IV. Valley of Fire
The cave was dark near the entrance. Deeper in, glowing red stones illuminated the space within. A small fire burned near tattered blankets and several logs. A broom was propped up near one of the blankets. Niko noticed plenty of soot still on the ground. He backed up. "Uh, I think I should change clothes. Wearing pure white in here is asking for disaster. River, could I borrow those clothes again?" Niko stepped out of the cave. River nodded and handed him the extra set of clothes from his bag. The younger woman rolled her eyes. "Prissy thing. Who wears clothes like that to travel?" Niko ignored her words. He walked behind some shrubs to change. He wasn't concerned with modesty. He needed to make sure the women didn't see his scars. He kept his back turned away from the entrance. River stayed near the front of the cave to keep an eye on him. Though they were covered by trees, there were many dragons flying overhead. Niko hurried with changing and returned to River's side. As he went to walk inside the cave, the younger woman grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. He tried to free himself, but he could not. Though he was much taller than her and a man in his prime, his kind did not possess a fraction of the strength a human man of his same age would and a young woman had a good chance of being able to overpower him. Their strength was largely in their wings, with warriors being able to lift the most in the air. He was no such thing and without his wings, he had no strength to boast of at all. She lifted his shirt up and examined his back. "As I thought. Trying to pull the wool over my eyes, Avia?" "How did you know?" Niko asked, still struggling to free himself. "Look at you, fragile thing. Even I could break you. Who clipped your wings?" The younger woman held him in place. Niko wanted to grab her and fly high up to drop her from the sky. His body called out to limbs that were no longer there. "Someone who will pay for what they've done to me." The younger woman sneered at him. "A filthy monster. Don't think I'll let you touch me." Niko had many things he wanted to say to the younger woman, but he held his tongue for the time being. River pulled the younger woman's hand off of Niko and got between them. He acted as Niko's shield. His lost voice would not diminish his physical strength. The younger woman looked River over. She asked, "And what are you doing traveling with someone like this?" River didn't have any paper ready. He tried to communicate with his hands instead. The younger woman grimaced at him. "Should've known there was something wrong with you. A mute. I suppose you're not deaf if you understood me, or you've mastered lip reading." "Ashen, that's enough." The old woman said. "Don't mind my daughter. She's always like that around men. Come in. We don't usually have guests this time of year." "I can see why." Niko looked back up at the dragons flying above them. Niko and River followed the two women into the cave. The old woman pointed to a log for them to sit on. She sat across from them and the younger woman, Ashen, sat the farther away. "Now, what brings you two through this place? I've only once seen another Avia before, one of your desert brethren, and that was thirty years ago." The old woman picked up a small pitcher and poured water in a wooden cup. "I did not intend to be this far from home. I was exiled for a crime I did not commit, and I intend to return to clear my name." Niko explained. "And what about the mute? Why's he with you?" She asked. "Oh, River found me after they threw me down here. He's been helping me return to my home. He can't go back to his old home anymore, so we're traveling together until we part ways." Niko explained for River their situation. "I see. I suppose I should introduce us. My name is Smoke and this is my daughter, Ashen." THe old woman said. "And this is our current home, while the dragons are still here. When they leave, we'll rebuild outside." "I see." Niko said. "Will they be leaving soon?" "A few days more, and they will take flight. It won't be long, Avia." "I have a name. It's Niko." "That's nice." Smoke said. Ashen glared at him from the other side of the cave. "Why are you staring at me like that?" He asked. "Are you really a man? You sound like a man, but you almost look like a woman." Ashen said. "I do not. I'm wearing mens clothes, I have a man's body, and I'm taller than human men." Niko was getting more agitated. He was already frustrated at his journey being delayed for a few days and having to stay in a dirty cave. He didn't want to hear any comments like that on top of it. "Now, now, he does look like a man. A very fragile, delicate man who's probably had everything handed to him his entire life." Smoke said to her daughter. "You two are both very rude, considering I am your guest." Niko said. "You may be our guest, but you are not a human. This is a great courtesy we are giving you by allowing you any of our space." The old woman looked him directly in the eyes and smiled at him. He didn't know how to respond to her. There were a few words he had in mind, but given their situation, he kept it to himself. River could likely overpower both the old woman and the young woman, but he didn't know if River would protect him if he started throwing around insults. He stayed quiet, internally overflowing with anger and fear. "What's wrong, Avia? Nothing to say." Smoke rose from where she sat. She walked over to them. "You may sleep over in this area, near the front. If the beasts come down here, you'll make a decent enough shield for a little while. That's your payment for staying here." "What?" Niko looked at her in horror. "We used to have the men do that job, but they're all gone now. Don't worry. They rarely come over here. You should be fine." The old woman walked back to where she sat. "Of course, if you'd like to offer other services, I may consider it. I know what your kind is good for." "Good for?" Niko titled his head. "You could give this old lady a good time. Haven't had fun like that in years." Smoke grinned widely at him. Niko and River both shuttered at the thought. The old woman laughed loudly. "Well, I suppose even someone like you thinks I'm too old for that." "I generally prefer people around my age range. You look the same age as my grandmother..." Niko said. "It was worth a try." Smoke laughed again. "I'm surprised to hear it though. I always thought Avia had no preferences at all." "I bet you gave it up as a child." Ashen interjected herself into the conversation with a rude comment. Niko didn't understand her implication. "Gave what up? What did I give away?" She scoffed at him. "Don't play dumb. Your virginity." "What is that?" Niko asked. Ashen narrowed her eyes and looked over at her mother in confusion. Smoke shrugged. Ashen rolled her eyes. "A virgin is someone who hasn't had sex." "Oh...I'm still a little confused. What do you mean by 'give it up'? Give what up?" Niko scratched his head. He was still confused. "When you have sex, you lose your virginity." Ashen said. Niko scratched his head. He