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Gauntlet: Chapter 3

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #003 back issue.

“Watch out–she kicks.”

Clio heard muffled voices behind black masks, their laughter punctuated by a quick sting at the curve of her throat. The laughter faded into a surreal, staccato echo that swirled around her in a soupy fog. Her dress was suddenly too clammy against her skin, too heavy for her body. She was weary fighting the drag.

Her vision darkened as her head lolled.

Only tiny pinpoints of red light bobbed and wove around her, leaving glowing contrails in the dark. She tried to track the pretty crimson swirls, but her eyelids drooped.

The rhythm of the quick stride was hypnotic; snatches of voices became nothing but a low drone in the back of her mind. The cold surface of a table registered through her numb skin, then faded back into insignificance. Something turned her onto her back.

Sudden, painful light exploded in front of her. She couldn’t blink–she couldn’t move at all. An unmasked face hovered over her. Her eyes couldn’t focus.

“A cute one.”

More laughter, subdued this time, eddied in the currents around her.

The cool voice spoke again, but sharply. Everything else fell into silence.

The blurred face loomed closer. “Listen, Clio.”

Her leaden body didn’t react, but the voice pierced through her. Heavy breath caught in her throat.

They knew her name. The fear that she wasn’t here by accident sharpened her thoughts for a moment. Then the prickle of terror faded, like every other sensation.

“Look at the light and listen.” The smooth voice whispered into her ear until the white light consumed everything.

Voices asked her questions, though she couldn’t always understand them. Sometimes they sped up to high-pitched warbles, and she thought she mumbled something about chipmunks through her thick, stupid tongue because they laughed as fingers brushed her hair from her face. She felt another sting, this time in the crease of her elbow.

The voices mellowed…a dark head swam in her vision…a pretty smile, white teeth. They laughed again.

Had she said that out loud? Clio floated, and the deep, soothing voice that went with the smile soothed her. Come with me, it said.

She did.

 

An age later–maybe eons–Clio’s eyes opened.

She wanted to blink, but her eyelids were slow. They sluggishly closed off the intense overhead light.

Her unresponsive body wouldn’t obey her commands, but her nerves were alive again. They sent sensory details that had been numbed for so long–the snug clamp of straps across her wrists and ankles, the faint odor of unknown chemicals, a whirr of machinery. Chill air stirred over her clammy skin.

Snatches of her impossible journey remained, though each time she tried to remember her smiling guide, her thoughts grasped uselessly at fragmented details. She ceased thinking of it at all.

Instead of being distressed, Clio remained in a cocoon of calm…even when her wrists were unbound and strong, warm fingers pressed against her pulse. She felt her eyelids being lifted, gently, but the action let in a flood of painful light.

A sound of protest must have made it past her lips, because a new voice spoke above her. This one was close enough that she felt the flutter of the words against her face.

“I’m sorry,” it rumbled. “Bear with it just a little longer.”

Oh, this voice was even nicer. Resonant and solemn, but respectful and soft…maybe even kind.

Why did that make her chest contract? He was probably a doctor–he sounded like one.

She parted her lips, but all she managed was a croak. Before she could try again, a straw was placed against her lips. A hand cradled the back of her skull, and she weakly took a sip of deliciously cool water.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t have much time. I couldn’t remove all the triggers, or restore…”

The words faded in and out, but Clio was content to just listen.

“…might not remember until…”  Her eyelids fluttered. She wanted to see the owner of the voice. “…possible flashes of…”

The light was still bright above her, but she could see a shadowed blur, splintered and spinning in her vision. She squinted, trying to resolve the images into one, but a greater urgency entered his voice, and she struggled to really listen. She fought the fatigue that was seeping back into her limbs and consciousness.

“…outside…the gray…”  His voice turned stern. “…stay away…city…remember, Clio.”

“What’s…your…name?” Clio finally managed to breathe.

Soft laughter made her warm. Before she could hear his final word, Clio slipped into unconsciousness.

***

Water dripped from something. Clio listened for the tiny sound that came at regular intervals.

One, two, three, plink. One, two, three, plink.

She sighed.

Clio was already tired of the dank, sub-basement room that was apparently her prison. She’d woken up to find one of her wrists handcuffed to the metal headboard of a narrow bed. Her other hand was free, but she had given up her frantic attempts to break loose some time ago; it had only made her head ache. When no other threat had materialized, she‘d gradually sunk back into the bed to think about her options.

There weren’t many.

