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During his Meditation session on the tree, Tercius came up with a simple plan of action.

 

Not to solve the whole thing, nothing that grand, but at least to start with a part of it. While some things seemed to be in a depth he did not want to delve just yet, the part that had a connection to his roommate, J'ro, seemed within his zone of comfort. Tercius and J'ro never had any bad issues between themselves, barring Amber and her then seemingly unwarranted aggression. Tercius was able to look past J'ro's reactions to Amber, yet so did J'ro. That impressed Tercius in a way few things could. The boy had shown maturity in handling the awkward situations Amber put him in, in a very calm and collected way--- barring the peeing incident, where the boy finally showed his teeth. But everyone had a snapping point, so Tercius didn't hold that against him.

 

Tercius had to admit that he did not have that kind of control over himself at that age. The positive impression only grew, as Tercius got to learn more about the hardworking boy, and somewhere along the way it turned into a kind of respect.

 

J'ro was not smart in the way Penelope, Euria, or Eunim were. He was a street kid and was one for far longer than Lomera. Tercius taught J'ro letters and numbers and the boy was persistently last in the speed of learning, compared to others, yet he also had one trait that placed him above the rest, in Tercius eyes.

 

Persistence.

 

Like Master Belior had said that day in the Library, in Lissea, persistence was the key and without it, everything else would fall into the water.

 

In a way, it would have been easier for Tercius to doubt Eunim than J'ro.

 

Tercius made his preparations, few that they were, left Amber and his cloak to Euria to safeguard and started the search for J'ro. After a few minutes of unsuccessful pursuit, it was J'ro that found Tercius.

 

"How about a run? It's been a while since I stretched my legs," Tercius said to the boy.

 

"I just came back from a run," the boy said. J'ro did not even look winded, but that was normal for him.

 

"Oh, I just didn't want to go alone," Tercius said. "See you later then,"

 

He turned around and started jogging lightly, moving away from the crowd. Just as he expected, the boy came and ran by his side in a moment.

 

"I could go for another one, I guess," J'ro said.

 

They ran a few circles around the mansion and Tercius observed the workers and servants that tended it. Plain woolen clothes, unicolored yellowish-brown, they seemed part of another world compared to the garish Keeper of the mansion– especially, but also compared to the mages of the Academy.

 

"We shouldn't go too far," J'ro said after they moved away from the mansion. Tercius chose a route north, as he saw the least amount of students there.

 

"Don't worry, we won't. You see the snow there on that hill? Let's go to it and back," Tercius said.

 

No words were spoken as the two boys ran accompanied by thumps of two pairs of feet. Tercius kept considering a few angles and even questioned if the whole thing should be done at all. Tercius saw that he could not let this go, not while his mind still operated.

 

Near the snow, Tercius made a stop.

 

"Why did you stop now?"

 

"Just something that came to my mind,"

 

"What is it?" J'ro asked, curious.

 

Tercius looked at his roommate who was jumping from his left leg to his right, repeatedly.

 

"I saw something," he said and looked J'ro in the eyes.

 

"What?"

 

"I don't know what, that's the problem," Tercius said clumsily. How do I go about this?

 

"What do you mean you don't know what?" J'ro said, confused. "Did you have a good look?"

 

"Oh yes. I had a good look,"

 

"What's the problem then?"

 

"Well let me tell you what I saw," Tercius said carefully. "I saw a creature near you,"

 

"What kind of creature?" J'ro asked as he slowed down his jumping and settled down. He was curious, Tercius saw, and maybe something else…

 

"A cat,"

 

J'ro stiffened. His eyes looked around as if searching for this cat.

 

"Does this mean anything to you?"

 

The boy's eyes found Tercius's and he saw fear in them. Suddenly J'ro jumped at Tercius, his arms raised forward in a tackle.

 

There were two meters of space between them, space which J'ro's speed ate in a fraction of a second. Tercius placed his left leg backwards a bit and crouched just a tiny amount in that time, his hands rising to the sides in a fashion similar to J'ro's.

 

Aided by Precision, their palms collided and Tercius's fingers searched J'ro's and wiggled in between them forcefully.

 

"J'ro, wait a moment," Tercius said slowly. He did not want things to progress this way. "I just want to talk. You can tell me anything,"

 

J'ro had expected to knock him over, the part of his mind developed with Septimus and Lux told Tercius, yet the smaller boy had found a stable rock in Tercius's form.

