VI. Darkness

The sound of the storm outside the forest grew dimmer as they walked farther in. Niko looked back at where they came from. He could barely see the river anymore. According to the map, they needed to simply walk straight. That sounded easy enough. Now that he was actually in the woods, he didn't trust his feet to lead him on a straight path and his eyes were nearly useless. The silence of the woods made it difficult for him to orient himself. He wanted to hear noise, any noise. River offered him no solace in that regard. As he listened closely, he noticed their feet made no noise when they walked across the land. "River...please, don't let go of my hand. If we get separated...I don't know if I'll be able to find my way out of here...or you again." Niko's body shook. If the torch went out and River let go of his hand, he wouldn't have any idea where he was at all. River couldn't call out to him if something separated them. He alone held the only sound within the forest. River reached under the blanket on Niko's shoulder and unclipped his cape. He slipped it out from under the blanket and tied one end around his wrist. He tied the other end around Niko's wrist. River raised his arm to show Niko what he'd done. He yanked at it to test the strength of the cape. Niko tested the knot on his end. The knot was sturdy, but he was still afraid something might pull them apart. "The old woman said you can speak. I don't know why you won't. Can't you try to?" Niko asked. River hid his face in the darkness. "Please...please try..." Niko begged him. River took hold of Niko's hand again and held it tightly. He kept his face out of view of the flame's light. "If you won't speak to me, please at least stay where I can see your face. Lorn said this place is dangerous. I need to know it's your hand I'm holding." Niko searched for River's face with the torch. "Who knows what sort of creatures live here." River stepped closer to him. Niko felt somewhat relieved. "It's too dark for you to write, isn't it?" Niko asked. River nodded. "Do you think you could light another torch for us? It won't give us much more light, but even a little is better than this." He said. River took the torch from Niko and searched along the ground for something suitable. He lit a second torch and handed it over to Niko. There wasn't much more light with two torches. Niko didn't care. He held onto that small flame desperately. The darkness of the forest terrified him, and his mind conjured all sorts of monsters for him to imagine hiding before him out of sight. "That's a little better," He said. "We can both see each other at least. My main concern being in here now is...if we get off track even slightly...will we be able to get out of here?" River opened the map from the bag and held the torch close. Niko stood close beside him to check it. The Night Forest should only take them a day or two to travel through, by Niko's best estimate. If they went straight, they'd reach the Abandoned Lands. To the left of the Night Forest were unnamed plains and to the right was another mountain range. If they ended up at the mountains, they'd lose even more time. The plains would cost them some time, but it may only cost them a day at most, Niko guessed. That was if they managed to get out of the forest. With nothing to use as reference points, they could easily spend days on end aimlessly wandering in circles without getting anywhere. River used the torch to search the ground again. He found their footprints, then pointed in the opposite direction of them. He began walking in that direction. Niko followed slightly behind River. As they moved deeper into the woods, Niko glanced back at where the river should be. It was gone. There was only darkness. Niko kept walking forward. He could only hope he was going the right way. He asked, "Why is it so quiet here?" Niko stumbled forward a little. He stepped in a hole and nearly dropped his torch. River checked the ground. The hole wasn't very deep, but something caught his attention inside it. A small, shining shell. River knelt and picked it up. "What is that?" Niko asked. The shell was the same kind as the ones in his bag. He turned the shell over. Niko caught glimpses of words on the back before River tossed it to the ground and stepped on it. River kept walking. "Why did you do that?" He asked. River didn't explain himself in his usual string of hand motions. He glanced over at Niko and shook his head, his expression cold. Niko asked no further questions about it. "Do you think anyone else is out here?" Niko asked him. River shrugged. "Um...why don't we do something to pass the time? I could ask you some questions...yes or no questions and you can answer me. We don't need paper for things like that." Niko suggested. Mostly, he wanted to hear any sound at all, even if it was only his own voice. River didn't react negatively to