This is a derivitive work on Square-Enix's game for the Sony Playstation, Final Fantasy IX. Author lays no claim to the original story laid forth in said game, only the scenario presented herein.
The website fanfiction.net is a dumping ground for me, used for presenting incomplete works and other stuff I'm not sure on. My full works are hosted at www.icybrian.com under the name Average Joe.
Black Mage (working title) by Maximum Zen
Blood. Everywhere blood. A pool of it inching toward me, filling cracks in the pavement, lifting dirt from the cobblestones. I watch it slide forward on a vertical horizon. A black sky on the right, beyond the dancing lace of fire hiding behind a silhouetted web of framework. On the left the blood and cobbles, and my own gloved hand in front of me, soaking in the blood of I know not whom.
I can smell the blood, and taste it on my breath. Is it my blood? Or perhaps the blood of one of the many bodies laying in various states of distress in the streets, against the buildings, or crushed under rubble? Hearing the moans of pain and screams of terror make me want to do the same. I want to flee, I want to escape, I want to wash the blood off my hands and out of my coat. But I'm having difficulty getting up.
For the moment all I can do is roll over onto my back. But when I turn, something causes me pain, and makes my lower spine curve unnaturally. I look to my left, and I see a glove similar to my own blood-stained one. A jacket like my own. The underside of a wide-brimmed hat. I roll to my side and push myself up, and crawl over to see if my clothes-double is conscious.
I nudge the body but get no response. I get close enough to look into the individual's face, but fall backward when I see none. Only darkness. Darker than the blackened skies above, shrouded in smoke. Darker than the blood I had been steeping in while unconscious. Darker than the stains on my gloves from soaking for so long. Black.
The only exceptions are two fading golden glows. Two discs floating in the blackness, flickering, burning out like the city around me. Two golden eyes staring into space, beyond me, beyond the sky, beyond the stars. A hollow look that will stay with me forever.
It is a face that inspires terror. A horrible face that I never wish to see again. I roll off my behind to my hands and knees only to see that terrible face again, staring back at me from the pool of blood.
My face. His face is my face. His hat is my hat. His coat is my coat. This blood is--I still do not know whose blood this is. I do not want to know. I just want it off of me. I want to leave it behind. Leave this place behind. Here is hell. Death, agony, fire and brimstone. People suffering in the streets, wounded men shouting curses at me. Children weeping and clinging their parents' sides. Soldiers in uniforms like mine, faceless, expressionless, fearless, heartless, charging endlessly into battle without concern for themselves or their comrades.
It is me. Every single one of them is me. I push my battered body beyond its expected limits, forcing myself off the main road using mostly my elbows. I fall on my face from time to time, my own panic mixing with the blood on the streets.
This blood is on my hands. My own pain is nothing next to this.
In an empty archway I cower, feeling the reverberations of explosive power in my chest. It echoes in the hall and I can do nothing to stop its assault on my senses. I can only sit on the stairs with my back to the wall. It is unlikely that anyone would find me here. My doppelgangers continue the assault on the city, allowing none to even approach the city gates. It's a sickening feeling when you watch thousands of yourself roam the streets of the city, obliterating all in their--your--path.
But what can I do? If I am identical to them, then one of them is equal to one of me. It would be a fifty-fifty chance for me against an exact replica. But they outnumber me so much that I cannot even hope to count them. What chance to I have against an entire legion of myself?
A child wanders into the archway, screaming for its mother. I am unable to tell its gender, but its hair is short, and matted with blood. Within the clothes' burn marks I see fresh wounds. It has a dirty, round face, with clean skin showing beneath streams of tears. I pity it. It must have crawled out of some burning wreck, wearing only a shirt too large for it.
I do my best to stay in the shadows. I may have been the one who destroyed the building it escaped from. I have no way of knowing. I cannot remember anything before I woke up.
Again and again it calls out, limping forward when it isn't stumbling, trying its best to leave the city. It struggles to descend the steps. I watch it, silently cheering. Go, go on. You must escape. Escape the tragedy that I--or someone like me has brought upon you.
An explosion sends a searing shockwave through the tunnel, nearly forcing the hat off my head. The stones in the ceiling of the archway rattle, and dust and minor debris descends in a cloud over the child. I look up, knowing what comes next.
The child also looks up, covering its face. For a brief moment I see the terror I feel within myself expressed in the face of that child.
I will not. I cannot sit by idly while a child suffers. I throw out my blood-caked hands. I concentrate all my thought on two points: myself, and the space above the child. And then, the two connect. A brilliant flash, a percussive noise in my skull, and the two points are connected by bolts of electricity, vaporizing the stone in mid-descent.
