"Hey -- hey! You! Ten for five!"
Another fist shoving money at him. Bray yanked out the bill and jotted the drunk's seat down in his book. A lot of people had confidence in this Luthor guy, but Bray figured he wouldn't last two minutes, let alone five. The odds were already pegged at 10:1 in favor of a loss, but the audience was convinced that he'd hold up.
That would be the day. Bray had seen Luthor in the prep box. He wasn't any different from the hordes of other scrappy street-fighter types that were dragged in for a cheap thrill. Lied to, kidnapped, whatever they were, they ended up in the Gladiator pit not to win, but to live as long as they could.
It was so stupid, watching a losing fight, but one Brayden Olson got a cut of every bet these drunks and junkies and sadistic bastards lost, and he really did need that cash.
He pocketed the ten and sauntered down the aisle to the edge of the ring. Not even glass here at the Dragon Pit, just that electrified chickenwire. It was up to the losers watching the fight not to get themselves fried on it or get their fingers eaten off.
Better that than to be the poor bastard about to get thrown in the pit in -- he checked his watch -- about three minutes, now. He guessed that judging by the guy's bodybuilder look, he was going to be easy prey. Fighting a Light was all about your speed and unpredictability. Strength couldn't help you much, and you certainly couldn't just punch it into the ground, although he had seen a few epic fights where the challenger had thrown the thing across the room.
"Send 'em in!" someone shouted from the stands, waving a beer. Bray riffled his pages and added how much cash he expected to bring in. Once Luthor got axed, carry the two, that would be a pretty nice haul for a single night.
"Are you ready for blood on the floor?"
Screams from the stands. Bray pocketed his notebook and sat in the bookie's seat, right on the front row, elbows on his knees. Crazy fuckers, the people that watched this, but he was here too, so maybe he was just as looney as the rest of them. He twiddled the end of his pen between his lips as he waited for the booming announcer to finish.
"Tonight's challenger is a real fighter, weighing in at two hundred fifty-one pounds, standing tall at six feet four inches. He's bald, he's brutal, and he's ready to take on the boss of this ring! Give it up for Luthor!"
The man was already covered in sweat as a couple of guards threw him into the arena. Faded tattoos cut across his gleaming shoulders like black scars in the dim light. As he scrambled up off the ground, his eyes flicked around with the telltale sign of death -- the wide-eyed look of overwhelming fear. Bray wondered if Luthor had been told just what he was getting into before ten seconds ago.
"C'mon, Luthor! I got forty on you!"
"You got this! Take 'em out!"
"You ready to die, bitch?"
Bray tuned out the crowd as the opponent descended from the ceiling in a wire cage. The announcer's deafening boom returned.
"In the opposite corner, we have a beast picked out just for our challenger -- Lucifer! Hauled straight from Hell to our arena, this monster has a death range of three times our ring. Let's hear it!"
Boos from the crowd. Bray always thought that was strange, the way the onlookers howled at the monster as if they wanted it to die. Maybe they did, but that's never what happened, and he wasn't sure if it was even possible. Lights never lost.
That was the point. No more, no less. No one in that arena was coming out alive besides the red monster. As the cage settled to the ground, Bray lit up a cigarette and leaned back to watch the match, staring for a moment into the darkness past the mesh.
The cage opened, and a red blur swarmed out, sprawling out onto the floor and rising up into a crude head and a set of arms. Jagged teeth ripped through the front of the face, bursting out into a half-made snout. Long knife-claws tipped the fingers, three on a side. The rear half was just a snake's body, a bloody red mass of something thick and liquid and trailing out over the dirt. It rolled over itself until it reached the side wall of the arena, and its cage drew back up into the ceiling.
Luthor charged the Light -- Bray sucked on his cigarette and gave the man points for sheer balls. Balls didn't win bets, though. He puffed some smoke.
The beast slashed out, and Luthor jumped in deep and caught the arm in his hands, feet dragging in the dirt. Oh, big mistake. Always the musclebound types that do that. Inhale, puff, puff.
