(Author's Note: WARNING, this chapter is pretty gory and rather disturbing. If you're eating, put it aside now. I didn't mean for it to be this gory, but it happened. Sorry to all those with weaker stomachs)

Chapter Eight

Tia woke on a gasp. She'd expected to sleep long and soundly. She hadn't expected to dream.

She'd fought, claws and fangs, with the Chilean Splice. Eyes glowing demon red as they wrestled over the ground. She felt the bite being taken out of her arm and hissed in fury. It was the most human sounding noise she'd yet to make. Yowling, she raked her claws across the woman's cheek, aiming for and just missing the eyes. They rolled over the grass, a bloody parody of passion. Tia managed to kick the Chilean Splice free of her and get to her feet. The woman was on hers and circling. Snarls and growls forced their way from both throats, as well as spitting hisses and unearthly shrieks. The Chilean Splice's body shifted, readying a killing blow. On a lunge, the Chilean Splice opened her mouth for a bite at Tia's neck. Lighting fast Tia's claws ripped across the Splice's throat, severing arteries and veins alike. Blood gushed over Tia's hands and most of her clothes. The heavy copper scent was delicious. Her body was on fire. Shackles flew from the ground as if by magic, clamping around her wrists, her ankles, her neck. She shrieked and howled, enraged at the confinement. A jolt of electricity sang through her system, calming most of the fire in her veins. Now she was released and walking back to the benches, Sandy commented on the bite mark, though she couldn't hear her. She stood and leaned on Sandy, until Brian picked her up in his arms. Sounds started coming through again. The scent of him almost as delicious as the blood. The nurse's station was too clean, smelled too strong of disinfectant.

The wounds stung, and sounds muffled again. Until she walked out and saw him, pacing. The scents wafting off of him were intoxicating. Fear and Worry and Lust and Blood. Sounds flashed into clarity.

Then his lips were crushed to hers, and the red presence in her mind grew larger, grew louder.

"Let me out, let me out, let me out, let me out, let me out to FEED."

She was rearing back, retreating. The red presence growled in frustration and curled back into the crevices of her mind.

"Next time." It murmured. "Next time, I'll feed."

Tia scrubbed her hands over her face. She felt sweaty and gross and alarmingly aroused.

Trying to push the dream to the back of her mind, she headed toward the shower, keeping the water cold. She didn't need any distractions today.

Shivering slightly from the cold shower, she dressed for the coming battle. A fresh tank top and comfortable knee-length shorts. Giving herself a quick check in the mirror, she headed out the door, and smacked straight into Brian's chest.

Jeez, what a chest drifted through her mind before she shook it clear and jumped back.

"What are you guys doing here?" She asked of the group, trying to ignore the knowing look in Sandy's eyes. "Aren't we meeting in the lobby like yesterday?"

Brian shook his head.

"Yesterday was your virgin battle. You survived. Not only did you survive, but you killed. Usually we wait until bloodshed, but you already passed that point. This is for you."

Tia looked down at the folded cloth in his hands. It looked like a normal shirt, save for the shiny metal disks sewn everywhere just under the first layer of cloth. With it was a similarly made pair of slacks. Both were black and light, considering the amount of metal inside each article.

"What?" Tia asked, looking at the others.

Brian looked somewhat uncomfortable. "This is a special type of armor. It's bullet proof and blade resistant."

Tia looked from the armor in her hands, to Christine, to James, to Brian.

"How come everyone doesn't get it, then? Wouldn't it make things easier in Battles?"

Sandy spoke up then. "This armor is only given to members of the seven. Specifically, members who won at least one code black battle."

James, silent till then, just had to put in his two cents. "Basically it's a 'Yay, you didn't die' present. Better go get changed, doll. We need to get down to the field soon."

Tia nodded, still a little stunned. Ducking back into her room, she slid into the new armor. It was comfortable and skin tight. Tia frowned over that. Part of her argued the practicalities of skin tight clothing for battles. Loose clothing could be used to hamper movement, is less aerodynamic, yadda yadda. While the other part kept circling the same counter: People will be looking at her ass.

