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       Underland, p.4

           Chanda Hahn
 
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She was going to ask him who that was, when he smiled and she felt the weight of someone getting in the boat. She turned.

  Butt-Chin and the zeke.

  The owner spread his arms out across the leather seats. “Ah, Den, did you find me a boggart at the market?”

  “No, Remus, none with debts came into the market.” Den came over and pushed her onto a bench. He tied her to the railing.

  So this was Remus? Kira wrinkled her nose with distaste upon learning her new owner’s name. Alpo and Vic had mentioned him—with fear. But the slightly overweight man seemed more intent on his next meal and extravagant clothes than on what went on in the slave market.

  “Pity, I was really hoping for one.” His voice had a whiny sigh to it, but then his eyes roamed over and he caught sight of the zeke.

  “Oh, Den. Please don’t tell me you spent my money on another zeke. You shouldn’t have. I’ve already got Creeper.” His voice hitched as if he was expecting to be presented with a gift. He said it slyly but it was obvious he wanted the zeke.

  “No, I bought him with my tokens,” Den said stiffly. For a split second, Remus scowled, but then the look disappeared. “I put a bid in for one of Howl’s boggarts for you like you asked if I couldn’t find you one. We should know within the hour if you’ve won…but I can already tell you that you probably did.”

  “Oh goody.” Remus chuckled and pressed his fingers together. Large rings glittered on each of his fingers. “I can’t wait.” Remus surveyed Den’s purchase and let out a disappointed sigh. “He looks familiar. Why does he look familiar?”

  Den shrugged. “I don’t know,” he answered dismissively. “I wasn’t able to gain much on his background.”

  “He looks far too young and untried. How can you ever become a revered sponsor like me if you keep buying unknown zekes?” Remus said snidely. “You can’t, that’s how. As a trainer, you know what you need. You’ve got to spend your tokens wisely.”

  Kira watched Den’s cheek twitch, his jaw clenched. The zeke’s eyes glittered dangerously, but neither spoke up.

  “Den, take us home,” Remus commanded. He resettled himself on the bench near Kira. He stroked her dirty blond hair gingerly and then gripped her chin hard. “Creeper has a thing for blonds. He says the flavor is like sweet cream. You are his reward for winning the last game.”

  She pulled her chin out of his grip.

  His dull brown eyes narrowed in displeasure, his mouth pressed tight.

  Den steered the boat under a bridge and down a dark corridor. There seemed to be less sewage and dead things floating in the water the farther they got from the city. White logs floated in the water, and Kira jumped when they twitched and slid underwater. They weren’t logs. They were albino crocodiles. The zeke boy sat on the side and continued to stare at Kira, but he didn’t seem as infatuated with her. He seemed more curious.

  At least he wasn’t looking at her like a Big Mac.

  They rode the boat downriver for five minutes before drifting to a stop in front of an iron gate. Den waved a flag and the large gate on creaky hinges slowly rose out of the water. He steered them right through the gate. Kira turned to see only one person operating the lift, but the key was attached to his belt. The sound of the gate lowering into the water made Kira’s heart pound faster. There wouldn’t be much time left.

  She was right. They pulled up to a long dock, and onlookers came out of a large cement compound. Most looked like ordinary slaves, but she immediately spotted the fighters. They were well fed and muscled, with an air of determination and pride.

  One stood a foot taller than the rest and had sunken eyes—must be Remus’s Creeper. He scanned the boat, his eyes ignoring Den. He studied the boy for a moment with a question in his eyes.

  And then he spotted Kira, and a wild almost dangerous aura overtook him.

  “Mine!” He growled and knocked his comrades back a few feet. The young zeke in the boat suddenly stood up in challenge, as if willing to battle to the death over fresh meat. Remus’s fighter grinned cruelly, but didn’t speak again.

  Remus stood and pushed the new boy zeke down. He motioned to Den just as he was bringing Kira out of the boat. “I think I’ll save you from making a huge career mistake and buy your zeke.”

  “No, I’d rather not sell.” Den spoke calmly, but Kira heard steel in his voice.

