CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 36 ♦ Ears, Hands, Feet
Genevieve gazed at the bright lamps that lined the wooden shelves, cradling the books in her arms. She lumbered to the table she’d come to like so much. Lumber was such an ugly word but not ill-fitting. She planned on going through a few books with Araminna Merrina, a senior she’d come to befriend the past few weeks after a certain incident. Still, she had a feeling that they wouldn’t really study. Her senior would probably run her mouth the entire time talking about whatever topic she was more interested in.
For the past few weeks, Genevieve remained forlorn at the thought of what she had left behind—including her brother and her friends. Although her accomplishments in the academy were not small, there were things that made her realize it might not be the best path to trek. Now, despite her being seemingly in the right place, she was still the odd one out.
This must’ve been how Valeriana felt when she first came. Maybe it was still what she felt—wherever she was. Genevieve was trained in the ways of the knight and was fairly skilled in combat. In spite of this being a plus in the eyes of many, it was seen as a polar opposite of her new career. Still, she was unable to abandon the routine she’d gotten used to. Her sabre was much like a part of her.
She was, like they said, stuck in between. One foot on each camp.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of things lately,” Ara’s voice was hushed as they took their seats. “And I thought you’d want to hear them too.”
“What is it?”
“Remember the imbalance in Aetheria?” she began.
“Where you were directly involved?” Genevieve stated. Ara was a skilled senior of the Great Hall, hence, she’d been sent into various missions in spite of her youth. ‘Skilled,’ even so, was an understatement. She was a genius.
“Yes, I just have to mention your friends are crazy. Noble or not. They’re crazy,” Ara replied. “No wonder you’re like that. Especially that girl. That girl. I can’t believe you and her have been studying in the academy all along. Unbelievable.”
“You’ve reiterated that enough. Valeriana is weird, definitely, but she is where she should be.”
The look on Araminna’s face said she was begging to differ, however, she chose not to pursue the topic. “No news of her,” she stated instead. It ended with a question mark.
“If I had known before you, it would be a wonder,” Genevieve said as she cracked open a book. Her brows furrowed with worry. She stopped short and looked up at her senior. “I wonder how she’s doing.”
“I know I should be quiet,” Ara said. “But I—if people knew of a person who can purify demons, do you know how things will go?”
“No, Ara, you cannot talk about her to anyone. Haven’t you been told enough? Valeriana is in enough of a danger as it is and she is pressured into doing a lot of things. If she has to mind people counting on her to purge demons somehow, it won’t do well for her psyche. And I know her quite well. She comes off as mouthy and . . . sassy but the way she cares about other people is . . .” She shook her head. “Believe it or not, she’s quite vulnerable.”
“But she’s nowhere to be found! Of all times! Disappeared. Gone. Poof! Is this the vulnerability you’re talking about?”
“No. Val is stronger than that. Still, you cannot talk about it. Not about her. Not now.”
“How about when she comes back?” Ara inquired.
“Araminna—” Genevieve objected.
“Even if I did, news have already been circulating. And it wasn’t me. People are hearing about a girl with the ability to purify demons. I’m sure they’re thinking it’s impossible but at times like this, they are only hoping as much as I am. Surely you’ve seen it, Genevieve! What that girl can do! An entire tainted forest just . . . cured with a shower—of flowers!” she spoke.
“Stop it, Ara. If anyone hears you—”
“Sorry, I just can’t help myself,” she said. “Genevieve, we have hope,” Araminna said with a large, uncertain smile. “If she fights against these demons, the war is over. I’m seriously convinced she’s being kept somewhere to be safe. Or training.”
“You were there. You told me yourself. She disappeared. Not even the Twelve knows where she is!”
“Maybe they made it seem that way,” she countered.
“Demons have been taking advantage of the imbalance. They aren’t giving us any chance to breathe. Genevieve, we need her. She might just be the key that will stop this thousands of years of conflict. Demons are revolting, if I—she—can get rid of them permanently, I’ll be happy!” Her voice reached new octave which prompted the former ranker to pinch her arm. “Ow!”
She sighed. “Ara—”
“Okay, fine. I’m going to change the topic. A Celestial Knight just died along with an entire squad of Celestes,” Araminna said, her voice lowering to a hush once more. “A high-ranked demon recently made its appearance and killed them right off.”
