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       Underland, p.16

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  She couldn’t believe it. “What’s the big deal about the Labyrinth?”

  He got a far-off look in his eyes. “I think the answers are inside.”

  “Answers to what?”

  He became really quiet, and she knew she probably needed to let it drop. “So why’d you protect me in the courtyard?”

  “You needed help.” He shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal.

  “And why’d you helped me cross the finish line?”

  “Den asked me to help you cross, although you did pretty well on your own. You had 50-1 odds. We’re team Den.”

  “Sound like Team Zen to me.”

  “What’s a Zen?”

  “What I’m calling your bromance. Den combined with Zeke. Or you could be team Deke.”

  Zeke actually laughed. It was warm, freeing, and she smiled.

  When Zeke stopped laughing he became serious for a moment. “He’s not a saint, you know. You don’t know him like I do. Just…try to make the best of it. Being team Zeken is…bigger than us.”

  “Now that’s just dumb.” Kira snorted at his attempt to combine all three names. As dumb as the name was, it sounded right to be a part of something.

  The weight of the trip had more than caught up with her. Her body screamed to sleep, to rest. To close her eyes and focus on not feeling. She trudged to the far wall and sat against it, pulling her knees up to her chest. The dust got her coughing again, but this time she noticed there was less blood. Which was good. Still, it was painful.

  She dropped her head to her knees and closed her eyes, trying to imagine herself in a better situation. Another coughing fit rattled her, and she wiped at her face with her sleeve.

  This level of exhaustion was new. It made her crazy emotional, brought on tears of frustration that brimmed in her eyes. She worried about Alice out there with that demon hunting them. She wondered what the Underlords wanted her for. But she tried to think on what Zeke said, focus on the big picture. To do that, alliances would be crucial—and not just with Alice. She needed to build trust with these guys. They had just saved her, again. So she’d give Team Zeken, or whatever, a chance.

  Something fell from above and dangled precariously close to her body. Kira jumped back and smacked her head on the silo wall. Her brain practically vibrated. “What the..?” A can of food had dropped thirty feet from above and was dangling in front of her. She really didn’t think she’d get used to that.

  “Come.” He beckoned up the ladder.

  Now, more than curious, she climbed the ladder and very carefully stepped onto the third-level floor. The two levels below didn’t cover but a portion of the silo—maybe fifteen feet across. She was pretty high up, so she hugged the wall and stayed away from the drop.

  Zeke was walking across the beam above her. He lowered a mass of rope and canvas from it. It spun slowly in front of her, and then Zeke climbed down the ropes like Spiderman. He jumped to her floor, a grin of triumph on his face.

  “Here.” He gestured to the tangled mass.

  Kira scrunched her brow in confusion. But as he pulled the ropes and canvas apart, it unrolled into a shape she quickly recognized. Zeke had crafted a makeshift hammock.

  “It’s better than sleeping on the floor. I think the farther we can keep you away from the dirt, the quicker you’ll heal.”

  It was beautiful. Thoughtful. The nicest gift anyone had given her in…well, years. She was so overcome with emotion that she stared dumfounded at the hammock. Zeke offered his hand and helped pull her up. He held it steady and helped her to sit in it, to find her center of gravity. Kira laid down and felt her body sway back and forth in the hammock. The gentle rocking movement was comforting.

  The thought and effort he’d put into it overwhelmed her. Finally, the dam broke. She cried.

  Zeke looked at her confused. “Do you not like it? I know it could have been better, but it’s the only material I found. There’s not much here, as you can see.”

  “No, it’s perfect.” She wiped away her tears and gave him a smile. It felt odd to do such a simple thing as smile with happiness. She tried to remember the last time she had felt this happy and grateful—but she couldn’t. “Thank you.”

  Zeke returned her smile, and it hit her hard.

  Her smile faltered. Something stirred within her chest and beat wildly, not out of fear.

  The hammock slowed. Zeke lay down next to it, and she felt the pressure of his hand on the side as he pushed her gently. Was a zombie really rocking her to sleep? Would he eat her if she nodded off? No. If he wanted to eat her, he would have done it already.

