Wolf's Lullaby

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Rookie

PHILIP

The air went stale the further I descended the rickety, rusty stairwell. Faint light emanated from small round lights fixed on the walls.

Adrenaline buzzed in my blood. Every cell in my body fired up, revved up, and primed.

Anticipation, excitement, and a slight touch of nervousness churned in my gut. This wasn’t the first time. But each one had been more thrilling.

It was happening in the bowels of an abandoned building.

The smell of dust, metal, body odor, and blood permeated the space, suffocating. I wanted to gag.

Loud cheering, jeering, and occasional snarling and growling filtered up from the underground parking lot, followed by a distinct sound of slashing flesh and throwing of punches and kicks.

“The princess finally showed the fuck up,” grumbled a big bald man, dressed in black, waiting at the end of the stairs. The dickhead knew I needed to avoid detection. It wasn’t easy to do.

“Stop bitching Raz and lead the way,” I stepped next to him, spine straight, looking him in the eye.

He was one ugly motherfucker. The left side of his face marred with scar tissue, disfigured, the eye cloudy, unseeing. A memento left from his fighting days. The groves seemed deeper in the dim light. All expressiveness lost on that part of his face. It looked grotesque, especially when he smiled.

His one good eye flashed deep amber color in irritation, he took me in and snorted, “You got some balls on you kid, I like you. But maybe you should have stayed home and drank milk from your mother’s tit. Tonight may be your last one.” I growled low in my throat, curling my upper lip as he uttered those words.

“Save that for the cage, boy. You are fighting the Grave Digger, lets hope he doesn’t put you in one tonight,” he patted me on the shoulder.

“Who?”

He huffed out a laugh, amusement on his face, “God’s you are green. Let me give you some advice, cause ignorance is not bliss in this case. Leave the bravado outside of the cage and think fast if you plan to win.”

I snorted, “I always plan to win.”

Raz clicked his tongue, annoyed, “Cocky little bastard,” he shook his head. I might have been cocky, but fighting was the only thing I excelled at. The thing that made me feel some semblance of normalcy among my kind. It gave me the sense of control over myself. Ironic because it could easily be the thing to make me lose it.

“You know the drill. Clothes off. Oh, but please leave your underwear on. Nobody wants to see that.” I rolled my eyes at him and did as he said.

The parking space crawled with people. Noise I heard while I descended the stairs, now deafening. Beer and cigarettes couldn’t mask the overpowering stench of blood here, neither could the crowd. I could pick out a few different shifters that were present. Wolves predominately, but I singled out a few foxes and cats too, most definitely strays, sticking to wolf packs as their numbers dwindled dangerously in the last fifty years, putting them on the verge of extinction. But no bears. I would have been surprised if there were any here. As fierce warriors, still following old traditions, they make formidable opponents. They love their mountains and usually stay away from other packs, keeping to themselves. The only time they descend from the mountains is for a Leaders Summit.

Raz moved in front of me, making our way through the rowdy crowd, and I could feel curious eyes on me. The crowd murmured and whispered, most sneering and snickering, already picturing me being mauled by my opponent, imagining which body part I was going to lose first, obvious blood-crazed excitement on their faces. In their eyes, I was a lamb going to the slaughter. Money exchanged hands as bets were being made.

I balled my hands into fists, straightened my spine more, puffed out my chest and kept glaring straight ahead. Instead of making me nervous and doubt myself at their blatant belief of my impending doom, my excitement just grew, ratcheting up, bubbling like a witches’ cauldron in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t help the grin that spread across my face. I must have looked completely demented, since a few people near me flinched when I passed them.

At the center of the parking space was a massive concrete fenced ring. A big neon light blinked overhead, making the surrounding people look like sinister, shadowy, lost souls following my every move as if I approached the gates to the Underworld.

As we neared the ring, two men carrying a third one pushed past us. The man was unconscious, covered in deep gashes, blood flowing down his chest and abdomen. Face pummeled, bruised, and swollen beyond recognition. One of his legs stood in an awkward angle.

I internally cringed.

Ouch.

