Nyles awoke on the hard ground, his upper lip slightly bleeding, his head feeling as though it were splitting in half. Pain was pulsing through his aching body, like a deadly current.
The circular crystal on his forehead that appeared as though someone had shrunk the planet and placed it on his rough skin was burning like the Sun itself. The Gaia under his body was shaking as icy blades of rain stabbed his exposed skin, feeling more like deadly, frozen needles.
Gale force winds carried away debris from his tree house that had once been hidden among the tall, thick branches. His home was now a pile of rubble, resting haphazardly against the face of the rocky cliff. Nyles felt instant regret for opening his eyes as they fell upon the full moon, glowing so intensely he thought it might erupt, burning his black eyes.
Nyles liked to pride himself on being tough, bragging that his pain tolerance was higher than most mortals. He often said he could find the biggest man in the bar and take him down with a single blow. But now, as he lay crumpled on the wet ground in the increasing violent storm, curled up in the fetal position, he prayed to whichever Gods were listening to just end his suffering.
“Get up.” An angry male voice demanded, administering a sharp kick in Nyles' leg.
Nyles sat up quickly, knocking a thin blanket of snow off of his body. Snow? Here? What the Hell is going on! His headache had faded to nothing more than a dull throb just behind his eyes; a small reminder of the torment that had occurred last night.
“Now!” The owner of the voice said, his tone dripping with impatience. Nyles felt anger replace his disorientation and was on his feet quickly, removing a dagger he had concealed in the back of his pants and placing it against the man’s throat.
“Elden, you damn idiot! You nearly died, my friend.” Nyles pressed the blade against Elden’s throat a bit tighter before replacing it with his bare arm, grabbing Elden’s left hand and placing the knife just above the ring.
“How about I cut this off? Huh? Live your life out as a beast forever?” Elden used his heavy foot to shove Nyles off, glaring at him.
“Your breath stinks,” Elden informed him, pointing a thumb at the fallen tree house. “What happened there?” Nyles shrugged, then shook his head slowly.
“Last night was crazy! My head- Gods my head- doesn’t your head hurt?” Nyles was rubbing his head dramatically, looking skyward then back at Elden who sneered at him.
“No. Now come on, we’re leaving.” Elden said, fixing his jacket and turning sharply on his heels, preparing to leave.
“Oh no, man. Every time I hang out with you, I get hurt!” As Elden opened his mouth to offer a protest, Nyles ripped his shirt sleeve up to reveal a thin, jagged scar on his gray skin slightly above this elbow.
“This is from the time you talked me into trying to sneak into the Star Kingdom and a guard got me with his sword. AND this, “Nyles continued, lifting his shirt where three triangular scars sat on his chiseled abs.
“This is from when the ol’ man outside Nero shot me with those arrows before it was bombed! AND this,” Nyles pulled his sock down as Elden told him to stop. A poorly done black and red flame tattoo was wrapped around his gray ankle, the tops of the flames blunt as the artist was not talented enough to draw points.
“This tattoo is from when you claimed that it would wash off when we were in Kingyosou! Gods that one stung! Ever try to shove a needle in stone?”
Elden put his arms up, irritated, yet amused, “That last one is your own damn fault! What fifteen-year-old needs a stupid tattoo?”
Nyles held up his middle finger in a rude gesture as he pulled his sock back up. “I’m sixteen now, man.”
Elden felt his body go numb as if the blood in his veins had been replaced with icy, cold water. “Always a damn liar,” He mumbled despite the feeling of dread that was growing deep in his heart.
Nyles shook his head, his long, gray hair hitting him in the face. “Last night, man, Gaia shook, it rained like Hell and that wind, “Nyles gestured to the destroyed tree house sadly.“And my damn head! I’m a tough dude and all but I’ve never felt pain like that!”
Elden slowly came to the realization that he had missed the events that transpired last night. He had transformed into the Ankou and his cursed body had experienced nothing. He still had turned sixteen with the rest of them, right? He looked at his hands as if the answer would be written on them as fear pumped in his heart.
