Scratch

Growth 18-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Dinner that evening was really something, to say the least. We didn’t eat out in the main cafeteria, figuring this was something we would want to keep a little more private. It would’ve been pretty hard to focus on things with a couple hundred pairs of eyes from everyone else in the room constantly staring our way if we had eaten in public with someone like Jegudiel. He was the sort of guy who tended to attract attention even without the whole archangel thing. With that added in? Forget it, we never would’ve had any privacy at all. And having all those people watching our every move would have made the whole situation even more uncomfortable.  

In the end, it was still a fairly large group of us at the dinner, all lined up along either side of a long table that had been set up in the Moon’s apartment. Along one side of the table was my dad, both of my grandparents, Wyatt, Abigail, Koren, and me. Along the other side were Haiden and Sariel, Vanessa and Tristan, Jehoel, Spark, Puriel, and Tabbris. Jegudiel was at the end, with Tabbris next to him to his right (her mother on her other side) while I was next to him on the other side, across from my little sister. 

The entire table was laden with dozens of heavy platters of food. Seeing all of it, Jegudiel  clapped his hands together once very loudly, the sound echoing through the room. “Now this is a meal!” he boomed, a broad smile spreading across his face. “You make sure to eat as much as you can, little teuslin,” he teased with a look at Tabbris. “We’ve got to make sure you grow up nice and big so you can squish the heads of your enemies like geppins.” 

Blanching a little bit, the girl squirmed in her seat. “I’m not really sure I’m gonna be up to, um, you know, squishing.” 

“Oh don’t you worry,” Jegudiel informed her, “I used to be a pint-sized little thing like you too. Believe it or not, I was even smaller when I was your age. And even if you eat all you can and still turn out to be a tiny one, it doesn’t really matter. You’re big where it counts.” He offered the girl a wink as she stared at him. “Hell, from what I’ve heard, you being kind of small right now is the only thing that’s keeping you from taking on the entire Fomorian Empire by yourself!” His words right then were accompanied by a hearty laugh. 

Smiling a little despite myself, I watched the girl’s reaction while speaking up. “She’s impressive, that’s for sure. I’d be pretty dead, or worse, right now if it wasn’t for her.” 

Grandmaria took a sip of her water before speaking. “And we’re all certainly glad that didn’t happen.” She smiled my way while adding, “Plus, I can’t say I object to having another grandchild to spoil. Not to mention how much Arthur appreciates being able to buy more of those little video games and pretend they’re actually for one of them.” 

Popser made a huffing sound deep in his throat. “You know I can’t just hand those over without making sure they’re appropriate. Besides, when they put them in the system, what if they have questions about how it all works? I need to have a thorough understanding of all that.” 

From where he was sitting next to his own father, Dad leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Popser listened, then gave a short nod before adding, “And working with them gives me a chance to practice with these technology power whoozits.” 

For a moment, it looked like Jegudiel was going to say something about that, his expression curious. But Haiden spoke up first. “I’ve got a question of my own for you, big guy.” His gaze was focused down the table to the archangel. “How do you think the people on the front line of that war would feel about the idea of working with humans instead of using us as flesh-and-bone mecha to pilot around? You know, letting us have a say in what happens. Is it like people around here talking about asking their trucks for permission to drive them?” 

Obviously, he wasn’t the only one wondering that, but I was still surprised that anyone had asked so directly during the very first meal with this guy. And judging by a few of the looks he was getting from some of the others, they might’ve thought that he had gone too far. 

Jegudiel, however, observed him curiously before giving a short chuckle. “I wouldn’t have expected any other question from the one they called the Bane. You did an awful lot of damage while you were out there, you know.” He actually sounded admiring in that moment rather than reprimanding. “Kept a lot of them on their toes, so they didn’t get soft back away from the front lines.” Pausing briefly to consider, he amended, “Well, not as soft, anyway. You did some fine work. A lot of bad work too, but considering the situation… ehh, can’t say as I blame you too much. 

