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Shadowflame: Snowfall


by brains03

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She huddled further beneath the protective overhang of her hood, squinting out into the white maelstrom that enveloped her. A blizzard had struck not long after she had set out to scale Terror Mountain, leaving Happy Valley behind her in a haze of white flakes and wind.

      Her name was Shadowflame Darkhunter, an enigma to most but a legend to many in the circles she frequented. For as long as she could remember she had been a Shadow Shoyru, painted such untold years ago by parents she could not recall.

      Following her every footstep in the stories her acquaintances told was a long Shoyru Sword, the friend who had seen her through more battles than she cared to number. Its blue hilt and handle had been untouched by time, and the silver blade showed no wear from the many times it had crossed others of its kind.

      Shadow trudged wearily through the accumulating snow, now using a hand to keep away the wind. There had been no clouds in the sky when she had left- by all rights there should be none now.

      It occurred to her that she should have brought a guide to lead her, instead of foolishly attempting to scale the one mountain in Neopia with 'Terror' in the name alone. Shadow was forced to admit that lately her independent streak had been taking advantage of her, but nonetheless she was not worried.

      With a sigh, she squinted further and glared into the snowy yonder. It was not shaping up to be an easy trek either way.

Two Days Before...

      "Find me a buyer for this," she said, throwing the tiara of Hera onto the desk, "Quickly. I don't hunt down this stuff because I like the look of money in the bank."

      "Clearly," her assistant shot back, "because you have so many other reasons to hunt for the rarest and most dangerous stuff in Neopia."

      They were in the Neolodge, on the fifteenth floor. Shadow's assistant, a blue Mynci by the name of Julia, rented a room here. Shadow used it as a sort of base of operations, coming and going when she needed to. Julia joked that Shadow should start paying rent.

      "Maybe I do have other reasons, how would you know?"

      "What, you enjoy the thrill of the chase?"

      "Quietly now," Shadow said half-seriously, "You say that loud enough, the rest of the Neolodge residents might catch on. Then I'll get all sorts of jobs hunting for lost Petpets and dropped mittens. I don't know about you, but I have better things to do with my time."

      "Very well then, Shadow, I'll remember that," the girl replied pertly.

      Caelis Ingvall, one of her most trusted friends and valued companions, grinned as Julia snatched up the tiara and dumped it in a pile of other rare items before walking into another room. He was a young man himself, a red Lupe who was slowly beginning to grow into a beard. Caelis and Shadow were members of a small group of contacts that shared information on potential finds with one another, and split a share of the profit if the treasure was good. She supposed it made them a sort of clan, or guild even, but only a loose one at that.

     Caelis was visiting from his home in Sakhmet, because his family was having a family reunion at the end of the month and his mother considered it very bad form for him to avoid his own family.

     "Hera, eh? Don't suppose I could borrow that tiara from you? I'd like to do some research on it, maybe the old 'treasure-nose' here will sniff another relic for you to find."

     "Go ahead, but be careful with it," Shadow replied, grinning, "That thing took me months to find, and it almost cost me my life. I want it in a good enough condition to get some money out of it."

     "Don't worry, Shadow. I'll have it back in one piece as soon as I can."

     "Alright then."

     Caelis was a scholar mostly, and he had a tendency to come up with just the right piece of information at the right time- a skill that Shadow affectionately called his treasure-nose. She hoped that, if anything, he could come up with more information about the former Faerie Queen. Shadow suspected there was an interesting story behind the tiara.

     "Any other news?" she asked. "I've been out of touch for a while."

     "Garoh was arrested yesterday, and several of Neopia's nations are considering outlawing treasure hunting as we do it now. Which could mean more paperwork for you."

     She chuckled and groaned at the same time. 'The way we do it now' seemed to involve needless property damage and dangerous situations. Of course the governments wouldn't take kindly to that.

     "But Regdar has some interesting information about Terror Mountain."

     She perked up. Regdar Ashlander was Shadow's only other friend aside from Caelis, a small-time thief from Meridell- at least he was small-time as far as Skarl knew. Then again, what Skarl knew could fill a picture book. Regdar had more than a fair share of travellers pass through his net of informants, so most of the treasure she went after came from the hints he dropped her way.

     "Oh? And what, pray tell, is so important about Terror Mountain?"

     "The Dewdrop."

     "Ah."

     Shadow's assistant poked her head back through the door.

     "The Dewdrop?"

     "What do I pay you for?" Shadow asked, half-smiling, "Why aren't you-"

     "Actually, you don't."

     "Don't what?"

     "You don't really pay me, I do this because I need secretarial experience. It's tough getting a job as receptionist for the Tooth Faerie."

     Caelis winked at Shadow. "The girl aims high."

