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Ouroboros: the Endless Cycle

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While Nick was repairing the damage he had done to their arena, Judy considered how she could get one more strike in. There was no doubt in her mind that she was significantly more skilled with a weapon than Nick was, but she was just as sure that even if he kept his promise not to make pits or blinding flashes of light again, there had to be another alchemical trick up his sleeve. Figuratively or literally, she supposed, watching Nick's paws closely as he worked; he was still wearing his now torn and dust-stained embroidered coat, which she remained highly suspicious of. Unfortunately, it wasn't as though he needed to have something hidden away in an interior pocket; he had demonstrated repeatedly his ability to use the very circle of their arena as a means of focusing his power, and there wasn't anything she could do about that...

Judy was hit by a sudden flash of inspiration as she realized she had been thinking about it all wrong. The entire way Nick fought was by being tricky and clever. Letting him fight like that was only begging to be outsmarted, to react to whatever he did too late to make a difference. But, she thought, and there was a slow smile spreading across her face that she hoped he hadn't noticed, all that meant was that she would have to be trickier.

A moment later, when Nick had finished restoring the arena to its original smoothness, any traces of a smile had vanished from Judy's face; she had set her jaw with deliberation, willing her gaze to be as fiercely tough as possible. Judging from what other mammals had said in the academy she suspected that it might not be a very intimidating look, particularly for larger mammals, but if Nick saw any signs of her intent he gave no indication of it himself. "Ready?" he called as he took his position, briefly dusting his paws together before leaning to grab his sabre.

"Ready," Judy called, and in the brief moment when his attention was distracted by picking up his weapon she made her move.

She was holding her spear upright in her right paw, the butt of it resting against the ground, and she maneuvered it a few inches back. Per the rules they had agreed to, neither one of them could leave the arena, but they had never set any limits on their weapons, which she was going to shamelessly take advantage of. The gritty dirt of the Outer Baronies smoothly parted at her spear's touch, and although she couldn't look back to confirm it she knew that she had broken the circle. Judy didn't expect to completely prevent Nick from using his alchemy; he had, after all, said that the circle was only a focusing tool, but if it took him even so much as an extra second or two to use his power it would be too late for him. "On three," Nick called, "One, two, three!"

The moment his count ended Judy lunged, the familiar heft of her spear providing a comforting weight as she let its tip guide her towards Nick. Nick himself wasn't waiting to react; the instant his count ended he dragged one foot through a half-circle and gestured upwards with his right paw as though he was trying to lift a heavy weight.

Nothing happened.

His eyes caught the light of the alchemical torch as they went wide, and raw triumph seemed to flow through Judy's veins, a feeling too intense and pure for thoughts or words. She had him helplessly outmaneuvered; her aim was perfectly aligned to slip past his guard and catch him full in the chest with her spear's blunt tip. The remaining steps between them shortened quicker than seemed possible and Judy let loose an inarticulate cry of victory. Nick was twisting away, but not fast enough; he dropped his sword in his haste to dodge, his paws tucking against his sides as he tried to make himself a smaller target.

Judy easily changed her angle of attack, the tip of her spear still heading towards his center of mass with an inevitable finality to it. Judy's focus on Nick had become so absolute that there was nothing else in the world. The gritty dust of the ground and the dark sky had fallen completely away until there was only Nick before her. In an instant that felt as though it lasted an eternity she saw him as though it was for the first time. Every strand of his fur, glowing orange in the pale silvery light of the alchemical torch, seemed to stand out in perfect relief. Judy saw the strength in his limbs, beneath his dusty coat and trousers, and the beautiful embroidery only emphasized his lean muscles as the tight fabric caught the light. It was Nick's eyes, though, that seemed the most transformed; his pupils were full of pinpoints of starlight and his vividly green irises gleamed. The surprise had gone out of his face so close to his loss; his angular features had resolved themselves into what looked like his typically smug expression. The thought that something wasn't quite right had just begun to make its way through Judy's mind before Nick winked and was gone.

Judy's spear slammed into something so hard and unyielding that her paws went instantly numb and she nearly dropped it as she rolled to the side. Where Nick had been was only a raised bulge in the ground, his abandoned sword resting at its base. If it weren't for the spot her spear had struck, which had scuffed away some of the gritty dirt and revealed what looked like iron, it would have looked simply like a bubble in the ground. "Very clever," Nick's voice came from the direction of the bubble; it was somewhat muffled but perfectly audible for her ears, "Breaking the arena's circle almost worked, too."

