From Marshal To Guardian, Part One: The Crossing

In Which We Meet Irvis, For Another Time

Northern-Ambala, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 1:20 a.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

The night whizzed by as the yesterday had already turned into tomorrow - which, all in all, could easily have been classified as today - the stars still shining bright and clearly on the undisturbed night sky, although they were hardly able to compete with the - almost - moon, covering everything in with its majestic light, painting the whole world in a silvery-gray tinge. It was close to one-in-the-morning, in fact, it had probably gone past it; Markson was unable to give an accurate guess - he has lost his sense of time since he has been... „thrown" into this world.

The early evening, the night, and the dawn-time aurora; all of these were the times when these nocturnal creatures - only known as owls - would usually rise and live out their potential; commonly known facts by everyone, which should not earn a special reaction or amazement from anyone.

Albeit that he was the same (and, maybe he even knew a bit more), Chris could not help, but keep his eyes wide open, which appeared to be sticked onto the peculiar sight in front of him: a half-marshland, half-forest situated ahead of him, dotted around with taller and shorter trees, keeping a unique randomness to the whole of the Forest of Ambala, a name that the ex-marshal still could not quite remember when asked about, even after the twentieth mention of it.

The wind created by the air's resistance and friction kept drying his eyes clean, causing that familiar minor stinging feeling (which was hardly pain) that anyone would have easily recognised; and yet, despite the discomfort, Barnes held himself up straight, ignoring the ocular irritation, scanning across the unbelievably beautiful and - almost - un- and surreal landscape that was laid out all around him.

Never in his life he had gazed upon such a sight; he was so perplexed by the beauty that he had even forgotten that, in the current moment, he was at least ten meters above sea level, an uncomfortable height, especially for someone like him.

- Five minutes 'til landing! - shouted an owl from somewhere that was, at this current moment, invisible to Chris; he was nowhere near comfortable to look around and to locate the speaker. Instead, he did the easiest of all deeds: nothing.

Although it was only a few minutes until their final arrival, Markson began to ignore both the altitude and the forest's sight ahead of him, and ventured into a personal flashback; back to the point while he still had feet („talons", however, would be a more fitting word) on the ground - on a few branches and the bark, at least.

The time when Valery was explaining the point of this whole trip they taking to him; minutes before the ex-marshal has almost threw up, due to his extreme levels of adrenaline that were induced by pure stress, and, partially, fear.

40 minutes earlier...

Arrival and Take-Off Branches, Great Ga'Hoole Tree, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 0:40 a.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

- ...So you are saying that, after all the hostility and non-existent assistance I have showed towards most of you owls I have met, my presence was requested at some type of... „crime-scene"? - asked the confused and surprised Barnes from Valery at the entrance and exit point of the library; the female owl has apparently expected him to process a massive amount of the newly acquired information in a matter of seconds. Evidently, the ex-marshal have failed at this, thus, his female companion saw that repeating her sentence in a slower and more informative way would be rather... profitable, especially if she had wanted Barnes to comprehend of what she was attempting to explain - at least before the sun began to rose. That would have been satisfyingly convenient.

- Fine, I will repeat it for another time... - began Valery, this accompanied with a sigh, although, at this very point, Markson was not caring to listen anymore; but let us not believe that this was from sheer rudeness, what reason would the ex-marshal would have had for such an action, anyway?

No; Chris was just, simply, focusing on other matters at that time, matters that have been grinding in his brain for the past few minutes. The so-called facts and tales that book was talking about - the ones that were frightfully similar to those of what the ex-marshal thought them to be.

„Where the hell am I?", questioned Markson himself, however, obviously, no one (not even his own self) has gave an answer; „If this is reality, and if this is not my world, then where am I?". He could have kept on trying, but he swiftly recognised the fact that the probability of receiving any type of response was near zero - if it was not the number that represented the word „nothing" itself.

If he would have wished to construct a solid conclusion from all the evidence that was gatherable from that old volume, Barnes would have went along with the idea that this was just a weird coma-dream - interestingly enough, some parts of his brain were still stuck at this part of processing everything around him, thus, this is a theory to be ignored.

It was clear that this „Strix Otulissa" was referring to humans when she had started to describe those „creatures without feather or fur, who have used to walk on two legs"; it was rather obvious, especially to someone, who had - now only formerly - belonged to that species (this being our ex-marshal here, clearly).

Still, the section that has caused an extreme shock and fright to Markson was that this long-deceased owl has mentioned that these... „Others", or whatever they were called, became, due to a few unknown circumstances, became extinct (however, here, Barnes could have practised a bit more respect, taking that he was, currently, talking about humans; then again, we know that he was conversing with himself about his own kind - he could not possibly have been entirely sure on that matter). How on Earth could humanity has become extinct? Two days ago, there were no problems, everyone was alive, unless...

Unless that lighting bolt that has struck down the aircraft was a... modest pre-warning for the soon-occuring apocalypse; but then again, Markson was not a fan of such ideologies - supernatural powers destroying life as we know it, the world's ending in a predicted analysis; if anything, he laughed at them, although, at the same time, maintained the respect for those who have truly believed in such events or phenomenon.

„No - such things do not happen. Especially not without proper foreshadowing", he had thought bitterly, reluctant about the main idea in its whole.

Yet, what he had read was rather daunting; of what he has understood from the text, there were still remnants of buildings and structures that could be found world-wide (whatever size or discovered landmass that was), signaling the subsistence of a once prospering and growing civilisation.

Plus, there was that other piece of information, the two - what is more, three - names; William Shakespeare, Ray Bradbury, and, most significantly, Elizabeth II, the current Head of the Commonwealth. If these were not enough evidence to prove that that book was most assuredly alluding towards humanity itself, Markson would have - personally - jumped off the edge, and would have voluntarily plummeted to his definite and inevitable death. This was the amount of how much he had settled with his idea that he was correct - and, although, once again, he could not have known that at this point, but he was, de facto, correct: this was about humans, however, Chris was not sure if the significance of this fact here was either enormous, or nugatory - a value that he would have required for further mental processing.

Then, since the previously mentioned information was currently not accessible, Barnes gave up with his lines of thought about that old tome, and closed down the conversation with one final, yet certainly decisive note: once he is back from... „Bamala", or, whatever it was, his first doing will be to have a nice and long private-conversation with Felias, or, now also known as by Chris as the „son of someone whom he did not have a great relationship with"; it was dirty play, but, if this would lead the ex-marshal to further information and knowledge about his current situation, he was the most willing to take the risk.