his suggestion. He asked his first question. "You mentioned before you're twenty-three, right?" River nodded. "So, you're two years younger than me. When we first met, I assumed you were younger than that." Niko realized how what he said could come off. "Ah, not that I'm saying you seemed immature or anything like that. You have a very young looking face for a human. I did think you looked a bit sickly. You know, you look a lot healthier now that you're not in that village anymore." River perked up at that last part. He pointed to himself and smiled. Niko nodded. "Really, you do. You're not as pale and you look like you've gained some weight. Your eyes aren't as heavy either." River tried to tell him something with his hands. Niko couldn't understand it. "Ah, I'm sorry. I don't know what you're saying." River's smile quickly faded. "I'm sorry. You can't write to me here. If you don't mind waiting, you can tell me again when we're out of here. I'm still getting used to understanding you when you talk with your hands." Niko said. River sighed and nodded. "I know you're doing your best. I can't see well here either, so I can't fully read your hands or your face. Ah, let's get back to the yes or no questions. That's easy." Niko thought up another question for River. "I know you've spent a lot of time alone, but now that you're away from your village, you can start over anywhere you want. Would you like to start a family?" River took a moment to respond. He shook his head. "No? Is there a reason why? Ah, I said only yes or no questions. I'll have to save that one for another time. So, do you plan on wandering alone after this?" Niko was a little depressed that he expected River would answer that way. He expected River's next response as well. River nodded. Though he presumed as much, Niko wanted to ask why. He'd have to save that for another time as well. "Well, I was thinking..." River stopped. Niko stopped shortly after. "What's wrong?" River pointed ahead of them. Niko froze. Bright balls of lights hovered in the distance. They moved along in a line, all heading towards the same place. Niko and River watched them for a while. At the front of the procession, Niko saw a young woman in white. Snow colored wings with streaks of shadow stayed close to her back. A long cloth wrapped around her shoulders and draped over her wings. The woman, he was certain, was one of his kind. She carried white lilies in her hand as a bouquet. "There is someone else here! She looks like she's being held captive by those spirits. We should help her!" Niko wanted to run to her, but the cape attached to both of them stopped him from moving more than a few feet forward. River wouldn't budge. "What are you doing? We have to help her!" Niko's need to save her grew. He was certain she wanted help. He could almost hear her calling him in his head. River shook his head and tugged at the other end of the cape. "We can all leave together. Let's go." Niko looked over at the woman again. He noticed a white rope around her neck and around her wrists. "Look, there. They've bound her up. She's in danger. We must save her." River shook his head again. He wrapped more of the cape around his wrist to pull Niko closer. "What is wrong with you?!" Niko looked at her again. She turned his way and locked eyes with him. Though they were far apart, he could feel her gaze on him. He swore he heard her calling him. Niko gave up on River. He untied his end of the cape. "Your kind may be fine with abandoning others, but mine is not! Stay here if you must. I'm leaving." Niko ran after her. River ran right behind him. The faster Niko ran, the farther away the woman seemed to get. He couldn't reach her. River caught up to him quickly. He got ahead of Niko to block his path. Niko ran around him. River grabbed his wrist and held him tightly. Niko tried to free himself, but River was far stronger than he was. He was startled by how hard River was holding on. River was actually starting to hurt him. "Let me go! Let me go, damn it! Why are you doing this?!" Niko kept pulling away and looking back at the woman obsessively. "She needs my help!" River let go of his wrist and yanked Niko by his shirt toward himself. He held the torch close to his face so Niko could see him clearly. Slowly, he mouthed, "There is no woman." "What? She's right there! How can you not see her? You saw the lights!" Niko yelled at him. River quickly retied the end of the cape around him. He grabbed hold of Niko's wrist and lowered the torch to show him the ground. A few feet in front of him was a steep drop off. Niko couldn't see how far down it went. River showed him what was beside them. They'd been running alongside a cliff the entire time. If Niko had stepped over a little or kept going forward, he would have fallen over the edge. "It' illusion, isn't it?" Niko asked. River nodded his head. "What did you see?" River looked away from him. He shook his head. Niko sighed. He couldn't believe how easily he was tricked. His mind was full of so much desperation in that moment. All the intensity inside him disappeared once he saw the cliff's edge. He was ashamed of himself. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me." Niko said. River held his hand and shook his head. He searched along the ground to find a safe route forward. River led the way. He guessed from where they came from what direction they needed to go in. Niko's guilt consumed him. If they ended up getting lost, it would be his fault. They traveled for a ways. Niko held that guilt inside him. 'It'll be my fault.' Niko repeated to himself in his head. Unconsciously, he tightened his grip on the torch. The thought repeated itself inside him again and again. 'It'll be my fault.' He thought he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eyes. Niko brushed it off as his mind playing tricks on him. Then, he felt something tapped on his shoulder. Niko jumped. "River, did you...?" A familiar voice whispered behind him. "It's your fault." The voice started him. He quickly looked back. Behind him, a woman around his age stood with rainbow wings. Her beautiful clothes were tattered and stained, and her jewelry slipped off her in pieces. "Iris?" Niko asked. "It can't be...How are you here?" River looked at where Niko was staring. He tugged at the cape. "It's your fault. Because of your exile, we've all been shamed. We're no one because of you." She said. Her tone was empty and strange. "You've destroyed our reputation." "I...I didn't do anything! This isn't my fault! I'm innocent! You know I'm..." Niko reached out to her. River got ahead of him and swung the torch through her. The woman before him faded away like mist. Niko blinked. He stared at River for a long while. "It happened again." River nodded. "I'm sorry...I fell for it again...I don't know why that keeps happening. My mind is strange in here. I can't think clearly." Niko dropped his shoulders. "I'm so sorry..." River sensed how frustrated Niko was getting with himself. He held his hand and leaned against him. Gently, he led Niko on. They moved forward through the darkness. Distant lights flickered in and out of view the farther they went. Niko realized it was best for him to look away when he saw them. The longer he stared at the lights, the more they shifted into something familiar. A pair of lights shot up before them when they reached another cliff. This time, he didn't recognize the faces. They were humans, a man and a woman. River stared at them. "Come with us. We've missed you so." The woman said. "Come. We've been apart for so long." The man reached up to touch River. River did not need to close his eyes to cast away the illusion. He walked right through them. Niko walked right behind him. "Were those your parents?" River gazed only forward and shook his head. When Niko looked back, the human forms split apart into pieces. Water rose from below them, glowing white and rushing through them. Niko could hear the waves, but the water passed through him. His body wasn't wet. The strange water turned dark. Niko lowered his torch slightly to get a better look. Red waves rose higher. He thought he saw something floating underneath the surface. His curiosity got the better of him. He wanted to know what was there. River tugged at the cape again. Niko stopped and followed River through the ocean. The water faded away when River found them a new path. Niko grew more nervous about the cliffs. He didn't want to lose any more time, but worse than that, no amount of time lost would matter if he fell to his death. He had no idea how long they'd been in the forest at this point. He couldn't use the sky to judge. Everything seemed to move slowly inside the forest. He didn't know if it was day or night, if it was raining or the sky was clear. He didn't know if they were going in the right direction. At this point, he would take any way out to not be there. Losing days over the mountain didn't sound as bad anymore. River stopped again. Niko asked, "What's wrong?" River held the torch up to something stuck in the trunk of a tree. A green stone bead glowed. River pulled the stone out of the bark and turned it over. There was something written on the back. River couldn't read it. He showed it to Niko. The script was a language he recognized. When he was a student in his younger years, his main focus of study was language. He knew many scripts and languages. This language belonged to one of his kind to a distant place southwest of his home. He took the bead from River. He couldn't believe what it said. "Stone #2. Ahote. Ahote! That was the man that helped Lorn's wives! He must have come through here." Niko looked around them. He saw another small, green light. Niko and River ran over to it. Niko quickly got the bead out of the