II. Cats' Forest

Tall, young trees, leaving little room between them, hid away the residents of the forest. Birds bickering above them remained out of sight as their calls echoed in the woods. Something rustled nearby, in the small bushes lining the narrow path, but he couldn't see who they belonged to. His own footsteps, and that of his companion, were the only noises he could pinpoint the source of. For a moment, he closed his eyes and listened. Whatever creature was moving in the bushes was small, likely another bird or a rodent. The birds above sounded as though they were fighting amongst themselves rather than panicking over anything larger roaming the forest. He presumed a predatory bird was likely making an attack on another bird's young. Niko calmed as they walked through the forest. This one seemed less dangerous than the one they left. Around sunset, Niko and River set up camp. Niko collected firewood and foraged for anything edible in the woods. He gathered several different types of berries, some leaves, mushrooms, acorns from the few oaks in the largely pine forest, pine cones he could reach to collect the nuts and pine needles for tea, and other edible plants from the forest floor. Since leaving the Valley of Rain, Niko had taken to wearing his sandals again. River set up their tent and got them fresh water from a stream. They had a salad for dinner with tea. River boiled the acorns and set them out to dry beside the pine nuts to roast another day. Niko would've preferred fish, but his fishing pole broke in the storm. He needed to make a new one. The following day, they arrived at the temple in the early afternoon. The temple was larger than Niko expected. It was painted in bright colors. Both painted and adorning the temple as statues, cats were found in various poses. At the front of the temple was a jaguar statue taller than Niko. Its eyes were made of deep green gems. On top of the jaguar's head was a small bird statue attached like a crown to the stone beast. The bird's eyes were made of a rainbow colored stones and its wings encrusted with the same gems. When the sun's light hit the wings of the bird, it cast an array of colors onto the jaguar and the surrounding area. Real cats were scattered around the outside of the temple too. Most of the cats were small. The cats were as varied in color as the lights cast off by the gems. They lounged about the front doors, on statues, and in the grass. One of the cats came to River and rubbed against his leg. River knelt down to pet it. There were no other people outside the temple, Niko noticed. "Doesn't appear to be many visitors here for a temple so big." "Hmm...perhaps it's more popular at a different time of year." River suggested. "Maybe." Niko and River went to the front doors. The inside of the temple was dark. There were only a few windows to let in natural light. The rest of the space was lit with a few very large candles. A woman stood in the center near one of the biggest candles. She appeared to be young, at least a few years younger than Niko. Her long brown hair was wrapped up in a mix of braids, beads, and ribbon. She wore brightly colored dress. Orange stripes were painted on her face, arms, and what little he could see of her legs. She wore a dress that went halfway down her calves and sandals. Her dress had cats embroidered on it. The woman froze for a moment, then she yelled. "You...You cannot enter!" "I'm sorry...I thought this temple was open to visitors." River apologized. "It is. But this one cannot enter." The woman got closer to them. She pointed at Niko. "Why not? I have come to pray and ask for guidance." Niko said. "Your kind is not..." She started to say. "Aca, let the Avia in. We do not forbid anyone with good intentions from entering the temple." Another woman came into the room from the hall to the left. She was much older, appearing to be in her forties. A circlet of rainbow gems adorned her head. She had jaguar spots painted on her body and wore a dress identical to the one the other woman, Aca, was wearing. "But this one is..." Aca said. "I know. And their kind believe and worship the lord and lady just the same. The Avia has every right to be here." The older woman cut her off. Niko bowed to her. "Thank you, Miss." "My name is Teca, and I am the head priestess of this temple." Teca said. She asked. "Will you be staying tonight?" "Yes, if we may." River said. "I see. I will show you to the sleeping quarters." Teca said. She led them out of the main room into the hallway to the left. Aca stayed behind, her eyes fixed on Niko. He could feel her fear and hatred on his back. "Miss Teca, may I ask a question about the temple?" Niko asked. "Yes, of course. What is it you wish to know?" She replied. "What is the connection with the temple and all the cats? They're everywhere." He said. "Cats were one of the first children of the great mother and great father. They are most special as they share their form with our great father on earth the same as we do." She explained. Niko nodded along. He recalled an old story about the creation of cats from his childhood scholarly lessons, but he had long forgotten most of the details. He never paid attention during lessons on spiritual matters as a child. His mind was always on other things, like playing after school with other children or, when he was in his teenage years, daydreaming about how his coming of age celebration would go. Nothing really mattered to him back then. His younger self would laugh at the idea of him traveling from temple to temple amongst humans. Teca stopped at the end of the hall. She pointed