“Anyway, as for what you were asking about, I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t use a host unless it’s for some quick tactical advantage, making them think I’m not there or something like that. And in those cases, it doesn’t tend to last very long. If there’s some big discussion going on about that, I haven’t heard it.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m usually too busy kicking Fomorian teeth down their throats and then ripping their spleens out to get the teeth back to actually listen to stuff like that. Tell you what, I’ll have one of my people who’s actually more into that subtle talking stercus ask around to see what the general feeling is. That good enough?” 

Haiden seemed to think about that briefly before nodding. I had the feeling he was surprised to get an actual thought-out response, let alone an offer like that. “Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough.” Another pause came before he added, “Thanks.” 

From there, Wyatt asked something about a bit of Seosten magical security he had been working on taking apart, looking for advice from Jegudiel. The thing was, I happened to know for a fact that he had already long-since solved the problem he was asking about. Clearly, this was a test of some sort. He wanted to know if the man would send him down the wrong path. Whether he did or not, I wasn’t sure. Because even with the advanced lessons I had been getting, I absolutely could not follow Jegudiel’s response. And Wyatt’s next words sounded even more like total gibberish. From the way Sariel reacted, I could tell they weren’t actually just fucking with us and were actually saying real things. But damned if I could follow any of it. 

Still, at the very least, I was able to sit back in my seat and watch them go through this whole impossible-to-understand discussion. Then I looked back and forth along the table, seeing everyone watching as well. My grandparents, my dad, the Moons, we were all sitting here with Tabbris’s archangel father while he and Wyatt discussed security spells. This was all so surreal. Even in a world that had already been so impossible, a world where I had once foolishly thought I was completely beyond being surprised, this was… something. 

Sometimes, I had to take a metaphorical step back and really look at what my life had become over the past year and a half. Honestly, I had no idea how I had gotten here. 

And I certainly had no idea where I would be once another year and a half had passed. 

******

I may not have known where I would be in eighteen months, but the next morning I was attending Xenozoology class, where we learned about Alter animals. Lillian wasn’t there to help teach this time, of course. She was still with Mom in Peru, working on taking care of that whole situation. But we did have Scratch, the short guy from Eden’s Garden who I had met at the beginning of the year working with these animals. 

Obviously, he didn’t look any different now. The man still had the same long, dark gray hair tied into that same ponytail, and that crescent moon-shaped scar still marked his very tan face from just under his right eye down to his cheek. Even after all of this time, I still had no idea what had caused his scar. Nor did I know any other name he went by besides Scratch. But then, from what Miranda and Seller had said, no one else seemed to know any other name either. He simply was, and apparently always had been, Scratch. 

At the moment, the man in question was standing next to a cage that has been covered with a tarp. He was watching me and the rest of the class, his gaze making it clear that he was considering just how to start this lesson. Or possibly wondering if we were ready to hear it. Finally, he exhaled, the sound of his soft sigh stopping the whispering that was going on. Not that there had been a lot of it, but still. Everything went completely silent at the mere prospect that he was about to say something. 

“No yelling,” the man started flatly, in the same simple, soft voice I had come to expect from him. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice or act outwardly excited. He always carried himself calmly. Which was probably why he was so good with the animals. Or maybe the fact that he spent so much time with animals was why he talked like that. I wasn’t sure which came first in that particular egg and chicken situation. “No raising your voices or blurting things out if you’re not called on. I don’t want any of you scaring the poor guy, or making him think he’s in trouble. When you want to say something, raise your hand until I say your name. When I do, you talk in a normal, quiet, civilized tone. Does everyone understand?” 

He waited until we had agreed before putting his hand on the tarp. Once more, he looked over at us, his eyes inquisitive. “How many of you can tell me what this is?” With that, the man pulled the tarp away from the cage, not so much ripping it off as giving a simple gradual tug so it came up smoothly and steadily. Probably to avoid startling the creature inside. 

