I. Leaving Home
The rain soaked through his white clothes. Mud covered his feet. He'd gotten used to walking barefoot. Wearing his sandals was more of nuisance than anything outside. He walked from the valley back to his home inside one of the large, old trees in the forest. Today, the weather was particularly harsh. In the center of the valley, the river overflowed and flooded the area. The water flowed too quickly for him to catch much of anything for dinner. He managed two fish and nothing more. Beside his home, there was a small hut where cooking was done. His lover was busy tending to a cauldron. They exchanged looks before he went to work on cutting up the fish to place in the stew his lover was making. After cutting the fish into bits, he dumped them in the cauldron with the rest of the ingredients. Then, he undressed and hung up his wet clothes near the fire to dry. Taking a jug of water, he went to the doorway of the hut and propped the door half open. He rinsed off his feet. His lover tossed him a towel to dry off with. After drying himself, he stared out at the storm for a while. The storm wasn't weakening. It was getting stronger. He shut the door and sat down by the fire. "How bad is it, Niko?" His lover, River, asked. "The lower part of the valley is completely flooded." Niko rubbed his hands together. "Winter must be coming. The rain isn't warm anymore." "Mm. Sounds right. Sunrise and sunset have changed too." River added a few spices to the cauldron. "When you were away, a couple of travelers stopped by. They were on a pilgrimage to Blood Sea Mountain, like the last two that crossed through. They were both your kind, but one was missing a wing." "A single wing? Were they born that way?" Niko asked. "No, it was a punishment." River said. "Burglary, supposedly. They claimed he was innocent, but couldn't convince the judge. They left together on their own. Apparently, they were close friends." "They might be telling the truth. You know what they did to me." Niko touched his shoulder and looked back, seeing nothing but the wall behind him. Once, he would have seen white wings there. River sat down beside him while their dinner cooked. He leaned against Niko. "You were gone a long time. Fishing must have been bad today." "I'm sorry. I couldn't catch much with the weather like this. I haven't seen a storm this bad in months." "I heard a lot of thunder from here. I was getting worried. Was there a lot of lightning?" Niko held his hand. He lied. "No, there wasn't that much. It was mostly wind and heavy rain." River didn't say anything in response. Their conversation ended there. Both of them sat quietly listening to the rain, looking for clues as to what the sky had in store for them once night fell. Within a few minutes, the wind knocked close the window of the hut. Niko got up and opened it back up to let the smoke out. When it was time, River got up to serve dinner. They ate at opposite side of the fire to face each other as they talked. They talked for a while about trivial things as the storm howled outside. Their conversation trailed off again, leaving a heavy air between them. Both of them wanted to say something, and both knew exactly what it was the other wanted to say. River broke the silence first. "Tomorrow, should we leave tomorrow?" River asked. "Are you sure you want to come with me on this trip?" Niko asked. He filled his bowl again. "This will take months to get there and months more to return home." "Do you intend to leave me alone for most of a year, waiting on you, not knowing if you'll return?" "I will return to you. Why would I abandon you here?" Niko asked. "I wasn't suggesting you would abandon me." River warmed his hands by the fire. "Most don't return from that place if they make it there at all. I don't want you to go there alone. You barely know anything about being down here, and you can't fly anymore." "You could die too." "I know." River said. "And I could die here too, waiting on your return. I'm going. Are you certain you want to go?" Niko stared at the fire between them. The flames danced in the wind that slipped through the cracks in the walls and door. Outside, rolling thunder echoed in the valley. Niko looked up at River. "I want to. I want to see her." "You may not see her if we go. Are you sure you saw her in the temple?" River asked. "Yes. It was definitely her." Niko said. "If you do see her again, what are you going to ask of her? Are you going to ask for your wings back?" River refilled his bowl of stew. "I don't know. I don't think I will." Niko felt the emptiness of his back aching across his skin. His lover looked over at him in confusion. "You don't know?" "Forgive me." Niko bowed his head. "If all you want is to speak with her, couldn't we go to any temple? It's not like it needs to be that one. There's a much closer one in the Cats' Forest to the southeast by the Green Sea." River stirred the pot a few times. Niko leaned back against the wall. "I know, but I want to go to that one. That is her most sacred temple." "The temple in Cats' Forest is along the way. Why don't we stop there first and see what happens?" River suggested. "I've been wanting to visit there anyway. I heard a hundred cats live inside