CASeries #1: KNIGHT
Chapter Twenty-Six: A New Challenge
It was a rather peaceful day when Valeriana found herself waking up to a chilly morning. A week had passed since she was first admitted to Celeste Academy.
Though things have been terribly boring the past few days, Valeriana had an intuition that something interesting would happen today. Although she wasn’t exactly sure what, her guts made it clear it wasn’t something to look forward to. Ever since last night, she hadn’t been able to sleep properly. She stayed up late trying to cover as many pages of her lessons as possible that it didn’t even occur to her it was already four o’clock in the morning.
She had to drag herself out of bed with weak-feeling limbs and sleepy eyes. She was barely even able to get herself into her uniform.
She trudged down the stairs wearily and entered the kitchen. Charles was already in his apron dicing carrots on his chopping board. When Valeriana came, he paused from his work and looked up, but what he saw only made his mouth drop open.
“Valeriana,” he said. “Are you feeling alright?”
“Yeah . . .” she replied.
“It doesn’t look that way to me,” the fourth-ranker answered. “Go and wait in the dining room. You’ll only get in the way.”
She scratched her head and looked down at the ground, feeling somewhat hurt. “You should’ve put it more nicely. I would’ve understood.”
“It’s useless beating around,” he straightforwardly stated.
“I can see that,” she answered and swept away the stray lock that wandered on her face. “Are you sure you don’t need help?”
“It’s no problem. I used to prepare breakfast on my own.”
Valeriana sighed and just nodded compliantly at Charles’ order. She dragged her feet to the dining room and sat tiredly in her seat. Keelan was on his usual side of the table, waiting eagerly for food to be prepared. There also were Raziel and Brindon—who both were disinterested with anyone else. Tamara was sitting quietly, yawning while rubbing her eyes. Keelan looked bewildered by her appearance, but when Tamara’s eyes landed on her, she broke into a scream—which was honestly over the top.
“What happened to you?!”
She could not blame her, though. She had those dark eye-bags, hollow cheeks, almost lifeless-like eyes, paper-white skin, and those pale and cracked lips.
“What in the world—did you even look at yourself in the mirror?” Tamara inquired. “You look like someone who just came back from the dead. Are you still alive?”
“My, Valeriana,” Raziel said haughtily, flashing a disgusted look at her direction. “That is not very beautiful.”
“Who gives a damn about beauty right now anyway?”
“You don’t appreciate it as much as I, but beauty is treasured and beauty means wellness,” Raziel argued.
Valeriana yawned. Just how many times had he already recited this speech?
“Good mor—what in my horse’s tail is that?!” Elfre exclaimed as she stepped foot into the room. She stopped short when she saw the corpse on Valeriana’s seat. “Demon!” She grabbed something and prepared to throw it.
“Don’t be like that, man. What’s up with you, guys?”
She hesitated. “Get that monstrosity out of here!”
“It’s Valeriana,” Brindon stated casually.
She didn’t even notice him there.
“It looks like you are hardly recognizable now, Valeriana. What the hell happened that made you that way?” Tamara asked.
“I haven’t been able to sleep at all for the past few days . . .” she trailed off. “Not a single wink.”
“Is this something that happens to humans when they lack sleep? That surely is creepy.”
“I don’t think you can last long in that condition,” Elfre, finally regaining her composure, said.
Valeriana yawned again, her eyelids slowly dropping. She fell forward and her face slammed straight on the surface of the table with a considerably loud bang, which surprisingly didn’t startle anyone.
“It’s rude to fall asleep in front of the table,” Corvan stated as he entered the room as well. “Move out of the way, seventh,” he told Elfre irritably. “You’re blocking my path.”
“Seriously,” the girl grumbled, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms. “That’s a really rude way to put it just because you’re the first-ranker.”
“I am in no mood to argue so do me a favor and remain quiet.”
“Did someone wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” Tamara chuckled. “You’re mood is awfully worse than usual. And there’s Valeriana too. Did I miss something? Is it finals week yet?”
He made a sound on the back of his throat in displeasure and imposingly made his way to his seat. “Shut up. All these noises are making my head ache.”
“That’s no way to talk to your seniors, Corvan.” Tamara frowned. “You’re acting grumpier than usual.”
“What?” Valeriana asked quietly, her eyes peeking open from her minute-long sleep. She straightened her back and yawned loudly. “You mean he’s acting grumpier? Isn’t he always like that?”
