From Marshal To Guardian, Part One: The Crossing

Zwegger's Endgame

Upper-Tree Branches, Great Ga’Hoole Tree, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 4:41 a.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

Markson and Lyran have already travelled three-fourth of their way up to Bethany’s hollow when their ears have caught out the screaming that has appeared to freeze the night air in place; even the background sounds of light, harp-music, and the noises of casual conversations and chatters have ceased, leaving only the sinister blows of the wind to be heard, which were the parts of the latest storm’s aftermath.

As soon as the two birds have acquired the audible sign of alarm and potential danger, they have exchanged a meaningful glance; the Barn owl’s dark-night-like eyes flashed with a sign of caution, and the likeably amateur and always clumsy Lyran seemed to have disappeared from that gaze - replaced by someone who, indeed, could have been counted as a worthy and believable member of what these owls called the “Ga’Hoole Investigatory Division”, first heard by Chris from Latimer, back in Ambala.

This was what Barnes and his companion were conversing about, during the other three-quarters of their journey to the Upper-Tree Branches; Lyran asked about Markson’s little trip to the forest kingdom’s crime-scene, to which the ex-marshal has responded to with a detailed and rather long story.

Right about the point where Lieutenant Latimer was mentioned, the Barn owl has cut into (somewhat politely, somehow) Chris’ words, explaining that he was also a member, although junior, of this “Investigatory Division”, often shortened as the GHID, by his telling. Turns out that, a few years ago, the so-called “Council of Ga’Hoole” has called for the establishment of a group that will be specified in the investigation of different crimes and occurances that were, for some good and lazy excuse, outside of the Guardians’ (another “group” that Markson was hearing about for the hundredth time) field of caring; essentially, it could have been regarded as an FBI for owls - the authority that is called in when something is out of the ordinary, and on a fairly higher level.

Honestly, Barnes did not mind - for him, it was better if someone else was talking, as he felt as if his brain was ready to fall apart any second.

He thought that he already have moved on from this matter, and has processed everything he personally needed to process, but, turns out, he was terribly wrong; that... moment he was experiencing during the flight back to this tree was his mind finally reaching a point where, if it would have been capable of speech, would have said that “wait a minute, something is not quite right here”.

Lyran himself - the “amateur-doctor” - has theorised that this “condition-of-mind” should pass away soon, and will not linger around to bother Markson for long.

Back then, a few minutes ago, he sounded entertaining to Chris, but now, all the traces of a humorous-mood have evaporated from his face, and he asked a question from the ex-marshal that truly reflected that he was, now, up for his official duty.

- I hope that, by now, you have figured out how to run with talons, as you will have to keep up! - he spoke to the ex-marshal, even leaning in a bit, just to emphasise his words. Markson nodded as a response, and headed after the Barn owl who was already, nearly out of sight.

Running with talons was, of course, a foreign and unusual feeling of combinations of movements - Barnes considered himself to be running now, but he felt as if he was just, simply, hopping with speed.

He even attempted to flap a few with his wings; not enough to raise him off the ground, but hanging around the level of strength that would, at least, boost his movement, even if just in a minimal fashion.

Keeping up with Lyran, however, did proved to be a bit difficult for the Markson, albeit this bore no new surprises to him; the Barn owl was clearly used to his body, as he was born into it - this should not even require an explanation; while the bird was still in visual range, which was more common when no turns, or “corridors”, where there to block Chris’ sight, the latter has gave a try, and observed Lyran’s style of running.

Even though it looked awkward, at least the owl was managing better than Markson currently was; Lyran had his head lower than usual, probably to have less air-resistance while in movement, and his wings tightly tucked at his side, probably for the same reason as above.

Chris, shamelessly, copied, and noticed a minor change in his own velocity, towards the positive numbers; satisfied with himself, the ex-marshal now focused more on his talon-movement, most significantly to avoid falling over from the sudden loss of balance.

The next minutes have consisted of him continuing all of the above described; focusing on his balance, and, for all the while, keeping a close eye on Lyran, who although sometimes disappeared behind a few turns and corners, was not hard to visually acquire again, due to the fact that, at this hour, no other owls seemed to be around; for another minute or two, Markson and the Barn owl kept running through forgettable corridors of this “Great Tree’s” inside-structure, until, eventually, the ex-marshal has slowed his pace down to a fast-walk, as he has noticed that, at the exit of one of these passages, Lyran finally halted.

Moving next to the bird and turning a head towards him, Chris was about to ask for a situation-report, but decided not to, as he noticed his companion with his right talon raised to his beak, which the ex-marshal has automatically took as a signal of “silence” (as he was still associating some of these birds’ movements with human gestures).

Seeing that Markson has understood him, Lyran pointed the same talon towards two unmoving heaps of feathers, which Barnes has only just noticed; and greater was the shock to him when he realised the meaning of the pool of blood that was surrounding the two bodies - they were, indubitably, dead.

Just like that family back in Ambala.

A grim expression has settled upon his face, but Chris kept himself calm and focused, and chased all frightening images and thoughts right out of his head; he did not wanted to be a problem to Lyran if a dangerous situation suddenly arose.

After all, he was an ex-TSA officer, and probably has seen worse; he just needed to force himself, and to handle this as the situation aboard that plane. He might not have had a weapon, but, even in the worst case, he still had his claws.

Even if he only has been an owl for a few days, improvisation could still be on his side - of course, only just with a few dozens of luck added into the mix.

The Barn owl began his slow approach towards the bodies of the late guards, turning his head, and thoroughly scanning for any hostile threat in all directions while in movement; although, so far, Markson had not managed to notice it, but this did not changed anything towards the fact that, seconds ago, Lyran has unsheathed a small-sized metal dagger that, the bird, apparently, was carrying around with himself for the past ten minutes - without the ex-marshal’s knowledge.

All of a sudden, it hit Chris that this, so far, more comical than serious Barn owl might have had a few surprises in store; if he turns out to be an expert with that dagger of his, Barnes has now sworn to himself that he will actually attempt to clap with his own two wings.

Just as he was watching Lyran examine the two corpses, a muffled mix of a desperate, and yet, aggressive cry of death has escaped the not-so-inviting darkness of the nearby hollow that the two birds, who were now lying dead, clearly failed to protect. As soon as the audible sign of potential danger has reached his ear-slits, Markson gave no rational thought to his following actions - he barely even realised what he was doing.

In one moment, he remembered gazing towards Lyran, and, in the other, he had his eyes locked with this unknown and bloody-feathered owl, who was, with a mild shock and surprise in his eyes, standing over a disfigured shape of something that was resembling anything and everything, save for a bird.

The mysterious owl’s previous emotions turn into a form of bewilderment and epicaricacy; Chris could see that the intured was smiling - what is more, he even managed to grin with his beak, somehow - albeit he was unable to see any reason for this.