With a howling cry, Luthor dug in and ripped the claw clean off, throwing it away with a wet slap as it splatted on the ground. Bray paused between puffs. The audience roared. Shit, not bad. He leaned forward in his seat as Luthor scooted back, dragging his hands on the dirt to scrape off the enemy's flesh.
Diving for him head-on, the Light peeled open its jaws and snapped for Luthor's leg. Missed. Hit the ground. Damn, the man was fast, especially for a big guy. Bray hadn't seen that one coming.
Snap, swing. Luthor feinted left, hurled himself right, and dealt the beast a driving punch to the face that bent it over backwards like rubber. Diving after it, he jumped in the air and came down on its other arm, tearing it free at the shoulder as his feet crashed to the floor.
Long wet whips wrapped around his ankles, and he dropped to the ground and rolled, scraping and kicking them away. Just as he came to his feet, he saw the tail coming from around the back of the ring and dove over it as it swept past.
Bray barely noticed the cigarette fall from his lips until it had burned into his pants. What, had this guy fought Lights before? No mass in the arena meant that the monster couldn't grow, so it was reluctant to spread out -- made for a slower fight -- but in the end, most people made the key mistake and got themselves dragged in close. Luthor was fighting hand-to-hand and making it out. If he could pull it off, it could win, because the beast had no way to regrow itself if Luthor kept ripping parts of it off.
I might not get my money.
Maybe he would, though. Luthor was tired, and the tail came round for another hit that took out one leg and sent him stumbling back in pain. He dropped to one knee, and the red splash behind him wasn't enemy flesh now.
The arms were growing back, too, the tail shrinking and withering. Lucifer flung itself into a tackle, Luthor ducked, and claws caught him across the hip. Blood splashed out onto the dirty floor, drawing screams from the crowd.
Come on, man, you got this. It didn't look deep. Bray checked his watch -- almost two and a half minutes. Why was he cheering for the guy? Luthor was doomed either way.
Lucifer screeched a challenge, its chest blowing up huge and liquid, then squashing down and shrieking like a siren through the jagged teeth. Bray covered his ears, and the monster hurled its tail all the way around to take out Luthor's knees from behind.
Luthor stumbled, kicked out his legs, and managed a rough roll backwards and up onto his feet. There was the tail again--he parried it with his arms and rushed in.
Bray's mouth hung open. Oh hell. Oh no, man, look at your--
The Light mess was still stuck to Luthor's arms, though the tail was mostly gone, and it ripped his flesh away down to bone. Luthor shrieked and dove in like a madman, powered by adrenaline--
He tackled the Light, tearing its face open, ripping into its head, squirming red mess thrown all over the ground and the walls. It didn't even have time to react until its neck was split open, its face all over the dirt.
Bray wanted to think that would work. Really, he did. But in the end, a Light's head was just another little piece, like an arm or a finger or something, and you couldn't just take it off and win. Luthor's arms were covered in the stuff now, and his blood was feeding the beast as it wrapped up around his shoulders.
With a monstrous yell, Luthor tore off the Light's feelers and backed up, bleeding all over the floor. Bray's jaw dropped.
The man had not much left of his arms now. A stump of one, a couple fingers on the end of the other, that was all. But somehow he was still going, dizzy and sweaty, stumbling now, losing it but managing to keep his feet on the floor.
The guy was going down, but Bray had to feel for him a little. He had tried so damn hard.
"C'mon, Luthor, suck it up," he muttered. "Die like a man. Whatever your real name is."
Luthor cast the audience a quick glance, one that seemed far more coherent than it should have been, and Bray felt as if he were looking right at him. What kind of sicko watches this? said the look, or did it? Bray found something else to stare at for a moment.
Stumbling away, Luthor leaned on the wall of the arena and waited for the inevitable. Lucifer rose up, serpentine, and howled its challenge as it dove in hard--
Luthor fell aside, and the beast smashed headlong into the arena walls, sending Bray leaping out of his chair along with most of the front two rows that crashed down onto the crowd behind them with a collective yelp. Light flesh fried on the fence, filling the air with a dull reek and shriveling up like overcooked meat. The chickenwire hissed and sparked, and the Light was already dripping through, ash and sticky withering mess gluing itself to the steel. It smelled like boiling blood, and Bray clapped a hand over his nose.
