The roar of the crowd was deafening. It rattled the stadium and shook the very concrete of the entrance tunnel. A gray pony with dingy green hair stood just within the shadows, amazed that all of it was really happening. Not all that long ago, Cliff and his Xtreme Ponies were nothing more than a group of like-minded thrill seekers. They traveled anywhere the road took them, looking for ever bigger thrills and greater excitement.
When they decided to try out at the competition that was recruiting teams for a new Extreme Sports League, the team had no idea they would end up going this far. At most, they had hoped for a little fun and a chance to try out their skills against their peers. To their surprise, they actually passed that first round of scouting and every one since. Now it was the first competition of the ESL and the Xtreme Ponies were there.
All those ponies were cheering for him and his team...
“The Xtreeeeeeeme Team!!!” Vic’s loud baritone echoed around the stadium, amplified beyond even its natural limits. Cliff was so caught up in the moment that he didn’t realize what that announcement meant.
“Cliff?” Luge set her hoof on his shoulder, and that was enough to rouse him from his mental wanderings. “That’s our cue.”
“Yeah, I know.” Cliff donned his helmet and turned halfway around to face his five comrades. “Are we ready for this?” He got a hardy cheer in reply. “Then let’s get to it!”
With that, he tossed his skateboard to the ground; and in one smooth practiced motion, propelled himself down the stadium tunnel and out into the light. The incline accelerated him forward and then up over the ramp. The pony executed a perfect three hundred and sixty degree turn in midair before coming back to earth and accelerating into the next bend. The rush of adrenaline was pounding through his veins. This was the kind of thrill he lived for!
But it was no time to stop and revel in the moment; Luge was following a split second behind him, mirroring his every stunt. And behind her Mogul, Blade, Bungee, and Jet were lined up doing the same. They had to pull this off without a hitch. If one of them messed up even the tiniest bit, they would all go down. There was no time for mistakes now. Practice was over; this was the real thing!
Cliff came shooting out of the last turn, a wickedly sharp switchback, and dismounted his board as he came jogging to a halt. Just like the rest of the stunt, Luge followed him in exactly and took a position immediately to his right. The others came in just the same and filled in the line with well-practiced precision.
Or, almost all of them did. Jet, who was trailing the formation, came off the turn a little too sharply and fell from his skate board. The hyperactive pony, however, simply rolled with the fall and came to a kneeling stop right at the end of the line with his arms raised in a triumphant gesture. The crowd’s cheers rose to even higher levels.
It was only now, after they had a chance to stop and take it all in, did they even notice the crowd again. When they were in the midst of the action, everything on the outside was secondary. Now they were blown away, being right at the center of everyone’s adulation.
Vic, the ESL’s loud-mouthed announcer, came trotting over to the six of them in his slick trade-mark black suit screaming into the microphone. “Yes! Give it up for the Xtreme Team!” he prodded the audience on. “Allow me to introduce their fearless leader, Cliff!”
The gray and green pony tossed both his forelegs into the air and gave the crowd a wave.
“Next we have the lovely and equally talented Luge!”
Luge greeted the cheers with a modest wave of her hoof.
“And let’s not forget about Mogul (he said he’d break my leg if I did)!”
Mogul just stared, too dumbstruck to do much of anything. Wide-eyed, he managed to raise one hoof to waggle at the crowd.
The shy, rose-colored mare blushed as she tried to look comfortable with all the attention.
The garish mare looked around with a wide-eyed expression and an even broader grin. “Cool,” she muttered as she tossed her dread locks and gave a wave of her own to the fans.
“And finally, Jet!”
The last member of the team flew to his hooves and jumped into the air, howling excitedly right back at the spectators.
“Yes folks, this is: the Xtreeeeeme Team!” Vic spun off in a flurry of motion back towards the center of the elaborate, multi-tiered stage. Constructed right in the center of the modest-sized stadium, it provided all the spectators with a clear view of not only the Xtreme Team standing on top of it, but also what was coming next. “Are you ready!?” Vic screamed at all the ponies in the stands. “Are you rrrrready!? Well, then let’s hear it for: the X-Crewwwww!”
From one of the other tunnels emerged another group of six ponies. This X-Crew launched themselves into the same obstacle course that the Xtreme Team had just completed, but each member of the team broke off from the formation and crisscrossed their way through the maze in a series of death-defying jumps and near collisions. When they had finished, they too formed a perfectly choreographed line on the other side of the stage from the first group.
“I knew we shoulda done that,” Mogul whispered to Luge as the fans now cheered for the X-Crew.
“Quiet,” Luge replied and gave him an elbow in the ribs. “I want to catch their names.”
Again, introductions went down the line; and in no time at all, the names of X, Dragon, Alex, Max, Smiley, and Outré were now known to the howling masses.
