They Think it's All Over: Part Nine
“Mr. Jennings!” the shrill voice echoed from what could easily have been miles away. “It’s been decidedly too long!”
The elderly blue Bruce eventually caught up with her voice, and Jennings patted her gently on the arm.
“Decidedly too long indeed, Miss Tobik.” Jennings smiled. “I’m so happy you could come, and so sad that you have to be here on today of all days.”
The Bruce nodded sadly. “A sad time for us all. Still, we must soldier on, as my late husband would have said.”
“Indeed,” Jennings replied. “I believe I saw Mr. Munroe earlier, should you wish to catch up.”
“Oh, I simply must!” Tobik gushed, rushing off to other areas of the VIP box.
A select number of the rich and influential from Neopia Central had been invited to watch the game in the exclusive box. Normally, dignitaries from across the planet would also have been invited, but under the circumstances most had elected to stay in their own countries. The only foreigners present were King Altador and Jerdana, who stood quite awkwardly as if they would rather be anywhere else on the planet at that moment.
“Dahling!” the excitable voice of Priscilla Verhiem greeted Jennings. “The team look simply fabulous! Like a legion of knights, ready to fight back the very shadows of death to protect that which they hold dear!”
“I’m glad you are still enthusiastic about the designs, Miss Verhiem,” Jennings replied, looking around in the hopes of being able to deflect the striped Cybunny as he had done with Tobik.
“It’s such an honour for my work to be involved in such a historical event, dahling!” Priscilla continued.
“Indeed,” Jennings answered vaguely, setting his eyes on his victim. “Ah! Judge Hog! Have you met Miss Verhiem?”
The Moehog headed over. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure. I understand you designed the uniform?”
Jennings excused himself, leaning close to whisper to the Judge as he left, “Bad mistake.”
Escaping as quickly as he could, Jennings made his way to the seats at the front of the box, nodding to Mr. Black who was waiting stoically at the door. It wasn’t long before others began to take their seats, joining the several thousands in the public stands below.
Jennings observed with some delight that King Altador deliberately picked a seat at the opposite end of the row to Jennings.
“Is this seat taken, General?” an elderly voice asked.
Jennings looked up to see Master Shin, the father of the goalkeeper, Hoshi.
“Please take it.” Jennings smiled. “I’m glad you could make it.”
The red Scorchio sat down with some difficulty.
“It was difficult to close the shop,” Shin admitted. “But, to see my daughter play, it is truly a great day. And, if one cannot close on the day the world ends, when can one close?”
“Exactly, Master Shin,” Jennings agreed.
“To think, I am sat next to some of the most powerful people in the city!” Shin said excitedly. “It really is a wonderful life, I cannot thank you enough, General. Without you, none of this would be possible.”
“Nonsense,” Jennings replied. “You are here because of your hard work and your daughter’s talents, not because of me. I may have given you the opportunity to come to this city, but it is you who have made this city your own.”
“Kind praise, General,” Shin replied, not willing to let Jennings have the upper hand in terms of compliments. “Kind words indeed. I only hope that Hoshi can do you justice.”
“Not just you, but the entire city, Master Shin,” Jennings corrected him. “And I don’t doubt her capabilities for a moment; you should be a very proud father.”
Shin smiled, unable to form the words of a reply.
Below, on the pitch, the teams were coming out from the changing rooms. Boos and cheers erupted from the crowd, directed mostly towards the Altador team from the Neopia Central natives, but there appeared to be a few diehard Altador fans that gave as good as they got.
Jennings noted with some surprise that Altador was fielding their first team. There had been some speculation that a team of reserves would play, given the circumstances, but it appeared that Team Altador wanted to go out by thoroughly trouncing what they viewed as an inferior team.
There was the imposing figure of Salayne Ritad, the large orange Elephante that served as Altador’s capable but slow goalkeeper. Following him was Winberto Seliz, a crafty Wocky, and the team’s only forward. Then came Lyvon Cibaire, the Gelert defender, and the most inexperienced member of the team. Beastbanks had declared him the team’s weakness, a loose brick to be battered until the entire wall fell down around him. Next came Timu. The Lupe was a capable defender that may have posed a problem if the Neopia Central team was intending to play fairly. Finally, there was the Captain of the team, ‘Trapper’ Remis. The vicious Poogle was an unknown element to Beastbanks – he was small, but his fast and violent nature meant that the Neopia Central team’s tactics might fall down against him.
From the opposite side of the pitch came the Neopia Central team. What had begun as a ragtag bunch of players had been honed into a vaguely professional looking team. Harry, Hoshi, Biggsby, Wayne and 32 all looked the part, if a little wet under the ears.
The Altador team clearly picked up the inexperience in their eyes as they exchanged sniggers when the teams lined up. The visitors thought this would be a walk in the park – Jennings smiled; he knew they were wrong.
