Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Toymaker

First piece of fanfic posted here, hooray!

But also I'm posting this to announce that I'm no longer playing Neopets, and explain my reasons.

- Neopets is not the website it used to be. Things changed drastically when the old team was fired (something I am still not pleased about). I suspect the website does not have the biggest budget and they're swamped with things that need to be done on the technical end, so I have been cutting them a lot of slack as far as that goes. But what really sealed the deal for me was a creative direction that does not seem to be improving.

The creative aspect of Neopets appealed to me from the beginning. I loved the artwork, the lore, the humor, and the fun characters, stories, and worlds that the creative team kept coming up with. The old Neopets was a truly enchanting place with a certain quirky vibe to it that I found massively appealing.

The new Neopets is just really missing that special creative spark. I hate to say it, but I have just found most of their creative offerings lacking, both in concept and execution. Some of the new paint brush colours and wearable items they've come up with are beautiful, but most of everything else just does not live up to the old Neopets. I find their creative ideas a bit wan, lacking the depth, wit, and writerly sophistication of the old Neopets, and I've also been none too pleased that the art quality has gone way downhill because they fired the old artists and the new ones seem to be putting more into customisation than other parts of the site. The art has gone from this to this... yeah. That does not make my artist self happy.

I think the final straw was probably the Lyra and the Lost Heirloom plot, which I just found to be utterly off-track in both writing and art (see above image link which always gets me repeatedly facepalming). So much so that I actually wrote an email to TNT laying out everything I disliked about the plot, and gently recommending that their writers learn how to write better. I tried so hard to care about the dismal storyline and the abrasive characters, but I finally realized that if I'm approaching a plot with an attitude of "I will cringe through this for the sake of the trophy" rather than "this plot is awesome and I truly am emotionally invested in the characters and their situation", something is wrong. And I have loved nearly all of the old TNT's plots, so I am not just being overly critical.

On top of that, the new, long-awaited Legends & Letters app is... okay, but not really my thing. Also Aurrick is the main character and I just cannot get myself to like him no matter how hard I try. And when I realized I was playing it because I wanted to support Neopets, not because I actually truly enjoyed the game, again I knew something was wrong.

The Neopets staff changed in 2015. I waited patiently for three years for the new TNT to figure out a balance between backend technical fixes and new quality content. While it's great that they've finally begun to generate more creative content, I cannot ignore the decline in quality. The old TNT knew what they were doing. The new TNT is making the world of Neopia into a place that I'm just not as fond of anymore and can't recommend to anybody.

- Here is where I get to sound like a whiny, self-entitled author: my writing for the Neopian Times feels like a one-sided relationship. I have gotten several really nice fan mails over the years, but... that's several. Over the years. Over the literally hundreds of thousands of words I have written for the Times. (Seriously. I counted. All in all, everything I've written for the Times comes out to over 350,000 words.)

Not that I'm expecting to hear back from everybody who ever reads my work - I know most people just don't think to write fan mail - but to work as hard as I do and then get a very minimal response is frustrating. I didn't just submit things to the Neopian Times for fun - although it was quite a bit of fun - I wrote them because I wanted people to have good, uplifting, thoughtful things to read. I wanted my work to help people. Instead it seems like it's just getting ignored. Just watching my trophy count rise is not adequate repayment for how much work and time I put into my writing. "Shadow Play" took me a month to write, and it would have taken me longer if I hadn't been doing a NaNo and working at an insane pace. That's a month of intense work that now no one is looking at, if the lack of fan mail is any indication. I deserve better than that.

So from now on, I'm going to focus on my novels and other projects that will actually compensate me fairly for my efforts. I may still write fanfic here and there, but I am just tired of investing so much time, so much work, and so much creativity into a world and a cast that keep getting ignored. If I'm going to invest this much into something, it might as well be a novel that I can get wider recognition for and get paid for, because Neopian Times trophies don't buy nerdy t-shirts groceries. Fanfiction can be fun, but ultimately it is very limiting. Just think of what the world would have missed out on if, say, Tolkien had decided to make Lord of the Rings fanfiction of something else. (I knowwww the concept of fanfiction was not around back then, but just work with me here.)

- Finally, I realized that I just don't have room in my life for Neopets anymore. Things like participating in site events, feeding my pets, and keeping up with the news were feeling more like chores to get out of the way than relaxing and fun activities. I have a lot of other things I'm doing with my life nowadays, and Neopets just doesn't fit in what with family and work and the many other hobbies I enjoy, some of which are actually productive (I've been really into crocheting lately, for example).

