The sun was shimmering brilliantly in the faultless blue expanse of the sky as a gentle breeze danced delicately across the ground. Graceful Weewoos chirped happily from sturdy branches of leaf-laden trees, and multicoloured wildflowers swayed in fields of emerald grass. All of the world seemed perfect.
Yet Rond felt like a failure.
The Starry Kacheek was walking slowly along a familiar path, dragging his feet and pulling up small clouds of dust. He was all but blind to the beauty that surrounded him as he walked. The tiny town in which he had lived as a child was just up ahead, and the closer he walked, the more his memories assaulted his brain.
When he had been young, adults would often ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and his answer was always the same. “I want to be a hero!” he would yell, waving a toy sword he had gotten during one month of Celebrating. The adults would laugh and even encouraged his dream. Yet, as the years passed, it seemed that everyone had wanted him to give up his dream in favor of something more realistic. For a long time, Rond had been able to ignore their negativity.
One fateful day he had been walking through the center of town when he heard someone call out to him. “Hey, Rond!” the familiar voice had yelled, “Are you still trying to play hero?”
He had turned only to see Milly, a Faerie Aisha who had once been a friend. “I’m not playing,” he had responded, and started to walk away, but Milly hadn’t been ready to let it go.
“Why don’t you grow up?” she had cried. “Face it! You’ll never be any sort of hero!”
Rond had felt his face grow red. “I will be a hero! In fact, I’m going to leave now and when I come back, I’ll be the most famous hero ever!”
Milly’s laughter still haunted him, and she had called to the crowd that had begun to gather. “You better say your goodbyes now, everyone! Rond says he’s not going to come back until he’s a hero, so I guess we’ll never see him again.”
Rond had left that very day and, at first, had been very determined to keep his word. Unfortunately, he found that it wasn’t so easy to just become a hero. He did try, but the few times he had been faced with real danger, his courage had failed him. Now, he was returning home to admit that everyone had been right. He would never be a hero. With a sigh, he pushed aside a few stray branches and stepped out into a clearing. His town should be just below him.
The field below was green and lush, but bare of any town. Rond sat down on a nearby stump, convinced he was lost. It was just like him to manage to lose his way on such a familiar path, and he looked around for any landmarks. However, something didn’t make sense. The distant mountain, for example, was certainly Tranquility Peak, and the distinctively shaped tiny body of water had to be Fishhook Lake. If he was right, then his town should be right there. The town couldn’t have been completely moved without any sign it had ever existed, but there was nothing below to suggest there had ever been so much as a neohome much less a whole town. Rond squinted in his eyes and stared at where he felt the town should be, but saw nothing. “What’s going on here,” he mumbled, as he again turned his attention back to landmarks to insure that he was in the right place.
Just as he turned, he saw something from the corner of his eye move into some distant bushes. Spinning, he tried to catch sight of it again, but saw nothing. Despite this, he jumped to his feet and ran down the path. A small, cynical voice in his mind told him that the supposed movement was simply his imagination, but he choose to ignore the voice as he rushed to the bushes and looked behind them, his face shimmering with expectation.
The hope dried on his face like a tiny trickle of water in the desert. There was no one hiding behind the bushes, but he knew he had been foolish to expect that somehow an entire town had been hidden here in the first place. There was nothing.
Well, that wasn’t exactly the case, Rond realized as his eyes drifted towards the ground. Lying upon the soft grass, was a small, round ornament - like the kind you would use for decorating during the month of Celebrating. It was a simple orb, but the color really grabbed your attention. It appeared to possess all the colors at once, which were swirling and twisting upon the fragile surface. Almost as if in a trance, Rond slowly bent down and picked up the ornament. He couldn’t understand how it had come to lie alone in this field after the month of Celebrating had already passed. Carefully, he brought it close to his eyes to examine it.
All at once what appeared to be a face suddenly swam across the curved surface - the mouth gaping in a frozen, silent scream. The Kacheek was so shocked, that he dropped the ball and watched as it went hurtling towards the ground. At the last possible second, he caught it and saved it from possibly breaking.
“Good catch, my boy,” a familiar voice congratulated.
Surprised, Rond turned and saw that he was no longer alone. An older, blue Mynci was standing there - the smile upon his face not quite matching the maniacal light dancing in his eyes. “Mr. Martin?” Rond asked.
“So, you recognize me,” Mr. Martin said, “but don’t you think I’ve changed?”
Rond nodded slowly. Mr. Martin had been owner of a small curio shop on the outskirt of town, but so few of his strange wares actually sold that it was almost more of a museum. Mr. Martin had always been a friendly, upbeat sort of individual - but never one to attract notice to himself. However, the Mynci that stood before Rond now seemed to command every available eye and revel in the attention. Part of it was the black flowing cape he now wore, attached around his throat with a brilliant red jewel of some sort. The jewel seemed to give off its own light, which pulsated like the beating of a living, red heart. However, Rond felt even more uncomfortable by the strange expression stretched upon Mr. Martin’s face like an ill-fitting mask.
