From Marshal To Guardian, Part One: The Crossing

Of Infirmaries and Feathers

Unknown Location

Unknown Time

Christopher Barnes Markson, Federal Air Marshal Service, TSA

Sometimes, when we are halfway asleep, but still not fully unconscious to dream, our brain starts to work in a peculiar way; you can feel that your thoughts are speeding up, you think faster, almost at the rate which occurs in the rapid eye movement state - that is when you start dreaming.

Another good example for this is when you suddenly wake up; at those points, your mind is between its deep state and reality, working on both sides, creating thoughts that come from the dream you might have just had. When you look back at those half-awake and half-asleep ideas of your brain, you might find that they appear strange, crazy, or funny.

In 99% of our cases, this is perfectly normal, there is nothing to worry about. Although, if you still do not feel confident enough, you can contact one of our medical facilities in your area, and you can participate in a free medical-checkup program. We at DreamCare think about you as an important patient, and will do anything to help you in any scenarios...

- Oh, please, not again, Chris! - Susan came into the kitchen; she was wearing her morning dress, the same one she was clothed in on their honeymoon - I shared my opinion on that book, and you know exactly well what I think about it! - she put her hands on her waist, and shook her head playfully.

- Yeah - agreed Markson - But that does not means that I cannot read it! - he laughed, closed the book, then put it down on the coffee table. After, he lifted his cup, and drank the tea left in it - Anyhow, you know I only read it to laugh at it - he told the honest truth - You know that!

Margolyes tilted her head sideways and smiled again - What do you want for breakfast? - she asked while she walked over to the oven, and placed a pan on the top of the cooking equipment - Eggs? Toast? Maybe some water for old times' sake? - she chuckled.

- I think you already decided about the food yourself! - stated Barnes as he saw her breaking an egg on the side of the sink; indeed, he was right. When Susan decided that she makes a specific meal, that is what she will make.

Markson checked his watch; „Hm", he exclaimed in thought, „Déjà vu. When was the last time I had that? God, it was so long ago, I cannot even remember why I had it!". The electronic timepiece on his wrist showed 32:64.

For a moment, Chris took this naturally, but then it actually reached his mind. „Wait, what?", he looked at the watch again. The same number was shown by the dial; to this, he frowned.

- Honey? - he said in a questioning way. This could only been some major factory error.

- Hm? - she glanced up for a moment from her cooking - What is it?

- Could you tell me the time? - requested Barnes while he knocked on the mechanism's glass cover. It did not seem to do anything on that, not reseting, not changing; it just kept going on in its abnormal way of counting the time.

- You have a watch, do not you? - she acted her seriousness very well, but her smile gave everything away. After a short while, she actually answered the question - It is sixty-four minutes past thirty-two, why?

- Nothing, nothing - Markson got carried off a bit; so it was not him imagining things, neither the electronics malfunctioning (the previous two words sounded strange to him anyway). So... after all...

„The watch is not broken!", he thought as he realised that he made a mistake, „What was I thinking of? Hah!"; although, it felt like that some kind of idea was pushed into the back of his brain, making it linger around in some half-forgotten corner.

- Well then! - Barnes made a single clap, then rubbed his hands together - If I may change the topic... - started Chris cautiously and slow-paced.

- You may do, mister! - Margolyes used a fork and a knife to put the now fried eggs on a ceramic plate - But remember to eat your breakfast, or else I will not let you to go to work!

„Hm, work", he wondered, „What do I work as again?". Why was he forgetting vital information now? What changed since the past 8 years of their marriage that induced this now? „I retired from the TSA months ago; Susan needed me to help out with Rachel", he carried on with the thought-trail, „Of course, the publishing office, where else!".

- Since we are running a bit late - Margolyes suddenly began - Who is going to pick up Rachel from the school?

„We are there again, are not we?", laughed and thought Chris in the same time - I believe it is your turn, honey! - he bluffed, as he felt too light-headed to drive now. Plus, he was not sure where he put the keys the previous time he drove the car...

- My turn? - gasped Susan, which was obviously made in a comical style. She put the food down in front of the sitting Markson - Why not negotiate?

Following this one sentence, Barnes could feel something non-physical, but still very much tough strike into his head, knocking him off his feet. But... but he was not standing up in the first place! What was going on? Turmoil washed over him as he was disoriented by this unknown force or entity.

It came to him then; the whole situation felt like a paradox that was mixed and merged in a thousand different places. Who in the world was Rachel? When did he marry Susan? And...

„She died aboard the plane that night!", he thought as the words of the French hijacker came back to him, the exact same way Margolyes just spoke it. „What the hell is going on?".

At that point of time, another voice sounded - or spoke - out of the thin air, frighteningly resembling Markson's own voice; „You know that you are not where you think you are, do you?".

- Chris? - Susan looked shocked, a dark shadow fell on her face; Barnes cocked his head up, half-confused about... more or less everything that surrounded him - What is wrong? You look like you saw a ghost!

Markson observer her carefully - Yeah - he acclaimed - That is exactly what I just saw - the marshal kept staring at her wife, who should not have been here to begin with: she was dead, definitely dead! What is happening here?

- Why? What do you mean? - Margolyes managed to stay oddly calm - Chris, could you explain your problem? - although, a few minutes ago, the sun was brightly shining outside, now it appeared that a massive number of dark, storm clouds began to manifest in the exterior world.

„Ask her what happened on the flight!", ordered the identical-to-him voice, „You know that this is not the reality, do not you?".

- Tell me what happened on the flight that evening! - commanded Markson, but added more detail to his previous sentence, as to complete it - What happened on Flight BR82?

Margolyes was aghast by this kind of behaviour; she - or whatever this doppelganger was - pulled a knife out from one of the draws. For a moment, Barnes thought that something awful was about to happen, but later realised that it was only an apple that was to be cut in two or more pieces.

- Chris, what do you...! - the visible sight was highly peculiar; while displaying anger, she also made actions that would have been considered greatly relaxed by any outsider - Why, you finished those murderers off, then... - Susan could not find the specific word - Then, the aircraft landed successfully on a military airport, and...

