Chapter 17: The Broken Path
The story came to a close upon a scene of old light that gave no more than shape to those in its presence. Here was a warm, dark world of touch and scent, wrapped in a sleepy twilight hour. Nichelings huddled together, drowsy, but each one touched by the tale that had unfurled before them.
"That's so sad that she couldn't bring Jun back," said Yuki, from his spot nestled by Laana's side.
"I know," said Laana, "but that is how the story goes. Doeli had to learn that even with all her gifts, she could not stop all the terrible things in the world. She could only weather them. But knowing that was a gift, too."
"Yes," said a soft voice. In the dark Laana took a moment to place the speaker - Ai-Relare, the blue twin. "What will, will be."
Laana looked away, into the light upon the pool's surface. There were no reflections or ripples, only the suggestion of a sheen in the darkness, beneath which still waters reached unseen depths. She heard murmurs or praise from all around, many of whom had never heard the story before. The tales of Doeli were rarely told outside the seers' circles; this had been a rare exception, worthy of the Taimera's kindness.
"Can you see things in the water too?" said Yuki.
"No, that was Doeli's gift alone. I am only a seer."
She felt Yuki nudge her side, feeling his way around her in the dark. "But she must have looked like you!"
Laana purred in amusement. "You know, you would not be the first to say that."
As the last light drained from the cave, Laana could feel a perceptible change in its atmosphere. The day was over at last, and now a story had been told and its listeners had taken it to heart, so it was time to retire for the night. Laana knew this slow, collective winding down from the seers' cave. There were no words spoken, no orders given, but one by one, sleepy nichelings curled up in their nests, until all was still and night ruled the world. She stretched out and yawned. Ki-Roku's hospitality extended to his nests; Yuki led her to the terraces, where she felt her way around with paws and whiskers. Their nests smelled of soft, fresh jungle grasses.
Yuki lay pressed by her side, purring, and was asleep in moments. Laana stayed awake, listening. Nichelings breathed slowly and shuffled in their sleep. Outside, the jungle never fell silent. The chirps of nocturnal insects and chattering cries of other creatures she did not know reached her ears even deep within the cave, as the waves did back home. Sometimes she would nuzzle Yuki's sleeping form to remind herself he was there now, that all was well. And in those moments she would feel alone again, though nichelings slept all around her and Yuki by her side.
In those moments she imagined a bigger, stronger form curled around the two of them. Those imaginings dragged her back to wakefulness - the recollections that she had left Kois with Anameis, and the fear of whether she had decided correctly. But not just guilt - a longing gnawed at her chest and touched deep within her gems. Ever since their journey began, Kois had been by her side, to the shore, across the sea, and into the forest, and now her absence pulled at Laana like hunger. One night, she told herself in her attempts to sleep. Just one night, and they would see one another again.
Kois dozed in the heat, keeping still and quiet by instinct. Insects chirped at the far range of hearing, birds sang in the canopy, and once or twice she heard movement in the distance. But nothing disturbed her, and she fell into a light sleep where sound, scent, and leaf-filtered light became fleeting dreams. Shape and sound danced in her mind, and a few times in that fleeting yet timeless space, Kois looked up to see a three legged nicheling surrounded by spirals of light walking toward her, one shrunken paw held close to their chest.
She opened her eyes and perked her ears. Through the twilight forest she heard pawsteps, and the grass parted. Anameis appeared, her mouth full of fruit that she dropped by her feet. "Laana says to tell you everyone's alive."
Kois peered around her, but Anameis was alone. "Where are they?"
"With Ki-Roku in his cave. I said I'd come back and tell you nobody's died while she's off being all polite." Anameis sat down and scratched an ear. "And you're supposed to eat these."
Kois sniffed - it was hard to tell in the dark, but they smelled like the berries back home. Laana would certainly insist she eat. "Then they are all safe?"
Anameis looked up from nibbling dirt from between her hind-toes and put her foot back down. "That's what I said, didn't I? She said she'd come back for you tomorrow when it's light. You want to eat that or what?"
