Shyel

Eighteen 6-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As with all these chapters, there is a summary of the events in this chapter at the bottom. But for those who are only avoiding direct interaction with Fossor, he does not appear in this chapter. Also, for those who read Summus Proelium, there will be a commissioned interlude for that posted in a few hours. 

Mom was waiting for me out in the hall when I was done in the bath. Rahanvael assured me she would be sticking around and could let me know when and if Fossor had ghosts watching us any time I summoned her. But for the moment, she would mostly fade away until I reached out for her with my power again. Apparently, she would use that time to further anchor herself to me, and thought it was safest to do that with as small of a presence as possible in case her brother happened to notice anything. She was fairly positive that blind spot of his that she existed in would cover it, but there was no sense in taking chances. Not when we needed every possible advantage. 

I’d also firmly resolved not to tell my mother about the ghost. Not yet. It was going to be hard enough for one of us to keep her secret with Fossor’s Writing Room, and two would be worse. I didn’t even really know what that place was like yet. I had to think of a way to avoid spilling the secret about Rahanvael to Fossor before I could think about sharing it with my mother. Telling her right then would just double the chances of the truth slipping out if Fossor asked the right questions. Although there was a tingling in the back of my head trying to tell me that I had a safe way of explaining it to her, I wasn’t sure what my subconscious was trying to point out just yet. 

So, I kept quiet for the time being and walked with her all the way to her room while the two of us were escorted by a couple ghosts. Part of me wondered what Fossor was doing through all this, something about the fact that he wasn’t sticking around, hovering and gloating sticking in the back of my mind. Yes, we weren’t his only focus. He had a lot of balls in the air, obviously. But he’d been waiting for this day for a decade. Sure, he’d taken the time to talk at me when I first showed up, and we had that forced ‘birthday dinner.’ But honestly, I’d expected more from him by now. The fact that he was leaving us alone like this felt… odd, in a way. Just like with the whole telling my mother about Rahanvael, it felt like there was something I should have realized by now, but I just didn’t… I was tired. I was too tired to deal with it. 

In any case, we reached my mother’s spacious quarters, both of us dressed in comfortable-looking sweatpants and tee-shirts that had been laid out for us. They were identical save for the sizes, which was just… strange. And creepy. It was really fucking creepy. 

Still, she assured me once more that we weren’t being watched in the room. And we were tired. So we each only hesitated a moment before crawling into bed. There, Mom gently brushed my hair while telling me a story about one of the first cases she’d worked as a deputy back in Laramie Falls, before she was sheriff. Before any of this had happened. Maybe it was bizarre for the two of us to be here in this situation talking about something as mundane as that, but… honestly, it helped. It reminded me of how much I’d missed my mother, how much I needed her. How much I loved her. It helped me just… lay there in that absurdly comfortable bed and focus on her voice. 

Still, it was a good thing that I didn’t need much sleep. Because comfortable as the bed was and as soothing as listening to Mom talk to me was, I sure as hell wasn’t going to get it while I was here in Fossor’s place. I was pretty sure the only reason I had any chance of sleeping at all was the fact that my mother was there. My… my mom. After all those years without her, she was here, and we were sleeping in the same bed. I was suddenly a kid again. In a moment after lying down in that bed, tense and alert, I was transformed into a child curling up against my brave, strong, untouchable mother after a bad dream. I could almost let myself imagine that time had been rewound and that I was totally safe and protected once more, a child with no responsibilities. 

But my dad wasn’t there. I could never have relaxed fully, could never have actually let myself forget where I actually was, with my father not there. The brief, oh-so-pleasant daydream that I was a child safe in my parents’ bed with my mother’s arm around me vanished as I put a hand out to feel the empty spot where my father should have been. 

And that was the thing. I wasn’t safe here. I wasn’t a child and I never could be again. That was the entire point of what day it was. My birthday. Today was the date of my eighteenth birthday, the day I was supposed to officially be an adult, even if I wasn’t physically that age yet. I couldn’t hide behind my mother’s metaphorical skirt. She had been trapped here too. And we were alone. We couldn’t wait for anyone to come find us. The only way we were getting out of here was together. My mother and me (with help from Fossor’s dead sister) had to be the ones to save ourselves from this evil son of a bitch. Mom needed me to be there for her. 

