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||You are on Week 368
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 Three Hundred Sixty Eight Ends Friday, May 9
It was still early in the morning when Karuki left home. The mist that rose with the dawn remained thick, and the plants all glistened with dew. His mother's eyes were similarly glistening as she wrapped up some steamed buns for him to take on his journey. Her weathered fingers moved with practised ease, but her face showed a hushed sadness.
"I will return soon," Karuki said in an attempt to comfort her.
"I know," she replied quietly, "it's just that you're my only son, and you have never been away from home for so long before."
"I know how to take care of myself," Karuki assured her.
"He's right," said a stern voice from the doorway. Karuki's father, sombre and impressive as always, stood in the doorway. "He is of age now, and every young Neopet in Shenkuu must take this journey before they can return as respected members of our society." He walked up to Karuki and put one hand on his shoulder, while giving him an amulet with the other. "It is our family symbol," the elder Neopet continued as Karuki turned the charm over in his hands. A wise-looking Nimmo holding a staff was carved into its centre.
"'Li Family -- Wisdom,'" Karuki read from the inscription on the back.
"Don't ever forget that, son. Go out and prove to the world that you are from the noblest family in Shenkuu!"
* * * * *
"I don't really want go, Father," Moki complained, dragging his feet.
"You will not dishonour this family!" his father roared, pushing the reluctant Mynci out the door. "Every young Neopet must make the journey this time of the year, you know that! Go! And do not return until you have brought honour to our name!"
"'Sung Family -- Strength,'" Moki grumbled, looking down at the wrist charm his mother had given him earlier that morning. "Well, I sure don't feel strong."
"You will by the end of it," his father said sternly. "Strength! Don't ever forget that, son. Go out and prove to Neopia that you are from the noblest family in Shenkuu!"
Author: Weary Traveller|
Date: May 5th
On the winding road that wove its way from Shenkuu's serene villages toward the imposing, distant mountains, scores of young Neopets mingled into one large group. They walked in silence, weighed down by the impressive journey ahead, a rite of passage older than time and more sacred than any other. Since childhood each young Shenkuu resident anticipated this day with a mixed sense of fear and pride.
To be honest, Moki had no idea why. There was something eerie about a group of pets willing to troop off into the middle of nowhere without questioning why or where they were headed. The journey itself was shrouded in secrecy, yet the ancient traditions passed down from generation to generation ensured that to question things was a slight to one's family honour. In Shenkuu, honour and tradition eclipsed all other things.
As the young Mynci trudged along the blossom-lined road, his feet dragged upon the ground. The Neopets who marched near him seemed almost spellbound with determination, dreams of a future as respectable Shenkuu citizens no doubt spurring them on. Even as Moki willed himself along the path, the words of the ancient ones ran through his mind. Each pet there would have been able to recite them in a second; the ideals and prophecies were drilled into everyday life since childhood.
"When thy little ones hover on the brink of adulthood, like the sun hesitating anxiously upon dawn's horizon, they must take to the mountains. A journey that's purpose must never be spoken of; a quest to learn of their ancestors so that they may learn of themselves. The tree cannot hope to be strong without a firm network of roots."
Moki found himself snorting out loud, incurring an alarmed look from the Nimmo who strode along beside him. He didn't want to be a tree. He wanted to leave Shenkuu, perhaps to dwell on the shores of Krawk Island or take to sea in one of the rocking, rickety vessels that rested in its harbour. A life of tradition and routine seemed almost like punishment. Moki dreamt of excitement.
Karuki's dreams were of no such thing. Nothing was more important than continuing the Li family's tradition of honour and respect. His cousin Orrin had sailed with the legendary Cyodrake's Gaze, and his wise grandfather Iri was famous for his natural cures. It was said any ailment would ease with the application of Iri's secret balm.
Pressure was firm on the young Nimmo's shoulders, but instead of weighing him down, it challenged him.
I wish to know of my past, Karuki thought, as the ancient ones advise. I want to understand the origins of Shenkuu so that I might be an asset to our realm and my family.
In one trailing line the young Neopets began their ascent into the mysterious, silent mountains. The peaks were obscured by rolling mist, which entangled itself around them, assuring they would never view the sky that they stretched toward. A few more steps, Moki thought glumly, and Shenkuu would be out of view. It would be him, the mountains, and this group of mindless drones.
A few more steps, thought Karuki, and Shenkuu would be out of view. It would be him, his companions, and the mystery of what lay ahead.
As the group rounded a winding corner, they halted. The road seemed to draw to a close, a massive sheet of rock, the side of an imposing mountain, barring their way. Whispers of confusion and discontent ran through the crowd. How could they continue with the way blocked as it was?
Karuki remained calm. Generations had made this journey; he had faith they wouldn't be the last to do so, or the first group to fail. He was considering giving a stirring speech about overcoming obstacles when a slow, irritating whine rose up from the back of the group. Moki, the Mynci he vaguely knew from around Shenkuu, was speaking.
"This is pointless. We should go home."
Karuki looked shocked. Had the lad no sense of family pride? Of honour? What confused him more was that several other young pets seemed to be agreeing.
"Are you mad?" Karuki's question was indignant, filled with disbelief. "You'll disgrace yourselves!"
"Better than freezing on some stupid mountain!" Moki's retort was almost spat in disgust. He was cold, he was tired, and he wasn't going to listen to some droning Nimmo who thought this was his time to shine.
The group erupted into a bitter argument, friends turning upon friends as they debated the next step. Karuki stormed to the Mynci who had begun this, enraged.
"Look what you've done!"
Moki scuttled backward toward the mountain wall. The Nimmo was much taller than he and seemed a little imposing, yet he forced a snide smirk onto his face.
"Don't get all worked up. I'm sure it won't affect whatever plan your family has for you."
"I make my own plans!"
