Tag Archives: Suzerain

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”

Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.

“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”

The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.

The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.

He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.

“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”

Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.

“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”

“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”

“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”

“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.

“That was the Oborosian Stone!”

“Excuse me?” said Zack.

“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”

“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”

“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”

“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”

“I can?”

Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.

“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”

Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.

“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”

“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”

“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”

“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”

“You should have told me, Zack.”

“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”

“And you don’t think it was cheating?”

“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”

Chala shook her head.

“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”

Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.

“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”

“Especially since she’s Starprey.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

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Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 116: Usual Suspect

“Tzak, you remain the only figure held captive with a connection to these crimes,” said Chala. Zack knelt on the ramp that led to the Suzerain’s fire, listening to the translation of her decree and ultimate judgement. It was much like the preamble before being thrown to the trial pit, though Zack could tell, even with the massive language barrier, that the Suzerain was deliberating before speaking instead of reciting well-rehearsed, ritualized phrases. He also had two of the red-scaled guards on either side of him, a very immediate reminder not to step out of line. The Suzerain waited on the far side of the fire instead of slithering around it, and after a long, contemplative pause she issued another series of chirps and hisses.

“Your tale of an assassin who can glide through the air and seeks your destruction is intriguing, but as yet there has been no other witness who can attest to such a creature. The sign of foreknowledge that allowed you to speak the names of two you had never encountered is impressive and in line with the more harrowing tales of the trial pits, but it is also well within the realm of a… the best translation would be ‘a cheap parlor trick.’ The literal translation is ‘charred hashthal meat’ and that loses some something in translation.”

Chala had warned him to refrain from comment, advice he was following. He understood the Suzerain’s point of view: there may be a mystical source of knowledge sufficient for testing personal merit beneath the settlement, but believing every potential murderer who claimed to have mystical information when standing over the slain bodies of two people could set a bad precedent.

“Your trial in the caves has extended to the surface if your words are true,” said Chala in response to more speaking from the Suzerain. “In the event of a lie or a failed challenge, your death will be swift. These two guards will accompany you until this winged murderer is found.”

“If sh-” Zack started. One of the guards swung a mighty fist, a backhanding that provided enough lift and thrust to spin him onto his back, and growled a warning. The Suzerain glared at Zack, willing him to freeze in place. In time she looked at Chala and hissed rapidly.

“She’s telling me… sorry, she’s asking you what you were about to say, and cautions you that death is nearer than you know.”

“I was about to say ‘If she did it,’” he said, narrowing his eyes to shield them from the brightness of the sun in the sky.

“What? Zack, of course she did it.”

“We don’t know that,” said Zack. “I really don’t think she’s a mad killer. She might sincerely wish me dead, but I don’t think she’d hurt anyone else otherwise, even if discovered.”

“Zack, the murder victims were all slashed with some sort of energy weapon, one that you say she carries.”

“True,” said Zack. “I never actually saw her use the scythe in the cave, though. She needs Virellium to activate it. That might’ve just been an issue of timing or luck, but she liked showing it off before. Also, I’m still a bit vague on the distances being described here, but she wouldn’t have had time to kill the person at your forge and then come after me while I was still in the pit.

Chala nodded and spoke to the Suzerain. The large, snake-like being hissed a response.

“If not her, then who?”

Zack thought about the situation. From what he’d seen, the sthenites lacked anything close to the technology required to wield a weapon anything like Nectra’s. He considered the known factors, and an image of a news report came to his mind.

“Assuming the suspects are limited to people in the Nebula Cup… a big assumption if the DMA learns where I am, especially with some of the exotic weapons at work in that place… the only other person with an energy weapon similar to the ones we’re seeing here was the one person who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.”

“That’s… isn’t that Nectra again?”

“She wasn’t the first place party crasher, though,” said Zack. “I think we should capture Nectra as well to be on the safe side, but the one person who might fit the location, timing, and weaponry requirements is someone who’s needed a dedicated hunt for a long time. Tell the Suzerain that the actual murderer might be The Phantom Matador.”

