Chapter 26: The Sign of the Seas
For a long while, Kois said nothing. She felt her paws move as though disconnected from her thoughts, backing her away from Laana. The seer shivered as she watched, ears flat, back hunched, tail curled tight around her legs.
"I knew I shouldn't have done it!" she said. "But there was Yuki... and everywhere I looked I thought of Reko! I couldn't stop... I thought... I thought if we were all leaving some day it would make no difference if it were now..." She kept her eyes fixed upon Kois as she twined a tuft of her ruff through her nimble paw. In the fading light and her frantic state, her pupils widened to twice their normal size.
Still Kois did not speak. She felt her heart pulse deep within her chest. She felt a rush of unsteadiness run through her limbs, that she kept at bay by force of will. She felt her ears flatten and her tail rise and swing in threat. But she felt herself an observer to all that happened inside and out, as though none of the here and now was real, no more than a story played out in her mind.
Laana nibbled at a patch of unruly fur. "I know I can't say anything but I couldn't stop remembering she's gone! I had to stop seeing her everywhere... I thought I could... I'm sorry." A shiver ran down Laana's body as she looked away, and when she faced Kois again, her frantic eyes turned to pleading. "Reko was always there, and then she was gone. You don't know. You don't know what that's like."
At those words, Kois snapped back to the world with a barrage of memories - for the blink of an eye she recalled dark, moist dirt on her paws as she dug, blessing her nest with the bones of the two creatures she laid deep in the earth, with no more than half remembered stories to guide her. A growl rumbled through her throat, and Laana backed off at the sound, flinching as she backed into the dead plant. Kois took a few slow steps forward, head lowered to reveal raised hackles. "I do know what it's like!"
Laana's paws scrabbled for purchase in the dirt. "I didn't mean that! But you didn't-"
Kois' ears swivelled backwards as a cry, sharp as a rabbil's alarm call, sounded out behind her, and on looking over her shoulder she saw a tiny white figure huddled in the grass. "Yuki!" Anameis crouched by his side, laying her small paw between his shoulders and steadying him from running out into the open. Her dappled pelt blended into the shadows, but Yuki's red eyes and brilliant white coat seemed to shine even in the dwindling evening light.
Laana pawed at her mouth and antlers. Kois turned her back on her, approaching the two young nichelings, and Anameis bared her misaligned teeth. "Right," Kois said. "Why are you here?"
"You ran off!" said Yuki, pressing closer to Anameis' side. Her ample tail curled in defence around his body.
"And you should not have followed us into the jungle."
"The jungle where I live?" snarled Anameis. Her words gave way to a broken growl, like gravel in her throat. "How long were you going to keep this quiet? We heard it all!"
Laana shook herself from her stupor and bounded up to Kois' side, tail on end in such a way Kois had never seen. "Anameis... you... what do you even know? Neither of you even met Reko!"
Yuki flinched back into the grass and stumbled on his feet, and Anameis glared back at Laana. "Maybe," she said, "but I... you..." She nudged Yuki back to his feet and gave him a quick lick, but never did she take her gaze away from the seer. "Just stop!"
"That is enough!" Kois slammed her tail into the ground. Once again the forest shook, and all eyes were upon her as the tremors died away and the echoes reverberated from tree to tree. She crouched before Anameis' furious face, trying to make herself look small - a futile gesture before a cub and a stunted two-gem, but neither of them deserved any of her rage. "I'm sorry, both of you. I'm so sorry. But you need to go back to the tribe. It's going to be fine. I promise."
She wondered how much Yuki and Anameis believed her when they turned away and vanished into the grass. Yuki's tail trailed behind him like a limp vine, whilst Anameis held hers high, bristling in defiance as if she might spray at any moment. I think I lied, too, Kois thought, as she turned back to the shaking Laana. I think I'm lying to myself.
"Kois..." Laana whispered, all her fury gone, her tail hidden between her hindlegs.
Kois lifted one massive paw. "Not now. I need to check on Donnu and tell the tribe what happened." She turned her tail to Laana, pawing at her eyes. Exhaustion rushed in on rage's tail, but no rest awaited her.
