Nuria looks like a mess of nerves as she constantly forces herself not to bounce from foot to foot, her excitement making it hard to focus on the headmaster’s speech.
“As is our usual fashion, we will have the contestants face their professors and pick one of three cards,” Neth states.
Finally, able to move freely, Nuria leaps and one-eighties before touching back down. She looks to Zathony, body brimming with energy.
“You may want to control yourself better and not tire yourself out,” Zathony says, then he points to his fellow professor. Marmagar extends three identical face down cards with white paw prints on the black surfaces. Nuria doesn’t hesitate to take the one in the middle. She flips it over and sees the number 92 in the center in a gothic font.
“Now that you’ve all chosen, raise it high for the other contestants,” Neth commands. “You’ll see that everyone has a two-digit code. If you see someone with the inverse code to your own, then that is your first-round opponent.”
Nuria scans the other codes and only one starts with a two, but it doesn’t end with a nine. The other two are inversed perfectly.
“It appears we only have one perfect matching, so the other one will have the Vanusi team squaring off against the S’nue team.”
Nuria smirks. I can end Alcott’s streak here and now, huh.
“And since both those representatives are ladies, how does everyone feel about letting them go first?” Neth asks the crowd. The uproar is largely in favor of that.
“Professors, your job is done. Team coaches, step down to deliver last-minute advice while the court is prepared by our lovely volunteers.”
Nuria nods her thanks to her professors after they both wish her good luck. She goes from watching them enter the stands to watching Rum and Tyra and a couple others not in jerseys join about a dozen or so players from all four teams place a truncated barricade around the court, using gymnastic mats. It takes three students apiece to bring the middle goals from the edges of the court to inside the barricade.
So, for one-on-one matches, the court’s only half as big. Makes sense. I’d never be able to cover this entire court on my own, but this…this I can handle easily, Nuria boasts to herself. Too bad I practiced team play only.
“You ready, Nur-ee-ah?” Trixee asks, putting emphasis on the E syllable.
“Zathony told you to train me as a member of the team, didn’t he?”
Trixee whistles. “Sure did…but I agreed with him on that score. Not for his silly ‘make sure she earns it’ reasoning, but because learning this game with others is better. You learn how others hit the ball in a multitude of ways, better preparing you to defend against and counter the others. A one-on-one practice limits you to specific strikes.”
“I told you about the positions, right?” She continues when Nuria nods. “So, I’m a zonemen, a role designated for scoring, so my moves are all geared toward that objective. Auxes are the secondary goalies, but they can attempt to score from farther back, which makes countering them a little trickier. That’s why I made you play goalie ninety percent of the time. It’ll be much harder for them to beat you now.”
Nuria smirks broadly. “Well, rest easy, coach.” Nuria turns toward Alcott who’s already leering at her and Trixee while speaking to her mentee. “I plan on doing you proud.”
“And I can’t wait to see the look on her face when you do,” Trixee states, joining the intense stare down.
The tension is popped apart when one of the players in an orange uniform places the game ball in the center of the court.
“And everything is in place! Nuria and Valine may now go to opposite ends of the court. All other contestants and coaches may stand outside the barricades,” Neth instructs. “And thank you to our volunteers for the swift court construction,” he tacks on.
Nuria and Valine, the ruby-haired young woman in the baby blue uniform, take their opening positions.
“Everyone, help me with the countdown! Ten!” the headmaster counts.
“Nine!” shouts the collective audience.
Nuria watches the scoreboard cut on and hears the hoop behind her whir as it activates. Point values of 1,000 are added underneath Nuria and Valine’s names.
The game ball blinks all the colors before resetting to default.
The stencil markings (paw print, sun, sword, brain) appear on the ball.
Trust your instincts, Nuria! Don’t think, just move and move and move!
Nuria lowers into a takeoff racing stance, lowering her gaze to focus solely on the ball.
Nuria dashes for the ball but doesn’t panic when Valine beats her to it. Nuria chases her as she desperately looks for an opening to score, juggling the ball with her hands. A buzzer goes off and when Valine panics and throws the ball, Nuria slaps it straight down before kicking it through the hoop.
