Story and Art by Tacoma.
It was a crisp fall night when Lunati and I embarked on a seemingly impossible journey. A devastating storm had just torn through the Eastern Isle of Zephyr, leaving only disaster in its wake. Once the brutal winds died down, not a single home along the coast remained intact. My leg was badly crushed by falling debris, but we were safe, for now. It was enough for us to have each other by the end of it.
As Lunati tended to my wounds, she shared a tale passed down to her as a young noble. A series of pristine sky islands hovered high above Zephyr, obscured by clouds. A paradise inaccessible to all but the most dedicated of fliers. It was dismissed as another fanciful legend that no one had cared to verify, but more likely, no one was desperate enough to search for it before. Ever the optimist, Lunati knew in her heart that the story was true and said she could get us there.
Decisions are much easier when you have nothing left to lose. We would have been another pair of hungry mouths at the refugee camp and neither of us felt like squabbling over a cramped patch of sleeping space inside of a musky tent. The condition of my leg was enough of an irritation and I'd barely slept in the company of panicked strangers the night before.
I knew the journey ahead would be difficult. We packed two light satchels with rope, a couple flasks of water, old biscuits and dried fruit and slung them across our hips. Torn up papers and textiles blew across the now vacant town square, reduced to mountains of crumbled stone and wood. After one final stroll through the abandoned ruins of our neighborhood, Lunati and I said goodbye to our beloved home and departed into the night.
We fought our way through thick fog, aimless and erratic like moths spinning around a flame. Lunati insisted our first goal be finding a rock formation before sunrise, but neither of us knew how long it would take. As we quickly learned, six hours is a long time to fly without pause. I hazily spotted a floating rock just big enough to let us lean against each other and get some shut-eye. We anchored ourselves to it and bound our bodies together with rope. This bought us a couple hours of safe rest.
Upon waking, we nibbled on dry biscuits and sipped water from our flasks. The flight resumed sometime around midday. My leg cramped up on takeoff but I refused to let it slow me down. As we drifted ever further from our home, the fog steadily melted away. While easier to make out distant objects in the sky, the path was still far from clear.
We averaged an hour of sleep for each six hours of flight. This took its toll after day three of our journey. Lunati lost a few wing scales and her ears dried out from the brutal wind gusts. Thick purple bruises formed on my ankles from abrupt landings on tiny rocks, but any period of brief rest was a welcome one. Sleep remained short, light and dreamless. While neither of us felt adequately rested, we knew we had to keep moving.
By day six, I started to see things that weren't there. I can only recall the first hallucination with such vivid clarity because of Lunati's reaction. She was having her own problems at the time so the concern was enough to give me pause.
I remember how she looked before my mind painted its own pictures, her normally pristine white fur now matted and grey as she braced herself against the wind, arms crossed tight around her chest. As a cloud drifted away, I noticed another island appear behind her. It was small, with a berry tree growing upon it. I flew over to it and began plucking at berries that had fallen neatly around its thin trunk.
Suddenly, Lunati asked why I was eating stones. There was no tree, or island for that matter. I was ingesting the gravel from our temporary rest rock. By now, all of the food we'd packed was gone.
On the tenth day, the two of us awoke on a larger rest isle to a swelling storm. Once the clouds broke open, we dove for cover beneath a dead tree. The sudden appearance of large rocks and even trees was an encouragement, but our bodies grew worse for wear with each passing day. My injury healed slowly on so few hours of sleep. I tore apart scraps of my own clothing to use as bandages, but they fell apart quickly in the rain. The lightning was violent and came terrifyingly close to us as we huddled under a fallen tree. This is precisely what we were trying to escape when we left the Isle of Zephyr.
After the storm died down, we managed to fill our empty flasks with rainwater. My stomach groaned each time I laid down to rest. Lunati attempted to eat some wet, dead tree bark. I sat down with her, soggy and matted after the first storm had passed and tried sampling the bark with her. This made us both incredibly ill. We huddled together, expelling whatever poison remained in our stomachs and drifting in and out of consciousness.
There were no birds around, nor fish or insects. Grass and rotting fruits were the most palatable items we were able to scavenge on our journey. What little we'd been able to consume kept us going for days more. Each time we passed a rock covered in dead trees, I wondered if we were getting closer to the Isles and, whenever we abandoned them, I felt a knot in my gut. For hours, sometimes days after each new encounter of such a rock, no other signs of life appeared.
