The sun rose through the bright blue skies over Neopia Central. As the dawn broke, the shopkeepers opened their doors and windows, calling cheerily to each other. Throngs of eager shoppers, Neopets and owners alike, began to arrive. The Rainbow Fountain lit up like a neon sign, its pearly waters rippling soundlessly. The branches of the Money Tree jingled and clanked, the Tree’s foliage hiding the day’s donations from the crowds of poorer Neopians who were already gathering beneath its shade.
The bustling shoppers moved around the small huddles of scraggly Neopets, looking away from the hungry eyes and dirty fur. Instead they busied themselves in the bright displays of the shops, and sought out other affluent Neopians to chat with.
“Mommy, those pets aren’t wearing anything!” a small Kacheek piped, pointing at the crowd beneath the Money Tree. A Lupe who was sitting patiently on the grass beside the Money Tree stopped and turned to look at her with narrowed eyes.
The Kacheek’s mother straightened her feather boa and glanced at the homeless pets with a sniff. “Stay away, Connie, they might take your pretty little sun hat we just got.” Connie clutched her pink hat protectively as her mother dragged her into the nearest shop.
“Like I’d want your stupid little hat,” the blue Lupe growled, pulling at the grass idly. “At least I don’t walk around on two paws like a human, but on four like a true Lupe!” he added acidly, his voice growing louder. Nearby on a park bench, an elderly Elephante adjusted his monocle at him, and then returned to his newspaper with a huff.
Azolito sighed darkly, looking out across the frenzied shopping center. Paintbrushes used to be the best way to show off someone’s wealth; a painted pet was revered, cared for, played with. Unpainted pets were “disposable.” Now with the clothing, he thought, even unpainted pets could be fabulous-looking. But if someone couldn’t afford clothing or paintbrushes... well, for Azolito, there were only more people to look down on him.
“Get up, Azolito; the Tree’s starting to wake!” a voice called excitedly, accompanying the sound of pounding paws. Azolito realized he had been lying in the grass, his eyes closed as he thought. He sat up, smiling at his younger sister Namara as she ran to his side. “The Tree,” she repeated breathlessly, her tail whipping happily. Azolito smiled at the yellow Lupess; Namara could always pull him from his angry thoughts. The two of them raced around to the front of the tree, where a line had formed. A red Mynci with dirt smeared across his face waved to them from the front of the line. Azolito and Namara slowed down as they joined him.
“Hullo Fergus, thanks for saving us a spot.” Azolito grinned at their friend. Fergus swept an imaginary hat from his head and bowed gallantly to the two Lupes who towered over him. “At y’service, though that Elephante nearly stepped on me. Do you think the Tree will give out a supersize potion? I’m tired of being so short.” He sighed dramatically, and Azolito chuckled. As they took their place in line, Fergus sat on Namara’s back like a Uni and his rider. They moved sluggishly, and he tried not to laugh as he saw a Kougra dragging a cloud toilet away from the front of the line. Really, people donated the most random things to the Tree.
Azolito looked up at the sky as birds circled and dived among the fluffy clouds. What did he hope the tree gave him today? Namara and he had always gone to the tree, and he had learned a long time ago that he wouldn’t get something he wanted; he would get an omelette or a bag of twenty neopoints, just enough to buy food. Then he and his sister would return to their home, which was a small cavern lined with cardboard in the woods just behind the Book Shop.
“Did you hear what Fergus said, Azolito?” Namara broke into his thoughts, sounding annoyed.
“Ah, no I didn’t. Sorry, Fergus. What was that?”
“I said that if I don’t get a supersize potion, maybe I could get a Disco Fever paintbrush. Then I’d be such a bright color people would notice me.”
“You’ll be lucky if you don’t get a rotten shoe. Honestly, when they found that underwater fishing cavern, it ruined the Tree,” Azolito said somberly. Namara and Fergus exchanged annoyed glances.
“Do you always have to be so negative, Azolito?” Namara snapped, sitting down. Fergus slipped off her back, landing nimbly on his feet.
“Don’t get on his case, he’s just eaten a lemon Chia,” Fergus observed.
“Hey! Come on, that’s not fair. I’ll just be glad to have some food for tonight, okay?” he snapped.
“Try not to be serious for just a second, ‘Lito. What do you want more than anything else?” Namara probed.
