On the way to Kilika, history repeats itself— except that lightning never strikes the same way twice.
"You have my thanks. And Lady Yuna's as well, you may be sure. May she guide our path and shield us from Sin's fury. For now we sail... to Kilika!" The maester raised his hands and drew them together in Yevon's sign with a graceful bow.
There was a ragged cheer from the sailors and priests gathered at the waterline. They scattered at once to make ready the rowboats, even before the torches had reverted from blue to orange. It was disrespectful to the dead, but Isaaru did not begrudge their eagerness to quit this marred island paradise.
They had worked hard. The beach was swept clean, and they had even washed down the trunks and leaves of the trees facing the sea to remove clinging ash. Brightly-colored prayer flags— many of them products of Besaid's skilled weavers— fluttered on poles thrust into the sand. The blue ocean sparkled under a fierce noonday sun, masking the last few pyreflies drifting up from submerged coffins jostling on beds of coral. Besaid's harbor had been too choked with flotsam to use for the sending, but they had ferried the dead around to a more sheltered cove using the ship's rowboats and a few salvaged fishing-canoes.
"Will somebody rebuild here, do you think?" Pacce asked Maroda as they headed for the rowboats.
"In the next Calm, maybe," Maroda said. "Not before."
Both looked to their brother, but Isaaru seemed to have missed the exchange, although he walked between them. Wordlessly they held a boat steady for him to board, then joined the sailors in dragging it down into the lapping waves until the stern floated free.
"Hey," Pacce said, tumbling into his own seat, "Where's Sir Auron?"
"For a guardian, he sure doesn't seem to guard much," Maroda muttered.
Isaaru smiled faintly; a commanding figure was just striding out from the edge of the trees. Sir Auron sloshed out to them and stepped into the bow without breaking stride.
"No sign of Sin," he said. "We should have clear running tonight, although it may be another story in Kilika."
Kiyuri, taking her place at the rudder, shot Auron a jaundiced stare over the backs of the rowers that told plainly what she thought of the legendary hero: /landlubber/.
It was a subdued company that ferried the maester and his guardians back to the ship. Isaaru had not spoken a word since his speech. He sat with chin lowered, gripping the sides and swaying jerkily as if struggling to match the rhythm of the swells. Halfway across the open water, Kiyuri ventured a soft, "Are you all right, my lord?" barely audible above the chop of the oars.
"My heart is heavy, Captain." He turned in his seat with a well-honed smile. "But I am also pleased. The dead of Besaid will rest easily, and we have gathered much that should assist my pilgrimage. Our trip was not in vain."
"We have?" Maroda mouthed behind him.
"Yeah, and we've got Sir Auron, now!" Pacce said cheerfully.
"Yes." The maester glanced at the man's broad back and shoulders, wrapped as usual in his imposing red coat. "Ah, that reminds me. Captain, no need to hoist my sigil. In fact, if you can, fly no symbol of Yevon at all."
"My lord?" Kiyuri's voice rose in astonishment. "But it is an honor to convey the Grand Maester, and ill luck to sail without Yevon's blessing!"
"Yevon's blessing you will have, Kiyuri, so far as it is in my power to grant it as Maester," Isaaru said. "But your crew have faced perils and sorrows enough. If Sin is truly roused against Yevon, then I shall not needlessly endanger them. Yevon will bring Sin to account, but that battle is for summoners and guardians, not ordinary sailors and soldiers."
There was a faint humph from Sir Auron. Maroda's somber nod conveyed more: he knew which old battle haunted all four maesters.
"Aye, Sir." Kiyuri braced her elbow against the tiller to give Yevon's prayer. "And thank you."
Back aboard the SS /Korra/, Isaaru remained on deck just long enough to be sure all were safe aboard, and that the sails had been changed to plain canvas sheets from the ship's stores. Then, yielding to Maroda's urging, he retired to his cabin.
"For I am weary," Isaaru admitted. "Five sendings in three days is a record I hope never to repeat."
Freed from duties for a while, Pacce joined Sir Auron on the upper deck. The veteran guardian acknowledged him with a spare nod, and side by side they watched Besaid shrink and fade into the blue haze. Tongue-tied, it took Pacce some while to muster up his courage and a question.
"Sir Auron? Do you really think Sin is after Isaaru?"
"Not directly," Auron said. "Or not yet. But your brother's guess is correct. Sin is targeting Yevon."
"Wow," Pacce said. "I didn't know it could think."
Auron gave an odd smirk, but said nothing.
Pacce folded his arms along the railing and rested his chin on his forearms. "I don't get it," he said. "Sin's the punishment for our sins, right? Isaaru says that good deeds can be enough to atone for lack of faith, so we can't just blame Sin's return on the Al Bhed, but still— why does Sin leave them alone and attack us? Shouldn't it be the other way around?"
"Yevon opposes Sin," Auron reminded him. "The Al Bhed avoid it."
"Hunh." Pacce ran a hand through his hair, leaving it flattened on one side and straight up on the other like a half-mowed field. Wrestling with the teachings and coming no closer to a solution, he finally gave up and changed tack."So, um...what happened to Lady Yuna's other guardians, anyway? Is Sir Tidus still alive?"
