I stumbled out of the Portal’s etheric center and neatly dodged as Randie appeared in the whirling rainbow fog. I still had her hand, so I pulled her through; her eyes were wide but she wasn’t scared. Mackalla and James followed and, as soon as the Heifia’s tail was clear of the Portal, it vanished with a thunderclap. I glanced around, expecting to see Ana, but there was no one nearby. “Erm, Mackalla…?”

“I know. She was supposed to take us to her.” The Heifia sniffed the air carefully. Randie was staring around her in awe, delight shining in her eyes. I couldn’t help but grin and soak in the sheer perfection of the moment – I was back! James’ growl caught me off-guard, and I glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. He nodded towards Mackalla, who had begun to silently bristle. “Ma-”

“Fire Eater and Nila. Fighting. Stay here.”

I ignored that and, trusting that my bookbag would morph with me, I whispered the codeword into my morphing ring. James drew his sword and Randie gripped the hilt of her two blades, both taking guard-stances while I closed my eyes. Mackalla was already off and running by the time I settled into Heifia form, but I wielded my adrenaline as raw speed and caught up quickly enough. I trusted James to protect Randie, but I didn’t trust Mackalla not to get himself in trouble. Besides, not all Nila are bad, as should be obvious by now. Maybe we could talk them out of fighting.

“Stay waked!” I called over my shoulder, realizing only belatedly that I had just used a common Lavanian warning; it means to stay on high alert and keep your guard up – there’s danger nearby. (Or you can use it to mean now isn’t a good time for a nap.) My grey-brown self flanked Mackalla’s tawny frame, my jaws parted to let me pant.

“Gonna knock you one,” the Heifia growled between deep breaths, “if you get hurt in this. Bad enough that Fire’s already blooded.” I immersed myself in my senses and those Heifian instincts that were unsubmerged by my human ones; it all told me a story within a sliver of a second. Smell: blood, fear, anger, wood and metal, torn grass, fresh deaths. Hear: snarls, howls, attack cries, the sound of weaponry sinking into flesh, claws raking through bodies, teeth ripping limbs, bones being crushed, grass trampled, weapons dropped, corpses flung away. See: gargantuan tree trunks and roots rushing past, forest thinning out ahead, an open meadow, Fire’s lean ruddy form, several grey Nila, sharp glint of spear-points, spilt blood, bared fangs, curving claws.

Mackalla and I erupted from the fringe of the forest into the open space and skidded to a stop simultaneously. The Blood Cat, indian red fur and black-red stripes stained with fresh gore, repeatedly fended off quick and cunning attacks from about a dozen Nila, with another dozen scattered about in their death throes or already dead. Mackalla’s ears flattened and he snarled; I mimicked him unintentionally and we surged forward, splitting left and right as though this were a rehearsed maneuver.

Now that I was in a real fight, I felt no fear, nor any hesitation. There was a curious absence of any wish to talk this out, or to simply break up the fight and not finish the Nila off; perhaps it was the Heifia instincts coming out, but I suspected it was a human emotion instead. After all, we’re pretty cold-blooded killers when we have to be. I had gone left, so I darted towards Fire’s backside and took the one Nila in my way by surprise, leaping from behind and wrestling him to the ground. I didn’t kill him, but after a fifteen-second tussle, he wasn’t going to be getting up easily.

I moved on in a brisk trot, oddly emotionless. Mackalla was enraged; I could smell the anger hormones thickening the air. My Heifian pride must be canceling out my human ruthlessness, I mused before, quite abruptly, my little impassive bubble broke. One ear twitched as I heard the whistle of an object sailing through the air and, gathering my limbs beneath me, I leapt and intercepted the spear meant for Fire’s flank. I landed with more grace than I’d thought possible and crushed the spear in my jaws, before spinning and lunging for the overwhelmed Blood Cat. Nila were actually clambering over him, relinquishing their spears in favor of knives and claws.

Mackalla howled a battle cry and began tearing through them as I reached Fire; I added my sudden fury to his and soon, the Blood Cat could stand unhindered again. Mackalla and I spun and sprang forward for the remaining half-dozen Nila in a maneuver that, again, looked planned. I skidded to a stop when I saw every one of them aim and fling spears at us, then darted to the side at the last minute. Mackalla howled again, this time a painful cry, and I saw that he’d gotten a spear through his haunch. Some little part of my brain registered the approach of human scent and the sound of running footsteps, but I didn’t care. The battle was now and there was only the now.

