- (As yet unnamed)Author:
Basically a what-if fic. "The Bards of Gaia are not well understood. When Zack and Sephiroth meet their guide in Nibelheim, it starts a chain of events that will disrupt many plans and change the world. A single pebble can cause an AVALANCHE - what happens if that pebble becomes a boulder?"
Note: the name Herdradd is pronounced 'her-drath' with a soft 'th' like in leath
Note2: flashbacks and memories will be in italics and between two of these: ~
Chapter 1: Apprentice
Cloud was smart. Even at four years old, he was smart. So when he heard muffled snickering that was quickly hushed from behind Widow Gwyneth’s shed he knew he was in for another beating. ‘Unless…’ He eyed the gap between the end of the trail he was on and the edge of the forest. It was just manageable, if only for a small and quick child. He could make it. ‘At least, I think I can…’
Even as he continued down the trail, he was tensing and relaxing his muscles in preparation for a lengthy sprint. ‘After all, who’s to say that this time they won’t just follow me in? They may be scaredy-cats most of the time, but I can’t deny that they can be persistent depending on who’s leading and how badly they want to hit me.’
So, his only real option was to continue down the trail and then run for home.
‘Go time in… three… two…’ “Now!” Even as he said the word he was already picking up his heels and flying across the gap between trail and forest.
“Shit! He’s getting away!”
“After him! Don’t want him to miss out on a drubbing, now do we?”
“B-b-but boss, he’s heading for the- ”
“I know, I know! Do you think I’m blind?!”
“Well, n-no, but- ”
“Then I don’t care! Get ‘im!”
‘Damn! It would have to be Jesun! Now I’m going to have to run through that briar patch in order to lose him! But- wait! There’s that old dragon’s nest that I found last week. If I hide out there he won’t dare go in to look ‘just in case it comes back’.
Cloud wanted to shake his head. The village children were all idiots. Not one of them had ever been exploring around the town’s forest and surrounding mountains. If they had, they’d know about such things and how to tell ‘old’ from ‘new and freshly deserted’. Well, Tifa might have, were it not for her old man. Then again, she might not have, being a girl…
Never mind. It all worked in his favour, so why worry about it?
Cloud suddenly stumbled over an old tree that must have been uprooted in the last winter storm, just two weeks ago. Well, more like ‘tripped over the smashed branches’. It landed him in a small hollow that quickly turned itself into an extremely muddy slide. He shot down into an overgrown clearing, flying clear across the space to slam into a tree on the other side, hard, and everything went black.
“Augh…did anyone see the dragon that hit me?”
“It was no dragon, boyo.” Cloud sat up quickly, then wished he hadn’t. “It was a tree that hard head of yours struck, no mistake about it” continued the old man in front of him. Cloud, when he finally got his eyes to focus properly, stared at him. For this man was one of the most strangely dressed people he’d ever seen. He carried a sword in a baldric harness looped over one shoulder and around his waist. That was about the end of normalcy and anything he had in common with the trappers Cloud spoke to whenever he could.
This guy wore a belted green tunic with dark blue trim and scarlet laces. They shouldn’t have worked together but somehow did. Under the tunic was a wide-sleeved shirt with the cuffs pulling the sleeve close at the wrist. It was heavily embroidered at the high neck, but was otherwise plain. His pants looked sort of like Master Zangan’s; loose around the leg but caught in at his boots. He was wearing what looked to be combat boots, but they had a strange buckle-fastening on the side in place of the normal laces.
The strangest thing though was his hair. It was long, Cloud could see that much, but he wasn’t sure just how long, as the iron grey mass was all caught up in a peculiarly simple but complicated style. He was pretty sure it was simple to do, but the final result looked extraordinarily complicated. It had all these beads woven into it, along with what looked like feathers and… was that… materia in there?!
The man saw where he was looking and chuckled.