  “If you want to continue to train for me, you’ll do what I say.”

  Den picked up Kira’s chain and led her out of the boat. He just said nonchalantly, “Then I’ll have to find another gym.”

  Remus blinked, clearly displeased that Den was so unfazed by the threat. Finally, he waved his hand at Den. “No, stay…for now. Creeper is the best zeke there is anyway.”

  He turned to his salivating slave. “Yes, Creeper, this one is for you. Your gift for winning the last event. Now remember, there will be more where this one comes from if you keep winning. Can you do that?”

  Creeper looked like he had problems dragging his eyes away from Kira. His body went tense with hunger, and he was salivating everywhere. “Yes, Master, I will keep winning for you.” He reached out to grab Kira’s arm and pull her towards his room, but she ducked.

  Den pretended to trip and dropped her chain. Kira saw her opportunity.

  She took it and ran.

  ***

  Creeper smiled as it tore off down the tunnel. It had no idea that it ran toward the training grounds. His personal playground. Catching it would be easy—he was born to it.

  Run, girl. Run.

  He licked his lips. He imagined the smell of its fear and knew its adrenaline would taste, oh so sweet. With a cry of glee, he launched into an easy pace after his golden-haired prey.

  His master yelled after him, “Creeper, stop playing with your food and eat it already!” Creeper laughed hysterically.

  Chapter 5

  Maniacal laughter followed Kira down the tunnel, the sound of it chilling her to the bones. She had no choice but to run faster—push herself to her limit. She hadn’t eaten in days and was tiring quickly. The bread they’d given her at the Gambler’s Market barely touched the gnawing hunger that constantly plagued her.

  And there was one other problem. Kira didn’t know where she was going. She passed plenty of places to hide, but Kira wasn’t interested in hiding. Escape wasn’t possible at the moment, and this thing had been told to eat her. She had to kill whatever was chasing her.

  Creeper, like the boy zeke, didn’t look like your run-of-the-mill bloody, dumb, stagger-walking zombie from Hollywood. The ones always obsessed with eating brains. The two zombies she had now seen were the opposite; they looked completely human, definitely weren’t dumb, and their speed was incredible.

  Her muscles burned, but she ignored the pain to veer left down a corridor that opened into an old indoor vehicle graveyard. The cars and trucks spread across the large space like they were set up to be used as part of an obstacle course. Her first instinct told her to keep running, but there was opportunity here. She ran in a zig zag pattern and ducked between an old tour bus and a classic Mustang. Lying on the ground, she searched under the chassis for approaching feet.

  Creeper laughed when he ran into the room. “There’s nowhere to run, my sweet, except into my arms.”

  What a terrifying endearment. Kira strained to listen for movement but couldn’t hear anything over her own panicked breathing. With shaking hands, she covered her mouth to silence the sound. She almost missed it, the hollow sound of popping metal. He was crawling onto a car. From a high enough view point he’d be able to see her.

  There it was again. Another popping sound.

  Closer.

  Kira gathered the chain to her body, pushed off with her hands, and rolled quickly underneath the bus, trying to plan her next move. The popping sounds were getting faster and louder. Rhythmic. Creeper had to be running across the hoods of the cars in a direct course towards her. Had he heard the chain rattle?

  She spotted an emergency access pa
nel, but she would need time and a distraction. She looked around for a weapon—and found a large rock. That wouldn’t help her. Or could it?

  Rolling to the other side of the bus, Kira crouched by the tire and threw the rock as far as she could in the opposite direction. It wasn’t a good throw, and it thudded softly against the side of a Chevy. Holding her breath, she waited as the sounds of pursuit stopped. She could see Creeper standing on top of a blue Volkswagen beetle, his head cocked in confusion as he stared where the rock had hit.

  She froze and held her breath; she was too scared to move. Mentally, she urged him on. Follow the rock. I’m over there. He must have gotten her mental message, because he turned and flew in the direction of the sound. Kira didn’t have much time. She’d only lobbed the rock a hundred feet. Silently, she scrambled under the bus and pulled the knob, twisting it to release the access panel.

