Chapter 17 The heart of Gaia
The inside of the lovely temple sprung into view as Rowan lit the torches that were held on the wall. Each one was attached to the wall by a beautiful gold sconce that spiraled around the base of the torch. The air was thick and musty indicating that the doors had not been opened in some time. The sudden light startled several creatures who took flight, scurrying into the walls or disappearing into cracks in the floor. The mysterious creatures were seeking shadows where they could in order to avoid the light.
Valeena saw that the main room had a high ceiling with decorative tapestries of tall, ancient warriors. Stone statues of archers lined the walls among dead bushes with thick, sharp points.
The middle of the room contained a pit with several spikes in it. The skeletal remains of its victims could be seen deep within the shadows. Valeena shuddered and looked away, spying hieroglyphics that were visible among the gold walls. There were images depicting various scenes such as a hunt, a tall demon and someone worshiping the Red planet. The images were similar to the images back at the mausoleum, but the beings on the wall had pointed ears. She followed the scenes, annoyed to find that several of the scenes were blocked by large, heavy logs that had been cut to deadly points at one. The logs were hung in a manner that suggested they were more of a decorative trim than anything else.
“That’s odd,” Valeena whispered to herself, wondering why anyone would use heavy logs like that. No more had the words escaped her lips than Aira forced them to stop, holding out a slender arm, her silver eyes scanning the area. A low, deep, rumbling sound was emitting from the walls as the logs dislodged themselves, swinging towards their heads.
“Duck!” Rowan shouted, shoving them roughly to the dusty floor. Valeena gagged as a puff of dust entered her mouth, choking her.
The logs collided overhead with a deafening thunk, the noise reverberating off the golden walls. The ropes left the timber to dangle dangerously above them as they groaned from the weight of the wood. Several of the fibers began breaking free, mixing with the dust in the stale air as the ropes broke apart.
“Now run!” Rowan demanded, as one of the ancient ropes lost its integrity and the fibers pulled apart. One end of the massive log jerked forward, the sudden movement snapping the fibers in two.
Valeena scrambled to her feet, slipping on the once beautiful, golden, dust covered floor as the log crashed beside her. The timber dented the floor upon impact, landing directly where they land been lying.
An arrow sailed past Valeena’s lovely head with a sharp hiss as one of the many statues released their arrows at them, the point sticking into the gold wall.
“Go faster!” Rowan pressed, his pace quicker than the rest of them as he rounded the pit. He was making his way towards a landing with two staircases at the other end of the elegant room. He was nearly to the landing when one of the arrows bit into Elden’s left leg, causing his steps to falter as he fell to the ground.
Aira continued to run as nimble as a deer, leaping gracefully over Elden’s fallen body, as he tried to pull himself to his feet. He turned carefully over and ripped the stone arrow from his flesh, blood oozing out of the wound.
Rowan had turned back, grabbing one of Elden’s arms and pulling him roughly to his feet. Elden held tight to his arm as the strong Reap pulled Elden across the floor, an arrow whistling past his ear.
Valeena cried out as she heard the rope holding up the end of the second log nearest to the entrance snap, causing a chain reaction of broken fibers.
Drenched in panic, Valeena raced to the landing, her breath coming out in short, sharp huffs. She collapsed onto the floor, panting, her eyes looking up at the selfish elf, who was in her usual stance of indifference. But her eyes held a different story as they flickered back and forth. She was watching Rowan, her eyes willing him to hurry.
One of the archer statues released an arrow smoothly into Elden’s right side just under his ribs, causing a string of colorful words to escape his mouth. The arrow bounced off his body and landed on the floor as Elden shoved Rowan, insisting he should go on without him. But Rowan refused, half dragging Elden towards the stairs as he latched on to the back of his jacket. Rowan pulled hard on the material as the last rope broke above them, just as Elden made it to safety.
“What the hell elf? You couldn’t help me?” Elden shouted in rage as he examined the damage on his leg. Dark, red blood was seeping out of the wound. Valeena looked away, trying not to vomit.
“Why would I help an Amar-gwad?” Aira questioned, her face turning to a look of amusement as annoyance flashed in Elden’s eyes.
“Just relax,” Rowan informed him as he removed a small tin from his pants pocket. Valeena watched as he opened the tin, revealing a mint green ointment inside. It was the same ointment he had used on himself but in the mausoleum. Elden looked at Rowan questioningly as the Reap put a dab of balm on Elden’s leg.
“This well help you to heal faster,” Rowan explained, holding up a hand to silence Elden before he could protest. “I know, but you are still prone to infection.”
