Zack carefully balanced on the log that stretched over the ravine. It was wide, but the fallen tree’s “wood”, if he could call it that, was like a sponge. His shoes sank an inch into the pseudo-bark, and while it made the log “grip” onto his feet it also unbalanced him.
“It’s like a bouncy house,” he said, grabbing a branch at the three-quarters point to stabilize himself. He instantly regretted it as his fingers pushed into the pliant bark, but made himself hold on long enough to make sure that his next step would be a stable one. “A bouncy house in desperate need of cleaning. Or like walking on top of a weak force field.”
“Wouldn’t that damage your feet?” said Chala, standing on the other side of the ravine. She was polite enough to not reach out a hand for him, but ready to do so if he fell forward.
“Not always,” he said, slowly working his way across to the edge. “Energy walkways usually don’t, and they’re basically force fields.”
“Oh, right,” she said. “Okay, I get what you mean. I was on one once that had a weak power source or unstable connection, I think. My feet dipped low through it a few times, made me think I was about to fall. Something about gravity being stronger than the field’s strength or something.”
“Generally only a problem on older models,” said Zack.
“Fortunately, this tree’s pretty new,” said Chala. “It’s still growing, actually. The malleable trunk means that when the storm knocked it over it just rerooted itself. No falling through that thing. Worst that’ll happen is you’ll get a face full of sponge-bark.”
Zack shuddered at the mental image of tasting the loamy husk of the tree, a fate that seemed worse than toppling into the waters below. He used that image to power through the final few steps. Chala nodded as Zack cleared the final nodule of the tree bridge, and gave Zack the time to balance himself on the ground.
“Not bad for a city slicker,” she said.
“Felt like an eternity. Are there many bridges like that?”
“Just the one,” she said. “At least, just the one the way we’re going.”
A strange series of trills, whistles and hisses broke through the air, and Zack twisted to face a bush, reflexively reaching for his pistols. Chala put her hand on his shoulder to stop him from reaching for the weapons, stepping in front of him and shaking her head to emphasize the point.
“Don’t,” she said. “He’s friendly. To me, at least. And they know what guns are, so don’t make a bad first impression.”
“He?” said Zack.
Chala nodded at the bush and Zack stared at it. After a few moments he could make out a series of green, yellow and purples colors that blended well with the bush, scales and possibly feathers that were the same shade as the leaves.
“I see,” he said. “If it were a snake, it’d have bit me.”
“He is a snake,” she said. “Well… a serpent.”
She cleared her throat and issued her own whistles and hisses, though ones that sounded hollower and less crisp. After a moment the branches of the bush parted, and a strange, snake-like creature slithered from within. It was definitely snake-like, but it moved and carried itself in a decidedly non-snake fashion. Its multicolored scales and feathers were supplemented with actual wings growing from its back, wings that would likely be wider than Zack was tall if they spread to their full length. It had arms below its face, giving it a human-like torso-region. Its head faced forward like a primate’s, sitting just below Zack’s. He wasn’t sure why it didn’t just slither “forward” more to appear higher than Zack since it had enough of a tail dragging behind it to make itself taller by far than most humans, but it was possible that the creature’s skeletal structure wouldn’t hold a position like that comfortably.
“I think I’ve seen a few images of things like these,” said Zack. “A lot more impressive close up.”
“They’re the Sthenites,” said Chala. “A few have been recorded by researchers, and a very small number went to Veskid decades ago. Some even went voluntarily.”
“I see,” said Zack, mentally stepping around the uncomfortable historical thorns. “What was he saying, then? From the bushes?”
Chala slowed down and coughed while the Sthenite’s gaze kept moving between her and Zack, its wide saurian eyes never blinking.
“He asked if this was, uh… if this was how I encourage people or if it’s how I hunt starprey. It’s a joke. Zack, this is Baurik, the swift glider and torgan hunter.”
She then slipped into another series of whistles and trills while speaking to Baurik. It was almost comical for Zack to hear his name pronounced clearly in the midst of the euphonious gibberish of the Sthenite language, and the Sthenite shifted its weight at the sound of it. Baurik shook himself after Chala finished talking, ruffling his feathers and wings. He moved his mouth oddly, as if testing the shape.
“Tzaaak?” he said, stretching out the word. “Tzak… Szak. Szak?”
“Szak,” said Chala. She turned to Zack. “Does that work for you? It’s closer than my name was. Your name fits the way their language works better than mine.”
“Sure,” said Zack. “Reminds me of groceries, though.”
“I’ll introduce you as Szak, bearer of produce, then.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Chala spoke more to Baurik. Baurik shook his feathers again and trilled a reply before slithering into the underbrush and out of sight.
“Did that go well?” asked Zack.
“As well as it might’ve,” said Chala. “He believes me that we both dealt blows to the Haktorash and survived to tell about it, and now he’s off to warn the Suzerain.”
“Kind of like a unifying tribal chief. All of the tribes have their own autonomy, but when it comes to matters of inter-tribal conflict the suzerain settles disputes, and to a certain extent can pass and enforce laws.”
“I think I’ve heard about things like that,” said Zack. “That one… crazy planet that was in the news a few days ago because of that war, I think they’ve got something like that. Why’s Baurik got to warn her about us?”
“The Suzerain’s position is a delicate one,” she said. “She can’t show favoritism or weakness without risking a loss of the peace that she’s built. It’s a good peace, though some argue that a different peace would be more beneficial to everyone. I try not to have an input on the local politics, but I think they’ll be better off if she stays in charge for a while. I’m biased, though, since she’s helped me out more than she needed to.”
“So us showing up could give political rivals an edge,” said Zack. “Will it be better for us to lay low?”
“No,” said Chala. “Do that and I hunt you down and kill you as starprey.”
“Noted,” said Zack. “What’ll her options be?”
“She’ll prepare a group of trackers to find the Haktorash, and we’ll hope that there’s actually only one of those things and that my arrow’ll still be in it. She’ll probably also prepare a trial pit.”
“Newcomers to a tribe often have to prove themselves through a series of deadly challenges, challenges that would test anyone. It’s a good incentive to stay in your own tribe. Death is likely.”
“We’ll have to go through likely death just to prove that we’re not worth killing?” said Zack.
“Don’t be silly,” said Chala. “I went through it years ago. You’ll be doing it on your own.”