A Trek With Team Lost Cause
"I've called this meeting today because of…well." A cough. "You know. You've all seen the numbers."
Vonde Cayle, left forward of the Lost Desert Altador Cup team, flicked his enormous Wocky tail in a gesture everyone knew meant "a record-breaking sandstorm of words is coming and you all are about to get a face full of it." Everything felt heavy today: his gear, the squiggly-lined heat coming in through the practice room window, and most of all, his ever-faltering hope in his team.
"Since when do you call meetings?" asked Rhee, in the process of tugging her gloves off. "Where's Leera?"
"Leera is in the Alone-Time Corner, weeping for our lost dignity."
"Oh, come on," countered Derbi with a shake of her scarlet wings. Usually she acted as Vonde's right-hand man—literally, she played on his right-hand side—but today her indignant team spirit seemed to trump her loyalty. "We lose every other day, every other year. When was the last time we got anywhere near the podium?"
"Altador Cup X, fourth place," muttered the team in four-part harmonization.
A pause. A long, sad little pause.
"Well, after all this time, I’ve finally realized what our mistake has been," Vonde told them.
"Not enough slushies slung?" asked Rhee, right defender.
"Not enough noise made?" tried Derbi.
"Not enough…" Luvea, left defender, frowned. "Shootouts showed down?"
"No," came a new voice, gruff and soaked-through with enough disappointment to sink Maraqua a second time. Team captain Leera Heggle, utterly defeated, appeared through the doorway and came to stand at Vonde's side. "It's our lack of devotion."
"Excuse me?" Derbi snapped. "I practice more than the rest of you put-together. You use the off days to play Fruit Machine."
"Then why is Vonde's GPG still so much higher than yours?" Rhee muttered.
"I could outshoot you any day of the week! You wanna go?"
"Save it for the match tomorrow, please." Leera not only looked, but somehow even sounded like he had bags under his eyes. "I didn’t mean you lacked devotion to the game itself."
"What you lack is devotion to Coltzan," finished Vonde. "The two of us have talked about it: when was the last time any of you visited the shrine?"
The room went silent. The "there were three Darigan yooyus in this game" kind of silent. Maybe even a little more silent than that.
Rhee started to make a fake cricket noise, but it sounded more like a hiccup.
"Exactly," said Leera. "So Vonde and I have decided that we will be spending today’s bye day trekking out to Coltzan's Shrine to receive blessings for our match tomorrow."
The silence became an instant scarab-swarm of protest.
"I was going to get my wings groomed today!"
"There's no way you're making me walk five thousand miles in the desert in this heat."
"Do you want me to melt?!"
"It's…right outside the city," Luvea muttered. "It's literally a twenty-minute walk."
"You're going to make me cross the river? In these shoes?"
"There's a bridge, Derbi," said Luvea, twitching his webbed Draik ears. "Am I the only one who's ever actually been there since they put the new bridge in?"
"Exactly our point," said Vonde. He tapped his toes on the linoleum. "Everybody pack: it’s time to save our team."
Reluctantly, they packed. It was an event that did not deserve the drama the Lost Desert team gave it. It was, after all, literally a twenty-minute trek. By now it had a trail marked and everything.
"How much food should I bring?" asked Rhee. "Do we need a tent? Bug spray?"
Vonde saw what Derbi was doing on the other side of the room and grabbed the bag from her hands.
"You’re bringing a Yooyuball?!"
"You need to practice your passing," Derbi told him with a honeyed smile. "To me."
"I pass to you!"
"You pass to me about as often as Leera actually guards the part of the goal the other team is shooting at."
"I heard that," Leera gruffed.
"First aid kit? Extra shoes? Some light reading? A couple scarab rings in case we run into trouble?" Rhee was still going about two hundred miles an hour.
Vonde noted that Luvea had a hat, sunscreen, and a sand shake. That was it.
Rhee, meanwhile, was packing their Altador Cup IV bronze trophy into a duffel bag.
It was going to be a long twenty minutes.
By the time they finally set out—Vonde and Derbi instinctively taking the front, Leera watching their backs at the caboose end—everyone had decided they needed a sand shake of their own. Ordering them had taken exactly as much time as it was about to take to reach the shrine. Nobody seemed inclined to point this out.
The desert sun was high and unforgiving, shooting beams into Rhee’s eyes and melting the shake right out of Vonde’s hands and onto the ground. At least it was already sandy to start with.
Behind him, Derbi began to fan herself with her wings, tossing her yooyu in the air and catching it. "This is a waste of practice time," she announced.
