Heart of a Hero
Jessica shook feverishly at the back of the line, anxiously awaiting her turn. She looked up at the great silver skyscraper that was the Defenders Headquarters, squinting as the sunlight bounced off the shiny windows. And to think that Aisheena and Lightning Lenny and Judge Hog and all of them are right there, she thought with a mixture of excitement and terror.
The Gelert girl looked at the banner hanging over the doors of the HQ: DEFENDER AUDITIONS! TODAY ONLY! ALL WELCOME! This would be my one chance, Jessica thought, my one chance to prove myself to Judge Hog and the rest of the Defenders!
Jessica was a huge fan of the Defenders. She had posters of every member of Neopia’s defense force on her room’s walls. Her closet was full of Defender costumes, and she even had an entire bookshelf devoted solely to Defender comics! She knew everything about them: their individual powers, their birthdays, their many accomplishments, even their favorite foods. She looked up to them as if they were royalty, dreaming of being a Defender herself one day.
But Jessica was a shy, lonely girl. She had trouble making friends and was routinely teased for her devotion to the Defenders. Even her brothers and sister were reluctant to play her silly games. They wanted her to grow up and forget her impossible dreams of being a Defender. By the time she was in her adolescent years, her comics and her toys were her only friends.
She wished for someone who shared her love of the Defenders and understood her instead of made fun of her. Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly sad, she dreamed of the Defenders themselves whisking her away to become one of them...
Then something came about to make her dreams seem all the more possible.
After the Faeries’ Ruin, the Defenders decided that they would need to recruit more help in order to prevent another tragedy like that from happening again. So they sent out fliers all over Neopia asking for volunteers the come and audition to be Defenders. The criteria were that each applicant have their own costume, have the ability to battle vicious foes and be able to work together with his or her fellow Defenders.
Jessica could not have been happier when she got her flier. It was as if her dreams had finally come true; she could finally meet the Defenders – maybe even become one! She was bouncing around the house, she was so excited.
She started making her own costume immediately: a suit of her favorite colors (pink and purple) with a big yellow J on the front, a floor-length purple cape, squeaky pink wellington boots and a pretty butterfly mask that cost her whole savings to buy. As she tied her hair in a high ponytail, she jumped in front of her full-length mirror, striking a battle pose and brandishing her homemade superhero weapon (a toy Altadorian sword that she had painted pink). She was so proud of her costume and her lunges at imaginary villains and the intimidating battle cries she roared at her reflection. I’m a shoe-in to become a Defender, she thought happily. She could not wait to get down to the Defenders HQ and show them her skills.
But, when Jessica finally got there, her confidence melted like ice cream in the sun.
She had not expected the looooong line of other Neopets waiting to audition for the Defender position. It almost stretched off into the Marketplace! And, to top it off, she had not expected the high level of competition they would be against her. The other costumes were astounding, to say the least – sparkles and stripes and frills and yooyuball-field-sized capes and Faerie Lenny feathers everywhere. Her own costume was made of stitches and spare scrapes of cloth; looking at her competition, she wondered why she had been so proud of it earlier.
There was something else that Jessica had overlooked in her haste to meet her heroes: all the other applicants had superpowers. Some shot lightning from their fingers; others were hovering inches off the ground; a few were glowing in assorted colors; and there was even a Lupe that was juggling fire! Jessica realized, quite suddenly, that she had no powers to speak of. Sure, she liked to imagine having the ability to fly or shot lasers from her eyes or breathe freezing wind when she role-played as a Defender, but, in reality, she was just a plain and simple Gelert child – no fancy traits, no expensive colors, and definitely no superpowers.
Understanding her disadvantage, her heart dropped like a lead weight. She felt the tears settle in her eyes as she watched pet after pet go into the silver building and come out with either smiles or frowns on their faces – but always looking so much more powerful and exciting than she was. There’s no way I’m gonna be picked now, she thought despondently.
