Location, Location, Location
The crowd roared as Prytariel rocketed yet another yooyuball into the goal. Four, five, six to nothing now. She circled around the Meridellians, forcing them to collide with each other as she scored again and again. Pumping her fist, she grinned as the whistle signaled the end of the game. Final score: Terror Mountain nine, Meridell zero.
With her quick reflexes, Prytariel snatched the bottle of water Osielle threw to her out of the air. She waved to the surrounding cameras as the flash bulbs danced in her eyes.
"Prytariel, how does it feel to be one of the top scoring forwards in the Altador Cup? What's your secret?"
She knew how to play the crowd. "My secret? You mean how I have tea parties with my plushies?" Her audience laughed. She pretended to ponder for a moment and then responded more seriously. "Location, location, location. It's really the key to all my goals. You need to know where your opponents are at all times, you need to know where to be when you make your goal, and you need to know exactly where to send the ball."
She grinned and took another casual swig of water. "Location, location, location."
Location, location, location. That summed it up, all right.
Rinok Fitel wouldn't say he was bitter. Well, okay, maybe a little. Well, okay, maybe a lot. But wouldn't you be? He was stuck as the right defender—the worst possible location where one could be.
Prytariel got to score every goal because she was left forward, the prime position to get the ball. At least that left Elbin Kroe open to defend the goal if the other team managed to snag the ball from her. If they went to Rinok's side of the field, though, Osielle Lidel kept them from breaking through. Really, Rinok never even got to move from his spot.
"Why the long face?" A cheerful Chia's voice broke through his thoughts. Minae Mitora, the only one on the team patient enough to endure his bad attitude, took a seat beside him.
Rinok grumbled aloud. "I'm just sick of not doing anything," he groused. "I worked my tail off to get onto the team, and now what? I just stand there waiting for the ball to come my way, but it never does."
That was when he realized he was talking to the goalie.
Minae's eyebrow raised slightly, but Rinok cut him off before he could say a word. "Okay, I know that was a stupid thing to say to you. But it really is driving me insane!" He motioned to his arms. "My muscles are withering from disuse, and I'm so out of practice I don't know what would happen if the other team did come my way!"
Minae shrugged. "I know the feeling. But remember, you're on the team for a reason. And," he added, "you at least can move. If the ball really never goes over to where you are, then go to the ball. You can block the other team in areas other than the right side of the field."
Rinok sighed. "I guess you're right, but..."
Minae slapped him cheerily on the shell. "But nothing! We're going to go out there tomorrow and beat Maraqua, and you'll be hailed as a hero forever and ever!"
"Stop kidding me," Rinok laughed, pushing the Chia playfully.
"All right, everyone!" Prytariel called in the huddle. "We've beaten tougher than Maraqua before. We can do this!"
You mean you can do this, you ball-hogger, Rinok thought. Fortunately, he had learned adequate enough social skills to know not to say this aloud.
"We just need to worry about that Skeith," the Aisha continued, casting a somewhat worried--even fearful--look behind her to Oten Runeu, Maraquans’ center defender. "Remember, though, his size makes him slow. We just need to play to our strengths, and one of our strengths is our speed. Just keep maneuvering around him, and he won't be able to keep up. Ready?"
The team nodded, albeit hesitatingly.
And then the game began.
The yooyuball shot into the air. Almost immediately Prytariel rushed forward and intercepted the ball. She ran around the forward, better known as the Black Hole, who hadn't even appeared to notice that she had already gotten the ball. Then she shot forward between the center and right defenders and scored before they could turn around.
The cheers nearly drowned out the announcer. "Once again, Terror Mountain has gotten off to an excellent start, with Prytariel scoring a goal in less than five seconds. If she keeps this up, she may break the record for most goals scored in one game."
Even from across the field, Rinok could see the scowls forming on the Maraquans' faces. For once, he found himself unable to envy Prytariel, because that Skeith sure looked angry.
