Victory or Bust
written by Barnacle

“Quite a turn-out, huh?”

Cliff was not the sort to be taken by surprise. After all, years of training had made him expect the unexpected; but today, wading through a sea of frantic stage hands, this little question caught him completely by surprise. He quickly spun to face the individual who had addressed him and was immensely relieved to see it was only Nikita, the team captain for one of Cliff’s rival teams, the Blade Runners.

“They say the ESL is the highest-rated sporting event since Monday Night Football,” Cliff replied, trying his best to regain his composure. Considering the hustling workers and the din of the crowd in the background, it was doubtful anyone would have noticed.

Nikita was similarly dressed as Cliff, in a protective racing suit with a helmet tucked under one foreleg. “A distant second, I’m sure but it’s still pretty cool. I hear Yanus is even thinking of adding more teams to the line-up.”

“Those two new groups he got for the pre-race entertainment are pretty good,” Cliff jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the stadium and the crowd’s cheers rose as if on cue. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked them into the races.”

“The Sickle-Claws and the Grinders,” Nikita said. “It would liven the races up, that’s for sure.”

“True. I would just hope it would liven them in a good way,” Cliff replied as he scanned the crowd. “Have you seen Luge anywhere? I was kind of looking for her.”

“Saw her a getting a drink a little while ago. Oh, there she is.”

Luge came trotting over holding two icy cold drinks fresh from the refreshment stand. Like Cliff and Nikita, she, too, was decked out in her gear for the competition.

“Hey, Cliff, I got you something to drink,” Luge said as she handed him one of the paper cups. “Hi Nikita, what’s up?”

“Just having a few words with my fellow captain before the race,” Nikita replied. Then in a more quiet tone and with a glance over her shoulder, she leaned in close and asked, “Do you really think that the X-Crew is setting traps just to win the race? I know I’ve asked you, like, a million times since you told me after the last race, but here we are T-minus-thirty minutes. Are you still positive?”

“We haven’t seen anything to change our minds,” Luge snapped, perhaps just a little too harshly.

Cliff put a restraining hoof on her shoulder and replied in a more controlled tone, “And if we had, we would have told you. But as it stands now, I have no doubt that they are going to pull something.”

Nikita took a deep breath. “I knew you were going to say that, but I was hoping you wouldn’t.”

“Sorry,” Cliff said with an awkward smile.

“Thanks for at least being level with me. I know a lot of others who would have kept that kind of information to themselves.”

“You know us, just too darn good-hearted for our own good,” Luge said.

“We’re here to compete, not get railroaded by a bunch of cheaters,” Cliff added.

“Well, thanks again. I’ve got to be getting back to my own team,” Nikita said as she started to walk away. “And good luck out there today!”

“Thanks,” Cliff replied. “And you, too!”

After a brief exchange of waves, Cliff and Luge turned and headed back to their own waiting area. They continued in silence for a few steps before Luge spoke-up saying, “You know, you two did have a point; this is a competition, and we didn’t have any kind of obligation to share anything with them.”

Cliff stopped short and shot a questioning glare at his teammate, “Are you saying we should have just let them go on blindly through all this?”

“No,” Luge was quick to add. “We did the right thing, but it might have been our only advantage. The Blade Runners- and I hate to admit it, but the X-Crew, even without cheating- are both just as good as we are. If we don’t do something soon to level this playing field, we’re going to end up taking the fall on every race all the way through.”

“Are you saying we should just give up and quit?” Cliff asked. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done- even with the bad points- and I’d be willing to bet it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done, too.”

“But how long can we let ourselves be made out to be losers?” Luge asked. “We’re not, and I’m not going to let the whole world think that we are.”

“We’ll find a way to set this right, but for the moment we have to stay cool and not lose sight of what’s really important. I know it’s a clique, but if we didn’t tell the Blade Runners, then we’d be doing the same thing as the X-Crew.”

“Yeah, unfortunately, you’re right,” Luge said in a somber tone. The two of them continued on their way at a slightly slower pace. “But I’m not going to stick around if this keeps up for too much longer.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Cliff said. “Shard never would have warned us if he didn’t think it would help us in some way.”