     "Fine." Shadow laughed, "As of now I pay you... money. Based on whatever it is you manage to sell the relics for. Savvy?"

     The secretary nodded.

     "Oh," Shadow added hastily, "And forget selling the tiara for now. Caelis here thinks he can make us more money."

     "Great!" Julia replied enthusiastically, smiling at Caelis.

     "I try my best," he chuckled mildly.

     Julia grinned wider, then turned to Shadow.

     "But what is the Dewdrop? Sounds like a girly treasure to me."

     Shadow sighed.

     "The Dewdrop isn't your usual treasure Julia, it's-"

     "An ancient jewel imprisoning the soul of a powerful oracle," she muttered to herself, swearing silently at the clouds.

     And so it was. Ages ago the oracle had foretold the future of a Dark Faerie named Irillith at her request, but unfortunately for both of them the foretelling did not have a happy ending. In a rage, Irillith locked the oracle away in a large diamond and cast her from Faerieland, where the gem fell to the ocean below.

     But the oracle was a powerful creature and she manipulated the forces of Neopia, making the tides carry her to shore and the wind blow her across the land. Thus she travelled, bringing fortunes wherever she went. The lucky pet who found the gemstone was granted one wish, or if they chose, a foretelling of their future. Shadow was sure more people opted for the wish than the knowledge of their lives ahead.

     Regdar had found the Dewdrop's current location because of one simple fact: wherever it went, strange weather began to form. Sometimes it was subtle, like an occasional mist where there was none before, or sometimes it was a serious danger- like a hurricane or an enormous flood.

     The serious weather had once caused a nationwide search for the crystal when Brightvale had been ravaged by hail, but the event had- through force of the oracle's magic- faded from memory just as quickly as it had occurred.

     This time the crystal was manipulating the snow patterns, forming shapes and symbols in the blizzards. Travellers through the area had spread the word each night in taverns, and word had naturally made its way back to Regdar. And from him, of course, to Shadow.

     People would pay anything for the chance to have their one wish granted, and Shadow felt bad for the people who had found it before and had used the wish on themselves. They were clearly not entrepreneurs like her.

     Which lead to an interesting question. Just where on Terror Mountain was the Dewdrop? As far as she knew the patterns were located at the very top, but the range of the crystal was far-reaching, so it could be anywhere within that area.

     She shook her head and focused on the problem at hand. Navigating was becoming difficult.

     After a while, however, the snow began to slow and Shadow could see without holding up a hand. Soon she was walking on snow that had begun to pack, crunching through the top and leaving a long trail of her progress.

     As the day passed the falling snow disappeared entirely and was replaced by a cold, unfeeling fog, stirred only by her silent passage through it. There was an eerie feeling in the air, with the dead wind hanging over her. Shadow quickly found herself lost and debated with herself on the advantages of flying up the mountain instead of walking like some common Ixi.

     On one hand she could probably rise above the fog quickly enough, which would at the very least allow her to catch her bearings. On the other, she would have to shed her heavy winter cloak. This would expose her to the icy winter air and leave her at the mercy of the weather for the rest of the trip- assuming she couldn't find a replacement at the top of the mountain.

     Shadow never assumed.

     She tried to keep moving through the fog, but eventually she got the feeling that she was on her way back down the mountain. This was reaffirmed when she spotted tracks running beside her that she had made less than ten minutes ago. In the empty silence her curses echoed back, making it seem as though the fog had a rather foul mouth.

     It was completely beyond her how she couldn't even tell whether she was going up or down, or even orient her direction from where she was. Clearly there was some kind of trickery at work. Perhaps the Dewdrop's influence spread further than she thought.

     In a single fluid motion her cloak dropped to the snow, swirling up small puffs around her feet. Her wings stretched out to their full length and she shook them twice to warm them up. With a yell of jubilation she took off to the skies. She might not be able to tell where she was going on the ground, but by the Faeries she could find UP!

     Within minutes she had cleared the fog's uppermost reaches and was hovering in blue skies, looking down upon Neopia. The sun's golden glow reflected down off the top of the clouds, and between them she could see glimpses of the world she lived in. Half-frozen drops of water floated serenely past her as she stared down, picking out the castles of Brightvale and Meridell, and the new city of Maraqua. In the distance she could see Faerieland floating, the tip of the highest tower poking over the horizon.

     The fog had spread, it seemed, from about midway down the mountain to a small ridge just below the crest of the mountain, where a small village sat. Amidst the town sat an igloo, several houses, and... a tavern. Her quick eye noted the tavern, and she grinned. It seemed like that would be a good place to start her search for the Dewdrop, so she angled her wings and flew quickly towards it.

