The stench of blood, sweat, and something less tangible, arousal, increased in the room as the heat radiated off those who were training. The instructors used that word when, in reality, those trapped inside the damn cages knew differently. One-on-one combat was more like it.
The fuckerheads, what Conrad secretly referred to the trainers and scientists as, watched with a feverish light in their eyes that revealed how much they got off on observing the fighting. They got the same glint in their eyes when they did inhuman things to them, too.
Did they notice they were being observed as they were? Conrad swallowed his disgust. Chained and forced, yes but that didn’t mean they had taken over Conrad’s brain. They would never get that.
The scientists were so focused on outcomes that they never considered an animal needs to know such things as what food is good to eat, when and where to find it, whom to avoid and approach. When these things are not genetically pre-programmed—because they depend on the particular circumstances of an individual’s time and place—the animal must learn them, and Conrad had. His survival had depended upon them.
Ten years had passed, and the fuckheads had done their best to beat the humanity out of them. Training them to act like their animal side was something separate, and along with those they added to them. They’d never understood how the two sides of a shifter, or four, or more depending on the hybrids now living inside them, were part of their soul. An integral part of who they were. Their bodies had adapted, their animal spirit accepting, in the main, of something fuckheads couldn’t grasp.
If some of them had gone rogue, it was because, to Conrad’s mind, they’d had a propensity for evil before the fuckheads touched them. Some enjoyed the kill. They were easy to spot when one took the time to observe everything going on around them. Something Conrad had done. Some of the caged enjoyed hurting those in the other cages as much as the trainers and scientists did. It was the first tell Conrad had learned at a young age.
“Use your animals,” one of the scientists shouted over the grunts and sounds of fists hitting flesh.
Come on, Ajani.
He willed his friend to show the big asshole just what he was capable of. For years they’d been programmed to fight for survival and to do it with such skill that those they were going to kill wouldn’t ever see what was coming.
When an enormous fist turned into that of an ape, and Ajani knocked the trainer on his ass so hard that he bounced off the padded floor, Conrad kept his expression blank. He had learned
quickly to conceal any weaknesses or shows of emotions behind a façade of blankness. Secretly, he cheered for Ajani.
A frustrated grunt and the sound of a pained gasp broke the silence as the trainer eyed Ajani with anger as he got up and dusted off his ass.
Ajani, he could see, had anticipated what was coming. Never fight with anger. It put the person at risk, a rule the fuckhead seemed to have forgotten as he launched an unsophisticated attack and found himself right back on the floor he’d just gotten up from. Today, there were no cattle prods to shock the shifter if they got out of hand.
The scientists closest to Conrad swept a gaze over the silent men watching what was happening, with egoistical expressions, believing they had trained them to have no loyalty to each other.
They were stupid and couldn’t be more wrong. None of them knew about the hairy, infrequent visitor who treated them like they mattered, Marvin. AX4395, as referred to by the scientists, Marvin—as he had now named himself, so Ajani informed Conrad—had escaped only to come back in the dead of night to visit them. Give them hope in the darkest of hours.
Conrad was AY4571, and he hated it. His name was Conrad, named after a father he’d never met. Tigers were solitary animals, and that hadn’t worked out so well for Conrad. Off exploring in his lion form, he’d gotten lost, and when he’d shifted, fuckheads had been there and the rest was history.
Since his confinement, Conrad had developed traits that weren’t those of his natural animal spirit. Whether it was because of captivity, the additional mix of animals, or because he had developed friendships with those in the cages closest to him to help survive, he wasn’t sure.
Somehow Duron, Wyatt, Ajani and latterly Ekon, they’d become caged comrades. Recently the fuckheads had sent them in pairs to assess levels of competency on kills. Each pair were to report back about the other. That was a huge mistake on their part, when Conrad had gotten paired with Wyatt first, then Ajani. In the cages, no one was stupid enough to talk to each other. Hand signals had been something they’d developed to communicate, but getting the freedom to talk away from everyone had brought with it a chance to discuss and make decisions about how things would be when they got their freedom. Freedom came with a tracker to leash them to ensure they did the council’s bidding. Something they’d figure out and fix!
