CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 4 ♦ Application
Outskirts of Zorienna
Keelan and Brindon were in panic after they heard what happened in the caves—mostly just Keelan. Cifaro, who had long since perished, had suddenly appeared in front of the members of the Twelve who were present. They were mildly taken aback, but did not dawdle and immediately got to work under the Gilerad’s guidance. The representative of the Great Hall, Araminna, and her companion stepped in, hearing that the first-ranker needed immediate medical assistance.
They climbed the top of the falls and stood by a wide river below which they suspected the two would be in. Keelan, being Denovegasian, tapped into the element of the earth to source out Corvan and Valeriana, however, before he started ‘digging’, he stopped short and stepped back.
“We should give them time,” the eleventh-ranker said, his voice soft amidst the running water.
“What?” Tamara nearly exclaimed, but it was not any louder than the whine that left Tiger’s throat as he scratched his way out of Tamara’s arms.
“What,” Brindon repeated.
“You heard Cifaro. Corvan is injured!” the third-ranker resumed. “Shut it, you stupid cat. Don’t you dare!”
“The injury must be checked,” Araminna insisted. “Blood loss is still critical and may result to severe consequences—even if the wound is not that deep.”
“He won’t die if we wait a few moments.” Keelan’s brows knitted as he thoughtfully rubbed his chin. “I think they need it the most right now. To sort out a few things. We’ll give them fifteen minutes at most. Valeriana should be able to give Corvan some first aid while they wait.”
“How can you be so sure?” Charles inquired.
“Because . . .” The Denovegasian young lord sighed heavily. “I saw it, alright?”
“Through your seismic thing?” Tamara’s brows creased.
Tiger got full of it and bit down on Tamara’s arm, causing her to drop the cat which ran off to a direction.
“Tiger!” she exclaimed. “This stupid cat!”
“What of the two?” Rowe asked worriedly as he spared a glance at the white cat that had taken off for another direction. “Get that cat,” he told one of his men quietly who nodded and did as he was told.
“Valeriana is fine and Corvan seems okay. He’s pacing his breathing really well and his wounds didn’t seem too severe. If we interrupt this, it’ll be more unsettling and unhealthy. So much they might die from it.” Keelan shook his head. “I’ll be back after fifteen minutes. Don’t worry, they’re not in danger. Corvan’s fine. It’s just flesh wound.”
The rest of the Twelve, the healers, and the Gilerad watched the eleventh-ranker, dumbfounded and with itchy heads. They had no idea what Keelan was on about, but the thoughtfulness and deliberation had been heavy enough to be convincing. Cifaro lingered on the top and, instead, relayed what happened to Charles and Rowe clearly, saying it was a demonic parasite which specialized in binding with the aura—it was the same infection plaguing the guardians of each continent.
“Sir,” said one of Rowe’s men. “We, um, we could not find the cat, sir.”
“What do you mean you cannot?” Rowe’s brows furrowed. “Valeriana will be distressed.”
Charles glanced at Rowe. “Something wrong?”
“It’s the cat.” Rowe sighed.
The fourth-ranker shook his head. “It’ll return.” He turned to Cifaro. “What were you saying?”
“Valeriana has summoned me by accident. The energy she lent has been outstandingly effective in bridging, so that I was able to appear,” Cifaro said. “However, it seems she herself was unawa—”
The Gilerad turned and stopped short, looking at the direction where they suspected Corvan and Valeriana would be. Energy wafted from underground that the air trembled from the thickness of it. Rowe, having possessed sensitivity himself, could not help but twist and stare at the ground in panic.
“Call for Keelan and Brindon immediately! Start digging through this. Something is strange!” the Aetherian lord commanded.
Keelan rushed to the site with Brindon. They punched straight down, creating a tunnel as thick as a tall oak tree. It led to waters—waters which rumbled and flowed, glowing with a strange light before disappearing completely.
“What is it?” Tamara asked before she peered down into the tunnel that Keelan had created. “What the hell, I’m going.”
