“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Varian asked Nuru, brushing past even more vines. He supposed a jungle mountain was better than snow, but not by much.
Nuru scoffed. “Of course I am. In fact, by my calculations, we should be there in only a few minutes.”
“But, like, isn’t the Dark Trial supposed to be the hardest one? How can you be sure your calculations are correct?” Hugo asked, never missing a chance to antagonize Nuru.
“It is supposed to be the hardest,” Nuru said. “But they mean emotionally, not just getting there.” She smiled as they reached a curtain of fern, and she pulled it back, revealing a cavern behind them. It was curiously empty, but had a dark tunnel at the end of it. “I give you,” Nuru said, smirking. “The Dark Trial.”
“Yes!” Yong cheered. “We’re done walking!”
Varian cracked a small smile at that, but he still looked worried. “What do you mean, emotionally?” he asked. “All we heard was that it was the hardest one.”
Nuru’s smug face turned serious. “The rumour around our kingdom is that this trial makes you face your greatest regrets. And anyone who comes up here to find out never speaks of it afterward.”
“That’s reassuring,” Hugo said, sarcasm heavy.
“Well if you want to back out now, I certainly won’t stop you.” Nuru crossed her arms in irritation.
“Guys,” Yong said anxiously. “Can you stop fighting?”
The two stood down, glancing at Yong’s nervous face before reluctantly breaking apart to continue into the cave. “Fine. Come on, guys. Let’s just go,” Hugo said. “Varian, you coming?” Silence. Hugo looked back. “Varian?”
Varian was standing stock still, fear written across his face, but he shook himself when he heard Hugo call his name. “Biggest regrets?” he squeaked, then cleared his throat. “Like, all of them, or just one?”
Hugo shrugged. “Who knows? Not like you need to worry much, huh? You get upset when someone even jokes about doing something illegal.”
Varian glowered at Hugo. “Well, excuse me if I objected to breaking into the literal palace. Like that would have ended well at all!” he hissed.
Hugo raised his hands up in mock surrender, smirking at having gotten a rise out of him. “Let’s just go catch up with the others, kay?” He wrapped his arm around Varian’s shoulders. Varian flushed, and glared, but didn’t argue any more.
When they caught up with Nuru and Yong, the two were standing hesitantly at the entrance to the tunnel, waiting for them. “I thought we should all go in together,” Nuru said. “I don’t think it would be good to get separated here.” Yong nodded emphatically, looking scared. Varian felt for the younger boy. He had been through a lot already, and he was only 13. ‘You were only 14 when you tried to murder the queen and princess,’ his inner voice traitorously whispered to him. ‘Shut up,’ he thought back.
They entered the tunnel together, the only light the green from Varian’s staff. Until they got some 15 feet in, and the tunnel changed. Suddenly they weren’t in the dark tunnel anymore; they were in a bedroom, bright sunlight streaming through the windows, and two people fighting in front of them. One of them looked suspiciously like Nuru, but the girl in the room looked only 11 or so, unlike the 17 year old in front of them. Who, at a glance now, looked pale and scared. “This is mine,” Nuru whispered. “My greatest regret.”
“Can they see us?” Yong asked.
“No,” Varian said quietly to him. “We’re just watchers. Practically ghosts here.”
Yong’s eyes widened and he stuck his hand through the strange man in front of them. “Wow,” he whispered.
Younger Nuru was yelling angrily at the man in front of her. “Why won’t you let me come with you?” she yelled. “I can help! I know I can!”
“You’re too young, daughter,” the man said calmly. “Maybe another year you can come with me, but this is a difficult trip. I don’t have time to do my work and look after you. Children aren’t allowed in the trial room.”
Nuru screamed again, a wordless shriek that echoed through the room. “You’re only going to get away from mom,” she accused. “You’ve been fighting all the time, and you just want to leave and abandon all of us here.”
The man sighed. “Nuru,” he tried to comfort her, but she pushed him away.
“Go away,” she said. “Go on your stupid trip. See if I care.” The man sighed and left the room, and young Nuru flopped onto her bed and screamed into her pillow.
