Chapter 9: ...In A Storm
"It's really gone," said Iskome. "That means..."
The new island was now on the horizon, and no longer a faint smudge on a clear day. There was still a long way to go, but now the explorers could see green shores ahead. Some of them stretched their necks out, trying to get a closer look despite the distance. Knowing that Yuki might have trouble seeing, Kois raised a paw to indicate the direction. "Do you see?" she said.
"It looks like a... green hazy thing?" Yuki tilted his head. He was sitting between Kois' forelegs, where he could quickly warm up from her body heat.
"It looks like that to me, too." Even with good eyes, there was little to see. "There'll be more soon."
"Green?" said Tanu. "I thought snow was supposed to be white?"
"Yes, well..." Laana pawed at the sand. "There was no other way to leave, and... and..."
"Snow is often found on high ground," said Kois, recalling stories of grassy slopes, deep green conifers, and barren peaks. "If there are mountains inland, they will have snow."
"Oh yes!" Laana said, sitting bolt upright. "Of course! Well then, all we have to do is keep swimming!"
A mumble of discontent arose from the explorers, even though everyone knew that there was nothing else they could do. All of them had started the day in high spirits, but as the day wore on the reality of crossing the sea, even with points to rest, had made its presence felt. Many of them sat with hunched postures and lowered ears, never quite able to dry themselves off; even the sun had started to vanish in an increasingly cloudy sky, as if mimicking their motivation. With their pelts clinging wetly to their bodies, they took on a skinny and underfed look. Even Kois felt herself flagging. But worse than the soreness and the cold, there was no food or water. Even the scraggly grasses that grew on the first few islands had dwindled, and now they found themselves hauling out onto lifeless sandy rises. They had known this would be the way of things, but all of them had come from a meadow tribe used to abundance, and none had gone so long without as much as a drink. Kois found herself looking at the shimmering waves and using all her resolve to merely stay in place and not plunge her muzzle into what looked like so much fresh, cool water all around.
Even the sea had changed. The gulfs between islands were no longer shallow turquoise waters, but deep, near black abysses opening into the underworld. And yet again and again, the explorers returned to the undrinkable water, straining to reach the next waypoint.
Kois looked up. The sun was behind a cloud again, and they were growing thicker and darker with every passing moment. As she watched, a raindrop fell and hit her on the nose. It was no isolated incident; the clouds had started to run across the sky like rabbils, and more droplets began to fall, scattering into the sea.
"You predicted rain a few days ago, didn't you?" said Kois.
"Yes, plenty," said Laana, "but we shouldn't-"
"If it gets bad, we have to make a choice."
"A choice of what?" snapped Tanu. "We're in the middle of the ocean!"
"Can we sit and wait it out?" said Iskome.
"I don't think so," Kois dragged her claws through the sand, which was now pitted with damp spots where the rain had fallen. "We need to move."
"We can't go back," said Laana. "It's too far, and this is too important for you! You waited all your life for this! And what if it's just rain?"
"She's right," said a small voice by Kois' feet. Yuki was pressed close to her stomach, trying to borrow as much warmth as he could.
And she wanted to listen to Yuki of all creatures, the one she had been told would lead her to the new lands, the one whose guidance she should trust the most, but was he a god, or a cub? But he pulled away from her and stepped out into the shallows, the ruff around his neck raised and his tail fluffed out to twice its normal size, and for a moment she could see in her mind the nicheling he would become.
"I'm going!" he said. "It's not far, and we came all this way!" And the consensus among the explorers was the same. Rain or no rain, they had to keep going. Perhaps it would give them a little fresh water at last, perhaps it would be light or short lived, even though the clouds grew rapidly darker above. So once more, they returned to the sea.
But the rain did not subside. It fell harder and faster, and the drops stung as they hit. Kois wanted to dive just to get away from them for a moment or two before she had to breathe, but the next island was nearly lost in a grey haze of rain and she could not afford to lose sight of it. She forced her way through the water as the waves became rougher and she felt herself thrown up and down. "Keep going!" she could hear Laana shout over the rising wind. "Keep swimming and follow me!" She was no longer by Kois' side but swimming ahead, letting her white coat serve as a beacon for those trailing behind.
Kois might never have found the next island without her guidance, as it was no more than a sandbank that hardly broke the surface, washed over by waves that forced the smaller of the explorers to dig their claws in lest they be swept away. Had it always been like this, or had the rain and waves worn down the sands as they swam? No, she could not call it rain any more. This was a full blown storm screaming through the sky, heedless of anything as small and insignificant as a group of nichelings huddled together on an island's last remains.
Kois tried licking the water from her coat, hoping that by sitting in the rain at least some of it would be fresh, but it was scant comfort. If the explorers had looked tired before, now they were downright miserable. The twins, who were the youngest, cried out while Iskome and Kirro tried to shelter them from the waves, and Tanu for once had nothing to say, sitting in a crouch with the sort of foul expression that told the world he had finally run out of complaints. And at Kois' feet there was Yuki again, both his paws wrapped tight around one of hers.
"We-" Kois began, but she was cut off. The sea withdrew, leaving them standing on bare sand for a moment, and then returned in the form of a wave as tall as Kois herself. It smashed into them and washed over their bodies in an instant of cold and chaos. Without thinking Kois snatched up Yuki in her jaws, holding him fast as the water receded, and dug her claws into the sand even though she could feel it being washed away under her paws. Only when the water was gone did she allow herself to let go and make a quick headcount. They were all still there, but one more wave like that and there'd be no sandbank left. "We can't stay! Back in the water!"
