In the East there is a desert from which no man ever returns. It's a desolate place, where nothing lives, and nothing grows. There is just sand, and the glaring sun. Out in the middle of this desert there is a lone mountain. It was so huge and tall that it was visible from the very edge of the desert a thousand lengths away. The peak split in two and seemed to strike the sky; its slopes were made of craggy jagged rock formations that made climbing it impossible. It was a fitting crown for such a lifeless wasteland.

Between the two peaks, however, a valley had been formed. The harsh and unforgiving elements could not reach this place, and an unlikely oasis flourished in this isolated and protected valley. It was filled with splashes of lush green vegetation, grass and trees making their own little forest. Wild flowers scattered through the grassy field, growing with such incomparable size and beauty. A small stream wound its way through the valley, running from a fountain spring that reached almost as high as the peaks themselves. Compared to the mountain the valley was very small, but it still measured a dozen lengths long. It was a secret, hidden place where no creature could ever reach.

While no creature could reach this place, there were creatures who called this valley their home. As the sun rode through the sky above and poured its golden light down between the valley walls, the Yanata soured through the air with their great feathered wings, basking in the sunlight, and cooled by the gentle breeze and the mist from the fountain spring. The music of the stream and the chatter of the Yanata, the people of the valley, made the valley sing with the beauty of life. Up the sides of the valley walls were perches and nooks, even small caves where the Yanata spent most of their day. While they could fly through the air with their wings, they landed on their perches on the cliffs, and walked with their legs to move around.

The Yanata were a race of people that the rest of the world had yet to encounter. They looked a lot like the races of men who roamed the rest of the world, but in comparison the Yanata were fairly smaller in stature. But it was their wings on their backs that set them apart, giving them the gift of flight that other races could only dream of. But they still found joy and satisfaction in using their hands to create things. Their homes were the caves that were scattered across the cliffs, and decorated inside with beautiful things that they had made. Figures made from twigs from the forest floor; hanging decorations made from flax woven together; lumps of clay with an imprint of a child's hand, framed with the feathers of the child as their wings moulted to grow stronger ones. Each cave was a place of warmth, of peace and happiness, and sometimes making a home for whole families, or even people who lived on their own. In the long memory of the Yanata people, the valley had always been their home. Everything they needed was right here. No one had ever left the safety of the valley, because no one had ever seen a reason to do so. Nobody, that is, except Azel.

Most of the Yanata lived in their caves, but recently Azel had taken to living down among the trees. One tree in particular was tall and broad. At the top mighty branches reached out in all directions, creating a flat top that was covered over by a canopy of leaves. Azel had found this place while flying by herself, trying to escape the noise of the others who were always chittering and chattering about things she didn't care about. She didn't want to listen to people arguing over whether the hanging-belly fruit was sour this morning, or if one bratty child was flying sooner than the others. Most Yanata found comfort in the company of others, but Azel found comfort only in her own company. That was why living in her tree, soothed by the rustle of leaves in the breeze was infinitely better than living up in the caves. She looked down from where she sat on one great branch to see the grass far below, and the wild creatures doing their simple-minded things. She sat hugging one knee close to her chest, while the other dangled off the branch. Her wings were kept close to her body, and they draped off the other side of the branch as well. Bored and a little frustrated, Azel looked up through a gap in the leaves above her, and gazed longingly at the bright blue sky just above the valley walls. Not for the first time, she wondered what lay beyond.

"There you are, moody cloud!" a voice called from above, and Azel winced at the sound of it. Something crashed down through the canopy, tearing off some twigs and leaves on the way and leaving a gaping hole. The something hit the branch next to Azel with a heavy thud, and it turned out to be Hanet, smiling like an idiot. Hanet's family and Azel's family had been friends for generations, and in their youth Hanet and Azel had been no exception. They'd been friends since even before their wings had shed their pinfeathers, playing in the field or catching fish in the stream. Now they were grown into young adults, and other than getting bigger Hanet hadn't changed much at all. He was still a child at heart, much to the delight of the rest of the Yanata. Azel on the other hand had recently been, as Hanet had put it, moody.

