The truth is this:
you have met
or will ever meet
was once a human being
with a soul
that was as soft
that silk from their soul
and turned them
So when you see
a monster next
do not fear
the thing before you
fear the thing
that created it
Only one thing separates me from the threat of a probable death—a wooden door.
The door itself is littered with claw marks, huge canyons dug deep into the muscle of the wood, some wide enough that I could fit two or three fingers inside. Clumps of fur cling to the door as well; there is even one long canine tooth lodged in the bottom left corner where the prisoner attempted to bite his or her way free.
I pace back and forth in front of the scarred surface, making a flattened trail in the dirt. The ground where I didn’t walk is still light and fluffy, recently turned over and sifted of any filth. It was an effort to make me think the pen had never been used before. Of course, even if it hadn’t been for the shape of the door, I could smell the fear in every crevice of the small space. The walls practically breathe pheromones, and beneath the fresh layers of dirt, blood waftes up towards me.
This is a death chamber. That much is clear.
As I continue to pace, the sounds of the outside world compound my emotions. Every yowl of pain or roar of anger makes the line of fur down my back stand on end. My nose twitches as it anxiously counts the human bodies lining the stands that I can not see but know are out there. Millions, possibly. The scent was magnified by their screaming, both cheering and crying for the battle beneath.
Everything combined— the stench of the sweating humans, the rumble of their screaming, the impending threat pressing down on me, and the sight of the scarified door— makes my animal-like senses jumble together. I can’t process anything.
How much longer until it is my turn?
How many more seconds until Death finds me?
A loud shriek slices through the air, nails on glass, and I scurry back to the farthest corner of the pen. My hands shoot up over my head; my sharpened nails dig into the soft skin under my hair.
How much longer? How much longer?
To pass the time, I start counting. As high as I can remember. Past one hundred. On through one thousand. The numbers start to blend together, and by two thousand, it is just bursts of unintelligible breaths and grunts.
Then, the lock clicks.
My head shoots up, hands lunge forward to dig into the soft dirt. The animal in me takes over as the handler appears in the frame, and I find myself growling, teeth bared, at the uniformed human in front of me. This is how I’ve been trained to behave at the sight of the handlers, for they mean only one thing. There is only one place a handler has ever taken me.
Whip in one hand, muzzle mask in the other, the handler takes a careful step into my pen.
“Be smart, mutt,” a feminine voice says from under the helmet. “Don’t waste your energy on me.”
I back farther into the wall, baring my teeth. Like my nails, they are filed into razor sharp points. The muscles in my forearms and calves twitch as my eyes search for a way around them.
If I could just get around her. Maybe… Possibly I could get out of here.
The handler’s voice cuts through my planning, and my eyes dart back up to the mask as she inches forward. She extends the whip, and it crackles in the open air. My resolve trembles as I listen to the threads of electricity run through it. She can’t kill me; I am too expensive for her to ever possibly pay for. Yet, she can hurt me. I shake at the memory of many times I’ve come in contact with the electrified whips and prods.
No, it is best to cower down and go willingly.
So, I put my head low to the ground and let her slide the muzzle mask over my head. When the clasp clicks, she steps back out of my reach.
“Smart move,” she comments. “Out.”
Fighting the instincts coursing through me to run or attack or anything, the third of me that is still human rises up on her two feet and staggers out of the pen. Past the door that tells a thousand nightmarish stories, through the dirt that has been combed to cover terrified animal feces, and over to a hallway lined with a thousand more doors and dirt covered pens and crying—
“Dreck!” The handler’s voice is as sharp as her jerk. I’d stopped walking to look around. “Don’t make me drag you.”
Although I would have liked to see her try, as she waves the whip in my direction, I give in and start walking. My body shivers in the thick, warm air. Around me, the noise of The Arena is crescendoing, fluctuating as the fight changes.
The handler stops at another door and pulls a key out of her belt. This one is thicker than my wooden door and shining silver. She turns the key in the lock, and the door slides open on its own. Cold air rushes over us, and I recognize the small room that we step into.
“Get dressed.” She tosses a pile of clothes at my feet, and I scramble to cover my shivering, naked body. Tugging the fabric over my sweat-drenched skin, I force myself to fit into the human-made clothes. I am shaped differently than full-humans. My legs are shorter and more muscular, and I have a thin layer of hair covering most of my body. My teeth are sharper; my ears larger and better. The itchy fabric is forced to stretch itself over my body, and parts of it fit in uncomfortably tight ways. Regardless, I dress without complaint, at last sliding the band around my waist with an identification number attached.
The handler steps aside and points to another door. “Get ready.”
Over the door sat a small light bulb. At the moment, it blinks red, but I have been here before, in this spot in a different waiting room, staring at another identical red light, waiting. The butterflies waging a war in my stomach are old friends of mine; they nest in my rib cage just anticipating the sight of that red light.
Even more so, though, those butterflies dread the moment it turns green. My heart slows in my chest as I stare upwards, waiting and waiting and waiting and–
The red switched over to green, and the lock automatically clicks itself into an open position. The handler grips the heavy handle and holds her free hand to her ear. If I strain, I hear the soft voices coming from her ear piece.
“Okay, Dreck,” she says, this time to me. I want to tell her that ‘Dreck’ isn’t my name. I hate being called that. But it’s better than being called 772, and much nicer than some of the other derogatory terms that the handlers use–filth, mutt, abomination, disgrace. At least Dreck is a title, not a slur.
Yet, I tell her none of this. I’m not allowed to speak to the handlers. Many times I’ve been knocked off my feet due to speaking to the humans. Plus, she doesn’t care. None of them do.
I am a Dreck.
Not a person.
