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       Underland, p.12

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  It took a few precious seconds before the insane desire to rip it off faded. Kira pushed herself to her knees and jogged forward.

  Blindly, she choked down her fear, and ran. Her brain tried to guess how, exactly, she would die.

  Focus.

  She ignored the sound of running footsteps catching up to her. Forward. Someone pushed her down, and she tumbled to the ground. Her palms took the brunt of the fall and the cuts from the diamonds.

  Now she was turned around, unsure where to go. Trembling, she walked her hands out in front of her like a blind person, feeling, in case she got turned around and was about to run into a jagged crystal or go over the cliff.

  But even without seeing the crystals for more than a few seconds, the madness began to worm its way into her mind. It was worse than she had feared. She wanted that blindfold off. Her hand itched to reach for it. Both hands tingled, and she raised one to take off the blindfold. Give up.

  A warm hand grabbed hers and pulled. Kira started to scream, but a familiar and impatient voice cut her off. “This way.”

  Zeke.

  She lifted the blindfold and saw his crazed hunger-filled eyes. She tried to pull her hand from his grip.

  “No, keep going. You have to cross. Can’t you hear it?” he asked.

  Hear what? The only thing she heard now was the pounding of her own blood in her ears.

  “I can’t.” Her mouth felt like it was swollen. She was losing control of her limbs.

  “Here.” He pulled something out of a pouch that looked very familiar. Wait, she had given him that pouch. He shoved a piece of chocolate into her mouth. It melted across her tongue, and she almost moaned in pleasure. Her mind started to clear, and even though her legs still weren’t working, she was able to direct herself.

  “Run, I’ll guide you. If anyone tries to stop you, I’ll take care of them.” He gently pushed her blindfold back down over her eyes and turned her toward the finish line. “That way.”

  He pushed her roughly from behind, and she was jarred back into a run. She couldn’t help but feel like Creeper was chasing her again.

  A strange rhythm kept her moving forward.

  A hiss came from her right, and a loud scuffle followed.

  Zeke’s voice sounded farther off. “Keep going!” he yelled.

  Then Kira heard it. Heard what he had been hearing when all she could make out was the call of madness. Now she heard the crowd. Heard the thrum of their voices, mingling as one. She’d only thought it was a drum. It was actually her name.

  They were chanting her name.

  Kira Lier…Kira Lier.

  She couldn’t help the smile that crept up on her face. It was painful, her lip swollen. The chanting became louder, faster, and she knew she was almost to the finish line.

  Over and over she heard her name. A thundering rush of applause—for her. She knew she had crossed. She heard her name over the speakers, and she slowed. Took off the blindfold.

  She blinked painfully. The lights burned her eyes. She turned and looked behind her just as Zeke took out a reptilian monster. His hands were deft and quick. The kill fast. He jogged a few more paces and crossed the finish line as well, but he wasn’t received with the same applause.

  His eyes narrowed and he bowed his head in her direction, acknowledging her victory. He looked up and pointed. Kira craned her neck and was puzzled by what she saw.

  Someone stood there in a dirt-covered, blood-covered uniform. Their eyes looked a little feral—the person seemed on edge.

  She froze. It was her.

  Kira Lier appeared on a banner, and next to her name a ranking and her kill stat. She was surprised to see a slash mark at all by her name.

  But it was there. One horrible slash mark.

  Her name chanted over and over began to blur in her ears. She didn’t hear Kira Lier coming from the fans around her. In her head, as guilt wrecked her mind, the chant slowly morphed.

  Kira Lier

  Kiralier

  Killer.

  Killer.

  Chapter 16

  Kira bent over, her hands on her knees as her stomach rolled in protest at what she had done. Zeke handed her a bucket, and she moved to the side of the course as bile erupted.

  “Congrats!” he said wryly between her dry heaves. “You survived.”

  “Shut it,” Kira snapped back. She pushed stray strands of hair out of her eyes and slowly stood up. She brought up her arm to wipe her mouth but then looked at the stuff covering it and almost puked again.