But, despite her despair, Jessica still wanted to go in. After all, she had already gone through all the trouble of making a costume and learning everything she could about being a Defender – she might as well present herself on that note. Who knows? she thought. Maybe they’ll see something special in my normal abilities and take me on. She doubted this, but she tried to think positively on both ends of the scale. At least, if – or when – they said no, she could still have a glimpse of her heroes burned firmly into her memory...
Jessica watched the building come closer into view, but only slowly. The line was taking forever to shorten. As the nervous Gelert leaned from one aching leg to the other – biting her lip every time she glanced up at the glorious costumes or sparks of superhero-potential powers – she felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning around, she saw a plushie Kacheek wearing a simple potato sack for clothes. There was a crudely-drawn mask on his face and a badly-sewn quilt cape over his shoulders. She was surprised; he looked just as undone as she did – and he was the first one she had seen all day who did.
“Hi,” he said with a big smile. “Are you excited? We’re gonna meet Judge Hog!”
Jessica mustered up a smile in return. “Yeah,” she said listlessly.
The Kacheek lost his smile. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you nervous?”
Jessica shrugged and replied, “Yeah, but I’m sad, too.”
The Kacheek tilted his head in confusion. “Why’re you sad?”
Jessica glanced down at her costume, her chipping painted toy sword, before saying, “Because I’m not going to be picked to be a Defender. Everyone else had better costumes than I do, and I don’t have any superpowers. I don’t stand a chance against them; they’d never take me seriously if I said I wanted to be a Defender.”
There was brief moment when a dark look crossed the Kacheek’s face. “It’s not very nice not to take someone seriously,” he said tonelessly. “Especially when they’re trying their hardest to be something great.” Jessica nodded in agreement.
“I’ve wanted to be a Defender all my life,” she said dreamily, “and I’ve learned everything I could so that I could one day reach my dream, but now I don’t think I have what it takes. Look at me; my costume’s nothing compared to everyone else’s. And I can’t shoot lightning or breathe fire or... or...” She felt the tears rising in her eyes again.
“Aw, don’t cry,” the Kacheek said, patting her back comfortingly. “You don’t need to be like all those guys. I mean, who cares if you don’t have powers and stuff? As long as you try hard enough, you can do anything you want. You can prove to those big, great Defenders that you’re the best one for the position, with or without powers.”
The Gelert wiped her eyes and looked up at the Kacheek. She was so used to people downsizing her dreams that it came as a shock to hear the Kacheek’s generous words. No one had ever believed in her before, and knowing that someone did made her fallen heart rise back up.
“Thank you,” she said, eyes dry. “So... what’s your name?”
“Chuck,” he replied, holding out his paw. “And, you?”
“I’m Jessica,” she told him, shaking his paw. “So, how much do you know about the Defenders?”
The Kacheek smiled widely. “I know everything about them.”
He most definitely did. As they walked at a Slorg’s pace in the line, Jessica and Chuck discussed everything about the Defenders of Neopia. She was astounded by the Kacheek’s knowledge – he knew things that she did not even know! He knew each Defender’s patrol route around the world, he knew Judge Hog’s favorite color, he knew Dr. Flexo’s exact length stretched all the way out, and he even knew what Sergeant Brexis’s special power was (no one knew that!). Jessica was so impressed with Chuck and his spectacular knowledge. He was the first person that she was able to have such an engrossing conversation with. All the time she talked with Chuck, she thought to herself that she was making a friend – a real friend, her first-ever, real, honest-to-goodness friend! It made her so happy that she forgot all her worries about facing the Defenders with no special skills.
That is, until she finally reached the doors to the HQ.
Their conversation came to an abrupt end when the glass door suddenly slid open in front of Jessica. It was her turn to go in. She took one look inside, seeing the unmistakable figures of the Defenders within, and her legs had stiffened so tightly that she could not move.
“Go on,” Chuck was saying behind her, giving her a gentle nudge. She shook her head, unmoving. She felt as if she had been blasted with a freeze ray, except that her face was burning like the sun.
The center figure inside raised his hand up in a beckoning gesture and said loudly, “Next up, please.” Jessica felt her stomach drop at hearing Judge Hog’s unmistakable voice.
