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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.
Disclaimer: The following copyrighted content is unedited and subject to change.
“You’re ogling,” Jax snipes from my side. I barely hear him above the chorus of voices swelling around us—a hallmark of one of the many reasons why I haven’t participated in a session before. The noise. It’s worse than having to attend a gala or board meeting. Every sound scrapes against my psyche, irritating the part of me that craves silence and contemplation. A funny quirk considering the lane in which I’ve chosen to make my living.
“You never ogle,” Jax says, raising his voice to be heard. “I guess we’re all in for a show tomorrow. When heartless, cold K sets his black soul on something, few can stand in his way. I suggest you run through that fucker Wilder first—”
“You know it’s against protocol to use his real name,” I snap, purely out of habit. I’m too focused on the scene unfolding before me to really care about the lapse in judgment. Primarily one aspect—my eyes track the blond’s every movement, from her slow, cautious steps to the play of sunlight over that pale hue of hair. She and the women are departing the courtyard, triggering the crowd to thin, and—in addition to Jax’s—excited chatter swells into a dull hum. Something about tomorrow.
As it stands, I barely remember whatever instruction they might have voiced after announcing the gauntlet. Another man could blame the distraction on lust or attraction.
A part of me wishes for that kind of normalcy—but my mental clarity has always overridden bodily hormones. A flaw, to be sure, one that has garnered me my fair share of scorn over the years. How did one ex put it? You prize intellect over instinct, like a fucking computer. I could blame the habit on self-preservation. After all, if I hadn’t learned at an early age to trust my gut, I’d be dead by now.
And my gut is telling me that something is off about this blond tribute. Something beyond that body, or her marks, or one other detail I’m trying my damned hardest to admit, even to myself. The small, nonimportant fact that she looks like…
“She has brown eyes,” I hear myself say, a definitive reminder that she isn’t Diana despite the resemblance. Not that it matters. Something else about her piques my interest, making me crane my neck to track her retreat.
Maybe it was all in her expression? That fearful, helpless stare. She has to be a damn good actress, and I must be developing some kind of savior complex in addition to my many other character flaws.
Either that, or there was another reason behind that desperate glance.
“Methinks you’re in love,” Jax taunts, poking my chest with a finger. The angle of the sun has changed since we first arrived, meaning that we’ve stood here far longer than I realized. The golden light plays off his eyes, highlighting their mischievous quality. The way he gets when he’s plotting something.
“At least you’ve found a nice distraction already,” he says with a sigh. “Even if it has put you in bodily harm. You do realize that I wasn’t kidding about that guy getting his arm ripped off, right? People get maimed in these games. I heard someone even lost an eye once, and don’t forget that guy who died.”
“You do realize that I was on the advisory board during every previous game,” I dryly point out, finally turning to face him directly. He’s smirking alright, his eyes bright in a way that definitely heralds trouble. And unease. We might not be the closest brothers on earth, but I hate when he gets like this. Concerned.
In our adversarial dynamic it’s just not natural.
“No one’s ever lost an eye to my knowledge,” I add, turning my attention back to the now empty courtyard. The women are now out of view, and seemingly just average players remain.
“You don’t know everything,” Jax counters.
I raise an eyebrow. “I know for a fact that no one’s ever died.”
But plenty have required advanced medical care after a stint in the arena, not limited to sutures or the setting of a fracture. It’s one of the many potential risks any participant undertakes, bodily harm being the least among them. All dangers, of course, are clearly designated during the pre-approval process and preliminary interviews, not to mention that we staff an entire legal department to cover any and all bases.
“All participants are clearly informed of all potential risks before they are approved,” I say, reciting the legal jargon word for word.
“No one’s lost an eye yet,” Jax grumbles, frowning. My answer isn’t what pissed him off. Sure enough, his eyes cut toward a figure in the nearby vicinity, narrowed with a ferocity he rarely displays. “Who knows with that asshole in play. How the fuck did he even get in?”
He being, a tall, blond bastard I catch moving through the crowd paces away. I can’t tell from his gladiatorial leather outfit what role he was assigned, but I can guess. Something prestigious enough to support that shit-eating grin on his face.
It’s funny. Some people looked different inside the game from their real-life counterparts. Most would, stripped of their prestige, money and left with no designer clothing to hide behind. It’s a process our marketing department deemed “humbling.”
A rare few, however, remain just as smug and pretentious out of a suit as they do in rags. Derek Wilder fits the latter category.
It takes everything I have to school my expression, giving nothing away, even as rage simmers in my blood as he meets my gaze and smirks.
“Did you okay that?” Jax demands.
I clear my throat to stall a reply until I’m sure my tone is level. “About that…”
No. Fuck no—I didn’t okay anything about this situation, and I’m itching to find out who did and why. Technically, it’s unethical for me to attempt to contact anyone outside of the game in any professional capacity—but I need to know. How the hell did he get in?
“I take it that you didn’t know about that plot twist, huh?” Jax’s frown undercuts the sarcasm in his tone. He’s pissed, rightfully so. “Didn’t that asshole cost you guys millions in liability claims after what he did to the last girl?”
“You know I can’t discuss internal matters with you,” I mutter—but he’s right, and he doesn’t even know the half of it.
One thing not covered in the liability waivers is intentional psychological damage inflicted by another participant, and the resulting litigation caused us several million to settle. In fact, it took the full scope of our PR department just to keep the incident from reaching the press. Despite my full pledged support should she wish, the victim chose not to press civil charges.
Apart from a file shoved in the depths of our corporate offices, there is no other record of Wilder’s “incident.”