She wasn't really vain, but she could not deny nature. If anatomy is shown off in any way, it will be stared at. Taking a look in the mirror she had to admit, she looked badass.

The top hooked and belted into the pants, leaving no exposed skin unprotected. She was about to look for different shoes, noting that the sneakers she'd been wearing didn't exactly go with the outfit, as well as the fact that they left too much exposed skin around her ankles. She imagined some blade or bullet grazing her there and leaving her unable to walk or run.

Yeah, I'd die pretty quick.

Her musings were interrupted by a knock at her door.

Opening it, she saw Sandy waiting, and holding what she should have expected. Matching calf-high boots.

"James was holding onto these. He forgot to hand them to you when you went in to change." Sandy explained with a wry smile. "He only just realized he still had them when we all got to the lobby. Almost ready?"

Tia tried for a smile. "Yeah, just needed the boots." If it was possible, she was even more nervous about the second battle. Sandy handed them over. Tia walked over to her bed to put on the boots, leaving the door open for Sandy. Taking the invitation, she walked in and leaned against the wall near the closet.

"Still nervous about the battle?"

Tia looked up from fastening one of the five buckles on the first boot. "It shows?"

For the first time in three days, Sandy's smile wasn't strained. "Like neon sign."

Tia sighed. "Are you nervous?"

Sandy shrugged one shoulder, still leaning against the wall. Her arms were crossed defensively under her chest. "Yeah, you really shouldn't ever stop being nervous before a battle. When you stop being nervous, you die. It's kind of an unspoken rule."

Tia almost relaxed at that. Almost. "Has that happened before? Someone dying?"

Sandy flinched, but nodded. "Almost one every battle. We've been lucky. The country's been had a bit of peace for almost a year now. But things are heating up. We've never had two battles in a row before."

Tia took that in for a moment. One lost every battle. "But not yesterday. No one died."

"One of ours didn't die. If the guys upstairs don't want a bigger battle, they're going to suggest a battle where the chance of one of ours dying is more probable. A show of good faith, they'll say."

Tia swallowed the lump of panic that was forming in her throat. "How do you know all this, Sandy?"

Sandy looked around the room, as if trying to tell if they were being monitored.

"Because my father is-" She broke off abruptly on a small shriek of pain. Her body jittered as if she were being shocked. She stopped, and wheezed in a breath. "Stupid." She muttered and rubbed her hands over her arms as if to soothe any remaining discomfort.

Tia gaped at her. "But, you don't have a necklace! How-?"

Sandy looked at her almost pityingly. "You don't honestly think the necklaces are the only ways they have of controlling us, do you?"

Tia didn't say anything, but looked down at her hands in thought.

Sandy sighed and patted Tia's shoulder. "It's ok. Many don't choose to see what hell they're in here. That's not a luxury the Seven can afford. It's better to see it sooner than later, but I won't force you to see what you're not ready to see. I can't tell you any more. We have to go down to the lobby. You still need the rest of your armor."

Together in silence, they went down to the lobby. Tia's mind gnawed on the new information. She touched the ring around her neck where the necklace had burned her skin.

She tried to push the information aside. She needed to focus on the upcoming battle. She remembered what Ratty had said during training. That the higher ups were going to have them do both types of battles. She considered that yesterday they had done the gladiator style battles. Now it was time for the free for all.

Would the Chilean's have their new splice already? Or is this going to be a six against seven?

Randomly, the old Children's joke "Why is six afraid of seven?" popped into her head. She shook it away. Bad jokes aren't the way to handle this. Or, maybe they are. But not now. Focusing now.

Tia took a deep breath once she and Sandy reached the lobby. Everything was so quiet. The rest of the Seven was grouped in the center once more, idly watching the rest of the Campus stroll into the Field to take their seats. Tia veered around the center on her way to the field. She still needed the rest of her armor.

The unsettling feeling of being watched by hundreds of people smacked into her as she entered the Field. As she crossed to the panel holding her chain-whip, greaves and bracers. She knew, she just knew that at least half the crowd was ogling her. She could practically feel their gazes on her ass as she walked.