- No! - intercepted Markson - We did not; our plane crashed, the storm destroyed its electronics! - the grim realisation suddenly materialized in his head - We all died!

Silence fell on the room, then the faraway voice started to speak again:

„Chris, you need to wake up!". To this, Barnes gazed around the constantly shapeshifting kitchen, which now had four or five bottles of water floating in the air; the sink liquified, slowly dripping and streaming down the carpet that was made from a material that strangely resembled grass.

- How am I supposed to do that? - he communicated towards the voice while Margolyes walked around the counter, now definitely wielding the kitchen knife as a weapon; she raised it above her waist, ready to stab anyone who dared to get close enough.

- Chris - whispered Susan in a sinister way, while her nose slowly started to leek blood - There is someone in the house! - she slowly lifted her index finger to her mouth, the universal signal for silence - Should I call the police?

„There is only one way to wake up", carried on the voice, „But it is not pleasurable by any circumstances, believe me!".

From the ceiling, a pistol materialised, then, gently, levitated downwards, almost begging for Barnes' attention and usage. When it was low enough, Markson reached for it, unintentionally; upon feeling this controlled urge, he immediately put his arm down, but the weapon forced its way into Chris' hand.

- No, not this! - whatever this entity was, Barnes could not resist its power of control - I cannot do this! Not even like this! - the „thing" forced him to switch the safety off (on a trivial note, the sidearm seemed to be constantly in the process of changing shapes and types, growing and shrinking from second to second).

„You either do this, or you will never wake up!", concluded the incorporeal being, „Suit yourself, but taking that I am your sub-conscious, it does matters to me as well!".

Chris just understood what was going on: if he was correct, this was all just a... coma-dream, or some other unconscious state. He knew that, sometimes, people could not get out from these circumstances for weeks or months; years in extreme cases!

Meanwhile, the entity kept controlling Markson's right arm, the one that wielded the weapon; although, now that the being turned out to be his own self - just deep down in his mind - these „forced" motions appeared more intentional.

Margolyes still stood lifeless, the kitchen knife in her hands, stiffly held in an almost perfect 90 degrees angle; as Chris looked at her - while aiming down the sights of his weapon - she reciprocated the gaze, but her eyes were empty and dead: no sign of consciousness or the woman Markson used to know.

- I am sorry - he pulled the trigger, and an invisible bullet crashed into her chest; yet, she still just stood there, as if the projectile just simply passed through her. Just to make sure that the doppelganger was... whatever it was that could have happened to this piece of sub-conscious imagination when shot, Chris fired the pistol again, puncturing other holes in the fake-Margolyes.

Simultaneously with all the bullet impacts, the kitchen, now almost pitch dark, started to fall apart, tiles crumbling away one by one, the staircase being torn out from its place by some non-existent tornado.

Markson scanned around in a panicking way, constantly looking for a safe position that was not disintegrating away. Then, all at once, everything froze in one place, even the small particles of the room that were being blown away by the wind - or whatever force it actually was.

Susan was the only other moving individual in the kitchen; not that she seemed more alive now than she did beforehand.

She released the knife from her right hand, which lazily started to descend towards the floor, almost as if there was no gravity in the room; when the object came in contact with the wooden surface, it disintegrated into millions of pieces of dust, being flown away be the light breeze that invaded the room.

After ten seconds, the fake-Margolyes' left hand - in lack of a better word - was detached from its natural position, and was dropped on the ground; there, a sight identical to the phenomenon that happened to the knife occured with Susan's disjointed hand: as it hit the floor, it came apart to dust like a statue made of smooth sand.

Similar breaks started to occur around all of her body; her right arm gave away, her whole left leg collapsed into itself.

- Stop it! - shouted out Markson as he could not look away; it did not mattered how hard he tried to force himself, his gaze was settled upon this... this event - I did it! I am supposed to wake up, that is what you told me! - tears rolled down his face as both a massive headache and an emotional pain began to consume him.

„Sutider aiv tse cilli", said his own sub-conscious, which now seemed like him thinking, „Remember that!".

With that said, everything went black; no more disintegrating rooms, no morbid or horroristic pictures of Susan dying; just the calm, peaceful, and endless darkness again.

But as the light came back, Margolyes' bloody corpse was hanging mid-air, her bruised eyes settled upon Markson.

Chris raised his pistol again - surprisingly enough, he still held the forever-changing weapon - and shot into those menacing eyes, wiping them away from this nightmare.

As the echo of the firing slowly died away, the blackness settled upon Barnes' sub-conscious eyes, finally ending this unbearable terror...

- No! - cried out Markson as he finally awoke from his coma-like state. His own voice sounded strange and unusual to him, but, currently, he could not care less about this; the gunshot still rang loudly in his ears, constantly causing a tremor in his half-conscious head - Damn it! - he shouted into the... sand?

Apparently, he was lying on some type of beach, or shore - the crashing waves and the wind proved this incontrovertible; although it was not his vision that finalised this conclusion, as for his eyes, it was total darkness. After a second did Markson realise that the reason of this incapability was that his eyelids were shut, and - however hard he tried to force them - did not wanted to open up.

At least he was able to feel the ground around him, covered with nice-grained sand, that he could feel on his... „Wait a minute, are not I am supposed to feel the sand?", he thought in a funny way. As surprising it appeared to him, he could not physically sense the ground, but could feel himself lying down on it.

„Odd", he began again „Must be the afterblow of this crash... Oh, shit, the crash!". He tried to force himself up from the ground, but his arms did not wanted to respond. When trying to use his legs, the same was the result. On the second try, the outcome was more encouraging, but his hands still slipped on the sand, and Barnes fell face-first into the wet ground.

It was probably more better this way; if he overworked his body now, Chris would just lose consciousness again, which he obviously did not desired. Temporary weakness, he will get his strength back in a few minutes; that was how it worked.

After all, he just survived a... „Whoa, wait a second!", he stopped his own self in thought, „Did I survive? How?"; attempting to make some logical connections, he hoped that he could manage in the imaginary recreation of the events.

First, it was the hijacking; Markson successfully solved that situation, there was no problem over there, he could perfectly remember it; next, the electricity died, and the plane started to go down; after that...

