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       Underland, p.9

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “Wait!” She thrust up the leather pouch between their bodies, using it as a shield. “Here, it’s for you.” She pushed the pouch directly into his face and he backed off. His hands brushed her forearms as he moved away. The tingling sensation stopped, and he felt himself begin to calm.

  He looked at the pouch quizzically, and his gaze swayed back to Kira’s. She was tense, but not fearful. He glanced at the mirror in the room. His eyes were still white, but they no longer held a dangerous gleam to them. So, she wasn’t forgetting what she’d seen mere seconds ago, but she was still wary.

  Maybe she had felt the same thing when they touched. Interesting. But he couldn’t let it happen again. He almost lost himself. He almost bit her. He needed to scare her. To keep her away.

  When he didn’t move to take the pouch, she tossed it onto his bed and moved towards the door. The farther away she moved, the braver she became. Almost to the door, she turned, head high. Her hair swung in its long ponytail as she looked back over her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have done what you did the other day. But for what it’s worth, thanks.”

  ***

  The zeke boy didn’t move. His hands were clenched by his sides. His chest heaved with deep breaths.

  Was that for show? Did zekes actually breathe? There were so many things she had yet to learn.

  “You’re not welcome.” She didn’t need an education to read the bitterness in his voice. He looked at her through heavy lidded eyes, challenging her, daring her to come near him again.

  Kira’s eyes widened for only a second, but she recovered in record time. “Good!” she retorted snidely. “Then I won’t feel obligated to return the favor. Ever!” Kira slammed the door and entered the hallway. Her heart raced with adrenaline. Her hands were still shaking, but she wasn’t sure if it was from fear, hate, or the sight of his bare chest. Kira caught the sound of laughter coming from behind the door.

  Kira’s rage returned, and she had to catch herself from screaming back a retort that would make her mother cringe. She was about to push the door open and punch him in the mouth when she noticed Warrick’s silhouette down the hall, waiting for her.

  Grinding her teeth, she met him halfway.

  “Done?” he asked.

  “Yeah, sure,” she quipped.

  “Did you give it to him? Did he like it?”

  “Uh yeah, it was awesome! Best gift e-v-e-r.” Kira answered uncomfortably. She was now too embarrassed to ask about what was in the pouch, for fear of being caught in a lie. Maybe it was better if she didn’t know anyway.

  Warrick looked at her slyly; he could sense her lie. But instead of confronting her about it, he ignored it.

  Chapter 11

  After leaving Warrick and Zeke everything had been a bit of a blur. Since then, Kira’d simply sat and rocked herself in silence. It was the only thing that seemed to calm her nerves. When she let everything that happened soak in, when she really pondered it all, it hit her. She was a goner; she knew the odds of surviving.

  She had absolutely zero chance.

  Kira sat paralyzed with fear in her room for two days.

  She ignored anyone who knocked and pushed a chair in front of the door, but it offered zero protection. If a monster wanted into her room bad enough, it would break down the door. Still, the chair gave her at least the illusion of safety. But that’s all this was, an illusion.

  She had deluded herself into thinking she could survive among the monsters. She had seen the tapes. She wished that she had never followed Warrick, and she wished she had never sat and watched the race, but she had. There was no turning back. She couldn’t erase what she had seen.

  The slight sound of metal scraping across the floor was all the notice Kira had. On instinct, she rolled off her bunk and landed on the floor, missing the knife that sunk into her mattress by mere inches. Her room was pitch black, so she had to rely on her hearing.

  Someone swore quietly and pulled the knife out of the mattress. Her only advantage was that they couldn’t see in her darkened room either. Probably. She lifted her mattress, knocked it over, shoved it into her attacker, and ran for the door. Her feet sounded loud even to her own ears, the thud thud thud of her boots as she darted toward freedom. Clawed hands raked across her shoulder. She cried out at the stinging pain, but she spun and flung her body at the door and it burst open into the hallway.

  Too close. Too similar. Tears fell down her cheeks as she fled the attacker. She was running just as hard from her memory.

