24: Agony’s got the ball!
The Story So Far
Dark Elf assassins drop out of the night in front of the coach of the Mytilan Militantes, Karsgaard Neuvil, demanding that he “hand him over.” Umberto and Jacyntha, also present, protect Neuvil. Umberto, a capable bodyguard, disables two of the three assassins, whilst Jacyntha and Neuvil take care of the last. Jacyntha is shocked to learn the Referees’ Guild hired the assassins. She is even more shocked to learn why; get hold of the owner of the Guayamartí Imperials, Duc Tancred de Baston who, she learns, Militantes’ owner Cassandra Thordwall has kidnapped. Umberto tells her Thordwall intends to hand the duke over to “your ma,” meaning Mytilan’s Queen Beatriz.
After a hard two weeks of training, Jacyntha, Ellpay and the other Militantes attend the game in Halos between the Jesters and the Mongrels. The Jesters are a team of superstars formed by the league to heighten fans’ enjoyment by increasing brutality (indeed, earlier in the season they defeated the Militantes 2-1 and knocked Jacyntha out of the game). The Mongrels, the league’s team of Orcs and Goblins, are two points ahead of the Militantes in the standings and are an obstacle for the Xonyxa team in making the play-offs. The ref does the coin toss, the teams line-up, the star players play to the crowd, and Jacyntha feels her heart racing as the game starts. Star witch elf Nytmir Curseweaver kicks the ball deep, where Orc striker Mik Mangenain scoops it up, a fanged grin on his face …
“Agony’s got the ball!”
Ellpay was right. The Mongrel’s striker, Mik Mangenain, who had scooped up the ball after the kick-off, had shovel-passed it to the thrower Jacyntha had been watching toss sixty-pace long bombs during warm-up, Agony Muerevarg. The star striker then covered the flank, ready to pounce should an opening appear in the line. On the other flank, the Jesters had jumped the whistle and now flooded around into the backfield. But on the line of scrimmage, it was muscle on muscle.
Havoc Warriors receive the blessings of Havoc Demons and become receptacles of the demons’ hatred and cruelty. The resultant mutants were every bit as big and savage as Orc blockers, who they now faced in the ruck. The Jesters had two such warriors and had positioned them on either side of their star Minotaur, Goriada. But although their teammates might have jumped the whistle to perfection, Jacyntha could see as well as all the other fans that the Jesters’ muscle stood right across from the Mongrels’ rock-solid core: three blockers flanked by a lineorc on each side to give added support.
Grik’Ngog was the first to topple an adversary, sending Daurig Doomgiver crashing down. But the other Havoc Warrior stayed on his feet, still protecting Goriada, who now raged and drove against the heart of the Mongrels’ line, upending Grik and collapsing the ruck. The centre turned into a brawl and the Orcs used it to screen their advance from Jesters flooding around the opposite flank. Orc strikers aren’t as big or strong as their blockers, but they’re quicker and usually better footy players. They ran forward and took out a Goatyr before surging forward to swarm Bryce Bushtramplla, one of the Jesters’ Centaurs. That was the contest Jacyntha watched.
Coach Karsgaard had told her the game would be decided in the test between the Orc strikers and the Centaurs supported by homegrown fan favourite Nytmir Curseweaver. By surging up one flank, the Mongrels ensured they only had to deal with one Centaur at a time. Bushtramplla needed help, so Nytmir Curseweaver screeched and struck into the Orcs.
Already, the crowd was getting what they paid for: monsters toppling monsters and stars duelling stars. Nytmir spun in a blur of whirling roundhouse kicks that struck Mik Mangenain and pushed him backwards further and further. He stayed on his feet and shoved her away. Despite the chanting of the crowd and the noise of the mêlée, everyone in the Eztadio Matadoras heard the thundering hooves of Rory Ropethrorra as he stampeded from the opposite flank to thwart the Mongrels’ advance.
Beside Jacyntha, Ellpay was going as mad as a Nordman berserker, screaming for her heroine Nytmir to get back on her feet. Indeed, the witch kicked away from the pitch, did a handstand, and flipped onto her feet right behind Bushtramplla. Ropethrorra came crashing into the fray, the impact sending a Mongrel hurtling head over heels. Medical staff hauled the lineorc away and the crowd gave off a: “Wana Karma Hoo!” Ell even mimicked the chant, yelling: “I wanna karma who!”
With their advance bogging down, with their centre having descended into a mêlée, and with Jester strikers flooding around their rear, the Mongrels did as Coach Karsgaard guessed they might. Nytmir’s acrobatics had kept her on the pitch and her retreat behind Bushtramplla had saved her from the attentions of the Goblins always looking to stamp on someone who had fallen to the ground, but she had inadvertently opened the thinnest of cracks in the Jester defence.
Goblins Greenok Hork and Konvisse Yeux darted forward, weaving their way impossibly between Centaur legs, witch kicks, and grasping Havoc Dwarf hands. Nytmir pirouetted and set off after them but she didn’t take more than a step before Mangenain tripped her up and she stumbled uselessly backwards. Then, just as the pocket collapsed around Agony Muerevarg, the thrower stepped up and hurled a pass over the outstretched arms of the rearing Centaurs. The ball was thrown with such strength that when Yeux made the catch, its force sent him staggering … but staggering forwards towards the Jesters’ end-zone. Only a Centaur could catch up to the Goblin now, but Bryce couldn’t escape the pack of Orc strikers corralling him. Against all odds, Rory Ropethrorra dodged away from the fray and stampeded up the field after the new ball-carrier. Yeux’s flanking Goblin, Greenok Hork, bravely stood up to the charge and miraculously side-stepped the Centaur’s trampling hooves.