He longed to see her, to know if she was still safe but he knew better. She was better off without him anyway. He shook his head harder than he meant to, trying his best to get her out of his thoughts. He hated how much he thought about her. She was weak and needed him.
‘No!’ Elden shouted in his mind. ‘She does not need me.’
“What was that?” Nyles was looking off into the distance as a flock of birds screeched, escaping from the safety of the trees and filling the sky. Elden had felt it too; the sense of foreboding that was laced into the gentle wind. He saw Nyles begin to walk towards the danger, and decided he should follow. He needed his old friend’s help and he was not about to let him just walk away.
“How’d you find me anyways?” Nyles was asking, stepping over a fallen tree that was burnt to a crisp, the brown leaves still smoldering.“I left your dumb ass bleeding on the beach.”
Elden chose not to remember that night, fighting back the memories. He glared at Nyles for bringing it up, watching his feet walk instead. He had spent the last few months hiding her memories and Nyles was not about to open that scar.
“You’re lucky I found you at all. I went back to Rose Grove and they told me you were dead! Died at sea,” Elden informed him. Nyles laughed too loudly at that, shaking his stone head.
“Me? On a ship?” He laughed again. Elden joined in, allowing a thin smile to escape as well.
The laughter died out reminding them that The Forgotten Continent was a dark and uninviting place to be. The ocean was slowly reclaiming it as its own, the land getting smaller and smaller with each crashing wave.
Nyles had stopped walking up ahead where the brown trees had ended abruptly, a new cliff face sat in its place. The sky was a rich, dark blue, gray clouds gathering overhead, threatening rain.
Elden snuck up behind Nyles, stepping as carefully as he could over the twigs so as not to make a sound. He held his breath and prepared to rush Nyles, to scare him. As he got close to his old friend's back, the joy he had felt was instantly washed away as his black eyes fell on the scorched graveyard below.
“Is that...” But Elden’s low voice trailed off, unable to finish his sentence. Everything below them was a dark charcoal color, covered in a layer of fine ash and debris. Aging tombstones stuck out of the harsh ground haphazardly, with crudely chiseled names carved into the stone with little care.
Bones that had been bleached by the sun were littered on the hard, cracked ground among figures made of mud. The figures resembled something a child might make by stacking three snowballs. The forms were holding skulls in their stick arms, their dead eyes made out of rocks covered blood.
The gentle wind carried the strong scent of decay and sorrow. Strange hooded figures floated among the tombstones as quietly as shadows, as they poured into of an opening in the mountainside. The last one was dragging an unconscious, horned figure.
“This can’t be it! We were attacked by Shadowlings near the Goddess Tomb in Saber Mountains!” Elden choked out, his eyes wide in fear as he took in the scene below them. He suddenly realized just how powerful Queen Maylee was becoming.
‘Maybe Valeena was right to fear her.’ He thought, once more pushing Valeena out of his thoughts.
Elden felt an urge to run as he wanted nothing more to do with this dreadful place. He elbowed Nyles, snapping him out of his horrified trance. With a quick nod of his stone head, they turned their backs on the Necrodomus as an unholy howl cried out from within.
Elden opened his mouth to say something but Nyles cut him off. “Save it. I know why you’re here.” Nyles could feel Elden’s eyes burning into the back of his head. “It’s those damn Elements. Nihonal can’t fix you! It won’t bring her back!”
Elden fought back a strong urge to punch his friend in the back of the head. His knuckles were white from holding his hands into a tight fist. Nyles looked back at Elden and stopped.
“Hit me if you’re gonna hit me. It won’t fix anything man.” Nyles pointed one long, gray finger at him, “You did it to yourself! Didn’t I tell you not to go? Sheila too. But man, you’re stubborn! You do what you want! Now, look at you! Half man, half beast, full idiot!”
“Just shut the Hell up!” Elden shouted louder than he meant to, shaking from the anger that boiled in his body. “You don’t talk about her!” He could feel the scar in his heart start to peel open. Elden had fought for so long to keep that part of his life sealed up and now, he was losing the battle.
