The votes are in, K’s will be a Mercenary!
Welcome to the GAME: a playground for the rich and powerful, a hell for those ignorant of the rules. To play, you embody your true self. The vile you. The desperate you. The sexual, depraved, despicable you.
She doesn’t know her role, her location, or even her name. Trapped in a world designed for the devious to indulge, the tribute known only as Juno is the ultimate prize—whether she realizes it or not.
K, a game master with many secrets, is more than eager to take the spoils of this twisted fantasy landscape for himself. But when the consequences are laid bare, he has to give in to the very traits of humanity the GAME is designed to suppress, or play his role to its full extent.
No matter the cost.
Disclaimer: The following copyrighted content is unedited and subject to change.
It’s cold. The jarring sensation of ice over my flesh snaps me into awareness so suddenly I can’t choke down a scream. My eyes fly open, my shock compounded with every detail to come into focus.
It’s damn near dark and I feel my eyes strain in order to make out anything of note.
It’s freezing, and…
I’m not alone for one. Two women stand before me, seemingly startled by my reaction. Their eyes are wide, lips parting around a smattering of reassurances.
“Calm down, honey!”
But there’s something…off about them. I can’t put my finger on what. My brain is fuzzy, my thoughts an array of scrambled puzzle pieces I have no way of piecing together. I blink again until, gradually, some semblance of logic unfurls in my mind.
It’s their appearance that strikes me as odd, resonating with some inner knowledge that recognizes their long, shapeless garments as out of place.
Beyond old-fashioned. One woman steps forward, her red hair coiled into two plaits that drape her shoulders. My cheeks catch fire as I try to focus on her face rather than anything below. A length of ivory fabric conforms to her body and a plunging neckline exposes most of her breasts and part of her navel. It’s more than enough flesh to tell that she’s toned, shapely and attractive, her green eyes enhanced by bold, smoky makeup.
“Sorry, darling,” she purrs, revealing a lilting accent I can’t place. “You’ve been out for a while, but we need to get started. We only have an hour left.”
“S-Started?” I stammer. In contrast to her, my voice sounds rough, my throat dry. I can’t tell if I’m thirsty or if this is just a result of whatever made me sleep. My eyelids feel heavy, my brain buzzing. This isn’t a natural mind state.
Was I drugged?
Belatedly, the sensation of cool air brings to mind another revelation—I’m naked, sitting in a depth of water that does little to maintain my modesty. Rose petals float on the surface of it, tainting the air with their sweet scent.
I’m in a tub, I think—though one I doubt I’ve ever experienced the likes of before. It’s stone, cut into the floor itself, leaving me staring up at the two women, enhancing their height.
Someone put me here, propping my torso against a sloped section of stone carved like the back of a chair.
“Where am I?” I ask.
The redhead smiles, but her companion raises an eyebrow, obviously concerned. “You’re in the GAME, sweetheart—”
“Don’t break character,” the redhead warns in a hiss. Turning to me, she makes her smile wider. “It’s almost time for your presentation, darling.” She extends her hand and helps me to my feet.
I sway, my knees trembling.
The room itself gives no clue of what she might mean. Also made of stone. Metal sconces set in the wall provide barely enough light to see by, each one topped by a flickering candle.
“You are quite the tribute,” the redhead says over me, drawing me out of the water and onto a marble ledge beside her. “A virgin—we did the exam while you were unconscious. With your attributes, I think you’ll find your match in the gauntlet.”
“Attributes?” I follow her gaze to my wrist, surprised to find an object encircling it that I feel in my gut wasn’t there before—a thick golden bracelet. I finger the sturdy surface, more puzzled than ever. It looks like something sentimental. Something I should remember.
God, why don’t I?
Etched across the front in black are a series of symbols. A triangle. A square. A circle. A coil. Two straight lines.
None of them trigger any hint of understanding. Just more dread. More unease. More fear…
Licking my lips, I try to put those thoughts into a coherent statement. “I don’t understand what’s going on—”
“My, my, my.” The brunette whistles, stepping closer to eye the jewelry for herself. “You’re pretty brave for a virgin, honey.”
“A fitting tribute,” the redhead reiterates. Her eyes rake me over and I can’t stop myself from shielding what little of my body I can with my hands. Panic acts like a drug, slowing my responses down until it feels like I’m interpreting everything in slow motion. My body drags, so heavy, my brain mush. I know I’m not home. That I don’t belong here. I should run.
I attempt to move, but my legs disobey, pitching me sideways.
