I am Tandrak Shaye.
That’s not something that everyone can say, is it? I know it’s something plenty of dreamers and Cup fanatics would like to say. I can’t honestly see why. It means that wherever you go, hordes of screaming, swooning girls flock to you like you’re some kind of magnet, and everybody wants to take your picture.
My manager was one of the few Neopets unaffected.
Right now, I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or annoyed.
He glared at me from across the mahogany table, his beady Darigan Techo’s eyes scrutinizing my Gelert face like there was something wrong with it. This expression had been recently adopted, worn ever since we’d lost our match to Roo Island, but now, I wondered if it was permanently stuck to his face. His spiny purple arms were folded across his chest, and his mouth looked like somebody had shoved a very sour Lemwart inside of it.
“You’re late,” was all he said.
I sighed. “Five minutes isn’t killing anybody, Torsh.”
He squinted at me, shrewd. “If you had been five minutes late for a Yooyuball match...”
“Not this again,” I groaned, throwing my crimson paws in the air and standing up in my seat. A flare of annoyance flickered in my chest; I hadn’t ever missed a match, even when I was sick, or injured. Why did he always have to use these stupid metaphors? “We beat Brightvale yesterday, nine-zero; will you please lay off the doom and gloom?”
“No,” he seethed, his voice becoming terse. “Brightvale was a pushover! The odds were fifteen to one on the winning team, in Darigan Citadel’s favor. Mr. Shaye, team Darigan is in eighth. You were the favorite to take it all. Now this? Your performance this year is practically an insult to how you played last time around. How can you expect to take home the Cup like this?”
I’m used to insults. Opposing teams’ fans and angry blue Techos scream them at me every match. These days, they bounce off me like Yooyus bounce off our goaltender, Reshar Collifey.
But this one stung. There was a grain of truth in it.
It was a low blow, and Torsh knew it.
This year had started out like last year (oh, how I miss those days!). We dominated Terror Mountain, our fans cheered, and we thought this was the stellar start of another stellar year.
Day two. We tied Shenkuu, but that was okay. Not good, but not bad either. Shenkuu is a new team, but their prowess is undeniable. We’d vowed to play harder and underestimate less after that.
We’d beaten a few more of the easier teams. And then Roo Island came.
They crushed us. In both game... and spirit.
I don’t exactly know what happened after that. It wasn’t just me; it was all of us on team Darigan. There was no longer a spring to my step, a roguish grin on my face on the field. We faltered. We slowed down. The game didn’t have the same... electricity as it had last year. Or it did, but we were just left out of it.
Krawk Island swept us. Lost Desert pummeled us. Meridell, our long-time rivals, Meridell even beat us.
Our morale continued to fall.
Fans had left us. A lot of our fans, especially the newer ones. And the ones who still loved Darigan weren’t always cheering.
We’d come out of our cold streak and beaten a few of the more easy teams after that. They didn’t help boost our rankings much, or our confidence.
So here I stood now, in front of a very irked and disappointed team manager, about to square off with Roo Island again in twenty minutes.
“Well?” Torsh asked flatly. “Do you honestly think you can still win the Altador Cup?”
“Yes,” I glowered. It was a lie, and we both knew it.
His face was expressionless, his voice toneless. He spoke no words of encouragement; he’d given up on that, too. “If you say so. Get your uniform on. I was going to ask you why your scoring average has dropped so low, but time is against me.”
Good. At last, some luck. Coldly, I turned away. We needed a new manager... but no. We all knew that this bitter Techo was not all Torsh was capable of being. Our performance had caused the change.
Why, Roo Island? I seethed. Why did you have to beat us? Why did you have to destroy us? A loss wouldn’t have hurt your record.
Why do you have to do it again?
Glaring at nothing in particular, I stepped out of his office, only to be assaulted by the glaring sun, the Altadorian heat, and...
“OH MY GOD!”
“IT’S TANDRAK SHAYE!”
“LOOK! OVER THERE!”
And then some more incoherent screaming. I cringed. Over to the side stood a horde of girls, mostly pink and purple Neopets, with one Faerie Zafara. Not a Darigan in sight. It was a little ironic; me being Darigan and all, one would think I’d attract less ‘cutesy’ Neopets as fans.
I already know I’m Tandrak Shaye, thank you very much.
I quickened my stride; all I had to do was cross the street to get to the stadium, and the throng of fangirls was far to my left, although they were running towards me now.
I crossed the street in two loping strides, yanking the stadium backroom’s door open.
“Can I have your autograph?”
“Sign my Puppyblew!”
There was a thud; somebody had fainted.
I thrust myself inside, slamming and locking the door behind me in one fluid movement. I wasn’t in the mood to be kind. I’d always thought being nocturnal was a strange concept, but now, it seemed pretty appealing. In the dark, you wouldn’t be recognized on the spot. The sun was like a spotlight, eternally trained on me.
Sighing, I turned away from the door (which was now being banged upon) and strode down the cool, half-lit hallway to my team’s locker room.
They were all already there, strapping on their mitts and attire. Kep Bonnefie looked up as I approached.
“More fans?” she asked wryly, nodding in the direction I’d just came from.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Like Meepits. They’re everywhere, and evil to the core.”
The Buzz chuckled. “They’re not that bad.”
“Easy for you to say,” I grunted, sliding on my uniform. “They don’t follow you around twenty-four seven.”
She grinned. “The joys of not being a forward,” she said mockingly. Then her face fell. “No worries, though, Tandrak. None of us will have fans after this.”
