CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 60 ♦ Veiled
In the bout between Spirit and Earth, the youth that had fought with Zion before had come in Arcana’s stead. Earth sent down a large man who was twice his size and relied on brute force to get things done. In spite of the youth’s agility and his skill with the weapon he wielded, he was wacked a few times into the ground.
The fight had left him bruised and battered towards the end. Arcana seemed rather tempted to call off the fight like before but she honored the determination of the youth, knowing it would be a drastic insult to him if she threw in the towel before he did.
Valeriana admired him. She was reminded of herself—those moments back in the academy when she clamored to hold the sword—as the fight unraveled. Unable to help it, she made a trip to the Spirit Faction’s corner in the venue and walked up to Arcana who was seated under the shade of a large tent. Raegan greeted the blonde when he saw her, tipping his head at her direction. The lavender-eyed lady, on the other hand, had smiled and stood to kiss her on the cheek.
“How are you, Valeriana?” Arcana asked softly, warm hands gripping her shoulder. “You were amazing with your fight with that . . . boy.” She laughed as she sat back down, waving for one of her men to offer Valeriana a chair. “He must be the one you’ve told me about before—the blue-haired dragon who is quite the charmer.”
“Arcana, no, seriously?” A chair was put behind Valeriana and all she had to do was sit. She looked up, nodding gratefully at Arcana’s kind staff. “Thank you.”
“He is a charmer indeed. If you don’t like him, I might consider taking him for myself,” the lady teased.
Raegan cleared his throat, shifting on his spot beside Arcana.
“If it weren’t for my overprotective Lord Commander, that is,” she quickly added, chuckling.
Valeriana shook her head. She changed the topic and nodded to Arcana’s competitor. “Who is that boy? I don’t think I’ve seen him around.”
Arcana daintily covered her mouth with the sleeves of her robe, laughing. “You don’t recognize him?” she inquired with a raise of her brows. “No, I understand. When he takes off his glasses and that baggy suit, he looks far younger than he actually is.”
Valeriana’s forehead wrinkled. “Who?”
“Sir Jselhi,” Arcana told her.
“Jse—WHAT?! You mean that archive dude who’s all calm and polite and . . . oh holy gods.” She looked back at the ongoing fight, brows furrowed and eyes squinted as she tried to make out the face of the youth. “Man, he looks sooo different! He took a huge one-eighty. For the gods’ sake, I totally thought he was, like, older. Who could’ve thought he could look so young? And he had a beard back then too.”
“That is the precise reason why he makes himself look like that. He has such a baby face, as you can see. Unfortunately, he cannot fight looking the way he does so he had to resume this . . . um . . . look.” Arcana shrugged back wearily and leaned back. She took her cup of tea on the table beside her seat and drank, lavender eyes trained on Jselhi as he weaved from side to side to avoid getting smashed to bits by the opponent. “He does not like serving as a guard and has a penchant for books and record-keeping. It’s what he did as a child for his grandfather served as my family’s archivist for many years. He wishes to continue that, in spite of his talent with combat. He seems rather enthusiastic about taking part in the tournament, even so, that’s why I let him take part in it.”
“He’s a good fighter,” Valeriana muttered. “Who would’ve thought the archivist could be such a good . . . archivist and a warrior? Unbelievable.”
“He is amazing,” Arcana told her, lifting her lavender gaze from the fight to Valeriana’s face. “We haven’t got to talk for a while now, though. You were rather busy with the preparations for the tournament.”
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“No, I was busy as well. Anyway, it is amazing how you stumped them with that attack at the end.” She chuckled. “Is it really alright?”
“Better than losing your town to the Fire Faction,” Valeriana pointed out.
“Yes, for now I can rest easy knowing Lavanya is in safe hands. If there’s one thing a faction must never lose in the tournament, it’s their capital town. There’s no shame worse than having the main building torn down. Not to mention my family has kept Lavanya in their name for many years. Sir Jselhi took that loss quite hard.”
