Chapter 18 Zolom
The ebony dragon shot orange, and red, flames at the three-year-old's heels as she tried desperately to escape. A cloaked figure sat laughing on its back as they encouraged the dragon to continue its fiery assault.
Valeena slowly opened her blues eyes, blinking a few times as her eyes adjusted to her surroundings. Her body ached, her head felt as though someone had repeatedly smacked it against a wall, the pounding stuck in her ears. Valeena held her head in her arms and peered around, feeling her heart skip a beat as fear gripped her spine. The room she was in was tiny, with wooden planks for walls.
‘I’m in the dungeon!’ Her mind screamed at her as she felt panic dance through her soul.
Wait- when had Queen Maylee captured her? Was she really in the dungeon? Valeena strained to recall the last strands of her fading memory. There was a fiery scorpion, flames, small foul scorpions and nothing.
Valeena sat up stiffly, holding her head as confusion settled in. What was that sound? Was it rain? There was no reason she should hear rain down here in the dark dungeon and she wasn’t strong enough to bring the storm inside.
Valeena glanced around, her eyes landing on a wide half circle opening that revealed the night sky stretching out to the forest. The soft staccato of rain tapped a hollow tune on the wooden roof above her.
Aira appeared through the door, shaking rain out of her silvery hair, clearly not pleased about the unexpected downpour. She gathered her hair in her hands and squeezed the water out, muttering in her native tongue. She glanced towards Valeena, her face turning to shock.
“Oh! You are awake!” She seemed relieved, leaning back out of the door and peering to her left, then back at Valeena. Elden stepped up beside Aira, a half smile on his handsome face.
“You talk in your sleep, you know.” Elden teased, a rare occurrence for him. Valeena felt her face flush in embarrassment and she hid her face in her hands, her eyes peeking out from between her fingers.
“You were asleep a full day. The venom had spread quickly, but Elden saved you.” Aira said, her voice cracking. Valeena peered down at her leg where two large, swollen lumps were visible on her calf.
“Thank you. What did you do?” Valeena questioned, her eyes looking from Elden to Aira. Aira turned her head away, fidgeting with her bow. She seemed uncomfortable as she glanced at Valeena then away again.
“He, uh, he sucked the venom from your wound.” The elf gagged, turning her back to Valeena. Elden shrugged as though it meant nothing. “And don’t worry, you will be fine. I didn’t bite you.”
Valeena did not understand that last statement.
‘He didn’t bite me?’ She thought, gingerly touching one of the swollen lumps. She immediately regretted her decision as a spark of pain danced through her leg. ‘Is he trying to make a joke?’
Aira set her bow down, stretching her arms high above her head, yawning softly. The yawn seemed forced, almost fake like.
“I believe we should rest, we should get an early start tomorrow.” But her voice shook, and she fled outside. Elden sat down against the wall adjacent to Valeena, sighing.
“It’s because of Rowan,” He explained in hush tones, sending Valeena the lost memory of Rowan falling into the void. Valeena did not know how to respond, instead, she stared skyward. She listened to the breeze as it rustled through the leaves, carrying with it the sweet scent of rain and flora. She had managed to stop the downpour, turning it into a light mist.
“Val, what do you dream about?” Elden asked her, his voice gentle yet firm. He was staring at the wall, yet his eyes appeared to be looking through it, as though he were staring at some point in the distance only he could see.
Valeena did not want to answer as the last person she had mentioned her dreams to had laughed violently in her face, taunting her.
“I dream of many things,” Valeena responded lightly, closing her eyes as he sighed deeply.
“And what was it this evening?” He pressed. Valeena opened her eyes, allowing them to flicker to Elden’s, before focusing on the sky through the half circle again.
“A dragon that always seems to be attacking me near the Star Kingdom,” Valeena told him reluctantly with a slight shake of her head. “I know it’s silly, dragons are extinct.”
“You were shouting, help me!” Elden continued, ignoring the red that crept into Valeena’s cheeks.