 

Not letting go of his roommate's hands, Tercius looked him in the eyes. The boy was smaller than Tercius by twenty centimeters, at least, and Tercius's mass and muscles dwarfed the boy's wiry twigs. Tercius should have been able to overpower him, easily, yet their strengths seemed evenly matched.

 

Tercius was surprised by this, and so was J'ro, Tercius saw.

 

"Look, I wasn't accusing you of anything, I just wanted to talk---"

 

"Shut up!" J'ro screamed at Tercius, his face bright red. “Do you know what I had to do to get away from it all?!”

 

A stinging sensation flared in his hands, and Tercius reacted instantly, without thinking. Squeezing his fingers as hard as he could, he saw J'ro crumble from pain. The boy tried to twist himself out of the crushing grip, yet his attempt found no success.

 

"I don't know what's going on, that's why I came to you. To ask," Tercius said calmly, looking at the boy. "Please, let's talk,"

 

The stinging pain was still assaulting his knuckles--- as if someone was stabbing needles into his flesh and bones and it was getting worse by each passing moment--- so Tercius threw a glance to see what was the cause.

 

Nails. Tercius saw long slender nails, white and sharp. What he saw made no sense.

 

"J'ro, stop," Tercius said. "Please, I just want to talk,"

 

"Why did you do this, Tercius?" J'ro said, his misty eyes looking at Tercius. The boy's eyes were dripping. No, not J'ro's eyes. Those are not his eyes.

 

The color was the same, but the shape of the iris… it was different. Like a cat's eyes.

 

Tears started spilling over the lower eyelid. "Tercius, I'm so sorry,"

 

With each word his roommate said, two sharp teeth grew from his mouth. Like two polished metal sabers the teeth glinted with sharp light.

 

"J'ro, wait a moment," Tercius said hastily. He felt strangely fearless at the sight. The revelations came to him with the same speed in which the teeth grew.

 

Growing teeth. Werebeast skill.

 

A skill from the Forbidden List.

 

Now he knew the real reason as to why Amber and J'ro didn't get along. It wasn't because of that strange black cat, at least not entirely. Animals were always sensitive to werebeast skill, it was said in his village. They could sense a werebeast.

 

J'ro, Tercius's roommate and--- he hesitated to say friend but certainly more than an acquaintance, was a werebeast. More accurately, a werebeast skill possessor. Which particular kind of werebeast, Tercius did not know, but… it didn't matter in the end.

 

There was only a single response to a werebeast sighting--- an immediate report to the local Army of the use of a skill from the Forbidden List. J'ro most certainly knew this.

 

"J'ro, I'm not going to report you," Tercius said calmly even as his hands bled. "I'm going to let you go now,"

 

Tercius relaxed his blood-covered fingers. He knew there was little he could do now. As the boy's transformation progressed, his strength would rise. The book he had read said as much. In a moment Tercius's strength would not be enough, so he might as well try to get a few brownie points while he was ahead.

 

I stepped in shit this time, he thought. This was a bad decision. I think I said this to myself once before, but let me allow myself a repeat, just to drive it home. Tercius, you are an idiot.

 

J'ro grinned, as his tears ran down a few patches of white fur. Two long teeth went up from his upper jaw all the way over his lower lip. Two smaller ones were there from the lower jaw, pointing up. All of the others seemed normal if a bit sharper.

 

"So a werebeast, huh?" Tercius said slowly. "Some kind of a cat, I think?"

 

J'ro seemed surprised at his words. "A snow leopard," the boy said with some distaste.

 

"You can talk," Tercius said calmly, yet he was anything but.

 

He knew immediately that the information he had, about werebeast skill and their users, were false, at least partly. Werebeasts were supposed to be mindless feral beasts. J'ro was not feral.

 

"Of course I can talk,"

 

"Can you reverse the effect, before someone else sees?" Tercius asked, looking at J'ro's eyes.

 

"It's too late for that, you've seen it already," the boy said then hissed. Tercius took a step back. "Why did you play with your words? Why taunt me, Tercius? A cat? As if that's funny,"

 

"That's another matter, J'ro, believe me," Tercius said while taking a deep breath. "I said it already, you won't be getting reported by me."

 

J'ro's clawed hand was on Tercius's neck and squeezing before Tercius even knew what was going on. He could feel his muscles constrict his Adam's apple, or whatever they called it on this planet, as J’ro’s hand squeezed ever so slowly.

 

Tercius struggled for a breath with a gasp.

 

The boy was pulling him down, even as his steely hand restricted Tercius's airway. Tercius grabbed J'ro furry hand with both of his as he fell on his knees and now had to look up to see J'ro's cat eyes.

