The Game of Gods Chapter 2
Kuja observed the chaos surrounding him from under long, silvery lashes, his arms crossed and an amused, if slightly melancholy smile seated pleasantly on his lips. The Silver Dragons being loaded with supplies did not appear over pleased with being reduced to pack animals, but they bore their burden with dignity, shrieking in undisguised rage only when some errant Mage managed to tread on their delicate tails. They were creatures of incredible and supernatural magnificence, and Kuja felt a guilty twinge of pride flicker across his face. He made these creatures. He gave them birth, breath, beauty, and he loved them, if not like a father, than like a mentor. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to watch their sinewy, white gold feather-and-scale coated muscles ripple with power, and to know they in some way, they would always be his.
Zidane. All hubris dissolveled, the empty space it left behind filled quickly with savage guilt. No . . . that thinking was part of the old way. The old him, the beast that hid behind a pretty-boy mask. He hoped his eyes, so cold and apathetic before his fall from grace, would not betray that he had been indulging in himself again.
Zidane skidded to a stop on the slick, dewy grass, a dizzy smile on his face. The early morning sunlight sparkled in his blonde hair, looking for all the world like it had been spun of gold. His face was open, ruddy, and honest. A good face. A handsome, warm face . . ."The Genomes and Mages are almost ready to leave- theyre just saying their last good-byes." He pointed over his shoulder to a gaggle of moving bodies, pressing around Mikoto and the ten others that would be accompanying them on their mission. Kuja felt that bittersweet smile come again, making the corners of his mouth twitch.
"I think its for the best, anyway. The dragons are beginning to, ah . . . fidget." Kuja nodded at the blackened, scorched streaks of grass along the loading area. "Have you decided who you will be taking on your search for the little- for Vivi?" The name sat heavy on his tongue. A name . . . a personification of individuality. And, if his theory was right . . .
"Mm. 219, and that Genome, there." The teenager pointed to a tall Genome with a particularly luxurious tail. "Hes- shes- well, whatever- the name being used is Rowan."
"Names . . . "
"Hey, its better than numbers." Said Zidane cheerfully, clapping his brother on the shoulder. "We got kinda tired of that- it was really hard to remember. Even some of the Mages are using real names, now."
The cold answer promoted a moment of quasi-silence, sharp as glass in the chilly dawn air. Kuja felt Zidanes hand slip, and a sudden feeling of regret for acting so aloof made him yearn to beg pardon to his younger brother. They way he treated others before would not help him in this mission to dissolve the painful guilt worming its way through his heart. He willed himself to say the words that Zidane, and most others on his planet, put so much faith in, words that he himself had not ever actually spoken, words of apology. But the kind syllables caught on his tongue, and were swallowed without his own conscious self directing the action. Too many years of no regrets had conditioned Kuja to automatically absolve himself from wrongdoing. After all, its much harder to kill when you know you are committing evil.
New words welled up from inside, puppeteering his lips into pronouncing hated letters. "I have one more request that I did not make known before." He stopped, fighting the selfishness that was forcing him to go through with this, internally screaming for Zidane, the kind, forgiving boy that he was never meant to be, to wipe that innocent quizzical look off of his face.
"Im sure it can be arranged, whatever it is. Should I get Mikoto over here?" The blonde thief asked, and Kuja felt a shiver of self-loathing, an unfamiliar feeling, soar through his blood. He turned his back on the teen, not wishing to see the look that would root itself on his face when Kuja made spoke next.
"No. This request is for you alone." A pause, terrible in its anticipation. "Zidane, when you begin your search for the little mage, you are not to make contact with any of your companions."
"Say what?!" Kuja felt Zidane recoil behind him, as if Kujas silver hair had become alive with snakes. "You must be insane! I have to talk to them; I have to talk to Dagger! Theyll think I died if I dont!"
"I want no one other than necessary to know that I live."
Zidanes rage was palpable, pressing on the mind like a swarm of wasps. "Shit, Kuja, I never have to tell them that!"
Now, Kuja turned and looked at his enraged brother. "And how then would you explain that you could not stay that night, could not celebrate with the rest of the world, could not rejoice with your princess in her bed?" Zidane went red, from anger or embarrassment, none could tell.
"Shes- thats *none* of your business." His words were ice, yet burned with passion and fury, stinging Kuja like thousands of little pins. The pale man could not describe why this would hurt him so, and why he felt the insatiable need to bring the sudden animosity between the two men to a halt.