Kois' paw fell to the ground with a quiet thud. "They all came along because of you. They deserve to know." She shouldered aside a wide notched leaf, and stepped back into the undergrowth.
"Don't blame Yuki!"
Kois stopped, one ear pointed backwards. Slowly, she allowed herself a look over her shoulder.
"It's not his fault." Once more Laana toyed with the dead vine. The last of the evening's light shone behind her, framing her shadowed features in a soft glow. "You're right. They should know. But don't let them hurt him. It was all me."
"I never would," Kois said, before vanishing into the grass.
The last daylight flowed out of the world like water downriver. Yuki's nose twitched as he walked close to Anameis' side. Overhead, unseen creatures fluttered from branch to branch with a clatter of wings. Underfoot, his paws sank into soft, warm lead mould. With the daytime world gone, a land of smell and sound taking its place, he nearly knocked Anameis off her three legged gait several times in his urge to stick beside her.
He could feel his tail tuck itself between his legs and his ears droop. Wide red eyes scanned a world picked out in traces of starlight. It had been his idea to follow Laana and Kois. Anameis tried to tell him it was hers, and she was the one who picked up their trail and followed on soft, silent paws, but Yuki first observed how tired and afraid they both looked, Yuki who couldn't sit still for his fears. They'd been just in time to hear Laana's confession.
He must have missed something. Kois was never wrong, and Laana... she grew sad and distant sometimes, but she wouldn't do anything to hurt Kois. He'd seen Laana grieving before, but Kois always assured him she needed a little time alone, and every time she'd been right, and Laana was back to normal the next day.
Although darkness closed in all around him, he picked up the tribe's warm and welcoming scent ahead, a weave of overlapping and blended trails that smelled of home and safety. He picked up speed, running as fast as he dared while tripping over roots and being whipped in the face by leaves unseen in the night, but it was Anameis who slowed him down. "Hey!" she barked. "What's the hurry?"
"We're nearly back, can't you smell it?" But Yuki's paws slowed to a halt as he heard Anameis scuttle back to his side.
"Best we stay away from them for a while," she said.
"But Kois said-"
"That it'd be fine. I heard her." She stood so close beside Yuki that he felt her body shake, and heard the crunch of dead leaves as she kicked the ground with her hindlegs as though burying something unpleasant behind her. Slowly she stalked away from Yuki, a shadow among shadows. Her raised tail, fur standing on end, was outlined in traces of moonlight. As he crouched in the leaves, she let out a strangled moan of frustration and sprayed her acrid scent into a stand of grass nearby.
Yuki shrank back and tried to bury his nose in the leaves, but it was no use, like trying to hide the scent of a rotten clam, and not even the rich leaf mould could mask it. Coughing, he backed off and yelped as he tripped over a root, rock-hard in the dark, and fell sprawling onto his front.
"Anameis!" His voice was a gasp, the breath knocked from his chest. What happened to everyone? If he returned to camp, would the whole tribe have turned into the same distorted reflections? What had he done to them? His whole body shivered as he rolled onto his front, hunched into a ball to keep himself small as possible. Anameis was a shuffling, scratching rustle in the dark, an outlined shadow snarling and growling at unseen monsters.
"Now I'm out of spray! That stupid bearyena!" With one last crunch of old leaves, Anameis crashed onto the ground, legs splayed. Yuki's nose twitched as he craned his neck forward toward her. She lay still. "I'm sorry!" she went on. "This is your problem, not mine. I just...hate seeing... grargh!" Her words turned into a growl, punctuated by paws hammering the ground. "What's wrong with you? Don't you get mad about anything?"
Still shaking, Yuki rose to his feet. Soft little paws carried him to where Anameis lay, but still he hesitated. "Anameis? Why can't we go back?"
Anameis let out a resigned sigh, and the leaves before her nose fluttered in its wake. "Let me tell you something. When someone says it's going to be fine, that means it isn't. It's going to get uglier than me out there."
