FFIX: The Return
by Owen Axel
“...That moogle went into a Trance! So, it's not the will to live, nor is it the desire to protect another... That means I simply need a powerful soul, even if..”
“...Yes, but only until you came of age...I was going to create you next after all..”
“...The mighty power of souls. They attack any force that tries to destroy them...”
“...You were created to destroy. You are a mortal...”
“...I'm gonna die? Lose my soul...?”
“...That wouldn't be fair...”
Within the hollow trunk of the Tree of Iifa, a life story is nearing its end. The one who would have destroyed all creation just to escape his own fear has at last begun to seek his redemption. He chose to save the lives of the warriors who sought to defeat him. Now he lies dying, sharing his last moments with the man who might be called his brother.
“Hey,” his brother yells, “don't you go dying on me, alright?”
Then the entire miles-large tree rumbles loudly. The massive plant-like tentacles, that not long before were buried like exhaust tubes along the planet's crust, now come thundering down the trunk, their only motivation being to crush anyone who opposes the alien world the Iifa Tree originated from. Although the dying man's brother has the chance to leap out of harm's way he throws that chance away and instead tries to protect him. The tentacles surge on top of them from every direction, laying devastatingly strong pressure down on the two.
“...the will to live... ...the desire to protect another...”
When the one called Kuja attempted to gain ultimate power, his means was to exploit the natural defences inherent in all living souls. By using the hostility of his opponents he invoked a true testament to the will to live, thus unleashing the inner power of the souls he had stolen. His brother, called Zidane, had also become deeply familiar with the ability of the soul; known as Trance. Close souls may connect with one another, as primal memories cross between kindred beings so do the sympathy of souls.
Zidane spreads his arms high, forcing back the tremendous pressure of the tentacles. His power glows bright red, and soon his appearance has transformed into another.
“...But only until you came of age...”
“...So you're saying you won't need Kuja anymore once I grow stronger than him...?”
These two brothers are not human. They are called Genomes. There were three that were made to house ancient souls and thus serve as agents of the planet Terra. Each was made a vessel for souls that have existed past the lifetimes of planets, for the world of Terra was forced to outlive many other worlds by the uncompassionate ingenuity of its people. Once, not long ago, Zidane's soul was taken from him and he was made into an empty vessel, but through the kinship of his trusted friends he found a new soul growing inside him - one born from his connection with friends and family, and treasuring the primal memories of his birthplace in Terra and his home in this world of Gaia.
Kuja still lives. His body is slipping steadily, and he is now too weak to stand by his own strength, but he remains conscious. Opening his eyes, he sees his brother standing over him, clearing an open space between the ravenous tentacles. Pure energy flows through Zidane's body, burning into the destructive instincts of the Iifa Tree. Kuja can see that the stronger Genome is winning. The tentacles are beginning to crumble.
A deafening explosion sounds. The tentacles split and crash into the walls of the trunk. Zidane subsides, breathing heavily. Kuja cannot imagine the effort his brother just put into saving them both, yet he is still unmarked and still stands strong.
“Zidane,” Kuja whispers.
“You okay?” Zidane asks with the same happy-go-lucky attitude that he always exhibits. “That sure was hairy, huh?”
“It...might not...be over...yet.”
“Huh? But the Mist's gone and this tree's gonna be breaking up pretty fast soon.”
“No, the true nature...of the...Iifa Tree...”
“...What you saw was only its material form... ...Even now it blocks the flow of Gaia's souls and lets those of Terra flow freely...”
“The...souls of Terra...are gone.” Kuja must now struggle to be able to speak. “The Tree...will continue...to block the flow of Gaia's souls, and...there won't be anything...to fill the void. The Cycle of Souls...will dwindle and...the planet will..die...”
“What!?” Zidane jumps into his stance of readiness. “Are you sure?”
“You...have to destroy...the Soul Divider... Or...everything will be...for nothing...”
Those are Kuja's last words. His brother watches the Terran Angel of Death slip calmly into eternal slumber, and he feels deeply sorry for him. Zidane knows that in another time it would have been him who brought chaos to Gaia as Kuja did, and he wonders if he, too, would have finally chosen to redeem himself once the end came.
But there is not time to weep. Still in the guise of his Trance form, Zidane dives from the high platform where he found his brother. His soul energy fuelled ever stronger by his life's devotion to protecting the people he loves, the very air around Zidane burns hotter than fire - a plummeting meteor of determination.
“...You don't need a reason to help people...”