That was going to take days to heal. Our healing capabilities were enhanced, but the time it took for each wound to heal depended on a type of wound, its size, depth, and overall destruction of tissue. Minor cuts healed almost immediately, but bigger ones could take up to a few hours, even days.

As the three men passed, Raz stopped abruptly, turning to me.

“Here we are kid,” he slapped my back, giving me a pitying look, “Say hello to Null when you meet her.”

Asshole. I didn’t plan going anywhere near The Pale Lady’s frozen arrows tonight. My heart won’t decorate her halls anytime soon.

I ignored his remark and climbed a few steps before entering the ring. In the middle of it stood a skimpily clad woman, her arms crossed over her impressive cleavage, one foot tapping on the concrete, a look of annoyance on her heavily caked face.

“Well, it’s about damn time! Hurry it up, I don’t have all night!” she threw her arms up in frustration, giving me an impatient look, her huge red glossy lips turned in a frown; like the other fight hadn’t just ended three minutes ago, and she had to wait for me for an hour.

I moved closer to her, and she raised her manicured hand. Long pointy red colored nails flashed, stopping me. “Hold there,” she said. Just then did I notice the mountain that climbed the steps on the other side of the ring. The crowd exploded in cheers, gone completely nuts. Hollering and yelling, some even half-shifted, howling.

My eyes scanned him from head to toe.

Mother fucker.

I swallowed hard, a tinge of worry lit in my gut. My palms got clammy and the previous excitement faltered a bit.

That man is a fucking monster truck.

Standing at approximately two meters tall, heavily muscled and wide as a freaking wardrobe.

I wasn’t short and was pretty big myself, but this dude looked like a tank and he hasn’t even half-shifted yet. He would get even bigger.

Shit.

I found myself in a massive mother-fucking pickled radish. As the logical part of my brain processed the information and acknowledged that I was at a disadvantage here, my other less sophisticated half started hooting and hollering its fucking excitement at the challenge my opponent presented.

I have fought no one this large before.

The dude gave me a sinister smirk as he took his stand on the other side of the woman. I must have gave a way my surprise, so I quickly schooled my features, going for neutral.

“Scared, little boy?” he taunted, his voice rolling like thunder. I just shrugged, but gritted my teeth, not wanting to let him provoke me. I needed to think clearly. This would not be easy.

He regarded me with amusement, like a worm he couldn’t wait to crush, cracking his knuckles. So instead of squirming under his scrutinizing gaze, I cracked my neck, and loosened my limbs, like I was oh so cool with the situation, though my heart beat like a war drum in my ears. Half excitement, half trepidation. A potent combination.

“Let’s start, Medea,” he rumbled, addressing the woman. “You promised me a date after I wipe the floor with his pretty face. It’ll be over in a second.” he gave me a cocky, menacing grin, his eyes flashing gold. Ah, I could use that, his self-assuredness.

I scowled, letting my eyes flash briefly in response. He laughed. Good, let him underestimate me. I’ll capitalize on that.

“Ok, boys, you know how it goes,” Medea droned, “both to your sides of the cage. And remember the rules. Only a half-shift. If we get even an inkling of you bozos trying to do a full shift, those boys over there,” she pointed to five men holding what seemed like long sticks. “They will shove Volt’s up your furry asses. Get it?” she looked at both of us pointedly.

My opponent grunted, and I nodded. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Both for mine and their sake, but mostly theirs.

“And please, try not to kill each other. It’s a pain in the ass to get rid of the bodies. So mangle each other as you wish. The first one to lose consciousness loses.” Medea finished and left the ring as the two of us went to our respected corners.

I crouched down, looking straight at my opponent, getting ready to shift, as the crowd screamed. Something red moving behind him caught my eye.

Ah, they were here again.

Above the crowd, on a platform in a padded ornate chair, sat the man in a tailored black suit. The only splash of color on him was a bright red tie.

A chill ran down my spine, and a sense of dread crawled up from my stomach, scraping over my throat and skin like a chalk over the blackboard. I swallowed.

I never spoke to him, but he’s been present at each of my fights. This would be my fourth one. The big boss, I guessed.