The next ball was a fire yooyuball, which Rinok knew to be Prytariel's favorite. The Black Hole rushed forward as fast as Prytariel. He kicked the ball past the Aisha, a feat which few ever accomplished. He was nearing the goal...
WHAM! Elbin Kroe collided with the Maraquan, stealing the ball and kicking it to Prytariel. Once again she sped through the left field, between the defenders, and scored. Two to nothing within thirty seconds--not bad.
A snow yooyuball launched itself onto the field. Rinok could hear Prytariel groaning because she hated their lack of speed. Well, Rinok thought, if she's going to complain, then I'll take it. He rushed past Osielle, who looked shocked for a moment. That's right, Osielle, you DO have four teammates. Then the Buzz chased after him. "Rinok! What are you doing?"
"I'm getting in the game!" Rinok laughed gleefully. When a bitter Bori laughs in such a way, it tends to sound maniacal, so perhaps one can understand why Osielle stopped in his tracks.
Prytariel had already reached the goal with the ball, but her usual method failed. Tonie Plessix, Maraqua’s goalie, caught the ball and threw it to Dorina Hals, the Maraquan left defender. The defender shot through the now empty right side of the field and kicked the ball powerfully to the goal. The ball bounced off of Minae's torso and back to Dorina, who took another shot. Again and again, Minae blocked it, but each time the defender shot again. Before any of the Terror Mountain team could come to the goalie's rescue, Dorina finally hit her mark. Two to one.
"Rinok!" Prytariel screamed. "Where were you?"
The only Terror Mountaineer who didn't glare at him was Minae, whose look instead was sympathetic. Rinok slunk back into his place, a little embarrassed but a lot more angry. The one time I leave the right field, Prytariel messes it up so it actually goes there?
Still two minutes remained in the game, which was plenty of time to make sure they increased their lead. Prytariel glared behind her at Rinok as they formed their usual 2-2 formation. "Stay in your place this time!" she barked.
Rinok merely pointed to the game. "Ball's on the field," he informed her.
In her fury at being distracted, Prytariel ran even faster than usual and managed to beat the Black Hole to the fire yooyuball. Like a blur she kicked the ball around the forward, between the defenders, and to the goal. The goalie's eyes widened fearfully as he scurried out of the way to avoid death by yooyuball.
"I don't believe it!" the announcer said. "A two-and-a-half second goal! That breaks the record of three-and-a-quarter seconds previously held by Krawk Island forward 'Dasher' Soley."
Clearly, that goal had put the Aisha in a much better mood. As she kicked a clockwork yooyuball around the field, she shouted to the front stands, "Man, it feels like this is made out of metal or something!" Even the Maraquan fans laughed, though Rinok could not find the humor.
The Skeith blocked Prytariel. She feinted to the left, but Runeu was so large that she still could not get past him on the right. Finally, she broke through and prepared to kick the ball into the goal.
KA-BOOM! The ball exploded. Nobody could see anything through the smoke, but they could hear Prytariel's scream.
Rinok's already white face went whiter. He didn't like her one bit, but that didn't mean he wanted her to be injured. Besides, he was for the team first and foremost and wanted to win. He ran through the smoke. "Prytariel! Are you all right?"
She coughed as the smoke cleared. "Of course I'm all right. It just winged me." Rinok helped her to her feet, but she almost collapsed.
Osielle and Elbin joined them by the goal, exchanging worried glances. "Look, Prytariel," Elbin began, but the Aisha cut him off.
"Look nothing. I can still get the ball, and I can still score. I'm fine. See?" She took a few steps gingerly, then relaxed and took a few more. "Do I have to tap dance to prove I'm okay?"
"Yes," Osielle stated firmly.
So she did. Badly, but as she explained, "There's a reason I joined the yooyuball team instead of the dance team."
"Fine," Elbin said impatiently. "Then let's get back into the game."
Yet another fire yooyuball. Prytariel usually would have scored with ease. This time, however, her impediment was obvious. She was only halfway to the ball when the Black Hole kicked it to the left field. He kicked it past Elbin and into the goal. Minae didn't stand a chance. The score was now 3-2.
