The Snow Aisha of Shenkuu
"Hey, hey! Tell us a story again!"
Few know of what lies in the icy mountains to the east of this great merchant town. Most Neopians travel from Neopia and its surrounding areas to Shenkuu by air or by sea, with only the brave and the desperate daring to travel across this uncharted terrain. They say only merchants and poor travelers choose to go through the mystifying mountains. Those who have experienced Terror Mountain scoff at the cowards who choose the long way around Neopia, and yet they board the boats and the airships all the same. What is it that lies beyond the snowy mountains, and what happens to those who do venture out there?
The inhabitants of Shenkuu are the most concerned, as their land is nestled right beside them. The far east side of Shenkuu is known for its usual snowfall, but none of them ever enter the mountains. They warn the younger generation and the incoming visitors not to venture out there – the reasons why are varied, but they are filled with the magic that comes from folklores and myths.
"Will you tell us?!" says the Rainbow Cybunny as she starts to reach for one of the dumplings on the table. "Please?! Or how about the one with Dandan and the Sandan? Oh, oh! Or the one with the Quintilc!"
"Please, Auntie Chidori and Mama Xie?" pleads her sister, the White Elephante, who hugs her Pirate Quiggle Plushie tighter. She is still a child, being two years younger than her sister, but she is almost twice as big.
"Now Lika, Mura." The elderly Red Aisha, Mama Xie, sits down at their table and sets the Tofu Satay with Lotus Rice down. Her sister, another elderly Royalgirl Kacheek, laughs next to her. "I think I've told you about every story I have for you!"
Mura and her sister have been frequenting the Lotus Dream restaurant since their parents brought them there when they had just learned how to walk. The worn-out bamboo house is nice and cozy on the inside, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Shenkuu. And the two ladies who run it seem as old and wise as the world itself.
Mura loves listening to the old folktales the ladies tell them. Since their parents are very overprotective and never let her leave their side of town, the north area of Shenkuu, they are some of the only things that make Mura's life feel adventurous. She feels a touch of resentment at the thought before another one of the ladies laughs heartily.
"Oh, come on, come on, let's tell the small children again," coaxes the Kacheek, Auntie Chidori. "After all, our Lenshu boy isn't here to listen to us."
"Alright, alright." Mama Xie gives in, and the two girls across give a small cheer. "But your plates must be clear by the time I finish, girls..."
A merchant tells his poor family that he is going to sell his wares, but he finds it difficult in the busy town of Shenkuu. He decides that he will cross over the snowy mountains that few have ever traveled through before.
"But no one knows what lies beyond mountains!" his wife tells him. "They say the spirits of dead travelers roam there, and that rabid Pyguis attack trespassers, or that wicked Jumas and witches will try to trick you into being cursed for eternity."
"Those are just rumors, and I will be fine," the merchant assures his wife and his worried children. "I will go to find a new market across the mountains, and I will come back with Neopoints to help us."
He prepares for the trip, bids his family farewell, and begins his journey. Soon the cool mist of Shenkuu fades into the icy flakes of falling snow, and he follows crosses the long, rickety bridge to the mountains. He is at the edge of Shenkuu, when he finds an old shrine off the road.
This is a Shrine to Guard Travelers through the Snow, said a small plaque near the shrine. The merchant thinks that someone must have put this up to help motivate the travelers who passed by.
"The person who built this must know about the hardships that make one have to travel through here," the merchant ponders out loud. He leaves one piece of Azzle Onigiri at the shrine, out of respect. "Thank you, I hope I will make it through with this small source of hope."
Soon after entering the snowy mountain trails, he finds that the path grows dark and shadows begin to form around him. They are ugly and black, and take the shape of many types of Neopets, from Acaras to Zafaras, and they are reaching out to him with sharp talons and bony paws. They moan and scream and they want him to leave.
"No, I must continue to the other side! I will not go back now!" the merchant cries, even though he is terrified. But then, a cold wind blows, and the shadows are cast away with the snowflakes. The merchant continues his journey, shaken and scared, but tries to be undeterred.
He sleeps, and the next morning, he realizes that he had fallen asleep in a Pygui's nest. Even after he hastily leaves, the enraged Petpets have decided to punish the intruder. These mountain Pyguis have tusks the size of bamboo swords and as sharp as sushi knives.
"Stay away from me!" the merchant cries defiantly as he climbs a tree to escape the rabid Petpets. The tree is too small, and when the Pyguis come, they will be able to stab him with their tusks. "This cannot be, I will not be able to go back to my family this way. I cannot let that happen... I need to stay alive!"
