"Oh my god," Cassandra gasped. "You talked!"

She thought she was dreaming about a talking owl, but as she saw the bird looking down at her with the same intelligent eyes, she knew it was real, or that she had probably slipped into a twilight zone without knowing it.

"Yes, that I did," the owl replied. "And there's more talking I will do if you're willing to listen."

"Are you half parrot or something? What kind of an owl are you?" Cassandra couldn't help asking out of curiosity. It seemed like the only explanation she could think of was the bird must be a species related to parrots or some talking birds in the animal kingdom.

But there was still nothing parrot-ish about the owl.

"No, I am a full-blooded female owl, silly," the bird said and her horn-like feathers stood up in irritation. Cassandra immediately knew that this owl was a very magical and glorious creature with feelings indeed. She felt that she must watch her mouth.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm never used to talking to any bird aside from parrots. But how come you can talk? You sound intelligent, too!"

"All owls are wise and majestic. There's no need for that surprised face," the owl said with her eyelids drew halfway over her big golden eyes. "Now let us get back to the matter at hand. Contained in that chest is something you must take home with you and let no ordinary soul know about it. Do you hear me?"

"What is inside?" Cassandra asked, staring at the wooden chest in confusion. "Why do I need to take it with me? It's not mine!"

"You must!" squawked the white owl at her. "You will find out soon enough. It's sacred because of what written on it, and I want you to come back here tomorrow after sunset. Can you do that?"

The owl's tone was very demanding. Cassandra was too fascinated by her talking ability than the prospect of having an appointment with the owl again that she just nodded to whatever the bird said.

Then before she realized it, she had given her words. And now she was faced with the problem of how to do it.

"Remember, if you do not come, bad things will happen, very bad things."

"What kind of bad things?"

"All kinds," said the bird. "And if you want to know the truth about your mother, you'd better be quick."

"My mother?" 

But the owl flapped her enormous wings and flew away without another word.

"Hey, wait!" Cassandra called after the creature. "You didn't tell me how to open it!"

But the bird was gone. She looked at the chest like it was an explosive. Her aunt and uncle would not be pleased to see her bring strange objects home.

Cassandra would have to find a way to smuggle it in.


There were six members in the Osinov household. Cassandra's aunt, Klementina, and her uncle, Mikhail Osinov, were the old grumpy married couple with toddler twins, Darya, Nika, and a son, Ruslan. Cassandra's parents passed away when she was five. The Osinov family adopted her because they were her only living relatives. Her father was a brother to her uncle. He married her mother in Greece. Consequently, the Osinovs were a little disappointed in him. It wasn't that they disliked each other; there was simply too much difference in their ways of life.

Cassandra thought about this as she slowly walked home with an extra package from a talking owl. She was still wrapping her mind around it. The place where they stayed was on the hill, a very damp and partly torn grocery bags clutched in her hands. The wooden chest was tugged under her arm awkwardly. She thought about her past because she felt that suddenly everything seemed different to her. It was like the past seventeen years had drifted by like a fog, and now she had just come out of it for the first time.

And the reason she was feeling strange about herself happened the moment she met the owl. The mysterious bird knew something about her parents, and she felt a great stir of curiosity to find out what it is.

Cassandra walked through the door quietly. But as soon as the door closed, she could hear her aunt bellow from the other room.

"What took you donkey years to come back?" she said, making Cassandra's heart leap. "Do you think I can shake a stick on those dirty dishes and they wash themselves? Kindly make dinner as well. The kids are getting hungry."

"Sorry, I'll get to them right away," replied Cassandra as she hurried to hide the chest in her room under her bed. As she got down her knees and pushed the chest in, a voice came to her.

"What is that?" Ruslan asked. Cassandra jumped and bumped her head on the bed-frame.

Cassandra forgot that she shared a bunk bed with her cousin, who was eleven years old. He almost gave her a stroke. Ruslan looked down from the top bunk at her with his big greyish eyes. Even they had the same last name; Cassandra did not share the same eye color as the other Osinovs. They were all greyish blue while hers were pure black like inky night, the same with her waist-length hair. Aunt Klementina always said she took after her Greek mother, and she didn't mean that as a compliment.

"Shh..." Cassandra hushed him. "It's just some junk I found in the wood."

"Can I see it?" he asked. "It looks so old."

"Well, unless you promise to tell no one," she said.

"I promise!" Ruslan said. "What's in the box anyway?"

"Er...I have no idea. I haven't opened it yet," she said almost to herself. "In fact, I still don't know how to open it."

"Oh, I can help," her cousin said. "I like opening puzzle boxes."

As soon as he said that, Cassandra took notice of the wooden container itself. She had been preoccupied with unanswered questions that she didn't have a good look at what had been thrust upon her.

It was true. The wooden chest looked like it was built to be the world's sadistic Chinese trick box. It seemed to have a hidden sliding mechanism that you need to figure out. Not only a craftsman awes you with the intricate work behind the opening sequence and complex fine details in the mechanism, but also with the beautiful ancient symbols and clever golden inlaid work.

It was a true masterpiece.

Fortunately, her cousin was crazy about horology and could solve a Rubik's cube with his eyes blindfolded. Now Cassandra came to realize that Ruslan might have had an important role thrust upon him too, and she was going to need him to help her opening this mysterious gift before midnight, or bad things would happen. Very bad things.

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