Author's Note: This is my anniversary fic! Seven years ago, I joined this site, and started writing fanfiction - and this is the fic I always wanted to write. I'm happy to say I think it's turning out well, and I hope you agree. If you happen to stumble in and read this, please, by all means, leave a comment. Feedback is my favorite thing, like, ever. Also, "Origins" is a working title and is subject to change without notice if or when I think up a better one.
Warnings: Character death, language, probably some violence, and copious amounts of politics and mad science and doomsday cults and possibly a lot of mindfuckery, because I do love mindfuckery.
Chapter One: Runners in the Forest
Terra was an old world; that much went without saying. It was a parasitic planet, living off the energy of younger, sacrificial planets, and it was well into its tenth or eleventh life cycle now. And a prosperous cycle it was, at that – the old cities were flourishing with the opening of new trade routes into the previously-unknown northern area of the mother continent, and the new types of ships made it possible to explore the oceans. Newborn cities and towns were budding up like vernal flowers as wealthy merchants established new settlements along the trade routes; port towns sprang up around the ocean to provide a berth for the exploring ships. The land was largely fertile, offering up crops as willingly as weeds. The king had recently passed into the Path of Souls, but the queen regent was more than capable of maintaining a peaceful rule until her son came of age, which would be quite soon indeed. The boy was frivolous, to be sure, but it was a frivolous age.
The people of Terra believed this particular cycle might very well go on forever, particularly now, when so much of the world had suddenly opened up to them; why should their god – He Who Sees All – give them so much, if they were not meant to keep it?
In the end, it would not be an act of divine punishment that destroyed them. Their downfall would come from a far more mortal source: greed.
The village of Bran Bal, located in the warm southern region of the mother continent, was almost pastoral in nature; it was little more than a few small homes clustered around a central pond. The population was quite small to begin with, and had begun to shrink of late. Far from the trade routes, Bran Bal was a poor village, and the young people of the village wanted nothing so much as to get away from it and flee to the city. Most of them went to Cazad or Belapest; they were nearby enough to be easy to reach, yet far enough to fully distance themselves from the dusty little town they so despised.
Bran Bal was quiet for another reason: the royal family wanted it that way. It was the town nearest to one of their favorite retreats, and their ancestors had selected it precisely because it was far from the capitol city and all of its chaos. Still, when they traveled to Bran Bal, the chaos tended to follow them, and so, for a month every vernal season, the tiny city was filled with all of the aristocracy Terra's mother continent had to offer, all of them sniffing and sniveling over the poor accommodations. As a result, most of the natives of Bran Bal simply left and spent the month elsewhere, with their families.
The orphans of Bran Bal – and there were quite a few; when young parents fled the city, they often abandoned their "baggage" – simply spent the month in the neighboring forest, often laughing about the nobility as they spied from between the trees or across the grand bridge (all else aside, Bran Bal had a magnificent bridge to her name).
One orphan, however, didn't care to laugh at the wealthy, and instead spent his days wandering through the trees, coming up with stories of adventure. He was something of an oddity. His family hadn't come from this region, and so he looked odd – he didn't have the blond hair, tanned skin, and short stature of his fellows; he was most assuredly from the central region: he had short white hair and pale skin, and he was tall, though he hadn't yet hit the age where he might become gangly. He was only eight years old, though he was clever beyond his years, and had been alone as long as anyone could remember. His parents, they had told him, were vagrants. The woman had been pregnant when she'd arrived, and the two of them had left after he was born, leaving the squealing orphan behind so as to more easily continue their journey. As a result, the boy had grown up with a certain attitude of independence. Several people had tried to take him in at one point or another; none had kept him for long. It was as much his fault as anyone's.