Where was Luthor? He scrambled over a fallen drunk and eased up to the fence.
Four and a half. The fighter was on his knees, slumped against the side of the wall, having exhausted all his energy just to lead the beast into his trap. Blood mingled with sweat and dripped down over his body and legs, and his eyes were barely open as Lucifer shuddered and inched its way back from the fence.
Come on, get up, you damn fool, Bray found himself thinking as Luthor raised his chin and then let it drop. No, there was no more life left in that. The crowd was already howling for death, and the clock was still ticking.
Four-forty. Lucifer dragged its blistered body -- what was left of it -- away from the fence and seethed back into a coherent shape again. Forgoing arms, it funneled its stripped-down self into a malformed serpent's shape that snaked its way toward the fallen man.
Four-forty-five. Luthor raised his head long enough to stare down the beast. Past the point of fear, his eyes rose to meet the dull dark pits behind all that bone and tendril.
Four-fifty. Bray's book slipped from his fingers and into his lap as Luthor's arms reached out. The bookie's eyes darted back and forth between Luthor and the clock.
Four-fifty-five. Lucifer's head shot out with such force that the rest of the body rose off the ground, the coiled form stringing out into a spear that dove headlong for the man's throat.
Four-fifty-six. The serpent's teeth clamped down around the pale neck, the rest of the body whipping about to surround the torso beneath it. Luthor's eyes rolled about to stare at the crowd, glazed, dull. Bray swore the man looked his way again.
The clock stopped at four-fifty-eight.
Though the crowd erupted around him, Bray barely heard their voices. As he sat still, he couldn't take his eyes off the lifeless body, skin dissolving away into flesh, Light tendrils chewing through it and tearing it down from a human body into some butchered carcass lying in a meat market window. Even as it disappeared into a shapeless red mound, Bray saw the eyes looking back, blank and yet living, nothing like the soulless beast in the center now. Even with no body, Luthor was still watching.
Pleading? Raging? Maybe none of that. Maybe just accepting.
Or, maybe blaming.
Bray riffled through his book without looking down, fumbling for his pen, a blank and empty nothing filling his chest. As he stared past the chickenwire, he saw Lucifer crouch onto newly formed forelimbs, shaking as if panting over the floor.
The announcer said something -- he wasn't even sure what -- and the crowd began to trickle away into the arena's lobby to collect winnings, drink, and hoot about the match. Their dull roar faded as Bray approached the edge of the arena. Bray put his arms on the rail in front of the fence.
"You're a real bastard, you know that?" He said the words to himself, but Lucifer's serpentine head rose to watch him, little beady eyes in a skeletal snout.
Was that thing ever human? Bray had a hard time believing so, although that was how the story went. He folded his arms and pressed his face so close to the fence that he could feel the buzzing near his nose. The Light rose up onto its coiled rear, extending and slithering toward the fence.
Human arms formed out of the shapeless claws, then pressed against the lower walls of the ring, below the wire. Though the head remained the same, Lucifer hauled itself up to watch Bray at head level.
Cole, the pit master, yelled from across the room: "Bray, what are you doing over there? You antagonizing my monster? You have two minutes before we sweep it back up, so don't get your fingers bit off!"
Bray waved a hand in Cole's general direction and turned back to the Light. He managed a vague chuckle.
"You are one mean motherfucker." The bookie fished out a cigarette from his pocket and poked it through the gaps in the fence. "And you know it, don't you?"
A hand came up and swiped at the fence, grabbing the cigarette away and hissing against the wire.
"Whoa!" Bray jerked back and rubbed his fingers together. "What, you can make sense of anything I'm saying? I'm damned if you're smarter than a dog..."
