Chapter 18: The Trailing Vine

Kois spent four more days in Anameis' den. The urgency of her search now dissolved, she let herself rest without fear. The jungle's cycles of night and day played out with her as their witness. Now and again, a little rain fell. The leaves above funnelled it into fat droplets that splashed on anyone caught out in the open, but Kois didn't mind. Like many large creatures, she weathered it out, and found some comfort on the break it gave her from the forest's oppressive heat. Even her gems shone a little brighter for the rain's passing.

"Lucky for you it's the dry season," Anameis said once, in the middle of a heavy fall.

"Then what was the storm?" Kois said, and Anameis fell about laughing. Even Kois couldn't resist an amused purr. The storm no longer held its grip of dark memories.

Kois found herself liking Anameis. No matter what she looked - or smelled - like, the orange nicheling was as good as her word. Yuki liked her too, and on his visits he would often be seen play-chasing her around the clearing or swatting at her tail. In the quiet times, when Laana and Yuki were back with the tribe, Kois told Anameis the story of how and why she and her friends had come to this island. She left out the part about Yuki - Laana had told her enough for her to guess he wanted to remain incognito in strange places - but she told her everything else she knew of her ancestral tribe, the Yukirs, and their legends of distant lands. She was no storyteller like Laana, but Anameis listened with full attention, never fidgeting when Kois told her about snow. Anameis had never heard of it, or imagined such a thing could exist. "Is it like... cold dirt?" she said, when Kois tried to explain.

"A little, and not," said Kois. "To be fair to you, I've never seen it before. But I know I will."

"How'd you know that?"

She didn't want to out Yuki, but she had another answer, and it was just as true. "Because of Laana."

Laana herself still spent much of her time at the cave with the Taimera Tribe. A sense of obligation for Yuki's rescuers drove her, and Kois understood. She dozed or talked with Anameis when she was gone, and looked forward to her visits. But something changed about her since Yuki's return. Every touch she exchanged with Kois, every word, brought with it an air of shyness and hesitation. She'd shake it off a little later, and sit by her side and tell her about the day's events, but Kois could still sense that shy awkwardness underneath the jungle's noisy silence.

Still, she enjoyed Laana's presence, and listened to her talk about the Taimeras, Ki-Roku and Ai-Relare, and their wall of memories. "I think my paws would be a little too big for that," she said, when Laana told her about how she and Yuki made their marks.

"I don't know... could you?" Laana sat by her side, paws tucked into her chest.

"Maybe. Maybe not. It won't matter soon." It would be nice to leave a mark. It would be nice to think the Taimeras were all like Anameis. But why worry about it when they would soon be on their feet and never see this place again?

What mattered was sitting here now, with the future open and Laana beside her. I wish you weren't so shy, Kois thought. But she had no idea how to say it, so she purred and lifted her head, letting Laana nuzzle the deep red gems set in her collar, and let the moment be.

On the morning of the fifth day, as Kois and Laana shared a drink at the stream, Laana spoke. "Could you come to the cave to see the others? You don't have to meet Ki-Roku... I mean you don't have to come at all... but some of them were worried about you..." She looked away and licked a paw.

Kois flexed her shoulder. "I don't know if that's a good idea." One of her ears turned to listen in to Yuki, batting a stick around in the dirt behind her.

"Of course... I'm sorry." Laana turned away, her tail curled around her legs.

"What's wrong, are you still hurt?" Kois felt tiny paws on hers, and looked down to see Yuki.

She'd planned to tell him once he came into his second gem. He'd seen stranger and more frightening things than a bearyena hybrid in all his lifetimes, but right now she saw a child at her paws, a child who had not yet tapped into his memories. "No," she said. Anameis' healing fruit had done its work - her new fur grew over healing flesh, and even her ribs had ceased to hurt. "You see... I look a little different to many other nichelings, and sometimes that makes them frightened." She swung her tail and dragged the bony club at its end over the ground, and let it come to rest by Yuki's side.

Yuki sniffed at it. "That's not fair!" he said. "But I don't think they'll be scared. I already told them how strong you are!"

"You did?" Kois said. A little way off, Laana turned an ear in their direction.

"Yes! I told them you were so strong you could make bearyenas go away just by telling them to, and then Anameis told me how you fought the ape, and everyone wanted to know how you did that because nobody can do that!" He gave Kois's tail a playful swat.

"Oh... you... I'm a story!" Kois purred, and Laana pawed at her face. "Well, I suppose I can meet the others." She had no intention of entering the cave, but as she had told herself, what did it matter when soon they would be gone?

A snore cut through the clearing. Anameis liked her sleep, and lay curled in a ball at the far end. Kois gave her a nudge with her nose, making her grumble and kick in the dirt. "Mrgh?"

