Just words, he told himself. Just words and nothing more. He could bear with the insults, would take them gladly, in fact, in place of physical assaults. Talk was fine. They could rant their hearts out and everything would blow over, eventually. He could leave the battlefield unharmed, and live to see another day. Or so he thought. For it was only just the beginning, and what was to come next would be even worse than a punch to the gut, smashing through his defences like a juggernaut and obliterating his kingdom of calm. What was to come next would be pure, untainted evil.
“Neopia has no place for losers like you!”
Legs crumbling, he fell backwards. If he had been shoved, the effect could not have been worse. The utter shock he was thrown into was second only to the pain, a burning wave of ice-cold anguish that made him positively gasp in all its ferocity. His vision blurred, and all at once, lifelike images of Thyora, the poor Eyrie from the tales of legends, flashed in front of his eyes. He saw her by the lake, crying over and over. He saw her struggling to accept the reality of having lost her dearest friend. This must have been how it felt to have something taken from you, he realised with a jolt. This must have been how it felt to grieve. A sense of warmness at having been understood glowed beneath his skin, a dim light in the abysses of despair that made things a little better, at least for the moment. Alas, this happiness was short lived, for unlike her, there would be no blessing, no saviour, no Water Faerie to collect his tears and turn them into a charm. No, not even an infusion of bitterness from a generous helping of Wartroot would suffice in changing the hard truth, that he had been and would always be alone, and that no one, not a single soul in the world, would ever come to his aid.
His fate might have been sealed, then. The seeds of darkness had been sowed, and his rebirth as a bloodthirsty criminal perpetually on the Defenders’ Wanted list might just have taken place. All that was left was the cultivation of time; as the seconds ticked by, his will to stay true to himself would have gotten weaker, the decision to cross to the dark side easier. Neopia would have had one more villain, and the Gallery of Evil would have thickened by one page, had it not been for the one voice that rang out, a desperate hand pulling him to safety at the very last minute.
Initially, he was more than content to give his conversant the cold shoulder, the first act of revenge against Neopia Central denizens in a long list to come. Implementing the concept of an eye for an eye seemed to him a no-brainer, considering how he had just been exploited for their own selfish fulfilment. But his conversant’s deep voice quite literally stunned him with the sheer wisdom it seemed to contain. It was a signboard, a lighthouse whose guiding rays he knew he wanted, or perhaps needed, to follow. And in truth, the mere fact that his conversant had even called out to him, a wretched creature whose tear-stained face no doubt looked monstrous, already indicated a very high degree of courage, not to mention kindness. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to take a chance on his conversant’s intentions, which seemed, for the most part, good.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be cautious. After all, he had only just learnt, firsthand, the cruel lesson that no one could be trusted. He decided that he wouldn’t face his conversant; just a pause to listen, and no more.
“What is it?” His voice came out hoarse, his words choked.
If his conversant was deterred, he didn’t sound like he was. “I saw what happened with those bullies.”
He said nothing.
“It isn’t wrong of you to feel the way you are feeling. No one can blame you for that.”
Again, he kept silent, though he continued to listen.
“But you have to pull yourself together, or things will just get worse.”
At this, he felt his temper rising, indignant that his conversant would dare undermine the severity of his problem. “And I suppose you know all about that?” His voice was a blade. It was over. The limit of his patience had been reached, and he wouldn’t take any more insults, direct or indirect. He stayed where he was, though, inviting his conversant to make a comeback just so he would have the satisfaction of winning the argument.
Of all the ways he expected his conversant to respond – a retort, a sigh, or a scowl, he did not foresee a hesitation. And a curious hesitation it was. Even with his back to him, he could tell that his conversant was not simply filling the moment with soundlessness, but vivid, unspeakable emotion. Whoever it was he was speaking to was going through a momentous memory of his own, an experience that meant as much, if not more than, the one he was going through then. Already his anger was fading, replaced by a mixture of curiosity and compassion that negated the negatives he was suffering and willed him to open his heart, for the sake of both of them. He turned around, almost in a trance, only to see none other than the Money Tree himself, looking startlingly dejected.
It was at this moment that his clock to evil stopped. He almost didn’t catch the reply, which was barely a whisper.
