In a remote town far away from Krasnoyarsk City, a white horned owl perched on the branch of an ancient oak tree, waiting. The bird was too large for its kind. Almost the size of a two-year-old toddler.
Speckled sunbeam framed its body after the large bird had swooped down to the ice-covered earth beneath, gilding its white feathered wings and striking an occasional gleam from its sharp yellow eyes.
The owl had been waiting on the same spot since dawn. Every single day and night. And it was prepared to go on waiting until it found the One.
The sunset approached. The white owl waited for only one girl, and there must be no other human on the planet to bear witness.
The owl was very old and very wise, but also very grumpy.
At last, someone had come along —alone.
A ripple of the tension went through the creature, starting at the tip of her tail and ruffling up her feathers. As her heckles stood on end, the owl knew that this was the One. A beautiful young girl.
The owl strained her ears and ducked her head forward as the slender figure emerged down the steep hill, coming through the wood.
The bird let out a shrilling squawk.
Cassandra was on her way back home. She had just returned from the grocery store. She and her foster family had come to see the Magic Ice of Siberia, which was an annual international festival of snow and ice sculpture.
On the banks of the Yenisei River in Krasnoyarsk, teams of sculptors, architects, and artists all around the world flocked in to create massive frozen artworks, starting from small scale like mythical birds, unicorns, dragons, mermaids, fairies, princesses to huge ice castles.
Her aunt Polina saw it on a flyer in Moscow and insisted to go as there was nothing else to do in the capital. They all ended in a small town in the third-largest city of Siberia. And since every single hotel was full with the other tourists, they had to stay in a rather remote guest house run by a nice-enough Tatar family.
The twilight faded into the early night. She decided to take a shortcut through a little wood. She had explored the wood the other day. The footpath had worn away through times and the roots of the trees were bare like the veins on a skinny hand.
Cassandra knew it would lead her back to town faster than the road. Besides she liked the smells of the trees and the colors of the flowers. Not far away from the wood, she could see an ancient ruin atop the hill. She liked walking with her head way up, and that was how she saw the castle the first day.
The government of Siberia described it as a heritage site for it was built over a thousand years ago and no one knew what it was for. Some said it was an ancient fortress or a town. Others said it was a palace.
Cassandra strolled on, practically hanging her head over her back looking at the twilit sky. She could see the patterns the early stars begin to form. Other people said they couldn't see them, but Cassandra always could. Thanks to all her time, shutting inside the library when her foster folk was being too much to bear.
But then she heard a bird cry that froze her on her feet. The girl didn't see the bird until it flew down on her.
It happened all at once that she had no time to scream or even be frightened. With one smooth motion, the large owl jumped on her, and she felt the brush of sharp claws against her shoulders before it was past her.
Cassandra sat down hard with a thud and unexpectedly, biting her tongue. The pain brought tears to her startled eyes and she looked at the creature which had attacked her.
She realized it was an unusually large owl, and it didn't look like most owls she had seen. Not that she had seen a lot of owls, but this one was odd, almost seemed otherworldly.
Cassandra's first impulses were to run as fast as she could.
But two things stopped her. The first was that the owl was beautiful. Its glossy feathers were white like the summer clouds and its eyes were like liquid gold. Its large body looked lithe and strong and very skilled. A mark of a predator. The majesty of the bird took her breath away.
The second thing was that the owl had flown off with one of her grocery bags in its claws.
Cassandra's mouth opened and shut. She looked around as if for someone to share this extraordinary sight. Then the girl mustered up the courage to stand again. She was a full-grown human and could probably scare this creature away. With that thought, she set out to go after her grocery bag.
As Cassandra took a few steps, the owl flew away.
"Hey, give it back!"
She went after the bird, which was soaring further into the wood. It took a while later for her to realize that she was deep inside the forest. When Cassandra looked up again, the owl was flying towards a very ancient-looking oak tree. The trunk was twisted as if it was made up of other trees woven together like hardened silk.
"Oh my god, what kind of oak tree is this?" she gasped.
The owl finally dropped her grocery bag to the ground and was now facing her with her golden eyes. It went on like that for a moment before Cassandra decided to retrieve her goods. But the owl squawked high and loud.
"Hey!" Cassandra cried as she jumped. "What do you want?"
She couldn't think of what to do.
The owl looked on with her observant eyes.
This time the bird let her get closer to the bag. As she slowly stooped over to pick it up, her eyes caught sight of something. She looked up and realized there was a hole inside the belly of the dark oak.
The hole seemed to host something there. It seemed to sparkle in its own light. Cassandra gasped as a tingling feeling started between her shoulder blades and spread down to her palms and up to the back of her neck. Twilight was long gone.
For a moment, she thought she would just turn back and flee from the eeriness of it all. Instead, she put one foot in front of the other and went closer to the ancient tree. The wind began to blow and the branches seemed to groan with it.
Cassandra felt the tingling sensation grew stronger. The night began to darken, revealing a crescent moon. She bent down to peeked inside the hole. Then she clapped her hand to her mouth.
There was a beautiful gold-inlaid wooden chest. She looked around herself. There was no one there who would know how this chest got here. Cassandra frowned with intense curiosity.
"Whose box is this?" she asked herself. She glanced up at the large owl atop the tree and then at the chest within the tree.
Cassandra looked at the owl again and the owl looked at her.
After a long-suffering moment, she took a deep breath and reached her hands out to the mysterious chest.
"Right!" said the owl. "Now open it!"