Before Keelan could stop her, she jumped down. Even so, the eleventh-ranker did not seem to have any intention of doing so and jumped in himself. Everyone else followed after, with only the two representatives from the Great Hall lingering from above. Eventually, Araminna jumped in first, which left her companion helpless staying aboveground.
Splashes echoed. Tamara swam for the shore, pushing aside the familiar flowers which floated on the surface. She headed to where Corvan laid unconscious, his blood soaking through the poorly-tied makeshift bandages around his abdomen. His complexion was pale and in his hands, he gripped a familiar object.
“Corvan!” Tamara waded free from the water. “Val! Val, where are you?” she exclaimed, but there was no answer. “Where’s Cifaro?” she asked, turning to her companions. “He should know where she is!”
The other members of the Twelve looked around, only to be disappointed.
“Cifaro!” Charles shouted, only to have his voice thrown back at him. “He was just here.”
Araminna ran to Corvan’s side and injected some of her power on his wound. Within a few moments, some of the color returned to him and he seemed to breathe easier.
“How is he?” Keelan asked as he knelt beside the healer.
“He’s alright, but he needs more attention. Since I cannot completely close this wound with my power alone, I will have to stitch it,” she said. “The wound is very wide and whatever cut him was too blunt, it will definitely leave a scar behind.”
“That’s better than him dying.” Tamara looked around and approached Rowe, who seemed to be sizing out every inch of the cave.
“Something’s in this cave,” the lord asked. “But whatever it is, it’s not as strong.”
“I’ll make this brief since I have no time,” boomed a voice, which made all of them turn quiet. “Your friend Valeriana has set out on a journey of her own.”
“What?” Tamara burst. “Where? Who? What? Why?”
“She was hesitant to leave. As once a guardian, I would have to implore you all to ready yourselves for the coming years.”
“Chicova,” the Aetherian lord said.
“That is right, milord.”
“Is there no hope?”
“The imbalance will only get worse. If it were not for the restoring of the stability of this spiritual facet, it’ll only be more severe.”
“What do we do?” the second-ranker continued.
“You are not the only ones who have suffered,” said the Chicova. “Demons have met a huge loss as well. Focus on honing your own strengths, prepare for the inevitable.”
The members of the Twelve wore wrinkled faces of worry and doubt.
Barver told her his doors would be open for her should she decide to come back. She herself was uncertain if her agenda for today would be a success and even if she did find Sloan Bane, that didn’t mean a roof over her head. She decided not to burn bridges and told him she would return if ever.
With that, she set off. The town was lined with serpentine roads in bricks, cutting smoothly through the wide streets and tall houses like a blazing ribbon under the hot sun. Inwardly, she was glad Barver got ambushed by bandits and that she chose to save him. If not, she would be worse off.
This town, named Avenida, was controlled by the Terra, the Earth Faction. It was blatantly obvious since their flag, which was depicted by a tall mountain pierced by a sword, was hoisted the highest. She casually passed by the grand building that they owned which had been surrounded by tall, daunting gates. It was around twenty stories high and was buzzing with activity. People of different colors came in and went like bees in a swarm, hunting for honey.
She found their curious stares and one particular man with a sharp gaze caught her eye. Valeriana did not bother lingering. She slowly increased her pace, tugging on the arms of her bag and green jacket as she made her way down the street.
“Excuse me.” Valeriana brushed back a stray hair from falling into her eyes. “Where is the Knight’s Wing?”
She was told to walk a couple more minutes down the same direction before turning right. Indeed, after five minutes or so, she managed to reach a fairly large building, smaller than the one she passed by a while ago, but not very humble in size either. As she approached the open gates, the two soldiers standing guard crossed their spears in front of her, barring her path.
She stopped, feeling nervous.
“State your identity and business.”
“Valeriana Kerrigan,” she politely answered. “I’m here to apply for . . . uh, membership and inquire about a person.”
The soldier on her right huffed while his companion shot a curious glance his way. “Apply for membership? You don’t look the least bit qualified.”
