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       Underland, p.17

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “Easy there, boy,” Chaz warned. “I’m a hero.”

  Chaz looked to her for approval. Zeke just seemed like he wanted to help speed up the process and get Chaz on his way. Finally, he left the bandaging to Kira and moved to stand by the wall.

  Chaz sighed. “There’s been a surge of new champions entered in this next event all of a sudden.”

  “That happens all the time,” Den said, clearly impatient. “Especially after a devastating event like the gauntlet. Owners and trainers start buying out the Gamblers’ Market. I went by and it was empty. They—”

  Chaz swallowed. “Nope, these ones didn’t come from the market. Pickings have been slow.”

  “Chaz, spit it out!” Zeke slammed his fist into the wall and left a large dent.

  Kira jumped and looked at Zeke in confusion. Why did he seem so ungrateful? Chaz had just risked his life for them.

  Chaz seemed unfazed. “They came from above!” He smiled and watched Den. “Ah, but I can tell by your reaction, you knew that already.”

  “What?” Kira asked and looked over at Den. That’s why he was so mad when he stormed in. He knew and wasn’t going to tell her.

  Zeke figured it out, but she didn’t.

  “After the gauntlet, there was a surge on the market for humans, but there haven’t been any. So a few parties have gone up and come back down with some. Supply and demand, you know? I wonder what made them want humans so bad.” Chaz turned his head up at Kira and winked.

  She dropped the bandage and it rolled across the floor.

  “What about the ban?” Kira asked.

  “It’s been lifted,” Chaz answered. “Not permanently, but it seems that they’ve okayed the abduction of humans for the games.”

  “What?” The horror of what happened to her washed back over her. Her kidnapping, her branding, her being sold on the market. She wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And now, because of her knack at surviving, others had been taken and forced into the games. What was a spur of the moment, quick buck for Alpo and Vic, had now become the thing.

  “How many were entered?” Kira was numb.

  “Two in the rumble last night, and they didn’t make it. Five are signed up for next week’s already. I looked at the roster.” He let his hand brush against his pant leg. “Remus ordered Holly to go up to get him one as well after he lost you. It’s why I left. I wouldn’t do it.”

  Kira looked at Den and pointed at him. “You have to stop this.”

  “The ball’s in motion. We can’t stop it,” he answered. “We just have to wait for it to die down.”

  She looked at Chaz. “So where are you going to go now?”

  “I thought maybe you could use a sponsor. I can coach you through some of the smaller events. The ring maybe.” He gestured between them. “We’d make a great team.”

  Kira’s cheeks warmed. Flattered at the offer.

  Zeke stepped in front of Kira. “She’ll get back to you.”

  “Hey…wait,” Kira argued. “He helped us.”

  “You already have a team.” Zeke stared at her. “Remember?” His dark eyes pleaded with her, and she couldn’t help but look between the two of them. How did Chaz and Zeke both want her to be on their team? It was odd, but it felt nice for once, not to be thought of as a liability.

  Chaz looked saddened at the competition. If he’d shifted into his feline form, his tail would have been drooping. “You could use a Paladin, though, right? I’ll have all sorts of different connections.”

  No one answered.

  “Okay, I’ll check back with you in a few days.”

  “You do that,” Zeke said and followed Chaz to the door. As soon as he stepped through and turned to wave bye, the metal door slammed in his face.

  Chapter 24

  Zeke eyed Den who still stared at the door, his hand rubbing his chin.

  “The ring,” Den said. “Now there’s a possibility for some quick money to up your rankings.”

  “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of doing it.” Zeke accused. “There’s a good chance you know who will be there. That’s where they go to slum.”

  “Chaz has a point. Two of you would mean twice the chances of winning.”

  Kira couldn’t follow their thread of conversation. Doing what?

  Zeke looked over at her, his eyes alit with fire.

  Kira shivered from the intensity of his gaze.

  “You can’t enter Kira.”

