Chapter 19 Seeking the Truth
Valeena awoke sometime later lying on the cool, damp grass. The sun still had not risen, and she watched the clouds roll across the sky like ships out to sea, the stars twinkling above.
Elden was gone, the phasma pecking at the last of the dying embers, oblivious to the heat of the smoldering flames. Valeena sat up, stretching her stiff muscles; her leg felt better and did not sting when she moved it. Rowan had applied more ointment on her wounds before she had slipped into dreamland, the marks fading away.
Elden was no where in sight. Valeena always felt like he was on the verge of running anyways. It was like he all ready had one foot out the door. He seemed to be trying to control his demon, that’s what Valeena decided to call it until she knew for sure what was happening to him. He had returned the last time he left, and she hoped he would return again.
Aira was curled up in a tight ball with her bow resting firmly in her hands. The fearless Rowan was laid out on his back like a starfish, arms, and legs spread open. He was snoring loudly and Valeena wondered how she had managed to sleep through the noise at all.
Valeena sighed, lying on her side on the damp grass, using her arms as a pillow. A misty rain began to fall as she closed her blue eyes once more, fighting away the thoughts of Elden.
“Valeena wake up!” Aira was shouting, her voice full of annoyance. Valeena opened her eyes once more to find the sun had risen only a few hours ago but was hidden behind dark clouds that were crying fat drops of rain. Valeena ceased the rain, knowing this was the cause of their annoyance.
“Are you going to bring rain every time you dream of the dragon?” Aira snapped, wringing out her beautiful hair, her silver eyes glaring at her.
“Sorry, I cannot control it,” Valeena mumbled, startled to find Elden beside her. He was sleeping in a manner that resembled a corpse in a coffin and the image gave her chills. He had returned, and Valeena could not help but wonder why.
“You are as helpless as a newborn deer!” Aira shouted, shaking her lovely hair that caught the morning rays in beautiful sparks of light. Valeena felt her face flush with embarrassment.
“I cannot control what I do as I sleep.” Valeena said, trying feebly to defend herself. But the elf gave a cruel, HA! That sent a fresh wave of anger pulsing through her veins.
“Valeena, were you not the one who said you wanted a peaceful journey?” Aira said smoothly, a cruel smile playing on her lips. Valeena felt her hands tighten into a fist.
“Stop!” Elden shouted, his words were enough to snap Valeena back to life. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, her breathing sharp and quick. Elden peered at Aira, glaring as he pointed, “Aira, you like to start trouble with everyone!”
“Whoa!” It was Rowan, coming quickly to Aira’s defense. “That is not true. Look, we just agreed to play nicely together not even a few hours ago!”
Valeena was ashamed by her rash actions and nodded, not wanting to be the first one to break the death stare that was happening between herself and Aira. Elden shifted his weight so he was now directly in front of Valeena, cutting off her view of the elf.
Valeena looked down, tears welling in her blue eyes as the shame she felt grew stronger. She could hear Aira scoffing behind Elden, but she held back her anger.
“If you two are through, I think we should figure out where the last four Elements are before we move on.” Rowan suggested, removing a roughly drawn world map from his pocket. “And maybe we can find the other two crystals as well.” He was trying to change the subject and Valeena welcomed it.
“The Necrodomus is said to have one hidden, although I’m not sure I believe it,” Elden said tapping a finger on the Forgotten Continent. Rowan stiffened, peering down at the poorly drawn rectangle that was scribbled on the highly inaccurate map.
“The Queen may not know she is in possession of one. She may not even know about the elements.” Valeena said, watching as Rowan placed a question mark by the Necrodomus.
“We’ll try there last.” No one objected.
“I think we should try here.” Aira tapped the Isle of Lost Sirens. Rowan nodded, placing an X on the island. Then he added another X by an active volcano not far from the Caspian Kingdom, biting the end of the pencil as he thought.
They stared at the map a bit longer, pointing to various cities, rivers and even a crater on The Forbidden Lands. The map had several marks on it, making it more confusing to look at.
