From Marshal To Guardian, Part One: The Crossing

Noctuam Non Grata

The Great Ga'Hoole Tree, Southern-Kingdoms

Close to 9:00 p.m.

Christopher Barnes Markson, ex-TSA

Markson managed to have a quite rough, but a nonetheless head-clearing sleep of approximately three hours; Chris was not entirely sure, it could have been a bit more than that. Nothing changed in the hollow during this period of time, the only proof that the day went on while he slept was that the light - which was already rather minimal three hours ago - was being reduced to the faint shine of the moon; a very thin sliver of the silver light managed to creep into the hollow, but this amount was, surprisingly, perfectly enough and fitting for Markson to see.

Then, after a minute of thought-arranging, Chris figured out that the conditions of the visibility were not about the quantity of this limited brightness, but of what appeared to be himself. This time though, it only took Barnes a second to realise this, and his memories rapidly kicked in: it came to him how the ocular structure of owls was astonishingly advanced on the field of night-vision, earning them the advantage to be able to hunt and live in the night time with unhindered sight. The only back-drop was that their eyes did not move in their sockets, granting a minor, yet considerably significant detriment in this field of their anatomy.

Of course, Markson was entirely able to experience this first-hand, as he was in a dark environment now, but, despite this fact, he considered the current level of visibility the same as if the ongoing moment was taking place during the day; everything (mostly the inside of the trunk, as that was what he could really see) was sharper than usual, with every bit of detail, be it the most littlest thing, seeming as clear in this night as it would in sunlight.

Howbeit, the feeling of not being capable of moving his own eyes was quite a... bizarre sensation to Chris; it was almost as if someone had glued his eyeballs in their sockets, or if some type of indescribable force was holding these optical organs in this fixed position. Nevertheless, Barnes would definitely have been unable to verbally epitomize or explicate how not being physically capable of eye movement has felt; it was one of those experiences one needed to live through to totally understand. This was, irrefutably, inexplicable.

Yet, these matters should be temporarily put aside by Markson; no doubt, they were thought-provoking and fascinating, there was an entirely different task for Chris to focus on.

What was important now was that he was, at least, able to get a little shuteye, which partially changed his ideas and plans about his current position, and our ex-marshal here and now made the decision of being co-operative in the future; after all, this was the only possible way he could find out anything useful, and, maybe, his only chance to earn - at least - a minimal amount of freedom.

He realised that he viewed everything from the wrong side: for the past six hours, everyone, including both Irvis and Matthias, were either helping, or looking for his collaboration, not aiming to be hostile in the process. The only person who was unwelcoming was Markson himself, although he was only beginning to understand this now, at a time way past the acceptable limit of recognition.

Barnes will tell them everything they want to know, for his own and for others' sake, so the two sides, with different informations and theories, could extrapolate a solution for this (as Markson viewed it) problem.

However, Chris was not preparing to wait for someone to come for him, especially not Irvis, who was apparently going to take a day, possibly more time to arrive; if he desired to speak with an owl, the ex-marshal will be required to devise a way to do that.

Using the „great" power of improvisation, he raised his voice, and aimed a request at one of the guards, who were still standing in their doubtlessly boring position; the same spot they were at three hours ago.

- Excuse me! - no reaction from the two, this already beginning to create a needlessly awkward situation. To increase his chances of getting attention, Markson raised his voice even more - Excuse me! - the owl on the right turned its head around, now focusing on Chris with its two amber eyes. If Barnes would have been forced to take a guess at its species, he would have reckoned that this was a... Horned owl of some kind, if the „Biology 101" was coming back to him correctly.

- Yes? - asked the owl in a neutral tone, not being hostile, nor sympathetic in the process. Determining from the spoken voice, Chris concluded that this bird was a male; again, Markson had not a clue how exactly he managed to make this deduction, although there was the fact that, for some unknown reason, the voices of these owls sounded precisely identical to a human's. After that, it was actually an easy task to figure this out, but the fact was still there: how on Earth could they have sounded like humans?

Anyhow, Markson put his thoughts back on track, and proceeded to ask his significant question:

- I was wondering if there was someone else I could speak, or, consult with - he began cautiously, although he could not spot any emotional change or a sign of unintended reaction on the owls face; ergo, he carried on - Well, as long as this Irvis guy comes back from his leave, at least! - the owl on the left, quite abruptly, but exchanged a glance with the one already looking at Markson. The male owl on the right signaled him with a serious look to calm down.

- Why would you wish to talk now? - asked the owl on the right with a hint of disbelief in his voice, greatly emphasised, no doubt - If I recall correctly, you were not too keen on talking much a few hours ago!

This did stopped Chris for a moment. He could not just go ahead and explain his change of viewpoints, which have changed only because his head was cleared out by a short sleep! For that, he would only be laughed at, not believed.