Finally, Vic announced the third and final team. “The Blaaaade Runnners!” Just as before, their team came barreling out of the tunnel and ran through the course with as much excitement and energy as they could muster. Once they were all positioned on the third platform of the stage, Vic quickly went through their roster and presented the spectators with Nikita, Trajan, Gryphon, Valentina, Kadin, and Mehira.
Though the crowd’s attention turned from them, the Xtreme Team was more charged than ever. Competition pushed one to achieve great things and they were ready to compete...
Next on the itinerary was a chance for the three teams to show off some of their skills to the crowd. One at a time, each team would perform a longer and more elaborate version of their entrance routines, except this time the order was reversed so that the Blade Runners started off. As Vic narrated for the crowd, the other two teams quietly ducked off the stage and back into the locker room.
“That was intense!” Mogul shouted as they walked down the ramp. They were all pumped from their first taste of show biz, but the others where maintaining a bit more composure.
“Dude!” Jet agreed. “I mean, like, dude!”
“I was pretty cool,” Bungee added in her own patented, spaced-out way.
“I hope it’s not like that every time,” Blade said meekly. “I was actually a little scared by all that screaming.”
Mogul was still overly excited and spun around. “No! That was awesome! I bet they’ll be even more wild once they see us get out there and show ‘em what we can do!”
Luge set a reassuring hoof on Blade’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ll get used to it in no time.”
“Dude! I am focused! I am like so totally focused!” Mogul shot back.
“Dude,” Jet agreed and traded a high-five with Mogul.
Cliff gave an imperceptible shake of the head before continuing. “Mogul, take it back a notch. I know you’re pumped- we all are- but let’s not get too crazy so that we make mistakes.”
Mogul took a deep breath and nodded agreement. “Right, boss-man. No time for mistakes.” Though he was trying hard to keep his emotions in check, the young pony was still seething just under the surface. A competitive attitude was a necessity in this competition, but too much was just going to get in the way of what needed to be done.
“And let’s not choke out there, either,” Cliff added and subtly turned his gaze to Blade, who was still looking a bit frazzled. “Just ignore the crowd and do what we do best, right?”
Blade nodded, even if she didn’t look like she agreed with him.
“Exactly,” Luge said. “We know what we can do. We know we can win this. We just have to stay focused like Cliff said and do what we have to do!” That got a cheer of confidence from all six of the Xtreme Team, Blade included.
As the Xtreme Ponies had been talking, the X-Crew had made their way across the locker room and were now gathered in a cluster next to them. Their leader, a lean stallion with a grayish-purple body, green hair streaked with orange, and a vicious grin, moved up alongside Luge.
“You can stay focused all you want, but the only way you’ll end up on the winning team is to switch sides, babe.”
Luge pushed away from the sleazy-looking pony and took up a defensive stance. “I’m afraid we haven’t been introduced yet. Just who are you supposed to be?”
The other pony’s grin widened and he leaned in close as he said, “I’m the leader of the X-Crew. Name’s X. That’s X, as in eXtremely talented, and eXtremely skilled, and eXtremely handsome.”
That got a collective sneer from his teammates and a rolling of the eyes from most of the Xtreme Team. Most, that is, except for Mogul who pushed inbetween Luge and X saying, “You mean X, as in FORMERLY talented, FORMERLY skilled, and FORMERLY handsome.” Mogul, who looked quite pleased with himself, chuckled as Jet slapped him five again.
X, on the other hoof, looked furious and leaned right into Mogul’s face, “Was that supposed to be funny or something?”
“No, it wasn’t funny,” Mogul said as he countered X with a deadly serious look. “It was friggin’ hilarious.”
“Really? Because I’m not laughing...” X leaned even farther forward so that his and Mogul’s noses nearly touched. All of his teammates in the X-Crew were readying themselves for a fight, and the Xtreme Team was picking up on everyone’s change in demeanor as well.
Cliff saw where this little conversation was headed right away and knew that something had to be done. Wedging himself between X and Mogul, Cliff pushed the two apart and held both of them at leg’s length. Luge put a hoof on one of Mogul’s shoulders while Jet got ready to hold him back on the other side.
“And who’s this supposed to be?” X asked, the contempt thick in his voice. Despite the small distance that was suddenly forced between them, they both kept their eyes locked on the others. “Your daddy come to keep you from getting into fights?”
Before Mogul could answer, Cliff spoke-up in a determined and unwavering tone. “I’m the leader of the Xtreme Team. My name’s Cliff, as in me.”
