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Gauntlet: Chapter 1

Yellowish, washed-out light from the lampposts in the square filtered through the grime of the high windows of the lobby. It was enough to allow Clio to make out the dimensions of the large room without illuminating the far corners. Across the way, curved staircases twisted up into the gloom, bracketing another imposing door.

She sagged back against the door, knees weak from the fading adrenaline. A thick silence seemed to fill the space until furtive scuffling sounds disturbed it. Clio grimaced.

Rats, no doubt. They were common enough, and rats she could handle.

It was harder–much harder–to think of moving away from the solid door. This abandoned building hardly seemed a sanctuary or the way out that she needed. She feared the Jacks had sent her on an even wilder goose chase, and Clio was tempted to turn and run back out into the square she’d just escaped.

But the possibility of facing the wild, pursuing men filled her with a greater dread. And she stopped at the disquieting thought that she would find the door locked. It would be worse to know that the decision had been taken from her.

I could wait until morning.

The thought of huddling in discomfort and anxiety for the entire night revolted her. She had only the Jacks’ word that no one else would enter the building. She didn’t want to wait here to test the truth of it.

She would have to take her chances in the building.

It was creepy, but she could deal with that one step at a time. She was too old to be afraid of the dark. A strap of her backpack had fallen down to her elbow, and she slid it back up as she squared her shoulders.

“Ready or not,” Clio whispered in false bravado, “here I come.”

With a steadying breath, Clio made her way through scattered debris, trying to mute the sound of her leather sandals on the marble. Despite her efforts, her right foot went skidding out from under her. She flailed gracelessly and landed on her butt with a bruising jolt. A sibilant curse escaped her and echoed around the four walls.

The offending item seemed to be a worn and creased brochure. Clio reached for it, squinting at the photo on the cover. It was a building–this building–but the text was small and fine, rendered in a font that would strain her eyes even under proper light. She folded it and slid it into the pocket of her jacket.

Black Jack’s black jacket.

A laugh huffed out unexpectedly, and Clio pushed to her feet, barely aware of the stretched grin on her face. More skittering sounds came from the side of the room. Shadows seemed to dance in her peripheral vision, and she realized the danger of allowing her imagination to get the better of her.

“Get a grip, Clio,” she murmured firmly.

She started again, picking a careful path through overturned remnants of furniture and assorted mess. The lobby was huge, and, even in the gloom, she could make out some of the architectural details that hinted at its past elegance. It must have been something in its day.

A troubled frown creased her forehead. It was odd that a place like this lay empty and abandoned in this part of the city. Unease bloomed at the thought that maybe the building wasn’t abandoned at all.

She finally reached a closed door that stretched several feet above her head. It didn’t seem like a door one could enter quietly, and she wanted nothing more than to slip unnoticed through all doorways and halls until she reached the exit on the other side.

Her gaze flickered from the darkened stairwell on the left to the one on her right, and Clio shuddered. The stairwells seemed like gaping mouths…long tongues let down to catch what they could. She had absolutely no desire to ascend in the dark to explore the upper reaches of the building. Nor did she want to stay in this room.

“It won’t open by itself, you know.”

Clio shrieked, jerking back as if burnt. She snapped her head around.

From the shadows, hoarse laughter wheezed from what seemed like a mound of rubble. “At least,” the voice croaked, “it never has before.”

Clio’s eyes finally made out a huddled figure against the wall–one that was undeniably human and too small to be threatening. Clio expelled a long, shaky breath and hunched over the hand she’d unthinkingly pressed against her heart.

“Sorry,” Clio gasped. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No harm done, girl. I was just having a little nap. But you won’t tell them, will you?” The voice–a woman’s?–held a hint of conspiratorial mirth.

“Tell who?” Clio asked cautiously.

The person sat up in a production of grunts and groans. The sound of scraping metal preceded a glowing flame that illuminated a creased, worn face. Thin lips clamped a slender cigarette between them, but surprisingly elegant fingers cupped the lighter. The jagged, dirty fingernails were a stark contrast to the smooth hands.

Wrinkles deepened as the old woman grinned. The lit cigarette swayed, its glowing orange tip capturing Clio’s attention until the sharp click of the closing lighter snapped her out of it.

