Chasing the Dark Sea

No magic, no heroes, only the absurd struggle of a young man too willful to be sane, too clever to be compassionate, and too infatuated to be clever. Valiann's self-made quest to save his dilapidated world from the Haze breaks him down more than evil ever could, and as the oblivious millions shed their blood over outdated ideals, the cliff edge approaches, the end of yet another pointless age...

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14. Prince

The House of Del has ruled the Paladic Basin for seventeen generations, and the old man has always insisted that it was because of the strict discipline fathers instilled upon sons.

Hence the beating, hence the shame of parading bare-backed in the barracks and the brothels. This was how strength and power was supposedly passed down: through blood and broken bones.

The family cane had been tipped with hard leather, and its strikes had made him strong. Despite being the weaker, smaller, skinner child he had won countless duels, brawls, fights of honour or death. Then, in spite of himself, the criss-crossing scars on his back would seem worthy.

Then that illusion shattered. Sister Aliriel, smarter than he, better looking than he, stronger than he, had looked at him with eyes full of hate as he raised the evil cane. In that moment, her love for him was broken, and he understood that never will she read by his side again, poking him in the ribs until he told her the story about the one-legged alchemist for the umpteenth time.

Regret. One would not feel such a thing if reason alone could justify all.

 

No, he would not think himself into that corner, not again.

Lacking the skill and stamina of Hanni there was no way for him to get through the Remnant’s regenerative body through attrition. A single, powerful blow then.

Valiann could not explain to himself why he was leaping off the cliff, staff braced like a polearm. The buffeting wind brought utter, insane exhilaration.  

‘Unshackle this flesh!’

The staff, a deadly spear wreathed in his Haze, plunged into the Remnant up to the pommel then beyond it as momentum of the fall drove Valiann right through its monstrous body. Black flesh parted in waves amidst smoke and fantastic colours as hundreds of stunted voices cried out in his head. Human faces zoomed past, lingering traces of those consumed, and Valiann looked into all their eyes as if they were his dearest.

The Remnant parted like a sick flower, unwittingly cushioning his fall, and before its many limbs could drag itself back together Valiann’s Haze blasted it to pieces from inside out in a muffled explosion. Corruption reduced to smoke so fast the air imploded like a cannon shot from the sudden pressure. Debris blew out in concentric rings as a shockwave racked through Marian Bluff, shattering windows and waking up half the city. Black chunks rained in all directions, disintegrating mid-air into a vile-smelling mist that the sea wind quickly scattered into nonexistence.

Uttering one final note of madness, the wild Haze dispersed.

Valiann landed hard on his feet, his heart beating in spasms. With a savage yank he tore the Imperfect Crystal from the blackened husk of what was once big-chain. There was no identifying the body; a Thaumian zealously fighting for his country, an idiotic thug, a foolish Cadet bent on satisfying his own impulse, all would look the same.

The compound was completed destroyed, its tall buildings and warehouses flattened into rubble and their very foundations ripped out by the Remnant’s desperate search for living flesh. It was also eerily empty; the dead had been consumed and the living fled. Already every bell in the city was tolling. Soon people’s curiosity will overcome their fear, and the ruins will be scoured for the culprit. There was no telling what the owner of the compound would do to him, Cadet or not, and right now he haven’t the strength to run.

Valiann staggered towards the sea as blood oozed from his wounds, some of it streaked with black. There was an abandoned shack on the gravelly beach. Inside was a table reeking of bad alcohol and vomit, poor hygiene for cleansing, but then again if one can be done inside Halleaufel so can anywhere else.

Fortunately corruption has not seeped into the bloodstream, so overwhelming was his tamed Haze that it only managed to penetrate the skin. It was still a task to be taken seriously however, lest he made another mistake, and only when the bleeding turned into a healthy red did he ease up. Just in time too, for the burning sensation inside his skull was becoming unbearable.

