Chapter 21: Swarming

Yuki wondered if he dreamt of snow again, but his dreams turned to mist in the morning sun, and he knew nothing but a lingering memory of a memory. Overnight, a little rain had fallen. Like many nichelings, the tribe slept in the open and weathered it out, though Yuki had kept himself well sheltered beside Kois and Laana. The day dawned with palpable humidity, the air shimmering with heat and steam in time to the everpresent chirping insects. But it also left pools of fresh water hidden away in hollows and leaves, perfect for thirsty travellers after a long sleep. Yuki drank his fill, ate from the food stored last night, and chased Anameis around the tribe's camp as he waited for the others to wake up.

Soon Kois and Laana awoke too, and Yuki broke away from play-wresting with his friend. Everyone looked up to Kois and Laana, and the tribe would leave on their word. Yuki sat down to wait for them, and felt something tickle his nose. Squinting down his face, he saw a blur of motion, and a feather-light insect fluttered away on long, translucent wings. He watched it fly for as long as his eyes could follow the motion, before it vanished into the blurry distance and all he could hear was thrumming wings.

Crouching low to the ground, he pretended to follow, a hunter stalking his prey. Belly brushing up against the leaf litter, he caught a flash of motion, bright white against the loamy ground. It was Kirro's tail! He and Iskome lay curled up together in the hollow of two buttressed roots, oblivious to the activity around them... and the hunter who spotted them! Only their breathing and the twitch of Kirro's long tail gave them away. They wouldn't stay that way for long! Yuki dropped lower, wagging his tail for balance, and with a wiggle of his hindquarters he sprang! "Rrrgh!" he growled, pinning Kirro's tufted tail in place. "I got you! Now you have to wake up!"

But Kirro didn't move. Yuki swatted his tail, but it lay limp over the ground. "Kirro? Iskome?" He jumped over a root, into the hollow where the pair slept. "It's only me!" His ears flattened, his tail tucked low. Were they all still upset at him? But nothing bothered these two. He nudged Iskome in the shoulder with his nose. Her sleek black fur smelled greasy, and she didn't move. "Iskome?"

Another insect settled on the tip of Kirro's ear, fluttering its long wings. Light caught the shimmering membranes and scattered into many colours. Legs like slender black hairs parted white fur, and still Kirro did not stir. A grip of panic closed around Yuki's chest, deep within his gem and spreading through his body. His legs stumbled backward, and he found the strength to call out. "Laana! Kois!"

Startled, the insect flew away. At Yuki's back, frantic pawsteps scattered dead leaves. But his should had finally roused the sleeping pair. Their eyelids flickered open and they yawned, long and deep.

"Yuki? Oh..." Kirro blinked, slowly.

"A little longer, come on..." murmured Iskome, lazily lashing her tail.

Laana drew up beside Yuki and laid her nimble paw on his ruff. "Yuki, what's wrong?" Behind her, Kois ambled over and sat down.

"I think they must be sick? They weren't moving, and I thought..."

Laana's claws twined through Yuki's pelt. "Now? Oh no, not now... can you both show me your gems?"

With a few nonverbal grunts of agreement, Kirro and Iskome lifted their heads enough to reveal the gems set at their collars. A sharp, cold wave of fear ran down Yuki's back at the sight. He'd never seen gems so dark and lifeless! Kirro's green gems, normally bright as grass after the rain, had dulled to the deep shade of moss in the shadows, and Iskome's sunset-vivid orange into dark earth tones. They were like holes carved into their chests, cut through to some sickly other realm. Only Laana's paw under his him, checking his own gem, pulled his eyes away from the horrifying sight.

"How could this happen?" said Laana.

As if in reply, a distinct three legged hop announced Anameis' approach. "What are you all staring at? Can I eat it?"

"Yes," said Kirro, "because I think I'm dead." His head flopped onto Iskome's shoulder. Her deep, slow breaths indicated she had already fallen asleep.

Anameis hopped backward. "How'd they get sleep sick? I thought you said you checked this spot?"

"We checked for predators," said Kois, "and the plants." Her eyes briefly flickered in Laana's direction.

"Not for bad water? You know, where the bugs come from?"

"No," said Kois. "You did not tell us."

"I thought you knew!" Anameis raised her tail, fur bristling on end and making it look twice its already ample size. Kois loomed over her, and she shuffled back.

"You need to tell us these things." Kois' voice was level, but firm.

Anameis bared her teeth. "How am I to know what you don't?"

For a moment Yuki thought she'd spring at Kois, and unable to stand it, he pulled away from Laana's embrace. "Stop! What about my friends?"

Leaves crunched under Anameis' paws as she backed away. "They'll be fine. But you've got to get them away from here, or they'll get bitten again and so will everyone else." Ears flattened, she looked around. "You're gong to have to make a new camp and move everyone."

"Is it going to spread?" Laana looked back and forth from Yuki to the sick nichelings.

"It spreads by bug bites," said Anameis. "Must have been bitten when they fell asleep. Lucky nobody else got it yet." She sniffed at Kirro, who had sunk back into sleep as they talked.

"So we'll have to find a new camp and rest for a few days... oh no, this is all..." Laana pawed at her mouth, choking on her words, and regained her composition. "We should go. I'll come with you, Kois can keep us safe. Anameis, you'll have to show us what to look for."

"What about me?" Yuki said.

Laana looked to Anameis.

"Best he stays here. It's safe as long as everyone watches out for the bugs." She waved her tail, and a few black specks fluttered away. "Mostly safe, anyway."

Kois' ears strained to catch the sound of buzzing wings above the rainforest's hum. Silently, she chided herself for her firmness with Anameis. The orange nicheling snapped back to normal once Yuki stepped in, but with the cheery demeanour of someone who wanted to pretend all was well.

