VII. The Desert
With each step, Niko's feet dragged more. It was as if he was walking with boulders chained to his ankles. The humid air made breathing difficult. His clothes were drenched in sweat. River was fairing no better. He breathed heavily and wiped off his soaked face. All around them, everything looked the same. There was nothing to eat in this place. They would need to rely on whatever they were carrying and hope it would last until they crossed over into the Valley of Rain. Niko searched for anything to hide in or behind, as they knew nothing of what could be lurking out there. He found no shelter before them. No trees, no brush, no hills or large rocks, nothing. The land was perfectly flat and completely empty. He wanted to run to shave off some time, but he couldn't bring himself to. He didn't have the strength for it. Niko didn't understand it. The trek through the Night Forest didn't leave him that exhausted. He noticed his arms were growing weak as well. A shiver went down his spine. 'The land is doing this...It's stealing my strength...' Niko turned to River and asked, "Are you getting weaker too? Or have I overestimated the endurance I've been building up?" River stopped to catch his breath and nodded. Niko saw River was more worn out than he was. He looked at all of what River carried on his back. "Let me take some of that. We can split the weight." River shook his head and walked forward. "You don't have to carry it all. Let me help." Niko reached over to grab the bag on River's back. River stopped him from taking it. He then put his hand to Niko's mouth and looked behind them. Niko stayed quiet and glanced back to see what was there. Not far behind them were a pack of four legged creatures. He recognized them as the beasts with the giant mouths full of teeth he saw the first night he spent traveling with River. His heart pounded in his ears. Niko whispered. "What do we do? There's nowhere to hide." One of the beasts stared over at them and made a noise that wasn't quite a screech nor a howl. The sound was so loud, Niko and River covered their ears. The other beasts in the pack joined in the call, then ran at them. River and Niko ran as fast as they could to get away. There was nowhere in sight to hide. Niko realized their best option was to outrun the beasts and hope they grew bored of chasing them or too tired to do so. He was amazed at the strength he managed to pull out of his exhausted body. For a few minutes, they stayed ahead of the creatures. Niko's body slowed back down. His legs and feet ached so badly he could barely stand. He struggled to stay up on them. His knees shook and he stumbled in his movements. River saw him falling behind and slowed his speed to stay beside Niko. The beasts caught up with them quickly. They dragged Niko down first, snatching at his clothes and biting his legs. Niko fell to the ground. River came to his defense, only to be attacked and knocked down as well. The beasts sunk their sharp teeth into all of his limbs and bit at his waist. Niko writhed on the ground in agony. Niko screamed at the beasts attacking them, fighting his hardest to push one off of his chest. "Stop it! Please, make it stop!" The beasts pulled at his limbs and drug him around like a doll. The pain of each individual bite was as excruciating as having his wings chopped off. Niko fought back, tears falling down his face, kicking and swinging with whatever strength remained in him. His hands met with nothing. He couldn't touch the beasts. He saw them there, he saw his blood on their teeth and on his clothes, but he couldn't make contact with them. He squirmed underneath the one pinning him to the ground as it sunk its teeth into his neck. 'Why am I not dead yet? I should've died by now...' He cried uncontrollably from the pain. He wanted to look over at River, to see that he was still alive, but he was too terrified to look. Niko feared the worst, and did not want his last time seeing River being in some gruesome state. He reached his hand out for River, hoping he might at least touch him. "River..." A hand grabbed his hand back. Niko forced himself to look. River lay on the ground, pinned down and unflinching. There was no agony on his face. He remained calm. River looked over at him and smiled. "It's not real, is it?" Niko asked. River shook his head. When Niko thought about it, the pain subsided. The blood he saw on himself disappeared, and then the beasts. They were never there at all, he realized. It was another illusion. "So, this place is like the forest, but...worse..." Niko sighed. He couldn't stand up. His entire body was heavy and weak. "The land is tricking me and stealing my life away. How are we supposed to get through this if we lose strength as we move forward?" River forced himself to sit up. He leaned over Niko and opened up the clam shell on his necklace. Niko closed the shell before he could take the pearl out. "Lorn said not to use it until I absolutely can't stand it any more. I'm not at my limit yet. Help me up. We'll have to