     A light crunch of snow greeted her back to earth as Shadow landed outside the tavern, The Ski Lodge. When she pushed open the door, she was greeted with a large and rather friendly looking room, though it was almost completely empty. Whoever ran the place kept it well lit, with a roaring fire opposite the bar and candles burning merrily in brackets around the perimeter. Enormous comfy chairs littered the area, pulled up next to big tables used to hold the assorted food and drink that was apparently served here. The floor was made of wood, but kept almost obsessively clean, so that the light brown finish was not obscured by dirt and grime. Shadow wiped her feet nervously.

     At the bar, a tiny Usul smiled at her, so Shadow wiped her feet again- and once more to be safe- and walked over. Seating herself on a stool, she smiled and ordered a Hot Chocolate. She then waited until the girl's back was turned and surreptitiously checked to see if she had left any tracks on the floor.

     She snapped her head back up as the Usul slid the hot drink towards her with a practiced smile. Shadow reached into a pouch on her belt and dug past the dubloons on top, grabbing a handful of Neopoints to pay up. It didn't do to leave a tab. The Usul took the money and turned around, trouncing into the kitchen, her red fur bouncing.

     Shadow took a sip of the hot chocolate, trying not to burn her tongue. Three lonely marshmallows floated on top, a Grarrl, a Meerca, and a Shoyru. The Grarrl and the Meerca both looked happy, but the Shoyru's head was missing... Shadow tried to shrug it off, and glanced around.

     She hadn't noticed before, but the far wall wasn't a wall, but rather an enormous window divided up into nine smaller panes. The view looked down the side of the mountain to an outcropping of rocks.

     "Bit of a long way up for a traveller such as yourself, especially with no cloak?" the Usul asked her, returning from the kitchen.

     "I just wanted to make a quick trip so I travelled light," Shadow replied stiffly, trying to smile.

     The Usul frowned.

     "Are you sure that's why?"

     "Yeah, I'm sure."

     "Alright then. There have been odd reports coming up here from people looking for quests. Weird fog."

     "I didn't see any."

     Shadow was acutely aware that two of the other customers, sequestered away in a corner, had perked up at her conversation with the bartender. She frowned.

     The bartender coughed again to regain her attention. She had the most annoyingly high-pitched voice, like a young Air Faerie who'd been enjoying too many Faerie Bubbles.

     "Some folks are saying that the Dewdrop is responsible for the fog they've been seeing."

     "The what?" Shadow replied, trying desperately to keep her answer noncommittal.

     "You know what it is, Shadowflame," the Usul hissed, "Don't lie to me! And you left TRACKS ON THE FLOOR!"

     "What? How-"

     Shadow had no idea how the girl knew who she was, but began to reach for her sword when the distinctive click of a crossbow echoed from the counter. She dove and rolled off the stool as the Usul drew it up and shot, shattering her mug and spraying hot chocolate everywhere.

     "I had to pay for that!" she yelled, regaining her footing and staring down the bartender.

     The Usul was holding a Regulation Meridell Crossbow, though how she had found it was beyond Shadow. Theft, most likely. She muttered angrily to herself, and the other two customers in the corner made a hasty exit.

     "Chet, get back in there and get your pants on this instant!" came a call from outside.

     "No way, man, not with that stuff going on! Big pointy objects scare me!"

     Shadow lowered her sword so the point touched the floor lightly.

     "What is it you want?"

     "We want the same thing you do; the money," replied the Usul, smiling. "We both know how much a wish is worth. If you agree to work with us right now, we'll let you walk away with fifteen percent of the profits, along with your life."

     "We?"

     "You will see. Fifteen percent."

     "Twenty-five percent," Shadow shot back.

     "Seventeen."

     "Twenty."

     "Normally I would agree with that, but I suppose I should leave the negotiations to your new employer."

     She tilted her head. New employer? The Usul went into the kitchen, leading out a hooded Shoyru from the kitchen, flanked by two more shirtless Shoyru guards. Each guard had a diagonal grey slash across their chest; and they were armed with Winged Shoyru Spears and heavy looking Shoyru Battle Shields. Shadow drew her sword, and for the first time in a long time, began to suspect that it was going to be inadequate protection from her enemies.

     "Drawing steel, in my presence? Shadow, I am disappointed in your manners. I see you didn't even wipe your feet properly!"

     She glared at the hooded figure.

     "Who are you?"

     "I? I? I am Halide, crown prince of The Grey. We are a brotherhood of warriors in search of an ancient Neopian treasure. Marked by the paint brush of the Grey Faerie, we will find it!"

     "That diagonal slash... is grey paint?"

     "Correct. And we number more than you will ever know."

     "I'm not entirely sure I want anything to do with you. Especially if you plan on 'marking' me."

