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       Underland, p.5

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “It’s what I do. I am a healer. I abhor all death and violence unless it comes at the cost of protecting the herd.” He went to the cupboard and started to prepare food. Kira had to drag her eyes away from the loaf of bread he was slicing. “Not all of us in this land are monsters.”

  “You could have fooled me,” Kira replied in a snarky tone. “Your people kidnapped me, sold me to a slave trader, and then tried to feed me to a zombie.”

  “Zeke,” Warrick corrected. “And you see how well that turned out, don’t you? You aren’t the one that is dead.”

  “Zombies are already dead,” Kira snapped back.

  Warrick brought a plate with sliced bread and cheese and set it before Kira. She waited until he motioned with his head for her to eat. Then, she snatched three pieces of bread and cheese from the plate before realizing she’d taken almost all of it. She could have given some of it back, but then thought better. She was the one that was injured and starved; she needed it more than he did.

  Warrick watched her shove the bread into her mouth. He sighed sadly. “He was only half-dead. Zekes are the cursed ones, or half-dead. And don’t call them zombies. That’s going to get you in a lot of trouble if you plan to survive long. And it wasn’t my people. I don’t know if you noticed, but there are a lot of gods and races coexisting down here, scraping a living, trying to survive. You can’t bunch us all into the same group.”

  Kira felt duly chastised. It was the same in her world. People assumed all homeless people were low-life drunks or drug addicts. “I’m sorry.”

  “Apology accepted.” Warrick went to his table and began to clean his instruments. He didn’t wash them in the sink or sterilize them, but pulled out a metal flask and dropped a few droplets of silver liquid on the tweezers, needles, and table. The bits of blood disappeared instantaneously, and a strong mint smell wafted through the room.

  “What is that?” Kira asked.

  “Never you mind.” Warrick quickly pocketed the flask in a pouch he wore on his leather belt. Kira knew from earlier that there were many flasks inside—he’d used a different one on her wound. He told her it was unicorn tears, but she was surprised when he clammed up about the flask he’d just used. Was it illegal? Expensive?

  That was something worth keeping in mind for later.

  Kira finished her bread and cheese and grabbed the last two pieces from the plate as she stood up to leave. “Well, thank you for your hospitality and fixing me up and stuff, but I think it’s time for me to go. So if you would be so kind as to point me toward the surface, I’ll be going.

  “Can’t.” Warrick walked in front of her and blocked the door.

  “Can’t point me to the surface or can’t let me go?” Kira stood with her hands at her sides. She stepped back, away from the centaur and felt around for a weapon.

  “Both. What did you think would happen? That I would patch you up and help you escape? No, I can’t do that. I told you that we are all here trying to survive, and Remus owns me.” He pointed to the band on his wrist. “You, whether you agree to it or not, are his property and must be returned to him.”

  She flung her hands in the air and yelled at Warrick. “Then why not turn me over right when you found me? Why go to all of the trouble to feed me and heal me!” She circled around and came to the table.

  “Because if I would have turned you in at that moment, Remus could have killed you instantly, without even thinking. I hoped that delaying your capture, I’d buy you some time. You took the life of one of his fighters outside of a game. He has every right to demand your life in exchange.”

  “He was trying to take my life outside of a game! Kill or be killed! Or maybe those same rules don’t apply to me?”

  “They don’t. You’re human. You don’t have rights down here. Our laws don’t work in your favor. But I don’t think it’s your fate to die here today.”

  “You lie!” Kira grabbed the glass from the table and threw it hard at Warrick’s head. He ducked, and it smashed against the door. “You are not a healer; you are some sort of sick, demented torturer! You planned this from the beginning.” Kira moved over by the couch, beside a window.

  Movement outside alerted her to visitors. Her heart dropped. Two very large doglike creatures with red eyes were sniffing a path right to the door. Den, Remus, and a large ogre were on the dogs’ trail.

  Warrick saw them at the same time. “They’re here. They were faster than I thought.” He shifted uncomfortably and wouldn’t look at Kira.

