Mackalla and I continued walking in the tunnel, silent since I couldn’t think of any more questions off-hand. After several minutes had passed, I stopped, hand to my stomach as it rumbled audibly. Mackalla shot me a surprised look as he halted as well. “Eh-heh,” I flushed slightly, “so I’m hungry. Gimme a minute. I have some snacks in my backpack. I was headed to the library before you intercepted me, after all, to do some research.” The Heifia rolled his dark eyes but settled to his haunches, and I plopped myself against the smooth but cold tunnel wall.

“What were you researching?” Mackalla asked idly as I dug through my backpack, shuffling several empty notebooks, art supplies, and a calculator. “Hmm? Oh… I was going to try to draw an accurate map of Lavana, and I wanted some good examples. Hence all this junk. I had nothing better to do. Ahh, food.” I held up an apple triumphantly, along with a brown paper bag containing the rest of my little lunch. “Want some?” I cocked my head at Mackalla, who declined. “Fiiine, be that way,” I mumbled, grinning, and proceeded to wolf down an apple and some crackers.

I glanced at one of my notebooks as I was returning the rest of my food to my bookbag. “Know what? You’re gonna hafta sit still a few more minutes. I want to write all this down.” The Heifia blinked, but with a shrug he let me do as I wished and lay down. So I scribbled the events of the day down, up till the present, and with a grin, flourished the last few sentences. I wonder… if anyone ever reads this notebook, they’ll just think it one of my stories. I hope. I’ll write again, as soon as possible, but until then… bwahaha. Carry on.

I finished writing and stuffed my notebook and pen back into my bookbag, tossing it over my shoulder and rising. Mackalla yawned, stretched, and we resumed our stroll through the tunnel. After a long time, we finally found another fork. This time, even I could tell that the right-hand path sloped upwards. So we took that tunnel, and after another twenty minutes brisk pace, the tunnel opened into a hillside. It was covered in foliage, brambles, and vinery, but to my surprise, there wasn’t an actual door.

Mackalla pushed through and stepped into the evening light, casting a wary glance around before beckoning me forward. I batted my way through thorny plants and started plucking those little weed-burrs from my legs as Mackalla grumbled something in Heifian at his wrist. Judging by his tone, he was already in a heated debate. As I tried to shake the rest of the clingy plantlife from my jeans, I heard a low noise. I looked up just in time to see Critter lunging in a flying tackle for me, still in human form.

I was knocked sprawling, sliding into Mackalla. Critter landed easily in a crouch and drew a sword. Great, he got a new one, I muttered to myself, and managed to unsheath the one strapped to me as I scrambled up, mimicking his stance and grasping the hilt tightly. Wish I knew how to use this baby. Mackalla snarled thickly and, apparently leaving the luminous comband on, lunged for Critter. A swipe with the sword nearly took his head off, but Heifias are quick beasts and he dodged, dancing nimbly out of the blade’s range.

I felt a weird… sensation… push at the back of my skull, and I threw a quick glance behind me. Nothing but nice, quiet forest. Well, if you ignored Mackalla’s thunderous growling. But the wind picked up a little and I smelled spices. Both Critter and Mackalla were suddenly wary, and not so much of each other. “Mackalla…?” I whispered, now officially freaked out. He stopped growling long enough to mutter, “Portal.” I winced and felt that little nudge again, this time turning around to face it. What looked like heat waves hovered above the ground in a contained, upright oval.

Abruptly, the Portal erupted into existance, bright waves of iridescent colors swirling counterclockwise with the solidity of fire. Sudden gale-force winds of alternating heat and cold buffeted me, and I dropped the sword in my startlement as the spicy smell intensified enough to make me sneeze several times, though there was also a touch of flowers in the scent. I narrowed my eyes against the whipping winds and tensed my arms in front of me defensively, but I was actually shoved backwards a few inches by the sheer force of the wind.

The very center of the whirling Portal seemed to darken, like water does when a creature rises towards the surface. At least I had the sense to dodge behind Mackalla so that when the black beast shot out of the blazing entity, it didn’t collide with me. Critter snarled liquidly, despite his current human form, and ducked behind a few trees. I guessed that he was going to morph to his Vemeh form, and an extra growl from Mackalla seemed to support my little theory. But my eyes were drawn to the black creature as it turned to face me.

It was a Korat. A female, by my judgment. Standing proud at four and a half feet at the shoulder, she had glossy ebony fur, matte black claws, and a whitely silver blade protruding from the tip of her tail – rare for females, standard for males. She had gorgeous, almost glowing sapphire eyes as well. Oh, wait. That’s right. You-the-reader don’t know what a Korat is, do you? Oops. Let me explain. Nevermind, that’ll take too long. Let me sum up. (Why yes, I do love the Princess Bride.)