It was just as well, he supposed, perching on a fallen log. He wanted to leave Bran Bal someday anyway, just like everyone else. He would leave, one day. There was nothing for him here, after all. He cocked his head, listening to the sounds of laughter coming from the village. The royals had arrived a week ago, the queen and the prince, and the vultures had arrived shortly afterwards. The boy wondered how long the vultures would remain. As long as the royals do, probably, he thought bitterly. It wasn't that the boy hated the royal family. He'd never so much as seen them; their manor was on the other side of the forest, and they didn't venture to Bran Bal – the nobles came to them, instead. No, it wasn't that he hated the royals. He just hated the way they attracted the nobles, like vultures to carrion.
He grumbled to himself, and stood. It wouldn't do to stand around like this; glaring off into the distance wouldn't do any good. The boy simply stuck his tongue out in the direction of the village, and continued along his familiar, well-walked path, daydreaming as he went. Perhaps today he would be one of the king's men from the old stories, off to save some young maiden… no, that was horribly dull; besides, what would he do with a maiden? No, instead, he would be… off to slay some horrendous beast. Yes, that was far more interesting. But what manner of beast? A dragon? That seemed horribly stupid; dragons were useful creatures, yet they were always being slain in the stories. Hm. Perhaps… a… a… hecteyes? That didn't seem worthy of a noble quest, but hecteyes' were disruptive creatures. Perhaps this one was huge. Yes. A huge hecteyes; that was his goal.
"Be afraid, foul beast, for I, a guardian of the king's realm, have come to slay you!" He picked up a stick, brandishing it at the empty air. He roared, for of course he had to play both parts. Come to think of it, did a hecteyes even roar? Never mind, this one did. He roared again, for emphasis, and then declared, "Your roars can't weaken me, demon, though they are fierce! You will taste steel!" He sliced at the air…
And a scream echoed through the forest.
The boy froze, the stick clenched tightly in his little hands. Whoever had screamed, they had quite thoroughly ruined his game. Shaking, he cowered in the undergrowth alongside the trail, listening intently. His heart pounded painfully in his chest, and he felt the pulse in his skull – what was he going to do? What could he do? Was someone hurt? Was someone hurting them? If they found him, would they hurt him, too? His green eyes narrowed sharply. Why was he sitting here like some frightened child? Because I am a frightened child, he answered himself, then shook his head. What was the use of playing someone brave if you couldn't be brave when reality demanded it? As he stood, his hand tightened on the stick in his hands. He stepped out of his hiding spot, and climbed onto one of the natural walkways formed by the floating trees' roots. It would be easier, he thought, to see things from above.
He moved quietly along the platform, careful not to cast a shadow on the ground below. He walked where he could, but in other places, he had to crawl in order to remain hidden. More screams split the air, and each time, the boy froze, listening. He couldn't tell if the scream was one of pain or fear or something else, and that terrified him. But he knew he was getting closer: the screams were growing louder, and he thought he could hear footsteps on the ground below. He inched along, agonizingly slowly, still shaking with a combination of terror and adrenaline.
He caught sight of them in a flash, as they passed beneath the trees.
In the lead was a strangely-dressed young man, his long silvery-white hair pulled back tightly and held in one hand, likely to not give those chasing him anything to grab onto. He was on foot now, but his clothing suggested he might have been riding at some point; the boy wasn't close enough to tell if the gear was for a horse or dragon, but that was hardly important now. Behind him were four others: a man, two women, and a fourth unidentifiable in armor. The boy's stomach twisted into a knot, but he steeled his nerves. He didn't know the story behind this pursuit, but four to one seemed like incredibly unfair odds, and as far as he could tell, the man who was fleeing was unarmed. Well, he wasn't. He had a stick.
He slid down from the platform, dropping to the ground carefully and quietly. If the group was following the path – and it looked as if they were – they would have to loop back around through here soon. The boy sank into the undergrowth again, watching the path ahead carefully. He would have to time this perfectly. Even a breath short, and not only would he have not stopped the runners, but he'd have alerted them to his presence, and who knew what might happen then? He watched, terrified that perhaps he had miscalculated. Maybe the man being chased had broken away from the path in a panic, hoping to lose them in the dense undergrowth. Maybe he'd been caught. Maybe the boy had somehow forgotten this part of the trail, or had forgotten which part of the trail they were on. The moments stretched on, agonizingly slowly, and just when he thought he might have to give up on this mad plan, they appeared again.