“I never knew I spoke in my sleep,” She confessed, a soft chuckle escaping her. “But when you are alone ninety percent of the time, I suppose there’s no one to inform you of your unconscious acts.” Valeena felt taken aback as what appeared to be a sympathetic expression crossed Elden’s face.
“I know what you mean,” He said in a voice barely audible as he shook his head. He was looking out at the sky where the clouds were closing a small opening of stars, one of those stars being red.
“Elden, it’s alright.” Valeena started, reaching out and placing her hand on his.
“I know.” The familiar look of hurt crossed his face, but it was not followed by his usual bout of anger.
“Get some rest, tomorrow is nearly here,” Elden told her, starting to get to his feet.
“Please stay.” Valeena pleaded softly, her eyes meeting his. He sighed but smiled.
Valeena was woken up by a horrible screeching sound reverberating off the walls of the wooden hut. She sat up stiffly, squinting against the early morning light.
Elden was slumped against one wall, drooling, waking up as well. He had stayed, just as he said he would. The screeching sound ceased suddenly followed by a solid ‘hmmp!’ from Aira. The elf poked her silvery head in, a look of pure disgust crossing her face as she saw Elden.
“Let’s go,” She demanded, turning on her heels and looking back towards the temple. Aira had spent the last several hours crafting more arrows, the shavings scattered around the deck. Feathers dotted with blood littered the pathway not far from a carcass of a fat, hazel bird. The creature was laying over the side, an arrow in its neck. Aira pulled the arrow out with ease as Valeena gagged.
The door they had fled through was invisible against the trunk of the giant tree it was carved into. The temple itself could no longer be seen high above them as branches with large, thick, green leaves distorted the view, blocking it from sight.
Aira had caught Valeena looking at her and she did her best to cover up the longing in her eyes by stomping down the bridge that connected them with another platform. They walked for hours, Valeena limping slightly, but smiling as a pink, and orange butterfly twice the size of a normal one fluttered by, landing on a lush purple flower with heart shaped petals.
The path they walked on was spotted in shadows, sunlight bursting through in various openings. Rays of light cascaded down on various lush, green plants. Valeena decided to nickname the area, Sun Spot Way. Aira agreed that the name was fitting, even though her eyes were always glancing behind her.
Valeena was becoming increasingly worried about Elden. He seemed to be having difficulty breathing. His skin was paler than normal and sweat was beading on his forehead.
“Let’s rest,” Valeena suggested as she stopped and rubbed her swollen calf. “My leg is sore.” She said the lie smoothly and was relieved when Aira nodded in agreement as she sat on the moss covered wooden rail. Her crystal began glowing, bringing a soft, refreshing breeze.
Elden grabbed the rail on the opposite side, looking down over the edge, his knuckles white. Valeena watched him intently, determined to figure out his secret, just as Aira, and Rowan had told her. But nothing came to mind.
The sound of heavy footsteps approaching caught her attention. Valeena faced the sound, knowing she was in no shape to flee if it was one of Queen Maylee’s many soldiers. Aira, and Elden were standing alert as well, Aira with her bow out, Elden with his hand on the dull sword’s hilt. A familiar face came into view, slapping the green leaves out of his handsome, red face.
“Hey, what’s brown and sticky?” Rowan asked as a large smile crossed his face, ignoring the looks of shock and joy on the faces of his friends. Valeena scrunched her nose at his question, not wanting to reply. She was happy he was alive, and obviously well.
“A stick,” Rowan answered innocently, holding up a thin stick, with a laugh.
“Ugh, really?” Aira scolded, crossing her arms in sheer disgust but a smile escaped her. She turned her back to him to hide it.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is my sense of humor getting in the way of you being boring?” Rowan threw the stick aside, walking over to Elden and clapped him hard on the back.
“How are you doing?” He asked, looking at Aira then Valeena. “What happened to you?” His question was directed at Valeena as he noticed her swollen calf.