I know Neopets is often a sanctuary for people who need a break from the real world, but, well, I've found things to do to unwind that I actually like and I feel repay me better than Neopets, whether that be in terms of actual productivity, or even just a quality aesthetic experience (like Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, which is so well-done creatively).

So Neopets has run its course with me. I'm still very sad to see the old creative team go--honestly I think that if they were still around, I would still be playing. But the lackluster recent content, on top of the throwing away my writing and having difficulty finding the time for the website, means it's time to let this one go. I deserve better things.

That being said, I'm still very proud of what I've written for the Times and I would hate for it to go to waste, so I'm going to start working on putting it up here for folks to read! The going will probably be slow, but it's definitely in my plans. I even have several stories written that either got rejected when I submitted them to the Times, or I never got the chance to submit, so I'll be putting them up here.

I will also include links to pictures of the characters in question (whether my own or canon characters), because when you're writing for an audience who already knows what a Tyrannian Lupe looks like, for example, you don't have to put much description in there, which makes it difficult for people who don't know what a Tyrannian Lupe looks like. :)

And I will start with something I wrote for Christmas (or its Neopian equivalent, Giving Day)! I thought it would be fun to combine Giving Day and the Darigan Citadel, two things that you do not usually think of at the same time. But I'm sure the Draconians celebrate Giving Day, and I wanted to put together a story about having hope for the future, about being your best self and moving forward, and about the things that really matter, including making others' lives better even in seemingly small ways. After all, that's a big part of what Christmas is all about.

The Toymaker

Snow fell in a hush on black rooftops and parapets, softening the look of decorative spikes and giving white wigs to gargoyles. Firelight flickered in hundreds of windows, creating a swarm of stars in a sea of dark stone. Winters on Darigan Citadel, the toymaker thought, were always peaceful and cozy.

The Darigan-coloured Moehog sat hunched over his workbench, surrounded by projects in progress, while his finished wares hung on walls and crowded shelves around him. On the other side of a large display window, other Neopets, mostly Draconian as well, made their way down the lane, hurrying to get out of the cold.

He paid them no mind. Right now he was crafting the tail for a clockwork Darigan Bori. It was probably the trickiest part of the whole figurine, since Bori had such thin tails. The toymaker had to whittle away at the wood very carefully so it wouldn’t snap, while also leaving enough room for the mechanisms that would make the tail flip back and forth when the key was wound.

A few children ran by, throwing snowballs at each other, and their laughter made the toymaker pause and look up from his work. The children passed without even looking at the toy shop, but the Moehog wasn’t just hoping for customers. He liked the laughter of children. It was something, he thought, that the Citadel needed more of.

Thankfully, children were usually happier around this time of year. It was almost Giving Day. The festive decorations on the streets reminded him of that, and he had hung a wreath with a purple ribbon on his own shop window.

The children’s noise faded and the toymaker’s snout turned back to his work. He finished shaping the parts for the tail and then began fitting the metal hinges and levers into the spaces he had formed for them. His own tufted tail waved lazily as he laboured, keeping time with the clock on the wall above him. He had made the clock as well, crafting it to look like Lord Darigan’s fortress, and on the hour, little wooden guards would appear and flap their wings. He did not think he had the heart to ever sell it, considering how hard he had worked on it.

The door to the toy shop opened and the toymaker looked up. Standing there was a Darigan Kacheek wearing a heavy black coat. “Evening,” the Kacheek said with a wave and a smile. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

The toymaker managed a small smile back as he put down his tools and sat up straighter. “Likewise,” he said. “What brings you in here?” He knew this Kacheek didn’t have any children of his own, but perhaps he was buying a Giving Day gift for a niece or nephew.

The purple-hued, arrow-tailed Neopet sauntered in, looking around at the menagerie of toys with a twinkle of amusement in his red eyes. “Some of us from the 43rd are getting together tonight for supper,” he said, running a paw through his messy black hair. “Want to come?”

The toymaker let out a breath. For a long moment, he stared at his fellow former soldier, unpleasant memories coming back to him. There had been so much destruction and sadness in those days, so much anger and hate. A lump of emotion welled in his throat and he swallowed hard.

“Well?” the Kacheek asked. “C’mon, I don’t want to keep the guys waiting!”