“I think we should visit St. Dalmasca. Gather supplies and maybe some info.” Rowan said, standing tall and stretching his arms up over his head, yawning and exposing his dangerously sharp teeth. He folded the map up and placed it in his back pocket, picking up some of the meat the phasma did not eat. Valeena watched in horror as he shoved the meat in his mouth, chewing loudly.
Elden looked longingly at the meat before catching Valeena’s eyes. His face turned into a quick sneer and he stormed by her, bumping her shoulder as he passed.
“Do we know where she is?” The Queen demanded, playing with a fat, purple berry between her plump fingers. She glared at the Drake as they stood before her, mumbling. Queen Maylee hated them and often thought about sending them to rot in the dungeons. They were lazy, incompetent and always tardy. The Queen felt they were unreliable and perhaps a liability. She hated the red head the most, his name eluding her.
“We know she is still somewhere on the Nova continent, but our sources lost her in the trees.” Seto was said, trying not to show disgust. The Queen was wearing a cotton candy, pink, puffy, low cut dress with deep pink swirls on it that branched off into blue, green and orange dots. Her cleavage was showing slightly, a sight no man wanted to see. She had placed an oversized bow on her head making her look ridiculous.
Seto knew that if his eyes even flickered towards Steel, who sat to the Queen’s left, that he would be spending the day hanging by his ankles in the dungeon. Steel was wearing a red tight dress that stopped mid-thigh in the front but fell in jagged pieces to her knees in the back with black lace trimming the cuts, along with the heart-shaped bodice. Her hair was in large, round curls with a red bow on a black lace headband. The hot pink locks of hair now a brilliant red, making her look stunning. Black heels with a small red bow were on her feet.
“Then why are you here and not in the trees?” The Queen asked, flicking the berry aside, a look of disgust on her round face. She chose a fat, brown toffee instead. Seto gave an awkward bow, elbowing Trevor who was gawking freely at Steel, winking. Steel regarded Trevor coolly before standing up and strutting over to him, hands on her slender hips. Trevor licked his lips and looked at her sideways, a coy smile playing on his mouth.
Steel had a dangerous smile on her face, but Seto saw no joy in the expression. Suddenly, like a snake striking its prey, Steel slapped Trevor across the face with such force, he stumbled sideways, shock replacing the smile.
“A little boy should not play a man’s game.” Steel said, narrowing her emerald eyes as Trevor tripped over his own feet in an attempt to flee. Seto followed suit as Steel turned her gaze towards him.
“Thank you, Esmeralda. I hate when they stare at me like that.” The Queen spoke as brown drool leaked out of the corner of her plump mouth. Steel stared back, a look of confusion spreading on her lovely face.
The sun had set at least an hour ago as Valeena followed slowly behind them, her feet throbbing painfully, taking her mind off her rumbling stomach. She was determined to press forward following Aira, who was leading the way down the well-worn path.
“Let’s rest,” Rowan announced, plopping onto the dry ground, settling in before the others could protest. Valeena sat down eagerly albeit a little more gently, ignoring Aira’s scoffs. Elden sat as well, seeming to take pleasure in annoying the elf. Aira rolled her silver eyes, standing a few minutes more before finally resting as well.
“We are so close! St. Dalmasca is just over that hill.” Aira said, her voice dripping with annoyance. “We could be there in a few hours.” Rowan waved his hand at Aira.
“Then go. We can meet up later.” The elf narrowed her eyes but did not stand. Valeena watched the fireflies dance in the moonlight, accepting a handful of berries from Rowan.
“We really should have gone the other way. Nero is so much closer to the marsh.” Rowan was saying, lighting a fire by using his crystal.
“Is it?” Valeena asked, removing her boots and massaging her sore feet, ignoring the fact that they smelled terrible. She longed for a hot shower to scrub the ever thickening crush of dirt off her.