Yuki nosed Anameis in the side, feeling out the shape of where she lay. He thought back to Kois, fangs bared and hackles raised in such fury that he'd only seen her aim before at predators. Here was the same quiet and gentle Kois, the Kois that let him climb on her back and fall asleep between her huge paws, snarling at Laana as if ready to tear her throat out. The Kois he knew vanished in that instant, replaced by a monster, and upon Yuki's mind descended the notion that the world was larger, more layered and complicated, than he ever knew, and he was such a small being in the middle of it all. Lost in the dark, surrounded by notions he never knew, he nuzzled Anameis' side and stifled a cry, instinct forcing him to keep quiet where unseen beasts might prowl.
"Why do I say anything?" muttered Anameis. But she twisted around to lick Yuki's mane, just like Laana used to, and curled her long tail around his body to hide him from the dark. Her coat was coarse and greasy, but in this moment it became the deepest and softest of nests that muffled the outside world and all of its everpresent sounds that never ceased, not even for the night.
Within this warm, safe place, his thoughts stirred again. Only in the storm and its aftermath had he doubted himself, only then and now. Kois and Laana wouldn't want to hear, but Anameis... "Do you think Kois was wrong about me?"
Anameis stayed still and silent for a moment, weighing her words. "I'd say it doesn't matter if she was right or not, because you're still my friend," she said, eventually. "But we both know it does."
Yuki's paw stroked the water-smooth surface of his gem. In the dark, you couldn't see what colour it was, or the white of his fur, and all of a sudden that felt like something deep and important, something he must remember. "You're still my friend, though."
"But why did Laana do it? If Kois was right, then we'd have all gone anyway!"
"You heard her. It's... she..." Anameis tail brushed against Yuki's curled up form as she twitched, sniffing out more words. "Sometimes you don't want to be around something that reminds you of a bad thing."
Yuki heard a muffled crunch as Anameis batted a fallen leaf back and forth. He snuggled closer to her side. Still lost within his realisation that the world was more complicated than he dreamed, his thoughts delved back into questions. He nuzzled against Anameis' side and licked her shoulder. She said nothing, but the sound of agitated leaf-batting ceased. Even Anameis hurt, but why? She'd never known Reko...
...and neither had he. And in that instant Laana's enraged cries sounded in his memory's ears. What do you know? Laana, who always groomed his pelt with care, brought him the tastiest food, and fretted about bluebirds if he ventured a tail's length from her side, glared at him and bared her teeth, and he did not need to ask why.
He buried his face in Anameis' smelly, greasy fur, and listened to her purr, just like Laana on cold nights when he feared bearyenas lurked nearby, and she was a warm beacon of safety in the dark. Outside his nest of fur, the jungle droned on, and half-heard fragments of conversation reached his ears, too broken to coalesce into meaning.
His ears swivelled at an angry outburst, still too far to discern words. Kuku, he thought. He poked his head out of Anameis' tail-embrace, and more disbelieving voices carried through the trees to his hiding place.
"Sounds like Kois made it back," said Anameis, as though commenting on the onset of rain. Yuki tried to disentangle himself, but she pushed back with her tail. "You don't want to be there right now," she said. And he sensed an edge to her voice and a tenseness in her posture that suggested she spoke from another experience he could not imagine.
They sat together in the dark for what to Yuki felt like a whole night, crouched still, quiet and hidden. Growls and shouts reached their ears from the tribe's camp. Anameis might scoff at monsters, but they shared, in that moment, an understanding of things worse than monsters, things that had neither teeth nor claws but tore through tribes regardless. Only a deep instinct, beyond words, kept him in his place, urging him to stay inconspicuous while danger passed and never make a sound. Like a rabbil facing the hunter's glare, he remained where he sat as time crawled by.
At last his drowsiness masked fear, and he began to slip into a half-dreaming state, with no time or light, breathing in time to Anameis' purrs. He dozed until a sharp snap jolted him back to wakefulness. By his side, Anameis tensed again, ready to spring. Neither of them spoke. Still they froze, hoping for the unseen creature to pass them by. Yuki's ears lay flat against his skull. Images of bearyenas and tales of apes flashed in his thoughts. Heavy paw-steps moved closer...
"Kois!" His ears perked back up, and he poked his head out of his hiding place.