"Time-out!" Osielle called. The team huddled in the middle of their side of the field, with Prytariel as the last to join them. Even through her panting she managed to glare and snarl, "I'm the team captain, not you. I call time-outs."
"We needed this time-out," Osielle snapped back. Then, more softly, he said, "Prytariel, look at you. You can't run as fast as you normally can. If I'd rushed the ball instead, I might have been able to get it before the other team. I'm not as good at scoring goals as you are, but at least we can stand a chance."
"I can do it!" Prytariel roared back.
"Then why didn't you?" Rinok snapped before he could stop himself. Oh, dear. He knew he was going to regret that one.
Minae came to his rescue as the usual mediator. "Prytariel, it's not your fault you got injured. You're still the favorite player on this team. But you have to realize, you're hurt. That doesn't mean you can't play, but remember that there are four other players on this team." He gave her a playful smile. "We're not as bad as you think we are."
Prytariel, though mollified, still argued. "But I'm trying to--"
"Do you want us to win?" Elbin was notoriously impatient.
That stopped Prytariel in her tracks. "Well, yes, of course..."
"Then here's what we do." Somehow, the team let Elbin, the rookie, take charge. "Osielle, you rush at the beginning. That way we can get control of the ball. Even if you can't score, at least we can keep the other team from scoring. Rinok, you defend right field. I'll cover center field. Prytariel..." He looked at her hesitantly. "You're hurt, so I don't want to strain you..."
Prytariel again looked angry and opened her mouth to respond, but Elbin continued quickly before she could say anything. "...But I think you should defend left field. Maraqua knows you're injured, so they'll likely try to run you down instead of us. But you're strong. You can stand your ground."
The Aisha shut her mouth and nodded.
"Ready, everyone?" Elbin asked. Everyone nodded.
Osielle groaned when he saw the next ball was a mutant. Rinok grimaced too--mutants were annoying. "Don't worry," Rinok encouraged the forward. "Just keep it away from the other team for the next minute, and we'll win." Osielle nodded and ground his teeth.
Osielle beat the Black Hole to the ball, but the Maraquan forward stole it. He ran towards the goal with Osielle on his tail. Elbin stole the ball. He tried to kick it around the Maraquan to Osielle, but it went off at an angle toward the right defender, Barit Jowes, who had joined them near Terror Mountain's goal. Minae made a valiant effort to block the ball as Jowes shot it toward the goal, but the pesky mutant curved into the goal at the last moment. Terror Mountain fans groaned as the scoreboard changed to show 3-3.
"See?" Prytariel crowed. "If I'd gotten it, they wouldn't have scored!"
"Shut up," Rinok said. Prytariel did so out of shock.
It was obvious, however, that Osielle's confidence had been shot down. He hung his head in shame over letting the other team get the ball. "Don't worry," Rinok whispered to him from behind. "We've still got forty seconds, and you're good enough to make that."
Osielle's spirits seemed to lift when he saw that the next yooyuball was normal. He notoriously hated faerie, mutant, and Darigan balls; snow and clockwork annoyed him; fire, meanwhile, moved faster than he was comfortable with.
The Buzz rushed towards the ball and kicked it out from underneath the other forward's foot. The crowd cheered as he raced around the Black Hole, nearing the goal. But then...
THUD! The Maraquan Skeith knocked him over, stealing the ball. Rinok's heart sank. That was it; they were doomed to a tie or worse.
Runeu lumbered toward right field. Oh, no, Rinok thought, eyes widening. I'm about to get killed. He shook off that thought and bravely braced himself for the impact. It came. It hurt. But it didn't hurt as badly as he'd expected.
The next thing he knew, Rinok had the ball. So this is what it's like to get to play for real... I'd forgotten! He panicked--he hadn't scored a goal in ages. He knew he couldn't do it now. He glanced around the field, only to discover that every single one of his teammates was blocked. Clearly, there was only one thing to do now: head toward the goal in the hope that his opponents would chase him, leaving his teammates unblocked so he could pass the ball to one of them.
