Chapter 4 A journey begins
Valeena was certain she was dreaming as she stared in disbelief at the man with the crystal. She had at long last found another soul with a crystal! Valeena felt the corners of her mouth turn up into a shy smile as she realized that she was no longer alone in the world.
“You have a crystal, too!” Valeena exclaimed, her voice no more than a whisper. Her fingers barely touched the polished surface of her rain drop Crystal as she smiled. Valeena felt the joy in her soul attenuate as the man snorted in disgust, turning away. She had somehow expected this stranger to react with some form of excitement, at the very least ask for a name.
Instead, he had turned his back to her, scowling once more. He crossed his arms with annoyance radiating off of him like heat from the sun.
Valeena could not help but look him over. She noticed that he was taller than her and roughly about her age, maybe older, with an odd haircut. The front chunks of hair hung in long points. One side longer was than the other, coming to a stop just above his chin. The other side falling to his shoulder while the rest was short, chopped into rough spikes.
He had many earrings in one ear, and Valeena had noticed that his eyebrow was pierced as well. He was the sort of person the Queen would scoff at, poking fun at his expense while his back was turned.
“Why are you staring at me?” He snapped, his black eyes flashing in anger. He had let his concentration break and he scolded himself quietly as his tense body relaxed.
Valeena took a step back as she glances at the silent Kingdom. She needed to make sure his unnecessary outburst did not attract the attention of the guards. She felt a fresh wave of anxiety hit her as her smile fell. The rain returned as a hazy mist as Valeena bit her lip, her blue eyes finding his.
“Don’t cry, dammit! Look, what do you want?” The man asked impatiently, waving his hand at the clouds as though he were shooing a buzzing insect. He seemed to be talking more to himself than to her, but Valeena felt obligated to answer. Her mind rushed as several questions bubbled to the surface.
“Whom am I speaking to?” Valeena questioned, deciding a name was a great place to start.
“Elden,” He responded coolly, crossing his arms over his chest and hoping she’d go away. Valeena stood still as she waited for him to say more. When it became plain that he was not going to, she followed her first question with, “Where did you come from?”
“My Gods lady!” Elden snapped, throwing his hands into the air as anger flashed across his handsome face.
“You came down from your high throne to ask me where I came from?” He shook his spiky hair and chuckled, directing his eyes to the sky where the stars were once more visible.
“What were you planning on asking me next? What my favorite color is? Who are the others?”
“Others?” Valeena questioned, not quite understanding what he meant by that statement. She scanned the sandy shore, seeing only the crashing waves and sharp rocks. The area was void of other people. When her eyes returned to Elden’s, he had a look of confusion mixed with sorrow on his face.
“I meant,” Elden began slowly as he stifled a laugh that had threatened to escape. “The others with Crystals on their foreheads like us.” Valeena felt her heart leap with joy.
“There are other people with crystals besides you and myself?” She could not contain the excitement that tore through her soul, and she knew she was smiling.
“Of course, there is! You have the water crystal, so you control water, don’t you? And how many elements are there on the chart?” Elden replied as though he were talking to a small child who was having difficulty learning a new subject.
Valeena felt her face grow hot with embarrassment. She hoped her cheeks did not reflect those feelings. She had never even stopped to consider that her crystal could control an element. Even if it was shaped like a rain drop. How could she have overlooked something so obvious?
“Look, I’m busy, is there anything else you need from me?” Elden asked her, his voice calm again as a look of impatience settled on his face.
“Which crystal are you?” Valeena did not enjoy the way he kept rolling his eyes at her, it made her feel ignorant. She was overcome with the feeling that he was not a pleasant person to be around. She began to suspect that that was the reason why he was alone here on the shore tonight.
“I’d love to tell you but two guards are coming this way,” Elden said, nodding his head in the direction of the Kingdom. “And I am not about to stick around here. Later.”
Valeena wasted no time as she scrambled back behind the dead trees. She cried out as her foot caught on the tall weeds, tripping her in processes. She held her breath, peering out of the dead leaves to find that there were in fact, no guards coming towards her at all.
The night was calm again, the rain having ceased moments before. The only sounds that she heard were the wind whispering in the trees and the waves rushing to the sandy shores. Valeena sighed with relief and emerged cautiously from the trees. She kept her eyes locked on the castle, just in case.
“Elden, you are mistaken, no one is heading this way,” Valeena spoke, the smile on her lips faltering as her eyes fell upon the spot where Elden had once been standing. Valeena scanned the area looking for him. Her eyes landed on a root sticking out of the dead grass invoking a flash of memory of her tripping in the dream. She looked away, catching a glimpse of Elden entering the dark forest. It was then that she realized she had been tricked again.