The scene faded away and they were once again back in the cave. Nuru had tears on her cheeks, and she was hugging herself. “My dad left right after that fight,” she said softly. “And he never came back. He died in an accident on the road. He got pushed over a ridge by a reckless driver who couldn’t control his horses. And I never got to say goodbye or even apologize.”
Yong hugged her. “It’s okay,” he said, with the childish optimism he hadn’t lost yet, somehow. “I’m sure he knew you loved him.”
Nuru smiled. “Thank you, Yong,” she said gratefully, before their surroundings changed again.
This time they were on a dusty road in front of what looked like an old orphanage, and a woman with dark hair and a boy who must be Hugo, with the glasses and white blond hair, were alone on the road. “Come with me,” the woman urged him. “I can take care of you, I can show you how to do wondrous things. I hear you’re quite the scientist.”
The boy nodded uncertainly. “I can show you how to master that,” the woman said. “I can teach you how to do so many things, you’ll have a wonderful new life. All you have to do is this one little thing for me.”
“But my friends,” Hugo said, glancing back to the orphanage.
“Your friends will all find wonderful homes of their own soon,” said the woman. “This is your chance to have yours.”
Young Hugo visibly made up his mind, and said, “Okay. Yeah, I’ll go with you.” He nodded, his face determined. The woman smiled and led him away. The scene faded, and they were back in the cave.
“Who was that?” Nuru asked.
Hugo was still staring at where the scene had been. “That was Donella,” he said slowly. He took a deep breath, and turned to the rest of them. “Guys, I have to tell you something,” he said, speaking fast, so he could get in what he wanted to say before he chickened out. “As you just saw, Donella adopted me, I guess. Sort of, if you count persuading me into leaving with her adoption. And originally, I started coming on this quest with you for her. She wanted me to do everything with you and then take the totems for her at the end. But I- I got attached. I like you guys, and three weeks ago I went to Donella and I told her I was done. I’m not doing this for her anymore, I’m doing it for you because I know you all need them, and I want to do this with you. And I’ll fight against her if she comes trying to take the totems. I promise.”
The group stared at him. “Wait, just, let me get this straight,” Varian said, voice carefully neutral. “Donella sent you to infiltrate us and take the totems, but three weeks ago, you quit, and now you’re doing this because you want to, for us?”
Hugo nodded, terrified. “And you didn’t tell us before because…?” Nuru asked, skeptical.
“I was scared you would toss me out, and decide you don’t need me,” Hugo said. “I am so, so sorry I ever thought about betraying you, but I promise I won’t now.”
Yong bounded up to him and hugged him. “Well, I believe you!” he said. “You wouldn’t have told us all that if you were going to betray us.”
Hugo smiled at him, and hugged back, then looked nervously at Varian and Nuru. “I suppose Yong is right,” Nuru said. “I believe you too. And I might need a bit of time to process this, but I can assure you I’m not going to toss you out. Despite how annoying you are, you have your moments.”
Hugo filled with relief, knowing that was the absolute best possible reaction he could have gotten from Nuru, and he was grateful for it. He knew she’d come around eventually, she just took a lot longer to process things than most people.
Varian walked forward, and hugged Hugo wordlessly, and Hugo melted into it, knowing that the hug meant more from Varian than words ever could. When they parted, Varian said, “I believe in giving second chances. But you gave yourself one without any help. And that is something to be proud of. And I- I love you.”
Hugo smiled, eyes brimming with tears. “Thank you,” he said thickly. “I love you, too.”
“I love you all, too!” Yong piped up, and Hugo laughed.
Varian looked at the group. “I need to tell you something about me, too,” he said. “But I have a feeling the cave is going to show it, so I think I’m going to wait a little, is that okay?”
Hugo nodded. “Of course. Don’t feel obligated to do anything. You can tell us when you’re ready. It took me forever to tell you this, so I’m not in any place to judge.”
Yong and Nuru nodded as well. “I agree,” Nuru said. “Don’t feel obligated to share your life. Some things are kept private for a reason. But, I would like to point out that the scene hasn’t changed at all in a while, and there’s still two of you left.”
“Maybe we have to walk some more?” Yong suggested.