wondered if human anatomy was more different from his own kind's than he thought. When he saw River naked, his body didn't appear to be any different from his own and he was certain River hadn't had sex with anyone. He asked, "What exactly is it? How does it leave? I'm not really grasping the concept." River laughed under his breath. "Were you ever a virgin long enough to remember? Filthy!" Ashen was disgusted. "Uh...well, if I'm understanding the word correctly, then yes. I don't think I understand what you mean." Niko said. Smoke laughed. The old woman said, "She's being rude. She's insinuating you were sleeping around since you were a child." Niko's stomach turned at the idea. "Children don't engage in sex in my culture." Ashen looked over at him. She was now the confused one. "What? Surely, teenagers do." "No. Those are still children. Well...some might, but most don't." Niko said. "But...your kind sleep around constantly..." Ashen said. "Yes, adults do. One reaches adulthood in my culture at twenty." Niko explained. "And you're telling me such dirty creatures actually wait?" Ashen laced her question with another insult. He held back the urge to snap at her for her words. "Typically. Turning twenty is a very important birthday. We have a big celebration that involves at least a hundred people per party. Most don't have sex until their twentieth birthday for a particular reason though. You can pick anyone invited to your party, so long as they are also at least twenty." "What do you mean?" She asked. "We don't pair off at random every night. We have our own standards. Say there's someone who you know would never give you a chance--well, on that day, you can have them. It's considered a high honor to be chosen at someone's twentieth birthday party, so guests invited for that rarely refuse." Niko himself had been chosen for three different parties since turning twenty. "What if someone wants a person under twenty?" Ashen asked. "That's against the rules. The other person must be at least twenty." He said. "What happens to people who don't wait?" She asked. "The choosing part of the party is skipped, since you already chose in advanced. That's about it, but that doesn't happen often. Typically, it occurs between close friends who intend to frequent each other's beds anyway." Someone skipping the choosing process at the party was very rare. He'd only personally known two people who did, and he'd heard of a few others. Ashen grew more disgusted with him. "You sleep around with some people once and others many times...at the same time?" "Orgies are very popular too." He admitted without a second thought. Ashen rolled her eyes. "How can you do such things?" "I don't see what the issue is." "That's disgusting." "Why? If anything's disgusting, it's how filthy this cave is. There's soot and dirt everywhere." Niko pointed to the cave walls and floor. The clothes he borrowed from River were already completely covered. He wanted to bathe again. "Orgies, huh?" The old lady laughed loudly. "So, Avia, who did you choose?" "The queen's oldest son is very handsome. I sent him an invitation four months in advance." A slight grin appeared on Niko's face. That night, he remembered very fondly. As was per tradition, his home was decorated with gold, and the party lasted well into the next morning. He'd slipped away with the prince for their private time in his bedroom. The prince was around his current age then. His wings were black and white, and he was dressed in white, gold, and purple, the royal colors for men. Niko himself was dressed in white with gold trim, the gold being a sign of him being an adult. He recalled being so caught up in the moment he never took off his golden sandals. When he was a teenager, he went to a lot of parties specifically for teenagers. There was lots of kissing and folding and watching, but none of that compared to that night. The prince was more dedicated to pleasing him than he expected someone in such a high position would be. Though their kingdom was ruled by women, and the heir to the thrown was the prince's younger sister, he was still a very important man politically. He expected the prince would likely come, but not that he would be so involved as he was. Afterwards, they danced together and kissed for the crowd of guests. There was no requirement that anyone had to know if they really had sex or not, but the dance was typically done as a symbolic confirmation of the act. He didn't sleep with anyone else that night. He spent the rest of the night dancing, drinking, and playing games with others until he collapsed from exhaustion around noon the following day. The happiness he felt recalling that was quickly tarnished by Ashen's words reminding him of where he was. "And with a man...how nasty..." His mood immediately soured. "Oh, do you prefer women?" Ashen raised her voice at him. "What?! No! I would never! I've only ever slept with men!" Her human logic made no sense to him. He asked, "Then why are you disgusted that I did the exact same thing?" "Because you're a man!" "Oh...this is what you told me about before!" Niko turned to River, who nodded at him. Then, he looked back over at Ashen. "Very bizarre. So, Ashen, how many men have you slept with?" The old woman cackled. Ashen's eyes widened and her face went bright red. "Ah...that is not important. I have only ever done that while trying to conceive..." "You balk at me for having many partners yet you do it and it's fine? Because you didn't want to have fun? Sounds like you've missed the point entirely." Niko laughed at her. "That is only for having children," Ashen said. "If that's true, why does it feel so good?" He asked. "So...that you will keep having children!" Ashen's face was getting redder for a different reason than embarrassment. "But it feels good whether or not I'm doing something that will result in a child." "Because you have no self-control!" She was shouting very loudly. River watched the two of them argue back and forth while the old lady laughed at both of them. Frustrated, Niko said to River, "You agree with me, right?" River's face went red now. He made a series of quick, jumbled hand gestures. Niko narrowed his eyes and he tried to interpret him. "Slow down. I can't understand you." The old woman interrupted them by changing the subject. "How old are you, Avia? Obviously, you're at least twenty." Niko was not deeply invested in the argument, so he quickly forgot about wanting to be right. He answered cheerfully. "Oh, I'm twenty-five." "What about you, Mute?" Smoke asked. River used his hands to say he was twenty-three. "Quite young and healthy. Ashen's twenty-seven." Smoke said. "Oh, you're almost thirty. How wonderful." Niko congratulated her, despite previously having been arguing with her. "What's wonderful about that? I'm old." Ashen looked away from him and crossed her arms. "Is that old to humans?" Niko asked. "Human women don't look forward to birthdays." Smoke answered him. "Huh. We have big parties for every decade someone lives. Twenty is the biggest, because you're an adult then, but every decade is important." Niko