to the two doors at the end. "This is the men's sleeping area, and this is the women's area." "Separate sleeping areas? What of couples?" Niko asked. "Couples especially are not allowed to sleep in the same room. It could encourage unholy thoughts in the temple. The only exception for the sexes to mix is for single parents with small children. We will allow young ones to stay with their guardians if there is not an adult of the same sex to stay with them." Teca spoke in a stern voice. She pointed to one door and to River, and the other door and to Niko. "So, you will sleep in here. And you will stay here." River and Niko exchanged awkward looks. Niko cleared his throat. "Um, Miss. I am a man." "Oh. Are you? It is hard to tell with your kind." She didn't seem to believe him. "Could you prove to me you are male?" "Um...how should I do that? Would lifting my shirt be enough?" Niko suggested. "Yes, that would be adequate." She nodded. Niko lifted up his shirt to reveal his chest. Though he was not shy about being nude, he felt uncomfortable in doing so. He had never been asked to prove something like this before. It bothered him, but he couldn't place why. Teca looked him over. "So you are a man after all. You may place your things down where you wish to sleep. We will be serving food in a few hours. Aca will ring a bell when it is time. Oh, one more thing...you must sleep in separate beds." "Why's that?" River asked. Teca gave River a pitying look. "It is not my place to cast judgment on those who have lost their way. At the very least, you have come here and that is good. But no human has ever came here with one of them who was not their lover. You should already know the many reasons that is wrong. I cannot place him in the women's room, for Aca and myself sleep there, but I know what his kind are like. You must swear to sleep in separate beds and not defile the beds you choose. This is a sacred place." "I am fully capable of controlling myself. I don't see why the bed matters." Niko said, offended at her suggestions. "Because, flightless bird, you cannot be trusted. My patience for you extends only to the services I am required to offer you." Teca gave him a death glare. Niko felt a chill down his spine. River unconsciously positioned his body between the two of them. "You have nothing to worry about. We will follow the temple rules. Thank you for letting us stay." Niko said nothing more to Teca. He went into the men's sleeping area and chose a bed at the back of the long room. River chose the bed directly beside his. They placed their things down on the beds. Unsure if one of the priestesses might be eavesdropping on them, River used his hands to ask Niko if he still wanted to stay overnight. Niko replied to him with silent gestures of his own. They exchanged voiceless words with one another, deciding on what to do for the rest of the day. Niko wasn't comfortable praying in the main part of the temple. He chose to pray instead on the bed. At dinner, Niko and River ate with Aca and Teca. There were no other guests staying that night. Niko struggled to eat the food they provided. The smell was rancid. It caught in his nose and wouldn't leave. He forced himself to eat as much of it as he could to not offend the priestesses. Niko noticed that River ate even less than he did. After that, they returned to the men's sleeping area. The beds were mats on the ground. Niko pushed River's mat directly against his own. Niko waited to talk to River until he was certain the women were asleep. He whispered to River. "Separate beds...that's something." "Seems this temple's beliefs are very...restrictive. She probably wouldn't have cared if you were human." River said. "What does that mean?" "Areas like this, men don't chase after other men...well, not openly. But she knew what you were. She knows we're together." "Why does that mean she gets to decide if I can sleep in bed with you or not?" Niko said. "She's more concerned about you doing something else in bed with me." River laughed under his breath. Niko didn't see why that was a problem. "That's none of her business if I do." "Temple rules say we can't have sex here." River said. "What an absurd rule. We're already required to clean our own sheets tomorrow anyway and no one else is here." Niko moved over, laying halfway on his mat and River's. He pulled part of River's blanket over himself. "You're going to get us in trouble." "I'm not sleeping in a separate bed from you. That's ridiculous, especially if she knows we're together." Niko said. He went quiet. Something heavy moved onto the blanket. "What was that?" "It's a cat." River said. He felt around. "Oh, there's more coming in." Niko felt more than one cat brush up against him. He couldn't tell exactly how many there were. It was too dark. The cats made their way onto the mats and blankets, curling up wherever they pleased. "They're all sleeping on our bed. Why?" "Perhaps they wanted to cuddle up too?" River said. "Damn. And here I was planning on having some fun before bed." Niko joked. "Can't do that now." "You know, by saying that, you are proving her point about what us sharing beds could lead to." Niko held River against him. "That would be, if she had a point. I wasn't planning anything unholy." "And what were you planning?" "You know exactly what." Niko whispered lower. "That's not unholy in my eyes." "It's best if we don't anyway. If they caught us, we'd be thrown out immediately." Niko pulled the blanket up further. He couldn't get it to go up by very much, from the weight of all the cats on top of it. "I know. I wasn't serious." "How long should