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       Underland, p.14

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  The pounding became more insistent.

  The trunk bent, and a crack of light pierced the darkness. A worried voice told her she would be okay, and the pounding continued again. The light filled up more of the trunk. Kira squinted against the pain.

  “No!” Her lungs burned and she coughed into her hand. When she pulled it away it was covered with blood.

  “I’m coming!” Someone shouted and reached their hand through and tried to touch her arm. Kira rolled away from the touch; she found it hard to breathe and had to concentrate on every burning breath.

  Just when the latch on the Buick broke, and the trunk was filled with unnatural fluorescent light, Kira stopped breathing.

  Chapter 20

  She hadn’t moved in a while. Zeke stared at Kira’s limp body in the hospital bed and watched her closely, waiting for her to twitch, move—do something other than lie there helpless. She hadn’t regained consciousness since he found her in the trunk and Warrick gave her the antidote.

  Her eyes fluttered. He sighed in relief and leaned back in the wooden chair.

  This was a problem. She was a problem. His feelings even more of a problem.

  Den entered, trying to not make any noise, but failing. Zeke’s senses were just too good. Den’s breathing sounded loud in his ears, and he could hear his quickened heartbeat. Something was wrong. Den was worried about something.

  Without moving he asked, “What’s wrong?”

  Den came out of the shadows. He stood by his shoulder and spoke in a low voice. “Everything.”

  “Can’t be that bad,” Zeke answered. “She’s alive.” And he felt that flutter in his chest again when he thought about Kira.

  Zeke turned to look Den and noticed the dark rings under his eyes, the five o’clock shadow forming. He looked like he was falling apart slowly from the pressure. His hands shook. Zeke glanced at his band and noticed the lack of money. His first instinct was to get angry. He wanted to shake Den, to ask him what he was doing gambling again. But then Kira stirred and his head snapped back to her lying on the bed.

  “I’m glad you saved her,” Den said.

  “Which time?” Zeke held back a pleased smile. “The time in the courtyard, the gauntlet, or when I found her in the trunk?”

  Den closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “All of the above. I never imagined she’d be this much trouble.”

  “All humans are.”

  “Remind me the next time I see one, to stay far away.”

  “This one has given us enough trouble that I think you’ve learned your lesson. So what’s the plan?”

  “We leave. It’s obvious that we can no longer stay here. You and me, we stick to our plan and I train you. I’ve settled my debt with Remus, gave him everything I owe, and arranged for a place for us to hide out and get supplies.”

  Guilt rocked Zeke for a minute. Den hadn’t gambled it away.

  “What about her?” Zeke asked without looking at the bed.

  “Not our problem.”

  “What do you mean ‘not our problem’?” For the first time in a very long time he felt afraid. “This isn’t like you, Den. How about we buy her from Remus.” Zeke’s breathing became ragged with panic.

  “Too risky. The Underlords have sent two summons for her. I’ve... I’ve conveniently not told Remus about their summons. It’s too late. We need to separate ourselves from her now before they come.”

  Zeke’s hands clenched into fists. Anger boiled in him. “No,” he growled.

  “Why not? She’ll distract them, and then we continue on with our plan. It’s a good plan.”

  “Because I said NO!” Zeke hadn’t meant to yell.

  Den’s face turned red, and then he looked at Kira. His eyes widened when he made the connection. “I see. So that’s how it’s going to be now.”

  Zeke could only watch as his friend discovered his weakness, and he didn’t like the look in his eyes. He saw a flicker of greed and power flash across his face, and he noticed the small smile that crept across his lips. Now Den had more power over him. He wanted to cuss, throw something, but he held it together and remained silent. Because at that moment, he needed Den on his side, more than he needed Kira.

  When Den said nothing, Zeke shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t know what they’re capable of. Not like I do.” Zeke moved away from the hospital bed and toward the door, trying to put as much distance as he could between Kira and himself. As if by doing that he could protect her from his friend.