"Well, fuck all of you." she thought, annoyed. She left the Field as quickly as she could, trying not to look like she was hurrying. "because that's always worked." a voice in the back of her mind said snidely.

Back in the lobby, she sat down next to Paul. He was stretching his shield arm. James was across from her. He turned toward her, a sparkle in his eyes.

"Tia, I just have to say. DAY-UM. 'Dat ass." His voice had the distinctive roll of New Jersey.

Tia narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't you have a Southern accent? Why are you talking like a gangster all of a sudden?"

Christine leaned over from the chair she was sitting in to punch James on the shoulder.

"Be nice." She told him sternly, then turned to Tia. "We don't think he has an actual accent. He just uses random accents when he wants to be an ass."

"Oy! I object to that very strongly."

Tia just shook her head in amazement. "Now an Australian accent? What the hell, James?"

James just shook his head. He switched to British now, "You wouldn't believe me even if I told you."

Tia stared at him in slight awe. "I'm kinda jealous of your accent skills, to be honest. Do you practice them or do you just pick them up?"

James put his hand conspiratorially to his mouth and whispered "You will never know."

Tia glared at him. "That's just mean."

But it had accomplished one thing, at least. It had taken her mind off of the coming battle. She now glanced at the field doors feeling the nerves crawl up her spine. She jumped at the brush of fur against her arm. She glanced down that it was her tail, twitching sporadically with her growing tension. Feeling foolish, she tested the straps on her greaves and bracers. Satisfied that all were fastened securely, Tia got up to try to pace off some of the nerves. Brian's gaze followed her as she paced. She could feel his gaze like a leash, straining with distance.

Suddenly Brian dropped his gaze down to his watch.

"It's time to go in."

Everyone froze for a moment, before gathering their things and traipsing into the field. Tia watched for the Chilean Seven. A quick head count proved that the Chilean team really was a Seven. Tia picked out the new splice. She was a tiger splice, the lights of the field shone on her black and amber fur.

Tia took her seat on the bench, watching all of the Chilean splices as they sat, she didn't know what to expect of the new splice. How did they have another member of the seven ready so quickly?

Tia wondered if the processes that the governments used to make splices were different, did it also mean their way of training was different as well? It made sense, but it was hard to know for sure.

The announcer's voice boomed throughout the field.

"Good Evening, Splices. Today we will witness the last of two conflicts between the United States of America and the Republic of Chile. Today's battle will be a group free for all. Would each Seven please arm yourselves and go to your respective edges of the field. This is a code Black battle. We will begin in five minutes."

The Chilean Seven rose as one and walked to their edge of the field. Like yesterday there was an inner line painted ten feet in from the field to create a new edge. Tia wondered what else besides physical differences the Chilean Process changed about their splices.

Brian was moving between all of the Seven, muttering quietly, reminding them all of the tactics they were to be using this battle. Tia didn't need to be reminded of her position. She was going to be in the air. A distraction, and a target.

The five minutes seemed to go by hideously slowly, but at the same time it felt like the blink of an eye.

"Splices be ready. The Battle will commence in 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1...Start!"

Everyone rushed onto the field at once. Vaguely, Tia felt like she was going into war.

Duh,said the dark voice in her mind, that's because you are. That's what all of this is. It's war. War trying to be civilized and small. Neat and clean.

Tia shoved the voice back, the Sevens were nearing the center. Tia took to the air. She barely reached a coasting altitude when she saw the Chilean gunman raise his gun to aim at her.

Shit! She curled in her wings and let herself drop twenty feet before unfurling them back to a glide. Bullets whizzed past her. Another gun sounded and the bullets stopped.

God Bless Sandy. Tia thought, before turning her mind to the task at hand. She circled close to the battle, swinging her chain-whip down to distract the Chilean Seven. She could see Brian fighting another fencing splice. Tia started to dip to fling the end of her chain-whip at the Chilean splice.

Behind her and on the ground, the Tiger splice took the gun from her dead companion's hand.

The shot sounded a split-second before Tia felt the bullet hit her back. Pain radiated from the spot, and her wings forgot how to fly. She dropped into the center of battle. As she fell, her vision darkened. From pink to red, red to crimson, crimson to black.

