Archive for the ‘Book One: The Beginning’ Category

“Wake up. … Shane? Wake up. … WAKE UP!”

I yelped and jolted upright at a touch on my shoulder, my brain belatedly registering the wake-up call. I glared at James – or I tried, but when half-asleep my glares just don’t function. He blinked from his position halfway across the hut; apparently, my violent reaction had startled him. “Sorry,” I mumbled, drawing a shaky hand across my forehead; I’d been in the midst of another nightmare, this one involving a shadowy presence much older and more powerful than either Equitor or the Ajoitéi Prince. I peered out the round window and raised an eyebrow. James regained his composure and rose from his fighting stance (jezz, had I rattled the guy that much?) to say, “Ana and Mackalla have–” I shot out of bed and lunged for the doorway, “–returned.”

By the time the last word was spoken, I was running full-tilt towards where I just knew they were. Call it my sixth sense, but I was right when I rounded a turn on the dirt path and saw them both. Of course, they’d heard me and were both watching me as I tackled Mackalla in a bear hug; to my surprise, I managed to roll him over in the process. He climbed to his paws and shook me off with a grin, so I hugged Ana with a bit more reserve before beaming at them both. “You’re back!”

“Stating the obvious,” I heard James mutter from behind me; I shot a glance over my shoulder and saw him with hand and arm stump in pockets, looking rather sullen. I wondered why, before Ana nudged my hand lightly and I switched my gaze to her. “We must speak. Alone.” I blinked, but before I could ask, Mackalla nodded, “Yes, out of the territory. And without Kemohi.” James let out another of his scarily realistic growls behind us, “It’s James now. I’m trapped in human form, so I’ve kept the human name.” The Heifia nodded distractedly before padding quietly into the forest. Startled, I shot a look to Ana but followed as the Korat began moving as well.

James didn’t follow us, and when I looked back, I wondered at his dark expression. Tahos looked equally confused, but shrugged and quickly merged back with his Nila fellows. I got the distinct feeling that something was very wrong.

Ana and Mackalla led me at a brisk pace in silence for several minutes; I was surprised to find myself barely breathing hard at the end of the long jog. I guess Lavana was beating me into shape after all! We stopped in the thick of the forest; I leaned against a tree root that arced high above the ground, looking expectantly to my companions. Mackalla’s expression was mutedly annoyed and Ana looked sympathetic – never a good sign.

Ana began in her soothing tone, “We met with those whose opinions we needed. We told them what had happened and they were distressed… to put it mildly. They claim that Lavana is too dangerous for you; they wish you to return to Earth. I could not but acquiece to their points of view; they are correct.”

Mackalla interrupted quietly but with no particular vehemence, “I wanted you to stay on Lavana, where you would have protectors. On Earth, you would have only me.”

Ana continued, “Which brought up the matter of adequate protection. It was decided that, if James protected you alongside Mackalla until the time of danger had passed, then we would grace him with a morphing ring, but only for one use – to shift back to a Vemeh and stay that way.”

Mackalla took over, “We did obtain a morphing ring for you to use. However, it is a blank and thus dangerous; anyone can use it. There aren’t any forms in it yet either. And we’ve got to teach you the finer points of using it, or Ke– James can. While he’s at it, he might as well teach you how to fight in human form – you’ll still be in danger on Earth, and being able to defend yourself is a priority.” He stopped talking and Ana tilted her head; they were both waiting for my reaction.

To tell you the truth, I was stunned. Not only were they throwing me back on Earth, they were stealing any chance I had at surviving. I still had the niggling feeling that Lavana was safer than Earth; Lavanians wouldn’t go to Earth without some high reason, but what would stop Equitor and the Prince from sending their minions in numbers via Portal to Earth? I realized I was being too quiet and finally spoke up. “Look, you realize how much danger this will put Earth in? We don’t really believe in aliens there. If hordes of demonic beings start trashing my home town, we’re gonna freak out.”

Mackalla held up one broad paw to stop further commentary. “Shane, that won’t happen. Equitor doesn’t control Portals, nor does the Prince. James had called his own Portals to and from Earth.”

I raised an eyebrow and pointed out, “Equitor can probably make Portals.”

Mackalla flinched and Ana slowly nodded, “Perhaps. But for him to make a Portal large and sturdy enough to transport any number of beasts to Earth, a planet not even in our own galaxy… it would take immense strength. I doubt he has the power yet. You need not fear for Earth’s safety; human ignorance will remain untouched.”

Mackalla took up the protest in an apparently well-rehearsed argument, “Ana, you know it would only take one time for her to be alone and off-guard for just one of Equitor’s warriors, or even an assassin, to kill her or take her from us.”

The Korat sent a discreet glare at the Heifia, “That won’t happen. Either James or you will be with her at all times.”

This time, I put my voice in. “Ana, that’s not possible. Neither can go to school with me and it may be summer now, but at the beginning of fall I’ll be spending eight or so hours a day away from them… if not more! How long will this period of danger last, anyways? How long will it take you guys to get rid of Equitor and the rest of them?” Mackalla fell silent, looking at Ana without pity. The black cast her sapphire gaze downwards and sighed,

“I don’t know. They are already very powerful. I can rally several Originals to help, my sisters included, but there will be great loss of life in exterminating these Evils from our home. It will not be easy, nor will it be quick. It may be a year, or even longer if we underestimate them, before you are out of danger.”

I felt like writhing; I couldn’t picture a war ravaging my beloved planet. And I also couldn’t picture being on high alert every moment until it was over. “Why are you guys so set on keeping me alive if I don’t know anything that would help you?” I felt the urge to ask. “I’m useless to you and a danger if I’m taken. Why not kill me? Why hasn’t the n– I mean, those beings decided to just eliminate the risk?” I almost slipped up and called them the nightcircle, but I’d been pretending that I hadn’t understood when she mentioned them in another language. Mackalla scowled at me but let Ana answer.

“We are not like that,” she said simply. “Excluding one or two individuals, we are not willing to kill you when we can just as easily guard you and keep you out of danger.” I folded my arms and leaned hard against the stony bark of the tree, my eyes watching the huge cerulean leaves dance in the warm wind. I felt more at home here than I ever did on Earth, as strange as that sounds. “I don’t want to leave,” I said softly, sighing.

Mackalla nosed my hand. “And we’re not happy to see you go. But it’s for–”

“–my own good. Yeah. Heard it before, Mackalla.” I rolled my eyes but didn’t stop gazing upwards. “How you think James is gonna take this? ‘Here, guard the girl that you were recently trying to kill, and if she lives through all this, and you do too, then I guess we’ll let you shift back to Vemeh form.’ I’m sure he’ll love that.”

Ana shook her sleek muzzle and replied, “It’s the best we could do. Our colleagues were reluctant to let him have anything. It’s rare to get a second chance on this world.” I nodded; she was right, of course. I had almost forgotten that Ana was an Original, for some reason; she seemed so… normal… and besides, I couldn’t imagine an Original letting me hug her.

With a resigned sigh, I muttered, “James told me how a morphing ring works. So gimme the dang thing and I can at least put a form in it… providing one of you is willing to donate a speck of blood. Or both.” Ana arched a furred brow but Mackalla nodded his head, “I think you could get used to NM Heifia form easier than Korat.” I glared daggers; Korats being my favorite species of all time, of course I wanted to be able to morph into one! However, Heifias aren’t weak creatures, and being able to shift one on Earth would be useful, as they do resemble dogs to the casual observer.

“Oh fine… do I get a Korat form eventually?” I sent Ana a pleading look, but she avoided it by saying, “Perhaps. If it’s not necessary, then no.” A lightbulb clicked on over my head and I suddenly frowned, this time aiming my question at Mackalla, “After the danger is gone… you’ll take the morphing ring back, won’t you? Is that why it’s still a blank?” The Heifia met my gaze evenly. “That’s the plan, although that’s not why you have a blank. Only Night Cats know the ritual that codes it to your signature and we had none handy, nor were there any that were already coded for humans… you being an alien and all.”

I felt like crying. They were going to give me my dream and then snatch it back. Ana had the grace to wince and Mackalla… seemed defiant. Maybe he’d fought for me, maybe he had wanted me to keep it. I could hope, right? Almost as though reading my thoughts, Mackalla nodded slowly and said in a very quiet voice, “Of course, should you be forced to return to Lavana for protection and meet up with a friendly Night Cat who would do the ritual, they would most likely let you keep it… provided you swear an oath of some sort.” My eyes bugged out and I would’ve hugged him, but I figured that would be too hopeful. After all, if I was forced back to Lavana, that would mean something bad would happen on Earth, and I really didn’t want that.

Ana finally angled her head up and from the small cavity between the back of her jaw and her curved, almost jointed neck, she slipped two items. One was the ring, a different style than James’ old one with a thin band of silver and a crouching Night Cat shape on it. I grinned as I saw the two open slits scarring the Cat’s haunch and shoulder – those would absorb the blood and catalogue the DNA – or capture the “racial soul” and bind it to the metal, as they explained it. Mackalla solemnly raised his forepaw to his jaws and, with a tiny nip to his wrist, let a few beads of blood form. Ana handed me the ring and I slipped it on the middle finger of my right hand; Mackalla brushed the blood onto the shiny silver surface and, to my amazement, it was completely absorbed. The two open slits closed seamlessly, and I felt the ring become a bit warmer than before; apparently it was cataloguing the DNA. Binding the soul of the Non-Maned Heifia species into the silvery metal. Whichever. I half-expected it to beep when it was done, but all that happened after a moment or three was the slits reappeared and it cooled slightly.

“Dude. Cool.” I grinned at the ring, then looked surprised as Ana handed me the other object. It was a single band of sparkling black jewels, set into a loose chain of shiny teal metal – I recognized the metal as rypil, a soft, malleable, and very common material. “What…?” I asked, puzzled.

Ana smiled slightly. “A communication band, akin to Mackalla’s. The jewels are black Crazouli, incredibly rare but the only thing strong enough to reach from Earth to here.”

For the first time, I noticed the thin anklet around Mackalla’s right forepaw, mostly hidden by his tawny fur. “How does it work?”

This time, it was the Heifia who explained. “They operate on different frequencies, set off by different codes – much like a certain form is activated on your ring, by specific words. Broadcasting on all frequencies is rare but, if it happens, the jewels will glow, and all you need to do is make a sound to receive the transmission. Contacting others is usually taken care of by a few creatures, mostly Olashi, who make it a point to connect certain bands. To call someone, you simply state your name and species, then the same of whomever you wish to contact. Normally, it will pass through. To contact higher-ups, such as Ana or other ranking individuals, you’d need a password.”

Ana nodded, “Mine is korofir aorri – my title as Korat Original. It means black-Korat ancestress.” She smiled ruefully, “Only my sister Redwood is regarded as sidifir oerri – red-Korat mother. Tan Kaili holds the title of aorri as well.” I suppressed a shudder of delight upon hearing Redwood’s name; the mighty red warrior is renowned throughout Lavana and one of my personally favorite Korats. “Should you need to contact me, do so as you normally would and, when asked for a password, say korofir aorri. It will put you through; as a human, you should need nothing more.”

“James is also getting a comband,” Mackalla added with a grin. “Though his will only be able to contact those on Earth, having lesser crystals within it.” The Heifia stretched his forelegs and twisted his neck; he looked to be getting restless, just sitting here and talking. “As it is, we need to get back. I will explain things to James and Tahos while you say your goodbyes; knowing you, it’ll take long enough. Ana will prepare a Portal, and then we’ll be good to go.” I sighed, looking up at the wisteria-hued sky one more time; Ana nudged me gently. “I do not wish to waste time, Shane. Let’s go back.”

Ana moved past me and into a paced trot. Mackalla and I followed, and I was pleased to note that he stayed by my side this time. I had to wonder how hard it would be for him to stay on Earth for the next year while war ravaged Lavana. We reached the main part of the village and Mackalla collected a sullen James and a curious Tahos to talk quietly inside one of the huts. Ana stood off to the side and began gathering her energy or… however one prepares to call a Portal. I was still rather fuzzy on the whole process. Me, I went around to the Nila that I had met and said my goodbyes.

Mackalla’s choppy bark called me back and I returned to find a slightly more cheerful James and a defiant Nila awaiting me. Apparently the possibility of his being able to eventually shift back had lightened his spirit; James was actually smiling. Tahos had arms folded and by his expression, it was clear that he thought I would need more protection than James and Mackalla. In no uncertain terms, he told me as much. I agreed with him and gave him a hug, which he returned with surprising gentleness. I pulled back after a moment and realized how much I was going to miss him; he touched my cheek and whispered in his own tongue, “Take care, Shane Myers. I know I will see you again, but until then, stay alive.” I nodded and bit my lip; I hate goodbyes, and I was making a valiant effort not to cry.

And then I realized that I wouldn’t see Ana again either. I turned to look for the black, only to find a tiny Portal already growing in front of her. “This sucks,” I mumbled in English, earning a raised brow from James. Mackalla nudged me forward and I dragged my feet towards Ana, giving the Nila clan one last look and a small, dejected wave. At the moment, I would’ve given anything to stay on Lavana. But then, the Portal became a full-blown, whirling entity and the light, sound, and wind crashed against me. I barely remembered to grab my bookbag before James ushered me through. I silently waved to Ana, knowing she couldn’t move and wreck her concentration on the Portal, and knowing that if I spoke, she wouldn’t hear me. She closed both eyes in a sort of salute and I stepped through the Portal.

I was rather surprised to land in the same spot on Earth where we had left – just that little patch of woods, near the tunnel’s entrance. I quickly stepped out of the way as James and then Mackalla leapt through; then the Portal closed, leaving the scene unnervingly quiet. They landed and James stretched; I saw he’d brought his Nila-made sword. I grinned suddenly, remembering that my own little knife was still in my backpack. At least I’d have one thing to remind me of the clan.

And then I remembered.

“Uhm, Mackalla? Whatever happened to Sarge and Co.?” I stared at the Heifia, shocked at having completely forgotten about them. After we’d been captured by Equitor’s minions, I’d not even thought of Samson or Sarge. And what about those other three soldiers?

Mackalla’s smug expression drew a raised eyebrow from me and he answered, “Ana had found them earlier and sent them back. I don’t think Sarge was very sane by the time he left. And there were only four left, total. But they were put back in this very spot about five days ago.” I blinked, then grinned slightly.

And then I got another mental shock.

“Crap. What are my parents gonna think? I’ve been gone for almost a month!” James poked me lightly, lips twitching in a grin, “Have you forgotten so much? Lavana time is not the same as Earth time. What was nearly a month there is only a few days here.” I stared at him, beginning to panic, “That doesn’t mean much, James! I am DEAD!” Mackalla’s muffled laughter earned him a stark glare and I stalked into the tunnel that had before scared me; now it was just a way to sneak back into town. “I am so dead,” I repeated to myself, listening to James and Mackalla follow.

“Man. I need a good excuse for this one. ‘Uh, sure Mom, Dad, I was at a friend’s house… honest!’ No, that wouldn’t work, they’d have called Randie’s already. Crap. ‘I was selected for a military experiment and they… couldn’t warn you?’ No way, they won’t buy that. ‘I decided to become a gypsy and then changed my mind?’ Right. Ohh I am so dead!” I broke into a run through the tunnel, ignoring Mackalla’s snickering. “Right. Yeah, and I’m bringing home a dog and a guy with a sword. Honest, they followed me! So can I keep them?” I rambled on, mostly to myself. I heard James chuckle once at that and rolled my eyes; of course he’d think that funny.

Running, it only took about five minutes to reach the other end of the tunnel in the old bank – we took the more direct route, avoiding the pit o’ doom and the various forks. I opened the steel door and peered around; no one there. Well no kidding, who would be inside a condemned bank? I slipped out, followed as usual, before I froze. “Aw crap. How am I gonna explain the clothes?” I plucked at my tough, Nila-woven fabric skeptically, then spun and poked a laughing James in the ribs. “You just hush, you’re gonna be the target if Dad sees you with me, especially after I disappeared for three days. He’ll beat the living daylights out of you, sword or no sword!”

Then I suddenly grinned, “Wait! I can get Randie’s help. If it’s the day I think it is, she’ll be waiting for me at the library! She can cover for me! I hope.” James looked blank and I flinched, once again reminded of the clothes. “Crud. Okay. This oughta be good.” I dug into my bookbag, pulled out my stash of thirty dollars, grabbed James’ wrist, and hauled him out of the building, trying all the while to look inconspicuous. I hurried towards Ames, the local everything-store, and ushered him inside. “Quit looking so bewildered, you dork. Mackalla, stay outside and wait for us. Pant and look like a normal dog, would you?” I hissed, running on scheming and not intelligence at the moment.

I steered James towards the men’s section, ignoring the weird looks, and grabbed jeans and a T-shirt that looked like it would fit. “My brother would like to wear these out, ma’am,” I told the cashier, paying for the outfit and pretty much throwing the poor guy into the dressing room with orders to change, come out, and wait for me. I grabbed some shorts and a guy’s NASCAR T-shirt, paid for them with the same excuse, and quickly changed into them. I stuffed my Nila outfit into my bookbag, threw it over my shoulders, and came out looked reasonably normal… if you ignored the deep tan and seriously matted hair.

The sight of James in normal clothing brought me to a dead stop and my jaw hit the floor. He stuffed his hand and… arm stump… into his pockets and scowled at the floor; it was then that I realized we were both still barefoot, since I’d put my Nila-shoes into my bookbag as well. “Err, right.” I sidled up to James, grabbed his arm, and hauled him out of Ames. “You need to lose the sword, bud. And we both seriously need shoes, but know what? I need Randie more right now. I need human help.” I felt slightly panicked but I charged off towards the library, very glad it was warm and sunny outside – it didn’t look so odd to be barefoot. James’ sword drew a few looks, though, but Mackalla was acting so doggy that he didn’t attract anything other than a few oohs and ahhs, and the occasional ‘oh, what a pretty dog!’

We reached the library within about five minutes and I shot inside the air-conditioned entrance, trying to avoid being spotted by the librarian. Once again, Mackalla waited outside. I spotted Randie’s lean form and fluffy red-brown hair hunched over a book at our usual table and pretty much lunged to her side. “Randie!” I yelped, sinking into a seat. She looked up, bright green eyes unsurprised. “Heya Shane. Where’ve you been the past three days? I didn’t see you online, and your parents couldn’t find you or something. They called my house.”

I grinned, “Things have been… weird. Oh, right.” I motioned for James to take a seat, and Randie eyeballed him before sticking out her hand, “Hi!” I felt like smacking my forehead; my best friend was going to severely injure me for not including her in this ‘adventure’. After all, her worlds and species were nearly as detailed as mine! (Does that mean that… hers exist as well? Interesting thought! Must tell her sometime.) James slowly shook her hand and nodded; Randie noticed his sword just then and sent me a look.

“Randie McAllanen, meet James Konan.” Randie bobbed her head and James… flushed, staring at the table. I figured he wasn’t a people-person and poked Randie’s shoulder. “Girl, you’ll never believe what happened, but I can’t tell you until I check in with my parents. I’ve been gone since Sunday. I need a good excuse and you are seriously my last hope right now. I’d like to graduate, you know, but if my parents find out that I’ve not been… uhm, in town… they’ll kill me.”

I got the scariest look right then from my best friend. “Where have you been?!” she exclaimed in a muted voice, knowing better than to draw out the librarian’s wrath.

I winced, “No time, Randie! Can you cover for me somehow? I was sleeping in your backyard or something?”

“Are you insane? No! Not if you’ve been…” Randie trailed off and suddenly eyed James suspiciously. “You come in with a sword-wearing guy and you’ve been out of town for three days… Shane Myers!” I cringed, before sighing and checking the clock. Three in the afternoon. “Alright alright. If I tell you the whole story, will you cover for me so I can live to see the next dawn?” Randie slowly nodded, and I saw James grin very discreetly. I groaned and settled myself in the chair more comfortably.

