CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 43 ♦ A Step Forward
Valeriana made her way to the borders like usual. She left whatever plan Raegan had in mind for him to continue minding. While she wasn’t too keen on that regard, she let him be, especially since he insisted. Arcana was more than enthusiastic to hear what he had to say and, within moments, they had it all going.
Meanwhile, Valeriana proceeded to go about her normal routine. She briefly sparred with Arcana, grabbed a hefty breakfast, bathed a stubborn cat, and set out. Since she did not like being accompanied, she would often leave Blackie, her horse, in the House of Spirit and make her way to the borders on foot. It mostly involved thirty minutes of trip without a horse, but it was an exercise she welcomed. At times she would run, when she felt tired, she would walk.
“What do you think we should do, Tiger?” she whispered to her cat.
As usual, there was no response except for a small ‘meow.’ Tiger trotted beside her and kept himself at the same pace.
“You know you’re so normal that you’re very suspicious?” she told him.
“No, I don’t understand. You think I know what you’re saying? Meow this, meow that. You keep on repeating yourself like a broken record! At least speak a different language!”
“Meow.” Her cat tilted his head to the side, as though asking a question.
“What language you say? I don’t know. Roarrrr. I didn’t name you Tiger for nothing.”
“Why are you looking at me like that? You know they call me Roaring Tiger for a reason. I don’t get why it’s so strange for you.”
The look on her cat’s face got even worse.
“What? Too many puns in one day?” She chuckled.
Having no one else to annoy, Valeriana enjoyed torturing her cat—as sadistic as that sounded—with her bottomless pit of puns and corny jokes. Tiger’s reactions were so funny she was actually enjoying herself. At some point, Tiger refused to respond or put any expression on his face other than a sullen frown. It seemed he knew that giving reactions would only fan the flame.
When they got to the borders, there was nothing barring their path aside from the barrier trees which remained tight and twisted against one another, unwilling to let anyone through.
Her radar picked up two presences on her either side. She had been trying to improve on her range but it seemed twenty five meters was her current limit. However, if she familiarized herself well enough with an aura, she would be able to recognize it the moment she caught a whiff of it with no struggle.
She knew it was Arcana. The other one, she was not very sure.
“Honestly,” she muttered.
Tiger gazed at her and meowed.
She looked at her cat and clicked her tongue. “I know I’m pretty. You don’t have to tell me.”
A questioning frown appeared on his little face.
“Where did I get the idea you were telling me I’m beautiful, you say?”
He frowned and grumpily stomped his way to the crack between the trees, seeming to no longer want to hear what she wanted to say. He probably knew it was another pun.
“You don’t wanna hear it? You serious?” she said. “I’m gonna say it anyway. Because you keep on catcalling me.”
Tiger hissed irately as Valeriana burst into a fit of laughter.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” She chuckled. “Don’t hate me cuz I’m beautiful.” She broke into another fit and breathlessly trod her way to the ‘entrance.’ “You’re starting to regret not talking?” she prodded. “Or maybe you regret coming with me.”
Valeriana was told to go about it normally since there was no point in trying to hide if Aleser was indeed aware of her escapades in his backyard. So, like she always did, she crawled through the gap between the trees and inched her way through. The Karva wine was the only thing in her backpack along with small snacks. She’d hidden all her other things in a secret stash—a stash she reckoned would’ve already been found by now.
They continued to the direction of the cliff. The honey-golden blonde pretended to look around and act as though she was not aware of being tailed. Arcana might have an idea that the person she was spying on knew about her. She wasn’t too sure about the other one, though.
Within minutes, they finally caught sight of the cliff and at twenty-five meters, Valeriana realized there were more than a dozen men in the trees, waiting for her to fall in a trap. She didn’t bother counting. It would only make her more nervous than she already was.
Valeriana sighed deeply, wondering if she should tell them that it wouldn’t work—them trying to catch her off guard. In the end, even so, she decided to play along.
