They take the Rottweiler from an abandoned lot, from the cluttered space behind a dumpster where he shakes and growls at the men with thick gloves and keen eyes. He is young—someone's stray. They beat him and feed him drugs and tie down animals for his aggression.
When he is ready, they take him to the circuit. He becomes a champion there, surviving three wins and a loss. Scars grow thick and pronounced on his flesh. His ears erode; taken by teeth in chunks until they hug the base of his skull, no longer vulnerable. He wins money, and his teeth are filed to careful points.
On the way home from his fourth bout, the men with gloves take him and chain him. They stake him down in the middle of a ring, alone in some empty warehouse. They leave him there until the hunger is a ravenous, straining thing inside of him, threatening to rip free of his innards and devour bodiless the meat of the world.
And then they allow the boy into the ring.
Isaac is stumbling and uncertain, weak with his own hunger and loss. The dog scents him and goes berserk. It hurls itself snapping to the full length of its chain. From their corner of the room, the Dogsmen light cigarettes and speak in low voices. Their talk of business is like a distant drone in the back of Isaac's thoughts. He has not had red meat for a very long time.
Gauging the length of chain carefully, he kneels down just outside the reach of the Rott. He wonders what it would be like to run his hands through the animal's fur—to hold it, quiet and still, in his arms. He is naked, and dirt stains run the lengths of his body. His eyes shine in the dark.
The dog has spent its life enduring the abuse of professionals. When the boy's arms stretch and distend, when his jaws lengthen and jut, it knows no fear. It hurls itself at him, one last time, craving the oblivion of his widening smile.
Sounds of tearing flesh echo in the makeshift ring.
In their corner, one of the Dogsmen flicks his cigarette with satisfaction. Buying the Rottweiler had been a worthwhile investment.
They don't have to force him into his cage. Isaac goes willingly. He can still feel the brands on his flesh, little surface ghosts of the pain that wracked him last time he disobeyed. The Dogsmen wore the burning metal all over their bodies, in hoops and belts and studs and rings, and they had been all too willing to show him his place. They wear it still in case he should ever forget.
The door locks behind him, and he takes care to touch neither it nor the walls. There are unhealed sores in his mouth from the first and only time he tried to bite at it, and a lateral band of numbness runs the width of his tongue, matching perfectly the dimensions of a single bar from the cage.
On his left thigh, the puncture marks from the Rottweiler's teeth are closing. He can feel the itch of sinews knitting beneath. He almost hadn't felt it, when the dog seized him by the leg. A moment later its back half had been off, and he had been too busy gorging to notice.
There is a thin smear of waste-blood and gristle around his lips. He wipes it away, transferring the color to the back of his hand. His stomach feels heavy and over-full, but he knows he needs it like that. Making the shift takes energy. Right now, he is exhausted.
Sometimes the Dogsmen will come by after a demonstration, after he's butchered some fighting animal at the post. They rattle his bars and scream at him to keep him fierce. To remind him what he is.
He curls up in the middle of the floor, an emaciated child, and holds his arms around himself. In his mind, he is replaying the way it felt when he tore out the Rottweiler's throat with his teeth and wondering what it would be like to do that to every living thing in the world.
The Dogsmen meet twice weekly to discuss the progress of their acquisition. Sometimes the meetings are business, and payments change hands. Other times the mood is more convivial, and they take turns getting in some training with Isaac.
Sometimes they laugh about it when they're pulling the tabs from beer cans and flicking them through the bars. Finding him had been so accidental that it was hard not to take it as some kind of sign that God loved them and wanted them to be happy. He had given them the means with which to revolutionize their hobby, and he had done so with a kindness that would have made the devil proud.
There could be new terms now. New weight classes. New rules, they realize.
The novelty alone would make them rich.
The Dogsmen buy steroids and psychotropics, tranquilizers and stimulants. They buy snack food and alcohol, catering and entertainment. They beat Isaac insensate and feel a little thrill from how human he looks.
He will make quite a stir at the convention.
