(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
When the farewells had been made to Gippal and Paine had gone to attend to the arrangements for striking the main encampment, Nooj found himself, for the moment, at loose ends.
He ran over the plans he and Auron had formalized one more time, hunting out flaws and problems which might have been overlooked in the earlier surveys. The fording of the Moonflow might prove a difficulty for some who could not swim and would be nervous about being swept away by the waters. He would have his officers assign good swimmers to form a line of rescue squads to provide security to any who were worried. Then to go around Guadosalam - that would be a long detour but should serve to harden any who were still not fully accustomed to marching and give an opportunity to complete the integration of the army and to practice techniques on any fiends they happened across. Yes, that necessity could be turned into an advantage. Next was the Thunder Plains... He suddenly paused in dismay.
The Thunder Plains! That endless flat terrain with electrical bolts continually crashing into the ground and incinerating whatever they impacted. Ever since the death of his first lover, the cadet Kaith, he had been wary of thunder. As her student-captain he had sent her and the other seniors on a training mission which had ended with her being destroyed by a thunder spell. He had tried to suppress the memory of her body laid at his feet, her heart burned out of her chest, but it continued to haunt him, sometimes in his sleep, sometimes in his waking hours. The guilt for her death had driven him nearly mad and he remained acutely uncomfortable when the proximity of lightning made the air tingle.
He subconsciously touched the metal parts of the limbs on his left side. He would be a walking lightning rod out there. There was no way he could make it across the Plains intact and falling to a blind element was not the way he would choose to end his life. For a while he was frozen in place, unable to think of any way out. Then, by chance, his fingers fell upon a different texture and he remembered: parts of the prostheses were made of ceramic. Would it make any difference in the long run? He needed to talk to Aquelev, who would know what was where.
Nooj limped hastily along the beach, looking for his old healer, responding only absently to those who greeted him until he spotted a small clump of Al Bhed packing gear into the standard cloth knapsacks and clipping necessities to the hooks inside their loose trousers. A little squinting brought Aquelev's face into focus.
"Hey, Aquelev! Over here!" Nooj called out and waved toward his friend. He did not want to get involved in complicated conversations with groups of soldiers.
Aquelev dropped his armful of material and jogged over. "What's up? Need some help?"
"Yes. No, not the kind you're thinking about. You were there when they installed these limbs. I need some information. What material was used to connect them to my body?" Nooj did not hint at the answer he wanted.
The Al Bhed closed his eyes, the better to remember. "Let me see. I was holding you in suspension while they worked. Hm... It was those white rods into the thigh, the ceramic ones with the cement holding them into the bone. When the blood was suctioned away, I thought how much the rods looked like bone even in texture. Yes, it was ceramic on the leg and the arm -- yes, the same. The connections to your skeleton were made with ceramic. The only exception was the caps on the rods at your hip. They're metal so they could be soldered to the sheath. Why did you want to know?"
"I was wondering about the Thunder Plains and if the material would make any difference." He saw no reason not to level with this man who had experienced so much with him.
"Great Forge of Fire! I hadn't thought of that! I don't know whether the ceramic will be any protection or not. You'd better check with one of the black mages, they understand that elemental stuff. Or maybe a white mage to see if there's any guard they know about. Nooj, you can't risk it without some sort of protection. I'll ask around."
"No. Don't do that. There's no sense worrying people. I'll handle it; I know some mages of both disciplines. You just forget I asked about this." The firmness in his tone left no doubt this was an order.
Aquelev did his best approximation of a military salute. "Yessir!" Still, he watched with a worried frown as Nooj walked away. The idea of losing the man on the Thunder Plains after all the efforts to keep him alive when Sin had dismembered him was sickening. He felt a small surge of hope when he saw Nooj was heading toward Lulu. That woman knew a lot about a lot of things. If anybody would have an answer, it would be the black mage.
As he walked towards Lulu, Nooj rehearsed just how he would phrase his question. He did not want to sound like a weakling with some sort of phobia about electrical storms. It would be necessary to make his concerns logical and based in reason. Stopping for a moment and thinking, he had to admit there was no easy way not to sound like a coward. In a sense, that was what we was. The death of Kaith had scarred him emotionally in much the same way the rage of Sin had marked his body. Well, there was no getting past it -- if he wanted the advice of the mage, he would have to ask for it, no matter how he sounded. He did not realize that he was muttering under his breath as he came up to his goal.
Lulu looked up from her work as Nooj approached her. "What were you asking about?"
