A chill hung in the air, as it always did in the northern part of Sugar Rush. Mount Soft-Serve was the coldest place in the game, not to mention home to two of the most treacherous tracks – Adorabeezle Winterpop's, which ran up the summit and behind a massive chocolate syrup waterfall, and Snowanna Rainbeau's, which curved around the base and was lined with huge mounds of flavored ice.
It was Snowanna's track that played home to the placement race tonight, and once again, fifteen racers readied their cars at the starting line, shivering even though their racing jackets were all zipped up to their chins. But Vanellope didn't pay any mind to the cold as she wheeled her kart to the starting line. She wore an expression of utmost buoyancy.
She knew this wasn't an easy track – the pavement was essentially ice, which made it very hard to steer – but she'd run it before without incident. And with her kart in perfect working order after the tap it received from Felix's hammer the night before, she knew she'd have more than a fighting chance.
Taffyta pulled up next to Vanellope, looking disgustingly conceited. "Well, well, well," she drawled. "If it isn't Wee Winnie Wipeout. How'd you like your day off?"
"Couldn't have been better," Vanellope replied coolly. "I had the whole day to decide how I'm going to kick your little strawberry patootie tonight. Without glitching. So I guess I'll see you from the winner's circle in about five minutes!"
And without another word, she strapped her racing goggles on and hopped into the driver's seat.
"We'll see about that," Taffyta muttered under her breath with a grin.
Rancis Fluggerbutter pulled up on Vanellope's right. After a few seconds, Vanellope couldn't help noticing that he was staring at her. He looked like he'd just swallowed his own tongue.
"What do you want, Fluggerbutter?" she asked impatiently.
Rancis' eyes darted back and forth as he rubbed the back of his neck nervously. "Um…" he began, his voice wobbling slightly, "I, uh…I – I just wanted to wish you…uh, good luck, y'know?"
Vanellope rolled her eyes. "As far as trying to psych me out goes, I'll give you a C- for effort. Better luck next time."
"Uh, well, uh, just remember!" he stammered. "Slow and steady wins the race!"
And he slumped low in his seat, as if trying to hide himself. His face turned a deep crimson.
Vanellope snorted with a confused laugh. "Okay, whatever."
Up in the stands, Ralph shivered with a far-too-small coat over his shoulders, rubbing his sides with his huge hands in an effort to keep warm. Felix and Calhoun were cuddled up next to him under a tiny blanket, trying to siphon what little warmth they could from each other's bodies. "Man," Ralph said through chattering teeth, "what I wouldn't give for a change of clothes sometimes…"
The announcer's voice boomed over the loudspeaker. "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!"
The air was rent with the explosive sound of fifteen cars starting up simultaneously. Vanellope stared down the signal light as if daring it to blink. This time, she could feel something – she knew she was going to be unstoppable.
Red, yellow, green. In a flash, the racers were off, many of them already sliding on the frozen track. But Vanellope had an advantage here. Her soft and squishy Gummi Worm tires offered much better traction on the slick, smooth road than most karts did. Indeed, Taffyta's hard candy wheels caused her to spin out and bounce off the guardrail on the very first turn. Laughing triumphantly, Vanellope left her rival in the powder and hit the gas hard, blazing into the lead.
A long icy valley stretched ahead, with massive snowballs rolling back and forth across the track. Swizzle Malarkey clipped one of them and slid across the road, crashing into Minty Zaki. Candlehead swerved from side to side, her ice cream wheels struggling to grip the road. But Vanellope blasted on through at top speed, adroitly avoiding every snowball, including the really big one at the end. She kept her peripheral vision in check – no sign of Taffyta anywhere around her. This was shaping up to be a much better run than last night.
Rapidly approaching a hairpin turn that usually decimated most racers, Vanellope didn't even bat an eye. She gently applied the brake.