"Yes, I will." Kois bowed her head. "Thank you."
They shared the berries as darkness fell and stars began to shine in what little of the sky could be seen between the trees. Anameis was as messy as ever, but Kois couldn't bring herself to care about her habits. Yuki had been with the explorers indeed, if none of them had come to harm.
It was a shame, she thought, that there were no nut trees here. All these berries were overwhelmingly sweet after too many, but no wonder, when there was so much greenery in the jungle. She stood up, holding her injured foreleg off the ground, and hopped to the stream for a drink. For a moment she saw stars reflected in the water before they broke apart as she drank. The coldness felt like something she had forgotten after so long in the oppressive heat, and she plunged her head into the water, but as in the daytime it was short relief in the humid air. Even night would not allow the jungle heat to release its grip. Settling back down, growling at the pain shooting through her body, she said, "Where is the cave?"
"Up the river. Not thinking of going now, are you? Because I'm not."
"Now? No." She trusted Anameis told the truth. Laana would choose to stay, if it was the polite thing to do, and there was nothing even she could say to persuade her otherwise. "It is best I stay here."
"That's true." Anameis was by now no more than a shadow in starlight, but Kois could hear her roll over in the dirt. "What with those big old bearyena claws!"
Kois said nothing. A still silence fell between the two of them. Anameis lay where she was. Though they could not see one another, Kois could sense the other nicheling's gaze upon her as surely as her own.
"What, wrong thing to say? I get it." There was a scuffling noise as Anameis sat up.
"They're some big claws, then."
"No," Kois repeated. "I am part bearyena. You are right, it is obvious to anyone who looks hard enough. I would not deny it."
"Suit yourself." More scuffling as Anameis batted something unseen across the ground. "Not as if you're going to eat me. You'd have done that already."
Kois closed her eyes. In the dark nobody could see her ears - smaller than normal, curled inward, another sign of predatory ancestry - flattened against her horns. Her claws, as Anameis noted too big to be born of nicheling blood alone, lay flat on the ground. She inhaled, deep and slow. "Anameis."
"There is a child with my tribe. He doesn't know. He isn't ready to know. Can I trust you?"
"Or what, you'll rip me apart with your big bearyena claws and your big bearyena teeth?" Anameis laughed and rolled on the ground, then went silent. "Course I won't tell anyone. You think I go around telling where I came from?"
And again, Kois imagined, or felt, that Anameis' eyes were fixed upon her, and she told the truth. "Thank you."
"Don't need to. It's nothing big." Anameis shuffled around a little more, but soon went still, and it was obvious the conversation was over, because soon after her slow breathing indicated she'd fallen asleep where she lay.
Kois licked at her shoulder and foreleg, tasting metal in the torn flesh. A little of Laana's scent remained on her pelt. Although the night-time heat bore down upon her, leaving her drowsy, sleep seemed far away. It was not the pain, nor the sounds of the jungle or even Anameis' snoring. All these things she let flow, as if floating down the stream as leaves fallen from on high. Eventually, she closed her eyes and imagined what she missed - two other creatures, a family together in the dark, and only then did she sleep.
Dawn in the caves, like dusk, was a gradual, communal affair. It started small, an early riser stretching and stepping outside to watch the sun come up, careful not to disturb their nestmates. But soon, driven by sunlight peering into the cave mouth, others began to stir. One by one they rose, to eat and drink and begin their day. As if every nicheling were part of one greater creature that took time to awaken, coming to itself as the sun climbed the sky, the peaceful nighttime atmosphere gave way to the day's activities, until even the sleepiest of the tribe were up and about.
Laana often found herself as one of those early risers, enjoying the calm, still hours when the realm of night had not quite retreated, and she could sit undisturbed and watch the world pass through the borders of day. But this morning was not one of them. She fell asleep late and slept late, and awoke to the chatter of Ki-Roku's tribe, opening her eyes to fresh morning sun spilling in from the opening above. Yuki was gone, and she sat up with a start, but relaxed on seeing him running around the cave, talking and playing with anyone who cared to listen. She stretched and arched her back, easing out the stiff muscles.
