CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 14 ♦ Fire Faction
The Fire Faction, under the command of Deli, entered the town of Mardiya which they controlled. It had been a long trek from where they ambushed Valeriana, Beard, and Runner. Deli was quiet, but she shot curious glances at Valeriana every now and then.
Valeriana was not so stupid to not know that the Commander General knew the truth. The good thing was that they were still unaware of Cifaro, who remained sitting around her finger looking harmless. Although Beard had strong chains around his hands, being a very strong man of the earth, Runner and Valeriana were treated better. Despite not being tied by chains, however, the ropes were tight and left no room for their skin to breathe. As a result, their wrists had long since began feeling raw. The incessant tugging did not help.
“My hands hurts and my feet hurt too,” Runner complained. “Can we ride a horse, Lady Commander?” His requests were left unheard.
Despite the cold shoulder, none of the soldiers from the Fire Faction dared mistreat them—aside from the light bondage.
The only thing that remained puzzling to the fifth-ranker was why in the name of the gods the woman remained quiet. It was not very mystifying despite the spell of confusion, even so, as the Lady Commander didn’t seem the type who felt the need to speak about things to people she hardly cared about.
Valeriana raised her chin, looking over the shoulders of the soldiers in front of her to see the trees clearing, revealing their destination.
Mardiya was the Fire Faction’s stronghold and, as much as possible, had been avoided by De Cirque due to their extremely straightforward and cunning means. They were the most stubborn of all the factions to seek after the beasts protected by the circus. However, due to Arisce’s equally cunning ways and strength of her own, she fended them off for many years. De Cirque itself was a force to be reckoned with, loved by the people for the entertainment they provide. This reason alone had them seated deep into safety of being easily overthrown. Their roots were longer and sturdier than any ordinary weed.
However, these facts didn’t mean that they hadn’t been placed under compromising positions. Their current dilemma was a prime example. There were always hidden dangers, as Valeriana was told, and death was often unavoidable amongst the members of the troupe. Not even the members of the factions themselves had escape.
The reason why De Cirque had survived after all these years, despite having many enemies, was because of Arisce. While it was rocky with the Fire Faction and the Wind Faction, the relationship between Water, Earth, and Spirit remained neutral—if not friendly. The Fire Faction and Wind Faction were under constant warfare, hence, they were constantly vying for all sorts of opportunity to increase their power and influence.
The phrase ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ apparently did not apply to everybody. If there was one thing those two factions had in common, it was that they didn’t like De Cirque.
“Welcome back, Commander General!” the two guards standing on duty saluted. Their stances were similar to the Celestes back in Valemnia.
There was little to no regard for their greeting. Deli kept her eyes forward and the rest of the soldiers did as well.
“Geez,” she murmured, so quietly that the words came out as a mere huff of air. “Way better in Denovegasia. Arlandians, really.” She shook her head with an eye-roll.
Valeriana stumbled a little. Her feet had long since started to hurt after having to walk the entire way to Mardiya. It wasn’t very far from where they were intercepted, but it was quite a length on foot. She exhaled a small complain under her breath, wanting to tug back her hands for reprieve from the chaffing on her skin. However, that would make it far worse.
“Hey, can you be more gentle and stop pulling so much?” she took the line between her fingers and shook it to catch the attention of the soldier before her, however, she was ignored. “Nice talking to you. Really. I love your sense of humor.”
Beard chuckled beside her and Runner flashed a grin.
“Don’t worry, if your skin hurts, my bones do,” the bearded man said.
Just as she wondered how long she had to wait to get on a stool somewhere and sit, they stopped before gated grounds. The entire group paused, waiting as the humongous network of metals barring their entrance groaned to make way. The soldiers guarding them were trying their best to push them, however, it was so heavy that it took a full twenty seconds before it was wide enough to accommodate the group.
They resumed walking, past the courtyard and into the large, open entrance.
