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Gauntlet: Chapter 10 (final)

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #011 back issue.

Clio struggled to keep up with Chance’s long stride. He seemed oblivious to the pace he was setting, clearly distracted by his thoughts as they made their way through the tunnels below August’s stronghold.

“How are we getting to August’s rooms without being seen?” she asked, the quick clomp of her boots echoing around them. “The tunnel only goes to the edge of the square.”

“We won’t need to,” Chance said tersely. “The more people that see us, the better.”

Clio shot him a look. “What are you talking about?” she asked. Are you crazy? she added silently.

“August has always been a little paranoid, but now he’s got good reason to be. He’s even better guarded than before, and I’m on his shit list at the moment. I can’t get near him easily–not when he’s alone.”

“You should’ve mentioned that before we got here,” Clio muttered. “So what are we going to do, then?”

“We’re going to walk in through the main gate.”

That’s your plan?”

Chance smirked. “Says the girl who was all set to run off and confront August when she thought Britt was in danger.”

“I didn’t intend to just waltz in,” Clio snapped. “How is walking right into August’s clutches supposed to help us?”

“We need to get him alone, right?”

Chance’s calm demeanor combined with his inability to get to the point made Clio grit her teeth. “Yes.

“To do that, he needs to trust me.” Clio stumbled as Chance stopped abruptly and turned to face her with an intent look. “So do you.”

“Okaaay,” Clio said. “How are you going to make him trust you?”

“By giving him what he wants.” Chance looked almost apologetic when he shrugged at her impatient expression. “You.”

“Ugh.” Disgust crumpled Clio’s face. “Don’t put it that way. You make it sound like some sick prisoner-of-war fantasy you’ve cooked up.”

“You know, sometimes you’re pretty melodramatic.” Chance gave a dry laugh. “But you have a point. Which means August will love it.”

Clio snorted. “You’re right about that.”

She drew her eyebrows together as she tried to think of a better plan, but conceded that Chance probably knew the best way to manipulate August. Anyway, it was time to end this, and she couldn’t wait to see the look on August’s face when he realized just how screwed he really was.

“Fine,” she said at last. “If you’re sure it’ll work.” She shivered a little; her clothes and hair were still damp from the squall they’d been drenched in, and her ponytail clung unpleasantly to the back of her neck. The tunnel was cooler than outside–now that they’d stopped walking, she felt the chill.

“Are you cold?” Chance reached out and rubbed her arms from shoulder to elbow with his warm, broad hands. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the dampness of his clothes, and his hair, being so short, was practically dry already. Only the slightly curling ends around the nape of his neck and his temples showed any evidence of the downpour.

Considering their current situation, it was a bit ridiculous to start wondering how curly Chance’s hair would be if it were a little longer…but the thought struck her, anyway. He was standing so close now, his head almost brushing the low ceiling.

Clio blushed as she remembered how she’d kissed him so impulsively. She could feel the skin at the base of her throat flutter quickly over her pulse.

“I’m fine,” she blurted, pulling away from the actually comforting warmth and hoping the dim light in the tunnels hid the flush in her face. “We need to talk about what happens once we get August alone.”

“Like I said–I’ll take the charm from him and give it to you.” Chance’s voice matched the imperious cast of his expression. His eyes narrowed as if he expected her protests and was warning her not to bother. “Then you get back to the tower.”

A muscle jumped in Clio’s jaw. This pissed her off so much. His attitude was the reason she hadn’t listened to him when they’d first met–one of the reasons, anyway.

“Don’t talk to me like that. Just because you say something doesn’t mean we’re doing it–especially when your idea is terrible, like this one is.” Clio folded her arms across her chest. “We’re not stealing it.”

“It’s the only way to–”

“It isn’t,” she said quickly, cutting him off. “Did you really think I was okay with you doing that? I have a better idea, but first I have a question.”

Chance frowned. “What?”

“Why does he want my bracelet so badly? I never really took the time to think about it until recently, but…” Clio cocked her head and watched the look of surprise bloom on Chance’s face. “I know why it’s important to me–I want to get out. But does he want to get out? It seems like what he wants is right here, isn’t it?”