“I c-can’t,” she uttered, hearing her teeth chatter. “I c-can’t do it-t.”
“You can,” Chuck said encouragingly. “You’re better than everyone here today, even those self-righteous Defenders in there. Show them what being a real superhero is all about.”
At Chuck’s words, Jessica felt her legs defrost. Knowing that he believed in her, she felt that she could do it after all. Taking a deep breath, the Gelert stepped forward, mustering up as much courage as she could. Here I go, she thought as she entered the HQ, her life’s dream so close to becoming real.
The great hall of the HQ was filled with light from the glass dome overhead. The hardwood floors were polished to a reflective finish, highlighting the Defenders of Neopia crest in the center of the floor which she stood on. At one end of the room, there was the half-moon, white-clothed table behind which sat six of the fourteen Defenders: the ravishing Aisheena, the hulking Mammoth, the rubbery Dr. Flexo, the burly Orig the Great, the torch-like Torchio, and, at the center of the table, the imposing leader of the Defenders, Judge Hog. Jessica felt like she was going to melt into a puddle of joy. Here they were, her heroes, the actual Defenders of Neopia! She was shaking so badly that she was not sure if it was from nerves or excitement... or both.
Judge Hog nodded and said to her, “Welcome, young one, to the Defender auditions. What is your name?”
Sweat was trickling down her neck. Judge Hog is talking to me! she thought excitedly. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Swallowing dryly, she tried again and managed to say, “I-I-I’m J-J-Jessic-c-ca.”
There were genial smiles and greetings from everyone at the table. “I love your outfit, Jessica,” said Aisheena. “Did you make it yourself?”
Jessica felt herself go red in the face. A compliment from Aisheena – the Gelert was in heaven! “Y-yes,” she uttered, squeezing the plastic handle of her sword. “T-th-thank you.”
“You’re quite young to be applying to be a Defender,” Dr. Flexo remarked.
Jessica nodded, struggling to keep her eyes on his instead of the floor. “I-I’ve wanted to b-b-be a Def-fender s-since I was l-l-little,” she told them. Then she added, “Y-you guys are m-m-my heroes.”
“That’s kind of you to say, Jessica,” Torchio said, grinning.
Smiling back, she straightened up and said, “I-I learned all that I c-could about being a Defender. I-I practiced fighting bad guys, and I made this c-costume ‘specially to fight crime in, and I learned all I could about you guys, too. I kn-know a lot about you, but I don’t think it’s that important to tell you, but I don’t want to offend you by not saying it and having you think I’m lying, ‘cause I’m not and-”
Judge Hog raised his gloved hand up, silencing her. The Gelert’s face went very red. Great, first, I can’t say anything, she chided herself, and now I can’t shut up.
But the Defenders were not annoyed with her. In fact, a few of them were smiling good-naturedly at her, as if understanding her nervousness all too well.
“Well, Jessica, if you really want to be a Defender,” Judge Hog said seriously, “we’ll have to test your abilities.”
He turned to Orig, who nodded and reached under the table. There was a click, followed by a whirring sound, and then Jessica jumped when a panel slide open in the floor right beside where she was standing. A Punchbag Bob punching bag tied to a wooden pole like a scarecrow rose up from it. It stared down at her menacingly with that stitched-up smile and those creepy coal eyes. Jessica held her sword up protective as she glanced uncertainly at the Defenders.
“Go on, Jessica,” Torchio said, gesturing to the dummy on a stick. “Shows us your skills.”
“C’mon, Jessica!” cheered Aisheena. “Do your worst!”
Gulping, the powerless Gelert girl looked back at the punching bag. She felt like it might just attack her at any minute, what with those big, suspicious eyes looking at her like that. What if she hit it and it hit her back harder? What if there was something inside it waiting for the right moment to-
“Any time, Jessica,” Mammoth said patiently.
She mentally shook her head. I’m being ridiculous, she thought. It’s just a test of what I can do. It’s not gonna hurt me, but I gotta hurt it. I gotta prove that I’m worthy of being a Defender. Steeling herself, she took a fighting stance and raised her sword, readying herself to strike.
