Confused and nauseous, my eyes opened as a blinding light passed over them. I was awake, my back flat against a cold slab of concrete. The distant roar of a crowd began to fade in over the ringing in my ears, stomping and chanting in a language that addled the senses.
"Our final contestant has awoken!" yelled a booming voice, shocking me upright. I crawled to my feet, swaying dizzily as I scanned my surroundings. One man, one woman, and a small boy stood before me, shaking off their disorientation and rubbing their eyes in confusion. We were caged within a chamber whose wooden walls stretched on for miles, and touched a sky of black, miasmic clouds. "Now that you're all up and ready, let me explain the rules!" shouted the voice, echoing from the unknown distance. "You will be required to navigate an obstacle course. At no time may any contestant conspire against another, or otherwise put them at a disadvantage; this is a fair competition, after all! That being said, feel free to work together, and try your best, because our one lucky winner will be awarded a fabulous prize! Let the games begin!"
The voice dimmed to nothing beneath the cheers of an unseen audience, while the five of us looked on in bewilderment. I had no idea how I got there. All I remembered was falling asleep in my apartment.
"Is this some kind of a joke?" the man asked, while a smile began to creep across the woman's face.
"We're on television!" she announced in a gleeful British accent, her jewelry tinkling with every movement. "We're on a game show! I've been sending them letters for months!"
"Well, how did you get here?" the man asked her. "'Cause the last thing I remember was taking lunch, and bam, here I am." The woman stood silent, awash in a nervous tension.
"I'm dreaming," the boy said. "I just went to sleep, so now I'm dreaming."
It was easy to assume that we had been kidnapped, but something about the whole situation felt horribly unnatural. Ignoring the rest of their conversation, I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the glare of the spotlights above. We stood upon a raised platform, boxed in by ebony walls just tall enough to prevent us from seeing the rest of the limitless room. Past the only exit, a simple wooden balancing beam was stretched over a shallow pit. I walked toward it and crossed, rousing a steady chorus of applause.
As I reached the end, I looked back at the other three and watched them stumble across the beam. The man and the woman crossed over to me, and only the boy remained, standing sheepishly upon the first stage. I turned to the woman, hoping that she could shed some light on our whereabouts.
"You said something about a TV show?" I asked, still caught in a wavering delirium.
"Well, yeah," she said, "I enter a lot of contests; a few of them are for game shows. They aren't really like this, though."
"We're not on a damn TV show," the man interrupted. A loud thump sounded behind us, followed by a chorus of cheers. The boy had fallen, and sat grasping his knee in the small pit beneath the balancing beam.
"Sorry," he said.
"Woops!" the announcer shouted above the roar of the crowd. "Looks like somebody had an accident!" The boy held still, cheeks red with embarrassment. "Well, go on," the announcer continued. "Get back up and try it again!"
"Get the hell up, kid," said the man. "I'm getting out of here, and I'm not waiting around for you."
The woman looked like she was about to say something, though decided not to provoke him. The boy rose to his feet and lifted himself back onto the stage. Crossing the beam, he held his arms wide, wobbling back and forth as he struggled to maintain his balance. As he drew near, I looked at the next section of the course.
Three fleshy platforms of sinew and teeth floated in sequence upon a pit of clear liquid, each set a meter apart, requiring us to jump from one to the next until we reached the end.
"Fuck this," said the man, stepping ahead of me, and provoking the anticipation of the hidden audience. Breaking into a run, he leapt to the first platform. It teetered as he landed, splashing small slivers of liquid over the edges. He jumped again, and landed on the second platform.
I began to move forward, picking up speed for as long as I could before I jumped. I saw the limitless depths pass beneath me as I sailed through the air, landing with a heavy thud upon the rough, fleshy surface. Liquid shot up along the sides as I shook, struggling to stabilize myself. A burning sensation snaked its way between my toes. I swore, looking down at my feet as the burning grew to an overwhelming agony. Smoke rose from my shoes as the rubber and plastic melted beneath the spattering of the liquid.
"Hey, hold on!" I shouted at the man ahead of me, trying to warn him. "Something's wrong, be -"
The man slipped as I caught his attention, tumbling over the side of the teetering platform, and landing in the liquid with a splash. He shrieked in pain, madly flailing his arms as his flesh dissolved in the acid. The crowd roared above the sound of his screams as his hope of crawling out was crushed, the muscle having fallen away from his arms. I looked back at the woman and child at the beginning of the obstacle. They cringed, averting their eyes and covering their ears as the bloody remnants of the man sank into the depths. Only a smoky, red tinge in the liquid remained.
"Looks like the rest of you will have to be a bit more careful!" boomed the announcer.
"What's going on?" the woman muttered, tears streaming down her cheeks as the boy clung to her in fear.
"Why, you're in an obstacle course!" said the announcer. "You have to overcome the obstacles!"
"Where are we? Let us go!" the woman demanded.
"You were removed from your native dimension for the audience's viewing pleasure, and we don't want to disappoint the audience, now do we? So move onward, and get a chance at winning a fabulous prize!" A cascade of cheering voices overwhelmed my ears as the announcer ended his speech.
