Underland, p.6Chanda Hahn
He looked almost as surprised to see her in the room as she was to see him. Kira held her breath, waiting for the hungry zeke to rush in and attack her. She let her hands fall to her sides but kept them clenched and ready.
The boy gave her an impervious look and then kept walking, ignoring her, to continue on his journey down the hall. He looked right through her. She could have been a fly on the wall for all of the attention he just gave her.
Shocked and confused, Kira gingerly crept from the bed, careful to not make any loud creaks on the springs. She moved to the door just as carefully and put her back to it.
Time for a peek down the hall. A single bare bulb hung at the far left end, illuminating a set of metal stairs—stairs the zeke was currently navigating downwards. To the right was an endless array of doors, some opened, some closed—all numbered. Kira didn’t know what other monsters might be residing on the other side of those metal doors, and she didn’t want to find out. The safest route seemed to be following the zeke, which she did.
At a safe distance.
The young man stopped once and looked up through the grates above him. Kira pressed herself against the wall, in the shadows, and waited. Hoping he hadn’t heard her.
“It’s all right; I’m not going to eat you. I’ve got more important things to take care of.” His voice had a warm, almost husky, tone, which really could have made girls swoon. If he weren’t the cannibal type.
“Good to know, I guess. But what about later…” Kira let the words trail off and walked down the steps after him, still keeping a reasonable distance.
He shrugged and brushed the brown hair out of his eyes. “I guess later will depend on how much you annoy me and how hungry I get.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes. Kira inwardly cringed, but was careful to keep her emotions equally unreadable.
He waited as she approached, staring at her eye to eye, as if daring her to respond. When she didn’t, he frowned slightly.
She’d won the silent challenge.
Feeling braver, she passed him on the steps and walked through a set of double doors leading outside to an enclosed courtyard. Instead of grass, it was covered in moss, probably the only thing that would grow under the fluorescent lights. Over to one side, a large group of monsters lifted weights, wrestling and showing off. Smaller humanoid monsters ran after them carrying trays with drinks, snacks, and towels. Each of the smaller monsters had a length of tattoos and designs starting behind the ear and running down the side of the neck. Their hair had been either shaven or pulled into a braided design—apparently to keep the tattoos visible. These were obviously the slaves, meant to cater to the tougher looking monsters.
Throughout the commons area, benches and couches were positioned for gathering, some facing multiple screens that lined one wall. What channels could they possibly get deep underground? And what kind of segments did monsters like watching? A few tattered rugs were placed awkwardly around the encampment in an attempt to make everything look homier.
It didn’t work.
Kira almost let her fear freeze her in her tracks, but she held her head high, like she belonged with the monsters, and walked steadily towards a distant table with food. Every fiber of her being was telling her to get as far from them as possible, to run away, escape. But the hunter side of Kira knew that if she did, if she bolted and ran, it would cause even more notice—possibly ending in another chase and death.
The zeke boy also aimed for the table.
The girl tried to look like she didn’t care what was going on around her. He almost laughed out loud when she entered the courtyard and froze, face to face with some of the scariest monsters she’d probably ever seen. He watched her square her shoulders and march straight into their midst.
He liked that. He liked her bravado at the slave market, and even their encounter in the stairwell. When Creeper had taken off after her, he really thought that would be the end of her. He’d almost stood and challenged him for her right then. But it would mess up his plan if he got in an altercation too early.
It pained him to let her go, and he was surprised when he met her in the stairwell. Den had said she survived and killed Creeper, but he hadn’t expected her to be out wandering around. It made him respect and like her even more.
She intrigued him, and almost nothing intrigued him anymore—but she couldn’t distract him. Right now, he had to lay low.
The girl moved in front of him and he caught a whiff of her scent. He closed his eyes and inhaled the tantalizing aroma of her skin. He really had to stop thinking of her. She was making a beeline for the table of food. He didn’t know what possessed him to follow her, because he wasn’t at all hungry for that kind of food. Still, it had been a while since he’d eaten something warm. Don’t focus on the girl. Ignore her. Don’t get involved.
But then, behind him, he heard the witch start to shout. He turned.
Kira stared at the table of food.
All activity came to a standstill. Heads swerved to look at her, and a few laughed cruelly. Kira swallowed, but kept walking toward the long tables of food. A slave scuttled out of the way as Kira glared angrily in her direction. She was decent at not showing fear. But she had to be afraid. He sat down to watch.
Seriously, this girl—whoever she was—better not get in the way with her food. Kira was hungry.
“Is that the one?” a feminine voice asked. Kira glanced sideways. The voice belonged to a young girl with tight black braids wound up on the sides of her head. She wore a black jacket and a short skirt and leggings, and she sat on a pool table next to a large feline man. Others lounged around the table as well, but no one was actually playing.
The girl’s furry cheetah-colored companion nodded in answer and glanced towards Kira. He stood on two legs and had human-looking facial features and arms, but that’s where the likeness ended. His powerfully built legs were long and lean, and a black-tipped tail swished silently behind him.
