A blur of red leaped up to meet an incoming blue ball, flipping quickly but missing the orb by the barest lengths. Angry, the red blur lighted upon the ground, eyeing the purple Jetsam that held a new blue ball in her fins.
Success, but it was short-lived. The red Scorchio slammed the ball with his tail, only to bash it back to the Jetsam. In seconds, the ball burst in an explosion of water, drenching the other pet.
“You forgot to scorch it!” she called out.
The Scorchio spat and kicked a clod of grass, his eye twitching angrily. He regretted coming up with the move that would replace his signature, and he regretted telling the Jetsam about it: now she was forcing him to practice it over and over again.
“The Gormball Championships are in three days,” she said calmly, still drenched, “you need to master that move, or you will miss and you will be made the laughing stock of the entire Championship!”
“No need to remind me, Shax,” he hissed.
Shax folded her fins and grinned good-naturedly. “Come on, let’s try the Scorching Flapjack again, Brian.”
For a few seconds, Brian was uncertain of even trying anymore. The Flapjack was complicated, and he either missed it or he forgot an essential component of his own, new, signature move. He eyed a gormball that Shax held idly, noting some bubbles forming within. If he did not master the Flapjack, he would disappoint his fans.
Gormball was not just a simple game, oh no. It did not just involve the throwing of a blue gormball, and attempting to catch it without making it pop. The game was much more meticulous. One needed precision, skill, and also good technique to relay an incoming ball to another player, and to do so was quite an art.
An art that constantly needed to be improved.
Brian had multiple moves already up his sleeves. His older and more famous move, the whirlwing, was done by accepting the ball with his wings and spinning around to ricochet it into a different direction. Using his tail to grab the gormball and catapult it did another, the fireball.
But the fans got too easily tired when they saw the same move being used all the time. They wanted something new: and Brian was ready to give them a move of a lifetime – if only it worked!
At last, he stood up and nodded grimly to continue. Shax gripped the ball under her fin and they continued practicing throughout the evening. Gormballs were broken, but no one was there to receive the tide of water that came out of each. The gormball field was abandoned, for he had personally called in early to reserve the grassy arena for himself.
Shax kept flinging gormballs until Brian felt success. Combining a burst of flame with a gentle slap of his tail, he sent the gormball flying in fiery haze towards the Jetsam, watching with pride as she grabbed it, only to have it explode in her face.
The celebration was short-lived, for suddenly the Virtupets intercom buzzed and a high, wheezy voice came through.
“The Arena is closing in five minutes.”
Brian casually glanced at a glassy box where a small blue Grundo was holding a microphone and waving to them both in a simple gesture to leave. Of course, it was late and they had been practicing all day, they just never realized the passage of time until they were told of it. The frown returned to the lazy grin when the Scorchio remembered the victory he had just achieved.
“Well done!” Shax rushed forward and embraced the Scorchio until he couldn’t feel his ribs anymore.
“Shax, please, it was good luck!” He wheezed.
“Are you kidding me? That was hardly luck! Too bad the arena is closing; it would be nice to try a few more times...”
“NO!” Brian wriggled out of her grasp and lighted gently on the verdant grass.
The purple Jetsam eyed him closely and nodded. “All right, go to sleep then. We will practice the smaller parts tomorrow. The arena will be full, yeah, but no one will know of your move since it will be practiced in pieces.”
Brian agreed to the plan, grabbed his towel to wipe himself off, and left out the right side of the arena while Shax went to deal with the manager. He only needed to stop off at the locker room, to get all of his stuff, including his lucky stickers, and leave as he always did. Brian was happy that he managed to finally get the Scorching Flapjack done, but was upset that he couldn’t practice it even more. All six limbs were falling off!
The cool locker room was pretty small, but the lockers themselves were big enough to fit an elephante with room to spare. The Scorchio dragged himself to his assigned door, took out his things, and began to go out the back door, which lead to the hallway where the equipment was kept.
The equipment in particular being gormballs.
