In the morning, River woke him. Though he fell asleep not long after River, he was still used to waking up later in the day. He forced himself out of bed and washed his face off. Niko sniffed himself. As he suspected, the disgusting smell he noticed was his own body odor. He cringed. 'We're leaving today. I don't care if I have to wash off in barrel or a pond.' He sat down to eat with River, who got them something for breakfast. "When we leave here, what's past this? Is there another human settlement nearby?" River shook his head. He mouthed the word "plains". "Are there any bodies of water within a day's walking distance?" Niko asked. River opened the map and checked. He nodded. Niko ate his breakfast. The human dish disgusted him, but he was too hungry to care. "If it's not too far out of the way we're going, then I want to stop there." River nodded. "We should buy some supplies before we leave. I hate to ask you this, but could you help me buy some clothes? I appreciate you lending me some of yours, but these are...not really comfortable for me." Already feeling indebted from before, Niko quickly added. "I'll repay you, I swear." River jotted down something on a note. He handed it to Niko. 'You don't need to repay me. Let me handle the rest of the shopping. There are some things I want to tell you to avoid before we leave.' "Yes. I...I was careless yesterday. I keep forgetting where I am..." Niko cringed thinking back on how he acted yesterday. As inferior and vile as he thought humans were, in his present state, they held an advantage over him. That fact angered and terrified him. River was busy writing another note, which he slid across the table when he was done writing. 'Let me tie your hair back before we leave. Men in this region keep short hair. Please do not make any rude comments about anyone being human. If someone asks you about something you don't know, let me answer. Let's continue pretending you're my brother. People will stare less if we tell them that.' Niko looked up at him. "Why are they staring at me? I don't understand." River had an anxious look on his face. He paused before writing a reply. 'They think you might be interested in men.' Niko stared at the note in confusion. "But I am. I have no preference about the gender of anyone I take an interest in. Is that strange to humans?" River appeared to be struggling to give Niko an answer. He wrote him another note. 'In many places, it is considered strange and punishable in others. This area is one of them. It is not a common thought everywhere, but it is in this part of the world.' Niko was still confused. He hadn't flirted with anyone. He didn't understand how anyone could have known that about him if it was so taboo for the area. "What gave me away?" River wrote him another note. 'Your appearance. You look very feminine.' "How am I feminine? And what does that have to do with my preferences?" Niko balked at the notion of him being seen as effeminate. He was considered to be very masculine in his own culture. To him, all humans looked overtly masculine, including young girls. River was already writing another note as Niko spoke, expecting his reaction. He handed it to him. 'A lot of humans who think like that also think any man who has preferences that way as being inherently feminine. I don't know why.' "Stupid. And I still don't understand what makes me 'feminine'. Do you think I'm strange?" River shook his head really fast. Niko picked at the dull food before him. "Humans are very odd. To limit yourself to half the population seems so arbitrary. What about you? Are you like that?" River's face went deep red. He passed Niko another note. 'I don't know what I like. It doesn't really matter for me.' "You don't desire any company at all? Are you sure?" Niko asked. River nodded his head and got up from the table. He packed up their things. Niko watched him from the table. 'Yes, you do. You're too afraid to ask.' After breakfast, River braided Niko's hair back before they left and tucked it into his shirt to hide its length. They left the inn and went straight to the town market. Niko led the way, pointing out everything he wanted to buy while River paid and carried everything. "Those sandals, please." Niko pointed to a pair in a similar fashion to the ones that were popular in the Sky kingdom. The sandals laces around and up to just below the knees. The straps and soles were painted gold. "I see you are a man of fine tastes. Perhaps, some of my other imports might interest you." The merchant said. He held up a sleeveless shirt in pure white that was largely open in the back. "Look at this. The finest silk and cut in island style." "Yes, this is nice. I'll take this one and...this one." Niko grabbed a cape. In his home, it was customary for men to drape large pieces of silk over their shoulders or wear cloaks, concealing most of their shirt and allowing plenty of room for their wings to move freely in the back. He no longer had a use for that aspect nor the open back of the island style shirts, but it