I stared around me, eyes bugging and jaw slack. Tumbled bones and decomposing bodies were scattered in loose piles. Coughing, I wrinkled my nose; the stench was beginning to overwhelm me. Mackalla’s voice rang through my now-fading headache, “Shane! Are you unharmed?” I nodded, then spotted an interesting little set of bones. It looked like it belonged to a foot-long lizard, with a strange skull. “An Elei,” I mumbled, then raised my voice, “Hey Mackalla! Why would there be an Elei skeleton in here?” The Heifia shrugged by tilting his muzzle when I glanced up at him. I scooped up the thankfully dry bones and tossed them into a smaller pocket in my bookbag.

A vicious snarl startled me, and I looked upwards in surprise. Mackalla was bristling, large ears flattened to his skull. “Erm… Mackalla?” He didn’t answer, didn’t stop growling either, so I waited, thumbs hooked around my belt loops, and tried to ignore the smell. After a moment, he abruptly fell silent, cocking his head in a look of startlement. “It’s gone,” he said finally, casting a glance down at me.

“What is?”

He shrugged, then lightly jumped down into the pit. “Some grey creature.” My ears practically perked, “Describe it?” Mackalla growled a chuckle under his breath, then tossed his muzzle. “Hang on.” I blinked, confused, then swallowed a yelp as the Heifia clamped his jaws around my belt and leaped for the tunnel. I threw my arms around his neck and tried to think light, but Mackalla got us both to the correct side without much trouble. I was impressed… until I was dropped with a resounding thud.

“Uhm, OW–” I cut off as I heard a hacking snarl, and turned to see what Mackalla was growling at. So that was the grey creature. Standing at five feet with a grizzly’s head, a burly, loose-skinned frame, and dragon-like talons, it was plain to me what it was — a Vemeh. The quadrupedal predator scraped its wickedly curving claws across the tunnel’s stone floor, hunkered down, and sprang for us.

Instinct forced me to roll to the side, and Mackalla took the charge head-on. Jaws clashed and as I came up in a crouch, my eyes widened. Considering that the Vemeh was larger, heavier, stronger, and had full use of its talons, Mackalla was certainly holding his own in the blood-curdling melee that followed. Teeth ripped through hide, fur was torn away in chunks, claws shredded flesh, and blood spewed across the tunnel as the grey and tawny forms grappled.

I watched, ready to dodge should one of them be flung my way, but otherwise all too aware that I was incapable of helping. Chewing my lip, I watched and noted the slightly different hues of blood; Mackalla’s blood was a lush scarlet, while the Vemeh’s was more maroon. There was far more maroon splashed on the floor and walls than scarlet, much to my relief. After a good five minutes of all-out warring, the Vemeh shoved Mackalla away, and they both collapsed. I leaned forward, trying to see how badly Mackalla was injured. He was still breathing, and watching the Vemeh to see if he’d get up.

The Vemeh was also alive, but unable to rise again. Unless it could heal itself, it wouldn’t live much longer. I cringed, never liking death, and stood up. Mackalla glanced over to me, and in that instant where neither of us were watching the Vemeh–

It changed.

The warping of its grey form caught my attention and I stared, rivetted, as limbs lengthened, pelt changed to skin, and eyes turned from gold to sapphire. Realizing what was happening, I glanced at what was now a human hand and saw it. A silver band around his finger — a morphing ring. Made by the only Lavanians who could morph naturally, Night Cats, the ring depicted one of their kind on the band, and bestowed the ability to shapeshift – to morph – on its wearer. It was worrying that a Vemeh, on Earth, could morph; it indicated that this guy was no random visitor.

Of course, foremost on my mind was that the morphing process healed all of the critter’s injuries, leaving him refreshed, while Mackalla was still oozing blood from his own wounds. Which left me to fight. Now, I may be a tae kwon do student, but the key word there is student — I’m not that great, though I can handle the basics. Not to mention, I’d just fallen down a ten-foot hole. I was a bit banged up.

The critter finished morphing into a tall, well-built human and stood, dressed in medieval-style clothing complete with a sword strapped to his back. He had a shock of messy black hair and those vivid blue eyes. If he weren’t the bad guy, he’d be pretty cute. I slipped my bookbag off and hoped that it didn’t get too badly damaged; I had the funny feeling that I’d be needing a lot of the stuff in there soon.

