30 Promise Yourself to Me
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Murmuring sounded from the halls of the palace, accompanied by the beating of the drum, filling the quiet night. Outside, wind chimes tinkled in the breeze only to stop after a while, the place shrouded in depression with the air all around stagnating.

The murmurs grew frantic and the originally synchronized chants became disorganized, the words hard to make out as long as one didn’t listen closely. The ensuing chaos could make one flustered, the heart beating in a state of agitation and the breath hitching in one’s throat.

The people kneeling in the hall that had been afraid from the beginning but now, they felt as if ghosts were grasping at them, trying to engulf them in the aura of death that already haunted this place. Not just a few of them almost faltered, their voices growing lower, a few words missing in between. Only the people kneeling next to the bed in the very center of the room were still murmuring with the same clarity they had shown at the beginning.

"Hear our prayers, take pity on this young soul, have mercy on our kingdom, and save our prince’s life. The God of Light and Life is merciful. Please, show us compassion, save this lost soul, and guide it back to us."

The chant was repeated over and over again, only every so often a few verses of praise for the God of Light and Life were interjected before the original chant began anew.

Le Dau’s eyelids quivered. The prayers stopped for a moment before continuing with more fervor. Realizing what had happened, even the people in the back focused again and continued to chant.

Unfortunately, the youth’s consciousness slipped further and further away. The words of the prayers that had originally been clear to him and soothed his mind, became indistinct mutterings that seemed to come from far, far away as if they weren’t even in the same room anymore.

He couldn’t make out the voice of his father and mother any longer, he didn’t know which of the servants was there with them, he didn’t know if the physician had already left or was still working silently next to him.

Everything was a blur. Muffled sounds, muted lights, nothing was clear anymore. Even the sharp pain in his chest had become only a dull thump, his mind seeming to slowly disconnect from his body as if it was indeed time for him to go with no way to turn back.

Le Dau wanted to open his eyes and take a last look at his parents, tell them that they shouldn’t grieve too much because there would be a new life waiting for him in the future.

Yes, he did not doubt that for a single moment. Since their god was benevolent he would be given a new chance in the future now that this life had been cut short. Maybe he would even have the luck to be reincarnated as his parents’ son again. That was all he wished for. Nothing else. Just a new chance to repay his family for all that they had done for him.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have the energy to even say that. He could only continue to lie on the bed, his senses receding bit by bit, the world becoming dark and silent and cold.

He seemed to be suspended in that state forever but bit by bit, he got used to this dreadful coldness and it even seemed to him as if warmth engulfed him, enveloping him like a loving embrace. The dull pain in his chest that had already become so constant that he felt it had always been this way suddenly disappeared, letting him take the first deep breath in weeks.

Just when he exhaled, drums were beaten in the distance, the low tones sounding as if they wanted to lull him to sleep, the vibrations a faint echo in his body that sparked just the faintest bit of strength, allowing him to gain enough clarity to free his mind from the numbness that had taken over.

Still, he felt dizzy and his thoughts were slow as if he was trying to wade through mud with this body that had been battered by illness. Listening to the drums, Le Dau couldn’t help but think of his older brother that had lost his life back in the war.

His brother had loved the sound of the drums. At one of the festivals, they had secretly snuck out of the palace and run through the streets of the capital city. They had worn the clothes of the commoners and taken part in the festival. When he couldn’t walk anymore, his brother had lifted him up onto his shoulders. They had sat there at the banks of the river and watched as some men performed a dance to the loud sound of the drums. His brother had said 'This is the song of war. It is encouraging our warriors, instilling fear in our enemies. When I have grown up, I’ll have them play the song when I ride to battle.'

And he had done so. The drums had echoed, they had encouraged the soldiers, they had instilled fear in their enemies and the first few battles had gone well. Unfortunately, his brother hadn’t been able to celebrate for long, and in the end, only his cold body had been returned to the palace.

Ah, he couldn’t help but feel guilty. One son had been taken from their parents already. Now, that he had also come of age, he was taken from them in an even worse manner. His parents were probably devastated.

"Wake up." The deep voice of a man sounded, startling Le Dau.

Wake up? How did one wake up from death? He couldn’t move nor could he open his eyes. Unfortunately, he couldn’t speak either so there was no way to tell the man. He could only keep silent and hope that the man would understand without saying anything.

"Wake up." The deep voice issued the same words again as if that man really couldn’t tell. The tone was demanding and Le Dau’s heart quivered at the sound as if alone this voice was able to hoist his soul out of his body and make him obey.

Hearing it, he could not help but wonder just who would come and order him to do something like this despite his state. Somebody who would dare speak to someone of his family like this could not be an ordinary person and with the almost magnetic pull of this voice, he had a hard time even believing that this was another human being.

Ah, could it be that this was already the underworld? Was the one speaking to him a ghost on the path to reincarnation? Was that why he should open his eyes? Had he unknowingly arrived at the great river and should now walk over the bridge to start his new life?

If that was the case, then what hadn’t been possible before should be doable now.

Le Dau tried to open his eyes and his lashes fluttered. Finally, his eyes cracked open and he saw the person in front of him. The sight was blurry at first but after blinking two more times, he could finally see him clearly.

The man was more than a head taller than him, with hair that had been bound at the back of his head so it wouldn’t get in the way and clothes that seemed more armor than robe. His eyes were sharp and deep-set, his brows giving him a harsh impression. Those thin lips formed a straight line, making the man look even fiercer.

Le Dau instinctively lowered his head again, wondering if it would seem rude if he backed off a little. This person … Just who was he? He certainly did not seem like a ghost as he had originally thought. If this really was the underworld, then he could only think of him as a demon. Or maybe this was the king of hell himself?