push ourselves until we can think of something." River took Niko's hand and pulled him up. They both struggled to walk. River handed Niko some food from his bag. They ate as they walked, pushing themselves to their absolute limits. After a few hours of walking, they both collapsed on the ground, unable to move any further. Niko held River's hand. "We're going to have to sleep out here at some point. It'll be impossible for us to cross such a large distance without resting. Will I even be alive in the morning? Or will this place kill me in my sleep?" Niko saw the sky was getting very dark now. There was barely any light at all. Because the sky was filled with the clouds of a storm that would not pass, he couldn't see the stars or moon, but he knew night was coming. River put the blanket over the two of them and huddled up against Niko. Niko held onto him, afraid of closing his eyes and never opening them again. He wanted to avoid sleep, but it came against his will. He was so tired from those hours they spent in the desert that he fell asleep easily. In his dreams, he saw hands reaching out of the barren earth, half decayed and all reaching for his body. The hands grabbed everywhere, yanking and tugging, pulling and digging. He tried to free himself, but he couldn't. Voices screamed from underneath the earth. He didn't know the words, but he felt the pain. The earth seeped red underneath his body. Then, the hands moved away. He looked up. An avia from the western desert stared down at him. He had raven hair and eyes nearly as dark. His skin was a copper shade, and he wore leather on his body. Around his arms were tattoos of symbols he didn't recognize. His jet black wings extended out. He looked at Niko with a kind gaze. "Looks like you're in quite a predicament. Who are you?" The man asked. "I am Niko, one of your kind from the Sky Kingdom, beyond the Valley of Rain." Niko sat up. In his dream, his strength returned to him. "What are you doing out here?" The man asked. "I need to get home. I had to cross through the Abandoned Lands to do it, but now...I don't know how to leave this place." The man stood up and offered him his hand. "If you're speaking to me, you must have found the stones I left behind." "Are you Ahote?" Niko asked. "Yes, I am. You must be able to read my language if you knew that. Are you a scholar?" Ahote asked him. "Language is my specialty, though I must admit I haven't really had many chances to use your language in academic pursuits. I left the stones where they were, though. I am not carrying any on me." Niko remembered putting all of the stones back where he found them. "If you are not, someone traveling with you must have snatched one of them." Ahote said. "Mmm...River might have done that. I am sorry. Should I return it?" Niko asked. He wouldn't be surprised if River did that. River did sneak away with several of the red stones from the Valley of Fire. "No, it's alright." "How are you speaking to me?" He asked. "That, I cannot tell you." Ahote grinned widely. "That's not really what you want to know. You need to get home. I know a way. If your companion truly carries one of my stones on him, use that to find your way. I've left more throughout the Abandoned Lands. The stones will resonate with another nearby if you pour water on it. The path I've laid out follows along the natural lines where the earth does not steal your strength. As for the lands other dangers, you must manage those on your own. This will take you to the Valley of Rain. I can't help you beyond that. I went a different path from there." It had been so long since he last spoken to one of his own kind. What he learned from Lorn intrigued him. "I know...that we do not know each other, but...I heard you also traveled with a human. What were you seeking?" Ahote continued to grin, as if he already knew exactly what Niko was going to ask him about. "I was also a scholar. I studied the world itself and all the life on it. Until a few years ago, I used to travel far from home to study different creatures for months at a time before heading home with my scrolls to house in our library. On one of my journeys, I became very lost and ended up in the plains. I met a human there who agreed to help me find my way home, but...well, I fell in love and such a romance is forbidden in my home. So, we left together and came to the Lost Forest, where my lover was born." "I didn't think anyone lived in that place," Niko said. He rarely heard anyone speak about the Lost Forest. It was to the south of the Valley of Rain and stopped at the Lost Sea. No one sailed through that place and made it back. Sailors and pirates spoke in whispers of the monsters that lived within those waters. The forest, vast and dense, carried rumors of monstrous creatures as well as legends of ghostly creatures, but no one ever went there either. The Lost Forest, the Abandoned Lands, and the Night Forest--these three places were the forbidden areas no one traveled through. Ahote laughed loudly. "Oh, it is full of life." "I've