Chapter 16 A world Above
'The labyrinth was similar to the stuffy passage back at the castle,' Valeena thought as the hieroglyphic images faded away to bare, stone wall that was crumbling from age. She could not help but wonder if Reap’s had built her passage as well.
Rowan was walking in front of them, his head hung low. He had informed them that he would join them for as long as he was wanted.
“I have no home anymore.” He informed them sadly. Only his eyes saw the hate on the crowd of people that flashed before his scarlet eyes. People he had helped without question, watched over, even cared for had turned on him without mercy, waiting for his blood to spill, cheering for it.
Rowan was in the lead, walking the filthy stone path as though he had walked it his entire life. He was able to fire bend, his fist lit up like a torch. The flames were burning brightly in the darkness but left his skin unharmed. Rowan casually kicked a giant rat-like creature aside that had darted out at him from the shadows. He then swatted at large, silvery cobwebs that engulfed the entire wall, blocking their way.
“This way,” Rowan said, flicking a flying insect out of his face and smiling. “I use to play in here when I was a kid, I know the way out.” Rowan chuckled.
“I would get,” He paused to laugh, throwing his head. “I would get the other kids in town to follow me, and then scare them shitless!” His laughter reverberated off the walls, deep and full of life, sounding much better than the laugh he had released back at the church.
“Pa would scold me in front of their parents, threatening to whoop my ass. Then he’d laugh behind closed doors.” Rowan continued laughing as he led them down the left path when the road forked. “Ma would get so angry at Pa for laughing that she would forget to punish me!”
“What will happen to your parents now?” Valeena asked smiling, remembering he had mentioned he needed to care for them. She watched as Rowan’s body stiffened and she sensed she had said something wrong.
“They will be fine.” He said in a monotone voice. “They... they are resting in the great beyond.” His voice was low and he sniffed, swatting at another insect that buzzed noisily by his face.
"Oh, I am sorry," Valeena said, keeping her voice low.
Rowan shrugged as he said, "Thank you. They've been gone a little over a year now. But I there isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss them."
Valeena did not know what to say. She had never lost anyone before. She nodded her head awkwardly, not knowing what else to do. Thankfully, Rowan did not say more as they continued down the dusty passage.
The path opened up wider, revealing that they were now walking directly in the mountains that hugged the borders of Costa Del Lágrimas. The air became damp, smelling of earth and metal. Aira was humming a joyless tune, doing her best to keep an eye on them all. She took two fingers and delicately plugged her scrunched up nose.
“You smell of pigs!” She spat, fanning her face with her other hand. “I hate walking in such a tight location with you foul people!”
Rowan, Elden, and Valeena all ignored her as they all knew the scent she was sniffing was from the sulfur that lined the walls of the passage. Valeena chose not to inform the elf of this. Instead, she did her best to act as though the smell had not affected her, gagging on the inside.
Valeena followed Rowan without question, even though at times the tunnel seemed to be twisting in circles. The stone walls appeared to be the same, and unchanging. She had wanted to be the leader of her own life and yet here she was, following Rowan, as she had agreed to follow Elden.
Her mind always came back to him, like a fly to honey. She smiled despite herself, blushing, knowing that Elden could not see her in the shadows of the tunnel as Rowan walked ahead.
A huff from Aira brought her out of thoughts and back to the darkness, was she felt the sting of embarrassment on her cheeks. She gently placed one hand on her left cheek where the Queen’s mark was still barely visible, the hand print fading from scarlet red to a dull pink. A reminder of how much she disliked her mother.
Rowan led them deeper into the tunnel. No one spoke, which made the tunnel seem longer as the darkness hugged them. Aira had stopped humming her obnoxious tune long ago and huffed in annoyance every now and then. Valeena scratched at her legs that were starting to itch from the various bugs that had landed on them to feed. A stagnant pond came into view with a dead animal floating in the murky water.
Rowan held a hand out to stop them as he pressed his shoulder against the side of the cavern walls, pushing hard. A rush of sweet, fresh air burst forth, filling the tunnel. A small shaft of light revealed a cliff that held the beginning of a long, brown rope bridge that was swaying in the breeze. The bridge itself ended at Twisting Tree Top Village. Dark green moss hung off the wooden planks in various patches.
Somehow they had gradually traveled several miles up the mountain, even though the path seemed like it had never ascended. Valeena peered over the mountain’s grassy edge where a thick wall of gray fog blocked her view. The only things visible above the fog were the tops of several evergreen trees dotting the way towards the opposite wall. At the other end of the bridge, tall, green trees grew in large clumps.
“I never actually made it to the trees,” Rowan said longingly. He extinguished his fire and stared at the bridge with a mixture of fear and hope written on his face.
“Why not?” Valeena asked, loving the cool, misty wind that blew against her hot, sweaty skin. Rowan shrugged, smiling.
“I guess I was afraid that it would break. It’s an old bridge suspended over a marsh and I’m not exactly light. The wood is ancient, having been built hundreds of years ago. It’s pitted and old. Seems safe, huh?” He clapped Valeena on the back, laughing a forced laugh, the smile never reaching his scarlet eyes.