“I can guess. Look how determined he is.” Valeriana nodded at the archivist, the debate about him being the same man in the archives persisting in her mind. “What do you think, Raegan?” she turned to the Lord Commander who had been unusually quiet since she came.
The dark-skinned man snapped to attention. “Of what?”
“Of Jselhi,” Valeriana replied.
“Oh.” He blinked, gaze focusing on the ongoing fight. “I’m sorry, I was rather out of it. I think he will win,” he said.
“Really?” Valeriana intoned. “Not to sound like I doubt him, but why?”
“You’ll see,” said the Lord Commander.
The blonde’s lips curled. “You will be taking part in the tournament, right? As a competitor?”
“Of course, but not until the final round,” he replied.
“Great.” She shrugged, standing from her seat. “Great . . . we’ll meet you at the last match, then.”
This time, Raegan smiled. “Yes, of course. We’ll do our best to win against you.”
“Us, too. If only the other factions were like this . . .” she said. “Anyhow, I’ll be checking on the beasts so I’ll catch up with you guys later.”
“Do be careful,” Arcana told her with a raise of her dainty wrists. “The Wind Faction has been eyeing you for a while now. That attack you used near the end wasn’t quite a simple one and they have a lot of questions for you.”
“I’m sure Aleser’s the same,” Valeriana replied. “I’ll be careful.”
In spite of the excitement, Valeriana was unable to handle the suffocating environment of the arena. She wanted to see how Jselhi would win against the Earth’s, though she needed a break from the crowd and the claustrophobic, noisy area.
She moved past the hollering voices and broke through the crowded streets of Mardiya. There were some who recognized her, running forward only to stop a bit away and watch her as she walked past. There were also bold ones who asked her questions upfront but she just shook her head and maintained her silence. The more they were entertained, the more audacious they became—she learned that the hard way.
Valeriana moved towards the tent setup for De Cirque’s beasts, guarded by Cat, one of their top performers, who sat outside like a guardian while leafing through the pages of a book casually. Nuri and Kaai were currently not with the troupe, only the snakes, the Oread, and Tyson. There would be festivities happening that night for the closing of the first round of the tournament and De Cirque would not pass up the chance to perform for the people. After Valeriana reached the entrance, the curious people stopped short. The beast tent was not something they just so casually approached.
“How are the beasts?” she asked.
Cat looked up through her lashes, sighing. The thick, winged eyeliner made her resemble an Egyptian queen—the beautiful, golden skin, too. “Fine. A little irritated.”
“I’ll take over the watch. Go and see the fights. Tell me how it goes.”
“I don’t feel like going to the arena,” Cat told her. “It’s a little too overwhelming for me.”
“Yes, I feel you.” Valeriana pulled on a vacant stool and crashed on it tiredly. “Beard will be fighting against the Earth faction.”
“Really?” The woman laughed. “What about Spirit? Who will fight against them?”
“I’m still not sure. Arisce hasn’t said anything regarding that matter.”
“I might go,” she told Valeriana.
“You want to fight?”
“Spirit should send us a worthy opponent and I want to warm up a little bit before the start the second round. Group battles tend to be a little tougher than individual ones. I can’t let this pass me up.”
“I see,” Valeriana whispered. “I’ll be going in, then. Tell me if you plan on leaving.”
“I don’t and I won’t.”
The blonde turned to enter the tent, greeting the beasts with a warm smile.
“I knew it was you!” said the Oread.
“Why didn’t you come in immediately? Tell us some more stories,” the snakes prompted. “Things get boring really quickly without the other two.”
Valeriana crashed on the ground with a sigh before she did as they asked. The beasts were as rambunctious as always—like little kids who got too high on sugar and was given nothing to do. Nonetheless, they were an entertaining lot and talking to them was never boring. They scooted closer to hear her speak as she went through many stories she recounted not having told them. After they agreed on a topic to talk about, the beast tent resembled a nursery during storytelling time. The beasts were very much like little kids.