The roof of the green chamber offers no more resistance than a veil of water against the burning Genome's unstoppable form. Here the miles-long Soul Divider, a thorny green stem, is embedded into the glowing-green flow of souls like a stabbing knife. Steering his fall towards the stem, Zidane cuts deep into the living machinery, shredding apart the terrible construction of the Terran ruler Garland. Again he hears the Iifa Tree's monstrous screams.
Zidane grits his teeth. Dragging out so much power from within is rapidly straining his mortality. For one second he wonders which of the two will break first from the deadly pressure: the Soul Divider or himself? He screams out in agony.
A little later, another Genome walks across the still root of the Iifa Tree. The plant has turned brown and rotten. Speaking aloud to herself, she contemplates he life and demise of Kuja.
The waves gently roll over the beach. Something badly bruised and dirty, wearing torn rags for clothes, shakes its tail. The Genome awakens to a world of intense pain. Even opening his eyelids seems painful. Very slowly, wincing with each movement, he manages to drag himself up the beach to escape the rising tide. His head feels like it's been crushed repeatedly under a heavy weight. So bad is his headache that he can't even concentrate enough to remember his own name.
On the horizon stands a gigantic dead tree. It is now dried-up and filled with huge cracks. In a few years it will probably have crumbled to dust.
It will take some time before Zidane recovers from his injuries, and is able to find a way back to his home continent. Many years will have passed before he finally is given the opportunity to set eyes upon the woman he loves again. But he will not give up, however many hurdles he must overcome. Letting his body fill again with the determination that has taken him this far, Zidane stands up. And starts walking...
...soon he starts to hum...
Zidane sleeps. For hours, days, weeks, he sleeps.
Less than two decades ago, Madain Sari was the village of the obscure Summoner Tribe. Its people were an ancient race of Man. Their quest was to seek a communication with their world called Gaia. Through this quest, the Summoners discovered a means to channel the collective dreams and fantasies of many peoples into incarnate beings embodying tremendous power - the Eidolons. The Eidolons came to be known as protectors of the planet, guardian spirits. Myth manifested into matter. Tools when in the service of Good - Weapons when wielded by Evil.
The Eidolons: feared by the Terran invader, and coveted by his traitorous servant. Garland, the ruler of the parasite world Terra, would not allow the children of Gaia to possess such great power. To safeguard his conquest, Garland loosed a terrible storm of destruction upon Madain Sari. All but a very few of the Summoner Tribe were killed.
A village in ruins, but not dead. A new tribe have made it their home. Moogles are perhaps the most innocent species to have developed upon many worlds throughout. They have no natural enemies, and seldom seek more than to follow their innate curiosity and bask in the joy of living. A group of many such whimsical creatures felt called to investigate the ruins of Madain Sari after its destruction. They came across a tiny family of survivors. The old man had escaped harm, but was nearing the end of his life. The young couple would have already perished, if not for their determination to live on for the sake of their newborn daughter. It was not in the nature of the kind-hearted moogles to leave these people to their own fate.
Perhaps it was fate that the last two survivors of the Summoner Tribe would partake in the quest to defeat those who had wrought the demise of their people. In an effort to save the art of summoning, the mother, who escaped Madain Sari by a small fishing boat on the night of its fall, channelled all her knowledge of the mighty Eidolons into the frightened mind of her daughter. The power of Eidolons remained in Gaia, but before it could be turned to the cause of justice, it would first fall into the clutches of the daughter's adoptive mother, whose soul had already been corrupted by Garland's evil servant.
But that is now all in the past. Garland is dead, as is his Angel of Death. The surviving child has found a new home in Lindblum, and the daughter who escaped is even now ascending to the throne of Alexandria. The moogles remain in Madain Sari, living out their peaceful lives.
Lani was a bounty huntress for most of her life. She lived only for material pleasures, giving no heed to the needs of others. That was the person she was, but not who she now is. An assignment issued by the greedy former ruler of Alexandria led her to cross paths and blades with the thief Zidane. Eventually she found herself lost in the wilderness, unable to find a way home and dying of thirst. That it was the loving moogles who saved her and nursed her back to health became the beginning of her change. How could she who had lived for only herself not admire these playful fuzzy beings who constantly enjoyed themselves and always thought of the well being of others. The old Lani would likely have left the unconscious Zidane to die in the wasteland surrounding Madain Sari.
Zidane sleeps, watched over by the moogles and their human friend.
“It's too long,” Lani says one day. “I don't he's coming out of it on his own.”
“What should we do, kupo?” the moogle asks.
“Get some help, of course.” Lani waves her arms as if indicating the most obvious thing in the world. “The dwarves aren't any good with this kind of stuff, but I know someone who is.”