Hitherto, Markson was deeply buried in his own and personal thoughts, however; after coming to the realisation that, for yet another time, someone was calling out his name - repeatedly, at that - the ex-marshal has snapped his head up, as if he had just awoke from a dream of horroristic realisations.

- ...Markson? Are you even listening to me? - it required two seconds for Chris to recognise the voice, as he had heard it enough times by now; in addition, Valery was the only one who has, apparently, knew his genuinely real name.

- Hm? - asked back the mildly disoriented Barnes, shaking his head, as if that would have cleared out his skull from all the residue of his previous line-of-thought; lucidly, this should not have worked. This was why it did not - Sorry, uh, what were you saying again? I got a bit carried away - admitted the ex-marshal with a minor embarrassment and shame displayed on his beaked face - What are we doing Bamala...

- Ambala - whispered Valery as discreetly as humanly (or, in this case, avianly) accomplishable, not attracting a single glance from any of the owls that were passing next to them, this being in a massive contrast with Chris' false pronunciation; however, to shorten this story down, let us just state that, when the word „Bamala" came out from Markson's beak, not only one head turned towards him.

- Okay, my apologies - intervened the ex-marshal, then carried on with his original plan of a statement - So, what are we doing in Ambala again? - as a reaction to this, Valery's orange-tinged eyes opened wide as she was barely able to contain herself from bursting out in a sky-shaking laughter.

- Oh, so you have ceased to listen to me at that point! - spoke the female owl, undoubtedly feeling funny about this, and yet, her frustration of Chris ignoring her when she was talking was easily detectable in her voice's tone - We are far past that by now - at this sentence, Chris exchanged a glance that was shouting out loud that he did not understand; as a reply to this, Valery spoke for another time - We have arrived to our take-off point, Markson - she said, and gestured with her left wing towards an enormous set of branches.

But let there be no mistake made here: it was not the physical and visual size of these tree-outcroppings that were colossal as tangible entities, but the number, the amount of these branches; now, that was an unbelievably excessive and immense number, one of a value that could have been close to at least forty, maybe even reaching up to fifty. Yes, we could argue that, when spoken out loud, this amount was not that remarkable at all; now, hopefully, here, we would still consider that we are currently discussing a tree, a gigantic one at that, thus, we should be at least a bit amazed by the above mentioned number.

Anyway, Markson's wonderment did not lasted as long as this description, as he, at the end of the day, was just glancing upon a great collection of branches, with a few owls of different species perching or landing here and there on them.

- Now, we already have an escort team ready and waiting for us... - albeit the fact that she was still early into her sentence, Chris has already interrupted; in his defense it stands that this action was induced by pure curiosity.

- An „escort team"? - he asked, sounding partially surprised, and partially doubtful with his tone - Why do we require escort? Are we expecting hostility from some other owls? - this last sentence was only meant as a joke by Barnes, however, to Valery (and to anyone else who was currently listening in on their conversation), it probably had sounded totally serious; indeed, it was obvious that Markson had not yet „tapped out" which topics were sensitive to these owls, and which were not.

- Hardly; no one would attack us openly - she had took it seriously, unluckily to the ex-marshal, however, this did not impacted on anything - Yet, what I am afraid of is that we might have to catch you mid-air, especially if you are as bad with flying as you have previously said you are! - now, this has made an impact; more specifically, on Markson's heartrate, and his mood. In an instant, the ex-marshal has suddenly changed from his previous joke and his calm thinking to panicking thoughts racing through his head as he has heard that one single word that had struck fear into his brain: flying.

By now, many had probably gave this a thought; why had a person, who is terrified of flight to such an extreme degree, has decided on the job that involves almost constant flight from one place to the other? Now, if he would have been randomly asked this on the street, Markson would have replied with an already pre-constructed explanation - which he had devised and learned off by heart; I have no fear of indoors flight and aircraft - it is really the nature of my job and the chance of death that pulls my nerves.

Thinking deeply into it, this was a fair reasoning; many have an (almost) phobia against being thirty-thousand feet up in the sky, unable to chase away the thoughts of potential system-failures, terrorist-attacks, or literally catastrophic-weather - and, without panicking anyone, all of these were reasonably realistic, however, with a ridiculously minimal chance of occurrence, of course.

Thus, logically, Chris should not, rationally, have been afraid of anything at all - then again, you could keep telling this to someone who had, just a few days ago (if his sense of time was, at least, a little bit correct) encountered and survived a rather extreme terrorist attack, then, apparently, managed to not die in an obviously fatal crash (of which's circumstances where still unclear to him); this event on the 23rd of October was, after all, incredibly rare, simultaneously crossing off two categories of aircraft-disasters from the above mentioned imaginary list.

Veritably though, what the ex-marshal had survived (as an operational-marshal) was a heavily trivial case, and, with hope and positivity, will not occur ever again. Such a tragedy was... hard to digest by a nation, let alone a whole world!

Without sidetracking our conclusion, the main reason of why Barnes had just gained a usually uncomfortable heart-beat speed and frequency was due to the fact that, if agreeing to this, he knew what was to come; sitting in an airplane, inside a craft, should not have been an extremety to any living person, especially not in today's high-technological and advancing world.

Now flying in the open air - that was different; an excessively obsessed fan of birds would, no doubt, have had a wish towards the ability to fly as a creature to which they show such an amount of interest, respect, and wonderment towards (judged to be quite weird by Markson, personally thinking this himself), and, if we think about it in a partially philosophical, and partially „everyday" style, what percentage of humanity would have resisted or declined the chance of rising from the ground, and conquering the sky? Quite an unusual idea - it is imaginable that many would deem this to be a form of madness; maybe not from refusal, but from the fear of flight itself (which connects back to our main point).

It was, as a matter of fact, peculiar to play around with the thought that Chris, although being at the brink of this great opportunity that was, presumably, never experienced by any human in the real world that he could think about, he was mostly vouching for not flying; if we think about it, there are many opportunities that „pop up" to us in life, and we - either from pure disinterest, or, expectably, fear - push them aside as we decline them.

