"I'm very disappointed in you, girl." The fat Bruce called
Ryorn Tuxley tapped his stubby fingers on his armrest, watching the fire dance
in the old grate.
The blue Xweetok, Acon, stood meekly enough behind
his old, high-backed armchair, and close enough to the door to leave as quickly
as possible once the interview was over. "Yes, sir."
"I don't suffer fools nor weaklings."
"Yes, sir." She paused briefly, and wondered
if her answer had been correct. "I mean, no, sir."
Still not turning to her, Ryorn glowered. "I
took you on only because you showed potential, but as of yet you have only disappointed
Acon flinched. "I'm sorry you see it that way,
With some considerable effort considering his
size, Ryorn stood up. "And your view differs to mine?" he asked, his dark, deep-set
eyes flashing dangerously.
Acon shifted from one foot to the other as she
chose her words carefully. "Well, sir... the actual day is often better than
practice... nerves give me speed... I don't think you'll be disappointed when
it comes to it." She smiled hopefully, but Ryorn's face stayed like a mask.
"I hope, for your sake, girl, you're right."
Acon waited, hoping he would give her leave to
go. She didn't like the Bruce; not many people did. As well as being wide for
his height, he was also uncommonly ugly. His face was sallow and flat, his voice
was low and cold, and his eyes were quick and mean.
The Xweetok differed from Ryorn in almost every
aspect. She was small for her age and very quick. She had lively blue eyes and
feet that could never keep still. She was usually bright and cheerful, except
when in Ryorn's company. Also, she had a gentle nature and was generous and
Ryorn stroked his flabby chin, his eyes flashing
again with that hard, mean look Acon especially disliked. "Unless you win in
this challenge, girl, you'll be back where you started. If it weren't for my
generosity-" Acon had to bite her tongue to stop herself from saying something
very indignant and very rude, " -you'd still be out in the streets, with no
hope of becoming anything in this world. Keep that in mind, and don't disappoint
me. The challenge is in three days." He waved his hand to signal she could go.
She slipped out of the room with relief. There
had been a nasty feeling to it, with all its ugly, mean looking old furniture,
and the fire that was always kept going, even in summer. She ran up the stairs,
nearly upsetting the maid, and loped into her room. She always ran, when she
could help it.
She grinned brightly at her pet angelpuss as
she entered the room. "Did you hear that?" she laughed. "If I don't win, he's
going to kick me back out onto the streets. Almost an incentive to lose, isn't
The angelpuss said nothing, as usual, but blinked
up at her as she opened the trunk that served as a closet, and got out her tracksuit.
Her quarters were poor ones, being little more
than the attic converted into a sort of a bedroom, but as usual Acon's bright
nature had overcome all obstacles, and even the shabby walls looked bright with
all the colorful things she had strung on then, like some sort of permanent
Acon was what was called a 'challenger'. She
competed in the World Challenges; namely the Igloo Garage Sale Game Challenge.
The World Challenges were held regularly, where
pets who were good at certain games could join up and compete for the best score,
in any game they chose. It was open to everyone, but only the best got anywhere.
Acon wasn't proud, but she knew she was good.
She could hold her own with any competitors that came her way, and more often
than not won. She wasn't the best, but she was a fair way to getting there.
Only practice could do anything now.
Acon was an orphan, and had spent the first twelve
years of her life in an orphanage, before running away to try her luck in the
wide world; and discovering, as many do, that the world wasn't quite as friendly
to stray pets as it looked. However, she had boarded with several families,
and had had a happy childhood, having chosen to use her struggles in life as
stepping-stones rather than stumbling blocks.
Now she was boarding with Ryorn Tuxley, who was
a Challenge Trainer. This meant that she stayed in his house and ate his food
and trained in his grounds for free, provided when she won the Challenge she
gave the much coveted prize picture and sixty percent of her winnings to him.
If she lost... well, he had already made that starkly clear.
After getting into her tracksuit she made her
way downstairs to practice.
Ryorn or no Ryorn, she was going to win this
* * *
Acon's small trembling paws gripped the banister
so hard the knuckles turned white. She swallowed, and flicked her tail agitatedly.
These were the nerves that always came before the Challenge.
Glancing left, she saw other challengers warming
up, or being mentored by their coaches. A highly stressed Wocky was running
everywhere, making sure all the contestants were ready.
In front of her were the challenge grounds. A
game arena had been set up there, consisting of the usual game components; a
stretch of ground that had been covered in ice to give a sliding edge to the
game; the shelf that was set up above the ice, where the items would be dropped
from; and the referee's seat with point counter nearby.
Ryorn Tuxley sat moodily to her right. She tried
not to look at him for fear he would say something sarcastic, and she'd lose
her nerves and bolt. Instead she scanned the seats that ringed the challenge
grounds, where a crowd had formed to watch the fun.