They shrugged. “Worth a shot,” Varian said, and they all continued walking deeper into the tunnel. They only made it about four steps though, before the cave changed again.
This time, they seemed to be in the living room of a house, two small boys in front of the fireplace. One of them was clearly Yong, and the other presumably his friend. They looked to be building something together, and it took the group a few minutes to figure out they were building fireworks.
Yong was looking at the scene with a scared expression on his face. At a certain point, he cringed and covered his eyes just in time to miss the explosion that rocked the house. When the dust cleared, the rest of them could see Yong’s friend laying on the floor with a deep cut in his arm from the debris that had fallen.
Younger Yong forced himself up, eyes wide and terrified, and ran outside, screaming for his parents. When they came in, they gasped and picked up the other boy and rushed him outside. The scene shifted and suddenly they were in a hospital room, Yong crying by a bed the other boy was in, white gauze wrapped around his arm. An unfamiliar woman came in, tears on her face, and yelled for Yong to leave. “Go away, boy! This happened because of you! Leave.” The scene faded away.
Yong uncovered his eyes, his shoulders shaking as he tried to hold back tears. “That was my friend Liam. He won’t ever be able to use his left arm again, and it’s all my fault!”
Varian rushed to Yong’s side. “Oh, no, Yong, It wasn’t your fault. We all saw that, okay, and nobody set that firework off. It was just unstable. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.” Yong looked down, clearly not believing him. Varian lifted his chin up. “And! And even if it was, you're much better at making fireworks now. You won’t make that mistake again.”
“I know,” Yong said, still sniffling. “But I still feel bad.”
“That’s okay,” Varian said. “You can feel bad. But don’t let it ruin your life.”
Yong nodded. “Okay. I’ll try.”
With that, the cave shifted again. They were in a dark room that appeared to be empty. “What is this place?” Nuru asked Varian. He was the only one left, this regret had to be his.
Varian pointed wordlessly to the corner of the room, where a man was encased in an amber colored rock. “What the hell?” Hugo whispered. “Who is that?”
“It’s my dad,” Varian whispered. “There was an accident. One of my formulas, um,” he swallowed. “Anyway, it got fixed. He’s fine now. But that’s not the only thing this regret is about.” He pointed past the amber to where they could see Varian at 14 years old, frantically trying to drill into the amber with Rapunzel’s hair wrapped around the drill.
“What the…” Hugo trailed off. “What are you doing? With hair ?”
Nuru gasped. “That’s the Lost Princess,” she said, amazed. “Everyone heard about it when she came back. It was a miracle.”
Varian shrugged. “Miracle is a strong word, but sure. Her hair was unbreakable; I was so sure it could break the amber, but…” he gestured to the scene in front of them.
Young Varian was yelling, “It should have worked! Why didn’t it work?!” he threw the drill down and fell to his knees in front of the statue. “It’s not my fault,” he exclaimed, almost pleading to himself. “It’s not. It’s her fault.” They watched, speechless, as the younger Varian ran out of the room and came back outside inside of some kind of robot.
None of them said a word, transfixed by the scene in front of them, almost not believing their eyes, because how could Varian have done this? They just couldn’t see their friend doing anything like this- this anger-filled rampage.
“Sorry it had to be this way, Princess ,” young Varian said, voice shaking with both rage and fear. “But if I can’t have a happy ending, then neither can you!”
The scene faded away, the four of them left standing in the dark tunnel, now slightly lit up with the Dark Totem, which was, true to its name, somehow almost darker than the color black, and outlined in a fizzing white. Yong leaned over to pick it up, hesitated, then closed his fingers around it and lifted it from seemingly nothing, but it had to have been sitting on something . They walked out of the tunnel and back into the jungle in silence.
Nuru took a deep breath and turned to face Varian. She spoke first, as she often does. “What was that?” she asked.
Varian looked down. “You might want to sit down for this,” he said. “It’s kind of long.” The four of them sat down, Yong hugging the totem to his chest, and all of them looking concerned. “You saw my dad trapped in amber,” Varian started. “And it was my fault. There were these black rocks, spiky things that just grew all over the place. They started taking over my village, destroying crops, even houses sometimes. A few people almost got impaled by one when they shot up.”