“Yeah, that’s materia. My hair makes for a good place to store it, because a lot of people overlook it there. They think it’s just an ornament of some kind, fashioned to look like materia. I don’t bother to disabuse them of the notion, unless they start trying to kill me.
“Anyway. Kid, you’re just the kind of person I’ve been looking for. I’m asking you to become one of Balder’s favoured.”
‘One of Balder’s favoured… This man is a Skald!’ Cloud eyed the sword. ‘Make that Warrior-Skald.’ And now that he was looking, he saw all the tell-tales – the callus on the fingers from playing instruments and using the sword, the bags off to one side filled with all his belongings, the harp-case with them and the pipe in his belt. ‘Can’t forget the hair, either ’.
Cloud’s brow furrowed.
‘Do I want to become one? Would it be worth the further out-casting? But then again, it would also gain me some protection and some respect for mother for raising a bard.’
Even now, music and those who made it were very respected, at least among the mountain peoples. He didn’t know much about Wutai or the People of the Tundra, so couldn’t judge their beliefs. But in Nibelheim, being a Skald’s apprentice would earn his mother a great deal of respect for bearing one the gods considered worthy. For though the Old Ways were losing their power and practitioners, the Gods were still firmly believed in. Who else would judge if you went through the Lifestream to the Promised Land, or were reborn to relive your life in order to fix your mistakes?
‘And I would be granted the same respect as she would hold upon completion of my apprenticeship. More, I would have the security of training in a weapon and hand-to-hand combat.
‘Still – what of earning a living? Even Skald-trained, I would need an income, or I would starve. But what could I do? I don’t know of anything that would really fit…’
During all his ruminations, the Skald had remained silent. He seemed to judge that his prospective apprentice was fast coming to a decision and decided to add that last little push.
“I will only ask once, child. Will you become my apprentice?”
Cloud waited a little, turning his decision over from all angles to make sure he’d chosen well. His answer resonated in his wyrd and changed his course from what had been spun by the Norns.
6 years later
Herdradd had worked him hard, but Cloud was now an excellent musician on harp, drum and pipe. Not a master yet of course, seeing as he was an apprentice still, but he was quickly closing in on the end of his musical learning with his master. What he was currently learning was sword-work and hand-to-hand. He’d had to wait until his body could withstand such wear on it, for Herdradd was a harsh taskmaster, demanding that he be as flexible and strong as possible. So every morning starting when he was six, Cloud began with a body-conditioning regime that depended on his own body-weight to provide resistance. He’d been surprised how much his running from his tormentors had helped him with his core strength – the strong lungs and heart he’d developed stood him in good stead, especially with the additional training in singing. He could now hold his breath underwater at seven metres for close to five minutes.
He’d still had some trouble from the village children after his apprenticeship began, but at least no-one among the adults had tried to beat him for something that was not his fault any longer. All the stares of contempt and disapproval had stopped. And those other looks, from some of the men, had stopped as well, the ones that had sent multiple shivers down his spine and made him cold for hours afterwards. The ones he hadn’t told his mother about.
Though the village children were still down-right nasty. He’d had to use his newly-learned herb knowledge more than once following a particularly awful day. He rubbed his shoulder; just thinking about the beatings made him ache.
A noise from above made him look up, wary, then sigh in annoyance. It was only Vincent. He smiled up at the red-cloaked man, then went back to his day-dreaming.
He remembered when he’d rescued Vincent from that odd coffin in the old Shin-ra mansion when he was eight. He smirked a little as he remembered that the place had gone up in flames shortly after. Vincent and Herdradd had been teaching him to use materia and Vincent had for some reason selected the old mansion as the first place to train him. And, like with all beginners, after he’d gotten the hang of casting, they’d had him super-charge the fire spell. How was he to know that it would take out all the wooden supports along one wall and catch in the drapes?
~ “All right, Cloud. Now you’ve gotten the hang of drawing the spell up, Vincent suggested having you over-charge the spell so you’ll know what it feels like and the effects on spell.”