“See, on Sunday, there was this dog and these military idiots…”

When I was done, an exasperating hour later, she didn’t believe me… until she met Mackalla, who grinned and said in heavily broken but understandable English,

“Hello, Randie. My name is Mackalla.”

Tahos answered my question of transportation with a simple phrase, “By Leasheas.” James jerked in surprise and fastened wide eyes on the Nila.

“You jest,” the former morpher half-asked, half-stated. Tahos grinned, apparently enjoying the shock. I, too, was startled. One just doesn’t casually say that one will ride a Leasheas… no more than someone on Earth would think to say, ‘I’m gonna go ride a dragon!’ Really. It’s just not right. However, as the Nila’s implications filtered through my thick skull, I began to grin. Ride a Leasheas? Another dream of mine. (Hey, I have a lot of dreams. After all, I know Lavana better than I know most of Earth.) James just looked… unnerved.

Tahos raised his fingers to his mouth and gave a piercing whistle – I was surprised to see him using what I’d thought a human technique. The whistle was loud and high-pitched but surprisingly fluid; it varied several notes with a few subtle dynamic changes. “Code-whistling? Nila version of howling, right?” I guessed. The Nila nodded and waited patiently. James and I exchanged glances and rolled our eyes; the guy must have spent a lot of time in human form to have gotten so used to it. He looked perfectly natural. Which is good, considering he’s stuck like that for the rest of his life, I thought somberly.

“How do you ride a Leasheas?” I glanced at James, who looked half-annoyed and half-embarrassed to be asking such a question. I, in turn, looked at Tahos. The Nila benevolently explained, “Leg on either side of the body, sitting upright in the slope of their back. Hold only to the base of their mane; touch the other part of it and they’ll hurt you. They can hold you on with their tentacle if need be.” I grinned stupidly and James nodded, assuming an expressionless face once more. Me, I was excited, and listened hard for any approaching hoof-beats.

I really should’ve known I wouldn’t hear them.

Tahos, James, and I were all facing the same direction – east – when I felt a very light touch on my shoulder. I glanced, thinking it my imagination, and came face to face with a very large Leasheas. Just on his muzzle, gold, scarlet, and tangerine swirled together in an intricate, almost tie-die pattern. Those huge, deeply crimson faceted eyes reflected light like a gem as they regarded me quizzically. No doubt the stallion had never seen a human before. I turned as slowly as I could to take in the rest of the beast.

Leasheas are equine, let’s get that straight off. They’re much more powerful and faster than horses, but the basic shape is the same. Their hooves are sharp-edged, resembling an arched high heel with the heel cut off, and their tail is more lion-like than horse-like. They have equine manes with a dense spout of coarse hairs at the very base of their neck, attached to bone (which is why Tahos said grab that – it doesn’t hurt when you do). As I mentioned, their eyes are compound and almost bulbous, but somehow it fits with their sculpted features. They have a… well, a prehensile feather, or a feathered tentacle as they’re more commonly known, sprouting from their heads. It’s about four feet long and really does look like the vane of a feather, with all the feather-strands hanging downwards; this tentacle is exceedingly nimble and can perform very delicate movements, but is also surprisingly strong.

Leasheas come in two breeds – Light and Dark. No, this doesn’t refer to good and evil. Lights simply have “light” colors, like reds, golds, oranges, light greens, and white. Dark Leasheas have “dark” colors, such as blues, greens, dark reds, purples, and sometimes black or silver. All or most of the aforementioned colors are swirled into a tie-die pattern all over the beast. Lights are larger but Darks are faster; in turn, mares are smaller and faster than stallions, who are stronger and have more endurance. It’s a win-win situation.

Anyways. This particular Leasheas was huge, and a Light to boot. I looked towards James and found that a Dark mare had joined him, and a Light mare had approached Tahos. We hadn’t needed to ask for aid; they came to us, somehow knowing what was needed. I knew Tahos’ whistle-message couldn’t've explained everything, so they must have sensed it themselves. It was somehow a very special, almost sacred moment. The Leasheas had chosen me – this stallion accepted me, at least for today. Considering how noble and “wild” Leasheas are, this was something akin to a miracle.

“Let’s go. Remember about the mane.” Tahos shot me a look and muffled his grin. “Good luck getting on the big man.” I returned the look and a frazzled grin as I stared up at the stallion. Leasheas are built like horses, but a large Light stallion like this one stood at a solid seven feet at the withers and was… well… huge. I’d ridden horses before and knew how to mount one, well, when I had a saddle and stirrups anyways. This was bareback and one whopper of a ‘horse’. I blinked, then stepped to the stallion’s flank. He turned his head to watch me and curled his tentacle closer to his head – an obvious invitation if I ever saw one.

I glanced discreetly over my shoulder to find Tahos sitting easily on his Light mare and James carefully swinging onto his Dark mare. I felt like pouting; their two were about a foot or more shorter than mine, and both of them were taller than me, too. I stretched onto my toes and reached my hand up, managing to grab the proper part of the mane. For a second I leaned against the Leasheas’ flank, my other hand resting cautiously on his haunches, unsure of how to get up, when I felt a light touch around my waist. I was hoisted up and gently set onto the stallion’s back, and I looked in surprise to the slender tentacle. Then, hearing Tahos’ chuckle, I sent him a good-natured scowl and settled more naturally onto the Leasheas, winding my left hand into the mane and leaving my right free.

My stallion turned his head and whickered quietly, an almost liquid sound far different than anything I’d heard from a horse before. “Hey Tahos… can you talk to them?” The Nila shook his head at my question and replied, “No. Most Leasheas can understand Kalash but cannot speak it. We communicate by body language and intent.” I nodded, then glanced at my stallion, who was still talking to the two mares. “Could you find out their names?” This time, it was James giving me a scowl. I blinked.

The Vemeh-turned-human rolled his eyes. “You know a lot about Lavana, but you forget one of the social rules. No names are given except to trusted allies or friends, excluding certain situations, such as living in a Center or crossing a territory boundary. They most likely wouldn’t give us their names even if they could.” I nodded, flushing slightly; I had forgotten that. I hate forgetting important things.

The stallion fell silent, my personal cue to take a tighter grip on his mane and tilt my body forward, holding on with my legs as I’d been taught. To my inner glee, neither Tahos nor James took the hint and, as all three Leasheas lunged into a fluid but sudden gallop, they jerked backwards – James nearly fell off. Grinning, I ducked various branches, deflected smaller ones with my free hand, and in general had the time of my life for the next several breathtaking minutes. I was acutely disappointed when the Leasheas trio slowed and then stopped, the mares prancing slightly with nostrils flared. We’d reached the Nila boundary.

Tahos slipped off his Light and bowed formally to her; she snorted and tossed her head, but didn’t seem offended. James dismounted rather gracelessly but offered a friendly hand to his Dark; she whuffled into it and bumped his shoulder before backing up a few dainty steps. I looked down seven-plus feet and grimaced, but this time slid off on my own. I turned and pressed my hand against the stallion’s shoulder, whispering quietly, “I know I don’t know your real name, and you don’t know mine. But there’s a word in another language that means strider – it’s Andaturé. I’m going to call you that in my mind; I hope that doesn’t offend you.” The stallion tossed his head and nickered, before snorting in my hair and bobbing his head in a deliberate nod. I grinned and bowed deeply from the waist.

Andaturé… spoke, for a lack of a better word… to the mares, who answered in soprano tones before rearing, spinning on their hind legs, and galloping back into the forest. I caught my breath as Anda repeated the insanely graceful move and, with a flick of his tufted tail, was gone. I stared after him for several long moments before low voices informed me that other Nila had arrived and were talking to Tahos. I turned to find Tahos gesturing towards me and James, who looked equally baffled. Now that I concentrated, my uber-eavesdropping skills served me well; they were speaking in Nila non-growl, which I seemed to know as well as I did Kalash. (Everything is a second language to me… excepting English, of course.)

James sidled closer to me, and I swear, if he had flexible ears they’d have been flattened. “I don’t like this,” he mumbled in English, probably so that the Nila wouldn’t understand. I shrugged lightly, “Well… Tahos is just telling them that he needs us guarded for the next while. However long a ‘while’ is, he’s using it like an actual piece of time. The other Nila want to know what we are and…” I shot Tahos a glare and he waved it off as he continued speaking hastily. “And what?” James raised a brow. I winced, “And one just asked if we were a sacrifice.”

What?!” James stared at me, before turning his burning gaze on the Nila. One flinched and Tahos pointedly moved between the two, his speech rapid, quiet, and seemingly never punctuated. I didn’t blame him; introducing an alien species was bound to be a hassle, especially when one of the aliens was glaring daggers. “It’s nothing,” I mumbled, earning a scowl. James folded his arms and proceeded to fade into his usual impassive stance. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and waited.

After a while, we were accepted and taken to meet the leader of the clan. The leader, a big pale-grey male, was called Shiymn; he wore black leggings and had a thick black mane all the way to his tail. The second in command, Watep, was the biggest Nila in the whole clan with iron-grey fur and a white, mohawk-styled mane. They both looked long and hard at James and I before pronouncing us as ‘no-hunts’ – aka, not hunters. Tahos chuckled at this and we just looked… confused. Then, ‘no-hunts’ were explained as young Nila warriors who had not taken the Test of Adulthood yet… which makes sense, at least for me, because of my age. James’ human form looked to be about twenty years old though, and he’d been an adult Vemeh, so he was a tad steamed.

The three of us were tired from traveling and hadn’t really gotten any rest during our time underground, despite sleeping there, so we pretty much crashed. The hammock-like bed that I slept in was surprisingly comfortable – or maybe I had gotten used to hard rock and dirt enough so that cloth and a bit of padding felt like heaven. Either way, I was out like a light for the entire night. Even though James snored.

For the first time in what seemed like ages, I woke up without fear. Breakfast was heavily spiced but tasty smoked meat, boiled vegetables, and fresh fruits and berries. No milk, nor tea, nor even fruit juice; instead, we drank a thick, chilled liquid called fiut, which came from tree sap and was rather tasty. James and I were both delighted at the food and enjoyed it immensely, but it paled in comparison when a Nila smith presented James with a fine longsword, keen-edged and perfectly balanced, plus a belt and scabbard to go with it. While he fawned over it, I prowled around the village.

Nila are pretty low-tech, much like Native Americans once were. The most they have are well-built huts, hammocks or stuffed mattresses, and smithies. Although they hold an established territory, they’re overwhelmingly hunters and gatherers, relying on migrating prey and flourishing natural edibles to survive. Their technology consists of metalworking to some extent (they prefer spears, knives, and arrows to swords and the like) and more primitive weapon-making. Either way, with their limited tools and resources, they’ve kept up with the rest of Lavana quite nicely.

I poked around, nodding politely to Nila whom I’d met and reluctantly ignoring the females, though only because it is dishonorable to both speaker and female to talk to one. Nila are one of two races on Lavana with a definite difference between male and female (the other is Maned Heifias). Nila females are actually built like human females for the most part and are much weaker, both physically and mentally, than the males. It drives me nuts, but luckily the Nila didn’t associate me with a Nila female. If they did, there’d be trouble.

Later in the day, several Nila (Tahos included) went hunting, so James and I were left to our own devices. He explained to me how a morphing ring works, which to me is a cross between science and magic. A ring is crafted as a ‘blank’ out of a certain metal that, when heated with a certain frequency of energy, will expand or shrink. (This is the energy given off when morphing, so the ring stretches or shrinks to fit whatever form one takes.) Then, by some sort of ritual that can be elaborate or brief (James didn’t detail this), the ring is impressed with the wearer’s signature, usually only their species but in very rare cases, a ring will only be usable by that individual. Once this is done, forms can be added to the ring by triggering a certain mechanism built into the ring – a tiny slit will open and a speck of blood from the species whose form one wants to add can be put into the ring. Once the DNA inside the blood is analyzed, apparently the ring catalogues it and voilà! With a keyword, the change can begin at any time, usually taking about 30 seconds to complete.

James and I did nothing for the next few days other than eating, sleeping, and talking. We discussed his future life on Earth, how he would fit in, and what he would do. After my vivid descriptions of life in a modern world, he quite plainly decided that he would have nothing to do with all that techno-crap and would live in the woods. I pointed out the problems of survival before realizing that, compared to Lavana, life in Earth woods would be almost boringly peaceful. Although finding enough woods in any one clean place might pose a slight problem.

The day after our long discussion, James was determined to test my skills in martial arts. Though I protested, we wound up in one mother of a sparring match that ended with both of us bruised and completely exhausted. I was quite surprised that, despite the slightly heavier gravity of Lavana, I seemed to do better against him than my usual sparring opponents in class. The rest of the day was spent in hammocks and resting our aching bodies, staring up at the gorgeous cloud formations and basking in the warm sun.

The next day, I got to make my very own Nila-style knife. I’m sure I mentioned this once before but I’ll repeat myself – Nila knives are not like ours. They don’t have a long blade and a short hilt; they have a short arrowhead-blade, usually polished to a shine and razor-sharp, and a longish hilt, usually made out of wood that’s been treated and stained. The process of making one is not difficult in the least, but it does require some elbow grease and some muscle; I enjoyed myself immensely. And when I went to sleep that night, I kept my knife next to my hammock on a little wall-shelf. Though I knew I wasn’t currently in danger, it was reassuring.

I spent the next day learning how to use my little knife, taught by both Nila and James himself, who had picked up more human-ish ways of fighting. (I don’t know how, either.) I had mastered the basics by evening and during the next day learned some wicked little tricks that I had no intention of ever using. But it was good to know that I could save myself from a reasonably weak opponent with my knife.

Then I realized I was doomed. James had hooked onto the teaching-Shane mood and for the next Lavanian week kept me working nonstop to not only learn how to use a sword (though I didn’t have one of my own), but to also use a spear, Nila rod, and even a staff as weapons. He started to teach me archery as well before I nailed the bull’s-eye three times in a row, proving my prowess there. (I went bow-hunting with my dad too many times to be a bad shot.) Not only that, but the Nila put the both of us through exercises that adolescent Nila usually tackle before trying for their Test; it was exhausting and incredibly difficult. After all, humans are not as strong, agile, quick, nor do we have keen reflexes or senses like Nila do. Watep realized this and took it down a notch so James and I didn’t fail miserably every time. After a while, we got to enjoying the hard work.

Tahos mostly left James and I to our own devices. He was pleased to be back among his clan, I could tell, and was usually out hunting or scouting the borders. So when James had a very troubled look on his face one day, I was the only one around to drag the problem out of him. I won’t bother you with the dialogue; it was back-and-forth nonsense for about a half hour before he finally started talking. And I still won’t repeat what he told me; you-the-reader don’t need to suffer the excruciating details of what he’d seen in the Prince’s lair. Those details gave me nightmares several times in a row before my own nightmares returned: Equitor’s red eyes, Za-shen-sai dying before me, Mackalla shot, Tahos wounded, even fighting the old James all became nightly scenes. I woke up terrified several times, but though I know I woke James up too, he never said a word of it. Maybe he had the same dreams.

On the sixteenth day since our arrival, I was wandering the territory, knife stuffed into my belt and wearing new, nicely-fitting Nila clothing. I’d been wearing male tunics and trousers, for the most part, because my human clothing was trashed; but my shape was different from a male’s and I was much taller and more muscular than the Nila females. It’d taken the Nila weaver that long to get appropriate and durable clothing for me; I was now bedecked in black trousers, sturdy black moccasins, a black undertunic, and a dark grey shirt with a black vest. (Why the dark colors? Well, camoflauge for one. The soil is nearly black and most tree trunks are grey and black. Plus, Nila don’t like to use bright dyes for normal clothing. Go figure.) I honestly didn’t care about the colors; having new and clean clothing was priceless in my mind.

I was amusing myself by identifying various small Lavanians – like the blue, bat-like byrgs that live in huge swarms; the small, furry, friendly cat-like Chitters who will keep one warm on a cold night; the deadly vampiric clatts that can kill a Korat within two minutes and suck the carcass dry within seven. (Okay, so I kept my distance from those ones. They swarm easily.) And let’s not forget those Eleis with their eye-searing neon hides and pliable reptilian bodies, melded seamlessly into tree bark and occasionally onto animals.

Finding a good spot, I settled myself down and opened my backpack. Yep, it had lived through everything, and I’d even managed to get a Nila to make me a better, much tougher one out of the same material that I was now wearing. He just transfered the zippers, copied the design and voilà! A Nila-made, human-style bookbag. And I had to write down all that had happened, but as I looked over the last two weeks, I decided that scribbling all that in detail would take too much paper, too much time, and far too much of your attention would dribble away during the reading. So I summed up, for the most part.

Now I’m going to say farewell. You know I’ll write again soon; this tale isn’t over yet! I just wonder how Mackalla and Ana are faring.

A sharp and very loud bark sounded in my ears just as I felt something grasp my shirt and pull me into the air. I snapped out of my nightmares very quickly, thrashing for a moment before prying my eyes open to see – huge surprise here – another black monster. This one was an Ajoitéi though, a massive beast at seventeen feet high with blood-dyed pincers and what looked like bizarre red hieroglyphics drawn all over his melanistic body. My ever-helpful knowledge of Lavana increased by one byte – I was looking at the infamous Ajoitéi Prince.

That is the one you wanted, is it not?

“Yes.” To my surprise, the Prince spoke aloud, as opposed to Equitor’s invasive mental voice. I was dropped unceremoniously about fifteen feet and, thankfully, Tahos caught me before I could land on my head. I was set down quickly before the Nila stepped in front of me. A spark of fear lit my heart as I remembered what had happened the last time someone tried this and, using more strength than I thought my tired, beaten body had, I shoved the Nila to the side.

Don’t forget, you promised to provide lunch while we discuss the trade.

“I forget nothing, Equitor. You’d best follow my example in that regard.”

I was quite surprised to hear an underlying threat in the Prince’s dark, plain tone. But Ana had said that Equitor was the real threat, back on Earth when we hadn’t gone to this Lavanian hell-hole yet. Either way, Equitor didn’t seem to take offense, only inclined his torso ever so slightly in a sort of bow. The Prince ignored him and gestured with an upper-arm; I heard struggling and vaguely familiar snarling noises.

Mackalla coughed his surprise and I stared in shock as two Ajoitéi brought Critter forward, in his Vemeh form. The grey beast was ragged and well-beaten, wounds and bruises marring his pelt. I caught Equitor’s disapproving look just as the Prince did. “Shift, boy.” Critter snarled but a well-placed blow brought him to the ground, and, if only to heal, he did shift to human form. I wondered if that was the only form he’d been allowed to put into his ring.

“Strip him.”

One of the Ajoitéi guards swept a pincer forward and with one snap cut off Critter’s left hand – the hand that held the morphing ring. He howled and fell to his knees, clutching at his wrist with his remaining hand. My eyes widened in horror as the guard tossed the severed hand to the Prince, who caught it and tucked it into an empty pouch at his belt.

Bloody food is bad business, O Prince.

This time, even I could tell that Equitor’s tone was disdainful, but with a single gesture, the Prince… healed… Critter’s arm into a smooth stump. He looked at it with shock before snarling in a very guttural tone. He must have known what was coming, for when the two guards tried to seize him again, he unslung his sword from around his waist and sliced about three pincers off. Even Mackalla swore softly at my side as Critter was swiftly stunned with a hard blow to the head. The Prince gestured grandly, almost mockingly, at the immobile human.

“Lunch.”

