn't about to let his parents and the legacy down. Besides, it was the whole world at stake and that was quite enough to stiffen his resolve.
Careful, cautious, he hopped down to the window ledge and peered inside. Just as suspected, the brick had been removed. Despite the foreknowledge, Barnabas felt his heart sink. He had hoped against hope that this had been some sort of false alarm or trick. It was unheard of for such a thing to happen, but he hadn't been able to quell the idea that perhaps this wasn't real. The dark shadows whispered to him from inside the alcove.
This was real.
Barnabas heaved a great sigh and spread his wings once more. He strained upwards against the burgeoning twilight, chasing updrafts across the patchwork earth. The moon had just fully emerged from the horizon when Barnabas reached the old, abandoned dormitory. He navigated through the cracked window with practiced ease and inhaled the musty smell that took him back to his childhood. He felt a pang at the thought that it could all be gone in a blink of an eye. The beams overhead were warped and broken. The floors were blanketed in a thick layer of dust. Barnabas took it all in.
What he failed to notice was the girl standing at the end of the room, her back to the owl. Neither one realizing the other’s movements, the girl turned to walk, her path crossing directly into the owl’s flight. They crashed together with cries of surprise and pain.
Barnabas was the first to recover, flapping and hopping to his feet. “Humph, humph!” he muttered, eyeing her suspiciously. “What the devil are you doing here?”
“Barnabas!” the girl exclaimed. “I'm so glad to see you!”
“I can’t say as I feel the same,” grumped the owl. “I have business to attend to.”
“I’m here to help with that,” she said.
The owl’s yellow eyes blinked. “It’s owl business,” he said as he spread his wings. “Don’t interfere.”
The girl folded her arms across her chest. “Dear Barnabas, you don't actually think you can get rid of me so easily, do you?”
Barnabas lowered his wings. “Humph,” he said. “I had hoped. This is not for the likes of you.” He began to walk away.
“Is it because of the Quill?”
Barnabas froze. The girl’s dulcet voice was sweet but the words she uttered carried a weight that could not be brushed off. He turned. “Genevieve, how did you know?”
Genevieve ignored the question. “It's gone, isn't it?”
“How do you-?”
“I know who took it,” she said simply.
Genevieve stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing. Barnabas harrumphed. “I'm sorry, Barnabas, but there is something terribly funny about hearing an owl ask ‘Who?’ in everyday speech.” Another laugh burst from her lips.
The owl ruffled his feathers. “This is no laughing matter. If someone has the Quill, it means he or she knows what it is and we are all in danger.”
“I know the dangers and it's worse than you think,” said Genevieve.
“Then tell me. Who took the Quill?” Barnabas asked her. When she hesitated, he stepped toward her and clicked his beak. The sound echoed in the drafty room.
Genevieve lowered her eyes. “Westerly.”
Barnabas flapped his wings in shock, stirring dust into the air and making her cough. He forced himself to calm down. “Westerly is dead.”
“No, he’s not.”
Barnabas spoke in his gentlest tone. “Genevieve, I know you want to believe that, but Westerly has been gone for thousands of years. It would be impossible-” He broke off, realizing.
Now, Genevieve looked at him. “Yes.”
“He wrote it.”
“How could you possibly know that?” Barnabas returned.
“I did tell you that I was hunting someone.”
“Yes, but you never said it was Westerly! All these years and you’ve never told me a name!”
“I didn’t want you to worry,” Genevieve told him.
“Didn’t you think this was important for the Keeper to know?”
“You only told me you were the Keeper a half a year ago,” she pointed out.
“You could have told me then,” he retorted. “Have you called the dragons?”
“There are no more dragons,” said Genevieve bitterly. “Without our true forms there is nothing we could do. You must call the owls.”
Barnabas’ beak clacked. “I don’t know if I can.”
Genevieve clenched her fists, tears in her eyes. “You must.” Just for a moment, her eyes glowed gold, revealing her dragon heritage.
Barnabas could hardly deny her. He took to the air, causing another cloud of dust. He flew out of the room and across the hall to the tower staircase, a string of coughing letting him know that Genevieve was close behind him. He noted that the stone archway had moss growing on it as he passed underneath. Some of the stairs were missing; the ones that were left were rotted, but this was no problem for the owl. He took to the center of the tower and flew straight upward. He could hear Genevieve climbing the rotted stairs after him as best she could, but she was no match for him. Despite the many years of friendship he shared with her, he could not wait for her to catch up. Someone had the Quill and there was only one thing that Barnabas could think to do, which was to follow the protocol.