“I said shut up. Otherwise, I’ll reduce you to ashes.”
“His threats are the same,” the girl commented, disregarding his warning as if it was only a childish threat.
She leaned back down on the table and her eyes automatically dropped close. She began snoring a second later and everyone else looked her way with furrowed brows. Shrugging, everyone else ignored her and walked to their respective places. Corvan irately took his own seat with a gloomy frown on his face and impatiently began to tap his feet.
Keelan was eagerly looking forward to breakfast that he was staring at the table in a daze, eyes sparkling as if imagining what sort of food would be prepared. Drool trickled down his chin and he sighed dreamily, making Aneeka grunt in annoyance.
“Wipe that drool off your chin!” she scolded harshly with her usually flurrying temper. “You glutton.” Aneeka rolled her eyes before staring at her preferred weapon and polishing it with her sleeve. “Can’t you survive with just three meals a day?”
“You’re asking for the impossible. When Keelan sees food, his priority is to fill his stomach.” Tamara chuckled, twirling a lock of her red hair around her finger. Her hair was usually tied up on a ponytail, but most of her hair usually fell out.
A sigh came from the doorway and Charles appeared with plates of steaming food in his arms. He set them down on the table gingerly and went back to the kitchen to get the rest of their breakfast. The aroma wafted under everyone’s noses and they all began to eagerly wait for the rest to be served.
Keelan beamed at the sight of food in front of him and reached out to help himself, but was stopped when Aneeka slapped the back of his hand and glared at him warningly. The eleventh-ranker immediately fell into a sour mood.
The smell woke Valeriana. She stirred from her sleep and yawned, leaning back on her chair while rubbing her eyes. She sniffed and inhaled the heavenly aroma before brushing back the messy hair on top of her head.
“Did you dream, Valeriana?” Tamara said jokingly beside her.
“There was nothing to dream about,” she answered.
“What are you waiting for? Take out the plates or there’ll be nothing to eat on,” Charles said.
Valeriana stood up to help out but was pushed back down. She looked up and saw Charles’ firm grip on her shoulders. Staring at him questioningly, she saw him holding a steaming cup.
He slid the drink in front of her and spoke. “You’re in no condition to do anything. I suggest you take the time to rest as much as you can. This might not be of much help, but the drink is from a certain plant that grants whoever consumes it enough energy to go around for a while. The effect lasts for a day, it wears off eventually so you’ll go back to the current condition you’re in now later.”
“T-thanks . . .” she answered hesitantly.
“Drink and don’t leave a single drop,” he instructed before he turned and headed towards the kitchen to help bring the plates out.
Valeriana reached out towards the cup on the table and brought it close to her lips. She inhaled it a little and found that the aroma was nowhere near anything she smelled before. It was a foreign scent—plain, yet it held some sort of fragrance she wasn’t familiar with. Swallowing a large gulp, her face contorted in disgust and she began to cough with her tongue out. She wanted to get something to wipe away the taste from her mouth, but there was nothing she could think of that she could use to do so.
“Ew! This is disgusting! What the hell is this?” she nearly screamed.
The concoction tasted somewhat bitter with a trace of sourness somewhere. It wasn’t anything near pleasant that it made the girl feel like she wanted to vomit. The warm mixture traveled down her throat and settled comfortably on her stomach and that was when Valeriana felt a strange sensation spreading through her body.
“Disregard the taste,” she heard Charles say before he completely disappeared from her sight. “Your body needs it.”
Pouting at the misery she was put in, she sulkily downed the last few gulps and felt her stomach twist at the taste. She covered her mouth and tried not to let anything she just swallowed to go back.
Corvan crossed his legs. Apparently, he was the only one who insisted on staying despite Charles’ threat and saw the whole thing transpire. Everyone else was too eager—or forced—to help, especially Keelan, and left the three in the same room.
When the others got back with the plates and utensils, Tamara immediately saw the look on Valeriana’s face and the ever so familiar cup set in front of her. =
She laughed. “I guess Charles made you drink one of his special . . . teas, huh?” she assumed as she settled down on her regular seat beside her.
With brows scrunched, Valeriana nodded.
“I know it tastes horrible, but it’s unbelievably effective. If only he can do something about the taste . . .” she trailed off and looked lost in thought for a second before turning to the fifth-ranker with a cheerful smile. “Anyway, I can see it working already. You don’t look as bad as you did a while ago.”