“Elden?” Valeena called out, heading towards the spot where she had seen him disappear into the dead trees. She hesitated briefly, working up the courage to enter the trees knowing she was going to travel through the dangerous forest again.
Valeena kept glancing back towards the sleeping castle in the distance. She sighed as she finally made up and stepped back into the Forest. Somewhere in the darkness, there was a howl of pain that chilled her spine. The noise was followed by the slashing sound of deadly claws cutting into a tree. A shiver ran through Valeena’s body like an ocean current, as she continued half-blind through the thick trees.
It was pitch-black under the canopy of leaves, save for the feathery glow of the wisps. The mysterious luminous fog lifted off the forest floor, giving the illusion it was breathing. The wonderful scent of damp earth was waking in the breeze. The tiny beads of rain began to swirl into the dry air, mixing with the dust Valeena disturbed as she made her way through the thick foliage.
“O-o-o-o! Go back! Go Back!” Her mind screamed at her like a ghostly warning.
A pale, blue Wisp, glowing as softly as a distant star in the night sky, darted in front of her face. It stopped for a moment as a haunting, indistinguishable sound emerged from it. The sound itself was distant, almost like a voice echoing at the end of a tunnel. The wisp moved in a quick circle around Valeena’s head, like an angry wasp whose nest had just been disturbed. Finally, the wisp sunk into the fog and melted from sight.
“Elden?” Valeena called out once more, her voice shaking. She hoped she sounded braver than she felt as another howl of pain rang out in the night. The noise sounded closer than before, and she held her breath in fear.
Valeena could feel the cold fingers of panic creeping into her voice as she called his name again. Her eyes were straining to see through the darkness. An amber tinted wisp floated out of the gray, gloomy fog, dancing in a swirling pattern, as though it was on a current of wind. It too moaned in a low, disturbing tone that caused panic to settle into Valeena’s heart.
“What?” He finally asked, his voice sounding close, as though he were only a few feet away from her. He had intentionally kept in the shadows, hoping she would give up and turn back. But unlike the wisps, she refused to avoid him.
“Please, I want to go with you.” Valeena pleaded, trying her best not to sound needy. She knew the odds were against her, but she was afraid to be alone in the forest another minute. A large, bat-like animal sailed out of the leaves, nearly striking her in the face as it circled back. The animal continued screeching at her as it flew by.
“Please! Let me go with you!” She begged, as the delicate pink light of a wisp lifted off the fog, dancing in the darkness. Another winged animal shot out of the canopy of leaves, screeching in terror.
“Spirits,” Elden informed her in a hushed tone, even though Valeena already knew that. “Wisps are the souls of the dead, caught between this world and the next. They are usually stuck in limbo due to having been cut from the planet before their time.” Valeena did not respond. She kept her eyes peeled for more flying beasts, trying hard not to notice the green wisp following her.
“This forest grows on ancient ground. There is a city, somewhere, in these trees, but no one has dared to find it.” Elden continued, ducking under a snapped tree branch that was covered in a dark, sticky liquid. “But the forest is not the only place that holds danger.”
“What do you mean?” Valeena questioned, hoping that he could not hear the fear that was now resting in her voice. Elden was moving fluidly through the forest. It was as though it were daylight and there was a discernible path to follow. He paused in a shaft of moonlight that was streaming down from an opening in the canopy above and turned to face her.
“Have you heard of Shadowlings?” He asked, smacking at a fat, winged insect that had tried to land on his arm. Valeena, of course, had never heard of such a thing and wondered if he had made the term up.
“Shadowlings?” Valeena repeated scoffing, using the same arrogant tone he had used. “O- of course, I have!” she lied, hoping he did not catch the slight shake in her voice. A green wisp danced in front of her eyes before zigzagging out of sight.
“Wait until you see one,” Elden replied as he continued on the path. He smacked a large, crescent-shaped, brown leaf out of his way as he moved.
“Their appearance is almost like thick, ebony smoke, but somehow solid. They are the spirits of zombified soldiers. The Queen and a mad scientist perfected the process recently.” Elden explained as though it were something as normal as telling her about his day.
“How do you know this?” Valeena asked him, peering about the gloomy forest for any sign of the Shadowlings. She brushed passed a prickly plant growing at an angle by a fallen tree. The thorns biting the smooth exposed skin of her calf. She jumped, her mind telling her that it was a shadowling.
“Doesn’t matter! Just keep moving and no more talking.” He snapped, stopping at a fork in the path. He sighed, deciding to head right as he stepped over a massive, moss-covered log that had a sleeping lizard on it. The left path appeared less dangerous, with a fat, dark purple plant sitting next to it. But Valeena reluctantly followed Elden’s lead.
