CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 55 ♦ The Wrong Corner
The questions wrought in Valeriana’s heart like an overgrown vine. It clung as tightly as her hands on her sword. The disbelief was overpowering. Her feet, no matter how rooted to the ground, felt like they were trudging through a shaky bridge. Yet, in a way, she had a clearer vision, a way to look back at the past without it seeming so hazy. She eyed the blue-haired mongrel before her.
In spite of the distracting mischievous glint in his eyes, she pulled in her focus and concentrated her energy to her center.
She stepped into a stance. Zion, in return, tipped the pincers at her direction. While he did not move threateningly, an ominous bidding graced his limbs. He faced her with dangerous beckon, an impending snare reminiscent of his previous fight.
“The thought of facing you again excites me,” he said. “And I can honestly tell you that.”
Valeriana brandished her sword, stepping forward cautiously. The girl was unaware how much the non-ranker had improved, but this wayward genius was sure to bring unpredictable gusts in her sails. De Cirque had initially planned on conquering the Sovereign Tournament—even if they had to cut down the weeds in their path. With Zion in the mix, it was an unexpected equation.
Nonetheless, nothing ever went to plan. As caution, they set down some loose ends to enable them to adapt to any situation. This, on the other hand, was never within her expectations.
“How did you end up here?” Her voice was calm yet it was laced with ardent passion. A small part of her hoped that this appearance would mean a way to return though the rational side whispered of the same situation when she happened to the city’s shores. The ticket was one-way. It didn’t guarantee a way back.
“That might be something you need to come over for . . . I don’t know.” He shrugged. “A cup of tea. It’s quite a long tale.”
That was not an answer.
She rushed at him with a startling momentum, her body a blade through the wind. The sword in her hands sang and screamed as it struck the lance’s shaft, creating a shower of sparks. She twisted, lurched back, and dove back in. The strength behind her strike reverberated with fervor, causing Zion to lean back and stay in defense the first few seconds into their battle.
Surprise lit his eyes but it was quickly replaced with glee. A chuckle rumbled in his throat.
She surged forward like a giant wave, sword arching at her side. Instead of staying in defense like he’d done in his previous fight, however, he met her attack with an equally destructive force. Zion’s willingness to meet her head on came as a bit of surprise to the others, especially with the disinterest he showed in his previous fight. Although, regarding the exertion the blonde was doing—the clear effort she was putting into this, it was understandable.
Then again, the weight of his weapon and the muscles were behind him. He pushed Valeriana back with a tight smile, a clear line on the ground from the point where she tried to root herself but instead dug into the dirt from the sheer force.
A gap appeared before them. However, like two magnets, they were destined to clash once more.
Right then, there were no more words to be said.
They jumped forward. Zion jabbed his pincers, attempting to nip at Valeriana’s shoulders. She evaded by bending back, her spine forming a near-perfect arc as her feet subsequently shot to target the sockets of his arms. She landed a solid kick on his weak point, throwing him off balance as she fell flat on her stomach after the vertical turn.
Zion rolled on the dirt, hand flinching around the weapon he had nearly discarded.
Valeriana was quick to get back up on her feet.
“Tell me why you came, Zion,” she demanded. “Why would you leave Valemnia?”
“Leave Valemnia?” he reiterated as he pulled himself right up with conviction. “I never left it. It was never my choice. I was taken,” he said. “For some reason I don’t even know.”
Then the situation was truly hopeless.
No matter the secrets they unraveled, Varialon was still a place of mystery—rather, its doors were the complete puzzle. Even so, why would this city take Zion? Was there a certain purpose? Or was it to just taunt Valeriana, give her a companion in her woes of being trapped in a lost city? If that was the case, why would fate pit the guy against her in this competition?
Confusion bubbled in her heart.
“Why, of all places, did you have to end up with the Fire Faction?” she asked him.
“Convenience,” he told her. “I was quite fortunate when I came. They were building a wall by the shore where I washed up. Had it been any other place, I would have not fared well.”
Valeriana stifled the urge to run a hand through her hair. Fate was playing her games. Instead of complaining like she had always done, even so, she clenched her sword to release a bit of the budding frustration. “You’re luck you didn’t end up in their turf.” She nodded at the Water Faction. “They’re incredulous cynics.”
Lady Maeghan stopped short from fanning herself. Her fingers shut the trinket firm between her fists with a loud click as she narrowed her eyes at Valeriana, having heard her statement in spite of the faintness of her voice.
“Is this another way of convincing us?” the lady queued. “You people have got to stop putting these acts together to make us believe it. What ridiculous lies!”
“I see your point,” Zion muttered under his breath. “You can’t blame them. They’ve convinced themselves far too much. Anyway, instead of standing around talking, we should probably go back to fighting. We’ve stopped too long. Can’t risk boring our spectators now, can we?”
