Battle Quills... ready! Circulation: 106,486,787 Issue: 212 | 14th day of Collecting, Y7
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Roses in the Snow


by extreme_fj0rd

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The day of the Ice Crown Ski Races dawned cold and clear; wisps of cloud drifted pointlessly across the sky, but none of them managed to obscure the sun for more than a few moments at a time. By noon, the slopes of Terror Mountain were a swarm of skiers, judges, and simple spectators, and two hours after that, the race was nearly ready to start.

      Kali adjusted her gloves and let out her breath; it formed a cloud in the chill air. She ran a paw over her head, checking that her goggles were safely resting just above her forehead where she could pull them down for the race and that her ski cap wasn't ready to fall off at any moment.

      The paper affixed to the front of her parka with safety pins bore the number 33; a breeze lifted it for a moment, then let it back down. The Usul patted the pockets of her jacket, making sure that she'd left everything she didn't need back in the competitors' lounge, and grabbed her ski poles from where they'd been stuck in a nearby snowbank.

      She glided down the gentle slope to a vantage point from which she could see most of the racecourse; the current group of skiers was halfway down already, and her race was up next.

      Kali took a quick glance around. The judges were stationed at various points, mainly near the beginning and end; the crowds that came to watch the Ski Races were sitting in stands along the route.

      An Acara slid up next to her and pushed his goggles back to give her a friendly grin.

      "Good luck," he said.

      She returned his smile and nodded. "You too."

      The Acara scanned the landscape; the paper number on his jacket fluttered. "Nice day for the Races."

      Kali nodded fervently. The year before, there had been a blinding snowstorm; the racers, including Kali, had gotten nearly half a mile off-course before anyone could alert them. One of the racers had even disappeared; there'd been a bit of a scandal about it, but it had calmed down in time for this year's race.

      "Nice turnout, too," he added.

      The Usul smiled. "The crowds, eh? That's all you think about, isn't it, Nathan?"

      Her friend shrugged. "Well--"

      "Shut up," she said, laughing. "You know I meant it metaphorically."

      "Sure you did," he muttered.

      The tiny shapes in the valley below broke through the red-tape barrier at the end of the course.

      Kali stretched, leaning her weight on first one pole, then another, and stamped her skis firmly on the ground.

      "Good luck," she said, glancing over at Nathan.

      He nodded absently, already summing up the conditions, and grasped his own ski poles firmly to push off.

      The Acara dwindled quickly against the stark white of the ground; Kali tugged her gloves farther up her wrists and followed him to the starting line.

      Nathan was number 53, twenty over from her. Kali was just able to glimpse him among the throng of skiers before he vanished once more, presumably to take his place.

      She slid into her own--marked with her own number, 33--and tilted her head from side to side, yawning.

      The Techo next to her gave her a glance of clear amusement at her stretches, and turned to his own neighbor.

      Though some skiers preferred they have a spot near their friends--it ensured that there would be little foul play--Kali was glad to be far from Nathan. His witty commentary of the conditions (both those of the weather and of their competitors) often had her laughing, but she found that she fell behind the group more quickly when she was concentrating on what he was joking about, not the race.

      The Usul finished her stretches and reclaimed her ski poles once more; she pulled her goggles down, bent forward and bounced a few times to get the feel of the snow. It was hard-packed from the many racers that day; trails wove and intersected on the slope ahead.

      Around her, the other competitors did much the same, assessing conditions for themselves.

      The commentator finished his speech on the winner of the last race; Kali had blocked out the continual noise long ago. Now he drew breath and began.

      "And they're ready to go, ready to go--"

      Kali scanned the mountain, her breath coming and going in bouts of steam, partially fogging her vision.

      "Ready--and--"

      The rays of a Rainbow Gun arced over the skiers.

      "They're off!"

      It was unnecessary; Kali and the others were already fifteen feet from the starting line.

      Her skis slipped on the ground, and what snowdrifts remained were blown to powder by the skiers ahead of her. The Usul peered through the snow, squinted, wished--

      Saw.

      They shot forward onto the first long slope; automatically, Kali hunched over and tucked her ski poles behind her.

      The groups were already forming, the leaders assuming their positions with aggressive expressions behind their goggles and scarves, the stragglers desperately trying to catch up. Kali was in the middle of the spectrum, and wove between the two skiers just ahead of her, skidding and sending a spray of ice particles into the second skier's face. His colors looked familiar; it was only after a moment that she realized he was the Techo who'd been amused with her, and she laughed aloud into the gale that billowed around her.

      Now more skiers fell behind, and Kali took the challenge, accelerating and weaving between her competitors until--

      She was in the leading group; at the tail of it, to be sure, but she was there.