  A towel appeared in her hand, and Kira looked over at a young girl with eyes the size of tea saucers. She wore the clothes and hairstyle of a slave.

  “Thanks,” Kira said as she wiped at her mouth.

  “You spoke to me,” her breathy voice answered. Her giant eyes opening wider, she squealed in excitement and fled.

  “And you created a fan base with your crazy antics.”

  “What antics?” Kira stared at Zeke.

  “Oh, risking your neck to help open the elevator tube. It was smart to help them—created more targets. If you were the only one who was ahead of the gray team, you would have been easy pickings.”

  “That’s a horrible thing to say. That wasn’t the reason I helped them.”

  He shrugged his shoulders. “You were pretty ruthless, jumping on Talon and making him fly you to the bottom of the gorge. Then you showed smarts when you covered your band and hid in the tunnels.”

  “How do you know all of this?”

  “I watched you do it.”

  “You could have taken me out.”

  “Yes, I could have. But you intrigue me. I wanted to see how far you’d get on your own, and then I had to repay you for the chocolate.” He patted the bag tied to his waist.

  This was the first time she had taken a close look at him. He was dressed head to toe in a red uniform. No wonder she couldn’t find him among the new runners. But he looked so young. How long had he been competing? How many kills were under his belt?

  Kira looked up at the screen and tried to find his name among the list of ranked competitors and then she realized—she had been calling him Zeke in her mind for so long. She didn’t even know his name.

  She was desperate to ask him more questions, but they were ushered off the track to make room for the rest of the groups coming across. They were taken up to a viewing ledge with refreshments and chairs as they watched the last competitors complete the course. Way fewer runners finished than what started the race.

  Very few white runners survived.

  The next couple of hours were a daze. She was interviewed and then pawed at as people touched her for luck when she passed among the fans. She grimaced and pulled back at first, but then she saw that it was all part of the lifestyle. Zeke took each of the pats with grace and stopped to shake the outstretched hands. It seemed this came with the territory of being a champion. He was either used to it, or he was able to put on a good show.

  Kira kept her chin up and tried to not cringe from the onslaught of affection. Especially when that affection was accompanied by growls and large clawed hands that could easily maim and kill her.

  The remaining runners rode in a separate glass elevator and were taken to another room. Camera flashes blinded her. When the spots cleared, she saw a very large dais. Remus stood among the other owners.

  “What do you think about today’s outcome?” A merwoman with white hair asked the gym owners and trainers.

  “I think the outcome was quite obvious, Avis,” a stoic trainer said. His tan cheeks were sunken in, giving him weathered, aged look. “My fighters would have performed better but I—and I’m not alone in this—I believe it was because of a malfunction with the starting gate.” His eyes flashed, showing the first hint of emotion. “There should have been a delay. They should have started over.”

  “You would have lost all of your starters if it wasn’t for the one from Remus’s gym,” the female vamp interjected. Kira recognized her fr
om the Gamblers’ Market. “I was the one who lost Rhinoc to the gate malfunction.”

  Even some of the owners appreciated her. Kira let the thought encourage her.

  “That’s a human for you!” Ssirone called out. “Too stupid for its own good. Letting their emotions take control.”

  Well…

  “Who dares to insult the human fighter?” The vampire’s powerful voice rang out across the room. She must have recently fed, because the apple of her cheeks flushed a rosy color.

  “Why would you care about humanssss when they’re nothing more than food to you?” Ssirone yelled at Selene.

  “Remus,” Avis directed her next question to the man. His arms were crossed and his brows furrowed. His posture alone spoke of his displeasure at being interviewed. “Were you surprised when your human was drafted? Weren’t you afraid it would get eaten?”

  Remus looked up. The furrowed brow smoothed, and his face took on an almost pleasant demeanor. “I’m surprised that she lived, but I won’t underestimate her so easily again.” His gaze flicked over to Zeke and Kira. A chill gripped her spine. He looked back to the reporter. “Every event is a gamble. And I like to gamble big.”

