Chapter 5 Ahead on our way
Valeena felt as though she had been crushed by a heavy, invisible weight. There was no need to ask if this was the same Thanos who had met with the Queen.
Elden released her, taking a few steps backward. He gave her back her personal space as he returned to his spot on the metal bench. The yellow sun had begun to appear on the horizon, casting the canvas of sky in a feathery pink and gray hue. But Valeena was unable to enjoy her first sunrise outside of her prison.
“Is that why you were near the Star Kingdom?” Valeena asked cautiously, trying to find any solid connection between Elden and Thanos.
“No. I had promised an old friend that I’d visit if I smile at ever near.” Elden began as despair shone in his eyes and he pressed his lips into a thin line. He stared absently at the glowing sky, shaking his head.
“What happened?” Valeena asked softly, watching a flock of white geese as they flew across the pale morning sky, calling out to each other.
Elden looked down at his feet then off towards the Rose Grove inn that sat to their left. The building was made out of aging logs as well, with a pink rose sign carved out of wood hanging above the door. Dead rose bushes lined the cobblestone walkway, leading from the faded door to the dirt road. The petals were long lost in the wind leaving empty branches behind.
“I was too late. I was told by a neighbor that he had died the month before.” Elden continued, still refusing to make eye contact with Valeena. She had accidentally released a small gasp and covered her mouth to hide it.
“I’m sorry,” She whispered, but he held a hand up to stop her as he continued speaking.
“He was on a ship heading towards the Nova continent when the ship was attacked and destroyed by a Kraken.” Elden finished solemnly. “I’ll never understand why he was a ship. He hates water.”
“But the Kraken can only be called by a Summoner, and there are not any Summoners alive anymore, are there?” Valeena asked feeling confused once more. Elden shrugged his shoulders, tapping the toe of his boot on the ground.
“There has to be. There is no other reason for the Kraken to appear if it were not called.”
“I wonder who they are. I have not heard of a Summoner being on Gaia for over one hundred years. The last one was killed by a bounty hunter.” Valeena turned her attention to the rising yellow sun as a cold look of hate fell on Elden’s face.
“I intend on finding them and making them pay for what they did to him.” He replied darkly, his eyes narrowing. Valeena opened her mouth to respond but the jingle of keys cut off her words. She spotted a middle-aged man walking towards the inn, limping as he hurried to the door. He was rushing to get there before the occupants woke up to find they had been locked inside. Valeena thought it was odd that the innkeeper had not stayed the night in his own inn, as most were known to do so.
“He had fled home at sunset,” Elden explained, climbing to his feet and stretching. “Being this close to the forest, the people here strongly believe in this stupid Night Demon. You probably do as well. Let me go get my stuff and then I’ll meet you here.” Elden said as he walked in the direction of the inn before Valeena could reply to his harsh accusation.
Valeena doubted the people here believed in the Demon at all, as she surveyed the village. There were no fences or any type of defense at all. Valeena squinted towards the trees of Evil Forest, searching for any signs of the Queen. She could not let her guard down. The Queen could appear at any moment and she had to be ready.
Elden returned after several moments as a look of anger burned on his face. He stormed over to Valeena, stomping his feet as he said, “Let’s go!” He crossed his arms as he stopped inches from Valeena. “And I need you to do something for me.”
“Which is?” Valeena questioned, wondering what had happened to put him on edge like that.
“There is a cave, up ahead, that has an item in it I need. It’s the Water Element.” Elden explained, leading her down a loose dirt road. The path led them out into the fields on the backside of the farms. Valeena was happy to be heading in the opposite direction of the foreboding trees and castle.
Valeena knew which cave Elden was referring to without having to ask. She had overheard one of Princess Aurory’s tutors speaking about it, as she hid among the books. The inside of the cave was cover in perpetual layers of thick, glossy ice that glistened in various hues of blue. It sat in the destroyed Saber mountain range that appeared to be sinking into the land. During the harsh winter months, it was nearly completely swallowed up by the ocean. Only the tallest of the peaks remained rising out of the salty water.
“You need me to get the Goddess Tears,” Valeena whispered excitedly. She knew that he was traveling to the cave for more than sightseeing. The peaks were visible on the horizon, the cave was closer than Valeena thought.
“I do,” He answered, swatting at a swarm of gnats that attacked his face after his pants leg disturbed their home. “I have tried to reach the tears before, but the ice is too thick. And it seems to dead end. I hate to bring someone else along, but you may turn out to be useful.”