tree and turned it over. "Number 3. We must be going the right way. At least...I hope. What if he didn't make it out?" River tapped him on the shoulder and pointed ahead to another glowing stone. This one was much farther away than the other two. When Niko turned it over, it read "Number 5". They followed the lights from five to eleven. With each stone they found, Niko became more hopeful. The twelfth stone bead was harder to find. They couldn't find any more green lights on the trees. River eventually found it on the ground. "It must have fallen. We didn't see the fourth one on a tree," Niko said. River shook his head. He showed Niko what was ahead of them with his torch. Another cliff. "He put it there as a note about the cliff. But that means..." Before Niko could finish what he was saying, another light appeared. A hand grabbed Niko's unbound one and pulled him towards the edge. The rest of the body formed shortly after. Niko froze. His great-grandmother smiled at him. She said, "Niko, you're here. I've been looking everywhere for you." "'re not real. You can't trick me this time!" Niko yelled at the form before him. She tugged at his hand again. "I've been looking for you everywhere. Your mother told me you went to a party that night." Niko's body went cold. "You're not here." "I asked for you to come be with me that night, but you were already gone. You didn't come to me." She got up close to his face. River pulled at the cape. Niko couldn't move. "You didn't come to my funeral either." She started to cry. "Why do you hate me?" "I wasn't...I couldn't..." Niko closed his eyes out of shame. He couldn't look at her at all. It was too painful to see her. He wanted to say, 'I couldn't bare to see you like that, so I hid in my room all day and cried.' The words wouldn't come out. The voice stopped. He couldn't feel anything touching that wrist anymore. He opened his eyes and she was there again, crying. "Niko, why don't you love me?" Niko pulled his hand free from her and turned away. "Which way do we need to go?" River pointed to where and led him on. They found the thirteenth stone shortly after that. Approaching the cliffs became easy after Niko's last encounter. If he closed his eyes and turned away, he could free himself from the vision's grasp. River was never bothered by them at all. 'This will be easy now.' Niko thought. Without the illusions in front of him, he let his guard down. His mind was still very vulnerable. The forest returned to its eerie quietness without the voices created by the lights. Niko's thoughts were left to wander his own inner darkness, running in circles around every word exchanged recently. 'I didn't apologize properly to River when I first ran off. I shouldn't have spoken to him like that. I didn't tell him that.' Niko thought. 'Should I bring that up? What if that upsets him to bring it up?' His mind went deeper. 'I don't know why he's even helping me. I've been far more rude to him than that. I've been nothing but a burden this entire time. He's only here out of loneliness. As soon as he finds a decent person to be around, he won't think about me anymore.' Niko's thoughts kept racing. 'I bet he didn't want to kiss me. I shouldn't have kissed him. He's human. He probably hated it. He probably thinks I'm strange and he's too lonely to say it.' Niko's mind wouldn't stop. He had a thousand questions for himself in that dark place. Was he normal or strange? His mind obsessed over that. He thought about the humans and the merman, and how men below typically preferred intimacy with women. Was that how he was supposed to be? Or was he not like that because of his species? He needed to know the answer right then and there, though he did not know where this need was coming from. He needed to know what was real, and if he was strange for it. He traced his most recent encounters to seek the truth. The last person he touched was River. Though they didn't have sex, what happened between them was not "normal" by most human standards. He thought he enjoyed himself. River seemed to be enjoying it too. More thoughts crept in. Perhaps he only thought he enjoyed it, and River was merely doing it to calm him. Perhaps River was the strange one, and not useful for comparison. At that, he stopped himself. He didn't want to call River strange nor did he truly believe River would do something like that unless he genuinely wanted to. River did tell him that some humans didn't care about such things. He tried to remember what kissing and touching River felt like, but those memories were blurry. He couldn't recall the sensation at all. He then tried to remember encounters with other men. Even his most vivid memory of when he shared a night with the prince he couldn't remember clearly. Everything was clouded in a thick haze. Then, he tried to recall his encounters with women. He could remember his encounter with Ashen more than he wanted to. The experience disgusted him. He tried to remember nights he spent with other women, but much like his memories about men, they were difficult to recall. He struggled to recall anything positive. He tried hard to visualize himself laying against a woman, cupping her breasts, and giving a kiss. He couldn't see it in his mind nor feel it in his body. When he thought about home and if he truly believed what he was taught to think, he couldn't see those memories. His trial and exile were clear as day. The pain of having each of his wings cut off was burned into him. In that moment, all he could recall and feel was pain and disgust. There was room for nothing else. 