Lightning flashed across the sky as a second, hard thud hit against the boat. River nearly fell out of the boat. He pulled in the oars and moved to the center of the boat. Rain poured down on them as the sky grew darker. The boat rocked back and forth by an unnatural force. Long hands with dagger like claws grabbed at the edges of the boat. Laughter filled the air between claps of thunder. River pulled Niko in close and watched the three sets of pale hands. Heads rose above the hands, stopping just high enough for Niko and River to see their eyes. Their hair was stringy and decorated with plants and stones. One had hair as red as blood, one as white as snow, and one had hair bluer than the deepest, clear sky. The red-haired and white-haired ones had blue eyes, and the blue-haired one had green eyes. All three had pale skin, but the shades were different. The red-haired one had pale pinkish skin, the white-haired one's skin was the color of ivory, and the blue-haired one had skin of a light blue-green shade. Patches of scales on their hands and face glittered when lightning illuminated the dark sky. The red-haired one rose higher out of the water, revealing her upper torso. She wore a necklace of shining stones, shells, and broken human tools, lined with teeth and bones from various creatures. Under her jewelry, she wore nothing else. Her arms had patches of scales as well, and small fins along the upper arm, but her chest had no scales and appeared to look no different than a woman of his own kind or a human woman. He noticed her stomach looked bigger than he expected from her upper body, but he couldn't see all of her stomach well. She reached into the boat to grab at Niko's clothes. "What do we have here?" Her voice was beautiful, almost enchanting. Niko was both terrified and entranced. He couldn't move away. The blue haired leaned in and grabbed at him too. She appeared to be carrying something off her shoulder, but he didn't really care what it was. Her claws left a hole in his clothes. She glanced over at River as she clawed at Niko. "Oh, he's a bit on the plain side. How sad. What about the girl?" The white-haired one snatched at his hair. "What a tall human girl. Is your father a giant?" "Don't be shy. We only want to see your face." The red-haired one said. "Show us your pretty face." The white-haired one yanked at his hair. He tried to pulled his hair out of her grasp, but she wrapped her long claws in his hair to keep hold of him. River broke one of the shells from his bag and threatened to cut them. His threat was matched with them showing him their claws and fangs and hissing at him like cats. To Niko's surprise, River hissed back at them. In a matter of seconds, the skin, hair, and eyes of all three shifted to a bright red. They raised their long tails out of the water and slapped the water's surface with their tail fins. Niko had never seen a mermaid before outside of in paintings. He thought their tails were much smaller than the ones he was seeing now. He was certain it would only take one of them to sink their boat. The red-haired one hissed. "We'll drown your lover, boy, if you don't let us see." The blue-haired and white-haired mermaids grabbed River's arms and attempted to pull him out of the boat. He fought back, but could not fully free himself. The red-haired one clawed at his back. Niko tried to help River free himself, but he could only make use of one arm, as he had to keep himself as covered as possible, and he could feel in their strength that he was weaker than them. They were stronger than human females, and given how much River was struggling, the average human male as well. "That's enough, my dears. You know you shouldn't be doing such stressful things when children are involved." A deep voice spoke from behind them. The mermaids immediately submerged underneath the water. River went back to Niko and held him close with one hand. He kept the broken shell out with his other hand. They both searched for the source of the voice. A fourth figure joined the mermaids in the water. His skin was a golden color, and his long hair even brighter. Amber eyes matched in color with his scales. His hair was decorated with jagged teeth used as beads. The fins on his arms were longer than the women, and lines with spines. The women's torsos were similar to the average woman, but the merman's upper body was bulky. His muscles were enough to make him threatening. The mermaids reemerged beside him, returning to their original colors. He motioned for them to stay while he swam over to the boat. River raised the broken shell at the merman. "A brave one you are to point a weapon at me, young man." The merman leaned over the side of the boat. "Lower your weapon. You know I can kill you both by myself. I have three women with me, and you are in our waters. What