The Gnorbu Writer
Sobai had always loved writing.
When he was only a tiny Gnorbu and had just learnt to read, he would sit at his desk and painstakingly transcribe the day's activities: "Today I went to school and we did sums and then after school I played at being a pirate". Never a spelling mistake, no; even though he would have to check every single word and letter, even though his paws were barely comfortable with the pen, Sobai was far too careful for that. It was more than just carefulness, too. Sobai had a real respect for words.
Words, after all, were easy. They made sense to Sobai when other Neopets didn't. Other Neopets were always concerned with things he couldn't quite understand.
The Battledome, for one thing. What was the point? Neopets would get beaten up by other Neopets or evil monsters, come out of the arena dragging their pride behind them, and then happily stock up on faerie-granted skills and the latest equipment to go and do it all again. Sure, sometimes they won, but Sobai couldn't see how it was worth the pain of defeat.
If it wasn't the Battledome, then it was something else. Some Neopets were obsessed with being dressed in the latest fashion; others were more concerned with being a rare species and colour. The strange phrases they used didn't make any sense to Sobai: everyone seemed to want to be a duck, and what in Neopia was that?
He was happy being a blue Gnorbu, and he was happy with his khaki pants and shirt. There was no need to get any more complicated. Sometimes, secretly, he would dream of being a plushie Gnorbu, but only when he was nearly falling asleep and could pretend to forget about it in the morning. Plushie paint brushes were so expensive; there was no point in waiting for such a dream to come true.
Yet more Neopets only cared about accumulating neopoints as though that was an end in itself. Sobai tried to get into the stock market a couple of times, but he was made to feel a dunce by the other purchasers for buying stocks in companies that he respected, instead of basing all his decisions on pure profit and loss. Besides, he didn't have many neopoints, and he needed the little he had; it was no use tying them all up in stocks.
Owners were just as bad, if not worse—collecting little pictures and awards that seemed to have no purpose at all, other than instant gratification and a feeling of superiority over other owners. Sobai wasn't sure if there was more to it than that, because his owner wasn't around. He knew she liked writing, because she had written about him when she was small. Not long after he started school, though, she had disappeared.
Sobai got along okay by himself, though. He wrote stories and articles for the Neopian Times to make ends meet. The stories and articles weren't always accepted, and he suspected this was because he had such a limited range of topics to write about. After all, once you've written a few articles on the importance of correct spelling and grammar, readers tend to start losing interest.
This was what had him sitting in a little coffee shop in Neopia Central, staring at the blank notepad in front of him, thinking about writing, and what other Neopets liked. He was feeling miserable; a recent double rejection had hit him hard. One was an article about the use of double spaces after full stops, while the other was a light-hearted short story about a Shoyru learning to use semi-colons correctly. He'd been sure at least one would be accepted, but now he was faced with the Soup Kitchen for yet another week.
"How can I ever hope to be a good writer," he said softly to himself, "if all that interests me is writing?"
He looked up and saw the orange Shoyru at the coffee machine giving him a pointed look. He’d been sitting there for two hours with a glass of water. Thinking about the few coins in his pocket, Sobai sighed and picked up his notepad, avoiding her gaze as he left. A change of scenery would do his mind good, at least.
Walking through the wooded paths of Neopia Central, heading back to his one-room Neohome, Sobai wondered what his options were. The Neopets he saw lived such different lives, framed around such wildly different interests. How could he hope to understand that? Pick up a hobby, he supposed, but so often owners were the ones to guide their Neopets' interests. He wasn't sure quite how you got involved in anything by yourself.
"Well," he resolved, out loud, "I'll have to try."
A nearby Nimmo gave him a startled look, and Sobai blushed. The first step to normality would be to stop talking to himself.
The second step? Well, if he was going to do this, he had to do it properly, and that meant jumping in the deep end. Sobai decided to visit the Battledome. He knew nothing about fighting, but it didn't involve any financial outlay to start with, as far as he could tell. Everything else required neopoints before you could do anything.
The arena was loud, that was the first thing he noticed; the yells of the fighters and the clashing of swords filled his ears when he walked in. A red Scorchio hurried past and nearly knocked him over with his spear. "Sorry, sorry," Sobai muttered, but the Scorchio didn’t stop. He only shot a glare at Sobai over his shoulder as he barrelled onward.
