I. Descent Upon the Cliff
In a glittering gold and silver court room, a winged man in chains kneeled before his accusers. The cuffs kept his arms stretched apart to the point of agony, and his legs ached from the weights tied to his ankles. Through the pain, he screamed his innocence. "This is a mistake! Please, I had nothing to do with this! You know me!" The judge turned his nose up at the man in chains. "The decision has been made. Familial ties and former friendship will not grant you freedom in my court." "Please, listen!" The accuser smirked at him. "You know how the law works. You have been tried and sentenced. It's time to face your punishment." "Wait!" Three figures in jeweled robes and masks loomed behind him. Two of them took his left and right side, pulling each of his wings apart as his arms were. The third figure stood directly behind him, a ruby encrusted axe in hand. The chained man watched, horrified as his reflection grew larger in the blade's edge. As the axe-wielder raised it above his left side, the man turned away and braced himself. At the other end of the room, people cheered and laughed. The first wing came off cleanly in one cut. The scream he let out in that moment was not consciously recognized by his mind. All his thoughts were of pain and fear. He could barely recognize that his left wing was gone before the next cut came down on his right side. The axe-wielder's aim was worse on the right side, as if to give the crowd more of a show. Three cuts for the right side, each with a louder scream accompanying it than the last. "He is not one of us now. Now, he's nothing more than a weak human." The accuser, a grin still on his face, walked away from the chained man. "I will take my leave now, Judge. I feel compensated for my loss." "Very well." The judge motioned to the robed figures. "You, take him away. I banish the aristocrat Niko from here to the Western most land. You are no longer one of us. May the great Mother have mercy on your pitiful existence in the lower realm." The man could not respond. Dizzy from pain and blood loss, he barely understood the judge's words. A single thought occupied his mind. 'I'm going to die.' Shortly after the robed figured released him to be moved, he lost consciousness. Despite his expectations, he did not meet death. On the judge's request, his vital conditions were kept stable during his transport. He slept for most of the long journey, waking for brief, hazy moments. When the day came, the robed figures brought him to the center of the ship. The tall figure, the one who had wielded the axe, spoke to him. "It is time. Accept your punishment, or you will be faced with death." The man struggled to keep himself on his feet. He noticed where they had placed him. "You're not going to...drop me from this high up are you?" "That is the way." "I'll die if you do that! I don't have wings!" "That is not our concern. This is the way, and it is time." The robed figure pulled down a lever. The floor beneath the man opened up instantly and gravity quickly took hold of him. There was no time to escape it. Rather than fight, he accepted his coming fate and let the force pull him down. In his weakened state, he slipped back into unconsciousness. This time, for sure, was the end, he thought to himself. Yet again, he was denied death. When he awoke next, he found himself in a tiny house in a stranger's bed. Someone had bandaged him up and changed his bloodied clothes. The clothes were of human design, he could tell, and poor at that. 'A human saved me? They must think I'm a human too.' He looked around the room. A one-room home with a little kitchen and not much else. From the size of the bed, he gathered the homeowner lived alone. Nothing about the decor of the home hinted whether his savior was a man or a woman. He turned over in the bed and examined his new clothes more. 'A man perhaps? These clothes look as if someone's worn them before.' With a loud thud, the front door swung open. A thin young man stepped through the doorway carrying two bowls. His unkempt hair was the color of sand, and his skin was a sickly pale shade. Bags under his eyes matched his posture--a strange air of tiredness. His eyes were a little darker than his hair, a hazel shade that carried the same dullness as everything else on him. The young man noticed his guest had awoken and gave him a small smile. He placed the bowl down on the table beside the bed. He sat down on the edge of the bed and watched his guest. "This is for me?" The young man nodded. Niko sat up and relunctantly picked up the food. He wasn't sure what humans normally ate. For all he knew, it could be poisonous to him. He glanced over at the young man. "Do you know what I am?" He nodded and pointed to Niko's back. Niko presumed he understood what his injuries meant. "Why are you helping me?" The man only smiled in response. "Why aren't you saying anything?" The young man pointed to his throat and shook his head. "You're mute?" The man nodded. "I see." Niko tasted the broth. It had a plain flavor, but his stomach was so empty that he didn't care. "How long have I been like this?" The man held up both his hands open palmed quickly, and then only one shortly after. "Fifteen days?!" He nodded again. 'Fifteen days'. Niko couldn't believe he had really slept for so long. He wasn't sure how long he had been out during the transport either. The people who had left him there had only just barely kept him alive. That drop should have killed him. Whoever the man was who had been caring for him must have been nearby immediately after it happened. Niko glanced over at the man as he ate. He had put his own bowl aside and was writing something down on a small piece of paper. The man noticed him watching and smiled. He handed Niko the note. 'Can you read this?' "Yes, I know this script." Niko replied. The man scribbled down another message and handed it to him. 'What is your name?' "My name is Niko." This note exchange continued. 'Where are you from?' "The Sky Kingdom above the Great Mountain." 'Why were you left here?' "I've been charged with a crime I didn't commit. My punishment was exile and...my wings were taken." Saying it aloud was strange. He knew his wings were gone, but they had always been there. There was a lingering feeling of them, as if his body had not registered their absence. Having them taken from him like that was a greater punishment to him than being exiled in the lower world. 'I'm sorry. Is there any way I can help you?' "Can you tell me where I am? I need to go back and clear my name." Niko didn't believe he would ever be allowed to live as he did before there. The rules of the kingdom where harsh against those who had any disfigurements on their wings. He may not be able to live his old life, but he had no intentions of letting his accuser get away with ruining his life. 