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       Underland, p.11

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  Listening to the event organizer and the talk among the other champions, she’d learned that the elevator would drop, and the white gate would open. They’d all have to run like rabbits with greyhounds chasing them down. Shortly after, the gray car would drop and release the next group of champions, and so on and so on.

  The whites’ goal was to cross the finish line alive. The others groups’ goals—stop the white runners from crossing. That was it. Simple enough, except that there were no rules regarding how they were to stop the white runners. They could delay them, capture them, tie them up—

  Or kill them.

  Kira saw Chaz’s head towering over everyone in the black elevator and realized why he had chosen to compete. Who could outrun a shapeshifting cheetah? What if he was there to make sure she didn’t cross the finish line?

  Kira tasted blood. She’d bitten the inside of her cheek. She couldn’t focus on him. She had to focus on the problem at hand. Outrunning the others in this car. If she could stay ahead of this group, she’d be less likely to get picked off.

  The deeper they lowered, the closer they came to the gorge floor, the more the tension rose in the elevator car. People started jumping, flexing, shaking their legs, preparing to sprint as soon as the door opened. They surged toward the door they’d entered.

  But the runners in the other cars were facing the gorge. Kira scanned the back wall and noticed a mechanism above—it would raise the glass wall and let them straight out onto the rocky track.

  Loud horns blared throughout the gorge, slightly muffled by the near soundproof glass. The people in the gorge walls started to stand and cheer. A giant projector flashed the names of the runners in the first car, and Kira stared up at her own name on the cavern wall.

  She’d always wanted to see her name in lights, but not like this.

  The glass elevator touched down, and the runners began to push and pry the door open. Kira waited for the glass door to lift. The glass slid upward, but ground to a stop with an awful scraping sound. The back door had only opened eight inches.

  “Open the doors!” Someone shouted and began to pound on the door frantically. A huge fist punched the glass, but it didn’t break or shatter. It was reinforced.

  “Maybe they’ll reset the clock and let us start again?” a girl asked.

  Kira bet the gray elevator’s door wasn’t going to stick. “I wouldn’t count on it.” She immediately dropped to her hands and knees and began to slide under the eight-inch gap. The tight squeeze required a lot of twisting. As soon as she slid through, the grinding noise came again. It closed to six inches—an impossible amount of room for any of the other runners to make it out.

  The crowd erupted at her progress, and she turned and looked at the path in front of her. She should run. She’d have a huge advantage.

  “Go! Run!” The girl inside yelled at Kira. She held up her arm against the glass and motioned for her to go. Kira saw her band. Red numbers. She was here because of the debt she owed.

  Kira shook her head in disgust. “Come on, everyone!” Kira yelled, dropping to her knees. She lifted, prying, pulling against the machine with all her strength. The girl caught on and reached down to help.

  Others quickly joined in. Inch by inch, they pulled the door up until it was two feet off the ground. But the grinding noise started again, and the timed door worked against them.

  They were going to lose what little ground they’d gained.

  The girl slid out first. Instead of helping, she looked fearfully up at the gray elevator, turned and ran. The runners slid out one by one. Inside, a large, pale man with a horn for a nose, and a smaller bird-like beast were helping Kira hold the door open for the others.

  “Go!” The rhino-man commanded. His breath left a mist across the glass. The bird took his advice and slid under the door. The rhino yelled in pain as the door closed another foot. He wouldn’t make it out.

  “You too. Go.”

  “But you’ll be left alone.” Kira heard the gray elevator—only a hundred yards above her to her right.

  “You could have just left us, but you didn’t. I’ll sacrifice myself for you.” He placed his large hand against the glass, and Kira matched him against the other side. His massive palm dwarfed hers.

  Then the beast turned, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes. Waiting for the inevitable. Kira heard the gray team pounding on the glass as they lowered the final few yards.

  She was out of time. She spun to run.

  But her steps faltered. Such dignity in his eyes. Such malice in her. How could she possibly deserve his sacrifice?