For a long moment, there was silence. Equitor’s disapproval was palpable as he regarded Critter. I shuddered, appalled by this display of cruel tyranny; Tahos was tense, his slight muzzle creased and fangs bared; Mackalla stood silently, sympathy in his dark brown eyes but no give in his stance. Equitor shifted slightly and looked down at the shorter Prince, beak gaping in what might have been a hideous smirk.

I decline. However, give me the wretch’s morphing ring and I’ll give you the other human… without even haggling.

The Prince scowled at the politically dangerous refusal and the blunt offer spoken in a tone that seemed to drip acid. However, he was obviously considering it… and for the time being, he was still. Equitor gestured for the Ajoitéi guards to toss Critter in with our pitiful little group and luckily, Tahos caught him before he could crack his skull on the stone ground. I knelt, partially because my knees were shaking in Equitor’s presence and partially to get a better look at a guy who, until moments earlier, had been my enemy.

Surprisingly little blood had been sprayed onto his rough-cut brown tunic when he’d lost his left hand; the tough fabric was Nila-made and fit him well. His somewhat shaggy mop of pitch-black hair was dirty, and his pale skin was smudged with dirt. After a long, long moment of his steady breathing, he opened dark blue eyes and looked at me without any real interest for a moment. Then, he sucked in a breath and I half-expected him to attack me; after all, if he’d captured me as ordered, he might not have lost his hand and might not soon die. Not to mention he’d not be trapped as a human, a form that must have been totally alien to his natural body.

But he didn’t try to throttle me, though I’d not have blamed him if he did. He glanced at Equitor and the Prince, eyes burning briefly, and then he seemed to let himself fall limp. Tahos knelt then and examined him curiously but not impassively; he too was well aware of what would probably soon befall the forsaken warrior. The Prince’s flat voice startled us all when it rang out, saying,

“Release all your Ajoitéi warriors and give me the human. That will earn you the ring.”

All of them?! I think not. They make up much of my force.

“Then let us eat and discuss an appropriate trade.” The Prince’s tone was dripping with contempt. Equitor glowered and didn’t move, apparently gnawing over the Prince’s proposal. I managed to ignore my own impending doom by watching Critter’s expressions chase each other across his angular face – hatred, resentment, bitterness, fear, despair, and back to raw fury each time his eyes flicked to the Prince’s black form. He sat up so suddenly that I shifted backwards to avoid knocking heads, and I figured he’d finally gotten his nerves back. Maybe he was going to attack again, although one of the guards had already shattered his sword.

“Well?”

Do not push me, Prince.

“I expected a trade agreement. Are you waiting for something special or will you accept my offer?”

Is that your only offer?

“And if it is?”

Speak plainly.

“Decide.”

Equitor snarled, or something of the sort… it sounded like a bird of prey growling, if you can imagine that. I’m sure it had something to do with the beak, but at this point, I was getting rather upset about my upcoming demise… probably after horrible and unspeakable torture… and wasn’t thinking very hard on Equitor. I reached up and tugged on Mackalla’s ragged ear, drawing the word ‘Korat’ on the stone floor with my finger and cocking my head silently. He twisted his muzzle in a shrug, but his tail was low and Tahos didn’t look overly hopeful. But I couldn’t imagine Ana failing us. At least… I surprised myself with the thought of, At least, I hope she gets Tahos and Mackalla out. Maybe even Critter. Was I actually becoming one of those self-sacrificing, friends-first types? Or had I always been one?

Come. We will eat and we will discuss things.

I had the feeling Equitor added a private message to the Prince after that, but aside from a moment’s hesitation before both began walking away, I had no evidence. After they were out of sight, the cavern’s denizens slowly began to go back to work, a few muttering in harsh tongues that I couldn’t hear well enough to translate. I let myself collapse against Mackalla’s tawny flank, closing my eyes briefly. I heard movement but didn’t bother to look; if Critter decided he wanted me dead, I was pretty sure Tahos or Mackalla would stop him. Of course, that death would at least provide me with a fairly painless escape from whatever the Ajoitéi Prince planned for me. I shuddered.

“I am sorry.”

The smooth voice was vaguely familiar and I raised an eyebrow as my eyes opened again. Critter was looking at me with a resigned expression, and he held his remaining hand palm-open. “Had I known it would come to this…” He shrugged, trusting me to fill in the blanks. I nodded quietly, then felt an abrupt rush of adrenaline surge through me. Mackalla eyed me as I dug my nails into my palm. “Here we go again,” I whispered, giving him a pointed look. He blinked, Tahos grinned very slightly, and Critter… looked confused.

“I gotta ask,” I mumbled to pass the time – previously, when I felt this surge of energy, it’d been a full ten minutes before anything happened. “What’s your name? I’ve been calling you Critter in my mind for lack of a better one.” Critter looked vaguely offended, but after a moment he shrugged again. “My truename is Kemohi; as a human, I go by James Konan.” I twitched my lips in a warped sort of grin as he added, “You should have taken the ring from me when you had the chance.”

“No kidding,” I agreed, adapting surprisingly easily to the idea of Critter… err, James… being on our side now. Or at least in the same boat. “Got a preference?” I asked, idly digging my fingers against the slightly pocked floor. He shook his head silently, before raising an eyebrow in a very poignant expression. “Is there a point to having one? We’re both about to die hideous deaths within the hour. Possibly later for you, depending on how well he likes to hear you scream.” Tahos winced and Mackalla scowled; I shuddered again and said dryly, “Thanks, I was trying not to think of that part.” The way he accented ‘he’ caught my attention, but Tahos asked before I could,

“Why did you serve him?”

“I was forced to.” Cr– I mean, James glowered. When the three of us were quiet for a moment, he sighed lightly and continued. “I am not an Evil, but nor was I about to run around telling the world that there were some minor disturbances underground. The Prince caught me in my territory one day and promised to leave me alone and, more importantly, alive, if I did one small task for him. It was a chance to use my ring, so I agreed.” He shot me a look, “I did receive the ring as a gift; it was not stolen from the dead. As are all rings given, it was coded to my signature and mine alone – the Prince could not have killed me, taken it, and used it himself. It is useless to him now.” He snarled, a remarkably feral sound coming from a human throat.

I nodded my sympathy, then blinked. “Then I couldn’t have used it had I taken it…” James was quick to correct me, “It was coded to my species’ signature, not mine alone. If I were in human form when you had taken it, you could have used it easily… though you would not have been able to shift. The only form in the ring is human.” Mackalla gave me a look out of the corner of his eye and I flinched, before leaning back against him heavily.

“How long will they bargain?” Tahos’ accent showed itself again in the slightly breathy way he pronounced Kalash. James shrugged and folded his legs; studying the way he moved, I decided he had become very accustomed to human form. Mackalla didn’t answer, sweeping his gaze around the cavern as though calculating. I touched his shoulder lightly and gave him a questioning look; he flicked his torn ear, winked, and continued scanning. From the look on his face, he was concentrating. (Hey, hang around with the guy long enough and you’ll be able to read expressions on a canine face too. It’s not that hard – whiskers and ears usually give it away.)

Tahos settled himself into a seated position, yawning once convulsively and drawing looks from both James and Mackalla; Lavanians usually yawn to display their teeth as a sort of an instinctive warning. More than once in my stories, a main character has been warned by his or her own system forcing a yawn and thus indicating impending danger. Of course, by now my nerves were tingling like someone had plugged me into an electric fence and let a few thousand volts run through my veins. Adrenaline sucks when there’s no obvious cause for it. But it had been several minutes, and I kinda figured that, if my past episode was any indication, something ought to be happening soon.

For once, I was right. Mackalla stood casually and stretched; I took the hint and rose to start pacing. It wasn’t hard to act terrified about the Prince returning to claim my life, really, and soon I’d worked myself into a sweat and starting grinding a path into the hard floor. Tahos and James crouched companionably, watching Mackalla join me in my pacing. It took about a minute of power-pacing before I caught a spicy smell in the air; Mackalla and Tahos stifled their expressions of hope. James (I’ve got to stop calling him Critter in my head now) caught on and began rubbing the stump of his arm, almost a nervous reaction.

I felt a familiar nudge push against the back of my skull and managed not to flinch. Before, when Ana had called her Portal, the nudge had been brief and light, then subsided as the Portal visibly grew. However, this time it was the push of perception that grew, almost skewing my sight and wrecking my balance – I stumbled into Mackalla a few times. The scent of spice was gone, and thankfully none of the Evils had noticed it. I slowed my pacing as my eyesight blurred heavily and the pressure on the back of my skull began to actually ache. Mackalla looked up at me with a raised brow but before I could try to keep up my nervous-prisoner ‘act’…

Light exploded nearby, swirling in one insane mass of luminous color. Spice-smell flooded the entire cavern and a delayed clap of thunder deafened everyone, Evils included. Tahos shoved James forward as Mackalla and I lunged for the Portal; James went in just before me, and then – with some sudden fear but no hesitation – I leapt in.

Traveling through a Portal is like fainting for a split second, or having an out-of-body experience. You’re there, diving into this spiralling whorl of light, you feel the light almost like surreal ocean waves brushing against your legs and torso… and then your stomach plummets to your toes and everything goes blank for a brief moment, where your senses seem to fail and your mind freezes. And then you’re standing shakily on the ‘other side’.

Anyways, I came out on the other side somewhat imbalanced (how was I supposed to know how to properly jump into a Portal?) and crashed into James. We both fell flat as Tahos and then Mackalla soared gracefully out of the now-upright-and-flat Portal, over our heads, and landed lightly. I would have grimaced for my own clumsiness had I not been so overwhelmingly happy to be alive and above-ground. A proud ebony beast managed only one step forwards before I tackled her, throwing my arms around her neck in a tight hug.

Ana had the grace not to flinch, although I’m sure she was slightly unnerved – Mackalla always seemed to be when I hugged him. However, a jubilant howl from the Heifia behind me showed that he wasn’t lacking any enthusiasm for being out in the sunlight again either. I finally let poor Ana go and flopped on my back on the ground, yelping as I landed on my bookbag and rolling off it to sprawl in the cool beadgrass.

Tahos was really the only one who took our rescue with any dignity at all, brushing himself off and merely raising his face to the sun. James just rolled over onto his back, closing his eyes gratefully against the hot sunlight. Ana muffled her grin as Mackalla pranced in the grass (and I do mean pranced) before he made his way over to her and finally settled down.

“You okay?” I opened one eye at the Heifia’s first question – Ana looked in perfect health – but the Korat nodded and he went on. “Talk to me. Did you get to the nightcircle?”

The black shook her head and settled to her haunches. “No. I needed to get you first.” At this point, she switched into Koratian, probably because she thought I couldn’t understand it. As usual, I played along and listened with my eyes closed. “Earth is still too distant from sufficient protection to return her yet. You and I are obviously not enough to keep her alive and unharmed.”

To my hidden surprise, Mackalla replied in the same tongue. “I know. Get the girl a morphing ring – she’ll be able to use it easily. And this male,” he flicked his ear at James, “is now on our side. He can teach her how to shift and use the ring.”

Ana regarded James’ prone form for a long moment, noting the lack of a left hand and also a morphing ring. Mackalla nodded and she sighed, “So he is trapped as a human, and no longer working for the Prince. The least we can do is put him on Earth to live among the humans there. Until then, he might as well stay with her. He may not be a truehuman but she may find the company soothing.”

Mackalla nodded thoughtfully, scratching at his flank before speaking. “I agree with you, Ana. She needs a morphing ring, and she needs to stay on Lavana. But we can’t send anyone to talk to the nightcircle, and we can’t leave her alone here. Ideas?”

Tahos spoke up just then, apparently also knowing Koratian, though as I listened, I could tell he wasn’t quite fluent. “I may intervene? My clan is strong; more than fifty warriors and led good. I take both there. My clan guards. No Evil will take.”

Mackalla quickly vouched for the Nila’s claim, knowing as he did the clan personally, and slowly Ana nodded. “Then it is settled. Mackalla, you and I will gather the nightcircle. Tahos, you will take the Vemeh and the girl to your clan. Can you get them there or do we need to escort you?”

Tahos grinned fully, “I take. You go now. No waste time. She needs ring.”

I felt like hugging the solid grey Nila; I would love nothing more than to spend some time with his clan. And my getting a morphing ring was… sublime. I mean, it would give me the power to shape-shift! Although I was rather fuzzy on how it worked, I was sure that Critter… darn it! James!… could explain it to me. However, I valiantly managed not to grin when I heard Ana acquiesce.

“Shane.” It was Mackalla and thankfully, back to Kalash as he continued, “and… which do you prefer? James or Kemohi? Now that there seems to be some use in preference,” he added with a grin. James’ eyes opened and he sat up, almost reluctant to move from his sprawled position. He shot a glance at me before shrugging, “James. I am human now.”

Ana took over in her smooth voice to say, “Shane and James, you both are going to travel with Tahos to his clan. Right now, we’re where I originally wanted us to be when we left Earth; this place is an old Center. The sacredness is still strong and makes this area safe.” She gestured with her silver tailblade, and for the first time I noticed how peaceful and… well, holy… the tree-ringed meadow felt. “Mackalla and I are going to meet with some other creatures and try to get you a morphing ring, Shane.” Her sapphire gaze focused on James as she continued, “Mackalla told me your story.” He did? I wondered how that’d happened. Could Ana speak telepathically?

“I freely admit that, had you been noble and less inclined to helping Evil to help yourself, I would try to find you another morphing ring, if only to restore you to your true form. However, as is, I will not. Yet, you do not deserve death, for you are not Evil yourself.” I shot a look at James; he was listening expressionlessly. Did he have to consciously think about making an expression when in human form? “Therefore, you will go with Shane to Tahos’ Nila clan. They will guard you until Mackalla and I return; it should not take more than a week.” A Lavanian week is eight days long, I reminded myself. “After that, you might stay with her – depending on what we decide – or I might send you ahead to Earth to live.” James rebelled at that; I could tell by the look in his eyes. But really, what else was there to do? No human could survive Lavana for long.

Tahos grinned as he interjected, “You will both be safe with my clan. You might even learn something,” he shot a pointed look at me. I grinned stupidly and nodded my agreement. (You have no idea how many stories of mine involved a Nila teaching a human how to survive on Lavana. I was dying for the chance!) “How’re we gonna get there?” I had to ask. Walking wouldn’t cut it; I figured we were about ten leagues away… err, forgot to mention. On Lavana, they use leagues to measure distance – one league is about three miles. Once in a while they’ll use lengths too, which is usually around 6 feet, or up to 10; it depends on what body you’re using as a (body-)length.

I glanced at James; he was, again, expressionless. Catching my look, he lifted his shoulders in a very slight shrug before barely nodding; so he wasn’t overly opposed to our plan of action. Mackalla and Ana exchanged glances and rose simultaneously; I couldn’t resist embarrassing Mackalla again, so I hugged him. He facepawed when I let him go and I laughed. “Take care,” Ana said softly, touching her muzzle to my cheek in a farewell gesture. “We’ll return soon.” Mackalla nodded and side-stepped, eager to be off.

I stepped back from the two predators, Mackalla grinned at us all, and they turned and began a brisk lope into the forest. James and I looked at Tahos expectantly; the Nila surprised us both by saying, “First thing we do when we get there… I find you another sword, James. Hard to make but worth it, for your skill. I never saw limbs lost so quickly.” Tahos grinned and James half-smiled as he rose to his feet. “So Tahos,” I mused aloud, “how exactly are you taking us there? S’an awfully long walk for humans.” The grey chuckled, “By Leasheas. No Alineo are wild around these parts.”

I gaped. Ride a Leasheas?? Was he insane?!

What felt like a heart-beat of earthquakes shook me awake, actually jostling my body up and down an inch or so. My body flooding its overworked, stressed system with yet more adrenaline, I was awake and staring around wide-eyed before my mind caught up and could process what I saw. My eyes had to adjust to the dim gloom first; only a few bonfire-sized torches were ensconced at regular intervals around the gargantuan cavern and they cast bizarre shadows everywhere. Or so I thought, until I saw it was the beasts who cast such alien shapes, not a fault of the burning fires. Trying to cope with this new danger, I sat up, my hands cold against the dank stone floor.

Still feeling the earth-shaking thumps, I looked around hazily… and froze. Some mammoth creature was striding towards me, and instinctively I shrank back. My back met gently moving flesh, and I flinched before realizing that the soft grey flank belonged to Za. I tore my eyes away from the approaching monster and frantically eyed the big Trahe; he didn’t seem to be seriously injured, but there were chains with foot-thick links binding him to a large metal stake in the floor. His quiet breathing was my only indication that he was still alive, and I took solace in that, well, for a moment anyways, we were both alive. My gaze returned to the black thing and I shivered, feeling more terrified than I ever had before.

It was about twenty-five feet tall, but a biped. Not quite built like a human, but not quite built like, say, a dinosaur. Its spine was tilted at a 45º angle, and it had no fur, merely lackluster, leathery flesh. Blades jutted out at its joints and along its arms and legs, as well as ringing its long, powerful tail several times. It had claws that made Za’s look like butterknives and an ugly, rounded head with a wickedly curved beak. Two luminous red eyes glowed, sending dimly ruddy rays across its matte black face. I bit my lip – this couldn’t be the Ajoitéi Prince, could it? Wouldn’t the Prince have to be an Ajoitéi?

I swallowed hard, shivering – the beast seemed to excrete terror as a waste product along with carbon dioxide. One ginsu-clawed hand reached for me and I shoved backwards in panic, staring at the four massive claws tipping the gnarled digits. But, trapped against Za’s flank, I had nowhere to run. The fingers closed around me and I was lifted up, struggling, to eye level with the monster. Sheer willpower was all that kept me from fainting as I felt the beast’s mind brush against mine. I shrank away, desperately wishing for a hole to crawl into and die. I’d never felt such evil before, and it burned terribly.

Ahh. So you are the one for which the Prince has been searching so intently. How ironic that you are in my possession. I wonder what he will trade for you?

I screamed. That voice, that oily putrid rotting voice… it was unbearable! So I screamed, and in doing so, I woke Za-shen-sai. A horrid, choking laugh sent rancid air into my lungs and I gagged, gasping as the monster dropped me from twenty feet up. I smacked into the stone floor with a loud clap, clutching my throat and trying to draw clean air into soiled lungs. I heard heavy metal clink and shift as the Trahe rose, apparently unaffected by the chains’ great weight. I finally began to breathe normally as the black biped moved away from me, laughing still in a metal-ripping voice.

I felt violated and had the urge to retch, though I held it back. Shivering, I curled into a little ball and wrapped my arms about my knees, rocking senselessly and trying to convince myself that I was being irrational. So what if the guy’s evil, powerful, and probably capable of killing everyone you love with a single word? Get a hold of yourself, girl! I closed my eyes and rocked, jerking in surprise and fear as I felt a touch around my shoulders.

But it was only Za. I guess I must have looked scruffy and pitiful; his tail curled around me gently and pulled me against his flank. I buried my face in his soft, shaggy fur, listening to the reassuringly steady sound of his heartbeat and swaying with every deep breath. I stayed that way for several long moments, and Za let me cry until I had no tears left. Normally, I’m a pretty fearless human being; not having a dangerous life usually does that to you. But this… this monster… if Satan were real, I’d gladly shake hands with him and call him a kind gentleman rather than even see this beast again!

My crumpled backpack was hanging awkwardly against me from only one strap, and I was surprised to realize I still had it. Honestly, the things one keeps around. I pulled it off my shoulder, dug through the contents, and found my notebook. I was a little over halfway through it, and it rather startled me to realize that this story was getting that long. I’d never written anything this long before… but then, I never wrote about real life before. So I sat down and scribbled the new parts in, debating on whether or not to write how badly I reacted to the black monster. But truth is truth, so I didn’t skimp on that part.