The room was bare and industrial, with rough walls and exposed piping. Clio had become intimately familiar with the shape and color of the faded water spots above her head. She hadn’t been awake that long, probably less than an hour or two, though the maddening drip made her captivity feel longer. Enough time had passed that despite her fear, a little boredom had crept in.

Another heavy sigh escaped her, and this one was unintentional. She closed her eyes.

The coppery smell of rust filtered through her nostrils. At least there was no mildew or mold–her lungs would be constricting if that were the case, and she couldn’t very well run to the drugstore for a packet of antihistamines.

Her brain felt a little fuzzy still, but her thoughts were clearing. A hazy recollection sent a tendril of apprehension down her spine. Had they drugged her? She couldn’t quite remember past the moment she’d seen the prowlers drag Britt away.

“…Clio…”

She remembered voices murmuring her name, but she had no idea why. Had she been dreaming while unconscious? That made sense. All she had was an impression of swirling images that wouldn’t focus. She couldn’t recall any details, but a vague anxiety clung to her like the residue of a fading nightmare.

She tried to focus on the fact that, as far as she could tell, the worst the prowlers had done was half-handcuff her in a creepy room. They’d even left the light on, though the dim glow of the bare bulb barely reached the corners of the room. Clio shifted, trying to bring her legs into a more comfortable position, and wondered with a pang if Britt was in similar straits somewhere.

The wait wouldn’t end. Clio dozed off again, or at least went into some sort of dazed trance, because she wasn’t aware of anything else until a warm puff of air stirred the hair over her ear.

“Cl-Cl-Clio…”

Clio gasped. Her eyes flew open.

“Red Jack!”

A finger lightly touched her lips as the bed dipped. She jerked her head to the side; sure enough, the teenage redhead slid his chin over the bed edge.

“Shh. Speak softly unless you want unwelcome company.”

Clio awkwardly struggled up onto her side. Her elbow dug into the thin mattress.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered.

“Oh, just observing what a knack you have for getting yourself into trouble.”

“Thanks to you,” Clio hissed. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you!”

“That hurts, Clio,” Red Jack drawled. His wounded tone made Clio grit her teeth. “You were the one who asked us for help, remember?”

“Yes, and you were just playing with me. You knew what you were sending me into.”

He shrugged. “Of course we knew. We had to play our part.”

His casual acknowledgment infuriated her. She wanted to smack the smile off his face.

“Your part in what?” she demanded.

“You know that already, don’t you?” rumbled a new voice behind her. Clio gasped again.

Black Jack. The bed creaked as he crept up over the edge of the mattress behind her.

She felt him trace his fingers over the arm that stretched over her head. Clio stiffened, but he only danced his fingertips to the dangling cuff. He tugged at it playfully.

“It’s just a little game,” he said. “We didn’t lie. If you’re clever enough–“

“And brave enough,” Red Jack interjected.

“–then you can win your way through.”

“Your way out.” Red Jack laughed. “If that’s still what you want.”

Clio’s neck strained as she looked over her shoulder into Black Jack’s dark eyes. He raised his eyebrows at her.

“But Clio…” His fingers tapped at the handcuff. “Winning means so much more than that. More than you can imagine.”

“But…” A question welled in Clio’s throat. She was almost afraid to ask it.

“What if I’m not clever or brave enough?” she breathed. “What happens if I lose?”

Red Jack chuckled softly, and her gaze turned to him. There was suddenly nothing amused in his face.

“That all depends. You’ve seen what happens to some already.”

“Clio won’t let that happen to her.” Black Jack’s murmur was almost soothing. “I’d put my money on that.”

“I’m not so sure, Black. She’s already in deep trouble.”

“But we can help her out this one last time, can’t we?”

“We could,” Red Jack mocked. “But it doesn’t look like she wants our help.”

Clio glared. “You got me into this. Of course I’m not going to believe you really want to help me.”

“What choice do you have?” Black Jack asked. “Do you want to find out what happens when they come back for you?”

“Maybe she likes it down here in the dark.”

“Shut up,” Clio flared. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”

“Shh,” Red Jack hissed. “I told you to keep your voice down. You may not appreciate it, but you’re not the only one at risk here.”

That made Clio stop for a second. Were they…were they disobeying something by coming to her?

She seized on the opportunity in a desperate gamble. “If you really want to help me,” she whispered viciously, “then do it. Get me out of these cuffs.”

Muffled laughter teased her hair, and she heard a light jingle beside her ear. She turned to see Black Jack dangle a key ring. His grin widened as their eyes met.