  She wouldn’t let it be in vain. Her legs pumped like pistons and she shot down the path like an arrow from a bow. The second elevator opened and the gray team was released. She looked over her shoulder and saw most of the runners had bypassed the beast imprisoned in the glass. Maybe he was too easy of a catch?

  A blur of gray passed her, and she barely had time to register the thing running ahead of her. Whatever it was leapt into the air and brought down someone in white. She heard a quick cry. Kira didn’t even look, just kept running, using her arms to propel her faster. She could see some of the other runners slowing ahead of her, and she was quickly overtaking them. They hadn’t paced themselves and she wasn’t either.

  She needed to watch out for that. This wasn’t a fifty-yard dash. The gauntlet was a marathon. Kira tried to slow her panicked breathing and find a rhythm she could keep. She couldn’t burn out like the ones she’d just passed.

  One

  Two

  Three runners left in her dust. Kira saw the image above her change, and she glanced up at the wall to see the projection of the last two elevators dropping. The camera zoomed in on the first white elevator. One of the red runners was attacking the elevator with the horned rhino man. A blur of black bolted out of the elevator. Kira knew Chaz was out and running for her.

  She stumbled and grit her teeth. Don’t cry. Just don’t. It was impossible not to look up when they ran, and watch the red teams catch up and take out anyone they caught.

  Kira breathed a moment of strange relief. White runners weren’t the only target now. Everyone was.

  A faun slowed in front of her as he stared in horror at the image displayed on the wall.

  Kira almost plowed into him. “Run!” She maneuvered right to pass him and hit him on the shoulder. He stood absolutely frozen, distracted by what she assumed were gruesome images. Her heart thudded loudly, so she counted in her head to calm her nerves.

  Her smooth path veered left and disappeared over a cliff. Whoa! She backpedaled, hands in the air. Her feet skidded as she almost tumbled over the hundred-foot drop. Down below she heard the pitiful cries and saw the odd angles of a few runners who hadn’t managed to stop in time.

  Kira studied the cliff. It could be scaled, but it would take time—time she didn’t have. A red runner came up behind her, and Kira expected to be knocked over the edge, but he was only interested in racing. His arms morphed into giant eagle wings, and he flapped his arms a few strong times to gain a little altitude.

  A crazy idea formed in her head.

  She liked crazy.

  She stepped back and gauged his distance. As he neared the edge, she paced him and leapt with him. At him, actually. She grabbed onto his uniform and joined him for the glide down.

  “Let go!” He snapped his beak at her in frustration, his head and upper torso still in bird form. He couldn’t use his arms to knock her off, or they’d both tumble from the sky. As they descended, he lifted his booted leg and tried to shake her off. She felt herself begin to slip, but glanced down. They’d nearly made the hundred-foot descent.

  If she fell, she’d survive. For at least a moment.

  “Thanks.” Kira let go and tucked her body into a roll to ease her fall. Her landing was neither smooth nor elegant. Her back slammed into the hard rock, knocking her breath from her. Her chest and back ached. She saw stars. When she stopped rolling, she was lying fa
ce down on something soft, warm, and definitely unmoving.

  ***

  Den had bitten his nails down to the quick as he paced the floor in the sponsors’ box. He glanced back up at the TV screen and then back to the field below. Kira surprised him. With the way the betting started to turn in her favor, she was surprising a lot of people. Her odds had just gone up.

  And the commentators keep replaying the elevator rescue over and over. As soon as the elevator gate didn’t open, he looked over at Remus and knew. He had done something. He had paid, or manipulated someone, into jamming the gate in the hopes of killing the girl. Did he know Den had bet on her?

  This time, if Den lost, he’d end up in the Gamblers’ Market as a slave.

  One smug look from Remus, and Den knew that had been his plan all along. Remus sat in his chair across the room. His ringed fingers lifted and he pointed to the pit where Kira’d just landed. Then he made a slicing motion across his throat.

  Sweat trickled down Den’s back. He looked back to see Bogeyman leap into the air to land on all fours in the pit, mere feet from Kira’s prone form. He bit his thumb harder and tasted blood.