“Here I go!” she yelled out and lunged.
She was abruptly knocked back as the dummy’s arm flung out at her undefended midsection. She landed on her backside and struggled to catch her breath. “Wha-?” she gasped and looked over at the Defenders, confused. Their encouraging smiles had turned to frowns, some of them even shaking their heads.
Looking back at the dummy, she saw its mechanical arm whirring back into place at its side. It looked like it was laughing at her! Suddenly feeling angry instead of nervous, Jessica got back to her feet and lunged at it again. But, again, the dummy defended itself and threw the Gelert back on her rear. Every time she got up to strike, she was knocked back down – even fighting from different angles did not help! After the tenth attempt to hit the punching bag, she lay on her back wiping sweat from her brow, too exhausted to give it another go.
Finally, Judge Hog, wearing a disappointed expression, said, “I think we’ve seen enough. I’m sorry, Jessica, but I don’t think you’re ready to be a Defender yet.”
It was lucky that she was sitting on the ground, because otherwise her legs would have given out from under her. “B-but I-I-I-” she blubbered, feeling her eyes water.
The Defenders all shook their heads. “Maybe next year, kid,” Orig said.
Jessica felt as though her heart had been ripped out of her chest. Tears fell down her face as she stood up on shaky legs. I knew I wasn’t good enough, she thought miserably. I knew it! With a great shuddering sob, the Gelert covered her face and ran away from the table of Defenders. She collapsed to her knees just outside the sliding doors, all self-confidence leaking out of her like the tears from her eyes.
“Jessica!” a voice said behind her. She glanced up and saw her Kacheek friend standing there, a look of concern on his face. “What happened?”
“Th-they-they s-s-said,” she whimpered, wiping her running nose, “t-th-tha-tha-that I’m n-n-not r-r-r-read-dy y-yet!” She covered her face and wept loudly. Everyone was right; her dreams of being a Defender were pointless. And now that she heard it from her heroes’ mouths, she knew that it was true.
Then, in an oddly cold voice, Chuck hissed behind her, “The fools... Time for me to show those do-gooders what for.”
Rubbing her bleary eyes, Jessica looked up at her friend and was startled to see a very wicked-looking smile on his face as he stepped forward into the HQ. Curious, she stood up to follow him inside, but she was stopped as the door slid shut in her face. She watched him through the glass as he walked up to the table of Defenders. She saw them talking but was unable to hear them, so she pressed her long ear against the door, catching a bit of the conversation.
“...want to be a Defender, Chuck?” Dr. Flexo was asking. The Kacheek had his back to her, but Jessica thought that his stance was very odd – he looked like he wanted to pounce on the Defenders.
“To show the world my great power,” he said, his voice becoming progressively spookier. “To be... taken seriously, for a change.” He was looking at Judge Hog, who wore a look of consideration as he stared back at the Kacheek.
“Very well,” the Moehog Defender said, a hint of suspicion in his voice, and gestured to Orig to raise the punching bag. He did, and the Punchbag Bob rose up from the panel in the floor. Judge Hog then said, “To prove your worth, we must test your-”
There was a sharp crackle as jagged light shot out from the Kacheek’s outstretched paw, striking the dummy and reducing it to ashes. Jessica – and the Defenders – jumped back in surprise, staring incredulously at Chuck, who was now laughing in a weird, high-pitched cackle. How’d he do that? Jessica wondered, suddenly feeling very frightened. Where’d he get those powers? And why’d he do that to that dummy? Why is he acting like... like a villain?
“What on Neopia-?” Mammoth was saying, but he never got to finish the sentence. Chuck aimed his paws at the Defenders’ table – Jessica now saw the crackling hand buzzer attached to his paw – and fired another, larger blast of lightning right at them! Jessica gasped as the team of heroes were struck and collapsed over the burnt table, moaning in pain. Chuck was cackling even louder now.
“Foolish Defenders!” he said. “I told you I’d have my revenge!”