“Yeah, I’d love to live there.” Rowan laughed. “Well, at least, I would have before it was bombed.” Valeena laughed despite herself.
“You know, Valeena, St. Dalmasca has a wonderful library.” Rowan brought up, glancing over at Elden, who narrowed his eyes but said nothing. “The oldest books in the world are stored there.” Valeena felt her heart jump. She loved libraries and welcomed the idea of visiting one freely.
“Maybe when everything is said and done, I’ll live there.” Valeena mused, the library was enticing. They were silent, listening to the crackling of the fire that Rowan had just made. Valeena sighed, picking at the grass as she stretched her legs. “I am going to miss this.”
“Miss what?” Aira asked, swatting at a gnat that had landed on her nose.
“This! These late night fireside conversations.” Valeena waited for the elf to poke fun at her, but she smiled, a genuine smile on her lovely face.
“We will still meet up after the journey has ended.” The elf offered, stunning Valeena, but she smiled despite herself.
“Thank you,” Valeena said, feeling like she had friends for the first time in her life, even if two of them made terrible company. She was warming up Aira as she had been bearable these last few hours. She already liked Rowan, and Elden.
She felt the familiar smile creep on her face as his name danced in her mind. Valeena dared a sideways glance at him. He was drinking from his flask, a distant look on his handsome face. He was here in body but in soul. He looked skyward, a look of concern crossing his face before he lowered his gaze back to the fire. Not once did he feel her eyes on him, at least, he did not seem to.
Valeena looked away, wondering where Elden’s mind was. She knew if she asked he would look angry and snap at her, telling her to shut up. Instead, she looked at the fire dancing in the night. She closed her blue eyes, the crackling fire lulling her to sleep.
Valeena reluctantly had left the fire and followed her friends over the hills. They reached the city by mid-morning, just as the citizens were starting their day. St. Dalmasca was a large, old city, still recovering from the Titan attack that had occurred. The houses, that were all uniform in shape, were made of wood cut from the nearby forest. The roofs came to sharp points, made of rich, red tiles. They looked almost like fat, pointed cupcakes resting on the brittle, green, grass.
Valeena had split from the group, vowing to meet up at the park later. The park sat in the center of the town and was easy to locate. Aira had wandered off in search of a shop that sold weapons, not even glancing back as she strolled away.
Rowan, and Elden merely walk in separate directions, mumbling about food or supplies. She caught Elden looking over his shoulder at her. He had a look of concern that was melting away to anger.
Valeena ignored him and found the library with ease, as it stood out among the ancient homes. The building was tall, with a red brick roof and had a statue of two children reading books while resting on a metal bench. A small sign reading, St. Dalmasca library in bold letters sat at the entrance. She was disappointed to see that most of the roof was missing, lying in piles of debris on the sidewalk. Titan had smashed it with his large fist, leaving the other buildings near it alone.
She entered the building via the old, heavy, wood door and was met with the scent of parchment, dust, and pipe smoke, courtesy of an older gentleman reading the daily paper. Everyone seemed oblivious of the debris, ignoring the chunks of cement lying on top of the piles of broken bookshelves.
Valeena felt her heart sink as she saw the books destroyed on the floor. Several were buried under the rubble, her feelings of joy attenuated by the scene. She cautiously approached one of the bookshelves that were lying haphazardly against another, a chunk of cement that was once the wall pressing on it.
She bent down and removed a green book, brushing the dust and rubble off the cover. She saw the book title, ’Ancient Tales and beast by Hilda Bartlin.’ Valeena turned the pages feeling her heart skip a beat. The Queen would have smacked the book out of hands if she had seen her with it. The table of contents had a list of the different mythological beast and places, all in alphabetic order.
Valeena read sentences here and there, some of them she knew from her travels with Elden or her talks with Rowan. The thought of Elden caused Valeena to pay more attention to the creatures that Hilda had written about. She flipped pass the banshee without glancing at the chapter, knowing it had nothing that would help her to figure out Elden.