The child looks in my direction. I see for but a moment hope in the child's eyes. Hope for a savior to take it away from this place. The thought that I could rescue such a precious thing from the disaster that I have wrought upon this place causes my heart to race. I hope that we can both get out of here. Together.
But when it sees me, that hope in its eyes changes to terror. It turns and flees, screaming, as quickly as its wounds will allow.
I should have expected as much. I look exactly like all the others around here. Even if I did save--
Not save. I could not save the child. A section of the ceiling above the child collapses. I do not see the child running past the mound of stones. I struggle with the steps to see if I can move the rubble off the child, but it has completely stopped moving. No matter how much I urge it, it does not respond at all. There is no motion when I poke at its leg, jutting out from below the stones. Somehow I know there is nothing I can do.
Is there? Is there anything I can do? I see others--so few others--trying to stop the hordes of me. Most just run. Those who do not run… end up not being able to run. Like the child. I can't be like them. I must keep moving. I need to run. I run all the way to the bottom of the stairs, and I can see stars outside.
Outside. All I need to do is step outside, and I will be safe. I have no idea how I know this, but I know. Outside is calm. Outside is dark. Outside is not as scary as inside. The stars look like me. Little points of light floating in the darkness. But the others inside look even more like me, and they are terrifying. The child knew, and I know. And the people of this city know. So is the outside really safer than inside?
I can't decide. But I know that if I don't decide, something unpleasant will be decided for me. I don't want that to happen. And I don't want that decision to be made for anyone else, either.
So I go inside. I want to end all the trouble I have caused. I can't undo it, but I can end it. Or if not end, then at least slow it down. I will do my best.
I place my hands next to each other and force the air between them to collapse and ignite. A gout of fire bursts forth from that gap and alights upon my mirror image. The other me flails its arms and spins in circles as if confused by its predicament and then falls, unmoving. I look up to a pair of twin peaked hats atop a balcony and see that they are about to do the same to me. I will not allow them to keep me from stopping as many of them as I can. They will stop.
I turn to them and grab them in my mind, my arms mimicking the vision in my mind. I pull apart the air and slow it down, and as they lean forward to cast at me, they freeze, fall from the balcony and shatter.
Each one of them is me. Every one of them is a reflection of myself, like the grotesque creature staring back from the pool of blood. Every one that I stop is trying to stop me. At any moment I may have to endure what they are enduring. And yet it is something I cannot control. It is as if terror and anger have taken my body from me, and I only watch from the glowing discs of my eyes as I attack myself. Ten times, a hundred times, or perhaps only three or four. Each instant replays a thousand times over, so it is difficult to tell. But each time I experience it with them, as if it really is me experiencing that fate.
I hate myself.
And the townsfolk hate me, too.
Things are becoming a bit clearer, now. I'm lying on my back, surrounded by a handful of people. A wrinkly man with no hair on his head says, "We've got a live one, here."
I believe they're discussing me. They're saying they want to rid themselves of the abomination before it can do any more harm to them. A man with a tail looks at me sadly, almost as if I look like someone he knew, but he says nothing, only walks on. The villagers decide that I'll simply be tossed with all the other rubbish, and that I'll likely die on my own, anyway.
I do not get a chance to figure out what that last remark means. Someone "wants to be sure." I feel a sharp pain bounce off my skull and not long after that, I lose consciousness.
It is a strange feeling, not to feel. No sensation, no dream. Just a large gap in time, almost like that of the night before. Only then, I had been able to see the events unfold. They replayed in my mind, then. But now, there is no now. Just empty time. For a long time, I guess. It is very hard to tell when you can't tell.
I awaken face up in cold waters, adrift amidst burned flotsam. Remnants of that night in the city, I suppose. I thrash about and manage to find myself footing on the shore. I scrabble my way up the rocks to the bank, and look at myself in the water.
Nothing has really changed. Same hat, same coat with the bloodstained sleeve, same gloves, crusted with blood. Same chilling face, a blank darkness even in full daylight with only twin golden glows as features. I dip my hands into the river and rub them against each other furiously, trying in desperation to remove the stains. Like the poor child's lack of movement, these bloodstains will be permanent.
My breath is unsteady and my hands shaky. My eyes burn as they did amid the fire and destruction. I don't know what is making me do this. Could it be the memories of that night? It must be. Each time I think of it, my head hurts. I want to scream, but I dare not; who knows what lies in the trees beyond this bank?
