CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 1 ♦ May the City Invisible Show its True Colors
Valeriana did not know anything about the city of Varialon, but she did know it was a bad idea. She left Corvan lying wounded by himself after he nearly died saving her—but of course, the debt is already very well-paid considering what happened afterwards. Thinking back at that moment, she pursed her lips. Despite her trying to console herself, the guilt lingered stubbornly.
The ring around her finger turned hot. Cifaro vibrated, emitting thick waves of energy which made her stop short and look at the glowing jewelry. She winced a little, holding her wrist as the temperature finally reached its height and dropped.
“Lheuim ansur,” Cifaro’s voice reverberated. “Thou hast left so suddenly.”
“Cifaro!” she cried in relief. A companion in this journey was what she needed the most at the moment. Knowing the Gilerad would be with her took some weight off her shoulders. “I’m . . . good lord! Thank god! I thought I left you behind.”
“As long as the ring is with thee, I will be forever by thy side,” he told her. “So fear not, Valeriana.”
She resumed walking, the edges of her eyes leaking with happy tears. “H-how’s Corvan?”
“When I checked up on him, he was well. The Chicova watches upon him. Do not worry thine heart. They should find him very soon. Lord Keelan is to drill a hole into the cave.”
She sighed. “I left so suddenly,” she whispered.
“That, this beast can see. Thou hast gone to the city of Varialon. This place is a mystery to the world outside.”
“What do you know about it?”
“Not much. There are legends, but only the ones who’d truly been inside can tell what happened, but even then, hardly anyone who has gone has left its walls.”
The sea of trees eventually cleared after half a day’s worth of walking. Although she should’ve been more alert considering she was trekking through woods alone, she was absentmindedly drifting from one thought to another, her imagination very active the entire time.
The forest was surprisingly ordinary and there were no illusions that halted her—dark creatures and things that would try to keep her where she was. It was why she felt utterly confused when she saw the break from the line of trees. Straight up ahead was a dirt road and judging by the looks of it, it seemed to be a well-traveled one.
“Odd,” she muttered, expecting that there would be more action and thrill. Unexpectedly, it was a boring, old trip.
The dirt road was lined with trees, however, if she followed the path, there should be a way out.
“Does this not please thee?” Cifaro asked. “No trouble to confront.”
“I know. I just find it too suspicious.”
“I went to the city Varialon,” echoed a loud singing voice followed by loud thumps. “The city invisible! Where to find my way, I lost my way. But oops, what did I say? I think I forgot, come what may! This line is blank, it has no meaning—except it’s a line! Should it mean much for ya, then I can bet we can consider it a sign!”
Valeriana’s brows furrowed, following the direction of the loud, boisterous singing.
“But hey, what else? I don’t care, ring the bells and get the hell out of my faaacceeee!”
The sharp turn from her right finally revealed a rundown cart pulled by an ox. There was a man up front who seemed to be missing his two front teeth.
“Oh, hey look what I see! It’s a soaked chick standing in line with the trees! Bwahahaha!”
Valeriana’s forehead creased. Her clothes were still damp and she had only removed her outerwear. Her hair wasn’t the most presentable and she didn’t have any spare clothes, so perhaps, he was telling the truth.
“Why ya’re offended by that, eh?”
“No, not really. Do you know the way to the city?”
“Eh? Which city?” The cart pulled to a stop and the man looked at Valeriana with a smile.
“Varialon. I was told to go there.”
“You’re already in it!” he exclaimed.
She frowned. “Then where am I?”
“In Varialon,” he replied.
“I mean—specifically which part of it?” she patiently asked.
“The outskirts, of course. You’re a newcomer, aren’t you?” he guessed. “Do you want a ride?”
She looked at him with suspicion. Although she was tempted to accept, there was no doubt a catch to whatever service he was going to offer. Her mind drifted to her aching knees, but the caution won over and she shook her head.
“No, it’s alright. Please point me to the way out of this forest, preferably the nearest town. I’ll figure out something on my own.”
“Suit yaself! You can follow this direction and turn right when ya see a fork. That should lead ya to the town ya’re looking for! It’s called Kold!”
With that, the ox resumed its pace and the cart rolled away noisily, accompanied by the man’s carefree singing. His voice reverberated so much there were no birds in the immediate vicinity. Valeriana followed his cart closely, but she was a little slower. In no time at all, it disappeared, but the man’s singing didn’t seem intent on fading away completely just yet.
Valeriana sighed, disappointed.
