The crowd was a restless beast. Feet pounded on floorboards. Last minute bets rang out. Tension oozed down the walls and through the air. An oily serpent gathering every heckle and cry to itself, pulsing and growing and filling what space the jostling bodies could not occupy.
Taggart sat below all of this. He was in a dimly lit room, the only source of light was a bulb dangling on a length of electric chord. It jerked and shuddered with every footfall. Light flickered against the bare walls. Bits of dirt jostled free from the wooden slats above and danced around Taggart like some poor man’s confetti. His eyes were closed and he sat on a concrete bench. It was nothing more than a cold, grey slab. The chill pressed against his naked skin and into his muscles and bones. His feet rested on hard packed earth. Distantly, Taggart could hear his name weaving through the crowd. Distantly, he could feel fingers squeezing his shoulders, but Taggart was in a far off place and he wasn’t ready to come back. Not yet.
“Tag, come on boy.”
The voice floated down to Taggart. It plucked at him, an echo getting louder, digging into him and pulling, pulling.
Taggart let out a slow breath. He opened his eyes. Dull eyes, like the cracked surface of a dried riverbed. Or a potter’s clay still waiting to be glazed. But they would change soon. Just like the rest of him.
The fingers kept digging into Taggart’s flesh, a rhythmic and urgent motion. Taggart rolled his shoulders back. It was his way of letting his Keeper, Kabeer, know that he had surfaced. Taggart didn’t want to talk. The words would cut through his focus. They would shatter the fragile calm that he had constructed over the last hour.
Kabeer released his hold on Taggart. There was a loud clap as the Keeper’s hands came together. Taggart let the noise roll over his body.
“Ah! There’s my boy!”
Kabeer stepped around and leaned his face into Taggart’s.
Kabeer’s was an old face. A grizzled face, lined and pock marked. Grey stubble covered his cheeks and a thick scar ran against the line of his jaw. There was a slight stoop to his body where age had taken his strength and gravity was pulling him down, but Kabeer fought back. You could see it in the clench of his jaw and in the spark of his eyes. His body may be falling to the ravages of time, but his mind would not. He stared at Taggart. Burning blue eyes piercing into flat brown.
“Are you ready, boy?”
Taggart nodded. It was the only acceptable answer.
Kabeer’s lips stretched and parted to reveal yellowed teeth. A side effect from the almost constant use of tobacco. Taggart could smell it on the old man’s hair and clothes. A stale cloud formed when Kabeer exhaled. It was a wonder the pipe wasn’t currently stuck between his lips. As if sensing the thought, Kabeer stepped back and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a dark, red pipe along with a bag of dried leaves. His fingers danced a familiar routine across the worn wood and into the folds of the little packet. His eyes did not leave Taggart.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get at it, boy. It’s time to let the Beastie out.”
Taggart stared at his keeper for just a moment longer. He watched pipe meet lips and smoke curdle into the room. And then Taggart let go.
It started in his eyes. Always his eyes. The mud cracked and a burning amber flooded into the open space, pushing and drowning the brown away. His pupils shuddered. Some unseen force pulled and pushed till the black spheres became diamonds. The shift rippled down his spine and Taggart folded into himself. He dropped from the bench. Joints popped. Muscles tore. Heat seared across his skin.
Taggart was silent through it all. It hurt. Oh gods it hurt. He was ripped apart and sewn back together again and again. Of course it hurt.But it was a familiar pain. A constant in his life. Not like the first time. Never like the first time. Taggart took the pain. He gave into the shift. He let himself become.
A shiver rippled across Taggart’s new skin. It was thick and grey and covered in hard, bristle-like hairs. He had a tail now, barbed and deadly. The tip glistened with the promise of the poison inside. A ruff of a mane started between pointed ears and travelled toward a dip in his back. He stood on all fours, much bigger than he had been only moments before. Kabeer stood beside him, barely at a height with Taggart’s shoulders, but even still, Taggart was small for a Beastie. He didn’t see it as a flaw.
