The Ax Rises
“Well, ladies and gents, the final match of the Ionian Cup is just about to get underway. Tauren against the Sun, ARE YOU READY FOR SCRAMCRASH?”
This was truly living. Hear the roar of thirty thousand strong. Think of how many more are watching the projections back home. Let their screams pump through your veins. Feel it in your chest, your soul. Let their fire fuel your own. Time to take the field.
“And there is Ax and the rest of the Cretan Taurs. A fantastic season, led the league in scoring and total health of their Vortex. That bullrush, pardon the pun, is dare I say unstoppable.”
“Unstoppable. Ha.” Thesia removed her helmet to shake the sweat from her hair. It glinted gold in the sun. A bright day was necessary for a Sun victory, and the gods were kind enough to grant her such. The Athenians would be the ones who would carry the day into tomorrow.
“This is Corralee Muncie, your commentator for this prestigious match. As both Crete and Athens take the field, I can report that the stadium is filled to way past capacity. There are flyers, diggers, and many are just hanging onto the pavilion for dear life. Once in a lifetime opportunity, folks. To say you were there.
“The real story here, and I have no qualms about confirming it, is we have several scouts here from the prestigious Superior League. Five years old, and already the contenders are surging to the league for the honor of playing the best. And while both Crete and Athens would hope for their entire team to be invited, we all know the scouts are just here for one of these two.”
Me. They’re here for me. Ax looked up towards the stadium. The fans were screaming, rabid. It was still fifteen minutes to game time, they didn’t care. They were witnessing their hero.
Surdiax, or Ax to them, felt uncomfortable. Runners weren’t usually the center of attention. It was the Vortex that were both on the field and casting spells. The Slingers were sexier, with magic roaring from fingertips. Even if they couldn’t set foot on the field, they were majestic.
Majestic. Power. Sexy. None of these easily described Ax. He was chunky, arms like blocks with digits that were bigger than an elf’s forearm. His horns curled down instead of an alluring up. Ax even figured out how to best consider his snout disfigured.
None of these people cared. They wanted him. Needed him. Hated him, because he could do what none of them could. Shut that pretentious little elf’s mouth by chucking a ball harder and faster than anyone else in Ionia.
“And there’s the Athenian team. Thesia’s runners clearly favor speed over strength, with centaur Ruk and the Valkyrie sisters.” The Valkyrie sisters. Recruited from the frozen Norland, Thesia had lobbied heavily for them. The sisters Ala and Gegrun had responded with ten points apiece, and in an eight-game season no less.
Ruk was a mystery. More support for the women, he was one of the original members of the Sun a decade ago. Losing a step had wreaked havoc on his popularity, but his speed still outmatched most of the Ionian league.
Ruk wasn’t even his real name. It was Orukus. Ruk seemed fiercer to the fans. He didn’t have the heart to correct them.
Ax focused on the slingers. Thesia had kept around the dryad Iris, to have at least two players that could claim Athens as a genuine home. She was good, and even in Crete there was enough of a forest on the field for her to play with.
The real danger was Thesia’s handpicked girls from the Black Forest. Meira and Naevys had some of the fastest draws that had been seen, and they played fierce. Most runners didn’t walk away from the field without at least one broken bone. If they caught sight of Ax, he wasn’t getting off easily.
He grinned. Sef and Not would have their hands full.
“Thesia and the rest of the Sun is a handful, but if there’s anyone who can topple them from the heights, it is this Cretan team, playing for their home crowd! Jonah, Norie, Airelle, Fewdor, Sef, Not….aaaaannnnnnnnnnddddd AX!”
The press was a bit embarrassing for Ax. But the scouts were watching because of it. There were fans screaming his name because of it.
Stop it, he thought. Focus on the match, on the team. Scouts hate showoffs almost as much as they despise losers.
Lose the match, and no one would care about him. Ax would be the loser, the afterthought. At best, or worst, he’ll be propped up to make Thesia look more impressive.
Ax fell forward. Sef reached a hand forward, catching Ax before the fall was anything more than a believable stumble. “Thoughts here, Ax,” The satyr murmured. “Don’t let ‘em see you sweat.”
Of course. That was it. Already the elves were watching them, waiting for a slip-up. The Valkyries and Ruk were examining equipment, the Dryad admiring the trees. The elves only had eyes for Ax.
Fewdor stepped up to the line. He stood eighteen feet tall, looking closer to twenty under all the muscle mass and gruffly groomed mustache. He, like Jonah and Ax, actually decided to wear full clothing, a dark crimson tunic to represent the Cretan team with full pants that severely cut into the team’s budget to produce. However, it was a stipulation in his contract to have pants, a true treasure for giants.