  ***

  Kira, able to breathe and move again after a moment, turned her head. Her arm was stained bright red.

  Don’t look. She told herself. Keep going. She was about to push herself up when she heard something heavy land on the ground next to her. Instinct told her to stay very still.

  Something huffed and scratched at the rock and bodies of the unfortunate runners who hadn’t survive the jump. At that point, Kira couldn’t have moved even if she wanted to. Fear had made her its slave. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing.

  The thing made its way over. Its claw moved across her body, and its horrid breath saturated the air around her as it leaned over her.

  A faint cry of pain sounded in the distance and drew its attention away.

  Kira opened her eyes and saw the heavily muscled back of the beast in a black uniform stalking toward the injured runner. Her gaze rose to see the shining white of a bald head. The bald thing rushed over toward the pained noises. Its large hand rose in the air and came down quickly.

  The cries stopped suddenly.

  The thing howled and moved further on its hunt.

  More runners climbed down the wall, others jumped. The red and black teams had all run the course before—they knew about the cliff. A few had even teamed up to help each other.

  The thing roared at them as they landed on the canyon floor. A few darted away as soon as they saw the beast.

  Kira spotted a blur of black and yellow. Chaz was now ahead of her.

  The other runners didn’t scare her as much as the beast across from her. She couldn’t stay. As soon as its back was turned, she jumped up and ran. She heard a loud howl, and the crowds cheered. She couldn’t help but look up and see the camera zoom in on the thing’s face—the stuff of nightmares.

  A banner ran across the bottom of the image, its name and kill tally. That was the boggart—Bogeyman—and he had just finished off four at the bottom of the cliff. If she had stayed, she would have been just another kill, another number—five.

  Up ahead, the course went into a darkened tunnel with no lights. The green light of another runner’s bands bounced as they ran deeper into the tunnel. Those lights wouldn’t turn off, she remembered unless someone was killed. Actually, they sort of created a beacon in the blackness. Not good.

  A second later, the bobbing light disappeared, and she heard a scream. Her own light on her band would be the death of her in that dark tunnel.

  Kira slowed and fell to her knees in front of a mud puddle. She craned her neck and watched as a red runner veered off course, coming her way. Quickly, Kira dove flat into the mud to make her white uniform dark. She scooped up a thick glob and covered the digital screen of her band, making the glowing light disappear. Stumbling to her feet, she ran head first into the darkened tunnel. She tried to cover the light with her hand too, but still—she expected the attack any moment.

  Chapter 15

  Ten feet in it was pitch black.

  Her eyes didn’t adjust right away, so she ran as far as she could and then found a sidewall, feeling along the cold stone until she found an outcropping. Kira made herself as small as she could and pressed herself into it. She closed her eyes and counted.

  She listened: to others running by her, to their cries as they found other runners, or as they stumbled about in the darkness.

  It didn’t take long for her human eyes to adjust. She was used to sorting out shapes in the darkness from living on the streets. She stayed to the side and tiptoed. Moving, freezing, then traveling farther into the blackness. She didn’t know how long the tunnel went, but it dipped down so low that all natural light from outside was disappearing.

  From where she stayed, she could see that the rocky tunnel was wide, about thirty feet across. A few runners had spread themselves across the middle and were intercepting others that tried to pass by them.

  Chaz stood in the middle of them, his feline eyes probably easily seeing in the darkness.

  Kira pressed herself to the wall—mud-covered side out—and tried to keep herself moving, using large rocks and stalagmites as cover. Sounds of a huge scuffle filled the air as she passed the middle of the tunnel. She winced but refused to look.

  The stronger teams were now fighting against each other.

  Kira made it past the midway point before Chaz noticed her. She was grateful that he was feline and sight-oriented, not driven by scent. When he did see her, he looked like he was about to come after her, but a blind runner practically plowed into him.

  She took off, hugely grateful for the distraction and the time to put distance between Chaz and her. When she stumbled back into the light, she was surround by a forest of giant crystals that jutted at odd angles out of the ground and walls. Natural or unnatural, it was still a sight to behold. Oh, she wanted to touch it. Her hand moved on its own, closer to the crystals. Closer.