Valeena decided that she liked Rowan because he was friendly and more upbeat than the other two. It was a welcome change to have a positive soul with them. She had had enough of the huffing elf and the grumpy whatever Elden was.
“I wonder how they knew I was hiding you guys.” Rowan pondered out loud, stretching his arms over his head as prepared to make the trek over the bridge.
“Maybe your mind trick didn’t work.” Rowan shot playfully to Elden, who did not look pleased by his statement.
“Steel had someone watching the doors,” Elden replied coolly. “That jerk at the church said so.” Rowan chuckled again, shrugging.
Valeena stared at the bridge apprehensively, following it with her eyes through the fog to the tall, lush, green trees in the distance.
“Scared princess?” Elden taunted as he gingerly stepped onto the wooden planks, gripping the damp, slimy rope in his hands.
“Not in particular,” Valeena answered firmly. “I just do not feel like dying today.” She felt her voice quiver and hoped he did not catch it.
Rowan shoved Elden playfully, causing him to grasp the rope tightly, a look of panic crossing his handsome face.
“Race you!” Rowan shouted as he began running along the bridge. The ancient wood swayed from side to side as the rope groaned from his weight. He waved his hands above his head wildly and laughed. "You can't catch me!"
Aira scoffed at him, walking her delicate model like stride, sidestepping a now angry Elden. He had remained still, glaring daggers at the retreating Reap.
Valeena followed Aira, ignoring the fear that was gnawing at her soul. ’At least if I die, the Queen will never find the crystal’. Valeena thought, chuckling to herself.
Elden was behind her, watching Aira walk as smoothly as the wind through the trees across the bridge. Valeena hated the jealous feeling that tugged at her heart and tried to clear her mind, thinking only of the bridge.
Rowan was already on the other side of the dangerous bridge, standing on a wooden deck like structure, declaring victory. He was pumping his fist in the air, cheering for himself and laughing. Valeena tried not to laugh as he sung his own fanfare, striking a silly victory pose in the process.
“Dut-da-da-daaa-da-dut-da-daaaaaa! Come on!” Rowan shouted. He squat down and extended his arms outward like a new father waiting for his walking baby to enter his arms.
Aira could be heard scolding him in her native tongue, her words harsh and sharp. “I will go at my own pace!” She shoved passed Rowan at the other end, nearly pushing him over. Rowan climbed to his feet, still smiling.
Valeena was relieved she made it safely across the swaying, old bridge, releasing her breath as she joined Aira and Rowan on the deck. Elden was nearly to them when the bridge began to crack, planks of wood dropping into the dense fog below.
“Shit!” He called out, trying to run, jumping over fallen planks that had left large, dangerous holes. He leaped forward, grasping the edge of the deck just as the ancient structure divided with each half swinging into separate canyon walls.
“No turning back,” Rowan said with a laugh, helping to pull Elden up onto the structure.
“Are you alright?" Valeena asked, lightly putting her hand on Elden’s arm.
"Yeah, I am fine." He said, adjusting his jacket as he followed behind Rowan. Valeena glanced over the edge at the broken piece of the bridge that was swaying in the breeze. She shuddered and turned to follow her friends.
Twisting Tree Top Village was an abandoned ancient civilization that stretched out across the forest. The trees were as tall as mountains with large, sturdy, red trunks several feet wide. The branches themselves were thick and covered in a soft green moss. Giant star-shaped leaves of rich greens and yellows clung to the branches, some of them larger than Valeena’s hand.
Massive flowers in brilliant shades of yellow, orange, pink and blue grew off of the moss and vines. The wind was heavy with the scent of moss and flowers, smelling heavenly. Small, circular houses that had been built on wooden platforms and supported by the branches still remained. Their thatched roofs were sunken inwards from age.
“I once heard a legend that this village sits in the middle of Gaia and that it contains the Heart of Gaia somewhere in these branches.” Rowan was saying as he admired the beautiful, lush, green foliage. Birds chirped merrily in the leaves above their heads, their voices mixing with the ambiance of the trees. Valeena glanced at Elden, who was glaring at Rowan as though he had just revealed a dark secret about him.
“What a coincidence! The Amar-gwad is hunting Elements,” Aira said bitterly, making sure Rowan heard.
“Nihonal is a legend, something the ancient world invented to help cope with the loss of loved ones,” Rowan informed them. He then kicked a large bug out of his way as they walked the ancient wooden bridges in the trees. “Gathering these sacred Elements will not open its doors nor make you rich.”
“No, the Elements alone cannot do it, obviously,” Elden said, clearly not a fan of Rowan’s slightly mocking tone.
“Believe what you want my friend,” Rowan replied, picking a yellow flower and tucking it behind Aira’s ear. She looked appalled at the gesture and ripped it out of her hair, throwing it to the ground, crushing it under her bare toes.
“I will.” Elden spat, his voice dripping with annoyance.
“What if it is true?” Valeena offered, receiving a look from Elden that suggested she should stay out of the conversation.
