Snowfall's Solstice: Part One
“Castella and Claire, could you two please stay after school? I have something to tell you two.”
I froze. What? I glanced up at Mrs. Kiran, who was staring at us with an undecipherable expression in her colourless eyes. My gaze was averted to Claire, who had a smug grin on her face as she shot me a sneer. Uh-oh. This can’t be good. Claire and I were polar opposites of each other. She was popular, and I had no friends. She wasn’t what you’d call very smart, but at least I got decent grades. Even so, all teachers loved Claire and hated me. We detested each other, and Claire always veered off her path to make my life miserable. I couldn’t imagine what she had gotten me into now.
The next fifteen minutes seemed to pass in a blur. The next thing I knew, the bell was echoing in my ears. Twenty-eight students poured out of the classroom, eager to get away from mathematics. Claire was already at Mrs. Kiran’s desk, and I slowly made my way towards them.
“I’m going to get straight to the point.” The disapproving Yellow Eyrie picked up a sheaf of papers and smacked them on the table. I recognized them instantly. Today’s math tests. At the top of the pile were my test, and Claire’s.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Kiran?” Claire said innocently. The monster.
Mrs. Kiran’s steely gaze softened for a single moment. She jabbed a wing at our marks, circled in red. I picked up my test. “Ninety-four percent?” Jubilation rose up inside me. This was a good mark! Maybe yesterday’s studying had paid off after all.
Then I noticed the mark on Claire’s page. 94%. The same as me? Is that a coincidence? Somehow I didn’t think so. Claire’s average marks were around sixty-three percent. My heart sank to the tips of my toes as I realized – Claire sat behind me, with a clear view of my test paper...
“Which one of you has been cheating?” Mrs. Kiran’s voice jolted me out of my thoughts.
“Not me!” Claire said automatically. “I studied all the way till eleven last night.”
Mrs. Kiran stared at me expectantly. “Castella?”
I shook my head, not liking where this was going. “I didn’t cheat, Mrs. Kiran. I studied, too. And why do you think we cheated? Getting the same mark isn’t exactly... impossible.” Yes, it is, I thought to myself, especially when Claire is involved. But I knew Claire always got her way, and I didn’t want to make things complicated. No punishment at all for Claire – and letting her get away with it – was better than me receiving punishment for something I’d never even done. All the same, I gritted my teeth at the thought of Claire getting such a good mark on such a hard test that she hadn’t even worked for.
“You two had the exact same answers.” Mrs. Kiran’s voice was cold. “Even the wrong ones. It can’t be a coincidence, Castella. I think you’ve been cheating.”
“What? Me?” I stared at her in disbelief. “Why me? I did not cheat!”
Mrs. Kiran stood. “Castella, I know Claire. She is, in fact, the niece of my good friend. She doesn’t cheat, and if she didn’t do it, then you did!”
What on Neopia? Was this unfair, or was this unfair? I ignored the smirk on Claire’s face as I argued, “How do you know she doesn’t? I don’t cheat, Mrs. Kiran, and I don’t like the fact that you’re accusing me of it.”
Claire glared at me. “You sit right in front of me, Castella, you lousy lying cheater! It would’ve been easy for you to sneak a peek at my answers.”
I couldn’t believe this. Fury flared up inside me. “What about you? Isn’t it easier for you to cheat, seeing how you don’t even have to turn around and attract attention?”
“That’s enough, Castella!” Mrs. Kiran’s glittering eyes reminded me of cockroaches. “Cheating, and then lying to my face? I must say I’m ashamed. Claire, you can go. Castella, you’re coming straight to the principal’s office with me.”
“That’s so unfair!” I burst out. “I didn’t cheat, and you’re outright accusing me of it, without any proof whatsoever. I studied last night, you can go and ask my mom if you need to. Then go ask hers, I bet she’ll just say that Claire did nothing but watch Neovision last night–”
“Not true!” The Royal Cybunny stared at me with innocent, wide eyes. “My mom knows I studied for the math test. She even helped me with it! And I thought you were my friend, Cassy.”
Your friend? Since when was I your friend? Since the time when you accidentally-on-purpose spilled ink all over me? Since the time you spread the rumour that I was related to Meuka? I opened my mouth to release a torrent of insults when Mrs. Kiran slapped her wing on the desk. “That’s enough!”
