Isaaru and his brothers investigate Sin-ravaged Besaid and make an unsettling discovery.
Auron shrugged. "I followed a hunch."
"A hunch?" Maroda said, incredulous. "You can predict where Sin will strike?"
"Lord Isaaru." Auron cut through questions with a swordsman's efficiency. "I assume a maester of Yevon did not come all this way just for the festival."
The maester shook his head. "Tidings of the attack reached us en route to Lady Yuna's anniversary celebrations in Luca. We came to aid the survivors."
"There aren't any."
Such simple words. Auron had spent a day searching the rubble of the village for any sign of Yuna's old friends, a second day sifting the corpses tossed up on the beach. A few faces had been vaguely familiar, but Auron had not spent enough time on the island to know its inhabitants. The current Sin would have recognized almost all of them.
"Not much use in going ashore then," Maroda said.
"Isaaru can still send them, though, right?" Pacce said.
There was a heavy silence. Auron raised his head and looked from one to the other, causing Pacce to straighten self-consciously. The brothers made an incongruous trio. Isaaru was neither tall nor short, with long red-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. He had lost some of the effeminate delicacy of his youth, but most of his girth was simply layers of priestly robes. Maroda, slightly younger, was dark, tall and rangy, with black hair cropped short above hawkish features. His hauberk and greaves were probably Crusader issue. Pacce was a head shorter than Maroda, a chunky youngster of about nineteen with a round and earnest face. He wore the undented, burnished armor of a warrior monk cadet. His short black hair stood up like Auron's, but instead of giving him a grizzled air, he simply looked as if he'd tried to yank it out. They might not be brothers by blood: Sin's predations restructured families with depressing frequency.
Auron nodded to himself and returned his attention to Isaaru. "There's something else you should see."
"Yes, we should at least pay our respects." Isaaru raised his voice. "Captain Kiyuri, we'll need both boats lowered this time."
"Yes, Your Grace." She took a step towards the gathered sailors and began barking orders. "Back to your posts, slack-jaws-- or are you all volunteering for oar duty? Winch teams, port and starboard! You heard the maester. Hop!"
The sailors were less keen to set foot on Besaid's ravaged beach than they had been to ferry a celebrity, but the captain was skilled with the verbal lash. Boats were soon lowered and launched. Kiyuri took charge of the rudder in Isaaru's boat, charting a meandering course between fetid rafts of flotsam snagged on the reef.
Chatter died as they breasted the breakers and shipped oars, letting momentum sling the boats up the beach ahead of the waves. Keels hissed in the sand and stuck fast. The sailors hopped out to steady the boats while the passengers disembarked, stepping carefully to avoid heaps of debris. Then they fanned out on the shore. A sailor gave a horrified cry before Auron warned them what lay beneath the row of smashed boats. He had not spent all his time marooned on the shattered dock, it seemed.
It was a subdued group that gathered under the bluffs near the head of the trail leading to the village.
"Now," Isaaru said, addressing the anxious knot of sailors huddled around Kiyuri, "I must ask you to do a hard thing. Sir Auron says there is no one left in Besaid to prepare the dead for sending. For pity's sake, we must give them this, since we are too late to save them. I will leave my warrior monks here to assist you and protect you from fiends--" he held up a hand to forestall Maroda's protest-- "while my brothers, Sir Auron and I take the jungle road to learn what we can and tend the village's slain."
"And if we don't see you by sundown?" Kiyuri said.
Pacce huffed, but Isaaru spoke with soothing assurance at odds with his reply. "Return to the ship and look for our signal tomorrow. If you have not seen us in three days, bring word to Maester Lucil in Luca."
He beckoned to the warrior monks who had accompanied him from Bevelle. "I need three of you to accompany us to the village. Sergeant Durren, you know some healing arts, yes? The rest of you, remain here and tend the dead."
The chorus of "Yes, Your Grace," was ragged, but more than one of Kiyuri's crew looked relieved. After exchanging Yevon's bow with those staying behind, Isaaru's party plunged into the jungle.
It was slow going, even with Auron's sword: he hewed through limbs and fallen trunks as easily as necks of fiends. Trees snapped by gale-force winds barred the path like obstacles in a particularly aggravating Cloister of Trials. Sinscales, too, had multiplied during the week since the attack, and Pacce had plenty of chances to observe his hero in action and test his recent training. It was nearly mid-day before they reached the village outskirts.
