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Week 296
You are on Week 297
Week 298

Every week we will be starting a new Story Telling competition - with great prizes! The current prize is 2000 NP, plus a rare item!!! This is how it works...

We start a story and you have to write the next few paragraphs. We will select the best submissions every day and put it on the site, and then you have to write the next one, all the way until the story finishes. Got it? Well, submit your paragraphs below!

Story Two Hundred Ninety Seven Ends November 3

"…Dobbs here will collect the jewel, at which point you'll give the signal, and we'll all throw the baskets over and flee in the ensuing distraction. Everyone got it?"

The Ruki sternly looked around as the group mumbled and nodded, then quietly dispersed.

"Uncle?"

He turned around at the small voice to see a young Poogle approaching him.

"Yes, Rilla, what is it?"

Rilla nervously rubbed a paw behind her head. "I know there are responsibilities I have to fulfill, Uncle, but I'm not comfortable going on your group's raids just yet. Can I sit out this one again?"

The Ruki sighed. "Rilla, I've taken care of you since you were a small child, but it's time you started taking your own place in this world."

"I know, Uncle, but please... just once more."

With another sigh, the Ruki nodded. "Be prepared for next time, though," he said, vanishing from the tent.

Once he was gone, Rilla bent down to look at the Defenders of Neopia badge she had hidden under her cloak. "I will be, Uncle" she whispered as guilt and nervous excitement clashed in her voice. "I swear..."

Author: Superauthor
Date: Oct 27th
...The badge glittered dully in the light of the candles as if possessing its own inner fire. Gently, lovingly, she polished it with a corner of her cloak before pinning it back to its place -- inside and out of sight.

It wasn't that she wished to disobey her uncle. He had indeed taken her in when the world had turned a cold shoulder; fed her, clothed her, and in return asked only a small price. When she came of age, she would become a raider like him.

So she'd thought.

"Rilla?"

Her uncle's voice made her jump; hastily she pulled her cloak against her fur to hide the badge. "Wh-what?"

Glancing at her supsiciously, he asked, "Why are you wearing your cloak in here, anyway? It's the wind that's chill, and the tent protects you from that."

Clever; so clever, that's what always saved him. "I don't know, Uncle. I hadn't thought to take it off yet, and when you came in you... startled me."

"Well, I have a request." He slipped into the tent and bent down, meeting his niece at eye level. "You wish to sit the next raid out, correct?"

Rilla put an unconscious paw on her cloak, over her badge, but nodded just the same. "Yes, Uncle. Just once more."

His eyes looked full of concern. "Rilla, are you afraid?"

"No." She could put truth into that word, at least, and besides, he always knew when she was lying. Afraid wasn't it. Guilty, reluctant, excited, even... but not afraid. No, she'd never been so certain.

"Will you come with us, just to watch?" he asked. "It isn't quite participation, but it's not sitting out either. If we never train you, you'll never learn."

Her mind raced as she thought of a way to answer; finally she asked softly, "May I have more time, Uncle? May I let you know tomorrow?"

Grimly, he nodded. "Tomorrow then. See you in the morning, Rilla." With a swish of his cloak, he was gone.

Rilla said nothing as she tightened her cloak around her throat and picked up a package of all the belongings she would need. If she'd said the same to him, it would have been a lie. She would not see him tomorrow at all -- by then, she'd be halfway to the Defenders of Neopia...

Author: laurelinden
Date: Oct 30th
...The frigid nights of the Lost Desert had taken their share of victims over the years, and they paid no mercy to one wretched Poogle with her feet wrapped in rags. From that first abandonment of the tents which kept the sun's warmth long after it had scuttled to its haven below the muted-pastel horizon of sunset, each shocking step along the chill-wracked desert sand was like being hit with a bucket of ice water anew. Rilla winced, and an anonymous spurt of night wind licked her on the nose, as though to punish her weakness.

I can't be weak anymore, the runaway told herself, using the thought as a prod to keep moving firmly ahead. I'm a Defender now. I can never be weak, ever again. Yet the voice of her uncle and the snug tents of his raiding troupe clung to her legs like vines, and each step made it harder for the Poogle to struggle against them. She knew it was impossible, for her uncle had been snoring to wake the living when she'd left; but a deeper consciousness within Rilla felt as though she could hear him calling her name into the dark. He would be, when morning arrived with its usual flair. She hoped.

That is a cruel thing to hope.

I know. But we all want to be missed.

Rilla had begun her journey with a compass in hand, with a destination in mind. However, when the persistent hungry mewl of the Lost Desert had overtaken the tangible presence of the raider troupe's camp, the buoyant silver eye among the stars suddenly winked out, shrouding the compass face in night.

