19: Fangs on a smile

The Story So Far

Cassandra Thordwall’s rival team owner, Eguardo Giamucci of the Wharf Rats, has hatched a plot that he claims will help both his team and Thordwall’s, the Mytilan Militantes. So …

In the deep of night, as they watch a darkened doorway on Ruelle des Gambettes, Thordwall’s bodyguard, Umberto de la Calle, complains to his boss that she’s being stupid. Thordwall chides him for being nervous. The door opens. Their target steps out onto the lane and skulks off. Thordwall and Umberto creep after the cloaked figure, Umberto pointing out that things are awry. Thordwall thinks twice about the plot; she summons their hired muscle away from trailing the target and returns with them to the door they had been watching. When she knocks on it, the voice of the owner of the Guayamartí Imperials, Duc Tancred de Baston, responds and thus reveals that the earlier cloaked figure was a ruse. When the duke opens the door, they grab him and steal him away to the Menace, Thordwall’s brother’s pirate ship.

Safely on-board and sailing away from the wharf, Karsgaard Neuvil sees an Inquestor arrive at the docks in the company of league Officer for Conduct, Rennigan Slythe, and Giamucci. It’s a worry for later, however, as the Mytilan Militantes set off across the Procura Strait to Halos to play their next game against the league’s Dark Elf team, the Duskdaggers.

Spikes on architecture are like fangs on a smile.

Karsgaard Neuvil studied the buildings forming the outer burghs of the Dark Elf city of Halos as they slide past the Menace’s starboard rail. Outwardly foreboding and starkly forbidding, the architecture was a clutter of abutting fortresses with low towers, some capped with terraces that featured prominent altars, all adorned with upwardly arching spikes. Spikes were everywhere: they surmounted walls, adorned the flanks of buildings, guarded gateways. And yet, the spikes weren’t the worst of it … his eyes couldn’t help but dwell on those altars on the terraces atop their spiky towers. He preferred not to think of them but; he knew that witches conducted their ritual sacrifices up there, so that the blood of their victims would pool in the moonlight and so that the gods of the stars they worshipped could behold the hearts held aloft to them.

He shivered despite himself.

Cassandra Thordwall clapped him on the back as she joined him at the rail. “Have you ever seen anything so elegant? Have you ever seen anything so horrible?”

He shook his head. “It is a good thing we are here to play a footy match. There is no other fit reason to make this a port-of-call. Who is in the forward cabin?” he asked, referring to a place everyone, passengers and crew alike, had been ordered to stay clear of.

“A most vile plotter,” she replied with a smile. “Actually, he’s cargo I hope to sell on once in port.”

“Sell? You know what they do to slaves here?”

She nodded. “There aren’t any high holy nights soon and this particular cargo has re-sale value. It’s Duc Tancred de Baston.”

“What?”

“Your hearing hasn’t gone, has it?”

Cassandra! What in the thirteen sweet hells has taken possession of your wits?” he hissed so as not to be overheard either by members of her former pirate crew or her current footy team. “You cannot kidnap the owner of a rival team? No wonder Slythe was at the docks with that damned inquestor! They will not just kick us out of the league, they will arrest and hang us!”

Thordwall smiled and thumped him on the back again. “You’re as big a worrywart as Umberto! They were trying to ensnare us in a sordid plot and I just flipped it on its head, is all. Don’t you worry about him … just worry about getting the team ready to play. They still seem sullen … despite an exciting cruise on a pirate ship to an exotic locale.”

“I can worry about more than one thing at a time,” he snapped. “How do you plan on making sure the league does not shut us down?”

She beamed her most radiant smile, the one that let him know to stop pushing her. “As usual, my dear; through a combination of alluring bribes, grisly threats, and irresistible charm. So, will we defeat the Duskdaggers with a team-full of sullen Xonyxas?”

He huffed and returned his eyes to the cityscape. The Menace had taken on-board a pilot who was navigating the ship around the breakwater, past the harbour defences, and up to the wharves. “It is Jacyntha who is sullen,” he said, “and as goes Cyntha, so go the Militantes.” She was waiting for him to answer her question so he finally added, “The Duskdaggers have Nytmir Curseweaver’s sister, you know that?”

“Of course I know that. I am a footy fan. It’s kind of why I wanted to buy a team.”

“I shall forget for the moment that you had not heard of the Sommer Seas’ tradition of the Jesters … well, Nytmir got picked up by those same Jesters after she got kicked-out of the Duskdaggers for a lack of savagery. They brought in Dred this off-season and she has already caused ten casualties. I do not care if my lasses are sullen so long as they know how to keep a witch down on her face.”

“And do they?”

“Now who is the worrywart?” He allowed a smile to soften his reproach. “Of course they do … though it will help our chances of escaping here with a win if Umberto has time to speak to the referees prior to the match.”

“Who do you think I hope will jump at the chance of getting a duke’s ransom. Like I said, don’t worry.”

He sighed. Easier said than done. Then the processing of tying up and disembarking chased such thoughts from his mind.

“We do our jobs!”

Ocllo continued her pre-match instructions, her first as the team’s new captain. “We don’t lose focus! We don’t go off on crazed vendettas!”

The team had huddled up. They stood together in a packed circle, Jacyntha’s arms over the shoulders of the players on either side, and those players’ arms likewise draped over her shoulders, and so on. Their heads were all packed in close, they all bobbed up and down to channel their rampant pre-game energy, and the team cheered everything Ocllo barked at them.