I launched myself in a sprint to Mackalla, arriving in little over a second and letting myself become a living shield as the Nila aimed their spears again. He snarled in Heifian, probably something about being an idiot, but I didn’t pay enough attention to translate. I felt a sinking feeling in my chest as I saw six glittering spear-points aimed to kill. A few of the Nila that I had attacked but not killed were beginning to stagger up, grabbing abandoned weapons and advancing on Fire. The Blood Cat was barely able to stand, and I couldn’t move from Mackalla to help him. It seriously felt like a déjà vu.

The liquid whistle of a slender shaft slicing through the air didn’t really register until I saw fletching sticking out of one side of a Nila’s neck and a shapely arrowhead protruding from the opposite side. He toppled as two more arrows were flung out, hitting their targets and leaving about five Nila looking around warily. I knew that only one Lavanian used bows and arrows: Olashi.

James suddenly erupted from the forest in a stunningly high leap; he descended upon one unwary Nila and decapitated him with one strike. I had the grace not to cringe as I saw Randie following him, her better sword in hand and ready to fight, although she at least looked a little more cautious than the Vemeh-turned-human. I snarled as a spear soared towards me and darted forwards and to the side, snatching it out of the air as it passed me and crushing it. I danced back in front of Mackalla, feeling more alive than I had since last leaving Lavana, and grinned toothily. My ears moved with miniscule little twitches, funneling all sound automatically into my inner ear and transmitting it to my mind which read it all like a book; I could rely on only one sense, even during battle, and be confident of my accuracy.

Two more arrows were launched, and James impaled another Nila; one went for Randie, but she parried it and dealt it a nice counterattack until James slaughtered it. She backed up as blood sprayed from the unusually messy strike, giving James a slightly startled look. He turned away quickly, lone hand gripping his sword’s hilt with white-knuckled. The last Nila made a desperate lunge for Fire, but the big cat disemboweled it with one swipe, jagged black claws extended. I paused, immersing myself in my senses briefly to make sure that our opponents were either dead or unconscious. They were.

“You alright?” I asked Mackalla in rough Kalash, turning to peer at the tawny male. He had been busy shredding the spear that pinned him to the ground; as I watched, he stood and yanked the remaining section from his leg.

He spat it out and looked at me with some faint surprise. “Fine. …good fighting.”

I grinned, before turning my muzzle to the side and spitting some of the acrid blood out of my mouth. “Nila need barbeque sauce,” I quipped, glancing over at Randie. She looked a bit unnerved to see me bloody, but then, her own sword was dripping with the same crimson fluid. She noticed and cleaned it on the fallen Nila’s body. Apparently the girl has a stronger will than I do; I’d have never been able to act that calm after a battle. As it was, I was hanging onto Heifian mentality for a little bit longer. The human in me wanted to scream.

I listened to James check on Randie while looking for our unseen archer-helper. Spotting the tall, spotlessly white being, I forced my stressed body into a trot towards him. Taking due note of the quiver, still full of arrows, strapped to his back, I slowed to a stop several lengths away. “Botsa ze cha,” I bowed. (In Kalash, ‘botsa ze cha’ is a common non-hostile greeting. It means ‘hello and peace’.) The Olashi glanced at me and let his hand ease its grip on his bow, the big construct nearly as tall as he.

I can’t remember if I gave you the description already for Olashi, so if I have, I’ll just be repeating myself. They’re built a lot like Nila, with clawed, paw-like feet, four-fingered hands, sleek fur, tufted feline tails, and cattish faces. Olashi are winged, as well, and for their size have massive feathered pinions. Their ears are long, pointed, and slicked back against their skull on a good day; they use their eartips instead of their entire ears to display emotions. Some Olashi have manes, just like some Nila do. Their jaws are insanely strong – steel-crunching strong – and they have three ‘saberteeth’; two on their upper jaw which curve to their chins, even with their mouths closed, and one set in the middle of their lower jaw which can lay back against the roof of their mouth, almost like some snake fangs do. Despite their razor-sharp feline teeth, Olashi are herbivores; the fangs are for mincing tough cones and nuts, as well as for defense, just like their claws. This particular one smelled male; he had a short, silvery-white mane and blazing orange-copper eyes.

