What Makes the Hall
It began when you first heard those once-upon-a-time stories of war; of villains; of heroes.
You heard about monsters so powerful, it took the united force of Neopia to defeat. You heard of saviors so strong, they crippled demons with a single swipe of their blade.
You used to stay outside for hours, swinging a scraggly twig around as you struck the invisible wraiths that terrorized your home. Your owner called you ridiculous and beckoned you to come in when it grew too dark, but you would always fold your wings stubbornly and say, "A hero must train at all hours." But you would always inevitably give in, because even heroes can't resist the promise of a beefy pie and a banana split Chia pop for dinner.
Once, your owner took you on vacation, where you both toured Neopia. You marveled loudly at the Lost Desert, at Faerieland, at the Ice Caves – but you were stunned silent when you visited Altador. Your owner made sure to visit the Hall of Heroes, and you just saw yourself among these statues of majesties – you could see yourself in stone, scepter in hand, smirking at the defeat of evil.
You craved it.
This day, so many years ago, your owner surprised you. It was your birthday and she took you to Krawk Island. And after dining on squid and guppies, you begged and begged to visit the Captain's Academy. She finally gave in, and you sat there for an hour just forlornly watching Neopets parrying, somersaulting, sliding. But then she pressed a dubloon into your hand, and she winked.
The air is cool. You nod once to acknowledge your owner, and you hear her sigh before sliding the door shut. Inhale. Exhale. Energy stirs gently around you as you meditate, washing around like waves lapping at your skin. A hero must train at all hours.
When you remember to come in for your birthday dinner, you find a lonely table with a pot of leftover gruel sitting centerpiece. You have one bowl, then another, grimacing as the gruel slimes its way down your throat.
Startled, you hurry to the adjacent room, swinging the door open. "What happened?"
"What?" Your owner's distracted. Her safety deposit box has been pulled out from the corner of the room, and its contents splayed all over the floor. "Oh, nothing. Just going through some old junk."
You know for a fact that there's no junk at all in that safety deposit box. Your owner might have been a packrat before, but anything that wasn't of utmost value to her was already sold in small increments to fund your training tuition. At this point, all that she had left were sentimental relics from her early Neopian days.
Apprehensively, you inch forward. "Are..." you start, but then you falter. You're not sure how to word this. "Are we – "
"Don't worry about it, dear," she says, cutting you off with a quick and unconvincing smile. "We have plenty of Mains and Maus and a good handful of Hars. We're all set."
"Mains and Maus and Hars are the cheapest codestones," you remind her, even though you know that's exactly what she's thinking right now as well.
"Codestones are codestones," your owner says with finality, and you let the subject drop. "I'm sorry I interrupted your practicing. Go on back out." She laughs lightly and waves the paint brush in her hand. "I'm just being an old lady and reliving my younger years."
"That's the first paint brush you ever bought," you say. She had told you the story behind that particular brush probably every December. "You bought it with a friend so you two could have matching Christmas pets until you realized I couldn't be painted Christmas at the time."
"You know the story that well, huh?" she says wryly. "Well, good thing I bought it. They sell now for three times what I paid way back when." She pauses. "Of course, that's not much, counting inflation. Codestones used to be only a couple hundred."
"You're going to sell it?" Of all things, you were certain she was going to keep that brush forever. Especially since you both now live in a small three-room apartment on Mystery Island to save on traveling fees between home and the training school. Besides, your owner had said, living at Mystery Island will be like being on vacation all year 'round. But as much as your owner claims she loves the island, it's still oceans away from Neopia Central, where she left her friends behind.
"Well, it's just sitting here," she says. "Better let someone else have it, who can really appreciate its use."
You keep silent, but you can't help but think that no one would ever derive as much joy from using the brush as your owner does just looking at it.
Perusing the mess on the floor, you notice something's missing. "Where's your petpet? The – um..." What was its name? "The... Bobble? The one your sister gave you." She had tried to attach it to you, but you had adamantly refused to have a bug-eyed fish follow you around the training school.
"Bubbles?" she corrects, laughing. "That reminds me – I met someone who was looking for a petpet, so I let him have it. He was nice enough to give this to me in return." She grins and holds up a wrapped present. "Happy birthday."
You unwrap it. "A Hanso Charisma Charm." Immediately, you string it around your neck, but there's an invisible wraith gnawing at your chest and you can't swat it away. You know the petpet was worth more than this charm. "Thanks. I really appreciate this." You really do.
"I knew you'd like it," your owner says, beaming. "Anyways, I'm sorry I interrupted your practicing. I'll just get this place cleaned up in a jiffy."
"Are you really going to sell all that?" you say, gesturing to the small pile your owner had set aside.
"Well – yes, just cleaning out my safety deposit box. It was getting too cluttered for my liking," she says easily, but you're not convinced. You know it has to do with the fact that your training will soon be coming to eight codestones a lesson. Your owner doesn't let you look at her savings in the bank, but you're sure it's been depleted. She no longer gets the Millionaire Platinum bank account flyers in the mail, nor the Diamond Deposit brochures that came after those.
You don't know what to say, so you simply nod and wish your owner good night as you close the door, before making your way back outside. The air is even cooler and it tastes salty.
You close your eyes, but peace refuses to trickle in. Energy crashes around you. You can't meditate. Your head is too full of thoughts.
You think of all the things you've given up to train. Beefy pies. Vacations. Your paint brush fund.
You think of all the things you gave up to be a hero.
And then you think of all the things your owner sacrificed, so that you could keep dreaming.
And you wonder, what truly makes a hero.