“That powerful?” Genevieve inquired in disbelief. “Who died?”
“Well, they did put up a fight. And whatever mission that knight was sent out to do was still accomplished. He just didn’t recover from the wounds. It looked like this rotting flesh—unidentifiable so far. Poisoned. Skin was all veiny and pale and dark. Pupils were so dilated. It’s like a twisted version of being tainted—only that it doesn’t turn you into a demon.”
“You saw it?”
Ara was quiet. “Well, I might have glanced.”
“No surprise. You got to see it because you’re a direct disciple of Lady Saoirse,” Genevieve stated. “Looking at how you like to dip yourself in gossip, even so, it’s no wonder she tries to keep you in the dark.”
“Alright, maybe I am talkative, but only to the people I trust!”
“We’ve known each other for . . . what? Two? Three weeks?”
“Time doesn’t define a relationship,” the other girl replied. “But I understand why it’s important to keep quiet about her at the moment. Things are getting a bit . . . complicated though. I hope wherever she is, she gets ready fast.”
“You’re not the only one hoping for that, I’m sure,” Genevieve muttered as her thoughts drifted back to her friends. The former ranker spent the following moments wallowing in her memories before a sudden thought lit up like a bulb. She jumped on her seat. “What time is it?”
“Half past noon—”
“I’ve got to go.” Genevieve stood and dashed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Araminna asked, twisting in her seat to watch her.
“To meet my brother,” she replied.
At night, when the gates opened, De Cirque was a paradise of dreams—a fantasy in the flesh. During the day, when its doors are closed, it was pure hell.
It didn’t help that day had a blistering sun and that training could not be indoors. Celeste Academy was heaven compared to this. She was at least offered a bit of luxury in the form of dorms and reputation.
De Cirque had no ranks. There were no competitions. Everything was self-centered. Everyone had their specialties, their own business to mind.
At the moment, she was minding her discomfort, her pains, her soaked shirt and pants. Sweat was in every crack and pit in her body. Disgusting.
Valeriana was relentlessly climbing up and down the hill whilst carrying pails of water hanging on a stick on her back. She’d been at this for the past thirty minutes—but it felt longer. Long, tortuous. Her legs were sore as were her shoulders and hands. Screaming for rest from the strain.
Overcoming limits seemed to be Arisce’s motto. Valeriana didn’t object to it, though. Achieving goals meant progress and progress meant being closer to more goals. It was a painstaking cycle. Right now, improvement mattered the most. She didn’t want to return to Valemnia being the same person she was when she left. She wanted to return a changed woman—version two maybe even three.
“Oro, íllava,” Arisce stated with a nod.
Oro roughly translated to ‘acceptable.’ Illava meant stop in Valemuier. All her lessons were concurrent. Now, the lady spoke in the language to force her to speak and understand.
It was the only signal Valeriana was waiting for. She put the pails on the ground and simply fell over from fatigue.
“Elímu orova kon padiua,” the woman barked.
Five minutes of rest, Valeriana translated in her mind.
“Thank you,” she muttered. “I mean . . . gravienre . . . something . . .”
“You don’t glide over the vowels, foolish child,” Arisce chided. “Each has a sound that must be pronounced with conviction. Grrra-vi-en-re. Put the weight of the word on the third syllable. And you don’t say re like you’re referring to the sun. Your r must have a trill. You don’t say it with your tongue pushing back!”
“What does the sun have to do with this?”
“What do you call its light?”
“I don’t know . . . rays? Shiznits,” she said under her breath.
Valeriana savored those elímu orova. After that, she was off to combat training. She was stretched, punched, dragged, thrown—basically anything synonymous with beating. Her combat partners, mostly Aliyah, generally avoided her face due to the performances. No mercy was shown on the rest of her body.
Tiger? He was wincing. Not very happy, but he didn’t try to interfere. He knew the pains she didn’t and she had to go through. The cat was smart. So smart, in fact, that she has avoided the attention of many of De Cirque’s members ever since he came. Valeriana heard of the whispers about a white cat with blue eyes but she didn’t say anything, leaving her cat to his own devices.
She missed Femeron, though. That baby dragon would no doubt be worried seeing her mommy get beaten. How was that little beast now? Surely with the herd?
