CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 32 ♦ A New Day
Valeriana sat up with a start and a terrible headache. She dreamt—had a nightmare, really—and found visions that were hastily slipping through her fingers every passing minute. With each ounce of effort she pushed into remembering, the more it fleetingly inched off her grasp.
She groaned at the pounding in her head.
She threw her legs off the bed she did not recognize and leaned into her palms. After a few moments of rubbing eyelids and stretching, she took in her current state. She was still dressed in last night’s attire. Her jacket, however, was discarded on the floor like skin shed by a snake. She reached for it, donned it, and pulled out the notes she had hidden in her pocket.
“Tiger?” she shifted, looking around the room searchingly.
The cat leapt onto the bed in response and approached her side.
“What happened last night? Did I fall asleep?” She felt his soft fur under her fingers. With him by her side, she felt a little more refreshed.
The morning sun was cool on the curtains and the air was chilly. She approached the window and swept aside the blinds. Valeriana was faced with a courtyard bordered with greens as well as an ivory-haired girl preoccupied with her morning exercise. It involved a lot of breathing and tricky stances—somewhat like yoga.
She whipped into a pose that left her foot pointing to the sky, her knees straight as she held it with her arm. Valeriana didn’t have that sort of flexibility and she doubted that even if she could do it, she would not last a second.
She let the curtains fall back and shifted her eyes, trying to determine which way to go. The room itself was not bad and there were three doors. Perhaps one would lead to the bathroom, the other an exit, and it seemed the last one—which was posted on the wall right next to the window—would lead to the courtyard Arcana was currently training in.
And her speculations were true.
She walked down the field of grass and stopped before the lady. She almost did not notice Tiger staying back, settling on the last step and pushing himself against the railing.
“I’ll have to apologize for my untoward behavior last night,” Arcana said as she put her foot down and turned to Valeriana. Her loose, flaring sleeves and pants flagged with each movement before coming to a stop. “And the wine. I didn’t expect things to be blown out of proportion. At that start of dinner, you were really quiet. I thought the wine would make you feel more at ease. Unfortunately . . . it seemed a little too effective . . .”
“I don’t know,” Valeriana replied. “It feels like you guys are playing with me.”
“No, we didn’t mean it that way,” Arcana said. “I swear on the name of Aether.” Her palm flattened over her chest, her lavender eyes filled with nothing but pride and sincerity.
“There are things that I’ve been very careful of,” Valeriana told her, incredulity bubbling in her throat and coating her words. “And I’m not sure how much of it I told you.”
“Only the superficial things. You insisted on talking about Kingdom Knights and all the installments to the chronology. I reckon you don’t remember,” Arcana said with a smile. “I do admit looking forward to how the third movie goes. You perfectly narrated it from beginning to end. You even had the dialogues replicated in the character’s voices.”
Valeriana could not help it. She facepalmed. “I’m guessing I did. I watched it too many times not to remember.”
“Yes, absolutely. Earth has such fascinating things.”
“It is indeed true when they said there are more stars in the sky than your eyes can see. I’ve only seen one star in my entire life. And even then it was only a ghost.” Arcana turned and gazed up at the sky which was turning ripe for the day. “I apologize for Raegan’s questioning. When he’s not calm, he can get a little . . . paranoid. He’s half wind.”
“Oh.” She nodded in understanding. “Oh. Some of the wind people can get a little . . . windy. If you know what I mean.” Valeriana chuckled teasingly.
Arcana laughed with her. “Yes, that is true.”
“I can’t blame him though. When desperate times call, we cling to the littlest things.”
“That blink of light in the darkness, no matter how small,” Arcana added. It was a moment of seriousness until the ivory-haired girl burst into a fit of unladylike laughter. “Aren’t we becoming sentimental and poetic?”
A smile broke on Valeriana’s face. “You remind me of my best friend, Xandra. I haven’t talked to her in a year, I think. A lot of things happened after we got separated. I wonder if we’re still friends. Just like how you want to get out of this place, I also want to get back.”
“I lack a few friends myself,” Arcana said, breaking into a stance. Her arms circled and her aura seemingly drew energy into herself; as though taking a huge breath. Valeriana was a bit startled at what happened and stood stupefied at where she was. Arcana, on the other hand, had her palms open, fingers straight and pointed, while the other fisted close to her face. “Why don’t we fight?”
Valeriana was pulled back from her reverie. “Oh, you’re that kind of friend.” She laughed, her heart jumping and her limbs quaking with excitement.
“How good are you with hand-to-hand combat?” the lady asked.
“I’m not sure. Let’s see how much I improved.” She took a deep breath and broke into a balanced stance herself, calming her nerves. Although adrenalin rush had worked in her favor several times before, she knew it would not do well if she let it take over. She shuddered at the thought of her killing intent muddling with her mind in the middle of a fight. It had felt like the caged beast have been let loose while her rational side was pushed down and forced back.