Free! The Beast shrieked it's elation. Free at last! Furious and Free. Tia's mouth bared teeth ready to rip and tear. Tia's hands curled with claws prepared to rend skin from bone. She fell among the Splices. Vaguely she recognized her flock among the crowd. A foe moved in, a spear poised to run her through. A roar escaped from her throat as she jumped just in time to miss the spear. Landing on top of it, she snapped it in two, using the momentum to lunge at the spear man. The shock and fear flashing through the splice was intoxicating. Her fangs sank into unprotected flesh. Shrieks of pain sang through her for only a moment, as she ended them with a jerk. Hurriedly she swallowed the chunk of throat, as she turned to see who else would try their luck. The Tiger Splice was still trying to shoot at her, the bullets denting into her armor. To the Beast, it was the equivalent of throwing rocks.

You're next, thought the Beast that had become Tia. She stalked toward the feline that dared catch her attention. Bloody teeth bared in a smile most feral as the gun clicked empty. The Tigress, eyes starting to turn red, tossed the gun aside. The Beast was intrigued. An equal? They shall see who dines at the end of this. Claws slashed, Fangs snapped and challenges passed in incomprehensible yowls, shrieks, and screams. They were down on hands and feet, instinctive needs to protect their bellies and throats taking charge. Neither beast noticed that the rest of the battle had ended. There was only the other beast and a need to win. A need to feast. The Tigress bounded and pounced, hoping to surprise the other into a mistake. She lunged to meet her from below. Claws and fangs sank into the Tigress' throat. Instant kill. The rending of flesh never sounded better to the Beast. She'd won. The kill was hers. The feast was hers.

The evil metal things shot out from the ground once more, locking her in place at neck and limbs.

NO! NOT AGAIN! YOU WILL NOT TAKE MY KILL FROM ME- electricity jolted the Beast back into the dark corners from whence she came.

Tia woke to a bitching headache. She was shackled to the ground and covered in blood. The torn and bloody body of the Tiger splice lay right in front of her face.

She tried to jump back from it, to find her shackles locking her in place. Her hands were covered in blood and grass stains and everywhere felt like she'd been beaten with a club. She groaned and turned her face away from the body in front of her. Seeing instead the other bodies lying all around her.

What the fuck just happened? She wondered through the blazing pain of the headache. She got shakily to her feet. No one was close. The rest of the Seven was already on their bench, watching her wearily. When she started toward them, only Brian got up to help her over.

"What-?" She started to ask, but he shushed her. The entire field was silent.

Then the announcer's voice boomed through the field, sounding ten times louder in the silence.

"The victory goes to the American Seven. The final score stands USA: no deaths, two casualties. The Republic of Chile, seven deaths. The conflict over taxation of imported goods will settle in the United State's favor. All are dismissed."

Tia rose slowly. She didn't like how the others were looking at her. When everyone left the field, Brian declared.

"Meeting. My room. Now."

No one argued.

Everyone trailed behind Brian as he kept a grip on Tia's arm. She couldn't tell if it was to make sure she didn't fall or to ensure that she came to the meeting. At the moment she didn't much care. She wanted a hot bath and an endless glass of something alcoholic. Preferably fruity.

Tia shivered as they entered the Red Dorm. The red walls and carpet made her uneasy. She remembered her vision going red before blacking out. She only had a vague feeling of what might have happened after she blacked out. Some memory in the darkest reaches of her mind. Brian opened his door and let them in. He set Tia down on the bed, and sat on the farthest edge of it.

Tia, being glad to be sitting again, looked at everyone.

"What happened when I blacked out?"

James tried for his usual jokester expression. "Goes straight to the meat of the issue, doesn't she?" he asked Jeanie, who blanched. "James, that's just gross."

Tia was getting more and more uneasy. "What does that mean? What happened? What did I do?"

Brian reached over as if to place his hand on her arm, but stopped, unable to find a spot that wasn't covered in blood. He lowered his hand and cleared his throat.

"Um, Tia. You kinda...You ate people. You ripped their throats out. With your teeth."

Tia blinked at him, not believing. She tried for a laugh. "Yeah, right. What really happened?"

