Silence fell as everyone struggled to absorb what Lype had just told us: “They plan to sacrifice the prisoners tonight.” Ana, black Korat Original – Dize and Challna, two of the most famous Lavanians still alive (if they are still alive) – and even more Lavanians. Sacrificed? “No way,” I growled, suddenly feeling nauseous and closing my eyes; the morph back to human took less time than usual and I stood unsteadily, still feeling short around the tall Olashi. (Not to mention Fire, but well… when you’re around a twelve-foot-high feline, you tend to get used to the feeling of being dwarfed.) Randie scowled blackly at the ground, and Mackalla’s ears were flat. No one liked this.

“An army of one hundred elite Evils,” James’ low voice murmured, “and they have twenty prisoners. We are only six…” The Vemeh-turned-human shot a dark gaze at Lype, “if you intend to help. The odds are, to say the least, against us.” I couldn’t help but laugh, shaking my head at the sheer insanity of it all. Mackalla and I locked gazes briefly; he wanted to save them as badly as I did. As badly as we all did, I think.

Randie raised an eyebrow and glanced at me, “Well if you had a Minmon form…” she joked quietly, and I grinned. Minmons, to be brief, are massive carnivores that stand over a hundred feet high, complete with sharp teeth, claws, and a tailblade.

“No Minmons around here,” Lype suddenly spoke up, a glint flashing in his bright eyes, “but one of the prisoners is an Aye.”

Randie blinked, and I was quick to explain. “Ayes aren’t as big as Minmons but they’re the second-biggest land Lavanian at sixty to seventy feet at the shoulder. They’re Athians with clawed paws, sharp teeth, and a tailblade.” I eyed the white Olashi, “If we could free him… think he’d be able to do enough damage to at least let us have a run for it?”

Lype shrugged lightly, but he grinned. “Worth a shot, I’d say.”

Fire and Mackalla whipped their muzzles around simultaneously as I felt a chill shoot up my spine. Randie flinched belately, and James laid hand to his sword as Lype nocked an arrow with lightning speed. I managed to raise an eyebrow in question before Fire, fiery pelt now unmarred by any wounds, rose to his paws and snarled very quietly. Randie and I exchanged ‘what now?’ looks as the slither of steel against leather caught my ear; James had drawn his sword.

“Onago,” Mackalla rumbled in his version of a whisper, ears pinned to his skull and fangs bared. Fire was bristling at this point and I shivered; Onago are massive, long-lived, and dangerously cunning serpents. Tangling with one would not be good. After several hushed seconds, my own hearing caught the slithering sound of its approach, punctuated by the snap of twigs under its weight. I flinched and edged backwards slightly, about to morph, when it came into view.

The huge draconic snout hovered twenty, twenty-five feet above the ground, and scaly lips were pulled high enough to reveal rows of sharp ivory teeth. Brightly colored in reds, purples, and yellows, the Onago had to have been ten feet thick and, as best as I could estimate as it headed straight for us, over a hundred feet long. Slit-pupiled yellow eyes stared balefully, unblinking, fixated on us like we were lunch. Unable to jerk my gaze away and equally unable to focus enough to morph, I stood transfixed.

Fire’s liquid growl was mere background noise, as was Mackalla’s more earthy rumble. Out of my blurring peripheral vision, I saw Fire’s thick tail lashing back and forth, Mackalla’s tawny fur standing on end, James’ lone hand curling white-knuckled around his sword’s hilt, Randie’s wide-eyed fear, Lype’s frozen concentration… The Onago hissed, the sound carrying rottingly moist breath towards me, wafting the disgusting breeze over my face. I felt the urge to retch, but still couldn’t find the strength to move.