  What was he doing? Zeke was bargaining for her so she wouldn’t die in an event? Just hours ago, she could have escaped, and he wouldn’t let her. It was a bit endearing of him to speak up for her, but she didn’t need someone to fight her battles.

  “That’s not your call,” Den snapped. “It’s hers.”

  “It is now.” Zeke said.

  “What’s wrong with you? Don’t tell me you’re getting attached to a human. Think about what they did to your sister.”

  “That has nothing to do with this.”

  “It has everything to do with this. Don’t be a fool like her,” Den growled.

  The air was packed with suffocating tension. Zeke looked like he could hurt Den at the moment.

  And Zeke had a sister? But then, really, what did she know about any of them? Nothing.

  And they knew nothing about her.

  “Fine,” Den growled. “I won’t enter her for now. But you can’t coddle the girl. She needs to do her part if she wants to stay here. Remember, she can’t go home. Ever.

  “Fine.” Zeke answered.

  Both guys looked at her. Clearly the truce was only temporary.

  They spent the morning bringing supplies into the silo. Den had gotten a whole cart full—weapons, wood, pots and pans. She found matches, so she cleaned the old ashes out of the wood stove and found enough broken pieces of wood to get a fire going. Maybe she could cook something for them. She picked up the can of food Zeke had tossed at her earlier but couldn’t find a can opener. So maybe banging the can on a rock would work.

  Zeke stopped her noisy assault and took the can. With a crunch and a flick of his wrist, his fingers ripped right through the top, and he pulled the lid back. “Sorry, we have no use for can openers.”

  “Yeah, I guess not.” She took the mangled can and dumped the contents into the pot. The can had long ago lost its label, but it looked like it was chili. She hoped it was chili. It was hard to tell. But after a few minutes of cooking, it was warm enough to eat.

  Den was eating jerky out of his pack. Kira offered some to him, but he waved it off. “No, it’s fine. You eat it.”

  She looked at Zeke and offered him some food. “Hungry?”

  He looked into her pot and then deep into her eyes. “Yes, but not for that.” His eyes flashed again and she took a step back.

  Zeke looked conflicted at her reaction. He swallowed and headed for the door. “I’ll be back.” He didn’t open it so much as blast through it. The door swung shut behind him with a bang.

  “Should you go after him?” Kira asked when Den didn’t move from the crate.

  “Why?”

  “Aren’t you scared he’s going to run away?”

  Den looked at the door and then back to Kira. “Nope, not when I have what he craves most.” He took another bite of his jerky and chewed it in silence, staring at her with a satisfied smile. That smile chilled her. Was she leverage against Zeke?

  “When do we start training again?”

  “Not worth my time. Unless…” He looked at the door Zeke had gone through and then back to her. “You get him to let you fight, and I’ll train you again.” He closed the bag of jerky and went to crawl into his own hammock.

  She took the pot and a spoon and crawled up the ladder to eat her meal on the floor of her “room,” watching Den from afar—with uncertainty.

  Chapter 25

  Den and Kira had unpacked most of the goods and the various weapons, and they set them up near the door in the space Den claimed as his.

  They didn’t ta
lk much. In her mind she had gone back to calling him Butt-Chin.

  Zeke returned later that day with more color in his cheeks, less wild in the eyes. There were dark spots on his jacket, and Kira tried not to think about whose they were. Where he went or what he ate wasn’t really her business, but honestly? As much as she wanted it not to bother her, it did. What did he prefer if human wasn’t available?

  When he came over, she shot him a hurt look, quickly went up the ladder, and retreated to her hammock. She refused to speak to him. It was more out of jealousy at his freedom than anything else he did. She felt trapped here, and if she couldn’t make it to the surface, she wanted to help Zeke with his goal, whatever it was. If Den thought they had better chances of fighting together, she wanted to do that. But they didn’t trust her out by herself, so she was under house arrest.

  How was it okay for Zeke to forbid her from fighting but demand that she be part of their team? She’d just have to find a way to make him see the light. Kira smiled to herself at her new outlook. She’d have to prove that she was a part of the team.