it." "Cats, huh? I didn't know you liked cats." "I've never seen one outside of my dreams, but the paintings I've seen make them look fluffy. Are they soft?" River's eyes lit up. Niko laughed under his breath. "I've seen one before, the small ones, in cages, but I've never touched one. I heard..." A loud bang came from near the door of the hut. Niko and River went silent. Niko went to get up. River motioned for him to stay down as he grabbed the knife off the cutting board. He went over to the door and slowly opened it. River opened it all the way and stepped aside to show Niko a branch from their tree had fallen off. Niko got up to look at it. "The storm is getting worse. We might need to head over to the cave tonight." Niko said. River nodded. He put the fire out, then put a cover over the cauldron. He carried it out of the hut. Niko put his clothes on. They were still damp. He bagged up their things from their home. They walked deeper into the woods until they reached a small opening along the mountain at the forest's edge. They went inside, climbing down for a while before climbing back up deeper in the cave. By now, the two of them had explored the majority of the cave system and knew the safest spots to be. This spot was where they often went whenever it was too dangerous to be outside. River set the cauldron down. "Water." Niko nodded at River as he set up a cot for them to sleep on. He took his damp clothes back off and laid them out. He rested under a blanket as he ate, thinking about tomorrow. 'Am I a fool? Why am I doing this? I'm safe here. I shouldn't take him on a trip like that again.' Niko turned over on his side. 'Why am I so compelled to leave? Why can't I stop thinking about that day?' No answer came to him. River returned with water for them. He placed two jugs of water near the cot Niko laid down. He sat at the edge of the cot to continue eating. Niko tried to sleep. He listened to the rain, hoping it would lull his fears. Through his feet, he felt River's warmth at the edge of the cot. He sat up and hugged River from behind. "Tell me I'm selfish." He whispered. River smiled. He leaned against Niko. "I love you." Niko rested his head on River's shoulder. He let his hands slip down just below River's waist. "We should stay here." "What do you really want?" River put his bowl down. He put his hands on Niko's. "I lived most of my life risking dying just to eat. I can survive this. A mountain won't kill me. It's you I'm worried about. I'll go with you anywhere you want to go, but are you prepared to make this trip?" "I don't know." Niko said, his words soft. "I am weak." "You've gotten stronger, but..." River looked over at him. "If we do this, let me lead you. I know how to handle that kind of terrain. Swear to me you will do everything I tell you to do when we're out there. I need you to trust me. Without that trust, we could both end up dead. If you fall from that high up, I can't bury you. I won't be able to reach you at all." "I trust you." Niko pulled River down onto the cot. "But can I be trusted? I am a foolish person." River rested his head against their pillow. He gave Niko a certain look that made his answer obvious. Niko smiled back at him. That night, he dreamt of a colder wind and a place where snow decorated bare rocks. He walked in a line of strangers with River at his side. At each side, a cliff. The space to walk grew narrower and higher as he moved forward until only a single person could walk on it at a time. Niko stopped and looked at River, searching for an answer to a question he didn't need to ask. The line of people behind them shouted at them for stopping. Everyone was in a hurry, pushing and shoving to get ahead. River took his hand and pulled him aside. He walked Niko backwards through the angry mob of people until there was enough space for them to sit down. There, they waited until every stranger passed. River took off a necklace he was wearing and stretched it into a long chain. He wrapped the chain around both of their waists before taking Niko's hand again. They walked side by side until they reached that narrow space again. River motioned for Niko to walk behind him. The narrow space got smaller still before it widened again. At its thinnest, Niko had to walk one foot at a time. He struggled to balance himself. To his right, he saw the deep red water crashing against the rocks, revealing the broken bones and ripped flesh of those who rushed their way through or wandered carelessly. The remains drifted in the waves, becoming one with the sea foam as the water washed them down to an ivory white. Far off, he saw something rising from the sea, something large and long. A neck like a snake and with sword-like teeth, a head rose up out of the waters and looked over at him with red eyes. In between its teeth, long pieces of that same ivory white protruded, mixed with a red the same shade as the waves and the eyes of the beast. Fins, ripped and shredded, dangled from the mouth of the creature. Its head moved over toward him as the rest of its body remained perfectly still. Terrified, Niko tried to move away. His foot slipped from the other side of the narrow passage. Gravity took him the rest of the way over. River started to fall with him. He intentionally pushed himself off the other side and then grabbed onto the rocks to stop Niko from dragging them both all the way over. River shouted something to him, but Niko didn't hear it. He couldn't hear anything but the sound of that creature shrieking as it opened its mouth. Niko woke drenched in sweat. His heart raced. 