Moonlight, of all things! Who relies on moonlight for anything but unreliability?

So she wandered in the general direction that she had been headed last, believing desperately in her own intuition. She had to be there by midnight. She had to, or else-

Shh, shh, but never mind. The voices were talking again.

They were smiling.

Smart girl. You always were.

Rilla looked up. Slung over her back, she vaguely noted the feeling of her package tumbling to the ground a thousand miles from anywhere.

And then the moon swooped out of the sky.

* * * * *

"Irif!" The shepherd huffed in annoyance, then fended the blaring desert sunlight off with one hand as he scanned the horizon for his missing Babaa. This wasn't saying much; in the Lost Desert, you had to pay the horizon to keep it from extending on to Neopia's rim. Knowing the habits of the Lost Desert peoples, you probably had to pay it in gold.

"Irif!" he called again, taking a step and nearly throttling himself as he tumbled over the ragged hem of his robe. The shepherd's name was Firi; he wasn't terribly original when it came to naming his flock.

After an undignified fall in which his fur became unable to distinguish the difference between air and sand, Firi climbed to his feet and looked about to make sure that no one had been watching. The fact that he spotted Irif nudging a jumble of sun-bleached rocks nearby was only a bonus.

"Irif!" the shepherd called once more, for posterity's sake, before kicking his way through the sand over to his missing charge. The journey from Sakhmet to Qasala always seemed so much longer when you could drink a glass of water and watching it come steaming out your pores.

When he reached Irif, Firi determined that there were three beings on a patch of land where there should only have been two. One of them was the very battered-looking pile of rocks, which groaned loudly before lifting two of its facets to reveal a pair of sapphire eyes that darted wildly, staring with disgruntling intensity at no one at all.

Ah. Not a pile of rocks, then.

"Miss?" Firi offered as politely as he knew how; which again, wasn't saying very much, seeing as his idea of civilization was a warm blanket composed of wooly-white Petpets whose hooves always jabbed you just between your ribs. "Are you all right?"

The pile of ro- the Poogle at his feet continued to look at the people who weren't there for a moment, and then turned her gaze to his. With a smile, she rubbed the bruise blossoming over her forehead as she asked, "Do you know the way to the Defenders' Qasala outpost?..."

Author: missjessiegirl
Date: Oct 31st
...Firi stared at the young Neopet for a long moment. Now that he had identified her as a Poogle instead of a pile of rocks, he was seriously worried about her. He might not have courtly manners, and it was just as well if he didn't have a taste for courtly creature comforts, but what he did have included a wealth of practical knowledge about things like taking care of oneself out in the desert and the consequences when you didn't, or couldn't.

"You're in a bad way for traveling, Miss," Firi said gently. Gently he could do. You had to be gentle with Babaas sometimes. "I'm on the way to Qasala myself with my flock, but we're just past the morning's time to travel. I wouldn't normally be plodding along with the sun this high; I was about to pitch my tent when Irif ran off, the silly thing. Or maybe not so silly, what with finding you! You look like you needed finding."

The yellow Jubjub shepherd continued babbling in this way throughout the process of carefully supporting the Poogle up onto her paws, collecting her pack, and guiding her (and Irif) back toward the rest of his flock, and through the process of setting up his half-pitched tent and settling her underneath it.

He wasn't entirely sure if this chatter had any real function, though. He meant for it to keep her occupied and distracted and alert, so that she would neither sink into unconsciousness or do something daft like try to run off across the desert with no supplies in the heat of the day, either of which seemed about equally likely between her physical condition and her irrational mental urgency. (Or, as Firi actually thought of it, she was weak enough to faint and too sun-stupid to know it.) While she didn't do either one, Firi wasn't sure she was really aware of his existence most of the time. She didn't say anything else, and she never focused on him. She was always looking ever-so-attentively off in some other direction.

At last, however, he had her under the shade of his tiny tent, where she could merely bake gently instead of broiling alive. He trickled a little of his precious store of water into her unresisting mouth, then plugged the canteen and picked out one of the Babaa ewes. "Ifri," he said, patting the back of the ewe's neck with one broad Jubjub foot and giving the as-yet-unnamed lamb a ruffle, "your little one'll have to share today."

He dusted the sand off his upraised foot, inspected it briefly to be sure it was satisfactorily clean and wouldn't cause any irritation, and expertly sent a jet of creamy milk into a cup. Likely the poor sunstruck Poogle hadn't eaten, if she'd been lying around with her head banged up. And it wouldn't deprive the lamb much. Ifri was the best.