Jacyntha took note of the Goblin’s moves: just like those small Geckoids she had fought against in the skirmishes against the Exotherms along Mytilan’s borders, they were adept at avoiding blows.
Hork slowed the Centaur down enough for Yeux to reach the end-zone. The Eztadio Matadoras erupted in near-total silence, a damning condemnation from Dark Elf fans.
And the watching Militantes felt their stomachs lurch. They needed the Jesters to win this game but it wasn’t looking good. The first half ended one-nil for the Mongrels.
“You were off paying briBes?”
“Shhh!” Umberto hissed, glancing around them. He needn’t have worried though, Neuvil thought, because the fans packed into the palisaded section of the stadium were screaming so loudly he himself hardly heard Jacyntha’s astonished query. They had, indeed, missed the beginning of the game and had just now met up with their players.
Neuvil leaned in and said, “You ken our previous negotiations? The ones that started in the alleyway last week? Well, we met with the guild to deliver lucre in lieu of the other goods their clients had been expecting before those same clients double-crossed us. So, no, there were no bribes. However, we made the package generous enough for us to request a favour or two.”
Umberto glanced around again, smirking this time. He leaned in, jutted his chin towards the pitch, and added, “The Mongrels, see, might get a surprise or two.”
Jacyntha blinked. “You mean … in this match, not ours against them in two week’s time? But that’s … that’s …”
“Statecraft, I think your ma would call it,” Umberto quipped.
The witches rimming the lip of the stadium interrupted their discussion and announced the beginning of the second half. Their wailing echoing off the stands: “Woe! Ja na Kanithi gat!”
The crowd responded again in one reverberating reply of “Woe Kanithi Hoo!” and Ellpay, on the other side of Jacyntha yelled a mimicking, “Woe Can Sushi Who!”
Agony Muerevarg kicked off, squib-kicking the ball perfectly into the near quarter of the Jesters’ half, right along the sideline. The Orcs had stacked that side of the line of scrimmage and the Havoc Dwarf blockers had a difficult time holding them off.
“Good kick!” Umberto snarled, unhappy.
Neuvil nodded. “But it is a mistake.”
“Why?” Jacyntha asked as Mik Mangenain dropped a Havoc Dwarf and closed on the loose ball.
Neuvil tilted his head as though pointing out the obvious, “Goriada or Nytmir: take your pick. I would not want you near the sidelines with either of those two facing us. Watch now.”
A ruck formed up around the loose ball, with neither team able to gain control, but Neuvil saw Goriada shake off a lineorc and stamp the turf, eyes glazing red, head shaking droplets of blood in an arc all around her. She let loose a monstrous roar and stampeded. But she didn’t crash into the heart of the ruck. Instead, she targeted Ad’ag Bigkill at the back of the ruck. The Minotaur dropped her head, angled her horns just so, and powered into the block. Bigkill was a damned good striker, but he was outmatched by the mass of monster slamming into him. He twisted his heavy plate armour towards the blow, pummelled the Minotaur’s snout, and tried to slip away, but it did no good. With a toss of the massive head, the horns heaved Bigkill into the stands.
A play like that tended to catch players’ attention.
The Mongrels’ blockers swarmed Goriada, Grik’Ngog knocking her down and Goblin Konvisse Yeux slipping in to foul the suddenly prone monster. Then the ref’s whistle shrilled.
Reffing is a dangerous business. This ref, the same one who’d done nothing about Occlo’s killer, brandished a red card high in the air as he jogged after the moving scrum. The Goblin initially tried ignoring the banishment, as many players often try, but soon the ref’s assistants pushed into the mêlée and dragged him off. Yeux let fly a long string of curses, the Mongrels’ coach bellowed in rage, and Grik’Ngog stamped up to the ref screaming while simultaneously holding off Jester blitzer Oscuro Estab. With tempers fraying, ’Ngog lashed out. The ref ducked the blow and brandished another red card. More assistant referees flooded around the brawl to grab the Orc.
In one sequence of play, the Mongrels were suddenly down to eight players, one being a diminutive Goblin. The Jesters now placed Goriada at the centre of their formation, and she used her power to push the Orcs back, angling them again towards the sideline where all the action had been. Nytmir Curseweaver timed her next attack well. As more and more Orcs lent their strength and bulk to the ruck, she darted around and hit Agony Muerevarg. Like Bigkill, Muerevarg was an accomplished footy player, but his talent didn’t lie in holding off whirling witches aiming head-height kicks at him. He stepped back and back again, trying to hold Curseweaver at bay, but she planted one last kick on his chest and sent him into the crowd. Goriada knocked the ball back under the ruck, where Oscuro Estab snatched it up, slipped around the mêlée and threw a precise pass downfield to his fellow Dark Elf striker. The Jesters had equalized early in the second half.
Neuvil just prayed to the Fates the Jesters had scored early enough to give themselves time to nab a winner. If not, the Militantes’ season would get a lot more complicated. As he watched, he realized Jacyntha was looking down into his lap, where his hands thrashed worse than a salmon freshly hauled from the sea.
He excused himself and found a quiet place in the bowels of the stadium to calm his nerves.
The hit of rat-root worked its magic and even the pain from his leg receded.
He hardly remembered the rest of the game. He did remember Umberto hauling him out of a pack of fans intent on tearing down the wooden palisades so they could all celebrate the Jesters’ win with the local fans … presumably by fighting them.