Elden then moved his jacket slowly aside, afraid to see the damage to his ribs. The arrow, it seemed, had hit a silver flask with a serpent on it, not puncturing it, but forming a visible dent in the tarnished metal. Rowan’s scarlet eyes flashed with anger as he snatched the flask and threw it aside, the metal landing with a tink at Valeena’s feet.
“You sicken me.” Aira sneered while a small smile forming on her lips as Rowan nodded, looking as though he was going to be sick to his stomach.
“Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Valeena said as she threw her arms up in the air. Did Elden have a drinking problem? Why else would he be hiding that flask?
Rowan looked at her sideways. “Figure it out. The pieces are there.” He said coolly as he placed the ointment back into his pocket. “My mom was a healer and developed this stuff herself.” Rowan explained even though no one had asked. He was doing a poor job of changing the subject.
Valeena felt annoyed suddenly as anger brewed in her heart. It was all a big joke that she was the butt of and she did not appreciate it. She glanced at the flask and wondered what liquid was inside. Curious, she bent down to pick it up but was grabbed roughly by the arm.
“If you know what is good for you, you’d leave it,” Rowan warned, his eyes burning into hers. Valeena jerked her arm away, snatching the flask and turning sharply on her heels. She then proceeded to stomp up the stairs to her left, feeling like Princess Aurory during a tantrum.
“Oh, Val.” It was Elden’s faint voice that caused her to pause briefly before continuing. His voice was not angry. It had a touch of longing in it that she forced herself to dismiss.
Valeena did stop, however when Aira, Rowan, and a slightly limping Elden met up with her at the next landing. She had decided she was not going to talk to them but knew she had too.
“The road forks,” Valeena told them, peering left, and then right, doing her best not to look directly at them. There were two hallways branching off from the second landing, each swallowed in darkness. Valeena could hear scurrying sounds emitting from the shadows and dreaded to find the animal what was making them.
“Elden and I will go left,” Rowan said, elbowing Elden playfully in the ribs. He then laughed as he remembered Elden was injured. “Sorry, sorry.”
Aira was smiling at Rowan but quickly changed her expression to a look of indifference as she met Valeena’s gaze. “Let’s go.” She said shortly, heading right, and vanishing into the dark.
“You should tell her.” Rowan was saying in a way that could very well be taken as a suggestion. But Elden knew different.
“Mind your own damn business.” Elden snapped, having no trouble navigating in the darkness as his eyes had a special lens that gave him a form of night vision. Rowan, however, was dragging the tips of his fingers along the wall, a scratching sound that was quickly getting on Elden’s nerves. He had a strong suspicion that Rowan was able to see just fine and he was making the sound to be annoying. He also knew that Rowan could create fire and that he was deliberately not doing it.
“She seems understanding if that’s your concern. Valeena obviously has feelings for you, you owe it to her.” Rowan continued as the sound of him dragging his talons along the polished walls ceased.
“I owe her nothing,” Elden informed him, his anger rising. A flash of those lost emerald eyes crossed his mind and he felt the familiar aching in his heart. ‘Why won’t he shut up?’ He thought bitterly as he forced the images out of his mind.
Rowan grabbed hold of Elden’s arm as a torch feebly sparked to life no more than a foot from Elden’s head. The flames grew stronger and thicker to reveal Rowan’s face inches from his.
“If you won’t tell her, then perhaps I will.” It was a threat, Elden knew as he shoved Rowan back, grabbing his sword quickly in the process. He had Rowan pinned to the opposite wall, the blade of the sword resting across Rowan’s thick neck.
“Keep your damn mouth shut or I’ll silence it for you!” Elden returned the threat. He had his face twisted in anger as his black eyes burned into Rowan’s.
“Got it?” Elden said, their eyes still locked. “Didn’t you say you would not tell her? Huh?”
Rowan clawed Elden’s arm, startling him. In one fluid motion, Rowan shoved Elden’s sword off his neck and grabbed the hilt. He forced Elden against the opposite wall, the tip of the blade positioned over Elden’s heart.
Valeena did not understand what she was missing about Elden. He was moody, he clearly had issues, but he was kind when he wanted to be and handsome. Valeena’s heart seemed to give an extra beat at this last thought, reinforcing the idea she liked him. Her lips curved upwards in a smile that she could not fight.
Elden, Her mind repeated, sighing deeply.
“What are you thinking about?” Aira asked Valeena suspiciously, her voice giving hints that she already knew the answer. Valeena thought quickly, her mind running through ideas.