Lucifer hissed at him, less of a snake noise than a garbled snarl, and hoisted itself back up against the arena wall. They sat there, nose to nose, for a good twenty seconds before a trembling hand rose and pressed itself as close to the wire as possible.
"Shit. Okay, I'll bite." He glanced around; Cole was pacing in the rear of the room, but the crowd was long gone. Lowering his voice, Bray gave the creature a suspicious glance. "Do you know English?"
"Bray! Get your ass off the fence so we can put this thing back in the box!"
"Hey. What do you do with a cigarette, Lucifer?"
Shaking and fumbling, the fingers managed to twist Bray's cigarette around and jam it between two teeth, where it stuck out at an awkward angle. Lucifer only managed a few seconds before chomping down, shredding the paper and sending tobacco everywhere, which it scooped up flake by flake with the painstaking air of a starving boy licking the edges of his plate.
The bookie stared, mouth open. "Food. You want food, right? That's what you all want."
Lucifer clanged back against the wall, expectation in his eyes.
"Hey, Cole!" Bray cupped a hand to his mouth. "What do you feed these bastards?"
"Not much!" Cole jogged around the side of the arena, watching Lucifer glare through the mesh fence. "What, I never gave you the lowdown?"
"I never asked, really. I usually stuck to the boxing matches, right? I've only been down here a few times."
"Well, they're more vicious when you don't feed 'em." Cole picked up a straw and poked it through the chickenwire, jerking his hands away like he had touched something hot. Catching it in midair, Lucifer stripped the paper off and tore the plastic to shreds, licking up the little white flakes like it had the tobacco. "The right amount of time's about...two and a half days, if they're used to it. First time you get one, you have to keep them for a week in the cage, then turn them loose on the first person they see."
Bray put on a cool expression and shrugged, jerking a thumb at Lucifer. "So, you gave this guy a taste for blood like that?"
"Oh, that part's just something they do. They like flesh. Don't you?" Cole picked up a gnawed chicken wing, broke off one of the bones, and stuck it through the fence; the beast inside nearly threw itself into the mesh trying to catch it. "But they don't usually eat people unless they're desperate. So you make 'em desperate."
Just an animal. Bray glanced at the serpent-man as it backed away from the edge, human hands still dragging the ground beside it. But I never met a dog that could tell me what you do with a cigarette.
"How many you got?"
"About five. Lucifer's the newest one, so I figured I'd show it off, christen the new ring, all that, right?" Cole turned and brought both hands to his mouth. "Hey guys! Pack this boy up! Let's close down for the night."
Crane-arms lowered from the ceiling, sparking, driving Lucifer back into the corner where its -- his? her? -- metal box sat open now. Bray kept a straight face as the Light inched back into its holding cell, curling up inside, melting down into a quivering pool and allowing the door to be shut.
"So you feed it people and nothing else?"
"That's right. Keeps the guy on his toes. Trains him to know that the only food he's getting, is what he goes and gets himself, right here." Cole pointed at his notes and pulled out a checkbook. "How much I owe you for today?"
Bray thrust the notebook into his hands, and while Cole wrote out the money, he watched Lucifer's cage rise into the upper reaches of the arena.
"Here you go."
The bookie stared at the check in his hands. "Right. Hey, Cole?"
"You want me to stick around, you know, someone who knows the routine? I make a good buck around here, so I figure I'll keep the bets down here." He gave the pit master a nonchalant smile and pulled away the notebook.
"Yeah, sure, old buddy. No skin off my back if you stay, better than explaining this shit to more people. Glad you had fun." Cole pocketed his checks and set off for the exit. "Let's get going, right? I have to get up early and set up the boxing ring upstairs. Go get yourself a beer from the lobby or something, catch a cab, head home."
"Right." He watched Cole fling the doors open and waltz past the few people left from the night's audience, but his hand felt glued to the arena, and so he stayed until Cole disappeared from view. Behind him, the arena's sprinklers flicked on, hosing down the floor and sweeping the blood away.
He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and, with a glance over his shoulder, lit it and took a long drag.