heard that in the western desert, you practice monogamy unlike the rest of our kind. Was it your lover being human that was taboo?" "Yes, both of those are correct." Ahote folded his wings up as he walked with Niko through the desert. "I know it seems strange to you. We are the only avia who are monogamous, and most would never consider being with a human at all. I don't regret my actions." "You can never return?" Niko asked. "Not with my lover by my side. I don't mind. I'm happy where I am." Ahote got to the heart of the matter. "Are you contemplating such things?" "I...You can see I...have lost my wings. I won't be able to live normally when I return. I'm going to clear my name for the crime I was falsely accused of. But...I don't know what I will do after that, or if I should burden anyone else with my existence." Niko fumbled with his words. He wasn't normally the type to reveal his troubles so easily to anyone, but for some reason, he felt like he could trust Ahote. There was a strange, almost unnatural calmness about him. "Burden? That's quite a strong word to use." Ahote laughed to himself. "Are you in love with your companion?" "I...I don't know..." Niko couldn't admit he did know the answer to that question. He wasn't ready to face that yet. "I'm afraid, no matter what I do, I'm going to regret it." "If you do nothing, you absolutely will. You must make a decision. Perhaps, you should speak to your companion about your fears. I must go soon. Someone else is calling me elsewhere." Ahote looked out toward the horizon. "Who are you really? Are you a servant of the goddess?" Niko asked him. "I'm a servant of her consort, the one who rules the world below and the realm of dreams. I am nothing special on my own. If he so chooses, I can be powerless again." Ahote ran his fingers over the thick jade necklace he wore. "What is it you do?" "I guard the forest I reside in, and I come to those who call for me. You called and I answered. I must be going now. I have many I must see tonight. I wish you luck on your journey, wingless one. Perhaps, without them, you may find your happiness easier to hold." Ahote's words held meaning lost on Niko. "What do you mean?" He asked in confusion. "Farewell." Ahote vanished. The dream ended. Niko woke to swirling grey above him. River sat beside him, pouring water on one of the stones they found in the Night Forest. "River, I had a dream that...what are you...?" Niko sat up and watched River. The stone started to vibrate. River held the stone out in different directions to see which way it vibrated the strongest in. Niko asked him, "Did you meet him too?" River nodded. "Yes! So...you did steal one of the stones." River shrugged at him. Niko attempted to stand. His body was still very weak. Sleep did little to restore his energy. "Uh, another day of this. How did he survive out here? Are those from the desert stronger?" River got up and walked several feet away. He stopped and waved Niko over. Niko went to where he was. The stone in River's hand was vibrating so strongly it buzzed. At River's feet was another stone, singing the same note as the one in River's hand. As they stood beside the stone, their strength returned to them. River walked out a little from the stone to find the direction of the next stone. When he got a good reading of which way it was, he waved for Niko to follow him. Niko's strength stayed with him. Niko thought back on his dream. "What did you think of Ahote?" River tilted his head. "You said you met with him too," Niko said. River shook his head. He pulled out a piece of paper and wrote Niko a short note. 'I met Lin, the human.' "Oh, so we each met with the other half of the pair. What was the human like then?" Niko asked. River wrote a single word down. 'Handsome.' Niko stared at that word for a moment, wondering if the message was meant as a joke. He looked over at River. "You don't have more to say than that?" River grinned and shrugged his shoulders. He rushed ahead. River pointed to the ground. Another stone. "My strength has come back completely. It's as if there's an invisible path here. How did they find this? Luck? Or did they have some secret knowledge?" Niko didn't think to ask about that in his sleep. He wondered if he would see Ahote again. 'Servant of the goddess's consort...What does that really mean?' The goddess's consort was rarely spoke about in ceremonies and spiritual studies. He was created from the goddess's loneliness, her first creation in the time before she created the sky. Most of everything was created by the goddess alone, but the union of the goddess and her love born the realm of dreams, the underworld of the dead, the sea, and all that dwelt within those domains. He brought to the realm of the living the force of death, and he and his servants guided the souls of the dead across the river of stars beneath the earth. His companions were the dog and the salamander, while the goddess surrounded herself with birds. The night to her day, the spiritual to her physical creations--he was not