narrator change: Mackalla Ammh

There was a warmth pressed against me when I awoke at false dawn, unable to move. The chalky greyness that stained the sky betrayed itself, for when Ghrayu rises, the deep violet of our planet’s roof is tinted golden, not pale silver. Of course, I noticed that only after I realized that, despite the healing trance that lasted much of the night, I had not managed to heal more than superficial flesh wounds. Deep aches and bruises on muscle and bone alike still radiated pain in rhythmic waves, matching my faster-than-normal heartbeat. And there was an unusual grogginess that made it hard to reopen my eyes after each slow blink.

I finally took a deeper breath than before, forcing my lungs to accept the extra oxygen. I had never before felt my body reject my will in this way, so reluctant to even obey the simplest command to help it heal; once I realized that, it was only a few more seconds before I swore in the deep silence of my mind. Poison. No wonder I hadn’t been able to keep up when fleeing the battle last night; some of those Ajoitéi must have coated their sharp-edged pincers with natural toxins. It was hard to even think – my mind was unnaturally blank.

I made an effort to focus outside my body on what my senses were perceiving. Unable to open my eyes again, I breathed briefly through my nose. The scents were reassuring; bodyheat, renewed and restored health, and several familiar smells close to me indicated the relative peace and safety of the early morning. My hide was half-numb, but the pressure and warmth against my back was still tangible; I sifted the scents in the soft, cool wind until I found the human girl’s once-alien smell. Shane must have fallen asleep against me. After my momentary surprise, amusement surfaced and I had the urge to grin. Did she think me a furry brown pillow?

Thinking was finally becoming easier, thoughts lubricated by my awakening will and flowing swifter. My body, however, was in no way able to respond. Trying to give myself time, I checked my last sense – hearing. The high-pitched chirping of Eleis, coupled with a few far-off hunting cries and the predatory sirens of Lavanian birds, made me realize how different these sounds were from those of Earth. I had to wonder what Shane saw in Lavana that made her so eager to return; it was such a drastically different, more deadly planet than her own.

No one else was awake, or so my senses told me. Motionlessly, I again sorted and categorized scents that happened to brush my muzzle, tingling down my whiskers and wafting into my nose. Though I could smell herbs that I’d learned as a pup possessed healing properties, none were a one-shot, ready-made medicine. I breathed deeply again, mind now fully awake and aware. I flexed a half-numb forepaw, blunt claws dragging loudly (to my ears) against the rock. I felt Shane jerk against me, and she sat up as I cracked open one eye, watching her silently. What months ago was an unreadable alien face transformed quickly into what I recognized as a happy expression, despite the human lack of ears, whiskers, sharp teeth, or a muzzle to display such emotions.

Thankfully, she kept her voice very low, an almost inaudible whisper. “Mackalla! Are you feeling better now?” I half-lidded my one open eye and jerked my muzzle an inch back and forth; the human style of saying no. Her greyed blue eyes narrowed and she frowned. “What do you need?” Amusement surfaced briefly; the human girl was quite perceptive, especially considering her species.

I couldn’t force my muzzle to enunciate enough to speak Kalash, so I reverted to very simplistic Heifian, trusting she’d understand enough. “Healer. Some plants nearby. Poisoned.” She flinched, brows furrowing and lips tightening into a thin line; a new expression that I didn’t recognize and couldn’t quite read. But the girl nodded and rose with creditable quiet, stalking towards Kemohi’s sleeping form. The once-Lavanian boy woke up after two steps had been taken in his direction, hand on the hilt of his weapon before he relaxed slightly upon seeing Shane. She crouched and relayed my message.

Meanwhile, I was trying again to move my extremities. My right forepaw could twitch, but the other three limbs were numb and as heavy as carved rocks. Even my tail couldn’t twitch. I was thoroughly annoyed with myself. Normally I can smell poison and avoid it; blast those Ajoitéi frantes. But then, we killed enough of them to pay them back for any revenge I might’ve wanted to take. Heh.

Shane returned, fingers curled around some small object. She knelt at my head and put her face close to my ear, still trying not to wake the others from a much-needed sleep. “James says this’ll help. It’s some sort of healing bean that he used to have in his territory. It’s not enough to kill a Vemeh, he said, so it shouldn’t kill you.”

Worried eyes watched me for a response, and I managed to nod minutely. “Works,” I gutturally hissed, voice cracking mid-syllable. The girl got that strange expression again and dropped the little bean into my parted jaws; I managed to swallow, eyes closing briefly. Would this hurt as much as healer flakes do, or not at all?

I was wrong on both counts. It hurt far worse than healer flakes. My entire body convulsed, thankfully not loudly at all, and I was momentarily unable to breathe as agony drowned me in cruel waters. But the pain lasted only about ten seconds, and then I was gasping as silently as I could. I rolled upright, flexing each limb to test for soundness; finding myself completely healed (and slowly regaining my breath), I shot a look at Kemohi… and slowly nodded my thanks. His pale face contorted into a wry grin and he rolled over again, apparently going back to sleep. I was faintly amused as I glanced again at Shane – and found myself being strangled by surprisingly strong human arms.

Humans are very strange if an attempt to choke someone is supposed to be a display of affection or happiness.

I suppressed the urge to thrash my way to freedom and, instead, tolerated the uncomfortable pressure on my throat, an area every Lavanian is sensitive about. Knowing that she meant well helped somewhat, and I patted her shoulder with one paw as she let me go. I was surprised to see tears sparkling in her eyes as false dawn’s greyness became golden, the horizon lightening enough to see fairly well. “Sorry,” she muttered sheepishly, rubbing at her eyes. “I was worried.”

I couldn’t help but grin, baring sharp fangs. “Don’t worry. I don’t die easily.”

She swallowed relieved laughter, clamping a hand over her mouth in the process. “I noticed.”

I looked around, rather surprised we’d not woken anyone up with our movement and conversation. I knew Tahos, propped up nearby, had stirred at first, but no one else had. This boded ill for the health of our companions. I took the moment to examine each of the prisoners. The Eshay, a lean male older than I but still in his prime, was seemingly healed and sleeping in a tightly curled ball of gold-tipped white feathers, his compact frame small for his race. The Night Cat was curled up near a half-grown Shugaray, his cinnamon-furred frame already dwarfing hers despite his youth; the two felines smelled like they’d been together for a while. She’d probably raised the cub, though she didn’t look much past adulthood herself.

The sixteen-foot Nickimiss was sprawled on the rock, looking unfortunately like a jade-furred corpse; that race has such oddly-jointed forelegs that most Lavanians are amazed that they can even stand and walk. Hmm. Considering I’m now recording my thoughts in Shane’s Book, I should inform those who don’t know what a Nickimiss is, as I think the girl’s been describing each species in turn. Lean beasts, Nickimisses have a shallow chest, narrow waist, and long torso. Their heads are canine with large eyes, saberteeth, and pointed ears. Their hind legs are Koratian, complete with the longclaw held off the ground and three other very sharp claws. Their forelimbs, however, are many-jointed, slender yet strong, and end in cloven hooves. As I said, they’re strange, even by Lavanian standards.

Challna, the teal-hued Icza, was knotted into a ball at Dize’s side, the wood-brown warrior sleeping uncomfortably on the tough rock. Creators know Tlaemaes are arboreals, living in trees nearly all of the time; flat land had to be tough on the famous beast. The Aye’s massive body was scrunched into a surprisingly ‘small’ ball of cream-furred muscle, his huge tailblade carefully angled to lean against his haunch. The young sixty-foot predator had learned how to be careful around smaller Lavanians, thankfully. Last but far from least, my eyes turned to Ana’s motionless ebony form. The Korat was the one whom I was really worried about; Originals aren’t easily captured, and I was blatantly shocked that we hadn’t woken her up earlier. Though she appeared to be healed, I could smell pain still clinging to her Koratian scent. I wondered how long, in the time-warp between Earth and Lavana, she’d been captured… and I wondered what exactly those dyone’d frantes had done to her.

I stirred myself from dark, vengeful thoughts when Shane moved slightly. Resuming my visual inspection, I glanced over. She seemed fine, not that I’d expected any less, and my eyes briefly settled on the other girl, Randie. She was still asleep with her hand lightly resting on the hilt of her sword. Kemohi was obviously healed from whatever wounds he may have taken in last night’s battle, and though Tahos smelled heavily of exhaustion and pain, he was physically healed as well. Lype’s too-white form had finally been dirtied and bloodied a bit, I noticed with a slight grin, but the Olashi had barely taken any hurt whatsoever in either battle.

I rose on silent paws and padded over to my friend, ears pricking. Fire Eater had been badly wounded when we fled the first battle, yet by the gory scent surrounding the area near the narrow path, he had fought again. The lean Blood Cat was the only one of the fifteen creatures in my group that still had open wounds, though the flesh underneath had mostly healed. I stopped and settled to my haunches near his head, patiently waiting for my scent to wake him. One slit-pupiled gold eye opened almost immediately, a rueful grin creasing his cattish muzzle as he slid himself into what Shane calls a ‘leonine sprawl’.

Now near eye-level with the twelve-foot feline, I cocked my head wordlessly. He returned a Lavanian shrug, twitching his pelt lightly for emphasis. Using his native tongue, he rumbled out a single quiet phrase. “The girl needs a new form.” I suppressed a reluctant expression and resigned myself to the truth; I nodded and he continued. “Though the Night Cat would probably offer hers, I doubt it would be enough.”

My eyes widened slightly and I canted my ears back, not quite flattening them, in an expression of startled disbelief. “You’re going to offer her yours?” I replied, Heifian accent tainting my words. Fire nodded calmly, apparently having already thought this through. I ignored the urge to cringe and glanced at the girl in question out of the corner of my eye. She was cross-legged next to Tahos, her eyes closed and breathing steady; if I didn’t already know humans couldn’t sleep in such positions, I would’ve thought her napping.

“Seems humans know some ngran-kre arts.” The Blood Cat grinned toothily at my surprised blink. “I think the race isn’t all bad. But I wouldn’t know. You’ll tell her for me?”

This time, I gave in to impulse and snorted. “Not talking to her yourself now?” Fire snorted as well, gold eyes half-lidding in what resembled amusement. I grinned, “I’ll tell her. Once I tell Ana and she has a chance to break my skull.” The lean cat snickered under his breath, an odd sound coming from a species that rarely laughs. “Heal yourself. I’ll wake the others,” I said quietly, then eased myself to my paws. The Blood Cat closed his eyes and slipped into a healing trance as I padded easily to Ana’s side.

I waited for a pelash or two, but she didn’t wake, despite my closeness. It took a gentle touch on her shoulder to rouse the sleeping Korat, and sapphire eyes locked on me with pupils dilated. I held absolutely still, knowing that, should she panic, she could easily kill me, but the frenzied emotion that whirled in those jewel-like eyes vanished after one blink. Tense muscles eased, and I sat down as she pulled herself upright to match me, body slow and weak to my eyes. I struggled to keep the concern out of my voice and eyes as I spoke, this time in Koratian. “You are healed?”

Ana dropped her sculpted muzzle in a shallow nod, but after a moment she smiled wanly. “Worry not, Mackalla. I will recover by the end of this day. But you have something to tell me; I can see it in you.”

I subdued an irrational feeling of resentment, that this female could read me so easily, and simply nodded. “Fire has offered to give Shane an Blood Cat form.”

Ana was silent for a long moment, her so-blue eyes calculating and distant. There was still a certain alienation in them, a bit of a glaze over the clear color that worried me, but when she again focused on my face, that subtle strangeness was gone. “This was Fire’s idea?” I nodded silently, unable to take my eyes off her, so intent was I on finding that hint of oddity again and pinpointing it. “I saw her fight. How much did you teach her?”

I choked on a laugh, managing to stifle the sound before I could wake any others. “I taught her the very basics. The girl has talent with that ring. She becomes more and more Heifia with each morph…” My eyes darkened as I remembered how close to death she’d come during the battle, surrounded and not even realizing it. “She still needs to learn to keep some intellect about her, instead of drowning in instincts. But I believe such deftness will come with practice. And Heifias aren’t the best when it comes to rising above instincts.”

