"Isn't it great? Neither of us had no idea our usual path back home would be blocked, and now we have to pass through the Hills of Trest! All six hundred and fifty of them!" The white Blumaroo let out a sarcastic guffaw and spread out his arms as he turned to face the yellow Blumaroo keeping him company. "Boy, this is gonna be an adventure!" His extremely fake grin finally gave way to an exasperated pout, and he let his arms drop to his sides as his eyes became irritated slits. "I didn't ask for this."
"I didn't ask for this either," the other Blumaroo replied, sighing as he consulted a map. "As long as we keep walking, we can reach Trestin before the day ends – or rather, before Mother's birthday ends. We'll be fine, Reuben."
"I hope so," Reuben grumbled. "We promised her we'd be back on her special day... with our present." He reached into the bag slung onto his shoulder and pulled out their prize – a golden sword pendant with a crystal hilt strung on a fine chain. Engraved on the blade was a cursive M. Reuben held it up to the light, grinning as he watched it shine in the sun's rays.
"Put that back into your bag," Rohane warned him, glancing around nervously. His hand instinctively found his sword hilt as they continued walking past the seemingly endless columns of hills. "You'll lose it!"
Reuben raised an eyebrow, but did as he was told. Then he placed a hand upon his chest as if he were offended. "Lose Mother's present? Please. When did I ever lose anything, little brother?" He chuckled, raising his arms and folding them behind his head casually as if this were a simple stroll.
Rohane made a gesture as if to start counting those instances on his fingers, but focused on quickening his pace instead. All conversation was foregone in favor of putting one foot in front of the other – and every so often, peering up at the hills – the Hills of Trest, all different in size, shape, and amount of vegetation. There were green hills, and brown hills, even speckled hills with irregular patches of grass. Some hills were punctuated by large, gnarled trees, while others had bushes with colorful wildflowers. Still other hills were nothing but domed caves that looked like dormant monsters with open, hungry mouths. These hills weren't new to him, as he had traveled through them just two years ago, searching for a lost mine haunted by ghosts, and later on, the city of White River, but it was always better to bring a map anyway rather than rely on his memory of the area. Reuben, on the other hand, wasn't quite as familiar with this part of the landscape, because weapon smiths did not always have to travel into clumps of hills – unlike spirited, adventurous little brothers.
"Shut your mouth. You look like a kid in a candy store, and if you start drooling - "
"First you think I could lose Mother's necklace, and now you think I'm going to drool at a bunch of hills?" Reuben folded his arms across his chest and stomped harder in jest as they marched onward, maintaining mock dudgeon.
"You were staring at them like you were expecting them to turn into something," Rohane pointed out, shrugging. "They're just hills. They start looking like each other after a while."
"I don't go out as much as you do," said the white Blumaroo. "Seeing all these hills in one place is actually pretty amazing, and way different from just hearing about them."
The other Blumaroo stopped, and gazed at a clump of fruit trees that looked like a patch of broccoli growing out from a tall, grassy hill dotted with bright red blooms. Under the shade of the trees were several flower bushes blooming merrily with a myriad of colors, and a Symol quickly dug a hole at the foot of one bush and disappeared from sight. Reuben stopped as well, and grinned as he pointed to that hill.
"See? You can't tell me that starts looking like all the other hills after a while." But his grin quickly faded when he heard a long, ululating howl promptly answered by several more chilling howls. The air was soon filled with these noises – so much so that they heard nothing else.
Without another word, Rohane grabbed Reuben's free hand, ran around a knoll that stood in their path, and wove past two hills with overgrown weeds reminiscent of stringy hair. He plunged straight into a small cave, and Reuben had no choice but to follow, bumping his head on the low ceiling. Each one huddled on a side of the entrance, backs against the wall, and weapons out. Rohane drew his sword; Reuben chose two daggers from the assortment of six on his belt. For a long, tense moment, nothing else happened as they listened, heads brushing the rock above them.
They were rewarded by a chorus of snarling, sniffing, and wailing. Reuben gritted his teeth and braced one fist against his chest as if shielding himself with one dagger. He inched closer to the opening to try and catch a glimpse of what was outside, and Rohane followed suit, albeit more slowly.