- Well, you see, I changed my mind! - indeed, sometimes the best option was the simplest explanation - And I am thinking of choosing to stay silent again if you do not get me someone to talk to in a few minutes! - psychological warfare? Perhaps; Barnes did not really used it that much beforehand, but experimenting around could not hurt at all - I am sure that some in your „council" would be disappointed to find out that you two had wasted a clear opportunity to obtain information from your captive! - another exchange of glances was made by the two owls, then the one on the right spoke an answer.

- If you would be willing to speak now, you will be able to speak when Corporal Irvis comes back! - Chris did not expected an answer of this kind - If you decide to not speak when the Corporal arrives, well... you will be only digging a hole for yourself! You will stay in this very hollow until you speak, so not talking later on would only be a waste of time! - although the owl had a point, there was a major hole in his idea.

- What you are telling me, I must admit, is true; however, you are the one wasting time right now! - speaking this, Markson made the owl on the right to change his facial expression; the bird now looked challenging, and was ostensibly about to retaliate. He would have spoken in the next second, but Barnes was quicker to react - I am voluntarily offering my help, and you are actually declining it? I thought you wanted to know everything about me as soon as possible!

- I am wasting time? - seemingly the owl was still at the earlier section of Chris' former speech - I... I was not the one refusing to speak hours ago!

There was the point Markson was waiting for; if not already obvious, this owl was repeating his preceding idea, clearly showing that, for some reason, this bird was intentionally avoiding to give Chris what he wanted. He was stalling, but, then again, that is wasting time. Was not that what these birds were aiming to avoid in the first place?

The motive was something else here, this owl was not, without a single trace of doubt, acting out from logic.

- Surely, there must be someone else on this damn tree that I could „consult" with! If I want to talk, why are you holding me back? - eventually, the owl will need to recognise that whatever intention he was wasting time for could no longer be hidden under his lie.

- Oh, I can assure you that I am only following my orders, strictly given to me by... - he suddenly cut his sentence there, then slowly carried on - Then again, why should you know my superior's name?

„Yeah, I am totally sure you know!", thought Barnes, „It is becoming rather obvious that you have something else on your mind!".

- What orders! - blurted out Chris, maybe a bit louder than it should have been - Did your „higher-ups" told you to not let your prisoner give you your desired information? - Markson spotted that the owl was growing quite furious, as he began to „puff up" his feathers (if Barnes recalled correctly, this had something to do with intimidation); albeit the possibility of dangers, this did not bothered the ex-marshal, not even at the lowest level of caring. To force the truth out of this bird, Markson was required to make the its own actions and words less logical by verbal irritation.

For the time being, it was, more or less, working.

- No, I was given the order to wait for Corporal Irvis to arrive back here, as I do not have the liberty to appoint a „fill-in" consultant... - Chris has heard enough, and decided to start interfering; after all, he wished to speed the events up a bit.

- Do you have a name, owl? - the bird paused, not clear or sure on how to answer this question (despite its simplicity) - Given that you have the „clearance" to share that! - he added for a taunt.

- Byran - said the owl simply and plainly - Do you?

- I have a name, but you do not necessarily need to know it! - said Barnes sharply, once again dodging the question that some already asked in the past hours. Of course, their inquiries were kept unanswered - Now, you see, Byran, it occurred to me that you are not capable of giving me more than one reason for why I should not be allowed to consult with someone who is not Irvis. From this, I can only conclude that you are either not very smart, or that you have something emotional behind your little... bluff - Chris was not entirely sure, but he thought that he saw Byran shaking for a few seconds - I can assure you that I am not going to sit here like an idiot and wait for who knows how long for one owl to come back to this tree! - Barnes found this point of time fit to change his tone, giving it a minor hostility - Now, I will ask you once again, kindly, in fact, just to be sure that you understand it!

- Oh, I am definite that I can understand it! - Byran managed to squeeze this sentence in the period of Markson's short pause; while doing so, he also bent his head to the side, appearing ready to attack Chris at any given moment. Yet, nothing of a similar caliber has happened.

- Get me someone I can consult with, Byran. This is the final time I am asking politely.

For a moment, Markson was concerned about his own safety, as he was convinced that Byran would jump at him and do whatever an owl did in a physical battle. Then again, nothing even close to that occured; the only action the bird kept doing was giving Barnes a stare that, if it could have, would have undoubtedly killed Chris.

The owl on the left, his name currently unknown, was watching the previous few minutes tensely; he kept staring at Barnes and Byran, changing from one to the other periodically.

