Conrad was sweating again. Goddess, he hated this heat and the way it made him reek. Long, dark tendrils slick with sweat fell into his eyes and he swiped at them. He needed a haircut, but coin was tight and liquor wasn’t cheap.
Too late, he missed the kick aimed at his unprotected stomach. The blow knocked him back, but he stayed on his feet. He pawed at the strands obscuring his face and narrowed his focus to the brute of a man before him.
They circled each other, waiting for an opening. They were both shirtless, exposing their impressive physiques to the roaring crowds surrounding the ring’s edge. Conrad didn’t let the deafening sound from the audience interrupt his concentration on his opponent. He knew one moment of distraction was all it took to lose.
And Conrad hadn’t lost yet.
There. His opponent glanced at the crowd, and Conrad didn’t hesitate. He struck as fast as lightning, hitting the larger man twice in the stomach before a sweep of his leg brought the man to his knees.
Two strikes to the collarbone and an uppercut to the jaw dropped his opponent like a stone. But Conrad kept his defensive position until the bell rang three times.
When the announcer came and raised his fist up in triumph, Conrad finally recognized the cheering of the crowd. His face stayed solemn as he let the announcer declare him the winner and give a spiel on his dynamic feats during the battle.
As long as he got paid what was owed to him, Conrad could care less.
Until the sound of roaring met his heightened hearing.
He frowned at the man as he focused on what the announcer was saying.
“I don’t think you’re ready for that kind of spectacle.” The announcer leered at the crowd, letting them clap and cheer as loud as they could. After a few moments, he continued with a smirk, “alright, alright! It seems I misread you. You do have the blood thirst needed for this new event.” He sent Conrad a side-eyed look and murmured, “double your rate if you can kill the whole pack on top of what you’ve already earned.”
Conrad’s eyes widened in shock as understanding dawned on him. This low life wanted him to murder innocent animals for the sake of entertainment.
But earning three times the coin meant three times the liquor.
Conrad bit the inside of his lip and inhaled the muggy air of the arena, weighing the damage such a fight would do to his soul. In the end, his vices won out, and he inclined his head to the announcer, indicating his compliance.
The man’s lips formed a feral grin, and he gave the crowd what they wanted. “Put your hands together for the fight of your life! Our champion will take on not one, not two, but a whole pride of lionesses! Show some love for our brave challenger as he faces impossible odds!”
The color drained from Conrad’s face. What have I done? Wolves or bears were one thing, but lionesses? The magnificent creatures were kin to the tiger form he could call on a whim. This would shatter him to kill the beautiful big cats. He glared at the back of the retreating announcer’s head, promising a gruesome death in the future. If he went through with this.
Once the announcer exited the ring, five wooden doors within the pit lifted, revealing the most gorgeous animals he had ever seen.
Conrad knew he couldn’t kill any of them. His animal form, the one he tried to forget about and shoved deep inside, railed against him.
The lionesses padded out of their cells, blinking against the sudden glare of torchlight. The largest one turned back and roared at the unseen handler prodding her forward with flame and spike. Conrad’s expression hardened when he glimpsed ribs through her skin. He assumed the same would be true about the other four creatures; the master of the pits was keeping them hungry. When she emerged from her cell, Conrad sank to his knees.
She was a Shifter.
His Sight identified her in an instant, and he knew he could never kill her. Conrad had spent years distancing himself from his animal form and searching for a way to hide his golden cat eyes with slit-like irises. The closest he came was using the datura plant to dilate his pupils and wearing a hat to drench them in shadow. Some people sent him funny looks, but most left him alone, believing his story of a rural-born Mortal looking for a place in the Capital.
But altering his pupil’s shape didn’t change what was inside.
Shifters weren’t allowed in the fighting pits for the obvious physical advantage their magic gave them. The announcer and master of the pits was an idiot or greedy enough to allow Conrad to keep competing week after week.
