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       Underland, p.8

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “I bet you I know who lives there.” Kira said. “The gods.”

  “The Underlords, yes. They live there, and anyone rich enough to be invited lives there. Freedom tokens can buy you anything here.”

  As they traveled, Kira couldn’t help but notice the beauty and cleanliness of the tower complex compared to the decline of the rest of the civilization. It seemed to mirror what was happening above in her own world. The rich staying rich while the poor were fighting for food.

  They turned down an alley and disturbed a large animal eating out of the dumpster. The creature stood three feet tall and hissed at them angrily. Clawed hands darted out of a faded gray army jacket and swung at them threateningly. “Mine, mine!” it growled. “I found it first.” The beast moved like lightning and jumped onto the trash can, kneeling over its prize of rotting food.

  Warrick stomped his hooves and his tail whipped with tension. “Keep your trash. We are only interested in passing through.”

  The alley beast didn’t seem to register Warrick’s words and still jumped up and down angrily. His teeth gnashed in challenge like a starving stray dog. When the centaur tried to pass him, the animal pounced and dug his claws into Warrick’s back. Warrick screamed in anger and tried to buck the creature off.

  Kira grabbed a stray plank of wood and swung it at the beast’s head. It saw the threat and jumped off of Warrick, nimbly attaching itself to a sign hanging from a building. She’d only missed by inches. It screeched its hatred at Kira, and she was about to try and attack it again, but Warrick stopped her.

  “Come, he isn’t worth your time. Even our poor must eat, and they too must fight for their right to survive. We don’t need to give him a battle over scraps.” Warrick’s voice held a hint of aching sadness.

  Kira couldn’t help but begin to respect him—just a little. His wise words resonated in her soul. Seconds before, he’d been attacked for trying to walk through an alley, his back laced with wounds that bled freely and mixed with his equine coat. Yet he still spoke of understanding and tolerance for those less fortunate than himself.

  Where were people like Warrick in Portland when she’d been the one eating out of trash cans? If only humans had a scrap of the centaur’s dignity, the whole race would be better off.

  They walked for another quarter mile, various beings watching them from behind closed doors. At one point, Kira thought for sure she had seen Grater in the distance with a chain around another slave for the slave market. Was it in that direction? How anyone could tell north or south without the sun was beyond her, but maybe after living here long enough you just knew.

  When they came to a dead end, Kira began to worry that maybe she really had made the wrong decision. A figure moved away from the wall and stepped in front of them. A long, dark cloak hid his features.

  ***

  Den watched them approach and felt a moment’s hesitation again. What was he going to do with her? He liked her spirit and wanted to stick it to Remus. The best way to get revenge was to make sure she made it through the next gauntlet. Then he’d figure something out. With Remus’s threat fresh in his mind though, he needed to do something drastic now. Something that would make her take this seriously. Like scare her.

  “Thanks, Warrick, for bringing her.” Den kept his voice to a whisper. He reached to grab Kira’s arm, but she backed away into Warrick.

  The centaur didn’t budge. “You can’t be trained until you’ve seen a game in action,” he said. “Most of us have grown up either fearing the games or secretly being fascinated with them.”

  “I worked my tail off doing what Den wanted me to do. Maybe it’s him. Maybe he’s a lousy trainer.”

  “And yet, I’m the only one you’re going to get,” Den spoke without looking at her.

  “What? No really?” she said.

  Den ignored her sarcasm and walked to a brick wall with an electric voice box sticking out of it about chest-high. He pushed the red button.

  A few moments later, a high pitched voice answered. “Hello?”

  “Ferb, it’s Den and Warrick.” Static followed, and Den inwardly cussed and wondered briefly if he owed Ferb any money. He owed a lot of money to a lot of people.

  “You brought Rick? It’s been ages since I’ve seen that quadruped donkey bait of a face.” The excited reply sounded like a string of gibberish, and Den breathed a sigh of relief, which was cut short. “Den, don’t think I’ve forgotten our wager.”

  Den racked his brain. What did—?

