Floala stood in the arena, illuminated by a single spotlight. The air about her crackled with anticipation, filled with the low hum of expectant audience chatter.
The glibby took a breath, numb to everything around her. Normally, she would have been absolutely terrified by this point. She would have been fearful for the challenges ahead and desperate to get away from the audience’s judging gaze. But she wasn’t now. She couldn’t even begin to muster those feelings. Her overwhelming misery drowned everything else out.
Despite the pain in her chest, she forced herself to take stock of her surroundings. The circular arena stretched out in front of her, a yellow-tinted force field marking its edges and protecting the audience from harm. There were strange rock-like objects of various shapes and sizes scattered around her, seemingly only there to confuse her with their apparent uselessness. A holographic line split the arena down the middle, marking the goal they had to cross.
Floala wrinkled her nose. Covering such a long distance to the finish line, especially with nowhere to hide, wasn’t going to be easy. But, somehow, she was going to have to manage it.
Filled with a grim sense of duty, Floala looked up at her competitor. Even from this distance, she could see determination in his eyes and anxiety in his pose.
Floala sighed as sadness swept over her. Caster was now yet another one of the things she got to feel guilty about. Not just because she’d already failed at Tazan’s instruction to ‘be as nice as she could to everyone’ but because she felt awful about it. She hadn’t known it before but she and Caster were both in the same position and she couldn’t bear to dwell on what that meant.
The glibby closed her eyes. Whatever she felt, there was little she could do about everything now. If she was to function, she needed to wipe any feelings she might have about the zinotex away and focus on the task at hand.
Floala’s brow furrowed.
She didn’t care what Tazan had said. Perhaps she could convince the sponsors to love her but, given her track record, she wasn’t going to take that chance. She had to win no matter what. It was the best chance she had of saving her dad.
‘Competitors, ready?’ Slica shouted across the arena.
Jolted out of her thoughts, Floala looked up to see Slica looking at her expectantly. Taking a deep breath, she nodded and watched the zinotex do the same. The audience cheered rapturously.
Floala saw Caster brace himself and she found herself doing the same.
Janie flicked the switch.
Floala was startled to find her feet beginning to float entirely of their own accord as weightlessness took hold.
Floala squeaked with panic as a fan beneath her used a blast of air to send her flying upwards. Terrified, she scrabbled with her legs. Unfortunately, she only succeeded in making herself spin uselessly in the air, causing her to squeak wildly. Desperate to stop herself, she threw her tailpaws out in an effort to grab onto something.
To her relief, she felt her claws connect with one of the rock-like objects that were floating about her. Grabbing it wildly, she pulled herself towards and wrapped her tail around it, clinging on for dear life.
Relieved to have something to hold on to, Floala forced herself to stop trembling and to appraise her situation. With a flick of a switch, the arena had been transformed. The strange rocks from earlier now hung in mid air, acting both as obstacles and aids. In a flash, she realised that they were actually made of plastic and crafted to look like asteroids and planets, giving the challenge a space theme.
Peering past the asteroids, Floala spotted Caster off in the distance. He was spinning wildly, his limbs scrabbling in the air. He collided with the domed glass ceiling with a dull thud, eliciting a cry of sympathy from the audience.
Floala’s body flooded with relief. Clearly Caster was struggling as much as she was.
However, Floala’s reassurance was short lived. As if hearing her thoughts, the zinotex pushed off of the glass surface, propelling himself forward in a controlled manner. Seconds later, he collided with a meteorite, which he grabbed onto briefly before launching himself again.
Eyes wide open, Floala watched him move forward, his confidence growing with every leap. It was only when she realised that he had crossed the central line that she came to her senses.
What are you doing?! You’re trying to win!
Scolding herself, she looked off at her flag in the distance.
I need to get going.
Swallowing her feeling of trepidation, Floala forced herself to unwrap her tail from the asteroid. Then, she emulated the zinotex’s tactics. Ignoring the complaints from her aching foot, she carefully positioned herself and pushed off the asteroid forcefully with her feet. To her abject horror, the movement worked even better than expected and she quickly found herself flying through the air at great speed. Terrified, she let out a shrill squeak and scrabbled around in the air as she flew head first into a ‘planet’ three times her size.
The audience laughed and let out an amused cheer.
