CASeries #5: COSMOS
Chapter 49 ♦ A Decayed Decade
Bertram flew down the palace halls with fire on his heels, coattails flailing and sleeves wrinkling at every movement. His appointed first knight, Yvart, was swift on his tail, brows in a deep furrow as he followed the young king. Every man and woman they whipped past lowered their heads and bent their backs. It was like the spearing winds tearing through the ocean side.
In just moments, they came a stop before the former king’s doors. Lord Lienhard, in time, had slipped through a narrow gap, seemingly unwilling to let the sun’s rays through the darkened chambers. While there was no hint of emotion on his face, his eyes were hardened with the truth.
“My father?” Bertram breathlessly inquired.
Lienhard sighed. “He wants to talk to you.”
He gave his uncle one last glance before breaking through the sturdy doors. Yvart halted, not daring to enter with him. Instead, the doors he had left open were closed by the first knight with not as much as a short peek.
“Father,” the young king knelt before the bedside, watching the weakened turn of his father’s head at his arrival. Eyes languorously opened as his father’s pale fingers flew to meet his frantic grip.
“Son,” the man replied, his voice guttural. The youth in his gaze had long since faded. In it was nothing but weariness and a flicker of the once mighty flame. “I apologize.”
“What for?” Bertram felt the strength in his father’s hands in short bursts. It was much like the stutter in his breath, there one moment, gone the next. His heart broke inside but he kept his tears down. The sadness of seeing his father in such a state after seeing the liveliness he’d possessed years earlier ripped a hole through his soul.
“I had wanted—I’d wanted to see you happy,” he muttered. “But the life of a king is nothing but a curse. A cursed fate of eternal worry and blame . . . and tragedy—I can already see it bearing on your brows.” A small chuckle tore through the king, smile lighting up his face. For a minute, Bertram saw the vestiges of Laedin’s former self. “I wanted to work with you closely in your transition, but I had been nothing but a useless shrimp pinned on his bed.”
“If you must use shrimp, I’d prefer you a prawn,” Bertram replied.
Laedin laughed. “Oh my son.”
The young king patted his father’s hand with a smile of his own.
“You make me happy,” his father continued. “You’re my pride and joy in every manner possible. My heart, my light.”
“Mother is your heart and your light.”
“So are you,” the former king told him. “I assume you have troubles with the title.”
“You need not worry about that.”
“Oh, but I do. Because I know what you’re going through very well.” He paused, gazing straight into his son’s eyes. Bertram felt like he had stripped soul bare for his father to see. “You . . . are king, Bertram. Are you not?”
“Not yet,” he replied. “Not yet, I am. I don’t think I can ever be.”
“But what is a king to you?” Laedin inquired softly.
“You are, father.”
“But I am no longer king. You are, my son,” he said. “I suppose in this instance, you can say we both are. You can also say we never were. What exactly makes a king a king?”
Bertram was stuck in silence. He attempted to answer, but his brain could not come up with anything reasonable.
“What makes a man a man? Aristeon is wise; she is cruel as much as she is merciful. You may be born to take the title, but it is your choice. Are you king, Bertram? Or are you just a man?”
Bertram’s eyes fell on his father’s hands. “I am both, father. A man and a king.”
“You are a man before a king. Friedel was a man, a brother, before he was king. Valdis, was a man, a brother, before he was demon. This title may define half your life, but it does not define you. For a king is just a title. It’s an allocated responsibility. It has no other significance to it aside from it being a pain on the head, especially having to wear that crown for those few minutes in the ceremony.”
“I’m surprised my head wasn’t elsewhere with that weight, father,” Bertram replied.
They shared a laugh.
Laedin breathed tiredly. “When was the last time we really talked?”
“I don’t know.”
“A lot has happened,” the king said. “I apologize.”
“Father, there is no need for apologies,” the young king insisted. He swallowed his tears for the umpteenth time that second, but the flood was too much to clamp down on. Bertram’s eyes pricked with warmth before a sudden trail flew past his lashes.
“I am leaving you behind when you need me the most, just like your mother did.”
“There is no need to go.”
“You, of all, know I must go. Short as it may have been, life is merely the start of the long journey ahead. Death is but a short stop to grab a drink of good wine,” he told him with a cracked smile. “At times, we leave it early because what we’ve done in life has paved enough path for us ahead. The true meaning of life is only realized at hindsight.” Laedin took a long, deep, and calming breath.