"We are going to the cave," said Kois.

"Wha... oh." Anameis flicked an ear, but her eyes stayed shut. "G'by then... watch out f'the plants..." Her voice trailed back off into heavy snores.

"Something tells me it's a little early in the morning for her," said Kois. She stretched out to her full length, taking up the whole breadth of the clearing. "You two will have to show me the way."

Kois remained undecided if she wanted to go as far as the cave, even after Yuki's excitement. Maybe on some level he understood, if he'd felt the need to hide who he was, too. But she had spent too long in one place and grown restless. In life there were times to rest and recover, but a relentless energy prowled through her body all night, and no heat or humidity or frightened tribemembers could dampen the pure pleasure of being on the move again and following a trail to new, unseen places. She let Yuki and Laana guide her along the trail, and took pleasure in the moments she found herself in - giant blossoms, fluttering insects, and rays of light shining through the trees, and more than anything else the sheer joy of motion after a long confinement.

They saw no other nichelings for a while, but when Kois remembered how silent even Anameis' three legged hop could be, she couldn't call herself surprised. Living with those apes must have moulded the Taimeras into stealthy experts. Even Laana and Yuki moved with more caution after a few days in their presence, ears twitching at every new sound. Kois, too, though she felt suddenly ungainly, kept her mind sharp and focused, drinking in every detail.

She heard the river soon before she saw it. Yuki had told her of how it flowed from Ki-Roku's cave, but that must have been in the distance, because all she saw was a strip of water below and blue sky above. Insects swarmed over its surface, trails radiated to and from its banks, and upon the shore a white nicheling lounged.

"Kirro!" All caution gone at the sight of a friendly face, Yuki ran forward. Kirro sprawled out on his belly, his tufted tail dangling in the water waiting for a fish to bite.

"Hey, Little Roku," Kirro said. "Found anythi- Kois?" His normally half lidded eyes widened. "I didn't know you were..."

"Hello, Kirro," Kois said. She trod carefully around the water, so as not to let her shadow frighten the fish away. "How are you all?"

"Good..." Kirro looked away, fixed on a distant point in the shadows. "Actually..."

"What's wrong?" said Yuki.

"Nnnnothing." Kirro shuffled his limbs under his lanky body. "Aw, I should just say. A few of us were talking back at the cave, and we were going to tell you proper and all, but..." He twitched his tail, leaving ripples in the water. "Some of us were saying we wanted to stay. Here, I mean."

"Oh," said Kois.

"But what about the mountains?" said Yuki.

Kirro nudged him with his long snout. "It's not your fault. But we already came a long way, and after that storm..."

Kois sat down, and curled her tail around her paws. A thread of hurt betrayal twined through her thoughts and - no, she thought, stilling it. She couldn't tell anyone what to do. But she remembered Kirro before the storm, asking questions about the Yukirs, wanting to learn their stories and songs, and the little trail of resentment wriggled on through her mind. "I... I cannot stop you." She closed her eyes, and held her head low, chin resting on her gems.

"Oh Kois..." Laana nuzzled her shoulder.

"Sorry," Kirro said. "Look... we're not all staying. Kuku still wants to come with you... Meana as well... Rara said she'd stick with you..."

"I understand," Kois said. It had been their choice to come with her, and their choice to stop. How long had Kirro been mulling this over, wondering how he would break the news to her? It would hurt, but the pain would fade. "Thank you for telling me."

"But it's not fine!" Laana pulled away, and Kois heard the crunch of twigs and dead leaves as she paced back and forth on the riverbank. "You waited all your life for this!"

"Laana." Kois opened her eyes to see her friend pawing at her antlers in distress. "Please. It won't help."

"No, no, no, I can't let this ha- aigh!"

For an instant Kois thought Laana had tripped on her paws and fallen on her face, but in an eyeblink she watched her vanish tail-first into the undergrowth, scrabbling and clawing at the ground and leaving a trail of churned earth and leaved in her wake before disappearing into the tall grass. "Stand back!" Pelt bristling, tail lashing, Kois positioned herself between Kirro and Yuki and the spot where Laana had been, prepared to fight off another ape if she must... but there was nothing. No growls or snarls, no hot breath, no rank predator scent. "Laana?" Kois tore at the grass, grabbing it in her mouth and ripping it from its roots. "Laana!"

A cry sounded out in return, a wordless, strangled gasp for breath, muffled as though coming from beneath a pile of fallen leaves. Had some stealthy ambusher dragged Laana underground? But as Kois tore through the undergrowth she saw nothing but a tall, bulbous plant, hidden between a tree's sprawling roots - a red, veined, oversized flower bud big enough to swallow a nicheling...