Nyles raised his hands up in defense, “Calm down dude. I didn’t mean-”
“You never mean too! You don’t know what happened that night!” Elden shouted, the dam of emotions bursting open.
Nyles made a bewildered face, “Dude, I was there!” He held out a hand to stop Elden as he opened his mouth to argue, “Look, forget it. I’ll help you this one last time! For Sheila, but then that’s it!”
Elden was still shaking with the anger that was boiling inside him. “Wow, thanks, dude!” He said the words through his teeth, mocking Nyles. He regretted coming all this way to find Nyles, to have to face him after all this time. To have to remember Sheila.
Elden closed his black eyes briefly and allowed the memories he had been hiding to flow. He could see Sheila smiling softly, her stunning emerald eyes shining bright, her creamy white skin with brown freckles on her small nose. She always wore her thick, curly, brown and red hair pulled back with a red ribbon, the curls overflowing on the sides.
The last time Elden had seen her she had been wearing a rose colored skirt with a crisp white blouse that was slightly too big for her small frame, the right sleeve slipping off her shoulder. She was a year younger than them at the time, only thirteen, but far more mature.
Sheila had fallen in love with the idea of Nihonal at first, encouraging it. “I can be a Queen!” She had laughed shyly, standing tall, her hands on her hips, doing her best to appear regal. Elden had smiled, throwing a pillow at her, hitting her in her lovely face.
“Queen Lard Butt!” He teased, Nyles bursting out in laughter as Sheila’s face turned red.
“A Queen’s a Queen!” Sheila replied, but her face was still pink from embarrassment. She sat down on the sand, tucking her knees to chest, hiding her face.
The day had been extremely lovely, as they sat on the sandy beach outside of an old fishing town known as Hobbes Way, watching the blue waves as they crashed onto shore. They had decided that they’ll start their quest that day, looking at a map that was constantly being sprinkled with sand. Sheila brushed the pillow off, getting more grains of sand on the map.
“Sorry.” She said brightly, hugging the faded red heart-shaped pillow against her chest and smiling, bending her knees to sandwich the thing between them and her chest.
“Who brings a pillow to the beach anyway,” Nyles commented, shaking the map to get the sand off, knowing it was futile. Sheila just hugged her pillow and smiled again, not offering a response.
She was like a little sister to Nyles. Her family had taken him in and raised him as their own when he was around four years old. Most people were afraid of him, calling him a gargoyle and yelling in fright whenever they saw him. But Sheila’s mom, Elmyra, loved him. She was unable to have any more children after the birth of Sheila and welcomed Nyles into her home with open arms. She had never once been afraid of him, she just saw a child who needed a little more love than others.
Elden stood up stretching his arms above his head as the afternoon sun sunk lower into the sky, basking the world in a brilliant orange light. They had started their journey that night, searching a nearby cave, then a hollow, each one turning up nothing.
Within six months Sheila had lost interest in the quest, complaining that she just wanted to go home. “I’m hungry and my feet hurt!” She whined as they trudged through the marsh, their feet getting soaked in the foul smelling water. Nyles had tried to comfort Sheila the best that he could, but she began to cry anyway.
“Look, man, we’re chasing shadows, I think we should just call it quits and head home. Maybe do a bit of research and start again.” Nyles had said, hugging Sheila against his body as she cried. "We can head to the library in St. Dalmasca and do some research."
Elden did not want to admit defeat as he pulled his boot out of the foul-smelling marsh that lined the small island they had found. The gray sky above them broke and fat, icy drops of rain fell upon them, invoking more tears from Sheila. “Alright, let’s go home,” Elden whispered, hanging his head low. He could not stand to see that lovely face so miserable.
They had not been back in the warmth of Elmyra’s small, comfortable home a week before Elden was proposing his plan. But Nyles and Sheila attenuated his joy, like a needle popping a child’s balloon.
