Chapter 6 – Taming the Tiger

“Why?” Royce croaked weakly, attempting to pull himself up. “Why did you do all this to me?”

The burly wolf merchant struck him hard across the face with a powerful fist. The chained tiger was sent crashing across the floor.

“From this moment on.” Nomack growled. “You start re-assuming your place.” He gave the downed tiger a kick for emphasis.

The wolf crouched down. “You are a slave. That’s all you’ve ever been, that’s all you can be. At some point, you forgot that.” He grabbed Royce by the throat. “Time to start remembering.”

He pulled the weakened tiger to his feet by his throat, only to slam a powerful punch into his stomach, knocking the breath from Royce. Nomack then let him fall roughly to the floor.

Royce coughed and gasped, struggling to catch his breath amid the pain and nausea from the blow.

Nomack crouched and set about tearing off the remnants of the pit-fighter outfit that still clung to the tiger’s body. Within moments, Royce was naked.

The grey wolf kicked him in the ribs as he stood. “Sooner or later,” he said, wandering across the room, “you’re going to be wearing this.” He grabbed an iron collar from a table and threw it down in front of Royce. “But the twist is, you’re going to be putting it on willingly.”

“Never.” Royce spat. Being pulled away from his certain death had given him a burst of hope, enough to muster up some defiance, despite his lack of strength.

Nomack burst into laughter. “By the time I am finished crushing your spirit, you will be begging to wear that collar and to serve me.” He made eye contact with Royce and the tiger saw the fierceness he remembered all too well. “But I’m going to take my time. Your transformation is going to be fun and I want to savour it.”

Royce tried to think, to come up with some method of escape, but he couldn’t come up with anything. His mind felt numb from the exhaustion. He’d just have to wait until he’d had some rest and regained some strength before he thought about escape.

But that would mean spending the time until then at Nomack’s mercy and that would not be a pleasant experience. He knew this wolf. He was a savage bully with a fierce sadistic streak who would delight in making him suffer as much as possible.

“You must be very thirsty, my slave.” Nomack said. He placed a small metal bowl he’d picked up on the floor close to where Royce lay. He then pulled a small flask of water from a pocket and emptied its contents into it. “Drink as much as you want.”

Nomack took a step back and stood there, watching Royce’s reaction.

The tiger looked at the bowl. He didn’t know what to think. The Nomack he remembered would have used the fact that he was thirsty against him, make him beg for water, something like that. This act of kindness was unexpected.

Whatever the wolf merchant’s reasons, water was water and his throat was dry and parched. He needed to drink. Inch by painful inch, Royce crawled the short distance to the bowl. He was about to start lapping it up when Nomack spoke.

“By the way,” he said, “just so you know, the water is drugged. But you’re free to drink as much as you want.” The wolf was grinning devilishly.

Royce stopped. This was more like the Nomack he knew.

“What a dilemma, eh?” Said the wolf, crouching down beside the tiger. “You’re dying of thirst, but the only water you’re going to get is drugged. Death or drugged? It’s your choice.”

He thought about it as best he could under the circumstances. The water was sitting there in front of him, cool and inviting, and he needed to drink if he wanted to stay alive and regain his strength. And refusing this drink might anger Nomack and earn him more pain.

Royce made his choice. He leaned in and started lapping up the water. It felt so good as the water washed down his throat, refreshing and cool.

The wolf smiled and patted Royce on the head. “That’s a good slave.”

The tiger paused briefly to glare hatefully at Nomack, who didn’t seem to care. Then Royce went back to drinking.

Nomack left him to it and stood up. “Thorne!” He called out.

The merchant’s puma assistant entered the room. “Yes, Mr. Nomack?”

“My business here in Pyre is concluded for the moment.” The wolf informed him. “I want to leave within the hour. Make sure everything is packed up and my coach is prepared.”

“Of course, sir.” Throne nodded.

“Oh, and bring in Drake.” Nomack added.

The puma nodded and left.

While this was going on, Royce had finished his water. It had left a strange oily aftertaste in his mouth. He assumed that was a result of whatever drugs Nomack had added.

“All finished?” Nomack glanced at the bowl. “There’s a good slave.” The wolf savagely kicked Royce in the ribs.

“The drugs will start taking affect soon.” Nomack sneered. “Get used to the feeling, you’re going to be experiencing it a lot over the next few days as I grind your spirit into dust.”

“Not going to happen.” Said Royce weakly, where he lay.

“Oh, you might think that now.” Nomack laughed coldly. “But I’ve been practising my methods.”

The door opened again, and the puma assistant Thorne entered. But this time, he wasn’t alone; he was leading a naked muscle-bound bulldog into the room by a chain attached to an iron collar around his neck. The dog had an assortment of scratches and bruises across his body.

The bulldog was led up to Nomack, where he immediately dropped to his knees, head bowed and ears flattened submissively against his head. The puma handed Nomack the chain and left silently.

“Slave.” Said the wolf merchant. “This is Drake, my current slave. He’s somewhat unusual as slaves go. You see, he wasn’t born to it. I made him what he is.”

“What?” Royce stammered. He was struggling to concentrate. His head was becoming more and more numb with every passing second. It seemed the drugs were taking affect.

“He used to be a pit-fighter.” Nomack explained. “From Cascade Falls. I had him kidnapped and delivered to me, and I ground down his spirit, moulding him into the pathetic thing he is now.”

“I… I…” Royce stuttered. He was having trouble forming words. The room around him was starting to spin.

“As you go unconscious,” Nomack grinned, “take this thought with you. Drake here was stronger than you, he was born free, and yet his will crumbled quickly. So what hope can someone such as you, a born slave with a weak spirit, possibly have? You will fall faster than he did…”

Royce glanced at the kneeling bulldog named Drake, and blacked out, wondering of he’d soon be joining him in his servitude.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Dead?”