Then, he reached up, grabbed his nose and – to Jessica’s astonishment – pulled his face off! Underneath it was white makeup, a big red nose and crazy orange hair. Judge Hog, one of the only Defenders still conscious, gasped.
“Mr. Chuckles!” he exclaimed.
Mr. Chuckles?? Jessica thought, exasperated. Chuck is Mr. Chuckles??
“That’s right, Hogface!” the Kacheek said, tearing away his potato sack to reveal a purple-and-orange jumpsuit with white puffball buttons. “You thought you finished me the last time we met, but I wasn’t finished with you. Once I dispose of you and the rest of the Defenders, all of Neopia will finally fear my name! With my great, amazing powers, no one will ever laugh at my villainy again!” He cackled and started towards the Defender leader, his infamous hand buzzer raised.
Jessica wondered in panic what she should do. She could not go for help – the help was in trouble! She had to do something, but what could a poor, powerless little Gelert do against-
Then she glanced down at her costume, at the big, proud J on her chest, at the plastic sword in her paw. She looked like a superhero... maybe she could be one. She did not need powers to fight off evil; she had the heart of a Defender, and, by Fyora, she was going to prove it!
She struck her fighting pose and, with a great battle cry, threw herself at the door, shattering the glass spectacularly. Mr. Chuckles and Judge Hog turned their heads in surprise as the Gelert came sprawling uncoordinatedly into the hall. She tried to run at the clown, but she slipped on broken glass and fell to the floor, sliding across it right to the Kacheek clown’s feet. He smiled bemused down at her.
“Foolish girl,” he tutted. “You’re as worthless as Hogbreath here. Without powers, you have no potential to do anything; you’re just a silly little child.” He cackled mockingly.
As Jessica looked up at the wicked, lying Kacheek, and then at the wincing but determined face of Judge Hog, she realized that his words were wrong. I’m not silly, she thought. I’m brave. I can be a hero without powers! I can stop you!
With a great roar, Jessica swung her sword at the clown’s paw, knocking the hand buzzer right off. He cried out in pain, and Jessica used this distraction to kick out Mr. Chuckles’ legs, making him tumble to the ground. As he struggled to get back up, Jessica grabbed the dislodged buzzer before he could and pressed it against his arm. It shocked him so badly that his orange hair turned black, and he was knocked out instantly.
For a moment, the Gelert girl just stood there, dumbfounded, but then, as the Defenders let out cheers of joy, she smiled and laughed out loud, jumping up and down enthusiastically.
“I did it!” she screamed with joy. “I beat Mr. Chuckles! I’m a hero!”
Jessica nervously – but with a great big smile – stood before the Defenders in the great hall the next day, still wearing her costume and holding her plastic sword. Her heroes, though covered in bandages and burns, were smiling gratefully at the girl who saved them.
Judge Hog, a bandage wrapped around his head, stepped up to the Gelert and said, “Jessica, thanks to you, Neopia is safe from Mr. Chuckles’ villainy. What you did yesterday was very brave, something not many Neopets your age would be willing to do.” She blushed appreciatively.
“Thank you, Judge Hog,” she said.
“It is we who should thank you,” Orig said, bowing respectfully.
“Indeed,” Judge Hog agreed and placed a hand on Jessica’s shoulder. “In fact, we want to do more than thank you for your courage.”
Her heart flipped with joy. “You mean-” she said.
The Defenders all nodded. “Jessica,” Judge Hog said dramatically, “I hereby appoint you our honorary new Defender: Justica, the Gelert Defender. Welcome to the team.”
She shook his outstretched hand numbly, looking up at him with an incredulous smile. The senior Defenders came forward and embraced their new comrade. Jessica – or, rather, Justica – could barely contain her elation. Yes! she thought. I can’t believe it! I’m going to be a Defender! She began to cry, she was so happy. Her lifelong dream – the day she had dreamed about for years – was finally here, finally real.
“I-I guess you don’t need special powers,” Justica said to her new friends, “to be a hero.”