The black looked faintly amused, the ghost of a smile creasing her muzzle before smoothing again. “Agreed. Do you think she can handle the power of an Blood Cat form?”

I thought only briefly, a grin baring my fangs. “She could easier handle that of a Korat,” I murmured, hoping that Ana would relent. While on Earth, Shane had shown me the wealth of information she had on Korats, and I knew that such a form would be the best we could possibly let her have.

But Ana shook her head, “I have already decided that, should such measures be necessary, that her fifth form will be Korat. But not before.”

I concealed my disappointment with an accepting nod and answered her original question, “Then yes, I believe she can handle it. Either way, she needs something stronger than Heifia.”

Ana slowly nodded, the movement easier and more graceful than the ones before. She must have initiated a light healing trance during the conversation, but I hadn’t noticed when. (Or had I? Was that when the strangeness that hid deep in her eyes disappeared?) “I have no objections.” She glanced around with brilliant cerulean eyes. “I will wake the others while you take care of that.” I nodded my assent and rose, turning to rejoin the human when I felt the cool flat of the Korat’s scythe-shaped tailblade briefly rest against my shoulder. “Worry not,” she repeated in a very quiet tone, and I nodded without looking back. Shane snapped out of her… trance?… when I sat near her. Ana’s tenor rolled out, calling everyone to wake and rise, as I grinned.

“Gift for you,” I said in painstaking English. Blasted language. “From Fire.” She blinked once, uncomprehending, before glancing past me at the probably-grinning feline. Her eyes widened and her mouth shaped into an ‘O’, but there was caution and disbelief in her face; she knew how unlikely this gift was.

“Ana said okay?” were the first words past her lips, her eyes flicking to the proud form of the black. I nodded and the girl very nearly hurt herself with a full-body spring from the ground into a run towards the waiting Blood Cat. I chuckled under my breath, turning to watch the procedure, and noticed Kemohi wandering over to supervise. Arrogant once-Vemeh.

“Mackalla.” The soft voice spoke Kalash, a language I, for one, was happy to hear after my multilingual morning. “There are healing herbs nearby, are there not?” I glanced at Tahos and nodded, raising a furred brow. He smiled quietly as he rose, apparently in a serene mood rather rare for his kind. “I’m going to collect them. Even if they’re not needed now, keeping some on hand cannot be a bad idea.”

Lype’s sharper, higher-pitched voice suddenly cut in, “Not a bad idea, cresh.” The half-casual, half-jokingly-insulting name was taken in stride by the grey Nila as he stretched briefly. “I’ll go with you,” the archer finished with a toothy grin. Tahos simply nodded and padded down the narrow ‘bridge’ that led to the forest from our ledge, followed by the swaggering Olashi. I watched wide-eyed as the two vanished into grey, green, and gold foliage; their races tended to be mortal enemies, and here they went off herb-picking. Very strange, bipeds are.

I finally shook the surprise off when the rest of the group began moving about, with the notable exception of the Aye, whose name I somehow remember hearing as Galyent. With a ‘hmmph’ noise in my throat, I meandered forward to stand next to Ana, soaking in the names tossed about. The Night Cat was Aria, with Radiaf being her Shugaray companion; the Eshay was Palan; and the jade Nickimiss was Jairnay. That name rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite remember where I’d heard it before; I don’t normally see the strange beasts. Ana, too, looked long and hard at the taller canine before shrugging it off. She must’ve remembered it… or remembered hearing the name before. Either way.

I found Challna suddenly staring up at me, huge eyes with thin golden irises rather unnerving when they’re an inch from your muzzle. How she’d gotten so close so quickly was baffling, and I involuntarily backpedaled a step. There was a hard look on her teal-skinned face, but that softened very briefly when she spoke in a hard voice. “Dize wants to speak with those who responded to the call all the way from another planet.” Then, the ice returned to her gaze, “He doesn’t believe that you came here to flee Equitor.” I nodded silently, an irrational grin tugging at my muzzle. Had we not been forced to come, Shane would have wanted to come anyways to try to help. Foolish little human… but apparently one very famous Tlaemae appreciates foolhardy beings. I followed Challna, and Shane joined me, her morphing ring still processing the Blood Cat blood by the look of it. Hmmph. Technology.

Creamy amber-gold eyes locked onto my face as the brown-furred Tlaemae tilted his streamlined muzzle upwards from where he lay, still very tired. But the force behind that gaze was enough to bely any exhaustion evident in his posture. I bowed my head and Shane bent her torso in a human bow, or something of the like. “Who are you, you who heard and came?”

I dropped my eyes, knowing Challna expected us to tell him the truth… but Shane spoke in flawless Kalash before I could open my mouth. “My name is Shane Myers. We had no choice but to come here, for our own safety.” Her eyes flashed as she added, “And there was nothing else to do but try to save those captured.” Leave it to the human to make a bad thing sound good.

“I am Mackalla Ammh. The girl speaks the truth.” Much more eloquently than I would’ve, I mentally added. Though I’d figured the smaller warrior wouldn’t notice my use of a last name (although so few Lavanians have one), his gaze switched to me like the crack of a tailblade.

“Mackalla… Ammh. Ammh.” A glint shone in his eyes as he looked up at me. “The Ammh line still exists?” I nodded, suppressing a grin at the eagerness in his face. “That, my friend, is good to hear.” Abruptly, a glaze swept over those almond-shaped eyes and Challna let out a low, serrated growl. I backpedaled without any thought for my dignity and Shane scrambled backwards as well, leaving the small Icza room to reach Dize as he swooned, near unconsciousness.

“Jezz. How much poison did those morons use?!” the girl hissed under her breath in English as we removed ourselves from the immediate area.

I growled thickly in response, tossed my muzzle and narrowed my eyes in a shrug, then sighed. “It would explain why everyone is so hard to wake up, and why many still have wounds left.”

With surprising suddenness, Shane stepped in my path and knelt so she was eye-level with me, eyes narrowing. I blinked. “Why didn’t you tell me you were Of the Line, Mackalla?” To my chagrin, she sounded more hurt than angry. I splayed my ears backwards and couldn’t muster words for a moment; why had I hidden that little facet from the girl? She knew most else about me.

After a long, awkward moment of my silence, Shane sighed and stood, turning to rejoin Randie. She didn’t speak to the shorter girl, but folded her arms and leaned against the rock, gnawing on her lip. I scowled at nothing in particular and made my way to a still-cool part of the ledge, curling up with my muzzle resting on broad paws.

Why hadn’t I told her?

Ammh was the Non-Maned Heifia Original, a male of such stunning skills that he was thought nearly invincible, even compared to the Nine Originals who came before him. But it has been over two thousand years since his Creation; no one knows if he still lives. His Line is scattered and diluted; only through me is it worthy of being recognized. I am the only Heifia alive who can claim my last name. It’s a thing of honor, of pride, deserving of respect and admiration. So why had I avoided the subject with the human?

I shook my muzzle, dispersing my thoughts, and rose again. She would get over it, like she usually did when I unintentionally slighted her. Heifias are not the best at dealing with finicky species, and humans classify as finicky in my eyes. Glancing around, I returned my attention to the present… just in time for the Aye to stand very suddenly, startling or flat-out scaring most of us smaller cretts. I stared up at the huge beast in surprise as he snarled loudly; the Eshay rocketed into the air, presumably running on instinct, and zipped above the male’s head. A loud, shrill whistle echoed out, but not from the feathered one – Tahos came pelting full-speed up the path while Lype swooped overhead and landed just before the Nila reached us. Olashi speak a whistling language, but that was no word from his jaws; it was a warning.

Palan’s voice drifted down to us, sharp and apprehensive. “I see masses of Evils approaching! We’re almost surrounded! No way out!”

There was silence for a long moment, horror shining in the eyes of those who had been down to Equitor’s caverns and survived. The inherent knowledge that we would not be killed outright, here on the surface, seemed obvious to us all.

I felt my eyes glaze as I remembered. When we had been captured, Ana, Za-shen-sai, Shane, and I had been separated… the human and Trahe left together, but I had fought as much as I could. The half of an ear still cocked on my head attested to that. Ana fought more, I knew, but she also was wounded worse and treated worse than I’d been. I’d seen the human’s theological hell and lived through it… somehow. But a second trip there would be my death. It would kill us all.

Better to die above it, in the sunlight and where the wind can still touch your body, where the flowers’ faint fragrance can make your last breath sweet.

Ana snarled in a rippling voice, breaking me out of my dark thoughts. “Those who can escape, do so.” Her eyes flicked to Fire, “Try to get the humans out of here.” I saw Shane glance at her morphing ring, but judging by her expression, it was still processing the Blood Cat form. She couldn’t morph. Even Kemohi didn’t argue, swinging onto Fire’s back and helping Randie up. Shane followed, grabbing fistfuls of red fur, and suddenly I regretted the fact that I was going to die without having apologized to her.

“Sorry, kid,” I muttered under my breath in English, a split second before a shrill scream tore at my ears. I turned my muzzle upwards to watch as the Eshay, some sort of metal stake plunged into his chest, plummeted from the sky. It has begun. Forceful now, I threw myself forward as I heard scrabbling claws, Evils beginning to drop from the sheer rock that made a ‘wall’ to our ledge. Back to Kalash. “Nickimiss!” I snapped, gaining the female’s attention instantly. “Should I die and you live, there is a book in the humans’ possession. Record what happens in that through ngran-kre.” I knew her mind was strong enough to do as I had been doing. “There is dire need for this record.” She nodded her lean muzzle once, then ripped off an attacker’s head and crushed it in the same fluid motion.

I spun and, knowing my Line would die with me, attacked.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

It has been three months since Shane Myers, James Konan, and Mackalla Ammh returned to Earth. Summer is fading into fall and, with her senior year only a few weeks away, Shane is worried about school and how it would only take one well-timed strike to end her life; in class, she will be completely without her protectors and also unable to morph because of those around her. James has been introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Myers as Shane’s and Randie’s new martial arts and fencing tutor; both teens have been taking ‘lessons’ from him in the nearby woods that he has claimed as home. Mackalla has been adopted into Shane’s family without a hitch and, excluding Randie, no one is the wiser. Shane has learned to morph into Non-Maned Heifia form and practices as often as possible, delighting in the power to change her shape. Randie has been told in detail of Shane’s adventures and is nearly begging for inclusion in what she feels are adventures soon to come; the question has been brought up that, if Shane’s worlds are real, what chance is there that Randie’s are as well? Mackalla has been in constant contact with Ana and others of the nightcircle; the Heifia is homesick but, with learning English and protecting Shane from minor annoyances, he’s been too busy to truly yearn for Lavana.

A small brown beast crept forward, painstakingly silent with each careful step, sharp black claws imprinting into Lavana’s rich soil. Almond-shaped golden eyes were wide and the pupils large; night was both a blessing and a curse, but to this beast, the ability to see the surreal glow of bodyheat transformed the darkness into a gift. The Tlaemae maneuvered his compact, muscular body into a slight dip in the field and lay down, motionless except for his searching gaze.

The stench of Evil nearly overwhelmed his keen senses, but those gold eyes tracked every shadowy movement that the army made around him; his utter stillness left him undetected for hours on end, though the stress of being surrounded by beasts that would tear him apart if they knew he was there was taking its toll. Wiry muscles began to shiver and the Tlaemae forced them to relax, still honed in on individual movements and conversations. Nothing of any worth, but then, there must be some reason why one of Equitor’s groups was above-ground without any apparent task. It was the only time, as a matter of fact, that the Evils had been sighed above-ground at night.

The crackling of a gravelly voice caught his attention and, without moving, the Lavanian focused on it. The words were obscured by a heavy accent and the background noise drowned out the voice’s inflections, but the message was clear. The Tlaemae caught his breath as the Evil passed down orders from Equitor himself, and as the rest of the small army began to gather, the male feared for his own safety. Then, a disgruntled howl erupted nearby.