  “You owe me a pint at Shady’s. What brings you to the archives? Think of putting down another bet?”

  Oh good, it was only a pint he owed. He needed to keep it at that. “Not this time, Ferb. I’ve got a newbie that needs your expertise—never seen the games. Thought you would like to show her the ropes. Maybe show her a past gauntlet.”

  The call box buzzed and, across the alley, a black gate swung open. Warrick motioned for Kira to enter the passageway first. There was hardly any room—the passageway was barely big enough to squeeze her in front of Warrick’s huge body, but all three of them managed somehow. The gate swung closed, and a motor whirred above them. As the cage trembled and descended into the ground, she pinched herself to keep from calling out in fear. When the elevator stopped, it opened into a huge room filled with fluorescent light.

  He had to blink to adjust to the sudden brightness.

  The gate opened. Den and Warrick stepped out and immediately moved to the middle of the room towards Ferb. He scurried over and greeted them.

  While they chatted for a moment, Den watched Kira study the room. TV screens lined three walls, including digital projection screens and even a wall of water.

  Everywhere flashed images of events from the gauntlet. People running for their lives, killing each other, setting traps. Other screens showed the aftermath, a smiling champion getting interviewed. One wall was covered with pictures of the top ranked champions of all time. Creeper’s picture was on the wall with a 4 under his frame.

  Ferb’s long tail and ears twitched with excitement when Warrick introduced her. “I’m very pleased to meet you. No one’s ever brought me a human to teach before.” His nose twitched, and he offered his small hand.

  Kira shook it gingerly with two fingers and Den snorted.

  “Pleased to meet you. I’m glad to be here.” She was able to paste on a fake smile.

  Den was amused at her obvious awkwardness when confronted with Ferb. Yes, he was short and fuzzy, but also very deadly. Den hoped she was smart enough to get past the cuddly exterior and realize that he’d brought her to The Expert on the games.

  ***

  Wow, this place. Kira studied their host again. He looked like an oversized meerkat with a tail and eyes so large they could only be described as boggly. He was super cute. But the décor suggested he had a dark fascination.

  Not cuddly.

  Kira glanced back at the picture of Creeper on the wall. She felt zero remorse when she looked at his gaunt skin and haunting smile.

  Warrick was distracted by a large screen with a large ogre-looking beast tearing through a crowd of people with ease. He picked one up and threw him to the ground with ease and then began to stomp on him crudely before running. The camera seemed to love him—the crowd favorite.

  Appalled but unable to look away, Kira stepped closer to the screen and stared, mesmerized by the destruction and chaos left in the monster’s wake. This was where she would have to fight to survive?

  A large obstacle course filled with deadly looking pitfalls, acid rivers, and traps. Some guy tried to swing over the river of acid and got knocked off his rope by the whitish beast. He fell into acid, but the death wasn’t swift. It was horribly loud and painful—Kira had to turn away. Just as she looked back, the camera zoomed in on the monster’s final moments. Kira’s stomach heaved. The crowd went wild, screaming and whistling. Only a few onlookers groaned and shook their heads in defeat.

  The perpetrator who knocked him off took
center screen, and a score box appeared below his face. Bogeyman’s bio, weight, and other stats were listed. This horrible looking boggart weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Of the seven races he’d run, he’d won five. A few seconds later, a gold box appeared with numbers in the shape of bones.

  The tally was twenty-one.

  “What does that mean?” Kira had to be sure. Maybe the number didn’t mean what she thought it did.

  Ferb scooted over on a chair with wheels; he looked up at the screen and grinned. “Ah, the kill tally. It helps the betting. Plus, the higher the number usually means the more popular you are.”

  “That’s disgusting!”

  “Only to you. Here, it’s the same as seeing a baseball player’s RBI’s. It’s an integral part of our life. Soon you will have one too, if I understand correctly.”

  Ferb pushed off from the table and flew across the room, still holding onto the office chair. The chair slid and slowed down by a long display of cases and frames.