Perhaps she could even do something very De Cirque-like.
“That was a bit tiring,” she commented with a deep breath. Though to be honest, she wasn’t really weary of the trip but what was ahead. “You think I can walk this distance? Because I don’t feel like walking anymore.”
Tiger licked his paws.
“Ew, you disgusting cat,” she scolded. “You’re licking your foot after you walked for how many miles? What if your fur caught some worm eggs and you get parasites in your stomach, you disgusting feline!”
An exasperated look crossed Tiger’s face but he did not stop licking his paws.
“Come here. Be hygienic!” She picked him up and pulled her close to her chest. “Stop it, Tiger.”
He gave her a defiant glare and continued.
“Grumpy little cat. You used to be so sweet. Two-faced feline. Lying kitty.” She looked into his blue eyes. “I will not let you anywhere near Femeron, you little beast. You’ll be a very bad influence on my baby dragon!”
She felt an impatient stir in the trees. Auras were flaring restlessly.
She bit back a laugh. Oh, how fun this was. It must be torturous seeing their victim within a distance but not exactly heading straight for the trap they set.
Really, these people shouldn’t be hiding at all. If these truly were Aleser’s men, they would know what to expect. There was a big chance, however, that they weren’t aware of her sensitivity to presences. The likelihood of these people being from the Water Faction was around ninety-nine percent.
Besides, she also had her James Bond—Arcana—right behind her. It was a comfort knowing she had someone watching her back.
She took a step forward.
A stiffening tension flared in their auras. She could almost feel and see them holding their breaths.
Valeriana nearly lost it. She was on the verge of laughing so hard.
She felt evil. Oh, so evil.
“Oh, if you weren’t so cute.” She rolled her eyes, a small smile playing on her lips. “Don’t lick your paws. But that’d be like telling you not to breathe, right? Go on. We have a lot of things to do today. What say you about bungee jumping?”
Valeriana took a deep breath and put Tiger down. She brushed off imaginary dust on her jacket, letting her fingers trail down her waist so that she could snappily pull out her sword the moment she was attacked. She sauntered towards the tree in the cliff, whistling the opening theme of Kingdom Knights. Being tone deaf, she got all the notes wrong so the music became senseless noise. It was more like huffing high-pitched screeches through rounded lips.
Tiger’s ears flattened to his head but Valeriana paid him no heed and continued. At some point, someone fell out of the tree, clutching his head and covering his ears. He was masked, dressed in a camouflage suit. Tiger, on the other hand, safely retreated to the tree by the cliff and idled to watch the incoming confrontation.
The fifth-ranker gasped. It wasn’t of shock, but of utter horror. “How can you be so callous?!” she asked in displeasure, her voice rising in ire. “I was just whistling and now you fall off a tree? I wasn’t even singing!”
The fallen man staggered to his feet and broke into a stance, warily and silently observing Valeriana through a mesh mask.
“You were supposed to make a cool entrance,” she lectured unhappily. “You ruin everything.”
“You blame him after that show?” someone else grumbled, smoothly descending from a tree. One knee kissed the dirt along with a hand while the other shifted close to his chest, cradling a thick, hairy wrist. It was the typical form one would see from someone jumping from tall heights. Looking at the branch he leapt from, it was indeed quite a way down.
“You think that was performance worthy?” she inquired with a tilt of her head.
He rose to his feet and met her eyes with an astounding set of blues. Behind him, men descended from the trees like rain.
“It’s raining men, hallelujah,” the blonde muttered, looking at the people that appeared. She knew they were there but seeing them was a whole ‘nother thing. “Not literally. That’d be weird.” She shrugged. “Trolol, the mental image weirds me out. Not to weird you out with my out-of-topic statements. I’m just . . . totally like this.”
“No wonder they call you Banshee,” he stated.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You shriek like your life depends on it.”
“I don’t shriek like my life depends on it,” she shot back at him. Before he could speak, she cut in, “It is my life.”