After that, he was here, waking up on this sandy beach, or whatever this damn place was; he was soaked, cold, and wet; not to mention the continual confusion that kept gnawing on him.

The plane crashed: unless he flew out from the craft mid-air, there was no possible way he could have ended up here. Even then, the fall would have broke his bones apart, which would have crashed most of his organs, instantly killing him.

Another theory Chris had was of an impossibility again: what if he was still in the plane, just the angle it crashed in filled it with sand? Everyone could have survived, including him! But this was quickly dismissed by his brain, due to the only heard sounds: in a crashed aircraft, there must have been some spilled fuel burning, not to mention that the would-be audible clue of broken lamps and other equipments - as the electric sparks bounced of the halved wires or cables - were nowhere to be heard.

Although what if he... what if...

No more logical ideas could come to his mind, but he could feel his eyelids again; Barnes was able to slowly open them up now, yet he still could only see darkness. For a moment, his heart skipped a beat, as he personally thought that he was blinded by something beforehand. It was with an unmeasurable relief when he realised that his whole face was buried into the sand, giving the surrounding darkness its origin.

He checked if his neck was functional, and he gladly acknowledged that it was; Markson lifted his head up to an awkward angle, although - interestingly - it did not seemed that uncomfortable as anytime before.

For seconds, the only visual image Chris could perceive was the sun shining right into his eyes, an impenetrable light, forcing him to squint until his pupils were finally used to the level of brightness.

Looking a bit to his left, he spotted something that made him drop his mouth - which, again, seemed more odd than it should have; what he spotted was a massive tree, possibly some ancient thing, as nothing grew this high - not in normal places, anyway. Its branches - that appeared to be in hundreds, if not thousands - arched outwards, casting a shadow on everything under it - but not on Markson, as he was on the opposite side of where the shadow was cast.

Since it was autumn, it was expectable that not many leaves would be present; this unique tree have not made an exception: the previously mentioned branches were all bare, waiting for the end of winter, when they would win their colours back.

By a logical theory, he could not have been that far away from the United Kingdom's shoreline, taking that the plane crashed roughly an hour after takeoff, but was turned back not long after the hijacking. Before they had the chance to l and though, the electric fail occurred, and then... The rest is history, as the saying went.

But these trees did not grew in places like the UK, not even in Wales or Ireland, if he was washed up on a shore over there by any chance; this tree was something... unique, massive, majestic... every single synonym of the word „big" was circling around Barnes' mind.

To gather more information about his surroundings, Markson kept turning his head around, and the simplicity of his movements - again - seemed weirdly facile.

To his left was water, to his right, the exact equivalent; behind him...

„Whoa! Wait a minute!", he thought while his brain processed multiple theories and assumptions with sheer confusion, „Did I just turned my head fully around?".

Chris' surprise caused him to snap his head forward, and - while doing so - he undertook the minorly complicated process of the attempt to reconstruct the events that happened seconds ago. „No", he told himself, „I need to see this myself to believe it!".

He slowly started to turn his head to the left again; to a regular 90 degrees angle, nothing especially notable happened. There and then, he should not have been able to rotate his head further, as the movement range of his neck would naturally have ended at that point.

But this was not what came next; instead of stopping, Markson was able to fully turn his head around in a 180 degrees angle, and it did not even occur to him that behind him was something overbearingly familiar: the surrounding sea.

Barnes faced his front again, yet he saw a so-far unseen object lying quarter-a-meter from his face: it was the P228 pistol, the firearm that saved his life when... when the aircraft was still in the air.

By some instinct of the past years, Chris automatically, almost unconsciously, reached out for the weapon that - in this current course of happenings - could give him a feeling of safety and security. Strength - very minor though - returned to his muscles, he could feel his arm, lifting up from the sand, extending to take a grip on the sidearm...

From what he saw, he believed that he was dreaming or unconscious for the whole time; this would have explained that massive tree which did - almost - seemed physically impossible.

Instead of his hand approaching and taking possession of the firearm, Markson noticed some things of brown colour, streaked with a creamy-white; it took him a second to realise to what these visuals belonged to, but when he did, Chris immediately halted his breathing.

These were feathers, no doubt, yet their presence here was unknown for him; but this was about to differ, and alarmingly quickly.

Barnes' hand was nowhere to be seen, not anymore; apparently, wings took its place, now covering the pistol down fully, so not a single part of it was visible. His brain took a short time in processing that his arm was that wing, further proven by the fact that the two extremities made their motions in the exact same time, lifting and turning contemporaneously.

- What hell is this? - he whispered out loud, and suddenly noticed another strange difference: he was unable to move his eyes in their sockets; those just would not look left or right, no matter what he did. Frightened by these previous oddities, Markson attempted to calm himself down.

„Okay!", he thought, „Do not panick, Chris! You are still unconscious, and this is a really strange hallucination you are having right now!".

However, the whole place - even himself in this... weird shape - felt way too real; the chilling, cold wind running across his back, the loudly crashing waves in the vicinity, sometimes sending water-vapour to fly across the air, which - even more rarely - landed on his back, only to be later soaked in by the...

Feathers? This was beginning to be too much for Markson; he was convinced that this was not the reality, but everything spoke against him.

Chris calmly - although this was heavily forced by him - rotated his head around; after all, the range he could turn his neck - apparently - became wider. Seconds later, he spotted his back, covered with the same things his current „hallucination" depicted on his arms; Barnes did not wanted to call them feathers, yet he did not knew why.

Checking his back, he saw another collection of the brown-streaked quills, resembling a delta-shape, presently pointing outwards, to the direction of the sea; nearing his head, the feathers of the same colours, but smaller types, coating his back, aligned perfectly on his skin; every single one of them looked undoubtedly real, mixing Markson's brain with different thoughts, some being realistic, but others crossing the line of rationality, wandering as far to believe that everything in front of him was real; even him being a... a...

Chris could not do this. All that was going on was starting to overwhelm him on a mental level; too much was happened that could not be processed in mere minutes by Barnes - or anyone else, in fact - but such a situation was bound to leave him leave him in a definite shocked state at one point or another. Now, he was waiting for that moment to kick in.