But now, Byran turned to him, and spoke in a voice that was shaking from anger:

- Ruben - his voice was alarmingly quiet - Go up to any one of the chaws, and fetch me any owl who is currently free of their duties! Do it before I question our prisoner here! - Ruben was not moving; he appeared to be in a bit of a shock that Byran has spoken to him - Go, and do it now! - this was shouted, undeniably getting Ruben up to speed, as he almost physically jumped in his fright. After a few seconds, he was gone from the hollow's opening.

Now, it was only Markson and Byran left.

- I thought you do not have the liberty! - taunted Chris, which, to be honest, he should not really have, considering the current mood of his warden.

- That I have; it is patience I do not have for you anymore - stated the owl, practically spitting our the words - This conversation is over, do you understand?

- Whatever you say... - turned away Markson, half-suspecting that Byran will jump at him in a moment's notice if he did not check behind his back - You have the liberty... - said Chris loud enough for Byran to hear.

No response came, and the hollow once again turned into a prime example of perfect silence, allowing Barnes to reflect on his personal achievement.

At least he managed to place the natural course of events on the way they were supposed to be before a specific owl interfered and attempted to change that course; then again, Markson could have avoided all this by simply answering to Irvis' questions when he first stated them.

How peculiar this was; every time, all the threads of difficulties and obstacles were, in origin, caused by Chris himself. Even if he had wished to, he could not have blamed anyone else for these complications he ran into. He already done the faulty deeds; he was lucky that he still had the chance to correct them.

„Let us just hope that this is not a hoax by this Byran", thought Barnes, „Just play this smart now, and you will be out from here in no time. Well, hopefully: who knows how long you will stay here!", then, with a more annoyed tone in his head, he added: „Who knows how long you are going to be an owl".

Precisely at the end of that thought, an owl, roughly the same size of Markson, its feathers being a streaked tawny-brown, and eyes having a yellow and orange tinge of colour; from an unexpected and instinctive sensation, Barnes realised that the freshly arrived owl was a female; Chris had no rational idea or explanation on how this could have possibly occurred. Of what little he knew about birds, telling the two genders apart would have been the last thing Markson would have been able to accomplish; it, straightforwardly, just would not happen.

Yet, here and now, Barnes just naturally knew; he had not a clue on the how, neither on the why. Another unexplainable answer to be inscribed on Markson's imaginary list, already nearing a level of overflow.

The female owl leaned inside the hollow Barnes was kept in, taking a thorough look at him, narrowing her eyes at the ex-marshal; after the owl finished the examination, which took her a few, short seconds, she backed out from the hollow, onto the wooden platform that Chris only noticed now; the hand-craft (or, presumably, „talon-craft"), surprisingly stable- and accurate-looking in its structure, was, as much as Markson could tell, somehow fixed or planted onto the main base of this specific, relatively massive and thick branch, emerging from the whole of the tree itself.

From common sense, Barnes concluded that this little invention was created to ease travelling on foot for these owls, given that they wished to not fly somewhere. One was undeniable: Markson himself will be unquestionably in the need of these wooden structures for... well, obvious reasons; given that, of course, he would manage to achieve his own release.

The female owl now turned to Byran, who took great care to not establish eye contact or to not take a single glance at Chris.

- Did you question him? - she asked, the tone of her voice managing to sound fair and strict at the same time. Barnes just realised that he found her quite sympathetic, despite the short amount of time he saw and heard her for; abruptly, Markson felt quite intrigued and eager to know her name.

Not to flirt or anything else that was susceptible; just to settle the basic manners.

- He did not wanted to co-operate - Byran replied casually, however, Markson had different feeling at that moment, almost shouting out at the owls response; what he said was clearly a lie.

Chris did not originally planned on it, but now felt that this was the perfect moment to join into the conversation; if anything, it would earn him the advantage of the spoken truth anyway.

- Excuse me for interrupting your colleague - began Barnes, making sure to keep a constantly flowing politeness this time, hoping to improve his chances of the current situation; on the last occasion, he did not quite attempted that, earning him a few other problems, now added to the rest - But I want to state that in the last thirty minutes, I was trying to convince him to question me! - here, Markson gestured towards Byran, who was now staring directly at him, alarm and dislike radiating from his eyes; Chris called in his bluff, which will, no doubt, change the course of this conversation - Also, by my knowledge, that is the reason of why you are here, lady - since Barnes could not possibly have imagined, nor did he have an idea on how owls addressed each other, he just, simply, settled on the decision of „lady".

- Is this true, Byran? - asked the female owl from the warden, suspicion and confusion somehow mixing in her voice; she was smart, she was able to catch out the lies and the truth. Something Markson was also easily capable of.

It was obvious though that Byran himself did not aimed to answer; even if he will do now, it would most assuredly be something focusing on his own advantage.

- Partially, yes... - started the owl - I tried to convince him to talk, but...