“Yes, I do.”
Their eyes locked in a brief yet powerful moment of mutual understanding. For a while, nothing happened. Neither party said anything. A Pteri squawked in the distance, but otherwise time was still. Or perhaps not: his clock had started again.
Only this time, the minute hand was moving in the opposite direction.
Three years later, a vastly different figure stood by the Money Tree.
For one, he now donned a black hooded cape instead of tattered hand-me-downs. For another, he was no longer the lost, insecure kid he used to be. He now knew his purpose, clear as glass. He adhered to it so strictly, in fact, that it almost became a ritual. He would first sneak up on an unsuspecting Neopian, making his presence known yet unobvious. Some took longer than others to notice, though he never lost patience. When they finally did turn around, he would hand them a single paint brush, which he knew from experience was best at what it did. Indeed, by the time they looked up, he would have disappeared completely from view. As if he were a mere figment of their imagination all along.
There were many strange incidents over the years. Some rubbed their eyes, unable to believe that someone had just given them such a valuable treasure. Others slapped themselves, thinking it was a dream. And for good reason – his little magic show never failed.
He had always chosen his targets at random, hoping to be as fair in his distribution as possible. And perhaps he had been too fair. For if he had been more refined in his tastes, he would have noticed the Kyrii’s beautiful, piercing eyes, and immediately avoided her on the pretext that he might be seen through.
As it happened, she noticed him at once, and turned around, looking mildly annoyed at being followed. Her expression quickly changed into one of surprise, however, as she got a better look into his face. The paint brush barely captured her attention, even as he tried to wave it in front of her.
“I know you,” she said quietly. “You’re the Phantom Painter, aren’t you?”
The paint brush fell onto the ground with a thundering clap.
“Jacko,” she went on. “That’s your name.”
He was too astonished to say a word. No one had ever gotten this far.
“You’re a wonder, Jacko. But why?”
It took a while for him to find his voice, though he only had limited control over it. “Why… why what?”
“Why do you do what you do?”
Heart pumping wildly, he considered his options. He could run off, change his alias, and forever become a historical myth, or he could knock her out with what little strength he had and hope she would wake up forgetting their encounter. But he knew something could go wrong either way, and in any case it was not like he could bring himself to fight her. Still, there was no other choice, was there? He was on the verge of panic when he realised that there in fact was a third option, one he had unconsciously shoved to the back of his mind and refused to acknowledge. It was to strike a deal with her and continue doing good for all of Neopia. That would be risky, for sure, especially if she were to refuse. But it would also be wise, and more importantly, harmless. Even as he thought it, he knew it was the right thing to do.
He took a deep breath, still only somewhat decided. “If I tell you my story, will you promise not to tell anyone else?”
Her eyes shone. “You know I won’t.”
He nodded, meeting her gaze. “Then let’s begin.”
“You know, I’ve always been curious about one thing,” Jacko said through gritted teeth as he helped the Money Tree organise the donations into neat, accessible rows.
It was a Sunday, Jacko’s off-day. That meant taking a break from his hectic lifestyle, but it also meant the equivalent of endless paperwork, perhaps worse. After all, there was nothing more tedious than sorting out the incoming items that flooded in like the worst of downpours. Even that might have been an understatement.
“One moment, please, while I check my records… I believe it was placed in this category. Right, that must have been it.” The Money Tree, too, was hard at work. When he was done he turned to face Jacko, who was waiting patiently. “Yes? What is it?”
“Do you remember the day you found me?”
“Yes, of course. That was a while back, though. What of it?”
Jacko didn’t miss a beat. “See, I kept puzzling over something you said. I had previously asked you a rhetorical question, something about knowing my situation well, or something about being clever. Whatever that question was, its purpose was to throw you off. That isn’t important. The important thing is what you said in response.”
The Money Tree thought for a bit. He was old but sharp-witted, and didn’t have much trouble calling back the moment when he’d met Jacko, as well as the events surrounding that meeting. Neither did he face any problems remembering… He stopped shortly, realising just what Jacko wanted to know. It was a bolt of lightning, a fleeting moment when a flash of inspiration lit up the Money Tree’s eyes and left them slightly wider with fear. Then it was gone. It was so brief that Jacko himself, a Pteri-eyed Bori who was already paying very close attention to their conversation, almost missed it. Almost. Jacko even doubted himself for an instant. But when the Money Tree turned back to his donation piles a trifle too quickly, as if to hide something, Jacko knew he knew.