  Kira followed at a slower pace. He waved her over impatiently and pointed into a glass case. When she leaned down to focus, she gasped at the objects inside. There was a bloody shoe, a torn uniform, and various other objects.

  “You see that?” He pointed excitedly. “That was the shoe worn by Zephyr in the 1507 Championships. And that was the uniform of Tora in the ’13 semifinals; she was the favorite, but a dragon obliterated her three yards from the finish line. I had to search long and hard for that—traded a years’ worth of tokens for it.” He spouted off facts and information about every item in his case. His warm breath left small steam circles everywhere.

  “But no one has been able to beat the Labyrinth. I think that’s why the Underlords are picking more chosens.”

  He’d almost managed to get her interested, but a small object on a plush purple pillow caught her eye. Once she recognized the object as a mummified finger she turned and ran for the door.

  Warrick blocked her way.

  She ran right into him and started hitting him with her fists. “Why would you bring me here? Get me out!”

  Warrick let her pound him with her fists, sighing. “We thought it best that you understood what you were getting yourself into. You need to be prepared.”

  “And this was the best way? To show me videos and body parts of past contestants. Are you nuts?” Kira wiped her tears on her jacket sleeve and stepped away. She kept her back to the TV screens that replayed the best kills of the centuries and found the one spot in the room that didn’t have anything dead or dying displayed on it. She focused on the framed picture of a young Ferb waving a flag at a race. He was truly a lifelong collector of the games’ artifacts.

  “I want to leave…now!”

  “Not yet,” Den argued. “We brought you here so you can watch old events and see what you are up against. Ferb knows everything there is to know about the past and current champions. He can tell you their weaknesses and strengths. He’s able to find out things about the courses that know else knows. He is your biggest asset, when you have nothing else.”

  “Are you trying to say I’m weak?” Kira argued.

  “No, I’m saying you’re human.” As he walked towards Kira, she backed up. “So you are going to sit here, listen, and learn.”

  “Why do you care?”

  Warrick spoke up. He looked at her, emotion splayed across his face—dignity, sorrow, and compassion. “Because,” he let out a breath slowly and looked at Den. “Not all of us are heartless monsters.”

  Kira felt something soft brush against the back of her knees, and she fell onto the seat of the chair that Ferb had vacated seconds before. He crawled up onto her shoulder, and Den pushed her in front of the largest screen imaginable.

  Ferb held the remote control. He began playing through years of tapes and droning on about the rules of the game. He would grab her head when he wanted her to pay attention to a small detail, and she quickly learned what a valuable asset he was. He didn’t miss a thing.

  Kira made it three minutes before she started to puke.

  Warrick already had a bucket on hand and deftly slipped it in front of her. Ferb just patted her head and rewound the scene again. “You missed it; this is where a machine called the eliminator is hidden—usually in the second leg. If you aren’t careful, it’ll chop off your head.” He said it so nonchalantly that Kira tried very carefully not to heave again, but to concentrate on the scene. If Ferb was going to make her watch every scene she missed because she was otherwise engaged, then she had better do her best to catch it the first time around.

  It didn’t work. Kira emptied her stomach three more times before the day was over, and then she passed out sometime during the last leg of the championship. Apparently there were various events. Then each quarter there were separate mini-games the runners entered before the playoffs—the semifinals and finally the Labyrinth.

  First up was the gauntlet: a type of obstacle course where runners were released in teams. The goal was to try and make it to the finish line with as many team members intact as possible. There were many courses just to keep things fresh. The gauntlet was apparently one of the more popular games in the circuit.

  She learned that there were underground games called the ring and monsterball. But for her, for today, Ferb focused on how the gauntlet worked, and the jobs of the runners. Clearly, no one thought she would survive to compete in the Labyrinth, so she wisely kept her mouth shut.

  ***

  Kira looked exhausted by the time they made it back to the compound. And her mood reflected that clearly. Den had stayed in the city and asked Warrick to escort her back. She had been quiet, lost in her inner thoughts, clearly disturbed by what she’d seen.