One pet caught her eye in particular. It was
a blue Bori, who could have been thirty or a hundred; it was hard to tell. He
sat alone in a seat with a large cane close by, watching the preparations with
unusual interest, occasionally stroking his beard.
Acon turned to a Usul nearby and asked who the
Bori was. The Usul looked surprised.
"Why, don't you know, ma'am?" she asked. "That's
Finneus Longhyn! He's a trainer now, but when he was younger he was the best
Challenger for miles around. No one could beat him; but then one day he was
competing in the Gold Challenge," (that is, a challenge where the elite were
pitted against one another) "and he slipped and broke his leg in the eighth
round. He's been lame ever since, and now trains only the most talented pets.
At the moment he's training a male Xweetok called King, and I don't fancy my
chances against him."
Acon looked back at the Bori Finneus, and saw
a red Xweetok was talking to him. That must be King. He looked fast, and Acon
silently agreed with the Usul; she wouldn't like to be pitted against him.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice booming
out of the loudspeakers.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and everyone
else!" the enthusiastic voice called. "I'm Goodlyn, and it's Good to be here!"
The crowd cheered; Goodlyn was a popular sports spectator.
"It's going to be a heated match today, with
plenty of up-and-coming talent, and several champions come back for more!
"As you know, there will be three winners decided
by their scores. The contestants have to progress through a series of stages;
each more challenging than the last. Items of varying value will be dropped
from the stage, to be caught by the challengers. The higher the level the faster
the items will fall. If a challenger is hit by a piano--" there was a lot of
enthusiastic booing from the crowd-- "or drops five items on the ground, it's
game over. Now, let the Challenge Begin!"
The gate was opened and the first Challenger,
a young Meerca, entered. Acon always found it interesting to watch how other
challengers played the game. The Meerca was good, and with practice might become
a champion, but in the fifth round dropped an umbrella, become flustered, and
didn't see the piano until it was too late. After the paramedics carried him
off an agile looking Draik took his place.
Acon had been told there were ten contestants
in all, and she was scheduled as number nine. With each contestant playing and
leaving either in disgrace, or elation; the knot in her stomach tightened and
her keen eyes flashed more brightly.
At last the stressed Wocky hurried up to her.
"You're next, ma'am," he gasped, consulting his
clipboard. "The three highest scores are 1456, 1409, and 1235, and there's still
the King to play yet, so you'll need to make a good game."
"I can do that." She gave him a smile, and clenched
her paws to stop them trembling. The scores were high. With a bit of luck she
could beat the lowest score, but she wasn't sure about the other two.
The Lenny who had been before her dropped out
just then, and the Wocky grabbed her and shoved her toward the arena entrance.
Ryorn stood up and fixed her with one of his
stares. "Don't disappoint me, girl." And with that she was away and standing
in front of the big gate.
"Very encouraging, that Bruce," she muttered
tersely. "Sweetest chap I ever met."
"And our next challenger is a lovely blue Xweetok
going by the name of Acon! Give her a clap, folks!" the commentator enthused
as the gate opened.
Just like she had done on the other times she
had entered the World Challenges, Acon held her head high and marched onto the
field, smiling and waving to the crowds. She took her place on the ice floor
and glanced up at the ledge above her, where a bored looking Chia stood waiting
for the first round to start. It seemed a long way up, but she knew by the time
she had gotten to the seventh or so round it wouldn't be high enough.
The referee replaced the divider which showed
where the game area ended and sat on his seat.
In that tense second a thousand thoughts raced
through Acon's mind. All the training, all the tips and pointers, all the tactics
she had learnt, all the other times she had played and Ryorn's last words to
her blended into a confused muddle.
In a flash of panic she thought she had forgotten
everything, but then the whistle sounded and it all came back, pushing the fears
and doubts and nerves out of her mind, leaving only hope and excitement, and
the determination to play her best.
As always the first round was impossibly easy,
and Acon slid smoothly across the field, catching the objects as the Chia dropped
them. Bags, worth one point, were common. The black and white sticks were worth
two, umbrellas three, and the glass potions five. The rainbow mirrors were worth
ten, and Acon smiled happily as three of the came down in succession. The highest
scoring item was the much-coveted dubloon, worth a very welcome fifty points;
but they were rare, and usually only one or two appeared in a game. As soon
as she had successfully caught each item, it disappeared out of her paws, leaving
her free to catch the next.
The first round finished, and the commentator
called out the score.
"That's thirty-nine points, folks, and no items
dropped! As you know, that means she gets another thirty-nine bonus points!"
Amid the cheering Acon glanced at Ryorn, who
was tapping his fat fingers on his chair and frowning. He wasn't pleased with
her score so far.
Acon clenched her teeth and looked back up at
the ledge. It wasn't her fault her total was less than what he wanted. She didn't
control which items were dropped.