It was dark, but the red Scorchio was able to see the faint outlines of the watery orbs on their shelves. As he passed by a side-door, he spotted it ajar. Suspicious, Brian edged forward and peered into the darkness. Illuminated by a green light coming from its chest was a cloaked figure with rolling hair, examining the gormballs there. The gormballs that would be used in the match in three days!
Brian uttered a shout, and the figure looked up. He managed to see the curls of the hair, and his eyes widened and then narrowed when he realized the truth. Without a second to spare, the figure dove for some dark corner. The Scorchio rushed forward, heaving out a great burst of fire to bathe the room in a wondrous golden glow. It was a small room, with nowhere to hide. And the figure was gone!
Brian turned on the light and looked everywhere. When he confirmed that nothing was in the vicinity, he went directly to the gormballs. They seemed relatively untouched, and he sighed with relief. Maybe he caught the tamperer before she managed to do any damage?
Brian growled as he turned off the lights and left the room. He knew the gender not because he guessed. He knew it because he knew the culprit, for only one contestant had long, flowing hair the color of fire.
He was right all along.
The practice was tense.
Brian was practicing his older and a few newer moves, hiding the Scorching Flapjack as best he could. All the while, he kept watching Ember, the fire faerie, out of the corner of his eyes. She was in her usual roan red and orange robes, serene as if she didn’t care much about her escapade the other night, flinging the gormball left and right with a fierce concentration that belied her outer tranquility.
The Scorchio felt his eye twitch slightly, and he continued onwards to look at the other contestants. There was Thyassa, a purple Chia who was expert at the art form of gormball. He was meticulous with his throws, his catches and his hand-eye coordination. Brian didn’t like him at all. On the other side of the soaked grass was Gargarox himself. The giant, mutant Grundo was an excellent chef and catered the entire championship. Brian had sampled his food before and decided that he liked the green, hulking Grundo.
Over there was Farvin III, an alien Aisha, who was talking to Ursula the Usul. He was a rather shady but open character, who had yet to win a championship or even place in the top three. Brian always expected him to get angry and brooding at the fact, but he stayed awkwardly happy about it. He was hiding something, and Brian was not surprised if it was disappointment at always losing.
He was about to examine the others when Shax’s loud yell brought him back to the plate. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, and proceeded to do the improved version of the fireball to his friend and self-proclaimed manager, quickly managing a glance at Ember.
“I know what’s up. I know the truth that you worked so hard to hide. You won the previous championship because you cheated, Ember. The others didn’t believe me because I cheated myself in the past, but I have made up for it. Trying to cheat again? We will see about that.”
When the time for the championship had come, the grass was so green from its constant watering that it seemed almost fake. The crowds were cheering at the gormball players that had walked out into the field and the dazzling light of the artificial sunlight, flinging flowers and other things at their favorites while calling out their names. Brian caught sight of one of his fan clubs and waved to them, grinning when he saw a young Xweetok faint at the action.
It was good to be famous.
He turned to see Ember with her aura of confidence and held back a sneer. He knew where that confidence came from. Behind her, Farvin seemed unusually nervous. His four ears were atwitch, and his eyes were wide. He had been in the championships before, why was it that he was so anxious now? Turning, Brian took his position in the circle as the cheering reached a fever pitch.
It was his time to shine!
The gormball was flung at Kevin’s direction, and the young Korbat quickly ricocheted it towards Thyassa. The Chia proceeded to jump into the air and spike it towards Brian, who growled and used his improved fireball to give the ball to Gargarox. He was angry that he couldn’t use his Scorching Flapjack – the move required the ball to be high in the air to accomplish. Had Thyassa done that on purpose? He glanced at the Chia, but he seemed pretty calm and Brian decided to wait for his chance. In seconds, he heard a watery crash and saw the blue Grundo, Zargrold, soaked to the bone, covered in the tattered remnants of the gormball. He was out!
Zargrold didn’t seem to mind and walked to the side-stands of the arena to dry off and to watch everything else as a new gormball was raised from the center of the arena and cast towards Ursula. She waited for a few seconds and then quickly used her tail to catapult the ball towards Ember. The fire faerie did a gentle, two-second chest pass to Kevin, who flung it across the field to Brian.
