The wolf doesn’t remember a time before blood and death. It only remembers having to fight to survive; its claws and teeth ripping into the flesh and fur of others like it. It remembers the thick, cloying scent of perfume and a crooning voice that elicits shivers down its back. The bars on its cage, the gruel in its bowl—these things are familiar.
It knows that it’s in the back of a car, knows that that means it’s being transported to a new location where it will be pitted against others like it. Sometimes words from Before pop into its head when it sees or hears something. They don’t always make sense but the wolf doesn’t think too hard about these things. It fights when something living is put in front of it and eats whatever goes into its bowl. Such is its life.
The roar of the vehicle dies and the jarring stops. The wolf waits quietly in its cage, careful not to press up against the bars that are coated in something that leave burns along its fur. The thick collar around its neck is tight, it delivers a warning shock as the doors are opened and the humans poke their heads in.
The woman that makes his hackles rise isn’t one of them, but the balding man—Gerard his mind whispers—is there with a catch pole in one hand. The wolf hates this man, so much so that he doesn’t mind the shocks that come with fighting against the catch pole as it slide arounds its neck. The noose tightens and it chokes as it’s dragged from the cage. Gerard manages to stay just out of reach of its snapping jaws. The other men around Gerard laugh as the wolf lunges for them, reaching the end of the pole and choking itself in the process. It smells burning flesh as the substance coating the pole works past the fur and meets its skin.
The wolf is dragged beneath ground, through steel doors in the ground and down the stairs into a tunnel. It’s dark and smells of ashes. Flashes of bright light and red heat startle the wolf as it inhales deeply. Suddenly the wolf no longer fights because it dislikes its handlers, it fights because this place is bad and it wants out. Even as it’s hauled back into the cage area it can taste the fire.
Even as the catch pole is released it whines pitifully. Gerard only smiles and taps the bars of the cage with the pole, saying something that the wolf does not understand.
Other wolves pace their cages restlessly as the humans kill the lights and slam a pair of massive doors shut behind them. It would appear that tonight they’ll rest, and tomorrow they’ll fight.
Sleep before a fight is important because every wolf is different and no fight is easy. Tonight, though, the wolf can’t find a comfortable position. It circles restlessly on the cement floor, even going as far as to paw in a corner. Its claws scrabble uselessly against the concrete and it whines in distress. Another wolf barks, but the wolf does not answer. It claws at the floor until the pads on its paws are worn down and its nails and stubs. It bleeds at some point, but the wolf has always healed quickly and pain is nothing new.
Somehow the night passes like that. It isn’t until the steel doors crack open again that the wolf stops its restless pawing and pacing. The floor of its cage is a bloody mess and its nails have been worn down past stubs. A handler tsks at it but does nothing else. The wolves bark eagerly as food is brought in. It’s tasteless, but the wolf doesn’t remember what taste even is.
For some reason, when the metal bowl is slid through the slot and into its metal cage the wolf doesn’t even think about eating it. Today its stomach is roiling around uncomfortably. The wolf feels like curling up in the corner and throwing up. Again the handler comes by its cage, smacking a shock baton against the bars at the front of the cage when the wolf refuses to eat. The man says something, but the wolf doesn’t even bother trying to pretend, just licks at its paws in the corner. The bowl is pulled from the cage and does not make a reappearance. Not that the wolf was saving it for later, it’s glad to see the bowl gone.
Hopefully the other wolves will eat slowly because as soon as they finish eating the fights for the day will begin. The wolf doesn’t hate the others and it knows that they don’t hate it either. These fights are just another fact of life for them, something as simple as breathing.
Except this time, right as the others finish eating and are licking their chops for any stray chunks they might have gotten on their muzzles, another wolf is brought in. Usually all the wolves come in the night before to settle for the night. This is new; the wolf doesn’t like new. The strange wolf is too bright eyed, too young for the wolf to be comfortable. It doesn’t seem wary of the others and even looks the wolf in the eyes for a short time before it looks away quickly. Most wolves refuse to meet its eyes, most will simply roll onto their backs and bare their throat outside of a fight to it. Inside a fight is the same, no one shows submission. Two walk into the pit, only one walks out.
The handler places the new wolf into the cage across from the wolf. This makes the wolf unhappy, and it paces its cage, snarling to let its feelings on the matter known. The handler bangs the shock stick against the bars again, yelling something at the wolf. He then moves several cages over with a catch pole, catching the wolf inside and dragging it out. The wolf knows the human will come back for another, will lead that wolf to its respective chute, and will later return with only one of those wolves. It should make the wolf feel something, but the wolf doesn’t feel anything anymore. The anxiety last night had been a surprise, the dislike it feels for the wolf across from it is also a surprise.