“And with the ten-point penalty,” announces a voice through the speakers placed in the corners of the stadium, “Valine’s already down to 890 points! We have our first reset not even five seconds into round one! Things aren’t looking good for Valine!”
Nuria turns as the same boy in the orange uniform resets the ball and sees the scoreboard change, as well as the fifty-seven seconds still on the clock. In the booth beneath the scoreboard resides a young blonde gentleman seated by a microphone. He says, “Let’s keep the hype going, ladies!”
Nuria appears annoyed by him, but keeps her mind clear. A bell sound effect reverberates throughout the arena- the green light to charge the ball- and both ladies make haste. Valine reaches the ball first again and tries to score straightaway this time. Nuria hastily hits the ball and it goes outside the barricade.
Nuria flinches when she hears the buzzer and curses beneath her breath at the loss of twenty points. She beats Valine at the next bell, but loses more points by juggling the ball haphazardly. Valine capitalizes on her haste by scoring in the same fashion Nuria did before.
“Valine makes a mighty comeback following Nuria’s blunders, now leading 890 to 960! Thirty-two seconds remaining! Who’s going to clutch round one?” Kez announces, then rings the bell.
Nuria beats Valine to the ball again and kicks it as soon as she gets to the center. She watches Valine’s eyes glow cerulean for a moment before she squeezes them shut and ducks to the side. The ball goes through the hoop glowing red.
What was that?
“Nuria fixes her performance by scoring an easy 100 points! But what was Valine thinking? That was an easy block that she failed to secure!”
Nuria almost reacts to Kez, but she calms herself and puts her instincts back into the driver’s seat. Nuria rushes into Valine’s face right after the next bell, but backs off when she sees her panicked expression. Valine’s expression hardens and she advances and tries to score. The buzzer goes off and her confidence shatters instantly, and she ends up throwing the ball out of bounds, forcing a second buzzer.
“Crossing the border and an out of bounds throw put Valine at an even lower 760 points remaining! She needs to get into gear now! Twenty-one seconds left!”
Those seconds count down fast as Nuria and Valine hit the ball back and forth, though Nuria counters Valine’s same old hits with a wider variety, tiring her so that she can score with the ball glowing purple by hitting it off the floor with her left knee. The round ends with a softer buzzer than the penalty one.
“Nuria closes the first round with an incredible 860 to 610 lead! Can she keep it?”
The cheers from the crowd say yes.
“Valine’s got something to prove in this next round if she hopes to claim victory! Thirty seconds until round two! Coaches, and I’m looking at you Alcott, talk to your players!”
Nuria moves to Trixee as she’s waved over, but leers over her shoulder as Kez continues his aggravating commentary. Trixee high-fives her once they’re face to face. “Great start, Nur-ee-ah! But ignore the penalty buzzer. This is the first real game for you and the other reps. You’ll all make mistakes, so don’t lose focus when you do; just make sure that when they do you capitalize on it. Got it?”
“Got it!” Nuria replies, her spirit rejuvenated and ready for more. She turns and watches Valine as they march to their starting positions. While Nuria appears confident, her opponent is quite the opposite. Is she that nervous? No…not the time for that. Focus!
Nuria fails to shake her thoughts quick enough and loses the first two exchanges, one to an out of bounds shot and the other when Valine scores with a glowing red ball. However, Nuria answers strongly by scoring twice in a row with glowing red balls both times. The cheering from the crowd inflates her ego while Kez’s nagging and grating words frustrate her, and she nearly loses 200 points in one fell swoop. Nuria again recovers and scores on Valine with the ball glowing white for her.
Valine tries to score in the last five seconds with a hail marry, crossing the border in the process, but she ends up missing. She sinks to the floor on her knees as the round concludes with the soft buzzer. Nuria gazes at her with sympathy as she turns away to consult her coach once more.
“Only one round remaining, ladies and gentlemen! With a 510 to 190 disparity, can Valine hope to turn things around now? It doesn’t appear as if she thinks so!”
