Snowtouched

Chapter 11: Scent of Danger

The day wore on. Under the dense canopy, there were no shadows to track time by their length and position, and Kois and Laana could do no more than catch glimpses of the sun overhead and make guesses. Kois walked on, more in the river than out of it by now in an attempt to get out of the humid air that weighed upon her like heavy stones tied to her body. Sometimes she would stop and splash water over her head, and one time she could stand it no more and rolled over in the river, emerging with her coat as dripping and plastered to her body as it had been when she'd hauled herself out of the sea. But each time, the relief was short lived. The air was too damp, and the water had nowhere to go.

Laana took the heat a little better, but she too kept stopping to drink and splash water over her body, all for scant comfort. By their best guesses, it was past noon when she stopped and said "Kois, your gems."

Kois squinted as she looked down at her chest. Though they were difficult to see behind her the thick fur of her ruff, she could tell at once what had Laana worried. Their deep red colour had grown dull and dark, and even their smooth surfaces seemed to have lost their sheen. It was as if a light that shone from within, like a nicheling's eyes caught by moonlight on a dark night, had started to die out. "It's the heat," she said. "Yours as well."

Laana must not have noticed. She looked at her own neck, smoothing down her ruff with her nimble paw. Her gems were not as dull as Kois', but some of the vibrancy had drained away nonetheless. They had always put Kois in the mind of a shining sea under a sunny sky. Now the skies had clouded over, not in the manner of a gathering storm, but enough to block the light and turn the sky cold. "Take a rest," Laana said. "Don't let it get worse."

"I'm just tired," Kois said, but she didn't want to pass up Laana's advice, and sat down by the river, draping her tail through the ferns and grasses behind her. Staring into the water, she scooped up some more with one of her huge paws and splashed it over her face. An instant of cold relief was just that, an instant. "And this does not help," she said, water dripping off her muzzle. "Well it doesn't, but I still want to."

Even her limbs felt too heavy. She sank from her sitting position to lying down and letting her paws trail in the river. Overhead, a small insect buzzed around her ears, and she drove it away with a flick. Laana came to sit by her, curling her tail around her paws in her usual manner.

A dark shape moved under the surface of the water. It was a striped fish, like the clown koi that swam in the rivers back home. In the forest floor's half-light, Kois and Laana did not cast shadows, so it had no idea of their presence and swam lazily, so close to the surface that Kois could count its orange and black stripes. She was pondering whether to catch it when it vanished with a flick of its tail and a cloud of river mud. As the water settled she saw what had startled it - another fish, but this one she did not recognise. Its scales were red and its body round and flattened sideways. It might have looked comical if not for the sharp white teeth lining its open mouth and its fins, which were fractured and elongated so they looked like insect legs, with each one's edge sharpened into a blade. The new fish drifted in the water with the leisurely air of a creature so well armed that it knew, even on an instinctual level, that nothing could hurt it. Kois stayed her paw.

Laana had seen it too, and sat crouched, sticking her neck out over the water in that way that meant she wanted a closer look, but didn't want to come near. "What is that?"

"I don't know. But it chased away the food."

"You should still eat something. Maybe you'll feel better." Laana sat back up and looked around the shore. "But what can we eat?"

Kois, lacking the energy to say anything intelligent, made a small non-committal sound in her throat. By the sea there had been clams and rabbils, but there were no clams in the river (Laana would surely have found them otherwise) and there was no room to chase prey. The plants might be edible or not, and they would never know. With no tracks to give away the presence of other nichelings, Kois wondered if it was worth turning back.

But she wanted to rest a little longer before getting back up and struggling through the heat, so she stayed where she was and watched the red fish swim lazily upstream. Perhaps its passing would entice the clown koi out of hiding. Its movement drew her gaze up the river and into the distance, where the water continued to cut a gloomy tunnel under the canopy.

She narrowed her eyes. The banks on either side were as impenetrable as always. But just before the river vanished into darkness, she thought she could see a cleared spot, the start of a trail leading away into the deeper jungle. "Laana. Look."

Laana tried to follow her, but she couldn't see as well in the dark, although she narrowed her eyes and strained. "No, I don't see it."

"Looks like a trail from here. It's across the river, where it gets dark."

It might have been no more than a path trodden by grazers when they came to drink, or predators looking for an easy ambush, but nichelings had to drink like everyone else, and the sight of something new and potentially useful sent a new infusion of energy through Kois' body despite her dulled gems. There was no doubt to either of them that they were going to follow that trail right there and then. They crossed the river, cautious of the red fish, but the water was shallow enough that they could wade through and see what was beneath them.