Taggart raised his snout and sniffed at the air. Thick gobs of drool hung from a row of razor teeth. He shook his head and flexed his paws. Kabeer smacked Taggart’s side. Taggart growled softly. He needed a moment, just a moment, to get used to this form. Kabeer was always impatient.
“We don’t have all day, boy.”
If it was strange for Kabeer to call a grown man, boy, it was even stranger for the old man to say it to a Beastie that could rip him to shreds in mere seconds. Taggart didn’t dwell on the thought. He didn’t have space for petty concerns. He had a job to do and he would do it well.
With a final shake of his head, Taggart strode into the tunnel and emerged onto the arena floor.
The crowd erupted.
Taggart gave them no heed. The people that came to watch these fights were nothing more than bloodthirsty scum too scared to get their own hands dirty. They’d sit up there, protected by money and status. And they’d look down at Taggart and at whatever other Beastie had been sent into the pit and they’d watch them tear each other apart. They didn’t deserve his attention and if not for the debts he owed, Taggart would not be their entertainment.
The ground shook. Taggart fixed his eyes to the tunnel opposite his. Growls and thuds echoed from the darkness beyond. A hush descended on the crowd. It was a new fighter, at least, new to Taggart. He did not recognise the name, but whoever and whatever was coming to face Taggart, it was colossal.
It seemed for a moment that the entire space held it’s breath. Only the pounding of those massive feet against the dirt and the roars of that thing filled the space. And then the Beastie exploded onto the sand.
Dirt scattered into the air. The Beastie blasted a circuit around the arena. It growled. It roared. It stood up on it’s hind legs and pounded at it’s chest. The crowd was a mess of shrill delirium. The Beastie was giving them exactly what they wanted. Exactly what Taggart refused to give. It was a sore point for Kabeer that Taggart refused to show boat. That the crowd so often threw their support at his opposition. But Kabeer had no room to complain. Not when Taggart kept his purse full. It was the win that mattered. Not the spectacle.
Taggart kept silent watch as his opponent continued the wild performance.
While Taggart’s Beastie looked like something crossed between a boar and a hound, this Beastie was a Gorilla through and through. A massive, hairy primate that could crush Taggart in one hand. Wicked fangs descended from it’s jaws and muscles bulged from every limb. Deadly, for sure, but if this pre-fight performance told Taggart anything it was that this fighter was erratic.
A deafening buzz sounded across the arena and the crowd fell silent. The Gorilla turned to face Taggart and without warning, it stormed at him. The fight had begun.
Taggart sidestepped the first charge easily. The gorilla turned with him and charged again. This time, Taggart moved toward his opponent. He ducked beneath one meaty arm and sliced his claws against the other Beasties ankle. It was a small strike. A graze, really, but the Gorilla shrieked with uncontrolled rage. Taggart dropped back and surveyed his opponent. For all it’s size, this Beastie was rash and undisciplined. A hand came smashing down. Taggart skirted out of harms way. He ducked around the Gorilla and then struck from behind. His teeth sank into the Gorilla’s exposed flesh. Copper flooded his mouth. Taggart let go and darted out of range.
Taggart spun, muscles bunched and ears alert, ready for the next attack. But it didn’t come. The Gorilla was standing in the centre of the arena, staring down at it’s side. At the blood oozing out of a row of puncture wounds. A minor injury for the arena, and yet, it had caused this Beastie to loose all focus. Taggart watched those hairy arms shudder. His ears pricked at a quiet whimper. The Gorilla looked up and Taggart met it’s eyes. The only thing that glistened in those deep, green pools was fear.
This wasn’t an undisciplined fighter. Not some brute used to winning on size alone. This Beastie was inexperienced. New to the ring and the pain and the bloodshed. Taggart growled again. The organisers should know better than to match fresh fighters against him, no matter their size.
Taggart paced a circle around the Gorilla. It had one giant hand pressed against it’s side. Blood pooled between sausage fingers. It eyed him warily. It was afraid to charge. It was afraid to be struck again. But the match wouldn’t end until one of them crashed into the dirt. Until one of them stopped getting up.
Taggart moved in. He would make it quick. It was the only gift he could give this rookie and maybe it would serve as a lesson in remembering to keep your guard up.