Sobai stared around at the bustling armoured crowds. Most Neopets were accompanied by owners, carrying dangerous weaponry in their hands and chatting happily away with their Neopets. Planning the battle strategy, he supposed. He wondered why owners didn't fight themselves; maybe they were more delicate than Neopets, and didn't recover as quickly. Or maybe they were just cowards.
"Excuse me," said a kindly voice. "Are you lost?"
Sobai looked around and saw a blue Korbat smiling at him, kitted out in what looked like Altadorian armour. The red plumes on his battle helmet made him almost as tall as Sobai, and he held a handsome shield in the style of an autumn leaf in his shiny silver gauntleted hands.
"Yes," admitted Sobai. "I've never been here before."
"Well, where's your owner?"
Sobai blushed. "She's not around anymore."
The Korbat looked at him thoughtfully. "I'm Bane. What's your name?"
"Sobai," said Sobai.
"Well, Sobai, my owner's just off getting me enrolled in a one-player fight," Bane said. "Would you like us to enrol you in one too?"
"I suppose so," said Sobai, nearly stammering. Sure, that was what he was here for, but he didn't feel prepared at all. Then again, how else was he going to learn about the Battledome?
"Great," said Bane. "You can use some of my spare equipment, if you like. It's not very good really, but I think we'll have you up against the Inflatable Balthazar first, so that shouldn't matter. Just for the experience, you know."
"Experience is all I want," said Sobai, relieved. His nerves calmed by the word 'Inflatable', he began to plan his article. 'First Encounters with the Battledome', he thought he'd call it. Would he write about Bane, and his kindness? Perhaps a pseudonym might be appropriate.
They wound through the crowds towards a little window in the wall, where a brash Chia was briskly handing out bits of paper a queue of Neopets. "This is my owner, Emma," said Bane, putting his wing on the shoulder of a young woman, who nodded politely to Sobai. "Emma, this is Sobai. He’s new. Can you set him up with the Inflatable Balthazar?"
"Sure," said Emma. "What are your stats like, Sobai?"
"Um," Sobai said. "Level 1, average speed, armoured defence..." He saw Emma's face fall. "But breakneck speed."
"Speed doesn't make much difference in the the Battledome," Bane said.
"I've never been interested in fighting before," Sobai said humbly. "I wouldn't know."
"That's fine," said Emma reassuringly. "Most people start out like that. You'll get better. What interests you in the Battledome, anyhow?"
Sobai saw there was no point in pretending. He could turn up at the Battledome, but he couldn't act like it interested him. "I'm a writer. I want to write about the Battledome."
Emma’s eyebrows went up, surprised, and she seemed to want to say something, but she was at the front of the queue. The Chia barked at her, "Enrolment information, please."
"One for the Shadow Usul and one for the Inflatable Balthazar, please," said Emma.
The Chia cast a critical eye over Bane and Sobai. Sobai blushed. "He's only checking our health," whispered Bane. "Don't sweat it."
Indeed, the Chia seemed satisfied, because he passed Emma two slips of paper. "Next!"
It seemed only moments later that Sobai stood outside the door to the arena, sweating, wearing Bane’s rather battered cast-offs.
"You'll be fine," said Bane, patting him on the back. "I'm on in the next corner, come and find us afterwards."
"Yes, do come and find us," echoed Emma. She seemed distracted, and in her hand was a clipboard covered with multi-coloured scribbles and cramped handwriting. As they walked away, she began to talk quickly in a hushed voice to Bane. "Now, remember, she does mostly physical damage..."
Sobai stopped listening, took a deep breath, and pushed open the door, to find himself in the corner of an arena. The other corners were curtained off, but he could hear yells and bangs, and see huge beastly shadows behind the thick curtains. A smell of rust and metal pervaded the air.
He looked up behind him and saw large stone bleachers. Empty, in his corner, but from the yells everywhere else he guessed most fights were being watched. Obviously the first fight of a newbie didn't attract much interest, and for that Sobai was relieved. At least if he lost, no one else would have to know.
