Isaaru and Auron trade secrets, and keep a few back.
The faint lights of Luca glittered across the bay, a child's playhouse erected in memory of a half-forgotten dream. The last shreds of fog clung to the looming shell of the stadium. A few tinny strains of music drifted over the water. Apart from that faint heartbeat, the city slept.
Auron stood on the upper deck and took a swig of Kulukan's ale. He frowned. Either he was forgetting how to taste, or it lacked the bite of Zanarkand's brew. Then again, the city that never slept was stretched across the threshold of the Farplane like a spider's web; no surprise its spirits suited his tastes better.
Auron had not returned to Jecht's Zanarkand in thirteen years, although he had heard the whisperings of the dreaming fayth flowing down from Gagazet's peak. He'd killed Jecht and failed to save Tidus; Auron could do no more for the rest of Zanarkand's damned souls. Of course, his sword would have found plenty of fiends to cleave there now. Sin's ravaging the dream-city had made it real, turned it into a living nightmare. Or had Gagazet's fayth reset the dream to a time before the attack? Maybe Jecht and Tidus had been resurrected, pyrefly simulacra playing out variations of their tragic story like Jecht's hymn sung over and over, always out of tune.
No, Auron would not return to dream-Zanarkand. He had unfinished business in the real one.
A kindly voice sliced through his reverie. "You, at least, will not be wanting a blessing."
Auron snorted and looked down at the summoner standing on the deck below. Isaaru had emerged from his cabin a short time ago, taking care not to rouse Pacce dozing with his back to the door-post and his head buried in his arms. They would leave the SS Korra behind in Luca, where she would remain for much-needed repairs. Isaaru had been making his final rounds of the vessel, seeking out each member of the crew, speaking soft words of praise and blessing for their part in tending to Besaid's dead and saving Kilika.
Isaaru mounted the stairs and joined Auron on the upper deck. The shadows cast by the ship's lanterns gave the summoner a hollow-eyed look, but his guardian noted it was not merely a trick of the light: he moved with slow deliberation, as if will were required. Auron knew the feeling well.
Compassion aside, it was time to inventory weapons. "You still have three aeons?"
"Two," Isaaru said. "I have not been to Macalania."
Auron nodded. "There's one more in the Calm Lands... maybe."
Remiem Temple was intact, as far as he knew, but the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth was deeply buried. The Ronso had come out of hiding to help the Crusaders dig out, but he had not told them of Yojimbo or asked them to unseal the cave. The Ronso were too few to risk. Besides, the fayth statue had likely been pulverized. Yuna was not the only summoner Lulu mourned.
"That is good to know." Isaaru splayed his hands on the rail. "Sir Auron, I am depending on you as no summoner has relied on a guardian before. I know you have reasons not to trust—"
Third trial. Auron shrugged. "If I didn't trust you, Isaaru, I wouldn't have offered my services as guardian."
"Unless you had other motives." Isaaru raised an arm with a swish of fabric and gestured towards the horizon behind them. "Lady Yunalesca, for example?"
"What?" Auron's eyes narrowed.
"You seek revenge. She killed Lord Braska, Lady Yuna, Sir Jecht and his son, no?" The summoner spoke with quiet compassion, but the rhythm of his speech was too well-rehearsed. "Our goals are the same, Sir Auron. I want to free Spira from her grip... and her lord father's. I want the teachings— the good that has grown from roots of fear— to be disentangled from their lies, including the pilgrimage."
"And yet you intend to make one."
"For the same reason you remain a guardian, I suspect. We must play Yunalesca's game and beat her." He shook his head. "Yet I am at a loss. If I refuse the Final Summoning, what weapon will suffice?"
"I don't know." Twenty-three years, and Auron still hadn't come up with a surefire way to beat the bitch and free a friend. "Did Mika tell you this?"
"No. Mika...passed...without instructing a successor. But I have spent long nights combing Bevelle's archives for clues. Not easy, with so many records purged." Isaaru sighed. "At least you can confirm my guesses, perhaps? First and foremost: Sin dies and is reborn. That makes it an aeon, surely, for aeons return from seeming death. Only by destroying the housing of their fayth can we truly vanquish them."
"Correct." The housing of their fayth. Cold words to describe a blitzer's scarred frame or the Venus-blessed curves of a young woman's body.
"In Yevon's name." Isaaru smiled crookedly at Auron's sour expression. "Yes, that's the second lie, isn't it? We pray now in ignorance to Bevelle's ancient foe. Yu Yevon, Zanarkand's greatest summoner, has girded himself with Sin, using it as both armor and spear of vengeance. The question is: whose fayth is it?"
Auron was silent. How could this man bear to uphold Yevon as maester, knowing it to be an embalmed corpse with a rotten core?
Isaaru lowered his voice to a whisper; the pre-dawn air was so still that every creak of the ship and the thudding of the hold's pumps sounded like drums. "It's Yunalesca, isn't it? That was the truth that eluded me for so long. I once thought that Sin was Lord Zaon, but no: he is the Final Aeon, a two-edged sword gifted by Lady Yunalesca to summoners who pose a threat, the one aeon who could not, would not destroy the one he loves more than his own life. The Calm is a sham meant to raise our hopes; the pilgrimage is a net. And now Spira is beginning to worship Yunalesca just as we live in thrall of her Lord Father." He sighed. "Lady Yuna came near to defeating them, I guess, and so they have changed tactics. Have I hit the mark?"
"Close enough." Auron thrust aside a twinge of irritation at Zaon being named Sin's lover. Irrelevant. Isaaru understood almost everything that mattered; surely he was ready for the rest. Yet something in his manner still smacked of Yevon hypocrisy. "What happened to Mika?"
Isaaru tensed. Only one trained to see an opponent's bracing to dodge would sense it. "Passed away in his sleep. I fear the grief and remorse were too much for him, when the full scope of Seymour's crimes was laid bare."
"I... see." Stalemate: they both had secrets to keep. "I take it the other maesters have not heard what you just told me."
"No. Although Maester Baralai knows something: he, too, frequents the archives, and never says what he seeks."
"A former Crusader, a survivor of Operation Mi'ihen."
There were more voices below now as the ship awoke, and a drab gray light was growing. Isaaru paused to listen, head cocked, then went on. "Well, it is some comfort to have a confidante. But we are no closer to a solution. We must protect the other fayth, since Sin seems intent on wresting away those weapons. Sooner or later we must confront Yunalesca. But will the remaining aeons, my brothers and your strength be enough to defeat her?"
"Too close to call." Lulu's magic would have tipped the scales, but there was no coming back from the path she had chosen. Unless—
"Then we need machina. It will not be easy. Some of my fellow maesters still blame the disaster of Djose on the use of forbidden machina, and the Al Bhed remain wary of Yevon. Have you any allies left among them?"
"A trader, but no one of consequence."
"Baralai has worked with them. But he's in Bevelle. First, we must—"
The sounds of raised voices on the deck below were growing distracting, especially since one was Maroda's. "What do you mean, you don't know where he is? Isaaru! Isaaru!"
"First, I had better calm Maroda before he rips out Pacce's hair," he amended ruefully. "Excuse me."