The Song of the Black Mages
edward j rathke
Holding onto his large hat flapping in the wind, his coat wrapped tight round him, Vivi stared out into the ocean seeing only the waves rolling past the Alexandrian ship and crashing into the shore. Clouds closed over the sky and the waves lapped at the boat Vivi rode to shore. Pulling his gloves tight, he dragged the boat further up the shore, out of tidereach.
The horizon disappeared behind distant storms and Vivi entered the forest. Walking slow, he pushed back the brim of his hat and listened to fill himself with the songs of the world. The sounds of the forest warbled against the wind, the song of a thousand cicadas always chirping, of skittering mammals and chirping birds filling him, pulsing his skin electric. The forest floor covered in leaves and he trampled through them, the winds ripping autumnal leaves from skeletal boughs. Birds sang in the trees and he watched them, sighing, and they flew away. Resting under an enormous tree when the rains came, he pulled fire into the air, rolling it between his hands as it grew and expanded. The rain sizzled against the blaze and he slapped his hands together, erasing the flame.
Waiting for the storms to pass, he looked up into the greyed sky and shrugged, pulled his hat down tight, fastened his coat, and wandered into the rain falling between the branches. He stopped a moment later, looked at his hands, clenched his fists, then waved them over his head, creating a barrier between him and the rain, which ran off the barrier like an umbrella.
Alone, he took his time, paying attention to all that he passed, every fallen leaf, every standing tree, every gust of wind, and every glimpse he caught of animals. He smiled seeing the animals he fought so long ago–the griffins, the zaghnols–resting beneath the boughs of the enormous trees, doing whatever it took to stay dry. Their young crowding together around them, he stopped and stared, warmth growing in his chest then spreading to his limbs. Not the warmth of the pyre raging always in him, but the warmth of friendship, of Zidane’s smile or Steiner’s kind words.
The forest declined, the trees and undergrowth thinning, the earth beneath his feet hardening. The trees lost their leaves and the winds blustered by, the rains slashing against his barrier. The bark appeared as stone or granite, calcifying, and everything became dead.
The trees, dead in their roots, dead in their branches, the grass turned to rot, and the rot turned to rock. Dead so long it named the place: the Dead Forest. Death spread round him and the air emptied of sound, his breath lost heat, and his eyes lost their glow. Death seeped into everything and a weight pulled on him, dragging him down, stealing the breath from his lungs, the energy from his limbs. He blinked and his eyelids hung low, his body drooping with every step. The labyrinth of empty paths echoed with his steps and the winds ripped through, emptying him. He hummed to fill himself, to contain his body and keep moving. His humming echoed against the barrier and became the only sound against the slapping waves of rain.
The maze of the Dead Forest managed easily, Vivi’s eyes ran over the cracks in the bark, in the earth. He came upon a sapling, a single stream of green stretching to the sky from the dead ground. Only a few centimetres in height, and Vivi’s voice caught in his throat, his eyes welling, the ocean inside him bursting against the limitations of his body.
Life, he said, Even after Death.
He dropped the barrier keeping him dry and watched the water coursing round the only living creature growing in the Dead Forest.
At the edge of the Dead Forest and the Black Mage village, Vivi stared at the blanket of grey spread above in all directions. The rains ended but night descended, and the silence of the Dead Forest remained.
He took the steps from the forest into the village. No one wandered the paths and no lights shone in the houses. Vivi looked for signs of activity but found only remnants of the past. Entering the inn, he found only dust and cobwebs, insects taking over the storerooms and beds. The blacksmith and armory were the same–covered in dust, in cobwebs, in silence.
Hello, he bellowed into the emptiness of the streets, against the nothingness of the greyed sky.
The only response was the wind, cutting through as the silence crushed him, as if gravity increased exponentially where he stood.
Dragging his feet to the graveyard, he collapsed to his knees, falling to his hands, unable to look at what spread before him.
Piled on top of each other, hundreds of black mages, all stopped, never to move again.
Vivi wept in the drying mud of the village, not looking at those like him who no longer lived.
As the grey clouds separated revealing the blackness of night, Vivi stood and pressed his palms together in front of his chest. Spreading slowly, a flame sparked and grew as he spread his arms. He pushed the flame above his head and then pushed up, the fire growing to an inferno above his head, battering against the darkness. A dragon of fire, its wings of light spreading over the city, and it breathed those funereal flames into the sky, blotting out the stars. Light spread over the city, dancing against the shadows, eradicating them. His body quaked, pouring all his energy into the flame lapping against the sky. His chest heaving, he threw the fire into the graveyard and burnt the hundreds of black mages away.
In the crackling of their cindering bodies, a song spilt into the night. He listened, their memories dancing into his ears, reverberating through his skull, crackling beneath his skin.
It happens so fast, he said. Don’t be afraid of dying, of being dead. Soon I’ll join you. It’s already been a year since I found myself awake and thinking, since I met grandpa. I can’t have much longer. Wait for me, brothers. I used to wonder if we existed at all, if we were even real. But I know now that we are. Our lives matter, and when we die, we’re uniting with all the memories of Gaia, just like everyone else, everything else. We matter and we’re real. I’m not sorry you died. I won’t be. I’m sorry that I must live on without you. I came so far just to see you all again, just to live with all of you, but you expired too soon. I won’t hold it against you. It’s not your fault. I don’t know how much time I have left, but I promise to do as much as I can, so I can bring you new places, new stories, memories you’ve never had. Sometimes it feels like a curse that we exist so briefly, but that’s part of our advantage. We love deeper, we run faster, and we take in every moment. We breathe in every image, every scent, every single second and we keep it sacred, safe. On the way to see you I found life sprouting in this dead and dying land. The world’s changing, and though we won’t be here for what comes next, it fills me with hope. I watched Atamos kill Alexander and Garland murder the gods themselves. I watched Kuja rage against life and light, hoping only for annihilation, and then the god of Death–I hope you didn’t fear dying the way I do. I’m working on it, but it’s hard. It’s hard to look around at the world and accept that it’ll live so long past us. I’m afraid of leaving life but I’m working to accept it. I’m trying to be better, trying to learn to just be.
Vivi listened again to the songs of the dead mages filling the empty village, echoing against the blackened sky. The memories of the black mages filled him and visions of their lives projected against the surrounding trees and sky. The constellations took shape and formed the faces of the friends he left behind in Alexandria. Shadows spread from the fire and Vivi watched the flames reach the top of the trees and then collapse to smoldering ash.
In the morning he pulled his gloves and boots tight, and entered the Dead Forest. The sun shone and at the shore of the Outer Continent he shielded his eyes from the midday sun, waving to the Alexandrian ship still waiting. He pushed his boat into the water, paddling through the waves, the scent of salt water filling his lungs. Though tears and an ocean of memories roiled within him, he closed his eyes and took of his hat, accepting the autumn sun on his face and head.