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Gauntlet: Preview

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The sky was a deep, dark purple now. Clio took another right turn, hoping it would lead her out of this maze and not further in. She thought herself a fool to have ever found quiet, crooked lanes appealing. She’d give anything for a broad and busy avenue to open up in front of her.

Instead, she emerged into a large, wedge-shaped courtyard of sorts, formed by the intersection of three buildings and a high wall. Walkways branched off between them. Her heart sank at the thought of having to choose again, but then she received another jolt when she noticed two boys–young men, really–sitting on that high wall. They hunkered beneath a wavering street lamp that cast a washed-out yellow circle around them. Their long legs dangled, and she watched with her heart in her throat as one of them whistled at her. He jumped easily to the ground.

“What are you doing here?”

His voice held honest shock, and no aggression. Clio’s breath came back to her a little.

“I was just–I’ve been trying to reach the station at–“

“The station?” The boy still seated on the wall scoffed. “Got turned around, did you?”

“Yes, I think so. The way through…it was blocked off.” Gathering the shreds of her courage, Clio took two measured steps forward. “Could you tell me how to get there from here, please?”

She turned her attention back to the boy who stood twenty feet in front of her. The lamp’s light allowed her to make out his messy shock of red hair and the mass of freckles that covered his face. He glanced up at the boy on the wall, and they both looked at the sky.

“They’re out and about a bit early today, I guess.”

The boy on the wall nodded as he fixed his gaze on her. “You shouldn’t be worried about getting there. You should be worried about getting out.

Clio’s pulse began to race even faster. “What do you mean? There is a way through, isn’t there? I mean, not all the streets are blocked, are they?”

Her voice came out high and breathless on the last question, and her arms crept around herself. She gripped her elbows as she stared at them. She wouldn’t panic. She wouldn’t.

“Maybe not yet,” the red-haired one answered.

Not yet. She suppressed the almost overwhelming urge to whimper.

“But soon, if they’ve been busy.” The boy on the wall pulled one leg beneath his chin and regarded her with interest.

“You could,” the red-haired boy called her attention back, “stay.”

“Stay?” The pitch of her voice rose again.

“Yes, stay with us.” The boy on the wall jumped down. Side by side, he stood with his companion. His tan complexion and dark hair contrasted with his friend.

They grinned at her.

“Well,” the dark-haired one offered. “If you get inside and stay until morning, you’ll probably be fine.”

“But I–” Clio took a shuddering breath. “I just want to go home. Please. Please, show me the way out.”

“What’s your name?”

“Cl-Claudia.” Clio faltered as she hid her real name in an utterly futile display of caution.

The red-haired boy grinned knowingly. “I’m Jack.”

“Hi.”

The dark-haired boy laughed, not unkindly, and Clio felt a hot flush spread over her cheeks. “Don’t you want to know mine?”

Anxious and a little angry, but not wanting to antagonize her best chance of finding a way out, Clio nodded.

“I’m Jack, too, Cl-Cl-Claudia. You can call us Red Jack and Black Jack to keep us straight.”

His smirk made her angrier, and she scowled, knowing that he was only making fun of her. “Thanks, Jack. Can you show me the way or not?”

The red-haired boy shrugged. “It may be too late already.”

Clio could feel the tears prick her eyes. She fought to keep them from falling, though her distress finally seemed to faze the two boys. The dark-haired one sighed, and he exchanged a look with the redhead.

“Maybe if we take her through the night market…”

“Yeah, not a bad idea.”

“Put this on.”

Clio stared at the black jacket the dark-haired boy had removed. He held it towards her and raised his eyebrows when she hesitated.

“Do you want them to notice you?” he asked.

She didn’t even know who they were, but she shivered to think of the shouting men and the long shadows that had stretched down the hill toward her. She put the jacket on and zipped it up, partially covering the white beacon of her dress.

“The hood, too.”

With trembling fingers, she pulled the hood up around her face. It felt strange and uncomfortable. The unfamiliar warmth that had come from another person’s body enveloped her. His scent surrounded her, but Clio remembered herself enough to rouse a moment’s politeness.

“Thank you.” Without thinking about it, she thrust her hands deep into the jacket’s pockets.

“Don’t thank us yet.” The redhead grinned.

“Come on.” His friend slipped off like a shadow against the wall, and the redhead followed, not looking to see if Clio did the same.

She had no choice but to follow them, walking rapidly in the greater fear that she would lose sight of them and be left alone. Even worse, it was turning full dark.

For several minutes Clio trailed after them, occasionally hearing a voice or two from nearby. The Jacks made so many twists and turns that her sense of direction was hopelessly confounded, until finally, the sounds of life and activity grew louder.

They came out onto a bustling enclave of shops and stalls. People dressed for the night strolled along the sidewalks on either side of the enclosed, exuberant market. It was still nothing like what she was used to in the parts of the city she’d explored.

People laughed and chattered, and vendors hawked their wares…but it was different, somehow. The heels on the women’s shoes seemed so tall and sharp, as if they were walking on pointed needles. Their lipstick was too bright, their voices too shrill. The men were loud and boisterous and seemed to lurk in every doorway, watching everything that passed in front of them with knowing leers.

Even the scents of the foods seemed exotic, strange and unsettling. Under different circumstances, she might have been charmed. But she had no desire now to linger, or to find out what went on past the long row of tantalizing doorways that opened from the street.

“Don’t think you’re home free yet.” Dark humor laced the voice in her ear.

On Clio’s other side, an equally amused murmur made her shiver. “Not even close.”

The boys tugged her arms and carried her between them, past the long line of doors and stalls and people. Just before they pulled her around a corner into a much quieter street, Clio looked over her shoulder.

Down at the far end of the market, where they had entered moments before, a silhouette stood as a unique stain in the shadow of the alleyway. There was something compelling and terrible about that one figure. With horrified fascination, Clio saw the figure detach itself from the shadows as his head turned in her direction.

Her lips parted in a gasp, but her guides dragged her away. The Jacks whisked her down the street so quickly that she nearly ran to match their strides.

“Oh, you really shouldn’t have done that.” The red-haired boy flashed her a grim smile.

“Did he see us?” she whispered. “Is he…is he coming after me?”

“I’d say so, yeah. They are,” the boy added with malicious significance.

“But why?” She hated herself for uttering the useless question, and for dropping to a plaintive whine.

“She’s feeling sorry for herself now.”

“I think you’re right.”

“I’m not!” Clio exclaimed. “I’m just–“

“Just a lost little girl who came to play when she didn’t know the rules?”

“I’m not…” Lost. Clio was well and truly lost. “…little.”

Clio’s anger flared at the mocking amusement she saw in their faces. “And this isn’t a game,” she added sharply.

The boys laughed, dragging her through a quick turn and then another. She was beginning to feel dizzy from the speed of it, and nausea made her stomach roll.

“Are we almost there?” she asked in desperation.

“That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?”

“Very. But I think what she means to ask is–are we almost out?”

Full Chapter 1 available free to read now!

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