41: The Uber-vermin’s got the ball!

The Story So Far

With Karolyse and Jacyntha squabbling over which of them should be the team captain, Anahuark snatches the armband and declares the team needs everyone to be a leader. The players slather on Dew of the Dreamvine to protect them from Rodentien-borne sickness and speak about sticking to the game plan. But the semi-final begins badly for the Militantes. Jacyntha and Ellpay fall into the lure of the Skitteringi’s thrower and Ell, in a fit of anger, upends and fouls the Rodentien. The ref brandishes a red card; but not at Ellpay, at Jacyntha. When Ell protests the miss-call, she also gets shown red for dissent. Playing ten against nine, the Skitteringi soon score to take a 1-0 lead.

Furious about the ref’s miss-call, team owner Cassandra Thordwall threatens to “sort the problem out” herself. Her guest in the owner’s box, Eguardo Giamucci of the Wharf Rats, pleads for her not to do anything rash, vehemently claiming the league’s not behind the reffing travesty. When Thordwall yells; if it’s not the league behind it, then who is? Mytilan’s Queen Beatriz enters the box and says she is behind the call. It gets revealed that the Queen is a minority owner of the Militantes and Giamucci is incredulous: “… you bribed the ref to make calls against your own team?” The Queen says no, her target is her rebellious daughter, who shouldn’t be performing like a dancing bear in front of the masses. She assures a man who accompanies her, King Carles IV, Pretender to the Chivalron throne, that Jacyntha’s playing days are over.

“The Uber-vermin’s got the ball!”

Hansi would have burst Nykal’s eardrums had he yelled any louder. Alas, it was all-too-true. For some unknown reason, after the Militantes received the kick-off after going down 1-0, they had gone and kicked it right back to the Skitteringi! But not before flooding the right flank. Instead of their notorious high, arching up-and-under kick, this one had been odd. It was sent bouncing along the ground so it rebounded in strange ways. If its broad middle had hit the ground, it bounced predictably forward at the expected height. But had its blunt nose made first contact with the turf, it would suddenly veer left or right, sometimes springing higher into the air, sometimes rolling rapidly across the pitch. Following one of these odd ricochets, it had hit a Militante in the butt and bounced right into the arms of the giant rat-thing, Gnashnash Flailtail.

“That’s a right friggin’ mess, that it!” Hansi wailed. 

Newest converts to a cause are always the loudest.

The Uber-vermin thundered downfield roaring, the thick, whip-like tail twitching, the pair of chains from its collar dragging along the turf behind it. The Militante kicker, the one called Cuxi-Mikay – Nykal knew all their names now! – was the only player in Flailtail’s way. Even worse, a pair of Rodentiens were screening him from any last-gasp heroics.

But Uber-vermin are unpredictable and Flailtail veered towards the Xonyxa, drool spewing from a suddenly gaping maw. Giant incisors glistened in the cold air, ready to snap down on the valiant Militante. The two flanking Rodentiens leapt for the chains attached to the monster’s collar, no doubt so as to haul him away from the tender morsel (Cuxi-Mikay) and towards the end zone. The jaws snapped a hair’s breadth in front of the dodging kicker and then Flailtail staggered sideways, getting hauled by the Rodentiens pulling on his collar.

That triggered his fury.

He spiked the ball into the turf and charged his would-be handlers. The ball spun end over end high into the air. Nykal cried out “Look! Look!” as he saw Qispi arrive on the scene. Jacyntha had introduced Qispi as the team’s best tackler back at the Lateen and for a moment he dared hope. She flattened a sewer-slipper who had gotten under the dropping ball and suddenly Cuxi-Mikay was in its place. Cux held off another sewer-slipper with a straight-arm and caught the descending ball one-handed. The Skitteringi flooded forward sensing an opportunity to put the game out of reach. The crowd screamed for the Militantes to take them down. Others were bellowing “Run! Go, go, go!” at Cuxi-Mikay. 

But she didn’t run. Nykal could see there was no point with two Rodentiens closing in on her for every Xonyxa. He heard her yell, “Up-and-under!” and, still holding off that sewer-slipper, she punted the ball high into the blustery autumn wind.

