CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 19 ♦ Out of the Cage
Valeriana could barely fathom what happened as Beard was shoved into the room, the door shut close at his face and locked tight to prevent more attempts of escaping. They seemed to have not noticed that one other member was missing. The bearded man had taken the spotlight. Thanks to his efforts and ingenious, quick thinking, the attention was taken off Valeriana. The distractions, the confusions, and everything else thrown into the mix—they were all a success.
This, definitely, was something Charles would be proud of.
“Bring him to the healing wing! Are you alright?”
Valeriana was pulled by the arm strongly and helped to her feet. The poor guard she knocked out in the room was still on the floor.
She nodded and kept her head down warily, pretending to be exhausted.
“Let’s get this fixed. Change of shifts,” said another guard. “We’re going to get scolded by the Lady Commander if this continues.”
“What happened to you?” asked another man. “You got terribly short—”
Before he could finish what he was saying, there was a commotion. All the guards stuck themselves against the walls and erected their spines to the point of bending back. Valeriana could not keep up with what was happening, not to mention the helmet was blocking her line of vision. When she tipped the edge of the helmet like a hat to see what was happening, she saw the brunette commander heading their way.
“Ah, crap,” she muttered and scampered to get out of the way, pushing her back against the door she just exited—just like the others did. However, she was a little late.
Valeriana let the helmet slip down and cover her face along with beads of sweat, covering her line of vision. She endeavored to keep her eyes open despite the salty sting and misting heat that made them water. Her fingers twitched, wanting to reach up and rub her lids, however, she squished that urge.
To her relief, although Deli shot a questioning glance at the guard on the floor, she made no move to stop. The Lady Commander glared at them and stared pointedly at the unconscious man.
“Whatever this is, I expect the matter is fixed,” she uttered.
She then rushed past them like nothing happened. Her strides were long and her pace was fast as though she was running after a time limit.
Valeriana supposed it was because of the issue with De Cirque.
Still, now that she escaped, she felt like a bird out of the cage—free but with no direction. She didn’t know what to do. The restlessness and cluelessness were a perfect pair, eating away at her guts and sending her knees knocking together.
After Deli had left the immediate vicinity, everyone else were able to breathe a sigh of relief. Valeriana, on the other hand, was breathless with anxiety.
“Looks like the lad is shaken,” said one guard. “Hurry and change shifts.”
“Which one?” asked another.
“I meant get another person to stand in and have this one go and rest. That guy, too, bring him to the healing wing. We can’t have the commander come back and see him like this again.” He pointed at the guard on the floor.
“Cursed god,” swore the second guard. “I thought I would die from that stare. It’s a good thing she didn’t stop to scold us, otherwise, I wouldn’t know what to tell her. Let’s hurry with this before she comes back.”
“That’s what I was saying.”
Valeriana rubbed the sweat off her face and soundlessly turned to the direction that the Lady Commander had gone to. Despite her uneasiness, she still had an agenda to finish and remaining here with these guards would do her no good. While they seemed confused—she would bet they were a bit suspicious as well—they didn’t say anything and, instead, continued to get to work. By the time they realize the truth, she would have already disappeared. Chasing her down would be difficult, especially with the disguise. She just had to continue to play low.
She wasn’t familiar with this place and the building in discussion was ridiculously large compared to what it looked like from outside. Taking into account her captive status, she’d only seen a portion of it during the few days she stayed.
She stopped, looking around to see nothing but a stretch of halls from all directions. Before she could turn tail and run, a door swung open behind her and a team of guards stepped out. She jumped, swiftly whipping around to face them while they, in turn, shot a questioning glance at Valeriana. Seeing as she was dressed as a guard, they paid no further heed. Except for one.
“Are you on the next shift?” asked a tall woman with military cut hair while nodding at the rest of the group walking away.
She nodded nervously.
“You do know you’re running late, do you?” She fixed the helmet on her head.
Valeriana nodded once more. “It won’t happen again.”
“I hope,” she replied. “If you keep this up, the commander will kick you out of the service in no time at all. If there’s something she hates, it’s the people who are not very diligent with their job.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Valeriana croaked.
“Alright, then. Elaverde,” she told her.
The fifth-ranker stared at her obliviously.
The woman gave her a sharp eye.
“I . . .”
Valeriana watched as the woman’s strong arms crossed expectantly. For the nth time that day, she broke into a cold sweat, her chest tightening while her heart struggled against her ribs.
“You can’t expect to walk away from this,” she said to Valeriana.
“Remove your helmet.”
Her hand itched for a sword. Her eyes flickered to the wall. There were two, nestled behind a large shield. She didn’t have any on herself.
“You aren’t deaf. You were answering just fine a while ago.”
Valeriana’s foot shifted and the woman’s crossed arms fell to her sides. Her heart thundered and her breathing hitched, muscles tensing as she dove for the armory on the wall. Contrary to expectations, she didn’t take a sword. Instead, she dislodged the shield and turned to face the woman as fast as she could.