The whistle sounded and the second level started
as she narrowly ducked a piano.
On she played, slowly making her way through
the rounds, hardly thinking about anything but the game as it became harder.
It was in the fifth round the first dubloon came,
and than another one in the seventh. Her nerves were keyed up, and her heart
beat loudly in her ears as she slid skillfully across the field. If she dropped
one item... all it took was one... she would lose the bonus; and that bonus
included a dubloon's fifty points; without it she might as well give up any
chance of winning.
But she was better than that. She dived left
and right, snatching up the precious items, and skidding horribly on the ice.
The whistle blew.
Acon collapsed on the ground in relief.
The stressed Wocky handed her a drink and she
sat up, trembling. She glanced at Ryorn, but he still didn't look happy.
"Miserable sod," she muttered tersely. "I don't
think I could ever do anything to please you."
Something made her look over to the other side
of the stands, and she caught the gaze of the old Bori, Finneus. He smiled unexpectedly,
and nodded to her, admiring her game. She returned the smile and stood up, suddenly
finding the energy to go on.
The referee blew his whistle again, and the eighth
Her score was a pleasing 1103. She still had
to get at least 132 points, and without any hope of bonuses.
Acon knew she was virtually guaranteed to drop
at least one item; she'd be lucky to make it to the ninth level. Eight was virtually
impossible as it was.
Skidding left and diving right, she was surprised
with another dubloon. That made things easier.
Suddenly and unexpectedly a piano plummeted from
the sky. Acon dived away from it, and in avoiding it she had lost a stick and
Gritting her teeth she caught the next few items
successfully, but missed a bag. She flinched, visualizing Ryorn's scornful face,
but it had been impossible to catch it.
Slowly the clock ticked down. Acon had forgotten
what it was like to breathe freely. Another save... and another... an impossible
catch skillfully made... and a cane broke on the floor. One more strike and
she was out.
The timer mercifully blared.
Gasping in relief Acon took another drink and
checked the score as the cleaners swept away the four dropped items. She had
gotten 82 points. Another 50 and she would be even with the lowest score.
The game hadn't been a good one. She knew she
had done her best, and better than many of the others, but she hadn't been thrown
as many high scoring items as the big winners. That was life.
She took her position, and the whistle blew for
the last time.
Skidding and slipping and diving, it soon became
obvious it was impossible to beat the level. First a cane, than a mirror, than
two bags crashed to the ground. They were falling too fast, and at odd speeds
so that she had no way of getting them in time.
Exerting the last of her strength she juggled
five more items, and than an umbrella hit the ground while she caught something
else. The whistle sounded, and her game ended.
Trembling from head to foot she approached the
desk cautiously. The referee tallied up the scores while the crowds held their
breath. Sweat trickled down her face and her feet ached, but she felt good.
Competing in challenges was what she loved doing. She just hoped desperately
that her efforts had been good enough.
The referee looked up and smiled.
Acon let out her breath, and half laughing, half
crying, walked out of the arena. She had won by three points. She was so pleased
she scarcely heard the thunderous applause.
She made her way back to Ryorn, beaming. She
didn't know what she had been hoping for, but he still looked angry.
"That, girl, was terrible."
She flushed and her smile disappeared. "I did
my best, and I beat the lowest score."
He glowered. "Yes, but there's still this King
to play. They say he's good. You don't stand a chance."
Acon turned away with her face burning, biting
her lip to stop herself from saying anything. Ryorn was right about that. She
had beaten the lowest score, but King was bound to beat hers.
Absorbed in thought she wandered around the seating
area. Somehow she found herself over the other side, and not far from the old
Bori. Unexpectedly he caught her eye and beckoned to her. Obediently she approached
"That was a good game you played, miss...?"
"Acon." She shook his paw. "And thank you, sir."
He waved a hand amiably. "Please, call me Finneus."
The whistle sounded, and Finneus motioned that
she should seat herself on the chair next to him as they watched King play.
The Bori looked on with interest and stroked
his chin. As always, the first round was impossibly easy, and the King caught
all the items with a flourish. As he watched, Acon managed to sneak a peek at
her opponent's teacher.
He was tall; or would have been if he had been
standing; and had an easy look about him, and seemed just a little bit eccentric.
His manners were polished, his voice was crisp, and he smiled easily. His cane
lay beside him.
The whistle blew and the first round finished.
Finneus sat up straighter and frowned slightly as the King said something to
the Chia at the top of the ledge, who laughed.
"We must have a talk about that," he muttered
under his breath, and to no one in particular. The friendliness had disappeared
and been replaced with a hardness and sheer determination that marked most good
champions. Acon realized though he seemed easy going, he was not a Bori to be
Unexpectedly he looked at Acon.
"Tell me, Acon, what did you think of his playing?"
"He's good, but..."
His eyes danced with merriment. "Don't be shy."
