The Story So Far
Karolyse, meets the Goblin, Grimmy Grimejacket. Grimmy is an agent who represents the Mongrels, a rival team knocked out of the play-offs by match-fixing. He is holed up in an exclusive posada. Karolyse goes to the inn and realizes he has been secluded there by Mytilan’s Queen Beatriz, who evidently doesn’t want the Militantes to make the play-offs. By asking Grimejacket to become the player agent for all the Xonyxa players, Karolyse persuades him to modify the Mongrel’s complaint, removing the Militantes from it and accuse the Imperials of fielding a weakened squad in the last game. Then an explosion rocks the city.
An informant comes to Umberto de la Calle, who is holding the team together in the absence of team owner Cassandra Thordwall, coach Karsgaard Neuvil, and team captain Jacyntha. She gives Umberto information regarding Neuvil, who was abducted by league Officer for Conduct Rennigan Slythe. It appears Neuvil is being held in the loft of a granary in the El Bosque Quarter. Umberto and the Xonyxas go off to rescue their coach. As he approaches the silo, Umberto hears a woman’s keening voice. He suddenly realizes it’s the voice of Dark Elf witch Nytmir Curseweaver, star of the Jesters, the team the Militantes will confront in the play-offs. He realizes she’s conducting a sacrifice … and he thinks he knows who’s on the other end of her sacrificial dagger. He sets aside all subterfuge and breaks into a sprint.
“Now you die!”
Nytmir Curseweaver’s screech filled Umberto’s ears as he bounded up the stone staircase that curved around the outside of the cylindrical granary in the El Bosque Quarter. He hoped the Xonyxas were following him because he’d need help … if he made it on time. His heart was pounding in his chest, he was blowing hard, and his left hand ached from how tightly he held his dagger.
He heard Neuvil yell, “Nytmir! Don’t do this!” Panic gripped him for the first time in many long years. He clenched his teeth and kept bounding up the steps three at a time.
Bodyguards don’t panic, but vinrs do.
Umberto reached the loft’s entrance. Curseweaver had left the door open to allow moonlight to illuminate the horror of her ritual. She stood at a wooden table holding a curving, serrated dagger aloft. Karsgaard Neuvil was tied naked to the tabletop. Also present were the Jesters’ other two Dark Elves including the famed striker Oscuro Estab as well as a half-dozen others of their kind. The witch sang out, “When you meet Nagra-Lath, send her my love.”
“NO!” Neuvil yelled.
Umberto threw his dagger just as Curseweaver’s own weapon came stabbing down. Umberto’s took her in the ribs and she lurched, screaming, further along her impromptu altar, but not before she had stabbed Neuvil. Oscuro Estab and his companion jumped to their feet in reaction to the attack, both reaching for daggers at their belts. Umberto charged through the threshold and crashed against Estab, taking the striker to the loft’s floor. The other dropped to a knee beside Human and Dark Elf ready to drive his weapon into Umberto’s guts but an arrow took him in the back.
The Xonyxas had arrived.
One volley of arrows was all it took to drop the other observants to the sacrifice or have them raise their arms and step back. The struggle continued on the floor as Estab writhed and twisted in Umberto’s grasp. The Elf was slippery but no match for the skills Umberto had honed over a career as a bodyguard. Umberto grasped Estab’s weapon hand and smashed it against the floor again and again until the dagger sprang free. Then he twisted Estab’s arm around behind the Elf’s back.
Curseweaver had been injured but she stormed at the intruders like a whirling hellcat. A scything boot took Cuxi-Mikay upside the head and toppled her. A follow-up thrust of Curseweaver’s elbow caught Pillcu in the face, cracking against the bridge of her nose and sending her reeling in a spray of blood. The witch rode her momentum and used a spinning back-heeled kick to Anahuark’s abdomen to fold the Xonyxa. But Curseweaver, so confident in her martial skills, didn’t count on Xonyxa resilience and determination. She might have bent Anahuark double but that didn’t prevent the Militantes’ catcher from grabbing hold of the witch’s leg and holding on despite the blow. Anahuark staggered backwards from the blow but Curseweaver had to hop along after her, grunting from the effort of pulling loose her foot.
As Umberto forced Estab prone, he saw Ellpay charge forward and drive the butt of her spear into the back of Curseweaver’s skull. The witch swooned and collapsed.
The physician, Huaco-chic’ya, rushed to the table. She snapped open her medical kit, pulled out a dressing, and clasped it against Neuvil’s chest wound. Neuvil cried out in pain. Cuxi-Mikay cut loose the bonds holding the coach’s limbs to the legs of the table.
“Belyna!” Umberto called. “Bind this accursed Elf’s wrists behind his back!” The Militantes’ striker did as he ordered, allowing Umberto to scramble to his feet and cross to Neuvil. His eyes met those of the physician. The movement was subtle, a bare shake of her head, but it was the message in her eyes that made him truly scared.
Neuvil was grimacing from the pain and coughing. From the looks of it, Curseweaver’s stab hadn’t cut into the heart, Umberto’s own attack having knocked her blow astray. But her dagger had opened a sucking wound on the coach’s chest. Huaco-chic’ya’s dressing had already turned bloody. She grabbed another dressing and applied it over the first. Then she turned Neuvil onto his side, injured side down. Umberto knelt next to the table and took Neuvil’s hand.
“I … I …” Neuvil gasped.
“Don’t talk,” Umberto cut him off. “Save your breath.”
Neuvil gasped. “I let you down. I let you all down.”
Umberto shook his head. “No you didn’t. You were up-right, all along. And you will be moving forward.”