The same scenario was recurrent in the next few days. Her days would be the same while her nights would be filled with chores—cooking and tending to the beasts. Nothing really hard. When it became predictable, Arisce would ‘mix things up’ to add some spice. She enjoyed chores more than training, but she hated it more when it became chore and training in one go—like two-in-one packs. Those moments were always so hard.
By the last weekday, she was given free rein on what she would learn. Right then, they were back at sea, floating on their giant turtle’s back.
“Hey,” Valeriana said as she approached Maridie. “Sorry to bother.”
The girl was doing her trademark flips and bends like those gymnasts in the Olympics. Cartwheels and anything that challenged flexibility were never good points of Valeriana.
“Hey, Banshee,” Maridie replied as she flipped one leg back while in a handstand. “How can I help you?” she asked, gently curling back to properly stand on both legs.
“Can you teach me?” Valeriana inquired as she waved a hand with uncertainty. “Basic flips and stuff? I wanna do those cool jumps with spins and . . . yeah.”
“Sure,” Maridie replied. “They say you learn a lot when you teach other people. Let’s give it a go! What are you capable of now?”
“Cartwheels,” Valeriana answered with a shrug. “Basic stuff. I can’t do anything more complicated.”
“That’s a good place to start,” Maridie told her with an accommodating smile. “I like to think of the complicated stuff as faster and wilder version of the basics. To start, we’ll have you do some high jumps and rolls and . . . handsprings.”
And so the road to cool backflips started. While Maridie served as her spotter for the handspring, helping her balance on her palms with her legs straight in the air, she attempted to initiate a conversation. Of course, the blood rushing to her head put a pressure on her throat that made her voice come out scratchy.
“Ugh. How long can you be like this?”
“I set a record of thirty minutes,” Maridie replied. “You’re doing good.”
“Am I?” She fell over with a huff.
“Thirteen seconds. Wobbly seconds,” the other girl said.
Valeriana stared up at the sky, dizzy and nauseous. “Holy . . . thirty minutes like this? What the hell?”
“It does take some getting used to.” She held out a hand for Valeriana with a disconcerted smile. Her face warned Valeriana of what was to come. “So I assume you’re curious like everyone else.”
“Yeah?” Valeriana took the offer and had herself pulled up. “About what?” She rocked back and forth unsteadily on her feet as she dusted her hands.
“You know, ever since you told that story, it’s been stuck in my mind,” Maridie told her. “I’ve . . . for so long, Lundie and I—I thought we were the only ones. Lady Arisce has repeatedly told me but I had my doubts.”
“You’re undines,” Valeriana said with a smile. “Are you?”
“Half,” she replied.
“Half?” the honey-golden blonde echoed.
“We don’t have tails,” she began. “And we’re unable to do the transformation between the two forms, but we can hold our breaths under water longer than most and we have our pearls. It’s the most defining thing and the clearest reminder of what we are and what we are not. So you see, we’re not quite guardian beasts but we’re not exactly not guardian beasts.”
“Having everyone hold back from questioning was a relief,” Maridie said, looking out at the calm ocean before them. “I don’t think we were ready to talk about it then.”
“It’s alright, you guys don’t ask a lot from me either. Except for small questions. It’s good that everyone has a sense of privacy. It’s so good when people try not to intrude,” she muttered.
“Even if they look like they want to know,” the half-undine supported, her gaze as distant as the horizon and reminiscent of the ocean blue—streaks of brown somewhere. The perfect blend of sea and land—a meeting point. The shore. “I’m sure the others already have an idea of what we were. But we all have our own secrets and they didn’t try asking. De Cirque is both raw and refined, I’ve found it that way all the time.”
“Indeed.” Valeriana agreed. “Diana and the other undines are going to love you. You and Lundie.”
“Are you sure?” Maridie asked. “Have you ever heard of halfs? Have you met folks like us?”
“No,” she regretfully replied.
“I thought so. We’re odd ones. We probably won’t be as treasured as normal undines,” she muttered. “If we’re so rare—”
“Then you’re miracles. Miracles may be feared, but they are a blessing. You are blessings. Diana will not let that blind her judgment. I may not have known her for so long but she’s not the type to send something away just because of something so petty as being only half of what you think you are. Believe me, take the leap.”
“I wish we can go to Valemnia,” Maridie said. “Lundie and I.”
“And you will. I’ll make sure we open that gate no matter what happens. Arisce, too.”