"Zidane . . . please listen to me." He pleaded, lacing his words with a hint of the blame he felt. "I have no desire to insult you, or keep you from those whom you care for." Seeing a faint hint of flush dissolve from his brothers skin, Kuja reached forward and took the boys face in his hands, beginning to speak before Zidane shoved them away. "Her eyes are like the clearest pools, honest and deep beyond mortal belief, and often they speak of inner thoughts, a beautiful knowledge sweeter than words, that put any untruth in stark relief. Lord Trofiolle, Act XIII, Maiden Elonway. Its an Opera, of course." A melancholy pause.
"Zidane, its your eyes I worry about. Theyre like panes of glass, and the same as your lies. Transparent, especially to those who know you."
Zidane yanked his head away. "And how would you know that, Kuja?"
Kuja had no reply to the biting comment, and lowered his eyes from the intense green glare of Zidanes. "If you do not give me your word that youll comply, I wont help."
The answer did not come for many long minutes, Zidane contemplating, head lowered towards the dew painted grass. It was as if the two men had been placed in a bubble and whisked away from all the rest of the world, leaving only them, the grass, and a chilly tension between them. And when the reply finally did come, Kuja was shocked to see an amazing sense of age in Zidanes pained eyes. "All right, Kuja. You win, and Ill do whats necessary to help everyone. Including you."
"Zidane, Kuja, the others are ready to leave. How about you two?" Mikotos calm voice intruded upon the intense air of strain between the brothers eyes. She had approached without either noticing, and now stood watching them, her tail twitching languidly.
"I believe so." Kuja answered, grateful for the intrusion, and turning fully to see his sister. He had possessed the creepy feeling that Zidane had been reading his face like it was a guide-map to the land of Kuja. Talk about insanely disconcerting. "Zidane?"
"Yeah." The older man still felt the blonde males stare on the side of his head, fierce as ever, but Zidanes voice betrayed his inner uncertainty with the situation. "Yeah I guess so. Are Rowan and 219 ready?"
"Theyre already mounted . . . in a way." Mikoto smiled dryly. Gaze flittering over her head, Kuja did the same- The Genome and Mage were desperately trying not to slip off the Dragon they shared as the elegant beast beneath them flexed his wings in anticipation for the long flight ahead.
"Very well. Get the others on their rides, Mikoto." He commanded. The girl nodded, but paused, looking indecisive. Then, she did something that no one could have suspected- she leapt up and wrapped her arms around Zidanes neck, hugging him tightly. He looked more than a little surprised, and when Mikoto let him go, he was grinning.
"What brought that on?"
The blonde girl surprised the other two Genomes yet again by looking almost sheepish. "I saw you do that to your comrades, on Terra. It is a sign of friendship, yes?" Not waiting for an answer, she darted away, calling to the others to get ready for their departure. Zidane and Kuja waited a moment longer. Amazingly enough, their sisters presence had clamed their frayed nerves.
"We better be going." Zidane said, and took a step forward. But Kujas hand prevented him from going any further, pulling on his arm in a harsh grasp. His next words tickled Zidanes ear.
"Its only till the project is finished, Zidane. Then, you may go back to your Garnet, and your friends, and you may tell them anything you wish." He whispered, and let his brother free. Moments later, it was Kuja who has striding across the grass towards the mess of dragons and Mages and Genomes, and Zidane who was left standing, morning mist swirling about his ankles, and a confused, tired look on his face. Sighing, he looked towards the rocky mountains to the west, toward a sky tinted purple by the rising sun.
"Ill be home soon, Dagger," He murmured. "I hope you havent forgotten me already."
On Terra, Mikoto had always been the leader, the older sister, and more importantly, the only one living with the Genomes that had ownership over a soul. She had never had anything to fear. No dangers (unless she managed to wander outside of the Genome village), nothing that she could have worried about save a piece of machinery breaking down. The problem was, without those natural dangers, she did not have a chance to develop normal, healthy anxieties and fears. And she also had no chance to develop the firewalls against fear that most other people possess. This was a big problem.
This was a big problem because currently, Mikoto did not feel safe or fearless. She felt like projectile vomiting, another brand new experience.
Giant, undulating muscles pushed her up and down and side-to-side mercilessly, the only thing keeping her on the back of this beast and out of a frighteningly long free fall was her unmovable grip in the feathers around the dragons neck. All around her, she was terrified to see through watering eyes not a ceiling of slate gray clouds, but a carpet of puffy white ones, spotted once in a while with the barest impression of what had to be very distant ground. Very distant ground, because they were very high up.