“Come to De Cirque instead,” she told him. “We’ll work on finding the way out of this place.”
“No.” He dropped the word with resolution—as though he had long since made up his mind.
Valeriana tasted something sour at the back of her mouth, grimacing. Yet, she could not stay idle for too long. The pincers on his huge lance snapped close with a startling click. She eyed it, waited, until Zion finally made his move. All he took was the blink of an eye to reach her. The sharp pointed edge swung down with a cry. She held up her sword and met his attack with shaky defense, quite unprepared. She avoided the prickly pincers. As her sword was quite weak, it would no doubt succumb to his weapon.
“I have a reason for staying with them,” he said, bearing his weight down on her through the long shaft, pushing her down, exerting his strength. “I am under Arlandia, after all. I am of Fire.”
“Are you that shallow?” Valeriana forcefully wormed out of the disadvantageous position, finding a loophole in his form and landing a strike on his torso. The kick was strong. It was enough to paint a grimace on his face.
Zion did not let this hold him down, even so. He retaliated by throwing an elbow. The sharp bone dug into Valeriana’s arm, causing her to hiss. “Shallow?” Zion repeated with a displeased quirk of his mouth. “You can only follow true blood.”
Her brows knitted. She did not stop with the onslaught of attack, anyhow.
The blonde took the aggressive turn. She jumped in with a swift jab, aiming for the delicate hollow of his throat. Lucky for Zion, he evaded.
“I have my purpose,” he continued. “We may be in this together, but that doesn’t mean I’m here for the same thing.”
“Then what are you here for?”
“That’s what I’m looking for.” Zion’s pincers bit at Valeriana’s sword—though all he managed was a nick on the metal. “And staying by your side, I don’t expect I’ll be able to. That’s why I’ll have to go at this alone. Like what you did when you came here.”
Valeriana pushed at Zion, throwing a kick that he caught. He tugged at her foot, attempting to throw her off balance. Instead of stumbling, she followed the movement and let herself be carried forward, the gap between her legs widening to form a perfect split. Surprise bloomed on his face at the display of flexibility he was sure she didn’t possess before. Valeriana wasted no second, hands flattening on the ground so that she was more stable. As she put her weight on her hands, she bent close to the ground in push-up position and threw herself so that she kicked him. Landing a strike on his chest gave her a boost that launched her back and set her free.
It was starting to look so smooth. Unfortunately, she stumbled awkwardly upon landing, unable to handle the force and the unexpected position she ended up in afterwards. Her foot twisted over the other that she ended up turning like a waddling duck. While she managed to find her balance in the end, the fact that she nearly tripped was as bright as day.
Seeing this, Zion laughed. “The circus may teach you new tricks but your clumsiness will never change!”
Valeriana breathed a warm sigh, reddening—not only due to the exertion, but because of embarrassment. She was sure she was starting to look cool until she ended up making a fool out of herself.
The audience chuckled.
De Cirque, in particular, were causing the loudest ruckus.
“That’s why we never let her on the tightrope!” Beard yelled. “She’d only end up killing herself and throwing the balancing pole at someone’s neck!”
“Now that is a show I’m willing to see,” someone else added.
Some people were triggered by the joke, some were not. Nevertheless, Valeriana was now a bright shade of red.
“Seriously,” she muttered.
“Don’t show all your moves too soon, Banshee!” Lundie exclaimed.
“Save some for the battle later!” Maridie followed.
“We support you!” Runner yelled as well.
Zion was now laughing so hard. He bent over, holding out a hand while he steadied himself with his lance. “Ah, Arland. Why does it always have to be like this? You’re bullied and pushed around wherever you go.”
“What is this childishness?” Maeghan scoffed, nose turning up. She didn’t find it as funny as most did. “Are you planning on killing your enemy with laughter?”
“Oh, please shut up,” she said with an irritated sigh. “Let’s put an end to this. If you plan on going against the plans of De Cirque, I will have to stop you. Do you really want this, Zion?”
“That’s better than being on the same side, but being ignored,” he told her. “I don’t plan on falling into that hopeless pit again.”
She cringed inside, but she would not be able to make him do something against his will. It was just so unacceptable to think that the first familiar face she saw in the half a year she stayed in Varialon, they would have to be in opposing sides. Valeriana simply could not accept it—but what could she do to convince him?
“Is that final?”
She was unsure how this battle would end. She had qualms about winning as she knew Zion had not quite pulled out his best card just yet. Even so, they had to save a lot of energy for the serious rounds. She knew he was holding back, gradually adjusting depending on the effort she would put in. He was not willing to lose this round, yet he wasn’t too sincere about it either.