He leaned in his chair, his legs crossed, hands resting lazily on the arms of the chair. Dark eyes on an impassive face looked straight at me. Cold sweat beaded my forehead.

If the boss gave me serious creeps, his companion was nightmare fodder.

At his feet sat a woman. Pale as death with blood-red lips. She wore a black lace blindfold, jet black, waist long hair swept away from her face, held back by some hair ornaments that gave the impression she wore a spiky crown. Kind of looked like a black halo.

The pale skin of her arms and legs exposed through the side slits of a long, sleeveless dark red dress she wore was covered in equally pale scars in shapes and forms I had never seen before.

But the way she looked wasn’t what was unnerving. Her aura… disturbing. She was most definitely a witch, though I never sensed an aura like hers before. They have distinct ones for sure, but this…. Hers was dark… Itching to get out of your skin dark.

I shuddered, peeling my eyes from the pair, taking in a shaky breath to steady myself. I needed to focus on the opponent in front of me.

I was right.

The bastard is going to be problematic.

Crouching in his corner, his golden eyes assessed me. With a menacing grin, he half-shifted.

His muscles bulged, shoulders becoming broader, skin turning to ashen gray, tufts of gray fur sprouted on his forearms and down the sides of his transformed face and over his chest tapering into a small trail towards his bellybutton. Claws tipped his fingers. Fangs glistened in the neon light, golden eyes glinted with malice.

I took a few deep breaths, my heart hammering in my chest, and rolled my shoulders as I shifted. Half shift wasn’t uncomfortable like a full one, it was like slipping on silk gloves, effortless.

I looked at my coal colored skin, claw tipped fingers, opening and closing my fist. The familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through my system.

This is it.

Focus.

We both stood up at the same time.

Damn. He easily towered over me.

“Fight with brain, not with brawn.” That was what that old baboon drilled in my head since I was seven. And in this situation, I needed to do just that.

He unfortunately didn’t let me ponder much. As soon as we circled the cage, he charged. I assumed he would be slow, but the bastard flew at me with all the speed of a cheetah. I barely moved around him, but not fast enough. He drew first blood. Groaning at the searing pain radiating from my back, my steps faltered, but I regained my balance, and turned swiftly to swipe back.

The look of surprise on his face when I slashed at his forearm, which he pulled up just in time, was priceless. Claws dripping with blood, I pulled back. Keeping your distance and avoiding getting grappled by such opponent was basic knowledge. Speed and agility were my friends here. If he landed one perfect hit on me, I would eat concrete in no time without the chance to stand up again. My hits wouldn’t do enough damage here, either. So I needed to proceed carefully, watching him closely as I maneuvered my way out of his reach.

He charged again, swiping again and again, but I was ready each time. I sidestepped him, dancing around him like a cat around a huge ass dog, and took notice that he always came at me with his right hand first. I waited for the next one, and when it came I dropped low, crouching, then pushed my hand palm up fast under his elbow, redirecting the hit. This caught him off guard and that was my cue to swipe my feet underneath him, landing him on his back with a loud earth-shuddering thud. His breath left him with a whoosh, and I smiled, looking down at his incredulous expression.

The audience that screamed and howled for him just moments ago changed their tune, some laughing, some cheering for me, and some spouting insults at him.

He bristled.

“You need help there, buddy?” I sneered. His nostrils flared and in the next second, my triumph was over with a loud crack as the world around me shifted and blurred. Voices muffled, ears ringing, I moaned in pain, tasting iron on my tongue.

Fuck. Rookie mistake. I got carried away.

He grabbed my ankle and fucking swung me like a sack of potatoes over the concrete.

My vision was still adjusting to the shock of a blow when I saw an enormous figure looming over me. Wait... figures? Head swimming in a haze, a splinting headache forming, I rolled out of the way in the nick of time before his fist came crashing down. Pieces of the ring dispersed all around, leaving a giant hole in the structure.