What were these acts induced by; us, taking our lives to be precious, and being afraid of losing it (which was, without question, a truly understandable way of thinking), or, maybe, because we are just simply kept in dread and terror by the unknown on a daily basis? There is the fair question to prove this: if once came the day, how would you defeat someone or something that you do not know?

Many ideologies, yet not as many answers; another day in the world of contemplation. Then again, with sufficient thinking, are not all answers are supposed to be acquirable?

Nonetheless, let us place the philosophy aside for this current moment, and begin to concentrate on Markson's task at hand, once again.

- Ah... okay, now hold on for a minute there! - said Barnes, starting to slowly walk backwards (as an unconscious reflex) from the take-off and landing branches, and Valery's „escort-team" - How where you thinking of me doing this, exactly? - in the current moment, the ex-marshal was taken aback by his female companion's latest statement; him, flying - how on Earth that should have been possible in the first place? Not only we were talking about someone who was almost „allergic" to flights, but we were currently discussing one that was only an owl for the total length of a grand eight days.

Valery, however, without any sign of „being-stuck" on her face, began to explain, in a surprisingly detailed fashion, of how this transportation was going to work:

- We have a method for weak flyers, but I believe that we can adapt it for your case as well - she began, and, in the meanwhile, she signaled Markson with one talon to halt his backing-away, and to proceed forward until he has reached a publicly agreeable distance - Fundamentally, all you would be required to is to just keep your wings unfolded and wide-open - carried on the female, demonstrating to Chris with her own pinions of what she has meant (in the case if Barnes had wandered-off again in thought; happily, this time, he did not) - You would be flying - well, technically, floating - centre-point of the spearhead-formation the rest of team will construct mid-air; this will create a vacuum and updraft, which will allow you to stay afloat without as such as a wing-stroke - she concluded her sentence, and looked into Markson's eyes, awaiting a type of response that would suggest that he has understood and processed the sentences that Valery just formulated together.

The clear answer was, however, hinted and indicated by the ex-marshal's following reaction.

- I am not sure if I get it... - began Chris, unsure and uncertain about what to say; the previous explanation contained an overwhelming amount of unknown (well, not exactly unknown, but, more precisely, non-contextual enough for the ex-marshal) information - So... what vacuum is created by what? - when it came to aerodynamics, Markson was not the best bet for anyone.

- I see that we will have a few potential problems here - said Valery, but more to herself than to Chris, or any other owls that were surrounding them at the take-off branches - All you need to know for now, is that the stirrs created by those who fly in front of you will keep you in the air; basic enough? - inquired the female owl, minorly sarcastic with her tone, attempting to communicate to (at least) Barnes' subconscious that there was nothing complicated in her previous explanation.

- Basic enough - responded the ex-marshal, who, by this point, managed to successfully receive the „message", and got the point that the owl was making towards him. It was not his fault that they were using a context in his vicinity that he could not fully comprehend to; that was just, simply, not the way this worked.

- Alright; now, your best chance to catch this updraft will be if you wait for us, the whole team, to make a fly-by, and, if you could, at the right moment, make a jump for it, you could, in theory, fall onto the vacuum, which would drag you along - she has nodded to one of the owls that were perching on the take-off and landing branches; until this moment in time, they were standing by for their „orders" - Got that? Alright, I will see you in the air... - she was about to unfold her wings and to take flight, but, not allowing her to do this, Markson has interrupted her with a verbal-interference.

- Whoa, hold on their for a minute! - he sounded panicked again, and attempted to mimic the human hand gesture of „stop" with his wings; this, in many aspects, has partially failed - You do not actually expect me to... to just do this right now - frustration has also entered his voice, which's volume was now minimally raised - I am not even able to fly, let alone float by some aerodynamical-nonsense! - agitation now surfaced; Chris was just like a person who was unable to handle the stress created by an appointment to a dentist or odontologist. To a certain extent, he was overreacting, but he was also bearing a valid reason for this style of reaction.

- Fine then! - spoke Valery in a calm and rigid fashion, although, to Barnes, it had felt like that she was shouting at a painful level of volume; of course, in reality, she was peaceful and quiet - If you can give my any usable ideas in the next... - she scanned across the sky, carefully watching the position of the moon and the stars; by some unusual and complex (as it had seemed to the ex-marshal) procedure, she was able to tell the approximate time; still, she did not shared it with Markson - ...let us say, five minutes, I will go with that; if not, you are doing what I have just proposed - no alternatives - she announced her final saying to Chris, who, not being incoherent now, began to swiftly scan around, hoping that some kind of an idea would form itself in his head. Who knows, maybe spotting something would outset a series of thoughts in his head, that, with a small amount of luck, would conclude in a usable alternative.

Right now, anything appeared to be a perfect idea to Chris - this illusion in his brain being induced by his previously explained fear of open-air flight. Gazing around, searching for a solution... his skull was swimming with various thoughts and choices to make; „Come on, Chris, you are a resourceful guy! Just figure something out and go ahead with it! Remember, anything, but flight!", he told himself to keep his mind focused on this single point.

Nevertheless, ostensibly, this negative-motivator functioned efficiently, as Markson almost shouted out the following words that, when assembled into a sentence, gave a complete picture of his idea of an alternative solution.

- Brake off a branch - he said, quietly first, then, to strengthen his statement, the ex-marshal has raised his voice higher on the hearability-scale - Brake off a branch, I will explain the details! - as for his second try, Chris also improved his declarative sentence into an exclamatory sentence, definitely giving off a better amount of confidence to all the owls that were currently surrounding him in this area of the take-off branches.

However, his expanding confidence was short-lived, as Valery gave an almost instant refusal:

- I am not sure on what your intentions are, but I can tell you right now that we are not going to damage the Tree by braking off a branch! - order and rigor was now forming a part of the female owl's tone; on the spur of a moment, she, without warning, became rather authoritative.

- Then find one that was already broken off by... I do not know, a storm! You are the one that lives here! - Barnes retaliated with well-hidden sarcasm (at least, that was what he thought, but soon had to realise that it was not as well-concealed as he believed it to be); after his style of a response though, he had expected Valery to verbally-decimate him, but, no such thing has occurred.

Apparently, the female owl was able to see that the ex-marshal's newly made and rephrased claim was more acceptable, and thus, she turned to two owls who were the part of the „escort-team".

