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Gauntlet: Chapter 8

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #008 back issue.

Laughter rose around Clio, mixing with the loud music as she struggled with Sunshine along the edges of the dance floor.

She tried to dig her dragging heels into the marble as more laughter and razor-edged conversation swelled around her. Sunshine eventually stopped fighting and simply tossed her over his shoulder. The humiliation flooded her eyes with angry tears, made worse by the glimpses of mockery on blurred faces as Sunshine strode past.

The jolting from his shoulder winded her, but she kicked and hit wildly until his fingers dug into her hip. “Be still,” he snarled. “Or I’ll dump you on your ass and drag you the rest of the way.”

The shock of hearing Sunshine speak was more effective than the threat. Clio stopped fighting and raised her head to see someone drawing shut a door to the great hall. The music faded to nothing, leaving a dull sense of dread to settle in the pit of her stomach.

She was pissed off, too–beyond pissed. She was furious, and she entertained herself with the fantasy of punching August right in the mouth. She hoped she would shatter every one of his perfect teeth and destroy that deceitful smile like he had destroyed her.

A choked sound of hurt, helpless rage caught in her throat, and she shook her head defiantly, blinking away the hot tears that pooled in the confines of her mask. He hadn’t destroyed her. She wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.

“Put me down,” she snapped. “I can walk.”

Sunshine seemed to ignore her, but after he turned into the next hallway he dropped her to her feet, keeping only one hand clamped around her upper arm. The look he gave her stated plainly that she’d regret it if she gave him trouble.

Clio resisted, just barely, the urge to flip him off.

They soon came to a door and a stairwell that only went down. He pushed her through the doorway, and Clio had the sudden terror that she would find herself once more inside the Gauntlet she’d first encountered–dark halls and dirty rooms and something to fear around every corner.

But the walls stayed clean, and the lights were bright. They went down and down until Sunshine forced her into an antiseptic corridor. A fast beat took up residence in her chest as they passed door after door secured by keycard.

Is this August’s lab? she wondered.

Her fears were confirmed when Sunshine took out a card and swiped it in the reader next to a door labeled “Test Subject 1.” He shoved her in and shut the door behind her.

She wouldn’t panic. Clio took deep breaths and pulled off the mask that seemed stifling now. It fell to the floor unheeded.

She surveyed the room–quickly at first, and then more slowly. The machine in the corner looked purposely intimidating, with numerous electrodes and other disturbing, unidentifiable objects plugged into it. The narrow bed wasn’t any better, with its sturdy leather restraints and metal fastenings. There was a large screen attached to the wall at the foot of the bed, and a door that led to a small bathroom. Her eyes narrowed, taking in the mirror surface of the light fixture in the ceiling.

Nothing else but the camera, she thought grimly.

She didn’t let that stop her from exploring the room more thoroughly, but the search didn’t yield anything useful. Clio gathered up the full skirt of the dress she now hated, especially when she thought of the way August had helped her into it after…

She couldn’t finish the thought. Her stomach rolled with nausea, made worse by the sharp, antiseptic odor that surrounded her; she flounced onto the bed, scowling in a sea of billowing, red fabric. With her back against the wall, she glared at nothing in particular while her mind worked furiously, trying to figure out what the hell she was going to do this time.

Eventually, all the shocks of the evening caught up to her, and she dropped her head to her knees and cried. By the time her tears dried up, leaving her hollow and drained, she was practically dozing in the cradle of her arms.

“Aw…Clio. Do you miss me already?”

Her head jerked up, and she stared at the screen in alarm. August’s smug face beamed at her in high definition.

“You sadistic creep,” she said with all the contempt she could muster.

It only made August laugh. “Out come the claws! It’s cute. Jealousy looks good on you.”

Clio seethed, but she ignored his provoking remark to ask a more pertinent question. “What exactly do you plan to do with me?”

“Lots of things,” August said cheerfully. “You wanted to learn all about my methods, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, before I knew you were a psycho,” Clio retorted, refusing to display her rising fear in front of him.

