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       Underland, p.15

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  ***

  Kira ached, still. Her body felt like it had been through torture—it basically had. She’d been asleep for only an hour when Olympus Tower guards in white uniforms burst into her hospital room.

  “That’s her.” The guard pointed, and they hauled her out of bed.

  “What’s going on?” Kira asked the guard twisting her right arm. “Where are you taking me?” She tried to see through his reflective facemask.

  “You’ve been summoned by the Underlords. Since you’ve ignored those summons, you are under arrest,” the shorter guard answered.

  “What? No, I didn’t know. I’ve obviously been ill!” Kira tried to explain.

  The guard on her left yelled. “Silence.”

  As they dragged her through the compound, she saw Remus shouting at a third Olympus Guard. Her legs burned, and her head pounded from the jostling.

  “This can’t be. I own that human. You can’t just march in here and take it from me.”

  “Are you disobeying the orders of the Underlords?” the guard challenged.

  Remus’s face paled. “Why no, but I—”

  The men stopped suddenly, and Kira swung forward, jarred. Their gloved hands squeezed her biceps until she thought she’d lose circulation. They held Kira a few feet from Remus, while the third guard tapped his tablet.

  “I’ll have to report your insubordination to Hermes.”

  Sweat broke out on Remus’s forehead, and he steadied himself against the wall. “But it’s just a human. What could they want with a human girl?”

  “Who are you to question them?”

  “I didn’t mean—I don’t—This is the first I’ve heard of any summons.”

  The guard speaking to Remus lifted his visor. The manticore’s mouth pulled back to reveal his sharp teeth.

  “Do you deny their direct order?” His scorpion tail arched above them, the barb glistening with poison.

  Remus’s shoulders sagged. “No, no. Never. Bring it here. I’ll release it right now.”

  The two guards with iron grip dragged Kira over to Remus, and the guard on her right yanked her arm up in front of him. He punched a few numbers into her brace, and she heard a beeping. Something powered down. Her tracker maybe? The guards quickly moved her away from Remus and toward a white van with the Olympus Tower on its side.

  “I’ll be expecting compensation.” Remus smiled at the manticore. “That was one of my most prized fighters.”

  “Yet you’ll receive none. After all, this is a gift, because you refused the gods.”

  “No, no. I told you. This is the first I’ve heard of the summons. I didn’t know.” He stomped his feet, and the guard beside her shook his head.

  “Not my problem.” The manticore waved at Remus, did an about face, and marched to the driver’s side of the vehicle. The guards shoved Kira into the back and the two guards stepped up after her, slamming the door. The engine turned over and they drove off.

  How could this day get any worse? She stared at the two guards. Maybe if she knew what kind of monsters they were, it’d be easier for her to calm herself down. Exhausted, head pounding, she laid her head against the side of the cage and prayed for swift healing while she tried to hold back the tears. She hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. She’d just been taken.

  They went over a rib-cage rattling bit of road. She coughed, and when she pulled her hands away, she saw a few spots of blood.

  “What is that?” the guard hissed, finally talking to her. “Are you bleeding?”

  “No,” she lied, tucking her hands into her sleeves. She might be honest if they’d tell her what was going on.

  The guard reached up and raised his visor, revealing his dark and familiar eyes. “Don’t lie to me!”

  “Zeke?” Kira gushed. She almost cried. The other guard lifted his visor, and Kira was greeted with Den’s unshaven and tired face. “What? How?”

  Den looked over his shoulder at Zeke, sitting just behind the driver. He kneeled next to her, leaned in close and whispered, “Listen, Kira. And listen well.”

  She rolled her eyes. She didn’t just forgive and forget.

  Den frowned and clenched his jaw at her obvious disdain. “Remus wants you dead.”

  “He could have killed me any time he wanted in the infrimary. I was right there—weak.” she whispered back.

  Den’s eyes lit. He glanced over his shoulder at the Zeke and a look passed between them. When he turned back, he spoke quickly, as if he knew his time was short. “We came up with a plan.”

  “I came up with a plan.” Zeke answered, his voice filled with tension.