Isaac catches the rat between human teeth and deftly breaks its spine with a shake of his head. This isn't challenging. Not for him. He makes this clear by tossing the body away untouched. It lands in a pile of similar corpses. The Dogsmen laugh and are pleased.
He's a real vicious one, they say. Never seen anything like him. He'll go grand champion for sure. He'll be a league of his own.
They bring out the metal, then. Just in case. They have to make sure he still knows they're in charge.
In Isaac's mind, there has never been any doubt. Ever since they picked him up off the street, their ownership has been buried in his bones, mingling with the marrow.
He had known it once as a hot meal: steaming soup and bread from a place he was too embarrassed to beg from.
That had been before the offerings of needles and pills and the dizzy haze that filled his veins. It had been before battered apartment couches and plastic restraints. The soup had gotten cold and started coming from a can, and then it had stopped entirely.
The first beatings had been dulled by his need for the junk, and so they had weaned him off it. Withdrawal had made him punchy and sharp, and for a brief time he had thought this meant that he could escape.
When he had changed in front of them, clear-headed and raw with the need to kill, they had had the metal ready then, too.
The metal shuts him down. Makes it hard for him to focus, to hold the othershape.
It is doing that right now.
He lets the blows come, absorbing the force with his ribs. He knows they will stop in their own time.
The Dogsmen will not ruin him before his fight.
They define the ring with metallic tape, quick to rip up and dispose of should the authorities arrive. Around it, they build an enclosure out of metal posts and chickenwire. The audience watches them with growing interest. There is a performance to their work, a deliberate process. Bets have already begun to change hands.
The advertising surrounding the event has been vague. It has explained that the fight is to be an unequal one—a single contender against five dogs—but the specifics of breed and lineage have been left tantalizingly blank. Some of the first wagers are on what this contender might be. An older man fondly remembers bear-baiting and puts his money against the bear.
The Dogsmen work quickly, and inside of half an hour the ring is complete. Openings have been made in the wire mesh to permit the docking of dog carriers. Five on one side, one on the other. Following an unspoken signal, one of the Dogsmen releases the front latch on the largest crate. The door swings open and Isaac comes stumbling out into the dim light.
A shift comes over the audience then, from eager anticipation to revulsion and disgust. They have not been expecting this. Some of them stand up to leave. Others call down epithets into the ring. Knives are produced.
The Dogsmen smile. Don't leave just yet, they say. If you think this is just a boy, you are mistaken. Let us educate you.
They open the other crates.
He has just a moment to adjust, to blink away the sensory deprivation of the box, before they are upon him. The first two take him by the legs, toppling him. Another latches onto his outflung wrist. Teeth find him in the crook of his arm and shoulder, a bleed spot. The last dog goes for his face.
He changes then, and closes his jaws over its skull.
The world around the pit explodes with noise. Men are screaming, cheering, silent. Isaac is expanding. His limbs swell, and there is an unheard pop as a dog's jawbone dislocates. It falls from his body to lie twitching on the ground. He treads on it.
The blood from his wounds runs slick down his body, spilling across the ring. He roars and opens another with his hands.
Clinging to his legs are the last two dogs, and already his body is healing. The puncture marks pucker closed around their fangs, locking them in place. The pain is now minimal. He ignores them and begins to feed.
The seller finds the Dogsmen months later, via a posting on the internet. He promises pictures, video footage, proof. He promises another specimen.
They meet him near where they had acquired the Rottweiler, masked and armed against the chance of government competition. He turns his pockets out for them, to show that he is not carrying.
A manilla folder is spread on a battered folding table. Photographs spill out. They are grainy and vague—clearly developed at home—but they show another creature, much larger than theirs, pressing against the bars of a basement cage. Scars cross its body like an elaborate road map.
You want this? he asks. Make me an offer.
The Dogsmen aren't satisfied. They doubt him at his word. We would see it first. Where do you keep it?
The seller smiles. Right here.
Before they have time to process the words, he is already erupting up and out of his skin.