  Someone came crashing off the path in front of her. He was screaming at her, and she turned to see a wild-eyed champion in gray. He plowed over her and she fell backwards, his body landing on top of hers. His pupils were dilated and practically spinning in hollowed sockets. He was foaming at the mouth. Ferb had warned her these were like the small ones in the cavern. The ones that made humans crazy.

  If that was the case, then…was he some sort of a halfling?

  How would she make it through?

  She pushed him off and rolled to her knees, staring at the crystal in front of her. It was very pretty. So pretty.

  She dragged her eyes away from it, and they ached from the effort. But she couldn’t stay where she was. She had to keep moving.

  Gritting her teeth, Kira continued into the crystal forest. She’d have to keep her eyes on the ground. The path wasn’t straight. After a few times in its circular grip, she could tell what it did—she just couldn’t beat it. It would veer right, split off into a fork, and she must’ve kept taking the wrong path, because she’d be back at the mouth of the tunnel.

  She hid a few times when others ran past. Watched them.

  Trumpets blared. How long had she been in this place? She glanced up and saw the projected image on the wall in front of her instead of crystals. It was showing the first runner crossing the finish line. A runner in gray.

  Followed by a second runner in gray.

  The screen flashed back to the course, zooming in on the crystal section she was currently on. She saw herself and noticed that she had almost made it through. Once she got out, it would be a straight run for the finish line.

  A renewed burst of determination fueled her. She kept her eyes focused downward and continued to try and run, but she began to feel sick—a pull on her mind. Why was it so hard to focus?

  Diamonds littered the ground in front of her. She faltered, slowed, could feel herself start to give up. The crystals were so, so mesmerizing. So comforting, an
d she wanted to have them all. She reached down to pick one up, just as a body rammed into her and they went rolling along the ground.

  Bogeyman. The man-beast snapped at her, baring his teeth in a fierce growl. When it came for her jugular, she shoved her band into its mouth and punched at its bald head.

  Her left hand found a broken piece of crystal. She aimed for its eye. Missed. She jabbed it in the side of the face.

  The boggart reared back and shook its head.

  Kira stared down the nightmare from her back position and tried to scoot away from it, but the ground began to give way behind her. Kira had reached the edge of a drop-off.

  The boggart’s pink-rimmed eyes were filled with fury. It snarled, revealing a row of uneven teeth covered with a dark wet substance she didn’t care to dwell on. It howled and charged.

  Kira gripped a long spear-like crystal and pulled it across her body. Waited.

  The boggart lunged, and Kira lifted the spear, aiming for the stomach. She heard it cry out in pain, but it continued to scratch at her forearms and face. Adrenaline flooded her, and she used her feet to launch the boggart over her head and over the edge. Its mouth opened in shock as it fell over the side.

  She listened to its fading howl.

  ***

  “Nooo!” Remus rose from his chair screaming in outrage. His own cry echoed that of his boggart. “That can’t be!” He couldn’t believe that the human girl killed his boggart. He spun around to give Den a piece of his mind, but his trainer had vanished. The door was slowly swinging close at his hasty departure.

  Well, that was smart. It probably saved his life. Now Remus hoped that someone—maybe Den’s zeke—would finish killing the girl. If it miraculously crossed the line, he’d make sure it would have an accident.

  An annoying high pitch staccato laugh erupted from the only other occupied chair. Peter, the rabbit, spun his chair around easily and taunted Remus, “And to think, I almost bought that one.”

  ***

  Kira pulled herself up and struggled down the path toward the finish line. Her feet were dragging, her arm hanging loosely at her side. The diamonds were everywhere, and she tried to close her eyes, but her brain wouldn’t obey. She just wanted one—no. No. She had to stop it. She fell to her knees and used the edge of a broken diamond to tear off part of her uniform. With everything she had left, she focused on the finish line, then tied the scrap of material around her eyes.

 
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