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.

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