- Hakan, Marek, would you please go and find a few broken branches for our associate here? - the two birds nodded (one being a dark-coloured Barn owl - probably taking place as a subspecies in the genus - and the other one appearing to be from an unknown species to Chris), and lighted off from the branches, then turned into a nose-dive, soon disappearing from the ex-marshal's visual range.

Consequently after the two have disappeared, Valery walked closer to Markson; first, just to a suitable and generally accepted distance, however, opposing to the ex-marshal presumption, this - roughly - thirty centimeters was not kept; instead, the female owl had closed in on Barnes, only being a few inches away from his face and beak as she began to lecture him - and, may we add, in an absolutely not contented or satisfied way.

- Do not misuse your well-earned freedom now, Markson - she spoke in a cautionary and (somehow) ominous style, although Barnes had the vague feeling that she was not exactly scolding or reprimanding him; it was almost as if she was attempting, somewhere deep down, to save Chris from ending up in a cell-hollow for another time - There are not many who trust you; I might be the only one in this current moment, so, please, do not mess this up! - now, this sounded more like a friendly request and suggestion-of-behavior towards Markson, who was about to answer, but was met with Valery's words - When I referred that we require your help, I meant it. So, please, do not be a pain, and make this an easy run for both of us, agreed? - somehow, from the start of her speech, where she was clearly berating the ex-marshal, the female owl had, slowly, but surely, descended into a non-hostile solicitation.

„Temporal anger" was not a foreign notion to Chris, taking that this could be found in most humans in the world - maybe the rare few, who are able to control their nerves and feelings unbelievably well, could be count-out as an exception from this statement.

- Agreed - replied Markson with a non-specific tone of voice; it was just a clear „yes" that he was pronouncing, thus, his emotional status did not altered towards any recognisable profile, not negative, nor positive; just an everyday verbal-response, that was all.

In the meantime, the two owls (Hakan, the dark-coloured barn owl, and Marek, who still belonged to a species of owls that was yet unknown to the ex-marshal), with not one branch, not two, but an entire sector of branches, outcropping in all directions physically imaginable; they have set it down on the wooden platform on which Chris and Valery were standing on, and turned their eyes towards the former, and the latter, awaiting any further requests that might be made towards them.

Since Barnes was not entirely satisfied with the result that he was given, the two needed not to wait for an extended period in time.

- Fine, that will do - Markson began, keeping a positive starting-tone, so he would not instantly suggest that the owls' effort were in vain; in fact, he was not, to the most minimal measure, thinking that this branch was useless. It was only a bit of afterwork that he was wishing to apply to it - As a last thing, could I ask you two to break off a few outcrops from it? - the two receivers of this request exchanged a puzzled glance, then began to work on Chris' idea.

- What are you planning, Markson? - inquired Valery with genuine curiosity, turning her gaze towards the subject of her question, tilting her head in a similar fashion, implying that she was, indeed, interested in a proper answer.

- We need a branch that is, more or less, straight, and has no small outcroppings on it - explained Barns as he had returned the glance to the female owl, the two's eyes now locking together again; there was something in her eyes that comforted and bothered the ex-marshal in the same time. Nevertheless, he continued his summary - One of them will hold it on the left, the other one will keep a grip on the right side, and I will sit... uh, perch, I think, on the branch itself - Valery here gave him an unsure and perplexed stare, also placing a light smile on the top of these.

- ...Are you sure about that? - she asked, not convinced and rather doubtful with her sentence - You do not want to lose your grip, then fall to your death, do you? - honest worry and intimidating facts were mixed in the previous, forcing Markson to figure out an acceptable response to this warning, which was stated as a question.

- Well, I do not need to worry about that; I will be fine, no matter what happens with my grip - even if I fall! - he declared with a high level of confidence, causing Valery to laugh at this claim in a slight manner.

- What makes you so sure about that? - she responded with another question, the above mentioned smile still lingering around on her face, with her yellow eyes shining with a glow of excitement.

- That you will catch me if I fall - Chris delivered his ending line, to which the female owl's reaction was another three seconds of light laughter (in actuality, not „laughter", but that chirring sound again).

After his verbal exchange with Valery has reached its end, both began to walk towards the huge branch that was already cleansed of its small outcroppings roughly a minute ago by the two owls with the names of Hakan and Marek.

The female owl stepped aside and watched the ex-marshal, who was now preparing to perch on it, testing out the slipperiness of the bark, his own grip and its strength, and, when he judged himself and the branch to be fitting enough for the matter, Markson stepped up on the „once-part-of-a-tree", let out a deep sigh, then nodded towards Valery, who acknowledged the fact that the ex-marshal was ready to go with a similar action.

After that, she spoke in a loud voice, sounding exactly like a commander of an escort-team:

- Alright, shape up, everyone! Spearhead formation, I want a navigator on my starboard wing! - to this request, a small body-shaped owl popped her left wing up in front of Valery's; she nodded to the owl, who went ahead.

- Donna, ma'am, Celestial Navigational Chaw - said the little owl, then folded her wing, allowing Barnes' female associate to proceed.

- Thank you - she replied in a friendly manner and low, almost soothing voice, then returned to her shouting routine; after all, she was back on her „briefing" now - We are flying to Northern-Ambala, densely populated section to the North-East of the Emerald-Lake - you all know the place. We will depart with the bearing of South, changing our course three-points towards West as we reach over the Sea of Hoolemere; our expected time of arrival is approximately twenty-to-thirty minutes! - her above given information was easy to understand, even Barnes catching a few sensible parts here and there - Any questions?

It was quite expectable that, although she was not given any, Valery was not waiting for a single question from her team.

In two minutes flat, she, Markson, and the whole „escort-detail" (consisting of a grand total of twelve owls) were all in the air, beginning their mostly wordless and quiet journey towards the Forest Kingdom of Ambala.

Over the Sea of Hoolemere, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 0:55 a.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

„Oh, God, I am going to fall into this sea, drown, then die!", thought Chris as he had strengthened his grip for about the hundredth time on the branch, fearing the risk and possibility of slipping or losing his balance, then plummeting into the visually endless collection of water that was spreading out below. Another moment, and the ex-marshal believed that, as some ridiculous and incorrect reaction from his digestive system, he was going to throw up; on the bright side, at least, he would not have directly hit anyone with the... regurgitated package itself, especially if he would, deliberately, have faced downwards - on the bad side though, the sight itself was the thing that would have created the awkwardness of the scene, due to the reason that it was, simply, unacceptable and, expectably, disgusting.