I had just put my notebook away and stuffed my bookbag out of sight when I heard now-familiar tremors rocking the earth. Steeling myself, I looked into the dim cavern and watched as the beast approached again with a confident stride. Za rumbled deep in his chest, carefully and distastefully enunciating a single word:

“Equitor.”

Oh ho, so you know my name, do you? Pity it won’t do you any good. I’ve finally caught your little Korat and thrown her in one of my deeper pits. I doubt she’ll live long enough to truly appreciate my hospitality with those wounds I gave her.

My eyes widened in horror and Za growled thickly, a stark contrast to his earlier musical voice. I clasped my hands to stop them from shaking as the monster… Equitor… continued speaking.

As for you, human… You are a pricy little creature. The Prince has promised me great things in return for handing you over alive. I envy you not; his fancies possibly exceed mine in cruelty. He will arrive on the morrow, and I am to have you unharmed until then… so behave yourself and perhaps I won’t teach you a lesson in pain. It would offend my colleague so.

Za-shen-sai shot to his paws and stepped over me, protecting me full-body as he snarled his rage. I cringed as Equitor’s mind-voice rang out, obviously broadcasted by the way other creatures stopped mid-stride to watch.

You, Trahe, have no such guarantee on your life. I can do to you what I please. And I think, after the hassle that the Korat gave me, that I will.

“NO!” I cried, trying to do something – possibly dart in front of Za to stop Equitor from carrying out his threat. Za tensed, corded muscles sending ripples down his velvet grey pelt. But we both badly underestimated Equitor’s speed. The black monster half-turned, presenting his flank to the Trahe, and his tail suddenly lashed out, catching Za across the chest and flinging him backwards with enough force that his chains were shattered. I ducked and flattened myself to the ground to avoid metal shrapnel, then looked up only to find the Trahe landing with a crash a hundred feet away.

Equitor’s choking laugh drowned out my scream.

But my fears went unrealized for the moment; Za-shen-sai staggered to his paws, shaken but not badly damaged in the least… excepting a row of deep punctures near his collarbone. Equitor, still laughing, turned and began walking with steady steps away. I prayed that this would be it, Za would just come back to me… but nothing ever works out like you want it in real life.

Za’s powerful jaws parted and he roared, a deafening sound louder than thunder; I pressed my hands against my ears but they still rang painfully as the Trahe sprang forward into a run. The distance between the two closed in what seemed to be the blink of an eye; I sucked in a terrified breath and for a moment thought that Za might actually kill the monster as he lunged. Time stood still as Equitor turned with deadly speed and ripped his bladed arm across Za’s grey-furred throat.

The Trahe crumpled to the ground in a spray of gore, blood beginning to pool around him.

I froze, stunned, before scrambling to my feet and racing forward, abandoning my backpack where a metal shard had ripped the last strap. “Za! Za-shen-sai!” I cried, feeling tears start as I skidded to a stop near his head and hit my knees. His beautifully golden eyes were half-open and already glazing over; I couldn’t bring myself to look at the tattered remains of his throat. I threw my arms around his softly-furred muzzle and wept, begging him to heal and live. One broad paw slowly reached up and pressed gently against my shoulder, then slid away limply. I raised my tear-stained face from his velvet grey fur and collapsed into myself, sobbing helplessly.

I couldn’t stop crying; I felt like Za’s death was my fault. If he hadn’t tried to protect me, if he’d never even met me… then he might still be alive… Shoulders shaking, I pushed the heels of my hands into my eyes, trying to get myself together. A sudden rush of warmth forced me to raise my head, and I saw Za’s massive body surrounded by an almost unnoticeable golden light. And then… with a brighter, dazzling flash of white-gold light… he disappeared.

I was too shocked to start crying again for a long moment, and all I could manage to whisper was, “Goodbye, Za-shen-sai.” Tears filled my eyes but I forced myself to stand and walk stiffly towards my bookbag, turning my back on the appalling blood-stained patch of stone floor. Still shaking, I sank down and pulled my bookbag onto my lap when I reached it, sniffling and vainly trying not to continue bawling my eyes out. The measured click of hard objects against rock brought my attention upwards, and I stared blankly as a tangerine-colored Ajoitéi dropped Tahos at my feet and left silently.

The Nila was roughed up and bruised with several small cuts marring his steel-grey pelt; well-woven ropes bound his hands behind his back and his ankles to his wrists in a very contorted position. I was almost glad he was unconscious. Mechanically, I began working at the knots, wishing half-heartedly that he still had a knife or three. Maybe I could sink one into Equitor’s eye while I was at it; I doubted a weapon could pierce through that tough hide of his.

It took about ten minutes of steady working with one knot to convince me that human hands weren’t going to free Tahos. So I lifted his head and slid my bookbag under it, setting him back down and edging closer to him. He was unconscious, but I took comfort in his presence nonetheless. I fervently wished for Mackalla to be brought to me as well, or even Fire. Or Ana, but I had a sinking feeling when I pictured her in my mind – wounded badly, tossed into that pit Equitor mentioned. My mind stayed soothingly numb everytime I thought of the monster, so my thinking processes went fairly smoothly for the time being.

Twenty minutes passed as I stared sightlessly at Tahos, eyes unfocused and mind blank. More steady steps coming towards me didn’t elicit any reaction; I noted them and ignored them. They weren’t Equitor, and I no longer feared anything less than that evil beast. A sudden intake of breath behind me also didn’t get me to move, but a sharp nip to my shoulder did. I jerked violently and looked up, eyes focusing on a tawny face and deep brown eyes. Mackalla.

He looked at me for a long moment and I couldn’t break his gaze, feeling utterly responsible for what had happened. I had to face the music, and I guess such resolution was plain in my eyes because the Heifia stepped closer and awkwardly hugged me with one foreleg. I bit my lip and managed not to start crying again, but felt better for some reason. Mackalla reached his muzzle out and snapped Tahos’ bonds with one sharp-toothed bite and I idly rubbed my shoulder, feeling blood slowly ooze where he’d nipped me. Just a small, fresh stain on my already-crimson T-shirt.

“So I guess Equitor is the guy you and Ana were worried about, huh?” My voice cracked when I spoke and even to me, my tone was bitter. Mackalla nodded solemnly and for the first time, I noticed he’d lost the top half of his right ear; it’d already healed cleanly but jaggedly. I felt an irrational stab of guilt for the fact that I’d gone so far reasonably unharmed. But then, there’s a price on my head, I thought acidly, and soon enough I’ll wish I’d died with Za. Can the Ajoitéi Prince really be as wicked as Equitor?

Tahos groaned, snapping me out of my thoughts. He slowly pulled his hands to his stomach as he sat up, rubbing his wrists and grimacing. “That did not end well,” he muttered, turning to face us and nodding a brief acknowledgement to me – I figured he’d seen and smelled enough to tell the story. I scowled down at my hands, then blinked as my bookbag was thumped into my lap. Tahos twitched his slight muzzle in a tiny grin before glancing to Mackalla… not that the Heifia knew what to do either.

“Ana’s captured too. Wounded and emprisoned in some pit,” I blurted out quietly, earning startled and horrified glances from Tahos and Mackalla respectively. “How do you know?” Mackalla whispered, trying to keep his voice low as an Ajoitéi passed close by. I glared at him, but after a moment it was clear he didn’t understand, and I decided that my being angry was not going to help. I sighed through pursed lips, “Equitor told me.”

Tahos’ hand gripped my arm tightly and I looked at him in surprise. “You talked to him?” I nodded silently and was pulled into an abrupt and crushing hug. “No wonder you are upset,” he whispered in my ear before letting me go. Mackalla face-pawed briefly before glancing around. “Well, we don’t have any specific guards, but I doubt they’re going to let us walk around freely. And we can’t leave Ana in here.”

“No duh,” I grumbled, thinking of the proud black Korat. “I think her race would be kinda ticked if we let their Original die, don’tcha think?” I received twin shocked looks from both Nila and Heifia and rolled my eyes, about to say something to the point of ‘I do know this planet and her people,’ but a sharp look from Mackalla stopped me short. “Equitor,” he said in a very quiet, low voice, “does not know why the Prince wants you so badly. Keep it that way and he won’t take you as his own prize.”

Tahos spoke up, leaning into our little circle in his intensity. “Ana can save herself once she heals a little. She can call Portals. Perhaps she will save us as well, and we won’t have to worry about escaping through all these Evils.” We all fell silent after that, hope renewed at least in some small way. After all, Ana was an Original, a being that would never die of old age, a being that was supposedly one of the best of her species. If anyone could get us out, she could. And anyways, we weren’t exactly able to take on the however-many hundreds of Evils – dang, Tahos has got me calling them that – down here in this hell-hole.

I took the time to examine the types of Evils working and walking in the cavern. Aside from Ajoitéi, there were these extremely tall (20+ feet) blue-green bipeds. They had long legs and shallow chests – I noticed webbed fingers and toes so assumed they were amphibious. Their heads were vaguely humanoid, with thick lips and flat teeth, but they had four knobs set around the top of their skull, one facing in front, another behind, and one to each side. In those knobs were set eyeballs, small in proportion but, by the way they flicked around, I guessed they had great eyesight, and a 360º view to boot. They had long arms with the consistency of wet noodles, but as I watched one lift a boulder several times its weight over its head, I had to admit that they were strong. In place of hands, they had spiked clubs. To complete the freakish body, they had a short vestigial tail and almost humanoid feet… if humans had longer, webbed toes with claws protruding, anyways. I saw a lot that had apparently painted their claws very bright colors for… I don’t know. Rank, amusement, out of boredom.

“Those are Foruques,” I murmured as the name popped into my head with sudden familiarity. Tahos and Mackalla nodded but said nothing; they, too, were watching. First rule of war – know your enemy. Or… something like that, anyways.

The only other type of creature was obviously not a warrior-type. It looked like a walking donut with short little hooved legs, short, skinny arms and nimble four-fingered hands. (Get used to Lavanians having three fingers and an elongated thumb – that’s the most common type of hand here. Of course, hands are rare in the first place. Most often paws, or talons.) They had short, scruffy fur and looked like bruises – purplish bluish brownish black. Their heads resembled something you might find stuck on a medieval gargoyle, but they had humanoid teeth and I rather thought they weren’t inherently evil. They looked like messengers, or just slaves. There wasn’t anything really nasty about them to make my skin crawl, unlike how I felt when I saw an Ajoitéi or Foruque.

“Gizirs. The little bruised donuts,” I said, a grin tugging at my lips; for some inane reason, I found the three-foot beasts amusing. I felt Tahos lay his hand on my shoulder, and by then I was struggling not to laugh. The Nila inclined his torso slightly in Mackalla’s direction.

“She is tired. As you are. Sleep. I will watch, and wake you when I can watch no more. If we are to escape, we need our strength.” Tahos said this in his species’ non-growling language and I was delighted that I understood it; I’d studied that tongue long and hard. It and Kalash were the only ones I had worked at, though I seemed to understand the other Lavanian languages that I’d heard so far as well. But I humored the Nila and pretended not to understand, which wasn’t hard as I clamped my hand over my mouth to muffle my asinine laughter.

Mackalla nodded and nosed my elbow, “Go to sleep. Tahos will stand guard.” I know he meant to be comforting but I had the mental image of Tahos proudly standing up and peering around the cavern as various Evils looked at him like he was dense. My laughter bubbled up again and I knew I needed sleep if I found that funny. So as Mackalla made himself comfortable on the stony ground, I lay down next to him and used my bookbag as a pillow. I fell asleep surprisingly quickly, once I felt Mackalla’s muzzle resting lightly on my shoulder.

I dreamt of glowing red eyes, lackluster black blades, and spilt blood.

My mind gradually woke up, swimming upwards from a tangle of nightmares and finally breaking the surface as I cracked open one eye. Bright sunlight streamed down and I shut the eye again, stirring and checking limbs for damage. Funny, I couldn’t feel my legs, and it felt like some massive boulder was on my torso. I must have gotten banged up pretty badly, I mused. My shoulders ached, probably from using Tahos’ rod, and thinking of him brought me up short as I remembered how I’d passed out. But I couldn’t sit up; that boulder was becoming a real pain.

Wait. Boulder? My mind finally switched to ‘on’ and I forced my eyes to open, despite the dazzling sunlight. I felt my pupils spazz, and the first thing I saw was some massive grey construct on my stomach. Boulder…? I blinked, trying to focus, and heard this immeasurably deep hum above my head. I peered upwards as the sun was abruptly blocked out by another grey object, this one swinging down towards me from a height of almost three stories. My mind kicked into gear with what felt like a physical whirr, and I focused my eyes on the hundred-pound weight on my stomach. It was no boulder.

It was a paw.

Wide-eyed, I slowly, deliberately looked up at what was blocking out the sun. Intelligent, owl-round eyes blinked back at me curiously from above a broad, heavy muzzle. I gulped and eased my shoulders and head back to the soft, cool grass, turning my face slightly to the left to instead examine one of the beaded strands. A whuffling noise around my head drew my gaze back upwards, and I watched the velvet grey head inspect my trapped body. (If you’re wondering at my actions, well… I was scared out of my mind and didn’t really wanna deal with reality. I mean, you try waking up under a paw bigger than your dog and see how you react when the beast that it’s attached to sniffs you.)

After a moment of inspection, the creature drew back and with a rustle of shaggy fur, settled back onto his haunches, paw still lightly resting on my torso. The hundred pounds of weight was eased up slightly by the movement, and I could breathe a little easier. Blood rushed into my legs, giving me a horrible few seconds of intense pins-and-needles. Biting my lip, I peered upwards at the creature and finally identified it as a Trahe. (Knowing stats on a creature is a tad different than recognizing a real one, y’know?)

Trahes are sentient carnivores, like most everything on Lavana. This one seemed to be on the big end of the scale, probably twenty-five feet at the shoulder; his paw was a little over three feet wide. They’re Athian-shape… Athian being a broad category akin to feline, canine, equine, etc. A vaguely dinosaurian head, four long, well-muscled legs, a strong torso, a medium-length neck, and a powerful tail often ending in a scythe-shaped tailblade – that’s basic Athian shape. Anyways, Trahes range in height from fifteen feet up to the aforementioned twenty-five, being long-legged and simply massive beasts with soft, shaggy fur and a tailblade only on males. They have a nice set of sharp, jagged teeth and no visible ears, not to mention those paws have these gargantuan retractable claws.

The Trahe rumbled again, a beautifully smooth tone of deep bass. I looked to my right out of instinct and saw Tahos, unconscious but apparently healed. I blinked; Nila don’t heal that quickly. A soft exhalation sent waves of warm air over my face, and I stared up into the Trahe’s deeply golden eyes, no longer afraid. Despite numerous muscle-aches, I didn’t feel too bad, and wanted to stand up… but how was I going to get that across? Not all Lavanians know Kalash, but I tried it anyways.

“Botsa ze cha. My name is Shane. May I get up?”

The Trahe cocked his head (no female would ever be that big) and rumbled something unintelligible. I cautiously laid my hand against one of his four toes and pushed, just enough to let him feel pressure. Gently, he removed his paw and I sat up, looking at my absolutely filthy state with some dismay. Being coated in Heifia and Blood Cat gore is rarely a good thing. I felt blood caked not only on my shirt, jeans, and arms, but also crusting in my hair and some drying on my face as well. I smelled ripe even to my dull nose; I can only imagine how much I stank to the Trahe.

Now that I was officially awake, I could remember several things and thus question them. Such as… if the bad guys had won, why wasn’t I captured or dead? Where was my bookbag? If Tahos was here, why weren’t Fire and Mackalla? Were they healed somewhere too, or had they been captured? Killed? I shuddered to think of my two friends dead, but I knew it was a strong possibility. Where was Ana during all this anyways? And who was this Trahe? A good guy? I’d like to think so, remembering that roar I’d heard just as I passed out…

A mellifluous noise caught my attention and jerked me away from my thoughts, and I looked up quizzically at the Trahe. “Do you know Kalash?” A blank look was my only response and I groaned, before picking self-consciously at my blood-caked clothing. My mom would kill me if she saw me right now, I mused irrationally. Almost as though the Trahe caught my train of thought, he lowered his muzzle; I stopped myself from shrinking back only with sheer willpower. After all, I was sure he wasn’t going to hurt me… so why did I start shaking when his jaws opened to reveal two rows of massive, sharp teeth?

I cringed and shut my eyes, sure that I was about to become a snack – then felt a warm, rough tongue lick the side of my face. Had I dared to move, I probably would have raised an eyebrow. But I stayed still and got the most thorough grooming (the only grooming) of my life, and after the five minutes was over, I was as clean as one could expect to be after a bath of saliva and not shampoo. At least I didn’t smell like a rotting carcass anymore.

The Trahe leaned back on his haunches and grinned at me, curling his upper lip and dropping his jaw – a slightly frightening expression, but I was so accustomed to seeing it from Mackalla that it didn’t disturb me much. I folded my legs, much to the Athian’s amusement, and pointed exaggeratedly to myself. “Shane.” Well, you have to start somewhere when you want to communicate. Names are usually good.

The velvet grey male cocked his head, then raised his long tail and pressed the flat of his silver tailblade against his deep chest. “Za-shen-sai.” Contrary to his earlier ‘words’, his name was remarkably easy to pronounce. I inclined my torso in a shallow bow, then gestured vaguely about myself. “Human.” And I pointed to him with another vague wave, “Trahe.” He nodded his agreement – species and individual names tend to be translingual, spanning most languages on Lavana.

The audible growling of my stomach stopped my next thought from being spoken and I looked down stupidly, remembering that I’d not eaten since… well… I didn’t even know if I’d been knocked out for one day or five. So who knows when I’d last eaten. Peering at the sun skeptically, I did figure out that I must’ve been unconscious through the night, at least. A soft snore from Tahos startled me, and I looked over at the grey Nila with expectant eyes; but no, he just resettled himself into the grass without even waking up. Biting my lip to stop myself from laughing, I scanned the area – well, as much as I could see around the Trahe’s shaggy bulk.

We were in a meadow, pale blue beadgrass carpeting the rich soil and multi-colored flowers scattered amid the short grass. Fairly small trees formed a grove a little bit away on my left and in a circular line all the way behind me. Behind Za-shen-sai was a gleefully burbling stream, and on the other side of that were more trees. To my left, where the forest started, there were several bushes; I recognized a few as having edible fruit. And I really was starving.

Glancing at Tahos, I decided that he wasn’t in much danger and, cautiously, watching Za-shen-sai to see if movement upset him, I rose to my feet. He emitted another deep-bass rumble but didn’t move to stop me. Keeping an eye on him, I made my way over to the bushes; Za rose and followed me, surprisingly quiet for his size. On the way there, I saw my bookbag – tattered and slightly blood-stained, but very much intact. Mentally celebrating, I slung it on my back and crouched near the bushes. Huge berries, shaped almost like rounded pyramids, hung from the black stems among the scarlet leaves of the bush; they were that odd color I mentioned before, like someone took two orbs of light, one silver and one gold, merged them, and turned them into paint.

Recognizing the berries as edible nonetheless (gotta love foreknowledge of things), I picked one and tasted it cautiously, prepared for an awful bitterness or sickly sweetness… but instead found them crisp and refreshing, without a very strong taste but somewhat melon-like in texture. “Nummies,” I commented aloud, snagging several more and wolfing them down until my stomach stopped gurgling. I made a point to stuff myself, not knowing when I’d next have a chance to eat, before I rose, stretched, and wandered over to the stream. Za trailed me quietly, his beautiful gold eyes observing my every move. Looking into the foot-deep stream, the water so clear I could see every pebble on the bottom, I couldn’t spot any fish nor dangers.