A long moment passed before Chance answered. Clio’s stomach squirmed pleasantly when an admiring grin lightened his features.

“You’re right. He doesn’t want to get out to stay out. But if he has your bracelet, with all the charms, then he should be able to come and go as he pleases.”

Clio thought about that. August with exclusive access to all the resources available in the “real world”–things that could give him even more power in the Gauntlet–was a scary thought. He could even bring in people.

Clio grimaced.

“Have you ever known anyone that made it out?”

The silence was even longer this time, but Chance finally nodded. “I’ve heard about people who did, but I’ve only met one of them.”

“Did they come back?” Clio asked with wide eyes.

Chance nodded again.

“Who was it?” Somehow Clio knew what he was going to say before the name left his lips.

“Britt.”

Clio’s fingers lifted up to the small die nestled on its chain just below her collarbone.

Britt. It stunned her, but it also made a certain kind of sense. Britt’s competence, her knowledge and bravery…it came from more than just her personality. She had experience.

But why did she come back? Clio wondered. And did that mean…Clio had never needed to save her?

Relief rushed through Clio, although it was twisted up in embarrassment. Maybe she’d overvalued what she could do for Britt. She seemed to…do that a lot, when it came to Britt. But if this meant Britt was okay, even now, even if Clio got out–that was what mattered.

And if Britt had left the Gauntlet before, she could leave again, right? And maybe she and Clio could meet on the other side?

The thought surged excitement through Clio, crushing any last regrets.

Clio looked up at Chance; one other thing still bothered her.

“Why didn’t you get out?” she asked him. From what she’d seen of him, she couldn’t picture him not trying, or giving up before he’d found a way.

Chance’s short laugh, devoid of humor, startled her.

“I told you that when we–August and I–first found the research about the experiments they were doing here, he was completely fascinated. I was, too, to be honest.” Chance paced a few feet away and frowned, his eyes distant with memory.

“Well, we didn’t find everything at once. Little discoveries here and there that all added up. It was…addictive. August was completely hooked, but as we uncovered more…unethical methods, I started to question what we were doing. I brought up looking for the way out again.”

Chance scowled. “It made August angry. That was our first real fight. He said we were meant to be here–that we’d been chosen, and to leave was cowardly and stupid and a waste of our talents. We could take what we’d learned and push it even further, and then we could go back and show everyone what we’d done. I disagreed and tried to convince him that we should go back to where we belonged.

“And, well…it was like someone had been waiting for us to reach that point. Maybe we would’ve found the new wing, anyway, but the timing was too perfect.”

“What was in the wing?” Clio asked with eager interest.

“A laboratory–better than state of the art, equipped with everything we needed to continue the research. Computers, drugs, records…” Chance met her gaze, a look of self-disgust contorting his face. “There was even a dormitory that dispensed food and water…for what you call the droolers. Test subjects. August was beside himself.”

Clio sucked in a breath, one hand unconsciously pressing against her slack lips. “That convinced you to stay?”

“Not in my case, no. Oh, it confirmed to August that he was meant to be here, to take over the reins. He felt like he’d been given carte blanche to do as he pleased. I think he would’ve let me leave without him then, without fighting me on it–he was walking on air. But at that point, he couldn’t just let me go.”

“Why?” It was some trap of the Gauntlet, Clio was sure. That was exactly the way it worked–offering something that seemed too good to be true.

“We were only given a glimpse of the wonders that awaited us.” The bitterness in Chance’s voice was clearer now. “To access it, both of us had to use our version of your bracelet simultaneously. It was both of us or nothing.”

A long silence ensued that Clio was a little afraid to break. But when Chance started walking again, she stepped quickly to keep up.

“So you did it, then. I mean…obviously,” she said lamely.

“Yeah. August was wild; he wouldn’t let up, and he did everything he could to convince me.” His jaw tightened. “And I…let myself be convinced. I won’t lie. A part of me wanted the knowledge, and to be on the cutting edge of something like that. We could change lives. Could’ve. Of course, there was a catch.”