I turned toward the next platform, my heart hammering in my ears. The acid that had eaten away a part of my shoes had faded to nothing, leaving only the sting of my blistered flesh. I braced myself, and leapt forward, hoping that it would end quickly. As I landed upon the warped and mottled skin, I jumped again before the liquid could splash against my feet, and again on the third platform. Tumbling onto the next stage, I fell to my knees in relief, looking back at the other two as the woman consoled the crying child. Ready to proceed, they slowly made their way toward me. The fear in their eyes shone brightly as they leapt from platform to platform, struggling to shrug off the flecks of acid that splashed against their feet. As they reached me, a look of horror overcame them. I turned to the next section of the course.
Beyond a short drop, a black orb was suspended in the center of a large bowl-like enclosure, encircled by a transparent ring of light. The wood of the enclosure was carved with ornate, alternating depictions of the sun and moon, stylized with an angular, menacing geometry that was painful to observe directly. An immediate sense of danger washed over me as I stepped forward, stopping me in place. Something was wrong. I knelt down to tear away a mangled scrap of my shoe, and tossed it into the enclosure before us. As soon as it struck the ground, a loud click sounded from the black orb, and the scrap disintegrated in a burst of charred material. The ring had moved, and was now angled vertically. The crowd cheered.
"Oh, we have a smart one, here!" yelled the announcer.
I removed the rest of my shoe, and threw it into the pit. It bounced for a moment against the wood, then settled in place. The click sounded again, followed by the loud ticking of a clock. After ten seconds, the timer stopped, and the ring flicked back into its horizontal position, disintegrating my shoe.
"Throw something in there," I said, looking at the other two. The woman removed her necklace and tossed it forward. The air rippled as it struck the ground, and with another click, the necklace burst with a deafening bang, metal shrapnel ripping across my cheek. Clutching my bleeding face, I looked up to see the ring move into its vertical position. "I'm gonna' go down there," I said. "As soon as I hit the ground, jump, and get over to the other side as quick as you can. You'll have ten seconds. Understand?"
The other two nodded apprehensively. As I lowered myself into the pit, the woman picked up the boy and held him in her arms. Pushing through a shroud of overwhelming dread, my foot touched the ground, and the clock started ticking. I dashed around the orb and pulled myself onto the next stage, looking back to see the woman following close behind. I grabbed her hand, helping her and the boy up just as the timer stopped. The crowd roared.
"What heroism!" yelled the announcer. "Truly, your folks back at home will miss such fine examples of primate intelligence. Or, maybe we'll just bring them here! How does that sound?" The audience cheered even louder, their shouting beginning to sound like a cacophony of inhuman screeching as I covered my bleeding ears in vain.
At the next obstacle, a metallic, bloodstained bridge floated above a shadowy void, thinly parted in three sections. The enclosing walls of the course were no more, replaced by a smoky darkness that surrounded us on all sides and radiated an aura of boundless immensity. At the end of the bridge, the light of the next stage flickered in the void. Seeing no obvious impediment, I assumed that it was another trap. I knelt down to remove my other shoe, and threw it forward. Three metallic blurs rushed through the gaps in the bridge as the shoe passed them. When it landed, the heel had been cleanly severed. My stomach churned, and I glanced back at the other two.
"Throw something again," I said to the woman. She removed her ring and tossed it ahead. It ricocheted against one of the passing blades with a loud pang, and rolled to a halt at her feet. She picked it up, eyes widening at the small cut that had been sliced into the band. "How long is the course?" I yelled to the invisible announcer. The audience laughed.
"As long as it takes, valued contestant! As long as it takes!"
Moving closer as I readied myself, I took off my shirt and threw it across the bridge, breaking into a sprint as it sailed ahead of me, and was severed in two by the passing blade. I skidded to a halt after I crossed the first gap, feeling the rush of the wind as the blade sliced down behind me again. It worked. I then removed my belt, coiling it together in my hands as they shook with terror and adrenaline.
Pushing through the crushing fear, the audience cheered as I brought back my arm, ready to throw the belt ahead of me. With a flick of my wrist, the belt was in the air, and I broke into a sprint behind it. An excruciating pain shot through my midsection as I felt my body fall to the ground. The blade had been delayed. My vision blurred, and I could hear the screams of the woman and child beneath the roar of the crowd. The lower half of my body laid just behind me, shredded messily across the metal bridge as my strewn intestines dangled over the void.
"Looks like somebody had an accident!" the announcer boomed to the delight of the audience. "Get back up and try it again! Don't be shy!"
My strength faded as I cringed in agony, looking across the remainder of the bridge. The patter of footsteps fell upon the metal behind me, and the woman's scream pierced through the cheer. A spatter of blood rained down ahead of me, the child shrieking in horror back at the beginning. I reached forward in a futile attempt to pull myself ahead. Before I could take hold of the ground, a blade whisked through the air, and my fingers were severed in a flash of blood. The pain began to fade as the blood drained from my body, and only the eldritch shrieking of the crowd remained. Lights swirled overhead, dancing through the billowing, black malaise of the sky; a malign adulation shrieking upon the air until my final moments were upon me. The world trembled and faded, until at last, I slipped into darkness.
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