  She had just turned fifteen, when Bernie really started to notice her. She installed a lock on her bedroom door and slept with her dad’s combat knife under her pillow, but it wasn’t long before Bernie broke through her bedroom door while her mom was passed out downstairs on the couch.

  When her dad had taught Kira how to defend herself as a child, she never imagined she would be using those techniques to defend herself from her own stepfather. It was over with quickly. Bernie was drunk and stumbling into the dresser when he came for her. She tried to threaten him, but he charged.

  She stabbed him in the shoulder. His howl of pain rang in her ears as she pushed him away, grabbed her backpack, and jumped out the window. She didn’t care if he died, but she knew, more than likely he would survive.

  Thankfully, Kira had been prepared. She’d filled her pack with cash she had stolen in small increments from their savings jar, a change of clothes, trail mix, and a jacket. She was still in her pajamas when she shimmied down the drain pipe and ran down the street barefoot. She never looked back, not for one moment. Not even to turn back for her mom.

  And here she was all over again, running, not looking back. She ran down the hallway, down the stairs, and away from whatever was in her room. She was looking up the stairwell as she ran down, trying to see if someone or something was still in pursuit.

  That’s how she crashed into the person coming up the stairs.

  “Kira. What’s wrong?” Zeke’s arms flew up to catch her as she started to tumble to the ground.

  “S-someone tried to kill me...in my room…while I was s-sleeping.”

  Zeke’s eyes darkened as he studied the stairwell. A barely discernable shadow two floors up moved, and all that followed was the soft click of a metal door closing. Her pursuer had retreated. Zeke pulled his hand away from Kira’s shoulder. Blood coated his palm. His eyes went wide with hunger.

  The double doors beside them opened, and Den rushed in from outside. Zeke quickly handed Kira over and took off—after her attacker or away from her. She wasn’t sure.

  “Are you okay?” Den eyed her bleeding shoulder.

  She pulled away from him and watched him warily. “Yes, it’s just a cut. Someone tried to attack me. Zeke, he went after them.” She pointed up the stairwell. “I think—”

  “He’ll be fine. He can handle himself.” He spun her around and inspected her wound more carefully. “For now you have a bigger problem.”

  “What?”

  “It’s time.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “The truck is here. It’s time to send our champions and the chosen.”

  Chapter 12

  “Don’t show fear. Don’t make yourself a target. If you present yourself as weak, the bigger mobs will try to kill you during the race, purely to up their kill tally. It’s all about the numbers.” Den tried to coach her as they walked toward a large truck sent by the Underlords to collect the competitors. He had given her a rag, and she shoved it in her jacket over her shoulder to staunch the blood flow. It sure didn’t help the pain, but there wouldn’t be time to see Warrick.

  Two guards stood on each side of the truck with a tablet that told them who to collect from the facility.

  “There’s two that have been selected from this gym.” The guard on the left called out to the crowd. “You must present yourself. Now!”

  “I can’t do it.” Heat flooded Kira. She saw the armed guards and stopped, tried to pull away out of Den’s grasp, but it was too str
ong. “I don’t want to die.”

  “You have to go. I’ve sent you help. You just have to trust me,” Den growled into her ear. “Now stand up and make me proud. Show them, Kira, what you’re made of.”

  “Uh, meat and witty sarcasm.” There it went, her odd humor that popped up whenever she was scared, her crazy defense mechanism.

  “Well, I think most would like at least one of those attributes.” At least he was trying to help ease the tension.

  “The chosen will present themselves now!” The guard took out his gun and was about to fire it into the crowd when Kira separated herself from the monsters.

  “I’m here.” She walked forward, shoulders back, head lifted high. She held up her white blinking band, and they scanned it before nodding for her to get into the truck bed. She looked back to her trainer out of the corner of her eyes. A sad sigh escaped his thin lips. His body language said he didn’t think she was going to come back alive.

