Apologies for the long wait. Between writers block, side-hustles, Patreon obligations and picking up the pieces from that data disaster I’ve had a lot of setbacks lately. Anyway, enjoy!

Earlier that Day…

Ben examined the label on the 16oz plastic bottle he held. It read: “Dander-Buster Hypoallergenic Kreature Shampoo.” As Slash playfully splashed around in the stock tank Ben had set up as a makeshift bath tub, Ben squeezed out a blob and dabbed it onto the Jagaldie’s pelt. He followed the instructions to the letter, thoroughly lathering and rinsing until he was certain he’d scrubbed his Kreature from top to bottom.

“Please, please, PLEASE let this work…”

*****

“…And here’s the kennel where we keep our various small and medium Kreatures,” Dennis said, gesturing towards a long, squat, sturdy-looking grey building. It was connected to a power module that Ben assumed was a substation or a forcefield generator. Dennis continued to speak as they strolled through the front door together. “We’ll set your Jagaldie up in one of these empty stalls. There’s a field out back where he can roam and socialize with the other Kreatures.”

“What kinds?” Ben asked.

“Other small Rank D Kreatures; three Jaljals and three Kastans. They’ll make good company for your Jagaldie, though it would be better if he could interact with his own kind.”

“I would have gotten another,” Ben said, “but Slash was the only Kreature they had left.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Dennis said, reassuring Ben with a warm smile. “Jagaldies will view their Tamer as a member of their herd, but you can’t exactly keep him company 24/7. Gotta plan for his needs in the long term. You’ll want to get at least two or three more Jagaldies eventually, unless you want to sleep with him in his stall every night. We’d have to raise your lodging fee.”

“At least your compound is a lot nicer than the kennel I was lodging Slash in before”, Ben said. “The fee was cheap but that place was a total dump.”

“Then it’s a good thing you got your Kreature out of there when you did. There are some pretty sketchy Kreature Lodging services out there with phony accreditation. They’re money laundering schemes that prey on Tamers who are down on their luck. Some are even front operations for Kreature trafficking.”

“How can you tell which services are good or bad?”

“Ask to see their papers, and then double-check with the KCF to see if it’s legit,” Dennis said. “And you’ll want to ask around with other Tamers to find out if the place has a good rep. Anyway, this stall should do nicely for your Jagaldie…”

The stall was about 5×5 metres, with a viewing window, a strong front door and a hutch for the occupant to sleep in. At the end of the hallway was a door with a ramp leading to the paddock out back. The paddock was set in a deep pit so the Kreatures couldn’t escape in case there was a power failure.

The two of them got straight to work on setting up the habitat for Slash. For substrate, they spread out a layer of wood pellets made from compressed sawdust. Dennis explained that the pellets were highly absorbent and contained natural resins and oils that would keep the stable floor clean and cut down on odour. They set up a feeding trough with a mixture of hay and fresh produce, and a drinking bowl with fresh, cool water. With the basics out of the way, they added enrichment items: a stock tank filled with water for Slash to soak in, logs and branches for him to gnaw on, a rubbing pad for him to scratch himself against, and a rock for him to sharpen his tail blade on. Ben also fetched a cardboard box from the trunk of his car containing Slash’s toys.

“Good idea,” Dennis said. “Moving can be stressful for Kreatures. Adding some familiar objects will help him get settled in to his new habitat.”

“T-thanks,” Ben stammered, his cheeks burning. Body heat built up in the stall quickly, especially with the air conditioning on the fritz. Dennis had taken his shirt off while they were working and Ben couldn’t help but admire his sleek swimmer’s build and smooth, light brown skin adorned with intricate tattoos. He found himself irresistibly drawn towards Dennis’ warm expression and soothing voice. Ben had never met a sexier guy in his entire life. He felt his heart beat a couple ticks faster in response to the tall, handsome Tamer’s praise. He immediately crouched so he could hide the growing bulge in his pants under the pretense of unpacking Slash’s box of toys. “So, do we have anything else we need to set up?”

