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       Underland, p.19

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  He nodded.

  Kira rushed onto the floor and felt a moment of satisfaction to see Olivier’s shocked expression.

  A hush fell over the room.

  “You. You want to challenge me?” He put his hand over his stomach and laughed. “Come on, you stand no chance. I rolled you like a ball down a hill.”

  “You took something from me without my permission.”

  “Oh really? Most love a vampire’s kiss.” He held out his hands to try and entice the crowd.

  They remained silent.

  “I’ve had better. In fact, one just a few minutes ago put yours to shame.”

  The room burst into laughter, and Olivier’s eyes glowed red.

  “I will make you pay!” He yelled, pointing his finger at her.

  She held up her band. “You’re kidding. You’re not worth it. Here, do you want your money back?”

  Olivier looked up toward the ceiling and yelled, “Challenge accepted.”

  Kira followed his gaze. A darkened balcony hid observers in the shadows. She couldn’t focus on them with the spotlights aimed at her, so she drew her attention back to the keg. Waited to see what would drop on the table for a weapon.

  An orb drifted down from above, probably from the watchers’ balcony, and alit on the keg. The light dissipated.

  In the middle of the keg lay a silver cross.

  Olivier’s face went white. His head snapped up. “Oh, come on! Now’s not the time to have a sense of humor, Hermes.”

  No response came from the darkness.

  Kira smiled. “I think someone wants you dead…oh wait. That’s me.” She couldn’t believe her luck. A vampire couldn’t touch a cross.

  Zeke had told her to study her opponent and use his own weakness against him. What else did she know about vampire lore? She scoured her mind. Hollywood got so many things wrong, but Ferb had mentioned one thing most movies got right—weapons that can harm monsters.

  “Get in line, precious.” Olivier spoke, and they both moved to their chalk marks on the floor. “Never mind if I can’t touch it. I’ll just kill you with my bare hands. Or my teeth.” He ran his tongue across his fangs.

  Disgusted, Kira glanced up at the screen and saw that Den had just wagered on the fight. Oh. He’d bet a lot of money that she’d lose.

  Not only lose—that she’d be killed.

  She spun around the room, searching for Den. How dare he assume she’d just die, she was a fighter? He should have some faith in her. She wanted to wring his neck. Zeke pushed through the crowd, his face looked white in horror. He shook his head and motioned for her to come off the floor.

  She mouthed the word no and looked up at the screen. The countdown had begun.

  Zeke moved so he was in her line of site and motioned again, this time to her neck.

  She nodded and reached up to touch the blood still making her shirt sticky. She smeared it on her hand and watched as Olivier’s nostrils flared.

  “That won’t work on me. I’ve already fed.”

  The alarm rang, and she raced toward the silver cross. She held it firm, as Olivier paced the outside of the ring. His fangs and fingers had elongated. He tried to swipe at her but missed. She smeared the end of the cross with blood from her shirt.

  “What, you think the scent of your blood is so tempting I’ll just throw myself onto the cross? You weren’t that great of a thrall.”

  “Oh, stop with the talking and just fight already. What, are you scared of a puny human girl you bragged about rolling so easily?”

  Olivier hissed and came at her. One second he was in front, the next he disappeared in a black cloud. Something grabbed her from behind and tossed her across the ring. She landed hard on the floor and slid into the crowd.

  A clawed hand picked her back up and set her on her feet. She met the gray werewolf’s eyes. “You can do it!” he encouraged. And he gave her a push back toward the ring. She had lost the cross.

  Olivier appeared in front of her again and, with another push, sent her flying across the room. She opened her eyes to see the metal wall coming at an amazing speed. She hit it so hard that she dented it. She slid to the ground and groaned. What would that have done to her without Zeke’s power running through her?

  Olivier’s shiny black loafers walked slowly to her.

  Something glinted not too far off, along the floor. The cross.

  “See, I told you you wouldn’t stand a chance against me.” His shoes did a little dance along the floor near her head.

