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       Underland, p.3

           Chanda Hahn
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  They moved to Kira’s cage. Raz took a quick sniff. “She smells human.”

  Grater nodded. “Yes, I think Remus or Selene would buy this one as food. I heard Creeper one just won another race. I should bet on him next time.”

  “We have a conundrum with this one.” They moved to the boy’s cage on the right.

  Grater went on to explain about the young man, but Kira didn’t hear what they said. Her mind finally began to give into fear. That Madame Fortuna was right. Her death was imminent.

  Raz and Grater moved on.

  Kira looked up when she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Who was watching her? Her eyes met the boy’s. He still hadn’t moved but he was now staring at her, interested. Dark hair flowed over his forehead, and his eyes seemed to burn with a fire deep inside. His gaze made Kira shift uncomfortably.

  It usually took a lot to make Kira nervous. He was looking at her longingly, almost like a lover would. He wasn’t blinking and he wasn’t turning away. Kira tried to stare him down. Slowly, oh, so slowly, the corner of his mouth rose, just a millimeter in the hint of a smile. But this was not a smile to lift her spirits.

  This smile chilled Kira to the bone.

  “Sable!” Kira whispered over her shoulder.

  “What?” she called back with a bored tone.

  “What is he? Why is he staring at me like that?” Kira continued to whisper in hopes that the guy in the cage next to her wouldn’t overhear.

  “Isn’t it obvious?” She waited, savoring the moment. “That’s a zeke. You’re dinner.”

  Chapter 4

  The slave courtyard was dark and all of the slaves slept, except for the boy in the cage next to her who kept casting hungry looks her way. The same look her stepfather always had. The only light came from the one neon cigarette sign that was left on, which cast a lavender halo on the courtyard wall. The color and glow reminded her of her unicorn nightlight—the one her daddy had given her—and it helped dispel the fear.

  She missed him dearly, missed the sound of his voice, and even now wished he was by her side, chasing away the nightmares. Because in her child mind, darkness meant sleep, sleep meant nightmares, and nightmares meant…monsters.

  Her late father, Philip, was great at comforting her. He had advice about everything, even if he was usually quoting someone famous. His favorite quote was the one he always used to calm her. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”

  “But how do I get my fear to not be afraid?” she had childishly replied.

  He’d smiled, pulled out that purple unicorn nightlight, and plugged it into the wall. Then he kissed her forehead and whispered, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” From that night on, she’d never had another nightmare, until one walked into her home seven years later in the guise of her stepfather.

  Her father, Philip Lier, had just become a Navy SEAL when he met her mom, the love of his life. Their whirlwind romance led to a quick wedding, but Philip and Ellie had the kind of forever love that made the neighbors jealous. Philip hoped for lots of strapping boys to follow in his military footsteps, but they had only Kira. Her mom had almost died during labor, and the news that they shouldn’t expect baby Kira to live more than a few days devastated her. Then they added that she couldn’t have any more children. And she gave up.

  But from hour one, Kira had been a Daddy’s little fighter. She spent the first few months of her life in the ICU where he doted on his baby girl, even if he never got to hold her except when wearing gloves.

  Her mom on the other hand? Just wallowed in I-Disappointed-My-Husband Land. And nothing Kira’s dad could do could convince her he was still happy with their family.

  When Philip Lier died a hero, nothing mattered to her mom but numbing her pain. Not even Kira.

  Why was Kira thinking about all of this now? She never reminisced about her childhood—except her father. She’d left her mother, her horrible stepfather, and her past behind her. Two long years ago. Now she was faced with a different kind of monster.

  Kira quickly wiped away the wetness that began to form in the corner of her eyes. She would not feel sorry for herself.

  Instead, she’d figure out how the people here knew day from night. She looked around the courtyard. Without a sun or moon, she could only tell it was nighttime because the city became quieter and fewer signs were left on. Darkness was always there, waiting to creep in, and she shivered at the thought of what would happen if every light in the city went out. She would be surrounded in pitch black by hungry monsters. Did they get power outages?