Waiting, but for too long.

At this point, he concluded that the only logical explanation for this was that he indeed was still unconscious; these wings and feathers were simply in a deep and strange part of his mind - imagined, not even close to real - and the justification of everything feeling so lifelike in this mind-induced imagination was caused by a coma. Maybe, in the „real-world", where he was awake, Markson was lying on a hospital bed, guarded by Elisa and Anna - despite the fact that even Chris himself doubted that his ex-wife would have came along, this might have been going on right now - or, if not by her, maybe Broyles came along on occasions, checking up on the wounded TSA agent who just survived the crash of an airplane, but prevented the death of 200 passengers.

Or, alternatively, no one was there, just some random agent, looking in once per two weeks, making sure if he was still breathing. The possibility of that might have sounded harsh, but the truth was that neither Elisa, nor Broyles would have came as far as England to check on him. Yet, Chris could understand this; the people he knew were at least a thousand kilometers away, and they had their own lives and everyday jobs, be that looking after a child, or the whole defense of a country's air corridors.

Now, Barnes had nothing else to do, just wait for this dream to end; he turned himself over, and now leaned on his back with his hallucinated „wings" spread out, resting on the sand next to him, as if they were still arms.

Just seconds later, he heard someone shout, speeding his pulse up to a level which was commonly categorised as excitement:

- Hey! - the voice appeared to have no accent or dialect; it sounded like a totally regular, clear version of spoken English, not influenced by the background of any nation - We got someone alive down here!

Looking up, Markson spotted the shape of something, floating down towards him, its point of origin seemed to be the massive tree. Albeit his vision seemed way more clearer than beforehand, not to mention that he just heard that shout in a crystal-clear way, despite the speaker being - judging from Chris' point of view and estimated distance - at least 50 meters away.

Barnes noticed only now that his vision began to fade and darken once again, deeply similar to his last conscious moments on the plane, right before the crash.

He needed to squint, trying to identify the shape of whatever it was that was floating - more like flying - towards him; a black spot, flanked by two dark lines moving up and down in an angle, very much resembling a bird flapping its wings. But it could not have been an animal!

„After all, they cannot talk!", he thought in an already half-unsconscious way, his head beginning to feel confused and fuzzy, „I just... I just need to... to go back to sleep. Damn, I feel so tired...", he already started to drift off, but as his face sank into the wet, cold sand, he partially woke up again.

Markson realised that he needed to open his eyes again; when he did, what he sighted was highly unexpected by him, even in this strange coma-dream.

Some kind of bird was leaning over him, scanning across his whole body with dark but lively eyes. For a moment, it leaned way too close to be considered comfortable by Chris - especially if it believing that he was dead - but yet again, he was unable to move a muscle, only his eyes stayed minimally open, allowing him to vaguely, but see what happened around him.

The bird, leaning close to his face, appeared to be looking right into Chris' pupils, now probably seeming confused and sleepy. After that, it backed off, turned its head towards Markson's P228 - he only guessed at this point; he could not turn his head, but he remembered the direction in which he last saw his gun, when he last tried to take hold of it.

Then, out of the blue, the bird opened its beak, and shouted towards the direction of the tree:

- I need some help over here! - it was the same voice Chris heard just minutes ago - I could also use someone from the healing chaw; no matter who, just hurry!

Markson's eyelids did not give up just yet, he looked at this bird, in disbelief and fear in the same time. It appeared to notice this, giving off a sign of relief when it saw that Barnes was not dead.

- Wh... - began Chris, but failed in talking, and a weak cough came out instead. The more he coughed, the more darker everything became, slowly fading away into nothingness.

- Keep your breath for later, buddy! - said the bird in a friendly, calming voice - You are through the worst of it, whatever it was that brought you here.

- What the hell? - these were the last words that Markson was able to force out; almost inaudible and exhausted, but the bird was apparently able to hear it.

Even if it did, it did not mattered to Chris anymore; he gave up, and - once again - fell into the state of unconsciousness; comforting darkness surrounded him, and his rapid course of thoughts ended.

In this current case, being in a blacked out state was different; no hallucinations, no twisted or unrealistic dreams; instead, literal nothingness and silence was present in his mind.

Even his thoughts appeared to have been blocked out by the unconsciousness, leaving him totally alone, almost non-existent in his own head.

Luckilly, this lasted for a significantly shorter timespan than his previous faint, Markson himself estimating a rough 30 minutes in total length after he awoke.

First, the only hearable sound that came around was his own, worryingly slow heartrate, almost as loud at every single beat as a gunshot on a quiet evening; well, on the bright side, Markson never had the misfortune to have ran into such a scene in real life.

Minutes later, he was able to hear indistinguishable words, as if he was underwater; catching this and that from various sentences, but not being able to put all the pieces together, as these words were to vague and unclear to be recognised. Although distorted, Chris, not sure why or where from, but managed to partially recall the voice from the past; maybe not even from so long ago.

A few moments passed, and the voices - which turned out to be two distinct voices - now became more or less clearer and understandable; even though Barnes' head still swam, he attempted to concentrate on the heard voices.

Still, this better hearing though with a kickback: a headache slowly started to build itself up, setting him back on his pre-planned task. Nevertheless, Markson was desperate, definitely downright about the need to find out what happened; especially that he perfectly remembered everything after the crash. Even that strange occurrence at the damp, sandy shore.

He heard fragments of a sentence, said by a voice that Chris never before in his life encountered:

- ...glad to... he is all fixed up... needs to wake up... will be able to... questions... - at this point, everything grew quite; the only sounds heard by Markson now very closely resembled footsteps, but it was as if the person who walked around did not wore shoes, yet still managed to make little click-like noise at every step.

Seconds later, another voice - the one that, apparently, was know by Chris - came into play, but its audibility and hearability was at the same, badly distinguishable level:

- ...was good that... fast... back at the beach... - by now, Barnes was able to clear his head out, though that ache in his skull still pulsated violently; despite the pain, all words were clearly recognisable now - How is he, by the way? - the voice was now perfectly audible, not distorted or repressed by his previously suffered half-conscious position.