“Me? What about you?” Valeena countered more interested in hearing about how he survived the spikes. Rowan removed the tin of mint green ointment as he made his way to Valeena.
“When I fell, I landed on one of the logs that had dislodged itself from the wall. It was still swaying slightly, saving me from the sharp points of those spikes.” He was rubbing the balm on the scorpion stings, an instant feeling of relief spread through her calf. The sensation was icy yet refreshing.
“I slid off the log, landing in the hall, where I rushed to the stairs. The statues did not shoot this time, but I was not going to give them a target. By the time I made it up the stairs and back to the scorpion room, you were gone. Thankfully all those bugs were burned to a crisp.” He replaced the lid on the tin, sitting down next to Valeena, invoking a jealous look to cross Aira’s face. Rowan shuddered at the memory of the burning insect carcasses.
“Thankfully, you left the door open and I was able to find a way out. Once outside, it took a while to figure out where you had gone, but I found the wood shavings, blood, and fresh scratch marks back there on the deck. So I knew I was close.” He was eating a hand full of plump, blueberries that he had removed from his pocket, chewing with his mouth open.
He offered them around, Elden was the only one to turn him down. But Rowan did not seem to mind as it meant more for him. Valeena suddenly realized that she had never actually seen Elden eat. But he had to of, right? No one can go without food.
“Ready?” Rowan asked as he got to his feet, stretching his arms up over his head and belching. Aira did her best to look disgusted by his rudeness, but her eyes gave her away.
The four of them traveled for what seemed like several hours, it was hard to tell as the leaves blocked out so much of the sun. Time seemed to have no meaning here in the ever-twisting trees.
Valeena kept an eye on Elden as he walked beside her, his face still pale. He had snuck a drink from his flask, turning his back to Aira, and Rowan as he did so. Valeena had acted like she did not notice. Whatever was in the flask seemed to help, as the color returned to his cheeks.
The forest stopped suddenly, leaving them standing at a dead end. The marsh continued down below the trees, ending at a lush, green field way off in the distance.
“Here,” Elden called out, lifting a trap door that was hidden in the planks of the wooden platform. Valeena slid down the fat, green vines to a rocky island sitting among the marsh.
Dark yellow weeds and cattails taller than Valeena grew in clumps along the marsh. Giant frogs croaked from within the weeds, waiting to make a meal out of one of the many bugs that were buzzing around noisily. A bird swooped down and snatched one of the frogs in its beak, flying away as it ate its snack.
Valeena jumped and skipped from rock to rock, trying desperately to not step in the murky, foul-smelling water. Several times her boot slipped on the wet stone, her arms windmilling madly to keep her balance. She was ignoring the burning pain in her calf as she jumped, hoping it would not slow her down.
Beautiful, vibrant, green bushes grew among the willow trees, with butterflies fluttering in their branches. Even though the water level was relatively low, several small streams snaked their way through the weeds.
Dead snags stood tall, containing birds that chirped merrily in their sun bleach branches. It was hot, even though the sun was half way across the cloudy sky now, indicating that night was approaching. Sweat ran down Valeena’s back, her dress sticking to her skin.
“We should hurry,” Elden spoke, breaking the silence that had been building for several hours.
“Why?” Valeena asked confused, swatting at a fat fly that was buzzing too closely to her lovely face.
“A nocturnal serpent hunts this marsh,” Elden informed them, hopping onto a flat rock, causing it to sink slightly under his weight.
The Zolom was a serpent that was over thirty feet long with tan, and mossy green scales, allowing it to blend perfectly with the wet terrain of the marsh. The creature was completely blind, relying on vibrations in the water to hunt its prey.
Aira groaned quickly peering around the marsh, her eyes straining to see the lush field they had spied from the trees.
“I had forgotten this was his marsh,” Aira whispered as the color slowly drained from her face. She hopped delicately from stone to stone, doing her best not to touch the water. Rowan shrugged his muscular shoulders.
“This marsh is miles long! That stupid Zolom may be back by the mountains giving the Goblins trouble.” Rowan said as he tried to reassure Aira, but her eyes were moving as quickly as a humming bird’s wings, darting every which way.