“Yes, captain.”

Tobias starred at his young companion. He needed a moment to take this in. He leaned against the base of a nearby statue, in the shade. Armin stood beside him. They’d come here to Central Square at dawn to see how Royce was doing, only to find him gone. Tobias had sent Armin to find out what had happened, and he had returned with bad news.

“You’re sure?” The old wolf asked.

 

“Yes.” The young leopard at his side nodded, sadly. “He broke out of his restraints during the night and his guard killed him. He was cremated before dawn.”

“He was cremated that quickly?” Tobias found this strange.

“Apparently, it was some sort of administration error.” Armin explained.

“It just doesn’t seem right,” Tobias mused, “we both saw Royce last night. He was a mess. How’d he break out of his chains?”

“I guess he must have found some last reserve of strength, sir.” Armin shrugged.

“I suppose so…” the older wolf mumbled.

“Sir, Herrick is dead.” Said Armin. “Our mission is over. We have no more reason to stay here in Pyre.”

“You’re right, of course.” Tobias sighed. “We should leave as soon as possible and head back to central.”

The wolf led the way as the two of them made their way through the sun-soaked streets of the city. Along the way, the young leopard noticed the unsettled look on his mentor’s face.

“What’s wrong, sir?” He asked as they walked.

“I keep thinking about this whole situation.” Tobias replied. “And it just doesn’t sit right with me. My instincts keep telling me this isn’t over, that there’s more going on.”

“Captain, there is nothing more we can do here.” Said Armin. “Herrick is dead and we have no idea who could have framed him.”

“I know, I know.” Tobias muttered. “It’s probably just me not liking how this turned out. In all my years, I never lost a potential recruit. Never.”

“Well, this wasn’t your fault, sir…” Armin did his best to reassure the wolf. He hated seeing his mentor so depressed.

They walked through the streets of Pyre to the small house they’d been renting on the outskirts of the city. Tobias unlocked the door and they stepped in out of the blazing heat. It was only marginally cooler inside, but even a little was better than nothing.

“Okay, let’s get packed.” Tobias said. “We’ll get moving at nightfall…”

“Uh… captain?”

Tobias looked back. Armin had closed the door behind them to find a piece of folded paper pinned to it. On it, in big bold letters, was written ‘Tobias & Armin’.

The old grey wolf stepped forward and grabbed the paper. He unfolded it to find that it was a note:

ROYCE HERRICK IS STILL ALIVE.

FIND A MERCENARY BY THE NAME OF MULLEN.

HE HAS ANSWERS.

Tobias handed the note off to Armin as he lapsed into thoughtfulness. The leopard read it quickly.

“Whom could this have come from?” He said. “There should be no one who knows we’re interested in Herrick.”

“But apparently there is.” Said Tobias. “Seems my instincts were right. This isn’t over yet.”

“But, sir,” Armin protested. “Just because this note says Herrick is alive, doesn’t mean he actually is.”

“Even if there is only a chance.” Tobias said, firmly. “We have to look into it. So I guess we’ll be hunting for a mercenary…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“So you’re finally waking up…”

Royce started stirring from his slumber, the world slowly coming back to him. He opened his eyes to see the evil visage of Nomack staring down at him.

“I’m glad.” The wolf merchant said. “I was a little tired of playing with Drake here.”

The tiger tried to sit up. His head was aching horribly, but overall, he was feeling better than he had been before. Thanks to the drugs, he’d had some rest. He still wasn’t in great shape, his stomach was growling at him, and he was still quite weak. But he did feel a little stronger than he had. And he’d need all the strength he could muster if he hoped to survive long enough to escape.

“Almost two days asleep.” Nomack was muttering. “I might have overdone it with the drugs.”

Royce glanced around him. He was sitting on the floor of a coach. It was juddering slightly, so he assumed it was moving. It was wider and more spacious than the coach Nomack had owned back when he’d been his slave. Kneeling nearby was the bulldog slave Drake. He was currently bandaging a number of fresh wounds across his naked body.

The thought crossed his mind that Nomack’s assistant Thorne wasn’t here. But he remembered the way Nomack worked back when he’d been the wolf’s slave. There was likely a second simpler coach following this one, carrying supplies and merchandise. The puma was likely riding in that one.

“I’ll bet that rest did you good.” Nomack said. “And I’ll bet you’re feeling stronger, more defiant, confident you can resist me. I hope so. It’ll be so much more fun and satisfying if you resist. It was with Drake.”

Royce glanced at the bulldog. He found it a little hard to believe that this simpering slave had once been a pit-fighter. And what if he had? If Drake’s will had crumbled under Nomack, surely his would as well?

He pushed that thought away. He had to focus. He was alive, and as long as he was, he could be free again.

“I’d wager you’re hungry, slave.” Said Nomack. “If you beg for food, I’ll give you more than the normal rations I’d give a slave.”

Royce didn’t even consider it. “Fuck you.” He spat.

“That’s no way to speak to your master!” Nomack snarled. He lashed out with a foot, trying to kick the tiger in the head.

But Royce was ready for it. He grabbed the leg and quickly bit down on the ankle.

The large wolf merchant cried out and kicked with his other foot. This time his blow connected and the muscular tiger was knocked away, tumbling across the floor of the rumbling coach until he came to a stop by the opposite seat.

As Royce tried to recover himself, Nomack was checking his ankle. Royce was still too weak to do any real damage. But the wolf’s ankle would be stinging for a while.

“Bloody slave!” Nomack roared. He stood and shot out a hand, grabbing Royce by the throat. The tiger did his best to struggle, trying to pry the vice like grip from around his neck. But going for the wolf’s ankle had taken too much out of him in order for him to be able to do much now.

As Royce struggled, he looked the fierce merchant in the eye. He saw the anger and ferocity that he remembered very well. Suddenly, Nomack threw the tiger roughly to the floor.

