Tonya and Ash sprinted to gate H. They were beat by only five others, but it made the area seem cramped as everyone took up extra space with upraised elbows. The large digital timer counted down the seconds until the event began.
Ash leaned in to Tonya and said, “No mercy wins the victory.”
Tonya didn’t know if she agreed with that or not. She was sure that there were ways to win while being compassionate and humane.
Without looking at her, Tonya retorted, “Hatred is no victory.”
“It will be for me.”
As soon as the buzzer sounded the guy next to Tonya shoved her into Ash causing a domino action of people falling to the floor. He took off laughing as the group scrambled to untangle themselves. The competitive fire in Tonya burned white hot. She made a note of his blonde hair and the number four on his red jersey as she and Ash sprinted into the labyrinth.
A forewarning from Ash gave them an advantage over the other competitors. The first room was a waist-high system of wooden walls configured into a maze. Scores of people were already weaving throughout the system. Tonya and Ash jumped on top of the beams and began running across them, ignoring the protests from the other contestants. Surrounding the room were ten hallways. Four of them directly across the room and guarded by gladiators armed with large, square shields and muscles the size of New Hampshire. On the left and right sides were the remaining six rooms split evenly. Tonya steered towards the biggest gladiator with Ash right on her tail. By now, the other contestants took the initiative to follow their lead and were making up lost ground as they also ran across the top of the maze towards the various hallways.
The space between the girth of the giant and the hallway he protected was marginal. He was braced behind his transparent shield like a dam holding a river. With the shield in a ready position, his legs were exposed. Ash took the lead as they split across the distance, she going to the left and Tonya the right. The man stepped to his right and slammed Ash into the wall, pinning her while leaving his backside unprotected. Tonya connected with a roundhouse kick to the back of his knee and crumbled him under his own weight. Without hesitation, she landed an elbow to his jaw, leaving him an unconscious mass on the floor. The sting in her shin hurt, but she managed to help pull Ash over the fallen warrior. The hallway they entered was straight, true to the words of Tonya’s letter. The rest of the contestants resembled a riot as they pushed and shoved each other trying to gain access to the twisted, unguarded hallways. A smile lit Tonya’s face as the two sprinted into the darkening space.
In the next room, the eerie lighting resembled a cave as the two stopped to survey their surroundings. They stood on a small platform that extended tendrils of flat beams across the expanse, overshadowing a pool of dark water directly below. Across the room were four doors blocked by gladiators. The beams were configured in a maze format that would bring them in close proximity to the wall of gladiators forming a wall across the middle. The gladiators were armed with padded staffs and watched as the contestants began filing in. If anyone fell, they would have time to count the seconds as they accelerated to the water below.
Heavy footsteps pounded in the hallway behind them as the two of them split, hiding on either side of the opening. When the man got to the end of the platform, his chest was heaving as he scanned the area. Tonya and Ash both raced forward and slammed into his back, sending him flying forward while he arms grabbed at the empty air. He let out a scream as he plumetted. His voice ending with a chilling splash. When he surfaced he inched his way over to the only ladder and clung to it in pain.
“Nice. That looked like it hurt, though.” Ash said as she picked a beam and made her way out over the water.
The two of them made their way across the beams which were far enough apart that they had to focus on their balance. Twice they met a dead end and had to retreat. One of the gladiators started heckling them and when Ash got more solid footing at an intersection, she spotted the one making the remarks.
“What’s the matter, Doll-face? Can’t find the right way to go?” He loosed a raucous laughter that lit Ash up.
“Let me by! That’s him!” Ash tried to shove past Tonya who gripped her as the two fought to regain their balance.
“Ash! Don’t! He’ll knock us off in a heartbeat. Let’s go for the smaller woman in the middle. We can work together and get past her.” Tonya let only a beat pass before she spoke. “I promise this will not be your only chance.”
Ash balled her fists and looked from the heckler to the female gladiator in the middle. She was comparable in size to them with toned arms and legs. After a punch in the arm from Tonya, Ash relented and began to make her way to the woman with Tonya a step behind.
Picking their way across, more and more people flooded into the room. From her left, Tonya heard a noise and pulled Ash down as a man on a zip line flashed over them and kicked two people off the beam. Gladiators on foot began entering the scene from the sides while others flew across the room on zip lines. The screams from the people falling put a pit in Tonya’s stomach. It sounded like they were falling to their deaths. Glancing down, she saw people fighting to climb the ladder. It would be a short while for them to climb the tall ladder.
The massing of people to the narrow beams slowed everyone’s progress. Some male competitors had discovered an easy route along the edge and were making good time until they met the hulking, shirtless gladiator. His bulging frame was painted with stripes of war paint and with a few swings, he sent them to the depths below. He let out a victory whoop as he made his way to other contestants. The scene was turning chaotic as people scrambled to get through the ever-growing congestion. Contestants were throwing other competitors into the water just as much as the gladiators were.