  She kept her eyes on the cross. Her fingers moved. The werewolf moved to the cross. She met the beast’s eyes. A look of understanding passed between them, and he nodded.

  “I don’t just stand against you,” she whispered.

  Olivier bent closer. “Speak up, girl. You’re too weak for everyone to hear.”

  “I stand against everything you are. I will not let you take advantage of anyone else, ever again.”

  “Why won’t you just die?”

  “’Cause that wouldn’t make a very good movie, now would it?” Kira held out her hand toward the werewolf.

  The werewolf grimaced in pain as his skin touched the silver, but he slid the cross across the floor to her. Kira picked up the cross and stabbed it into Olivier’s chest.

  Olivier staggered back, staring at the silver protruding from his chest. He tried to remove the cross, but every time his hand touched it, it burned him. “Impossible.” He howled in pain and fell to his knees. Gasping for breath, his red eyes lost their brilliance. And power. His pale skin turned even whiter, and he started to fade away. “How did you do it?”

  “I poisoned you.”

  “But how?”

  “Dead man’s blood”—Kira touched her shirt stained with Zeke’s blood—“is poison to vampires.”

  He fell to the ground, and the room started to cheer. Kira leaned over him as he cried out in pain.

  “Say you’re sorry.”

  “What?”

  “Say you’re sorry and that you’ll never do what you did to me again without someone’s permission. Or I’ll leave it in.”

  Olivier squealed like a frightened little girl. All of a sudden, he didn’t seem very attractive anymore.

  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sooorrrryy! Please, help me.”

  “Also say that you concede. ’Cause I’d rather not kill you.”

  “Okay, ah…ah. It hurts. You win.” He bawled and the room booed.

  Kira leaned down, pulled the cross out of Olivier’s chest, flung it across the floor. The crowd erupted into cheers and howls. She turned and found Zeke standing against a far wall. His eyes weren’t flashing anymore. He looked proud of her.

  Den on the other hand looked furious.

  A large clawed hand touched her shoulder, and Kira looked up into the werewolf’s face. She gently took the werewolf’s hand and turned it over. The ugly burn on his palm made her want to cry. “I’m forever grateful for your help.”

  “And I yours.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I was in the white drop tube with you in the gauntlet. You could have left us, but you stayed to help. I just returned the favor.”

  “I…I…” Never had she expected that kind of honor and loyalty. “Thank you.”

  “We’re even.” He pulled his hand away hid his injury. “I don’t like being in debt.”

  “Neither do I,” Kira said. “What’s your name?”

  “Howl.” He looked away uncomfortably, and a murmur around them began to grow louder. The werewolf was a head taller than everyone else. Whatever he saw made him quickly pull away. “Run,” he whispered before he turned and shifted into human form.

  Kira only saw the back of his head and a gray scruff of hair.

  Zeke appeared next to her and grabbed her hand. “Come on, Kira. They’ve noticed you, which is very, very bad.”

  “Who has?” She looked around, and saw Den look at his band. He seemed about to cry.

  “Follow
me.” Zeke pulled her roughly through the throng of people and started to run for the door.

  A blinding light enveloped them and she couldn’t see.

  Those closest to her cried out in fright, and she covered her eyes with her forearm.

  “Leaving so soon?” A silky voice called out to her from the light.

  Chapter 29

  When the light faded, a giant spot that radiated from a strange being kept her blinded. The light blocked her exit. She tried to see around whoever it was but couldn’t.

  She stood, alone, in the middle of the room. Zeke was gone. The crowd had moved to the far corners and watched, frozen in fear.

  “Impressive.” The sparkling man clapped his hands slowly as the light faded so she could see him. An exaggerated clap meant to draw attention his way. “For one so young. Don’t you agree, Ares?”

  “And one so mortal, Hermes” Ares replied. His hand came up to stroke his chin, and Kira noticed he wore four silver rings, each with an emblem of a horse. He looked so normal for a myth. Ares could have been the lead singer for a rock band. He wore his long dark hair pulled into a man bun, black clothes, and jeans tucked into black boots.