He hears the squeals and grunts of the Pyguis come closer, and they are soon only a few feet from the tree. Before they can charge, however, a cold wind blows, and the snowflakes land on the Pygui's red skin. The cool snow melts their anger, and when they are all calm, they leave, distracted by other things. The merchant climbs down after a while and continues on his journey.
The next day, he is depressed to find that he has gotten a case of Blurred Vision, and everything is now a spotted haze of whites and grays and greens. He tries to continue on the trail, but instead he bumps into a tree.
"I see you are ill, traveler!" says a voice from the tree. "I would like to help heal your sickness. In front of you on the snow, though you may not see, are three objects. The one on the right is medicine that will help ease your eyes."
The merchant fumbles around on the ground and there are, indeed, three objects. He is unsure if he should trust the voice, but there is nothing else that he can do in his state.
Do not take the right object, for it is cursed! a cold wind blows and tells him. Grab the middle object, for it holds that which will heal your sickness!
"Go on, take the right one," says the voice, "You will not be able to see otherwise!"
The merchant hesitates, but then picks up the middle object. He discovers it is a leather bag, and inside, there is what feels like sand. The merchant eats the some of the sand-like substance and his vision is cleared instantly. He looks up to see a Juma in the tree, who slinks away when it sees its plans are foiled.
"What is this?" the merchant says, looking into the bag. It is full of yellow and pink powder. Blurred Vision is common in the elderly of Shenkuu, but Dried Black Mushrooms are hard to find in the land.
This powder is made from the beans that grow by the side of your home. Take it home, sell it, and then make some more, for it will help the others who suffer from the sickness, and more importantly, your family...
"... And then the merchant got all rich and stuff because he discovered the Finely Ground Bean Powder!" finishes Lika excitedly, finishing her last dumpling.
Mura's eyes are bright as she sighs. "That's such a wonderful story. So is it the shrine that helped the merchant? It's so... magical!"
"And that's why your Auntie and Mama don't have Blurred Vision." laughs Mama Xie. "Now, you're both not done with your food, so hurry and eat before your parents come back..."
That night, when Mura and Lika are just about to go to sleep, Mura lies in her bed, frowning. Under the covers with her is her trusty Pirate Quiggle Plushie, Maverick, and her Mutant Ruki Plushie, Tobias. While clutching both of them, she had gone up to her parents and asked if she could go to the east side of Shenkuu. They said no. How about the west side? No, there are many bandits there. The south? No, that's where all the foreigners come in, and they will take you away from Shenkuu. How about to Exotic Foods, so I can get Purplum Buns? No, you can ask your sister to get them for you. She is sent to bed, feeling as dejected as ever.
Why is it that we can't leave our area? Mura thinks angrily in bed. I want to go out and explore, but I'm not allowed to. They let Lika go out with her friends at least, but even I can't do that. I'm even bigger than my sister! What the heck!
Maybe I'll be like the merchant in the story, and I'll go to the east side, where there's snow. Then, I'll find the shrine, and the spirit will keep me safe! Plus, unlike my sister, I am White coloured, so I can blend in with the snow, and no one will be able to see me and kidnap me. Yeah, that's a good plan! Then I'll meet the spirit and we can play in the snow together, and then it can ward off all the scary things away from me... She thinks on and on, and when she finally falls asleep, she dreams of snowy mountains and tasty rice balls.
To Mura's surprise, she finds that it is easier to slip away from her family than she thought. It is Friday, and her parents are still at work, and her sister Lika keeps talking on and on about how she has a party later that afternoon. While she is busy preparing herself (it takes her hours to simply pick out an outfit), Mura manages to slip out the front door with her plushies. She is a free Elephante, and she is ecstatic.
"This is great, you guys!" she says to Maverick and Tobias, "I'll just come back when the sun starts to set! Now... Where should we go? To the airship docks? Oh, no, of course not! First, we're going to see the shrine that the merchant found!"
There are a couple other folktales concerning the mysterious snowy mountains in the east, although Mura pays them no heed as she wanders around the streets of Shenkuu. They say that bandits and thieves have their hideouts in the mountains, and they come into Shenkuu at night to do their dirty work. Some versions of the tale Mama Xie told have a nasty twist, with the merchant dying in the snow instead, the spirit of the shrine instead being the evil one, told with the intent of keeping everyone away from the mountains. This is probably the story that Mama Xie should have told little Mura.
Mura manages to navigate though the crowds of tourists, locals, and shop vendors, and has reached the east edge of Shenkuu. She is out of the city now, the nearest building being another bridge and hill away. The humid mist has mostly disappeared, along with the smell of dumplings and fried tempura from the food stalls. At this far end of town, just the mossy, thick vegetation lives, with chilly, high winds coming from the mountains ahead. There is a single, long, seemingly ancient bridge that stretches from Shenkuu to the other side. What lies beyond that is a mystery, however, as the last clouds of Shenkuu mist fog up around the bridge, like a curtain to hide the mountains.