Airelle and Norie perched on each shoulder, and glared ahead. They wore sashes across their breasts, more for sake of propriety than preference. Their talons dug into Fewdor’s flesh, but the giant didn’t seem to mind. Instead, his clenched fists almost seemed pointed at the Athenians.
“Thinking I might want harder pillows, Ax,” the giant rumbled. “Or just toss a few boulders again.”
“No boulders,” Jonah said. Jonah Reeves knew he wasn’t the captain, but he had to put his foot down. The rules were limited in ScramCrash, but the clearest was no lethal damage. A giant throwing rocks bigger than their targets might break more than just some bones, and send the entire team packing.
Not scowled, and leaned closer to the rest of the Bulls. “Sef and I’ve been doing our readings, Ax,” He said. The satyr nodded towards the team. “The Valkyries are fine, but the elves play mean. Knocked out the last team, and saved the Vortex until the rest of the team was unconscious.”
Ax had heard. He’d heard a lot worse of Thesia. The elf was determined to make the new League, and wanted to prove that not only was she the best, but so much better than this little league that dominance was commonplace for her.
It was something Ax desired too. This new League was amazing, a true chance to compete against the best. But the cost of Thesia’s methods just turned his stomach.
“We’re not devolving into playing their game,” He muttered. He nodded to Thesia, who glared right through him, looking for weakness.
“We play our way, and when the whistle blows we’ll have our heads held high with pride.”
Jonah nodded, and started to give the finer details to the rest of the Bulls. Ax closed his eyes, and walked towards the center of the field. He liked to have a feel for the dirt before the ball was thrown. A little bumpy today, cracked. The earth was a little parched, no rain for a while. There will be a dust kick-up, might hurt the Slingers’ accuracy.
“You are a mystery, Ax.”
He looked up. Standing a hundred feet away was Thesia. She was looking at a tree, and placed a hand on it.
“Olive,” Thesia said. “We don’t have these back north.”
“I’m not a mystery,” Ax said.
“You are,” Thesia said. “A minotaur with no herd to call his own, almost insisting upon it. Most of the beasts are wearing their history upon their chest or horns with pride. You leave yours bare.”
Ax remained silent. He didn’t like to talk about his past. He preferred to leave it behind. And too many questions would just lead to more.
“No response? Or just too hard in the head?”
“Are we going to talk, or play some ball?”
The announcer’s voice reigned. “Looks like after some tough words from the captains, the teams are ready, let’s take you to the center of the field. There’s no tradition with the Bulls, once again Ax will be joining Thesia for the toss.
“The Sage today is one Maraelyn Bax, having watched over 346 ScramCrash matches. An air Elementalist by trade, we should be looking at a traditional cyclone to start the match. As we settle in for a fantastic match, I’d like to just remind everyone that to stay safe, and by hearing this you have accepted the angers of this match. Don’t die from an errant spell or boulder, you’ll bring the mood down.”
A wind started to blow through. Thesia did not bother looking for the Sage, Bax was notorious for wanting to stay out of the spotlight. The spectators would know where he was. All he had to do was count her points, and stay out of the way.
A glint of fading light appeared a few feet in the air. The orb! Time to play.
“And Thesia takes the ball and the Athenians are off! We’re seeing some archery right now, Sef and Not can’t come close to support. The Valkyries are blocking Ax and…is that a pillow?”
Finally, Fewdor was finding the field.
“Pow! Right in the face! Thesia is stunned, and her Runners are distracted.”
Distracted? Everyone was distracted. The Bulls never bothered with a cohesive strategy, just roles that everyone needed to fill. However, this was more chaotic than any of the players were used to. The Runners had all scattered, running for cover. The Slingers from both teams were frightfully accurate in the open field, be it by bow, spell or pillow.
Thesia dodged another of the projectiles, this one the size of a crate, and did a quick head count. Ruk and the Valkyries were fighting Ax, while the Satyrs had taken for the trees, sprinting away from Meira and Naevys’ arrows.
Thesia spun again, and grit her teeth. The damn giant was ignorant beyond belief, but he was accurate. She slid next to a tree, and called up a communications spell. She breathed the words, and the Sun could hear her commands.
Straighten up! We’re the Sun, not a damn apprenticeship. She almost screamed through the spell. Iris, move the trees into something resembling order, give the rest of us some sight lines!
These trees are foreign. Iris protested. They aren’t used to me.