said. Prior to his exile, he had previously been daydreaming about what his thirtieth birthday party would be like. "How long do your kind live?" Smoke asked. "Hmm...it varies, but around 90-110 years is normal. I've heard some have lived to their 120's and the oldest I've heard of reached 135." He wasn't completely sure on that last number. His grandmother was currently 99, and his great-grandmother lived to be 104. He assumed humans lived lifespans of around the same length. "Goodness. Humans are lucky to make it to sixty." The old woman said. "Sixty? Why so young?" He asked. "That's how we are." The old woman said. Niko looked around the dusty, dark cave and out towards the mountains where the dragons flew over. "Perhaps it's how you live more than how you are." "Those are one in the same." Smoke stared at him intensely. He asked her no more questions. Once they left, he could ask River about the things they said. At night, they slept by the entrance, as the women demanded. Niko hardly slept at all. The following morning, the old woman had them clean around then cave while the women mined the red stones. River offered to help them with the stones, but the women both refused him. Ashen accused him of looking to steal them for himself. He didn't argue with them, and stopped Niko from doing so. They continued cleaning and doing any other menial tasks the women wanted. Niko caught glimpses of the dragons outside. Around midday, one of them came dangerously close to the cave, but was never looking in their direction. At nightfall, Smoke made them all dinner. The two women were covered from head to toe in black dust. Ashen wiped off her face a little, but did not bother with her hands. Smoke cleaned off nothing at all. Niko was reluctant to eat what the woman prepared, but he didn't want to test her either. He ate the questionable dish presented to him. Smoke huddled close to the fire and cauldron. She stared straight at River. "Young man, you know well you can speak." River shook his head. "You have no injury. Your affliction is only in your mind." She said, then ate her meal in silence. River turned away from her and faced the ground. Niko raised an eyebrow at that. River's reaction to her suggested there might be more to his muteness than River was letting on. He wanted to ask him some questions, but not in front of the women. He could save that for later. Smoke stepped out of the cave for a moment to get more wood for the fire. Ashen sat uncomfortably close to Niko. She leaned against him. "How do you like our food? Not fancy enough for you, Avia?" Niko finished off his plate. "Food is food." Ashen slid her hand over Niko's thigh. "I know what you're really thinking. You hate it." "I said no such thing." Niko pushed her hand away. "You're a handsome, dainty thing, aren't you?" Ashen played with Niko's hair. "I bet I could break you." "That's a brutish thing to say. And I'm not dainty. I'm not the least bit dainty. Your kind are the ones who are all so brawny. If it weren't for your chest, I'd think you were a man." Niko pushed her hand away from him. "A man? How dare you!" She yelled. Ashen stood up and stormed to the other side of the cave. "Filthy monster!" "Filthy? You look like you haven't bathed in days!" He yelled back at her. "Of course I haven't! Why would I bathe so often? I'm not dirty. More proof your kind is nothing but filth. You constantly have to wash it all off." She sat down on one of the logs and kept her back turned to him while she yelled. Niko turned his nose up at her. "No, I don't get any more dirty than you. I choose to wash it off sooner and smell less." "And you...what are you doing with someone like that? I know you're mute but even someone in your position could find better company. He's hardly a substitute for a real human woman, if that's what you were after." Ashen turned her attention to River, who was sifting through their supplies. She got up from the log and moved over to River. She leaned against him from behind and whispered. "You're not too bad, you know. You don't need your voice to make a child. I can assure you I'm much better at it than he is." River looked up at her, then wrote her a note. He handed it to her. "You ass!" Ashen slapped him across the face. "I'll have Mother throw you both from here and let the dragons eat you!" Ashen ran out of the cave to find the old woman. Niko watched her go, then looked back at River. He asked, "What did you tell her?" River got up and handed him the note he originally gave Ashen. Niko read over it. It read: 'I may be mute, but I'm not blind. I can see quite clearly you're a very ugly person.' Niko laughed. "So you have some bite to you after all." Some minutes later, the old woman entered the cave. Niko asked her, "Are we still welcome?" "Of course. Don't mind Ashen. She just wants attention. A man's attention, if you know what I mean. She's always leaving men in confusion like that when we have travelers through. Don't mind her. She merely wants a child, but she can't seem to commit to anyone long enough to get to the conception part. Silly girl. Don't take much." The old woman dumped the wood near the cauldron for later. She brought in a large bag full of herbs and berries. She went to work grinding up some of the herbs. "A child? Why not move somewhere with more people to have several options for the potential father?" Niko asked. Fatherhood was a strange concept to him, but he heard it was important to humans. His kind were matriarchal and lived in extended family groups that were all connected by female relatives. Men did participate in raising children, but not their own. He helped his sisters and female cousins raise their children, as his sisters and cousins helped each other. Sometimes, he was a little curious how many children he may have, but his usual days were more focused on whether the children he was actually responsible for were safe. "Ashen won't leave this place. This is our home. It's where we were born, and where we will die, like everyone else who once lived in Red Stone Village." Smoke said as she placed the crushed herbs into a big, stone bowl. "Village? What village?" Niko hadn't seen any structures outside that would suggest there was a village there. "It's burned down and been built back up again at the start and end of every nesting season. The last one didn't go as planned. Usually, we'd lose about a quarter of the village every time, but this time...only Ashen and I survived." Smoke started a fire up, then poured some soot-filled water into a cauldron hanging above the fire. "She lost her unborn baby from that too. Ever since then, she's been wanting another, to be a good mother and protect it well, but there are no men left to marry." Niko said, "I don't understand. Why live in such conditions? Move somewhere safer." "For the stones, the red stones in the caves. They are worth more than anything on you. That's why we stay despite the fire and destruction, the smoke that burns our lungs and the rocks that rip us apart. That is our livelihood." The old woman poured something Niko didn't recognize into the cauldron along