      And then the wind increased, sending a wave of snow across her, eliminating her vision effectively.

      Once more she wished for it to clear, but this time her hopes were crushed. The snow continued; Kali's vision was only of snowflakes, tumbling across her goggles, lodging underneath the goggles' strap, collecting on her ski cap--

      She shot forward anyway, taking the risk of running into someone, taking the risk of tumbling down and down onto the cold, hard snow...

      To her surprise, she didn't hit anyone; no figures loomed out of the snow menacingly.

      She'd skied this course too many times, had practiced too much, to let her vision fail her; a glimpse of the forest was all she needed--

      And, just like that, the snow opened up and she saw her forest.

      The Usul slid into a hairpin turn, felt the rest of the leading group do the same. It was as if she was more real than they, as if she was the only living one in a gathering of ghosts.

      They were no challenge. They didn't exist, were mere trivialities.

      She laughed aloud, spun around another turn in a dizzying whirl of snowflakes.

      And then there was someone else.

      Just a glance, just a glimpse; purple gloves and ski cap, white parka that blended smoothly with the snow. Kali was surprised, for a moment, she'd even seen her competitor with that jacket.

      It dawned slowly on her, as she took another turn and plunged down a second long slope, that she'd seen the Usul. She'd seen her, when all the others were as invisible as the ground she skied on.

      Another glimpse, through the blinding snow; Kali couldn't help but turn her head, try to see as much as she could. The Usul was female; she could tell that even from such a short look as she'd had. Kali's competitor wore the same style of jacket that all the skiers did; her number fluttered from the front of it.

      Kali craned for a look at the number, and nearly crashed into a tree.

      She recovered quickly; then her eyes widened in terror behind her goggles, and she had to lean to the left to avoid another tree that loomed out of the snow as menacingly as any competitor. Somehow she'd gotten off the course, off the relatively hard snow...

      Her skis slipped as she thought that, and she desperately scrambled back; she pulled to the left, hard, and missed another tree by sheer luck alone.

      The other Usul was by her side, tauntingly, teasingly competent.

      The blaze-orange fence: she couldn't miss it anywhere. Just a glance, just a glimpse; she got it, and shot between two trees. She needed the course, needed the firm snow.

      At the last moment she remembered that the fence would bend, and snap back.

      And a hump of snow rose from the ground before her that she hadn't seen before, and she shot off the edge and cleared the fence.

      She spun as she landed; the snow cleared, and she glanced around quickly to get her bearings. The snow blew away for just a moment, and she saw the finish line.

      The ribbon was taut, not fluttering in two pieces. The only figure that stood behind it was the Usul, the only real person.

      Kali pushed off hard, shot recklessly down the long hard slope as the snow whirled around her once more.

      It cleared as she hit the ribbon; for a few feet, she slid out of control, before she managed to control her skis and stop.

      She turned back to her competitor, frowning. She'd thought before that she'd read it wrong through the snow; now she couldn't help but accept that the number fluttering from the other Usul's jacket was the same as her own.

      "Who are you?" Kali asked slowly.

      "I am lost." The voice was merely a whisper, the faded remnant of a voice.

      "Lost?" She frowned.

      "I lost my way, and came here in the snow. Soon I found the way to call others to join me, to compete with me--but not the way to leave."

      "How many--how many have you called?" Kali asked warily.

      "You. No other," whispered the competitor.

      Kali nodded slowly. "How long--how long have you been here?"

      "Here," the other said, making the words into a sigh. "Here in the stinging of the snow and the biting chill of the wind--here I have been for one year, no more nor less."

      "You're Shelly!"

      The words burst forth from Kali's mouth before she could stop them.

      "Shelly?" asked the Usul. "Shelly..."

      "She was number thirty-three last year, she disappeared," Kali said, tripping over the words to speak them more swiftly. "No one ever found her--you're her?"

      "Shelly," sighed the Usul. She looked more indistinct now, fuzzier around the edges somehow. "I wished to win, to win the roses." And then, sharper: "Go!"

      "How?" Kali asked; but Shelly was fading from view, into thin air.

      After a moment, the empty mountain did, too, and she was standing in the center of an excitedly-talking horde, standing with her arms piled full of roses brought from Neopia Central or Mystery Island or some place warm, where snow didn't dare come at all and flowers were common.

      Her competitors and spectators were crowding around her, congratulating her, but Kali took no notice of them. She turned her face up to the empty open sky, and brought her arms up above her head, and flung the roses up to Shelly and the silent, snowy mountain. The crowd fell silent, each getting only a glimpse of the roses falling like snow from the sky; but that was enough.

      That was enough.

The End

 
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