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?!

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