All Barnes currently knew that, as soon as this bird approaches him, up to the distance of a single wingspan, he will personally claw his eyes and throat out, for what he has done to Bethany - the ex-marshal only living chance for finding out what was truly going on here was now dead.

Just like that family of Spotted owls in the hollow; just like poor and innocent Susan.

Anger welled up inside him, the type he has never experienced before, in fact, ever in his life; with a portion of his mind still thinking rationally, he came to the conclusion that this must be what an “animal instinct” felt like in action.

Nonetheless, this “instinct” has felt quite diluted, almost as if it was not actually taking over the logical decisions Barnes would have made, only influencing them, such as the suddenly acquired idea of killing this unknown owl as a bird of prey would have ended another one’s life - by sharp, ruthless claws.

- Well, well, I will be damned! - spoke the murderer with a hint of still present sadism mixed in his words; whatever torture he has completed on the defenceless Bethany, Chris was sure that this... procedure’s “enjoyments” were still present in the bird - Looks like the TSA is expanding their authority, and attempting to take over yet another airspace? - he laughed at his own joke, but, with his previous sentence, revealed too much about himself.

Even if it was not too much, but Chris now knew that, somehow, yet another human has been caught in the “snares” of this world - the only major difference here was that this one was as hostile as one could have been.

No matter which direction the following conversation will head to, Barnes has already established in himself that this owl was not going to be his future best-friend.

- Here is your girlfriend, mate! - with an unexpected level of power and strength, the owl lifted Bethany’s body up in the air, held by her deformed skull, and threw the disturbingly still body towards the ex-marshal - Have fun with her! - he added as an attempt to taunt.

Albeit the fact that, in this body, Bethany could have been found once, it was all too clear that this was not the case anymore: in front of Markson, a corpse, maimed and distorted to the point where it was only barely a recognisable, deformed shape of its former self.

For some sick and, probably, morbid reason, this murderer has went through the bloody-process of cutting out both eyes of the girl; Chris did not wanted to see more than this, as he was more than positive that, behind the curtain of red-soaked feathers, the bones of an owl’s skull were already visible.

Essentially, the deceased body Bethany was deprived of her individual face by some maniac, who was clearly disturbed in his mind - or was paid well for such a murder.

Feeling as if all hope was instantly sucked out of him, Barnes felt a tear, collecting itself up in the corner of his right eye, then dropping to the wooden floor of the hollow, barely giving out any audible sound.

The levels of rage and pure anger that were amplifying themselves inside him were reaching a border-line where they would become extremely unpredictable, and dangerous - he did not honestly care though, as this would, at least, assist him in the permanent elimination of this respectless killer in this hollow.

- Markson! - the addressed individual was about to violently lunge towards the seemingly satisfied owl, but he heard the shout from the hollow’s entrance; glancing behind himself, he spotted Lyran in the bark’s opening, dagger held strongly in his right talon - Stand back, and leave this to me! - spoke the Barn owl, sounding brave, but not necessarily strong enough to be up for the task; however, since he himself could definitely not have done better, Chris stood back, and allowed his companion to step into the dark of the hollow (however, the absence of light did not obstructed any of their visions inside, taking that, after all, they were owls).

- I would run as far as I could in your place, call someone to help, maybe! - taunted the killer again, readying his own short-bladed weapon for a fight - This one here is not gonna live for long anyway, so you might as well get yourself some backup! - he changed his body posture into a more threatening position, unfolding and lifting his wings, some kind of leather-looking strap hanging off from his right flight organ, as Chris has noticed.

Lyran committed one of the worst mistakes one could ever make in a close-combat fight: he made the first move towards his enemy, leaving a clear option for a parry, or a block from the murdereous owl.

Unfortunately, Markson’s assumptions became the reality, and a rather grim one at that; Lyran lunged forward with his weapon, lifting into the air with a single flap from his wings before doing so, so that he would have the advantage of being off the ground.

As smart as this plan might have seemed originally, the outcome in reality was not as fortunate: before his blade could make contact with his body, the unknown owl grabbed the attacking bird’s right foot, and drew it towards himself, all in the while making sure that the edged-weapon would not penetrate his flesh.

When Lyran was close enough, the killer lifted into the air himself, and comfortably stabbed his dagger into the former’s left side, pulling the weapon out from the now bloodied feathers with fearsome speed; the vital fluid sprayed across the air, and, ultimately, came to a rest on the walls of the hollow.

Lyran gave out a scream that could only have been induced by a stab of agonising pain, and collapsed to the wooden floor of the hollow, desperately attempting to keep some pressure on his fresh and disconcerningly-bleeding wound with his right talon, a fearless fight to maintain his consciousness clearly visible on his face, which was filled with the signs of physical suffering.

Markson watched in horror as he twitched and twisted on the ground for a few seconds, but, shortly enough, placed all his focus back on the assassin.

Upper-Tree Branches, Great Ga’Hoole Tree, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 5:07 a.m.

Kenneth Zwegger

With that idiotically-brave Barn owl now bleeding out and wounded on the floor of the hollow, Zwegger holstered his dagger - for now, his job was successfully accomplished. His target has been terminated, and the option of a quick get-away was still available to him.

Albeit this moron from the TSA might give an attempt towards stopping him, Zwegger could not have been less bothered - he could not really think of any potential dangers in fighting this one as well.

From a fundamental perspective, this “ex-marshal” could have been regarded as anything but a risky threat; after all, he was only the living part of this world for an approximate number of three, maybe four days, at the most; he was, as observed by Fayer’s always accurate and reliable sources, still unable of any form of flight, and was seen to be rather uncoordinated in his new body.

Therefore, Zwegger himself would not have expected a sudden appearance of expert talon-to-talon contact from this “Markson”.

He would have been an easy game to hunt down if needed, but Fayer made it extremely clear that, whatever the costs or circumstances, he wanted, as he put it, “the TSA-agent alive”; now, Zwegger’s boss was not an individual who should have been disappointed.

If the old man had plans with him, Kenneth was not going to stand in his way by questioning his superior-orders.

Even if he would have, out of the momentarily not-so-clear blue decided to go up against Malcom’s intentions, he understood that his own reward for killing the ex-agent off would have been certain and instant death - the PSRI wanted this operation to stay under a strict commander, and Fayer would not have been the one to turn a blind eye towards such a direct and offensive violation of his direct orders.

Markson will live today, but not because of Zwegger’s grace and goodwill - this was not his style of accomplishing an assassination, but his talons were tied on this matter.

He completed his original and primary objective, and it was now the time for a swift exfiltration - the TSA grunt blocking his exit should not be a difficult bridge to cross on his way out.

