Fantasy Football Part 26

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost written final fantasy… A lot. So it goes.

But here we are, back again with another bit of this story. Read on and enjoy!

…..

Without another word Plex and Vinyard sprinted towards their facility.  The smell of the smoke grew stronger the closer they got and Plex began to catch glimpses of flames reaching for the sky between the buildings.  The sound of the blaze began to roar and Plex was momentarily thrown by the otherwise stillness of the night.  Either the fire had grown to such an inferno that nothing could be heard over it or there was nobody even trying to fight it.  

Eventually Plex had to use a piece of his shirt to cover his nose and filter air through.  The smoke was thick.  It burned his eyes, making them water, and he wasn’t sure how much closer he would be able to get to the fire.  Then he and Vinyard rounded a corner and came into view of their training facility, or what was left of it.

Skidding to a halt, Plex’s hand momentarily came away from his face, dropping in shock, until he got a full swallow of air clogged with the burning smoke.  He coughed and hacked and raised the fabric up to his nose again.  The flames danced and leaped to the sky but did not touch any of the buildings on either side of the training facility.  It was a magical beast called upon for one purpose:  the absolute destruction of their team.

Vinyard tugged sharply on Plex’s elbow and the elf allowed the gnome to lead him a short distance away into the shadowy recesses of a nearby alley.  “I need to go see what happened if I can.”

“I’ll come with you.”

The gnome shook his head, “You can’t be seen.  Too much is riding on you now.  Plus, you’re no good to me.  You’re too tall.  I can maneuver under the smoke better than you and as a ground dweller I’m more adapted to heat.  Stay here.  Stay hidden.  I’ll be back shortly.”

Plex opened his mouth to object but Vinyard had already turned and sprinted towards the fire.  The diminutive figure was certainly better suited for running towards a fire than the elf but Plex still couldn’t imagine how much help Vinyard could be or how long he’d be able to withstand the heat and bad air.  From where he was, yards and yards away, it was hard to tell exactly given the dancing splashes of light crashing against the darkness, Plex was still uncomfortably warm.  His skin felt like it was cooking.  And the fabric of shirt was not doing much to help get clean air into his lungs.

A small change to the roaring of the flames, a sort of hollowing lull, caught Plex’s attention a moment before a whole section of the building crashed in upon itself.  Plex frowned.  If anyone had been left in that part of the facility they were now dead.  His frowned deepened as he wondered where everyone was.  Why weren’t some of the team trying to fight the fire?  Had the facility been empty before the fire started?  Had they all been killed first and then fire started to cover it up?

Then, through the commotion of the flames, his keen ears picked up the sound of angry voices. It was hard to pinpoint where they were coming from. Plex looked around, but didn’t see anything. He closed his eyes and let his hearing guide him. The voices were moving away from him. Without thinking, he followed his senses.

Turning around, he sprinted down the alleyway. When he came to the main street, he closed his eyes again. His hearing told him to turn left. With as much speed as he could muster, he took off after the sound. The noises were leading him towards the dragon’s castle. Plex wasn’t sure why he felt the need to chase these voices. After all,  Lavalandinarial ordered her Honor Guard to harass people at any hour of the day. These angry voices could belong to anyone who had done something to upset the dragon.

Something told him it wasn’t just anyone. Deep inside, he knew it was his teammates. 

When he finally caught up to them, he saw that he was right. A dozen of his teammates were being led by an equal number of Honor Guards with their weapons drawn. Among those being led away, he recognized his two running backs, Glavven and Meel. He saw a few defenders whose names he couldn’t remember at the moment. The rest of them were partially blocked from his view, so he couldn’t tell who they were. No gnome was in the group, so he knew his coach wasn’t among them.

Plex felt his heart drop. While he knew that all of this was Lavalandinarial’s fault, he couldn’t help but blame himself for his teammates being in that position. If he hadn’t interfered with the dragon’s plan during the game, none of this would be happening. Then he reminded himself that it was possible that the dragon might have done this regardless of what he had done during the game. Either way, he couldn’t let his teammates suffer at the dragon’s whim. He needed to help them. 

He just needed to figure out how.