By the second week, my ankles were swollen to the size of cantaloupes. Small rock formations were appearing closer together now. While Lunati saw this as a promising sign, it raised the potential for disaster. In my condition, the smallest error or miscalculation in flight could be fatal. Lunati expressed concern for my ability to avoid obstacles so we came up with short, silent signals to let the other know when it was time to take a break.
The pain was causing more hallucinations, many of which were scent-oriented. Occasionally, I would smell smoked duck or chicken, sweet grilled vegetables and other real foods that I hadn't tasted in ages. An upcoming rainstorm even smelled like strawberries and cream. I was losing my mind from pure exhaustion and hunger.
Lunati wasn't faring much better. Her wing scales continued to flake off, altering her balance and coordination in flight. Our periods of rest were extended out of concern for each other's safety. As we approached the third week, the dead forests vanished. Our leather flasks, last filled with rainwater, were now dry. In our desperation, we ripped apart one of them and ate small pieces of it. Not our proudest moment, but it gave us that final push we needed.
Nearly a whole month had elapsed since our departure. The first sign that we were close were the atmospheric changes. The clouds were noticably thick, a throwback to the heavy fog we'd pushed through at the start of our journey.
Eventually, we spotted a small rock covered with green, living grass. I wanted to dismiss it as another trick of the mind but, as we zeroed in and spied the gleaming dewdrops, we promptly fell to our knees and shoveled as much grass into our mouths as we could. Lunati was so happy she actually started to cry. While I would have preferred a bed of roasted meat, the fresh vegetation was crisp and refreshing. Being an unfortunate feline, however, I immediately threw up all of the plant matter I'd consumed and Lunati had a laugh at my expense.
The thick patches of grass felt amazing underfoot. My toes instinctively curled around the soft, dew-covered blades. It was such a strange sensation after all we'd been through. At last, a sign that our destination was near and the gruelling journey was coming to an end.
Lunati was content, full and in high spirits. I rolled over onto my side and curled up in the soft grass, a divine feeling after all we'd endured. Lunati kissed the top of my head and told me to rest while she went on a brief scout of the area. There was a heavy blanket of fog over the skies that night, but Lunati felt confident enough to explore on her own. At last, I could close my eyes and get some well earned sleep.
I awoke some hours later to Lunat's excited voice. She was carrying a whole bundle of fresh shoots when she returned to my side. She described a massive central island with cascades and rivers and more life than she could have ever hoped to find. There was even wildlife; fat, flightless birds, a striped dog-like creature and gigantic nests. I blinked, unable to process her words. I prayed my partner wasn't having hallucinations of her own.
Lunati insisted the island was perfectly habitable, but some part of my mind refused to believe it. After such a voyage, reality had temporarily slipped from my grasp. All I could do was wrap my arms around her, pull her close, and encourage her to take a short nap with me. I had to see this island with my own eyes, but first, a good night's sleep was in order.
The following morning, we abandoned our small, grass-covered rock and Lunati led me to the lively area she discovered.
From here, the isles were very spread out so the flight took a little over an hour. As we approached, a great central island materialized through the fog. I witnessed waterfalls cascading off its grand ledges, miles upon miles of land surrounded by a smaller cluster of isles nearby. It was even more beautiful the closer we flew in to inspect it. I could hardly believe the amount of plant and animal life in front of us and, for a moment, I wondered if we'd died somewhere along the journey and this was the afterworld.
Immediately after touching ground, Lunati and I threw our hands into a nearby river and eagerly scooped up fresh water to drink. I caught a couple of small fish while Lunati built a cozy little streamside fire. She gathered as many vegetables as she could to roast alongside the fish and, that evening, we indulged in an incredible feast. With our bellies full, we agreed to take the next few days off to recover. We slept peacefully, the difficult voyage now behind us.
I estimated it would take a few extra months for new arrivals to join us on the Isles, so in the meantime we'd do our best to chart out territories and document native plant and animal life. I wrote messages to our friends back home, whoever still remained, and informed them of our discovery. I welcomed any and all to come join us and rebuild their lives, but I understood if most wouldn't. After all, who would be crazy enough to follow us into the heavens?