made him feel more like himself again. "For pants, I'm looking for a bit of a different style, but with similar fabric. Do you have any imports from other areas?" "I do. Come, look over here. These are some of my goods from the east, and here from the south." The merchant showed off his other wares. "This...I want this one." Niko picked up a pair of thin, silk pants in white. He grabbed a large silk bag as well. "This bag too." "Yes, yes. Is there anything else I can interest you in, sir?" The merchant was more than pleased to see Niko taking largely from his most expensive items. "That should be all I need, thank you." Niko said. "Let me get these together for you. Your servant?" The merchant pointed to River. River handed him money he'd gotten from selling shells around town. The merchant said nothing of Niko not bothering to haggle for a lower price. That was none of his business if Niko wanted to throw away money, he thought to himself. He took the money from River. "An attentive one, I see. You already calculated up the total price. Don't say much, do you?" "He's mute." Niko didn't correct him about River's status to him. "Thank you." "Your business is most appreciated. Come again." The merchant bowed to him. "We'll need to stock up on food as well. And what else?" Niko thought over what they bought. River had already prepared a list of items they would need. He handed it to Niko. "Did you used to travel a lot? You've very good at this." Niko was impressed. The list was far more extensive than he expected. River shook his head. River handed him another note. 'Let's leave after this. You can change once we've left.' Getting all the supplies took a good hour of time after that. Once they were out of town, Niko was eager to toss the human clothes he was wearing. Niko changed into his new clothes. He wore a loose, thin sleeveless shirt and pants cut straight made of the same thin material. He rolled the bottom of the pants up to his knees, as was customary in his home during spring and summer. Over that, he donned an ankle-length, thin cape. The material was slightly thinner than the rest of his clothes, and the outline of his body was easily visible when he stood in front of bright light. On his feet, he changed out his boots for sandals. The sandals fit nicely, stopping just below his knees. Everything else on him matched his hair, pure white. He felt more at home in the new clothes. They weren't quite like his old clothes. They were light and soft at least, and familiar enough compared to the heavy clothes River dressed him in. He didn't mind boots, but down on the ground, he found the climate much hotter. The sort of weather he was experiencing now was more like midsummer at home. It was customary for noblemen to wear cloaks or capes when in public, as women were expected to show off their wings and men were to keep them largely out of view. Women were always born with more vibrant and patterned wings, or darkened ones as he heard those of his kind who lived in the desert and forests had. Those colors and patterns weren't unheard of in men, but they were rare. His wings of white were far more common. His brothers were the same, and his sisters and mother had a marbled pattern. In his family, it was his cousin Iris who's wings stood out the most. She had big, rainbow colored wings. It was a rare pattern. She always had many admirers. He had many himself, as he was quite handsome and had many of the desired traits for a man of his kind, but a portion of his admirers were only interested in his family's wealth. Down below, none of that mattered. Humans had different standards of beauty. He wondered if River might be seen as more beautiful than him. River watched him with an entranced look. Niko tilted his head. "What's that look for?" River wrote a quick note for him. 'That looks very good on you.' "Oh, thank you. They're not as nice as the clothes I have back home, but they are still very well made." Niko's mood improved somewhat from being complimented. The two of them set out. Though it would be a long time before they could get supplies again, Niko breathed a sigh of relief at not having to be in a human area for a while. The land beyond the city was greener than the one they traversed through before. A single road led out of the city. River walked in the opposite direction towards a distant mountain. Niko didn't recognize it as the mountain below his home city, but he had never paid any attention to the landscape beyond his home before. From high above, the world below was a mix of shapes that blended into the background. The longer he spent away from home, the more that too blurred in his mind. He could see the outline of the city--the sparkling white, silver, and gold buildings, but their forms were harder for him to remember. The home of his family, a series of domes spread out across a hill of stone, was at the edge of the city. His own dome stood at the farthest edge of their home, right beside the drop off. He sat along that edge so many times without any