'I'm disgusting.' The thought hit him hard. A dam broke inside his mind, and negativity and guilt flowed out. 'I never cared about anyone. I went out to a party when my great-grandmother was dying, and I didn't go to her funeral because I was too ashamed of myself and couldn't look at her. I was also rude to people who asked me to share a night with them if I didn't find them attractive enough. I always stayed by Iris because I wanted more attention. I only went to big parties because I wanted to be around important people. I'm a horrible person.' He wanted to cry. He wanted to disappear. Suddenly, his feet felt heavy. Niko dragged along behind River. River looked back at him with concern. He had to say something to River. His body was filled with so much guilt and fear he felt physically ill. "River, I'm sorry to ask this right now...I know it's hard for you to communicate with me in these conditions. Before...why did you kiss me? Was it merely to comfort me? Appease me? Did you hate it? Do you hate me? Am I..." Niko was rambling and he didn't know why. River dropped his torch. The light burned steadily by his feet. He touched Niko's face and wiped away tears Niko didn't know he was shedding. He laced his fingers with Niko's on the hands that were bound. With his free arm, he wrapped it around Niko's neck and pulled him into a kiss. Niko wanted to put his other hand on River's waist, but he was afraid to drop his torch. His negative thoughts fought with his body to block out the sensation building in him. The pain, embarrassment, and guilt nearly overwhelmed everything. River broke the kiss and caressed Niko's face. He didn't have to say anything. Niko saw what he needed in his eyes. He let the torch slip from his hand to hold him closer. As they kissed and Niko closed his eyes to the strange world around them, he took in the closest source of warmth in that cold place. River's body felt right against him. His wet clothes didn't bother him anymore. In the dark, he recognized the texture of River's shirt, the shape of his body, the roughness of his hands. River's intentions were louder than any illusion or torment the forest could create without uttering a single word. He sensed, as they kissed, a deep pain hiding inside of River, well contained behind an invisible cage. He wanted to rid River of that pain as River was alleviating his mind, but he didn't know how to reach it. Niko pulled away. The flames at their feet were burning out. He saw no reason to reignite them. As the light dimmed, he realized his eyes were adjusting to the darkness. "I'm sorry about that. This place...has done strange things to my mind." Niko said. He whispered into River's ear. "Thank you for that. I think I can manage for now, but if it happens again...Please, will you forgive my foolishness and stop me?" River nodded. He reached down to pick up the torch. Niko stopped him. "It's alright. I don't think we'll need them. I've had enough of my eyes playing tricks on me. Can you manage without it?" River nodded and smiled. 'You always could, couldn't you?' Niko wanted to say. He smiled back instead, knowing River would catch the words he didn't say. Niko had many questions he wanted to ask himself and River, but now was not the time. The forest was the enemy of his mind. All he wanted to say and ask could wait until they were somewhere else. A single pain he could not erase. Its presence only became known to him when all the others were brushed aside. Niko kept hold of River's hand. 