Kois' initial judgement had been correct. It was a trail she had seen, leading up the river bank and away into the undergrowth, and just wide enough for them to pass one after the other. She stopped by the shore and sniffed to see who or what had come this way, whilst Laana studied the tracks in the dirt. "Look!" She waved her paw at Kois. "I think they're nichelings!"

Kois came over for a better look. Nicheling trails could vary a lot, but she knew the most common sort of paws, and besides the scent that clung to the grass and ferns nearby was undoubtedly nicheling, even if it was nobody she knew and it was mixed in with another smell she did not know and could not put a word to. It had a curious decaying edge, as if someone had left a slab of meat to rot and then dragged it along the ground, but it was so indistinct she could not say if whoever had come down this trail had anything to do with it. The tracks themselves were at least a few days old, so Kois might have missed them if Laana had not been so observant. Perhaps that was what a lifetime of searching for omens did for you.

Despite the age and smell, Kois and Laana didn't need to say anything to agree they should follow. Kois let Laana take the lead - she was smaller, so Kois would still be able to see where they were going if she walked behind. Laana hesitated at first, but Kois reassured her they would need those observational skills.

The jungle air was no cooler away from the river, but at least there was something new to occupy Kois' mind besides the crushing heat and other things she did not wish to dwell upon and had locked away in her mind. The trail was well trodden, and the scent of nicheling still present even under the rainforest's earthy hot water smell and that curious scent of decay. Still, she could not put a word to it. It rose and waned, but was never strong enough to be anything more than a few wisps hanging in the air. There was a little rotten meat, a little of eggs smashed open and left to go bad in the hot sun, but all of it vanished when she thought she could grasp it, like Laana and the buried clam. Whatever it was, it kept running up and down the trail. She guessed it must be some other creature, perhaps one that found smelling unpleasant kept it safe from predators. Certainly she wouldn't want to chase it.

The trail wound and looped through the forest, avoiding unseen obstacles. Here and there were patches of light where a tree had fallen and left a hole in the canopy for light to shine through, like the sun streaming into a collapsed cave. In these clearings plant life flourished even thicker than before, everything striving for precious sunlight before the canopy swallowed it back up. Here there grew stands of curious tall grass that, like so many things on this island, seemed familiar and yet foreign at the same time. Dark green stems rose from the ground, growing taller than Kois herself to end in spiral shaped fronds of red and purple. Kois touched some to test its strength, and found it withstood more pressure than its delicate, dreamlike appearance would suggest.

"I feel as though I'm back in the caves," said Laana.

Kois didn't have to ask what she meant. The seers of the sea all ventured deep into their sea cave, alone, when they were ready to receive the blessings of Doeli and become true seers. Kois remembered watching her friend disappear down there, and old Silais telling her not to worry. She and Reko had waited by the cave mouth, keeping a respectful distance, and even though they were not seers Silais hadn't the heart to tell them to leave. After three days Laana emerged, with her gems sparkling blue as the sky, blinking in a light she hadn't seen in all that time. She had never spoken of what happened down there, and Kois had not pressed her; for all she understood, it was a private thing, not to be shared with others. She sniffed at the fronds - they were sweet, rather like flowers - and wondered what Laana could see in this alien world that brought her back there.

It was slow going, but eventually the path widened out into another fallen-tree clearing, which looked like a sort of meeting place or hub, as several more trails radiated from it. The ground was well trodden, the scent of nichelings stronger, but so was that odd smell of decay. Kois shook her head, trying to clear the heat-induced fog from her mind and focus on where it could be coming from. Laana, meanwhile, crept forward to investigate another strange plant.

Kois moved to get a closer look at what she had found. The clearing felt strangely exposed after the jungle's close confines, though the open space was only about three times her body length in width and bisected by the fallen, rotting trunk of the tree whose demise had created it. She stepped over the trunk. It had been a true forest giant, and even a nicheling as big as Kois had to scramble over, dislodging bark and moss in her wake. Laana hopped up and down the other side. Her ears were a little flattened as she approached the plant, but she held her head high and her tail straight, trying to be bold.

Kois had thought the giant flower bud at the riverside had been bizarre, but now it looked downright mundane next to this thing. It was some sort of small fruit tree, but its stem was bulbous and bright green, not covered with bark like a proper tree. From its rounded base it rose up as tall as Kois was long, before radiating out into a crown of giant leaves that seemed to peel away from the main stem, each one blending from green at its base before turning a lurid purple, each one tipped with a flower-like structure. But what drew Kois' attention the most was the fruit. Green and purple stems branched out below the leafy top, each one bearing a round fruit as big as Kois' head. They were a warm yellow, speckled with white and smoothly textured, and even if she knew to be cautious Kois could not help imagining the tasty flesh that might be inside. She felt a tightness in her stomach and a sharp sensation in her throat, reminding her that she had not eaten since this morning, and the shadows were growing long again.