“Botsa,” he said noncommittally, striding forward to retrieve his arrows. I padded alongside, although I kept a fair distance between us. I caught myself before I could ask his name, and instead said, “My thanks for your help.” Letting the silence drag a little longer, I stifled the urge to growl at him for being so unusually antisocial, then pushed into a brisk trot back to my companions. Fire was already healing rapidly, as was Mackalla. James and Randie hadn’t been scratched, and my own wounds were minor. I pawed at my muzzle, feeling the blood begin to dry, and glanced up at Randie.

“You alright, Rand’?” I said quietly; she didn’t look shaken, but I had to check.

She nodded easily, “Sure. I’ve seen worse battles, remember?” She winked at me and I felt my own sense of humor resurface as I grinned and retorted, “Oh sure. I remember. Atumi vs. Zrego being one of the lesser ones, right?” Randie laughed, sheathing her sword with a quick glance to the Olashi and retying her long, fluffy hair; it must have slipped out of its usual ponytail during the run here.

“So where on Lavana are we, exactly?” Randie asked after a moment, eyeballing Fire as he came to sit nearby but not looking overly nervous at the big cat’s presence.

Mackalla sat up and joined our little circle as he finished healing. “Good question,” he muttered in English, then translated what Randie had said to Kalash.

Fire grinned slightly, displaying long fangs. “We’re on Penyns.”

Randie flinched; I remembered then that she knew Kalash as well, almost fluently in fact. “Great. Fire, is Ana around?” I asked. The Blood Cat ducked his head lower to look at me more closely, and then I remembered to add, “It’s the human girl from before.”

The Blood Cat rumbled a laugh and nodded, “I figured as much. Ana didn’t give you a Korat form, eh? Pity. She should’ve. You’ve done well enough with this one. And to answer your question… no. I’ve not seen the Korat for a long time.” Mackalla scowled, I flinched, and Randie looked disturbed. James had his usual lack of expression.

“She’s not far from here.” The new voice, fluid and underlied with arrogance, jerked all our heads around. The Olashi archer twirled a bloody arrow between his fingers and grinned, a fearsome expression with those fangs.

Fire inhaled a raspy growl before speaking quietly. “And just who are you, stranger?”

The white biped laughed cockily, inserting himself into our circle between me and Fire. “My name is Lype Ibizi, Olashi archer and spy on Earth.” He shot me a smug look, “Nice to finally meet the human girl who puts us all in jeopardy.”

My ears flattened, but Fire spoke before I could retort, “I am Fire Eater, the girl is Shane, and they are Mackalla, James, and…” he trailed off, cocking his head at Randie.

I spoke up for her, “Randie, my compatriot. Pleasure to meet you, Lype,” I said, keeping my ears down a moment more to show my displeasure at the Olashi’s lack of social skills, especially considering his race.

“You were saying about Ana…?” Mackalla growled out, not looking overly pleased himself.

The Olashi folded well-muscled arms across his broad chest, grin fading for the first time. “Ai. The Korat Original is only about ten leagues from here. She was captured while deep in concentration… probably wielding the Portal that got the lot of you here. Equitor’s force, the one that was headed for Earth, consists of about a hundred elite Ajoitéi and Foruques, led by a commanding Ajoitéi called Bersito. They have about twenty Lavanian prisoners, probably picked up while gathering their beasts in one spot. The Tlaemae spy, Dize, is the one who contacted Ana and informed her that this particular group was being sent to Earth. He was captured as well, along with his companion Challna.”

I froze at the names. Dize, male Tlaemae and Challna, female Icza… They led the first and so far only non-Olashi group to circumnavigate Lavana. They’re famous, world-wide, and highly respected. They’d be about middle-aged now, I guesstimated, and I could only imagine how they’d gotten captured; though both species are small, they fight like devils, the two individuals in question even moreso than most. “Ana was captured?” Sheer disbelief flooded Mackalla’s tone; I, too, couldn’t imagine how one would capture the black Original… okay, despite the fact it happened last time we were here. Lype nodded solemnly, his earlier arrogant, carefree attitude gone.

“They plan to sacrifice the prisoners tonight.”

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