Under the Sky, the rocky roof that covers the world, the strong and freezing wind was blowing across the desolate gray earth, hitting at the boy who was looking down at the bottom of the cliff from above. His bones looked like they were freezing, but he didn't care. After all, his mind was dominated by much more urgent things.
From above, with his eyes wide in shock, the boy could see, at the far bottom of the canyon, lit only by the dim light of the crystals of the great columns which support the Sky, a uniform dark gray, dotted by a single red puddle, where there were two small black figures.
He knew very well what they were, but denied it. He refused to believe in what his eyes were seeing right now, in the same way he still didn’t believe what he had seen just before that.
This sight reminded him of a memory from years ago. He and his parents were around a brazier, and he was lying on his mother's lap. Her gentle eyes were looking down at him, and her soft hands were caressing his face. She was telling him a story, which he thought he had long forgotten, but which came back to him now:
“There is a wonderful mysterious land where there are a ton of these red mushrooms that you like so much, besides a multitude of the most varied foods. Even meat! Can you believe it?”
“Yes, meat, son. It is such a plentiful land there that you can even eat meat everyday,whenever you want! Nobody goes hungry there!”
“Then, someday, I'll get to that land and take everybody there with me!”
“That's great! Let's get there together then” she said, giggling together with the boy's father.
Now, remembering this story, laughing in despair and speaking aloud, as if to turn his words into reality, he said to himself:
“They are mushrooms, the red mushrooms Mom told me about, a whole bunch of them!”
But no matter what he said, he couldn't escape the reality in front of him. There are limits to what you can convince yourself of, even for an eleven-year-old child. His nervous and desperate laughter now turned into weeping sobs.
And that not to mention the others, for a strong, large, calloused hand was now resting on his trembling shoulder, and from behind him, an unknown voice said softly:
He didn't know who the man, who spoke with a strange accent, was, but he didn't care at all, as he held and turned the boy, and then hugged him. His strong, warm arms were giving him a comfortable, even if small, sense of security.
Now up close, he could, despite the hood covering his head, see the man's face, which, with it’s brownish skin, was different from any he had ever seen. But even then, he still didn't care at all.
After all, his parents had just died.
If there was anyone watching the vast landscape at that moment, they would see two figures in the distance, faintly illuminated by the bluish light of the great crystals as they wandered through a desolate, rocky land in their solitary walk. But, unfortunately, there was, of course, no one doing so in this empty land.
Of these two, the first was a tall man carrying an oil lamp and a staff, with his face mostly covered and a tall stature. He had a strangely erect and rigid posture, which seemed forced, and his gaze was always going from one place to another, often turning to look at the boy behind him, whose bewildered eyes stared into nothingness and feet dragged along the ground as he walked.
“Hey kid, are you sure this is the right direction?” The man said with a carefree tone, which seemed very forced, while he tried his best to not look at the boy.
“…Yeah” the boy mumbled.
“The wind has already stopped, so I hope we can get there without too many more difficulties…” he said after a short silence.
When the rocky roof covering the world opened somewhere, always a great and powerful gale would descend all over the land, posing a huge threat to everyone's safety, but that didn't mean that this was the only danger solitary wanderers had to deal with.
As far as the eye can see, the ground is made of the same gray rocks, and in the sea of hills, cliffs, canyons, valleys and plains and every other kind of geological formation, everything always looks the same. Two distant places could easily be said to be the same place to the eye that was not well trained. Once separated from the Flock, it was easy to get lost, and so, despite the calmness of the winds, the two small figures in the vast and desolate landscape were in constant danger.
Taking all these things into consideration, the boy's dejection was worrying. A part of him seemed to be there, and another somewhere far away, as if he had lost a part of himself along with his parents. If he missed the direction towards the Flock, it would be the end for them.
“Boy, what's your name again?”
“…Nico“ he mumbled.
“Great. So, Nico, what are your parents' names?”
