The people of Altador used to say that a green glowing spirit of a neopet long gone blurred past them every day at dawn for three years, circling around the Kingdom of Altador.
Nieke used to run every morning, one lap around the inside of the Altador Kingdom wall. She remembered panting hard, feeling her heart pound in her chest, her paws coming in contact with the gritty ground with each tired step closer to her goal: winning the Altador Cup. Yooyuball training got easier every day, but it was always a challenge, and she loved it.
Yooyuball was not her first love, however. Her first love was music. She learned the violin and by age five, received her own, a fire violin. Her family always thought it so amusing that a glowing Kougra played a fire violin - "Darling, you certainly lit up the stage!" - but Nieke really did play marvelously. Music seemed to run through her veins, flowing from her paws to her bow as the instrument sang sweet melodies to the crowd.
Then came the day when Nieke saw her first Yooyuball game. She was sitting in the stands watching some retired Yooyuball players effortlessly scoring and running round the field when she saw a lime Chia fling a faerie yooyu far off across the park. No one else was there, so she instinctively jumped off her seat, ran onto the field, - "Hey kid, what are you doing? You could get hurt!" - shot to the other end of the park, and caught the yooyu.
The Yooyuball players hastily took the yooyu back, grumpy they hadn't caught it before a little kid, and shooed her away.
But one guy, a burly green Gnorbu, came up to her after the game.
"I'm Bernie. Your name?"
Nieke looked up. With the sun shining from behind him, creating a glowing outline around his tall figure, she thought he was the most impressive neopet she had ever seen. His voice, crisp and to-the-point, drew her in.
"Nee-kee. You run fast. All I saw was green, kid. You could play Yooyuball. They say they're gonna re-start the annual Altador Cup in five years. Heard about it?"
"Um. Nope." She had indeed heard about it, but only in bedtime stories, and those stories were never real. Those stories told of heroes who brought pride and honour to their homes when they brought back the prestigious Cup.
"It's a yooyuball tournament, been on hiatus for 'round ninety years now. But they're bringing it back, and we need some young pros. If you start training now, you'd be old enough then."
"To play Yooyuball? Pro Yooyuball?"
"If you're good enough. You good enough?"
"Yes!" Nieke yelled, bobbing her head up and down. She barely knew the sport, but the look on Bernie's face exuded confidence at her.
"Training starts next week."
"This is Jorgi Kuff, Neopia's favourite electric Moehog, here on Neovision, bringing you the Pre-Altador Cup Update. Altador has just released its final team roster, consisting of 'Trapper' Remis, Winberto Seliz, Timu, goalie Salayne Ritad, and Captain Nieke Ayse! Team Coach Bernie 'Brick' says training is going superb and the team is sure to make Altador proud this year!"
Training went on for over four and a half years. Nieke ran around the Altador Wall for three of those years. She spent most of her spare time training, all other pastimes pushed aside, now unimportant. Bernie was stern, but Nieke knew he saw a lot of potential in her. Even though her teammates also excelled at Yooyuball, Nieke was fairly sure she was Bernie's favourite player.
"Nieke, you're a formula good player. Naturally fast. Accurate at scoring. Your endurance is good, you're strong. You keep your cool better than a lot of those rough kids out there. You're ready if you keep this up."
Nieke pelted a mutant yooyu at the goal, watching the net swish. "Honestly?"
"Honest. Don't dawdle, though. It's been almost five good years of training and the Altador Cup begins in just a few weeks now. With you, Team Altador can win this; you can win this."
Nieke smiled. She was confident. These past years, her passion for Yooyuball had grown beyond what she ever expected. She'd dedicated so much time to the sport she loved and she knew, she just knew it had to pay off.
The next day, she broke her leg.
Nieke was doing her daily run when she felt something hard hurl into her leg. Her leg collapsed, sending her stumbling awkwardly over a protruding jagged boulder on the side of the path and rolling down the rocky ledge. There she lay flat in the dirt as her leg ached with pain. She barely remained conscious, eyes closed, all of a sudden drained of energy, moaning on the ground. There were voices from afar:
"Hey, I got the green spirit!" a deep voice said excitedly.
"Whoa, really?" a squeaky voice exclaimed.
"Yeah, I just threw this rock at it."
"Let me see, let me see!" a third voice, kind of raspy-sounding. This one was a girl.
"It's lying on the ground. Shouldn't the rock just have gone through it?” squeaky-voice asked.
"Guess not. I threw a good one, though. Nice and hard, and it was a big heavy rock too. My professional Yooyuball training is going well, huh? I'll be old enough in two years. Pretty good, huh, guys?" deep-voice said. His friends murmured half-hearted replies, as if they had heard him boast one too many times. Nieke too was unimpressed; all she thought was: ow.
"Hey, this isn't a spirit!" raspy-voice cried, sounding fairly close-by now. "It's just a glowing Kougra!"
"I didn't get the spirit?"
"No. But you got someone, all right."
"Not just someone," squeaky-voice trilled. "Nieke Ayse! Captain of the Altador Yooyuball team! Do you think we can get her autograph?" Nieke groaned softly. His voice made her ears ring.
"It's really her?" deep-voice asked, his voice worried. "Did I hurt her?"
"Well, I don't think legs normally turn that way," raspy-voice hissed.