And what a creature it was. Now that we had a chance to look at it, I could see what looked like an ordinary wolf at very first glance. Except it was bigger in the shoulders and had paws that were more like a bear, with long claws. Which I was given a decent view of as the thing reared up on its hind legs once the tarp came off. It didn’t just briefly rear up either, it stood and stayed that way, its wolf-like head snapping first one way, then another as it took all of us in. The thing pressed its paws against the glass of the cage, deadly claws extending. Yet I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to break out, or even threaten us. It seemed more like it was showing the claws to let us know that it wasn’t helpless, and that if we tried to hurt it, there would be a fight. 

So it was a wolf with bear paws that could stand on its hind legs, but that wasn’t the only thing different about this thing. It wasn’t simply a bear-wolf hybrid. That much became clear as the large bat-like wings unfurled from its back and spread out. Probably to make itself look even bigger, to ward off any potential threats. The thing was spreading those bat-wings out from one end of the cage to the other, its eyes looking over every one of us in rapid succession to assess if we were going to try to attack. 

“No sudden movements,” Scratch reminded us in his soft tone, drawing the creature’s attention briefly before it went back to looking at the rest of us. “Don’t startle him. Just let him take it all in. He’s usually in a bigger enclosure, so he might be a little grumpy right now. But he’ll be okay. Especially once we get him some food. He’s been doing presentations with me for awhile now. Like I said, how many of you can tell me what he is?” 

Vanessa wasn’t in this class, or I was certain that her hand would have rocketed straight into the air. Instead, it was Jason Furuya, the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic, who raised his hand. The Asian guy, who had a scar of his own over his cheek (though not as pronounced as Scratch’s, waited until the teacher said his name before speaking. “He’s a Kludde, right?” It sounded sort of like ‘could’ but with the added L sound right after the kuh sound. Kludde. Like if you mixed up could and cloud and tried to say them both at the same time, or something. 

Scratch smiled faintly, giving a short nod. “That’s right, top marks, Furuya. What else can you tell me about the Kludde?” 

“Uh.” Jason hesitated. “They originated–I mean, here on Earth that is– around the Netherlands and Belgium, right? People thought they were werewolves at first. Uh, werewolves with wings, I guess.” 

“Werewolves with wings, or even the Christian devil,” Scratch confirmed. For a moment, he looked a little amused. Probably because he was thinking about the fact that even his own moniker used to be a nickname for the same devil. Old Scratch, that was. Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that we literally had Lucifer himself, now Apollo, living with us. Either way, he took a moment to smile about something before continuing. “People thought a lot of things about them, some true, some not. Who knows why they’re called Kludde?” 

Even as he asked that, the creature opened its mouth and gave a sharp barking sound. Which sounded an awful lot like its actual name. It barked again, and it sounded even more like it was saying ‘kludde.’ 

“Now that’s just cheating,” Scratch informed the creature with a sidelong look. “You’re not supposed to give them the answers, Montgomery.” 

Rebecca started to say something, a noise escaping her before she caught herself and raised her hand. When the man said her name, she asked, “Montgomery? His name is really Montgomery?” 

“That’s right,” Scratch replied with a simple nod. “Montgomery here is the nicest of his pack. There’s also Edna, Waylon, Ned, Maude, Luann and Seymour. Maybe once you all have a little more experience, I’ll let you see the rest of them. But for now, let’s stick with Montgomery. Who knows something else about the Kludde? Anything at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of them now and then.”

One of the other students, a tiny pixie with long green hair and polka dot clothes, flew up and down in the air to attract attention with her arm raised. Seeing that, Scratch pointed. “Jeckselprea?” 

“Just Jeck is fine, sir!” the pixie chirped. She sounded like Namythiet, and I found myself briefly wondering how the other pixie was doing. “And is it true that if you kill one of them, seven more appear?” 

