Battle Quills... ready! Circulation: 174,142,867 Issue: 408 | 4th day of Gathering, Y11
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Underdogs: Part Two

by nut862


Art by nut862

“All right, everyone, let’s get going. Get those equipment bags out here. Shake a leg, Ditan, and help us carry some of this junk!”

     Ditan Colb leaned over and casually hoisted two large canvas bags over his shoulders, filing slowly past the team captain. “I don’t see you doing any work, Poke,” the Disco Kiko said as he passed with a lazy grin.

     It was a bright clear day on Kiko Lake; the sun was out and the beaches were lined with Kikos splashing in the water or batting beach balls around on the sand. This was the weather that Kikos here reveled in and looked forward to all winter. The Kiko Lake Yooyuball team, however, wasn’t thinking about the sun as they wrapped themselves in scarves and put on hats and mittens, bundling themselves up the best they could considering that most clothing wouldn’t stay on their squat round bodies. The fastest way to reach Altador in time to join the tournament was to cross the icy Terror Mountain ridges. Roads had been built through the crags, making it a relatively safe journey nowadays, but the cold was still a danger.

     “Nobody went swimming this morning, did they?” shouted “Poke” Cellers as her teammates bounced to and fro. “If you’ve swallowed water, get it out before we go. You’ll freeze like water balloons up in the mountains.”

     “Nah, Poke, nobody went swimming,” Colb said. “We all know there’s a big scary captain who’ll blow the whistle if anyone starts having fun.” He grinned and tossed the bags he had been carrying carelessly on the ground. They landed with a thump on top of the other equipment bags.

     Cellers saw it and bounced five feet up into the air, her eyebrows flying nearly as high up on her forehead. “Be careful with my equipment, Ditan!” she yelled, rushing over to her bag and feeling nervously along the fabric. “This stuff is valuable, and you can’t just throw it around. Learn to pay some respect to the things around you! I’m tired of your chronic laziness. It’s not a disease, and you can do something to fix it. Do a favor to everyone and get your act together!”

     Everyone on the team had stopped what they were doing to stare at Cellers. Once the captain’s tirade was finished, she turned and brushed past them all, her eyes fixed on the blue Kiko that was coming towards them. “There’s Holbie,” she muttered. “I better say hello.”

     Meela Kitah’s mouth was hanging open and Moni Vyshan had her fins pressed over her lips. Helmo Timm patted the Island Kiko reassuringly as Vyshan shrank back against her as if to escape the captain’s wrath. Ditan Colb raised his eyebrows and gave a shrug. They all remembered what Holbie Pinnock had said yesterday about Cellers being wound up because of pre-tournament tension. Apparently even the smallest things could set her off right now. Being in her company all the way to Altador was sure to make the trip seem even longer than it was.

     * * * * *

     The bottle of morphing potion probably hadn’t broken when Colb had dropped her bag like that, since Cellers had packed it pretty well between layers of scarves and knit hats. Still, she was about fed up with that Disco Kiko. She could hardly even find it in her to give a friendly greeting to Pinnock when he smiled at her.

     The bright blue Kiko was wearing a hat and scarf like everyone else. “Hey, looks like I don’t have to lug a heavy equipment bag up the side of Terror Mountain this year. Aren’t you jealous?”

     “No, because that only means you’re not playing. I wish you were, though. I can already think of someone you’d replace.”

     “Oh no,” Pinnock said in mock concern. “Is Moni being too happy again?”

     “No, it’s Ditan, that idiot. He doesn’t care a bit about anything but his own comfort.”

     “He tells me he’s given up swimming in early summer just to please you. Sounds like a sacrifice to me.”

     “Does he swim? I can only imagine him doing the dead man’s float.”

     “Lighten up on him, Poke. He’s your best goalkeeper.”

     “At least when he’s not forgetting to keep his eyes on the ball.”

     “Well, he’s the best goalkeeper you’ve got, and you want him on your side during the Cup. Don’t demoralize him now.”

     “Mark my words, next year we’ll have a different goalie.” Cellers glanced around nervously and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Listen, Holbie, I want to talk to you about something. We haven’t registered for the tournament yet, you know, and the players on our team aren’t officially set in stone.”

     Pinnock sighed. “Look, I’d like to play, but I really don’t think it’d be a good idea with my fin being the way it is. I’d hurt your team more than I’d help.”

     “What? No, no. Of course you aren’t going to play this year. I’m talking about something else. You know, the Altador Cup officials don’t have our species registered yet.”

     Pinnock looked at her blankly. “So?”

     “I mean, just because they’re expecting Kiko Lake to be represented by a team of Kikos doesn’t mean that it has to be.”

     “You want us to somehow get contracts with some foreigners on this extremely short notice?”

     “No, I mean that we don’t have to be Kikos. Think about it; all the other teams have different species playing together.”

     “Poke, we are Kikos. How do you plan to change that?”

     “The same way everyone does. How do people get rare pets?”

     Pinnock was eyeing her uneasily now. “Look, Poke, are you serious? Because I don’t think I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t like what it’s sounding like.”

     “Hi, Holbie! I’m so glad you’re coming!” Vyshan’s voice broke into the conversation as the Island Kiko appeared beside them, grinning.