There was a large horde of wild Bearogs prowling outside. It wasn't a simple pack of four, five or even six – no, ten of them were roaming the hills, making a cacophony that would drown out the rest of nature. One sniffed at the cave entrance, causing both brothers to inhale sharply and freeze, but it turned away to join its fellows soon after. The pack scrambled away after inspecting that part of the land, each Bearog bumping against another, annoying each other, and causing more noise as they sprinted out of sight.
"For the eleven hundredth time, I am so sorry I ever brought one of those things into your bedroom," Reuben muttered.
"Just promise me you won't do tha – aaaargh!"
Three cave Spyders had emerged from one of the cave crevices, clicking their pincers together as they surrounded Rohane. But before Reuben could react, all three creatures met their end by the sword instantly, the silver flashes of metal the last things they would ever see.
"That was fast... and don't tell me you're afraid of a few cave Spyders!" Reuben slid his daggers back into their sheaths, smirking with both awe and amusement.
"I'm afraid of getting bitten because those were venomous cave Spyders!" Rohane retorted, sticking his head outside their cave. He stepped outside, and gestured for Reuben to follow suit.
"You have got to be kidding me."
"I'm not kidding!"
"Well, we're not kidding, either." A new voice spoke and interrupted their argument.
Both Blumaroos whipped around quickly to a blue Nimmo, a purple Kau, a pepper Chia and a speckled Aisha standing before them, with a spear, a bow and knives at the ready. They were all dressed similarly – in dark cloaks and clothes in varying shades of woodland colors, from leafy green to mud. And all of them pointed their blades (and in the Kau's case, an arrow) at Reuben and Rohane.
"We're not kidding when we tell you to drop your weapons and hand all your valuables over!" the Chia chirped in a high-pitched voice, waddling over with an overlarge spear. He placed the blade close to Reuben's throat. "We know who you are – and we know you make a lot of money!" The Kau trained his bow on Reuben. Rohane dropped his sword onto the ground with the Nimmo and Aisha's knives all aimed for him.
Reuben swallowed, and he slowly raised his arms in an attempt to show that he had no weapons in his hands despite the fact that the hilts of several daggers could be seen at his belt. He managed a chuckle. "Hey, I wouldn't say I make that much."
"Liar!" The Chia whacked him on the side of his head with the pole of the spear. "Now, drop your weapons for real!"
"Ow, watch it!"
"You've got bags. Bags mean money," the Kau growled. "Jall, search 'em."
"No, you search them, Milt!" Jall the pepper Chia whined. "Search this one after you get all those daggers off him!"
"Search this!" Rohane taunted. He kicked one knife out of the speckled Aisha's hands, dropped down to grab his sword as the Aisha and the Nimmo lunged at him, rolled to the left, and jumped back onto his feet. The two rushed toward him, and sword clashed with knife as the yellow Blumaroo tried to hold them off at the same time.
While Milt and Jall were distracted by this sudden turn of events, Reuben drew a dagger and chopped the Kau's bowstring, only to be clobbered by the now useless bow.
"You got a plan?" Reuben called out frantically as he used a second dagger to block Jall's spear, and locked his blade with the bow. He ducked as Milt swung the bow and used the arrow as a knife, sidestepping the strikes. Jall charged, and Reuben performed a roundhouse kick that sent the former toppling onto his face.
"Take them down!" Rohane answered as he locked blades with the Aisha and shoved with all his might to send the Aisha colliding into the Nimmo, who had been behind him. Both opponents tumbled to the at the foot of a hill, down but not out.
"Great plan!" Reuben grabbed Jall's spear and swung it at Milt's ankles. The Kau bellowed in pain, and crumpled to the ground. He reached out and pulled Reuben down, only to receive a kick in the face. Meanwhile, Rohane dodged a knife that missed him by an inch, thrown by the recovering Nimmo. Pushing his comrade aside, the Nimmo cut a crescent into the air with a second knife that was stopped by a rapidly flashing sword. They disengaged and circled, parrying and trading blows, and as the Nimmo suddenly charged with a feral scream, Rohane stepped to the side neatly and knocked him out with the pommel of his sword hilt.
"Norris!" the Aisha groaned, staggering to his feet. He snarled, narrowed his eyes, and found himself falling halfway to Rohane after Reuben managed to throw a well-placed arrow – Milt's arrow – at his feet. While Milt and Reuben struggled and wrestled on the ground, Rohane hurried to stop Jall from reentering the battle by leveling his sword tip at the pepper Chia, who backed away against the side of the cave.
