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Gauntlet: Chapter 1

Clio’s pulse began to race faster. “What do you mean?” she spluttered. “There is a way through, isn’t there? I mean, not all the streets are blocked, are they?”

Her voice came out high and breathless on the last question, and her arms crept around herself. She gripped her elbows as she stared at them. She wouldn’t panic. She wouldn’t.

“Maybe not yet,” the red-haired one answered.

Not yet. She suppressed the urge to whimper.

“But soon, if they’ve been busy.” The boy on the wall pulled one leg beneath his chin and regarded her with interest.

“You could,” the red-haired boy called her attention back, “stay.”

“Stay?” The pitch of her voice rose again.

“Yes, stay with us.” The boy on the wall jumped down. Side by side, he stood with his companion. His tan complexion and dark hair contrasted with his friend.

They grinned at her.

“Well,” the dark-haired one offered. “If you get inside and stay until morning, you’ll probably be fine.”

“But I–” Clio took a shuddering breath. “I just want to go home. Please. Please, show me the way out.”

“What’s your name?”

“Cl-Claudia.” Clio faltered as she hid her real name in an utterly futile display of caution.

The red-haired boy grinned knowingly. “I’m Jack.”

“Hi.”

The dark-haired boy laughed, not unkindly, and Clio felt a hot flush spread over her cheeks. “Don’t you want to know mine?” he asked.

Anxious and a little angry, but not wanting to antagonize her best chance of finding a way out, Clio nodded.

“I’m Jack, too, Cl-Cl-Claudia. You can call us Red Jack and Black Jack to keep us straight.”

His smirk made her angrier, and she scowled, knowing that he was only making fun of her.

“Thanks, Jack. Can you show me the way or not?”

Red Jack shrugged. “It may be too late already.”

Clio could feel the tears prick her eyes. She fought to keep them from falling, though her distress finally seemed to faze the two boys. Black Jack sighed, and he exchanged a look with his companion.

“Maybe if we take her through the night market…”

“Yeah,” Red Jack agreed. “Not a bad idea.”

“Put this on.”

Clio stared at the jacket Black Jack had removed. He held it toward her and raised his eyebrows.

“Do you want them to notice you?” he asked.

She didn’t even know who they were, but she shivered to think of the shouting men and the long shadows that had stretched down the hill. She put the black jacket on and zipped it up, partially covering the white beacon of her dress.

“The hood, too.”

With trembling fingers, she pulled the hood up around her face. It felt strange and uncomfortable. The unfamiliar warmth of another person’s body enveloped her. His scent surrounded her, but Clio remembered herself enough to rouse a moment’s politeness.

“Thank you,” she murmured. She unconsciously thrust her hands deep into the jacket’s pockets.

“Don’t thank us yet,” Red Jack replied with a grin.

“Come on.” Black Jack slipped off like a shadow against the wall. Red Jack followed, not looking to see if Clio did the same.

She had no choice but to follow them, walking rapidly in the greater fear that she would lose sight of them and be left alone. Even worse, it was turning full dark.

For several minutes Clio trailed after them, occasionally hearing a voice or two from nearby. The Jacks made so many twists and turns that her sense of direction was hopelessly confounded. Finally, the sounds of life and activity grew louder.

They emerged onto a bustling enclave of shops and stalls. People dressed for the night strolled along the sidewalks on either side of the enclosed, exuberant market. Despite her earlier explorations of the city, this place was nothing like the markets she knew.

People laughed and chattered, and vendors hawked their wares…but it was different, somehow. The heels on the women’s shoes seemed so tall and sharp, as if they were walking on pointed needles. Their lipstick was too bright, their voices too shrill. The men were loud and boisterous and seemed to lurk in every doorway, watching everything that passed in front of them with knowing leers. Even the scents of the foods seemed strange and unsettling.

Under different circumstances, Clio might have been charmed. But she had no desire now to linger, or to find out what went on past the long row of tantalizing doorways that opened onto the street.

“Don’t think you’re home free yet.” Dark humor laced the voice in her ear.

On Clio’s other side, an equally amused murmur made her shiver. “Not even close.”

The Jacks tugged her arms and carried her between them, past the long line of doors and stalls and people. Just before they pulled her around a corner into a much quieter street, Clio looked over her shoulder.

Down at the far end of the market, where they had entered moments before, a single silhouette stained the shadow of the alleyway. There was something compelling and terrible about that one figure, stirring a deep intuition that she should escape its notice. But still, she looked, resisting the pull of the boys.

With horrified fascination, Clio watched the figure detach itself from the shadows and turn its head in her direction.

