After watching Arc and Dee head toward the border between the Shadowlands and Crystal Cove for a few moments, I turned my sights on the castle beyond the drawbridge gate. The courtyard was larger than I expected, and was surprisingly vacant. I wasn't sure if it was meant to emphasize the size of the castle, or if the park's funding had been cut before the food stands and attractions had been built. Either way, walking across the cobblestone paths and the occasional patch of grass left me feeling very exposed.
With nothing to get in the way, it didn't take long to reach the next drawbridge. Unfortunately, there was no control mechanism that I could find: no buttons, no switches, no panels, not even so much as a lever. The chains of the bridge went into holes in the ground, but the means of controlling them was nowhere to be seen.
There was nothing for it. With a sigh, I turned my sights to the castle. It loomed over me, another stone wall separating it from the outer yard. Before I could walk forward, however, my eyes caught on something else; far in the distance, just barely poking out from behind the castle, I could make out a massive blue-scaled tail.
I sucked in my breath through my teeth. Even though I knew it was fake, I quietly approached the castle wall and followed it around the castle until I saw the rest of the dragon. It was laying on the ground in a pose that suggested sleep, its eyelids still half-open.
My first thought was to sabotage it in some way. Surely, the kidnapper would try to use it again, and preventing the machine from starting would prevent both his egress and any injury. Unfortunately, as I walked around the dormant dragon machine, I realized there wasn't much I could really do; I didn't have any tools, nor would Glint be able to do more than knock away a few scales from the construct.
Still, knowing it was a fake, I couldn't help but marvel at how perfectly the dragon had been built. I had to pull off another scale and snap it just to put my mind at ease from a sudden fear that perhaps this dragon was real. The snap of the scale brought with it a reassuring release from that fear, and even if that hadn't been enough to convince me of the dragons' nature, the leathery skin beneath the dragon's scale was ice-cold to the touch.
Unable to do anything about the dragon without tools or more knowledge of its construction, I turned my attention back to the castle. An elegant set of ivory stairs that led up to a massive pair of wooden doors, one of which was slightly ajar.
My eyes caught on the third step from the bottom, which seemed strangely shiny. A quick swipe of the finger and a sniff confirmed it to be soap. The step had been completely covered in it.
I ascended slowly, but even my perception failed to catch the sticky patch on the railing about halfway up the stairs. I grimaced as a forcibly peeled my hand from the banister with a slight sucking noise. I forewent the rail until one step slid down with a loud click. In an instant, every step tilted to a forty-five degree angle, creating an incline. I slid a few feet before desperation made me grab the railing.
“By the Creator.” I said as the steps righted themselves. “What next?”
By the time I reached the doors that led into the castle, I'd found three more soap steps, six more trick steps, and enough sticky spots on the railing to leave my palms sore and red. Needless to say, I was not in a good mood. I couldn't help but feel a little confused, however; we expected traps, but these traps seemed oddly juvenile. They wouldn't have stopped me; they were just slowing me down. What was the point?
I reached for the door to push it open, but paused with my hand on the handle. Impatience; that was the point. The kidnapper knew I was closing in on him, and was deliberately goading me into acting without thinking. Looking up, I spotted the bottom of the bucket, perched precariously atop the door so that should someone push the door open, the contents would doubtlessly land on said person's head. I kicked the door open, sending the bucket crashing to the floor with what looked to be a bunch of leftovers from someone's meals.
“Juvenile.” Shaking my head, I hopped over the refuge to a clear patch of floor. Too late, I spotted the hinge hidden in the carpet; the trap door swung open the moment my full weight came down on my foot. There were no railings this time; helpless to alter my momentum, I fell through the trap door.
I slid through a dark tube with no lights and no idea where I was going. The tube was too wide to brace myself against, and I was moving too fast to draw Glint. It reminded me of Iniagus's little slide, though that at least had been well lit.
My trip through the tube ended abruptly, leaving me falling in complete darkness. After a few moments of panicked flailing, I hit something that definitely wasn't ground and immediately bounced back into the air. After a few more bounces, I realized that I was on some sort of trampoline. I managed to stop bouncing after a few moments. It was still dark, but my eyesight was quickly adapting … or so I thought. It took me a few moments, but I gradually realized that the lights within the wall-mounted sconces were slowly growing brighter.