It seemed she was the last to rise today, and though she had trouble sensing the passage of time in this unfamiliar land, it must be late in the morning. Had Anameis returned? A few orange nichelings stood out in the crowd, but none of them the stunted, toothy adolescent she knew. She rubbed her antlers and shook her head. Maybe Anameis was a late sleeper as well. Nothing to worry about.
A harsh dryness in her throat led her to the pool. She lapped up her fill and splashed a little cold water over her face to ward off the heat and the last of her sleepiness. Droplets splashed over the water's surface and shattered her reflection as it looked back up at her. But there was no gift of Doeli in the spreading ripples, only broken light on an ever shifting surface.
Yet, she thought, this mist be the source of the river she and Kois followed, and she had seen it flow into the sea. In a certain sense, was there a difference between the still waters of the cave and the ocean and its messages? But the sea didn't speak to you either, she thought.
She pawed at her antlers, still bare of decoration, and startled as she spotted another nicheling drinking nearby. Ai-Relare lapped up water a couple of nicheling lengths away, as silent as her soft paws. Laana dipped her head as the blue nicheling finished. "Good morning, Ai-Relare."
"Yes, it is." Unlike her twin, Ai-Relare seemed to move in slow motion, as though swift motion would break her slender legs. She looked over her shoulder at the light shaft striking across the cave, angled with the morning sun, as if it were all new to her.
"My thanks for taking us into your home. I hope once my friend is well we can stop troubling you and move on."
Ai-Relare's eyes gazed off into a distant spot, far beyond the cave walls. "You are welcome. What world is it where we do not take in the lost?"
"I apologise for asking..." Laana looked back at the cave mouth, "...but do you know Anameis?"
"I know of her."
"I'm waiting for her to come back. Do you know if she will be here by high sun, or after?"
Ai-Relare closed her eyes and lowered her head to her chest. She did not move or speak. Struck by awkward guilt, Laana looked around. Had she saddened or offended her in some way? She opened her mouth to blurt out an apology, but stopped herself. Caught in the moment, she rubbed behind her ear at the base of her antlers. Nobody paid them any attention. Nichelings wandered the cave, chatted, ate, and contemplated the wall of memories, but Laana and Ai-Relare occupied their own space. She felt her ears flatten. "I-"
"Gather fruit," Ai-Relare said. "Fish in the river. Tell a story, or walk through the forest." Her eyes opened. "Nobody can tell you when." She let out a soft little sound, nearly a sigh, nearly a laugh. "Not if you cannot." She rose to her feet and padded away into the depths with a slow swish of her long tail.
Laana, left by the pool, sat in perplexed silence. She crouched down and shrank into a ball. Whatever rule she had broken - and there must be one, for such a reaction - nobody was going to explain it to her. But still nobody noticed, or even looked in her direction, and slowly she rose back to a sitting position. Perhaps Ai-Relare had, in her own way, been giving advice? Silais always used to say something like this - you should always make yourself useful, if you didn't know what the future would bring.
Yuki seemed happy to play with the others, so she left him with instructions to tell Anameis to wait for her, and emerged from the cave into daylight. Although the rainforest canopy blocked most of the sun, out here the river carved a ribbon of open sky. She let her eyes adjust as its milky, limestone laden waters flowed on by her paws.
After a while she began to explore, sniffing around, ears pricked, occasionally looking back to remember the way. The memory of the ape remained fresh in her mind, but calm silence ruled over the riverbank. Silver fish swam just below the water's surface, scattering as her shadow passed overhead. If she stayed still long enough they re-emerged, cautious at first, but growing more confident. Kois could have swiped them out of the water with a flick of her paw, but whenever Laana tried she ended up with the slippery things wriggling out of her grasp if she caught one at all. Once, a fish had slapped her in the face with its tail as it escaped, making it very clear what it thought of the situation. Kois, compassionate as ever, had made a good effort not to laugh.
