Chapter 126:

The deadly Ball Game

Elyon - Gods among us

After three days since Rodrigo's group encountered the god Xólotl, the gods were sent to a city named Chicomóztoc, which seemed to be a sacred city for the Zacatec people.

Although Rodrigo and his company were prisoners, they were treated as if they were deities, carried in carriages borne by people to the city, which was west of Tlacuitlapán. The vast city of Chicomóztoc was built on the slopes of a large mountain, which had a huge pyramid at its top. It was a vibrant city bursting with energy. From what Anpiel and Tul could gather, this city was sacred to all the chichimeca kingdoms living there. It was prophesized that a great king would rise from this land, leading all the chichimeca realms to fight for possession of the city.

As you would expect from a mystical city, most of its inhabitants were priests and healers. The smell of blood was also overpowering, which made Tania deduce that many human sacrifices were performed there. The entire passage was lined with white temples and pyramids, gleaming like pearls in the twilight.

However, the reason the gods were brought here was because of a tradition common throughout the region, from the chichimeca kingdoms to Mayapán: The Ball Game. Or as Tul called it: 'Pitz'.

Tul explained that the Ball Game was a sacred and popular sport throughout the region, serving as entertainment for the masses. The objective was to keep a rubber ball off the ground while bouncing it off the court walls. Ana recalled similar games played in Ireland, but they used sticks and clubs and were played on grass, not in a court.

—Don't worry— Tul said. —I am an expert in that game, and I will teach you—

In front of the giant pyramid on the mountain, a plaza rose at its base. This plaza was shaped like a capital "I" elongated or double "T" with very high walls, making it seem like a pit. In the middle of the esplanade, there were two high stone rings. Above the field, there were stands where people sat to watch the game. Notably, today, the venue was packed with eager spectators hoping to see the gods play against the best players of the Zacatecos.

Upon arriving at the entrance of the stadium, a structure with large red columns, the carriages stopped, and they finally disembarked. All the gods wore green shackles on their wrists, which suppressed much of their divine power.

—Who will be the participants?— asked one of the Zacateco gods, who seemed to be Xólotl's steward. The man wore a red-feathered headdress and a jaguar cape, as well as a loincloth and sandals.

Tul eagerly raised her hand. —I will, of course, participate— she said. The other gods were uncertain.

—How many participants are needed?— Anpiel asked. —Or can we know the rules before participating?—

—The rules are very simple— the god said, showing them a rubber ball. —The objective is to prevent this ball from hitting the ground, or you'll lose points— he said.

—That doesn't seem too difficult— Loki commented confidently.

—The catch is that you can only use your hips, elbows, and knees. Using your hands or head will be considered a violation, and you'll receive severe penalties— Xólotl's steward explained.

The man then pointed to the two sides of the court.

—You will be on the left side, and your opponents will be on the right— he said. —You must bounce this ball, using your bodies, to the other end and make it hit the wall that protects your opponents to score points. If the ball drops or you use improper body parts, you'll lose points—

—That doesn't sound so easy now— Menrva commented with concern.

—The rules will be explained in more detail by the referee when the game begins— the man said and turned to look at the gods again.

—Aside from her, who will the other three players be?— he asked.

Tania was about to volunteer, but Menrva stopped her. —I think it's time for those of us who haven't broken through the barrier to participate— she said. Tania understood that Menrva currently felt frustrated with her position.

—What will happen if we lose?— Anpiel asked, puzzled.

—You will be sacrificed to the great king and god Xólotl— the steward replied calmly. —And your heads will be used to create new rubber balls—

The gods swallowed hard and looked to Menrva.

—Are you sure you want to participate?— Tania asked with a concerned look.

—You said we should be honest, Tania— Menrva commented. —And the truth is, I don't want to be left behind—

—I understand how you feel, Menrva— Ana interrupted. —But are you sure about this?—

—I am. I won't be a burden to you or anyone else— Menrva replied, smiling.

—I'll participate too— Freyja chimed in. —Besides, if we lose, we'll end the lives of all these people—

—No, Freyja, that's not what it's about— Menrva responded with a disappointed look at Freyja's words. —But I appreciate your willingness to participate—

—Just kidding, but of course, I won't be satisfied until I kill that dog-faced guy— the Norse goddess replied.

Susanoo was about to volunteer as a participant, but Loki stopped him. —In this game, they'll need my brains, for sure— the Norse god commented.

—Okay, I hope you won't disappoint us this time— Tania said cynically.

