The Story So Far
Reading from the sacred texts, we learn that Xonyx the Strong raised Mytilan out of the mire of eternal warfare that came after the cataclysm. The secrets of the Age that Came Before were forgotten but she gathered followers and built the Temples of the Viper and the Jaguar. From the ancient fires she forged a sword, the Edge of Hope, and fought off Havoc Warriors, Exotherms, and menkind who would enslave her folk. After the holy rites, Coach Karsgaard Neuvil surprises his players by bringing forth four Xonyxas, three new players and a healer.
Nykal and Hansi, two stevedores from the Barrio, walk up to the Eztadio de Sanger, the Cemetery of Dreams, to attend the match between the Ebolicorum Skitteringi and the Mytilan Militantes. The energy builds as the stream of fans becomes a flood. Chanting erupts, vendors sell scarves decorated in team colours, some fans slip into the stadium carrying clubs. When they get inside the colossal building, they walk through its arteries and emerge into the sunlight to join the ranks of a living, seething, beast with an energy all its own.
“Slather it on.”
“I thought we were supposed to drink it?” Jacyntha said, looking at the flagon Coach Karsgaard had passed around.
“Yes, take a deep draught as well. But Rosethorn said if drool gets on you, Dew of Dreamvine will prevent the skin from absorbing anything nasty.”
“Would that we could spit toxins onto them,” Pillcu said, referring to the day’s opponents, the Skitteringi out of the accursed tunnels of Ebolicorum beneath the islands of the Calxilanza Archipelago across the Calxi Strait from Guayamartí.
“Now remember what we practised,” Coach Karsgaard said. “They are quick, but if the ball is hanging in the air, they cannot run off with it. I want them confused. I especially want that Uber-vermin confused. And do not forget …”
“IT’S GOT A TAIL!” fifteen Xonyxas yelled at him as one bellowing voice.
He grinned in response. “Good! Something has penetrated those hard skulls of yours!”
“How could it not?” Belyna said, “You had us practising dodging around Umberto swinging a thick … a thick …”
“Hawser,” Umberto answered. “And they’ve gotta be thick to moor a ship. That tail’ll twist and squirm like a rat’s tail though, something I couldn’t manage. You all be careful.”
Karsgaard said to Cuxi-Mikay, “You know what to do?”
She nodded. “Get downfield as far as I can and then ‘up-and-under’.”
“Good lass.” Jacyntha couldn’t help but smile; in the face of Cassandra Thordwall’s wrath, Coach Karsgaard had struggled not to call them girls. The term woman didn’t seem to fit into the appropriate sporting lexicon, so he’d finally settled on a Martispeak bastardization of a term of affection they used in Val-Hallá.
“Get out there and make them hurt!” he bellowed.
The team cheered and went off to seek vengeance for their heavy defeat in the pre-season.
“Dark Gods Beneath! It’s huge!”
“You didn’t know? Why did you think the wenches like me so much?” Hansi grinned and took a swig of liquor from the waterskin he had bought.
Nykal gave his cousin a back-handed slap. “I wazn’t talkin’ about you, turd-for-wits. I was talkin’ about that.” He pointed to the giant rat-thing that had come out of the tunnel. Four Rodentiens struggled to keep it moving forward, one whipping it from behind and the other three hauling on chains attacked to an iron collar around its neck.
The other curvas of the Sanger finally got a glimpse of it and roared approval. The thing looked around panicked as though its plague-ridden God had called out to it, but the regular-sized rat-things pulled on the chains and it surged onto the field, its tail twitching like that of an angry cat.
“Its name is Gnashnash Flailtail,” Hansi said. “’cause they’ve put a morning star on the tip of its tail. Gods this is brill! I wouldn’t wanna be any place else but here.”
Then the Xonyxas came trotting out of the tunnel and Nykal thought much the same thought.
“She’ll have your hide if it doesn’t work, you know.”
