The Story So Far
Umberto and the Xonyxas find their coach, Karsgaard Neuvil, in the loft of the granary near the docks about to be sacrificed by Dark Elf witch Nytmir Curseweaver. He is tied to a makeshift altar and her sacrificial dagger is sweeping down. Umberto knocks the blow astray and a fight ensues between the Dark Elf congregation and the rescuers. The Xonyxas subdue their opponents but discover that the witch’s stab, while it didn’t pierce the heart, has severely injured Neuvil. Gasping for breath and with blood welling up into his mouth, Neuvil reveals that Rennigan Slythe discovered him at Curseweaver’s flat, meaning she must have informed the league Officer for Conduct where to find him. He wheezes he was there because she was giving him the rat-root he needed. He is sorry for failing the Militantes. Umberto chides Neuvil for morbid thoughts when there are the play-offs to contest. Neuvil says he has but one last thing to do, sail to the feast where he’ll join Occlo. So passes Karsgaard Neuvil.
An argument ensues over what to do with the Dark Elf captives. Ellpay, distraught at the death of Neuvil, wants to kill them. The physician Hauco-chic’ya refuses to countenance murder. Umberto argues with the healer, noting the likelihood of the Dark Elves escaping justice. In the test of wills that follows, he relents and orders the prisoners set free. He does lock them in the granary loft as he departs the crime scene. On his way down the steps he encounters Slythe, who demands to know what the Militantes are up to now. Umberto reveals he has a witness tying Slythe to the murder in the loft. He snatches the burning torch Slythe carries as the latter pushes past Umberto to see what has happened. Umberto descends the steps to the main part of the granary, breaks inside it, sets the flaming brand underneath a wagon, and walks away. He gets further than expected when the granary explodes.
“No one’s even rioting!”
Nykal would have said his cousin Hansi sounded disappointed were it not for the general gloom that hung over the Eztadio de Sanger.
Works like a dog on the wharves loading and unloading ships six days a week; he deserves better fun than this.
But the crier shouting out the team lists triggered nothing like the reaction last time the Militantes played, when the crowd grew violent upon realizing the Imperials were fielding a weakened line-up. Now the news echoing through the stands was hardly a surprise given what had happened in the city three nights earlier. There was shame and recrimination hanging over the Jesters’ supporters. The average fan had abandoned their loyalty to the league’s team of stars given the horrors visited upon Guayamartí. Indeed, the league had adjusted the seat allocation, dedicating three-quarters of the stadium to people wearing yellow and blue, the Militantes’ colours.
That the Jesters only had eleven players came as a surprise. Why were there no substitutes? But then again, Nykal reasoned, in the aftermath of the El Bosque fire, an established, popular star would have to be crazy to accept the league’s offer to play in the wild card game. Hansi had shrugged in reaction to the crier’s news; that all three of the team’s Dark Elves – Nytmir Curseweaver, Oscuro Estab, and Krual Munetearer – had been replaced by worn-out stars from a decade earlier was hardly a surprise. There was ignominy to endure here.
The Jesters emerged from the tunnel to a chorus of boos and several bushels of rotten pumpkins hurled at them. Even the team’s remaining stars looked subdued; their teammates’ twisted religion had led to the deaths of two footy giants. Karsgaard Neuvil would always have a checkered legacy but Rennigan Slythe was now a martyr to the sport. Once a player of astounding strength and ferocity, he had died saving the man whose career he had ended so many years earlier.
“Did he really die saying he’d come from the street?” Nykal asked.
Hansi nodded. He teared up but took a deep breath and regained control of himself. “He wanted us battlers to know he was one of us. He died trying to defend the game we all love, Nykal.”
Footy’s new martyr had been found crying out for help on the roof of a casa next to the inferno that had once been the El Bosque granary. The casa’s resident’s sister was a friend of Hansi’s mother – Nykal’s aunt – and she’d said Slythe had spoken before his injuries had claimed his life. The Jesters’ three Dark Elves and more of their sick brethren had kidnapped the Militantes’ coach, the infamous Karsgaard Neuvil, and had been conducting a demonic ritual. Slythe apparently said he’d stopped the sacrificial murder. In anger, Nytmir Curseweaver had tried summoning a demon as punishment but the spell had caused an explosion. Only Slythe had survived the initial blast, being thrown clear across the street. But the league’s Officer for Conduct, who had sniffed out the Dark Elf malfeasance, hadn’t lasted long. He had expired gasping, “… de la calle … de la calle.”
Graffiti had sprung up over the intervening days all across the poorer neighbourhoods – the Barrio, El Bosque, Refugiados – with Slythe’s famous bald head in outline painted on the cobblestones of the streets … the calles.
That members of the Jesters had sunk to such horrors – sacrificing their opponent’s coach just to win a footy match – meant that all but the most heartless fans had turned against them. Even the impressive Goriada had become a figure of ridicule. In contrast, the Sanger erupted in a thunderous roar of approval when the team of Xonyxas took to the pitch.
The events in El Bosque had led to a public outpouring of support for the Militantes. When the clean-up of the damaged neighbourhood began, the Xonyxas were all there to help, except for the team captain, who had gone missing, and the team owner, who was in hiding if the rumours on the streets had it right. But the clouds hanging over the Militantes had cleared up: it was now clear the team was but victims in the whole sordid mess. The Mongrels’ petition hadn’t led to the women getting docked points. It was the Imperials who got docked points, though it hadn’t changed who made or missed the play-offs. The Militantes entered the Sanger like the coming of a new dawn.
“Look at ’em!” Nykal’s cousin said.
“I do little else, Hansi.”