“Ugh, I do not like mosquitoes,” Valeena complained as she swatted at several mosquitoes that were trying to land on her exposed skin.
“I hate them as well!” Rowan said, flicking one of the flying insects off his arm, groaning in disgust. “My people are mountain dwellers, not marsh lovers.” He complained, flailing his arms madly, swatting at the swarm of mosquitoes.
“You said the preacher found you wandering around? Why did he not try to return you home?” Aira asked, beads of sweat forming on her silky forehead.
Rowan was silent. He appeared to be thinking about what Aira had just asked him. But minutes passed and he still did not answer. Valeena sensed something was amiss, and dared herself to give him a quick glance. His normal cheerful face was clouded over. Aira too, looked his way, her smirk faltering.
Rowan pressed his lips together them said, “There was an accident, the mine my family worked in exploded. The whole village went up in flames that burned for seven weeks. I searched for my parents, but the fire was too hot. I ended up fleeing the village, running blindly in the night. I was lost, hungry, and weak when the preacher took me in.”
“I’m sorry,” Aira said, her eyes hiding her own secret.
Rowan waved her words away as he said, "Don't be. I was three was that happened. I have lived with the preacher and his wife for thirteen years now. I'll never forget the day he found me though. He screamed and tried to throw holy water on me." Rowan broke out in a loud bout of laughter as Aira, and Valeena snickered politely.
"When that didn't work, he took me the church and spent his life trying to save my soul. I guess when you have horns like the Devil, people assume you are evil." He laughed again as he jumped from rock to rock.
Valeena laughed as she said, "You are the nicest person I know." Her words caused Rowan to smile wide, exposing his rows of double teeth.
"Ha, thank you."
They walked in silence, the noise of the bugs and the birds seemed to amplify as the sun sank lower, casting the sky in vibrant shades of purple.
“Look!” Aira exclaimed, pointing to a silhouette of a massive bridge looming up ahead.
“That looks like an old bridge that connected the two cities of Nero and St. Dalmasca. It hasn’t been in use for years.” Rowan informed them, picking a cat tail and twirling it between his thumb and forefinger.
“We should try to board it before the night settles in,” Valeena suggested as Aira quickly agreed.
Valeena dared a look at Elden, a flare of embarrassment dancing on her face as her eyes met his. He was looking at her, studying her. He had the silver, tarnished flask out, receiving a look of disgust from Rowan.
“You picked it back up, didn’t you?” Rowan asked, shaking his head. “Or, did someone give it to you?” His head turned slowly towards Valeena, who remained silent, doing her best to appear fascinated with a twig. He returned his scarlet eyes back to Elden, who merely shrugged, pocketing the metal flask. Aira shook her head, mumbling something about Elden being an Amar-gwad.
"It's better than the alternative, right?" Elden asked. Rowan opened his mouth to protest but closed it again as he realized that Elden was correct.
Valeena felt her leg buckle from pain and she collapsed, nearly landing in the murky water of the foul scented marsh. Her leg was throbbing from limping across the harsh terrain. The ointment Rowan had applied had worn off hours ago, leaving behind a burning sensation.
“Get up!” Hissed Aira sharply, not slowing her pace to help Valeena. “The Zolom will be waking soon!”
Rowan was by her side, rubbing more of the ointment on her leg, soothing the burning immediately. But it did nothing for the ache that had taken over. Elden reached under Valeena’s arm and helped her back on her feet. She stumbled, Elden catching her again. He sighed, and then carefully picked her up into his arms.
“Elden, it is alright. I will only slow you down.” Valeena said as her face burned scarlet, spying the look of disgust Aira was giving them. But Elden gave a feeble smile and walked carefully over the stones, ignoring her pleas to be set back down on her own feet.