“Bring the prisoners to the room,” Deli said as she stopped and alighted her horse. A boy ran up to grab the reigns, guiding it out as the Lady Commander went straight for the open doors.
Beard, Runner, and Valeriana were pushed to another path, forced to round a corner before entering through a smaller door at the back. There, they were guided through a long hall before eventually pushed into a room. Knives were taken out and the ropes on their hands were cut. Beard was unchained and they were ‘asked’ to sit and behave.
“It’ll be alright, you two,” he said, taking his seat on the farthest end of the sofa while Valeriana and Runner inched together.
The room was unlike anything Valeriana expected from it. It wasn’t unaccommodating at all. It had comfortable chairs, a wide window, and even an arrangement of treats and refreshment on a nearby table. She exchanged glances with Beard, a hint of doubt in their eyes. She could not help but feel suspicious.
Despite the tempting food sitting on the table beside the settee they were forced to occupy, none of them dared touch it. Runner’s eyes, however, kept gravitating towards the plates. The young boy’s hands twitched and fidgeted as he restlessly shifted on his seat.
“It’s alright, Runner,” Beard said, seeming to have caught on the boy’s thoughts. “Think of Bonjo’s cooking instead.”
Runner’s eyes misted with memories. He blankly stared at the wall in front of him as he licked his lips and sighed.
“Don’t eat anything,” Valeriana said. “You might end up like Persephone with the pomegranates.”
“Who’s Persephone?” asked Runner. “And why?”
“Persephone is the goddess of spring,” she began. “She was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades, after he fell in love with her. Sick, I know. But they actually have the most decent love story in the entire family. To make Persephone stay with him, he tempted her with pomegranates. It bound her to him in a way.”
Runner’s attention was piqued that he leaned forward.
“Do tell more,” a voice reverberated. It belonged to neither Beard nor Runner.
Their eyes lifted. Heads turned to the direction of the open door. There, without them knowing, stood a tall man. His hair was a shock of lightning blue while his eyes were a misty moon silver.
Valeriana’s breath hitched. Not even a second—it was all it took for that large, powerful frame to turn the room into a cramped cage.
Judging by the way he carried himself and how the Lady Commander stood a step behind him, he was no ordinary man. Beard’s reaction to him was not something that comforted Valeriana either. His eyes had narrowed, jaws flexing as his muscles bunched under his clothes. Valeriana swallowed as an uncomfortable twist coiled in her stomach.
“Pardon me. Did I startle you?” he said, for it was no question. He moved to a large armchair that oddly but perfectly fit him. “I am called Aleser. I run the Fire Faction.”
Valeriana remained as still as a post, determined not to show her fear. Her fingers had turned clammy as a drop of sweat traced the valley on her back. Runner had already curled back on the seat, his deep-set eyes were wide with distress.
“So what do you need us for this time?” Beard grumbled.
“Nothing,” Aleser dismissively replied. “I just enjoy getting under Arisce’s nerves.”
Beard huffed sardonically.
“Are you not going to eat?” He waved to the food beside them.
He was answered with silence.
“No?” Aleser’s lips curled.
They didn’t know whether he was thinking or feeling wound up.
“Well, I should’ve expected this.”
“And you should expect what will happen if Arisce knows of this,” Beard told him.
“Yes, I wonder about that. She wasn’t able to do anything last time,” Aleser replied with a smug smirk. “Or has my memory failed me?”
“No, it hasn’t,” Beard said. “But clearly, you will. Like always.”
Aleser hummed. The moon silver eyes were glazed with threat and a hint of madness. He turned to Valeriana, who had a face as stiff as a tree. “A new member. You didn’t know what you got yourself into.”
She didn’t answer but she held his gaze steadily.
“The old folks are hard to convince. Maybe I can get you on my side.” He paused. “Do you know why everyone’s after the beasts of De Cirque?”
“Because you want their blood essence for more power?” Valeriana said, spite thick in her voice.
