”Quicklies. Comes followses us to the Podium, goes through here”, it snarked and continued hopping onwards with enormous strides for such a small and brittle being.

”Are you sure we can trust this… thing? Wasn’t he a part of The Hopefuls once?”

Imlach had voiced what all the others had been thinking for a good while now. Their guide leading them through the vast pipe mazes of Mont Tremblant was no other than The Dudemont, the former High Count of Air and Illionaire of the Slums. He was one of the few that had been chosen to represent a powerful nation long gone, now swallowed in devastating ruin. Unfortunately, he had not been true to himself when competing, trying to gain notoriety amongst the young thugs while appealing to the causes of The Panel at the same time. After The Last Games, something in his mind had gone awry. Torn by the guilt of wanting to achieve what many could not and helping to destroy what he loved, he was mentally conflicted and ripped into two personas – constantly struggling within his psyche. His desire to stay underground and innovative was only trumped by his deep urge to once again lay his eyes on that which he most coveted, that which he had almost gained – a Gold Medal. His… Precious.

It had been a stroke of luck for the Ambassadors. After the Head Judge had slaughtered more than fifty of their finest warriors, Casabon had decided two split the main group into two – one led by Downey and the the other by Little John, who were some of his most trusted allies in this raging war. They would serve as diversions while he himself would try to attack where The Panel would least expect it, the main entrance of The Stadium. Ignoring the advice and pleas of his generals, he was ready to sacrifice himself in order to break the walls and create an opening for the rest to fall through and extinguish the Eternal Flame, already flickering in the darkness due to the rising winds of change.

The plan was about to be put into motion, when Dunny, tall as he was, spotted movement at edge of their encampment, near the abandoned gondolas of the Glacier Crevasse. The oddish creature realized its detection and attempted to flee in a hurry. Scamping across with gigantic hops and strides, the hyphys could not catch it, stumbling down in their knee-length tees. The lankies could match it’s steps, but were too slow to match its incredible speed. The gypsies simply did not care. It wasn’t until the new recruit, once one of the Hopefuls himself, threw flavored water in the creature’s eyes, causing temporary blindness and agony. As the recruit tied up The Dudemont for questioning, he whispered softly in its ear:

”The thrill I get from this… I wouldn't wanna change it for anything else.”

Back in The Smokeshack, the generals gazed upon their former peer in great disgust. A once great skier of smaller stature had now diminished into a tiny, disheveled lump of flesh and bones. Gone were the athletic posture and the smile of a victor, and gone with them was his sanity. He stood up on the table after being freed from his shackles.

“So, you wishes to take on The Panel, does you? From front? Hurry on to deaths then! Silly two-plankerses. ”

Before Heath had time to criticize him, B-Dog chimed in.

“I’m listening.”

Dumont suddenly seemed different, his posture straightened and a bit of color returned to his face.

“Well, well, the creative one speaks. Tell us, would it not be for naught to lose yourself in the midst of a battalion Head Judges? What if I told you there’s a backdoor, so to speak, that leads you straight to the Flame itself, from beneath The N-Ward… what would you say to that?”

“He’s lying! There is no other passage!”, a broken shadow shouted from the corner. It was Steele, a spy of the AFP, who had been caught trying to brainwash new recruits into joining The Trodden under the guise of large, deceiving clothing.

“Can’t you see he’s just a lunatic, an old has-been out of his mind? All that amplitude over the years, his brain simply didn’t receive enough air, look at the state of what he has become!”

Vanular scowled, slid over to him and blew mysterious smoke in his face until he passed out.

“I believe him”, Casabon declared. “The N-Ward… It’s the only safe haven out there, hidden away under the Slopes of the training facility. It is the backbone of our revolution, sitting in the midst of the den of evil… He wouldn’t know it’s there unless he actually found a way in and out without getting noticed by the Judges. Their numbers are not large, but they are waiting for us, hopefully, lead by none other than..”

Dumont sneered. “Harlaut? He sends his regards… B.”

The generals stood up in amazement. “So he is alive?”

Casabon stood silently in the shack, with a deep fire burning in his eyes, glaring at Dumont:

“Come dawn, we ride.”