Dazed and confused, Floala found herself spinning at a sickening speed in the air again. Grabbing another asteroid to right herself, she shook her head, sincerely grateful that she was wearing a hemet. Clearly she didn’t know her own strength.
Knowing she didn’t have time to waste, Floala looked about herself. To her delight, it seemed she’d managed to zoom a long distance and was now very close to centre line.
Emboldened, Floala propelled herself forward again, albeit a little more gently. In the blink of an eye, she’d reached the asteroid she’d aimed for and landed successfully.
Suddenly, a loud horn sound rang out across the arena.
‘Caster has captured his flag.’
Floala blinked. Whipping around, she saw that the announcement was right. As she watched, Caster placed the object into the mouth on the back of his neck.
Floala felt a jolt of panic. She couldn’t let him cross the line. If he did, it would be game over.
Driven by fear-fueled adrenaline, Floala ignored the pain in her legs and set off backwards towards him. Kicking off harder than before with her back legs, Floala stopped and started from prop to prop as quickly as she could.
She realised too late that she was going much too fast to make a safe landing. However, as Caster closed the gap between himself and the finish line, she couldn’t have cared less.
Just as the zinotex reached his arm to cross the finish line, she slammed into him at full force. Caster yelped in pain as the force sent them away from the centre of the arena.
Stunned by the collision, it took Floala a moment to orientate herself. However, when she regained her senses, she was delighted to realise that Caster looking about himself with panic. It was only then that she spotted his flag floating back towards where it had come from.
He lost it! Floala thought, victorious.
Realising that this was the opening she needed, she decided to make a break for her own flag.
Paying no mind to her opponent, she used her tail to pull herself towards and swing around the asteroids.
By the time she reached the Xantan flag, her lungs were burning. Resolute, she plucked the 6-inch flag from its holder and the robotic announcer rang out again
‘Floala has captured her flag.’
Floala’s nose crinkled with pleasure.
That was easier than expected.
Enjoying the warm glow in her chest, she turned around to move towards the finish line and…
...came face to face with Caster.
She felt her heart jolt. His eyes had a cold look to them and two of them shone a dark blood red.
‘No!’ she heard him say resolutely, ‘I’m sorry but I have to win! I have to protect them.’
And with that, he swung for her flag. Startled, Floala moved her tail away. Brow furrowing, Caster moved towards her in an effort to grab her torso. Terrified, Floala kicked out with her feet. To her surprise, her feet connected with Caster’s head, sending her flying backwards, away from him.
Feeling a small surge of smugness, she turned around in mid air so she could grab hold of the nearest asteroid. Fixing her eyes firmly on the goal, she bounced off of it with all her might.
However, rather than flying forward, she was surprised to find herself coming to a complete halt. She let out a cry as pain shot up her tail. She whipped around to see that Caster had caught hold of one of her tail strands.
Glaring at her coldly, he plucked the flag from her tailpaw and threw it as hard as he could away from her. Floala let out a whimper of frustration but it was cut short as Caster threw her in the opposite direction by her tail.
Moments later, Floala thudded into the floor below. Reeling from the yank on her tail, she gasped for breath. However, she didn’t allow herself more than a second to regroup. Wiping the tears from her eyes aggressively, Floala propelled herself into the playing field again.
Where is my flag?
Frantic, she scanned the arena as quickly as she could. However, with the asteroids blocking her view, she couldn’t see it anywhere. She felt her heart lurch.
‘I can win this!’
Caster’s sudden shout immediately captured her attention. She spotted the zinotex up near the ceiling on the far side of the arena, clearly searching for his flag.
Floala blinked and tilted her head with confusion.
Despite there being no apparent reason for it, Caster appeared to be struggling. His movements were now uncoordinated and clumsy. Consequently, he was bumping through the asteroids in stops and starts, going backwards almost as much as forwards. It was as if he was so frantic, he’d forgotten to move effectively through the field.
As she watched, he shook his head as if to clear it, ‘I’m not a failure! I can do this.’
Is he mad? Floala thought briefly.
However, her thoughts were cut short when she saw him grab his flag and begin moving once again towards the finish line. Alarmed, she set off to stop him, crossing back over the central line.
She made quick work through the asteroids, floating a little way below him so he wouldn’t easily see her.