Still, for a little while, I let myself try to put that aside. I was exhausted from everything that had happened in such a short time. Just that morning, as far as my body was concerned, I had first met the people of Gehenna. Getting that story, meeting Dakota, searching Vegas, destroying Kwur’s body, all of that had been just one day. And now, I was here with Fossor and my mother.

So yeah, I was beat. Beyond beat. I had to sleep. With Mom there, her arm around me, I let the weariness take over. My brain was in the middle of informing me of just how stupid I was for thinking I would sleep at all, when I simply passed out from exhaustion. 

Then I was in the forest, the same mental construct where I had trained with Shyel for so long. My virtual teacher, still looking so abnormally innocent and small, sat on a stump watching me as I looked around. Her voice was quiet. “You’ve had a long day.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her, my mouth opening and shutting. Then I covered my face with my hands and slumped while mumbling, “You have no idea. Err…” I blinked up at her then. “Actually, I guess you do have an idea, huh? You know what’s going on out there, what happened. You–” Pausing, I added, “That time travel thing wiped out the umm, real you’s ability to potentially jump back to me too, didn’t it?” 

Offering me a short nod, the mental echo of Chayyiel replied, “I know everything that happened to you. And yes, my real self no longer has an anchor here. Nor does your sister. There is the other anchor connecting itself to you, however.” 

“Fossor’s sister,” I noted, watching her nod once more. “Is she… I mean, I know you can’t really be certain or anything. You’re just… memories in my head given form here like this. No offense. But from what you know, from what you’ve seen, do you think…” 

“She does appear to be genuine,” Shyel confirmed. “I have had some history with Fossor, and I would say the odds of him using his sister like this in some long-running trap are… low. She is a weakness for him. Her memory, his own… love for his twin and the guilt of what happened to her, makes it very unlikely that he would use her this way. Particularly now. You are already here, already under his thumb. Had he used her to lure you into an opening, then perhaps it would be more suspicious. In this case however, that seems doubtful.” 

Despite myself, I raised an eyebrow. “Guilt? You’re saying he feels guilty about killing his sister?” 

“A small part of him nurses that guilt, yes,” she informed me. “A very small part that is buried deep. Though the vast majority of that feeling has morphed into the blinding rage toward his father and all of his people, his entire society. He has shifted that blame toward them for preventing him, in his mind, from restoring Rahanvael to life moments after her death.” 

“The death that he caused,” I pointed out. “She would’ve been fine if he hadn’t murdered her to begin with.”

“Yes,” Shyel agreed. “But he spent years in prison solidifying his twisting of that moment into hatred of his father and their people. And has further spent millennia under that same thought, those same feelings. The fact is, between his rage and the buried guilt, Fossor using his own long-dead sister in this kind of game is extremely doubtful. I believe she can be trusted to not be one of his ploys. How much help she will be beyond that, I couldn’t yet say.”

Listening through all that, I stepped over to the nearby tree and put both hands against it. My head lowered, and I stared at the ground while my fingers clawed the tree. I let my nails grow out and harden to dig deep into it, clawing that virtual mindscape tree while quietly speaking. “I’m sorry. We tried all summer to get me ready to face Fossor, and when the time came I just… I couldn’t hurt him. I couldn’t do anything to him. I just… I didn’t even have a chance.” 

There was a brief pause before I felt the Seosten girl (or my virtual recreation of her) step up behind me. Her hand rested against my back, as she spoke gently. “Are you an idiot?” 

Blinking twice as the question settled, I turned from the tree to squint at her. “Um. What?” 