For a defender with such a heavy shell on the back, he was speedy. By the time he'd made it to the goal, everyone else was still on the other side of the field, except Osielle, who was still blocked by the defender.
Oh, Meepits! he cursed internally. Only ten seconds remained in the game. He had to score now, or else they would end in a draw, Faerie Queen forbid.
What was it Prytariel had said? Location, location, location. What did that even mean? Then he recalled.
His opponents were all on the other side of the field, except Dorina, who was blocking Osielle. There was nobody to take the ball from him--he had a clear shot. Location number one, check.
He stood at the middle of the goal. That couldn't be right--the goalie mirrored him, meaning that he could easily get the ball if he shot it to the left or the right. So he moved to the right side of the goal, and the goalie followed him. Location number two.
Rinok kept his eyes locked on the goalie's, knowing that if he looked where he planned to aim, the goalie would know where to move. He saw out of the corner of his eye the left corner of the net. That was it--the key to their win. The perfect...
He kicked the ball powerfully into the net.
The crowd went wild.
Have you ever actually seen a crowd go wild? I don't mean simply cheering or even jumping up and down. The Maraquan fans started a food fight in their anger over losing such a close game. One particularly rabid fan even tried to tear his seat out of the bleachers. Terror Mountain fans also started throwing their concessions, although there is quite a different feel to a celebratory food fight than to an angry one. It proved to be a very expensive after-game.
Rinok, meanwhile, collapsed as the blood left his ears. So that was why he was envying Prytariel--to suffer through all the pressures of scoring, to strategize and re-strategize, to run faster than you've ever run before, to strain yourself harder than you've ever strained before.
He loved it.
He did not, however, love the bit when you relax after straining yourself. Hence his collapse on the field.
In his exhausted, groggy state, he saw the hand stretched out to help him up. He reached out gratefully to take it, thinking that it must be his friend Minae. But Chias didn't really have hands, did they? Not that this was much of a hand either, but at least whatever it was was attached to a longer arm than Chias had. (How was Minae so good at stopping balls with such short arms?)
Two bolts of brilliance flashed through his brain at once. One, an easy way to find out who was there would be to look up. Two, he looked rather silly with his hand half reached toward whoever was there. So, being the ingenious multi-tasker he was, he took the hand (or whatever it was) and looked up at the face of the one who owned that "hand".
It was Prytariel. Rinok almost let go of her in disgust, but once again being brilliant, he realized that if he did so, he would fall on his shell. He allowed her to pull him up.
She grinned at him, an expression he had never seen her direct to him before. Always to the crowd, yes, but never to him. "Nice shot," she told him.
A compliment? From the incessantly egocentric Prytariel? He must have been dreaming. Yes, that had to be right. He'd fallen unconscious during the collapse, and he was having a really, really strange dream.
No, wait. The pain in his lungs could not possibly be a dream, though "not possible" was still more likely than Prytariel complimenting him for real.
All right, I'll suspend disbelief for a minute and just take it. "Thanks," he told her as she handed him a bottle of water. He gulped it gratefully as his lungs continued to burn.
"Have you ever considering being a forward instead of defending before?" she continued. "We've never tried a 3-1 formation before, but we could."
Okay, this was beyond unbelievable. "Who put you up to this?" Rinok asked, raising an eyebrow.
Prytariel pursed her lips. "Can't I ever just give a compliment?" As Rinok kept his eyebrows raised, Prytariel laughed. "Osielle did. He told me to stop being so arrogant for once." She shrugged. "But it's true. You're good."
"Not as good as you, apparently," Rinok confessed. "I never see you this out of breath."
"Aw, come on. You just need some practice to get into shape." She punched him in the arm lightly. "I can give you some tips."
"Let me guess," Rinok said, a smile spreading across his face. "Your first tip is location."
"Yup. So is the second." She took a swig from her own bottle of water and smirked. "Want to try guessing the third?"