we stay tomorrow?" River asked. "Let's leave after we eat in the morning. I want to leave at dawn, but if we're going to keep traveling on, I want to get one more meal before we go." "Alright. Let's get some sleep." "Good night." Niko said. He closed his eyes and hoped being in the temple would make him dream something interesting since his prayers went unanswered. He woke to a loud bell not long after sunrise. Niko couldn't remember anything from his dream. River quickly got out of bed and dragged his mat away from Niko's. Niko rolled over. He was hungry, but he didn't want to get up. It was too early for him. The cats that kept them warm during the night left the room when the bell rang. Niko forced himself up and brushed his hair. They ate breakfast with the priestesses. Niko couldn't stomach the food that morning. The smell was worse than yesterday's food. He forced a little down. After eating, Niko and River got their things together to leave. They didn't plan on telling the women they were going. Niko wanted to avoid speaking with them again. They took one of the maps for travelers near the front of the temple. When they came to the main entrance, a family was coming into the temple at the same time. The man in the group noticed Niko immediately. He yelled at Teca, who had just entered the room from the dining area. "What is that thing doing in here?!" Niko was fed up with dealing with this. He yelled back. "I am not a thing!" "Sir, we must allow all within the temple if they are here for spiritual guidance." Teca told the man as she walked over to him. "What goodness exists in one of them? They defy all of our lord and lady's words. Monsters is what they are." The man pointed at Niko's back. "And this one's such a monster its own kind threw it away. No wings. What did you do?" Niko didn't answer the man's question. As far as he was concerned, he didn't need to justify his innocence to a rude stranger. "I follow the words of the same goddess and god as you. She is my mother too." "What room is this one staying in? I don't want it anywhere near my wife. I know what they do, all of them. Perverted beings." The man said. "This one is staying with the men." Teca answered. "A man, huh? You're tall, but I know all of you are." The man grabbed hold of Niko with both hands and held him against his body. He pulled at Niko's pants and looked down. "Let's see what you really are." "Let me go!" Niko struggled to get away. He didn't have the strength of a human. The man easily overpowered him. "Get your hands off of him!" River yelled at the man. He pulled Niko free and shoved the man. "You are a man." The man said. "I'm surprised you didn't try and sneak your way into the women's room with that face of yours. Don't think I'm gonna sleep in the same room as you either. I know what you all do. Soon as I'm out, you'll have that insatiable snake of yours on me. Another sign of your perversion, that giant you have between your legs when you wear a woman's face. I want it out. No one is safe to sleep with it here." "I wouldn't touch you if my life depended on it." Niko glared at him. "You..." River led Niko toward the door. "Let's just go." The man turned to River now. "And what about you? Sickened fool, why are you helping that thing?" "I do not carry the hatred you hold in your heart." River said. He shielded Niko from them. "We are leaving now. Please, let us go in peace." The man did not follow them outside the temple. Niko was shaken by the event. He fixed his clothes. River led him far from the temple and off the main trail into the forest. He set up camp near the water's edge and got to work preparing something for them to eat. Niko decided to bathe in the river to take his mind off earlier. He stared at his reflection in the water. "My hair's getting long again." Niko said. "Oh, it has grown a lot, hasn't it? Do you want to keep it long again?" River asked. He stirred in some spices into the cauldron. "No, I want it above my shoulders. Could you cut if for me later?" "If you'd like." Niko felt the back of his neck. "Perhaps, a little shorter than last time might be nice. Hey, is there a town by the next temple?" "Mm...I believe so. Why?" River asked. "I want to replace my fishing pole. If I can at least get a line and a hook, I can make the rod myself." Niko said. "Craving fish?" River asked. Niko nodded. "And it's a free meal once we have a rod. So long as we have a decent water source, we can eat." Niko got out of the water. He sat down beside River and let the air dry his skin. His arms hurt. Niko looked over the marks left on him by that stranger. He didn't want to think about that, but he couldn't unsee it. "He bruised me." Niko said. River gently held one of his arms. He felt over the bruised area. "Your skin is more delicate than ours. I am sorry I wasn't able to protect you from that." "It's not your fault." River lowered his head. "I should've moved quicker." "No, don't blame yourself for other's cruelty. It'll heal, but it does hurt a bit." Niko looked down at something else on him. "Am I really that big? You're about the same size as me there. Are you considered bigger than average?" "Oh, that." River shook his head. "You're ordinary, the same as I am. But there are humans who think men of your kind are bigger than average. They think the women can fit more in them too, if you know what I mean. It's nonsense." Niko blinked several times in confusion. "Why would they think something so absurd?" "Most of them have never met any of your kind, or have only encountered them very rarely. They took the idea of your culture being more open sexually