Cole found his footing to be remarkably steady, despite his lack of breath. He wasn't sure if the cause was the thin atmosphere or just his respawner chip giving him a 'bad' lung. All around the front of the platform, there were various smaller platforms, branching into different directions. The multiple paths converged about halfway through the course before splitting again and ending at a mountaintop plateau about half a mile in the distance. Respawning cylinders dotted the course at small intervals.

"Of course, the obstacles aren't the only obstacle!" Malachi's voice came from above as a huge metal contraption fell onto the starting area, causing the whole stage to tilt. The object unfolded into a large bipedal attack robot, Malachi sitting in the cockpit. The robot stood at around ten feet, and pointed at the plateau.

"There's your goal! Make the top six -with me firing at you- and you win! If you touch one of the respawners out there, you'll respawn there when you fall!"

The robot's right hand was replaced with a revolving Gatling gun. "On your maaaaarks…"

The contestants took ready stances just as the turtle yelled "Getsetgo!" And unleashed a storm of bullets. Cole didn't stop to count how many people were hit, and those that did were added to the tally. Cole ran left to the edge of the starting zone, and found himself looking out over a polka dot sea of small floating platforms, ranging from 6 feet in diameter down to around half a foot. Below that was open sky, and a mountainside cityscape in which Cole thought he could see the Fortress.

The distance to the ground made his legs wobbly, but he didn't have time to psyche himself out as he felt himself shoved rudely from behind. He fell off of his perch, and a stray dot managed to catch him as he stared downward.

Yeah, that was definitely the Fortress.

Now committed to this path, he clung to his small floating island and attempted to regain his composure as he stood up. The dot held his weight much better than he had expected it would. He told himself to keep his eyes looking forward as he steeped himself and began to hop from one dot to another, picking the biggest ones he could manage to reach. Malachi was laughing raucously, only now audible as he ceased firing on the opening crowd. Cole didn't look back to see what the turtle was going to do next.

James bolted past him on the right, hopping across dots like he had been doing it for a living.

That was his name, right?

Cole slumped, staring after him in befuddlement.

"COOOOOOOLE!"

The voice caused Cole to jump and almost fall off of his dot. He turned to see Klump fumbling his way toward him.

"I come and heeeeeyAAAAaaahhhhh…"

The crocodile plummeted to the earth, as he proved himself unable to talk and focus on the platforms at the same time. Cole wondered out of pity if he should wait for Klump to come back, but decided against it after watching the descent for a full minute. He gazed toward the far end of the course, trying to ignore the increasing presence of the drop underneath.

He would come after me, wouldn't he?

Barrett narrowly dodged a high caliber bullet, cast at him by Malachi. Crash wasn't so lucky, as the unintended target crumpled under an injured leg and began his plummet to the ground. The deer spun to a backpedal, an unamused glare locking with Malachi's eyes. The giant robot strutted forward with heavy steps.

"Oh, don't mind me, just making sure you have a little handicap." The mecha's minigun continued to whir. "I know exactly how capable you can be at this kind of thing. It would simply be no fun to have you winning by a solid five minutes!"

The deer had closed half of the gap between them before Malachi had stopped monologuing.

"Then I guess I'll settle for a solid four."

Cole reached the end of the dots, much to his relief. He hopped onto a wide area, savoring his arrival to the middle of the course. He wobbled iver and tapped the respawner in the center of the new stage. It flashed a bright green, indicating a new spawn point. A decision now presented itself to were four more branching paths leading to the finish line. The leftmost path was a long line of monkey bars. Cole knew he didn't have the arm strength for that, so he tossed that option immediately. The second was a series of swings and platforms, honestly still more appealing than the first option.

Second from the right was what appeared to be a glowing cube of blue light. Scout had already found his way into this obstacle, and was leaping between various chunks of material, floating through the air free of gravity, and making his way to the far end.

The rightmost trail was a flat straightaway to the goal. There were several players already sprinting across it as Tank approached and pushed a button on the wall, being rewarded with a pistol. Cole decided against that path as the wolf let the gun fire freely, sending one of the runners back to the start of the zone. He opted to enjoy this stretch a bit and try what he assumed to be a zero gravity zone. As he approached, he slowed to give himself an idea of how to take his first jump. Coming to a stop in front of the obstacle, he felt a large hand clap him on the back. This sent him rolling into the obstacle at a haphazard and unintended angle.

"Here to heeeelp!" Klump followed in after him. The croc jumped, lending him far too much upward momentum, and sending him floating into a jet stream above the zone. This immediately ripped him out of the zero gravity chamber, and sent him toward the ground below.