Let the flame burn, but never let it burn you. Let the beast loose but keep it in a leash. A cornered rat will bare its teeth.
A mix of primacy and control. A harmony of chaos and order.
That was what she was gunning for.
Loss was not dishonorable as long as it was accepted gracefully but that, at the moment, was the last thing on her mind.
“Interesting,” Arcana commented, eyeing her movement with, like she said, interest. “I hope you don’t mind me if go first.” She ran forward, pulling a cartwheel with her feet axing straight for Valeriana.
Quick and nimble.
Valeriana braced herself and caught Arcana’s foot before it got to her face. She grunted, attempting to twist it with all the force she could muster. Arcana followed direction of the movement with a dive into the ground, her body spinning once or twice before her palms grasped the grassy terrain. They ended up with a distorted rendition of a wheelbarrow which didn’t last long. The ivory-haired girl tugged her legs back forcefully and Valeriana, not wanting to fall over, let her go.
They stood back and regained their initial stances, sizing each other up for the second time around before resuming to attack simultaneously. Arcana went for an overhead kick and Valeriana chose to avoid the confrontation by sliding below.
“You use a lot of kicks,” Valeriana said as she used the momentum in her slide to stand up with almost no effort. “How long have you been learning?”
Arcana landed smoothly. “I’ve been learning since I was a child.”
Not a surprising answer.
Valeriana stepped in to shoot a couple of punches and chops Arcana’s way. The handiwork was simple in spirit. Speed, reaction, and precision posed all the complications. Valeriana was working on her mastery of the sequences that she was arduously lectured on by both Arisce, her father, and even Delaney—the demon in her dreams. His being trapped into her dreamstate had given her an opportunity to engage in combat with highly skilled and ranked demons.
But Delaney was just the tip of the iceberg. Emperor-tiered demons. How powerful could they be?
Arcana blocked her attacks and retaliated along the way. It was a continuous exchange—a spell. It was hypnotizing and required focus, snappy ideas and instincts. The lady of the faction insisted on throwing kicks along the way, targeting Valeriana’s sides and her legs in an attempt to throw her off balance.
However, if there was one thing she had been beaten into mastering, it was balancing and finding her body’s center of gravity no matter the situation—although she was still far from ‘master’ level. So, despite Arcana’s attempts into weakening her foundations and pushing her over, she managed to put up a fight.
“You are one, tough wall,” Arcana stated under her breath as she threw one more kick at her chest.
Valeriana evaded the attack and backhanded her ankle. The motion faded into a spin—a swift shift on the stance with her elbow rushing straight for the ivory-haired lady’s face.
“Your balance is impeccable.” She caught Valeriana’s elbow with her palm and threw a punch at her ribs.
Valeriana managed to curve out of her opponent’s fist in the nick of time. Arcana’s knuckles, however, grazed her skin hard enough to leave a bruise. Not to mention the faint ripping she just heard and a flash of memories that intrudingly jumped at her. It was a momentary distraction; easy to ignore. Her opponent, nevertheless, didn’t seem to think the same.
She grabbed Arcana’s arm and pulled her forward, her knees shooting up to her opponent’s midsection. Her attack landed a blow below Arcana’s ribs.
“I’m clumsy so I needed to work on that part,” she replied.
Lavender eyes flashed with pain. “I don’t see that at the moment,” Arcana muttered.
They both stood back.
“I hope you don’t.”
Valeriana felt a stinging pain on her side and found her skin peeking through a hole on both her jacket and inner blouse. It wasn’t big but it was big enough to let her see a reddening skin. The edges were frayed and torn through—something that wouldn’t be fixed with a simple stitch.
“Dude, if that had gone through, you’d have killed me,” she told Arcana.
“It didn’t, though,” the other girl replied with a smile. “And I doubt you would die from that.”
“I liked this jacket,” she said, stifling the stubborn pout.
“Sorry.” Arcana loosened from her stance with a sheepish grin. “Let me get you something new to wear.” Her hand motioned for a lady-in-waiting Valeriana did not notice—a gesture understandable enough it did not need any words. The attendant bowed deeply before silently scampering off. “We can’t have you going around with a ripped jacket now, do we? I would love to spar with you again sometime.”
“Yes, I do admit that was fun,” Valeriana agreed.
“You took me aback with that energy,” she said. “I’ve never quite seen anything like it.”
“I can say the same. You just sucked in some energy yourself like you were feeding your aura,” she told her, cocking her hips as she raised a brow. “How’d you do it?”
“You’re a Direct Controller,” Arcana concluded, a look of wonder in her eyes but no surprise. It was like she expected the answer except that she wasn’t prepared it would be true. “Unless you’re spirit.”