Claire fell silent, though she shot me a smirk from behind Mrs. Kiran’s back. My teacher stepped towards me menacingly, her eyes narrowed into slits.
“Castella, that’s enough. I’m tempted to expel you, though I’m sure that’s just what you want. No school. So instead I’ll be taking you personally to Miss Peray’s office. And I’ll inform your mother about this. Don’t think you won’t get off easy, Castella!”
Mrs. Kiran stomped back to her desk and picked up a red pen, slashing something across my test. She then picked it up and showed me my new mark. “That’s what you get for cheating, Castella! A big fat zero! Now come with me before you waste even more of my time.”
The last thing I saw before Mrs. Kiran dragged me out of the classroom was Claire, her face twisted in a sneer, as she mouthed the single word: Loser.
- - -
“What in the name of Fyora were you thinking?”
I glared defiantly at Jessica, my mom, back in our cozy home. She had spent more than an hour talking with Mrs. Peray and Mrs. Kiran about me before we walked home in silence through the bitter Terror Mountain wind. She had been arguing for me at first, then relenting and starting to talk about the consequences. I couldn’t believe her betrayal. She knew I had studied for the test last night. So how come she just nodded and agreed that I was such a troublemaker? She knew Claire, too, the rat, and I knew she didn’t like her one bit. So how come she sided with her?
“What do you mean? I’d have thought that you knew that I didn’t cheat, and now you’re yelling at me?”
Jessica sighed and shook her head. “This isn’t about the test, Castella, it’s about how you got in trouble again.”
“This isn’t my fault!” I leapt up from the sofa. “Oh, I know you’d love to have a perfect daughter like Claire instead of me, don’t you? Pretty and popular and oh-so-innocent. She’d fit in great with my sisters.”
Jessica turned white, narrowing her eyes. “I can’t believe you’d think that, Castella. You know I don’t like Claire–”
“So how come you’re taking her side?” I interrupted.
“This isn’t about the test!” Jessica snapped. “It’s about you!”
“What do you mean, me?” I was yelling now. “Here I am, trying to please you by acing a test for once, and you’re giving me a lecture on cheating?”
“Take this for example! Your sisters!”
“What about them?”
“You don’t like them anymore.”
“What’s wrong with that? Is there some law out there that says I have to like my sisters?”
Jessica let out a frustrated sigh. “You used to love them, Castella.”
“They used to love me.”
“They still do! It’s you who’ve changed!”
“No, it isn’t!” I shouted. “It’s them! Ever since Vera got painted Royal, she’s been playing dress-up and pretending she’s the queen of the world and refusing to even spend time with me anymore.”
“That’s not true, and you know it!” Jessica glared at me. “The only thing that’s changed about her is her colour. You’re just angry because she broke your bicycle two years ago.”
“No, I’m not, though that’s exactly my point! She was trying to teach her Usuki doll to ride my bicycle. How stupid is that? And I’d have thought that she didn’t want to get her dress all dirty!”
Jessica’s face was red with anger. “What about Rain?”
I made a face. “Don’t remind me!”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“It’s her colour, too. Paint brushes change people, Mom. When she got painted Ghost, she started floating around and claiming to come from the dead and sneaking up on people and shouting ‘BOO!’ at the worst moments!”
“She’s a pain!” I snapped. “And Psyria! Psyria’s the worst! She’s Island, right, and she thinks that we’re living on the beach and she brews coconut milk and dances in hula skirts and speaks in Native! I’ve tried, Mom, and I just can’t understand them anymore! Maybe it’s better off this way.”
“Well, what about you?” Jessica said unexpectedly.
I was taken aback. “What do you mean, me?”
“What do you think your sisters think of you? Don’t forget that the paint brushes have made their mark on you, too. The day after you turned Faerie, Vera came to me and started crying, saying how you didn’t want to play with her anymore and how you openly said that you thought she was a sissy. Rain tells me you do nothing but criticize her after she tries to start a conversation, and Psyria says you turned mean and refused to even accept her anymore!”
“Me?” I was practically speechless. “Me? They think I’ve changed? Why do you think I acted like that? Because they started it. I’ve been trying to act normal, but they turn me down and go to do their own things. We’re just not the same anymore, Mom!”
Jessica faced me. “Vera’s won the Beauty Contest six times. Rain’s completed every plot – puzzle or battle – there ever was. Psyria has a job at the Shop of Mystery and brings home a hundred thousand neopoints a week. You? What about you? You’ve done nothing but gotten in trouble with all your teachers. What am I supposed to be proud of, Castella? The fact that I get neomails from your school every other day?”