B’dchk’ss’kc’ki ouf’hsh. Yra’ h’chvfra’ ckouf yihddh’ch ea’ahoufng.” Fire spit the guttural, hacking words with some difficulty, rounded ears flattened to his striped skull. The Onago paused mid-slither, so close that its decomposing breath was a constant stench. After a moment that dragged on while those yellow eyes regarded the cat, it responded in the same tongue,

Ckouf. Ea’ahoufng chras’nra’ larra’chlar.” Even I, with what seemed to be my inherent understanding of Lavanian tongues, couldn’t translate. Fire snarled thickly, no words in the ripping threat. Unblinking amber eyes swept over us and I tried to move, tried even to let myself run away – but I was rooted to the spot. Unbidden, words in Kalash slipped from my lips, set to an old Lavanian tune. It took me a second to realize what I was whisper-singing; the Oath of the Madreni – the chant-promise that those Lavanians who dedicated their lives to saving and helping others sang. Why I was singing it, I had no clue… but now that I had started, I couldn’t seem to stop. What was wrong with me?

Oddly enough, singing the Oath helped dissipate the aura of fear in which the Onago had enveloped me. However, a sharp chill went up my spine as the massive reptile locked its baleful gaze on me, ridged snout slightly tilted as though listening. I froze again, tensing and finally clamping my mouth shut as the brief song ended. James swore under his breath, sword shaking violently in his hand, as the Onago reared up and let out an angry scream, something you would never expect to hear from a serpent. I sucked in a breath as the Onago’s head whipped down, jaws open wide towards me, so fast as to seem a colorful streak–

I got the wind knocked out of me as Mackalla slammed into my ribs, throwing me out of the way as a gravelly roar ripped from Fire’s throat and the lean feline attacked. Skidding in the dirt, I finally snapped out of the trance I’d been in as the Heifia planted his muscular body firmly in front of me. One undulation of the serpent’s neck, and the Blood Cat was thrown back, twisting with insane agility to land hard on all four paws, matte black claws slashing through the soil and long fangs bared. Lype’s arrow flew well and buried itself into a vulnerable point in the Onago’s neck, right behind its jaw, but such a small wound was like a pinprick to the huge beast; it swung its thick tail forward with enough force to crush an elephant– I caught a flash of Randie, bracing herself with sword outstretched to take the blow, James forcibly shoving her down and preparing to take the blow himself–

The tail-strike never landed. The heavy length of the Onago shuddered, and it writhed violently once, tossing its head– there was a thick spear embedded at the base of its skull, probably shattering neck vertebrae. I stared in confusion as another one, this one slimmer with a longer spearpoint, soar through the air as gracefully as an eagle and sink into one of those slit-pupiled yellow eyes. Blood spewed as the Onago screamed, this time in pain, and began thrashing. Fire scruffed Randie, James vaulted to the Blood Cat’s back, and the three narrowly avoided being crushed by the serpent’s death throes. Mackalla and I were about to move as well when I caught a glimpse of a familiar grey form.

“Tahos!” I grinned insanely as I scrambled upright, watching as the powerful Nila sprang from tree-limb to the earth in one graceful move. Mackalla bumped his shoulder into my hip and I took the hint, backing away from the writhing Onago. Tahos threw his last spear into the reptile’s remaining eye and joined the Heifia and I, a slight grin on his muzzle. “Well met again, Shane Myers,” he greeted me, offering a Nila-style handshake. I clasped his hand warmly and felt like hugging him; I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed him until now. “Same to you, Tahos. Thanks. And those were some sweet shots, man.” Don’t ask me how I managed to throw human slang into Kalash, but I did, and the grey looked puzzled briefly before shaking it off.

The earth finally stopped trembling as the huge Onago fell deathly still, blood pooling around its skull. “Good timing,” Mackalla rumbled with a canine grin, glancing over to check on the others. I followed his gaze and was almost able to sight down Lype’s nocked arrow as the Olashi aimed at the Nila.

The Heifia blanched as I quickly inserted my frame in the line of fire, “Hold it Lype. This guy’s a friend. You shoot him, and I’ll morph and gnaw your leg off,” I snapped, holding up one hand in half-jest, half-real warning. Fire rumbled disapprovingly, but didn’t comment to take either biped’s side. Despite being only recently healed from a fierce Nila attack, the Blood Cat knew that they were varied as individuals; and besides, he knew Tahos personally from my last adventure on Lavana.

James gestured a warning with his own sword, grating out, “And after she gnaws your leg off, I’ll slit your throat. The Nila’s a friend, and one we’ve known longer than you, Olashi.”