The sun was an orange smudge on the horizon now as the night settled in. The bridge was close, but the Zolom could be closer. Fireflies began to appear in the twilight, twinkling like tiny stars among the cattails and shrubs. A shining, ghost-like silver bird known as a phasma, floated in the breeze, weaving its way through the willows.
“Don’t watch it,” Elden informed Valeena, looking steadily ahead as a few wisps bobbed out of the murky waters.
“Why?” Valeena asked. The bird was beautiful. Its ghostly aura mixing with the silver of the feathers gave it a very alluring appearance. Valeena longed for a closer look as she had never seen something like it.
“The phasma is a ghost bird that lures its prey to its death,” Elden said, nudging his head to indicate she should turn away. Valeena moved her head, but her blue eyes were drawn back to the phantom bird. It was resting on a dead snag, whistling a soft, hollow, lovely tune.
Something moved near the bird causing it to squawk in protest as it flew higher into the tree, resuming its siren-like call. A dead log that was floating in the murky waters rolled over slowly, startling a fat bullfrog who hopped rapidly away. The log then sunk into the marsh as though it had never been there.
“Did you see that?” Valeena asked as the last ripple melted into the water.
“See what?” It was Aira. She was nearly to the stone bridge, her pace twice as fast as the rest of them.
“A log just sunk out of sight,” Valeena answered, watching the marsh carefully. Elden set Valeena down gently, his dark eyes growing wide.
“Think you can walk, Val?”
She nodded as fear began creeping into her body. She could not help but wonder if that had actually been a log at all.
“Walk quickly, but carefully,” Elden instructed, his eyes flickering around the murky water.
Rowan, who was a heavy walker, seemed to stomp louder as he picked up his pace. His heavy boots were sinking the stones as he crossed them. The water began to ripple off to Valeena’s left as an unseen creature moved through it. The buzzing of the insects seemed to intensify as she strained her ears to listen for any sounds of movement. Aira was on the weathered beaten stone bridge, urging them to hurry.
The Zolom suddenly appeared out of the gray waters, its long fangs barely missing Rowan’s leg. Instead, they sunk into a dead snag’s root that had been poking above the surface.
Rowan released a scream that should belong to a twelve-year-old girl and tried running across the murky water. He stumbled several times before falling against a boulder jutting out of the water. He struggled to pull his body out of the foul liquid as his heavy boots filled with the water.
The serpent lunged again, smashing hard into the boulder as Rowan rolled onto his side, grabbing the edge of the bridge and pulling his body free. He crawled onto the aged stone, spitting and panting.
Elden and Valeena stood still, watching as the Zolom circled the area ahead of them, its body moving swiftly in the water as it searched for Rowan. A light, misty rain began to fall, Elden rolling his eyes at Valeena. He bent over slowly, his hand sinking into the water. He removed his arm and held a small rock in his fingers, throwing it to his left.
The serpent paused a moment as the ripples from the rock hitting the water reached its head. Valeena watched as the Zolom disappeared under the murky surface, as it hunted the new sound.
Elden was the first to move, cautiously forward, being careful not to touch the water. Valeena followed, blocking out the pain of her leg as fear set in.
Aira, and Rowan were on their knees, reaching out for her, as the Zolom reappeared, its foot long fangs biting into the mud where Valeena’s foot had just been.
Valeena stumbled forward, grasping Rowan’s strong hand. He pulled her out of the marsh as smoothly as pulling a weed from a garden. She collapsed on the bridge, whipping her head around to check to see if Elden was alright.
The Zolom had risen out of the water, its body arched, its fangs no more than ten feet above Elden’s exposed head. He had his sword out, his crystal glowing a hazy gray. The rain suddenly picked up, fat drops of water dancing a powerful staccato along the gray surface of the marsh.
The Zolom’s head jerked around as the rain intensified, distorting its senses. Elden swung, his sword hitting the scaly, green flesh of the serpent. Black blood oozed out of the wound as the creature fell into the water, circling Elden like a shark. It lunged suddenly, Elden’s sword biting into its face as he jumped out of the way.
