Chapter one: The Newcomers
It had been two days since the incident. After they arrived at the center, the two had been placed in holding pens in a small building just inside the center's walls, waiting for "handlers". The handlers where the people who would be taking over the training and discipline of each individual shifter, and each dog was assigned a handler based on their behavior and personality. Currently, Dallas paced like a wild cat in the cage he'd been forced into, angry at his lack of space and being separated from his sister. From what he'd heard, she was going through the handling process now, and he swore that anyone who laid a hand on her would get it from him later. He'd seen the man that he'd bitten, Roberto Bertolini walking around earlier, his arm in a sling. He'd given Dallas a dirty look, but he was not to be Dallas's handler since he'd managed to wound him so easily. Dallas was pleased by this, at least for now.
The sound of a door opening alerted Dallas, and his head turned to the front of the building. A gray haired woman and a skinny black haired man that wasn't Roberto walked briskly down the hallway before stopping in front of him. He knew immediately that they were there for him, since he was the only dog who was there. He immediately stood stiff and defensive, snarling loudly at the two of them. The woman "tsk"'d loudly, and looked over at the man next to her.
"Jim, get the dog out. I'm too old to be bothering with the frisky ones." She handed him a leather muzzle, and the man unlocked the cage door. Before Dallas could do anything, the man Jim had a strong arm wrapped around his neck, and the muzzle had been slipped around his head and tightened. Jim stepped back as Dallas swatted at his head, trying desperately to get out of it. It was no use however, and the coydog could only growl loudly as the woman hooked her fingers under the muzzle and dragged him from the cage. "You'd do best to walk with us dog, or else." Dallas wanted to know exactly what "or else" meant, but seeing how his mouth was clamped shut at the moment, he walked behind them, his steps laced with shame and loathing.
They stepped out into the bright, hot, sunlit outside, and Dallas stopped. A few feet in front of them was a large dirt pit, surrounded by metal fencing. Men and women stood crowded around it, and Dallas growled as he took a few steps backwards. Again, however, the woman snagged him by the front of the muzzle and dragged him forward, not stopping until she'd locked him inside of the pit.
"Still as strong as ever I see, Tailen," Jim started to laugh, but was stopped abruptly as her aged blue eyes met his, cold as ice.
"The beast is weak. He hasn't eaten or drank in quite a few days, and he's thin. If he were at his peak, I'm sure that you wouldn't have been able to get the muzzle on him. We would've had to tranquilize him." The woman, Tailen then leaned over and loosened the muzzle, taking it from Dallas's head before he could bite her. She was right; although he was immortal, their immortality did not keep them from feeling the effects of hunger and thirst, and he was much weaker than he would have normally been. He was determined not to let it slow him down, and the coydog lifted his head as he trotted around the pen, tail lashing from side to side, the fur along his spine still stiff.
"Here are some ground rules," Tailen announced again, and Dallas growled as he passed where she stood outside of the fencing. "While the handling takes place, you are to remain in your animal form. Under no circumstances can you turn forms or attempt to escape. Is that clear, beast?" Dallas snarled loudly, but her face remained stone cold. "Good. In that case, let the games begin." She waved an arm, and a burly cowboy heaved himself over the fencing, standing in front of Dallas. His tail twitched slowly, and the man approached, a rope swinging from his hand. Dallas waited, standing stiff and still, before the man threw the rope at him, aiming to lasso him in like he might cattle or a horse. To his surprise, Dallas caught the looped rope with his teeth, pulling the man to the ground before he jumped on the man's back, managing to tear through his jacket before being shaken off. The man ran to the edge of the fence again, pulling himself over and running off.
Now with his ego successfully inflated, Dallas lifted his head and trotted about the ring again, wagging his tail and letting his tongue hang out as he panted. Some of the other men looked at each other questioningly, and for a few moments there were only hushed whispers around the edge of the ring. Finally, another man heaved himself over the fencing and faced Dallas. He was a small, pencil-haired man, and he held a piece of red, raw steak in his hands. The food looked enticing, and the smell made Dallas's mouth water. His stomach growled, and he was reminded of how hungry he was, but he was determined not to let this man get the better of him. Dallas crept forward slowly like a cat, and the man grinned, reaching for the rope that the previous man had discarded. He held the meat in the small gap between his knees, and before he could act, Dallas rushed forward, grabbing him by the hand and flipping him over onto his back. The man howled in pain, and let go of the meat that Dallas held in his jaws. He didn't hesitate as he ran to the other side of the ring, chewing happily on his prize.
"The dog's got brains," Jim remarked as the man climbed over the fence, nursing his bleeding hand. "What do you think, Tailen?"
