Chapter 11 Stepping Stone To The New World
“Valeena, how in the hell do you know that beast!” Elden asked as fury danced on his face. He pointed the tip of his sword up the pass to where Fenrir had jumped out of sight. Valeena opened her mouth to speak but she could not find the words she needed. How could see describe the creature she knew so little about?
“Well?” Aira pressed as she crossed her arms over her chest.
“I...” Was all she managed to say as she shook her head. She was still not sure how to explain him, as she sat back down on the rock, her eyes cast downwards. Aira threw her arms up in the air in frustration as she began to complain in her native tongue. She climbed back up the tree and draped her body over the branch. Aira made a point of not looking at them as she made herself comfortable among the leaves.
“The one time you do not cry for rain is the one time we needed it. Stupid Human,” Aira said, making sure to speak loud enough for Valeena to hear. Valeena did not bother to offer a reply.
Elden did not press the matter as he nodded to himself and settled back down on the ground. He reached into his jacket and took a sip from a silver flask, replacing it just as quickly as he removed it. Valeena watched as he licked the red liquid off his lips and cross his arms, glancing skyward at the Red Planet.
Valeena forced her eyes away from Elden, peering skyward instead. Her eyes moved up the rocky wall where she spied a set of glowing, yellow eyes staring down at her. Valeena watched until the eyes were gone, having been swallowed up in darkness.
Valeena lowered her gaze down the wall, following a crack that had cut its way through the stone. Her eyes locked into Elden’s, and she was startled to find he was watching her. He was looking at her with intrigue and another emotion she could not place. He had a soft, half smile on his face, his eyes were burning as if he were looking at her for the first time.
She watched as Elden climbed to his feet and waved his hand upwards, indicating for Valeena to stand up as well. She hesitated, her body aching to rest. Her curiosity had won the battle and Valeena rose, following behind Elden as he began to make his way down the path.
Aira scoffed softly as Valeena silently walked under the tree, turning her silver eyes to the sky. Aira had no intention of following them, and Valeena was not going to offer an invitation anyways.
Elden walked in silence, glancing back to see if Valeena was there. He still had the soft smile playing on his lips as he glanced away. A gust of wind sent dust spiraling towards them, a small reminder that Aira displeased with their evening stroll.
The pass opened up on the left side, like a window to the night world. The opening revealed a breathtaking view of the landscape bellow. Stars twinkled softly in the ebony sky among puffy, gray clouds that flecked the sky like quick brush strokes of paint on a canvas. The moon itself was a full gray orb in the night, with a soft yellow halo around it. The ground bellow was a vast open field with a river slithering through it. Sparks of light were twinkling off its surface as it filled a distance lake, miles away from them. The mushroom-like city of Oleandra was barely visible in the distance. Soft red lights sparkled like fireflies off the massive buildings.
“At first, I thought you were nothing more than a spoiled princess fleeing the life of luxury.” Elden began talking slowly, looking out over the cliff’s edge at the sleeping night world below. Valeena was slightly offended by his confession as she was positive that she had stated the opposite on many occasions.
“But,” Elden continued, glancing at Valeena as he spoke. “I suppose you aren’t. You have your reasons for leaving the castle and I am sure they are not because you got sick of being pampered.” He finished, leaving Valeena feeling like that was not a good enough apology. If it had been an apology at all, that is.
“I have another confession.” He said, sighing as he looked back out towards the moon where Firrian was barely visible among the stars. Valeena remained silent, ignoring the chill of fear that played on her spine.
“The Goddess’s Tears is the only element I have. I lied. It wasn’t until recently that I knew where the Elements might be.” He ignored the flash of emerald eyes that danced into his mind. He still refused to think about her. Elden turned around, waiting for Valeena to speak. She smiled halfheartedly, a look of confusion spreading on his face.
“The longer the journey is, the longer I have outside of the castle,” Valeena replied with a barely visible shrug, her eyes lighting up at the idea of extended freedom. Elden smiled as well, stepping closer to her, causing a soft shadow to fall on his face. This unnoticed action caused Valeena to realize that to her, he was a just shadow. She knew nothing about him other than his first name.
“Elden, where are you from?” She asked timidly, regretting it immediately as a look of pain crossed his handsome face. He shook his head forcefully, stepping backward away from her. He had both of his hands on either side of his head, squeezing it.
“Why?” Elden demanded. His hands turned into a fist before crossing over his chest, a clear sign that he was shutting down. Valeena tried not to react, but she was frustrated with him and tired of his mood swings.