  “And win,” Avis smiled sweetly. “I do have to say that your human surprised us all and garnered herself quite a lot of adoration when she killed the boggart. She’s quite the fighter isn’t she?”

  “Yes…she…is,” Remus locked eyes with Kira, and then he flicked over to where Den was standing.

  Kira studied the pompous owner. On the outside he was cool, nonchalant, but Kira knew he was anything but—he was likely plotting her demise. First she’d killed Creeper, and now his new boggart as well. He’d already wanted her dead. What would he do now to make sure it happened?

  Zeke seemed to have picked up on the exchange and stepped in front of Kira, drawing Remus’s attention toward himself, which only made Remus’s face go redder. He might lose his cool here in front of everyone.

  “Ironically, your human took out your own boggart. I also heard a rumor that she killed one of your zekes the first day at the training gym. Am I correct?” Avis turned, directing her question toward Remus. “Would you like to comment on this?”

  Remus snarled in displeasure but quickly forced it into a smile. “Yes, I’m quite surprised by her ingenuity and skills. I doubt we will ever see the likes again.” He stood and left the stage, ending the interview but leaving a hidden threat in the air.

  The chatter around her picked up with excitement, while Kira’s heart plummeted in fear. She looked up at Zeke and noticed that his cheeks looked sunken and his eyes were rimmed in red. He swallowed and gave her a wary look.

  “Come, it’s time to see our medic.”

  Chapter 17

  From Remus’s compound, only Zeke, Kira, and Chaz made it back to their assigned room. There was very little to celebrate. Kira tried as hard as she could to remember passing the Amazon woman or the other man, or even seeing them in the race. She couldn’t. How far had they made it?

  Now that the race was over, it was up to the owner’s doctor to treat the survivors. Kira couldn’t help but stare around the room that hours earlier had been torn apart. The cabinets and tables—a few of them dented—had been righted, the broken chairs were piled haphazardly in a corner. Kira tried not to look at the darkened stain on the floor where her pre-game doctor had died.

  Now they each sat on a chair while Warrick examined and bandaged each of them. There was very little privacy.

  Chaz had a large wound on his shoulder—like something or someone had tried to take a bite out of him. Warrick applied a topical cream, but whenever he wasn’t looking, Chaz would bend his agile neck and lick the wound frantically.

  Warrick came back and examined the wound. “Stop licking it off. You’ll infect it,” he warned, giving Chaz a scathing look. Kira tried not to laugh at him, even though he reminded her of her own childhood cat.

  Chaz just purred, a soft rumbling noise coming from his part-feline vocal chords. His eyes closed and he looked to be content.

  Warrick raised an eyebrow before applying more ointment. “Hmm. I guess I’ll just have to bandage it then to keep you from bothering it.” He went to the cabinet. Again, as soon as his back was turned, Chaz’s furious licking continued. Warrick turned suddenly from the cabinet with a spray bottle and squirted a surprised Chaz in the face.

  Chaz hissed once—the first moment he seemed more cheetah than housecat—and then sat quietly as Warrick wrapped a bandage around his shoulder and under his arm. Chaz was obviously uncomfortable. The muscles on his chest kept twitching. And it looked like he really wanted to tear it off.

  “Sit there,” Warrick commanded Chaz. He turned to examine her.

  Using scissors, he cut away at the sleeves of her uniform to get to the gash on her arm. Kira had been so pumped with adrenaline that she hadn’t even noticed the injury. She had no idea when or how she’d sustained it. Of course, now that it was visible, it was extremely painful. And her shoulder burned, too.

  “So you survived the gauntlet,” Warrick stated, matter of fact.

  “Ye-s-s,” Kira sucked in air with a painful hiss. She could feel the gazes of Chaz and the zeke, so she cut off the sound. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing how much pain she was in. She could hide it. She had to.

  There was a long pause.

  “Good.”