Scratch shook his head. “No, that was either people getting them mixed up with Jekerns, or just seeing babies crawling out from under the mother’s body and thinking they magically spawned.” He paused before muttering, “People can be really stupid sometimes.” He shook that off before focusing. “If you kill a Kludde, you just end up with a dead Kludde.” 

“Are they shapeshifters?” Koren asked once she was called on. “I think I remember something about how they can change into a lot of different animals.” 

“That they can do,” Scratch confirmed. “Kludde are very powerful animal shapeshifters, almost as good as Pooka. Even stronger, in some cases. They can become plants too. Makes it a little complicated to keep track of them when they keep turning into trees and bushes in their enclosure.” He added that bit with a small smile, clearly amused by a memory of just such a situation. “Some say they can become human, but it’s rare. And even when they do, they don’t talk. They might mimic things they’ve seen humans do, just to try to blend in. Or hunt.” He added that bit with a small smirk. “Anyone else? They’re shapeshifters, they can fly with those wings even in this form, and they do not spawn seven babies when they die.” 

Ruckus, the guy who looked like an assortment of slinkies, raised one of his metal coils until Scratch acknowledged him. “They’rereallyfastright? Imeanlike… theycangetfrom… oneendofthisroom… totheother… sofastit’s… likethey’reteleporting.” 

Oh yeah, Ruckus talked like December. Except somehow, he seemed to get words out even faster. Thankfully, someone seemed to have had the same talk with him about slowing down slightly so he put some intentional pauses in his sentences. Not exactly between every word, but enough that it wasn’t completely impossible to follow what he was saying. Just difficult sometimes. It made me wonder if all of his people were like that, or if that was just a Ruckus thing. 

Scratch nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty quick, whatever shape they’re in. I’ve clocked Montgomery here doing two hundred and ten miles per hour in a sprint. Not quite blinding speed, but you try telling a Bystander in the seventeen hundreds that what he called ‘incalculable’ speed is actually slower than the airplanes they’ll use in a couple hundred years.” He chuckled softly before sobering. “So yes, they’re very quick, even faster when they fly, and they can shapeshift. All of that makes them pretty dangerous when they want to be. Which brings me to the next question, who can tell me what they like to eat?” 

No one had any answer at first, until Shiloh raised her hand and hesitantly offered, “Um, liars?” She sounded uncertain, like she thought she might just be repeating a silly rumor. 

Scratch, however, beamed a bit. “Yes, actually. That’s pretty much right, believe it or not. The Kludde have the ability to sense when someone is lying. Not just a little white lie, but the malicious kind. They can tell when someone is keeping deep, dark secrets. Evil secrets. And the worse those secrets are, the more… evil the person is hiding inside, the tastier they are to the Kludde.” He paused then, clearly letting that sink in before dryly adding, “As you might expect, a lot of the people in positions of authority and power didn’t really like having them around. So, even before the whole… Bystander Effect came to full power, they started spreading rumors about the Kludde eating babies, literally being Satan or just a demon in general, spawning from the cremated bodies of dead witches, that sort of thing. Anything to stop people from paying attention to what–or rather who the Kludde were actually trying to eat. And, as a side note, that’s also where we get the concept of hellhounds. Well, that and the whole Cerberus thing, of course.” He gave me a brief look before continuing. “They went all-in on making these guys look as evil as possible, just so they’d be hunted to extinction. And they nearly succeeded. Montgomery and his pack are one of only a few left here on Earth. Well, somewhat close to Earth, anyway.”  

Offering us all a slight smile, the man continued. “I’m going to let my buddy here come out of the cage in a minute. Everyone just stay calm and steady. Spread out so there’s several feet between each of you. I’ll lead him to one person at a time. Let him sniff you and then put his head down. When he does that, you can touch him. Just scratch behind his ears or under his chin. And if any of you aren’t comfortable with doing that, go ahead and take a few steps back that way. No one’s going to give you a hard time. 

“And if they do, let me know. I have plenty of other fun things that could eat them.” 

