CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 50 ♦ Rigid Heat
Valeriana walked up to the borders that divided Liberia and Lavanya, this time openly. Compared to her surreptitious trespassing of territories, this made her feel even charier. Water fell heavily through her throat as she approached the break in the barrier trees with Raegan, Arcana and Arisce. Although it was her suggestion to ‘work with’ Aleser, the thought of having to collaborate with that conniving bastard made her think twice about her ideas.
It had been more than two weeks after they found the chamber. Deli hadn’t dropped a message like she said she would, which worried Valeriana. It turned out Aleser had doubts about the matter himself and needed serious thinking over the matter that it took him two weeks to come to a decision.
And that decision came to all this—a stiff meeting between two enemy factions. It was quite ridiculous but better than having to work against one another.
Did she really want to divulge the secret of the bundt chamber to this guy? While Arcana and Raegan had their doubts, Arisce didn’t complain about the idea; she just went along with it so casually without even batting a lash. The woman had no comments. Maybe she didn’t care at all. Then again, the troupe leader went ahead and met with Arcana and Raegan without even bothering to wait for Valeriana.
Deli sat atop her horse, her brown hair in a ponytail and the trademark mask around her lower face. The vivid pop of her green eyes were brilliant even from a distance, a small wrinkle between her brows like jewelry piece she’s unable to remove. Beside her was Aleser, moon eyes and a shock of lightning blue tresses down his shoulders. If it not had been for the dastardly smile he had, he would have been a beauty. Indeed, he was. But with fangs; unbelievably sharp and ragged.
“I’ve been waiting. Quite rude of you to make me,” the Fire Faction’s lord stated with nonchalant merriment. His tone sang of sarcasm—as though this meeting was all a fad he was willing to prove wrong.
“Will it not be worth it, anyhow?” was Arisce’s clipped reply.
Aleser laughed. “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.” His gaze shifted to Valeriana’s and he gave her a knowing tilt of his head. “You changed since I last saw you somehow. You seem a little more . . . fervid—for the lack of a better word.”
“Fervid?” Valeriana echoed. She opened her mouth to add something else when someone else spoke.
“Enough of the chitchat. Can we get this over with?” Deli cut in impatiently. “I am not in favor of this arrangement.”
Valeriana debated the meaning of the Lady Commander’s words.
“But they made such an interesting proposal! How can I not accept something interesting in such a boring, old city? Anyhow, you have my word there shall be no blades drawn so long as your foot is on my lands,” Aleser declared.
They very much doubted that.
“And your foot remains useful,” he quickly added. “Then again, I can simply cut you off from your access to the chambers. I can monopolize it. I can keep the answers to myself.”
“Do go on,” Valeriana replied, undeterred by his edgy threat. “Some swords are better used by hands that knows its secrets. Do you know its secrets? You?”
“Why? Do you?” he shot back.
“I might.” She lifted her chin. “More than someone caged in a place whose skies he never saw past. I’ve seen more. I know more. More than you, definitely. With the kind of brain an ant can’t even enter?” She harrumphed, a victorious smile on her lips as a look of displeasure coated the faction lord’s face. “I doubt your commander can do any better.”
Deli frowned at Valeriana while Arcana came forward, putting a hand on her shoulder. This was a gesture—a reminder to calm down.
“You can try to kill me all you want, but as long as I serve my purpose, I doubt you will. Since you’re so utterly hopeless taking the beasts, I assure you, this will be your only chance.”
“You can never set your words in stone,” Aleser stated. “On the Sovereign Tournament, you never know who dominates.”
“That’s right,” Valeriana replied. “You never know.”
The journey to the secret bundt chambers was both long and short. Valeriana’s group was wary and shielded.
The journey to the secret bundt chambers was both long and short. Valeriana’s group was wary and shielded. They took boats down the cliffs so that, instead of jumping, they could stay clean and dry. They chose the lowtide in the morning as it partly revealed the opening of the cave mouth. Using their boats, they road beneath, ducking their heads so that they would fit through.