She finally focused on something real as he gave her the cup. He had gingerly squeezed her paws to check for frostbite (the Lost Desert nights were cold enough for that to be a danger, and if it was bad enough, the damage didn't just vanish when you thawed out the next day), but it was still reassuring when they curved around the cup. Poor little thing. She had the prettiest eyes. Sapphires set in a clear blue sky.

* * * * *

Rilla had the feeling someone had just been saying something important, but she had gotten distracted and wasn't sure what it was. She felt horribly weak and wobbly, and much too hot, and her head was pounding. She noticed these things all at once while she was in the middle of a sip of warm, creamy milk, and she nearly choked on it and had to lower the cup and close her eyes, concentrating very hard for a moment on swallowing, and telling herself that the milk was going to stay where she had just put it.

Well, she knew where the milk was. But where was she? The young Poogle blinked blearily and looked around.

A tent. She was under the plainest, smallest traveling tent she'd ever seen in her life, just enough to keep the sun off two Neopets or be pulled down around one to hide from a sandstorm. She was holding a fired-clay cup half filled with extremely fresh Babaa milk and sitting across from a yellow Jubjub and three Babaas.

"You saved my life," she said, and then blushed lavender through her blue fur. How cliche and melodramatic! Worse, how like a damsel (or danny, but she'd have to be a damsel) in distress, not a heroic Defender! But it was true, too. "Thank you."

"Oh, it was Irif really," the Jubjub said easily. "Ran off and found you. I just looked after you after that. My name's Firi."

"Mine's Rilla," said Rilla. "Irif?"

He patted one of the Babaas, who looked up and babaa'ed at her.

"Well, thanks to Irif too. And, er, whoever provided the milk."

That got a grin. "Ifri." The shepherd -- Firi -- sobered then and shook his head. "If you're yourself again, Miss, I've got to ask, what were you doing out there? If you remember?"

Rilla frowned a little. "I wasn't myself?"

"Miss -- Rilla! Don't you know anything about the desert?" Firi shook his head again. "Let's see, you were dressed right and you had water left, but that's where it stops. You had too much water left, if you didn't start somewhere within sight. You've got to drink regular even if you aren't feeling hot or thirsty. Far as I can tell, you got too cold and thirsty and passed out last night, hit your head, and were still lying out in the sun at the end of the morning."

Rilla absorbed all this and then cringed quietly. "I do know better than all that," she said, hanging her head. "But I had to leave home before I was ready, and I didn't prepare well enough."

Firi frowned. "Before you were ready? Are you in trouble, Miss? Is that why you were looking for the Defender outpost? Because I can take you to Qasala, but I couldn't do much against... say... well," he looked around furtively and lowered his voice, "the Sandfire Raiders have been in the area...."

Rilla bit her lip, feeling a chill strike through her despite the suffocating dry heat. Should she tell him? Could she? What might he do if she did?

"I need to get there by midnight," she said, then stopped and put a hand to her aching head. "No, that's not right. I was dreaming. Or hallucinating maybe. Voices in the stars..." She shook her head, which was a mistake. Ow. "I don't know what was important about midnight." Though she still had the sneaking feeling there was something. "I'd hoped to be halfway there by morning, reach Qasala by tonight?"

Firi snorted. "Maybe alone, Miss, but not with a flock of Babaas. I'll point the way if you like, but I can't keep up with that pace and after the night and morning you had I wouldn't recommend it to you. Say day after tomorrow, late."

"I..." She swallowed. "I think you're right. I'll stay with you." But then she really had to tell him. She had to be brave, and strong, and it wouldn't be fair not to let him know, not if they were together for days. "At least, if you'll let me after I tell you this. My uncle leads the Sandfire Raiders," she said softly, and turned the pin from the inside of her cloak out to face him. "But I want to join the Defenders of Neopia."

"Well, Coltzan bless the shifting dunes, then," Firi blurted. "Even the Ruthless Ruki might have a time tracking you. But listen, Miss, if he finds us? Please tell him you lied to me."

* * * * *

Indeed, it was hard to track someone across the shifting dunes. And it was hard, too, to be a Defender of Neopia in Qasala. The outpost was a tiny little desk in a tiny little shelter, trying to maintain law and order in a city where most of the buildings were still half broken down, half the citizens were zombies, the new queen Nabile used to be a street thief, and King Jazan thought the best way to deal with the Meerca Brothers involved elaborate puzzle traps.

