The unseen surface drove the wind out of the two women. Tonya’s leg slipped off the edge as she struggled keeping her balance while her eyes counted the stars that swam in her vision. Pulling her leg up and scooting a few feet away, she managed to ask, “Are you okay?”
There was a soft rustle as Ash rolled to her side and spoke in a quiet voice. “I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. I’ve got a wonderful husband and family that love me. I kissed him goodbye and snuck out while my daughter slept so I wouldn’t hear her cry. What was I thinking?”
Tonya turned to her, “At least you have someone. I meet with my friend Crystal on Fridays and we hit the book shop. I try my best to read to her, but it’s mostly about the time together. We have fun, but…I’ve been single for so long…I don’t know if I’ll ever find someone.”
“Is that why you came to the Games, to meet someone?”
“I figured it was better than staying at home by myself.”
Silence stretched between them as they lay there in the dark.
“Well…” Ash broke the silence. “I can’t go home to my baby girl by lying here in the dark.”
“I’m sure she missing you, too. Do you know how much more is left of the labyrinth?”
“No. This is a new area for me. Last time I went a different way.”
As the two crawled away from the hole, their sense of touch guided them through the darkness. Tonya thought about Crystal and how she would handle this situation being blind. Tonya realized how much she took her sight for granted as her hand waved in the darkness ahead of her and then felt the floor for any other holes. Ash was to her left, searching in a similar manner when a loud thud came from her. “Ouch! Mmmmmphh.” She muffled her swearing as Tonya slowed her progress and sat beside her.
“Is there a door or something?” Tonya said as she searched the wall. Her fingers found the edge of a round hole near the center, close to the floor. “I found a way. It’s small but I think we can crawl through it.” Tonya lay on her stomach and felt the opening, it was larger than she expected, room enough for her to turn around in with some contortion of her limbs. With the darkness still robbing their sight, Tonya lead the way into the new area.
Despite trying to remain quiet, the hollow noise they generated echoed, revealing their presence. Tonya felt her sweaty palms slipping, “Ash? I think we should go feet first.”
“Okay.” The tinge of fear lacing Ash’s voice did nothing to placate Tonya’s nerves.
Progressing feet first, Tonya bumped her head on the ceiling. She felt the surrounding walls and found the diameter of the hole decreasing as they progressed. A trickle of water echoed up to them as the pitch of the floor gradually increased. Tonya pressed her elbows and legs against the sides to control her forward progress. The two continued their way forward as the sound of the water increased as did the pitch of the floor. Water ports were now two feet away from her.
Ash spoke through a strained voice. “I think this is a slide. It sounds like hollow plastic. I hate water slides.”
“I’m not going back. See you at the bottom.” Tonya stretched out her legs and eased her feet into the chilled water. She inched forward as more of her clothing soaked in water until she slowly began to slide forward without effort. The water touched her spine causing her to shiver. “I’m off.” She crossed her arms across her chest and gained momentum.
The tube turned a sharp left and then shot straight down. Tonya felt as a rocket returning to earth, except that she had no parachute to slow her descent. She felt the tube turn a hard left, sending her body higher up the sidewall. It seemed that it went on forever, but she felt herself slowing slightly as the tube continued its spiral downward with the sharp angle receding. She expected a pool of water at the bottom, giving her a soft, graceful landing.
Light from the end haloed her vision. When she hit the light hit, she found herself flying high over a deep pool of water. Tonya used her arms to stabilize her body as the water rushed up to greet her. At the last moment she pulled into a tight spear position and pinched her nose shut as she pierced the water. Her feet scooped upwards, inverting her in the water as the bubbles trickled around her rushing to the surface. She swam underwater in the direction she came to avoid Ash landing on top of her. With her breath fading, she angled towards the surface and relished the air that filled her lungs. The scream that echoed across the room from the slide opening told her that Ash was less than composed as she too was nearing the end of the slide.
Tonya grasped the edge of the pool, and watched Ash shoot out with arms and legs flailing. Tonya swam toward her as she splashed into the water with the grace of a falling boulder. Saying a quick prayer that Ash was okay, Ash surfaced as Tonya neared her point of entry.
“What the hell was that? I’m done. I want to go home.” Tonya could only smile as the two made their way to the side of the pool.
After they climbed out, they looked around the room. The room was vacant except for a white-haired man standing with his arms behind his back. He stood still as the two women approached him. His face was stoic and full of age lines. He turned and walked to a door, opening it triggered the lights to come on inside and gestured with his hand to enter. “Inside you will find towels and refreshments at your disposal. You have earned it.”