“Heaven forbid someone wants to get to know! You act like it is such a pain for anyone to ask about you!” Valeena turned her back to him, not wanting him to see the tears that were welling in her eyes. She felt humiliated by her weakness and took a step away.
“Wait,” Elden whispered. It was a low plea that made Valeena look back over her shoulder at him. “I can’t.... “He began, his face twisted in a helpless expression that made Valeena feel sorry for him. A strong surge of wind rushed passed them, whipping Valeena’s long, ebony and blue locks into her face, a reminder that Aira was waiting.
“You should go back to Aira, I will be there shortly,” Elden informed her as he winced in pain, scratching at his leg. Valeena stared at him in disbelief, feeling slightly betrayed. She watched as he suddenly doubled over, his hands holding his head.
“Please... go...” Elden choked out.
“Are you ok?” Valeena asked timidly, reaching out a hand to him. She jerked it back sharply as Elden turned to her, a demonic expression on his once handsome face.
“GO!” Elden snarled, dropping to his knees, his body hunched over. His eyes were bleeding from black to red and Valeena swore she saw a patch of fur forming on his neck.
Valeena stumbled over her own feet as she turned, running along the rocky wall, fleeing back to Aira. She collapsed to the ground, breathing hard, her mind trying its best to comprehend what had happened. Valeena peered over her shoulder, her blue eyes seeing nothing but the night.
Aira released the tension from her body and relaxed on the branch, her hand moving from her bow to her hair. She did not say anything as Valeena settled under the tree, knowing sleep would elude her.
Aira groaned as the cool drops of rain fell on her exposed skin. She knew she would never get any sleep if she was forced to be outside in the rain. Aira jumped to the ground in a single motion, taking several steps towards the crying girl.
“What’s wrong? Did the beast as the Princess to be his bride?” Aira teased, waiting for Valeena to snap at her. But she watched as the girl continued to cry, not responding.
Aira sighed and uncrossed her arms as she said, “It’s for my mother,”
Valeena lifted her head and looked at the elf in confusion. “What?” She asked, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
“My tattoo. Earlier you had asked about it.” Aira said, allowing the light of the moon to hit the purple ink as Valeena craned her neck to see it.
“Your mom loves flowers?” Valeena asked, sensing that she should have used the word, “loved” instead as Aira blinked slowly.
“The flowers are Lilacs, the represent my home village, Lilac Skies. This is a-” The word seemed to catch in her mouth, but she cleared her throat as she continued, “Maple leaf. They were her favorite.”
Valeena knew better than to laugh, but she could not help it. “I am sorry, but I could never image getting a tattoo for my mother,” Valeena explained as the elf looked at her in confusion. Aira smiled and laugh as well, nodding as she said, “I would not have gotten the tattoo either if she were my mother!”
‘Finally,’ Aira thought as the rain died out with the fading laughter. She turned her back and began walking back to the tree.
“Thank you,” Valeena whispered, wiping the tears from her cheek. Aira nodded in response before pulling her body back onto the branch and rubbing her tattoo.
Valeena awoke the next morning as a lovely cream colored horse nuzzled against her cheek, pulling her from her dreams. She climbed to her feet, glancing around to see if the animal’s owner was nearby. The pass was vacant save for another ebony-colored horse that was standing across the way. The animal was looking wary of the sleeping Elden, moving its hooves every now and then as if it were preparing to run.
Valeena had not heard Elden return last night as she slept. She looked him over, relieved to that find his facial features were normal. Doubt danced in Valeena’s mind, forcing her wonder if the events of last night had really transpired. Aira landed softly beside Valeena, patting the horse’s nose.
“Where did they come from?” She asked, peering around the empty pass. Only Valeena saw the paw print resting in the dirt near the horse’s front left hoof. Valeena used her own foot to erase the image off of the ground.
“There are only two horses.” Valeena pointed out, their voices waking Elden, who Valeena had suspected was not asleep at all.
“One for me,” Aira said, mounting the horse swiftly. With a soft kick to the animal’s side, she was speeding away in a huff of dust and selfishness.
Valeena could not help but wonder why Fenrir had only brought two horses as there were three of them. She turned to the ebony horse as it began to make low startled sounds, backing slowly away from Elden. She watched the scared animal, trying to figure out why it was acting that way towards Elden.
