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Gauntlet: Chapter 2

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #002 back issue.

Clio woke with a start and froze.

Her ears strained to hear the stealthy sounds that had seemed so close a moment ago–a faint whisper of breath; an insidious slide of creeping footsteps; the faint, careful scrape of metal in a turning lock. But the silence remained unbroken. She quietly sat up and took surveillance of the small, utilitarian bathroom where she had gone to ground.

The harsh brightness from the overhead light made her squint. The sink, the toilet stall, the dull mirror, the mop and bucket–it was all just as it had been when she’d curled up on the cold tiles and finally fallen asleep. Her eyes went to the still-locked door, and the erratic pounding of her heart began to slow.

The breath she’d been holding released in a long sigh. She used her knuckles to brush the dried residue of sleep from the corners of her eyes.

She hadn’t dreamt her chase through the city. This was real. She’d been herded into the building by those awful voices calling her name. The Jacks had been part of it–pretending to help her–but they must have known. The crazy lady from the lobby. The unseen people crowding around her in the dark…and that girl.

That girl had helped her. Where was she now?

Clio pulled her knees beneath her chin, her back against the wall, and ignored for a moment the dull ache of a full bladder. Her dirty, scraped knee throbbed as the blood-flecked skin stretched tight. Gingerly, she stretched her legs out again, and catalogued her other aches: sore muscles from a night spent on the hard floor, a slight twinge from a rolled ankle, an empty stomach, and the promise of a headache brewing at the base of her skull.

All things considered, she was in pretty good shape. Clio slowly stood.

The bathroom held no window, but a small, slatted vent near the upper edge of the wall allowed some natural light into the room. She could see the pattern of light and shadow on the floor. Daylight, then. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring thought, but anything was better than the dark.

As quietly as she could, she retrieved the bucket and overturned it beneath the vent, before climbing on top. Even with the added height, she couldn’t do more than graze the bottom half of the metal vent with her fingertips. No sounds of traffic or people or pigeons reached her. The unnatural silence was almost more chilling than anything she’d experienced so far. How could it be possible that a neighborhood in the middle of the city could sound so…abandoned? She shivered at the thought.

She could yell for help, and maybe no one would hear her–or maybe they would, only not from outside. The last thing she wanted was to hear a voice on the other side of the bathroom door, or worse, to see the handle turning back as someone slowly turned it.

She stepped off the bucket and entered the stall. A roll of toilet paper still hung in its place; she pulled off two long strips to lay on either side of the toilet seat. The absurdity of her fastidiousness struck her, and a humorless grin twisted her lips as she sat down to relieve her aching bladder. One day, when you’ve been trapped here long enough, you’ll be just like that old woman in the lobby. The voice inside her head sounded darkly amused and strange, as if it didn’t belong to her at all. You won’t be so choosy about where and how you go.

Clio clenched her jaw in denial as she rose and adjusted her clothing. That will never happen. She flushed the toilet without thinking and winced at the loud rush of water.

Stupid, she chastised herself. You have to be more careful!

She needed to drink, though, even if the sink would make its own noise. It would fill her empty stomach, at least. The sink was stained, but the water came out clear and cold. Clio filled her cupped hands and drank, repeating the process until the front of the borrowed jacket she wore was damp from the water that had trickled down her chin.

She wiped the remaining moisture from her face with her sleeve and finally dared to look in the spotted mirror. A tension she hadn’t been fully aware of eased when she met the gaze of her own reflection. Her eyes were puffy and dark-shadowed, her face creased from the grain of the backpack she’d used as a pillow. But it was still her.

What were you expecting, anyway?

Her reflection didn’t answer the unspoken question. Clio reached up and slowly used her fingers to comb through the tangles in her hair.

She turned away, her hands slipping into the pockets of the jacket. She frowned as her fingers touched something; she pulled out the pamphlet she had picked up in the lobby. The gloss had worn away, taking part of the text with it, but she could still see the picture of the building’s entrance with its grand, red doors.

Gauntlet, Unlimited. The motto Alea iacta est–carved above the door–was written in pretty script beneath the picture. A translation lay below it:

The die is cast.