“No.” Nomack muttered, reigning in his anger. “I will not kill you, despite how tempting it is right now. I’ve spent so much time and effort to get you here, I’m not going to waste that.”

From his place on the floor, Royce gasped to get his breath back. A part of him had fully expected the wolf to strangle the life out of him just then.

“I underestimated how quickly you’d be regaining your strength.” Nomack was grumbling. “But it doesn’t matter. We should reach the town of Sand Haven within a few hours. We’ll be meeting a contact of mine there who’ll see to you for me.”

That sounded very ominous to Royce. Exactly how would this contact ‘see to him’? He’d heard of Sand Haven, it was some distance south of Pyre. They had travelled quite far from his former home already.

“Your spirit will collapse eventually.” Nomack said. “I can wait. Being patient is something I’ve had to learn over the years since my business fell apart. I had to be patient as I rebuilt my business, I had to wait for the investors to start showing interest.”

He fixed Royce with a powerful stare and grinned. “My patience paid off, I am richer and more successful that I ever was before. And it was my success that allowed me to track down the one loose end from my old life, the one slave who ever escaped my service alive.”

Royce tried to sit up. He glanced about the coach. The door on one side was close. Maybe if he could summon up enough strength, he could make a lunge at it, get it open and leap outside….

And then what? It was doubtful what little strength he had would last even that far. Beyond that he’d be unable to avoid immediate recapture. An attempt to escape now would result in failure for sure. He had to wait, rebuild more strength, and wait for the right moment.

“I knew from the moment I sold you all those years back that it was a mistake.” Nomack was saying. “Sure, the money was useful, but there was a matter of principle involved. Letting a slave go alive meant I hadn’t used him as much as I absolutely could, that I hadn’t got my money’s worth from you. That preyed on my mind for so long, until I once again had the money and resources to do something about it.”

The battered and weak tiger was only barely listening as the wolf merchant droned on.

“I couldn’t find a single trace of that idiotic white tiger I sold you to.” Nomack explained. “Not a single trace anywhere. But I eventually tracked you down. Imagine my surprise when I found out that my lowly pathetic slave was living the life of a celebrity pit-fighter in the remote city of Pyre! It was a shock.”

“I wanted to go get you as soon as I found out. But having learned the art of patience the hard way, I decided to take my time and enjoy your recapture, really savour it. I saw the opportunity to really put you in your place but stripping away the life you had, piece by piece. Above all else, it would be fun to tear away from you the ridiculous notion that you could ever be anything more than the slave you were born to be.”

“The planning took well over a year. I wanted it all to be planned and executed perfectly. And as you know, it was. I passed the time practising for when the time came to crush whatever free will you had developed. I went through several kidnapped candidates, Drake here being the latest. I believe I did a really good job with him.”

“Once he’d been broken, I branded him myself with a slave branding iron I bought from a breeding camp, and had the proper papers forged by an expert. To the world he has always been a slave. And to him, he always will be. Isn’t that right, Drake?”

“Yes, my Master.” The naked bulldog nodded.

“He’s a good slave.” Nomack leered. “Unlike you, you pathetic maggot. For your insolence, you will be going hungry for now. But I would just point out that it is in your best interest to go along with me for now. After all, I’m sure you’re already planning some sort of escape, for which you will need your strength. Disobedience means little or no food which means little or no strength and therefore whatever futile plans you’re forming in that head of yours become useless.”

The sadistic wolf was playing mind games with him, Royce could see that. He was giving the tiger a reason to obey, knowing that by doing as he was told would mean him starting to get back into the habit of obedience, which he guessed would help Nomack grind down his spirit. But if he didn’t obey, Nomack got what he wanted as well, a slave too malnourished to be able to make any escape.

Royce had little choice in this matter. The only hope he had was of regaining his strength, and he’d need food for that. Which meant he’d have to start obeying sometime soon…

“While your wretched excuse for a brain mulls that over, it’s time you had another drink. Drake, hold him.”

The muscle bound bulldog slave leapt into action, grabbing the weakened tiger from where he was sat and firmly pinning his arms behind his back. Royce didn’t even bother to struggle. There was just no point.

Nomack pulled a corked bottle from a pocket. He pulled out the cork with his teeth and spat it away.

“This water is drugged, just like your last drink.” The wolf told the tiger. “You’re going to drink it one way or another, but I don’t feel like playing around this time and giving you a choice.”

With one hand, the wolf merchant pried open Royce’s jaws enough for him to shove the mouth of the bottle into the tiger’s mouth. He then tipped Royce’s head back, so that the contents of the bottle poured down his throat.

Royce gulped down the cool water, savouring it. Whether it was drugged or not, he was thirsty, and he didn’t have the strength to resist the drink, even if he wanted to.

Soon, it was over, and Nomack withdrew, returning to his seat. Royce was left with the same oily aftertaste as before.

“Release him, Drake.” Nomack barked. “Clean my boots. With your tongue.”

“Yes, my Master.” The bulldog let go of Royce and quickly crawled across the coach to Nomack’s feet, where he started licking his boots vigorously.

Royce sagged after Drake released him. The energy had suddenly drained from him and he was feeling dizzy.

“The drug I’ve been giving you is interesting.” Said Nomack. “It took me quite some time to find the right one for my purposes. Your body will eventually get used to having it in your system and it will stop knocking you out. But then of course, you will be awake to experience its side-effects.”

“What… effects?” Royce asked, having trouble getting the question out. His head was spinning. His mind felt numb.

Nomack laughed. “You’ll have to wait and see. What’s good about this drug is that its effects are cumulative. With each dose, the affect on you will be stronger and stronger.”

Royce’s surroundings started to spin…

“With each dose,” Nomack was saying, “you inch closer to being fully mine again.”

