The woman trudged forward as a cold gust whipped at the ground scattering dust into the air. Dark locks escaped her hooded figure and billowed in tandem with the wind and debris. Clutching her oversized, ragged coat tighter and pulling a scarf above her mouth, the woman scanned the vast wasteland before her, stone and scrap metal. She was heading towards the only structure within her immediate radius --a seemingly abandoned cellar door.
As she knocked, a hollow and heavy noise seemed to reverberate into the wide empty night. But nothing followed. Again she knocked, the frozen metal of the door stinging her exposed fingers. This time she heard a heavy chain rattle inside and stepped back as a small slate pulled back and revealed a pair of dark eyes.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” quipped a manic, waspish voice.
“I’m a friend of the game who’s looking for some fun,” she replied, the words dry and meaningless--a code. Immediately the slate slid shut and the large doors creaked open revealing a dark tunnel of steps. The woman strode inside, the doors slamming shut behind her, the howling winds outside silenced.
“So what kind of fun we talkin’, sweetheart?” asked the looming, lanky man as he stroked his grimy goatee, a raised eyebrow indicating his suspicion. The woman reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a bundle of plastic and rubber bands. As she pushed aside a bit of the plastic, stacks of bills were revealed.
“Depends on the game pieces you got in play,” she curtly responded, a daring confidence radiating from her tiny stature. The man’s eyes widened, any hint of suspicion immediately erased. With a new and overbearing smile exposing his yellowed teeth, the man promptly turned around and began walking down the dark staircase beckoning the woman to follow.
“Ah, fo’ sure. Best pieces in the metro area. Actually got a new load in a few days ago or so,” he boasted continuing to slump down the endless staircase. The damp air reeked of gasoline, sewage, and an unknown metallic chemical that seemed to cling to the woman’s noise as she breathed. “It’s been keeping the games real cracked, let me tell ya.”
The woman said nothing as she followed the man down. The stairs ended abruptly, a giant iron door seemingly barricading whatever lied beyond it. The man quickly punched a code into the keypad beside the door, and a heavy click reverberated into the small hallway. The massive iron gate slowly swung open to reveal a throbbing mass of people. All of them faced towards the center, yelling and jeering as booming crashes and piercing, animalistic cries shook the expansive pit.
“Over here, big bucks. This is where we keep ’em,” motioned the man. He began to maneuver his way through the rowdy onlookers, narrowly avoiding thrashing limbs and misplaced shoves. The woman, once again, continued to follow. However, her eyes managed to glimpse through the sweating bodies and towards the center ring. Wings flapped, talons were bared. Two ferocious beasts grappled with one another, dragon-like creatures whose massive legs were chained. Their bodies glistened from the dark, red liquid that gushed from open wounds. In one swift movement, the larger of the two creatures slammed the other onto the iron cage-ring floor. At the same moment the monster dove its deadly fangs into the neck of its struggling counterpart, the boisterous crowed erupted into noise. The woman quickly turned away, her wince hidden behind the hood she kept over her face.
The lanky man made his way to the edge of the expansive basement, pulled a card out of his pocket and swiped it through another nondescript keypad placed against the wall. A hidden door released itself from the otherwise solid cement, the pop going unnoticed by the preoccupied audience. The man grasped the exposed edge, pulling it open and motioned for the woman to walk inside. She did so.
“Alright, alright! So here we are, where we keep the valuables. Go ahead and take a gander at what we got and who you wanna place those those lovely bills on,” smirked the man. He had followed closely behind the woman and shut the sliding door closed behind them. He now leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, as he grinned at her.
It would have been understandable if the man’s vile smirk filled her with a sense of unease. But if it had, she hid it well. Instead the woman surveyed the dimly lit and overly sanitized yet disheveled lab room. The roar from outside had been muted to a hardly audible rumble, the harsh chemical smell much stronger here.
Aside from the miscellaneous lab equipment and stacks upon stacks of syringes and powerful automatic rifles, large iron-grated cages dotted the edges of the room. She could make out shadows inside, and hear the low rattle of chains. Slowly, she paced besides each grate, peering in to make out what lay inside.
“How many options I got in here?” She called out to him. Inside the first cage a serpent-like beast lay still, its elongated body filling the room with its coils. A pair of claws, half the size of the woman’s entire body could be seen beneath the hulking strips of muscle and leathered skin. A large whiskered, reptilian face sat sunken deep within the tangled mass, jaws open like a crocodile waiting to strike. It’s silver scales seemed to shine even underneath the poor hallway lights. She moved on.
“We got seven right now. Had more yesterday, but you know how it goes,” he answered, flippantly noting the deadly nature of the so-called ‘game’.
At this point, the woman had peered inside almost every grate finally reaching the other end of the room. The last cage seemed to have been expanded to provide double the space of the others. Inside, rather than finding another fanged creature bracing itself for its next fight, she saw a monster so worn and beaten that it appeared to be dead. Vast areas of exposed bone protruded from its jaws and ribs and wings. The flesh appeared as though it had eroded long before, in sharp contrast with newer, fresher wounds it carried. Heavy breaths escaped its nostrils, the only sign that it was still alive.