 

"I'm sorry, Tercius, I'm so sorry," The boy was repeating as tears fell down on his white furry cheeks.

 

"It's all right," Tercius tried to say, but the words were barely shaped by his vocal instruments. "You have nothing to be sorry for,"

 

What Tercius knew, he had learned from a small book called ’The Forbidden List’.

 

Written by the Empire, it listed skills that seemed quite horrific, and ranged from manipulation of the mind to blood and bone-- anyone with two grains of slat for a brain could see as to why the skills were forbidden just from their descriptions.

 

Werebeast skill was mentioned in this small book, where it said that its wielders were mindless and feral creatures that possess only two desires, one for reproduction and the other for flesh.

 

Which was clearly a lie, he thought as he looked at the grieving eyes of his roommate. Those eyes aren't feral.

 

The Empire actively hunted those in possession of this skill and put them down like beasts.

 

From Perdinar, Tercius was able to gain a single additional piece of information about this skill. It was an extremely rare type of skill that got passed down from parent to child. J'ro literally had been born the way he was and was hunted for it. Tercius could only imagine what the boy must have lived through to get here and now Tercius, in his ignorance, destroyed the boy's efforts.

 

It was the exact reason he never liked meddling in the affairs of others.

 

Tercius felt as if he deserved any punishment he got.

 

That's what you get for meddling, he thought to himself. Not only did I put my life in danger, but I also placed another. The boy will probably be hunted down after this.

 

Tercius felt like a fool, as his vision darkened.

 

He uncovered this secret, one which he did not even suspect and which was probably tied in the whole picture somehow— but, he did not learn what he came for.

 

J'ro would carry this on his shoulders for as long as he lived, a torment if there ever was one. An image of a mage Tercius killed with his own hands came to mind so easily--- Visualization not even needed. Now he saddled someone else with the same burden.

 

Tercius had a thought. His arm, or rather his fist, was within reach of the boy's stomach area-- or even the crotch-- both spots of great sensitivity. If werebeasts ate, they had appropriate organs. If they reproduced, they had appropriate organs. The boy was a human-looking beast, so it stood to reason that some things remained where they were.

 

Tercius let go of J'ro's furry hand that grasped around his throat and clenched his hands into fists. As his vision went dark he only had one thought— hit.

 

Abruptly-- J'ro let go.

 

Tercius gasped for breath, the air so sweet to his barren lungs.

 

Tercius dropped down, like an empty sack, the next moment. The clenched hands, previously prepared for a punch, were now open and propping up his upper body. For a few moments, his breath was hot in his lungs and he didn't have the capacity to feel, see or hear anything else. His heart was beating fast in his chest, both heard and felt-- inside and out.

 

Tercius cracked an eye open and saw J'ro on the ground before him. The boy's transformation was gone, his human hands holding his wet face. He was sobbing and apologizing in the same breath, time after time.

 

J'ro was small by stature, even when compared to average by any category. Now, folded like a wilted leaf, J'ro's shivering form brought a pain of its own in some part of Tercius. He pitied the boy, he realized at that moment. All of the things life must have thrown J’ro’s way was something that no one should have to endure. Not even if the boy had someone to share it with, yet especially not alone.

 

Tercius raised his arms and leaned forward. His arms enveloped the boy in a hug, against the protests of his oxygen-starved body.

 

"Shhh," came out of his mouth, a rasping sound to which Tercius almost laughed. It felt comical somehow.

 

Still, a laugh required more airflow than he had at the moment.

 

"Shhh," Tercius rasped as he rocked the boy.

 

J'ro's trembling hands went around Tercius' torso and the boy's wet face snuggled into Tercius collar bone. The force with which the boy pulled at Tercius was less painful for the body and more some part of him that only activated itself for Aurelia and Leo.

 

His mind was struggling to process the words J'ro said. Tercius was pretty sure that he had heard that J'ro said that Tercius was making a joke about a cat. The boy had thought that Tercius was taunting him when he mentioned a cat.

 

He swayed a bit and had to use one hand to prop himself not to fall on the small boy.

 

This meant that the boy had nothing to do with that black cat. J'ro was worried about his own skin.

 

"Stop, J'ro," Tercius said, his throat sore. "Now's not the time for crying,"

 

His head felt as if floating.

 

"Tercius, I---" J'ro said, his voice hoarse. He raised his head for a moment and his words were caught in his throat. He whispered in disbelief, his eyes open wide, "What have I done?"