“And just where is the mysterious Shard, anyway? If he really wanted us to do well in this thing, he would have told us about more than the first trap so that we wouldn’t go crazy trying to unravel this huge conspiracy theory that we’re not even sure exists. Why do they make us wear all this gear if we’re not even going to be in the race today?” Luge suddenly tugged at her uniform in a frustrated way as if it didn’t fit quite right.

“You know they need us ready in case one of the others can’t go on. Besides, it looks good for the cameras.” Cliff pointed to a back stage camera operator who was bringing his lens to bear on the two athletes. Luge and Cliff managed to smile and wave, but in a second, the camera was gone to film something else.

“I could care less about the cameras,” Luge said as soon as it was out of range. “And I’ve put this outfit on enough times to be able to do it in ten seconds in my sleep.” Again she tugged at her collar.

Cliff just smiled and nodded. He suspected it wasn’t the uniform she was having a problem with. The concerns she voiced were felt by their entire team and each member was dealing with them in different ways. Luge kept up a brave face in front of the others, but the fact that she confided started to make Cliff realize how important his role as team captain was. It was a huge responsibility, but he had yet to realize just how huge.

Just then, his thoughts were shattered by a shrill call that sounded out above the noise filling the space. “Dude!” Jet called out as he bounded over. “Dude, we have fans! Hundred of girls just throwing themselves at me!”

“I see two girls and a fat guy bothering Blade,” Cliff said with a glance over Jet.

“Yeah, well, uh... dude, you just missed, right? They were just here but they, uh... left.”

“More like you scared ‘em off if, in fact, there were any to begin with.” Luge added, “I better go save Blade; she looks like she’s about ready to freak out.”

“Oh, Lyle’s a good guy. He’s harmless,” Jet called out after Luge. Then he directed towards Cliff, “Really, he’s cool. He’s got, like, all these comics and stuff in his parents’ basement and stuff.”

Waving his hoof, Cliff said, “I don’t need to know this; in fact, Luge might need back-up. Have you seen Mogul? Go time is less than thirty minutes away.”

“Dude, he’s, like, over, there...” Jet pointed off through the crowds. A second later he locked in on his exact position and added, “Right there, you see him?”

Mogul seemed to be talking to a young mare who was decked out with all the equipment of a camera operator. “Is that that Camera Chick?”

“Yeah, Misty,” Jet said. “He’s got a major crush on her.”

Just than Misty slapped Mogul across the face and then stalked away. Mogul looked rather dumbstruck and said something, but the words were lost due to the distance and the background noise. Whatever he said, it didn’t stop Misty in the least. Rubbing his jaw, Mogul made his way over to Cliff and Jet.

“Dude! You are so smooth!” Jet cried out in near hysterical laughter.

Mogul just sniffed as he rubbed his jaw once more. “Yeah, she’s crazy about me.”

Even Cliff had to laugh at that. “Dude, she just slapped you, we both saw it!”

“Me too!” Bungee added, suddenly popping up from behind.

“She’s just playing hard-to-get.” Mogul did not appear to be shaken even slightly. If anything, he acted like it was all perfectly natural. “Although I wish she wouldn’t have done it so hard. My black eye was finally starting to go away. It’s not swelling up again, is it?”

“No, you look great,” Cliff said flatly. “At least as good as your ugly mug can look.”

“Aw, poor baby,” Bungee laughed. “Maybe Blade should take your place in today’s race.”

“Dude, what did you say to her, anyway?” Jet asked.

“Never you mind,” Mogul replied.

“No, you gotta tell us, dude!”

“Sorry, can’t give away my trade secrets.”

As they continued their banter, Cliff caught sight of Mr Yanus making his way through the crowds. “Excuse me, ladies, I’ve gotta go have a chat with the big boss man. The rest of you stay right here until show time; I’m not gonna go track you all down again.”

“Dude! Don’t you trust us?”

“Not in a million years,” Cliff shot back with a smile as he hurried to catch up with the haughty businessman. The crowds were thick through here so Cliff was slowed by more than one pony who got in his way; but with a little quick hoofwork, he managed to get within range of Yanus in no time.