  “You’re right. I don’t. Because you won’t tell me everything!” Den snapped. “Our goal was to get you to the championship, a crack at the Labyrinth. Has that changed?”

  Zeke swallowed. “No, but she comes with us.”

  Den spun and looked back at Kira lying on the bed. “She’s dead weight now. She’s a liability.”

  “We’ll keep her as back up…for me.” He hoped Den would believe that was the only reason he wanted her. “We won’t have Warrick once we leave.”

  “Zeke,” Den was wavering.

  “You know I’m right. I won’t leave here without her.”

  “Fine, but you need to come up with a way to get Remus to release her before the Olympus Tower comes to collect her. And until then we need someone to guard her from Remus.”

  “I can—”

  “No. You stay far away from her.” Den pointed his finger at him.

  “Then who…Chaz?” Zeke asked.

  Den snorted. “Not him, werecats are fickle. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can throw him. Besides, did you see how many freedom tokens he had today? We’ll get Alice, since she’s the one who found her. She’ll be the best to watch her. No one will even know she’s here.”

  “I agree.” Zeke nodded. If it hadn’t been for Alice, he may not have found Kira in time. He knew that the ghost girl had no love for Remus or his runners. She’d followed Kira that day because she felt a connection with her. Because Alice was at one time just like Kira. Human.

  “We move tonight. With or without her.” Den spun on his heels but turned back in warning. “And you can’t be seen here anymore. Leave.”

  Zeke looked back at Kira and knew Den was right. If the Underlords were interested in her, then they’d be coming for her soon. And he needed to stay far away from both the Underlords and Kira…for now.

  ***

  When Kira awoke for the first time and realized she was in the infirmary she cried—a deep, aching cry, even though she was too weak to make much noise. She’d hoped it was all a dream.

  She heard a girl’s gasp, but when she looked around saw only a plume of smoke. All through the night, as Kira slipped in and out of consciousness, she thought she saw someone sitting close to her bed and watching over her. But every time she turned her head to look, the girl was gone.

  Her only evidence was the soft billowing wisp of smoke and an empty chair, which sat a little too close to the bed.

  With the sheet over her head, Kira stared at the outline of the chair, barely discernible through the cotton. She would wait all day if she had to.

  Kira’s body hurt everywhere; not one inch of her body didn’t feel bruised or sore. Who rescued her? And did they run her over with a car? Because that’s what it felt like. When no one appeared in the chair, Kira did her best to slow her breathing, trying to feign sleep.

  There it was—the sound she had been waiting for—a puff. She could have sworn she smelled lavender. The chair creaked. What should she say?

  “I know you’re there.” Kira spoke softly through the sheet. “You can stop hiding.”

  “You sure?” The soft voice sounded so youthful and insecure that she immediately pegged the girl as a child. “He didn’t want you to be alone in case someone else tried to hurt you.”

  Kira felt tired. “Who?”

  “Den. I saw them chase you and what happened with the car. I found the zeke. He’s the one who got you out of the trunk. The horse doctor pumped your stomach and gave you an antidote
based on what cheetah said were the poisons. He asked me to watch over you in case someone else came.” She rocked on the chair and pointed to Kira’s wrist. “I saw your band. Someone stole your winnings. That’s really sad.” The voice sounded scared.

  “How can they do that? Can’t we do something about it?” Kira’s fingers closed into an angry fist above the sheet.

  “No. The witch won’t have your winnings anymore. She’d have transferred them evenly among her coven members to hide it. To get it back you’d have to take them all on. It’s not worth it. And you wouldn’t survive.”

  “Does that happen a lot? Stealing of freedom tokens?”

  She nodded her head. “Yes, it does. But people usually just turn around and steal from others to make it up, or from the dead.”

  “I wouldn’t do that. I’m not like that.” Kira pulled the sheet from her head and stared at the speaker. She was right; her guardian was a young girl, barely twelve years old. Strawberry gold hair spilled down her back, and she had intense green eyes. She wore overall shorts and a plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeves.