Valeena was not sure how she could assist Elden through the massive sheets of ice. But she longed to see the cave with her own eyes.
“I’ll help”. Valeena informed him as excitement bubbled in her heart. “But why were you upset when you returned from the inn?” Valeena asked, trying to sound casual. It felt amazing to be communicating with someone, even if that someone was moody. She took a step sideways as she noticed his face flare with anger before relaxing back into the scowl.
“The jerk gave away my room, and they stole my stuff!” Elden said, throwing his hands up into the air. He bent down and picked a thin, golden weed that had grown tall among the green blades of grass.
“Oh, that was not nice,” Valeena said with a slight shake of her lovely head.
“Nice?” Elden repeated with disdain. “Nice? I slay a dangerous, wild beast that had been gorging itself on their crops! He was allowing me to stay there as a thank you. But you’re right, it wasn’t nice.”
Valeena did not respond as Elden kicked a rock violently down the dirt path. He was shaking his head and muttering obscenities under his breath. To Valeena, Elden resembled a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. Valeena could only recall the dead, dry crops that lay back in the desolate fields of Rose Grove. She felt a small tiny voice in the back of her mind telling her that he was not being honest. And she was not sure what stuff had been stolen as he clearly had a bag on his shoulder along with his sword.
Valeena’s thoughts then circled reluctantly back to the castle. She was curious if the Queen had figured out that she was no longer a prisoner in her room. After all, it was well passed breakfast and Valeena’s presence was mandatory at each meal, even when she grounded.
Valeena had subconsciously slowed her pace and paused in her steps. She turned her vibrant blue eyes in the direction of the castle, squinting against the morning sun. Valeena could see nothing of course as the trees separated her from the castle. A feeling of dread was creeping up her spine as the heavy branches swayed in the crisp morning breeze.
“What is it?” Elden questioned, appearing beside her and staring at the trees as well. Valeena shook her head, not sure how to explain the sense of doom that was falling upon her like a cold blanket of snow.
Valeena forced her eyes away from the trees as her ears picked up an unusual sound weaving its way into the ambiance of the field. It was barely audible, nearly muffled, almost as though it were traveling under her boots.
“Do Shadowlings make a sound?” She asked as anxiety ebbed in her veins. Panic replaced it as her eyes scanned the tall, swaying green grass. Her legs felt heavy as though she had weights wrapped around her ankles as she forced herself to move. She stepped into a large circle made of brown, dead grass and dirt. A skull that had been bleached by the sun rested near a flat boulder that was split down the middle. A brown substance hues of on its surface just above another skull.
“I don’t know. I’ve only seen them at a distance.” Elden said as Valeena saw his face twist in pain as he fought back the anger that threatened to burn.
“Just keep moving!” He demanded as he trudged into the circle. Elden gazed skyward as a vulture lifted its plump, body off a bare tree and began to slowly circle above them.
Valeena caught the strange sound again. It was a rattling noise, like someone shaking seeds in a tin cup, this time, louder than before- closer. She glanced at Elden, noticing he had stopped moving and was glaring at her, his arms crossed over his chest. His face slowly changed from anger to concern as he too, pick up on the sound.
He was unable to question her as the ground beneath their feet began to rumble. A mound of loose, dry, cracked dirt rose before them like a wave rising out of the ocean. The soil poured off the rising dune like rain water and erupted in heavy chunks of debris. The beast causing the destruction shook its massive body free of the sand.
Valeena stumbled back, shielding her eyes from the falling dirt and rocks. She squinted through her fingers, gasping and choking on dust as a serpent swayed in the sun.
The serpent had rich, brown and orange scales on its massive body. Its neck ribs were flattened to make itself appear larger, more threatening. Venom the color of egg yolks dripped from its sharp, dagger-like fangs as its ruby eyes stared at them. Its head and tail swayed in separate directions, the rattle at the end shaking madly.
Valeena scrambled to her feet as Elden jumped in front of her. He removed the dull blade that was hidden underneath his cloak and faced the angry chocolate colored beast.
The beast wasted no time as it lunged its massive fangs towards them. The serpent fell dangerously close to Elden’s face, venom dripping onto his shoulder. Elden dodged the attack by ducking and half rolling. He then jumped to his feet, shoving Valeena back hard in the process.