"But his manners were flamboyant. He could be
a very good player if he doesn't let his pride get in the way."
Finneus nodded approvingly. "My thoughts exactly!
I must have a word with him later." He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
The whistle blew to signal the start of the second round.
Surprisingly Finneus wasn't interested in watching
the King play. He chatted freely with Acon about anything that interested them.
The upcoming festival, the latest Neopian Times, and the shape of a certain
cloud all were mentioned as well as tips to help Acon improve her playing. She
began to appreciate what a marvelous player Finneus must have been. He knew
almost everything there was to know about the game.
Acon found herself telling him about her life,
and about Ryorn, and how she would have to find another trainer if she didn't
win. They were started out of their conversation as the crowd cheered ecstatically.
King had just finished his game in the ninth round, with a score of 1539.
Acon felt her heart miss a beat as she realized
this meant she had lost the Challenge.
King strode up to Finneus, and leaning over the
rail that divided the seats from the field, grinned broadly. Finneus regarded
the panting red Xweetok thoughtfully for a moment, stroking his beard.
"How do you think you went, King?"
"I was marvelous! Good score, eh?"
He glanced at Acon smugly, and she bit her tongue
to stop herself from saying it came down to luck rather than skill. An argument
with a stuck up Xweetok wouldn't get her anywhere.
"I saw you talking with that Chia. Do you know
King smirked. "'Course I do. He's an old friend."
Finneus raised his eyebrows. "Why didn't you
tell the referee? Bias of any kind is forbidden. For all we know he could have
favored you above the other contestants."
King shrugged. "Won't hurt anyone, will it? It's
all part of the game. Everyone takes a foothold if they get the chance."
Finneus said nothing, but stood up abruptly and
limped away. Not wanting to linger, Acon went back to Ryorn.
"I knew you'd disappoint me, girl." He glowered.
"You're out." He turned and left, leaving Acon feeling hopelessly miserable.
She sat down wearily. Today hadn't gone well at all.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" a surprised voice boomed
out of the speakers. "We have just had an update. Today's undeniable champion,
King, has chosen to withdraw from the game! This means that the third winner
is now Acon!"
Acon stood up suddenly. The King had withdrawn
from the match! Why? She glanced at where he was standing on the other side
of the stadium, and saw he was as shocked as she was. No, the King hadn't withdrawn.
His teacher had.
Finneus limped up beside King and said something
quietly. The King turned on him and began yelling. Acon caught several words.
"... Worked hard... idiot... unfair... I quit!"
With that the King turned and stormed off. It
was the last Acon ever heard of him. Suddenly she had people pressing in on
all sides, congratulating her, patting her back, laughing and talking. The referee
pushed his way through the crowd and shoved something into her paws.
She looked down and found she was holding the
prizes; a piece of the World Challenge Map, and a bag of Neopoints. Reality
finally hit her and she ducked out of the crowd.
After searching for a few moments she found Finneus
standing alone; leaning on his cane and gazing at the playing field. Acon cautiously
He turned and smiled.
"Well done, Acon! What a surprise, eh? The King
backing out and all! My, my." His eyes twinkled mischievously. "Must have had
a conscience pang."
Acon smiled and held out her map piece. "I think
you deserve this, sir."
"You won it, Acon. It was your playing."
Acon shuffled her feet. "I wouldn't have won
if it wasn't for you. Dropping King's score, and everything."
Finneus smiled, but his eyes were serious. "Winning
by cheating is not winning at all. It's worse than losing. Any good player should
He sighed and looked back over the rail. "I suppose
you'll still be training with Ryorn Tuxley, now you're a champion?"
"I suppose so. I don't have a lot of choice,
"But you'd rather not?"
She met his eyes. "No, sir. I'd rather be anywhere
than training under him. It makes the job of an undertaker suddenly seem remarkably
Finneus laughed, but then became serious again.
"You said earlier you didn't have a choice. I'm not so sure about that, actually.
As it is I just recently lost my trainee, to... unfortunate circumstances."
Acon looked at him quickly. "Are you offering
to train me?"
"You are a very good player, with a lot of talent.
I am convinced you will go far. You actually remind me of myself when I was
younger. It would be an honor to train you."
Acon held out her paw and shook his, beaming.
"Thank you, sir. It's a deal."
Finneus smiled warmly and tapped his cane on
the ground. "Well, Acon, you'd better run over to Ryorn and inform him you're
moving, and pack your bags. Be quick. We've a lot of training to do."
With that he limped away while Acon joyfully
skipped off to collect her bags, with new hopes and ideas and plans opening
in her mind like a bright, colorful painting, and a new enthusiasm to train
hard and play fair and do her best as she competed in future challenges, under
the watchful eyes of the greatest Challenger ever to grace the field.
Hope you liked this! Thanks goes to my Mum, Dad, and all the people who
ever play in the World Challenges!