“SPY!”

The Tlaemae sucked in a breath and sprang into action, sprinting as fast as his short legs could carry him towards the forest; but in the plains, one who lived his life in the trees was not very fast at all. Listening to Ajoitéi and Foruques pursuing with far greater speed, the Lavanian ducked his streamlined head to growl out a password at his comband. The jewels glowed faintly and a smooth but quiet voice acknowledged the connection from the other end.

“Ana. They’re going to attack Earth. Get the girl back here.”

“Wake up. … Shane? Wake up. … WAKE UP!”

I yelped and jolted upright at a touch on my shoulder, my brain belatedly registering the wake-up call. I glared at James – or I tried, but when half-asleep my glares just don’t function. He blinked from his position halfway across the hut; apparently, my violent reaction had startled him. “Sorry,” I mumbled, drawing a shaky hand across my forehead; I’d been in the midst of another nightmare, this one involving a shadowy presence much older and more powerful than either Equitor or the Ajoitéi Prince. I peered out the round window and raised an eyebrow. James regained his composure and rose from his fighting stance (jezz, had I rattled the guy that much?) to say, “Ana and Mackalla have–” I shot out of bed and lunged for the doorway, “–returned.”

By the time the last word was spoken, I was running full-tilt towards where I just knew they were. Call it my sixth sense, but I was right when I rounded a turn on the dirt path and saw them both. Of course, they’d heard me and were both watching me as I tackled Mackalla in a bear hug; to my surprise, I managed to roll him over in the process. He climbed to his paws and shook me off with a grin, so I hugged Ana with a bit more reserve before beaming at them both. “You’re back!”

“Stating the obvious,” I heard James mutter from behind me; I shot a glance over my shoulder and saw him with hand and arm stump in pockets, looking rather sullen. I wondered why, before Ana nudged my hand lightly and I switched my gaze to her. “We must speak. Alone.” I blinked, but before I could ask, Mackalla nodded, “Yes, out of the territory. And without Kemohi.” James let out another of his scarily realistic growls behind us, “It’s James now. I’m trapped in human form, so I’ve kept the human name.” The Heifia nodded distractedly before padding quietly into the forest. Startled, I shot a look to Ana but followed as the Korat began moving as well.

James didn’t follow us, and when I looked back, I wondered at his dark expression. Tahos looked equally confused, but shrugged and quickly merged back with his Nila fellows. I got the distinct feeling that something was very wrong.

Ana and Mackalla led me at a brisk pace in silence for several minutes; I was surprised to find myself barely breathing hard at the end of the long jog. I guess Lavana was beating me into shape after all! We stopped in the thick of the forest; I leaned against a tree root that arced high above the ground, looking expectantly to my companions. Mackalla’s expression was mutedly annoyed and Ana looked sympathetic – never a good sign.

Ana began in her soothing tone, “We met with those whose opinions we needed. We told them what had happened and they were distressed… to put it mildly. They claim that Lavana is too dangerous for you; they wish you to return to Earth. I could not but acquiece to their points of view; they are correct.”

Mackalla interrupted quietly but with no particular vehemence, “I wanted you to stay on Lavana, where you would have protectors. On Earth, you would have only me.”

Ana continued, “Which brought up the matter of adequate protection. It was decided that, if James protected you alongside Mackalla until the time of danger had passed, then we would grace him with a morphing ring, but only for one use – to shift back to a Vemeh and stay that way.”

Mackalla took over, “We did obtain a morphing ring for you to use. However, it is a blank and thus dangerous; anyone can use it. There aren’t any forms in it yet either. And we’ve got to teach you the finer points of using it, or Ke– James can. While he’s at it, he might as well teach you how to fight in human form – you’ll still be in danger on Earth, and being able to defend yourself is a priority.” He stopped talking and Ana tilted her head; they were both waiting for my reaction.

To tell you the truth, I was stunned. Not only were they throwing me back on Earth, they were stealing any chance I had at surviving. I still had the niggling feeling that Lavana was safer than Earth; Lavanians wouldn’t go to Earth without some high reason, but what would stop Equitor and the Prince from sending their minions in numbers via Portal to Earth? I realized I was being too quiet and finally spoke up. “Look, you realize how much danger this will put Earth in? We don’t really believe in aliens there. If hordes of demonic beings start trashing my home town, we’re gonna freak out.”

Mackalla held up one broad paw to stop further commentary. “Shane, that won’t happen. Equitor doesn’t control Portals, nor does the Prince. James had called his own Portals to and from Earth.”

I raised an eyebrow and pointed out, “Equitor can probably make Portals.”

Mackalla flinched and Ana slowly nodded, “Perhaps. But for him to make a Portal large and sturdy enough to transport any number of beasts to Earth, a planet not even in our own galaxy… it would take immense strength. I doubt he has the power yet. You need not fear for Earth’s safety; human ignorance will remain untouched.”

Mackalla took up the protest in an apparently well-rehearsed argument, “Ana, you know it would only take one time for her to be alone and off-guard for just one of Equitor’s warriors, or even an assassin, to kill her or take her from us.”

The Korat sent a discreet glare at the Heifia, “That won’t happen. Either James or you will be with her at all times.”

This time, I put my voice in. “Ana, that’s not possible. Neither can go to school with me and it may be summer now, but at the beginning of fall I’ll be spending eight or so hours a day away from them… if not more! How long will this period of danger last, anyways? How long will it take you guys to get rid of Equitor and the rest of them?” Mackalla fell silent, looking at Ana without pity. The black cast her sapphire gaze downwards and sighed,

“I don’t know. They are already very powerful. I can rally several Originals to help, my sisters included, but there will be great loss of life in exterminating these Evils from our home. It will not be easy, nor will it be quick. It may be a year, or even longer if we underestimate them, before you are out of danger.”

I felt like writhing; I couldn’t picture a war ravaging my beloved planet. And I also couldn’t picture being on high alert every moment until it was over. “Why are you guys so set on keeping me alive if I don’t know anything that would help you?” I felt the urge to ask. “I’m useless to you and a danger if I’m taken. Why not kill me? Why hasn’t the n– I mean, those beings decided to just eliminate the risk?” I almost slipped up and called them the nightcircle, but I’d been pretending that I hadn’t understood when she mentioned them in another language. Mackalla scowled at me but let Ana answer.

“We are not like that,” she said simply. “Excluding one or two individuals, we are not willing to kill you when we can just as easily guard you and keep you out of danger.” I folded my arms and leaned hard against the stony bark of the tree, my eyes watching the huge cerulean leaves dance in the warm wind. I felt more at home here than I ever did on Earth, as strange as that sounds. “I don’t want to leave,” I said softly, sighing.

Mackalla nosed my hand. “And we’re not happy to see you go. But it’s for–”

“–my own good. Yeah. Heard it before, Mackalla.” I rolled my eyes but didn’t stop gazing upwards. “How you think James is gonna take this? ‘Here, guard the girl that you were recently trying to kill, and if she lives through all this, and you do too, then I guess we’ll let you shift back to Vemeh form.’ I’m sure he’ll love that.”

Ana shook her sleek muzzle and replied, “It’s the best we could do. Our colleagues were reluctant to let him have anything. It’s rare to get a second chance on this world.” I nodded; she was right, of course. I had almost forgotten that Ana was an Original, for some reason; she seemed so… normal… and besides, I couldn’t imagine an Original letting me hug her.

With a resigned sigh, I muttered, “James told me how a morphing ring works. So gimme the dang thing and I can at least put a form in it… providing one of you is willing to donate a speck of blood. Or both.” Ana arched a furred brow but Mackalla nodded his head, “I think you could get used to NM Heifia form easier than Korat.” I glared daggers; Korats being my favorite species of all time, of course I wanted to be able to morph into one! However, Heifias aren’t weak creatures, and being able to shift one on Earth would be useful, as they do resemble dogs to the casual observer.

“Oh fine… do I get a Korat form eventually?” I sent Ana a pleading look, but she avoided it by saying, “Perhaps. If it’s not necessary, then no.” A lightbulb clicked on over my head and I suddenly frowned, this time aiming my question at Mackalla, “After the danger is gone… you’ll take the morphing ring back, won’t you? Is that why it’s still a blank?” The Heifia met my gaze evenly. “That’s the plan, although that’s not why you have a blank. Only Night Cats know the ritual that codes it to your signature and we had none handy, nor were there any that were already coded for humans… you being an alien and all.”

I felt like crying. They were going to give me my dream and then snatch it back. Ana had the grace to wince and Mackalla… seemed defiant. Maybe he’d fought for me, maybe he had wanted me to keep it. I could hope, right? Almost as though reading my thoughts, Mackalla nodded slowly and said in a very quiet voice, “Of course, should you be forced to return to Lavana for protection and meet up with a friendly Night Cat who would do the ritual, they would most likely let you keep it… provided you swear an oath of some sort.” My eyes bugged out and I would’ve hugged him, but I figured that would be too hopeful. After all, if I was forced back to Lavana, that would mean something bad would happen on Earth, and I really didn’t want that.

Ana finally angled her head up and from the small cavity between the back of her jaw and her curved, almost jointed neck, she slipped two items. One was the ring, a different style than James’ old one with a thin band of silver and a crouching Night Cat shape on it. I grinned as I saw the two open slits scarring the Cat’s haunch and shoulder – those would absorb the blood and catalogue the DNA – or capture the “racial soul” and bind it to the metal, as they explained it. Mackalla solemnly raised his forepaw to his jaws and, with a tiny nip to his wrist, let a few beads of blood form. Ana handed me the ring and I slipped it on the middle finger of my right hand; Mackalla brushed the blood onto the shiny silver surface and, to my amazement, it was completely absorbed. The two open slits closed seamlessly, and I felt the ring become a bit warmer than before; apparently it was cataloguing the DNA. Binding the soul of the Non-Maned Heifia species into the silvery metal. Whichever. I half-expected it to beep when it was done, but all that happened after a moment or three was the slits reappeared and it cooled slightly.

“Dude. Cool.” I grinned at the ring, then looked surprised as Ana handed me the other object. It was a single band of sparkling black jewels, set into a loose chain of shiny teal metal – I recognized the metal as rypil, a soft, malleable, and very common material. “What…?” I asked, puzzled.

Ana smiled slightly. “A communication band, akin to Mackalla’s. The jewels are black Crazouli, incredibly rare but the only thing strong enough to reach from Earth to here.”

For the first time, I noticed the thin anklet around Mackalla’s right forepaw, mostly hidden by his tawny fur. “How does it work?”

This time, it was the Heifia who explained. “They operate on different frequencies, set off by different codes – much like a certain form is activated on your ring, by specific words. Broadcasting on all frequencies is rare but, if it happens, the jewels will glow, and all you need to do is make a sound to receive the transmission. Contacting others is usually taken care of by a few creatures, mostly Olashi, who make it a point to connect certain bands. To call someone, you simply state your name and species, then the same of whomever you wish to contact. Normally, it will pass through. To contact higher-ups, such as Ana or other ranking individuals, you’d need a password.”

Ana nodded, “Mine is korofir aorri – my title as Korat Original. It means black-Korat ancestress.” She smiled ruefully, “Only my sister Redwood is regarded as sidifir oerri – red-Korat mother. Tan Kaili holds the title of aorri as well.” I suppressed a shudder of delight upon hearing Redwood’s name; the mighty red warrior is renowned throughout Lavana and one of my personally favorite Korats. “Should you need to contact me, do so as you normally would and, when asked for a password, say korofir aorri. It will put you through; as a human, you should need nothing more.”

“James is also getting a comband,” Mackalla added with a grin. “Though his will only be able to contact those on Earth, having lesser crystals within it.” The Heifia stretched his forelegs and twisted his neck; he looked to be getting restless, just sitting here and talking. “As it is, we need to get back. I will explain things to James and Tahos while you say your goodbyes; knowing you, it’ll take long enough. Ana will prepare a Portal, and then we’ll be good to go.” I sighed, looking up at the wisteria-hued sky one more time; Ana nudged me gently. “I do not wish to waste time, Shane. Let’s go back.”

