Sneak Peek: The Twelfth Labor Chapter 1

It’s that time again!  With the final editing on Incorruptible winding down and the writing for The Twelfth Labor going full steam ahead, it’s time to give anyone interested a bit of a taste of the action and drama to come in Three Seconds to Legend!

Chapter 1 Wrangling the Mares

Leilana Ito, also known to the roaring masses outside of the squared circle as the Girl Hercules, hit the brightly-colored turnbuckle hard. Her head, already throbbing, snapped back against the padded steel and the world went cloudy for a moment. The garish colors of the enormous circus big top surrounding the ring and the stands only made the sensation worse.

Ingrained instincts made Leilana move, still sore from the beating sustained at the hands of the giantess Rose Bull just a week prior. Rolling right, the Hawaiian barely avoided further pain as Dirty Dana Harding, the woman Leilana loved and sadly one of her opponents, crashed into the space the Girl Hercules once occupied.

“There are no friends in the ring, only in the locker room,” Grandfather had told Leilana during her training and it seemed everyone else was trained the same.

When this had all started five minutes ago here at Circus Circus right on the Las Vegas strip, the five of them had still been a team. Then as the ring announcer had announced their arrival to the ring one by one, all of Leilana’s friends seemed to turn into hungry wolves. Each of those wolves caught scent of what they most desired in the form of that briefcase hanging above the ring. When the bell had finally rung, no time was wasted before mother fought daughter, partner brawled with partner, and lover clashed with lover.

For now, despite her reservations, Leilana had to be like those other wolves or she would be the first course of their dinner. Dana stumbled back from her own impact with the corner, clutching her bad shoulder. Before the Texas brawler could recover, Leilana wrapped her muscular arms around Dana’s waist and heaved with all of her might, slamming the Dirty one’s neck and shoulders into the hard canvas with a German suplex.

With Dana stunned for the moment, Leilana pushed to her hands and knees, trying to regroup and reassess the chaos around her. Leilana couldn’t deny the cruel brilliance of it all. To force your greatest enemies to face each other instead of you was a classic tactic on its own. It was the fact the Von Richter sisters had thought of the irresistible lure, the ultimate prize, to bring out the worst in all of them that was genius.

As Leilana got to her feet, her eyes flashed once more to the briefcase suspended by a steel cable above the ring. The chance of gold that case contained had been the ultimate spark, the insurance that this would turn into the carnage that Angela and Elise desired. For her, it was freedom, a chance to complete the run of the gauntlet the Von Richters had forced her into.

It took effort to turn from that case to focus on the more immediate danger. It wasn’t just Dana, already recovering slowly, but every one of her teammates Leilana had to deal with. All dangerous, all skilled, and all hungry to win. Across the ring, the Giovanni family, the powerful Maria and her impossibly agile daughter Bambi, executed a swift double-team clothesline on the last of their number, Pai Shi, her pain concealed by her stylized Chinese lion mask. She could only wonder what that case meant to each of them.

There was an opening with Dana and Pai both down on the mat and Leilana pushed herself into a charge. Neither Giovanni caught her lumbering approach as Maria found herself, much to her shock, on the receiving end of a hard thrust kick from her own daughter. The impact didn’t knock the bulky black woman over, but she did stagger backwards. What did knock the Boar of Italy over, her and her daughter alike, were Leilana’s arms as she lashed out with twin lariats at the end of her charge.

For just a moment, there was relative silence in the ring aside from the roaring, jeering masses surrounding the ring. Leilana shot a quick glance around the ring despite the urge to capitalize, to destroy. No matter what her grandfather had told her, trained her to believe, this still seemed so wrong.

It was one thing if this had been a simple match, brought about because of rankings or the like, but this was simply just another attack on all of them. Still, she had no choice. Her freedom and the safety of her family rested on getting that contract, something that wouldn’t happen simply by beating up her friends … opponents.

They wouldn’t be down long so Leilana ducked down and rolled under the ring ropes to the floor below. It was time to get a ladder.

