The rainforest had a smell, and it was of moist leaves and tree bark and the mysteriously stony scent of water. The air felt thick as if the scents themselves made it into a thick but invisible soup. As Eiriol the jackalope hopped from one rock to another she instinctively half-spread her gliding wings - her patagia - and detected the humidity in the stretch of the skin.
She came to a stop on a particularly flat stone and looked about. She was naturally a very alert fur and thoroughly used to exploration in the various wildernesses of the planet, so just for a moment she trusted her certainty that there were no predators around. She closed her eyes and listened to her surroundings.
The whistles of exotic birds became more noticeable. A high-pitched and plaintive one here. A more raucous one there. One sounded like it was made by a tiny but courageous bird, unafraid to announce where it was despite its vulnerability. And all of these were only the most noticeable calls against a complex cacophony of cheeps, caws and whistles.
She opened her eyes again and checked her environment once more. There wasn't anything visible that hadn't been there before but nevertheless she walked on, hopping on the rocks when she could (it was more silent that way and less likely that she'd attract the attention of any local feral tigers), and striding confidently on the carpet of fallen leaves when the rocks ran out.
Rumour had it that a golden statue of Ganesha resided deep in the forest, and that the cavern in which it stood was almost more glorious than the statue itself. That was all the information that Eiriol had been able to find - there were no other details to be found about the supposed glory of the cavern. So she'd gone to find it herself, to see it and ideally, to record it.
She was loosely following a tributary of the Ganges river, using it as a guide to take her in the right direction. As was her usual habit she kept a certain distance from the body of water but always kept it within sight so as not to lose it.
And then it had the bad manners to curl around in front of her.
"Damn it," muttered Eiriol to nofur but herself. She'd been wary of water since an accident in her childhood where she'd almost drowned in a lake frozen over with a sheet of ice. It had been terrifying, traumatic in fact, so although she'd been rescued and there was no risk of ice to get trapped under around here, still she felt haunted by an old fear that made little sense given the current context. Usually she kept a distance between herself and the water just out of habit, but now...
She had to cross it.
Eiriol looked up at the nearest tree. And then she eyed up the trees on the opposite bank. The distance was only around twenty-five meters, she could climb up and glide it, even with her backpack.
With one more resentful look at the flowing brown water, she grabbed a lumpy part of the nearest tree's bark and began the climb. Soon she found herself high enough and walked delicately out onto a branch. She paused, gauged the distance and felt the ambient temperature (she'd be taking advantage of some thermal buoyancy) - took an instinctive guess at the angle she'd have to keep her wings to, and ran as close to the end of the branch as she dared.
She opened her wings and leapt.
Eiriol glanced down at the water and felt her stomach lurch despite the stability of her wings. And then the thrill came. She may not have liked water but she loved a good stirring of her adrenal glands. And gliding over the water gave her a buzz that made her want to sing. But instead, she simply took a deep breath and enjoyed the breeze in her fringe and floppy ears.
Something reared out of the water in her peripheral vision and she snapped her head to the right to see it. But all she saw was a swirl of dirty water filling the gap where somefur - or something - had been a moment before.
"Land creature! Land creature!"
Eiriol looked to her left and saw something with absurdly long jaws and vicious teeth. It reared down into the water before she could focus on it any better.
There were lots of them! "Hello?" she called back.
"I can't! I have to get to the shore," she said at the same time as one part of her brain said, We have to find out what they want! We'll be wondering for the rest of our lives if we don't stop. and another part of her brain screamed, Don't let yourself get distracted! There's water down there! Keep gliding!
Oh, and a third part of her brain pointed out, Did they even hear you? They're only above water for a second.
"Stop! Land creature! Stop!"
"Yes!" she shouted back irritably, wobbling on her wings slightly. "Just give me a second, I have to get to land first." The tree on the other side was close now but she wasn't sure whether to still aim for that or glide down to the ground instead. Her wings decided to do both, so instead of course she did neither.
"Wait! Wait! Talk!"
