I carefully set my backpack onto the ground, then kicked off my tennis shoes and started stretching. “Know what, Rand’?” I said conversationally as I eased the stiffness from my muscles, “I think I’ll let James torture you today. I wanna shift… er, morph.” I grinned charmingly at my best friend.

Randie, completely accustomed to my tricks, rolled her eyes. “He’s going to want to give your lesson today, Shane,” she replied as she removed her sandals and also began to stretch. “After all, you need more practice than I do.”

I stuck my tongue out at her and muttered, “Just because you do fencing…”

“Means she needs less work than you.” James’ uncompromising voice butted in and I groaned. I turned my head slightly as faint steps reached my ears; Mackalla soon appeared in view after doing his customary scout-the-area-for-danger routine. I grinned and he nodded to me; over the past three months, we’d begun communicating more and more by body language. It was much easier than verbalizing, for the most part. Randie caught our meanings half the time anyways, and James didn’t really care. He wasn’t as moody as I thought he’d be on Earth, but he sure wasn’t a pleasant person to be around all the time.

“Mackalla, bud, bail me out. I need time as a Heifia. You know that. Especially with school starting in a couple weeks, when you guys won’t be around me for a long stretch each day.”

I shot the male a begging look and he tilted his head, eyeballing James for a moment before nodding, “Morph for today, but tomorrow… you train with him.” James scowled at the tawny canine; they didn’t always get along, though they weren’t mortal enemies. I grinned broadly and glanced at my silver morphing ring, then caught Randie’s wistful look.

Though she had her own worlds and I mine (although they’re not actually mine, I still think of them like that), we know each other’s sets of planets and species almost as well as our own. She knew just how awesome being on Lavana must have been, and while I won’t say she was jealous, she was definitely aching to go there, or to Keshal, her equivalent of Lavana. Besides, she knew everything I did about the current situation on Lavana… including the fact that, my morphing ring being a blank, it could be used by anyone. So far, Mackalla hadn’t let her try it, and we hadn’t been able to ditch him and do so anyways. Although I tell you one thing, it had been hard as anything to keep the ring from James in those first few days, when he had to adjust to swordfighting one-handed. Nowadays, it was just Randie dying to morph, with James somewhat resigned to his being trapped as a human.

James cleared his throat, knocking me out of my own thoughts. I looked up at him, grinning broadly and pointing with an exaggerated movement to Randie. “You get to beat her into the dirt today. And I get to watch.” Mackalla snorted and raised a furred brow in a silent negation; I blinked and then grinned again. So he has some plans for me today, eh? Good! It’s about time he teaches me more fighting, or even hunting. I swear I’d starve if I were left alone on Lavana.

That is, if I ever get to go back.

Randie caught the rather shabby sword that James tossed to her; excluding his own Nila-made sword, our weaponry consisted of badly-made human blades that we’d bought from the flea market or pawn shops and that James had improved and sharpened as best he could. I grinned again, watching James’ rather flustered expression. For some reason, he always acted funny around Randie. Mackalla caught my eye and I nodded, raising my ring to my lips and whispering the activation code in Kalash, “Non-Maned Heifia, mri’nizu.”

That peculiar feeling of congealing seized me, and I shivered once before I felt my body begin to change. Morphing doesn’t hurt much, but it’s always seriously creepy. I closed my eyes to avoid watching as my body seemed to melt into a featureless, hairless beast; and then the Heifia form began to assert itself. Within twenty or so seconds of speaking the codewords, I opened my golden eyes and gazed out at the world as a Non-Maned Heifia. Unlike Mackalla, I didn’t have a coat of golden-brown fur; mine was more grey-brown and darker than his. Either way, I was as tall as he was and, though I was a little more slender, it just added to my speed.

I grinned knowingly at Randie, who had watched me morph; she smiled slightly and then drew her sword, settling into a fighting stance facing James. He mimicked her and began talking in a low, instructive voice. In Heifia form, I never could stand to listen to him for long; English was so blurry and indistinct to my new way of hearing that it was rather difficult to understand. Much more easy to catch was the sound of movement – the whispering of leaves in the wind, the rustle of James’ and Randie’s clothing and Mackalla’s fur, and their soft heartbeats.