Valeena felt helpless as she watched the scene, knowing that the rain was her only trick. She remembered back in the ice cave how she had frozen the water, and began to focus on the drops themselves. Soon, the clouds began to cry heavy balls of ice that actually hurt when they made contact with her creamy, exposed skin.
The Zolom was sent into a frenzy as it darted this way and that as the ice hit the water. Elden used the distraction to inch towards the bridge, being careful not to step on the creature as it whipped violently in the water.
Valeena bent down, extending her hand for Elden to grasp. He had picked up a heavier rock and hurled it in the opposite direction of the bridge, feeling relieved as the Zolom rushed towards the location it had landed, its fangs bared.
Elden jogged forward, his hand finding Valeena’s, allowing her to help him up onto the rocky surface. Valeena placed her feet on the sides of the bridge and leaned back, pulling Elden with her. Rowan was at her side, grasping Elden's other hand and jerking him free of the water.
“Enough!” Cried Aira as a rather large hail stone hit her bare back, leaving a bright red spot. Valeena turned to her, glaring.
“You could not help me?” She let her anger out as thunder rolled through the thick clouds. Lightning split the sky in half, in large, radiant bolts, illuminating the marsh briefly. Aira stood tall, the hail subsiding into a slushy rain as Valeena stared at her.
“Why would I help an Amar-gwad?” Aira questioned, the wind bursting through the dead trees of the marsh wildly. Valeena threw her arms in the air. She was tired of the hatred the elf carried for Elden.
“After we gather the Elements and stop the Queen, by all means, kill each! Until then, can you at least act decently towards each other?” The storm was ebbing as Valeena calmed down, the phasma circling nearby. The creature was unaffected by the storm as it seemed to be in a world separate from theirs.
“Valeena has a point.” It was Rowan. He ignored the look of betrayal from Aira who had seemed to form an alliance with him.
“I will never be friends with it!” Lightning flashed behind her creating a menacing appearance. Aira, and Valeena locked eyes, the wind whipping their hair around, thunder pounding in the sky.
“You don’t have to be friends,” Rowan spoke gently, taking a cautious step towards the elf. “But at least, be civil. And how many times are we going to have this fight?” Rowan’s voice was raising now as irritation set in.
“You hate him, we get it. But your constant negative behavior is not healthy! Now just bury the hatchet and move on!”
Aira cocked her head sideways as Rowan crossed his muscular arms. She said nothing as she shoved passed him, heading in the direction of St. Dalmasca.
“What about you?” Valeena asked, rounding on Rowan, hands firmly on her hips.
“Well I was going to set the place on fire but somebody made it rain!” He made a large sweeping motion with his hand. Valeena felt a tingle of embarrassment but before she could speak Elden broke in.
“And she did a great job!” He shouted it, defending her. Rowan nodded his head as his expression turned from annoyance to confusion.
“I think we had better leave, the Zolom is not done with us.” As he spoke, the phasma silently glided through the air, landing on Elden’s shoulder.
“Oh, um, shoo!” Elden said jerking his shoulder, but the bird clung tightly, its claws digging into his jacket. It let out a soft, hollow coo that sent chills through Valeena’s spine. The bird’s eyes were black like coals, seeing through them. A thin ring of red was the only color on the birds face.
Out of the marsh, the Zolom rose, fangs bared as it hissed in rage. Rowan held out his arms, indicating they should not move. He put a finger to his lips and shook his head softly, a sign they should not speak. The serpent swayed, standing tall above them, its blind eyes searching. It flickered its tongue, tasting the air as it searched for them.
Aira released an arrow from her bow deep into the marsh but the Zolom took no notice of it. Her next arrow sunk into the scales of the serpent, causing it to lunge forward, fangs nearly grazing Elden’s body. Rowan glanced at Aira and threw his arms in the air in a, "why?" motion.
The four of them backed up slowly, trying to make very little noise as the Zolom lifted its blind head, the top portion of its body lying on the weathered railing-less stone bridge.