“Who are you?” I demanded, cautiously sidling away from the edge of the pit. I did not want to fall down there again. Critter stared at me from hostile eyes, then graced me with a reply, “You are Shane Myers. You will come with me, by orders of the Ajoitéi Prince.” I raised an eyebrow and positioned myself so that Mackalla (near the edge of the hole) and I were on opposite sides of the morpher. Settling automatically into a fighting stance, I tried to see if my brain knew of Ajoitéi, but unfortunately, I didn’t know a thing of them. Maybe a new species.

“I don’t think so, bucko,” I muttered in a belated retort as I tossed my thoughts away. Thinking has little place when you’re facing off against a guy with a sword. Critter chuckled under his breath, a harsh sound, and abruptly lunged, blade still nestled in its sheath. If he’s planning to fight me sans sword, then I might actually have a chance, I thought as I dodged. To test him, I sent out a roundhouse kick, which actually landed hard on his shoulder as he turned to face me. My eyes narrowed and I grinned; maybe this guy wasn’t as tough as he looked.

My hopes were dashed as a solid kick to my collarbone sent me stumbling into the tunnel wall. “Ouch,” I mumbled, dodging the next one and retaliating. For a few moments, it was back and forth, neither of us landing a blow. I was feeling rather proud of myself until Critter drew his sword and grasped the hilt with obvious expertise, tip aimed right for my heart. I clenched my hand in futility, nails digging into my palm. There was no way I could beat him if he really knew how to use that blade, and it sure seemed that way.

Critter abruptly yelled, staggering and falling to one knee. I blinked, then my tunnel-vision expanded to include Mackalla, who had latched onto the guy’s ankle. Seizing the opportunity, I lunged and tackled Critter, knocking the sword farther down the tunnel. With Mackalla still attached to him, I scrambled away and grabbed the sword. It was heavier than I’d expected, though I’d always loved swords and actually owned a few blunt-edged blades myself. Grinning, I waited for my chance, and while Mackalla held the morpher still, I struck! The flat of the blade right across the back of the skull; Critter crumpled, unconscious.

“Bwahaha,” I cackled, examining the sword with a little more respect than previously. Mackalla coughed a laugh and pushed Critter away from him, slipping into what I recognized as a healing trance. You see, Lavanian healing systems have many advantages, one of which being a trance-like state that gives an immense boost to the immune and healing systems. The Heifia could stay in a healing trance for ten minutes and be completely healed, as opposed to not doing so and needing several weeks to recuperate.

Averting my eyes from the unnerving sight of Mackalla’s flesh and pelt literally crawling, I searched Critter carefully. Aside from the sword and morphing ring, he carried a pouch of travel rations and a small dagger. I took the dagger and sword sheath, adjusting it to fit me and sheathing the sword. The weight on my back was a little weird, but I’d rather me have the blade than him. I strapped the dagger-sheath around my calf, adjusted it, and idly examined the smaller blade as I waited for Mackalla to finish.

A rustle of fur behind me informed me that the Heifia had healed. He rose as I sheathed the dagger and tosseded the pouch of food into my backpack, hefting the bag onto my shoulder again. “Are you letting him live?” he grumbled, stretching each muscular leg. I blinked, then waved my hand at Critter, “Well, he’s not dangerous when you’re healed and I have his blades.” Mackalla glowered darkly at me and I bit my lip, glancing at the morphing ring. “I couldn’t,” I protested, fumbling for words. “Those rings are given as a free gift, an honorable reward for–”

Mackalla cut me off, flicking an ear to show his disapproval, “He probably killed its owner and stole it.” I snorted, but I peered thoughtfully at the limp form. “It would trap him as a human,” I realized, and with finality shook my head. “It’d be kinder to kill him. And I’m not going to do that either.” The Heifia rolled his brown eyes and pressed a paw against Critter’s chest lightly, as though he were testing buoyancy. “Mind if I do?” he grumbled, but only half-heartedly. I didn’t bother answering; I was already becoming accustomed to Mackalla’s rugged but inherently good personality. I patted the travel rations, checked to make sure both dagger and sword were securely nestled in their sheaths, and looked at him expectantly.

With a deep sigh, Mackalla began a brisk walk down the tunnel, forcing me to nearly jog to keep up. However, I soon settled into my own ground-eating stride; long legs are useful at times. The awkwardness of the sword on my back soon faded after a while, and for a long time I didn’t speak. The total weirdness of the situation had finally hit me. I mean, me, a seventeen-year-old girl, was currently toting a real sword and dagger and strolling in an underground tunnel that shouldn’t exist alongside an alien dog, after we both had just defeated a shapeshifting beast. Riiight. I was just beginning to choke on the surreality of the whole deal when Mackalla glanced over at me.