For once it was Laana who was the first to investigate closer. She sniffed one of the fruits, which was perfectly positioned at her height as if it had grown that way to invite her to pluck it. Immediately she recoiled, hopping backwards with her tail fluffed out and her snout wrinkled in disgust. "Ugh! They're all rotten!" She rubbed her paw over her nose.

Kois ventured a sniff. It was true - the fruits looked ripe and delicious, but they smelled as if they had been smashed open and left to rot in the sun. Curious, she sliced her claws through the nearest one. Thick, syrupy orange juice dribbled from within, exuding the same sickly rotting-sweet smell. Inside she could see soft golden flesh, and for a moment was torn between the tempting looks and the repulsive scent. She wiped her claws on the grass, trying to brush off the sticky juices.

"Oh Kois, is it not disgusting enough?"

Kois made another non-committal sound. "It's rotten, but someone's been here." Whilst wiping her claws she had seen that there were plenty of tracks around the tree's base, all overlapping so there was no way of knowing how many nichelings there had been or where they were all going.

"I can see... I suppose they came too late for it as well. Oh, is there nothing in this place we can eat?" Laana hopped back onto the fallen tree trunk, perching up high to get a better view of her surroundings. "But it means someone was here not long ago..." She twined her nimble paw through her ruff. "We could call..."

"And who knows what we'll attract," said Kois, still trying, with limited success, to wipe the juice from her claws. No wonder it was all over the trails.

Laana jumped down again. "I suppose you're-"

She stopped, frozen mid-step. Kois followed her gaze into the grasses. There, watching from one of the trails, was a creature neither of them had seen before. Bigger than a bearyena, covered in shaggy black hair, it sniffed at the air with a long, wrinkled, hairless snout. Kois didn't know which of them had been taken more by surprise. It made no move to go near them, but she was under no impression that it was safe, "Get behind me," she said, and Laana obeyed.

The hairy thing flared its nostrils and lumbered closer. Kois growled and raised her tail, swinging it back and forth as she would to ward off a bearyena. The hair of her ruff stood on end and she lowered her head to show off her horns as she dug her claws into the ground. "I don't know if you can understand me," she said, "but you will leave us." She didn't want a fight - most animals don't, and a good show of force was usually enough to make even a bearyena reconsider.

Undeterred, the creature moved closer, swinging its head and sniffing all around, and Kois realised her display might be all for nothing - its eyes were small and beady, nearly hidden in the folds of its face. If it wasn't totally blind, it might not see well enough to notice her threats. Baring her teeth, she growled louder, a deep rumbling that she could feel under her paws as the earth trembled. The creature startled, and for a moment Kois thought it was about to back down.

But instead of vanishing into the grass, it raised one huge fist and swung and Kois with a speed she never imagined possible for such a gigantic beast. The blow caught her in the shoulder and send her crashing into the log. She felt the breath knocked out of her chest as the rotten wood cracked under her impact, and for a moment all she could understand was Laana screaming her name and bewilderment that anything could hurt her.

She stumbled back to her feet, gasping. Bark and dirt fell from her grazed pelt. Immediately she saw what she had dreaded - with the greater threat out of its way, the creature had turned its attention to Laana. It swiped at her, but she was faster and leapt aside.

Kois sprang, tensing all her muscles for one leap onto the thing's back whilst it was distracted. Her claws scrabbled for purchase on muscles solid as the earth. She growled again, clawing and biting through coarse black hair that smelled of dirt and decay, like everything else around her. Lashing her tail, she yelled at Laana to run, but she had been struck senseless like a stupefied rabbil by the noise. Kois raked her claws through the beast's flesh, dragging big gouges through its shoulders. It let out a roar of pain and anger, a roar that echoed through the forest, and tried to shake her off, its attention mercifully pulled away from Laana. Her tail slammed into its side, again and again, but it felt like trying to smash rocks.

Unable to throw Kois off, the beast stumbled backwards and tried to reach over its own shoulder to snap at her. Its long jaws latched onto her foreleg and she let out a roar of her own as the flesh tore under its teeth. Her grip loosened and the creature took advantage of her distraction, throwing her to the ground and knocking her senseless and dazed. It was long enough for it to deliver a series of blows from its giant fists. She lashed her tail and claws, but felt a crack and a sharp pain when she tried to breathe, and lay still. Somewhere she could hear Laana shouting, but it was all too distant to resolve into words.