“Yes, their names.”
Suddenly Nico, who was already walking very slowly, stopped and turned his face away, to the side, and wrapped his arms around himself.
“...Hilda and Theo” he murmured, after hesitating for a moment.
Suddenly the man stopped too, turning to the boy and kneeling in front of him, trying to stand at the same height as the child despite his tall and sturdy body. He took the lamp he carried in his hand and put it on the ground beside them, now illuminating his previously hidden face.
“Nico, I want you to listen to me” he said with a serious look on his face, his thick gray eyebrows slightly furrowed. “You know, I'm sure that your parents loved you very much, and that they want you to grow up to be a strong and capable man.”
The boy's face took on an increasingly anguished expression. His face contorted and tears formed in the corners of his eyes, but they refused to fall.
“So they won't be happy if you can’t continue going forward because of what happened today. If you don't move on you won't make them proud.”
The boy listened to the man, but could not understand the meaning of these words. Still a child, to him his parents were an extension of himself. He could not see himself without them, it was an idea that seemed simply inconceivable to him. They were the ones who protected him, they were the ones who took care of him, they were the ones who were raising him, they were the ones who were there, always by his side, in all these short eleven years of his life. How could he accept this? If he accepted this, what would become of him? Wouldn't accepting it just mean resigning himself to this sad and lonely future? He could not, and would not, face this.
In the middle of all of this he realized that something was coming down his face. At some moment unknown to him, the tears that he was holding began to fall.
He buried his face in the chest of the man in front of him, his hands gripping the man’s clothes, clenching them into his fists. The tears streamed down his face and made his shirt wet. They were not the beautiful, crystal clear ones, in fact, opposed to that, they were the ugly and unpleasant, but important and necessary, for they’re the ones who give light to the deepest of sadness.
The man's arms then wrapped around him in an embrace. Comforting and welcoming, as if protecting the boy, they reminded him of his father.
One day, a few years ago, he had gone to his parents, crying because the other children had insisted that he was wrong to believe that if one entered the holes that sometimes open in the Sky, one would find a whole new and unknown world. When this happened, his father took him in his arms, and laughed, telling him the words that are still etched in his mind to this day:
“Son, don't cry because of what they say. As long as you are firm in your own conviction, you don't need to be afraid of anything. Now go back and tell them why you are right. Okay?”
Suddenly, the man's arms released him, and he was pulled from his memories back to reality. Freed from giving him a hug, those heavy, strong hands now rested on his shoulders.
“Nico” he called, using a commanding, but also caring tone “stop looking at the ground and look at me.”
Feeling strangely compelled to follow what he was told, he did as requested. His eyes now focused directly on the face of the man in front of him, whose frowned eyebrows demonstrated seriousness and severity, but also affection and kindness. His expression was sad, but determined.
“Your parents, Theo and Hilda... Always remember them. They may no longer be here, but as long as you remember about them, they won't truly abandon you. So, become someone they would be proud of so that they can smile in the other world. Okay?”
The boy was still standing there, crying. Nevertheless, his gaze did not fall again. He did not yet understand what to take from these words, but his eyes were looking forward, towards what’s in front of him.
The man stood up, already his great guardian in the boy's eyes, even though the kid had not yet realized that feeling of admiration residing within him.
Around them was the desolate vastness of this world. The light from the crystals of the great columns that went from the floor to the Sky illuminated the rocky floor, creating a weak reflection on the opaque surface as if it was made of iron. But, anyways, despite this emotional moment, they didn't have much time to waste anymore.
“So, are you sure this is the right direction? Oh, and take this” he said, and then took out of his pocket a small ring, whose glowing golden color, to the boy who had never seen a light more intense than that of a fire, in the little light that was present, looked like a solitary firefly glowing in the darkness.
The boy, who had now recovered some of his disposition, took the ring in his hand, quietly admiring the intricacies of the complex marks that formed various symbols he had never seen before on the surface of the object.