Oh no, not again. Cole thought, watching Klump descend.

"I heeeeelllp…"

Cole watched him fall for as long as he could, slowly spinning and floating downward. His tail caught some of the wind roaring past the zone as it left the safety threshold. Cole, then realizing he was about thirty seconds from an uncomfortable drop, only then began trying to grab at obstacles. Everything he passed seemed to be just out of reach. He tried a swimming motion, which didn't help at all.

As hard as he tried, he couldn't prepare himself for the impending drop. He tucked his legs and tail in, hoping it would buy him more time, but as soon as his waist cleared the zone, he was swiftly sucked from safety.

Cole plummeted, doing his best to contain himself. A scream came, in spite of his best efforts, and didn't leave until he ran out of breath. He wanted so badly to close his eyes, but he couldn't risk not knowing when he was going to hit the ground. He felt like he had left his insides up on the platforms. He was falling tail first, so he looked to see how far he had already fallen. He felt a sudden impact from beneath him, and his eyesight went gray.

The screech of the chip bringing him back to the course was as unbearable as ever. However, as the sound faded he realized with discomfort that he was still plummeting to the ground, though with an increasing amount of spin. Not only that, someone seemed to have caught up to him in the air. While spinning, he tried to get a glimpse of the figure above him.

He would have had better success if he hadn't hit the ground at that exact moment, landing on something soft enough that he survived until the other skydiver landed right on top of him.

He had no time to feel surprise, confusion or even pain as the screeching of the respawner brought him back up to the relative safety of the obstacle course. Cole took some heavy breaths. The memory of the fall was still fresh in his mind, though the respawn cleared his system of adrenaline. He took just enough time to realize he couldn't stop to think about how he just came back from a five mile fall. He shook the static from his head and charged back toward the gravity chamber, noting that Klump opted for the straightaway this time.

His jumps were much more precise as he swiftly hopped between pieces of floating debris. He was almost sent on another fall on several occasions due to slight miscalculations, but managed to succeed at traversing the area at a pace that put him ahead of Klump, at the very least.

A wave of relief washed over him as he came out of the zone and sprinted for the finish. A high number of the participants were already waiting, looking at an electronic board staged at the end of the final platform. As he approached the snow covered mountaintop, there was a small fanfare that Cole assumed was supposed to sound triumphant. He approached a board positioned toward the end of the platform to see that it was displaying the order in which the participants had finished. He was given a pat on the back by Moss, which made him smile. He examined the top and bottom names.

#1 Barrett

#13 Cole

Another fanfare rang as the last two contestants finished their race.

#14 Claire

#15 Klump

They jogged halfheartedly to the board, then wobbled off to talk with Tank.

"Well, I guess we all made it." Moss said. Scout looked up at his father, who gave him a quizzical look.

"Dad, we had to all make it." Scout stated.

Moss huffed. "Very true, very true." He ruffled his son's fur, flipping one of his ears inside out.

"Heeeey…"

As Scout adjusted it back to normal, a hoarse cough came from behind the group. Malachi, in a very expensive and very destroyed suit and tie, began sauntering up to the group huddled by the mountain snow. He inhaled, and held his breath. He threw a familiar medallion at Cole, caught just moments after the turtle let out a loud whistle. The little Cole heard had his ears ringing for a few seconds. Once everyone finished covering their ears, they turned to the turtle.

"Well, I was gonna be nice." He stomped up to Cole and snatched the coin with a charred hand. "But things took a bit of a turn. So dramatic finish it is!" He took another coin out of his pocket and hurled it up the mountainside as high as he could manage. A distant mechanical whining was heard as a field of new snow appeared above the mountain, pummeling the existing powder and dislodging it from the mountain. A rumble began to grow as a freshly formed avalanche bore down on the group. Malachi's maniacal laugh was drowned out by thousands of pounds of snow.

Cole stared at the ceiling, he wondered if there was a printer in the Fortress. He could get a start on a letter to send home then. He sat up, planning to search when he heard an unfamiliar formal voice coming from the alarm clock on his nightstand.

"Please come to the foyer in fifteen minutes."

Cole glanced curiously at the clock, then set out in the requested direction, keeping an eye open for anything he could use to write a letter.

When he reached the foyer, Malachi was there waiting for him.

"Ah ha, I knew it." The turtle smiled. "I set it up perfectly!"

Cole walked up to him. "How's it going, Malachi?"

"Could be better, could be worse." The turtle shrugged. Cole noted his casual appearance; a white undershirt and black slacks. He also had a phone in his left hand.