"I think we wait," the woman replied sharply, and Jim shrugged as he watched the next man go to face Dallas.
Ten others followed in his footsteps, and none of them were successful. Dallas remained without a handler, and all of the others were unwilling to step into the ring to attempt to face him. Just as Jim was moving to muzzle him again, a man parted the crowds.
"Maiza!" Jim exclaimed as he scrambled down from the fence, running up to the Warden. Maiza regarded him with a small nod as he walked towards the fence, leaning against it. "This dog is possessed, I tell you. Nobody has been able to get a rope on him, I swear, he's not like the others." Maiza looked at Dallas, mild curiosity sparkling in his eyes. The russet-furred coydog stopped in his tracks and looked at Maiza as well, tilting his head, reflecting the curiosity in his own cobalt blue eyes.
Ignoring Jim's frantic warnings, Maiza heaved himself over the fence, crouching down beside it, still keeping his eyes on Dallas. There was something different about this man, Dallas could tell, something kinder and warmer. Something unusual. They said that he was the Warden of this place, which meant he was their leader, but this man was nothing like the cruel people gathered around the ring.
"Nonsense, Jim. He just wants to be treated as human." Maiza held out his right hand, as though waiting for a handshake, and Dallas trotted over to him briskly. Within a few moments, Maiza was gripping Dallas's hand firmly in his own as the shifter sat before him, not as a dog, but as a human. He had violated the "rules" that Tailen had set down, but he didn't care much. He'd seen the hand as an invitation, and he'd taken it. "My name is Maiza Avaro. What's yours?"
"Dallas Genoard," Dallas finally spoke, and the people around the ring reeled back in shock. Tailen just shoot he head, muttering under her breath, and Jim crossed his arms.
"I don't like it, I don't like how he treats those things like people."
A few hours later, after he'd been collared and fed, Dallas was led into the main camp by Maiza.
"As you can see, I'm the warden of this unfortunate place, Cave of Fortunes Rehabilitation Center. If it were up to me, I'd let all of the dogs out and lock up all the handlers, but it's not up to me."
"I thought you were the warden?" Dallas asked as he followed Maiza down the dirt road that led to the main congregation area for the dogs. Maiza sighed heavily at this and put his hands in his pockets.
"I am, but I have to answer to higher officers. There are people who oversee these centers. I have to make it look like something legitimate is going on here whenever they come around, or else I risk having all of the handlers turn on me. They'd probably burn me alive." Dallas was quiet after that, although many questions burned in the back of his mind. He knew the likelihood of Maiza answering them was slim, however, so he didn't say anything. "The rules in this place are pretty strictly enforced. Keep in mind these were set forth by the Warden before me, and if I wanted to change them, I'd risk...well, you know." Dallas nodded knowingly, and Maiza continued, reciting the rules as if he'd memorized them from a list. "All shifters must be in bed by midnight. All shifters must be collared at all times unless with written permission from their handlers. Shifters are not allowed to attack their handler. Shifters must obey humans without question. Shifters must remember the times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or else they will not eat. Those times are six o' clock, twelve o' clock, and six o' clock again. Above all, any shifter who attempts to escape will be punished with to the fullest extent of our ability. The breaking of any of these rules will result in a punishment of the handler's choosing."
"Sounds like prison," Dallas muttered. He knew that there was no way he'd be able to uphold all of those rules; he'd been rebellious almost his entire life. He figured that he was lucky to have Maiza as a handler, considering that he didn't seem to enjoy these rules himself.
"You've been to prison?" Maiza asked, and Dallas shook his head.
"No, but my grandfather did. Fought every guy there, every guard, everyone. Said it was the most fun he'd had in his entire life." A smile came to Dallas's face when he thought of his family, but was overtaken by a frown when he remembered the trouble that he'd landed Eve in. When he remembered how he was separated from his grandfather, father, and brother when they tried to escape after the Great Purge of 1929. Dallas swallowed something heavy in the back of his throat and lifted his head a bit as the congregation area came into view.
"Be careful when you go out there the first time, alright? They're fighting dogs, all of 'em, right down to the youngest ones." Maiza told him, and Dallas tilted his head. "That's what makes this place really bad. Besides all the abuse, every dog here...they're all fighting dogs. There's a fight every week."
"And you can't do anything 'cause they'll burn you at the stake, right?" Dallas muttered, feeling the hair on his neck stand up. Maiza nodded, and he stopped at the end of the dirt road. Dallas could see many shabby cabins and buildings around the area, and he stopped next to Maiza.