“Aw gods! She’s skied it!” Hansi yowled.

Indeed, it went so high the wind took it, pushing it towards the left sideline. Only Anahuark had a play on the ball but she had a lot of ground to cover. The woman sprinted as though a whole pack of Uber-vermin were nipping at her heels. The ball dropped. She lunged.

“She’s got it!” Nykal screamed.

“Karentin Sly’s closing in!”

There’s no footy player faster than a sewer-slipper and Sly was quick even for those accursed things. As Anahuark rolled to her feet, the Rodentien came flying in and leapt on her back. She staggered onward towards the end zone, elbowing frantically, trying to dislodge him. The Skitteringi were scurrying back, the Militantes were intercepting them, and still, the struggle continued.

“It’s pulled her down!” Hansi yelled in despair.

Nykal jumped up and down. “No! No! It’s … she did it on purpose!”

Anahuark had twisted and let gravity weave its magic. The pair fell, entwined, but the Xonyxa’s move meant Sly was between her and the frost-hardened turf. She fell on Sly, a softer surface than the ice-encrusted pitch, whereas Sly felt the full force of the ground’s hardness amplified by the weight and momentum of an athletic Xonyxa.

Sly’s ribs popped; Anahuark jumped up and ran into the end zone.

The supporters around Nykal and Hansi went wild.

“We got lucky!”

Cassandra Thordwall nodded. She had left Queen Beatriz and her pet pretender in the owner’s box, with Eguardo Giamucci entertaining them … or rather, enduring them! Instead of remaining in the rarified presence of royalty, Thordwall wanted to be with her players in the locker room. They were young women and she wasn’t sure Umberto was any good at the sort of half-time talks that could boost their morale.

“You’re right, Anahuark,” she said. “But in all the time I’ve followed footy, I’ve come to realize every championship team needs a bit of luck. Good teams take full advantage of the luck that comes their way. Yes, Cuxi-Mikay’s kick easily could have sailed out of bounds, but no other player in the league could’ve got the kick away with a rat-thing hanging off them! Or if they had gotten the kick away, they’d have knocked it five paces downfield into the arms of Abscès Ezqueek.”

Anahuark shook her head in anger, “I’m sure you’re right, Mistress Thordwall, but champions perform at the highest level and we’re not playing our best! ’Cyntha and Ell forgot about Griffeciel’s tactics and now are out of the game.” Then Anahuark pointed across the changing room, “Qispi, you weren’t watching when Cux did the squib kick. We worked on it all week and we kept saying, watch the kick; it’s unpredictable. We’re in this mess because we’re not executing the game plan.”

Umberto finally chimed in, “Hang on! One – one at the half isn’t a mess, see, and we’ve got the advantage. First of all, Flailtail took out two of his own linerats, Ell took out Griffeciel so they have no thrower, and you and Qispi put out two of their three sewer-slippers. They didn’t put any of us out yet, so our bench-strength is helping us. They kick to us and they’ll only have nine players. If we control the ball, march up-field methodically, picking off those rodents one at a time, they’ll be in no shape to equalize. We’re in a good place, team.”

Karolyse huffed. “The ref’s against us. She sent Jacyntha off for Ellpay’s foul and then sent Ellpay off for admitting to it.”

Thordwall said, “You needn’t worry about her any further. I have it on good authority she’s already had the influence on the match her benefactor sought.”

She decided to cast off the demeanour of Cassandra Thordwall and become Pillaging Peggy once again. She tossed her tricorn and whip to Umberto before grabbing a chair, spinning it around, and sitting down, leaning forward onto the chair-back. Like this, she could look into the eyes of her players sitting on the benches around the wall; looking from an equal height, not from above. This wasn’t the act of an employer, this was something more conspiratorial. She said, “Look, when I took the Menace into a fight, a half-a-hundred things could’ve always gone wrong. What if we underestimated the strength of the enemy? What if they’re bait in some anti-pirate crackdown? What if they’ve got ballistae? What if my sword breaks? What if I trip? Take it from me, no one can juggle half-a-hundred worries. Worry about one thing; doing the job assigned to you. You all do that and you’re going to the final.”

