Chtali raced across the forest floor, pursued by a trio of floran hunters. The brush tore at her exposed arms and hips, and left tiny, damaged feathers in her wake. She had lost her sandals many meters back, and now her scaly feet were caked with mud and her claws had strings of plant material stuck beneath them. Her lungs burned and her legs felt as though they may collapse.
The hunters were teasing her. They could have taken down the petite avian woman by now if they so chose to. However, they enjoyed the hunt, evident by their satisfied hisses, clicks, and the way their jaws opened slightly in a wicked, hungry grin. Despite being closer to plantlife than any humanoid race in the known universe, they had an insatiable taste for blood.
Chtali ripped through a wall of dense, teal and violet colored bushes. She was swallowed whole by the underbrush, leaving a clumsy trail of footprints and crashed down foliage behind her. After nearly a minute of fighting spiny branches that grabbed onto her clothes and feathers, she burst through the other side and fell forward.
She gasped, momentarily blinded by the intense light of the star. She put her hands out in front of her to catch her fall, but she instead tumbled downwards. Head over heels, she fell down a cliffside. Her bags and her spear was torn away from her and she spilled down the grassy slope towards a small decaying manor with black brick nestled at the bottom of the cliff.
The floran, who wanted her alive, found her fall less amusing than the chase. They stopped at the edge of the cliff just in time to hear the muffled thunk of her body coming to an abrupt stop.
She fell hard against the rotting wooden roof and crashed through the ceiling. Shards of soggy wood and slivers of vines rained down on top of her, followed by her heaviest bag. She hit the dark, ornate wooden floor beneath hard enough that her little beak left a dent in the floor. She gasped for air and shoved her bag off of her. She forced herself to sit up and she looked through the dust to see how far she had fallen.
Bits of wood dangled from the plant material above and obscured her sights above. There was a distinct smell of a perfume that was not native to this planet that came from inside. Around her there were piles of leather bound parchment and a knocked over cabinet full of broken plates and unfamiliar, ancient trinkets. A door slammed behind her and she swiveled her head around to a single door. She shoved herself off the floor and threw herself into the door.
The door budged only an inch before being shoved back into place by a force from behind it. “Please,” Chtali pleaded, “let me in!”
“No!” spat back a voice from behind the door. It was sharp and mechanical. The door was once again shoved back at her.
“Please,” Chtali begged, pounding the door with her flats of her hands, “I’ve got some floran hunters after--”
“So you bring them into my home?” shrieked the voice.
“You--you’re mechanical! They can’t eat you!”
The person on the other end, likely a glitch, gasped in horror.
Chtali looked over shoulder at the hole in the ceiling, waiting to see some beady floran eyes looking back at her. “I--I meant to say--”
“Never get between floran and their prey,”
Chtali pounded on the door a few more times before giving up. She stumbled around the room, over the broken bits of wood and other things as she looked for a way out. She found a window that had been obscured by a fallen cupboard and began to pull the debris away to reach it. She aggressively began to throw anything that she could get out of the way behind her. Her desperation to escape left her unaware of floran who slipped in from the hole in the ceiling, one at a time.
The largest floran was twice Chtali’s size. The floran’s slick, dry skin was a pale mossy green, and the foliage on their head was a deep grey color that grew back and up from their head like long leaves. Their face was flat, and their mouth was carved into a permanent, pointed reptilian smile. They wore a string of talons around their neck, much like what a Greenthumb would wear.
The floran reached out and grabbed Chitali by the back of her tunic and lifted her straight off the floor with no difficulty. Chtali cried out and she grabbed onto the collar of her tunic. She kicked out at the floran, but her kicks only scratched the leather plated armor the other wore. The two others in their company, one with blazing red foliage, and one with earthy tones and a large flower atop their head came forward and wrestled her limbs into rope.
“Ssstop struggling,” hissed the red one, their voice deep, heavily accented with the classic, serpent-like accent that the floran had when they spoke anything other than their native tongue.
“Don’t touch me!” Chtali snapped, her desperation instantly turning to rage as the large, quiet one hoisted her over one shoulder. She pounded their back with her fists, but it was like she was trying to get into a fist fight with a tree.
The red one grinned at her and tilted their head, observing her struggle. Chtali’s eyes sharpened and she lashed out at them instead, trying to claw at them and their taunting gaze. The floran quickly moved back and Chtali almost fell off the back of the larger floran.