I glanced at Mackalla, noting again the duller colors that come with Heifia-sight; but then, considering how quick I was to pick up on movement and body language, it was a fair trade. He tossed his muzzle slightly and disappeared into the forest. With a fanged grin, I pushed my lean form into a trot, tail flagged high, and followed him. My sense of smell tracked everything around me to such an extent that I could be blind and deaf and still not consider myself handicapped; I could smell Mackalla’s individual pawprints, the myriad places he’d been today and yesterday and last week still leaving residual scent on his pelt, little scent-markers from Earth animals, and even my human smell on myself.

“Granted, I’ve not taught you much yet,” Mackalla growled out in a thickly accented Kalash; compared to English or even enunciated Kalash, it was much easier to differentiate the words with such heavy vocal inflections. Go figure. “But I’ve not needed to. Shane… you have a good sense of intuition for a human. Do you feel it, too?”

I speeded up a little to flank him, glancing over and bobbing my muzzle in a nod. “I do. So does Randie. We both know that it’s not over yet. I don’t know what will happen, Mackalla, only… I get this feeling that we’re missing something huge. And if we don’t get it soon, things are going to spiral out of control.”

Mackalla nodded, and for a while we trotted in silence. “Shane…” He glanced at me. “You know that you can’t drag Randie into this. Right? You can’t put anyone else in danger. No matter how devoted you two are to each other, or how much she wants to see Lavana. If things get bad, we go back, and you’re put under a lot of guard. She must stay on Earth… and hopefully cover for you.”

I shook my head and he sighed, but I spoke before he could. “I’m not trying to be stubborn, Mackalla, though by now you know I can be more thick-headed than even James. The fact of the matter is this – Randie knows almost as much as I do about Lavana. Sure, she doesn’t know details, but I’d lay my money on her knowing enough to hurt you guys, should she get taken by the Evils. You know? Especially about Korats. She and I are both Korat fanatics. And Olashi. So really, that alone is enough to make her worthwhile to the bad guys.” I growled in the base of my throat, a surprisingly soothing sound. “If they know about me… if the Olashi knew about me… then there’s not much chance of her staying undiscovered.”

I stopped in my tracks and waited for the Heifia to face me before continuing. “She’s not just my best friend, Mackalla. She’s like a sister to me. I won’t let her stay here unprotected, and you know that, if I go to Lavana again, James will come. She’s got to stay with me. She’s as valuable as I am now, especially after I told her everything that happened.” I angled my ears back in a silent don’t-argue warning; Mackalla looked at me for a long, long moment and sighed.

“I hate when you’re right.”

I didn’t grin, nor did I gloat; this was not a good thing to be right about. And that little pit in my solar plexus kept warning me that I was right, too. That soon enough, something really bad would happen and force the four of us back to Lavana. I wasn’t reluctant to return… but I was worried about Lavana herself. What if Equitor and the Prince were more powerful than we’d thought? And why did an unnamed shadow keep haunting my dreams when Equitor and the Prince had stopped doing so almost a month ago?

Mackalla read my expression and body language like a book and nipped at my muzzle; I flinched back instinctively before shoving him with a paw. “Alright alright. Which means–”

“No,” he snapped firmly, earning a surprised look from me. “No, she is not learning how to use the ring. Scratch that, I know you’ve told her exactly how, but she’s not going to try it. Not even once.” I flattened my ears, “Stubborn mutt.” Then, acting on impulse before my expression could betray me, I lunged for him. He actually yelped as he danced nimbly out of my range, but I chased doggedly. He’d taught me the very basics of fighting as a Heifia and, to tell you the truth, I knew that and more already from what I’d written of fights. One thing’s for sure – if I had a Korat form, I’d be a much better fighter. I’ve written so many battles for Korats that it’s not even funny.

Mackalla darted in and snapped at my ear; I ducked and swiftly lunged again, trying to use my slightly-superior speed against him. My fangs almost closed on his ruff before he twisted away, delivering a solid kick to my ribcage. I grinned, loving my sturdy Heifian frame, and retaliated by clamping my jaws on his tail. He yelped for real this time as I tugged backwards, paws splaying against the dirt and blunt claws digging in for added traction. However, he did manage to pull free after a second and whirl to face me, but I was already leaping for him.

He dodged to one side and nipped my flank, earning a surprised yip from me as I tried to retaliate. “You know, it’s not so much pointers that you need as practice,” Mackalla commented. I nodded agreement and skittered backwards as he sprang for me, managing to nail him once on the nose with my forepaw. I took his pause to my advantage and smacked him a few more times, nearly losing a toe on the last swipe as he snapped at my paw. I danced backwards, beginning to copy his moves, and he chuckled before coming after me again.