“I don’t believe you, Chaz.” The girl jumped down from the pool table and pointed at Kira. “Tell me you are joking! There is no way in Underland that piece of dog food had the strength and cunning to kill our best fighter.”
Kira reached the food and picked out the least spoiled fruit from a bowl. And a heel of bread. There was also a large kettle of soup, and platters of meat—cooked no less—but since she couldn’t guarantee the animal was one she knew, it was probably best to go vegetarian.
She glanced over at a nearby bench and spotted the zeke boy, joining the other monsters with his food. A few even slid over to give him room. Kira stayed at the table to eat. The food was stale and the fruit bitter, but she swallowed every bite, keeping an eye on the upset girl and an ear on the mob.
“That tramp couldn’t have been the one that killed Creeper!” The girl’s voice rose with every word, and her hands started to become more animated. A few others joined her group. Whatever they said seemed to make her angrier.
Kira turned away and hoped that by ignoring them, pretending to be oblivious to their complaints, she could avoid a confrontation.
So she was wrong.
Kira kept her back straight and pretended to not hear the girl. When quick hands knocked the food out of her grip, making it fall on the ground, Kira turned, seeing red—and the irritating girl.
Her smile was smug. “Slaves don’t eat with the fighters. You eat after we’re done.”
Kira bit her tongue and picked up another a slice of bread to begin the process of replacing the food she had dropped. This time she was anticipating Mouthy to try and knock her food away again. The girl shot out an arm, and Kira deftly blocked it with her forearm. Then she turned, grabbed the girl’s wrist, and shoved her away.
The girl blinked in surprise but quickly regained her bad-girl composure. “Don’t you touch me, slave. Don’t you know you shouldn’t touch your betters?”
Kira raised one eyebrow in disbelief. She l
“Why you little piece of trash!” the girl spat out.
Chaz’s ears went back against his head and he snarled at Kira, tensing to pounce.
The girl held up her hand to him. “I’ll kill her myself!” Fast as lightning, the girl pulled a set of nunchucks from her belt and swung it at Kira’s skull.
This time, Kira dropped her own food to defend herself. The nunchucks cracked loudly against her arm, and pain raced up her arm. She couldn’t help wincing, but better her arm than her head. She needed to move.
Kira leapt onto the table with food and ran between the serving dishes piled high as she tried to put distance between herself and her attacker. A few monsters grumbled and complained when Kira’s boot smashed their dinner, but not enough to make them stop eating.
The girl was right behind her, swinging her chucks like some sort of video game character.
Except that the pattern she swung them in didn’t make sense. It looked like she was using the chucks to draw a symbol in the air.
Oh. She was—the symbol glowed bright green. When the girl screamed, a blast of air came hurtling toward Kira and knocked her off her feet. She flew across the room, breaking another table. Man that hurt. Whatever that girl did, Kira couldn’t let her do it again.
Pushing her body off the split tabletop, her hand brushed the broken table leg. Kira instinctively gripped it. Just as another attack came—a blast of fire rushed at her—she rolled. A second later, it hit the exact spot she’d landed. The metal popped and sizzled from the intense heat.
Kira knew she couldn’t outrun the witch, so she changed directions and charged the girl, holding the table leg out in front of her like a spear.
The witch fumbled for a moment, surprised by the sudden change of tactic. Kira tested the weight of the table leg again—pretty well balanced—and decided to use it like a fighting stick. She swung at the girl’s head. The witch blocked it with her nunchucks. Kira rotated the staff and feinted toward her mid-section. She spun it high and feinted toward the head.
The witch kept backing up, trying to block her attack. All Kira wanted was to keep the onslaught steady so the witch couldn’t form another spell with her weapon.
Impossible. Remus stared out the window across the compound at the fight below. This smug human kept fighting, acting as if it had a right to live.
A gurgle drew Remus’s attention back to the screens in the hive. Here, on the bank of monitors, were the vitals of each of his runners. He watched the little blips of their heartbeats and rubbed his hand across the closest black screen. How little they knew, how little they controlled. They were like busy little bees, and he reaped all of their hard work. It was good to be king.
But he knew that there were those that conspired against him. Wanted what was rightfully his. He didn’t like it when people stole. He hated thieves, and more than that, he hated liars.
The gurgling came from the floor again. He wished the man would just shut up and die. Remus had almost lost this one. He’d been hiding his winnings and was about to earn his freedom.
No one left without his permission. No one. Earning freedom without his permission equaled an escape attempt. And he could freely punish any of his runners that try and escape.
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts.
Den paused and stared at the man moaning on the floor, foam bubbling at his mouth. Remus watched for Den’s reaction. Den met Remus’s eyes and—there. He saw it. A flicker of disgust followed by hatred. That wouldn’t do. Den certainly tried to hide it quickly, but the fact that it had been there at all bothered him. He really hated it when his trainer acted better than everyone. He’d been a little too smug lately, too independent. He had forgotten his roots, where he came from.
“You called me?” Den asked, his face becoming blank.
“One moment, Den.” Remus turned to stare at the screen again and watched as the heartbeat he was monitoring sped up. The blips got faster and faster until they flat lined. Remus smiled when the struggling sounds stopped. He reached down to remove the bracer from the dead runner’s arm. It was still warm, but he didn’t care.