Ana moved past me and into a paced trot. Mackalla and I followed, and I was pleased to note that he stayed by my side this time. I had to wonder how hard it would be for him to stay on Earth for the next year while war ravaged Lavana. We reached the main part of the village and Mackalla collected a sullen James and a curious Tahos to talk quietly inside one of the huts. Ana stood off to the side and began gathering her energy or… however one prepares to call a Portal. I was still rather fuzzy on the whole process. Me, I went around to the Nila that I had met and said my goodbyes.

Mackalla’s choppy bark called me back and I returned to find a slightly more cheerful James and a defiant Nila awaiting me. Apparently the possibility of his being able to eventually shift back had lightened his spirit; James was actually smiling. Tahos had arms folded and by his expression, it was clear that he thought I would need more protection than James and Mackalla. In no uncertain terms, he told me as much. I agreed with him and gave him a hug, which he returned with surprising gentleness. I pulled back after a moment and realized how much I was going to miss him; he touched my cheek and whispered in his own tongue, “Take care, Shane Myers. I know I will see you again, but until then, stay alive.” I nodded and bit my lip; I hate goodbyes, and I was making a valiant effort not to cry.

And then I realized that I wouldn’t see Ana again either. I turned to look for the black, only to find a tiny Portal already growing in front of her. “This sucks,” I mumbled in English, earning a raised brow from James. Mackalla nudged me forward and I dragged my feet towards Ana, giving the Nila clan one last look and a small, dejected wave. At the moment, I would’ve given anything to stay on Lavana. But then, the Portal became a full-blown, whirling entity and the light, sound, and wind crashed against me. I barely remembered to grab my bookbag before James ushered me through. I silently waved to Ana, knowing she couldn’t move and wreck her concentration on the Portal, and knowing that if I spoke, she wouldn’t hear me. She closed both eyes in a sort of salute and I stepped through the Portal.

I was rather surprised to land in the same spot on Earth where we had left – just that little patch of woods, near the tunnel’s entrance. I quickly stepped out of the way as James and then Mackalla leapt through; then the Portal closed, leaving the scene unnervingly quiet. They landed and James stretched; I saw he’d brought his Nila-made sword. I grinned suddenly, remembering that my own little knife was still in my backpack. At least I’d have one thing to remind me of the clan.

And then I remembered.

“Uhm, Mackalla? Whatever happened to Sarge and Co.?” I stared at the Heifia, shocked at having completely forgotten about them. After we’d been captured by Equitor’s minions, I’d not even thought of Samson or Sarge. And what about those other three soldiers?

Mackalla’s smug expression drew a raised eyebrow from me and he answered, “Ana had found them earlier and sent them back. I don’t think Sarge was very sane by the time he left. And there were only four left, total. But they were put back in this very spot about five days ago.” I blinked, then grinned slightly.

And then I got another mental shock.

“Crap. What are my parents gonna think? I’ve been gone for almost a month!” James poked me lightly, lips twitching in a grin, “Have you forgotten so much? Lavana time is not the same as Earth time. What was nearly a month there is only a few days here.” I stared at him, beginning to panic, “That doesn’t mean much, James! I am DEAD!” Mackalla’s muffled laughter earned him a stark glare and I stalked into the tunnel that had before scared me; now it was just a way to sneak back into town. “I am so dead,” I repeated to myself, listening to James and Mackalla follow.

“Man. I need a good excuse for this one. ‘Uh, sure Mom, Dad, I was at a friend’s house… honest!’ No, that wouldn’t work, they’d have called Randie’s already. Crap. ‘I was selected for a military experiment and they… couldn’t warn you?’ No way, they won’t buy that. ‘I decided to become a gypsy and then changed my mind?’ Right. Ohh I am so dead!” I broke into a run through the tunnel, ignoring Mackalla’s snickering. “Right. Yeah, and I’m bringing home a dog and a guy with a sword. Honest, they followed me! So can I keep them?” I rambled on, mostly to myself. I heard James chuckle once at that and rolled my eyes; of course he’d think that funny.

Running, it only took about five minutes to reach the other end of the tunnel in the old bank – we took the more direct route, avoiding the pit o’ doom and the various forks. I opened the steel door and peered around; no one there. Well no kidding, who would be inside a condemned bank? I slipped out, followed as usual, before I froze. “Aw crap. How am I gonna explain the clothes?” I plucked at my tough, Nila-woven fabric skeptically, then spun and poked a laughing James in the ribs. “You just hush, you’re gonna be the target if Dad sees you with me, especially after I disappeared for three days. He’ll beat the living daylights out of you, sword or no sword!”

Then I suddenly grinned, “Wait! I can get Randie’s help. If it’s the day I think it is, she’ll be waiting for me at the library! She can cover for me! I hope.” James looked blank and I flinched, once again reminded of the clothes. “Crud. Okay. This oughta be good.” I dug into my bookbag, pulled out my stash of thirty dollars, grabbed James’ wrist, and hauled him out of the building, trying all the while to look inconspicuous. I hurried towards Ames, the local everything-store, and ushered him inside. “Quit looking so bewildered, you dork. Mackalla, stay outside and wait for us. Pant and look like a normal dog, would you?” I hissed, running on scheming and not intelligence at the moment.

I steered James towards the men’s section, ignoring the weird looks, and grabbed jeans and a T-shirt that looked like it would fit. “My brother would like to wear these out, ma’am,” I told the cashier, paying for the outfit and pretty much throwing the poor guy into the dressing room with orders to change, come out, and wait for me. I grabbed some shorts and a guy’s NASCAR T-shirt, paid for them with the same excuse, and quickly changed into them. I stuffed my Nila outfit into my bookbag, threw it over my shoulders, and came out looked reasonably normal… if you ignored the deep tan and seriously matted hair.

The sight of James in normal clothing brought me to a dead stop and my jaw hit the floor. He stuffed his hand and… arm stump… into his pockets and scowled at the floor; it was then that I realized we were both still barefoot, since I’d put my Nila-shoes into my bookbag as well. “Err, right.” I sidled up to James, grabbed his arm, and hauled him out of Ames. “You need to lose the sword, bud. And we both seriously need shoes, but know what? I need Randie more right now. I need human help.” I felt slightly panicked but I charged off towards the library, very glad it was warm and sunny outside – it didn’t look so odd to be barefoot. James’ sword drew a few looks, though, but Mackalla was acting so doggy that he didn’t attract anything other than a few oohs and ahhs, and the occasional ‘oh, what a pretty dog!’

We reached the library within about five minutes and I shot inside the air-conditioned entrance, trying to avoid being spotted by the librarian. Once again, Mackalla waited outside. I spotted Randie’s lean form and fluffy red-brown hair hunched over a book at our usual table and pretty much lunged to her side. “Randie!” I yelped, sinking into a seat. She looked up, bright green eyes unsurprised. “Heya Shane. Where’ve you been the past three days? I didn’t see you online, and your parents couldn’t find you or something. They called my house.”

I grinned, “Things have been… weird. Oh, right.” I motioned for James to take a seat, and Randie eyeballed him before sticking out her hand, “Hi!” I felt like smacking my forehead; my best friend was going to severely injure me for not including her in this ‘adventure’. After all, her worlds and species were nearly as detailed as mine! (Does that mean that… hers exist as well? Interesting thought! Must tell her sometime.) James slowly shook her hand and nodded; Randie noticed his sword just then and sent me a look.

“Randie McAllanen, meet James Konan.” Randie bobbed her head and James… flushed, staring at the table. I figured he wasn’t a people-person and poked Randie’s shoulder. “Girl, you’ll never believe what happened, but I can’t tell you until I check in with my parents. I’ve been gone since Sunday. I need a good excuse and you are seriously my last hope right now. I’d like to graduate, you know, but if my parents find out that I’ve not been… uhm, in town… they’ll kill me.”

I got the scariest look right then from my best friend. “Where have you been?!” she exclaimed in a muted voice, knowing better than to draw out the librarian’s wrath.

I winced, “No time, Randie! Can you cover for me somehow? I was sleeping in your backyard or something?”

“Are you insane? No! Not if you’ve been…” Randie trailed off and suddenly eyed James suspiciously. “You come in with a sword-wearing guy and you’ve been out of town for three days… Shane Myers!” I cringed, before sighing and checking the clock. Three in the afternoon. “Alright alright. If I tell you the whole story, will you cover for me so I can live to see the next dawn?” Randie slowly nodded, and I saw James grin very discreetly. I groaned and settled myself in the chair more comfortably.

“See, on Sunday, there was this dog and these military idiots…”

When I was done, an exasperating hour later, she didn’t believe me… until she met Mackalla, who grinned and said in heavily broken but understandable English,

“Hello, Randie. My name is Mackalla.”

Tahos answered my question of transportation with a simple phrase, “By Leasheas.” James jerked in surprise and fastened wide eyes on the Nila.

“You jest,” the former morpher half-asked, half-stated. Tahos grinned, apparently enjoying the shock. I, too, was startled. One just doesn’t casually say that one will ride a Leasheas… no more than someone on Earth would think to say, ‘I’m gonna go ride a dragon!’ Really. It’s just not right. However, as the Nila’s implications filtered through my thick skull, I began to grin. Ride a Leasheas? Another dream of mine. (Hey, I have a lot of dreams. After all, I know Lavana better than I know most of Earth.) James just looked… unnerved.

Tahos raised his fingers to his mouth and gave a piercing whistle – I was surprised to see him using what I’d thought a human technique. The whistle was loud and high-pitched but surprisingly fluid; it varied several notes with a few subtle dynamic changes. “Code-whistling? Nila version of howling, right?” I guessed. The Nila nodded and waited patiently. James and I exchanged glances and rolled our eyes; the guy must have spent a lot of time in human form to have gotten so used to it. He looked perfectly natural. Which is good, considering he’s stuck like that for the rest of his life, I thought somberly.

“How do you ride a Leasheas?” I glanced at James, who looked half-annoyed and half-embarrassed to be asking such a question. I, in turn, looked at Tahos. The Nila benevolently explained, “Leg on either side of the body, sitting upright in the slope of their back. Hold only to the base of their mane; touch the other part of it and they’ll hurt you. They can hold you on with their tentacle if need be.” I grinned stupidly and James nodded, assuming an expressionless face once more. Me, I was excited, and listened hard for any approaching hoof-beats.

I really should’ve known I wouldn’t hear them.

Tahos, James, and I were all facing the same direction – east – when I felt a very light touch on my shoulder. I glanced, thinking it my imagination, and came face to face with a very large Leasheas. Just on his muzzle, gold, scarlet, and tangerine swirled together in an intricate, almost tie-die pattern. Those huge, deeply crimson faceted eyes reflected light like a gem as they regarded me quizzically. No doubt the stallion had never seen a human before. I turned as slowly as I could to take in the rest of the beast.

Leasheas are equine, let’s get that straight off. They’re much more powerful and faster than horses, but the basic shape is the same. Their hooves are sharp-edged, resembling an arched high heel with the heel cut off, and their tail is more lion-like than horse-like. They have equine manes with a dense spout of coarse hairs at the very base of their neck, attached to bone (which is why Tahos said grab that – it doesn’t hurt when you do). As I mentioned, their eyes are compound and almost bulbous, but somehow it fits with their sculpted features. They have a… well, a prehensile feather, or a feathered tentacle as they’re more commonly known, sprouting from their heads. It’s about four feet long and really does look like the vane of a feather, with all the feather-strands hanging downwards; this tentacle is exceedingly nimble and can perform very delicate movements, but is also surprisingly strong.

Leasheas come in two breeds – Light and Dark. No, this doesn’t refer to good and evil. Lights simply have “light” colors, like reds, golds, oranges, light greens, and white. Dark Leasheas have “dark” colors, such as blues, greens, dark reds, purples, and sometimes black or silver. All or most of the aforementioned colors are swirled into a tie-die pattern all over the beast. Lights are larger but Darks are faster; in turn, mares are smaller and faster than stallions, who are stronger and have more endurance. It’s a win-win situation.