Moki snorted in laughter, just as Karuki launched himself at the sniggering Mynci. Both should have hit the rock wall hard, but as they were propelled backward, already shoving at one another, their two medallions gleamed and shimmered softly, the rock wall gave way and they tumbled into the darkness…
Date: May 5th
As quickly as the rock had opened up, it shut again with a painful crumbling sound, echoing throughout the deserted cavern. As the two angry pets slammed against the harsh, cold floor they instantly abandoned their quarrelling and gazed around. Karuki felt his eyes open wide with delight.
Behind them stood nothing but a miserable dead end, yet before them stood a narrow passage inside of the mountain, dimly lit by small torches, which, in spite of looking exceptionally regal, were of no help in improving the ghastly appearance of the cave. A strange aura of mist was circling them, its presence warm and inviting. Before Karuki even had time to ask where they were, the answer surfaced instantly inside his head.
"The mountain... it... it has engulfed us..." stuttered Karuki, his eyes examining the mist, which was now travelling down the path as if leading the way.
"Ugh! Perfect! Look, come help me, will you?" said Moki as he viciously pounded the wall, which had only moments ago swallowed them. "Maybe we can get it to open again..."
"No!" boomed the Nimmo, hastily shoving Moki backward. "Are you blind? Do you not see what this means? There must be a reason why the mountain invited us and only us into its depths!"
Moki grumbled, yet no matter how much he tried, he found it impossible to counter this point. The mountain had quickly closed after they had fallen in; why did it not want anyone else?
Karuki, whose head was now flooded with thoughts of the knowledge he would gather in this enchanted mountain, quickly followed the lit passageway. Today would be the day he would finally learn what it truly meant to be a member of the Li family.
Moki spotted the Nimmo racing away and quickly forced himself to sprint after him. He didn't know (or even care, as a matter of fact) what he would experience in this cave, but he couldn't bear to be left alone in it.
The duo quickly dashed down the rocky path and continued to follow it as it steeply upturned. The path spread out even farther, and Moki was quickly losing all of his energy as he ran up the mountain for what seemed an eternity. Karuki, though, seemed diligent to reach his unknown destination of wisdom.
Much to the Mynci's joy, the path began to open up into a circular hall after a few long minutes of tiresome running. Its edges were shrouded in shadows, which seemed immune to the pitiful sputters of light being released from the surrounding candles. Strange engravings covered the floor, yet neither of the pets could make them out in the fearsome darkness.
The duo watched unmoving as the mist slowly slithered across the floor and into the middle of the room, where a glorious shrine stood, which appeared to be omitting a weak light of its own. Walking up to it, Moki and Karuki examined the shrine with amazement.
It was beautiful, to say the least. It was encrusted in gold and silver and surrounded with glistening jewels, yet the most shockingly attractive feature was the two pendants held proudly at the top. The duo instantly recognised them.
"The amulet of Strength..." said Moki, examining the similarities between his family's charm and the enormous pendant on the top left corner of the shrine. A muscular Mynci was standing proudly on a mountain peak, holding his sword high into the heavens. The other pendant was on the top right corner and it held a wise-looking Nimmo.
"The amulet of Wisdom..." stuttered Karuki, excitement building as he rubbed his own family charm, tears beginning to flood out of his eyes as he imagined just how many generations of his family had stood in this very spot.
In the centre of the shine was engraved text. Quickly blowing the dust off, the confused Mynci and the eager Nimmo began to read.
"Descendants of Strength and Wisdom, like the child to his mother you are summoned. Ancestral roots of thy tree have stood in this very spot and have undergone the same task as you will soon face. The path is long, yet the descendants must tire not as they pass through the ancient trials. Beyond the door you will find your first task, where courage will be shown in all of its generous forms. Remember, young ones, Wisdom and Strength are connected at the heart -- one without the other is pitiful."
Behind the shrine stood a majestic door, seemingly reaching to the sky...
Date: May 6th
Moki had not been one to obsess over the traditions of honour and family pride, but even so, the door, imposing and yet enthralling, began to stir a little ancient wonder inside his heart. How many of his ancestors, and Karuki's, had stood together before this ancient door, the door that would decide whether they would live a life of honor or shame?
A chill swept though him. How many had not returned?
After all, he'd heard the legends a thousand times over, and it was common knowledge among Shenkuu's children that those who held no faith were not guaranteed to pass the trials.
Fighting back his sudden wave of panic, the Mynci stepped forward and yanked on the door's handle.
"It's locked," he said laconically.
"Of course it is," the Nimmo snapped. "There is a minor ritual to complete first. Did you not know?"
The Mynci swallowed. Perhaps he should have been paying attention when his father had been telling him about the quest he was now embarking on.
Karuki smoothed his features and turned to the shrine. He gestured toward the amulet of Wisdom, his face reverent.
"We have come to be tested, and be tested we shall.
"I, Karuki, the latest heir to the Li line, have come to my trial. As many of my ancestors before have stood here and repeated these lines, I swear to prove my wisdom and uphold the family traditions."
The amulet of Wisdom glittered, seeming to wink at him brightly.
Moki felt the panic threatening to consume him again. He was dealing with something more than mortality here, some invisible force that watched him. They would want his oath upheld. How could he make it, if he intended to break it and leave Shenkuu?
"Go on," Karuki muttered, a little annoyed. "Our trial awaits."
His throat dry, Moki stepped toward the shrine.
"I, Moki, the latest heir to the Sung line, have come to my trial. As many of my ancestors before have stood here and repeated these lines... I swear to p-prove my strength and... uphold the family traditions."
His heart pounded. Was it just him, or did a shadow fall across the medallion mounted high above him, an ominous foreshadowing of things to come?
Before he could speak, there was a great creaking sound as the bejewelled door of gold and silver unlocked.
With a confident smile, Karuki turned toward the door. "Come," he beckoned. "Let us face our destiny."
Moki wasn't sure he wanted to.
But still, he found himself swinging the door open in unison with the Nimmo and stepping forth into the wall of pure light beyond.
There was a whirl of colours and sounds, and then the golden shrine was gone.