“That’s the spirit,” he murmured.

The metal briefly cut into her skin as he positioned the key in the lock. When the cuff sprang open, she jerked her hand down and automatically rubbed her wrist. She unsteadily pushed herself off the bed and backed away from the boys who stood to either side of it.

The Jacks didn’t move. Clio looked from one to the other to find both their gazes on her wrist, peculiar matching expressions twisting their faces. She was thrown off enough that she didn’t protest when Red Jack came to life. He moved forward quickly and took her wrist. His thumb stroked over the red mark left by the handcuff.

Black Jack moved behind her just as swiftly.

Red Jack drew her closer, his fingers tightening around the narrow bones of her wrist. Her charm bracelet, once again forgotten, jingled softly beneath his grip.

“With this,” Red Jack brushed the dangling charms, “we could do more than help you escape this room.” He looked up at her, his disarming grin back in place. “Give it to me and I’ll have you on your way home before you can blink.”

Clio tried to shift away, but Black Jack loomed behind her. His hands settled on her shoulders, making her stomach flutter.

“But…I thought…isn’t it only meant for me?” She tried to pull her wrist away, but Red Jack clutched her tighter.

“It’s meant for whoever knows how to use it. Do you?

“I…I know it can help me find a way through,” Clio said haltingly.

“Had much luck with that?” Red Jack’s sarcastic question ignited a spark of anger.

“It’s not really any of your business, is it?”

Red Jack’s eyes narrowed, but Black Jack snorted in amusement.

“What you need to realize, little Clio, is that not everybody is playing the same game.”

“Then how do you tell who wins?”

A laugh met her question. “That’s easy.” Red Jack tilted his head. “The one who’s holding all the cards at the end.”

“Then I shouldn’t give up mine, right?”

She was startled when Black Jack’s fingers gave her shoulders a tiny squeeze, but Red Jack’s scowl drew her attention back to him.

“That all depends,” Red Jack said lowly.

“On what?”

“Winning for you is getting out of here, isn’t it? I’m offering you that. A way out of the Gauntlet.” Red Jack leaned closer. “I can put you back on the streets and send you on your way home. No harm, no foul.”

Black Jack’s fingers dug into her shoulders again, harder and longer this time before they released. It felt almost like…a warning.

Against what? she wondered. Red Jack? They practically finish each other’s sentences!

Was this another trick?

She mulled over Red Jack’s offer. If she could trust him to do what he said, then she could go home…but why should she believe him? Either one of them? They’d fooled her once.

And there was something else.

“What about Britt?”

Red Jack loosened his hold a little, as if surprised. “What?”

“My friend. They took her, too.” Clio steeled herself. “If I agree to give you my bracelet, then you have to get both of us out of here.”

Black Jack’s fingers flexed, but it felt more like an involuntary reaction this time.

“That’s impossible,” Red Jack said flatly.

Clio jerked her arm away and stared him down. “Why?”

“She’s gone,” Black Jack murmured. “She escaped before they could lock her up. They’ve been trying to round her up for ages, but she’s very…resourceful.”

Unlike me. Clio’s surge of relief was tempered by the depressing awareness of her own weaknesses.

“She didn’t come to help you, did she?” Red Jack pointed out. “We did.”

She tried to ignore the faint hurt that snaked itself into her thoughts. Just because Britt hadn’t come yet didn’t mean she never would. Clio frowned into Red Jack’s obnoxious, freckled face.

“You don’t know anything about her,” she snapped. “And I don’t need your help. We have our own plans.”

“Do you?” Red Jack asked. “And what would those be?”

“I already told you–it’s none of your business what I do.”

“You won’t even tell me what ‘number six’ means?” Red Jack murmured.

Clio stiffened.

“I’ll bet it’s some kind of code, right? Clever little girls. Hm…” Red Jack overtly tapped his finger against his chin. “A rendezvous point, maybe?”

“So you were there,” Clio hissed. “You’re one of the prowlers, aren’t you? This really is just a sick game to you. You want to use me to get Britt!”

“The prowlers?” Red Jack smirked. “No. We told you from the beginning–we’re the Jacks. And I don’t care about your friend. She can handle herself much better than you can, don’t forget. And you’re a fool to trust her, anyway.”

Clio clenched her fists. Britt had told her not to trust anybody. Now Red Jack was saying Clio shouldn’t trust Britt. With the logic in this place, Clio wasn’t surprised.

“But I should trust you?” Clio asked Red Jack.

“I give you my word that I’ll get you out.”

“And if I say no thanks?”

