Chapter 1: Beachcombing

The storm had passed. With clear skies overhead, streaked with nothing more than the highest and wispiest of clouds, little remained to indicate its devastation. The island shore had little to show for it except for a washed up line of debris stretching across its white sands. Seaweed, driftwood and pebbles formed a tangled tidemark that smelled of salt and fish, the scents of the deep sea from which they had been thrown. Anything of interest was already being picked through and snatched away by inquisitive crabbits. They would scramble through the mess, only to startle at the slightest provocation and turn their powerful claws toward the source of the disturbance, which more often than not would turn out to be another crabbit.

There was one threat upon the white sands that would warrant such behaviour, although she had no interest in crabbits at the present time. She was powerfully built under a deep red pelt, larger than most of her kind, and her footsteps left deep tracks in the sand that gave away her unusually large claws. As she walked along she swung her tail, revealing the bony club on the end. Her ears were pricked forward behind her curled ram horns, alert and focused. Sometimes, she would stop and pause to sniff at the driftwood, or heft it aside with her huge paws or drag it away from where it rested in her strong jaws. Water pooled in the sandy crevasses left behind, and sometimes she would sniff at it, but there were no familiar scents, nothing to hold her interest, and she would turn away to continue her journey along the shore. Three dark red gems sparkled on her chest, catching the sunlight and shining to display their bearer's vitality.

There was nothing familiar to her on this stretch of coastline, nothing at all.

She turned her gaze inland. Here there was a little more evidence of the storm's passing. A few trees had lost their branches, many of them hanging partway off their trunks like half broken prey limbs, still hanging on by strips of bark but revealing pale splintered wood underneath. Despite the damage, the jungle was still too dense for such a large creature as herself to go crashing through without attracting unwanted attention. Everyone told stories about the jungle, even if they'd never been there. It would be safer to keep to the shore.

She kept going, leaving a trail of deep, clawed footprints in the crisp white sand. Overhead, a bluebird wheeled. She kept an eye on it, not for her own safety - it had been a long time since she had been small enough for the bird to carry her off - but to see if it would give away the presence of other nichelings. But it flew on, over the land and out of sight, and she was forced to forget about it.

A shift in the scents on the breeze caught her attention, from the overpowering salty seas to a hint of fresh water. Her ears perked at the sound of a distant stream. As she grew closer she saw it up ahead, a small river that had reached the end of its course and flowed into the ocean. It had not had far to go, as its waters were still vigorous, cold and clear and full of little silver fish that would be a small but sustaining meal for a skilled fisher.

Her companion had been waiting for her at the banks, where dirt transitioned to sand and the river cut little braided channels through the beach. She was much smaller and leaner, her coat a bright white, although now stained by sand and dirt. A pair of small, two pronged antlers sprouted from her head, both draped with strands of translucent seaweed. She was engrossed in her current task, so much that she did not respond to the larger nicheling's approach, who sat down in the warm sands and waited for her to finish.

The white nicheling was grappling with a clam, pinning it to the sands with one paw whilst the other, its digits more slender and dextrous, worked at the shell's edge. She pried it open to reveal the meat inside, and sat back to study it. The sun shone upon the three blue gemstones embedded in her chest, mirrors of the sky above and the sea below.

"Kois." She looked away from the clamshell and to the bigger, waiting nicheling. "The sea has nothing to say."

Kois rose to her feet and sniffed at the open clamshell, but it smelled to her like so much seafood and nothing more. "I'm sorry. There was nobody along the shore, either."

"No, there has to be... I'm just not looking hard enough!" The white nicheling pawed at her antlers, claws running through the draped seaweed. "The sea wouldn't leave us with nothing, would it? They told us to go! No, there's a reason for this, you'll see." She gazed up at the sky, letting the sunlight reflect from her gems.

"Laana." Kois settled down by the smaller nicheling, curling her weighted tail around her paws. Laana leaned in, pressing herself against Kois' bulk. Kois felt Laana's antlers and their decorations brush against the thick fur of her shoulder. She closed her eyes, listening to her companion's breathing and crash of waves on the shore. "We'll find them."

There was a quiet laugh from the sea-seer. "I found you."

"I know." Kois opened her eyes. Laana was not built to swim, but Kois even less so, with her bulk and horns and hammer tail, and it was the smaller nicheling who had helped her to shore. Crossing islands was a move that came only once in a few generations. They had both grown up on stories of ancestors and the trials they had faced to find the island that had been their home. Neither of them had thought they would leave those rolling hills, full of berries to pick and rabbils to hunt. But then there had been the signs, the seers and their clams, the white furred child, and it was time to find the mountains.

The storm had put an end to all that. But thinking of where they should be would not take them there. The waves were calm, the river was fresh and cool, and the hunting was good along the shore. "We will find them, or they will find us."