Since their departure - which was hardly even eight minutes ago - Barnes has requested a descent in altitude countless times - not gaining his wish, just quiet and confused looks from his branch's carriers, Hakan, and Marek.

- Could we, please, fly a bit lower? - he inquired for yet another time, but received no usable response from anyone who was a part of this „escort-team"; indeed, who where they even escorting? Markson himself; he was just a partial-prisoner, nothing more or less! That could not possibly mean that he was of such high-value that a whole protection detail was assigned to his transport? Thoroughly re-thought now by the ex-marshal, this sounded suspiciously like prison-transport; then again, he had decided to ignore this thought, and proceeded along with his deep and exhausting concentration on not throwing up.

Then, out of the clear blue, Valery has slowed down her flight and velocity, dropped down a meter mid-air (to equalise the altitude for a comfortable conversation; Barnes might have been kept on the same level of height for now, and still, when he had first brought up the topic of his carriers, those two owls have actually descended an approximate meter, presumably not fully comprehending to the notion of the idea of what the ex-marshal was attempting to impart with this), re-appeared on the diagonal-right side of Chris, and began to converse.

- There is a bit of background-information which would be better for you to know, Markson - well, who could have entirely known? Maybe she saw how miserable and physically sick he seemed to be on that branch, meters up in the sky, and just, ordinarily, wanted to ease the ex-marshal's stress; for the current moment, this aim was not functioning that well, as Barnes still could not feel himself in safety, let alone healthy.

- What... type of... background-information... - here, he appeared to have quite a few problems to pronounce mainly-spoken and basic-level words, speeding up his takings of every single individual breath, not being bothered about the fact that he, in actuality, was inhaling in a deep fashion; after a few seconds have passed along in the midnight's air, Barnes has regained this temporarily lost capability of his - ...are you talking about, specifically? - he concluded his unfinished sentence that can be read above these very lines.

- The location we are flying you towards, the near-border of Northern-Ambala, had a, let us call it, unusual event, which occurred in a populated area - you have heard my instructions, you already knew this by yourself. If you have listened to me at that time, of course - she added with a vague smile - However, this is not the first phenomenon of this type that has took place in the Southern-Kingdoms - Barnes, who, by so far, was bravely giving the interraction of turning his head towards Valery an attempt, so he could establish a fix eye-contact with her, with which he was hoping to unverbally communicate through the words „go ahead and carry on", tried to repeat this process for the third time, and failed once again; his vertigo did not desired to grant him this possibility.

Nevertheless, in contrast with the ex-marshal, Valery was not facing the same complication; besides and after all, she was flying forwards while constantly gazing backwards. Deducting from this, she, presumptively, was not one of „those who would unfortunately meet their early death by crashing into a tree when not looking" types, to put it in a short and summed-up style. She was technically soaring through the calm, night-air with an admirable charm of nonchalance, doing every instinctive flap as she had been born with this skill - which, to be fair, was probably entirely true - probably.

Since he was unable to impart this to the female owl otherwise, Chris shut his eyelids tightly, and swiftly nodded his head, telling Valery to continue on with her previously initiated speaking.

And so she did, going ahead as signaled by the ex-marshal:

- We only refer to it as the Graymarsh-Incident - she began factually, and proceeded on with solid seriousness, albeit, a minimal and nicely-hidden amount of sorrow, maybe even grief, could be obscurely detected in her voice's tone - Before the occurrence, it was a scarcely populated area, but one of the most nicest and calmest locations in Southern-Ambala; now, it is just a flooded marshland with once inhabited hollows - the owl has kept a short silence, as if she was paying her respects, then continued - From the twelve families that lived there before the occurrence, only one was able to answer our inquiries, taking that ten were dead, and one went missing immediately after the event.

- Now, they stated that, from the safe distance they were keeping, - carried on Valery as she had ventured deeper into the topic - they saw something appear above the valley that they could only were able to describe as a, and I quote, „massive diaphanous sphere",, floating well-above the ground, and the crowns of the trees; for a few seconds, as they have said, nothing happened - another pause, although Markson could feel that this was only for the creation of a typical and commonly recognisable dramatic effect - They have said that the „entity", as they titled it, just simply „kept soaring over the valley, distorting the visual world when stared through as if water would have been in the way"; then, after an approximate length of twenty seconds, a bright and almost blinding flash followed, and, literally from the clear blue, an enormous amount of water, the same that covers Graymarsh at this very day, somehow appeared and filled up the whole of the valley.

- Then what? - reacted Markson to all of the above in a rather senseless, and, minorly impolite way, only realising his mistake in the consequent moments of their pronunciation; however, at that point, they were unredactable, and managed to cause its own form of damage, which was, undoubtedly, emotional.

- Then what! - shouted Valery, albeit not loud enough to be heard from miles, but in a volume that was definitely noticed by the flying team itself, and, of course, by Barnes as well - Innocent owls died that day, only because some type of... well, as we have categorised it for the meantime, natural anomaly, that, so far, no one was able to explain! Do you understand the impact of that, Markson? - the ex-marshal did, and yet, only one thought occurred to him that he has used as (deemed by him) a reasonable excuse.

- Why, of course I do...! - attempted Chris to save himself from this verbal trap before it closed in on him, however, he, since his efforts were already in the category of „vain" when he spoke the words „then what", we could playfully conclude that he has failed to rescue himself from the situation that was swiftly going (ironically) South.

- ...Are you now? - questioned back Valery, eerily resembling Felias with this form of word usage and sentence structuring - Considering your previously pronounced words, you are not really giving a single bit of racdrops about the whole matter! - and there was Barnes, trapped between his own, pastly mentioned words, for yet another occasion from the many.

Self-saving was irrelevant and useless now, but that does not meant that one was not allowed to try:

- Look, I am able to sympathize with what you have just told me, but, I believe, that there is one sole fact that I can bring up in the defense of my approach towards this topic - the female owl squinted with her right eye, which gave the impression as if she would have raised an eyebrow; interestingly, this facial gesture was no different when presented with this type of backwards-application - I am not from here; this is not my world, I do not feel that I would have to give anything towards it - this sentence induced an emotional reaction in Valery that was consisting of the following; first-off, she has slightly dropped her beak open, in an almost unnoticeable way, as if she was preparing to reply something, but then, suddenly, changed her mind; after the previous, she narrowed her eyes at Barnes, unequivocally not impressed by what she has just acquired in a sound-based fashion.