with the herbs she crushed up. "You can do something else. What's the point of selling things so valuable if you don't leave this place and you're so likely to die? I would never accept such a foolish fate." Niko crossed his arms. "You can't understand. You weren't born here. This is how we are." The old woman stirred the cauldron. The smoke from the cauldron filled the cave. "Now, do me a favor, Avia. I'm sure the kind man there wishes to remain pure, but why don't you go help out my daughter with what she wants?" "I am quite positive she would try to cut it off if I suggested it." Niko said. "I'd much appreciate it. We need to start another generation soon. And maybe it would knock some sense into her if she had a baby in tow." Niko could barely see her expression through the smoke, but he was certain she was grinning. He didn't know what he was thinking, and he let that thought simmer at the back of his mind. "I see." Ashen returned within a few minutes and sat far away from everyone else. The old woman sat closet to the cauldron. "Since we have guests, why don't I show you a bit of magic?" Smoke asked. "Magic? What sort of magic?" Niko asked. River was anxious at her words. He moved closer to Niko on the log the two of them were sitting on. "I can show you the past. Anyone's past." She sprinkled something silver into the cauldron. The soup in the cauldron turned a shining silver color. "Come and let me show you." "What's the point in showing someone the past? Wouldn't the future be more useful?" Niko asked. "Shush, Avia. You of all people would do well to recall the past as you never seem to care about anything for more than a moment's joy." Smoke snapped at him. Niko went quiet. The old woman stared at River again. "Let me tell your story, young one. You do not know it all yourself. I can show you in the cauldron. Come here, closer." River leaned back while Niko leaned forward. Niko said, "Show me your magic." "Very well. Listen closely and look." She stirred the cauldron. The silver liquid inside created shaped in shades of gray. The shapes formed into a river and the silhouette of a woman running. "You were born from a unmarried woman who's family locked her away when they noticed her belly and discovered who the father was. She escaped her home prison shortly after you were born, but they were close behind her. They planned to smother you and bury you. She put you in a basket and left you in the river. She hoped someone else would find you and care for you, as she knew they would catch her soon enough. She stayed behind to catch their rage, and paid with her life for the decision. You floated for a long time until the couple who raised you came across you. Your new mother saw you while she was washing clothes and scooped you right up." The tiny basket floated in the river until another woman picked it up. The pictures moved to show the woman and her husband with a small child in a house by a cliff. Smoke continued, "They were a traveling pair, their old village having been destroyed by a flood. In all the years they spent together, they could never conceive a child. You were a blessing to them. They settled soon after in Shell Village. Back then, shells were easier to find without needing to descend down the cliff to the caves at the water's surface. The villagers believed children found near water were cursed and your family was pushed to live at the edge of the village. This, they didn't mind. Your father was the first to try his hands at it, then your mother. They climbed down that cliff and into those caves to find the rarest of shells and had plenty of money at all times. You too went down that cliff once you were old enough to grasp onto the rope well. This wealth came with a heavy price." A stormy scene was depicted in the silver liquid. The family hung from the rope at the cliff and over a raging sea. Heavy wind and rain swayed them back and forth in the air. Smoke lowered her voice. "The shells were very dangerous to acquire. One day, when the sky above was filled with dark clouds and the air with heavy wind, the three of you went down into those caves. The trip down went well, but when you came back out of those caves, a terrible storm was overhead. The wind knocked the rope around and roughed it up against the cliff. Your father, he let go first to lighten the weight of the rope. Your mother and you climbed up, but the rope kept breaking apart. She let go next. Just as the rope was about to break, you got both of your hands above it and hung there for a while. With all your strength, you climbed back up to the top and collapsed. You were all alone, and when you went to the others for help, they only hurt you." The small child ran to a crowd of people. The people in turn beat the child down. Smoke concluded River's tale. "After years of asking for help and receiving only cruelty in return, your voice fled deep into the safest part of your soul. You bought a new rope and climbed back down there again." Niko was overcome with a stinging pain. He looked over at River. River was neither afraid nor sad. His face was blank, as if he wasn't there at all. "Nothing prevents you from speaking other than yourself." Smoke said. River stared at the ground. "Ashen, pour the young Avia another drink." Smoke said to her daughter. "Mother, must I? I'd rather watch the beasts outside." Ashen complained and turned away from them. "Then, go on with you, girl. I'll have none of your whining tonight." Smoke snapped back at her. Ashen stormed off to somewhere outside the cave. "It'll be better with her outside." The old woman stirred the cauldron more. "Let me show you another tale. A tale of our village." The images cleared and new ones were formed. Niko saw a village engulfed in flames and a woman crying over a man on the ground. Smoke began the story. "Last breeding season, the dragons left at an unusual time. That happens every so often, and we are usually prepared for it. When they leave like that, they are always more destructive. We typically would hide in the caves and let them burn everything. This time, we didn't realize they were leaving early and everyone was still out in the village. They came down and scorched everything. Men, women, children. It made no difference to them. Some they took as meals. Ashen's husband was among the first, burned to a crisp." In the cauldron, the woman who was crying was picked up by one of the beasts and carried into the air. She fought until the dragon dropped her. Smoke stirred more. "Ashen didn't hide in the chaos. She watched him burn away, unable to do anything for him. Once their flames touch you, there is nothing that can put that fire out fast enough to save you. It's nothing like these flames before us. As she left herself exposed, one of them sought to take her as a meal for their infants. She struggled with the beast and managed to free herself, but the beast was already in the air. She fell all the way down. She survived the fall, as you can see, but it cost her the child she was carrying. As for how I survived, I do not know. Perhaps I was too old for them to bother eating. Since