Gertie and Bridget watch hockey
“Woah!” Peter Nessing pointed out the side window of Vivien’s minivan. “Look at that!”
The car was slowly passing a billboard with the words “The most incredible game you’ll ever see!” flashing across the top. It showed clips of hockey players performing incredible feats - jumps, saves, spins, goals, and slow motion fights. With the sluggish speed of Battenfield city traffic, everyone in the car was able to get a good look.
Vivien wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know.”
“Come on!” Peter huffed. “We’re ahead of schedule for delivering the egg. We can take a few hours to watch a game.”
Faye stared out the window, her lips pursed as she studied the video clips. “Yeah, I have to see that live,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“Let’s put it to a vote,” Gertie said. “All in favor?”
The three Nessings, Ernest and Bridget raised their hands.
“Looks like we’re outvoted,” Gertie said.
Vivien shrugged. “Fine with me.”
Bridget bought tickets online using her phone, set the car’s magical autodriver to the address of the stadium, and before long the group was pulling into the massive parking structure with an impressive entrance fee. If the group hadn’t been given a hefty travel stipend, there would be no way they’d be able to afford this side trip.
The front wall of the arena was made of large glass panels stretching all the way to the roof, giving an easy view into the lobby where fans were already milling about. A popular brand of hot dogs had a whole counter to themselves and a long line snaking in front of it, as did every other vendor they saw.
“Come on,” Bridget said, hoping the lines would die down later. “Let’s find our seats.”
They passed food stand after food stand on their way to the correct tunnel to lead them to the area they were sitting in. Some counters were sponsored by burger companies, some touted specialty brands of popcorn, and all had a long list of beer options.
Peter grinned at the line of taps, excited to use his ID. He had reached the legal drinking age earlier in the summer when he had turned eighteen and was eager to try everything.
The group walked into the seating area and were greeted by a blast of icy air that sunk into their hair and dried their throats.
“Wow,” Gertie said, wrapping her bare arms around herself, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. “It’s amazing what magic can do.”
“Could be science,” Ernest said, pulling his hoodie out of his backpack to slip on.
“We’re sitting over there,” Bridget said, looking at her phone and directing them to a row near the middle of the stands.
They had arrived early, but still had to wade through a ton of people. The fans wore black and green jerseys or, less often, turquoise and yellow to support their teams. Bridget was surprised by the number of children present with their parents, given how late in the night the game was going to go.
Peter frowned. “I don’t recognize these teams,” he said, looking at the logos on the fans’ jerseys.
“Maybe they’re recently rebranded,” Gertie suggested.
“Or in the minor league?” Bridget added.
Charlie, Peter’s younger brother who had accidentally turned himself into an ostrich, interrupted with a honk at the tight fit in the plastic seats. Faye sighed, able to understand him due to a translation spell, and lifted the plastic armrest in between them to give him more room. She leaned against his feathers to get some warmth.
“Look at that glass,” Vivien pointed out. The rink itself had glass from the boards to the ceiling, to block any stray puck or stick, Gertie assumed. It was completely see through, so no one worried about missing any of the action.
Peter stood. “I’m starving. Who wants to brave the lines with me?”
Ernest volunteered and the roommates left.
Gertie opened her backpack to check on the egg they were delivering. The egg had a penchant for stirring up storms when it didn’t like the music, and she was worried the years-old pop songs playing would anger it.
The egg was glowing a bit from its styrofoam lined box, confirming her concerns.
“I know you hate it, Shelby,” she said, using the name for the egg only she thought was clever. “But it will be replaced by the sounds of skating and fights soon, I promise.”
She reached in, and was shocked to feel that the egg felt like a warm cup of coffee.
“Oh,” Gertie jerked back. The egg wasn’t angry at the music; it was trying to keep itself warm. “Okay. You’re good.”
Gertie packed the egg away in its styrofoam, slipped it back into the box, and held it in her arms to try to soak up the extra heat.