"So! I noticed something a little off, and wanted to discuss it with you!"

Cole squirmed. He didn't know of anything he had done to get him in trouble. Maybe training in his room. Malachi didn't give him much chance to ponder it.

"Ever since you've been on board with the events, I haven't seen a single social media post from you!" He tossed the phone at Cole.

"I don't think that's because you don't wanna be recognized. Nobody here is planning to win under the radar."

Malachi leaned in close.

"Lemme guess, your phone is sitting at QualCorp Stadium with fifty-seven unread messages on it, eh?"

Malachi had no idea how much this thrilled Cole. The dog gave the biggest smile he could manage as he unlocked the device. There were only three apps: Profile Pit, Calling and Texting. The primary of which was the leader in social media sharing. Malachi let him take it in for a moment.

"Now, you're gonna wanna put that in your pocket in a few. That last event was really short, so I have some airwaves to fill! You just wait here and the other contestants will be along for our bonus game soon!" Malachi waved and walked off.

"Thanks, Malachi!" Cole was still excited. He looked at the phone, and decided to log into "ProPit". If Malachi wanted posts, then he owed it to his telephonic benefactor to get some out there.

After he finished logging back in, he looked through some of the notifications.

It was a lot of trivial things, but one set of posts caught his attention. Erika had made a string of memes for her friends to share in hopes of having them reach her brother somehow. Cole felt a pang of guilt seeing the subject pictures. In one picture confused skunk was looking around for him. In another, a cartoon cat was pointing at a butterfly and saying "Is this Cole?"

He closed the app, and moved over to the texting section. He added his sister's number to his list of contacts, and began a new message.

Hi Erika, it's Co

The room went dark, and a loud blast of dance music almost caused Cole to drop his new treasure. He pocketed it quickly, looking around for the other contestants. An even louder voice boomed over the music.

"Welcome to our extra round! The goal of this game is simple. Your team must be the first to find the hidden Malachi statue hidden in the fortress! You win if you can accomplish that, or cause everyone on the opposing team to be eliminated!"

A set of laser lights popped up in front of the dining room door.

"Also, the fortress is trying to kill you... Good luck!"

The lasers, pointing upwards, began slowly descending, coming into contact with Cole's ear and sending part of it to the floor. He yelled and fell to one side, narrowly avoiding losing his arm at the shoulder. His eyes darted around, looking to see if anything else was about to dissect him. Nothing presented itself. A neon sign by the main doors blinked on, and displayed a set of words alongside pictures of Crash and the squirrel from the wild cards that he hadn't yet memorized the name of.

Cole's teammates

Cole stared at the pictures a moment longer, then dashed toward the armory. Descending a dark staircase, he heard the thumping music above begin to fade into something entirely different below.

The noise in the armory wasn't music as much as it was ambience. A high string instrument accompanied by low percussion lent a haunted, tense atmosphere to the room. Not only that, but the lights in the room had been turned off. He spent a small amount of time feeling for a light switch, but failed to find anything. Rolling his eyes, Cole began creeping into the room, trying to select a weapon in the darkness, feeling his hackles raise as the noise began to take shape, building in tempo and volume as if something was about to strike.

Oh, come on. There's nobody in here to attack me. It's just a bunch of-

BLAM!

Cole reeled back as a bullet pierced his right shoulder. The music grew in intensity, and introduced a brass section as he recovered against the far wall. Slapping his left hand on his support, he felt for anything dangerous he could grab and leave with as quickly as possible. He felt an immediate pain as he grabbed at something and ran.

BLAM!

No pain this time, just an instant flash of light that temporarily illuminated his path to the exit. He spun into the staircase just as another concussive blast tried to remove him from the event. Running back toward the dim light upstairs, he glanced at the blade still digging into his hand.

Cole grabbed the shortsword with both hands, only barely holding it above waist level with the pain in both of his upper extremities. Just as he approached the top of the stairs, a figure silhouetted itself in the doorway, blocking all but a slight trace of illumination.

Cole stopped for a moment. This character was too big to be either of his teammates. The panic from escaping the armory bubbled back to the surface, but he decided to keep charging up the stairs. The shadow waved at him.

"Oh it's Coooole." Klump smiled.

Cole wondered how he was ever afraid of the crocodile in front of him. Something had already clipped the brute's shoulder, and caused the left side of his snout to swell up.

"Hi Klump! It's really awesome down there! Super safe!" Cole almost regretted sending his unwitting opponent into the darkness, but as soon as he cleared the threshold of the door, Klump peeked down the stairs, and the sword met scales as the fool was sent down the stairs. Cole didn't wait around to hear him hit the ground.

"Coooole, I stuuuuck…"

"...Coooooooole?"

Cole had already begun climbing the stairs to the second floor, as another change in musical genre began.

He barely missed taking a banjo to the face as he crested the last step. Various instruments were flying, along with pots, pans and frogs as a flurrying hillbilly jamboree pumped its crazed tune through hidden speakers.

Cole dashed for the bowling alley as a jaw harp bounced harmlessly off of his pants leg. He dove into the room. From his prone position, he looked around for any more deadly redneck implements. They were present, but Cole was more concerned about the other contestant that he found.

Of all the people that could have been in this fight…

The opponent slowly walked toward Cole, deflecting all bumpkin items hurled his way with a washboard in one hand, and a hatchet in the other.

"Why are you in here? Do you think this is some kind of special occasion?" Barrett hissed. He leaned over to glare at Cole as a cabin door flew over his head.

Cole tried to think of a response to the rhetoric posed by the deer, when he felt someone grab his foot and begin to drag him backward. The surprise of both Barrett and this new element startled him into fumbling his sword, which was quickly whisked away by a flying moonshine jar. He tried to whirl around, but couldn't manage it as the other contestant's tight grip held fast. He resigned himself to being dragged out of the room, hoping that somehow his new captor was one of his own teammates. The music faded to an adventurous fanfare as they entered a dim hallway. The doors that ran the length of the corridor were marked with names he didn't recognize.

After another few seconds of dragging, and a new patch of rug burn, the player let go and allowed Cole to stand up, which he did.

Cole laid eyes on his savior. A small but lean squirrel in a floral dress, hunched over and breathing hard after moving someone that had to be at least one and a half times her weight. She tried to gasp out a greeting and introduction, but just managed a weak "phwuh" and a wave.

Barrett wasn't far behind, sauntering up to the duo with an air of inconvenienced frustration.

Cole decided this was an unfortunate time to be out of breath. He hesitated to pick up his teammate at first, but got over the perceived awkwardness of it just in time to avoid the axe that cleaved the floor where the squirrel was.

As Cole assumed, she was relatively easy to carry. She lurched in his arms as he ran.

"Whoo! That was too close!"

Cole turned to look at her, and then immediately looked ahead again, blushing. He hadn't realized he was carrying her tail first.

The music got louder. The floor shook, and the squirrel shrieked. Barrett let out an angry shout.

"You have to be kidding me!"

As the floor continued to rumble, Cole could hear Barrett's footsteps approaching quickly. And right as the deer sounded like he was right behind them, he overtook them, and kept running toward the end of the hallway.

Cole didn't hesitate to run even faster, not stopping to wonder what was chasing them.

"Wait, I have an idea! Put me down!"

Cole, still on impulse, threw his small partner ahead of him. She gracefully landed, and knelt on the carpet. To Cole's surprise, she was holding the axe that Barrett had at the start of the chase. She planted the hilt of the weapon on the floor, and aimed the head at the impending death. Cole ran past, and heard a loud crunching snap as the rumbling ceased. This was followed by a yell of pain from the squirrel.

Cole felt it was safe to turn and see what had been pursuing them at this point. It was a large boulder, hewn into a cylinder that, on its side, fit perfectly into the hallway that the group was running down. Underneath the rock was the splintered remains of the axe, sacrificed to kill the trap's momentum. Also pinned beneath the object, Cole's teammate was breathing in ragged gasps, her foot pinned underneath.

In a panic, Cole began pushing on the rock. His partner became loosened enough that she could pull out what remained of her foot. He helped her up just as Barrett dove in to attack the duo with his antlers. Cole managed to get away with a cut to the leg, but Their attacker managed to pin the squirrel to the stone by the arm.

Cole thought fast about how he should help his teammate. He wasn't strong enough to fight back, he was sure of that.

"Barrett, wait!" Cole began. The deer turned his head to the side, causing more pain for the squirrel. Cole continued.

"H-how are you going to get out from behind the boulder if you don't have our muscle to help?"

Hah, checkmate.

The deer disengaged from his target, gazed at him for a moment, then shrugged.

"I have my ways, and you don't need to know what they are."

The squirrel took her chance to leap at Barrett. By the time she left the floor, A foot was already planted on her chest. Barrett threw her into the air towards Cole as he leaned forward, brandishing his antlers.

"Catch."

In the time it took Cole to look up, Barret had pinned him to the wall. The only thing he could do was watch as his teammate flew at him.

Barrett drew back just as the squirrel connected with Cole's nose, knocking him out.