“By the Jaguar, yes!” Anahuark yelled. “Execute the game plan!”

“So go out there and do as Umberto says: ball control, punishing blocks, a late touchdown.”

She watched them stand, stretch, and walk back down the tunnel and into the raging Eztadio de Sanger.

She now knew: there was no need to worry about her team’s confidence.

“Up and Under!”

To Nykal’s ears, the Rodentien accent was strange; a shrill whistling mixed with a guttural cackling. Half the team was yelling the Martispeak term for the Militantes’ radical tactic. The Xonyxas had received the kick-off and had again shunted the ball to their kicker, Cuxi-Mikay, who had pulled off that spectacular play in the first half. The instant she had taken hold of the ball, the Rodentiens had yelled “Up and Under!” to each other and fanned out. The sole remaining sewer-slipper hung back, loosely screened by three linerats, strikers Abscès Ezqueek and Bubonicus Mirk darted upfield to put pressure on the kicker, while the two remaining linerats covered each side of Gnashnash Flailtail, who dominated the centre of the park.

“She’s not kicking!” Hansi yelled.

Nykal could see it just as well as his cousin. The four Militantes’ strikers honed in on Ezqueek and Mirk while Cuxi-Mikay hung back, screened by Anahuark. The other Militantes marked the Skitteringi’s midfield pair, while Pillcu taunted the Uber-vermin, daring him to lunge out of position in a stampeding rush.

Karolyse and Belyna slammed into Ezqueek and made him eat turf. Mirk was a cunning veteran, however, and he stayed clear of the strikers and even dodged closer to Cuxi-Mikay.

“They’ve knocked out Ezqueek!” Hansi hollered in glee.

“Look!” Nykal yelled, pointing at the Uber-vermin. It took Pillcu’s bait, charging at her, swinging its heavy paws, each adorned with lethal claws. She dodged clear but the hawser-like tail snapped around and ensnared her feet. She dropped.

“Oh no! He’s mauling her!” Hansi cried out, this time in despair. The strikers Karolyse and Pochtli came to Pillcu’s aid but it looked like it was too little, too late. Flailtail turned his attentions on Karolyse, but the striker swam past his attack, hopped over his snapping tail, and dove at his knees. Pochtli leapt into the Uber-vermin’s chest and he pitched backwards, chains, limbs, and tail all flailing wildly. His head hit the frozen turf and he stopped twitching.

The Skitteringi coach saw his team losing the battle as so many of his players were hanging back in case of an up-and-under that wasn’t happening. He waved them forward, keeping only the sewer-slipper back. The Rodentiens darted around the Militantes in midfield. Mirk escaped his markers and came sprinting at Cuxi-Mikay.

Hansi pointed to the Militantes’ sideline. “The coach is yelling ‘squid’ or something!”

Three Rodentiens came dashing at Cuxi-Mikay. Nykal and Hansi watched in horror as she inexplicably did that same strange kick. But this time it didn’t hit anyone in the ass. It careened across the turf alternating between spasmodic bounces and short hops through the air. It slowed and went rolling into the far corner, coming to rest not four paces from the corner flag. The sewer-slipper in the backfield went racing after it but by the time he scooped it up, there were five Militantes bearing down on him. He slipped past three, dodging right then left, but Qispi tackled him and dropped him on his head. Anahuark picked up the loose boarskin and sauntered into the end zone.

Hansi and Nykal jumped up and down in each other’s arms, part of a seething mass of hysterical supporters. Their team was leading 2-1.

Flailtail and Ezqueek were too groggy to return to the pitch and the Skitteringi had run out of sewer-slippers. They could only muster six players for the final kick-off versus ten Militantes. The Xonyxas quickly regained possession of the ball after the restart and Cuxi-Mikay herself took it in for a last touchdown just as the Ogre referee blew the final whistle.

The Mytilan Militantes had defeated the defending champions and were going to the Blue Blood Cup.

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