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       Underland, p.10

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  Remus stepped in front of the white malformed man-beast and looked into those hate-filled eyes. “Listen here. I own you. You kill for me now.”

  The boggart’s white eyes turned to focus on Remus’s voice. He wasn’t sure how much the beast understood. Boggarts weren’t known for their speaking abilities.

  “I’ll make it worth your while,” Remus held up his bracer, but the boggart shook his head. “I know your kind. I know what you want. You don’t want freedom tokens. You like the events, you like the killing. I do too. It’s much more interesting when runners believe they have a chance.”

  The boggart opened his mouth wide, revealing rows of teeth in what Remus assumed was a smile. “I’ll tell you what. You kill for me, and I’ll kill your old master, Howl. How does that sound?”

  Bogeyman’s mouth opened and his lips moved oddly as he tried to speak. “I kill girl, I kill you.”

  Remus laughed. “You can try. But you don’t know what kind of monster you’re dealing with.” His hand reached out and he grasped Bogeyman’s bald head. “I’m a boggart’s worst nightmare.” Bogeyman’s white eyes rolled back into his head in pain as Remus unleashed his power, slowly melting the edges of the mind. If he did enough, he could melt the entire brain. But he needed the boggart to obey.

  The beast whimpered, “You’re a Banthor.”

  “You kill for me,” Remus repeated again.

  “I kill for you.” Bogeyman ground out between his teeth.

  ***

  A white ogre-looking monster popped up on the screen, and Kira recognized Bogeyman. The warlock called Zephyr was counting on Bogeyman to win and also take down at least ten runners with him.

  Chaz hissed at the TV and threw whatever food he had been eating at the screen. It landed with a soft thud, and the brown pudding-like mixture stuck to Zephyr’s face and then slowly eked down, obscuring most of the warlock’s expression.

  Was this the same Zephyr Ferb had mentioned? From the 1509 championships? If it was—she did the math—he was five hundred years old. After a few minutes she learned it was indeed the same Zephyr, a Paladin now. How many years had it taken him to earn his freedom?

  She was so preoccupied with the TV that Kira didn’t feel the gentle tug on her sleeve as the ghost tried to undress her. “Hey! I don’t think so.”

  The ghost tried to pull on her shirt a few more times but she swatted the ethereal hand away. Or what she thought was her hand. Kira grabbed ahold of her shirt and refused to let go, for fear it could disappear at any moment. She glanced up to see that the two other ghosts were dressing Chaz and Zeke. Kira turned around abruptly. What? Did no one believe in privacy?

  The girl seemed determined to get Kira dressed, but when another tug came at her pants, she screamed and pushed at the ghost. A small noise escaped the being. “All right, but I’m not undressing. If you want me to wear the stupid clothes then they need to go over what I’m wearing now. Do you understand?”

  The ghost solidified enough that she could see the girl smile widely and gesture towards a side door. It opened, and the werewolf from her compound and a black snake-like being entered the room wearing uniforms. Kira took the stack of clothes from the specter and exited the door the two runners had just come from. There wasn’t any signage, signifying whether it was boy-girl specific, so she just pressed on through. It was a stark and utilitarian shower and changing room. Kira’s cheeks burned red at the thought of how close to being humiliated she was.

  Regaining her composure, she looked for a shower closest to the door, so—if she had to—she could make a quick escape. Stripping quickly and pulling the knife out of her boot, Kira entered the shower stall and closed the tattered curtain. Fiddling with the knobs produced a wonderful stream of hot water, much to Kira’s delight. She did the best she could to clean herself with a knife in her hand and keep her wounded shoulder turned away from the water. She needed to let it be as much as possible. Warrick’s magical drops of healing would’ve been great right about then.

  Over the spray of the shower, she heard the locker room door open. Footsteps entered.

  Kira gripped the knife close to her body, ready to spring at the curtain if it so much as moved.