“True, but that’s not all.” Aleser leaned into his large hands. “You believe, don’t you? In the other world.”
Valeriana clenched her jaws.
“You must, for you are included in the great circus who are all firm believers of the higher reality,” he continued.
“Don’t listen to him,” Beard whispered to her. “Should his logic have been actually sound, Arisce would’ve aided him. But his intentions will not purely be what he tells you. Do not be fooled.”
“I believe,” Aleser began, glaring at the bearded man beside Valeriana. “That the key lies in the beasts of Varialon. This entire city is a puzzle and they are all I need for the missing pieces.”
Valeriana’s gaze strayed to Deli, who nonchalantly stood behind Aleser’s chair. The Lady Commander’s green eyes dropped to meet the girl’s before they quickly diverted to the blank wall ahead. Runner’s hands traveled up her arms. The boy pressed himself against her side, seeking comfort. She held his hand and looked back at Aleser, whose finely sculpted face was contorted to an expression that demanded the attention of the fifth-ranker.
“Aren’t you interested?” he probed. “You’re a breacher, aren’t you?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t turn you in to the non-believers,” he continued. “In fact, I can even help you return.”
She couldn’t say she was not interested.
“Thank you for your offer, but no thanks. I’m not lost,” she told him, which made him raise a brow questioningly. “I can find my own way home if I’m worthy of it. That’s what this city truly is for, isn’t it?”
Aleser chuckled jeeringly. “It’s very easy for you to say that because you’ve never been stuck here your entire life. Isn’t that right, Deli? She doesn’t understand a thing. To be confined in this little cage like animals for the mistakes of the first fools who tried to seek the fortune they never found.”
Valeriana tensed under the intense gaze of the man across her.
“Stop trying to act righteous,” the man continued. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the people who try to act like everything in life is justified by their principles.” He leaned forward, his face darkening as a sly grin stretched on his lips. “Not everything in life can be achieved through virtuous means. Haven’t you heard the rule of exchange? There will be sacrifices along the way.”
“And where will that lead you?” Valeriana bit back.
“Accomplishment,” he said.
“Isolation,” Valeriana countered.
Aleser’s laugh reverberated. “Being alone is not a big deal. I find solace in solitude. I’m not like you people who love to surround themselves with people like a herd of sheep, so don’t think your logic will apply to me.” He dismissively flicked his wrist. “You take after your troupe leader very much, don’t you? This is one of the reasons why I hate De Cirque, such goody-two-shoes.”
“Having principles makes us goody-two-shoes?” Valeriana frowned.
“Having principles make us immoral?” he shot back.
“Or maybe just close-minded,” she retorted. “You’re exaggerating it. I perfectly understand why Arisce do not intend on lending you the beasts. It’s a ridiculous thought. They serve as the balance to the elements. If you sacrifice them for opening the gates, you’ll be ruining what should not be ruined!”
He huffed. “You talk as if you saw it happen.”
“I did!” she yelled, having lost her patience after memories of Valemnia returned. The blood rushed to her head. “You don’t know how bad it is. If there’s anyone here who don’t understand anything, it’s you, you goddamned jerk! You’re the one justifying things through your own principles, hypocrite! You tell me I don’t understand a thing, but have you seen what happened through my eyes? No. So shut up. You cannot use the beast to open the gates. That’s a goddamned period right there. Call me goody-two-shoes, call me trying to act righteous, but this is what I know and this will be what I’m fighting for.”
“Well, isn’t that impressive. Such childish thoughts.” Aleser chuckled, unfazed by the tone of her voice and her glower. “That’s only proper. If not, it won’t be fun. Let’s just see whose principles win in the end.”
“Not like you ever won.” Beard snorted.
“When did you?” the other man replied. “Whoever leaves the city first will call himself the victor. Well, then.” He stood. “I will take my leave. At the moment, please make yourselves comfortable as you will be staying with us for a few days.”