“Careful!” The brunette races forward to grab my arm and she and the other woman guide me to a bench braced along the wall. Seconds later, one of them drapes me within a slip of rough fabric and uses it to dry me off.
“You’re in the GAME, honey,” the brunette insists, eyeing me warily. She shares a quick glance with the redhead. “Minerva, what if she hit her head or something? I don’t think—”
“Character,” Minerva snaps, but something in her posture shifts, alluding to unease. She strokes her hand along my chin, guiding me to meet her gaze directly. “Sweetheart, you can still tap out if you’re having second thoughts.” Her eyes meet mine warily, softening for a split second.
“Tap out?” I croak.
Both she and the brunette eye me expectantly as if waiting for something.
Something that makes them both sigh in relief when it seemingly never materializes.
“Oh,” the brunette exclaims, bracing her hand against her chest. “My bad. It always takes me a little while to slip into character—”
“Welcome, tribute Juno,” Minerva tells me, pointedly ignoring her companion. She runs her fingers through my hair, raising a handful of white-blond strands. “With your attributes, you’ve come to the right place, honey. And you’re in for one hell of a ride.” She waggles her eyebrows, insinuating…something.
I don’t know what.
Or what to say in response.
All I seem capable of is staring, following the line of her gaze back to the bracelet.
It’s as if something about it reassures her despite my confusion. She reaches out, running her fingers along the symbols and her lips part into a slow, ripe grin.
“And don’t worry,” she tells me. “For your first time, you’ll get everything on your wish list, I suspect. Everything.”
“My wish list?” I rasp. “I don’t understand. Please… Help me. I think I’m lost. I don’t—”
“Let’s get her ready,” Minerva says, leaving my side to cross to a different part of the room. A long table seems to hold an array of supplies and she lifts a brush and a comb from the surface of it. Gently, she tackles my wet hair and I catch sight of myself in a gilded mirror hanging on a wall across from the pool.
Dark brown eyes stare back, gleaming like coals against a backdrop of pale skin and paler hair. She possesses a button nose and pink lips and could be described as pretty. The longer I observe her the more confused I feel. I lift my hand and she does the same—my reflection, obviously. Shouldn’t the sight trigger some kind of recognition? I wait…but it doesn’t. I don’t know this woman, her expression stricken with confusion.
“Where am I?” I demand in a whisper, though I could be speaking to myself more than the woman beside me.
“In the GAME darling,” Minerva insists, but she’s frowning, her gaze lingering over my dripping frame. “Ceres?”
“Yes?” The brunette returns and the two women stand off to the side, whispering conspiratorially.
“Okay, so what if she did hit her head or something?” Minerva states. “What do we do? Call in a moderator?”
The other woman, Ceres, shakes her head, seemingly shedding her previous concern. “I thought that at first. But look. A square—” she raises her hand near her mouth as if to shield her next words. “A role player.”
“Ah.” Minerva raises an eyebrow and nods. “Forgot about that designation.” Turning to me, she smiles wider and fingers a lock of my hair. “You’re in the Vestium, darling,” she explains, smoothing the curl behind my ear. “Here you will prepare for the presentation ceremony in the Gauntlet, where you will be the main prize. Our Juno.”
“P-Prize?” I rub at my temples, trying to remember anything. Only snippets come to mind. A moving vehicle. A taunting voice—She’s going to black tier. The more the little bitch screams, the better they’ll think she’s playing the game. And given what’s in store, she’s going to fucking scream.
Now talk of a gauntlet. Ceremony. Square. What the hell does it all mean?
Something bad judging from my racing heart and prickling skin. Something I don’t want any part in.
“Just relax,” Ceres insists, coming up to my other side. “You don’t have to lift a finger, and we’ll have you all ready for the—”
“Don’t touch me!” Maybe it’s this moment. Or maybe this is who I am. The kind of person who lurches to her feet, batting away the hands Minerva and Ceres extend my way.
It feels familiar—relying on reflex. Instinct. My brain seems to know exactly how to pivot to evade their reach, but my body can’t keep up. Weakly, I stagger forward, my legs like jelly, my knees knocking together. I can barely stay upright. My fingers tremble too badly to properly grip the strip of fabric as I hasten to wrap it around me.
Footsteps approach from behind and I keep moving, clinging to the gritty, stone texture of the wall as I follow where the room curves around a supporting column. It’s huge, expanding into yet more circular pools built into the polished marble flooring and fathomless space. Every step echoes, every voice resonating times a million.