I try to rub my hands over my eyes to rid them of the stinging. I get an intimate view of the discoloration in my gloves before they make contact. I scream, and smash my fists into the stones, over and over again until I can no longer feel the pain in my hands. My eyes burn, but are cold; I smell salt, but far more than the trace amounts in blood or the river. I collapse to my hands and knees, fall to my side and tuck my knees as close as they could come to me. I want to be as small as I possibly can right now. To vanish into nothing.
Midday turns to dusk with me in that position. After a long while the feeling comes back to my hands. They hurt. Immensely. I tolerate as much as I can, but I end up leaving them to soak in the cooling river water, hoping to numb the pain away. I have given up on trying to remove the stains. They are as difficult to erase as the memories of that night in the city. Perhaps there is a way to remove stains and memories. It is something that I will strive to find.
I wobble to my feet. My knees buckle and I collapse to the rocks again. If I want to walk, I will need some sort of support. My legs alone will not carry me as they are. I pull myself to the water with my elbows, and strain my eyes to see if any of the debris will fit my need. I dip my hand into the river--it burns and freezes all at once--and I fish out a wooden pole. Shredded scraps of blue cloth still cling to the metal rungs attached to it. My hand throbs as I pull my makeshift support from the river. I wedge my findings in the rocks until I get solid enough ground, and begin to pull myself to my feet.
My hands! Such pain! I immediately let go of my new walking stick and again find myself on my knees, staring at my hands. Waves of pain course through my fingers, through my palms, and up to my wrists. I try to ball them into fists but that makes it worse. My eyes burn again, like my hands.
I sit for a while. There will not be any getting up for me in this condition. I cannot walk if I cannot stand, and if I cannot stand, I will sit. I will wait until my hands stop hurting. I will wait until I can stand. I will wait for the stars to come and go if I have to, and the sun comes back. I will wait until…
I bolt back into a sitting position. How did the sun come up without my knowing? Did I lose consciousness, like I did when I was in that city? My hands hurt less, but my stomach hurts more. It makes a noise at me, like the burbling of the river. I grab my walking stick--my hand aches as I grip it--and pull myself up. I let a good portion of my weight rest with my arms against the broken pole and stare blankly ahead.
Rocks, trees, the sky, grass. It is quiet here. Is this what it means… to die? The people from the city said that I would die on my own. I like this place. If I was to die, I would like to do it here. I hope that "to die" is better than what I have experienced already. Better than what gave me these red stains.
"Hey, Black Coat!" a voice shouts behind me.
I labor to face the river again, to see what called me. A small figure leans out of the cabin of an otherwise flat river craft, and waves its arm.
"Hey, Mr. Black Coat, you seen what went on here? Why's there so much junk littering up my river? It's almost as if the city decided to just toss itself out." The river man walks the deck of his craft and grabs a rope. He tosses an end at me, and stares as the balled end clatters in the rocks at my feet. "Well, are you going to grab it or not? Help a fella out here, won't you?" He hops into the river and wades to the shore. "If a man tosses you a rope, he probably expects you to grab it, don't you think?" He snatches his rope from among the rocks and looks around.
His boat starts to drift away, so I lift my arm to point it out to him.
"Huh? What?" He looks at me for a moment, then follows my arm out to where I am pointing. "My boat!" He braces himself in the water as the small craft pulls the rope taut. "Now look what you've done!" He thrashes about in the water to wrestle his boat along the shore, then wraps the rope around a heavy-looking stone.
"So what's your deal, Dark Coat? You got something against me? You won't take my rope, you won't help me pull in my darling boat--you just stand there, waggling your arm at it while it floats away." He makes a wild gesture in the direction of his boat, pointing with more intensity than I had done just a moment ago. He clomps up the rocks to me. "Don't you have anything to say for yourself? Hello? Do you even talk?"
He leans in uncomfortably close to my face. I can smell the river on him, and something else. Something sour.
"You no talky me-talk none? Yes-no? Nothing?" He yells very close to my ear. By reflex, I jerk back and blink at him.
His voice lowers again, and he rubs his bristly chin. "Well, you can hear me, at least, that's a good sign. You can," he points at me, "hear me," he cups his ear, "right?" he gives me an emphatic nod.
I think I understand what he wants from me. He wants me to nod if I can hear him. I bob my head, and I can feel my hat wobble its response with me.
"Well, that's good. It's a start, at least." He leans forward again and yells, "Me teach you more me-talk words soon." Each of his words are followed by a gesture that I can only half make out.
I just nod at him. My stomach makes the gurgling noise again, and it causes him to laugh.
"Come on, you black-face, gold-eye, dark-coat, spike-hat freak, let's get you something to eat."
He grabs my hand and drags me into the water. I feel it rush into my shoes and up my pant legs. It is cold. I shiver and try to pull away. But as frail as the man looks, his grip stays firm when I tug.