Anyways. This particular Leasheas was huge, and a Light to boot. I looked towards James and found that a Dark mare had joined him, and a Light mare had approached Tahos. We hadn’t needed to ask for aid; they came to us, somehow knowing what was needed. I knew Tahos’ whistle-message couldn’t've explained everything, so they must have sensed it themselves. It was somehow a very special, almost sacred moment. The Leasheas had chosen me – this stallion accepted me, at least for today. Considering how noble and “wild” Leasheas are, this was something akin to a miracle.

“Let’s go. Remember about the mane.” Tahos shot me a look and muffled his grin. “Good luck getting on the big man.” I returned the look and a frazzled grin as I stared up at the stallion. Leasheas are built like horses, but a large Light stallion like this one stood at a solid seven feet at the withers and was… well… huge. I’d ridden horses before and knew how to mount one, well, when I had a saddle and stirrups anyways. This was bareback and one whopper of a ‘horse’. I blinked, then stepped to the stallion’s flank. He turned his head to watch me and curled his tentacle closer to his head – an obvious invitation if I ever saw one.

I glanced discreetly over my shoulder to find Tahos sitting easily on his Light mare and James carefully swinging onto his Dark mare. I felt like pouting; their two were about a foot or more shorter than mine, and both of them were taller than me, too. I stretched onto my toes and reached my hand up, managing to grab the proper part of the mane. For a second I leaned against the Leasheas’ flank, my other hand resting cautiously on his haunches, unsure of how to get up, when I felt a light touch around my waist. I was hoisted up and gently set onto the stallion’s back, and I looked in surprise to the slender tentacle. Then, hearing Tahos’ chuckle, I sent him a good-natured scowl and settled more naturally onto the Leasheas, winding my left hand into the mane and leaving my right free.

My stallion turned his head and whickered quietly, an almost liquid sound far different than anything I’d heard from a horse before. “Hey Tahos… can you talk to them?” The Nila shook his head at my question and replied, “No. Most Leasheas can understand Kalash but cannot speak it. We communicate by body language and intent.” I nodded, then glanced at my stallion, who was still talking to the two mares. “Could you find out their names?” This time, it was James giving me a scowl. I blinked.

The Vemeh-turned-human rolled his eyes. “You know a lot about Lavana, but you forget one of the social rules. No names are given except to trusted allies or friends, excluding certain situations, such as living in a Center or crossing a territory boundary. They most likely wouldn’t give us their names even if they could.” I nodded, flushing slightly; I had forgotten that. I hate forgetting important things.

The stallion fell silent, my personal cue to take a tighter grip on his mane and tilt my body forward, holding on with my legs as I’d been taught. To my inner glee, neither Tahos nor James took the hint and, as all three Leasheas lunged into a fluid but sudden gallop, they jerked backwards – James nearly fell off. Grinning, I ducked various branches, deflected smaller ones with my free hand, and in general had the time of my life for the next several breathtaking minutes. I was acutely disappointed when the Leasheas trio slowed and then stopped, the mares prancing slightly with nostrils flared. We’d reached the Nila boundary.

Tahos slipped off his Light and bowed formally to her; she snorted and tossed her head, but didn’t seem offended. James dismounted rather gracelessly but offered a friendly hand to his Dark; she whuffled into it and bumped his shoulder before backing up a few dainty steps. I looked down seven-plus feet and grimaced, but this time slid off on my own. I turned and pressed my hand against the stallion’s shoulder, whispering quietly, “I know I don’t know your real name, and you don’t know mine. But there’s a word in another language that means strider – it’s Andaturé. I’m going to call you that in my mind; I hope that doesn’t offend you.” The stallion tossed his head and nickered, before snorting in my hair and bobbing his head in a deliberate nod. I grinned and bowed deeply from the waist.

Andaturé… spoke, for a lack of a better word… to the mares, who answered in soprano tones before rearing, spinning on their hind legs, and galloping back into the forest. I caught my breath as Anda repeated the insanely graceful move and, with a flick of his tufted tail, was gone. I stared after him for several long moments before low voices informed me that other Nila had arrived and were talking to Tahos. I turned to find Tahos gesturing towards me and James, who looked equally baffled. Now that I concentrated, my uber-eavesdropping skills served me well; they were speaking in Nila non-growl, which I seemed to know as well as I did Kalash. (Everything is a second language to me… excepting English, of course.)

James sidled closer to me, and I swear, if he had flexible ears they’d have been flattened. “I don’t like this,” he mumbled in English, probably so that the Nila wouldn’t understand. I shrugged lightly, “Well… Tahos is just telling them that he needs us guarded for the next while. However long a ‘while’ is, he’s using it like an actual piece of time. The other Nila want to know what we are and…” I shot Tahos a glare and he waved it off as he continued speaking hastily. “And what?” James raised a brow. I winced, “And one just asked if we were a sacrifice.”

What?!” James stared at me, before turning his burning gaze on the Nila. One flinched and Tahos pointedly moved between the two, his speech rapid, quiet, and seemingly never punctuated. I didn’t blame him; introducing an alien species was bound to be a hassle, especially when one of the aliens was glaring daggers. “It’s nothing,” I mumbled, earning a scowl. James folded his arms and proceeded to fade into his usual impassive stance. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and waited.

After a while, we were accepted and taken to meet the leader of the clan. The leader, a big pale-grey male, was called Shiymn; he wore black leggings and had a thick black mane all the way to his tail. The second in command, Watep, was the biggest Nila in the whole clan with iron-grey fur and a white, mohawk-styled mane. They both looked long and hard at James and I before pronouncing us as ‘no-hunts’ – aka, not hunters. Tahos chuckled at this and we just looked… confused. Then, ‘no-hunts’ were explained as young Nila warriors who had not taken the Test of Adulthood yet… which makes sense, at least for me, because of my age. James’ human form looked to be about twenty years old though, and he’d been an adult Vemeh, so he was a tad steamed.

The three of us were tired from traveling and hadn’t really gotten any rest during our time underground, despite sleeping there, so we pretty much crashed. The hammock-like bed that I slept in was surprisingly comfortable – or maybe I had gotten used to hard rock and dirt enough so that cloth and a bit of padding felt like heaven. Either way, I was out like a light for the entire night. Even though James snored.

For the first time in what seemed like ages, I woke up without fear. Breakfast was heavily spiced but tasty smoked meat, boiled vegetables, and fresh fruits and berries. No milk, nor tea, nor even fruit juice; instead, we drank a thick, chilled liquid called fiut, which came from tree sap and was rather tasty. James and I were both delighted at the food and enjoyed it immensely, but it paled in comparison when a Nila smith presented James with a fine longsword, keen-edged and perfectly balanced, plus a belt and scabbard to go with it. While he fawned over it, I prowled around the village.

Nila are pretty low-tech, much like Native Americans once were. The most they have are well-built huts, hammocks or stuffed mattresses, and smithies. Although they hold an established territory, they’re overwhelmingly hunters and gatherers, relying on migrating prey and flourishing natural edibles to survive. Their technology consists of metalworking to some extent (they prefer spears, knives, and arrows to swords and the like) and more primitive weapon-making. Either way, with their limited tools and resources, they’ve kept up with the rest of Lavana quite nicely.

I poked around, nodding politely to Nila whom I’d met and reluctantly ignoring the females, though only because it is dishonorable to both speaker and female to talk to one. Nila are one of two races on Lavana with a definite difference between male and female (the other is Maned Heifias). Nila females are actually built like human females for the most part and are much weaker, both physically and mentally, than the males. It drives me nuts, but luckily the Nila didn’t associate me with a Nila female. If they did, there’d be trouble.

Later in the day, several Nila (Tahos included) went hunting, so James and I were left to our own devices. He explained to me how a morphing ring works, which to me is a cross between science and magic. A ring is crafted as a ‘blank’ out of a certain metal that, when heated with a certain frequency of energy, will expand or shrink. (This is the energy given off when morphing, so the ring stretches or shrinks to fit whatever form one takes.) Then, by some sort of ritual that can be elaborate or brief (James didn’t detail this), the ring is impressed with the wearer’s signature, usually only their species but in very rare cases, a ring will only be usable by that individual. Once this is done, forms can be added to the ring by triggering a certain mechanism built into the ring – a tiny slit will open and a speck of blood from the species whose form one wants to add can be put into the ring. Once the DNA inside the blood is analyzed, apparently the ring catalogues it and voilà! With a keyword, the change can begin at any time, usually taking about 30 seconds to complete.

James and I did nothing for the next few days other than eating, sleeping, and talking. We discussed his future life on Earth, how he would fit in, and what he would do. After my vivid descriptions of life in a modern world, he quite plainly decided that he would have nothing to do with all that techno-crap and would live in the woods. I pointed out the problems of survival before realizing that, compared to Lavana, life in Earth woods would be almost boringly peaceful. Although finding enough woods in any one clean place might pose a slight problem.

The day after our long discussion, James was determined to test my skills in martial arts. Though I protested, we wound up in one mother of a sparring match that ended with both of us bruised and completely exhausted. I was quite surprised that, despite the slightly heavier gravity of Lavana, I seemed to do better against him than my usual sparring opponents in class. The rest of the day was spent in hammocks and resting our aching bodies, staring up at the gorgeous cloud formations and basking in the warm sun.

The next day, I got to make my very own Nila-style knife. I’m sure I mentioned this once before but I’ll repeat myself – Nila knives are not like ours. They don’t have a long blade and a short hilt; they have a short arrowhead-blade, usually polished to a shine and razor-sharp, and a longish hilt, usually made out of wood that’s been treated and stained. The process of making one is not difficult in the least, but it does require some elbow grease and some muscle; I enjoyed myself immensely. And when I went to sleep that night, I kept my knife next to my hammock on a little wall-shelf. Though I knew I wasn’t currently in danger, it was reassuring.

I spent the next day learning how to use my little knife, taught by both Nila and James himself, who had picked up more human-ish ways of fighting. (I don’t know how, either.) I had mastered the basics by evening and during the next day learned some wicked little tricks that I had no intention of ever using. But it was good to know that I could save myself from a reasonably weak opponent with my knife.

Then I realized I was doomed. James had hooked onto the teaching-Shane mood and for the next Lavanian week kept me working nonstop to not only learn how to use a sword (though I didn’t have one of my own), but to also use a spear, Nila rod, and even a staff as weapons. He started to teach me archery as well before I nailed the bull’s-eye three times in a row, proving my prowess there. (I went bow-hunting with my dad too many times to be a bad shot.) Not only that, but the Nila put the both of us through exercises that adolescent Nila usually tackle before trying for their Test; it was exhausting and incredibly difficult. After all, humans are not as strong, agile, quick, nor do we have keen reflexes or senses like Nila do. Watep realized this and took it down a notch so James and I didn’t fail miserably every time. After a while, we got to enjoying the hard work.

Tahos mostly left James and I to our own devices. He was pleased to be back among his clan, I could tell, and was usually out hunting or scouting the borders. So when James had a very troubled look on his face one day, I was the only one around to drag the problem out of him. I won’t bother you with the dialogue; it was back-and-forth nonsense for about a half hour before he finally started talking. And I still won’t repeat what he told me; you-the-reader don’t need to suffer the excruciating details of what he’d seen in the Prince’s lair. Those details gave me nightmares several times in a row before my own nightmares returned: Equitor’s red eyes, Za-shen-sai dying before me, Mackalla shot, Tahos wounded, even fighting the old James all became nightly scenes. I woke up terrified several times, but though I know I woke James up too, he never said a word of it. Maybe he had the same dreams.