It growls low in its throat at the wolf across from it, laying on its belly and baring its white teeth at the other. The other wolf only cocks its head to the side with its tongue lolling it, sitting back on its haunches and looking so care-free it makes the wolf’s snarl grow. There’s nothing to be down about it, so it ends in a staring contest.
The handler comes back for another wolf. The wolf expects it to keep moving because the wolf doesn’t usually fight until most of the others are gone. But it is surprised when the handler stops in front of it.
The catch pole doesn’t come as a surprise to the wolf, but the handler smells surprised when the wolf catches it with its teeth while snarling and backing away. This is pointless, it know that the humans will always win and the wolf will eventually fight; but this fight, the one against the humans, is so much more satisfying than fighting its own kind. The human yells again and pulls out the shock baton. Only the bad smelling woman has control over the wolf’s shock collar, but these handlers have nasty sticks that will singe the wolf’s fur if it isn’t careful. Before the handler can even get the cage unlocked the wolf launches itself at the bars, ignoring the burning of the cage against its raw paws.
With a yelp the handler ends up zapping itself as it stumbles back and away from the door. The door rattles against the lock as the wolf slams its full weight against it, snarling angrily. It only stops when the handler scrambles away and out of the room, no doubt to run and get assistance. The wolf knows Gerard will be the next to come, knows that it will probably be walking into its next fight already wounded. It does not care. Instead of fretting over it the wolf slinks back into the corner and lays back down, licking at its bloody paws.
The new wolf watches it with wide eyes, the other wolves are quiet. Most are wolves it’s seen before. They already know this routine that the wolf likes to do. It’s only a surprise the handler hadn’t been more prepared for it. Sometimes they carry around little spray bottles full of the burning liquid. The worst is when it gets into the wolf’s eyes. Gerard is carrying the bottle when he comes storming to the back. He smiles at the wolf, sick and deprecating. He coos something at the wolf, but the wolf doesn’t care what he’s saying. Even if it could understand it probably wouldn’t care. The human pulls out the bottle. He motions to another handler, different than the one before the wolf notes, to bring the catch pole forward. They seem to want to tag team him. The wolf feels its lips twitching strangely, like the corners of its muzzle are trying to lift but can’t. It’s an odd sensation that brings one of the words from Before to its mind—smile, Der-Bear, you’re always scowling!
The memory temporarily stuns the wolf, and the handlers use the momentary confusion as a chance to strike. Gerard sprays the liquid at the wolf’s face, blinding it, while the other man snaps the catch pole tight around the wolf’s neck. The wolf yelps in pain, writing blindly at the end of the pole. It feels itself being hauled from the cage and dragged down the concrete. The sound of the other wolves’ breathing gets quieter until the wolf can barely hear it past the dense walls of the tunnels. It can smell humans though, and the musky scent of the earth grows with every step. The wolf feels stone change to dirt beneath its paws as it whines and tries to clear its eyes. No one dares to get close enough to wipe the liquid out of its eyes, so it will have to wait until they clear on their own before it can see again. The last time this happened and someone had tried to wipe the wolf’s eyes they had lost their hand to its teeth. It’s something the wolf remembers with a sense of pride.
Dirt changes into something cold and biting. Metal, the wolf thinks. The pole is released and the door is slammed shut. For a moment the wolf panics; its eyes are not clear eye yet and the door it knows is in front of its face will open any moment now. The wolf will be expected to walk into the pit blind and if it tries to stay in the cage they will poke at it with their buzzing sticks that singe its fur until it complies and crawls out of the cage. The wolf braces itself when the door in front of it slides open. Before, behind the door and behind the stone walls of the tunnels, it hadn’t been able to hear the crowd. But now that the barriers between it and the humans are gone it can hear the screams and cheers from the spectators.
The wolf whines in misery. The roar hurts its ears and the throbbing in its eyes isn’t going away like it should. Stuck between being shocked or being mauled the wolf chooses to slink out from the opening. It can smell the other wolf, how its fear turns towards confidence as it seems to realize that its opponent is wounded. The wolf keeps its eyes closed and flicks its ears, trying to focus on the other wolf; it’s difficult separating its opponent from the crowd gathered to watch them maul each other to death.
So difficult that the wolf doesn’t realize its opponent is flanking it until it feels the breeze from the other wolf’s movement against its fur. It throws itself away from the shift in the air, hearing teeth snap shut right where it was just standing. The wolf doesn’t think about where those teeth would have latched. Already the opponent is flinging itself at the wolf again, trying to get to the soft tissue in the wolf’s throat or belly.
Most of the pits are sand to soak up the blood, but this one is dirt. The wolf has never fought on dirt before and stumbles in the uneven footing when the opponent lunges for its throat, taking it by surprise when instead it lands on the wolf’s back. The wolf yelps as it feels teeth latch into its scruff. It slams its body into the ground, rolling onto its back to try and dislodge the other from its back. The moment the teeth are gone from its scruff the wolf is on its feet, turning to snap for the other wolf’s belly.