It wasn’t until the riotous cheers echoed and the announcer’s sharp voice cut through the air that Valeriana broke from her blabber. “Spirit wins Shidel!”
Valeriana looked up, satisfied at the results. “They got their hands on the largest town in the city. That’s not too bad.”
With the match ending, the next one was due to start very soon. The tournament went on in a steady pace with no rest—which was understandable considering they only dedicated two days for the first round.
The ninth match was between Wind and Water Faction after which De Cirque would be going up against Earth. If the Wind Faction lost this match again, their chances of entering the second round would shrink to the size of a needle hole. They would need to win should they want to get a chance into taking back the towns they owned—or even hope to stay in power.
However, the Water Faction was in the same predicament—having lost both their towns to De Cirque and the Earth Faction in the previous matches.
Valeriana scratched her head. So . . . with no towns to win, how exactly would this match be decided?
“As we all know, both factions who will be fighting in his match have no towns in their name whatsoever. As per the rules written down, the match’s winner will be awarded with a debt from the losing party.”
“A debt?” Valeriana repeated.
“The next match to be won by the losing side will have the town they won in that match automatically transferred to the winning party. If there are no complaints from either side, let’s call upon the fighters! Wind against Water! Send down your competitors!”
Valeriana tuned in to the names.
“Ooh!” the announcer exclaimed. “The Wind Faction’s Lord Commander will be fighting in this round! And on the Water’s corner—Lady Commander!”
Wow, would you look at that, she thought. Things are getting desperate really quickly.
The blonde stood and dusted off her clothes before moving out of the beast tent, a trail of whines and complains behind her. “I’m sorry, guys. I need to go back to the arena. I need to see this one,” she told them.
She stopped before Cat who had finally lifted her nose from the pages and stared at the direction of the venue.
“You sure you don’t want to see this?” Valeriana asked with a smile.
Cat looked up at her. “No, no . . .” She shook her head, her words echoing as though to convince herself. “Actually, yes. If they’re sending their Lord Commander and the Lady Commander so soon in the fight, how would they expect to defend themselves properly in the second round?”
“But they may just be desperate. I mean, seriously a debited town? That would mean having to win all the last matches they’ll have—whoever the loser is. Contrary to the situation of the Water Faction, anyhow, the Wind Faction really has weak competitors in its arsenal. From what I remember the Water Faction has that incredibly strong group of warriors I encountered in the woods back then, they’re just so unlucky to be pitted against genuinely strong representatives,” Valeriana ranted. “Wind will have to win a match or two, so their Lord Commander’s probably going to be in there for one more match if they win this one. They would have more leeway in the group matches, as that’s where all the bloody hell comes loose.”
“Yes, yes. There are three matches left for the Wind Faction and Water Faction,” Cat stated. “Technically, they both still have chances of entering the second round. This is great. I really want to see this one.” She stood, closing the book and blowing a sharp whistle.
The sound was piercing that it bade some heads to turn.
Three clowns rounded the corner, balloons and many treats in hand. Valeriana gave them an eyebrow raise. She rarely saw the clowns as they were much like the passing breeze—coming and going at their own pleasure.
“Red, Black, White,” Cat began. “Do you mind watching over the beasts?” she asked.
The three clowns looked silently at one another and pointed to themselves.
“Yes, you three.”
They scratched their heads simultaneously.
“Come on, I want to see the match. The Lord and Lady Commanders of the factions will be going up this time.”
They shrugged and flicked their thumbs to the sky.
“Good, good. Don’t slack off,” Cat told them. She patted Valeriana’s shoulder and they headed back to the venue to watch the upcoming match.
They came up to the entrance where people were crowding, thumping at the guard’s chest, begging to be let through. Cat and Valeriana went around the mob like VIPs in a night club. Although the guards took moments to recognize their faces, it didn’t take them much trouble to go in. The Fire Faction guards eyed Cat as she swayed past. Indeed, the woman was attractive—a femme fatale—and it was hard not to notice.