The lights revealed that I was indeed on a trampoline that stretched across the room. The walls were stone and mortar, or at least appeared to be so in keeping with the medieval theme of the castle. There was a single stone-lined tunnel leading away from the trampoline room.
After making sure that Glint was secured, and hopped from the trampoline into a stone-lined hallway. Torches burst into life on either side of me the moment my feet touched the ground.
“Son of a-” I put a hand to my chest and shook my head. I reached for Meryli's communicator, only to find it gone; small surprise, considering what I'd been through. I tried my PIM, but received no response there either. I was on my own.
A sudden wiggling in my pocket nearly made me leap out of my hakama. Pulling out the object, I realized it was the One doll.
“Jimmy!” One said, smiling up at me. “Hello again! I see you managed to resolve the pirate thing without me … or did they throw us in the hold?”
“No, Dee's Spook Squad helped us escape. We're beneath the castle in the center of the park.” I glanced around the corridor for a moment. “Somewhere. Are you okay?”
“Me? I'm fine. Great! Why do you ask?”
“You acted like you got yanked away from the doll again.”
Plush One rubbed the back of his head, his blush again manifesting as patches of pink cloth on his tiny cheeks. “Yeah, I did. Luck again. She's been a bit frisky ever since we confirmed her pregnancy.”
“Yup.” He said, his stitched smile wide. “You were right, Jimmy; the fetus was frozen as a zygote as long as we were in the Elsewhere. Captain Morgan had to make a house call, but he confirmed that she's about a month along, which fits the timeframe of our stay in Wukice.”
“Well, congratulations!” I said shaking his hand. “I'm sure you'll make a great father.”
“Thanks. I'll admit, I'm a bit nervous about it, but I'll definitely do my best.” Shaking his head, he said, “Anyway, on to your quest. Where are we again?”
“Not sure.” I told him, “I, uh, fell into a trap.”
One chuckled and patted my shoulder. “Happens to me all the time. Null worries, Jimmy; let's just see where this leads, eh?”
Expecting something to leap out at me any moment, I cautiously proceeded forward. Every few feet, two more torches activated; probably a response from some kind of flux-sensing technology. It was more than a little unnerving, but far from the worst thing that could happen. Besides, with One back, I felt a little more secure.
The tunnel ended just in front of two doors; one was marked with a simplistic happy face and the other with a simplistic frowning face.
One let out a groan. “Smilies.”
“Yeah, emoticons. Text used to simulate images or phrases; it's not strictly a gaming thing, but it saw a lot of gaming usage back in the day. I had a feeling we'd be running into this kind of thing sooner or later. Hopefully this is about where the funding ran out; I don't think I could take a bunch of internet jargon gimmicks.”
I looked at the doors, not sure what to make of it. “So … which door should we choose?”
“The smiling face would make the most sense.” One said, scratching his head. “Which also makes it the most obvious to be trapped.”
As I reached for the sad face, One said, “But he might be expecting us to come to that conclusion. If he knows that we know that the smiley face room would be a trap, then he's probably set a trap in the sad face room.”
I moved toward the other door as my hand brushed against the cold metal, One said, “Of course, if he knows that we know that he knows we know, then-”
“Stop.” I said, rubbing my temples. “Let's just go with the smiley door and hope for the best.”
I opened the door to reveal another room. I could make out the basic shape from the light coming through the door I'd just opened, but not much else.
“Turn on your flashlight.” One said, his button eyes squinting.
“I don't have a flashlight.” I said.
“Of course you do. It's in your PIM. I mean, it should work if you've got a good battery charge.”
My face fell. “You're kidding.”
“Nope. I think the quick-activate default is two quick fist-clenches.”
I clenched my left hand twice, and couldn't help but feel a little silly when a light emanated from a series of LEDs set into the front of the device. “Wow. That would've been useful back in Wukice.”