  Nothing. The footsteps moved to a different stall and water turned on about ten feet away. She sighed in relief and worked the soap into her hair even faster, still keeping a wary ear on the other shower occupant. Kira was grateful for the shower. If all runners had instant access to hot water like this, then if she survived, she may very well think about running again just to have a shower.

  Living on the streets was hard, and she’d almost forgotten how good it felt to be clean. When she was done, she looked around for something to dry herself off with and found nothing. She was about to pull aside the curtain and look when something burst through.

  Chapter 13

  Kira screamed as the shower curtain tried to smother her face. She gripped the knife in her hand and swung at the plastic sheet, stabbing, jabbing, and swinging. Her screaming brought others. The door burst open as Zeke and Chaz stormed into the room looking for an attacker. Kira struggled with the shower curtain she’d attacked and ripped down from the bar. It wasn’t easy to get the clingy shower curtain off her but keep it between her body and the guys.

  A girl specter floated feet away in a frenzied motion. Her translucent hands kept waving and pointing at the offending towel she had tried to pass through the curtain to Kira. The towel that Kira had thought was attacking her was now lying in a puddle on the floor.

  Her cheeks burned with embarrassment—for so many reasons. She did her best to grip the shower curtain to cover up all important areas of her body.

  Chaz started laughing. His throaty laugh had a weird hiccup to it, as if the werecheetah wasn’t used to laughing. Zeke raised one eyebrow at her in disbelief. Even the occupant of the last stall timidly peeked out to see what the ruckus was—Amazon woman. When she saw Kira’s towel on the floor, she shook her head and ducked back into her stall. After mocking and laughing at her till they were satisfied, both the male runners left the bathroom.

  Kira grabbed her makeshift curtain-towel and the sopping wet one from the floor and dashed down the corridor into another dressing area. Quickly, she pulled on the provided uniform and fingered the white material. It wasn’t pretty, didn’t do that much to enhance her figure, and reminded her of burlap.

  The seasoned, talented runners had darker expensive uniforms befitting their stations—the darker the uniform, the better the runner. The newbies wore usually white, Ferb had said. A blank canvas for the blood. It also screamed, Hey! I’m right here. Kill me.

  She supposed it helped the spectators—they could focus on the red and black uniforms and place bets. And it must be nice and easy to watch the new runners get picked off like flies. The order of rank went white, gray, red, black.

  Kira tied the laces of her boots and sat silently on the bench, contemplating her last moments. Soon, they would be marked and numbered. Statisticians would collect their data and snap a quick photo of the last minute entries. Then the cart would pick them up and deliver them to the course where they would meet with their sponsors for last minute encouragement. There would be the harvest of gifts, if any’d been given, and they would line up for the race, in the order of color.

  She started shivering and began to flex her fingers and run her hands through her damp hair. Her specter floated a few feet from her, bobbing gently in the air, waiting to come if bidden. Kira gave the girl an ugly glare, before giving in and motioning her over to finish her job.

  The iridescent specter smiled brightly and whisked behind her to run a comb through her hair. The light, ethereal fingers brushing against her scalp felt way more comforting than she’d expected. When was the last time someone had brushed her hair?

  Her father. Just remembering him brought stinging tears to her eyes. She quickly wiped them away.

  When the specter was done styling her hair, she handed Kira a mirror.
Her hair was pulled away from her face into a high ponytail. Thin, little braids had been softly interwoven into her hair and down her ponytail. It gave her the appearance of being both soft and hard. Kira liked it.

  A tall woman came in and addressed the runners, giving them the order of the events for the afternoon. All first time runners were to follow her out the door. Kira got in line behind a small bear-creature and was ushered into a large bunker.

  There, a tall green man with horns poked, prodded, measured and photographed her, entering everything into a tablet. He put a tourniquet around her arm and pulled out a syringe.

  “What are you doing?” Kira asked.

  “Taking a blood sample.”

  “What for?” She winced when he pricked her skin and had to look away while the syringe slowly filled with her deep red blood.

