II. Wandering

At sunset, Niko could no longer see the village, nor anything else. The land was empty in every direction. It was disorienting. He wondered how River was keeping track of where they were. Before they left, River gave him his old shoes, the only thing he had of his garments that weren't too damaged to still wear. They had stopped in a patch of tall shrubs. River started a fire and cooked them dinner, another bowl of an unfamiliar soup dish. Niko hoped the more well off humans had better food. He felt a bit of pity at River for having to eat meals so flavorless and empty. 'Perhaps it tastes good to him?' Niko forced himself to finish his food. River had already finished and was setting up camp. He laid out two blankets in between the shrubs. Niko found his choice of location for sleeping strange. Niko put his dish down and walked over to River. "Is this where you're sleeping?" River nodded. He pointed to himself and then to Niko. "Excuse me? You don't mean to suggest we're sleeping together, do you?" Niko balked at the idea. He was already annoyed at having to sleep on the ground. River nodded his head again. He mouthed the word "safe" to Niko. "I understand your concern, but I'm sure I'll be fine sleeping away from you." Niko started to walk away. River took hold of his wrist and shook his head. He tried to pull him back towards the makeshift bed. "Must I sleep near you? There has to be an alternative." Niko stared down at the bed. It was warm enough outside he wouldn't need a blanket. Ideally, he didn't want anyone to see him sleep, but sleeping near the fire would at least be a somewhat better option. River tilted his head, confused. Frustrated, Niko explained the issue. "It is against my people's customs to allow someone else to share space while sleeping." River had already seen him asleep before, as had the men who took him to his place of banishment, both of which made him feel humiliated. Sleeping beside someone was absolutely out of the question. River wrote on a piece of paper. 'It's unsafe to be alone at night.' "I understand that, but...there is no other option, is there?" River smiled and shrugged. "At least tell me we'll reach a town by tomorrow night." River thought it over and nodded his head. He put out the fire and got in between the two blankets he had laid down earlier. Niko sighed and removed his shoes, placing them beside the blankets. There was little distance he could keep from River. The placement of the blankets amongst the shrubs forced them close, like the walls of a prison. Niko was unnerved by their closeness. He resigned himself to the circumstances. However, he couldn't shake off the rules he had been raised under. In the Sky Kingdom, no one shared sleeping space. It was taboo. Sleep was a private affair--an indecent, vulnerable exposure. This was normal for humans, he knew. River had already settled in and drifted off to sleep. Niko couldn't stop himself from feeling humiliated. He watched River sleep. Niko had naturally never seen anyone else sleep before. The rhythm of River's chest moving up and down was all he could focus on. It looked bizarre when he focused so closely on it. He became unnervingly aware of his own breathing. Every noise in the distance seemed to pound directly into his ears. The wind howled with a faint moan, and twigs shuffled amongst themselves in it. When the wind passed, the noises continued. For a place so empty during the day, it sounded full of life in the darkness. He couldn't stand it. Niko turned over and shook River awake. River sleepily looked over him. Niko could read from his face what thoughts were going through his head. 'Why did you wake me up?' "What sort of creatures are out at night?" Niko whispered. River waved his hand at Niko to forget it. He quickly went back to sleep. Niko stayed close to River. His earlier discomfort was waning with anxiety quickly replacing it. He quietly sat up to check out their surroundings. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness and there was a full moon, so he could see a good ways out. Not far from them, though he could not tell the exact distance, there were shadows moving closer. The shadows walked on four legs and kept their heads low. He woke River again. River pushed him away when he did. Niko took hold of River's head and forced him to look forward. He kept his voice low. "No, over there. What is that?" River rubbed his eyes. He squinted for a moment, then put his hand on Niko's shoulder, pressing down hard. Niko took that to mean he should get down. River lay flat against the ground, pulling the thin blanket that covered them even higher up. He watched the creatures as they roamed closer to them. Niko asked, "Are they dangerous?" River put a finger to his lips and covered Niko's mouth with his other hand. Niko stayed quiet. The beasts moved closer into view. The moonlight revealed dark fur and glowing eyes. Six figures drew near, then split into three groups. Two stayed just ahead of the bushes, and the other sets of twos went in opposite directions around the bush. River kept his hand over Niko's mouth and held his breath. One of the beasts that had stayed before them walked over to the bushes and sniffed the shrubs. It stuck its head through the leaves just above them. A slimy mouth opened wide to reveal three rows of serrated teeth on top and bottom. From the back of its throat, the beast made a deep gurgling rumble. Niko couldn't tell if it was a growl or if the creature was preparing to spit a noxious substance at them. The beast set one foot forward. Its paw was half on the top blanket. Niko wanted to fly. Instinctively, he commanded himself to do so, but he did not move. His mind switched to his kind's other survival tactic, one that those who lived in the Sky Kingdom rarely used. He commanded his wings to camouflage them. In his panic, several moments passed before the painful truth dawned on him. He was so used to it, he had forgotten again. His back was empty. A crack burst out across the sky, echoing on. Nothing moved. A bloodcurdling shriek boomed across the empty land as the moon disappeared. The beasts all scattered quickly. Something hit the ground not far from them. It shook the earth upon impact. As the ground trembled, Niko heard a yelp come from ahead of them. He looked out in the direction of the noise. A giant shadow consumed the landscape. He knew this creature. Occasionally, he saw one of their kind flying down below his old home in the sky. He had never witnessed one of these events himself, but very rarely, one of these creatures would fly up into the Sky Kingdom and attack people. A bird with wings that could darken the sky with a monstrous beak and giant talons to match--the bird that followed the storms and stole children and men alike, they simply called it the Storm Terror in his home. The beast had many names among the different peoples. Among all, its name was synonymous for death. Few lived through an encounter with it. The giant creature ripped apart the four legged beast with ease. Niko was disgusted by the display, but was too afraid to look away. He feared that if he glanced away, even for a moment, the monster would be before him next. He could barely breathe. The gigantic bird wasted no time consuming the beast and moved on to the next one it could catch. There were few places to hide in the empty wasteland. Niko understood now exactly why River had picked this location for their camp and forced them into such cramped sleeping conditions. One by one, the monster ate all six of the four legged beasts. It circled around a few times after it finished them off before flying back ahead of the storm. When it was long gone, the rain followed behind it and drenched them. The thin blanket above them provided little protection from the rain. It was quickly soaked through. Niko shivered underneath the wet blanket as his clothes too were quickly drenched. There would be no sleep for him that night. When morning came, the rain had moved on. The ground showed no signs of the previous night's storm. River was sitting by a fire, cooking up breakfast. He hadn't noticed when River had gotten up. Only when sunrise came and dried him off did he manage to get any sleep. Niko got up and sat down beside River. River handed him a bowl of soup and smiled. The smile faded into a look of concern. "I'm alright." Niko said. "Why didn't you tell me yesterday what would be wandering out here at night?" River sifted through his bag to find something to write on. He scribbled down a message to Niko. 'I didn't want you to panic.' "I would have been fine. I'd rather know what's waiting for me than be surprised by it. Don't keep things like that from me again." Niko raised his voice. 'I'm sorry.' River wrote quickly after his first message. A look of shame shone on River's face. "Look, I understand that you had good intentions, but I don't want you doing that. Do you understand?" River nodded. He looked down at Niko's bowl. It was still full. He pointed to the bowl. "Oh? I'm not really hungry." It was a lie. He was quite hungry, but he wasn't interested in another bowl of the same watery concoction again. River shook his head then went through the motions of pretending to eat. He pointed again to Niko and then at the land before them. "I can manage." River pushed the bowl closer to Niko. "Fine, I'll eat it." Niko brought a spoonful of the soup to his mouth. "For a lowly outcast human, you are very demanding." River handed him a flask of water. Niko gladly took the water. He would rather have something entirely devoid of flavor than the breakfast he had that couldn't decide if it wanted to be tasteless or disgusting. The cheap wine he despised so much before, he would gladly pay the highest price for it right then. His stomach growled for the taste of roasted meats and steamed vegetables, fresh fruit and warm rice. His bed too, he missed. He would still have been in bed if he were home, sprawled out amongst his soft sheets and mountains of pillows. Most business was conducted during midday and the best events late into the night. The latest hours of night through most of the morning were reserved for sleep. In an hour or so, a servant would come by to bring him food. He needed to get home. 'If I clear my name, where will that leave me? Will my family accept me back?' Even as an innocent man, his family had no obligations to take him back as he was. With no wings, he would never be allowed back into normal society. He would be confined to his home if they took him in, but that was better than living in the world below pretending to be a human. At the very least, he wouldn't need to worry about threats on his life or finding decent food. River approached him with a container. He tugged at Niko's shirt. "What are you doing?" River opened the container. Inside was a mixture of some sort of oil and herbs. He pointed to Niko's back. "You don't need to tend to me anymore. I'm sure it's healed by now." The man was persistent. He shook his head and pointed repeatedly. Niko sighed and took his shirt off. River felt over the place where Niko's wings once were. The skin was healed over, large scars left behind. He rubbed the ointment over the scars and the skin surrounding them. For Niko, the process was uncomfortable. The sensation of River's touch didn't hurt him, but it made him aware again of what he was missing. With each touch, Niko could almost feel his wings still there, expecting them to act as a barrier to River's hands moving across. He wondered if this sensation was how a ghost might feel. He concentrated on sending out the signal he normally would when he wanted to move any of his limbs to see how his body would feel in response. When the expected movement did not occur, a strange, almost sickening feeling came over him. This discomfort was quickly followed by frustration and agitation. He wanted to run his fingers over the feathers of his wings. Such a familiar texture was already fading from his mind and the color was beginning to be uncertain to him. He reminded himself that his wings were the same color as his hair. As his hair dangled over the front side of his shoulders, he focused on picturing where his wings would be when he normally sat like that. Like a cocoon, they would be wrapped around him, just slightly overlapping with where his hair was. He wanted to see that view again. He wanted revenge. River closed the container and handed him his shirt. Niko snapped out of his rage for a moment to dress himself. The ointment was still wet on his skin and clung to the shirt. He didn't mind it. Between the hot, dry air and the unrelenting sun, the cold oil felt nice. "How long until we reach the next town?" Niko asked. River pointed up at the sun then moved his hand downward until it touched his other hand, which he laid out flat. "Around sunset?" River nodded as he began to pack up everything. He got on his knees to fold up the blankets. Niko didn't bother with helping. Such a task was a job for a servant. He watched River. "I'm sure I can manage, but I must ask you, is there anything I need to avoid doing amongst humans?" River sat with a thoughtful look. He wrote down a few sentences and handed the paper over to Niko. Niko read over it. 'Don't tell anyone what you are. Don't speak down to anyone for being humans. Don't steal anything. Don't show anyone your scars.' With a smug laugh, Niko tossed the note aside. "Is that all? This will be easier than I thought." When River had finished packing everything, they continued on their walk through the empty land. Niko was exhausted early on, but he didn't let that show. River looked so much weaker than him. His skin was the palest he had ever seen on anyone and his eyes suggested someone who never slept long. While the man had well toned, lean arms and legs, there was an unnatural thinness to the rest of him from lack of nourishment. His gait suggested a sickly tiredness. Though he was an aristocrat who had done little hard work in his life, pride kept him from asking to rest before the other man. River saw through this. He made frequent stops along the way to allow Niko to recover. River knew he would not get tired from the long walk. The strength he needed for the trip did not compare to the conditions he normally worked under. Around sunset, they reached a human city. River gave Niko a series of pages before they entered. 'Let me sell what I have before we part ways. You will need money on your trip. Let me give you some of what I make. You should be able to find a place to stay for the night with that and then some. Please, remember what I told you not to do. There are a lot of people here. You mustn't be found out for what you are. They will kill you. If you don't know how our money is valued, I will explain it to you after I sell my shells. Most of the maps will only show human settlements. You will need to ask for a more specialized map that displays other things on it. Hunters typically ask for these. You should claim you are buying one for a friend who is a hunter. They will not believe you are one. I do not mean to offend you with this. If you have any last questions, please ask them now.' Niko put the pages in his back pocket. "I have no questions. I should be fine. If you wish to give me money, that is your choice. I will accept what you want to give." The human city wasn't as large nor as beautiful as his home. He found the place to be quite filthy. The streets were covered in grime and there was a putrid odor in the air that reeked of human waste and rot. River's home, for all its dusty emptiness, had smelled and looked much nicer. He pitied River. Niko's old clothes were too stained to wear, but his shoes had been fine. River was barefoot, enduring the disgusting roads with no protection. The thought of walking down those roads with no shoes on made Niko squirm. Niko stayed quiet as River negotiated a price for his shells to various vendors in the city. When all but a handful were gone, he took Niko into a back alley and handed him a bag of money. River did his best to explain in notes how their currency system worked. The system was not very different from his home's. Niko thanked River for the money and the help before they parted ways. The first thing Niko wanted to do was find a place to buy a map. He asked around at various shops, annoyed at how many people commented on his "feminine" appearance. To his eyes, his manner of dress made him appear far more masculine than usual, and he was never viewed as feminine back home. If anything, he found most of the humans, male and female, to all be very masculine-looking. He finally found someone who had the sort of map he needed. The seller had a small stall out in the open. He expected someone selling such rare items to have their own establishment, but he assumed humans simply did business differently. Niko approached the man. "Excuse me, sir. I need to buy a particular type of map." The man looked him over for an unnervingly long time. He gave him a disgusted look. "Another strange traveler? What's wrong with you? You at least know how to talk, right?" "Why wouldn't I?" Niko was annoyed already. 'Stay calm. Once I get what I need, I can be on my way home.' "What are you...so dainty...Are you a girl or a boy?" The man reached over the stall and grabbed hold of Niko's chin. He tilted Niko's chin upward and moved his face side to side. "I'm a man, obviously." Niko knocked his hand aside. "Do girls typically dress like this around here?" "No, but you look pretty frail. What's with this hair? Trying to woo a prince?" The man laughed as he ran his fingers through Niko's hair. "Let go of me, you filthy human!" Niko hit his hand away harder this time. He realized what he had let slip out all too late. "Filthy human? Then...what are you?" The man pulled out a knife and walked out from behind the stall. Niko paced back, hoping no one else had noticed what he said. He was already getting more strange stares and a few people had stopped to watch what was happening. As the man drew closer to him, Niko saw a familiar face. River jumped in between them and held his hands up. He quickly scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to the man. The man read it over and stared River straight in the eyes. River did not flinch. The man returned the note. "You shouldn't let your brother go out in public if he's this mad." River bowed and offered the man a small sum of money. The man took it and returned to his stall. River grabbed hold of Niko's hand and led him out of the crowd into another alley. "You...you saved me again. Why did you come back for me?" Niko's heart pounded in his ears. He couldn't believe how vulnerable he felt. He wanted to fly away, but the sky was beyond his reach. River gave him a kind smile and shrugged. He handed Niko a map. Niko unfolded the map. It was a highly detailed one, marking every human settlement, every monstrous danger, and every non-human gathering in the land. He had a map similar to this one, albeit more ornate, in his study at home. He stared at River, confused. "You bought this for me?" River nodded, still smiling. He held Niko's hand and pointed to something across the road. Niko saw that he was showing him an inn. "Perhaps...I'm not quite yet accustomed to dealing with humans enough to be on my own. May I travel with you a little while longer?" Niko wasn't used to being so polite to someone like River. It sounded odd to hear himself talk that way. The smile on River's face grew. He led Niko across the street to the inn. 'You're a very lonely man, aren't you?' Niko thought as he noticed how very cold River's hand was. Niko let River do all the arranging at the inn. He didn't want to risk causing another incident. The woman at the front stared at Niko for a long time, then at both of them. Disgust ruled her face as she spoke to them. "You two together?" She eyed Niko again. River nodded. "Well, you're in luck. We only got one room left. It's the last room down to the left. Pay up." River paid the woman and took the key to the room. Niko followed close behind him. The guests of the inn all fixated on him. Their staring unnerved him. He saw little difference between them and himself. He had a slightly smaller frame compared to a human male, but he was tall. His clothes were human clothes, and there were no differences in facial features that he noticed nor in hair. He did have a lighter complexion than most in the city, but those who lived in the Sky Kingdom had skin tones of varying shades. Niko noticed that their city was very homogeneous compared to his own home. Most in the city had skin slightly darker than his, brown hair, and brown eyes with a few blonds and redheads and some with blue eyes. By comparison, his cousin Iris's skin would seem dark in this place though she was viewed more as having a medium skin tone amongst their people. His own hair of white had no place in this city either outside of the elderly. Thinking of Iris made him all the more anxious. Before his trial, she was the only family member that had stood by him and believed him. For her loyalty, she too could be punished. He prayed she had learned to lie well and given up on his defense. He put that thought away to the furthest corner of his mind. River opened up their room. He followed River inside. Niko knew not to expect much, but he couldn't stop himself from sighing. "Only one bed." River shrugged. He laid down on the bed and felt over the sheets. Trying to cheer up Niko, River patted the unoccupied pillow on the bed and showed off that there were three blankets on the bed. Niko gave a half-hearted smile. "Well, there is that. Do you think there's anywhere to bathe here?" River shook his head. "I suppose I should have expected that too. Isn't there at least a public bathhouse?" Niko had no idea when the last time he had bathed was. He was starting to be able to smell himself. River nodded. He pointed to Niko and then to his back. "Right...scars. Why must all these people be so nosy?" He sat down in a chair. "Dust everywhere. Are humans all so content to live in filth?" River didn't mind the conditions of their room. He felt over the mattress, comparing the softness of it to the worn out mattress he used to sleep on. Fluffing up the pillows kept him entertained for a while before he settled into cozying up under the blankets. Niko found the display amusing. He too slipped into the bed shortly after. Niko wasn't bothered this time as they weren't about to go to sleep yet. There was nothing taboo about sharing beds for reasons not related to sleeping. Casual encounters were the norm, and many non-intimate occasions may also be held on the comfort of a bed. He considered thanking River in an intimate way, but decided against it. While he had heard of his kind having relations with humans, including having children together, he was also well aware humans had stronger and heavier bones. It might be physically risky, and furthermore, a part of his upbringing still left him with slight disgust at River's condition in spite of him too now being "inferior" in a way. 'Still, he has been very kind to me.' Niko considered the idea further, but still chose not to make that offer. He had a hunch River had no experience with such things and would want to enjoy that under different circumstances. Instead, he watched River work with the few shells that hadn't been sold. River broke them into pieces and filed some of the bits down into unique shapes. Niko was interested in how methodical River's movements were, though he didn't have the slightest idea what River was actually making. When a few pieces had been perfected to River's liking, he put the broken shells away and got out the ointment. Niko silently obliged River's coming request and removed his shirt. River rubbed the oil on Niko's scars again. He lingered longer than before, his motions shifting into a deep massage across the rest of Niko's back. When he finished the massage, he got up to get them food. The inn had meat, bread, and ale. It was more filling than what River had cooked them, but Niko found it just as tasteless. Once night came again, Niko found himself watching River sleep. There were no dangers to distract him this time. He placed more distance between them than he had when they were both awake. He considered taking a blanket or two off the bed and sleeping on the floor. He remembered something his mother used to tell him when he was young. 'Don't lay beside another and dream. You may never wake again.' Having been down in the lower realm for only a brief time frame, he wondered why he was so afraid of that above. Practically no murders ever happened in the Sky Kingdom, nor much of any crime. The heavy punishment that came with committing any wicked deed was very effective in preventing that. Why was the fear of death so prominent? He had no answers. River saved him on more than one occasion. If River wanted to kill him, he could have already done that. Niko doubted the man could harm anyone. 'Perhaps, it'll be alright, if it's you.' Niko closed his eyes, his heart beating steadily to a slowing rhythm.
III. Human Ways