X shifted his gaze down, and upon seeing the determined look in Cliff’s eyes, relaxed his stance and took a step back into his own team’s cluster. Though he was withdrawing, his mannerisms were just as haughty and arrogant as before. The smile quickly returned to his lips. “So you want to fight? Is that it?” he said with an air of cockiness. “I’m game. We all are.” The rest of the X-Crew smiled and a few of them smacked their fists in anticipation.
“I think you’re the only one looking for a fight,” Cliff replied. “We came here to compete.”
“Dude, we’ll whip your tails out on the course,” Jet cried flippantly. “We don’t need to do it back here, too!”
Luge turned to him and gave a silent, petrifying gaze that was just as effective, if not more so, than any verbal scolding would have been. Jet shut his mouth instantly and allowed Cliff to continue.
“He’s right; if you want to fight, it happens out there.”
X narrowed his eyes and was just about to launch into a tirade of his own when a shrill call from the other end of the locker room drew everyone’s attention. A light gray pony with bright yellow hair arranged in a smart-looking executive style had just entered the room. Holding a clipboard in one hoof while she adjusted her glasses with the other, she stepped to the side of the door, allowing her companion a more dramatic entrance.
He was a young pony himself, not much older than the members of the Xtreme Team or the X-Crew; but the way he carried himself forced those he met to treat him with the respect of one much older. He had a body of jet black that contrasted vividly with his cobalt blue hair. He checked his watch as he strode across the room toward the two teams of athletes. The other pony with the clipboard fell in behind him.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded, stopping just short of Cliff and X.
“Just having a little conversation, Mr. Yanus,” X said, as though that is all it had been.
“Yeah,” Cliff agreed, though with a bit of reserve. “We were just getting to know each other.”
Mr. Yanus was the chief executive in charge of the entire Extreme Sports League. Everyone there had met him before today, but only briefly. He had seemed like a strict and demanding business pony then, and that first impression was only reinforced now. He eyed each of the team leaders for long, antagonizing seconds without saying a word. Even the tough-as-nails X was beginning to twitch by the time he finally spoke.
“Stop fooling around,” he said to X. “The X-Crew is up. Now get out there and entertain those fans.”
X sneered at Yanus but still turned and headed up the tunnel. “Come on, X-Crew, let’s dazzle these ponies.” Bumping into Cliff as he passed him, he stopped for a moment and muttered, “This ain’t over yet.” The rest of the X-Crew shot equally venomous glares at the Xtreme Team as they passed and went out into the stadium.
The Xtreme Ponies let out a collective sigh of relief as the other team passed out of sight. The tension quickly returned, however, when they realized Mr. Yanus was still eyeing them disapprovingly. If it wasn’t for the echoing cheers of the crowd above filtering through the concrete, one probably could have heard the scribbling of Yanus’s assistant on her notepad.
Feeling that something had to be said, Cliff stepped forward. “I’d really like to apologize for that, Mr. Yanus. We let them goad us into a confrontation, and that kind of thing has no place here.”
“You’re absolutely right that it has no place here,” Yanus barked. “And if I find out that this ever happens again, I can guarantee that your team is out of here.”
“But they started it!” Mogul protested. Luge and Jet tightened their grip on his shoulders just in case.
“I don’t care,” Yanus replied as he gave Mogul a fierce look that instantly cooled the hot- headed pony. “We’re here to make this ESL into a profitable venue, and I am determined to see that that happens. The corporation that financed this whole operation is expecting it to fail, and I will not hesitate for one second to remove all of you if any one of you threatens to let that happen.”
As he was going on about that, a cell phone rang out, which Mr. Yanus’s assistant promptly answered. He probably would have continued with his lecture if she hadn’t whispered something in his ear and handed the phone to him. He gave them all a stern look before he turned away and began speaking into the phone as he headed back for the door. His assistant quickly jotted something down on her clipboard before following him out.
“What was that about?” Bungee asked.
“Yeah!” Mogul said as he turned to Cliff. “We get blamed for something that they started?”
“I don’t know if this was such a good idea after all,” Blade muttered from the back.
“Now, hold on, all of you,” Cliff waved his forelegs to quiet his team. “Look, it’s the first day at this for all of us, including Mr. Yanus there. He’s probably got a million things that he has to deal with right now, and he’s just getting a little on edge. After we’re finished today, I’m sure he’ll be a completely different pony.”
“Until the next show, anyway,” Mogul muttered under his breath.
“We’re all a little high strung now,” Luge added. “We need to get a grip on things.” They all nodded and grumbled agreement.
“So, as I was saying before,” Cliff said, “focus on the task at hoof and we can’t loose.”
And then Jet spoke up to add, “Besides, once Mr. Yanus see us at our best, there’s no way he’ll be able to get rid of us.”
That received a decent laugh from the Xtreme Team as their spirits began to pick up once more. But, just then, a loud commotion was heard from the other tunnel as the Blade Runners returned from their performance. The six ponies from the other team were all laughs and high spirits as they can into sight. The Xtreme Team looked on in silence.