  “You were wrong,” she seethed between clenched teeth. “You are worse than the monsters.”

  Warrick must have changed his mind, because he suddenly moved into action and went to a trunk. A long howl pierced the darkness as the dogs began to circle the house and growl at the door. Warrick tossed clothes, books, and various items on the floor until he pulled out a small-sheathed knife. “Quick, hide this. Don’t use it now; don’t ever let them know you have it.” He tossed it toward her.

  With a deft, one-handed catch, she plucked it out of the air and hid it in her boot.

  She stayed down a moment to re-lace her boot, and Warrick rushed her, clamping a wet cloth over her mouth.

  Struggling proved worthless. The smell was too much and…she went limp in his arms. Her world went black.

  Chapter 7

  Warrick hefted her feather-light body and once again pondered how she’d ended up down here. He slid her, unconscious, onto his examining table seconds before the pounding on the door.

  “Open up, Warrick. I know it’s in there.” Remus yelled at the closed wooden door.

  Warrick paused in front of the door as if debating. He pulled open the door but stood in the frame, blocking Remus access. The man never hid his intentions. Warrick knew his soul was damned, but he had to respect him as owner.

  “Warrick, you fool, move.” Remus pushed hard against the centaur’s chest, but he didn’t budge.

  “It’s over there,” he spoke quietly. “It’s still alive.”

  Remus narrowed his eyes at Warrick, watching him. “Let me see it, and I’ll be the judge.”

  Warrick moved aside as Remus stepped into the room, followed by Den. With the two intimidating men there, it seemed like the room shrank in size. Remus marched over to Kira’s prone form lying on the table. He leaned forward, mere inches from her body and studied her closely. “How long has she been unconscious?”

  “Since I found her,” Warrick lied easily. There was nothing in his code of morals that said lying was wrong, especially when lying to someone cruel enough to be Satan’s brother.

  But he was careful to not glance at Den. The trainer had recently lost everything because of his gambling, and he was on the cusp of either salvation or damnation. Warrick had heard he was trying to put his life back together. But there was little he could do to help Den at this point. He couldn’t let that man’s soul be on his conscious anymore.

  That’s why he had tried to save the human girl at the last minute. He needed to worry about her soul.

  Remus picked at a morsel of bread on Kira’s shirt and held it up in the air. “Did you get hungry, Warrick? It’s not like you to eat while treating a patient.”

  Warrick was proud that he didn’t shift his weight or look away as he lied again. “It’s not a patient, but a thing. It doesn’t warrant the same respect as us.”

  Remus stared around the room and then back at Kira’s body. Without warning, he opened his fist and smacked the girl hard across the face, clearly surprised when she didn’t jump up or scream. He even leaned down to sniff her mouth.

  ***

  Den had stood back, observing. He could tell by the centaur’s tense muscles, he was lying. But it didn’t matter. Den didn’t want Remus to kill the girl either. He probably would have lied as well, in Warrick’s shoes.

  But to what end was Warrick working? Why would he risk Remus’s wrath?

  Warrick’s medical kit was out, and an old trunk was left open. He spied the centaur
’s holy candle and prayer book half-hidden in the trunk and rolled his eyes. Of course, he’d try and save her, because he felt responsible for the death of his herd. Their souls weighed on him, he said. Den frowned as he looked over at Warrick. If only the centaur understood. Some people just couldn’t be saved.

  “Can you wake her? I want her to be awake when I kill her for destroying Creeper.” Remus quivered with a weird mix of anticipation and anger.

  “I can, but she won’t be coherent. The drugs I used on her will still be in her system; she won’t know what is happening.” The centaur pulled out a vial and lifted Kira’s head as if to pour it down her throat. He glanced over at Den and must’ve known he saw right through Warrick.