******

So, I made it through the rest of that class, as well as the next couple. Eventually, I was on my way to lunch, wondering if I would see Tabbris there or if she was still busy with Jegudiel. On the way, however, I was interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name. Turning, I saw Miranda sprinting down the hall. She came to a sliding stop, blurting, “We gotta go down to the Eden’s Garden rebels, down by the ocean, the hotel, down there. We gotta check it out.” 

“What?” I blinked a few times, head shaking. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” 

“Wrong?” she echoed, grinning. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s right. Dakota, she did it. She finally got them working.” 

“Dakota–the vines?” I realized belatedly. “She managed to make the vines grow?” 

Miranda’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Not just grow, she managed to get a few of them to bloom. New apples. She made the vines give off new apples. 

“We can make new Heretics!”  

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Learning Days Daze 2-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 Yeah, on top of everything else, I was spending a lot of my evenings secretly being trained by one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. Or at least, by a sort of virtual reality copy of her. Which was pretty close. 

Tabbris knew about it, naturally. As for the others, Avalon and Shiori knew, as did my father, Dare, and Sariel herself. We were keeping it as secret as possible beyond that to avoid Fossor somehow getting wind of it, as he tended to do. Not that I didn’t trust the rest of my friends and family, of course. It was just… better to keep certain cards close to the vest until the time came to play them. The fewer people who knew about me having a copy of Chayyiel in my head, the less chance of Fossor finding out.

She was here to train me, to help me prepare for the future. That included whatever was going to happen when my birthday came around, and beyond. I’d even asked her opinion about the whole Fossor’s sister thing, and she gave me some tips. 

We split our time between her teaching me magic and teaching me to fight better. My lack of needing real sleep meant I could go through a lot more of these extended, intense virtual training sessions than others who needed more time fully shut down. 

It wasn’t exactly the same as a full physical training session, but pretty damn close. And coming from someone as skilled as she was, it was worth everything. Months of training under her several times a week was probably the equivalent of years or even decades training under other people. The extra help she was giving me this way was worth more than I could ever really repay, even if I lived a thousand years. It was completely invaluable. 

That was what I kept telling myself no matter how often she beat me up. And I got beat up a lot. The fact that this was taking place in my head apparently meant I could take all the damage in the world and then just be fine. I’d been ‘killed’ more times than I could count in these training sessions. But it was never gratuitous or anything. Chayyiel was teaching me. Or Shyel. That was what I referred to the one in my head as to separate her from the real one. Shy because she was hiding in my brain. Shy Chayyiel. Shyel. It worked. 

Shyel showed me what she was doing over and over again, getting it into my head as well as into my body until it was reflex. Then she did something else that totally destroyed me, and taught me how to handle that. Move after move, bruise after bruise, death after death, she had spent these past couple of months driving me as hard as she safely could given everything else going on. It wasn’t every night, but it was enough. At least, I hoped it would be. I hoped all of this would be enough to deal with Fossor. To say nothing of everything else that was bound to come up. After all, I had at least two members of the Crossroads Committee who were definitely royally pissed off at me. I needed all the help I could get. 

Groaning a bit as I lay half in a pile of leaves while rubbing my arm, I blinked up at the simulacrum. “You’d think that if we’re in my brain, we could make getting hit not hurt so much.”

Offering me both a smile (making her look even more like an innocent child than she already did) and her hand, Shyel replied, “It would do more harm than good to teach you how to handle something without any pain involved. It’s better for you to learn how it’s going to feel and go on through it anyway.” 

Her expression softened considerably then, as the girl helped me back to my feet. “But I’m sorry if I’m hurting you. I just know we’re running out of time and there’s so much more I want to teach you.”

“Hey, I am the one who’s supposed to be getting nervous and antsy about this whole thing,” I reminded her. “We’ve still got time. And I think I’m getting better, even if you keep taking me apart like I’m a toddler.” I didn’t have any problem admitting that, considering the real Chayyiel took basically everyone apart like they were toddlers. There was nothing to be embarrassed by. 