The Money Tree took the lead, albeit with a voice that trembled. “I’m sorry, I don’t quite know what you’re…”
“I can handle it,” Jacko interrupted. Insisted. Pleaded.
There followed a tension-filled pause, after which the Money Tree sighed, having accepted, at long last, that he stood no chance against one of his most determined friends. “Fine, but you’re not going to like it.
“Perhaps about ten years ago, my brother the Brain Tree was a witness to an act of bullying. A small kid, less than a few years old, was all alone in the Haunted Woods, looking lost. Neopians always wandered to this area of the woods and managed to find their way out sooner or later, so the Brain Tree treated this as a usual event and didn’t bother looking up from his book for more than a few seconds. Even when he heard screaming, he reasoned that it is easy to get terrified when you’re by yourself and it’s late at night, and he thus felt little to no reaction. Only when the kid stumbled out with bruises the size of apples did he start taking serious notice. Up to now, he still remembers those awfully pained eyes of the kid, staring at my brother with every last shrivel of hope he could muster, as if willing my brother to do something, anything at all. Alas, my brother was too dumbfounded to speak, and could only meet the kid’s eyes with a blank, uneasy expression, until finally, coming to the bitter conclusion that no one would help him, the kid turned away, sprinting off into the night. You might have been able to identify the name of the kid in question, though he is no longer the innocent Lupe we call Balthazar. Because of my brother’s lack of action, and because of that alone, he is now Balthazar the Bounty Hunter.
“Two days before I found you, my brother contacted me to relate this sad tale, and how he was filled to the brim with regret that he had not done anything about it at the time. All the knowledge in the world, he said, can never justify allowing someone to be trapped in a vicious cycle of hate and revenge. And oh, how sorry he is! He still remembers how the kid stopped at the edge of the woods, turning back to send him a final look of pure disappointment that just… shattered his heart. Now, drowning in his sorrow, he’s lost his leaves and cried his eyes red, looking like something straight out of a nightmare. I’ve tried sending him all kinds of herbs and potions donated by Neopians, along with heartfelt advice to forgive himself and move on, but he just won’t listen. What’s even more depressing is that, deep down, I don’t blame him for kicking himself, and I think no one else will, if they know the truth. The fact remains that it was his fault and we both know it, plain as day. Just thinking about the piteous state of both Balthazar and my brother reduces me to near tears, and I’m not even the main party involved.
“When I saw you in so similar a scenario, I knew it had to be a sign: a sign that I could do something significant to help redeem myself, and possibly my brother. I was terrified, so afraid that I would mess something up, and make everything worse than it already was. But even more powerful than that dread was my resolution, my firm belief that history must not repeat itself. So I overcame my fear, reached out as far as I could and welcomed you, as a companion, as a partner and eventually, as a friend. That’s how, in place of fate, we shared destiny. That’s how –”
The Money Tree couldn’t finish, as he was interrupted by a tackling embrace.
“Thank you,” Jacko whispered, his voice quavering. “Thank you for saving my life.”
The Kyrii wiped a tear from her eye.
Jacko, himself considerably stirred, continued even though he knew she was no longer listening. “And that was why, after that conversation, I painted myself Wraith and changed my outfit in an attempt to appear as mysterious as possible, just so I could step up as an anonymous helper similar to the Money Tree. As a mark of respect, and to express my deepest thanks to him for having made that decision all those years back,” he finished with a wistful smile.
She muttered something incoherent.
She looked at him with an expression of singular gratitude. “Thank you.”
Jacko returned it. “You’re entirely welcome.”
“I don’t just mean for the paint brush. I mean it for defying the odds, going to such lengths to help others, and being a true inspiration.”
Jacko felt tears well in his own eyes, and before he knew it, a teardrop had fallen onto the paint brush below, landing right in the middle with a touch of a splash. In the rays of the presently rising sun, it almost seemed to refract the colours of a rainbow.The End.