Her opponent had already taken out a bloodcurdling weapon with blades jagged like the waves on the sea, matted with a fine layer of diamond-like carbon. The dark blade was menacing as it swung fiercely and unhesitatingly at her direction. Valeriana knew that once it wounded her flesh, it would be so hard to close she would probably bleed to death. The good thing was that the shield was large and covered her frame. She did not hesitate to drive forward like an angry bull, ramming the woman against the wall.
Valeriana then pulled back her feet, letting her knees fly between her opponent’s parted legs. There was a squeak of pain from the woman—pain so excruciating that all the struggle had left her body.
They wore full armor but the most important part was unprotected. Did they think only guys needed a shield down there? Eggs being easy to crack didn’t mean a flower could not be crushed.
She felt inwardly relieved and delighted. Perhaps this finally ended the game.
However, there was no time to rejoice. She let the woman slump on the floor before hitting her head with the shield. The area the girl whacked turned red in seconds, eyes quickly rolling to the back of her victim’s head.
“Good god, how many people did I knock out today?” she muttered under her breath. “This is a record,” she stated, dropping the shield and turning to run to the direction the other guards went to.
She didn’t bother moving the woman out of somewhere not obvious. After all, Valeriana had absolutely no clue where to put her.
She initially planned on tailing the group of people who exited the room the same time as the woman she just confronted, however, she doubted she would be able to track them down. The confrontation did take a while and the halls were a cryptic maze that remained a mystery to Valeriana. In the end, she took random turns.
She continued roaming, her eyes taking on the high ceilings and the crimson walls. As she continued, she noticed that the patterns turned more elaborate. Grand halls in Valemnia tended to be more ornately decorated compared to paths not normally taken by guests. This served as a major clue.
She followed the patterns. However, contrary to her expectations, she instead came upon large, cherry wood doors framed by exquisite carvings of golden dragons. Mesmerized, she stopped and took in the sight with awe.
Valeriana shot a brief look over her shoulder to see if anyone was around. Strangely, there were no guards posted on the entrance and the immediate vicinity was void of presence. She twisted forward once more and took curious steps towards the doors, stopping only when she was a step away. She reached for the golden dragon tail knobs and twisted them open.
There was a click. Although it was heavy, a gap appeared readily before Valeriana. She kept it small, peering through to check what was inside.
None she could see so far. It was dark, the only source of light being where she stood.
Valeriana widened the gap and took her first step in.
As if on cue, white flames flared to life. Their roaring vibrancy caused the fifth-ranker to gasp in surprise, backpedaling as she prepared to run.
The room brightened. Everything came into sight.
It was majesty at its finest. The floors were no ordinary floors. They reflected a moving image of a cosmic sea of stars; a blend of green, blue, pink, and white. The ceilings were the same. The entire room resembled infinite space filled with nothing but an image of a galactic world.
The white flames floated around, seeming to remain a reminder that it was but a mere illusion. Aside from that, they seemed to power the mechanism. A large ball stood mounted on a stand in the middle of it all.
Valeriana approached it.
Hesitantly, her hand alighted. Halos of light surrounded her fingers where they landed. Strong, pulsating energy throbbed beneath her skin. It traveled up her arm and spread through her body, leaving behind a comfortable warmth.
The image surrounding her flashed. The cosmic sea was replaced by the busy streets of Boston—a clear, high, and crisp skyline. Her heart jumped at the suddenness and it did not have time to prepare for what it was given next.
Jareth had changed over the six months she was gone. Six months—she knew six months but she’d honestly lost track of time. Seeing as Valemnia’s time ran twice faster than Earth, she was sure her estimates were wrong.
On the other hand, going back to her brother—his belly was pushing against his shirt and his cheeks sagged like a fluffy pair of marshmallows.
The light of the television flashed like disco on his face under the dark room. In his hands, he held the controller. Loud battle noises blared from the speaker and there didn’t seem to be any sign of it ending soon until knocks rang on the door.
“Jareth, honey, can you please come down for proper food, darling?” Her mother’s warm voice resounded, muffled by the door between them.
Valeriana’s left hand flew to her mouth as her eyes tore up like an IV drip. Her right hand remained sitting on the orb, fearing it would cut the image.
“I’m already full!” Jareth exclaimed.
“That’s not right,” Lily insisted. “You’ve stayed in that room for several days now! Get some sun on your skin!”
“Don’t like it!”
“Jareth! If I don’t see you by the table in two minutes, I will cut that thing in two!” There were loud steps as her mother shuffled away.
Jareth sighed, pausing his gameplay. He stood with great difficulty, shaking his legs down to his ankle with a grunt. “Shit.”
Valeriana gasped. “How can you be cursing, you goddamned pig?!” she exclaimed.
Jareth stopped, looking around in confusion.
Valeriana’s jaws dropped.
“Jareth,” she called out.
He picked his ears.
“Jareth,” she tried again.
Valeriana opened her mouth to continue but the doors banged open so loud it felt as though the sky was falling. She withdrew her hands from the orb and swiftly whipped around to meet moon silver eyes.
She’d been too taken and the energy around her pulsated—energy she never realized was there.