"'Fraid of a little water, are ya?" He stares at me square in the face. "I know how to fix that." He moves behind me. I track him as long as I can without turning around, but I am quite confused as to what it is that he will do.
"Alley-oop!" he shouts, grabbing me around the waist. I wriggle about, trying to get him to put me down, but he lumbers forward just far enough that when I do finally get free, I find myself thrashing face-down in the water. "Come on, just swim, you idiot. It's not like a baby can't do it." I piece together what I think I heard between my splashing and gargling water.
A hand comes under my belly and straightens me out. My frantic arm and leg movements to pull me forward in this new position. But I still can not find enough air to breathe. I throw my hands and feet out wildly to find enough grip to right myself. A hand claps down on my back and sets me up again.
"Ah, but you can't get anywhere that way." He grabs my walking stick. "Especially with that little scrap in your hand. You nearly bopped me on the head with your crazy-man shenanigans." He pushes me forward a little. I drift forward, but it is difficult to move in water. "Try walkin'. It's not that deep out to the boat. We can teach you to swim later."
He walks ahead of me and shakes his head. "I swear. Just like a little kid." He shrugs and moves on to the boat. I struggle through the rocky stream after him.
He pulls himself up to sit on the edge of his small, wooden craft. He points at me, then at his boat, beckoning me to follow. I wade over to the side of the boat, and he offers his hands to me. I look up at him. A moment passes, and he offers his hands again. I look at myself. I cannot pull myself up with my staff in hand. So I hand him my staff.
"Not that, Hat-Man," he yells, slamming my staff on his deck. "Your hands." He offers his hands to me yet again. "Your hands!"
I look at my hands and his, and nod, hesitantly giving him my hands. He grips them firmly and I cringe. He yanks me aboard just enough for my torso to be on the deck, and I wriggle my lower half out on my own.
It is difficult to stand up after getting out of the water. Despite making it difficult for me to walk, I did feel lighter in water than I do on the boat. I grab my staff and push myself up.
"Cabin's over here if you want to sit." I look over at my new companion, the River Man. He beckons with one arm while he points inside with the other.
I take a step forward just as the boat leans to one side. I struggle to keep myself upright, and if I did not have my staff, I would have failed miserably.
"Never been on a boat? All the more reason to sit down." The River Man becomes more emphatic. "So hurry up. I've got me a boat to finish tying up. Maybe with a little less rocking you can do a little more walking, huh?"
I stumble into the cabin and fall on a bench built into the wall. "You wait here for a minute, I'm gonna finish securing the boat." The River Man hops off the boat and into the water. I am left alone to contemplate.
Where am I now? What am I doing? Who am I?
I am in a boat. A boat in a river, somewhere near a city, I assume, that has just gotten demolished. I wonder if it is the same city as before. Would things be any easier for me if so? I have my doubts. I will have to wait and see.
And so, I wait.
I am waiting for a man whom I had never met before, that was kind enough to throw me into a river, grab my aching hands harshly, and yell at me repeatedly. And he says that he will get me something to eat. I hope that "to eat" is good.
I am… I don't know who I am. I look my hands over, turning them repeatedly. These are the hands of a person I have never met before. I know about as much about myself as I do about the River Man. Perhaps the River Man will know? If he does not know my name, he might at least be able to tell me where I come from. If I go to where I am from, someone there may know me.
But would they want to know me? These hands have soaked in the blood of others. I have tried to wash them, but these stains will not leave. If I return to where I am from, they will see the stains, and they will ask about them. And I won't have any answers.
But they might. The place I come from may have others that look like me. Like the city did. So many others of me--I'd rather not think about it.
I shake my head, hoping to loose these thoughts from it. I will have to start with the River Man. There is nowhere else to go right now.
Splashes approach the side of the boat. It stops, and the boat rocks. "We're all secure," I hear from outside. I peer over my shoulder, and see that the River Man has returned. He comes inside, and searches around in a compartment underneath the bench I am on.
"Watch your feet." He nudges, and I pull them up. "Okay, I got it." He stands up and my legs go back down. "I'm gonna go sit over there, and catch us some lunch." He assembles a stick not unlike my own, but narrower, and with more metal rings on it. He threads a string through each hole of the rings and sits down on the side of the boat, just outside the door to the cabin.
I try to watch what he does, but his back is to me. He fiddles with a small box that he brought with him, and does something with his string, and then flicks his stick over the water. There's a plop, and I start to get up to see what he is doing.
The bench creaks as I try to stand, and the River Man glares at me and shoos me away. He places his finger to his lips and shakes his head. I sit as quietly as I can, nudging myself into the seat. All I can do is watch. And wait.