The woman didn’t speak, and her expression was impossible to make out without the flame. Clio was gripped by the helpless awkwardness that always came when she was in the presence of someone homeless. Then the thought struck her that this was the woman’s home, and Clio was an intruder.

“I’m sorry, do you…live here?”

A mucus-filled laugh coughed out harshly and Clio colored, embarrassed.

“Here and there,” the woman croaked.

“I-I’m just… I mean, I was told that I could go through the building. That it would take me back to the main avenue. So I’m…passing through…” Clio’s halting speech trailed off.

“Yes, you’ll pass through. Everyone does.” The tip of the cigarette glowed brightly again and a little bout of coughing ensued before the rough voice continued. “Except me. You could stay and keep me company. What do you say, girl?”

“I…thank you– ” Clio shifted uncomfortably, trying to suppress a shiver. “But I really want to go home.”

“To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”

Clio couldn’t help but smile at the childish humor in the woman’s voice. It evoked an image of the woman as a young girl, perhaps reciting the rhyme as she played. A deeper thrust of empathy sent Clio closer.

“I didn’t buy a pig today,” Clio answered.

With a sudden lurch that made Clio jump, the old woman cast something hard and small into the corner. It connected with a solid thud; a loud squeak and the scurrying of little feet accompanied a fleeing shadow.

“They try and steal my food when I’m not paying attention.” A deep inhale finished off the last of the cigarette. The old woman stubbed it out on the floor. “Didn’t buy any pigs, but I bet you saw some. The kind that walk on two legs.”

A lewd gesture accompanied the conjecture. Clio gave a nervous laugh, startled by the abrupt turn of thought and its crudity, but the awkwardness fell away when the woman erupted into dry coughs. Alarm brought Clio to her knees, and she reached into her bag for the bottle of water.

“Here, drink this.” Clio placed one hand on the woman’s arm and lifted the bottle to her lips, helping to hold it steady as the woman’s trembling hand came up to grasp it. A few mouthfuls made it down the woman’s throat, and Clio pulled her hands away when the fit seemed to pass.

This close, the woman’s stench hit Clio’s nostrils with pungent force. Clio’s compassion rose again.

“Are…are you hungry?” Clio asked. The bread she’d purchased earlier had cooled, but its fresh smell drifted from the open backpack. That simple interlude felt like it had taken place a hundred years before. “I have some rolls I bought a little while ago.”

Clio offered the small bag tentatively, not wanting to offend, but the woman snatched it. She peered into the bag to sniff at the contents.

The woman reached out to pat Clio’s hand. Clio flushed, embarrassed by the gratitude, until the strangely smooth fingers wrapped around her wrist and yanked her closer.

“You’re a good girl.” Clio struggled not to gag from the damp breath that washed over her face. It reeked of rotten food and bile and stale tobacco. “So I’ll give you something in return.”

“You don’t have to,” Clio protested, trying to regain possession of her arm without giving offense–but the woman’s grip tightened, and Clio felt the beat of panic in her chest again. The woman’s fingers were stronger than expected.

The woman fumbled in the deep folds of the many layers she wore. She pulled out a small object with a cackle of discovery.

“It’s yours now,” the woman said.

Her grip on Clio was suddenly replaced by a bracelet that dangled tiny charms. It jingled as Clio lifted her arm.

“Oh, but I can’t take–”

“Tch. Tit for tat. You’ll thank me later if not now.”

The subtle rebuke made Clio flush again. “I–thank you,” Clio corrected. “It’s very nice of you, I just meant it’s not necessary.”

“Of course it’s not necessary.” The woman’s tone was scornful. “It’s a gift.”

Clio bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”

The old woman grunted. “Better be on your way, girl,” she said with a shade of spite. “You may be inside now, but it isn’t safe to stay in one place too long.” She sniggered and settled back against the wall, tearing into one of the rolls Clio had given her. “Unless you want to stay here with me forever, after all.”

Dirty fingers suddenly snatched at Clio’s arm, and Clio lurched back to evade the woman’s grasp. She scrambled to her feet and stepped away; the woman made no attempt to follow. Mocking laughter made Clio’s eyes prick with humiliation, and she snatched up her backpack in a fit of anger.