—If you lovely goddesses support me from the stands, no divine power can defeat me— Loki said in a cocky tone.

—Clown— Tania said disdainfully.

However, she was surprised when she saw Ana say with a smile, —I'll support you from the stands—

—Okay— the steward interrupted. —If you are the participants, please follow me—. The man gestured for them to follow, and Menrva, Freyja, Loki, and Tul joined him.

—The rest of you, please follow the guards, and they will assign you a place— the man said to the other gods before leaving. Immediately, he gave instructions to the soldiers, who complied.

Rodrigo and the others were surprised to see that the area where they were seated was reserved for the Zacateco elites. In fact, at the rear of the box was Xólotl's throne, which was red and adorned with animal skins such as deer and bear. The ceiling of the box was covered with grass, much like many of the houses in the area.

—I'm sure they have us here so we can't escape if our team loses— Epona said nervously.

—Don't worry, Epona. Menrva and the others will win— Rodrigo said with a smile.

—Yes, I'm sure that with Loki's cleverness, they will win easily— Ana said excitedly.

Once again, Tania looked uncertainly at her friend. —Ana, are you that desperate to be loved?—

Under Xólotl's throne was another smaller throne. The gods assumed it was for the human royalty of the Zacatecos. However, almost as soon as they sat down, a man arrived and sat in that small throne. The man had his skin painted blue and was dressed in a headdress of white and green feathers, a helmet with the face of a bird, and a cloak that appeared to be made of feathers.

—Are you the foreigner gods roaming from the Innu territories?— the man asked excitedly in the divine language. —How thrilling! I've finally met you!—

The man stood up to see Rodrigo and his companions, who didn't know who he was. His divine power was negligible, but since he spoke the divine language, they assumed he was a minor Zacateco god.

—My name is Huitzilopochtli, and I've been wanting to meet you for a long time!— the man said as he extended his hand to Rodrigo. Rodrigo got up and shook hands with him, but the man quickly hugged him.

—It's a pleasure, Mr. Hui...— Tania tried to say, but she couldn't pronounce the god's name.

—Oh, don't worry, you can call me 'The Hummingbird on the Left'— the god commented, laughing.

—What's a hummingbird?— Rodrigo asked, embarrassed.

The god pointed to his helmet. —See the face of this charming bird? It's a hummingbird!—

—Okay, Mr. Hummingbird... Is that all right?— Ana asked.

—Of course! It's a pleasure!— the god replied.

Then, the gods introduced themselves, and one by one, they were hugged by Huitzilopochtli.

—And are you from this Zacateco realm?— Tania asked, intrigued.

Huitzilopochtli put his hand to his neck and began to laugh. —No... I escaped from my job— he said with a smile. —I'm not from this region, but I came because I heard you would be participating in a ball game, and I couldn't miss it—

Then, the god turned around and saw some servants waiting for their lord Xólotl.

—Hey, what kind of service is this?— he asked in Nahuatl. —Go and bring some peyote and venison for my friends—

The servants made a displeased face but accepted the request.

—The peyote in this region is of the highest quality— Huitzilopochtli remarked. —Just don't drink too much, or you'll start seeing lights— he said, laughing.

—Mr. Hummingbird— Epona interrupted. —Is it true that the losers will die in this game?—

—Yes, it's the tradition— Huitzilopochtli replied.

—Is there any way you could help... so we aren't executed?— Epona continued.

—Don't worry; no one will die today— the god said, giving them a thumbs-up sign.

Xólotl then arrived, accompanied by his steward and a retinue of servants. They carried the god in a sedan chair. As they reached his throne, the servants bowed to the ground, allowing the god to descend.

The Zacateco king looked at Huitzilopochtli, who waved at him. Still, Xólotl ignored him with a contemptuous glance and continued towards his throne.

—Attention, everyone! Pay respects to your god and king, the great Xólotl— the god's steward shouted in the Zacateco language. The entire audience stood and bowed their heads, and Xólotl raised his hand in acknowledgment.

—Esteemed Zacateco people— Xólotl proclaimed with a raised voice. —It's an honor to bring you this ballgame between four gods and our four best players—

The crowd, now looking up at their god, began to applaud jubilantly.

—Today, we will demonstrate the Zacateco people's supremacy over the arrogance of the gods!— Xólotl shouted, and the crowd roared in approval.

—I don't think that sounded too good— Huitzilopochtli commented to Rodrigo and the others.

—What did he say?— Tania asked.

—Well, basically, Xólotl wants to use this spectacle to establish the racial supremacy of his people— the bird-helmeted god replied.