I find that I can't count time very well as I wait for the River Man to do whatever it is he is doing. I get to what I think is a minute, and then I lose track. I start counting again, but I keep losing track before getting to what I think is a minute. Something distracts me every time. The blue cloth still clinging to the rungs on my new staff, the whistle of the wind between the trees, the River Man messing with his string and his box. Whatever it is that the River Man is doing, it takes a lot of time.
I wish I could do what he is doing. It seems that he is enjoying himself. His head nods back and forth in rhythm, to some cadence that I cannot hear. The lines in his face deepen as the corners of his mouth rise up whenever he goes back to looking through his box. If that is what it means to eat, or to die, then I would like to learn it.
I pull in a breath to ask him to teach me, but I remember his warning. No talking now. I put my finger to my mouth and nod. If he could see me, I'm sure he would be happy that I remembered.
"Ah! Aha! Here we go!" He pulls on the stick and it bends, drawn to the water by the string. He struggles with it for a few moments and decides to stand, bracing himself in the open doorway. "Grab-grab-grab the net!" He calls between swings of the stick. "I'll need help on this one!" He nods at a net at the end of a pole, secured on hooks above the door.
I scramble out of my seat to the door, and hop up to grab the net. The boat wobbles, and I fall to the deck face first with the net in my hands. The net falls over my head and into the water. It wriggles around a little, and then thrashes about wildly in my hands.
"Good! Hold onto that net!" He laughs as he sets the butt of the stick down beside me, and grabs the handle of the net. He tugs a bit, but I refuse to let go. "Okay, it's alright to let go now." He tugs a little harder and I release it.
I feel the vibrations of his feet on the wooden planks going into the cabin. I roll over and set myself upright, gazing in wonder into the cabin.
"Not the most graceful catch I've ever seen a man make," he chuckles, "but a fish's a fish!" He pulls the creature out from within the net. He displays it proudly by its tail, while it flails itself about. It is a beautiful thing. Almost entirely silver, with a multicolored streak close to its top. It sparkles in the daylight, throwing out little rainbow sprays as it shakes off the water. Pleased by the display, I reach my arm out toward it.
"Alright, just a second." The River Man slaps the fish down on the counter inside of the cabin. He is out of my view for just a moment, makes a clop noise, and then returns to me and helps me to my feet. We go inside the cabin and he makes me sit down. I look over to him, but a cabinet blocks my view of what he is doing. He enjoys himself, doing what he does at the counter. Is he eating? Is he dying? I would like to help him.
"Well, that's that. Now for the fire." He turns to a squat, metal barrel with a vent in the front and a pipe leading from the top through the roof. He opens the panel with the vent and looks inside. He nods and looks around the cabin. "Flint, flint," he mumbles. "Where'd I put that blasted box?" He looks at me for a moment and asks, "You seen a little box about yea big?" He holds his hands closely together.
I think for a moment, trying to recall seeing a box that size. I tilt my head, and the tip of my hat brushes against the wall behind me.
"What'm I asking you for? You don't understand a word I'm saying." He turns to the cabinets and opens one. "Probably think I'm doing some sort of new dance step." He shuffles the contents of the cabinet around and mutters to himself again. "Fire goes in the stove. Need flint for fire."
Fire? In the stove. I look at the metal barrel. That must be the stove. I can make fire. I move in front of the stove and squat down, placing my hands in front of the opening. I compress the air with my mind, and can feel it begin to heat up. My hands ache, and it throws off my concentration.
"Scoot over, you'll never get warm without a fire. At least let me light it, first." I am nudged aside, and almost fall over. I sit back at my place on the bench, and watch the River Man as he does his work.
He takes a stone and strikes it against a small spear hanging from a rack next to the stove. There are sparks, and I see the wood inside the stove ignite. He did it all with his own power.
Why could I not do that? I stare at my stained gloves again. I am always relying on something to help me. My magic, my staff, and now, the River Man. The River Man has done everything on his own so far. He pulled his boat in, he carried me to the river, and he has started a fire. I could not even stand on the shore without my staff.
I want to be the River Man.
I look up at him again. The fire in the stove is small and red, and he stands holding a small two-pronged fork. The top of the stove hisses and steams.
"You been staring at your hands a long time, spike-head. It's almost time to eat." He skewers a limp chunk off of the stove, and hands it to me on what looks like a tiny shield. A knife and another two-pronged fork sit next to the steaming white slab. The River Man sits down across from me with an identical setup.