Zwegger decided that his best chance was to trick the ex-marshal into any form of movement, preferably into a state of temporal panick and confusion; he planned to cause this by making a hostile movement towards Markson, but not actually wounding him in the process.

This would have been only to place him off his currently solid balance, so that, while making a run for the exit of this hollow, Kenneth could, without almost no extra effort, push him over - without his claws extended, of course (he learned this through the hard way, during his training-days at the base-camp. For the record, it may be pressed that it was not only him, who suffered light-to-medium wounds that day).

What is more, temporarily immobilising the ex-marshal would prove to be a great advantage towards Zwegger’s escape; even in the case in which Markson would have came up with the insane and somewhat-suicidal idea of attempting to chase Kenneth down... the ex-agent would still have been incapable of on-foot movement for at least five seconds, giving the successful assassin a comfortable time-window for his escape.

Zwegger considered the “moment of action” to be here and now; he already was over the phases of planning, and was now about to execute his thought-out actions.

Kenneth lunged towards Markson, who, as predicted, attempted to move away from the danger-zone in a laughably wretched style; if he would have been ordered to kill the ex-marshal, the latter would have had no chance of survival.

Deliberately crashing into Markson’s feathered body with an, evidently, overwhelming force, using his left wing’s shoulder-like bone, Zwegger did not even bothered to check behind; not after the physical impact, and not after he passed the now cold and obviously-dead corpses of the two guards - however, he almost slipped in the pool of blood that was left behind from his little... talon-work.

He headed towards the same direction from which he has arrived from about twenty-five minutes ago, pushing all and every other bypasser out of his way in the narrow tunnels of wood; he needed not to be discreet anymore, and he considered it to be pretty much impossible for a verbal-alarm to go around the whole tree in less than three minutes - as this was the amount of time that he, personally, needed to pull of his caper just fine, and be back at the base-camp by the first rays of the rising sun.

He arrived to a point in his escape-route where he would, by the “rules”, had to turn to the right, head down an enclosed corridor of wood and bark, in which he would have spiralled down onto a platform, which was set in a lower-position, roughly about a meter drop.

If knowing that he was chased, he would have took this shortcut, but, knowing that this idiot from the TSA had absolutely no rational or positive odds of catching up with him, Zwegger decided to just take the scenic-route.

It would only take him meaningless length of eight, maybe, in the worst case, ten seconds - at this stage of his escape, nothing could possibly have gone wrong.

The Guardians were not yet alerted (and would not be for another two minutes or so, maybe even more if that Barn owl bleeds out before he could call for help), and Markson was not a hazardous detail to worry about anymore.

A clear run back down to the presently abandoned training-grounds, and he will be off of this island in no time!

Upper-Tree Branches, Great Ga’Hoole Tree, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 5:10 a.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

From what he has just accomplished in front of his eyes - murdering without a trace of emotional-twitch or difficulty on his face, and an apparent competence in the field of “avian close-combat” - Chris would have expected this assassin to be a lot more mindful of his surroundings; first, Barnes was thinking that it will only take him two seconds to be busted by the killer, and maybe even stabbed himself, but, to his largest surprise - from all the others today, the bird did not even made sure of Markson losing his balance, and, conclusively, falling over!

In reality, the ex-marshal has succeded, although barely, in remaining on his two talons, and, immediately after his brain has managed to process the events of the past minutes, Chris began to chase after the only connection that was left to Bethany - her murderer.

And now, here he was, standing on the edge of a one meter drop, reconsidering if doing such a movement would be a sane idea; sure, one single meter did not sounded that high, but, in this body, Barnes had to take into account that he would fall in a downwards direction, and the length of that fall would be the double own his own height, as an owl.

Then, it came to his mind, and he almost began to scold himself for not thinking of this sooner; even though he was unable (and unwilling) to fly, he still had wings. Now, if he would unfold and extend his wings while falling, and, maybe, flap them as well...

Barnes was honestly thinking that he would have been better off not even thinking about such a plan of taking a shortcut, but, swiftly recognising that he was being - needlessly, may we stress - indecisive over such an obvious decision, he cleared his mind of all thoughts and doubts, and jumped for it.

The whole descent took only two seconds of his lifetime - maybe not even that much; at a point, Markson was having the mixed feelings of both perfect inner peace and nausea, and, if interviewed about his experience in that precise moment, he, without a doubt, would have described it as... rather enjoyable.

His wings extended and gracefully flapping have felt natural and, simply, right, as if this was the only reason of his existence; definitely, Chris was unsure of why these feelings have occurred to him, but he found them to be too delightful to be ignored, or chased away from his head.

Instead, he took the advantage of this unique opportunity, and kept his mind focused on being mid-air - even the possibility of flying has crossed his brain for a second, like a stray electric impulse between his neurons.

However, the combination of the above mentioned emotions has came to an abrupt end as soon as his feet have came in contact with the ground - rather painfully and that; losing his balance this time, Barnes fell over, but managed to quickly stagger to an upright position for once again.

He glanced around with the speed of desperation; the assassin was nowhere to be seen - yet.

And this was excellent; if he wanted to take that drop on this maniac, he would better hope that there was a location that would benefit towards his ambush-plan.

If there would only have been a tight corner, some place where Chris could have jumped out from in the right moment...

He presupposed that the main section of this gigantic tree’s bole, which was just a few steps away from him, would conceal him from the naked eye, and give him a position which would be just right for an ambush; it would also provide him with a solid foothold as well, as this, more compact-sized area of the tree has seemed to be a smaller version of the previously already-encountered “Grand Terrace”.

By a child’s logic, this should have been the perfect spot for a surprise-attack, as, hiding behind the desired corner, Markson would have been unable to see the exit of the tunnel - the one which the killer has entered only a few seconds ago - but then, neither could the assassin have spotted him while hiding.

There was no time to reconsider his other potential options (and, to be truthful here, there was no different alternative choice to be taken); Barnes ran for the already-choosen spot, and, we could say, leaped behind its cover, pressing his back to against the rough bark, his eyes facing towards the direction in which Bethany’s killer will be headed, once he would leave the wooden passageway.

From this point on, he will be required to rely on his ears, which, in this exceptional situation, might prove to be rather helpful; after all, owls naturally had their ear-slits designed for an excellent skill-level of hearing.

Relying on his suddenly surging instinctive impulses once again, the ex-marshal cocked and bent his head slightly to the right, somehow recognising that, as a matter of fact, his hearing grew more sensitive, and more perceptive.

Five seconds passed, and Markson was beginning to have that dreadful feeling around his stomach-area again; he could not hear anything that might have resembled footsteps - even those of an owls. Did the assassin see him, and decided to run or fly off in the opposite direction? Was he going on a different path in the first place? Or maybe...