Hesitantly, I admitted, “I’m still not sure why you did all this, exactly. I mean why the original you went through all this trouble to help me train. I doubt you do this with everyone who gets into trouble.”

“That would be an awful lot of people to stick mental constructs of myself into,” she agreed, “even if I did only pick up the skill from Sariel recently. The truth is, I’m pretty sure you’re going to end up being important down the line, so I have a vested interest in keeping you safe and strong. And out of the hands of certain people.”

“Certain necromancers, for example,” I murmured before looking back to her. “Yeah, I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty awesome. It’s amazing, the fact that you’re doing all this. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse keeps beating the crap out of me. But if you say I’m supposed to do something important in the future… well, somehow I’m even more nervous.” 

“I think you might do something important,” Shyel corrected. “It’s a big distinction. I haven’t used some kind of future sight prophecy spell to prove it or anything. That stuff is impossible to really rely on anyway. It makes things more complicated. I’m going off what I know about your situation, and about you yourself. It’s an educated guess. The point is, there’s no such thing as ‘grand destiny.’ You take your own actions. And I think you could take some very important ones, if you get a chance to. You’re important because of the kind of person you are, not any mythical future. I want to make sure enough people like you make it into that future in good enough shape to actually do something with it.” 

Somehow, I managed to blush inside my own head and couldn’t stop it. Which totally wasn’t fair. Coughing, I glanced away before asking, “Do you think any of this is going to be enough when the time comes and Fossor decides he wants to take me?” 

“I think every little bit helps,” she informed me. “In the end, the more options you have for dealing with it, the better off you’ll be. That’s why I’m teaching you magic as well. And speaking of which…” 

“Time for spell lessons?” I managed a slight smile at that. “Good, give my bruises a chance to fade. By which I mean the ones on my skin and the ones on my ego.” 

With a (probably unneeded) wave of her hand, Shyel turned the forest we were standing in into a classroom. There was a single desk, and I sat down while she moved up to where a row of bookshelves were waiting. “Tonight,” she started, “we’re going to learn a bit more about transmutation spells. Specifically, the ones to protect or enhance yourself.” 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “I guess I can see how those might be useful at some point.” Sitting up a bit in the desk, I added, “Sounds good, Teach. Hit me. 

“And by that, I mean with knowledge. Like I said, still bruised over here.” 

*******

The next couple days basically went like that. We had classes in the morning, split between normal academic stuff and more exotic learning, then training in the afternoon. I had another nightly training session with my brain tutor, where I got beat up a lot while gradually learning what I was doing wrong. 

Then it was Friday. My first class that morning, which I had with Aylen, Sarah and Sands, Columbus, Miranda, and Jason, was xenozoology. We would be learning about various Alter animals, like Choo’s Jekern or Salten’s Peryton. Or, hell, like the Amarok that had given me my ‘hardly ever get tired’ power so long ago. We were apparently going to get into what kind of powers and advantages they had, as well as the best ways of either taming or at least avoiding a fight with one. And, of course, how to fight or kill them if we had to. Because there would be times when that was unavoidable. Even animal-intelligence level Alters could be a real threat. Like, again, the Amarok. 

But there were potential alternatives to always killing them. Alternatives which we would be learning here, in this small forested area built into one of the side rooms of the station. The place was basically like a park, with heavy doors along the far wall, opposite where we came in. Apparently there was a whole animal care facility beyond those doors, and our teacher would be bringing the creatures in to meet us whenever needed. Eventually, we’d even have a chance to go back there ourselves. But the teacher wanted to start us off a bit more slowly than that. Apparently he had doubts about a bunch of Bosch Heretics coping well surrounded by Alter animals, for some reason. 

To be fair, he was actually a Bosch Heretic himself. Specifically, the man had been part of Eden’s Garden, apparently since its inception. His name was Scratch. Or at least, that was the only name he went by, and he’d been going by it for so long that no one Miranda talked to had ever known or been willing to say what his original name had been. Not even Seller. 