“Brave talk, Clio.” August smirked. “But we both know just how weak you are. You’ve only made it this far because other people keep covering your ass.”

His snide assertion silenced Clio. It was true. She’d done nothing but fall into one mess after another, and she was bailed out almost every single time. Her harsh self-assessment made her flush with shame and anger, and she glared at August with all the strength of her newborn hatred.

“But I am still here,” Clio pointed out, lifting her chin. “I bet it bugs you, doesn’t it? That I have friends who’ll help me. You only have little suck-up minions with their noses stuck up your ass.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. If I wanted, you would be a pretty little minion, too.”

“Not without you completely messing with mind, I wouldn’t.”

“I have no problem with that,” he drawled with a nasty smile. “In fact, that’s kind of the point. Why do you think I’ve given you the number one suite in the house?”

“Because you have to keep me happy or I’ll tell everyone you have a tiny dick?”

His expression darkened, and Clio felt a thrill of triumph that she’d punctured his smug, taunting surface. Her exhilaration faded quickly when she saw the flash of pure cruelty on his face.

“I’m going to enjoy breaking down all your barriers, Clio. It’ll be fun.” August smiled again, showing the dimples that she’d once found charming. “I already punched my way through one, after all.”

His suggestive grin made Clio feel ill.

“When I see you again,” he continued, “I’ll take your little trinkets just like I took you. Bet you’ll be just as eager to give those up before I’m through with you.” He nodded when Clio’s hand clutched at her necklace, making the bracelet around her wrist jangle quietly.

She’d almost forgotten. Why hadn’t he taken them already? Before she could ask, August’s twisted smile widened.

“And then I’ll remake you into whatever I feel like. It won’t be much of a challenge–getting in your pants certainly wasn’t–but I need something to pass the time. Maybe I’ll even let you in my bed again. Angela wouldn’t be too happy at first, but she’d come around soon enough.”

“You’re disgusting,” Clio said through gritted teeth.

“We’ll see how long you think so.” His teasing grin faded and a colder, calculating look appeared. “For now, let’s start the process of…softening you up a little.”

The screen went dark, but only for a moment–and then a terrible cacophony of sound and light appeared on the display. Clio winced and turned away with her hands clamped over her ears.

How long it went on, Clio wasn’t sure. Hours, maybe, and the room seemed to grow colder with passing time. The discord was impossible to ignore, even when she pulled the pillow over her head; the piercing noise went through the thick material like it was nothing.

The visuals were even more disturbing. The undulating circles and waves in lurid colors made her eyes throb. When those segued into a rapid-fire blink of images that her eyes couldn’t quite capture–but left her with vague, subliminal impressions of wrongness and sickness and despair–she felt queasy. She did her best to keep her eyes averted, but sometimes couldn’t resist a quick look to see if anything had changed.

Her eyes eventually grew heavy, though it was impossible to sleep through the horrible noise. She would have fought against falling asleep, anyway, but this was unbearable. When it all stopped at once, and the room’s sudden silence seemed to weigh down the very air, Clio sighed with relief.

However long the reprieve would last, it was a blessing beyond compare.

Wearily, she dragged herself to the bathroom to drink from the faucet and splash cold water on her face. She looked ashen in the harsh fluorescent light, her skin starkly pale against the deep red of her dress. Her hair had mostly come down from its pins and straggled around her face in an untidy cloud. Her eyes had dark shadows beneath them and were bloodshot and glassy. Even now, she looked like she was losing it.

She was losing it. Before long, she’d be screaming, if the current state of her nerves was any indication.

She pulled the remaining pins out of her hair with listless effort. She stared down at the last one, pinched between her thumb and forefinger.

“I’ll gouge out his eyeballs when he shows up,” Clio muttered.

“Carve out his heart while you’re at. After all, he’s got one of yours now.”

Clio spun around with a gasp. The man who stood there wore a fancy suit and a mask, but Clio recognized the voice immediately, as well as the wicked grin.

“Black Jack!”

Proceed to Chapter 8, page 2–>