worshiped as she was. Many feared a visit from the goddess's consort, even within the realm of sleep. Meeting one of his servants, it unnerved him. Did this mean he would die soon? He hoped it had nothing to do with that, but the vastness of the desert fueled his fears. River and Niko managed to find another four stones before the land cast another temptations into madness at them. Above them, one of the giant birds soared over head. Its wings created lightning with each flap. Niko told himself it was another illusion, but his body reacted against his mind. The bird swooped down and landed before the, then charged at them. Niko repeated to himself again and again that it wasn't real. The bird was too realistic for his body to believe him. When the bird was nearly on them, he couldn't stop himself from running away. River followed right behind him. The bird caught him in its beak and forced him to the ground. He saw it rip open his gut and eat out his stomach. It was, after all, another illusion, so he did not die from it. Since he knew it was not real, once the illusion escalated beyond what should have killed him, he stopped feeling the pain. The illusion's severity dampered its effectiveness now that he knew what it was. Hands reached up from below the ground, as they did in his nightmare. He couldn't hear their voices this time, but he felt their touch. They wrapped around each of his limbs and pulled down. The illusion showed the hands using such great force that his wrists and ankles snapped, but he did not feel the pain of that either. Once Niko's initial fear wore off, the illusion faded. Niko sat up, all of his injuries gone. His strength, however, left him. They were too far from the stone path for him to retain it. It slipped away from him so quickly he couldn't stand up. River struggled as well. He opened their bag and passed Niko something to eat. The food replenished a small amount of their strength. River searched with the stone to get them back on the path. It didn't take long to get back on track. They went another day before the land tried again to torment them. They slept beside one of the stones, and rose early. Niko had the same nightmare about the hands and voices again, but he was not joined by Ahote this time. He woke in the morning with his heartbeat ringing in his ears. After breakfast, they wasted no time in continuing on. The land tormented Niko in a different way than before. As Niko walked, he started to feel tired despite being on the stone path. River was unaffected. Niko's feet dragged. He saw River looking back at him in disgust. "I'm sorry...I don't know why I'm so tired." Niko apologized for his sudden weakness. He recalled when they first started traveling together and how often he needed breaks. 'He must have been annoyed with me then too.' River walked faster ahead of him. Niko tried to catch up. His feet felt as heavy as iron. "Wait! I'm sorry...Please, don't leave me behind!" His body became so weak that he collapsed onto the ground. He crawled toward River. River glared back at him and coldly turned away. He ran off ahead without him. "Wait...please...please...don't leave me..." Niko reached up in the direction River ran in, but he could no longer see him. The weight of his arm was too much for him to bear. His arm dropped down, hitting against the earth with a loud thud. "Why...why...please, don't leave me..." No one answered. He could no longer raise his head. Niko couldn't take anymore. He opened the shell and swallowed the pearl. It was cool in his mouth, and melting as he swallowed it. He wondered what it really was. The illusion he saw of River vanished. He was somewhere else now--at a cliff. Niko looked over the cliffside, then back behind himself. He recognized this place. This was Shell Village, and the little house behind him was River's home. A heavy storm raged around them. River stood beside him at the cliff edge. He wondered if this River was an illusion or real. "River?" Niko called out to him. River stared intently over the cliff. Niko looked back over to see what he was looking at. He hadn't noticed it before, but there was a long rope dangling over the side. It swayed slightly in the wind. Cautiously, Niko moved closer to the edge to get a better view of what was below. At the very end of the rope, a person hung from the end. He couldn't make out the features, but the person appeared to likely be a woman. Another person joined her on the rope, one smaller than her. The little person climbed up over the woman. The two people were soon joined by a third person, one bigger than the other two, who appeared to be a man. The three individuals climbed up the rope as the wind picked up and swung them back and forth along the cliffside. Niko's heart sunk. This was not his illusion. He glanced over at River, who was transfixed by the scene below them. The wind picked up more. It was so strong that Niko had to move away from the edge for fear of falling off it. River would not budge. A strike of lightning across the sea and a