"I wanted to know if you have any ideas about defending against thunder attacks." Even as he said the words, Nooj once again saw before his eyes the body of Kaith, chest ripped open. He swallowed his gorge and resumed, "It has occurred to me that I may be in some danger while crossing the Thunder Plains ..."
She stood and interrupted him, "Oh -- the metal in the machina? I should have thought of that. Let me see." She walked around him, carefully examining his body. "Here." She placed a hand on his left hip where the metal sheath braced what remained of his thigh. "This is the place of greatest danger, I think. This and the cane. I can give you a talisman to insert into the cane which will ward off most electrical forces and reduce the effect of those which do get through. And another for you to wear around your neck. Then Yuna has a spell which is effective protection against electricity. I'll speak to her and ask her to keep it cast on you while we are on the Plains." She was absently stroking the sheath as she talked, savoring the fine workmanship of the object. "You do know there are towers which protect against much of the danger out there?" She looked up at him with a smile.
Neither of them noticed Paine observing the scene. She had seen Nooj looming over the rest of the crowd and had thought to check and make sure he had some of the pain medication tucked in his pocket in case of need. However, when she saw that his companion was Lulu, she had stopped moving toward him and waited for him to be alone. The last thing she had expected was the sight of Lulu caressing his thigh.
Nooj, unaware of their audience, responded to Lulu's suggestion. "Yes, I had heard about the towers but did not know how much good they were. I'll take you up on all your suggestions and be glad of it. You understand, I do not fear Death; I am simply disinclined to meet her through carelessness." He flushed slightly, a fact which was not lost on the watching Paine.
"Of course I understand. No one has ever questioned your courage." Lulu smiled as she ran her palm one more time over his hip and down the back of his thigh, making a close examination of the joining points.
A short distance away, Paine snorted audibly and turned abruptly away, stalking off toward the spot where her uncle stood observing the final packing.
By the time the army got underway, the morning sun was high in the sky. A small Crusader squadron, led by Nooj and Paine, took the vanguard, Yuna and her guardians a few steps behind, the mass of the army farther back. The soldiers began their journey in good spirits, still high on their first victory and relaxed after the day of rest. But as they drew closer to Djose, a more subdued mood fell over the group as each person contemplated the reality of fighting a battle on the steps of a temple of Yevon.
As the group approached the turnoff that would take them from the main road to the temple, Auron slipped up beside Nooj. "Be on your guard," he said. "Doubtless Kinoc has come before us and warned the warrior monks of our coming."
"Yessir." Nooj looked around to make sure that the Crusaders had heard the guardian's advice. They began drawing guns and swords, preparing themselves for battle.
Moments later, they were within sight of the bridge leading to Djose Temple, and it was just as Auron had predicted: a phalanx of warrior monks stood there, protecting the entrance, swords in hand. Two officers stood at the front. One brandished a rapier and the other held a bow, arrow at the ready.
Auron placed a hand out at waist level, halting the advance of the party. "Wait." He turned quickly to Nooj. "Let me handle this. I was a warrior monk for a long time; I can speak their language."
"As you wish, sir," Nooj responded with a crisp nod. He looked back at the mass of Crusaders behind and motioned them to hold with a sweep of his arm.
Auron sheathed his sword to signal a temporary truce and walked up to the defenders. As he came closer, his initial suspicion was confirmed -- the archer was the commander, and it was a man he knew. Not just that, but an old friend from Kilika, a long-time comrade who had once been his most trusted lieutenant.
"Kal," he said.
"Auron," the other man replied coolly. He did not take the arrow off its notch. The swordsman paled with the shock of recognition at the name, but he did not relax his posture.
"I come unarmed." Auron spread his empty hands.
Kal snorted. "As if you couldn't have your sword out and buried in my skull within a matter of seconds."
"Hmpf! I was never that fast, not even at my peak." That coaxed a near smile from the lean, lanky commander, and Auron pressed the moment. "But I swear to you on my honor that I will not. Ten minutes is all I ask. Do you really think I want to fight you?"
"No more than I want to fight you." Kal looked at the other officer, who shrugged. "All right. Ten minutes." He removed the arrow from the string and dropped the bow.
The two men walked a short distance away from the warriors on both sides of the potential battlefield. Then Kal turned on his old friend with a glare. "Okay Auron, what the hell is going on? First Lord Braska defeats Sin and you disappear for ten years, no word, nothing. Then, out of nowhere, rumor has it that you've appeared in Luca, back on the road with Lord Braska's daughter. Not a week later, Maester Kinoc shows up on my doorstep, full of this story that you've turned on Yevon and dragged the Crusaders along with you. And now here you are, an army at your back, armed with machina no less."
