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And the Snow-Flower Blossomed

As rusty-brown globe of Jupiter slowly rose above the horizon, casting a deep shadow over the frozen plain, an upcoming weather change began to manifest itself. In a few hours – just after the Sunset – temperature will fall drastically. And northern Tundra which shows little hospitality even in daylight will turn itself into a truly deadly place. By that time any warm-blooded being must find oneself a shelter – or freeze to death.

A biting gust of the wind, cold as a touch of a dead man, once again forced Daire to lower her head in a vague try to shield her face by a furred hood. Alba, her loner-lykos, shook his large head as if such gesture could somehow warm him. Daire chuckled under a woolen mask – between two of them Alba surely knew better how to fight the Tundra’s frost. For him the coming night is unpleasant but a bearable trial. For him, but definitely not for his Keeper.

Daire got herself much further north than she ever intended to go. And should somebody said her a few weeks before that she’ll do so willingly, she would no doubt laugh at one’s face. But look at her now: walking through the vast dead-frozen swamp, shivering under the restless wind, racing with the night whose name is Death in these parts. How could it come to this?

No. Daire braced herself. No time for inner monologues. Reasons that brought her here are straight and obvious. Simply too obvious to think them over again. All that matters now is a shelter for the night. Not just a shelter – the Shelter. Of course, if the map sold by that pesky Warlock is not a fraud.

Fatigue ceased to be a problem some time ago. No, it wasn’t about a pain in the legs or burning coldness of the air in the lungs. Daire just kept walking as if turned into a machine programmed to walk till collapsed.

Such raids are certainly not for the Keepers. Beasts should do them on their own. Daire never questioned that custom. But this time was just not the time to do things traditionally.

Shadows of the dusk slowly grew larger. The winds brought some kind of snow – a very unpleasant kind. So dispersed, that it seemed more like a thick mist, formed of tiny bits of ice. Even Daire’s binoculars, a piece of her personal pride, could barely pierce such murky air. A good damn reason to feel troubled. But on the other hand, the weather made Daire’s chasers as much blind as it did her.

– Worry not, – said the Keeper, addressing more to herself rather than to her lykos, – the Bone-Shadow Tower must be close now. We would see it already if not for that snow…

Following some strange instinct, she looked back. Enshrouded in milky whiteness, the ascetic landscape looked lifeless… but for a second Daire seemed to notice a short glimpse of yellow light far in a distance – much further than she possibly could discern. She looked through the binoculars but saw nothing but swirling snow.

Daire hid the relic, giving Alba a troubled gaze. Not that she feared the chase. She rather feared that relentless chaser would outrun and ambush them.

– Come on, – she hurried Alba and her voice trembled a bit. – We have to get to that tower.

If the map was true, they should have been standing right before its entrance already. But navigation relics did not work all that well so far away from the “civilized” realms of Europa – so Daire could easily get lost in this deserted frozen plain…

The gigantic structure stood off the snowy mist so suddenly that Daire, should she take a ten more steps, could just ram its ice-covered wall. Alba, who relied on senses keener than sight, stopped and growled in a low tone. After that, his keeper had finally noticed a cyclopic structure towering right before her.

As many remnants of demigods, untouched by modern men, Bone-Shadow Tower looked more like a piece of a legend than a part of the real world. Even the oldest buildings in Beastopia underwent some modernization and thus looked less bizarre and exotic. Daire had seen ruins of Primordial Wonder before – but never they were so gigantic and strange looking.

The main body shaped as an asymmetrical octagon prism stood up for more than two hundred feet, ending with three or four sharp spires almost invisible in the low gloomy skies. A large number of peculiar superstructures covered it, made of materials that looked too fragile to bear their own weight – like glass and plastic. Metal details seemed untouched by corrosion. Bulking counterforces were decorated with strange grim-looking statues and spiked ornaments. Tall stained-glass windows emanated dim silver glow. Bleak otherworldly sparks ran like wisps by the tangled wires quaintly installed in the wall surfaces.