“I said,” she repeated, “are you an idiot? Do you have any idea how long Fossor has been doing this? Do you know how often he’s beaten or at least escaped from the most dangerous people in the universe? You’re surprised you couldn’t smack him down in a one-on-one fight in his own home? Of course you couldn’t. You are never going to beat him in a straight fight, not on his terms. And all of that was his terms, Felicity. He chose the battlefield, the time, the condition you’d be in, he chose all of it. You couldn’t lay a finger on him because he’s stronger than you at the best of times, and he created a situation to make sure you were as weak as possible. He took away every single one of your allies, your friends. He waited until you were exhausted, he threw you off balance with all the time travel, grabbing you weeks ahead of time. He manipulated the entire situation to give himself every single advantage. So no, you couldn’t beat him.” 

She let that sink in for a few seconds, before squinting at me. “But does that make everything we worked on useless? No. Of course not. Did you just forget everything we did? You were never going to beat him in a straight fight even without Fossor absurdly stacking the deck. You are an eighteen year old child and he has been around for thousands of years, facing and beating a lot more than you. Think about all those people you’ve beaten who should’ve flattened you. Did you beat them because you were stronger than they were? Did your friends always beat their opponents because they were stronger?” 

I thought about Charmiene, about Manakel. I thought about Theia with Kushiel. I thought about everything that had happened over the past year before shaking my head. “Mostly we got lucky.” 

“Mostly,” she corrected, “you took advantage of one single shot. That’s all you need, one shot. I wasn’t training you to beat Fossor straight up. That’s never going to happen. Not in any reasonable timeframe, anyway. I’ve been training you so you’ll be ready when that moment, that single shot, comes. Whatever it happens to be, something will happen. An opportunity will pop up. It may only last a second. That’s what I’m training you for. Not a straight up fight, but for that single moment. I’m training you so that whatever happens, whatever that moment is, you’ll be ready to grab it. 

“And,” she added a little more quietly, “I’ve been training you so that you’ll be able to survive when he throws you in that training arena of his.” 

Folding my arms across my chest, I winced. “He… yeah, he’s definitely gonna do that, isn’t he?” Swallowing hard, I muttered, “He knows I don’t believe all Alters are evil. So he’s going to fuck with me by throwing me into an arena with his hostages in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Because that’s just the sort of thing someone like Fossor thinks is so god damn hilarious. And because making me compromise my beliefs to save my own life is probably something he thinks would help break me down into something closer to what he wants me to be.” 

“It does seem fairly evident,” Shyel agreed. “What are you going to do when it happens? What are you going to do when you’re faced with someone who is only fighting you to protect themselves, because Fossor will kill them if they don’t? Can you kill someone like that before they kill you? And if you do, can you live with yourself?” 

I didn’t answer at first. Instead, I turned to look off through the facsimile forest. My thoughts wandered a bit, through everything I’d been through, over what she’d asked, over the type of person I wanted to be. Finally, I turned back to her. “I’ll defend myself. I will kill if I have to. But I won’t blame them for it. And I won’t blame myself for it. I’ll blame the person responsible. Fossor. Whoever is in that arena is there because of him. Because he put them there. I… I can grieve. I can be sorry it happened. I can be sorry that I’m not strong enough to make it stop. But blame? The blame goes where it belongs, right to that fucking bastard. Those people are going to die either way. Letting them kill me wouldn’t accomplish anything. So yeah, I’ll do what I have to do to survive. And I’ll keep track of every single thing that I owe Fossor. I’ll remember all of it.” 

A faint smile touched Shyel’s face before she gave a short nod. “Good. Just keep that in mind. Because you’re right, he’s going to try to use that to break you down so he can remold you into something more useful for him. Keep the blame where it belongs, and keep waiting for that opening.” After a brief pause, she added, “You have a chance, Felicity. You have your mother, you have your training, you have a secret weapon in Fossor’s sister. But don’t blow it. If you make the wrong move, if you reveal her too soon, or just at the wrong time, you will never have that surprise again.” 

“Right, Skywalker with the Death Star, one shot at the reactor. Rahanvael is my torpedo, I get it.” Turning to glance off into the forest again, I quietly asked, “So, are we gonna do more training?” 

To my surprise, her head shook. “Actually, I think you’ve had enough training right now. And with everything that’s about to come up… what you really need is rest. Your body needs it, anyway. But your brain is too wired. You’ll keep waking yourself up in a panic.” 

