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Gauntlet: Chapter 4

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #004 back issue.

Clio could feel the weight of their stares. Heat began to creep up the back of her neck.

“This is the right place.” She clenched her jaw in frustration and peered at the map again.

But the thick, featureless steel door still loomed before them. Its silence seemed to mock them as it blocked their path.

The silence stretched out for a moment, and Clio’s imagination conjured a picture of them pulling faces behind her back. She turned quickly, but Britt looked serious, her eyebrows pinched together. Lilah was the opposite–she yawned and scratched the back of her neck.

“Are you sure it was this corridor?” Britt asked.

“You can see the map for yourself!” Clio flung her hand out toward Britt and flapped the paper in front of her.

What bothered Clio more than anything was that it hadn’t been there a few hours earlier. The depressing slab of metal had sprung from nothing in the short period since she’d left the theater.

“Maybe we got turned around in the service tunnel,” Britt offered.

“I didn’t get turned around. This hallway led to the passage with the trapdoor up to the theater. This door wasn’t here before.”

“But it looks like it’s been here for ages, doesn’t it?” Britt asked.

“And you were just here, right?” Lilah pointed out. “Supposedly?”

Yes,” Clio snapped. “I’m telling you, this is the right place.” Her fingernails dug into her palms.

“We believe you.” Britt held her hands up in a placating gesture. “Just calm down.”

“I am calm.” Clio made an effort not to talk through gritted teeth. “And I’m not crazy.”

Lilah snorted; Britt shot her a warning look. Lilah rolled her eyes, walked up to the door, and pushed at it again.

“Well, there’s a door here now, without a doorknob, and it’s not opening unless you know some magic words.” Lilah shot Clio a sarcastic grin. “So what’s the plan?”

Shoving you into the nearest broom closet and barring the door.

Clio’s thoughts must have shown in her face, because Britt placed a hand on her shoulder and tugged the map from her hand.

“We could try and find a way around this. Come at it from a different direction.”

Lilah muttered something under her breath about wild goose chases.

Britt gave an exasperated sigh. “Lilah–“

“She’s right,” Clio interrupted. “I should have known they wouldn’t make it so easy. They gave me a choice. I knew that, but…”

“Who?”

“Whoever is behind all of this,” Clio muttered. “I still thought we should try, anyway.”

Lilah snorted. “Right. Can we go back now?”

Britt hesitated.

“Fine.” Clio rolled up the map and shoved it in her bag. “Let’s go back.”

The long walk back was mostly awkward silence, frigid and resentful on Clio’s part. She knew it was unfair, but that didn’t stop her. She didn’t want to talk to Britt. The stinging disappointment was too great. Aside from the exchange of a few more words on Britt’s action-packed escape from the prowlers, silence reigned.

When they’d finally made it back to their safe room–and Clio was unhappily aware that it was theirs, not hers and theirs–Britt and Lilah huddled together in a corner and spoke in whispers. Clio pretended to ignore them by poking around the rest of the room.

Eventually, Clio slid down against the wall and stared at her knees. It was still early in the day, but she felt exhausted. The disappointment weighed down her shoulders, and the whispering, which they weren’t doing very well because Clio heard her own name quite clearly, made her wither inside. She let her forehead slump to her knees.

“Clio.”

Britt’s shadow fell over her. Clio quickly busied herself with going through the leather bag she’d taken from the theater.

“Yeah?” She was proud of how nonchalant she sounded.

“I’m going to make a run to fill up the bottles. Want to come?”

Clio didn’t want to go with her. The awkward tension between them would be worse if they were alone. But anything was better than staying with just snarky Rainbow Fright for company.

“Sure.”

“Lilah’s going out in a bit to scout the west hallway.”

Damn. Clio could have stayed behind, after all. Her gaze flicked over to the other girl, who seemed totally at home in her surroundings. Lilah’s high-topped sneakers were propped up on a small crate as she lolled on the floor, with her tattered leather vest–which suited her raggedy plaid pants–rolled up beneath her head. She fed herself from a can of fruit salad. A bright red cherry disappeared into her cupid bow mouth.

Lilah caught Clio’s gaze; her mouth lifted on one side as she raised an eyebrow. Clio flushed and turned back to Britt.

“I’m ready when you are.”

Clio followed Britt out. They rounded the first turn and were halfway down the second hall before the silence got to be too much.