To Judy's ears he sounded particularly cheerful, but she thought there was a ragged edge to his voice, as though he was growing tired. She ignored the throbbing from her paws as she carefully stood upright, her spear pointing forward, and strained her eyes and her ears to their limits. Judy took a cautious step away from the bubble, and as she did so caught a better look at the structure hidden under the dirt; it looked almost like a flower bud that hadn't opened, except much larger and made out of metal. That did explain, at least, why it had hurt so badly to hit it, and Judy tried to force down the tremors in her paws from the shock of the blow, voicing a silent thanks to the gods she hadn't broken both of her wrists in the attempt. "You made that little dome ahead of time, didn't you?" Judy asked, carefully sidestepping as she tried to find an avenue of attack.

Without a quauhxicalli, Judy knew that she simply didn't have the strength to do anything about the little protective bubble Nick had made himself, and she had left all of hers behind in her tent before their bout started. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any weak spot in the dome; although it was somewhat difficult to tell beneath the layer of grit that covered it, there were no apparent holes and Judy doubted she could fit so much as a whisker in one of the seams. "I did, yes," Nick's voice came back, still from within the dome, and Judy thought her suspicion that Nick was wearing himself out was confirmed.

She could hear him—faintly, but distinctly—panting with exertion, but it also sounded like he was moving. "How'd you do it without the arena's circle?" Judy asked, "Willpower?"

She gave the last word a sarcastic tinge she thought he would appreciate, and was rewarded with a chuckle that sounded as though it wasn't quite coming from inside the dome anymore. Rather, he seemed to be creeping underground underneath her feet, and Judy forced herself still. There were three other bubbles in the ground like the one he had disappeared under, arranged in an off-centered square, and Judy thought there must be some connection between them. Whatever other skills Nick had, Judy knew that his hearing couldn't be as good as hers, and she wasn't going to make it easy for him. He didn't have his sabre anymore, which meant he was down to his alchemy alone. Which was still a tremendous advantage, but Judy pushed the thought aside. "We could go with that," Nick said agreeably, "It sounds suitably dramatic, don't you think?"

After a moment, when Judy hadn't responded, still straining with her ears to try to pin Nick down, he continued. "My coat's lining is embroidered on the inside. Call it a spare for em—"

His voice cut off suddenly as Judy plunged her spear into the ground, where it encountered brief resistance after the first six inches before sliding in so smoothly she nearly lost her grip. Judy knew instantly, though, that she had missed, but before she could pull her spear back she felt Nick grab it. She pulled hard with both paws, and he suddenly let go; she tumbled backwards, landing painfully, but she had her spear and Nick still had no weapon.

As Judy jumped to her feet, she realized that wasn't quite right; there was something dreadfully wrong with her spear she had never even imagined possible. The spear's shaft was made out of a strong, lightweight metal, and although Judy had seen spears dent or even crack in training she had never seen a spear do what hers was doing. Near the center of the shaft, where Nick must have touched it, it had become incredibly shiny, but there were wispy fibers of metal coming off of it. More seriously, the shaft was starting to bend; as Judy looked at her spear the bottom half of the shaft simply fell off. It looked almost as though it had rusted, but the metal wasn't supposed to rust, and even if it could she had never seen anything give way so quickly.

Judy banged the decaying end of the half she was still holding against the ground, feeling the metal weakly folding and peeling, but otherwise it seemed solid enough if obviously not nearly as long as it had been. She strained her ears again, and caught the sound of Nick's breathing, which was increasingly rapid. His little trick might have ruined her weapon, but it had clearly cost him a not-insignificant amount of effort; she'd just have to try stabbing through the ground again.

She could hear Nick moving slowly underground, heading toward one of the other bubbles he had made, and she froze. She had to be tricky, she reminded herself, not just try the same thing again and give him a second chance to destroy her spear. If she wanted to take him by surprise, she knew she'd have to fake him out. No matter how much every instinct protested that she needed to spin around and be ready to face him, she deliberately kept her back to the bubble, listening as hard as she could. She turned slowly, as though she was keeping an eye on the bubble he had disappeared into, and then it happened.

She heard a strange metallic squealing coming from behind her and forced herself still, nothing moving but her nose, until she was sure Nick had committed to his attack. She spun around and saw instantly that she had underestimated him as he charged out of what looked for all the world like a metal flower in full bloom. She had thought he might try hitting her with some kind of alchemical projectile, or even make a crude replacement sword, but he hadn't. Nick had, in fact, made himself a spear, and although it was nothing more than a long pole with a blunted end it was still longer than her spear had been even before he had somehow made it corrode into two pieces.