What’s that supposed to mean? Clio opened the brochure and skimmed over the contents of the inner flaps.

Its location in the city center makes it a desirable, beautiful, and interesting place of residence…

Clio snorted.

Gauntlet is designed to provide all the comforts of a quiet, pleasant home, combined with special care and curriculum tailored to each individual candidate.

“Candidate?” Her brow creased. “Candidate for what?”

She still wasn’t sure what kind of place it was. From the odd phrases that caught her eye, it could be anything–a school, a research center, or even some kind of weird religious institution.

Under the heading Tenets was a bulleted list:

Experimental Philosophy. Ambient Rhetoric. Improvisational Theology. Karmic Theater. Practical Psychosomatics.

Her eyebrows rose.

The back of the pamphlet was stained by water or some other substance, so Clio could only make out snatches of descriptions and blotched photos. Whatever this place used to be, it had seen better days. Now it was nothing more than a dump and a trap, full of squatters and creeps and–

“I see you followed my advice.”

Clio screamed. In what seemed a feat of remarkable physics, she threw her back against the far wall in a split second. Her heart beat wildly as she stared at the tall, unsmiling girl who had helped her the night before.

“H-how did you get in here?” Clio gasped. She hadn’t come in through the door, Clio was sure of that.

The girl studied her closely for a moment, then reached into a deep pocket of her pants. “You look hungry.”

Clio reflexively caught the can tossed to her. Peaches. Her mouth began to water in anticipation of the sweet juice of the fruit. Her stomach churned, a soundless rumble awakening her hunger.

Still, Clio watched the girl carefully. “Who are you?” she finally asked.

The girl’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment, her shoulders shrugged. She stepped nearer to Clio, ignoring the way Clio tensed.

“My name’s Britt.” The girl folded her legs and sat on the floor, pulling out another can and lifting the tab to roll the lid open. “What’s yours?”

Clio bit her lip. The question brought back unpleasant thoughts, but it wasn’t like giving her name could hurt her now. “Clio,” she offered reluctantly, sliding down the wall to sit. She scooted her knees up as a psychological barrier.

Britt pulled out a slice of peach with her fingers and sucked the juices off it before popping it into her mouth. “Just get here last night?”

Clio nodded. “Yeah…are you…I mean…have you been here long?”

Britt shrugged. “Long enough.”

“What is this place?” The question came out as something of a whine, but Clio didn’t care. A rush of questions spilled out of her mouth before she could wait for an answer.

“How did you get here? Were you chased, too? Do you know the Jacks?”

“The Jacks?” Britt repeated.

“The boys from outside. One had red hair, and the other black. And…well, they said they were both called Jack.”

Britt’s eyes flickered, but she looked away as her face closed over. “Never heard of them.”

“Oh…” Disappointment flooded Clio. She had hoped this girl might know what was going on.

“Are you…” Clio tried to think of a way to phrase it tactfully. “Are you living here? I mean, did you come here…on purpose?”

Britt’s gaze returned with incredulous disgust. “Right.” The sarcasm was thick. “Because my dream in life is to be constantly chased by prowlers and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner out of a can.” She dug into the peaches again and waved a slice around. “And to save your clueless, ungrateful ass after a really fun day of scavenging through shit in real-life survival horror mode. Only here, there’s no walk-through guide, and I’m pretty sure we only get the one life.”

Shocked by the sudden heat of Britt’s reply, Clio shrank back. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Britt chewed the fruit and licked her lips. “It’s not your fault we’re here.”

“Then whose fault is it?” Clio asked. “You make it sound like this is some big game.” Clio sat forward and looked at Britt intently. “What’s really going on? And…and why me?

“Why you?” Britt’s mouth twisted, but she regarded Clio with something like pity. “Why me? Who knows? We’re just the playing pieces, I think. Or windup toys. Revved up and let loose to bounce around this madhouse.” She shrugged. “Maybe we’re in control, or maybe someone else is.”

“But–”

“As for what this is,” Britt interrupted, “it’s the Gauntlet. Says so right on the box, doesn’t it? And there’s only one goal when you’re running a gauntlet.”

Clio could figure out that one for herself. “Make it to the other side.”

