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       Underland, p.13

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “What do you mean?” Kira turned her head slightly so she could hear him, but still watch the line in front. The monster that was currently in the airport looking scanner passed through, and another one took its spot.

  “I smell a shifter,” he whispered.

  “You mean yourself?”

  He chuckled. “No, I’m a lycanthrope—a werecat. I can only shift into my cheetah form or any stage in between. Shifter is different. They can morph into anything they’ve seen, and they have a unique scent when they shift.”

  “You can tell just by smell?”

  “Everything smells down here, and pretty soon it’s easy to pick out what doesn’t belong. But I think we have a cheater.” He nodded toward a runner with scales stepping up to the large machine. A short dwarf woman manned a computer console and screen behind a glass wall. She was the one overseeing the dispensing of tokens.

  “Name?” Her voice came out with a static undertone.

  “Targrit,” the guttural name came out of the tall, scaled monster. The dwarf looked over at him, her eyes cold and calculating.

  Chaz was behind her, and he seemed agitated. “Don’t do it, man. It’s not worth it,” he breathed out. Only Kira was close enough to hear it.

  “Owner?” the woman asked, her hand slowly moving to a large red button.

  “Free. I was drafted.” The monster’s lizard-like skin began to show a sheen of sweat across his brow. Reptilian monsters shouldn’t sweat. What was going on?

  The woman smiled slowly, her green teeth gnashing together in pleasure. “Enter.”

  “What’s happening?” Fear raced up Kira’s spine at the dwarf woman’s pleasure.

  “It’s payout time. They match up your brace with your body to make sure they are loading your freedom tokens to the right person. From time to time, a shifter will steal a band off of a dead runner and try to claim the winnings. A heartbeat can fool the band, but only the strongest shifters are capable of fooling the machine.” Chaz shifted his weight nervously.

  “And that’s what you think is happening here?”

  “Watch and see,” he answered.

  As soon as the monster stepped up and into the machine, his body was scanned, and another face popped up on the screen. The shifter’s real identity, which was a pale white being with spots, quite different than the reptilian he was portraying.

  The dwarf woman hit the red button, and he shrieked—immediately trapped. Glass doors shut him inside the machine. “We have a cheater.” She spoke into an intercom, and a crowd gathered around and started to boo and hiss loudly at the fake competitor. She pushed another few buttons on her console, and the floor dropped out from under him. He fell into a dark hole. Kira had no idea where it led to, but she had a feeling she never wanted to be suspected of cheating.

  “Next!” The short woman perched on the tall stool yelled a little too happily.

  Kira stood frozen, staring as the hole in the floor closed up with a whoosh of air. She was not going to step on that platform. No way.

  “Next!” The control woman ordered, and Kira felt a nudge from behind her. She was next.

  “Name?” The short woman on the tall stool watched her. Kira’s eyes were glued to the floor, and the control woman had to ask twice more before Kira could tear her eyes away and answer her.

  “Kira Lier.”

  “Owner?”

  Owner. No one owned her. Her anger spiked. She refused to say anything. The line of other runners behind her was beginning to talk.

  “Owner?” The short woman repeated a bit more impatiently.

  “I am.” Remus stepped up from the other side of the machine. He held up his bracer and put it against the metal reader on the exit side of the machine. Numbers flashed across the screen, and then there was a picture of her.

  “Okay, step through.”

  Kira held her breath. All she could think was that the floor could open up and swallow her.

  She stepped through and got scanned. Her stats came up on a viewing screen.

  “Put your band against the plate.”

  She did. The plate beeped, and freedom tokens were loaded onto it—quite a few. Because she had killed the number one contender, Bogeyman, she got his winnings. Even more were loaded onto Remus’s because he was her owner, and then it kept loading long after hers was done. His eyebrows shot upward when he read the amount.

  Den stepped forward and placed his bracer against the plate.

  He had placed bets. Who had he bet on?

  “Underdog paid out big today.” The short woman smiled wryly at Kira, showing her green and rotted teeth.

  He bet on her.