He reached the top of the tower and there it was, sitting next to the entranceway: the statue of Athena. The years had been kind; it was still the pristine marble it had been when it was first carved. Barnabas landed before it and looked up. Athena appeared to be gazing back down at him, her lifeless eyes full of…something. Anger? Admonition? Warning? Barnabas couldn’t tell. He tore his gaze from hers and forced himself to look at the bare shoulder where once her owl had sat.
Genevieve was calling his name over and over. “Barnabas, call them!”
Barnabas tried to tune her out. He kept his focus on Athena’s shoulder, gathering his nerve. Finally, he launched awkwardly into the air and hovered above the statue’s head for a moment. Slowly, carefully, he did what no owl had done in over three thousand years.
He landed on Athena’s shoulder.
The statue began to hum. The vibration traveled out from the heart of Athena to her outer limbs. It rumbled through Barnabas, making his feathers fluff out, but he wouldn’t let go. He could feel the call going out across the world, striking through the heart of every owl as the spirit of Athena’s owl moved them, asking for their help. It grew until it was almost painful and Barnabas could hardly take it anymore.
Then, suddenly, it stopped.
Barnabas blinked. The tower was gone. The statue now stood on a turret, the open sky before him and it was filled with millions of owls. Many of them looked surprised, but none more so than Barnabas himself.
“What is the meaning of this?” a grizzled snowy owl demanded.
Barnabas took a deep breath. “Brothers and Sisters,” he said, “I bring you grave news, but before you can comprehend the severity, I must tell you the story that has been secret to our kind since the dawn of the Golden Age.
“In the time of the Greeks, the gods were kind and cruel, fair and homely, wise and foolish. The wisest and fairest of all of the gods was the mighty Athena. She was daughter only to Zeus, the king of all gods, for she sprang, fully-formed, from his head. She was born of thoughts and, being fashioned so, was a cerebral deity. Many of you know this part of the story.
“Athena chose, for her companion, an owl. The owl that kept her counsel and her secrets. Athena’s sacred owl was so cherished and beloved that we dare not speak his name. Though not the progenitor of our kind, he is the most recognized, the most powerful, the most magical.
“It is from this owl that the Quill was crafted. A feather from his left wing, bequeathed by the owl to Athena and bestowed with the wisdom of the ages and power of making true the thoughts of the wielder. The Quill of Making was given by Athena to some of the greatest writers of history, but always under the careful guide of the nine Muses.
“The Quill was famed throughout the lands and writers aspired to be worthy of writing just one sentence with it. Yet, the Quill of Making caught the attention of others as well: kings and queens, czars and presidents. The one who held the Quill would indeed prove mightier than the one who held the sword. Wars were fought. Crusades were started. Dark times descended upon the earth and the gods grew bored with human affairs. Even Athena grew lackadaisical in her keeping of the Quill and the sacred owl, concerned for the fate of our world, gathered a conclave of four to bind the Quill of Making from being used ever again and hide it in a secret alcove: a dragon, an owl, a man, and a whale. Before it was bound, the man, Westerly, was the last one to hold it in his hand. He used the Quill to write its own memory out of existence, wiping knowledge of it from every creature on the Earth except for those of the conclave.
“As it was an owl who had given the feather for the crafting of the Quill, it was decided that an owl should be the Keeper. My ancient ancestor was chosen as Keeper. He, alone of our race, knew the story of the Quill of Making and he passed it down to his child. And so it has passed from generation to generation. Whether this has happened in the other races, I cannot say. The pureblood dragons were forced into human form long ago and the whales keep to themselves. Man is not to be trusted.
“It is not only the story that is the secret of the Keeper. Should anything happen to the Quill, the Keeper is charged with calling to arms the race of owls so that we might return what has been taken. That charge has since passed down to me. I regret to inform you that the Quill of Making has been stolen. I have been told that it was Westerly himself who stole it and I fear what he may do with it. We must find him and capture him before he ends us all.”
A stunned silence followed this speech.
It was ultimately broken by a thin voice that belonged to a pygmy owl. “How do we know he hasn’t used it yet?”
Genevieve chose that moment to burst from the trapdoor onto the turret. The owls all readied for attack, but Barnabas called out to them. “No! She is a friend! A dragon in human form.”
The girl spoke in a loud, clear voice. “Westerly cannot use the Quill of Making until he removes the binding on it. The bindings on it are long and complicated, but the wizard has had a long time to prepare. It will not take too long for him to perform the unbinding. We must find him before he succeeds!”
“Spread out, my brothers and sisters,” said Barnabas. “Search high and low and when he is found, call out to me. I will hear you through Athena’s statute.”
“What will we do with him?” a burrowing owl inquired.