Avan the Pteri was taking his shift at the desk, idly doing an old Faerie Crossword, when a shadow fell across the page.

He looked up and nearly swallowed his pencil.

The Ruthless Ruki Renegade, the most reprobate, most merciless, most dangerous, most successful bandit in the Lost Desert, known by sight to all but never caught, was leaning over his desk.

"I'd like to report a missing person," said the bandit. "Can you help?"...

Author: schefflera
Date: Oct 31st
...Avan's mind whirled as he thought of what to do. He was just a secretary, still in training -- nothing he'd ever been taught had told him what to do in a case like this! Taking a deep, slow, breath and doing his best to feign nonchalance, he set his pencil down and put his wings in his lap, clenching them together to quell their shaking. "What... is the description?" he asked.

The Ruki leaned down, fixing the Pteri with a look as cold as ice. "A Poogle," he began abruptly, "female, blue. Last seen three days ago, took minimal provisions, so she wasn't planning to go far..." He trailed off, his eyes narrowing with suspicion. "Aren't you going to write any of this down?"

Jumping, the Pteri scrambled to pick up his pencil. "Y-yes, of course, er... sir. But I was wondering... perhaps we could continue the description process in the... uh... back room, perchance?"

The Ruki's eyes still flashed suspciciously, but he aquiesced to be led to a small side-room that the Defenders usually used as more of a storage area than anything else. Windowless, it was set with extra furniture and was the only room in the area with a lock. "A moment, please," said the Pteri calmly before softly shutting the door with the Ruki inside. As it clicked to lock before him, a rush of exhilaration filled him -- wait until he told the Defenders what he'd done!

The door opened. A Jubjub entered, probably yellow under all of that dust, with a scattering of Babaa at his heels. Then another figure entered, and Avan gasped. It was a blue Poogle, exactly as the Ruthless Ruki had described!

"C-can I help you?" he asked, his wings already fingering the key, his mind already trying to come up with a plan to get them both locked safely in the storage room.

The Poogle's eyes were glistening strangely as she looked around. "I'm finally here," she said, amazed. "Finally in the Defenders of Neopia." As she looked to him, she abruptly fell to her knees in a pleading gesture, and said, "Please, I'd do anything to join you." The tone of her voice, the look in her eyes, spoke of such sincerity that Avan didn't even think to ask if she spoke the truth.

A crash sounded from the storage room, diverting Avan's attention from the surprising scene before him. "One minute please," said the harried Pteri, and rushed to the back room, clicking the door open. As he looked inside, his excitement wilted from him in a disappointed sigh. The room was empty -- the clever Ruki had escaped out of the ceiling vent -- but Avan had a hunch that it was not before he'd heard everything...

Author: laurelinden
Date: Nov 1st
"...I'm sorry, miss," Firi's voice startled the Poogle from her reverie, and she struggled in getting to her feet like a spirit suddenly heavy with body. Even as the secretary scurried off towards a sand-harrowed closet door somewhere to their left, he remained awkwardly in the doorway from which they'd entered, his band of Babaas milling about in a flurry of snorts and snowfleece. "But I really need to get on my way to Qasala. What with the market closing in two days and all."

Rilla answered, "Of course," with a cordial nod of her head. Firi's goodbye was lost as the sand before him spattered in protest against a gust of wind, throwing up showers that hid him from view as he and the gentle Petpets took their leave. She was grateful, she hoped he knew; but there would be time for wondering soon enough. Right now, she was standing in an office of the Defenders!

As Rilla turned back to the desk of the Defenders secretary, he returned in an indignant bustle, ruffling his wings only to smooth them out again. "Who are you?" were his first words; in the Lost Desert, you couldn't stop for formalities.

"I am," The Poogle paused; perhaps to call herself the niece of a highly-revered (or reviled. It depended who you asked, and exactly how much sand was lodged under their fur that day.) thief in the office of the Heroes of Neopia wasn't a move that a wise Defender would make. "Allir. My name is Allir, and I was lost several days ago during a group expedition to Sakhmet." Then again, her goal was to become a Defender; 'wise' had never necessarily been part of the package. "But ever since I was a little-"

"No time, no time!" the Pteri snapped, pretending to flip through some papers sprawled across his desk, yet his eyes roved Rilla from sandals to stern; even her coveted Defender training wasn't necessary to realize that. Finally, he turned his gaze to meet hers, and shed his pretenses like the sun shed desperation over Lost Desert thieves and thinkers alike. "Who are you, that the Ruthless Ruki himself would be looking for you? Or if not the Ruki himself, then at least a very good likeness?"