It took him a while to spot the two kids cowering in a shadowed corner. The older girl looked almost a woman, with her pointed jaw and handsome black eyes that shone in the dark. She crouched protectively in front a tiny boy with mousy hair who looked no more than seven or eight. Both of them wore brown overalls and were tattooed under their eyes.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ Valiann started, ‘I’m not from the…that place.’

They neither spoke nor moved. Perhaps they were frozen with fear.

He tried again, ‘get out of here before they start hunting for you. Follow the eastern highway from a distance and find way station thirty-seven. There are Citadel people there who will take care of you.’

The girl seemed to struggle, then yelled, ‘we are not going back!’

‘The Citadel will help you –’

‘No one helps us!’

Valiann lowered his head when he remembered what the Citadel’s response was to his friend’s predicament, and the oily grins of the caravan drivers when he, wearing Citadel colours, inquired after the Marks.

The boy was tugging at the girl’s sleeve. ‘I saw him kill the thing,’ he whispered.

The girl looked surprised, then slightly apologetic, ‘I didn’t…mean to…’

Valiann shook his head. Only a monster would accept this warped gratitude. ‘I made it, the thing,’ he said, ‘to destroy your captors, but I was not strong enough to defeat it before it killed those I wished to save. I’m sorry.’

The boy began crying. The girl’s face transformed into a horrific parody of fear, bulging eyes, slack jaws, shaking all over, so theatrical it was difficult to imagine that someone had actually inflict this terror upon her.

Bile rose up in his throat, and Valiann thought he might throw up. No, it can’t end yet, not when, in satisfying his own anger, so many lives were trampled into the ground for the second time while the culprit of their suffering still remained at large.

He stood up, hurting all over but defiant. ‘I will go make this right, for you and me both.’

 

The tavern was deserted with the door hanging open and the front steps covered in spilt beer. His travel pack sat where he had left it, though it contained only a change of clothes. Everything else, money, papers, were in the clothes he had taken off on the cliff, now buried under rubble.

Breaking open a bottle of spirts helped with redressing the wounds and a few gulps instilled some strength back into his legs. Time he was on his way, though running from the city was far from his mind.

On the street a group of guards passed him by, leading three tattooed young men tied to a rope. One of whom had a bleeding stump for a right hand. Then there was a second group, fifteen Marks chained together. Not an hour has passed since the destruction of the compound and already they were being rounded up.

Valiann followed them, discreetly at first then boldly as it became impossible to conceal himself. At first on his tail were only two guards, then miscellaneous characters began came out of alleys, doorways, rooftops, shops, until a small army walked alongside him. Valiann scanned their faces and found ring-nose, limping and swinging a toothed sabre. Malicious eyes glared at him from every direction, yet none made a move.

All Marks were being taken to a manor house on the west side of the city. The huge estate sprawled across five blocks, and separated from the rabble without with painted walls three metres high. Cooing peacocks and the growling of some big cat came from the other side.

The manor’s entrance was a marbled archway flanked by mismatched nude statues depicting some obscure fantasy. The four guards at the gate let in groups of chained Marks without question, but blocked the way with drawn swords when Valiann approached. They wore body-fitting cuirasses with twin lions painted on the chest and tall, crested helmets that waved in the wind.

‘Let him through,’ said one of the mob following him, ‘he is wanted by the Mayor.’

‘I care not what your Mayor wants,’ said one crested guard, ‘if he’s not one of yours and not one of the Marked he will not be let in. Word knows we’ve seen enough of your filth.’

‘This man destroyed our warehouses. His Lordship will want to question him as well.’

‘Do not presume what His Lordship would think or do, such is not your place.’

That exchange alone made Valiann understand that there was yet a chance of things working out. ‘I am Valiann Del, Cadet of the Citadel, and I humbly request an audience with your Lord as per our accord with the Empire.’

The lionguard looked at him with the typical doubt that came with judging one by appearance. Valiann sent his Haze into the freshly extracted Imperfect Crystal, and made it glow with a fragile golden hue.  

They lowered their weapons.