  This was just a new feeling, a confusing feeling, something she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Trust.

  She didn’t know what to make of it.

  She stared upward through the hole in the roof. She could almost imagine seeing stars through the hole, but she knew there were no stars down here. More than likely it was the reflection of diamonds or precious stones in the rocky ceiling. Things like this would catch her by surprise sometimes. Remind her how much she missed the surface, the air, the cool breeze, the sounds of the traffic.

  “Have you ever seen stars?”

  “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the sky,” he said. “It was very beautiful, but night was nothing compared to your sunrise. Seeing that giant ball of fire rise across the horizon, and watching your world slowly awaken to its call was the most breathtaking thing I’ve ever seen. But the last time I saw it, I couldn’t stay long. I felt overwhelmed, exposed, and it became uncomfortable to stay without feeling a pressure in my chest.”

  “Hmm. I wonder why?”

  “I think your kind call it agoraphobia. The freshness of the air makes us a little sick, and it takes a bit to adapt.”

  She could understand. Her first few days had been like that. But after a while, the lack of natural light and the deep earthy and musty smell that had bothered her faded. She hardly noticed it anymore. She was adapting.

  And that scared her.

  Chapter 22

  Alice flew as fast as she could, carrying the bloodied clothes of her new friends. She’d backtracked toward the compound, hoping to lay the scent trail so Dip could follow her. The closer she got to the compound, the stronger she felt.

  A tall man walked on the path right as it narrowed. She had no choice—she rushed right through him, backpack and all.

  “Yeow!” The man with spotted hair yelled. Her cold presence probably felt like an ice bath to him. But Alice didn’t have time to worry about it.

  She heard a growl in the distance, followed by a long, haunting howl.

  Dip.

  He smelled the blood.

  He was on the hunt.

  And if she didn’t get the blood down on the trail and away from her, he wouldn’t care who he mauled. She couldn’t pass through any solid surface with the clothes she was holding, so she’d have to lay the trail the hard way. There. The side spur that forked off the main tunnel was where she needed to smear the blood.

  Her hands shook as she flew down the smaller tunnel. She didn’t know these tunnels. She didn’t like to stray this far away from home.

  A loud bark echoed off the tunnel walls. Alice wanted to drop the clothes and run for her undead life. But she couldn’t. She hadn’t made any headway. If she failed, Dip would easily overtake her friends.

  Alice sang a song from her childhood in her head as she took another turn and ended up winding her way back to the beginning of the tunnel system. Light shone—it sounded like Dip had already entered the tunnels and was somewhere behind her.

  Alice made a dash for the exit. She pressed Kira’s jacket close to her heart and felt a moment of pride. She had done it. She had helped her human friend. Her undead life would not be in vain. She’d never be forgotten.

  Alice’s head had just cleared the tunnel when sharp demon teeth punctured her leg and Dip’s powerful jaws clamped down on her. The pain! The heat! She turned as Dip dragged her back dow
n into the tunnel. Disappear! Disappear!

  It was no use. She couldn’t apparate when he had a hold of her.

  She screamed. The demon dog’s teeth began to shred through her ethereal form. It burned her like fire, like it was raking coals across her soul. She tried to fly upward. Her hands scratched and scraped at the tunnel ceiling as she pulled against his grip.

  He released her, and she clawed her way to the entrance. She felt Dip’s evil breath on her neck as he slowly stalked her. He was toying with her now, letting her crawl away. She whimpered. Her body flickered in the light, beginning to fade. The demon’s bite was killing her.

  The tall man with the backpack! There he was again. His face grew white with fear when he saw the demon dog behind her. But she saw determination in his eyes too. She remembered his name now.

  Chaz.

  He shifted into cheetah form, and she heard his feline hiss. He was going to challenge the demon dog.

  “No!” she cried out. “Help them.” Alice tossed the bloodied jacket toward cheetah. Chaz leaned down and sniffed the jacket. He shook his head and eyed the demon. He growled again, his fur standing on end, his back arched high as he took another threatening step toward the demon dog.