“You really didn’t know he was in, did you?” Scotty asks, prodding my shoulder. “I thought you were the big boss. How could something like that get past you?”
A damn good question.
Through gritted teeth, I say, “I’m sure whoever made the decision had a good reason.”
A good reason. One I’ll be sure to shove up the culprit’s ass when I get ahold of them.
“Uh oh, you’ve got your ‘businessman’ face on. So, who fucked up?”
“I’m not discussing this with you, Scot—Jax.”
But I have my list of suspects. Only a handful of board members have the authority to overrule me—I just never expected the bastards to wield it. The worrisome question is why. Why risk another liability? Though deep down, I already know the answer—money and influence can be enough to garner anyone a second chance. Hell, I benefitted from the system once—but that doesn’t mean I like having it turned on me.
While not entirely orthodox, there are several channels through which I can contact my team and get a swift answer. I resist giving into the cliché notion, but it’s the only one that fits—something isn’t right.
“You’ve definitely got that look,” Jax snidely remarks. “So much for your carefree sex-cation. All work and no play makes K a stuffy boy—”
“If it isn’t the fearless leader gracing us with his divine presence.”
Fuck. Tension stiffens every last muscle in my body and I have to consciously resist the urge to clench a fist. It’s like the bastard is goading me, chirping those words as if reciting a badly penned script.
“I thought someone of your position wasn’t allowed to partake in the games with us lowly masses?” He glances around, an eyebrow raised in exaggerated surprise. “Odd. One might think you’d be treated like a God around here.”
“I don’t need my ego stroked,” I reply with a calmness I don’t feel.
As for my being here, he and I both know damn well why I am, a mission I’ve kept from even Scotty. Business. In addition to my own bullshit journey of self-discovery, my other motive is far more personal—professional integrity. By undergoing a game session on my own, I prove to the board that any concerns stemming from last session’s Wilder incident are unlikely to be repeated. The process works, and once again I’ll be the smiling poster boy for it.
So who decided to play saboteur by reinviting the biggest liability to befall the organization since its inception? I have my list and it’s growing by the second.
Wilder, I’m sure, knows exactly who he managed to strongarm into getting his way. I mull over the potential responses that might trigger him to reveal who.
“I didn’t expect—”
“Weren’t you permanently exiled for being a perverted dick?” Jax demands, eschewing all tact.
That’s Scotty. Always speaking without thinking through the consequences.
Wilder smirks. “I don’t know, the man in charge is right beside you. Why don’t you ask him?”
I let my fake smile fall. I got my hint at least—it has to be someone on the board confident enough to make a power play for my seat, while smart enough to cover their tracks. That narrows down the suspects, alright.
“I’m sure you’ll stick to the terms of your probation,” I say with a confidence I don’t feel.
His eyes narrow in a display I don’t think he planned. Maybe his little game wasn’t entirely the shock he intended it to be?
Which means he did intend to catch me off guard. Fuck.
For the first time, the full limitations of being on the inside sink in. I have no dedicated contact with the outside and no way of mitigating any other issues that might arise. If Wilder was able to waltz in, only God knows what other ploys he and his cohorts cooked up.
None of them, I suspect, follow our carefully cultivated corporate guidelines.
“Luckily for me those terms don’t extend to any in-game activities,” he says with a smile, his confident mask on full display. “The tribute? Pardon my out of game lingo, but what a piece of ass. You outdid yourself vetting this candidate, I’m sure.”
This time, I’m the one who slips up, feeling my jaw clench as I think of her. The icy blond with the dark eyes—someone I’m quite sure I’ve never seen before in my life. On its face, that isn’t too unusual—the participates are vetted in groups at the discretion of the psychiatric consultant department. I only know a handful from previous sessions or from overseeing the average interview throughout the years. But I suspect that she is as much of a wildcard as Wilder.
A wildcard he looks eager to claim for his own.
“I think I’ll enjoy this little tournament,” he says before stalking off.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Scotty murmurs from my side. “Now you have to win. Pardon me for ‘speaking out of game lingo,’ but what a shitty motherfucker. He’s just baiting you now. I say you pull your big boss card and get him out.”
“I say you go mingle without me and try to have fun.”
“Uh oh.” He’s on my heels, his breath hot on my neck. “You never use the word fun in a typical context. And I know that look. He was right…”
I look back to find him standing paces away, gaping at me as if I sprouted two heads.
“You didn’t know. Someone overruled you, didn’t they? Those sons of bitches—”
“I’ll handle this,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Things are bad, aren’t they? Worse than you let on?” He scans my face and nods. “Yep. You’ve got that serious face again. All because of that bitch! Damn it, I bet she’s behind this somehow, using Wilder to do her dirty work—”
“Crash a game session?” I force a laugh. “How devious—”
“No,” he insists, but his tone is way more serious than usual. There is that concern again. “They want to set you up. Expose you before the board and make it seem like…”
“Like what?” I snap, hating that he’s closer to the target than he might realize.
“Like you aren’t in control,” he says softly. “Like the rumors are true and you’re losing your shit.”
I shrug off the note of worry in his voice that could be interpreted as genuine. His interest in my supposed impending downfall probably only extends to the fact that without my money to cushion his lifestyle he might actually have to fend for himself.
Still, I humor him with a reply. “I am in control.”
Starting with beating Wilder at his own game—literally. I’ll win the blond, and if she’s in on their scheme, I’ll make her talk.
And unlike some sadistic motherfuckers, I know the rules inside and out.
Including how to bend them.
How will K find his answers?
- Try to contact his team
- Threaten Wilder directly during the gauntlet
- Ignore his suspicions
- Sneak in to confront Juno
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