- Uh, no - interrupted Barnes, attracting another intimidating look from Byran - I wanted to talk, it was him who... - but Markson's warden prevented him from finishing; the bird, apparently, gave up with the continuous attempt of concealing his real feelings.

- Another word, and I swear that I will...! - it seemed like for the heat of the moment that Byran will lunge at Chris; it was hard to determine if he halted his intentions for the sake of common sense and self-containment, or because the female owl ordered so.

- Hey! - she shouted at Byran; not too harshly, but strictly enough to tell him that she meant it seriously - Let him speak.

The warden looked at her, perplexed, disbelief sitting on his face.

- You cannot seriously say that you are... - he attempted to resurface to a decent position in the conversation, but it was too late for that now. It was the female owl who was in the lead at the current time.

- Let him speak - she repeated her own, previous words, an authoritative tone clearly noticeable in her voice. She turned to Markson, who understood this as a sign for him to carry on.

- Thank you - Barnes said with honest and polite gratitude, nodding towards her - Now, as I way saying, I attempted to tell Byran here what I previously decided to keep for myself. But, by now, I came to the conclusion that collaboration is a better choice than its opposite - the female owl was focused, carefully interpreting every word that came out from Chris' mouth; well, his beak, to be perfectly precise - I am willing to tell you everything I know, although, with one condition only.

The female owl nodded, yet, before Markson was able to continue, it turned out that Byran was already ahead of him; again, he was attempting to regain his position in the situation.

- Come on, he is a prisoner! - spoke the warden, not even trying to hide his annoyance - What level of right does he have to... - here, the female owl turned her head, and moved her gaze on Byran; needless to say, he halted his speech at that instant, and Chris could have sworn that his feathers laid down a bit, creating the visual illusion that appeared like as if the warden has just shrunk a bit.

- Holding grudges is not really helpful, Byran! - she declared, her voice now sounded minorly frustrated - Shutting up is, so, please, be a pleasure, and hold your beak!

Byran barely dared to raise his head, even when he did, it was towards Markson; the ex-marshal identified that as a death-threat, but did not take that much of a caring notice.

- What would this condition be? - requested the female owl, now having her eyes on Barnes again; Chris could see something fascinating in them, but he swiftly dismissed this idea.

Inter-species relationships were not the smartest schemes, although this statement seemed rather ironic to Markson, taking his current physical shape. Then again, he was not in love, and he was not fancying this owl; „Not a single bit!", he kept telling his own self.

- If I talk, I want to do that only with one owl, and preferably outside this hollow - judging from the female owl's reaction (which was, literally, no movement at all), there was a slight chance that she was reconsidering Chris' solicitation - I know that is a hard ask, granted that I am still a prisoner, but I believe this hollow might have just given me a minor claustrophobia - Barnes only said this as a vain attempt to lighten the mood up a little bit.

However, the last word, seemingly, kicked the female owl out from reconsideration, and she now asked a question, awaiting a possible answer from Markson.

- Sorry, clostro-what? - this time, she sounded completely lost; it was obvious that she did not managed to recognise the spoken word.

- Claustrophobia - Barnes reiterated the word in an awkward manner, not entirely sure himself why this term appeared so alien for the bird - Uh... the fear of enclosed spaces? No? - the female owl slowly shook her head, giving off some type of smile (which, just for the record, Chris believed to be physically impossible), or, at least, an expression that Markson now, in this form, interpreted as a smile; essentially, it was the minor change in the owl's facial expressions, nothing massive though. Otherwise, it would have been hardly noticeable.

- I have never heard about such a thing before - she answered, now sounding a bit uninterested about the word.

The female owl waited for a second, then nodded towards Byran, who, Chris could have sworn on his life, gave out a painful sigh, shook his head, then took off, descending into the dark night. Meanwhile, the she began to walk away from the hollow that served as a cell for Markson. Albeit, not before long, the bird ended her walk, and looked back at Barnes.

He was still standing in the hollow, quite aim- and helplessly, wondering what the past seconds meant. Was he to follow this owl, or did she just replaced Byran as a warden?

Apparently, it was the former, as she now proclaimed her idea.

- Are you coming or not? - she stated this question, and Markson instantly recognised what she wanted; nevertheless, the ex-marshal still had one question; however, if he wanted it to be answered, he was required to hurry, as the female owl started to walk again.

- Where are we going? - asked Chris, unintentionally placing more suspicion into his sentence than originally planned.

- We are taking a trip to a friend that might be able to answer a few questions - answered the bird, stopping in her tracks while she turned back towards Barnes, facing him once again - You said you wanted to be out from that hollow, did not you?

- Yes, but... I did not expected this - said Barnes, sounding slightly disoriented - Well, after Byran, of course...