Arcana was still where she was, probably watching the situation unfold. Valeriana sensed no movement from either one of her spies—whoever the other one was. Whether ally or foe, it did not matter. She coolly—hopefully something close to it—pulled out her sword as they drew their own weapons as well. The glinting blades varied in shapes and sizes. Not only was their number intimidating. They gave a feeling that she would be having a tough time.
Would she be able to take all of them on? She was barely a year into training.
Then again, few knew of her true power. She could rely on Cifaro if things went awry. In the past three months, however, she had avoided using him in public, limiting it to De Cirque. It was to hone her control and craft over the element and prevent any suspicions about it not being hers. While the use of it was severely limited as it drew on the ring’s innate energy reserve, it was enough to help boost her self-defense.
Valeriana took a deep breath and tapped into her bond with Cifaro, preparing him for the fight ahead. She would need him if she intended on surviving. The blonde was still unsure if Arcana was aware of it or not, but she remembered mentioning her cover as a wielder of the winds and getting a dubious look in return. They had asked how she was going to prove it if the situation arose, but she told them she had her ways.
The ranker tightened her hold around the sword. The crystal band around her finger heated up a bit.
“Do you want me to scream at you to attack?” she prompted.
“We haven’t even given our introductions. Didn’t you want a dramatic entrance?”
“Dude! That’s a huge waste of time. One of your men already fell off a tree from hearing me whistle. What other kind of dramatic entrance do you need?”
Muscles twitched under the eye of the supposed leader before he swung an arm forward, signaling the start of the assault. Valeriana was showered with blades from all sides, feet hammering the dirt and casting a cloud of dirt at their ankles.
Drawing on all her senses, including her sensitivity to auras, she pinpointed every angle of attack and threw all of them off with a single sweep.
There was a certain pattern to allied attacks. They wouldn’t be able to strike all at once with the limitations of space. That would mean chaos. There had to be a windowed and layered formation that would bombard the individual, overpowering and pushing down on the poor guy with the sheer force of numbers. The ultimate key to cracking down such formations were snappy reaction times, speed of execution, and an eye for holes. Most of all, there needed to be endurance and skill.
This attack alone would force Valeriana to her limits.
She push-kicked a guy at the chest, parried an incoming blade, round-housed someone on her right, ducked when a knife came sweeping past, etcetera. It was a neverending flow of movement and exchange. Eventually, she broke through their formation by targeting a lapse in movement—perhaps due to hesitation—and slipped out of the center.
Unfortunately, Valeriana underestimated the strength of their team.
Within moments, they crowded her path, forcing her back to the same position. Perhaps the only thing she could do now was to put her back against a wall—or maybe the cliff—so that she would at least focus on one side instead of trying to being bombarded from every direction.
She gritted her teeth and eyed the men surrounding her. Judging by their movements, they were still testing the ferocity of the caged lion. However, they should’ve never tempted its patience.
Briefly drawing on Cifaro’s power, she cast a wave of air to sweep across the enemy lines. The satisfaction of seeing an entire block get blown off by a single attack injected a sense of pleasure into Valeriana’s veins. At the same time, she felt guilt and pity pop randomly in the whirlwind of fury and excitement. Some with unfortunate fate skidded past the cliff and fell into the depths below while the others crashed into the trees and shrubberies.
Valeriana fished out a dagger from her leg and stabbed a man’s shoulder, leaving it buried in his flesh while she returned her full attention to her weapon and gripped the hilt with both hands to counter another attack. The screams echoed in her ears. She felt the sting of sliced flesh from sweat, the adrenalin numbing the pain but the salty dribs and wide movements aggravating the wounds further.
She growled when a jagged blade tore through her leg. “You’re dead, you sunuvabeetch.” She elbowed the guy responsible for the large wound on the nose, breaking it, before shifting to meet another strike. That would leave another scar, an addition to her current collection. She was a beauty horror story to many girls out there.
