Momoko finished putting on her gear, gently placed the necklace on top of her street clothes, shut her locker, and fell into step with Grisla heading out to the arena with her helmet and blades in hand.
"Check it." Grisla lifted a pair of electric blue air-blades with a glittering lightning bolt down each side. "These puppies have the latest in bio-read technology and updated remote technology that is guaranteed to cut response time by 3 milliseconds.
"That's amazing!" Momoko was genuinely impressed.
"I know." Grisla couldn't help but gloat. "Maybe I'll let you play with them later; but I need to break them in first. After all, these are the beta model."
"That's so cool." Momoko's eyes were transfixed by the shiny blades. "You're so lucky!"
"Well." Grisla grinned. "If you make MVP this year, maybe you'll score a pair of your own!"
"I can't wait!" Momoko punched the air. "I'm definitely going for it!"
"All right, look alive, ladies!" Lori was already pacing the bench as Grisla and Momoko sat down. "We missed two sessions thanks to the weather, and what we need to boost morale is a win! So, today I'm going to kick all of your butts at practice."
"Where's coach?" Momoko murmured as she slipped on her own well-worn blades.
"I don't know." Grisla shrugged. "Maybe stuck in traffic?"
"Maybe." Momoko nodded, and flipped the switch to activate the air-blades. She stood and checked the balance calibration. Satisfied, she headed out to the arena and as soon as she crossed the field line, a low thrumming picked up in her temples.
"No... not now.' She pressed her palm against her forehead. She didn't have time for this. She was going to play Rolequet, and this would not stop her. The thrumming reduced to a dull ache as she pushed herself towards the huddle in the center, shoving her helmet on.
"All right!" Lori shouted over the hum of the air-blades. "I want a good couple of laps from everyone, Mark 2!"
Blades came with four speeds users could choose, and accelerate at each setting by pushing their body, like skating. Stand-by was the lowest setting and best for walking, Mark I was good for a light speed, or braking, Mark 2, and Mark 3 was the fastest. Most Rolequet players pushed Mark 2 as fast as they could go, but a few players could handle Mark 3 speeds. Lori was not kidding around if she was expecting them to do their warm-ups today at game speed.
Momoko tapped the remote in her left glove, setting the speed as she began to glide forward, the intensity of her speed increasing immediately. It only took a couple of seconds for her to start to fly around the arena, the stadium around her becoming a blur as she pushed her legs harder. She made a lap, dodging her fellow teammates as they entered the field. After her second lap, she dropped the visor on her helmet, activating the live-link, and her head filled with the team's chatter.
"Slow down Clover, it's not a race!"
"Don't be jealous Blue, just because you can't handle Mark 3!"
"She lives for speed!"
"Bite me, Bomber."
With a grin, Momoko pushed herself as hard as she could, managing to complete her third circuit before Lori's voice cut through the conversation.
"Okay, line up for teams. Seems we're eager for some punishment today, ladies."
A unanimous groan echoed through the visor as Momoko slowed her pace and hit the brakes, coming down to stand-by as she joined her team.
"Show off." Grisla punched her in the arm.
"What?" Momoko smiled innocently. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
That earned her another punch, and she was pretty sure it might have hurt without the padding. She laughed.
Lori glided over to where they were, furiously scribbling on a meta-pad.
"Coach phoned in and said we'll start without her; so I want two teams, read and green—"
"Can it, Blue." Lori shot the taller brunette a menacing look.
She continued. "When I call your name, grab a red jersey. Everyone else will be green. The name of the game is keep away."
Another groan was released from the team. "Keep away" was one of their least favorite exercises, an endurance test where each time had to simultaneously guard their own puck while trying to steal the other team's. It was a timed run, each steal earning the team a point.
Momoko glanced up when her name was called. That meant a red shirt. She accepted the jersey from Lori and went to stand next to Blue and Ginger.
"Hey Clover." Ginger smiled. "Heard you'll probably be MVP this season, congrats!"
"Thanks." Momoko smiled back and pulled the jersey over her armor.
A second later, Grisla joined them after Lori handed her a red jersey.
"All right!" Blue gave her a high-five. "Dream team!"
"Awesome!" Grisla grinned.
"We're going to rock this." Momoko agreed.
Lori delivered their puck and sticks, directing them to left field.