Moki opened his eyes a sliver, and then they flew open wide.
He was on a mountaintop, the Nimmo right beside him. But it was no ordinary mountaintop. Tropical trees flanked a small rocky outcrop, extravagant and leafy, with chittering sounds of Petpets coming from within the forest's depths. A few metres away, a gentle stream bubbled and frothed, cascading down the mountainside.
"Where are we?" Moki wondered aloud.
"Awaiting our trial," the Nimmo replied calmly.
Moki would have issued a retort about his companion's cryptic remarks, but something shiny caught the Mynci's eye; at his feet stood a minuscule copy of the shrine, about two feet tall, and inscribed with an ancient, slanting script.
"What's this?" he murmured, bending over.
Karuki looked intrigued. "What does it say?"
Aloud, Moki read,
"Your first test awaits: the Trial of Agility. The warrior in all his strength and wisdom will never uphold his realm without the speed of the wind as it dashes through the plains and the mountain valleys, or the grace and flexibility of the water as it flows through the river, cascading down the waterfall, a myriad entities unified. Wisdom and Strength must prove they have mastered this before they may pass..."
Date: May 6th
Karuki smiled triumphantly. "Speed," he said happily, "and dodging. This is a race." How he loved being a Nimmo with long legs.
Moki, on the other hand, scowled. "I can't run!" he protested. "I can't even jog! I'm a dead klutz, too."
"Well, maybe you aren't worthy of the honour carried by the Sung family then, are you?" Karuki said smugly. His medallion glinted darkly, a mild warning that neither of them noticed.
"Probably not," Moki agreed, biting his lip nervously. "Is there a -- start line, or something? All I see is the stream, looks like it widens to a river later, and" -- his face instantly brightened -- "two boards. Oh, riverboarding. Awesome. Now this I can do."
Karuki's face darkened. "Riverboarding!" he spat. "The trial of the ancients is... is... is some pathetic commoner sport?! This is ridiculous! A smear upon family honour! I will not stand for this, I will --" His noble rant was cut off by a splash of water in his face.
"Sweeeeeet!" Moki called, swerving around rocks happily. He left a frothy trail behind him.
The Nimmo's eyes widened. No! He couldn't let that little Sung toerag beat him, he couldn't! Recklessly, Karuki grabbed the second board and leapt into the water. For half a second he and his board floated delicately on the surface of the river.
And then he fell in.
The water was cold, deep, and fast. Karuki shivered as icy stabs penetrated right through his thin clothing. He couldn't breathe, he was sinking deeper all the time. And worse, he was moving farther and farther from the board.
And all the time, Moki was speeding closer to the finish line, closer to family honour, leaving him, the rightful one, behind to drown...
Something grabbed Karuki by the back of the neck, pulling him. Lack of oxygen was making everything disoriented... was he being pulled up, saved, or down, toward doom...?
"You -- weigh -- a -- Fyora -- blessed -- tonne," Moki grunted as he heaved the limp Nimmo over his board. "Be glad I'm the strong one, otherwise you would have been a goner, for sure."
Karuki coughed weakly. "Thanks."
Moki shook his head, then nodded, a rather bewildering order, really. "Since I figure you can neither riverboard nor swim, it looks like we'll be sharing one so I can save your skin."
"But, won't my extra weight slow you down and mess up the physics involved in such a sport?"
Moki grinned. "We'll see." And then pushed the board off into the rapids...
Date: May 7th
Karuki was able to crouch on the front of the board while Moki stood on the back, steering skilfully around the rocks that jutted out of the river as it wound its way down the mountain. For a while, their motion was awkward and the pair nearly fell into the rushing waters several times, but after some practice, they found themselves gliding effortlessly around obstacles and moving downriver at a swift pace.
"We're doing it!" cried Moki to the winds, laughing as the spray wet his cheeks. "We're really doing it!"
"The first trial," said Karuki, squinting and barely managing to conceal a smile. He would never have admitted it, but he was actually having fun.
The two Neopets imagined their ancestors smiling down upon them as they cascaded down the churning river, watching trees and rocks fly past them with incredible speed. Moki drew from the strength of the Sung family, his muscles taut as he shifted his weight back and forth. Karuki just clung tightly to the board, his Li wisdom knowing that it was wisest to allow his companion to take the reins.
It wasn't long before a glint of gold caught the Nimmo's eye, however, and he shouted up to his companion, "Look!"
A small object rested on the riverbank, surrounded by green, leafy bushes. Moki carefully steered their riverboard out of the centre of the stream. He hopped off and landed on the rocky slope, and Karuki followed clumsily, letting the board slip away underneath his feet. It disappeared into a mist that rose and obscured the river's path beyond.
Moki had already wandered over to the circle of leafy plants, and Karuki followed. The Nimmo immediately recognised the object that lay in the centre: yet another copy of the shrine, this one even smaller than the one before; it stood just over a foot high.
Moki had leaned forward and was reading the inscription: "You have proven both Wise and Strong, and agility is a quality that you have mastered. However, a Neopet of true honour knows that speed must be tempered with care. For your next task, continue to follow the river. All waters flow from one source, and collect in one sea; however, there are many paths that they can take. Only one road, though, is that of the honourable. Your second challenge awaits at the falls: the Trial of Discernment."
"Now that sounds more like it," said Karuki, confidence flowing through his body. "Discernment and knowledge are my best qualities."
"I hope so," said Moki. The Mynci straightened up and stepped out of the ring of bushes. He began following along the edge of the river, toward the cloud of mist that hung ominously over it.
Karuki followed, and the two could see a faint rainbow in the air. It soon became apparent why: the river ended at a high cliff, and the waters poured down in a gigantic waterfall, splashing down into a lake below.
As they neared the dropoff, Karuki and Moki could see that the rocky slope curved downward sharply, and several dangerous, steep paths could be seen winding down toward the distant lake below. Karuki glanced at his companion. "So this is what we must discern," he said. "How to get down safely..."