That’s it! Nuria thinks, irked by Kez for the last time. She whirls and freezes when she hears his own panicked voice.
“Hey, you can’t come in here!” Kez says, his voice going pretty high.
“You’re not getting away with talking about that trash about Valine, you jerk!” shouts a girl around Nuria’s age, one of the four volunteers from earlier not dressed in a jersey. A sheathed broadsword is strapped to her waist, but it doesn’t hamper her attempts at trying to break into the broadcast booth. She even headbutts the door when it won’t open. “You better open this door right now, because if I have to use my sword on it, I’ll end up using it on–”
The girl’s rants are stopped when eerie glowing green tentacles wrap around her mouth and arms, constricting her tightly. The tentacles pull her away from the door and close to an eerie glowing green spectral body.
Is that a jellyfish?
Valine’s professor approaches the tied up young lady and says something to her too quiet for Nuria to hear, but she sees that it doesn’t at all placate the sword-wielding chick. The professor shakes her head before whirling and addressing the crowd, “I do apologize for the outburst, everyone, but things are fine. You’ll just have to excuse the two of us. And Valine, dear, you’re doing a great job. Lauron and I will be back once I’ve had a talk with her. Good luck.” The professor raises her hands to his lips and presses her palms together, both of them glowing like the giant jellyfish.
Nuria watches them head for the nearest exit, but snaps back to reality. She crosses the field to Valine, whose still on her knees, and steps between her and Kez, giving him one helluva glare, silently challenging him to speak against Valine one more time, ready to finish what Lauron started. When he’s silent for longer than five seconds, Nuria faces Valine and offers up her hand.
“Stand up, Valine,” Nuria says gently. “The game isn’t over yet.”
“No buts. Once you stand up, we’ll finish this game properly. You’ve got one really dedicated fan I don’t want you to let down. Who knows what she’ll threaten you with if you quit?”
Valine leers at Nuria warily. “Alcott said you wanted to humiliate me.”
“If I wanted to do that, I’d be pointing and laughing at you right now. Alcott and I have a history, but I have nothing against you. Please, finish the game with me. I’m having fun. Aren’t you?”
Valine smiles but even though it doesn’t reach her eyes she grabs onto Nuria’s hand and lets herself be pulled to her feet again. “I’m in.”
The show of sportsmanship earns them both applause, though not from Alcott. Still, both ladies are ready to give it their very best. Once the bell goes off, they pull no punches. In the final minute of the match, only twenty points are lost to juggling, out of four scores one is with the purple glow and rest are red, and one player ends up with negative points by the end.
“The final score is 240 to -10…and as unfortunate as that is for Valine, give it up for Nuria’s round one victory!” Kez says.
The crowd obliges and cheers wildly for the first match champion. Despite her heavy breathing and sweat-drenched brow, Nuria whirls around with both hands raised high, two V’s for victory up top. She pauses when she sees Valine nervously shuffling toward Alcott, and given her furious demeanor, Nuria understands why. So, the young phoenix jogs up beside her opponent and walks together with her, making Alcott nervous.
“Good game,” Nuria says, extending a hand Alcott’s way.
“What are you doing? Gloating?” Alcott accuses.
“I meant what I just said. Since I’ve been here, I haven’t had much opportunity to exercise my competitive muscles. And I can tell you trained Valine well. It was a good game.” Nuria wiggles her outstretched hand until Alcott takes it.
“This changes nothing between us,” Alcott says venomously.
“Wrong. It changes nothing for you. I’m done with this little feud. I just had to say what I wanted to say,” Nuria replies boldly. “Take it easy, Valine.”
“You, too,” Valine replies after a brief pause, letting Nuria know she won’t be another Alcott, and Nuria plans to talk to her again soon, too curious about her powers.
Nuria leaps over the barricade in one fluid motion while the male contestants get ready for their match. Kez hypes up the crowd for a contest between the reps for the classes tied for second place this year.
“Ohaida and Sulublei are both 3-3 right now,” Trixee explains. “Buck’s an aggressive player and trains his players to be hyper-offensive, so their defense lacks. Exploit that and they drop like flies. Carsen tends to focus on speed like Alcott, wanting to outpace the opposing team. He’s not as good as Alcott at instruction, but he’s just as fast as she is.