“Who else? You watch over him until I get back. With so few Mist Monsters left these days, it shouldn't take long for me to get to the Black Mage Village.”
“Okay. Good luck, kupo!”
The dramatic change in Lani's character isn't reflected in her outfit. As revealing as ever, and she still carries her oversized axe on her back, even though she hardly ever uses it these days, expect to chop up food. Her ebon hair is messier than it usually was. The old her would whine for hours over a lack of proper shampoo and other bathroom accessories, but the new her didn't care and that felt wonderful (though a bit itchy).
Zidane sleeps. He sleeps for days without moving. Healing potions and remedies have taken care of broken bones and bruises, but can do nothing for his tired spirit.
Lani's voice is heard outside the tiny room where the moogles care for their unconscious friend. “He's in here. Would you like to be alone?”
She enters momentarily and beckons the other moogles to leave with her. A few moments later, a familiar figure is helped inside.
The two boys aiding the familiar person are both Genomes like Zidane. Their tails, while still shorter than his, have grown since they came to Gaia. They are learning higher awareness, just as the black mages who were created by their design. They wear different clothes now and their postures are more relaxed.
“Vivi, are you alright?” one of the Genomes asks the black mage they carrying between them. He would rather have called him by a title, such as 'sir' or 'master', but Vivi refused to let them call him anything other than the name given to him by his Qu father.
Vivi doesn't say anything at first. He just looks in disbelief at his sleeping friend. Black mages cannot cry. They can feel sadness, and they can emit wails of sorrow, but they cannot shed tears. They are not constructed for it.
“Help me to that chair,” says Vivi. “Then leave.”
“As you wish, Vivi,” the second Genome obeys.
Black mages also do not age. They are born as they are, and die the same. Vivi knows that soon the time will come when he shall 'stop', as Mr 288 used to call it.
Zidane sleeps. Does he hear Vivi's voice?
“I...though you were really gone. Freya and Amarant, they went back inside the Iifa Tree to find you, and Kuja was there...but, he was dead, and so we thought you were...”
So nervous. All this time he'd been working with the Genomes and the last black mages, he'd been able to speak so clearly and confidently, but now... It's just like before. He'd admired Zidane for his confidence and ability to seemingly always know exactly what to say or do. Even knowing that Zidane never intended it, Vivi was constantly left feeling that he didn't quite measure up.
He learned so much from him. To think for himself was, probably, the most important thing of all. That was why, not long after Freya and Amarant returned from the Iifa Tree with their grim news, Vivi understood what it was that Zidane and Kuja had in common.
Zidane changed people. Wherever he went and whatever he did, he always left a little part of himself behind with the people he met. It was the same with Kuja. But Kuja seeded darker aspects of his acquaintances, while Zidane tried to bring out the best in people. It was almost like a contest of influences between those two. A contest that Zidane won, because in the end Kuja saved them all when he could have left them to be vaporised when Memoria collapsed.
“...I might not be doing this if it weren't for you...You've definitely taught me to take life more seriously...”
For a long time Vivi blamed himself. Was it his fault that Zidane went back for Kuja? Was it his fault that Zidane was dead...? Only, he wasn't dead.
“I'm sorry, Zidane,” Vivi says. “I couldn't forgive Kuja. I still can't. I'm not as...good as you. Sorry... I wanted to show you how far we've come, but...”
He doesn't know how to say it. It's about Kuja. Kuja gave life to the black mages so that he could use them for war, but he didn't create them as machines. He gave them a potential, however small. It was the greatest gift anyone can give, and at the same time so horribly cruel; to give them a chance to experience the glow of life, only to have to so soon be taken away.
There'd been so many funerals in the Black Mage Village lately, and each one was as painful as the last. Since Mr 288 passed away, there's only Vivi and a handful of black mages left to teach the Genomes about life. And with the Plan still underway, Vivi's last days are indeed tiring.
So nervous. He can't think of what to say. He doesn't even know if Zidane can hear him. Vivi wonders if he should tell him about the Plan. The plan to use the lingering Mist reserves in the underground tunnels and the knowledge of technology that the Genomes are born with to create a new tribe of Black Mages, able to live and experience a true lifetime's worth.
Instead, Vivi says nothing. Just sits by Zidane's side, thinking of the great adventure they shared. It seems long ago now...
“...Whoa! That's the first time anyone's called me Mr. Just call me Zidane, alright?...”
“...You're an individual, no matter what happens, Vivi...”
“...Look, Vivi's scared too, but we have to face reality...”