snapping down below--in the seconds following that, a man's scream echoed around them. The wind grew merciless in its strength. Niko watched the rope get dragged across the cliff by its force. Another snap, and another scream. This time, it was the woman. Niko's body shook in horror at that terrible, desperate cry, but morbid curiosity called out to him. He crawled back over to the edge to peek over the side. Only the small person remained on the now drastically shortened rope, and the sea below splashed and swirled with a beautiful crimson tint. In the waves crashing against the cliff, Niko saw bits and pieces of things he immediately wanted to remove from his mind. His stomach turned. The little one climbed higher, getting tossed about by the wind. The closer the child got to the top, the better Niko could see the bruises and cuts left by the cliff. Where the rope was tied was wearing thin. Niko's heart pounded in anticipation of the final snap. When it came, he expected a third scream in spite of knowing he shouldn't. The child managed to cling to the rocks and climb up the rest of the way. When the boy made it to the top, his palms and bare feet bled all over the ground. The boy stumbled to his feet, body weak and beaten, and ran with all the strength he could muster toward the rest of the villagers. The sky changed quickly, now darker than ever. Niko watched the boy return home, more beaten and bruised than when he left. With no strength remaining, the child collapsed in front of the house's door. The scenery around them changed. They were now inside a dark cave. The sole exit to the cave overlooked the raging sea. Inside, beautiful shells were faintly illuminated by glowing, blue crystals. The crystals fascinated Niko. He'd never seen anything like them before. He reached out to touch one. He could only do so for a few seconds. The moment his skin made contact with the crystal, it burned. He pulled his hand away. The child from before worked to dig out the shells and avoid the blue crystals. Waves hitting against the cliff flooded the bottom of the cave. The water was rising. Each wave came in with a great enough force to knock the child down, and pulled back so strongly the child had to hold onto whatever he could grasp to not be dragged into the sea. Niko watched the child cling to those burning stones when the water rushed back out, biting his lip in pain and holding back tears. The boy filled up a big bag full of shells before reaching for the rope. Niko watched him from the cave's entrance as he attempted to climb back up the cliff. River did not watch. He sat in the water, unaffected by its strength. The child didn't get far before a big wave, one that was taller than where he was on the rope, hit against the rocks. When the waves receded, he fell from the rope into the sea. He was slammed into the cliffside several times before managing to get back inside the cave. The boy managed to not lose the bag he carried, but half the shells were gone. Bleeding and terrified, the child broke down. He sat on the floor of the cave and cried. Niko's heart broke listening to the child. The boy's cries did not last long. The ocean cared not for his pain, and slammed the cliff and the cave with another big wave. The cave flooded above the head of the boy for a moment. He clung to the crystals and his bag as he waited for the water to go back out. The water only halfway went back down. The boy rushed back over to the rope and climbed quickly. His sorrow was replaced entirely by fear. Everything changed again. Niko and River were inside River's old home. Niko watched the little boy enter the home with food and the same bag of shells, now only a quarter full. The child sat down at the table and ate dinner alone. He silently cried as he ate. When he was done, the child looked over the scrapes and cuts he got from the cliff. The tears kept pouring out, but the boy didn't say anything. Niko couldn't stand it anymore. He took a spare bowl and filled it with water from the pitcher on the table. The hand towel sitting near the pitcher was dipped in the bowl. Niko sat at the table and took the boy's arm. He washed the wounds clean. He said, "You didn't do anything wrong." The boy looked at him, wanting to say something to him, but the words couldn't break free. Niko was used to that sort of silence. He washed the boy's other arm, then his face. The illusion faded away. Niko looked over at River. He wiped away the tears. "Have you been seeing this the whole time?" River closed his eyes and nodded. "Since the forest?" River embraced Niko. He cried on his shoulder. Niko petted his hair. As River cried, a little of his voice escaped the chains he placed on himself. Niko got a glimpse of what River really sounded like, but River couldn't manage to say any words. Time was always slipping away from him, but right then, Niko didn't care. 