“Mr. Yanus! Mr. Yanus!” he called out.

Mr. Yanus obviously heard Cliff, because he stopped and turned around. Cliff, who was still running at top steed, nearly crashed into the well-dressed pony. Fortunately, the athlete managed to dodge at the last second and came to a halt without so much as bumping into Yanus.

“Ah, Cliff,” Yanus said dryly. “What can I help you with?”

“Mr. Yanus,” Cliff said between a few gulps of air, “I was just wondering if you’d found out anything about what we had talked about the other day.”

“The cheating?” Yanus said. “I looked into it as I said I would.” He took a long pause and for a moment Cliff almost thought he might have good news. “However, I couldn’t find any such evidence.” Cliff had been expecting this answer, but it still hit him like a ton of bricks square in the chest. “All those various pit-falls and obstacles that tripped you and your team up were entirely natural. This is an extreme sports competition, after all, and one has to content with unexpected terrain. It’s part of the game.”

Cliff couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t let himself believe it. Something had happened on their last two races that was not simply rough terrain. He went over in his mind what Mr. Yanus had just said. He wanted to refute everything, but the calmer part of his being maintained control and he instead said, “So, you didn’t find… anything?”

“No, nothing,” Mr. Yanus said. He seemed completely cool and business-like, but was that a hint of a smile Cliff detected on his face? “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No. Nothing,” Cliff said. With a polite nod, Mr. Yanus turned and walked away. It was only then that Cliff even realized that his fists were clenched in anger. Taking a deep breath, he shook out his hooves and headed back to his friends.

Back in the Extreme Team pavilion, he found all five of his teammates waiting for him with anxious looks on their faces.

“What did he say?” one of them asked.

“Oooo, this looks heavy,” Lyle said as peaked over Blade’s shoulder. She cringed, not realizing that he was still there.

Mogul stood up from his seat on the end of one of the tables and towered over the plump, greasy pony. “Beat it, this is a private team meeting.”

Lyle held his autographed Extreme Team picture in front of him like a shield as now he himself cringed. For a moment, it looked as if he was going to protest, but then quickly scurried off into the crowds. “You were saying?” Mogul said as re-took his seat.

“He said he ‘couldn’t find any evidence,’ “ Cliff said, making it clear that he in no way agreed with that assessment.

“That’s bull!!!” Mogul cried and smashed his fist onto the table.

“So what do we do now?” Luge asked. She sounded determined enough, but Cliff could see the doubt in her eyes.

“It’ll tell you what we do,” Mogul said. “We go over there right now and lay the smack down on their-!”

Luge jumped in at that point and cut him off. “No fighting,” she snapped. “It’s not going to accomplish anything, especially if Mr. Yanus can’t even see what’s going on. It would just make us look that much worse.”

“Yeah, but it would make me feel better.”

“Why don’t we just follow the X-Crew through the course?” Bungee asked. “If they know where the traps are, we can take the same route they do and then cut them off in the final stretch.”

“Dude,” Jet nodded his agreement.

Cliff’s answer was straightforward. “No,” he said. “We don’t know where any of the traps are. If it’s in the final stretch, we’re still screwed.”

“We have to win on skill, not tricks; that’s their job,” Luge added.

“So then what?” Blade asked timidly.

“The only thing we can do is we get out there and play this thing as good as we can. Traps or no, we can still beat them,” Cliff said. That got a half-hearted agreement from them all, but it was hardly enthusiastic. “Now let’s get ready. Bungee, you’re first out of the gates in...” Cliff glanced at a clock, “ten minutes.”

“Oh, I’m ready,” Bungee replied. “I’m so ready, the X-Crew better be ready for how ready I am.”

After a thought, Cliff felt that he could reply to that, “Good, now let’s get out there and win.”

With that, they all got up and headed off to the starting location. Cliff let them all go past him before he himself followed. Luge came up beside him and put a hoof on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“We all know that we can beat the X-Crew, right? But can we beat them?”

“I don’t know, Cliff. I used to think that we could overcome anything; but now, with the cards stacked against us, I’m not so sure.”

“You sounded confident enough back there,” Cliff replied.