“Run,” Elden whispered, knowing the odds were against them as the powerful serpent loomed over them. Aira sprinted first, followed by Rowan, Elden, and finally Valeena, whose leg was still causing her great pain.
The wind turned into typhoon force gales, hindering them as they ran. The rain began swirling into the wind causing an unpleasant storm, the stones becoming slippery under their feet.
“Val, Aira, stop!” Elden demanded as he nearly did the splits, his legs sliding in opposite directions.
“No, keep it up!” Rowan shouted, as the Zolom’s body slipped on the stones, sliding into the water. It was having difficulty moving on the stone as it had only ever swam through the waters of the marsh. The serpent lunged, its fangs sticking into the stone, ripping chunks of the bridge as it freed itself.
Valeena stopped running, her leg just could not take it anymore, and turned to the beast. She focused her attention onto the various puddles, turning them into solid patches of ice.
“Val!” Elden shouted over the din as thunder rolled above. He was, at least, ten feet ahead of her. Aira, and Rowan were much further away, urging them to hurry. Valeena glanced back over her shoulder to find Elden was running back towards her, a look of terror on his handsome face.
The Zolom’s scaly body hit one of the patches of ice and slid, turning at a sharp angle, its tail sending a wave of marsh water into the air as it skimmed the surface. The beast was unable to correct itself and ended up turned completely around, as it hissed in rage.
Valeena held her breath and remained as still as a statue in the Queen’s garden, watching as the Zolom raised its head, searching for its lost prey. The serpents head swiveled over its body, its blind eyes looking dead into Valeena’s blue ones. She refused to blink as she watched the beast, waiting to see what it was going to do. The Zolom turned its head back around and began slithering in the opposite direction, having been certain its prey went this way.
Elden held onto Valeena as they slowly backed up, keeping their steps light, not wanting to bring any attention to themselves.
The Zolom stopped, turning its head this way and that, appearing to be listening for any signs of movement. After several minutes, it continued moving away from them, before finally sinking back into the marsh.
The end of the bridge was attached to a dark grassy plain, where Rowan, and Aira had set up a makeshift camp. An animal of some sort was roasting over a fire, as Aira tended to it. Elden helped Valeena settle onto the ground before dropping roughly beside her.
“I would love to go home!” Aira was saying as Valeena adjusted her leg, hoping the foul marsh water would not cause her leg to fall off from infection. She peeled leaves off her skin and dusted mud off her body the best she could before giving up.
“I wish I had a home,” Valeena said silently, picking up some berries that were resting near a canteen of water.
“Isn’t the castle your home?” Rowan asked, chewing on the end of a weed, leaning back on his hands. A dark look crossed Valeena’s face.
“The castle will never be my Home.”
Elden patted her hand, a simple gesture that startled her. He seemed to be trying harder to control whatever it was that caused his mood swings.
Valeena rested her head on his shoulder, sighing. She felt Elden’s body stiffened, and for a moment, she was afraid he was going to stand up or shove her head off of him. But after several seconds, he relaxed, having decided her head on his shoulder was not so bad.
Rowan was looking skyward, the clouds having cleared in the sky, leaving a beautiful scene of twinkling stars and a new moon. The blood red dot of Firrian could not be seen tonight.
“Tell you what,” Rowan was saying, reaching out and trying to catch a firefly that floated near his head. “When this is all over, we will find you a home, even if it means building you one,” Valeena smiled at him softly.
The night fell silent save for the crackling of the fire and the chips of crickets emitting from among the weeds. “But I think I want to find a place that is my own.” In the light of the fire, Valeena saw Rowan nod, a faint smile on his face.
“I want that too. Honestly, I do not think I can ever return to the church.” He shook his head, trying to shake out the angry images that plagued him. The silence was thick, and an awkward feeling began to grow inside Valeena. She had to think of a way to change the subject.
“How did you set up camp so quickly?” Valeena asked, the words spilling out in haste, as she ate a few of the sweet berries. Aira, and Rowan exchanged a look of joy, a mischievous smile on their faces.