'You've been wanting someone to hold you like this all these years, haven't you? I'll wait. Take as long as you need.' When the tears stopped, River stared up at Niko. They locked eyes before kissing. Whispers called out from underneath the ground. Niko broke the kiss. "Do you hear that?" River nodded. Niko asked, "What do you think it is? It doesn't scare me like before, but I haven't heard them outside of my dreams until now." River wrote him a note. 'I've heard them the whole time. I think they're lost spirits.' "That's what I've been thinking. What happened in this place? I can't understand the language of the spirits, but I feel like...something evil happened here." River clasped the shell necklace in his hand and opened it. He looked up at Niko. "Do you think I made the wrong choice?" Niko asked. River felt over the grooves in the shell. He only smiled in response and slipped his hand into Niko's, holding tightly. As they walked on, Niko caught a glimpse of the distance in River's eyes. The journey across the Abandoned Lands became easier with each day they traveled. The illusions no longer tempted their minds into despair. They saw through all of them. All the cursed earth had left to torment them with were nightmares. Each night, they dreamt of hands reaching up from the earth and voices crying out in pain. Niko and River learned to call for Ahote and Lin to accompany them during the night, and the nightmares too lost their effect. Niko learned a little more about Ahote in his dreams. "You serve the goddess's consort. How did you come into that role?" Niko asked him one night. "Lin and I completed a trial for him, and he bestowed that right onto us as a reward. That was not that long ago. For most of my life, I have been completely ordinary and entirely powerless." Ahote walked with him in the empty dreamland. "Lin is different...he had some power he was unaware of for most of his life. It was in that place that he discovered it." "What was the trial like?" Niko asked. "We had to solve a labyrinth full of beasts." Ahote pointed to Niko's back. "I nearly ended up without my wings." "What does the goddess and her love actually look like? Have you seen them?" "The goddess...she is a shapeshifter. She prefers the form of the great bird to watch over us. But I did see her real form. She has wings like we do, and is how our kind describe her. I thought perhaps we all see her in our own image, but Lin described her to me as exactly how I saw her. She is like our kind more than any other life on this world. The goddess is of the sky." Ahote held the jade necklace around his neck. "As for the one I serve, he is also a shapeshifter. He prefers the form of the land animals. But his true form is similar to a human. He has no wings or tail, though he can create them for himself if he wishes. I learned from him that our kind was born first, to stay in the sky with our mother goddess, but my master wished for children to run with him on the earth. So, the goddess had some of our kind born without wings. Their daughter, the sea, also wished for company, and some of the children born without wings came to be born with tails instead of legs. That is how our three kinds are connected." "So, we were first," Niko said. "Well, not exactly. The winged children of the past were more like true birds. At each split, there were changes both ways." Ahote showed him images of beings from the past. The winged being looked somewhat like his kind, but their entire body was covered in feathers. The human-like being was thinner and taller than a human, looking more like himself now that he no longer had wings. "This is what once was." The images amazed Niko. He turned to Ahote. "You have come into so much wisdom, but you do not look that much older than me. How old are you?" "I am twenty-nine. I'll be thirty in the spring." "Your third decade. Congratulations!" Niko said. "Ah...hmm, this may be a stupid question, but do you have a special celebration for your twentieth birthday?" "Yes, that is when we turn of age." Ahote said. "I received my title of nature scholar then." "Oh, so your celebration is different than ours. I had wondered since your kind views relationships very differently from most of us." Niko felt a twinge of embarrassment. The desert avia celebrated adulthood with choosing a career path. In his home, they celebrated with a sex party. It sounded so shallow in comparison. "Yes. I've heard the kinds of celebrations you do in other places. That must be quite something to see. I don't think I'd like it. I'd rather not be pressured into doing something like that at a specific age." Ahote's words hit Niko in a way he didn't expect. He never once thought of what he did that night as something he was pressured into. He looked forward to it for years, and that night was one of the happiest nights of his life. Niko started to doubt his feelings. Could he have really been genuinely happy if everyone around him was expecting him to be happy about it? What would have happened if he decided he didn't want the party at all? He couldn't imagine his younger self even contemplating such a thing. It simply didn't exist within him then to question something so