  “We run a test, check for impurities, see if anyone has had any genetic enhancements.” He smiled, revealing pointed incisors.

  “Really?”

  The doctor snorted and shook his head. “No, not really. You’re a new champion, so we take your stats and enter them into our computer. We also use your DNA to help identify the remains.” He pulled out the needle and capped the vile of blood, wrote on it with a pen, and laid it down on the tray next to a lot of other filled samples. “If there are any left, that is.”

  Her eyes followed the vial and she read the label on her blood.

  Race: Human

  Name: Kira Lier

  Owner: Remus Carthage

  Blood Type: O+

  Her stomach fought and tried to eject what little was inside, but she gritted her teeth and stared the doctor down.

  “You won’t need it.” Totally feigning bravado, but he visibly squirmed under her dead eye scrutiny.

  “Okay then, I need it for everyone else,” he replied and looked away.

  A loud scream erupted from across the room as one of the doctors flew across the room and slammed into a wall of cabinets. He slid onto the ground and didn’t stir.

  Kira scanned the direction of the growing crowd, and watched as nurses and doctors fled from one particular corner, where a large panicked beast fought the staff with the needles. He picked up his examining table and tossed it. Her heart stopped as the metal examining table flew in her direction. She dropped to the ground but the young doctor standing next to her didn’t. Another victim.

  Kira crawled along the ground seeking shelter from the manic monster attacking anyone in his wake. An alarm sounded and doors slammed, locking them inside. Kira could see the horned doctor motioning feebly towards her. She hesitated, debated leaving him, but a fragment of human compassion flickered. She scooted toward the doctor, keeping one eye on the possible threat from across the room.

  It was bad, he wasn’t going to survive. She could tell his lung was punctured, but he didn’t seem to care. He just kept waving with his fingers towards the vials of blood scattered unbroken on the floor. Searching, searching for one in particular. Finally, he found what he was looking for and held it to his chest.

  “You ducked.” He laughed and started to choke.

  “You didn’t.” She tried to smile back but couldn’t.

  “But you’re human.”

  “Yeah, it’s pretty obvious.”

  “You’re fast. Take it.” He handed her the vial.

  “What is it?”

  “Everlasting life,” he smiled wanly, his eyes losing clarity. “Or at least healing.”

  “That’s okay, this life sucks. Why would I want to live it forever?”

  “Which is exactly why you should have it. It’s unicorn blood.”

  “Nope, if it’s that great, you take it. You’re the one who needs it.” She forced the tube back into his hand.

  Instead, he shook his head and pushed back and closed her hands tight around the vial.

  “No. You ducked.” And then without further instructions or clues, he died.

  Kira stared at the doctor, waiting to feel grief at his death, but since she didn’t know him, there wasn’t any. Grabbing the vial, she glanced at it briefly to see it was filled with a pearlescent ooze. She tilted it and it caught the light—it had a gold tint in it.

  Screaming continued in the background, and soldiers busted into the room with black uniforms and helmets with long Tasers on rods. Someone reached a far wall and pulled a switch.

  The room went black. A high pitched screech of pain rang out as the soldiers subdued the monster in question. Only the green glow from the soldier’s night vision helmets alerted anyone to any movement. Every few moments, the electric blue light of the Taser sticks illuminated the nightmare.

  She barely had the vial in her hand, when a searing jolt shot through her entire body. Paralyzing pain erupted, and her muscles spasmed as she crumpled to the floor. The vial rolled across the floor, crushed under the black boots of the soldier who’d shocked her.

  The liquid pooled under his boot. Kira tried to reach for it but was cut off by more guards.

  The Taser stick came into view, and the other side of the room erupted into flashing blue and white light as they continually Tasered the beast. A beast who was probably just as scared as Kira, trying to run away from the doctors and this nightmare. At the rate the soldiers were attacking, they were going to Taser it to death.