Valeena read about hob goblins, orcs, grindylows, and other assorted creatures and beast but none of them reminded her of Elden except one. There was a chapter on a race of beings known as Crystallians, that were born with a crystal on their foreheads. It was not much help in figuring out Elden, but it made Valeena smile to see she was not just a Human, as Aira thought.
The next page was missing and a piece of yellow paper was crudely taped in its place. It was a picture of an elephant like creature with monkey arms, chicken wings and legs and oversized elephant ears. “Chickmonkaphant” was written in a childlike penmanship, the letter K backward. Valeena suspected Princess Aurory had done the honors of adding this to the book as Valeena noticed the tail of the creature was up with scribbles next to it, making it look like the beast was breaking wind. A few poorly drawn flies circled the rear of the animal.
Valeena shut the book, sighing. Rowan had wanted her to search for clues, but she had found none within the book. Valeena checked others books near by, but none of them held the answers. She crossed her arms over her chest and stood to stare out the window thinking.
Elden did not eat, but he drank fluids from his flask. He was moody, but it was only when the look of pain crossed his face. She was not sure if the moodiness was tied to his curse or not. Valeena sat in thought, wishing the clue would jump out at her.
After a few more minutes Valeena gave up. She climbed to her feet and crossed the floor to the bookcase that had held Mrs. Bartlin’s book. She passed by a small faded sign that read "Language" that dangled by a single chain, the other side having been snapped.
Valeena froze, setting the book about beast on the shelf and scanning the shelves. An idea had floated into her mind and she roughly grabbed the book titled ‘The Elven Language’ that as lying open on the floor.
Valeena stood where she was, scanning the table of contents as the words seemed to be listed in alphabetic order. Valeena flipped to the list of words beginning with the letter ‘A’, searching through two pages before she reached the word she sought. “Amar, noun: Demon”
Valeena smiled, her heart pounding in excitement as she had half the phrase figured out! She then quickly flipped to the ‘G’ section in the old book, careful not to rip any of the ancient yellowing pages. Her eyes flicked as quickly as a hummingbird's wings, running a finger down the columns of words.
“There!” Valeena called out, startling a young woman who was picking up books off the floor and stacking them on a cart. The woman put a finger to her lips and shushed her, turning back to her task and mumbling about tourist.
“Gwad, noun: blood.”
“Demon Blood?” Valeena whispered, scanning the page for other meanings, slightly disappointed when one did not present itself. Valeena placed the book on the shelf and left the section disappointed. She did not understand why Aira called Elden Demon blood. Valeena had never seen Elden drink blood, but, then again, she did not know what liquid was in that flask of his either.
‘And besides,’ She thought, ignoring the odd looks she was receiving from the locals as she walked in a daydream through the debris. ‘That would make him a vampire, and he doesn’t have fangs.’ Valeena paused, tilting her head as she thought.
“Or does he?” Valeena decided to make a point of checking.
Valeena reluctantly left the library, vowing to return someday. The afternoon was pleasant, and Valeena was enjoying the bit of wind as she walked down the street, searching for the park. She walked passed by a store with decorative scarves of bright colors hanging in the window, catching a glance at her reflection. Valeena gasped at the disheveled looking girl before her.
She entered the shop on the pretense of using the bathroom, but a lovely blue dress caught her eye. It was a simple sleeveless dress that gathered on the right side where a square, clear gem sat. Valeena went to touch it and caught a glimpse of her arm. The visible dirt against her skin reminded her that she needed to wash. She retracted her arm, sighing, wondering if she smelled as foul as she looked.
Valeena entered the small bathroom finding it contained only a toilet, a small free standing sink and a roll of paper towels. A large, rectangular mirror hung on the wall above the sink in a hot pink frame, making it stand out like a sore thumb. Valeena grabbed the roll of paper towels and pulled some sheets free, dampening them in the water. She then began using the paper towels to clean her face and arms. She ran her fingers through her hair a couple of times before deeming it a lost cause.