“That’s because you looked confident,” Luge said. “It’s contagious, you know.” Cliff stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at Luge. “What?” she asked. “It’s true. They all take their cue- we all take our cue- from you. I don’t know if we’re going to win or not, but as long as you look like we can, you make the rest of us believe it, too.”

For what seemed like a long time to him, Cliff was silent as he digested what she had just said. Up until then, he had never really seen himself as a leader. Sure, he was the captain on paper, and that meant that he had to play the part for the red-tape, but he never felt like it was really the case. He was just another member of the team, one among equals. However, at some point not too long ago, he had become their leader not only in name but in spirit as well.

All the members of the team had come to him with their concerns and problems in the past. He had just thought that it was to let their opinions be known, not that they wanted him to fix anything. However, regardless of the reasoning, it meant that every decision Cliff made had to be made taking into account the feelings and well-being of everyone on the team. They were not just turning to him to voice their minds but because they KNEW he was going to take care of things. It came as an even greater shock to him than anything before.

“Now is not the time to look weak,” Luge said. “We need you to be strong.”

It took Cliff a second longer to collect himself before he replied, “I should have let Mogul have this job when he wanted it.” At first, Luge thought he was serious; but a second later, Cliff let out a nervous laugh. That in turn started Luge snickering. Before long, the two of them were both laughing.

“If Mogul was captain, we never would have made it this far,” Luge said. “We would have gotten kicked out before the first race for kicking the X-Crew’s tails!”

“At least then we wouldn’t have to deal with them now.”

“We also wouldn’t be on national TV,” Luge added and pointed to a distant camera operator who was just now closing in on them. “Hi, Mom!” she said with a wave.

“Come on, we have to get going, the race is gonna start!” Cliff grabbed Luge by the foreleg and ran for the starting gate. They quickly made their way through the crowds with the help of a few security guards and stormed into the player area. It was a low pavilion-like structure that had been fitted for the starting line of the race. It was also equipped with monitors and chairs so that the team members who were not taking part in this race could watch all the action. Most of the fans were gathered at various points along the course to watch, but a small crowd decided to watch the race unfold from here.

Bungee was already strapped onto her dirtboard and was clearly ready to go. In the gate next to her was Dragon of the X-Crew, who smiled evilly upon seeing Cliff come near. He paid her no mind, though, and went straight to Bungee. He exchanged a few hushed words with her, after which she smiled broadly and took a glance at Dragon. “Oh, you know it!” she cried out loud enough for everyone to hear. Dragon looked puzzled and scowled at Cliff as he walked back to Luge and Blade with a smile of his own. The X-Crew member then shifted her gaze to Bungee, who just laughed and turned her attention back forward to await the start.

“What was that about?” Nikita asked.

“Just instilling a little confidence,” Cliff said. Behind his back, Luge smiled happily.

A second later, the gates sprang open and the three contestants shot out forward. “AND THEY’RE OFF!” Vic’s voice cried out from the microphone.

The nine members of the three teams who were not participating in the match gathered around the small television screens. X and Outré were yelling wildly at the images as if Dragon could hear them. Nikita had Trajan standing behind her, and both stood in silence as they watched. Mehira was quietly bobbing up and down as she wrung her hooves and excitedly muttered something to herself. Blade, as always, was difficult to read and stood in silence as she stared at the monitors. On the other hand, Luge was quite excited and was cheering Bungee on, albeit in a much more reserved tone than the X-Crew.

“Look, Bungee’s in the lead!” she cried out. But her excitement quickly died as a small hole opened up under Bungee’s board, swallowing its front wheel. The dirtboard stopped almost instantly and sent Bungee flying forward into the grass. Valentina, who had been close behind her, didn’t have time to dodge or avoid the wreck and plowed into it at full speed. Both the Blade Runner and her board went sailing through the air above Bungee, missing her head by mere inches. Not surprisingly, Dragon took a completely different path and shot past both of them. Cliff could have sworn he saw a vicious smile plastered on her face as she did.

“Oh, wicked nasty spill!” X said with a laugh directed towards Cliff. Cliff tried his best to ignore him and focused on the monitors.

