“Wake up. … Shane? Wake up. … WAKE UP!”

I yelped and jolted upright at a touch on my shoulder, my brain belatedly registering the wake-up call. I glared at James – or I tried, but when half-asleep my glares just don’t function. He blinked from his position halfway across the hut; apparently, my violent reaction had startled him. “Sorry,” I mumbled, drawing a shaky hand across my forehead; I’d been in the midst of another nightmare, this one involving a shadowy presence much older and more powerful than either Equitor or the Ajoitéi Prince. I peered out the round window and raised an eyebrow. James regained his composure and rose from his fighting stance (jezz, had I rattled the guy that much?) to say, “Ana and Mackalla have–” I shot out of bed and lunged for the doorway, “–returned.”

By the time the last word was spoken, I was running full-tilt towards where I just knew they were. Call it my sixth sense, but I was right when I rounded a turn on the dirt path and saw them both. Of course, they’d heard me and were both watching me as I tackled Mackalla in a bear hug; to my surprise, I managed to roll him over in the process. He climbed to his paws and shook me off with a grin, so I hugged Ana with a bit more reserve before beaming at them both. “You’re back!”

“Stating the obvious,” I heard James mutter from behind me; I shot a glance over my shoulder and saw him with hand and arm stump in pockets, looking rather sullen. I wondered why, before Ana nudged my hand lightly and I switched my gaze to her. “We must speak. Alone.” I blinked, but before I could ask, Mackalla nodded, “Yes, out of the territory. And without Kemohi.” James let out another of his scarily realistic growls behind us, “It’s James now. I’m trapped in human form, so I’ve kept the human name.” The Heifia nodded distractedly before padding quietly into the forest. Startled, I shot a look to Ana but followed as the Korat began moving as well.

James didn’t follow us, and when I looked back, I wondered at his dark expression. Tahos looked equally confused, but shrugged and quickly merged back with his Nila fellows. I got the distinct feeling that something was very wrong.

Ana and Mackalla led me at a brisk pace in silence for several minutes; I was surprised to find myself barely breathing hard at the end of the long jog. I guess Lavana was beating me into shape after all! We stopped in the thick of the forest; I leaned against a tree root that arced high above the ground, looking expectantly to my companions. Mackalla’s expression was mutedly annoyed and Ana looked sympathetic – never a good sign.

Ana began in her soothing tone, “We met with those whose opinions we needed. We told them what had happened and they were distressed… to put it mildly. They claim that Lavana is too dangerous for you; they wish you to return to Earth. I could not but acquiece to their points of view; they are correct.”

Mackalla interrupted quietly but with no particular vehemence, “I wanted you to stay on Lavana, where you would have protectors. On Earth, you would have only me.”

Ana continued, “Which brought up the matter of adequate protection. It was decided that, if James protected you alongside Mackalla until the time of danger had passed, then we would grace him with a morphing ring, but only for one use – to shift back to a Vemeh and stay that way.”

Mackalla took over, “We did obtain a morphing ring for you to use. However, it is a blank and thus dangerous; anyone can use it. There aren’t any forms in it yet either. And we’ve got to teach you the finer points of using it, or Ke– James can. While he’s at it, he might as well teach you how to fight in human form – you’ll still be in danger on Earth, and being able to defend yourself is a priority.” He stopped talking and Ana tilted her head; they were both waiting for my reaction.

To tell you the truth, I was stunned. Not only were they throwing me back on Earth, they were stealing any chance I had at surviving. I still had the niggling feeling that Lavana was safer than Earth; Lavanians wouldn’t go to Earth without some high reason, but what would stop Equitor and the Prince from sending their minions in numbers via Portal to Earth? I realized I was being too quiet and finally spoke up. “Look, you realize how much danger this will put Earth in? We don’t really believe in aliens there. If hordes of demonic beings start trashing my home town, we’re gonna freak out.”

Mackalla held up one broad paw to stop further commentary. “Shane, that won’t happen. Equitor doesn’t control Portals, nor does the Prince. James had called his own Portals to and from Earth.”

I raised an eyebrow and pointed out, “Equitor can probably make Portals.”

