Fire’s vicious roar rang out, silencing the Evils’ cheering and chanting like a knife slices cleanly through a whistling wind. We charged before half of the Ajoitéi and Foruques there could turn; Lype was the only one who stayed still, nocking arrow after arrow and enfleshing them in the guards surrounding the prisoners. Tahos, swift grey form keeping to the flame-cast shadows, aided the Olashi with his close-range combat; his double-bladed rod was far superior to the unarmed or flimsy-sword-bearing guards. I noticed all of this within the split second that my own leap kept me in the air, Mackalla running hard below me in a more direct approach. I landed and leapt again just as my Heifian comrade ripped into the Ajoitéi that was still holding the Night Cat over its head, and before the small feline could fall into the rippling heat, I caught her scruff mid-air and my momentum carried us both away from the fire… and into the midst of enemies.

My landing was far from graceful as I dropped the ‘Cat and skidded awkwardly so that I wouldn’t collide with her motionless form. As an Ajoitéi flailed all four arms at me, I was forced to dart forward to dodge and turned back just in time to shove the Night Cat out of the way of the crushing blows. I heard loud snarling in my ears and realized that it was my own voice unleashed. One canine ear flicked out of instinct, and I turned my muzzle to see Fire applying his strength and sharp claws to the prisoners’ chains, attempting to free some of them. I saw Mackalla with him and mentally flinched; that left me as the only one to fight the rest of the army.

To my surprise, the Night Cat staggered to her paws, deep blue pelt sprinkled with tiny silver flecks and smeared with crimson; a bloodied midnight sky. Her round eyes met mine briefly, and in Kalash she muttered, “I hope you have a plan, tsao, because we’re about to be slaughtered.” She was no larger than I was, about three feet tall, and about as dangerous; neither of us were exceptionally deadly creatures.

I grinned toothily as I sidestepped to avoid another attack. “Sure. Run.” One furred brow was arched, but she scrambled out of enemy range and sprinted for the rest of the prisoners; I followed as fast as my little Heifian legs could carry me. For the fiftieth time, I wished for a better form… like Korat.

I spun when I got to the edge of the little dip in the land in which the prisoners were, watching as the colorful bipeds shambled almost leisurely over. Their attacks and movements betrayed their confidence; they weren’t hurrying in the least meaning of the word. “They know they’ve got us,” Mackalla snarled as he joined me, paws and muzzle stained with his own blood as a tribute to his efforts with those blasted chains.

“Yep,” I agreed, feeling strangely light-hearted facing my own imminent death.

He laughed under his breath, tossing me a knowing look, “You’re becoming more Heifian each time you morph. I approve. You’ve a talent with that ring.” I blinked but, before I could comment, he nodded forward. “Fight well. We need to buy them a little more time.”

I swallowed, leaning hard on instinct to ready myself to attack… and when Mackalla charged, I was at his side. We tore through the first few Evils, none able to stand up to us on a one-on-one basis when we had momentum, but sheer numbers soon stopped and then overwhelmed us. I only dimly heard the now-constant rattling behind us as chains fell from prisoners. Every once in a while, my red-hazed vision caught note of a white arrow piercing an enemy nearby, but mostly Lype defended the others. At my first wound, a shallow gash in my shoulder, I yelped in surprise, but the pain soon faded, and predator instincts began becoming ever stronger. I was deep in battle mindset when a howl brought me around, startled.

“GET OVER HERE!” It was Mackalla and, by the sound of his rough voice, he was more than a bit incensed. I realized I’d been immersed in the thick of the enemy and they’d encircled me, hacking me apart bit by bit. It terrified me to realize that I hadn’t noticed such an obvious tactic… but then, Heifias aren’t strategists.