On the sixteenth day since our arrival, I was wandering the territory, knife stuffed into my belt and wearing new, nicely-fitting Nila clothing. I’d been wearing male tunics and trousers, for the most part, because my human clothing was trashed; but my shape was different from a male’s and I was much taller and more muscular than the Nila females. It’d taken the Nila weaver that long to get appropriate and durable clothing for me; I was now bedecked in black trousers, sturdy black moccasins, a black undertunic, and a dark grey shirt with a black vest. (Why the dark colors? Well, camoflauge for one. The soil is nearly black and most tree trunks are grey and black. Plus, Nila don’t like to use bright dyes for normal clothing. Go figure.) I honestly didn’t care about the colors; having new and clean clothing was priceless in my mind.

I was amusing myself by identifying various small Lavanians – like the blue, bat-like byrgs that live in huge swarms; the small, furry, friendly cat-like Chitters who will keep one warm on a cold night; the deadly vampiric clatts that can kill a Korat within two minutes and suck the carcass dry within seven. (Okay, so I kept my distance from those ones. They swarm easily.) And let’s not forget those Eleis with their eye-searing neon hides and pliable reptilian bodies, melded seamlessly into tree bark and occasionally onto animals.

Finding a good spot, I settled myself down and opened my backpack. Yep, it had lived through everything, and I’d even managed to get a Nila to make me a better, much tougher one out of the same material that I was now wearing. He just transfered the zippers, copied the design and voilà! A Nila-made, human-style bookbag. And I had to write down all that had happened, but as I looked over the last two weeks, I decided that scribbling all that in detail would take too much paper, too much time, and far too much of your attention would dribble away during the reading. So I summed up, for the most part.

Now I’m going to say farewell. You know I’ll write again soon; this tale isn’t over yet! I just wonder how Mackalla and Ana are faring.

A sharp and very loud bark sounded in my ears just as I felt something grasp my shirt and pull me into the air. I snapped out of my nightmares very quickly, thrashing for a moment before prying my eyes open to see – huge surprise here – another black monster. This one was an Ajoitéi though, a massive beast at seventeen feet high with blood-dyed pincers and what looked like bizarre red hieroglyphics drawn all over his melanistic body. My ever-helpful knowledge of Lavana increased by one byte – I was looking at the infamous Ajoitéi Prince.

That is the one you wanted, is it not?

“Yes.” To my surprise, the Prince spoke aloud, as opposed to Equitor’s invasive mental voice. I was dropped unceremoniously about fifteen feet and, thankfully, Tahos caught me before I could land on my head. I was set down quickly before the Nila stepped in front of me. A spark of fear lit my heart as I remembered what had happened the last time someone tried this and, using more strength than I thought my tired, beaten body had, I shoved the Nila to the side.

Don’t forget, you promised to provide lunch while we discuss the trade.

“I forget nothing, Equitor. You’d best follow my example in that regard.”

I was quite surprised to hear an underlying threat in the Prince’s dark, plain tone. But Ana had said that Equitor was the real threat, back on Earth when we hadn’t gone to this Lavanian hell-hole yet. Either way, Equitor didn’t seem to take offense, only inclined his torso ever so slightly in a sort of bow. The Prince ignored him and gestured with an upper-arm; I heard struggling and vaguely familiar snarling noises.

Mackalla coughed his surprise and I stared in shock as two Ajoitéi brought Critter forward, in his Vemeh form. The grey beast was ragged and well-beaten, wounds and bruises marring his pelt. I caught Equitor’s disapproving look just as the Prince did. “Shift, boy.” Critter snarled but a well-placed blow brought him to the ground, and, if only to heal, he did shift to human form. I wondered if that was the only form he’d been allowed to put into his ring.

“Strip him.”

One of the Ajoitéi guards swept a pincer forward and with one snap cut off Critter’s left hand – the hand that held the morphing ring. He howled and fell to his knees, clutching at his wrist with his remaining hand. My eyes widened in horror as the guard tossed the severed hand to the Prince, who caught it and tucked it into an empty pouch at his belt.

Bloody food is bad business, O Prince.

This time, even I could tell that Equitor’s tone was disdainful, but with a single gesture, the Prince… healed… Critter’s arm into a smooth stump. He looked at it with shock before snarling in a very guttural tone. He must have known what was coming, for when the two guards tried to seize him again, he unslung his sword from around his waist and sliced about three pincers off. Even Mackalla swore softly at my side as Critter was swiftly stunned with a hard blow to the head. The Prince gestured grandly, almost mockingly, at the immobile human.

“Lunch.”

For a long moment, there was silence. Equitor’s disapproval was palpable as he regarded Critter. I shuddered, appalled by this display of cruel tyranny; Tahos was tense, his slight muzzle creased and fangs bared; Mackalla stood silently, sympathy in his dark brown eyes but no give in his stance. Equitor shifted slightly and looked down at the shorter Prince, beak gaping in what might have been a hideous smirk.

I decline. However, give me the wretch’s morphing ring and I’ll give you the other human… without even haggling.

The Prince scowled at the politically dangerous refusal and the blunt offer spoken in a tone that seemed to drip acid. However, he was obviously considering it… and for the time being, he was still. Equitor gestured for the Ajoitéi guards to toss Critter in with our pitiful little group and luckily, Tahos caught him before he could crack his skull on the stone ground. I knelt, partially because my knees were shaking in Equitor’s presence and partially to get a better look at a guy who, until moments earlier, had been my enemy.

Surprisingly little blood had been sprayed onto his rough-cut brown tunic when he’d lost his left hand; the tough fabric was Nila-made and fit him well. His somewhat shaggy mop of pitch-black hair was dirty, and his pale skin was smudged with dirt. After a long, long moment of his steady breathing, he opened dark blue eyes and looked at me without any real interest for a moment. Then, he sucked in a breath and I half-expected him to attack me; after all, if he’d captured me as ordered, he might not have lost his hand and might not soon die. Not to mention he’d not be trapped as a human, a form that must have been totally alien to his natural body.

But he didn’t try to throttle me, though I’d not have blamed him if he did. He glanced at Equitor and the Prince, eyes burning briefly, and then he seemed to let himself fall limp. Tahos knelt then and examined him curiously but not impassively; he too was well aware of what would probably soon befall the forsaken warrior. The Prince’s flat voice startled us all when it rang out, saying,

“Release all your Ajoitéi warriors and give me the human. That will earn you the ring.”

All of them?! I think not. They make up much of my force.

“Then let us eat and discuss an appropriate trade.” The Prince’s tone was dripping with contempt. Equitor glowered and didn’t move, apparently gnawing over the Prince’s proposal. I managed to ignore my own impending doom by watching Critter’s expressions chase each other across his angular face – hatred, resentment, bitterness, fear, despair, and back to raw fury each time his eyes flicked to the Prince’s black form. He sat up so suddenly that I shifted backwards to avoid knocking heads, and I figured he’d finally gotten his nerves back. Maybe he was going to attack again, although one of the guards had already shattered his sword.

“Well?”

Do not push me, Prince.

“I expected a trade agreement. Are you waiting for something special or will you accept my offer?”

Is that your only offer?

“And if it is?”

Speak plainly.

“Decide.”

Equitor snarled, or something of the sort… it sounded like a bird of prey growling, if you can imagine that. I’m sure it had something to do with the beak, but at this point, I was getting rather upset about my upcoming demise… probably after horrible and unspeakable torture… and wasn’t thinking very hard on Equitor. I reached up and tugged on Mackalla’s ragged ear, drawing the word ‘Korat’ on the stone floor with my finger and cocking my head silently. He twisted his muzzle in a shrug, but his tail was low and Tahos didn’t look overly hopeful. But I couldn’t imagine Ana failing us. At least… I surprised myself with the thought of, At least, I hope she gets Tahos and Mackalla out. Maybe even Critter. Was I actually becoming one of those self-sacrificing, friends-first types? Or had I always been one?

Come. We will eat and we will discuss things.

I had the feeling Equitor added a private message to the Prince after that, but aside from a moment’s hesitation before both began walking away, I had no evidence. After they were out of sight, the cavern’s denizens slowly began to go back to work, a few muttering in harsh tongues that I couldn’t hear well enough to translate. I let myself collapse against Mackalla’s tawny flank, closing my eyes briefly. I heard movement but didn’t bother to look; if Critter decided he wanted me dead, I was pretty sure Tahos or Mackalla would stop him. Of course, that death would at least provide me with a fairly painless escape from whatever the Ajoitéi Prince planned for me. I shuddered.

“I am sorry.”

The smooth voice was vaguely familiar and I raised an eyebrow as my eyes opened again. Critter was looking at me with a resigned expression, and he held his remaining hand palm-open. “Had I known it would come to this…” He shrugged, trusting me to fill in the blanks. I nodded quietly, then felt an abrupt rush of adrenaline surge through me. Mackalla eyed me as I dug my nails into my palm. “Here we go again,” I whispered, giving him a pointed look. He blinked, Tahos grinned very slightly, and Critter… looked confused.

“I gotta ask,” I mumbled to pass the time – previously, when I felt this surge of energy, it’d been a full ten minutes before anything happened. “What’s your name? I’ve been calling you Critter in my mind for lack of a better one.” Critter looked vaguely offended, but after a moment he shrugged again. “My truename is Kemohi; as a human, I go by James Konan.” I twitched my lips in a warped sort of grin as he added, “You should have taken the ring from me when you had the chance.”

“No kidding,” I agreed, adapting surprisingly easily to the idea of Critter… err, James… being on our side now. Or at least in the same boat. “Got a preference?” I asked, idly digging my fingers against the slightly pocked floor. He shook his head silently, before raising an eyebrow in a very poignant expression. “Is there a point to having one? We’re both about to die hideous deaths within the hour. Possibly later for you, depending on how well he likes to hear you scream.” Tahos winced and Mackalla scowled; I shuddered again and said dryly, “Thanks, I was trying not to think of that part.” The way he accented ‘he’ caught my attention, but Tahos asked before I could,

“Why did you serve him?”

“I was forced to.” Cr– I mean, James glowered. When the three of us were quiet for a moment, he sighed lightly and continued. “I am not an Evil, but nor was I about to run around telling the world that there were some minor disturbances underground. The Prince caught me in my territory one day and promised to leave me alone and, more importantly, alive, if I did one small task for him. It was a chance to use my ring, so I agreed.” He shot me a look, “I did receive the ring as a gift; it was not stolen from the dead. As are all rings given, it was coded to my signature and mine alone – the Prince could not have killed me, taken it, and used it himself. It is useless to him now.” He snarled, a remarkably feral sound coming from a human throat.

I nodded my sympathy, then blinked. “Then I couldn’t have used it had I taken it…” James was quick to correct me, “It was coded to my species’ signature, not mine alone. If I were in human form when you had taken it, you could have used it easily… though you would not have been able to shift. The only form in the ring is human.” Mackalla gave me a look out of the corner of his eye and I flinched, before leaning back against him heavily.

“How long will they bargain?” Tahos’ accent showed itself again in the slightly breathy way he pronounced Kalash. James shrugged and folded his legs; studying the way he moved, I decided he had become very accustomed to human form. Mackalla didn’t answer, sweeping his gaze around the cavern as though calculating. I touched his shoulder lightly and gave him a questioning look; he flicked his torn ear, winked, and continued scanning. From the look on his face, he was concentrating. (Hey, hang around with the guy long enough and you’ll be able to read expressions on a canine face too. It’s not that hard – whiskers and ears usually give it away.)

Tahos settled himself into a seated position, yawning once convulsively and drawing looks from both James and Mackalla; Lavanians usually yawn to display their teeth as a sort of an instinctive warning. More than once in my stories, a main character has been warned by his or her own system forcing a yawn and thus indicating impending danger. Of course, by now my nerves were tingling like someone had plugged me into an electric fence and let a few thousand volts run through my veins. Adrenaline sucks when there’s no obvious cause for it. But it had been several minutes, and I kinda figured that, if my past episode was any indication, something ought to be happening soon.

