Gauntlet: Chapter 5
A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #006 back issue.
Clio heard it before she saw it–the sound of water. The muted whisper gave her the strength to shuffle her tired legs. The dryness in her mouth seemed to increase tenfold at just the promise of a drink.
“I know,” she groaned.
She was thirsty…and hungry. It had been two days since she’d eaten anything like a full meal, and half a day since she’d gulped water from the spigot on a crumbling, empty building in one of the silent neighborhoods she had passed through. It was still mind-boggling that she’d seen no one, heard no signs of life.
All this for some screwed-up playground. It had truly begun to sink in how rich or powerful the people running the Gauntlet must be.
She knew that if she didn’t find something to eat and drink soon she would be in real trouble, as her current shakiness and irritability attested. Thinking about whether or not she could beat the game was far down on her list of priorities.
The sound grew louder as the narrow lane funneled into a small, open square. A bubbling fountain stood in the center, streaming water from the pursed lips of a stone fish that arched over the structure. She stumbled toward the fountain eagerly and cupped her hands underneath the fish.
The water was cool and clear when it touched her tongue. She had expected some sort of chemical tang, but the taste was pure pleasure. Nothing had ever tasted so good; she drank with messy gulps until her stomach began to cramp.
The water also eased the pinched, empty feeling in her stomach for the moment. Clio sighed and lay down on the broad rim of the fountain, replete with satisfaction.
The late morning heat of the sun made her feel lazy. It was hotter than it should have been, considering the sun wasn’t at its zenith yet. But it still felt good to lie there and listen to the relaxing cascade of the water.
Just for a bit.
Her eyes focused on a sweep of clouds as they drifted slowly across the sky. She lost track of time.
The sound of distant music gradually crept into her awareness. Clio suddenly realized that the song she was hearing had been going on for some time. She also noticed that the sun was now high overhead. When had it crept so far?
She still didn’t feel an urgent need to worry, so she focused on the music, trying to make out the tune and the instruments. A reed instrument, she thought, or pipes of some kind. It sounded old-fashioned and woodsy, somehow. The muted sounds grew clearer.
A languid heaviness seemed to weigh her limbs as she slowly sat up. The music was definitely getting louder. She felt a growing urge to locate the source, and she stood up, weaving unsteadily on her feet before finding her balance.
A shout of nearby laughter made her whirl around. She caught a bright flash of color at the mouth of one of the narrow lanes that radiated from the square. But when she turned to look, nothing was there.
A tinkle of bells rang behind her, and she turned again. There–a shocking face was framed by the paneless square of one of the windows. The grinning mask seemed to stare right at her, and her heart squeezed hard.
The crowned figure wore a brightly colored costume of red, gold and blue. The jangle of bells sounded again with a tilt of the head, as if acknowledging her fascinated gaze.
She walked toward the building, not taking her eyes off the figure until she passed through the doorway. But when she entered, there was no one inside. She took a few steps through the dusty air and peered through the window, as the figure had done.
She gasped. Not one, but two identically costumed figures stood on the fountain’s edge in exaggerated poses that mimicked the statue of the fish.
Clio laughed, a thought growing inside her. There were filigree ornaments adorning the tops of their crowns. One figure had a heart, and the other a spade.
“Jack?” she asked aloud. She paused a moment, then added, “Jack?”
She giggled. A distant part of her brain was dimly astonished at her reaction, but the sound made the two figures spring to life again. They leapt down from the ledge, bells ringing, and danced comically in front of the window. Their antics made her dizzy, and she put up her hands.
They didn’t speak, but instead darted inside to appear in the dusty doorway. Their warm hands seized hers and they drew her outside into some frantic version of ring-around-the-rosy. Clio couldn’t help it–she started laughing helplessly until she was breathless, especially when she realized the unseen musicians had switched their tune to match.
The high-pitched notes grew faster and wilder. Clio began to feel a little nauseated, but the Jacks–if that’s who they were–kept spinning.
They stopped dead. Her hands were still gripped tightly, and she swayed between them. Then their fingers began to slip away. Alarmed, she reached for them, but involuntarily weaved away from them with drunken steps.
“Round and round and round she goes…” said the Black Jack.
“And where she stops, nobody knows,” said the Red Jack.
But were they her Jacks? She couldn’t be sure. The voices were somehow off, but…everything about them seemed so familiar. Their masks grinned at her in flashing snatches as the world still whirled around her. She fell to her knees.
The two figures darted away, bells tinkling, down different lanes. They threw flirtatious gestures behind them that beckoned her to follow.
“Wait…” She wanted to chase them, but which one?
She felt ungainly as she rose to her feet, but the music changed again, and she found herself lured to the sound of the lively tune. It seemed to flow inside her and loosen her limbs. Her hips swung as she walked, and, without realizing it, she began to hum along to the easy rhythm.
The lane turned and twisted, but spilled out several blocks later into a small park. The music swelled to a festive decibel that echoed around the little wilderness, sheltered within a ring of abandoned buildings.
The park was overgrown with a riotous tumble of vines and flowers and uncut grass. A few tall trees sat sentinel around the perimeter, surrounding a stone table laid with delicious foods.
Clio ran to the table without thinking. She grabbed a cold, purple plum and bit into it. Its unreal sweetness burst across her tongue, and she slurped greedily, unmindful of the sticky juices that dripped down her chin. She ate it to the core, licking her fingers before reaching for a shiny red apple.