It seemed Mikoto was very, very afraid of heights.
Another Silver Dragon swept past her, the wind from its wings sweeping back her hair. Its rider turned to face her shaking body, and would have smirked, if not for the deadly expression she gave him.
"It does take some getting used to." Quipped Kuja, looking as if he had been born riding atop his beast. "Dont worry, they wont let you fall. Usually. Unless they dont like you." Mikoto felt her fear as a tangible beast, rising up to wrap reedy fingers around her delicate throat. Her wide blue eyes bored into Kujas, and he laughed at her frail form. "It doesnt matter anyway- were here. Hang on tight!" He cried, and Mikoto felt nothing but pure panic and the stinging of her tearing eyes as the Dragons in front of her dropped out of the sky like leaden stones, disappearing from her view. And then . . . then there was no time for being frightened, because she suddenly found herself staring at a rapidly growing field of sand, hair whipping around her head and stinging her wet face, and listening to her own shrill, horrified screeches as the group plummeted to the ground. A giddy awareness came over her that she seemed to have left her organs back from where shed fallen, and the terrible, awful certainty that she was going to die and there was nothing, nothing that she could do about it . . . and suddenly, in awe, Mikoto watched the sand they were descending towards open up like the jaws of a giant beast, black and gaping in the center of the bright white sands around it.
The others in front of her disappeared into the abyss. Strangely enough, right before she too swept into the hole, she found herself wondering, ridiculously, how the dragons could see in the pure darkness that filled the cavern. Then, a whole lot of nothing swept over her, engulfing her in a world deprived of sight, yet brimming with sound. The wings of the feathered beasts the rode echoed thousands of times over, and coupled with her screaming, and the screaming of others, her ears teemed with a deafening cacophony. She buried her face into the silver feathers in front of her, trying to quell that noise and the terror and the nausea as the swept done ebony corridors.
When the flight finally ended, the dragons coming to a less-than-gentle stop, Mikoto was shaking, her trembles making her teeth chatter. She still could see nothing, but now the windy discord had given way to the murmur of voices from the 19 other occupants of the black cave. Clicking footsteps, a boot heel on hidden cobblestones, and a sudden light, blinding, even though it was only that of a single dim lamp. Kuja stood proudly, not a hair out of place, in the middle of a gargantuan arch that fronted the entrance of a huge tunnel, lined with colossal and ornate statues of angels and devils. "Follow me." He commanded, voice as clear and sharp as frost. "And leave the supplies behind- well take care of them in short order."
The others seemed to be able to evacuate their seats with ease, none as fearful as Mikoto. She jittered and slid her way down the side of her mount, slipping frequently and eventually crashing onto the stone floor. Taking deep breaths, she joined a muddled group standing before the elder Genome. The light from the lamp had grown in intensity, and now almost fully illuminated a hall large enough to encompass the nine dragons that filled it. "Touch nothing!" Kuja ordered the group, and turned with a flourish of his skirts. With trepidation, Mikoto and the rest began to follow his retreating form, and the retreating lamplight.
Kuja felt oppressed by the pristine walls surrounding him, as if darkness and the demons that inhabited it were pressing down on his shoulders, and smothering him with their poisonous breath and black folds- even though all the lamps and candelabra in the whole of the palace had been lit. The Mages had already known their way around his old home, having been there before, and they had already retired to their assigned rooms to rest up before tomorrows activities began. However, hed had to give the confused Genomes a tour of the great halls and hidden passages, mainly to ensure their continued safety . . . he still had quite a few active traps and wandering beasts in the palace. Now, in the quiet time after theyd all gone to bed, he was escorting his sister down through the pearl passages, taking her to the place where his redemption would begin- the laboratory.
Mikotos face was pale and drawn. She had obviously not enjoyed the flight to the palace- not soon after arriving, the entire party had to stop as she empty her gut into a corner. Even now, when she spoke, her voice was hoarse from shrieking on the descent into the underground aviary.
Coming upon a wall-spanning portrait of a slim young woman cradling a sword in her arms, he stopped, and prodded the pinkie toe on her bare left foot. The picture retracted into the floor. "This way." He said to the blonde girl at his side, and took her arm, guiding her through the hidden doorway. There was a short passage, thin and dark, and then it opened up into the sprawling lab.