Angela Von Richter smiled as the five women in the ring below seemed hellbent on destroying one another. Yes, the Ito girl had danced through every obstacle before her, battered, bruised, but triumphant. Tonight might not turn out any different, but that no longer mattered. There was a greater plan at work, a greater destiny to fulfill, and tonight would extract a terrible cost from all of their enemies struggling in the squared circle. That cost was all that Angela wanted and she was certain to get it.

“I have never been one for circuses, even as a child, but you have certainly shown me how they can be entertaining, dear sister,” Elise Von Richter, lips pressed into a thin smile, said, sitting in the box to her right. Angela regarded her sister with an angelic smile of her own.

“It all comes down to the quality of the performance, Elise.” She gestured to her lover and bodyguard, Sebastian Kruger, for another glass of wine. “There is always joy to see your enemies fight themselves at your command.”

“To think, there is so much more to come.”

Angela nodded, feeling a tinge of that red-eyed madness that seemed to run in the Von Richter bloodline. Sympathy for the carnage below? Most likely, as the Ito girl muscled a closed ladder into the ring. Now things would get good and properly bloody.

The Giovanni were still lingering on the mat and Pai Shi had rolled to a far corner to recover. That was good for Dana Harding as she got to her feet, rubbing at her bad shoulder. First a bullet, then Sunny Clover’s ‘tender ministrations’, now a straight collision into the corner and the mat, it all made Harding wonder if that shoulder would last through this match.

What else was she going to do though, lay down and stay out of this? Still, just what did this match mean to the Dirty one? Was she causing all this havoc just to prove that she wasn’t too old, that she had one last chance for glory? Dana shook those thoughts out of her mind. There wasn’t time for them right now.

Leilana had just rolled back into the ring, hefting the utility ladder plucked from ringside. Inexperience was the Girl Hercules’ greatest weakness and, despite that twinge of regret, Dana was going to take advantage of it as she ate the distance between them in quick steps. It was way too early in this dance to bring the ladders in, something her girlfriend (the word still sounded both wrong and exciting in Dana’s mind) was about to find out.

Distracted by her burden, Ito didn’t catch a glimpse of Dana as she turned back to the center of the ring. With the ladder held up across her chest, she was an easy target for the Dirty one, who lashed out with a big cowboy boot. The impact clanged into the ladder, thrusting it hard into Leilana’s chest, smashing her between the steel and the ring ropes. There was a loud gasp of pain and the ladder clattered to the mat as Ito clutched her chest in agony.

Dana avoided looking in the Hawaiian’s eyes as she unloaded a hard punch to the lingering bruise in Leilana’s jaw. Her head snapped hard to the side, leaving the Girl Hercules totally defenseless. The veteran found herself pausing, those persistent questions trying to burrow through twenty years of instincts. Another shake of the head and Dana set her jaw. She had a job to do and she did it by scooping Leilana up off the mat with a big grunt before slamming the short-but-stout girl down on top of the fallen ladder.

The shriek of pain as Leilana’s back hit hard onto the bare steel sent a shiver up Dana’s spine. Every fiber of her being was that of a fighter and, normally, to hear that would simply make her fight harder, to finish off her foe. This sound, though, that cry penetrated those fibers, straight to Dana’s heart. She stood there, uncertain, something she knew was suicide in this kind of match with so many opponents.

Sure enough, it was no surprise to her rational mind when a battle cry caught Dana’s attention just a split-second before Pai Shi’s scarlet boots smashed into the side of her head in a flying dropkick. The impact send Dana crashing to the mat.

“There is no time for sentiment, Dana Harding.” Pai’s voice was a harsh whisper as she picked the Texan up off the mat. Before Dana could struggle, she felt a hard knee slam into her breastbone, almost taking her off her feet. The whole sequence concluded with a spin as Dana’s perspective whirled until all she could see was the big top of Circus Circus above her and all she could feel was the exploding pain in her neck from the Lioness’ neck breaker.