An image of last night crossed Valeena’s mind. Does the animal sense something? She quickly dismissed the idea, burying it deep within her thoughts. Valeena walked cautiously towards the horse, keeping one arm outstretched. She patted its nose when she was close enough, making shushing sounds to calm the animal.
“Shhh,” She repeated as she gathered the brown leather reins in her hands, climbing onto a rock and sliding a leg over the animal’s back. She shushed the horse again as she settled on it, rubbing its head softly.
Valeena turned the horse away from Elden, hoping it would not notice that he was joining her on its back. The animal was anxious, tapping its hooves repeadily and making low groaning sounds as Elden joined Valeena on its back. Valeena sat stiff as his hand reached around her waist and he gently held her hips. Valeena felt her heart stop for a brief moment as she realized how close Elden was to her again. She tried her best to ignore his hand on her waist, bringing an image from last night to her mind instead. Fear grabbed her heart as his demonic face flashed in her mind and she tapped the horse with her heel, sending it speeding after Aira.
The walls of the pass were flying by in a soft, dusty blur. The air was refreshingly cool today, making the bumpy ride to Juno more enjoyable than their trek to Kane. The horse passed smoothly by the window in the rocky wall, the same one that Elden had led her to. Valeena closed her eyes, suppressing the memories from last night.
She slowed the horse’s speed until it was a soft gallop, the animal refusing to walk. They had caught up to Aira who was galloping slowly in front of them.
“Tread lightly. I sense something is not right.” She informed them, not even bothering to look their way as she spoke. The pass ended, the left wall tapering out to rock and dirt, but the right wall continuing down a few miles out to sea. They dismounted their horses, tethering them to a sign post that indicated that no horses were allowed beyond that point. The sign stood next to a trough that was full of fresh water for the animals to enjoy.
Valeena breathed deeply the lovely, salty air, realizing just how much she missed it. The ocean was always the one thing about living in the castle that she loved. She enjoyed watching the sunrise on the water and the dolphins playing in the waves. But the breathtaking sunsets that were more beautiful than any painting she had ever seen were her favorite. The gray rock gradually turned to tan colored sand that led to the sprawling city of Juno. The city itself sat on docks that were bobbing on the water. Juno was known as a quiet, peaceful village, where many went to relax or meditate. They would spend hours soaking in the cool yellow sun as they rocked on the ocean waves. The village always smelled of damp wood, fish, and the sea. But no one ever complained as they relaxed in the tropical getaway.
Juno had once been a lovely city build on stilts or floating barges. The city had used several docks and rope bridges as pathways between their homes and shops. Juno was one of the oldest cities on the Zula continent and most of the people here still fished, relying on the ocean for their meals.
Some of the residents who called Juno their home seemed to have taken on an aquatic look. Their skin had turned a slate gray color and their fingers and toes had webbed. Even gills had formed on the necks of the younger generation, allowing them to breathe comfortably underwater. Those who carried the blood of the original settlers in their veins seemed to have skin that was trying to grow scales. The scaly skin gave them a sort of diseased appearance and most stay away from them.
Valeena felt her heart sink as she saw that the once quiet village was now full of the sights and sounds of construction. Her eyes found several steel beams that had been erected in the sand, replacing the wooden post that had once stood there. The once quaint looking wood buildings were now covered with cold, metal sheets taking away the natural beauty of the ancient village.
“What is going on here?” Valeena asked as she stopped a man with slate skin. He was wearing a bright orange hard hat and carrying a bucket of bolts with two hands. He paused for a minute, his face changing from cool irritation to panic at the sight of Valeena.
“Things are right on track, the base should be finished within the next few months.” He was glancing around nervously, straining not to drop the heavy bucket. His eyes were naturally larger than any humans, but they seemed to widen in fear as he spoke. “We are working diligently around the clock to meet the deadline.”
Valeena could not felt but feel confused. There was no way that the Queen had sent her to check on these men. Valeena looked out at the water where a massive dock had been constructed, reaching out towards the sea. It had several ships tethered to it as they rocked in the waves. She closed her eyes as she saw the black dragon wrapped around the red star painted on the back of every ship.
The Queen had been here and somehow managed to take control of the village. She changed it from a beautiful, coastal retreat to an ugly, steel monster. Valeena saw that the residents were the ones constructing the new steel village. The wood from their homes was lying in haphazard piles on the shore as the water lapped at it. A red and white lighthouse was under construction on the far left side of the beach. Several of the men were struggle to get the lamp to work as they had no experience with electricity.