I tore away and darted around Evils to reach Mackalla, panting raggedly as I suddenly felt the pain of my many wounds fully. “Ow,” I hissed under my breath, grey-brown limbs trembling with fatigue and abrupt pain. My friend looked at me with wide brown eyes, astonishment shining through. He opened his jaws to speak, blood and saliva dripping from his muzzle–

–my hearing died. Quite simply quit working after what felt like a strong box on the ears. Shaking my head, I looked around wildly, only to see an amazing sight: the Aye we’d seen earlier, sixty feet high and well-muscled with tailblade, claws, and fangs, had been freed. I looked up at his dusty underbelly as the huge male stood over us, and I slowly realized that he was the reason I could no longer hear… or, more accurately, his voice. Ayes have the most powerful vocal chords of any Lavanian; their roars are ear-shattering in a very literal sense. I could practically see the sound waves emanate from his gaping jaws, and the nearest Evils were knocked backwards by the force of the sound that I could no longer hear.

With round eyes, I watched the final chain fall in two pieces from the Aye’s lean tail, and the massive predator lunged forward, wading into the army and taking revenge for his time as their prisoner. Now I began to see real fear in the Evils’ actions, and real anger as they turned to kill us smaller beasts. My ears fell flat, a half-numb movement, and I braced my aching body for the incoming wave of enemies. Quite abruptly, though, Mackalla sank his teeth in my scruff to get my attention, and I jerked in surprise; he gestured pointedly towards the prisoners, half of them free and half still chained. I watched Fire and Tahos join us on our little rise in the land, then nodded mutely and turned, exhausted in more than one way.

My claws, thick but doggishly blunt, were useless to break the chains, so I used the incredible power of the Heifian jaw to crush weak links. As I worked, I felt my hearing returning, though everything was still fuzzy and flat-sounding. After freeing a young Shugaray (a plains-dwelling, brown-furred feline race that can be up to nine feet at the shoulder), I heard a muted snarl behind me. “Free me.” I glanced over my shoulder only to see two huge golden eyes glaring my way; I flinched as I realized it was Challna herself, the famous Iczan explorer. Three feet high, lean, and teal-skinned, she had more chains than much larger beasts had; it was no surprise, given her reputation of ferocity. I trotted to her side and applied my teeth to her bonds, but it took several long minutes before I was able to fully free her. Two hundred and fifty pounds of liquid steel shot over my head and tore into the nearest Ajoitéi before I could even lick the blood from my jaws.

I grinned at the spray of colorful gore that erupted where Challna had been as she raced through the enemies before I realized what I was pleased with and shook my head wearily. Heifias love battle, and I was turning more and more Heifia with each morph… it was almost frightening. However, I had no choice but to dive into my instincts again and begin tearing at chains once more, my own blood slicking the heavy metal links before each broke. There were only two prisoners left bound: a white-and-gold Eshay male, and everyone’s favorite Korat Original, Ana. I figured out why Ana was still tied when I saw the behemoth chain weighing her supple ebony form down; there was no way I could break that, nor could Fire’s claws have cut it. I plied my jaws to the Eshay’s chains and quickly snapped them; light-weight, three-foot winged quadrupeds, Eshays aren’t the strongest beasts around, and so this male didn’t need too much strength behind his bonds. He stood shakily as I turned to face Ana.

A flutter of wings brought me spinning around again, only to see Lype landing nearby. His quiver was empty, and I flinched at the loss of our ranged protection as he knelt near the Eshay, speaking rapidly in some tongue I couldn’t quite understand. It was too high-pitched and fast for my Heifia mind to keep up with the words. I turned again, looking blurry-eyed at the battle as it raged on. We were losing… badly… but the sun was sinking behind the horizon. Abruptly, the massive Aye swung back around and scooped Ana, chains and all, into his jaws with surprising gentleness. He knelt after that, allowing the remaining prisoners, all wounded to some degree, to climb onto his back. The only one who declined his generous offer was a long-legged Nickimiss, the sixteen-foot quadruped apparently able to run on her own.