  And that meant fighting.

  She knew that Den wouldn’t train her unless Zeke would agree to her fighting, but—wow—did he spend time on Zeke. They trained and drilled most of the day and most nights went to the fights. Sometimes they didn’t come back until the next morning, worn out and tired and bloodied.

  And of course, when they left, Den locked her inside the silo. He said ‘for her own protection,’ but she knew it probably had to do with her one failed escape attempt. She had tried to find a way to climb through the hole in the ceiling but couldn’t reach. She didn’t have that sort of agility.

  Finally, Den left—alone—to go to Ferb’s and watch the big match up on TV. It was time to start placing bets. Zeke was sitting on the floor with a battered book. It was oddly comforting to see him reading. Such a human thing to do.

  “Why hasn’t he continued to train me?” She wanted to see what Zeke would say.

  “Maybe because he’s mad at me, because I won’t let him enter you in the ring.” He didn’t even look up from his page when he answered.

  So he knew. “Then let me fight.”

  “I have to fight in order to keep the money coming. We need food and supplies.” Zeke turned a page. “You don’t need to fight. You shouldn’t fight—you’re human.”

  “Gah! This is all my fault. If other humans are fighting—dying—I should be too.”

  “No, this isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the way it is.”

  “Well, I hate being cooped up here, I need to do something. To train.” She stood up abruptly demanded, “Train me.”

  “What? No!” He finally put the book down and gave her his full attention. Now that she had it, she wasn’t about to let it get away. She bent down, grabbed his hands, and pulled him to his feet.

  “Show me what you do in the ring. Where do you go each night?”

  “No!” he pulled away and gave her his back. “It’s not pretty. You don’t want to know what I have to do to survive.”

  “I survived the gauntlet. What if I get entered in another event and I’m not prepared?”

  “I’m not your sponsor or owner or trainer.” He turned away, his eyes sad.

  “But you care about whether I die. I don’t want to die. So teach me to survive. What if you’re not here to protect me next time?”

  Zeke stared at her.

  “Fine.”

  She jump around but she held it in, played it cool. She was doing something—anything—besides sitting around staring at the ceiling and sweeping the always dusty floor. This was action, this was getting her moving. This felt like she was accomplishing something.

  “The ring. It’s a match. Two enter and one leaves alive.”

  “I think we have something like that back home.”

  He shook his head. “Not exactly. This one is a bit rougher. You’ve already seen one bout.”

  “I have?”

  “At the Gamblers’ Market. You saw a version of the ring.”

  “Oh, I see.”

  Zeke moved around the room and started pushing things out of the way. “If you were entered, you can bet it wouldn’t be against someone weak. Everyone would want to tear you apart. Especially after seeing you kill a boggart. There’s only one kind of creature designed to kill a boggart, but you—it was a good moment for you.” He smiled and drew a line in the dirt floor, motioned for Kira to stand on it.

  “How many have you fought?” The outcome suddenly felt less certain.

  “I’ve been doing it awhile.” Evasive.

  Zeke placed another mark on the floor, pulled a crate to the center of the room, and set a stick on it.

  “Ever been injured doing it?”

  He nodded. “Lots of times.”

  “But you always survive.” She tried to sound encouraging, but…how could zombie fighting be considered fair?

  He laughed. “Of course, I’m not your average zeke or half-lifer. I am a lot harder to kill.” He pointed to the stove where he had set up an old alarm clock with a bell. “You ready? You never know what weapon will be provided—sometimes it’s a knife, others an axe, once it was a spoon. The object is to get to it first.”

  “Yeah, I know it.” Kira jumped up and down and shook out her arms before settling in and getting ready to run toward the crate. “It’s a lot like dodgeball. Get to the ball in the middle first and then hit your opponent.”

  “Except you can die.”

  “Yeah, I’m not going to let that happen.” She dug her boot into the ground and focused on the crate. She’d have to get there before him, outsmart the zombie.

