CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 2 ♦ First Moon
The battle was finally over and the tension eased down like a steep mountain curve. Valeriana kept firm watch, just in case they had any thought of getting back up and fighting once again. The adrenalin was bursting in her veins and her heart was pounding like an enraged blacksmith.
She wanted to slump on the floor and yell to the skies her delight that it was finally over, however, she didn’t want to show any weakness. In a place where she was pretty much alone, she couldn’t afford looking like a vulnerable lamb. She had learned lesson many times.
“What did you say before, you damned fools?!” the merchant from before came out stomping, kicking each of them while they were down. “You wanted to take my wines from me? Huh? Who did you say you were? What bandits? You’re all wimps!”
Valeriana raised a brow at the man. “Stop it.”
“But they tried to—”
“What’s done is done,” she told him.
“But these people are going to do this again if they’re not killed!” He growled.
“They’re as desperate as you are to make a living,” she said, sighing and gazing at the fallen thieves. She had met thieves in her life, and they were led by an eccentric man. It was best not to offend anyone totally in this place. “You guys should really find another way to make a living. You’re all able-bodied folks. I don’t get how you can set aside your dignity for this sort of stuff.”
She stepped forward to retrieve her blade buried in the target. He was flinching when she touched him but was shocked beyond belief by what she did next. She put pressure on the man’s wound as she pulled out the knife, wiping the blood off on his shirt. She then took the long cloth tied around his waist, hooking it around his torso to tie around the injury.
She then took the pulses of each bandit and sighed in relief when she found that they weren’t dead. The other guy, who remained on the ground docilely did not dare move.
“Your friend’s injury seem a bit too bad. When you get back, immediately dress his wound. I don’t know how to tie bandages but he shouldn’t bleed too much with that around him,” she told the guy.
She saw him nodding desperately.
She felt one of the guys she knocked out shift to consciousness, drawing on the blade he had on him. Valeriana noticed it and immediately kicked his side with boiling anger.
“What don’t you get about giving up, bastard?!” she exclaimed as she heard him groan. “I’m already being a saint here, so stop trying to kill me! For god’s sake, are you this ungrateful and undignified? Accept your loss with grace and learn from your mistakes instead! One of these days, people are not going to be as merciful as I am and draw on their anger to either lock you up or kill you with their own hands. Even if you’re so desperate to earn money, this is like putting your other foot in the grave.”
She breathed heavily and brushed back her hair.
“Whatever,” Valeriana muttered. “I don’t care anymore. But I swear to god if I see you all here again, I’m going to fry your asses and stuff it down your throat.”
They flinched at the threatening edge on her voice, followed by the flare of rage in her eyes.
“Uh, miss,” said the merchant, chuckling nervously. The previous demeanor he exuded towards her shifted a hundred and eighty. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Why are you even traveling alone when you’re carrying cargo?”
He scratched his head. “Mercenaries are too expensive for a small businessman like me,” he answered. “But if you come with me all the way, I’ll offer you room and board for absolutely free of charge. However, I’m going to the next town two towns from here instead of the nearest. It’s about an hour more of ride.”
“Which town is it?” she asked.
“Avenida,” he answered.
She sheathed her sword and nodded. “Alright. But if you make any bad move, you can bet you’ll be worse off than these people.”
He chuckled, scratching his head as they boarded the cart. The ox in front was seriously chill the entire time, his beady eyes lazily rolling back and forth as he grazed on the stray weeds growing on their path. He absolutely had no care in the world, responding and moving only when his reigns were pulled. Even then, despite his big steps, they were relaxed and casual and the pace was ridiculously slow for an animal with four legs.
“Stupid ox,” muttered the man. “If you were a bit faster, we won’t be in this situation.”
“What are you called?” she asked.
“Barver,” he replied. “Barver Moon. I trade wines for a living.”
“I can see that. How long have you been living in Varialon?”
“Many, many years,” Barver told her, a hint of regret in his voice. “I first came here as a hopeful youth. I took a risk. I still haven’t found a way out. I don’t know if I ever will.”
“Well, why haven’t you?”
“It’s not that easy.” He shook his head. “Of all the people who enter, very few ever leave. I was a fool to think I’d ever be one of those people. Why have you come, anyway? Are you looking for riches? Fortune? A change of fate? Power?”
Valeriana shook her head. “Answers,” she said. “And myself.”
“Varialon is a lost city.” He laughed in ridicule. “How can you find yourself in a place wherein you’re purposely lost?”
“Because to know where you’re going, sometimes you need to walk down a path you’ve never taken. And getting lost is not necessarily a bad thing,” she muttered.
“You still can say that, but after a while, you’ll be broken.”
“So if I end up that way, let it be. I was prepared to take the risk when I entered to find myself. I’m still filled with doubt. But if there’s something I’ve ever been taught, it’s to die knowing you’ve done what you could, not because you gave up hope.”
“You know, you might just have a chance.” He smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Valeriana, it’s nice to meet you. May the city invisible show its true colors to you.”
Valeriana took advantage of Barver’s company to learn about the city some more. Being the boundary between all worlds, it served as a neutral ground for many beings. Gods themselves occasionally joined the fray to mingle with the crowd, sometimes revealing themselves to be revered openly while the more reclusive ones sought only some peace and quiet.
The city itself was divided into thirteen towns. The outskirts were the forests Valeriana had entered after getting lost in the sea and it bordered the entire place like walls of trees. The thirteen towns that made up the city were further divided into sections depending on direction, each under the control of different factions belonging to the five main elements.