  Hermes, on the other hand, was slim of frame and face, his hair immaculately combed over in a gentlemen’s cut. His smile came too freely, probably bestowed many times a day. He wore white pants and a pale pink shirt that made his cheeks seem flushed, as if he was holding onto a secret he couldn’t tell. She guessed, since he was the messenger, he’d probably heard many secrets and gossip over the years. The look was probably suiting.

  Den watched her, standing within the onlookers. His expression said he was not pleased.

  “How ever did you get down here”—Hermes waved his hands in a circle—“into our world?”

  She looked at Den, and he shook his head. What was she not supposed to say? That she’d been stolen from the surface by Alpo and Vic? There were so many things wrong with how she had even gotten here, she thought for sure they’d at least hear her plea.

  Maybe let her go home.

  “Someone stole me from above and sold me on the slave market.” There. It was the truth, but she hadn’t said any names. That couldn’t possibly get her in trouble.

  “I see. How very troubling.” Hermes feigned an expression of concern as Ares approached her.

  She felt small under his gaze.

  He noticed her arm band and lifted it up to look at the tokens and the brand of the eagle. “Look, Hermes. This is the human that survived the gauntlet...the one that’s been avoiding our summons.”

  “Oh, how magnificent. I think we need to have her.” Hermes looked around the crowd and waited for someone to step forward and claim her.

  Kira craned her neck, frustrated that she didn’t see Zeke anywhere. Had he run away? Den came forward, and Hermes waved his arm, bringing him into their circle.

  He glanced down at Den’s band. “Oh, too bad. You wagered poorly on her and lost. We can help you with that and take her off your hands,” Hermes stated.

  Den looked uneasy, sweat dripping of off his brow. “Uh no, I’d like to keep her. For my zeke, you see?” He swiped his hand outward and turned to see that he was in the room alone.

  “I don’t see any zeke.” Ares’s voice boomed with authority. “You know the penalty for bringing a human down here. It’s obvious she didn’t come from a human farm in the borderlands.”

  “I didn’t bring her here.”

  “That’s not what Nessie said,” Hermes laughed. “She reported that you and two others brought her here in the canals. See, we hate being lied to.”

  “He’s not lying,” Kira spoke up. “Alpo and Vic took me from my home, and Remus bought me at the Gamblers’ Market. Den saved me from being fed to a zeke.”

  Ares’s eyes turned so dark in color that it was hard to distinguish where the pupil and iris ended. “Did he really? Or did you save yourself? Think about what you just said.”

  Kira paused and tried to rethink everything that had happened. Yes, she was the one who saved herself from Creeper. Was Ares a human lie detector? It sure sounded like he could hear the half-truths.

  What was she supposed to do when the makers of the games themselves were confronting her? Maybe the safest action was to stay quiet. Besides, they seemed to know everything about her, even when she lied.

  “We’ve decided to relieve you of your human companion.” Hermes smiled and waved his finger in the direction of Den’s arm band. Kira could hear the sound of tokens loading as it filled. She watched as a smile played at the corner of his mouth. It must have been a large sum, because he wouldn’t look at her. “Now that should buy your silence.”

  “I’m free,” Kira stated proudly. “I don’t belong to him.”

  “Nonsense. You have a bracer. You belong to Underland and therefore…us.”

  “NOOooo!” A loud, anguished cry came from somewhere in the rafters. It sounded like Zeke.

  “Oh ho! Is that who I think it is?” Hermes scanned the darkness above in excitement.

  “I think it is,” Ares confirmed. He turned to Den, his face void of any emotion. “So he’s your zeke,” he said the word with emphasis.

  Den’s face turned red, but he wouldn’t look away. He neither denied nor confirmed it. And that was enough for Ares.

  “You tell him we’re taking the girl for insurance, and he needs to stop his foolish plan—both of you.” Ares called toward the roof. “You hear that?”

  Den nodded and faded back into the crowd, abandoning her.