Quadrupeds, Korats have a canine head with shark-like teeth and a long muscular neck that they hold compressed in an S-curve so tight that it looks like their necks are jointed. They’re deep-chested and narrow-waisted with a ribwall as opposed to our ribcage. Their forelegs are fairly slender and end in small V-shaped palms and two long, retractably clawed ‘fingers’. Their hind legs are much more muscular than their fore and end in a Velociraptor-style paw: two long digits much like their forefingers on the outside and a scythe-like claw held off the ground by their innermost toe. Korats also have long, muscular tails that differ with gender: males’ are more slender with a curving tailblade branching off near the tip, while females have thicker, shorter tails that pack a wallop and can occasionally end in a blade as well. Korats come in three breeds – a slender, fast tan; a stocky, muscular red; and a toned, graceful black. They’re socially and mentally complex creatures, just as intelligent as humans, if not more so.

“Ana!” Mackalla’s exclamation brought me out of my blatant admiration of the Korat; they are my favorite species, after all! The blue-eyed female grinned, displaying sharp ivory fangs, “Botsa, Mackalla.” My jaw hit the floor after her name sunk into my brain; Ana is one of the three Korat Originals!

Ach, I’m going to hit pause on the action yet again and explain something to you. Lavanians did not evolve. They, and the Tri-System in which they live, were Created by, well, Creators, a highly advanced alien race. The method of Creation for species is interesting, to say the least: an Original, be it male or female, will be made (as an adult) and watched for a little bit to see if the species will thrive on Lavana. If the Original (who is given full knowlede of what’s going on) passes the test, then his/her ‘shadow’ is stolen and broken to make the First Fifty, a group of fifty full adults of both genders. These First Fifty have very long lifetimes, often five or six times that of a normal individual, and the Original will never die of old age. They CAN be killed, though, don’t get me wrong here. The First Fifty are responsible for propagating the species, as their genes change constantly, thus giving them a huge gene-pool from the start. The Original will also take a mate and thus start his/her Line; those individuals directly descended from the Original are known as Of the Line.

But Korats are unique in that they have more than one Original. See, Creators aren’t really the brightest stars in the sky. They have their faults, despite being so advanced. So a Creator decided one day to make an ‘average’ Lavanian, and made a tan female by the name of Kaili. It was displeased with her and idly sent something to kill her while trying again; however, Kaili had magic at her command, a rare thing for any Lavanian, and lived on. The second try was black Ana, who was Created as a cub — which she wasn’t supposed to be in the first place. The Creator was annoyed again and smashed her with a tree; despite this, Ana lived (with the help of an ambassador’s healing skills) and grew to full adulthood. The third try seemed to be the charm and resulted in Redwood, a red warrior-female of incredible prowess. Redwood, however, demanded that the Creator take the shadows of her sisters as well to Create the First Fifty, and the Creator complied; thus Korats have the three breeds, though the races can interbreed and have mixed-color litters.

The point I’m trying to drill into your skull here is that Ana is an Original and she’s right here staring at me.

…can I drop dead now?

Mackalla tossed his muzzle at me, “This is Shane. The one.” I felt weak-kneed but managed to bow to Ana, who blinked once and seemed to be amused by my awe for her. Me, I tried not to fall over. I mean, it’d be like being in the presence of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, or any other famous person out of history whom you thought you’d never meet. Only… for me, this was far more incredible.

A roar from behind me made me flinch, but I recognized Critter’s voice and wasn’t overly worried; a Heifia like Mackalla may have had trouble with a Vemeh, but there was no way that a Korat would even be challenged. ‘Average Lavanian’ my eye. Korats are some of the best warriors out there.

Ana’s sleek muzzle angled upwards as Critter’s grey bulk descended from a high leap towards her. Utter calm was plain on her face, and just before his heavy talons could lay open her pelt, she darted backwards and struck at him with her tailblade, leaving a deep gash in his left shoulder. Critter grunted and retaliated, claws raking at her head, but the Korat ducked easily and her tailblade scored another long rip in his flank. Ana laughed under her breath, before half-turning so that her flank faced the Vemeh; she kicked out, the longclaw so much like a raptor’s digging into her opponent’s chest and sending him sprawling on his back with the force of her blow.

Mackalla rumbled in his throat, half-approving and half… something else. Jealous? No… not quite. I eyeballed him but he deliberately ignored me, his dark brown eyes focused on the fight. Ana took a step forward and struck with her tail for a third time, the flat of the scythe-shaped blade connecting with Critter’s skull and knocking him unconscious, unable to morph and heal his severe wounds. I cringed slightly, but Ana’s next words stunned me even more than her apparent unconcern for the morpher’s life:

“The Ajoitéi Prince wants her, Mackalla. He wants what she knows. She is not safe on Earth any longer.”

“Ana. What is the Ajoitéi Prince? I’ve never heard of him.”

“A powerful individual of his race. He commands several packs of warriors -he calls them armies- and has declared himself an enemy of Lavana.”

My eyes grew wide, but Mackalla seemed to take it all in stride. “Can he actually muster the strength to harm us?”

Ana shook her head, grinning slightly, “Not without what she knows. We’ve discovered several bipedal species living underground. Someone has amassed a lot of power there, but it isn’t the Prince. Rumors are flying of a more powerful enemy, one that may command all the armies of all the races down there.”