  The two guards snickered and shuffled from side to side. If Kira wasn’t already in pain from her shoulder, she probably would have thought of another witty comeback, but all she had the energy to do was glare back at his butt-chin in anger.

  Everyone—runners, slaves, trainers, and even Warrick—had gathered outside as they waited for the other chosen to appear. There was a long buzzing noise that resounded through the compound, and a few minutes later, the doors to one of the buildings opened.

  A tall, slim man wearing an Aerosmith t-shirt strode out cheering loudly. The crowd yelled and patted his back. Kira recognized Chaz’s dark-tipped hair as he turned and pumped his fists at the crowd. He leapt into the air and the truck shook under his weight. He waved and ducked under the frame. Then he plunked down on the bench and held out his wrist with a grin.

  The guard scanned Chaz’s white blinking band. He was the other chosen.

  When he saw her, his smile disappeared. He raised his lips and let out a low growl that could be felt through the floor of the truck. A moment later, he plastered his smile back on and returned to playing the crowd.

  They chanted his name over and over like he was their idol. Maybe now that Creeper was dead, he’d become the crowd’s favorite.

  “Now it’s time for open enrollment.” The guard with the tablet swept his hand toward the truck. “You’ll be paid for entering.”

  Kira couldn’t help but feel that the whole selection process was similar to cattle being loaded on a truck and sent to slaughter. A few shoved each other towards the truck, but it didn’t seem like any were serious.

  And then, two other volunteers appeared from among the milling monsters and hesitantly entered the truck. One was a tall willowy man, the other an Amazonian woman wearing leather armor. Each of their bands were loaded with tokens for volunteering.

  When no one else came forward, one of the guards climbed in the back with them, and the other closed the truck bed and headed for the driver’s seat.

  The double doors of the gym opened again and, with little fanfare, a single figure walked out. There was no convoy of aggressive fans or well-wishers following him. The crowd did quit whistling long enough to part in surprise as the zeke headed toward the truck. The group whispered among themselves.

  He jumped into the truck bed and didn’t look at her. There was something on the side of his mouth, and his eyes didn’t look as feral as they did a few moments ago. But that didn’t mean he found the attacker. With the way he was ignoring her, she’d guess no.

  As the engine roared to life, the crowd began screaming again and wishing everyone luck. A tug at the back of Kira’s jacket made her turn around in surprise.

  An older man with unbelievably bright blue hair and blue eyes spoke to her through the slats. “I’m betting on you to finish the race.” She tried to raise her head to see more of him, so she could remember him, but he disappeared into the crowd.

  It was singlehandedly the nicest thing anyone had said or done for her. Just that comment made her believe in herself, because someone else believed in her. She tried to remember if she had ever seen the man with blue hair and couldn’t place him.

  “To the Crystal Gorge,” the driver said. “I got to sit front row once, and got christened with the remains of some loser. Nice, eh?”

  The other guard grunted his approval. “Feel like it gave ya good luck?”

  “Yeah, yeah.”

  The Crystal Gorge was, a fan favorite, Ferb had said, because something so beautiful had been turned into something so deadly. What else had he told her?

  The guards’ dry laughter made her skin crawl, especially when the driver kept looking through the rearview mirror directly at her. She shifted her eyes and stared at her feet, which only caused him to laugh louder.

  No one spoke in the truck bed. Once the crowd was gone, the reality of their future was upon the runners. False bravado and fake smiles deserted them, replaced by a few coughs and an awkward silence. Even the exuberant Chaz’s mood mellowed in the seriousness of the situation. He rested his head on his knees and actually seemed to be sleeping. If only she could figure out how to do that.

  She would have tried to make conversation with the woman warrior but decided it was better to distance herself from her. It would be easier to not know someone’s name if they were going to be dead in a few hours. Was that being heartless? Kira didn’t think so. It felt practical.

