Of Heroes and Royals
"Damn... this is getting... real tight..."
Hours had passed since the start of Operation Terra. Of course, the Hero was unaware of anything that had transpired above him - he was still trapped underground, in a crawlspace that was growing smaller and smaller. It seemed as though parts of it had either caved in or there had been a messy attempt to block it up at some point in the past.
"I guess that's what happens when these things don't get used for like eighty years or so..." Akio lamented. The tighter the walls around him became, the more effort he had to expend to keep moving, and the slower he moved. "Worse, I'm pretty sure the ceiling might collapse on me any second, just like it did at the start... just what the heck is going on up there?"
He had heard all the roaring and trembling non-stop as he progressed, unable to do anything about it but let his imagination run wild with worry.
Even still, he pressed onward. And alone in the darkness, with nothing but his own thoughts, he couldn't help but be reminded of something in his past.
"Crawling slowly, feeling like I'm being crushed on all sides... the circumstances are different, but it really does remind me of back then. Damn, that all seems like a lifetime ago, now..."
Akio Durand was once an ordinary boy, from a blissfully ordinary countryside town. His dreams were not of saving people, of fighting against the empire - they were much more simple. The boy dreamt of being an artist. That was, for the most part, the thing that drove him to get out of bed each day.
Of course, today, he had a different reason.
"Crap, I'm late! She's gonna kill me!" Akio exclaimed as he woke up. He had slept through his alarm, and the sun was already shining through the window of his attic bedroom.
He threw on yesterday's clothes in record-breaking time, and ran downstairs, through the kitchen.
"Breakfast, honey?" his mother asked, already reaching into a refrigerator to grab ingredients.
He ground to a sudden halt to answer. "Uh, no, maybe later!"
After listening to his mother complain about him not eating enough for a moment, the boy was off again.
"Akio, aren't you supposed to be seeing off Liza today?" his father suddenly perked up. The man was sat at their kitchen table, sipping a mug of coffee and reading his daily newspaper.
And then the blue-haired boy was stopped in his tracks once more, with an intense look of frustration briefly appearing on his face. "Yeah, I was just on my way out, actually, so, if I could..."
"Now that's a profession to shoot for, a doctor. And then to land a position in the big city, as well? Her parents must be proud. If only your brother could take some notes." he continued, the frustration on his son's face growing deeper.
"You're exactly right, Dad, thanks for the input... well, see ya later!" and finally, the boy managed to escape the kitchen and run out the front door of their rather impressive home.
At last, he was free to run all the way to the train station. Though he hadn't any special abilities to speak of yet, the boy was already naturally quite athletic - their town had an abundance of flowers and all-around natural beauty, so it motivated him to go running it quite often. It was often during his regular exercise he came upon things he wanted to paint.
As he ran, Akio passed the town's orphanage, waving at the kids playing in the front garden, their faces lighting up as he did so - he visited often, either to play with the children or draw for them, and they were always excited to see him.
Eventually, he made it to the train station, just as the 10 AM train was pulling in.
He frantically looked around before finally noticing the woman he was looking for standing further down the platform, a large suitcase by her side. A great sigh of relief left his lips.
However, when she noticed the boy, the tall, brown-haired woman wore not a pleasant look on her face - and Akio felt a shiver go down his spine.
"You're late, Akio!" she grunted in frustration.
The boy let out a nervous chuckle. "Right, sorry... I overslept. You know me, I like my sleep."
"Ah, well. Ordinarily, I'd wind you up a little more, but I guess we'll let that go for today." she sighed, before looking around past him. "Your brother didn't come, huh?"
"Sorry, Liza. He's been sorta... obsessed with his research lately. Like, way more than usual. My Dad's been getting on his case more and more about finding a job, and I think that makes him more determined to get some results. To prove him wrong, and stuff." Akio explained with a slight frown.
He'd known Liza for as long as he could remember. She and his brother had been in the same grade since elementary school, where they became fast friends - meaning she often stopped by their home, so they'd all hang out together. Nowadays, though, it seemed like Akio was closer with her than his brother was - a fact that made him feel somewhat uneasy.
Liza patted the blue-haired boy on the head. There was only a four-year gap in age between them, but with their difference in height, you'd think there was more. "Well, tell him I said goodbye. And... take care of him for me, okay?"
"Yeah, sure thing." Akio nodded, though the frown remained on his face as it suddenly occurred to him that in a few moments, his friend would be leaving.
Upon seeing this, Liza passed him a card. There was an address on it, and a landline number. "Cheer up, Akio. I mean, this is hardly goodbye. You're gonna come and study fine art at a university in Ombra, right? This is my new address. When you make it there, come hang out."
Akio's frown quickly turned into a smile. "Yeah, alright. You got it!"
"Oh! One last thing! Did your Signature Spell awaken yet? I mean, it's already been a few months since your eighteenth birthday, right? If it hasn't happened yet, it's gotta be any day now!" the woman exclaimed, a look of excitement on her face.
The blue-haired boy shrugged. "To be honest, I haven't really tried to use it."