The weakened tiger lost consciousness…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Do you realise how long it took us to track you down, Mr. Mullen? Three days. Three days spent searching through the seediest, most squalid bars and taverns in the city. As you can imagine, that has not been pleasant.”

The old wolf Tobias picked up a knocked over chair, one of the few that was currently undamaged, and stared icily at the black-furred bear named Mullen. “So could you please not compound the unpleasantness and just give us the answers we’re looking for?”

The mercenary black bear was at that moment lying face down on the floor among the splintered remains of the bar furniture. The young leopard Armin was crouched over him, pinning him down and holding the bear’s thick arms securely behind his back.

Mullen stared back at Tobias. His face was swollen and bloodied from the fight. “Fuck you.” He spat. “I ain’t telling you anything.”

“There’s no need to be rude.” Tobias said, with mock pleasantness. “We didn’t want to do all this. We just wanted some answers. You were the one who started the fight. Don’t get all pissed off just because you lost.”

The fight in question had been almost ridiculously short. While Mullen and the other mercenaries that frequented this bar had all been pretty good fighters in their own way, Tobias and Armin were members of the Brotherhood, whose ranks included some of the best warriors in the world. They had been trained by some of the best there were. Tobias had once even trained with Acheron himself.

The black bear chuckled. “By now, someone will have called the Watch. They’ll be here any minute to arrest you two.”

“What a pathetic attempt to scare us.” Tobias sighed. “I know as well as you do that the Watch will not come, not to a place like this. With all the criminal deals that go on in places like this, it is in the owner’s best interest to pay off the Watch, to avoid getting raided all the time. Say what you will about Pyre, but the corruption in this city runs pretty deep.”

The old wolf nodded to Armin. The leopard silently twisted one of Mullen’s arms savagely. The bear cried out in agony.

“Believe me when I say that I really didn’t want to do this.” Tobias went on. “I prefer to avoid getting nasty whenever possible. But my companion and I will do whatever is necessary to get what we want. And right know, we want you to tell us about Royce Herrick.”

“Well, as I said, fuck you!” Mullen sneered. “I’m a professional. I don’t talk about the jobs I’ve done.”

“I can understand that.” Tobias nodded, pleasantly. “Armin here is a professional as well. He’s very good when it comes to interrogation.” The wolf stood. “Armin, do your thing.”

Tobias strolled out of the bar to let the young leopard work. He stepped outside and waited in the cool night air. Occasionally, he’d pick up sounds from inside, a squelch here, a snap of bone there, but he did his best to ignore it.

Brotherhood training in interrogation was quite extensive, but not compulsory. Tobias had avoided it himself. While he subscribed to the Brotherhood’s philosophy of doing whatever was necessary to achieve their goals, the violence and torture of interrogation, however necessary it might be, always made him uncomfortable.

He stood there waiting, taking in the fresh air, for nearly half an hour, just letting his mind wander, until Armin called him back in.

“Captain! He’s ready to talk!”

Tobias re-entered the bar to find Mullen spread out on his back, with Armin standing over him. The black bear was more bloodied than before, with one arm bent at an odd angle.

The old wolf crouched beside him. He got straight to business. “Tell me about your job involving Royce Herrick.”

“A few colleagues and I were hired…” Mullen explained, haltingly, between gasps for breath. "To make it look like Herrick was dead… everything had already been planned… we were just needed to carry it out…”

“Why?” Tobias wanted to know. “Why this elaborate plan?”

Mullen coughed violently. “I don’t know. I’m just paid to do the job, not ask questions.”

Tobias could believe that. “Then who? Who hired you?”

“A lion.” Mullen answered. “Named Killian.”

The wolf looked up at Armin and they exchanged glances. They both knew Killian. He was something of an enemy of Royce’s. But there was a problem with that answer…

“We’re aware of Killian.” Said Tobias. “But there’s no way he could have got together the money to hire someone like you.”

“He did it on behalf of someone else.” Mullen explained. “Some merchant by the name of Nomack.”

Now that was the last name Tobias was expecting. “Calhoun Nomack?”

“Yeah.” Mullen nodded weakly. “That was his name.”

“Where is he?” Tobias demanded.

“He’ll have left by now.” Said Mullen. “When we delivered Herrick, his assistant mentioned he was planning on leaving Pyre very soon.”

The old grey wolf stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Mullen, I believe you’ve told us all we need to know. We’ll leave you to start recuperating.”

Tobias left the bar in a rush, with Armin in tow. They went silently at first, through the back alleyways of the city, until the elder wolf spoke out.

“Nomack!” He said. “Royce is currently in the hands of that twisted and demented lunatic! Things just keep going from bad to worse!”

“But sir, how could Nomack have done all this?” Armin asked. “I thought he went broke?”

“So did I.” Tobias muttered. “According to every file I’ve read, he made some very bad business deals and lost everything. After that, no investor would go anywhere near him. I have no idea how he might have managed to rebuild enough of a fortune to fund all this.”

“So we’re assuming he’s responsible for all that’s happened to Herrick?” Said Armin.

“I believe that is obvious at this point.” Said Tobias. “For whatever reasons, Calhoun Nomack has engineered all of this, even if I have no idea how he got the money and resources.”

“So it is Nomack we should be looking for.” Said Armin.

“Exactly.” Tobias agreed. “Now all we need is an idea of where he went.”

“Should we go back and interrogate the bear some more?” The leopard asked.

“He’s just a hired mercenary.” Tobias shook his head. “He wouldn’t know.”

“So what do we do, sir?”

“We go find someone who does…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“So, the sleeper awakes once again…”

Royce forced his eyes open. His large naked body was sprawled across one of the seats of Nomack’s coach. He had new bruises and scratches all over his body, and his ass felt very sore. He knew what these things meant. Nomack had fucked him. Several times. But it was strange, he remembered from his time as a slave that the wolf merchant always wanted him awake when he was being fucked.

