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       Underland, p.7

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  Mr. Butt-Chin.

  Kira tried to move, but there was a groan of pain above her. “Get off!” She grunted and tried to push herself off the ground. The weight rolled off of her and landed on the ground beside her.

  The boy zeke. Just great! Now she would be indebted to him. Who knew? He might call in that debt the next time he got hungry. His face was swollen, and one eye was already turning purple. A pang of guilt rushed through her.

  But she didn’t ask for his help, didn’t want it.

  He looked to have taken a hefty punishment. His jeans were torn and his t-shirt had been shredded. A pool of red began forming under his back.

  He was hurt worse than she had thought. She tried to reach over and touch his face, but his eyes opened. As she stared into the blackness, what she saw scared her. His eyes didn’t look human. They had gone stark white, and silver flecks sparkled eerily in them. His turned those god-like eyes on Kira, and she skidded away from him.

  Den approached Kira and circled her slowly, taking in the scene before him: the boy, Holly a few yards away, and the metal table leg that lay by her feet. Kira knew how bad this looked, but she’d done what she had to.

  She studied him while he made sense of the situation. Den’s black leather vest revealed strong, tattooed arms. Elegant script started at his hands and wrapped all the way around his arms and up to his neck. His red eyes seemed darker, more unpleasant today. Maybe because Kira had taken out one of his trainees.

  Den shouted at a slave girl next to him. “Call Warrick, and get the zeke to the medical center. I need him recovered in time to compete in the next event.”

  Den turned angrily on the crowd of monsters. “What did you think you were doing?”

  A large two-legged beast with long tusks coming out of his mouth stepped forward—a boar. Kira glanced at her arm and could see the distinct outline of a split-hoof impression. He was the obvious culprit.

  The boar tried to speak, but the tusks seemed to impair his ability to enunciate. He squealed and then shape-shifted with a blur of skin and tusks, and a whiff of garlic. Suddenly, he was completely human-looking, although shorter. And less impressive to look at. No wonder so many of the monsters preferred their monster form or their half-shifted form. They were scarier. Kira couldn’t ever imagine being scared of the short man with pimples.

  “No one’s ever stopped us from beating a slave before. Why now?” he asked.

  “Because she’s already been chosen,” Den rebuked him.

  “So as long as we don’t kill it, can we still have fun with it? It does need to pay for killing Creeper, and for injuring Holly.” The speaker was tall with spiky blond hair and black tips. He turned golden eyes on Kira, and she recognized him as the cheetah, Chaz. So this was his human form.

  “Sorry to disappoint you, Chaz, but I think that would be a bad idea.” Den turned and opened his arms wide, gesturing to everyone within hearing distance. “That goes for all of you. You are not allowed to harm her. If you have issues, you can take them up during training, but not before. Do you understand me?”

  There were a few grumbles and complaints, but everyone seemed to get the picture. She was no longer fun if she couldn’t be played with or harmed. Most of the crowd wandered off or went back to their rooms. Two large monsters carried Zeke off, probably toward the hospital wing.

  “You know you didn’t solve anything by that, right?” Den spoke directly to Kira, while nodding at Holly’s body.

  “I know,” she answered softly. “I shouldn’t have punched her.” Kira looked down in mock submission, as Den paced around her. She knew how to pick her battles, and she’d had enough fighting for one day.

  “Then why did you do it?” he asked.

  “Because I wanted to,” Kira answered smartly. “And I enjoyed it.” She smiled and rubbed her knuckles, checking out the teeth imprints and skin that had been scraped off. She also felt a pang in her arm. A bruise was already forming along it from connecting with Holly’s nunchucks.

  Den grabbed Kira’s arm. He felt along the bone, pressing hard, looking for a break. “The bone is bruised, not broken. You will live.” He spoke in a clipped, uncaring tone. Just the way he said it rattled Kira’s nerves.

  “Obviously,” Kira rolled her eyes sarcastically.