The teams took their positions, and the Scorchio referee blew his whistle. The roar of the crowds deafened those in the VIP box as the players rushed forwards to claim a Yooyu that had appeared in the middle of the pitch. Winberto Seliz was there first, scooping up the Yooyu with a wicked grin.
He shot forwards towards the Neopia Central goal, easily avoiding the slow looming mass of the Bruce, Harry. Winberto took his position in front of the goal, and launched his shot.
The Yooyu sailed through the air at speed, but Hoshi was already in position, catching the ball with ease. This seemed to take the Altador team and most of the crowd by surprise. So much so that they all completely missed 32 colliding with Winberto. The mutant Buzz took the Wocky down with force, a dirty tackle by any account, but one he managed to get away with while the eyes of the crowd were on Hoshi.
The Neopia Central team took the advantage they had before the Altador team could recover. Hoshi made a quick pass to Biggsby before Winberto had a chance to get to his feet. At the other end of the pitch, Harry was already cleaving his way through the opposing team, knocking defenders out of his way as if they were rag dolls. Wayne meanwhile was following happily in his wake.
Biggsby delivered a long pass, which sailed straight into Wayne’s sling. As ‘Trapper’ Remis attempted to challenge Harry head on, Wayne popped out from behind the Bruce. The Ogrin needed only a moment to line up his shot at the opposing goal, before sending the Yooyu home. Salayne’s reflexes were too slow, and the Yooyu sailed right past him into the back of the goal.
The home crowd screamed with joy, while Mr. Jennings smiled quietly to himself. Below on the pitch, the Neopia Central team congratulated each other, while the Altador team retreated to their own half to lick their wounds. It was clear to them now that they had underestimated the rookies, and judging from the humiliated looks on their faces they did not intend to make the same mistake twice.
The teams took their positions again as a new Yooyu, a fire Yooyu, appeared on the field. Once again the referee blew the whistle and the teams were off. This time Wayne claimed the ball first, holding it tightly to his chest as he ran forwards. ‘Trapper’ Remis collided with him from the side, the maddened Poogle determined to bring Wayne down.
The Yooyu meanwhile tumbled out of Wayne’s hands, and was scooped up by Timu. A long pass later it was back in Winberto’s hands. The Wocky gave a lasting look towards 32 before starting to run, the mutant Buzz was already madly scrabbling towards him, the Yooyu in his sights.
Instead, Winberto ran towards Biggsby, hoping to out manoeuvre him while keeping out of 32’s reach. He would have been successful, if Biggsby had been under orders to play any fairer than 32.
Winberto found himself being tackled, in a fairly weak manner, but to his surprise the wind was knocked out of him and the Yooyu tumbled to his feet – courtesy of an imaginatively padded glove that Biggsby had forced into the Wocky’s stomach.
32 was on the ball before either Neopet could react to the tackle, his greedy red eyes focused on his prize as he madly twitched. His claws scraped at Winberto, fending off the attacker’s attempt to reclaim the ball. To the horror of the Neopia Central fans, though, similar treatment was also given to Biggsby – 32 wouldn’t give up his prize for anything.
Jennings meanwhile was still smiling pleasantly, as he had seen Beastbanks move from his position on the sidelines. The zombie Kacheek was putting into action the only plan that had worked in training, the only method they had found to make 32 relinquish the ball.
Beastbanks carefully made his way behind the Altador goal, and took a single Neopoint from his pocket. The golden coin glinted in the late morning sun, and through the net of the Altador goal, 32 caught a glimpse of it.
That was all he needed, the beady red eyes narrowed as they fixed on a new goal. With Yooyu in hand he sped off, using his wings to corner and avoid opposing defenders, or simply pushing them out of the way with his surprising strength. A palm to Salayne Ritad sent the Elephante falling to the other side of the goal, and 32 flew right into the back of the net, dropping the Yooyu to take the Neopoint from Beastbanks’s outstretched hand.
As the crowd exploded again the referee blew his whistle, signalling the end of the game, and magnifying the noise from the fans even more.
They had done it – Neopia Central had won.
Rather than cheers and screams, polite applause was all that came from the VIP box, but Jennings noticed with some amusement that King Altador was sat stony-faced with his arms crossed.
Jennings smiled wider. He had solved one problem; now only one more remained. His smile faltered slightly as he recalled the nature of what was still to come. He suspected that Mr. Black thought Jennings had some sort of plan to stop the bomb exploding, and that was why he had elected to stay around. Black could not have been more wrong. Jennings had no plan. What was going to happen was going to happen and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
It was a horrible feeling for someone who was so used to being in control.
Jennings stood with the rest of the box to applaud as the teams left the pitch, celebrating what could have been the city’s finest hour – and what may turn out to be its last.
To be continued...