Britt nodded. “Yeah. Preferably in one piece.”

“You haven’t found a way out?” Clio asked weakly.

A sour look crossed Britt’s face. “Would I be here now?”

“How long have you been here?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” Britt murmured. Her fingers strayed up to the necklace that rested against her collarbone. It was a simple silver chain, adorned with a small pendant–a single metal die. Even in the dim light, Clio could see that the piece was beautifully rendered.

“Look,” Britt went on. “Just because I saved your ass last night and I’m taking pity on you now doesn’t mean we’re best friends, or that I trust you.” She didn’t sound angry, but she wore a scowl. “Because we’re not, and I don’t. That’s the first rule you should learn. Don’t trust anyone around here. Got it?”

Clio nodded. Embarrassment sent her fiddling with the can of peaches. She opened it and the scent of the sweet syrup made her stomach rumble. Clio quickly glanced at Britt before mumbling her thanks and slipping a slice into her mouth.

Oh, it was better than she’d expected–the hit of sugar shocked her system and eased the shaky tension of her body that she hadn’t even acknowledged. She made quick work of the rest of the can and licked her fingers clean.

“Thank you,” she said again, offering Britt a tentative smile.

She received a grunt in return, but Britt seemed to soften a little. Clio watched Britt play with her necklace again–obviously an unconscious habit. Clio lifted a finger toward the die-shaped pendant, only meaning to point.

“That’s an unusual–”

But before Clio could finish, Britt grabbed her wrist in an unforgiving grip. “Don’t touch it,” Britt snapped.

Clio stared in shock as her arm was held aloft. Britt’s cold words were punctuated by a hard, steady squeeze to Clio’s wrist, and her oddly colored eyes narrowed.

“I wasn’t going to,” Clio said tightly, somewhat afraid, but returning the glare. She tried to jerk her arm away, but Britt held firm. Clio’s forgotten charm bracelet jingled on her captured arm.

Britt’s gaze moved lower, and her eyes widened. Her other hand came up to push Clio’s sleeve away. As she peered at the dangling charms, Clio suddenly noticed something she hadn’t the night before.

Five charms hung there: the four symbols from a deck of playing cards–a spade, a heart, a diamond, and a club–and a little fool’s cap complete with tiny bells. The charms were simple, an odd design choice for an older woman.

But Britt seemed rapt.

“Hey,” Clio said as she gave a tentative tug of her arm. Britt’s sudden obsession was freaking her out.

Britt’s mismatched eyes fixed on hers. “Where did you get this?” she demanded.

“From an old woman in the lobby. She was crazy. Well, she was okay at first, but then things got seriously–”

“Shut up,” Britt snapped. Her grip grew tighter. “Listen. Don’t lose this.”

“Ow! What are you–”

Britt jerked Clio’s arm. “I mean it. Don’t lose it, and don’t flash it around if you can help it.”

Okay!” Clio blurted. “Whatever. I wasn’t planning to.”

Britt finally released her wrist. Clio rubbed it sulkily, wondering if Britt wasn’t completely loony herself.

“I know you think I’m out of my mind,” Britt replied.

Clio flushed, hating how easily Britt read her. Britt seemed to ignore it.

“But trust me,” Britt continued. “It’s important. It’s your best chance of finding a way out.”

Clio stared doubtfully at the bracelet. “How?”

“You’ll have to figure that out, but it was given to you. It’s yours, so it’ll mark your path. A way only you can find.”

“My path…” Clio repeated slowly. “Is that what your necklace does for you?”

A brief silence filled the air between them before Britt nodded. “Yes.”

Clio felt like Britt was lying, or not telling the whole truth, but she couldn’t say why. “But couldn’t we…join up?” Clio asked. “Work together?”

Britt scoffed. “Like I need someone to babysit on top of everything else.”

Clio’s crestfallen expression seemed to elicit a sigh from Britt. The girl added grudgingly, “We’ll see. I’m not making any promises.”

Clio grinned.

***

Several hours later, Clio’s optimism had vanished. Britt led her upstairs and down, through corridors and black hallways that stretched endlessly. The Gauntlet was much larger than anything Clio had first envisioned.