Mackalla flinched and Ana slowly nodded, “Perhaps. But for him to make a Portal large and sturdy enough to transport any number of beasts to Earth, a planet not even in our own galaxy… it would take immense strength. I doubt he has the power yet. You need not fear for Earth’s safety; human ignorance will remain untouched.”

Mackalla took up the protest in an apparently well-rehearsed argument, “Ana, you know it would only take one time for her to be alone and off-guard for just one of Equitor’s warriors, or even an assassin, to kill her or take her from us.”

The Korat sent a discreet glare at the Heifia, “That won’t happen. Either James or you will be with her at all times.”

This time, I put my voice in. “Ana, that’s not possible. Neither can go to school with me and it may be summer now, but at the beginning of fall I’ll be spending eight or so hours a day away from them… if not more! How long will this period of danger last, anyways? How long will it take you guys to get rid of Equitor and the rest of them?” Mackalla fell silent, looking at Ana without pity. The black cast her sapphire gaze downwards and sighed,

“I don’t know. They are already very powerful. I can rally several Originals to help, my sisters included, but there will be great loss of life in exterminating these Evils from our home. It will not be easy, nor will it be quick. It may be a year, or even longer if we underestimate them, before you are out of danger.”

I felt like writhing; I couldn’t picture a war ravaging my beloved planet. And I also couldn’t picture being on high alert every moment until it was over. “Why are you guys so set on keeping me alive if I don’t know anything that would help you?” I felt the urge to ask. “I’m useless to you and a danger if I’m taken. Why not kill me? Why hasn’t the n– I mean, those beings decided to just eliminate the risk?” I almost slipped up and called them the nightcircle, but I’d been pretending that I hadn’t understood when she mentioned them in another language. Mackalla scowled at me but let Ana answer.

“We are not like that,” she said simply. “Excluding one or two individuals, we are not willing to kill you when we can just as easily guard you and keep you out of danger.” I folded my arms and leaned hard against the stony bark of the tree, my eyes watching the huge cerulean leaves dance in the warm wind. I felt more at home here than I ever did on Earth, as strange as that sounds. “I don’t want to leave,” I said softly, sighing.

Mackalla nosed my hand. “And we’re not happy to see you go. But it’s for–”

“–my own good. Yeah. Heard it before, Mackalla.” I rolled my eyes but didn’t stop gazing upwards. “How you think James is gonna take this? ‘Here, guard the girl that you were recently trying to kill, and if she lives through all this, and you do too, then I guess we’ll let you shift back to Vemeh form.’ I’m sure he’ll love that.”

Ana shook her sleek muzzle and replied, “It’s the best we could do. Our colleagues were reluctant to let him have anything. It’s rare to get a second chance on this world.” I nodded; she was right, of course. I had almost forgotten that Ana was an Original, for some reason; she seemed so… normal… and besides, I couldn’t imagine an Original letting me hug her.

With a resigned sigh, I muttered, “James told me how a morphing ring works. So gimme the dang thing and I can at least put a form in it… providing one of you is willing to donate a speck of blood. Or both.” Ana arched a furred brow but Mackalla nodded his head, “I think you could get used to NM Heifia form easier than Korat.” I glared daggers; Korats being my favorite species of all time, of course I wanted to be able to morph into one! However, Heifias aren’t weak creatures, and being able to shift one on Earth would be useful, as they do resemble dogs to the casual observer.

“Oh fine… do I get a Korat form eventually?” I sent Ana a pleading look, but she avoided it by saying, “Perhaps. If it’s not necessary, then no.” A lightbulb clicked on over my head and I suddenly frowned, this time aiming my question at Mackalla, “After the danger is gone… you’ll take the morphing ring back, won’t you? Is that why it’s still a blank?” The Heifia met my gaze evenly. “That’s the plan, although that’s not why you have a blank. Only Night Cats know the ritual that codes it to your signature and we had none handy, nor were there any that were already coded for humans… you being an alien and all.”

