Krehin held his ear to the door and listened to the sounds coming from outside. Rain beat against the wood, drowning out anything except for the constant thudding against the tree branches. He bent his head down and let out a sigh.
“Waiting around won’t make it stop.”
His grandma smiled and picked up a pot from the stove.
“Do you think they’ll come by this way?” Krehin asked.
Jauntin Magduff paused in her work and met her twelve year old grandson’s eyes.
“Krantins only come around after the sodden rains. You know that.”
Krehin let out a sigh and jammed his finger against the window slot.
“Can’t I open it?”
Grandma Jauntin sighed and smiled.
“It’s fine. You just gotta wipe the floor if any rain comes through.”
Krehin grinned and yanked the door open. He slipped out into the downpour and slammed the heavy wooden door shut behind him. His grandma’s muffled words came through, a little louder than normal. He could pick out the meaning of them. She thought he’d meant to open the small window, not the door itself. And she wasn’t wrong. He seemed to get away with a lot in the previous months. Maybe because of what happened on his last birthday. Memories came flooding back and he squeezed his eyes shut. He shook his head. Such thoughts would do no good, not when he had some exploring to do. Perhaps he’d find some Krantin’s after all. Grandma wouldn’t follow. He was pretty sure of that.
The pelting he’d thought were rain turned out to be something else. Krehin’s eyes widened and his expression turned into a wide grin as his eyes focused on the objects falling from the sky. He held out his hand and caught one of the small clusters of hail in his hand. They were cool to the touch, refreshing after feeling the dry heat from the fireplace for days on end.
Krehin walked forward along the wooden pathway, his hand gliding across the rail. His bare feet touched the wet surface of the planks and he stuck out his toes for better grip. He still wasn’t used to living in the trees, even all these months later. His parents preferred a more solid footing, with a nice in-ground house. Grandma Jauntin’s home was far about as far away from the ground as you could get – unless you lived in a sky shroom. Her house sat inside one of the great oak’s of Latendin Forest. Grandma told stories of finding the oak with Grandpa. Together they built a home and welcomed visitors from far and wide.
There were three ways to get to the ground. He could climb down the rungs, step by step. He could use the system of ropes and weights, or he could go the fast way. He always preferred the fast way. It had a degree of risk, even for a halfling litchim. If he didn’t pay attention he might not stick the landing, a pretty important thing up in the trees, and even more important during the sodden rains. He thought about dinner, for just a moment, then cleared his mind. He closed his eyes and breathed in. He needed to focus.
His father had been careful to avoid flying, and discouraged him from doing it. His mother had said little on the topic. His grandma, however, felt quite comfortable with the activity and never stopped Krehin from practicing, rain or not. She was more worried about him catching a cold than getting hurt.
Krehin gripped the wooden rail and swung a leg out past the safety of the platform. His toes felt the rough bark of the great oak and found a spot that didn’t feel too slippery. He looked past their tree toward the clearing, hoping to make out a herd of krantins passing by. Their migration always signaled the end of the rains, his favorite time of year. The hail stopped, and he got a clear view through the trees. Nothing yet. He let out his breath and pulled another leg over the railing. He turned back, both feet facing toward his grandma’s front door, and raised one hand to open his coat. Every kid in Marilvin had two coats: one for confined spaces, designed for warmth; the other for movement, speed, and flight. As part of his plan to escape he’d thrown his ground coat over his air coat, hiding his true intentions. He thought his grandma would let him go if she thought he was just going to walk in the tree tops. She’d want him back in time for dinner.
A moment later and Krehin was ready, coat strewn beside him on the wooden path. He grinned and took another deep breath. That first moment, the initial drop, always brought a rush of sensations. He lived for those moments, and appreciated his grandma letting him get out and explore, hail storms notwithstanding.
Krehin closed his eyes and let go of the hand rail. For a moment he hovered between solid footing and free open air. That moment, that tiny speck in time, was perfect. Then gravity took over and he fell backward. His head went first, followed by his body. He liked to hold to the tree as long as possible, his body twisting backward and pivoting his feet against the branches. It reminded him of pushing a toy over and seeing how far it would go until it toppled. Then it was over, his feet left the bark and he dropped into open air.
Silence. The air around him grew quiet. The last of the clusters of hail hit the leaves and branches. Krehin squeezed his eyes tight to keep them closed and felt warmth against his cheeks. The sun shot through the trees. He hadn’t seen that beautiful ball of fire in forever. Krehin smiled and peaked one eye open, catching a view of the sun’s rays between the great oak’s crown. He was moving fast now, getting closer to the ground. Looking up while falling down was half the fun. He liked to see how long he could go. That was one thing, of course, he didn’t do around grandma. Although she was comfortable with flying, it was mutually agreed that Krehin should keep the crazier stunts to himself.