Was it the right choice? She was no seafarer, but they were all looking at her. It was her journey. Her day. And she had Yuki's blessing, Yuki's guidance. But when she looked down at her feet, she could not see the strong, proud deity who ruled the snows and made the nests bountiful with cubs that she had always imagined, but the frightened and cold one-gem that he was, huddled against her because he had never even had the chance to know a real mother. She licked him with rough strokes of her broad tongue, hoping the clumsy gesture would bring him at least some comfort.
"Yes, yes, back in!" Laana shouted. "Yuki, stay with Meana and Tanu!"
Kois tried to move, but she felt something at her chest and looked down. There, she saw Yuki, balancing on his hind legs so he could reach up and touch his paw to her central gem. You don't need to do that, she thought. It's me who should be leading you. But though the sight was enough to leave a pain deep inside that manifested as a jolt of guilt in her stomach, she touched noses with him before they both jumped back into the water.
She didn't even know where the next island was, trusting to Laana to guide them all, but the far shore was closer now, even if the rain masked it - a wooded coastline stretching across the horizon. It wasn't so far. It wouldn't have seemed so far at the start of their journey. But not every stroke meant persuading her muscles to move again, and again, and again, yet the strength had ebbed from their core. She pushed on through nothing but willpower, silently composing a call to Nikisha, an ancestor of legend, in the hopes she might borrow her strength. Laana was still ahead of her, a small white shape pushing through choppy waters. The sea rolled up and down, yet Kois continued to follow.
She should have seen the wave. Her first warning came soon enough, just like it had on the sandbank. The sea fell away beneath her, as if it was taking a deep breath in advance of a terrible roar, and for a moment she found herself deep in a watery trough, trying to see where Laana had gone, trying to find the shore - it couldn't be far now, she couldn't lose it - and the wave caught her unawares, plunging her into grey water.
The world vanished. All the sounds of the storm - wind and waves and rain hammering the sea and her body - died away, and now they were silenced she felt herself drawn into some other world as she sank. There was no sunlight to strive for, no sky to frantically swim toward. All she could see above was a softly undulating grey canopy as the waves above swelled and crashed and ebbed, leaving a blurred and endlessly shifting pattern of steely half-light. Driven by the urge to breathe, Kois opened her mouth, and her last breath escaped in a great blossoming. She tried to beat her limbs, but all her movements felt slowed down, and they were nothing to the underworld's pull as she sank.
Dark shadows moved overhead, but her thoughts were slower than her body. She did not have the energy to panic any more than she had the energy to swim. It was quiet down here, and peaceful, and there was no need to struggle, because what use would it be?
Deep below her, the underworld opened up, and in its depths her fading eyesight saw motion and form. Shapes brought to life by unseen forces undulated and shifted, reaching up to guide her ever downward. As she fell, one of them resolved into the form of a nicheling, swimming upward to greet her. He reached out a paw of dark water, beckoning her closer...
Something brushed against her, but it was not the phantom nicheling but something solid and substantial, pushing her upward. Water swirled in flurries of motion as the creature paddled, straining against Kois' weight and returning her to the surface. A nicheling, a real, warm, living nicheling, with a white pelt and dark horns. Laana.
They broke the surface together and Laana gasped for air, but Kois felt herself unable to move, her throat and chest full of water, her vision faded and her limbs hanging useless by her sides. Laana pushed her further upward, struggling against Kois' greater weight now that she could no longer reply on the water's buoyancy but managing to prop the larger nicheling's head up and hold it out of the water. With her chin resting on Laana's back, Kois' chest heaved and she hurled up lungfuls of cold sea, until at last she took a breath and felt her limbs slowly released from their dead grip, her vision coming back into focus. She began to paddle and treat water, whilst Laana swum in circles, looking for something she could not find. With the air came thought and emotion, and with it a cold grip on Kois' chest as she realised how close she had been to death.
They had to get out of the water now, before another wave came, but Laana was still going around in circles and shouting things Kois could not make out over the wind and rain. Kois struck out again, the fear of the deep giving her one last strength reserve, and it was enough to snap Laana out of it and prompt her to follow. Kois had no idea where the last crossing might be, or if it was even there, but she could see the shore and for the first time she knew that this was the last leg, and soon she would touch the ground.
Laana swam ahead, stumbling out of the water and onto the sand. Kois watched her shake and sink into a sitting position, looking back over her shoulder at Kois' approach. The first Kois knew of the land was her claws striking sand churned up by waves and her frantic swimming. She let her paws come to rest on the sandy ground and walked the rest of the way as foamy waves buffeted her body and flung spray into the air to mingle with the rain. As the water receded she felt her body's full weight return, and she too managed only a few steps on legs that were too shaky to carry her any further up the beach before she sank to the ground, her chest heaving and the last of the waves washing around her.
Laana was calling her name, and the rain still fell hard on her body. She could see the white nicheling not so much walk as crawl over the sand to touch noses with her. "Kois," she said, though her voice was still hard to hear over the storm. "Kois, are you..."
Kois shifted, trying to sit up, but her legs had done all they could that day, and she flopped back onto the sand. A low growl began deep in her throat, as she scanned her surroundings. A small beach, its sands nearly white, led up to dense rainforest. She had never seen trees like this before, with their thin trunks and long fronds, that shook and whipped around in the wind. The growl rose, becoming louder, giving sound to her frustration. "This was supposed to be my day..." It was a stupid thing, but after all they had been through, after all the hopeful gatherings under a clear sky, it was the first thing she could say.
She hauled herself forward, managing to drag herself at least over the tide line. "Not hurt," she said. "Been swimming too long." On any other day the sand might have been softer here, but it was all pelted hard and flat by the rain. She didn't care. It was land, it was solid, and that was all that mattered. She could rest here with the others, and they would keep one another warm. "Where are they? Laana?"
Laana said nothing, and she didn't need to. The look on her face at Kois' question told her all she needed to know.