Valeena left the bathroom and walked over to the dress, feeling the silky fabric with her now clean fingertips, enjoying the way the material shimmered in the light. The sales clerk came over, standing close by, watching Valeena admire the dress. She made Valeena feel uncomfortable like she was going to grab the dress and flee the shop.
“Are you going to get the dress, Valeena?” The woman asked, causing Valeena to jump at the sound of her name.
“Do I know you?” Valeena questioned, turning to face the woman. The clerk was shorter than Valeena with smooth tan skin and lovely olive eyes. She wore several colorful scarves around her neck, some of them sparkling with different charms that were dangling off the hem.
“I suppose you would not remember me, as you were six the year I was banned from the Star Kingdom.” The woman sighed, turning towards the main entrance of the shop.
Banned? But Valeena only knew of a handful of people that were actually banned from the kingdom and not just sent to the dungeon.
A vague image of a woman floated in her mind as she asked, “Wait, are you Aunt Zuri?” The woman smile a soft, sad smile as she nodded. Valeena felt foolish for not recognizing the woman before as she looked so much like Queen Maylee.
“Yes. I came here nearly ten years ago after that terrible event, and now I sell clothes.” She shrugged, the sad smile falling off her worn face. Valeena glanced around the shop discovering that it clearly belonged to someone from the Star Kingdom. Dresses in stripes and patterns that were made up of colors that made one question if a child had chosen them lined the walls. There were various items on two racks that sat on either side a round, glass table. Upon the table rested what appeared to be homemade jewelry in beads of every color, shape and size.
Valeena glanced at the dress, wondering how something so lovely ended up in such an eccentric shop.
“What happened that night?” Valeena asked, but Aunt Zuri waved her hand in the air, shaking her head.
“No, the past is past.” But her eyes told the pain that she was trying to hide. Valeena grabbed the woman’s hand, a pleading look crossing her lovely face.
“Please. I believe she is up to something terrible.” Valeena watched as Aunt Zuri nodded, pulling her hand free as she crossed the multi-colored floor, locking the front door.
“Sit,” She said, indicating to a rough looking lime green chair that was sitting just outside the only fitting room door. Valeena sat regardless finding the torn chair just as uncomfortable as it looked. She watched as Aunt Zuri drug another chair over, the legs dragging on the floor as they gave off a horrible screeching sound.
“Anything I tell you is between you, me and the wall, understood?” She waited for Valeena to nod before she continued her story.
“I was just coming to the castle to visit, as I realized you had never celebrated your birthday a day in your life since you were brought to the castle, and I found my sister in the conference room speaking to a gypsy. She was very excited about something.”
“Wait, what?” Valeena asked, sitting taller, anxiety working its way into her soul. Aunt Zuri’s face clouded over with confusion then quickly turned to shock.
“Oh!” Her hands shot up to her mouth, her eyes as wide as saucers. “I--I thought you… well… crap.” Aunt Zuri began to pick at the fraying hem of one of her many scarves, shaking her head as she cursed herself under her breath. There was an awkward silence forming between them.
Brought to the castle? Valeena opened her mouth to ask Aunt Zuri to explain further, but she closed it when she saw the tears welling in her aunt’s olive eyes. They sat in silent for what seemed like hours, neither one of them not sure what to say. Aunt Zuri finally cleared her throat as she shook her head, fixing her large framed glasses.
“Maylee had yelled at me to wait in the hall, demanding I shut the door. A pair of soldiers came in, stating they had just returned you to your room.” Aunt Zuri said, continuing her story as her face fell into a look of despair.
“I offered to take you back to my house as that was the third time that month that you had tried to escape. Oh, Maylee did not like that. She accused me of tampering with her master plans and ordered me to be sent to the dungeon. A guard took me away, leading me towards the dungeons but he took a detour, placing me on a boat to Coastal something or another. Later, I received a letter saying I was banned from the Kingdom. I will never know how she found me. So I fled here.” The old woman wiped away stray tears as she played with the hem of her scarf, picking at the strings and charms.