Plex considered himself a good fighter, but there was no way he’d survive taking on a dozen Honor Guards by himself. To try that was suicide. He’d need help. The only one of the group that he was certain would help him was Glavven. The minotaur had been outraged at the dragon during the game. That feeling of anger had probably only gotten stronger after being taken prisoner by the Honor Guards. No matter how good the Honor Guards were, it would take more than a few of them to take down a berserk minotaur.

Attacking them openly was out of the question. They’d overwhelm him quickly, especially since he didn’t have a weapon. What he did have was access to a number of bricks. The street underneath him was made from them. Plex found a couple of loose ones and quickly dug them out of the ground. They were a lot heavier than the footballs, but he was confident that he would put it right where it needed to be. The elf reared back and let fly at the guard closest to Glavven. 

His aim was true, but the Honor Guard closest to Meel stepped in front of it and promptly got his face smashed by the flying brick.  The guard’s head twisted back and a spray of blood flew in an arc from his nose.  He fell to his knees, clutching his face, and howling in pain.  

Meel stooped as if to check on the guard but picked up the piece of brick instead.  When a second guard leveled a sword on him shouting, “What happened?” Meel swung his hand up, the brick clutched firmly in his fist, and landed a vicious blow underneath the guard’s chin.  

Time seemed to slow as the guard’s head snapped backwards and his whole body lifted from the ground.  Plex saw eyes go wide from teammates and guards alike.  These too seemed to expand, in surprise and anger and anticipation, slowly.  Then Meel brought his hand back down in a swift strike that sent the guard crunching downward and time returned to normal.

The remaining guards began to shout frantically for the rest of the team to get on their  knees with their hands in the air and those closest to Meel  rushed towards him, intent on slaying him then and there.  Plex could not and would not let that happen.  In a quick barrage of missiles he threw his remaining bricks at the onrushers.  His aim remained true.

The rest of his team, suddenly realizing that they were not in this fight alone, lashed out against the guards as well.  Plex pried two more bricks from the street and left his vantage point hoping that his appearance would draw the attention of a few of the guards and buy his team a moment to organize before being slaughtered by the heavily armored and armed guards.  

As he made eye contact with first one guard and then another, Plex launched his missiles.  They should have had time to deflect his attacks but their reactions were too slow.  Perhaps they were so used to being blindly followed that they had grown soft.  Perhaps it was just the confusion of the fight.  Whatever the case, neither blocked the attack and the bricks tore into their faces one after the other.  

While watching the flight of his missiles, from the corner of his eye Plex saw Glavven lift two other guards from their feet and toss them bodily into the ground.  The sound their bodies made when they hit the street was unnatural and made Plex cringe.  He couldn’t dwell on it though.  This was war, real war.  The fake battle of the football field had been replaced by the life or death struggle to depose the dragon.  

Sprinting forward lightly on the balls of his feet, Plex grabbed the sword the first guard he had hit had dropped when he began to clutch his face.  Plex whirled and sliced the guard’s exposed throat.  Then tossed that sword to Meel and darted to pick up the next dropped weapon.  Somewhere close by he heard the unmistakable roar of a minotaur’s death roar.  Plex hoped that meant Glavven had made a kill rather than one of the honor guards but he didn’t have time to check.  Before he could reach the next fallen sword, two guards, and elf and dwarf, jumped in front of him with spears raised and ready to throw.

Fantasy Football Part 24

Here we go again. Another piece of this fantasy football story… Getting more into the fantasy and less of the football, but so it goes. Enjoy!

…..

 

The crate smashed into the guard’s head.  The gnome hadn’t even managed to get his hands up to try and reduce the impact of the blow.  Crate and gnome crumpled to the ground. The trash that had been in the wooden box spread away from them in a clattering noise that grated on Plex’s nerves.  The initial crash and resulting echoes thundered up and down the dark alley, shattering the stillness of the night.

 

“Great,” Plex mumbled.  “Hopefully that doesn’t bring more of the beast’s guards running.”

 

The elf stepped through the scattered refuse to check on the downed gnome.  Weary of a trap, he prepared to spring away should the Honor Guard member only be pretending to be unconscious.  A quick shake of the gnome’s shoulder produced zero reponse, however, and then Plex noticed two small trickles of blood.  One coming out of the gnome’s left ear and one coming out of the gnome’s right nostril.

 

“Great,” Plex repeated with a low sigh.