They kept to themselves, surrounded by their own people, armed with vigilance and their trusted blades in case Aleser thought of something funny. In the end, it was uneventful—too stiff and quiet to be comfortable, but better than the raging chaos she’d envisioned.
Things were as they left it. Unlike the Spirit Faction, the Fire Faction was unaware of the writings on the cave walls they moved past. Aleser was peeved by the fact he could not see what was written—which was good news. It was more proof that he would not be able to monopolize the place even if he wanted to.
Arcana enjoyed reading things out loud when passing to irk the Fire Faction. Their flaring tempers were fun to poke at—not too hard, though. If they pushed it too much, there would only be chaos.
“I’ve gone here straight for a few days,” Aleser said. “And yes, unfortunately, I admit I am lost. Aside from the names on these sections and the symbolic carvings, there is nothing else. What significance will this have to the supposed other way to leave?”
“Because to find a door, you need to find the connection,” Valeriana said as she stepped forward and looked around some more. “And this is a connection. The door and the key are the missing pieces, but we know that the borders in the Sea of Celine will be opening in a few months. That, presumably, is the door. I’ve been thinking hard about this for quite a while, actually, and I did a brief survey to confirm my thoughts.”
“All breachers wash up onshore, from the sea,” Arisce informed them in Valeriana’s stead. “So common sense entails the door is somewhere in the sea.”
“Then what relation will the chamber have to that?” Aleser prodded.
“You may be only looking for a way out, but I’m looking for answers at the same time.” The blonde paced around the room, hoping to find something that would catch her eye. Something small. Seemingly insignificant, maybe. That would be of use. “And Varialon has answers, which might also be the key. I won’t be here otherwise. Maybe the door will give us some clue about it.”
“And here I thought your confidence meant you had a clue—turns out you’ve not a single one,” was Aleser’s taunting comment.
Valeriana gnashed her teeth. “If there’s one thing I know, Lord Aleser, it’s that nothing comes easy. Not even answers. They find the worst of times to jump at your face and are cruel enough to hide right under your nose when they want to. So shut up. If you know something, then talk. But shut up when you just plan on insulting. Just shut up. ‘Cause you’re not helping at all!”
Aleser’s finger twitched, inching towards the blade on his waist. At this gesture, his own men prepared to do the same.
“And here I thought you gave us an oath—no blades shall be drawn.” Arisce’s cool voice reverberated. This halted the volcano from erupting, like ice water poured over the rising magma.
“If that fool over there mind keeping hers sheathed—” Aleser gritted his teeth.
“What blade?” Valeriana inquired. “I’ve drawn nothing but my opinions. They only cut through things guilty of the truth they target.”
“Alright, stop this,” Arcana said, stepping between the Fire Faction Lord and her friend to halt the brewing chaos. “Before it turns into a trouble we all don’t want. Valeriana, please stop talking as well.”
“I would if he would just shut his own godsdamned mouth first!” Valeriana exclaimed angrily.
“You forget whose territory this is.” Aleser growled, fingers jutting to the land they were standing on.
“And you forget your place. If you would just be reasonable for once and stop . . . being the person you are. We’re working towards the same goal here but you keep on trying to find fault in everything we do. If you want to keep this whole thing to yourself, then fine. Keep it. Inhale it! Shove it down your godsdamned lungs!”
Arisce’s brows quirked at Valeriana’s statement, the smallest of smiles curling on her lips. Everyone else in the room were looking at her as if she’d grown ten limbs.
“We’ve seen it anyway,” the ranker continued. “Hoping we can squeeze some more answers from this place with you being a whiny little brat you are is futile. I’d rather just walk out of this cave rather than hear you open that trap a second time!”
“Give me a reason I shouldn’t kick you out of this place.” Aleser growled.
“No. I don’t need any reason to give you. I’d rather be kicking out myself,” Valeriana countered. “I don’t know why I even bother. You probably don’t know the significance of the picture you’re standing on. You may know how it’s read, but as to what it symbolizes, you probably have no freaking clue. Stop playing the almighty here, bastard. We’re on the same boat. So for the gods’ sake, stop rocking and sit down!”
