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.

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