He laughed as he jumped up and down a bit on the branch to make it shake just a little. His big brown wings swooped with every leap to add more height to each one. But when he saw that Azel wasn't amused, he stopped.

"I've been wondering where you've been," he said, sitting down next to her, "but I found you, cloud."

It was a common tradition among the Yanata to give each other nicknames based on the colour of their wings. 'Cloud' referred to the almost-white grey shade of Azel's wings.

"Yeah, you found me, tree bark," Azel said, looking back at the grass below. "And now that you're here there's something that you can do for me."

"Really? What is it?" Hanet said with an eager smile.

"Go away."

Hanet's face fell, and he slumped. For a while he couldn't think of anything to say, so they both sat in silence. Azel enjoyed the quiet, but she was uncomfortable now that Hanet was here. She wished he would just do as she said, and go away.

"Your parents have been asking me about you," he said eventually. He glanced at her, but she didn't give any response at all. "They said that you haven't been home in days. They're worried about you."

Azel still didn't say anything, but remained staring at the ground far below. She was watching a couple of furry animals wrestle each other, and they rolled around in the grass trying to pin the other one on its back. Azel tried to focus on that and drown out what Hanet was saying. Seeing that he wasn't getting a reaction, Hanet sighed but perked up with more forced enthusiasm.

"Do you want to go fishing by the stream?" he asked.

"No. We've done that already," she replied in a bored voice.

"Yeah, but not recently. It's been ages since we've been fishing."

"I know, but there's no point. We never catch anything anyway."

Hanet rubbed his forehead, finding it more and more difficult to hide his mounting frustration.

"Alright, what about picking the hanging-belly fruit by the spring? We could roll them down the hill, and see which one gets to the bottom first."

"No," Azel replied.

"Why not?"

"Because we've done that too."

"So what? We can do it again."

"There's no point."

"Why do you keep saying that? 'There's no point, there's no point'. Why does there have to be a point? Can't we just do something because it's fun?"

"Fun?" Azel snapped, and looked up at Hanet for the first time since he arrived. He was taken aback by the force of her gaze; he wasn't sure what he'd said that would have made her this angry.

"What's fun about doing the same stupid things over and over again, day after day?" she said, and got up to her feet to stand over him. "All we do, all we EVER do is the same things all the time. We've done everything there is to do, and now that we've done it, all we have to look forward to is more of the same, forever and ever!"

Her voice was steadily rising, getting louder as she leaned in closer. Hanet backed away, completely at a loss for what was going on. Azel could see that she wasn't getting through to him.

"Look up there!" she said, pointing up to where the sky met he top of the cliffs. "This valley is all we know about the world. Out there is something else, something NEW that we can explore and learn about. Instead of staying in the same place where nothing changes, we can actually go out and DO something."

"But there's nothing beyond the valley," said Hanet weakly. "Lots of people have flown to the top of the peaks to see what's outside. There's nothing but sand and heat forever."

"But what if it's not forever?" said Azel. She thought that perhaps she was starting to make him see. "What if there's something on the other side of the sand? We can fly across the sand as far as we can and see it for ourselves?"

"We?" Hanet gasped, shocked at what he was hearing.

"Yes. You and I can leave right now; fly up and over the valley and over the sand as far as we can."

"Why would we do that?!" Hanet was starting to panic. Azel had always been full of wonderful excitement ever since the two of them were children. It was a little scary to see that excitement return, but hearing her talk about such terrible things.

Azel searched Hanet's eyes for some hint that he understood, but all she could see was the fear and confusion. She lost her patience and made a dismissive gesture, turning away and prepared to drop off the branch and fly away. Hanet stood up and called out for her to stop.