"I'm afraid I can't go any further. The dogs...they don't like me." Dallas didn't have to be told. He could tell by the way that they all stiffened and looked at him that he was not welcome there. "Good luck." Maiza patted him on the shoulder before turning and walking back down the road. Dallas hesitated for a moment, looking over at all of the dogs who had now gathered in front of him. Deciding the best thing to do would be to continue forward, Dallas started walking, adopting a feral look in his eyes, bunching up his shoulders as he approached on stiff legs. A few whispers broke out as he passed through the crowd.
"That's the one, the brother to the little Genoard girl."
"He looks wild. They're coydogs, right?"
"Look, he's the one who fought off all the handlers! He's with Maiza now, they say."
"Hey, Wild One!" Dallas's head turned as he was addressed. A young-looking shifter wearing an old green hat trotted up to him, his bushy tail wagging from side to side. "You're tha' one who fought off all those handlers, right? Must've taken some skill, most of tha' newbies are too sick and weak ta' fight anybody by tha' time they get here. What's your name?" Dallas remembered Maiza's warning, that they were all fighters, but this boy didn't look like much of a threat. One of his ears twitched, and his posture relaxed only slightly.
"Dallas Genoard." He repeated again, and the other shifter's tail started to wag more.
"Firo Prochainezo," he announced, pretending to puff up his chest a bit. "But everyone here just calls me Kid. We all have nicknames, tha's mine, and now you have one too."
"Wild One?" Dallas guessed, now regarding Firo in a way similar that he might regard a child. His nickname was fitting. "And why's that my nickname, 'cause I'm a coydog?" Dallas was used to being called a lot of things because of his breeding, but surprisingly, Firo shook his head.
"Nah. It's 'cause of how ya' fought off all those guys, obviously," Firo scoffed as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. Dallas looked caught off guard for a minute, something he wasn't quite used to, and his ears twitched again. Before he could say anything more, he felt something run into his side, and he looked down to see Eve, clutching him tightly and burying her face in his side.
"Dallas!" She cried, her arms wrapped around his waist like a boa constrictor, not wanting to let him go. She was shaking slightly, and Dallas wrapped his arms around her as well, leaning down and nuzzling into the top of her head. "Oh Dallas, you're okay!" She looked just the same as when Dallas had seen her before she'd been taken away, except for the collar that now sat around her neck, the mark of the Center. His jaw tightened a bit, but there wasn't anything he could do as he was reminded of the presence of his own collar, feeling the leather rub against his own neck.
"Of course I am, Angel. Did they hurt you?" He asked, and she shook her head.
"No, no, they didn't. But that Roberto man...he's my handler." Dallas's grip around Eve tightened.
"Roberto? You mean Bertolini? I feel bad for ya'," Firo chided, sitting a little ways away from the siblings. "He's got his arm in a sling though, so you'll probably be okay until he gets his pride back."
"Yeah, I bit him," Dallas remarked as Eve finally pulled away, but stayed at an arm's distance. Firo's eyes widened at this, and a grin spread across his face.
"You did that?" Firo asked in awe, and Dallas nodded. "Ha, you're more interesting than I thought ya'd be, Wild One. Looks like you and tha' little Angel there are gonna fit in just fine here. Just wait until you meet The Boss, I'm sure she'll love you."
"The Boss?" Dallas could tell by the way that Firo correctly pronounced "the" that she must have been a high authority figure, and Firo nodded.
"Yeah, she's the Alpha dog to this pack. We may not always answer to the handlers, but everybody does what The Boss says. She's tha' only dog who doesn't have a handler. She's not here right now, sometimes she disappears for days on end. Nobody knows where she goes, so you might not be able to see her for a couple of days." Dallas was interested to hear more about this leader, but Eve tugging on his hand brought his attention back to her.
"I'm tired," she told him quietly. "Let's go to bed, Dallas." The sun hadn't set yet, but to be honest, the fight and having little food and water in his system had tired Dallas out. He nodded, gripping her hand, and as he turned to leave with her, Firo called out;
"Hey! Meet up with me tomorrow, I'll introduce you to everyone!" He waved after them, and Dallas waved back as Eve led him into one of the cabins. There was a small clipboard with a few names on it, and two of them were theirs. Inside, there were three dressers, three bunkbeds, and a small window with a large desk in front of it. Eve settled in the bottom bed of the middle bunk, and she looked over at Dallas expectantly, her ears erect and alert. He couldn't ignore her longing glance, and he settled down next to her, one arm resting around her waist. They had no nightclothes to change into, so he supposed they'd just fall asleep there like that.
Eve fell asleep within minutes of lying there, but Dallas stayed awake, running his fingers through her hair. He tried not to think about what he'd gotten them into, not to think about what was going to happen to them, but he couldn't help it.
He wiped a few stray tears away with the back of his hand as he rested his head next to hers and finally let himself relax, if only for sleep.