I felt like crying. They were going to give me my dream and then snatch it back. Ana had the grace to wince and Mackalla… seemed defiant. Maybe he’d fought for me, maybe he had wanted me to keep it. I could hope, right? Almost as though reading my thoughts, Mackalla nodded slowly and said in a very quiet voice, “Of course, should you be forced to return to Lavana for protection and meet up with a friendly Night Cat who would do the ritual, they would most likely let you keep it… provided you swear an oath of some sort.” My eyes bugged out and I would’ve hugged him, but I figured that would be too hopeful. After all, if I was forced back to Lavana, that would mean something bad would happen on Earth, and I really didn’t want that.

Ana finally angled her head up and from the small cavity between the back of her jaw and her curved, almost jointed neck, she slipped two items. One was the ring, a different style than James’ old one with a thin band of silver and a crouching Night Cat shape on it. I grinned as I saw the two open slits scarring the Cat’s haunch and shoulder – those would absorb the blood and catalogue the DNA – or capture the “racial soul” and bind it to the metal, as they explained it. Mackalla solemnly raised his forepaw to his jaws and, with a tiny nip to his wrist, let a few beads of blood form. Ana handed me the ring and I slipped it on the middle finger of my right hand; Mackalla brushed the blood onto the shiny silver surface and, to my amazement, it was completely absorbed. The two open slits closed seamlessly, and I felt the ring become a bit warmer than before; apparently it was cataloguing the DNA. Binding the soul of the Non-Maned Heifia species into the silvery metal. Whichever. I half-expected it to beep when it was done, but all that happened after a moment or three was the slits reappeared and it cooled slightly.

“Dude. Cool.” I grinned at the ring, then looked surprised as Ana handed me the other object. It was a single band of sparkling black jewels, set into a loose chain of shiny teal metal – I recognized the metal as rypil, a soft, malleable, and very common material. “What…?” I asked, puzzled.

Ana smiled slightly. “A communication band, akin to Mackalla’s. The jewels are black Crazouli, incredibly rare but the only thing strong enough to reach from Earth to here.”

For the first time, I noticed the thin anklet around Mackalla’s right forepaw, mostly hidden by his tawny fur. “How does it work?”

This time, it was the Heifia who explained. “They operate on different frequencies, set off by different codes – much like a certain form is activated on your ring, by specific words. Broadcasting on all frequencies is rare but, if it happens, the jewels will glow, and all you need to do is make a sound to receive the transmission. Contacting others is usually taken care of by a few creatures, mostly Olashi, who make it a point to connect certain bands. To call someone, you simply state your name and species, then the same of whomever you wish to contact. Normally, it will pass through. To contact higher-ups, such as Ana or other ranking individuals, you’d need a password.”

Ana nodded, “Mine is korofir aorri – my title as Korat Original. It means black-Korat ancestress.” She smiled ruefully, “Only my sister Redwood is regarded as sidifir oerri – red-Korat mother. Tan Kaili holds the title of aorri as well.” I suppressed a shudder of delight upon hearing Redwood’s name; the mighty red warrior is renowned throughout Lavana and one of my personally favorite Korats. “Should you need to contact me, do so as you normally would and, when asked for a password, say korofir aorri. It will put you through; as a human, you should need nothing more.”

“James is also getting a comband,” Mackalla added with a grin. “Though his will only be able to contact those on Earth, having lesser crystals within it.” The Heifia stretched his forelegs and twisted his neck; he looked to be getting restless, just sitting here and talking. “As it is, we need to get back. I will explain things to James and Tahos while you say your goodbyes; knowing you, it’ll take long enough. Ana will prepare a Portal, and then we’ll be good to go.” I sighed, looking up at the wisteria-hued sky one more time; Ana nudged me gently. “I do not wish to waste time, Shane. Let’s go back.”

Ana moved past me and into a paced trot. Mackalla and I followed, and I was pleased to note that he stayed by my side this time. I had to wonder how hard it would be for him to stay on Earth for the next year while war ravaged Lavana. We reached the main part of the village and Mackalla collected a sullen James and a curious Tahos to talk quietly inside one of the huts. Ana stood off to the side and began gathering her energy or… however one prepares to call a Portal. I was still rather fuzzy on the whole process. Me, I went around to the Nila that I had met and said my goodbyes.