Neuvil glanced at Umberto and replied, “If it does not work, my vinr she will be welcome to my hide.” It was unlike Umberto to offer such an insight into Cassandra Thordwall. Is something awry? He said, “You have taken a liking to footy … and to our Xonyxas, perhaps?”
Umberto shrugged. “I placed a bet on us is all. The odds were steep so I reckoned a few silvers mightn’t be missed come month’s end. If it comes good, I’ll do well. But the boss, see, she’s put on more than a few silvers, she’s wagered gold.”
Neuvil shook his head. He replied whilst making certain Chico hadn’t somehow slithered into his duffle bag – he lived in terror of the damned viper – “I hope she put a some gold into a pouch and slipped it to the referee.”
“She didn’t,” Umberto said.
Neuvil’s head snapped up. “No?” But then he saw Umberto’s grin. “What?”
“I did,” Umberto said.
“Boss is a busy woman.”
Neuvil grunted. “She got her owner’s box, I understand. Are you going up there to guard her?”
“Her brother’s there. She’ll be fine. I’ll be with you on the touchline.”
Neuvil nodded. “Then let us go, my vinr, and do some coaching.”
“Don’t catch it!”
Jacyntha had to restrain her instincts. She’d only played four games of footy but she was already used to receiving the kick-off. Coach Karsgaard had given her a different role in their new tactic. She had to follow the strikers in under the arching ball. The strikers would take down the sewer-slippers. Her task was to scoop up the loose ball. Cuxi-Mikay made the catch and they started forward. Jacyntha watched in horror as the big Uber-vermin crashed through the Militantes’ right flank and lumbered downfield.
Temple of the Viper it’s fast!
Then she saw even faster opponents: four sewer-slippers. They exploded through the gap Flailtail had opened and had already crossed half the distance between the line-of-scrimmage and Cux.
“Let’s go!” Jacyntha yelled. She took up a screening position between her sister and the oncoming threat. Luckily she had help; Karolyse sprang back from the ruck and tripped up the first sewer-slipper, sending it rolling in squeaking agony. Jacyntha blocked another, trying out a technique Coach Karsgaard had shown them to trip up dodgers. It worked and the thing spilled head-first into the turf. Of the two remaining sewer-sliders, one retreated back to the cover of the Uber-vermin whilst the other dropped deep into the Militantes’ backfield.
Jacyntha dashed to catch up to Cuxi-Mikay, who had veered left to avoid the Uber-vermin. Belyna and Ocllo had put down a pair of linerats but the damned Rodentiens were quick and their line had pivoted to cover the gaps. Gnashnash Flailtail came storming across the field in a crazed bloodlust. And then suddenly one of the Skitteringi strikers, Abscès Ezqueek, was through the line and scrambling towards the ball-carrier. Cuxi-Mikay reacted as she had in the last few practices: she let the ball drop … and kicked it high into the azure sky.
The Uber-vermin took no notice of the ball and came crashing towards Cuxi-Mikay, who dodged clear of a scything hand and hopped over the tail that whipped around to trip her up. Ezqueek followed the flight of the ball into the sky and didn’t see Jacyntha’s block that put him down. Suddenly the heart of the Rodentien line pulled back and the Militantes flowed forward. Jacyntha saw that the rat-things, looking up at the ball dropping back down to the pitch, had formed a protective picket around where it looked as though it would land. Indeed, a thrower stood at the centre of the picket, hand held up to cover its eyes from the glare of the sun, waiting for the ball to drop. Jacyntha felt her gorge rise; it was that same damned rat who had sneezed a wad of snot onto the ball in their pre-season game, likely spreading the Plaga roja to her. She drew on her anger and followed Ocllo into the fray.
“Humping Dark Gods! They’ve collapsed!”