“This’ll do for now,” Dennis said. “It’s kinda slapdash but it’s good enough for quarantine. We’ll call in the vet tomorrow to do a health check. If the tests come back positive we’ll gradually introduce him to the other Kreatures over the next few weeks. We need to know how they’ll react to each other before we properly integrate them. I don’t think there should be too much trouble, though. The paddock has plenty of space.”

“How many Kreatures do you guys have, anyway?” Ben asked, still squatting, tossing a rubber ball out of the box.

“Around 35, just off the top of my head. We’ve got 17 different kinds; we keep more than one of each so we’ll have a backup ready in case a Kreature won’t mindlink and it’s too late for us to change our battle strategy.”

“It sounds like a lot of work taking care of so many Kreatures…”

“Tell me about it,” Dennis sighed. “We built up our menagerie back when the team was doing better. I’m sorry you and Riidya have to see the compound in such a lousy state. I’m grateful to have some more help around here, even if it’s just two people. Anyway, enough of my griping. Let’s meet that Jagaldie of yours!”

“Oh, yeah, s-sure…”

Ben beamed Slash out of his amulet. He gained his bearings and sniffed the air, seemingly pleased to be in corporeal form again. It wasn’t good for Kreatures to remain in K-Storage for too long. Tamer amulets were designed for easy retrieval, storage and transport; they weren’t designed to be a Kreature’s home. Additionally, overuse would cause an amulet’s K-Gem to wear out and they were extremely expensive to replace. Tamers preferred not to use them whenever possible.

Slash looked up at Dennis. The experienced Tamer could read the Jagaldie’s body language like a book. It seemed confused but otherwise unafraid and docile. Dennis crouched down anyway to bring himself to the Kreature’s level. He reached into one of the pockets in his cargo pants and offered Slash some treats to break the ice. The Jagaldie sniffed the offering and began to chow down.

“Hey there buddy,” he cooed. “I’m Dennis, nice to meet you! Those treats are my own special blend. I’m glad you like them.”

Ben’s blood ran cold as Dennis began to scratch the Jagaldie’s back. He clenched his jaw tightly. Sweat dripped down his brow. Slash purred and leaned into the scratching. He caught a glance at Dennis’ hand as he drew it back. His skin showed no signs of swelling or blistering… Ben breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’ve got a great Kreature, Ben! He’s very well behaved. You’ve done a good job taming him.”

“Oh, I can’t take the credit for that. Slash has been like that since I got him. He let me mindlink with him right away.”

“Excuse me?…”

Ben stammered, worried that he might have said something wrong. “W-what I meant was that he’s so chill that I was able to mindlink with him on my first try.”

“Interesting. Mind if I try mindlinking with him?”

“Uh, sure…”

Dennis clutched his amulet and concentrated. If a novice like Ben could mindlink with this Kreature on his first try, then it should be no problem for an ace like himself to do the same. But all of his skill and experience was for naught. Slash rejected Dennis’ mindlink, as he expected him to.

“Heh. I guess he doesn’t like me much.”

“Slash will warm up to you soon, I bet!”

Dennis considered the possibilities. There were rental services that trained Battle Kreatures specifically to be loaned out, which would require them to easily accept mindlinks. Could Slash be a former rental Kreature? Unlikely, Dennis thought. If that were the case then it would mindlink with him too. No, this was just an ordinary Kreature.

Could Ben be lying to impress him? He’d only just met the guy, but Ben seemed awfully self-deprecating and didn’t even appear to grasp the significance of what he’d said. He had no good reason to think Ben wasn’t telling the truth. It wasn’t impossible that a novice could do what he claimed to have done, just extremely rare. Could Ben have some latent talent for mindlinking, a way with Kreatures he didn’t even know he had? Dennis couldn’t be certain unless he could draw it out of him. He’d hate to see such potential go to waste…

******

Meanwhile, Kristy was showing Riidya around the Wyldcard team’s laboratory. Her application had mentioned that she had experience with IT, so it was decided that Kristy would be best suited to tutor the new tamer.

