Beside Kai a man raised his fist in the air and cheered, bumping him. Kai felt tainted and he brushed off his jacket and leaned away. The crowd of crowing and cheering men surrounded the tiny dirt arena where two dogs attacked each other, growling … and yelping in pain. The broad, black dog bared its teeth and snarled. The rumbling in the dog’s throat seemed to vibrate in Kai’s bones. The frenzied sounds of both the men and the dogs pulsed off the walls of the enclosure. At least fifty men were there, all jockeying for a view.
Kai squeezed in closer to the front. The desperate sounds of the two dogs fighting for their lives overwhelmed the men’s voices, reducing them to background noise. The black dog’s massive jaws clamped down firmly around the neck of his opponent, an equally large brown and white mass of muscle and teeth. The black chest heaved, and the dog’s hind legs strained as he dug into the ground.
The men leaned in, their faces contorted with anticipation. All Kai’s muscles tensed and a sheen of sweat covered his arms. He stuffed his hands in his pockets when he realized he was clenching his fists repeatedly. He imagined taking the nearest enthusiastic viewer by his shirt and shaking him hard while yelling, “What’s the matter with you people?” Wait… Kai swallowed. What was the matter with him? He wasn’t supposed to feel this kind of thing. Trebladores don’t feel anger. Irritation, yes; minor frustration even … but not full-blown anger. They weren’t affected by something as disabling as extreme emotion. That was a human trait, a human weakness.
The thick crowd and its single-minded attention made movement slow, but if he wanted to succeed, he needed to get through. Kai wove his way toward the men who owned the dogs, his eyes scanning for the tall man he sought. He had been told what to look for, what the human’s distinguishing features were, and that his name was Derek. Kai saw the man’s trademark black baseball cap, worn backward and low over his forehead. The man stood beside the gate, his eyes never leaving the two dogs in front of him.
Kai glanced back at Lincoln, the more experienced Influencer, for confirmation, and when the other man nodded, he turned his attention back to Derek, reaching out with his mind, weaving his thoughts into those of the man beside him. He felt Derek’s excitement, the thrill of combat he experienced as he watched his dog tear into another one, hair and flesh flying in all directions, cries of pain, snarls of anger and fear. These things fueled his addiction and fed his satisfaction when his dog won. It brought up a primeval feeling of euphoria, a state of being where he felt honored and feared and respected, chief among his tribe.
Kai glanced down at the two dogs, still locked together. The brown and white dog moved suddenly, slipping out of the grip of the black. Kai felt Derek’s mind shift. Felt the feelings of triumph dimming and the first stirrings of rage. Kai searched for that elusive tendril of kindness, that tiny flicker of love or compassion that would let him begin his Influencing. But he couldn’t find it. There was nothing there but a huge, empty black hole.
The black dog stepped back, panting, obviously exhausted by the repeated bouts of fighting. His ears hung in tatters, blood dripping. His muzzle was equally torn, chunks of flesh hung from his nose. Blood splattered as he shook himself. The brown and white dog rushed him. The black tried to move away, but Derek lunged forward, kicking the black dog savagely in the side, goading him back into the fight.
Kai resisted the urge to jump forward, grab Derek by the throat, and thrust him up against the boards of the arena. No — violence did not guide. It was not what he was here for. He had a mission, a purpose, and he had best keep to the rules. He reached out toward Derek’s mind again, going carefully now, searching for any feelings of guilt or regret the man might harbor.
The dogs thrashed against each other as each sought an advantage. Kai tried to keep his focus on the man beside him while filtering out the menacing energy that threatened to distract him. Derek was back at the gate now, a heavy scowl etched on his face. He watched, tight-lipped, as the brown and white dog gained the advantage. It snatched at the black, its teeth flashing in the dim light, and managed to lock its powerful jaws around the other dog’s throat.
The black dog squirmed, throwing himself around in an effort to break the life-threatening grip. The black dog was fading, his oxygen supply obviously compromised. Derek scowled again. He looked up at another man. That man nodded and stepped forward, raising his hand and shouting something that Kai didn’t hear. His mind whirled, trying to find something to cling to, something he could use to nudge Derek toward a different attitude … something that would give the Trebladores a chance to make him change his ways. Derek was a leading participant in such events and had a reputation that suggested he would expand the “sport” with an underground circuit of his own before long. So many more people would deteriorate into a life of soul-damaging cruelty if the Trebladores failed today.
Two burly men strode into the arena and pulled the brown and white dog off the black one. It took both of them to do it, and by the time they succeeded, they were covered in sweat and blood.
Latching a thick leather collar around the dog’s neck, they led him, shaking, from the arena. The man who owned the winning dog stood to the side, gathering money as everyone paid their wagers.
The arena began to empty, the entertainment apparently over. Gerald stood over by the boarded up window. Lincoln hesitated behind Derek, a strange look on his face.