Valeriana narrowed her eyes at the man as she stifled the urge to punch him until his face fell off. “Excuse you? What makes you think you’re qualified to assess my abilities?”
The man was a head taller and had a humongous stature big enough to engulf her in one go. He stepped forward with a haughty smirk, his eyes carrying lasciviousness and mock as it ran over her from head to toe. The intent behind his gaze made her boil with anger.
“You’re smaller than a sparrow, what makes you think you’re capable of carrying out missions?”
Her hand inched for her sword. Should a fight break out, she would be prepared. However, assessing the abilities of her opponent-to-be made her swallow. She didn’t wish to be arrogant, but being looked down on was something she never tolerated.
“I’ll let a proper personnel be the judge for that. Now get out of my way. I have no intentions of wasting my time on trash like you.”
His eyes darkened. “Did you just call me trash?”
“Are you deaf?” she shot back.
“I’ll have you know that I’m only guarding the front gate because of punishment—”
“That says a lot,” she said, cutting him off. “After all, with that horrible attitude, it’s no wonder you’ll be demoted to guarding the gates. But, honestly, it was a bad decision. Seeing how you’re treating people coming in, you should be taking out the trash instead.”
“You’re pushing your limits, sparrow.”
“Who set it in the first place?” she replied. “The only limitations I recognize are the ones I put on myself. You, however, don’t have any right to determine that.”
The man standing on the other side, serving as a companion to the rude one in front of Valeriana, snickered at the fifth-ranker’s witty reply. On the other hand, the rude man was fuming. His face was red and his fists were tightened to the point where his knuckles had turned white, being derided so much by a girl he intended on bullying just a few moments before.
Valeriana glared back. She might not be as good as the Twelve in terms of fighting, but she did have her mouth. Not even Corvan could win against her when it came to a duel with words.
“Now, are you going to stand still and look at me all day, or do you intend to clear my path?” she asked venomously.
“Weeds don’t uproot themselves, so why don’t you try me?”
“So you’re admitting you’re a weed.”
“A potentially stubborn one under your shoes.”
“Which I crush either way,” she replied.
The man drew his weapon, the shing of the metal unearthed from the sheath sending Valeriana’s heart pumping faster. Sweat broke on her forehead as she dropped into a defensive stance, shifting her feet to a stable position as she prepared to draw her own. She trained her focus on the man before her and ignored the attention they were garnering from onlookers.
If he attacked, she would attack him too.
“Hey, you can’t do this here,” said the other guard guarding the gates, grabbing the rude man by the arm. “Rake, you can’t stir trouble everywhere you go. The general will be furious.”
“Leave me be, you fool.”
“Stop it.” The other guard gritted. “I’m supposed to be responsible for you. You can’t continue doing this. Miss,” he said, turning to Valeriana. “Please proceed inside, I apologize for his rude behavior.”
“What are you doing?” The rude guard growled.
“What are you doing? At this rate, you’ll have nothing ahead of you! This is precisely the reason why you were demoted!”
Valeriana relaxed and walked through the entrance, shooting one last glare at the rude dude before she proceeded to the main desk. The Knight’s Wing wasn’t a grand lot, but they had a great landscape and a courtyard where people littered. After the commotion that happened outside, the eyes that found Valeriana stuck to her like a glue until she stepped out of sight.
She knocked on the desk where a man with a calm veneer sat attending to people. He directed them to the other windows that processed requests with polite smiles, occasionally fixing the glasses that sat on the bridge of his nose. Compared to the very bad greeting she just received, he was much more welcoming.
“Hi,” she began.
“How may I help you?”
“I was thinking of applying for membership.”
“Oh, you’re thinking of joining.” He smiled. “That’s certainly new. We don’t receive many female applicants.”
“Which probably explains why your guard in front was so rude—and sexist.” She rolled her eyes. “You really shouldn’t put him there.”
“I know. I can hear your argument all the way from here. I quite like your comebacks. They’re witty.” A small, low laugh accompanied his words. “He stirred up trouble again. One of these days, the general will just kick him out. He has a terrible attitude and we’re not the only ones thinking that. We’re so sorry if he made you feel any discomfort.”