As the clock clicked closer to gametime, Bridget started getting worried that Ernest and Peter were lost. She pulled out her phone to text them, but just at that moment they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, laden with treats.
“The lines in this place are insane,” Ernest said with a groan as he passed a giant popcorn down the row for everyone to eat.
“So are the prices,” Peter grumbled, taking a sip of his chosen beer. “Even more than in other stadiums.”
The seats began filling up quickly and Bridget checked her watch. The game was about to begin.
Intense music started up and the lights over the spectators went dark. Strobe effects began shimmering over the rink, lighting up in patterns in time with the blasting bass.
Gertie blinked. The turquoise-and-yellow-themed team had started skating around the rink, casually holding their sticks and generally looking relaxed about the “most incredible game” they were about to play.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said. “Please give a warm welcome to the Gelthrif Goshawks!”
A chorus of boos rose from the audience and Bridget frowned. That wasn’t very sportsmanlike.
“And now put your hands together for the Battenfield Dragons!”
Uptempo music started, and the audience began clapping in beat.
The announcer went over the Dragons’ individual player names and positions, but it all went by so fast Bridget couldn’t keep up.
“Let’s get started!”
The music cut out suddenly and the puck was dropped between a Dragon and a Goshawk. The referee jumped out of the way as the two players went after it.
The Dragon swept the puck to one of their teammates and the game was on.
Hockey reminded Bridget of basketball, the way that the players passed the puck to one another. It was fast paced, relying on teamwork and skill and speedy skating. The players were practically flying across the ice.
Bridget was thinking it would be nice to learn to skate when a Dragon came in too fast and hit a Goshawk. They both went careening into the wall and the audience roared.
Gertie flinched. Someone was bound to be hurt from that slam.
But to her surprise, both players got up unharmed. Instead of checking for injuries, they started yelling about who was at fault and had to be separated by a ref.
“They wear lots of padding,” Peter explained.
“I don’t know, the uniforms look enchanted,” Bridget said, her magical eye being able to tell such things. “Maybe they have the same healing spell you do?”
Peter’s frowned, his hand moving to his enchanted necklace that healed him when he got hurt.
The game went on. The advertisement hadn’t exaggerated - it was an incredible game. The players spun around the rink with speed that didn’t seem possible, they jumped over one another and even launched themselves off of the rink’s walls. They seemed oblivious to the fact that they were wearing skates with sharp blades on the bottom that could cut skin like butter.
The crowd went wild when the Dragons scored, and Peter jumped up to cheer as well. As he sat back down, he grinned at his friends. “Might as well root for the home team.”
The game stopped periodically to clean the frozen slush kicked up by skates off the ice, and during that time there were shots of the audience on the multi-screened scoreboard, and occasional contests of who won free candy or tickets to the next game.
Faye got up and came back twenty minutes later with a big fluff of cotton candy. She offered it around, but no one else had a sweet tooth that strong.
“The floor gets sticky super quickly here, huh?” she asked, demonstrating her foot leaving her flip flop behind.
“I feel bad for whoever has to clean it up,” Bridget said.
Ernest, who had been eating peanuts and dropping the shell remains on the ground, cleared his throat awkwardly. “I was going to pick them up after.”
The game continued. One of the Dragons lost their hockey stick in a battle for the puck, jumped over the other player’s stick, landed in a somersault, and picked their stick back up.
Gertie and Bridget gasped.
“Totally worth the price,” Peter murmured, taking another gulp of beer and watching the feats with rapt attention.
There were wild cheers when the Dragons’ goalie made a spectacular diving save that soon turned to shouts and boos as the Goshawk forward lost his footing and bumped into the Dragons’ goalie. Another Dragon player came behind and shoved him, only to get pulled back by another Goshawk. More players from both teams joined in with punches and shoving and before Gertie knew it, a full-on brawl had broken out.
It was hard to tell who was punching who. The audience was cheering it on, the referees were making a show of trying to break it up, and then a head came flying off a player’s shoulders and smacked into the glass.