I stumbled to my feet, shaking my head, to ward off dizziness when he came at me again. Livid, he growled and snarled at me with each kick, punch, and slash, which by sheer muscle memory I evaded and parried, my brain currently indisposed for me to use it properly. I was pushing myself into a corner, and needed to pull away and disengage, to assess the situation better. Hulk over there was having none of it. Relentless, keeping the attacks coming, he roared his anger, snapping his teeth a little too close to my face for comfort, snarling in annoyance. I couldn’t keep evading him for much longer, and the jabs and hits I landed did little to slow him down. He was in a frenzy.

Biding my time, which was running out way too fast, I analyzed his posture, his footwork, the speed at which his claws swiped at me, looking for the sliver of an opening in the chaotic movements. The moment I got one I was flush against the fence of the cage, dropping lower I grabbed it, and when his next claw attack came, I lifted both of my feet from the ground and with all my might slammed them against his solar plexus, sending him stumbling back. With the room to breathe, I flipped my feet over my head, propping myself on the fence in a crouching position, and wasted no time to propel myself forward, jumping at him as he was off balance. With speed and the momentum I built, I flew over him, clawing at the space where his neck and shoulder connected. Blood sprayed, my hand and torso covered in it as I landed behind him. He roared in pain, falling to his knees, grabbing the wound.

The crowd went absolutely crazy. Banging and slamming the cage frenzied.

Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. My heart was drumming in my chest. I relished the feeling. Body slick with sweat and blood from many gashes, covered in bruises, but more alive than ever.

Not giving him a moment to recuperate, because it wasn’t a lethal wound, I pivoted, jumping on his back, twisting my legs around his neck, bringing us both down on the ground.

He tried to grab me, clawing at my arms and legs, making me growl from the sharp pain, but I caught his arms and with extreme force pulled upward until I heard a loud snap of bones and a wet sound of flesh tearing, an agonized bellow left his mouth. I grinned, enjoying the sound. I forced myself to stop before I tore his arms clean off and squeezed his neck with my thighs harder until he went limp underneath me.

“I know it’s cliche, but never underestimate your opponent,” I muttered to him before he completely lost consciousness.

Well, more than the wounds I inflicted, his pride was going to hurt more when he wakes up.

I rolled away from him and pulled myself up. A sort of maniacal glee thrummed in sync with my heartbeat. A grin played on my lips.

The five guys holding shock sticks ran past me to drag the Grave Digger out of the ring.

There was a prickle of awareness tickling on the back of my head and I turned around in time to catch a satisfied smirk on the big boss’s face before he and his companion left the building with three burly guys surrounding them. My blood turned cold and the winning high I experienced moments before soured instantly.

Shifting back, all the adrenaline seemed to drain out of me, too. Head still slightly woozy from its rendezvous with cement, I flinched at the throbbing in my back. The wound would not heal for few more hours. I had a few ribs bruised, too. My knee buckled as I took a step forward. A sharp pain shot through my leg and I fell down.

Son of a bitch!

I was so fucking out of it I didn’t notice the asshole bit the inside of my thigh.

Gritting my teeth, I stood up and hobbled towards the exit of the cage.

Raz greeted me with a wide smile, “Well, Null will be disappointed tonight kid,” he smacked me on the back, making me grimace at the pain, a growl leaving me.

Extending my hand palm up, I side eyed him, “My cut,” I demanded.

He motioned with his chin to the side. “Your friend got it already.” I looked in the direction he showed me and spotted her leaning against the concrete beams of the parking lot, happily counting my money. She wasn’t my friend, business associate and acquaintance was more accurate.

As I approached her, she lifted her head, swiping a few unruly blond locks from her face. Big blue eyes looked me over and she cringed. “Oof, rough one?” I glared at her.

“Here.” she said, handing me a wad of cash while pocketing the other half. “My share,” she gave me a wide smile.

I just grunted, squeezing the bills in my bloody fist.

“You caught The Big Boss’s attention, you know? You just incapacitated his best fighter. He’ll be out of commission for a while even if he heals properly to use those boulders he calls hands,” she chattered, and I just shrugged.

“He’ll want you to fight more regularly…” she started, practically bouncing next to me as we moved through the crowd, heading for the exit.