Hesitating, I slowly guessed, “So… I’m here so you can keep my brain occupied while my body rests?” 

“Essentially, yes,” she confirmed. “Think of this as something closer to a dream than the training we’ve been doing before. All of this is something of a lower form of your normal mindscape. I’m going to keep your mind occupied like this, in what amounts to a dream, so that the rest of you can get all the sleep you actually need, without nightmares or constant interruptions.” 

Taking all that in, I nodded. “Okay, so you’re helping my body get the sleep it needs. I need. Whatever. What are we gonna do in the meantime, tell ghost stories? Cuz that might hit a little close to home right now.” 

“Good point,” my virtual teacher agreed. “So no, I think right now, maybe I’ll tell you a different kind of story. How about a story from back when I was still a child–a real child, during the time that the Olympus was exploring the edges of known space.” 

“Yeah…about that, I’m pretty sure Apollo was feeding notes into a certain Roddenberry’s brain,” I murmured thoughtfully before shaking that off. “But yeah, that… that actually sounds okay. 

“Let’s hear some of your stories.” 

******

Four hours later, I was awake. It felt as though I had slept a whole twelve hours, my brain snapping to complete alertness. Maybe it was only four, but for me, that was a lot. Especially in this situation. I was awake, rested, and… well, a little more knowledgeable about certain events on the Olympus. 

As I shifted a bit, Mom’s arm tightened around me. Turning my head, I found her staring at me, still lying there in the same position. “Mom,” I whispered, “have you been awake this whole time?” 

She offered me a faint, humorless smile. “You’re not the only one who doesn’t need as much sleep these days.” 

Right, she had a point. Still, I pointed out, “It’s okay. You can sleep now. I’m good.” 

Her head shook a little. “If… if something…” She hesitated before quietly lamenting, “You’re my child. I have to protect you.” 

Shifting, I turned to face her, keeping my voice low. “Mom, I love you. But if we’re going to get through this, I have to be more than your child. I have to be your partner. That’s how we survive this, that’s how we get out of this. You have to let me help. And that means letting me watch over you while you sleep. I promise, I’ll wake you up if anything happens.” 

For a few seconds, Mom didn’t say anything. She just watched me with a sad gaze, as though lamenting all the years that we had lost. Finally, she leaned in and kissed my forehead. “My Felicity. So big now. I missed you so much.” 

“I missed you too, Mom,” I quietly agreed, forcing the words past the lump that had formed in my throat. “It’s okay though. We’ll get through this. You just… just sleep now. Cuz I’m pretty sure tomorrow’s gonna be pretty busy.” 

So, my mother slept, and I watched over her. By the time the sun rose the next morning (or later that morning, technically), something had occurred to me. I didn’t leave the bed, afraid that any movement would wake up my mother when she really needed her sleep. But my eyes moved around the room, picking things out while I planned for what to do in the time we would have before things really got busy. Because I was positive that Fossor wouldn’t leave us alone up here for long. He’d get right to being awful.

To that end, as soon as my mother’s eyes opened, I asked one very important question. “Is anyone spying on us?” Yeah, it wasn’t exactly an innocuous question, but fuck it. Fossor had to know that I’d want to know that at any given point. Especially after a whole night of sleeping. Mom blinked once. I saw her glance past me briefly, shifting before she reached a hand out to touch a rune that had been etched into the headboard of the bed. A moment later, her head shook. “One of the ghosts looked in on us every twenty minutes last night, for about two minutes each time,” she informed me quietly. “But they were here five minutes ago, not right now.” 

Well that was kinda scary. I hadn’t noticed anyone check in on us at all, even with my own necromancy powers. Sure, it made sense that Fossor would make certain to send ghosts that were strong enough to avoid my fledgling skill, but still. The idea that something had been peeking in to look at me now and then all night long made me shudder. I really did need to work out that system with Rahanvael. According to her, I could reach out to her without her actually appearing for any of them to see. But the problem there was that I really wasn’t sure about whether Mom would sense her or not. Or if her presence would set off any of Mom’s spells and wake her up. I was afraid of how she would react if she did sense the ghost attached to me without having the situation explained first. Besides, I’d just… wanted to be alone with my mother, at least for a little bit. So much for that, I supposed. 