“Someone that could actually do some damage, then. Ana, humans can’t survive Lavana. You know that.” I seconded Mackalla’s protest with a sharp nod; I knew Lavana well, and I knew that humans weren’t built for such a world. I’d be killed within an hour of arriving there.

The black’s fanged grin deepened. “That’s what we’re for, my friend. We get to play bodyguard until our friends from the nightcircle figure out what we’re going to do with her.”

I raised an eyebrow at this. Not all Lavanians were noble and kind; many would want me dead and the threat therefore simply eliminated. Mackalla apparently realized this as well, but a wave of Ana’s bloody tailblade halted comment. “She’s under our protection, Mackalla. For now, she’s as safe as she’s going to be. And anyways, she might know something about our enemy that we can use.” I raised my other eyebrow in silent denial, but was ignored by both Korat and Heifia.

Ana slipped from Kalash into her native tongue just then, so I pretended that I didn’t understand that either and looked at Critter. He was bleeding his life out into the earth, and I felt sorry for him. Dying for a lord that probably didn’t care about one lone morpher. I frowned, idly toying with the alternating ideas of taking his morphing ring or kicking him awake so that he could morph to human and therefore be healed. Mackalla was talking in Heifian to boot, and though I knew both languages – somehow, don’t ask me how I could understand such guttural words – I ignored them for the time being.

“Shane.” I looked to Mackalla quizzically, and he gestured with his muzzle towards where the Portal had been. “Looks like you get to go to Lavana after all, kid.” I narrowed my eyes, about to protest, when Ana stopped grooming her tailblade clean and perked her ears. “Humans coming,” she muttered in Kalash, curling her lip. Mackalla sniffed the wind and nodded to me, “The ones from before.” Then to Ana, “We’ve got to leave now, before they see us.”

The black twisted her muzzle in a half-shrug and waved her blade at Mackalla in an irate gesture. “They’re going to see us as it is. I just hope they don’t get sucked in with us. Portals have not been very tame of late.” I winced at the thought of being lost in-between one place and another, within a feral Portal. Ana narrowed her bright blue eyes and focused on the place where the Portal had been, sharp claws gripping the earth and blade unnervingly still. Heat waves rippled up into an oval shape again – the prelude to a full-blown Portal’s arrival.

However, loud barking raced up a lot quicker than that Portal did. Several police dogs sprinted for us as Sarge and Co. erupted from the brush nearby, guns held at ready. Ana ignored them, her mind concentrating on summoning the Portal, so Mackalla was left to fight half a dozen well-trained German Shepherds. I picked up my sword from where I’d dropped it and held it at ready, just in case one of the dogs decided that I looked like an easy target.

Ferocious snarling ensued as Mackalla dispatched the dogs one by one, not without a few bite-marks marring his own tawny hide. Sarge gestured wildly for his men to stay back, his behemoth of a gun aiming first at Ana, then Mackalla, then me, and back to Ana. Mackalla might be taken for a dog, but there’s nothing on Earth like a Korat. A gurgling noise behind me and to my left caught my attention, and with a jump I swung to face Critter. He was finally waking up, choking on his own blood and trying to move. “Kill him,” came Ana’s firm voice in Kalash; clearly she didn’t give mercy to the enemy. I lowered the tip of my sword to point at Critter’s throat, but his black eyes caught mine and I couldn’t.

Glancing over at Ana, I wondered if she knew English, but with a mental shrug decided I didn’t care. “Morph to human. Give me your ring, and then I’ll let you live,” I hissed at Critter, glaring daggers when he didn’t move for a long second. His wounds were fatal, though. And his sword wasn’t within reach, so I knew I would have the upper hand when he did shift to human. Grey pelt rippled and tightened to human skin as his body warped in that peculiar, reasonably painless process of shapeshifting. I heard Mackalla finish off the last dog (not without some sadness; I love all animals) as Critter’s body was finally human.

“Gimme the ring, Critter,” I hissed. He raised one eyebrow and pulled the silver band off his finger, holding it up. “This?” he murmured mockingly, a smirk beginning to tug at his lips. I snapped quietly, “That is your ticket to life, bucko. Don’t push me. I’ll give you to those idiots over there.” Speaking of which, Sarge and Co. were babbling loudly about the whole morphing process, guns being waved every which way as they pointed excitedly. Some military unit.

Critter laughed quietly and let the morphing ring fall into the palm of his hand. I wondered what was up until I felt a sudden and powerful wind slide me a few inches forward. The Portal! Critter took advantage of my distraction and kicked the sword out of my hands, leaping up and lunging for me. A gun went off, the bullet ricocheting through the brush and down the tunnel, echoing as it went and scaring Critter enough that he changed course and didn’t quite hit me. I jumped back as it was, bumping against Mackalla’s panting form. “C’mon,” the Heifia rumbled, bloodied jaws brushing my arm and closing around my much-abused belt.

More gunfire rang out as I saw Ana brace herself against the Portal’s violent winds. “Hurry…!” she urged us. But Mackalla and I were still several yards away from the swirling entity when it expanded, enveloping all of us – Mackalla, Ana, me, Critter, and Sarge and Co. – in brilliant neon light.

And then there was nothingness.

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