“I was expecting some good crap to happen when I came in—like a wrecking ball,” she muttered. “But I shouldn’t say things like this because it just might—”
“I see bandits swinging in the trees!” cried the man from earlier. The joyful singing broke into a scream. “Someone help me pleeeeasssseeeee!”
“I jinx myself, I totally do.” She hesitated for a moment. “Should I help him, Cifaro?”
“What dost thou think thou art supposed to do?” he replied.
“I need my life at leasssttttt!” the man continued.
“Why is that bastard still even singing?” She shook her head and ran forward to check on the situation, inserting herself between the trees for a more inconspicuous observation. She avoided twigs and walked slowly as loud, domineering voices clapped in her ears in layers.
The man opened his mouth to call for help once more when one of the bandits stepped forward and punched him in the guts. He choked and shrunk back from the pain as he was harshly dragged off the cart he rode. He slumped on the ground, muttering his apologies and pleading for them to spare his goods.
The bandits paid no heed to the man and instead pulled the covers tied around the cargo on his cart. There, they saw barrels upon barrels of wine. Whistles and loud chuckles echoed as they brought out a sharp blade and punched through one at the back. They each took turns, ducking over with open mouths to catch the rushing drink.
Valeriana frowned. They looked like burly men with decent strength and there was even a girl in their ranks. If she took them on, she would no doubt have a hard time trying to take them all down. Taking into consideration her lack of battle experience handling multiple people at once, it would be really hard. Aside from that, she had no idea about the extent of their capabilities. She had to exercise as much caution as possible.
There were over seven of them. Three were in the back, two were on the other side, and two gathered around the man.
“Seven,” she said.
“Proceed with caution,” Cifaro advised.
“You sound like those toxic warning signs I see all the time.”
She looked around and decided to find a way to take down as many of them as possible without revealing herself. She would not be able to win this battle if she played it with strength, after all. If she had the Twelve with her, this would no doubt be an easy task. The problem was she had this on her own.
Luckily for her, the man rolled over, clutching his stomach and caught her looking on from behind the trees. She put a finger to her lips and motioned to the bandits, hoping he got the idea.
His eyes lit up with understanding and he started belting out words with more passion. “I am just a poor guy! PLEASE SPARE ME! I have a family of three waiting at home for me. My wife is sick . . .” he cried.
“Oh, shut up,” said the female as she towered over the man and kicked him in the chest.
Valeriana moved to take out the small knife she had in her sleeves. She had learned to keep one on her person at all times after spending time with the Twelve. She picked up a rock as well and was ready to draw her sword any time the situation got worse.
Her heart pounded in anticipation as she inched forward and targeted the man standing guard over the poor traveler. She didn’t have a very good aim and her hand was trembling with the adrenaline. Whether or not this would go in, it didn’t matter. Firming her resolve, she focused on the target and threw the knife with conviction.
She tried not to target the vitals, however, the knife struck deep below his shoulder blade, causing the man to fall forward screaming. Wasting no second, she threw the rock at another guy and successfully struck him between the eyes.
Valeriana wanted to cheer but instead decided to leap out from the trees and confront the woman bandit in front of her, drawing her sword and acing her blade to meet with hers. The woman adeptly received her first three blows, however, she lacked the prowess the Twelve and Lady Seraphina possessed when it came to technique. The holes in her stances were in plain sight so she had no trouble taking advantage of them and breaking through her defenses. She landed a harsh punch on the girl’s face before she hit her head with the back of her sword, knocking her out.
The singing man from earlier immediately stood and hid behind the trees, securing his own safety as Valeriana battled it out with the bandits.
“You go, missy!” he cheered.
Two men came at her at once so she threw a kick to the knees of one bandit, effectively forcing him to the ground as she met the blade of the other that approached her from the right. She was surprised at how easily she knocked the sword out of his hands. However, of course, there was no time to act surprised.
Every second in battle was worth a life.
She took advantage of him being disarmed by striking the soft point between his ribs and below his chest with her elbow. Obviously, these people had had no proper training and were not very adept in close combat.
Only two more.
One ran forward screaming his throats out with his sword wildly arching. Valeriana avoided the slash of his blade and quickly parried the blow with her own sword. His arms were sent swinging to the side at the force of her strike, leaving his side wide open. She pushed kicked him on the hips and rendered him off balance.
Panting, her eyes sharply gravitated towards the last of them. The adrenalin was like acid in her veins—hot, sizzling. The thief shook at the weight of her gaze and dropped his weapon, running into the forest as though his pants were on fire.
“I’m out! I’m out!”
The rest of them were on the ground, writhing in pain or passed out.
“I knew I shouldn’t have jinxed myself,” she muttered.