Even through the pain running up and down her spine, Dana knew Pai Shi was right. There was no time to be sentimental or kind or merciful. Still, she couldn’t shake it even as she tried to recover. Dana knew now what she had been fighting for and it paled in comparison with the needs of Leilana. Pride didn’t trump freedom. As Dana tried to rally herself, she couldn’t help but wonder why the others fought as they did? How could it be more important?

For a moment, Leilana had been overcome by the explosion of pain. It was the incessant voice in her head that made her regain her senses. Before it had been her grandfather’s voice or Dana’s. Now it was her own. Whatever its identity, it cried out in warning and Leilana tried to respond. Her battered body couldn’t move in time as she felt the large hands of Maria Giovanni grab her by the hair and right arm.

“I am sorry, bambina, but this is my chance to show the world, to take back my place from you,” the Italian rumbled as Leilana felt herself hauled to her feet. It was just like Dana had told her. Maria Giovanni still felt displaced, overshadowed and now had the chance to fight back against her percieved replacement.

The Boar seemed to take her time to aim her attack, vital seconds that let Leilana’s head clear. What she saw was one of Maria’s massive arms reared back just as she yanked on Ito’s own trapped arm, ready to take off her head with one clean clothesline.

Speed was not her strength but adrenaline surged as Leilana forced herself to duck, the clothesline cutting the air above her head as she passed by on Maria’s right side. Her foe off-balance, Leilana rode that surge of strength for all it was worth, latching on to the Boar by her waist and one leg. There was a moment of struggle, raw muscle contending against superior height and bulk, but the Girl Hercules strained harder. Heaving Maria up into the air, Leilana forced her back down with that same velocity, slamming with the large Italian over her outstretched knee.

Before Leilana could slide the Boar onto the mat and follow up, there was a flash of multicolored motion as Bambi Giovanni, almost as short as Leilana herself and a fraction of the weight, flew through the air at the two of them. Leilana flinched, raising her arms to guard her face from the inevitable blow, a blow that never came. Instead, there was a shock that ran through her knee as Maria spasmed from another hard impact.

“I’ll show you, mama, I can stand on my own!” The shrill cry from the teenaged wrestler sounded all too familiar, echoing that argument Leilana had with her father, Kentaro, when he tried to ban her from the ring. It felt like a lifetime ago, even if it had been little over a year. The leaping leg drop Bambi had dropped over her mother’s throat was all too immediate and spoke volumes for her reasons to fight today. Still, despite her mother’s protective smother being her primary target, Leilana could already see Bambi’s eyes turn to a new target.

True enough, before Leilana was even back to a full vertical base, Bambi had sprung back up and was on her. The elbow smash to Leilana’s jaw slipped past her slow guard and tagged that same swelling bruise Dana had punched, magnifying the pain. As Leilana staggered back, holding her chin, she felt slim but strong legs wrap around her neck and start to squeeze.

Bambi, weighing down Leilana like the proverbial albatross, bucked and twisted, trying to flip the bigger woman over. Despite the growing pressure and violent movements, the Girl Hercules refused to move, finding the strength to plant her feet like an tree. Even with Bambi’s thighs obscuring her vision, Leilana could see that Maria was still writhing in pain on the mat, while Dana and Pai Shi were fighting back and forth across the ring. The ladder was still sitting there, alone and unattended.

Trying to worm her hands into the scissor hold to pry the agile teenager loose, Leilana felt Bambi shift and move until she was sitting square on Leilana’s shoulders. The Hawaiian grit her teeth as the pressure redoubled; Bambi’s new goal seemed to be to try to cinch in some kind of sleeper hold. There was a cry of exertion as Bambi’s legs flexed and curled as her hands found purchase under Leilana’s chin, prying at her head, trying to expose the cartoid and jugular to attack.

The ladder. It was Leilana’s best hope as Bambi poured on the pressure. The Girl Hercules could already feel the sleeper starting to effect her as the edges of her vision started to gray. She staggered a few steps towards the ladder. Bambi’s attention still seemed to be focused on the hold and if she foresaw what was coming, she made no move to avoid it. Rallying herself, Leilana made a sudden move, turning and leaping up into the air. Falling backwards, it was Bambi that slammed into the ladder this time, not Leilana, though she was still a bit rattled by the impact. The hold, predictably, was broken.