“Come on!”

“Get up!”

The various members of the two fallen teams were cheering on their comrades, but neither racer needed any encouragement. Bungee had already wrestled her board out of the hole and was heading out again. Valentina was close behind her, righting her board as though it weighed nothing. Before too long, both of them were back in the race and giving it all they had. Dragon’s lead didn’t look nearly as great as it had a moment before.

Just as it seemed like Valentina was about to overtake Bungee, someone cried out from behind them, “Hey, who’s winning!?”

“What the-?” X shouted out in irritation and turned to face a newcomer to the proceedings. A reddish-orange stallion with pitch black hair bounded into the midst of the group.

“Who is this loser?” Max asked.

“This loser is Raptor!” the newcomer said flamboyantly and clapped his foreleg around Max’s shoulder. “I’m a friggin’ bird of prey swooping down on unsuspecting victims, baby!”

“Hey, get him offa me!” Max cried frantically.

“Beat it, freak!” X pushed Raptor away from the X-Crew members.

Raptor stepped backward, looking rather offended by the incident. “That’s fine, I wouldn’t want to watch with a bunch of neanderthals like you, in any case. But this fine specimen is a different story.” Raptor had now caught sight of Mehira and strode over towards her.

“We’re trying to watch here,” Trajan stepped in between the two of them.

“You’re from the Sickle-Claws, aren’t you?” Cliff asked, tearing himself away from the monitor for a second.

“Why yes, yes I am!” Raptor said and bowed low. “Raptor, at your service.”

“Yeah, it’s nice to meet you, Raptor; but maybe you could keep it down, we’re watching the race,” Cliff said.

Raptor shot forward with an energetic fluidity and put his forelegs around Cliff and Mehira, pointing both of them back towards the screens, “Then let’s watch, shall we, for that is why I am here, as well.” Oddly, he actually shut his mouth after that except to quietly ask, “So who is winning, anyway?”

“The X-Crew,” Cliff said. His voice was thick with bile, but it was not directed towards Raptor.

“But-only-by-a-second,” Mehira rambled off. “Valentina-and-Bungee-are-tied-for-second-place-right-behind-Dragon.”

Biting her fingernails, Nikita added, “And here comes the second leg…white water kayaking.”

The monitors showed the scene as Smiley started down-river just as Dragon crossed the bridge over the starting position; however, Kadin and Jet were but mere seconds behind him. With a smile on his lips, Jet let out a high-pitched howl as he crossed over a small waterfall and shot right over the head of Smiley. Though those watching on the monitors couldn’t hear what he had said, they knew well enough what it had been.

“Dude,” Cliff, Luge, and Blade all said in unison under their breaths.

Raising an eyebrow questioningly, Raptor said, “Are you sure you want him out there? He doesn’t look too stable in the head if you know what I mean.”

Cliff in turn gave Raptor a questioning gaze. Fortunately Mehira muttered, “Look-who’s-talking,” so Cliff didn’t have to.

Instead he said, “I wouldn’t want anyone else out there. Jet’s the best there is at what he does.”

“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what that is, however,” Luge added without taking her eyes off the screen.

Throughout the entire kayaking leg of the race, Jet held the lead. At one point Kadin almost managed to pass Smiley, but the X-Crew member nearly struck him in the side of the head. From the camera’s angle, it looked like it could have been an accident; but when the Cliff and Nikita glanced over at X and his goons, they were laughing hysterically at the maneuver.

“No traps on this part,” Luge spoke just loud enough so that Cliff could hear her and no one else.

“So far,” Cliff replied. “It’s not over yet.”

“Just a little further…”

“Yes!” Raptor cried out and threw up his forelegs. Turning to Cliff, he said, “Looks like your boy made it after all.” Then to Mehira, “I’m sure Gryphon will get it on the next leg.”

Cliff and Mehira exchanged a glance and then turned back to Raptor. “Just-whose-side-are-you-on-anyway?”