“These are the regeneration chambers we use to grow our Kreatures,” she said, showing the young Domonid a row of three large cylindrical tanks filled with bubbling neon green goop. By extracting and splicing a nucleus sample from a donor Kreature, the machines could grow another one, similar to taking a cutting from a plant; the fluid was seeded with nanites to help expedite the process. “Every time we get a new Kreature we take a nucleus sample, which we preserve at subzero temperatures here in our in our storage room.”

“This is our combat simulation deck where we run drills and biometric analysis,” she said, gesturing towards a console in front of a large viewing window. Behind it was a very large, seemingly empty room, about the size of a high school gymnasium, with a raised platform in the middle. The entire room could be reinforced with a forcefield barrier, and projectors in the ceiling could cast holograms onto the platform.

“What model is it?” Riidya asked. “It looks pretty outdated.”

“It’s a K-TEK Projectatron 5203,” Kristy replied.

“Projecta-what? Sounds like one of those tacky bootleg products churned out by some second-rate, off-brand company.”

“It’s sturdy and dependable,” Kristy said, lips pursed. “Or at least it was, until the CPU finally went kaput a couple months ago. We’re saving up for a Projectatron 5214.”

“The Tamer Academy has a Synthogen Titan X-9000. Top of the line, with high-res hologram projectors.”

“No doubt an esteemed institution such as the Tamer Academy has a lot of funding and clout to obtain such high-end equipment,” Kristy commented flatly.

“They’re not the only one with clout,” Riidya boasted. “My mother works at Synthogen. I bet I could get her to pull some strings and cut some kind of deal. Then you guys could chuck that bootleg into the trash where it belongs.”

“There won’t be any need for that,” Kristy said, her eyes (and her voice) ice cold. “I’ll be able to get us a discount on a new Projectatron once the team has the funding, since I happen to be an executive… at K-TEK.”

Riidya’s feathers flared. She’d really stepped in it now. ‘Better think fast…’

“An executive, you say? Very impressive, Ms. Winters. So what does K-TEK do?”

Kristy smirked. She saw right through Riidya’s attempt to butter her up. She dealt with bootlickers like her on a daily basis. Fortunately for Riidya she didn’t mind having her ego stroked a bit.

“We’re a small biotech company that specializes in making user-friendly Kreatures and Kreature Taming gear for the civilian sector,” Kristy replied. “I was one of the head bioengineers in K-TEK’s early days and I’m now the Executive of Kreature Development.”

“No doubt being a Kreature Tamer gives you special insight into the needs of your consumers,” Riidya said.

“An astute observation,” Kristy remarked. “It was my value as a consultant that got me the job in the first place.”

“It’s amazing that you can still find the time for Kreature Taming, though.”

“I have plenty of time to train and come up with our battle plans after work and on the weekend,” Kristy said. “I’m already on my way over by the time the rest of the team are done with the daily minutia of running the compound.”

“Seems like you have the logistics down pat. You’re very a proficient woman, Ms. Winters.”

“And you have a penchant for flattery bordering on the obsequious.”

“How obsequious would you like me to be, Ms. Winters?”

Kristy rolled her eyes.

******

After getting Slash set up in his stall, Dennis took Ben and they went to finish the job he’d been working on just before Ben showed up: general maintenance on the Geksaur habitat.

“I like to examine the poop whenever I scoop it up,” Dennis said, donning a pair of rubber gloves. He broke the turd apart with his fingers, showing it to Ben. “The brown part is scat, and this hard white thing is called a urate. Geksaurs don’t pee, so the uric acid comes out in a solid form. I check the colour, odour, consistency, and look for any parasites or undigested food particles. You can learn a lot about a Kreature’s health by checking its droppings.”

