Chapter 2: False Fractals - Round 2
What had once been a pristine expanse of snow had turned into a subterranean sinkhole. In the center was a large, circular slab of terraced earth, criss-crossed with a maze of ice. This floating arena sat in the middle of a basin of water, fed by the melting snow that trickled down from the edges of the newly-formed crater.
“There are ten terraced steps. The water level is rising. Every minute longer you spend down there will lose you one step. Best you get moving, unless you want to go for an arctic swim.”
Much as Paiko didn’t want to fight against his deer friend, his intense aversion to water (especially cold water) gave him no choice but to complete the task.
The drakon addressed his three plushies. “I can only carry two of you. Someone has to be brave.” Only a moment’s pause before he said, “Thank you for volunteering, Broccoli Bob. Please do not take this personally.”
Paiko took a deep breath, then chucked the fabric vegetable over the outer walls of the ice maze. Then he picked up the other two, tucking one under each arm, marching onwards to the threshold.
Almost immediately, he slipped on a patch of frozen ground and went careening into one of the walls. He resumed his movements carefully, keeping one hand along the wall, his tail swishing back and forth for balance.
A flash of dark blue in front of him snagged his attention, and he sprang towards the color, planning to tackle the deer.
WHAM! He collided head first with a barrier of ice. Stunned and dizzy, he didn’t realize what had exactly happened or why Bucky wasn’t in front of him. Until Bucky was right behind him.
“H-hands up!” the deer commanded with a slight nervousness in his voice. He held a plastic water gun, its nozzle trained on Paiko. “Drop your goods!”
The drakon reacted without thinking and dropped his plushies.
Bucky fired a stream of water at the stuffed butterfly, freezing upon contact and covering it in ice crystals.
“No!” Snapped out of his daze by his first casualty, Paiko scrambled to his feet and snatched his remaining plushy out of the way. Thus, Bucky’s next attack only managed to catch Paiko’s tail as the drakon slid into the next icy corridor.
Bucky’s unicorn sat on the ground, just beyond where Paiko slid. He dug his claws into the ground, connecting with the rock-components of the island and piling up more mass to one side.
As the island tilted, the unicorn slid towards the water line. Paiko cringed, hoping the unicorn was waterproof, to some degree. Once it disappeared into the water, he reset the distribution of earth. The playing field became level once more, though with two more steps submerged.
Bucky stumbled around the corner, clutching his water gun and the other two plushies. His ears drooped when he noticed the unicorn was gone.
“I respect you and your plushies, Sir Bucky Deer,” Paiko said, wrapping his turtle plush in his cloak and slinging it securely over his shoulder. “But I do not like swimming, and I do not like the cold.”
“Heh. . . same here.” Bucky aimed the water gun carefully, watching warily as Paiko circled around him.
Suddenly, Paiko turned around and slipped down another passageway. He heard Bucky’s hoofsteps clattering in pursuit, felt the chill of icy water spray his back.
SMACK. An invisible dead end. He felt around for an opening, found none, and decided to scale the wall instead.
Right as he reached the top, a snowball hit the back of his head, dumping snow down his shirt. He squealed and squirmed from the shocking chill, inadvertently loosening the cloak-sling and dropping his plush down to Bucky’s waiting arms. Bucky finished the job neatly and cleanly, icing the turtle over at point-blank.
Paiko had no time to mourn; when he landed on the other side of the ice wall, only one step remained before water flooded this part of the maze.
As the deer turned around to find a path, Paiko noticed the gryphon was dangling precariously from Bucky’s pocket. He dropped to his hands and knees, creating a snag of stone that fastened around the stuffed creature and pulled it away. By the time Bucky noticed, the rocks had already swallowed up the gryphon.
He mouthed a ‘Sorry’ to Bucky, then vanished around the corner. The sound of splish-splash made him look down, finding himself standing on the partially submerged step. Running out of time. Where to turn, now?
There were two things he had to do. Find Broccoli Bob before Bucky did, and get Bucky’s final plush before the whole island went under.
“Ow—!” Paiko crashed into another wall. Blasted invisible barriers and their weird refract-y reflections! Making things look like they were there when they weren’t, or closer when they were farther, or. . .
Or maybe he could use that to his advantage. After all, ice and crystal had quite a bit in common. . .
Bucky only had the little green dragon left. He determined not to part with it, tucked it into the front of his coat, and buttoned it up securely. An entire minute had passed since he last saw Paiko, and there were only two steps left on the whole island.