that day, Ashen became a strange inversion of herself. If only she could start over, bring a child into this world...she might return to her old self." The old woman now kept her gaze at Niko. Her story's weight was heavy on him. Some time after the old woman put out the fire and was getting ready to sleep, Niko slipped out of the cave to find Ashen. She was sitting alone near the edge of the woods, overlooking the valley. He sat down beside her. "Are you going to stay out here all night? Perhaps, I can keep you company." "Why would I want your company?" Ashen crossed her arms. He said the words she wanted to hear. "I can help you. You want a child, do you not?" "It doesn't matter. I am damaged. Nothing good can come from me. I'll lose it like the last one." Ashen put her hands over her stomach. "I'll stay here and burn away with everything else." Niko put his arm around her. "You're not damaged. Let me help you." "I know what you want, Avia." "Does it matter what I want if you get what you want?" Ashen put her hand on his thigh. "Follow me." River was getting worried with how long Niko was gone. He got up to go look for him. "Don't follow him. He wants to be alone with her." Smoke stopped him from leaving the cave. "He's going to give her what she wants. You don't want to see that." River stood at the entrance of the cave. His face went blank again. "Don't take it personally. His kind do nothing but fool around. If you want him, you can have him too. You only need ask him." Smoke said before she turned in for the night. Ashen took Niko to another cave nearby. She undressed herself quickly and lay on the ground. Niko did the same. He got on top of her. She said, "I knew you'd be the one to approach me. That mute is too dumb for this, and you're too arrogant to resist me." Niko caressed her face, but it stirred nothing in him. "You've been very rude to me since we came here, and to River as well. But...I see suffering in your eyes. I'm offering this to you solely to help you conceive. That is how you want sex to be, right?" "And will you marry me afterwards?" Ashen asked. "I cannot. You know I am only passing through here. I must return to my home to clear my name. I cannot marry anyone right now. If you want that as part of the package, I'll have to decline you. I can only help you with this part." Niko said. "Very well." She spread her legs. "Give me a child." He leaned down to kiss her. She covered his mouth. "Don't. Just get on with it." "But I..." "I don't want you to hold me or kiss me. Just do what you need to do." Ashen looked away from him. He found no joy in laying with her. There was no ulterior motive in his actions. He was only there to aid her in conceiving. It was a strange feeling. He had enjoyed himself with many partners, but being with her left him feeling empty. She moved with no passion, and she rejected his attempts to make the process more enjoyable for her. Her coldness made it difficult for him to stay aroused. He kept his mind elsewhere. When it was over, she recoiled away from him and dressed herself. "Will you marry me?" Niko was worried she would ask him that again. He replied to her in the only way he saw right. "I told you I cannot." "You will not stay with me?" Ashen looked at him with a strange, hungry look. "No. That isn't what we agreed upon." "I will be shamed if I am alone with a child. You must stay with me. A child is supposed to have a mother and a father. We'll live here and build a proper home." Ashen grabbed his arm as she begged. "I cannot stay here. You know that. I have to return to my home." He pushed her away and dressed himself. "Listen to me. Stop worrying about what everyone wants and thinks, and do what you want. You wanted a child. If not by me, find someone else. You won't get that staying in this dying place, and no child should live here. Leave." "No. I will stay. You will stay. You must." She grabbed at his arm again. He pushed her away. "Stop. There's no reason for you to stay here. No one can stop you." "What will I tell people if I am alone with child?" She asked in tears. "Tell them anything you want. Tell them off. It doesn't matter. Go anywhere and don't answer to anyone." He told her. She stared at the night sky. "They're leaving." "What?" Niko asked. "The dragons are leaving. They'll scorch the land as they depart." "River!" Niko ran back toward the other cave. River met him halfway. He grabbed his hand and ran to the cave they were all sharing. "River, we have to hide!" "Mother! It's time." Ashen was right behind Niko. She ran into the cave within a few seconds of them. "Mother?" Smoke was nowhere inside. "Strange travelers, please take my daughter somewhere safe. I will not be joining you." Ashen, River, and Niko all turned around at once. Smoke was outside and wandered closer to the valley. Ashen went to run after her, but Niko held her back. "Let me go! I have to go to her!" Ashen protested. Niko wouldn't let her go. "You want a child? You can't have one if you're dead! We can't help her now. She made her choice." The dragons burned everything around them, and the old woman was lost in the flames. Ashen went quiet, then slipped away from Niko. She went just outside the entrance of the cave and began picking up sticks and stones. Niko watched her. "What are you doing?" "This is my home. I will rebuild it, like I always have. I will rebuild everything by myself." Ashen began wandering farther into the flames. "Don't be a fool! You are alone. There's nothing to keep you here." Niko yelled to her. "Yes, there is. You've given it to me. I'll raise my child where the last one should have been." Ashen smiled and touched her stomach. She dropped the stones and sticks on the ground, then started digging into the dirt. "That wasn't why I..." River took hold of his arm and shook his head. Niko looked back at Ashen as she frantically dug at the ground. He sighed. "We're leaving now. Goodbye, Ashen." "Go on your way, whore." Ashen rubbed her stomach. "Little one, I'll take care of you. I'll raise you right." River led them over into a different cave where they waited out the flames. When the flames stopped and the dragons were gone, they moved through the valley. They never saw Ashen or Smoke again, nor any signs of their remains. Niko was quiet most of the journey through the mountain range. He couldn't say anything. Once they were out of the mountains, Niko began to return to himself. He stayed quiet for a while, then he abruptly started yelling when they were having lunch after a day passed since they left the mountains. "What the hell was the point of all of that? I don't understand humans. I thought...if I gave her a child, that might push her to take better care of herself and leave. I would have done better to slit her throat and put her out of her misery." River handed him a note. 