- Well, I examined him very carefully, and I dare say that you would certainly be surprised! - said the unidentified voice - To be honest, when I said that I „fixed him up", I bluffed, but at an acceptable level, in my opinion; other than this minor unresponsiveness, this owl here is perfectly healthy. Of course, he is required to wake up from his coma to prove my statement correct! - Markson, although not knowing the talker, could easily have declared that he was knowledgeable, and, from what he said and how he said it, it was susceptible that, given the present circumstances, this individual was a someone of medical skills and knowledge.

Yet, there was one little detail that troubled Chris: this... person, or whomever it might have been, spoke a single, but strange phrase in the midsts of his sentence: „this owl", said as naturally as if it was indeed an everyday thing to say. Thinking back on the beach, all those hallucinated apparitions and physical changes... Barnes started to wonder if these were only what he thought they were, simple imaginations; nevertheless, from this second on, Markson's trust in his own thoughts began to falter.

- What else do we know? - asked the familiar voice - I mean, so far, the only information we have is that he „suddenly" appeared at the shore; no warning from the sentries, even they said that they could not see anyone or anything coming. For now, we have nothing.

„Sentries?", thought Chris, „Why am I getting the feeling that this is not a hospital?". More and more doubt grew in Barnes, putting him closer to the edge of calmness; he wanted to shout questions out, demand an explanation for what was happening right here and now, where he was, and why he was here.

So many questions, so many things to be found out; still, Markson perfectly knew that none of the previous would be answered. Making a conclusion of what he heard seconds ago, neither did anyone else knew more than he did; maybe about his whereabouts, but nothing other than that. His eyes felt like iron-curtains, very much as they were like back at the shore; for now, he was hoping to gather his strength, not to waste it by attempting different, presently would-be exhausting movements and actions.

- Well, Irvis - light shone in Chris' brain at the words of the unknown's voice; now he knew the familiar sounding one's name - Some type of a Spotted owl, Strix something, I am not sure, I never saw an owl like him before - a deep breath was taken by the talker - Anyway, he is around the age of 4 years, no visible physical injuries - a short, but meaningful pause was kept here - However - emphasised the individual yet unknown - There is a... particularly unusual detail about him - albeit Markson was, at present time, unable to see from his own willing, he still had that „feeling" of a presence approaching him; indeed, the unique footsteps were heard again, coming towards him. Moments later, they became less frequent, then fully stopped - This owl's beak here is of a silver colour! - the trace of honest astonishment was present in this sentence.

- Maybe he was a collier - said the voice now officially recognised as „Irvis" - They tend to have their beaks discoloured from all those fires eventually.

„What on earth is a collier?", wondered Markson; all the while his uneasiness was starting to build up. „Some kind of miner? Is that still a job these days?".

- Still, colliers' beaks always gain a sooty-gray tinge; yet, our friend here has a very outstanding silver shade. Moreover, you saw his eyes - silence followed for a couple of seconds, weighing down heavily on the place - If there is one unusuality on him, that would be his eyes! - steps were heard again, and the unknown's voice moved away - Do you think Felias would know more?

„Another name to memorise", thought Chris, „Now I just need to find out who you are!".

- Felias? - sighed Irvis, the sign of a hopelessness clearly audible - He is still doing research on the Graymarsh-incident. Do you think he would keep a break for the sake of one random owl? - the question was, of course, rhetorical; at least, from the sudden finish on the topic, this was what Markson decided upon.

- For this one? - asked the other, unknown voice - I, myself, would definitely take the risk to disturb him; especially about such a remarkable... physical alteration our fellow owl here bears on himself! - awkward muteness came after his words, confusing Barnes about what might have been going on that he was unable to see - Speaking of which, you know that I would gladly go and ask him, but - this last word was way too lengthened by the speaker, in Markson's opinion - I cannot abandon my post here, you see. Would you be able to...?

- Not another word, Matthias! - Irvis brought his sentence to an end - I am on my way.

At this point, Chris realised what this „Matthias" was attempting to imply; suggesting someone into an action was not a new verbal strategy - if it could have been called that in the first place; he did not directly wanted to ask this other individual, this... Irvis - for whatever reasons he had - to do him what he deemed necessary. Instead, he - although failing on many levels - hinted the act to be done; the downfall to this tactic came when Irvis ended his sentence, showing that he definitely discovered the plan Matthias forged.

Still, Markson could not feel himself that smart; after all, Irvis was doing the request, no matter what just happened. There were relations here that were still undiscovered, leaving Chris lost in a logical maze which he did not have a map to.

The weird footsteps sounded again, prompting to Barnes that Irvis was truly on his leave; though faintly, but his voice could still be heard:

- Next time, tell me directly what you need! - clearly hearable. Yet, the tone suggested the desire to not to be heard. Markson was not the only one to acknowledge this.

- You know, I can still hear you! - shouted Matthias, off into the distance. A laugh came as the first part of the answer, then the second piece came as well.

- Who said I did not wanted you to? - another chuckle, although an unusual version of that; it sounded sharp and whirring, almost as if it came from a grasshopper or a cricket. Or a bird.

Chris could not stay in silence for any longer; he wanted to know where he was, what happened to him, and all the rest one would desire to find out after an accident such as a crash. His eyelids' controllability did not changed, they continued to be unresponsive. Barnes' only chance was to talk, ask, demand; whichever would come to be necessary.

He tried to speak, but no sound came out; to get that part of his system working again, he swallowed, which turned out to be a terrible idea: uncontrollable coughing settled upon him, forcing him to breathe in more and more; the only problem was that he could feel himself slipping again, losing that hardly gained energy that he built up in the past minutes, as inhaling only led to more coughing.

- Careful now, do not push yourself! - Markson felt that something cold was placed on his chest; as an involuntary reflex, he jerked to the side, almost falling off from whatever he was lying on - Calm down, this is just something to halt the coughing! - a minor force was applied this time, Chris could clearly feel it - My apologies if this hurts, but I must do this in cases like the current one! - Barnes did not understand what he was talking about, but then, approximately after five seconds, the cold thing, possibly being a liquid, started to burn viciously; more than that, cruelly.