Shaking the fog out of her vision, Leilana forced the pain down and made herself rise to her feet once more. This had to end and end quickly or whoever did win would be in no shape to face Sunny Clover, the Von Richter’s hand-picked champion. Sunny Clover, once Leilana’s best friend and now betrayer.

Dana reversed the wristlock before Pai Shi could drop an elbow into her screaming shoulder. The Dirty one was hard pressed by the dynamic Lioness and, to be honest, it was age. Age and inactivity, months of recovery caused by Sunny Clover and twenty years of putting her body on the line, all together was turning what should have been an even fight into a losing engagement. Still, she wasn’t going to roll over and let Pai walk over her. Neither of them would settle for that. Maybe Pai was like her, fighting out of sheer stubbornness and for a last chance to recapture the past.

Dana let out a yowl as the Lioness unleashed a hard kick to her side. Painful, yes, but the yowl was mostly for show, to play up the hurt. Pai, as much a veteran as Dana was, fell for it all the same. With a vague smirk, she chambered another kick and launched it at the seemingly hurt ribs, only for the Dirty one to tense, absorbing the kick without even a flinch. Before the Lioness could retract her leg, Dana trapped the ankle under her arm.

“My turn, Ah think,” Dana grunted as she slammed a fist down on Pai’s outstretched knee. The Lioness refused to even grunt in pain, but the fact she hadn’t instantly retaliated told Dana she was hurting. Keeping up the momentum before her aching body gave in to its desire to stop, Harding stepped in before slamming a palm into Pai’s chest. Between the trapped leg and the sudden impact, the Lioness fell back, hitting the mat hard, one leg still in Dana’s clutches.

Dana reared back a cowboy boot, casting a quick glance around the ring. That same boot slammed home into the base of Pai’s thigh as the Texan finished her assessment of the ring. Maria was slowly rising from whatever pummeling she had endured while Leilana lifted little Bambi up over her head in a full military press. She could read Lei all too well, even as Dana was driving yet another boot into the trapped Lioness’ leg. Lei was hurt, hurt pretty bad, but that fighting spirit deep down was keeping her moving. Well, she was fine for now, time to deal with Dana’s own problem.

As the mat shuddered from Bambi’s unfortunate landing, Dana cocked an elbow and dropped it with all the weight in her nearly six-foot tall frame right down into Pai Shi’s knee. There was a sound almost like a hiss through Pai’s clenched teeth. Now that one had hurt. The Dirty one twisted the still-trapped ankle, maneuvering for a knee lock to keep the dynamic dancer grounded.

The blinding impact to the side of Dana’s head punctuated Pai’s objection to the idea. Despite the obvious agony she was in, the Lioness somehow ignored it all, driving her free foot into Dana’s head once, then twice. The second kick knocked Dana’s grip loose as she rolled away, clutching her skull.

Dana pushed up to her knees, trying to find her foe before it was too late. The sudden smack of boot leather to her chin told her it was far too late, though there was some satisfaction in the grunt of pain that Pai let out. Dana had, indeed, hurt that leg pretty badly, she thought through a gray haze, swaying back on her calves, right before the Lioness dropped her signature ax kick right on the top of her head.

The Dirty one wasn’t quite aware of her face hitting the canvas as she slumped forward though she was distantly aware of some loud clang. Probably someone hitting someone with a ladder or being thrown into one. Dana also heard Pai make a snort of derision above her. The two had a long history, back before Dana had turned into the better person she was today, and though much of that was behind them, there was still traces of those ill feelings remaining. Maybe that’s why Pai fell for this game. One last shot to settle an old and painful score.