“Oh yeah. Forgot. You’ve long since gone soft in the head for ’em. But look! They’re walking out, not running, cool as you like.”
“Maybe they’re just sad at losing their coach.”
“Take it from me, Nykal lad, I’ve seen plenty of footy players in my time. They doesn’t look sad. They look like they’s got a score to settle.”
“ ’cept those what done the dirty deeds is just as dead as Slythe and Neuvil.”
“Well, maybe it’s one of those things when the whole world’s against you.”
“You know, Nykal cus, I like you, but sometimes it’s hard. Look around you. Open your ears. Do you really think the whole world’s against them?”
“Now don’t tell me you’re goin’ soft on ’em!”
“You know, now’s you say it, I kinda like ’em. Did I tell you I spoke with their new coach? He come down to the docks last week asking about their missing team captain. I recognized her so I told him about her leaving with the Xonyxa fleet. Decent fellow. How’d you think I got us in here today? He gave me tickets.”
“What’s his name.”
“Umberto something or other.”
“Forget the ball, hunt them down!”
Those had been Umberto’s words prior to kick-off.
“Start with the freebooters,” he had said. “There’s three of them, see, and they’re all experienced players. But each one’s well past his prime and carrying a niggle or three. It doesn’t matter if the Jesters score, make sure those three can’t get back on the pitch for the resulting kick-off.”
Now, just after the opening kick-off, Karolyse’s sisters had already slipped containment and gotten into the Jesters’ backfield, whereupon they had up-ended two of their three targets. One had already been knocked out. Anahuark came dashing in and trampled the one lying prone. The ref didn’t see the infraction; Karolyse hadn’t realized how good Ana had become at making brutal stomps whilst running past a prone opponent and thus not drawing the eye of the match officials. The man clutched at his back and wailed.
Medical staff, you have your first injury to deal with. Now it’s eleven against nine and you’ve not got subs.
Predictably, the Militantes had conceded field position. The two Havoc Warriors Daurig Doomgiver and Kwalgi Merdir’Huarg had surged forward, but although they now dominated the centre of the pitch, they hadn’t managed to lay a solid block on the slippery Xonyxas. The ball-carrier, the lone remaining freebooter, had slipped in behind them, with the team’s pair of Havoc Dwarf blockers pulling up the rear guard. That was key; Dwarves weren’t as quick and, being less agile, could get bogged down by talented marking. And the Xonyxas had become much more talented over the course of the season. Without Oscuro Estab and his fellow striker Krual Munetearer, and lacking Nytmir Curseweaver’s fanatical attacks, the Jesters’ ability to decide where to open the hole in the Militantes’ lines was greatly diminished.
There was, however, one very real threat to the Militantes: Goriada. The star minotaur bellowed and ranged, stomped the turf, and blew steam out her nostrils. She was a frenzied one-beast stampede and she was very much up for this wild card game. She raged at Anahuark’s unpunished foul, shook her head, spraying the blood and gore the Jesters always lathered on her horns before their games. She went charging after the Militantes’ catcher. She outpaced Ana, closed, lowered her horns …
… and gored nothing but air.
Anahuark had used Umberto’s swim move to escape the charge and slip away, seeking shelter on the sidelines. Except that Goriada wasn’t so easily thwarted. She kept coming, skidding to a halt and twisting to close in on the catcher again. Once more she lowered her horns and charged. Karolyse readied herself.
Maybe she’s easily thwarted after all.
Goriada’s stampede had taken her across the pitch to the sidelines, away from her teammates protecting the ball-carrier, and right into the hornets’ nest. Four Xonyxas were there waiting for her. She connected with Anahuark and yanked back her head, throwing the woman high into the air. Ana came crashing back to the earth and lay in a writhing mass of twisted limbs.
Medical staff! Injury number two. But don’t go anywhere, number three’s coming up.
The Xonyxas pounced. Belyna, Pillcu, and Qispi corralled the minotaur, pinning Goriada against the sidelines where the ranks of fans were desperate to get their hands on her. Karolyse had been waiting for this moment. She sprinted in and slammed against the monster. Wide-eyed and blowing vapour out of her snout, Goriada went careening into the stands. The fans were in no mood to be gentle.
With so many Xonyxas on the wings and with Anahuark no longer amongst their ranks, the Jesters pushed forward, penetrating deep into Militante territory.
But it wasn’t just the fans who were in no mood to be gentle; Laylalla took out one of the Havoc Dwarves anchoring the rear and as the Jesters thrust towards the goal-line, Qispi tripped up the ball carrier. The Havoc Warriors turned to face the threat from the rear, Daurig Doomgiver leaping for the loose ball, but now the Jesters were six against ten. Karolyse wasn’t as good as ’Cyntha had been at scooping up a bouncing ball, but she dove in anyway, knocking it out from between Doomgiver’s grasping hands. It bounced towards her sisters near the sideline.
Ellpay caught it and took off.
Bryce Bushtramplla came thundering cross-pitch to rescue the situation for the Jesters. The talented Centaur collided with Ell, throwing her to the ground and sending the ball spinning into the crowd. As though punishing the all-star team for every sin imaginable, the crowd heaved the boarskin back onto the field, right smack down in the middle of the chasing pack of Militantes. Karolyse nabbed the ball and headed for the far corner flag. Her sisters protected her from the charge of the other Centaur, Rory Ropethrorra.
The Militantes had kicked-off, put four opponents out of the game, caused a turn-over, and scored, all early in the first half. The crowd’s cheers near deafened Karolyse as she held up the ball to the sky, to the feast Neuvil was enjoying with Occlo.
Things didn’t get any better for the Jesters.