- I had deeply hoped that someone with your caliber of intelligence would have a better understanding towards such a pressing topic - she shook her head slowly as she spoke to the ex-marshal, giving the (otherwise true) guess to Markson that he disappointed, and not in a light and excusable (at least, not for now) way at that, no; he has offended in a serious manner, technically belittling the memory of those who have died in the Graymarsh-Incident. Not respecting the dead - I might be forced by the former to admit that I was wrong; it could be that you are just simply an emotionless person, maybe because you have been „ripped out" from the place where you have came from - she kept a pause, but not the drama; Valery was figuring out an outcome that, if delivered properly, would create deep wounds, which would be oozing with metaphorical blood - But, have you considered the possibility that, perhaps, your intelligence is unable to live up to your empathy? - with this, she has not waited for a reply, or reaction from the ex-marshal; instead, she has steered-off mid-flight, and repositioned herself with that graceful fashion of flying to the spearhead-formation's right-side point.

Leaving Markson there, all along with himself, speechless; even then, despite the previous statement, in reality, of course, he was not alone; Hakan and Marek were still carrying the branch that has, for all this time, kept Chris in the air. These two appeared to be rather antisocial anyway, taken that they have not spoken a single word since Barnes had first seen them; there was not much of a conversation between the owls and the ex-marshal, so, per contra, he excluded them from the category which would have counted as company to him.

After all, even if he gave it a detailed and a deep down-extending thought, Chris was unable to reason with his emotional and rational side; compassion and sympathy has never hurt anyone (also a lie, but, for the current topic, let us keep this as an irrelevant point), and yet, Markson was commenting on the story and telling of a quite serious and unexplainable incident as if it was the complicated description of the shattering of a cheap graphite-pencil; from all perspectives, no less respect could have been not given by him towards this, clearly, sensitive subject.

This verbal and ethical offense will require reparations, Chris had no doubt about this fact; the only real problem he was stuck was under the „how to live this up to Valery?" classification, still in the middle of the process of „searching for potential solutions".

The night whizzed by as the yesterday had already turned into tomorrow...

Northern-Ambala, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 1:25 a.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

Markson was able to tell from at least a kilometre away (which he was not remotely able to precisely limit down to a realistic and rational value, due to the reason that he was, presently, too distracted by the magnificence of this forest) that the lightning-striked and eccentrically angled birch-tree was, in this very exact moment, a location that gave residence to a scene of potential murder; seemingly, the enormous difference between the species did not changed the atmosphere of death that was lingering around the place of committed-crime itself. Even from this distance, Barnes was able to identify their point of arrival, surrounded by the unsettling silence of death, which was crawling around the forest floor and its trees in a hundred meters radius - minimum. Morbidly, we could title this as the „trademark" of The End, the terminus of life itself; one would not need to be told or to know this.

It could be felt; it made the body feel physically that something was not quite as it should have been, and the mind... It was able to recite the events that have occurred in its own style, giving one the opportunity to try to imagine what it - the murder - has visually appeared like, getting nightmares stuck in one's brain for a few nights that were to come.

The „landing of Chris" was another rather peculiar happening to encounter, which the small amount of owls (more or less the near-range of twenty), who were already perching around or on the birch-tree, observed with true and great interest; and, to be brutally honest here and now, who could have blamed them for staring at such an occurrence?

It is not an everyday sight of one owl, perching - instead of flying, as it would usually happen as - on a thick branch - which, on a side-note, is held by another pair of owls, who, for some undecipherable reason, simultaneously with the landing, have also kept focusing on avoiding direct eye contacts from their fellow members-of-species, who were perching on a tree, which, on another sidenote, was the actual spot for the landing - being brought down slowly and steadily to a point where, with a conspicuously noticeable amateurism and maladroitness, the „carried-owl" would jump onto a branch that was protruding from the birch, not being to far away from the almost occurring incident of slipping, falling, then, potentially, breaking a few bones when the impact with the ground would have occurred, resulting in nearly-instant death (as one's last breath would be exhaled before the decease); shortly summed up, Markson almost lost his balance when his left foot has barely managed to grab onto the branch which he has designated to himself as a target-of-focus. Now, this attracted unwanted attention to Barnes, who was unable to decide on an action to take as roughly nineteen pairs of eyes have appeared to be uninterruptedly stuck on him, drawn to the ex-marshal by his previous fumbling (and, for that thirty seconds - which was the amount of time required for every perching owl to process the occurrence of what they have just seen - no one has minded Valery's recon-team as they have landed on the birch's outer-branch „system"); for an uncomfortable length of time, all that everyone did was just to just, without intermissions, gazed at Markson, trying or attempting to figure out of what he was just doing.

What is even more than this, however; Chris honestly thought that the given scene and situation could not, by any means, advance into anything worse - that was the main reason of why he was waiting patiently for everyone to finish their disturbing and annoying staring-session, then switch back to their original duties and tasks they were in the middle of before Barnes has came into the picture.

When the glances gradually began to lessen in their numbers and the volume of different and varying types of conversations has rose, the ex-marshal gave out a relieved sigh, trusting that, for today, this was the largest complication he was necessarily fated to face.

As soon as the latter had went through his brain, an owl exited the inside of the tree (the hollow) through an entrance which Markson has been only able to spot now; for a second, nothing came to him, but, when the eyes of the two have met, it only took a fragment of a moment for Barnes to evaluate the circumstances: momentarily, he was staring right into the amber-coloured eyes of Irvis.

Give or take a pair of seconds, the previously already-have-been-met owl gave a facial gesture of disbelief towards Markson, then, with his emotions mixing to second-to-secondly shifting and changing amounts of determination, chagrin, and - giving Chris a stinging sensation around his stomach-area - anger; consequently after the above occurred, Irvis unfolded his lightly coloured, creamy-brown wings, gave a few flaps to the air, and, priorly of the proper and full processing of this in Barnes' brain, the bird has lighted down in front of him, and was currently altering between the actions of „staring directly in the eye", and „looking over from talon-to-headtop".