  She didn’t understand the numeric system, but she understood money. Money meant freedom. As long as she could earn enough, she could leave. Her spirits soared.

  Den gave her a pat on the head when she came out and didn’t even look at his winnings. Remus stood behind Den, waiting to collect for Chaz. He was bouncing nervously—and wearing more jewels and decorations than she had seen him decked out in before.

  Kira brought up her band to look at her winnings.

  Remus gripped her wrist and twisted her arm, turning the brace so he could read the number.

  It was odd. Kira felt violated, wanted to hold her hand over the screen and hide the numbers from Remus. She could almost see his mind plotting to steal her winnings. But then the whole exchange made her feel dirty. She did all of the work and Remus received money too—just for owning her.

  “Maybe we got off on the wrong foot, the girl and I. Even though it’s killed two of my prize runners now.”

  Chaz had just come through the machine, and Remus rubbed his hands together before moving to collect more winnings. “Yes, yes that’s good.” The number on his brace rose and kept rising. “You’re doing well, Chaz. Won’t be long now.” Remus raised an eyebrow at him.

  Chaz scowled and strode off into the crowd.

  “Den.” Remus turned and scanned the line. “Where’s your zeke?”

  “Infirmary,” Den answered. “Warrick’s taking care of him. He got injured protecting your runner, and now it’s gonna cost me more money to fix him up.”

  “Maybe he should have minded his own business,” Remus held out his arms, making his ornate robes flow beneath them. “I’d have made even more money on its death.”

  “He’ll be fine.” Den answered. But a sheen of perspiration peppered his forehead. He was nervous about something.

  She backed away and bumped into Chaz who put his hands on her shoulders.

  “I need winners, Den, not losers. Creeper and Bogeyman are busts. Chaz is a winner, certainly, but who knows how much longer he’ll be with us. This is your problem twice over. Get me more winners.”

  “Maybe I’ll help you out, and buy you out of your problem, Remus.” He glanced over to Kira, and she felt a surge of hope. Maybe he could buy her.

  Remus licked his lips and stared at Den’s band. “Anything can be bought for the right price.” His eyes flicked to Kira. “But sometimes I prefer death to money.”

  Chapter 19

  A heaviness hung in the air as they left. Den and Warrick spoke in hushed voices, their conversation just quiet enough Kira couldn’t make it out.

  Zeke seemed to be improving—he got into the truck with little help. He did stay far away from her, though, leaning his head against the wall. And he wouldn’t look at her. Did he feel bad for wanting to attack her in the medic room?

  She kept glancing his way, trying to figure him out.

  When they got back to the compound, an excited crowd greeted them. Holly was there—her black and purple eye had faded to a greenish yellow. Her mouth curled down with displeasure. Chaz jumped off the truck, and the first thing she did was hit him in the arm. A heated argument ensued, her hands flying and her voice rising.

  Chaz glanced at Kira more than once and shrugged. She knew they were arguing about her. Was Holly upset that she came back alive? Probably.

  S
he climbed down out of the truck and did her best to smile at those who smiled at her. Of course, with all the tusks and fangs in the group, she might’ve been mistaking a grimace for a smile.

  Den came up behind her and pressed her back, urging her through the group. She hadn’t realized she was scared of walking through the group until Den’s nearness relieved her. No one would attack her with him watching over her. “Keep moving. I don’t think it’s safe for you to stay here much longer.”

  “Why?” she whispered between clenched teeth.

  “Because you’ve now killed two of Remus’s fighters. Money won’t keep us safe for long. Take care, and stay close to the zeke. I’ve got business to finish up.” Den gave her a pat on the shoulder, and she followed the other two closely through the crowd.

  They made it back to the commons room, and Kira headed toward the table laden with hot food. A pang of hunger overcame her at the scent. Strange though, only three chairs sat around this glorious banquet. She felt uncomfortable standing around staring at it.

  Chaz came in and pulled up a chair. “Eat.” He gestured to the hot food.

