A/N: Just so people know, I started writing this in 6th grade. I like to keep the earlier chapters basically the same cause it shows my writing evolving. I'm sorry, I know it's kind of annoying, but they're not -that- badly written.


Nera stared in shock at the official notice posted on her front door. She blinked her narrow brown eyes once, twice, three times just to be sure. No, the piece of paper was still there, tacked to the door with a rusty nail. She had volunteered, but she hadn't really expected to be chosen, not with all the men also applying. Why would they choose her over a man, she wondered? Yet here was the notice, as real as could be, nailed to her small wooden door while she was out. She read it over again, just to be sure:

This announcement serves to notify Nera Black that she, of all applicants, has been chosen to go to the heart of Shihu Mako and remove the great danger buried within. If she does not wish to go on this quest, she must notify the high council before noon today. A wagon will leave Kerayan on the morrow to take her to the base of Shihu Mako. From there she will be on her own. If she succeeds, the reward will be fifty gold coins.


The High Council of Parepia

Nera shivered with anticipation. As much as she knew the dangers of this mission, she also knew that she had the abilities to succeed. She was not bragging, merely stating the truth. Though she was plain in looks - short blond hair, brown eyes, average height - she was not a plain person. She stood out like a diamond among pebbles. She was the only female warrior in her town of Kerayan, and she could beat any male warrior five times over. She was clever, and she was brave. Her thoughts were already on the gold coins awaiting her, and the even stronger power she would have a shot at as well. She recalled the speech of the Old Councilor, the leader of all the councilors in the High Council, to the people on her planet:

"People of Parepia, I speak to you today to warn you of a grave danger to our planet. As many of you know, the firestone, one of the strongest and deadliest of the ancient powers, was recently rescued from the hands of an evil man and hidden far beneath the surface of the planet. This has proven to be a great mistake, for it has caused a huge volcano, more powerful than anything we have ever encountered, to grow on the northernmost part of Parepia. It has been named Shihu Mako. It erupts once every thirty days, and kills thousands of people each time. And each time, the magma hardens into rock, adding on to it and enlarging it. If this volcano is not destroyed, soon the lava will cover the planet! The only way to stop it is to remove the firestone from deep in its depths. We need someone to do it, but there will be two obstacles in their way. One: The stone is guarded by demons called aguthis. These are quick creatures, about two feet tall, not very strong or bright, but vicious and set on defending the stone. They also have a small bit of magic power. Two: The stone's power is known to corrupt. He who goes on the quest must be strong so he is not tempted to use the stone for himself. All warriors who believe they can manage this please speak to your City council. Thank you."

Thinking of this speech reminded Nera of something important. Didn't he say Shihu Mako erupted once ever thirty days? Well, let's see... The last eruption was a week ago, so that left her with 30 minus 7 is 23 days, 22 days starting tomorrow. Not much time, but it would make her victory all the sweeter. And about her being tempted by the power of the stone...nah, she could resist it, she was sure. But was that the truth? She felt an inner qualm about this. Nera looked deep inside herself. She had been trained to do this, for a warrior cannot fight well when he is distracted. She found no desire for power, just wealth. But maybe that's just what she wanted to find? She raged at her conscience, ruining her joy over being chosen and her anticipation of battles ahead. Nera turned around and began to walk, getting madder with every step. Her shoes slapped angrily against the stone path. The wind blew her hair in her face, annoying her even more. She brushed back the blonde strands impatiently. All she could think about was the firestone and the mission ahead. Can you really do it? wondered her conscience. Yes, I'm sure, she retorted. I am suited for it. I will not be tempted. I will bring the stone straight to the High Council. Do you really believe that? asked that little voice in her head. Yes! she yelled silently, Yes! I believe it with all my heart! Then she looked up. Without really thinking about it, she had taken the path to her friend Rak's house. Oh, good, she thought, the priest will help me. He is always calm and he can reassure me that I will be fine. So she pushed open the squeaky door and went inside.

The warm hut was cozy and inviting. It was small but felt large, and the lamp on the center table filled the room with a soft glow. A small corridor led to Rak's bedroom at the back of the house, and two other hallways led off the side of the house to a bathroom and a kitchen. Rak himself was working at his desk in the corner, and when he heard the door open, he looked up and smiled.

"Hello there, Nera" he greeted her. "How are you?"

Rak was a small man, short and compact. He had always been clumsy and badly coordinated, so he became a priest, a job that required little physical exertion. He had a kind and open heart, and he treated everyone with care and respect. Nera was glad she had come to talk to him.

"I have some big news for you," she said, "I have been chosen by the High Council to remove the firestone from Shihu Mako." She paused, waiting for an exclamation of happiness or shock or worry or something, but he remained silent. So she went on, "I am worried, though, because I have doubts about whether I am strong enough to avoid the temptation of the firestone." She expected him to convince her there was nothing to worry about, but she was about to be disappointed.

"You are right, Nera, that is a worrisome thought. I, too, have been thinking it over since I saw the notice on your door."

"What do you mean, saw the notice on my door? Were you spying, snooping around my house!?" She was upset that he had agreed with her, but she didn't want to admit why she was angry, so instead she yelled at Rak for the first thing she could think of.

"No, Nera" Rak replied with a wry smile. He was used to her screaming at him. "I merely passed by on my way home."

"You know what I think? I think you worry too much. There's no way I'll be tempted. I'm strong. I can do it. I know I can! I won't fail!!" She ended screaming, her face red. She realized how she must look, but she could not admit that there might be some flaw in her.

"Nera, come with me." Rak said, "I want to show you something." He got up and walked into his bedroom, with Nera trailing sulkily behind. She sat on the bed while he went over to a small trunk by the door and rummaged around for a moment. He soon came up with a journal stiff with age. He then sat down next to Nera and flipped through it until he came to a certain page.

"This is my old diary," Rak said, "I used to write in it every day. Here, read this entry. I think you will find it quite interesting." Nera read the paragraph he indicated. Written in the spindly handwriting of a small boy, it said:

Dear Diary, today my younger brother was annoying me by singing a stupid song. I got so angry, I took my mother's favorite vase and threw it at him. It hit him on the shoulder and broke. Now my brother is in pain and my mother is furious. I have been confined to my room for the rest of the week. I will never, ever do such a terrible thing again in my whole life!

Nera stared at Rak in shock. "That doesn't sound like you at all! Very mean and violent. Not the calm, peaceful Rak I know."

"Yes, Nera, that is me, or rather, was me. I have changed a little since." Rak smiled modestly, then went on, "Nera, look at the last line." He tried to speak gently. "If you recognize your mistakes, and admit to them, only then can you begin to improve. Do you see?" Nera sat quietly on the bed for a minute or more, thinking, and then she suddenly looked at him and said, "Thanks, Rak. You've really helped me see things differently. I aim to work my hardest at resisting temptation and being strong. You're a real friend."

"Good luck, Nera," he said as he showed her to the door. She went down the peeling steps and, with one last wave to her friend the priest, she set on home.