The two gave each other a look before Ash headed in. Tonya stopped and spoke with the man. “Who else has came this way?”
“I’m not permitted to relay information to the contestants. Fresh towels and protein bars are waiting inside for you.”
Tonya’s eye caught a harsh line on his neck that seemed out of place. “Okay…thank you.” Without taking her eyes off the man, she called to Ash. “Ash, can you come out here?”
Ash spoke through a full mouth. “What’s up?”
The man shoved Tonya back and slammed the door shut, trapping Ash inside. Her fists could be heard beating on the steel door as her muffled voice screamed in panic. Tonya stared dead-eyed at the man. She backed away with his movements matching her step for step. He walked with fluid and youthful grace, contradicting his appearance.
“You didn’t think it would be that easy did you?” The man said.
“I never expect anything to be easy. If it were, it wouldn’t be worth doing.” She tucked a few wet hairs behind her ear.
“Touche.” His gait had a cat-like quality about it. He wasn’t built like the other gladiators. Instead, he was smaller with toned muscles. Ones that were formed from repetitious movements. She anticipated some martial arts knowledge from the man as the two closed around each other.
Tonya brought her fists up in guard on either side of her face. The man took an open stance with his hands in front of him in claw fashion. He threw a low kick to her thigh as she brought her knee up, absorbing the kick. He was testing the waters with her, she told herself. Tonya threw a sequence of jabs followed by an uppercut. Nothing connected as his head danced around her fists. An idea came to her as she tried to connect with a kick to his midsection.
He was growing cocky as he continued deflecting or dodging Tonya’s attacks. The man began merely moving his head and body enough to allow her fists to miss by a hair. His smile grew each time he dodged a punch. That was when Tonya faked a punch and dove at his legs. The shocked look on his face revealed one of terror as she drove her shoulders into his thighs and locked an arm around each leg as the two fell to the ground. Tonya scrambled into the mount position and proceeded to land punches when she could. He rolled over, protecting his head and tried to slide out from under her. That was when she locked in her legs around his inner thighs, securing the back mount position. She forced his chest to the ground and managed to get an arm around his neck and pulled in tight.
“Which way is the fastest way to the center of the labyrinth?”
He spoke through clenched teeth, “Why should I tell you?” He pulled on her arm, gaining a small relief on his neck.
She moved slightly and got the upper part of his ear in her mouth. She spoke with his ear in between her teeth, “Tell me, and I’ll let you keep your ear.”
“I’m not scared of you. You’re a puss.”
Tonya didn’t hesitate to bite down. The soft tissue mangled between her teeth as the man howled in pain. The bitter, metallic taste of blood mingled with the chlorinated water dripping from her hair. The pain distracted the man momentarily for Tonya to slip her choke hold deeper around his neck. Her thumbnail caught the edge of his neck where the strange line was. It was a mask. She could feel the air wheezing through his windpipe as he struggled to get free. He tried to roll with her on his back, but she held on and the two turned over and over across the floor. The slick blood caused her to lose the hold on his ear. His garbled cursing only solidified the control Tonya held over him.
They lay on the floor for several minutes. The man tried to hit her in the face but couldn’t move his arms enough. He hit her on the thighs and tried to roll several times. His strength was fading as was Tonya’s patience.
“You’re beat. Tell me which way to go, or I’ll bite the shit out of you again.” Tonya was struggling to keep the choke hold on the guy as her muscles fatigued from him pulling down on her arm.
“There is only three ways out of this room. Two doors for you, one for me. Mine is a maintenance shaft and only connects at the far ends of the building. Now let me go.”
“What about Ash?”
His voice was raspy, “Can’t help her. Only they can.”
Tonya wasn’t completely convinced he was telling the truth, but her cramping muscles unfolded and the man pushed her away and lay on his side cradling his ear. She was near exhausted, but she summoned the will to crawl to the door imprisoning Ash. The vent near the bottom of the door only permitted her to hear Ash’s sobs. Tonya reached up and tried the handle. It remained rooted as a stubborn mule.
“Ash? I can’t help you, the door is locked. Is there any way out? A window or something?”
Whimpering was the only sound she heard for several moments. Then Ash spoke, “You have to go on without me. I clearly wasn’t meant to finish.”
“Thanks for your help.”
Tonya stood and walked to the pool and used the water to clean the blood from her face before going to the two doors the man spoke about. She stood there looking at the identical doors. Her decision was made as she grasped the handle and pulled.
TO BE CONTINUED…