“No, it’s fine. I also wish to make some inquiries. It’s really important.”
“Alright, wait a moment, let me just get a few papers for you.” He stood up from his seat and retrieved several forms, piling them on top of one another. “As apology, I’ll personally guide you through our application process. But then, you’ll still have to qualify through our screening and other people will handle that for you. Is that alright?”
“Yes, I’d just like to know what’s expected of me here? Give me a briefing. I just came.”
“Oh. You’re . . . you’re a breacher, I see.” He nodded, his brown eyes glinting with curiosity. “But I recommend you don’t go telling that to everyone. Some people like taking advantage of breachers. It’s especially different here from the other side and there are more people like Rake outside. Also, you should avoid the towns under the Water Faction, they’re non-believers and they execute breachers. They think this city is all that there is.”
“Breachers . . . you call people who come from the other side . . .”
“Barver and his family never referred to me that way . . .” she trailed off.
“Because it’s typically considered impolite. It’s better to call them newcomers.”
“I see. How long have you been here?” she asked.
“I was born here.” He ruefully smiled. “I want to leave and see this world I’ve been hearing about. It sounds totally mythical—like a legend to me. Sometimes, I no longer want to believe it, but we get people coming in and it’s just . . . it serves a reminder that something out there is real.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“Given the chance, I will.” He pushed some papers in front of her and began his next words on a different note. “This guild is one of the largest and most established in the entire city and it has considerable influence in every town, although we are forced to comply with the terms of the faction that controls those towns. Missions generally run from escorting, retrieving, hunting, and the like which will offer corresponding rewards that will eventually lead to the promotion of rank.”
“Okay. What’s your name again?”
“Trey,” he replied.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Valeriana Kerrigan.”
“Same goes.” He took a pen and started jotting down notes. “So what’s your background and what made you think of joining the guild?”
“I’m a student in Celeste Academy,” she said, which made him look up in interest. “I, um, don’t know anything else and I surely don’t have any flair for healing either.”
Trey cleared his throat, seemingly trying to remain professional. He was unable to hide his curiosity and excitement with the mild tremble of his fingers after hearing her words. “I see. Do you have any proof?”
“I got my uniform,” she said. “But I didn’t bring it with me.”
“I’ll just have to take your word for it. Who are your parents?”
“Oh, um, I only have a guardian.”
“Your guardian’s name?”
“Her full one,” he followed.
She sighed. Seraphina came from a very, very prominent background and the name she carried had weight—very heavy weight which Valeriana did not intend to throw around. Besides, even if she disclosed this information, people would doubt. Although it could be advantageous, it was still a double-edged sword.
“Is that really needed?”
“It’s listed as required information, sorry. If you can’t complete this form duly, then we can’t process your application. It’s just to ensure you don’t come from anywhere funny.”
She could not tell anyone too much. It was not as though they had any means to confirm it unless they had somebody investigate her outright, which, for her current situation, was impossible. Save for the people who knew her personally or were close enough to know about her, they would have no way to know who she truly was.
For her safety, it was better to keep herself under the wraps.
“I feel ashamed of telling. She hates her last name,” she lied. “It tends to give people a bad impression of her.”
“It’s alright,” Trey told her.
She sent her apologies to the lady knight, closing her eyes for a moment to send a prayer for herself and for the woman.
“Is that a threat—oh!” Trey snorted at the realization. “I’m sorry, how do you spell—pfft.” He snorted again, trying to maintain a straight face to no avail. “I’m sorry.” He massaged his cheeks, trying to smooth the dimples as his chest and throat rumbled with weird sounds. He huffed, his breaths coming in staccato as he held up a hand for a pause. “I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry . . . HAHAHA!”
Valeriana cracked a smile and stifled her own laughter. “It’s alright, take your time.”
Trey spent a few moments composing himself. “How do you spell it again?” he asked with a wide smile.
“W-I-L-L-K-I-L-L-E-U. Seraphina Willkilleu.”