“I want to have things that every Neopets should have! A home! An owner! Plenty of food! To not be treated like a throw-a-way! Is that too much to ask?” he burst out. Namara and Fergus fell silent under his tirade, and other pets in line turned to see who was shouting.
“I would wear clothing if I could, just so people don’t look and me and think, ‘Check your wallet, you can’t trust him’!” His voice cracked, and with another burning glare at his sister and friend, he ran from the line. From the clearing, winding his way through the crowds of Neopians in the shopping place, he burst into the woods that fringed Neopia Central. Breathing deeply, Azolito trotted through the trees, his brain burning with indignity and hurt. He had never spoken so harshly, and it made him buzz with energy. He supposed it was the little Kacheek pointing at him earlier that morning, even though he could recall other times the same thing had happened. He guessed he was just tired of having to struggle every day. His paws followed the familiar path through the trees that took him to the little den he shared with his sister. He stopped outside, staring pensively at the little black gap among the tree roots. Inside would be the few permanent possessions they had: a few blankets, a tattered Twisted Roses poster of Namara’s, and the few books of Azolito’s. Because he didn’t belong to an owner, the books didn’t disappear for him. He didn’t know why, but didn’t particularly care.
Azolito sighed, and walked past the den. He couldn’t face Namara yet; he couldn’t recall ever fighting with her, and the words he had said still burned in his mind, along with the shocked and hurt look she had given him. No, he would come back tomorrow. He walked on through the trees, until the ground sloped down, the ground grew muddier, and the sky became overcast. The trees became twisted and gnarled, their trunks blackening and covered in moss. He was approaching the Haunted Woods, but he had never been afraid of it.
He walked on for most of the day, and it wasn’t until the evening when the fog was creeping through the woods that he came upon a road. He turned onto it, barely able to see the glow of the Haunted Fairgrounds in the distance. He could find food there, and no one would mind his plain appearance. The sounds of the carnival made his sensitive ears vibrate as Azolito entered the fairgrounds, avoiding the pie-throwing clowns and avoided the games that scammed the gullible. He found the concession stands, selling such delicacies as lice rice and eyeball on a stick. Slipping around to the back, he searched the trash bins for anything not too gross. By the third bin, he wasn’t having much luck.
The blue Lupe was debating whether or not to eat a wriggling octornapie when he heard a commotion among the dumpsters, just around the corner. Curious, Azolito followed the sound. There was scuffling, then a terrified yelp.
“Be quiet, pipsqueak, or you won’t see your slorg ever again!”
“Now give us the neopoints!”
“H-H-Here, that’s all I have. Now please let me have Slorgux back!”
“Three thousand neopoints, that’s all? That’s milk money. But I bet the concession stands in the Haunted Woods can come up with a few tasty dishes with eau de slorg...”
“Nooo! G-Give him back!”
Azolito had heard enough. Fury burned in him, and his hackles rose. He raced around the corner, confronting the scene: A Grarrl and a scrawny Techo were shaking a little Moehog upside down by his ankles. A pink Slorg watched with round eyes from a plastic container nearby. Coins and candy wrappers fell from the hapless Moehog’s pockets.
“Leave him alone!” Azolito roared, launching himself at the Techo. Surprised, they dropped the Moehog. Azolito knocked the Techo down, pinning him to the ground and baring his fangs an inch from the Techo’s eyeballs. “Give him back everything, then get out of here,” he demanded, surprised by the steel in his own voice. But the Grarrl picked Azolito up and dropped him on the ground next to the Moehog. Azolito looked into his face, and saw how frightened he was. How long had this foul-breathed pair been harassing him?
“You have no power to stop us,” the Grarrl sneered, pulling out a ray gun. Azolito’s eyes widened and he forced his paws not to tremble. The Moehog squeaked beside him. The Techo snickered, jumping to his feet. “Blast them, blast them!” he said in a sibilant voice. Azolito gulped, taking a step back. Why had he jumped into this mess? He felt the Moehog clutch at his own paw fearfully. Oh yes. He was here to help him. He looked around for anything to defend them with, and got an idea. While the two bullies were arguing over the gun, Azolito stepped backwards until his back was against the trash cans.
“That gun will do no good,” he growled, sounding more confident than he felt. The gun made a humming noise as it warmed up, but the Grarrl faltered; was the Lupe bluffing?