I was loathe to agree... but I agreed.
“Yeah,” Tormo called from across the room. “It’s like somebody oiled my gloves; I can’t catch anything these days. Let’s face it, Roo Island has us.”
Reshar gave a gloomy mumble of agreement.
“What are you talking about?” Layton Vickles asked sharply.
I turned around. The Hissi had been quietly strapping on his Yooyuball apparel, listening silently to our conversation, but now he was glaring at us, his crimson eyes flickering with intensity.
“The match,” I said rather stupidly.
His eyes narrowed. “Did they decree we’ve already lost?” he hissed.
“Then stop acting like it!” he growled fiercely, flaring out his wings in exasperation. The team captain took a deep breath, looking us over once more, and his voice turned gentle.
“I know you don’t think we can win this,” he said softly. “Maybe we can, maybe we can’t. Roo Island’s squad is no pushover. And we’ve really faltered this year, there’s no doubt about it. The pressure is on us; everybody wants us to lose. And we’re just catering to them. But Roo Island thinks this match will be easy?” He laughed. “Sure. Let’s go out there today with our heads up high, and show them what we’re made of. Let’s play the way we used to, the way we still can, so when we go home, win or lose, we can still be a team we’re proud of. We are Darigan.”
He placed his heart and soul into the last three words, and they echoed around the locker room. It had otherwise fallen silent. The Hissi gazed at us intently.
And then motivation exploded inside my chest with almost tangible force. My eyes flew wide, like I was seeing sunlight after a month’s worth of nighttime. He was right. We were the only things getting in our way; we’d allowed ourselves to lose our motivation. We still could win.
Our determination couldn’t be flushed out so easily; how could we have ever let ourselves get so discouraged? Throughout Neopia’s history, Darigan Citadel had suffered far more than its fair share. We’d lost our prosperity, been entangled in two grueling wars, and had our appearances twisted and blighted for an eternity.
We hadn’t given up.
We were Darigan.
“You’re right.” I broke the long silence. My voice was huskier than usual. “We can’t just give up like this.”
Kep looked almost tearful. “You’re right. We were idiots,” she whispered. “How could we have let losing just one match destroy us?”
Layton only nodded. He looked pleased.
Reshar startled us by suddenly laughing. He slapped Layton on the back, narrowly avoiding his spiky pauldrons. “I never knew you were such a good speaker,” he chortled.
Then a yellow Poogle came into the room, looking like he felt quite important. Probably new to his job.
“It’s time,” he said simply.
I sucked in a deep breath. A hint of my old hopelessness touched me again; the match was starting. We were playing a team fully capable of beating us. Could one minute-long speech really boost our injured morale enough to let us win? How long would our new-old confidence last? One goal from Roo Island? Two?
Stop thinking like that, my positive side contradicted my negative side.
I silently followed Layton out of the locker room and towards the stadium. I could detect no fear in him, only determination, and that inspired me.
At last, the harsh Altador sunlight poured down on us, illuminating my scarlet-and-ebony frame as we entered the open air. A myriad faces stared down at me as I strode across the field towards my position, some hopeful, some confident, some disdainful. The pressure on us was nearly tangible.
Somewhere from the Darigan side of the seats, I thought I heard a vaguely familiar voice scream, “SHAAAAAYE!”
Some of the Roo Island fans jeered. I held my head high. I didn’t care what they thought of me, or my team. I was Darigan.
The Roo Island team poured out from the other side, taking their positions. They were smiling. I couldn’t detect any hint of menace within it – they were quite friendly, even to their competition – but I could see the triumph there, too.
They thought they’d already won?
I grinned too, but far more tightly. If we were going down, it wouldn’t be without a fight.
Lilo Blumario stepped forward to shake hands – or wings – with Layton Vickles. Team captain faced team captain.
“Best of luck,” the Blumaroo smiled.
Layton smiled too. “You too.”
And then the match was on.
The grate slid back, and a miniature supernova of flames exploded as a rather flashy fire Yooyu emerged.
I held back; Layton was already shimmying forward, his wings outstretched for the Yooyu. Jair Tollet was quicker, lunging and seizing the Yooyu before he could touch it. The Eyrie started to toss the ball to Fenny Vail, only to have it knocked out of her grasp as Kep tackled her.
The Yooyu rolled to stop a few feet away from me.
Time seemed to freeze. A million eyes locked onto me.
I knew what I had to do.
I darted forward, grabbing the Yooyu. I could almost ignore the blazing heat it exuded, so used to the sport as I was. My eyes darted around the field; Roo Island’s defenders were too far apart. If I could run fast enough, I could slip in between them.
They glared at me. I hesitated.
And then I ran.
My paws and heart pounded, beating out a frenetic, jagged rhythm as I raced across the field. I felt like my paws were winged; I’d never run so fast in my life. I could literally feel Gordo Gunnels’ breath on my neck as he chased after me, Fenny Vail not far behind him. But the goal was only a few feet away now.
Clutch Billaban looked at me. He flared out his Pteri’s wings and smiled.
I threw the Yooyu.
It flew past the surprised Pteri’s face in a blaze of golden fire into the goal.
Screams erupted from my side of the stands, joyous and strong enough to drown out the Roo Islanders’ booing. I felt elated. These were the pets I was playing for, and no matter how much I’d failed them, they still had faith in me.
A dashingly reckless grin split my face, one I hadn’t worn in what seemed like years.
The match was far from over. But win or lose the Cup, I was Darigan.
I was Tandrak Shaye.