“Thisss one fightss like floran,” the red one observed. The two followed the tallest one back out of the hole in the ceiling. They were all easily able to make the short jump up to the ledge and climb out.
The earth colored floran went through Chtali’s backpack as they walked through the forest. Despite their size, the floran crept along quietly, and came across a beaten path that they began to follow. Chtali stopped struggling, and laid limp over the floran’s shoulder. Her dark blue eyes glared at the floran who proceeded to throw bits of her things onto the ground as they walked, like her clothes, and her emergency food. She had very little before she started her journey, and now she had utterly nothing.
The further they went along, the more Chtali became aware of her condition. Her feet burned, likely from some tainted mud she ran through, her cuts stung and her arm, and she felt like she just barely managed to not break any bones. Still, she should have trained harder as a fledgling. She should have known better than to do this journey alone.
The floran carried her down into an overgrown and swampy valley. The trees became taller and older, and the paths were haphazardly covered with gravel. Nestled along the sides of the small valley was a floran brush. Little homes made of timber and plant material were spread out, nestled into the sides of the hills or up on stilts. Wooden boardwalks between the homes and structures were slick with muck, torches and bones on pikes were posted on every corner.
A large jet equipped for space travel was nestled at the top of the far side of the valley. Scattered among the wood and crude leather structures were other signs of technology, such as wire lights and small computers mounted on the wall of public buildings.
The fierce floran people mingled happily with one another. They were free, so free that most of them did not have locks on their doors. Floran cultures varied dramatically from brush to brush, but Chtali knew that their comradery to one another did not extend to those who had been marked as prey. The floran were a group of people who were as dangerous as they were beautiful.
There was a celebration happening, although what it was that they were celebrating was unclear. Fairy lights were strung along the trees and underneath the houses to light the marshy grounds. The villagers gathered around large fires, and the hunters wore their most colorful leather armor.
“Ssselai brings us an aviian,” a villager with a large berry hat exclaimed. They rushed back into their home and brought out four smaller florans, likely only a few weeks old. They tottered along happily and ran about the group of hunters carrying Chtali.
“Ssselai!” cried other village members. It was clear that Selai was the one carrying Chtali, and while they did not look to be a Greenthumb, they were important.
The two hunters in Selai and Chtali’s company broke off to celebrate their find. Selai seemed to be on the quieter side. While he was happy with his find, he was hardly as vocal or as visually excited as the others. He paraded Chtali near the center of the valley, where a large cobblestone platform was in the marsh. Many floran were beginning to gather around, sitting on the benches and carrying torches. In the center there were two ivory statues of floran hunters poised with real spears and a large fire.
Chtali closed her eyes and felt herself begin to tremble. There was no point in begging or resisting. Selai set Chtali down on the hot cobblestone in front of the fire and two other floran immediately snatched her up by the arms and forced her to her feet. She refused to open her eyes, and her legs could not hold her weight.
The Greenthumb came forward with an aged scroll and began ceremoniously reading out the text. They were a particularly large floran with foliage much like Selai’s, but feminine, and their skin was less smooth and more bark-like. They wore a large crown that was a mound of fruits and leaves, and many strings of teeth around their neck.
The sickly spicy smelling fire bristled Chtali’s feathers from behind, and from the front she could feel the several floran bodies circling around to witness her killing. Selai stood before her, drawing out the flaying knife forged from crystal. The floran cheered and hollered.
“Kah!” exclaimed a higher pitched floran suddenly. The Greenthumb immediately stopped reading the script and Selai took a quick step back. A berry colored floran with well kept and swooping deep green foliage came forward with earrings that looked like mirror shards shining in the light. She was only Chtali’s size, but she scowled at the Greenthumb and Selai as though they were misbehaving children.
Chitali opened her eyes. Her feathers bristled with recognition and she pulled slightly against the floran holding her. “Sai!” she exclaimed, suddenly filled with a terrifying combination of hope and dread.
“Thisss iss Sssai’ss friend, not Sssai’ss food,” she said, brushing past Selai to pull Chitali in a hug. She smashed Chitali’s face against the soft foliage on her chest.
“Friend?” Selai repeated.