Grinning to myself, I set my backpack on the grassy bank and kicked my poor, abused tennis shoes off, as well as my tattered socks. Peering at them, I mentally wished for Nila-made clothing – it’s much tougher than cotton and even denim – and stepped carefully into the stream. The water was wonderfully cold, and I did the best I could in the ways of washing up, lacking soap and towels, though I doubt I’d have gotten all the gore off had Za not cleaned me first. Pretty much ripping my hairtie from my tangled hair, I dunked my head in the stream and came up gasping, shaking off doggishly and forcing my matted curls back into a ponytail.

I clambered out of the stream, refreshed and ready for a new day. Tahos was waiting for me in a crouch on the bank, right next to Za as though they were best buds. I raised an eyebrow as I put my socks and shoes back on, “Can you talk to him?” Tahos shook his head silently, spreading open palms as he murmured, “I am weaponless, as are you. I suggest staying with him; he seems to like you. And you must tell me what happened. Where are Fire and Mackalla?”

I cringed as I came to stand next to him, Za settling to his haunches within a few feet of both of us. “First things first… his name is Za-shen-sai. What happened? We retreated from the first batch of Ajoitéi… then another batch ambushed us. We fought… well, considering, we fought pretty well. But we were overpowered. The last thing I remember was a crack across my skull and an unfamiliar roar… then I passed out. I don’t know where they are, or even where we are.” The Nila turned a thoughtfully expressionless gaze on the stream, rising with smooth suddenness and descending the slight bank to drink deeply. “There’re berries over there,” I mumbled, pointing towards the bushes. He nodded, giving me a look that clearly said he’d already eaten some.

Feeling stupidly awkward without Mackalla around, I folded my arms and looked up at Za-shen-sai, getting misty-eyed as I realized once more how incredible this all was. I was on Lavana… alive, nonetheless! And fairly safe. Now, if only Mackalla, Fire, and Ana would find us…

“DOWN!” Tahos’ shout didn’t really register until his leap carried him straight into me, knocking me flat, his clawed hand pressing my face against the warm earth. The metallic sound of gunshots rang out across the peaceful meadow, and I snarled into the dirt, rolling away from Tahos and staring across the stream. Sarge and Samson both stood there with their guns, Sarge firing away and Samson taking careful aim on Za-shen-sai. Feeling the urge to scream and thrash them both for being utter idiots, I instead rolled a little farther as Sarge’s aim skewed a bit. Tahos rolled the other way, and Sarge’s gun followed the Nila’s path.

“Hah! Not so tough without your big stick, are you, alien scum?!” I raised an eyebrow at the cheesiness before scrambling up the bank, fairly sure that Sarge had totally lost his marbles. To my surprise, Za wasn’t even perturbed – but then, how would a Trahe know what guns could do to a body? I twisted around to see Samson about to squeeze off a shot, right at Za’s head… I froze, stumbled but caught myself, and quite literally screamed out the words,

“STOP! HE’S SENTIENT!”

This didn’t stop Sarge from letting his ammo chase Tahos, but Samson froze, staring at me with a very unnerved gaze, his mouth forming a round ‘O’ of shock. I took this time to run the short distance separating me from Za and planted myself firmly in front of the massive beast, flinging my arms wide as though I, alone, could stop both men from killing him. (Ignore the fact that his head and even chest were higher than the top of my head – I was trying to be stupid and brave here!) Tahos was dodging well enough on his own, and he’d learned the danger of guns; I couldn’t let Za-shen-sai die because of a stupid human!

Abruptly, the steady noise of gunfire slowed and stopped; my eyes widened as Sarge stared at Samson… and then sharply cuffed the younger man across the back of the head. “Samson! Are you waiting for a written invitation? FIRE!” Samson shook his head and let his gun fall to his side; I peered at him and, to my amazement, saw tears streaking down his cheeks. I bit my lip and looked around for Tahos, but the Nila had disappeared into thin air. At least he hadn’t gotten shot this time. I swallowed hard as Sarge leveled his gun at me; steeling myself, I prepared to… well… die.

Tahos erupted from the brush behind Sarge and tackled him, claws ripping the fine military clothing to shreds and one blow sending the gun clattering into the stream. Samson flinched and backed away from the furious Nila, while Sarge managed to throw Tahos off his back and meet him head on to grapple. Not a very smart move on his part; Nila are stronger and faster than humans, not to mention they have fangs and claws. Tahos practically mauled the guy; Samson looked torn between helping and staring in utter shock at Za. I had to wonder if he realized that Tahos was sentient, too.

I almost requested Tahos not to kill Sarge, but I held my tongue when I remembered that Sarge had nearly killed not only the grey warrior, but Mackalla and Fire as well. Za-shen-sai lowered his muzzle and nudged me lightly, deep gold eyes questioning. I laid one hand on his soft fur and just shook my head, sighing. I couldn’t explain Sarge even if Za did know Kalash. I closed my eyes silently, then went rigid as I heard splashing. Spinning, I relaxed about a millimeter as Samson, unarmed, made his way towards us. Somehow, Sarge was still avoiding death by Nila fury on the opposite bank.

“It… he… he’s really… sentient? Self-aware? Like us?” Samson’s voice was incredulous and awed; I nodded, positioning myself between the Trahe and soldier. Completely unnecessary, but I was feeling extra-protective at that moment. The blond stopped, holding up empty hands and giving me a soulful, pitiful look. “I understand now,” he said quietly, eyes beseeching me to let him pass. I scowled for a moment, arms folded, before Za reached his muzzle over me and sniffed at Samson’s hair. I blinked and he flinched, but overall he reacted quite well to a beast twenty-five feet tall smelling him. Za exhaled strongly and withdrew his head, gently touching his muzzle to my shoulder as if to say I approve. I glared at Samson.

I heard Tahos snarl richly and looked beyond Samson to see the Nila fling Sarge into a tree, bristling bloody-clawed. I winced at the crack of flesh against rock-hard bark, but an actual growl from Za got my complete attention. I spun and watched as he rose and half-turned, eyes narrowing slightly. I caught sight of a tawny form loping towards us alongside an ebony beast and let out a wordless shout of glee, quickly followed by their names.

“Mackalla! Ana!”

I shot forward as they both halted several meters from Za, who was acting slightly defensive (or possessive, however you’d like to see it) of either his lands or those on it. To his credit, Mackalla didn’t flinch when I finally reached him and threw my arms about his neck, hugging him tightly. I heard Ana chuckling softly and, although I really did know better than to hug a Korat, I embraced her briefly, startled that she didn’t shove me away. “Where’s Fire?” I asked immediately, reluctantly removing myself from both coarse canine fur and sleek Koratian pelt.

Mackalla grinned at me. “He’s fine. Off doing some of his own work.”

Za rumbled in his chest, relaxing his sentinel-stance a little and settling to his haunches, his four-foot-long tailblade clinking softly against the ground. “So what happened when I got knocked out?” Mackalla shrugged and looked to Ana, whose muzzle creased in an almost gentle smile at me. I felt a little surprised to be getting such a kindly look from a Korat renowned for her prowess in battle.

“The Portal that brought you here was… difficult to control, and so it dropped you several leagues from me. Good thinking on the help cry – it helped me pinpoint your location, and warned me that you’d already found trouble. I collected a few local allies on my way; Za-shen-sai was one of the local Madreni who joined my run. As the battle commenced, I asked him to take you and Tahos to a safe place. Now that we’ve killed the rest of the enemy, here we are.”

I bobbed my head as I absorbed all of this, looking at Za with new gratitude. He hummed in his throat, amusement and affection intermingling in the deep sound. I grinned and returned my attention to Ana by asking, “So everything’s okay now, right?”

Mackalla answered for her with a snort, “Not quite, but for now we’re as safe as we’re going to get. Tahos,” he raised his voice to a half-shout, “Leave off with the poor cresh already! He’s thrashed.” I muffled my laughter, then noticed Samson half-hiding behind Za’s haunch. I narrowed my eyes slightly and turned my back, but Ana caught my look. She rose gracefully and padded towards the young man, who shrank back and accidently bumped against the Trahe’s shaggy self. He flinched and looked so panicked that I was guilt-tripped into calling, “She won’t eat you. Come over here.”

“Are you sure?” At least he didn’t stutter, I thought to myself as I nodded affirmation. Ana escorted him to us, Mackalla flattening his ears and Samson wincing. I folded my arms, still stubbornly refusing to like the guy. Keeping to Kalash, I muttered, “He’s one of the good guys now, I guess. His name is Samson.” Tahos joined us shortly, leaving a bloodied, unmoving, but still living Sarge on the other side of the stream. He scowled at Samson but said nothing, assuming his usual crouch at Mackalla’s side. Samson swallowed nervously, blue eyes darting from Lavanian to Lavanian, and to me occasionally. I wasn’t about to make this any easier for him, though.

An edged noise from Za-shen-sai drew both Heifian and Koratian gazes upwards, then the three silently moved to the middle of the meadow. I raised both eyebrows and shot Tahos a questioning gaze; he shrugged and simply watched. I kneeled next to him and did the same, only slightly annoyed when Samson crouched next to me.

The three arranged themselves in a triangle, Ana and Mackalla dwarfed by the huge Trahe. The deepest, most profound sound I’ve ever heard came from his slightly parted jaws in the form of a smooth hum. Mackalla joined in with a gorgeous tenor and Ana added a rich alto to the mix; combined, they produced a three-part symphony of single notes, drawn out and held steady without fluctuation. My eyes went wide at the soulful sound, then misty as often happens when I’m around beautiful music.

Ana led the way with her graceful voice, singing wordlessly from note to note, climbing into higher ranges before descending; Mackalla matched her with the opposite, falling into baritone as she ascended before he began to measure out higher notes as hers deepened. Za provided a steady background, occasionally fluctuating notes and dynamics with the effect of roiling thunder, or maybe a waterfall that learned to sing. This symphony went on for several minutes, during which not one of us watching made a peep, nor did we take their eyes from the three singers.

The end was almost painful, Za’s voice deepening even farther as Ana’s rose into soprano and Mackalla’s sank into baritone and then bass. All three held the same note, separated by several octaves, for about twenty seconds before cutting off at the exact same time. I let out a breath that I’d not realized I’d held and grinned broadly, brushing at my eyes before wondering how Lavanians applaud. (Hey, I don’t know everything.) But Tahos supplied me with the appropriate (or so I hoped) motion, thumping his chest with his fist appreciatively. I mimicked him, got a weird look, and just grinned at him. By now, he probably thought I was crazy, but apparently he didn’t care; he simply shook his head and looked back towards the three quadrupeds.

I took the opportunity to sneak a glance at Samson, who was, to my surprise, crying. Feeling vaguely responsible, I was about to say something consoling when Ana, Mackalla, and Za returned. The Trahe touched the soldier with his muzzle and Samson abruptly stopped, looking up with wet cheeks at the Athian and cautiously resting his hand on the end of Za’s muzzle. I scowled at Samson’s back without any real annoyance behind the expression and looked at Mackalla. “That was… beautiful.” He pawed at his face in apparent embarrassment, but Ana laughed softly. “Trahes have a custom of singing. Heifias do not.” I grinned and nodded my understanding, stretching. Maybe today wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

When I look back on that day, I swear it was that thought that jinxed it.

I sat down and scribbled the whole adventure so far into my notebook, bringing you up to date and figuring that when it was all over, I’d end up typing it up on my computer and editing it to make it pretty. Maybe I’d even show it to some of my ‘net friends, or my role-players. But until then, I’m going to hang with Mackalla and Ana, and see what life brings. After all, Lavana isn’t so bad when you have protectors… and friends.

After writing that, I stuffed my notebook back into my bookbag, dug up the rest of my food (which was kinda stale but still edible) and ate it, mostly through desire to taste something human than actual hunger. I pointed Samson in the direction of the berries, and he trusted me enough to eat them. Ana sprawled in the sun, Mackalla settled next to me, and Za kept watch – not that anything was going to invade his territory. What would be that stupid?

You know the answer to that, don’t you?

This time, I felt the danger before anyone else. My spine stiffened and I sat up straight, looking around with an alarmed expression. When I gave him a pointed look, Mackalla raised a furred brow and sniffed the wind but, with a shake of his head, indicated that he didn’t smell anything out of place. But that creepy, adrenaline-producing feeling was still buzzing at my nerves, so I stood up and looked around. Ana caught this and did the same, but she sank back down after deciding that nothing was amiss. So why was I so hyped up?

Samson eyeballed me like I was crazy. Za rumbled a soothing purr. I scowled at the first and sighed at the second, flopping back down and leaning against Mackalla. “So I’m nuts,” I muttered as, over the next several minutes, my little alarm didn’t bear fruit… but nor did it go away. “It’s just nerves. I don’t blame you.” Mackalla’s sympathy really didn’t help, and I tried to calm myself down, but by now adrenaline was in full force and inducing a fight-or-flight mental state. I was on a hair-trigger.

So when the deafening crack of what sounded like thunder beat against my ears, I was up and ready to go a sheer instant before even Ana was. A bright light blazed across the meadow, seemingly coming from all sides – it blinded us, and without sight nor hearing, how could we possibly fight back? Something sinewy wrapped around my throat and I thrashed wildly, but lack of oxygen soon forced me into limpness.

Again the blackness came for me, and this time I had no assurance that I would wake up.

You know how when some critical point is reached in a movie, like the hero’s girlfriend is falling off a bridge or something, time seems to slow? Well, it doesn’t do that, no matter how utterly shocked you are. No matter how much you wish those seconds turned into minutes so that you could save someone. Just tough luck in the real world, I guess.

Sarge had fired off a round at the unconscious Blood Cat’s head. Frozen with shock and fear, by the time I shook myself out of it, I had no way to do anything. (What was I gonna do, you wonder? Had I not been stunned, I probably would’ve tried to jump in front of the bullets. Yep. I never said I was sane, you know.) Tahos was pretty much crippled, having been shot in the hip, and he had no knives left to try and skew Sarge’s aim. Fire himself was still passed out cold, though healing. Sarge was wounded, sure, but his arms and eyes weren’t damaged in the least.

Are you waiting for me to announce that Fire dies, despite all my efforts to keep him alive after he saved me? If I were the reader, I’d be clutching the book and threatening to burn it if Fire died. But that’s just me. And anyways, if I were writing this like some sci-fi/fantasy story, things wouldn’t have gotten this bad in the first place. Mackalla, Ana, and I would have arrived in a tight little group, probably met up with Tahos just for the heck of it, and then stayed in one spot… possibly fighting off a few enemies but never taking any real injuries… until everything settled down and some hero got rid of the Ajoitéi Prince. But then, the real story is nothing like that.

The gun-shots rang out with an oddly brassy sound, and a scream burst from Sarge’s lips as a tawny form clamped powerful jaws around the man’s arm, skewing his aim at the last second so that the artillery passed over Fire’s body. I saw one bullet take a small chunk out of his ear; that’s how close it was. I sucked in a deep breath and darted to Fire, placing myself between him and Sarge, several meters distant. Suicidal, no, protective, yes. Streaks of blood marred Mackalla’s normally golden-brown pelt and I had to wonder how many fights he’d gotten in already. Tahos staggered upright, leaning heavily on his rod, and watched as Heifia and human played tug-of-war with the mini-Uzi.

“Ana?” I said into the air quietly, hoping devoutly that the black was nearby. My eyes narrowed at Samson’s rather shocked face as he tried to hold Sarge up (remember, he’d gotten a knife in the thigh) while trying to dodge heavy paw-swipes from Mackalla. Not that the Heifia had sharp claws, really, just a lot of power behind those blows. Tahos glanced discreetly at me and shook his head ever so slightly; I wondered if he knew her and decided that either way, he’d know if there was someone nearby. So we’d lost the Korat. Grrrreat.

I was still looking at Tahos when I heard the gun go off once. My heart stopped for the umpteenth time that day and I stared in horror at the fighters, seeing Mackalla’s right shoulder gush blood. A solid kick to the skull sent the Heifia staggering back and crumpling, and I fervently prayed that the bullet had missed his lung. From the look of it, his shoulder blade had to have been shattered, disabling his right foreleg. Tahos had wide eyes too, and he somehow used his rod as a crutch and lunged awkwardly at Sarge.

“Mackalla!” The belated cry escaped my lips and I, too, lunged, hitting my knees next to the panting canine and again becoming a human shield. Though I was really starting to doubt that Sarge would hesitate to shoot me. And by moving so, I left Fire open to attack; he was still unconscious. Thousands of thoughts seemed to tear through my head and leave me breathless as I watched Tahos wield his rod against Sarge’s swinging fists and randomly firing gun, the Nila somehow balancing on his good left leg and still not taking any serious hits. Samson, still supporting Sarge, seemed to be trying to pull the man away from Tahos’ bloodied grey form; maybe he’d noted the fangs and claws, or maybe he sensed that there was something drastically wrong with this picture. The guy seemed to have more morals than his commander, that’s for sure.

“This is ridiculous,” I heard Mackalla growl raspily behind me, “a Nila and a Heifia outdone by two… no, one… human with a single weapon.” Startled to find him still conscious, I half-spun on my knees just as he said, “And you shouldn’t be in this. Why aren’t you hiding?” An incredulous look passed over my face as I saw the Heifia struggling to sit up – maybe he wasn’t as bad off as I’d thought! – but I raised an eyebrow about the hiding bit. “I don’t hide, Mackalla,” I informed him, before laying a cautious hand against the wound. “Is it bad? Can you heal with a bullet in you?” His broad muzzle swung side-to-side in a negative, and I grimaced as he whispered, “You’re going to have to get it out of me.”

I swallowed my heart and with a nervous glance over my shoulder at Tahos, Sarge, and Samson, I probed the wound with my fingers as gently as possible, using my left hand since my right was covered in Blood Cat gore. “Shoulder blade?” I inquired, and a growl answered me, “Pocked but not fractured. The bullet’s nestled in it, I think.” I whistled a half-nervous, half-relieved tune as I felt the still-hot ball of metal. Trying not to cause any more damage to singed and torn nerves, I pinched the bullet between two fingers and pulled it out, tossing it to the ground in a slightly spastic motion. The Heifia nosed my chin, a silent thank-you, before he lay down and slipped into a very deep healing trance.

A loud curse rang out behind me and I turned again, head half-spinning but sheer willpower preventing me from panicking as I saw Tahos had lost his rod. Helpless and barely able to stand on one good leg, the Nila stared with wide gold eyes at Sarge, who had his gun pointed straight at him. I swear I felt my own pupils dilate at the sight and, without conscious thought, I found myself tackling Sarge, football-style. Due to momentum, or maybe anger-fueled strength, I did manage to knock him down and away from Samson. One strong kick on my part sent his gun skittering towards Tahos, who sank into a painful crouch and claimed it. Of course, that was all I managed as Sarge threw me off and into Samson, who of course grabbed me.

My eyes swept the little clearing-turned-battlefield; Tahos had the gun, Sarge was unarmed, Mackalla in trance and Fire still unconscious, the latter two healing nicely from their severe wounds. So really, we should be winning. Samson had me from behind so with a slightly wolfish grin, I stamped his foot and then back-kicked him right in the… well, you know. He howled and let me go; I spun and delivered a roundhouse to his head and a side-kick to his gut with some vengeance. He went down but was already getting up as I shot to Tahos’ side, his rod in my hand. We exchanged weapons and I leveled the heavy beast of a gun at Sarge and Samson, hoping that it worked like normal guns and all I had to do was pull the trigger. (Oh come on, I’d gone hunting with my dad before, but using military weapons is not one of my hobbies.)