Genevieve smiled. “You leave that to me.”
“GO!” Barnabas commanded, his voice much stronger than he felt inside. The owls scattered to the winds. Genevieve raised her hand to stroke him. “Don’t touch me!” he cried. She jerked back, hurt. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what would happen to you if you touched me while I sit on Athena’s shoulder.”
Genevieve simply nodded and the two old friends watched the skies. The moon climbed higher and higher and there was no word. Barnabas strained to listen for any small peep that meant victory, but the silence was overwhelming. Still, neither of them spoke, each lost in a mixture of fearful thoughts. The moon had almost reached its zenith when a voice shook the statue.
“He is here!”
Barnabas shrieked with righteous anger and zeroed in on the location. “The library!” he cried to the owls. “He is back in the library where the Quill was kept!” Genevieve was already heading for the stairs, but Barnabas launched himself off the statue and grabbed her thin arms in his feet. She gave a little squeak as her feet left the turret and they went winging down toward the library. Barnabas had underestimated his exhaustion and though adrenaline brought them into the air, it was not an easy landing. Girl and owl crashed to the ground in a twisting of limbs. Although he was bruised, Barnabas was not severely hurt and he hopped up, anxiously checking on his companion. Genevieve, apparently, had the same thought, and the two of them spoke at the same time.
“Are you alright?”
They took off for the library.
The scene that greeted them inside was bedlam. A tornado of owls were swirling around a middle-aged man in tattered robes and stockinged feet, holding a book in one hand and feathered quill in the other. Even at this distance, Barnabas could feel the power humming from the Quill of Making. He flew directly at Westerly, but as he got close, he was suddenly shunted off to the side. The man was laughing.
“Did you really think I would start the unbinding spell and leave myself unprotected?” He gestured to the circle he had drawn around him, which was emanating a pale yellow light. “You are all fools! When I have the Quill of Making unbound once more, the world will be to my liking!”
“There is nothing we can do,” said Barnabas.
“There is something I can do,” Genevieve told him.
“You said that the dragons are helpless in human form.”
“We are.” She sounded a little sad as she strode forward to meet the wizard, stopping just outside the circle. “Westerly, the Quill of Making was not for the likes of you or anyone else.”
“And who are you?” Westerly sneered.
“I am Genevieve d’Yncytri.”
“D’Yncytri? That’s a dragon name.” Westerly laughed again. “Are you one of those sad, castrated dragons forced into human form?”
“We are free to shed this form any time we like,” Genevieve told him.
“To do so is to die,” said Westerly. “You would never do such a thing.” Yet, there was a quaver in his voice.
“To protect the world I love?” Genevieve’s body was already starting to blur. “I would do that and more.” She stepped forward through the yellow light and her skin, muscle, and bone melted away, becoming pure etheric energy. Barnabas saw Genevieve for the first time as what she truly was and she was beautiful.
Westerly shrieked as the dragon wrapped herself around him, swallowing him up in violet light. Her golden eyes turned toward Barnabas. “Goodbye, my old friend. Keep it safe.”
“I will,” he promised, and he knew that she meant more than the Quill.
She meant the world.
There was a burst of light contained by Westerly’s magical field and then both of them were gone. The owls had all gone silent. Barnabas wanted to cry for the loss of his friend, but there were important things to do. He walked over and picked up the Quill of Making in his beak.
The owls watched him bring the Quill to the alcove where it had slept, undisturbed for thousands of years. He carefully placed it inside and pushed the stone back into place.
“The last dragon and man to know of the Quill of Making have gone from this world. I charge you, upon your honor as owls, to keep the secret for all generations to come. Upon your own feathers, make the solemn oath.”
The sound of millions of owls hooting rang through the library. Barnabas nodded and led the way out of the library and up into the night. The owls ghosted on the night breezes to surround the turret. Barnabas carefully brought himself to land on Athena’s shoulder once more. For some reason, it wasn’t as scary this time. He turned to his race.
“I thank you all,” he said simply. The owls hooted once more.
Athena began to rumble again. Barnabas closed his eyes against the sudden onslaught. It shook him to his very bones. Just when he thought he could no longer stand it, it stopped. He opened his eyes to see the tower surrounding him once more. The owls were all gone and he was alone.
He lowered his head and wept.
A hand stroked his feathered head and he jerked up, half expecting to see Genevieve standing there smiling at him. His heart sank. There was no one there. It took a moment for him to realize that if there was no one in the room with him, then the hand must have been…
He turned his head and Athena was staring back at him. Her eyes were still filled with that emotion and her mouth was twisted into a sad smile. It was then that he knew what the emotion was.
It was empathy.