are you really going to do?" River would not lower the shell. "Still refusing? I should warn you. More than me, you should be afraid of her." The merman pointed to the red-haired mermaid. "Pregnant women are far more ferocious than any other of our kind, and she's nearly due to have the baby. You wouldn't want to cross her. She will rip you to pieces. What are you so desperate to hide? I'm here. I won't let them drown any pretty women in my presence, if that's what you're worried about." River and Niko both took another look at the red-haired mermaid. Her pregnant belly was very visible now. River lowered the shell and removed the cloth covering Niko's head. He pulled down some of Niko's hair over his shoulders and part of his face to conceal his more masculine facial features and make him appear more feminine by human standards. "Let's see what you look like, dear." The merman retracted his claws and cupped Niko's face with one hand. He brushed back Niko's hair with the other hand. Niko's heart pounded in his ears as he locked eyes with the dangerous creature. The merman put more pressure into his grip on Niko's face and smiled. "Oh, I see. That's why you've hidden his face." River raised his arm slightly, holding the broken shell out. "Did you really think you could trick me into thinking he was a woman? I know what he is, wingless though he may be." The merman looked at River as he spoke. He pushed Niko down into the boat. "Don't worry. I won't damage him further. His sad state is enough. A bird without wings is no threat to me. My loves, you are free to mock him. Don't do any killing though. Mana can't handle the stress right now." The red-haired one, Mana, swam over first and leaned over the side of the boat. She laughed at Niko and lifted up his cape to look for the scars on his back. "Avia, who clipped your wings? Your kind is ugly enough, and now you're unfit to belong anywhere." The white-haired one came up from the other side of the boat. "He's so lanky. My tail is wider than him." The blue-haired one swam over to the merman instead and tugged at his arm. Niko noticed what was draping over her shoulder was some sort of bag. "I'm hungry. Lorn, can't we eat him and the human?" The white-haired one swam over to the merman and clung to his other arm. "We haven't eaten in hours." "You had your chance to eat with the rest of the family, but you wanted to play by the boats. You can eat when we go home." Lorn said. "Rina, did you really bring Sara out with you? In the middle of a storm?" Mana swam over to the group after this. "Yes, she did. I told her not to. Sara's too young to leave the nursery." "You're one to talk, Mana. You're supposed to be staying near the home right now. The three of you cause me so much trouble." Lorn lectured them. It dawned on Niko what the bag must be for. River told him they carried their infants in some sort of bag. One of the mermaids, he reasoned, must have brought their child out with them. "Three? I haven't done anything, Lorn!" The white-haired one whined. "Ana, I told you this morning I wanted you near me to hunt, but you went off to play in the river. You're the only reason I'm over here right now, but all three of you aren't where you're supposed to be." Lorn continued his lecture, completely ignoring River and Niko. "I'm sorry, Lorn. I saw Mana and Rina going out to see humans and I wanted to play around with them. I didn't realize it was so late." Ana, the white-haired mermaid said. "That's really no excuse at all. We work together as a family, and I need everyone to follow the rules I put in place. You know what could happen if we're careless. The river may be forgiving, but the sea is not." Lorn said. Niko was perplexed by the dynamic between the mermaids and the merman. Lorn was more like their leader than a husband, managing a small village. He was curious about what their world may be like. Without thinking, Niko interrupted them and asked Lorn. "All these women...they are your wives, right?" Lorn looked over at Niko. "Oh, yes. I have seventeen wives." "Seventeen? You must have many children." Niko couldn't imagine being tied to that many people in such a way. The idea of human monogamy and being tied to one partner was still very strange to him. Polygyny was even stranger. "I have thirty-five children. Thirty-three girls and two boys, with another little girl on the way soon to make thirty-six." Lorn sounded proud in giving Niko that number. "So, what I heard is true, then. Most of your kind are female and yet the males are in charge." Niko said. "The rarer something is, the more important it becomes to that society. That's all it really is." Lorn said. He swam over to the side of the boat. The mermaids looked at one another and then swam up behind Lorn. "It must be easy to find wives then, if there are few men