Date: May 7th
Moki squinted at the four paths. "I'd rather not go down there, if you don't mind."
"Fine," Karuki snapped, irritated at being interrupted. "Then you won't pass the trials, and you will never prove your honour. If you even have any. You put your family to shame."
That stung. Moki had never thought he cared about upholding his family's honour. The Sung line had been something he'd always intended to leave. But whether the first trial had changed him or this mystical mountaintop was working its magic upon him, some ancient fury welled up within his heart.
"I'm not a coward!" he hissed.
Karuki shrugged. "Then prove it."
"Didn't I already, with the riverboard?"
A slight sneer curled the Nimmo's lips as he looked up. "Yes, you proved that you are adept at a leisure sport. But you have much else that you have failed to show me, like determination, or family pride. Had I not travelled with you, you wouldn't have even made it to this door."
Moki's eyes narrowed. "Cool it, okay? We have to work together."
"Indeed. You'd do well to do just that, then, and let me think."
Still fuming slightly, the Mynci settled back as the Nimmo studied the sheer, rocky cliff, and mulled over the question that was nagging at his mind.
Did he really want to leave Shenkuu?
He'd always wanted to leave his boring town with its stupid traditions and scout out adventure. Maybe he'd head to Krawk Island to be a pirate, or explore Terror Mountain's lofty peaks.
But with these trials and magical shrines and riverboarding, Shenkuu was starting to seem anything but boring.
Karuki's voice cut off his reverie. "I've got it."
Moki headed to his side. "Which path do we take?"
"We both take a different path."
The Mynci was startled. "Why?"
Karuki sighed. "Because I have long legs and you have short ones. I'm better at climbing vines, and you'd have a stronger grip on rocks."
Moki eyed the third path, a sheer cliff face with a yellowish vine dangling down. The plant reached a large ledge halfway down, which had a gentle rocky slope down to the lake from that point on.
"You get the easiest path, then," he grumbled.
Karuki gave a light chuckle. "You must learn to think, then. That vine's half rotten."
Moki imagined trying to climb it and winced.
"So. Which do we take, then?"
Karuki pointed to the first and fourth paths. The first had a long, dangling green vine next to a rather smooth part of the mountains, with no handholds. Moki had to admit that the vine looked much healthier than the one from the third path. The fourth path was almost a stairwell of rocks, albeit very steep. Plants and vines grew in abundance next to one of its sides.
"Those vines could act as a handhold if you slip," Karuki explained. "The second path is shorter, but it lacks a 'rail', and it's more slippery."
Moki glanced down at the fourth route, filled with trepidation. The path looked quite dangerous.
"Are you sure about this?"
Karuki flashed him a confident smile. "Of course! Now, let's go prove our discernment."
The Nimmo headed over to the edge, grasped the vine, and began to climb.
With a sigh and a last moment of hesitation, the Mynci followed suit and began the tedious descent.
It was utterly terrifying.
The rocks he clung to were sharp-edged, and covered with slippery moss that made his hands lose their grip. Soon he'd amassed a multitude of cuts on his palms, but he couldn't give up. Not now.
He glanced to the side. Karuki was climbing down his vine with practised ease. The Mynci felt a pang of envy, but he knew he was too heavy for the vine, unlike the spindly-legged Nimmo. And it wasn't like he could climb back up. The path was too steep for that.
Once he made the mistake of looking down. The lake looked a million miles away, and his head spun with vertigo.
He shook his head to clear it and continued to climb. He wished he had claws like a Kougra. Or better yet, wings like a Draik. Anything to make this descent possible!
But he'd have to trust Karuki that this was the safest choice.
If this is the safest path, then I don't even want to think about what would happen if I tried the others! he thought.
As if in response, a large boulder bounced down near the second path, followed by a shower of small rocks that would have crushed any Neopet that would have chosen that route.
With a sigh, he reached down for the rock beneath him and kept climbing.
It seemed like an eternity before he reached the bottom, and Moki was sure he'd never had a happier moment in his life than when his feet finally touched the sandy ground of the lakeshore.
The Nimmo was already there. "Welcome back."
"Whew," the Mynci gasped, panting for breath. "I hope I never have to do that again in my life!"
Karuki nodded, looking pleased with himself. "You probably will," he offered helpfully. "The life of a warrior is taxing."
Moki then realised he was quite thirsty. A few metres away, the sapphire blue lake sparkled invitingly.
Stumbling slightly, he made for the lake and nearly tripped over a rather large object.
At his feet was another golden shrine, identical to the first one, but with a different inscription.
You have proven both Wise and Strong, it read, and Discernment is a quality that you have mastered. However, a Neopet of true honour knows that logic cannot be allowed to undermine bravery. Next up is the Trial of Courage. In all his strength and wisdom, the warrior cannot uphold his realm if he allows fear to overtake him. Just as the tree does not bend to the rushing wind in all its might, the warrior must stand defiant if he is to succeed in his quests. Wisdom and Strength must prove they have mastered this before they may move on to their final challenge.
"The Trial of Courage?" Moki murmured aloud. "What will tha--"
His utterance was cut off by a bloodcurdling roar from the lake, deafening and much closer than he would have liked...
Date: May 8th
Both he and Karuki turned to look at it, waiting for the monster to reveal itself.
The waterfall thundered into the depths at the base of the cliff, sending waves and ripples throughout the body of water. The current streamed along to leave the lake at the end, though that motion was less obvious at the surface.
Both young Neopets searched in vain for some other source of disturbance, but there was nothing.
Another roar vibrated in their bones, made the ground shake under their feet and the entire surface of the water quiver, but still they saw nothing.
Karuki frowned and looked around, baffled. "The sound seems to come from the water, but nowhere specific within it. Unless you can see a focus I've missed?"
Moki shook his head. "The only 'focus' I've seen so far is the waterfall, and I don't think waterfalls sound like that."
Moki looked around in his turn. "I guess it could be coming from across the lake?"
