Fire. So much fire.
I always smelled it before I saw it. Before the humans prodded me out of my tiny cage with their electric sticks just far enough to snap a chain on the degrading collar around my neck so they could drag me the rest of the way out.
What an awful, sickening burning smell. Years ago, I enjoyed the smoky warmth of a wood burning fire. We never cooked our food of course, but the bonfire was the center of our community. Grandparents told stories while children laughed and ran circles around the massive flames.
But this fire was all gasoline and chemicals. I prayed the fumes would give cancer to these wretched humans.
“Keep moving, stupid cat.”
They zapped my flanks with the cattle prods to keep my back legs moving, but I barely felt the shocks anymore. Even the feeling in my paws had all but disappeared due to the multiple burns. But I’d be damned if I made this easy on them. I was still a 500-pound animal and I’d make sure they’d feel every ounce of my weight as they dragged me closer to that awful smell.
At first, I thought if I went along with their demands like a well-trained pet, they’d stop shocking me. Maybe treat my burns. Or give me a decent meal for once.
I gave up on that hope years ago. If they were going to torture me regardless, pissing them off would give me a tiny amount of satisfaction.
Two of them pushed open a set of heavy wooden doors, leading me out into the ring. My usual getup, a tiny stool set in front of three fiery metal hoops, waited for me in the center.
Oohs and ahhs rose up from the crowd of humans in the stands surrounding us. Hundreds of different scents assaulted my nose underneath the sickly sweetness of the gasoline. That could only mean a packed house tonight.
My handlers discreetly prodded me up to the tiny stool—they wouldn’t want to be reported for animal cruelty now—where I sat awkwardly on my haunches. Heat assaulted my face from the fiery hoops. The flames looked bigger and brighter tonight. No doubt the ringmaster ordered it as a punishment for maiming his assistant last night.
He stood in the center of the pit, in his stupid red tailcoat and top hat, talking me up to the crowd. I watched him through the flames like looking at prey through tall grass. A sudden thought occurred to me.
No. You will be too far gone if you do such a thing. Your soul will never be saved.
But what hope did I have left? The shaman hadn’t reached out to me in over a day. I wasn’t even sure if she was real or a hallucination at this point.
The ringmaster gestured to me as he completed his speech for the audience, turning his head to meet my eyes. Those cold, dead eyes that showed no remorse as he and his people abused, tortured, and starved me, plus who knew how many others like me.
Part of me thought I should have gone with Razvan all those years ago, but if it weren’t me here, it would only be another shifter as a dancing puppet for these cruel masters. The ringmaster’s eyes narrowed at me through the circles of flames, a warning to obey.
A roar from deep in my chest was my answer, my teeth on full display and my human head-sized paw swiping through the air. I made my decision. In the grand scheme of things, I was already dead.
I’d never see svarga after this life, but I was at peace with that. After all of my impure thoughts while trapped in this Hell, taking one human with me wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe the next shifters’ lives would be a bit easier until they found a new ringmaster.
I lowered my paw to the edge of the stool and lifted my rear end, coiled and poised to take my jump. So much fire. I fought back the nausea and the fear whispering at my instincts. This would be my last jump for these bastards and I had to make it count.
I focused on my prey, stilled my breath and my body, then leaped.
Flames licked painfully at my skin, singeing the fur on both sides of my flanks. I tucked my front paws as close to my body as I could. Only when I passed through the final hoop did I extend my claws.
Gasps of awe turned to screams of horror as I shredded through the ringmaster’s coat. It was almost comical how his eyes bulged too late to realize what was happening. He didn’t even have a chance to scream as my teeth sank into his throat.
Oh, a delicious, raw fresh kill…
The sting in my shoulder only made me clamp down harder, tearing into the human’s soft, pliable body with urgency.
So much blood. Delicious, sweet, hot flesh…
More stings pelted my body and my paws became heavy, so incredibly heavy. I smiled inwardly as the tranquilizers began circulating through my system, admiring the work I made of the former ringmaster. Now that wouldn’t be an open-casket funeral.
I laid my head down and allowed the darkness to swallow me up. If I had any luck left at all, I would never wake up.