 

“We’ll have to kill him.”

 

The sentence came from behind Plex.  The elf was so surprised that he whirled around in a defensive position expecting to be attacked.  His heart raced. His body tensed.  

 

Vinyard stepped closer and Plex, despite his still racing heart, managed to ease out of his stance.  His teammate had somehow managed to sneak up on him. That was something very few people could do with his enhanced hearing.  Perhaps, the elf thought with a frown, his approach had been covered by the sound of the wooden crate smashing into the Honor Guard.  

 

Keeping his voice steady, hoping to hide how frightened he had just been, Plex asked, “What did you say?”

 

Vinyard said again, “We’ll have to kill him now.  Hurry up and get it over with.”

 

“What?  I’m not going to kill him.  Why would I do that?”

 

“You have no choice,” Vinyard replied, a hint of exasperation in his voice.  “He is an Honor Guard member. If he is alive to tell his tale, the dragon might kill every elf in the city in her quest for vengeance.  An attack on one of her Honor Guard is an attack on her authority, an attack on her directly. You have to kill him, now.”

 

Plex hesitated.

 

Vinyard sighed and drew a small dagger from somewhere behind his back and stepped up to unconscious guard.  “Blood will be spilled in the coming days. The dragon will not be conquered without it. And your hands will get dirty in the process.  If you are lucky. If you are unlucky, you’ll be dead before you have the opportunity. I for one,” Vinyard stooped and slashed the guard’s throat, “very much hope to be alive when this is all over.  Blood on my hands is better than dead.”

 

Vinyard cleaned his dagger on the dead guard’s uniform and then returned it to where he’d pulled it from and began to walk away.  He called out over his shoulder, “Come along, elf. There is still much to do tonight and time is working against us.”

 

The casual way Vinyard killed the guard unnerved him. Plex would never have thought that his teammate was capable of such a thing before now. Then he remembered that he had only met the gnome a few days ago and didn’t really know him at all. He shook his head at the absurdity of the whole situation. Here he was, in a life and death struggle against the most powerful creature in the world and he had hesitated to kill someone.

 

Vinyard was right, he knew. After thinking about it for a moment, he had to admit that leaving the guard alive would’ve been a stupid move. Sure, the dragon would be angry when she found out one of her Honor Guard had been killed, but she’d have no description of the assailant now that the guard was dead. Of course, the dragon might just take out her rage on innocent people because she didn’t know who was behind the killing. 

 

He couldn’t think about that. Those were the kind of thoughts that pushed doubt into his head, and he knew he couldn’t afford to have any doubts. This was the right thing to do. It had to be done. He needed to pull himself out of the mindset of a football player and put it back into one of a warrior. 

 

Before Lavalandinarial had introduced the world to the game of football, he had been a highly regarded member of the elven army. He wasn’t one who planned the attacks, or anything like that, but he was one of those that they called upon to carry them out. Plex was fairly skilled in stealth tactics and most weaponry, though he was much better with ranged weapons than getting up close and personal. He had been focusing so much of his time on getting better at being a quarterback, his other skills had obviously began to atrophy.

 

It was time to change that. 

 

Plex followed in the gnome’s wake, sticking to the shadows and moving as quietly as he could. At one point, Vinyard looked back at him, causing a tiny smile to grace his features. If he had been so quiet that even the gnome had to turn around to make sure that he was still there, he was doing something right. 

 

They continued on until Plex began to recognize the area they were in. It wasn’t too far from the training facility that his own team had practiced on. He passed so close to it that he picked up on a few familiar voices. Plex briefly wondered if the gnome was leading him to their own facility first, but they walked right by it without slowing down. A little further up the street, he began to hear the sounds of football again. People were whistling, coaches were yelling, and players were grunting.

 

As they got closer, and the practice field came into view, Plex saw Gilania’s team on the field running drills. That seemed odd considering that they just finished a game. The only reason he could think of for them to be doing that was that they had won the game and they were preparing for the next one. His heart sank for a moment when he thought about his team losing. Then, he kind of chuckled, wondering if he even cared anymore. 

 

Vinyard, seeming to guess at Plex’s thoughts, whispered, “Your sister’s team won.  The dragon made sure of that. I think she might have been content to let it play out however it would once the game had gone into overtime but after you shrugged off her attempts to control you, she favored your sister’s team heavily.”  