"I don't think so," Karuki said. "I think the sound is coming from the lake itself."
The third roar rattled their teeth together, seeming to surround them.
A bit grudgingly, Karuki added, "Granted, at this volume it's hard to pinpoint direction, but I think we'd better be prepared to meet it in battle as we cross the lake."
"There's a path," Moki said slowly. "Maybe it goes somewhere we can see what's going on better. Or maybe we have to show enough courage not to do what they seem to expect of us."
Karuki shot him a scornful glance. "I think you just want to avoid the Trial of Courage because it's going to be frightening." His medallion gave another dark gleam.
"And I think you're a stuck-up, spoiled prig who's never had a thought or desire of his own," Moki snapped. "Ow!" He slapped at his wrist, thinking something had bitten him, but it had only been a flare of heat from the Strength charm bound there.
"I desire to uphold my family honour," Karuki said coldly, "as we vowed to do. Did you lie, Son of Strength? The shrine said the Trial of Courage was to stand fast!"
"Defiant, actually," Moki shot back, secretly relieved that the Nimmo hadn't stopped at the question of whether he'd lied. If he admitted that he wasn't all that sure about the family traditions, Karuki would probably tell him it meant he was going to die here or something. Besides, he wasn't going to badmouth his own family to the Li boy! So he kept on the attack. "Besides, the Trial of Discernment said there was only one road for the honourable, and we took two!" He just hoped that didn't mean only one of them had taken the honourable road. It would probably be Karuki.
For the first time, though, Karuki looked uncertain. "Well, we only took one apiece." He shook himself. "Perhaps the Trial of Courage is to move onward in spite of the illusion of danger. Perhaps we should stop waiting and move forward across the lake."
"Danger isn't always an illusion, though," Moki objected. "For that matter, the danger of the rapids, the waterfall, and the cliff weren't illusory! And exactly how are you planning to get across the lake if you can't swim?"
"Er," Karuki said. After an awkward pause, he added, "Maybe you had a point about the path."
"Or maybe it didn't occur to the ancestors that a Nimmo would get to the verge of adulthood without being able to swim," Moki said with a sigh. "Or maybe we're overthinking this! The shrine did say that part about logic undermining bravery." He scowled, then squared his shoulders. "You know what? I'm dying of thirst here. I'm going to get a drink from the lake. If anything comes out and eats me, you can fight it. If nothing shows up, we can try to find a way across the lake."
Karuki said nothing, but the disgust faded from his expression. He followed Moki as the Mynci stomped toward the lake. Karuki walked lightly and with graceful balance, controlling his body's movements as if he might be expected to fight at any time, with the same care he'd taken on the riverboard to avoid throwing Moki's efforts out of kilter.
Moki stooped at the side of the lake. The roar bellowed up around them again. Moki gritted his teeth, plunged his hands in to scoop up water, and drank his fill.
Nothing came out of the water and seized him.
Karuki, though, cried out. "Look there!"
Moki's head jerked up; expecting some horrible monster to be rising from the centre of the lake, he looked there and then turned around to glare at Karuki. "At what?"
"The riverboards." Karuki pointed. Indeed, both the one he had lost at the beginning and the one they'd let go over the waterfall at the end were bobbing near the shore.
Without waiting, Moki hopped in and waded out to get them. It wasn't far. He shoved one over at Karuki. "That'll float you across if you sit on it and kick. You can pretend it's a lilypad if you want. We can't just stand on them here, not with so little current."
Karuki nodded, grimacing a little, and eased himself down onto the board and into the water. A chill ran down his spine as he noticed how battered the edges were. They hadn't been, before it went over the waterfall.
They set off across the lake, first pushing their boards and wading. The water soon grew too deep for that, however, and they pushed off to begin kicking. As they reached the centre of the lake, the roar sounded once again.
And then the water began to spin.
It spun them around once, and Moki cried, "Whirlpool!"
"No," Karuki shouted, "it's going the wrong way!"
Indeed it was. Instead of swirling inward and sucking them down, the water was going outward, pulling the two apart. Moki threw out a hand almost too late; Karuki, longer-limbed, lunged for him, lost his grip on the board, but got hold of Moki. They spun around each other, once, twice, faster until they were dizzy, and the water raced away from them and at last dropped them to the lakebed.
It was not an inviting place.
They stood in mud. Around them, in a narrow tube, water raced like a tornado: a moving wall. Moki staggered; Karuki grabbed him so he didn't fall into the spinning water. And a little bit so he didn't fall down in his own dizziness.
Then tentacles shot out in front of him, suckers and spines gleaming along their blue-black surface, and even with all his training he nearly jerked back too far. Moki saved him in turn, solid and strong despite his shorter stature. "Back to back?" the Mynci muttered.
"I think so, yes."
They manoeuvred cautiously so that they could set their backs together and brace one another against further excessive movement. More tentacles appeared in the wall of white water, reaching out of the turbulent foam and lashing at them. Karuki drew a knife and slashed at them when they came within reach. From the squishy thuds behind him, he thought Moki might have been punching them.
They came from two sides, and one sliced into his cheek as he lopped off the other going for his throat. Karuki wished desperately for more room to manoeuvre.
Maybe they were supposed to go through the water. If he could swim, maybe he could get away from this creature, get to the surface and even fight it from land. Real land, not this weird place that belonged underwater.
No. Stand defiant.
Then he felt Moki move away from his back. Idiot underachiever, hadn't he listened? Did he mean to swim away and leave Karuki here? He winced at a sudden heat on his chest as he turned to give the Mynci a piece of his mind.
And saw the Mynci jerked around in front of him as the tentacles that gripped him were pulled sideways by the water-wall. He hadn't left, any more than he had when Karuki had fallen off the riverboard -- he'd been snatched away! Karuki snatched back, grabbing hold of a wrist, and began hacking as best he could at the tentacles as the water that held them dragged them, Moki, and perforce Karuki himself around in a tight circle.
