For an "off-world", Szethei thought, it could have been worse. The sky was bluer than what she was used to, the trees a bizarre shade of green, and many of the alien structures she gazed at in wonder were nothing like she'd ever seen. They were gaudy, brightly colored, open to the air, and had absolutely no discernable use.
The two-level platform they occupied now wasn't too unlike what they had back home, however, though somewhat rougher and rugged. She had taken the highest, widest platform for her herself, as fitting for a female, while Zhirrik perched himself on a lower, narrower plank. He was stirring irritably, rebuffing a few of the creatures with agitated hisses and warbles, and causing the crowd give them both a wide berth.
Szethei supposed it wasn't entirely his fault. Xenophobia was heartily, almost fanatically encouraged in the upper class society. If Zhirrik's father was anything like she'd heard, his son would be a poster –child for bigotry and paranoia. But surely even Zhirrik, an otherwise educated and cultured male, could take a moment to realize that none of these creatures present were posing any threat…
Fizek, did you see so many different creatures? she marveled silently, I hope you remembered your manners better than Zhirrik!
Another agitated hiss and an irate shriek drew her attention back to Zhirrik, who was on his feet now, swatting angrily at some miniscule avian creature. The little thing shot him a vastly disdainful glare before flying off.
"<That's enough,>" Szethei admonished her companion, "<Take it easy, we don't want to set them all against us.>"
Zhirrik subsided with his usual sullen deference, though he still glowered resentfully around him. He was tentatively lapping at a cup of fizzy brown liquid that a creature in the nearby food booth had given him. Every now and then he would pause with a scowl on his face. Bemused, Szethei had the feeling that he liked the drink, and was irritated about it as well.
"<Not bad for an "off-world" drink, eh?>" she said aloud.
"<I had to fetch it myself,>" he mumbled peevishly, glaring at the vendor (who was glaring right back), "<Lazy beast.>"
"<What was the sound it- she made for it?>" Szethei mused, "<'Rrr-t-birr'? I can't say it.>"
"<It's vile.>” Zhirrik sniffed.
"<You seem to like it, though.>" Szethei observed mildly.
"<So bubbly, cloying, and happy,>" Zhirrik's scowl deepened, "<Yet I am starting to like it. It's insidious.>"
"<Might as well like it,>" Szethei shrugged, "<If it's all they have to offer.>"
"<So what now?>" Zhirrik said after a moment, "<How long do we sit here amongst these- these beings? When does the 'game' start?>"
"<I wish I knew>," Szethei replied, "<If only we could ask someone.>"
"<Someone who could speak properly,>" Zhirrik agreed, "<and not in that inane chattering,>" he added as he scowled around him, "<A pity we don't have a translator device.>"
"<So they do exist?>" Szethei murmured, "<Did Fizek have one when he-?>"
Szethei broke off, not having meant to say that. Zhirrik glanced shrewdly up at her, and seemed about to reply, when at that moment a ripple of chatter went up amongst the gathered creatures. Something seemed to have caught their attention; they drifted away, meandering towards a large, nondescript structure set some way off.
"<Finally.>" Zhirrik muttered, "Freaks and abominations, the lot of them."
"<What's happening?>" Szethei wondered.
"<If we're supposed to know,>" Zhirrik huffed, "<That winged, two-legged freak can come tell us. Not that I want to hear its abysmal attempts at our tongue…>"
Szethei frowned, suddenly wondering if they had missed something. She tried to catch sight in the crowd of the winged creature who had invited them here. Surely Zhirrik was right? If something important was happening, she would come and tell them. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of yet another bizarre creature, a wispy, floating blue-gray ball of flame that danced and bobbed around her head, chattering furiously.
They'd seen a few of these creatures amongst the crowd, and Szethei simply assumed they were there for the "game", or else some species native to this place. She shooed irritably at the wisp-thing as its chatter and behavior grew more agitated and insistent.
Is it trying to say something? Szethei wondered to herself, But how could a- a wisp be sentient enough for speech?
Finally it appeared to give up on her, and swooped down to Zhirrik. It got perhaps within a few inches of his left ear before he whipped his head around to greet it with a savage hiss. The wisp recoiled, then streaked away, bearing a distinct air of terror.
"<Zhirrik…>" Szethei murmured, watching it disappear into the distance. Straight for the winged creature, standing at the head of the crowd, and around whom several more wisps could be seen bobbing and weaving around.
"<Oh, what?!>" Zhirrik was snapping, "<It's bad enough just being amongst these damned freaks, but I'll not have them flitting around my head-!>"
"<No,>" Szethei snapped in turn as she jumped down to the ground, "<I think we need to get over there. Now.>"
"<I think that thing, whatever it is, was sent to summon us. Come on, we'll be left behind!>"
Sure enough, the crowd was now disappearing into the structure, passing in twos, threes, and fours though many doors set along its sides.
"<Damn!>" Szethei muttered, quickening her pace. Behind her, Zhirrik huffed and lumbered along as fast as his bad leg would allow.
But as they skidded to a halt before the large structure, there was not a door left open.