- Ah, God! - shouted Markson - What the hell did you put on me? - he pressed the words out, only realising that he was able to speak. It was almost as if the thing on his chest set him on fire; it burned on his skin, becoming more and more difficult to handle.

- Once again, I am sorry for this; but not applying the mixture would result in you coughing up blood! - luckily, the pain eased now, halting its acidic effect - This was Firegrass; I know, not a pretty feeling, but at least it does not kills you! - the speaker was Matthias, it could not have been another person - Does quite the opposite, actually.

Chris let out a heavy, painful moan, shaking off the remnants of the burning sting; he tried to open his eyes, and, to his comfort and relief, gladly certified that his vision was back; or, at least, he was able to open up his eyelids.

Everything was still bright and blurry, forcing Barnes to squint with his eyes, distorting his vision, but helping his pupils to adjust themselves for the light, slowly sharpening his vision to beyond perfect; Markson was so occupied with figuring out what was happening that he even forgot to notice the previously mentioned.

- There we go, good as new! - said Matthias, his voice drifting from one end of the place to the other, the strange steps rising and shrinking in their volume here and there - Stay still for a few minutes; for your own sake, I should add! - something rustled in the distance, very much resembling feathers pressing against each other; how did this even come to Chris' mind? Not that he never heard such a thing beforehand, it was not new to him; if he was indeed in a hospital, why would there be such sounds to be heard? - My fellow friend will be back in a moment, and he is planning to ask you some questions. If you feel strong enough when he arrives, I trust you will answer his inquiries - Matthias finished his conversation, which appeared to be undoubtedly one-sided.

For the past minutes, Chris has been studying the ceiling above him, speculating and guessing, trying to figure out what it was made from; his first assumption would have been a type of wallpaper, maybe used for a presumably calming decoration of the hospital's ward. But no; it looked way too much realistic to be a regular plaster, stuck on there since the establishment of whatever this place was. It looked like real wood.

And real wood it was; dark- and light-brown in colour, the „lines of age" intertwining and twisting in the rough surface, spreading out in all directions possible. It was as if Markson had viewed a tree from the inside; a fine and everyday example of a hollow. Only that it could not have been that; that was what Chris' common sense was telling him. Yet, in unreal circumstances, common sense was the last thing to be relied on. In madness, logical perception was the last thing to be trusted.

Now that his vision returned to a totally recovered level, Barnes tilted his head to the left, finally glancing at the full length of room he was kept in; only that it was - as his assumptions clearly told him beforehand, suggesting his true surroundings - not a hospital.

Well, at least, not a hospital he ever saw or was used to: it was a bird's hollow, a massive one at that, with its supposed occupant walking around of what appeared to be the entrance to this... space of living. Markson could not see well, as the natural opening took place in an angle not advantageous for him, yet he could have sworn that, outside, he saw the exact sea he did on the shore - it could not have been any other.

To the left of this „entrance", there was a pile of what could be compared to a badly organised stack of papers, crowded with heaps of what looked like small bowls crafted of timber, bits of grasses and different herbs hanging out from some. On the right, a very different sight took place: a well-built-up, organised assortment of shapes similar of books, covered with a material resembling animal skin, decorated with fancily-written letters, bearing such titles as The War of the Three Lords, Comparative Study of the Genus Strix and Their Subfamilies, and The Extended Analysis of the Currently Recorded Incidents and Events of Unexplainable Origin, all lengthy inscriptions bearing figures coloured faint-gold.

The bird at the far-end of the hollow turned around, a piece of paper taking place in its beak, as if it was holding it as a human would have done with a hand. It walked a few paces in Chris' direction, who now managed to recognise it as some kind of owl. When it stopped, it lifted its left talon, took the paper from its own beak, then placed it down on another, though smaller pile of papers, then faced Markson again. Next, it spoke; just casually, as if it was just a regular, everyday-type of conversation taking place.

- Oh, I see you are getting better! - it was a weird sight; the bird's beak opened and closed in speech as a mouth would have; understandable, perceivable words, sentences came out from there, although, in reality, they should not have - I would want to ask you to just rest for at least half a day, my friend will be back in a minute to ask you those questions, and as long as he is not here... - the bird kept a short pause, frighteningly similar to the effect a human conversationalist would have used - I will do a part of this inquiry.

Now that Barnes observed the owl's face for a longer period of time, he could partially identify this bird; of course, not precisely by its exact species, latin name and all the rest, but there was a certain shape to its face that Chris never did quite forget - bear in mind that the fact, that Markson did not hate anything more than biology in his younger days, was still there.

This here was undoubtedly a variant of a Barn owl, possibly the most commonly recognised from all of the whole species; there was the almost mask-like face with the deeply black eyes, fully white, closed in a heart-shape by a brown outline of feathers; the rest of the body followed a corresponding pattern, with black and brown speckles and markings recurring at certain places, mostly the wings, but some on the chest.

- First, let us start with names! - began the owl again, still leaving Markson in a confusing and disorienting mix of shock and disbelief - May I have the privilege to know yours? - if there was any aggression in that question, it was either hidden well, or Barnes just could not detect it; a regular question, not much difference from the one that Tate directed to him, back on that aircraft.

- Where am I? - asked Chris, maintaining eye contact, being in the strange belief that this might earn his answer earlier.

- Now, I do not mean to startle you, but... that was not what I asked; leastwise, not the response I had expected - the bird could not, ostensibly, decide how to state his complaint. Belatedly, leaving much room for Barnes to think, the owl settled upon this as his ultimate sentence to return - That was just not what I asked.

- No, it was what I asked! - Markson strengthened his voice, clearly sending his intended message - Where am I? - all words were firmly reinforced and emphasised, certainly telling this bird to give an honest, proper response about Chris' current location.

The owl opened its beak, as if it was about to retort, but seemingly changed its mind in the last moment. After the two stared into each other's eyes, keeping up a solid visual connection for a moderately long time, the bird spoke again, Barnes deeply hoping that his answer will be said next.