"What are you doing out here?" Kois was a looming shadow above Yuki and Anameis, blocking out the last traces of moonlight to reach the forest floor. Twigs snapped and leaves crunched under her paws as she bent down to sniff at them. "Anameis, too. I can tell you're here."
"Needed some fresh air," muttered Anameis. Her tail brushed back against Yuki's side, the long fur ticking his nose and whiskers.
"I will not comment," said Kois. "Come on. It's time to go back."
Yuki pulled himself free, stepping over Anameis' tail, whiskers trembling as he searched for Kois in the dark. "Where's Laana?"
He wanted to ask so many questions, but he could not find the words, and exhaustion took over again. He padded to Kois's side and fell against one of her massive paws, and his mouth opened in the widest yawn he could imagine. "C'mon Anameis..."
"I'm staying here," Anameis said. "I live here, remember?" she went on, before Yuki could protest. "I'll be fine."
Yuki closed his eyes and felt Kois lift him by the scruff to carry him away to the warm, welcoming scents of the tribe and their nests. His legs dangled in midair as she settled down, and then she laid him down between her forelegs, where he was always safe. As sleep claimed him once more, he snuggled into her thick ruff.
I'll still take you to the snow, was his last waking thought.
By the time Laana returned to the camp, while Yuki and Anameis were sharing their thoughts in the undergrowth, Kois had already told the tribe the truth about their journey. She emerged into a circle of snarls, and though Kois stood between her and their claws, she made no move to protect her from growls and words.
Few of them had known Reko, or understood what brought Laana to act as she had, but her fellow warrior Rara pushed Kois aside with a growl of "You're not the only one who misses her!"
Laana stumbled backwards, trying to speak, but all she could manage were sputtered, meaningless noises. Leaves scattered under her paws as she scrambled for purchase.
Kois kept a wary eye on them both, but Rara stalked closer. "Do you know what Reko was, Laana? Reko was honest. She did as she wanted, and not everyone liked it, but she was everything she said she was. You aren't fit to speak in her name!" She lunged, snapping a whisker's length from Laana's face. Not a miss, but a warning. Laana turned tail and vanished into the undergrowth, into the camp outskirts. Behind her, Kois mumbled a few words, and nobody followed.
Laana had held onto hope throughout the journey. Yuki's birth justified her manipulating the seas, so she told herself. In the days following the storm she had come close to speaking the truth, when only Kois remained and the rest of the tribe vanished in the waves. But when they were reunited, all unharmed, when Ki-Roku shared his rumours of high, cold lands - and Yuki spoke as though he had been there - she let herself believe the punishment was complete. She tried to ignore each subsequent warning, until Donnu lay before her with glazed eyes, and she knew they would not cease.
Her ears flattened, trying to shut out the debate behind her. She did not seek out Kois, not even a kindly tribemate who understood her reasons. She yearned for comfort, for familiar scents and gentle teeth and claws grooming her pelt, for purrs and stories and the warmth of the nest. But such desires were more selfish now than ever before. She deserved none of it.
Her whiskers twitched in the dark. Not far away, she could hear the tribe starting to settle back down. No matter how far she ripped their world from its roots, they were creatures of the daytime. Night brought danger bearing fang and claw, and so the tribe would gather together and sleep. No doubt they would decide what to do about her in the morning. Until then, she could do no more than accept the lessons of Doeli. What would be, would be.
She built a nest of her own from a spray of wide palmate leaves, each as long as her tail, that grew nearby, feeling them out and ripping them from their stems. She used to pride herself on weaving the softest nests, but in the dark she could only manage a crumpled leaf mat over the forest floor. But it kept away the damp, and she curled up upon it, the smell of fresh sap in her nostrils. There she waited, over a night longer than any other, for sleep to come.
When at last it did she dreamt of a tight unease in her stomach, and when her dream-self hunched over and opened her mouth, there spewed forth from within a great torrent of salt water. On and on she vomited the seas without respite, as though the entirety of the ocean forced its way up her throat, only to vanish in the world of dreams.
When at last she awoke, stiff and groggy in the first light of dawn, her gems were green.