  “I don’t know how long if you can’t control getting into fights. At this rate you won’t survive long. I need to train you.”

  Kira’s head snapped to attention. “I can take care of myself.”

  “Obviously,” Den remarked, taking care to mimic her earlier response exactly.

  “Why are you even going to the trouble to train me? I thought I was to be a slave.”

  “If that’s what you want, I can still arrange it.” Den yelled, pointing to the herd of monsters walking away. “It might almost be better. Life isn’t sunshine and roses down here. You take what you get.”

  A ruckus came from one side of the room, and the monsters gathered around the screens eagerly.

  “What’s going on?” Kira asked.

  “It seems that Hermes has scheduled the next event.”

  “Who’s Hermes?”

  “The game god.”

  “You mean like the mythical Greek god?”

  Den stopped and gave her a how-dumb-are-you? stare. “Look around you, girl. There’s no such thing as mythical. We’re real.” He pressed his hand to his chest. “The gods are real, although they’ve lost most of their mojo, but that doesn’t mean that they are weak. They’re still immortal. We call them Underlords now. All of this”—he gestured to the mixed races of slaves and monsters and back toward the city where the faint outline of the skyline could be seen—“exists for them. When humans no longer believed in the gods, they started to lose their power. That’s why they chose to gather all of us mythical races, beasts, and fae and bring us here. So that they could rule over us. Because we know what it’s like to not be believed in, we know what it’s like to be forgotten.”

  “Can’t you leave?”

  “And go where? This is our world. This is our lot. We have more freedom here than we ever did in the upper lands.” He turned away and focused on the screen.

  “Except you’re ruled by gods.”

  “And you’re ruled by a president. What’s the difference?”

  “So these games, these events, are for what?”

  “Hermes brought the Olympic Games back and merged it with the Roman games to appease the gods’ restless nature. Otherwise Ares, our war god would become bored and wreak havoc among the races. Except these games are much bigger and…new rules.” Den stopped walking and looked up at the screen. He seemed unimpressed. “Thousands of years of creativity at the hands of bored gods, not to mention their obsession with human sports, and this is what we get.”

  “Then why not stop the games? Why compete at all?”

  “It’s a balance. To keep peace upon the upper lands, we wage war through the games below. If that balance shifted, if the games ever stopped, all of them”—he pointed around to the monsters scattered throughout the room—“their purpose would cease. Most of our inherent nature is violent, so Ares is appeased when we turn it on each other. We’re his own personal addiction.” Den snarled.

  “Each week it’s different, always changing. So the owners will switch out their fighters and teams for different games. But that doesn’t seem to be enough these days. They’ve added the random lottery, like a draft. Keeps the populace guessing and changes up the bets.”

  “You mean it’s not always the same?”

  “No, some events are more dangerous than others. And now they are sending non-fighters in at random to compete. It used to just be the criminals, then they added those that were in debt, then the slaves. Not anymore. Everyone has one of these bracers. If you’re chosen, you go.”

  Now she was extremely interested in what was playing on the screen. She saw an attractive female with a pale face which slowly transitioned into pearlescent blue scales running down
her neck and body. White hair fell past her shoulders. A red banner ran across the bottom of the broadcast, but Kira was unable to read the language.

  The screen turned black, and words slowly appeared. Most around her cheered; a few groaned and shuffled away. She tried to read Den’s expression and it didn’t move an inch. “The next event is a gauntlet.” Den’s brow furrowed in worry.

  “That doesn’t sound bad.”

  “Believe me, it is.”

  “Then it would really suck to be chosen.” Kira said rubbing her wrist under the band.

  “Yeah, about that.” He knocked his boots together and took a deep breath. “That’s the reason your band is lit up.”

  Her head snapped, and she looked at him, “Say what?”

  Den pointed at her band, and the white light that had been glowing there for hours. “You’ve been chosen. I have to make sure you show up for the gauntlet, or it’ll be my head.”