  “Why is no one else eating?” She pulled out a chair to stare at the mouthwatering food in front of her. It was obvious that someone had her in mind, because she could actually recognize some of the food. There was a pie—it looked and smelled like blueberry; fresh baked pizza covered in vegetables; and spaghetti marinara. Someone had been paying attention to what she had been eating, knew that she wouldn’t touch anything with meat, knew that she missed human food. Kira picked up a slice the pizza off the plate and took a bite.

  “The winners eat first. Whatever’s left goes to the losers.” Chaz stuck his finger in the middle of a pan of gravy-looking sauce and gave it a tentative lick. “Yum. It’s a perk of winning.”

  Zeke sauntered in quietly and took a chair at the head of the table. He looked so regal sitting there as he reached over and took a turkey leg and placed it on a plate in front of him, as well as a dinner roll and some sort of tumor-looking vegetable. What surprised her, though, was that Zeke picked up a knife and fork and started to cut the meat off of the bone and slice his vegetables into bite size portions.

  Kira had eaten a whole slice of pizza within seconds, and it had never touched her plate. She hastily brushed the crumbs off her fingers and eyed the rolled silverware next to her plate. She placed the napkin on her lap. Silverware gave her trouble, though. Mostly because she felt as if eyes were watching her, judging her.

  She sliced into the blueberry pie and served herself a large portion. Taking a bite, she closed her eyes and savored the sweet taste. She finished off the rest within a few bites and looked over to Zeke. His lip rose a fraction of an inch in a smile, and then he dabbed at his cheek with his napkin.

  He repeated the action.

  Her eyes widened when she finally caught his drift. She took her own napkin and hastily wiped away a smudge of sauce on her cheek. How was it that he had better manners than she did?

  Kira stared down at her plate as her cheeks warmed. Her appetite left her. She had been proven wrong on so many occasions over the last few days. Nothing was how she thought it would be. She came here expecting to hate everything and everybody, but she related to them. They were so much like her. Guilt gnawed at her gut.

  Chaz leaned forward and swiped a finger in her pie filling. It froze inches from his mouth, and his nose twitched as he sniffed it warily. He sniffed it again and hissed, backing away.

  “Nightshade,” he growled. “Someone has tried to poison us.”

  Kira looked down at the crumbs—the only remains of the slice of pie she had just scarfed down. She held her hand over her mouth.

  Zeke stopped eating and stood up. “Are you sure?” he asked Chaz.

  Chaz studied the rest of the food on the table. “Hm. It wasn’t in mine. I thought maybe I was getting too close to freedom.” He moved over and sniffed, wrinkling his nose in distaste over the food next to Zeke, then came back around to the pizza and bread. “Nightshade mixed in with the veggies and bread. So, someone didn’t want to poison us, just”—he pointed to the food that was spread out in front of her, catered to her human taste buds—“you.”

  The stomach ache she’d believed was guilt was now so much more painful as the reality hit her hard. She stood and stumbled.

  Chaz knocked over the whole table of food in anger. He screamed and it turned into a high-pitched howl as if he already mourned her death.

  Zeke appeared by her side. In a second flat, he had her arm wrapped around his head and scooped up her legs. He took off running toward the infirmary.

  “Warrick!” He pounded on the door but no one answered. “Warrick!”

  He carefully set her down by the door. “Kira, I have to find Warrick.” You’ll be okay. I’ll be back. I promise.” She felt his cool hand touch her burning cheek, and then he was off, his feet pounding on the cement floor. She pressed her forehead to the cold metal of the door and waited. A few seconds later, a door opened nearby. She clutched her stomach and whispered. “Help.”

  The steps moved away, thudding softly down the hall, never even pausing to help. Kira’s vision swirled, but she tried to hold it together. She needed to find help before the poison could work its way through her system and end her suffering. She started to shiver and tried her voice again. “Help!”

  “There you are!” A familiar voice called out, and Holly stepped out of the darkness, hands on her hips. “Did you get Remus’s gift? I spent all morning baking it. Potions, spells, and poisons are my specialty.”