Sandy spoke up then. "He's telling the truth. Some splice shot you in the back while you were in the air. When you hit the ground, your eyes were pure red. No whites or irises. Just red. Then the Chilean spear splice tried a go at you. You broke her spear and tore out a chunk of her throat. You ate it. Then the Tiger splice kept shooting you, and you went after her. When she ran out of bullets her eyes went red. And you guys went at it. Like real animals. At the end you tore her throat out too. It looked like you weren't going to stop there when the shackles locked you in place."

Her words resonated in the dark spaces in Tia's mind, and she knew it was true. She felt nauseated.

"I need to..." She gulped, "I need to go to the bathroom." She got up, and headed to Brian's bathroom. It was fairly spartan, with a few hygienic products scattered around the counter. The turned toward the sink to splash some water on her face and caught her reflection.

She was covered in blood. Her mouth and throat were coated in it. She paled even more underneath it.

She lunged for the toilet to be sick. She was sick until she was completely empty. Not wanting to see what had been in her stomach, she flushed and weakly went back to the sink to rinse her mouth and clean up. It almost took half of the roll of toilet paper before she'd cleaned most of the blood off of her face and hands. She wasn't sure what to do about her clothes. When she walked out of the bathroom, the others still watched her, but the tension had seemed to eased from the room. Sandy walked over to her.

"You ok now?" She asked. Tia nodded, glad she could no longer taste blood on her lips.

No, you're not. You miss it. You liked its taste. The dark voice whispered in her mind. She shoved it back.

She sat back down on Brian's bed heavily. She stared at her blood soaked armor for a moment, then, as if she realized what she was staring at, she looked anywhere else around the room. Her gaze settled on Brian.

"You guys keep saying that my eyes went red. Pure red?"

Brian nodded.

Tia remembered something from the other battle.

"Um, Brian, you remember the splice you fought yesterday? The Wolf-splice?"

Brian nodded, his gaze was fixed to her face. Not her eyes, though. He stared at all the places she'd been covered in blood. He seemed to realize where he was looking and met her eyes. She couldn't read what he was thinking. Maybe that was just as well.

She continued. "When your battle started, I noticed that the other splice jerked. Like he was being shocked for a moment. When you were fighting, did you notice that his eyes had gone red?"

Brian sat straighter. "I hadn't really noticed it. Or maybe I forgot." He dropped his gaze to his own hands.

Paul spoke up then. "It happens to a lot of our opponents, actually. The red eyes. They always lose their sense of strategy after that, did you guys notice?"

Christine nodded. "After they get really hurt or sssscared." Now Tia knew how worked up this had made Christine. She might look cool and collected, but she never started hissing her "s"s unless she was feeling very unsettled. "Obviousssssly thisss isssn't jusssst Tia. Thissss isss sssomthing we all have to watch for. Or we might do the sssame."

Jeanie looked at Tia. "Is there any way to control it?"

Tia shrugged. "How should I know I don't remember anything that happens immediately before, after or during these things. Am I always shackled before I come out of it?"

Everyone nodded. "You twitch, too," Paul added, "Like you're being shocked by something."

Tia mulled that over. "So they know. The higher ups. They know that this happens, what causes it, and how to stop it. It must be tied into some deep animal instinct or something. The guys upstairs know about this. They use it. At least the opponent's higher ups do."

Brian hung his head in his hands. "Just when I think this place has hit the lowest rank of hell, they dig a little deeper."

Tia got up. "I can't talk about this anymore, guys. I really need to clean up."

She looked at all of them, none without their smears of blood on their hands or faces. She couldn't tell if it was theirs or the foe's. It was probably a mix of both.

Her mind was filled with a slight buzzing as she made her way to her room. She didn't know how to feel about what she'd done. Part of her was disgusted, horrified. Nauseated.

But another part, the part that made her lick her own blood off her nails and want to jump Brian after smelling the blood and wear of battle on him, reveled in it. Every time she blacked out, she could feel the more human part of her shrinking under the pressure, giving way.

What would happen if that part disappeared completely? She wondered. The dark voice from the corners of her mind whispered Freedom.