The archway led to a huge courtyard. A four-storied manor the size of a small castle stood behind manicured lawns, but on its left, on a patch of newly turned dirt, was a dirty marquee half-collapsed on one side. Rows and rows of Marks sat under it with their hands and feet strung together; so many have survived his destruction, only to go back to where they started.

At least a hundred lionguards patrolled the grounds. They refused to let the mob up the manor steps.

Valiann, alone, was directed to the second floor. At the door he was given a grey robe, which he accepted, and was told to leave the staff, which he refused. An old butler with a grey ring of hair and a disinterested face opened the door and ushered him in. Realising Valiann was wounded he tried to help him walk, though the gesture looked more a force of habit than good will.

‘I have my staff.’ Valiann said, surprised.

‘I know, but it is my duty to render assistance to my Lord’s guests,’ the old man said bluntly.

‘It is not required, thank you.’

‘Younglings. Follow me then, and mind the steps.’

After two sets of inner doors they walked into a spacious meeting hall. The marble walls were lined with lanterns but devoid of art, and the ceiling was one continuous mosaic depicting some generic scene of battle. Long, narrow windows opened up to the night on both sides.

At the far end of the room sat three figures on high-backed chairs, two on one side and one the other. Valiann immediately recognised one of them and felt the strangest urge to wipe non-existent sweat off his brow.

‘Your guest, My Lord, Your Highness, Sir Mayor, is Valiann Del, a Cadet of the Citadel,’ the butler announced, ‘Valiann, you are in the presence of Prince Hai’Tyumenn In Kangsi, third in line to the World Crown, Princess Hai’Lythania In Kangsi, seventeenth in line to the World Crown, and Sir Tar’Dhalleus, Mayor of Marian Bluff. My Lord dislikes convoluted etiquette – a respectful bow is sufficient, which you should do so now.’

The Marish prince looked at once austere and careless, with his perfectly parted jet black hair and angular robe of gold and more black awkwardly contrasting the uneven, not-so-short stubble under his chin and sleeves that have been scrappily rolled up. He was tapping his left foot incessantly; one could easily mistake it for a sign of nervousness, but when his black eyes looked up they gave off the feeling of a regal lion assessing its prey, and not nervous at all.

Valiann bowed and heard the prince say, ‘Valiann Del? Lynia, if I recall correctly-’

The princess, who has forsaken her armoured dress for a pretty lavender one, looked at once timid and angry as she nodded. Valiann found himself noticing that her nails were free of the blood-red polish, and breathed a strange sigh of relief.

‘Paulus, the Starling is to be seated,’ the prince said, ‘and find my physician.’ The butler did so and left the room, closing the door behind him.

The Mayor, who was a mountain of a man with a thick beard draped over his chest, said, ‘forgive me My Lord, but I’ve been informed that this boy is responsible for the disaster at the harbour side warehouses.’

His warehouses.

‘So you’ve said, but I find it difficult to believe that one person could have wrought such destruction.’

‘There were witnesses who saw him battling the Haze monster –’

‘Is that not his job?’ countered the prince, irritation obvious.

‘Indeed my Lord, but I’ve also received word that this boy was last seen taunting one of my acquaintances on top of the bluff, from which the monster fell. This cannot be a coincidence.’

When the prince frowned and said nothing, the Mayor pressed. ‘Your Lordship will not object if my men take on the task of questioning him, to find out what his motives are?’

The prince thoroughly ignored him and looked at Valiann instead. ‘It was an act of revenge, was it not, Starling?’

‘Why do you say that?’ Valiann asked.

‘I was informed of what happened here two years ago. It was a truly unfortunate turn of events, the…misunderstanding that had occurred, which resulted in the death of the Mayor’s only blood relative.’

‘I wish not be reminded of it, my Lord, if it’s all the same to you,’ said the Mayor.