“How do you prefer we close the battle?” he asked. “Do you like it hot?”
The fire lit up in his lance, sending it ablaze.
“Seriously?” Valeriana pointed the sword at him lackadaisically, circling the tip with small flicks as she spoke. “You’re pulling the fire card again? Don’t you have anything else?”
He quirked a brow. “Not like I can suddenly start wielding water now, can I?” he retorted. “And you can’t expect I pull out all my cards when we haven’t quite reached the final stages of the tournament.”
Valeriana shrugged. “You know what?” she began with a simper. She shot forward, her foot digging into the sand, dust springing behind her like a cloud. “I was just stalling.”
A loud clang reverberated—so sharp it nearly broke some ears. Zion parried her strike from above before another one came from the side. Her opponent didn’t look too overwhelmed. In fact, he seemed even more excited. They exchanged blows breathlessly for about a minute or two before they broke off and retreated to a safe distance to catch their breath. Their break took only a few heartbeats—which were running quite a pace that would’ve crossed Valemnia and Varialon twice over.
Within moments, they were at each other’s throat once more, desperately clawing for openings through the thick veil of defenses. All they needed was a single tear, the smallest of holes, to break through. Unlike their first battle, they very well knew what each other was capable of—but what they improved and developed during the time they hadn’t fought, neither was willing to show just yet.
Until, of course, Zion flared with scalding heat. The warmth spun so extensively, Valeriana yearned to catch some shade and breathe some cooler air. The temperature was wearing her down faster than a regular fighting bout usually would.
“Agh,” she grunted. Her muscles screamed even louder.
She slid forward, sword rushing from below. Their footwork was fast, swift, and showed no signs of slowing in spite of the time they had been fighting.
Admittedly, they were probing for weakness as well as the new strengths—trying to get a hint of how they would defeat one another the next time they would clash. Both had definitely improved bounds, especially the honey-golden blonde. She was remembered to be a clumsy weakling with the blessing of lady luck, the toughest of all guts, and the stubbornness of a bull. Now that it was backed with skill and mastery over her craft, she had become a critical force to clash with.
Sweat beaded on skin and soaked backs. Valeriana’s hands turned a bit sweaty through her grip-heavy gloves. She was thankful for them as they helped keep the sword in her hands. With the amount perspiration she had including her sporadic spells of clumsiness, she would’ve probably thrown it out of her hands and threw over the victory to her current enemy.
“How come you’ve improved so much?” Zion whispered through tight breaths. His electric blues gazed at the girl with wonder and astonishment.
“I went through hell,” she said. “I even train in my sleep.”
“You got to be joking,” the blue-haired lad incredulously stated, eyes narrowing as he blinked away a salty drop that fell on his lids.
“Oh, you don’t know half of it.” She chuckled.
Zion’s pincers speared through the air, humming as it aimed for her stomach. Valeriana weaved out of the monstrous things’ way and slid to the side, catching the shaft of the large lance. The tight grip maintained by her gloves enabled her to pull Zion. Seeing as he had not yet changed course for his attack, the momentum along with the force Valeriana injected into the tug sent him flying.
While this did nothing to throw him completely off balance, it left him wide open. She kneed his stomach, used the hilt of her sword and drove it down on his back.
Zion growled as the pain traveled down every nerve in his body. He landed on his stomach, vulnerable to Valeriana’s incoming attacks. Before the girl could give him another bruise, he let the lance sweep back to her direction.
She was not fast enough to avoid it and got brushed back with a loud strike on her ribs. Valeriana staggered back, feeling a pop somewhere it landed. The fire had also singed her flesh a bit, making it all the more awful.
The blonde could not hold back a soft cry of pain, eyes tearing up as she instinctively curled in to prevent more batter to her broken bones. She knew, however, that she had to keep her mind in the fight—bar out the throbbing agony that bit at her flesh. Shaky as her limbs were, she stood ready for the next strike.
Zion, fortunately, had landed with a thud. He endeavored to stand but had trouble doing so. There was relief in seeing him like that. She had the chance to breathe, so she did. In, out. In, out. Repeatedly. Her heart worked to deliver the air throughout her weary body, pumping repeatedly to do the deed.
Valeriana’s muscles were screaming at the exertion. In spite of having trained and developed her endurance to enable her to tide through long battles, this one wore her straight to the bone. They were not done yet though, they were not done.
Zion faced Valeriana with a stumble. He was panting. Both of them were.
“You demon,” Zion addressed with wide eyes. “Who taught you to fight?”
“That’s a complicated question,” she replied. “I have many teachers.”