'What happens when we reach the Valley of Rain?' They followed Ahote's stones through the forest. Niko managed to keep his darkest thoughts at bay and was not tempted toward despair by the illusions of the forest. Niko did not focus on time nor distance. He only walked forward towards the small, green lights ahead and left his thoughts to stay focused on the warmth of River's hand. At the twenty-fourth stone, Niko couldn't believe his eyes. It was faint, but there was light ahead of them. This light was different from the orbs within the forest. What he saw was the sky--gray clouds. They were almost out of the forest. He hoped this was not another illusion. He turned to River. They both ran towards the light. Waiting for them at the edge of the forest was one last stone bead. This one was made of the same material as all the others, carved in the shape of a salamander. On the front of it was a script Niko recognized but couldn't read. It was a very old language that belonged to a group of humans who were dispersed across the lands, largely in the land southwest of his home. Long ago, they lived within the Abandoned Lands, or so he heard. Something happened, and they were scattered about. Many abandoned their language along with their land in the aftermath, though some scholars theorized they were forced from both. What happened wasn't clear beyond there being an issue of an invading group. When he was younger, he would have been able to read it, but he was too out of practice. He'd never encountered that writing outside of his studies. Niko turned the stone over. The message on the back was written by Ahote. Niko read it aloud to River. "Stone 25. Pray to the Great Mother for mercy and strength. Ahote. That's reassuring. I wonder if he made it through." River smiled and bowed his head. He started to kneel. Niko followed him down. "Are you really praying?" River nodded. "I suppose I will too." Niko lowered his head and closed his eyes. He recited a prayer in his head that his great-grandmother taught him when he was young. Niko never thought about it before. This was one thing that was shared between humans and his own kind. They saw her differently. Humans envisioned her as a human who created the world from a patch of earth, and his kind saw her with great, beautiful wings who used the sky to meld the rest. The mermaids were the same, seeing her as one of them and making everything from the sea. Her form and the origin of their world may differ, but the rest of the story was the same. The Great Mother, with skin the color of the earth, hair the color of the night sky, and eyes like the sea, created the world in a clay bowl in her celestial home. She used the spices of clouds and crushed sapphire and onyx, and picked out the stars from her diadem. The moon was a tear she shed for the beauty of the sky. The earth below was made from a broken cup and her favorite herbs. The sea, she poured in her bowl from her favorite vase. With her breath, she gave the wind and the wind blew through the world to give life to everything. She decorated the rest of everything with ground up flowers, sprinkled here and there. When she was happy with her work, she scooped up everything in the bowl and molded the world into a sphere encased inside another, clear sphere. Then, she placed the world in her celestial garden to watch her creations grow alongside all the other worlds she watched over. They all shared this story together, in spite of their differences. Niko wondered if River was reciting the same prayer he was. Niko wasn't particularly spiritual. No one in the Sky Kingdom was. But, in kneeling there beside River, in that quiet, dark place, his mind was at ease. He rose up with River. They walked out of the forest together, hand in hand. On the other side, there was nothing. A vast desert stretched out to the horizon. Grey skies swirled above them. The clouds blocked out the sun and rumbled, but the clouds kept the rain inside. The forest sucked away all warmth. Niko had wished for a change of clothes. Now, he wished his clothes were wet. The heat of the desert made him quickly abandon the blanket he kept on his shoulders. As light as his clothes were, he was already sweating from the heat. River was sweating more than he was. He untied the edge of the cape from his wrist and took his shirt and shoes off, then rolled up the ends of his pants. After that, he retied the cape. "Do you really think we still need this?" Niko asked. River nodded. Niko trusted he was likely right. He recalled what Lorn told him. He mustn't use the pearl while in the forest, only once they crossed over to the other side and when he absolutely could not take anymore. What was awaiting them in the desert, he did not know. "How many days do you think it'll take?" Niko asked. River looked at him and gave him an awkward smile. "I don't want to know, do I?" River shook his head. "Well, there's no point in wasting time standing around. Let's go." Niko took a step forward. If he made it through the desert, what lied beyond that would be simple to travel through. All that remained on the other side was the Valley of Rain, which offered no dangers, and scaling the Great Mountain to reach the Sky Kingdom. The mountain would be the easiest part of the journey, he presumed. It wasn't necessary for him to climb up the mountain to reach home. There was an elevator that transported people and goods up and down the mountain. He need only find a way onto it. 'If I can survive this, I can go home. I have to.' He told himself. His body grew weak as he walked.
VII. The Desert