The toymaker looked back down at his work and closed his eyes. “You—you go on ahead,” he said. “I’ll pass.”

“You’re always working,” the other veteran said, leaning a paw on the doorframe and rolling his eyes. “Have some fun once in a while!”

To the toymaker, his work was his fun, but he doubted the Kacheek could understand. “I’ll be just fine,” he grunted, picking up his tools again. “Good evening.”

The Kacheek shook his head. “All right, then,” he said as he stepped back outside. “But if you ever want to join our eating contests, we usually meet at the restaurant on Darigan’s Landing!”

“Thank you,” the toymaker said, not bothering to look up as the door closed.

Above him, the clock ticked comfortingly as the Moehog got his thoughts back in order. Yes, he had been a soldier once. How long ago that was. Sometimes it was bizarre to think that he had participated in the invasion of Meridell, and just a short time later had invaded it again for much less justifiable reasons.

He was not an infantrypet—he was an engineer. He had helped design the great war machines that wreaked so much destruction on Meridell. The Moehog had always had a mind for the mechanical, so when the Orb was stolen from his nation and his people suffered, he gladly jumped into the task of helping his lord recover the source of their prosperity—by force if necessary.

Well, that ended badly for everyone, and unfortunately in the vacuum that Lord Darigan left with his disappearance, someone else ascended to power. Lord Kass bloated the Draconians on thoughts of hatred and vengeance, and those he could not persuade with his words, he could persuade with fear. The Moehog found himself pressed back into service, once again using his talents and skills to build things that would hurt and destroy.

He shuddered and had to pause in his work for a moment. Those days were dark. Thankfully, they ended rather soon. His crimson eyes wandered to the cane propped against the wall beside him. While most of the time he stayed safely away from the action, one day he was caught in a counterstrike, and that was the end of military service for him. Not only did he need to walk with a cane now, but his wings would no longer carry him through the skies.

At first, of course, he had been devastated. Now, he saw it as a faerie blessing in disguise. After all, it had taken him out of the war early—and it had caused him to take a step back and focus on what really mattered.

The door opened again. Once more the toymaker glanced up, but this time he smiled as a young Darigan Kyrii girl walked in. Her dusky blue mane hung in her face as she looked around in wonder at the toys on display, and in one paw she clutched a small bag of Neopoints.

Silently, patiently, the toymaker watched her. She seemed to be looking for something, and when she found it her eyes lit up. She rushed to a shelf and picked up a glass globe ensconced in purple, claw-like petals. Cradling it carefully against her chest, she approached its maker.

“That’s a fine piece you’ve picked out, there,” he said kindly. When the key was turned, the petals would open to reveal a miniature replica of the Citadel within the globe. Tiny clockwork Neopets would meander around the streets and spires before the petals slowly closed again.

The Kyrii grinned bashfully at him. “How much for it, sir?” she asked.

“Forty-nine thousand Neopoints,” the toymaker said.

Her face fell as she held up her small money pouch. “Oh…” she whispered. “Never mind.”

“But I’m discounting that one today,” the Moehog said quickly. “How does fifteen thousand sound?”

The Korbat-like wings on the girl’s back flicked in surprise as she looked back up at him. “I have that much!” she said. Setting the globe on the workbench, she opened her money pouch and dug out the necessary coins.

“Enjoy it!” the toymaker called as she skipped out the door with her precious treasure. He could not stop grinning as he added the coins to his till. He didn’t do this for the money—he always had enough to get by. No, he did it for the children.

As the Moehog returned to his work, his thoughts turned once more to his fellow veterans. The Kass War had shattered every Draconian, but most of all the soldiers. Scrambling to dull the psychological aftereffects, some, like the Kacheek from earlier, had turned to meaningless lives of self-indulgence. Others had decided that crime was the answer, and they were now sitting in the dungeons of the Citadel fortress. And many had simply retreated within themselves, afraid to live.

He was one of those, for a time. Injured and distraught, he felt like he could never move on, that there was nothing left for him.

Swallowing another lump in his throat, he looked out the window at the snowy night. Those had also been dark days. Every now and again, that old despair came back to haunt him.

With a frown, he shook away the gloom and looked back to his latest creation. Carefully, he fastened the Bori’s tail to its body and clicked the tiny gears within the torso, watching with satisfaction as the tail flipped back and forth like it was supposed to.