“So, in case Shuri loses, pay close attention to the Sulublei player. He may have some tricks up his sleeve, especially if they’re confident enough to play in business casual clothes.”
Nuria sees how penetrating Trixee’s gaze is on the Sulublei player. She adopts the same look and focuses in on the olive-haired boy, introduced as Wallace by Kez. However, their expectations are dashed when he goes to the side of the court and lays down, arms under his head, as Shuri scores with a purple ball.
Nuria and Trixee look at one another perplexed, then turn back when Wallace’s own class boos him. Shuri looks as lost as them after that.
“Um, Wallace, the game isn’t over, you know?” Kez asks.
Wallace says nothing, just lies there and stares up at the glass dome roof being slammed by the rain.
“Hey!” Shuri says, sounding and looking quite incensed. “Get up or give up!”
Wallace turns and looks at Shuri slowly. “No, thanks.”
More booing resonates around the arena as Kez, Shuri, and Carsen all fail to motivate Wallace to rise. Tensions and tempers rise as the young man stays grounded where he is, to the point where Nuria leaps over the barricade and tosses the ball back to Shuri.
“If the bum is going to disrespect this contest, then don’t let him drag you down, too. Just score as fast as possible and get him eliminated.”
“That works,” Wallace yawns, “for me.”
Shuri and Nuria turn to the headmaster together, both eagerly hoping he accepts her proposal. He nods with a sorrowful look on his face.
Nuria fights herself all the way back to Trixee’s side, wanting badly to hoist Wallace by his collar and tell him why he shouldn’t be disrespecting this tradition. But I can’t tell Shuri to rise above his games, then fail to do so myself.
Once the round resumes, Shuri holds nothing back, always scowling at Wallace between scoring and the reset bell going off, ending round one with 1,000 to Wallace’s 200. During the thirty-second break, Wallace stays on the court, but his professor descends from the stands as a collection of vapors, reconstituting a solid form as he squats down to speak with Wallace in hushed tones. Whatever he says gets Wallace on his feet, and the young man also steps to the appropriate starting position.
His class cheers mildly for him, hoping he may be able to at least score once. Professor Lynald gives him a reassuring smile before turning into vapors and floating back into the stands.
“And it looks like the real game is on now!” Kez announces, injecting more life into the crowd.
Shuri gets to the ball swiftly and without contest as Wallace stays near the goal. Shuri lobs the ball high into the air and kicks it when it comes back down, targeting the spot to turn it white for an immediate win.
Wallace stops the ball with one hand, shocking Nuria and everyone else.
Is he good after all? The phoenix wonders.
Wallace stops directly before his goal and holds up the ball. He smiles at Shuri fiendishly. “You’ve done pretty well so far, but I’m gonna call it a good game here,” he says, then tosses the white ball through his own goal, ending the game.
“Wait!” Shuri calls out too late.
“What’s wrong with this guy?” Nuria says.
The boos that come once the end game buzzer sounds are even more deafening. Nuria watches Wallace ignore it all as he leaps over the barricade, steps past his irate coach, and sits back against the arena wall, hands behind his head, showing none of the shame and embarrassment she’d be drowning in in his position.
Kez even sounds deflated as he says, “It seems that our second finalist is Shuri…Congratulations are in order.”
The crowd opts to boo Wallace some more instead of cheering on Shuri, and that only makes Nuria angrier. She dreaded the contest at first, like Wallace, but she didn’t act out so childishly in rebellion. She even grew to look forward to it, as did all the people here, and she despises that he’s turned that feeling into wroth and disgust.
I have to put things back on track. Maybe if I win, people will actually be cheery again. I mean, Shuri could do that, too…
Nuria hops the barricade and stomps down on the ball with her right heel and it bounces over her head. She lets it fall into her raised hand before lowering it between both her hands. Thunder booms as lightning flashes amidst the rainstorm raging outside the arena.
But I’m not losing anything today!