"You’re telling me," said Rhee. "I could be practicing taking so many Tiki Tours."
"Why are we going here again?" asked Derbi.
Vonde sighed. "Coltzan is known to give out help in areas like speed, attack, and defense to those who devote themselves to him and his blessings. Some of us would really benefit from a little defense."
Rhee huffed. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Your average scores are way down from last year," Vonde told her.
"I don’t even have legs! I’m a water-loving Kiko playing a dehydrating sport in the middle of the desert. What more do you want from me?"
"I heard the shrine can give out one million Neopoints," commented Luvea, eyeing the squabble and clearly looking to change the subject.
"We don’t need one million Neopoints," Leera snapped. "We need to actually place in the top ten for once."
"And you really think Coltzan is going to bless us just for coming to his shrine one time when we don’t even really want to?" asked Rhee.
"He better! We’ve been walking for hours." Derbi made a show of wiping the sweat from her face. "I’m melting."
"It’s been five minutes," deadpanned Luvea.
"And you’re not the one with a thick coat of fur," added Vonde.
"I don’t think being granted one point of speed is going to fix our problems," said Derbi. "I think actually practicing on off days and training for more than twenty minutes at a time is going to fix our problems."
"Humor them," Luvea sighed. "It doesn’t hurt to get out and do some team bonding."
"Bonding? On team Lost Cause? Has anyone said anything nice to each other today?"
"Your makeup looks perfect today, Derbi," offered Rhee.
"I’m not wearing any makeup."
"Oh. Well." Rhee considered this. "Someone could tell me my makeup looks perfect? I worked really hard on my eyeliner. Desert-style."
The rest of the walk was in silence. They came to the river and crossed it, which shimmered and slithered Hissi-like through the sands, creating slivers of blue along the pale horizon. Hot as it was, the desert was beautiful this time of day, especially when the winds were quiet and forgiving. And the scarabs stayed away.
"I see the shrine," Rhee announced, and bobbed in front of the group.
"Finally," said Derbi with a shake of her wings, and they all followed.
Coltzan’s Shrine was magnificent as ever, a great bright beacon beaming in the sunlight. Vonde found that he couldn’t look at it head-on—the slant of the sun made the pale stone blinding. He hadn’t been here himself in months, despite the advice every Neopet ever liked to give about coming every twelve hours, or something. Honestly, he just didn’t have the time. Plus, having a ghostly king materialize in front of you and drop a muffin in your hand while bellowing from thin air could not have been very good for anyone’s mental health.
Derbi was bouncing a little on her feet. "I’m going first," she announced, and without waiting for confirmation, hopped in front of the shrine with her arms spread wide.
"Coltzan, make me a better right forward," she cried. "Make me score more goals than Vonde!"
The wind picked up just a notch. Derbi’s headdress blew back from her face in a soft ripple. Vonde swore he saw her hands glow blue for a moment, the same shade as the white-tufted sky overhead. Behind her, everyone held her breath.
Derbi scrunched up her face and gave a world-class "hmph!" before turning away. "Must not have heard me," she muttered.
"I’ll go next," Rhee offered, and floated before the altar. She had, impressively, managed to calm herself down enough to offer the shrine a sweet smile. "Hello, Coltzan. Could I have some more speed to use in-game? These guys with wings and legs have all the advantage."
Once again, the afternoon came alive around them: a soft breeze, a low whisper. This time, a subtle silvery outline flickered to life in the air in the shape of a Lupe with a strong jaw and a dangling white beard.
Vonde had to resist the urge to step back. Okay, he knew Coltzan had been a great guy, but this was still a little creepy. Meepit-level creepy.
"Thank you for coming here, young Neopet," Coltzan’s voice said, gravelly and slow. Something plunked down into the sand where Rhee’s feet would have been, if she had had them.
She picked it up with evident disdain. "A scorched chomato?!"
"Leera, you go," said Vonde, covering his smile with one paw as Rhee’s temper picked up at cyclone speeds.
Leera said nothing as he stood before Coltzan. He just stared, with that scowling impassive Kau stare of his. Vonde was pretty sure half of the goals he saved were on account of that stare.
It must have at least somewhat impressed Coltzan—Leera received a chomato that wasn’t scorched. Just a little bruised.
"Unbelievable," said Rhee.
Derbi grumbled, "I can’t believe we walked for five hours in the scorching desert for fruit."
"Twenty minutes," Luvea insisted.
It was Vonde’s turn. He tried to pretend like he had a process, like he was used to coming here and this wasn’t the first time he had realized there were four symbols on the shrine’s surface and not five.