 

Plex said nothing.

 

The elf was glad his sister’s team had won.  If all of this went wrong, at least he wouldn’t have to worry about her being eaten by the dragon on top of everything else.  Assuming Lavalandinarial even carried through with her promise, threat, to eat the team that lost by the largest margin after the first round.  She had never not kept her word in such regards before but these were strange times and if she had to put her energy and focus on curtailing an uprising she might pardon, as it were, the losing team in the hopes that they would show her loyalty in return.

 

It was twisted logic that made his head hurt.  He shook himself out of his thoughts to find Vinyard staring at him intently.  “What?”

 

“You are an interesting case, elf,” Vinyard responded, somewhat dryly.  “During the game I believe you attempted on at least occasion to influence the outcome in your sister’s favor but then you also resisted the dragon’s attempts to do the same.  I would have expected you to rejoice that your sister had won and would therefore be spared a gruesome fate as the beast’s meal but you took this news with barely a response at all.  You clumsily allow yourself to be spotted by an honor guard member but then sneak behind me so well that I lost sight of you.”

 

Plex shrugged.  “I am not who I used to be and never will be again.  And I am not who I will become.”

 

Vinyard frowned and it was hard for Plex to be certain but he thought the gnome had rolled his eyes as well. The gnome mumbled something that sounded like “whatever” and then knocked three times on a section of the training facility wall.

 

Plex was going to ask what he was doing but then saw a small section of the wall begin to move aside.  It was a false door. There’s no way Lavandinarial would have allowed the facility to be used by the team if she had known it had such secret entrances, which meant it had either been added recently with magic or the dragon hadn’t been aware of it.  

 

Before stooping to duck into the small entryway, Vinyard looked back to Plex and held a finger over his lips to caution quiet.  Then the gnome disappeared into the opening. Plex, considerably taller than the gnome, had to crawl through the small entrance and, even then, his shoulders scraped the wall on either side.

 

Once he was through, Vinyard motioned that Plex could stand again and the elf, relieved, quickly complied.  Then, following stealthily behind the gnome, Plex sensed more than saw or heard the doorway close in the wall while they left the small room they were in and ventured down a hallway.  At the end of the hall, Vinyard cracked open a door and peaked around the edge, then motnioned for Plex to follow again and went through. The door had led to the field where all of Giliana’s team was out working on drills.   

 

Fantasy Football Part 22

How many parts should a fantasy football story have? Trick question! As many as possible, of course. And here we are with another installment.

…..

“Why aren’t you at the game?”

Plex realized it was a ridiculous question to ask, given the circumstances, but he couldn’t top himself from blurting it out.

“Nobody ever pays attention to the comings and goings of gnomes,” Vinyard replied, somewhat coolly.  But then he smiled and added, “That does have its advantages from time to time.”

Apparently seeing that Plex wasn’t satisfied with his comment, Vinyard continued, “I’m not at the game because I was needed more here.”

Plex frowned.  Once again he had been caught worrying about that stupid game.  It was a game he hadn’t wanted to play in the first place and then had gotten so involved that he had let his emotions get the better of him.  That outburst could have landed him in the dragon’s belly but instead he had found his way to meeting with some sort of underground resistance.

“Look, maybe you can go around unnoticed,” Plex stated, trying to get back to the thread of the conversation he’d been having with Frukeld, “but my presence at any of the other teams’ training facilities will most certainly be noticed.  I’m not even sure I’ll be welcome back with my own team…”

“We will have to see about that, yes,” the aged dwarf interjected.  “Depending on the outcome of the game, Lavalandinarial may not care to punish you further for your transgression against her.”

Vinyard snorted, “Depending on the outcome of the game, she may just eat the rest of our team anyway.”

Plex hadn’t forgotten about the dragon’s promise to eat the team that lost by the greatest margin after the first round of games were over but with everything else going on it hadn’t been at the forefront of his thoughts.  The gnome’s comment made his stomach drop. He felt helpless and afraid for his team and for his sister’s team.

Frukeld said, “That’s it.  That right there. I can see the turmoil you are in.  The people you recruit will see that too. Use it. Use it to add fuel to the emotions they are fighting as well.  Grief. Anger. Righteousness. Bring them to our cause and together we can bring down the beast. Together we can defeat her and keep anyone else from becoming her next snack.”