The man was clearly winded by this point, looking over his shoulder as he ran. Still, he ducked and dodged around low-hanging roots easily, if not always smoothly. Those behind him were gaining distance; that was clear - they didn't seem tired at all, but their quarry was tiring. The boy gritted his teeth, and waited until they were near. The man sprinted past him, not noticing him in the slightest. The chasers didn't seem to see him, either, and that was to his advantage.
Just as the first – a red-haired woman with a snake tattoo curled from her bared stomach up to her face – ran by, the boy shoved the stick out, catching her ankle. Caught by surprise, the woman yelped, then went sprawling a short way down the trail. The man, a severe-looking fellow with a necklace of small rodent skulls, came to a sharp halt a breath away from her, looking around in confusion, but the man in armor (it had a very noticeable triple-headed dragon crest on the helm, the boy noted) behind him wasn't so lucky. He collided with the skull-wearing man, and the two of them went tumbling. The final woman, who was so overweight it was a wonder she could run at all, walked up to the other three, laughing merrily.
"Ah, tripped over a stone, did you?" The woman held out a hand to the snake woman, who snarled. She shot to her feet as if she'd never fallen at all, and faster than the boy could see, she drew two wickedly-curved swords from their scabbards at her waist. Her dark eyes swept the forest around her.
"That was no stone. There's someone out here," she hissed, and the other woman's plump, good-natured face immediately soured into something far darker, and much more dangerous. She unfurled the whip she carried in her hand, and held it at the ready, prepared to strike. The two men became likewise prepared, though the man with the dragon crest looked down the path toward where the other man had fled, perhaps trying to decide which prey to pursue. The boy struggled not to run away. As of now, they didn't know where he was. If he moved… if he moved…!
Footsteps came from down the path. "What's wrong," a melodic, airy voice called. "Giving up already?" To the boy's surprise and horror, the white-haired man from before stepped into view, grinning like a fool. Up close, he was quite beautiful, with bright blue eyes and fine features, his pale cheeks flushed and hair damp from the run. The boy's heart sank. He hadn't realized he was trying to save a cocky idiot. Who else would come back to taunt his pursuers? He might have just risked his own life for nothing, and he might have to sit here and watch these four commit murder, and then… and then they'd kill him.
"Quiet, Neirin," the snake-woman snapped, taking a step toward the man. Without thinking, the boy grabbed a rock – more of a pebble, really – and threw it at the woman's head. It missed, bouncing off of her shoulder, but she spun, enraged. The woman with the whip flicked it sharply, before the rock had even made contact, and the lash curled around the boy's wrist like a tentacle. She yanked, and he felt himself helplessly torn from the bushes. The snake woman was on him in a flash, her knee on his chest, her sword at his neck.
He was going to die. He felt oddly calm.
"Who are you?" the woman hissed. The boy noticed that when she snarled like that, the snake mouth on her cheek seemed to open wider. Odd. "Who are you? Who sent you?" the woman continued, and the sword pressed harder against his throat. The boy's heart began to pound faster. I'm going to die. I'm going to die. He-Who-Sees-All, accept my soul and let me be born again and-
Footsteps nearby caught his attention, and he wished he could turn his head without injuring himself. "A child, Maliris?" It was the white-haired man, the boy saw, as the man leaned over the two of them. Why hadn't he run yet? The woman looked up at him, scowling. The boy was beginning to suspect she always scowled. The man shrugged. "I fail to see how a child is a problem. He's probably some stray from Bran Bal. I understand they wander through this forest when the court settles down in the village."