That was the moment when the soundwaves have hit Chris’ sensitive ear-slits, and gave his brain a rough estimation of how far the bird was from his ambush-spot - not a kilometre, at least, this much he knew.

He patiently stayed dead-still, and waited until the talon-steps grew louder in his ear-slits, already tensing a few muscles, ready to strike precisely in the moment when the killer would run past his position...

“Now”, he thought, and pivoted around the edge of his hiding-place, left wing extended and held with intense strength, hitting the owl exactly at the point of his body where Barnes wanted to make contact with him; summing up those seconds, Markson has, essentially, used his flight organ as if, again, it would have been a human arm.

His plan for the whole time was to swing his wing into the bird’s throat, temporarily hindering his ability of respiration, and, in the meantime, knocking him off from his talons, onto the wooden platform, where he would be way more simpler to disarm and keep immobile - with his current skills of this “talon-to-talon” combat, Chris was not daring to risk anything else while the murderer was armed and standing.

With his successfully delivered “wing-swing” in the owl’s throat, the ex-marshal now had the upper hand - or talon.

Without wasting a single precious moment, Markson began to scan around the vicinity of the bird’s body, as he was incontrovertibly positive that his ear-slits have caught the sound of a metal hitting against the platform’s surface; his haste could have been taken as a reason of panic and mild fear - if the bird would reclaim his metal dagger before Barnes, well... his whole, well-executed maneuver would have counted towards nothing.

After a second, the glint of the slowly disappearing stars brought his attention to the dark, yet quite reflective blade of the weapon; not a moment later than they should have, as he was not the only one reaching for the deadly-instrument now.

Until he was glancing around for the above mentioned object, the assassin managed to regain most of his breath, and was already beginning to function as if nothing has ever happened to his throat; he was already starting to grope around with his own talons, searching for his lost weapon

Luckily enough, Markson’s dexterity came victorious in that miniature form of a skirmish, and, in no time, Chris had his left foot, gripping tightly, but not too strongly, on the owl’s neck, and his right talon, holding the dark-bladed dagger somewhat shakingly, yet solidly to his suspect’s neck.

- You move as such as a twitch, and I am going to open your throat up! - hissed Barnes with his beak, his ocean-blue eyes emitting a deadly glow on the grounded bird - Now, you are going to answer my questions! - he raised his voice’s volume back to a pleasant conversation’s level, albeit it was clear that his planned, on-the-field interrogation was not going to be anywhere near a casual and friendly chat.

Although he failed to notice the first two, maybe three orders and shouts, soon, it became clear to him that his not requested „backup” has arrived; at least six fully armed owls, all of them having a similar, beret-like headwear, much like the ones that the guards back at the late Bethany’s hollow have worn - these, presumably, were some form of uniform, creating an easily noticeable line of division between those who have called themselves „Guardians”, and those who would have been, in a specific, ordinary world, classified as „civilians”.

However, as mentioned previously, he was to occupied with the difficulty of holding himself back from stabbing that dagger through this owl’s skull, and brain - he was only holding himself back for two reasons.

Firstly, he had a great number of questions that he was not going to leave unasked, and, secondly, this... pitiful excuse of a living individual has deserved something much worse and longer than a quick stab in the crania.

- Owl, I need you to back off from the suspect, and to drop your weapon! - he heard the voice of a female (obviously owl), advising him to act as if he would have been the hostile enemy here - I will need you to comply, otherwise, we will have to drag you off him! - the shout was heard again, Barnes picturing in front of himself the prissy and officious face of this owl; she might have been doing her job right now, but this assassin here has turned into a personal matter of vengeance.

- Suspect? - responded Markson, but kept the blade strictly and firmly at the murderer’s feathered neck - He is a confirmed perpetrator, for God’s sake, and you want me to get off him! - the ex-marshal raised his voice, hoping that the demonstration of this kind of confidence would earn him his truth.

Unsuccessfully the latter has went, and, instead of word of sympathy or understanding, another notice of an order was stated by the female.

- We will be the ones to decide that, owl, not you! - she was truly starting to get on Chris’ nerves now - Now, get off of him, otherwise... - at this point, Markson has lost his patience, and his self control in the conversation has snapped.

- If you are not going to help, just shut up and let me do my work! - he yelled back at the female, himself unsure of why he described his planned interrogation as his work; not that he was not trained for such circumstances, but... stating that this was his „work” was just... odd, even to him.

Nevertheless, he refocused his thoughts on the restrained killer, and began to ask his questions.

- Firstly, you bastard! - he screamed into the bird’s face, barely managing to hold him back from spitting on him (however, he was not fully certain that birds were even able to do that) - Who the hell are you, and what interest did you have in killing an innocent girl? - if he would have been able to show the white of his teeth, he would have; however, for obvious reasons, this was impossible to do.

No answer came, and Chris took this as a request of physical harm from the bird; if he was not going to speak, then Barnes will be required to use methods that were not a set of examples to be followed.

Nonetheless, before he could have done anything, the owl began to laugh in a hysterical-voice, as if he had suddenly began to find his current position overly entertaining; or, alternatively, something has snapped in him.

Markson would have voted for the latter.

- Which one do you want first? My badge number from the FBI, or my service number from the SEALs? - he broke off into another maniacal stream of laughter again, convincing Barnes that, maybe, this bird might have had a few problems in his head.

- You are not a prisoner of war; I have asked for your name! - spoke the ex-marshal, suspecting that, with derailing the conversation, the assassin was aiming to waste Chris’ time, so that he would be taken off him before he could have acquired a single useful answer.

- Special Agent Kenneth Zwegger, at your service - smirked the owl, laying out both of his wings as a sign of surrender, easing the difficulty of the ex-marshal’s task of holding him down - But that is all you will get from me, I assure you! - he lifted his head up a bit, lowering his voice, so that only Barnes could hear him - Get out of our business as soon as you can, marshal, or we will hunt you down before you could blink an eye! - he threw a threat at Markson, who allowed it to go right past his ear-slits.

- Who is „we”? - questioned Chris with a demand - Tell me something that makes sense and is useful, otherwise I am going to... - here, he was, unexpectedly and startlingly, cut off by the murderer.

- ...What, kill me? - he grinned right into the ex-marshal’s face, the muscles and tendons of his talons beginning to tense, however, the latter has went unnoticed by Markson - That is where you would make no real difference in the outcome of the events! - a short space of silence followed; Barnes was hesitant with the choice of actually responding to bird’s previous words, and the assassin continued to grin with a slight trace of madness on his face.

- What are you talking about? - Chris followed the murderer’s style of speech, and lowered his voice before he stated this question; he has already let his guard down too much, and, unfortunately, the assassin has managed to sketch out a plan in his head, all revolving around the matter of breaking free from the ex-marshal’s hold.