fear or thought of what was underneath him. His sheets, they were white. He knew that. Everything in his room was white. The textures escaped him. He didn't understand why. River took hold of his hand and pulled him forward. He hadn't realized he stopped moving. "Oh, I was lost in thought. Where are we going from here?" River showed him on the map. He pointed to a circular mountain range called Red Scale Mountain and the valley in the center called the Valley of Fire. River moved his hands from there through another location beyond it, Night Forest, over Mermaid River, and through the Abandoned Lands. Lastly, they were to travel through the Valley of Rain before the Great Mountain. The longest part of the journey would be through the Abandoned Lands, a large stretch of desolate land where nothing grew for long. Niko heard whispers of its existence back home. It was spoken of more as a legend than anything real. He couldn't believe he was seeing it on the map. The stories he heard were of ghosts and beasts that drove any who entered there mad--a land where one lost all sense of time and direction, and where the ground itself sucked away all life that set foot on it. On the map, that place was a large, black spot of emptiness. Its size disturbed him. The other locations he also had heard of. Mermaid River supposedly was frequented by mermaids who harassed anyone who attempted to travel down it. Red Scale Mountain and the Valley of Fire was the nesting area of a group of dragons. They nested there every five years, and many humans had foolishly attempted to live in the valley amongst them. From what he heard, there were no more villages there. Night Forest was a forest so dense it blocked out nearly all light to the ground below, making it difficult to tell if it was night or day. Due to this strangeness, like the Abandoned Lands, it carried rumors of ghosts and demons as well. The Valley of Rain he knew, as he had seen that before. Somewhere not far from the mountain below his home, there was a place where it rained nearly every day. A storm perpetually circled around it, never truly ending. He paid little attention to it back then beyond noticing it on occasion. "How long do you think it will take?" Niko asked. River shrugged. "I probably wouldn't like any answer you could give me anyway." Niko walked slightly ahead of River. "There's no time to waste then. Let's go." This time, Niko had more will to move forward through the land. The terrain wasn't as hard on his feet, and his change of clothes kept him cool. His injuries were almost entirely healed, but his delicate upbringing still kept him from staying as strong as he wanted. Within an hour, he needed to rest. River prepared them food while Niko lay in the grass. "We'll move again soon." Niko said, annoyed that River could see his weakness. River nodded and continued making food. When he was done, he poured a bowl of soup for Niko and one for himself. Niko reluctantly ate. This dish was slightly better than the last one River made him, but it wasn't to his liking. River finished eating first and walked a bit ahead of where Niko was. He noticed something and waved Niko over. "What is it?" Niko carried his food with him. River pointed down to a creek. He ran his hands over his arms to mimic washing. "Oh, I can finally bathe." Niko put his food aside and undressed. The water was refreshingly cool on his skin. He washed off his face first. He looked back at River. "Are you not going to clean off too?" River pointed to himself with a surprised look. He nodded and undressed. River turned away from him and washed quickly. Niko wondered why. Public bath houses seemed to be common among humans. 'Perhaps it's because he's been alone so long.' Niko kept the distance between them. As they bathed, Niko noticed scars on River's body. He wondered what their sources were, but did not ask. Niko bathed longer than River. After the bath, they continued onward, resting every hour or so. River kept watch on the sky, as they were coming closer to dragon territory. By sunset, River set up camp. He slept close to Niko again. Niko took that to mean the area was somewhat dangerous. Niko struggled to fall asleep. He woke River. "I can't sleep." Niko whispered. River pulled the blanket over Niko's head and turned over. He went straight back to sleep. Niko turned over out of anger, then turned back. The wind howled. He curled up against River. His heart pounded in his ears. That night, he did not sleep until nearly morning. River let him sleep in late. He woke Niko around when he made lunch. Niko reluctantly ate the food. Once again, the taste was something that displeased him. Niko tried to make conversation. He asked, "Have you always been like this? Were you born not being able to?" River shook his head. "Oh? So, something happened? Were you in an accident?" He nodded. "Huh. I wouldn't have expected that. You don't have any scars around your neck." Niko presumed before River was born mute. He did notice scars on River's body, but there were none