Episode 107: Public Hearing

The Suzerain of the Sthenites was a monstrous snake creature, and Zack initially mistook her for one of the guards. She wore the same gold-colored armor that the guards wore around their torsos, and featured the same red and orange scales and cobra-like hood that he saw on the guards, menial workers, and others who relied on strength. She slithered around a fire that was the focus of an amphitheater, hissing and rattling and yawning strange words that reminded Zack of a grizzled police chief he once knew.

The Suzerain stopped on the far side of the fire and stared down at Zack. He stood on the slope that led up to the gigantic gourd that had been carved into the stage in the center of the city, and a crowd of other Sthenites watched curiously.

“Kneel,” said Chala, quietly speaking behind him.

“What?”

“Kneel,” said Chala. “Ordinarily you’d fall onto the ground, but they let me just kneel, so here’s where you kneel.”

Zack awkwardly looked into the emerald, predatory eyes of the Suzerain. He dropped to one knee and looked at the ground leading up to the fire. The Suzerain resumed speaking and, judging by the sudden appearance of orange and red scales between him and the flames, she resumed slithering as well. Soon she was out of view again, her oddly bird-like voice the only sign that she was still present.

“Now stand,” said Chala.

Zack rose and the Sthenites behind him began whispering rapidly to each other, creating a tense skirring of voices and feathers.

“Say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

“What?”

“It means ‘I agree and await judgement, Suzerain.’”

“You didn’t say Suzerain.”

“They don’t speak English. You need to say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

Zack stared into the eyes of the Suzerain. They seemed predatory, but not cruel.

“Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala?”

The Suzerain growled with a purring rumble. Soon she began circling the fire again.

“She accepted it,” said Chala. “We need to work on your pronunciation for later, though.”

“What did I agree to?”

“Not important right now,” Chala whispered.

The Suzerain continued finished a circuit around the fire, coughed twice, and began speaking again. As she spoke the voices of the Sthenites behind them became louder and more scattered.

“What’re they concerned about?”

“They’re just debating the decision the Suzerain reached. Some feel she’s made the right call, some feel that she’s being too merciful. Others feel that she’s been too harsh.”

Chala’s voice was distant, further away and no longer whispering. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw Chala no longer standing just behind him. Instead, she stood on the ground near the other Sthenites.

“Chala?”

“I can’t help you in the next part. You’ll be fine.”

“Next part?”

A large, cobra-like guard surged from the crowd and grabbed Zack by the arm, trilling angrily in Zack’s face.

“Hey!”

“Don’t fight him,” said Chala. “Yell or scream if it’ll make you feel better, but don’t resist it. He’s following the Suzerain’s orders.”

Zack was already being slithered down the ramp and through the crowd, but listened to Chala’s instructions. The guard pulled Zack through the gathered Sthenites and across the village to a small building made of stone. Some smaller, green-scaled Sthenites chirped excitedly at the approaching guard and worked together to open the heavy stone door.

Zack saw torchlight through the door, a green fire burning from the alien tree branches within. Something about the scenario felt off to Zack, but it was too late to avoid being pushed into the enclosure. He landed on a surprisingly soft bedding of leaves and branches.

“Good luck in there,” said Chala, peering from behind the other Sthenites.

“I thought you said I’d be in for some kind of… trial pit?”

Before Chala could respond, the bed of leaves and branches shuddered and started to descend into a hole carved in the floor. Zack saw four winches controlling ropes on the platform as it began descending into darkness. He instinctively moved to step off, but Chala held up a hand, warning him to stay on.

Zack watched the floor rise up and looked back at Chala, locking eyes with her until the ropes lowered him out of sight.

Episode 98: Trills and Whistles

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.”

“Suzer-what?”

“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.”

“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.”