He clutched his stomach and grimaced as he straightened himself. “It’s good to see you’ve changed.” The fire on his lance stirred. Heat surged around him so wildly, Valeriana could feel wisps of its touch in spite of the distance between them. “I can’t say the same for myself but it won’t be good if I don’t give this the effort it deserves.”
Valeriana breathed a deep, nervous breath. She could feel the drums of the finale making its way into their fight. This might just be the deciding factor of the game—the only question was how would she win it? Even if she knew Zion, she could not bear to lose the town Aliyah fought for. It would bring only ridicule to De Cirque’s demands for respect.
“Let me tell you something,” she said.
“What is it?”
“When I was little, I really wanted to become a potato.”
Zion huffed. “Are you trying to make me laugh?” A smile broke on his face.
“With cheese. Lots of cheese.”
“A potato?” people gawked.
“Is this girl serious?”
De Cirque had broken into a fit of laughter. They had really easy joy. It came and went whenever the lightest jokes were cracked.
“You’re not a potato now, are you?” the non-ranker prompted, grinning.
“No, but I am something else,” she told him.
“I’m definitely not going to lose.”
With that, she launched forward, sword singing. Zion prepared to meet her incoming attack when, so suddenly, she disappeared. Confusion lit his face. His eyes speedily flashed to all directions, wondering where she went to.
This hesitation was all Valeriana needed. She reappeared beside him in a startling flash, blade tearing through the skin of his arm, feet on his face.
He staggered, attempting to recover. Valeriana didn’t plan on letting him so she followed up the move with her pommel on his gut. Yet she didn’t move fast enough. Zion grabbed the wrist that launched at his abdomen and twisted Valeriana’s arm before she could land the attack. The lance pushed at her back, the pincers poking at the skin, the searing flames flailing near—but not burning her.
Pinned in place, Valeriana sent the back of her head hurtling at Zion’s nose. While it hurt for her as well, she managed to worm out of his grip and point the sword at his throat.
But they weren’t quite done yet. Zion threw a high kick, foot knocking on Valeriana’s wrists. The sword flew from her hands and landed a few steps away. Wincing, she threw a short glance between the discarded weapon and Zion before bolting to a run to grab it.
“No, you’re not!” the blue-haired lad exclaimed. His fire grew and the lance buried itself inches deep into the ground, sending a blaze of fire tearing through the land. A wall of flames quickly grew, barricading Valeriana from her sword.
She turned to face Zion with gritted teeth.
Revealing Cifaro too early in the game would not benefit De Cirque for the second half of the tournament. Where would the element of surprise be?
But if she didn’t win this, De Cirque would have trouble faring in the later round. The first half was crucial to build strength and preparation. The consequences would be dealt with later.
She glanced at Arisce, seeking for her decision. There was only hardness in the woman’s eyes, a frown between her brows.
“Go,” the troupe leader mouthed.
Valeriana gnashed her teeth and pointed her first three fingers in the air in the shape of a gun. She raised it high, pointing to the sky, before a command tore through her throat, “Blade!”
The air stirred.
A whiplash hurtled Zion’s way. It was invisible, yet the force was strong he was sent flying out of the fighting grounds. He flew for the audiences’ seat wherein people quickly vacated to avoid him.
Valeriana breathed deeply as dumbfounded gazes pointed her way. Aleser had stood, confusion and shock marring his features. Adelline, as well, was beyond incredulous. They both had known what she truly was. They were probably wondering how.
That was a secret she didn’t want being found out too soon.
There was silence.
Zion crawled to a stand, his face mirroring the rest of the spectators’. “You . . . how . . . this . . . how?”
“Do you intend on continuing this fight?” she challenged him. “If not, I want Lavanya.”
Her heart was pumping. She was tired. Her knees were nearly knocking together at the overwhelming fatigue that formed knots in her muscles. If Zion intended on pursuing this fight, he would definitely win. She had no more strength after that last attack.
She waited in trepidation, hardening her gaze as she looked straight into his eyes.
Would he say yes? Did he want to continue?
Zion’s jaws clenched. His gaze firmed. “Lavanya is yours.”
The relief eased the tension on her shoulders. After giving the blue-haired lad a nod of thanks, she walked out of the arena. The silence was still thick before the cheers broke it sharply. Her publicly known power was wind and people thought so. Those who were aware of her true capability must’ve just assumed it was all a fad to stir confusion, but they couldn’t be more shocked at the truth that slapped their faces.
Lord Youzza was bewildered as well. “Such a powerful command!” he muttered under his breath. “How come Arisce landed herself such a talented wind wielder?” The man gritted his teeth as he eyed the retreating figure into De Cirque’s tents. Fists clenched in frustration.
De Cirque was elated.
The other factions felt threatened all the more.
Two straight wins! Prevnia and Lavanya were now under their name! A mere circus—one they have considered an outrage!