'What was that?!' He wiped the sweat off his face and sighed. Niko looked over at River. River was still sleeping. He kissed him on the cheek, then dressed himself. Niko left the cave to see what damage the storm had done overnight. What he saw outside the cave horrified him. Most of the forest was gone. The giant trees lay scattered about the ground in pieces. Niko searched for their home. The old tree was gone, as was their hut. If they had stayed out that night, they would have died. He searched further out. At one part of the mountain range, he saw a mud slide occurred. The valley itself now looked more like a lake. The weather had lightened up some from yesterday, but the storm was still stronger than average. Niko returned to the cave to wake River. He explained what he saw outside. "Everything?" River put his clothes on. "Well, then I suppose we have no choice but to leave." "Looks that way." Niko said. He recalled his dream. "I'm not sure if going on that long journey is a good idea though." "Having second thoughts again?" Niko nodded. "I don't know if I'm strong enough. For now, let's go to Cats' Forest. We could stay there while I think about it. We have to go somewhere anyway, and we need to do it now. The sky looks like it's about to get worse again." River went right away to packing up their things. Niko helped him. When they were ready, they headed back out of the cave. River was shocked by the damage outside. "It really is all of it...The poor trees." River knelt down to touch one of the stumps left behind. "I don't think there's been a storm like this in hundreds of years. These trees were all so old." Niko climbed over the debris. "We have to hurry." River climbed to where he was. He breathed heavily. Thunder boomed over head. Without thought, Niko used his hands to ask River what was wrong. River lifted the cauldron into the air. Niko wordlessly told him to leave it behind. River reluctantly let go of it. Niko offered him his hand. They walked along the edge of the mountain, where the forest once was, down to field where a path cut through. The path was often used by traders from the southeast going to the top of the mountain. They walked until nightfall, and slept under grey skies amongst the wilting flowers. They were out of the storm now, and somewhere unfamiliar. Neither of them had ever gone that way before. They foraged for food in the morning, finding some berries, some edible but nearly dead flowers, and some bugs. River used the spices he could carry on him to make the best of what they had. Niko got out a map. "It doesn't look that far, but there's a human village in between here and the temple. The temple should be safe for me to be in, but I don't know. Surely, the villagers will be used to people of different kinds coming there?" "I don't know anything about that place. We'll be careful. It shouldn't be too difficult. We'll avoid bathing if we can't get a private bath. There shouldn't be any other reason for someone to see your scars." River served him breakfast. "Where should we go after this? We have to start over." Niko picked at his food. He'd gotten accustom to eating flowers and the crunchier bugs, but worms made him gag. "We'll find somewhere. If we have to built it ourselves, we can." River said. He wasted no time in eating his food. "What about after the temple? Do you want to keep going?" "I don't know. I..." Niko slouched his shoulders. "I've been having nightmares about leaving here, but my mind tells me I need to go there. Ugh. What is this? Is Death tricking me? Is it my time?" River held his hand. "I don't think it's that. You're having nightmares because it is frightening, and you want to go. Let's see where this road takes us. Perhaps, you won't want to go all the way to those mountains, but we've nowhere to go now. There may be something else waiting for us along this path. I want to know too, what it is that's calling you." "What if I'm losing my mind?" Niko asked. "Could be." River laughed. "Then why are you indulging me?" "You know why." River stood up. He looked back at the way they'd come from. Above, at the horizon, the storm clouds were so dark it looked as if it were night. "It's that time of the year anyway. When winter is at tomorrow's edge, people's feet want them to move to anywhere but home. As the days grow shorter and darker, we all sink deeper into ourselves in our restlessness. It's why all those lost travelers came through recently. Though I worry about them now. If we're not there to tell them what's to the west...well, I suppose they'll find out on their own." "Winter madness. Shouldn't I ignore it?" "I'm restless too, and we need a new home. Come, let's go. I want to see a cat." River picked up one of their bags. "We've both got no sense left." Niko picked up the other bag. "Let's go then, to wherever the wind leads us."
II. Cats' Forest