“You!” She blurted out finally. Valeena was thankful for the darkness that sat between them so the elf could not see her face turn red as embarrassment burned inside her.
“Oh?” There was doubt in her voice. Valeena felt her mind racing, picking at thoughts as she tried to figure out something to say.
“How… how did the Queen capture you?” She was truly curious about where the elf came from and what had happened before they found her in the dungeon. She was sure that Aira would scoff and claim it was none of her business. Aira was silent for so long that Valeena felt she was right and that Aira was not going to answer.
“I went to the Star Kingdom seeking help from several War Wasp stings I received in Quell Fields.” Aira began, her voice steady, yet distant.
War wasps were deadly wasp the size of a cherry tomato. They are able to sting a victim multiple times, the stinger never dislodging from the insect’s body. Their venom is not deadly if the victim is only stung once. However, up to ten stings can be fatal. Valeena was thankful they had not encountered any on their trip to Vaughnstein.
“A group of Soldiers grabbed me, dragging me to the castle, claiming they could help. Instead, they strapped me a table in the dungeon and tried to remove my crystal. They were instructed to stop when the crystal began to fracture.”
Valeena felt a fresh wave of hatred for Queen Maylee as Aira spoke. She gave the elf nothing for the venom burning in her veins and instead, she had tried to kill her.
“She did not know I was only fifteen, as my people are immortal. I could have been four hundred for all she knew. They finally administered something for the venom when I began to pass out and threw me in the cell, saying I was useless. I do not know how long I was there before you found me.” Aira said bitterly. "I was sent from my village to investigate the Star Kingdom and instead I was treated like an animal."
Valeena was about to ask more about Aira’s village, but a flame sparked to life up ahead, distracting her. ‘They found the way out!’ Valeena thought, rushing towards the source of flickering light.
“What’s going on here?” Valeena asked as she took in the scene before her. Rowan’s eyes flickered to Valeena briefly. He then took a few steps backward, falling to one knee, bowing his head, and holding the sword out, the blade in his left hand, the hilt in his right. He appeared to be a blacksmith presenting his latest work to the King. Elden snatched the sword away rudely, replacing it in the sheath, ignoring the look of joy on Aira’s face.
“Nothing,” Elden mumbled, shooting Rowan a warning look. They remained silent as nobody seemed to know what to say.
“I guess we missed something,” Valeena said as she tried to put what had just happened in the back of her mind for now. She knew there was no point in asking for an explanation anyway as none would be provided. Valeena sighed, dismissing the whole thing altogether.
“Not quite,” Rowan said, misunderstanding Valeena’s statement as he strolled to the wall Elden had been pinned to and disappearing behind it. The wall looked as if it were a single unit, when it was in fact, two walls overlapping seamlessly.
Aira followed Rowan, still smiling. Apparently she had changed her mind about the Reap. Elden made to follow but Valeena stopped him, holding out the flask.
“I do not know what’s in here, nor do I wish to,” She lied, having decided to give it back now after Rowan’s little show. She had been so tempted to open the flask, but
“Thank you,” He said quietly, placing the flask in his pocket with a look of relief in his eyes. Valeena smiled at him before she walked to the secret opening.
The hidden area was a massive room that appeared that it belong in a desert. The walls were made out of a light brown sand stone with difference designs carved into them. Graying yellow sand lined the walls of the room save for an open pit in the center where remnants of the main floor were visible far below. Grotesque faces of various horned demons stuck out of the walls, each one had their mouths open, frozen in a scream.
Valeena stepped lightly onto the surface, hearing the grains of sand rub against the floor. Her weight caused the sand to shift and it rained over the edge of a giant pit that sat int he center of the room. She was jealous of the way Aira strolled on top of the sand as though it were no more than solid earth, her footsteps light and sure. Valeena glanced up at one of the horned demons and shuddered. Its tongue was sticking out between sharp, crooked teeth and one of its eyes was missing. She turned her attention to the sand as the sound of a thousand tiny legs scurry across a metal surface filled the room.
“Oh, shit!” Rowan yelled as thousands of small, sand-colored insects poured out of the demons mouths like water from a faucet. Their bodies wiggled on the ground like ugly turtles on their backs.
Valeena slipped and nearly fell into the sand, Elden grabbing her arm tightly before her face hit the surface. Up close, she was able to see that the grains were not sand at all. It was the skeleton remains of millions of these tiny insects that were still pouring into the room.
Valeena screamed as several of the insects ran up her legs, and she slapped madly at her skin. A few of the insects caught fire, spreading the flames around as they fought to escape. Within minutes, the entire room was engulfed in the inferno, the bugs trying to retreat back into the walls.