Gertie and Bridget gasped and looked at their friends, who all seemed shocked and disgusted, and then at the rest of the crowd. No one else seemed concerned; the spectators just kept shouting and yelling for the fight to continue. Was anyone else seeing a headless player lying on the ice, with his helmeted head rolling about?
Gertie stared, her brow furrowed. There wasn’t any blood on the ice.
Eventually the refs broke up the fight and threw a few players into the penalty box. A line change happened smoothly, and two Goshawk players picked up the body and head of their fallen comrade and brought it to their coach.
“Penalty against Gelthrif number forty-three, five minutes, fighting. Penalty against Battenfield number eleven, five minutes, fighting. Penalty at fourteen minutes in the first period.”
The game went on as if nothing had happened, but the friends were more concerned with what they could see on the Goshawks’ bench.
The Goshawks’ coach brought a man to stand beside her. He wore the same formal attire that the coach wore, but didn’t have an obvious reason to be on the team’s bench. Until his hands started glowing and he placed the player’s head back on his body, using his healing magic to stitch the skin, bone and sinews back together.
It shouldn’t have helped anything; a head separated from a body shouldn’t have been able to be healed. But the player started moving and shaking out his shoulders.
“Necromancy,” Vivien breathed, her eyes taking on the look of wonder they got whenever she saw spirit magic.
“Yeah, look at this,” Ernest said, holding out his phone. He had begun researching as soon as the fight stopped. “Apparently, in the off-season, Battenfield has an all-zombie hockey league. Deceased hockey players from around the world are reanimated because of clauses they put in their will. It’s a big thing in Vayefell. This is the first team in Crescyth, but they’re looking to expand.”
“Wow,” Bridget said. “No wonder they don’t care how dangerous it is.”
The player with the newly-reattached head was put back on the ice during the next line change, and continued skating and doing tricks as if nothing had ever been wrong with him.
Vivien’s eyes grew wide when the players started arguing with the ref over an icing call.
“They can talk?” she whispered. “How?”
The spectators booed when the Goshawks scored a goal in the last two minutes of the period, but they turned into vengeful shouts as the Dragons then proceeded to take the puck all the way to the other net.
The player with the puck skated back and forth, trying to get a good shot on the goalie. As a Goshawk defender bore down on him, he shot and jumped to avoid being slammed against the walls of the rink.
The puck slipped through the goalies legs, the defender tripped and splayed across the ice, and the player’s skates cut just below the defender’s shoulder. Gertie cringed, knowing how sharp the blades were, and in a spot with no padding. The defender’s arm fell to the ice at the same time the buzzer went off, signalling the Dragon’s goal. The crowd roared as the home team scored.
The period break was called and the car-company-sponsored ice resurfacers rolled out to smooth out the ice. The defender casually picked up his arm and returned to his bench with the rest of his team to have it reattached.
“That was amazing!” Peter crowed. “Did you see that shot?”
Gertie cleared her throat, unsure she could be so cavalier about limbs going flying.
“Want to get hot dogs? The line might be shorter now,” Ernest suggested.
“How can you think about food now?” Bridget asked.
Ernest just shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
Eventually the group came to a consensus, and they stood and made their way to the lobby to get food.
“What’s that about?” Faye asked, pointing out the front of the stadium.
Thanks to the glass, they could see a crowd of about forty people with signs shouting outside. Through all the rabble it was hard to figure out what they were saying, until one of the group stood on a bench with a megaphone.
“We are the People to Free Spirits,” he said after the feedback buzzed away. “We are against the enslavement of spiritual energy to have gladiator-like spectacles for your amusement.”
Vivien frowned. “These players wanted to do this, right?” she asked Ernest and he nodded.
“That’s what it says online. They put it in their wills.” Ernest assured her. “The necromancers don’t just raise anybody.”