Bertram inched forward, afraid it would be his last as his eyes slowly shut. But the soft whispers on his lips, words that fell in loudness with each of his breath, gave him a bit more hope.
“The road to the mountain is veiled by mists, but the tip is always clear,” the former king began. “Clouds may roll like waves in the sky . . .”
“But the stars will never stir,” Bertram continued.
He nestled his forehead on the back of his father’s hand as he clenched it tight with both of his.
“Continue,” Laedin prompted.
“Should fate be true to her hand on the wheel, I shall fight with my blood and will.”
He found himself clutching even tighter as his father’s hold weakened, trying to make up for the loss of strength as though doing so would transfer some of it to Laedin.
“Gods in the cosmos, see and hear. No matter the darkness that lie ahead, no matter how tall the fire walls, my heart shall never veer. This journey and danger, may cost many a life, face me many fears.”
His ears caught a deep sigh. Bertram pleaded in his heart, yet he knew that the inevitable was coming.
“There may be defeat, but never true loss. For in the day of my death, none shall grieve,” the young king’s voice broke. “There will be laughter and joy. Sing my name until the melody fades; celebrate my memory, they will.”
Valeriana felt a lost weight on her soul all of a sudden. Distracted, she fell back and barely avoided a swing from Delaney. Her father Janus was beside her a few moments after that, asking what was wrong.
“It’s nothing.” She ran a hand over her chest. “Something strange just came over me for a second. It’s like a bad thing happened,” she told her father.
“Let’s call it a day,” Janus said.
She stood and, as usual, watched the demon retreat to his tree.
“I’ll talk to Delaney before I go,” she told him, patting his shoulder before following the demon to his tree. The whole time he was trapped in the jade sphere, he remained reclusive. While he agreed to spar with Valeriana, he didn’t make any efforts of talking. His reproaching manner of treating everyone else thwarted every opportunity.
Valeriana stopped before him. He refused to acknowledge her presence until it was a whole minute. She had desperately wanted to talk to him for a while but always lost in the face of his intimidation and her own uncertainty.
But a girl got to try.
“Don’t you need to return?” Delaney asked, using his dark eyes to give her a discouraging glare. Darkness edged around his face and bled through his sclera. It was a warning.
“I think I can spare a few minutes. I’ve been running in and out of this place the past few months training like a gym junkie. I even have abs now, can you believe that?” she joked. “I mean, not here, but the physical world.”
“I’ve had abs even before you were born.” He looked at her disapprovingly, unimpressed by her boasts.
“And I was wondering where all that bite went. It seems I worried for nothing.” She moved closer. “Anyway, talking about muscles . . . I wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t go to another world. If I was still back on Earth, I think I will still have abs. Only the flabby version of one and they’ll probably only have two bulges like cake layers.”
He shook his head. “You say the weirdest things.”
“Yup,” she replied with a pop. “What’s wrong?”
He gazed at her for a few moments, the obsidian swirling. “Do not attempt to get chummy with me. Your ‘friendly’ approach is honestly disgusting the demon out of me.”
Valeriana frowned. “I was trying to be polite since what you’ve been doing this entire time is whining about how you aren’t given the respect you say you deserve! And now that I’m trying to do just that, you tell me I’m disgusting.”
“You obviously need something,” he shot at her. “Would you approach if you didn’t, otherwise?”
“All I need is to understand, Delaney,” she told him. “And I want to understand.”
“You need to understand? You’ve had many chances to. Why now? After all those months of not speaking? Just coming . . . and going?”
“I didn’t know how to ask,” she said. “After what happened the first time you came . . . it wasn’t the best of greetings. This time, I wanted to try and ask properly. You’ve been here a long time and you’ve helped me so much.”
“I was forced to,” he cut in. “Why don’t you just do what you did if you really want to understand?”
“I want to be told willingly. I wanted to see if what I’ve seen was true.”
“Why will I tell you something that will ruin everything?”
“Because if only someone from the other camp understood everything, then maybe there is a way to this other than you taking over the guardians to get your point across! Weren’t you and the East Palace trying to say something after all those smartass punchlines you’ve been throwing?”
“No one was listening. Was there any other way?”
“There is a way now. I am willing to listen.”
He stared into her eyes. The darkness in his eyes subsided, replaced by two, bright obsidians. Valeriana could not fathom how those eyes were the same ones who greeted her the first time. There was something about Delaney that suddenly changed.
“You don’t ask a demon what’s wrong with them,” he told her, diverting his gaze elsewhere. “Because that means there’s nothing wrong.”