Neuvil chuckled despite his evident pain. His breathing was short and laboured. “There’s no more … moving forward, my vinr. Just one last voyage.”
“No, no, you’ve still got a job to do, see. You’ve a team to guide to the final.”
Ellpay was suddenly beside them. She caressed Neuvil’s face and said, “Coach Karsgaard! You must hold on!”
He managed as smile. “I am sorry, Ell. I am so sorry.”
“Shh!” she breathed, shaking her head, tears streaming down her face.
Neuvil looked at Umberto. “Slythe knew where to find me. Nytmir …”
Umberto said, “Don’t you worry about her. We’ve taken care of her. She’ll do you no more harm.”
“She must have told … she told him. I am so sorry, Umberto. It was the rat-root. She … she helped take the pain …” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He gagged and blood ran from the corner of his mouth.
Umberto pulled Neuvil’s hand against his chest. Neuvil’s eyes fluttered open, closed, and open again. “Tell Cassandra I warned her I wasn’t …”
“Don’t think like that, my vinr! You did all she could have expected and more.”
Neuvil swallowed. More blood ran flowed from his mouth. “Tell … tell … ’Cyntha I am proud of her.”
Umberto nodded, the lump in his throat preventing him from responding.
“I go to feast, ’Bertie. I go to join Bjarni, Karlsefni, Bjorn … and … and Ocllo.” Neuvil forced another faint smile. “I hope Ocllo left me some ale.”
So passed Karsgaard Neuvil, three-time winner of the Frozen Seas Cup as a player, key member of the only team ever to boast an undefeated season in the history of the Frozen Seas League, winner of the Blue Blood Cup as the Head Coach of the Guayamartí Imperials, and most impressive of all, winner of the Twin Seas Super Cup as the Head Coach of the Hammarskjöld Nordhammers.
Ellpay had grabbed a recovering Nytmir Curseweaver by the throat and was shaking the witch. Umberto wrestled the young woman off the Dark Elf and pulled her into a hug. “Ellpay, remember what Coach Karsgaard said in Halos. We grieve AFTER, not before the final whistle. We still have work to do.” It was easier to say than to feel, but remembering his friend’s words did help him rediscover his centre. Ellpay sobbed against his chest but pulled herself together and pushed away … but not without kicking Curseweaver in the stomach. The witch bent double and gasped.
“What do we do?” Belyna asked, looking around at the nine prisoners they had taken and the bloody corpse lying on the table.
“We kill them all,” Ellpay snarled.
“We do not!” Huaco-chic’ya snapped while wiping blood from her hands. “A Xonyxa never, ever murders a captured foe.”
“That’s a lovely sentiment,” Umberto said. “But, see here, this isn’t warfare. I’d like nothing more than for Inquestors to come up here, arrest these savages, and deliver them to a Procurator for trial. They’re guilty as the hell they wanted to send Neuvil to. But that won’t happen, because of the Pact. The Hierarchs don’t want the death of nine Dark Elves on their hands.”
Huaco-chic’ya shook her head. “We are not murderers.”
Umberto stared into the Xonyxa’s eyes for a long, long time but she didn’t waver. He finally glanced away and nodded. “All right. The way I see it, you all have to get away from here just so’s not to tempt the Hierarchs or the league into taking precipitous action. I’ll go inform the Procurator. Justice will be done.”
The physician nodded. “Agreed. Thank you. All right Xonyxas, gather all your things … your spent arrows, everything, and clear out.”
The women efficiently went about clearing up anything linking them to the crime scene. Before they left the loft, Umberto said, “Cut their bonds.” Despite the Xonyxas’ surprise, they followed his command and undid the ropes they had used to pin the Dark Elves’ hands behind their backs. As the women went back outside, Umberto stood before Oscuro Estab and said, “You’re free to go but don’t be surprised if justice finds you very soon. You have a lot to answer for.”
Estab spat into Umberto’s face. The Militantes’ Thane of Player Personnel smiled and wiped the gob of saliva from his cheek. “Make sure the Inquestors can find you, Nytmir particularly.”
He left the loft and closed the door. It had an iron lock and it was easy for him to jimmy the bolt into the locked position despite not having the key. That was a skill he had picked up before becoming a bodyguard. The lock wouldn’t be so easy to jimmy open for someone less well-versed in the skill. He double-checked that the players and physician were long gone.
He jogged down the steps. Near the bottom, he came across league Officer for Conduct, Rennigan Slythe, ascending the granary, burning torch in hand.
“What’ve you done up there, de la Calle?” Slythe barked.
Umberto stopped. Slythe was huge but Umberto knew for all he might have been a renowned footy player, he was an amateur in the game they now played. “I’ve a witness, see, pinning you to this granary. I have a dead body up there, the body of a person my witness saw you haul from Nytmir Curseweaver’s flat. I’m going to see if all this information will interest an Inquestor. Oh, and dear old Nytmir’ll corroborate everything, see.” Slythe grew alarmed. He made to push past Umberto one-handed, the burning torch preventing him from a two-handed move, but it was easy for a bodyguard to swim past the thrust and pluck the torch from Slythe’s hand.
“Off you go,” Umberto said. “I’m sure Nytmir has something interesting to tell you.”
Slythe ran up the steps. Umberto carried on down to street level. The Xonyxas were nowhere to be seen. He forced open the broad main doors of the granary, which was no more difficult than jimmying the lock to the loft. He dropped the burning torch underneath a wagon sitting inside the main grain unloading station and then he closed the doors again.
“Justice is served,” he said to the night sky, to Neuvil who was sailing amongst the stars to his feast with Ocllo and his former teammates.
Umberto didn’t even run away. He just walked.
He got further than he expected before the granary blew up.