"Momoko, Blue, you're defense. Ginger and Grisla, offense."
"No offence, but Momoko's the fastest out of us, why put her in defense?" Blue quirked an eyebrow.
"Her speed is excellent, but her guarding needs work." Lori retorted, then glided off to assign the other team.
"She's not wrong, you know." Momoko dribbled the puck. "I can't always rely on luck to get to the goal line."
"That's what we're for." Grisla shot her a wink. "The offence is only as good as its defense!"
"I think you've got that confused." Blue smirked.
"True." Ginger put on her helmet. "But being versed in a bit of both might be a good idea. Especially when your opponent is Lori, "The Destroyer"."
"Hmmmm." Blue swung her stick experimentally. "Hope the time's short, she can get nasty on the field."
Momoko dropped her visor to see a clock in the corner of her vision, set to three minutes. Three minutes in this game could seem like forever.
"Well." She took a deep breath. "Let's get into position." She headed to the middle of the field to face off the other team, ignoring the dull ache that had moved behind her eyes.
"Blue, on me, flank at all times." She directed. "Ginger and Bomber, I want you after the green puck. No mercy, and don't let up."
"Poor Teacup." Ginger giggled as the green team's petite puck holder took position. "Looks like she got the short straw today."
Momoko hunkered down into her own position, the puck nestled against the curved bow of her stick. She focused on her breathing, feeling her muscles tighten and release as she shifted. 'Start slow' she told herself. She would have to break from the scrimmage, but she needed Blue with her or she'd be wide open. Then they could accelerate, but she wasn't sure how well her defense partner would be able to keep up. She took another deeper, calming breath. 3, 2, 1...
The whistle blew, and all her coiled tension released. She shot through the left side of the scrimmage, and as soon as she was free of the pack, she remoted up to Mark 2. A glance at her visor display showed Blue right behind her right side. With a confident grin, Momoko upped to Mark 3. She then banked left, carrying the puck a good few yards before The Destroyer caught up to her, blocking her path. Momoko leapt to the right and let Blue defend that side as she pushed her pace up to as fast as she could go. She could see the player marks across her visor scrambling and fumbling to close the distance, Blue closer to her than the opposing offensive players.
"Clover!" Grisla's voice popped in Momoko's headset. "Slow down! Work more on defending with Blue."
Momoko nodded, remoting down to Mark 2, but it did little to curb her speed. The arena was a rush of color and adrenaline. She'd have to cut her pace as well. Just as she was calculating how best to let herself slow down, an unfamiliar purple blip registered on her visor, glowing brighter than any of the other players' marks. It was ahead of her, just out of sight on her right side. Confused, Momoko turned her head to see where the blip registered, but there was nothing there. When she glanced back at her screen, it was blank. Nothing was registering. She didn't see the other players' positions or the countdown clock, all she could see was the field rushing past her.
"Uh, guys... I think I have a glitch." She scanned the field in front of her, and not seeing any other players in the area, banked left, cutting her pace with the turn. "I'm going to slow down further for Blue."
Without an operating visor, she would need to rely on her defensive partner to know the location of the opposing team. It was a handicap, but they could still win this. Her pace finally reached the level of a standard Mark 2, and she could sense someone closing the distance behind her. Even at Mark 2, it was dangerous to turn her attention around, so all she could do was hope it was her teammate based on the last visor positions; but as soon as the thought crossed her mind, her visor whirred back to life, showing not Blue, but the purple blip practically on top of her position.
Her heart began to thud in her chest as the blip eclipsed her position, and it was not Blue who came into view in her peripheral, but a creature she had never seen or could ever imagine. It had the head of a large wolf, crowned with curved golden horns, but it was the double set of gold-green eyes fixed on her that made her body seize. Its head turned towards her, four glowing orbs piercing her with predatory malice. Momoko screamed as the creature's mouth gaped open, revealing rows of finger-size razor sharp white teeth. She leapt to the left as those teeth snapped at her arm.
With a shattering thud, she heard, rather than felt herself hit the arena wall, and then everything was a spinning world of ground and sky as she tumbled to a stop. Her vision blurry, and body non-responsive, all she could do was stare as the beast began to pad towards her across the field, its jaw working back and forth. She was transfixed by the towering creature, even as darkness edged across her vision. Her last thought before conscious fled was that with the way it was working its jaws, it was like it was trying to speak.