- Can you fly? - inquired the bird, putting Markson in an uncomfortable position for the second time now; how stupid „no" must have sounded like!

- Uh... no - answered the ex-marshal in a rather embarrassed style, sensing that his last thought came to be what he expected it to be; on the other hand though, Chris felt lucky that owls were unable to blush.

- Well, that is an inconvenience - stated the female owl plainly, not seeming to mind this disruptive obstacle too much - Then I take that we will walk.

- I take we will - Barnes acknowledged and strengthened the previous words of the owl, and began to concentrate on yet another problem that arose; walking with talons. This was not something he was taught anywhere, as a normal person would never have had the chance or opportunity to experience this.

But then again, trouble never really avoided him for his whole life and career.

For now, all he was doing was taking steps one by one, carefully planning out each move he took. The owl was definitely watching this, Markson had no doubt on that matter; even then, he just decided to avoid eye contact. Things were already awkward and uncomfortable enough.

Chris followed the bird, who now took a turn to the left, leading to what appeared to be some type of passageway; another trunk, resembling a long and twisting corridor, ascending into the - supposed - upper sections of the tree.

Presumably, the owl noticed that Markson had difficulties walking, which she, without any motional or verbal comment, responded to by slowing down her pace.

As Chris caught up, she began to speak again, marking the beginning point of Barnes' questioning; sooner would have been much more simpler, although, Markson, admittedly, did not use that type of logic a few hours ago.

- Do you have a name? - inquired the bird, now, between the two of them, sounding considerably more casual and pleasant; the way she spoke with when Byran was present was, indeed, strict, and quite solid.

- Yes, I do - answered Chris, however, he still planned on evasion when it came to his name; shortly, the ex-marshal would just, simply, keep to his anonymous way, and keep his name unknown - Do you?

As a response to this question, the female owl gave out that weird, sharp and whirring sound, the one Barnes was definitely sure he had heard before; back in the infirmary, from one of those owls, probably Matthias. The one he almost killed.

Nevertheless, the bird also gave a verbal remark when she finished her... chuckle.

- I see you are good with words! - she said, turning her head towards Markson, who has now did the same, once again distracted and lost in the owl's amber eyes; Chris was sure that he could see that smiling facial expression again; from this, Barnes calmly assumed, without a trace of doubt, that he did not offended. Unavoidably though, the moment passed, and the bird turned her head to face towards her front again - No wonder you managed to frink of Byran this easily!

„Frinked?", thought Chris, „What is that supposed to be, some owl-dictionary specific word?"; only if he could have known the irony of this idea.

- Anyway, no matter; let us get back to our original topic! - she offered, however, in the way that is not meant to give away any selectable options; what she said was going to happen - I was only asking for you name so that others may call you by it; just... something to be clear on .

By the end of this sentence, they were both well-inside the main structure or body of the tree (from a techinal perspective, that is), now ascending on a passageway that has, markedly, made Barnes think of lighted up tunnels; the only difference being presently was the absence of electronic lamps and other, miscellaneous lighting hardwares; only a type of oily-looking substance, steadily burning with a regular-sized light-orange flame, creating a decent level of visibility in the - now only refered to as by Markson - corridor.

- Oh, I can assure you, I know why my name matters to others! - answered Chris after a short time of planning and reconsideration - I am just not at the level of trust where I would wish to share this information - this was, more or less, actually true; however, if Barnes would have been required to honestly devise another rational-sounding reason, he could not have, not even if his life was on the line. Maybe it was the still lingering confusion and minor disbelief, essentially, the aftershock of everything that has happened so far; then again, Markson did not acted or felt like any of the previous for the past hours. He perceived everything as if they were just... normal and usual.

- Fair enough for me! - stated the owl shortly after Chris' explanation of anonymousness. In her speach's second section though, she suceeded in an unbelievably demanding, almost impossible task: she managed to catch Barnes off-guard. This, she achieved by the following - The precious few who know about you already gave you a name of their own creation anyway.

„Name? What name?", wondered Markson with both a slight anger and curiousness, barely managing on keeping these thoughts thoughts, almost asking them loudly from the owl.

As Markson now took a quick glance around, he realised that their environment has, in a fairly noticeable fashion, changed; to the right, there was a quite massive gap in the tree's branch, allowing the ex-marshal to look and see the outside world: a seemingly endless ocean, somewhat still, but clearly familiar with many storms; next, he raised his head, glimpsing at the cloudless night sky, the stars shining, unobstructed in their luminous states. Chris himself never saw these celestial bodies as brightly as they were now.

To finish his glancing-around, he decided to look downwards, which, in a matter of seconds, turned out to be a horrible idea; Markson knew that they were walking upwards for quite a while, but he did not expected that in five minutes they would achieve such a climb!

