The sun blazed down fiercely on Altador Stadium as the minute hand on the clock ticked down to zero, flipping the other two numbers to a five and a nine. Bertie Shurtz, centre forward and sole female on the Mystery Island team, briefly ran a paw through the fur that arched down her forehead as she spared a glance for the clock. They were cutting it close, especially with all the problems they’d already run up against, but she was still confident that they would make it in the end.
Barely a second of time had passed, but she was already berating herself for getting distracted as she yanked her gaze back towards the field. Teylor had the Yooyu at the moment, and he was rushing up the field all the way over at the sideline. The Yooyu, a clockwork one, lay cradled safely in his sling, eyes revolving every few seconds.
Snapping back to attention, Bertie sprinted for the right side of the goal, dodging around the Krawk Island players who were already headed for her Nimmo partner. She was easily the fastest of the three forwards, so she was confident that she’d be able to get within shooting range in time; then, if Teylor was blocked, they stood a decent chance at scoring another goal.
Speaking of three forwards... Bertie shot a glance over her right shoulder, and mentally cringed. Volgoth was still sitting in his starting position, gaze vacant, not moving at all.
That was the problem; that had been the problem, ever since the match had begun. They couldn’t seem to keep their head in the game. Bertie herself had been doing alright, only stalling for a few seconds before catching up to the action, but Volgoth kept blanking out at crucial moments- and Vela! Vela had hardly been moving at all.
“Bertie!” a voice yelled from across the field.
Bertie snapped back to attention, suddenly realizing that she had been standing still near the corner of the other team’s goal for at least two seconds. It had happened again! Resisting the urge to bite her lower lip, she reflexively turned to face the direction Teylor had run to, then quickly jumped up to grab the Yooyu that was flying towards her out of thin air.
As she fell back down to the ground, tensing her leg muscles and automatically rocking forward, Bertie could see the goalie turning to face her, the two defenders scrambling around to run at her instead, and she had to wonder; why hadn’t they set a guard on her? She was standing right in front of the goal, for Fyora’s sake!
As her paws touched the ground, Bertie rolled the ball up towards the back of her sling, spun on her toes, and jolted the Yooyu (which had started to glow red) straight towards the opposite end of the goal. The goalie, a giant Bori, dove towards it, but missed the ball by a good foot as it slammed into the net, rolling back down to the ground.
Across the stadium, on the side draped with amber and green, thousands of fans stood up and screamed, while Bertie, unable to catch herself in time, tripped over her own paws and crashed down onto the dirt.
”Whoa. Nice shot.”
“No way, Jul, that was a lousy shot. You just aren’t paying attention to what’s going on.”
“Eh? Whatever. Score’s 5-4- and I’m still in the lead.”
As the referee (a tired-looking spotted Uni) trotted over to get the ball out of the goal, Bertie picked herself up, wincing at new bruises, shook out her fur, and sprinted off to intercept Teylor. He was already running, headed back to his position.
“Did you-“ she started.
“Not now,” he said for what seemed like the twentieth time. “I already told you, we’ll all discuss this once the game is over.”
“But it’s getting worse,” she hissed in reply, veering off to her left as they passed the center line. “Have you looked at Vela? He’s practically turning into a zombie!”
“S’long as we can keep the ball away from our side, that won’t matter,” Teylor replied, glaring at her. “Later.”
Teylor hardly seemed worried, Bertie thought to herself sourly. Teylor was almost constantly in action. It wasn’t like him, either; he usually shared the ball eagerly and without complaint. But this time? It had been in his hands more often than not.
She peered up at the clock again. Forty-three seconds left.
The referee blew his whistle, and the Yooyu flew up into the air from below the field. Bertie blinked rapidly as sparkles filled the air around her, trying to keep from scowling. A Faerie Yooyu. Her least favorite of the lot.
Still, she pounded forward, angling her run so that she would be able to shove herself in front of the other forward- “Dasher”, it seemed- before he could get to the ball. She caught a glimpse of his grim and determined glare before she spun around, mid-run, and leapt up to catch the ball.
She was in the middle of angling the ball back to throw it to Teylor when, all of a sudden, she felt like she had to twist in mid-air... and throw it... there.
Bertie blinked, coming back to herself as she hit the ground, just in time to see the Yooyu curve (away from the Krawk Island players, fortunately), twist, and eventually flutter itself right into Volgoth’s paws.
The giant Mynci looked down, obviously surprised.
“Vol-“ Bertie gasped as Dasher slammed into her, unable to stop his headlong run in time. He managed to catch himself before falling, but Bertie crashed to the ground. Again.
She groaned as she stayed on the ground for a moment, rubbing her arm tiredly. She wasn’t badly hurt- just bruised- and at least Dasher looked fine, too. He was running okay, running straight for Volgoth. Who, she suddenly realized, hadn’t moved.
Bertie’s eyes widened. Somewhere behind her, Teylor was shouting, “GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME!” desperately, but Volgoth was still standing there, motionless, not responding at all.