Nieke groaned loudly. Squeaky-voice, deep-voice, and raspy-voice were silent, then Nieke heard a shuffling sound. She pried her eyes open to find a split Zafara, a brown JubJub, and a checkered Buzz sprinting away as fast as possible and icy pain shooting up her leg. She felt queasy; her head was spinning uncontrollably, and her eyesight blurred at the edges. And ow, her leg, ow, ow, ow. They were right. Legs don't bend at that angle unless they were broken.
"This is Jorgi Kuff, Neopia's favourite electric Moehog, here on Neovision, bringing you the Pre-Altador Cup Update. Less than six weeks before the Cup and I am sorry to report star player Nieke Ayse has seriously injured her leg. Doctors say she will probably be unable to play Yooyuball again at the level she did before, but the good news is she will be walking normally in just a few months if all goes well. Replacing Nieke on Team Altador is young rookie Lyvon Cibaire. Support Team Altador, and don't forget to buy Altador Cup souvenirs, now on sale!"
Now unable to play Yooyuball in the big league, Nieke didn't watch the Altador Cup. Her teammates and Coach Bernie never contacted her. Her name was quick to leave headlines and eventually, her face was forgotten. She moved to Tyrannia and didn't do much of anything for several years, too angry, depressed, and disappointed in herself, in those kids, in Altador. At first, she had tried to defy her doctors, tried to start running again, playing again. But they weren't wrong - the exertion always caused her leg to weaken and buckle and she could tell that no amount of practice would bring her up to the level she used to be. So she stayed at home and did nothing. Then, one day, she found her old violin, still flaming like it always did.
She sat in the living room of her small, quaint neohome, clutching her fire violin in one paw, squeezing the bow in the other. She was pretty sure she'd forgotten how to play, but hadn't she once been good at something besides Yooyuball? Well, she'd been good at the violin for a kid. Her arm trembled as she raised it, placing her chin on the chinrest, the bow nearly coming in contact with the strings. Nieke exhaled heavily. She remembered she had one favourite song that she played all the time. Did she still remember it well enough? Yooyuball had consumed the past years of her life. She hadn’t touched her violin in ages.
Her bow touched the strings, and instantly, a rich sound emanated from the violin. Nieke knew her playing was rusty and her fingers were clumsy with lack of practice, but the music reminded her of a time when Yooyuball wasn't everything.
She played for herself every day.
"This is Jorgi Kuff, Neopia's favourite electric Moehog, here on Neovision bringing you your daily news. The last we'd heard of ex-Yooyuball captain Nieke Ayse was four years ago when her leg injury ended her career. Now she's back - as a violinist! Tickets go on sale today at the Ticket Booth for her first performance at the Concert Hall, only 1250 NP each!"
This was exhilarating. Frightening, but thrilling beyond belief, Nieke thought, as she held onto the neck of her violin behind the closed curtains at the Concert Hall. This was her first time here, and she was the one performing. She was shaking a little, but honestly felt that she was not all that nervous. This was something she loved, and really, Neopians did not expect much from her anyway – "A Yooyuball player turned musician? That's absurd!" – so she would no doubt have to surprise them.
"Curtains," a stagehand said.
Nieke's palms were sweaty. She wondered if this was how she would have felt before her first Altador Cup game. The backstage darkness was suddenly thrown into bright light as the curtains drew apart, and Nieke found herself smiling at a large crowd before her.
There was no time for nerves when she played the first note.
Her first piece was followed by enthusiastic applause and Nieke beamed at her crowd. The lights went off for her next piece, allowing her glow to be the only luminance in the theatre. Just as she was about to start her second piece, her eyes fell on a familiar face. Was it? Yes, she was sure. Bernie, his large stocky Gnorbu build sitting coolly in the second row, was watching her play the violin. Nieke was reminded of their first meeting, reversed. Now she was the impressive-looking one with the stage lights shining from behind her.
But why was he here? Hadn't he long relinquished thought of her? He was hardly a music buff.
When she finished her concert and bowed, Bernie was gone.
She was packing her violin carefully in its case, overall quite pleased with the night's concert, when Bernie's baritone voice spoke.
"How's the leg?"
Nieke turned, looking at her old coach, feeling somewhat uncomfortable. Apparently, they didn't need hellos after all this time. "Four years of healing made it pretty good."
"But not like it used to be."
"No, I can't stress it too much." Before, she would have almost broken into tears at admitting her new weakness. Now it was just another part of her.
"That's okay. Let's run."
"What?" Nieke asked, shutting her violin case.
"You haven't run ‘round Altador in a long time. We should run together, like when we were training."
"I'm out of practice, and with my leg, I'll be a lot slower."
"Are you tired? 'Cause if you're not, I got time. You got time?"
She found herself saying, "Yeah, I got time."
The evening was foggy and cool when Nieke and Bernie went to the Altador Kingdom wall and stretched, talking about Nieke's concert, talking about the past four years. Neither of them had forgotten one another. After all, she was still his favourite player and he would always be her mentor. They didn't need Yooyuball to be friends.
And then they ran. Nieke's two loves weren't music and Yooyuball. They were music and running, both activities that were personal and set her free. She had loved Yooyuball, but it had only been a temporary stepping stone in her life. Running was something she never wanted to stop.
And that evening, the Neopians of Altador said, "The green spirit is back!"