Slash trotted out of his stall and into the yard, pupils dilating, adjusting to the natural sunlight, feeling the breeze through his pelt and the soft sand beneath his paws. The humans came around every morning to let him out since he’d arrived at the kennel; sometimes it was his Other Half, but today, like most days, it was The Tall One.

Slash liked The Tall One. He came offering treats and knew all the best spots to scratch, which he’d taught to his Other Half. Slash couldn’t see him yet but could smell his approach. The Tall One had a stronger scent than his Other Half, a cocktail of the standard human smell, mixed with an acrid chemical odour. Each human had its own unique odour; the Chatterer had a sweeter scent and smoky breath. The One Who Shouts smelled like fish. Of course, his Other Half had the best scent.

The Tall One tossed him a treat from somewhere over the wall, and he eagerly gobbled it up. It was delicious, and would be even better the second time around as a cecotrope after a trip through his guts had marinated it with digestive juices and beneficial bacteria.

The other Kreatures were already in the yard. He yearned to spend time with his own kind, but the Jaljals and Kastaks were adequate company. The Jaljals had been a bit hostile at first, but Slash, being a higher ranking Kreature, had put them in their place with an assertive nip on the hindquarters; the others fell in line soon enough. They were companions now.

Slash approached one of the Jaljals and greeted it with a “wheek.” The Jaljal replied in kind with a “morp” and bumped him gently in the side with its head, a gesture which Slash had come to learn was an invitation to play. It took off, and he dashed after it. Slash pounced and landed on top of the Jaljal, and they tussled for a few moments until Slash squirmed out of his opponent’s grip and ran off in the opposite direction, the Jaljal now the pursuer.

Slash roughhoused with his yard mates every now and then, and the play fighting kept his combat instinct somewhat satisfied, but it was no substitute for a real fight. Perhaps he would get to mindlink with his Other Half and they could find a worthy opponent, a proper challenge that would scratch his itch for battle.

Itch. Perhaps his Other Half would also bring the Soothing Bubbles. That would be nice. For Slash’s entire life, his skin had itched horribly. It would crack and split and flake away, then grow back just to slough off all over again. The Soothing Bubbles brought temporary relief.

For now he would soak in his favourite stock tank. He shoved aside a Kastak that was currently drinking from it and hopped in. The Tall One would not approve; he’d built a pond in the yard specifically for the Kreatures to wallow in, but that water was a bit too warm and stagnant for Slash’s liking, and he enjoyed the tighter fit of the tank. Slash purred in contentment and sloshed around, then farted and drifted off to sleep.


Ben sat on the sofa in the Wyldcard compound’s break room, drumming his fingers against the small box he held in his hand. He’d never given a gift to a crush before. Up until about a year and a half ago he’d pretended to be straight, but even since then he’d never had a boyfriend; the pickings were pretty slim at Billaine high.

Dennis was leaning against the counter of the kitchenette, chatting with Kristy, who stood next to the coffeemaker. He said something that made her laugh – Ben had been too deep in thought to really catch the gist of their conversation. Though he personally wasn’t attracted to her, Ben had to concede she was objectively a very beautiful woman; tall, voluptuous, sophisticated.

“You’re being an idiot,” Ben’s critical inner voice told him. “He’s already taken, and even if he wanted to fuck a dude he could surely find a much better one than you. You’re just latching onto him because he was nice to you and he makes your dick hard. Toss out that little trinket you got him and take the L before you say something to embarrass yourself.”

But despite the self-flagellation he was getting from his brain, Ben couldn’t ignore the pining of his heart. Even if there was no realistic chance of them getting together he still wanted to show him his gratitude, to see him smile…

He would give him the gift.


He just needed an opening. A break in Dennis and Kristy’s conversation, an opportunity to find him alone and-

-A small, three-clawed hand suddenly plucked the box out of his hand.

“Are you going to give this to him or not?” Riidya asked. She’d been sitting in the armchair across from him, scrolling through her phone, catching up on her social media feed.

“Hey, give that back!” Ben exclaimed.

“You’ve been sitting there fidgeting with that thing since I came in here,” she said. “It’s getting on my nerves. Just give it to him, or I will!”

“Okay, okay, sheesh…”

Ben clenched his jaw, got up and shuffled towards the kitchenette. Dennis noticed him approaching and smiled. Ben’s anxiety evaporated like a water drop on a skillet. Dennis had such a chill vibe that Ben felt completely reassured. He did, however, feel like a fool for procrastinating for so long.