For once, I was right. Mackalla stood casually and stretched; I took the hint and rose to start pacing. It wasn’t hard to act terrified about the Prince returning to claim my life, really, and soon I’d worked myself into a sweat and starting grinding a path into the hard floor. Tahos and James crouched companionably, watching Mackalla join me in my pacing. It took about a minute of power-pacing before I caught a spicy smell in the air; Mackalla and Tahos stifled their expressions of hope. James (I’ve got to stop calling him Critter in my head now) caught on and began rubbing the stump of his arm, almost a nervous reaction.

I felt a familiar nudge push against the back of my skull and managed not to flinch. Before, when Ana had called her Portal, the nudge had been brief and light, then subsided as the Portal visibly grew. However, this time it was the push of perception that grew, almost skewing my sight and wrecking my balance – I stumbled into Mackalla a few times. The scent of spice was gone, and thankfully none of the Evils had noticed it. I slowed my pacing as my eyesight blurred heavily and the pressure on the back of my skull began to actually ache. Mackalla looked up at me with a raised brow but before I could try to keep up my nervous-prisoner ‘act’…

Light exploded nearby, swirling in one insane mass of luminous color. Spice-smell flooded the entire cavern and a delayed clap of thunder deafened everyone, Evils included. Tahos shoved James forward as Mackalla and I lunged for the Portal; James went in just before me, and then – with some sudden fear but no hesitation – I leapt in.

Traveling through a Portal is like fainting for a split second, or having an out-of-body experience. You’re there, diving into this spiralling whorl of light, you feel the light almost like surreal ocean waves brushing against your legs and torso… and then your stomach plummets to your toes and everything goes blank for a brief moment, where your senses seem to fail and your mind freezes. And then you’re standing shakily on the ‘other side’.

Anyways, I came out on the other side somewhat imbalanced (how was I supposed to know how to properly jump into a Portal?) and crashed into James. We both fell flat as Tahos and then Mackalla soared gracefully out of the now-upright-and-flat Portal, over our heads, and landed lightly. I would have grimaced for my own clumsiness had I not been so overwhelmingly happy to be alive and above-ground. A proud ebony beast managed only one step forwards before I tackled her, throwing my arms around her neck in a tight hug.

Ana had the grace not to flinch, although I’m sure she was slightly unnerved – Mackalla always seemed to be when I hugged him. However, a jubilant howl from the Heifia behind me showed that he wasn’t lacking any enthusiasm for being out in the sunlight again either. I finally let poor Ana go and flopped on my back on the ground, yelping as I landed on my bookbag and rolling off it to sprawl in the cool beadgrass.

Tahos was really the only one who took our rescue with any dignity at all, brushing himself off and merely raising his face to the sun. James just rolled over onto his back, closing his eyes gratefully against the hot sunlight. Ana muffled her grin as Mackalla pranced in the grass (and I do mean pranced) before he made his way over to her and finally settled down.

“You okay?” I opened one eye at the Heifia’s first question – Ana looked in perfect health – but the Korat nodded and he went on. “Talk to me. Did you get to the nightcircle?”

The black shook her head and settled to her haunches. “No. I needed to get you first.” At this point, she switched into Koratian, probably because she thought I couldn’t understand it. As usual, I played along and listened with my eyes closed. “Earth is still too distant from sufficient protection to return her yet. You and I are obviously not enough to keep her alive and unharmed.”

To my hidden surprise, Mackalla replied in the same tongue. “I know. Get the girl a morphing ring – she’ll be able to use it easily. And this male,” he flicked his ear at James, “is now on our side. He can teach her how to shift and use the ring.”

Ana regarded James’ prone form for a long moment, noting the lack of a left hand and also a morphing ring. Mackalla nodded and she sighed, “So he is trapped as a human, and no longer working for the Prince. The least we can do is put him on Earth to live among the humans there. Until then, he might as well stay with her. He may not be a truehuman but she may find the company soothing.”

Mackalla nodded thoughtfully, scratching at his flank before speaking. “I agree with you, Ana. She needs a morphing ring, and she needs to stay on Lavana. But we can’t send anyone to talk to the nightcircle, and we can’t leave her alone here. Ideas?”

Tahos spoke up just then, apparently also knowing Koratian, though as I listened, I could tell he wasn’t quite fluent. “I may intervene? My clan is strong; more than fifty warriors and led good. I take both there. My clan guards. No Evil will take.”

Mackalla quickly vouched for the Nila’s claim, knowing as he did the clan personally, and slowly Ana nodded. “Then it is settled. Mackalla, you and I will gather the nightcircle. Tahos, you will take the Vemeh and the girl to your clan. Can you get them there or do we need to escort you?”

Tahos grinned fully, “I take. You go now. No waste time. She needs ring.”

I felt like hugging the solid grey Nila; I would love nothing more than to spend some time with his clan. And my getting a morphing ring was… sublime. I mean, it would give me the power to shape-shift! Although I was rather fuzzy on how it worked, I was sure that Critter… darn it! James!… could explain it to me. However, I valiantly managed not to grin when I heard Ana acquiesce.

“Shane.” It was Mackalla and thankfully, back to Kalash as he continued, “and… which do you prefer? James or Kemohi? Now that there seems to be some use in preference,” he added with a grin. James’ eyes opened and he sat up, almost reluctant to move from his sprawled position. He shot a glance at me before shrugging, “James. I am human now.”

Ana took over in her smooth voice to say, “Shane and James, you both are going to travel with Tahos to his clan. Right now, we’re where I originally wanted us to be when we left Earth; this place is an old Center. The sacredness is still strong and makes this area safe.” She gestured with her silver tailblade, and for the first time I noticed how peaceful and… well, holy… the tree-ringed meadow felt. “Mackalla and I are going to meet with some other creatures and try to get you a morphing ring, Shane.” Her sapphire gaze focused on James as she continued, “Mackalla told me your story.” He did? I wondered how that’d happened. Could Ana speak telepathically?

“I freely admit that, had you been noble and less inclined to helping Evil to help yourself, I would try to find you another morphing ring, if only to restore you to your true form. However, as is, I will not. Yet, you do not deserve death, for you are not Evil yourself.” I shot a look at James; he was listening expressionlessly. Did he have to consciously think about making an expression when in human form? “Therefore, you will go with Shane to Tahos’ Nila clan. They will guard you until Mackalla and I return; it should not take more than a week.” A Lavanian week is eight days long, I reminded myself. “After that, you might stay with her – depending on what we decide – or I might send you ahead to Earth to live.” James rebelled at that; I could tell by the look in his eyes. But really, what else was there to do? No human could survive Lavana for long.

Tahos grinned as he interjected, “You will both be safe with my clan. You might even learn something,” he shot a pointed look at me. I grinned stupidly and nodded my agreement. (You have no idea how many stories of mine involved a Nila teaching a human how to survive on Lavana. I was dying for the chance!) “How’re we gonna get there?” I had to ask. Walking wouldn’t cut it; I figured we were about ten leagues away… err, forgot to mention. On Lavana, they use leagues to measure distance – one league is about three miles. Once in a while they’ll use lengths too, which is usually around 6 feet, or up to 10; it depends on what body you’re using as a (body-)length.

I glanced at James; he was, again, expressionless. Catching my look, he lifted his shoulders in a very slight shrug before barely nodding; so he wasn’t overly opposed to our plan of action. Mackalla and Ana exchanged glances and rose simultaneously; I couldn’t resist embarrassing Mackalla again, so I hugged him. He facepawed when I let him go and I laughed. “Take care,” Ana said softly, touching her muzzle to my cheek in a farewell gesture. “We’ll return soon.” Mackalla nodded and side-stepped, eager to be off.

I stepped back from the two predators, Mackalla grinned at us all, and they turned and began a brisk lope into the forest. James and I looked at Tahos expectantly; the Nila surprised us both by saying, “First thing we do when we get there… I find you another sword, James. Hard to make but worth it, for your skill. I never saw limbs lost so quickly.” Tahos grinned and James half-smiled as he rose to his feet. “So Tahos,” I mused aloud, “how exactly are you taking us there? S’an awfully long walk for humans.” The grey chuckled, “By Leasheas. No Alineo are wild around these parts.”

I gaped. Ride a Leasheas?? Was he insane?!

What felt like a heart-beat of earthquakes shook me awake, actually jostling my body up and down an inch or so. My body flooding its overworked, stressed system with yet more adrenaline, I was awake and staring around wide-eyed before my mind caught up and could process what I saw. My eyes had to adjust to the dim gloom first; only a few bonfire-sized torches were ensconced at regular intervals around the gargantuan cavern and they cast bizarre shadows everywhere. Or so I thought, until I saw it was the beasts who cast such alien shapes, not a fault of the burning fires. Trying to cope with this new danger, I sat up, my hands cold against the dank stone floor.

Still feeling the earth-shaking thumps, I looked around hazily… and froze. Some mammoth creature was striding towards me, and instinctively I shrank back. My back met gently moving flesh, and I flinched before realizing that the soft grey flank belonged to Za. I tore my eyes away from the approaching monster and frantically eyed the big Trahe; he didn’t seem to be seriously injured, but there were chains with foot-thick links binding him to a large metal stake in the floor. His quiet breathing was my only indication that he was still alive, and I took solace in that, well, for a moment anyways, we were both alive. My gaze returned to the black thing and I shivered, feeling more terrified than I ever had before.

It was about twenty-five feet tall, but a biped. Not quite built like a human, but not quite built like, say, a dinosaur. Its spine was tilted at a 45º angle, and it had no fur, merely lackluster, leathery flesh. Blades jutted out at its joints and along its arms and legs, as well as ringing its long, powerful tail several times. It had claws that made Za’s look like butterknives and an ugly, rounded head with a wickedly curved beak. Two luminous red eyes glowed, sending dimly ruddy rays across its matte black face. I bit my lip – this couldn’t be the Ajoitéi Prince, could it? Wouldn’t the Prince have to be an Ajoitéi?

I swallowed hard, shivering – the beast seemed to excrete terror as a waste product along with carbon dioxide. One ginsu-clawed hand reached for me and I shoved backwards in panic, staring at the four massive claws tipping the gnarled digits. But, trapped against Za’s flank, I had nowhere to run. The fingers closed around me and I was lifted up, struggling, to eye level with the monster. Sheer willpower was all that kept me from fainting as I felt the beast’s mind brush against mine. I shrank away, desperately wishing for a hole to crawl into and die. I’d never felt such evil before, and it burned terribly.

Ahh. So you are the one for which the Prince has been searching so intently. How ironic that you are in my possession. I wonder what he will trade for you?

I screamed. That voice, that oily putrid rotting voice… it was unbearable! So I screamed, and in doing so, I woke Za-shen-sai. A horrid, choking laugh sent rancid air into my lungs and I gagged, gasping as the monster dropped me from twenty feet up. I smacked into the stone floor with a loud clap, clutching my throat and trying to draw clean air into soiled lungs. I heard heavy metal clink and shift as the Trahe rose, apparently unaffected by the chains’ great weight. I finally began to breathe normally as the black biped moved away from me, laughing still in a metal-ripping voice.

I felt violated and had the urge to retch, though I held it back. Shivering, I curled into a little ball and wrapped my arms about my knees, rocking senselessly and trying to convince myself that I was being irrational. So what if the guy’s evil, powerful, and probably capable of killing everyone you love with a single word? Get a hold of yourself, girl! I closed my eyes and rocked, jerking in surprise and fear as I felt a touch around my shoulders.

But it was only Za. I guess I must have looked scruffy and pitiful; his tail curled around me gently and pulled me against his flank. I buried my face in his soft, shaggy fur, listening to the reassuringly steady sound of his heartbeat and swaying with every deep breath. I stayed that way for several long moments, and Za let me cry until I had no tears left. Normally, I’m a pretty fearless human being; not having a dangerous life usually does that to you. But this… this monster… if Satan were real, I’d gladly shake hands with him and call him a kind gentleman rather than even see this beast again!

