(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
The van of the army had just crested the last hill before the long descent to the Moonflow. Nooj paused, leaning heavily on his cane, looking toward the horizon where the reflection of water glimmered. "I suppose we turn off from the main road here and go left to hunt a ford?" he muttered more to himself than as a question to the older man at his side.
"Yes. I thought this might be the best place. The ground is open and we can choose just how deep a cut we need to make away from the pilgrimage path. Does this area make you uncomfortable?" Auron narrowed his eye behind the dark glasses and scrutinized his companion. He had heard the details of the battle with Sin from Squab, one of the Crusaders who had been present on that distant day.
"Why do you ask, sir? It's just a spot of ground," Nooj answered tightly. "Yes, this is near where I last fought Sin. Spira is full of places I've fought. I can't be touchy about all of them." He turned away and pretended to concentrate on the barren area over which they would soon be marching. "Do you have any idea how far a usable ford might be?"
Auron accepted the change of subject. It was not his intention to put any more pressure on the young officer than was necessary. Nooj would have to be prepared for his ultimate position in the new Spira but that would require careful guidance. He hoped the lad was becoming more reconciled to his duty to assume command.
"No. I'm not familiar with this stretch of land. I was hoping someone in the army might know the terrain better. Has anybody stepped up?"
"Not to my knowledge. I can send a message through the ranks and ask if we have anyone from this part of Spira serving with us. Would that suffice, sir?" Nooj was careful to observe the protocols even though Auron had given him permission to dispense with them, particularly when they were alone.
"That will do excellently." Auron once again closely examined the younger man. His confidence seemed to be increasing although there was still that touch of hesitant deference which kept him from using his initiative as much as he should. The guardian resolved to withdraw a little more in order to force the issue by not being so constantly at hand. Let the generation which would have to rule this world learn to make the necessary decisions.
He continued in a meditative tone. "I'll miss seeing the shoopufs again. They were always a restful break when I came this way. The ferry down there is a sort of sample of the variety Spira has to offer and I value that."
"With luck, our army will become another one of those, sir." Nooj smiled his rare and strangely sweet smile.
When Auron had walked away, Nooj beckoned to Aquelev who he knew would be within eyeshot. He had found it convenient to make the Al Bhed a sort of subaltern.
"Aquelev, will you circulate a notice asking any native of this region to report to me as soon as possible? Check with Lucil and she will tell you how to go about it."
"Certainly, Nooj." The healer made what he fondly but quite erroneously thought to be a military salute. He was about to turn to leave when he noticed the pallor blanching his friend's face. "Is there something wrong? Are you in pain?"
"No. No more than usual. Why?"
"You look pale. Are you sure? I can cast a very light anodyne spell and that would help." Aquelev pressed, knowing that Nooj had always been reluctant to accept help even when he most needed it.
"No, I tell you; I'm all right. Now if you please, get the notice out right away." Nooj felt impatience rise within him. There were too many around him who thought his business was theirs.
"But ..." Aquelev stopped himself. He was a fool. How could he have forgotten? This spot was not far from where the near-fatal encounter with Sin had taken place. No wonder Nooj was pale and edgy. No man could stand unmoved at the site of his almost death, not even one who actively sought that same Death. It was just a short distance from here that Nooj, tall and proud, had held back the great monster which threatened Aquelev and the others, in the process making his terrible sacrifice. The day was bright with cloudless skies and light breezes but suddenly the Al Bhed felt the lowering heat of that day in the past when storms had ripped the firmament and the air had been scarlet with blood and fear. The stench of spilled fluids choked his nostrils. He could almost sense the presence of the great monster hovering just a sword's length overhead and shuddered with the memory. He pulled himself out of the flashback and met the eyes of the Warrior who was looking at him gravely.
"Now you remember? It's not easy to forget, is it?" Nooj slumped over his cane. "Do you expect me to thank you for keeping me alive?"
Without speaking, the other slowly shook his head. This was not the time for that discussion; he was not sure there would ever be such a time.