  A scream came from outside the courtyard walls, followed by low growls, and chomping noises. She shuddered. Something or someone was being eaten. This only confirmed her worst fear.

  The giant guard awoke and came running out of a side building with a large club. He scanned the inhabitants of the cells, moved towards the large iron doors, and waited, club at the ready. His eye searched the twenty-foot wall for movement. When the sounds of chomping and devouring ceased beyond the wall and no more noise came, the giant stalked back to the building.

  Kira couldn’t let it go so easily; the hair on the back of her arms still stood on end.

  Stop it! she told herself. She would get through this. Well, maybe she would if the zeke in the cage next to her ever slept. It didn’t seem like he needed to, and he had been staring at her for the last twelve hours. It was enough to drive anyone insane.

  She didn’t want to sleep with her back to him, but facing him was just as creepy. She sat in the corner of the cage and stared at the ground. What seemed like hours later, the hustle and bustle of activity of the waking town dispelled the quietness. But to her bodily clock, the hours seemed wrong. It felt like they slept during the human day and were active at night. It made sense—that’s how they caught her when she was trying to sleep.

  Movement by the gate made her glance up. The giant had opened the door to allow people inside. Grater stood to his right with a clipboard. Each entrant transferred money to him before entering. At least twenty bidders had come in, but she thought she’d counted only fifteen slaves to choose from. Kira would have been nervous if she wasn’t so curious.

  These buyers were obviously from a different class than the people on the street. No dumpster wardrobes here. The clothes looked finely tailored to fit their needs, from large to small tails.

  Again, most looked human until one of them smiled. Kira saw the hint of fangs. A rail-thin woman, almost translucent in skin color, pushed her long, black hair over her shoulder and stared into a cage. One buyer was a large white rabbit, another was half-man, half-snake.

  Sable was getting excited despite her grim outlook of being sold. She recognized all the buyers, all trainers for the games. If Sable was lucky, she could earn her freedom. “The half-snake is Ssirone. He is a Paladin, a champion that has earned his freedom. Now he owns his own gym and trains some of the strongest and deadliest fighters.”

  “What about the rabbit?” Kira asked. Surely a rabbit wouldn’t feed her to a monster.

  Sable actually shuddered. “Don’t catch his eye,” she whispered. “He tends to starve and beat his fighters, and most die before ever getting the chance to compete.” Kira ducked her head quickly.

  Each buyer went to every cage and poked and prodded the slaves inside, assessing their value and abilities as if they were prized horses. Sable tried to stand and look proud in her cage, but Kira could see the girl visibly shaking. The vampire looked interested in buying Sable, but so did Ssirone. The boy zeke gathered a huge crowd of interested buyers.

  Only the rabbit and a snake man paid Kira any attention—both said the same thing when they looked at her.

  “Hmm, human. This would make a good treat.” The rabbit rubbed his white chin thoughtfully.

  “Not if I buy her for my champion first,” Ssirone joked.

  The rabbit looked at Ssirone with contempt in his eyes. A knot began to turn in Kira’s sto
mach. So these were sponsors.

  “Now, now, Cottontail, don’t get your scruff in a rut. If you want the human, then you bid for it,” Ssirone challenged, pointing to his bracer.

  “Maybe I will, you moron. And don’t call me Cottontail. My name is Peter, just Peter.”

  Kira almost snickered aloud when she heard the rabbit’s name, but her quick intake of breath made Peter’s black beady eyes jump to her. Her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly with hunger. Peter threw his head back and laughed in high-pitched staccato bursts.

  Raz let the buyers mingle about the courtyard for an hour before he barked loudly that they were about to begin the bidding. Kira saw Grater watching the proceedings from a distance. Raz brought out the first slave with his chain and made him stand on a metal stage constructed of oil drums and planks of wood.

  The slave was young, with sandy hair and oversized eyes. He looked slightly ill until his long tongue slipped out of his mouth and snagged a large horsefly out of the air. In one second, the fly was gone, and Kira was the one left looking ill. Apparently that didn’t impress any of the buyers, because no one bought him. Huh. She thought they were all getting sold.

