Beside Myself

By Kim McFarland

Vivi was beginning to hate the smell of freshly turned earth.

It was the morning after a dark and stormy night. The air was cool and clean, the sky light blue and banded only by wisps of cloud. The ground was not too damp; the storm had been more thunder than actual rain. Which, today, was fortunate.

All of the Black Mages and Genomes in the village were assembled. They watched silently as two Black Mages dug a hole in the hill at the side of the village. The simple, repetitive task seemed to take hours.

When that was over, two other Mages carried a box up to the hole. They could have floated it more easily, but tacitly it had been decided that that wouldn't have been appropriate. You float things, not people.

They lowered the box carefully into the hole, then began covering it with shovelfuls of earth. The damp soil thudded softly on the lid until it was covered. Another Mage planted a stake with a crossbar at the end of the filled-in hole. Many of the memorial stakes were topped by hats; this one was capped by the ragged-edged dome of half of a chocobo egg.

When that was done, all of the villagers looked at the grave of Mr. 33, each saying their silent farewells. Then, in ones and twos, they left. Nobody had spoken during the entire ceremony. Nobody needed to. The Black Mages all shared the same grief at the passing of another of their small tribe. The Genomes, except for one, didn't understand yet. They would learn.

Vivi stared at the eggshell, his eyes blurring. Another one of their small number had "stopped." Since he had come to live in this village, three more had died. Black Mages did not suffer old age the way other people did; they just seemed to wind down, dying in only a few hours. Mr. 33 had died in his sleep. He had been spared the dread of knowing his life was at an end.

It would continue like this, Vivi knew. The Black Mages had been manufactured with short lifespans so that when they were no longer needed they would conveniently die. They had a year of life, more or less, from the date of their manufacture, and their "awakening" from warrior golems to thinking, feeling people did not change that.

Now that they had something to live for, they were dying off.

They had one chance for survival, and it hinged on Vivi. No other would do. Vivi understood why - but it still wasn't fair. He'd hoped that there was another way... but, he now believed that there wasn't, at least not that they had time to work out.

Vivi looked up. One Black Mage was left, looking out over the field of stakes, his staff in one hand. His eyes, glowing yellow in the darkness under his straw hat, had a faraway look. Vivi walked over to him. "I've made up my mind."

Mr. 288 looked down, as if he had been unaware that Vivi was there. "You have?"

Vivi nodded, a quick jerk of his head. Looking at the ground, he said, "Yeah. You were - you were all right. It's the only way. I... I just didn't know what to think."

Mr. 288 rested a hand on Vivi's shoulder. "It's a lot to ask of you."

Vivi looked up. "It's okay. I'm ready."

"Thank you," Mr. 288 said, softly and seriously.

Thank you. Vivi thought about those words as he waited for the preparations to be finished that evening. They shouldn't have to thank him. It would have been selfish to refuse. He had been selfish to stall, though he hadn't meant to be. He had wasted some of the precious time left in their lives. The other Mages didn't seem to mind; they were overjoyed that they could try the one thing that might save them from extinction.

Eight Black Mages were in the single room of a large hut. The windows were covered; they wanted no distractions or outside interference during the casting of this spell. It was the most complex and ambitious ceremony that they had ever attempted, either individually or as a group. Six of them would provide the power for the spell. One would weave the magic itself, and one would... draw on Vivi. That one would be Mr. 288.

Like a church, Vivi thought suddenly. A choir and two soloists, all singing one song. He liked that metaphor. It was pleasant to think about, and right now he needed that.

"Ready?" Mr. 288 said to Vivi when the casters were all in place. Vivi nodded and took his place. The Black Mages were in a ring, facing inward, with Mr. 288 at one side and Mr. 192, the village's synthesist, at the other. Vivi stood in front of Mr. 288, who put his hands firmly but gently on Vivi's shoulders and stared into his eyes.

The other Black Mages linked hands. The two beside Mr. 288 laid their hands on his shoulders; the ones beside Mr. 192 did likewise. The circle complete, the six Mages began casting their different spells, careful in their timing so they would all be completed at the right moment. Vivi felt a strange sensation, as if he was being watched. The feeing soon sharpened into physical discomfort. As Mr. 288's eyes bored into his own the feeling traveled through his bones, starting at his head, then working down his spine and limbs.

It was hard to stay still; it felt as though creatures were working their way through his body. When they reached the ends of his fingers and toes they raced back up through another, more direct route. The discomfort flashed into a sudden, sharp headache.