“We demand that all the players in that stadium,” the speaker pointed accusingly at the glass wall that divided him and the spectators, “be released and put back in the ground.”
“Out of context it really sounds like he’s endorsing murder,” Faye said.
“Don’t raise to be played!” He began a chant that was taken up by the protestors. “Don’t raise to be played!”
Seeing Vivien’s trembling lower lip, Gertie suggested they should forget the hotdogs and head back inside.
“It’s amazing what these necromancers are doing,” Vivien spoke quietly to Gertie, knowing she accepted Vivien’s fascination. “The skill it takes to do this, to raise players with enough strength and skill and memory to still play…”
“I know,” Gertie said despite her own hesitancy, putting her arm around Vivien to give her a sideways hug. “Some people just don’t understand.”
Some people who remember necromancers could bring loved ones back to life to torture for information, Gertie thought, or use undead armies to wreak havoc on cities.
But Gertie didn’t need to bring that up to Viv. The rest of their group returned with their food and the next period started.
Bridget frowned. The players seemed different, somehow. The magic she had seen on them that was a sign of their reanimation, not a spell on their jerseys as she had thought, had changed during the break.
Suddenly, instead of going for the puck, one of the players lunged for the nearest referee. The poor man skated to the side, but another player tackled him. They were trying to eat the ref!
Bridget gasped, standing.
More of the players jumped onto the ref, who disappeared under a pile of suddenly ravenous zombies. Other zombies turned to stare at the audience, then skated fast, throwing themselves at the glass. A few skated to the rink exits, heading for the spectators.
“Let’s go!” Peter shouted, gathering the group. “We need to get out of here now.”
They ran down the stairs to the exits, followed by the other fleeing spectators.
“Everyone stay calm,” the PA system came on as the necromancers for both teams clearly struggled to try to regain control over their players. “Make your way to the exits in an orderly fashion.”
Screaming and shouting, the spectators ran for the exits. Soon it was a mob, everyone out for themselves and trying to escape. Bridget linked hands with Gertie and grabbed onto Ernest’s shoulder. Scared that Faye would be trampled given how short she was, Peter put her on top of Charlie so she was riding the ostrich. He linked arms with Vivien, who put her other arm around Gertie’s shoulders as if she was hugging her. Linked together, they pushed through the crowd out of the tunnel, as Charlie honked and flapped to lead the way.
Gertie kept straining her head to see what was happening. People closer to the rinks were getting grabbed by the zombies, but the helmets kept them from being able to bite. Those on the ice had managed to escape by closing themselves in the penalty box, and the referees now angrily shouted at the necromancers.
Before long everyone had poured out of the building into the bright sunshine. Security officers closed the doors with the press of a button and stood between the glass and the crowd.
And then the players, still in uniforms, charged out into the lobby. They crashed against the doors, gnashing their teeth and scrambling to get out.
Despite the danger, the protestors were revelling. They jeered and yelled, “We told you so!” and seemed to enjoy all the fear and terror at what had just transpired.
One man was shouting in Bridget’s face about how all the sport’s supporters were getting what they deserved, but Bridget ignored him. She saw a magical current in the air, one that matched what she had seen on the players.
It wasn’t that the necromancers had lost control and that the players were always warring with the desire to attack. Someone else had interfered.
Whoever it was must be incredibly skilled, she thought as she focused in on the feeling of the magic, her stomach twisting from the powerful necromancy. It wasn’t easy to take over control of even one spirit, let alone forty. Her eye scanned the crowd, looking for the source.
“This is what happens when you raise zombies!” A protester shouted. “The dead should stay dead.”
Bridget found it. On the periphery of the crowd, an older blond man stood calmly among the rowdy protesters, concentrating on his own use of magic. He held something hidden behind a “No Zombies!” sign that emanated the chaotic magic that Bridget could see.
Skilled, she thought, or just using a powerful artifact.
“Gertie,” Bridget got her sister’s attention, feeling lightheaded from the focus on her ruined eye. “That man...in the red hoodie? He’s making the zombies go crazy.”