Nomack was sat on the seat opposite. The bulldog slave Drake was curled up at the wolf’s feet, asleep.

Royce glanced about; he was feeling a little dizzy. It was a little difficult to think straight, his mind felt… somehow numb.

“What do you remember, slave?” Nomack asked. “Very little, I expect.”

It was only then that Royce realised he wasn’t hungry anymore, even though he didn’t remember eating. And then his eye caught the view out the window.

There was greenery out there. Fields and pastures. But there was nothing like that this side of Sand Haven…

And then it hit him. They’d already been through Sand Haven.

“What the fuck did you do to me?” Royce demanded.

“I did very little beyond fucking the life out of you several times.” Nomack laughed. “Which was a lot of fun, I even had Drake do it a few times. But your lack of memory is down to spending the past four days at the mercy of various apothecary potions.”

Apothecary potions? Royce had heard of apothecaries of course, they supposedly had the skill to mix potions to produce any desired effect in whoever consumed them. But they were few and far between, and their services extremely expensive. It was conceivable Nomack had known of one in Sand Haven.

But four days? It was almost unbelievable that amount of time had passed and he was unable to remember a single moment of him. Anything could have been done to him during that time and he would never know…

“I’ve had you very obedient the past few days.” Nomack explained. “One of a few effects I paid for. Shame it had to wear off. Another effect I wanted was to increase your susceptibility to the drugs I’ve been giving you. And coupled with the doses you’ve had recently, you should be starting to feel it’s full effects.”

“You fucking bastard…” Royce mumbled. He wanted to growl it, but for some reason couldn’t muster the energy.

“Oh, don’t be so crude, my slave.” Nomack said. “I am you Master, you should not be addressing me in such a manner. You know deep down that’s true.”

Royce was about to snarl a disagreement, but stopped suddenly as a thought struck him. Wasn’t it true? Nomack had been his Master before, maybe he never really stopped…

The muscular tiger shook his head, trying to shake off these thoughts. What the hell was he thinking? Of course Nomack wasn’t his Master!

“What’s happening to me?” Royce muttered.

“That’ll be the drugs taking full effect.” Nomack laughed. “It’s quite interesting. They make your mind more open to suggestion. They also blur your perception of reality. You’re falling faster than Drake did. Guess it’s the natural born slave in you.”

“Yes, I’m a natural born slave…” Said Royce. It just slipped out, seeming like the right thing to say. But once it was out, he immediately regretted it. “No! I’m not a slave!”

“Of course you are.” The wolf merchant seated opposite him was grinning manically; enjoying this show Royce was putting on for him. “You’re my slave. You want to serve me…”

“No.” Said Royce, but there wasn’t much conviction in his voice. Was he a slave or not? He was starting to think he wasn’t too sure.

“As my slave you should be on your knees before me.” Nomack said, firmly. “Kneel!”

The tiger was having trouble concentrating. Nomack seemed so sure that he was supposed to kneel; maybe it would just be better and easier if he just went along with him?

Before he knew what he was doing, Royce slipped off the seat, falling to his knees in front of the large wolf. Nomack grinned down at him. “Now that’s how a good slave behaves.”

Suddenly, Royce’s mind cleared a little, and the realisation struck him that this was wrong. “No!” He managed to growl, staring back at Nomack. “I am not a slave!”

Nomack’s grin vanished, replaced by a look of savage anger. He lashed out, kicking Royce in the chest. The tiger went sprawling across the floor of the coach.

“Maybe not yet, but you will be soon.” Nomack snarled. “And then everything will be as it should be.”

From where he lay, Royce wanted to spit back a defiant reply, but found he just didn’t have it in him. Because he was starting to think that Nomack was right.

It was just a matter of time until he slipped back into his role as a slave.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Which one of us is running this place?”

“You are.”

Killian stared at Boswell. “Then we do things my way, Kincaid, whether you like it or not.”

“You can’t seriously be considering putting Nathan Frost in the arena tonight!”  Barnell said.

The lion sighed. He couldn’t believe how long this conversation was going on. Kincaid and his huge son seemed both intent on trying to argue him to death. He really had better things to do, a pile of paperwork up in his new office, but the two bears hadn’t let him get through the changing areas, challenging him about the roster he’d decided upon for that night’s fights.

“Nathan hasn’t yet recovered from his injuries!”  Boswell said. “You put him in tonight and he’ll just get injured again, and even worse than before!”

“So?” Killian shrugged. “The audience love it when a fighter gets seriously injured, it really brings out their bloodlust. Besides, Frost knew the risks; he signed his contract knowing them. As I’m in charge of this Arena, I decide who goes in and when, and I say he goes in tonight, fully recovered or not. If he doesn’t, he’ll be in breach of contract and I’ll have him arrested.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Boswell spat.

“Try me.” Killian sneered back at him.

“You put Frost in, I’ll refuse to fight him.” Barnell said, defiantly.

“Fine, then I’ll have you arrested for breach of contract.” Killian looked to Boswell. “And if your son doesn’t fight, I’ll have you arrested as well.”

“What?” Said Boswell, shocked. “You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I can.” Killian calmly explained. “The agreement you signed when Nomack bought a controlling share of the Stone Walls Arena from you. It clearly states that you agree that Mr. Nomack now runs the Arena. And if you, or any member of your family, fail to comply with the decisions of Mr. Nomack, or his appointed representative, in regards to the running of the Arena, then you are open to arrest and prosecution for breach of contract.”

Both bears stared at the crippled lion in disbelief.

“Next time I suggest you read something fully before you sign it.” Killian mocked. “Just because you were concerned about your son and his gambling debts, that’s no excuse for signing a contract in a rush.”

“You…” Barnell fumed, raising his clenched fists threateningly.

“Go ahead and hit me.” Killian chuckled. “I’d love to have you arrested for assault. It’s so much better than breach of contract.”