I don’t care! We need to find people, and now.
The team snuck glances her way in combat, unused to such ire from their Captain.
She opened her arms wide, showing her entire body before disappearing into the trees.
Who has the ball?
This was not going to Ax’s plan. This wasn’t even close to what was supposed to be the plan. He blocked a swing from a blunted spear, and lashed out at the Valkyrie. His fist crumpled the armor, bruising both his hand and her side. She grunted, and swung again. Ax could respect that.
“Ball’s gone!” Sef called out before disappearing again. No arrows coming his way, though there were rumblings from the trees. Dryad was going to find some trouble on their home turf. The trees knew Ax’s team, trusted them. And the archers had to focus on Sef and Not, in case they had the ball.
But where was it?
Ax adjusted his stance, and kicked out. Unlike most minotaurs with manlike feet, Ax’s body ended in solid hooves. When he kicked out right, armor wasn’t an issue.
“And Naevys goes down! Ladies and gents, this here is a match! We’ve got spells being thrown by the harpy sisters to bog down Ruk and Thesia. The archers are trying their damndest to pin down Sef and Not. But of course Ax is proving more than enough for the Valkyries…”
BONG! A horn blew through the stadium, and the crowd erupted into cheers.
“Crete scores! Crete scores! I have no clue how but…there’s Reeves!”
There he was, crouched next to the glowing sphere. The ball spun in the center of the energy. The Vortex was sucking in his breath harder than normal, but was all smiles.
“That would be Jonah Reeve’s first point this season. A defensive Vortex, he’s usually found on the outskirts of the field, communicating everything. But here in the Championship he just up and fools everybody, gods above and below…”
You said it. Reeves winked at Ax on his way back to their side of the field.
“You had one job,” Ax muttered. Reeves laughed.
“I stayed safe. And I kept something to keep me company.”
“Stayed safe?” Ax nodded to Thesia. She was screaming at the entire team. Heat broiled off her. Iris shuddered away, and even the elves looked nervous.
Thesia looked at Jonah with pure venom. He paled, and took a nonchalant step behind Ax.
“You just pissed her off.”
“If you don’t mind,” Reeves whispered. “I’m going to try my best to disappear for good for the rest of the match.”
Reeves was often criticized for his play style. His method of illusions and defensive spell weren’t in the spirit of ScramCrash, ran contrary to its aggressive nature. But if a Vortex fell unconscious for any reason, the match was over. He was an integral part of the team, and his presence was irreplaceable. Ax and the rest of the team wasn’t going to risk him over something as silly as tradition.
Sef and Not appeared next to Ax. “What do we do now, Ax?” They asked. “Run interference?”
Ax shook his head. “Just play our game. This isn’t close to over.”
It wasn’t. Whether Thesia’s criticisms were heated, they focused the Sun team. Thesia fell back into a support role, able to utilize magic up close while protected by the Valkyries. With her running havoc through the Bulls, Ruk was able to gallop past the team and tie the match up.
Ax felt a bit of rage. Ruk was his man on that exchange, and he was just beat out for the ball. Maybe that was why his punch broke Ruk’s nose as he ran past the centaur to score again. He needed to work on that response.
The scores started getting faster and faster. Thesia scored once, then again. Ax repeated, then Sef. Then Not and even Fewdor managed to bank the ball in off one of his throws. They started to pull away.
The Bulls were finding a rhythm to the elf that was making it easier to predict. Thesia needed to have the ball on every possession, to the point of insanity. She would break through protections and expose herself just for the chance to appear before the scouts. It was getting too easy.
Then Thesia disappeared.
“Bulls are up by three, and don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. We’re thirty minutes from regulation and…where did the Sun captain disappear to?”
Ax’s head snapped up. Sure enough, Thesia was nowhere to be seen. Sef and Not were playing keep away from Ruk, avoiding the centaur’s legs as the harpies and Fewdor ran interference. The Valkyries were there in the thick of it, but the Vortex…
“And Ax is gone! The two captains have completely abandoned the ball, what is going on? Wait, there, there! At the Cretan goal is Thesia, dueling Reeves. Oh, this is a classic mismatch, ladies and gentlemen. Reeves may be good at evasion and illusion, but he is simply outclassed. But why?”
Why indeed. Thesia was throwing fire, lightning, pure magic force at the human Vortex. Jonah Reeves raced and ducked under one blast, then another. Dammit, what was going on? He didn’t have the ball. Jonah was barely participating.
He cast another shield, deflecting a particularly potent spell. Thesia screamed, denied.