     "Hahaha, don't be so naive, Shadow; we don't take your kind into our order. But you do happen to be after a certain object that interests us as well."

     "The Dewdrop? I don't see what that-"

     "As I'm sure you are well aware, Shadowflame, people will pay anything for happiness. One wish, anything in the world at your fingertips, health from sickness, life from death, a friend for life... this is what we wish to have, this is what we wish to sell."

     "I see..." she murmured. "Cutting in on my business to fund some wacko brotherhood."

     Unfortunately, one of the guards heard her and stepped forward, whirling the winged spear. He beat her across the chest with the haft and sent her flying into the wall on the other side of the room. She pulled herself up and lifted her sword.

     "You will not speak of The Grey like that, stranger, nor will you ever again," the guard growled.

     "Darius! We do NOT attack partners like so. You will face great punishment for this!"

     Halide turned to Shadow.

     "Sorry about him, loyalty breeds blind rage in some of our guards."

     She snorted at that.

     "We wish to offer you the twenty percent you ask in order to retrieve the Dewdrop, plain and simple."

     The offer was tempting, but not nearly as much as getting the full price back on her efforts. Still...

     "If you give me some time, I'll consider your offer."

     "No! You must decide now!"

     "Then no," she replied coldly. "I refuse."

     "I was afraid you would say that," Halide said, shaking his head and turning to leave the tavern. "But if you feel that way, then we must dispose of you. Darius! Yuki! Kill her, and make it quick."

     Halide and the second guard disappeared out the door and left Shadow alone with Darius and the Usul.

     "So you're Yuki then?" she asked the Usul.

     "Quiet, scum," Yuki replied, her voice now lower, and more menacing. "To speak with the revered prince in such a way... It shames me."

     "I swear, why can't just one of you brotherhoods or guilds or clans elect somebody sane?" Shadow yelled back. "It'd make your life so much easier, really!"

     A crossbow shot forced her to move quickly, diving to the left. Darius leapt at her while Yuki reloaded, swinging his Winged Shoyru Spear at her with one hand. She blocked the metal pole with her sword and punched him in the gut, jumping backwards as he tried to beat her with his shield. Darius roared in anger and advanced more slowly, the sharp end of the staff pointed squarely at her head.

     Shadow ducked another crossbow bolt and heard Yuki curse. She engaged Darius in a furious battle of blows and parries, moving them both back and forth across the room. Eventually she managed to slice the arm straps off the battle shield and nimbly knock it aside, leaving Darius defenseless. As she suspected, he had not trained to fight without it.

     He charged her recklessly, taking her by surprise. With no choice, she turned and fled for the enormous wall of windows, crashing through it with a yell of anger, fear, and exhilaration. Darius slid to a stop at the gaping hole and stared out at her as she fell to the snow and began to roll down the slope towards an outcropping of rocks.

     Without waiting to confirm her death, he turned and left the tavern with Yuki to report to Halide.

 

     Shadow woke up in total darkness. She was freezing cold and bruised in a dozen places, but alive. The outcropping she had spotted earlier had stopped her from rolling right off a cliff, at the expense of several hours of consciousness. It was, without a doubt, a fair trade.

      She opened her eyes a little wider and noticed something odd in the snow. A small diamond, smaller than she had imagined it, was sitting half-buried in a drift. The Dewdrop. Without hesitation she stood and picked it up. It pulsed with an odd life, as though something wonderful lay inside.

      In a blinding flash of light the oracle appeared before her, glowing a pure white. She must've been a faerie once, for no other Neopian held that kind of power.

      "You who have summoned me, Shadowflame, what is it you desire? A wish, or you future? Or do you, like so many, wish to sell me for the money and hope it would bring to you?"

      Shadow felt a sudden and absolute twinge of guilt. So many people had probably traded this poor oracle off, using her power and her plight to their own ends. While hers, in a roundabout way, could be justified... what about the rich people who sold it to make themselves more? How long was she doomed to be trapped for doing what was asked of her so long ago?

      No, no matter how important money was to her, no matter what she'd been through to find this little gemstone... no matter even the greed she felt now.

      "I have a wish for you Mother Oracle," Shadow said quietly.

      "Say it, and it shall be granted, Shadowflame, any desire. But choose carefully, one wish is but one wish."

      "I... I... I wish for you to be freed from your crystal prison."

      The oracle was silent for a long moment. Shadow swore she could see a tear rolling down the her cheek.

      "As you wish..."

      There was another flash of light and the oracle was gone. In her hands sat the diamond, now devoid of any life at all. Shadow looked up at the sky and there was a pale light high up, smiling at her. She could vaguely hear the oracle's voice.

      Thank you...

The End

 
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