“I suppose they’ll want to fight, too,” Blade said meekly.
Cliff turned to her with a look of reproval, but Bungee suddenly jumped forward and said cheerfully, “Let’s find out.”
“Bungee...” Cliff managed to snatch her foreleg before she made it very far, but the Blade Runners had already caught sight of her; and now both teams were looking uncomfortably at each other. The silence dragged on for quite some time before one of the Blade Runners threw down the towel he had just used on his face and stepped over to Bungee.
Cliff was expecting the worst and was readying himself for it, but he was instead overcome with relief when the other pony held out his hoof and said, “Hi, I’m Kadin; you guys must be the Xtreme Team.”
“Actually, I’m Bungee,” Bungee replied gingerly.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to met you, Bungee,” Kadin replied as he shook her hoof. By this point, the other members of the Blade Runners had come over and were beginning to introduce themselves as well. Their leader, a mare, stepped forward and handled all the introductions for the team.
“I’m Nikita,” she said. “And you’re Cliff, if I caught your name right out there.”
Cliff chuckled. “I don’t know how you could have caught anything out there with all the screaming; but yeah, I’m Cliff.”
A short but well-muscled stallion slipped up beside her. “So you’re the leader of this bunch?” he asked good-naturedly. “I hope we get to see what you guys are made of out there today.”
“I think you’ll see.”
“This is Trajan,” Nikita said to introduce the stallion. “Then we have Valentina,” Nikita gestured to the large mare that towered over even Mogul, and followed that with a slight nod of the head. “Mehira.”
The thin mare with the long tight braids gave a jerky turn of the head and quickly shot off a wave saying, “Nicetomeetyouall.”
“The one in the back is Gryphon,” Nikita said. “He might be a tad rough around the edges, but he’s a good guy once you get to know him.”
The indicated stallion had his back turned to them and only faced them halfway when Nikita called his name. “First, you earn my respect; then, maybe, we’ll talk,” was his only reply.
“And, of course, Kadin,” Nikita finished. The beige pony was still shaking Bungee’s hoof and smiling warmly.
Seeming to ignore the others in the room, he declared, “You know, I think I’ve just come up with a new song looking into those beautiful eyes of yours.”
“Yeah,” Bungee giggled. “They’re green.”
“You’ll have to excuse Kadin,” Nikita said. “He’s our resident poet.”
“And songwriter; don’t forget songwriter,” Kadin said as he snapped out of his trance.
“Well, if you all have as good a memory as Nikita, I’ll sound like an idiot, but...” Cliff was saying when Mogul gave him a friendly jab to the ribs and grinned.
“But you sound like one all the time anyway; so who cares, right?”
Cliff continued on anyway. “...but on my side I have Luge, Jet, Blade, Bungee ... and Mogul.”
“Hi,” Bungee said with a vigorous wave.
“Nice to finally get to meet you guys,” Trajan said. “I heard a lot of good stuff about your group during the recruiting drive. I’m really looking forward to going head-to-head with you during the actual match today.”
“And the X-Crew, too,” Valentina added. “I’ve heard that they like to play dirty.”
“If what we just saw in here was any indication, I think that’s a good bet.”
“Good,” Valentina beat her fist into her hoof. “I’d like to put them into their place.”
Jet laughed. “Dude, let me know when you do, so I can watch!”
“Personally, I’d stay away from them if you don’t want Yanus to kick your team off the tour,” Luge said.
Nikita looked a bit puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Just that we had a little confrontation with the big boss-man and he seemed a bit ticked off about something,” Cliff said. “But I think it would be sound advice to just stay out of their way.”
“Thanks,” Nikita said. “We’ll... keep that in mind. But right now I think you guys better get moving if you don’t want to miss your cue.”
“Oh, right, thanks,” Cliff said and then turned to his team. “Let’s get moving, guys.” A quick series of cries of good luck from the Blade Runners, and the Xtreme Team was moving up the tunnel and into position for their moment in the spotlight.
At the top of the ramp was a small shelter of sorts where they were to wait until it was their turn to go out and dazzle the crowd with their stunts. From this vantage point, the cheering was even louder; but at least the shelter was positioned so that the team wasn’t under the spectator’s gaze just yet. Just two stage hands were here; and as one handed them the gear they would need, the other just looked out at the X-Crew as they finished their own display. As the Xtreme Team quickly strapped on the gear and checked everything, the other pony turned around. It was then that Cliff realized that he wasn’t a stagehand at all.
He was wearing a western hat and a coarse poncho with vivid geometric patterns woven into it. From his yellow coat to his blue mane and the piece of straw that he held in his teeth, he looked like the sort of pony who was used to living a very rough life.