  How or why this girl was watching over her, Kira couldn’t figure out. But then again, she wasn’t really a normal little girl, was she? “What’s your name?”

  “Alice.” Her face lit up in a smile.

  Kira rolled her eyes.

  “And I know who you are.” Alice leaned forward in her chair eagerly. “Everyone knows who you are. You’re Kira, the human who killed Creeper and Bogeyman, and you survived the gauntlet. You’re famous.”

  “I wouldn’t say that.”

  She shook her head, “No, you have a whole fan club already.”

  “Oh yeah? Where were they when I was getting locked in a trunk and robbed?”

  The smile slipped from Alice’s face, and she bit her lip, refusing to make eye contact. In another puff of smoke she was gone, her chair empty. Kira reached forward and waved her hand over the chair, but it passed through air. This was nuts.

  She laid back down on the bed and waited. For what, she wasn’t sure. What seemed like hours but was probably only moments later, Warrick stepped into the room. His back was stiff and his bedside manner was odd. He checked her vitals but barely spoke to her.

  “What’s your problem?” Kira snarled at him after he jabbed her stomach painfully.

  “You’re my problem.”

  “I have no idea what you are talking about.” She slapped his hand away from her.

  Warrick stiffened and leaned away, as if the very touch of her hand on his arm offended him. What? Only a few days ago, he had been the one to try and take her into the city to “prepare” her for the race.

  Now he acted like he didn’t care.

  He turned to grab something out of his medicine pouch and what she saw across his back made her stomach turn. Warrick’s smooth skin was covered in angry red welts. Someone had taken a whip to his back, and the centaur hadn’t been able to reach all of the wounds and treat himself. She could see a salve had been spread on the lower ones, but the upper welts were severely neglected.

  “What happened? Who would do something like that?” Warrick wouldn’t look at her. She finally started to understand his aloofness, his anger. It wasn’t necessarily directed at her. It was because of her.

  “It’s because you healed me, isn’t it?”

  His tail flicked and he gazed down at his hooves.

  “You got in trouble for it.”

  He nodded. “Remus had forbidden me from helping you, but it goes against my code. No one has the right to stop a healer from healing.” His voice burned with conviction.

  “Give me the salve, and I’ll help treat your back.”

  Warrick backed away, his voice an angry whisper. “Don’t. Just listen to what I have to say—and don’t react. You don’t have much time.”

  She closed her mouth and listened.

  “You’re all over the news. Human surviving the gauntlet. You’re gaining attention from many factions, both the Pro-Human and Pro-Beast.” He was still whispering. “It’s caused a bit of an uproar over the last three days.”

  “Three days? Wait. How long have I been in the infirmary?”

  “You’ve been in and out of it for quite a while. The Underlords have sent two emissaries from Olympus Tower requesting your presence. Which isn’t good.”

  “What do I do?” Kira asked. “You should’ve let me die.”

  “That is not your destiny,” Warrick spoke in clipped tones. “Three times now, you have beaten your death. I don’t know how long you can continue to run from it, but I will do everything in my power to keep you alive for whatever purpose fate has for you.”

  He glanced back at the partially open door and tensed. “No more talking.” He moved away, and Kira saw a shadow move outside the door.

  When Warrick finished with her examination, he placed a small plastic cup on the nightstand with an oblong white pill.

  “What is that?” She eyed the pill with distrust.

  “Wintergreen and clove. That, my dear unfortunate girl, is all you get.” He moved away from the bed and replaced the solitary chair. He turned to leave. The door moved slightly as someone, probably their observer, tried to close it before he could get there.

  Fear ran up and down her spine. She didn’t want to be alone.

  “Warrick, please,” she said softly. It must have been the please that broke him, because his shoulders slumped and his head drooped. “I know I’ve been an ungrateful jerk, and rude…and obnoxious.” It was working because he turned his soft brown eyes upon her. “Please, tell me what is going to happen to me now.”