While Le Dau kept his head lowered, the man looked at him, his gaze serious. It was as if he wasn’t just seeing the husk of his body but could instead look into the depths of his soul, laying every thought and every longing in there bare.

Le Dau tensed under his gaze and finally slightly raised his own when he could not take it any longer. He wanted to ask what it was that this man wanted from him but seeing his eyes, he did not dare to speak up.

Before he could lower his gaze again, the man finally spoke in his stead. "Do you know who I am?"

Le Dau stared at him in a daze and slowly shook his head. "I do not know." While he had a guess, he did not dare to utter it for fear of angering this man. Something told him that when this man showed his wrath, it would be terrifying. He definitely did not want to be on the receiving end of that.

The man merely nodded as if he had not expected anything else. "That is good as well. Then let me introduce myself: I am En Ge Hir, the God of War."

Le Dau who had already wanted to look away was frozen in shock. He didn’t know why he would see any god but he could actually believe that this person was indeed the God of War. He definitely looked the part.

Le Dau’s gaze flitted about and he wondered just what he should say. How did one greet a god? How did one talk to a god? "I …" He wanted to say something but finally couldn’t speak any further.

En Ge Hir motioned around. "This is the world of the gods. Over there is where my palace stands. I’ve brought you here to offer you a way to fulfill your prayer."

Le Dau raised his brows. "My prayer?" Had he himself also prayed at any moment since he fell ill after that assassination attempt? He couldn’t remember doing so.

En Ge Hir reached over and cupped his cheek. "You do not have to say it out loud. You don’t have to say the word 'pray' either. It suffices to wish for it to happen with all your heart.

"What you wished for that was to not have to leave your parents to such regret. But they will regret as long as they lose their second child too. Right now, they are fervently praying to the God of Light, hoping for a miracle. But I can tell you that this miracle will never happen. The God of Light will never get involved. You’ve been gravely hurt. Your time has come. He won’t do anything to change that."

Le Dau nodded. He had heard the prayers but he hadn’t expected them to work. After all, he had noticed his world slowly diminishing. If the God of Light wanted him to live, he would’ve done something already. Why wait for the last possible moment?

The God of War’s grabbed his other cheek too, tilted Le Dau’s head up, and peered into his eyes. "Are you willing to make a deal with me?"

"Deal?" Le Dau stared at this man, unable to believe what was happening. The God of Light — the god their whole country was praying to — did not want to help. But now, the god of another nation was offering him a chance at survival? It sounded too good to be true.

En Ge Hir nodded though. "I will let you come back to life in your old world, fulfilling your wish and fulfilling the prayers of your people. With my blessing, you will be able to live until old age, not be harmed by sickness or any weapon there is in the world. In return, you will do something for me. Do you agree to that?"

Le Dau looked at the man in front of him. The God of War … This was not the god he had worshiped in his life. It was hard to understand why this person would want to help him. But since the God of Light would not consider doing the same, this was his only chance at sparing his parents from grief. He should at least try, shouldn’t he? "May I ask what it is that the God of War wants from me?"

"Your next life. After you die of old age, you will not be reborn. Instead, your soul will be brought here to the world of the gods and you will live with me in my palace. Will you accept that condition?"

Le Dau looked at En Ge Hir, unable to believe what he had heard. Not being able to reincarnate was a harsh truth. He could give his parents this life but he would lose the next one. It was asking him to give up a lot. And not only that, but it was also completely inexplicable to him. "Why me?"

En Ge Hir continued to look at him deeply. "Why you? Well, that depends on what you would like to know. Are you asking why I noticed you? It was because they played the song of war when you and your brother were at a festival once.

"Or are you asking why I would consider making you my partner? Then that was because it was your prayer that echoed in my palace while your brother fought on the battlefield.

"There is no battle without somebody left behind that will show their worry and give their hope to one of the gods so that they can make sure that their loved one will return. So shouldn’t I have somebody like that at my side too?

"I guess it would also answer why I am willing to fulfill your wish. There is something I want from you, something that only you can give me. So why shouldn’t I give something to you that you long for? It is only right that this will be an exchange both of us make willingly and that will be worth it to both of us.

"So, Le Dau, do you agree to my proposal?"

Le Dau looked up at this man that he had never seen before. Fulfilling his wish, fulfilling a wish in return … It seemed fair. His parents would not have to mourn a second child in quick succession. His people would not have an uncertain future with no heir to the throne. Even his brother in the underworld or the next life would certainly be proud if he knew that he had caught the God of War’s eye.

On the other hand, Le Dau did not know if he would also be able to gain this man affection and carve out a fulfilling life at his side. And who could say for sure if it was good for a mortal to enter the world of the gods and live with one of them?

There were too many questions, too many uncertainties but … He was willing to give it a try. Some battles had to be fought. Some decisions had to be made. Maybe in the future, there would be sacrifices but in the end, the results might be worth it. He was willing to try.

Thus the prince nodded. "I do." And when he closed his eyes again, he was sent back to his own kingdom and opened his eyes with a light sigh, his promise still echoing in his heart. Who knew just how many years would go by until he saw this man again?

This is the end of "Choosing You". I hoped you liked the short story collection! If you did (or even if you didn't), I'd love to hear from you in the comments or see you over in the review section. Rating the project is, of course, also welcome. ;)

Anyway, I got some comments from readers who were sad that the stories were pretty short and I also feel that some of them have a lot more potential than the short stories were able to show, so I'll be starting a second project to deal with that. I'll be announcing more news regarding that soon-ish.