- You want to know where you are? - the owl echoed Markson's aforementioned words - Fine! - it looked away to the left, scanning the previously seen books, as if they were to provide him the with a smart and appropriate response. Seconds passed, and the bird turned its head back to face forward, gazing at Chris again - You are, right now, in the infirmary of the Great Ga'Hoole Tree, centered in the Sea of Hoolemere, standing as the capital of the Five Kingdoms of the South - the bird sighed; Markson knew that it was him who awoke this reaction, but he felt no regret for it.

It was another one of those passively interrogative methods; talk to someone as if you had the upper hand, and they will sing, just like a bird (which, in the current case, was rather ironic), believing that they will be victorious in the verbal conflict.

- Now you speak! - the bird's words were surprisingly close to an order, yet still sounded like humble phrase, a small, weak request - Answer my earlier question; believe me, it would be preferable for both you, and me! - the owl hesitated for a moment; it was at a decisive loss of words, Barnes clearly knew that the bird was not a master of arguments.

„Yet again, I am the one who is arguing with a bird!", raised Chris a valid point against himself, „Well, I already went downhill when I started the conversation, not like it matters anymore!".

- My name is Christopher Markson, I am a TSA agent - he began, keeping a serious and meaningful tone - Look, I do not know where I am, even though you just told me; sincerely, I have never heard of this place - admitted Barnes honestly, and shook his head slowly in his lying position - I will need to get in contact with my director! - he was about to ask for a phone or another type of communicative device, but realised that, as stupid it sounded, was in a bird's hollow - One way, or another.

- „Teyessay"? - asked the bird - I never heard that name beforehand! - it squinted with its eyes, as if it has doubted that Markson just spoke the truth; it was obvious that the owl believed that this was a lie to cover up the truth - Is this... establishment you belong to exists in the Northern Kingdoms? The Beyond? The Forbidden Kingdom? - it kept listing different names Chris has never heard of.

„What is this place, some secretly developed... bird's kingdom?", asked Barnes from himself in thought, „If this is still a weird hallucination of a coma, why does it feels believable?".

He hung his head, relaxing it while he stared at the floor, which, not a surprise at all, was still the inside of a tree's hollow.

- Transportation Security Administration - spoke the marshal (although the form of address „ex-marshal" may have been more suitable since the crash) - We keep airlines safe from any hostile acts - Barnes realised that he drifted of course, excessively, to be fair - Listen - Chris looked up, but the bird was facing away from him, thus, eye contact could not be established - I know this sounds unconvincing, in fact, I believe that I am not even awake and that all I see here is just... a strange fragment of my imagination, but - he raised his voice to a level that would certainly show the importance of his words - I am not from here! - the owl turned its head, its dark eyes almost stabbing into Markson's gaze - I am not what you are, you cannot see that?

Sheer and pure confusion sat into the owl's eyes, a questioning expression came upon its face (although Chris was not sure that this was even physically possible).

- What are you talking about? - asked the bird curiously, measuring Barnes from what seemed, supposedly, foot to head - I do not know how you ended up on that shoreline, but no doubt, you must have took quite a blow to the head! - it carried on, as Markson still did not understood the point this owl was trying to make - You still do not understand? Take a look at yourself, that hopefully will give it away!

Chris followed these instructions, and attempted to look at himself, but his eyes just would not move; this was the first sign that could have told him the peculiar, yet potentially terrifying truth. The same feeling took hold of him that he experienced on the shore; the one where he felt like that he was not in his own body, that he was different in his usual... being.

Acting alternatively, Markson bent his head to the right, which allowed him to take a look at his own chest from his current position; he saw the same brown coloured feathers he did back on the shore, everything was exactly identical and all were the equivalent of the sights, last seen down on the beach.

He raised his right leg, but, instead of a foot showing in his sight, a yellow talon, a kind only a prey of bird could have possessed, came into view, following every single motion, down to the smallest of movements, that Barnes made; an owl's talon this was, more specifically, completed with a deadly-looking set of claws.

Chris shook his head in disbelief, almost not being able to logically perceive himself; his heart started to race once again, his head swam with thoughts: „dream", „real", and „strange" were the most common words reappearing in his brain's ocean, flowing endlessly like water itself.

Markson turned his head towards the bird, who could not seem to decide what was actually happening. The owl also stared at Barnes, their eyes firmly locking together; minutes went by, not measured by any of the two in the hollow; their only action was just a stare at each other. Shortly, after at least five minutes passed, the bird spoke.

- Not from here, you say? - a shadow fell across its face, and its actions suddenly became hasted, almost panicked - We might have a much larger problem then, Teyessay - the bird hurried off, towards the golden-titled books, revealing the source of those strange steps Markson heard previously. It took one out from the pile, opened it up at a specific page, clearly unknown to Chris, and started to deeply study the papers.

From what Barnes deduced of the last sentences spoken, he was probably in trouble; he did not really knew why, but a certain feeling was in him, the kind that is in a man's gut at desperate times; only difference being now was that it was not in his stomach, but in something he could not know by name. Not yet.

„I cannot just lie here like some kind of wounded man, or... or bird, it does not matter!", Chris thought, beginning to form a plan in his head, „For all I know, I am to be questioned if I wait, and even my current... acquaintance here does not believes a word I say!".

Markson have been through such a situation beforehand, although it was only a part of his training, very far and different from a real interrogation; yet, his superiors still managed to make it a realistic experience in his days of learning to be a marshal. He had no wish for such an experience again.

Still, even if he managed to escape this... infirmary, he did not knew how much more of these owls could be around; they were silent killers of prey in the night. In the current case, Chris would have been forced to fight with weapons he was unable to use: his, though new, but very much real, claws.

Waiting was no option. „I will improvise when the time comes", he decided, already ready for the next - more like first - segment of his plan of movements. „I will need to subdue this bird over here; but how?", he wondered.

Wrapping one's arm around someone's neck to temporarily cut their body's oxygen should do the trick; „It could not work that differently with wings!", he thought, frowning one on the inside. „At the end of the day, these are just limbs, are not they?", as hard as he attempted to cheer himself up, get in a better he mood, he could not.