She dipped below the line of the branch and hurtled towards the trunk. She gasped with alarm as her body instinctively manoeuvred itself to land on the vertical trunk as her brain frantically shouted a warning about the extra weight of her backpack and gripping extra-hard to compensate but not to grip too hard in case the bark came off in her paws and then she landed on the trunk.
She refocussed her attention on what she could see (for a moment there she'd been all proprioception), hugged the trunk for dear life for a moment and then, when she was sure she wasn't going to rip the bark off, slid bit by bit down to the ground.
She walked to the river bank, her body still buzzing from the chaotic landing. "Right," she said with more confidence than she felt, and knelt down. "What did you say you wanted?"
Three sets of needle-like jaws set into long and delicate snouts broke free of the murky brown water. Sage-green heads with tiny, pin-hole eyes bent towards her and short little pectoral fins stabilized the ferals.
Eri knew these creatures. Ganges river dolphins! "What is it?" she asked, desperately curious now.
"Snakes. Disappearing," said one.
Eiriol tilted her head in confusion. "Where to?"
"Dust. Disappear," asserted another.
"Echolocate at snake. Snake disappear. Dust," agreed the third. "No more snake."
The jackalope fell quiet for a moment to let this sink in. "Oh," was all she could think to say, although her brain tutted at her for not saying anything more intelligent. And what response are they expecting? I can't just say 'oh' and leave it at that! "So... what effect is this having?"
"Fish!" cried out the first. Eiriol didn't speak to dolphins very often but she thought this sounded like something of a lament.
"Fish! Fish!" echoed the other two and dipped their snouts into the water before rearing back up.
Eiriol tried to figure out what to make of this display. "You look upset. What's happening to the fish?"
"No fish! Eat fish, fish gone. No more fish."
Well, that seemed obvious. If you ate something then it was no longer visible outside of you. This had to be about something more sinister - they wouldn't have stopped her to talk otherwise. "You mean the fish are disappearing?"
"Yes! Yes!" More distraught splashing.
Eiriol pinched her lip as she tried to think about what this meant. "So are they not breeding?"
One of the dolphins blasted from its blowhole. "And plant! No plant."
The other two dolphins went relatively quiet and tilted their heads as if listening to their companion.
"What?" she asked it.
It righted itself in the water. In its own facially unexpressive way she felt sure it was focussing, being intent on her, pushing its point home.
"Plant in river before. Now plant thin. Plant die. Like fish."
Was it Eiriol's imagination or were the other two dolphins frozen in horror? One of them ducked under and then the other followed it. A few seconds later they resurfaced thrashing, crying and waving their snouts around.
"Oh guys," she said, unsure what else to say to comfort a pod of distraught dolphins. The greed and idiocy of anthros meant that pollution affected biodiversity even here. It was so sad, what could she say to these rare beings when her fellow anthros - even herself - had contributed to the problem? "But why are you telling me all of this?"
"Anthro. You have power. You make it better!"
Oh, hell. "Guys," she said patiently and lowered down so she was lying on her front and could look these poor dolphins in the eye, even if that was more for her benefit than theirs. At that moment she didn't care about getting mud down her front. "I know anthros have technology and expertise in a lot of things. But this is pollution. It's not something I can fix alone. And... I'm sorry," she said earnestly, running her hand through the water. It was muddy but could still have been pollution-free for all she'd known. Except... it wasn't. Pollution had affected life even here. "I'd love to put it right but I can't. If any one anthro could then they'd have done it a long time ago."
She wasn't quite sure how to approach the subject, but their insistence that the snakes were turning into dust was surely a fabrication. They were just dying. That had to be it.
The two dolphins who'd gone quiet before fell silent again but the third splashed defiantly. "No! This not anthro poison! Help!"
Eiriol felt as if she'd been slapped. Just occasionally a feral would call pollution poison. It was an aggressive choice of word, often spat with anger, hissed or growled. Its use was challenging, confrontational. A symbol of feral resentment about what was so often done to their environment and to themselves.
