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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.
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A person’s eyes always betray them…
I think someone said that to me once, but I don’t know why that piece of advice chooses now, of all times, to resurface. I try to ignore it in favor of the more pressing issues of the moment—standing in a gauzy dress, on display, gagged like a stuffed pig. Fear forms a wall, blinding me to everything else but the need to fight. Escape. Scream.
At the same time, I’m paralyzed. Anxiety is a rope tightening around my throat with every passing second…
That fragment of a memory, however, is persistent, replaying over and over. My ears ring, and it’s like I can hear it, uttered in a deep male voice that seems both foreign and familiar. A face even comes to mind, blurred and distorted. I strain to recall as many details as I can—a gnarled yet stern expression, piercing blue eyes…
Like a jolt of lightning, recognition jolts through me. I know him.
I can’t think of a name, but I sense in the core of my being that he’s the original speaker of this phrase. More importantly, my heart clenches in a way that warns me his words matter. You can tell a lot about a person from their eyes, I think he said to me once. Don’t trust anyone who won’t look you straight in yours. Funnily enough, kiddo, the Kendalls taught me that, those lying fucking bastards.
Ironically, that advice doesn’t seem to apply in this situation. Everyone, from the women I woke up surrounded by, to every person I’ve met since, seems utterly fixated on me. And it’s wrong—a comparison of a dog eyeing a piece of steak comes to mind.
Their eyes hunt me down, conveying a ravenous attentiveness that is inescapable. Like I’m a prize. Some internal part of me senses that it’s not right. Abnormal. I don’t like this—attention.
And the more I endorse those feelings, the clearer that disembodied voice becomes.
Listen, Lara! For fuck’s sake, you never fucking listen. Look past the bullshit and try to see things for what they are. You can’t afford to get distracted now. Your life depends on sticking to the plan. The Kendalls? You can bet they’re sticking to theirs…
Lara? Could that be my name? It doesn’t seem to resonate in me—but the second half of that advice, does. One part, in particular, sends another electrifying jolt through me. The Kendalls.
A name. A family? They mean something to me, whoever I am. But what?
If only there wasn’t a barrage of stimulation battling for my attention. There are so many people here—loud, sweating, shouting people. The noise and chaos trigger various reactions all over my body. My nerves prickle, rubbed raw, and I have to fight the urge to physically slap my hands over my ears and scream. It’s too many stimuli all at once. Too loud. Too vibrant.
My skin heats, chest constricts. Just as it all becomes unbearable, my brain does something I suspect has become a habit. It shuts off. The anxious thoughts continue unabated, but it’s like the rest of my body has been switched to autopilot, moving normally, breathing normally. Blinking.
Turtle and shell. Turtle and shell. I’m not consciously thinking those words, but like the unsolicited ghostly advice, they play over my psyche on repeat. Like I’m used to chanting it in situations like this. Retreating into myself like the namesake turtle in its shell.
But I’m not in control. It’s as if someone else is going through the motions, and I’m disconnected from everything but the sights and smells. Watching the next events unfold could be equated to watching a movie with no invested interest.
Only this movie seems to be of the horror variety—and while I may not remember my own name, I somehow know that I’m not into that particular genre.
Pay attention. Again, that disembodied voice creeps into my head, but this time I latch onto it greedily, my only lifeline in this mess. See through the bullshit.
Blinking, I try, turning my focus outward. It almost hurts to retreat from my inner monologue and reenter the real world again.
We’re no longer in that dim, indoor chamber but outside. The sunlight burns, the warmth cast by it searing on my skin. The strange location and people appear just jarring and overwhelming as before, but I force myself to look. Pay attention.
The dimly lit inner sanctum with the pool of water must be connected to this outer area. I have a vague memory of Minerva grabbing my hand and leading me out, her tone an amused purr. “It’s showtime…”
Because this is just entertainment to them. A game. This space must be some kind of gathering point. Much like a stage, a large courtyard forms a semi-circle with a row of low stone steps separating the platform from the “audience.” In this instance, a sea of people who blur into one formless mass.
Turtle and shell…
The disconnect washes over me in full force. I’m drowning in my own skin, unable to breathe. Think. Feel.
Objectively, my brain coldly supplies a word to name the sensation—panic attack. A part of me is fully aware that only anxiety is shaping my interpretation—but knowing doesn’t loosen the pressure any.
My chest aches as if it’s being crushed by the sheer weight of the world closing in. I think… I think I’m dying…
There you go again, that disembodied voice scolds, but this time a fuzzy scene comes to mind to match the words. The speaker leans against a brick wall, his dark clothing as old and worn as he was. We were somewhere enclosed with harsh lighting that burned my eyes, and cold concrete flooring I could feel scratching at my bare feet. I was starving. Exhausted. And the same feeling suffocating me now nearly crushed me back then. I was dying…
You’re letting yourself get overwhelmed, Lara! You can’t keep allowing what happened to hold you back. Work through the trauma. You want something to focus on? Think of the Kendalls. Those bastards who did this to you. To us. You going to let them win?
The man answered for me, his teeth bared. Hell no.
You have to go inside their world. Do whatever it takes to get close—anything. Then you make them struggle to breathe, you hear me? You suffocate them.
And as if his words were magic, I could breathe again then, and they have the same effect now.
I suck in a breath in the present, and gradually, my thoughts clear. The world returns, and I can make out more and more details. There aren’t hundreds of people gathered either, maybe fifty—including Minerva and Ceres, the women who dressed me. Everyone is wearing the same Roman-style clothing, but there’s a shiny, too-clean quality to it all. Costumes a part of me supplies.
This is some kind of game. A gaggle of people playing dress-up—but that’s not the most alarming realization. I’m drawn to one particular figure more than the others. He’s near the front of the pack, his eyes blazing an unusual hue so bright I can make it out from this distance.
Dark hair only enhances his features that I can admit are handsome—but even as I do, it’s like some part of me resists that descriptor. No. Someone like him can’t be handsome. He needs to be ugly, labeled with only cruel, vicious words. They dance through my mind next as if a mantra, but I think this voice is my own inner monologue and no one else’s. Liar. Thief. Murderer…
I hate him.
That male voice returns, as if supplying the answer—People like that prey on people like us, he said. They fuck you. Manipulate you. Use you up. Then they spin it around like they’ve done you a favor. They made you ‘embrace your darkest impulses.’ When all you’ve really embraced? Is their dick up your ass.
I wince at the imagery, but some deeper, buried part of me stirs. Wakes up. The longer I stare, the more the rest of the world fades away in favor of a laser-like focus on him. It’s calming in a sense. Like finding the sun among a sea of endless blue and finally realizing that I’m staring at the sky. I have direction again.
He’s the center of this crazy, confusing world, I know it. Whoever he is, he’s familiar to me somehow.
I think I hate him.
With every fiber of my being, I do.
If only I knew why.
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