Chapter Three: Tella

The forest looked like it’d been strangled. The leaves weren’t as vibrant as they used to be. The canopy used to be so thick that it was impossible to see the sky. When I looked up now, the canopy was more sky than plant life.

Since the canopy was so fragmented, much more heat was able to pierce down to the forest floor. The temperature of the whole forest was elevated. Quite a few native plants weren’t meant to cope with such high temperatures. I bent down to examine the crinkled, dry remains of what was once a Pallidia flower. Ordinarily, that flower was the size of my face. Now, the dried-up petals fit into the palm of my hand.

I stood up and let the petals fall back down to the forest floor.

My footfalls were too loud now that this section had dried out so much, and I tried to walk as quietly as possible to avoid drawing attention to myself.

Before the Xathi attack, this area of forest had been particularly hazardous.

When humans first settled on Ankou, the forest seemed the most promising location to settle due to rainfall and abundant resources. It didn’t take our forefathers long to figure out that the lush forest was filled to the brim with creatures pulled from a nightmare.

Our forest had two giant species of sentient trees, flowers as large as a grown man with a taste for blood, and vines that silently stalked people as they ventured into the depths of the forest.

It’s amazing that any of the first settlers survived long enough to reproduce.

As I went over the catalog of flora and fauna native to this part of the forest, I realized something unsettling.

The forest was silent.

Before the Xathi attack, it sounded like every creature in the forest was right on top of you at all times. There was always something rustling, hissing, or growling. The sentient trees sounded like thunderstorms when they moved.

Forests like this weren’t supposed to be quiet. I wondered if the Xathi slaughtered the wildlife as well as the humans, or if the wildlife migrated before the Xathi came through.

Something glinting in the light caught my eye. My heart clenched in my chest. I stumbled backward.

Half buried in dead leaves was a fragment of a Xathi’s leg.

I liked to think that nothing in this forest could scare me, but the sight of that leg shook me to my core. I gave the leg a wide berth and changed direction. I didn’t want to turn my back on that thing. The Xathi tried to kill my race, they tried to kill this forest, and they’d very nearly succeeded in destroying us all.

I walked for nearly a full hour before I heard signs of life. The unmistakable crack of wood snapping against wood echoed through the forest. I grinned and quickened my pace.

I enjoyed fieldwork. I liked the element of danger. I liked harvesting my own samples for analysis in a lab. I liked controlling every step of the process. However, I’d never been so excited to hear a sentient tree that I rushed toward it.

I expected to find kodanos and I was not disappointed. However, I was alarmed. The kodanos tore at another tree, a non-sentient tree, with speed and ferocity I’d never seen before.

Kodanos were the larger of the two species of sentient tree. Their limbs were massive and heavy. They usually moved much more slowly.

I crouched low and held very still.

Kodanos didn’t have eyes. They relied on the tiny but incredibly sensitive fibers that covered their body to sense even the tiniest movement. If the kodanos was behaving normally, it would’ve sensed me long before I spotted it.

But perhaps, since it was moving so erratically, it couldn’t feel me? Something wasn’t right.

Kodanos might’ve been the bigger of the two species, but it was the less aggressive.

Normally.

As I watched it tear into the regular tree until only a stump remained, I wondered what it was doing. And why. It took a lot of effort for a kodanos to move its body. It wouldn’t do something like that without reason.

Something gave out beneath my feet. I must’ve been standing on a dried-out branch or root. The snap it made was the loudest noise in the forest beside the kodanos. It twisted its gnarled body in my direction. Its delicate filaments flared red, though it was hardly visible in the harsh light of day.

I held my breath, but that didn’t matter. It knew I was here. I kept as still as possible. Hopefully, it would decide I wasn’t worth the energy.

Instead, it charged at me faster than I’d ever seen an ordinary kodanos move.

I didn’t think twice.

I ran for my life.

I pelted through the forest, barely dodging the trees. Branches caught in my hair and slashed at my face. As the kodanos continued to hunt me, I noticed something else unusual about its behavior. Within the central chamber of a kodanos’s body was usually a hive of live talusians, small winged reptiles with needle-like teeth and toxic saliva.