It was that derision, that act of disrespect that rallied Dana’s will. She would have called it stubborn Texas pride, but whatever it was, it made her move. Pai had turned away, moving in on an unaware Leilana who was setting up the ladder. Dana pushed up to her feet and lunged, grabbing the Lioness by the chin. Utter surprise led a total lack of defense as Harding fell back once more, dragging Pai back by the chin, impaling her on Dana’s raised knees. She flopped to the mat off of Dana, floored by the appropriately named backstabber.

Was Lei nuts? A ladder match with so many people might go quicker as injuries mounted, but this was still too early to go up that thing. Why would –

Dana knew the answer before she even finished thinking the question. Leilana wanted this over before someone really got hurt, even if it put her own self at risk. God damn that heart of hers. The Dirty one pushed herself up to her feet, despite the protests of her body and the complaint of injury.

“Why won’t they let me fight you?” Sunny mumbled to herself, pacing in her dressing room. “I could, like, totally have beat you tonight.” The match progressed on the monitor, but the Californian gymnast had so wanted to be at ringside to watch. Ms. Elise had denied that request. There would be no distractions or interruptions of their precious little set-up.

Maybe they wanted them all to get beat up and that was cool, she supposed. But still, it was like they didn’t trust Sunny to win. Ms. Elise had been training her for months and look at all the people she had whipped. Wasn’t Sunny Clover, the Perfect Ten, the champion? Hadn’t she trashed Dana Harding? What about those two armed mercs dudes in Oklahoma?

Sunny flopped down into a chair and felt a sob build in her throat. She did everything she was asked to, all to belong, all to justify what she had done to Leilana, what she had done to Max Maxwell, her old boyfriend. Despite all of that, deep down, she knew the Von Richters still didn’t trust her to finish this, despite all of that.

Sunny Clover realized that she was alone and, despite all that she now had, the fame, the championship, the money, it all felt worthless. All she could think to do about it was to cry.

Leilana hadn’t wanted to go as far as she did, but it was better to be hurt the two of them now than to injure them permanently in the long run. Bambi was still laid out on the far side of the ring from the tremendous throw Leilana had given her and Maria leaned like a side of beef on the ropes, stunned from a ladder upside her head. That self-same ladder was now set.

Taking a deep breath, Leilana put one of her neo-Grecian sandals on the first rung. To her surprise, there wasn’t a sudden interruption, no side swipe, no attack from behind, so she pushed up and started to climb. The canvas mat itself wasn’t the most stable of surfaces for a ladder and the agony than ran up her body made what should have been a few moments of climbing seem to take forever. It suddenly became much more stable when a sudden weight balanced on the other half of the ladder.

Dana had started up the opposite side. There was no time left for pain or doubt. Leilana pushed herself harder, higher. The Texan had a huge height advantage that would eat the few rungs of lead that Leilana had. This was a game of inches and this was one time Leilana couldn’t come up short.

The Girl Hercules crested the top of the ladder at the same time the Dirty one did. Both of them were panting, exhausted, hurt. As green eyes gazed into blue, Leilana felt herself freeze up for one long moment. Could she do what had to be done right now? Would it end here or would the violence about to be unleashed linger beyond this match?

“Lei -” Dana stopped herself before she started, cut off by a sad shake of the head. The Texan nodded in reply sharply, then lunged for the briefcase.

Dana wanted to tell Lei to just take the damn case. How could she have even entertained the notion to keep the woman she had bled for, had been shot for, who she truly loved, from her freedom? It was only Leilana’s look, the fact she shared that same undiluted competitive spirit with Pai Shi, that made Dana make her move. Lei might not have wanted to break one of her friends but she damn sure wasn’t going to let Dana just give up either.

Lei grabbed Dana’s wrist before it could touch the bottom of the case and wrenched it painfully to the side. With her other hand, Lei got a firm grasp on the lapels of the Dirty one’s leather vest. Dana stuffed her free hand into the Hawaiian’s face, trying to worm into the eyes, the nose, the soft spot of the jaw, anywhere to inflict the most pain.