Shaking my head, I shone the light around the room; it was roughly circular with two doors: the one I'd just opened and another on the far side of the room. Seeing nothing but the smooth walls, I took a tentative step forward.
“I'm not seeing anything.” I said, my light uncovering nothing more than smooth white walls.
One put a hand on the side of my head. “Hang on a sec; shine your light at the floor.”
I did so, revealing a dusty floor and a number of strangely not dusty yellow balls, the nearest not far from where I stood. Seeing something drawn on the ball, I took another step forward for a closer look.
The door slammed shut behind me as neon lighting in the shape of a massive smile hummed to life over our heads and filled the room with light.
“Crap.” One said, glancing behind us. “Bet it's locked.”
I didn't respond; my eyes were still on the nearest of the yellow balls. Someone had drawn a smiley face on it … a smiley face showing a large quantity of clean, white teeth. A glance around the room showed that every ball had a similar expression; the eyes were different, and the shape of the mouth differed, but they were all looking right at me and smiling.
“Uh, hey there.” I said, feeling even more unnerved than when I had seen the metal-jawed clowns.
Every face started hopping. It sounded to me like an army of tennis balls constantly bouncing up and down. It was still unnerving, but not necessarily threatening. Well, not until the nearest smiling ball bounced straight at me, its grinning mouth open.
“By the Creator!” I slashed at it with Glint, but the smiley bit down on my blade and held on with remarkable strength. Horrified, I tried the door behind me, but it was locked tight.
Another smiling face hit me in the shoulder and bit down hard enough to make me let out a cry of surprise. It didn't break the skin; its teeth were too blunt. Still, it squeezed down with more force than was comfortable for me. One ran across my shoulders and punched the smiling ball with enough force to dislodge it from my shoulder. He flashed me a smile that quickly became a look of alarm.
“To the right, Jimmy!”
I didn't hesitate to throw myself to my right, just in time to avoid three more of the smiling balls. Once on my feet again, I shot a Force Edge at the cluster of smileys. The energy wave sent them flying against the chamber walls, but they bounced back as though made of rubber.
After a few wild seconds of dodging the toothy things as they bounced madly around the room, I managed to get to the other door. I rushed through and slammed the door behind me, trying my best to ignore the multiple thumps coming from the other side.
“By the Creator.” One breathed as I rested against the door. “That was … unexpected.”
“Among other things.” I said. A quick glance around the stone-walled room told me I was at least in relative safety.
In the ensuing silence, however, a high-pitched growling sound from the vicinity of my sword caught my attention. The little smiley face was still clenched on Glint, growling like a small dog and looking nowhere near as frightening on its own. With a snort, I backhanded the thing off my blade.
With a loud yip, the smiley face bounced back to the door, which I opened just wide enough for it to slip back through before slamming the door shut again. I glanced at my blade to find it unharmed; apparently, the thing had been holding on by the sheer strength of its jaw.
“Tenacious little bastards.” One said, examining my shoulder. “Glad the teeth weren't sharp. You okay?”
“Yeah, I'm fine.” I said, “It surprised me more than anything.”
I noticed the other door, the one with the frowning face, was slightly open. Unable to repress my curiosity, I peeked inside to see a multitude of sad blue faces. At my approach, they backed away from me and averted their eyes.
“I definitely can tell Iniagus had a hand designing this place.” I muttered as the blue orbs whimpered in their corner. “I wonder if this was part of the attraction, or just something the kidnapper added.”
One gave me a shrug. “Could just be an attraction gone wrong. Terry and Casey did say this place was shut down due to safety concerns.”
“Hard to imagine why.” I said, rubbing my shoulder.
We continued on through the torch-lit corridors. There were a few adjoining corridors here and there, but for the most part they led to dead ends or empty chambers filled with parts. It was definitely designed to be a labyrinth, but an incomplete one. Some of the rooms even bore sign of recent work; cans of paint, small piles of lumber, strange decorations that would doubtlessly be incorporated into future room designs.
Eventually, my path ended with three more labeled doors. The right door was labeled, “suxxor”, the middle was labeled 'pwned', and the left was labeled, 'frag'.