It didn’t make sense. Clio had never heard of a building this size in the city–but even if it did exist, how could something like that be kept a secret?

“I don’t understand why we’re doing this,” Clio complained at last. “Why can’t we just keep looking for a way out?”

She was tired and hungry and filthy, and the last thing she wanted to do was follow Britt any longer through the bewildering maze of halls. If Britt left her now, she wasn’t sure she could even find her way back to the front door–although Britt had assured her that they could never get out that way.

“You’re right,” Britt exclaimed. “Let’s head straight to the exit we have the exact directions to. Hey, why don’t you lead the way?”

Britt sounded irritated beneath her sarcasm, and it gave Clio a perverse sense of pleasure to have finally gotten under the girl’s skin. Even so, she wasn’t about to alienate the only other normal person she’d encountered, and one who seemed willing to help her.

“Sorry,” Clio muttered. “I’m just–”

“Tired. Hungry. I know,” Britt said flatly. “That’s why we’re doing this. We can’t just call for takeout or run down to the corner store for supplies. Think of this as an elaborate dumpster dive. If you want to survive, you’ve got to keep your eyes open for anything that will help you.”

Clio was silent a moment. “But…won’t it all run out at some point?” she asked. “This place is enormous, but there are other people looking for supplies, too, right?”

“You keep thinking this place is normal. It’s not. Things can…change.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think…” Britt hesitated. “I think stuff is planted sometimes. Never obviously, but in ways that make it seem natural. Like finding a hidden stash of food that someone may have left at a safe point. I do that–set up a cache here and there. You never know when you might get cornered or have to run away from your current base.” She let out a breath. “And the Gauntlet is much bigger than you think.”

Clio thought about that unpleasant truth for a while.

“I hate this place,” Clio murmured at last.

Britt snorted. “Get used to it. Anyway, lucky for you, foraging was the only reason I was that close to the main lobby. Haven’t been back in ages, so I figured I’d give it a quick look.” She shook her head in disgust. “There you were, just waiting for the prowlers like a deer in headlights.”

“The prowlers,” Clio repeated. “You said that before. Who are they?”

“People you want to stay far away from.” Britt flicked the flashlight beam in Clio’s eyes, making Clio wince. “Never go to the subbasements. Stay clear of the lower levels if you can help it. They usually don’t go too high, and they only come out at night.”

“What difference does it make?” Clio pushed the flashlight away. “It’s always dark in here.”

“Who knows?” Britt bounced the light around the intersection of four hallways. “Just be glad that’s how it works.”

“Yippee,” Clio deadpanned.

“Cheer up.” Britt walked away, and a moment later the lights in the left-hand corridor flickered to life. Blinking away the discomfort, Clio met Britt’s amused gaze.

“Let’s go shopping,” Britt announced.

Clio watched Britt jiggle the handle of the first door. When it didn’t open, she pulled thin tools out of one of her pockets and bent to pick the lock.

“You take one side of the hall,” Britt said, “and I’ll take the other. If it’s locked, just move down. Most of them won’t be.” When Clio hesitated, Britt raised an eyebrow.

“It’s not rocket science,” Britt added. “Just search the room for anything useful. This wing is a dormitory, so you might find some toiletries and things like that. Oh…” Britt looked almost wistful. “If you find any cigarettes, grab them.”

Britt disappeared inside the room before Clio could work up the nerve to try her own door. Clio had to fight the urge to follow after her like a little duckling.

It was broad daylight outside, right? Even if Clio couldn’t see it or prove it. Britt said it was so, and Clio’s only choice was to believe her.

“Prowlers,” Clio muttered. They were probably all delusional–vampire wannabes or something. That made sense, actually. Maybe she had wandered into some huge live-action role-playing game. LARPers who had gone overboard were freaky, but if that were true, then she’d be able to just tell them that she’d accidentally wandered in. They’d probably be happy to get her out of here. She was messing up their script, for all she knew, and that was why they’d chased her.

Despite her theories, her hand remained still on the handle in front of her. Don’t be a wimp, she ordered herself.

Clio opened the door.

Proceed to Chapter 2, page 2–>