Rilla's first instinct was to dive for the door, to lose herself in the glare of the onsetting sun. This was hardly her fault; she was a thief, after all, blueblooded and bred. But the yearning of three years overtook this weakness. How could she run away from the very thing she'd have sold her soul to find? So the Poogle looked him in the eyes. "Because he is the reason that I am now heir to the Sandfire Raiders."

And she told him everything.

* * * * *

"Rifi!" The shepherd's voice seemed almost silly, weak against that profound chill which can only be found in the heart of a desert at half past midnight. "Rifi, get back here! You'll be eaten by a Werelupe if you keep this up, and it'll be your own fault!"

Annoyed, Firi leaned against the rock overhang beneath which he and his flock were taking shelter from the nightly winds. The Babaa would come back; they always did.

"There aren't any Werelupes in the desert, fool."

At his side, Irif scrambled to its feet as though it were a Doglefox making to bark, and not a Babaa at all. It took Firi's sheer panic a few moments to crawl over his legs, paralyzing his chest, slowing his heart to a standstill.

Then the darkness extended a claw that gripped his neck, the gold-and-ruby bracelets that dripped from it polishing his skin with starlight...

Author: missjessiegirl
Date: Nov 1st
...Firi struggled wildly, his feet slashing at the sand and sending graceful plumes of night-muted gold arcing through the dark air. "Who are you?" he gasped, his voice uninhibited by the taloned paw that continued to tighten around him; one of the undeniable advantages of being a JubJub was that when your whole interior is encased in your skull it is impossible for an assailant to constrict your windpipe.

The claws darted sideways, bringing Firi along for the ride before releasing him and sending him flying headlong into the rock. A scattering of stars leapt from the sky, fleeing from the groping tendrils of darkness that encroached on the margin of Firi's vision to flash and dance on the inside of his skull. Staggering to his feet and feeling a warm stickiness spread down from a cut on the top of his head, Firi raised his eyes dazedly to see the dimly outlined face of a massive Shadow Draik, whose dilated pupils nearly consumed the star-dust whites of his eyes and whose fangs shone like icicles of moonlight as he bared them in a razor-sharp grin, keen and ruthless like the Grim Reaper's Sickle poised on a pedestal of scale-clad night, ready at any moment to swing down and harvest Firi's soul.

"Oh, nobody you've met before," the Draik said, the cool, casual darkness in his voice seeming not to originate in any living being, but to echo toward Firi from the desolate gulfs of emptiness between the stars. His obsidian claws swept into motion again, and as Firi struck the rock a second time his antagonist's next words were nearly lost in the roar that flooded through his skull. "And, if your Poogle friend doesn't cooperate, no one you'll meet again."

And with that, the starbursts behind Firi's eyes took the thunderous ringing in his ears by the hand, and went skipping away into oblivion, leaving nothing but silent darkness behind.

* * * * *

She was the known niece of a notorious thief, dozing fitfully in a chair in an office of the Defenders of Neopia. She was a refugee, on the run from a Neopet so ruthless that the word had become a part of his name. She was an orphan, and she'd betrayed the only person who had been willing to take her in.

And Rilla had never been happier.

Finally, there was a real chance that she would get to live out her dream. True, the Pteri had seemed suspicious. True, he hadn't given her any final decisions. And true, whatever higher authority he would be going to in the morning stood a fairly decent chance at taking one look at her and declaring her a bandit under arrest. But there was always a chance, that stubborn glimmer of hope that took on so many different forms and that could keep a person slogging along until she keeled over and acquainted her face very intimately with the floor, only to get back up and keep on going, because there was always that one little chance. And right now, that chance seemed closer than it ever had before.

A soft but heavy blow to the door brought Rilla twitching into wakefulness. Kitara, the quiet but bright and friendly faerie Bori who had taken over for Avan when evening came, perked up her ears. "Now who could that be?" she muttered, and Rilla was faintly reassured by the sound of that perky, gentle voice that sounded like it ought to belong to a white-clad nurse in a Neopia Central hospital.

Kitara lifted gracefully into the air and flitted over to the door, just as a second and third blow shook it in swift succession. "Just a minute!" the Bori called, unlocking the door and opening it to admit--

"You again!" Kitara exclaimed, backing away swiftly and folding her wings tightly against her back. Rilla flew out of her chair, and stood tense and quivering on the floor, her eyes wide and her legs splayed as she stared in horror at the towering form of a stern Desert Ruki.