At that moment, on the playing field, a door in the corner opened, and four very large, strong men emerged. Three of them had long hair with a red band around their foreheads. They wore loincloths, rubber protectors on their knees and wrists, and rubber belts. The fourth, trailing the others, wore an intricate red headdress, though his attire was like his companions.

When these men emerged, yelling jubilantly, the crowd cheered excitedly.

A man, who seemed to be the referee of the contest due to his striking emerald-green robe and a headdress of blue and white feathers, introduced the men in the local language.

—That's the referee, and he says those four men have never lost a ballgame in their lives—Huitzilopochtli informed the gods.

—Still, they're humans, and we're gods— Anpiel said curiously, looking at the bracelets that suppressed his divine power. —Even with these bracelets, I feel we could easily beat any human—

—They are humans who awakened their divine power— Huitzilopochtli clarified, just as one of Xólotl's servants delivered their ordered peyote and venison. Everything came in ceramic dishes.

The servants gave each of the gods a cup and a plate to eat. Afterward, Huitzilopochtli handed the servant some cacao seeds, thanking him with a big smile. As the gods began to taste their food, they realized the peyote was very potent and sipped it slowly.

—I had heard of humans awakening their divine power, but I thought few could do it— Ana said, intrigued.

—The Greek gods have armies of such humans. They call them Heroes and Amazons— Anpiel said.

—Either way, the reason they've never lost is because of that— the hummingbird god continued. —With those abilities, they can easily defeat any opponent—

—That's cheating, though— Ana complained.

—Indeed, but overcoming an opponent when the odds are against you is what makes it so exciting— Huitzilopochtli said, taking a sip of peyote.

At that moment, the entire stadium began to boo. It was Menrva, Freyja, Loki, and Tul who emerged from the opposite side of the field. While the three goddesses wore green rubber helmets, wrist guards, belts, knee pads, and loincloths, along with bandages to cover their chests, Loki wore a blue headdress similar to the opposing team member's.

—This is so embarrassing— a mortified Menrva said, trying to cover herself as the attire left little to the imagination.

—I am... suffocating— Freyja said, with her wrap squishing her ample bosom.

—But this is the right game outfit to move freely— Tul said excitedly, giving a thumbs-up sign.

—Cheer up!— Tul exclaimed, very excited.

—Me too— Loki said, wearing a mischievous grin. —I'M IN PARADISE!— he shouted, completely thrilled as he ogled his nearly naked companions.

—Pervert— Freyja retorted to her fellow god.

At that moment, Menrva and her companions noticed that the opposing team was also eyeing them lustfully. Whatever they were saying among themselves, it probably wasn't polite.

Then, the referee positioned himself on the narrowest part of the court, specifically on the platform holding the right hoop.

—Attention, participants. Before we begin, I want to explain the rules of the game in case any of you are unfamiliar with them— the referee said in Zacatec and began to explain the rules:

1. Players can only use their hips, elbows, and knees to hit the ball.
2. The ball cannot touch the ground. If a player drops the ball, it awards a point to the opposing team.
3. Players can only bounce the ball three times, either on their body or the wall; after that, they must pass the ball to another teammate. If the ball is bounced more than three times, the opposing team gains possession, and the ball goes to the nearest player on the opposing team.
4. Strikes or kicks against the opposing team are prohibited, although hip checks to steal the ball are allowed. Using physical attacks against an opponent will result in a warning for the player. Three warnings lead to expulsion.
5. The player who bounces the ball on the wall defended by the opposing team scores two points. The ball then returns to the center of the court and is taken by the opposing team.
6. Goalkeepers, identified by their headdresses, can use their chest and head to prevent the ball from hitting the wall they defend.
7. If a player manages to shoot the ball into one of the central hoops, they win the game. If the ball touches the hoop but doesn't go in, it risks awarding two points to the opposing team.
8. The team that scores ten points automatically wins the game. Otherwise, the game continues until sunset, and if the ball returns to the abyss.
9. The losing team will be sacrificed in honor of Xólotl.

Although Tul didn't know the Zacatec language, she had already explained the rules of the game to her teammates, and Huitzilopochtli had explained them to Rodrigo and the other gods in the stands.

The Orniskem gods swallowed hard, realizing the dangerous situation they were in.

The referee then raised the ball and tossed it into the air, letting it fall onto the court. Menrva and a player from the opposing team rushed to catch it with their elbows as the referee shouted: —Let the game begin!—