  Another shock seared her body and she clenched her teeth in pain. She realized in that moment, she was more saddened at the unnamed beast’s imminent death than the doctor’s.

  Chapter 14

  Someone was nudging her head—and they weren’t letting up.

  Kira looked out through half-lowered lids to see Chaz’s feline eyes studying her with curiosity. He was too close for comfort, and his whiskers brushed her cheeks. This time he poked her in the in stomach. Her muscles were sore and felt lax, but she had enough control to fling an arm straight into his smug face.

  He jumped back at the slap. “This one’s not dead yet,” he yelled. Kira could have sworn he seemed almost relieved.

  Specters floated into the room. Those who weren’t wounded were hauled into another room. Those who couldn’t move were left for dead. Kira was surprised when Chaz picked her up and moved her to the main room. She found herself in a prime position on a couch.

  “What happened?” she asked, looking around at the mellowed and somber faces of the group of competitors.

  “You tell me. You were the one in there.”

  “I’m not sure. Someone was scared and threw a table, and then it got bad really fast.”

  “Half of the room didn’t make it out, as you can see.” He nodded as more and more specters floated out without a person accompanying them. The room filled with more competitors, and Chaz stepped back. He wore a black uniform. “And half more will never cross the finish line.” His grim expression confused her as he looked at her and then away. “I don’t think you’ll get lucky twice.”

  She wanted to shout at him, but he disappeared into the throng of red and black-garbed competitors coming out of their rooms.

  By now, everyone had heard what had happened. An added tension filled the air. She quickly got off the couch and moved to a wall where she could observe the group.

  There must have been at least sixty—that she could see—inside the building. From the way the room numbers constantly changed, it seemed as if a lot more waited outside. Kira tried to stay away from the black and red groups and found herself sticking among the other white uniformed runners. It didn’t help. The small pack of white runners found themselves the scrutiny of many hungry and dangerous beasts. She probably should have tried to make friends with the other first time racers, but she didn’t. There was too much she wanted to see. It did seem that most of them were there because the lottery had chosen them.

  Kira felt a moment’s jealousy. Even the Amazonian woman had on a gray uniform. The color made her skin look sickly, but it at least proved she had survived a few events. Kira craned her head and tried to find Zeke among the white uniforms, but
she couldn’t see him.

  They all watched the screen as bets came in. Kira had 50-1 odds of surviving. Her picture was dead last on the ranks. A heavy feeling of dread sank into her stomach. She could chose to let it bother her, could cry over it. Or she could go to that dark place, the place where she let her mind go when she didn’t want to feel anymore. The place she’d retreated every time she was sick of hunger, or cold, or hurt. It was safe there.

  Someone bumped Kira and she ignored it.

  The noise in the waiting room died down, and she knew it was time to go. Staff directed them down a hallway and separated them by color into different elevators. Kira moved into her glass elevator and the large group of newbies came in with her. When the glass door closed, the small space filled with the scents of institutional soap and something else—fear.

  She could smell their fear. She closed her eyes and tried to not look at the others. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—make eye contact. The eyes were the window to the soul. If she looked, it would knock her out of her small safe zone.

  The doors to the second elevator opened, and she watched it fill with the gray champions. The third was filling with red, and then black competitors moved into their elevator. She turned to face the back of the elevator and looked out over the underground gorge. The building they were in was hundreds of feet up in the air, and the event starting line was down below them. All along the gorge, rows of seats carved out of stone were packed with thousands of fans gathered to watch the event.

  “Look there,” a large man said with distaste. “The Underlords.”

  Where he pointed, Kira saw a long coach pulled by black horses edging the top of the gorge. It kept going until it was out of sight. Did they have a separate viewing area? Probably. An owners’ box or something. When she looked back down, her stomach dropped at the height.

  She kept doubting herself, doubting everything, and yet there was a thrill of adrenaline that rushed through her. She clung to that feeling—she needed to ride that wave—so she focused on it.

 
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