  Kira stared into the darkened balcony where the Hermes and Ares had watched the match and thought she saw movement, but the lights kept her from being sure. Zeke was up there. Suddenly, a spotlight came loose from the ceiling and plummeted down toward Hermes.

  Hermes snapped his fingers and disappeared as the spotlight crashed into the ground and shattered. He appeared next to it and wrinkled his nose in disdain. “Oh really, now who’s going to clean up this mess?”

  “If you want the human, you know what you have to do,” Ares said, his voice echoing in the near empty warehouse.

  “Never!” Zeke’s voice carried.

  “Then you shall never see her again,” Ares threatened.

  Another spotlight came hurtling down toward them. “Very well.” Ares clutched Kira to him. A black cloud of smoke wrapped around both her and the Greek god and they disappeared, just as the spotlight crashed into the floor.

  Chapter 30

  Kira woke up in a room surrounded by flickering candlelight and soft, downy pillows. The first thing she noticed was how pristine everything was in this round room. In a way, it felt like she was back inside the silo, except it was cleaner, smelled better.

  Kira sat up in the pile of pillows and noticed she was wearing a dress of blue. A braid hung over her shoulder—they’d washed her hair! She touched her braid. Oh. Even her nails had been trimmed and polished.

  While bits of it were a nice change, Kira found it disorienting to be so feminine. She felt like a part of her armor had disappeared with her boots and knife.

  And the brace on her wrist.

  “Where am I?” She didn’t expect an answer as she looked around the glowing white room.

  “Olympus Tower,” a feminine voice responded behind her. Kira turned and saw a beautiful woman sitting on a chaise lounge, her hair long and auburn red, her dress a deep emerald green.

  “Who are you?” Kira asked.

  “Names no longer matter to me.” She looked down at her hands, gently clasped in her lap.

  “Of course names matter. Are you saying you don’t have one?”

  “I don’t know. At least I cannot recall. You could give me one.” She actually looked hopeful.

  Kira stared at the solemn woman and could feel her pain, evident across the room. Why would this beautiful woman be denied her own name? She tried to think of a reason and it finally came to her. “You’re being punished for something, aren’t you? Zeke said the gods an
d goddesses lost some of their power because they were forgotten. Is that what happened? Did you forget who you are, or did Underland forget you?”

  Her cheery complexion turned dark with anger. “Don’t you dare speak to me like that, you mortal fool!” She jumped up and her hand came forward to point in Kira’s direction, but nothing happened. No power, flash of light, or spark.

  Kira was right. She was powerless. It seemed that she had some sort of intuition of who or what she was supposed to be, but she couldn’t remember.

  “Why am I here?” Kira asked the forgotten goddess.

  “It seems that someone thinks you are special. You’ve caught their attention, so you are bidden to be here for the time being.”

  “I don’t believe in mythical gods,” Kira said firmly.

  “Careful what you say aloud here. That can be a death sentence.”

  “Death doesn’t scare me,” Kira lied.

  “You’d be foolish to not fear Death, for I’ve met him. He is quite frightening.” The woman beckoned with her head toward the door. “Come, I have something to show you.”

  A door appeared out of the rock, and Kira followed the nameless goddess into the hallway. They walked down a spiral staircase, into another hall, and through a set of golden doors. This room looked like a museum. Large white columns, tables with vases and cups, tapestries hung on the wall. Three women sat in the center weaving on a giant loom.

  The woman led her over and had Kira take a look at their work.

  There was something wrong with the tapestry they were weaving. Even though the three women were using spools of brightly colored thread, half of the tapestry had turned black.

  “This is what our world has been reduced to,” the nameless goddess said. “Once, long ago, the tapestry was whole and not divided between dark and light. Now, our world has been split asunder. The tapestry only shows us the future of our realm, the Underland. The Fates cannot control what happens on your world any more than the gods below can. But these women, the Fates, they can see it. They weave it, but it is not for our eyes. The darkness is spreading and we Underlanders are dying. And there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

  “There must be something,” Kira said.

 
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