Rilla's uncle stood silent for a moment, surveying the room with his dark, keen eyes, chest forward and shoulders thrown back and erect like a general surveying his troops. Then his cold gaze fixed itself upon Rilla, dark and desolate like empty gulfs of space abandoned by dead stars. "You thought you would replace me, Rilla?" he asked softly, his quiet voice falling like a shroud to conceal any trace of emotion. "You thought that slow-witted JubJub would take care of you in my stead, until you could betray me?"

Rilla found herself unable to speak, the many words she had spent sleepless nights preparing for such a time as this having fled through the open door and into the blackness of the night.

The Ruki's face darkened, the first vestiges of deep, simmering anger showing themselves beneath his cool, steady surface. A piercing light ignited in his eyes, then suddenly went out, leaving his face dark, cold and desolate: the dunes of midnight, clothed in flesh and blood. "Do you know what I do with cheap replacements, Rilla?"

The Poogle still stood frozen, her swift, shallow breath shaking slightly as it rushed in and out of her constricted throat. Defender! her heart screamed. You're supposed to be a strong, brave Defender of Neopia! Not a shivering, gibbering mess! "What?" she asked, trying to sound bold and defiant. Instead her voice came out trembling and cold, like a cornered animal daring a brief flash of tiny teeth at its towering assailant.

The Ruki reached out a lightning grappling-hook pincer and snagged Kitara by the wings, halting her in the middle of an attempt to use a light to signal for help through the open window. The Bori fought back, snapping and growling with a ferocity startling in such a gentle creature, but the Ruki held firm. "I wouldn't try anything if I were you," he hissed softly to her, before turning his eyes back to Rilla. "Because if I don't walk out of here within less than ten minutes, with you at my side, your shepherd friend will find out precisely what fate a cheap replacement may meet..."

Author: sarahleeadvent
Date: Nov 2nd
...The cold, sick, teary feeling around Rilla's heart and stomach congealed and then froze icy hard.

It hurt a lot.

This, this scene right in front of her, was all the reasons she wanted to be a Defender, and all the reasons she didn't want to be a Sandfire Raider, and all the reasons that choice felt a little bit like dying. All wrapped up together.

Her uncle loved her dearly enough to care for and protect her, make her his heir, seek her out; and he was cruel and possessive enough to avenge himself on someone who had only been kind to a stranger. And the Bori... Kitara was kind and valiant together, all that Rilla had built up in her mind as the image of the Defenders.

What should a Defender do?

When the innocent were threatened by someone she couldn't defeat physically...

...but she had other ways, didn't she? Because her uncle's anger wasn't pure. It was borne of jealousy and worry.

"No one could replace you, Uncle," Rilla said, her voice no longer shaky but thick and raw with tears that felt like tiny ice crystals. "But I didn't want to be taken care of at all. I -- I wanted to take care of other people, like you took care of me..." She looked at Kitara dangling from his claw, and gulped harder. "That's why I wanted to be a Defender." And this was the hard part; this was the part where, if deciding to leave her uncle had felt a little like dying, this felt like ripping out her heart. Because she had never wanted this more than when she was saying she gave it up. "I guess I... I guess I wasn't cut out for it." She looked up at him. "I'll come with you, Uncle. But Firi would never have crossed you if he'd known. All he ever did was save my life...."

Author: schefflera
Date: Nov 2nd
...The Ruki froze, something within his sand-toned eyes wavering, like the quiver of heat waves across the endless golden desert. He only stared. After a beat, he seemed to breathe in for the first time. "What?" His voice was as coarse and layered as his eyes.

"Uncle, please listen." Rilla swallowed hard, and with a shaking breath drew in an equally trembling puff of courage. "He did not know who I was or that I had anything to do with you until I told him much later. He saved my life, that of a complete stranger, and for you to harm him for it is just short of harming me."

"Harming you?" he echoed, his voice dangerously low. "Rilla, I would not harm you. But I wish you could say the same for me. I raised you like my own, all I have ever asked in return was that you follow me, and this is my thanks? You run off -- for all I know you could have been dead -- and for what? To join the very group that hunts us." He shot a glower toward Kitara, whose struggling had grown weaker.