"And do you know why they have machina?" Auron asked.
"It's from Operation Mi'ihen, right? That plan they cooked up with the Al Bhed, got excommunicated for?"
"No," said Auron. "This is the story you have been led to believe, but it is false. Machina have slowly been working their way into the Crusaders for over a year now, and the squadron of warrior monks protecting Kinoc were outfitted with rifles."
Thunderstruck, Kal took a step back. "I don't believe it!" he gasped. "Kinoc told us that you attacked his men without provocation and that he was lucky to escape with his life."
Auron snorted. "Then you have been lied to. Kinoc gave the first attack order and was well-protected by monks carrying forbidden machina, and yet at the first sign of danger, he fled, leaving his men to fight on their own." He took a second to let this statement sink in, then continued. "As for the Operation, Kinoc not only approved of the plan, he intended to use it as a way to crush the Crusaders and bring them more firmly under his control. Hundreds of men and women, their lives to be used for nothing more than the advancement of Kinoc's personal power."
Kal's eyes narrowed. "And you're certain of this?"
"I confronted him two days ago and he all but confirmed it," Auron replied. "I have also spoken with officers and others among the Crusaders, and they corroborated his statements and my suspicions. And there is more. Do you know of a secret group called the Crimson Squad?" On Kal's headshake, he told the story he had first heard from Paine and later from Baralai, and then finished with the ignoble end of the group as the young Crusader messenger had described it to Yuna. When he finished, Kal dropped his eyes to the ground for a long time, then looked back up, his face incredulous.
"I always knew Kinoc didn't mind stepping on a few toes for the sake of ambition, but this... can it possibly be true?" he asked. "How did you learn all this?"
Auron gestured to the group that waited for him to finish this conference. "Eyewitnesses. Several of them, all trustworthy, including one whom you may remember."
"Fayth! Is that Paine?" Kal pulled off his helm to get a better look.
"It is," Auron confirmed. "Grown up, hasn't she?"
"Has she ever!" The warrior monk smiled despite the circumstances. "Wow. I haven't seen her in... six years? Not since I got transferred here from Kilika." He raised a hand; Auron turned around to see Paine, who had been conversing with Nooj, notice the wave, and her face lit up with pure excitement as she recognized Kal and waved back. She didn't run to him, but it was clear that she wanted to.
Kal returned his gaze to Auron, the smile melting from his face as his thoughts returned to the situation at hand. He fell silent again, and Auron waited.
After what felt like a long time, Kal let out a quiet sigh. "All right," he said. "I'll talk with my men, tell them what you've told me. What is it that you want from us?"
"Two things." Auron held his hand up, two fingers in the air. "First, a promise that you will not attack us from behind, that we can leave a squadron of Crusaders here at the temple to guard our back as we continue on to Bevelle. Second, that Yuna may have access to the Cloister of Trials in order to gain the Aeon. We still intend to defeat Sin, and so Yuna must continue her pilgrimage. There is no need for you to join us, or even agree with our cause. I only ask that you not stand in the way."
"All right," Kal repeated. "We'll discuss it, and I'll think about it. You may not get a quick answer, though. You're asking us to accept some incredible things here."
"I understand," said Auron with a nod. "I would say only one more thing. When it comes down to it, whom are you more inclined to believe? Me, or Kinoc?"
Kal's mouth twisted, then he barked out a laugh. "You, of course. Do you even need to ask?" The old friends exchanged quick smiles. "But most of my men are too young to remember you, except maybe by reputation, and Kinoc has been Maester for a long time now. I can make no promises." With that, he turned and walked back to his squadron, and Auron made his way back to his own party.
"What now, sir?" Nooj asked as Auron approached.
Auron stood next to Nooj's left side, turned around, and watched the conference of warrior monks begin. "We wait," he said.
With an inward sigh of resignation, Nooj turned away from the scene. Waiting was the part of military service he found most distasteful but it was an inevitable result of being one of an army. He was just composing himself to a period of boredom when Aquelev popped up at his side.
"Nooj, about that thunder risk you were worrying about -- I've had an idea..."
"It's all handled now, Aquelev. No problem."
"So you're found a way to stay safe on the Thunder Plains? It should have occurred to me that the metal..."
"I said it's all taken care of," Nooj interrupted a second time, unwilling for Paine to know about his concern.