'I don't want to stay here long. Let's walk until we can't walk anymore, then we'll camp.' "That's fine with me. I don't want to think about any of that ever again." Niko put his lunch down and kept walking. He went the longest he'd ever gone without taking a break after that meal. The farther they moved away, the more Niko calmed down. He returned to his usual mood after about three days of walking. Over another lunch, Niko asked River a question about something he didn't understand. "She called me a whore. I don't recognize that word. Is that an insult?" River nodded his head. Niko asked, "What does that word mean exactly? Is it a derogatory term for my kind?" River shook his head. He scribbled something down. 'Some humans do not think highly of others who lay with many easily.' "Oh, so it's about that. That makes her even more rude." Niko rolled his eyes. "Do you think less of me for it too?" River blushed and shook his head frantically. He made several hand gestures at Niko in rapid motion. It was too disjointed for Niko to follow. "Slow down. What are you saying?" River wrote him a note instead to explain himself. 'Not all humans think the same. I know it is an important part of your culture. The topic is a bit embarrassing for me, however.' "No experience with that?" Niko asked. River looked away and blushed deeply. "That's alright. If you ever want to try it, let me know. It's quite enjoyable, typically. Not with her though. She just laid there and stared at the cave walls." Niko said. The idea was more appealing to him than usual. "So, are you interested?" River's face stayed red while he shook his head again. He made a series of strange hand gestures again. "What?" River wrote quickly. 'Not today.' "So, perhaps another day?" River blushed and got up from where they we were sitting. Niko watched him and followed behind. 'So shy. You do want to, don't you?' River picked up one of the bags they were carrying with them. He opened it to show Niko. Inside, beside some of their supplies, were several large, red stones. Niko's eyes widened. "When did you...?" River grinned and put the red stones away. "You're a little thief." Niko said. River wrote him a message. 'The dead don't need riches, but the living must eat.' "Well...I suppose. It wouldn't serve them any use now." Niko hated the idea, but he knew River was right. The journey home was going to take a very long time. While the shells River brought with him were very rare, it would be good to have anything extra they could bargain with for necessities just in case. "For someone who was being so casual about their own execution, you are very good at surviving." River grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him under some trees. He pointed upward at the sky. Three dragons flew over them. They both crouched down and stayed quiet until they passed. When they were gone, Niko went to say something, but River put his hand over Niko's mouth. A large shadow moved over them. Another dragon flew over. Once River were certain it was gone and there were no more, they continued on. There was nothing but forest for a long while. While Niko was returning to his old self, when night came, he had trouble falling asleep. That night was no different. Niko lay wide awake. His body was completely exhausted, but he could not sleep. The image of the old woman burning alive and her mad daughter wandering aimlessly through the flames invaded his every thought. His body tensed. River touched the side of his face to calm him. Niko curled up against River. "Why did it not turn out right? I thought I could fix it. It's like before..." His mind replayed another incident for him, the one that cost him his wings. He was coming home from a party late at night. On his way there, he stumbled upon something horrid. In the middle of the path before him, he saw a man in a pool of blood. His wings were broken, one barely attached. Niko had rushed over to the man immediately. His white clothes were soaked through when he held the man up. 'Hold on! I've got you.' He said as he cradled the man. The man was so weak he could barely move. Up close, he saw the man was cut up all over his body. Niko attempted to use his cape to wrap around him, but as he moved him, the man let out a loud scream. 'I'm sorry. Stay with me. I'm going to get you help. Who did this to you?' Niko asked as he wrapped him up as best he could. The man muttered two words. 'The trident...' 'Trident?' Niko asked. Iris ran over to them from one of the neighboring pathways. Niko was close enough to their home that she heard the man's scream and came to investigate. 'Niko, what was that noise? What happened?!' She looked down at him and the man. 'I don't know. Iris, call for help. Quickly!' Niko yelled. She ran off to find help right away. There was nothing he could do. Before anyone else arrive, the man bled out and died in his arms. Iris was not the one who found him after that either. A group of soldiers surrounded him within ten minutes of Iris leaving. There was another person with the soldiers. It was Lord Arion. His grandmother was currently the head of one of the biggest family groups in the kingdom, and he followed behind her at every political step. As he could never be head of the family, Arion was doing whatever he could to stay as close to the top as possible. Niko remembered his mother informing him of who he was at a party when both he and Arion were teenagers, but he didn't think anything about that when he saw him on the pathways. That information didn't return to him until he was sitting in the jail cell. When he first saw him that night, he remembered him as a loudmouth who was lousy in bed. The soldiers surrounded him and pointed their spears in his face. One of them yelled, 'Stop where you are! You are under arrest!' Niko panicked when he saw them. He was holding a dead man and covered in that man's blood. They must have already known about the attack happening, he thought. He tried to clear up what he thought was a misunderstanding. 'Arrest? There's been a mistake. I didn't do this. I found him. I'm the one who asked for help!' 'Is this the man, Lord Arion?' One of the soldiers asked. Arion smirked and pointed right at Niko. 'Yes, I saw him attack my brother.' 'Arion! Why are you lying? I wasn't here then and you weren't here when I...wait, let go of me! I didn't do anything!' The soldiers grabbed at Niko and put shackles upon his wrists and ankles. His wings were chained up with heavy weights on them so he could not fly away. The chains on his wings hurt him badly. They were so heavy, he had to be held up by the soldiers. 'Arion...why...' Arion made his way through the soldiers. He grabbed Niko's chin and squeezed tightly. He said, 'I want him brought before the highest court. For my grief, I will have your wings.' 