Nykal couldn’t take his eyes off the game but he could imagine the look on Hansi’s face after seeing all the Rodentiens looking at the ball sailing high into the air and not realizing how quickly the Xonyxas had closed on them. A spearhead of Militantes stabbed into the unsuspecting rat-things; three got sent directly into the Skitteringi infirmary. Despite Hansi’s earlier warning not to do so, Nykal couldn’t stop himself from jumping up and down yelling “Go! Go! Go!” Luckily the audacious play had sparked the banks of spectators into a cheering frenzy, even some in the Skitteringi supporters’ sections.
“He’s got it! Our thrower’s caught it,” Hansi yelled.
But a sleek, muscular Xonyxa hurtled into the star thrower, Snisneek Griffeciel. They slammed into the turf, the woman driving Griffeciel’s skull into the pitch. Blood and teeth spurted into the air and the ball bounced further into the Skitteringi backfield.
“They’ve got no cover!” Nykal yelled, seeing an open path between the Militante’s thrust and the Skitteringi end-zone
“Rodentiens always got cover!” Hansi yelled back.
Jacyntha snatched the bouncing ball out of the air and sprinted forward. Without thought, her feet guided around the prone Ocllo and right over the downed thrower. She hadn’t meant to commit a foul but from the impact that shook her through the soles of her boots and all the subsequent squeaking, she guessed she’d gotten her revenge on Griffeciel. Belyna slipped in beside her as they burst through the Skitteringi line. They dashed straight down the open pitch and then suddenly saw green-and-black clad shapes of sewer-slippers converging on their trajectory from either flank.
“Left!” Belyna cried out and they veered away from one opponent only to close the distance that much quicker to the other. The closer sewer-slipper sprang in a great, leaping arc … and met Belyna’s fist. The thing’s head snapped back while torso, arms and legs carried forward, skidding to a stunned halt. It slowed Belyna, though, and she couldn’t cut off the tackle of the remaining sewer-slipper.
But instead of trying to dodge clear, Jacyntha veered towards the Rodentien and barged into it. It fell to the ground but got its claws into her skirt of armoured strips, slowing her down. Then there was another pair of the things springing towards her.
She didn’t think; she just reacted. She ducked under one tackle, twisted away from another, spotted Ellpay on the other side of the pitch, stepped forward, and threw. Clawed hands atop outstretched arms scratched at empty air as the ball darted between their flailing attempts to knock it down.
The crowd roared as Ellpay caught the ball in full flight and crossed the goal line.
Nykal didn’t need Hansi’s order to dodge clear of the club swinging at his head. He drove his shoulder into the belly of the club-wielder, pushing the man backwards. The egregious act of violence, gleefully anticipated, triggered a brawl. Many supporters in their section had cheered the brilliant, unconventional Militantes’ tactic and Nykal was glad that allies pushed the attacker away. Then somebody grabbed the club out of the attacker’s hands … Hansi! … and used its butt to knock sense into avid Skitteringi fans out to teach those who had flipped sides a lesson.
The mêlée spread throughout the section, catching the attention of the match officials who readied themselves to invade the stands and restore order. Just then another roar went up.
The game’s re-started already?
A Militante had blocked a Rodentien right over the side railing into the throng just below Nykal and Hansi. “Get ’em!” someone roared.
The fight simply stopped and the combatants stampeded in one ravening mass down towards the stricken player. The rat-thing thrashed, pushing spectators away, and sprang to its feet, but the stampede crashed into it, grabbed it, and pummelled it.
“Maid of the Match,” the Sylvan Pierce Rosethorn purred, presenting her a flower and bowing low. “Beating the defending champions is no mean feat: you should be proud.”
She narrowed her eyes but took the rose. She said, “Nice honey badger.”
A smile bright like the rising sun lit his face. He glanced down at the tattoo bursting from the vegetation inked onto his arms and shoulder. “You like it? The dripping honey glows in the dark, you know. Perhaps I could show you sometime.”
“You already did,” she said, before turning away and, on shaking legs, re-entering the changing room.