Earthward, there was at least a twenty meter drop, which - taking that he was currently an owl - was quite worrying. As a reflex reaction to this, Barnes threw himself into the neighbouring side of the corridor, the one that, luckily, was free of holes and gaps.

For the duration of this action, the owl stopped, and looked questioningly at Markson.

- Is something wrong? - she asked, worry and alarm merging in her voice; she was looking at the front, so she could not possibly have seen what jsut happened with Barnes.

- Just... I am still a bit dizzy - lied Chris, attempting to conceal his sudden shock and fear; in a relative approach, we could say that he attained the positive outcome - It is fine, let us just carry on! - he showed strength, although was not entirely sure if this outcome was good or bad.

The owl just shrugged (Markson was not entirely clear on what this has meant), then silently signaled Barnes to follow; and so he did as they proceeded, now going mostly straight, but occasionally ascending or descending.

By now, it hit Chris unexpected, as the female owl returned to their previous topic in their conversation.

- About that name I have just mentioned... - she began cautiously, speaking like an extremely skilled actress - So that precious few have gave you temporary name of „Silverbeak"; taking that your species appear to have a, uh... uniquely distinguishable beak. To be honest - she turned her head to the ex-marshal again - I do find it fitting, hence the... well, you know.

And Markson did knew, yet, he had different speculations which kept racing on in his head.

„Really? Really", he thought, „Could not that precious few have chosen a better name? Something less laughable?".

The only mistake Barnes did was that he did not considered a single specific rule here: different groups of beings interpret things in their own personal, different way, largely altering of others', causing the diversity that can be easily compressed into the standalone word „cultures".

By continuing on with this thought, Markson came to the realisation and conclusion that, maybe, it was time for him to start taking everything around himself seriously; after all, he was in a „new", currently undiscovered and different world now. He should aim on the interpretation and study of his surrounding, not to parodise them!

Consequently to this, an idea began to form itself in Chris' brain, being fully worked out and devised in the quick succession of a mere four seconds.

- Are you able to tell, what species am I from? - the main core of this plan was conveniently simple: by his current knowledge (which was pretty much, literally, nothing), Barnes was able to tell that he was, presumably, „stuck" in this... form of being for a good while. It would have been calming to know, at least, in a well-described and detailed style, of what he actually was.

Of course, to the owl, this question could either have sounded like an average and general inquiry, or a self-confident challenge; whichever way, there should not be any negative consequences or repercussions for his innocent seeking of knowledge.

- Well... - the owl, once more, looked at Chris, now deeply studying his face - Definitely a type of Strix, but I have to admit, I have never seen anyone like you before - then, she changed her tone in a slight way - Why are you asking this? - the new intonation sounded confused and puzzled; next to that, the owl still kept her gaze on Markson's face.

- No specific reason - stated Chris simply, ensuring that he will not, even by mistake, establish eye contact.

Barnes lost focus on such a level that he did not even realise that they had, finally, reached the end of the „corridor", and were now standing on one end of a considerably large... something.

Markson obviously did not knew what it was, albeit it gave him the impression of a city's main square; the previously seen and used wooden planks were present, outcropping at least two meters from the foundation, which, in this case, was a surprisingly even-grounded combination of multiple enormous branches, their unequal formations and holes between them also made fully horizontal by the same wooden planks. There were a few other owls standing around, apparently having conversations of their own, personal matters; others were just merely doing the same that Chris and his guide were carrying out, walking from one end to the other, eventually disappearing in another one of those „corridors". However, most were, expectedly, using their wings - as birds typically do - to get from A to B. Now that Markson came to think of it, what he now glanced upon was, in fact, absolutely fascinating.

- Can I ask what this place is? - inquired Chris; albeit the fact that the ex-marshal himself failed to notice, his beak was now dropped open, as if a human was looking in wonder at something, open-mouthed from the sudden astonishment.

- We do not really have a specific name for it, but this is the main point of meeting and socialisation of the Tree; most are found here, if not flying around or reading in the library, in their own time - she paused as she embarked on a short pondering „journey" - I guess you could call it the „Grand Terrace"! - spoke the owl, her exclamation deliberately sounding offering.

- Yeah, I guess you could - Markson was still awestruck, only managing to process the last part of what the bird has just said; ultimately, he was looking upon a socially and intellectually advanced species right here and now; how come the whole world has not managed to discover them before?

The only logical explanation for this was that he was, indeed, inside that book Anna gave him. Yet, then again, that was impossible and just simply unthinkable; even physical metamorphosis, the likely thing that had happened to Chris, was more believable than the idea of this being actually in a book right at this very moment.

- Come on, we still have a few to see! - hurried the female owl, already at least a meter ahead of Chris (which, in the current situation, was a considerable distance).