“Was it really that awful?” she asked, placing a hand on her cheek.
“Oh, honey, you should’ve looked at the mirror.” She shook her head. “I guess that all the work’s stressing you out, huh? We’re sorry we pressured you into a lot of things. We were a bit insensitive and inconsiderate that we pushed a lot of responsibilities towards you, even though you had a lot to catch up on. If you continue like that, I don’t think you will last long.” She grinned humorlessly.
“It’s fine . . .” She sighed. “After all, being a part of the circle comes with a lot of things to do . . . I just gotta do my best, I suppose.”
“What you’re doing is more than enough.” Tamara patted her on the back. “You’re pushing yourself too far with how you’re going. Even though he might not look like it sometimes, Charles actually cares for the people around him. Otherwise, well, you know.”
“Really. Now cheer up. You look like you need something sweet.”
“Ew, no thanks. I hate sweets.”
Fifteen minutes before the start of classes, Valeriana and the others set out for their first subjects.
The drink was effective like Tamara told her. She felt like she didn’t stay up late and got very little sleep the past week. In fact, she felt like she had a lot of energy to spare.
Valeriana looked up at the ceiling and paused from her tracks, trying to ease the throbbing pain pounding between her eyes. She blinked when she thought she saw a shadow move from her peripheral vision, a slight chill crawling down her back. Looking up hastily, she spotted the chandelier swinging from side to side ever so slightly. The ropes holding it up was snapping, no doubt it wouldn’t be too long until it fell.
She quickly looked down to see some students walking just below the chandelier as it finally came loose. She dove forward, hoping to get there in time.
She could hear the startled gasps of everyone around them as they hit the ground, shortly followed by a loud crash as the chandelier landed on the floor. Its parts broke and flew everywhere, though, luckily, no one seemed to be hurt.
She stood up and breathed a sigh of relief knowing that no one was harmed from the incident. Looking back down at the group of students before her, she saw two guys and a girl who were all looking at her with wide eyes. The two boys got up on their own accord while the girl stayed still, looking quite shaken.
“Are you all okay?” she asked as she held out a hand for the girl to help pull her up.
“I-I’m fine, thank you,” the girl answered, looking at her with embarrassment and slight hesitance. She clasped Valeriana’s hand and stood up.
Valeriana smiled. “That’s good.”
Murmurings rose from the crowd and a teacher came rushing forward at the site of the incident. “Is anyone hurt? What happened here?”
“It looks like the rope holding that chandelier snapped,” Valeriana said, pointing at the mess in front of them. “No one seems to be hurt.”
“Alright.” The teacher breathed out in relief. “I’ll just ask someone to clean this up. I suppose it’s better to play safe and ask the headmaster to replace those ropes. Everyone, if you don’t have anything to do around here, please vacate the area.”
When the teacher left, the three students turned to look at Valeriana. They looked grateful, but they seemed more shocked. Before they could speak, however, the bell rang, causing Valeriana to go into a state of panic at the thought of being late for Seraphina’s class. After all, the woman was strict. There was no doubt she would be punished if she came in later than she should.
“I should go!” she exclaimed. “I’ll see you all later. Be careful next time!”
After that she dashed forward like mad, trying to make it in time.
“Wait, wait!” yelled the girl. “Please, just a moment!”
Valeriana stopped short. “What is it?”
“Please take us as your aides!” she said eagerly. “My name is Quincy. Zoel and Poulette and I would love it if you could have us!”
“Uh . . .” She felt restless seeing as she would be late for class. “Okay, alright. Whatever that is . . . we’ll discuss this further some other time, is that fine? I really need to get going. See you!”
She turned around, but caught a relieved smile lifting the girl’s lips as she did.
Valeriana made it in time, thankfully. Chavi was waiting patiently in her seat, but looking quite bored. Julian sent glares her way when she entered the room but she ignored it and took her own seat.
As usual, first period was History. Lady Seraphina hadn’t arrived yet so Valeriana spent the time telling about the incident that happened earlier that morning. When Chavi heard about it, she almost—did, actually—screamed in her seat.
Giving her a look of confusion, Valeriana raised a brow and decided to ask her. “What? What are you screaming about?”
“Aides! You’ve found your first aides!” She jumped up from her seat and began to dance around happily, making all of their classmates cast a look their way.
“Aides?” a question resonated throughout the whole room. “Who would want to be that girl’s aide? She’s a fraud!”