“You’re insane! I’m not going! I still have blisters on my feet and my hair!” Sheila had chopped her long locks of hair off and now sported a short, frizzy do. “And you shouldn’t either! Just admit the Elements are a myth!” Her emerald eyes were pleading with Elden as she spoke, knowing it was futile.
“She’s right man, just stay here.” Nyles had chimed in, lying with his back on the wooden floor, his feet propped up on the chair, petting the cat absently.
Elden was the only one standing. He opened his mouth preparing to give a grand, inspirational speech that would change their minds. But instead, he remained still, opening and closing his mouth like a fish that had been plucked out of the water. Elden collapsed into the nearest chair, ignoring the way it groaned under his weight, his brown eyes downcast.
“I really think I have it this time.” His words were barely audible as he covered his face with his hands, sighing. No one spoke; the only sounds left in the room were from the fire crackling in the fireplace and the purring emitting from the fat cat.
Elden felt his anger growing as he realized his friends were not there for him. He stomped to his feet, startling the cat who hissed, clawing Nyles's arm.
“I’m going!” Elden announced, his voice strong and determined.
“No, you’re not. Sit back down.” Sheila demanded, hugging that stupid, faded heart, her emerald eyes staring at him once more, begging him to stay.
“Look, the place isn’t that far! It’ll take a day or two, tops!” Elden pulled the worn map out from his back pocket and tried to show them, but they refused to even glance at it. Sheila buried her face in the worn pillow whispering the word, "No" several times.
“See right here…” But his words fell on deaf ears. He grabbed the map roughly, tearing it in the process as anger fell upon him like a blanket.
Elden had slammed the door harder than he meant to as he exited the tiny home, but he didn’t care. He felt like a fool for not waiting until morning as the cold night air hit him, followed by the small beads of rain. Why was it always raining? He heard footsteps behind him and smiled to himself as Sheila called for him to wait.
The cave Elden was certain contained an Element was on the far-east side of Gaiola Island. The island sat near the Forgotten Continent, a tiny, uninviting location. Sharp mountains peaks that were as black as the night sky dotted the island surface. At one time it had been plagued by a volcano that was now submerged underwater having been broken apart after the last time it erupted.
“I changed my mind. I’ll wait here.” Sheila whispered, shaking, her large eyes as round as saucers. Elden could see the temple he believed had the Phoenix Ash, the fire element, and refused to give up. He had already wasted enough time convincing Nyles to get in the damn boat in the first place.
“Come on, we’re almost there!” Elden tried to act more excited than he felt. He could not let Sheila know that his heart was filled with dread. He was not sure what he would find there and only hoped it was worth the trip.
“I’ll wait with you.” Nyles offered as lighting cut the blood red sky in half. Winged creatures flew out of a cave nearby, causing Sheila to scream and deciding to follow Elden after all.
They made their way across the dry, bloody ground, the moon peeking out from behind threatening, ebony clouds. A growl emitting from the shadows sent fear pulsing through them. Sheila tightened her grip on Elden’s arm, glancing around constantly.
“I wished I’d stayed home.” She said ducking as another winged beast flew overhead, its legs nearly hitting her in the skull. Without warning, a large beast broke out of a nearby rock pillar, raining dust and debris on them. It had the face of a dog, the body of a human with powerful looking goat legs. Its eyes were blood red and stared at them, full of hate.
“Run!” Sheila shrieked stumbling over her own two feet as she desperately tried to escape. Her red skirt tore as a thorn bush ripped into the fabric. The beast smacked Nyles hard in the ribs, sending his tough body flying through the air. He landed hard on the ground just below the temple stairs, gasping as pain washed over him.
Elden slammed his shoulder into the chest of the Ankou, stopping it as it tried to grab Sheila, who was she running blindly ahead. The beast smelled of charred wood and rotting flesh. Its breath was coming out in sharp huffs, saliva dripping off its, pointy, yellow teeth.
Nyles cried out as he tried to stand, but his leg was snapped, the bone visible through his tough, stone skin. He shook Sheila off as she stopped to help him up, pulling on his arm as she cried.