"She's in the plant!" cried out Yuki, at her feet.

"Plants eat you?" exclaimed Kirro.

Kois pressed her paws to the plant's veiny surface. She felt shuddering underneath, heard choked gasps for air coming from within. "Laana? I'm here, we're going to get you out." But no words came in reply, only Laana's strangled gasps for air. Kois clawed at the plant's stiff exterior, but it was like trying to rip away a tree. "Yuki, Kirro, get help! Someone will know what to do!"

Kirro and Yuki vanished back into the undergrowth with a quick "yes!" between the two of them. Kois kept clawing at the plant's sides, listening for Laana's breaths and feeling the thing shudder with her struggles, but her claws barely scored the tough exterior and she dared not slash it open for fear of hurting her friend. Letting out a roar of frustration, she clawed at where the bud's petals grew from a softer, leaf-ringed base. Biting was no good - her jaws were too wide to get any purchase on the plant's base, and she ended up spitting out a mouthful of dirt. But, digging in her claws and letting out all her strength with another roar, she dug in her claws and pulled out great chunks of red, sap-soaked plant flesh. At last the thing shuddered and creaked, and the bud opened like a grotesque flower, and Laana fell to the ground with a thud. A sweet scent escaped into the air, billowing out toward the canopy.

"Laana?" Kois nudged her still form. "Can you hear me?"

A red-brown vine snaked around Laana's body, pinning her legs and wrapping her chest, squeezing the breath from her lungs. As Kois watched, her chest shuddered and twitched, and the vine tightened its grip. She lay still, eyes closed, fur plastered with shining sap and gems the colour of a dull, clouded sky. Kois glanced around, but nobody had come to their aid, and she tore at the vine with her teeth where it connected to the plant's core. A repulsive, rubbery texture, part plant and part muscle, ground between her jaws. The sap coating it burned her tongue, but she would not let go. Pinning the vine to the ground with her claws, she wrenched up her head and tore it in two. It shuddered and fell limp, relaxing its grip upon Laana. Kois gnawed it from her friend's body, freeing her chest and throat, but still she did not move.

"Laana?" Kois pressed her head to her chest, listening for the hint of breath or a heartbeat. "Come on now. You're out of there."

She'd given herself no time to think while freeing Laana from the plant. The future and past narrowed down to the present moment, where all she could do was act. But now everything that fled the moment - past, future, and thought alike - ran back to her. She licked Laana's still form, ignoring the burning pain in her mouth. Maybe she could get the blood flowing again, maybe there was still something she could do other than sit here and nuzzle the limp little form before her and face a future without Laana.

Her gems were dull. Her gems were dull, and there was nothing to be done about it.

Kois' claws dug deep into the leaf litter and left deep furrows in their wake. Nobody had said anything about the plants. Five days and not a word! A growl rose in her throat...

The sharp gasp of breath by her side went unnoticed over the deep rumble. But Laana twitched, kicking her legs and scattering the fallen leaves she lay in, and with a burst of relieved hope Kois licked her some more, willing blood and breath to flow again. "Easy," she murmured. "You're safe now."

Laana twitched again, ripples running up and down her body. Her chest heaved with the exertion of breath. "Kois?"

"You're safe," Kois repeated, and looked down at the marks torn in the ground before her. "I'll tear that thing up like we did the poison bushes."

Laana lifted her head, wobbling, and pawed at her face. Her eyes flickered open, and she leaned against Kois' side, still gasping for breath. "I couldn't..."

"Slow and deep now," said Kois. "It's all over."

Laana tried to follow her advice, but she looked around, panicked, and tried to get to her feet. "Where's Yuki?"

"He's gone with Kirro to get help."

"Oh no, no he's not!" Laana shivered as she stood up, the last fragments of vine falling from her body. "Where did he go?"

"Back down the river," Kois said, "but remember, they know their way around. Let's get you cleaned up first."

Laana let Kois guide her back to the river, where she washed off the burning sap and Kois tried to drink away the stinging pain in her mouth. It still burned, but seeing Laana safe, she didn't care. Besides, Laana had taken worse punishment - the sap had burned away her fur in small patches, leaving her haunted and bedraggled.

"They never told us," Kois said. "Why would they not warn us?"

"I think I already tried to warn myself." Laana stared at her reflection in the river. "Do you remember? I saw one of those plants before, when it was just you and me. I knew something was wrong! I could feel it - Tata's work, I called it!" Frantically she combed her claws through her tangled ruff. "It felt like... what did I feel... like the forest was alive but dead underneath... Yuki!" She sniffed the ground and ran upriver, Kois on her tail as she followed Yuki and Kirro's scents.