Barnes suspected where he was, but not on a level where he could have sworn on it; for now, he will just follow his pre-planned strategy, and, non-lethally, deal with this owl.

The bird was still busy with the study of the book, paying no attention to Chris; not that he made any noise or motions, but a smart warden should always keep at least half-an-eye on the prisoner.

Markson slowly, carefully, and quite weirdly, tried to sit up, but, obviously, his current body was not shaped for such an action, resulting in him almost rolling down on the wooden floor of the hollow, which would have clearly alerted his guard. To his luck, nothing happened.

What he thought of was running up behind this owl, then subduing him by the technique described above; now, that he put his foot... talons on the floor, Chris, in his heat of a sudden act, failed to notice the instability he normally would have easily acknowledged.

That was what doomed his plans.

The moment his talons touched the floor, Markson slipped, but of a liquid being on the floor; in this different physical shape, anyone would have needed time to be used to his or her new body.

Yet Chris forced and pushed himself, a movement he deeply regretted now; the next hearable sound was him, crashing against the wooden floor, cursing way too noticably.

The owl spinned around, seeing the helpless Chris, lying on the ground, staring at him with determined and intimidating eyes, lamely putting effort into getting right back up. Strangely, the bird failed to notice the offense in Barnes' eyes, and, instead of taking advantage of the situation, the owl hurried for Markson's help, reaching out with its right talon to get him back up.

Seeing his window of opportunity, Chris - again, awkwardly - grabbed into the bird's foot, and pulled him down on the ground, definitely causing a surprise, which paralysed the owl long enough to be useful for him.

He rolled on top of him, and pressed his right arm... no, not arms; not anymore. Barnes pressed his right wing deep into the bird's throat, which caused it to give out an alarmingly painful choking noise, unwittingly inducing Markson to lighten his force on a minor level; he did not wanted to kill, only non-lethaly subdue.

The owl defenselessly tried to protect itself with its claws, causing minor damage on Barnes' skin, but not sever enough to make him bleed; as an animal in panick - which it was in - the bird weakly flapped its wings around, as if that would help him get his attacker off. Expectedly, this did not help the owl.

The self-protective motions were becoming weaker and weaker by the second; at this point, pushing inwards would have broke the bird's windpipe, rendering it motionless forever. But, once again, Barnes was not here to kill. He did not even knew why he was here. Time might tell, but, right now, the most important thing was to...

- What in Glaux's name is going on here?! - a voice shouted from the night, almost making Chris to jump off from his defenseless combatant. Barnes twisted his head around, which turned exceptionally easily, and unnaturally far; there was another owl in the entrance of this hollow, although Barnes could not have identified it by its species - I need some help over here! We need Nightbloom's essence, hurry it up! - Markson saw an owl in its threatening or protective position in the past, but that was like nothing compared to this very moment; being the size of an everyday person gave you the feeling of protection when facing a bird (which a regular human would not have done casually, by statistics and numbers). Yet now, that Chris was the same size as the owl in the opening of the hollow, the experience was way more frightening, making Barnes unable to think for a moment.

He staggered to his talons, not knowing what he should do, how he should do it, or why; this was not a place he was familiar with, he did not even knew how to fight with claws. Markson was grounded here, literally.

- I do not mean you harm! - slowly approached the owl - But know that I will not hold myself back from self-defense! - just like someone without a lethal weapon, but skill in brawling.

„This will be a challenge!", though Chris to himself, wondering if this was a smart idea. „Hand-to-hand combat? That is something I can do, but I am not sure if there is a wing-to-wing combat!".

The bird moved closer every second, ruining his own, previously spoken words of „not meaning harm".

„I guess we will find out soon!", the thought exploded in Markson's head; he lunged forward, readying his right wing to knock the owl off of its talons.

He could barely keeps himself straight on these talons - with his knees bending backwards, functioning in an entirely different motion - and his movement was greatly uncoordinated; for some reason, he was definite that he could take care of one simple bird, leaving him overconfident.

Yet, by the moment he got close enough, the bird raised its own wings, pushed Chris' to the side, then kicked - which would have been more of a kick for a human - him in the chest, leaving him breathless and exposed for another attack.

- I warned you, have not I? - asked the owl, but the question was not taunting by any measures.

Nevertheless, Barnes was enraged now, sending charges of what seemed to be instincts into his brain, inducing him to act out without longer foreplanning.

Markson ran forth again, trying the same type of attack, which - known by both combatants - was not the best idea; Chris found this out the hard way:

His lunge was now met with the bird evading from his attack, stepping to the side before he could even reach the owl; hoping for an unexpected move, instead of calmly turning around after a failed charge, Markson spinned around, slashing through the air with his left wing, but hitting nothing.

Although he missed again, his wing was in a comfortably good position to hit with another strike, so on he went and took his chances; the owl successfully blocked with its own wing again, retaliating by headbutting into Chris' face, then slipping its talons with great force into Barnes', causing him to trip over, resulting in him lying on the floor once again, helpless and vulnerable.

He was about to get up again - which would have took a great deal of his time - but another two of the similar looking birds rushed into the hollow, swiftly spotting the not-so-great threat; even though Markson felt like an absolute amateur, the two newly arrived owls stood on his wings, as to make sure that he did not move at all. Next a type of small, metal tube was given into the talons of his original opponent by a third, undeniably smaller owl; this metal device was then brought over to Chris, where the bird stabbed it into his chest, causing that highly uncomfortable pain, normally achieved by a needle penetrating the skin.

It was then, that it dawned upon Barnes: it was, in fact, some type of liquid they wanted to inject into him, and he even had a very accurate guess of what it was used for.

But, before he could react by any way, even knowing that his talons remained free and unrestrained, it was obviously too late now; the hollow started to slowly fade and spin around him.

„Not again!", he thought painfully, as he already had his fair share of blackouts today, or the past days; he was unable to keep track of time, so this information was lost to him.

However, he passed out again, only that this time it was caused by a type of substance administered, not of fatigue or shock. This was probably the fastest instance he drifted off into that familiar and calm darkness of an unconscious mind; only that is was not healthy to think about such a state of the mind in this way.

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