  “It’s too late for me!” Alice cried, tears running down her face. “Help Kira. Save them.” Chaz turned and looked at the path she had flown down, and she knew he’d be able to find them. If anyone could outrun the Dip, he could.

  She felt warm drool on the back of her neck. Dip was watching her fade away. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of facing him in fear and sadness. It was over. She had done well.

  Chaz picked up the bloodied jacket in his mouth and took off running.

  There. Now she could face him. She’d seen to her friends’ safety. Alice turned over to look into Dip’s red demon eyes.

  “I’m not afraid of death.”

  Dip’s mouth opened wide.

  Chapter 23

  “Wake up, sleeping ugly.” Zeke poked her in the side.

  Kira groaned. She couldn’t move. Or at least she didn’t want to. How in the world had she slept so soundly swinging in a hammock suspended in an underground grain silo next to a freaking zombie? She rolled over and noticed Zeke hadn’t moved from his spot.

  “Don’t you mean Sleeping Beauty, like the fairytales?”

  “We don’t believe in fairytales.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because there are no such thing as happy endings. In our version, the princess—well, she’s not beautiful. She’s quite ugly, which is a compliment for our kind.”

  “Are you saying calling me ugly was your way of paying me a compliment?”

  “Uh….no?”

  See, with girls, there never was really a safe answer when you just called someone ugly. She studied his panicked face as he laid there on the floor and decided to let it go. “Did you really stay there all night?”

  “Yep.” He didn’t seem bothered by it.

  “Do you ever sleep?”

  “Not usually. Sometimes I can, but what’s the point? I don’t dream.”

  “Then why wake me?”

  “Because Den is back.” He sat up, dusted off his back, and moved to the edge. His feet hit the floor level seconds before Den walked through. He must have great hearing to hear him that far off.

  But why had he moved away so quickly? Was he embarrassed to be seen so close to her? Was he was hiding something from her?

  She couldn’t believe how much better she felt this morning. Renewed even. Maybe all of the adrenaline from yesterday helped. What had happened with Alice? She hoped to see her face soon.

  ***

  Den burned with fury over the news he’d picked up in the city. It seemed like they’d caused more problems than they’d solved. He shoved open the silo door and announced loudly, “We’ve gone and done it now.” He dropped the box of supplies and looked around.

  Kira swung in a makeshift hammock.

  Zeke was standing pretty far away from the girl. A little too far away. And she kept casting him awkward glances. Yeah, Zeke liked her, and was trying to hide it from him.

  Zeke came forward and started to sort through the stuff in the box. “What happened?” He didn’t seem at all interested. He could have been asking instead what was on TV.

  “The rumble last night. It was a massacre.” The most recent game had cost so, so many lives.

  Zeke paused and glanced up at Kira, his face a blank mask. “How many?” He asked the silent question that only they knew. How many were drafted as well.

  “Too many. There’s never been that many that fast.” Den answered. “The Gamblers’ Market was empty when I went by. Everyone had been ordered to the event—old and young. By decree of the Underlords.”

  “You need to let me compete.” Zeke turned and grabbed Den’s shirt front. Den’s body thudded against the wall.

  Den could have easily fought back, but he stuck to his wits and spoke calmly. “You can be sure Remus will send his best to try and take you down. Especially now, because of her. I think we have to sit the televised ones out. Low profile. That’s what. We can still win our way up, become a champion another way.”

  Zeke kept glancing the girl’s way, but he didn’t make any effort to include her in the conversation. “I can handle myself—doesn’t matter the event, Den.”

  “Listen, you. You fight when I want you to fight. I don’t want to blow your cover too soon. We need patience.” Den slowly uncurled Zeke’s fingers from his shirt.

  “We need tokens.”

  A loud knock rang through the silo. Both males froze.

  “You expecting company?” Zeke asked.

  “No. If it was Alice, she’d just come through the wall.” Den reached behind his neck, and pulled out the katana from its sheath. With slow, controlled movements, he slipped over to the door and pushed it open. Light spilled in, and the familiar form of Chaz stepped through.