Then the blows stopped and the looming shadow vanished, and Kois lifted her head to see Laana's slim white form tensed, her head lowered and her antlers pointed at the creature. Kois tried to shout at her to stop, and the pain rose again, snatching away her call and turning it into a strangled gasp. The creature turned its back on her, lumbering back toward Laana. Even with its own blood pouring down its back and matting in its hair, it reminded Kois of the red fish - an animal that knew nothing could cause it any harm. Still Laana didn't move, though she trembled where she stood, and if she listened hard, Kois could hear her speak to herself through frightened gasps, "... have to make this right... brought this upon you..."

Kois tried to get to her feet - maybe she could push Laana away and make her come to her senses - and then stopped when a wordless shout rang out across the clearing. A third nicheling jumped in, from where Kois did not know, orange fur bristling as she yelled "Hey! Get out! I'll do it! You know I'll do it!"

Whatever "it" meant, the newcomer couldn't possibly match up against this thing. She had no horns, no claws, and when she moved she hopped about on three legs, as if she had lost the fourth to injury. Kois didn't have time to wonder. The orange nicheling turned so that she was standing with her tail raised and her back to the creature, and a few disgusting possibilities ran through Kois' mind. The stranger waved her tail, and Kois noticed, in that strange detached away of those too blinded by pain to pay attention to more than the most irrelevant of details, that it was luxuriously fluffy, even without the hairs bristling in every direction.

Kois didn't see what happened next, but she could smell it. The creature refused to back down, and the newcomer, laughing as though having the time of her life, raised her tail further. In an instant Kois caught wind of a smell so foul that the rotten fruits were a delicious, inviting feast in comparison. It was the scent of carrion and droppings, decaying in the sun and swarming with flies, of eggs left to rot, and it was inescapable, feeling like a thick physical presence that invaded the air as she tried to breathe. She buried her nose under her paw and closed her eyes, feeling them sting and tear up in the scent's wake, as if it had grown tiny claws that raked at her face.

She could only hear the screech and thuds as the creature reeled from the blast, and feel the ground shake as it retreated into the grass. "Don't like that, do you? Do you!" The stranger was hopping about on her three legs when Kois finally opened her eyes. Laana crouched nearby, trying and failing not to retch, but there was nothing left in her stomach and she could only heave, her sides shaking and her back arched. The creature had taken the worst of the stench with it, but it clung to the grass and the dirt and lingered in the air itself.

Kois raised her head. "I-" She stopped, the pain returning, and continued with a much quieter voice. "-don't know what you did. But I think we're grateful."

"Yes... grateful." Laana pawed at her muzzle, backing away from the stranger.

"What did you think I did? I sprayed it! You've not got scent glands?" The stranger ran in a circle, chasing her own tail. "You don't know? Course you don't know anything! You tried to fight an ape! Who does that? Who fights an ape?"

"That was an ape?" Laana said, peering into the distance.

"No, it was a snail. You really don't know, do you?" The stranger stopped her hopping circle and stood still, staring at Kois. Now that she could finally get a good look at her too, Kois could see that she was not missing a leg at all, but that her right forepaw was shrunken, useless for walking on and held close to her chubby body. Her face was a twisted mess of snaggle teeth and misshapen ears and eyes, and her spotted pelt was the brightest orange Kois had ever seen, like a sunset in full glory. Her two gems, also orange, sparkled with young vitality, reflected in her inability to sit still for a moment before scratching at her odd ears or pacing around with her odd gait. "Thought you had it there, though!" She moved to get a closer look at Kois, perhaps just as puzzled by her appearance as Kois was of hers. "Where'd you come from?"

"Over the sea." Kois tried to sit up, but the pain flared again and she could feel blood pouring from her foreleg where the ape had bitten. She sank back down, eyes closed. The battle rush was gone, and now she could feel every ebb and rise of pain, all made worse by the smells and the heat that still weighed upon her. She could feel a rising and falling pressure inside her skull with every beat of her heart, and she felt that if she lay here she might well vanish into the fog of heat and decay that permeated her surroundings, leaving her unable to escape. With her jaw clenched tight she sat up. Laana was already by her side, licking the blood away. "Don't worry."

"I would," said the stranger. "It'll come back eventually and I think I'm all out of spray." She twisted her body around to try to look at her back end (Kois still didn't know what she meant, or if she wanted to), coming unbalanced on her three functional legs and nearly falling on her side. "If you come with me, I'll show you somewhere safer."

"Yes," said Kois, unwilling to stay no matter who this newcomer was. She had jumped in to save them, and that was all she could bring herself to care about.

"Yes, then?" said Laana, looking up from cleaning away Kois' blood. "Then I'm Laana. This is Kois. A friend."

"Good, good," The stranger hopped toward the nearest path. "I'm Anameis."