Boswell stepped between Killian and his son, before Barnell made a move he would regret.

“Just between the three of us.” Killian grinned. “Should I have to have you both arrested, I know the right people to bribe and have the money to do it. I can guarantee you’d get very stiff sentences.”

“You’re a real piece of crap, Killian.” Boswell snarled.

The lion shrugged. “Maybe.” He said. “But what are you? A pathetic old bear who sold out his best friend. You have a violent, savage son who’s first instinct is to use his fists, and a son who’s gambling debts forced you to sell a major share in the business you spent a great deal of your life earning the money to buy. And from what I hear, your son is running up fresh debts as we speak. How long until you have to sell the share of the Arena you still own?”

Boswell bowed his head, saying nothing. He knew Killian was right and wasn’t going to even try and argue against it.

“I may be a piece of crap, Kincaid.” Killian said, smugly. “But at least I have money, and power. I’m the one in control here and there’s not a single thing you or your thick-headed, brutish son here can do about it.”

The lion turned his back on the bears and hobbled away, laughing. He’d actually enjoyed that, taking Kincaid down a few pegs. It had been long overdue. The stupid bear had been wandering around acting as if he still somehow mattered.

He made his way up toward the office he’d taken from Kincaid when he’d taken over the running of this place. There was a lot to get done, schedules to organise, contracts to look over.

The crippled lion unlocked his office and stepped inside. He distractedly closed the door behind him and stepped toward his desk. And stopped. There was an old wolf sitting in his chair behind his desk.

“You know,” said the wolf, “we’ve been waiting so long, we were starting to think you’d forgotten where your office was.”

Killian turned, intending to head out of the room to call for help. But he found that a young leopard was now stood between him and the exit.

“My name is Tobias.” The wolf explained. “And my companion here is Armin. We’re here to ask you some questions.”

“How the fuck did you get in here?” Killian demanded.

“A few bribes to the corrupt and the application of some lock-picking skills.” Tobias shrugged. “But that’s besides the point. We just want some answers.”

“What answers?” Killian asked.

“We just want to know where Nomack has gone.” Said Tobias. “Nothing too difficult.”

“I’m not at liberty to give out that information.” Killian said. “Now get out before I have you arrested.”

The old wolf seated behind the desk sighed. “You know, there are times when I really wish situations like this would go smoothly, and the questions would just get answered. Then we’d be able to leave without having to get nasty.”

“I don’t know where Mr. Nomack has gone.” Said Killian. “I’m just the manager he put in charge while he’s out of town.” He was glancing nervously at the leopard, Armin. There was something threatening about his stance and stare. Despite the fact that the Killian had once been a pit-fighter, he was somewhat out of shape these days, and this leopard could easily defeat him if things came to violence.

“Well, that’s not true.” Tobias was saying. “You’re more than a manager. You helped him frame Royce Herrick. And then you arranged Herrick’s fake death and had Herrick himself delivered to Nomack.”

“I don’t know who told you that.” Killian said, quickly. “But they’re lying.”

“Why not just tell us the truth?” Said Armin.

The lion jumped. The young leopard and stepped silently forward to stand just behind Killian and he hadn’t noticed until Armin had spoken.

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know.” Killian snarled, defiantly.

“But you do know.” Said Tobias. “I’m very good at reading body language and the look in someone’s eye. I can tell you’re lying. Seems we’ll have to get nasty. Armin?”

The athletic leopard grabbed Killian and spun him around before throwing the crippled lion down onto his back on the desk, spilling piles papers off onto the floor. Armin raised a fist, ready to strike.

“Wait!” Killian held up his hands. “I’ll tell you!”

Tobias looked surprised. “Well that was quick. Whatever happened to loyalty?”

“Mr. Nomack isn’t paying me to suffer beatings.” Killian explained. “Feel free to go chasing him down. He’s a very powerful individual and you won’t be able to touch him.”

“You’d be surprised what’s within our power.” Tobias grinned. “Now, where is he?”

“He was heading to the town of Sand Haven when he left.” Killian said. “Apparently, he has business there.”

The old wolf stood up from his chair. “Thank you. That’s all we needed, so we’ll be on our way.” He stepped around the desk and headed for the door.

Armin glared darkly at Killian before following his colleague. As he stepped out of the room after Tobias, he pulled the door closed.

Immediately, Killian pulled himself up and staggered across the room. He yanked the door open. The two intruders were gone, even though there hadn’t been enough time for them to reach the bottom of the stairs.

He sighed. He hadn’t expected anything different. After all, the Brotherhood trained its members very well. It was no surprise they’d be able to get out as stealthily as they got in.

The lion made his way down the stairs and grabbed the first employee he found, and sent him off on an important errand. He needed someone to fetch a messenger.

Half an hour later, the messenger, a tall able-bodied cheetah, arrived in Killian’s office. It was a messenger he’d used several times before and who had proven himself reliable.

Killian had already written and sealed the letter he wanted delivered. He handed it to the cheetah. “I want you to take this letter to a wolf merchant by the name of Calhoun Nomack. He should be arriving in the city of Corrans Forge in a few days time, and will be there for several days. Do you think you’ll be able to get there before he leaves?”

“It will be difficult, but I can manage it.” The cheetah nodded.

“Very good.” Said the lion. He handed over a pouch of coins. “Here. I’m paying you double the normal rate. Make sure that message gets there.”

The messenger stuffed the pouch into a pocket, grinning broadly at this windfall. “Yes, sir, I give you my word it will get there on time.”

“Then get going.” Said Killian. The cheetah departed.

While what he’d told the two Brotherhood intruders was true, that Nomack had headed for Sand Haven, he had avoided telling them where the merchant was heading after that.

It didn’t really matter. The two of them would find clues in Sand Haven that would lead them to where he went next; Nomack would have made sure of that. After all, if they made things too easy for them, they’d just get suspicious.

