Chapter 37: Abyssal Snow
The warm softness of the nest wrapped around his body. Rabbil fluff and sweet smelling roots were woven into its depths, and a gentle heartbeat pulsed at his side. He yawned and twitched his tail, lost in sleepiness. The world could wait. Here was warmth and safety, the soft darkness of the den, the comfort of the nest. All this was part of the dream and the dream alone, and a fragment of his waking mind knew this, yet it was buried deep within his sense of self, and that was content to drift as a cloud through nebulous spaces detached from the waking world.
He opened his eyes, and the shape of a nicheling resolved itself above him. Bright eyes in the dark, shining gems of green, a pelt of white against the earth - he knew, in the unspoken convictions of dreams that this was Reko, his mother. In another world she was gone, but here it had all been a mistake, for here she was alive and he curled up by her side. Though her image was blurred through the vision of a cub whose eyes opened for the first time, this knowledge could never be shaken, for here he was, and here was all there was.
She nuzzled him, and his whiskers tickled his face. Her heartbeat echoed within the den, a strong, rich, and warm sound. He blinked, and now her gems shone pink as dawn, and this too was simply the way things were. She was the green gemmed nicheling and the pink gemmed nicheling, as a nicheling with mismatched paws may appear as a different self depending on the angle you looked at them. He settled back in by her side, and fell into the deep sleep-within-sleep of dreams.
He awoke to cold and silence, no mother's purr, no soft nest. The den was bare. Roots broke through its ceiling, reaching out to him like pale, twisted claws. Only the faintest of scents remained to tell of the mother nicheling's presence. Tail tucked between his legs, Yuki nonetheless braved the dark and crept forward toward the window of open, starry sky that marked the exit from his whole world.
Trees bare of leaf and white of bark reached to a distant night sky tinged with deep purple. Despite the darkness and the haze of his poor eyesight, dream-light painted the forest before him in a palette of orange. He had never seen a tree in autumn, and yet he immediately knew that this was the time when all slows down, the time when the world turns to fire but the summer's heat fades like an ember, and nothing can stop the slow descent into the winter's dead grip. The last flourish, when living and dead come so close as to almost touch…
He sniffed the air and took a few steps forward on cautious paws. Beneath the scents of fallen leaves and mushroom spores, the trails of other nichelings led him onward. They had passed by long ago, their scents almost gone, but each one drew him further away from the den's dying warmth.
Moths with wingspans as long as his tails fluttered by. Lazy swarms of glowing insects lent eerie light to patches of darkness. Within the haze, far from the path, the shadowed forms of slender grazing animals watched, unafraid of the tiny creature passing by.
He felt their eyes upon him long after he vanished into the dark.
Time stretched on, fragmented into disparate images. He waded through marshes and climbed stone ridges. He ducked under the roots of trees taller than any that grew in the waking world, and wherever he walked, there those traces of others guided him.
At last, after climbing through a vast chasm surrounded by roots as wide as a bearyena's skull, he came to a great hole in the earth. Under a deep violet sky it gaped out before him, wide as the valley his tribe now called home, such that its far side was a distant, hazy place. Into its depths sank dust and drifting leaves, falling into endless darkness. Black fog shrouded the lower reaches, dark enough to swallow the stars. As Yuki perched upon the brink, he saw that he was not alone. All around the edge there sat the ghostly shapes of other nichelings, all facing down, all waiting. And Yuki knew, with the unspoken conviction of dreams, what he saw.
This was the dark place, told of in a thousand stories. It was the abyssal ocean, the deepest cave, the darkest forest, for it took on many forms, yet each led to the same place - the land of inexpressible things, the place where thought dissolved and memory died, if only for a moment. Yet this was not a darkness to fear. If he stepped within, lost his footing, jumped, then surely it would tear him apart, yet it would do no more than its appointed task, and would return him with a little of its touch upon his gem. For this was the abyss where Doeli sought her father, where Tata discovered the secret to his many lives, and where Laana and every seer before her had first found her her sight. To Yuki, it called out like an old friend, welcomed him into its depths, and he knew that one day, he would jump.
One day. But not today.
The misty nichelings that stood by his side bent down and nuzzled him, each one friend as familiar as the abyss itself. They would be here when he was ready. But now, they said to him, now you are a child, not a walker of the abyss.
The dream slipped away, the darkness was gone, and Yuki surfaced into the waking world as though emerging from dark water.
It was Meana who lay beside him when he awoke, who had gone looking for Yuki and Kois when they failed to return. She had found Kois curled up around him in a crevasse within the round valley walls, and this was where he awoke a day later.