  Maybe she had misunderstood. Maybe if no one bought her they would let her go.

  Two more slaves went without a single bid before a tall muscular boy was led up to the stage. There were a few whispers and comments when the boy just stood there.

  Raz angrily took out a Taser and shocked the slave into compliance. As the boy leaned back and howled in pain, his body grew, and his face elongated into a wolf. Fur appeared on his arms and legs, and his muscles ripped through his pants. He stood there panting, his tongue hanging out like an overworked dog’s.

  A bidding war began for the young werewolf. He sold for an exorbitant amount to his archenemy the vampire.

  Sable was unlucky as well, for she sold fairly quickly to Ssirone the snake. Her natural athleticism and speed would aid her, if she survived the training and became a fighter. According to Sable, the training was almost as gruesome and difficult as actually competing in the events.

  Kira was surprised when the zeke boy walked up to the stage freely, with no chains, and dared his captors to bid on him with his hate-filled eyes. And bid they did. He went for double the amount of the werewolf, to a tall man in the back of the room.

  When all of the non-human slaves had a chance to be bid on, and the ones that were bought were taken to a different holding pen, she thought it was over.

  It wasn’t. Large ogres moved the stage, and the buyers backed up to the walls. An overturned garbage can sat in the middle of the courtyard with a silver knife resting on the bottom, waiting. Kira wished Sable was still in the pen next to her so she could ask what was going on, but she had to wait. Frustrated.

  Grater stepped forward and pointed to two of the cages with unsold slaves—the one with the frog boy and a boy with skin like slime. Two men stood by the cages and waited for Grater’s mark to open them. The boys inside the cages moved towards the door, waiting to pounce. Grater whistled.

  The men threw open the doors.

  Slime boy and frog boy shot out of their cages for the trashcan and the knife. Slime boy was faster and had almost reached the knife when the frog boy shot out his tongue and snatched it from the top of the can. The first boy, as soon as he saw that frog boy had the knife, jerked out of his reach, fell backwards, and turned to run.

  Escape was impossible. The only exit was blocked. Kira was confused by the loud cheering from the bystanders.

  Frog boy took the knife out of his mouth and stalked his prey. He leapt into the air and came down on slime boy’s back, feet first, knife second. The boy twitched once, twice, and then died.

  Kira turned and started to gag. She fell to her knees and reached for a tin of water to splash her face. Had she really witnessed one slave kill another? Looking up, she saw the frog boy dance in glee. Raz took his hand and held it up in the air in victory, which began the bidding all over again. Frog boy sold for almost as much as the werewolf.

  So, if no one would bid on you, you were either sent to the games or you were allowed to battle it out, kill your opponent in a slave match. You could prove your worth and get a sponsor to buy you. Well, if the choice was kill or be killed running, she wanted to run.

  But her confidence at escaping was slipping every hour.

  After two more death matches and two more slaves getting sold off, Raz drew the crowd’s attention to Kira. Her heart thudded loudly. Her hands balled into fists as she listened to the murmur of the crowd die off to be replaced by a few hisses of disgust. Others laughed in her direction. Would she even make it to the block or would they maul her?

  The giant with toxic breath opened her cage and grabbed Kira around the throat, forcing the collar to bite painfully into her neck. She clawed at his wrists as he dragged her out of her cage. They didn’t even bother putting her on the stage, just dumped her on the ground in the middle of the monsters. Her chain landed near Grater.

  Raz’s voice rang out loudly, “And over here we have a human fresh from the borderlands. Yours to do with as you please. Kill it, torture it, or eat it. Let the bid begin at five hundred freedom tokens.”

  Kira jumped up and spit at Raz. She would have lunged for him, but Grater had a hold of the chain around her collar and yanked her back to the ground. Her attitude made some of the buyers nervous, and they physically backed away showing their unwillingness to bid.

  “What, you don’t like a little bit of spirit?” Grater called out.