“You should know what to expect if it does happen,” was all the shadowed man said.
Cloud nodded dubiously, then started to activate the spell.
“Cloud!” He glanced at his master. “Hold it as long as possible, then release along that wall over there.” Herdradd pointed to Cloud’s left.
Barely acknowledging the change in targets, as all Cloud’s attention was focused on the fireball in his outstretched left hand. The arm holding it had already started to shake, but Cloud kept feeding the spell energy.
Finally, when he couldn’t hold it any longer, he flung his arm forwards and the supercharged fireball screamed into main supporting pillar. It surprised the hell out of the blond apprentice when the fire roared into the other pillars along that wall, ending up in the drapes at the far end of the Ballroom.
“There, you see why we had you do that?”
Vincent cut in. “We must leave!”
Cloud glanced at the pillar and his eyes widened when he saw that it was about to collapse.
“Quickly, through the library!”
They raced for the doors they had come through at the start of the lesson, and sprinted along cobwebbed corridors. The three flung themselves out through the front door not a moment too soon, as their exit was punctuated by an enormous tongue of flame that then went on to happily devour the front of the house.
“That was close” was all a wide-eyed Cloud said.
When they went back in the morning, they discovered that the basements of the house must have had charges placed inside them in case of a need to self-destruct, for all that remained of the mansion was an immense blackened pit filled with crumbling wood and twisted slag. Mako-influenced flames were much, much hotter than any other flame.
It was also where Cloud got his first experience with Mako. He’d started treading carefully through the rubble, but he’d been distracted by all the demented shapes of metal he’d been encountering. As such, he’d missed a scrapped bar lying in his path and had tripped, landing face down in a partially obscured, open pool of Mako.
Instantly after being submerged, he was bombarded by the Voices of those long gone to the Lifestream. Cloud grasped his head in pain as they got louder and louder. He withdrew into his mind, falling into the meditative rhythm Herdradd had taught him.
He didn’t wake up for six weeks.
Once he’d opened his eyes and was coherent, his teachers told him that he’d suffered through a rather bad case of Mako-poisoning. The side effects of this event became more and more apparent, for aside from the rather disconcerting glowing eyes he now had, his strength had increased, along with his healing factor. He was also a lot quicker, and had much better night-vision.
Herdradd and Vincent had theorised that all that concentrated magic had opened a spontaneous vent to the Lifestream and he’d had the bad luck to fall into it.
He’d also forgotten a few things – mainly things like some of his more obsolete hiding places, the exact year he was born and the names of most of the larger boys’ lackeys. The ones who’d tormented him to keep from being tormented themselves. ~
Vincent was still beating himself up over that one. His reasoning was that it had been his idea to practice in the mansion and his idea to supercharge the fire spell, therefore it was his fault. Cloud was still trying to get it through to him that it wasn’t his fault that Cloud had fallen into a Mako pool. He’d had no luck as yet.
Cloud’s appearance had changed from when Herdradd had taken him as an apprentice. He’d grown out his hair as Skald tradition demanded and had started carrying the materia he’d been gifted with for his last birthday there. It was unslotted, but Herdradd had refused to teach him using slotted materia, saying that it “was a shortcut and only idiots used shortcuts”. So, now he had three secured in his hair close to the base of his skull. The hair itself was nearly to his butt when unbound, a mass of spikes like a bale of spun gold. His body had started to come into its own too – he was developing a fine-boned, lean musculature that merely added to his rather effeminate face. He was still not very tall, and his quietness and wariness around others lent itself to the illusion of shortness. But when Cloud chose, he could bring forward a stage presence strong enough that the entire village would listen during his practices, yet subtle enough for when he played for the local wildlife – he’d made a number of allies among the beasts of the Nibelheim forests and hills. Not to mention the wee folk, who loved music as much or more than they loved life. He’d picked up a number of tricks from them as well.
That reminded him. His birthday was coming up, and Herdradd had promised something interesting….
Chapter 1 : Apprentice End