Valeena darted behind the boulder, peering out between the crack. She watched as Elden and the serpent sized each other up, darting this way and that as the other lunged or swung. To Valeena, it looked like a type of dance as they moved against each other. Elden was ducking and rolling while the snake was coiling backward. The creature jerked its head towards Elden, distracting him as it swung its heavy tail at the same time. The serpent caught Elden in the stomach and sent him sprawling face down in the dry dirt. His sword was sent flying inches from his fingertips as he hit the ground.
Valeena felt fear release its hold on her body as she darted out from behind the boulder. She picked up a small rock and threw it with all her might. She hit the beast below its eye as it prepared to impale Elden with one of its deadly fangs. The serpent jerked back, shaking its massive head before locking its ruby eyes on Valeena. It began to hiss at her in rage as it shook its tail once more. The giant serpent swayed to the right before jerking forward as it aimed its fangs at Valeena this time. Elden, who had climbed to his feet, sprinting towards the boulder. He jumped off the gray stone surface, forcing the edge of his dull blade deep within the scales of the serpent. He fell towards the ground, slicing its head off its body.
The head bounced to the ground, rolling once before coming to a stop at Valeena’s feet. She gasped as its lifeless ruby eyes stared at her. Valeena screamed as it then burst into scarlet flames and burned to a fine dust that was then carried away in the breeze.
Valeena sat frozen in place as her heart thundered in her ears. She had never seen anything like that before. She peered at the scorched earth that now contained a black, charred silhouette of the serpent’s dead body. The vulture returned to its perch, disappointed it had missed another meal.
“Where is your weapon?” Elden barked at her as he replaced the dull blade and faced her, anger burning on his face.
“I threw a rock at the beast, but maybe you did not notice,” Valeena replied, feeling foolish. The serpent was another reminder of how ill-prepared she had been for this trip.
“Use this then,” Elden said as he tossed a rod to Valeena. He closed his eyes in frustration as it bounced off her fingertips, falling into the dirt.
“You can turn it so it expands another two feet on each end, but maybe you should just throw it.” He laughed at his own joke as he clapped his hands together once.
“Let’s get moving before another serpent appears,” Valeena suggested as she mistook the call of a bird for the shaking of the serpent’s tail. Elden did not protest as he stepped through the charred grass, Valeena making her way around it.
The lush green field began to transform into brittle patches of dry, brown grass as the morning sun raised high into the hazy blue sky. Large prickly plants replaced the leafy green bushes. Beside them were snapping piranha flowers that grew wildly, waiting for prey. Valeena watched as one of the plants snapped at a small, brown rodent that had ventured too close. She turned her head away, not wanting to watch.
They approached the Saber mountains by noon. Heavy boulders that were once attached to the peaks were lying scattered on the frost-bitten ground. Valeena was appalled to find that several of the plants were actually skeletons. The spines having been bleached by the sun as vines woven through the bones as the planet claimed them. She chose not to look at them, closing her eyes or watching her feet instead.
“We should rest before we enter the cave,” Elden announced. He sat with his back against a bare, white tree, not waiting for Valeena to reply.
Valeena sat with her body against a tree adjacent from him, her legs numb from the journey. It was then that she realized just how tired she had become as she had been awake nearly a full day and her body felt weak. Her stomach growled softly, a harsh reminder that she also had not had a thing to eat for several hours. An apple smacked into her chest, slightly hurting her ribs in the process.
“You really did not plan your escape well, did you?” Elden spoke in a condescending voice. Valeena did not dare answer, even though she knew it was true. Instead, she took a delicious bite into the apple, startled by the freshness of it.
She had been so bent on leaving the prison that was the castle that she did not once form an actual plan. Valeena had packed nothing and regretted it. She had no water or even a spare set of clothes. She did not even have a real destination in mind.
“Stop pouting. I don’t particularly care for rain.” Elden’s voice cut through her thoughts of self-pity, bringing her back to the frostbitten land. A light drizzle of rain had begun to fall from the feathery, gray clouds, casting what little light the land had into shadows.
“Sorry,” Valeena mumbled as she tried to cheer up, but her head swam with fear and pity.
“Look,” Elden began, locking eyes with her. She took notice of how black they were in the shadows, yet they still seemed to have a glow to them, like the last embers of a fire that was fighting to stay alive.
“We all have jumped head first into something dumb. Just learn from it then move on. Preferably soon as I hate wet underwear.” Valeena gave a half smile at his small attempt to make her smile. She nodded as she took another bite of the apple. She closed her tired eyes and slipped away into dreamland.