They halted outside the uprooted stockade to survey the damage. Sir Auron stood a little apart from the others, leaning on his sword and gazing impassively towards the stumps of columns on a stone platform on the far side of the village.
"Like Opration Mi'ihen," Maroda said.
Pacce had gone pale. "Or the Ronso," he choked. Isaaru set a hand on his shoulder.
Before them was a paved square surrounded by rings of damp, burnt timbers: the foundations of the few huts spared by the rising tide. Cables of kelp were snarled around the stumps of nearby trees. A row of fresh graves under palm fronds lined one side of the square. Auron had even buried what was left of the dog. Stupid, happy dog. It had once brought Yuna a slobbery, drool-drenched gift that had turned out to be a cloth book on Besaid Temple's aeon. Yuna and Lulu had spent the rest of the afternoon poring over moldy pages, trying to untangle an obscure passage that promised to unlock the aeon's sleeping powers in a new devastating attack. In his mind's eye, Auron could see the pair of young women sitting in the shade of the temple with their heads together, summoner and guardian finishing each other's sentences in low voices punctuated by fleeting laughter. It was a glimpse of their old life, the one they had left behind when friend became guardian, following Yuna to her death.
Here, ten years before her pilgrimage, Yuna's father Braska uttered the words that had unwittingly joined their fate.
"Auron. When this is over...could you bring Yuna here? I want her to lead a life far away from this conflict."
Little had they known.
You shouldn't have chosen a place with a temple, my lord.
There was no temple now.
Isaaru halted at the foot of cracked steps and stared. "What force of machina or nature could do such a thing?"
The brunt of the maelstrom's fury seemed to have been unleashed against the temple. Huge blocks of stone were scattered over a wide area, some of them flung into the crowns of distant trees. Mosaic floors were laid bare to the sky; some parts had melted and fused into a glassy, blackened mass. Here and there, spears of palm-leaves and ceramic tiles had embedded themselves in stone blocks as easily as harpoons into blubber. The rear of the temple platform had collapsed, revealing the maze of the Cloister of Trials hidden beneath. At the far end was a smoking crater where the Chamber of the Fayth had been.
"So that is why," Isaaru sighed.
Sir Auron raised an eyebrow. "The aeon?"
"I tried to summon her yesterday, when our vessel was attacked. I could not reach her."
"Interesting?" Isaaru took a few steps towards the cloister's rubble-choked stairwell. "It is rather more than that, when a fayth is lost. I shall not forget her. She was a girl of uncommon courage, much like Lady Yuna. She had lost her whole family, but rather than yielding to despair, she joyously offered her soul to Yevon so that others might not suffer."
Auron gave a noncommittal grunt. "And now she can rest."
"I hope Sin's not getting smarter," Maroda said. "That's the last thing we need."
"Hey, look at this!" Pacce called. "Lady Yuna's safe!"
Auron grimaced, although he knew what the boy meant.
Gazing down from the retaining wall, they saw Pacce on the hillside below, where Yuna's statue had miraculously landed on its base intact. The others hurried over to peer up at the slender, dancing figure, around whose shoulders a few tattered garlands still fluttered. Frozen in stone, the youngest High Summoner twirled on the slopes of her childhood home with staff held high.
"It's a sign!" Pacce said, hopping exuberantly.
Isaaru smiled. "You may be right, Pacce."
"Yes, but of what?" Maroda said.
Isaaru knelt before Yuna's statue and cupped his hands above and below his heart in Yevon's prayer. He remained motionless for several minutes. Finally he arose and turned to Sir Auron. "An overdue apology. When last we met, it was my sad duty to carry out Yevon's orders for Lady Yuna's execution. I have never been more gratified by my own failure. But I never had the chance to beg her forgiveness before she was gone, saving a world that had turned its back upon her." He bowed low. "I owe you an apology as well, Sir Auron."
Auron shrugged. "What do you intend to do?"
"We must bring tidings back to Bevelle. I shall discuss the matter with my fellow maesters. Along the way..." He gave a sidelong glance to Maroda. "Sir Auron, after Lady Yuna defeated me, you told me that my pilgrimage was over. I fear I must once again ignore your counsel. Yet I would be honored if--"
"Fine," said the legendary guardian. "Let's go."