'Why...why are you doing this to me?! Why...' Niko cried as the soldiers dragged him away. That night, he was placed in a tiny room with no window. The heavy chains were left on him, making it impossible for him to stand up. He cried himself to sleep in those blood soaked clothes. That night lasted for what felt like an eternity. The next day, he was brought before the court, tried, and his wings cut off. Niko unconsciously wrapped his arm around River for comfort. He didn't want any more painful, strange things to happen in his life. That night, he hardly slept at all. The following morning, Niko was exhausted. He pushed himself to keep going, but he had to take frequent stops to rest again. River fed him a bigger meal that day to help him compensate for his weakness. Niko noticed, but didn't say anything about it. He watched River more closely. He owed the man his life, many times over, but they barely knew each other. There was no reason River should be so kind and loyal to him. He wagered it was out of loneliness and their mutual status as outcasts. Niko was grateful for the unwarranted kindness, but was not sure how he should repay that debt. River clearly knew how to get money and bargain for anything he needed, and River had no guarantee Niko would give him anything in exchange. 'Are you really that lonely?' He wanted answers. "What are you afraid of? I know you can speak. Say it." Niko said. He watched River's reaction. River stopped a few feet ahead of him, nearly as soon as Niko said the word "afraid". Slowly, River turned around to face him. His eyes were dull. No word left him. He merely held his hand up to his throat. Niko walked over to him. He touched River's hand, then brushed it aside. He lightly ran his fingers over River's neck, in a motion filled with sorrow and desire. River did not move away nor did he seem uncomfortable from the contact. Niko leaned over him and asked in a breathy voice, "Do you want it?" This time, River didn't became flustered. Instead, he merely looked away from him. Disappointment hit him, but he was not surprised. More than anything, he simply wanted the contact. He already knew River would refuse him, but he hoped he'd be wrong. The disgust from his last encounter still lingered in his skin. He said, "I see. Another time?" River locked eyes with Niko for a long while, then took one of the shells he worked on out of his bag. He held it before Niko. Niko watched him in confusion. With a smile, River let the shell fall from his hands to the ground. He then crushed the shell under his foot. After that, he stepped closer to Niko. He put his hands on Niko's hips and leaned in close to his face. Then, he moved away and walked ahead. Niko was dumbfounded. He froze in place for a moment as he attempted to interpret River's actions. Confused, he ran to catch up with him. "I don't understand. What are you saying?" River looked over at him, smiling widely, and responded with a shrug. Niko recounted every movement of the exchange, but he couldn't make sense of it. He let it go, and the subject was not brought up again for a while. They continued traveling on foot for several days without passing a single human settlement. They left the forest for a while and traversed across a grassy plain. Niko was taking less breaks than when they started. His body was getting used to all the walking, and the land they were traveling over was mostly flat and open. His bouts of insomnia were finally gone. The new clothes also made things easier, as the heat didn't get to him as much. Without realizing it, he was getting used to River's cooking. He stopped complaining or thinking about taste. When he was hungry, all he thought about was eating. It didn't matter what it was. The terrain returned to forest in time. Being in a forest again put Niko back on edge. His mind raced with thoughts about Smoke and Ashen. When River finished with dinner, he motioned for Niko to come down to sleep. River cuddled up against him, as if he sensed Niko was upset. Niko's body was overcome with a disgusting feeling. He held River close and begged him. "Forgive me for this request, but please let me kiss you. I need to do something to forget about...what happened in that place." River blushed and nodded. Niko pulled him closer and leaned in. River met him halfway into a clumsy kiss. As they kissed, it dawned on Niko that River likely had never kissed anyone before. The isolation and hatred he endured at Shell Village wouldn't have allowed him that. Something else occurred to Niko. He was experiencing a first himself. Ashen wouldn't let him kiss her when he was with her. River was the first human he'd kissed. He didn't expect it'd be any different. Their bodies were so similar, at least on the outside. Niko got on top of him. It came naturally as that was what was most comfortable. The differences in their weight was so drastic that River could easily hurt him. Niko noticed River was only touching him lightly, as if he were keeping that very fact at the forefront of his mind. Whether that was the case or not, Niko appreciated the gesture. Niko tried his luck again. He whispered, "Do you want to do more than kiss?" River looked away and shook his head. "Not today?" River nodded. "Very well. This was the part I was more wanting anyway, but it would've been nice to continue that." As soon as Niko finished talking, River kissed him again. "Oh, you want to continue kissing?" Niko asked for confirmation. River nodded. He mouthed something to Niko. Niko couldn't completely understand, but he could tell from River's facial expression that he meant something along the lines of "is that alright". Niko caressed his face. "Of course. I want to." They kissed more, River being more adventurous than earlier. His hands wandered all over Niko's body, and for a portion of that exploration, he rubbed the front of Niko's pants enough for him to become completely aroused. Niko was surprised with himself, as he found a strange enjoyment in the fact that they wouldn't be having sex yet. He anticipated River would likely ask to sleep with him at some point on their journey, and that being ahead of them at some unknown point in time was building up an intense excitement inside him. This was merely a taste of something to come later, and it only made him want it more. Then, he wanted to laugh at himself. He was looking forward to sleeping with a human. Before he was exiled, the very idea of that would never have crossed his mind at all, and likely would have disgusted him. He thought to himself, 'I've been down here far too long...Or maybe...' River pulled away from him. He looked up at the sky and put his finger to Niko's lips. Niko understood he wanted him to be silent. He tried to see what River was looking at. He heard it before he saw it, its voice breaking up the silence in between the claps of thunder. A storm on the way, but the sky suddenly went much darker far too quickly to be from the weather. The two of them lay on the ground in absolute stillness. Niko's heartbeat was so loud that his mind interpreted the noise as another sound coming from the space around him. He wanted to cover himself with his wings out of instinct, but nothing hid him. When his wings would not move as there was nothing there to move, the ringing of his beating heart became the loudest sound he heard. The time it took for the great bird to pass over them was not very long, but it felt like hours to Niko. When the beast was out of sight, neither of them moved for several minutes. River was the first to move. He got up from the ground to get a better look ahead. Niko started to get up, but River motioned for him to stay down. River wandered a