That stung, but not because it wasn’t true. It was. I knew it was. Every single word out of Jessica’s mouth spoke the truth. She was right. I was nothing but a shame to Jessica’s perfect family.
“Sorry, Mom,” I said loudly. “Sorry I’m not the perfect angel you envisioned me as. Sorry I don’t fit your standards. Sorry I’m just a failure.”
“Castella–” Jessica began, but I wasn’t listening anymore. Turning my back on her, I spread out my wings, which carried me up the staircase and into my room. Slamming the door shut, I landed with a thud on my bed. Jessica was right. She was absolutely, one hundred percent right. I was nothing but a troublemaker, completely undeserving of everything she’d given me.
There was a knock on my door. I ignored it, and after a while I heard footsteps fading away. Staring out my window, I was momentarily mesmerized by the swirling flakes of snow outside. Snowflakes were lucky. They didn’t have to worry about anything. In the midst of the pure white mist, the tall, craggy peaks of the Terror Mountains stood in the distance. I stared at them for a while.
That was when it hit me.
I shot up and flew (literally) to my window, shoving it open and peering outside. The chilly breeze battered me at once, and an involuntary shiver crept through my bones. All the same, I barely noticed it. So I hadn’t done anything, not a single thing, to make Jessica proud of me. If she wanted it that much, then why not? Why not show her that I was capable of doing something?
I glanced to my right, then to my left. The coast was clear. No sane Pet would be traipsing through the waist-high snow, unless it was an emergency. Which it was, in my case. My teal-coloured wings, having tasted freedom, fluttered impatiently at my back. Taking a deep breath and bracing myself for the cold, I crouched onto my windowsill and jumped.
Gravity took control for a few seconds as I hurtled towards the snow-covered ground, but I flexed my wings, and I found myself hanging in the air six inches from the floor. I’d come closer before. My wings flapped behind me, wanting to lift off in the sky, but I knew it would be stupid – Jessica’s room was upstairs, and she sure wouldn’t appreciate looking out the window and seeing her daughter flying away in below zero temperatures. I shivered. The wind was biting into my back, and I could have sworn there were icicles forming on my nose. My light brown fur did little to help the cold, and I wrapped my arms around myself in a pathetic attempt to save some body heat. Opting for a smooth landing in the snow, I relaxed my wings. The next thing I knew, I was face-first in the ice, my wings giving out. Having snow up your nose is never a nice sensation.
“Snow, 1, Castella, 0,” I mumbled to myself, picking myself up. Shaking the last few stubborn snowflakes from my nose, I glanced around. I was alone. Gently flying a few inches off the ground, staying low so Jessica wouldn’t spot me, I made towards the mountains.
So this is it? A voice inside my head argued. What makes you think Jessica will be proud of you? More likely, she’ll ground you till you’re eighteen when you get back!
“Or maybe she’ll finally appreciate me,” I said aloud. My wings were already numb, and I was beginning to regret coming out like this.
You haven’t even brought out a winter coat, or a scarf, or anything. It’s cold out here, if you hadn’t noticed – mid-winter on Terror Mountain! Go back, you idiot.
Pushing away the voice to a dark corner of my brain, I wandered on, past Taelia’s warm-looking cottage, past the Shop of Mystery (I tried to ignore the fact that Psyria was probably inside this very instant, shoving random items into the cloth bags and pushing them out to sell), past the Super Happy Icy Fun Snow Shop (who had made that name up, anyway?), and suddenly I found myself staring at grey stone. Looking up, I realized that I had already come to the Terror Mountains, my destination. The wind was colder than ever.
So, what am I doing here again?
The nagging little voice had come back. This time I just ignored it, staring up. The peaks seemed high, too high, and I craned my neck to look at my wings, which were fluttering lazily. I wondered if they’d be enough for a climb like this.
No, they’re not. The voice was getting irritating. Do you wonder why they’re called the Terror Mountains? Well, quit wondering and go home. You’d freeze in a minute and a half. Is this what you want to flaunt in Jessica’s face?
“Shut up,” I said aloud. I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. This was no time for doubts. I cast another glance up at the heavens. The mountains looked as terrifying as ever. Am I really going to do this?