“Ideally it would be the Sickle-Claws’ side, but that’s not going to happen for a few weeks, so for the moment I’m on everyone’s side.” He again put his forelegs around both their shoulders and laughed. “Check it out! There goes Alex! Good job, guys,” he called out to the X-Crew. Max smiled and gave Raptor a thumbs up, but X slapped his teammate in the back of the head. Raptor laughed again and turned to Mehira. “That was worth it.”

Mogul was now out in the lead and thundering down a wooded path on his dirt bike. Alex was trailing right inside of his dust trail while Gryphon was right alongside and just a hair behind the X-Crew athlete. However, as Mogul rounded a sharp turn, his lead evaporated with a low branch across the trail that almost knocked him off his bike. He managed to regain his balance and keep moving, but it slowed him down enough so that he was now in last place with Alex in the lead.

Even over the monitors and through his helmet, it was apparent that Mogul was mad and understandably so. At first it looked like Alex had taken the turn too wide and that he was going to wipe out in the woods. Instead, he managed to find a hidden path which took him out of range of the branch and allowed him to round the corner without incident. Gryphon followed right behind Alex. Apparently he had come up with the same idea that Bungee had and was following the X-Crew’s route.

Back at the starting line, the others were visibly upset by this latest development and were no longer letting any allegations of cheating keep them quiet.

“What was that!?” Luge cried. “It’s like he knew that path was there!”

“Hey, babe, that’s what they call skills,” X sneered.

“And you don’t have to stay on the trail if you don’t want to,” Outré added. “It’s not against the rules.”

At that moment a thought suddenly dawned on Cliff. It was just clever enough that it might allow them to win the race, but it wouldn’t do them any good since he couldn’t relay it to Mogul out on the course. Cliff turned his attention back to the television sets just in time to see Mogul take another spill. This time he completely left the bike, while Alex had completely avoided the obstacle. Gryphon hadn’t been as lucky this time and was hurriedly righting his bike right alongside Mogul.

“No,” Cliff muttered. “If only I could tell him somehow…”

Mogul and Gryphon had finally gotten back on their bikes and Gryphon roared off down the trail in pursuit of Alex. Mogul looked like he was all set to follow, but instead of accelerating, he stopped and looked to his right, off into the trees.

“Why’d he stop?” Luge asked, but an answer was quick in coming. Mogul revved up his bike and spun it to face the forest before speeding right into the thick of it.

“YES!!!” Cliff shouted. His teammates might have teased Mogul about it, but he was a lot smarter than most gave him credit for. That is, if rocketing full throttle through dense forest was smart. Regardless, he had come to the same conclusion Cliff had, only a few seconds later.

“What!? He can’t do that!” X cried out.

“That’s-that’s against the rules or something, right!?” Max stammered.

“No, it’s not,” Luge was quite smug about it, “and you just said so yourselves.”

“He must be pretty desperate if he thinks that’s a shortcut. He’ll end up in the hospital or worse,” X replied.

“It is easier to react to the obstacle that is seen than to the one that is hidden,” Raptor said as he pressed his palms together and gave a mock bow.

X was fuming. “You’re still going to loose. No crazy trick is going to prevent it!”

“Right back at ya,” Cliff replied.

Everyone quickly shifted their attention back towards the monitors. It was difficult to tell how Mogul was doing in the standings. Going completely off the trail, he quickly lost the two cameramen on the ground who tried to follow him. The only footage now was from a helicopter high over head and it didn’t give any indication as to how close he was to the finish line. Alex was closing in on it quickly, while it appeared that Gryphon had encountered several more hidden pit-falls. As Mogul passed into some especially thick undergrowth, the helicopter lost him completely and those watching from a distance were forced to wonder what had become of him.

Alex had now made it to the final stretch, which was a long straight path a couple of hundred feet long. At this point, even though he was giving the race every ounce of determination he had, Gryphon was as good as out of the running. Just as Alex was halfway down the straight way, Mogul suddenly came crashing through the bushes alongside the trail and nearly sideswiped a camera jeep out quite a way ahead of Alex. Mogul didn’t even slow down as he got his bike facing the right direction again and gunned the engine.

Back in the monitor pavilion, the gathered groups were screaming at the monitors so loudly that they couldn’t even hear the sound of the motorcycle engines growing ever closer to their position, which also marked the finish of this race. No more insults were being thrown, just cheers of encouragement for their friends out on the field.