  “What Remus wants, Remus gets,” Den said. “The best thing for you is to get as far away from both of them—Remus and the Underlords—as possible. So we’re leaving.”

  “Leaving?”

  “Yeah. He doesn’t know that we scammed him yet, but he will figure it out soon. That means we’ve got targets on our back now. The Underlords did send for you, and—yes—you can’t hide from them for long.” He wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

  “So am I free?” She looked at her bracer, and Den shook his head.

  “Technically, you’re a free Underlander. But remember, Kira, you can’t leave. The band can’t come off. The Underlords are still searching for you, and Remus will hunt you too.”

  Zeke’s dark eyes found Kira’s in the truck bed. She stirred uncomfortably under his stare. Kira swallowed and pretended to be fascinated by the frayed edging of her cuff less jacket. As hard as she tried not to, she was becoming very fascinated with him.

  The truck entered one of the tunnels. They were traveling in complete darkness except for the truck’s headlights. The time stretched on and on—no one said a thing for close to twenty minutes.

  “Where are we going?”

  “You’ll see when we get there.”

  After a few more minutes, Den reached down and pounded three times. The truck pulled over, and they all hopped out onto the side of the road. Den began to pull off a giant decal revealing an Olympus Electric and Plumbing logo. The guys changed out of their uniforms and dropped them into a deep crevasse a few yards down away from the road.

  Zeke spoke to the manticore and gave him a quick hug, then they watched the van drive off.

  “Let’s go.” Den said. He and Zeke each pulled a flashlight out of his backpack, and they started off down the road.

  “How did you do that?” Kira asked. “Stage the breakout, get the Olympus Guard uniforms.”

  “Ask Zeke.” Den kept walking.

  She turned to look at Zeke, and he shrugged. “I’ve got resources. It’s safer for you if you don’t know more than that.”

  Even if she wanted to press for more information, she couldn’t. Exhaustion was overtaking her, and she was lucky to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

  Kira’s coughing broke the tense silence. Loud racking coughs ripped through her chest, and she turned her head into her sleeve, doing her best to keep quiet and hide the blood spots from Den.

  He grabbed her elbow and shone his flashlight on the small specks of blood splattered across her jacket cuff. “Kira, anything Remus or the Underlords use to track can smell blood. You’re going to get killed or eaten before we even have a chance to get there.” In seconds, he ripped the cuff off her jacket and shoved the blood-splattered denim into his cargo pants pocket, shooting a worried look toward Zeke.

  Zeke’s nostrils flared, but he closed his eyes and turned his head away painfully.

  They had only been travelling for thirty minutes when a voice came out of the darkness. “Remus knows you betrayed him. The real Olympus Guards just showed up to collect her. He’s very, very angry.” Kira smelled lavender, and Alice appeared suddenly beside her.

  When he turned, the light of Den’s flashlight on her blurred the edges of her white dress. Den cussed under his breath.

  “He’s been released.” Alice’s already pale cheeks were stark white with fear. She pointed back
the way they’d come.

  “One of the hellhounds?” Den asked. “We can handle it.”

  “No.” Alice shook her head. “Dip.”

  “Go!” Den grabbed Kira’s jacket and pulled her after him. “Run!”

  “No!” Alice flew toward them and yanked on Kira’s bloodied jacket, pulling it frantically. “It has blood on it. Give it to me. Give me yours too.” The young ghost continued her panicked tugging, and Kira slid her arms out. The jacket flew from her arms. Zeke, suddenly beside them, removed his outer shirt. Den took off his leather jacket and pulled the strip of her bloodied cuff from his pocket.

  “Go,” Alice whispered, the word loud in the dangerous darkness. But—what was Dip exactly?

  Den pulled out his knife and sliced his hand, dripping a few drops onto his jacket before handing it over.

  “Good. I’ll lay a false trail for the beast.” She started to disappear, but Den called out to her.

  “Thank you, Alice.”

  She slowly reappeared. “Just remember me, please. Don’t forget about me.” She was gone, and the fragrant aroma of her presence evaporated.