"No." His voice held a painful note of finality.
Pacce was wracking his brains for another question when Auron added with more gentleness than was his habit: "He died protecting the one he loved." It was a pointless platitude, but Pacce seemed young enough to notice romance more than stupidity.
"Aw." Pacce sighed. "I liked him. He was cool. The Final Summoning, huh?"
"Seymour," Auron growled.
"Maester Seymour? Wasn't he... dead? Though I guess Lord Mika was, too." Pacce's round face blanched at a memory. "But you did get him finally, right? Lady Yuna sent him?"
"Yes." So much could be packed into one brittle word: a summoner's tears, the death of hope, a holy fury that had reduced Auron's last bellowing charge against Yunalesca to a mere squeak. Lulu must have been proud of Yuna, through the teeth of her own bitter rage.
"And the others?" Pacce said. "The other guardians?"
Auron grimaced. "I never found a trace."
"Aw, man." The younger guardian kicked at the deck-boards. "I'm sorry."
Auron roused himself, finally seeming to focus on the young man beside him. "I didn't see them fall, Pacce. Yuna's last command was for us to stay well back when she performed the Final Summoning. I didn't listen, and nearly paid the price. If they obeyed, there's a good chance they're still alive." There. A lesson. It was partly a lie, since Kimahri had refused to leave Yuna's side. But Auron's task now was to prepare these people for their own pilgrimage, not brood over the last one. There was one other matter of ancient history, however, that Auron could not leave unexamined.
"Pacce," Auron said. "What happened to Mika?"
"Oh!" The youth's round cheeks reddened. "Lord Mika? He, uh...Didn't you hear the proclamations? Maybe you were still coming back from the pilgrimage. He died. Isaaru said his heart gave out when he learned how Seymour had killed the other maesters and the Ronso."
"Hmph." The white-haired guardian stroked his chin, eyes suddenly narrowing. "Was that before or after your brother was appointed maester?"
"After...no, before, I think." Pacce ducked his eyes. "I'm sorry, sir; I don't really understand everything that happened back then. I was just a kid. You should ask Isaaru or Maroda about it."
Auron nodded minutely, preoccupied once more.
Fidgeting, Pacce abandoned the railing and pulled himself up in a self-conscious salute. "Well. Speaking of Isaaru, I'd better go check on him. It was, uh, nice talking to you, Sir Auron!"
Hurrying forward, Pacce failed to notice Maroda lurking behind the mast until an arm shot out to check him. "Isaaru's asleep," Maroda said in a low voice. "Pacce, did Sir Auron say anything about how he got to Besaid?"
Pacce shook his head. "I didn't ask."
"Or why he knew Sin was coming?"
"Not really." The youth raised his eyes, troubled. "You don't trust him, do you?"
Maroda gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. "Don't worry about it. Just...be careful. I know he's Sir Auron, and Isaaru wanted him as guardian. But he's not telling us everything."
"Yeah, well." Pacce shot a guilty grin over his shoulder. "Who does?"
A clear, star-drenched night sent the SS Korra flying on the wings of a pure, cold wind that blew them towards sunrise. Only a few wisps of haze hung in the southwest. A lacelike curtain of lightning had flickered and danced there for an hour or so, but it had faded away before dawn.
By mid morning, Kilika's green spur was rising out of the sea like a prow against the burnished sky. White gulls flew out to escort them. A few leagues out from land, the Korra passed through a far-flung necklace of fishing boats floating in a wide arc where the ocean changed from jade to blue. Fishermen dropped nets to gawk and wave, hailing her with cries of welcome and wonder. The stately three-masted vessel dwarfed any ferry that had plied these waters in living memory.
Isaaru and his guardians joined the captain in the wheelhouse to discuss plans for the brief layover.
"We only need to re-water," Kiyuri was saying. "But I wouldn't mind a few hours to inspect the hull. There's a slow leak somewhere; the hold's damp."
"Very good," Isaaru said. "Meanwhile, my guardians and I will pay our respects at the temple."
"Wait, are you serious?" Pacce said. "A leak? That's not good!"
"You'll find the same in any old ship, boy," said the captain, giving the cabin wall a sturdy rap. "We're not going down, don't worry."
As if in response, there was a hollow boom underfoot more felt than heard, and the ship gave a disquieting lurch. All the lanterns suspended from the ceiling swung slowly to one side. Compartments and trunks rattled. On the upper deck, the ship's bell began to clang wildly.
"Sin," Auron said. Outside, sailors began taking up the cry.
Kiyuri swore and lunged for the door, flinging it open just as a huge wall of spray crashed over the deck and blasted into the wheelhouse, knocking her back into Maroda's arms. She jammed an elbow in his gut to extricate herself. "Well, don't just stand there, man; defend the ship!"
"Stay here," he said, setting the woman on her feet and grabbing a harpoon from the wall; he'd left his spear in his cabin. "Pacce, come on!"