Her remaining piece of spear was pathetically short, barely long enough to block his charge, and in a moment of instinct Judy didn't. When she thought about it later, she would think that it was because there was something about the way that he carried his own spear that showed that he wasn't very experienced with the weapon, some subtlety of positioning or his angle of attack. Judy threw her remaining bit of spear aside and charged at him, effortlessly dodging a clumsy strike until she was too close for him to do anything, the end of his spear already past her. She brought her fist up, and while Nick tried twisting away all it did was bring his head lower; she caught him square in the eye.

The fight instantly went out of Nick as he fell flat on his back, and as he fell his tail entangled itself in Judy's legs and brought her down on top of him, the top of her head painfully striking against the bottom of his jaw hard enough to send bursts of stars through her vision. Both of them cried out in pain nearly simultaneously, although Nick colorfully invoked Tepēyōllōtl's name in a way that nonetheless seemed more sincere than the thanks he had given to Macuilxōchitl after his gambling wins.

Judy pushed her paws against Nick's chest as she scrabbled forward on top of him until she was straddling his neck, trying to see into his face even as the tips of his ears tickled the bottoms of her feet. "Are you alright?" she asked, trying to ignore the pulsating pain in her own head, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean—"

Nick was panting, his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth, and Judy could feel his arm twitch weakly against her. "No, no," he said, sounding more than a little dazed, "We never said punching wasn't allowed."

He sucked air in between his teeth as he gingerly reached across Judy and felt at his eye, his expression contorting into a grimace that exposed his many sharp teeth. "If anyone says you hit like a bunny, do me a favor and actually hit them," Nick said, and there was some of his usual charm in his voice again, "I want to see the reaction."

Judy felt none of the triumph she had just a moment before Nick had vanished into his little metal dome; any sense of victory was completely lost in how obviously she had hurt him. It was only supposed to be a sparring match, but what if she had blinded him? Hitting a mammal in the eye was always dangerous; she could have just tried going for his chest even after his head had become the perfect target. "I'm really sorry. Here, let me look at it," she said, and she brushed away the paw he had clamped over his eye.

Judy leaned over his head, bringing her own face so close to his that she could feel every warm and damp puff of his breath ruffling the fur of her cheek. Nick's uninjured eye was fixed on her face, and the other had already started swelling shut. Judy didn't think she had done any permanent damage, but the knot of guilt in her stomach refused to loosen. "I'm sorry," she said again, and her voice was thick.

Nick awkwardly patted at her back. "You're an interesting mammal, Ensign Carrots. And, if you'll forgive me saying so, a heavy one. So if you wouldn't mind..." he said, and there was something in both his voice and in the expression in his face that Judy couldn't quite place.

The words sounded exactly like him, but there was something about his tone that wasn't quite right, something beneath his perpetual good natured teasing. Before she could pursue the thought any further, however, Judy realized she had been sitting with her legs wrapped around the wonderfully soft and fluffy fur of Nick's neck (and wasn't that an odd thing to be thinking about in the moment?) with her gaze focused on Nick's face for a moment that had likely drawn out a little too long. She hastily stumbled away from him, feeling her ears burning in embarrassment. Nick pushed himself heavily to his feet, his footfalls plodding as he walked over to his discarded sabre and scooped it up. "A wager's a wager," he said, as he presented it hilt-first to Judy, "I can adjust it for you tomorrow."

He chuckled weakly and added, "I'm going to sleep like the dead tonight."

Judy didn't particularly care about the sword and made no motion to grab it. "Do you need any help with your eye? Are you hurt anywhere else?" she asked.

Nick waved one paw in what would have likely come across as a careless gesture if he had done a better job of modulating the energy he put into it; his arm fell lazily to his side instead. "I'll manage," he said, "I've got some incomplete philosopher's stones I can use."

Judy remembered seeing the distinctive glow of incomplete stones in Nick's heavy bag of belongings, and the anxiety in her gut loosened a degree. "What about you?" he asked, looking her up and down with his head tilted so his one good eye was focused on her, "Any injuries?"

She shook her head vigorously. "I'm fine," Judy added hastily.

There was a brief silence, broken only by the mournful howling of wind across the wastelands, before Nick held out his sword again. "Come on, take it," he urged, "You won it fair and square."

It really was a beautiful blade; even covered in grit the care that had gone into its creation was obvious, but it was no more tempting than when he had first presented it. "No," she said, "I shouldn't have—"

"Take it," Nick urged, "You're going to need a sabre anyway once you make captain, right? I'd like it to be one of mine. Word of mouth is the best advertising, you know."