“This one tried to run away, so I terminated his career,” Remus explained.
Den’s eyes darkened but he didn’t respond, which meant dissension. Lack of respect for his way.
“We need to discuss your future here, Den.” Remus walked back to the window and looked out across the compound. He waited for Den to come and stand beside him. Remus knew the instant he spotted the human causing a ruckus down below because his posture stiffened.
“How can I trust you to train my runners if you can’t even control one human? If it messes up any more of my people, or dies before the challenge”—Remus held up the now vacant brace—“I’ll find a way to send you to the ring.”
Den rushed out the door, leaping over the dead body. Remus turned and watched as the human attacked his witch. This wouldn’t do at all.
He couldn’t wait to get rid of them—both.
After a few minutes, Kira figured out the witch girl was mostly show. She couldn’t hold her ground in a real physical altercation. Kira feinted for the head and then swung the table leg around to sweep her legs out from under her. The girl squealed and lost hold of the nunchucks.
Kira’s boot came down hard on her hand as she reached for the weapon. She jabbed the broken end of the pole within inches of the girl’s exposed throat. “Threaten me again and I will kill you!” Kira snarled out, baring her teeth in anger.
Kira felt different this time. She’d never gotten worried about this encounter. She actually liked the adrenaline rush, the whole sordid fight.
“I…w-we, n-need to get revenge for Creeper.” The girl’s vibrant green eyes were wet with unshed tears.
“What’s your name?” Kira asked.
“Holly.” She lay still, unmoving, the smart thing to do.
“Well, Holly, that confrontation will happen on a different day, with a level playing field. No, behind-the-back sneak attacks. Got it?” Kira couldn’t blame the girl for wanting revenge, and it wasn’t her place to deny it, but she could lay down some boundaries.
The girl’s head bobbed in affirmation.
Kira wasn’t stupid, she noticed the way Holly’s eyes kept flickering between her nunchucks and Chaz standing behind her.
Chaz gave Kira a nod of respect and backed away.
Kira took her boot off Holly’s neck and purposely turned her back on the girl. She kept a firm grip on the table leg. With an eye on the shadows and an ear toward the onlookers, she knew the instant Holly acted stupid. Kira swung the table leg in an arc, knocking the weapon from Holly’s hand as it was poised to come down on Kira’s head. She grabbed a surprised Holly by the front of her jacket and dropped the table leg to the ground.
“I warned you.” Kira pulled back her arm to inflict punishment.
Holly looked up into Kira’s eyes, weirdly mesmerized. Well, Kira would give her something to look at then.
Kira had only a moment to enjoy her victory before she was thrown to the ground by a mob. Deafening roars, a freakish combination of cat’s screech, bull mooing, and high pitched screams filled her ears. Claws scratched at her, hooves kicked her in the sides as Kira tried to roll away from the attackers, but she knew what was coming and mentally prepared herself for the pain.
She dove into the past.
When she had turned twelve, a man wearing a uniform came to their door with a letter, bearing the news that her dad would not be coming back from his latest assignment. For the first time in years, Kira cried. She gave the letter to her mom, and watched as Ellie turned pale and collapsed. Something inside her mother had finally snapped.
It took weeks for Ellie to leave the house after the funeral; she was an emotional wreck, crying and roaming the hous
Ellie left one night and didn’t come home for ten days. Kira had survived just fine without her. But when she finally returned, a man was with her mom.
“This is Bernie, your new father… er stepfather,” Ellie announced, clearly drunk.
Her mother had done the unthinkable; she drove to Vegas, got wasted, and married the first jerk to propose to her, for better or for worse.
It was worse.
Bernie was large, fat, and reeked of stale beer. Kira never saw him work and assumed he and Ellie lived off her dad’s life insurance policy. Bernie was also a drunk, and lucky Kira, the little fighter, got to be the recipient of his quick temper. When she was thirteen, he pushed her down the stairs for talking back to him; she got eight stitches in her forehead. When she was fourteen, he broke her arm for not taking out the trash. Then came the beatings for talking back. Her mother couldn’t protect her. No one could.
Kira was back in that house all over again.
Reliving every punch, kick and broken bone.
One of the beasts launched through the air to land on Kira’s back and pin her to the ground. She tried desperately to buck it off, but it had a steel grip around her waist. She tried curling up in a ball.
More punches came, but they didn’t land anywhere where she could feel them. Actually, she could feel someone breathing down her neck. And she heard quiet grunts of pain, coming from above her.
The monster wrapped around her wasn’t attacking her—it was shielding her with its own body. What kind of monster would do that? Kira tried to turn her head and see, but she couldn’t. Dust, mud, and moss kept pressing into her face. And every time she moved her hands, someone tried to punch her face.
Suddenly, she heard a high-pitched whistle, and the mob quit. The monsters quickly backed away from Kira, all except for the one wrapped over her protectively. Someone began a slow clap. They shuffled, keeping their heads down. As the crowd parted, the clapper stepped forward to get a better look at the scene, no doubt.
Underland by Chanda Hahn / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes