Chapter 1- The Manslayer of Legend
Taking us home where dust once was a man
Is there life before a death? Do we long too much?
(And I believe in fairy-tales)
-Nightwish, Seven days to the Wolves
The wind tickled the edges of trees, inviting branches to sway and running invisible hands over flowing grass. Encountering an area where the only resistance was strange blocky forms, the wind rushed through, alleviating the stench permeating that godforsaken place. Raw dirt showed among stubborn patches of grass, evidence of men trampling their way through again and again. Rough wood had been structured into large sheds in a slipshod manner, gaps between the boards two inches wide in places.
The exception to this poorly constructed rule was an old barn. The wind explored the façade before moving on, letting the odor of man and dog, blood and urine rise once more. Inside the barn bales of hay were piled high in a rough oval that took up most of the space. Around the arena other bales of hay that would serve as seats for the spectators were scattered on the floor.
Men moved around the barn floor, talking, placing bets and taking seats. In one corner a man stood by a cage, running a stick across the top and sides, causing the obviously enraged rottweiler within to throw itself, snarling, against the thin metal bars that held it.
In contrast, on the other side of the barn a different beast in a cage ignored those around him, eyes closed and ears pressed flat against his head. Not many were betting on this one, arrogantly named “Battousai” by his owner. It was claimed that he was a wolf, but he looked too small to be one, and the glaring fact that his fur was an unusual shade of red where common wolves were gray gave further disbelief to this notion. At the moment the only visible sign that Battousai might be any kind of fighter at all was the wicked-looking cross-shaped scar on the left side of his face.
Men clamored around, trying to get a rise out of the wolf, throwing empty, or sometimes half-full beer bottles or cans at the cage, kicking at the wires, and daring each other to stick their fingers through the mesh. No one actually did. Battousai ignored them, eyes closed against their leering faces, keeping himself centered in the cage to avoid getting poked or probed.
He could hear the men move away in disinterest, to place their bets on the rottweiler, and opened eyes a most unwolflike shade of violet. Soon they would throw him into that ring again, that small circle that had become his world. The musty scent of dust and hay rising as men shifted, pounding on the walls that trapped him, trying to distract, to enrage. He would face off against another creature, most often a dog, sometimes something else, something wild that the men had managed to catch.
At first, he had spent long futile minutes trying to avoid fighting his often-crazed opponents, and even in victory, he spared their lives. He didn’t anymore- it was a mercy. Many of the humans here would send their dogs into the ring again, despite wounds, and the injured animal would be ripped to shreds in the next fight, satisfying the lust these men had for blood, if not for a good fight.
Battousai sighed, he could almost smell the wind, the hint of sun-ripened grass and dew-coated leaves that was the outside world. Almost.
“Alright, Battousai,” came the human called Izuka’s voice, followed by burning ash from a flicked cigarette, not a smart thing to do, in a barn. With a snarl and eyes that had inexplicably turned to true wild amber, the red-furred wolf backed away from the hideous odor. Izuka, the man who fancied himself the owner of the wolf he’d named Battousai. A thin weasel of a man, dark hair that was gathered into a short tail and eyes that constantly measured the human concepts that were so important- things like profit, and power, not protection, not loyalty. He knew better than to expect loyalty from his captive.
Two men who worked for Izuka came forward to attach ropes to the hooks on the front of the cage. Battousai let them, their fingers out of range, separated from vengeance-driven fangs by human-wrought steel. The wolf did, however rise to a bracing crouch as they dragged his prison toward the arena, trying to ride with the jerks and uneven pulls. There was a hole in the round wall where the front of his wire cage would fit, waiting for the door to be lifted, releasing captive animals into the ring.
Battousai sniffed in interest- this was the first time he’d fought in such a temporary setting. Izuka had had him for eight turns of the seasons now, two of which had been dedicated to making sure that Battousai would be able to kill in the ring. Until recently, they had lived in a city, a horrible place that smelled of grime and human and a hundred poisons that they threw into the air, the fighting pens had been of wood, constructed carefully, not thrown together as this one seemed to have been. Battousai growled softly, Izuka had fought him again and again in those rings, until the humans there recognized that when Battousai was fighting, it was foolish to place their bets anywhere else, no matter how he looked. Now they were here, experimenting, Izuka’s greed insatiable as he tried to swindle these country folk out of their money. Disgusting.
Still…this the first time that the hated place that smelled of death was so close to true wilderness, trees that stretched back into forever in the shadow of a mountain, where he knew that snow would cover the ground, eventually, to be kicked up by pack-mates at play… No. He stopped the thought firmly. No Pack.
Across the arena he could hear his opponent howling incoherent abuse, somehow implying that he’d had two mothers and that both of them had done something fairly improbable- Battousai rose to his feet to get a better look at the probably-drugged rottweiler.
The men were having difficulty getting the cage into position, as easily one hundred and fifty pounds of hard muscle kept throwing itself against the bars.
‘Kill you,’ it garbled out in a slobbery snarl, ‘kill you, rip you, tear you!’
Battousai felt his lip curl in disdain- the dog was completely shattered. He’d fought an easy dozen that were just the same, dogs that had been worn past endurance of thought to the basic response of mindless slaughter. Some humans liked how ruthless it made them- at least Izuka recognized if his fighter couldn’t think, he couldn’t hope to beat another that could.
“The betting areas are now closed!” Shouted a man in cowboy boots and a ballcap, acting as unofficial announcer from where he stood on the hay that made up the wall of the ring. Judging by his unsteady wobble he’d already had some of the beer that was being served in copious amounts. “Alright gentlemen, we’ve got some new blood out here tonight,”
“Can’t wait to see it!” Someone else hollered, to raucous cheers. The announcer grinned,
“Izuka’s Battousai, the wolf,” there was a world of skepticism in that word and Battousai snarled- just because he was smaller than they thought a wolf should be…
“Against three time champion, Jones’ Akuma!”
Akuma? Devil? Battousai shook his head; can’t they come up with anything more original?
“Oh,” Izuka said cheerfully, knocking more cigarette ash in the red wolf’s direction, “another Akuma, hm? This’ll make the seventh one- maybe I should call you devil-slayer,” he laughed as Battousai sent a smoldering amber glare up at him.
“Now let the match… begin!”
The cage doors were raised with simultaneous heaves- the rottweiler charging for the wolf that stepped almost leisurely out of his prison. Battousai sidestepped the reckless- but trained-for lunge as though the other animal were moving in slow motion.
‘What is your true name?’ he asked, pulling back from snapping jaws, never quite pausing as he circled the dog.
‘Your name!’ Battousai demanded, dodging a lunge that would have ended with jaws crushing his windpipe.
With a snarl of frustration, Battousai dropped to a crouch as teeth met where his neck had been moments before. Realizing his error, the rottweiler tried to pull back to get his own exposed throat out of the line of fire- too late.
White fangs met in his throat, tore their way back out in a spray of crimson that painted the formerly-white muzzle and chest of the wolf.
‘How…’ the dying dog wheezed amidst the disappointed shouts of the spectators, ‘how…’ he had never fought something like this… something that didn’t fight with straightforward aggression….
Battousai stepped close to his fallen opponent, letting his muzzle drop to just touch the muzzle of his opponent.
‘What is your name, unfortunate one?’
‘Why… do you care…?’ the rottweiler’s vision was going, and he couldn’t seem to order his mouth to snarl the way that he wanted to… was that a whine? From him?
‘I know the name of every dog I have killed in these arenas. I do not forget. You will not be forgotten,’ the red and white blur of a wolf assured him, now seeming so much more red than white… Blood on his paws… the dying dog thought muzzily. Mine. Akuma was the name these humans had given to him, but there was that old name, the one that a boy in sunlight with a green ball that tried to escape him had called… Called laughing with a funny tilt to his voice…
‘I will remember it, Arnold.’
‘Good…’ the black and tan dog almost smiled, eyes clouding over for good as a final choking wheeze escaped him.
Battousai raised his blood-drenched muzzle. Everywhere the men were rioting, arguing with the desperate air of those who have lost more than they had. All but Izuka, who was leaning against the hay wall and grinning, satisfied that his plan to come out to the sticks had worked.
Fool, the Battousai snarled, baring teeth in a solemn promise. You think I will forget that you are the reason I must do this? That I will not try, as I have tried every day since the day you stole my freedom from me, to escape, to kill you? That last was inaccurate, it had only been after the first dozen attempts to escape had failed that he had been ready to commit the sin of killing a human.
One man argued too strongly about his lost money and was shoved backwards into the hay wall. The top level of the hay shifted, teetered uncertainly- Battousai stared at it, willing the bale to fall as Izuka shouted for his men to rope the wolf and get him back in the cage. The man who had crashed flailed in his unseen struggle to get upright, clouting the precariously balanced hay in the process- And. It. Fell.
The Battousai was running before the hay had even landed, before the men with ropes had time to do more than step forward. Reach the short section of wall and jump- so good to use those muscles again- clear the hay to land on the dusty floor of the barn, dodge the hands that reached for him, snarl to make them back away-- because chikuso, he was not tame and he was going to die before anyone put him back in that cage…
Over to the side of the arena, where he could see Izuka’s pale face, cigarette falling from nerveless fingers, terror a bittersweet tang in the air, overriding even the hated smoke curling from dust-and-hay covered ground.
Battousai sprinted toward the man who had fancied himself his master, a horribly inexorable shape of red and white and burning amber eyes, muscles that bunched and a blood-drenched muzzle coming ever closer. With a powerful leap, Battousai launched himself into the man- he may have been small for a wolf, but no one could ignore his weight with that speed behind it. Izuka toppled, hands raised to try and shield his face, his throat- jaws that could crush bone found his hands, and mangled fingers instinctively pulled away with a shriek of pain- pain that was no longer that of crushed bones but a horrible wet sensation of air-should-not-be touching there and a gurgle that rose instead of a scream from his savaged throat.
Amber eyes glared down at him, hot and unrepentant, splashes of crimson marking an enraged face, even as Izuka could feel blackness pulling at him.
He chuckled, a horrible sound as the smell of smoke faded from his senses, even though he was pretty sure that the smoke wreathing around Battousai’s frame was from the barn being on fire, and not the fires of Hell coming up to claim his soul. Not yet, anyway.
“All right,” he choked out with another chuckle, Battousai pinned back his ears and growled. “I guess we’ll call you Battousai the man-slayer…”
And then the world really did go black.