  “That doesn’t do me any good. I want the wretched slave to suffer. I have no hope of winning the next event without Creeper, and Plutus won’t wait long before he calls in my debt. I need more freedom tokens.” Remus paced the small house with his hands behind his back. “You worthless piece of cow, get out of my sight. You’re lucky I don’t feed you to the hungry runners.”

  Den shifted against the wall, watching. He suspected Remus was capable of a lot more than he liked others to believe. So Den needed to keep his wits, reveal nothing.

  Warrick gathered his things and exited the front door. Remus pounded his fist on the table. “You owe me, Den. You owe me for what your new slave did to my property. I demand retribution.”

  “You’re right, Remus. But I’ll buy you another zeke.” Den nodded, as if convincing himself he owed that to Remus. “A better one, a stronger one. You don’t want mine. You said yourself, he looks young.”

  Remus looked up thoughtfully. “That may be good, but it’s not enough. The human thing can’t go unpunished. I think I’ll feed it to the trolls.”

  “No,” Den whispered. A glow flickered from his band. Already? Thankfully, it drew Remus’s attention away from the slip. Why had he even said that? He glanced down.

  Each of them held up his arm and watched his bracer impatiently.

  Remus breathed deeply through his nose. “It can’t be me. I don’t owe that much.”

  Den saw it wasn’t a debtor’s mark being broadcasted across their bands. “It’s a lottery, but why already?”

  The flashing quickened, and he knew that every registered being in Underland was currently staring at their band. Waiting to see who would be selected for the next game.

  The Underlords were forcing more and more of these random drafts—anyone was possible. What were the Underlords after exactly? The games were effective enough on their own. They’d been crowning many champions.

  The white blinking slowed on Den’s band and went out.

  Remus gave a delighted cry. “I knew it wouldn’t be me.”

  But there was another light in the room that hadn’t dimmed. Den looked over at the young human girl and sighed. Her band hadn’t gone out. He’d never seen someone chosen so fast. She had only been in the registry for a short time, and now he was going to lose her. She’d been nothing more than bad luck ever since he met her. “She’s a blight on everything she touches.”

  “Ha! It must be my lucky day.” He rubbed his hands together. “The gods have decided its fate for me.” Remus smiled cruelly. “When did you say I’ll get my boggart from Howl?”

  More than likely, the human girl would die competing. Still, giving her a fighting chance was better than giving her none. Den rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s been confirmed you won the bid. Howl will bring him to you next week.”

  “Ah, which one? Who did I get?”

  “Bogeyman.”

  “Oh, Bogeyman is vicious—and he didn’t compete in the last game, if I remember correctly. Yes! He will tear the little human apart.” Remus slapped the table in triumph before leaning down to whisper into Kira’s unhearing ears in a sing song voice. “Run little human, run as fast as you can. You can’t outrun my new Bogeyman.”

  Chapter 8

  Kira knew she was in trouble the moment the door opened and Den walked into her one room cell. Hours earlier, she’d awakened in the stark, sterile room and panicked. Every muscle in her body had screamed to fight, but there were no enemies present. She was alone except for the two metal frame beds and a nightstand—both bolted to the ground.

  She’d pounded on the huge metal door, paced, and sat in the corner staring at the exit, willing it to open so she could escape. Sheer luck had kept her alive up to this point. She was surprised Warrick hadn’t killed her in her sleep. Why had he betrayed her at the last minute? Whatever it took, she’d get her revenge on the four-footed doctor.

  She sat on one of the beds and scooted back into the corner. Plotting, planning, waiting. That had been her morning. Not to mention that annoying white light on her band that had been blinking non-stop for the last hours. It was probably malfunctioning. She’d been trying to figure out how to get it off when Den surprised her by opening the door.

  He was wearing the long black jacket that reached almost to the stone floor, the same one she had seen him wear in the boat. His blond hair was tousled from running his hand through it. Thick calf-high boots completed the somber ensemble. He frowned at her back-to-the-wall position.

  Kira glowered at him, refusing to move or show fear of any kind. He approached and stopped three feet from her huddled form.