A large broken off tree branch flew past to his right. Krehin blinked. That was the marker; he was almost to the bottom, time to get moving. He spun around in the air, facing downward. The forest floor appeared below. Small bushes and grass poked up toward him. Krehin stretched out his wings to get some blood flowing into them. He hadn’t had a chance to fly for at least a week, and every good litchim of Marilvin knew that in order to get great big wings you had to practice. Something was wrong. He felt resistance. His wings weren’t working. Krehin’s eyes widened and he looked back behind him, then down to his chest. His mind blanked for a moment, confused. He wasn’t wearing his flying coat. He still had on his ground coat, without the special cuts in the back for flying. Krehin let out a gasp and shot his eyes upward. The air coat was still in the treetop, laying agains the branches where he’d kicked it. He’d switched them around without thinking.
Krehin cried out as the ground shot upward toward him, he could feel his wings locked inside the fabric of his ground coat, pushing to break through.
He panicked and ripped against his coat, trying to pull it free. For some reason, completely crazy in the moment, he’d buttoned it up. Sneaking out and hiding his true intentions seemed like a foolish idea. Krehin got one button out, then two, and checked the ground. The tree was big, the largest in the Latendin forest. He would have plenty of time, if he hadn’t waited so long. Another button came off, ripped free instead of twisted. It flew off beside him. Too slow, not enough. Three buttons to go. Krehin ripped hard on both and managed to break free of the coat. He twirled around and flung it off him with his right arm. At the same time he flapped his wings to spread them out. He felt strength come into him, it was starting to work. Not well enough though. Something was still wrong, he looked back and saw a flash of fabric. With every ounce of strength he flapped both his wings and the coat flew free. He looked to the ground again and braced both arms in front of him to break his fall. He didn’t have enough time, he wasn’t flying, he was just falling. He cried out and shut his eyes closed.
He braced for full impact and expected to slam into the ground, his speed fast enough to break every bone in his body. Then something happened. He felt a sharp blow from the side and all the air in his lungs got knocked out of him. Krehin’s eyes flew open and he saw a swirl of dark brown all around him, mixed with something that looked like a large patch of fur. He shot both arms out and pushed against his surroundings. Everything was confusion, up was down, left was right. He gasped for breath and fought against the darkness. Then nothing, silence.
Krehin tried to breath and felt air come back into his lungs. He gasped and flailed out his legs to find footing, something to balance him, something to stand on. Then the smell hit him. Where before he’d sensed the fresh scent of rain, mixed with the leaves and burning fireplace, now he smelled death and rotting. He gasped and reached up one hand to plug his nose. Then light returned, he could see. Krehin blinked and looked up, trying to register what his eyes were looking at. It took a moment for his mind to catch up. Before him, not a foot away from his head, was a large, smooth, object. It was perfectly round, with a large black rectangle in the middle. The object moved, and Krehin tripped backward, feeling the same sensation of fur mixed with the smell of rotting flesh.
The large object came into focus, and pulled away. He now saw two of them. Two humongous eyeballs. Both stared at him. The smell, the fur, the eyes, all of it made sense. Krehin looked around him and took in the whole shape of the thing. He’d hoped to see a Krantin, to be the first one to spot them. They were dangerous, of course. Any wild animal could be dangerous. But they didn’t hunt or eat other animals. They traveled in herds, and ate leaves from the branches of the great oaks. They were best scene from a distance of course, but they wouldn’t go out of their way to swallow a kid. A gigantic ursatic mange on the other hand, that was a whole other situation entirely.
Krehin stared up into the face of the giant mange and took in a deep breath. What he’d taken to be a large furry object turned out to be a limb from the great beast. Maybe a tail, maybe an arm. He couldn’t tell from where he stood. Its eyes shifted upward and Krehin used the opportunity to look for an escape. He glanced to both sides and saw a small gap between fur and ground, just enough space for a small litchim to squeeze through. In an instant he tucked both wings as tight as possible and dove headfirst toward the gap. At the same time he heard a loud crack. The ursatic mange roared and large patches of brown and gray shifted around him. Krehin didn’t look, didn’t think. He shot forward and scrambled beneath the fur. The ground shook and the beast roared. Krehin saw his chance, a crevice in the roots of the great oak.