The prince casually picked up a decanter and poured himself a glass of wine, all the while looking only at Valiann. ‘Rest assured I do understand your motivation, but any further disruption to this city will not be allowed,’ he took a hearty swig and continued, ‘the Empire wishes to secure a supply of labour from Marian Bluff, and the detriments you’ve done to the negotiations is considerable. While I too find the practice of using Marks undesirable, it is a necessary evil I must court in order to maintain the Empire’s productivity.’

With one more gulp the prince emptied most of the glass. ‘Out of my gratitude for your actions at the Ilmarys your trespass tonight will be overlooked, but take no further action and consider your vengeance fulfilled. You will leave the city at dawn, for your own good. Is that understood?’

It was strange to hear the prince speak of his almost-kidnapping of Lynia with gratitude, but there was no time dwell on it. Standing up with difficulty, Valiann declared to the room, ‘I will do as you ask, but I ask for two things in return.’

‘Insolent child, you dare defy His Lordship’s goodwill -’ the Mayor sputtered, but the prince raised a hand.

‘Name them.’

Valiann pointed his staff first at the window, ‘One, treat every Mark under your employ like you would your own people,’ then at the Mayor, ‘and two, make sure no humans are sold in this city ever again.’

Tar’Dhalleus rolled onto his feet, knocking over a platter of glasses on the table beside him. ‘Why you tolerate this little bastard to such extent is beyond me, my prince, but I have neither your Lordship’s patience nor good temper,’ he then yelled to the guards outside, ‘call Talikiel! Tell him to come at once!’

The prince was about to take another long draught when he chuckled and spilled half the wine onto his collar. ‘You certainly do whatever you please, just as Lynia said,’ he said, clumsily wiping the stain with a napkin, ‘but understand that my leniency cannot turn to foolishness. Why at all ask for the impossible?’

‘I am not here for me.’

‘The Mayor has assured me that the matter regarding those Cadets had been resolved satisfactorily.’

‘Not for me.’

‘You don’t seem overly concerned with what you have done.’

‘So it seems.’ Valiann lied.

‘Are you not aware that with this audience I am prolonging your life?’

‘I am grateful.’

‘You also know that I can choose to do nothing, and let the Mayor do what he pleases?’

‘He already does what he please,’ said Valiann.

That gave the prince pause.

‘Explain.’

‘I will, but what of my conditions?’

The prince’s brow furrowed. ‘You know well I cannot answer to either. To be treated as a Marish citizen is an honour, which would be tarnished if the privilege was doughed out with misguided generosity. As to the matter of the human market the Empire has no jurisdiction. The city of Marian Bluff is but a vassal, and I have neither the incentive nor the will to interfere with its workings, however insidious one may find them.’

 ‘That sounds reasonable,’ said Valiann, ‘but for some reason even though you dislike dealing with this city you feel powerless about the fact that you must do so. This I do not understand.’

Hai’Tyumenn narrowed his eyes, which made him seem like a lion on the prowl more than ever.

‘Don’t dirty your ears with this drivel, My Lord, he is merely –’ began the Mayor.

‘Silence,’ the prince said, ‘Starling, explain.’

The moment he laid eyes on Hai’Tyumenn’s fierce yet dishevelled face he knew the opportunity was here to make a powerful ally. Underneath that not-so-meticulous mask of regal authority seethed a frustration not dissimilar to his own. Those weirdly grandiose statements about what was correct, those constant references to dislikes and can-nots; to Valiann they seemed like pleas for help.

So he said, ‘on my own volition I came here, saw the human market with my own eyes, and independently came to the conclusion that I must destroy it. I am doing this alone, without help from anyone, knowing that there is little chance of actual success, simply because I have decided to do so. You think this an admirable thing.’

Hai’Tyumenn looked at the wine glass in his hand and after a moment’s thought put it down. ‘To this I admit.’

‘I do what I want,’ Valiann said, ‘even though deep down I know this trade will go on no matter what I do, because all I can do is make a mess and be a nuisance. I’m just a Cadet, prince, someone who has dedicated his life to combating the Haze and not the ways of the world, so throwing a tantrum at things I don’t like is all I can do. You, on the other hand, is the opposite of me.’