“Are you searching for the city?” Valeena asked tentatively, deciding that the Evil Forest was not the best place in the world to discuss Shadowlings.
“I said shut up,” Elden demanded forcefully, whirling on his heels to face her. In the light of the crescent moon, Valeena was able to see that his face was twisted in anger. Even his crystal was glowing a soft, smoky gray.
They locked eyes for a moment, Valeena’s heart pounding a solo in her ears as she recoiled. She pressed her back against a squishy, moss covered tree as she said, “But-“
“Just, stop!” He threw his arms up in annoyance. Valeena opened her mouth but no words fell. She saw Elden spin back around, stomping through the fog and the brush. His footsteps disturbed some sleeping wisps in the process, their bodies floating upwards.
Valeena used to being verbally abused by the ill-tempered Queen as it happened often. But this time, she decided it was for the best to keep her mouth closed. They walked together in near silence, neither one wanting to speak to the other. In the deafening silence, Valeena could hear the terrible sounds of the Forest. The soft cries of pain that mixed with the hungry growls of the beast that lurked in the shadows were firm reminders that she was not welcome here.
The night seemed to grow louder. The leaves rustled and cracked in the soft, light, breeze. An unseen animal’s footsteps move to her left as they avoided becoming someone’s next meal. The moans of the wisps were enhanced in the silence as well. Their haunting calls sending waves of fear crashing deep into her soul. She scratched at her crystal once more, her eyes darting about. Her crystal had never bothered her before.
Valeena could not tolerate the overwhelming sense of dread any longer and she began to hum a soft, low tone. She hoped that the song would calm her beating heart.
“What tune is that?” Elden asked, glancing once over his shoulder at her long enough to make out the blue of her lovely eyes.
“To be honest, I am not sure. I may have made it up.” She explained half expecting another verbal attack from him. Valeena subconsciously slowed her pace, allowing space to fall between her and Elden. He nodded his head. Then, as an after-thought told her to keep quiet.
It felt to Valeena that they had been traveling for hours without end. She caught the glint of metal from the hilt of a sword that was emerging from underneath the back of Elden’s coat. She herself was weaponless, not that it mattered as she had no idea how to successfully wield a sword.
Valeena realized that she had fallen behind once more. The memories of Princess Aurory trying to learn how to use a sword brought a smile to her face. The spoiled brat had complained that the blade was far too heavy. She had crumpled to the floor in a heap, demanding treats. A servant had entered, carrying a frosted birthday cake, even though it was not the Princess’s special day.
“Can I use it to cut my cake?” Princess Aurory had asked excitedly, grabbing at the hilt. She strained to lift the sword off the polished floor of the training room, grunting in the process.
“Of course, you cannot!” The instructor had said in disgust, looking bewildered at the idea of the blade touching the elaborate pastry. “It is a weapon for Heaven’s sake!”
Princess Aurory had then lost all remaining interest in the training at that point. She spent the next five minutes wailing that she was too tired and hungry to learn. Even though her face was still stained with jam from the breakfast she had inhaled an hour before.
The sharp, dry sound of a snapping twig emitting from the foliage behind Valeena caused her to jump. The sound pulled her from her thoughts as she raced to be closer to Elden.
“Where are you heading?” Valeena asked, breaking the treaty of silence. Elden did not respond. Instead, he shook his head and kept walking.
Valeena opened her mouth to say more, but the forest ended abruptly, opening to a stunning view of the curve of a river. The water was glimmering softly in the moonlight as it cut its way through a lush, green field. The small village of Rose Grove sat nestled in a field, still sleeping, as it was early in the morning.
“Look,” Elden began, holding out a hand to stop Valeena as they crossed a lovely wooden bridge that was resting over the crystal clear waters of the river. “I do not need you following me. Go where you want, but not with me.”
“But-” Valeena stutter, her feelings crushed.
“No buts!” He shouted as though Valeena were a small child disobeying him. Valeena recoiled in fear, moving away from Elden. “Why don’t you head back to the castle, princess.” He said the word with pure disdain, as though it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
A wave of rage rushed over her and she rounded on Elden, nearly shoving him in the process. “I am not going back to the castle. If there are others, like me, then I want to locate them!” Valeena spat, placing her hands on her slim hips, eyes burning into his.
A harsh laugh escaped Elden’s lips as he began his sentence. “Look, Princess. The castle-”
“I am not a princess and I will not allow you to take me to the castle!” Valeena interrupted, raising her voice at him. She was feeling like she was fighting for control of her emotions. Elden remained silent for several moments before sighing.
“Fine, but the second you become a burden your ass is gone. And if the guards come for you.” Elden waved a hand in her face. “Bye.”