Rilla had to fight to keep her tears at bay. She knew he was right. She had betrayed him. He was a fearless renegade leader who showed no fear. But she knew that he must have been frightened when she had vanished so suddenly. And he had done a terrible thing in hurting Firi, but wasn't it truly out of fear of losing her, in some twisted sense? Still, the Poogle took a step forward. "Put her down, Uncle." The certainty in her own voice startled her. "Tell me... how is she so different from you or me? What puts us all so far apart? We are all doing what we need to do, Uncle. You steal and she defends. It's not that you have anything against one another or have any right to hate a stranger. Nobody has rightful grounds to judge another. So how is this different? We have no place to say if we are right or wrong." She could hear her voice rising as something within her swelled. This was what she wanted. What she had to do. "But this is what I think is right. What you do, Uncle, I don't want to be a part of. It's wrong. It's wrong to hurt people. But the Defenders help people they don't even know, just as Firi helped me... isn't that right? Isn't it the kindness of a stranger that we truly need? Just as you took me in and Firi kept an eye on me this past day, the Defenders are no different than that. And that's what I want to be, Uncle. Something greater than myself. Something right."

He could only stare. Rilla panted with emotion, but for once in her life, she did not look down. She returned his gaze with just as much courage and certainty. She had never been so sure of anything in her entire life.

"Rilla..." the words escaped the Ruki's mouth like a dry wind. Slowly, his hand loosened, and Kitara managed to struggle away and flutter out of harm's way to cough and pant against the wall. "Is this... what you truly wish...?"

It hurt to see him look so unlike himself. And yet she nodded. "Yes, Uncle. But I do owe you so much. I trust you can chose what's right. So what is it... that you truly want...?"

Author: mutedsanity
Date: Nov 3rd
...The Ruki's eyes glassed over with ice, and the depths hidden beneath the frigid surface might have been an endless abyss. Or a chasm writhing with fire. It was always so hard to read his thoughts during moments like these.

"Do you expect me to spare Firi, simply because he's a nice little fellow who was merely trying to help out?" His voice was soft, and impossible to interpret. It was neither mechanical nor a monotone; but nevertheless, detecting any hint of anger, sarcasm or consent beneath that smooth, dark surface was like trying to see the bottom of a swift, deep black river at midnight. There was no telling what he was going to decide.

For Rilla, the wait was unbearable. "Please," she begged, "let him go. He and Kitara never did anything to you except for what they saw as right."

The Ruki studied her in silence. Gentle Rilla, he'd always worried about her. She didn't have the backbone, the killer instinct, the will to do whatever it took to claw a living out of this unforgiving world; she never had. And this ridiculous stunt she'd pulled, and her readiness to cave in when things became difficult, made him wonder if she ever would. That she would give up something she'd wanted badly enough to defy him to attain, for the sake of near-strangers, baffled him. How had the upbringing, the training he'd given her, come to produce such a result?

"Uncle, please," Rilla whispered, returning his mind to the present, a few glistening tears creeping out of her eyes as she spoke and trickling down her cheeks like liquid diamonds tumbling across the weeping azure heavens.

The bandit opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say a word the door exploded open, and an enormous Desert Lupe bounded into the room with an assortment of Neopets behind him. "We saw the signal you flashed," he barked, his quick, keen gaze darting around the room as if herding every aspect of the situation into his mind's processing plant. Then it fixed itself on the Ruki, and the Lupe darted forward, bowling the raider over like a sandstorm pouncing on a dune. The Ruki fought back, kicking and punching furiously with a skill and power befitting his rank and reputation; but this Lupe was clearly one of the DoN's finest, and he pinned the bandit down within seconds. "Ruki," he growled, gesturing for an Acara underling to bring him a rope, "you are under arrest..."

Author: sarahleeadvent
Date: Nov 3rd
...Shock and disbelief swirled through Rilla's mind, cascading down through her body like an ice-choked river. Her uncle was a thief, a criminal, she knew. The fact sat like a frozen boulder in her heart. But her head filled with images from her childhood, hopeless abandonment turning to the warmth and happiness of a family and someone to care for her. Because of him. The Ruthless Ruki, bandit leader... and the person Rilla loved most in the world.

"What... what will his punishment be?" she quavered.

The Lupe Defender regarded her almost indifferently.

"With his many counts of thievery and deception, fleeing the law and countless other offenses, his punishment will be death."

Something seemed to tear in Rilla's mind. How could the law administer such a dire punishment? And this Lupe... this one she would have regarded as a hero... seemed to show no feeling at all for the drastic ring of his words.

"No!" Her ragged shriek seared the air like a dart poisoned by despair. Activity in the room ceased as every pair of eyes startled up at the quivering blue Poogle.

"Let my uncle go. Please," she whispered.

The immobilized Ruki suddenly let out a sharp laugh that snapped in the tense air. "First you wish to join them, to defend Neopia from scum like me, now you demand that they release a wanted criminal?" His eyes were hard like desert stones. "You can't play both sides of this coin, Rilla. Declare your loyalty! Speak it now!" he demanded.

