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.

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