The two siblings halted before the mass of Terran technologies, glittering in the glow from otherworldly lights. Lost in thought, they did nothing more than stare, taking in the strange and out of place looking sight. Despite herself, Mikoto felt a hurtful twinge of homesickness, and Kuja felt a bizarre, almost superstitious fear. This was the place where he had first developed the mages, first encoded them with the spark of life that would allow them to activate and animate- but not to feel. This was the place where it had all gone wrong. He shivered almost unnoticeably under the bluish Terran lighting. This was where he had tried to play the part of a god . . . and where he would try to do so again.
What seemed like hours later, Mikotos sandpaper voice broke the tense silence. "Kuja- I am pleased to say that I and the other Genomes were given a more than adequate education as scientists and mechanics. And I alone know how the more delicate machinery in Bran Bal, most of what you have here. But-" She paused, then rushed through her next words, as if not wanting them too long on her tongue, for fear they might stick. "But I still dont understand what exactly it is that were trying to do here."
Kuja smiled, trying to banish his anxiety. It was a brilliant plan, actually, and he could admit that without feeling guilty. "Let me explain, then." He began, gesturing towards the room. "Back on Terra, Genomes were supposed to, and in our case did, receive souls by harvesting choice ones that the Iifa Tree absorbed from this planets own- well, how should I explain it? I suppose you could say there is a reservoir of souls, or a river, travelling under the planets surface. A river of life. Normal beings, the ones naturally born to this world, also pull from that river - but not in the same invasive way our planet did. Here on Gaia, when a person dies, the soul returns to this spirit river, and waits to be reborn in a new body, so the cycle can renew itself.
"What we will be attempting to find are essences in that reservoir that are ready to be reborn, and then place them in the bodies of the Genomes."
Mikoto frowned. "But how is that any different than what we were doing on Terra?"
"On Terra, the souls that we did not use were discarded, left to wander the universal ether alone. Here, we can place any willing soul into a body; we wont have to search through thousands to find a select one. Save for making sure we choose five male and five female souls, and, of course, keeping out any truly unsavory souls, we wont have to filter the flow of the life river at all."
There was a brief quiet after his words died away where his sister seemed to be pondering. She gave him a curious look, and asked. "Unsavory souls? Im- Im afraid I dont understand. Whatever do you mean?"
"I suppose I should not say unsavory. That is a cruel term, isnt it?" Kuja looked almost abashed, and Mikoto could swear she could she his cheeks redden slightly. "Humans and demi-humans arent the only spirits that are reborn- other races, animals, they all have souls as well. Even vegetation has some form of spirit. So it is necessary to filter through these, or else we might end up with a canary, a toad, or a tomato in place of a living being. And then, of course, you would have to worry about the more violent souls, as well. We do not want a being like . . . like . . ." Kuja drifted off, and his gaze dropped.
"Like you used to be." Mikoto finished, her voice soft but stern. The man before her seemed to struggle with something internal, playing tug-of-war with hidden emotions, then nodded.
"Yes. Like I *used* to be." An uncomfortable, smothering silence filled the air. Kuja seemed to be reflecting on the machinery, and Mikoto was reluctant to disturb him. Eventually her uncertain words once again echoed through the room.
"And the mages? What about them?"
Kuja looked startled. "Ah . . . the Mages?" He tried to think, and when he spoke again, the words were concentrated and intelligent once again, the previous moment of uncertainty gone. "Oh . . . That will take longer, and will ultimately be harder, since I will actually have to modify five of the mages to have- feminine attributes." He paused, thoughtful. "Now what really interests me is the fact the mages in the village seem to already have souls- or a least pieces of them. And the Vivi child appears to have an entire and rather well developed one. It is . . . alarming. And useful to our cause, of course."
Mikoto looked at him from the corner of her eyes, a slight smile quirking her mouth. "I suppose that is why you requested Vivi?"
"Of course. The game could go on without him-"
"Do you really think that it was worth all Zidanes grief?"
Kuja was a left at a loss, lips pursed as he stood in secluded notion. The statement curled around his thoughts, prying at those parts of his mind that he had rejected that morning, the parts that had begged himself not to do the selfish thing again, and send his brother on a path of pain so his curiosity could be satiated. "I dont know." He finally whispered into the dusty ether. "Mikoto . . ." He turned to see how she had reacted to his blunt reply, and saw, to his startlement, that she was gone, the exit to the lab hanging open. He hadnt even noticed as she left him alone. Sighing to himself, he placed a tired hand over his eyes.
"I dont know . . ."
AN: This chapter is dedicated to all the people who lost their lives and loved ones in the tragedy in New York and Washington on Sept. 11th, 2001. My heart, mind, spirit, and tears are with the people who died in this terrible occurrence, and the people who are giving their time to save who they can.
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