Judy reluctantly closed one paw around the grip, which was too wide for her to hold comfortably, and took it from him. "Fine," she said, "But only if you let me give you that favor."

Nick chuckled again, and there seemed to be some of his former strength in it. "Well who am I to argue with Ensign Tochtli of the City Guard?" he asked, spreading his paws out.

He staggered off in the direction of his tent, pausing to call back over his shoulder. "I can fix your spear tomorrow, too. You probably don't want to touch it again tonight. Oh, and wash your paws."

"What?" Judy said; she was more than a little surprised at the seeming non sequitur.

"I overdid it when I weakened it," Nick said, "It was supposed to break when you blocked my spear thrust."

He shrugged his shoulders, as though it was any kind of answer. Besides confirming the obvious—that alchemy had been involved—he hadn't really answered her unasked question. "I did tell you," he added, "The flaws are the hard part to get right."

"With alchemy, you mean," Judy said, and Nick nodded slowly.

"With alchemy," he agreed.


Author's Notes:

Before any chapter-specific notes, there are two items I would like to bring up:

This past week on FF, a reader going by Deathsmallcaps left a comment saying that they drew a picture of Princess Isabel based on this story. I can't say enough how honored I am; from the comment Deathsmallcaps left I can tell a lot of effort was put into it. Unfortunately, FF's anti-spam policy ate the link to the image that was provided, leaving only the following text:

gallery/1fWj6PG

If Deathsmallcaps or someone else can provide me with the full link, I'd be incredibly grateful and I'll definitely link to it!

Also this past week, this story was featured on the Zootopia News Network with a lovely write up by the one and only DrummerMax64. It means a lot to me to be considered worthy of being featured, and if you found this story through ZNN I'm happy to have your readership. If you're unfamiliar with ZNN, it's definitely worth checking out as a wonderful resource for everything from fan fiction and fan art to updates on official news about Zootopia merchandise, character cameos and (hopefully someday soon) sequel news. Thank you again, Max!

As for this chapter itself, I'll begin my notes by saying that my intent is that Judy's spear is made out of aluminum. Although aluminum is a very common metal, and is actually the third most common element (after oxygen and silicon) in the Earth's crust, it wasn't isolated until 1824. The reason for this is that aluminum is extremely reactive, and thus it is essentially only found bound up in minerals. However, I figure that in the world of the setting alchemy would make aluminum much easier to extract, hence its appearance here. As to why only the shaft of Judy's spear is aluminum, and not Nick's sword, aluminum has a number of properties that make it a poor choice for blades. Although it is lightweight and easily forms an oxide layer when exposed to air (and thus doesn't rust like steel), it's too soft and doesn't hold an edge well, and can be more prone to stress fractures.

The specific way in which Nick ruined Judy's spear is by transmuting a portion of the handle into mercury; mercury reacts with aluminum in an interesting way. That's the reason, incidentally, why airplanes don't allow mercury thermometers to be taken aboard; mercury seriously damages aluminum structures if it comes into contact. Essentially, what happens is that, if the oxide layer protecting the aluminum is worn away and the metal itself is exposed, it'll react with the mercury to form an amalgam. In the presence of moisture, this reaction quickly oxidizes the aluminum and produces elemental mercury, which forms an amalgam with the aluminum and continues the cycle. This can form long, hairy-looking "wires" from the aluminum, which will quickly weaken.

Nick's later caution to Judy not to touch her damaged spear, and to wash her paws before eating anything, is a good one; although elemental mercury as a liquid is not especially toxic if you ingest it, you should very much avoid inhaling mercury vapor.

Macuilxōchitl was previously referenced in chapter 1 as the god that Nick gives thanks to after winning a game of chance, one of the god's domains. Tepēyōllōtl is the god of animals, caves, echoes and earthquakes; I figured he'd be on Nick's mind considering his gambit in this last round relied on hiding underground in an artificial cave.

Nick did, in fact, comment that when using alchemy it's easier to make something structurally flawless than something flawed back in chapter 3.

Although Judy is, technically, already an officer, this chapter further suggests that sabres can only be worn by captains or higher, which was first suggested in chapter 7.

Hopefully you found this a satisfying conclusion to their duel; the next chapter featuring Nick and Judy will see them finally arrive in Phoenix, which as a setting was a lot of fun to create. Thanks again for reading, and as always I'd love to know what you thought if you're so inclined!