“Okay.” One said, rubbing his hands together. “Definite gamer lingo here. Suxxor's an abbreviation for sucks.”
“I thought the whole point of an abbreviation was for the abbreviation to be shorter than the actual word.” I said.
“Since when has logical sense had a place with slang?” Shaking his head, he continued, “Pwned implies being defeated, so I'd definitely give that door a miss. Frag means …”
“That one I know.” I said. “So we won't be choosing that one.”
“Good idea.” One considered the other two doors for a few moments. “Suxxor sounds like the safest choice.”
“Fair enough.” I approached the door marked 'suxxor' and turned the handle.
The instant I inched the door open, a tremendous vacuum tried to pull me forward. As I held on to the door frame as though my life depended on it (which was probably true, given the nature of traps I'd seen thus far), I glanced backwards. A small vortex of dark energy was in the middle of the room, sucking in everything around it.
“Careful, Jimmy!” One shouted as he hung from my shoulder. “Short-ranged localized teleport vortex! Probably designed to spit us out randomly somewhere else in the maze!”
“Or the park. Or the planet. Not worth taking the chance.” With a lot of effort, I managed to climb over the door and out of the chamber. It took a good minute or two, but One and I managed to shut the door. The gravitational pull of the vortex stopped the instant the door lock clicked back into place.
I sank against the floor, muttering, “By the Creator, I hate this place.”
“I dunno.” One said, lying across my stomach. “A little paint, a few throw pillows-”
We exchanged looks for a moment before both letting out a relieved laugh. With a sigh, I picked up One and rose to my feet.
“Okay.” I said, “So we've got 'pwned' and 'frag'. Ideas?”
“Pwned.” One said. “Still sounds better than 'frag'.”
“Agreed.” I put my hand on the handle of the door marked 'pwned' and glanced at One. He took a firm hold of my keikogi and nodded.
Nodding back, I slowly slid the door open a crack. It was another dark room, but the lack of gravitational pull prompted me to open the door wide enough for me to poke my head through the doorway.
Something cold, squishy, and smelling faintly of lemon slammed into my face. I slammed the door shut, but not before I was dripping with meringue, bits of graham-cracker crust, and lemon-flavored filling.
One burst out laughing at the sight of me. Not as amused by this turn of events, I pulled him off my shoulder, opened the door again, and held the now-struggling doll inside the room until I felt another wet thud on my hand.
Pulling the pie-covered doll back through the doorway and closing the door, I regarded him for a moment and said, “You're right. That is pretty funny.”
One crossed his small plush arms. I couldn't make out his face, what with all the meringue, but I imagine he was sulking. “Almost as funny as this.”
A burst of water fired from his tiny Headache caught me in the face and proceeded to wash the pie remnants from my body. When it finally stopped, One was clean as well, though not dripping wet like me.
“I'm soaked.” I told him.
“Yes, you are.” One said. “How about that?”
Sighing, I moved back to the 'suxxor' room and cracked the door open. I had to struggle to keep the door opening all the way, but the suction was enough to pull most of the water from my body and clothes. Still a little damp, I said, “One door left.”
“No sweat.” One said, flexing his miniature Headache-clad arms. “Let's do this!”
Careful not to stand in front of the door this time, I twisted the handle of the door marked 'frag' and pushed it open with my foot.
The door swung silently open. I waited a few seconds, just in case there was some kind of time delayed response, but still nothing happened.
Still cautious, I peered around the corner.
The room was empty, save a metal ladder and a few cans of paint. As I walked inside, I noticed a piece of paper tacked to the wall. It read, “Remember to restock frag room ammo.”
It took me a few moments for that to sink in, but the relief I felt when it finally did was palpable.
“Ha!” One said, pumping a metal fist in the air. “Procrastination saves the day again!”
Not wishing to push my luck, I walked swiftly across the room and exited out the other door. To my surprise, there was a spiral stairwell in the room beyond.
“Heck, yeah.” One said. “Looks like a way back up to the castle.”
“And whatever the kidnapper has waiting for us up there.” With a sigh, I started up the stairs.