Plex still had more questions than answers.  Could he trust Frukeld and Vinyard? Why were they fighting the dragon?  Could they really defeat her? Would the world be better off without her?  How was he going to convince anyone to join this crazy crusade when it likely would lead to their death?

That was it, though.  Those who would join up would have come to the same conclusion.  Living under Lavalandinarial’s rule death was always present. From the wars she waged on whims, to the death sports she started for her own personal entertainment.  Death was never far away. Fighting her at least gave the various kingdoms an option to start something else, to hope for something better, to try to create something better.

“Okay,” Plex said, “I’m in.  How are you going to get me in to meet with the teams?”

“We’re not,” Frukeld said, confusing Plex.

“How do you expect me to meet with them?”

Frukeld smiled. “Plex, the elven quarterback, won’t leave his team’s facilities. Vinyard, along with a few others we’ve already recruited, will testify to that fact, should it come to that.” The old dwarf motioned to Vinyard, who had moved to grab something from the magic using dwarf. “But,” he continued, “one of Lavalandinarial’s Honor Guard will be going from team facility to team facility to talk to players.”

Vinyard stepped before him, an Honor Guard uniform in his hands. Absentmindedly, Plex grabbed it from the gnome. As his fingers touched the fabric, terror shot through his system. He gasped, the air becoming harder and harder to breathe in. His head swirled around and he felt his rapid heartbeat pounding inside his skull.

Then, as quickly as it came, the feelings went away. 

Plex looked down at the uniform in his hands with contempt. It almost felt like it did when the dragon had messed with his mind before. He briefly wondered if the uniform had some type of magic attached to it, if what he had felt was the result of a curse put on the clothing to keep those not in Lavalandinarial’s employ from wearing the garment. Or, maybe what was being asked of him had caused him to have a panic attack. Either explanation could’ve been true.

“You want me to put that on?” Plex asked. Frukeld nodded, causing the elf to raise his voice when he added, “Are you insane?”

“You’ve already agreed to help us,” the old dwarf shrugged. “Why balk now when all we’re doing is giving you a disguise?”

“That’s not just a disguise,” Plex spat out. “That’s a symbol of the dragon’s power. It’s a representation of her rule, her law. Do you remember what happened to the last person who got caught wearing that uniform without being one of her people? The orc launderer who thought it would be funny to take one of the uniforms he was washing?”

Frukeld lowered his eyes to the ground briefly before looking back up. “Yes, I do. The dragon took the orc to each of the race’s lands where she burned the poor orc until it was almost dead, then healed it so she could do it over again at the next one.”

“And I’ll share that fate if I got caught in it.” Plex stopped. “Actually, mine would probably be worse because the damned dragon is already angry at me to begin with.”

“So, don’t get caught in it,” Vinyard chimed in.

“Thanks for the helpful tip,” Plex shot back.

“This is how the dragon keeps winning,” the gnome chuckled sadly. “That fear you’re feeling? The one that’s keeping you from simply putting on a uniform? That’s how Lavalandinarial keeps us all in check. She uses that fear like she would her foot, crushing us all underneath it. It has us pinned down, unable to move. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living in fear. I’m tired of being afraid all the time.”

“I don’t see you rushing to put it on.”

“First of all, I’m a gnome. That uniform is far too large for me. Second, you’re not the only one taking a risk by doing this. Do you honestly believe that I’ll escape the dragon’s wrath if she catches me helping you? Hell, she could have me tortured and killed if they notice me gone from the sideline, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take if it means the possibility of living a life without being under the dragon’s heel.”

“I don’t like it,” Plex stated flatly.  “I wouldn’t trust anyone wearing this uniform.  Why would anyone else? That would be just like the dragon to try and trick people into betraying their hidden desires to dethrone her.”

“There’s that fear again,” Vinyard replied with a sad smile and small shake of his diminutive head.  

“I’m not afraid.  I’m logical. I try to avoid doing foolish things when some clear moments to think could come up with a better alternative.”

The gnome said nothing further but the sad smile remained.