at all, right?" Niko asked. "The women are still very choosy. A man without space for his wives and future children is unworthy of having multiple wives, as is one with weak claws and small spines. Women want the best so their children will be safe. I am surprised, Avia, that you are asking questions about us. Are you not afraid?" Lorn asked. He kept his claws retracted and the spiny fins laid flat against his arms. "I...am...but I also find you...quite intriguing." Niko said with hesitation. He couldn't predict these people at all. "Really? Aside from one other, I've never had any creature from the land nor the sky say we were intriguing, much less ask us about our ways." Lorn pulled back Niko's cape. "You're quite intriguing yourself. What happened to your wings?" "I was exiled for a crime I didn't commit. Exile comes with the requirement of one's wings being severed from the body." Niko allowed the man's curiosity. He undid the cape and moved his hair aside to show Lorn his scars. The sleeveless shirt he was wearing revealed much of his back. "I heard from one of the humans here that you hate my kind, but I never heard of that when I lived in the sky. Did something happen between our kinds?" Lorn felt over the scars. "It was very long ago, and no one really remembers it well, but there is still hate on both sides. Where are you from that you haven't heard of that? You must have lived in a very isolated area." "I'm from the Sky Kingdom." Niko said. He watched River. River had relaxed more since Lorn came. He sat across from Niko now and was busy dumping water out of the boat. The broken shell was still close beside him. "Oh, that explains it. I've rarely heard of anyone from there bothering to come down below for anything." Lorn handed Niko his cape back. He held up Niko's arm to compare. By comparing their three species, Niko was the lightest, River was in the middle, and Lorn was the heaviest. He didn't catch it before, but Lorn was rather sluggish outside of the water. "You're lighter than kelp and sand." "I'm not quite that light." Niko said. "You, human, you haven't said much. Are you still angry over my wives' threats? Don't be petty. That's in the past." Lorn said to River. 'In the past? It just happened!' Niko wanted to say that, but he kept those thoughts to himself. Niko quickly explained for River. "Ah, he cannot speak. He is mute. He lost his voice because of something that happened in the past. It's not that he's trying to be rude to you." "Oh, so you're both broken. Well, I suppose between the two of you, you can manage as one." Lorn smiled kindly at River. "Don't hold it against my wives for their whims. That is our way. We are capricious in nature, and can be no other way." River nodded and poured more water out of the boat. Lorn watched him for a moment. "What truly ails him?" "What do you mean?" Niko asked. "My kind doesn't like answering the obvious." Lorn spoke more quietly. "That can be healed." "What?" Niko asked. Lorn changed the subject. "Your kind, you are even between male and female, yet women exclusively rule. I find that quite strange. With humans, it is the same, but the men typically rule. With such ratios, one would think it would be equal between both sexes." "I don't really know how that came to be in either. There isn't an obvious answer like with your kind, as far as I know. But, well, I am no scholar." Niko never thought about it before. He thought it strange that humans were patriarchal, but he never questioned before why his kind were matriarchal. It was all he knew, and he always presumed how he lived was the right way. It was the rest of the world that was wrong. In speaking to Lorn, he realized how artificial every "rule" he knew was. There likely was no deep reason, and either way could function just as well or just as poorly as one another. The world was moved by a select few in any place, and the character of those individuals were what mattered most. There was no reason he couldn't manage as the head of a family the way Lorn did, and he suspected one of Lorn's wives, with the right personality, could do the same job as her husband. It was all arbitrary. He started to question a number of things. Why did he really need to wear white and gold as an adult man? Why did men hide their wings while the women flaunted theirs? Did he really enjoy having a new partner every night? Did he really hate the idea of marriage? Or did he feel that simply because he was told to? Niko caught a glimpse of himself in the river's reflection. It was distorted and unfamiliar. In the time he spent down below, he'd managed to get used to sleeping beside someone when he was taught to fear that. He actually found it quite comforting to sleep beside River. Human food didn't disgust him as much, and he was learning to hold his tongue. The power