“That—ah.” Lying would not work now, would it? Valeriana rubbed her nape. “Are you?”
“My element is spirit,” the other girl replied, her tone seemingly a reminder.
The honey-golden blonde felt dumb for asking that question.
Thankfully, Lady Arcana was not at all judgmental—or at least she did not look like it. “I have a shallow perception of energies. It took me years to master the way they circulate. They help me find a balance in myself when I fight. They also guide me. I’ve never fought with a Direct Controller who utilizes such a dark intent—or any Direct Controller. I was a bit taken aback.”
“How do they guide you?” She took a few steps closer, wiping off the thin layer of sweat that coated her nose.
“Have you noticed how each object emits a unique presence? My perception is narrow. I trained it for very long to make it as it is now but you must be very sensitive to them.”
“Yes, I can see auras,” she told Arcana, sighing. “And, if it wasn’t already obvious, I can see memories on contact.”
The other girl no longer pursued the issue and instead went back to the previous topic. “Anything that has an aura is alive even if it doesn’t move. If you listen hard enough, you will hear they’re talking. I may not be able to control any physical element but I have the ability to hear out every side of the story. Some fire wielders might not even know fire as well as I do—and I don’t mean to brag. Every element will come to rely on the spirit for it unifies everything. It guides.” She paused. “But you, as a Direct Controller, govern a much more physical manifestation of spirit. You have a more direct influence to a different element—people.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Influence. With the aura. Have you never been told? Auras of Indirect Controllers are confined into themselves and the element they wield. On the other hand, Direct Controllers can make connection to others in ways nobody imagined. They have originally been considered as spirit wielders but the stark difference was slowly made clear.”
“My teacher was a bit lacking,” she told him. “Of all the time I’ve been with him, all he’s ever taught me is the different points of the aura.”
“Perhaps he meant for you to focus on yourself,” Arcana inferred, hands folding in front of her as she faced Valeriana with a patient smile. “You are . . . not quite there, yet. There’s something wrong with you. You are not balanced. Not enough. That is perhaps the reason why you cannot quite see what a wonderful world is right in front of you. It is in color—singing, dancing. And you can see it. Others cannot. I have always, always felt blind.”
“I never thought of it that way. Sometimes, it’s too much. It’s way too much for me to handle.”
“You were born with it.”
“I was, maybe,” Valeriana cut in. “But I didn’t know until about a year ago. A lot has happened since then. I can’t even . . . I can’t even begin. If you’d have told me that I’d be like this before everything happened, I’d have punched you. I at least knew how to throw a proper punch. But holding a sword? Seeing auras? Riding on winged celestial beasts? Traveling to another dimension? Fighting demons?” She laughed. It was short and sarcastic.
“Earth,” Arcana said.
“Yes. I lived there more than half my life. Most my life. No magic. All science.” She flattened the stray hair that had come loose from the ponytail. “I want to go back but I don’t. It’s hard looking for answers. It’s exhausting.”
The ivory-haired girl came forward. She pulled Valeriana into a deep, tight embrace. It was sudden and surprising yet did not carry any discomfort. Long, thin arms gently wound around her back, cheeks pressing close to hers. Her aura was all over and Valeriana, lacking control, could not help but dive in. Memories—stories from the other girl’s childhood flashed.
Arcana pulled back. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . . I forgot. You probably didn’t want to see that.”
“No, I’m sorry for looking.” Valeriana took steps back, maintaining a safe distance between herself and Arcana. Seeing other people’s memories were one of the things she hated for the feeling of intrusion. A guilty part of her liked seeing their pasts—it felt raw and real.
“You probably couldn’t help it. It’s like pulling you through an open window,” Arcana stated. “Come. You look for Aether, don’t you? I have something that might help.”
“Okay.” She prepared to move.
“First things first,” Arcana beckoned for the lady-in-waiting who now had a pile of fresh, new clothes folded in her arms. “Change into new clothes and take a bath.”
“Do I smell?” She watched the middle-aged woman lower her head as she gingerly put the clothes in Valeriana’s arms.
“Of wine? Yes. Not something you want people to be sniffing while you go around for the day.”
Valeriana sniffed her sleeves. “How potent is this thing?”
“Very potent,” the ivory-haired lady replied. “I’ll meet you at breakfast in an hour and a half. It’s still awfully early. Do you want some help with bathing? Scrub your back for you?” Arcana offered with a small smile.
Valeriana shook her head, flustered at the thought. “No. I’d like the room to myself, thanks.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Arcana laughed. “I was asking if you wanted attendants by your side.”
“Yeah. That doesn’t make it any better.”
She retreated to the door that led back to the room she woke up in. Tiger got to his feet as Valeriana approached, following her into the room. Her guardian cat, always watching. He didn’t seem to be much on his guard. Maybe she could really trust these people as well.