Plex glared at Vinyard and then shifted his head to look at Frukeld.  “Sure. You’ve been at this game longer than I have. You’ve already had the moments to think this through clearly.  Obviously, right? That’s how you already have the uniform. You’ve thought through all the best ways to build your army and this is the conclusion you’ve come to.  This is a suicide mission.”

“Only if you fail,” Frukeld said.

Plex was furious again and practically screamed, “How can I not fail?  

“You are painting a target on my back by wearing this uniform.  Even if I make it in to see each of the teams, they will report back to the dragon that they met one of her honor guard and she will know there was an imposter.  She will know something is going on.  

“She will find me and destroy me!  She will destroy you all!”

“And if she does,” Frukeld said through clenched teeth, “then those who survive will raise up stronger and they will be the ones to destroy her.”

“Or the kingdoms will spend another thousand years under her rule.”

Vinyard said quietly to Frukeld, “Perhaps he is not the leader we were looking for.”

The dwarf strummed his fingers together in front of his face, apparently in deep thought, while his eyes seemed to pierce through Plex.  Plex held the dwarf’s gaze. He wasn’t sure why he was so opposed to this course of action but he would not be bullied into changing his mind.  As he had said before, he was logical and would take the necessary time to think things through.

The weight of the uniform in his hand seemed to grow.  He wanted to toss it aside and yet he did not. He could not let it drop to the floor.  The idea of letting it get tarnished, an insult to the dragon herself to sully the uniforms of her honor guards, was something he found difficult to do.

Perhaps I am afraid, the elf mused.  

He let his own eyes slide away from the dwarf and gnome to rest on the uniform once more.  If he could set aside his own concerns, the uniform would offer him a great opportunity to strike at the dragon.  His Queen had requested he join the football team to help bring honor to the elves. If he could help orchestrate the downfall of Lavalandinarial that would bring even more honor, and a chance for the elven nation to rise out of the shadows and become prosperous again.  

Plex, without further comment, pulled the uniform on.  “I am the leader you’ve been looking for.”

Fantasy Football Part 20

And, after a slight delay of game, we’re back. Read on to see what happens next with our favorite elven quarterback and the rest of his team.

…..

The roar of the crowed was being slowly replaced by a confused hush as a rush of whispers sped around the stadium.  It seemed to Plex that the switch the Honor Guard had made at the behest of the dragon had not gone unnoticed and word was spreading that the dragon was interfering with the game.

Plex scanned the crowd and found the pocket of dwarves he had noticed at the beginning of the game, the ones who hadn’t be cheering, who hadn’t looked like they were interested in the game at all.  He finally spotted them and they were huddled together in a spirited conversation with much gesturing and pointing amongst themselves. The elf wondered what they were up to but couldn’t imagine they would do anything now in the final seconds of the game.

Lavalandinarial shifted her weight on her stage.  The platform creaked and all eyes moved to rest with the beast.  She had once again adopted an expression of indifference but Plex was certain that was far from the truth.  The dragon very much cared.  

She let out a sigh and a puff of smoke billowed from her mouth.  The crowd quieted and shifted uneasily in their seats. A small smile, barely discernible, twisted the dragon’s lips.  At first Plex had assumed she would be upset that her interference hadn’t gone unnoticed but now he realized that she was still enjoying this spectacle.  

The whole thing, the teams, the game, the crowd, all of it was for her amusement and her amusement alone.  

Plex’s anger reached a new level.  

Needing to do something to calm down he turned his attention back to the field where the healer was still working with the dwarf who had been robbed of the ball and then punched twice by the Honor Guard.  The dwarf shouldn’t have been that injured but his face was white as if he were in a great deal of pain and on the verge of going into shock.

“It isn’t pain,” Plex muttered.

“No,” Coach Sprout said, suddenly at Plex’s side.  “It’s fear. He doesn’t need to worry, though. She won’t need to eat him to keep him quiet.  She obviously doesn’t care who knows she is cheating.”

Some of Plex’s rage had been tempered by Sprout’s arrival at his elbow startling him.  He could still feel it burning slow and low in his gut. It wasn’t just the charade of it, the destruction of the game and the waste of time and lives it had already cost.  The anger was churning hotter and hotter because there was nothing he could do about any of it.