A quick glance confirmed the announcer was frowning at the position Conrad was in, making himself vulnerable to the big cats now studying him. He looked to the lioness Shifter and shook his head slightly when she blinked twice at him.
She was trying to communicate what she recognized in him and Conrad felt shame wash over him like a rushing river.
The other lionesses wouldn’t attack him. They would do what the lioness Shifter directed, and he knew she’d keep them from hurting him. There was an unwritten code among the Shifters that meant loyalty and unyielding devotion to protecting their own. Killing another Shifter was an unforgivable act that tainted the aura. Not all Shifters commanded the Sight needed to see a person’s aura, but the black taint was visible to all. It snaked up a person’s arms, circled their torso, and twined down each leg before etching patterns all over the perpetrator’s skin.
Some said the taint caused a Shifter to lose their mind, resulting in their animal form gaining total control and losing whatever humanity they had left. It was a gruesome consequence that discouraged even the bloodthirstiest individuals from taking the life of another Shifter.
Conrad would rather the lioness Shifter loosen her hold on the hungry lionesses and let them have their fill of him than raise a hand against her. Despair rippled through him, as did the understanding of the creatures’ fate should he do nothing. They would be forced to this torture again and again unless he took action.
He dropped to all fours and sent one last look to the announcer. The shock on the man’s face was the confirmation Conrad needed. Greedy son of a bitch.
He reached inside and grabbed at the string that would take him to the animal form he had tried to forget. His muscles rippled as black and orange fur sprouted from his shoulders and back. Conrad felt his face elongating and let his lips recede to reveal deadly fangs as long as a man’s palm. He flashed them at the announcer as his transformation finished and a full-grown tiger stood in the middle of the pit.
Without a second thought, Conrad launched himself with a roar at the lowest side of the ring, letting the rage inside take over. The fighting pits were a collection of half a dozen rings recessed into the ground. Each pit was a little deeper than the last, with the champion’s ring being the deepest at fifteen feet.
What most people didn’t realize was the south end was only twelve feet deep, making it easier to lift the announcer to the safety of the side. Bleachers surrounded the champion’s pit, but none of the others. All six pits were housed inside an old warehouse on the outskirts of the Midnight Market, where all types of horrible things took place. The pits were also the site for the Flesh Markets that took place twice a month and dealt in selling Mortals and Magicae alike.
Conrad had known all this when he started fighting in the weekly competitions, yet it didn’t bother him as this new monstrosity did. Pitting Mortals against animals was a type of cruelty he wouldn’t stand for.
He cleared the twelve feet of hardened earth and landed on top of the announcer himself. With another roar, he ripped the man’s throat out as the crowd shrieked in terror. The audience panicked, trampling over each other to escape. He swiped at the brutes meant to maintain order and showed his teeth.
His ears flicked back when they heard paws landing behind him. Conrad roared again to keep the brutes and their spikes at a distance. They were lucky the lion handlers needed to rush from their positions in the cells to reach the lip of the pit. Once they came, it would be harder to scare them with a flash of teeth and deep roar.
A flash of gold was all he saw as the lioness Shifter rushed the brute to his right and slashed his chest with a claw. She let out a roar of her own and four more accompanied it. Conrad wasted no time and plowed a path forward to the exit of the warehouse.
The six big cats sprinted for the small door, their momentum forcing it from its hinges, and they disappeared into the darkened streets of Fernwen.
Conrad led the lionesses down dark alleys for hours until they reached the Woodlands to the south of the capital city. He hesitated when they entered the trees, his tiger form unwilling to relinquish its hold on him. Indecision crept in as he considered submitting to it and letting it lead him further into the woods.
A sound to his left pricked his ears. The lioness was Shifting. In an instant, a young woman stood in front of him with dusky skin gleaming in the moonlight. She had one eyebrow raised and motioned for him to join her in human form.
Conrad huffed, but did as she asked. When he straightened, she thrust her arm towards him.
“Nymeria, nice to meet you.”