“...I just wanna protect the people I'm with...Doesn't matter if I can or not, it's what I believe in.”
“...Similar? What do you mean? I know they're similar to me, but...”
“...I'm sorry...You were right...I need everyone's help...”
“...Because I might've done the same thing if I were in his shoes. I probably would've fought against you guys and wreaked havoc in Gaia like he did...I know it sounds crazy...but I know, deep inside, I have to do this...”
Vivi calls one of his aids, requesting that he fetch for him a quill and a piece of paper. The Genome brings these things and sets them on the table next to the old black mage. Afterwards, Vivi sends him away again, and starts to write a letter.
Zidane sleeps. Vivi will not have left his side by the next dawn, but he'll awaken alone that day...
“This place sure brings back pleasant memories, heh.”
The Genome with the longest tail leads his brethren through the vast underground palace. About a year ago it was home to his brother, the Terran Angel of Death. Today Kuja lies buried among the race he fathered, beneath the second most frequently visited grave mound in the Genome Village. Since the Mist Monsters began to decline, his palace has stood empty. Cobwebs are brushed as the party continue onwards, and a thick layer of dust leaves their footprints behind.
“Master Zidane,” one of the following Genomes says in a hushed voice.
“How many times do I have to tell you guys to stop calling me that?” Zidane responds in a normal voice, which echoes off the massive marble-lined walls.
Time has not yet mended all of the hero's wounds. He still walks with a limp, carrying his fractured right arm in a sling. Those who did not know him might mistake his tone with the other Genomes as irritability, but in truth Zidane remains as ever a man of good intent.
“I apologise, Zidane,” the young Genome grovels.
Zidane sighs, but quietly enough so that they don't notice. He almost misses their unlively attitudes from when he first rescued them off their dying homeworld. Just like the Black Mages did, they've all begun to develop different personalities, and this one, whom his absent-minded teachers named Mr 777, is about the worst of the lot. Zidane can stand the unrelenting hero worship he gets from the alien tribe, except when Triseven starts grovelling like he's doing right now. A lifetime of being bossed around by his adoptive father hadn't prepared the thief for this unsettling treatment.
But as much as he disliked their idolisation of him, and as much as he longed to return home, Zidane just couldn't leave until he was sure the Genomes were ready to make it on their own. And there was the promise he made during Vivi's funeral - the promise to fulfil the Plan.
“What is it, Triseven?” Zidane asks, as politely as he's able to under the circumstances.
“A-are we really going to steal from the Redeemed One's palace?”
Back when Zidane was in a coma, the Genomes had come up with a weird title for him too. He remembered; he'd spent his first week in their village trying to get them to stop calling him by it.
“Not 'steal'. Just borrow,” Zidane explained, going by Tantalus's personal interpretation of the word. “We need his journals if we're ever gonna get the Plan to work.”
Triseven was clearly still reluctant, but too unnerved by his own image of their hero to disobey. Zidane figured that he could probably get the Genomes to do just about anything simply by telling them to. Heh, heh, if Blank could see him now.
Zidane swallowed. Thinking of Blank and Tantalus caused his train of thought to steer down another, more rose-coloured passage. No, not roses - garnets.
That Zidane was thinking of his heart's desire at that moment was probably the reason why it happened: He didn't see the crack in the checkerboard-tiled floor and tripped onto his bandaged arm.
“Master!” the shock made Triseven forget himself again.
The bandit rolled his eyes as he lay on the floor, biting his tongue to forget the pain in his arm. The Genomes clustered around him, pushing each other aside for the opportunity to help Zidane back up. Because he knew the outcome of these situations, Zidane quickly rolled aside and jumped back on his feet. His recently-dislocated heel made it quite clear why doing so was a bad idea, but Zidane ignored that as well. He'd only just managed to get the Genomes to stop fussing around him all the time, and if they thought he was hurt it'd only get worse.
“Relax, guys! I'm fine,” said Zidane, forcing his voice to disguise the agony in his body.
Right now he'd give anything to hear Baku's voice yelling at him for being such a stupid daydreamer that he couldn't even see where he was putting his damn feet.
Some nights he had to remind himself why he decided not to return to Lindblum aboard the cargo ship that was now regularly shipping supplies and food to the moogles in Madain Sari. Lani had said she was planning to return to the Mist continent soon. After she told him, Zidane made Lani promise not to tell anyone that he was alive and staying on the Outer continent. “Why?” she asked him. “Because she has to rule Alexandria now. I don't want her to have to worry about me,” Zidane answered.
“Master, perhaps you should return?” Triseven suggested.