We sparred like that for the next several hours, my Heifian endurance never waning with the mediocre exercise, although I swear my brain started twitching at the insanity of some of the moves we got to use against one another. When we had finally lost chunks of fur, were bruised, and had tiny cuts spanning our canine forms, we both backed up and settled to our haunches, panting.

“You learn quickly,” Mackalla complimented. I grinned, licking my muzzle and resuming my panting with a vengeance. Even a half-mile away, I could hear the metallic clang of swords crossing. Mackalla rolled his dark brown eyes and rose, beginning a slow lope back towards Randie and James. I followed, trying not to limp; he’d really nailed my forepaw, teaching me not to swipe at his muzzle too often. However, morphing heals all wounds… thankfully. Too bad it wouldn’t restore my energy.

On the way back, Mackalla half-coughed; I glanced at him and waited for him to say whatever it was that he didn’t want to. He mock-glared, “You know me too well.” I grinned, but stayed silent. After a moment, he spoke. “You kept the notebook that you wrote the ‘story’ in, right?” I nodded. “Good. I was thinking… why don’t you continue it? Just in case. And I think I have enough ngran-kre to write in it as well.”

I blinked. “Ngran-kre?”

Mackalla was quick to explain. “Ngran-kre is a word meaning mind-power. Basically, one with enough ngran-kre can telepath, or in this case, write in a notebook without using a… whatever you use to write.”

I laughed, “A pencil. So basically, it’s telekinesis. Cool.” He nodded, then fell silent again. It seemed foreboding that he wanted to be able to record whatever happened in a solid object… but then, maybe I was reading too far into it.

Running, it only took us a few minutes to return to the two duelists. To my surprise, Randie was winning; she had this zealous, bring-it-on grin and she was attacking James with a lot of force. He looked surprised at her energy and was actually fumbling a bit in his defensive strikes. I settled down next to my shoes and bookbag, raising my forepaw to my muzzle and whispering, “Human, mri’mri.” Twenty seconds and a large creepiness factor later, I was crouching as myself, one hand on my bookbag to steady myself. I was always dizzy for a moment after morphing.

James finally started retaliating, but Randie was still hitting him hard and he was forced to back up several paces before he regained his balance. Mackalla and I watched quietly as Randie continued her furious offensive, and we flinched simultaneously as she angled her blade just enough to knock James’ sword from his hand. They both looked surprised, and a long moment of awkward silence followed until James laughed half-heartedly. “Not bad, I guess,” he mumbled, retrieving and sheathing his sword. Randie did the same for hers, flushed from her exercise but beaming.

“That was sweet, Rand’,” I grinned, rising on slightly wobbly legs. I winked, “Of course, James just let you win.”

She snorted at that, returning the grin with, “If that’s letting me win, I’d hate to earn it.” I laughed and handed her a bottled water; she chugged it and finally seemed to catch her breath. I shot a look at James, who was still lacking his customary silent dignity. Randie always seemed to unnerve the poor guy. And today was actually the first time they’d sparred without Mackalla and I for an audience. I grinned.

“Anyways… Mom says I’m to be home for dinner this evening or she’ll have my soul for spaghetti sauce.” Mackalla chuckled at my quip and rose as I slung my backpack over my shoulder.

Randie nodded agreement. “My parents would like to see me tonight too. They claim they don’t know what I look like anymore.”

I laughed and we headed back, trailed by a quiet-as-usual James and an acting-doggy-again Mackalla. “Randie, get online tonight, kay?” I asked in my best casual voice.

She winked. “As always.”

We split up when we got back to town, James only escorting us to the edge of his ‘forest territory,’ as he called it, before retreating into the woods again. Randie went to her own house and Mackalla and I headed home. For once, it was a normal evening; I ate dinner with Mom and Dad, and then got online to tell Randie what Mackalla and I had talked about and done. After all… I keep no secrets from my best friend.

It was about nine o’clock when I noticed a faint glow coming from Mackalla’s sleeping form. I glanced over, eyebrow raised, and told Randie that I’d be right back. I rose from my chair and quietly stepped over to the curled-up Heifia; the glow was coming from under his muzzle, where he’d tucked his forepaws. By now, I was pretty sure what it was, and I touched his shoulder softly.

“Mackalla. I think your comband is alive.”