  “This has been glowing for a while now. You’re just telling me this?”

  “I was busy.”

  She probably should have freaked out having never seen a gauntlet, but she’d watched tons of reality TV and sports. It couldn’t possibly be that bad. Kira raised her chin. “Well, if I compete, I can win my freedom, right?”

  “It’s not that simple. There’s a million to one odds that you could ever earn your freedom. And it would take years.”

  “Those are odds I can live by.”

  Den reached out and put pressure on her injury until she winced. He shook his head. “It’s not what you think it is. It’s worse. You’re not getting a chance to compete and win. Those are odds you are going to die by.”

  Chapter 9

  “Run, girl!” Den shouted into her ear. At least it sounded like he was in her ear. In reality, he was a quite a few paces back.

  Kira’s side cramped, and she missed her timed jump onto the pile of scrap metal. She stumbled, tried to pull herself up, but a giant weight landed on her and flipped her onto her back. She looked up into the angry eyes of Den.

  He mimed stabbing her in the heart with a fake knife. “Not good enough. You’re dead again.” She tried to sit up, but he shoved her in frustration, hard enough that her head bounced on the sheet metal. Butt-Chin ran his hands through his hair.

  “Hey, I lasted longer that time.” Kira painfully sat up and began to dust off her worn pants.

  “Two minutes. You only lasted two minutes. Do you understand that the gauntlet is much longer? We don’t have enough time. You’re not even trying.”

  “Well, then why don’t you train me with the others?”

  “Ha! And let them know that you are their competition? Every single one of them would race in practice just to be the one to accidentally kill you.” He kicked an old road sign. How did so much random garbage end up so far below the ground? “It’s safer this way. But, I don’t have enough resources to train you right.”

  Kira shrugged. “So I’ll just train harder.” She picked at a hangnail on the side of her thumb, purposely giving her thumb more attention than the white-blond Den. The angrier he was, the less she liked him. That was probably a good thing.

  “You’re lucky you are getting any training at all. I should just leave you to your own stubborn devices. Who knows, maybe you will survive on pure bull-headedness.” He rubbed his forehead as if it pained him.

  Kira’s ears perked up at the backhanded compliment. She tried not to smile. Maybe she should be spending more effort, trying harder, training harder. But she didn’t really see the point. She had kicked Holly’s butt and killed Creeper. That made her pretty hard to kill in her book.

  But it apparently wasn’t enough for Den. Honestly, she thought it had more to do with Den being afraid she’d knock out her competition before the game.

  Den turned to stare at her, his eyes filled with uncertainty, his lips a thin line. He shook his head. “I hate to do it, but it has to be done.”

  “What has to be done?”

  “You don’t fear for your life. You need to be scared to death. I’m going to have to find someone to beat some sense into you. Maybe the zeke—”

  “Not bloody likely.” Kira bristled at the mention of the zombie.

  She didn’t even see Den move, he was that fast. One moment he was three paces away, and the next he was right in front of her.

  He grabbed her elbow and pulled her towards the door. “You listen to me. Down here you are the lowest on the food chain, not worth anyone’s time or resources. You have skill, but you have no common sense. And right now, I can’t teach you anything. So get back to your room.”

  She raised her lip in annoyance. “I’m not a child that you can just send to bed for not listening.”

  “That was not a suggestion. That was an order. Just be grateful I’m not beating you while I think of another way to train you.” He shoved her off the pile of metal garbage where they stood, and she slid down the hill ungracefully.

  Kira stood, shrugged, and started walking the path to the compound. No one could change her outlook.

  Chapter 10

  Kira had found a way to pass the time by throwing rocks at an old outbuilding. Den hadn’t trained her in two stinking days. She needed to do something—something loud and angry at the same time. She was working through a plan to try and escape when she saw a large equine beast out of the corner of her eye. Kira stiffened.

  Warrick.

  His beady eyes stared at her accusingly. “Your recklessness has caused a lot of damage.”