he felt looking down at the world disappeared entirely. He knew now how weak he truly was. "Are you alright?" Lorn asked. "Ah, I'm fine." Niko's mind was scattered. He sensed that these changes were already underway a while ago, but he'd pushed those thoughts to the farthest point in his mind. He wanted to stay as he was, because to not, like his missing wings, served as proof that he would never belong anywhere in his home again. Sensing Niko's distress, Lorn changed the topic once again. "Would you like to see my new daughters? They're such precious, little things." "Daughters? Oh, yes." Niko blinked and answered without really thinking about what he was saying. "Mana, Rina, come here." Lorn said. Mana and Rina swam over, followed by Ana a few feet behind them. They swam up to Lorn, staying close to their husband. Lorn had Rina come over first. He took the purse off of her shoulder and opened it wide for Niko and River to look inside. Within the purse was a little mermaid sleeping, shining a beautiful golden color like her father. She wore a single necklace with a clam shell on the end of it. Lorn scooped the little girl out and held her up. "Isn't she beautiful? This is Sara." "She is very beautiful. How old is she?" Niko asked. "She's six months old." Lorn placed her inside the purse and handed her back to her mother. Rina slipped the bag's strap over her shoulder and lowered the bag back into the water. "And my other daughter, soon to come into the world. Mana, come here and show him your belly." Lorn said. Mana swam along the boat on her side to show her stomach. Within a few seconds, all the color in her drained away and her body became almost entirely see-through. Niko and River both leaned over the boat to get a better look. Niko could see through her tissue and organs. All that didn't become transparent was the blood inside her, her bones, her scales, and the baby in her belly. The scales took on a new look, glowing and flashing in a series of bright blue, red, and green. The baby in her womb had red hair, pink skin, and an orange colored tail. Niko was awestruck at the display. "I can...I can see her...how...how do you do this?" "We all can. It is our way. We use it for disguise and to communicate with one another." Lorn performed the same color shift for them. His scales flashes red, black, and gold. After a minute, he changed back to his true colors, as did Mana. "Amazing..." Niko saw something similar in that display. Most of those who lived in the Sky Kingdom lost this trait long ago, but Avia could use their wings for camouflage purposes. He couldn't do it, but Iris and his mother could. Most Avia outside their kingdom could. "Why is it the baby isn't see-through?" "Oh, she doesn't know how to do that yet. She'll learn to do that when she's around a year old." Lorn said. "May I touch?" Niko asked. Mana hid her stomach away. "Lorn..." "It's fine, dear. He has no claws nor strength like ours. As he is now, he's harmless." Lorn reassured her. "It's alright. If you don't want me to, I want. I mean you no harm." Niko said. Mana looked over at Lorn again for reassurance. He nodded at her. Mana made herself see-through again. The little one inside her moved a little. Niko was amazed at being able to see the unborn child move. Niko reached over the side of the boat to touch her stomach. River did too. Niko caught him smiling at the child. "Thank you. I won't forget this." Niko said. Mana returned to her true appearance. "You shouldn't, Avia. Few outside of us are lucky enough to see such a thing." "I am most grateful," Niko said. "You said she will be born soon?" "Yes, in a week or two." Lorn answered him. "Can they swim right after they're born?" Niko asked. "Actually, no, not very well. We have to carry them with us for a while as they build up strength for that. They swim well after about a year." Lorn pointed to Rina's purse. "That's why Sara's with her mother like that." The rain picked up. Several streaks of lightning shot across the sky, and the wind blew so hard it took with it the cloth Niko had used to cover his head with and some of the decorations in the mermaids' hair. The mermaids lowered themselves further underwater. Ana grabbed Lorn's arm. "Lorn...It's getting bad." "Oh my...what a storm. You should get to where you're going as soon as you can." Lorn looked up at the sky. "We're trying...I don't suppose you could help us a little longer, could you?" Niko laughed nervously. The water was moving the boat around in a way that terrified him. River's tense expression didn't give him any comfort. "Help an Avia and a human in this weather? What an idea." Lorn put his hands firmly on the boat. "Well, I am in quite a good mood. I suppose we could." "Lorn, really?" Rina asked. "They're harmless." Lorn said. "I'm hungry." Ana complained again. "I'll