Scratch was a fairly short, thin man, barely an inch taller than me. His long, dark gray hair was tied into a ponytail, and his heavily tanned face was marked by a single curved scar, shaped kind of like a crescent moon, up under his right eye and extending onto his cheek. I didn’t know what the scar had been caused by or why it wasn’t healed, but it had to have been something pretty bad. 

“Scratch was always good with the animals,” Miranda informed me in a hushed whisper while the man himself went to one of the large doors to retrieve the first creature he wanted us to see. “He was the Dust Striders’ creature keeper, but the other tribes got help from him sometimes too. He wouldn’t let anyone abuse his, ahhh, charges, even before the whole rebellion thing.” 

By that time, the man was on his way back. A large metal cage floated along behind him. Though ‘cage’ was probably a bit of a misnomer. I knew that, like the bag Shiori had kept Choo in through a lot of last year, there was actually a lot more room than it looked like in that box for whatever was in there. It would have its own private habitat built specifically for it. Or them, considering there could be any number of animals within. The box was just what it looked like from the outside. The entrance to the habitat, or whatever. 

In any case, the box was about nine feet long, four feet wide, and six feet high. It settled to the ground directly beside Scratch, while the thirty or so other students and I watched carefully and curiously. 

When the man finally spoke, his voice was quiet and subdued. It wasn’t hard to hear, exactly, it was just… sort of restrained. It was just loud enough to understand him and no louder. “Good morning,” he greeted us, dark green eyes scanning the group. He met my gaze for a brief moment before his eyes moved on. “I assume all of you have fought and killed what you would consider a monster of some kind before? It’s okay, we’ve all done it, to protect ourselves, to protect others, or because those of higher authority told us it was the right thing to do.” 

Gradually, everyone nodded in agreement or half-raised their hands, and Scratch continued in that same soft voice. “This class is going to teach you how to handle such creatures properly. And properly means different things depending on the situation. In some cases, handling a creature will mean killing it. There’s no two ways around it, there will be times when killing is the best and perhaps only solution to a situation. But there will be other times when you may be able to control and contain the creature, taking it away from where it was doing harm and either keeping it for safe study and care by experts, or releasing it in its proper habitat.”

Again, his eyes moved over us. “Many of you who grew up with Crossroads teachings have believed that all such creatures must always be killed immediately, lest they destroy all civilization. Others, who grew up under the Eden’s Garden ways, were taught that they can be controlled, used as beasts of burden, as slaves. And, of course, there are those of you who grew up under neither system and have been taught all manner of things. Some good, some bad. But here’s the truth: killing every animal, even the ones who seem threatening and dangerous, is wrong. Now, letting them hunt and massacre civilians, that’s wrong too. The point is to learn to recognize when a situation calls for violence, and when it calls for restraint.

“A lot of you have spent your entire lives learning to fear and hate the creatures out there. So, before I teach you anything else, before we say a single word about how to fight the kind of animals you see out there, I’m going to teach you something far more important than how dangerous they can be. I’m going to show you how wondrous they are.” 

With that pronouncement, the man took a laser pointer (or what looked like one) from his pocket. He pointed it at the ground a few yards in front of the box, and the laser from it created a blue line. Gradually, he drew a semi-circle around that area from one side of the box to the other. When he clicked another button on the thing in his hand, a mostly transparent, humming  forcefield popped into existence from the line he had drawn. It stretched up and over the box like a bubble, enclosing the space directly in front of the cage. 

Scratch spoke again, once the shield was in place. “Alter animals, those not of this world, can be incredibly dangerous. Never forget that. But they can also be beautiful, wonderful creatures, worthy of our respect, and our care. There is a balance to be found between fearing or hating them, and allowing them to slaughter innocents. This class is meant to teach you how to find that balance, how to kill when you need to, and how to control them when possible. My partner and I will teach you how to recognize aggressive behavior, how to stop it, how to make these animals listen to you.” 