"Kois sits outside a lot now," Meana said, when she finished her tale. "It's like she's waiting for something." She found him some berries, which sated his hunger and thirst, but he was drawn to the light outside. It was early evening, before the sun sets, when its light is gold and its shadows long, and in the mountain air it shone even deep within the nest. A spider's web, tucked within a crag at the entrance, caught his eye; it shimmered, each delicate strand catching the light as it swayed in the breeze, and for a moment it was his whole world, so small and yet so vast in its beauty, in a sense that his young mind could not put into words. He nibbled at an itch in his side. The bearyena's claw marks had scabbed over and turned ugly, but what did that matter when the world was waiting?
When his paws touched grass, it was as though he saw the outside for the first time. All was familiar to him - the lake and the blue sky, the soft mountain grass and the smooth valley walls to which the last snow still clung. But now he looked upon gold tinted land and shining water, and felt cool winds rustle his fur, and all he knew was joy - overwhelming, inexpressible happiness at the simple act of being alive. And all that was before the sight of Kois, watching out over the far valley, and then his joy escaped in an excited squeal of "Kois!" just as Meana drew up behind him.
"Go on," she said. "She's waiting for you."
If he'd been in better shape, Yuki would have run to Kois' side, but even slowed by the lingering pain in his flank he managed a brisk trot. He needn't have worried. Kois heard his call, twisted an ear in his direction, and with a shout of "Yuki!" turned swiftly and bounded across the valley, circling the lake and closing the distance in a few leaps. She thudded to a stop before him, purring so deeply he felt the ground rumble, and lowered her head so they could nuzzle one another, rubbing and purring in vigorous greeting as their scents mixed. "I'm so sorry..." he heard her whisper as he rubbed his cheek against her heavy jaw.
"What for?" He pulled away, looking up with wide eyes.
"I brought you here. It's my fault the bearyena..." Kois rubbed at her face with a paw, as Laana might comb her antlers. "And that did not go as I planned."
They left Meana to tend the nest while they drank from the lake, the berries having not quenched all of Yuki's thirst after a long sleep. Even water tasted vibrant, cold and clear and fresher than ever before. Yuki licked his lips as sparkling droplets fell from his whiskers and Kois drank her fill by his side. He should speak, but inside his head the memories of vast, unfathomable depths still remained, and anything he could say felt as a speck, a fraction of it all. He settled for pressing his cheek against her foreleg, giving her another purr, as she sat still and watching over the lake.
She had been watching and waiting, Meana said, all through the day and night, and Yuki knew why. He looked back - they were far away enough that Meana wouldn't hear. It wasn't bad (could anything be bad, in the golden sun and the glow of life?) but his question was for Kois, and Kois alone. "Are you waiting for the bearyena?"
It wasn't really a question - he knew the answer with a certainty as strong as any dream-knowledge - but it felt kinder to pose it as one. Kois stayed still as ever, only a telltale flexing of her claws giving away the thoughts inside. "Yes. I think I am."
They walked a short way together, skirting the lake close to where its waters lapped at the pebble strewn shore. Neither spoke, but both decided, at that moment, to follow the water to the valley's edge. "What's it like, being part bearyena?"
Stones crunched under Kois's claws as she made her way up the bank and through softer grasses. Sunlight caught the fronds waving in the wind, scattering its glow across the meadow. "I'm not sure. I've always tried to be a nicheling." She walked on through the grass, and came to a halt by the cliff's edge, overlooking the larger valley below. This was the spot where they had first climbed into the upper valley, and it did not go unnoticed. "I think that I'm grateful to have met her."
"You think?" Yuki tilted his head.
"It's not always easy to know how you feel," Kois said. "And it's complicated. I think I am glad, but I met her because I brought you here. I hurt you, and it was because I wanted you to see the snow… no, I wanted you to be Yuki, and I tried to make you into what I thought that should mean..." Though her back was turned to him, Yuki saw Kois' head sink below the level of her shoulders. "I was so angry at Laana for her part in forcing you here that I never stopped to think of mine."
Before Yuki could reply, Kois sank into a seated position, laid with her paws stretched out before her, both relaxed and to attention at once. Her long tail curled through the grass behind her, lashing softly, then coming to rest. Yuki lay beside her, resting his head on her foreleg. Below, their home valley spread out, from rocky uplands to the distant treeline, all tinged in evening's light and cut through by the river, that one constant in their new world. "Do you miss Laana too?"
"All the time."
Yuki closed his eyes and let a tiny purr escape his throat. Despite the gaping absence of family and friends alike, another wave of peace washed over him, a wave in a great ocean that he had glimpsed for a heartbeat. Soon Kois' deep rumble joined in. Laana was far away, yes, but she would return, and she and Kois could be happy again, as they had been and as they ought to be. But for now he was here, and Kois' deep purr and the wind whipping his coat were both all that there was and all that he needed.