Lost in a world of his own, he didn’t notice her, even when she carefully positioned herself beneath him. Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself up against a large planet with her tailpaw and catapulted herself at him.
They collided, Caster shrieking in surprise. Taking advantage of Caster’s evident confusion, she quickly wrapped her two tail strands around his waist so he couldn’t get away.
‘Get off me!’ Caster groaned, thrashing around wildly.
Floala clumsily tried to prise Caster’s flag out of his paw with the other. Unfortunately this proved entirely fruitless.
How am I meant to do this? Floala thought frustratedly. He’s twice my size and has more paws than me!
Caster snarled, glaring at her with his three red eyes. Reaching out with his left paw, he grabbed her tailpaw and wrestled it off.
‘Let me win!’ he snarled, his voice guttural, almost feral, ‘I really don’t want to hurt you!’
He shoved forcefully away from him.
‘I have to win!’ he shouted as she flew through the air.
Floala felt a surge of annoyance as she crashed into yet another asteroid. Even with her shoulder protection, her back was beginning to get very sore.
However, her irritation quickly changed to fear when she realised that Caster was still heading towards the finish line.
Her eyes widened. I have to stop him.
Her breath ragged, Floala set off in pursuit. Forcing her stiff and tired limbs to cooperate, she made quick gains on the increasingly clumsy zinotex.
Maneuvering herself above him, she dive-bombed into him without a second thought. As they bounced off the arena floor, they both let out a cry from pain. Ignoring how much it hurt, Floala wrapped her tail strands around his arms and midriff. Caster roared, squirming violently but uselessly in response.
With her opponent secure, Floala tried again to wrestle his flag out of his paw. However, no matter what she did, his grip remained tight.
This is useless!
At a loss for what to do, Floala paused briefly to figure out what to do next. It was only then that she realised that they were both floating at great speed towards the centre line.
Floala felt bile rise in her stomach as she was consumed by terror. If she didn’t redirect their movement or get rid of Caster’s flag, he would win.
NO! NO! THIS CAN’T HAPPEN!
Frantic, Floala tried kicking the zinotex in the stomach. However, while Caster groaned with pain, his grip on his flag didn’t weaken.
She felt faint with desperation as they neared the centre line.
I have to do something!
Running on pure instinct, she sank her teeth into the zinotex’s left outer arm.
The zinotex let out a blood curdling scream as the the salty tang of blood filled her mouth. To her shock, her teeth had cut through his flesh with ease and they were now resting against bone.
The audience let out a shocked gasp.
Screaming wildly, Caster let go of his flag and punched and kicked at her frantically.
Astonished by what she had done, Floala let go of him. The zinotex grabbed his wounded arm, howling with pain.
Floala watched him, stunned. Did I really just do that?
She swallowed laboriously, feeling utterly disgusted with herself. For a moment, she wanted nothing more than to reach out and help him.
But then she remembered where she was and what was at stake.
Forcing her emotions away, Floala carefully made her way around the weeping zinotex and took up his flag. Ignoring the ache in her tail, she then threw it as far away from the midline as she could.
She turned around to assess the zinotex’s reaction. To her surprise, he didn’t seem to have noticed, consumed as he was by pain.
She swallowed and did her best to push away her feelings of shame.
Spinning around, she set her mind on finding her flag. To her surprised delight, she spotted it within a few seconds, floating off near the ceiling.
Her ears full of the pained whimpers of her opponent, Floala made a mad dash towards it. Taking it up again, she let out a sigh of relief.
However, her feeling of triumph was short lived as she turned around and realised Caster wasn’t where she’d left him.
Floala felt a jolt of fear. Looking around the arena wildly, she did her best to locate him.
Where is he? I can’t see him.
Floala felt a wave of distress and exhaustion. She knew this game well enough by now to know that he was doing one of two things. Either he’d gone after his flag or he was pursuing her again. And, given that she could see his flag alone in the distance, she guessed it was the latter.
The glibby felt a surge of misery. If he did attack her again, she knew she wouldn’t be able to do much to fight him now. Her tail hurt, her legs ached and she had already learnt she was no match for him. And, with one of her tailpaws full of flag, she would have less ability to attack or maneuver herself away from him.
If only I had another way to hold my flag and keep my paws free.
Then, Floala was struck with an idea.
Caster stored his flag in his mouth, right?