and let their minds run wild. He saw you and he believed that so much he continued to believe that in spite of what his eyes were telling him." River sighed. "You'll laugh, but I've heard some humans think Avia women can change their breast size at will and that the men can change their penis size." "What?! That doesn't make any sense." Niko rolled his eyes at that. He slouched down, thinking about other things that man and those women said to him. "Do I really have a woman's face?" "No, but you do look more feminine than most men here." River checked on their food. "Does it bother you?" "It's not as if I have anything against women, but I am a man. I suppose I shouldn't be bothered that much by it, but it's exhausting being told I am not what I am by other people so often." Niko let that thought linger in his mind. He added. "Perhaps there is more to it...when I lived in the Sky kingdom, I was seen as more masculine than average, but down here, I am seen as so feminine many people here don't even see me as a man at all, or anything. He called me an it even after he knew I was a man. No one treated me like that until I was down here." "I am sorry you had to hear that. Please, don't let that get to you. It is his own prejudice that makes him act like that. There is nothing wrong with you." River leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "I think you're very handsome." "Thank you." Niko gave him a small smile, but it quickly faded. "Sometimes, I wonder if I'd be better off dressing as a woman since they see me as one or nearly as one, but they would harass me regardless. They already see me as deceptive. I can't win." "When this is done, we could always return to the Valley of Rain. Few ever bothered us there." River suggested. "I don't know...I don't really want to be there anymore. My back wants to take me somewhere else." Niko reach over to touch the upper part of his back. In his reflection in the water, he could see the two large scars, his reminder of what once was there. "They're not there, but I can feel them...I can feel my wings even now. I want to fly somewhere far." River stopped stirring the soup. "You can feel them?" "Yes. But I look, and nothing's there." Niko looked up at the sky. "I want to go to those mountains." "You're still set on that, huh?" River said. He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I suppose nothing good came of our trip to this temple. We could try the next one. Maybe you'll get some insight on what to do at the next one." Niko lay down in River's lap. He let his feet sit in the water. "Is the next one run by humans?" "Yes, but the region over, from what I've heard, is more open to your kind visiting. We may have a better time there." River said. Niko stared at the bruises again. "Am I really so weak?" "You've grown much stronger than when we first met." River took hold of his arm and kissed the bruise. "I'll make you something to put on that. Does it hurt badly?" "Mmm...it's not that bad. It mostly stings a little." Niko stared down at his long legs. "When my face doesn't, these give me away. I'm too tall." "You're so worried today. Don't let those people's words stay in your mind any longer." River reached down and touched one of his thighs. "I like that you're tall." "Why?" "Because..." River smiled at him. "I like when you lean down to kiss me." Niko's cheeks burned. He opened his mouth to say something back. Before he could, he heard rustling noises nearby. Niko grabbed his pants to cover himself with. River took a knife out of his pocket. Three cats wandered out from underneath a bush. Niko let out a sigh. "Cats again." "Such curious things." River petted one of the cats that came to them. When the food was done, Niko and River both struggled to eat it. There was nothing wrong with the food River prepared, but both of them felt ill after eating the food at the temple. Niko half wondered if they were poisoned or given rotten food. He didn't eat much later in the day either. After eating, River prepared some herbs to put on Niko's bruises and gave him a haircut. At night, the cats of the forest piled on top of them and around them. They were warm, so the pair let them stay near. River clung to Niko in his sleep. He rested easily like that. Niko couldn't bring himself to dream. He stared up at the sky, watching the stars. Niko lifted one arm up to the sky. He asked, "What is wrong with me? Why am I so restless to move?" He looked over at River sleeping against him. Niko caressed River's face. He couldn't be with River if he never left his old home, but nowhere felt quite right for them to stay either. The Valley of Rain was a quiet place. Few bothered them there, but it lay in the shadows of his old home and the mountain he had known all his life. Niko wanted something different, but he couldn't name it. His body eventually grew tired enough to force him into sleeping. In his dream, it was still night and he was flying. His wings were shining brightly like the stars. Niko's body glowed with light all over. Then, the light faded and he fell. Niko reached up at the night sky for the stars to hold him up, but he couldn't grasp onto anything. He fell down through the clouds and into a large river. Niko looked at the stars through the water. He desperately wanted to join them again. Niko swam to the surface. The river glowed with white light. His body lit up again with it, from the tips of his fingers to the smallest feathers on his wings. He felt the current of the river through his veins, rushing forward. The differences between him and the river faded as his body shared the light