“We are proud to now be part of the Star kingdom and to be known as ‘The stepping stone to the new world’! It is an honor!” The man continued as he fought to look happy, even though his eyes still held fear.
Valeena waved a hand at an insect that had buzzed loudly near her face. The gesture accidentally dismissed the man, who wobbled away with a thankful expression on his gray face. Valeena then turned to Elden, who was shaking his head in disgust.
“Did you see that sign?” Aira questioned as she pointing a slender finger at a flat piece of wood that had been placed next to a banner. Both the banner and the sign read the same thing in bold, red print.
“Star Harbor! The Stepping Stone To the New World!”
Valeena felt dizzy as her mind began to race with more unanswered questions. Why did the Queen need to destroy Juno? She had a fleet of ships larger than any other place on Gaia and did not need the aid or the support of Juno.
“We need to cross the sea to continue our journey. Let’s see if we can find a ship,” Aira said, looking in disgust at the shiny metal docks that now replaced the once beautiful wooden ones.
“No ships are sailing today,” Elden announced with a hint of irritation creeping into his voice.
“Why?” Aira asked, looking directly at the ships resting in the water. “There are several out there.”
“They are low on fuel. They did not receive a shipment due to a storm.” Elden continued, glaring off into the distance, avoiding their eyes.
“And you know this how?” Valeena asked, crossing her arms in disbelief, suspecting he was making it up as he went along. Elden nodded his head towards the docks where a sign had been set up indicating the same thing. Valeena felt foolish for not noticing it before.
“We will have to stay the night here and hope that we can travel in the morning,” Elden said. Valeena had always wanted to visit Juno, but now, all she want to do was leave. She glanced at the inn I disgust. It was an ugly, gray, steel building that the owner had tried to make more inviting by placing a large fake fern outside the door. It was sitting beside a woven brown welcome mat that was covered in sand.
Valeena sighed, she was looking forward to getting off the Zula continent and further out of the Queen’s reach. She followed Elden and Aira towards the building, half listening to Aira complain about how uncomfortable human beds were.
Valeena walked passed the inn instead, searching for any remnants of the old city besides the massive piles of debris. The steel dropped off to a sandy beach littered with scrap pieces of wood and metal. Valeena was horrified to see the rusty steel floating in the clear blue ocean water. It was like placing a scar on a beautiful face.
She hated the Queen for stealing the beauty from the village. Valeena stood still, watching snap birds as they scavenged through the mess, searching for anything edible. They used their long, sharp beaks to cut into the wood, breaking off large pieces as simple as a sword slicing through a cloth.
“I hate snap birds, they are so vicious,” Elden spoke as he joined her, scratching at the back of his head. The birds squawked anxiously, hopping over the debris. Their eyes flickering to and from Elden as they moved through the piles.
“What are you thinking about?” He asked as the wind rushed to life in a single gust. The gale caused sand to fly into Valeena’s blue eyes before returning to a gentle breeze.
“Has the world always been like this?” Valeena asked as she closed her eyes.
Valeena pursed her lips together, trying to find the words to explain just how she felt. She had been so sheltered back at the castle, and always assumed the world outside was full of life and joy. More of the snap birds hopped on their ugly, wart-covered legs as they kept their beady eyes on Elden.
“Never mind,” Valeena said, picking up a small shell off the sand, disappointed to find it had a star on it. “I am going to bed,” She announced as she tossed the shell aside. Elden watched her walk away, rubbing his leg as the sun sank lower into the sky.
Valeena thrashed in bed as the dragon shot its hot, orange flames at the heels of the terrified little girl. Valeena felt the child hit her head, the dream fading in and out like a flickering light. She jolted awake, breathing hard, trying not to awaken Aira, who was lying at an odd angle on the bed next to her.
Valeena climbed out of her own bed, walking along the gray, carpeted floors to a side table where a pitcher of water sat next to a couple of glasses. Valeena poured herself a glass of water, making her way across the room to the inn window. She peered out in the direction of the ocean, listening to the waves as they crashed into the shore.
From her viewpoint, she saw a dark, beast-like figure darting in and out of the shadows as swift as a hunter looking for its prey. It was larger than a human and appeared to be animal-like as it walked. Goosebumps rose on Valeena’s arm as she continued to watch the creepy figure move about the construction until it was out of sight.
She shuddered, setting the glass on the window sill and returning to her bed. Valeena remained still for several moments before getting up and making sure that the window and doors were locked.