Slowly its eyes sight is returning. The images are blurry, but it’s enough for the wolf to see that the other wolf is moving away, slipping out of reach of sharp teeth. Frustrated, the wolf paces away to the edge of the pit growling with its fur standing on end. Its opponent is smaller and seems more inexperienced. But the wolf knows nothing it certain in the pit; the blood dripping down its scruff and into the dirt is just an example of that. The two wolves stalk each other, circling around the concrete edges of the pit. The wolf can just make out the shape of the other wolf, its eye sight still affected by the burning liquid from the spray bottle. Even its paws are still burning from earlier.
The wolf doesn’t want to prolong this as it doesn’t understand why it isn’t healing like it normally does. Maybe it should have tried to force the food down earlier? It shakes its head, trying to clear up its vision a little more but only succeeds in making its head hurt. Just another hurt to add to the list of them.
Its opponent doesn’t want to wait any longer either, because it throws itself at the wolf. The wolf lunges as well and the two meet in the middle a tangled ball of snarling fur. It’s a direct confrontation, and the wolf is bigger than its opponent so it has the advantage. Its opponent is subdued as the wolf gets its massive jaws around the other’s throat. There is a moment of quiet, a world between the two of them where the crowd doesn’t even matter. In another world, this would be the end of the fight. The other wolf has submitted and the wolf would let go. In another world they would never have fought to begin with. In this world, the wolf closes its jaws and feels fresh copper spill into its maw as it tears through tissue. It doesn’t want to prolong the other’s pain though, and it forces its jaws shut even farther until it hear the crackling of bone.
Its opponent falls limp from the wolf’s jaws.
The noise of the crowd grows from the dull roar it had been for a short time back into the tidal wave of noise it usually was. The wolf does not celebrate with the humans. It bows its head and licks at the other wolf’s head, between its ears. Neither one of them wanted to fight, but they have no choice in this world of theirs. A moment is all the wolf can spare its fallen sister before its being herded out of the arena by the threats of spray bottles and shock batons. Once its back into the chute the handlers shove the catch pole back in. The wolf doesn’t have the energy to fight back this time. Still half blind it now has other injuries to add to the hurts it started out with. It knows the punctures in the back of its neck are healing, but the broken forelimb will take more time. It’s forced to limp its way back to the cages. The handlers barely slow once they have the catch pole around its neck. The wolf can smell their fear though, and there is no Gerard to help them this time, so it suspects the humans are just scared the wolf will try to gnaw on them.
Normally the wolf would. But today it’s tired from staying up all night. It just wants to leave this place so it’ll leave the humans alone for today. It hopes this will make them complacent so it can bite them the next time they come around.
It limps back into its cage, immediately curling up in the back corner to try and stretch out its broken leg. The pain is severe, but it’s not the worst the wolf has had. Not even bad enough to send for a vet. Sometimes if the wolf is hurt bad enough the handlers will call for someone to help the wolf heal. Not today though, this lets the wolf know he’ll survive.
The new wolf across the aisle is watching the wolf try and get comfortable. Ignoring it, the wolf lays its head down on the ground, shutting its eyes to try and rest. If it can sleep through the pain then its leg will be healed by the time it wakes up. Unfortunately the wolf across the aisle seems to have other plans. It whines and yips at the wolf until it crack an eye open to eye the pup. The strange wolf is whining at it, ears pined and belly on the ground. Its tail is even wagging. The wolf snorts and wiggles so its back is facing the new wolf. The pup will learn soon enough that caring for another wolf in this world leads to nothing but pain.
The plan to rest until it’s healed doesn’t work out quite like the wolf had hoped.
A loud bang echoes through the room and has almost all the wolves on their feet snarling. The metal doors open and a group of humans come pouring in with weapons drawn. The wolf can’t smell much of the burning liquid on them though, so it figures the weapons aren’t for the wolves. It doesn’t bother getting up, barely bothers opening its eyes. Not that it really could anyways, its eyes feel so heavy and the fog from before hasn’t lifted yet. Everything is still blurry. It can see the humans moving to through the room though, avoiding the snapping jaws of the agitated wolves who still haven’t settled from being startled. The wolf thinks it only blinks, but when it wakes there is a figure standing in front of its cage. It smells like the pup from across the aisle, and the wolf sneezes in confusion.
The man is saying something to someone behind it, but the wolf is having a hard time paying attention. It lays its head back down on its paws, too tired to keep it up. It’s head may be pounding in time with its broken leg and its heart beat but that doesn’t mean it won’t snap at anyone that tries to get close. It tries to convey this with its eyes but this only seems to make the humans snort and chuckle a little. It’s a confusing reaction. The weapons have been lowered and the other wolves are calming down, so the wolf figures it can lay back and wait for whatever comes next.