Zidane knew he was talking about the Genome village, but he had to admit that part of him wanted to think otherwise. “I told you, I'm fine. Quit worrying so much,” he said. “I'm sure we can get through that broken stained glass window over there. It's probably the only way now the teleportation devices don't work anymore.”
“Er, I mean, Zidane.”
Kuja's private chambers was surprisingly intact compared to the rest of the crumbling palace. The books were in perfect condition. Zidane found what looked like a diary and opened it up on the bookmarked page.
“...It was him, I'm certain of it. Dear Zidane hasn't changed one bit since I threw his worthless vessel off the face of Terra. To think that one of Garland's most favoured creations now walks among his enemies as if he were one of their number. That lovable moron that he is; I'll treasure the pathetic expression he displayed as he watched me rise upon my silver dragon from the ruins of the rodent city. Ah, what perfect irony it would be if I let him play a part in my play, so Garland's pawn becomes another means to his downfall...”
Zidane closed the book respectfully. Better if the other Genomes didn't see this. For the sake of Kuja's memory, he should be remembered as Mikoto presented him, that day she brought her people to the foot of the Iifa Tree to teach them about their past.
No one knew where Mikoto was today. They told Zidane that she left the village shortly before Lani summoned Vivi to Madain Sari. Her last message was that she wanted to see the world through the same eyes as her big brother (and that was the first and only time she ever called him that). Zidane imagined her travelling across the world, far and wide, just like Ipsen the adventurer.
They did find what they were looking for in Kuja's private library. On the shelf above his first-edition collection of Lord Avon's plays were several journals containing his research of the Mist and his recipe...
“...The war was my fault? No, your mother wanted it...All I did was give her a recipe...”
“...Hahahah! Isn't it ironic? I'll die just like the black mages I so despise...”
Vivi hadn't been able to understand it, but Zidane knew exactly why it was that Kuja had created the black mages to be as they were - with the potential to be more than they were created to be. Kuja was trying to justify himself. If there was a chance that the black mages could defy their destiny and succeed, then perhaps there was a greater reason for Kuja's birth as well. He wanted to believe that he was not created for the wrong reason, and so he rebelled against the purpose that was trust upon him.
Zidane was Kuja's brother of souls, but it was Vivi who truly resembled Kuja the most. Both were created for perhaps the wrong reasons, and through different circumstances they both went to war against their creators; a story being carried out by two different people, one fostered in darkness and one in light. Tragic that they were both destined to be ended before their time.
It is now two years since the day Kuja died. Zidane knows he can no longer stay.
The Genome village is almost completely unchanged. The new inhabitants continued to build their huts according to the design of their late teachers: A large-eyed head wearing a wide-brimmed pointy hat. The only significant change is the cemetery. It has grown considerably in size and is now the most beautiful and solemn place on the Outer continent. Two graves clearly stand out from the others. One is a large mound, topped with a piece of fluorescent metal from Terra as its gravestone. The other is made to look like the regular black mage graves, with a scarecrow-like figure marking the smaller mound. That the hat of the wooden figure is bent at the tip is not a sign of neglect, but a sign or respect, for the clothes are completely dust-free and very well tended. Kuja and Vivi's graves lie side-by-side, as it should be for equals.
Zidane comes here first, before announcing his leaving to the Genomes, because right now he needs to be alone.
A small shrine has been built in front of Vivi's grave. Zidane opens the hidden stone lid and removes a sealed letter from within. He knows what it contains. He remembers Vivi reading it aloud as he wrote, though Zidane was not awake at the time. It is addressed to each of the other seven who Vivi travelled together with during their great adventure.
Zidane stays a little longer by the two graves in the cemetery. His thoughts of that moment are his alone to know...
“You're really leaving, Mr Zidane?”
Zidane looks down at the little black mage. They'd followed Kuja's notes for creating the prototypes exactly, allowing only for the addition of the Genomes' knowledge to adjust their lifespans. The result had been...saddening, in a way. They looked so much like his dear departed friend.
“Heh, that's the second time anyone's ever called me Mr,” Zidane laughs. “Just call me Zidane, alright?”
“Yeah. I'm going back to Lindblum. Baku's probably gonna scold me for being this late, but, hey, a Tantalus's gotta take what's coming to him.”
The black mage stays with Zidane on the edge of the Iifa canyon for a moment, the very place where the party said goodbye two years ago. In the background, the assembled Genomes stand awaiting the departure of their idolised hero. A speck on the horizon marks the approach of the steam-powered cargo ship.
“What's that song you're humming?” the little mage suddenly asks.
~ The End