In a way he'd come to love them and maybe that was the real crime.
Because there he could smash, and bash, and sink his teeth into something that gave under his jaws and squalled and screamed and bled. There, he could slice and shred and tear his opponent to literal pieces all while the crowd cheered him on. And the more brutal he became, the more fights he won, the louder they cheered.
Not that that mattered to him.
It wasn't about the clamor of the mob, or his status as the greatest fighter on the circuit, wasn't about the thousands of dollars that he brought in for the men that fought him. He didn't see any of it anyways. He was still staked out on the same chain in the same steel kennel every night, come rain or shine.
No, for him it was all about the fight, about giving and taking as much pain as possible because it was pain that cut through the anger.
He'd almost lost the first time; beaten, drugged, confused, and tossed in against a massive cur that was covered in scars and strapped with muscle. He'd barely managed to escape with his life, but he was a fast learner and fighting gave him an outlet. He'd come back to society because he felt ready, thought he finally had control of the anger that had consumed him after the fire, but he'd been horribly, horribly wrong. For months after his capture he had railed and raged against the bars that confined him, against the hands of the men that wrapped chains around his neck and dragged him to and from the ring, clubbed him and whipped him and drove him half to madness… until one day he stopped.
After that, fighting quickly became his salvation. He didn't remember when, or why, or if he even really did give up, but from then on he let himself be dragged, clubbed, whipped, anything they wanted until he got thrown down into the dirt with an opponent and then there was no controlling him at all. The hot ball of fury he tamped down so hard would take him over and he saw red, ripping and tearing and slashing at anything in his path, unleashing the bottled up wrath of years on whatever sorry bastard had been tossed in with him.
They'd fought him against dogs at first, for a long time. Made him wonder if they even knew what he was. But of course they did. Somehow… they knew. They were smart enough to keep him drugged with a mild dose of mistletoe, a plant that worked much like wolfsbane and kept him locked inside his wolf form, so of course they knew. And he guessed that in the end it didn't matter how, or why. He had been immature, long and lanky with youth when he'd been captured, only just re-emerged into the world after hiding away in isolation for years after the fire that had destroyed his entire family. It had taken a good year before the vicious training and constant fights had turned him into what he was today – a powerhouse of experienced muscle, a ruthless killing machine whose control balanced on a hair-trigger.
And so slowly he slowly grew in size and in savagery, his fights becoming more and more brutal, the masses demanding greater and greater stakes; multiple opponents, wild animals, once or twice another werewolf, usually older, knotted and scarred from years of like treatment, driven almost mad from the constant exposure to the mistletoe which burned through their veins and made their bodies ache.
Still, it made no difference.
Sure, some fights were harder than others, like the time they sicced a whole pack of skinny lion hounds on him at once, or the time they brought in a small black bear they'd gotten from a zoo that had shut down. On those days he had to be carried out of the pits, collapsing under the weight of his injuries to the tune of the victory bells. On those days, he was lucky he healed fairly fast. Broken bones, deep lacerations that cut through layers of muscle, sweeping gashes that threatened to disembowel…
He welcomed the pain. Agony was a language he understood.
And in the end, it made no difference.
In the end, they all died the same way.
With his teeth in their throats.
Tonight wouldn't be any different.
It was almost his turn. He could feel it. From his cramped steel cage at the back of the warehouse he could hear the snaps and snarls of whichever beast preceded him into the arena, smell the blood, feel the pounding of feet vibrating up through the dirt floor as the crowd stamped and shouted, called encouragement and placed their final bets. It would only last a few minutes – the new ones never lasted long – and then it would be over, with a hiss and a death rattle from a broken throat.
A gentle clink drew his attention; a figure looming out of the dim and dirt, brandishing a baseball bat and a length of chain. He felt his hackles rise and he growled low in his throat; mostly just for the show of it. He had long ago given up the battle against the men who owned him, given up rebelling against the clubs and the modified, electric cattle-prods. The door of his crate swung open with a rusty creak and he held deathly still, hardly daring to breathe as hands reached in, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him out, looping the links of steel around his muzzle and behind his ears and twisting tight. The chain bit into him but he didn't show his teeth, didn't balk when the man who smelled like sweat and stale beer began to walk him into the center room, just got to his feet and trotted lightly at his side, keeping up his low warning growl as they went.
A warning growl that went entirely ignored.
The man pulled him swiftly down the tight, narrow corridor that cut through the throngs of people crowded around the makeshift pit, and he was quick to jump over the cheap, particle board wall before he could be thrown over it. Faces swam all around him, shouting, brandishing money and betting slips, a cacophony of sound and movement. A bare, dirty bulb swung lazily above his head, casting shadows in every direction. Once the noise had distracted him and made his sensitive ears ring, but now he tuned it out, the din fading away until all he could hear was the wild thunder of his own heartbeat, the harsh in and out of his breathing. The anger came over him hard and fast, boiled and bubbled up, setting his blood alight with adrenaline, his body flush with power. Widening his stance he clawed at the earth, ducked his head and snarled, spit dripping down gleaming canines.