In the centre of the curtained-off area floated a large inflatable Lupe, looking so oddly childlike Sobai had a sudden urge to laugh. It was over twice his size and seemed like it would fit in well at a parade.
A banner dropped down between them. Sobai had enough time to read 'The fight commences!' before it was lifted again. Balthazar's inflatable doppleganger floated menacingly towards him.
Was menacingly the word? 'Threateningly' would sound better. But, thought Sobai, could something inflatable really be threatening or menacing? That might be a good topic for an article; whether an inflatable Battledome challenger was even appropriate. Surely, even for a newbie like him, it was patronising. It wouldn't even be a proper fight.
Sobai smiled. He was already getting ideas.
He lifted the spear Bane had lent him, and boldly poked the Balthazar. To his surprise, it didn’t pop, but instead made a strange distorted squeaking sound. He noticed its eyes for the first time, like deep yellow pools. They could, he decided, definitely be described as threatening.
He was more cautious the next time, and to his surprise, the Balthazar bounded towards him. It didn't hurt when they collided, but it was certainly frightening how big it was. Sobai began to feel scared, especially when his next attacks had no effect but to make the Balthazar squeak louder. He began jabbing at it almost frantically, and it in turn bounded back and forth into him.
Finally, there was a hissing sound as one of the spear jabs finally struck through skin, and the Balthazar began to deflate. The smell of burnt plastic filled the air. A banner reading 'You have beaten Inflatable Balthazar! You have won this fight!' dropped, and hung swaying in the air.
Unsure what to do, Sobai backed out the door he had came.
Emma stood there, hands in pockets, crowds milling around her. "You won, congratulations," she said. "Enjoy yourself? Thought I'd come find you and we could watch Bane together."
Sobai joined her easy stroll, glad of the slow pace; his legs were feeling surprisingly wobbly, as though any moment all four would collapse.
"Not really," admitted Sobai. "It was surprisingly scary. I think I prefer writing."
Emma nodded, then said, "I hear your owner’s not around anymore."
"She just kind of up and went one day," Sobai said. At that, they stopped in front of a door. It was larger and more impressive than the one Sobai had walked through.
"This is the audience entrance," Emma said, and they went through and up a flight of stairs. "When was that?"
"“When did she leave, you mean? Oh, must've been years ago now."
"Do you have any contact details for her?" Emma asked, her shoes clattering on the concrete.
"Sure, I have a neomail address," Sobai said. "But I don't know if she checks her mailbox anymore. I've never seen her at the post office, anyway."
"It can't hurt to contact her," Emma suggested. "And you know, now that the Pound has ownership transfer facilities, you might be able to find a new owner."
A new owner? As they came to the top of the stairs, Sobai found himself feeling strangely faint, like he’d just been brainwashed by a pack of rogue Meepits. He missed having an owner, sure, but he'd never wished he had a different one. He'd seen Neopets being traded, standing on boxes with their attributes around their neck, and it didn't look appealing to him. In fact it seemed almost degrading, like they were being reduced to their colour and species and stats, without anyone caring about their personality. Not that he would be traded if his owner had lost interest; he supposed he would be adopted out, and that might not be so bad, but he imagined there wouldn't be much interest in blue Gnorbus. An owner could just create one themselves, after all.
For the first time, Sobai wished he was a more interesting species or colour. If only he were a Draik, or pirate, or something else. Then his owner might not have left.
"Here we are," said Emma, tactfully not looking at Sobai, who was tearing up a little. "Hopefully the fight's still going."
Sobai looked out to the arena and saw that it was. Bane was entangled with the growling Shadow Usul, who was biting his shoulder. Bane was flailing his sword around and Sobai looked at Emma, worried, but Emma was smiling.
"He's about to do the old swing-around-the-ears trick," Emma said, gesturing towards Bane. "Watch, there he goes."
Sobai saw that the flailing wasn't random, after all; Bane's sword swung around and whacked the Usul neatly on her ears. With a howl of rage the Usul released Bane.
"Her ears are her weak point, you see," Emma said. "Usuls are really quite delicate there; not many people know that. She shouldn't have left them open to attack."