Mackalla’s choppy bark called me back and I returned to find a slightly more cheerful James and a defiant Nila awaiting me. Apparently the possibility of his being able to eventually shift back had lightened his spirit; James was actually smiling. Tahos had arms folded and by his expression, it was clear that he thought I would need more protection than James and Mackalla. In no uncertain terms, he told me as much. I agreed with him and gave him a hug, which he returned with surprising gentleness. I pulled back after a moment and realized how much I was going to miss him; he touched my cheek and whispered in his own tongue, “Take care, Shane Myers. I know I will see you again, but until then, stay alive.” I nodded and bit my lip; I hate goodbyes, and I was making a valiant effort not to cry.

And then I realized that I wouldn’t see Ana again either. I turned to look for the black, only to find a tiny Portal already growing in front of her. “This sucks,” I mumbled in English, earning a raised brow from James. Mackalla nudged me forward and I dragged my feet towards Ana, giving the Nila clan one last look and a small, dejected wave. At the moment, I would’ve given anything to stay on Lavana. But then, the Portal became a full-blown, whirling entity and the light, sound, and wind crashed against me. I barely remembered to grab my bookbag before James ushered me through. I silently waved to Ana, knowing she couldn’t move and wreck her concentration on the Portal, and knowing that if I spoke, she wouldn’t hear me. She closed both eyes in a sort of salute and I stepped through the Portal.

I was rather surprised to land in the same spot on Earth where we had left – just that little patch of woods, near the tunnel’s entrance. I quickly stepped out of the way as James and then Mackalla leapt through; then the Portal closed, leaving the scene unnervingly quiet. They landed and James stretched; I saw he’d brought his Nila-made sword. I grinned suddenly, remembering that my own little knife was still in my backpack. At least I’d have one thing to remind me of the clan.

And then I remembered.

“Uhm, Mackalla? Whatever happened to Sarge and Co.?” I stared at the Heifia, shocked at having completely forgotten about them. After we’d been captured by Equitor’s minions, I’d not even thought of Samson or Sarge. And what about those other three soldiers?

Mackalla’s smug expression drew a raised eyebrow from me and he answered, “Ana had found them earlier and sent them back. I don’t think Sarge was very sane by the time he left. And there were only four left, total. But they were put back in this very spot about five days ago.” I blinked, then grinned slightly.

And then I got another mental shock.

“Crap. What are my parents gonna think? I’ve been gone for almost a month!” James poked me lightly, lips twitching in a grin, “Have you forgotten so much? Lavana time is not the same as Earth time. What was nearly a month there is only a few days here.” I stared at him, beginning to panic, “That doesn’t mean much, James! I am DEAD!” Mackalla’s muffled laughter earned him a stark glare and I stalked into the tunnel that had before scared me; now it was just a way to sneak back into town. “I am so dead,” I repeated to myself, listening to James and Mackalla follow.

“Man. I need a good excuse for this one. ‘Uh, sure Mom, Dad, I was at a friend’s house… honest!’ No, that wouldn’t work, they’d have called Randie’s already. Crap. ‘I was selected for a military experiment and they… couldn’t warn you?’ No way, they won’t buy that. ‘I decided to become a gypsy and then changed my mind?’ Right. Ohh I am so dead!” I broke into a run through the tunnel, ignoring Mackalla’s snickering. “Right. Yeah, and I’m bringing home a dog and a guy with a sword. Honest, they followed me! So can I keep them?” I rambled on, mostly to myself. I heard James chuckle once at that and rolled my eyes; of course he’d think that funny.

Running, it only took about five minutes to reach the other end of the tunnel in the old bank – we took the more direct route, avoiding the pit o’ doom and the various forks. I opened the steel door and peered around; no one there. Well no kidding, who would be inside a condemned bank? I slipped out, followed as usual, before I froze. “Aw crap. How am I gonna explain the clothes?” I plucked at my tough, Nila-woven fabric skeptically, then spun and poked a laughing James in the ribs. “You just hush, you’re gonna be the target if Dad sees you with me, especially after I disappeared for three days. He’ll beat the living daylights out of you, sword or no sword!”