Valeriana’s mood plummeted beneath the earth that her face naturally darkened. She turned to Julian, glowering so hard she burned holes through his head.
“I’m talking about you, human! I bet you just cheated in your fight with Lady Courtney that made you win! You don’t even come close to her skills! It was impossible!”
“Look here, bastard. I’ve been ignoring all your stupid antics for the past few freaking days, but if you think you can talk that way about me like this, then you’re so totally wrong.”
“Isn’t it true, anyway?” He huffed. “Everyone knows you’re having a hard time. The Twelve doesn’t even acknowledge you as one of them!”
“Don’t listen to him, Valeriana,” Chavi said. “He’s a follower of Courtney.”
“But I have had enough of this guy!” she exclaimed.
“Why don’t you admit you’re just a—”
She stood up and walked over to him, her body moving animatedly. After a momentous pull of her tensed arm, her fist came flying to Julian’s face. The contact of the guy’s flesh against her knuckles felt really pleasurable. Everyone went still in their places and fell quiet, watching as Julian hit the floor with an evident thud. But her anger was still boiling so she pulled him from ground only to kick him back.
Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.
Valeriana inwardly grimaced as her brain started registering the pain from her fist, but she tried not to let it show on her face as it would totally ruin the atmosphere she managed to pull off. It was quite a punch, but it hurt her too.
“You don’t know anything,” she said in a grave tone. “So I recommend you shut your mouth or I’ll sew it for you. I don’t care who you are. Don’t cross the line with me. Human or not, I will make sure you return to your mother in a way she won’t recognize her own son.”
Mindful of the pain, her right hand trembled and her brows creased. However, it did not seem much obvious that she was in agony. In fact, people thought it was because of her anger.
Heart pounding in her chest with a sheen of sweat coating her forehead, Valeriana found herself in a state of utter fury. She was stressed, she lacked sleep . . . and she still had to deal with him?
“Give me a break!” she yelled at him.
Julian looked like he saw a ghost, breaking into a cold sweat while he stared at Valeriana’s heavily breathing form. Chavi had stopped dancing since a while ago, her jaws slacked open.
As if on cue, Seraphina walked into the room. When she saw Julian lying on the floor, her voice resounded demandingly. Valeriana was knocked back to reality. She allowed her muscles to relax and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.
“What’s going on here?”
“I’m sorry.” Valeriana breathed. “I lost control of myself.”
“That guy insulted Valeriana after he heard that she got her first aides,” Zevlin, who was sitting on his usual seat on the farthest back, said. “He said that she was a fraud and insulted her until she had no face.”
“I heard it, too!” Genevieve supported.
Brindon, on the other hand, merely said, “Saw it.”
She wanted to keep things smooth and trouble-free, but it seemed that that thought was all but a mere dream.
Seraphina sighed. “I understand what instigated you to act that way, but violence outside duels and official combats is not permitted. Remember that in this school, we ought for discipline and self-control. Students are heavily encouraged to keep their emotions in check. Having said this, proper punishment shall be imposed upon the two of you.” Looking at the Valeriana’s face made Seraphina falter for a moment. Seconds later, she spoke, “I apologize, I will not be lenient to my students.”
The boy shook with fear as he thought of the possibilities.
The girl shook her head and held her hands out in front of her as a sign of surrender. “No. It’s only proper. But I won’t apologize. This bastard deserved it.” She unapologetically walked back to her seat while running her fingers through her hair.
“Well, then, let’s begin o—”
“So this,” someone began, laughing. “Is the new ranker?”
Genevieve and Zevlin exchanged glances and released a small groan at the sight of the newcomer. “Not again,” they said in unison.
“I thought that when they said human, it was no threat but now that I see for myself it’s actually quite interesting.”
Curious, she turned towards the sound of the voice. Was she just called an it? Her lips curled in exasperation, her eyes twitching lightly at the implied insult.
No, wait. No more trouble, she told herself. Control yourself. Control yourself!
Seraphina cleared her throat. “Pardon—”
“Then, allow me to see for myself!” He pulled a sword free from its sheath against the wall and pointed it up at Valeriana. The girl could only raise her brows while her mouth slowly formed an O. “The good fight you might be able to put up! I’ve never been in combat with someone like you, so I wonder what kind of tricks you have up your sleeve! Good thing I’ll soon know!”