  A heaviness hung in the air. She could tell he wanted to say more, but it was safer to stay silent among the present company. He used a flask or two on her wounds, and then bandaged her shoulder and a few more cuts along her face and leg.

  Zeke was barely moving, sitting quietly on the end of the table, his head hung low.

  “Let me see.” Warrick unzipped his red uniform, and Kira saw a blotch of red across Zeke’s white t-shirt. The red uniform hid his bleeding completely. He pulled down the top half, and Kira saw a small pipe sticking out of his side.

  “Oh, this is not so great,” Warrick mumbled under his breath. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

  Zeke raised his head slowly, and he looked over at Kira. His sunken eyes seemed even hollower, his eyes dilated. There was a wildness about him, like he was lost in a hunger and he didn’t have control of all of his faculties.

  “Oh, I see.” He looked over at Kira and motioned to Chaz. “Take her out of the room, please. I need to remove the pipe, and she is too much of a distraction. It will be safer for both of us if she’s gone.”

  Chaz slid off the end of the table with feline grace and headed out the door. He didn’t even wait for her. She wasn’t sure if following him out was the safest thing to do, but Zeke’s breathing started to hitch, and Warrick’s voice rose in panic.

  “Go, Kira! Now!”

  She jumped off the table and flung herself out the door. A few seconds later, she heard footsteps pounding after her and the door slammed behind her. Something large crashed into the door, followed by a frenzied scuffle from behind the metal door. She heard Warrick’s calming voice.

  Kira backed away in fear and bumped into Chaz.

  “You almost bit it,” Chaz wheezed. His unhindered arm slapped his thigh. “You should have seen the look on your face.”

  She heard a snarl and another slam against the metal door. “Is he going to be okay?” Kira asked, not sure if she was referring to Zeke or Warrick.

  “Yeah, Warrick’s got him under control.”

  “How do you know?” Her voice sounded so young.

  Chaz pointed at his ears. “’Cause I can hear them. Warrick’s calming him down. He’s praying right now.”

  “Praying?”

  “Some call it mojo, others magic. If you ask Warrick, he says he’s praying in an ancient language to quicken Zeke. That was a pretty serious injury he got there. He’ll have to knock him out or let him feed…and if that’s the case. There’s one especially tasty treat right here.” Chaz leaned closer, his deep amber eyes lit up with mischief. His mouth came dangerous
ly close to her face. He licked his lips and took a deep breath, his face almost touching hers as he moved it along her cheek. “Yumm.” She could hear a deep thrum in his throat.

  Kira pushed him away in disgust.

  “Relax, I’m not interested in eating you whole, but I may be satisfied with a bite.” He pulled back and bit his lower lip, his canines visible. Kira cringed.

  The door opened and Warrick stepped out.

  “How is he?” Kira asked.

  “He’ll be fine. But it would be best if you are nowhere near him while he’s healing.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “It’s a zeke thing. When they’re injured, they can go a bit berserk. Their brain shuts down while their body is trying to heal. Eating… ahem… helps them heal faster.” He didn’t say it but Kira knew what he implied.

  Her.

  “It would be best if he doesn’t see you for a while. This was a bad one. He shouldn’t revert this fast. His history as a fighter is finally catching up to him. It’ll do that, you know. Some of us have been fighting a long, long time.”

  Kira was about to ask him more questions, but Warrick told them it was time to collect. She had no idea what collecting meant.

  Chapter 18

  It was time to pay. As they lined up to leave Crystal Gorge and head back to Remus’s compound, they had to pass through a large machine that resembled an airport security device. Chaz had pressed through the lines and cut in front of quite a few monsters to stand precariously close to Kira’s back.

  Kira, only a few bodies from entering, was wary of the whole process. With Chaz’s breath hot on her neck, she tried to keep an eye on what was happening to the creatures in front of her.

  She elbowed Chaz roughly, and he backed off a bit. But then something caught his attention. He sniffed the air, and his feline eyes narrowed on the lizard in front of him. “Watch closely,” Chaz whispered under his breath. “You are about to get a show.”

 
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