 

"Nothing,” Tercius whispered weakly. There was blood on J'ro face, blood that wasn't there when he leaned on Tercius. “This is all my fault..."

 

Tercius just wanted to rest a bit. A moment to close his eyes.

 

"You're bleeding," the boy said, and Tercius felt hands envelop his painful neck.

 

"That may explain why my head is feeling so light. And the blood on your face. Tercius, you are an idiot. Such an idiot. An idiot. Idiot." he said in a low voice as his eyelids fluttered. "J'ro, calm down... and do as I say. This is... important. In my pocket…"

 

A few moments later a dark void- one much darker than that of Meditation- enveloped him, and Tercius knew no more.

 

***

 

Tercius felt afloat as memories came his way.

 

Aurelia looked up at him, her green eyes confused and brow furrowed. "I don't understand. Why don't we just use addition?"

 

Tercius chuckled. "Try it your way,"

 

Aurelia furiously wrote number five repeatedly and placed a sign for addition between each. After four number fives, she stopped and counted if she wrote enough. She started adding them to each other and wrote the answer on the paper. She turned her head to Tercius and her eyes clearly wanted praise.

 

"Well done," he indulged her. It was hard not to.

 

"See? Why do I need multiplication, when I can just do this?" she said, genuinely stumped.

 

"Of course you can, how silly of me," he said, a comical expression easily slipping over his face, as he gently slapped himself on the forehead. She giggled. "Now write twenty number fives and add them,"

 

When she did so and came up with the correct answer once more, he told her to write forty-nine number fives and add them.

 

Here, she finally made a mistake.

 

"Multiplication allows us an easier way of doing these kinds of repetitive additions."

 

Tercius showed her how, and her eyes grew round. —

 

His vision was blurry as his eyes blinked repeatedly. Where was he? Where was Aurelia? Someone was talking near him. More than one person, he amended after a moment. Someone placed a hand on his forehead. It was so cold.

 

— "You need to gently press the earth, like so," Rona said.

 

Tercius's four-year-old hands repeated it easily.

 

"Well done," Rona praised. "Then we pour water over it,"

 

The woman took a bowl and reached into a bucket with it. The bowl was dripping with water once it emerged. The older woman held it out to Tercius.

 

Tercius placed his palms under the wet and smooth bowl and almost dropped it when the woman tried to let it go. With a splash, the water was spilled, but Rona caught it in time. Half of the water was still inside. With a laugh, she said, "Let me help,"

 

Together, they poured water near the small replanted tree, the dark earth drinking the water in an instant.

 

While that tree took a long time to grow to its full size, his reward for replanting it came in a more reasonable time-frame.

 

You have learned the skill Gardening (1)! Obtain Yes/No?

 

He felt strangely light. Tercius did not open his eyes, yet he heard once more.

 

"He lost a lot of blood, he will need rest," an unfamiliar sickly-sweet voice said. "I just gave him a tonic to help him sleep,"

 

"He will stay here," a familiar male voice boomed. "And recover,"

 

"What of the beast that did this?" the unfamiliar voice asked, curious.

 

"It has been dealt with,"

 

Tercius tried to tell them that it was not a beast, but he couldn’t. Something was pulling him down. Something powerful.

 

— "Tercius, this is Jorro," Eunim said. "Jorro, this is Tercius,"

 

Tercius extended his hand and shook the boy's hand. It was a surprisingly firm handshake.

 

"Pleased to meet you Jorro," Tercius said when the boy kept quiet after the introduction Eunim gave.

 

"Likewise," the boy said quietly.

 

"This is the only remaining bed but if you want mine we can swap," Eunim said and pointed at the beds.

 

"Or mine, I don't mind where I sleep," Tercius added.

 

At that moment Amber woke up and released a mighty roar, an announcement to the world at large, that to the three boys sounded like a high-pitched meow.

 

"What's that?" Jorro asked, pointing at Amber.

 

Eunim grinned. "My sister calls her Lady Amber, Empress of all Cats and Reptiles," —

 

A groan escaped his lips. His mouth felt dry. It was dry, he confirmed in a moment. Once his eyes opened he saw that the night had fallen. Either that or he was once more underground. Light-orbs were working in the other part of the large room. How did he end up here? What was going–

 

All of it came crashing back.

 

The run, the talk, the revelation. J'ro. A few jumbled dreamlike pictures. A few select words he had heard. 'It has been dealt with,', the voice had said.

 

‘It.’

 

J'ro wasn't even considered a human being.