Gauntlet: Chapter 1

Her lips parted in a gasp, but her guides dragged her away. The Jacks whisked her down the street so quickly that she had to nearly run to match their strides.

“Oh, you really shouldn’t have done that,” Red Jack said in grim mirth.

“Did he see us?” she whispered. “Is he…is he coming after me?”

“I’d say so, yeah. They are,” the boy replied with malicious significance.

“But why?” Clio hated herself for uttering the useless question, and for dropping to a plaintive whine.

“She’s feeling sorry for herself now,” Black Jack commented.

“I think you’re right.”

“I’m not!” Clio exclaimed. “I’m just–”

“Just a lost little girl who came to play when she didn’t know the rules?”

“I’m not…” Lost. Clio was well and truly lost. “…little.”

Clio’s anger flared at the mocking amusement she saw in their faces. “And this isn’t a game,” she added sharply.

The boys laughed, dragging her through a quick turn and then another. She was beginning to feel dizzy, and nausea made her stomach roll.

“Are we almost there?” she asked in desperation.

“That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?”

“Very. But I think what she means to ask is–are we almost out?”

“You know that’s what I mean!” Clio cried in frustration.

“Shh. Voices carry around here.”

Indeed, a smattering of hoots and calls broke out, sounding like the youthful, wild voices she’d heard earlier. She couldn’t pinpoint the direction of the sound–it echoed so oddly within the walls here. But it was much too close for comfort.

They ducked into a cramped alley, and Clio clutched Black Jack’s arm as they huddled against the wall. His face creased in something that may have been pity or just amused disgust. Then he jumped up to the fire escape that clung to the cement wall.

He reached for her. After a moment’s hesitation, she took his hand and allowed the redhead to boost her up.

They all climbed as silently as possible to the roof of the building. It was flat and empty, but the Jacks motioned for her to crouch down when those awful calls rose again. It sounded like a pack of petulant boys who’d outgrown innocent pastimes and gone feral.

“What now?” Clio whispered. She was growing more suspicious that this impromptu hide-and-seek was just a dark joke, but she had no choice other than to cling to her companions.

“Too bad,” Red Jack murmured.

What?” She gripped the boy’s arm.

Black Jack shook his head. “It’s a lost cause, after all.”

Clio’s muted panic finally erupted, and her vision brightened and tunneled to an alarming degree. “What do you mean?” she breathed.

“They’re really on the move tonight.”

“It was a good try,” Red Jack offered. “Any other night, maybe…”

“Oh, God.” Clio swayed in her unsteady crouch and dropped to her knees. “Don’t let them find me. Please, you can’t!”

“They’ll find you soon enough.”

She shook her head, incapable of further speech.

Black Jack pursed his lips. “There is one thing you could try.”

Clio snapped her head back. “What? What?!

Red Jack frowned at his friend. Clio dug her blunt nails deep into his arm.

“Tell me!” she begged.

The redhead didn’t even look at her. His gaze stayed locked on his friend.

“But which is worse, Black?” he murmured.

“That’s her choice to make, Red.”

What choice, dammit?! What are you talking about?!”

Both boys looked at her, all traces of amusement wiped from their expressions. An underlying excitement crackled below the surface.

“You could…” Red Jack began.

“…try your luck in The Building,” Black Jack finished.

“The building? You mean this one?”

“No,” the Jacks answered in unison. “That one.”

Clio’s gaze followed their fingers to the opposite end of the roof. An imposing gray building lined with many dark windows dominated the view. Clio crept closer to the roof’s edge.

The gray building’s façade was done in some indeterminable style and gave no clue to its purpose. Graffiti tagged the gray stone, and some of the windows were covered or broken. The building looked as if it had been left unused for ages.

Clio knew it could be almost anything–an abandoned school, a factory, or even a grand, old apartment house. Marble steps led up to the front entrance, but the back of the building disappeared in the darkness behind a high stone wall topped with wrought-iron spikes. Whatever the building was or had been, it seemed out of place in the midst of the ugly, squat structures that surrounded it.

“What is it?” Clio whispered. She looked back at the boys, a wave of dizziness spinning the world for a moment. The boys’ faces seemed to float in front of her.

“The way out.” Brown freckles and white teeth loomed close. “Maybe,” Red Jack amended.

“Maybe,” Black Jack agreed.

“Stop playing games,” Clio hissed. “Can we get out that way or not? Does the other side come out on the avenue?”

Identical wicked grins split the faces of the two Jacks. Their eyes appeared black as they stared at her, pupils huge in the dark.