Valeriana chuckled and walked a little behind the star performer. They went past the tall gates that barred intruders from peeking in or entering but before they could squeeze through the thick crowd, a hand grabbed her by the arm. She nearly jumped in retaliation, preparing the smash whoever’s face it was to bits when a voice promptly followed.
“It’s me. Come.”
Valeriana looked up and tottered after the blue-haired lad hesitatingly. She looked at Cat and saw that the woman had gone ahead—not noticing Valeriana was not right behind.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
He did not answer just yet. He pulled her away and stopped behind the wild crowd. Over everyone’s shoulders, she could see the scar-faced Lord Commander of the Wind Faction locked in a battle with a woman—Water’s Lady Commander—and both were exchanging deadly blows even at the start of the battle. While this place wasn’t isolated, everyone was preoccupied with the match to truly care.
“I needed to talk to you,” Zion said. “Are you really the Valeriana I know?” he asked.
Her brows furrowed and she tilted her head to the side in question. “Why would you ask that? And this isn’t the time for this. What if Aleser sees you?”
“It doesn’t matter. I probably won’t get a chance to talk with you again. This city has a way of playing with your mind—even if everything seems so normal. Are you the same Valeriana I met? Tell me I’m not dreaming . . .”
She looked around warily. Anyone could be watching and it was hard to tell with the many eyes that went around.
“You aren’t. I should be the one asking you this,” she told him. “How did you end up in Varialon?”
“Answer my question first.”
Valeriana sighed. “I can’t say I’m the same person,” she said. “I don’t want to be.”
His brows furrowed yet she could see in his eyes he understood what she meant.
“The reason I came here is to change, Zion,” she continued.
“And change, you have,” he told her, his electric blues searching her face. He seemed to think she was a ghost—maybe something worse. “Very much.” Zion looked down with a sigh. “Am I supposed to change as well? Why am I here? They could’ve taken Corvan . . .” he trailed off.
The blonde’s curiosity flooded through. “How is Valemnia?”
“It’s not . . . good,” he told her. “It’s experiencing an imbalance that’s causing famine and drought in the most unlikely places. The world is turbulent and demon activity has risen significantly since you left. Celeste Academy changed its curriculum from eight years to a mere four because the kingdom is preparing for the inevitable war. Last time I was there, there was unrest in the kingdom. It was precisely why I was called back to my city by my father. I never got to know the rest.”
Valeriana fell silent. She reached up to touch her forehead as the many scenarios flashed through her mind.
“Aren’t you going to ask about him?” he asked, eyes trained on her face.
At the mention of him, she turned. She gazed back at the wide, questioning eyes as guilt seeped through her veins. Valeriana pursed her lips, unable to think of what to say.
“He’s looking for you.”
Her heart raced. She mentally scolded it for reacting like that but the twist on her stomach came and the thoughts followed, adding a jump to its pace.
He cut her short. “It’s alright, I know. You don’t need to say anything—I just wanted to tell you. You look like you wanted to know.” He chuckled. “You don’t need to look like that every time I bring this up. It’s not like your guilt and concern will mend a broken heart. Don’t take that as me making you guiltier. I’m just saying.”
“What did you even see in me?” she asked him, shoulders rolling back.
“I don’t know.” He scratched his head. “You.”
Valeriana shook her head. She didn’t want to lead him on unnecessarily—the poor guy. “What do you plan on doing here?”
“I’ve heard plans of breaking open the borders,” he said.
“Breaking open?” Valeriana echoed.
“Aleser is very aggressive. He doesn’t really trust me with these things but he relies on Deli like an old man would on his cane. He only keeps me around because he finds me interesting and also because I’m a breacher. I suspect it’ll be tough for us in the group tournament.” He looked around. “Anyway, I think I’m overstaying my welcome. I’ll be seeing you in a while. We’ll get out of this place soon, that’s a promise.”
Valeriana watched him leave. Zion walked away, throwing one look over his shoulder to give her a salute and a smile. She sighed.
How to find a god?