ingrained into his culture. Ahote looked over at him and laughed. "I can see what you're working out in your head. Don't think deeply on it. There is no one alive who is not bound to something from birth and molded by the small world around them. Don't question your feelings. They are yours, and no one else's, just as much as this doubt you are feeling now is entirely your own. We are ever-changing beings, formed by the experiencing, remembering, and forgetting that occurs after every dawn. Don't think deeply on it, and do not fight it." Niko thought over his words, and had more questions to ask him about that, but something else was consuming his attention. "You've given me much to think about, but next time I dream...could I speak to Lin instead? I'm curious about meeting him." "You wish to see Lin? That's simple. Next time, call for him instead of me, and he will come to you." Ahote said. "I'll try. Ahote, could I ask you once last question?" "Go ahead." "As I am, I can never...live as I did before. I don't have wings anymore. If I stay in the Sky Kingdom..." Niko's voice trailed off. "You'll be nothing more than a caged bird with clipped wings, never able to know freedom again." Ahote created an image of a metal cage with a small white bird inside it. The bird stared up at the heavy cage door. He made the bird and the cage disappear nearly as quickly as he conjured them. "I don't think I could ever truly live in the human world either. There isn't a place for me in this world. How should I live my life now?" Niko could learn everything about humans, and something as simple as his face, the scars on his back, or how he was light as a feather--these could all give away his true nature and have him shunned or killed for it. At home, he would be confined to live in his family's home, forbidden from traveling in public without a legal reason to or an escort. Without his wings, he would be seen not as an avia nor as a human, but something lesser than both. He would be forbidden from working, relying exclusively on the charity of his family, even with his name cleared. Clearing his name would simply allow him to be within the kingdom's walls, nothing more. He could never hold any position of power. He would be barred from doing business in the market, as a seller and a customer. No one would dare invite him to a party. When he returned, he would have a limited amount of time to clear his name before being thrown back out. That was all he had left--the hope of that small window alloted to clear his name and if he was lucky, that he could make sure the same punishment was given to the one who rightfully deserved what was done to him. "The world is vast and great. If you find no comfort in the places where people gather, that does not mean there is no place for you in the world. It may not be set yet to your comfort, but the tools to make it are there. Where that place is, where you belong...you must find that for yourself. The world is our mother. Seek her embrace when the dark of night is upon you." Ahote said to him. "A place for me..." Niko looked down at his hands. What sort of home could he create with them? What would he want in that place? He didn't know. "Let my words sit with you for a while. Your heart will lead you in time. For now, you must stay strong, and remember...the home is warmed most not by fire, but the spirits we fill it with. What will bring you peace may not be found in a place or an object." That was the last time he spoke to Ahote before the trial. In the morning, Niko and River followed the stones again until they were too tired to walk any farther. They were close to being free from that dangerous place. For the last couple of days, the mountain was visible on the horizon. They had only one more day of walking left. Before falling asleep, Niko talked to River. They didn't talk about anything important. It was too dark for River to use his notes, but Niko understood enough of what River was saying by now from the hand signs he made. When it was too dark to see River's hands, Niko used his own to feel the shapes River made, carefully reading each gestures meaning with his skin. He fell asleep against River, holding hands under the thin blanket that had sheltered them through their long journey. On the last night they spent in the Abandoned Lands, Niko met Lin. Lin, being human, was much shorter than him. Niko estimated he was slightly shorter than River. He had medium length black hair and dark brown eyes, and his skin was slightly lighter than Ahote's. Compared to Ahote's sharp features, Lin's face was more rounded. He wore clothes similar to River's. Around his neck was the same jade necklace that Ahote wore. On his left wrist, he wore a jade bracelet with round beads and beads shaped like salamanders. Lin's voice was deeper than Ahote's and his own. "Hello. You must be Niko. Your companion has told me much about you." "My companion? River?" Niko wondered what River had told the man. "Yes, he's a very kind person, and very lonely." Lin sat with Niko not