"Food time, have fun!" The corners of his mouth twist upward at me like when he was holding the stick over the water. He takes the knife and ushers a section of the stuff onto his fork, and places it into his mouth. I mimic him, fumbling through the same actions.
I remember this. I don't know how, because I don't remember doing this, but somehow I know what to do.
My jaws begin the grinding motion, breaking up what's inside. My tongue pushes it around. I swallow. I eagerly dive into my next… bite. I know this action. But what is it called?
"Them's good eats, huh?" The River Man chuckled at me. Eating. This must be eating. I remember this now. I can remember eating. Can I remember what it is to die?
"What does it mean…to die?" I ask.
The River Man gags on his current bite. He coughs and sputters, then grabs a small flask from the cabinet.
"You talk?" he chokes.
"And you've known what I've been saying this whole time?"
"And you didn't tell me?"
I nod. And then I shake my head. Should I say "yes, I did not," or "no, I did not"?
"Well, um," he clears his throat, "I didn't mean any offense to you Mister… ah…" He looks at me wide-eyed, leaning forward.
I don't understand why he pauses now. I look at him, waiting for him to finish his sentence.
"…Okay, then. Well, my name's Geoff." He sits on the bench, his flask firmly in hand. I smell the sour smell from the flask that I smelled on him earlier. He leans forward and offers me his other hand, but I do not need help up right now.
"No handshake? So you did take offense, then. I'm sorry, I didn't mean any harm. Forgive an old man his trespasses?"
I don't really understand what he means. He has not invaded my territory. The only possession I have is my staff. How could he trespass?
"You did not trespass," I tell him.
"No hard feelings, then?"
The bench feels hard, but I don't think that is what he means. I shake my head.
"Good. So, what was that question, again?"
"What does it mean to die?"
The River Man, Geoff's face goes lax, then his graying eyebrows scrunch together. He looks into his flask, then takes another drink. "You're a cold man, asking an old man like myself that question."
He sets his flask on the table again, and turns his face down. The shadows on his face deepen and I have trouble seeing his expression. "Because I'm just a few days closer to it than you are."
"You say it differently from the others. You say it as if you don't want to do it."
Again the River Man looks at me, leaning forward, his eyes so intent on mine that they seem to wish to rocket from his head through the back of mine. "You'd be a fool if you wanted to. I like my life here on the river. Bad things happen, sure, but I'm never going to give up on it."
I roll my food between my knife and fork and think. "They seemed different when they said that I would die on my own. Like it was a good thing. I thought that maybe I should. I could find a nice place where I could go to die. Maybe do it again if it is a good thing."
Geoff sighs and shakes his head. "You really don't know what it means to die, do you?" He snaps the flask to his mouth and throws his head back. I watch the bony lump in his neck bob several times before he slams the flask back down. "Perhaps it's better for you that way. Or maybe not. But either way, whoever it was that said it was good lied."
I explain to him what I remember about waking up with the people around me. How they crowded close together yet none were close enough to touch. How they spoke in soft whispers directly over my head. How they looked at me with scorn and said they would put me out with the rubbish.
Geoff looks at me and draws out each word, "Those weren't your friends."
I shake my head slowly.
"So you shouldn't listen to anything they have to say."
Geoff, turning to face the window, rests an arm on the table. "I don't want to die. And I don't think you really do, either. To die is," he draws his hand up to his face and lets out a slow breath, "it's the end. Everything comes to a stop."
My knife and fork clink down on the plate and I wring my hands. They still hurt, ever so slightly, and my head starts to ache from trying to understand exactly what it is that he means. I realize only now all the bruises I have suffered from floating down a river, how each one gives me a unique sensation of discomfort. I let my breath seep into all parts of my body as I ready myself to ask the next question. "Does the pain stop?"
Geoff shakes his head and returns his gaze to me. "Look, I don't know what you've been through, but don't you start thinking death can solve it. I've seen enough death in my time to know that it doesn't solve a thing." He slams his open hands on the table and stands up, going to the door. "What am I saying? I can't convince someone I don't even know that his life's worth living." He leans up against the doorway waving a hand at me. "Just do me a favor and don't die when I'm around."
I manage a slow nod and stare at my food. I had rolled it between my knife and fork so much that it had completely broken apart. White flakes litter the surface between the larger broken chunks. It looks like the bodies between the crumbled build--I'd rather not think about it. I push my food and my thoughts away.
"What, my fish's no good?"
I look at the food, white with singed edges. Had this been that beautiful fish I had seen not long ago? That sparkly, silvery thing with the stripe of rainbow color down its back? That creature that Geoff pulled from the river, and I caught with the net? It looked nothing like this then.
"Is this that fish you caught?" I whisper.