The bottom seemed to drop out of Vanellope's stomach. She pounded her boot on the brake pedal, but her car steadfastly refused to slow down. In fact, it seemed to be gaining speed. She was topping 100 miles an hour and on a direct collision course with the guardrail.
With barely any time to react, Vanellope threw her hands up over her face and glitched, not even thinking of a destination. She teleported off the track, to the other side of the guardrail, and her momentum carried her skimming over the snow in a spray of powder. She lowered her arms and screamed.
Her car deposited itself in a hot chocolate spring. For the second time in two nights, Vanellope flew out of the driver's seat, plunging into the chocolate. She splashed to the surface, sputtering and gasping, as her car came to rest half-submerged in the steaming spring. Its back wheels were still spinning.
Holding on to a marshmallow as a floatation device, Vanellope wiped the chocolate off her goggles and saw the rest of her fellow racers go zooming by on the track, most of them bouncing off the guardrail. Taffyta was gaining ground again. They turned the corner around a giant mound of shaved ice and disappeared.
Vanellope punched the surface of the chocolate in disgust. Her face was boiling – and it wasn't just the hot chocolate's fault.
"Man, what happened out there?"
Ralph lifted the car out of the chocolate with one hand, as effortlessly as if it were a toy. It dripped huge brown stains in the snow. Vanellope was draped in Felix and Calhoun's blanket, still sopping wet. She looked furious with herself.
"I don't fudge-flippin' know! I tried to hit the brakes, and I got bupkus! Man, you don't know how badly this cheeses me off…"
Ralph turned the car over in his hands. "Well, hey, this little dangly thing shouldn't be dangling like this, should it?"
Vanellope turned to look. A long black licorice Twizzler hung down from the car's undercarriage, dripping tiny globules of green fruit filling.
"That's my brake line!" Vanellope squeaked incredulously. "It must have come loose!"
Felix yanked his hammer out of his belt. "Not to worry, I can –"
Vanellope held Felix's arm still before he could swing the hammer. She looked more closely at the brake line, turning it over in her fingers. It didn't appear to have just fallen out – the edge looked all worn and battered, as if it had broken.
"That looks like it was rotted out," she muttered. "But that's impossible – Felix, you just fixed my whole car last night, it should have been as good as when Ralph and I first made it. There's no way the brake line could have rotted so quickly!"
"Maybe you went over a bump and knocked it loose?" Felix suggested. "And it dragged on the ground and got all chewed up on that end?"
Vanellope shook her head. "Not on this track, it's all perfectly smooth ice. And I didn't drive over any rough terrain between last night and tonight…"
Calhoun wrinkled her nose. "Either way you slice it, this sure doesn't look like an accident," she mused. "I don't know about you three popsicles, but I smell something foul, and it ain't comin' from this yellow snow."
"I should hope not," Vanellope replied, dropping the brake line. "It's lemon."
"But gee whillikers," Felix said in a hushed tone, "who'd want to knock you out of the race?"
Vanellope crossed her arms. "Gee, who d'ya think? I betcha anything Taffyta's behind this!"
Ralph's brow furrowed deeply. He dropped the car into the snow, his hands balling into fists.
"Why, that little brat!" he growled. "Thinks she can get away with tryin' to crash you into a guardrail? I'm gonna pound that kart of hers into strawberry-scented dust!" And without warning, he whirled around and punched a candy cane tree so hard that it cracked cleanly in two, raining pink and blue shaved ice snow down on all their heads.
"Awesome!" Vanellope shouted, grinning mischievously as she shook the snow out of her hair.
"Whoa, cool your jets there, mountain man," Calhoun snapped. "A soldier who charges into battle without doing the proper reconnaissance first is just asking for a gut full of hot plasma. What evidence do we have that Taffyta's the one who did this?"
Ralph unclenched his fists, looking sheepish. "Well, uh, none, I guess…"
"Well then," Vanellope said, tightening her blanket and crunching through the snow back to the track, "let's all of us go 'n find some, shall we?"