Chapter 7 Back at the start
The sun was low in the gray, charcoal sky. The wind was a light, damp breeze, carrying small beads of moisture, a warning that a storm was brewing. Valeena pulled her body out of the water, annoyed that Elden, who was already wringing out his jacket, did not offer a hand to help aid her. He groaned loudly as he shook his head like a dog, facing Valeena as he poured water from his heavy boots. Valeena held up a hand to silence him as he opened his mouth.
“Look,” She began, forcing herself to maintain eye contact. “Being unwanted is not exactly new to me. Queen Maylee shudders at the mere thought of me. And Princess Aurory, she- she just hates me.”
Valeena dropped her eyes to her feet as tears began to well in her eyes but she forced herself to continue. “I’ve never had a single friend before. Please, please do not ask me to leave.” Her last few words were barely audible as she hung her head in silent defeat.
“Val, look at me,” Elden spoke gently, causing Valeena to look up despite herself. She was slightly ashamed at herself for her vulnerability.
“I was standing here debating whether or not to send you away, but,” Elden said loudly as Valeena opened her mouth in protest. “But, I’m not. You really helped me back there. So, for the time being, you can stay.” Elden finished, placing his damp socks back into his boots in defeat. Valeena tried her best to contain her excitement and managed to give a half smile.
“Deal!” She agreed as she ignored the nagging feeling in the back of her mind that suggested this was a bad idea.
“And besides, having friends is overrated.” Elden continued as he sneered. The gesture was a silent indication that he was now speaking more to himself than her. “Friends only pat you on the back because they are looking for a good spot to place the knife.” Valeena was unsure how to respond to this and stood in awkward silence for several minutes. She cleared her throat as she finally said, “Where do we go now?”
“Well, there are no more Elements here so we move forward,” Elden replied, starting down the vacant, frosty path.
“You’re Majesty.” A Star soldier spoke timidly as he entered the grand living room of the castle, giving a quick bow before standing at attention. The Queen was busy playing a game of chess with Princess Aurory, who only had two pawns and her king still in play. She had shoved a pawn into the corner of her fat mouth as she chewed on the piece, thinking.
“What is it?” Queen Maylee asked annoyed as she watched in disappointment as Princess Aurory moved her pawn directly in front of the Queen’s Rook. The moved opened up a clear path to the King that the child had missed. The Princess beamed, obviously feeling she was winning the game. She pulled the spit covered piece from her mouth and shoved a cream-colored toffee in its place.
“Valeena is still not in her room. We have searched the castle thoroughly. Her whereabouts are still unknown.” The soldier flinched, expecting the Queen to lash out physically or verbally. Queen Maylee, who looked like a plump spotted orange today, did not look up from the game.
“And you are standing here speaking to me instead of searching for her why?”
The soldier looked flustered for a moment before bowing awkwardly, rushing out of the room as the doors closed behind him.
“Oh, Valeena.” The Queen spoke as she placed her hand on her own Queen. “Your time is running out.” And with that, she knocked Princess Aurory’s king off the board.
The sun was a smudge of orange on the dark canvas of the sky, casting the world in brilliant shades of red as they continued down the path. They had walked through the night and Valeena was tired and hungry. But she felt it was for the best if she did not voice her needs. Elden was ahead of her walking in long strides as they trudged through the thick, pear colored grass. The blades were sharp and kept cutting her ankles and making her itchy.
Valeena could not control the ever ebb and flow of fear that washed over her as she kept a sharp eye out for the Queen. Every twig snap or bird call caused her to look over her shoulder for signs of her. Valeena did not realize how difficult this journey would be. She was beginning to miss her life at the castle. At least there she had a bed and was always brought food, even if it did contain bites out of it. She had three meals a day at the end of a long table where she sat alone, watching her mother and sister play in the food instead of eating.
Sure she was confined to her room most of the time. And she was positive the Queen was planning to kill her, but it had to be better than walking endlessly with no destination in sight.
The wolf was resting on his belly in the shade of a fat oak tree, rolling casually among the fallen leaves. He stopped as he spied Valeena, watching her intently without moving, his eyes locked on her.
“Are you happy?” Valeena asked the creature in pure annoyance. The wolf merely blinked his yellow eyes at her and gave a small huff before turning his head away from her. He buried his nose deep in the leaves and closed his eyes.
“Not really,” Elden responded, stopping on the rough dirt path and looking from side to side. It took Valeena several seconds to realize that Elden was answering her question.
“Kane is a lot further than I had originally anticipated.” Elden continued, referring to the small town that was nestled in Sheer Pass. “I know someone there that can lend us a horse. We need to get to Juno to cross the ocean.” Elden explained, sitting on a flat boulder that was jetting out of the green grass to his right.
Valeena was glad for the chance to rest and plopped down in an un-lady like manner onto the ground. The Queen would have promptly kicked her for it if she had watched her do it.
“We are crossing the ocean?” She asked feeling hopeful as she started rubbing her sweat soaked legs. She wondered if it was them or her hands that were throbbing as they both tingled.
“Yes, we can find more Elements on the Nova Continent. I told them they were real!” Elden smiled wide as a memory only he saw crossed his mind.