"Aw, come on," the woman complained, before being interrupted by the sound of the last call announcement from the station announcer. "Ugh... alright, if it turns out to be anything cool, you gotta text me, alright? Later, Akio!"
"Uh, sure... good luck, Liza!"
And with that, the woman quickly hopped onto the train, suitcase in tow. Once she found her seat, they waved at each other through the window - and with a tightness in his throat, the boy watched his friend disappear into the distance.
Naturally, at that time, he had no idea he'd be seeing her again much sooner than expected.
With a sigh, Akio made his way home, trying to cheer himself up with the thought that it really wasn't much longer until he'd be joining her. Applications for his school of choice were due at the end of the year, and he was making good progress on building a portfolio. He was determined to make it in - and then, he'd only have to wait until the end of Summer rolled around again to head to Ombra himself.
When he got back, he found that their garage was open - his brother sat on a desk chair inside, staring at a computer.
His brother, a young man named Alain, was somewhat of a scientist, you see. He'd graduated from one of the best universities on the continent, and rather than work for a company or for the empire, he wanted to go his own way - so after taking out numerous loans, he'd turned his parents' garage into a makeshift lab in order to meet his goals.
"Hard at work, huh?" Akio asked, walking into the garage and throwing a bottle of soda at his brother he'd bought on the trip back.
"A-Ah, yeah, same as usual..." his brother stuttered, barely looking up from the screen in time to catch the carbonated projectile that had been thrown at him.
The two brothers looked quite alike - Alain also had dark blue hair, but his was longer, reaching to around just below his shoulders. While Akio had no facial hair to speak of, the elder brother had some rough stubble around his chin. Alain was also much less athletic than the future Hero - and his build reflected this, being much skinnier by comparison. Lastly, thick-rimmed black glasses sat atop the scientist's nose, whereas Akio had no need for lenses.
"What was it you're researching, again? The Origin of Magic?"
"Something like that, as well as magic's inherent properties."
Akio let out a sigh. "And you really couldn't pull yourself away for one hour?"
"Huh? Oh, right. Liza." Alain responded with relatively little concern. "I thought you liked her, why would I interrupt your heartfelt farewell?"
"HUH? L-Like her? No way... she's not my type. I'm into... blondes, you know?" Despite his words, Akio's cheeks still turned a little red. "Look, when I actually like someone, I'll know. And then you'll be the first to know, after."
Alain chuckled. "I'm honoured, little brother."
"Anyway, that's beside the point! She's your friend too, you know." Akio continued, growing frustration in his voice. "Look, I don't... mean to get on your case, like Dad does... I know for a fact you're gonna have a breakthrough, any day now. But there's more to life than just this, ya know."
The elder brother rolled his eyes. "You're fine, that guy gets on my case for a different reason."
Akio sighed as he watched his older brother momentarily turn back to his computer.
"Man, for someone who's gonna crack the Origin of Magic, you sure are an idiot." the younger brother taunted sarcastically, before cracking a smile.
"There are not a lot of guys who'd give up a hot date with a lady like Liza for lonely nights in front of a computer." Upon saying this, Akio couldn't help but chuckle.
Alain joined in as well. "Heh, what's that supposed to mean?"
Shortly after, Akio went back up to his room, leaving his brother to his research. As he'd done for many times before then, he sat in front of his window - where an easel with a canvas sitting atop it had been placed - and began to paint.
Rather than an image of the countryside, today it was a picture of him, his brother, and Lyza that would gradually take shape on the canvas.
A couple hours passed, and he sat in silence, beginning to make good progress on his painting.
However, that silence was broken by the sound of shouting from beneath him.
He let out a sigh. It was a common, if not daily, occurrence by now. He'd tried several things to drown out the sound - such as headphones, loud music, and other such strategies - but somehow, the yelling always managed to make its way into his ears.
So instead, he stopped painting and lay on his bed, resolved to just wait it out.
"When are you going to stop wasting time with this silly research, start looking for a real job?!"
"My work is important, Dad! Why can't you understand that?!"
"You've been saying that for two years!"
"And I'm CLOSE!"
"Yeah, close to being in debt for the rest of your worthless life!"
Akio buried his head into his pillow. He wasn't there to see it, but he wanted to believe his father wore a look of regret for saying the last part. But most of all, he just wanted it to stop. He wanted them to get along, like they used to. And more than that, he wanted for him and his brother to be able to chase their dreams, free of strife.
He hadn't dragged himself into crippling debt yet, so he didn't get it as bad as Alain, but he often found his father urging him to study something else. His mother was a little more respectful of their wishes, but she'd still bring up the subject when he'd rather her not.
And as he went over those thoughts, his wishes, again and again, he was eventually pulled into a dreamless sleep.
"We're both gonna... make it..."
Once the shouting had finally stopped, as his father took one last disgusted look at him before going back inside, Alain shared a similar sentiment.
"My life isn't worthless... you'll see..."
And as the young man stared at that computer screen, skimming through folder after folder, he decided on one final, risky experiment.
When Akio awoke next, it was already dark out. The only thing slightly illuminating his room was the digital clock next to his bed, which read 10 PM.