“Just go!” He demanded spreading his gray wings only to discover the left wing was also broken. Sheila stumbled up the rough stairs, pulling on the heavy, black stone door. But the door would not budge, it remained seal.
The Ankou struck Elden out of the way as it charged towards Sheila, who was tugging on the door in full panic. She screamed loudly, her voice echoing off the bare rocks.
“Shit!” Elden shouted loudly, pulling his sore body off the hard ground and giving chase, the beast moving much quicker than him.
“Elden!” It was Nyles. He was pointing at the statue sitting in the courtyard of the temple. The statue was of a powerful warrior, holding a massive sword in her hands. It looked eerily alive in the light of the red moon.
Elden rushed towards the statue, tripping once as he fought the pain that had developed in his side. He gripped the mighty sword tightly in his hands, putting one foot on the leg of the warrior and using his entire body weight to dislodge the massive sword. He fell backward hard, getting to his feet before he could register the pain in his back. He pumped his legs quickly, dragging the blade of the sword in the black dirt as he ran towards the Ankou.
Nyles had reached out and grabbed the leg of the angry beast, causing it to fall snout first onto the stone steps of the temple, blood bursting out of the nostrils as it made contact with the hard stone. The Ankou jerked its body upwards, kicking Nyles in the skull hard, knocking him unconscious.
The Ankou pushed with its muscular arms, rolling off the step and landing near Elden’s feet. The beast wasted no time as it lunged forward, biting hard into the flesh on Elden’s leg. Elden cried out, the thunder masking his screams of pain. He used the last bit of his strength to lift the heavy sword high above his head and swiftly decapitate the Ankou, its mouth still attached to his leg.
As he carefully peeled the mouth open to free his leg, Elden heard Sheila screaming once more. The Warrior statue had reanimated, angry about the theft of its mighty prized sword. It had Sheila by the throat, her legs dangling off of the ground. Its dead eyes were staring straight into hers, turning her body to stone.
Elden slowly opened his eyes as the painful memories faded away like snow melting from the sun. He saw Nyles watching him, a look of sorrow mixed with disgust on his hard, stone-like face.
“And this,” Nyles said softly, pointing to a spot on his leg that resembled cracked stone, “Is from when I went with you that day and I lost Sheila.”
Elden felt as though an invisible hand was squeezing his heart tightly, preventing it from beating. He knew it was his fault she was gone and wished he had listened to her to stay. Why did he have to be so stubborn? Elden said nothing as Nyles stared at him, the tension thick in the air.
Finally, Nyles broke the silence by asking, “How’d we get off that damn island anyway? I just remember you bleeding on the shore and the boat taking me away.” When Elden didn’t reply Nyles said, “I never went home, ya know. I couldn’t. And the island is nothing more than black points sticking out of the ocean. All this damn rain caused it to sink into the water.” As if on cue, tiny beads of water dripped off the dead leaves above them. Nyles held his hands up in defeat, looking frustrated.
“Why does it rain so much!” It was a rhetorical question; one Elden knew the answer to. Once more, he offered no reply. He refused to allow his mind to think about Valeena.
“What scar will I walk away with this time, Elden?” Nyles asked a bit rudely, crossing his stone arms and leaning towards him, his gray eyes boring into his.
“This time is different!” Elden insisted, reaching for a bag that wasn’t there. He suddenly regretted leaving it with Valeena. The image of her crying in the mud crossed his mind and he shook it free.
“I don’t have them with me now but I found some of the Elements!” Elden had expected Nyles to react with joy and questions. Instead, he raised a single brow and frowned. “I did! I left them with Valeena- she has the water Crystal.”
“Valeena of Star Kingdom? Huh. I thought she was dead.” Nyles responded with a shrug. Elden rolled his black eyes and swatted at what he thought was an insect but turned out to be more rain rolling down his nose.
“The Phoenix Ash is on this continent, in a temple. Just follow me!” Elden began moving forward, stepping over a decaying tree, knowing without having to look, that his old friend was there.