“What’s going on here?” Rond asked, his voice shaky and unsure. He felt compelled to hold the ornament close to his chest as if protecting it. “Where’s the town?”
Mr. Martin laughed, although it was not the pleasant, cheerful laugh he had once possessed. “Don’t you understand?” he questioned. “Why, you’re holding the town right there.”
The Kacheek gasped as he looked down at the ornament. Now that he looked more closely, he could see more faces in the surface, each one crying in silence. “What did you do?” he cried. “I mean, how is this even possible?”
Chuckling slightly, Mr. Martin took a few steps forward. “That’s not really important,” he stated. “What is important is that it is done. This town treated me, us, so terribly before. We were both the punchline of a joke we never were allowed to question. I was the crazy old Mynci trapped in my store of junk, and you were the foolish young dreamer who fancied himself a hero. Don’t you remember how that felt? Didn’t it hurt?”
“It did hurt,” Rond agreed, the memories dancing behind his eyes.
“But now we’re the ones with the power,” continued Mr. Martin. “They can’t hurt us anymore. I know how you felt, so that’s why I’m giving you this opportunity.”
“What opportunity?” Rond asked.
Mr. Martin’s smile grew, unfurling like the gossamer wings of a Lightmite. “I’m going to let you join me,” he explained. “I wouldn’t let anyone else, because they wouldn’t have understood how I felt - but you do. Join me.”
Rond shook his head. It was true that he had been hurt, but he could never do anything like this. Perhaps being a hero had simply been the immature dream of a child, but he could never be a villain. He wrapped his arms about himself, almost as if he was shivering at the very thought.
“You’re cold,” Mr. Martin said, almost sympathetically. “Here, put on my cape and it will warm you.” He reached for the red jewel, which seemed to grow more brilliantly, and in that moment Rond realized it glowed with pure evil.
“No!” Rond shouted, louder than he had intended, “That’s, uh, fine. I’m okay.”
The Mynci looked at him oddly for a moment, but didn’t seem to want to the press the issue. “If that is what you prefer. It is your loss.” He turned, and started walking away as if nothing about this was out of the ordinary. “Oh, and welcome home.” He punctuated this odd statement with another of his unpleasant chuckles.
“I can’t let you do this,” announced Rond, trying to sound brave and unmovable.
Mr. Martin stopped, but he didn’t turn around. “Is that so?”
“It’s not right,” reiterated Rond, “and I have to stop you.”
Only turning slightly, Mr. Martin seemed amused. “And just how do you plan on doing that? Are you going to fight me? Outsmart me? I’m not going to make fun of you like this pathetic town did, but we both know that you aren’t a hero.”
Rond stood straighter. “I’m not going to fight you,” he answered, “I don’t have a weapon, and I really wouldn’t want to try. I like you, or at least I did.” His voice was no longer shaky and his gaze didn’t waver. “I don’t think I could outsmart you either. You always did read quite a bit, and you seemed really smart.”
Mr. Martin’s smile slipped ever so slightly as he turned to face Rond. “Well, if you know all that,” he began.
“But I still have to stop you,” Rond interrupted.
“This little joke has gone on long enough,” Mr. Martin said, anger lacing his voice like venom. “Just how do you think you can stop me?”
“By offering you a trade,” answered the Kacheek. “You take me and release the town. I’ll stay happily inside that little ornament if you let everyone else go.”
Mr. Martin appeared confused momentarily, but then bust into surprisingly sunny laughter. “You almost had me worried for a moment,” he chuckled, wiping away a tear, “but I’m afraid you’ve read far too many stories of make believe. Only in the author’s imagination can the hero defeat the bad guy with a selfless sacrifice - and then wind up winning the big battle so that he can ride off into the sunset. That’s not real. That’s not life! In the real world, there is no such thing as a selfless act, nor is there the happily ever after. Even if I did take you up on your offer, you wouldn’t win. At best, this town would return to exactly the way it was before, rotten and uncaring, and you’d had just given your own freedom up to save a bunch of fools who didn’t care for you.”
“Take me instead,” Rond simply restated.
“But if I return the town to the way it was, then no one will know what you’ve done!” the Mynci cried. “You will have given everything up, and no one will even be aware. You still won’t be a hero. You can’t be unless someone is there to sing your praises!” Despite this rant, Rond refused to budge as he calmly looked at Mr. Martin without flinching.
“Fine,” Mr. Martin finally snorted. “If you want to do something so ridiculous, I won’t stop you. Of course, I could just capture you as well and leave you trapped with all the rest of them, but for now I will respect your wish.”
The old Mynci raised his paws and waved them about as if trying to write upon the air. Before Rond could say another word, he felt himself being pulled back violently - as if he had been grabbed by a great, invisible hand. Red walls suddenly closed around him, and he found himself suspended in mid-air in a ruby shaded void. Although moving about took some effort, he could turn and look around him. Through the crimson haze he could see the town, and it didn’t appear much had changed. All was at should be, except for him.