“So. I know you have questions.”

I grinned, snapping out of my struggle with the freakiness factor. “You bet. You mean you’ll answer them?”

He twisted his muzzle and exhaled with slightly more force, a gesture that I was coming to recognize as his shrug. “Sure. What else are we going to do?”

“Well, first off,” I shot him a pointed look, “You could explain the whole tunnel-under-my-town deal. And tell me where we’re going.”

The Heifia growled a laugh. “This tunnel was constructed only recently. You know of Olashi, I assume. They keep an eye on Earth, since it’s very similar to Lavana in planet structure. That’s how we found out about you. They spotted that art you entered in the… gathering-event.”

I grinned brightly, “The Korat! Yeah. I won second place to boot.”

Mackalla rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Right. Korats are too… unique… for there to be a possibility of coincidence in drawing one. You were pretty accurate, too. So, a spy was set on you. We found out how much you knew by watching what you wrote and draw… oh, and listening to you talk to yourself. That was a riot.”

I glanced over when he said the last part in such a dry tone, but mischief was tugging his muzzle into a smirk. So, with a mock-haughty tone, I retorted, “Yes, well, I tend to talk to the most intelligent person around. You’re lucky I’m still speaking with you.”

The Heifia snorted lightly, rounding a corner as we power-walked. “It was decided that, should what you know get into the wrong hands, you could do some damage. And it’s not Olashi policy to go around killing weird humans… so I was sent to–” He cut off, whipping his muzzle around and staring the way we’d come. He sniffed, then muttered a growl.

“What?” I asked, totally confused. Heifian senses far surpass mine. Mackalla grumbled, “Your little act of charity just left via Portal.” I nodded, biting my lip. Portals, fickle entities, could warp a creature from planet to planet in the blink of an eye. After a moment of resumed walking, Mackalla continued his tale. “I was sent here, also by Portal, to the woods a few hours from town. Apparently humans train their warriors in the forest, because I was spotted, as was the departing Portal. Not hard to miss that, granted. I was chased… and with nowhere else to go, I fled here. I had… still have… strict orders not to harm any humans.”

I snickered. “Yeah, most humans who get a shark-bite from a dog tend to freak out.” When he shot me a puzzled look, I pointed to his definitely non-canine teeth with a grin. “But,” I continued, “that explains the tunnel. A rendez-vous for you and Olashi. That’s enough for me. But where exactly are we going? Don’t tell me there’s an Olashi at the end of this thing.”

It was Mackalla’s turn to snicker. “No. However, a leg of this tunnel leads to some dense forest. Once we get outside, I think I can summon a Portal. What I’m going to do with it… well, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. It would not be a good idea to take you to Lavana. Humans–”

“Wouldn’t have a chance there. I know. Trust me, I know.” For a moment, the immoral part of my mind berated me for not taking the morphing ring. “Well, you’ve got to get Sarge and Company off your back without harming them nor disturbing the local police. Not to mention without alarming my parents with my absence. They’re kinda protective, y’know.”

The Heifia was silent for a moment, then we finally reached a fork in the tunnel. He sniffed both ways, but looked confused. “Odd. The right tunnel goes straight, but the left one goes down. Neither of which would take us to the surface.” I raised an eyebrow; shouldn’t he be familiar with the tunnel, if he’s used it before? Mackalla sniffed again, then took the right path. We continued walking, though the lights got dimmer and farther apart as we went. Noting the wheels spinning in that tawny skull of his, I let Mackalla have his silence, chewing over new information as well.

So. I might have a chance to go to Lavana. Which is, hands-down, my ultimate dream. Even though, with over 93% of the hundreds of predator species sentient, my chances of living through such an excursion were slim at best. But man… what would you give to go to a planet that, in your mind, you created? (Gimme a break. I know that the actual Creators, a highly advanced alien race, Created the Tri-System and its creatures. I was still coping with the fact it wasn’t my imagination that did so.)

Mackalla exhaled with some force, and I glanced over. “Well,” he rumbled, “I don’t have a clue what to do. The plan was for me to contact you in a discreet manner, play the part of a dog, and assess the situation, then report back. I need to contact my Simnohs and talk to–” Again he paused, then growled under his breath. “Dyone.” I arched a brow at the Kalash curse-word. He ignored me and peered down at a jeweled band wrapped around his foreleg, something I just then identified as a comband. “I had forgotten,” he muttered, “that these things don’t work underground. Either way, we need to get back to the surface… at all costs.”

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