He gashed several, making three lose their grip on Moki and keeping the rest from getting one in the first place. But when he severed one entirely, he watched in horror as it suddenly sprouted two more squirming limbs from the wound.
Altering his grip, he began hitting them hard with the hilt of his knife, battering them into submission. Perhaps he hit Moki a few too many times in the process, but he had bigger things to worry about.
At last the tentacles relinquished their grip, and the two managed to stand together again, linking arms to prevent another separation.
But the test seemed to be over. The tentacles withdrew; the swirling slowed. Through the clearing water, Karuki saw sharp-edged rocks like knife blades in one direction, poisonous-spined plants in another, swarming fish with red teeth in a third. To be gripped by the wall would surely have been deadly.
Water seeped up around his knees. Belatedly, he realised that with the swirling stopped, the lake would probably fill in the hole they stood in again. "Look out!" he said, and then the water swooped in and smacked him hard in the forehead. It felt remarkably like being hit with a stick, and then it didn't feel like anything.
"Go limp!" Moki shouted. He wasn't sure if Karuki had heard him or he'd been knocked out, but he kept hold of the Nimmo and jumped upward as the water swelled up around them. To his surprise, however, it kept swelling, carrying them up and up above the surface of the lake, curling and then turning into a surprisingly gentle slope that fell away and dropped them into the shallows.
Karuki, however, was in fact unconscious with a bump on his head.
Aching and stinging all over from the thorny grip of the tentacles, Moki towed Karuki the rest of the way to shore and made sure he was breathing, then rolled him onto his side and waited for him to wake up.
Karuki did at last, though he ended up coughing out enough water for a good-sized puddle. He pressed a hand to his aching head and immediately regretted it, as the contact made black stars explode behind his eyes. He coughed again, sniffed embarrassingly, and blinked away tears. "Are we done?"
"With the Trial of Courage? I hope so," Moki said. "But there was mention of a final challenge." He paused. "You saved me back there. Thanks."
Karuki wiped his eyes and nose again. "I was trained to fight." Moki had saved him from drowning twice now. "And yes, I meant, have you seen any sign of the next shrine?"
"Not yet, but there's a path." Moki pointed. "It leads into that little cave."
Karuki squinted at it. The path did indeed lead into a cave -- at most three quarters of Moki's height, and leading into the cliff they'd just come down, but on the other side of the waterfall. "Going back the way we came?"
"Well, that's where the path goes," Moki said. "I guess we could strike off into the forest, but I'd check the path first. This is supposed to be traditional, right? So we probably need to go where others have been."
"I thought you didn't like traditions," Karuki said, but he set off along the path.
The cave entrance was even smaller than he'd thought. Moki had to stoop way down to get inside. Karuki tried crouching, found it ridiculously awkward, and got down on his hands and knees instead.
A glint of gold caught his eye. "Moki, wait!"
Indeed, he had found the next shrine.
You have proven both Wise and Strong, it began, with the now familiar phrase, and courage is a quality that you have mastered. You have shown your abilities, young Neopets, and you have reasons for pride. You have raced with wind and water and controlled your speed; you have chosen wisely among difficult paths; you have stood fast in the face of peril. However, a Neopet of true honour knows that no virtue, no quality, no talent and no skill is complete in itself. In all his strength and wisdom, a warrior cannot uphold his realm if he allows pride to blind him to his own faults or the virtues of others. Go forward on your knees into the dark places, Strength and Wisdom, and face the Trial of Humility.
They looked at one another uncomfortably. Karuki had been taught confidence in his own abilities and pride in his family. Moki had sought to find his own way, though he was sometimes insecure in himself. In a way, the idea of a Trial of Humility was almost more frightening than that of the Trial of Courage.
At least the instructions were clear enough this time. Quite literally, the two young Neopets entered the cave crawling on their knees...
Date: May 8th
As Moki was forced to watch Karuki's wiry haunches scramble forward in front of him, writhing slowly as the two crawled within shadow and darkness, he was left to ponder whether the shrine had meant humility or humiliation.
The air grew damp as they made their way through the narrow passage, musty and soft, as if moss grew somewhere in the darkness, evading their view. The shroud of ebony grew all-consuming, until Moki's view was so obscured he could no longer see his own paws scratching through the soil, his only reminder of Karuki's presence up ahead was the sound of the Nimmo's shallow breathing. Within such darkness, both would be forced to focus on their thoughts. There was nothing else to do, nothing to distract them from having to face themselves.
Karuki's mind swirled with confusion and bitterness. Resentment had swelled within him from the start of this challenge; being upstaged up the Mynci had been a sour taste of inferiority, a strange and new sensation to one used to achieving. The Mynci had navigated the path down the treacherous rocks and boulders almost at the same speed the Nimmo had slid down the vines. Moki had again and again proved himself a worthy opponent.
The thought struck Karuki with the same force the water had earlier, though this time he managed to remain conscious, something that comforted him -- he had discovered no honour in being dragged from the shallows by his companion. Was Moki a competitor or a companion? Where did Karuki draw the line? They had assisted one another to this point without question, but the final challenge loomed ahead. Would both be found worthy of whatever honour their ancestors would bestow upon them? Or would one leave tainted by shame?
Let it be Moki. Oh, Fyora, let it be Moki.
* * *
The Mynci's thoughts were also bothering him, though on a different level. He had never desired to understand Shenkuu's ancient ways and rigid traditions before. A life of adventure and excitement called, yet he had discovered both things in the very place he had sought to escape. Each task had reminded him that he wasn't some useless creature, but that the blood of a warrior flowed in his veins, making him strong. Was his strength a greater asset than the wisdom Karuki held so dear? Would the final test involve showing his strength by leaving his companion behind, giving up the uneasy partnership to power ahead to victory?
When had this become a race?
In the darkness, consumed by shadow, both medallions glittered and gleamed ominously.