The cheering was quickly dwindling. The group of florans grew quiet as they looked on. Sai pulled away and whipped out a knife, causing Chitali to nearly jump out of her skin. Rather than cutting her on the spot, Sai began to cut the rope away.
“Why did the avian not ssay they were friend?” the Greenthumb questioned, sounding confused, rather than upset or angry like Chitali would have assumed they would.
“Sselai would not have hunted a friend.”
Chitali let out a breath as her arms fell free, and she reached out to hold onto Sai’s arms for support. Her legs still trembled, and if she were human, she would be in tears. “I--I--I’m sorry.”
Sai hugged Chitali to her chest again and began to stroke the smooth plumage on top of her head. “Sss’okay. Thisss iss Chii, ssshe very good friend. We invite her to feaassst.”
The other floran all seemed to agree. The floran trusted one another as much as they did their leader. They would not eat a friend’s friend, and instead they would celebrate the strange new guest to the feast. Chitali clung to Sai and closed her eyes, breathing in her earthy scent. The Greenthumb moved forward. “Sselai! Go back!” they barked, gesturing for them to leave. Selai hurried off with the other two hunters, who were excited they got to go for a second hunting trip in a day. “Welcome to floran’ss cove, Chii.”
Sai took Chtali’s hand and whisked her away, brushing past all of the curious onlookers and merchants. She took her to a small home on platforms that was connected to a complex of four other homes that were sticking out of the side of the overgrown hill. Vines and flowers spilled onto the timber roofs, and even made their way inside the small homes in some areas.
Chtali collapsed on a mound of pillows and furs near the door. Sai sat on a small wooden stool in front of her and tossed some coal into the small fire pit on the far side of the room, situated not too far from a few crates and a bed.
“Ssai hopess Chii will not hate floran now. Floran would never hurt friendss on purrposse.” She got up and rummaged through her crates. She found a pouch of water, and a small can of fruit. She tossed it to Chtali, but the avian flinched rather than catching them. Chtali reached over and picked them off the floor and sheepishly apologized again, and then thanked her.
The corners of Sai’s hooked jaw made a shape slightly like a frown, and her black, almost insect-like eyes narrowed a little. “Floran thinkss all are equalss. Doess not matter if human or poptop, all are hunted.”
Chtali shakily opened the flask of water and took a drink of it. It tasted like lake water, but it was all she had. She was only partially listened to Sai’s poor attempt to comfort her. “I know,” she looked up at her, pulling her knees to her chest, “I-I am very happy we are still friends after so long.” She had no doubt that Sai would be enjoying her as the main course for the feast if she had not been.
“Why iss Chii herre?” Sai sat cross legged on the floor across from her. She had grown several inches since the last time she saw her, “Iss okay?”
Chitali looked down at the whicker floor. There had been so much that had happened in such a short period of time that she was not sure if she could adequately or honestly answer her. More than anything, she wanted to go home where it was safe.
“My mom passed away a few weeks ago and… I ended up grounded.” Her mother, a priestess, had been suffering from disease, and her father had left for the stars many years ago and never came back. She didn’t look up at Sai, who seemed neither passive or sympathetic. “I-It’s okay though. She had been sick for a while and I never really believed in Kluex, I think. Maybe something, but not Kluex.” The whole situation was still a fresh wound, but she did her best to keep the hurt out of her voice, “I could have stayed with some of my family, but I didn’t want to be there anymore.”
“Chii do not want to be with famiily?” her voice was lower now. She leaned in and tilted her head a little, a few leaves on her head rolled over to rest on the other side of her head, “Why?”
Chtali clenched her beak for a second. It did not feel right to shatter the illusion that families were forever like they were in many floran cultures. “It’s okay,” she said again, although it felt like a lie, “It’s better this way.”
“Ssai doess not underrstand.”
“It’s okay, I promise.” Chtali attempted a weak smile, “I have friends.” It was cheesy, but she knew it would be exactly what the other would like to hear.
Before Chtali left home, she was packing up her mother’s things. The room had already started to gather dust, and the little yellow feathers were still gathered along with the dust bunnies in the corners of the room. Piles of religious scripts were stacked up against the overflowing bookshelves, making it hard to even get to the bed. The stained quilt had traditional avian symbols on it, like everything else in town. Hardly anything was unmarked by Kluex’s followers and avian tradition here. Even the sandstone bricks had the faintest imprints on them scattered about the structures.
