“Come on! Pick up the pace!” shouted Adrina. “Run like you’ve got an army of necroids chasing you!”
“That’s easy for you to say!” Cheng puffed back, her orange tanktop soaked with sweat. “You haven’t been the one exercising for the last two hours!”
“You’ve got a game tomorrow. You need to be ready for it!”
“Come on, Cheng,” said Red, running beside his friend on the basketball court. “She’s just doing her job.”
“Alright, break!” Adrina declared as they finished their laps across the court.
There were five mutual sighs as five pairs of feet wandered away from the court, most of them toward the water cooler they had brought with them. Red, on the other hand, went over to stand next to Adrina.
“You’re doing good,” he told her, holding his hand to his eyes to shield out the sun.
“You think so?” she asked. “It feels difficult, yelling at you all like that. Wasn’t there anyone else you could have chosen as coach?”
“Well, Giovani doesn’t do sports, and Nero’s locked himself away in his room for a long while. And even when he’s not in his room, he’s taken to pouring over old books and ancient texts. I wonder what he’s up to.”
“Well, maybe we’ll figure it out after you all beat Team Peregrine again.”
“Do you think it’ll be as close as last year?”
“If they’ve trained as much as you have, perhaps.” Adrina directed her attention to the other players: Cheng, Aurus, Albus, and Violet. “Break’s over!”
* * *
Seven hours later, as the group reclined in the kitchen of their facility, the doorbell rang. The seven present raced to the atrium, where Red opened the door to welcome their guests: Team Peregrine and their associates.
“Hey, everybody!” greeted Martin, the eldest of the group. “Where’s Nero got to?”
“He’s turned reclusive,” Red replied. “We think he may be up to something. How was the trip? You got here a couple hours late.”
“Some necroids attacked us near the bottom of the hill.” Martin’s brow furrowed. “We hadn’t known they’d got that far.”
Adrina frowned. “Neither did we.”
“Well, at least you’re safe!” said Aurus. “Nothing damaged, I hope?”
“We’ll see after twenty four hours,” replied Ava, a blonde girl that was probably the best on Team Peregrine. She grinned wickedly. “I hope your skills are up to par.”
“Oh, they broke par a long time ago,” Red yawned. “I know you all like to be the birdies, but honestly, you’re more like bogeys.”
“Now, now,” said Albus. “Let’s not trash talk before the match as well as during it. Now come on back to the kitchen so we can have some dinner.”
They had brought out a special table for this occasion, seeing as they were serving seven extra guests that night: Martin, Ava, Robin, Jay, Raven, Wren, and Pip. Of these, Raven and Wren were the only ones not participating in the game. They would, along with Giovani and, hopefully, Nero, serve as the support, audience, and commentators of the match.
However, as the meal began, the conversation quickly turned away from the coming match, as the two groups exchanged stories of their long year apart. While Red and his friends stayed in their facility, or very close to it at least, the Peregrines were nomadic, traveling across the land and getting into far more interesting adventures than what their hosts had to speak of.
Not that they begrudged the Peregrines of their amazing stories. They knew as well as the Peregrines that those adventures, while entertaining and perhaps hilarious in hindsight, had been terrifying during the experience.
So they laughed and listened and talked, eating whenever they found time between their parts in the conversation, which lasted for hours, late into the night.
* * *
Red crouched in front of Ava, dribbling the ball, for perhaps the fiftieth time that day. Both their faces glistened with sweat as they glared at each other, their eyes darting to each side and up and down each other, waiting for the other to make a move. From the sidelines, the group members not playing, plus about two dozen others from the surrounding area, screamed and yelled at the players, cheering on their favorite team. The score was tied and they were in the second half of the game, so tensions were running a bit high.
For the actual game they had moved down to an abandoned school at the bottom of the hill – a court that wasn’t filled with cracks and weeds, and where the rims weren’t half-broken with rust. Plus, the atmosphere was much better here, even if they didn’t have enough spectators to fill a row of the bleachers.
Around them, the other eight players fought and pushed for their positions, as the two coaches shouted at the players. Red had never seen Adrina so worked up – she would have been jumping up and down if she could have stood.
Seeing an opening, he passed the ball to Cheng, who nearly elbowed Robin as she escaped toward the basket. She passed back to Violet, who took a shot, sending it straight through. The audience cheered. Pip took the rebound, and the players dashed over to the other side of the court as Albus tried to take the ball from Pip. A couple of passes later and it went through the basket, tying the game again. But something had changed – it wasn’t the same cheering as it had been. There was something in the air, and it was sapping the attention of the audience.
Red just ignored the feeling. His vision only extended as far as the court as he grabbed the ball and raced toward his opponents’ basket. He could hear pounding feet behind him, but he only barely registered most of those feet stopping about halfway down the court. But he soon saw why.
There, right in front of the basket, stood a necroid, seething at him viciously. He wasn’t going to be able to stop in time. There was only one thing to do.
He tossed the ball up, up into the air. Then, as he approached the necroid, he reached out his hands, taking the fiend by the shoulders. He leapt, hoisting himself over the creature’s shoulders and clearing its head. He landed nimbly just as the ball hit the floor in front of him. Then, as he crouched down from the impact, he leapt again, this time carrying the ball with him, until it touched the rim and slid into the basket.
He turned around after he landed again. About a dozen necroids had entered the gym, and were busy attacking the spectators and players alike. However, the two dozen people in the gym were more than a match for them – even Adrina, who once again surprised Red with the things she carried on her wheelchair. But to sum up, after a short while and a lot of noise, a deadly silence fell over the gym as the last necroid crumpled to the ground.
“Rina, are you okay?” asked Violet, hurrying over to Adrina.
“I’m fine. I’m just surprised they were here – they’ve never come this close before.”
“Yes, that’s what worries me the most,” said Giovani.
But Red was only half listening. Of the necroids, eleven had attacked the nearby spectators, while only one had gone after the players. That last one lay on the court, having been killed by Ava, who had been close behind Red the entire time. Red examined this one, bending down in wonder to why it’s attack pattern had differed from the others so much. As he put his foot down next to the creature’s torso, it pressed against something. Lifting his foot, he picked up the disturbance: a red key.