Deciding to leave fishing to those who knew how, Laana found a trail leading up the bank and deeper into the forest, and followed in the hopes of finding a berry bush that nobody had picked clean yet. Not too far, she told herself, just a little way to see. She weaved through skinny saplings reaching out to the distant sun. Ferns brushed against her side, and she ducked under low branches. A sweet scent let her onward into the jungle depths.
She stopped - her paws touched rough earth, and she stepped back. Before her the well worn trail gave way to a churned up patch, claw marks and broken earth dragged across her path, leaves scattered everywhere, and the fresh smell of nicheling nearby. She crouched low, her breathing shallow and her ears straining, but she heard or smelled no predators. If a bearyena, or worse an ape, had been here, it had been long ago. Slowly she relaxed, and peered off to her side where the marks pointed.
This deep in the forest, plants grew where they could, snatching what scarce beams of sunlight penetrated the trees. The broken path ended here, with still no scent of danger. Laana crept forward, wary as a rabbil, moving in slow steps over soft fallen leaves. Only the ambient sounds of the jungle reached her ears, so ubiquitous that by now she heard them as a form of silence. Ahead, a tree's buttressed roots sprawled out across the forest floor. A few bulbous, red plants grew in its shade, and the same sweet scent wafted through the under-brush.
A rustle of leaves, a shaking branch, and she jumped, startled - only to see a small blue frog leap for safety at her passing. She took a deep, relieved breath as her heart slowed back to normal. The frog watched her from one of the moss coated roots, its throat pulsating. She touched a paw to her gems, and saw that below it grew a lone berry bush. "Why thankyou," she said, and purred in amusement at the ridiculousness of thanking a frog. No doubt, this place is turning me strange.
She tried one of the berries and found it as sweet as ever, if not a little small. No ape or bearyena interrupted her breakfast, and at last she relaxed and concluded Ai-Relare had been right. What good was there in waiting when there was food to gather, omens to find, or games to play? She nibbled away and listened to the jungle sounds passing her by. Dappled sunlight fell on her pale coat. Soon she would leave this place, but for now, she was right here.
She picked a few more berries to take back, half expecting Vankirvan to show up and protest, but nobody crossed her path. With a couple grasped in her teeth and a couple more tucked to her chest with her nimble paw, she hopped back down the trail and followed her memories back to Ki-Roku's cave.
It was for this reason that she responded to Anameis' presence with a muffled "M'mees?" and not anything more dignified.
"Oh, there you are." Anameis sat hunched up on the mossy rocks spilling from the cave mouth. "No, don't say anything, go tell that cub of yours we can go. Oh, and Kois isn't dead." She scratched her ears. "Should have said that one first."
Laana didn't waste time dropping off the food and finding Yuki, who ran ahead of her out of the cave, excited to see Kois and Anameis alike. He at least seemed to understand he should stay quiet when Anameis led them back to her den, watching her stop and listen for danger once they were away from Taimera territory. But about halfway through their journey, by Laana's reckoning, some font of curiosity must have welled up. "Anameis?"
"Mm, what is it?" Anameis kept on walking, but turned the larger of her ears toward him.
"Why do you live so far away from the others?"
Anameis' ear twitched as if an invisible insect had landed on it. She came to a halt, but didn't look back. Laana touched a paw to her gems. She had to say something. Someone had to.
The problem was... well, it wasn't exactly a problem. But anyone who looked at Anameis and saw that shrunken paw and those teeth sticking out wherever they wanted couldn't fail to notice she was rogue-born. Nobody had said anything, because nobody needed to. Anameis had been so helpful, and well... it just wasn't polite to go around talking about such things. Especially not in front of a child... though if the legends were true, Yuki had been a rogue himself in a few of his lifetimes. But that was another conversation for when he'd come into his next gem. No, it wasn't a problem at all, but...