“I can’t draw any blade,” Aleser muttered. Heat rose around him, the air stirring with sudden heat. Valeriana’s cheeks flushed at the whip of temperature, her fingers clenching tight as braced herself for the Lord of Fire’s consequently rising temper. “But I can burn you to crisp.”
Valeriana remained undeterred but her knees trembled under the weight of Aleser’s gaze. She was scared to bits, but unwilling to show it. “I’ve heard the threat many times.”
“What is so special about you anyway that you’re so confident I need you for this?”
“Enough!” Deli bellowed. Her strong hands gripped Aleser’s arms, slightly pulling him back. “This will go nowhere. Lord Aleser, calm yourself.”
Aleser ripped Deli’s hands off his arm, turning to glare at the Lady Commander with the most heated eyes. Deli responded with a rigid stare but she did not stagger, even when Aleser’s large hands clamped on her shoulder and squeezed. The armor dented under his grip, causing the lady’s lips to part for her gritted teeth. Valeriana wanted to speak, seeing the harshness in the man’s gesture towards Adelline but before she could, Arisce came forward and pulled Valeriana by the arm.
“Even if you think you are on the right, if you keep pursuing arguments like this, you are no better. You know how he is, why do you keep fanning the flame?”
Valeriana breathed. “I don’ know. I guess it’s just in my nature.”
“Well your nature must be conquered if you wish for this arrangement to be successful. We need to investigate this chamber. You know that, Valeriana. You can continue asserting your knowledge of the world beyond but it has its limits.”
“You must learn to control yourself more.” Arcana stuck close to Valeriana with a soft whisper, her lavender eyes gazing up at the taller girl. “You make a lot of valid reasons but doing this will not help. You must learn to have more patience, Val.”
They were right. But Valeriana was not one to back down easily. Her stubbornness was a characteristic she prided herself with—even if she could be unreasonable at times. Having to back down for this dreaded arrangement was something she was willing to do, especially since it was her idea. If she was unable to see this through until the very end, it would be shameful.
She sighed. “I’m sorry. I’ll try.”
Valeriana glanced at Aleser and found him leaning to whisper in Deli’s ear. The way his lips formed the words resembled a hiss with throaty reverberations from a furious lion. Deli was stiff with every utterance and her face seemed to look graver.
After a while, Aleser retreated. He shot Valeriana a glare before chopping the air with a whip of his hand.
Deli blinked dryly before she looked up. “I’m afraid we will have to schedule this meeting another time. I will guide you out of this cave and lead you back to the borders. Lord Aleser will be heading out ahead of us.”
Aleser left with an arrogant flutter of his tailcoat. Adelline then approached Valeriana, her hands skimming to the blonde’s shoulder to grip the collarbone with a threatening clutch. Still, it looked nothing like the deadly grasp Aleser used on her.
The gesture made the Spirit Faction’s men step forward warily and the Fire Faction’s men to step forward in response. However, the inaction of Arcana and Raegan, save for the frowns, dissuaded the men.
“Listen to me, you blabbering idiot,” the Arlandian breacher whispered. “Aleser already has thoughts of destroying these chambers. Do not, at every cost, let him do it. He does not think like the way you think he does. I have my influence, but my influence has limits. I am frayed at the ends. If this keeps on, we will not have a piece of this place seeing the sunlight tomorrow. Do you understand? He is a narrow-minded bastard, so do not provoke him!”
Letting go, the Lady Commander pushed at Valeriana’s shoulder, causing her to stumble back a little at the force.
“Follow me out,” Deli firmly commanded, a stiff glare sweeping their group.
Valeriana sighed inwardly. Was this a step really worth taking? Or was it a bad decision to let Aleser in on the secret chambers? Valeriana had to reevaluate her goals. She had been hoping to tap some sense into that guy’s head but it seemed he remained the turtle he was and hid in the shell once more.
In spite of this day going down the drain, they at least had managed to peer some more into the windows of Aleser’s mind. A glance Arisce’s way made it obvious to Valeriana that the woman had thoughts of her own. Good ones, hopefully.