“Hey there Ben! What’s in the box?”

“Um, this? Uh, well, I got this present for you…” He handed it to Dennis, who opened it up.

“Oh, nice, a custom amulet case!” He held it a bit closer to admire it. The amulet case was oval-shaped, glossy black with neon green geometric patterns and a hole in the middle to display the gem. “Real nice craftsmanship.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Ben said. “I just wanted to show my thanks for how nice you’ve been and for all the things you taught me…”

“That was very considerate of you. I’ll put it on right now.”

Dennis removed his amulet’s original casing – a cheap, default grey one that’d come with the amulet – exposing the polished K-Gem and circuitry within. He felt zero attachment to the old case and chucked it into a nearby trash bin without a second thought. He clipped the new case around the gem module and its geometric lines glowed softly as it powered up.

“Oh, wow, look at that, babes!” Dennis said, showing it to Kristy. “It lights up and everything!”

“It looks good on you,” she said. “Flashy but not too garish. Mr. Weiss has good taste in amuletwear.”

“Thanks…” Ben stammered, feeling his cheeks warm up. “Anyway, I need to go feed and water Slash, so, uh, I’ll catch you later!” Ben quickly left the room so Dennis wouldn’t see him blushing and grinning like a lovesick fool.

“Looks like the kid really admires you,” Kristy teased. “Could it be hero worship? Or maybe something more…”

“You jealous, babes?”

“Just don’t let it go to your head, Mister Popular.”


Dennis, Ben and Riidya had all gathered in the Wyldcard compound’s indoor sparring area. Dennis had finally given in to Riidya’s constant pestering for some hands-on combat training – or, rather, had found the time for it in his busy schedule. He’d watched footage of their previous battles, of course, but he wanted to see what they were capable of first-hand of so he could devise a specifically curated lesson plan for them.

It was a small arena, about 17 meters in diameter, even smaller than the ring at Zaito Hall, with large boulders strewn here and there to serve as both obstacles and cover. They beamed their Kreatures into the arena. Dennis chose his Geksaur, Henry; Ben chose Slash; and Riidya chose Zok, her trusty Kraaster, a Rank D Kreature resembling a spider with long spindly limbs, scorpion-like pincers and venomous fangs.

“Alright,” Dennis said through his amulet’s comm-link. “Come attack me whenever you’re ready.”

In a flash, Ben’s Jagaldie and Riidya’s Kraaster were upon him, but it was nothing Henry’s reflexes couldn’t handle. A tail blade swiping low at his feet. A pincer stabbing at his neck. Dennis’ Geksaur leapt, expertly avoiding both in a single movement, as if they were attacking him in slow motion. Slash’s tailblade nicked Zok’s tarsus, causing the Kraaster to stumble and elbow-drop straight onto Slash’s neck. They flailed around, Slash tangled up in Zok’s legs. Henry patiently waited for them to extricate themselves.

“C’mon you two,” Dennis said. “Get it together, if this was a real match I could have counterattacked by now.”

“It’s Ben’s fault for getting in my way!” Riidya said.

“I-I’m sorry!” Ben stammered.

“You should have warned me, dumbass!”

“I said I was sorry!”

”Any day now…“ Dennis said.

“Ugh! Ben, fall back until I ASK you for backup, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, Riidya’s Kraaster spewed out a plume of thick noxious gas from the spiracles on its abdomen. Lacking eyelids, she was counting on Dennis’ Geksaur to retreat from the spray or cover its eyes; in either case, it would give her an opportunity to circle around and inflict a venomous bite, securing her victory.

“Alvarez will regret not taking me seriously, even if he is an Ace!” Riidya thought.

However, her opponent was already thinking a step ahead of her. To both Ben and Riidya’s astonishment, Dennis’ Geksaur dove into the cloud, licking the caustic vapour off his eyecaps with his tongue and slobbering it out along the way. Caught off-guard, Riidya’s raised her Kraaster’s pincers to block an incoming kick from Henry but it broke through her defence and sent Zok tumbling across the floor of the arena.