A high throw! This was what he was waiting for! With a grin, the Scorchio vaulted into the air, until he was on par with the incoming gormball. He had only one chance. The crowd held their breath, the critics in the background watched, and Shax (he saw her) was gripping the railings. One chance. He would not blow it!
Brian quickly flipped in the air, gritting his teeth and watching as his tail gently touched the gormball. In the barest fraction of a second, the ball and tail disengaged as he directed it to Gargarox. Now!
Taking a deep breath, Brian let loose a huge cloud of fire that enveloped the water ball and literally catapulted it towards the poor mutant Grundo, who was so awed with the display that he never saw the gormball explode in his face and drench him with warm water. The crowd roared at the success of the Scorching Flapjack, and the critics nodded to each other knowingly before scribbling furiously on their notepads. Shax was cheering, and Brian felt as if a miracle had occurred. He did it!
Gargarox didn’t seem upset by his ousting from the championship. Instead, he grinned at the Scorchio and walked out of the arena to help prepare his café for the massive hordes of Gormball fanatics when the championship was over. Brian landed gently, waved to the crowds quickly, and then returned to the game. The instant the gormball was unleashed to Thyassa’s direction, Brian had a feeling that something was not right.
There was something dark... wait... two things inside the gormball as it passed over his head and hit the light. As it went back and forth, Brian spotted Farvin suddenly stiffen. The Aisha watched the incoming gormball with something akin to fear before accepting it and passing it to Ursula.
Everything happened in a split second. The striped Usul was standing there, calm and collected, readying herself for the orb. But when it came, there was a massive explosion, and she was hurtled back like a rag doll. The crowd screamed with disbelief as medics rushed to the scene. It couldn’t be!
The gormball was rigged!
Brian watched, feeling something cold in his stomach as the explosion dislodged something in his memory. “This happened before...”
Ursula was rushed out of the field, and the entire arena was thrown into disarray. Farvin was standing there, frozen with an unexplainable expression on his face. The contestants were pushed to the sidelines as a detective rushed to the scene. Ever since Brian’s little fiasco in the first year of the Gormball Championships, there was always a detective there, just in case.
The Scorchio already felt the burning glares of some of the crowd upon his scales. He was being blamed, but he did absolutely nothing! It seemed as if the detective, a blue Yurble in a dark overcoat, had found something. He walked over to the contestants, and Brian spotted that his right hand was balled up in a fist.
“Hey Brian, is this yours by any chance? It was found in a small pile that was all that was left of the gormball. It was inside the gormball.”
Brian grabbed the little piece of paper, and his eyes widened with recognition. It was one of his lucky stickers! But how was it possible? “This can’t possibly be my doing... Ember... she...”
The Yurble turned to the faerie. “What were you doing the past week?” He growled over the angry roar of the crowd.
“Well,” she seemed flustered, “I don’t remember much, but three days ago I was having dinner with my manager and Kevin, and the last two days I was practicing.”
“I can confirm,” Kevin said quietly, and Thyassa nodded in agreement.
The Yurble whirled upon Brian, who quickly collected himself and glared at him. “Listen, stop looking at me as if I am already guilty. Three nights ago, I was leaving the locker room through the back door, which is a shortcut to the Recreation facilities. We always use that path, and it goes through the gormball storage.”
“Its true!” Kevin quipped.
“Anyway,” Brian felt glad that he was telling the truth, for his eye was devoid of the infamous nervous twitch, “I was going through when I saw one of the door open. I looked inside and I saw her,” he pointed an accusing claw at Ember, “leaning over the gormballs, tampering with them! I tried to stop her, but she just disappeared!”
Ember seemed wholly confused, and the entire crowd was in an uproar. Apparently the microphone on the sidelines was on, and they heard everything. Some were supportive of Brian and others were not. He wasn’t surprised, it sounded too far-fetched anyway.