Impatiently, the Techo snatched the gun from his friend and aimed it right at Azolito. “Be quiet. First you, then the Moehog. This is for attacking me, Lupe!” he grinned wickedly, and pulled the ray gun’s trigger.
Moving like lightning, Azolito whipped a trash can lid from behind him, deflecting the laser beam on the metal lid. The beam shattered the trash can lid into metal slivers as long as Azolito’s forearm. The beam flickered, and then went off. The Techo and Grarrl stared for a half second, and then were incensed. The Techo immediately recharged the gun.
“You’re too smart for your own good, Lupe. So you’ll just watch the Moehog, eh?” The Techo said, his voice dripping with malice. In horror, Azolito turned to the little Moehog he had gotten in this mess for in the first place. He was trembling, tears brimming from his eyes; he couldn’t be more than seven years old. The fury that had spurred him before flared again, and Azolito bent to pick up one of the long, metal shards that had been the trash can. Narrowing his eyes, he roared like a warrior as he lunged forward and chopped the gun from the Techo’s hands. There was a brilliant, shattering red light as the laser-cut metal severed the gun in two, and the laser’s crystal disintegrated. Azolito raised his arm to shield his eyes, staggering backwards. But the Techo and Grarrl cried out as the light dazzled their eyes. The red light dwindled just enough for them to run out of the alley, back into the carnival. Azolito didn’t uncover his eyes until the laser crystal was snuffed out by something.
“Thank you,” a small voice said, right in front of him. Azolito opened his eyes to see the little Moehog had kicked dirt over the laser crystal to put out the light. Now he was looking at the Lupe. Azolito suddenly felt embarrassed.
“Oh... it was nothing...” he muttered.
The Moehog smiled. “I am still thankful, even though... it was unnecessary.”
Azolito blinked incredulously. “Unnecessary? They had you by your ankles, man! They were going to fry your petpet into dinner!”
The Moehog continued to smile, saying nothing. Only, his smile grew bigger and bigger... his entire head seemed to be expanding. The Moehog was growing taller, muscle was appearing along brawny arms, and the little shirt and trousers he had been wearing stretched like spandex across the Moehog’s now fully grown body like the suit of a... a...
A superhero. Azolito’s jaw dropped as he stared at Judge Hog, the leader of the Defenders of Neopia. Judge Hog’s eyes burned proudly down at Azolito, his cape fluttering in a nonexistent wind. Azolito’s jaw dropped, and he stood there staring at the Defender.
“B-But how... how did you become a wimpy little Moehog, Judge?” the Lupe stammered. Judge laughed, his voice booming through the alley.
“Oh, I have my ways. It’s just a way of finding good Neopians like you. Sometimes I feel as if no one but the Defenders care what happens in our backyards, behind our shops, in our alleyways.” He gestured dramatically to the dark path, the backs of the concession stands humming with the same mechanical sound as the ray gun. Azolito nodded slowly, taking in Judge Hog’s words.
“I’d like to thank you, Azolito, for helping me. You are one Neopet anyone should be proud to know. You have completed your first task... and you have personally assisted me. I have something for you.”
Azolito blinked; Judge Hog was proud to know him! He felt dazed, elated, and as if he were dreaming. Judge Hog pulled something from a pouch on his red belt, and held it out. Azolito gasped; it was a medal. On a length of wide green ribbon, a gold coin with the Defenders of Neopia insignia dangled. Judge Hog put it around Azolito’s neck carefully, making sure the ribbon lay flat on his fur. The Lupe was agape, beyond words. The medal was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. And it was clothing! A piece of clothing no one else in Neopia had ever seen... now no one could saw he was useless, scruffy, disposable... He looked up at Judge Hog, so happy he felt as if his tail would go sore from wagging and his brain would burst. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Judge Hog smiled toothily, as he did in all of his pictures, Azolito realized, then began to rise into the air. “May we meet again, young Azolito,” he said grandly, rising higher and higher above the Lupe. Then, with a flash of his red cape, he shot off into the night sky.
Azolito stared at the spot where he had disappeared for a few more long moments, before a slurping sound caught his attention. He looked around, and saw that the pink slorg was blowing raspberries against the side of the container. “Oh dear,” he mumbled, picking up the clear box with a grimace. “Well, I guess you’re to come home with me then.” He sighed. The slorg panted happily, fogging up the plastic window.
I hope you liked the story, it's my first time in the NT. All neomail is welcome! ~Jaguarstar