“Has anyone tried to sail the seas?” Valeriana asked.
“Yes, and they all return to the point where they began,” he said. “It’s like this entire world has only this city.”
“Why is it called city invisible?”
“You came here knowing nothing? What were you learning your entire life?”
“My life is very complicated.” She shrugged.
“Well . . . as for the term, it’s really both literal and figurative. You’ll find out soon enough. This city has different meanings for everyone.”
“It doesn’t seem so different,” she whispered.
“Things happen in this city.”
Valeriana looked around as they entered one town. It wasn’t different from all the other towns she’d seen back in Valemnia. This ordinariness did not put her at ease. She felt all the more restless as she slowly contemplated the consequences of her actions—leaving behind the other world for another she was not certain she would ever leave. However, if she stayed, that meant no future either.
The ride to the town Barver talked about came sooner than she expected. There were only small obstacles along the way, nothing too major like the thieves in the outskirts of the city.
Although she was grateful she would have a place to stay for the night, she was sure it was only temporary. She quickly inquired about ways to earn money so that she would be able to sustain herself just enough to continue living—something that would let her move, not tying her to one place. With the nature of her conquest, she would no doubt need to move around a lot.
Barver’s life, family, and home were all humble in nature. As a merchant, seeing as he had avoided taking too many risks long since, his profession yielded only enough resources to live by. His wife was kind and he had, like he mentioned, kids—all girls—that were a mixture of rambunctious and sweet.
Valeriana was offered fresh, new clothes and a relaxing, hot bath. Her clothes were washed and hung to dry outside so that she would be able to use them the next morning. The room she was given was not very large and it did not have a bed as well. She was offered only some soft cushion to lie on along with a pillow and a blanket to keep her comfortable. They were the barest necessities, not more than what she expected but nothing she felt displeased with.
There was dinner. The excessive chatter of the kids told her all she needed to know—about the city, about her current world. They, too, had questions. How was Valemnia? What was it like in the recent years? She told them about the ascending of the new king, Bertram, and the expanding of the academy’s branches to different continents. The world was still unified under one name. This seemed to reassure them, and she wanted them to have hope to leave this place if they ever had the chance. Valemnia was still a beautiful place despite the impending chaos that gnawed on its corners.
After that, she retreated to her room, locked the doors, and prepared to enter her dream state. Before falling into a deep sleep, however, she made a list of agendas she would do tomorrow to get her settled, sorting through the papers containing the information she wanted for reference.
“I can’t join a faction. If I do join a faction, my movements will be restricted within the cities controlled by the rival faction. What if there’s something valuable in that town?” she whispered. “Not to mention I don’t have any element.”
“Thou canst borrow my power of the winds,” Cifaro said. “It is better to disguise thyself and not reveal as much as possible.”
“Can I? Borrow your power, that is.” Valeriana’s eyes lit up a rare light. To wield an element was something she always wanted to do.
“Use me as thou seest fit.”
“But how?” The girl perked up in attention. She now stared intently at her ring, her stomach twisting with excitement.
Cifaro chuckled. “Through the bond of souls, transcending worlds, blessing by the god of freedom and winter—of wind. What is thine is mine, and all mine is thine. Wind that blows, heed the calls for thy name.”
Valeriana felt the air in her room twist the moment Cifaro finished talking.
“So long as I am by thy side, thou wilst be able to command the winds to do thy bidding. Just call to it.”
“That’s so cool. Oh god, I wanna seeee.” Her fingers twitched and she had the sudden urge to run outside. However, Barver’s wife had already locked the doors so even if she wanted to, she wouldn’t be able to. “Anyway, first, let me get back to what I’m doing.”
She had a detailed map spread on her lap. It depicted the long trail of forests that surrounded the large city that was more like a small country on its own. The thirteen towns were under constant power struggle and earth, at the moment, was currently the strongest with over five towns.
“What exactly is going on in here?” she wondered. “This place is so different from Valemnia. It’s more like warring states era.”
“It is a separate world, even if it’s just a city.”
She ran through the other information. Guilds were more neutral compared to factions, who were more aggressive in rivalries. Guilds had specialties, like the counterpart of the Great Hall from Valemnia who specialized in healing and alchemy, called the Hall. Without the Great part.
“Well, isn’t that creative?” Valeriana raised her brows and chuckled.
Currently, she had her sight set on the Knight’s Wing, which she was betting was named after the department of knights-in-training in Celeste Academy. This was currently her biggest opportunity and she felt it more suitable, especially since members were commissioned to take on jobs that would allow them to move around freely.
She decided she would go to the local guild office the very next morning to open up doors. After all, she still didn’t know how to begin. She was told she would have the chance to get the blessings she was after, however, although gods mingled with the folks here, it didn’t mean they were here all the time. Finding gods may have become possible now, being in this place, but that didn’t mean it would be any easier.
“Whatever. Come what may.” She threw all the papers aside and snuggled into her blanket as she took out the jade sphere, drawing it close to her chest only to hear a clink.
Valeriana stopped short and fingered the necklace. Corvan’s words to her made her face go crimson, her stomach turning into a cage for a thousand fluttering butterflies. She rolled on her back and covered her eyes, thinking back at that specific moment that she was quite sure she would never forget.
‘Wear that ring,’ she remembered him saying. ‘Only the woman who can keep the fire grounded is worthy of the Cosmos.’
She fisted the metal warm from her skin and drew in a deep breath before she let her fingers loose. Instead of stringing out the ring, they left with lingering hesitation and closed around the jade sphere.
She could not draw it out from the chain. She was not ready.