- You see, I have told you my name - began the owl, and rather cryptically, while we are at it - And, if you know who I am... - at this point, the killer, with an unusual amount of force, headbutted Markson in his face, who responded to this with a distressed cry; while his captor was still in the state of being-caught-by-surprise, the murderer gripped Markson’s talon, the one that was holding the dagger, and pressed it against his own neck - If you know who I am... - he restarted his previous, unfinished sentence - ...I am already dead! - and, with these words being his last, Zwegger drove the blade into his own throat, giving out the sound of a bloody gurgle before succumbing to a violent set of fits.

As an act of pure panic, Markson grabbed the dagger’s handle, and yanked it out from the bird’s windpipe, revealing a deep gash, from which blood was pouring out, re-painting the wooden platform on which they were standing and lying on with a dark shade of red. Taking a short glance of irritation at the dagger, Chris tossed it to the side, now regretting of not throwing it away in the first place.

However, his above actions were to no avail, as, seconds later, the assassin has lost consciousness - probably induced by the pain - and, not so long after, died under Markson’s talons as the final bits of his life-power seeped away, like the last rays of the setting sun.

Soon enough, Markson could feel the appearance of a sudden and unexpected distance between himself and the now deceased Zwegger’s corpse; only a moment later he was able to realise that two other owls were in the physically non-demanding process of restraining him, and, to his dismay, however hard he struggled against this iron-hold, Chris was unable to free himself.

„Well, at least,” he thought, „there is no sedation this time!”; his memories about that needle being stabbed into him, back at the infirmary, were still rather fresh - the still-sensitive-injection-wound type of fresh.

- Do not let him move! - shouted a familiar, male voice, albeit, momentarily, the ex-marshal could not recall its owner’s name, or identity - He twitches, you sedate him, and I do not care what with, got it? - Barnes ceased his movements, although, for two main reasons, from which both were quite pressing, in his opinion.

First and foremost, Markson did not wished his skin to be penetrated by another needle, for another time, and, for second and last, he suddenly managed to recall the familiar voice’s ipseity, and its owner’s name - in case one would have been wondering, the ex-marshal was not about to be greeted by great and relieving news.

-Well, well, who do we have here? - the unpreferable character of Byran walk in front of the capture Barnes’ visual-cone. A satisfied gaze kindling in his eyes, epicaricacy shown by his facial gesture; he obviously was enjoying his current position and status of power, staring at Chris with a mix of what could have been considered both utter despise, and a victorious smirk - Not even Valery can get you out of this one, can she now? - he leaned in closer to speak the former, a warm stench of some dead rodent hitting Markson’s nostrils while the bird was talking; he believed this to be the „after-smell” of the owl’s breakfast, which the ex-marshal has sincerely hoped to have been totally awful and abysmal. He truly wished that.

Needless to say, but this situation might have been the worst so far that Chris has managed to get himself involved in; after all, stressing and pulling Byran’s nerves to the point where he has sent for Valery was a task that required Barnes to truly irritate him.

It would have been indubitably true that the acquaintanceship of the ex-marshal and Byran did not quite start off on the right foot, and the bird was not going to give him any favors now - he had no reason to, and this was all perfectly fine.

After all, this could only have been a mistake: Markson was innocent, and even this owl could not have done anything against direct orders - unless, of course, he was the current individual in command.

That would have ruined Chris’ day even more.

- What do you think you are doing, Byran? - this was the first logical and polite-sounding question that came to Barnes’ mind, and the only, single one so far as well; without any optional alternative, he decided to stick with it, for the moment.

To an extent, he really had not a single idea or theory of why he was so suddenly placed into a position of a captive; however, by rethinking the course of the events that have just occurred, seconds ago, in fact... he was beginning to see the outlines of the „big picture”; these owls - or, if he had wished to be formal, Guardians - were thinking that he deliberately stabbed Zwegger in his throat, murdering him in the process.

It was no secret to the ex-marshal that the late assassin has committed suicide to avoid imprisonment or questioning - they were all standing around them when it happened, they surely must have spotted that it was Zwegger who pulled that dagger into his own windpipe!

But did they know, or see? That was the main question here; if not, well... another, hopefully, short-length of „Guardian-custody” was waiting for Chris.

- What do I think I am doing? - spoke Byran with an either honest and genuine, or well-acted astonishment on his face; that hostile, dislikeable, smirking face of his - Detaining you for killing a suspect who was, next to the fact of being unarmed, was already kept in an inescapable position by being surrounded! - for this sentence, he raised his volume to a considerably higher level, so that it almost turned into a shout.

While doing so, he gestured with his right wing around themselves: a circle of owls, all wearing a similar beret-style headwear, enclosed the dead body of Zwegger, the restrained Markson, and the imperious Byran, all appearing to be standing ready for any further orders.

- In your place, Markson, if that really is your name, I would be questioning my own sanity! You have just killed our only lead in a murder-investigation... - at this point, Chris had enough, and interrupted the owl mid-sentence, who, although shut his beak, gave the ex-marshal a withering look; the latter has simply ignored it.

- In your place, I would be questioning my own sight! - he has also raised his voice, which has seemed to be somewhat of a threatening action towards Byran, who, although attempted to conceal this momentary weakness, has failed to do, for the most part; Barnes could still see that faint light of self-doubt in the bird’s eyes.

He was not exactly afraid, or intimidated by the ex-marshal, but there was... something there that Chris could not quite take a grasp of - it was as if the owl was nervous about a secret, one that he did not quite wished to be found out.

Barnes did not prefered him as an individual owl; so far, he has done nothing of assistance or benefit towards Markson - it was as if he was only here to interfere with the ex-marshal.

- What do you think might be wrong with my sight? - inquired Byran with weakly-concealed form of sarcasm.

- That suspect has took control of that dagger, and cut his own throat! - hissed Barnes at the owl, who gave him a look as if the latest speaker would have been a mental patient.

- And what idiot would do that, if I may ask? - even now, the cynical-tone was distinctly present in his voice’s tone; it was now beginning to irritate Chris.

But, of course, most would have been quite provoked in a similar situation, such as this; after all, no one enjoyed being restrained and accused as a murderer.

- One who would wish to avoid questioning, or interrogation - replied the ex-marshal in a more casual tone, then carried on, as Byran did not quite appeared to be convinced - Listen, can you just place your damn personal resentments and prejudices aside for a moment, and think about this rationally? - for this, previous sentence, the bird has seemed to have turned more lenient, finally; he gazed off into the distance, looking like he was, for the first occasion in his life, reconsidering more logical and realistic theories of what might have just happened, right before Zwegger buried that dagger deep in his throat - maybe, Byran was finally convinced by reason.

Nevertheless, Markson had to give up his hopes almost as soon as he has established them, as the owl has simply turned his eyes back towards him, and spoke in a dismissive fashion.