  A sharp stabbing pain pierced through Kira’s side. She sucked in air through her teeth and tried to hold back the cries she desperately wanted to release. Biting her lip, she pulled herself up the door. She had to lean against the wall to walk, but she did it. Away from Holly—which direction didn’t matter.

  “Where you going?” Holly teased. Someone else stepped out of the darkness. A muscled Cyclops cracked his knuckles and grinned, showing his overlarge flat teeth. “I didn’t say you could leave yet.”

  Kira took off. She wasn’t in a fighting position. She could barely walk, cramps making her gait unsteady. Sweat ran down her face, and she couldn’t stop shivering. But they didn’t seem to be chasing her.

  She heard Holly call out.

  After a few blind turns, Kira made it to a door that seemed to lead out. She stumbled, fumbled, carelessly made her way down a path that she’d been down days earlier—toward the car graveyard.

  Where was everyone?

  Kira moved along, trying to not look towards the wreckage of the bus. She slipped and fell into a car, bruising her hip. She grunted and pushed herself up, trying to ignore the pain. A nearby car had an open trunk—an old Buick. The trunk was plenty large.

  She painstakingly took her outer shirt off and crawled into the trunk. The carpet was rough and worn, like sandpaper under her palms. But it hardly mattered. She wasn’t picking the car based on the interior carpet. She picked it because she hoped Holly and her goon wouldn’t look for her here. If they passed by, she could slip out and head back toward help.

  Kira’s hands shook from the fever, and she had problems getting her muscles to do the simplest task without twitching. But after a few tries, she reached the lid of the trunk. This was it. There was no going back now.

  Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she pulled the trunk down until only a sliver of light came through. Immediately, in the darkness, with nothing else to distract her, she could feel her body shutting down, feel the pain in her joints and the fever that raged against her. More stabbing pains came from her midsection, and she could no longer hold in a scream of pain that took everything from her. Wadding up her outer shirt she placed it into her mouth to muffle her whimpers.

  A creaking noise came from above. Holly. “Where’d your fight go? Guess you’re not much of a champion. Oh well, I guess that’s what happens when you’re out of your league.” She smiled cruelly and reached in
to grab Kira’s arm band. With a few keystrokes and a touch of her own band—and then a transfer to the goon next to her—Holly wiped out her winnings. She dropped Kira’s limp wrist like it was garbage.

  Kira turned weakly and saw a bunch of zeroes across her wrist screen. All of her freedom tokens, gone.

  “Thanks for sharing the wealth.” Holly waved cheekily, and the trunk came down with a loud thud. Kira heard the lock click.

  She was too weak to pound on the lid, and no one who cared was nearby anyway. Kira was going to die.

  Normally, this would have bothered Kira, but when she considered her options, she was out of choices. Besides, it seemed reasonable. She was slotted to die anyway, Den had said it. Warrick confirmed her fears, and Remus was just finishing what Madame Fortuna had warned would happen.

  Pain seized her suddenly, consumed her, and she cried into the gag, which she now spit out. Her body spasmed, and her foot launched out and kicked the trunk.

  Kira would have thought her last moments of life would be spent replaying her happy childhood memories, but no. Her life unfolded before her in monstrous mini-episodes—stabbing her stepfather, running away from her mother, stealing food and wallets from unsuspecting vendors and marks. She revisited every memory she’d ever regretted.

  The images played across the darkness of her mind like a horrific kaleidoscope. Then they turned darker: images of Creeper leading a mob of monsters on the hunt for her. She heard a whimper. Was that her? The trunk was so, so cold. She’d been suffering in the darkness for hours. Why hadn’t she died yet?

  Her head pounded with such intensity, she moaned. Maybe she would see her father soon. The pounding would stop and she’d see his face again.

  Wait. No. That pounding was really happening—outside the car. Someone was outside the trunk of the car. They must have seen her get locked inside and were trying to get her out.

  “Please, no,” she cried out. “Go away so I can see my dad.” But her voice was so faint and weak, she doubted they heard.

 
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