“I’m gl–“

“I didn’t–“

Clio exchanged glances with Britt, then puffed out a laugh. Some of the awkward tension faded.

“Go ahead.” Britt inclined her head.

“No, you.”

Britt hesitated. She flashed Clio a quick, sidelong glance.

“I didn’t call you a princess,” Britt said at last.

“Oh.” Clio tried to keep her face neutral as she shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”

Britt stopped. “Really,” she said shortly. “I didn’t say that.”

Clio turned to face her, a bit offended that Britt was acting annoyed with her. “Then why did she say you did?”

“Because…” In a rare turn, Britt looked a little sheepish. “She was asking about you. What you were like. I didn’t call you that. But…well, I may have said you were a little bit…”

“A little what?” Clio tried to ask the question lightly, but her nerves were on edge. She cared about Britt’s answer more than she wanted to admit. She closed her arms over her chest in an unconsciously defensive stance.

“Well, a bit…prissy.” Britt winced a little, but Clio didn’t respond, so Britt went on hastily, “But that’s it. It was no big deal. You shouldn’t get so worked up over it.”

Oh, that was it. Clio heard the slight air of condescension now. Her eyes narrowed.

“Gee, Britt,” she said darkly. “I’m so glad you’re here to tell me how I should feel.”

Now Britt frowned. “See, I knew you’d react like this.”

“Really?” Clio snapped back. “All prissy, you mean?”

“What I said was that you used to be like that. But that was only in the beginning–you’ve mostly gotten over it. But maybe I was wrong.”

“Maybe you were!”

Clio sighed angrily and started walking again at a jagged clip. Britt fell in step with her. They didn’t speak again for a good minute, until Clio realized how ridiculous they probably looked marching stiffly though the hallways in sync.

Clio bit her lip to hold in a smile. She glanced at Britt; the helplessly irritated and baffled expression on Britt’s face made it even worse.

A little snort escaped Clio. Britt’s social skills sucked, but she tried, sort of. Britt looked at her curiously, and Clio tried to remold her expression into “pissed.”

Mostly not prissy now?” Clio clarified.

They stared at each other again until Clio’s expression broke. She grinned, then so did Britt.

And that was it. The humor of the situation reduced them to actual laughter. Britt bumped her shoulder.

“Mostly not prissy now,” she agreed. “Wear it with pride, Clio.”

The bathroom was around the corner, which meant fresh water. Britt let the water run a bit to clear out the pipes.

Clio waited for a second, shifting her weight from one leg to the next. “So why was Lilah asking about me?” she asked at last.

Britt threw her a look that implied Don’t be stupid.

“Because she wanted to know why I was going back into prowler territory to look for you.”

Sudden warmth spread through Clio. She had to duck her head and fumble with one of the bottles at the tap to hide her pleased grin.

“You were going to look for me?”

A hand slapped the back of her head, and she dropped the bottle in the sink. “Ow!”

“Don’t ask dumb questions,” Britt said thinly. “I’m not gonna abandon you, even if you are a pain in the ass.”

Clio’s smile turned goofy. “Thanks.”

Britt looked a little embarrassed.  She grabbed another bottle and went to the next sink.

“Whatever. You did the same.”

“Yeah,” Clio hummed as she went back to filling bottles.

She knew she’d been right to trust Britt. The head games weren’t going to mess with her. Britt was her friend.

“I believe you, you know.”

Clio looked up. “About what?” she asked.

“That you took us to the right place. What you said you saw. But this place always screws with you–don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“Oh.” Clio nodded. “Thanks. But…I’m sorry I got your hopes up.”

Britt shrugged. “I never get my hopes up. Life is much easier to take that way.”

Clio snorted. “Easier said than done.”

Britt smirked. “I thought you’d toughened up. Your look sure has.”

“Shut up,” Clio laughed, a little self-consciously. “Um, what do you think?”

“Cool boots.”

Clio beamed. “I know, right? I wish you could see the costume room. It was amazing!”

“I wish I could’ve seen the room with the files or the video feeds.”

Clio deflated a little. “Yeah, I should’ve searched the files more, but I was just so shocked about mine. I didn’t think…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Britt said with a wave of her hand. “You found out a lot. They must have something special planned for you.”

“You think so?” Clio asked. “But why?”