Not that it mattered now. Kois didn't know the sickness or the insects that spread it, but she knew what Anameis meant by "bad water". Back home, at summer's height, the brooks turned to muddy trenches and great swarms of biting insects emerged from stagnant water, flooding the air. At the memory, she flicked her ear and lashed her tail, imagining the itch that they left behind. But the sea winds would drive them off, and they never spread sickness, just irritation.

She sniffed the air ahead of her, trying to find the scent of stagnant water, but once more was met with an overwhelming cacophony of leaf mould and general decay. Picking out one scent would be like trying to find a rabbil in snow. Anameis seemed to know where she was going, though. The ground under Kois' feet felt softer than before, as if water rose close to the surface. Her paws left deep tracks in the dirt as they passed by.

By her side, Laana flinched. "Ugh! They're here, I know they are." She scratched her throat and lashed her tail. Kois listened for buzzing wings - did she hear them humming in the distance, or was she imagining it? Laana pressed her cheek to Kois' side. "I'm sorry. I'm being so jumpy again."

"Don't worry, just brush them off," Anameis looked back over her shoulder. "Means we're close!"

Kois nuzzled the back of Laana's neck, taking care to avoid her sharp horns. The white nicheling purred in turn. For that moment, Kois longed to stay. They had said no more since Laana's brush with the trailing vines, but they stayed close to one another's sides, purring, twining their tails, and perhaps they needed no more words for now.

Anameis' loping gait halted, and she reared up to sniff the air. "Smell that?"

Kois' paws sank deeper into the ground. Dark mud clung to her claws with every step. Tough grass scratched her side as she pushed through. Ahead, Anameis waved her tail to grab their attention, a bright orange banner in a tangle of green and brown. Laana was right. Black insects settled on her fur, crawling across her skin. With each step, they flew away before they had a chance to bite, but were they to lie still, no doubt they would swarm across as though they were all corpses. A shuddering ripple passed down Kois' spine. Laana followed her through the grass, swatting the air and startling at every sound.

Nosing aside the last of the thick, abrasive swamp grass, Kois saw what Anameis had found. A stagnant pool, two or three nicheling lengths across, wove through the reeds, its waters black with filth and the air above thick with swarming insects skimming over the murky surface. Kois crouched and peered into the water, but no reflection greeted her. Clouds of black insects settled on her skin, flying off with a shake of her head.

"There's your problem!" exclaimed Anameis.

Laana pawed at her ruff. "That's... very good, Anameis. Now let's leave."

"Yes, and as far as possible," said Kois. "But Anameis, thank you, for telling us about this."

Anameis dragged a back paw in the mud, churning up stinky green-brown clods.

"Yes." Kois dipped her head. Angry though she'd been at her guide for not warning her earlier, it was plain to see that baring her teeth was no way to encourage her. Perhaps enough teeth and claws had been brandished in her direction before.

Anameis bobbed her head in return, scattering a cloud of black insects. "Watch this!" She jumped and snapped at the air, swarms billowing all around her. Much to Kois' surprise (and Laana's disgust, if her clamping her paw over her mouth was any indication) she swallowed a mouthful of insects , and licked her tongue over her lips. "Gritty!" She pranced around, mud spattering over her legs and blending into the black spots that dotted her pelt.

"Anameis, don't-" Laana began.

Too late, Anameis' legs slipped out from underneath her. With a yelp she skidded through the mud, legs flailing everywhere, and landed in the stinking water. The murky surface rolled back over her body, and a few bubbles rose to the surface and popped lazily. Digging her claws into the mud, Kois leaned forward. "Anameis!"

Anameis emerged from the water, gasping for breath. Her bright orange pelt clung to her body, dripping black water. Like a swamp monster rising from the depths, her mouth hanging open and her eyes wide and staring, she loped onto the muddy bank, tail dragging in the sludge. She laughed, her tongue lolling from her mouth. "Look at your faces! It's fine, I slipped."

If Kois didn't owe so much to Anameis already, if she hadn't spent so long getting to know her, she might have bared her teeth again. As it was, she couldn't help a small purr of amusement from rumbling in her throat. Laana, though, had nothing to say but "Don't expect me to clean that up!"

Anameis waved her tail, its motion heavy and slow from the swamp water dripping from the thick fur. "Don't worry about that!" She crouched, and immediately Kois positioned herself in front of Laana - and her prediction was fortunate when Anameis shook herself down. A spray of black water flew from her body, droplets flying everywhere and scattering both Kois and the surrounding landscape. Anameis laughed again, tongue hanging from the side of her mouth. Her fur stood on end, damp spiky clumps sticking out every which way. "Better? Oh yes, that won't hurt you either. Just the bugs." She snapped at the air again, gulping down a few more of the black swarm. "Sure you don't want any?"

"No," Laana had been shielded from the spray, but that didn't stop her frantically combing her fur.

"Suit yourself," Anameis said, and loped uphill, nosing aside the swamp grass.

Only then did Kois see the thing clinging to her side, slug-like, shimmering gold and gelatinous, the length of her paw. Its body pulsated, its mouth clamped to Ananeis' skin. "What is that?" she said, recoiling.

"Oh, hey!" Anameis twisted around to see the leech.

Laana's concern must have overcome her disgust, for she stepped out from behind Kois, nimble paw lifted. "Let me get that off!"

"What for?" Anameis twisted further, and wretched the leech from her side in her teeth. It wriggled for a moment before she swallowed it in one big gulp, slurping it down. "Squishy!"

"I think we should go back," Laana hissed in Kois' ear, "before she finds something else to eat!"

"I heard that!" Anameis pushed aside the swamp grass with a rustle. "Your loss! Come on!" Her rear end still stuck out of the grass, and she waved her tail. "Let's find somewhere drier before anyone else gets bitten."