Valeena reached the other side of the room, dashing through the arch way. She pressed her back against the wall and watched in horror as the wall of flaming insects poured in, overflowing into a black trench.
Valeena edged along the wall and fled upwards, hearing her friends on the stairs behind her. At the top, Aira was waiting for them, smiling. She followed the elf down another corridor and entered a door to their left, brushing at her skin subconsciously. Her body still could feel the ghostly legs of the scurrying insects on her.
They had finally reached the top of the temple and found an enormous room with four giant, intricate built fire pits. Each one was giving off brilliant, blood-red flames. A massive two-headed scorpion that appeared to the smothering remnants of a campfire, sat motionless on a raised platform near the head of the room with its tail pointed in an attack position.
The Heart of Gaia could be seen poking out of the head of the beast on the right like a gem in his skull. A thick, black trench lined the walls, making the center of the room an island. A floating stone tile was their only way of accessing the middle of the room.
Valeena was hesitant to step on the tile for fear it would crumble under her feet. Aira, however, had no problem placing her bare feet on the smooth surface, placing her hands on her slender hips as the tile floated away, bringing her to the middle.
To her dismay, it floated away when she stepped off. She watched as Rowan, and Elden each stepped forward, floating towards her soundlessly. When it came back, Valeena stepped gingerly on the surface, wind-milling her arms madly to keep her balance as the tile moved forward.
Once they all were in the in the center of the room, the tile faded away as the fire pits each burst. The massive flames licking the ceiling as they turned from scarlet red to a deep black.
Sharp, silver spikes broke through the stone tiles, rising upwards as they enclosed Valeena, Aira, Rowan, and Elden inside, cutting off any chances of escape.
Elden spotted the Heart of Gaia and darted forward, reaching for the object as Valeena cried out in protest, her own heart sensing dread. His fingertips barely grazed the rough surface of the heart when the eyes of the beast burst open, revealing two dark, scarlet eyes.
Elden recoiled, jumping back as the second set of eyes opened as the hardened, black, stone cracked off the body of the scorpion. Large chunks of debris fell off of the beast as it freed its legs from the stone prison.
Valeena covered her mouth to stifle a scream as the giant scorpion leaped forward, landing on the island that they were standing on. The massive weight of its body cracked several of the tiles in the process.
The fireball crystal on Rowan’s forehead began to glow a deep red causing the flames on the scorpion's body to intensifying. Valeena could feel the heat as it radiated off its fiery body. Valeena took several steps back as her exposed skin grew uncomfortably warm from the hot flames.
The two heads of the scorpion whipped about as the magma covered body began to harden as the flames intensifying. The beast grew still before it crumpled to ashes like a sandcastle being destroyed by the wind.
Rowan stepped forward, retrieving the Heart of Gaia from the hot ashes, his foot stepping onto one of the cracked tiles. The tile gave way under his foot, splitting into several pieces and carrying his body into the shadows as his hand hit the side of the island, the Heart of Gaia bouncing towards Valeena’s feet.
No one had time to register what had happened to Rowan as the fire pits turned a deep, blood red, sending massive fireballs into the air, their trails illuminating the room like fireworks. The ashes of the fallen scorpion began to burn stronger, like the dying embers of a fire fighting for life.
The carcass began to boil and bubble as the scorpion rose out of the ashes. Its exoskeleton was pitch-black with the texture of scorched wood. In some places, it had blisters the colors of a deep red and orange.
Then it moved, its body rippled, cracking in veins, giving it the impression it had molten lava underneath its dark shell. Its tail was poised upwards, the tip dripping with deadly, yellow venom. Four sets of eyes glared at them as the two heads opened their mouths, releasing a hideous roar.
Valeena took a step back, not sure how or where to attack as the heads each bent away from each other, preparing to snap. The scorpion tail swung downwards, aiming for them before jerking back sharply as it snapped one of its massive pincers.
Valeena scooped up the Heart of Gaia as one of the heads rounded on her, flames licking at the ground. Elden shoved Valeena aside, slicing the head off the neck of the beast. Fiery blood shot out of the wound as the head rolled to the side, resting against the spiked fence, the eyes staring at Valeena lifelessly.
“Water!” Aira shouted at Valeena as she released an arrow straight into the eye of the head that was still attached to the body, the scorpion crying out.
“From where? This is a dry, ancient temple with a fire-breathing scorpion attacking us!” Valeena countered jumping out of the way as an arrow sailed past her head, the tip lodging into the smoldering tail.