'Shell Village at the West's end.' "They really did leave me as far West as possible. I need to leave. There's been too much time since I've been away." Niko put his bowl down and tried to get out of the bed. The man motioned for him to sit and pointed to Niko's bandages. "I'll be fine. Fifteen days is long enough to rest." The man shook his head and pointed again at Niko's injuries. "Move out of my way, human. I do not have time to entertain you." Niko raised his voice. As the man backed down, there was a knock at the door. Niko stood in front of the bed, silent. The man walked over to the front door and opened it. Two people stood outside, a rough looking middle aged man and an old woman with an even meaner appearance. The rough looking man spoke first. "We know you been hidin' someone 'ere, boy. You know the rules. Nobody stays without us seein' 'em first." He pushed the young man back. "Well, look a' that. He's got a pretty girl." Niko glared at the rough man. The old woman came into the house. "That's a man, son. Take a look at his frame. He's a dainty thing though. Certainly not from around here." The rough man walked closer to Niko. "Well, I'll be. You are a man. What's with this long hair? You ain't got much meat on you neither." Niko said nothing in response. The old woman followed behind her son. "Well, well, for what reason is such a delicate jewel doing here in rags in the home of the village's cursed child?" Niko kept his cold appearance, though he wondered what her words about the young man meant. "I have been exiled. I do not intend to stay here. In fact, I was just leaving. My injuries had been keeping me here. I do not wish to be any further burden on this place by being here." The old woman circled him, and then grinned. "It's more than you not belonging here. You're not even human." "He ain't human? Looks human to me." Her son grunted. She pulled up the back of his shirt. "As I thought. You had wings once. I wonder, for what reason did your heathen people cut them off? Such barbarians. You had best leave today. Go climb back into the filthy mountain cave you came out of. If I see you here tomorrow morning, you will be executed, beast." "Oh, I don't intend to see you again." It took a lot of will to keep back the words he wanted to say to her. In his weakened state, he knew her son could easily overpower him. "As for you, River. You should enjoy the rest of your night. Hiding someone from us alone is worth throwing you out, but hiding a monster--when the other villagers find out the cursed child brought a beast into their midst, you'll be lucky if you're still alive by the time I come to officially banish you." She laughed. "Well done, child. This is the first good thing you've done in the last twenty years. Things can go back to the way they were before you came." The two visitors saw themselves out. The young man, River, slouched at the door frame. Sighing, he waved Niko over and began writing another note. 'Let me prepare some food to take with you before you leave.' "We can share until we part ways." River cocked his head in confusion. "Aren't you leaving too?" He shook his head. "They're going to kill you." River shrugged, as if it was unimportant, and went to pack a bag of supplies. "Are you listening? You're going to die if you stay here." In aggravation, Niko grabbed River's arm and pulled him towards the door. "Let's just go now. We can get food later. I doubt we're going to starve before we come across something to eat." River had a confused look on his face. "Look, don't take this the wrong way. I'm only going to stay with you until we get to the next village. You're just a human. But...I do owe you for the last fifteen days. I don't know why you have a death wish, but I can't allow the person who saved my life to die in front of me. If you want to die, you'll have to do it after we've gone our separate ways." River stood still, staring directly into Niko's eyes. Then, he smiled and nodded. He held up a hand and waved back towards inside the house. He pointed at his stomach. "Alright, we have time to get some food ready." River rushed back into the house. Niko wandered outside, checking if there were any other unwanted visitors coming. Stepping out of that home, his exile finally became a reality in his mind. He had never touched earth before. The hardness of rocks and the shifting softness of dirt mixed under his bare feet, a sensation that was painful and nauseating to him. The sky hung distantly above him, covered in gray clouds. From down here, the clouds looked like a painting, fake. To the right, the landscape continued on in the same barren, rocky land toward a small village of wooden shacks. To the left, there was only a cliff. He approached it cautiously. His heart sunk at that reaction. Never in his life had he ever been afraid of standing at the edge of anything. 'How do humans live like this? Are they not always afraid?' At the cliff's edge, there was nothing but ocean. The cliff dropped down at least a hundred feet directly into the sea. Waves smashed against the side, spraying water up in a loud splash. Niko had seen the ocean before, from high above. From his home, it looked like a large pool. Here it was a giant, terrifying mass. The water looked as if it could swallow up anything and never be full. His heartbeat ringing in his ears, he slowly stepped back. River stood behind him with a large, leather bag. He then sifted through something at the side of the house. "What are you getting now?" River pulled out another large bag. This one was netted, its contents clear. Inside were what appeared to be hundreds of iridescent shells. River handed Niko a note that simply read 'to sell'. Shell Village, as Niko now recalled, had been named such for it's beautiful shells. Even in the magnificent Sky Kingdom, nobles would wear jewelry made from the shells collected here. His cousin Iris had been quite fond of them. He never expected a human village that could produce such beautiful goods to sell would be in such pathetic conditions. River motioned with his head in a direction away from the cliff and the village. Another barren area lay before them. River started walking away. Niko followed, hoping the strange human knew where he was going. The sound of the water crashing against the bottom of the cliff loomed behind him as much as the endless, distant sky above him. His heart pounded as he realized there was nothing around him that did not make him afraid.