He stood before Coltzan and gave it his best shot: "Please bring your blessing to our team."
The sand swirled under his paws, which tickled, but Vonde managed to stay composed, for appearance’s sake. Derbi would never let him live it down if he started giggling at Coltzan’s ghost because his toes were itchy.
Coltzan’s ghost—there he was, up close now, gray and ghastly blue, the color of deep water through layers of fog.
Vonde held his breath despite his best efforts to play it cool.
"I hope this helps," boomed Coltzan, like he had a megaphone in his throat, and the sound made Vonde’s fur stand to attention. "You have gained one point of defense."
The apparition began to fizzle out, and Vonde let his jaw go slack, whirling on his teammates as disbelief sloshed through him. Along with a tiny magic burst somewhere under his skin.
"Defense," Derbi said.
"Defense?!" Vonde repeated, like the word had personally thrown a Gormball at his face. "I’m our best scorer! I don’t need defense! What am I going to do with defense?"
"It’s better than a scorched chomato," Rhee reminded him.
"I’ll eat it if you don’t want it," said Leera.
"Can Luvea please just talk to the dead guy so we can leave?" snapped Derbi.
"On it." Luvea, moving quiet as ever, approached the shrine. He was wearing the face of someone actually about to take this visit as seriously as Vonde and Leera had intended. Except—Vonde wasn’t sure how serious he himself even was anymore.
"Dear King Coltzan," said Luvea, and bowed his head so low, it almost reached his red knees. "We come here today to ask for your support as a team formed to defend you and your great land."
"I think the team was formed because Lost Desert signed a contract," Derbi muttered.
But Luvea’s words seemed to please the great rumbling spirit, who appeared once more, this time with a smile pushing through his grizzled features. Even his beard seemed to twinkle with a grin. "Team Lost Desert, you will make me proud," he said. "Use this as your charm and luck will come your way."
Something clattered to the ground. It wasn’t a fruit this time. Nor a lens, or even a dubloon.
And it definitely wasn’t one million neopoints, which was only a soft disappointment.
"A Coltzan plushie," said Luvea, expressionless. He picked it up and held it out to the team. Squished it softly for good measure. Its little button eyes seemed to mock the five Neopets before it. "Thank you, Coltzan. So glad we came."
"What a bust," Derbi sighed. "A fruit, an inedible fruit, defense for a non-defensive player, and a cheaply-made toy."
"It’s not a bust," said Leera, and stood up straighter. Vonde heard him take on his Big Strong Leader voice, which sounded exactly the same as his normal voice, except slightly more like he would be more than willing to throw a yellow snowball anyone who interrupted him. "This was an important exercise for our team that will improve our bond and increase the likelihood of our win tomorrow."
"Exercise," complained Derbi. "Tell me about it. Who needs forty-six straight games of yooyuball when you can learn about perseverance from an eternal hike?"
"Twenty minutes!" yelled Luvea, for once raising his voice. "It was twenty minutes!"
"Well, I guess I did learn about defense today," said Rhee with a laugh. "I learned how to defend myself from the mean things Derbi and Vonde say about me."
"I learned about offense," Derbi put in teasingly. "I’ve been offended multiple times today."
"See? Team building." Rhee grinned and high-fived Derbi.
"We can do this," said Leera. "We took a great spiritual journey today. Everyone needs to remember how far we came and what we’ve gained from this experience. We’re better teammates now. Better friends. Better yooyuball players. No Darigan yooyus or quadruple-maxing Meridell players can stop us now."
Vonde closed his eyes. At this point, scraping up any measure of confidence was like taking a grab at sand being taken out by the tide, but he didn’t think admitting that would help Leera’s speech, or his team spirit. He didn’t think anything would help his team spirit. Not even Coltzan’s literal spirit.
But still, he managed a weak smile, and to his surprise, the whole gang turned to him, bright-eyed. Okay, maybe they weren’t the most functional team out there, and sometimes they landed more shots at each other more than in the goal, but at the end of the day, they were still a misshapen family.
"Your makeup actually does look wonderful," Derbi told Rhee.
"And it might have been at least a twenty-five minute walk," Luvea admitted to Derbi.
Then they were all smiling, finally—bright and blinding as the shrine. The breeze waltzed over them, and when they looked down, their hands were all a little blue.
Fine—Vonde could summon a little team spirit after all. "Game on," he said.
They lost so badly the next day, no amount of sand shakes could get Leera out of the Alone-Time Corner.
At least that meant more for everyone else to share, like the good sore-loser teammates they were. Bright side.