Valeena nodded her lovely head slowly. She knew full well that if the guards were to appear she would do her best to run as fast as she was able. Going as far as her legs would carry her.
“Let’s go,” Elden demanded, turning swiftly on his heels. Valeena strolled behind Elden as she admired the green open field giving a beautiful view of the star-studded night sky.
It was odd, Valeena thought as she followed the old dirt path winding its way through the dark, green grass. The sky was the same sky she saw nightly from her balcony. It was the same stars and the same moon. And yet, it felt different to be viewing it from the freedom of the field. The wolf-like creature that had visited her the other night sat silently among the yellow flowers, watching her.
“I found a way out,” Valeena informed the beast with a half-smile. She felt strange for speaking to the animal, but she knew it could talk.
“But you are still in danger.” The wolf replied, making a point of looking at Elden before returning its cold gaze to Valeena. She did not understand, but Elden interrupted their conversation by shouting.
“Excuse me?” Valeena asked confused, her attention turning to Elden.
“I asked you what you had said,” Elden shouted, kicking at a tall weed growing in an arch towards the path. Valeena glanced back to the location of the wolf, only to find it was no longer there.
“I asked you where we are heading.” She lied smoothly, but Elden did not offer a response.
The once vibrantly painted ‘Welcome to Rose Grove’ sign was lying on the ground. The wood had been broke in two, half covered in dirt. Valeena tried not to look at it as she entered the small village through the decaying wooden gates that hung open off their hinges. Her eyes saw that there were holes visible in the splintered wood.
Valeena had to stifle a laugh as they passed through the useless gates. They were standing alone in the grass without a fence in sight. Rose Grove was a tiny, quiet village. The buildings were made of thin logs cut from a grove of trees that was no longer standing. The roofs were a chocolate brown tile, several of them laying in pieces in the dying grass. Various windmills spun slowly in the soft, night breeze, resting beside dried up farms. A clock tower sat atop a tiny run down church, chiming only before the sun went down.
The sun itself still had several more hours before it would rise, and yet, Valeena did not feel sleepy in the least. Her body felt sore and tired from the long journey. Valeena spotted a black iron bench perched under a bent, leafless tree and sat down on it. he was thankful to be resting her tired, throbbing legs. She rubbed at her crystal once more, wondering if she was becoming allergic to the metal band that was around the gem.
“Elements,” Elden said rudely, sitting roughly beside her on the bench. The metal groaned under his weight as he shifted his body slightly away from her, answering a question she had not asked.
“Elements,” Valeena repeated to herself, not sure if she wanted to believe him. She had learned at one of Princess Aurory’s lessons that the Elements were powerful, magical items. They were said to control different elements of Gaia, just as the crystals did. The only difference being anyone could wield them. Elden was glaring at her, searching for any sign that she understood him.
“Yes, I am on a quest to find them. I already have-” He hesitated, his eyes darting about in a sudden wave of panic. “A few but I need to find the others. I know history has led us to believe that they are nothing more than a myth. And that several people have searched for them high and low only to return empty handed. But I have - some, and I know I can find the others!” Elden spoke with such confidence in his voice that Valeena wanted to believe him. “I know where they are now!”
“But Elden, the Elements are no more than a Legend, a foolish quest. You must have seen the false Elements, not the real ones.” Valeena informed him, flinching as Elden slammed his fist onto the iron bench.
“No! They are real!” He informed her firmly, in a way that made it seem as though he were trying to convince himself and not her.
“Oh, come now!” Valeena could not help but laugh. “The legend states that he who holds the Elements holds the power of the world. How is it possible to control Gaia with the Elements?”
“It’s not,” Elden said shaking his head roughly. “You need the Crystals as well.” Valeena felt her smile fade as her heart leaped anxiously.
“The others,” Valeena’s words were barely audible in the whisper of the floral scented wind that swirled around them.
“Yes, the other souls with crystals on their foreheads,” Elden confirmed, fighting back a sharp flash of pain that crossed his face. He held his breath momentarily before releasing the air in slow puffs.
“With both the Elements and the Crystals, it is possible to gain control over Gaia, to rule the world!” Valeena felt the familiar tingle of fear dancing its way back into her soul as she thought of Queen Maylee enslaving the planet.
“I will not help you-” Valeena began sternly.
“You do not understand.” Elden interrupted, jumping to his feet and leaning over her, pinning her to the bench, his eyes ablaze.
“If we do not get them, then HE will. And if HE gets them, well, we are doomed.” Elden’s nose was nearly touching Valeena’s as he shouted at her, his hot breath choking her.
“Who is he?” Valeena questioned her voice barely a whisper, her eyes wide with fear. Elden resembled a cornered animal, ready to strike at any moment, and Valeena was not about to give him a reason.