It was a whole five minutes of yelling and fist-waving between contestants before the Yurble yanked Brian out of the group and prepared to lead him out of the arena. The Scorchio tore out of his grip, surprising the Yurble, and was about to say something that he knew he would regret when suddenly, he spotted a dark figure running out of the exit doors, waving something in the air.
The entire group quieted as Shax, being resourceful as she always was, collided with them, bearing in her purple fins a small disc.
“When I heard about what happened, I ran to the security room and got this disc out. Enough accusations,” she raised her brows at Brian, “this is the only way we can prove who is right and who is wrong.”
Brian felt like hugging the Jetsam when the Yurble hesitated and finally nodded. “All right.”
They waited as Shax walked over to the Technical Booth, (which was conveniently located on the first floor) and gave them the disc. The crowd and the contestants watched eagerly as the wide screen near the top of the arena flickered to life. Brian smirked, knowing very well that he was right, and the tape would prove it. After flicking through a few hours and locations, the tape settled on the hallway where Brian passed through at the time. It was fuzzy, but one could make out his figure.
A Grundo in the booth pressed a button, and the tape reverted to the camera in the room that held gormballs. Using a special night-vision that the Grundos implemented on all cameras, everyone could see a figure crouching over the gormballs in black and white. Suddenly, Brian burst in and the figure rushed to one side, turning around and disappearing as if it was never there.
But Brian spotted something, and it seemed some of the crowd did as well. The figure had long hair beneath the hood of the cloak, but there were also four Aisha ears poking through.
Brian whirled around, but Farvin had vanished. He narrowed his eyes, piecing the puzzle together. Just as he deducted the truth, Gargarox appeared from the arena entrance, entering the sidelines while holding a wriggling figure under a meaty arm. Farvin III!
The alien Aisha was struggling to escape, but it was too late now. “I saw him running, so I brought him back,” Gargarox said bluntly.
The blue Yurble leaned over to meet the alien Aisha eye to eye, then he asked a simple question. “Why?”
At first, Farvin ignored the question and continued to try to escape, but when it proved to be futile, he simply twitched his ears and snarled. “I lose every year! I never place! I wanted to win...!” The last words were barely on the verge of a wail.
“But why cheat? Why did you rig the ball?” Brian asked suddenly, thinking to himself at how hypocritical he sounded.
“I had no choice. I can’t stand losing every single year, letting my fans down. I never even placed! It was time for a change.”
“Nonetheless, you seriously injured a player, framed another two, and the integrity of this game was lost. You will be brought to the Gormball Tribunal,” the detective said with finality, and gestured to Gargarox to lead him away.
The mutant Grundo complied, carrying his screaming bundle off the arena while the blue Yurble walked out onto the soaked grass and took out a megaphone. The crowd was screaming as well, in outrage that is, but they calmed down as the detective spoke. “I am sad to report that the Gormball Championships have been cancelled due to a rigged ball. Your tickets will be refunded,” he announced to the unhappy multitude.
At that moment, Shax ran up to Brian, who sighed sullenly. “You okay?”
The Scorchio looked up at her. “Yeah.”
“Thank goodness you weren’t the one blamed for it in the end. I can’t imagine the expressions of the Tribunal if they saw you again.”
Brian snorted in remembrance.
“At least Farvin III was dealt with. I can’t imagine it! I know he wanted to win, but cheating is wrong,” Shax continued.
“I know.” The red Scorchio twitched his wings and watched as the miserable crowd filed out of the arena.
He needed to do one last thing.
The faerie was leaving as well, but turned around at his call. Brian walked up to her, and sighed with guilt. “Sorry about accusing you earlier.” He felt too uncomfortable to say anything more.
The fire faerie looked at him and then patted his shoulder. “It’s okay, I forgive you. I admit, even I was fooled when I watched the clip.”
“Yeah.” Brian managed a half-hearted laugh.
“Anyway,” she said, “it’s too bad that the championships got cancelled over this little fiasco. Next time?”
The Scorchio looked up to see her grinning at him good-naturedly and holding out a slender hand. “Yeah. Next time.”
They shook hands.