Looking briefly down to his coach and then back to the field, where the healer was finally getting the dwarf to his feet and the Honor Guard was signaling for the teams to take their places to resume play, Plex asked, “What do we do now?”

Sprout didn’t answer and, surprised, Plex looked back to his Coach.  The gnome had always had an answer before. Plex couldn’t believe that Sprout wouldn’t have some sort of plan. “Well, Coach?” he prompted the still silent gnome.

With a sigh, Coach Sprout looked up at Plex with defeat on his face. “Now, we try our best, despite knowing that it might all be for nothing if the dragon decides she wants the other team to win.”

Anger began building up in Plex once again. He watched as his defense did their best to stop the offense of the other team. While he couldn’t be sure, he thought he saw a couple of instances where magic had moved a ball out of a defender’s reach or into an offensive player’s hands. Each time he saw it, he became more and more angry.

The whistle blew as the other team called their final time out. Plex looked up and saw that there was only time for one more play. Gilania’s team sent out their kicker to attempt a mid-range field goal. If it was good, the game would go into overtime and only the dragon knew what would happen if the game made it to overtime. Without realizing it, Plex found himself running out onto the field to try to block the kick. He heard Coach Sprout yelling at him to get back to the sideline, but he ignored it. Finally, the gnome called for another player to run off.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his teammate exit the field just as the other team got set up for the try. Plex kept going over everything that had happened in the game up until this point and felt his face turn red in anger. He focused all of his energy on that rage. It built up inside of him until he felt like he was going to burst. 

A primal scream erupted from his throat as the ball was snapped back to the holder. Plex took two steps forward and jumped over both his teammates and those trying to block them. He couldn’t remember ever jumping that high before, but didn’t take the time to dwell on it. All he could focus on was using his rage to block the kick. Just as the kicker’s foot touched the ball, Plex felt something trying to touch his mind. It was the same sensation he had felt earlier in the game, right before the dragon had used its magic to mess with his head. “Not this time,” he roared as he flooded his thoughts with his anger.

Somehow, some way, it worked. His rage had allowed him to fight through the mental intrusion. Whatever magic the dragon was using still hurt him, but it wasn’t debilitating like it had been last time. Plex leapt again. The ball hit his swinging arms and went flying back the way it had come from. It landed on the ground ten yards behind the kicker and rolled towards the sideline. Before anyone from either team could get to it, the ball rolled out of bounds.

Stunned silence filled the stadium. All eyes slowly made their way up to the dragon’s platform, where a low growl was beginning to form.

The honor guard blew their whistles and then huddled together in deep discussion.  Plex trotted to the sideline with the rest of his teammates, away their decision. Almost absentmindedly, one of the honor guard threw a flag without care of where it landed.  

Plex’s head throbbed in time to the blood flowing through his veins.  Pulse, pulse, pulsing with his still boiling anger. The momentary outlet of athleticism had done little to assuage his rage.  The dawning realization that his attempt to stand up to the dragon’s interference would not be allowed to stand made him even angrier.

His teeth ground together.  His fists clenched. The muscles in his lengths twisted tightened until he lost feeling in his feet.  His vision shrunk to where he could only see the huddled honor guard circled by a blurry red.  

The head of the honor guard walked over to Coach Sprout and told the gnome something.  The coach nodded his head once and then started calling out instructions. There was a ringing in his ears that kept Plex from hearing what was being said so he trotted over to stand next to the Sprout.  Before he’d made it to the gnome, Plex noticed that his sister’s team was setting up to retake the kick, and a few yards closer at that.

Before Plex could ask what happened, his coach said, “We were called for a penalty.  Too many players on the field or something like that. Also, it has been suggested that I bench you for the remainder of the game for insubordination.  Given the alternative to benching, I feel like we have little choice. I’m not going to leave you out here, though. You are too exposed. Head back to our camp.”

Plex opened his mouth to protest but all his anger left him and he felt suddenly deflated.  The game was out of his hands. The game always had been. His own indifference, how he had felt before his queen asked him to join the elven team, returned and, with a shrug of his shoulders, he turned his back on the field and walked away.

He heard murmurs running around the stands and wondered how much of it was directed at him.  He wanted to look back to see if Lavalandinarial was watching him but didn’t want to give the beast the satisfaction of seeing his face in defeat, in retreat.  So, Plex kept his head down and left the stadium.