  It wouldn’t budge. Biting her lip, she kneeled and tried to push it open. Something was blocking it from inside.

  This couldn’t be happening.

  It moved.

  Foregoing all efforts at being quiet, she shoved, grunting as the door inched forward. Kira peeked into the empty tour bus and saw the broken bench seat that had fallen over and obstructed the panel. As quietly as possible, she slipped inside, closed the panel, and moved the seat back over the door.

  The bus was huge—the type with a bathroom and TVs made for traveling cross-country—except without the TV and most of the seats. Kira didn’t delude herself into thinking she could hide here forever. She’d made quite a commotion getting in the bus. Creeper would probably be here any second.

  Keeping low to the floor, she moved to the front of the bus and searched for keys. In the ignition, the cup holder—nothing. She only had one option—something she’d learned on the street. Kira pulled off the panel under the steering column and eyed the three wires running into the cylinder. Quickly, she disconnected them and grabbed a piece of metal from one of the broken seats. She began to strip the protective covering over the wires. Sweat poured down her forehead, and her fingers fumbled with the exposed wires.

  Now she just had to guess which wires she needed. She touched the black wire to the red one, and the bus lights flicked on. The radio blared country music, and she switched off the radio. Her cover was blown.

  A quick peek over the dashboard showed her Creeper on the hood of a car fifty feet in front of her. He grinned in triumph and jumped off.

  And charged toward the bus.

  Kira ducked and grabbed the other two wires and flicked them together. Pain raced up her arms as they sparked, and she heard the engine rumble to life—then die. Blood pooled in her mouth. Must’ve bitten her lip with the shock. Her hands trembled as she flicked them together again and held them when the bus roared to life. Biting back the pain, she twisted the black wire and the red starter wire together and slid into the driver’s seat.

  “Come on, you piece of garbage!” Kira shouted as she shifted the bus into first gear and floored it. The bus roared and barreled forward, taking off the rear bumper of a Buick. Creeper stalled in his tracks when he noticed the bus racing towards him. There was nowhere to go; he was trapped between two towering stacks of metal cars.

  Kira screamed and closed her eyes as she hit the zombie full force. She didn’t want to look, not even when she continued to push the pedal to the floor, trying to slam him into the cars and walls in front of her. Only one of them would come out of this alive, and that was going to be her, because he had to be already dead.

  The bus plowed through two more cars before crashing into the wall, pinning Creeper between the grill and two tons of cement. The impact threw Kira forward into the steering wheel. Shards of glass, metal, and chunks of plastic rained down on her, and blood streamed from her forehead into her eyes, obscuring her vision. Pain radiated from her stomach and legs.

  Where is it?

  She had hit Creeper and then driven the bus straight into the wall. She tried to look up, but…there was smoke? Why was there smoke?

  Spots swam in front of her, an acrid electrical smell burning her nostrils. She tried to move but was pinned between the steering wheel and seat. Kira coughed and covered her mouth with her dirty t-shirt as more noxious smoke began to choke her.

  She twisted again and cried out in pain when a three inch glass shard imbedded itself deeper into her side. She had to get out before she burned alive or, more likely, died from smoke inhalation. Kira reached forward and found the lever to adjust the steering wheel. It moved an inch, just enough for her to slide to the floor. She pulled on the door lever, and it swung partway open.

  She squeezed through. Grabbing the wound in her side, Kira turned and ran—but not before she confirmed Creeper was dead. His legs stuck out from under the bus. Definitely not moving.

  Kira plodded slowly towards a dark hole in the wall, hoping it was a tunnel that led to freedom or escape. An explosion rocked the cavern as the bus erupted in flames. The force from the blast knocked Kira face first into the dirt and she lay there stunned and disoriented, ears ringing.

  When the ringing stopped, she heard voices from down the tunnel. They would be on their way to investigate the explosion.

  She couldn’t be in the open.

  She dragged her body through the mud into a crevice between two beat up cars. As she glanced back over her shoulder, she spotted a blood trail in the dirt—that led directly to her hiding spot. It was too late to do anything now.