"Wow," is all Mura can whisper, as she has never seen anything like it. This is all so different than what she is used to, back in the bustling streets of Shenkuu. It is eerily peaceful, as if this is the golden passageway to the Lunar Temple, or the castles in Meridell and Brightvale that foreigners talk about. It is like Mura has thrown herself into one of the folktales of long ago. And she loves it.
"Okay, Maverick, Tobias, I'm going to stuff you in my bag," she tells her plushies. "I-I'm going to need both hands if I want to cross this bridge! But it's okay, I'll take you guys out when I find the shrine... Oh, t-this bridge sure is wobbly. Okay, first step, here we go -!"
The bridge sways with the wind and creaks with every step on its wooden planks. Even the fog seems to try very hard in keeping Mura almost blind, hoping that the young Neopet will be driven back. But Mura won't take no for an answer, and hobbles on. It seems like hours before she will reach the other side, which she rewards herself for by falling into the soft snow.
"Ahhh, this is so great!" she says, laughing as she rolls around in the snow. She has never felt snow before. When she's done, she picks herself and looks around. It is a small, snowy clearing, with the mountains towering threateningly before her. But to the side, she sees something, and she scrambles forward as fast as her Elephante feet could take her.
"It's real, the shrine is real...!"
This is a Shrine to Guard Travelers through the Snow, the plaque next to it reads. Before her is a tiny, stone shrine, almost completely covered in snow. It is like seeing a legendary Kazeriu, or the Faerie Queen the foreigners talk about, only, much, much more magical. Mura walks up to it, entranced, until suddenly -
- Slussshhhh, a huge pile of snow moves next to it.
"AAHH, IT'S THE SHRINE SPIRIT!" Mura jumps back, nearly dropping Maverick, but then realizes that the figure... is a Neopet. Almost like an Aisha. But an Aisha... made of snow?
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" The Aisha stumbles backwards, sloshing against the shrine. "You... can see me?!"
When Mura nods, his face lightens up. "Oh boy, now that's something! Someone who actually notices me! This is fantastic! Man, do you know how hard it is being a Snow Neopet in snow? Nobody recognizes you, they just think you're a pile of snow that looks neat or something, oh man! Good thing you don't live in the snow, either! You're a White Neopet, too, after all – as close to snow as you can get!"
"A... Snow Neopet?" she asks with a smile, surprised at the spirit's talkativeness.
"Yeah, it's a colour, you know? Or maybe you don't. Considering it's not a very popular colour in Shenkuu, really... But you're not a traveler or a merchant, are you? What's a kid like you doing here?"
Mura quickly says, "Oh, my parents never let me go anywhere, and I wanted to see if there really is a shrine spirit here! But I guess it's just you, Mr. Snow Aisha! Do you really protect people with special snow powers?!"
The Aisha laughs, "You can call me Onigiri. Yes, I do, but they're hardly special. They're faerie abilities given to me by a friendly water faerie long ago... And, well, snow is made of water, after all! I feel bad for all the people who have to pass by this wicked mountain path, and it makes me feel helpful when I help them with my powers."
"Do you ever follow them into Shenkuu and other places?"
"... Ah, no, as much as I'd love to. Shenkuu really does look like a fun place, doesn't it? It's my duty to stay here and help the travelers. I never leave these mountains, and yet it seems there are a lot of stories about me, as you've apparently heard. Although, I do think the stories are a bit exaggerated, haha."
Mura shakes her head. "That's okay! I think you're just as wondrous as the stories! I wonder how it's like, living out here and seeing new people? My parents never let me go anywhere and keep me up in the northern part of Shenkuu. They'd never let me venture here... but as long as you're here, I know that I'm safe! Can you show me some of your powers, Mr. Snow Aisha?"
Onigiri smiles softly, pausing for a moment for them to notice small spots of snow falling from the sky, "You know that your parents are doing that to protect you, right? I feel flattered that you wanted to see me, since it gets very lonely up here, but can you imagine what they'd do when they find out that you're here?"
"I know, I know, but I can't help it!" Mura sighs, "I know they're doing it for me, but... it's not.... I hate being cooped up in the same streets all the time. I can't even go to Fanciful Fauna or the Lunar Temple by myself! And there are guards that make sure nothing bad happens to anybody in this town... I'm big and strong, I'm an Elephante, for crying out loud! I'll even take my dumb sister if I need to... "
"Why don't you, then, tell that to your parents, and not me?"