He hadn’t gone very far when the stadium erupted in a new wave of cheers.  He assumed that his sister’s team had converted the field goal to tie-up the game.  A part of him hoped they would go on to win. His refusal to be ruled by the dragon had likely sealed his death anyway.  It would be better if his sister won and then could live on.

Lost in these dark thoughs, Plex nearly missed his whispered name.  Whipping his head to the side he saw a dwarf motioning to him from a dark alleyway behind the business that had sprung up around the stadium.  The elf didn’t hesitate. He wanted to know what the dwarves were up to. And, if he was powerless on the field, perhaps he could find his power again off of it.  He quickly stepped into the shadows to join the dwarf.

Echo, Part 25

Within five minutes of being home, the doorbell rang.  Henry and Ana went to answer it together and smiled at the two men, the same two from the restaurant days earlier, standing there.  Henry opened the door wide and ushered the men in with a friendly wave.  They seemed surprised by the reception but stepped inside and moved aside so Henry could shut the door.

“Hello, again.”

The men smiled tentatively at Ana and the one who’d taken his sunglasses off at the restaurant said, “Thank you for letting us in.”

“How can we help you?” Charles asked while leading the group into the living so they could sit down.

“Well, this is a bit awkward, but we are trying to find two people who have fallen off the grid.  They look very much like the two of you.”

Henry laughed, “Well, you know what they say.  We’ve all got a doppelganger out there somewhere.”

They all sat and this time the two men both took their glasses off.

“if we can cut all the pretense,” the man who spoke at the restaurant started, “we know who you are and we don’t care.  If you are happy with your lives now than we are happy for you.”

Ana asked, “You aren’t feds?”

The men laughed and they both said, “No.”

“You’re with the system,” Henry stated.

They nodded yes and the man who’d spoken before said, “We represent their interests on occasion and they’ve asked us to check in with you.”

Henry immediately wanted to ask why but the man continued before he could get the question out.

“Things are beginning to happen on the legal side of things and there may be an opportunity for you to come forward and reclaim your real names.”

“Ana and Henry are our real names,” Ana said firmly.

The man held up an apologetic hand.  “I’m not saying they aren’t.  We’re just here to see if you are happy with your new lives or if you want to come clean, for lack of a better word.”

Henry glanced to Ana.  Her jaw was set and her eyes burned.  He felt much the same.  To discredit their current names was to threaten their life together.  Neither of them would stand for that.

The men seemed to sense their agitation and the speaker quickly added, “We aren’t here to demand you come forward.  We’ve been given assurances that enough of those who were helped into hiding will come forward that the legal process can happen without everyone participating.  In other words, if you want your old life wiped away, forgotten, we can make that happen.”

Henry had no idea how they would accomplish that but he said, “We are Henry and Ana.”

His wife added, “Exactly.”

The men considered that for a moment, their eyes looking back and forth between Henry and Ana, and then they nodded almost in unison.

Standing up, the put their sunglasses back on and the speaker said, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Henry and Ana.  Congratulations on your growing family.  We wish you the best in your future together.”

Henry walked the men to the door and turned the dead bolt once they were gone.  He leaned his head against the cool, smooth wood and breathed deeply.  Could it be that easy?  Was that truly the end of it?

Returning to his wife, who had remained in the other room, he didn’t need to ask what she was thinking.  Fear and doubt were etched in her features.

He reached for her and she curled into his arms without a word.

They stayed that way for several minutes before she asked, “Do you believe them?”

“Not entirely.”

“Me neither.”

After another moment of quiet comfort in each other’s arms, Henry said, “At least we know they aren’t in our heads anymore.  If they could read our thoughts still they wouldn’t had to ask.”

Ana looked up at him with a half-smile.  “Silver lining,” she murmured.

“So we know they are out there and maybe they are planning something that will put us out of our hidden life here.  And, maybe they will leave us alone.  And, maybe they can erase who we used to be.  And maybe the feds are still hunting us and they will knock on our door next.  What can we do?  I’m Henry.  You are Ana.  That is our child,” he put one hand on her belly.  “And that is our truth regardless of what came before or what happens next.”

“Exactly,” she said in an echo of what she’d said to the men.  Then she pushed herself on her toes and kissed her husband.