It had taken a while, but one day he woke up and realised that he did not want to wither and fade like so many of his fellow soldiers. His body was not what it used to be, but his mind and skills were still sharp, and he had decided on that day that he wanted to use them to make things better. For too long had he built the mechanisms of war—now, he built things that put smiles on children’s faces. The children had been affected by the Kass War too, after all, and the toymaker wanted to put a bright spot in their lives. Perhaps if they grew up filled with kindness and generosity, history would not repeat itself.

He reached for a screwdriver to begin attaching the Bori’s limbs to its torso, but he had difficulty fully concentrating on his work now. Was everything that he was doing worth it? Could he ever make a difference in a Draconian child’s life with these silly playthings? Back in the military, he was a well-respected engineer with an entire team working under him to make his ideas reality. Now, he created things for young Neopets who rarely even remembered to say “thank you”. It was a little disheartening sometimes.

The door to the shop burst open, and the toymaker jerked his head up with a gasp. For one terrible moment, he thought it was Kass’s agents coming to arrest him, until he remembered that sort of thing didn’t happen anymore.

Instead, a small Darigan Aisha boy scrambled into the shop, dragging the arm of a Darigan Grarrl in the uniform of the Citadel fortress. “There it is, Dad!” the Aisha said, pointing to the clock in the wall. “There’s what I was telling you about!”

The toymaker raised an eyebrow quizzically at the Grarrl, who grinned self-consciously. “My apologies,” the large Neopet said. “My son says he spotted this clock in your shop a few days ago, and it’s all he’s been talking about since then. It’s the only thing he wants for Giving Day.”

“Mum wouldn’t buy it!” the Aisha said. “She told me to ask you when you got home! So can I have it for Giving Day, pleeeeease Dad?”

“How much for the clock?” the Grarrl asked the toymaker.

The Moehog paused. That clock was his masterpiece. He didn’t know if he could bear to part with it, even for a child. “Um… ah,” he said. “Well, you see… it’s not…”

Suddenly the top of the hour arrived. The clock chimed, and the little doors in the fortress opened up. Out came the wooden guards, pivoting on their bases as their wings shuddered open and closed and they raised their spears.

“I told you it does the thing, Dad!” the Aisha said, jumping up and down, earstalks bobbing wildly. “See—that Grarrl looks like you!”

“Why, I suppose it does,” his father rumbled with a smile.

“That’s why I want it,” his son said. “To remind me of you when you’re on your shifts at the fortress. Even though you can’t be at home all the time… I’ll feel like you’re always watching over us.”

The toymaker’s heart melted. “One hundred thousand Neopoints,” he said.

“Hm…” the Grarrl said as he studied the clock. The wooden guards raised their spears one last time and then spun back into their places in the fortress, to await their next appearance in an hour. “Well… that seems reasonable,” he said. “It is a quite remarkable clock. Very well-made indeed. I appreciate good craftsmanship.”

He reached into his pocket while his son bounced beside him. “All right,” the guard said, pulling out a sizeable money pouch. “You’ve got a deal.”

“It will be well worth it, I assure you,” the toymaker said as his customer counted the coins. “It keeps time perfectly.” His heart still sank a little at seeing the clock sold, but the thought of it giving a child comfort was more than enough to solidify his resolve.

“Thank you,” the Grarrl said as he carefully lifted the clock from the wall. “We’ll take good care of it, I promise. It’s a work of art.”

“Hooray!” the Aisha said, dancing around his father.

“What do you say?” the Grarrl asked him.

The boy grinned at the toymaker, revealing a few missing teeth. “Thank you!” he said.

The Moehog smiled back. “You’re welcome,” he said.

“Won’t Mother be surprised,” the guard said as he and his son left. “I’ll bet your sisters will like this as well.”

“I think so, too,” the boy said. “They miss you a lot when you’re gone.”

Their voices faded as they made their way down the snowy street, leaving the toymaker once more in silence, a silence even more profound now that no clock hung on his wall.

He looked up at the blank space and smiled again. His heart was full. Yes, the Citadel needed more happy children, and he would rise to the challenge.

Taking a deep breath, he returned to his work in progress, filled with new vigour. As he attached the Bori’s legs, his mind whirred like the gears in his toys. Already he had begun thinking of ideas for a new clock—even more mechanically elaborate than the last.

He couldn’t wait to see how happy it would make someone.

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