Another human comes to its door, this time to actually open it. The wolf flattens its ears back against its skull, pulling its lips up to snarl at the man without actually making a sound. The man actually gets into the cage and sits down. The strange action has the wolf stilling. It raises its head from its paws and cocks it to the side. The human is babbling up a storm, chatting happily as it sits near the front of the cage. The wolf is sound confused it lets out a soft whine. The human quiets and scoots forward a little bit despite a quiet protest that comes from outside the cage. The strange smelling not-wolf smells distinctly unhappy at the human’s decision to come closer to the wolf.
The wolf doesn’t know what to do though. No one has ever come into its cage so unprotected before, let alone crawled towards it like this. They are finally within arm’s reach. The human could easily put a hand out to touch the wolf and the wolf could take off said hand just as easily. They both seem to know it, as does their audience outside the cage.
Some time passes with them sitting there like that. The human continues to talk and the others outside the cage slowly seem to relax enough that they go about with whatever they were originally planning to do. More people are brought in; they wear white coats and smell like the vets do. It doesn’t relax the wolves, but the vets have never really hurt them before so they don’t try to bite anyone quite yet. The wolf lays its head back down as it watches the strange human watch it. It can’t figure out the smell of this one. Whatever the scent is, the wolf really likes it but doesn’t like that it likes it. Nice things don’t last long, they get taken away once the handlers realize the wolves consider something nice. The wolf doesn’t want this nice thing to leave. The strange urge to get closer and touch causes the wolf to wiggle uncomfortably. The human makes a questioning sound, but the wolf can’t answer so it just crawls forward a little bit on its belly.
Fortunately the human doesn’t seem frightened by this, if anything the man smells pleased. The wolf doesn’t trust this so it flashes teeth as it inches forward. A little bit of apprehension slips into the human’s scent but he doesn’t move farther away like a normal person would. Eventually the wolf has inched forward enough that it can stick its nose into the man’s crotch. The human makes a startled, embarrassed yelp but doesn’t move. The wolf snuffles happily before shifting a little and sticking its cold, dry nose into the man’s throat. Somewhere along the way the wolf’s tail had started wagging.
The human makes a concerned noise and brings its hand up to brush through the fur along the wolf’s neck. It rubs against the still healing punctures there and makes the wolf yelp in pain. Even as the human snatches its hand back the wolf’s teeth snap at it. There’s a concerned shout outside of the cage and the wolf scrambles back out of fear of the shock baton it believes to be coming. The human inside the cage whisper-yells back at the other humans but doesn’t move. He immediately smells disappointed and tries to coax the wolf back over to him with soft tones. The cooing reminds the wolf of Gerard and the woman though so it flattens itself against the floor and watches them darkly.
The human makes a defeated noise and backs out from the cage while facing the wolf. The wolf is sad to see him, and the nice smell, go. It whines sadly, tail thumping a little on the ground before it tucks its nose under its unbroken leg. The human just looks at it sadly.
It’s only now that the wolf notices that the other wolves are being moved. The humans are using catch poles without the burning liquid on them, but the wolf doesn’t trust it. When a human approaches his cage, despite the protests of the wolf’s good-smelling human, the wolf feels a surge of energy rush though him that allows him to stand. He lunges at the pool, breaking a tooth against the metal as he grabs the pole, snarling with bloody spittle flying everywhere. The human releases the pole in surprise, it drops uselessly into the cage with the wolf. Just like earlier the wolf throws its body against the bars of the door to its cage, skin bubbling when it makes contact with the burning fluid.
Any progress its body made in healing is quickly undone. The humans are shouting at one another and a white coated man approaches the cage with a weapon in hand. The wolf howls a challenge, throwing itself against the cage again, daring the human to try and come closer. The human doesn’t.
Something buries itself into the meat of the wolf’s thigh. It’s a brief stinging sensation that the wolf buries because of all the other hurts that are taking up the forefront of the wolf’s brain. It’s only when the wolf starts to feel too tired to stand that it realizes it’s been tricked. Even as it collapses onto its side it growls and snarls at the humans. In particular it watches the good-smelling human outside of its cage. The wolf should have known. Nice things never last long, and humans will always help one another. Still, a small part of the wolf’s mind marks this as a betrayal.
The world dims around the edges. Even when the good-smelling human steps into the cage and runs its hands through the wolf’s fur the wolf can’t bring itself to take off a couple of the man’s fingers. It feels itself being heaved into arms and carried from the cage, but beyond that, the wolf’s vision fades and it slumps into the man’s arms.
Well, the wolf thinks, it can just bite off the man’s fingers tomorrow when it wakes up again.