Though captivated by the curious gift, the need to return to the Flock was urgent. Seeing this, he took a good look around him. There were many hills, plus, further away, some sudden cliffs here and there. It was a common sight for Nico, who had spent his whole life seeing terrain like this, but it was precisely because of this familiarity that he had difficulty orienting himself.
Seeking to get a better view of the landscape, he headed for a nearby hill, intending to climb to the top. It wasn't very high, but it was higher than most of the nearby elevations, although further away the view was obscured by taller formations. Anyway, it's not as if Nico had many options, after all, the rest of the climbs were too steep, so all he could do was make do with what he got.
It took him a while to find a good spot to start, but eventually he did, but the rocks that formed the slope there were quite smooth, making the climb, which was long, difficult. Frequently he slipped and ended up going back a few steps on some of the more difficult sections, but with a few tries he got the hang of it. He had seen that some of the better-off people had some sort of thorns in their shoes, holding them to the ground and making it easier to walk in places like these, and also helping to hold them in one place in case of very strong winds.
In any case, it had been a long time since they had passed by a place like this, with a smooth and slippery floor. So there was a possibility that this place was out of the Flock's way, but it could just as well be somewhere they passed by after he and his parents had left. After all, they did not return in time from their function of observing the surroundings to help guide everyone. Accidents like the one that had just happened were common and happened for a variety of reasons, but usually came down to the very strong winds that sometimes occur, capable of knocking most people to the ground, and which happened to be the responsible today, although it was rare for a child to return and survive. Considering all of this, it was only natural that the Flock would not wait much longer than expected for his return and would have continued on it’s way.
But, suddenly, he lost his balance. The ground seemed to sway, and a sudden pain came to his limbs. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground, his arms and hands supporting him so that his chest didn’t touch the cold hard rocks.
Nico had become distracted in his thoughts and lost his attention on the ground beneath him. He was still a child after all, he was bound to commit mistakes like that.
“Hey, be more careful, you know very well that being careless is dangerous and can bring some pretty big problems” said the man as he pulled on the boy's arm, helping him get back up. “Hey, wait, your hand.”
“The ring. Where is it?”
Just realizing this now, the boy opened his hands in front of his face. It wasn't there. The ring he had been gifted was no longer there.
“Damn... how could you lose it?”
“... I swear I was holding it carefully! …But when I fell I opened my hand to protect myself and then it fell.”
“You idiot! You should put it on your finger, why were you holding it in your hand?”
“But nobody wears rings on their fingers! Rings are meant to be hung on a necklace, right?”
A short silence ensued as the man's gaze narrowed in confusion, and then diverted to the side.
“Y- yeah, I guess so... Anyways, go find it!” he said with his hands in the pockets of his cloak.
As he had said, Nico turned towards the foot of the hill. The ring had probably ended up somewhere around there, so he started looking for it in this direction. This time, taking more care and dividing his attention better between the path he was walking and looking for the ring. Finally, at some point, he noticed the object, whose glow, on the gray surface, looked like that of a lantern lit among the shadows. As soon as he saw it, he went straight for it.
When he got there, he picked up the golden object on the ground. He admired it for a while and then, this time, put it on his finger.
Strangely enough, when it was placed on Nico's index finger, the ring seemed to be the perfect size for it, as if it had been custom made. At the same time, it’s glow weakened more and more as it progressed towards the finger’s base.
At that very moment, as his finger finished entering the ring, he noticed something.
A kind of dust was on his hand. In fact, not only on his hand, but on the ground as well. Taking a closer look, he realized those were…
“Ashes huh? We must be on the right track then” the man suddenly appeared beside Nico and said. But quickly he turned to the right and went straight ahead. “They left a mark here. It seems to be a footprint.”
Suddenly, a certain elation overcame Nico. The others had passed by there and they knew in which direction they were heading, now all that was left to do was to catch up with them.