With a slightly offended air, Aquelev slouched off and Nooj turned to Paine, who was standing just behind him, her head slightly tipped and a look of thoughtful curiosity in her eyes. Too late -- clearly, she had heard enough to understand his fears. "Do you think I'm a coward? About the thunder thing, I mean?" he demanded petulantly.
"No. I know you're not. If thunder bothers you, there's a good reason." She looked levelly at him.
He tightened his grip on his cane and shuffled awkwardly from one foot to the other, staring at the ground. After a while, he looked up. "There's a reason. I was Cadet Captain my last year in training. It was my job to design missions for the other students." He paused, his brow furrowed.
"There was a woman. Named Kaith. She was my adjutant and-- we were close. She went into an infested cave on my orders and was killed by a thunder spell." There was another period of silence.
"They brought her out and laid her at my feet. She was..." He made a quick gesture with his right hand at waist level as though he was wiping away a vision on the ground before him. "She was..."
Impulsively, Paine laid her hand on his, stilling the movement and wrapping her fingers around the back of his hand. "I know. I can see it. You don't have to say any more." And suddenly she did see it, clearly in her mind's eye: a woman, breast torn open by a bolt of lightning, body crumpled to the ground on the tall grasses of the Calm Lands. This image meant something and for just a moment, she thought she could grasp its significance. Then, just as quickly, it slipped away, becoming nothing more than a hazy memory. She shivered, then shook her head to clear it.
Looking up at Nooj, she saw that his distress had passed. After lightly squeezing his hand, she dropped it and stepped away, returning her attention to the warrior monks who had just broken their conference and were heading their way.
"So," Auron said as Kal approached him, an armed lieutenant on each side.
"So." Kal folded his arms. "I have spoken with my men, told them what you told me, and we discussed our opinions and options." He glanced at his companions, and each nodded in his turn. Then he met Auron's concerned gaze. "Lady Yuna may have access to the temple. And you may leave a squadron here to guard the shore and your backs. Djose Garrison will not hinder you."
Auron let out a quiet breath of relief. "Thank you, Kal."
The commander nodded. "You need to know, though, that most of the warrior monks here are not going to fight for you either. The garrison will remain officially neutral in this conflict."
"That is more than fair," Auron replied with a nod of his own.
"There are a few exceptions, though. About half a dozen warrior monks have elected to join your army and will march with you to Bevelle. Me, for one. Assuming that's where you're going?" Kal arched an eyebrow and grinned.
For a moment, Auron was struck speechless. Then his mouth slowly spread into a smile. "Are you sure?"
"Wouldn't miss this for the world," Kal assured him. He held out his arms, and Auron grasped them.
"Thank you." Auron tightened his hands for a moment, then dropped them to present his new ally to the man behind him. "Commander Kal, formerly of Djose Garrison, one of my most trusted former comrades from the warrior monks. Major Nooj, Crusader and leader of this joint force."
"Major," said Kal, saluting politely.
"Commander," Nooj replied, raising his arm in return. "We are honored to have you among our ranks."
"Thanks. It's an honor to be a part of it." Kal dropped his arm, then turned to Paine. "And what do we have here?"
"Kal!" Unable to hold back any longer, Paine launched herself at her old mentor and protector, who hugged her tightly. "I didn't think I would ever see you again."
"Same here," he said, hazel eyes twinkling. "I barely recognized you at first, you've grown so much, but I should have known you right away. You look so much like Johar!"
Paine stepped back with a blush. "My father?"
"Of course." Kal rested a hand on her shoulder. "Second best warrior monk I ever served with, remember?" He glanced at Auron, still grinning. "Come find me later, okay? We'll catch up." Returning his attention to Nooj, he quickly saluted again. "I understand, sir, that you have a summoner who needs to pay a visit to the temple?"
"Yes." Before Nooj could respond, Yuna stepped forward from behind the group of Crusaders who had screened her and her guardians from the possible warrior monk threat. "I am Lady Yuna."
"An honor, my lady," said Kal with a small bow. "Please, feel free to proceed."
She headed for the temple, guardians at her heels. Before Auron followed, he paused by Nooj's side. "I must accompany the summoner," he told the Crusader. "We may be several hours, so you should prepare the troops to settle in for a time."
"All right, sir." Nooj nodded stiffly. "Perhaps I will introduce the commander to the rest of my command team while we wait?"
"A fine plan." Auron glanced at Kal. "Enjoy getting acquainted." And with that, he headed to the temple.