Behind him, Mr. 192 started to weave the spell. He did not speak; he could not spare the concentration even for that. Vivi could feel the spells that the six Mages had cast suddenly flow into the larger spell, like streams reaching a river.

The crawling sensation was moving again, down through his body, but this time through his muscles. It was very difficult to keep still while it was happening; it felt as if the spell was trying to move him like a puppet. Then it went deep into his body, starting in his lower chest. Vivi wanted to close his eyes, but doing so might disrupt the spell. He couldn't risk that, not now! He told himself that soon this would be over with. No matter how bad it felt, it wouldn't last long. All he had to do was wait. Wait as it felt like the spell was talking him apart from within and putting him back together.

Eventually the discomfort faded. The spell was still being cast, he could feel it, but his part was nearly over. He only felt occasional flashes here and there within himself.

Then, abruptly, the spell was finished. Mr. 288 finally broke his stare and looked beyond Vivi, his eyes wide. Vivi turned around. There, facing Mr. 192, was another small Black Mage.

The other Mages cheered, though clearly they too were exhausted by the ordeal. Mr. 192 held up a hand to silence them as he examined his work. The new Mage submitted without speaking. Then Mr. 192 looked up at Mr. 288 and said in a low voice, "He's almost complete."

Gently Mr. 288 took the new Mage by the shoulder and turned him. He stood silently, His eyes as vacant as a doll's.

Vivi wanted to cringe. That's what he had looked like once, before he had awakened. He had been an automaton, an "empty vessel," as the Genomes called themselves. The Black Mages had known that they could only copy his body, that the soul could not be duplicated. They had hoped that another soul would take the body during the spell. That hadn't happened, but then none of them had awakened immediately after they had been manufactured... "He'll wake up," Vivi said. "The rest of us did. We just gotta wait for it."

The other Black Mages nodded. Mr. 288 agreed with Vivi - he did believe that this copy would awaken in his own time, as the rest of them had. He also knew that he had no choice but to believe that; to think otherwise would be to surrender all hope of survival. Looking down at the copy, he thought that there were a lot of hopes and dreams riding on such a small vessel.

Vivi looked more carefully. His copy was a little smaller than he was. He was standing up straight, yet his eyes were below Vivi's. The Mages had copied him as he had been created, which had to mean he had grown since then. But Quan, his adoptive grandfather, had said that he hadn't grown in over half of a year... had he just started? Then he might be an adult too someday!

"He needs a name," said Mr. 288. "Vivi, what kinds of names do they give to children?"

"Uh..." Vivi tried to recall the names of the few other children he had known. Only one came to mind - the name of his first friend. "Puck?"

Mr. 288 said to the new Mage, "Your name is Puck."

The copy stared blankly, showing no sign of having heard him. Vivi remembered the Black Mages on the airship, and said, "Puck?" Puck turned and looked at him with expressionless eyes. Vivi explained to the others, "He can't talk or do anything except what he's told to do. That's what my grandfather told me I was like when he found me."

Mr. 111, one of the spellcasters, said "Puck, come with me," and held out his hand. Puck obediently walked over to him and looked incuriously at his hand. After a confused pause, Mr 111 led Puck out. Watching them go, Vivi thought that he was the opposite of the energetic, impulsive boy who had sneaked them both into the theater less than a year ago. But maybe he would grow into the name after he awakened.

The other Mages left the hut to go rest and recover in their own homes. Vivi and Mr. 288 went to the hut they shared. Mr. 288 put a comforting hand on Vivi's back and said gently, "It hurt, didn't it."

"Well... some," Vivi said.

"I wish I could do it without hurting you..."

"It's all right." Vivi looked into Mr 288's eyes. "You'll have to make more. I'll be all right. The pain doesn't last."

"No, nothing does," Mr. 288 agreed, a faraway look in his eyes.

Vivi didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing. He felt weak, shaky, after what the spell had done. He climbed into his bed. Mr. 288 tucked him in - just like his grandfather used to, before he died - and then went to his own bed to rest and recover his magic.

There would be more Black Mages. It was sadly ironic that none of them would take after the ones who had built this village and would create the new race, Vivi thought. But they would survive. He could endure the spell as many times as he had to for that.

All characters and settings are copyright © Square Enix. Copyrighted materials are used without permission but with a lot of affection and respect. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland ( Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.

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