Aira’s crystal began to glow as a gust of wind came spiraling its way up through the gaps between the island and them. It danced its way towards the deadly scorpion. With each gust, the body began to burn brighter.
“Stop! The wind is helping it!” Elden shouted, swinging his sword and making contact with the beast’s body. The blade of his sword turned red as the metal heated up with each swing.
Valeena turned sideways, keeping one eye on the scorpion as she focused her attention to the trench, but no water appeared. She glanced up to find four round openings that were closed above, shutting out the rain that could be heard dancing a soft staccato on the roof.
“If we could only find a way to open them…” Valeena thought out loud, but she could see nothing in the dark.
“Val?” Elden asked, dodging a blow from the scorpion’s pincer by rolling on his side. He swung again, the blade cutting off a chunk of the exoskeleton causing an orange fluid that resembled lava to ooze out, falling to the ground in thick clumps.
“The four closed windows,” Valeena said, pointing upwards.
“Oh Gods,” Aira whispered as she looked up as well, releasing an arrow at the ancient wood in hopes of slicing it open.
“Distract the beast, I have an idea,” Elden called out, rolling under the beast’s belly to the opposite side, avoiding the growing pile of orange ooze.
Aira, surprisingly, darted in front of the scorpion, shooting an arrow between its eyes. The arrow caught fire, but stuck, the scorpion crying out. It swung its massive tail towards her, skimming her arm as she tried to avoid the hit.
“Ah!” Aira cried as the skin on her arm blackened and blistered.
“Hang in there!” Elden shouted, focusing on the empty void. The darkness began to twist and spiral like water going down a drain, towards the scorpion. Elden was able to manipulate the darkness so it gathered in front of the scorpion, temporarily blinding it.
“Aira, I know it’s painful, but shoot an arrow towards the openings. But set it on fire this time.” Elden instructed ducking as the tail of the beast swung madly, nearly making contact with his head.
Aira pulled an arrow from her quiver and carefully held the tip out to the scorpion’s body. The wood around the stone arrowhead quickly splintered and caught fire as Aira placed the arrow on the string and aimed through the sea of shadows.
A narrow outline of the window was barely visible as Elden molded the darkness. She released the arrow, watching as it shot through the air, the head lodging into the closed window cover, setting it on fire.
Aira had a better view of the ceiling as the fire quickly spread across the dry, ancient wood. She let a second flaming arrow fly, embedding it in the roof. With a loud snap, the hinges of the opening gave out, dropping the cover down into the void, allowing not only the cold night air to seep in, but the rain as well.
Elden released the darkness, save for a haze of black around the beast’s eyes as Valeena focused on the burning hole, her crystal glowing feebly at first, but growing brighter as she concentrated.
Large drops of rain began to cascade into the temple, forming a funnel of water. The wind swirled around the water, carrying it in the direction of the fiery beast. Steam rose off the scorpion as the drops danced on the burning surface, sending deadly hot steam into the air. The rain continued to land in sharp hissing sounds, the beast crying out in pain.
Valeena focused harder, allowing the rain to ride on the wind, the funnel of water shifting from a vertical formation into a curved one, dowsing the scorpion. Steam filled the area as the fire beast was extinguished, crumbling to ashes that were slowly washed away by the dying rain.
Aira collapsed on the floor, her injured arm held gently against her body. Elden looked at Valeena, giving her a half smile, running his hands through his hair. But his smile did not last long as several small scorpions crawled out from under the fire pits, and up from the trench. Aira jumped to her feet, backing up as the creatures crawled forward.
“Val!” Elden shouted, as four scorpions made their way up to Valeena’s boots, causing her to jump back.
“Ew!” Valeena cried out, shaking her legs vigorously. More of the foul scorpions crept out of the darkness, their tails curved over their bodies.
“Come on!” Elden shouted, holding out his hand, his crystal glowing softly, but nothing visibly happening. Valeena began to move more quickly, tripping over her own feet as the wind picked up once more. But it seemed to have no effect on the tiny scorpions, as two sent their venomous tails straight into Valeena’s leg.
Elden had a hold of her arm, dragging her towards a hidden door that Aira had stumbled upon, her back hitting the wall and the door swinging inward. Elden helped Valeena carefully through the door, kicking the never ending rampage of scorpions in the process.
Valeena felt the venom burning its way through her blood, pain blocking out most of her memory of their trip down a long flight of flimsy stairs and out onto a rain soak deck. Valeena stumbled onto the wooden surface before falling to her knees as she lost consciousness.