He let out a yawn. "Great... now my sleep's gonna be all messed up."
Laying in the darkness for a little longer, the boy recalled the shouting from earlier. "I hope Alain's all right. Mom, Dad... you really need to cut him some slack."
Despite the turbulence of their home lives, he was hopeful. It's why he continued to paint, and why he continued to be amazed by his brother. And even though it hurt, he knew his parents only said the things they did because they cared. They didn't get it, but they cared.
With a smile on his face, the boy felt his eyes close again.
But all that hope, all their dreams...
...it wasn't to be.
Because in a single moment, a single twist of fate, his life would change course drastically.
Because mere seconds after shutting his eyes, the boy heard a woman's scream.
He bolted out of bed and down the stairs, heading for his parents' room.
Without even thinking about it, Akio slammed the door open.
That terrifying laughter sent a chill down his spine.
The blue-haired boy couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"I think you were mistaken, Father... it's you whose life is worthless."
Something had... attached itself to Alain. One half, the left half of his body, was as it should be, as Akio remembered him - but the right side was covered in a grotesque, deep black shadow. It was almost like he was wearing a costume, though Akio could not tell whether it was the shadow being worn, or Alain himself.
That shadow unnerved him. It looked almost too real, uncanny.
But what shocked him more than the shadow itself, or the fact it was attached to his brother, was what it was doing.
As Alain stood over his parents' bed, the fingers of that shadow had extended far longer than a human's, almost like long claws, and had impaled their father in three separate places - in the neck, chest, and shoulder.
Blood spilt over their white bedsheets as Akio's mother screamed all the while, unable to move, paralysed by fear.
And in the next moment, those fingers retracted back to regular size, before extending unnaturally once again - this time, inflicting similar wounds on their mother.
By the time Akio's mind could truly register what he was seeing, it was already too late.
"Alain... what... the hell... ARE YOU DOING?!" Without realising it, those words had left his mouth, as the boy became hysterical. Tears began falling from his eyes as he furrowed his brow, a mix of anger, despair, and everything in-between welling up inside of him.
"Oh, little brother," Alain remarked, with the slightest hint of excitement in his voice.
Akio continued to scream. "What have you DONE?"
"Don't you see? I've freed us, Akio."
The words seemed warped and distorted as they hit the boy's ears.
"I've proved that I'm not worthless... and I'm now free to chase my dreams. You are, too, even if your work is insignificant compared to what I'm about to do." He continued, widely gesturing with his hands as though he were performing for an audience.
Every word, every breath, every single movement that thing made was like a dagger to Akio's heart. It was an insult - to him, to his brother, to the dreams aspired for. He quickly found himself overcome with uncontrollable, burning rage.
And then, something stirred within him.
It was something he'd never felt before, and yet it felt so natural. It felt like a core part of his being, which he'd somehow never noticed before, yet now he'd feel incomplete without.
"F-Free...? Free?! After this... after what you've just done... do you really think... I'LL JUST LET YOU GO FREE?!"
Akio began to rush forward, reeling back his arm, ready to throw a punch.
But unlike every other time he'd playfully thrown a punch in his life, on this occasion, something different occurred.
A red aura.
Alain hardly reacted, simply raising his eyebrows. "A spell?"
Akio didn't understand why his hand felt hot. However, what he did have was a gut feeling that, if he struck that shadow now, it would do something.
"You're wide open, Akio!"
Two of the shadow's fingers suddenly extended, thrusting into Akio's stomach.
It was the worst pain the ordinary boy had ever felt in his life - and his attack was cut short as he quickly collapsed onto the floor, crying out in agony. He tried to reach forward, desperately trying to reach his brother - stop him from drifting away.
"That's too bad, then. If you're going to interfere, you can stay there and die, brother."
As his vision became clouded by tears, Akio watched his older brother climb out of his parents' bedroom window. He could see that shadow still glued to him, expanding and contracting in a strange manner.
And as he watched this unfold, it felt as though he was seeing his life slip away from him in real-time.
He could hear the laughter from all the times he, Liza and Alain had played together as children.
He could hear his mother's voice, calling them for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, as she had done thousands of times.
He could hear his father praising him for working hard at school, as he would often do when the boy was younger.
And he could see the sunrise from his bedroom window, the smell of paint on his canvas, as he looked out on his beloved home.
In that moment, all of that left with Alain.
...for some reason, a reason he'd never truly understand...
...the boy kept moving.
He crawled, slowly, pathetically, inching his way out of the room, and down the stairs. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how much he wanted to quit, no matter how blurry or dark his vision got, he just kept pushing himself forward, ever so slightly.
Even as it became harder and harder to apply pressure to his wounds, as he felt his vest become drenched with blood, he continued toward the garage - where he knew they kept their first aid kit.
And after what seemed like an eternity, as he finally made it through the door, as he reached into what had been the birthplace of his brother's dreams, a room which now lay ransacked...
...he couldn't escape the feeling that nothing would ever be the same again, that what he had seen could never be unseen, and that normal, for him, was now an impossibility.
But from dreams shattered and broken, a Hero would rise anew.