  Something tickled her collarbone, and she reached up. Her fingers came away wet with blood. It didn’t hurt anymore, but she must have jostled the wound. She tried to hide and wipe off the blood but was unsuccessful. Three hungry pairs of eyes stared at her, as if the blood were an aromatic perfume. The willowy man actually licked his lips. Chaz lifted his head from his knees and studied her through squinted eyes. Zeke’s eyes were the most calculating of all—void of emotion.

  Kira had to wonder what would possess any of the last three to volunteer for the race. Did they need the money? Were they in debt? Or was it for the glory? Reluctantly, she tried to focus on the coming race.

  She needed to settle her stomach and nerves, to remember everything Ferb said about Crystal Gorge. After all, he’d made her watch a video of the last gauntlet held there. Obviously, crystal was the theme. Many traps and roadblocks were made out of the beautiful but deadly crystal. There were hidden pitfalls filled with dagger-sharp crystal, a trek up a sharpened crystal mountain, and what else? Her mind drew a blank, and she groaned in frustration. She never would have believed that she would be thanking Warrick for making her watch all of those videos. They may be her only hope of survival.

  Moments later, the truck slowed as it passed through the gates into a valley filled with brightly colored tents and small outbuildings. There, guards carried no guns. But then again, none were needed when your weapon was large teeth and you sported claws capable of ripping someone to shreds.

  Kira had been expecting cages, similar to Grater’s courtyard. She was surprised when women floated out of a building wearing silk translucent dresses. No wait, the dresses weren’t translucent—the girls were. They surrounded each of the trucks and waited as the back gate was lowered and each of the runners stepped down onto the stone pavement. The ghost-like apparitions separated and stood by each runner waiting patiently.

  Kira hung back and watched as Chaz followed the ghost girl almost eagerly, followed by the willowy man, and the warrior woman, and finally the zeke. When the courtyard was empty accept for Kira and her ghostly escort, she slowly followed what she assumed was her specter into the building.

  The scene inside could only have been described as fattening the pig for a slaughter. Her specter led her into a room with sterile white furniture and tables. Chaz was reclining on an off-white couch, eating from a huge array of food laid out on clear glass trays and plates. Zeke stood by a window looking outside of the building.

  A flat screen TV hung on the main wall, and it played announcements and promoted the upcoming race—scheduled for a few hours from now.

  On the scr
een, two warlocks bickered back and forth on who they thought would win today’s race.

  ***

  Remus ignored the commentators as he waited in the sponsors’ box for his precious cargo. Howl should have been here an hour ago. Remus didn’t like to be kept waiting.

  Ssirone walked in and made himself comfortable in the large chair by the window, the perfect spot to wait and watch the games. “There’sss a rumor that you entered a human girl.” He turned to look at Remus, a smug smile on his snake-like face.

  “She was drafted,” Remus snarled, “and I wouldn’t worry about her much longer.”

  “Too bad ssshe wassssn’t drafted before ssshe killed your zeke,” Ssirone said.

  Remus wanted to comment, but his bracer beeped and a message came across the screen.

  They were here. Finally, a boggart.

  Moments later, Howl, a muscular man with gray hair, came into the room leading a boggart as large as an ogre in chains. The thing had pale white flesh with reddish eyes and very sharp teeth. A killing machine. Just not against him.

  “You’re late,” Remus said, while trying to hide his pleasure at the retaining the new fighter.

  “You’re early,” Howl countered and pulled on the chain. The boggart went wild and leapt forward to attack Remus, his mouth snapping, and claws aimed at his throat. Howl pulled back on the chain with inches to spare.

  “Oh ho! I like that,” Remus cheered at Bogeyman’s attempt to kill him. “Such a killing instinct. Does he take orders?”

  “Only if they are to kill.” Howl’s muscles bunched as he strained to keep the boggart under control.

  Ssirone had obviously not liked the fact that there was a feral runner in the room, because he quickly exited out a side door.

  “Leave us,” Remus commanded. He waved at Howl who looked unsure. “Drop his chain and go! I don’t need you anymore.”

  Howl snarled, wolf-like. “Your neck, not mine.” He released the boggart’s chain and left the same way he came.

 
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