“Of course.” Clio exchanged a look of pained amusement with Chance. They understood each other perfectly on that point.

“Our tokens…were taken in the process. We didn’t get them back. We knew in advance that would happen, but August convinced me that when we were ready, we could find a way. He said that whoever had put us here wouldn’t want us to rot away without sharing what we discovered.”

“So…here you are.”

“Yes.”

“And August is ready now to…what? Publish a paper in some scholarly journal?” Clio scoffed.

“He’s drained most of his resources here. Run into dead ends, and the Gauntlet hasn’t coughed up anything interesting for a while. Not until you. He wants the freedom he has here, but he needs things from the outside, too–a pipeline he can control for information, drugs, equipment, people…”

Clio pursed her lips. “And he needs my bracelet for that,” Clio said slowly, thinking over the implications. “So he can come and go.”

Chance grunted. “Yes, but that’s not going to happen. I’ll take the heart. You’ll leave, and both you and the bracelet will be out of his reach.”

Chance’s dogged persistence with that plan made Clio scowl. “You think that’ll make things better?” she clarified. “He’ll get even angrier and crazier!”

“I can handle him,” Chance said evenly.

“You’ll be a drooler!” Clio cried, yanking his arm and digging in her heels so he was forced to stop and look at her.

“We don’t know that for sure.”

“Just listen, Chance. This place is crazy, and the rules are stupid, but from what I understand… Why…why can’t I just take August with me?”

Chance stared at her blankly. His mouth opened, but nothing came out until he finally uttered a simple, “What?”

“I’m serious.” Clio paced ahead, outlining her plan with broad gestures of her hands as she talked. “What if we, I don’t know, tie him up or something. Instead of stealing the heart back, we take him to the tower where the elevator is. He gets to keep the heart, but we use our charms together, and we leave the Gauntlet together. Once we’re outside, I’ll destroy my bracelet. He only has one charm, so he won’t be able to get back inside.”

“And neither will you,” Chance said quietly.

Clio jerked her head back. Chance was frowning thoughtfully at the ground.

“But…it could work,” he murmured at last.

The fact that he’d given her plan even that much approval startled her. The shot of excitement made her clap her hands together eagerly as she stepped toward him.

“It could, right? I mean, he’d be let loose out there, but he can’t be that dangerous without his thugs.” Clio laughed gleefully. “He’d be so pissed off. He wouldn’t have access to the kinds of things he does here. And maybe whoever is…watching this place, maybe they’d finally do something about him, too. I don’t know, but it seems like the safest option. Don’t you think?”

“I think…” Chance straightened, fixing her with one of his intimidating looks and sending her newfound confidence plummeting, “…that you’re brilliant.”

Clio’s breath caught in her throat. She beamed. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

Chance was wetter than he looked–his jacket was still soaked through–but Clio didn’t mind at all when she plastered herself against him. This was apparently going to be a thing–Chance saying something that made her want to kiss him uncontrollably.

He seemed a little stunned when she pulled away, though his hands warmed her back through the thin fabric of her T-shirt. He seemed in no hurry to release her. “What was that for?”

Clio grinned. “You’re a lot less obnoxious on further acquaintance.”

One dark eyebrow rose. “Thanks?”

“Come on.” Clio laughed and grabbed his hand. “The exit isn’t far. We can figure out the details of what we’ll say to him on the way, and you can start practicing your looming and stuff.”

“I don’t loom.” Chance actually sounded insulted, which made Clio snicker. “I’m just tall.”

They made it to the exit in about ten minutes, ironing out their plan as well as they could considering August’s unpredictable nature. Even if things didn’t go exactly as planned, Clio was still glad to be taking action for once; she felt both excitement and a real sense of hope that this time, things would go her way.

A quick survey of the area showed that it was clear. After they emerged from the tunnels, they looked at each other in nervous anticipation.

“Ready?” Chance asked.

Clio nodded.

Proceed to Chapter 10, page 2–>