Tonya and Ash closed in on the woman who stood calm and collected on a small platform slightly larger than her stance. When they were within range, the woman began swinging her padded staff. Tonya ducked several swings before collecting one to her ribs. The momentum nearly knocked her off the beam. Ash took the opportunity to race forward and grapple with the woman. After the woman dropped her staff, she gained control of Ash’s arms. As she picked Ash up, Ash locked her legs around the woman’s waist and held on.
Tonya picked her way to the entangled women and landed a punch to the side of the gladiator’s head, dazing her. The woman lost her grip letting Ash bend backwards and put her hands on the platform while twisting at the hip, endangering the woman’s faulting balance. Tonya landed repeated punches to the near-unconscious woman. Tonya then shoved the woman off balance sending Ash and the gladiator over the edge. As Ash released her leg lock, she wrapped an arm around a beam as the gladiator tumbled to the water. Tonya managed to reach her in time and pull her up. Ash crawled to the center of the small platform and scrubbed her face with the heels of her palms.
They had created a small hole in the gladiator defenses and other contestants took note and were picking their way closer to it. Smaller, nimble gladiators began racing to fill the gap as Tonya and Ash stepped past the fractured human wall. It was still several tense minutes before they reached the other side where the larger gladiators waited, champing at the bit.
As the two reached the landing, one of the men came at them with bare knuckles swinging wild. His inexperience showed as he tried to attack Ash and then Tonya. He managed to force the two closer to the edge, but was unable to connect a punch and send them swimming. He reached for Tonya and missed. Ducking, she circled around to his side putting his back to Ash. Ash kicked between his legs with all her small frame could muster. He spun on her, clamping her in a bear hug.
“That doesn’t work on us, Honey. We’ve all got protection.” He smirked as he crushed the air from her lungs.
“They should have given you a helmet.” Ash managed to say before Tonya hit his ears with cupped hands. He let out a pained yell as he dropped to the ground holding the side of his head.
Ash stood with help from Tonya and sucked in air. Pushing Tonya away, she kicked the man in the face, breaking his nose and sending him flat to his back. More gladiators were swarming in from both sides and contestants were pushing in around them as well, threatening to knock them over the edge. The two got in behind a couple guys as they formed a wedge and pushed their way through some gladiators and into a dark hallway.
The guy in front screamed as he fell down an unseen hole in the floor, splashing into the water. It was nearly impossible to see the edge. Some of the guys were trying to reach out to the other side, but their fingers found nothing but air.
“Move!” One of the guys shouted as pushed people out of the way, clearing the center. He backed up and ran, leaping where he thought the edge was and disappeared into the darkness. A loud thud of his body crashing into something solid told everyone that a splash was soon to come. They were faced with a dead end. Everyone but Tonya and Ash gave up and left to find another way.
Tonya sat and stretched her aching calves. “There has to be a way. He wasn’t guarding this hallway for nothing.”
Ash came and sat back-to-back with her, catching her breath. “Is this the end? Should we go back too?”
“No. It has to go on.” An idea sprang to Tonya’s mind. “Are your feet against the wall?”
“Yes. Lock elbows with me and we can walk up the wall.”
Ash’s voice held concern, “I don’t think I’m strong enough for that. We don’t even know how far across the hole goes. What if we fall?”
“Then we climb up the ladder and fight through the crowd.” Tonya left no room for doubt to bubble up. “I did similar stuff with my brother and cousins growing up. Trust me.”
Ash growled as she linked her arms with Tonya’s. After a few attempts they were able to walk up the wall a little before setting back down on the floor.
“I don’t want to fall. Is there no other way?” The sharpness in Ash’s voice cut between the two. If either of them faltered, the water would be waiting.
“Not unless you have a better plan.”
“If we fall…”
“We won’t.” Tonya cut her off.
The two got into position and walked up the wall a foot and then began to make their way across the hole. Ash could see a sparkle from the water below and threw her head back against Tonya. Tonya’s core fought to find enough air as she tried to hold herself and Ash upright. The hole seemed to continue farther than Tonya thought it would, but she only focused on the darkness above.
Ash pulled harder and pressed her head into Tonya’s shoulder, moaning in pain. She spoke through gnashed teeth, “I’m losing it. We’re going to fall.”
Tonya’s legs hammered from the pressure exerted as their progress slowed. “Can you see the edge yet?”
“I don’t want to fall. Please, don’t let me fall.” Tonya could feel herself leaning backwards as the pressure from Ash lessened.
“I’m so sorry.” Tears came through Ash’s voice as her legs gave out and gravity embraced them as a loving mother.
TO BE CONTINUED…