“The original occupants fled,” She stated simply, poking at the cooking meat, testing it. A soft giggle that was not Aira in any shape, manner or form, escaped her ruby lips.
“Don’t you think we should take shelter somewhere less open?” Elden asked, glancing around the empty plain. The phasma glided smoothly over, landing near Elden, its head cocked to the side, a quizzical expression on its silver face. Valeena chuckled.
“Queen Maylee will not be leading any attacks tonight,” She said, trying her best not to eat the rest of the delicious berries. Aira took the animal off the fire, setting it on a flat rock nearby.
“Why?” Aira asked removing a dagger from Rowan’s hip and cutting into the meat.
“She is terrified of the dark,” Valeena said, smiling as the others laughed. “I overheard a few maids speaking one time. They claimed she sleeps with the lights on. She also has guards watch over her at night.”
“It’s amazing.” Aira started as she began handing out pieces of cooked meat. “How afraid of the unknown she is. Perhaps that’s why the castle is so guarded.”
Valeena had never thought about that before. She always just believed the Queen to be silly for her irrational fear of the night.
“That could also be why she seeks the Crystals.” Rowan chimed in, talking with a mouth full of meat.
“What do you mean?” Valeena asked, sitting up so as to get a better view of the Reap.
“You do know the Crystals combined with the Elements can open the doorway to Nihonal?” Rowan asked, reaching for more food, his eyes locking on Valeena. Valeena nodded, “So, opening Nihonal will give her power to control the world?”
“Oh come on, let’s just go to sleep!” Elden snapped, his head held low, his eyes looking down at his tightly clasped hands.
Valeena sighed catching a glimpse of Elden’s hands. For the first time, she noticed a serpent ring on Elden’s left ring finger. The serpent wrapped around his finger three times and was made of silver with dark pewter stones on its spine. Two blood red rubies made the serpents eyes, its mouth open wide, fangs sunk deep into Elden’s flesh.
He quickly hid his hand when he noticed Valeena gazing at the ring, glancing skyward then focusing on the phasma.
“I wonder what Nihonal looks like. Maybe a giant ocean or something.” Valeena pondered subconsciously for more of the berries.
“Valeena, Nihonal is more like thousands of small streams all flowing to a single point where all the memories of Gaia are kept. If someone were to harness that energy, that power, our world would be putty in their hands.” Rowan finished explaining, leaning back on his hands, looking skyward once more. "That's if you believe it."
Valeena was starting to wonder if that was part of the Queen’s plans. But then again, she had never heard her mention the Elements at all. Her only interest was in the Crystals.
“That is, of course, if Nihonal exists.” Rowan continued. “I was not raised to believe it does, but as the Crystals are real and so are the Elements, I suppose Nihonal can exist as well.”
Valeena rested her head on Elden’s shoulder once more, watching him toss pieces of meat at the phasma. The bird hopped around it, picking at the meat, releasing a hollow coo that sounded like the soul leaving the body. Its silvery aura giving it a haunting appearance, Valeena had to force herself to look away.
“I’d like to see Nihonal and the memories of Gaia. It sounds beautiful.” Valeena said as she closed her eyes, picturing clear watery rivers flowing in a black sea of stars.
“Me too,” Aira said softly, settling into the grass, getting ready to sleep.
“Just go to sleep.” Elden barked softly, crossing his arms and looking away. Valeena sighed, someday she would figure him out. She scratched at her crystal as she looked skyward, trying to enjoy the stars.
"Are you alright?" Rowan was asking as he shooed the phasma away once more.
"I think I might be allergic to the metal," Valeena mumbled as she ran her fingers over the skin near her crystal as well. "But it is odd, it feels like it is my crystal and not the skin."
"I experienced that the other day," Aira chimed in as she warmed her hands by the fire. "Perhaps it is because you have not used your crystal before," It was not said in an insulting manner.
Valeena nodded, "That may be it." But something told Valeena she was wrong as she settled on the grass to sleep.