kill you something to eat when we get back, but you can go hunt on your own if you're that hungry." Lorn suggested to her. "Lorn! I can't go by myself. You know it's not safe outside of the group..." She nuzzled against him. "Then you must wait. Unless Rina or Mana wish to go with you..." "I want to stay by you, dear. Let Ana get eaten so I can take her things." Mana put her hands on the boat with her husband. "Rina, you'll come, right?" Ana turned to Rina. Rina smirked at her and put her hands on the boat. "Lorn, can I have Ana's necklaces if she dies?" "Of course. Whatever you like, dear." Lorn laughed. "You're all so mean." Ana was angry, but she too put her hands on the boat. River opened his bag. He offered Ana a piece of dried meat. Ana's eyes widened. "For me?" Ana took the food and gobbled it right down. She pulled herself up partially over the side of the boat and gave River a passionate kiss. "For that, I owe you." Lorn's mood changed. He spoke with a serious tone. "You gave him a kiss. That's enough." "Dearest, don't be jealous. He's merely a human. He means nothing to me." Ana removed one of her necklaces. The necklace was made of pearls, smooth pebbles, and a clam shell on the end. She handed the necklace to River. "You may have this in exchange. Inside this shell is something magical." "What is it?" Niko asked. "Swallow what's inside, and you can be anywhere." She said. "What does that mean?" Niko raised an eyebrow. "That's not for you to know." Ana said. "Why can't I know?" Niko asked. "Because it's not for you. Don't be nosy." Ana turned her nose up at him. "I don't understand you." He said. "Of course you don't." Ana wouldn't look at him. She reached over and tugged at River's shirt. "You're quite handsome, for a human. It's a shame you're going away." "Ana..." Lorn was not pleased. "What are you going to do about it? Maybe I'm not pleased with how you contain me, and you don't feed me enough." Ana smirked at Lorn. Lorn didn't play her game. "I suppose, if that's how you feel, you can find another man. I have plenty to care for, and we don't have any children together. I wish you luck in your search." "What?! Lorn, you can't leave me alone like that!" Ana's tone completely shifted. She let go of the boat and clung to Lorn again. "I was only playing with you. You're the only one for me." "You're a naughty girl." Lorn leaned over and whispered something into her ear. Niko couldn't hear what he said, but by Ana's reaction, he could guess. River turned away from them all, his face a deep red. Niko laughed. The storm over them intensified. To hide his fears, Niko asked more questions. "Is it true all three of our kind can interbreed? I have heard of humans with my kind, and humans with your kind, but I'm not sure about whether your kind and my kind can have children together." "What are you after, Avia? You think you can seduce me. You're too feminine for me." Ana laughed at him. "Heh. She likes you." Lorn teased her. "I do not!" Ana yelled. "If you say so, dear." Lorn patted her on the head. He turned to Niko. "I have heard of it happening, very rarely. The children born were very disfigured. They were born with the bones for their wings, but none of the feathers and their tails were weak. They died within a few years." "That's awful. I didn't know that...I knew in the other combinations, there were physical issues, but I thought they could still live to normal ages." Niko said. He tried to picture what Lorn described to him. The image his mind conjured horrified him. "They can. It's only between our kinds where they cannot, but even those children in the other situations don't live full lives. They are infertile and may also be somewhat disfigured." Lorn said. Something dawned on Niko. He looked over at the mermaids and Lorn. Between River and himself, with the exception of wings, they were born with no major outward differences. There was a very big difference between them and his kind, and all of it was below the waist. He wasn't sure how to ask. He fumbled through his words. "I don't mean to be rude...but with your lower half looking as it does...how do you...?" "The same way you do. How else could we breed?" Lorn laughed off the question. "Curious, Avia? You've been talking to me a lot. Afraid I'm not interesting in playing around with men." "Haha, you misunderstand me. I was merely curious. So, it is the same." Niko looked over at Lorn again. "But where is your...?" "In here." Lorn showed him a part of his tail a little below his waist. He pointed to a vertical slit. "You don't have yours on display all the time either." 