He wasn't the best person for rescuing those owls. In fact, he might have been the worst qualified. The least appropriate. I guess that's what made it a monomyth.
He headed west on the road of challenges, dueling beasts. It wasn't all bad. When it was calm he wondered, why does she need so many owls? The number had seemed aggrandised when she'd first said it. He dodged an oncoming assault from a rider on horseback, he ducked, weaved and continued onwards. The challenges were left behind. Towards the end, the road smelled like chocolate and marshmallow and baking biscuits.
When he reached west he used a slip knot to tether the Jeep to the hitching post on the street corner and made his way up the hill to the Highway Inn Saloon. It was the dead of two-thirty PM, the porch was vacant. Everyone was inside making coffee on knock-off coffee pod machines. The only sound was his leather shoes tapping along the bitumen as he approached the automatically swinging doors. Forty-four taps of sole, forty-four owls that would die without him. He moved with purpose.
Inside the saloon he gave a nod to the barman who was polishing glasses behind the empty bar.
"Morning," the hero said, despite the sun's position.
The barman waved back, mute. It was their thing. The barman didn't really know it.
The doors to the back room were guarded but he knew the answer to the gatekeeper's riddle. He stepped into a green-lit corridor. It was high ceilinged, and smelled of chlorine. The beginning of a maze of pathways and aqueducts. He whistled, waited, no owls hooted back. He went deeper.
Further into the labyrinth the corridor widened. It opened into a spacious dining hall filled with goblins and cowboys all working or drinking or brawling. In the centre of the commotion, on a tiny table nestled against one of the great stone beams holding off the ceiling, the owls were caged. All of them crammed into a single, metal-mesh box. The owls were all the colours: feathers of white, pink, grey, blue, burgundy. They tilted their heads and hooted sad harmony.
He took a step forward, beyond the threshold, towards the owls. From the opposite side of the room his father took one step towards him.
"No," the hero said. His father, his long-gone parent. He had expected to see him at some juncture, but it was only conceptual expectation. The reality made him feel truly afraid for the first time.
The two men strode towards each other, the younger man strategising, devising, thinking of her. The older man appeared calm, his lips presented a reassuring smile divorced from the rest of his face.
"No. Owls," muttered the hero. "Not jowls."
The two met a metre from the mesh of the birdcage. The crowd of cowboys and goblins transitioned into an audience.
"I'm just here for the owls," the hero said.
The father smiled, nodded and wordlessly removed a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket. The hero felt his heart sink. He remembered writing that letter, before her, before the owls, before he had left him.
"Dear Papa," his father began to read. Voice like cinnamon. One of the owls chirped, inappropriately optimistical.
"I will love you forever," the letter continued. The hero put his hand to his hilt, but he didn't draw. He listened to the letter, then he read along. From memory.
"I will love you forever," he said. His father flinched. He repeated it, "I will love you forever."
"No!" said the father. "You're lying?" He sounded unsure.
The hero meant it, but he meant it for her. Not for him. He didn't say that though. The jowls shrunk as the father stepped back, beyond the pillar, away from the owls. The hero lunged, clutched the cage to his chest and ran for the exit. Excited cheers and curses erupted from the audience and some fled with him, others chased the father, some just ran in circles and jumped on tables.
Free from the labyrinth, back out the saloon doors the hero emerged to a setting sun and a yellow sky. The owls within his embrace squawked and hooted in a mania. He set the cage down and peeled back the gate. All freed, they scampered like a river away from the broken-open cage and into the endless sky. Most went in the same direction, their flightpath ultimately devolving into traffic gridlock, but this was acceptable as there was never going to be a return trip.