     Pinnock’s eyes remained on Cellers, who turned to give Vyshan an annoyed glare. “Hey, Moni,” he said, not sounding as cheerful as he had a moment ago. “I might not be playing, but I’ve got to come along to cheer for all of you. How’s everyone doing? Poke getting everyone down already?”

     “Oh--no, of course not,” Vyshan said, though her smile faltered under Cellers’ gaze. “We’re all excited about the Cup. We’re going to win it this year.”

     “Of course you are. Just remember that, and I know you’re all going to show those judges up in Altador what a bunch of Kikos can do when they set their minds to it.”

     Cellers glanced at him quickly, but he wasn’t looking at her anymore. She went over to the pile of equipment bags and carefully lifted hers over her shoulder. “Is everyone ready?” she shouted. “Let’s get up into the mountains before the sun down here deflates us.”

     * * * * *

     Cellers became mercifully quiet once the journey began. Kitah, Vyshan, and Timm chattered and giggled with each other, making small talk as they trudged against the icy winds blowing across the Terror Mountain trail. Colb got Pinnock engaged in a conversation about the different types of Yooyuballs and their merits, although the bright blue Kiko wasn’t particularly interested in talking to him at the moment. Normally Cellers would have joined in such a conversation, but now she was moving a few yards ahead of the rest of the group, silently staring straight ahead into the snow. What she had said to Pinnock before kept nagging at his mind, worrying him. He thought the stress was getting to her, and he wasn’t sure what consequences that might have, but in any case it didn’t seem like a good idea to leave her alone with her thoughts.

     All sorts of thoughts were tumbling through her mind at the moment, revolving around the Yellow Lupe Morphing Potion concealed in her equipment bag. Cellers wasn’t sure she wanted to go through with it yet. Not because she was attached to being a Kiko--all her life she’d found it frustrating to be unable to run on two legs or turn her head independently from her body, things that other Kikos didn’t seem to think about. Cellers hesitated only because there was so little time left now before the Altador Cup. It would take practice to be able to control a new body and move as easily as she did now. If she had any trouble adjusting, it would cost her the game. Their motley team needed every bit of manpower it had, and if the captain was compromised, there was no doubt that the rest of the team would flounder.

     In the long run, though, not being a Kiko would be an advantage. Kikos simply were not built for playing a sport like Yooyuball. They were sadly lacking in the limbs department. They had no hands, only fins, and those were short and stubby. Their opponents, too often strapping brutes with arms and legs bulging with muscles, laughed when they saw a bunch of Kikos bouncing frantically around the field.

     True, Kiko Lake wasn’t the absolute bottom of the barrel (for some reason, jock types never wanted to support Faerieland), but it was close. It was humiliating to be ranked in the lowest tier year after year. Their team was never talked about when it came to excited discussions about who the winner would be. If it was mentioned at all, it was described briefly as an easy sweep for a more important team. Most of the time, nobody cheered them on, and during every game their ears were filled with the crowd’s shouts of encouragement for the opposing team.

     After all, who would cheer for Kikos? The vast majority of Neopia’s population consisted of pets other than Kikos, and why should they care about a species they didn’t belong to? Other lands had diverse teams and came from interesting places with cultures that had a generic appeal, like Lost Desert’s boiling sands and ancient pyramids, or Krawk Island’s dark waters and adventurous pirate ships. Kiko Lake had no legends or history to interest outsiders. It was just a lake where a bunch of Kikos lived, and that was all it had ever been.

     Even Roo Island was much better than Kiko Lake. At least Roo Island had interesting attractions like the merry-go-round and cheap dice games for those who thought gambling at Krawk Island was too risky. Not many were willing to pay for a slow glass-bottomed boat tour around Kiko Lake. Roo Island was colorful, literally; everything on the island was bursting with bright primary colors, and their citizens were bouncy, happy-go-lucky Blumaroos with charm that appealed to others. Kikos, as a species, just weren’t very popular. Pets were supposed to look interesting to the public. Talking balloons with big eyes simply weren’t attractive enough, not to mention that they looked like they’d be kicked around a field sooner than they could get their fins around a Yooyuball.

     It frustrated Cellers. The rest of her team didn’t even seem to notice or care when they got shoved aside by stronger pets during Yooyuball matches, figuring it was just part of the game, but Cellers knew that their opponents would never give that treatment to a pet of their own skill level. The other teams probably didn’t even try to do it; it was just so easy when their opponents were Kikos. Kikos were made to float and bounce, designed to fly through the air when struck, and there was nothing Cellers could do about the way their bodies were shaped.

     Until now. The morphing potion lay buried deep in Cellers’ equipment bag. She thought about what it would feel like to be a Lupe. She’d have powerful legs that would make it easy to jump and catch passes, and she’d be tall and strong enough to stand her ground when opponents tried to steal the ball. She tried to imagine what it would be like to have four long legs and a tail, and decided that she could picture it, though she wasn’t sure exactly what it’d feel like. Would she have to sniff other Lupes when she got close to them? Maybe she could manage without doing that.

     How long would it take her to get used to walking on legs? Could she do it in time for the Altador Cup? The sooner she started practicing, the better. If she was going to drink that morphing potion at all, she should do it now.

     A rumble startled her out of her musing; the ground seemed to shake under her body. Cellers looked up and saw rocks tumbling down the sides of the cliff looming above them.

     She turned and yelled to her approaching teammates. “Back! Everyone go back! It’s a rockslide!”

To be continued...

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