"What happened?" My head raises and my eyes open, and I see Geoff's face scrunched inward. His eyebrows pull inward, his lips tauten and his jaw drops a bit. He draws in a short breath and opens his mouth, then sighs and closes it again. He shakes his head and drops his eyes from mine.
It takes a few moments for that to process. Dead, death, dying, to die. It's all the same. It's the end. Everything stops. The fish has stopped moving, has stopped swimming, has stopped that strange jaw motion it did where flaps on the side of its head opened. It won't do any of these things again.
Geoff raises his face with an unusual look. His brows are drawn together, his mouth is pulled to his cheeks almost like when he caught the fish, but different. There is a strange tenseness in his expression. I see the wrinkles in his face grow deeper, darkening the shadows around his mouth and in his forehead. He comes back to the table and sits again, leaning toward me. His voice grows quiet. "But, sometimes, death is necessary. Sometimes you need death to live."
"I don't understand."
"We eat. We can't not eat. But to eat, something else must die. The only way around that would be to live off milk and honey our whole lives. That'd be great, but it can't be done. Our bodies need other things to live, too. Things that milk and honey don't provide." He leans back and looks to the stove. "So there's fish, and plants, and other things that we have to eat. And, we can eat them while they're still alive, but they won't stay alive when we eat them. That's just the way things go."
I think about it for a moment, and I guess that dying so that something else may live may not be too bad. Is that not, in a way, like yourself living on in that other? "Will I be eaten someday?"
"What? You? Eaten?" Geoff jumps a bit in his seat and sits upright again. "Don't be so dense. You're a person. You won't get eaten. The only reasons people die is sickness, old age, and war." I feel a cold shiver ripple through my spine outward through my arms at the sound of that last one. For reasons unknown to me memories of that night resurface in my head at the mention of it. Geoff seems to not like saying it. The way he spat the word out, had it been solid, it would have splattered on the table.
"You don't like war?"
"Of course not. War's a terrible thing." He harrumphs at me with a nod.
"I don't like war, either." I fold my arms and nod.
A moment passes in awkward silence before I say, "What is war?"
Geoff explains to me the specifics of war while we finish our fish. Occasionally during our conversation he stumbles over the name of a particular weapon or formation and I am able to complete his sentence. He looks at me oddly whenever I do. I think he finds me odd.
I find it odd that I am eating a dead thing while he explains to me that people die in war. He explains how lots of people dress in all the same clothes and hurt each other until they fall and do not get up. It sounds like something I have done. It sounds like what went on that night in the city. Those that wear the same clothes and make people die are soldiers.
"I think I might be a soldier." My words are little more than a breath.
"What? You say something?"
"A-am I a…" I falter and pause for a moment. If I am a soldier, would Geoff treat me differently? His eyes narrow, his voice becomes quieter, deeper and more gravelly whenever he speaks of the deeds a soldier does. If I am a soldier, would he treat me that way? But if I am a soldier, then surely he should know at least where I am from. Then, maybe I can find out exactly who I am, and why I am here.
"Am I a soldier? There were a bunch of others like me who wore the same clothes and were destroying a town. When I woke up…" I shudder, remembering the image of the fires dancing in the reflection of a pool of blood in front of my face. "I-I saw what they were doing, and I tried to stop them." My eyes burn with that cold fire I felt when I hurt my hands. "And they stopped. And they didn't get up. I couldn't control myself. I could see what I was doing, but it was like I was in a trance…" I remember my duplicates dancing ablaze, and freezing only to shatter. I caused it. My body convulses and my breath grows ragged. The burning in my eyes grows. I draw my hands up to my face. I don't want to look at anyone right now.
"If you were a soldier, you're not one now." Geoff leans over the table and claps a hand over my shoulder. "Showing remorse for those you've killed, crying over their deaths, I don't think you could do it again. A good soldier will only kill when necessary, but they'll move on because they have to. Because they'll just have to do it again next time."
"I-I don't want t-to kill."
"I know you don't. I didn't want to, either. But, like I said, sometimes, I guess, it's necessary to kill to live."
He didn't want to, either? What exactly does that mean? I rub my bleary eyes and look at him as he rests back in his seat. I sniffle and cough a couple of times before he continues.
"I suppose there's no sense in hiding it, now. Not that I was, or anything," he waves his hand in circles in the air. "Yeah, I was a soldier, once. More lifetimes ago than a soldier was expected to live. Well, less a 'soldier' and more of a 'combat medic,' actually. So I got to watch firsthand how many people died on a day-to-day basis. And see how many dreams were shattered, collect countless final messages to loved ones--until my unit came under attack."
