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…

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