The alcove encampment was silent in the night, lit ever so slightly by the burning gaze of the flame. In the Testing Area, the Groms had huddled around the spoony bard McFee, waiting for their nightly stories of days long gone, creating an invisible aura of hope for the future above them. One of them exclaimed while tightening her bindings:

“Come now, Sir Jon! Tell us about the Golden Age! Tell us about the Happy Dayz!”

McMurray cleared his throat, backflipped in place, grabbed his lute and sprang into song:

“The prophecy was known and very bluntly foretold,

that the salad days of wonder were propaganda of old.

Through the front lines they spawned, further on, never gone,

the royalty hit strike three and stereotype lived no long.

Moving forward, ever focused, the scanners kept pushing on,

a war wishing for white shine as the words of this song,

high fives weren’t as wicked as they were exact science,

they were the happy dayz of immersion, standing in defiance.

Easleys and Rappses and tentative relapses,

true skiers of yonder were saints, saviours of our passes.”

When he was done, he looked upon the little ones. Most of them had fallen asleep with wide smiles, cradling their skis with tender care and dreaming of skiing freely to their hearts’ content. He softly patted few of them on their heads and tucked them into their hoodies while stepping outside for a moment. In one hand, a lute – a sharpened Hellbent in the other. The sun was about to rise as he realized it could well be the last he ever saw.

Casabon struggled to keep up with The Dudemont’s swift movements, the remaining generals trailing far behind him. He had decided to modify the plan – one group would attack the Front Entrance head on, while the other would wait for an opportune moment to flank the enemy forces. He, along with his most trusted, would sneak into the Podium area through Dumont’s secret passage. However, he did not know that the Judges had caught wind of the attack before Spence’s capture and prepared a massive army of oblivious Gapers to counter their offensive.

The groups lead by LJ and Dunny were skiing straight into a trap. When they reached the apex of the slope from the glacier’s side and began skiing down towards the entrance, it was already too late. Gigantic hordes of Gapers stood ahead, blocking the entrance and gaping furiously at the stylish skiers sliding down towards them. No matter what tricks they did on the way down, the Gapers were not impressed. They were ordinary creatures of the Forgotten Days, unable to understand the fine minutia of stylish tricks over showboating. The first waves of thugs and guerillas slammed against the walls of Gapers, their torsos exploding violently into bloodied glimps. The Gapers opened their mouths and with bright flashes of green light, they started booing, creating deadly sound waves that tore open even the most confident skiers’ hearts. Even the flanking group had to run to the other’s assistance, but their efforts did nothing to help. Hundreds after hundreds slid to their deaths, while LJ and Dunny approached the entrance with lightning speed gained from the tow rope and saw the sudden face of their inevitable doom.

LJ sighed. “…so this is how it ends.”

The ambassadors caught up to the creature on the edge of a double stager. What dawned on them was that the secret way was indeed real. Before them stood a large, rippling cavern, filled from top to bottom with interconnected halfpipes and quarterpipes. It was the legendary Halfpipe Maze of Lore. It giggled furiously, begging them to follow.

”Quicklies. Comes followses us to the Podium, goes through here.”

”Are you sure we can trust this… thing? Wasn’t he a part of The Hopefuls once?” Imlach stated.

B-Dog didn’t answer. He knew it was the only way to reach the Flame, and to liberate his friend. They had aired out from one pipe to the other, passing by quaterpipe-ridden dead ends with the guidance of Dumont. Now, it had stopped and showed the ambassadors the way through and they went ahead into the superpipe ahead, leaving Dumont to his own presence.

“Yes, silly two-plankerses… trying to take my Precious, are yous? Unwise, unwise”, he said to himself.

“No, stop! They’re going to extinguish the Flame, they’re going to make everything better again!”

“Shut ups! …they want to take the Precious, hang it on their neckses and smile, smile like the Precious loves them so.”

“That’s not true, we won’t hurt them, they’re our only hope in this world.”

“SHUT UP! We will, yess, oh, know we knows… but they will not get it. They cannots get the Precious, only us, we will get… the Gold.”

It bounced up on its somber legs, smiling deviously, its mind poisoned by the thought of the Eternal Flame, and returned back to the trail of Casabon in the cold recesses of the long-forgotten maze.