Gertie nodded. She looked over her shoulder to glance at the security standing in between the glass doors and the crowd of spectators and protestors. “Tell the guards once we get close to him.”
Gertie pulled on Peter’s arm and muttered the plan to him as they wove through the crowd.
They approached the man with the sign from either side, moving right beside him, trying to appear as if they were watching everything unfold as he was. Gertie glanced over and could see him holding a gold necklace with a black jewel in the center. His lips were moving as he repeated whatever spell was activating the necklace.
“It’s crazy, huh?” Gertie said, trying to make casual conversation with the man. “Of course zombies would go rabid. It just makes sense.”
The man’s eye twitched, and he stopped his murmuring, distracted by Gertie’s presence.
Bridget watched her sister from afar. The strength of the magic got weaker, and the zombie players seemed to calm down, standing in a trance instead of trying to break down the glass. She got the attention of one of the security guards.
“That man? He’s holding something,” she said. “I think it’s controlling the zombies.”
The woman in a bright yellow shirt nodded and spoke into her walkie talkie.
“Man in red hoodie in the back of the crowd needed for questioning. Approach with caution, and don’t let him get away.”
Meanwhile, Gertie felt her heart race increase as the man looked down at her. There was nothing short of fury in his eyes.
“Necromancy is disgusting,” he said. “It unbalances everything. If this is what it takes to get people to realize…”
“I think people are realizing,” Peter said, and the man’s head whipped back to look at him. “I think they realize that if someone else interferes with a trained necromancer’s work, this is exactly what happens.”
The man’s eyes grew wide, but before he could do anything, Gertie had grabbed his wrist, twisted, and pulled the necklace from his grasp.
She had handed off her magic-filled-keychains to Peter on the walk over, so there was nothing to power the necklace without the man’s magical gift.
Bridget saw the magical current disappear, and the zombies all woke up. The players shouted in confusion from inside the lobby and soon started apologising, insisting that they didn’t know what they were doing.
The man did the only sensible thing to do in the moment. He tried to run.
Peter didn’t let him. He swung his leg out, knocking the man off his feet and sending him to the ground with his “No Zombies!” sign falling on top of him.
The security guards moved in, their tasers aimed at the perpetrator.
“Why can’t you see the truth?” he shouted as he was dragged away. “Giving the power of necromancy to anyone is dangerous! If any of them go rogue - My son! My son was killed and used as a puppet! It’s sick! It’s wrong!”
The teams’ necromancers questioned Bridget about what she saw and inspected the necklace Gertie had grabbed.
“Where did he get this? It belongs in a museum,” the Goshawks necromancer said, holding the jewel up.
“Does it matter where it came from? The man’s a loon,” the Dragons necromancer said. “At least we can say, definitively, it was this necklace that affected the players. We should talk to them, they might be in shock.”
The Goshawks necromancer nodded. “We'll assure them that we'll do everything we can to figure out what kind of hex and what kind of power source were used here. It's puzzling that the corporeal charm didn't block it since it's prevented everything else the PFS have thrown at us.” He turned the necklace over in his hand. “But no matter now. We'll do a joint press release?”
Gertie and Bridget stood awkwardly, surprised at how calm the necromancers were.
Vivien moved to stand next to them, a small pleading look on her face.
“Uh, excuse me?” Gertie said, and the necromancers turned to look, as if they had forgotten she was there. “This is my friend, Vivien. She’s thinking of studying necromancy.”
“Nice to meet you,” the Dragons necromancer said. “What can we do for you?”
“Just...any advice would be fantastic,” Vivien said. “And, if it’s not too much trouble, an autograph?”
As they drove to the hotel they had booked for the night, the cost of their tickets refunded, Vivien had a dreamy-like grin on her face.
“So, what do you say? Good thing we stopped?” Peter asked her good naturedly.
She looked over at him. “It was the most incredible game I’ve ever seen.”