Not even a human.
I am one-third human, two-thirds animal. Genetically speaking, anyway.
“There’s a lot of money riding on you today.” She pulls a small, rectangular box out of her pocket. I’ve never seen one before, but she brushes her finger down the screen in a way I’m somewhat familiar with. There’s a distant memory of what it’s called bouncing around in my head. I can’t catch it, though. “About half a million. I guess that’s what happens when you’re undefeated. Pull this off, and a lot of people are going to be rich. No Dreck has ever won three championships in a row.”
I stare down at my bare feet, trying to squeeze those nasty memories out of my brain. So many sleepless nights spent in the training quarters, starved and dehydrated, bloodthirsty and enraged. So many bodies shattered at my touch, demolished at my teeth. Blood— on my skin, clothes, hair, conscience. The tortures I was created to endure just led to this circle, with its white painted boundaries and black asphalt. Just seeing it makes the instincts that were inserted into my DNA wake up and destroy everything in my path.
Three times today I’ve been here. Three times I’ve felt my heart pounding my ears, the sweat pouring down my back, the hunger growing in my belly, the adrenaline trickling in my veins, the dread squatting between my eyes. In about two seconds, whatever sliver of me that was human was going to be pushed aside by the majority of my new being. In about two seconds, I won’t be able to control myself.
The handler steps aside a little farther and pushes the door open. The world erupts into madness, and for a moment, I’m blinded by the lights and deafened by the sounds. I press my eyes closed and wait for the noise to lessen, but it doesn’t. Instead, I grow used to it. A soft, human hand on my back prompts me to open my eyes, and I take a cautious step forward.
Before me, The Arena stands. The center is a flat, black asphalt lot, marked with a single white line around the center. Water pools on the surface, meaning it was cleaned between fights. I glance up at the stands surrounding me but quickly look back down. Seeing so many humans around me makes me both nervous and angry. I can’t get distracted.
Distraction is loss, and loss means death.
On the complete opposite side of the circle stands a tall figure. They’re lanky, with arms that seem almost as long as their body. While I wear a white outfit, the person standing across from me is wearing soft green. I walk forward, until I’m standing on the white line and can more clearly see my opponent.
For this match, my competitor is a male. His dark hair is slicked back, showing the thin layer of scales that coat his body. The pupils of his eyes are black and slitted, shrouded with brown irises. His long body matches the shape of his face, and there’s no mistake what sort of animal I’m due to face.
Part of my brain relaxes while the other half smells blood. Every muscle in my body tenses, and without warning, I’m on all fours. The gunshot sounds, and everything dissolves into chaos.
The snake may be smaller and faster than I am, but I’ve got brute strength and teeth. Lots of razor sharp teeth. With our bodies entangled, he has an advantage. He writhes and turns, trying to get a clear shot at any slip of bare skin. More than likely, he’s venomous. Escaping his fangs proves harder than expected, too. Every time I manage to get my mouth around some body part, he twists out of my grip, using the slick scales to his advantage.
Desperate for a moment to regroup, I dig my nails into his abdomen and shove him off me. His light body goes skidding in the water, and he stutters for a moment. Long enough for me to plan another strategy.
The voice of my first owner, a ruthless trainer, rings through my head.
Use your strengths. Find the advantage you have and use it for everything it’s worth.
What do I have that a snake doesn’t?
Strength—both in my limbs and my jaw. If I can lock onto him, there’s no hope.
So, I stagger backwards, letting him slowly advance towards me. I anticipate how he’s moving before he does, and draw him close to the boundary. Crossing it is instant disqualification. Disqualification means instant death. Letting him fall out isn’t the ideal way to win, but I would rather stay close than have no Plan B.
My opponent darts forward, and I jump. High. He reaches for me as he slides under, rolling to his back, but my hind legs threw me high and I’m out of his reach. When I come back down, I aim for his arms and legs. Heavy, clawed fingers meet their target and dig into the soft exposed skin of his bare under arm. The claws of my feet tear through the back of his calves like a sword through water.
He roars in pain, thrashing around under me, but it’s too late. I’m heavier than he is, and my four limbs are stronger than he is.
Our eyes meet for the first time as I have him trapped there. The black slits dilate for a moment, and the human shows through.
For half a second, we are two children—kidnapped from our home and morphed into something so inhuman that our creators themselves can’t stand to look at us. In that blink, every mistake I’ve ever made rushes back to me, and I wonder how he ended up here as well. How old is he? Does he have a name, or has he forgotten that like so many others of our kind?
More importantly, is he as terrified as I am right now? Does the threat of instantaneous death make him forget that we are both one-third human, like it does to me? Somewhere, deep under the muscle and fur and claws and starvation and nightmares, we are still human.
The roar of the patrons slams into my ears once again, and I blink hard against the hot tears building in my eyes.
“Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!”
Their screaming becomes chanting, and the moment between us two “its” is gone. The Dreck under me snaps for my throat, and I barely twist out of his way in time.
Such is the reality of this: one of us is dying here. And it’s not going to be me. Not like this.
I wait for the opportune moment and move with incredible speed to clamp my mouth around his throat. My teeth sink in deep, and I taste the blood as it floods my mouth. He screams—the most human sound he has made in the few minutes I’ve known him—and his body convulses under me. Clenching my eyes shut, I jerk my head to the side and take his neck with me. One loud crack echoes beneath us.
The stands go silent, waiting.
I drop the snake’s neck and step back to look at the fourth person I’ve defeated today.
No. The fourth person I’ve killed today.
“And your champion is….. NUMBER 772!”
The humans erupt into roars once again, and the lights come back on to shatter the darkness of The Arena.
Tune in next week to read more!