“How does she live with this name?”
“She almost never did,” she replied.
Trey busted out laughing again. “Okay, um . . .” He cleared his throat. “Let’s go to the other questions. What’s your element?”
She smirked. “Wind,” she replied. Her Direct Controller abilities would be the last she’d reveal.
Speaking of wind, she hadn’t gotten the chance to try it out just yet. She was looking forward to using the borrowed affinity. The restlessness boiled in her nerves so much that she had to tap her feet and finger just to keep herself from bursting.
The interrogation lasted and was distracting. Valeriana almost forgot about her other agenda. It wasn’t until she started walking away to submit the papers to the application window did she realize her mistake. She shuffled back to the main desk.
“Is there anyone here named Sloan Bane?” she asked.
“Kindly repeat that?” He leaned forward and turned his ear to her direction.
“Sloan Bane,” she restated. “I need to talk to her about something and my biggest bet is that she’s also a member of this guild.”
“For a complete list of members, I’m afraid I do not have access to that. People who join the guild have very restricted information which is not made available to just anyone, even me.”
“But have you heard of this name?”
“Never in my life.”
“I see, thank you.” Valeriana’s disappointment left lines on her face, however, she did not linger.
She left the main desk and proceeded to the next step of the application. It was a little bit daunting, especially since she was required to demonstrate her abilities with her weapon of choice and element. The guild had strict criteria and meeting it would prove to be troublesome. However, since they were currently packed with applicants, she had to be scheduled some other day.
Valeriana left the grounds of the guild and passed by the entrance where the rude guy, named Rake, stood. She shot him a sharp glare before swaggering off and turning to the streets. She could scowl at people she didn’t like, but before stirring up trouble, she had to find a way to earn money, at least. After all, her test would not be until five days later and five days was a long time. She would’ve already accomplished a lot by then.
The fifth-ranker was crestfallen as she strolled the streets, eyeing the stall of sizzling steaks hungrily. She needed money to buy food, yet she did not have a single penny on her person. Swallowing, she proceeded to walk forward, intending to ask how much a piece of fruit was when, out of the blue, she was grabbed by the shoulder and dragged into a narrow alley.
“Keep quiet,” a voice—a woman’s voice—whispered into her ear as she roughly handled her neck and blocked her airways.
“Who are you?” she inquired warily, choking.
“I should be the one asking you that. Why are you looking for Sloan?”
She stilled. “I was told to—”
The hold around her tightened, causing her to wheeze and struggle for air. She tried to dislodge the hold around her, but it was firm and left no room for movements. Valeriana gritted her teeth, calling out to the ring around her finger—she needed Cifaro’s help.
“Ci . . . Cifaro,” she whispered.
The wind stirred. The smallest space that was nearly nonexistent between her and her captor was squeezed through. In one, huge burst, the lady was pried off of her and Valeriana stumbled forward as she drew her sword. She could still feel the wind breezing around her, snaking and stirring like a hungry beast.
She flexed her fingers. Cifaro heated up once more before the temperature slowly dropped.
“I’m looking for Sloan Bane because I need to see her,” she said.
The lady struck forward, green fire flaring to life on her fingertips.
Cifaro heated up around her finger, prepared to defend.
“Whatever issue you have with people looking for her, I can say that I’m not the same as them. My father is Garvyn Vernados Elgar and they were comrades. He told me to come and find her.”
Although the stranger was hidden in the shadows offered by her cloak, the small shoulders and petite physique gave away her gender. “What’s your proof?” she asked.
“Proof?” She racked her brain for the right words to say before her father’s words echoed in her brain. “I don’t . . .” she trailed off.
The fire grew brighter, making Valeriana swallow.
“Stop pressuring me! I don’t have anything except—” she paused, her eyes caught the ray of light that shined down from the sky when she stepped back. “The sun . . .”
The stranger under the hood paused as well.
“The sun may rise west one morning but a bond true will never set.”
There were a few moments of silence as eyes the color of café au lait glinted under the shadows. “Come with me.”