For a split second as Sarge threw his arm around Samson’s neck, both of them scrambled up, and Tahos and I faced them, it was stalemate. Not much of a stalemate, more of a second’s thought of ‘oh, crap’ on their part and slightly vengeful grins on ours. My little morality-alert tickled my chest and informed me that I really couldn’t shoot either soldier, or at least not shoot to kill. I felt like handing the gun back to Tahos and showing him how to use it, but that went against my code of ethics too. (I’m sure you’re thinking I’m nuts, but especially after this fight, I kinda value life. I’m not big on killing people. If you were in my place, could you stare at Samson’s frightened and shocked face and Sarge’s stunned expression and pull the trigger, watching the bullets sink into their flesh and steal their lives? …I didn’t think so.)

“Tahos,” I said in Kalash, my eyes never leaving Sarge and Samson, “Do you know how to call a Portal? Or does Fire? I know Mackalla doesn’t.” The grey Nila didn’t glance at me either as he breathed, “No, I do not. Not many do.” I kept my expression neutral, though inside I was dying. We had to get these guys back to Earth, or otherwise they’d be killed whether by our hands or not. And Ana, the one who’d called the previous Portal, was nowhere to be seen.

Now totally unable to do anything that might end well, I glanced at Tahos out of the corner of my eye. He was wounded badly and again using his rod to support himself to stand. Nila, unlike most Lavanians, can’t slip into a healing trance without a lot of effort and training; my bet was, Tahos being young, that he couldn’t. But his clan had to be around here, seeing as he’d arrived so quickly once I yelled for help. But as I noticed a certain glaze over his silver-flecked golden eyes, I had to wonder if he wasn’t about to collapse. Mackalla was still deep in trance, probably about halfway done. Fire…

A throaty noise jerked my head around as the Blood Cat woke up, pulling himself upright with deliberate slowness and towering above the lot of us. Tahos later told me that he’d never saw eyes so big as Samson’s and Sarge’s were. I was scared and I was the one who saved the cat’s life! Though I wondered if he knew it at all. Baleful amber eyes blazed from a blackened red ‘mask’ across the Blood Cat’s ruddy fur; he rumbled again, before one nicked ear flicked and he turned swiftly. A shockingly loud roar erupted from his jaws as Tahos and I spun around as well, and in doing so I noticed Samson and Sarge running away as fast as possible, Sarge snatching Samson’s gun from the brush as they passed it but not stopping to shoot.

My eyes almost unfocused at the sheer closeness of a lime-hued beast’s torso and I scrambled backwards, as did Tahos. I stared up at the suddenly-familiar shape and fumbled for the trigger as Fire roared again. The Blood Cat darted forward, stunningly quick for his size, and with one powerful strike with his forepaw sent this new Ajoitéi skidding backwards. More Ajoitéi were coming up behind this one and I sidled in front of Tahos as I finally figured out how to work the stupid gun and fired off a few lame shots. “Aim!” I heard Mackalla cry as he leapt over my head and knocked the lime Ajoitéi’s head off… well, the upper half of its head. I tried to figure out how the aiming system worked and quickly gave up as the number of attackers doubled in seconds, instead just sending a spray of bullets out when I knew I wouldn’t hit Fire or Mackalla.

I sensed more than heard Tahos crouch behind me, ragged breathing informing me as well as words might that the Nila was finally succumbing to his wounds and blood loss. I just hoped he wouldn’t pass out. Mackalla sprang backwards as pincers sliced air instead of his flesh, his ears flat and lips curled high in a snarl. But the Ajoitéi just kept on coming, no more afraid of Fire than they were of the Heifia. My shots had crippled a few and knocked a few heads off, shattered a pincer here and there, but overall the gun was useless in my hands. I almost wished Sarge had stopped to shoot them.

“Too many!” I heard Mackalla cry, darting continuously out of the way. Fire was equally beset, and a thick snarl was his way of agreeing with the Heifia’s judgment. “I hate to say this,” Tahos projected his pained voice, “but retreat would be wise.” I watched, gun heavy and quiet in my hands, as Mackalla made his way back to us.

“And I hate to agree,” the canine grumbled, before he turned and whispered in a nearly-inaudible voice, “Fire, take the bipeds on your back. They can’t run.” I blinked, raising an eyebrow – I wasn’t injured! – before remembering that humans are slower than just about everything on Lavana. The Blood Cat’s nicked ear flicked backwards and he sent himself into battle with a mad intensity, actually scaring most of the Ajoitéi backwards for a short space.

Then he was back to us, and before I knew what I was doing I was helping Tahos onto the cat’s striped back, and then receiving a boost to get up there as well. Fire stood and I looked down the more-than-twelve feet to the blood-slick earth. I felt dizzy, but I tossed the gun away and took a handful of ruddy fur in one hand and a good hold on Tahos with the other; the Nila was becoming very shaky. Fire surged into motion and let me tell you, riding a giant cat is nothing like riding a horse. This coming from one who knows. But, having had a pony as a kid, I did know enough about how to stay on to do so, and to keep Tahos on with me. Barely.

We ran for a few long moments in silence, the Ajoitéi horde trailing us rather quickly for being bipeds. I spent the time chewing on my lip and staring over my shoulder, wondering if they’d catch up. Mackalla ran alongside Fire, and I was irrationally proud to note that neither had received new wounds. After a second, I realized Mackalla was talking, and quickly identified myself as the subject.

“Her name is Shane – human female, mature adolescent. ‘Case you haven’t noticed, humans have no biological weaponry whatsoever, so Ana and I are her protectors. Though I don’t know where Ana is right now. Tahos is a friend of mine; his clan is somewhere in this direction. Find it, and those Ajoitéi are going to have to fight through an angry bunch of Nila to get us.” Mackalla snorted a laugh and Fire echoed it in a raspy tone.

Then, I blinked as both predators abruptly skidded to a stop and froze, muzzles swinging side to side in high-alert arcs. I knew better than to ask what was going on, and by then Tahos had completely passed out; I had my hands full keeping his muscular frame from toppling off the Blood Cat’s back. I listened to the utter silence, spotting the birds hiding behind leaves with fluffed feathers. I felt like crawling into a safe and shutting the door, not knowing what was going to attack us next. Even in the company of a Blood Cat and a Non-Maned Heifia, I was scared.

Ajoitéi surged upwards, rich soil spraying like water as they clambered straight out of the earth. My eyes went round and I gripped Tahos tightly, feeling like a coward, since he was in front of me and it probably looked like I was hiding behind him. Mackalla and Fire snarled in unison, two very different voices blending into one massively bone-chilling noise. I shivered, both from the sound and from the massives of variously orange-tinted bipeds around us.

We fought well, considering we were outnumbered about twenty to one and only two of four could actually fight. The two hunters guarded Tahos and I in a little circle, and I guarded Tahos every time an Ajoitéi broke through. I didn’t know exactly how to use his rod, but with two sharp ends, it’s really not that difficult to learn. Either way, I was good enough to hold them off for the necessary split-second until Mackalla or Fire could save me. I felt utterly useless and really wished I had taken Critter’s morphing ring when I was able.

We did fight well. We really did. But it was only about five, maybe ten minutes at the most before Fire and Mackalla began to be overpowered. From there, it was only a few seconds before they targeted me. I defended myself with the rod as best as I could, standing over Tahos’ body, before a sharp crack across the back of my skull knocked me into the dirt.

As consciousness fled, I swear I heard a new voice roar like thunder…

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-chee! Ch-chee! Bvvvvvvee! Bvvvvoo! Rere rere rere rere!

I opened my eyes stiffly, the shrieking calls of random beasts ringing in my ears. My head was pounding. Sunlight streamed down and blinded me for a long moment, before my eyes adjusted and I could see. And oh, the things I saw. Trees hundreds of feet high, with grey, black-fissued trunks dozens of feet thick, gnarled roots protruding above-ground before diving into the rich, nearly black soil. Pastel blue grass that looked like strings of bead waving in the warm breeze. Technicolor flowers with souped-up butterfly-things buzzing around them. Colors ranged from deep silver, royal purple, sapphire, and seagreen to goldenrod, bronze, tangerine, pearl, and all the way to what looked like a strange mix of silver light and gold light. Past a canopy of emerald and cerulean leaves I could barely make out a wisteria sky with a few rose-hued clouds drifting past. The orange sun was still dazzling in its brilliance, a good bit brighter than our sun.

I was on Lavana.

I shivered with excitement but also a healthy dollop of fear, remembering how many carnivores here could easily outsmart a human, not to mention overpower and outrun. Feeling a root digging into my shoulder blade as my body seemed to wake up, I tried to sit up… to no avail. I was apparently enmeshed in a network of matte-white vines, only about an inch thick but with the consistency of wire. Digging a fingernail into one had no effect, and as my fingers were still half-asleep with pins and needles stinging my nerves, I couldn’t quite get myself untied.

Caution banging on my head with a frying pan, I looked around, this time trying to spot any living creatures. I saw several brightly-hued birds, nonsentient ones. I saw several Eleis, alive, unlike the skeleton in my bookbag. Speaking of which… it took a moment, but I spotted my faithful pack a few feet away. And really, other than the very agitated and loud birds, and the silently watchful Eleis… there was nothing around. It was kinda creepy.

Noticing feeling had returned to my hands, I renewed my efforts to get myself out of this tangled mess. For some reason, the vines were woven very tightly, and despite having opposable thumbs, I couldn’t manage to get more than my right arm free. Abruptly, all the noise that was causing my headache stopped. Just like that. Silence. I froze, looking up warily at the birds, who were now fluffing their feathers and edging closer to tree trunks. A chill ran down my spine as I carefully twisted my body to lay my ear to the ground.

Footsteps. Or paw-steps, hoof-steps, whatever they might’ve been. It sounded like a four-legged beast, which was really no surprise, considering there are very few bipedal species on Lavana who can compete with quadrupedal hunters. Either way, I was probably in trouble. Praying that it was Mackalla or Ana, I feigned sleep, one eye slitted open just enough to watch around me.

Of course it wasn’t the Korat or Heifia. C’mon. I don’t have that much luck.

I inadvertantly twitched as the beast came into sight. Garishly orange skin was mottled with darker tones, and although it was a biped, it was using its exceedingly long arms to walk, almost like a gorilla. An oddly-shaped head, like an upside-down, rounded pyramid, was set atop a lower head-half that was thick and chunky, blending seamlessly into a squat neck and powerful shoulders. Long, muscular arms were humanoid, though in place of hands were crustacean pincers. Out of the ‘elbows’ sprouted smaller arms, once-jointed again before ending in sharper-edged pincers. A muscular torso slimmed into a narrow waist, which in turn branched out into a pair of short, thick legs ending in heavy hooves. Darkly red, globular eyes regarded me from a height of fourteen feet as the biped came to a stop, just as a name popped into my head – Ajoitéi.

So this is an Ajoitéi. This is what wants me so badly that they’ll give a morphing ring to a Vemeh and send him to Earth to get me. Great.

I tried my best not to move, but a shiver raced down my spine and both eyes flew open at the surprisingly strong sensation. A gnashing mouth opened in the lower half of its head, just below the ‘bridge’ of what I suspected was bone that connected its upper, eye-holding half to the squat, toothy lower half. It was creepy, to say the least. But it was even worse when it actually spoke, in an oily, repulsive voice. “Oooh. What is a little human doing on Lavana?” It laughed, or so I assume – it sounded like it had a hairball. “Ah, my good fortune to find you first, girl-child… as I’m very hungry.”

And I’m disgusted, I thought to myself, though panic was beginning to hit. I was tangled up in this nest of dark white vines, I couldn’t even get up, let alone run, and I was completely without the two Lavanians who were supposed to be guarding me. My head was pounding as fast and as hard as my heart at this point, and it actually hurt to think. Nonetheless, think I did. There was a certain alarm call, a one-word scream really, that would bring help if help was around. At the very least, it’d let Mackalla or Ana know where I was, if they were within earshot.

Struggling against the vines almost instinctively, I screamed the help-call as the Ajoitéi advanced, closing the several meters of distance between us. Another hacked-up hairball laugh came from the mottled biped, who reached a heavy pincer towards my throat as it towered over me. My eyes went wide and I shrank back, but there was no escape–

Or so I thought. When the crab-like hand was inches from my throat, a roar reverberated through the trees and a flash of vivid red-orange collided with the Ajoitéi and sent the biped skidding a ways in the dirt. As the blur of dark-striped color landed and pointedly stepped between the Ajoitéi and me, I finally got a good look at the creature. And nearly passed out.

It was an Blood Cat. They’re very large (up to seventeen feet at the shoulder), leanly-built felines with red-shaded fur and darker stripes, not to mention extra-long fangs and claws. This particular one was small, about twelve feet high, and had a gorgeous fiery red pelt with blackened red stripes, as well as the baleful golden eyes that all Blood Cats have. But it really wasn’t the shape that shocked me so. Blood Cats are not known for being overly kind and helpful; they’re not evil by any stretch of imagination, but they tend towards solitude and don’t often go out of their way to do a good deed. Their reputation as ‘demon-cats’ isn’t really deserved, but it’s closer than a label of ‘angelic being’ would be.

Either way, I was surprised that one would help me. And eternally grateful, as I watched the Ajoitéi stagger up and gnash its teeth in annoyance. “Leave the human-child to me, beast of the fiery tempest,” it hissed as it advanced menacingly. I winced, still trying valiantly (and vainly) to escape from the imprisoning vines. Just my luck for a Portal to fling me into such a mess. I looked up again as the Blood Cat shook its massive head, curling its lips high and snarling.

“I think not, scumspine. Get out of my sight before I rip you apart.” To my irrational delight, the Blood Cat spoke Kalash far better than the biped. The Ajoitéi made some sort of vampiric snarling noise, and that was all that was needed to provoke the Blood Cat into battle. My eyes were round and my jaw slack as I watched the very agile and shockingly powerful feline thrash the Ajoitéi, who fought back as well as it could but… well, it was completely outclassed. A few minor wounds scarred the cat’s striped pelt, but for the most part, it was mottled flesh that was laid open by jagged black claws.

I was absorbed in the fight, and it was noisy enough to block out small sounds; I didn’t have any warning nor premonition when a grey creature suddenly appeared over me. I jerked in surprise, staring at this new beast with fear that quickly faded as I identified the rather humanoid creature – a Nila. Of course, when a crudely made spear was pointed at my heart, the fear returned quickly enough, along with a small fact that floated into my thoughts: Nila love sacrificing other creatures. It’s an eccentricity, really; other than that flaw, Nila are honest and brave warriors, one of the few bipeds to thrive on Lavana. They live in clans, much like Native Americans once did, and they’ve a tribal society as well. They resemble cats in the same way that we resemble apes, and I suppose you could call a Nila – despite the thick, short tail that isn’t catlike in the least – something like an anthropomorphic feline.

Anyways, there was a spear pointed at my chest and the Blood Cat was still tangling with the Ajoitéi. Needless to say… I was freaked. I stared up at the Nila, who returned the gaze with intensely golden eyes. He must be a young adult, I decided randomly, since he still had his adolescent mane – wavy black ‘hair’ that tumbled just past his shoulders. The spear waved, a few inches above my head, before the Nila abruptly sank into a crouch, laid the spear aside, and unsheathed a Nila-style knife, which look like miniature spears. I watched in surprise as he began sawing through the hardy vines.

“My name is Tahos,” he whispered in Kalash as he worked, “a friend of Mackalla. He told me through howl that a human was nearby. The Blood Cat is called Fire Eater. He has known Mackalla for ages, or so I am told.” Tahos had a slightly breathy accent, and it was rather… interesting… to understand some of the words that he chopped up with said dialect. “So Mackalla is near here?” I whispered in Kalash, excitement tainting my tone. Tahos nodded his head, black mane bobbing around his leather headband.

Just then, a shocked and pained roar shook my very bones, and I looked up in horror as the Ajoitéi tore its pincer out from deep within the Blood Cat’s flank. The big cat staggered but through braced legs stayed upright. Tahos growled near my ear but continued cutting through the mess of vines, obviously more intent on freeing me than helping the Blood Cat. And as I watched, I learned why. The striped feline snarled fluidly, reaching out one paw and with one strong blow knocking the upper half of the Ajoitéi’s head off. My eyes went wide, then even wider as the Ajoitéi apparently wasn’t killed and continued fighting blindly.

Tahos’ voice caught my attention. “Ajoitéi are hard to kill. Their spines are protected by lots of muscle, and the tops of their heads do not contain their brains. The Evil was merely blinded. But Fire will now win.” I sat up as the Nila shifted position, now sawing at the vines that bound my legs. And indeed, the great cat swiftly maimed and then delivered a killing blow to the wounded biped, whose carcass crashed to the ground. Tahos’ little knife cut the last restraint and I stood shakily, blood rushing to my head at the sudden change in altitude. The Nila also stood, picking up his spear, which I now saw was in fact a rod, a thick staff with both ends tipped in heavy, sharp metal ‘arrowheads’. A favorite amongst Nila warriors.

Fire panted heavily, blood spewing from the gaping hole in his flank. His black-tipped tail brushed the ground and I bit my lip, seeing how badly he’d been wounded during the last half of the fight. It was amazing that he could stand, and after a moment even that miracle failed him; he crumpled to the ground and rolled onto his uninjured flank, eyelids falling shut and breathing ragged. I turned to Tahos, “Do you have any healers?” The Nila looked thoughtful; ‘healers’, a small pinecone-sized nut native to Lavana, can painfully boost a creature’s healing and immune system until the beast is perfectly healed.

After a moment, Tahos shook his head. “I have none, nor are there any growing nearby.”

Then the Nila’s little pointed ears flicked, and he stared across the Blood Cat into the forest. “Creatures are coming. I know not what.” I looked where he did, saw nothing, and decided that we were in big trouble if it was another Ajoitéi. I moved forward, away from those vines and towards the Blood Cat, knowing full well he could kill me, even as wounded as he was. Then, I practically growled when two very familiar figures emerged from the foliage nearby, still well-armed. Sarge and one of the troops, the one who looked closest to my age with sandy brown hair.

Sarge pointed his gun straight at me, fish-eyed and looking half-mad. I flinched, before grinning devilishly. In Kalash, I said over my shoulder, “Tahos? These two are the bad guys. They want Mackalla and me dead.” Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating a little. But they did want Mackalla dead. And the way Sarge was looking, he didn’t seem above killing me at the moment.

Tahos laughed and I peered at him, somewhat surprised. “Just because my Kalash is rusty does not mean I am stupid. I realize this.” I flushed, reminding myself that Nila are just as intelligent as humans. And Tahos moved, rocketing into the trees with rod in hand and racing along a limb to drop down behind the two. The troop panicked, backing away and letting out a surprised shout as Tahos knocked his gun away and skidding into the underbrush. Sarge, however, was not so easily unnerved and fired several shots. A few were close misses, tracing thin lines of red on Tahos’ grey pelt, but the Nila was agile and dodged quickly, drawing and throwing a knife, which Sarge in turn avoided.

“Samson! You idiot, get your gun!” Sarge’s harsh voice seemed to kick the soldier into action, and he darted for his fallen weapon. A handily timed thrust with the rod tripped him and sent him sprawling, face-first. I bit back a laugh, but then labored breathing caught my attention.

The Blood Cat was barely conscious, judging by his glazed, half-open eyes, and his chest was heaving ineffectually. Bloody jaws gaping and tongue lolling, by all accounts he was in bad shape, if such conditions could be compared to Earth animal symptoms. I sidled forward cautiously and made my way to his flank, gently resting one hand on the cat’s soft, blood-slick fur. Something was wrong; I could feel it. Fearing dismemberment, nonetheless I stretched my other hand out in front of the Blood Cat’s jaws – and could feel very little breath, despite the heaving chest. I flinched and tried to think back to what my mom had taught me about animal injuries, back when she was still working as a veterinarian.