- You might have killed him, you might have not; it is not my decision to make - the smirk has re-appeared on his face, smashing the last pieces of confidence Chris’ mind was still bearing into a million little shards of disappointment and defeat.

- Take him to his previous cell! - signaled Byran to the two owls, who were still holding the ex-marshal tightly, so that he could not move an inch, even if he would have wished to - The High-Council can handle his hearing later! - he finished with a nod, to which the two captors of Barnes responded to by starting to drag him away, holding onto his wings with their wings, beginning to slowly escort him away from the scene.

- Wait, stop! - with an unanticipated and sudden surge of physical strength, Markson made an impetuous jerk towards the right, and, with this, surprisingly enough, freed himself from his captors; one of the owls took a dagger out from some kind of holster that was attached to his left foot, and raised it in a protective, and an even somewhat defensive style. Disinterested about the latter movement, Barnes gave his opinion with the usage of a few words - Put that away! What am I going to do, take every single one of you out by myself? - the owl with the unsheathed weapon, proving that he was not as incompetent as Byran, lowered his weapon, but still maintained an almost non-existent distance between (presumably) himself, and the ex-marshal, for the unlikely case of Chris actually attempting to do something physically endangering.

- What do you two think you are doing! - shouted Byran at the two birds, who had Markson restrained only a short collection of seconds ago, causing them to turn their heads around, panic and confusion sitting on their face; for some reason, the minor fury and constant anger of the Horned owl has ascended and amplified into an almost full-fledged state of conniption - Why did not you sedate him, like I ordered you so? You two will follow your orders, or, and I swear this on Glaux, I will make sure that you end up on the worst end of the Shadow Forest, and on patrol-duty! - if Byran’s eyes could have killed, the two owls would have definitely been dead by now; whatever their „officer” has just threatened them with, it must have been something exceptionally terrifying, and the two birds were now hurrying their quick steps towards the ex-marshal, assumably planning to put a needle in him again.

Markson was about to give a verbal form of protest against his, apparently, inevitable-imprisonment, however, before he could have done so - and before he was restrained for another time - another familiar voice, this one stirring up more pleasant memories in Chris’ brain, thundered across the instense air of the crack of the dawn, silencing everything, even the fairly private whispers of conversations.

- Lance-Corporal Byran, would care to explain of what is happening here? - Barnes turned his head around, and spotted a Barn owl, approximately six steps away from him, slowly closing in towards the ex-marshal, and the Horned owl.

Although it did take a bit of a dig around his own memories for Markson to recall the name, and, once again, the identity of this bird; he remembered him to be unequivocally more favorable and aiding than Byran ever was in the past day, that was a fact he could work with.

By this point in time, the Barn owl has reached them with his slow pace of walk, nodding to Chris as he passed next to him; the ex-marshal responded with a similar gesture, and, there and then, his brain had it - both the individual’s name, and his identity.

- Lieutenant Latimer, sir - saluted Byran with his right wing, raising it to the top of his head; seeing his current behaviour as a subordinate near a higher-ranking officer was almost lamentably pathetic. If he would not have acted like a sworn enemy of Markson in the past few minutes, he might actually have felt sorry and forgiven him; but, knowing that, pretty much, the exact opposite has happened, Barnes could not feel anything, but schadenfreude, towards the Horned owl.

- At ease, Lance-Corporal - spoke Latimer, more calmly than seconds before; although it was clearly noticeable that the Barn owl was following the proper hierarchy of military ranks (at least, in the „normal” world, they would be mostly used by armed forces), howbeit, Chris, personally, believed that the Lieutenant, deep inside, did not even planned on showing any true respect towards the Horned owl - Now, would you mind to give an explanation of why you would wish to arrest Markson? - asked Latimer, gesturing towards the ex-marshal with his left wing.

- Because... he has murdered our only suspect and lead in an on-going investigation, sir - however well he was attempting to hide it now, it was clear that Byran was at a loss of words, and was just searching around for excuses, so that he could get away with his almost-successful revenge on Chris; Latimer has not responded, therefore, the Horned owl continued on - Sir, I wish to add that I have followed proper procedure, unlike others in the past days... - he left a short pause for his insult towards a specific female owl to sink in, then finished his sentence - And I truly believe that, after what he has done, Silverbeak must be prosecuted - concluded the bird, shooting a quick, threatening glance towards the ex-marshal.

- Lance-Corporal... you might want to take Markson’s advice, and arrange a medical check-up with the healers, regarding the dysfunctionality of your eyes - Byran was about to respond back to this, but Latimer has silenced him with his left talon lifted up and opened, signalling “stop” towards the bird - I was one of the first owls on the scene, observing the events from a safe, but still rather close distance, and I can tell you this - his voice now changed tone from a casual talker’s to a stone-cold general’s, even discouraging Barnes from even thinking about cutting off the Barn owl by speaking - That assassin has stabbed himself in his own throat, for the potential reasons of what our friend here has already specified: to take his answers and pieces of information to his grave - at this stage, the Lieutenant has walked closer up to Byran, to such an almost non-existent distance where their beaks have almost touched - I hope that your mistake in this... executive decision you have attempted can be categorised as an... error that was induced by misinterpretation; but, if it turns out that your... emotions towards Markson were the primary reasons that have pushed you to take such an action... - Latimer has now lowered his voice to an almost inaudible volume - ...Then I am afraid that you might be the one, who would require relocation to the Shadow Forest! - for a seemingly long period of three seconds, the two owls have maintained a silent eye-contact - You are dismissed, Lance-Corporal - said Latimer ultimately, turning away from the dumbfounded and (deep down, possibly) infuriated Byran, then spoke to the massive crowd of owls that has gathered around this grim scene - I need everyone who is not a senior member of the GHID to leave, and carry on with their daily-activities; I am confident that every single one of you have more appealing matters to attend to than a crime-scene! - his voice returned to that typical, knows-his-duty type of tone; Barnes could not help, but watch with a minor astonishment as, literally, everyone but a few, assumably GHID-owls, left this bloody scene.

In the distance, Markson could see Byran, mid-air, flying off into the young dawn of the sky, appearing to leave the island for some, probably personal, reason.

Nonetheless, other than the ex-marshal, no one has paid attention, or did not noticed this.

Seeing that everyone has abandoned this area of the tree, Latimer indicated to Chris to position himself in a conversation-distance from the Lieutenant.

When Barnes managed to carry this straightforward order out, the Barn owl nodded towards Zwegger’s motionless and cold body, commencing a dialogue as the two have began to slowly walk towards the aforementioned corpse.

