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.

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