Electric-blue eyes with a predatory glint and sharp-toothed smile, this guy possessed a rebellious aura around him. Starting with his midnight blue hair tied with a black ribbon and tossed over his shoulder to the sharp laugh—more like low, manic chuckles—brought nothing to Valeriana but negative vibes.
Nevertheless, Seraphina’s patience seem to be waning from the sign of disrespect.
“Here we go again.” The twins sighed.
Valeriana’s mouth dropped. “What? Did you just call me—”
“This Zion Brunhild announces a challenge to you, whatever your name was!”
This guy sure did have a bad habit of cutting people’s sentences. Add in the fact that he had not the littlest bit of courtesy.
“Now, see here, young man—” Seraphina started, fuming.
“Do you accept it or not?!”
“I’m sorry, I’ll have to decline.” She hissed at him, flipping her hair over her shoulder with a small huff. She began her trip back to her usual seat.
He laughed. “Do not tell me you are afraid!”
Don’t mind him. Ignore him. Continue walking, you won’t have a problem.
“Do you really not care about proving your so-called innocence? Provided that you really are innocent.”
“That’s fine. Are you scared everyone will find out you really did not win against Courtney genuinely? Not that anyone hasn’t suspected at all.”
Valeriana stopped short and turned to meet his fervent eyes with her own. Should she give in to his taunts? If she easily agreed, everyone would think she was a pushover. They would think she merely succumbed to the pressure of having to prove her so-called innocence.
Her blue eyes flickered towards Chavi. She had a serious look on her face. The other members of the circle were also looking her way with a scrutinizing look in their eyes, as if they were keenly watching and waiting for her answer.
“Does this matter need to be thought over? Fifth-ranker?” He emphasized the last two words, as if mocking the girl.
In that sort of situation, Valeriana could not make a hasty decision.
She gave him an equally brilliant smile, taking everyone aback by the unexpected response. “And you walk in suddenly, think of yourself worthy of challenging my innocence? Who do you think you are? Some sort of judge? I do not need to give in to your taunts and allow myself to get disrespected. From the moment you have entered this room, you spoke of nothing but insults and acted insolently. Why do you think I should agree to your stupid duel? I may be a human, but I’m no animal nor am I a pushover.”
Valeriana glared strongly back at him.
Then he did the most unexpected of things. He laughed. “Alright! I’ve got to hand it to you!”
The girl scoffed. “You cannot hand over anything you did not have in the first place. Shut up and crawl back to whatever hole you came from. I don’t need anything from you.”
“Ooh, you’re tough. Well, then! If it’s just respect you’re looking for, why not?” He bowed, never looking down. “I humbly ask for the consent in a duel against Your Highness, the fifth-ranker.”
Valeriana felt more insulted than flattered.
“You don’t sound humble,” she said. “A duel is to determine excellency based on my observations. You challenge a person because you want to test out their competency. I learned from my previous experiences that a duel should only be issued if both parties hold the utmost respect for each other—even only on the barest level. For a competition is not without it. Try showing me that you can respect somebody. Then, I’ll think about it.”
“Very well said, Valeriana.” Seraphina smiled. “And I do agree on your perspective, however, as your guardian and overseer, I want you to accept this duel to quell the mass’ thirst for the so-called evidence of your innocence and to put a security on your position as fifth-ranker.”
Valeriana felt like a thousand bricks had fallen from the sky. She just managed to worm out of the trouble, but Seraphina had so firmly held her shoulder to keep her in place and meet it—face to face.
“Unfortunately, the arena’s booked for duels the next month and the only available nearest time is three days from now, which is perfect. The longer we hold out this fight, the more people will doubt your credibility as titleholder. Which is why, I think it is imperative you have it as soon as possible.”
“Um . . . three days . . .”
“And in order to uphold the principles you showed today, the duel shall be moved to the nearest month if this young man here shows any signs of misbehavior or discourteousness in any way—which is, based on when I last checked, is about a month, then two months, then three months. In fact, I’ll have him placed under probation. He will also be given a specific list of chores and things he must act out during the said time. Take note that this does not only apply to you, but everyone else he challenges henceforth. Will that be fine with you, Valeriana?”
Valeriana was skeptic of Seraphina’s suggestion, but figured this must be her way of punishing her challenger for his display of impertinence earlier. In fact, this Zion guy looked absolutely about to burst from humiliation and disbelief.
“I guess . . . that’s fine?”