  Turning around, he gestured to the room. “Do you like? It’s better than the cage.” His hands reached towards the front of his jacket, and he began to unbutton a few of the straps.

  Kira stiffened, wishing she had never trapped herself in the corner of the room. How stupid could she be?

  Den held his hands in the air. “Hey now, don’t be scared.” He reached back toward the strap and slowly undid the buckle across the front. His hand disappeared inside a pocket. He pulled out a metal stamp and reached for her wrist.

  She yanked her arm away and leaned harder against the wall, pulling her feet up toward her.

  “Scared of a stamp? I wouldn’t expect such a childish reaction from someone who killed one of the top fighters.” He grabbed her arm, and set the stamp on her bracer. When he pressed a small button on the top, the stamp turned red hot, like a car lighter. Smoke rolled up into the air as it burned a design into the metal.

  He pulled back. As the smoke cleared, Kira saw an emblem burned into her bracer. “What is it?”

  “It’s your brand—Remus’s brand, to be exact.” He pointed toward the eagle holding two arrows in its claws. It looked very much like the eagle on the American dollar, except that this eagle looked way tougher and it was missing something—the branch in its left claw.

  “What, no olive branch?” Why had he chosen such a patriotic emblem?

  Den shook his head. “Down here, peace doesn’t get you very far. The people only understand one thing: fighting. Using the olive branch would have been taken as a symbol of weakness. He can’t have that.”

  “No, we can’t be pansies and show compassion or mercy with a bunch of monsters.”

  Den locked eyes with her. “No. No, we can’t, because deep down—no matter our exteriors—we are all monsters.”

  He was being civil, and she’d just opened her mouth and insulted him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you.” Her voice filled with regret. “Thank you. For helping me.”

  He stiffened as if he was offended by her gratitude. “I shouldn’t have.”

  “Then why did you? Why did you drop my chain when Remus sent Creeper after me?”

  “You deserved a fighting chance. But you—I—you’re just getting in the way of my plans.”

  He flipped her wrist over so she could see the digital screen and the runes. “If you try and run away, he can track you with it. There’s only two ways it releases from your wrist: Get Remus to release ownership of you. Or get freedom tokens. Red means you own nothing—or you’re in debt. Earn enough, and you’ll be free.” He moved over to the door and unlocked it.

  “How do I get Remus to release me?” Kira coul
d feel the blood rushing to her ears with apprehension.

  “You don’t. Remus has never given up any of his slaves. Ever. Just the great kind of guy Remus is.” Den stepped toward the door. “Listen, I’m going to let you out of the cell, let you explore a little, since you don’t have long anyway. My advice? Stay low, don’t make a scene. Just try and stay alive. One day at a time.”

  Her mind was spinning. “Let’s say, hypothetically, I could get him to release me. How do I earn freedom tokens?”

  He rolled his eyes. “Like everyone else down here.” He looked at the white blinking light. “The ga—” He bit his lip. “Menial labor.” He’d definitely been about to say something else. “But don’t waste your time trying to escape. Save yourself the energy. You’re registered. Marked.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “You belong to our world now. Underland. This is where you’ll die. Even if by some miracle you live, no one will ever allow you back to the surface world. No one would risk you exposing our secrets.”

  With that, he left.

  Kira sat forward, stunned. She really was trapped here. Granted, she now had more freedom to move about outside of the small cell, but it wasn’t much more than an illusion.

  She couldn’t waste any more time in her room.

  She looked at the doorway and the darkness beyond and debated what lay before her. She’d seen many slaves roaming freely when they pulled up in the boat to the compound; each of them had an arm brace as well. Soft padding footsteps alerted her to movement outside her door. Kira stiffened and cursed herself for not running out that door when she had the chance. She was now once again trapped in the cell. Her side wasn’t hurting badly at all, so that would help. What had the centaur used on her wounds anyway?

  The footsteps got closer, and a body slowed and stopped in her doorway. It was the boy zeke.

 
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