“You told who?” Valeena asked as she wiped her sweating hands on her dress. She was appalled at the streaks of dirt they left on the blue material.
“Shelia and Nyles,” Elden said closing his black eyes. “Shelia would be so happy we found an Element. She was the first person to believe in me.” Valeena could not help but smile as he spoke of her.
“Where is she now?” Valeena asked as her smile fell off her face. A look of pain had replaced the joy on Elden’s face as he turned away.
“Why don’t we rest a bit before we continue on?” Elden suggested, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand as sweat began to bead on his skin. The morning was turning muggy and miserable. The wind itself was warm and dry making sweat pour off of her. Valeena longed for a shower, even if the water was mostly cold.
“Sounds great to me!” Valeena flipped her ebony hair off her sticky shoulders as she faced in the direction of a refreshing breeze. It was so much different than the hot wind that had plagued her throughout the morning. She closed her eyes for what seemed like only a moment, but when she opened them again, Elden was nowhere in sight.
Valeena had fallen over sometime during her unscheduled nap. She awoke to find sticks stuck to her face in grotesque patterns and her mouth tasted like dirt. She climbed to her feet, brushing off the dry grass that clung to the blue fabric of her dress. She surveyed the field, searching for any sign of Elden.
“Abandoned,” Valeena realized, looking back towards the sleeping wolf to find that he too, was missing. She then threw her hands up before starting down the trail. She felt foolish as it was the second time he had left her behind. She hated the feeling of despair that was growing like a weed in her heart.
The Queen would leave her alone at the castle often as she and Princess Aurory went on various trips around the world. She should be used to be being left out by now. But it still hurt.
“Figures!” Valeena said, her face flashing in anger as fat drops of rain began to fall from the cloudless sky. “Am I really that difficult to be around?”
Valeena spun on her heels to find Elden leaning with his back against an oak tree, a playful smile on his lips.
“Where were you? And why is there blood on your face?” She demanded arms firmly crossed over her chest. Elden looked startled as he wiped his face with a black bandanna that he had quickly removed from his coat pocket.
“I was searching for some food, you know, wild animals and maybe a berry or two when I tripped. I smashed my mouth on the ground. I thought I got all the blood off.” Elden explained in a rush, trying his best to shrug casually. He wiped quickly at his face once more, his eyes wide in what Valeena could only assume was fear.
He tossed an orange at her and she gladly caught it, wondering where he found the delicious fruit. She peeled the skin off and bit into the flesh, enjoying the tangy flavor.
“Fine, welcome back,” Valeena said it sarcastically as Elden rolled his dark eyes at her words. Valeena rubbed at her arm as the air began to feel different, like static electricity picking at her skin. She shuddered as she realized that the ambiance of the world seemed to have fallen silent save for a barely audible humming noise. The sour taste of metal filled her mouth and she gagged. She covered her mouth with her hand as her stomach flipped again.
“What is that?” Valeena gagged again as she looked around the field for the source of this disturbance. She feared that another serpent was going to burst from the ground and attack her. Elden searched the area, as well as a puzzled expression, crossed his handsome face. He took a few cautious steps forward as he twisted his face in thought.
“What is it?” Valeena asked as she watched the color drain from his already pale face as a look of realization crossed it.
But before he could answer, a smoky, black vapor began to materialize between them like a ghost rising from the grave. The vapor resembled smoke drifting off a camp fire. Yet it had a strong discernible human feature that was almost like a corpse being burned. The air smelled fetid, like rotting flesh and sulfur. Valeena screamed an ear-piercing shriek as she jumped back not wanting the smoke to touch her.
“A Shadowling! Run!” Elden demanded, digging his nails into Valeena’s arm and pulling her forward. The Shadowling made no sound and yet, Valeena could sense it giving chase. It was floating over the ground as smoothly and as silent as the wind. Valeena fought herself not to look back as the humming noise reappeared and the smell of rotting flesh got stronger. The Shadowling was gaining on them as it sailed along as simple as a kite caught in the breeze.
“Oh no!” Elden yelled as he put out an arm to slow Valeena. She watched as two more Shadowlings appeared before them on the path, cutting them off. They were slightly larger than the one floating towards them from behind and had a more solid appearance. Their bodies filled the air with more of the grotesque scent.
Valeena’s eyes sought desperately for a way around them but three more appeared making any attempt of escape futile. Her eyes landed on Elden’s crystal that was glowing a pale gray, but it seemed to have no effect on them.
Valeena was irritated at the sudden downpour of rain as she removed her rod. She noted that Elden was reaching for his own sword, his fingers resting on the hilt. The cloudiness of the sky helped to conceal the Shadowlings. Their bodies now resembled thick billows of smoke that was burning harshly from a field fire.
Valeena swung with all her might but the rod went through the Shadowling as though it was nothing more than a cloud. She stumbled backward and smacked hard into Elden. He had just tried to stab one of the larger ones that were blocking their path and groaned at her as she hit his arm.
“What the hell?” Elden said as he gave Valeena a dark glare before trying once more to decapitate one of the Shadowlings.
