The next day the Kentucky Colonels came calling. It was cold and rainy, and very soon the blue and white road uniforms are looking pretty much the same as the crimson and yellow home jerseys: basic Northern Illinois mud brown.
The mud seemed to throw off the host team. The Colonels were forced to punt, but after moving the ball promisingly; the Zephyrs took over on their own six. Estelle ran it up the middle for a couple on first down, and then Daphne, aiming long for Angelica, slipped in the mud and the ball became a toss-up. One of the Colonel safeties made the interception at midfield, and was immediately racked up by Bert. The next drive saw the Colonels move it on the ground as far as the twenty-five. On first down, Arnulf and the nickel back, a wiry third-year girl named Rita who had what appeared to be a knife scar across both cheeks and her nose, cheated up into the box as subtly as they could, but the Colonels’ quarterback, a smart-alecky black Amazon, saw it all and tossed an easy touchdown.
“Erg,” said Daphne, strapping on her helmet again, “we gotta do something about that.”
But what she did was get sacked hard into the freezing mud. She struggled to her feet but her ribs, her left elbow and wrist, and her right hand and shoulder all hurt bad. She figured they were just the noisiest of her injuries. Then she wondered where the ball had gone. Estelle had recovered Daphne’s fumble, but the sub quarterback, a good-looking second-year clutz named Jamesie, couldn’t move the ball.
“He’ll have to start moving the ball,” said Coach Whelp, “because you’re not going back in.”
“Aw, Coach!” Daphne started.
“Broken bones,” said Coach, waving a magical x-ray. “Rules are rules.”
“How many bones?” asked Daphne eagerly.
“Hard to say,” said the coach as the two of them squinted at the picture. “I count six, but there are a couple of maybes.”
Meanwhile, the Colonels drove all the way down the field, and their Amazon quarterback rolled out and scored on a ten-yard scramble. It was fourteen to nothing.
Things slowly got better. Jamesie managed to turn an Angelica kick return to the forty into a decent drive, and Tom kicked a thirty-yard field goal. They kicked off, and on third and long, that big black Amazon quarterback found Arnulf and Henrietta blitzing. She tried to fake them out, but he got a hold of her arm; she thought she could still shake him, and got the ball off. But he and Henrietta took her hard to the ground. She unwisely threw her hand out to stop her fall, and in that steadily freezing mud she crunched most disturbingly. Meanwhile, the pass fluttered in the wind, and Spiny Norman easily netted it for an interception.
The Zephs got a second field goal out of that, and the Colonels’ starting quarterback was out with almost as many broken bones as Daphne. Neither offense seemed interested in moving the ball for the rest of the second quarter: Arnulf got a pick that ended a slightly promising Kentucky drive in the final minute. The teams grumbled into halftime as the lake wind turned the mud into rock ice. The Colonels led, 14 to 6.
The Colonels would score no more. Their sub quarterback was completely inept. He did manage a touchdown pass: to Jen Norman, who gave the ball to Daphne on the sideline. After that, the Colonels kept the ball on the ground, and Arnulf and fellow safety Maggie Melillo joined all the linebackers in completely clogging the running lanes. On the other side of the ball, Estelle got a lot of hand-offs and ran up and down the field, twenty here, fifteen there, thirty-five for the go-ahead touchdown. After another three and out, Tom Hexane got his third field goal in three attempts, this one from 40 yards out. At the end of three quarters, the Zephs finally led, 23 to 14.
Angelica hadn’t had much to do, but she finally got her touchdown. Spiny chased down the very first pass the Colonels attempted in the fourth quarter, and on first down at the fifty, Jamesie managed to find the time to hit Angelica on a five yard slant. The Colonels’ linebackers slid right past her and the safety fell down, and she was gone. It was the final score of the game, as the Zephyrs let Estelle run out the clock and the Colonels were so scared of Spiny by now that they overthrew all their receivers. The Zephyrs came in out of the cold with a 30 to 14 win, and an eight and one season.
“Game ball to Norman,” said Coach Whelp in the silence of the locker room.
“Thanks, Coach,” said Spiny. “Hey Daph. This is really for you.”
Daphne caught the ball. She stood up, grimacing. “I can’t take this, of course. I’ll earn my own. We’re in the playoffs.”
“That’s right,” said Coach Whelp over the shouting. “We got all the time off till after Christmas, but we’ll get in a few practices first. We represent the Midwest. It’s two rounds, single elimination. We’re gonna be up against the best in the magic world. There’s a Texas team, the Stars of Dallas, they’re undefeated. The East team’s either one from Jersey or one from Boston: either way they’re tough. The West team: let’s just hope La La blows their last game and we don’t have to play them. We made it to the playoffs. Do you guys really think you have what it takes to stay in the playoffs?”