  “Find the human and bring it to me! She will pay for killing my prized zeke.” Remus strung curses together like Christmas lights. “How could that little pipsqueak of a human do this much damage? She actually ruined my training course. Creeper would never”—more swearing—“Explosions weren’t Creeper’s style.”

  Kira stayed low, as still as she could.

  ***

  Remus checked the wreckage twice to make sure it really was Creeper pinned between the wall and bus and that he was totally, completely dead. There was no paying to bring him back now.

  “You, you, and you, put out that fire before it reaches another gas tank.” Blast that girl. If it hadn’t killed Creeper, he could have paid Warrick to bring him back from half-dead. Not even Warrick could bring them back from all-dead.

  Remus spun and kicked the hellhound that sat by his side, as if he hadn’t already gotten his instructions. “I told you, you blasted dog. Find that human.” The dog yelped and snarled back, nipping the air in anger. The demon dog took off running, sniffing the air for the human girl.

  It was probably useless, though. The toxic fumes in the air would cover her scent. The hellhound paused, look back at Remus, then took off slowly down the tunnel towards home. He must’ve decided to sniff in a fresher environment, one that didn’t burn his nose.

  Well, even if he had to take care of it himself, Remus would make sure that girl died. He’d just do it later. After his peons put out the fire and cleared the air.

  ***

  Something large passed Kira, only five feet from where she was hiding. It turned around and came back.

  Pain seared her side so deeply, she almost cried out for help, not even caring if it was another man-eating monster that found her. At least if it was, it would kill her and end her pain.

  The large beast tracking her blood trail stopped in front of her hiding hole.

  Kira could only see the feet, but she had to blink her eyes in confusion when she saw four hooves. Loud crunching noises came from above her as the car sheltering her was hefted and pushed to the side. It spun on its roof slowly like a top.

  Kira shielded her face from the beast with her hands to avoid the oncoming death blow.

  But warm hands grabbed her instead, pulling her up. Something lifted her off of the ground and held her against its bare chest.

  Panicked, Kira pushed away. Its strangely human face startled her. The man-thing carried her away from the noise and panic of the fire. Some monsters continued to search for her, while
others tried to put out the flames.

  She didn’t see Remus.

  Was this guy handing her over to him?

  He ducked through an exit she hadn’t seen.

  And the pattern of the creature’s movement was wrong—odd. Kira peered more closely at the man’s face, glanced at his human chest and then behind him for the answer. The thing that was carrying her had a man’s upper torso and a horse’s body.

  “You have hooves! Are you a horse or man?” Kira didn’t mean to let the words slip out, but with the nauseating pain in her stomach and the ringing in her ears he could hardly fault her.

  “I’m both,” the rich velvety voice answered back. “I am a centaur.”

  She sputtered out one last thought. “Giddyup.”

  Chapter 6

  The centaur—Warrick, he said his name was—was killing her. Not literally, but if Kira had to drink another nasty concoction, she knew she was going to die. He pushed another cup of green tonic towards her, the fifth in the last hour.

  “You need to drink this every ten minutes. I told you it will help with the smoke inhalation.” Warrick stared at Kira hard until she gave in and swallowed the contents of the cup in one gulp. She made an ugly face at him in return. A few seconds later, Kira was coughing again and spitting up black and gray phlegm. Her body ached, and she wouldn’t be surprised if her sutured wound was bleeding again.

  “It’s nasty,” she said between wracks of coughing.

  “Yes, but it is helping.” He smirked before taking the cup from her and putting it on the table.

  Warrick had carried Kira to a small building a quarter-mile away. He lived in a simple house with no roof. But then who needed a roof when it never rained or snowed underground? The layout was very open and included an area covered in straw, table, and chairs. She had spent plenty of time on that examining table when Warrick brought her in a few hours ago. He took care of the wound in her side right away, then bandaged the cut above her eye, and now was treating her for smoke inhalation.

  “You know you didn’t have to do this, right?” Kira looked away from the large centaur guiltily. She was finding it really hard not to stare at him, like she would stare at a unicorn. He was beautiful. His coat was a warm brown that matched his skin. His ears pointed and stuck out from his long braided black hair.

 
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