The old woman was singing now–a crooning song in her broken voice. As she sang, something small scuffled in the rubbish piled against the walls. Clio watched in horror as a large rat crawled into the woman’s lap to take the piece of bread from her fingers. The woman spoke to the creature in cooing tones.

The numbing shock finally broke the last thread of Clio’s composure. A sob of revulsion wrenched from deep within her as she turned and ran for the door. Blind instinct pushed her on; she only knew she couldn’t stay there for one second longer.

Clio flung herself at the door, but it opened with unexpected ease. She stumbled into the utter blackness that waited beyond it.

Oh, God. Not good–not good at all.

Clio threw her hands out in front of her and felt for the wall. Her chest ached from the pounding of her heart as she shuffled along. There had to be a door, a window that would give her a way out. She reached a corner and twisted to follow the wall.

Her hands hit cold metal. She felt it cautiously, finding the long vertical seam of an elevator door. She shuffled sideways, her fingertips skimming the wall until she felt the control panel, the buttons. She moved past them in unreasoning fear of those doors opening in front of her to reveal a deep, dark shaft or something worse.

She continued her blind journey and bumped into something bulky. It was fronted by glass and a panel of buttons. A vending machine? she wondered.

She envisioned moldering candy bars. She shuddered and moved on, her hands sliding over nothing but peeling paint. Her fingertips eventually discovered a smooth plate that held a row of three switches, all in the down position.

Surely…surely it wouldn’t work. But one by one she flicked them up and held her breath. One second, then two, then three passed before a low thrum reverberated around her. The sound resolved into buzzing, dirty fluorescent lighting that wavered above her head and illuminated the small elevator bank. A moment later, the hallway branching off the alcove lit up with its own hum of ancient bulbs.

Oh, great, she thought. A hysterical bubble welled up in her throat. More doors.

The corridor was long and wide, ending in a pair of industrial metal doors. She hoped that one was an exit–or if not, that it would take her away from all the insanity behind her. She forced her feet to move forward, ignoring the ranks of doors on either side, and sped up until she was running.

She sighed with relief when she saw the two doors weren’t chained shut. The relief was short-lived.

They weren’t chained, but locked. Locked.

A sudden and violent hatred for the two boys who had sent her here burned through Clio. Her fist slammed against the metal door with a muted boom.

What now? she thought miserably.

Clio took a shuddering breath. To her right, the open stairwell offered two choices–up or down. To go down, to descend to an even deeper level, wasn’t something she thought she could do. It also seemed blatantly stupid.

To go up was marginally less terrifying, but it would also take her farther from a quick exit. She turned, looking back down the long hallway at the doorway to the lobby. Going back wasn’t an option–the old woman’s warning rang clear in her mind.

Clio’s breath came fast and harsh through her nose, punctuating the quiet as she fought back tears. Before her fear could paralyze her, she forced herself to approach the closest door. The knob was cold in her hand, and she twisted it slowly, her pulse speeding up with the motion.

Her eyes closed in defeat. It was locked, too.

Clio inhaled shakily and took a few steps forward. She tried another door and the knob turned easily, but when she pushed open the door to an empty room, it was almost a letdown.

Desperate, Clio rushed to the window that had been covered in a wooden plank. She pulled at the board, scraping her hands as she furiously tried to pry it away. It didn’t budge. There wasn’t even a crack to peek through. Clio sobbed out a curse, resting her forehead against the rough wood.

After a moment, she lifted her head and numbly walked out. She closed the door behind her.

A third of the way down the hallway, another door finally opened to her touch. Her eyes widened as the light from the hallway spilled into a small bedroom. It looked like a dormitory room, but it stank of stale air. A metal bedframe rested along one wall, and a desk, chair, and small dresser made up the rest of the furniture.

She found a switch that snapped on the dingy, bare bulb overhead. Clio’s heart sank. The window was also boarded here, though a sheer yellow curtain had been hung in front of it, as if in some ghastly effort to provide warmth to the gloomy room. A layer of grime coated all visible surfaces, and rumpled, gray sheets covered the bed. Her throat tightened with pity at the thought of anyone actually sleeping there.

A smaller door stood in the wall across from the bed. Clio made herself walk to it.

“Please,” she whispered. If this didn’t provide a way out then she’d have to find something to pry open the window. But please, she begged again, silently this time.

Before her hand closed around the door handle, a hushed sound made her freeze.