The other three had horrified looks on their faces. “That’s awful!” Yong exclaimed. “They’re gone now, right?”
“Yeah,” Varian said. “But that’s a whole different story that I don’t really want to get into right now. Maybe another time,” he said, smiling gently at Yong, but his face was still troubled. “Anyway, I wanted to experiment on these rocks, you know, to see if science could do anything. Only one of my formulas got a reaction, though, and it was an amber colored rock that just grew all over the rocks. My dad got encased in it by accident. I ran to Rapunzel for help, she’s the Lost Princess,” he added to Nuru. “We’re friends, actually.”
Nuru gasped in delight. “Do you think I could meet her?” she asked, hushed, like saying it too loud would ruin her chances.
Varian laughed. “When we’re finally done with these trials, I promise to take you to meet Rapunzel.” Nuru smiled so hard it almost looked like her face would break under the pressure.
Varian’s face sombered again as he got back into his story. “But I picked pretty bad timing. I went out in the middle of a blizzard, a bad one, and Rapunzel was busy evacuating people. She couldn’t help me. But I didn’t have all the facts, and all I knew was that she broke her promise to help me if I needed it. I got… angry. Really angry. A week or so later, I tricked Rapunzel into helping me steal the sundrop flower from the Royal Vault, and then when that didn’t work, I, um, kidnapped the queen to lure Rapunzel to me and try to use her hair to break the amber. And then you saw what happened after that. I almost killed the queen, and my friend Cassandra, and the princess, and then I went to jail for a year.”
The three faces that stared back at him were the epitome of shock. “I can’t believe it,” Hugo whispered. “ You went to jail? For a whole year?”
Varian looked down. “You saw what I did. I attempted regicide! I kidnapped the queen! It would be surprising if I didn’t go to jail.”
“Is that the end of the story?” Nuru asked quietly. “How did you get out of jail? WIth charges like that, you should have been in there for much longer.”
“It’s not the end,” Varian said. “And you’re right. By all laws, I should technically still be in jail now. I broke out and then I helped a band of Saporians, Corona’s rival, take over the kingdom.”
“What?” Hugo deadpanned. “How are you still alive, let alone the Royal Engineer, or whatever you said you were?”
Varian blushed. “I betrayed the Saporians to help Rapunzel take the kingdom back. She helped me realize that I could change, and after I helped her, she helped me free my dad, and we started over. Now we’re good friends. And that ,” he proclaimed. “Is the end of my story. For now.”
“Okay,” Nuru said, smoothing her skirt down anxiously. “That was a lot to take in. I want you to know that I still trust you, and I still think you are a good person, but I do need time to process everything that has happened today. If I am sharp with any of you, I’m sorry, it’s only because I’m tired and a lot has happened. But!” she added. “We will be having a longer discussion about this later. About both of your big reveals, or whatever. God, today has gone on for too long.”
Varian smiled, relieved, at her. “I understand,” he said. “It’s been a long day for all of us.”
“It sure has,” Hugo chimed in, throwing his arm around Varian. “And now that I know my boy has also been in jail, we can share horror stories about it! It’ll be fun!”
Varian raised an eyebrow. “Right,” he said, sarcasm heavy. Hugo winked at him, and Varian struggled to suppress a laugh, grateful for the slight silliness after the serious and tiring day.
Yong jumped up and pushed past Hugo to get to Varian. He handed Varian the Dark Totem, so he could throw his arms around him. “I still think you’re awesome!” he exclaimed. “And you should hold the totem. I don’t want to drop it.”
Varian laughed, but there were tears in his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Nuru cleared her throat. “Okay! I promise I really hate to break this all up, but we really need to get moving if we want to get back to the bottom of this mountain before it gets dark. And all our stuff is down there, so we really better get there, unless you wanna sleep out here in the jungle. Also, I think I think it’s starting to smell like rain.”
The three boys usually laughed at Nuru’s relentless attempts to keep them on track, but they listened just this once. They really didn’t want to spend the night in the jungle with no tents or supplies. And in rain.