Then I suddenly grinned, “Wait! I can get Randie’s help. If it’s the day I think it is, she’ll be waiting for me at the library! She can cover for me! I hope.” James looked blank and I flinched, once again reminded of the clothes. “Crud. Okay. This oughta be good.” I dug into my bookbag, pulled out my stash of thirty dollars, grabbed James’ wrist, and hauled him out of the building, trying all the while to look inconspicuous. I hurried towards Ames, the local everything-store, and ushered him inside. “Quit looking so bewildered, you dork. Mackalla, stay outside and wait for us. Pant and look like a normal dog, would you?” I hissed, running on scheming and not intelligence at the moment.

I steered James towards the men’s section, ignoring the weird looks, and grabbed jeans and a T-shirt that looked like it would fit. “My brother would like to wear these out, ma’am,” I told the cashier, paying for the outfit and pretty much throwing the poor guy into the dressing room with orders to change, come out, and wait for me. I grabbed some shorts and a guy’s NASCAR T-shirt, paid for them with the same excuse, and quickly changed into them. I stuffed my Nila outfit into my bookbag, threw it over my shoulders, and came out looked reasonably normal… if you ignored the deep tan and seriously matted hair.

The sight of James in normal clothing brought me to a dead stop and my jaw hit the floor. He stuffed his hand and… arm stump… into his pockets and scowled at the floor; it was then that I realized we were both still barefoot, since I’d put my Nila-shoes into my bookbag as well. “Err, right.” I sidled up to James, grabbed his arm, and hauled him out of Ames. “You need to lose the sword, bud. And we both seriously need shoes, but know what? I need Randie more right now. I need human help.” I felt slightly panicked but I charged off towards the library, very glad it was warm and sunny outside – it didn’t look so odd to be barefoot. James’ sword drew a few looks, though, but Mackalla was acting so doggy that he didn’t attract anything other than a few oohs and ahhs, and the occasional ‘oh, what a pretty dog!’

We reached the library within about five minutes and I shot inside the air-conditioned entrance, trying to avoid being spotted by the librarian. Once again, Mackalla waited outside. I spotted Randie’s lean form and fluffy red-brown hair hunched over a book at our usual table and pretty much lunged to her side. “Randie!” I yelped, sinking into a seat. She looked up, bright green eyes unsurprised. “Heya Shane. Where’ve you been the past three days? I didn’t see you online, and your parents couldn’t find you or something. They called my house.”

I grinned, “Things have been… weird. Oh, right.” I motioned for James to take a seat, and Randie eyeballed him before sticking out her hand, “Hi!” I felt like smacking my forehead; my best friend was going to severely injure me for not including her in this ‘adventure’. After all, her worlds and species were nearly as detailed as mine! (Does that mean that… hers exist as well? Interesting thought! Must tell her sometime.) James slowly shook her hand and nodded; Randie noticed his sword just then and sent me a look.

“Randie McAllanen, meet James Konan.” Randie bobbed her head and James… flushed, staring at the table. I figured he wasn’t a people-person and poked Randie’s shoulder. “Girl, you’ll never believe what happened, but I can’t tell you until I check in with my parents. I’ve been gone since Sunday. I need a good excuse and you are seriously my last hope right now. I’d like to graduate, you know, but if my parents find out that I’ve not been… uhm, in town… they’ll kill me.”

I got the scariest look right then from my best friend. “Where have you been?!” she exclaimed in a muted voice, knowing better than to draw out the librarian’s wrath.

I winced, “No time, Randie! Can you cover for me somehow? I was sleeping in your backyard or something?”

“Are you insane? No! Not if you’ve been…” Randie trailed off and suddenly eyed James suspiciously. “You come in with a sword-wearing guy and you’ve been out of town for three days… Shane Myers!” I cringed, before sighing and checking the clock. Three in the afternoon. “Alright alright. If I tell you the whole story, will you cover for me so I can live to see the next dawn?” Randie slowly nodded, and I saw James grin very discreetly. I groaned and settled myself in the chair more comfortably.

“See, on Sunday, there was this dog and these military idiots…”

When I was done, an exasperating hour later, she didn’t believe me… until she met Mackalla, who grinned and said in heavily broken but understandable English,

“Hello, Randie. My name is Mackalla.”

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