Before she could take it, someone grabbed her wrist. She was pulled into a spinning waltz by the spade-crowned Jack. The grinning mask peered down at her with a blank jolliness that could have been sinister, but just made her laugh.
She knew, deep down, that she shouldn’t take all this in stride…but she couldn’t make herself care. The air around her felt liquid; every motion and thought was organic and irresistible. It didn’t matter if these were fever dreams or drugged hallucinations. This was the most fun she’d had in ages, and she felt amazing.
Everything was amazing.
The tune quickened, and so did her feet as her partner guided her expertly through the steps. From the corners of her eyes, she saw other figures darting in to prance around the park. She craned her head to get a better look.
Her head whipped back as she was passed to a new partner. Clio pouted, but didn’t struggle, as the new masked figure shifted and multiplied in her vision. How many people were here now? She found herself changing partners again and again as part of the long chain of the dance.
Everyone was in costume, their masked faces beaming with red-painted smiles. Waxed, rosy cheeks, and sharp chins and noses poked at her from all directions.
The laughing crowd pressed bits of fresh fruit past her lips–peaches dipped in honey; pomegranate seeds; figs split open to display soft, pink flesh. She accepted them like a fledgling bird in mindless enjoyment.
Somehow, it was night already. Old-fashioned streetlights cast illuminated circles around the park, and the sky was filled with stars. Clio was sure she saw a naked man dash across the grass and disappear into the branches of one of the trees. She heard feminine laughter up in the branches overhead, but no one else seemed to notice or care.
Her current dancing partner seemed to grow. His wax face melted and reformed again and again, shuffling through a number of faces.
Clio stared with rapt attention until it morphed into the bulbous-eyed mask of a prowler. She gasped and staggered back; the other dancers weaved around her, seemingly unmindful of her horror. The prowler-masked figure stepped toward her.
She turned and tried to run, but was snatched and passed from hand to hand. She was twirled between countless bodies until she landed, breathless, at the head of the stone table.
Two tall figures sat there, silent behind their featureless gold masks.
She could see that one was male and the other female–they wore nothing but sheer white togas draped over their straight forms. They were young…or at least not old. They looked like beautiful statues, sitting so still.
Clio suddenly noticed that the woman held a golden cup in her hands. She raised it in silent offering, the golden rim inches from Clio’s lips.
The moment seemed heavier than any other. Everyone around Clio grew silent.
What is this? Clio thought through the fog in her mind. Was any of this even real?
She reached up with the back of her hand and pressed it against her cheek. The skin was hot, feverish. The dancers spun in her peripheral vision, tumbling her thoughts.
The cup lifted higher. The liquid inside was as golden as the chalice, thick and viscous. Clio caught the scent of honey and the sharp edge of spice. Her hand drifted down to accept it when a flash of dark arms caught her eye.
She jerked her head up. A tall woman in a simple gown disappeared into a knot of revelers. She wore no mask, only a circlet of leaves around her close-cropped hair. Her face was turned away.
“Britt?” Clio breathed, and turned to follow.
It was Britt. It had to be. Unless Clio was hallucinating now, seeing what she wanted to see… An ember of resentment began to burn inside her.
An arm slid around her waist.
“Drink,” a male voice murmured in her ear. His hand covered hers and together they reached for the cup.
The voice made her shiver. It sounded like the liquid in the golden cup–smooth and thick with secrets. She didn’t resist as he helped her bring the cool metal to her lips. She drank tentatively at first, then took a deep draft as the heady taste surprised and delighted her.
“That’s it.” The voice rang with approval and Clio glowed. She didn’t protest as he began to sway her to the new music that rolled out across the throng. It included a slow, percussive beat that charged her body with an electric hum.
One by one, the streetlights went out, and there was only the music and the dark and the rustle of moving bodies.
Something thumped at her feet. She didn’t realize it was the man’s mask until his warm mouth closed over hers.
A rush of adrenaline made her tremble, shock or pleasure or something else. She’d never been kissed so slowly and deliberately, as if her every reaction was being explored. It felt good…but something made her pull away.
She stumbled in the dark, pushing past entwined bodies, until she was pulled into another embrace. She was kissed again, then spun into another pair of arms and another set of lips. She was kissed and passed again and again, like a dancer in a line. Male, female… Both, she thought, but her blood was racing. She couldn’t think.
She was surrounded now. Fleeting touches made her gasp and turn, but they were growing bolder. Unmistakably carnal sounds began to rumble around her. The shadows seemed to shift and change.
She shrank away from the touches. This isn’t real, she reminded herself. She looked up at the moon, searching for one clear thought. The round face of it reminded her of Lilah.
“She took my heart,” Clio whispered.
“You can have mine.”
Clio spun around. Red Jack stood there, a hand clasped in melodramatic fashion across his chest.
“No, take mine,” Black Jack offered with a courtly flourish.
“No, mine,” said another voice from the darkness.
“Mine, mine, mine, mine…”
The voices assaulted her from all sides. Clio clasped her hands over her ears to shut them out.
The vibration from the drumming bled through her feet and up her spine. It grew heavier, wilder. She backed away from the reaching hands, her own hands slipping from her ears and letting in insistent voices.
“Not real,” she muttered fervently.
Proceed to Chapter 5, page 2–>