The Bone-Shadow Tower looked long-time dead and deserted, yet still alive in a strange unnatural manner. Just a quick glance over its withered frozen surface incited anxiety and unrest in Daire, and those feelings only grew stronger as she studied the ancient structure more careful.

Alba went steadily round the Tower and stopped before large stairs half-buried in snow. Two rows of statues stood on the both sides of the stairs – guarding lykoses along with giant owl-like birds, of like Daire had never seen before. Erosion took its toe on them along with the coldness, completely destroying a few of them. But a pair close to the doors looked surprisingly unaffected by harsh environment.

Alba and Daire slowly ascended the stairs, stopping before the colossal doors which no doubt could easily let through a full-grown dragon. Someone left them ajar, and so they stood, clutched in ice, grown over them in many eons passed. Behind the doors stood a curling twilight, darkness quaintly mixed with pale, flickering light. Deep, irrational mix of fear and awe grew inside Daire, but Alba seemed not to share such feelings. Steadily he walked through the door opening, leaving his Keeper no choice but to follow.

– Not afraid, are you? – murmured Daire. – Of course, you’re not. You were born in a place like this, weren’t you?

As she trodden over the threshold, a sudden change occurred: the air became still and dry as if some invisible barrier did not allow the snowy wind inside the tower. Though it was just a little warmer here, the stuffy stillness of the tower hall felt almost cozy comparing to a growing snowstorm outside.

The silence of the place was only disturbed by echoing sounds of Daire footsteps. Vaulted ceiling high above was hidden in gloom, but the walls seemed to produce some kind of eerie shining too dim to be certain of its exact sources. On thick greyish chains of different length, three large spheres of glass and metal hanged from the ceiling and a dense, vivid darkness curled in them. Ancient machinery, covered in hoarfrost, stood in the niches in walls, supposedly long dead, yet rarely blinking with pale lights almost invisible under the rime. The floor was also covered with it, cracking with every step.

The lykos stood patiently near the spiral staircase by the far left wall. Daire took down her mask and drew a long sigh, gazing as vapor cloud swirled before her face. Her skin was ivory-white and glossy. Fine violet weave was on her cheeks, just slightly visible in the dim light.

– So here we are, Alba. Almost done.

The lykos grunted lowly, crossed on his paws. Daire nodded:

– Lead the way.

Stairs were wide and the slope was gentle – seemed like this staircase was specially designed for large quadruped beasts to use it. Alba led Daire two levels up to a small platform almost a hundred feet above the ground floor. A small door of metal and plastic in the wall was the only thing of interest here. Alba stood in front of it, waiting.

Daire examined the door carefully, then pushed it – without any significant effect.

– Looks locked, – she stated, taking off her backpack. – And what are we to do? Let’s see…

After a brief search inside of the smaller section of the backpack, she pulled off a small device of brass and chrome with a handle and two jointed spikes. Though no visual lock or keyhole was on the door, Daire activated the device and pressed the spikes to its surface. Soft humming raised and device began to glow red. A strange growing vibration of door insides followed…

Before all this ended, some other sound disrupted the silence of the place: a clacking of claws and hissing breath, produced by a beast large enough to be heard a hundred feet higher. Alba grunted, fur on his scruff rose upright.

– Just a few more minutes, – Daire whispered to herself. The flapping of wings was her answer.

A powerful shriek stroke her ears as a gryphon ascended over the platform. Alba growled as he moved between his keeper and the gryphon. Born by beast’s mighty wings, a wind rose, twisting around the platform. The lykos and the gryphon stared at each other as the latter flew in circles above the platform.

– Come on, come on… – begged Daire, but her lock-pick device just hummed and blinked in response.

She already (with a certain relief) had heard the footsteps. Someone went up the staircase.

– And I thought, I was the crazy one ‘round here, – said Daire loud enough to be heard.

– Oh, but you are, – a man’s voice replied. It was low, husky and, without a doubt, familiar. – An experienced keeper would never come to such place in person. You should have let your puppy do it.

– Said the one standing right before me, – parried Daire. – Why didn’t you, oh mighty Farrow, set off your menagerie to hunt me down?

– Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, love. Doesn’t match your eyes, – a keeper called Farrow was tall and athletic, dressed in a coat of thick grey fur, large hat of the same material, and a relic mask with large eye sockets shielded with thick bluish Perspex. Because of the complex filter in a lower part of the mask Farrow’s face seemed inhuman.

As he stepped on the platform, Daire stood half-turned, still holding her device. Her backpack laid on the floor with Alba standing over it.

Farrow crossed his arms on his chest. Daire couldn’t see his face but was pretty sure he was smiling.

– Look, let’s not make it difficult. Jerichoe is circling above your doggy and just waiting for my signal. Should I give it – and it’ll be death from above, plain and simple. And in case you sweet couple try to run, a whole pack of my pumas is waiting for you down on the ground floor. So why don’t you just give it up, aye, love?

The device in Daire’s hands clicked and then went silent. Keeper carefully put it on the floor. Then she stood up, gazing straight into Farrow's Perspex-covered eyes.

– There is one thing I’ve always hated in your kind, Farrow, – said Daire. – Wanna know what?

– Go ahead, – he shrugged. – Amaze me.

– You are too dumb to pay any attention to the world around you. Much like amoebas, you are only capable of comprehending a direct and immediate threat. That is why your career as a Keeper won’t be long.

– Yet it is longer than yours, – laughed Farrow.

– True, – nodded Daire. – Only my will go on tomorrow. Yours will not.

– Are you threating me? – A grim tone appeared in a man’s voice. He stepped towards Daire.

Daire did not move an inch.

– Just stating facts, – she said coldly.

Instinctively Farrow looked back. Pumas snarled below, Jerichoe’s wings flapped… but nothing else.

– Are you fooling with me, love?

The question arose a little bit late – for that same moment Daire slammed the door open and pushed herself in. Alba followed in a glance, throwing the keeper’s backpack ahead of him. The gryphon shrieked diving onto his foe, but his claws grabbed only air. Crying violently, he withdrew letting his master to the door. But stepping forward, Farrow recoiled immediately. Alba stood at the doorway with fangs grinned.

The opening was too small for a gryphon. Of course, pumas might pass through, but one by one only. And Alba, by all means, was stronger and faster than any of them. Daire knew Farrow had also understood this.

– Not bad, – he chuckled, stepping to the left. It wasn’t very wise to stay in a range of a lykos leap. – But what your next move would be, love? Figured it out yet?

“A damn good question” – Daire thought to herself, looking around.

The room they were besieged in was a pretty small one. Narrow, with floor growing to the far end, approximately twenty feet long. Big glass jars stood by the walls, covered in a thick rime. Cables tangled on the floor and hang off the low ceiling. Something clattered low in the walls, some ancient machines that drowsed here for millennia.

Daire expected this place to look somewhat else, but… It was the place. She understood that in a moment. Alba knew exactly where he led her. Somehow the lykos knew this place after all his eons in a slumber. Was it a genetic memory? Or might he actually been here before, in the ages long past?

– You won’t sit this one out, love, – she heard. – Even if I leave, what could possibly stop me from coming back here?

“And what if that thing has actually lost me?” – Daire asked to herself. If so, then all that Farrow said is true. Even if not, how should they make their way out when all of a sudden a new participant would enter the scene?

Daire pulled her backpack closer and opened its main section, at the same time studying the closest glass jar and cryptic devices attached to it. Finally, she took out some large orbed thing.

– I just hope we are not too late, – she said.

A powerful underground push shook the structure. Pumas roared anxiously. The gryphon shrieked. The silence followed, but Daire knew it was only a small pause.

It had finally come. The thing Daire truly feared. The thing forced her to run for three days straight almost without rest.

– In a great ocean’s name, what is this monster?! – Farrow sounded horrified.

Daire didn’t waste time on answers. She gently put the orbed thing into a jar, pushed a few buttons… The jar closed and in a moment’s notice was filled with some dense, ghostly glowing purple liquid. Buttons sparked as the keeper touched them, and it looked just like her fingers was leaving a radiant traces.