The path came to an end in a rather sudden way. One second Karuki was hunched over, letting his hands and knees inch him forward and the next he was straightening up, gaping in awe at the scene before him. He could no better describe the location than that they seemed to be standing on top of the world.
The icy mountain plateau towered above the lesser structures surrounding it; Shenkuu's mountain range was entangled in mist, stretching for miles across a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Here, atop the highest peak, everyone they knew and loved miles below, the two Neopets stood together, both gazes falling upon a shimmering object embedded in the ivory snow. With trembling fingers Karuki lifted the shrine from its alabaster resting place and read out loud the script that flowed across the golden sheen.
Descendants of the wise and the strong, your ancestors commend your journey and celebrate your achievement. You have overcome obstacles and conquered challenges that many have faltered at and several have failed. The path is one of solitude and only one may tread upon its winding way. Choose wisely. One shall advance to rewards beyond his wildest dreams, the other embrace the knowledge that he was humble enough to give the gift of success to the one who deserved it most.
Slowly, the two pets turned their wide gazes toward the left side of the plateau. On the right was the small opening they had crawled through and on the left a similar dark hole, the final crawl that would no doubt lead to the vast rewards the shrine described.
One shall advance...
A choice had to be made. One would have to make a sacrifice almost too horrible to imagine, surrendering all right to what lay ahead, facing no reward except the knowledge that a long climb down awaited him as his companion revelled in glory.
A choice had to be made...
Date: May 9th
...and Moki had the sinking feeling he knew which way it had to go.
He didn't like it. Karuki himself was certainly nowhere near humble, but the most arrogant kind of aristocrat, looking down on "commoner" sports and obsessing over what his parents wanted for him. But... he wanted it, and Moki didn't. Well, he hadn't. He'd started to want it now, but he hadn't prepared for it or committed to it. He didn't feel very humble himself, since he still didn't really think Karuki deserved to win, but at least somebody would be happy. And maybe he'd enjoy Krawk Island, after all.
"I guess you'd better go on to glory, or whatever it is," Moki said aloud and rather resentfully. "I probably failed the test at the start. I've always wanted to go live somewhere else, not 'uphold the family traditions.' Go on up and do whatever it is your family's got in mind."
Karuki whirled on him, fists clenched. "I plan my own life! Do you think you can trick me that easily? Your lack of commitment aside, what family doesn't have a few travellers and explorers? You are trying to trick me into taking the path of pride, when this is the Trial of Humility!"
Trying to trick him? How dare Karuki throw his offer back in his face like that? It wasn't as if Moki had attacked him or tried to trip him up along the way; instead he'd helped wherever he could. After the humiliation of offering to go back and say he'd failed, deal with his family's scorn and disappointment? Karuki just slapped it back and called it a trick? Moki literally saw red, and his hand burned with the urge to strike.
He lunged at Karuki, as Karuki had lunged at him outside the mountain, and the Nimmo staggered back. Karuki was fit and trained as a warrior, but Moki was solid, well-muscled, and moving fast on pure fury.
A cold wind lashed up from below, and Moki's stomach swooped as he realised there was no rock below. Karuki began to fall; Moki grabbed at him, but weight and momentum overbalanced them both.
They toppled together over the edge of the cliff.
They fell, wind streaming past them, chilling them and distorting their faces. The mist closed in around them, mercifully concealing the view of the end of their fall.
Their tempers and grudge-bearing had brought them to this....
As the thought crossed Karuki's mind, he cried out in surprise and pain as something stabbed at him from below. Apparently it wasn't a very good blade, though, as it snapped off almost at once, but a great many more caught at him the next moment, breaking and crackling under his weight.
A tree! They'd hit a tree! Karuki flailed out, grabbing desperately as the twigs and leaves began to break their fall; one slender branch bent in his grasp and broke, but he grabbed at another, thicker one, and it held. He grabbed for Moki as the Mynci fell past him. The branch that supported him bowed and sagged under their combined weight, and Karuki gritted his teeth in dread... saw it crack and green-white wood appear as bark peeled up....
His feet touched something, and he glanced quickly down and saw that it was a larger branch. "Moki, get hold of that--" The Mynci did so with both hands and feet and his tail, and Karuki dropped onto it with a groan of relief.
That one held.
"I hate trees," Moki muttered.
Karuki blinked at him. "Well, this one just saved our lives, so I'm inclined to feel kindly toward it. Whoever heard of a Mynci who didn't like trees?"
"Whoever heard of a Nimmo who can't swim?" Moki shot back. "Anyway, we've been rescuing each other all along and I can't say we seem to like each other any better." He glanced reflexively down at his wrist, for some reason expecting pain, and his stomach did a flip as he saw the broken ends of the tie for his wrist-charm. The Sung family emblem was gone.
He looked up, cold about the face and slightly dizzy, feeling far more deeply bereft than he'd expected. He'd meant to leave, but... to be cast out for failure?
Karuki was fumbling at his chest, as if he couldn't believe the Li amulet was gone. He looked worse than Moki felt, ashen-skinned and shaking. "What have we done?" the Nimmo whispered. "What have I done...."
"I shouldn't have hit you," Moki said, feeling much sorrier for Karuki than he really wanted to. "I meant it about letting you go. I didn't think about embracing the whatever being the way to pass the trial."
Karuki smiled humourlessly. "I guess you did pass it, then."
Moki looked down and around. "Uh... you're supposed to be wise, right, not delusional? I meant it, but I resented it. And I'm pretty sure falling off a cliff because I lost my temper wasn't how the trial was supposed to go."
"I wasn't even willing to go that far. You've been honourable, I can't deny that. You saved me twice. But I worked and prepared for this all my life, and you scorned it and wanted to leave." Then he burst out, as if the words had been in a balloon that popped, "And it hardly even seems to slow you down! How much talent do you have, that you were going to throw away?"
He went red under his scales.
Moki shook his head. "Are you kidding me? It took me forever to get down the Discernment cliff, you had to rescue me from the tentacle thing... and you did rescue me, and you did steer me right, but you've been such an arrogant jerk about it! 'It's a commoner's sport,' for crying out loud? Apparently the ancestors you're so fond of thought it was good enough for their tests!"