few feet ahead, then came back. He signaled to Niko it was alright for him to stand up. "It's gone?" Niko asked. River nodded. The dark gray clouds above them were getting much darker. Lightning was increasing, as was thunder. River pulled out the blanket, and stared around at their surroundings. He located a nearby cave. He went inside for a while, then came back out and waved Niko over to it. Niko cringed. "Please, not another cave." River set everything up for them to sleep. Niko reluctantly went into the cave to retire. River stayed very close to him this time, but he couldn't determine if this was because of the bird passing by or from their earlier experience together. He didn't question it and cuddled up closely to him, both for comfort and warmth. The more they shared sleeping space, the more he was growing fond of this experience. He would need to know more about humans to judge, but River at least was not a threat to his life. He could freely sleep beside him and not worry over a blade being put to his neck. If anything, River might protect him. The warmth was also welcomed. He imagined what it might be like to have River resting in his wings with him, but that could never be. If he still had his wings, he wouldn't even know River. Both the reminder of his lost wings and the idea of not knowing River pained him, but he didn't understand why the latter feeling was more intense than the former. Niko was too tired to dwell on those thoughts. He wrapped one of his arms around River and fell asleep as the rain poured down. It took them another three days to reach a town by Mermaid River. They couldn't cross without a boat, so they would need to find one that would either ferry them across or that they could cheaply buy to travel with themselves. Most of the boats they could pay to travel on were full. They found one on the cheaper side that had few people lined up to board. Niko asked about getting on. "Excuse me. Do you have room for two more?" The owner of the boat looked him over for a long while. "I sure do, but not for you." "Excuse me? Is there...something I need to do to get aboard?" Niko asked. "Can't do nothing to ride my boat. No one else will let you either when they get a look at you, wingless bird." The man said. Niko backed away slightly. "How did you...?" "I know what you all look like. Thin frame, very tall, on the feminine side. Light as a feather too. Without your wings, I bet I could lift you with one hand." The man held his hand up to pretend to be lifting something. "Look, anyone in town will do business with your kind. We don't mind you all so much. We're more worried about dealing with the river ladies. But us ferrying you over, we can't. Too risky." "What's the risk?" Niko asked. "Mermaids hate you more than any humans do. If they see you on our boats, they'll go after us. We already have enough trouble with their capricious whims. Had one the other day kill a man because he didn't give one of those watery beasts a kiss." The man said. "I didn't know they hated my kind so deeply, but...I have also never met one of them before either." Niko said. "Not surprised. The way you're dressed...I'm guessing you're from the Sky Kingdom. So, what'd you do for them to clip your wings and drop you way out here?" The man stretched back in the chair he was sitting in. "I didn't do anything wrong. I was falsely accused and punished for a crime I didn't commit." Niko explained. "That's very unfortunate." The man put his hands behind his head. "The name's Mar, by the way. Look, I'd like to help ya. I can't take you across. Too risky for everyone else. But if you're really determined, I can sell you one of my small boats for a little under what I usually ask for them." "You'd really do that for us? Thank you." Niko said. River smiled as Niko was being so polite to a human without being prompted to be so. Mar looked over at River. "You're with him, right? You've been pretty quiet. Can't talk?" River nodded. "How did you know he was mute?" Niko asked. "I've met a lot of people on the river. After a while, you start picking up on little things here and there." Mar said. "You know, I used to know this girl, years ago...she couldn't speak. Well, she could, but her voice sorta got trapped in her one day. She came from a bad place. I got her to talking again, little by little. And the more we talked, the closer we got. Last I saw her, she was pregnant. About four months in, she vanished and I never saw her again. I always wondered what happened to her. Maybe she lost her voice again, and slipped away to somewhere quieter." "It is the same with him." Niko said. He was going to say that he heard all that from the old woman, but recalling the old woman even existing caused him so much disgust that he said nothing about how he learned that. "I see. Well, maybe one day your voice will come back to you. Let me show you the boat I have available. I'm sure you two are in hurry somewhere if you're bothering to cross here." Mar led them down a dock to a small boat. Niko thanked the man and River paid for the boat. They said their goodbyes to Mar, then got in the boat. Before they left, Mar gave Niko a piece of cloth to hide most of his face with. Niko wrapped the cloth around his head and held up part of it cover everything below his eyes. He sat in the bottom of the boat to appear shorter than he actually was in hopes that would further disguise what he was. They would need to travel farther down the river before crossing over to minimize how much time it would take them to reach their destination. Niko hated the idea, but they'd already lost a lot of time because of the dragons. He couldn't afford to lose more. "Do you think this will work?" Niko asked River. He crouched over slight and kept his arms in close to his body. He'd never seen a mermaid before, and he didn't want to. The scar on River's body was terrifyingly deep. If they hated his kind more, he couldn't imagine what they might do to him. River paddled along. He shrugged in response. "What do you know about mermaids?" River pretended to claw at the air and showed his teeth. "Yes, you showed me that scar." That was the last thing Niko wanted to be reminded of. He lowered his body more. "I've heard their society is much different from both of ours. One man has many wives, sometimes even hundreds. But they also have very few men." River nodded. "Have you seen groups of them?" Niko asked. River nodded again and pointed to his bag. "What does that mean?" River mouthed the word "baby". "Oh, they carry their infants around in some sort of bag?" Niko asked. River nodded once more. "Interesting. I wonder why. Perhaps the water can be too powerful for them to swim through at that age." Still worried, Niko laid down in the boat. He stared up at the sky. There were more storm clouds overhead. His stomach turned at the thought of them getting caught in it while still on the river. "Do you...have any advance on how to deal with them?" River smiled and shook his head. Niko sighed. "Wonderful." As he spoke, a flash of lightning danced across the sky and something hit against their boat.