Bane made short work of the fight. Afterwards, they went out for ice cream to celebrate. Sobai had tried to politely decline, but Bane and Emma insisted, and Emma didn't seem to mind paying. She gave Sobai a sealed envelope as they left the parlour.
"Send that to your owner," Emma said.
Sobai nodded. "Thank you." There didn't seem much else to say. Although he suspected he knew what the letter in the envelope was about, it wouldn't do any good to get his hopes up.
Instead, he went home, and spent the afternoon writing up his Battledome adventures. After thinking a minute, he decided to leave Bane and Emma out. They'd been a big part of his day, but he didn't feel like he knew them well enough to write about them yet. Besides, he had enough stuff to say about his fight with Balthazar to fill well over the 1,000 minimum words.
He wrote his article out neatly one more time, and went out to post it along with the envelope from Emma. It was with a light heart that Sobai went to sleep that night.
Things didn't change right away, of course. Sobai was still poor. But he went to the Battledome twice a week or more, and saw Emma and Bane each time. He began to feel they were true friends. He spent most of his time battling the Inflatable Balthazar, or Punchbag Bob; he didn't feel confident enough for the real opponents just yet, and he suspected that he never would. He just didn't have the fighting spark that Bane had.
At least, though, he was beginning to understand why the glory and thrill of winning at the Battledome would attract Neopets. There was more to it than just being beaten up on a regular basis.
When his acceptance letter from the Neopian Times arrived, he began to write more stories about the Battledome. He wrote about Emma and Bane too, and eventually (after careful consideration), the pain of not having an owner. All these articles and stories were accepted.
One day, Sobai was hanging around the Battledome, waiting for Bane to finish fighting the Snow Faerie. He absent-mindedly wondered what attacks would be most effective. Heat, he supposed, seemed logical. But that seemed too easy, and perhaps a Snow Faerie would be able to counteract heating and flame attacks with water and dampening defences.
It was then that Emma rushed up. "Sobai," she said, breathlessly. "You have to come to the Pound with me, now."
"Quick!" Emma urged. "Your owner says she's only around for a few hours, if that. She just thought she'd come on to check her stocks.” Sobai followed her out reluctantly, with the most dreadful mixed feelings. His owner played the stock market? And she'd never even told him?
At the Pound, a rather imposing brick building, Emma dragged Sobai in and through a metal door marked 'Transfer'.
Before Sobai could say anything, a blonde-haired teenage girl whizzed in. "Right, let's do it."
Sobai barely had time to look at her before she grabbed him roughly, passed him to Emma, and whizzed out the door again. It all happened in under a minute.
Emma smiled sadly and hugged him. "I guess I'm your new owner. Hope you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind," said Sobai. "Was that—was that my old owner?"
"It was," Emma said. "I just don’t think she had much interest in Neopets anymore. That happens sometimes, when people grow up, and that's why the new transfer system is such a good thing. It means pets can go to owners who really will care about them."
"But I don't play the Battledome," Sobai said, struggling to understand. "Why would you want me as a pet?"
Emma laughed. "You’ll see."
It was only when Emma took him to her Neohome that Sobai understood. The place was huge! More castle than Neohome, it had clearly been extended so many times that the original little wooden house looked like it would collapse under the weight of the tacked-on rooms and storeys. A plushie Grundo dangled precariously out of an upstairs window. "Hi, Emma!" she called.
Emma waved hello in return, and turned to Sobai. "That's Butek."
"How many pets do you have, exactly?" Sobai asked, looking at the mansion.
"Thirteen, including you," Emma said, with a wide grin. "You're the first writer of the bunch, which I'm pleased with, since I'm a writer myself. Now, go talk to Butek. I haven't written about her yet, and I think you could get a lot of story ideas. She's an explorer. All my pets are interested in different things, you see."
Sobai couldn't speak, even to thank her. Twelve other pets? All with their own lives and hobbies and interests? He could see, looking at the house, that he would never have to worry about money again, so the writing would be purely for fun, and he wouldn't have to worry about being accepted into the Neopian Times in order to eat. He could write, and he could learn about other Neopets, and maybe he would discover skills he never knew he had.
It was then that Sobai knew, with conviction, that he had found his 'happily ever after'.