I found Mackalla by my side when I turned my muzzle; he was soaked in blood, both his own and Evil. “Are you–?” I started to ask, but he nodded, “I’m fine. We need to run. Now.” His voice was throaty and his breathing was ragged; with some concern, I followed him as he stiffly turned and began to lope towards where James and Randie were, some leagues off. The Aye kept himself to a brisk but smooth trot, trying not to jar any of the creatures on his back. Lype flew overhead, and Fire carried a badly-wounded Tahos on his back. I knew that some of the prisoners who tried to fight had died, but it didn’t appear that we lost too many; I’d seen several slip into the lengthening shadows after we freed them, healthy enough to escape without our help. We only had eight with us now, I counted swiftly as my battle-instincts slept once more inside my Heifian form.

“Mackalla!” I yelped as the tawny canine stumbled and nearly fell. He gathered himself before I could help and continued galloping at my side, jaws gaping and chest heaving for breath. I knew I’d been hurt as well, and though being Heifia I was able to ignore it, it seemed that Mackalla was far more seriously wounded than I was. “Hold on, we’ll be there in about five pelash,” I encouraged him, using the Lavanian word for minutes automatically. He nodded grimly; running by his side, I watched as slowly his gait deteriorated into a desperate, limping dash forward. I could hear the Evils following us at a slightly slower pace; being bipeds, they couldn’t match our speed easily. I cringed as I noticed a slight limp hindering my own pace, a stab-wound in my right haunch paining me with every stride.

I jerked in surprise as Mackalla tripped and crashed into me, sending us both sprawling in the twilight-shadowed field. I dragged my smaller form out from under his and tried to help him up, but he was unable to rise. My ears were flat and eyes wide from desperate fear – Mackalla can’t die! – but a sudden nearby scent was enough to get me snarling defensively. A low croon calmed my nerves as I belatedly recognized the outline of the tall Nickimiss; she dipped her head down to take Mackalla’s motionless form in her jaws. “Be careful,” I whispered in Kalash, fear and pain coupling with exhaustion to make me unable to think clearly. She closed one brilliantly golden eye in what I took for a wink before kicking her lean form into a quick gallop. I followed as quickly as I could, barely able to catch up with Fire and Tahos before resigning myself to being in the back.

Tahos leaned over the Blood Cat’s bony shoulder, crimson staining his mist-grey fur and coursing down his hide in rivulets. “Can you make it? It is two pelash away.”

Despite his own wounds, the Nila had enough presence of mind to check on the morphed human; I felt fortunate that I had someone looking after me, but nodded anyways. “Yeah, I’ll make it,” I said between great heaving breaths, my heavy paws numb now and the lack of feeling spreading up my long legs.

One minute passed, and I was faltering. Fire’s deep voice rumbled out, “Keep on, cub. Almost there.” I slowly realized that even the fierce Blood Cat had taken some serious wounds and probably couldn’t carry me even if I did fall. That thought, the mere knowledge that, if I fell, I was dead… that kept me running as I listened to the small army following us.

Lype led us into the forest then, forsaking the wonderfully open plains to dodge trees that, if hit at the speed I was going, would probably crush my skull. I felt alternately resentful and honored that he considered me able to keep up with what the average Lavanian could manage, though I had to wonder if he remembered there was a human running with the rest of them. I didn’t crash head-first into anything, though my slow-reflexed dodging slammed my haunch or shoulder against the occasional ten-foot-wide, rock-hard tree trunk. My entire body was going numb with shock, and I was getting slightly light-headed from the impacts and the steady blood loss, plus the lack of sufficient oxygen as my lungs struggled to breathe.

Then we were tearing up a narrow path, the land falling away steeply on either side– then we reached a broad, spacious ledge with a sheer cliff wall rising in a semi-circle behind us and a long fall in front of us. The only way to us was that narrow path, which the Aye had barely been able to take with his massive paws, and even as I collapsed on the stone ledge, I realized that Lype had picked out the perfect defendable spot.