"It's not just your parents who're worried," he said. "I'm worried about you too. You've changed, Azel. You used to be happy, and we would have fun together. But now, I don't think I know you anymore. You're not the same person I called a friend."

"It's still me, Hanet," she said, approaching him again. "It's just that my eyes are open now. Look at this place! No one has ever left this valley, this is all we know! There's nothing left here to do that hasn't already been done countless times before."

"But you don't know that the sand isn't endless," said Hanet. He was starting to cry. "You don't KNOW that there's anything beyond it. You'd be risking death just to get away from me . . . from us?"

Confused, Azel watched him pull a length of string from the pocket of his tunic. There was something hanging from it, and she looked closely to see what it was.

"I made this for you," he said, holding out so she could see. It looked like a stone, but not like the ones that were found by the cliffs. Those were jagged and rough, but this one was round and smooth. The string had been knotted and wrapped around it to cradle it so it would hang from it without falling out.

"Where did you find it?" she asked, taking it from him.

"I swam to the bottom of the stream, and found it there," he said. "I know how much you love the water, so I wanted to give you something that would remind you of it."

"You swam in the stream? You wouldn't have been able to fly for days!"

"I know," he said with a nod. "I was planning on giving it to you as a surprise, as a betrothal present."

Azel ran her fingers over the gently smoothness of the stone that he'd given her, but looked up at him with surprise as he told her. He nodded confirmation to her silent question, and reached out for her hand.

"I've been thinking about asking you for a long time," he said. "I was worried you might say no, or think I was weird or something. But now you're talking about leaving, and possibly dying out on the endless sand. I don't want you to go. I want you to stay with us, to stay here with me."

Azel was moved by Hanet's words, as well as his gift. In fact she'd had similar thoughts about him as well, and had considered asking him herself. She put the necklace he'd made around her neck, and held the stone in her hand as she gently placed her other hand on his chest.

"Thank you," she said softly. There were tears in her eyes now too. "But I can't stay."

Hanet hung his head, but Azel stepped closer to hold his face in her hands.

"You can come with me," she whispered. "We can leave together, and spend our lives, long or short, together exploring whatever lies beyond this valley."

"But we would die," Hanet said, shaking his head.

"I would rather die finding out one way or another if there's more out there, than spend my life here forever wondering and not knowing."

Hanet was crying again, and he placed his hand over hers on his face.

"Come with me," she said softly. They stood together for what seemed like forever, conscious only of each other, and the world around them seemed to fall away. After isolating herself for so long, Azel was once again able to connect to her best friend, and the man that she'd loved for longer than she could remember. She leaned in to kiss his cheek. It was a small, and yet massive expression of her feelings for him.

"I can't," he said. He took her hands in his, and gently brought them down to clasp them between where they stood. Azel's heart stopped, and the magical moment was brought to an end. "I can't leave the valley, little cloud. I love you, and I want you to stay. But if you leave, I will not follow you."

Dizzy, hurt and confused, Azel took several heavy breaths before snatching her hands away and turning away from him. She trotted to the end of the branch, and spread her wings to keep balance as she did. When she was all the way at the end, standing at the tip of the branch that swayed under her weight, she turned back and looked across the distance to where Hanet still stood.

"Then this is goodbye," she snapped, and spun around to leap up into the air. She fell, and caught he air with her outstretched wings, snapping them down hard to bring herself higher and higher, until she was able to catch a breeze that carried her up to the valley walls. She reached the crevice at the end of the valley, where the two peaks sloped down to meet, and cleared the craggy wall just high enough so she could hit the top of it with her feet and launch herself forward, and out of the valley for the first time.

The rise in temperature was instant, and shocking. Azel almost screamed as the heat seemed to come not just from the sun, but from below as well as the sand threw it back up at her. Her eyes stung, but not just from the heat. Her tears were streaming down her face, and she wiped them away, resolute in her decision, and kept her course even and straight towards the distant horizon.

To the horizon, and whatever might lie beyond.