  “Good.”

  She didn’t look at the clock, just listened to the ticking as the second hand moved around. Breathe in. Release. Focus.

  Ring!

  She was off like a bullet, racing toward the crate.

  Zeke had already beaten her and picked up the stick. He held it above her head. “Too slow. You’re dead.”

  “That’s not fair. You don’t know that I’d be dead already.”

  Zeke placed the stick back on the crate and gave her a stern look. “Yes you would. If you were playing against me you’d be. I’m faster and stronger than you.”

  Kira gritted her teeth and growled. “Again!” She marched back to her starting point and turned to face the crate.

  Zeke reset the timer. He walked slowly back to his mark on the line. Kira could feel her anger rising. This wasn’t fair. How was she supposed to outrun him? She didn’t have much time to think before the bell went off again, and she shot from her mark, racing toward the crate.

  Zeke got there first again.

  “Gah!” She picked up the crate and tossed it at him. Zeke’s eyes went wide as he ducked. The crate crashed. Pieces flew across the floor and one hit her foot.

  “Nice, that’s a good move. You have to assess your opponent and find their weakness. Use whatever you have available to distract them.”

  “Again,” Kira huffed. She was lightly out of breath.

  “You can’t beat me, Kira.” He sounded a little smug.

  “I said again.”

  He took the broken crate and set it back in the middle of the room. Placed the stick back in the middle. “You don’t get three chances in real life, Kira.” He reset the clock on the stove and went to his mark.

  That final taunt pushed her over the edge. Zeke was right. She’d have to assess her enemy and use his weakness. What was a zombie’s weakness?

  Oh. Something told her not to be so foolish—but she just couldn’t make herself care. Kira turned around on her mark, giving Zeke her back. She leaned down to her boot and slipped out her knife, then picked up a piece of splintered wood in her other hand, careful to hide what she was doing. She stood back up and watched the clock. When the timer was about to go off, she turned her back to Zeke again, carefully pressed the knife into her collarbone, and made a long scratch. It started to bleed.

 
She grimaced but kept her focus on Zeke’s reaction.

  “Kira,” his voice had deepened into a groan. “Please tell me you didn’t.” She could hear the desire in his voice and knew his eyes were probably flashing as he tried to control his hunger. “What have you done?”

  The alarm rang. Kira spun and raced for the crate. Zeke had backed away from her, pressing himself against the far wall. His breathing had picked up as he tried to suppress his desire.

  This time she grabbed the stake. She was smart enough to beat him.

  Zeke’s eyes were indeed flashing. He grinned evilly. “Good, the first part of the lesson is gaining the weapon.” His eyes were locked on the blood dripping down her collarbone. His chest heaved and his head bobbed as if to a drumbeat. There was something weird about it. But familiar.

  Zeke’s fingers flexed and went to his side. His body tensed.

  All of a sudden it hit her.

  Zeke circled her. “The second part of the lesson is killing your opponent.”

  His head was bobbing to the rhythm of her heart.

  He lunged.

  Chapter 26

  Zeke’s body hit her full force, sending both of them flying through the air. She screamed and hit the ground. Her head smacked the cement. She saw stars.

  Zeke’s body landed on top of her. Any second, his teeth would gnash, and he’d rip out her throat. She whimpered and turned her head.

  But nothing happened. She could feel his body pressed against hers, hear his breathing rasping against her ear, but she was still alive.

  He whispered, sending currents of electricity and fear through her. “What you did was very, very stupid.”

  She turned so she could see him, furious. “It wasn’t.”

  Zeke shook, struggled to control himself. “I could have killed you.”

  “And I you.” Kira smiled. She flexed her wrist and nudged him with the stick, making him feel the weapon over his heart.

  “Being stabbed in the heart wouldn’t stop me,” he chuckled.

  “No, but being stabbed through the brain would.”

  He froze when the knife she had hidden in her boot touched the base of his neck. “I do believe this is the right angle.”

 
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