Everything was going according to plan…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Royce’s mind was a mess.

He knew that the drugs Nomack was giving him through his food and water was having some sort of affect on him, but he couldn’t remember what it was, and hadn’t been able to for the past few days. Nomack kept telling him it wasn’t important though, so maybe it wasn’t.

He was having trouble remembering other things as well. He couldn’t remember where he had been born or anything about his early life. Nomack kept telling him that he had been born a slave and had always been a slave, and that it wasn’t important that he couldn’t remember. That all he had to focus on was that he was Nomack’s slave and always would be.

But he wasn’t certain that he trusted Nomack. He had the vague feeling that he shouldn’t, that he should be resisting him as much as possible, but for the life of him he just couldn’t remember any specifics.

At the moment, Royce was lying curled up on the floor of Nomack’s coach. His eyes were closed as he did his best to try and focus and remember all the things he was forgetting. But he wasn’t having any success.

The coach had stopped for the moment. Nomack had wanted to get out and stretch his legs a little after being cooped up in the coach for most of the day. Even then, Royce could hear the savage growls of pleasure from outside as the wolf merchant took the opportunity to fuck Drake senseless. Royce was just glad it wasn’t him on the receiving end this time, as it had been on several occasions over that past few days.

The tiger gave up trying to put together the fragments of memory floating around his head. It was just an impossible task. He opened his eyes and looked up at the bottle of water that Nomack had placed on one of the seats before dragging Drake outside. The wolf had commanded him to drink up.

On principle, he had refrained from drinking straight away. The part of him that was telling him to resist Nomack was responsible for that decision. He knew the water was drugged, that it was doing something to him.

But he was thirsty. The way he reasoned it, if the effects of the drug were truly serious, then surely it was something he wouldn’t forget? So he reached up and took the bottle. He pulled out the cork and gulped down the contents.

A feeling of warmth and contentment washed over him. The strange aftertaste didn’t bother him anymore; he had grown used to it.

A few minutes later, the noises ended in a roar of ecstasy as Nomack reached his climax. Shortly after that, he heard the large wolf talking to his puma assistant, Thorne, who had been riding in the merchant’s second coach. Nomack told Thorne that they would be continuing onward soon, and to make sure things were ready.

After that, it wasn’t long before he returned to the coach, pulling along Drake behind him. The bulldog slave was sporting fresh bruises and injuries.

Drake knew what he had to do. He reached under one of the seats and pulled out a small box of medical supplies. He set about tending to his new wounds.

Nomack ignored the slave he’d just been using, leaving him to get on with things. He focused his full attention on Royce as he took a seat.

“And how are doing, slave?” The wolf asked.

“I’m… okay, sir.” Royce replied, sitting up.

A small smile crossed Nomack’s features as he said ‘sir’. Nomack had been pleased when he’d started calling him sir the day before. But Royce couldn’t understand why. It had just seemed to be the proper way for him to address the wolf.

“You’ve had your drink, I see.” Nomack picked up the empty bottle.

“Yes, sir.” Royce nodded.

“And what else have you been doing, slave?” Nomack demanded.

He didn’t know why, but Royce felt himself shudder a little every time he was called ‘slave’. It was strange because the more time went on, the more he started to think that perhaps he was Nomack’s slave and should start acting like it.

“I… I’ve been trying to remember…” Royce began.

Nomack shot out a hand and grabbed the tiger by the throat in a tight grip. He yanked Royce up into a kneeling position in front of him. “What did I tell you about trying to remember?” The wolf muttered, dangerously.

“That… I shouldn’t…” Royce gasped. He was struggling for breath as Nomack crushed his throat, yet the thought to resist didn’t even cross his mind.

“Then you shouldn’t!” Nomack snarled. “You are a slave and you belong to me. That is all you need to know and remember!”

The wolf released him, throwing him down roughly onto the floor. Royce lay there, breathing heavily as he tried to get his breath back, his mind a whirlwind of confused thoughts.

He couldn’t trust Nomack, he had to resist him. Yet, what Nomack said seemed to make sense, it seemed right. Royce was struggling to determine what he should believe.

But he was beginning to think that maybe he should just accept his place as Nomack’s slave and be done with it…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Captain, are you really sure we should be doing this?”

Tobias stopped in the street and glanced back at Armin. He was itching to finally get out of Pyre and on Royce’s trail. Settling things here and gathering the necessary water and provisions for their journey had taken longer than he would have liked. Every moment they wasted was a moment in which Nomack got further ahead of them.

“This is our mission, Armin.” The old wolf urged. “We are going to recruit Herrick no matter where his trail takes us.”

“Sir, our mission was to come to Pyre and recruit Herrick.” Armin corrected. “It did not include chasing him across the desert or wherever else his trail may lead.”

“Surely you’ve learned by now that you often have to deal with the unexpected while on missions?” Said Tobias. “That more often than not, you have to rely on your own initiative in order to accomplish your goals?”

“Yes, sir.” The leopard agreed, but still wasn’t happy. “But I’m just not comfortable with this. My instincts tell me that Herrick is not worth this much effort.”

“And mine say he is.” Said Tobias.

The two of them simply stood there exchanging glances for a few moments. It was early in the morning, so the street was almost empty, and none of those that were around took much notice of the two companions.

“If you really don’t believe what we’re about to do is worth it,” Said Tobias, “then perhaps you should go home. I won’t hold it against you. I want you to do what you think is right.”

“I won’t abandon you, captain.” Said Armin, firmly. “But I also won’t remain silent with my opinion.”

Tobias smiled. “I prefer it when you’re not silent with your opinion. You know that.”

Armin shrugged.

“I can understand the way you feel.” Tobias tried to reassure his young charge. “But I believe this is the right course of action. Whether or not you accompany me is down to you.”