Following them grimly, Isaaru and Sir Auron stepped out into all-too-familiar chaos. The ship was heeled over at a terrifying angle. Towering waves broke over the rails. A seething tide of snapping Sinspawn had spilled across the deck, covering it with squat hard-shelled creatures armed with jagged, crablike claws. They darted and caromed off curbs and walls, tearing into the legs and limbs of anyone who held their ground. Sailors who let go of ropes and spars to dodge them risked being swept overboard.
The three guardians waded into the fray, clearing a swath through the swarm. Auron took point, whirling his sword in a great figure eight and hammering tough shells until they cracked and split in a shower of sparks; Maroda and Pacce closed ranks behind him to skewer and hack the weakened fiends to pieces.
"Above you!" Isaaru cried, following in their wake as he sought a clear space to summon. Pacce skidded to a crouch and stared upwards, aghast. A small fishing boat, raised on high by the surge, hung suspended at the level of the mast-head for a surreal moment before plunging down, down, smashing full force upon the deck. The trio scattered, barely leaping clear of the wreckage in time.
Before they could regroup, a few gunshots rang out from the upper deck in an anemic salvo. Either most of the warrior monks had been swept away, or their their rifles had been damaged by seawater. There was no time to find out. Just off the starboard bow, the white curtain of water had parted to reveal a looming wall of scabrous gray flesh, the body of Sin itself driving on a course nearly parallel to their own. Its vast shadow blotted out the sun.
"It's heading for Kilika," Maroda shouted.
"I have to turn it," said Isaaru. He seized a metal cleat bolted to the mast, bracing against another fleeting deluge.
"But that'll bring Sin back on us!" Pacce cried. He still had his hands full with sinspawn, pouncing on one of the crab-creatures to drag a sailor out from under it.
"No good." Auron's black blade sliced through its arms at the joints. "His aeons are too weak."
The bulk of Sin had nearly passed. The ship quivered and groaned with a long, rattling vibration as something huge rasped against the hull. They could hear Kiyuri's foghorn voice bellowing orders in the wheelhouse.
"I won't let Kilika follow Besaid," Isaaru said stoutly, raising his staff to begin his most potent summons.
"So be it." Auron banked his weapon across his shoulders, broke from the melee and charged towards the prow where the sides drew together; the deck between them sloped upwards in a steep ramp. The big man picked up speed, oblivious to the bucking of the ship.
"Sir Auron!" Pacce cried. He stared in horror as Auron barrelled towards the bowsprint and vaulted over it, vanishing into the surf. "He'll drown!"
Sunlight streamed through the curtain of water off the bow. Sin had passed them by. A ragged cheer went up as the spray cleared. Sir Auron, a tiny red figure against the sky, was climbing a horny peak of scale and bone. He held his sword above his head, fending off sinspawn tumbling down on him from above. Abruptly he dropped to his knees, raised the blade high and slammed it downwards, crying out a name.
The mountain convulsed beneath him. Huge green waves rolled forward off the sloping snout. Sin's forward momentum abruptly slowed.
For a moment a collision seemed certain, but the captain's orders had come just in time. The ship canted in a steep turn. One of the rowboats hanging over the side was sheared off and tumbled into the frothing sea, but the Korra staggered clear of Sin's mass and rode out the swells beyond it, righting herself with a final heave. Her crew saw the green surge racing ahead of them to crash over Kilika's high stone seawall, built to shield the port against such assaults. Many of the fishing vessels were dashed against the breakwater, but the town was spared the brunt of the onslaught— for now.
Sin halted. Vast and menacing, it loomed high above the Korra's main mast, brooding over the sprawling fishing port laid out on the water before it. A hive of gigantic round eyes roiled on Sin's brow below a shelf where strange spires and barbs resembled a city. Human sight seemed to slide off Sin's sides. For an inexorable moment it seemed to gather itself for some cataclysmic assault that would vaporize everything in its path. Then, suddenly, the field burst. Bracing themselves for dissolution, watchers found themselves bathed in in a fine drizzle of warm, gentle rain, salty like tears. An improbable shower of rose petals came whirling on the wind, sticking wetly to cheeks and hair, deck and masts and stays. A rainbow arched overhead.
Murmurs of The Lady rippled across the battered ship.
Sin was once more wreathed in a soft cascading mist. Above it reared a wavering vision familiar from temple statues, yet on a far grander scale: High Summoner Yuna dancing on a flowerlike pillar of water, whirling and dipping with her staff to paint ribbons of pyreflies on the wind. Higher and higher she danced, hypnotic, dreamlike, achingly joyful: an image of innocence so pure it burned the soul as the sun seared the eyes. At the apex of her dance, there was a white flash and a thunderclap. A bolt of lightning— no, not a mere bolt, a massive treetrunk of light branching in all directions— carved a blinding path overhead, stabbing towards Kilika's highest point. A fireball mushroomed up over the tops of the trees in eerie silence.
Isaaru gasped and clenched a hand over his heart, sagging against the mast.
Boom. The sound of distant devastation buffeted their ears many seconds later.
With a mighty inrush of water and a mournful wail at the edge of hearing, Sin sank beneath the waves and vanished, leaving only a vast drift of rose petals bobbing on the surface of the sea to mark where it had been.
Of Auron, there was no sign.