Geoff breathes a slow, deep breath and lowers his head, looking out at me from beneath the shadows of his eyebrows. His expression is blank, but for the lowering of his brow. "So it came to a unit of medics to fight off trained killers as we tried to defend our own near-dead killers. Many of our people died that day, either because the enemy killed them or we couldn't tend them because the enemy was killing us. But when it came down to it, our side 'won,' if you could call it that."
Geoff rests his forehead on his fingertips. "In the end, I killed a man. Ducked right beneath his sword as he tried to lop off my head and jammed my knife in his chest. I fell over, pinning him down and driving my knife further in, covering my hands in his blood. When I got to my knees, he had this look of surprise on his face and he grabbed the knife. His eyes went glassy and he stared at me with this hollow look. Then he reached up and touched my face and said to me, 'Brother, I can see you. Please tell my wife I'll be home late.' I don't think he really saw me, or even knew what was going on. But that was the same sort of speech I had heard from my fallen comrades, day in and day out, only coming from the enemy."
He shakes his head. "I cried. For what must have been an hour I cried while I tried to salvage something of this nameless soldier who turned out to be more human than I was trained to believe. But he was dead, and there was nothing but an act of God that could bring him back. When I returned to my post, they saw the blood on my clothes and the hand-shaped blood stain on my face and named me 'The Red Hand.' My whole unit was heroes for that winning battle. But in the end that little skirmish didn't even get a name, and now scholars just call that whole big fiasco--my little skirmish and all--some 'Lindblum War' or other. But I left. And I didn't look back. And I don't regret leaving one bit, even if they do call me a deserter or a traitor."
I wrestle with my cuffs, pulling them lower over my gloves. "But you're not a bad person, I don't think."
"Not all traitors and deserters are bad people. I'm just a man who couldn't take the atrocities of war."
"Do you think I'm a bad person, even if I'm a deserter, or a traitor?"
He waves off that query. "Nah. Just because your ideals don't exactly mesh with theirs doesn't make you bad. It just makes you the kind of person who can't set aside their emotions to take an order. Much like myself." Geoff laughs. "Maybe one day you'll be some old fogy sitting in a dingy barge ferrying letters from one end of a river to the other, too. Wouldn't that be a sight, eh, Pointy-Hat?"
I quirk my head at him, and his face deepens a shade. "Eh, sorry, I didn't mean to call you that again. It's just that I don't know your name, and all, and I had to call you something. But since we've been talking all this while, why don't you go ahead and let me know your name now?"
"I…" I don't know. I tear through my memory, but I can only go as far back as that night. Not even the slightest bit before. It's almost as if I did not even exist before then, and that I suddenly came into being fully aware at that moment. I grab the edges of my hat and pull them down, so the pressure of my hat around my head might jog something of a memory.
"I… can't remember."
"Figured as much. Probably post-traumatic amnesia, though it's a weird way for it to set in. You're supposed to forget everything about the trauma, not remember the trauma and forget everything before it. Never met anyone quite like you in my days."
I don't understand what he is saying. The words float through my head like through a cloud. There is so much I cannot remember, and what little I do remember, I do not wish to. Weapons. Tactics. Destructive magic. That night. Everything is wrong. I pull my hat down a little tighter on my head.
"Hey, hey now, it's not so bad. I'm sure you'll remember everything in time, if you really want to remember it. Just keep moving one day at a time, and it'll all come back. I've seen it before during the war. The further you get from that kind of stress, the better off you'll be."
"I hope so. It's a little scary, not knowing anything."
"I think you know…" he hesitates, "more than you think you know…" again he pauses, this time letting his head drop forward, "I think. You know?"
I shake my head.
Geoff gathers the empty plates, and places the knives and forks on them. He tosses them in a basin and turns to me. "Well, I think it's getting late. My old-man bones can't handle the hammock anymore, but I can set it up for you, if you'd like to stay tonight." I nod, and he opens a panel under the bench. He pulls out what looks like a large net, and a couple of blankets. "I usually sleep on the bench, but I might sleep out on the deck if it's not too cold tonight. You can find me in one of those places if you need me."
Geoff attaches one end of the net to a hook near the door, and the other end to a hook on the opposite side. He gestures me toward the net, and I approach it. After an awkward bout of fighting to get me into the hammock, as he calls it, Geoff tosses me a blanket and walks out the door. On his way out, he says, "You're welcome."
"I've done something nice for you, so, you're welcome. Usually you say 'thank you' when someone does something nice."
Geoff sighs and moves outside.
"Geoff?" I call out. He peeks inside at me, and I can see only traces of silver in his hair and brows in the moonlight. "Thank you."