  Kira saw the small victory she’d gained and decided to play the wild and unstable card. Hoping to intimidate others into backing off, she paced. Careful to stay within the boundaries of her leash, she stared down the bidders. With the smaller ones, she squared off to face them, head high. She even feinted in their direction.

  “Five hundred,” Ssirone called out, unfazed by her aggressiveness.

  “Six,” Peter held up his arm.

  “Seven” Ssirone turned to glare at the rabbit, his head swaying side to side like a cobra. Peter’s gaze locked with Ssirone’s and his ears dropped. His nose twitched once then froze—hypnotized by the snake man’s gaze.

  It was impossible even for Kira to tear her eyes away from Ssirone. She could feel the fear running through her blood in the rhythm of her heartbeat. Without even making eye contact with him, she could feel the effects of his predatory stare. Peter on the other hand, didn’t seem to be as aware as she was.

  “Seven hundred, going once,” Raz called out. “Going twice.”

  Kira swallowed and saw the corner of Ssirone’s mouth lift in excitement. He knew he had won, she knew it.

  “Nine hundred,” a loud voice spoke up from the back. Kira tried to see through the mass of bodies gathered around, but she couldn’t find the bidder, so she watched the auctioneer instead.

  Grater must have known him, because his eyes furrowed and he looked surprised at the bid. But he acknowledged it and turned back to Ssirone for the counter-bid.

  Kira felt her own smug mile work at her mouth when she noticed Ssirone’s disappointment at not being able to see the bidder and intimidate or paralyze him like he had Peter.

  “Nine hundred fifty,” Ssirone called to Grater, but Kira could hear the panic in his voice. He was about out of money and desperate.

  She craned her own head and tried to search the crowd. Who was the new bidder? Was he worse than Peter or Ssirone? Would she get someone like her stepfather? She shuddered and felt the chain around her neck. Had it just gotten tighter? Breathing was suddenly difficult, and her bravado started to wane.

  “One thousand freedom tokens,” the confident voice answered.

  “That’sss too many freedom tokensss to pay for food. I’m out.”

  Kira silently prayed and hoped for some miraculous intervention. A hole opening up in the middle of the earth to swallow her was her best bet.

  She felt the verbal hammer of the word Sold as it ca
me crashing down on her. Her head felt so heavy. Despair clung to her thoughts, trying to take control of her soul. The mental battle slammed at her, but she couldn’t let go. She wasn’t about to let it gain any ground. This moment or circumstance was out of her control, but that didn’t mean she was giving up yet.

  The giant handed her leash to her new owner, a plump man with thinning dark hair. He yanked on it, forcing her to follow behind him. All she could see was the back of his head and an extravagant robe. She imagined that her eyes were laser beams, boring holes into it.

  Her owner handed her to a large redheaded troll while he paid Grater the money due.

  Two other people joined them near the gate, and Kira thought she recognized the one in the long jacket. In fact, she knew she did.

  “Hey!” Kira called. “Hey!”

  He turned suddenly, bringing his face mere inches from hers. “Slaves don’t talk unless spoken to.” He glanced away quickly as if fearing being associated with her.

  “I know you,” she said. Butt-Chin’s sandy blond hair was long and untrimmed. Nothing about him looked out of place.

  He ignored her. That was fine with Kira. She’d never gotten his name and preferred her nickname for him anyway. “Butt-Chin” definitely made him less scary.

  He nodded at the boy zeke, standing alone. A look of silent understanding passed between them, and Butt Chin joined the line, waiting to pay and leave. Why didn’t the zeke run away? Why wasn’t he chained like her?

  Her fat owner said, “Come. Now.” The troll yanked on her leash. She tried to hold her head high as she left the Gambler’s Market, to not show the fear rolling off of her in waves. They escorted Kira back to the docks and boarded another boat. The skiff she’d come in on had been falling to pieces, but the Siren was the limo of small boats. Newer, with seats instead of benches, it had a motor.

  “Sit.” The fat man commanded. “We are waiting for my trainer.”

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