"Y-You don't scare me!" Jall piped up, although sweat beaded his forehead and his body was trembling. "J-J-Just because you're a famous hero..."
Milt howled in pain as Reuben twisted his arm, then sprawled limply on the ground, cradling his arm while trying to tend to his ankles at the same time.
"I've got a better idea," said Reuben cheerily as he brushed himself off, ignoring a bruise to his head and a rip in his vest. "I'll tell Rohane to stop scaring you if you'll let us go, all right?"
Jall's face twisted into a grotesque scowl, but he nodded slowly, and sank into a sitting position. His fingers closed around a clump of dirt on the ground, which he then threw at the yellow Blumaroo's face, blinding him and making him drop his sword.
Jall dove for the sword and held it up triumphantly. "Ha!"
"Think fast!" Reuben drew a sheathed dagger from his sleeve and tossed it to his brother, who caught it one-handed, pulled it out from its sheath, and used it to block Jall's impulsive, furious strikes. When it became clear that Rohane wasn't quite gaining the upper hand and was only defending, Reuben added, "Think faster, Mr. I-Saved-Neopia!"
"I think faster with a sword!" Rohane gritted his teeth as he did try to think faster. As he backed away toward Jall's spear, he swooped down and grabbed it, dropping the dagger in the process. With two hands, he used the spear as a lance, exploiting an opening in Jall's defenses and jabbing right through to win the duel before retrieving his sword and his older brother's dagger.
Reuben pumped his fist in the air. "Great! Now let's go!" Now it was his turn to hurry over, grab Rohane's hand, and drag him as they continued their run through the Hills of Trest. When they were a fair distance away from the place where they were attacked, the white Blumaroo started laughing uproariously as they slowed down to a walk, clutching his stomach as he did so.
"What's so funny?"
"It's... n-nothing..." Reuben took several deep breaths and finally stopped laughing. After clearing his throat, he said, "It's just that... that was the first time we ever actually fought together!"
"What?" Rohane's eyes widened, and if he hadn't stopped, he would have walked right into a little hill with pebbles scattered all over the top. He stared at his older brother, but eventually it dawned on him that Reuben was right. For a moment he gaped at him, and then broke into an excited, victorious smile. "Wait... you're right!"
Reuben draped an arm over Rohane's shoulders and laughed anew. "My first adventure with my little brother... my first battle with him... wow, that's - "
A deep howl pierced their little celebration. Emerging from the shadow of a nearby clumpy hill was a group of five Plains Lupes with bared fangs. They advanced upon the two Blumaroos, who simply traded a determined look. The thrill of an impending battle was in their eyes.
"I think we have to work on our strategy," Rohane admitted. His sword was back in his hand, the sunlight glancing off the steel.
"Then we'll work on it now!" said Reuben confidently, twirling two daggers. "We're gonna bring this necklace back to Mother no matter how many hills we have to pass!"
* * *
"Happy birthday, Mother!"
The sun had disappeared halfway below the horizon when Reuben and Rohane made it home – exhausted, grimy, rather sore, and covered in a few scratches and bruises, but nonetheless jubilant as they presented the beautiful necklace to the elderly white Blumaroo who had been waiting patiently for them. She let out a little gasp, raised a hand to her heart, and beamed before embracing both her sons at the same time without a care for the dirt they would probably leave all over her dress and apron.
"Oh... thank you so much!" Melissa breathed. She let go of them to wear her birthday present. "It's beautiful... you didn't have to go through so much trouble..." Once the pendant was around her neck, she began looking over the two younger Blumaroos and muttered something about cold compresses, bandages, and a hot dinner.
"Nothing's too big for the best mother in all of Neopia," Reuben answered, nodding. "I had to find the best goldsmith I know... and I also had the best traveling partner anyone could ever have." He patted Rohane's shoulder, and made him flinch slightly. "They say there are six hundred and fifty Hills of Trest. But you know what? It doesn't matter, because my little brother and I can plow through any number of hills, any day, no matter what's in them!"
"It did turn out to be an adventure," said Rohane with an amused smile. "I just hope it isn't the last one I have with my brother."
"And I just hope you two would have a seat so I can properly patch you up!" Melissa exclaimed, shaking her head and pushing her sons into the couch.
Reuben protested. "But Mother, it's your birthday - "
"I can do what I please on my birthday, especially after you've walked through six hundred and fifty hills with monsters and horrible folk to get me a present!"