The struggle continued painfully, almost an even match, see-sawing back and forth on the top of the ladder. The fact remained, though, that this was indeed a game on inches. Dana had the superior position, longer reach, and better leverage. Without a stable platform, Lei just couldn’t bring her full unmatched strength to bear, a fact made evident when Dana managed to push just a little closer. Her fingers crawled up Leilana’s face and found those pressure points to lock on a single ‘Dirty Digger’, Dana’s claw hold finishing move. It was with her bad arm, but it would still do the job.

As Dana tightened her grip, pulling a loud shriek of pain from Leilana’s lips, she saw Pai and Maria both on their feet, both with the same idea. Better to knock the ladder over and reset the whole damn match than let either Dana or Leilana win. They rushed across the ring and there was now only a second to make a critical decision.

As Pai and Maria crashed into the side of the ladder, Dana feigned weakness in her bad arm and, instead, pulled up with her other arm that had been grabbed around Leilana’s toga-style top.

“Get it,” was all Dana had time to say in a harsh whisper. She could only hope that somehow instinct would take over as the ladder began to fall.

The horrible pain was over in a flash. Leilana had withstood, even broken, the ‘Dirty Diggers’ before, but it would have easily held her back long enough to Dana to grab the case. She didn’t even understand the harsh whisper, but Lei did feel the pull on her top and, more importantly, the dangerous sideways tilt of the ladder.

Everything seemed to slow for that one moment as her powerful legs pushed upward, a surge of raw might. The ladder was already falling; there was no more need to be gentle. The briefcase seemed to zoom into view and then it was there. So surprising was it’s sudden arrival that Leilana almost didn’t grab it. Fortunately, instinct took over as she wrapped her arms around it, still suspended in the air, like a life preserver.

Below her, there was a crash of steel, flesh, and bone. Risking a glance down, trying to figure her own landing, Leilana gasped. Dana Harding had become tangled in the ladder as it fell, collapsed into an unmoving heap. Pai Shi looked painfully up at the hanging Leilana while Maria seemed to come to herself, rushing over to where Dana was pinned.

That is when the hook gave way under Leilana’s bulk. Even in free-fall, knowing what was about to happen, Leilana hugged the briefcase to her breast. All of this pain and suffering would be pointless if she didn’t manage to hold –

The sudden conclusion of Leilana’s fall drove both her breath and consciousness straight out of her.

“Simply beautiful.” Angela’s smile was genuine as Rita Sanchez, the referee, rushed to check on the winner of the match.

“Indeed, Angela,” Elise added. “Truly, the Ito girl is a remarkable specimen. I sometimes wonder if there wasn’t some way to use her instead of destroy her.”

“You gave her the chance yourself, sister, and she turned her back on us.” Angela rose to her feet, giving the ever-waiting Sebastian a kiss on the cheek. “For all the havoc she has sown in our orderly world, the dishonor she laid at your feet, and the death of Grandfather, there must be a reckoning. No second chances.”

“Truly.” Elise stood as well, walking to the edge of the box. For Angela, there was nothing else important to see, despite the other matches to entertain the masses. “After all, I look forward far more to facing her again than I would ever look forward to fighting by her side.”

“In due time,” Angela nodded. “Your plan is impeccable and, with my own special touches, we will let it play out.”

“I suggest then that we retire early.” Elise turned from the clean-up of the carnage in the ring. “Tomorrow, we must begin your training.”

Though Angela did not look forward to it, athletics and fighting were her sister’s strengths not hers, she knew there was little other choice. It was how their family had quelled and controlled the raw anger that seemed to be their blood curse.

“Of course, you are most correct. Afterward, we will continue your training.”

Elise arched an eyebrow in surprise but then smiled her cold, hard smile.

“As you wish, dear sister. As you wish.”

When Leilana came to, Rita Sanchez and one of the ring doctors were hovering over her. The briefcase was still clutched to her chest.

“Ito?” Sanchez asked. “Can you see? Can you understand me?”

“Where is Dana?” It was the only thing she wanted to know.

“She’s okay … mostly. You’re the one we’re -“

“I am fine,” Leilana muttered, “I won, did I not?”

That affirmation wasn’t as comforting as she thought it would be.

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