Rowan seemed to be pondering this idea. He sighed as he said, “Then what I believe is a lie, and I cannot accept that.”
Before Valeena could ask what did he believed, a massive, yellow wasp flew lazily by, its stinger dripping with green venom. It was the largest wasp Valeena had ever seen as it was roughly the size of a small dog. The war wasps that lived in hives near the castle were not nearly as massive. She was reminded of the bee back in Vaughnstein and wondered if the species was related.
The wasp attempted to land on Rowan's head as its wings fluttered from exhaustion. Panicking, Rowan quickly swatted at the massive insect, striking its smooth body in the process. The action angered the wasp, and it began flying in a zig-zag motion, its stinger aimed for Rowan's flesh. An arrow cut through the air, entering the thorax of the wasp and pinning it to the bark of a tree.
“Careful you fool!” Aira demanded, aiming the next arrow at Rowan, who merely smiled playfully.
“If you wish to meet Hades, I can arrange a quicker route!” She lowered her bow but left the arrow poised on its string.
Rowan gave a majestic thank you, bowing low and winking. Aira appeared flustered, and rounded the tree, finding a long, twisting staircase made of more rope and wooden planks. Valeena was the only one who saw the red burning on the elf's face. She turned away, and decided to keep her eyes peeled for more wasps. She did not want to be on the sharp end of their stinger.
The stairs led them to a large, vibrant, green, moss engulfed bridge. Various shaped openings in the foliage above allowed thin beams of light to enter into the soft shadows. The air was cooler on the bridge, yet just as sticky. Valeena sidestepped a pile of leaves that had gathered on the bridge, afraid that something might be living within.
She reached the end of the bridge, finding more giant trees that seemed to be growing closer together. Their large, fat, brown, leaves reminded her of the leaves back in Evil Forest and she hoped none the beast lived here as well. The foliage was thicker here, and more shadows lined the walkway, the light a soft haze.
“With all these shadows, I wonder if a Shadowling is near.” Valeena thought out loud. She was following the path as it twisted upwards around a thick, brown, tree trunk that had ancient markings carved into it.
“Don’t be absurd. They cannot travel too far from their zombified bodies resting in the Necrodomus.” Elden replied. Valeena saw a look of pain crossed Elden's face began he said, “Just stop!”
“Sorry,” Valeena mumbled, hanging her head. She knew he could not control whatever was making him so angry. Her feet hit a step that was completely covered in moss, concealing it perfectly within the foliage.
“Great, more stairs, ancient people must have loved the exercise.” She rubbed her aching calves and pressed on with a sigh.
“Wait, go back. What are Shadowlings?” Rowan asked as the stairs ended at the entrance to a massive, beautiful, pale blue temple like structure.
It was wide, with a round top as though they had tried to blend it into the sky itself. Gray and white mica sparkled like stars against the pale walls. The door was a large, orange circle, with yellow triangles painted on the frame, giving the impression it was the sun itself. The temple sat on a mountain peak that was only accessible via the path Valeena had followed.
Elden made a go-ahead gesture, offering to let Valeena try and explain the Shadowlings, the zombified soldiers, and the Queen’s involvement. Chills ran through her body as she recalled the fateful day she was captured by one, the way they made her feel, and the horrible smell. She fought back the gagging sound that threatened to escape as she spoke.
Rowan’s whole body shook as anger took over, his face set in a furious glare. He was pacing the Temple stairs, grinding his deadly teeth.
“Soldiers my ass! Those are Reaps!” Rowan shouted loudly, slamming a fist into the side of the Temple wall, leaving a small dent behind.
“Are you sure?” Valeena asked taking a cautious step backward as his sudden outburst frightened her.
Rowan nodded, “Positive. You know Nero was bombed, right?” He waited until everyone agreed, his eyes locking on Valeena.
“Well, several refugees found their way to Costa Del Lágrimas, saying they had refused to join the Star Kingdom. Several Reaps lived in Nero and after the bombing, people saw them being taken from Costa Del Lágrimas, never to return. That was roughly about the same time the mayor signed the alliance with Queen Maylee!”
"Well, maybe they were not Reap's," Valeena began. She was hoping to calm Rowan as she did not like him angry. Valeena had enjoyed having a normal companion and hoped his good mood would return soon.
Rowan shook his head hard, “A normal human, or even elf, body would never survive those tests. But a much sturdier breed would.”
“We are wasting time,” Elden spoke, his voice calm, yet Valeena sensed sadness. Rowan turned his head slowly, his scarlet eyes burning daggers into Elden.
“I’m sorry that you care about nothing and no one.” It was meant to provoke Elden, but the insult fell flat. Elden shrugged, scratching his head as he stared back at Rowan.
“The Queen is our enemy, not each other.” Valeena reminded them, trying feebly to defuse the situation.
“We can stop her if we get the Elements.” She continued, pushing open the large, circular doors as she spoke. “Come on, the Queen needs to pay!”
Rowan shook his head. “I’ll help you find the Elements, but as I said before, it’s a fool’s quest. Nihonal does not exist!” He shoved passed Elden hard and entered the temple.