Regardless of how the scientists and trainers beat it into them, that they were alone and would stay that way for the council’s purposes, that wasn’t what Conrad had in mind. As far as he was concerned, they could all go fuck themselves right where the sun did not shine. Wyatt was of the same mind as him, sticking together was what would protect them in the future.
Ajani, who was kind of their unofficial leader, agreed somewhat reluctantly, after speaking with Ekon and Duron. They had a plan. Their own one, not that of their captors, and Conrad was
counting down the days until they could find a way to free themselves in whatever form that came.
One Year Later
The sound of a tree toppling was music to Conrad’s ears as Duron and Ajani worked to clean the large bit of forest they had purchased at a song in the middle of nowhere from the Shifter Council’s blood money. Conrad shoved that thought away. It gave them something to use to create a new life, something he reminded himself of daily.
“That’s right, when the hard work is done, you appear,” Duron muttered, his face sweaty and covered in a layer of grime as he approached his friend.
Conrad grinned and found it hard to swing an arm around the huge shoulders. “You know, they sent me to fix a couple of problems.” His smile dipped, recalling the four men he’d killed and what he’d found in the storage area in the large warehouse.
The stop in a motel to shower before he could go to the airport and get a flight home had rid him of the stench of death. Only it never truly did. It clung to him. He could use up every ounce of soap in the motel room to eradicate it from his skin, could scrub at himself until his skin was raw, nothing worked. This time he’d given a decent burial to those the murderers had killed for sport. It had helped… somewhat.
Conrad needed a different kind of release, like the one he’d discovered in a club he’d gone to for one of his kill orders. He’d discovered bondage and found he liked to use it on others. It had been too long since he’d allowed himself to let go.
The dead, bloodied, and broken he needed to eradicate from his brain. For now, Conrad held Duron a little harder and shut out the scene that wanted to form behind his eyelids. He inhaled the fresh scents of earth and wood, letting them work to help center him. When he opened his eyes, Wyatt was there. He said nothing as he dragged him from Duron into a full-body hug.
Of all his caged comrades, Wyatt was the one who seemed to know him best. Conrad sniffed and clung on a moment, taking the offer of strength before pulling back and looking to where Ajani stood, eyeing him with an unreadable expression.
Conrad held his gaze. “The worst.” He let out a shuddery breath and, like always, tucked away the horror in the box inside his mind. “What do you need me to do?”
“Duron hired a petrol wood cutter,” Ajani replied, his teeth white against the dirt covering his skin.
“Hey, I wanted to play with that,” Duron shouted from where he’d walked off to. He wasn’t one for coping with shows of emotion.
“Suck it up, big guy.” Wyatt squeezed his shoulder before heading towards where Ekon was measuring out the cleared ground.
Conrad wasn’t a visionary when it came to seeing what their home would look like, but the others could, and that worked fine for him. He only needed three things. A big ass TV, something he’d discovered was a great way to forget the world around him. An enormous bed to stretch out on. And lastly, a roof that stopped any creepy crawlies from deciding he was good to chomp on. He shuddered at the makeshift campsite they’d set up while they figured their shit out.
Ekon, their brain box, had connected to the electric grid a couple of miles away and rigged a set up so they could have electricity without any of the usual trappings. They wanted to be off grid. Their cell phones were the only way the council could communicate with them for kill orders after Ekon had figured a way to block their internal trackers.
They weren’t stupid and knew their cell phones were tracked, too, so Ekon had done some hokery pokery to make sure their location wasn’t where they actually were. It was neat.
The sound of a saw pulled him from his thoughts, and he scowled at Duron. “I’m supposed to be doing that!”
Duron’s enormous chest puffed up, and he gave Conrad a killer look. “And?”
Conrad jumped the last few feet between them and snatched the buzzing saw out of Duron’s hands. He landed a couple of feet away in the time it took for Duron to blink. “And nothing.” He eyed the enormous trunks with excited anticipation. “Now, let’s see what this thing can do!”
Duron’s laughter was blocked out by the sound of the saw hitting wood. Bits went flying everywhere as Conrad grinned and focused on helping make a place that was theirs. A home.