Suddenly, his world was lifted and he could tell by the movement that someone, or something, was carrying him. He started to cry out in surprise when suddenly the massive face of Mr. Martin swam into view. They were back in his shop.
“I wonder how much I could get for this old thing,” he said with a laugh, putting the ornament on a shelf. Rond could hear the words, although they had bit of a muffled quality. “Nothing has really changed, you know,” Mr. Martin continued, “I’m still in power. You really should have taken me up on that offer of joining me.” Still muttering to himself, the Mynci voice droned on as he shuffled about his business.
Time passed slowly, and Rond tried to make the best of it. The temperature was pleasant enough inside the ball, and it felt oddly very spacious. Yet, despite his attempts to the contrary, Rond felt very alone and sad. He knew he had done the right thing by saving the town, but that didn’t mean he really wanted to be trapped. The weight of all that had recently happened descended down upon his shoulders, and he suddenly felt very tired. There was no point in fighting sleep, so he easily, almost peacefully, allowed himself to drift into dreams.
He wasn’t sure how long he dozed when he felt something touch his arm. Waking slowly, he looked around him almost in hopes that this had all been a dream, but he had no such luck. Everything was still bathed in the same red light, but there was someone beside him. As his eyes focused, his breath caught in his throat. It was Mr. Martin.
The Mynci looked a bit different. He was dressed the same - the horrible red gem seemed to be even brighter in this monochromatic prison, but the expression on his face was one of confusion. Just past him, Rond could see a brilliant light - a white light. He wondered if that was the exit.
“I have to know,” Mr. Martin asked, “why did you do it? Why did you sacrifice yourself for them? They’ll never even know! How can you be a hero if no one even has an idea what you’ve done?”
“Someone’s not a hero because people know what they have or haven’t done,” Rond answered in a calm tone. “A hero is someone who does what is right regardless of who is watching. Everyone can be a hero.”
Mr. Martin looked at him long and hard, and in that moment Rond could see his old friend. The gem continued to pulsate, growing brighter and brighter in the dim light. The Kacheek suddenly knew what he had to do, and that it had to be done fast. With his right paw, he grabbed the gem. He could feel it burning, and for a brief moment he thought he heard it scream. As he pulled the cape off of Mr. Martin’s shoulder with his right paw, he grabbed hold of his arm with his left and quickly pulled him towards the right light. The space seemed to be getting smaller and smaller around them, and it was more difficult to move. Rond pushed on, never pausing as he hoped the hole in this world would last long enough for them to escape.
They squeezed through just as Rond heard a loud crack. Standing in Mr. Martin’s shop, he looked down to see the red ornament, cracked and shattered beyond repair. The pieces shimmered innocently in the dim light, giving no evidence to anything that had transpired.
Mr. Martin was very weak, so Rond held him to a nearby chair and stood by his side as he recovered. While recuperating, he told Rond about how he had bought an antique chest from an auction, which had contained the cape. Who the cape had belonged to before or the matter of spell it was possessed with was still unknown, but it had infused the old Mynci with a great power. At the same time, it had made it hard for him to think straight as all he could concentrate on was the times he had been hurt. At the end, it had been as if he had been in a dream. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he really couldn’t control his actions.
“But you confused it,” Mr. Martin explained. “It knew that you had been hurt more than me, but you still were willing to give up your own existence. The cape just couldn’t understand that.”
“I’m just glad I was there,” Rond said, standing up. “Are you feeling better?”
“I’m fine now,” answered the Mynci.
Rond smiled. “If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll be heading home now. I haven’t seen my family for a while, and I really miss them.”
Mr. Martin nodded. “And they’ve missed you too. I’m glad you’re back, Rond.”
The Kacheek started towards the door, but paused as he laid his paw upon the doorknob. “Mr Martin?” he began, turning around.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Would you mind if we didn’t tell anyone what happened? I mean, it all went back to normal, so no one here knows about it. Would it be okay with you if we kept it all a secret?”
Mr. Martin was obviously surprised. “But you were a true hero!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you want everyone to know?”
Rond’s smile was radiant. “They don’t have to,” he replied as he opened the door and stepped out into the street.
It was a short walk home, but several of his neighbors were surprised to see him. They greeted him warmly, and many commented they would like to hear of his adventures. He was happy to see of them, and felt a bit embarrassed about his earlier reluctance to come home.
Just as he walking up to his neohome, he heard a familiar, sarcastic voice. “I didn’t expect to see you back so soon!” the speaker announced.
He turned, although he already knew the identity of the speaker. “Hello, Milly,” he greeted her.
The Aisha obviously hadn’t changed much, and she looked at him a bit condescendingly. “I thought you weren’t coming back until you were a hero,” she taunted.
Rond smiled calmly. “I am a hero,” he responded, “and I have been all along. Didn’t you know that?”
Leaving the obviously confused Milly standing outside, Rond walked in to be embraced by the warmth of his family.