If a kodanos decided that a target was worth perusing, it released a swarm of talusians. The two lifeforms worked in an elegant, lethal symbiosis.

Yet as I ran, I didn’t hear the telltale hiss of wings.

I’d begun to think that I’d discovered a new species of kodanos when I spied a gnarled tree, perfect for climbing. I leaped onto the trunk and scrambled up into the branches just as the kodanos collided with the tree.

Kodanos couldn’t climb, but this one refused to give up. It started to tear and slash at this tree just like it had the other one. The tree shivered and thrashed from the assault. It wouldn’t be long before this tree came down, too.

My options were limited, but I had to think fast.

I grabbed the hilt of my hunting knife and pulled it loose. If I timed this correctly, I might live long enough to see the inside of the lab.

Never thought that would sound like a good plan.

I took a deep breath and leaped down from the tree, pushing off hard enough that I would sail clear over the kodanos.

I twisted in the air and, as I fell, I drove my knife into the wooden knot at the top of the kodanos’s back. The blade drove in down to the hilt.  I gripped the hilt with both hands and used my body weight to pull the knife down its spine.

It worked for about a foot before the knife slipped free and I slammed onto the forest floor.

The kodanos arched its back and let out a shrill cry. It waved its thick arms, trying to claw at the fresh wound on its back. Thick black sap burst from the new gash like a geyser. While it thrashed in pain, I lashed out with my knife again.

This time, I buried it deep within its leg joint. One sharp twist of my hand, and black sap began to spurt out from the joint. I pulled the knife back and jabbed again. My blade was almost completely through its leg.

Using the gash I’d already created, I threw my weight against the hilt. Wood gave out beneath my blade. The bottom half of the kodanos’s leg snapped. Its bulky body lost balance. I scrambled away, dead leaves clinging to my sap-covered hands as I went.

The impact of the kodanos hitting the earth reverberated through my body. Though it was down, it still fought. I knew it would never stand up again, not with one of its legs hanging on by a twig. It had fallen on its front. Its vulnerable back was exposed.

I got to my feet and took off running. With one bound, I landed on the kodanos’s back. It flailed beneath me, but its arms couldn’t reach me.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured before driving my knife through its head. It gave a final shudder, then fell motionless.

There were two aspects to botany in this world. There was the part in the lab looking through microscopes and running experiments. This was the other part. It wasn’t a surprise that many botanists didn’t enjoy fieldwork.

I still loved it.

My hands were trembling, but not with fear, with adrenaline. I lived for this rush.

I didn’t like killing the kodanos, however, that was the job I’d agreed to do. I didn’t imagine it would be like this, though. What was wrong with this one? I’d thought Gille was exaggerating, maybe just a city idiot who didn’t know any better.

But there was something terribly wrong here.

I decided to open it up and take a look for myself. The inside of a plant, especially a sentient one, always said more about it than the outside. I cracked open the hard bark shell of its back and chipped away at it until I could see inside.

I’d never seen anything like it before. The insides of the kodanos were twisted up with the vines of some other plant. Even the talusians’ hive was crushed beneath the vines. A few dried-up dead talusians had spilled out of the hive and were just sitting there inside the gullet of the kodanos.

Did those vines come from some kind of invasive species?

Perhaps the kodanos accidentally ingested a seed and the vines sprouted within it?

That would explain why it seemed so uncomfortable and irritated. 

The only way to find out more information was to go looking for another kodanos. It would mean another kill, but the possibility of an invasive species was a huge threat. This ecosystem was far more delicate than most people thought it was.

Leaving the kodanos behind, I ventured deeper into the forest. I must’ve moved off the Xathi warpath, for some of the lushness had returned. I took a deep breath, inhaling the rich aroma of the forest. By the time I felt the stalking vine wrap around my ankle, it was too late.

I was at its mercy as it yanked me off my feet and dragged me deeper into the forest. 

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