“This is my chance!” Ben thought. The Geksaur’s back was exposed. If he jumped on it, his opponent wouldn’t be able to avoid the following chop from his tail. But in his haste, Ben forgot about the size difference between them. The millisecond Henry felt Slash make contact he side-rolled, flipping the Jagaldie off his back. With a sweeping blow from Henry’s tail, Slash was clobbered and sent flying through the air, landing on top of Riidya’s Kraaster just as she was getting back on her feet.

Dennis wasted no time. While they were still getting their bearings, Henry jumped on top of Slash, pinning his back and tail against the ground, and snatched up Zok in his jaws. Dennis’ Geksaur tossed the Kraaster aside and out of the ring, and then somersaulted onto his back, Ben’s Jagaldie sticking to the adhesive paws on the bottom of his feet. Henry kicked him loose, punting Slash out of the ring as well. Humiliated, Ben and Riidya beamed their Kreatures back into their amulets.

After the match, Dennis ruminated on his students’ pros and cons.

Although Ben had never won a single fight, it wasn’t due to a lack of potential. He was pretty good at mindlinking and would probably fare well in a support role or against an opponent on his own level. He’d just had the bad luck of being pitted against stronger opponents. Riidya was a well-rounded Tamer. She had experience and a strong aptitude for battle. The Tamer Academy had already taught her the fundamentals of Kreature Combat. They’d served her well in the one-on-one matches she’d fought in up until now.

Ben’s inexperience meant he telegraphed his moves too much, making them easy to avoid or counterattack. Riidya’s moves were too orthodox, which left her open when her opponent tried something unexpected. But what was even more important to address were their character flaws. Riidya was too prideful. Her need to impress others made her eager but also a liability in a team setting where cooperation was crucial. Ben had the opposite problem. He was a doormat who let others walk all over him. He needed to learn to set boundaries and stand up for himself when others were being too pushy.

The sparring match had been very informative for Dennis. He had a much better idea of what direction he needed to take their training in. Riidya was like a ready made template in need of refinement; Ben was like a blank slate that he could build from the ground-up. He was intrigued to see just how they’d grow under his tutelage.


The day after, Dennis, Ben and Riidya tended to one of Wade’s Kreatures: Stompy the Stampike. He somewhat resembled a small, lanky rhinoceros, with a compact body, long limbs with large bearlike paws, and a row of three horns from his nose to the back of his skull, each progressively smaller than the one before it. The Kreature was well protected, seemingly covered in gravel with overlapping armoured plates on his legs that looked like slabs of shale.

“Today we’ll be grooming Stompy,“ Dennis said, handing each of them a stiff brush. “His integument is made up of deposits of special mineralized tissue that grow on top of his skin, called lithoderms.”

“Amazing,” Riidya said, lightly scratching the Kreature’s skin with one of her talons. “It’s like a sort of organic stonework.”

”Precisely.” Dennis said. “Some Kreatures with lithodermic armour, such as Pebblars, fuse their lithoderms into an outer shell. Others, like Stampike here, just have a rugged hide that functions like chain-mail. Regardless, the armour has gaps in it for flexibility. Dead skin cells build up in those gaps so we’ve got to brush them out, top to bottom.”

“Oh man, there’s so many,” Ben moaned. “Stompy is Wade’s Kreature, why isn’t he doing this?”

“Normally he would,” Dennis said, “but he’s got an appointment today and doesn’t have the time.”

“Did he say what it was for?” Ben asked, out of curiosity.

“A singles match at some small venue. The prize money isn’t much but it’s better than nothing and the Kreatures gotta fight.”

Ben and Riidya nodded. All Tamers understood their Battle Kreatures’ deep yearning for combat, and the necessity of giving them the opportunity for a real fight on a regular basis. They instinctively loved to fight and would rapidly deteriorate in health or lash out in frustration if their needs were neglected. Combat was essential for a Battle Kreature’s emotional and psychological well-being. Although team battles were difficult to arrange without a good rep or the right connections, there was no shortage of challengers looking for low-stakes one on one matches to keep their Kreatures satisfied.

Ben and Riidya got to work brushing Stompy. The Kreature softly growled with satisfaction and leaned into the brushing whenever they went over an itchy spot. Dennis showed them how to get Stompy to cooperate when they had to scrub the ticklish spots, by giving him treats in the form of tasty moss-covered rocks whenever he stood still. There were indeed a lot of gaps and grooves in the Kreature’s armour they had to clean, so the three of them passed the time by making idle chitchat; discussing the latest battle highlights and sharing funny memes they found on T-Net.