She folded up the quilt first and dropped it in a wooden crate, followed by what few clothes she had. It took another two crates to pack up the books. She could hear people upstairs in the main hall of the temple, chittering and cooing softly among one another. If she took the drapes of the ceiling, she could likely them above through the cracks that glowed slightly from the torchlight upstairs.
She was almost done packing everything in the humble room when she reached for the small carved chest on the nightstand. The colored paint on it had chipped and faded away over time, and the edges of the wood were soft and splintery. She never thought it was a functional chest, but it rattled when she picked it up.
She knelt down on the floor and set the chest in her lap. It took a bit of fidgeting, but she managed to click the latches open and the top slipped off. A few dried flowers fell onto the floor, one deep maroon color, another a pale yellow. Inside there was a small memory card, a couple of bottle caps, a leather string necklace with a couple of teal and green beads and a flat glass disk, and a few folded up pieces of paper.
The first paper she unfolded was a soft smudged charcoal sketch of a feminine novakid that was in the distinct, wispy and minimal style her mother had. The novakid had long “hair,” a wide brimmed hat, and no brand. The novakid seemed to be standing proudly in a field, holding up something towards the sky.
The second paper was a letter her mother had written to the novakid in the picture. Most of the text was too smudged or faded to read. It seemed like a farewell letter, written around the time she had first became ill. She could only make a few words here and there, and just a couple of full sentences. “Fu, my dearest friend, I hope this makes its way back to you… Oh the wonders… I will see… Do you remember that summer we spent in your home on Vix? When… here you are… I hope…”
“Chii went quiet” Sai sounded concerned. The feather’s on Chtali’s neck bristled for a second and she shook her head slightly.
“Sorry, I’m here,” Chitali took a soft breath and smiled again and touched her beak, “I am on a mission to find a novakid my mom was friends with. I have her…”
“What? Haave what?”
“My backpack. The hunters took it.”
“Ssai will find it, easy.” Sai leaned back and stretched one leg out so it was buried under the pillows Chtali was sitting on.
“Are you sure?”
“Yess, yess, they follows your ssmells… who is Chii going with? Where going?”
“The Vix system, not sure where in there exactly yet.”
“The Vixss are wastesss. Chii alone?” Sai frowned again at her and an irritated, hollow clicking noise came from her chest.
“Ssai go with Chii,” the floran abruptly decided, “Chii iss friend.”
Chtali had expected to be scolded, not helped. She was left speechless for a few seconds.
“Ssai go with Chii,” she said again, this time louder.
“I-I heard you, Sai.” Chtali held her hand up briefly, “You want to come with me? Why?”
“Chii iss friend--verry ssstubborn friend. Ssai goes with Chii to make ssure iss not eaten or lossst.”
“You’re the stubborn one, I think. You really don’t have to.”
“Both ssstuborn. Chii have no choicce if wantss to go to Vixss.”
“But what’s in it for you?”
“Can Chii hearr? Chii not get eaten or losst.”
Chtali stared at Sai for several moments. No one said anything, and Sai’s eyes stayed fixed and determined on the small avian. “...O-Okay.”
“Sselai can protect village. Iss fine. Ssai likesss traveling.”
Chtali had expected to do all of this alone, but now that she had Sai on her sighed she was both bothered and relieved. However, this didn’t change the fact that she might be chasing a ghost.
“Why ssad look?” Sai wiggled her foot under the pillows, nudging Chii from underneath.
“I’m not sure what to say, that’s all.” Sai didn’t respond right away, so she continued, “I know I shouldn’t be surprised you would want to do something spontaneous, but this is… a lot… and honestly kind of selfish. People who I’ve told about this so far have just looked at me like I had said something ridiculous.”
Sai took a rare pause to think about what she was going to say next. Her foot stopped wiggling. “Iss not ri..ridiculouss. Ssai doess not know all wordss, but Ssai knows Chii mother iss important. Sso… thiss important too. Iss okay.”
Chtali had little more to say for the rest of the night. The feast continued, although she did not care to join them for the ceremony. Instead she stayed inside Sai’s room and slept there for the night. In the morning she woke up next to Sai, and another strange floran who she did not remember getting into bed with her. She tried not to think too much about it.
Sai found Chtali’s items and the two of them headed off on foot towards the nearest outpost.