My crumpled backpack was hanging awkwardly against me from only one strap, and I was surprised to realize I still had it. Honestly, the things one keeps around. I pulled it off my shoulder, dug through the contents, and found my notebook. I was a little over halfway through it, and it rather startled me to realize that this story was getting that long. I’d never written anything this long before… but then, I never wrote about real life before. So I sat down and scribbled the new parts in, debating on whether or not to write how badly I reacted to the black monster. But truth is truth, so I didn’t skimp on that part.

I had just put my notebook away and stuffed my bookbag out of sight when I heard now-familiar tremors rocking the earth. Steeling myself, I looked into the dim cavern and watched as the beast approached again with a confident stride. Za rumbled deep in his chest, carefully and distastefully enunciating a single word:

“Equitor.”

Oh ho, so you know my name, do you? Pity it won’t do you any good. I’ve finally caught your little Korat and thrown her in one of my deeper pits. I doubt she’ll live long enough to truly appreciate my hospitality with those wounds I gave her.

My eyes widened in horror and Za growled thickly, a stark contrast to his earlier musical voice. I clasped my hands to stop them from shaking as the monster… Equitor… continued speaking.

As for you, human… You are a pricy little creature. The Prince has promised me great things in return for handing you over alive. I envy you not; his fancies possibly exceed mine in cruelty. He will arrive on the morrow, and I am to have you unharmed until then… so behave yourself and perhaps I won’t teach you a lesson in pain. It would offend my colleague so.

Za-shen-sai shot to his paws and stepped over me, protecting me full-body as he snarled his rage. I cringed as Equitor’s mind-voice rang out, obviously broadcasted by the way other creatures stopped mid-stride to watch.

You, Trahe, have no such guarantee on your life. I can do to you what I please. And I think, after the hassle that the Korat gave me, that I will.

“NO!” I cried, trying to do something – possibly dart in front of Za to stop Equitor from carrying out his threat. Za tensed, corded muscles sending ripples down his velvet grey pelt. But we both badly underestimated Equitor’s speed. The black monster half-turned, presenting his flank to the Trahe, and his tail suddenly lashed out, catching Za across the chest and flinging him backwards with enough force that his chains were shattered. I ducked and flattened myself to the ground to avoid metal shrapnel, then looked up only to find the Trahe landing with a crash a hundred feet away.

Equitor’s choking laugh drowned out my scream.

But my fears went unrealized for the moment; Za-shen-sai staggered to his paws, shaken but not badly damaged in the least… excepting a row of deep punctures near his collarbone. Equitor, still laughing, turned and began walking with steady steps away. I prayed that this would be it, Za would just come back to me… but nothing ever works out like you want it in real life.

Za’s powerful jaws parted and he roared, a deafening sound louder than thunder; I pressed my hands against my ears but they still rang painfully as the Trahe sprang forward into a run. The distance between the two closed in what seemed to be the blink of an eye; I sucked in a terrified breath and for a moment thought that Za might actually kill the monster as he lunged. Time stood still as Equitor turned with deadly speed and ripped his bladed arm across Za’s grey-furred throat.

The Trahe crumpled to the ground in a spray of gore, blood beginning to pool around him.

I froze, stunned, before scrambling to my feet and racing forward, abandoning my backpack where a metal shard had ripped the last strap. “Za! Za-shen-sai!” I cried, feeling tears start as I skidded to a stop near his head and hit my knees. His beautifully golden eyes were half-open and already glazing over; I couldn’t bring myself to look at the tattered remains of his throat. I threw my arms around his softly-furred muzzle and wept, begging him to heal and live. One broad paw slowly reached up and pressed gently against my shoulder, then slid away limply. I raised my tear-stained face from his velvet grey fur and collapsed into myself, sobbing helplessly.

I couldn’t stop crying; I felt like Za’s death was my fault. If he hadn’t tried to protect me, if he’d never even met me… then he might still be alive… Shoulders shaking, I pushed the heels of my hands into my eyes, trying to get myself together. A sudden rush of warmth forced me to raise my head, and I saw Za’s massive body surrounded by an almost unnoticeable golden light. And then… with a brighter, dazzling flash of white-gold light… he disappeared.

I was too shocked to start crying again for a long moment, and all I could manage to whisper was, “Goodbye, Za-shen-sai.” Tears filled my eyes but I forced myself to stand and walk stiffly towards my bookbag, turning my back on the appalling blood-stained patch of stone floor. Still shaking, I sank down and pulled my bookbag onto my lap when I reached it, sniffling and vainly trying not to continue bawling my eyes out. The measured click of hard objects against rock brought my attention upwards, and I stared blankly as a tangerine-colored Ajoitéi dropped Tahos at my feet and left silently.

The Nila was roughed up and bruised with several small cuts marring his steel-grey pelt; well-woven ropes bound his hands behind his back and his ankles to his wrists in a very contorted position. I was almost glad he was unconscious. Mechanically, I began working at the knots, wishing half-heartedly that he still had a knife or three. Maybe I could sink one into Equitor’s eye while I was at it; I doubted a weapon could pierce through that tough hide of his.

It took about ten minutes of steady working with one knot to convince me that human hands weren’t going to free Tahos. So I lifted his head and slid my bookbag under it, setting him back down and edging closer to him. He was unconscious, but I took comfort in his presence nonetheless. I fervently wished for Mackalla to be brought to me as well, or even Fire. Or Ana, but I had a sinking feeling when I pictured her in my mind – wounded badly, tossed into that pit Equitor mentioned. My mind stayed soothingly numb everytime I thought of the monster, so my thinking processes went fairly smoothly for the time being.

Twenty minutes passed as I stared sightlessly at Tahos, eyes unfocused and mind blank. More steady steps coming towards me didn’t elicit any reaction; I noted them and ignored them. They weren’t Equitor, and I no longer feared anything less than that evil beast. A sudden intake of breath behind me also didn’t get me to move, but a sharp nip to my shoulder did. I jerked violently and looked up, eyes focusing on a tawny face and deep brown eyes. Mackalla.

He looked at me for a long moment and I couldn’t break his gaze, feeling utterly responsible for what had happened. I had to face the music, and I guess such resolution was plain in my eyes because the Heifia stepped closer and awkwardly hugged me with one foreleg. I bit my lip and managed not to start crying again, but felt better for some reason. Mackalla reached his muzzle out and snapped Tahos’ bonds with one sharp-toothed bite and I idly rubbed my shoulder, feeling blood slowly ooze where he’d nipped me. Just a small, fresh stain on my already-crimson T-shirt.

“So I guess Equitor is the guy you and Ana were worried about, huh?” My voice cracked when I spoke and even to me, my tone was bitter. Mackalla nodded solemnly and for the first time, I noticed he’d lost the top half of his right ear; it’d already healed cleanly but jaggedly. I felt an irrational stab of guilt for the fact that I’d gone so far reasonably unharmed. But then, there’s a price on my head, I thought acidly, and soon enough I’ll wish I’d died with Za. Can the Ajoitéi Prince really be as wicked as Equitor?

Tahos groaned, snapping me out of my thoughts. He slowly pulled his hands to his stomach as he sat up, rubbing his wrists and grimacing. “That did not end well,” he muttered, turning to face us and nodding a brief acknowledgement to me – I figured he’d seen and smelled enough to tell the story. I scowled down at my hands, then blinked as my bookbag was thumped into my lap. Tahos twitched his slight muzzle in a tiny grin before glancing to Mackalla… not that the Heifia knew what to do either.

“Ana’s captured too. Wounded and emprisoned in some pit,” I blurted out quietly, earning startled and horrified glances from Tahos and Mackalla respectively. “How do you know?” Mackalla whispered, trying to keep his voice low as an Ajoitéi passed close by. I glared at him, but after a moment it was clear he didn’t understand, and I decided that my being angry was not going to help. I sighed through pursed lips, “Equitor told me.”

Tahos’ hand gripped my arm tightly and I looked at him in surprise. “You talked to him?” I nodded silently and was pulled into an abrupt and crushing hug. “No wonder you are upset,” he whispered in my ear before letting me go. Mackalla face-pawed briefly before glancing around. “Well, we don’t have any specific guards, but I doubt they’re going to let us walk around freely. And we can’t leave Ana in here.”

“No duh,” I grumbled, thinking of the proud black Korat. “I think her race would be kinda ticked if we let their Original die, don’tcha think?” I received twin shocked looks from both Nila and Heifia and rolled my eyes, about to say something to the point of ‘I do know this planet and her people,’ but a sharp look from Mackalla stopped me short. “Equitor,” he said in a very quiet, low voice, “does not know why the Prince wants you so badly. Keep it that way and he won’t take you as his own prize.”

Tahos spoke up, leaning into our little circle in his intensity. “Ana can save herself once she heals a little. She can call Portals. Perhaps she will save us as well, and we won’t have to worry about escaping through all these Evils.” We all fell silent after that, hope renewed at least in some small way. After all, Ana was an Original, a being that would never die of old age, a being that was supposedly one of the best of her species. If anyone could get us out, she could. And anyways, we weren’t exactly able to take on the however-many hundreds of Evils – dang, Tahos has got me calling them that – down here in this hell-hole.

I took the time to examine the types of Evils working and walking in the cavern. Aside from Ajoitéi, there were these extremely tall (20+ feet) blue-green bipeds. They had long legs and shallow chests – I noticed webbed fingers and toes so assumed they were amphibious. Their heads were vaguely humanoid, with thick lips and flat teeth, but they had four knobs set around the top of their skull, one facing in front, another behind, and one to each side. In those knobs were set eyeballs, small in proportion but, by the way they flicked around, I guessed they had great eyesight, and a 360º view to boot. They had long arms with the consistency of wet noodles, but as I watched one lift a boulder several times its weight over its head, I had to admit that they were strong. In place of hands, they had spiked clubs. To complete the freakish body, they had a short vestigial tail and almost humanoid feet… if humans had longer, webbed toes with claws protruding, anyways. I saw a lot that had apparently painted their claws very bright colors for… I don’t know. Rank, amusement, out of boredom.

“Those are Foruques,” I murmured as the name popped into my head with sudden familiarity. Tahos and Mackalla nodded but said nothing; they, too, were watching. First rule of war – know your enemy. Or… something like that, anyways.

The only other type of creature was obviously not a warrior-type. It looked like a walking donut with short little hooved legs, short, skinny arms and nimble four-fingered hands. (Get used to Lavanians having three fingers and an elongated thumb – that’s the most common type of hand here. Of course, hands are rare in the first place. Most often paws, or talons.) They had short, scruffy fur and looked like bruises – purplish bluish brownish black. Their heads resembled something you might find stuck on a medieval gargoyle, but they had humanoid teeth and I rather thought they weren’t inherently evil. They looked like messengers, or just slaves. There wasn’t anything really nasty about them to make my skin crawl, unlike how I felt when I saw an Ajoitéi or Foruque.

“Gizirs. The little bruised donuts,” I said, a grin tugging at my lips; for some inane reason, I found the three-foot beasts amusing. I felt Tahos lay his hand on my shoulder, and by then I was struggling not to laugh. The Nila inclined his torso slightly in Mackalla’s direction.

“She is tired. As you are. Sleep. I will watch, and wake you when I can watch no more. If we are to escape, we need our strength.” Tahos said this in his species’ non-growling language and I was delighted that I understood it; I’d studied that tongue long and hard. It and Kalash were the only ones I had worked at, though I seemed to understand the other Lavanian languages that I’d heard so far as well. But I humored the Nila and pretended not to understand, which wasn’t hard as I clamped my hand over my mouth to muffle my asinine laughter.

Mackalla nodded and nosed my elbow, “Go to sleep. Tahos will stand guard.” I know he meant to be comforting but I had the mental image of Tahos proudly standing up and peering around the cavern as various Evils looked at him like he was dense. My laughter bubbled up again and I knew I needed sleep if I found that funny. So as Mackalla made himself comfortable on the stony ground, I lay down next to him and used my bookbag as a pillow. I fell asleep surprisingly quickly, once I felt Mackalla’s muzzle resting lightly on my shoulder.

I dreamt of glowing red eyes, lackluster black blades, and spilt blood.