Red Jack’s grin stretched wider. “Not everyone will ask as nicely as I have.”

Her stomach fluttered again.

“You can’t take it from me,” Clio protested, trying not to sound as uncertain as she felt. ”I know that much.”

“Who told you that? Your friend?”

Clio’s chin tilted up. “Yes. I know it’s one of the rules.”

“Oh, but Clio…” Red Jack flashed his teeth. “No one ever said we aren’t allowed to cheat.”

Her eyes widened, and she swayed back from Red Jack’s gloating face. Black Jack’s hands steadied her; she jerked away from him, too. She suddenly couldn’t bear the proximity of these two near-strangers. She backed away.

Her eyes darted around the room, looking for the things Britt had taught her to notice. She curled her hand protectively around her wrist, hiding the bracelet in the cradle of her palm.

“I won’t give it to you,” she warned.

“Are you sure?” Red Jack’s voice sounded almost teasing now. “It’s true–I can’t take it from you. That one rule is…strictly enforced. But there are others in here who can be very…persuasive.” He leaned against the pipe and watched her casually, as if they had all the time in the world. “They can make you desperate to give it to them. Wouldn’t it be better to give it to me now? At least, I’ll see that you get what you say you want…a shower, a good meal, a warm bed. Home.”

Strangely enough, it was the list of things she’d been craving since the very first night that struck a chord within her. Were those mundane things really so important? True, she missed them, but…but…she didn’t want them badly enough to abandon Britt, who had helped her from the beginning.

It didn’t hurt that a large part of her was pissed at being toyed with–she was being treated like a playing piece in a game she didn’t understand. Nothing would be better than actually beating them. If she took the easy way out, she would just be…nothing. A loser.

A more sinister thought intruded. If she stayed and didn’t win, she didn’t know what would happen. The thought of being turned into a vacant shell–like the droolers–terrified her. Her entire being revolted against that fate.

“You…you promise to get me out of here?” Clio looked at the door, then back at Red Jack.

He waved a hand. “Just say the word.”

Clio’s gaze flicked to Black Jack; she couldn’t read his expression. She forced herself to take a step closer as she slid the bracelet off her wrist. She watched Red Jack’s ill-concealed excitement from beneath her lashes.

She filled her lungs in a deep breath.

Then she leapt, swinging at the bare bulb over her head. The brittle globe fractured instantly, dropping the room into darkness. Red Jack cursed as bodies stumbled around the room.

The metal legs of the bed screeched across the concrete floor. Red Jack cursed again. Whether he was looking for her or the door, she didn’t know.

Clio dove toward a corner of the room, where a fat pipe along the wall bent toward the ceiling. Praying she was right, she climbed onto it and pushed where she thought she’d seen the outline of a panel.

The piece of ceiling swung open.

A jolt of primal triumph made her tremble. She pulled herself up, her arms shaking with the effort, as her foot tried to make purchase against the pipe. For an instant, her strength held, and her heart leapt.

And then the slick sole of her sandal slipped. Her arms gave out, and she slid all the way down.

No!

She reached again, poised to leap, but hands on her hips stopped her in mid-motion. The anguished denial froze on her lips.

“Games are often won by luck,” Black Jack whispered into her hair. His lips curved against her ear. “When all else fails, trust in yours.”

Then his hands were pushing her up, and she scrambled into the shaft. She felt the black hole shutting behind her.

Her fingers found the ladder bolted to the wall. She began to climb into the black–not thinking, just moving her arms and legs over and over until her calves burned. She climbed so long that she lost all sense of time and space.

She began seeing things. Pale, white spots floated in her vision–tiny pinpricks, like when she rubbed her eyes too hard. But gradually, the white glow grew and brightened. Through the blur of grateful tears, she saw beams of soft light that shone through a grate.

She punched through. On the other side of the grate was a small room, flooded with natural light that streamed through a partially boarded window. The rotting boards had mostly fallen away; she climbed easily through the gap, blinking her eyes against the light.

She found herself in a small and narrow courtyard, enclosed by gray walls on four sides. The walls towered up several stories, with no apparent footholds to climb higher–but Clio was barely disappointed. She was outside.

She was outside. She could see the sun and the sky.

Clio started laughing. The colors seemed unreal–impossibly bright blue and yellow, like a child’s drawing. The rough concrete of the yard was warm as she lay on her back. She rested her head and stared straight up, her hands curled around her eyes, so that all her vision was filled with vibrant color.

Proceed to Chapter 3, page 2–>