‘What do you mean?’

Lynia, who has stayed silent all this time, spoke up, ‘Tyumenn, you ask questions when you don’t need to.’

Valiann nodded, ‘the princess sees your heart. You say Marks cannot be citizens, that there is no choice but to deal, but while that may be true for some it is but an empty statement to you. You, the third prince, leader of an army that has conquered the world, idol of fifty million people who would treat your every word as commandments. Yet, inexplicably, you choose to be bound by rules of state and the laws of a mere vassal, and explain it away as if that is the way of things. Why? With one word you can free all Marks and gain their loyalty forever. With a single march of your army this city of thugs will fall in a day. What are you doing here, sitting in this ghoulish room drinking cheap wine, making deals with people you dislike, asking questions you already know the answers to?’

The prince’s foot tapped furiously as his eyes became wild. ‘Few have lectured me so and lived.’

‘This is Valiann Del, brother,’ Lynia said, ‘do you understand now why I wish to marry him?’

Valiann blinked hard. Many things have happened tonight, yet none was as shocking as what couldn’t have just come out of her mouth. ‘Did you…did you just say…’

The door banged opened and in came a man whose body looked set to explode with muscle. After a cursory bow to the royals he addressed the Mayor, ‘you called for me?’

The Mayor, who had stood awkwardly during their conversation with pent up rage, pointed at Valiann with one ruddy finger. ‘This scoundrel wrecked the warehouses and murdered the champion of the Bluff. You know what to do, Talikiel. Spare me no detail afterwards.’

‘With pleasure.’

There was plenty of time to react as Talikiel’s hand, the size of a bear claw, lunged for his throat, but he barely managed to step back, his body sluggish. The follow-up left straight was fast and it caught him on the chin, sending the world spiralling upwards in a shower of white stars.

 Valiann hit the ground like a sack. Unthinkable, to be floored by a swing so slow. A shard of broken glass cut into the back of his head, courtesy of the clumsy Mayor. ‘Let’s not ruin the carpet,’ he heard Talikiel say as an iron grip pulled him up by the hair, making blood drip down his neck in a tired fall.

With what strength he could manage he stabbed the staff single-handedly at Talikiel’s armpit, and watched with anticipation as it was ripped away. With both arms occupied, Talikiel saw too late the hidden shard of glass in the other hand and reacted on instinct.

The hard knee to his stomach reshuffled his innards but he didn’t stop. With a desperate swing that tore free a large chunk of his hair, he stabbed the shard into the soft nook on Talikiel’s elbow and felt it sink all the way in.

A scream of rage, and the hand on his head loosened amidst spasms. His knees buckled the moment he hit the floor, and before he could catch a breath his ankle was grabbed and like a flopping fish Talikiel tossed him across the room.

He hit the wall hard, crushing a lantern against his back, and as burning oil drenched into his robe only one thing crossed his mind: I can’t die here.

Taking a painful breath, Valiann ran at Talikiel with his back on fire. Again the left straight, wickedly quick but just as predictable, was there to welcome him. Remembering the way Hanni would launch himself into the air spinning like a ballerina, Valiann twisted sideways, letting the blow slip by his flank, breaking his own ankle in the process, and threw himself back-first into Talikiel’s chest.

The two rolled in a ball of fire across the room. Ripping off his robe, which until a few seconds ago was brand new, Valiann scrambled for his staff, then reeled over as a hand caught his good foot. His fingers barely closed upon the metal-cool pommel and blindly swung it backward. A hard but yielding thump, and the hand loosened.

The struggle lasted seconds, but it took everything he had. The patch of frayed carpet under his nose seemed to be alive, its many fibres dancing like seaweed during a rising tide. Blinking only made his eyelids too heavy to lift up. This was not, among other things, a good time to sleep, even though the night was deep and the floor was so very inviting…

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