"Wake up! Momoko!" Something like Grisla's voice came from somewhere far away.
Her eyes snapped open, the bright light blinding. It took a moment, through her pain and confusion, to realize she was in the sick room at the sports dome, propped up on a bed with pillows, her left arm in a sling, something warm and gauze-like wrapped around her head.
"Hey!" Grisla popped up from the folding chair next to the bed. "You're awake!"
"I heard you call my name... WH-what happened?" Momoko dreaded asking as soon as she did, remembering a set of four haunting bestial eyes.
"You must've scrambled your brain." Grisla laughed, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Destroyer caught you wide open. Didn't you check your visor? You could've at least tried to guard!"
"My visor went dead. Didn't you hear me say I was slowing for Blue?"
Grisla shook her head. "Man that explains it. Well, Lori could've at least taken it easy on you! She hit you like a truck!"
"Feels like it..." Momoko gingerly touched her head. Tender, but not too bad. "Was there..."
She winced as she shifted. Everything hurt. Like, everything. Even her toes protested the movement. "This is probably going to sound weird, but was there... a wolf, or something lose in the arena?"
"A wolf?" Grisla stared at her incredulously. "Of course not. If something like that were to happen, we'd have called off practice and called the police!"
"Of course." Momoko forced a laugh. "I must've dreamt it."
"I can believe that." Grisla smiled. "You were out! Like, comatose or something. Doc says you're going to have to sit out another week with that arm."
Momoko groaned, falling back into the pillows, causing a shoot of pain and sparks across her vision. "That sucks."
"Yea." Grisla nodded. "At this rate, you may just die of boredom in your bedroom."
"Hey." Momoko grinned. "No need to harass the injured about their lack of a social life."
"Oh? I think you should be harassed about more than that." a voice from the doorway caught their attention, and Momoko craned her neck to see the worried face of her guardian come into view.
"It looks worse than it feels." Momoko promised with a weak grin.
"Excuse me." Grisla stood up and backed out of the room. "See you later, Mo!"
Sylvia sank into the chair after Grisla left, her sharp blue eyes analyzing the damage.
"Work hazard." Momoko joked, trying to lift her guardian's mood.
"I know." Sylvia smiled sadly. "But I'm still allowed to freak out and worry over you, it's my job."
"Well, not too much." Momoko shifted again, and her muscles protested a little less. "I'm fine. Few days on the bench."
"I heard what happened from Lori. She said your behavior before the crash was... odd."
"How so?" Momoko asked.
"She said... you were pale as a sheet, and when she reached for you, something went wrong—you jerked towards the wall and... What happened Momoko?"
"I...." Momoko couldn't bring herself to admit what she saw, but she couldn't lie, either. "I don't know, exactly. I thought I saw something—my visor was malfunctioning... so.... I don't know. Maybe it was just my helmet on the fritz and I panicked."
"Really?" Sylvia's piercing eyes were uncomfortable.
Momoko coughed, clearing her throat. "Yea, I mean, I had a headache, and then the visor went, so I just—it was my mistake. At those speeds I should've been concentrating. I'm sorry."
"You're still having those headaches?" Sylvia frowned.
"Y-Yea, but it's not bad. Especially if I keep the stone close."
Momoko blinked, surprised she had just let that spill out. She stuttered, trying to recover from the blunder. "Ha-ha, stupid superstition, but I think it helps."
"I.... see." Sylvia's expression was unreadable.
"I'm okay, really... but if it'll make you feel better, I'll take the doctor's advice to the tee. I'll be the perfect patient."
A small smile broke through Sylvia's guard. "Liar. Still, I'm worried. You should've told me, instead of going off to practice. I'll get you to a specialist. Next time, you could really hurt yourself. Playing in prime condition is one thing, but you can't do this, Momoko. It's dangerous."
Momoko was too tired to protest, and Sylvia was right. Injuries in the game could be severe, she was lucky. Maybe it was time to take what was going on seriously. Even if the stone wasn't to blame, things definitely weren't normal. She should at least figure out what was causing the headaches. She nodded in agreement, and let sleep overtake her. She thought she heard someone whisper her name as she drifted off, but it wasn't Sylvia's voice.