Across the pit, two massive Rottweilers were thrown over the wall; huge, muscular males that stood almost as tall as he did. A quick sniff and a preliminary glance told him that these were brothers, raised and trained together, and he knew he was in for a good battle tonight. They would move in perfect synchronicity, hit him from both sides and protect each other's weaknesses, and with a bite force that came closer to rivalling his than most of his previous adversaries, they would serve well in putting him through his paces. Straining against the chain that held him in his corner, he put every ounce of rage and hatred that he had into a bone-chilling roar. Several spectators fell back from the edges of the pit, but the dogs only whined and lunged, throwing their weight hard at the end of their restraints.
He felt hands around his neck gripping the chains close, ready to throw them off, and then the bell clanged and he was free.
Leaping forward he barreled towards the larger of the two dogs, using his broad chest to slam into it and knock it off its feet, but before he could drive in for its throat the second was on him, throwing a leg over his back as it clamped down hard on the base of his neck. Bucking his powerful shoulders, he threw it off and rushed it before it could regain its balance, ripping a long, curving gash over its ribs. He felt one of his ears tear as the first dog came at him again, and he snarled at the tang of his own blood hitting the air. Spinning around, he ducked low and came in hard, just getting his teeth on the thick rolls of muscle in the neck. In another fight it would've meant one dog down, but before he could shake his head, before he could lock his jaws and crush the windpipe or break the great, pumping artery in the throat, he felt a vicious pain in his side where the second tore at his soft belly behind his rib cage. Shaking loose he leapt away, getting a bit of space with his back to the wall.
Above the fight men screamed and shoved, faces twisted, mouths gaping as they cursed and jostled for a better view, but he didn't spare them a second's attention. He had all he could deal with right in front of him, hitting him left and right like freight trains as they tried to tear him apart, opening wounds wet and red and raw on his hide. He didn't give a thought to losing, he never did, not that it wasn't always a very real possibility. This fight was hard and fast and fierce, and it was close, oh so close. Just the way he liked it, quite literally battling for his life. He thought the tide might turn when he got hold of the smaller dog's throat, bit hard and tasted a burst of coppery blood on his tongue, but just as he reared back with a vicious, twisting thrash he felt teeth on his foreleg, powerful jaws crushing, grinding down until the bone snapped and he turned with a sharp cry, slashing at the Rottweiler's eyes and face until it let go and fell back.
Staggering away to the back of the ring, he heaved and gasped for air, his brain a whirling fog of pain and fury. His eyes burned blue, his fangs lengthened, his claws sharpening as he dug them into the earth. To his left the smaller of the two dogs lay gurgling and kicking in the dirt, not long for the world, but his bigger problem was stalking towards him, slowly, steadily. He pulled his lips back hard in a wrinkled mask of hatred, showing dripping white canines as he let out a horrific, spine-tingling snarl, but it did nothing to stop the dog's advance. His mangled leg hung at an awkward angle, blood soaked his fur where it poured from his many wounds and ran down the side of his face from the tattered remains of his ear, and still he stood, strong, defiant, and angry. What was about to come would be violent, fast, and agonizing, and he snapped his teeth, bracing himself for the pain.
His vision flashed and he saw his opponent, as if in slow motion, gather itself, saw its hind legs curl, ready to spring, and then the world exploded.
Warning bells rang out and in an instant chaos reigned, the people crowded around the pit scattering like roaches. He flinched, hunched low as he sought out the source of the panic, his eyes searching. Above the shouting, above the pounding feet and jostling, the barking and the clang of kennels and chains he could hear sirens, hear the slamming of car doors, the schlock of cartridges being pumped into rifle chambers. Someone tripped over the low wooden wall and into the ring, looped a leather strap around the neck of the startled Rottweiler and began to drag it away, and in the commotion, above the cacophony, something in him jumped. Snapping his head from side to side, his enhanced eyesight quickly found a clear path between all the running, between all the boots and ratty sneakers kicking up furrows in the dust. There, on the other side of the warehouse, sunlight pouring through a hole punched in the bottom of the corrugated metal wall.
This was his chance, his first and probably only chance and he froze.
A thousand thoughts ran through his mind, a thousand fears, and none of them mattered. It didn't matter that he didn't know what was out there. Didn't matter that he knew nothing about the world outside of the pits, knew nothing about the law. All he knew was that this was his chance.
Lunging forward, he leapt the wall with one smooth, easy bound, staggering on his bad leg when he landed on the other side. Ignoring the hot, vicious pain the slashed at him when the broken shards of bone grated together he bolted madly for the opening, lowering his shoulder and crashing through the narrow space. For a minute he was blinded, the late afternoon sunlight cutting at him as he lost his footing and went careening nose over tail down a steep incline, landing hard on bruised ribs in refuse-filled ditch. Dazed and aching, he lay as still as he could, pressed low in two inches of cold, filthy water as he tried to catch his breath, shouts and sirens blaring overhead.
Finally, with a low snarl of pain, he dragged himself shakily to his feet and ran.