Ben grimaced. It was gross, but he was learning a lot. Somehow Dennis even made Kreature droppings seem interesting.

“I never thought of checking Slash’s poop. He eats most of it anyway.”

“Coprophagy,” Dennis said. “That’s normal Jagaldie behaviour. Their turds come in two varieties; hard pellets and soft ones, called cecotropes. He’ll eat them to finish digesting them. The infants will eat their mother’s cecotropes to seed their gut flora with beneficial bacteria.”

“You sure know a lot about Kreatures!” Ben said.

“Oh, no need to put me on a pedestal,” Dennis said. “I’m just some college dropout who became a Tamer because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been decent at.”

“What were you studying?”

“I wanted to become a vet but I couldn’t handle the course load or qualify for a reduction. To add insult to injury, I moved here all the way from Isla Basalto because there weren’t any jobs left in that field back home. I meant to move back to the Lavok Archipelago eventually but I kept procrastinating. Then I started dating Kristy and now I’m here for good.”

Ben’s heart sank a little bit when Dennis mentioned being in a relationship, then silently reprimanded himself. ‘Of course a guy like him isn’t single,’ Ben thought, ‘and he’s way older than you anyway!’

“Kristy… you mean Ms. Winters, that lady in the red business suit?”

“Yup. We sure make an odd couple, don’t we?” Dennis laughed. He approached his Geksaur, which laid on his basking platform nearby, and stroked his scaly hide. “Y’know, I raised Henry here from a Gekkoid that she grew for me herself. I guess that kinda makes him like our son, doesn’t it? He’s my sentimental favourite ‘cause of that.”

“He sure is friendly,” Ben said. “I heard Geksaurs are supposed to be hard to tame.”

“Yeah, the work you got to put into raising one isn’t considered with the time and effort by most Tamers.” Dennis grinned. “I took that as a challenge.”

“How long have you been Kreature Taming?”

“Got my license about eleven years ago, been on the Wyldcard team for five. I’ve been around Kreatures all my life, though. My parents run a Kreature shelter. My dad is an expert on Kreature husbandry and taught me everything he knew. But enough about me. Why’d you become a Tamer? Fame? Fortune? To be the very best?”

“Well… ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved Kreatures and wanted to become a Kreature Tamer. I’ve never gotten very good grades, but I studied as hard as I could to get my license. I was so excited when I found out I’d passed the test! It was the first thing I’d ever succeeded at.”

Ben felt his voice crack.

“…But since then I haven’t won a single match. If don’t start earning some prize money, I won’t be able to afford to keep Slash. I’ll have to give him up, and…”

A memory lurked in the back of Ben’s mind. About the first time his mother came into contact with Slash. About what had happened to her skin…

“…I can’t bear the thought of what could happen to him.” Ben brought a hand to his cheek and wiped away a tear. Dennis put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I hear you, Ben. It’s something we all worry about. The bond we Tamers share with our Kreatures is powerful. When you lose a Kreature, you lose part of yourself. But always remember that it goes both ways. Wherever you go, that part of Slash will always live on within you.”

“You’re right… thanks. That makes me feel a little bit better.”

“No prob,” Dennis said. “Anyway, Henry’s water is looking pretty scummy. Can you go fetch me some buckets of fresh water? The faucet’s at the end of the hallway.”

“Anything else?” Ben asked.

“Grab some bananas, figs and mangos from the food locker for him while you’re at it.”

“Sure thing!”

After Ben scampered away, Dennis turned towards Henry. His analogous son. He contemplated Ben’s predicament, and how closely it mirrored his own. The Wyldcard team had never been in a more precarious situation. Their funds were running dry. What would happen to their Kreatures if the worst case scenario came to pass? It was exceedingly unlikely that all 35 of them would find new Tamers. His dad’s shelter back home was filled to the brim and would be for the foreseeable future. Many of the team’s Kreatures would have to be put down.

Dennis scooped Henry up in his arms and held him tightly.