“What’s with this one?” Asked the woman. The man looked up from the scabs he had been picking on his arm.
“Oh, no. Can’t place on that one.”
“Why not?” The woman asked, not challenging but inquiring. The man slowly sauntered over to her to take a gander at the beast himself.
“We had him in yesterday. Messed up the whole thing cause he wouldn’t go down.” The man shook his head. “The chaos I had to deal with,” he muttered. “Imagine everyone’s bets on a different player. You’re supposed win some and lose some. Shit, man, when this guy never lost, half the crowd out there went nuts claiming the whole thing was rigged! Especially considered this decaying freak looked half-dead to begin with, all those missing chunks of flesh. Agh. I had some heavy duty clean-up to do. Literally too. The other guys were just...torn to shreds.”
The woman looked away from the man and back into the cage. This time she saw the countless metal bindings pinning it to the ground. It’s body stretched the entire length of the cell, making it undoubtedly larger than the others. Towering spikes protruded from its spine and along its and head and jaws. It’s wings were constricted, folding into its taut and muscular body by the constraining, over abundance of chains. Blood continued to ooze from the fresh gashes and puncture wounds that littered it from head to tail.
“Tomorrow we got a new game planned for this one. We bet on who finally gets the best of him. But like, were gonna sedate him real good before the match. Just to even out the field, you know. We’ve started him on the sedatives today,” he smugly announced, proud of his plan.
“That’s an interesting take,” she responded, her voice reflecting nothing more of her thoughts on the matter. “So in the morning, when they shift into their human guise, you just keep them here too?”
The man released a sharp laugh, as though he found the woman’s question ridiculous. “Of course! Where else we gonna put them? It’s not like we chat together about last night’s match over breakfast. What do you think this is, some kind of-of, Zephyr zoo like they got downtown?” He laughed again at his own reference to the research facilities that studied and cared for the dragon-like monsters.
“If you find one that actually chats with you, sell that out fast. I’m sure lots of zoos will pay for that.”
“Aagh, no where near as much as you’ll bet on ’em.” The man sucked in a thick snort before spitting onto the ground. “Actually though, if anything I’ll bet you this one talks.”
“What?!” Interrupted the woman. Immediately recognizing her sudden shock, she reeled herself in. “I mean, what makes you say that?” The man gave a long, distrustful stare before continuing.
“Well, he kinda just sits there and watches us. Like he’s paying attention to us. Every other Zephyr come through here is a freakin’ whack job in their human suit. You know, they got the psycho stare, or drool or twitch. Creepy as shit. Not this one.” The woman took one last look inside the cage before turning to squarely face the man.
“I’m going with the one in the first grate. All in.” She pulled out her plastic covered wad of cash as he hungrily watched. The man quickly, theatrically, wiped his hands on his chest before reaching out to snatch the money from the woman’s hand.
“Wonderful choice! Just a moment as I put this away and give you your ticket.” He quickly sauntered off to a large safe tucked away at the other end of the dilapidated lab. As he did so, the woman quickly pulled out a small, metal device from her pocket and shoved it through the grate of the wounded, sedated Zephyr. As the small electronic skidded inside, the light skipping sound resounded in the cell. The Zephyr’s eye snapped open, the bright yellow glow illuminating the blood that trickled down its jaw and the thick, scarred flesh that ran straight through its face. The look caused the woman to take a sharp intake of air. Her heart sped, her hands trembled. But it wasn’t fear that overtook her in that moment. It was something else she couldn’t quite place. The creature’s eye continued to stare deeply into her own.
“Ok. Here’s your ticket. Your guys goes on in the next hour. You can claim whatever you get at dawn.” The man’s waspish voice brought her back from her trance-like state. She quickly turned around to face him.
“I’ll come back at dawn then.” She replied as she grabbed the ticket and started back towards the hidden door.
“And miss the best part?” He exclaimed.
“I’m here for the cash not the blood,” she shrugged in reply.
“Whatever, none of my business,” responded the man as he swiped his card and led her back out to the staircase.
After climbing out of the cellar door, finally reaching the cold, dark surface, she once again gripped at her baggy coat and scarf to retain some warmth. She quickly began to walk away from the seemingly deserted structure and back towards the dim, dusty city skyline ahead of her. It would be a few hours walk or so, but she wasn’t heading all the way back to the city. Not yet. She reached a hand up to her ear, turning on a small, undetectable microphone.
“Facility 4-3-6-9, lab assistant Hale Winters calling in. Emergency evacuation requested. Male Zephyr, due to be terminated tomorrow, unlikely to make it long past day break. Possibly vocal.” She whispered in a rushed tone.
“I’m sorry, vocal?” A low voice responded from her ear piece, static distorting the words.
“The game broker claimed he might be able to speak. I don’t know, but either way that was probably the worst abuse case I’ve ever seen. If we’ve only got enough manpower to grab one of them, it’s got to be this one. And we got to do it at dawn.”
“Interesting...Well, I already have the locator you placed on screen. Meet us back at the base and we’ll regroup for tonight’s mission.”
“Copy that,” whispered the woman. The winds howled behind her as she made her way towards what appeared to be a make-shift base, barely discernible in the pitch dark of the desert landscape.