I was just wondering what he meant by partner, when my item-sense picked up someone coming in from behind us. Turning a bit, I saw Rebecca’s grandmother, Lillian. Mom’s old best friend and roommate. The small woman approached, giving me a brief wink as she spoke up. “That’s absolutely right. I know Crossroads, for one, never stops to show their students how truly amazing some of these creatures can be. Only how dangerous they are, and how to kill them.” 

Stepping past us, Lillian offered the group a broad smile, laying her hand on the side of the metal box. “And speaking of truly amazing creatures, how many of you have ever heard of a Taynfiel? More commonly known as a lion-bee.” 

A few hands went up, mostly among the Alters and Natural Heretics in the group. A single Eden’s Garden student put his hand up too, though he looked a little uncertain. 

“Lion-bee?” I whispered to Jason, who had his hand raised. “Why do they call it a–” 

That was as far as I got before the door of the box slid aside, and the creature within came bounding out. It was… well, yeah, I could see why it was called a lion-bee. The thing was about the size of a large dog. It had dark tan fur, with a couple black stripes. Its head was very lion-like, complete with a full-on furry mane. It had a set of large insect-like wings, and instead of a floppy lion’s tail, it had a prehensile one with a long, sharp blade at the end. Like a stinger. 

It was a lion-bee, there could be no other conceivable name for it. 

And then it made a sound. It was like a cross between a heavy purr and a deep buzz. Its wings contributed, suddenly beating very rapidly but barely moving, going up and down only a couple inches each way. The thing looked back and forth between us, giving off that wing-assisted purr-buzz. 

“This,” Lillian informed us, “is Tatters. He’s a lion-bee, a Taynfiel, who was raised in captivity from birth. The only thing he likes more than fishing with his tailblade is cuddles. The forcefield was just to make you all feel safe. But we’re going to take it down in a minute. Everyone stay fairly still. Don’t overwhelm him, and don’t make any threatening moves. Tatters is tame and friendly, but he’s still an animal and he will defend himself if need be. Stand still, let him come to you. You can pet him if you like. If you’d prefer he not come to you, go ahead and take a few steps back. No one will blame you, I promise. If you’re not comfortable yet, go ahead and step out of the group.” 

A few people did so, not trusting either themselves or the animal. The rest of us stood still, while the forcefield lowered. The fuzzy lion-bee sniffed the ground where the shield had been, then took a quick wing-assisted jump over to where Lillian was. He enthusiastically sniffed her stomach and offered hand, licking her palm once before turning his attention to us. 

I was the first one he came to. Part of me wondered if that had to do with my own werelion form. I’d used it that morning to go running around the neighborhood, could he smell it? I wasn’t sure how that worked. 

Either way, he came right up and sniffed me. Slowly, I went down to one knee and let him sniff my face. His tongue, as he licked over my cheek, was a bit rough. Still, I giggled a little. Which he liked, apparently, going by the way his wings beat a little faster, making his purr louder. 

“Hey, buddy,” I murmured with a smile, rubbing my hands up through his luxurious, fluffy mane. “Who’s a good boy, huh? You’re a good boy. Good little bee-kitty.” 

A few others had a couple minutes with him, before Lillian and Scratch announced that we should step back, because Tatters wanted to stretch his wings. We did so, and the lion-bee zoomed straight up off the ground. He flew to the ceiling, flipped over to land there, and stared at us from an upside down position for a few long seconds before zooming off again. He did a few barrel rolls and loopty-loops, very clearly showing off for a (mostly) appreciative audience. 

Aylen stood beside me, her voice a soft murmur. “My family’s back,” she informed me while we all watched Tatters. “So, I guess, if you’re up for it… they’d like you and Avalon and a few others to come over for dinner tonight. But first, meet me out in the park by our houses after lunch.

“There’s a few things I really need to explain.”  

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