As Markson walked on, he managed to, unintentionally - well, partially unintentionally - catch out snippets of conversations that were going on between all the owls present; if the ex-marshal would have needed to estimate a number, he would have settled with three dozen, so, roughly thirty-six birds at the „Grand Terrace".

To the left, Chris could overhear as a male owl - whose species seemed extensively similar to his female guide's, the only difference here being was the slightly darker eyes and ear-tufts - of a creamy-brown colour talked to a Barn owl (probably one of the only species Markson was still able to recognise and name by its official designation); the topic the two birds were discussing was, however, unknown to Barnes, and he suspected that, even if he would have sufficiently understood every single word, he could still not possibly have recognised or understood the matter of the conversation.

Yet, what he could hear might prove to be useful later, and could still bear a considerable level of importance - or not; regardless to the latter, it was still more advantageous and beneficial to act now than to be sorry later; some chances had to be taken, and Chris was a person of opportunities.

When he began to listen in on the two owls' conversation, it was the Barn owl who was in the middle of his speech.

- ...What about the Graymarsh-Incident, or the Ambala-Kidnappings? Do not you think that they have a connection to these? - once again, Barnes was, by some reflex-like means, capable to determine and to clarify the gender of the bird, merely from its voice, which, in this case, was a male's; in his tone, he appeared... rather enthusiastic and fervent. Just like one who has been captivated by the ideas of various conspiracy-theories.

His associate, the creamy-brown owl, made a hopeless face and shook his head (Chris has already decided upon the bird's gender, swiftly concluding that this owl belonged to the category of „male"), deeply exhaling in the meanwhile of his physical motions; from a minimal analysis, Markson theorised that the creamy-brown owl was either referring in thoughts to his acquaintance as a fool, or was just simply in the possession of stronger and more evident facts.

As it turned out a moment after, it was the latter:

- You know very well, Landon, that we have not heard from the Middle-Kingdom for quite a while now, possibly since the death of Prince Barion - seeing that his friend, the Barn owl, was about to interrupt, this owl quickly proceeded, and carried on - I have also discussed with you why we have never sent anyone to scout around in their territories.

- I do not recall - replied the Barn owl, honesty ringing in his voice.

- Well, you consumed a rather large amount of bingle-juice at that evening as well, so... - unfortunately, this was as far as Markson could overhear them for, as he, along with his female companion, was now out of auditory range.

Regardless, literally a second later, Barnes' ears (or, more precisely, ear-holes) caught another collection of sentences; turning his head to the right, Chris saw another small group of owls, although these were not standing around the terrace; instead, they were perched on a branch that was protruding outwards with its end, arching over the small land and the inversely proportional ocean that was spreading out far into the distance below.

Markson was, however, unable to properly identify the two owls' species; the one on the left was massive and considerably tall though - that much he could tell. It also had a grey plumage, that was the only other useful detail Chris was able to highlight.

To this owl's right, there was - from the past memories of university studies Barnes has managed to dig out from the deeper and almost abandoned sections of his brain - a Spotted owl; this idea now seemed laughably obvious to the ex-marshal, seeing all the dark-brown spots on the bird's feathers.

- Are you not going to transfer then? - asked the Spotted owl from the grey owl, not having any special or outstanding tone; she (Barnes succeeded in the identification of the gender in the fragment of the given moment) was just stating a regular question.

- Nah, I don't think so! - answered the grey owl, now evidently a male - There is not one vacant place in Tyto, and I would rather move to the Northern-Kingdoms than to the Shadow Forest! - from that, Chris did not got a word that he could have made sense of, but this did not worried him; not like his life have been depending on this one sentence.

- What about the Ambalan-Legion? - asked the Spotted owl again - They always have plenty of vacancies; you could try there! - offered the female, but she was turned down once again.

- The Legionnaires? Thanks for the offer, but I would pass, even if they had wanted to recruit me! - a hint of disgust and rejection could be detected in the grey owl's tone, although this did not shared the context with Barnes - You can never be sure if they want to help you or not!

Precisely three seconds after the latter owl finished his sentence, Chris' female guide took a turn to the left, now heading towards another opening in one of the thick branches; „Another corridor, I guess!", thought Markson as attempted to roll his eyes, but realised that he, well, was not physically able to.

It was then that the owl finally broke the silence and began to ask questions.

- A few words have spread around the Tree about you, and I was thinking if I could ask... - she left her sentence to float around the area with an ellipse, suggesting (rather obviously, to be fair) that she was not finished yet - Where did you come from, and how did you get here? - Barnes was about to answer, but the owl complemented some more to her sentence - I mean, we do not have many owls randomly washing up on this shore you know! - she said in an awkward manner, making Barnes chuckle inside; nevertheless, he did not showed any physical emotion though.