- Good job with dispatching our dead suspect here; too bad he was so keen on keeping his little secrets to himself - he turned his dark eyes toward the corpse of the late assassin, and began to observe it with honest curiosity - What did he say his name was? It sounded way too unusual to me, and I suspect that he is definitely not from the Southern-Kingdoms - his gaze has wandered onto Chris’ face.

- No, as he was not from this, present world - Markson raised his head, and stared deeply into Latimer’s eyes - He was from mine - he sighed, then casted his gaze down, looking into the glassy and lightless eyes of the late assassin.

- Are you certain about this? - questioned the Lieutenant, a minimal trace of doubt detectable in his discernible in his voice.

- More than about anything other I have encountered, during the short timespan that I have spent in this world - the ex-marshal shook his head, slowly, as if he was mourning the dead killer - Kenneth Zwegger; now, even if the name would not have gave it away, he has identified... organisations that only an individual from my world could have ever heard about. However, I am still left dumbfounded by one, singular missing piece of this puzzle - he kept a short period of silence as he waited for the Barn owl to glance up at him - Also, I have no doubt that this is the question that is your main interest as well: why has he done all this? - here, Barnes turned his head towards the sea, which was visible from this section of the tree, gazing down into its vast and eternal being, feeling his mind becoming somewhat more peaceful, the longer he kept watching those harmonious waves, calmly drifting along, as if they have had nothing better to do.

- What caught me by surprise was that he referred to some others as well; I mean, he mentioned that “they” will hunt you down - began Latimer, moving next to Markson, cautiously evading the pool of blood that has manifested itself around the corpse.

- Hold on for a second! - Barnes returned to the usage of words, turning to the Lieutenant - How could you have possibly hear that? - he asked with curiosity, his question sounding more like pure amazement.

- Well, without sounding like a type of snob... - chuckled Latimer delightfully - I am a Barn owl, and my species’ hearing is, well... to put it fairly, our hearing is extraordinary, compared to other owls’ ears; for me to detect those words of this... “Zwegger” was no complication - he concluded, smiling.

- I see - replied Chris shortly with a rather simplistic answer, then decided to focus back on the current matters, which were mostly about Zwegger - We will require additional information to establish even just a theory of why he did what he did - he aimed to sound thoughtful and demure, however, deep down, his brain was racing with the pessimistic and negative thoughts that they will never find out why this assassin decided to kill Bethany; for some reason, the fear of this has put him on the edge.

With his latter sentence though, Barnes has successfully achieved to be regarded as if he was a professional in this (and, to be honest, he somewhat was), and almost felt like as if he was “back in commission”; working with a form of investigation-agency again.

- I would not usually give out favours, just like this, and, sincerely considering it, this is not really a favour, but... - hesitated Latimer, sighing deeply before continuing - ...There has not been a murder at this tree, island even, for, at least, seventy years or so; I can safely assure you that what has occurred here... it will most absolutely attract attention, and from all over the kingdoms, maybe even from the North... - he aimed his gaze into Markson’s eyes - They will definitely initiate a deeper and thorough investigation, and will attempt to figure out of who this “Zwegger” was, and what reason or motive he had for such an, as I was told, brutal murder - the Lieutenant scratched his head with a talon, reaching all the way up to his head, showing a surprising amount of flexibility; after appearing to think for a while, he reached for the leather belt that was tied around his waist, unsheathing a small-sized, but still rather vicious-looking dagger; he threw it up in the air, but only for just a few centimetres, and caught it by the blade.

He took a lengthened glance at the grip, then held it out towards the ex-marshal, who, to this, simply shook his head and gave out an unsure, and extended uh sound, showing a simply understandable protest against the Barn owl’s offer.

- Most of the GHID and the Guardians would probably lynch me for this, but, if there are other assassins to go after the kind of you and Bethany... - he stretched his right foot out as much as he could, attempting to shove the weapon even closer to Barnes - Look, in the past three hours, three innocents have been killed: two GHID-members with their families now mourning, and a victim who was under our protection. I will be damned to the bottom of Hagsmire if I let another bird, who is connected to this case, die! Now, take the dagger already! - Markson submitted to the Lieutenants demands, and attempted to take a grasp on the leather-wrapped grip - Actually! Do not take it now! - he suddenly pulled the weapon back; Chris just gave him an impatient look - It will be easier for everyone if you do not carry it around just yet; I will try to get my talons on a spare belt and holster from the quartermaster, and drop everything off in your hollow, once we have selected one for you. It will be private, and you should be able to store it somewhere safe in there; and hopefully... not trip over it and cut yourself with it - he smiled, apparently delighted by his own humour; noticing that it was not quite the same with Chris, the Barn owl coughed once, then returned to a previous topic - Anyway, do not worry! I can assure you of this here and now; if there are any more owls like this assassin was, they are not going to slip away from our sight this easily! - the bird has cleared his throat, stared at the wooden platform he was standing on for a second or two, then spoke again - I guess what I am trying to say is that I will attempt undertake the effort to provide you with as much information as I can about any advancements in this very case, so you will be able to keep track of all the events that will be ongoing. Also, who knows? - he questioned, and Barnes was about to instinctively ask back, only then realising that Latimer’s inquiry was purely rhetorical - I will put in a good word for you at the GHID’s Colonel; maybe he will give me authorisation to involve you in a few other investigations as well... - at this moment, the Lieutenant was abruptly cut off by the ex-marshal, who has, visually, seemed to have been taken off-guard by the previous statement of the Barn owl.

- Wait, wait! - spoke Barnes as if he did not have truly believed the bird; well, to some extent, his mind was considering that this might have been a very witty form of humour - Really? Just like this? Taking me into investigations? Okay, listen, one single question: why me? - wished to know the ex-marshal with genuine incredulousness - What possible value do I hold toward any kind of investigation that is conducted by your, and please do not take offense, kind? - to his long list of questions, the Barn owl’s response was quick, yet organised.

- To be honest with you... - he sighed - It actually was Valery to bring this idea up for the first time; I, and of course, many others, have instantly stood against it the moment we have heard it, but... I do not know - Latimer shook his head - I guess everyone deserves a second chance, and, after I what I saw, I truly believe that you have earned yourself another one, for now - he concluded, took a breath, then decided to carry on with an unknown topic - I think it may be time to... - as mentioned literally a few words beforehand, the Lieutenant started to speak about something, but never finished, due to a third, unexpected individual arriving in their vicinity.

The small-sized owl about whom the ex-marshal was assured to have seen already, lighted down approximately two feet away from Barnes and Latimer.

Consequently after taking a swift glance around the this specific area of the tree, the little bird headed right for the Barn owl, starting to unbuckle some kind of wooden-tube with his beak while being in constant movement; as he arrived, the latter item has turned out to be some kind of container, seemingly meant for the carriage of parchments, and other paper-based documents.