“So, me and Riidya were wondering…” Ben said.


“Well, it’s just the three of you on the Wyldcard team. Well, technically five but Amy and Ida are support staff. You know what I mean. But a team is supposed to have at least five Tamers on it…”

Riidya chirped impatiently.

“Quit babbling! What he’s trying to say is that we were wondering if we could actually join the team. As full members, not just apprentices.”

“Hmm… I don’t see why not…” Dennis pondered. Ben’s expression was elated. “…But it’s not my decision to make.” Ben immediately looked dejected.

“Oh… I see…” Ben said.

Dennis smiled and gave Ben a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“I’ll talk to Wade and Kristy about it later. I’ll put in a good word for you two.”

“Aw yisss!!!” Ben pumped his fist with excitement. The sudden movement spooked Stompy and he galloped away. Ben and Riidya chased after him but now the Kreature thought they were playing a game and deliberately gave them the runaround. It took them 30 minutes to eventually catch him.


The Wyldcard team typically held their meetings in the conference room, but it was such a nice day that they decided to meet up in the gazebo instead. Dennis, Kristy, Wade, Amy and Wally all sat together on cushions on the floor surrounding the centre table. Setups like these were common in Dimentiara – it was easier for everyone to sit on the ground than it was to try and fit the thick tails and relatively short hind limbs of a Silarc or Dolnean in a conventional chair. Indeed, anti-discrimination laws in Zaitopia mandated that communal sitting areas in all workplaces and public areas be accessible for all species. In situations where sitting on the floor was not ideal, adjustable seating would need to be provided.

“…So the other day, Ben and Riidya asked me if they officially join the team,” Dennis said.

Wade scoffed. “Ben’s not even rookie grade yet. I’d prefer someone who doesn’t suck. Meanwhile, Riidya’s combat skill isn’t too shabby but she’s a glory hound who lacks discipline.”

“I agree,” Kristy said, taking a drag off her cigarette. “Productivity may have gone up slightly around the compound, but their bickering could interfere with our team dynamic in a combat scenario. It’d be one thing if we were merely hiring them on as support staff, but as full-blown tamers?…”

“They are inferior specimens,” Wally said. “They’re not fit to sweep up my excrement, let alone fight for us!”

“I admit, they’re a bit rough around the edges,” Dennis conceded, “but I think you’re selling them short. They’ve got potential. With the proper coaching they could compensate for each other’s flaws.”

“Or, we could just hire some more experienced professional freelance tamers on a short-term contractual basis until we get back on our feet,” Kristy said.

“You should just give a promotion to someone brilliant and experienced, like me!” Wally boasted. “I’ll crush our enemies and restore our former glory!”

“Kristy’s got the right idea,” Wade said. “Whipping Ben and Riidya into shape is time and money better spent on fast-tracking the team’s comeback.”

“I can’t believe you guys!” Dennis admonished. “The whole point of having an apprenticeship program is to help out novice tamers so they can get a leg up in this cutthroat industry. Those two have been bending over backwards for us and you just want to toss them out by the curb?”

“They’ll be okay,” Wade said. “Their time working for us will look good on their resumes and I’m sure they’ll make a fine addition to some upstart, bottom-tier team.”

“You mean like ours? We’ve fallen way behind, the fans think we’re washed up! We’re practically starting over from scratch. We can’t afford to be picky.”

“Picky? If we’re going to reclaim our former reputation then we need to have high standards!”

“You guys are being too pragmatic,” Amy interjected. “There are other benefits they can bring to the team other their fighting experience.”

Wade decided to hear his girlfriend out. “Such as?…”

“It would improve our public image. Building those two up will be great for showcasing the effectiveness of our apprenticeship program. As a promotional opportunity it’s just too good to pass up. Think of all the press coverage and accolades!”

Kristy nodded. “Having a positive reputation will help us out in the long term in fostering future business partnerships.”

“Yes, yes, I concur!” Wally said. “We’ll use them to sway the opinion of the idiot masses in our favour, manipulating them like puppets! How utterly Machiavellian, I love it!”

“Amy’s got some pretty good points there, Wade. Even Wally agrees.”

Amy’s words tempted Wade, tickled the fancy of his inner showman, but his doubts got the better of him. “I still need more convincing.”

Dennis grinned.

“Well, then let me tell you guys my idea…”