“Wait, wait, wait will you? It’s stuck!”
“Your problem, not mine. You can call a time-out if you’re that desperate.”
“There aren’t any, idiot! You’re thinking Gormball.”
“Oh. I knew there was a reason why I liked that game better.”
Dasher had snatched the ball out of Volgoth’s helpless paws and already passed it to the other forward, a Quiggle, by the time Bertie managed to get back upright. She scrambled clumsily forward, eyes focused on an open patch of the field near the goal, even though she knew that she wouldn’t be able to make it in time.
Luckily, it seemed like Vela hadn’t been zombie-fied after all. The Lenny collided directly with the Quiggle, fumbling at the ball for a moment. When the two broke apart, the Yooyu had drifted off to the side; Vela snatched it up and started to run, fumbling to get the ball properly in his sling. Bertie, for some reason not wanting to change course, peered desperately over her shoulder to see what he was doing.
The Krawk Island players were converging on him from all sides- he didn’t stand a chance. However, Volgoth, finally seeming to come back down to Neopia, chose that moment to yell “Throw it!” in his best commanding tone. Vela desperately shot the ball off towards the sidelines...
It veered around, fluttering its wings again and heading towards the opposite side of the field...
Where it bounced off the wall and shot off at a crazy angle...
Into the Krawk Island goal.
Bertie’s jaw dropped.
”Man, I hate goalies. So hard to get to in time.”
“No way,” she heard a husky voice say, off to the side.
Finally able to stop running, Bertie turned towards the voice. It belonged to the Grundo on the other team, Zayle, she thought his name was.
“I’m a little shocked, too,” she told him conversationally as the crowd erupted into a mixture of cheers and hisses.
“It’s just- it feels all wrong, right?” Zayle said desperately, already starting to walk back to his side of the field. Bertie jogged alongside him. “Garven should have seen that one coming, but he was just standing still. It went right by him! Why didn’t he catch it?”
“I don’t know,” Bertie said softly, stopping as she reached her starting position again. “I just don’t know.”
She looked back up at the clock, more carefully this time. The game was now tied, with fourteen seconds remaining. Had they really managed to score twice in less than a minute? Plays usually took so more longer to finish. And with so little time left, would they be able to scrape a win- or would they lose it all?
The Yooyu shot up from the middle, and Bertie smiled. A fire one. If she could get in the right position, dodge around the players, then maybe she’d be able to get it in the goal, just in time.
She loped forwards- but somehow, Dasher was getting there first. Bertie frowned as he snatched up the Yooyu, then angled herself to block his path. He looked like he was going to try to run with it, too, which she couldn’t allow. The Krawk feinted left, and she used the chance to dash forward, when suddenly-
When suddenly, he had stopped in his tracks. She was about to laugh in glee when she realized that she had stopped, too. A frenzied glance around the field revealed that everyone had stopped dead in their tracks- except for Teylor, who was on the ground, lying on his back, hands over his eyes. Moreover, the field was darker; something was casting a shadow over everything from the stands on the left to a bit past the center line.
Slowly, her paws trembling, Bertie looked up...
“Alright, you two, we have to go now.”
Olim Fabula, yellow Lutari and Altador Cup Fanatic, stared at his human, shocked and appalled. She had done what no mortal Neopian had the right to do- she had turned the game simulator off. She was even daring to stand right next to the game table, blocking the light as she peered down at the figurines.
“I’m sorry, but we’re already running late.” The young woman glanced mildly at her watch before turning to the Neopet who stood at the other end of the table. “You ready, Juliet?”
“Sure, Kelly.” The Island Moehog rolled her eyes, releasing the bars that controlled the various players on the makeshift field and starting to collect them off of their pegs. “I was getting way bored, anyway. Oh, come on, Olim- stop freaking out!”
“But I was going to win!” the Lutari said, drawing the last syllable out as he straightened the Teylor figure, which had fallen over for some reason. “There were only ten seconds left!”
“And you’ve already wasted that time by complaining,” Kelly said, twisting at her messy brown hair idly. “Stop stalling, or we’ll miss our ship out. And it's the last one that goes straight from Neopia Central to Mystery Island, so unless you want to walk all the way home...”
Olim continued to grumble, but finally stepped away from the table, gathering up his Mystery Island figures as he went. He set them down lovingly in the box under the table, next to fifteen other boxes that held similar figures. After looking at the table longingly one more time- at the now-empty pegs attached to their sliding sticks, at the mechanical circle that would shoot up a ball that was painted to look like a real Yooyu at the right time, and at the tiny scoreboard and clock which were run automatically by the game- he ran off after the other two (who had left in aggravation a bit before).
As he ran past, the lantern that hung over the table swung briefly, then settled back down, blown out.
And night fell at the Altador Stadium.
Author’s note: Mystery Island for the cup! WOOOOOOOO okay I’m done now.