It had an odd and old-fashioned, but clearly hand- (or, in this case, talon-) carved design on its outer-body, and, in its top strap, which, when fastened, probably has kept all the parchments intact, there was an additional decoration of multiple feathers - at the first glance, mostly a magpie’s, and a crow’s.

Only now did Markson arrive to the realisation that everything these owls had and made, be that the GHID’s uniform-like berets, capes, or mantles that Barnes has spotted a few birds wearing, back at the grand-terrace, the shapes of their daggers, or any other, miscellaneous garments or clothing-like belongings or items, reflected the flourishing-era of the Renaissance, with their visual-style.

Interestingly enough, these, may we call them, in lack of a better expression, “clothes”, have appeared to not be some, just haphazardly placed-together rags, but, instead, seemed to be expertly and professionally woven and sewn, maybe even stitched - how this process has been accomplished, though, Barnes could not possibly have imagined, even if he would have attempted it with the ultimate of his fantasy-imagery; his mind’s eye, so to speak.

If this place was indeed some type of an alternate-universe (which Chris still found to be rather unlikely and improbable, but, having no alternative theory to hold into, this was the only half-sane idea he could somewhat associate his minimal knowledge of pseudoscience with), it truly was an astonishing one; hundreds and hundreds of years of an active, living, and intellectually evolving community and race of owls...

Markson found himself wondering of the physical boundaries of this world. Was this, essentially, still “Earth”, just, simply, left untouched by the hands of humanity? If so, how did it occur exactly? Did mankind failed to advance to a sufficient level, and got eliminated from the survival of the fittest?

He could have gave as much thought as he had wanted to towards his own questions, however, the book he has read, back in the library, could have mercilessly dismissed his theory from is very roots of foundation; that old, dust-covered volume has precisely stated that once, an unthinkably long time ago, humans did roam this Earth, but then, out of the clear, blue sky (the latter sounding quite literal in Chris’ head, especially as he has thought of the Cold War of the nineteen-seventies), disappeared without a trace - currently assumed to be extinct.

Was this truly the fate humanity has received in this place? Not even Markson could have been counted as the last and only living representative of mankind, taking that he was, if observed by his physiology and physical form, was not a human anymore; did that make this... “parallel-something” the road that was never travelled by the “normal” world?

An alternate universe, where humanity has failed to not annihilate itself?

Then there was Bethany - this now only pronounceable in past-tense: what was her role in all this, along with the CIA, and this... PSRI-agency, or whoever they where?

Barnes has understood that the CIA has launched some type of a reconnaissance-mission on this PSRI-company, as told by the late “Miss Losold”, and the latter’s idea of how she crossed over has made, at least, a minimal sense, but what type of information was it that, in actuality, such an individual as Zwegger would have tried to retrieve from her?

What was his true aim?

If Markson has settled on the decision to conclude from the events of this dawn, the assassin’s real motive was to gain Bethany’s silence - and to do so in a permanent fashion.

Although it was true that this was done by him too many times by now, but Barnes has refocused his thoughts on the momentary events again; him, Latimer, and the third, almost random bird with his parchment-carrying tube.

Albeit the small-sized owl’s wooden-carrier was full of them, the, presumably, messenger-owl did not touched any of the parchments, but, instead, cautiously, yet precisely, lifted a tiny piece of a paper from his cylinder-shaped item, the former appearing to have a hastily-scribed, single solitary sentence on it; howbeit, this, literally “little” message was not meant for Chris (obviously enough), although this could have been effortlessly deducted from the fact that the messenger, so far, has not took even just a single glance at the ex-marshal.

- Lieutenant Latimer, sir! - saluted the owl by raising his right wing to the front of his head’s top, just above the eyes; a motion with which Markson was more familiar with by this time than not - I am delivering a message from Lance-Corporal Valery; she told me to add that she is currently waiting in the newly designated hollow of, I quote, “our mutual friend, Markson” - alongside of saying this, the bird has handed the small-sized piece-of-a-parchment over (which, when realistically judged from its size, could actually has been categorised as a “note”), saluting again as the Barn owl took it with one foot, holding it with two talons; even after he has finished with his official-gesture towards his, assumably, higher-ranking officer, the messenger still kept himself away from the thoughts of even just taking a short glance in Barnes’ direction, which was beginning to become bizarre and just utterly ridiculous to the ex-marshal now.

- Thank you, Ryley - spoke Latimer, nodding with honest gratitude towards the messenger, who, after acknowledging the Barn owl’s gramercy with a similar action, took off, right into the air, from the very spot he was standing on a second ago, creating a noticeable, but minimal gust of wind.

The Lieutenant lifted the note up, in front of his eyes; he gave it a quick read, hummed a few times to himself, then turned his head towards Chris, and began to speak, for yet another time.

- I believe that it may be time to show you the location of your new, temporary, but, if you choose to, permanent dwelling; oh, and do not worry! - he noted quickly, seeing a question forming in Chris’ throat - This time, it is not going to be a cell - and, with this, he motioned with his right talons for the ex-marshal to come along, then did a circular motion with his corresponding wing in the air, turning his head backwards, and shouting an order to a seemingly random owl, but that bird undeniably being a member of the GHID - Sergeant Katalyn! The scene is yours to look after, for now! I should be back in the next ten minutes - finished the Lieutenant, then faced his front again.

Out of sheer eagerness and intense inquisitiveness, Markson also turned his head in a ninety-degree angle, just to take a quick glance at who exactly this “Sergeant Katalyn” was.

To his most massive astonishment, this owl - a female, may we add - turned out to be the exact same bird who has reprimanded and held Barnes back at Ambala, right after the moment when the poor, late Bethany went into a type of fit.

Albeit she has, unequivocally, treated the ex-marshal as some kind of suspect, maybe even a minor enemy, back at that lightning-stuck birch-tree, Chris could now have sworn that this “Sergeant Katalyn” has sent some form of a light smile towards him, and, this being even more offbeat, winked.

One of the most unusual actions Markson has seen today; this one causing a more substantial mix of surprise and shock than Zwegger ending his own life, just minutes ago, which, of course, by now, has felt like hours.

Barnes could now feel how truly exhausted he was - both physically and mentally; after all, the amount of information and happenings his brain was required to process in the past hours could have been easily overwhelming for anyone.

There were two things that he personally required right now - rest, and time; the former to allow his brain to regain its full functionality and capability, and the latter to sit in total solidarity, in a silent environment, with nothing else, but his own thoughts.

So that he could give his current situation a proper think - do a bit of cogitation on a few matters; this world, Bethany, Zwegger, the CIA, and the PSRI...

A tremendous amount to contemplate about.

However, what he did knew was that, once he and Latimer would reach that one specific hollow to meet up with Valery, a, hopefully, long night’s (or, in this case, long day’s) rest was awaiting him.

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