There was an immediate cheer, and then Daphne and Arnulf waved for quiet.
“We’re going to win the championship, Coach,” said Arnulf.
“Uh huh, that’s right,” said Henrietta, standing up behind him. “And some people are gonna have some scars to remember us by as well.”
The gang managed to stay completely out of trouble for the rest of the weekend, except for Cloudius and Rats. On Saturday night, while the Maroons’ parents were taking them all out to French restaurants, Rats had the brilliant idea of sneaking into the guesthouse where all the Maroon parents were staying.
“And you know they’re all filthy rich,” said Rats.
“Yeah!” said Cloudius. “Wait, you’re not talking about stealing.”
“No, not at all. Just—you know, maps.”
“Well, of course, items,” said Cloudius.
So it was that as twilight became night, the two boys were creeping across the bushy back yard of the guest house, which was three houses down and one over from Ash House.
“Nice place,” said Rats, admiring the topiary.
“Yeah, if you like to carve shrubbery,” said Cloudius. “Back door. See anyone?”
“Not a soul,” said Rats.
“It’s the ones that don’t have souls that I worry about,” said Cloudius. They hastened across the open lawn to the cover of two tall bushes flanking the back door. Up three steps: the door was unlocked. “Up, down?”
“Up,” said Rats.
At the top of the stairs the door was locked securely. “Not securely enough for me,” said Cloudius, taking out his tools. A paperclip and a not really Swiss army knife got it open.
They were in an upstairs store room. It was long and odd-shaped, with locked doors into the second floor bedrooms. There were a couple of desks, a lot of shelves and a moderate mess on the floor and hanging from the walls and ceiling.
“Hey,” said Cloud, “a map. A bunch of maps. I don’t know if I should take them, but look, everything’s connected, there’s this other castle we don’t even know about, and there’s something even they don’t know all of, under the Field Museum!”
“Look, that’s a—that’s an explosive item,” said Rats. “And that’s—that’s a chunk of Kirvas stone! Oh, look, it’s a bin of phoenix feathers! How many are there? Oh, look, there’s a Spirit Guard! Bye!”
“Say what, now?” asked Cloudius, looking up. Sure enough, here were two silvery figures coming through the walls, their clawed hands outstretched to wreak pain. He stood staring at them, thinking, don’t they usually travel in threes?
He heard a noise behind him. “I am so retarded,” he said to himself as they threw their spells at him and Rats. But Cloudius, in spite of his best efforts, had become an experienced magical combatant, and their magical attacks, installed into them by their masters, were too weak to overcome the boys’ resistance. They ducked out, turned sharp left, then sharp right and across a field.
Cloudius thought the spirit guards were behind them at first, and he wondered how far they could follow. But suddenly he seemed to be passing right in front of someone who wasn’t entirely there, though not a spirit guard of any kind. It was a hulking figure, maybe even a dead Indian.
Cloud and Rats didn’t stop till they got to Ash House, but they didn’t feel any further pursuit.
The boys didn’t get a chance to discuss their adventures other than to say, “We have some stuff to tell you guys!” But Cloudius and Rats sat together at the State Dinner, furtively drawing on a napkin what Cloudius had memorized from the map in the guest house.
“Oh, dung,” said Rats. “check out the opposition.”
Jen Greenbelt’s mother, a lovely wealthy lady who couldn’t have been more stuck up if she were a poster, strode over with a withering glance in their general direction, and had a brief, animated talk with Mistress Ash.
“That woman,” said Cloud’s mom. “She hates us.”
“I’m sure she thinks we should have been put in irons,” said Cloud’s dad. “I think the same of her. And so does Ash, so never mind.”
“But that’s not the action,” said Cloudius to Rats. “Look.”
As they watched, Miriam Hubble, Josh’s mother, and Elene Curie, Emma Curie’s mom, went over to chat with MacMorris. They were joined by Emma’s older sister Edithe, who was in the Academy, and a third-year boy and his father. After a brief confab, they broke up into two groups of three, and appeared to resume eating and chatting, but five minutes later, one group and then the other got up and went out. Ten minutes later they all returned, and after dessert they moved a table away from the others and loudly celebrated, while MacMorris, Elene Curie and Abel and Miriam Hubble leaned together talking.
“What are they talking about?” Ange said to herself.
Daphne, leaning close, said, “We’ll find out.”
“What is this stuff we’re eating?” asked Angelica. “It tasted good at first but there’s something weird about it.”
“Oh, the slime moss,” said Jen Chang’s mom, sitting next to Angelica. “It’s wonderful fried.”
Angelica looked at the piece she had left. She wished she hadn’t: it was the middle part, and it was, well, never mind.
“Somewhere between bitter and repugnant,” she whispered to Daphne.
“You gonna eat the rest of your intestine rings?” asked Daphne.