The last streaks of red and orange were fading from the sky as the sun set, multi-colored stars beginning to twinkle cheerfully. Veron, the larger, silvery moon of the Tri-System, was a mere sliver of a crescent, but red-gold Xerachin in its little corner of the sky was nearly full. I stared upwards for a moment, gathering myself, before I morphed back to human. Though my wounds were now gone, exhaustion hit me like a brick wall; I laid on my back for a long moment, staring upwards at the deep-violet sky and simply breathing.

“Shane? You okay?” I jerked in surprise, then relaxed as I identified my best friend in the dim light. Randie knelt next to me, raising an eyebrow as I managed a half-grin.

“Exhausted. Otherwise good.” I propped myself up on my elbow and looked towards the path, but I couldn’t see anything in the darkness. “They coming yet? I feel blind and deaf now.”

Randie nodded, fluffy red hair bobbing with the motion. “Everyone’s tense. I think they’re about halfway across.” I heard the soft pad of feet against stone and sat up more fully as James joined us, crouching with blade in hand.

“How did the battle go?” he muttered in English, glancing briefly at me out of the corner of his eye.

I knew I sounded tired. “We lived. Everyone’s kinda hurt but I don’t think too many prisoners died… a lot were able to slip away on their own. We took the more wounded ones and the ones we knew with us.”

The young man nodded, shaggy black hair obscuring any emotion that might’ve been shown on either his pale-skinned face or in his dark blue eyes. As enigma-ish as always, I thought to myself with faint amusement, before I rolled my shoulders back in a stretching motion. “Should I morph back and fight?” I asked James. “To be honest, I doubt I’d be able to do any good. I’m dead tired.”

He shook his head. “No. We’ve got this covered. They don’t have much time as it is. You two stay here.” He rose and, with a gait more feline than human, padded forward to join Lype, Fire, the Night Cat, Challna, and the Nickimiss where they waited for the Evils.

I stumbled upright, slowly making my way to where Mackalla’s tawny form lay. In the darkness, I couldn’t see where Ana, Dize, and the Shugaray were, but near the Heifia were the Eshay and Tahos, the latter of which was sitting up. I knelt near Mackalla, laying one hand on his flank and wondering how badly hurt he was. To my surprise, he stirred at my touch and opened one dark brown eye to look up at me. “You gonna be okay?” I asked softly in Kalash, flinching as he worked his muzzle in an effort to speak. He quickly gave up and simply nodded, closing his eyes and falling limp.

I was about to fly into full panic mode when Tahos’ quiet voice spoke up, “He is in a healing trance. Do not disturb him.” Randie’s hand on my shoulder brought me out of my sudden surge of fear for his life, and I calmed… slightly.

The sound of battle joined brought me around and to my feet again, tense and ready to fight. I’m sure I got a weird look from Randie at this point, but she didn’t say anything, just drew her sword as though to reassure me. I rubbed my temples, realizing that some Heifian instincts had leaked over, even though I was in human form, and tried to calm my nerves. Then again, I’d had these little adrenaline rushes on Lavana before… maybe it was just a survival mechanism that most humans just didn’t use, this insane perception of slowed time and sudden, imminent danger. I shrugged to myself, trying to listen to the fight, and found weariness blocking my concentration.

I sank down and sat cross-legged near Mackalla, knowing full well that I would just have to wait for the battle to end before I could pass out. Randie settled herself near me, and we listened to painful howls and angry cries echo across the rocky ledge. Tahos spoke after several minutes of conversational silence. “We’re winning. They’re beginning to retreat. They will be going underground immediately and we will be safe until morning.” I nodded, trying to see through the utter darkness of Lavanian nights – no city lights to illuminate the horizon, after all – but failing. It was another ten minutes before the sounds of fighting faded, and I heard weary thuds of creatures hitting the ledge. Lype didn’t rejoin us but James did, seating himself near us two humans.

“Deaths?” I asked quietly, and I could barely see him as he shook his head and replied, “No. Sleep.”

I nodded and curled up on the hard rock, my back against Mackalla’s. I was asleep before I took another breath.

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