Valeriana frowned. “Okay, so what’s right?”
“Nothing. We’re basically, like what humans say, f-d up.”
Both her hands shot up. “Whoa, whoa.”
“There wasn’t much choice. I can’t find anything better to describe this life. When you become a demon, there are many things you forget,” he said. “Demons of dreams and illusions forget how to sleep because their entire life is a trapped nightmare. It’s hard to know what’s real and not real. You forget what your life was, the good things about it. You’ll be bathed in all its horrors.”
“Then why did you choose to become a demon?” She sat before him.
“I had no choice.”
“To have a choice or no choice is a choice,” she said.
“But the choices left are either crappy or hopeless. Those are choices, but they’re not worth making,” he told her. “We do things even if we don’t have control over what’s happening around us. That’s just how life is.”
“Do you regret it?”
“I don’t think I do. This life doesn’t give me a chance to regret anything. It was a price I was prepared to pay.”
Valeriana leaned in, her brows furrowing at his words.
“There are just times when it becomes uncontrollable . . .” he whispered. “There are urges. There are things that you just feel the need to do. There’s not a choice when those moments come. The lower tiers have no chance against those calls. It’s why they turn into savages; creatures of instinct. They’re reduced to lowlifes. That’s why we know what makes a good demon and what doesn’t.”
“What makes a good demon? As ironic as that sounds.”
“Those who don’t give in to demonic energy as ironic as that sounds. They have much more potential in controlling the power that comes with the darkness,” he said. “Honestly, it’s not darkness. It’s chaos. You’re trying to control chaos, or at least the things it gives you. It’s the opposite of the balanced elements. It’s wild and unrestrained. That’s why it’s powerful. That’s why it’s effective.”
“This is what Valdis traded for? This is what Erythnell gave him?”
“What did you think Erythnell was? He was the god of chaos and discord. Although he was an outcast, he was more powerful than any of the five gods. It took all of them to stow Erythnell away. And they barely succeeded.”
Valeriana thoughtfully nodded. “How does . . . the transformation happen?”
“Everything has a chaotic state. Water wielders are typically prone to having poison as their cornerstone. Most who wield the Spirit become demons of temptation. Fires become manipulative and hungry. Earth becomes violent. All that sort.”
“What was your element?”
“Wind, but I have roots in Spirit as well.”
Valeriana felt a shake in her awareness so she moved to stand. As much as she hated to leave, she had to wake up soon unless she wanted a wakeup call. And De Cirque always made the worst alarm clock.
“I promise I will let you go when all of this is over.”
Delaney stared at her. “I don’t think I want to leave,” he sincerely said.
“This place . . . is peaceful.” He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. “I have not experienced this tranquility in a long while. The calls are barely there.”
Valeriana choked on her breath as sheer coldness washed over her. Her consciousness seemed to suddenly darken. Janus came up to her daughter with a frown and pulled her away.
“You have to go. It will be very dangerous for your body if your consciousness remain here,” Delaney told her.
They hurried back to the ‘room,’ past the tall gates that bordered the gardens in her dreamstate. The choking sensation seemed to only worsen and very soon, Valeriana could not breathe at all.
Eventually, she gasped awake, soaked wet in her bed. Her clothes and blanket were heavy with water while, beneath the drenched layers, she was clinging tightly to the jade sphere. She stirred and coughed. The burn of the salty waters through her nose had her groaning.
“W-what the hell . . .” she muttered. “You guys, I hate you.”
Her co-members looked horrified beyond belief.
“You’re okay!” Maridie exclaimed, pulling on her arm. “We thought you were dead.”
“She slept like she was dead,” Lundie added.
“Yes. So hard you were rotting!” Bonjo said. The large man had several pails of water hanging from his arms.
No wonder Valeriana felt like she was drowning.
“We put you through three pails of water!” Jester cued in. “But you weren’t waking up.”
Valeriana sighed and surreptitiously tucked under her blankets as she sat up. She had been too taken with the jade sphere that she didn’t leave in time. The sun was already high which meant that she really was late waking up. She rubbed her face and sighed as she gazed at her co-members in displeasure. These bunch were even worse than the Twelve.
In a way.
The sun— “HOLY SHIZNITS! WHAT TIME IS IT?!” She stood.
“Time to rush and run.” Bonjo wagged a finger. “I think you’re running a little late.”
“Out! Out!” she yelled, kicking them out of her tent while she grabbed some dry clothes to change into.