Rilla's eyes were clouded with tears, but she began moving resolutely forward, toward the bound Ruki and his puzzled Lupe captor.

"You are a wanted criminal, Uncle. The most infamous bandit the Lost Desert has ever known." Her eyes lifted from the floor. A change had come over them, rendering them hard chips of night sky. "But I've watched you work my entire life, and never have I seen you kill another, or steal from those who could not spare it. You've never attacked one so defenseless as Firi until now, and once..." She gulped and dashed the tears from her eyes. "You even adopted a worthless orphan as your own. The world isn't Raiders and Defenders, black and white. And maybe, just maybe...one could fight for all the shades of gray."

With a speed never before or since witnessed in a Poogle, Rilla darted forward between the Lupe's pillar-like front paws. Forming herself like quicksilver into a compact ball, she hurled her body upward into the Lupe's stomach, knocking all the air from his body. Almost with the same movement, she yanked her Uncle's jewelled knife from his belt and slashed apart the ropes binding him. Seizing his chance, the Ruki bounded up from the floor and out into the sand-blown darkness.

Taking one last glance at the room that should have been the scene of her greatest triumph, but now only represented her shattered dreams, Rilla ran after him and was swallowed by the night.

* * * * *

Rilla ran until she collapsed, exhausted, by a stand of scraggly desert shrubs. Her uncle was nowhere in sight. She didn't know where he or Firi were. All she knew was that she had thrown away everything: her uncle's love, her own dream... for the sake of what? Neutrality?

His punishment will be death...

The Lupe's words, spoken in such a callous tone, echoed in her ears. She'd thought the Defenders were honorable heroes. But how could they commit such an act of atrocity that not even thieves stooped to?

A sound behind the bushes caught her attention. She sat up and listened.

"Hail, Leader. I captured the shepherd as you asked." Rilla stifled a gasp and peered around the bushes. Her uncle and a muscular Draik from the Raiders stood there, and on the ground in a heap... Firi.

Without pausing to think, Rilla lept from the bushes. "Firi!"

The Ruki and Draik drew their weapons at the sudden noise, but stopped at the sight of Rilla. The Ruki stared at her impassively.

"Still trying to make everything end happily, Rilla?" he asked calmly.

She glared at him. "No. It's too late for that. But it's not too late for Firi."

"No. Of course not. He'll be just fine, as long as you return with us to the Raider camp."

"I'm not coming back with you, Uncle."

The Ruki scowled suddenly. "Just what do you propose to do then?"

Rilla slid her feet into a stance that the Ruki recognized, one he had taught her in her battle training. "I'll fight you for him." The Ruki stared at her, dumbstruck. And in that infinite moment, Rilla saw a thousand conflicts dance over his face. But then the doubts vanished and he set his feet also.

"Very well."

Several unreal moments passed between them, watched by the shadowy Draik and unknown by the exhausted Firi. Suddenly the Ruki drew his knife in a swift movement, sprang toward his niece and brought the dark blade down in a deadly descent.

But it never struck. The Ruki gazed down into Rilla's eyes as she held her paws in the block that had stopped his blade. They were devoid of fear, of anger.

"Perhaps you would have made a leader, after all," he whispered.

He lifted his arm away and sheathed his blade. Beckoning to the Draik, the Ruthless Ruki disappeared without another word.

* * * * *

"Fiir! Fiir, come back!"

Rilla laughed, watching Firi bound over the grass after his wayward Babaa.

"You'll never catch him, you know," she said. "Why don't you just come sit with me and let your poor Petpets graze?" Firi smiled sheepishly and ambled over the sun-tossed grass to sit beside Rilla. They had traveled together out of the Lost Desert with the members of Firi's herd that had not sold at the Qasalan market. The Babaas munched grass peacefully on the grassy hill where they had stopped for a rest.

"So you're never going back to the DoN?" said Firi.

"No," said Rilla, absently plucking grass blades. "I'm not joining the Defenders. And I will never be a Raider."

"I'm glad for that!" said Firi. He was still shaken up over his encounter with the Draik.

The wind blew and rustled Rilla's fur. She looked off into the distance, then back at Firi.

"No, after seeing both sides, I think the best thing anyone can do... is just try their best, and do what you think is right. There aren't any hard-and-fast rules. I'll have to find my own way and not let any organization do it for me. I'll find what I'm best at and do it."

She stood up and smiled suddenly down at Firi.

"Even if it's herding Babaas."

Firi beamed back and rolled over on the soft, green grass.

"I think that sounds just right."

The End

Author: misfit_for_hire
Date: Nov 3rd



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