 

‘Dealt with.‘

 

A tear came to each eye. What did they do to him?!

 

"What did I do?" He whispered with his sore throat, in disbelief.

 

"What did I do?" He whispered in denial, a little bit louder.

 

"What the fuck did I do?" He whispered in rage and the stone walls repeated the words time and time again. His hands found clumps of hair on his head and pulled, hard.

 

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he repeated and with each word brought a closed fist down in his head. "Playing a fucking hero when you're nothing more than a monumental fuck-up,

 

"What the fuck did I do?"

 

The silence was his only answer.

 

"Who is it? Who is making this noise?" a voice asked, as a door swung open to Tercius's left. Keeper Eiler came in. The man was in his nightclothes, a long flowing white robe.

 

Walking behind him was a cat.

 

Not the one Tercius saw this morning as this one had a normal body and brown fur and yet… something about it was not right.

 

The man seemed surprised to see Tercius. "I thought that the tonic would keep you under for at least ten more hours,"

 

As if someone made a spark near a natural gas source, the man's voice brought a wave of anger over Tercius.

 

"You," Tercius said through clenched teeth.

 

The eyes of the cat were nothing like those of a cat should be. J'ro's cat eyes flashed in Tercius' mind for a brief instant and his lungs demanded more air.

 

The eyes of the cat, that trailed after the Keeper, were as black as tar. Even though it had fur on its body, now, Tercius was sure that this was the cat from this morning. It had the ability to shift from a stain to a gangly cat, so why not something else?

 

Tercius heard another door being opened, but he did not care. His eyes saw the black-eyed cat, and then they moved to the portly man.

 

Because of it and you… J'ro… No, not because of it, because of me. All of this is because of me. But they should pay, nonetheless. Tercius knew what he himself did, why he did it, and what was the result.

 

He had to make them pay. He had to make it pay. Getting up, slowly, his head swam.

 

“Where am I? What’s going on?” he slurred clumsily, his voice confused. His hands released the hair and instead cradled the head.

 

“You don’t even know that? A beast attacked you,” a familiar voice boomed from the side. “You should lay down, Tercius,”

 

Tercius ignored the suggestion.

 

He took a few stumbling steps to the Keeper, and while the first few stumbles were real, the last few were completely intentional much like his slur of words. His balance was coming back with every moment he kept himself upright, a single sentence on his mind.

 

They need to pay.

 

When Tercius was just a few meters away, the Keeper opened his mouth to say something, yet Tercius was in no mood to listen. He went into a sprint, with the momentum and speed of a cannonball, heading towards the cat.

 

It had to pay first.

 

The cat did not even have the time to realize what was going on when Tercius's foot hit straight into its head. A well-connected kick sent the furball into the opposite wall, a distinct snap amongst many cracks echoing when it connected with the solid wall. There goes the spine, kitty, he thought with vicious glee.

 

Then he turned to the gaping Keeper. Your turn. Nuts?

 

"What are you doing?" A voice from the side boomed. "Tercius!"

 

Suddenly someone was holding him by his upper arms-- hands of steel made anything else than flailing about an impossibility.

 

"Compose yourself, Tercius," the voice repeated near his ear and Tercius finally recognized the voice. Master Lazarus.

 

"Let me go! Let go of me!" Tercius shouted as he glared at the Keeper. The man's face was ashen as he looked at the Master that stood behind Tercius.

 

"Lazarus! What is the meaning of this? I allow you to come here and this is how you repay me? Outrageous! Leave this instant! Out!" The pale Keeper hissed, waving his finger at the door. “NOW!”

 

“The boy is muddy-headed from the attack---” Master Lazarus said.

 

"Is that what I think it is?" a new voice said from the side. A small old lady in her white nightclothes walked into the room.

 

The Keeper paled at those words.

 

The man's plate-sized eyes were glued to the body of the cat that Tercius plastered over the wall. There was blood all over the fur, but there was also something else. Something that was trying to slip away even as the mages spoke.

 

Mistress Helfira snapped her fingers and a stream of crimson lightning flew from her hand hitting the moving smudge. The smudge went stiff and compressed itself into a form of a small humanoid being, no bigger than a hand. Black skin and pointy ears. Sharp teeth lined its round mouth, and its whole body twitched and spasmed as flashes of crimson lightning flashed about its form.

 

"Whose is this?" The Mistress asked, her voice a cold whip on every ear it came upon. A crack of lightning rumbled following the words. "Who summoned this?"

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The longest chapter so far.


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