“Hey, who are you?” Cliff asked. “Are you supposed to be here?”
He took a step closer and said, “My name’s Shard, and I can be wherever I want to be.”
“Uh-huh.” Shard was speaking so quietly that Cliff had to step closer just to hear his words over the roar of the crowd. As it was, it looked like none of the others were even paying him any mind. “What are you doing?” Cliff asked him.
“I just came to wish you luck,” Shard said, but the tone of his voice and the squint in his eyes suggested that was not all he had come there for.
“Well, um, thanks,” Cliff said as he quickly finished with his gear and turned back to his teammates who were ready, as well.
“One more thing,” Shard added, coming right up behind Cliff. “Watch out for those X-Crew punks; they’re Mr. Yanus’s pet team. This whole shindig is rigged so that they come out on top. We’ll talk more later.”
“What are you talking...” Cliff spun to face the stranger but he was already gone. What was he talking about? Mr. Yanus was definitely not the nicest pony he had ever met, but would he do something like fix the outcome of the show? Still, he had been awfully lenient on the X-Crew down in the locker room.
“Cliff?” Luge shouted over the crowd. “Who was that?”
“I... I don’t know,” Cliff replied. “Just some nut case, I guess.”
And that’s who he must have been. How crazy was it to listen to nonsense like that? Just some nut case who managed to sneak backstage and was trying to mess with their heads. That’s all he was.
“And now, the ESL presents: THE XTREME TEAM!!!” Vic’s voice rang out through the stadium.
“Okay, ponies, go go go!” Cliff shouted. One by one they shot out of the ramp and into the chaos of the ESL. They carried off every one of their stunts with machine-like precision; but still, Shard’s warning nibbled away at the back of Cliff’s mind. Something about what he had said just stuck with him so that he couldn’t push it away.
Afterwards, the team had a short time to get ready for the main event, an intense head-to-head downhill snowboard relay race. They had not been told the particulars of the event until now. There were three legs to the race which meant that only half of each team would be able to participate. This caused a small amount of disagreement over who would end up doing the run among all three teams.
As team leader, it fell on Cliff to make the difficult decision for the Xtreme Team. Mogul would go first as this part of the course would be the most challenging, and Mogul was by far their most experienced snowboarder. Next, Luge would have the spotlight through the obstacle course portion of the run while Blade was given the responsibility of the last leg.
They all deferred to Cliff’s judgement and tempers quickly dissipated. The high spirts they had had just a moment before returned in full force. As they carried on with a bit of horse play, Cliff was beside himself. Though the previous demonstration had gone off without any problems, he was still somewhat dismayed by Shard’s warning.
“Something wrong?” Luge asked. The others in the background were joking around as they threw on their cold weather gear. Cliff couldn’t even begin to realize how Luge had managed to notice his distress amidst all of the chaos.
He paused for a moment to compose his thoughts before answering with a very honest reply. “I don’t know.”
Luge’s eyebrows raised, but she said nothing.
“Remember that guy you asked me about right before we went out?”
“He said that the X-Crew had this competition rigged or something.”
Luge let out a laugh. “And you believed him?”
“No, of course not,” Cliff replied. “There was just something strange about it.”
Luge chuckled again, but less convincingly this time. “Come on, Cliff; you know how crazy that sounds, right?” Though she had started out with a desire to cheer-up Cliff, his own misgivings were now rubbing off on her. It wasn’t so much the fact that she believed this strange pony, but simply the fact that Cliff was shaken; that gave her reason to be concerned.
“Yeah, crazy,” Cliff agreed.
“Or, maybe not...” Luge’s gaze suddenly fixed on something just over Cliff’s shoulder. He glanced back casually enough, but the sight of Shard standing in the corner caused him to spin around.
“You again!” Cliff strode over to him with Luge right behind. “What’s going on here? What kind of game are you playing!?”
“No games,” Shard said in his raspy whisper, peering just under the rim of his hat. “Simply a bit of advice for you and your friends.”
“Yeah, yeah. The X-Crew is cheating; you told me this before,” Cliff broke in. “They may be jerks, but that doesn’t give me any reason to believe that they are cheating. In fact, the way you’re here lurking around in the shadows and everything gives me more reason to think you might be the one up to no good!”
“Understandable,” Shard replied, not at all frayed by Cliff’s outburst, “but it doesn’t change the facts.”
“Which are?” Luge inquired.
“This next track is rigged. Two hundred yards before the finish line is a dead-fall trap. Stay to the left of the trail and you’re fine. Wander a little too far to the right and... well, there go your chances of winning.”
Both of the younger ponies were shocked. Luge was the first to speak. “What’s a dead-fall?”