Karuki jerked back and nearly fell off the branch. "I -- I -- I suppose they did." He spat over the edge, partly because the words left him disgusted -- offended by the ancestors, revolted at himself for that attitude -- and partly because fear and exertion and adrenaline had made it hard to swallow properly. Then he sat for a little while, catching his breath and trying to think clearly. "Maybe the whole test was supposed to teach us humility," he said at last.
"You think we both blew it?" Moki said resignedly. "I'm sorry, really. I know you get on with your family a lot better than I do. Mine'll just yell."
Karuki's would be devastated. He looked longingly up at the cliff, and the mist cleared. "Maybe we could climb back up."
"If we'd packed a grappler like the princess would've, maybe."
Moki was right. There was no path back up that they could see. Above them, the cliff rose up stark and unnaturally smooth as if cut off with a very good knife. There were no handholds.
"Down, then?" Moki said after a moment. "Maybe we can get back around and try going up the cave again."
"I'm not sure the journey allows for second chances," Karuki said with a sigh. "I suppose we can find out. And if not... face the music."
Gingerly, sore and tired and helping one another along the way, the two Neopets began making their way down through the branches.
Karuki's 'face the music' comment began to seem disturbingly literal. Strains of soft notes began to float up toward them through the fog below.
"If we do get to go back up," Karuki said at last, a bit desperate for something else to think about than that coincidence, "we can do what you said. Or the other way. I don't know anymore which one would really win."
"I'm pretty sure if you go into the humble one thinking about how good a job you're doing at being humble, it doesn't count," Moki grunted, holding on with at least four limbs at all times.
"Uh... you have a point." A pause, several more branches. How tall was this tree? "Maybe we should go in together. Even though it said we couldn't. You did point out the Trial of Discernment said there was only one path for the honourable, but it was clear that the same path wouldn't have been good for both of us."
"Maybe one of us didn't take an honourable path," Moki said. "Solitude and 'only one' seems a little harder to misinterpret than whether it's one path or one per Neopian, too." He paused. "Although... the first shrine said wisdom and strength were pitiful without each other. Connected at the heart." He took a deep breath. "And I can't really say I deserve it more than you, but I don't think your honour would let you abandon a companion."
In a very low voice, Karuki replied, "Yours did not allow it in you. But I... I wished mine would."
"I wasn't going to just leave you in danger, but I thought about whether I was supposed to try to leave you behind." Moki shook his head. "I guess I forgot that'd be kind of a dumb way to test humility."
"It's a strange test. Paradoxical. It claims one will be rewarded and the other be humble, but if the second is the one who passes...."
"Maybe the point is that being humble isn't always going to be fun or rewarding in the obvious way. Neither's courage. Sometimes you stand your ground and you get wiped out."
"Maybe so," Karuki said, and then yelped. "Whoaaa..."
Moki shouted too. There had been branches beneath their feet a moment ago, but now there weren't. They tumbled downward--
--and stopped, and bounced, as the mist thickened and dried and became a soft, fluffy, cool pillow around them.
"Um?" Moki said cautiously, looking around.
"I guess we don't get to try climbing back up...." Karuki felt at the surface below them. It was like downy feathers. He tried to get up, and the downy cloud squished under his feet so that he lost his balance and sprawled on it again.
"No, you don't," said an amused contralto.
Both boys looked up.
Standing before them was a solidly built Mynci. Her fur was sleek over rolling muscles, and she bore a sword in her right hand. From the left dangled a broken cord with the amulet of wisdom strung on it. Moki had a sudden suspicion that he really should have paid more attention to family stories before assuming that the Sung medallion depicted a Mynci holding aloft his sword.
Just beyond her stood a much taller Nimmo. He was slender and lanky in the way of the species, but like Karuki's, his muscles were clearly defined and it looked like you'd be in some trouble if he decided to hit you with that staff. He held the wrist-charm with the Sung symbol.
"On the bright side," the Mynci continued, "you did learn your lesson."
"The lines we founded have grown apart over the years," said the Nimmo -- Li, surely. "Developed a rivalry... a tendency toward arrogance, a refusal to consider the other's virtues. This is not the path of wisdom."
"Nor a sign of strong character," said Sung. She cast the Li amulet down into Karuki's lap. "Perhaps we should have insisted on only one family line, but our children were twins, one of each species... well, it seemed like a sign. Who can say? Second-guessing does no one any favours."
Li tossed the Sung amulet at Moki, who caught it automatically. "Fortunately, you two have begun to recognise each others' worth and even your own faults, though it was a hard lesson and I cannot blame you if you resent it. I hope you will learn from it nonetheless."
"You've passed your test," Sung said, stooping down to press a kiss to Moki's forehead while Li did the same for Karuki.
After a moment's thought, during which each of the boys looked uncertainly toward the other's family founder, whom they had just learned was also their own, Li nodded and gestured and the two switched places and kissed the alternate descendant on the forehead. "Go now, and take your places and responsibilities." A slight wink at Moki. "I can't say I was too fond of Krawk Island, but when a merchant ship docks with pirates, they need a strong warrior. And Shenkuu needs to be able to go where it will."
Sung chuckled. "Enough. Aren't you the one who says too much advice from us will skew their lives with awe?" She stepped back.
The clouds dissolved.
Both shook their heads and got to their feet. They were standing at the base of a cliff, a sheer sheet of rock, with a path leading away and mist around and above...
It was the place where they had first been engulfed by the mountain.
Karuki looked up, straining to see further. "Did we fall from up there, do you think?"
"I don't want to think about it. At least not the landing." Moki shook himself.
They waited until dusk. Others returned; at last, with relief, the one still missing tumbled out of the sky and got up with a grin of triumph.
All had proven their honour. Some had learned more of it.
It was time to go home.
Date: May 9th
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