It had come from behind the door, soft and stealthy–like the shuffle of a footstep or a sharp intake of breath. Or had she imagined it? Excruciatingly slow, she turned her head and put her ear as close to the door as she dared. She held her breath and counted to ten. Nothing. A few more beats and her pulse began to even out.

Just as she reached again for the handle, warm, moist air blew across her toes. It was only a moment of pure shock that sealed her lips and kept her from shrieking.

A draft? Just a warm draft? Clio stared down at the slight gap between the bottom of the door and the floor.

Then comprehension slammed into her. Someone–or some thing, her mind morbidly supplied–could be down on that dirty floor on the other side of the door. Slithering on the cold ground like a snake. Clio shuddered, envisioning a long, rough tongue flicking out to lick her bare toes.

If she crouched down, would she find something peering at her, its eyes black with blown pupils to see in the dim light? She could feel disconnect slipping back, threatening to whiten her vision.

She couldn’t faint. She couldn’t. Who knew what would happen then?

Her fingers curled, nails digging into her palms. She focused on the pain and slid her feet backward in carefully measured steps. Halfway across the room, she turned–and her hands flew up to crush against her mouth.

In the thick dust of the mirror that hung over the dresser someone had recently dragged their fingers, leaving a brighter gleam of the reflective surface in the tracks.

Her chest hitched once. Clio slowly looked over her shoulder at the door behind her.

Get out. The beat of her heart drummed the rhythm. Get out. Get out. Get out. Get out.

Survival pangs moved her limbs. Out in the hall, she closed the door with trembling hands.

She couldn’t stay here. She was done. She’d go back outside–right through the lobby. Maybe the Jacks would hide her, or she could hide herself and wait until morning. Whatever happened, happened. She was done. Warring instincts slowed her feet, but she took a step forward, then another one.

A loud ding came from the elevators in the bank around the corner. Clio froze. In a second, she knew she would hear the smooth rumble of doors gliding open.

It wasn’t fair. What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t move. She couldn’t think…

“Are you crazy?!” a voice suddenly hissed in her ear.

Clio was jerked around to face a tall, dark-skinned girl with cropped hair. The girl glared at Clio in fear and disgust.

Clio’s throat constricted in shock. Their faces were so close, Clio could see that the eyes she stared into were different colors–one blue and one brown.

The girl snarled quietly. “You turned the lights on?!” she whispered furiously.

She began to drag Clio down the hallway, away from the lobby. The pneumatic slide of the doors echoed in the corridor. Someone down there said something, garbled words Clio couldn’t make out.

“We’ve got to get out of here now,” the girl whispered. Her fingers bruised Clio’s upper arm.

Down the hallway, muffled laughter broke out. Clio looked into those strange eyes and then back down the hallway, feeling as if the world had slowed and now wavered, like a dream. Shadows tangled and moved in the alcove at the end.

A vicious jerk snapped Clio’s neck back around. “Get a grip!” the girl hissed. “Go to the fourth floor, second door on the right at the far end. Lock it and wait there.” She shoved Clio at the stairs just as a shout burst from the end of the hall. “Run.

The floating sense of numbness deserted Clio in one fell rush, draining the blood from her face. A hit of adrenaline propelled her up the stairs as fast as she could go. Behind her, she heard the girl yell–a taunt–before pounding up behind Clio. Loud catcalls pursued them with the sound of so many feet.

Clio stumbled, passed a landing and another. How many was that? The shouts grew muted as Clio reached what she thought was the fourth floor. It was pitch-black up there, completely devoid of light.

The girl hadn’t followed. Had she led their chasers away? Clio ran blindly to the end of the hallway, one hand on the wall, trying to remember what the girl had said. Second door on the right from the end. She fumbled to what she thought was the right one.

It opened. She ran in and shut it with a sob, her fingers finding the lock and turning it until it clicked. Only then did her fingers search the wall for a switch. She didn’t care if it was stupid. She didn’t care what the girl would say…if she ever saw her again.

The light snapped on, which was when Clio realized her eyes were squeezed shut. She opened them and blinked. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she took in the ugly, gray bathroom and its dirty tile floor.

Clio dropped herself into a corner. She hugged her knees and rocked slowly, her gaze never leaving the locked door.

Continued in Chapter 2.

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