- Do the words „Massachussetts" or „Atlantic-Ocean" mean anything to you? - as a response to this question, the owl shook its head, which made Chris smile (with his beak, somehow) - Then this will sound a bit more unbelievable! - he cleared his throat as a habit, then carried on - I am, or, was, an agent of the Transportation Security Administration, an air marshal to be exact; I will not go into that further, otherwise this explanation could take days - he looked at the owl while saying this, who nodded, gesturing to Markson to carry on talking.

- It was an extremely stormy night, and it happened about two days ago; I was in this... craft, called an airplane - confusion settled on the bird's face, so Chris backed up his previous statement with a small statement of information - The important point here is that it is something that flies, like birds, but... a bit differently. Now, there were lightnings, a worrying amount of them, and one of them... - the ex-marshal was genuinely struggling with this explanation, and he needed a small amount of time to place his thoughts together, construct comprehensible sentences, then pronounce them - One of them fried the whole craft, and it started to lose altitude; I , uh... just want to note that these explode when they hit the ground. Uh... do you know what an explosion is?

- When something explodes - she stated sarcastically, then changed to an annoyed tone of voice - I am not daft, you know!

- Yeah, I just wanted to make sure - Chris tried to dig himself out of this hole, but, admitedly, it did not appeared to be working - Anyway, the airplane was supposed to crash, I was supposed to die when it did! - although he did not directly noticed, but Markson, all the while being unaware of it, just raised his voice's volume with a significant level.

- And yet, here I am! - he carried on simplistically, just as if the past words were not even spoken out loud by him - I am not from this place; I do not exactly know where I am. Mind you, I have been told plenty of times by now, but that does not changes the fact that, beforehand, I have never even heards of this place! - he waved his left wing in a motion that was supposed to emphasize the „this place" part.

For the next two minutes, the female owl did not gave a single sign of any response; she just kept staring in a downwards angle, but still following her (possibly) predefined path, occasionally taking a turn to either the left, or the right in this snaking passageway they were walking through.

After her long silence, the owl finally spoke, giving Markson a sense of relief, while he was still hoping that, in her eyes, he was still classed as mentally sane; as from the story he had just told this bird did leave a quite... hard-to-believe impression.

Then, unexpectedly, she stopped; the owl just, simply, halted her pace, making Chris believe that what he had said just reached the bird, and the sudden flow of information was the cause of her abrupt freeze. Yet, the answer was more simpler than that.

They have arrived at their „destination"; when the owl said that she was taking Markson to someone that might be able to answer a few questions, she did not bluffed. From what Barnes could tell, this was an owl's hollow, although it appeared to have another entrance - or exit - at its far end; that hole, though, opened towards the outside, Chris was able to tell this from the crashing waves he thought he could see in the distance, and the few branches that reached into the view.

The occupant of the hollow could not be seen, that owl was probably blocked out from visual range by the irregular shape of the... place.

The female owl turned to Markson again, who, now appearing perfectly fine, was not showing any sign of disbelief or mistrust towards the ex-marshal. What was more that she began to speak again:

- Well, thank you for your cooperation; believe it or not, this might help a lot later! - showed the female owl her appreciation with words, then went onto another topic - This is the hollow I have mentioned; the owl living here is a... well, let us say researcher, that fits about right - she said, not taking her eyes of Barnes for a second, which, after a specific „line in the sand", became rather discomforting - He keeps himself to himself, but I am sure that he will help you - the owl sighed, looked to her right, then turned back to Chris, and carried on - I will be back for you in thirty minutes, starting from now. Oh, and, please, do not try to wander off or escape, especially if you cannot fly; believe me, you would not get too far - the bird stopped to think for another second - Well, that is it for now; if you will excuse me, I have a written report to be made about you.

The female owl began to walk towards the direction they came from a few minutes earlier. Just as Markson was about to turn and step inside the hollow, she suddenly turned around said one last thing; but this last thing had a meaning to Barnes, and a favorable one at that.

- By the way, it is Valery - the bird could see that, at first, Chris was not quite able figure out what she meant, thus, she made her statement more obvious and more clearer - My name; you asked what it was - then, Markson understood - It is Valery - and with that, the female owl turned around, and walked away, disappearing from the ex-marshal's sight in mere seconds.

No matter, as Chris was smiling inside anyway.

Now, it was Barnes' turn to vanish from this corridor; but he was not going to escape or run for it. No, he knew better now: if he ever wanted to find out what on Earth had happened to him, he required outside help, not just himself; he was short on options, so this had to do for now.

Markson - for a not perfectly clear reason - took a deep breath, exhaled, then stepped inside the hollow of the owl that, if everything was more or less correct in Valery's words, will be able to assist him in a search for answers.

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