Even though it was incontestable that it was the owl who have, in this current moment, had a tremendously greater level of prestige than the ex-marshal, and yet, this situation itself could have been, to a varying degree, labeled as „awkward" and „rather uncomfortable" by some (if not most), taking that, as it was, without much of a required effort, deductable from the given plight, Irvis was, at least, two centimeters shorter than Markson when measured in by height, which would have (in an everyday case, to which this was not even remotely near to) automatically cancelled out the owl's high status and authority. However, this hindrance and height-disadvantage was equalised out by a specific and (in part) unique feature that could have been immediately spotted and found on the owl's head - exactly and precisely, his ear-tufts, a collection of feathers regularly used for non-verbal and signal-communication, a feature that was commonly mistaken by people for physical ears, especially by those who were outsiders to the term „ornithology".

Now, these ear-tufts on Irvis' head created the, may I state, „optical-illusion", which has made him visually appear as if he was, by some minimal measure, taller in height; then again, the eye-to-eye distance has somewhat gave it away - of course, to avoid anyone to spot this, the bird has kept a respectable distance from the ex-marshal. If a any single owl would have glanced over, without further thinking and study, he, or she, could not, by any chance, have seen the visible difference of tallness between the two owls; the ones that were, even in this very moment, confronting each other in an „ocular-style" - however unusual or unimaginable that has sounded.

Even though Chris was entirely trusting in his preliminary-prediction - which has basically consisted of Irvis, before anything else would occur at this Tree - would begin to ask all those demanding- and cross-questions, hoping to, at a lucky point in time, confuse the one he was (and this word is purely used to represent the ex-marshal's emotions towards this procedure) interrogating.

Despite the great and high chance and level-of-expectancy of the above, none of it has took its place or effect; in lieu, Valery „saved the day" by situating herself on Barnes' right side, which has made Irvis to take the action of refocusing his gaze, now proceeding to take up an eye-contact with the female owl (as it could have been expected, this took no more time from all that was on in the world than one second, possibly even less); hereupon, Valery made a movement that has, by following movemental-logic, came through to Markson as salutation.

Firstly, she has unfolded her right wing, and secondly, she has raised it to roughly about eye-height, but the tip of her „flight-organ" was pointing outwards, away from her face - one would presumably had described this as „a traditional salutation, however, with the tip of the palm, which, in this specific case, was a singular pinion, pointing in the opposite direction as the previously spoken-about fingers would normally have".

As a response to this gesture, Irvis has nodded, and repeated the exact same set of movements as the female owl just have, the two birds switching to the position of „at ease" in the exact same moment and point of time.

- Corporal Irvis - began Valery to the creamy-brown owl, maintaining eye contact for the whole while of the conversation - I have brought the team you have asked me to bring, and the... items that our, uh... suspect has requested - at the third-to-last word of this sentence, Markson's heart skipped a beat; he, for a short second, has thought that he has, out of the blue, became the main subject of the topic. Soon, he realised that he was not the one who was labelled as „the suspect".

- Lance-Corporal Valery - replied Irvis in a style that has kept the formalities in line and also sounded polite; albeit this non-susceptible and peaceful start, the male owl appeared to be rather swift when it came to switching and changing tones in a talk - Would you want to explain of what in the name of Glaux he is doing here? - he indicated towards Barnes with his head, now not even taking as a simplistic thing as a glance at him; no problem, as the ex-marshal has thought this to be better this way.

„Interesting", reflected Markson as he was waiting for the female-side's reply towards the Corporal, „How peculiar it is that they use not only the same concept, but the exact names as well for ranking! What are the chances of an identical language and words being used by two different species, even if they, probably, do not exist in the same location? Heck, maybe not even the same world!", he concluded, and continued on with what was mandatory in the present situation: to listen and to interpret.

- Sir, I have reason to believe that he - his name is Markson, by the way - will be able to assist us in this investigation - her tone was truthful and supportive, and she has, also, stole a glance at Chris while delivering the previous; the same type of look came from Irvis as well, albeit this one included a lot more doubt than trust.

- Lance-Corporal... - began the creamy-brown owl, but was cut short by the female, who, by this point of all the occurred events, turned out to be a rather swift and excellent talker, carefully analysing a topic in herself before speaking; since he was interrupted, Irvis was not waiting for his „colleague" to reach the end of her verbalised thought.

- Corporal - this was heavily emphasised, most likely for two specific reasons: retaliation (although, this word might appear as a bit too... powerful, to a few), and to signal that she was, on all levels, speaking in a serious manner and she was meaning what she was pronouncing, and earnestly, while we are at it; well, that was what Chris took it to be, at least - I do know what he did back at the Tree was, to an extreme extent, out of a place, and it did crossed the line... - here, it was the male owl's turn and time to interfere mid-sentence.

- He had assaulted a medical and healer, and resisted with force subsequently to that; we have officially marked him as potentially dangerous! - he spoke the truth (quite ironic, considering Barnes' interpretation on Valery's previous sentences), but Markson would not have prefered to audibly acquire this piece of information; not because he took it to be a lie, no, that was not his conflict with the former exclamatory sentence.

It was due to the fact that the ex-marshal, unconditionally, agreed himself that what he did was obviously against a vast number of ethical laws and basics, and he did not wished to hear the re-telling of his past deeds for another time. „Committing them for once was enough", thought Chris, and was just barely able to prevent his own self from sighing, „Then again, an apology is not a solution for these kinds of wounds anymore, is it?", he questioned himself rhetorically, then dismissed the topic that was commenced by him in the first place.

- Yet, I cannot help but stress the matter that he was in an acute state of confusion and distress when he committed these actions, thus, we, by our rules and regulations, cannot charge him with any form of crime! - Markson gave Valery a thankful and appreciative glance, however, the female owl did not responded with any similar type of a gesture, therefore, the ex-marshal has rotated his head away, back to its original angle, and re-focused his look on Irvis; only to realise and notice that the ulterior was gazing at him, deep in thoughts (as Barnes has assumed him to be).

A few moments of uncomfortable lengths have came and went, until, presumptively to break the petrifying and painful silence, Valery began her calmingly, long line of rational reasoning again.