“I will go with you, sir.” Armin said. “No matter how big a mistake I feel it to be.”

“Then let’s get moving.” Said the old wolf, hefting his backpack. “It’s a long way to Sand Haven.”

The leopard sighed. “Yes it is, sir.”

The pair continued on their way. They were close to the edge of the city, and would soon be off into the desert.

“Look on the bright side,” Tobias chuckled, “at least we’ll finally be away from Pyre. This city is far too remote and corrupt and hot for my tastes.”

Armin allowed himself a small laugh. “I’d have to agree with you on that, captain.”

“Then let’s just hope,” said Tobias, “that our path doesn’t some day lead us back here…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Are you my slave?”

Royce cowered before the muscular wolf. “I… I’m not sure…”

Nomack kicked him hard, knocking him down. “Then I suggest you make up your mind, slave!”

The merchant was about to strike him again, but there was a knock at the door. Nomack left the beefy tiger where he lay and went to answer it.

They were currently in Nomack’s lavish hotel room. They’d arrived in Corrans Forge the day before and the wolf had spent much of the time since their arrival attempting to beat and torture the final vestiges of free will from the drug-addled tiger.

Royce’s mind was cracking under all the stress. The temptation to just submit and accept his place was almost overwhelming now. It would just be so easy to let himself slip back into the role of a slave. It wasn’t as if there was much else he’d be able to do with the way many of his memories were fragmented and fading away.

But that part of him that wanted to go on resisting was still there, even if it was growing weaker by the second.

He glanced to Drake. The bulldog was currently kneeling, staring off into space, simply waiting for instructions from his master. Royce caught himself envying the slave. He knew his part in life, his purpose, whereas Royce was currently having trouble remembering more than a week back, let alone what his purpose was.

Maybe Nomack was right that he was a slave? The wolf was so sure and certain of the fact that he couldn’t be wrong, could he?

Nomack angrily yanked open the hotel room door to find Thorne standing there, accompanied by an exhausted looking cheetah with dusty fur. “Yes? What is it?” Said the wolf, impatiently.

“This messenger has just arrived for you, sir.” The officious puma explained.

“I have a letter for you, sir, all the way from Pyre.” Said the cheetah, as he handed over a sealed slip of paper.

“Thank you.” Nomack took the letter quickly. “Make sure he is allowed accommodation here in order to rest, Thorne, at my expense. Reliable messengers are hard to find and their efforts should always be rewarded.”

“Thank you, Mr. Nomack.” The cheetah was positively beaming as Thorne led him away. Nomack closed the door.

Royce had been listening to this exchange. The name Pyre seemed very familiar to him, but as much as he tried, he couldn’t remember what it was.

Nomack tore open the letter and read it, mumbling to himself. “Brotherhood members on the way… all according to plan…”

The word ‘Brotherhood’ also sparked a feeling of familiarity in Royce, but he had no idea why.

The wolf merchant screwed up the letter and threw it away. “Enough of that. Back to business.” He strolled over to Royce and casually kicked him, knocking the tiger down so that he was lying on his back. 

“You know you want to be mine…” Said the wolf.

Royce didn’t deny it. There was a large part of him that did just want to accept his place, so that he would have some purpose to his life, like Drake did.

“Yes, I do.” Royce found himself mumbling.

“Then all that remains is for you to beg for the honour of serving me.” Nomack grinned devilishly.

The battered tiger’s mind rebelled against that notion. “No.” He said. But his conviction was waning and he could only manage to say it in a half-whisper.

“How dare you say no to me, you miserable piece of crap!” Nomack raged. He slammed another kick into Royce’s ribs. The large fallen tiger curled up in pain, gritting his teeth.

Nomack reigned in his anger a little and crouched beside Royce. “You know you want to serve me.” He said. “Begging for it isn’t much to ask. Then you will be mine, just as you have always known you were. You’ll be free of all the worrying decisions and thoughts of a free life. You’ll be able to leave everything to me and simply devote yourself to servitude. Don’t you want that?”

Although a weakening voice within him felt ashamed, Royce answered. “Yes.”

The wolf merchant stood. “Then get to your knees and beg. Prove to me you’re a proper slave.”

Royce was moving before he even had a chance to think about it properly, pulling himself up, enduring the aches and pains Nomack had inflicted upon him. Before long, he was on his knees, head bowed submissively.

“I beg of you, please allow me to serve you.” Said Royce, half-mumbling the words.

“And what about this?” Asked Nomack. Royce glanced up to see that the wolf was holding an iron collar. It looked vaguely familiar to the tiger.

“It would be a great honour to wear your collar.” Said Royce. “Please permit me to wear it.”

The merchant was grinning broadly. He dropped the collar to the floor in front of Royce. “If you want to be mine, simply put it on.”

Royce moved without really thinking about it. He picked up the collar and placed it around his neck. Nomack stepped behind him and locked it at the back, with the click of a closing padlock.

“That’s very good, slave.” Said Nomack. “And now, here’s a quick lesson. Drake, come here.”

The naked bulldog was on his feet in a split-second, and padded across the room to the burly wolf. “Yes, Master?”

Without saying a word, Nomack stepped behind his slave. He wrapped one powerful arm around his neck and placed his free hand on Drake’s head. He wrenched. There was a horrific snap of bone and Drake went limp, collapsing to the floor, his neck broken.

“That is the life of a slave.” Nomack said to Royce. “He lives only so long as his Master desires. Drake’s usefulness to me was at end, so he died. And so it shall be with you, slave. Do you understand?”

“I understand… my Master.” As Royce said it, his mind finally accepted what the wolf had been telling him all along.

He was Nomack’s slave…

To Be Continued…

 


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Raging Tiger/Kuman the Barbarian/Mitchell and Michael/Going Under/Beware the Transformer/Servus Inc./Farewell to Free Will

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