“A covered pit,” Cliff said hastily and then addressed Shard. “So, let’s assume for a minute that this pit really exists. How do you know about it?”
“I know all kinds of things.”
“Then why are you telling us about it?”
Shard raised the brim of his hat a fraction of an inch and the faintest hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “I don’t like cheaters. Now that your two teams are on even terms again, we’ll see who takes the victory.”
As Shard turned away from the two athletes and headed for the door, Cliff cried after him, “And just why should we trust you?”
Shard gave a dismissive wave of his hoof without even turning around. “Hey, kid, do whatever you want. I did my part, now it’s up to you.” With that, the stranger was gone.
“See what I was talkin’ about?” Cliff asked.
“Yeah. That guy is wacked,” Luge said. “What are you gonna do?”
“Give me a minute.”
“Love to; can’t,” Luge pointed to the exit where the helicopter that would take them to the top of the mountain was almost ready to take off. The Blade Runners had already filed on, and the other members of the Xtreme Team where ready to head out as well.
“Sometimes I hate being Team Leader,” Cliff said with a sigh. “Come on.”
The others were fully equipped and ready to go; they were simply waiting for Cliff and Luge. Cliff had to scream to make himself heard over the reverberations from the spinning blades of the helicopter. The percussive movement of air drowned out all other sounds inside the concrete locker room.
“Slight change of plans, guys!” Cliff said after he got them all into a small huddle. “Blade, sorry, but I’m gonna have to take the last leg.”
“I’ll explain later,” Cliff said. “Everyone on the chopper.”
“Dude!” Jet exclaimed as they filed outside. “I’ve never been on a helicopter before!”
“Me either,” Blade relied; just looking at the spinning blades overhead made her feel a little uneasy. “Maybe it’s a good thing that Cliff’s doing the last run...”
“Don’t worry about a thing!” Mogul shouted as one of the pilots helped them on board. “These things are awesome!”
“If you say so...”
The Blade Runners were already seated and buckled-in in the second row of seats from the front. Nikita gave Cliff a thumbs-up as he climbed aboard. A part of him wanted to tell her team about the possible trap; however, at this point, he didn’t have any proof that it even existed. Probably better that they don’t know about it at all. After all, just knowing about the possible trap ahead was enough to make him start second guessing his every move. Looking up from his seat belt, Cliff had the misfortune of seeing X flop down in the seat directly across from him. The X-Crew’s leader gave Cliff a sinister grin as he drew his hoof across his throat.
“Wonderful,” Cliff muttered with a roll of his eyes.
In a swirl of debris, the helicopter rose up from the ground and rocketed up the mountain, leaving the screaming fans behind. No time was left for arguments amongst the teams as the pilots kept the flight interesting by skimming the tops of the trees and making plenty of sudden turns. Whenever the vehicle made sure a maneuver, the passengers were treated to an aerial view of the ground from a perpendicular angle. Their seat belts were the only thing that kept them from tumbling out of the open side doors. The rotors threw up a great deal of snow from the ground which created a sort of mini blizzard in their wake. For those who had never flown before, any reservations they might have had quickly melted away to be replaced by sheer excitement. Once the tree line was cleared, only desolate slopes of pristine white lay before them.
One of the directors from the front row signaled the first group to get ready. With a howl of excitement that was barely audible over the roar of the engines, Mogul double-checked his helmet and secured his snowboard for his impending chance to shine. Just a bit further and the game would begin.
The very peak of the mountain could now be seen; and in just a few short moments, the helicopter had come to a stop directly over it. From the two open doors on the sides, the vastness of nature could be seen stretching away below. Several other helicopters were already on the scene with daring cameramen hanging out to get the best shots possible. A few more were strapping into snowboards and skis themselves so as to follow the athletes from the ground. It was all so much to take in, but Mogul didn’t miss a mark when the signal was finally given.
Three ponies launched themselves out of the perfectly good helicopter and came crashing down to the mountain in huge plumes of powder. This flung up a barrier of sorts for the others watching from the helicopter which took a moment to clear. When it did, they could plainly see Mogul, Smiley, and Gryphon already racing down the side of the mountain. The three of them were neck-and-neck, with several of the camera crew in close pursuit. While the ones who were left behind would have enjoyed to stay and watch from above, it was no time for standing still. Their helicopter turned and dropped suddenly down the mountain side. Though it was unlikely they would have heard, the athletes riding in back gave a loud shout of encouragement to their teammates on the ground as they passed overhead. The helicopter rocketed straight past them and down to the first check point.
This was little more than a shack placed near the top of an old ski lift. The thick forest of pine trees that would form the main obstacle for this leg of the race was just beginning at this elevation. A great many more of the production staff had already set up here long ago, so the teams were expected. Luge, Dragon, and Trajan quickly disembarked when given the signal. With heads ducked, they rushed away from the hovering helicopter to wait for their teammates to arrive. As soon as they were out the door, the helicopter lifted skyward again and headed for the final checkpoint.