It was hard for Jacyntha to swallow her pride upon hearing Ocllo’s last order. She felt herself flush but managed to take it for what it was: necessary advice. The barb hurt, though it might have been directed at Belyna, who had a knack for fouling opponents despite being under the ref’s eye.

Listen to her! “Focus,” she said. So, focus!

Ocllo yelled one last order, “Today our job is to protect each other! Get the witches, put them down, and keep them down!”

They broke into their new chant, one Ocllo had developed with Ellpay:

“We run in the jungle,
we fight in the jungle
We win in the jungle,
the jungle is OURS!”

The players jogged to their positions. The Duskdaggers had already won the coin toss but had elected to kick to start the game, so Jacyntha had a moment to absorb the atmosphere. Coach Karsgaard was right; spikes ringed the edge of the stadium and at the cardinal points there were giant bronze braziers with flames leaping into the sky. Joining the league so many years ago had forced them to set aside some of their most vile customs, so now the Dark Elf priestesses were throwing a score of animal hearts into each brazier and the smoke billowing from the bronze bowls changed into a blacker, oilier stain coiling around the stadium’s upper lip. Great black sails reached out from the upper bowl, each embroidered with the home team’s sigil, the stabbed sun, the flaming corona stitched in brilliant gold thread, whilst the silver of the blade stabbing a rent in the sun’s heart gleamed with stern intent.

The crowd was different here. There was no torrent of raging cries and fevered japes. It felt more like a horrifying temple rite: wailing calls of the priestesses at the braziers echoed away to a single, unified, earth-shaking response from the crowd. Fires blazed in more braziers set at pitch level and the opposing coach, a tall, blue-haired priestess with hardly any clothes on, cast herbs into the flames, sending noxious fumes wafting across the sideline.

The Eztadio Matadoras hosted a dozen games every year including most of the Duskdaggers’ fixtures and a smattering of other matches, often those involving the Jesters. Most visiting teams wilted under its intimidation; champions drew from its evil energy. Last season, the Ebolicorum Skitteringi had beaten the Duskdaggers 3-1 in a game that had set their season on its ultimately victorious trajectory.

Thump!

The ball arched into play to the wail of priestesses: Ha! Nana wynath!

Jacyntha moved to intercept the kick as the crowd responded: Wynath Hoo!

She caught the ball – Use the hands not the chest! – and retreated, giving herself time to assess the field. The Militantes sprang into attack, advancing into the heart of the Duskdaggers’ defence. “Close in on them,” Coach Karsgaard had said, “Block them hard and often.” Jacyntha’s teammates were doing just that, getting stuck in, forming a ruck, hitting hard. She saw a line-elf go down clutching his ribs. A Dark Elf striker staggered backwards and tripped on his heels, falling to the turf. A runner retreated before Pillcu.

Jacyntha advanced so the offensive surge didn’t get too far ahead of her. That was when Dred Curseweaver made an appearance. All flowing silver hair and black leather armour, the witch moved like lightning: rapid, all feints and thrusts, brilliant and filled with deadly energy. She dodged past Cuxi-Mikay, spun on one heel, and planted the other into Anahuark’s solar plexus, bending the Militantes’ catcher double. Curseweaver’s motion flowed on from the kick and she tripped up Laylalla before turning her gaze cross-field to Jacyntha.

We do our jobs! We don’t lose focus!

Jacyntha’s eyes must have betrayed terror for Curseweaver gave a shrill wail and danced forward. The ruck had bogged down and Jacyntha couldn’t get away from the witch by pressing forward. She wavered, glancing behind her to see how much room she had, and then Coach Karsgaard bellowed, “She is coming!”

Indeed, a glance confirmed it. Curseweaver’s eyes lit up as she closed in … alone. Cux and Laylalla had done their part of the plan and the witch had passed through the Militante’s defences like a sacrificial dagger slipping between the ribs, but they had shut the gap closed and Curseweaver now had no help. The witch came in spinning, a kick towards the chest proving dangerous but allowing Jacyntha to duck and pivot, a contact-less dance version of Umberto’s swim move. Curseweaver leapt again, spun, and aimed a sweeping kick at head height, only for Karolyse to barrel into the Dark Elf’s abdomen from behind.

The Militantes’ ruck hadn’t advanced as effectively as usual because Neuvil had pulled Karolyse and Belyna off the line and told them to break away once the trap was sprung. Curseweaver crashed to the turf with a grunt, though the witch was already rolling and getting her feet back under herself. Belyna followed up on Karolyse’s block, pinning the witch down just long enough for Jacyntha to stamp down on the Dark Elf’s thigh. 

Curseweaver howled, a priestess screamed “Woe! Ja na woe gat!” and the crowd responded with “Woe gat Hoo!

The ref had been well-payed to see nothing and play continued whilst Dred Curseweaver’s crumpled form was hauled off by the stadium’s medical staff.

Karolyse and Belyna returned to the fray and their return to the ruck gave it momentum. It pressed forward as the two Militantes’ strikers knocked down a pair of beleaguered defenders. Ellpay slipped through the weakened opposition line and got open in the Duskdaggers’ backfield. Coach Karsgaard hadn’t wanted them scoring too early, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. As Laylalla forced a striker out of the throwing lane, Jacyntha stepped forward and threw the ball like a quarrel shot from a crossbow. One Dark Elf leapt to block the pass but the ball was well beyond him by the time he reached out his hand. Ell snagged the pass and ran to the end zone.

She scored the game’s first touchdown just as a Dark Elf surreptitiously pulled a dagger from his boot and stabbed Ocllo in the gut.

More than one team could pay a ref to see nothing.

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