  “There’s one more stop I’d like you to make with me.” Warrick turned and entered the infirmary wing. His tail swished behind him, and when he opened the door, he inhaled deeply of the mingling scents of disinfectant and cloves. Kira followed him into the infirmary, but she kept to the edge of the room.

  He tried to picture this familiar place through her eyes. He’d tried to spruce up the sterile environment with potted plants that he’d found. A large metal table stood off to one side. While it was similar to the one in his home, due to the size of his patients, this one was twice as large. There were glass cabinets with various medicines, ointments, and salves, but nothing threatening. No mangled body parts or torture devices. Just a hallway that led to the operating room and the recovery rooms.

  He headed back toward those now. Kira followed and he paused in front of his destination, listening carefully to the healing occupant on the other side. There were no sounds of distress. It would be safe for her.

  The boy had sacrificed so much to help Kira, but Warrick had a feeling there was more to it than that. Warrick suspected their fates were somehow intertwined. Maybe they just needed another nudge. He was more than capable of offering that.

  He handed Kira a small pouch. “Here. You need to start making more friends and less enemies.”

  She took the pouch from him and eyed the door warily. Warrick opened the door and physically pushed her into the room.

  Kira stiffened and pushed against him, but she was no match for his strength. With another swift nudge, he propelled her into the room.

  ***

  The door closed with a click. Warrick peeked through the glass pane and motioned with his hands for her to move forward.

  A thin blue curtain separated her from the room, and the shadow of someone or something moved behind it. The smell of disinfectant and the sterile décor brought back unwanted memories of trips to the hospital with her mother. Of sitting idly by, while her mother spun outrageous lies about how she got her injuries. Whether it was tripping down a flight of stairs or falling out of a tree, the lies came smoothly. The nurses barely blinked at Ellie’s excuses, and the whole time Kira hoped they would challenge her mother, ask if she lived with an abusive husband. No one bothered, no one cared, and so Kira kept silent, living with the
abuse.

  But she wasn’t that little girl anymore. She could take care of herself.

  Gathering her courage, Kira gripped the pouch Warrick had given her. She didn’t know what it was or what to do with it, but she wasn’t alone. And she needed to know whose room she’d invaded. She moved forward and pulled the curtain to the side. The sight of a half-naked person took her aback.

  The zeke boy stood there wearing only a pair of denim jeans, his muscular torso bare. Kira felt her cheeks begin to burn bright red, and she stammered and tried to look elsewhere, to look anywhere except for his sculpted body. Why, oh, why couldn’t he have had an ugly body? Isn’t that how zombies should look? Ugly, gaunt and thin. No, his skin was smooth and heavily muscled. Kira’s mouth actually went dry, but Zeke pretended to not see her. Either that or he really didn’t care.

  He turned his back to her as he grabbed a blue t-shirt draped across a nearby chair. Deep gashes, angry welts, purple bruises marred his entire back. From protecting her. The realization stole her breath.

  ***

  Zeke heard her enter. He actually smelled her when she was out in the hall, and the scent, the aroma of her skin alone was enough to drive him wild. He had to get control of himself, of his hunger. She stepped around the curtain when she saw him and stared at his muscular chest. Her face flushed red in embarrassment. He liked that he could affect her like that.

  Proof that he affected her as much as she affected him. He pretended to ignore her as he reached for his shirt. He heard her intake of breath at seeing his back.

  He turned on her, livid, at the gasp. Pity. Did she pity him? His anger rushed to the surface, and he began to lose grip on his control. He tossed the shirt onto the bed and stepped towards her.

  She shook under his furious and hungry gaze. Good. Because he should be feared and not pitied.

  Zeke crossed to her in two quick paces, and his large hands reached for her throat. As his thumbs brushed her collarbone, an electric warning sent a shock through his blood. She jumped. Had she felt it too? With his hands around her throat he could feel her pulse against his thumbs. He wanted to press his lips against the same spot and feel her heartbeat with his mouth.

 
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