Beset by armed opposition, Lype slowly lowered his bow, eartips flattened against his skull in tacit displeasure. “Fine,” he spat, returning the arrow to his quiver.

Tahos laid a hand on my shoulder, and I blinked up at him. He smiled quietly. “No need for such defense. I can take care of myself.” Mackalla snorted lightly, good-natured mischief shining in his dark brown eyes; Tahos, despite himself, chuckled.

Randie slipped up at my elbow and poked my shoulder, her green eyes inquisitive. “So what were you singing that ticked him off, eh?” she whispered, raising an eyebrow to punctuate her question. I flinched as I remembered, and felt more than heard Fire approach. I looked up at the big cat and he tilted his head at me; he didn’t know English to have understood Randie’s question, but no doubt he wanted to know where I’d learned the Oath.

“Uhm…” I switched to English briefly, “Remember I told you about the Madreni, Rand’? That elite peace-keeping force of Lavana that is kinda understaffed and ignored? I kinda… sang their oath. Wasn’t the brightest thing to do but I couldn’t help it. Literally.” And back to Kalash, “Sorry about that. My bad…?”

The lean Blood Cat chuckled, “Not bad, in perspective. None of us were harmed.”

James suddenly blanched as the wind picked up, waving his sword in front of his face, “It smells bad. And the army isn’t far from here,” he added in a slightly more wary voice.

I raised an eyebrow, “They’re ten leagues away. Thirty miles. I think that’s far enough.”

Mackalla eyed the dead Nila and the stinking Onago corpse cautiously, thoughts flitting behind his quiet gaze. I was about to ask him what was up when Lype muttered, “Actually, the army was headed in this direction last I saw. They might well be only three leagues away by now.”

All gazes snapped to the white Olashi, who blinked. “What?” Mackalla and James swore simultaneously and Fire growled.

“If we’re doing something,” Randie pointed out logically, “we’d best plan it and then do it. According to the sun, it’s only about four hours until twilight, and during the night, don’t the Evils go back underground?” Tahos and I nodded, and as an afterthought I filled him in on the situation. He didn’t look any more pleased than we had when we’d learned.

“You may not trust me as much as a Nila,” Lype muttered, “but I have a plan. You two humans,” he nodded to Randie and James, who scowled, “prepare a defense. There’s a rocky outcropping half a league from here in dense forest that would be easy to defend from an attack. You morph,” he nodded to me, “and the rest of us go play with the Evils. If we free the prisoners before becoming embroiled in the thick of battle, we’ll have a good chance of cutting our way back out of the army and running for it. If we time it right, they won’t be able to chase us because it’ll be getting dark.”

Silence descended as everyone digested that plan. “Hey uhm…” I decided to be blunt, “Anyone willing to donate a little blood? Now that I’m back on Lavana, I might need a form other than Non-Maned Heifia.” Randie gave me a ‘you… opportunist you!’ look; I returned a cheerful grin.

However, Fire shook his head, and Tahos chuckled, “If you were to shift Nila female, you would be more helpless than your human self.” I shot a hopeful glance at Lype, whose skeptical eyes dismissed the question immediately. I scowled at my feet, dismayed. Heifias are wonderful creatures and can beat pretty much anything on Earth but… they’re low on the fighting pyramid of Lavana.

“We don’t have much time,” Lype reminded us.

James slowly nodded, “Fine. Randie and I will prepare.” When the Olashi was about to speak, he held up his sword warningly, his left arm still tucked close to his side. It always was, ever since he’d lost that hand. “Don’t give me any instructions, archer. I know what I’m doing.” He scowled so fiercely that the white Olashi edged backwards slightly, feathers ruffling. “Where is this place?” James asked after a long pause. Randie shot me a dismayed look – she didn’t want to miss the fight and definitely wasn’t looking forward to working with a moody James – but I shrugged helplessly. Against Nila she could win, but against Ajoitéi and Foruques… a human girl with a sword was pretty useless. Even James wouldn’t have been of much help.