“You tell me. What’s your secret?”

“Like I have any!” Clio scoffed. “There’s absolutely nothing special about me.”

“Then maybe that’s it,” Britt deadpanned. “Maybe they found the most boring person they could, just to play with her and see what happens.”

Clio’s outraged gasp made Britt chuckle. She ducked a stream of water Clio flung from one of her bottles.

“Thanks a lot. You really know how to flatter a person.” Clio stuck out her tongue. “And what’s so special about you, then?”

“Isn’t obvious? Beauty, brains, brawn…” Britt smirked and flexed her muscles. “And super ninja skills.”

***

The red rubber ball bounced off the floor, hit the far wall, and bounced back toward Lilah, who caught it with one hand. Floor, wall, hand. The sequence had been going on for half an hour.

Clio made every effort to ignore it. She pretended to nap, her eyes squeezed shut, and wished Britt would hurry up and come back.

They’d all briefly split up to cover more territory. Clio had taken the route back toward the special wing she’d found–she still hadn’t completely given up on getting back in. Lilah’s unsubtle scoffing hadn’t discouraged her, and Britt had said it wouldn’t hurt for her to cover that ground.

Clio had found an untouched supply closet, so at least she hadn’t returned empty-handed. She kicked herself for not going farther, though. Now she was trapped with the sanity-rattling sound of Lilah and her stupid ball.

“You don’t like me much, do you?”

Clio’s eyes snapped open before she caught herself. Lilah was watching her with a knowing grin.

Crap.

Clio slowly sat up and crossed her legs. She went for a diplomatic answer.

“I don’t even know you,” Clio said.

“But you have a problem with me.”

The ball hit the wall again. The loud crack made Clio’s eyebrows pinch together.

“Do you have to keep doing that?” Clio murmured.

Thwack!

Lilah smirked. “I’m bored. Why don’t you get whatever it is off your chest–maybe that will keep me entertained instead.”

Thwack!

“Fine,” Clio said through her teeth. She flicked her bangs out of her eyes and fixed Lilah with a pointed look. “Where did that prowler mask come from?”

“What mask?” Lilah asked indifferently.

“I saw it on the feeds. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Lilah laughed. “You mean this mask?” She reached into the beat-up duffle bag at her feet and pulled out the limp black fabric.

Clio stared in morbid fascination. The bulbous goggles were sewn into the fabric and looked just as creepy as she remembered.

“Where did you find it?” Clio demanded.

Lilah twirled the mask on one finger. “What makes you think it isn’t mine?”

Before Clio could respond, Lilah pulled the mask over her head. The blank face turned toward Clio; Clio couldn’t stop the shiver that tickled down her spine. Lilah stood up and loomed over Clio.

Clio gave a loud sniff. “It wouldn’t surprise me, actually.”

The expressionless face of the mask showed nothing, but Lilah’s body language spoke volumes. Clio had no problem imagining a malicious grin across Lilah’s pert features.

Suddenly, Lilah crossed over to the wall and flipped the switch. The room went dark.

Clio tensed. A pair of red dots began to glow a few feet away from her. Clio scrambled to her feet.

“Cliiiiooo…” Lilah advanced.

“You’re not funny,” Clio said with as much bravado as she could muster. Still, she took a step back and promptly tripped over a pile of cans.

She bit out a curse as she fell on her butt. The red dots danced closer until they were right before her eyes.

Lilah laughed. “Ooh,” she drawled. “I didn’t think Princess Clio was capable of such language.”

Pissed off, Clio reached forward and tugged the mask off Lilah’s head. Now there was nothing but the dark…and Lilah’s warm breath washing over Clio’s face.

“Y-you’re too short to be a prowler.” It was a petty slam, but Clio still enjoyed dishing it out.

“You don’t really think you saw all of them, do you?” Lilah chuckled. “You only ran into a few.”

“How do you know that? Are you admitting that you are one?”

This time, Lilah breathed right into her ear. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She tweaked Clio’s ponytail. Clio grabbed Lilah’s wrist and yanked it away.

That was when the door opened. A second later, the light snapped on.

Britt scowled from the doorway. She rested her fists against her hips, her wary gaze running over Lilah’s bizarrely intimate position above Clio.

“What the hell is going on?” she demanded.

Proceed to Chapter 4, page 2–>