They must have gone back to the cave, Kois thought - she knew the cave was upriver too, and that was where she would have gone for help, regardless of who saw her. But before any sign of a cave came into view, she heard voices ahead and Laana turned and ran up the riverbank, following another narrow path. As they approached, the voices resolved into words.

"-can't do anything, stop it, stay still! I don't care what you-"

And then a cry of "Laana!" from Yuki, and Kois saw a bright green nicheling grasping him tight as he struggled to free himself, whilst behind them two more Taimera nichelings pinned Kirro to the ground.

"What is this?" Laana lowered her head, antlers pointed at the scene. Behind her, Kois began to growl.

Yuki tried to speak, but the green nicheling clamped a paw over his muzzle. Kois' growl grew louder. Explanations for the scene before her rose and fell in her mind. By the looks on the Taimera's faces, Laana shouldn't be here now - or was it Kois who should have been swallowed up by the plant, with Laana an accidental victim? She felt her limbs begin to shake, and steadiest herself. Now was not the time to speculate. They knew exactly what she was.

"L- Laana!" sputtered the green nicheling. "Little Roku here was saying... oh, see, Little Roku?" His grip relaxed, letting Yuki struggle again, but he didn't let go. "You must have been mistaken, she was never in the plant. She's right here!" He nodded at Laana... and then saw who was behind her. At the sight of Kois walking out from behind, his ears drooped, his eyes wide and pupils enlarged. His paws went limp, and Yuki wriggled free and ran to Laana, burying himself in her chest.

Kois stepped forward, her pawsteps slow and calculated, tail swinging, head held low and horns pointed at the scene before her. "I don't know what you're doing," she said, "but you're going to let the other one go, too." The two nichelings holding Kirro down stared, not backing off yet, but seriously considering it.

The green nicheling, who must have been the fastest on the uptake, dropped to all fours and shuffled backwards. "Do what she says!" he shrieked, and all three Taimera nichelings scurried off down the trail, leaving Kirro to get back to his feet, unhurt but shaken.

He licked a paw, and smoothed down his ruffled mane. "I am seriously reconsidering what I told you earlier."

Kois gave him a nod of approval and turned her attention back to Yuki. Laana held him close to her chest with her nimble paw over his back, in that way that Kois meant she wouldn't let him out of her sight all day. Her blue eyes flickered upward as Kois and Kirro approached. "I don't understand," she said. "They didn't hurt him, but why would anyone do that?"

"Don't know," said Kirro. "We came up here when we heard them, said you were trapped in some sort of giant plant... and they did that just after we said."

"They didn't listen!" said Yuki. "We kept saying you needed help and..."

"And they said they couldn't do anything, but..." Kirro looked back down the trail. "You saw it. It was like they didn't want anyone to do anything. Like they ate some seriously off berries..."

"They were trying to... leave us in there?" Laana pulled Yuki closer. "Kois, do you think..."

Kois sat by Laana's side, feeling her press up against her flank. She sat still as a boulder, yet threads of thought and memory burrowed deep. "I won't assume the worst," she said. "But I won't rule out that yes, one of us was supposed to die in that plant." Her tail curled around Laana and Yuki alike. Already those quiet moments with them in Anameis' clearing felt like so long ago...

A memory flashed, surfacing from the fog of the day.

"Laana," Kois said, "do you remember what Anameis said, before we left?"

"She didn't say anything," said Laana. "And I don't need a clam to know she's still asleep. Do you think she..."

"I think she warned me. 'Watch out for the plants.' I thought she was dreaming. I'm going to talk to her." Without waiting, she stood and turned away. Nor did Laana and Yuki, both swiftly at her heels.

"Me too," said Kirro. "Don't know her, but Vankirvan... that little green one... he'll be talking to Ki-Roku by now. I'm not waiting for that."

Laana and Yuki knew the way, and led Kois and Kirro along the riverbank. But they hesitated with every step, sniffing the ground in search of more trailing vines. Kois peered downriver, trying to remember the path, and wondering if she would have to show her claws to Anameis when they met. How easy it was to link the day's events together like a spiderweb, to imagine Anameis sneaking off to tell someone about the hybrid hidden in her den! But that, she reminded herself, was only one possible story. The ending, as Kois' father was so find of saying, had yet to be told.

She often thought of him at times like these; a nicheling who could never have hidden his bearyena blood, with his narrow, ridged skull and jaw full of sharp teeth. Yet his patience was a deep well, his calm a still day upon the meadow. Look and listen, he said. Know before you act. So she would wait and see what Anameis had to say...

But she was trapped on a slow path, and all four of them startled when, with a rustle of grass, two nichelings stepped out onto the bank to greet them. With Vankirvan by his side, Ki-Roku stood his ground and barred the path ahead.