Lype rattled off directions, and I decided to take this time to morph again. Kneeling, I closed my eyes and concentrated. When I opened them next, colors were dull and every movement might as well have had a flashing neon sign alerting me about it. My mediocre grey-brown form felt so snugly familiar that I wanted to purr – but then, Heifias can’t purr. So I grinned instead, watching as James began heading for the woods, Randie trailing him. She gave me a thumbs-up over her shoulder, forced a grin, and doggedly forged ahead with the Vemeh-turned-human.

Now it was just five of us – Tahos, Lype, Fire, Mackalla, and me. Five unimpressive beasts to cleave a path through a hundred Evils, free a meager twenty prisoners, and then flee before we could all be killed. “This is gonna be ugly,” I mumbled in Kalash; Mackalla nodded his agreement.

“Let’s move,” Lype said, spreading his spotlessly white wings and leaping into the air. Tahos retrieved his spears, cleaned them on the grass, and we ground-based four began running, and running fast. Tahos, as Nila weren’t as fast as quadrupeds, was hard-pressed to keep up.

“It’ll be a two-league run once we free the captives,” Lype’s fluting words drifted down to us as the sun began to sink lower, casting wildly long shadows across the long grass.

“That’s awfully far,” I mumbled to Mackalla, who was running at my left. “What if some of the prisoners are injured?”

Fire’s liquid tenor answered me, “I’ll carry as many as I can, and the Aye is big enough to cart many. We’ll make do. Now, silence. We near them already.”

Mackalla growled under his breath, “Lype, get your white hide down here before they see you.” The Olashi swooped low, flying inches above the grass with broad wings spread sturdily.

As we approached, we slowed, and slowed, and slowed some more, until finally we were all crawling on our bellies towards the noisy encampment of Evils. Judging by the sun, we were early – assuming we didn’t get delayed too much and got the prisoners on the run within a half hour of attacking, they would still have enough daylight to chase us all the way back to our defense and even fight briefly before heading underground. It was mutually decided, without speaking, that we would wait.

A bonfire blazed as we peered from our hiding place, nestled into the tall grass nigh-invisibly. One massive Ajoitéi, a repulsive yellow-orange in color, stood near the fire and spoke in some impossible language to his soldiers. They cheered, hooted, and otherwise proceeded to make even more noise than previously. I flattened my ears in an attempt to shut out their boisterous confidence and tried to ignore their laughing plans for the Lavanian prisoners. Well, I thought they were joking, anyways.

One by one, beasts of varying sizes were carried, pulled, or shoved to a small dip in the land near the bonfire. Chains of insane thickness and weight were shackled about legs, heads, necks, and even tails. Though my sight was worsening with the flickering shadows and bad angle, I could spot Ana, and also the small brown form of Dize near the teal-hued body of Challna. The last prisoner to be brought was the Aye, a young male by my estimation who stood at sixty feet, his dirty, bloodied fur a dull cream color. He was half-conscious, forced to walk by fiery prods; when they maneuvered him near the others and backed off, he lay down wearily, soft blue-green eyes pained. I felt my heart writhe.

There was some more yelling, more threats, more sick plans for the prisoners hollered out by individuals. It was mostly the Ajoitéi who were so confident; the Foruques, though not weak in any way, were subdued around the seemingly more intelligent Evils. Lype and Fire seemed to be immune to the Evils, or perhaps just very good at hiding their emotions; Mackalla and I were silently seething, dying for the chance to fight. Tahos, wise like most Nila, only let his anger show through his eyes, not through painfully tensed muscles or audible breathing. After a split second, Mackalla and I followed his example, glaring daggers as the big Ajoitéi – probably the boss himself, Bersito – continued speaking and gesturing with all four arms like a politician.

I froze as I realized just what he was saying; one of the Evils picked a smaller Lavanian up and held her over its head to the roar of the surrounding soldiers. Repeated chanting slowly impinged upon my mind as meaning, “Burn! Burn! Burn!” I watched in horror as the Ajoitéi prepared to throw the helpless Night Cat into the bonfire. We couldn’t afford to wait any longer. Not with a life at stake, even though, with the darkness so far away, there would be a fierce, overwhelming battle at our defensive place. But what else could we do?

Fire let loose a roar to crack skulls as we erupted forth from hiding to do battle.

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