She shook her head to clear it.

Starting her shower, she murmured in a sing-song voice. "I'm goin' crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy. Watch me going crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy."

The water didn't take long to heat up, and soon she was scrubbing the dried blood from her hair and under her fingernails. She ended up extending her claws to make sure all of her nails were clean. She tried not to think about what else was washing off of her claws. Her wings were the hardest to clean, she ended up having to comb through each feather to make sure there was no blood hiding in the layers.

Satisfied that she was clean, Tia pushed down the plug of her half-bath and sat down in the stream of hot water. When the level was high enough to soak in, she leaned back and let the water support her.

She soaked for about an hour, letting her hands get all prune-y before she made herself get out and ready for bed. After drying off and slipping into the fuzzy white robe she noticed hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Did I always know that was there?

She walked out of the bathroom and turned toward her bed. Then she screamed.

"Shhhh!" Ratty waved his hands frantically at her. "D'ya want me to get caught? Jeez, bring the entire fukken place runnin' why doncha?"

Tia clutched a hand to her thundering heart. "Well, pardon me if a hundred different horror movies make me a tad jumpy when someone is magically in my room when no one's supposed to be in here." she glared at him.

He waved that away. "Sweet-stuff, you've got a lot to learn if you think that your door is the only way to get inside the rooms in this place."

Tia scowled, remembering her first meeting with Malcolm. "Yeah, yeah, I know."

Ratty beamed. "Good, cuz I have a proposition for you."

Tia eyed him suspiciously. "Why?" She said bluntly. She was tired and her body was beginning to remember the aches that had to be soaked away.

He smirked. "Feh! So suspicious. Truth b'told, I caught your little show earlier at the Field. You really showed 'em what they're messin' wif."

"Who they're messing with." Tia corrected stiffly. She was tired of feeling inhuman.

Ratty shook his head. "Naw, they've known who they were dealing with from the beginning. They knew that with all of us. You showed them what, and now they're wondering just how far that will go. Who you would and wouldn't snack on in that state."

Tia blanched again. "Can we please not talk about it?"

Ratty looked at her with the tiniest bit of pity. "Wish it could be tha' simple sweetcakes. But those G-men unlocked what took you over earlier today. And they unlocked it in all of us. You just brought it further into the light than it's been before now."

Tia rubbed her hand over her face. The headache was starting to come back.

"You had a proposition for me, Ratty?"

Ratty snapped his fingers, sending a spasm of pain through Tia's head. "Oh yeh! Thanks fer remindin' me. I wanned to propose, that aftah such a grueling" He took a moment to savor the proper pronunciation, "battle such as you faced today, you might be appreciating a little vacation."

Tia looked blandly at Ratty. "A vacation? To where, exactly?"

Ratty leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Outside."

Tia was confused. "Out of my room? That's not much of a vaca-" She stopped as it dawned on her. "Outside?" She asked, her headache vanishing under the excitement. "Outside, outside? As in not indoors?"

Ratty nodded with glee. "Thought ye might like that. Watcha say?"

Tia yearned to feel free moving air, but before anything else she asked, "What's the catch?"

Ratty grinned, showing all of his sharp yellowing teeth. "No catch...this time. Just remember ol' Ratty down the road. The Missus has plans for you girlie, make no mistake."

Tia wondered vaguely about who the "missus" was, but there was something more important.

"Fine. But how do you suggest we get outside? It's not like this place has a friendly "Exit Here" sign anywhere."

Ratty smiled knowingly and beckoned her over to an air vent. After tapping it's edges in what seemed like a random rhythm, Ratty lifted up the vent, and a small section of the floor surrounding it. He laughed at Tia's stunned expression.

"That's my favorite part about showing you younguns around. Y'all make the best faces."

He dropped down into the hole and softly called back, "You ready to go outside?"

Tia looked down into the dark hole in her floor. Should she? Hell no. It was against all the rules.

All the sick, twisted, fucked up rules that she had no choice in following.

Here was her choice.

Should she follow him? No. Would she?

She smiled as she slipped down after Ratty, following the soft scurrying sounds of his footsteps.

Fuck the rules.