in the Abandoned Lands but in a forest Niko didn't recognize. The trees were greener than anything he'd ever seen, and the air was hot and humid. "What is it you wished to speak with me about?" "I don't know very much about human ways or how humans think. I suppose...what I want to ask you is...I don't know. I have strange thoughts. I don't want to part with him, but there isn't a world in which we can be together...nor do I know if he really wants that." Niko reached out for a bright orange flower nearby. The petals were soft on his skin. "He's been alone for so long, I don't think he knows many would love him. And I...well, if I chose to stay in the Sky Kingdom, he wouldn't be allowed to stay with me unless my family put him into servitude. I don't want that." "You could pretend to be a human. You don't have wings anymore." Lin said. "If someone found out my secret, it could get me killed...it may get him killed as well. I can't do that...and from what I've heard, even if I were human, we still would not belong there." Niko said. "That is true. Many human places would not allow that." "If I let him go, he has a much better chance of being ordinary and finding happiness." Niko plucked the flower. Small dew drops slid down into the center. He pulled two of the five petals off. "He shouldn't be cursed to be with a pariah like me." "Is it a curse?" Lin asked with a smile. "Most of the world will shut us out." "I don't think that's true. Most of the world isn't inhabited by either of our kinds." Lin refuted his words calmly. "Then I'll be dooming him to loneliness." "One can be lonely in a crowd. I'm sure you've already realized that." Lin plucked a red flower from a bush nearby. He took the orange flower from Niko's hand and tied it with the red flower. The red flower had seven petals instead of five, and it's petals were bigger than the other flower's. Tied together, where one flower began and the other ended wasn't clear. The orange looked as if it belonged in the center of the red. Lin handed it back to Niko. "One cannot know what brings loneliness to another without asking." "I don't think he understands what he would be giving up. He's been beaten down too many times to know." Niko twirled the flowers in his hand. "No one should be with me." "You can't determine for another what brings them happiness either." Lin laughed under his breath. "I know you are meaning to be kind, but you're actually quite selfish in your approach." "I don't see how it's selfish." "He loves you." Lin said with a piercing stare. Niko averted his eyes. "It's because he's known nothing else but cruelty." "No, it isn't." Lin leaned closer to him. "What are you afraid of?" "What do you mean?" Niko asked. "What indeed." Lin put his hand on Niko's face and brushed back his hair. "You're very good at lying, even to yourself. The trip through the forest won't take long. I suggest you shake off the deepest illusion you've been carrying with you before you ascend the mountain." "What illusion are you talking about? I haven't been seeing them anymore." Niko didn't understand his words yet. "You have about a week left." With those words, Lin and the forest faded and Niko woke from his dream. For once, he woke before River. He watched him sleep for a while. River looked so peaceful sleeping beside him. Niko couldn't bring himself to wake him early. Gently, he caressed River's neck, thinking on the invisible wound there. 'If you stay with me, will this ever heal?' When River woke, they ate and continued on. The trees grew larger over the day until finally they saw the edge of the desert. Hand in hand, they ran to the other side. They were immediately drenched. The humid air kept them from being cold. Finally, they were in the Valley of Rain. Once they reached the mountain base, all Niko needed to do was go up it to reach home. The trees in the valley were mostly close to the mountain. Farther away from the mountain, the valley sloped down into shrubs and grass with a river through the center of the valley. The same storm that twisted around over the Abandoned Lands covered the sky. Niko could see in the distance where the rain let up. When he lived above this place, he sometimes watched the storm move in its perpetual circular path. He didn't give it much thought. Now down below, he was in awe of this storm that never ended. The trees near the mountain were massive. Some had spaces carved inside them, as if someone once lived in them. They took shelter inside the spaces at night. Niko thought it might be cramped inside, but those small spaces, he felt cozy and safe. The closer they got to where Niko needed to go, the more distance River kept between them. Niko wondered if this was River's way of answering the question he couldn't bring himself to ask. A part of him hoped he was right, and another that he was wrong. Lin was right. It would only take a week, and before Niko knew it, that week was nearly over. Twenty-four hours remained, and Niko wasn't any more ready to make that decision.
VIII. Valley of Rain