He managed to reach the center of the maze, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw the last plushy laying face up near an ice slab. A vibrantly green smiling vegetable, discarded, unguarded.
Right as he reached the broccoli, he hesitated. Something didn’t look right. When he stood right here, just at this spot, the broccoli appeared to distort slightly—
Snow exploded in his face.
“Brrr-! Ack, what?” The deer wiped his face and glasses, momentarily blinded by snowflakes in his eyes. He felt the dragon plush slip out from his coat and glanced down to see the glint of an amber eye before the drakon slunk away with his catch.
Paiko couldn’t go far; the water was right up at the last level now. He looked back, and Bucky was scrambling after him. No time for complicated maneuvers.
His fingers scrabbled for minerals, gathering up enough material in his hand to form a small blade. Hopefully the angle was right.
Bucky saw Paiko raise something sharp and shining. The drakon looked back for an instant, eyes flashing, before he drove the blade downwards, severing the dragon’s head. Bucky sank to his knees, feeling a stab of sorrow for his final plush.
Behind him, Broccoli Bob sat safely in an alcove of mirrored ice and crystal, barely a foot away from Bucky’s initial aim.
“Paliskobengar has one plush left. Round finished. Congratulations.”
The ground rumbled, water began to recede, and they were on their way back up to surface level.
Paiko collapsed in relief. Phew. No swimming today. He cast a look at the despondent deer. “Hey.”
Bucky lifted his head slightly.
With the mischievous smile of someone with a secret, Paiko lifted the crystal blade. The neck of the dragon was whole, attached, unseparated. He handed the dragon back to Bucky and put a finger to his lips. “Let’s rescue the others.”
------- Everything beyond this line is not part of the judging submission. But I like closure and fun happy endings, so this is here. --------------------
On the observation ledge, Oromykah threw himself into the chair, exhausted with all the environmental set-changes. He rolled his shoulders, sore from holding up his arms so long. “So glad we put a time-limit on that one. Any longer and I think I would’ve completely drained my energy.”
Li’Zunn had his eyes on the restored snowscape, making sure he had refrozen all the water into ice and slush. “Mm, yes. The noble deer had a reluctance to destroy the stuffed plushies. I could sense it at the beginning.”
“I don’t know what I expected from that battle,” Oromykah remarked. “Paliskobengar seemed unwilling to actually tear the plushies apart. I wonder what happened with that last one?”
The water master dragon stroked his whiskers. “Desperation, I would guess. Bucky came quite close to getting that last plush.”
“Could be.” The klyptai scholar didn’t seem satisfied with that explanation. “He’s usually so bothered by destroying things, though. Hopefully this round isn’t desensitizing him to violence. . .”
Li’Zunn chuckled. “Well, they seem to be having a good time out there.” He pointed at the two figures in the snow.
The drakon was diving in and out of the snowdrifts. At one point, he resurfaced holding a stuffed gryphon triumphantly over his head. He handed it to the deer, who had a collection of four - no, five plushies now in his arms.
A few moments later, Paiko fished up the last one, a dripping wet unicorn. He shook it up and down, trying to dry it. Bucky shielded his face from flying droplets, good-naturedly chiding Paiko for getting everyone wet again.
“Huh. Where did all those come from?” Oromykah sat up and squinted in the direction Li’Zunn pointed. “And they’re all whole. Didn’t the objective say to destroy them?”
“Being frozen or wet is nothing a blow-dryer can’t fix,” Li’Zunn said.
“But Paiko decapitated the dragon. Didn’t he?”
“I. . . well, yes, it sure looked like he did.”
Oromykah and Li’Zunn stared at the two contestants. Then they stared at each other. The water master was the first to laugh, and the klyptai scholar followed suit.
“Hah! It takes much self-control not to destroy in the midst of danger.” Li’Zunn clapped his hands in amusement. “Much self-control and an incredibly strong desire to preserve the plushies.”
“They tricked us! Oh, they tricked us; they found that loophole and we didn’t stop them.” Oromykah collapsed back into his chair, one arm covering his face, little chuckles still escaping his throat. “We’re in trouble now.”
Li’Zunn smiled, glancing sideways at Oromykah. “I won’t tell the Collective if you don’t.”
Oromykah met his gaze with an approving glint in his eye. “Good deal. Good deal. Let’s wrap up and get them out of here. What I’d give for a hot chowder right now. . .”