'Inside? Is it only visible when in use?' He wondered too if it looked identical to his own, the way River looked the same as him, or if Lorn's anatomy was even further off. It had to be similar enough since children were produced, but his mind was running wild with strange possibilities that the idea of having sex with any of their kind was completely unappealing. "Huh...So, with the women, I assume it's the same." "Yes. Out here, it's better this way. For us, we turn to face each other and align our bodies." Lorn momentarily took hold of Ana and put her in position to show Niko. Ana's body turned from white to orange. Two spots on her collection of necklaces poked out a little more than before. The other two mermaids laughed. Mana said, "Look at her. Getting that worked up over it." "Uh, should I be looking at this?" Niko laughed along with them. "Of course. I'm only holding her." Lorn kissed Ana and let go of her. "I'll take care of you later, dear." River's face was so bright he nearly matched with Mana's hair. "Uh, thank you for that...demonstration. I don't think I'll be forgetting that any time soon either." Niko thought to himself, 'Yes, that's definitely one curiosity I am not interested in pursuing any further.' "You're quite welcome." Lorn said, still laughing. Ana put her hands back on the boat, swimming mostly underneath Lorn. She looked at him differently than earlier. The distinct look of longing was universal between their three kinds, Niko realized. He thought about what Lorn said earlier. 'Seventeen? I can't imagine.' Niko did have one question left to ask. "You mentioned there was one other who asked you questions. Who was that?" "Actually, he was an Avia too, also traveling with a human. He helped three of my other wives deal with a little problem on the river. I doubt you'd know him. He came from even farther than you." Lorn said. 'Another Avia?'. Niko had to know more. "What was his name?" "Ahote. He was a scholar who lost his way, traveling with a human who owed him a favor. The human's name...I believe it was Axolin, but he went by Lin." Lorn splashed his big tail to push the boat faster. His tail fin was even bigger than the women's. His wives copied him to help. "I can't tell you much more about them than that. I only spoke with them for a little while." "I'm afraid you're right. I don't recognize that name. That doesn't even sound like a name anyone in my kingdom would use." Niko said. He hoped that the name would sound familiar. Hearing about anyone from his home surviving down here would make him feel a little less alone. Instead, he felt lonelier than ever. "I told you. He was from much farther away than you. He was a bright man. I'm not surprised he was a scholar. The other man, I think he was more lost than the Avia. A human would have to be to travel with one of you." Lorn said. "That's a little rude." Niko came to River's defense without a second thought. River perked up a little at that. "You're traveling farther than here, correct?" Lorn asked. "Yes." "I'll ensure you get there. The water is dangerous at times like these." Lorn kept pushing them forward. "Why would you do that for me?" Niko asked. "You're interesting. That's reason enough." Lorn said. They talked together for another half hour until River got Niko's attention. He pointed to the banks before a great forest. "Is this it?" Niko asked River. River nodded. "Lorn, Rina, Mana, Ana...thank you for helping us. This is where we must part ways." Niko said. Lorn looked over at where River pointed to. The women swam up against him. Lorn kept his gaze on the trees. "This is really where you want to stop?" "Yes." Niko said. "You know what this place is, do you not?" Lorn asked. "I am aware." Niko said. "We have to go through here. It's the quickest way." "Can you not spare any time at all?" Lorn asked him. Niko sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, I cannot." "Then, that is how it must be." Lorn removed the single necklace around his own neck. It contained a clam shell at the end of it, the same as the one Ana gave River. Along the rest of the string were jagged teeth and pieces of gold. Lorn opened the shell to reveal a small pearl. "I have my own gift for you. That man won't need it, but you will. When your mind cannot take any more, swallow this." "This is a pearl. How is that supposed to help me?" Niko looked at the tiny sphere. "It is not what it appears to be. Trust me. I've never been far on land myself, but I know the dangers of what lies ahead of you is similar to a place we call the Graveyard. It's a horrid place of illusions that draws you in and seeks to take your mind for itself. Swallow it only when you absolutely cannot take any more. This will free you, but only briefly. You'll have an hour of clarity, at best." Lorn closed the shell and put it firmly in Niko's hand. Niko put the necklace around his neck. The gold and white went well with his clothes. "Thank you, but why are you doing this for me?" "You were quite entertaining, and I feel like I own your kind a favor. I