I scowled at her. “We both know it’s impossible for me to do this more than once a month. It’s too big of a risk, in more ways than one. I’m not looking to make a career out of this Vera. I’m doing it for sport and extra cash, nothing more,” I gritted out adamantly, though sure she knew I was full of shit. There was one more reason other than me loving a good fight. And that was giving a huge ass middle finger to the Constantinov family. Because if it ever got out that I was sneaking behind their back, away from the pack territory, me their dirty little secret, and was fighting in a sketchy underground ring, boy would that be a taint to their impeccable reputation. Those elitist ass-wipes.

I smirked to myself. Then I quickly sobered. My smile faltered, as I remembered I was also hiding this from my two best friends and that old gorilla who practically raised me.

Shit.

If they find out, I need to go shopping for a coffin.

Seeing my troubled face, Vera came closer. “We were careful. Stephan hasn’t caught on yet. Gods help you if Anna finds out,” she shuddered, “And Philip, you can’t really bargain with these people. If they want they...”

“I don’t give a shit what they want,” I interjected, already getting irritated with this conversation. “That was not the deal. I’m not their pet. I’m a free agent and I won’t do what they want.” I hurried past her to get my clothes near the steps, still walking a bit wobbly, the pain in my leg a dulled out throb now. The healing had already started.

“God’s you are naïve, so cute…” she beamed, stood on her tippy-toes and pinched my cheek. I pulled her hand from my face, glowering.

“Psh, you are no fun,” she pouted. The girl had no self preservation instinct whatsoever.

I didn’t ask how did she got herself in the clutches of these thugs. My guess was that it had to do something with her older sister, but then again, I didn’t really care, nor did I want to hear her sob story. It was none of my concern. We attend the same high school and never even spoke until Vera got herself a group of harassers on her ass, and I happened to pass by. I might be a dick and by no means a gallant knight, but a group of five wolves attacking one cat shifter was even in my book a very shitty thing to do. After I disassembled their asses and handed them back to them, she approached me with a suggestion as a way of thanks for saving her. I guessed she was already in over her head in some shit and I was a bright new solution. I played along because it suited my own agenda. But I didn’t want to be under anyone’s control.

“Enough of that,” I grumbled, turning to put my clothes back on.

We climbed the rickety steps, exited the building and stepped out into the crisp, clean night air. Vera skipped to her car. I took a deep breath as I looked at the indigo sky. The air was fresh, but a certain heaviness was present in it that made me unsettled.

The moon shone high and bright, a silver waxing crescent. A familiar unease settled in the pit of my stomach.

It wouldn’t be long now.

That night when I got home, I collapsed on my bed, exhausted. And that night was when they started.

The new dreams.

Everything burned around me. The heat spread over my skin and underneath it. My body was heavy, broken, unable to move. The smell of smoke, ash, and blood filled my nose, choking me.

Eerie howls pierced the night.

They were everywhere, circling me like vultures. I could see them through the wall of flames, their many eyes gleaming in the night, snouts pulled back, revealing gums full of horrifying jagged teeth. They snarled and growled, pacing, trying to figure out how to reach me. The fire closed in on me. Each rugged breath I took burned my airways.

And all I could do was lay there and wait.

I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but I had a feeling, a deep-seated conviction that I should just wait. Let it all burn away. And so I did.

The flames melted into tall grass and wild crimson flower field. The breeze swept through, carrying a soothing, familiar scent, and my heart rate picked up in anticipation. I sat up and scanned my surroundings but there was nothing but a sea of red. A voice whispered a song. The wind picked up once again, but this time a single red scarf floated from the midnight sky, landing in my lap.

I smiled as relief, and joy washed over me. And something squeezed in my chest as I clutched the material to me, burying my nose in it. The scent was stronger there, and I relaxed.

The wait was finally over.

I would wake up at night, with vague memories of those dreams, but with an unmistakable feeling of contentment and anticipation.

I pushed those feelings away, locking them in some crevice of my mind.

After all, those were just dreams, and they meant absolutely nothing.

Right?

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