Meanwhile, a battle raged outside. Three pumas and the gryphon together were a significant force – fast, vigorous and durable. But their enemy… was a completely different type.

With Alba at her side, Daire cautiously trod on the platform. Farrow stood on the stairs half-way down, and on the ground floor…

A giant monstrous thing burst opened the floor plates, cracking some of them into pebbles. It seemed to be made of solid milky-white crystal with sharp spikes on the head and back. Its forehead was armed with a crystal blade which creature did not hesitate to use.

Claws and fangs had little effect on the monster. Even the fiercest attacks left only small scratches on its crystal hide. But the monster in its turn was too slow to “return the favors”. But, if Daire knew right, that disadvantage would soon be balanced by the unnatural tirelessness of the creature.

– Let’s hope that thing will not switch targets, – whispered Daire to Alba. Alba grunted in response with all his attention focused on the fight below.

Farrow, who looked at the same direction, suddenly turned back to Daire, as if had heard her whisper. His Perspex eyes glared with anger.

– You! Did you really think this dumb brute will stop me?! My beasts will tear him apart! Mark my words, they…

– I wouldn’t count on that, Farrow. If you care about your pets or your status in Beastopia – and believe me, it will drop as soon as the city will learn you lost four beasts at once – if you care even a bit, you and your pack must run. And pray to shake this thing off your trail.

– Nonsense! Why should I…

– Because it is a Reducenta. It doesn’t grow tired. It does not need to sleep. It can last for eternity without food – it craves flesh not to function but only to grow. Sentinels say, Reducentas are immortal because even when burnt to ashes, they will reconstruct themselves – even if this will take them ages.

– You are lying! You try to trick me!

– Oh, please, do stay – and try your luck. Go on, love. Fulfill my prophecy. End your Beast Keeper career.

Fear and anger were fighting inside Farrow – Daire could say that even with his face hidden. Farrow had already seen how the fight is turning out and could easily foretell its outcome.

– Damn you! – He shouted. – Damn you and your stupid principles! I’ll return here, return to get back what you stole!

– I doubt that. – Daire smiled. – And even if you do, you’ll get yourself nothing but a headache. Fly away, little butterfly.

– You’ll pay for your arrogance! – screamed Farrow, unable to control his anger. – I am a Beast Lord! No one dares to speak to me like that!

– And who will silence me? – asked Daire ironically. – Isn’t you the one who should be afraid – standing in front of the loner lykos and threatening his Keeper?

– Damn you, Daire Snow-Flower! You and your filthy dog! Jerichoe!

He ran off the stairs while the gryphon left the fight and flew to him. The beast grabbed his master by the shoulders and sprung out of the tower. Pumas followed, meowing desperately, and on their heels – the Reducenta who showed neither excitement nor disappointment. In a minute silence again ruled the Bone-Shadow Tower. Ancient machinery fuzzed quietly, and the outside wind howled melancholically.

Daire sat right where she stood. So exhausting were last days, and so great was the relief. Alba laid beside her, leaning to his mistress, trying to keep her warm. Yet his fur was so frozen that even had no scent, at least not one Daire could smell. She caressed him tenderly and he stretched his neck for her to scratch it.

They both enjoyed a moment, first in a week or so when no immediate threat was upon them. However, their task wasn’t over just yet. Now they had to make sure that the egg would be fine.

Farrow did not exaggerate saying Daire stole it. However, she committed such crime only to save the poor thing. A few more days in improper conditions and the unhatched lykos could die. As a bystander of the Wyld Sentinels, Daire could not pass this by. When negotiations proved ineffective, she approached the problem from the other side. She addressed the Sentinels and received the information and permission to act. If only she knew how this all would end…

In a few days the unhatched egg will be stabilized by demigods’ technology. Then they’ll be on their way back – all three of them. It was hard to predict what dangers awaited them on this path, and even harder – what troubles will cause the angered Beast Lord on their return. But now they just enjoyed a moment of peace well-spiced by the feeling of victory.

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