Mura just frowns, looking down at her plushies. "They won't understand. They probably think that I just want to run off and join airship pirates or, or bandits. I'm scared of telling them, or I'm going to get in trouble or something... "
There is silence, and Mura looks up nervously, only to see Onigiri with a serene expression on his face, one she has often seen on Mama Xie's face before. "Just tell them, Mura. I'm sure they'll understand."
Mura nods lightly, still pouting and unsure, but that sparks something and she looks up at him again. "But wait, what about you? I want to go out and explore, and you do, too, right? Only, you want to go inside Shenkuu, and not out. Why don't you just come to the city?"
Onigiri sighs heavily, as if he has heard this many times before, "I would, but I must stay here, and make sure anybody who dares to try to pass these mountains is safe. Besides, a Snow Aisha appearing in Shenkuu suddenly would attract a lot of unwanted attention." The snow seems to fall faster, now, and more erratic.
"That's a load of dung!" Mura tells him heatedly. "You've been here for so long; you should just take a break and go into Shenkuu! Me and Maverick and Tobias here will even give you a tour – of the north side of Shenkuu, anyway. But then, we can explore together, and it'll be a lot of fun! I can take you to the Exotic Foods, and we can buy all the rice balls you want, and then we can go to the Lunar Temple. It'll be great, because then you can be my body guard! We'll go there, and then - !"
"Mura? Mura is that you?" calls a voice from behind them. The sudden snowstorm, Mura realizes, has gotten stronger and louder, but Mura can faintly make out who that voice comes from.
"Mother... ?" she whispers to herself in shock. Mura turns to tell Onigiri, but suddenly, he is gone. All she sees is the stone shrine and the hurling of snow around her. Unless he is there, blending with the snow? "Onigiri, where are you? That's my mom; tell her what I just told you, and protect me since I'll be in trouble, I-I'm scared... Onigiri? ONIGIRI?!"
"Mura, where are you? I can't see you, your White colour is hard to see in the snow!" This time, it is her father. The snowfall is horrifying now. All around her are freezing blurs of grays and whites, the wind so strong that even a large Neopet like her could be thrown to the ground. It is blinding white, and numbingly cold. And Mura is alone now.
"I'm here, Mother, Father!" Mura cries, clutching her plushies close to her, "I'm near the shrine! Mother! Father! MOTHER -"
It is then that her mother emerges from the blasting snow, and she hugs the Elephante so quickly that Mura barely registers that it's her.
"Mura, Mura, oh thank the stars, you're alright," her mother whispers, and Mura hugs her back, and loses herself in the warmth of her mother. They call for Mura's father, who joins them shortly by the sound of footsteps, but does not rush up to hug them.
"You girls can look up, now... the storm is gone."
They do, and Mura is surprised to see that the snowstorm had left as quickly as it came. Mura looks behind her, but there is no Snow Aisha in sight, only the lonely looking shrine there behind them.
Mura's mother doesn't let go of her, "Oh, Mura, are you alright? Come, we're going to take you home, and we'll give you some Steaming Hot Udon Noodles and some Lotus Rice, okay? I told your sister to make some, and she's worried sick..."
"Mom... am I... in trouble?" she asks softly. Her eyes, almost watery, are looking down.
Her father sighs. "That's not important right now. Let's just go home first. We're just glad you're safe..."
A couple months pass since that day. For a while, Lika seems jealous of her younger sister, being able to go to the mysterious snowy mountains and all, but that, too, passes. Mura finally sits down with her parents and her sister, all of them having a good family heart-to-heart. Her parents are more happy about her being unharmed than running away, which finally shakes Mura up, realizing just how much her parents care for her. Now, she's finally able to walk around everywhere in Shenkuu... as long as her sister, Lina, is with her, or at least with Mama Xie and Auntie Chidori. And every Saturday, their parents spend their days off with their two daughters and take trips around Shenkuu. While Mura never tells anybody the little detail of meeting a Snow Aisha, near the Shenkuu airship docks, Mura finds a new plushie to join Maverick and Tobias: a White Aisha that she names Riceballs.
Mura will never cross the rickety old bridge and visit the snowy mountains again. But her thoughts still stray to the curious character that she saw back then. It's a memory that gets hazier and hazier each day, until she wonders if that meeting actually happened at all.
But all it takes is for her to wake up and see a curious pile of snow in the middle of the street, or in a hidden alley, or even in front of a shop, and she realizes that, yes, that meeting did happen. She wonders if the Snow Aisha will get the courage to wander into the Lotus Dream one day, and hear the stories that he's started by being the one and only Snow Aisha in Shenkuu.