can never directly repay that Avia who helped my wives that day, but perhaps, by helping you, I can at least continue his favor to my kind." Lorn said. "I am grateful for your help. Thank you." Niko opened up the shell and looked inside at the pearl. It looked so ordinary he didn't see how it could do anything useful. "Are you sure River won't need this?" "No. There is no illusion that can be cast upon him that he has not already faced within his own mind. He'll get through easier than anyone. You, even if you survive through this, you won't come out the same as you are now." Lorn warned him. "What do you mean?" Niko asked. "You will see things you cannot unsee, especially if you continue on straight through the forest. That is what you intend to do, isn't it?" Niko closed the shell. "Yes." "Do not use this in the forest at all then. Only use it once you're on the other side." Lorn told him. He lowered himself mostly into the water. "I've never heard of anyone making it through there. If I were you, I would reconsider." Niko stared at the forest. "I can't. I must do this." "Best of luck to you, Avia. Oh, I never got your name." Lorn said. "My name is Niko, and this is River. Thank you all, for everything. Safe travels on your way home." Niko waved goodbye to them. "Farewell." Lorn and his wives waved back. Lorn turned away. "Come on. It's time for us to head home." Niko watched them swim away. When they were out of sight, he turned around and faced the forest. The trees were so tall, he couldn't touch a single limb and the trunks were so large around, if he and River tried to reach around using both their arm lengths, they wouldn't be able to encompass half of one. Inside, he couldn't see anything but shadows. It was darker than any night he knew. The night offered starlight and the moon. What was before him was absolute darkness, and there was not a single sound within. The trees were so thick that no rain came through either. Niko turned to River for help. River stepped slightly into the woods and pulled out something from his bag. He lit up two thick sticks he found on the ground and handed one to Niko. Niko stepped forward to get out of the rain. He took the torch. It offered him little visibility beyond a foot or so in front of him. The storm grew heavier outside the woods, flooding over into the forest. Niko's golden sandals were covered in mud. Though the air outside was thick with heat, the forest sucked away all warmth. He shivered in his drenched clothes. "Night Forest, and then the Abandoned Lands to the Valley of Rain. Then, finally, the Great Mountain and the Sky Kingdom above it. There's still so much left to go, and I have no time." Niko wanted to give up. He was still so far away. By the time he'd reach home, months would have passed. He had nowhere to go either. The Sky Kingdom was his home. River held his hand and gave him a look asking if Niko was ready to move forward. "I...I don't think I can do this..." Niko's hand shook uncontrollably. River held his hand tighter. "I'm sorry. I can't go on. It's too much." Niko slipped from River's grasp and fell to his knees, shivering. He accidentally dropped the torch. The incoming water put it out quickly, and darkness surrounded him once again. The only light before him was River's torch. The shadows it cast on River's face made it impossible for him to discern what expression River was really making at him. River remained as silent as ever, fitting in well with the stillness of the forest. River knelt before Niko, keeping the torch between them. He pulled their blanket from his bag and threw it over Niko. Niko grabbed the edges of the blanket and wrapped himself more in it. The flowing water drenched the bottom of the blanket as it did with their shoes and pants. The mud felt disgusting on his skin. He hated everything about the sensation. River remained unfazed. With gentle grace, River took Niko's hand and kissed it. He slowly looked up at Niko and offered him the torch to carry. Niko's heart beat louder in his ears than when he was on the river. Everything in him was telling him to give up and hide in despair. He reached out and took the torch. Slowly, he stood up. "You don't have to do this with me." Niko said. "There's no turning back from here." River smiled at him and took his hand again. His body was mostly obscured by darkness. Niko held tight to his hand and stepped forward. Lorn told him, if he made it through, he wouldn't be the same as he was. He already knew he was changing with every step he took. Whoever waited for him on the other side, he wasn't ready to meet yet, but he hoped he would be when that day came. The small flame was all they had as a guide through the vast darkness around them. He wasn't sure it was enough, but he trusted River wouldn't allow him to be lost.
Darkness | TOC