  “I don’t know, but I believe the fates may be on your side.”

  Kira sighed. She didn’t believe in any of this fate stuff. She dropped her head back onto the pillow and tried to blink away tears of self-pity. It was fine.

  Kira let the silence fill the room.

  Warrick seemed done, but he was wasting time before leaving. She hadn’t known the centaur long, but she felt a fondness for the equine doctor. So much to consider.

  “Why did you have me give Zeke chocolate?”

  Warrick looked over his shoulder at the empty chair and waved. “Because you needed more friends.” He stepped through the door. Just before it shut, he ducked back in and whispered, “Good thing too, because it helped in the gauntlet. You never know where help will come from.”

  Kira stared at the door for a moment, and then back at the chair. Could he see her visitor, even though she couldn’t?

  That was all she needed, someone else to feel indebted to. She didn’t even know who Alice was, and now she owed the girl her life. And she owed Zeke for saving her life twice. What if he wanted her life in exchange? Her life was getting suckier by the minute.

  Still, they’d done what they could—more than they should’ve—to keep her alive. Kira had too much of her father’s military honor to just turn her back on all they’d done for her. Sure, she could be a pain, but usually because of self-preservation.

  She’d never gotten to go to high school, but even on the streets it was safer in numbers. Easier to scour for food or pick pockets if someone played the decoy. Maybe she could use some of those tricks down here to survive. She needed to make some kind of alliance down here. From what little she could see of little Alice, she wouldn’t have been Kira’s first choice for an ally.

  Chapter 21

  No one else came to visit her, which only made Kira even more irritated. She glanced at the door for the tenth time.

  A soft giggle came from the area of the chair again. A moment later the chair filled with Alice’s small form, sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest. Her green eyes smiled mischievously.

  “He’s not going to come,” Alice said.

  “Why not?” Kira snapped, assuming Alice meant Den again.

  “Because he said he couldn’t come back. For your own safety he needs to pretend you aren’t important. Until he’s ready.”

  “
How do you know? Why would you say that?”

  “He was here when you were first unconscious. I hid so he didn’t know I was here. He looked really, really sad,” Alice whispered the last bit and lowered her head.

  “I don’t think Den would be sad—more like ticked.”

  Alice shook her head, “Not him, the zeke.”

  “What?” Kira tried to imagine Zeke in her room watching her while she was sleeping. The tug of a smile started at the corner of her mouth. “So you really rescued me with Zeke, huh?”

  Alice bobbed her head excitedly.

  “Why would you do that? You don’t know me.”

  “It’s the same thing Warrick said. We need to make strong friends to survive. I want to help you.”

  The girl seemed so earnest and hopeful. Kira chewed the inside of her lip, weighing her options. Her decision would impact—not only her but— the young and naïve girl.

  “Sure. Why not?” Kira stuck her hand out and waited for Alice to shake it in agreement, but she didn’t take it. Instead, in another puff of smoke, the girl disappeared from the chair and reappeared on the bed next to Kira, giving her an all-encompassing hug. Alice practically crawled into Kira’s lap and buried her head into her shoulder, like a small puppy seeking solace. Except that where Alice’s skin touched Kira, she felt a slight pressure and a breeze.

  Kira wasn’t prepared for the close contact, but instinct made her wrap an arm around the girl. It felt so foreign to be holding someone, offering comfort after years of neglect. But at the same time it felt right.

  In that one moment, this small girl had found a chink in Kira’s armor. Kira, hardened by life on the street, knew right then she would do everything she could to protect the child.

  Tears started to form in her eyes, and her heart ached from the pain and regret of all she’d been missing in her lonely life. That one action gave Kira, even though it was a small one, a reason to live.

  “I’ve got to go. It’s almost time.” The ghost disappeared without giving her anymore answers and didn’t return. Kira tried to get out of bed, but she was too weak. Her body was still healing, and she was wracked with coughs.

 
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