“Aunt Zuri, please?” Valeena begged as she placed one hand lightly on the woman’s, stopping her hand from fidgeting. Aunt Zuri pursed her lips, tears silently flowing.
“I should have gone back for you.” She jumped up suddenly, knocking over the chair, a look or sheer terror crossing her face. “Is she here? She is isn’t she?” The woman began to dance back and forth on her toes, “Oh God, she’s come for me! I knew I should have stayed in Kingyosou!” Valeena reached out to stop her, tugging at an orange and lime green scarf.
“No! No, she is not here! I finally escaped for good.” ‘I hope,’ Valeena thought, watching the woman dance on her heels as her eyes searched the store front windows. When she was sure the Queen was not here, Aunt Zuri relaxed, putting the chair back on its feet and sitting back down, adjusting her scarves.
“That’s good, good... See I was in Kingyosou when that Titan thing attacked. I should have stayed…” Aunt Zuri smiled sadly, trying her best to relax. “You may have the dress free of charge on one condition.” Valeena nodded as Aunt Zuri held up one finger then placed her palms flat together in a begging manner.
“Please don’t tell Maylee I’m here!” She pleaded, her olive eyes burning into Valeena’s, who nodded quickly. Aunt Zuri smiled, patting Valeena’s hand before reaching for a bright pink and magenta bottle of perfume that was resting on the table, hidden among the scarves. It was shaped like a triangle with a heart shaped gem as a cap. A picture of a woman smiling foolishly while holding a rose was on one side of the bottle under the words, ‘Rosy Dreams’.
“Take this too.” Aunt Zuri then climbed to her feet and quickly crossed the room, unfolding some scarves and refolding them. Valeena shook her head, she was not going to let this go, she had to know the truth. Valeena slid off the chair and crossed the room, leaning on the counter, watching Aunt Zuri as tears silently fell.
Aunt Zuri picked up a beautiful blue scarf that reminded Valeena of the ocean on calm days. “It had been a strangely hot day for mid-autumn, and the air just felt…off.” She shook her head then shrugged. “It was nearly midnight, and a storm had rolled in, but the rain suddenly stopped, just stopped as if it had never been raining at all. Maylee and I had had another argument, I disapproved of her idea of making it mandatory for male citizens of Star City to become soldiers and she had blown up at me screaming it was her kingdom and she would run it her way.” Aunt Zuri seemed to fight the urge to glance at Valeena, who was holding her breath so as not to miss a word.
“But I think it was her new adviser’s idea! Anyway, I went outside, which was forbidden, as you know, and stood there, facing east towards the ocean. I saw… something like a black mass against the sky, it was odd. I’ve never told anyone this, but I swear I saw fire shoot from the sky!” Aunt Zuri laughed, tilting her head slightly as she finally faced Valeena.
“I’m not crazy, I swear!” Valeena shook her head no, motioning for Aunt Zuri to continue her story.
“It was nearly ten minutes later when I saw a man rushing down the streets calling for help. I directed him to the castle, as not one citizen was going to help him. I’m not entirely sure how he made it within the city walls. I’ve never seen that man since. I fear he was thrown in the dungeon. But you,” Aunt Zuri smiled a sad smile, “You were taken in by the Queen. I’m sure King Axel was the reason you did not end up on the streets. His heart was so big.”
Valeena could hear her heart beating in her ears, she had always suspected she was not related to the Queen but this proved it. And, she was not adopted either, she was just given a place to stay.
Valeena crumpled onto the floor, her hands nervously twisting a pale blue scarf, as her mind flooded her with relief. She was relieved that she bore no relation to the spoiled brat named Aurory.The Queen had obviously only let Valeena continue living at the castle because of her Crystal, and nothing more. Valeena thanked Aunt Zuri softly, who looked as though she were on the verge of tears once more.
“Just take care of yourself,” She said, helping Valeena to her feet and shoving her towards the fitting room, making sure she had the perfume with her.