“It’s useless,” Valeena whispered. She held her weapon in a defeated position as she realized that physical attacks were not going to be of any help. But Elden was not ready to admit defeat and swung hard at the Shadowlings. His sword went through their bodies as though they were not even there.
A sound like a hollow dying breath of air emerged from a few of the Shadowlings and Valeena began to feel dizzy. She felt as though she had been spinning around in circles and stumbled on her feet. The world around her seemed to move up and down in waves, like the surface of the ocean as nausea settled in. She dropped her weapon and walked forward as she was unable to feel her body.
“Elden,” Valeena spoke, her tone low and uneven. Her body collapsed and she fell onto the dirt with her eyes staring at Elden as fear grew on his handsome face. He was the last thing she saw before her vision gave way and everything around her faded into shadows.
Valeena awoke to discover she was lying haphazardly on her own bed as though she had been thrown there. Her head felt like it had been struck repeatedly and throbbed painfully. She made a sour face as her mouth tasted like dried blood. She sat up feeling disappointed to see the familiar room with its blue and brown decor. Valeena felt like a new born deer as she tried to walk on shaky, unsteady legs to her vanity.
She forced herself to face her reflection seeing a haggard looking girl with dark rings under lovely blue eyes staring back. Valeena was embarrassed by her tousled hair as a sour look spread on her once beautiful face. Dirt lay in patches on her creamy skin and her lip was split. She rubbed at the dried, brown blood that was caked on her chin.
“Oh.” Valeena moaned as she rubbed her head. She was disappointed she could not sit down as the broken chair still lay on its side. She had forgotten that she was the one who had broken it. Her bedroom door was still lying on the floor from when the Queen had it kicked in. Valeena stood up and grabbed the edge of the table as the world flashed in white pulses of light due to her throbbing head. Valeena had barely returned to her bed when Queen Maylee barged into the room, flanked by two guards. The Queen’s face was red with anger and she shook as she spoke.
“How dare you disappear like that!” The Queen nearly screamed as spit flew from her grotesque mouth. The Queen was wearing a dress in a print that would do better as curtains in an older women’s home. Fat red roses lay against a pattern of cream and mustard yellow leaves. Large purple butterflies fluttered about the canvas of material. Valeena wondered how someone who claimed to be of high fashion could wear such horrible dresses. She barely registered her mother yelling at her as she closed her eyes, blocking out the ugly dress.
“We searched for days, assuming you were dead! What the hell is wrong with you?” Queen Maylee was yelling as Valeena groaned under her breath. One of the guards flinched as Queen Maylee raised a lumpy arm, expecting her to strike.
“I wanted to see the world,” Valeena spoke softly knowing that it was the most truthful answer she dared to give.
“Then get a book! The world is too dangerous to walk around willy-nilly.” The Queen chuckled but there was no joy in the sound. She picked up the book of manners, the spine groaning as she opened it for the first time. “Do you even know how to read?”
“And where am I supposed to get a book? The library?” Valeena said as she ignored the insult. Her head was pounding a painful tune in her ears and she just wanted to rest.
“I’ll provide you a child’s atlas with pretty pictures! You may even have a connect the dots with a set of colored paints.” Her words were a slap to Valeena’s face. Queen Maylee smiled at her, clearly pleased with the sting of her words.
“Where is Elden?” Valeena asked, not giving the Queen the satisfaction of knowing how deep her words had cut. She had a sinking suspicious that Elden was tied up in the dungeon, alone.
“Who is Elden? Is he the one who helped you escape? You are the most ungrateful brat I’ve ever met!” The Queen continued her rant, staring Valeena in the eyes. Valeena felt her temper surge as the dam of emotion burst open once more.
“What do I have to be grateful for?” Valeena snapped, knowing it was a mistake but her emotions were flying as free as a storm bird in the sky. She jumped to her feet, powered by her own emotions surging through her.
“You keep me locked in this room like a prisoner! I cannot attend school, I am not allowed to have friends! I’m not allowed to have a normal life!” Tears threatened to fall, but she held them back, not wanting to give the Queen the satisfaction of seeing her weakness.
“You treat Princess Aurory like a Goddess, and treat me as though I am a rat!”
“You shut your filthy little mouth!” The Queen bellowed as she raised her hand and swung. Her plump hand left a bright red sting on Valeena’s right cheek as tears formed in her eyes. The strike caused Valeena to stumble backward as the sound of the slap echoed in her mind.
“You are not allowed to speak to me like that! I am the Queen damn it! You are going to die before I let you out of this room!” The Queen turned on her heels and stormed out of the room as a guard jumped sideways out of the Queen’s wake.
The two guards that had followed Queen Maylee into the room, hurried out. Neither one of them wanted to be on the receiving end of the Queen’s anger. One of the guards was cast Valeena a helpless look as he scrambled over the broken door. There was shouting in the hall and the two guards took their post outside of Valeena’s door. They did not dare to look in the room as Valeena stomped her foot, blinded by fury.
She grabbed her pillow and placed it firmly over her face screaming until her throat felt raw and sore. Valeena set her pillow down and collapsed on her bed. She felt exhausted and let her tears fall until her eyes were swollen and sore.