where he would expect there to be to make him unable to speak. "What sort of accident?" River held up one of the shell beads. "You were collecting shells?" River nodded. He let the bead go from his hand. "I see. I didn't think to ask when we were there, but where exactly did you collect shells from? Tell me you didn't descend down that cliff..." Niko said. River nodded as he picked up the bead. "I'm amazed you're still alive. Human bones must be much stronger than I expected." Niko held up River's arm. Humans had heavier bodies, despite being typically shorter, than his kind. He heard their bones looked similar externally, but when cut open, were very different and these differences caused humans to weigh more. He wagered he weighed only half of River's weight, even though he was a good six inches or so taller than him. He assumed the bones must have also made humans stronger in general, but he wasn't sure. From what he remembered learning from his scholar friends, human muscles were different too. Something wasn't quite right though. Niko scratched his head. 'Heavier weight...from that height...shouldn't that have made it worse? What are humans made of that they can withstand that?!' He didn't consider that River was leaving out details. Niko let it go and changed the subject. "You lived near the ocean. Have you ever encountered any mermaids before?" River nodded. He lifted up his shirt and pointed to several scars along his side. "A mermaid did that?" Niko asked. River nodded again. He clawed the air with one of his hands. "I see. So, they really are violent creatures...How are we going to get across the river..." River smiled and shrugged. "Well, you don't seem worried...Suppose we'll figure out something when we get there, if we manage to not get killed by dragons." Niko put on his sandals and stood up. "Shall we go?" River packed up their things. They traveled until dusk, not quite at the mountains yet. Not wanting a repeat of their first night outside, Niko obediently followed any directions River gave him before bed and settled with having to sleep beside him again. They rested for the night underneath a small patch of trees not far from the mountains. This time, River was the one to keep his distance. Niko took that as a sign this area was slightly safer than the last location. He was still terrified of sleeping outside. Gradually over the night, he moved closer to River until he was as close to him as he was the previous night. River woke when Niko leaned against him. He turned over to see if Niko was still awake. Niko stared up at the trees, eyes wide open. River rested his head on Niko's chest. Niko looked at him. He calmed down enough to sleep. The following day, they reached the base of the mountain. An old, wooden sign pointed toward something hidden by the trees. A path. They passed through the long path. It led them through the easiest path over the mountain. Another two days passed before they reached the Valley of Fire on the other side. Down in the valley, mountains surrounded them from all sides. The view was disorienting. Niko was overwhelmed by their presence. River grabbed his hand and led him forward. He pointed to a cave nearby. A line of clothes hung between two trees beside it. Someone was living there. "Travelers. How foolish to enter at a time like this." A woman said from behind them. Niko and River turned around. Two women were standing not far from them. The woman who spoke was around thirty. She dressed in plain clothes and wore her brown hair up in a bun. Her skin was pale, and her feet and hands were covered in something black and grimy. Beside her, an old woman much shorter than the younger woman stared at them with a grin on her face. She kept her hair in a bun too, and wore similar clothes. She was even paler than the younger woman. Her hands were covered in the same grime. "Both men. How lucky for you, daughter." The old woman said. "I have no need for them." The younger woman turned her nose up at them. The old woman approached them and asked, "What brings you here to our valley, travelers?" "We're merely passing through. This is the quickest route to where we need to go." Niko said. "Well, unfortunate for you. You'll be here a while. The dragons haven't left yet. No one gets through until they set flight again." The old woman laughed at them. "We don't have time to wait around. Come on, River. We'll find a different way around." Niko turned around and started walking back towards the path they came through. "It'll take you longer to go around than wait." The old woman warned him. "Come, follow me. It's been a long time since we've had company." Niko looked at River. River shrugged. Niko threw up his hands. "Fine. We'll stay." The old woman led them inside the cave. Niko looked out at the sky and the mountains. He didn't notice before, but he saw them now. The dragons walked along the tops of the mountain and circled above the valley. Time was slipping away from him, and he had no choice but to let it happen.
Valley of Fire | TOC