The price of mercy in this trade was, more often than not, one’s own life. In spite of the fact that she didn’t like hurting anybody, she slashed at their skins and punctured their flesh. She did as little damage as possible, trying to target the spots that posed the least danger. They weren’t doing the same though—so why should she? Trying to go light on the enemy while keeping your own life was near impossible most of the time. She held back when she could but went all out when she could not.
Valeriana reminded herself they deserved it. They knew the dangers of this sort of job. Whatever consequence they milled from the seeds was theirs to bear alone.
Sweat trickled down her back as weariness pulled on her muscles. The exertion was bearing down on the earth-born’s body, making it feel like lead. She panted and barely deflected an incoming blow before narrowly missing the slice of another blade.
That’s when they moved.
Arcana smoothly entered the battlefield from the trees, fashionable in her white robes and mask. The flare of her sleeves was almost enthralling to look at, accompanied by the slender blade of her bolo, a one-sided short sword with a curved blade and an angled hilt. It spun in her fingers and gave off bright sparks as it crossed with other weapons.
The other spy was cloaked in a saggy mantle which topped form-fitting sleeves. Only the willowy wrist of warm beige skin could be seen, long fingers of both hands skillfully wielding daggers. She attacked the camouflaged ambushers and took them down one or two—even three—at a time.
Valeriana was a little surprised at the other one. Since the stranger was an ally, she felt a little better. But it was too early to say so, so she kept track of the other and kept the rest of her attention in the game.
“I don’t understand why you don’t just sing to kill all these people!” Arcana cut in as she struck one of their camouflaged enemies with her blade. “Just that whistle alone could potentially open the gates of Varialon!”
“Why?” Valeriana barked, offended. “Because it wouldn’t kill them. It’ll be overkilling them. And I don’t like that.”
The rest of the rabid pack was then kept busy by her two James Bonds while she turned her attention to their blue-eyed leader.
“I was told you were a Direct Controller,” he said, mouth moving beneath the swaths of cloth around the lower half of his face. “It seems I was wrong.”
Oh, he would roar if he heard the truth. Things couldn’t get any more ridiculous than this.
“Where did you hear that news?” she inquired, flicking off the sweat on her brow with a swipe of her hand. “Probably because I’m not really the best in using my element. Stuff happens in life, you know? You realize you have things you never did and pop boom deal with it!”
“Yes, stuff happens,” he realized. “And unfortunately, you did.”
“I’m an unfortunately? It should be the other way around!” Valeriana said.
“You talk too much,” the masked man commented.
“Like I haven’t heard that before.”
“If we intend on finishing this, you should just shut your mouth.” He brought out a long sword with a wavy blade and smoothly glided into a stance. Blue tassels dangled from the pommel and the fuller, the ridge on the sword’s blade, was stuffed with a polished tail of turquoise.
“Dude, cool sword.” Valeriana admired the slender and polished blade.
“I call it . . . The Ocean.”
Valeriana snorted. She covered her mouth at the unexpected noise and clamped down on her laughter to no avail. The man looked offended and seemed ready to tell her off.
“I’m sorry . . .” she wheezed, deep breaths between laughter. “It’s just so obvious.”
“If you have any other suggestions, it’ll be considered,” he challenged.
“Blue Dragon,” Valeriana said.
That made him pause.
“Blue Dragon is the name of the longest river in the entirety of Valemnia,” she told him. “It snakes across the continent of Denovegasia and cuts straight into the territory of the Ivalis, the earth’s guardians. It’s a pristine blue with water so clear, you can see the bottom of the river as though it’s framed by moving glass. Your sword reminds me of it very much. Kind of like the sea serpents, too.”
He stared at her in wonder before eventually realizing he came for a fight, not a story. His brows knitted to a frown, The Ocean sliding in front of him so that the tip was pointed at Valeriana.
The ranker did not bother prolonging the conversation.
She took a step forward and prepared to battle the big boss.