with the water. Along the banks of the river, a jaguar watched him. The beast said nothing to him, and he could not say anything in return. Niko woke in the morning. River was no longer beside him. The blanket was weighed down by many small cats. River was beside a fire getting breakfast ready for them. He noticed Niko had woken and poured him some tea made from the pine needles they collected. He handed it to Niko. Niko let the aroma of the tea waft into his nose. He loved the smell. They made this often at their home in the Valley of Rain. The warmth of the mug felt good on his skin as the morning air chilled the rest of him. Niko took a sip of the tea. "Thank you." Niko said. "Did you sleep well? You were tossing a lot in your sleep." River said. Niko drank some more to warm himself. "I had a strange dream...about flying." "Oh, where did you fly to?" "I don't know. Somewhere dark and vast." Niko said. He didn't recognize the place in the dream. River poured soup into a bowl and handed it to Niko. Niko put his drink down to focus on the food. River poured himself a bowl afterwards and sat down beside him. They ate together quietly, River keeping an eye on the small cauldron they brought. Niko felt a lot better now that his stomach wasn't empty. He asked. "Is there more?" River nodded and took his bowl. He filled it up again and returned it to him. River smiled. Niko thought about the dream more as he ate. What did it mean, he wondered. He left wanting to see the goddess again, but the jaguar was the form of her consort. Why would he see him in his dreams? "How many days do you think it'll take us to get to the next temple?" Niko asked. "Silver Shores is another four days from here, judging from the map we got at the temple." River said. "That's not that far." Niko ate more of the soup. He was a little amused by it. For all the differences humans saw between him and them, he was becoming more like them. Niko didn't used to be so hungry before. He could never be as strong as River, but he had gotten stronger, and by extension, hungrier, the longer he lived with River. He wondered if he did have his wings, if they could lift himself off the ground at all. Others of his kind who dwelt in the forests and the desert to north and west, he had heard, had warriors and were generally stronger than the Avia of the Sky kingdom. Perhaps, he thought, he could fly with his new weight. Niko looked back at where his wings should have been. "Is something wrong?" River asked. "No, I'm a little nostalgic. That's all." Niko ate the rest of his food. "Could I have some more?" "You're very hungry this morning." River filled up his bowl again. "I didn't eat much yesterday." Niko said. He sipped some of the tea. "I know. I didn't eat much either." River handed him the bowl. "I didn't say anything, because I thought it would be inappropriate to say in such a place, but the food at the temple was very...bad. That smell...I could barely get the food to my mouth. I couldn't eat much of anything after eating that...whatever it was they served us." "The smell got to you too? Ugh, it was awful." Niko said. He laughed. "I suppose temples aren't known for their food." River laughed with him. After breakfast, they packed up their things and kept walking. The cats of the forest watched them silently as they traveled. They spent another night in the forest, with many of the felines huddling up beside them for warmth. When they left the forest, Niko noticed a new unpleasant aroma. He covered his nose. "What is that?" "The sea." River said. "It smells like my old home before a rain." "Glad I didn't stay there long. I don't think I noticed the smell back then." Niko said. "You weren't conscious very long before we were thrown out, and you were still weak from the fall. I'm sure your mind was preoccupied with plenty of other things." River stepped ahead of him. "This temple should be near the beach. Supposedly, the sands here are pure white." "That sounds pretty." Niko said. "How long until we reach the temple?" "We've still got a ways to go." River stopped for a moment. "Look, that way. Beyond that hill, you can see the ocean." Niko looked at where River was facing. He couldn't see much, but the water was a different color than the sea he saw at River's old village. When he lived in the Sky Kingdom, he looked out at this sea sometimes. He could see a decent amount from so high above at the right place. Seeing it before him now on the ground felt strange. His mind struggled to connect that the sea over there was the same one he used to look down on from above. "White sands...you know, I've never been on a beach. That village you lived in was on a cliff." "I haven't been to a beach before either. It'd be nice to get in the water without having to climb down so far." River kept walking ahead. Niko lingered in that spot. He saw something strange in the distance. At first, he thought the waves were rising high in one spot, but the spot kept rising above the water. Something large and long lifted out of the sea. "River...what is that?" River glanced over. He went quiet. "I...don't know what that is...It looks like an animal." "What kind of animal is that?" Niko asked. "I don't know. We should ask the people around here about that before we go down to the waves." River kept walking. "It's big, but it might be docile. Plenty of animals in the sea are." River's words didn't ease Niko's fears. He had never encountered anything that big before that was ever a good idea to be around for long. They kept moving forward, on to the Silver Shores temple. Niko kept an eye on the sea.
III. Another Shore