In the thickest part of the forest, the helicopter slowed and began its descent. Cliff scanned the area quickly before they passed below the tree tops. He saw several trails that had been cut through the vegetation; one of them led in a generally straight line toward the finish line. This he was just barely able to make out a bit farther down the slope as it was marked with a gigantic inflatable arch and countless clumps of tethered balloons blowing in the breeze.
As the helicopter’s wheels just barely brushed the ground, Cliff, X, and Nikita all jumped out and headed for the shack that marked this check point. Jet clapped Cliff on the shoulder as he hopped down and shouted a cry of “Good luck!”
Cliff turned and, with a broad smile, gave his three friends a thumbs up. He stood for a moment and watched them rise back into the air as the helicopter took them down to the finish line to await the outcome. The ground felt a bit more firm beneath Cliff’s hooves than it had before the ride on the helicopter. With a bit of experimentation, he hobbled after the others who were apparently feeling the same sensation. By the time they made it to the shack, their limbs seemed to be working normally once more.
More of the production staff was here, as well, and they had a great deal of complicated equipment set up all over the place. Cliff and the other two athletes hardly noticed as several cameras zoomed in for close-up reaction shots of the Team Leaders as they gathered around a small monitor to watch how the rest of the race was going. The tiny television showed the image of Mogul and Smiley skidding to a halt at the first checkpoint just as Luge and Dragon pushed off. Gryphon followed mere seconds behind with Trajan launching himself down the slope with feverish determination.
The image suddenly changed as a technician somewhere transferred to one of the mobile camera operator’s views. Nikita, with her hooves clenched into fists, quietly cheered Trajan on. The Blade Runner’s man seemed to be doing quite well and was beginning to make up some of the time they had lost. Meanwhile, Luge was expertly dodging around the multitude of trees that were always in her path. Dragon could be seen alongside her, matching her nearly move for move. Suddenly, the X-Crew’s player swooped across directly at Luge.
Luge noticed in time and was able to dodge, but Dragon followed her, driving both of them off-course. Beside Cliff, X smiled like a maniac with his eyes glued to the screen.
“Yeah! Run her off the mountain!” he muttered excitedly.
Cliff would have liked nothing more than to punch him out at that very moment, but he instead turned his attention back to the screen.
Dragon continued to cut in on Luge, but the nimble Xtreme Team mare managed to evade both her opponent and the oncoming trees. Still, the constant weaving and zigzagging was slowing them down and Trajan had managed to not only make up for lost time but also to overtake the two mares. Luge saw this right away but Dragon seemed more concerned with delaying her opponent than staying in the lead.
Cliff couldn’t help but wonder that if the X-Crew really did have the course trapped, then they wouldn’t need to stay in the lead throughout the entire race. Maybe there was something to Shard’s warning after all.
Dragon’s antics kept up for a little while longer, but eventually she seemed to give up and turn her attention back towards getting out ahead of the others. Luge, too, threw herself into it once more, but it was just at that point that Nikita, X, and Cliff were quickly ushered away from the screen and into their starting gates. They secured their boards to their hooves and then double- checked the bindings. There would be no room for error at this point in the game.
Cliff’s heart was racing. A short padded bar directly before him ensured that he did not start before his time. The moment that Luge made it to their location, the bar would snap out of his way and he would be off. But until then, all he could do was wait. To make matters worse, he couldn’t quite turn around to see the approaching snowboarders. And that, combined with the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the waiting, was more nerve-racking than any stunt or sport he had ever taken part in.
X was in the gate right beside Cliff and, as those long seconds drew on and on, the cocky stallion turned around to face Cliff and asked, “Hey, you’re not gonna cry when you loose this thing, are ya?”
Though he was trying to sound confident, Cliff could hear the nervousness in X’s voice. Cliff just smiled and replied with slightly more believable cockiness, “Just so long as you don’t start bawlin’ on the way down. Seriously, dude, do you need like a hankie or something?”
X’s expression twisted into a scowl and he turned back around. Just then, one of the stage hands tapped Cliff on the shoulder and said something about thirty seconds. He hadn’t quite caught the entire statement but he was hoping it was the time until Luge arrived. He noticed that Nikita and X were receiving similar signals.
Looks like the thing is still pretty close, Cliff thought.
Suddenly a hoof came down just outside of his vision and began counting down from five. A second later there was a huge commotion back behind the starting gates, and he just caught sight of Nikita pushing herself out of her gate. Before his mind could even put everything into place, his gate sprang open. Instinct took over in that moment and he launched himself forward onto the glistening white snow.