- Sir, you have questioned him as well - as some unusual type of an answer, Irvis simply sighed, and turned his amber-eyes towards the female speaker, leaving Markson's gaze free, finally - You know it as much as me of how... efficient his assumed knowledge might prove to be; I am asking for one chance, and that is all. Weighed by me, it is not something enormous to request, is it? - for another set of seconds, which, eventually, came to grow into a minute, nothing has happened; everything else around the three owls has seemed to have went silenced, although, if one of them would have listened, he or she would have realised that a good number of topics were currently being discussed around them, and that no other bird on this birch has paid them too much attention, if any, at all.

In the end, it was another heavy exhale from Irvis that has resolved the situation; actually, it was what he spoke afterwards mattered for the most - breathing out with a moan would surely not have changed anything, did it?

- Do you think he will be able to find his own way inside? - asked the creamy-brown owl figuratively, not fooling either Chris, or Valery with his clear-as-the-sky style of sarcasm.

- What do you think? - replied the female owl, laughing in a light way before continuing - He is not even able to fly; I hope that this is enough of an explanation to you, sir.

Prior to realising that what he was attempting has failed, Irvis shook his head with a rapid movement, then turned around wholly, to call out someone's name.

- Latimer! - to this, a Barn owl, who was perching at the rear-end of one of the out-reaching branches, caught his head up, and located the source of the shout; when he was done with this, the bird nodded, communicating through to the Corporal to carry on with his request - I will need you to accompany this owl here to the our current „suspect", if you may! - the addressed has replied with a loud „understood", the lighted down a bit closer to the centre of the birch, keeping a respectable distance from the company of the „officers" and an ex-marshal.

Markson looked at Valery questioningly, then swiftly changed to Irvis, but, since no reaction or gesture was given by the latter (other than blankly staring at the ex-marshal, waiting for him to make any type of move), he shifted back to the former - the female owl - again; she, in contrast with the Corporal, seeing and understanding the issue that Chris was in the need of some form of assistance, gave a few verbal instructions to the minorly-disoriented Barnes, as to help him out.

- Just follow Latimer until you are inside the hollow; once there, you will see a Strix occidentalis, a Spotted owl, in the case if that makes it easier, inside - then, with a light doubtfulness shadowing her beaked face, she stated a question, from which she had hoped reassurance - Do you know what a Spotted owl is like; by appearance and plumage, I mean? - clearly, Barnes had not a clue, which he had declared as a response by slowly shaking his head, indubitably displaying a negative answer.

Despite the fact that this matter in the main topic was now finished and cleared, and that Valery was prepared and ready to carry on with her sentence - Chris noted down one of his thoughts; maybe it was logical, perhaps it was the opposite - it, truly, depended on the individual who received the question, his, or her, personality, and the way in which they have processed the information they were given.

- You know, I think that when I will see this... „Spotty" owl... - at this, Valery held off a light smile, however, Irvis did not applied discrecy, and slightly tilted his head to the right, obviously focusing on displaying doubt - ...I will be able to recognise, uh... - the ex-marshal had paused for a moment, only now realising that, so far, the gender of this „suspect"m if he used the same expression with which the Corporal and the Lance-Corporal have referred to the owl a few minutes ago; of course, in these types of situations, there was only one way to stick to a neutral response - ...he or she, that... depends on the gender - at the concluding point of his sentence, Barnes glanced at Valery again, who was, currently, doing the very same action, staring deep and right into the ex-marshal's ocean-blue eyes.

- I have mixed feeling about that, but no matter! The point is that you are sanguine about this - she finished her short line of thought, then unfolded her left wing, with which she has politely signaled towards Latimer - Go ahead; we will be waiting.

„Again?", asked Chris rhetorically, as the previous sentence has awakened a memory on him about „being collected or picked up", like he was some type of child, „in half-an-hour"; of course, the reason why of why the female owl's task has took a longer time of completion could have been due to Barnes, as, at the end of day, he was the one who altered and changed his location.

Valery and Irvis watched together as the owl who has claimed himself to be an ex-marshal has walked off, headed towards the Tyto alba by the name of Latimer; the two „officers" locked their eyes together, and began to converse in a discreet and quiet manner, as they had not wished anyone to overhear or to eavesdrop on them.

- Do you believe that this will work? - began the male, his tone now abandoned by all the doubt and extremely minor dislike that he has showed towards the bird of an unknown Strix species.

- Let us keep him in the situation where he considers himself to be a potential prisoner; he will keep more effort on proving helpful then - replied Valery, stealing a glance at Barnes (who was facing away from them) for a short span of time; she then, as to increase confidence in him, touched Irvis' left wing with her own pinion of her right wing - Just watch! With this, he will attempt to redeem himself of his „crimes", which are, of course, not that heavy now, especially with that line of reasoning I have just gave - she turned her head away, and stared of into the distance, scanning the horizon, and the tree-tops of Ambala - Are you sure that Markson and this... Bethany, is it? - to reply, the male owl has nodded - Right; so, are you entirely positive that Markson and Bethany mentioned the exact same word that has caught your attention?

- Well, I sure as well hope so! - exclaimed Irvis, pure hope present in his voice - With what he might potentially know, we might earn an advantage against these anomalies occuring around the Kingdoms - then, although it was really not required or needed, he added - ...And I am not saying that I have had to pull a few strings for this... But the council will ask for an explanation; without information and evidence, I might be unable to give them that.

- You are smart bird, Irvis - smiled Valery, then stretched out a wing, followed by another, to which after her talons came - Please return my prisoner in one piece! - she joked sarcastically, then lighted off, flew a whole circle around the birch-tree, then shouted down to the male owl from her almost sky-high position mid-air - I will see back at Ga'Hoole; still a massive amount of „paperwork" I need to solve before I can get to sleep without problems when First Light comes! - and with this, she has disappeared into the purple-stained orient; the night was still young, and it was only beginning to be filled with its unique and specific creatures - the owls.

Barnes still had a lot to get himself through, may that be forced, or done from his own doing; preferably towards everyone, his own willing would have been a better choice to work with.

Irvis now took his eyes of the flying Valery, and re-focused his gaze on Markson, who was, in this moment, heading towards the central-structure of the tree - the bole - to meet up with Latimer, who - certainly, after a short introduction would occur between the two - will guide his through that short way to the hollow.

He watched as the ex-marshal had walked towards the Barn owl, only a being a few steps away the range where verbal communication would, presumably, begin.

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