Kai followed Lincoln’s eyes. Derek had a knife in his hand and was kneeling on the neck of the black dog. The dog thrashed under him, his legs scrambling wildly. The man held a loose fold of flesh and cut slowly and methodically into the dog’s skin, carving a long line along the creature’s side. He was skinning his dog alive! Was this how he punished his dog for losing a fight? Kai focused. He had to Influence Derek; he had to succeed. This time, as he entered the man’s mind, he felt his own anger rise. He tried to tamp it down, but it continued to rise within him, a swirling blackness that threatened to blot out every thought.
The dog cried out. Its blood ran into the dirt of the arena. Its legs thrashed again and again as Derek jabbed in the knife, starting at a new spot.
Kai lurched. He couldn’t just stand there and let Derek do this! Stop! Stop! Kai hadn’t meant to say it aloud. But he must have because Derek looked up suddenly, his eyes meeting Kai’s. The skin of his arms prickled as Kai sucked in a breath. Red flashed before his eyes and he crouched for a moment before vaulting over the rail at Derek. He threw his arm around the other man’s throat and they crashed to the ground. The air rushed out of his lungs. Derek’s knife went flying.
Derek twisted sideways, breaking Kai’s hold on him and surging to his feet. Lincoln was beside Kai then, pulling him up, too. As he rose, he watched Derek. Gerald stood between them, one hand extended toward Derek, the other toward Kai and Lincoln.
“Okay. Let’s just take a breath here. No need to get physical,” Gerald said, his voice low and modulated. Kai could feel the mental tendrils Gerald was sending to Derek, trying to deflect the anger into something they could work with. Kai also knew that he was having no success. Derek was beyond reaching.
Lincoln tugged at Kai’s arm, pulling him away from the mob of spectators who were gathering near the wall. Gerald stepped carefully back as well, moving the Trebladore men toward the exit. Suddenly Derek cursed and lunged for Kai, fists extended in front of him. Kai met his eyes. Saw the raw emotion in them: the frustration, the bruised ego, the rage. This man was one of those they could not Influence, too far gone in his love of violence and aggression. Kai thought of the dog, thrashing on the dirt floor while his owner cut his skin into strips. Anger rose higher in Kai’s chest, and he felt his muscles contract as a sharp pain ran up his spine. The vision before him shuddered as if shifting into another dimension and then snapped back.
Derek jerked upright and then he slumped, crumbling to the ground in a soundless heap. Then Kai’s world tilted and dirt spun into the air as he too, smashed to the ground.
First, Kai felt the breeze — cool and clear, and then the singing of birds and croaking of frogs invaded his mind. Briefly, he wondered where he was and what he was doing laying in a forest, or a park, or a field. He opened his eyes and found he was actually in his own backyard. The huge elm tree waved in the breeze.
Kai turned his head. Lincoln stood near his feet, his tall, solid, Trebladore build blocking the direct sunlight. Lincoln grimaced, straight teeth gleaming in a face that looked at Kai with open interest. “About time you came around.” His brown eyes held a flicker of speculation. The large gold fleck common to all Trebladores flashed in his right eye. “Doing okay now?”
“I’m all right, I guess.” Kai struggled to a sitting position. He felt nauseated. “What happened?”
Lincoln glanced at the house behind him, half hidden by the elm tree. “You passed out. Scared the crap out of us. Just dropped to the floor in a heap. We had to prop you up between us and drag you out. It was a good thing everyone else was distracted with Derek.”
“Derek? Did I stop him?”
Again, Lincoln glanced around the yard, as if making sure no one was listening. “Oh, you stopped him alright. You stopped him dead.”
“What?” Kai rose on shaky legs.
Gerald joined them, his gaze resting for a long moment on Kai. “You’re back with us.”
“What happened? I can’t remember anything,” said Kai.
“Derek just dropped dead in front of all of us. And then you fainted.” Lincoln’s gaze sharpened suddenly. “What was with the shakedown? You know we don’t get physical with the humans we try to Influence. You can’t go wrestling them to the ground to stop them from doing what they want. We don’t use violence. We Influence. Nothing more.” Lincoln paused, “You broke the rules, Kai. It’s not going to go easy for you now. I know everyone expects you to live up to your father, and that’s a lot of pressure on you, but that brawling was insane. You’re not going anywhere as an Influencer if you handle things this poorly.”
Kai nodded and swallowed hard.
“You messed up,” said Gerald. He shook his head, turned, and walked back to the house.
Kai dropped his gaze, a feeling a heaviness settling over him. There must have been something on his face because Lincoln rested a comforting hand on Kai’s shoulder. With a low voice he said, “In the end, it might not have gone the way we wanted, Kai, but the result is the same. Derek will not be torturing any more dogs and his leadership in the circuit is over.” There was a note of satisfaction in his voice and Kai wondered at it as he watched the other man walk away.
Kai reached for the lighter in his pocket. Pulling it out, he flicked it on and off several times and then held it steady, gazing at the flame. “Dead—,” he whispered, his voice caught on the word.