“Silly Claudia,” Red Jack scolded lightly. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

“The game’s the thing,” Black Jack agreed.

Clio stared at them.

Were these boys stringing her along, or were they actually crazy?

Her dismay grew as the voices crowed from below. She heard more slapping footsteps along the alley. The blood drained from her face.

The two smiling Jacks watched Clio expectantly.

“Running out of time,” Red Jack whispered. “You’d better hurry.”

“You’re not…coming with me?” Clio breathed. Her hands trembled, and she latched onto her backpack straps like they were a lifeline.

“Can’t.” Black Jack’s eyes glimmered. “We belong here.”

Clio bit down into the flesh of her lower lip. The fire escape behind them began to rattle.

“Oh…” Her gasp turned into a half-sob. “What if it’s locked?”

“Only one way to find out.”

Rough hands pushed her toward the roof’s edge. She felt a moment of pure terror until she saw the metal stairs leading down, a mirror to the one she’d just climbed.

“Hellooo,” an unfamiliar voice cackled. “Anybody up there?”

The insincere cheer of the voice made Clio shudder. She climbed onto the metal cage and looked at the Jacks, her gaze moving from one boy to the other.

“Good luck, Cl-Cl-Claudia.”

She flushed suddenly with guilt. “My real name is Clio,” she murmured.

“Tricky girl, isn’t she?” A constellation of freckles twisted into new configurations.

“Keeps a few cards up her sleeve. Some might be offended.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Clio stuttered. “Thank you for helping me.”

They ignored her gratitude, but Black Jack leaned down until his nose was inches from hers.

“Better run, Clio,” he breathed. “And don’t look back. They won’t follow once you reach the steps. They won’t dare.

“But be careful, all the same.” Red Jack nodded sagely. “It’s The Building, you know. A person might go in, but will he–”

“Or she.”

“Or she,” amended Red Jack, “come out the other side?”

The boys laughed again, sending Clio into a mad rush down the rusty stairs. The fire escape on the other side of the building clattered violently as her pursuers clambered to the top.

Focus, Clio ordered herself. Hold onto the rail, drop to the ground. Clio’s knee skinned on the rough concrete, but she ignored the pain and the red drops that welled between the grit that lodged there. It was forty, fifty feet to that marble stairway.

Don’t look back. She pushed up from her crouch and ran.

This was insane. She knew it, but she couldn’t stop her feet from pounding toward the hulking beast of a structure. If only there was time to think–but the voices surrounded her. Shadows seemed to slip from the suffocating blackness and lope behind her, just out of reach.

Her legs pumped harder. Something seemed to brush her flying hair. Fingers? An oddly high-pitched laugh made her sob. It was so close.

She slammed against the bottom steps gracelessly and scrambled, using her hands as she lurched forward against the cold stone. Uncaring of her dignity, she threw herself onto the wide landing and heaved great, sobbing breaths. She waited for them to follow…but only hoots and catcalls reached her.

“Cliiiiooooo…”

Her skin crawled in revulsion as the syllables of her name echoed in the square.

How did they–?

She felt sick, that little betrayal clenching her heart. Had the Jacks told? They couldn’t have. They had helped her! Or had they?

Her eyes rose to the red double doors that guarded the entrance. There was no lock that she could see, but that meant nothing. She would just have to find out for herself–if she chose to go in.

“Cliiiooo…” the voices taunted and teased. “Come out and play.”

“We’ll show you lots of games.”

Catcalls and sniggered laughter assaulted her, but no one came closer. The Jacks hadn’t lied about that, at least.

Don’t look back.

Above the red door, large letters carved in old Roman font–the kind where the u looked like a v–spelled out two words: Gauntlet, Unlimited. Beneath that, on the curved arch that overspread the grand landing, was the inscription Alea iacta est. She was sure she’d heard that phrase before, though she couldn’t remember where or what the words meant.

Caught between the terrible choices, Clio’s fear faded for the barest moment into an eerie calm.

She could probably figure it out later. It would come to her; things usually did. Gallows humor pulled a thin smile to her lips. At least it didn’t say, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

And then the fear came slamming back. Nothing could stop the trembling in her hands, but Clio stepped forward and wrapped her fingers around the ornate, iron bar and pushed. With startling ease, it swung open and a hush descended on the dark square.

Okay, then. One step over the threshold, a half-step sideways, and she released the ponderous door and waited for the inevitable closing thud. It slipped back into place with nothing but a deceptively gentle click.

All sound from outside was instantly cut off. She was left in a profound and heavy stillness that seemed to force the air from her lungs.

Proceed to Chapter 1, page 3–>