  In a flash Den had his sword at Chaz’s throat.

  “Hey, hey, I surrender!” Chaz’s hands went straight up in the air. “Is that even sharp?” He gave Den a grin but it faltered. “I guess I could do with a bit of a shave, but not too much, kay?” He looked pretty beat up. Sported a couple cuts and bruises across his face, and a long cut on his shoulder.

  “What do you want, Chaz?” Den dropped the sword, but he cut off the lycanthrope from entering the silo any further. Zeke moved so his body blocked Kira from Chaz’s site.

  “Your gang tried to poison Kira, which you know is against the rules.”

  “Wait, what?” Chaz’s smile dropped. “No, that wasn’t me. That was Holly and her coven—on Remus’s orders. I’m not with them anymore. Actually”—he lifted his wrist—“I’m a Paladin. As of the rumble last night. And I’m positive Remus didn’t intend to let me earn my freedom. So…I can’t go back. No loyalties, no allies. Unless you’re looking for one.”

  “I don’t trust you,” Zeke spoke up.

  “I’m the one who smelled the poison, right?” Chaz looked around Zeke and tried to spot the girl. “Tell them, Kira. I could have kept my mouth shut and watched you keel over, but I didn’t. I helped.”

  Den looked over to her and she nodded. “Yeah, he did save me.”

  Zeke stepped to the side so Kira could be part of the conversation. But he stayed close. “Doesn’t answer our question. What are you doing here? How did you find us?”

  Chaz grinned. “Easy.” He looked over at Kira and winked. “I marked her with my scent.”

  “What? Ew!” Kira groaned and started patting her clothes.

  “No you didn’t,” Zeke growled out. His patience was done.

  Chaz swallowed and dropped his head to his chest. “The ghost girl.”

  Kira sat up. “Alice. Is she okay?”

  Chaz shook his head. “No, she didn’t make it. The demon dog got her. I’m sorry.”

  Den swore under his breath. He motioned for them to get going. “We have to go. Now. We can
’t stay here any longer. If he got her, he got a taste of our blood too. He won’t stop until we’re dead.”

  “You’re wrong.” Chaz tossed Kira’s jacket and the rest of the bloodied clothes on the floor in front of them.

  “You fool!” Den yelled. “You’ve led him right to our doorstep.”

  “No,” Chaz turned and looked at Kira. “I killed him.”

  “Impossible.” Den moved to the door to watch for the dog.

  “I was there when the ghost girl died.” Chaz looked sad, but then he squared his shoulders and met Den’s eyes. “I took the bloodied clothes and got Dip off your trail. I avenged the girl, and then I made sure Remus’s demon couldn’t come after me either. I killed Dip.”

  “How?

  Chaz looked a little unstable on his feet, but then he shrugged proudly and winked. “Dogs may be stronger than cats, but don’t forget”—he tapped his head—“cats are smarter.”

  “How did you kill the demon dog?” Den repeated.

  “I led him down into the salt pit. Surrounded by a circle of salt, a demon dog can be killed.” He licked a wound on his shoulder. “Although getting that kind of salt in your wounds burns like the high heavens. But it was worth it.” Chaz shrugged.

  Huh. That was actually pretty brilliant.

  Kira moved to get him some water.

  Den finally let himself sit down. He held his katana across his lap. Zeke grabbed a few bandages from the supplies Den had gotten and gave them to Kira.

  Chaz actually looked like he was going to start purring when her hands gently brushed his neck and she started to clean his wounds.

  ***

  “Well, at least the salt will kill any bacteria,” Kira said softly. Her hands worked slowly as she felt the weight of Alice’s death like a lodestone around her neck. It was hard for her to swallow, to keep back the tears. She decided just not to fight them, crying silently.

  Chaz butted her with his head, and she buried her fingers in his hair.

  He stretched and closed his eyes. He probably would have gotten more comfortable if Zeke hadn’t come over and started to bandage his cuts with a firmer hand.

 
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