  “Come. We have to move.” Den demanded they follow him.

  “Wait,” Kira said. “Will she be okay? What’s after us?”

  Den shook his head in frustration. “Dip. A demon dog that lives off the blood of those he hunts.”

  “But Alice is a ghost, so she should be fine right?” Kira needed one of them to allay her fears.

  “Dip is a demon.” He gave her a look as if that explained everything. Kira didn’t understand the connection, but Den was only concerned about getting them as far away from their current location as possible.

  Kira looked to Zeke for an answer. He whispered, “Yes, she is a ghost and for the most part can’t be hurt.”

  “What are neither one of you telling me?” She was too tired to run. Her head felt as if someone was playing dodgeball inside her skull.

  “Ghosts can only be destroyed by someone of the supernatural realm, like angels…” He trailed off unwilling to say the rest.

  “And demons,” Kira finished, uneasy. Why would this ghost girl sacrifice so much for them? It didn’t make sense.

  “Kira,” Zeke reached forward and touched her shoulder. She felt an electric shock at his touch. “She’s fast, she’s good, and she’s old.” Kira stared up at him in confusion. “Which means she’s strong.”

  “Then why hasn’t she left the compound? She’s a ghost. Couldn’t she leave anytime?” Kira was already losing her breath.

  “She can’t.” Zeke stepped quickly over a boulder and turned to look back at her. “She died there. She has to return to that place frequently so that she can remember her death. The longer she’s away, the weaker she becomes, and the more she fades. And if anyone forgets her—including herself—she’ll disappear for good and not have the strength to return.

  “If the demon gets to her in this state, she’ll never come back.”

  It made sense. Alice’s parting words—they were said out of fear. A pang stabbed Kira in her chest, and she stopped on the trail. She couldn’t protect the girl, and she had promised herself she’d try. This was exactly why it was so hard to care for people, why she hardened her heart against feeling anything. Because everyone she loved or cared for eventually died or betrayed her.

  “Kira, come on,” Zeke pleaded.

  Kira glared at Den as she hurried breathlessly along behind him and knew it to be true. Traitor. He’d let the girl go off to face the demon alone. Even if they had a plan, Kira couldn’t help but feel resentment towards Den.

  He looked back. “You can’t save everyone.” He must have read her expression.

  “You can try,” she snapped.

  “Not overnight. Right now, I just need to focus on saving you and him.” He gestured for them to follow him as he turned into an even darker tunnel.

  Kira’s eyes adjusted fast but not before she stumbled. Zeke reached out through the blackness and touched her hand. She pulled back, startled by the coldness of his skin. Somewhere between life and death. Kira realized it probably seemed like she didn’t trust him. She slowed and reached behind her until she found his arm. She felt past his elbow. And this time, she gripped his hand and held on.

  A flash in his pupils said she’d surprised him. It almost made her pull away, but instead, she pressed her lips together and gave his hand an affirming squeeze.

  As soon as they stepped out of the darkness of the tunnel, they were on the outskirts of the city. She wasn’t sure why, if they were hiding, they’d go to a densely populated area. Maybe so many different scents would throw off whatever hunted them. Maybe hiding in plain sight was a favorite tactic of Den’s. Either way, better than cowering in a tunnel somewhere, waiting to be attacked.

  She doubted Den ever cowered.

  “Why the city?” She stumbled, and Zeke slowed to wait for her to catch her breath.

  Den didn’t wait. “More scents, and easier to pay for silence,” Den pulled his cloak over his head, hiding his identity.

  Paying for silence. That was smart. How easy would it be to disappear? Especially if she was on her own.

  Landmarks were starting to look familiar, mostly because she used Olympus Tower as her point of reference. When they came to a steel grain silo, Den tossed his duffel bag on the ground and unlocked the door. He disappeared inside. From within, they heard an electric buzz, followed by a pop. Den muttered something, and eventually, a flood of light spilled forth.