“Huh?” he grunted, slitting open one eye to peer at me sleepily; the dark glow was enough to catch his attention, and he unfolded his paw to look at his luminous comband. All the tiny black jewels set in the aquamarine rypil metal were glowing. However, his mono-syllable word was enough to activate the broadcast, and Ana’s suave alto suddenly filtered into my bedroom.

“Mackalla? Reading me yet?”

“Ana…? What’s going on? This isn’t a normal check-in.”

“No, it’s not. We have trouble. Equitor is preparing to send a force to Earth. One of our spies was captured and possibly killed, but he did warn us. I need you at our previous rendez-vous in thirty minutes, Earth time. Got it? That’s all the time I can give you.”

“Got it, Ana. We’re bringing another human along, and I’m dragging Kemohi with us as well. The other human knows almost as much as Shane and can defend herself with a blade, so don’t argue yet. We’ll be there.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Mackalla. Signing off.”

I stared at the comband, eyes bugging. The Heifia gave me a muzzle-shove and I jerked, snapping out of my daze. “Tell Randie to stuff a backpack full of what clothes and such that she can. Tell her to bring as many swords as are worth it; I know she has more than one. We’re going to sneak out,” he whispered. I shot a horrified look at my closed door; my parents were still awake and I didn’t want to consider the slim chance I had of going uncaught. They’d kill me. Especially considering I’d never done it before.

I slid into my computer chair and rattled out a frantic instant message to Randie, then hit send. There was a long pause and I was afraid she’d be seriously unnerved… but then I received a quietly capable, Alright. Where am I meeting you guys? I felt like hugging her, but told her where the tunnel ended and to get there in twenty-five minutes. I turned back around and found that Mackalla had already dragged out my backpack and was clumsily tossing empty notebooks and pens in it. I flinched, threw in a first aid kit, my Nila-knife, and a change of clothes. Then, ordering Mackalla to close his eyes, I quickly changed into my Nila outfit, never more grateful that I’d kept it than now.

I checked my watch; twenty minutes. It would take as long to run to the appointed place, and I was rather glad that Randie’s house was closer to it than mine. I made sure the morphing ring and my own comband were on snugly, then cracked the window open. A warm breeze wafted through and I looked around my cluttered but cozy bedroom one last time, suddenly aware that I might not live to see it again. Or have a chance to say goodbye to my parents.

“Just go. Cry later.” Mackalla was unusually gruff, which hinted at his own apprehension. I removed the screen and shoved my bookbag out the window before dropping gracelessly but quietly to the ground. Mackalla followed me and landed neatly as I scrambled up and slung my bookbag onto my back. I sucked in a shaky breath before steeling my nerves and charging at a quiet run towards the old bank. It’d be easiest to sneak out of town through the tunnel, rather than weaving through the streets when there were still several people around. Mackalla trotted after me, ears pricked and nose constantly sniffing the air.

I heard Mackalla activate his comband and inform James of the situation; James simply acknowledged in a terse voice and said he’d be there in time. I hoped he would. Then, the slight glow faded from his ‘band and the Heifia ran alongside me in silence. We ducked into the bank unnoticed and, from there, into the tunnel. Breaking into an all-out run, I checked my watch – twelve minutes. Barely enough time, but Randie should make it there in about five.

“This is so insane,” I mumbled as I burst from the tunnel’s end, relieved to see both Randie and James there. James had his sword and a few daggers stuck into his belt; Randie had brought her two best swords and a sturdy backpack, not to mention a Levi jacket and hiking boots. Me, I was in full Nila gear, footwear included. “Yee-haw,” I whispered to Randie, sidling next to her. “Well, you always wanted to go with me. Just don’t get killed – I’d hafta kick your butt if you do,” I mumbled, all too keenly aware that I was about to take my best friend into danger. She nodded and actually grinned; her expression was a cross between eager, nervous, and flat-out scared. I’m sure I had the same look.

A tiny, luminous whirlwind appeared a few feet away, and I said for Randie’s sake, “Portal. Hang on.” James stepped next to Randie and Mackalla next to me; I gripped his scruff and Randie and I grabbed hands. I wondered if she and James did the same, before knocking such a frivolous thought out of my head with a cheerful grin. The Portal grew, not only larger, but also louder and brighter. Winds buffeted us and I saw Randie grin with the same insane look that she’d used on James earlier. She was ready to go. And so was I.

The Portal let out an unusual metallic shriek as it grew and, as swiftly as a striking raptor, it lunged and enveloped us all.

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