My eyes widened as a thought occurred to me, and I skittered back and peered into the massive hole in his flank. Running my fingers along the fur around it, I could feel ribs, and knew that the Ajoitéi’s blow must have been stopped by the cat’s ribcage. Good. But then why…? Could a lung have been injured anyway? Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out if there was something in there, and I really, really didn’t want to do that. However, a raspy, desperate wheeze from the Blood Cat decided for me, and I took a deep breath to steady my nerves.

Heart in my throat, with a background of gunfire and near-silent flung knives, I reached my hand into the gaping wound. Apparently, Fire Eater was already in too much pain to register what more I may have caused; he didn’t react violently. I carefully felt around, following the smooth length of the rib downwards until… It must have broken in half. A splintered end was the end of the road, so to speak, and then the situation cleared up in my mind. The other half of the rib must be disabling the lung in some way. And if I didn’t remove it, the lung might actually be penetrated… if it wasn’t already.

I swallowed hard. A terse grunt from Tahos told me that one of those bullets had found a good mark. What was I thinking, telling a knife-wielding Nila to take on two guys with massive automatic rifles? Gritting my teeth, I tried to ignore the fight going on behind me and concentrated on finding the other half of the broken rib. A splinter of bone lodged in my finger, painfully informing me said half’s location – vertical, the blunt edge pressing hard on the Blood Cat’s lung. I carefully felt along the rib and, getting as much a grip I could with blood and gore lubricating the whole affair, I pulled the broken half out.

Immediately, Fire’s breathing was deeper, though no less violent. Fresh blood began spraying out, soaking my Save the Rainforest T-shirt and splashing my face. I flinched and backed up, gory bone still in my hand and my arm doused in vivid scarlet blood to my elbow. I felt vaguely nauseated. Trying not to lose what little food I’d eaten recently, I noticed that Fire’s healing systems were acting again to quell blood loss and stitch up the wound, so I turned to look for Tahos and Sarge.

Sarge had a knife sticking out of his left thigh, supported by an unarmed Samson while firing madly at Tahos, who was bloodied with near-misses and one or two direct hits, those in his tail and clipping his left shoulder. I felt staggered by the total weirdness of it all, before giving myself a good shake and trying to focus. My headache was finally gone, luckily. As I wondered what I could actually do to help, Sarge squeezed off a good shot and nailed Tahos in his right hip. The Nila fell into a pained crouch, gripping his rod tightly to help him balance.

And then, with a maniacal grin, Sarge turned, aimed, and let off a round of shots straight at the wounded Blood Cat’s head.

Mackalla and I continued walking in the tunnel, silent since I couldn’t think of any more questions off-hand. After several minutes had passed, I stopped, hand to my stomach as it rumbled audibly. Mackalla shot me a surprised look as he halted as well. “Eh-heh,” I flushed slightly, “so I’m hungry. Gimme a minute. I have some snacks in my backpack. I was headed to the library before you intercepted me, after all, to do some research.” The Heifia rolled his dark eyes but settled to his haunches, and I plopped myself against the smooth but cold tunnel wall.

“What were you researching?” Mackalla asked idly as I dug through my backpack, shuffling several empty notebooks, art supplies, and a calculator. “Hmm? Oh… I was going to try to draw an accurate map of Lavana, and I wanted some good examples. Hence all this junk. I had nothing better to do. Ahh, food.” I held up an apple triumphantly, along with a brown paper bag containing the rest of my little lunch. “Want some?” I cocked my head at Mackalla, who declined. “Fiiine, be that way,” I mumbled, grinning, and proceeded to wolf down an apple and some crackers.

I glanced at one of my notebooks as I was returning the rest of my food to my bookbag. “Know what? You’re gonna hafta sit still a few more minutes. I want to write all this down.” The Heifia blinked, but with a shrug he let me do as I wished and lay down. So I scribbled the events of the day down, up till the present, and with a grin, flourished the last few sentences. I wonder… if anyone ever reads this notebook, they’ll just think it one of my stories. I hope. I’ll write again, as soon as possible, but until then… bwahaha. Carry on.

I finished writing and stuffed my notebook and pen back into my bookbag, tossing it over my shoulder and rising. Mackalla yawned, stretched, and we resumed our stroll through the tunnel. After a long time, we finally found another fork. This time, even I could tell that the right-hand path sloped upwards. So we took that tunnel, and after another twenty minutes brisk pace, the tunnel opened into a hillside. It was covered in foliage, brambles, and vinery, but to my surprise, there wasn’t an actual door.

Mackalla pushed through and stepped into the evening light, casting a wary glance around before beckoning me forward. I batted my way through thorny plants and started plucking those little weed-burrs from my legs as Mackalla grumbled something in Heifian at his wrist. Judging by his tone, he was already in a heated debate. As I tried to shake the rest of the clingy plantlife from my jeans, I heard a low noise. I looked up just in time to see Critter lunging in a flying tackle for me, still in human form.

I was knocked sprawling, sliding into Mackalla. Critter landed easily in a crouch and drew a sword. Great, he got a new one, I muttered to myself, and managed to unsheath the one strapped to me as I scrambled up, mimicking his stance and grasping the hilt tightly. Wish I knew how to use this baby. Mackalla snarled thickly and, apparently leaving the luminous comband on, lunged for Critter. A swipe with the sword nearly took his head off, but Heifias are quick beasts and he dodged, dancing nimbly out of the blade’s range.

I felt a weird… sensation… push at the back of my skull, and I threw a quick glance behind me. Nothing but nice, quiet forest. Well, if you ignored Mackalla’s thunderous growling. But the wind picked up a little and I smelled spices. Both Critter and Mackalla were suddenly wary, and not so much of each other. “Mackalla…?” I whispered, now officially freaked out. He stopped growling long enough to mutter, “Portal.” I winced and felt that little nudge again, this time turning around to face it. What looked like heat waves hovered above the ground in a contained, upright oval.

Abruptly, the Portal erupted into existance, bright waves of iridescent colors swirling counterclockwise with the solidity of fire. Sudden gale-force winds of alternating heat and cold buffeted me, and I dropped the sword in my startlement as the spicy smell intensified enough to make me sneeze several times, though there was also a touch of flowers in the scent. I narrowed my eyes against the whipping winds and tensed my arms in front of me defensively, but I was actually shoved backwards a few inches by the sheer force of the wind.

The very center of the whirling Portal seemed to darken, like water does when a creature rises towards the surface. At least I had the sense to dodge behind Mackalla so that when the black beast shot out of the blazing entity, it didn’t collide with me. Critter snarled liquidly, despite his current human form, and ducked behind a few trees. I guessed that he was going to morph to his Vemeh form, and an extra growl from Mackalla seemed to support my little theory. But my eyes were drawn to the black creature as it turned to face me.

It was a Korat. A female, by my judgment. Standing proud at four and a half feet at the shoulder, she had glossy ebony fur, matte black claws, and a whitely silver blade protruding from the tip of her tail – rare for females, standard for males. She had gorgeous, almost glowing sapphire eyes as well. Oh, wait. That’s right. You-the-reader don’t know what a Korat is, do you? Oops. Let me explain. Nevermind, that’ll take too long. Let me sum up. (Why yes, I do love the Princess Bride.)

Quadrupeds, Korats have a canine head with shark-like teeth and a long muscular neck that they hold compressed in an S-curve so tight that it looks like their necks are jointed. They’re deep-chested and narrow-waisted with a ribwall as opposed to our ribcage. Their forelegs are fairly slender and end in small V-shaped palms and two long, retractably clawed ‘fingers’. Their hind legs are much more muscular than their fore and end in a Velociraptor-style paw: two long digits much like their forefingers on the outside and a scythe-like claw held off the ground by their innermost toe. Korats also have long, muscular tails that differ with gender: males’ are more slender with a curving tailblade branching off near the tip, while females have thicker, shorter tails that pack a wallop and can occasionally end in a blade as well. Korats come in three breeds – a slender, fast tan; a stocky, muscular red; and a toned, graceful black. They’re socially and mentally complex creatures, just as intelligent as humans, if not more so.

“Ana!” Mackalla’s exclamation brought me out of my blatant admiration of the Korat; they are my favorite species, after all! The blue-eyed female grinned, displaying sharp ivory fangs, “Botsa, Mackalla.” My jaw hit the floor after her name sunk into my brain; Ana is one of the three Korat Originals!

Ach, I’m going to hit pause on the action yet again and explain something to you. Lavanians did not evolve. They, and the Tri-System in which they live, were Created by, well, Creators, a highly advanced alien race. The method of Creation for species is interesting, to say the least: an Original, be it male or female, will be made (as an adult) and watched for a little bit to see if the species will thrive on Lavana. If the Original (who is given full knowlede of what’s going on) passes the test, then his/her ‘shadow’ is stolen and broken to make the First Fifty, a group of fifty full adults of both genders. These First Fifty have very long lifetimes, often five or six times that of a normal individual, and the Original will never die of old age. They CAN be killed, though, don’t get me wrong here. The First Fifty are responsible for propagating the species, as their genes change constantly, thus giving them a huge gene-pool from the start. The Original will also take a mate and thus start his/her Line; those individuals directly descended from the Original are known as Of the Line.

But Korats are unique in that they have more than one Original. See, Creators aren’t really the brightest stars in the sky. They have their faults, despite being so advanced. So a Creator decided one day to make an ‘average’ Lavanian, and made a tan female by the name of Kaili. It was displeased with her and idly sent something to kill her while trying again; however, Kaili had magic at her command, a rare thing for any Lavanian, and lived on. The second try was black Ana, who was Created as a cub — which she wasn’t supposed to be in the first place. The Creator was annoyed again and smashed her with a tree; despite this, Ana lived (with the help of an ambassador’s healing skills) and grew to full adulthood. The third try seemed to be the charm and resulted in Redwood, a red warrior-female of incredible prowess. Redwood, however, demanded that the Creator take the shadows of her sisters as well to Create the First Fifty, and the Creator complied; thus Korats have the three breeds, though the races can interbreed and have mixed-color litters.

The point I’m trying to drill into your skull here is that Ana is an Original and she’s right here staring at me.

…can I drop dead now?

Mackalla tossed his muzzle at me, “This is Shane. The one.” I felt weak-kneed but managed to bow to Ana, who blinked once and seemed to be amused by my awe for her. Me, I tried not to fall over. I mean, it’d be like being in the presence of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, or any other famous person out of history whom you thought you’d never meet. Only… for me, this was far more incredible.

A roar from behind me made me flinch, but I recognized Critter’s voice and wasn’t overly worried; a Heifia like Mackalla may have had trouble with a Vemeh, but there was no way that a Korat would even be challenged. ‘Average Lavanian’ my eye. Korats are some of the best warriors out there.

Ana’s sleek muzzle angled upwards as Critter’s grey bulk descended from a high leap towards her. Utter calm was plain on her face, and just before his heavy talons could lay open her pelt, she darted backwards and struck at him with her tailblade, leaving a deep gash in his left shoulder. Critter grunted and retaliated, claws raking at her head, but the Korat ducked easily and her tailblade scored another long rip in his flank. Ana laughed under her breath, before half-turning so that her flank faced the Vemeh; she kicked out, the longclaw so much like a raptor’s digging into her opponent’s chest and sending him sprawling on his back with the force of her blow.

Mackalla rumbled in his throat, half-approving and half… something else. Jealous? No… not quite. I eyeballed him but he deliberately ignored me, his dark brown eyes focused on the fight. Ana took a step forward and struck with her tail for a third time, the flat of the scythe-shaped blade connecting with Critter’s skull and knocking him unconscious, unable to morph and heal his severe wounds. I cringed slightly, but Ana’s next words stunned me even more than her apparent unconcern for the morpher’s life:

“The Ajoitéi Prince wants her, Mackalla. He wants what she knows. She is not safe on Earth any longer.”

“Ana. What is the Ajoitéi Prince? I’ve never heard of him.”

“A powerful individual of his race. He commands several packs of warriors -he calls them armies- and has declared himself an enemy of Lavana.”

My eyes grew wide, but Mackalla seemed to take it all in stride. “Can he actually muster the strength to harm us?”

Ana shook her head, grinning slightly, “Not without what she knows. We’ve discovered several bipedal species living underground. Someone has amassed a lot of power there, but it isn’t the Prince. Rumors are flying of a more powerful enemy, one that may command all the armies of all the races down there.”

“Someone that could actually do some damage, then. Ana, humans can’t survive Lavana. You know that.” I seconded Mackalla’s protest with a sharp nod; I knew Lavana well, and I knew that humans weren’t built for such a world. I’d be killed within an hour of arriving there.

The black’s fanged grin deepened. “That’s what we’re for, my friend. We get to play bodyguard until our friends from the nightcircle figure out what we’re going to do with her.”

I raised an eyebrow at this. Not all Lavanians were noble and kind; many would want me dead and the threat therefore simply eliminated. Mackalla apparently realized this as well, but a wave of Ana’s bloody tailblade halted comment. “She’s under our protection, Mackalla. For now, she’s as safe as she’s going to be. And anyways, she might know something about our enemy that we can use.” I raised my other eyebrow in silent denial, but was ignored by both Korat and Heifia.

Ana slipped from Kalash into her native tongue just then, so I pretended that I didn’t understand that either and looked at Critter. He was bleeding his life out into the earth, and I felt sorry for him. Dying for a lord that probably didn’t care about one lone morpher. I frowned, idly toying with the alternating ideas of taking his morphing ring or kicking him awake so that he could morph to human and therefore be healed. Mackalla was talking in Heifian to boot, and though I knew both languages – somehow, don’t ask me how I could understand such guttural words – I ignored them for the time being.

“Shane.” I looked to Mackalla quizzically, and he gestured with his muzzle towards where the Portal had been. “Looks like you get to go to Lavana after all, kid.” I narrowed my eyes, about to protest, when Ana stopped grooming her tailblade clean and perked her ears. “Humans coming,” she muttered in Kalash, curling her lip. Mackalla sniffed the wind and nodded to me, “The ones from before.” Then to Ana, “We’ve got to leave now, before they see us.”

The black twisted her muzzle in a half-shrug and waved her blade at Mackalla in an irate gesture. “They’re going to see us as it is. I just hope they don’t get sucked in with us. Portals have not been very tame of late.” I winced at the thought of being lost in-between one place and another, within a feral Portal. Ana narrowed her bright blue eyes and focused on the place where the Portal had been, sharp claws gripping the earth and blade unnervingly still. Heat waves rippled up into an oval shape again – the prelude to a full-blown Portal’s arrival.

However, loud barking raced up a lot quicker than that Portal did. Several police dogs sprinted for us as Sarge and Co. erupted from the brush nearby, guns held at ready. Ana ignored them, her mind concentrating on summoning the Portal, so Mackalla was left to fight half a dozen well-trained German Shepherds. I picked up my sword from where I’d dropped it and held it at ready, just in case one of the dogs decided that I looked like an easy target.

Ferocious snarling ensued as Mackalla dispatched the dogs one by one, not without a few bite-marks marring his own tawny hide. Sarge gestured wildly for his men to stay back, his behemoth of a gun aiming first at Ana, then Mackalla, then me, and back to Ana. Mackalla might be taken for a dog, but there’s nothing on Earth like a Korat. A gurgling noise behind me and to my left caught my attention, and with a jump I swung to face Critter. He was finally waking up, choking on his own blood and trying to move. “Kill him,” came Ana’s firm voice in Kalash; clearly she didn’t give mercy to the enemy. I lowered the tip of my sword to point at Critter’s throat, but his black eyes caught mine and I couldn’t.

Glancing over at Ana, I wondered if she knew English, but with a mental shrug decided I didn’t care. “Morph to human. Give me your ring, and then I’ll let you live,” I hissed at Critter, glaring daggers when he didn’t move for a long second. His wounds were fatal, though. And his sword wasn’t within reach, so I knew I would have the upper hand when he did shift to human. Grey pelt rippled and tightened to human skin as his body warped in that peculiar, reasonably painless process of shapeshifting. I heard Mackalla finish off the last dog (not without some sadness; I love all animals) as Critter’s body was finally human.

“Gimme the ring, Critter,” I hissed. He raised one eyebrow and pulled the silver band off his finger, holding it up. “This?” he murmured mockingly, a smirk beginning to tug at his lips. I snapped quietly, “That is your ticket to life, bucko. Don’t push me. I’ll give you to those idiots over there.” Speaking of which, Sarge and Co. were babbling loudly about the whole morphing process, guns being waved every which way as they pointed excitedly. Some military unit.

Critter laughed quietly and let the morphing ring fall into the palm of his hand. I wondered what was up until I felt a sudden and powerful wind slide me a few inches forward. The Portal! Critter took advantage of my distraction and kicked the sword out of my hands, leaping up and lunging for me. A gun went off, the bullet ricocheting through the brush and down the tunnel, echoing as it went and scaring Critter enough that he changed course and didn’t quite hit me. I jumped back as it was, bumping against Mackalla’s panting form. “C’mon,” the Heifia rumbled, bloodied jaws brushing my arm and closing around my much-abused belt.

More gunfire rang out as I saw Ana brace herself against the Portal’s violent winds. “Hurry…!” she urged us. But Mackalla and I were still several yards away from the swirling entity when it expanded, enveloping all of us – Mackalla, Ana, me, Critter, and Sarge and Co. – in brilliant neon light.

And then there was nothingness.

I stared around me, eyes bugging and jaw slack. Tumbled bones and decomposing bodies were scattered in loose piles. Coughing, I wrinkled my nose; the stench was beginning to overwhelm me. Mackalla’s voice rang through my now-fading headache, “Shane! Are you unharmed?” I nodded, then spotted an interesting little set of bones. It looked like it belonged to a foot-long lizard, with a strange skull. “An Elei,” I mumbled, then raised my voice, “Hey Mackalla! Why would there be an Elei skeleton in here?” The Heifia shrugged by tilting his muzzle when I glanced up at him. I scooped up the thankfully dry bones and tossed them into a smaller pocket in my bookbag.

A vicious snarl startled me, and I looked upwards in surprise. Mackalla was bristling, large ears flattened to his skull. “Erm… Mackalla?” He didn’t answer, didn’t stop growling either, so I waited, thumbs hooked around my belt loops, and tried to ignore the smell. After a moment, he abruptly fell silent, cocking his head in a look of startlement. “It’s gone,” he said finally, casting a glance down at me.

“What is?”

He shrugged, then lightly jumped down into the pit. “Some grey creature.” My ears practically perked, “Describe it?” Mackalla growled a chuckle under his breath, then tossed his muzzle. “Hang on.” I blinked, confused, then swallowed a yelp as the Heifia clamped his jaws around my belt and leaped for the tunnel. I threw my arms around his neck and tried to think light, but Mackalla got us both to the correct side without much trouble. I was impressed… until I was dropped with a resounding thud.

“Uhm, OW–” I cut off as I heard a hacking snarl, and turned to see what Mackalla was growling at. So that was the grey creature. Standing at five feet with a grizzly’s head, a burly, loose-skinned frame, and dragon-like talons, it was plain to me what it was — a Vemeh. The quadrupedal predator scraped its wickedly curving claws across the tunnel’s stone floor, hunkered down, and sprang for us.

Instinct forced me to roll to the side, and Mackalla took the charge head-on. Jaws clashed and as I came up in a crouch, my eyes widened. Considering that the Vemeh was larger, heavier, stronger, and had full use of its talons, Mackalla was certainly holding his own in the blood-curdling melee that followed. Teeth ripped through hide, fur was torn away in chunks, claws shredded flesh, and blood spewed across the tunnel as the grey and tawny forms grappled.