  The last thing Kira wanted was to be trapped—even with Zeke and Den. Sure, it was somewhere new, but she still wasn’t free until she could get the band off. All they had to do was activate it again and they’d find her. Kira tried to back up, but she bumped into Zeke, an immobile wall. Too tired to fight him, Kira took her first tentative steps into the building.

  “Home sweet home,” Den said as he closed an electrical box and came to stand near them, his hands on his hips. His face beamed with pride.

  “You should fire your decorator,” Kira joked. The vastness surprised her, but it didn’t keep the room from feeling like a large round prison cell. More than anything, she just wanted freedom.

  Still, the place wasn’t bare. Off to one side stood an old wood-burning stove, and a few crates sat around an old card table. She looked up and saw holes in the roof and a metal ladder running up the inside of the building.

  Probably not quite as secure as they needed it to be.

  “Well, it will get there.” Den clapped his hands and eyed the place excitedly.

  Zeke immediately went for the ladder and started to climb the interior wall of the old grain bin. Someone before had added steel crossbeams and wood floors for more usable living space on one side of the silo. Ropes hung across the space with lights dangling from them. It seemed Zeke was aiming to crawl to the light that had burnt out. He shimmied down the pole and reached for the old bulb.

  Den went back outside, returned with his duffel, and dropped it on the floor. Dust rose up into the air.

  Kira tried to fan away the dirt cloud and sneezed. It burned, but thankfully, she didn’t see any blood.

  “What now?” She rubbed her boot across the dry ground and discovered actual cement underneath all the dirt. The silo just needed a lot of sweeping and mopping. But what was Den going to do with this place? Did he intend for them to stay long?

  “Nothing right now. Just stay here while I get some supplies and see if we’ve been followed.”

  She just nodded, relieved that she had time to get some rest. Once the stress-induced adrenaline wore off, Kira’s exhaustion slammed back into her. She moved to lean against a wall.

  The silo door close behind them. Kira stared at the door, knowing freedom wasn’t very far away. It almost gave her hope for a minute.

  Zeke seemed preoccupied with walking across the beams. He enjoyed the dangerous balancing act with such grace that she was jealous at his acrobatic ability. He turned, jumped up to
another beam, and pulled himself up another level.

  Kira wanted to breathe air that hadn’t been trapped in this vault for months. She casually made her way to the silo door and reached for the metal handle. Something large dropped in front of her and blocked her. She jumped.

  “Where do you think you’re going?” Zeke said stiffly. Wasn’t he just as anxious as she was to leave the prison?

  “Do you ever think about running? Really breaking free? Wouldn’t it be great to just leave—both of us? We’d just need to get these off.” She held up her band.

  “And go where exactly?”

  “Home. My home.” The words felt hollow out loud. Home should refer to somewhere warm, loving, a place where she felt safe and secure. She didn’t have one of those. Her childhood home was gone, and all she had left were the streets of Portland. If she got away, where would she go?

  Zeke laughed. “Back to the surface? Do you really think my kind is welcome there? Once someone sees me go berserk, it’s all over.”

  Is that what he called it—berserk?

  “Your doctors would dissect me, study me, and regenerate me until I resembled nothing more than the walking corpses in your movies. It’s happened before to others. That’s no life for me up there.”

  “And this is death for me down here. I have as much chance of survival down here as you do up there. I don’t belong.” She tried to push past him, but Zeke grabbed her wrist.

  “I’m sorry, I can’t let you go. It’s too dangerous out there with Dip on your tail.”

  Kira pulled her arm from his grasp and huffed. “Maybe I’d like those chances better than to stay here as a prisoner.”

  Zeke narrowed his eyes. “You could stay and help with our plans. After all, you know nothing of what we’re trying to do.”

  “Your plans?” she pondered the words. Suddenly, it all made sense. “Den knew you before the slave market didn’t he?”

  “Yes, I was sent there as punishment for a crime. But Den and I go way back, and we planned for him to buy me. Now our goal is to compete—to get to the Labyrinth.”

  “Why were you imprisoned there in the first place?”

  Zeke’s mouth lifted into a mischievous smile. “For trying to break into the Labyrinth. I got caught."

 
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