"Because I like it out here!" Anameis waved her tail and started walking again. "This cave is boring."
They didn't mention it again, and though Laana could feel the matter stirring deep below like a worm in wet sand, Anameis had no more to say. So they walked on, until Anameis' rotten scent markers told Laana they had arrived at her territory's border. Her nose wrinkled unconsciously, but they were soon past it, and she craned her neck over Anameis' shoulder. What had happened to Kois in the night? Was she well?
Yuki saw her first, darting past Anameis and out of Laana's sight with a squeal of "Kois!" Anameis stepped aside and waved her tail to let Laana past, and there was Kois, laid in the hollow formed by the fallen tree, with Yuki playing at her paws. Her deep rumbling purr filled the clearing as she bent down and licked Yuki, bowling him over and making him laugh and swat at her nose.
Laana wanted to run and join them, but she stayed frozen, watching as a jolt, a pang of longing that she could not put into words, shot through her chest. Here they were, back together as a... a family? "Kois?" she said. "Are you well?"
"As well as I can be," said Kois, while Yuki pawed at her gems. "Still hurts to talk."
"What if I told you all about how I got here?" said Yuki. "Then you can listen and you don't need to talk!"
"I'd like that very much," said Kois.
So Yuki launched into the story he'd told Laana last night, while Kois listened and Anameis, who'd heard it already (apart from the bit about Yuki's name, which he whispered over) wandered over to the stream for a drink. Laana found her feet and settled in by Kois' side, where she sniffed at the wound in the big nicheling's foreleg. Though pleased to find it healing well, with no smell of infection, she licked at the mending flesh anyway, to be safe. Kois, still listening to Yuki's story, turned her head. She said nothing, but nuzzled against Laana's chest, and, feeling that jolt again, Laana lifted her head and let Kois press her scent against her gems.
As Yuki told of how he went exploring in the jungle with Kirro and Meana, Laana found herself mulling over the explorers left behind at the cave. She could dare to hope again, now they had all made it, now they were together... but she found her mind drifting back to what would happen next. They would move on and find snow, of course, just as Yuki's birth foretold, but then the tribe would need to grow and establish themselves in the new lands. And not until now had Laana ever thought of the prospect of a mate.
Explorers to new islands knew they would eventually take a mate from the few fellows that came along with them, for the sake of practicality if not love. It was another thing you didn't talk about, like Anameis' parentage, or the reason for Kois' oversized claws, so she had put it out of her mind with all the other impolite things. But now... not she lay by Kois' side, while Yuki told his story and Anameis lay a little way off, listening in, and she remembered last night's gaping loneliness. And it struck her there and then that this was what she longed for, the family she had been yearning to have. She leaned in closer. If she was to take a mate, he would have to not mind...
...No. She didn't want a mate. She wanted Kois, in all her contrasts, big and strong and fierce, quiet and calm and compassionate. As Laana lay by her side, feeling warmth and softness and strength, a surge of thoughts ran through her: confusion, fear, and more than anything else, love. Dizzy, she laid her head on her paws, Yuki's voice suddenly distant. A starving madness cut deep into her chest, striking through her gems. She longed to nuzzle Kois, to purr and hear her respond in turn, but she kept still. Dear Doeli, how can this be?
Yuki was talking now about his encounter with Ki-Roku and how he showed Laana the wall of memories. Hardly daring to move, Laana draped her tail over Kois', another shy, hesitant touch.
For a moment Kois didn't respond. Perhaps she hadn't noticed. Perhaps that was for the best; did Kois need such foolishness in her life? But then the big nicheling looked at Laana lying prone beside her and nuzzled her cheek, leaving her scent behind. Laana closed her eyes and purred, and Kois rumbled back. Another rush ran through Laana's body, another stab of hunger in her chest, but this time, she dared again to hope.
None of it made any sense. But they were a seer, a hybrid, and a child god, watched over by a rogue-born two-gem. Perhaps it didn't have to make sense after all.