I watched, ready to dodge should one of them be flung my way, but otherwise all too aware that I was incapable of helping. Chewing my lip, I watched and noted the slightly different hues of blood; Mackalla’s blood was a lush scarlet, while the Vemeh’s was more maroon. There was far more maroon splashed on the floor and walls than scarlet, much to my relief. After a good five minutes of all-out warring, the Vemeh shoved Mackalla away, and they both collapsed. I leaned forward, trying to see how badly Mackalla was injured. He was still breathing, and watching the Vemeh to see if he’d get up.

The Vemeh was also alive, but unable to rise again. Unless it could heal itself, it wouldn’t live much longer. I cringed, never liking death, and stood up. Mackalla glanced over to me, and in that instant where neither of us were watching the Vemeh–

It changed.

The warping of its grey form caught my attention and I stared, rivetted, as limbs lengthened, pelt changed to skin, and eyes turned from gold to sapphire. Realizing what was happening, I glanced at what was now a human hand and saw it. A silver band around his finger — a morphing ring. Made by the only Lavanians who could morph naturally, Night Cats, the ring depicted one of their kind on the band, and bestowed the ability to shapeshift – to morph – on its wearer. It was worrying that a Vemeh, on Earth, could morph; it indicated that this guy was no random visitor.

Of course, foremost on my mind was that the morphing process healed all of the critter’s injuries, leaving him refreshed, while Mackalla was still oozing blood from his own wounds. Which left me to fight. Now, I may be a tae kwon do student, but the key word there is student — I’m not that great, though I can handle the basics. Not to mention, I’d just fallen down a ten-foot hole. I was a bit banged up.

The critter finished morphing into a tall, well-built human and stood, dressed in medieval-style clothing complete with a sword strapped to his back. He had a shock of messy black hair and those vivid blue eyes. If he weren’t the bad guy, he’d be pretty cute. I slipped my bookbag off and hoped that it didn’t get too badly damaged; I had the funny feeling that I’d be needing a lot of the stuff in there soon.

“Who are you?” I demanded, cautiously sidling away from the edge of the pit. I did not want to fall down there again. Critter stared at me from hostile eyes, then graced me with a reply, “You are Shane Myers. You will come with me, by orders of the Ajoitéi Prince.” I raised an eyebrow and positioned myself so that Mackalla (near the edge of the hole) and I were on opposite sides of the morpher. Settling automatically into a fighting stance, I tried to see if my brain knew of Ajoitéi, but unfortunately, I didn’t know a thing of them. Maybe a new species.

“I don’t think so, bucko,” I muttered in a belated retort as I tossed my thoughts away. Thinking has little place when you’re facing off against a guy with a sword. Critter chuckled under his breath, a harsh sound, and abruptly lunged, blade still nestled in its sheath. If he’s planning to fight me sans sword, then I might actually have a chance, I thought as I dodged. To test him, I sent out a roundhouse kick, which actually landed hard on his shoulder as he turned to face me. My eyes narrowed and I grinned; maybe this guy wasn’t as tough as he looked.

My hopes were dashed as a solid kick to my collarbone sent me stumbling into the tunnel wall. “Ouch,” I mumbled, dodging the next one and retaliating. For a few moments, it was back and forth, neither of us landing a blow. I was feeling rather proud of myself until Critter drew his sword and grasped the hilt with obvious expertise, tip aimed right for my heart. I clenched my hand in futility, nails digging into my palm. There was no way I could beat him if he really knew how to use that blade, and it sure seemed that way.

Critter abruptly yelled, staggering and falling to one knee. I blinked, then my tunnel-vision expanded to include Mackalla, who had latched onto the guy’s ankle. Seizing the opportunity, I lunged and tackled Critter, knocking the sword farther down the tunnel. With Mackalla still attached to him, I scrambled away and grabbed the sword. It was heavier than I’d expected, though I’d always loved swords and actually owned a few blunt-edged blades myself. Grinning, I waited for my chance, and while Mackalla held the morpher still, I struck! The flat of the blade right across the back of the skull; Critter crumpled, unconscious.

“Bwahaha,” I cackled, examining the sword with a little more respect than previously. Mackalla coughed a laugh and pushed Critter away from him, slipping into what I recognized as a healing trance. You see, Lavanian healing systems have many advantages, one of which being a trance-like state that gives an immense boost to the immune and healing systems. The Heifia could stay in a healing trance for ten minutes and be completely healed, as opposed to not doing so and needing several weeks to recuperate.

Averting my eyes from the unnerving sight of Mackalla’s flesh and pelt literally crawling, I searched Critter carefully. Aside from the sword and morphing ring, he carried a pouch of travel rations and a small dagger. I took the dagger and sword sheath, adjusting it to fit me and sheathing the sword. The weight on my back was a little weird, but I’d rather me have the blade than him. I strapped the dagger-sheath around my calf, adjusted it, and idly examined the smaller blade as I waited for Mackalla to finish.

A rustle of fur behind me informed me that the Heifia had healed. He rose as I sheathed the dagger and tosseded the pouch of food into my backpack, hefting the bag onto my shoulder again. “Are you letting him live?” he grumbled, stretching each muscular leg. I blinked, then waved my hand at Critter, “Well, he’s not dangerous when you’re healed and I have his blades.” Mackalla glowered darkly at me and I bit my lip, glancing at the morphing ring. “I couldn’t,” I protested, fumbling for words. “Those rings are given as a free gift, an honorable reward for–”

Mackalla cut me off, flicking an ear to show his disapproval, “He probably killed its owner and stole it.” I snorted, but I peered thoughtfully at the limp form. “It would trap him as a human,” I realized, and with finality shook my head. “It’d be kinder to kill him. And I’m not going to do that either.” The Heifia rolled his brown eyes and pressed a paw against Critter’s chest lightly, as though he were testing buoyancy. “Mind if I do?” he grumbled, but only half-heartedly. I didn’t bother answering; I was already becoming accustomed to Mackalla’s rugged but inherently good personality. I patted the travel rations, checked to make sure both dagger and sword were securely nestled in their sheaths, and looked at him expectantly.

With a deep sigh, Mackalla began a brisk walk down the tunnel, forcing me to nearly jog to keep up. However, I soon settled into my own ground-eating stride; long legs are useful at times. The awkwardness of the sword on my back soon faded after a while, and for a long time I didn’t speak. The total weirdness of the situation had finally hit me. I mean, me, a seventeen-year-old girl, was currently toting a real sword and dagger and strolling in an underground tunnel that shouldn’t exist alongside an alien dog, after we both had just defeated a shapeshifting beast. Riiight. I was just beginning to choke on the surreality of the whole deal when Mackalla glanced over at me.

“So. I know you have questions.”

I grinned, snapping out of my struggle with the freakiness factor. “You bet. You mean you’ll answer them?”

He twisted his muzzle and exhaled with slightly more force, a gesture that I was coming to recognize as his shrug. “Sure. What else are we going to do?”

“Well, first off,” I shot him a pointed look, “You could explain the whole tunnel-under-my-town deal. And tell me where we’re going.”

The Heifia growled a laugh. “This tunnel was constructed only recently. You know of Olashi, I assume. They keep an eye on Earth, since it’s very similar to Lavana in planet structure. That’s how we found out about you. They spotted that art you entered in the… gathering-event.”

I grinned brightly, “The Korat! Yeah. I won second place to boot.”

Mackalla rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Right. Korats are too… unique… for there to be a possibility of coincidence in drawing one. You were pretty accurate, too. So, a spy was set on you. We found out how much you knew by watching what you wrote and draw… oh, and listening to you talk to yourself. That was a riot.”

I glanced over when he said the last part in such a dry tone, but mischief was tugging his muzzle into a smirk. So, with a mock-haughty tone, I retorted, “Yes, well, I tend to talk to the most intelligent person around. You’re lucky I’m still speaking with you.”

The Heifia snorted lightly, rounding a corner as we power-walked. “It was decided that, should what you know get into the wrong hands, you could do some damage. And it’s not Olashi policy to go around killing weird humans… so I was sent to–” He cut off, whipping his muzzle around and staring the way we’d come. He sniffed, then muttered a growl.

“What?” I asked, totally confused. Heifian senses far surpass mine. Mackalla grumbled, “Your little act of charity just left via Portal.” I nodded, biting my lip. Portals, fickle entities, could warp a creature from planet to planet in the blink of an eye. After a moment of resumed walking, Mackalla continued his tale. “I was sent here, also by Portal, to the woods a few hours from town. Apparently humans train their warriors in the forest, because I was spotted, as was the departing Portal. Not hard to miss that, granted. I was chased… and with nowhere else to go, I fled here. I had… still have… strict orders not to harm any humans.”

I snickered. “Yeah, most humans who get a shark-bite from a dog tend to freak out.” When he shot me a puzzled look, I pointed to his definitely non-canine teeth with a grin. “But,” I continued, “that explains the tunnel. A rendez-vous for you and Olashi. That’s enough for me. But where exactly are we going? Don’t tell me there’s an Olashi at the end of this thing.”

It was Mackalla’s turn to snicker. “No. However, a leg of this tunnel leads to some dense forest. Once we get outside, I think I can summon a Portal. What I’m going to do with it… well, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. It would not be a good idea to take you to Lavana. Humans–”

“Wouldn’t have a chance there. I know. Trust me, I know.” For a moment, the immoral part of my mind berated me for not taking the morphing ring. “Well, you’ve got to get Sarge and Company off your back without harming them nor disturbing the local police. Not to mention without alarming my parents with my absence. They’re kinda protective, y’know.”

The Heifia was silent for a moment, then we finally reached a fork in the tunnel. He sniffed both ways, but looked confused. “Odd. The right tunnel goes straight, but the left one goes down. Neither of which would take us to the surface.” I raised an eyebrow; shouldn’t he be familiar with the tunnel, if he’s used it before? Mackalla sniffed again, then took the right path. We continued walking, though the lights got dimmer and farther apart as we went. Noting the wheels spinning in that tawny skull of his, I let Mackalla have his silence, chewing over new information as well.

So. I might have a chance to go to Lavana. Which is, hands-down, my ultimate dream. Even though, with over 93% of the hundreds of predator species sentient, my chances of living through such an excursion were slim at best. But man… what would you give to go to a planet that, in your mind, you created? (Gimme a break. I know that the actual Creators, a highly advanced alien race, Created the Tri-System and its creatures. I was still coping with the fact it wasn’t my imagination that did so.)

Mackalla exhaled with some force, and I glanced over. “Well,” he rumbled, “I don’t have a clue what to do. The plan was for me to contact you in a discreet manner, play the part of a dog, and assess the situation, then report back. I need to contact my Simnohs and talk to–” Again he paused, then growled under his breath. “Dyone.” I arched a brow at the Kalash curse-word. He ignored me and peered down at a jeweled band wrapped around his foreleg, something I just then identified as a comband. “I had forgotten,” he muttered, “that these things don’t work underground. Either way, we need to get back to the surface… at all costs.”

Barked commands and startled exclamations were my first clue that this Saturday wasn’t going to be a normal day. I quickened my pace and jogged down the street, taking a right at Mary’s Restaurant. You don’t normally hear loud, stern voices spitting out orders in my small, peaceful West Virginian town, and could I help it that I was curious? So I went to investigate, flinching as I heard a little girl start up a wail comparable to the already-shrieking police siren. A call of “Shane Myers! Don’t you go near that mess!” only earned a flippant wave to the old woman, one of my mother’s customers. I slowed for a moment, wondering if I really should be going near something so obviously alarming, then with a grin I decided that I’d just take a peek and then be on my way.

I turned another corner and skidded to a stop, too startled to duck back behind the brick building. A large, golden-brown dog was backed against a parked police car, snarling viciously with hackles raised. Five men dressed in military uniforms fanned out, guns all cocked. The guns were what worried me; they looked like something you’d shoot a plane with, not a stray dog. But then, something tickled my surprised little brain and got the wheels spinning again. I took a second look at the dog.

It was all wrong. The build was too muscular, the paws too broad, the muzzle too thick. The tail was heavier than would be right for the Great Dane-esque body, those big triangular ears belonged to a jackal, and the teeth looked like they came from a shark, not a mutt. This was no dog. No way. Still took me a second to identify it, though. And when I did, I staggered back, pressing my body against the bank’s walls to steady myself.

“It… couldn’t be…” My voice came out in a gasping whisper as the scene before me seemed to crystalize. One of the men had a few more decorations on his shoulder than the others, and he turned his head slightly towards one of his men, eyes never leaving the canine, “Get the tranquilizer gun. Pop it full of darts until it falls over.” My mind whirled as the soldier carefully clicked the safety back onto his gun, set it down, and went digging in a small box.

I had to do something. If I was right, this dog was no dog at all; it was a Non-Maned Heifia… a canine, to be sure, but a sentient canine from another world. See, I’m an artist and writer; I have a certain few planets that I feature in most of my art and stories, and several species that populate them. (Well, more than several. Three planets, known together as the Tri-System along with two moons, plus a couple hundred species.) This tawny canine was the living description of a NM Heifia. And I certainly couldn’t just let some dude shoot him. Right?

While the soldier was searching for the tranq-gun, I strode forward, acting as self-assured as I could. Pretending to just now notice the whole mess, I stopped and exaggerated a look of confused surprise. “Hey now,” I drawled, trying for the ignorant-hick stereotype, “Whatter you guys doin’ with my huntin’ dawg?” To say the least, I got some looks from the five men, the last one gripping a small dart-gun in his hands. I whistled and slapped my hip, praying that the Heifia would get the drift and play along. “C’mon, Bubba,” I called, tenseness crooking my fingers as I gestured him over. Almost as an after-thought, I hoped that the Heifia wasn’t going to kill me… but Non-Maned Heifias, unlike Maned Heifias, tend to be pretty easy-going. Of course, I could just be off my rocker and trying to save a rabid stray dog.

The Heifia’s thunderous growling stuttered to a stop, he glanced past the police car’s bumper at me, and I swear he looked confused. The man in charge straightened his spine and waved his gun my way, earning a serious flinch when those double barrels pointed directly at me. “Young lady, get out of the way. We have a situation here, and this is not your dog–” I interrupted, greatly daring, though I kept my expression lethargic and… rather stupid. “C’mon now, Sarge, this here’s Bubba! He’s my dawg awright. See? He listens. C’mere, Bubba.” I slapped my hip, shooting “Bubba” a pointed glance. With a half-hearted wuff, he slipped around the police car and trotted to my side.

“Good boy,” I slurred, then hissed under my breath, “If you understand me, play along.” A heavy muzzle brushed against my hand and I stifled a wince; being used to dogs, you’d think I wouldn’t mind being thoroughly sniffed. “Look, Sarge, he’s my dawg, so lay off, huh? We don’t need you city-cops ’round here.” I devoutly hoped he wouldn’t nail me with that gun he kept waving around for my insolence. For a long moment, he was expressionless, before a tic started up in his forehead and I got the impression that he wasn’t dealing from a full deck. I ran through my story; for the most part, it checked out. “Bubba” did look like a dog to the unknowing eye, and he obeyed me. It was too bad that I didn’t look the part of the hick, dressed not in overalls and a stained shirt, but baggy jeans, tennis shoes, and a Save the Rainforest T-shirt; my acting would have to fool the guy more than my appearance would.

Sarge turned and looked at the man holding the tranq-gun. “Shoot the beast; don’t miss, but if you do, the darts won’t hurt the girl.” My eyes bugged out at such idiocy, though I figured he was right about the tranqs not harming me much, and I gripped the canine’s scruff in pure reflex. He didn’t flinch, but his jaws closed around my belt and he jerked me around the corner of the building as the first dart fired. I winced and stared down at the huge canine, who looked up at me with intelligence sparkling in his dark brown eyes. Feeling the urge to learn his name, I introduced myself, “My name is Shane.”

Shock tugged at his muzzle, but he shook it off and demanded in a rough, growling voice, “Myers?” I was surprised, to say the least, and I nodded. He slipped into Kalash, a language I well knew, for it was the common tongue of my worlds, “My name is Mackalla.” As I heard boots smacking against the pavement, I suddenly remembered that there were people after him. Mackalla tossed his head and took off at a slow lope, one that I could easily keep up with; I sprinted after him, wondering how we were going to lose the five soldiers.

“In here,” the Heifia rumbled, darting into a narrow alleyway between two buildings. I trailed him, breathing hard but fairly fit due to the tae kwon do classes I’d been taking for almost a year now. To my surprise, he stopped at the old bank that had been marked to be torn down soon. He cast a furtive glance about him, ignored the civilians who stared, and ducked into the entryway. I followed, waving and trying to grin at the people I knew. Boy, would my parents ever be mad if they knew what I was doing… but then, they’d never get the whole sentient-alien-dog deal.

Inside, it was dark, moldy, and littered with debris. Mackalla seemed to know exactly where he was going, so I trailed him closely, stumbling once or twice. He glanced back, grinned encouragingly with unnervingly sharp fangs, and continued. At the heart of the old building, we stopped, and I stared. There was a thick steel door in the midst of deterioration, shiny and new. “Uhm, Mackalla…?” I glanced at the canine as he pawed at something on the floor. To my surprise, the steel door swung open silently.

Mackalla’s large ears twitched and he gazed behind us, then growled under his breath. “They’ve found us. Quickly. Inside.” His Kalash was rough, but then, so was my knowledge of it, so it worked out. I still hesitated, peering inside, until the Heifia snatched my belt and dragged me past the door. I was let stand still for a moment, then the door shut just as my own hearing picked up the sound of pursuit. A dim light switched on and I looked around as Mackalla seemingly locked the door.

We were in a tunnel, lit by a row of dull flourescent lights. The floor sloped gently downwards, and the tunnel curved sharply not too far ahead. “Alright Mackalla… what’s going on here? Why are you, a Non-Maned Heifia, here on Earth?” I looked at the three-foot canine as he turned towards me and began a slow walk down the tunnel, apparently collecting his thoughts. As was becoming typical, I followed him, and waited patiently. But after about ten minutes of traversing the sloped and twisting tunnel, I was a bit impatient.

“Mackalla…?”

He sighed heavily, then glanced at me with a strange reluctance in his eyes. It was almost creepy, how well I could read his expressions. “You… you actually know us, don’t you? You knew my species.” I laughed, “Yeah, I don’t go rescuing strays when they’re cornered by the military. But what do you mean, ‘us’? As in… Lavanians as a whole?” I cocked my head, now walking at his side, and adjusting to speaking Kalash again. My Aunt Chrissy had taught me that particular language when I was young. She’d always been the one to encourage my crazy imagination.

“I didn’t believe them, when they said that a human knew of us. But it was serious enough to warrant attention; trouble’s been rattling around lately, and your knowledge could be used against us. So I was sent here.”

Needless to say, I was more than a little freaked out by the fact that my imagination hadn’t actually been imagining my creatures and my worlds out of thin air. So I chewed this tidbit over, making a mental note at Mackalla’s vagueness when speaking of ‘them’ and ‘trouble’. It was while I was deep in thought that I turned a sharp corner and felt my outstretched foot slip. I stumbled lightly, reaching out a hand to steady myself — and down I went, falling forwards.

I didn’t really expect to pitch into a big hole in the ground, though.

I fell about ten feet, landing with a resounding thud that knocked the wind out of me. My bookbag, with several blank notebooks in it and some art supplies, knocked me on the head. “Shane!” Mackalla’s concerned bark was almost touching, although as I struggled to regain my breath, it merely compounded the sudden headache. Groaning my response, I rolled over, staring up sheer walls at the Heifia. “Ow.” I lay there for a moment, regaining my addled senses, then I scrambled to my feet. Mackalla’s strained expression gave me a clue that something wasn’t quite right, and rubbing my scraped elbow, I glanced around at the six-by-twenty pit. And I gaped.

The ground was littered with skeletons and rotting corpses!