  Kira dropped the rock and looked at him. “She deserved it! Holly was trying to kill me. I was only defending myself.” Kira swore at herself when she realized she’d been goaded into talking to the beast. She had made a silent vow to never speak to the betrayer again.

  “I’m not talking about the hedge witch. I’m talking about the zeke.” There was a moment of awkwardness as Kira realized her mistake.

  “Oh, well, um. I didn’t do that. He did that himself.”

  Warrick stepped forward, and Kira moved backwards. “He was injured protecting you.”

  “Hey, I never asked him to. He should have let well enough alone. Then he wouldn’t have been injured.”

  Warrick stomped his hoof. “You don’t get it, do you? Those injuries would have killed a human. They almost killed the zeke. It’s a good thing he didn’t leave well enough alone, otherwise you would have been dead.” Warrick pointed his tan finger at Kira.

  “Haven’t you heard, ol’ man? I’m already dead!” Kira swatted the finger away irritably.

  The centaur’s eyes softened. “I know you were chosen. And your first event is the gauntlet.”

  Kira looked away from him and stared at the blinking exit sign down the hall. She swallowed and nodded slowly.

  “Come with me, girl.”

  Warrick took her to another wing of the compound, to a black gate. He punched a code and the gate opened.

  A surge of excitement raced through Kira’s body. Was he letting her go? She could finally leave and try and escape. The moment lasted only that, a moment, before she looked down at her bracer. She’d never truly escape until she found a way to get this off of her. Even though her heart was ready to run her feet didn’t move.

  Warrick must have read her mind. “I have permission to take you out into the city. You wouldn’t make it very far without me anyway.” Warrick held the gate open and waited for Kira to pass through. When it was securely locked again, he started down a tunnel.

  So the waterway wasn’t the only way to get back to the city. She’d come from the city by boat to Remus’s home; now they were heading a different way. But not a way she’d remember in the near future. Every time the path came to a T, Warrick turned a different direction. There were no markings other than some form of ancient Greek-looking script scribbled on the wall. Even with her memory, it would take numerous trips by the same route for her to figure her way to the city.

  But then what? What would she do? She would be even mo
re in danger in a city surrounded by monsters. The memory of an animal feeding outside the Gamblers’ Market made her shudder and feel a little sick. She wouldn’t know how to traverse the waterways to make it back to the surface. It wasn’t like there were ladders and manhole covers to the surface every hundred yards or so.

  From what she’d overheard, they were miles underground, and every entrance into the city and the surrounding area was guarded night and day by monsters similar to Nessie. Her only chance of survival was to stay here long enough to learn how to get out. Even if it meant pretending to forgive the stupid centaur and playing at being nice. She could do that, she guessed. It seemed to be working so far, because he was taking her out of Remus’s for a bit.

  Now whether or not she should be thankful for that was another matter. She would wait to see if whatever surprise Warrick had in store was a blessing or a curse. Her legs were burning with exertion when she saw the tunnel begin to get lighter with colored neons. They were definitely getting near the city.

  “Stay close. Don’t wander off. There are things walking around in daylight that are more dangerous than your worst nightmare.”

  “Don’t worry. I’m not stupid. But if this is some sort of trap, I’m telling you in advance that it’s every girl for herself.”

  Warrick turned and raised an eyebrow at her. His lip curled in silent laughter when he caught her nuance on the world girl and not man or centaur. “Duly noted and expected.”

  When they hit the hub of the city, Kira was once again amazed by the beauty and the structure of the buildings. This time, since she wasn’t fearing for her life and future, she had the time to take in her surroundings and try to memorize markers.

  She stared at a beautiful naturally-formed column thousands of feet in diameter that rose up in the middle of the city. It glittered and reflected the colors around it. When they moved, she noticed that it didn’t just glitter from lights, she was seeing the reflection of windows.

  The column was a fortress of sorts.

  “What’s that?” she pointed at the beautiful formation.

  “Olympus Tower.”

 
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