Either way, being spied on by ghosts was really disturbing. Enough so that I had to resist the urge to curl in against my mother and hide under the blanket. No, this was too important for that. 

Quickly getting to my feet, I moved to the nearby desk and took the pad of paper that I’d seen there while waiting for my mother to wake up. There was a pen next to it, which I took before moving back to sit on the bed, offering both to her with a whispered, “Are these safe to use?” 

Again, Mom took the question completely seriously. She tested the notebook and pen in some way I couldn’t follow, making sure there were no spells or anything on it that would let someone else know what was written there. Finally, after a minute of that, she nodded and passed them back. There was a curious look on her face, but also one of pride. She… she was proud of me for being careful, and curious about what I was doing. She–my mother was– focus, Flick. 

As soon as my mother reported that the paper and pen were safe, I quickly picked them up and wrote on the paper. Mom watched, but I didn’t let her see what I was writing, not yet. I tried to write as quickly as possible, just getting the bare bones of the information before hurriedly drawing in the rune for the spell to one side. It was just the way Gabriel Prosser had shown me that one night way back during my Christmas trip, a diagonal square like a very simple diamond shape, with a smaller square diamond inside that one, and then a dot at the center of it.  

Once I had all that done, my hands brought the paper to my lips and I whispered, “Ugatahahee.” The small rush of power charging the spell rushed through me, before I passed the notebook to my mother with an urgent, expectant look. I didn’t explain the spell, she had to know all about it. 

Sure enough, Mom pressed the notebook to her head and spoke the same command word. As soon as she did, the information that I had written down would transfer over, while the paper itself turned to ash. The note had been about the existence of Rahanvael, how the ghost of Fossor’s sister had attached herself to me, that all those people had determined she was not connected to Fossor himself nor was she lying about what she wanted, and that she was back. I also noted that she could sense the presence of other ghosts if I summoned her. I included the bit about her being a blind spot to him, and that she wanted to stop him to save her world. 

It was a hell of a lot of information, that was for sure. Maybe too much. I saw Mom flinch and give a soft gasp of pain. Yeah, the amount of info being downloaded into someone’s brain determined how painful the spell was, and that was a fair amount to push onto her. But it was all necessary. More importantly, Prosser had assured me at the time that anything shared with that spell was completely safe. He’d specifically said that no magic, power, nothing supernatural at all could force anyone to share the information gained through that spell. I just had to hope that included Fossor’s Writing Room and any other special method he might try to use. 

Yes, before, I’d come to the decision that I had to keep Rahanvael to myself. But that was before I’d remembered that I had this method of sharing information with my mother that would be completely safe. Later, if we ever–no, when we got out of this, I was going to have to thank Prosser for teaching it to me. Again. 

Once the message was fully downloaded to her brain and she had recovered from the burst of pain, Mom snapped her gaze to me. A brief sound escaped her before she stopped, eyes wide. For a moment, she had clearly lost her voice. I had taken my mother completely by surprise. In some weird, complicated way, I was almost proud of that. Which was probably bad.

But hey, now she knew that Rahanvael existed. 

And what girl doesn’t like introducing their mother to their new friends?  

 

SUMMARY

Flick spends some time listening to her mother tell a story about being a deputy in Laramie Falls (before she was sheriff) and then falls asleep. She has a conversation with Shyel, the Chayyiel copy in her head. Shyel informs her that she was training Flick to be ready to take advantage of one single chance/opportunity whenever it shows itself, not to fight Fossor straight-up. And training her to survive in his arena. She keeps Flick’s active mind buried while telling her stories so that her body can rest. Then Flick takes a turn being awake for a few hours while her mother sleeps, before eventually using the secret-sharing spell that Prosser taught her last Christmas to tell her mom about Rahanvael. 

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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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