On some subconscious level, Cliff was aware of X’s departure at that same instant, but in those first moments, it was the farthest thing from his mind. Cliff pointed his board straight down the mountain and tucked himself in to achieve as much speed as possible. Trees raced past on either side as he kept going faster and faster. Now, the slightest tip of the board one way or the other would send him completely out of control. Thoughts of these consequences were immediately pushed from his head as he concentrated on the task at hoof. A careful technique was needed here, and he had no room for error.
Cliff dared not take his eyes off the speeding terrain before him but out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a flash of dark purple and gray- X. The two of them tore through a sharp turn side by side. It would have been so easy for either of them to sabotage the other at that point, but the very act of doing so would have destroyed the other’s chance of victory, as well. If one of them fell, they both would. The narrow trail though the forest continued like this for quite some distance. A few more turns brought them ever closer to the finish line.
Suddenly after one such turn, the terrain flattened out and the trail widened ever so slightly. With his speed slowing cautiously, Cliff took the opportunity to glance across at X, just as the scowling stallion ran into Cliff full force. It was all Cliff could do to keep from smashing into the right hand boundary of the trail, but he managed to recover just as X cut in once more. This time, Cliff was able to brace himself for the attack and managed to grapple with his opponent to prevent a catastrophe.
“One way or another, you’re not gonna win this,” X bit out as he tried to push Cliff over.
Cliff, in turn, counterbalanced X’s every attempt, but they were still locked hoof in hoof as they raced down the slope.
“So you’re willing to resort to cheating?” Cliff managed. “You’re even lower than I thought!” As the two continued with their high speed wresting match, they both caught sight of a bright and noisy spectacle ahead.
“The finish line!?” X cried out in near utter terror.
Summoning the last of his strength, the X-Crew’s leader threw all his weight against Cliff in an effort to force him to the right side of the trail. Cliff, however, held on; and just as they were both about to tumble over into the snow, they came to a jarring halt as they crashed into a shallow pit. A huge cloud of snow shot skyward and they both ended up tumbling end over end for quite some distance after the collision. They couldn’t see much of anything for those moments; but, if they could have, they would have seen Nikita swerve around them at the last second and shoot across the finish line.
“That’s right, folks!” Vic’s voice was heard shouting out of countless speakers. “Here in the ESL there are no such things as judges! Here, victory is determined simply by whoever crosses the finish line first! And in this case, that happens to be Nikita of the Blade Runners! Yes, the Blade Runners take it!”
The cheering of the crowd was so close now, but it was all lost on X and Cliff. For a long moment, they just lay there in the snow; but slowly, their senses returned to them. X immediately tried to get to his hooves so that he could throw himself at Cliff, but he failed to remember that his snowboard was still securely fastened to his boots. In a second, somewhat smaller, cloud of snow, X fell once more, this time face first. He angrily rolled over and began tearing at his bindings all the while cursing under his breath.
Meanwhile, Cliff had maintained a bit more composure and was calmly undoing his own bindings. From the direction of the finish line, Bungee, Blade, and Jet came running to see if they were alright. Finally ripping off the last latch, X jumped to his hooves and tossed the snowboard away. He was fully ready to launch himself at Cliff in a fit of rage, but the presence of three more Xtreme Ponies caused him to stop dead in his tracks.
“You are so dead!” X spat at Cliff.
Cliff got to his hooves with a helping hoof from Blade, and then planted his hooves firmly in the snow. “Bring it on,” he said sternly. “The way you treat this game makes me sick. Not only that, but your cheating cost both of our teams victory. I’d like nothing more than to beat you down right here.”
For a moment, X looked as though he was going to give Cliff the chance, but then backed down. Pointing a vicious hoof at the Xtreme Team, he said, “This is not over,” and then turned and strode away. His own teammates had finally shown up, but he angrily waved them off and headed straight for the locker room.
“Dude!” Jet exclaimed. “I mean like, dude, what was that all about?”
“Hmm, not much of a dead-fall,” Cliff said absentmindedly as he took a look at the pit. It was no more than a few feet deep, but that was still enough to carry out its purpose. More importantly, it was exactly where Shard had said it would be. And to add even more credence to the stranger’s warning, X seemed awfully afraid of something as they had gotten near the finish line on the wrong side of the trail.
“Hey, boss-man, what’s going on?” Bungee asked.
“Nothin’ much,” Cliff replied wearily. “But I think this whole ESL thing might have just gotten a lot more complicated.”
“I don’t think I follow…” Blade said.
“I second that,” Jet added.
“And I third,” Bungee replied.
“Come on, let’s find Mogul and Luge and I’ll fill you all in,” Cliff said as he started limping toward the milling crowd, with the others helping him along.