I have to resist the urge to slap my hands over my ears to deafen the clamor. My brain feels so fragile. Like a delicate piece of camera equipment capable of focusing on only one subject at a time—how I remember that function and not my own name, I have no idea.
Running dominates my thoughts now. Moving.
Something is horribly wrong. I can feel it in my gut, rising up my throat like bile. I need to get away. Hide.
“Juno? Darling, come back!”
A smattering of advancing footsteps spurs me on. I nearly trip over my feet in my rush to scramble ahead. Finally, I spot a doorway leading into a shadowed hall, just as echoey as the other room. More candles serve as the only illumination, casting flickering shadows that seem to morph and transform into an army of strangers, chasing me down the narrow passage.
At the end of the hallway, another doorway looms. This one opens onto a space so bright that I can’t make out anything beyond a wall of bright white.
I race toward it and find myself blinking, my eyes streaming as they adjust to daylight. A blue sky looms above, a hot sun beaming down, drenching everything in stifling heat. Paved stones feel on fire beneath my bare feet and nothing in sight triggers a shred of recognition.
Just even more alarm.
White stone. Marble? A massive courtyard that expands into a complex of large, square buildings, each one surrounded by a towering row of columns.
At the back of my mind, something stirs, attempting to put a name to it all. Ancient Roman architecture?
But it doesn’t make sense. It’s wrong. I don’t know how, but I know in my gut that this isn’t what my usual surroundings are. Images cross my mind—buildings, taller than these. Skyscrapers. Honking horns and bustling noise.
Somewhere far from wherever this place seems to be.
“Whoa! What do we have here?” An unseen force cinches my left forearm—a hand, I see as I whip around. It belongs to a man who towers above me. His clothing draws my notice first—leather formed into strips that encircle his waist—and nothing else.
He has an angular face, his black hair cut short. Flickering dark eyes take me in as he tugs my hand aside, forcing me to lose my grip over the fabric.
“Let go!” I shout as my leg flies out, hitting the man in the center of the leather skirt.
He grunts, loosening his grip while I gape in shock. Again, it’s like my brain knows how to react even if my body is slow on the uptake.
Violent thoughts flood my mind all at once, too dizzying to truly make sense of. How to fight. Kick. Bite. Make him bleed if I have too…
But I can’t move my limbs quickly enough. He’s already grabbing my other hand, shoving me back against a stone wall.
“Little bitch…” His eyes dart to my bracelet and he sneers, bringing his thumb to the corner of my mouth. “Let’s have a little bit of fun—”
“No,” a woman declares from paces away—the mouth of the building I came out of. Minerva. She sighs, clasping her hands over her front as the blazing sunlight reveals her to be even more beautiful than I first thought. Striking and somehow intimidating. “This one is for the gauntlet only.”
“Really?” Chuckling, the man fists his hand through my hair so tightly tears prickle behind my eyes. “She looks to be fair game to me.” He’s still eyeing my bracelet while licking his lower lip. “Down for any fucking thing.”
I’m startled by a flash of gold sparkling on his opposite wrist—a piece of jewelry nearly identical to mine, only the symbols are different. His sports a triangle, a circle and two diagonal lines.
“Off limits,” Minerva snaps, her tone cutting. “You wouldn’t want to take it up with the game master, would you? Even in this godforsaken place, rules are rules.”
The man’s eyes narrow but he lets me go and backs away, laughing with every step.
“You’re welcome to participate,” Minerva calls after him. She crosses to me and stoops for the fallen fabric. “Here you are darling—” her hands move gracefully to drape the material around my torso. “You’ll need another bath,” she declares with a sniff as her eyes settle over my face. “And, as you bathe, you can decide on your punishment.”
My chest constricts. “Punishment?”
She nods, her eyes gleaming. “Oh yes. It isn’t customary, but you are not the customary offering. I think it might add some spice. I’ll even give you the choice of repentance.”
She grabs my arm with surprising strength, steering me toward the entrance of the building we came from. Shock runs through me as I spot yet another gold bracelet adoring her wrist. On it are only three symbols—a circle, a coil, and a triangle.
“Mouth,” she declares, inclining her head thoughtfully. “That will be your first choice, though a damn shame to rob you of the ability to scream. That makes it so much more fun. Or you can pick your hands. Or…your purity.”
I can tell from her gleeful, almost sadistic, tone alone that neither option is ideal.
What punishment should Juno choose?
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