Taggart was a bolt of lightning. He moved in and out, landing quick blows and small strikes. The gorilla howled and spun and tried to keep up, but Taggart was fast and his movements dizzying. In a matter of seconds, Taggart saw his opening. His tail flicked out and the barb struck the Gorilla deep in the chest. Taggart held it there for only a moment, a quick pump of poison into the Gorilla’s veins and then he pulled back and retreated to the other side of the arena. The Gorilla looked down at it’s chest. It looked at Taggart and for a moment, it seemed like the Gorilla would charge, but then it’s body began to sway.
The poison took hold fast. It wasn’t enough to kill the fighter, but it would result in a burning fever that lasted for days. Unpleasant, but the fastest way to get both of them out of this pit. Taggart watched the Beastie twist and sway and then the colossal thing crashed to the ground. The arena shook. A hushed silence descended over the crowd. There was no cheering. There was no sport to this match. Taggart had been too efficient. It had happened too quickly for any of the audience to follow the fight. And Taggart would pay for it. The audience had not got their money’s worth. The organisers would take it from the winnings and Kabeer, in turn, would only increase the debts that Taggart owed. It was a high price to pay for a small act of mercy. A high price for a match that should never have been fought.
Taggart turned, ready to leave, but a flicker of movement caught his eye. He turned back to the arena. The Gorilla was shifting. They weren’t supposed to do that. Not in the arena. Not in front of the audience. Taggart watched, at first in fascination and then in horror. The body kept getting smaller. And smaller.
Taggart ran. He shifted into human as he went, exchanging four legs for two and the cover of his animal hide for fragile human skin. He didn’t care. Damn the rules and damn this place. That fighter was too small. Taggart skidded to a halt beside the body. He dropped to his knees.
A boy. It was just a boy. Taggart cradled one hand beneath the boy’s head and another around his shoulders. He pulled the unconscious form onto his lap. Taggart felt like a giant. His hands were too big, his fingers too clumsy.
This boy too small.
Taggart had been ten the first time his Beastie had surfaced. He remembered the fear. The pain. He remembered the confusion. This boy was barely past his first shift. How was he in the arena?
Taggart looked at the tiny body and at the wounds he had inflicted. At the torn flesh and at the blood. How was there so much blood?
The wounds would have been nothing on an adult, but a child? Taggart looked at the chest wound. The poisoned wound. Already it was red and angry. Already the inflammation spread. Taggart could feel the heat of the fever gathering. The boy’s eyes flickered below his eyelids. He moaned softly.
“I’m sorry,” Taggart whispered. “Oh gods, I’m sorry.”
Taggart adjusted his hold on the boy. He stood. Match officials were hurrying into the arena. Kabeer approached from the left and from the right, the boys Keeper, Elena. It didn’t surprise Taggart. She was a hard lady. Perhaps the most cutthroat of the Keepers. She had to be. She was a woman competing at a man’s game. Taggart understood her why, but it didn’t mean he had to like her. He pulled the boy closer.
“Tag, put the boy down.” Kabeer spoke cautiously.
The Beastie simmered behind Taggart’s eyes.
“He needs medical attention.”
“And I’m sure he will get it.”
“Now Kab! I gave him an adult dose!”
The panic rose in Taggart’s voice. A growl lingered in his throat. Kabeer stepped back. He motioned to Elena. “I am sure his keeper will see to his medical needs.”
Elena stepped close. She looked at the boy and then she motioned to one of her henchmen, “Boyd, take him to the cells. Give him comfort. If he makes it, he makes it, but honestly dear, healers are expensive and I don’t think he’s worth the investment.”
The last was directed at Taggart. A game. Elena knew that Taggart would take the bait. Of course he would. Elena was soulless. She would leave this boy to die.
“I’ll take him.”
Elena arched a brow. “And will darling Kabeer cover the transfer fees?”
Kabeer shook his head. Taggart glared at the both of them. “I’ll take him.”
“You understand the transfer and the healer’s fees will come out of your pay? All future needs, come from you?”
Taggart nodded. He could survive the arena. He could live the pit. The boy didn’t need to.
“I’ll take him.”