Alex was shocked by Mogul’s reappearance to say the least. He instantly gave his own bike as much gas as he could. Mogul’s in turn had suffered terribly in the cross country trip and was losing parts as he sped down the final feet towards the finish line. Alex, with a still working bike, was steadily gaining on him and the race had suddenly become too close to call. With every foot, Mogul’s bike lost more power and slowed ever so slightly. Soon it was barely puttering along and Mogul was visibly frustrated as he tried to squeeze the last bit out of it.

He quickly realized it was a futile attempt and dismounted hurriedly and sprinted on hoof for the finish. Alex was gaining even faster now, but Mogul kept going even with a limp. He had only eyes for the finish and would let nothing stop him from making it. He closed to within forelegs’ length of the ribbon stretched across the line and could hear the thunderous roar of Alex, right behind him. Stretching as far as he could, Mogul dive across the finish line, snatching the fluttering ribbon as he did so.

As he crashed to the ground, with several feet to spare, Alex tore past and skidded to a halt. Both athletes tore off their helmets just in time to hear Vic cry out over the speakers, “And the Extreme Team takes it! Yes, The Extreme Team Wins!!!”

Alex tossed his helmet to the ground and kicked his bike, which caused it to fall over in a crash and him to begin hopping around holding his now bruised hoof. Mogul remained on the ground for a few seconds, but slowly began to pick himself up. He was greeted not only by the masses of cheering crowds, but also by the embrace of his three teammates who had been forced to watch the entire affair from a distance.

“We did it!” Luge cried. “We finally did it!”

“Did you ever have any doubt?” Cliff replied.

“Not with me pullin’ the weight,” Mogul said.

The four of them stood there reveling in the cheers of the crowds, oblivious to any of the details. As they stood there, Jet and Bungee came running over from the jeep that had picked them up at the ends of their legs of the race. Pictures and interviews followed. There was some question over the results of the race due to Mogul completing the last bit on hoof, but that was quickly dismissed after a consultation of the rules proved that what he had done was perfectly legal. In fact, the rules basically went so far as to say that the entire race could be completed on hoof if the participants wanted to. The only restrictions pertained to certain types of vehicles on certain parts of the course; and since they had not violated this, their win stood as valid. The only ones who still insisted otherwise was the X-Crew.

After the fan fare began to quiet down and most of the reporters headed out, the Extreme Team was gathered back at their pavilion, still high from the win.

“Dude! This is awesome! We really won!” Jet exclaimed. “It’s just so wild I still I can’t believe it!”

“Believe it, it doesn’t happen every day,” a cool voice said from their side.

“Mr. Yanus?” Cliff said suspiciously. “What brings you to winners’ square?”

“I’m here to congratulate the winners,” Yanus replied. “It WAS a very exciting win. How did you manage to pull it off?”

“Why are you so concerned about it now?” Cliff asked. He was tired after the day’s excitement and was in no mood to deal with Mr. Yanus while pretending to be civil.

“Oh, come on, up until now your team has been the underdogs in this competition.”

“Yeah, while YOUR team has been getting all the preferential treatment,” Mogul blurted.

“That you would even suggest that I’m playing favorites is preposterous,” Yanus said. He looked genuinely angry, but some other emotion was hidden there just beneath the surface. Was it nervousness? Or maybe fear? “This competition is as fair as I can make it, and I will not tolerate this sort of talk.” With those curt words, he turned and stalked away.

“Hmm, no warnings, no threats?” Luge said. “What do you suppose that means?”

“Whatever it is, I don’t think it can be good…” Cliff said.

In the distance, as Yanus walked away, they could see as X crept out of the shadows and began talking to the young business pony. After a few harsh words which none of the Extreme Team could make out, Yanus silenced X with a few curt but unheard words and a wave of the hoof. X still looked mad enough to check through a skateboard, but he kept his mouth shut. Looking around, he caught sight of Cliff’s team watching him, and flashed them a venomous look before stalking back to his own team.

“No,” Cliff added. “Not good at all.”

Next: “Mission: Possible”

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