“Naevys, Crete goal, maneuver three!”
Six arrows appeared in the air. Reeves stepped to the left, raised another shield above him. Naevys was across the field, to have this much range was insanity. How could she do that?
“Oh, that’s a cheap shot!” Corralee stood up in her booth, shaking a finger down at the field. Meira stood behind Reeves, looking at her two arrows lodged in his back. She nodded, and sprinted off to rejoin the battle.
“Come on, Bax! Let’s get a damn call in here, the guy’s bleeding.”
Reeves tried to fight off the pain. He lay on his back, and just kept crawling. There wasn’t a whistle, or a wind. Meira had placed the arrows well. He’d fall unconscious long before the bleeding became life-threatening. For now, he was just in agony.
Thesia straddled the human. He started to glow, wrapping as many defensive spells around himself. What was she doing? The Sun players were losing, they had to score before trying to beat him into submission.
But the elf Vortex had had enough with the score. The Bulls could take the damn Cup. She honestly had just wanted it to look good. Thanks to her idiotic team, that was impossible. The only thing left to do was show the scouts that it wasn’t her fault. She was the best player, able to lead and end a game on her terms.
She slammed an enhanced fist down on the human’s back. His shield wavered, but held. The second blow shattered it. Jonah bit his mouth shut. He’d bleed before he gave Thesia the satisfaction of his screams.
She hit him once, and again. The two teams stopped fighting, confused. There weren’t the screams, the cheers from the crowd. Around the field, the fans were silent, staring towards the western goal.
A roar broke the silence. A muffled cry, and then Jonah’s voice.
“Stop the match! Bax, stop the match!”
First the Bulls, then the Sun started to run towards the goal. Footsteps, hoof beats, wing beats thudded. Fewdor outpaced them all with long lumbering strides. The captains were gone, Jonah was screaming.
A whistle stopped them in their tracks.
“There, up there! Bax has called the match. The Sun has five goals, the Bulls ten, this match is over!”
The crowd erupted.
Sef and Not broke through to the goal. Airelle and Norie had already landed upon Jonah’s collapsed body. Their talons were upon his back, tending to the wounds. He had lost consciousness, but seemed to be all right.
Standing by the goal was Ax. He held Thesia in his hands, engulfing the elf. He stared at her, hatred plain upon his face. His eyes burned red, hands shook. He wanted to kill her for what she had done to Jonah. No one could stop him. Maybe no one would care.
Ax set the elf down, careful to not be too rough. He turned away, and saw the rest of the Sun staring at him. Naevys and Meira’s bows were out. They lowered the arrows, sheepish. The two women rushed past him to tend to their vortex.
Ruk clopped up to Ax, and stared at the tauren. Ax glared up.
“Cheap shot, what she did,” Ruk murmured.
“Effective,” Ax said.
“Apparently not,” Ruk said. He motioned for space, and the two started to walk away. They could hear Corralee Muncie screaming the stats. Ax thought he heard his own name. Fans were probably picking their way through to rush the field.
“Wanted a second to congratulate you,” Ruk said. “Before the rush of scouts.”
“Scouts?” Ax tried to play it off. Ruk laughed, and nodded.
“Most likely never going to get a chance for a rematch,” Ruk held up a hand before Ax could protest. “No, no. I’m losing a step, and have loved this particular league. It’s smaller, but the competition has always been something to take pride in.
“Don’t forget that, up there. In stadiums that will fill in the thousands for just about anything. The fans will throw themselves at your feet, kings and queens will beg your favor. The gods may call you brother, but never forget that we claimed you first. You’re Ionian, and we thank you for that.”
Ruk trotted away. He had said all he wanted to, and didn’t hold with too much sentiment.
Ax watched the centaur leave, and didn’t know how to respond. The fans were reaching the field, he could hear their roars start to reach the trees. In that mass would be one or two scouts with a missive or request for dinner later. Corralee Muncie with a great big trophy for the champions to accept.
Ionia claimed him. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t born there. He wasn’t even a minotaur. They might kill him if they knew. A bastard of the Rus waste, a Waste Beast rather than one of the noble tauren. Lower than any of the races. Lower than humans.
Everyone wanted him. Him, Surdiax. Would they if they knew the truth?
He pushed the thought from his mind. Today, he was admired, respected. Needed. He was a champion, the pinnacle of achievement in all Ionia. He would rise higher, further.
He would be a god among players.
“Ax! Ax! Corralee Muncie, you just won the Ionia Cup, what do you have to say?”
“Couldn’t have done it without such amazing support. Just happy to be of service.”