She recovered herself, although her heart continued to beat fast from nerves. The last thing she wanted to do was argue with a local, feral or not. "Well, if it's not anthro poison, what can it be? Do you have any idea?"
The dolphin went quiet and dipped its snout.
"Do you not know," she prompted, "or don't you want to say?"
"Don't know. Snake disappear. Not see this before."
Snake disappear. It sounded unscientific, impossible. Either these dolphins were imagining the local snakes turning to dust (or making it up), or something very strange was happening. And ferals were not known for their strong imaginations or for fibbing. She had to get to the bottom of this. In a moment Eiriol decided to do her best to see it for herself. The jackalope leaned on one elbow and dug her fingers into her fringe as she tried to think how to solve this puzzle. "Is this just happening in the water or on land too?" They might not know but she figured it was worth asking.
"And the snakes are the only creatures you've actually seen disappear before your eyes? Echolocation," she corrected herself. "And everything else just seems to be reducing in numbers?"
"Yes." The dolphin seemed to have calmed down now although its pectoral fins still looked tense.
This was clearly something she needed to observe herself. "Can you take me to where there are some snakes?"
The dolphin sank down into the water and began to swim upstream. "Follow. Susu know where to find."
The Susu led her to a place where the river cut into the land a little, where the water became shallow and they could only swim with difficulty among the tree roots.
"Here." said the leader, swishing in a graceful circle in the water and apparently trying to avoid stirring up debris. "Watch for snake."
Eiriol found a relatively safe-looking tree trunk and sat down on it. "Okay."
Ferals often were not strong conversationalists and Eiriol had discovered on their fifteen minute trip that the Susu were no exception. So as it became clear they all had to wait, she decided to eat her lunch. The mangrove smelled pretty bad but maybe that was no bad thing - she'd just eat slow. Heck, it'd pass the time until a snake showed up.
Which happened almost immediately. "Look!" said one of the lead Susu's companions, turning its snout as close to vertical as it could manage. "Snake!"
She squinted into the dappled shadows. Sure enough, a mossy green snake lay across a branch, curled up into a coil. It had spotted Eiriol but was a long way out of striking range - if it was even a danger in the first place.
"Uh-huh, I can see it."
The lead Susu swam on its side in a semi-circle around the edge of the mangrove. "Snake," it said almost casually and pointed its snout at another branch.
"Yup," she answered, swallowing a mouthful of sandwich. "I see."
She took the initiative at this point and looked around for more. She spotted two more snakes which she pointed out to the dolphins. Once she was sure there were no more to be seen she simply waited. Waited in the smelly humidity and cloying heat, grateful that she at least didn't have to sit out in the open sunshine but wishing for a breeze.
And then one of them hissed with alarm and collapsed. Literally, collapsed into dust. Eiriol watched, her jaw hanging, as its remains drifted down to the surface of the water and floated there, slowly dispersing.
"Oh... Hell." She looked wide-eyed at the lead dolphin. "Susu, it disappeared!"
It rolled in the water as if in agreement. "All snake disappear soon."
And lead to how many extinctions? This was a disaster - it had to be stopped! "Yeah. We've got to do something about this."
Eiriol'd had an idea at that point. Since something apparently unnatural was already happening it seemed to make sense. She pulled out her travel guide and looked for references to wildlife folklore and in particular, snakes.
Snakes are a symbol of fertility and are therefore seen as welcome in the waterways of India. Due to the shedding of their skin they have come to symbolize fertility and the constant cycle of life. They are considered to be half-divine, half-demonic, and protectors of all the earthly treasures.
"Hey Susu," she said, "what do you think of this?" She read the dolphins the passage.
"Snake make life," the leader agreed, splashing itself languidly with one fin.
"Make the water live. Make plant live," gurgled one of its companions.
"Make fish live," said the third.
"Without snake," the leader continued, "All life die."
Had these guys never heard of sexual reproduction? And yet, everything they and the guide book were saying fit together. What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Eri? she asked herself.
TO BE CONTINUED...