My question was answered a split second later as I bent my knees slightly, lightly springing up from the ground. My nose half an inch from the rock, I slowly propelled myself up with my wings.
Who am I kidding? I have to stop now. It’s way too cold. I’ll come back in the summer or something. Yeah, right. Every few meters, the temperature dropped another notch, and my teeth were chattering in seconds. My wings, ignoring the tiny voice in my head that suddenly seemed very sensible, had a mind of their own as they lifted me higher and higher. Suddenly I couldn’t see anything other than the thick snow in the air. Forcing myself to go on, I lost myself in the familiar weightless sensation, when all of a sudden the mist disappeared and I was face-to-face with a rather large Snow Chumbalah perilously balanced on the tip of a single stalagmite, inside one of the mountain’s countless caverns.
After I had stopped making a fool of myself (and scared the Petpet away), I suddenly realized what an idiot I had been. The fantasy of being the youngest Neopet to make it to the top of Terror Mountain seemed absurd now, in the bone-biting chill of the winter wind. What was I thinking? I must be crazy! All my enthusiasm and determination drained away, I landed gracelessly on the cavern floor, which was smooth and slippery and looked like a mirror. It’s ice, you dolt. See how cold it is? A Faerie Xweetok like you could never survive.
I froze. What was that? Was someone in the cavern with me? Impossible. Nobody in their right mind would be living in the Terror Mountains. I was still thinking when it happened again. Something shattered into a thousand little pieces in the distance. Jerking around, I called tentatively:
“Is anyone here?”
I took a few uncertain steps forward, when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my paw. Yelping, I jumped back and raised my paw to my face. Something dripped from it and landed on the floor with a squelch. I half-expected blood, but it was just water. Water? Frowning, I studied my paw. There was a cut – two, actually: two red slashes crisscrossing each other, forming an x. It looked nasty, even though it didn’t hurt a bit. What was more, it appeared to be wet...
Scrutinizing the ground and ignoring my clouded reflection in the ice, I saw it. There on the floor, not even melting, were the broken remains of an icicle. Instinctively, I glanced up, and saw thousands of rows of gleaming icicles, as though threatening to fall. Gulp.
My eyes traveled back to my paw. The cut didn’t seem to be fading, but at least it wasn’t very serious. Setting it down again, I suddenly noticed a shadow in the distance of the cavern, approaching me slowly. Yikes. I blinked. It was a faerie! What was a faerie doing in the middle of the mountains? I blinked again, and studied her.
The faerie’s skin was white as snow, and an ice crystal sat in her long, straight, coal-black hair. Her long, blue dress fluttered in the cold breeze, which didn’t seem to affect her at all. Bits of white fur lined the hems, and blue elbow gloves covered her arms. Her boots were as black as her hair, and her wings were small, white, and feathery. A blue choker with a stunning sapphire jewel was wrapped around her neck, and dewdrops clung to her long, black eyelashes. The murderous glare in her icy blue eyes told me she wasn’t here to throw a Christmas party.
“Who are you?” My voice sounded high-pitched and fearful in the silence of the cavern.
The faerie didn’t say a single word. Instead, she continued to walk towards me, taking small, deliberate steps. Her eyes were even colder than the wind howling at my wings, if that was possible, and something in her self-righteous, dangerous manner reminded me of Claire.
“So.” Her voice was hardly more than a whisper, yet it seemed to freeze every single icicle in the cavern even more. “A thousand years of solitude, and my sole visitor is an idiotic, inexperienced Neopet? I must say I’ve overestimated the faerie queen Fyora.”
Huh? I stared at her. Idiotic? Inexperienced? Just who did this faerie think she was? And what was that bit about “a thousand years of solitude?”
“Oh, and she’s mute, too.” Her voice was mocking, and she drew ever closer. A cruel smile curved her thin lips, but her eyes weren’t laughing one bit.
“I’m not mute!” I snapped.
“I’m surprised.” The faerie shook her head and started laughing, her voice cold and calculating. “I’d expected Fyora herself to come and teach me a lesson, or maybe that dolt Taelia. As it is, I doubt they’d expected a Xweetok wandering into my home. A pity, really. I could do with some... entertainment.”
I didn’t like the tone of her voice. Backing away, I stammered, “Who are you?”
The faerie stopped in her tracks, her face perfectly composed. Her eyes never left mine as she said simply, “I am Snowsting.”
To be continued...