Without further ado, Floala placed her flag underneath her tongue. Keeping a wary eye out for Caster, she continued on her way, using her now free tailpaws as a grappling hook. After a few moments of blissfully unhindered movement, she was astonished when she found herself within reach of victory.
I’m almost there.
Suddenly, an orange flash shot towards her. Before she had a moment to react, Caster had crashed into her, crushing all the oxygen from her lungs. His injured and bloodied arm hung lifelessly at his side. However, seemingly unaffected by his pain, he used his good hands to grab hold of her tail and her shoulders in a vice like grip, preventing her from moving. She kicked her legs uselessly in an effort to get free.
‘You!’ he snarled, his voice dripping with hate, ‘You bit me!’
Floala was struck dumb by a feeling of raw terror. All of Caster’s eyes were now a dark scarlet colour and his face had a manic look to it that made her fear for her life.
‘I told you!’ He said, ‘No matter what, I have to protect my family! I have to prove him wrong!’
He pulled her tailpaws towards him forcefully, making her wince. He immediately let out a grunt of surprise.
‘Where’s your flag?’ he growled.
Terrified by the zinotex’s furious expression, Floala stared at him mutely.
For a moment, he stared back at her, clearly confused and at a loss for what to do. Then, he shrugged and seemed to come to a decision. Glaring at her, he clenched his claws to form a tight fist, punched her head with all his might.
Floala saw stars. Consumed by overwhelming pain, it took her a long time to realise that the loud shrill ringing in her ears was sound of her own screams.
When the peak of her pain had passed and her vision cleared, Floala battled for breath. Her head was spinning and she could barely see for double vision.
Shaking her head to clear it, she did her best to focus her eyes.
She couldn’t believe it. Flag in hand, he was just metres from the goal.
Floala felt a wave of hopelessness.
He’s going to wi- Wait!
The finish line was just a few metres away from her.
Floala felt a surge of determination. She didn’t know if she could make it in time but she’d have to try.
With the last of her strength, Floala forced her aching limbs into action. Dizzy and nauseous, she could barely see where she was going but she didn’t care. Taking a deep breath, she jumped off clumsily, sending herself spinning wildly towards the goal.
For a few agonising seconds, she flew through the air, everything a blur of colours.
And then she heard it.
Almost instantly, she found herself gently floating towards the ground. The world still spinning about her, she did her best to land on her feet but she immediately found herself keeling over onto the ground.
Caster’s sharp yelp of horror caused her to spin around.
He was staring at her, a look of shock on his face. While his eyes were still red, there was no trace of his animalistic fury now.
‘But she didn’t have her flag!’ Caster shouted, looking up at the judge’s podium and then back to her for an explanation.
Still struggling to see straight, it took Floala a moment to register the zinotex’ words.
Then, trembling with exhaustion she slowly opened her mouth and pulled out the now very slobbery Xantan flag with her tailpaw.
Stunned by her feat, there was a surge of applause from the audience.
Caster stood, open mouthed. Floala watched his confusion solidify into realisation. His body and face crumpled and he fell to the floor.
As if suddenly overcome by his injury, he clutched his bloodied arm to his chest and wept fiercely.
The noise jolted Floala out of her numbness. She felt her breath catch as she watched the distraught zinotex.
That could so easily have been me.
Her gleaks drooped as she was consumed by guilt. This time, there was no debate. She’d definitely ruined his life. And, just to add insult to injury, she’d virtually torn his arm apart as well.
Before she could stop herself, she found herself approaching the broken figure.
‘I…’ she said slowly, beads of tears building at the corner of her eyes, ‘I’m so sorry, Caster.'
The zinotex paused for a moment but didn’t respond. His hysterical sobbing had quietened into a pitiful silent weeping.
‘I had to win… I-I didn’t have a choice,’ Floala found herself babbling, ‘I never wanted to hurt you. I never meant to hurt you. I-’
‘Please…’ Caster sobbed, gasping for breath, ‘Please just leave me alone.’
Floala’s shoulders slumped as two medical aids brushed past her. Consumed by misery, she watched the duo speak to him in soothing tones, gently helping him to his feet. Caster did not look back as they walked away.
Frozen to the spot, it took Floala a moment to realise that she was being offered help herself. Turning to the aid, she shook her head and limped off of the arena floor alone.