The woman sheathed her sword, but grabbed the boy by the collar and hoisted him to his feet. "He tripped me to put me off pursuit. He might serve as some distraction for someone further up. Think, Neirin! We should kill him now, before he can report to his master!" She gave his collar a shake, as if to emphasize her point. The boy blinked, confused. Were these people… with the white-haired man, Neirin? His friends? But why were they chasing him, then? And why had he screamed?
Neirin frowned, staring down at him. He shrank back. He thinks she's right, he realized, despairing. That's what you get for trying to help, you idiot! Now he was going to die, and all because he'd tried to save the life of the very man who was going to order his death! The boy was young, true, but even he could appreciate the fine irony in this situation. He closed his eyes, as tightly as he could, and waited for the order…
"Why did you trip my guardians?"
The boy opened his eyes, and came face-to-face with Neirin. The man had knelt, and was staring at him intently, as if perhaps he could see into him and see his very soul. And perhaps he could. And if he did, why, he'd see that the boy had only been trying to help, after all! With renewed hope, the boy cleared his throat and said, "I thought they were chasing you. You screamed," he added quickly, as if that might make everything the slightest bit clearer. Neirin stared at him a moment longer… and then his lips twitched, and the man began to laugh. He laughed until he fell backwards onto the forest floor, where he continued to laugh, gasping for breath. The boy stared at him, mystified. That wasn't at all the reaction he had expected. The guardians, meanwhile, simply frowned at the orphan boy, as if they thought he had gone quite mad.
It was the man with the skulls who spoke at last. "It was a… training exercise, of sorts. Neirin, recover your senses." He looked down disdainfully at Neirin, who was still laughing. The younger man sat up at last, chuckling.
"What did I tell you?" he asked breathlessly, looking around at the guardians, who didn't seem willing to look back at him. "Come on now, what did I tell you? I told you, no matter where I go-" He gestured toward the boy, who was still bewildered by the entire affair. "-I only need to scream, and someone loyal to me will come to my aid! I wasn't expecting a child, to be fair, but all the same, he was effective." Neirin stood, brushing himself off. His gear was for dragon-riding, the boy realized, in muted bemusement. The man walked over, and gestured for the woman – Maliris, he had called her – to release her captive. She scowled, of course, but released him nonetheless. "Where are you from, boy?" Neirin asked. "I'll take you back to your parents."
The boy looked away. "I don't know where my parents are. Er, sir," he added quickly, because if Neirin could afford to ride a dragon and have guardians, surely he was of the aristocracy, and it wouldn't do to offend him now.
Neirin sobered immediately, and then, a thoughtful look crossed his fair face. "An orphan," he mused, with the look of someone who was planning something. He looked to his guardians. "Tell me. Those of royal blood are supposed to show charity to those less fortunate, are they not?" What was he playing at? The boy frowned, looking at the guardians, hoping for some sort of clue. The only clue he received was a blend of scowls and looks of horror. Neirin seemed satisfied by this response, and he looked back to the boy, smiling like a cat who had captured a mouse. "Would you like to live in a castle?"
The man in the dragon armor whipped around to stare at Neirin, and though his face was hidden, his voice carried nothing but stunned rage. "What- you would take him in? He could be a spy for an assassin! You'd be better off just killing him here and now, and ending any chance that-"
"Oh, shut up," Neirin said lightly, and the man fell immediately silent.
A castle. Those of royal blood. Guardians. God!
"You're the prince!" the boy blurted, his green eyes wide and startled. Neirin laughed again.
"So I am, or so they tell me, and so I tell you. Come along, it's a long way back to the dragons, and I promised I'd be back before nightfall." He walked on, without waiting to see whether or not the boy even wanted to 'live in a castle.' Regardless, the boy tagged along. After all, anything had to be better than Bran Bal. A short way down the path, Neirin paused, and looked back at him. "I never did ask your name, did I?"
The boy shook his head. "No, Highness. It's Kuja."
Author's Note: Aaaand that's it! Come back next Tuesday for chapter two. Thanks for reading!