Nooj watched Aquelev move away on his errand. Well, that was done and now he could turn his attention to other problems which were troubling him. Such as the post he had assumed under pressure and which now seemed more of an empty title than an authentic job.
Nooj was not comfortable in his formal position as leader of the army. He had been surprised at the first to discover that Auron seemed to mean it when he stated he wanted to hear opinions and thoughts about how to go about this affair. The great man had, indeed, listened to and implemented many of the ideas Nooj had presented and still showed complete openness in his attitude toward tactics and strategies. But of late, the Crusader had become aware that in the matter of issuing orders and such, he had formed the habit of checking with the guardian and, only after receiving his approval, proceeding with the actual leading.
He could not honestly place all the blame on the older man. Auron had never required that he be consulted about every order Nooj felt it necessary to give or before every decision could be translated into action. No. A good part of the problem lay without question in the mis-matched hands of Nooj.
And that young commander was very impatient with himself. He had led troops before. Why could he not take the power given him and exercise it as he had done so many times in the past? Was his almost superstitious awe of the legendary guardian so great that his will was paralyzed?
It was one thing to dislike command and prefer to function on one's own; it was quite another to accept that command and then flinch away from commanding. He was going to have to keep his word and act like a leader in truth or step down. He had considered another conference with Auron to discuss the entire problem but more thought had convinced him this was not necessary. He had the authority. All he lacked was the strength to use it.
It had been a long morning already, tiring in an unconventional manner. There were too many thorns in the young man's flesh. Marching was more difficult for him than it had been before the event at this place and, of course, the memory of that failed battle weighed heavily upon him. However, there were other -- more recent -- happenings poisoning his thoughts. First the spectacle of Paine in the arms of that old monk, Kal. Nooj still did not understand why that rankled him so. She had explained the connection but he continued to be bothered by the image in a way that her similar embraces of Gippal and Baralai had not affected him. Maybe it was the possessive smirk on Kal's face as he stroked the yielding flesh of ... Then there was the summoning. What to make of it? His mind still shied away from accepting the Yevonite faith like a horse from a snake in the road. He firmly set that aside for the moment. Where in the new scheme of things did his resolve to die fit when held up against his obligations to the Crusaders who had chosen him to lead them to victory? It had to have some place or his life had been a fraud. And now this -- this sense of failing in his duty to his troops and himself.
He was appalled to recognize a trend. It was not in his nature to refuse to deal with problems as they arose. When had he started putting difficult questions aside for later? Maybe he and Auron both understood just how he was supposed to wield his command, but it was the coward's way not to spell it out precisely. No matter how awkward, a conference with the Great Guardian was a necessity. One of them was the true leader of the army; that post was not negotiable and the lines would have to be drawn clearly. In spite of the respect in which he held Auron, he must know where he stood and who was in charge. At least one of the deferred decisions must be made.
"Paine, may I speak with you?"
The girl started to stand, but Auron stopped her with a hand motion. She sank back down to her log, and he sat down next to her as she swallowed the bite of bread she had been chewing. "Of course, Uncle," she said. "What did you want to know?"
"I have been observing Nooj over the last few days," Auron replied. "Overall I have found him every bit as effective as you claimed, both as a fighter and as a leader, but a few concerns remain. He seems to have a somewhat quick temper, and I find myself wondering if that might lead him to make rash, ill-considered decisions. You know him better than I; have you ever seen him do anything like that?"
Paine looked away from her uncle and into crowds that surrounded them, the noise of their chatter allowing the conversation to remain private. When she turned back, her eyes were bleak and her mouth had fixed into a grim, twisted half-smile. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I have." She drew her knees into her chest, hugged them tightly to her, and fell silent.
Auron waited for her to continue, but as the moment passed and she showed no signs of speaking again, he broke her trance. "Paine, I can see whatever this is must be difficult for you, but if it affects his ability to lead this army--"
"I know," she interrupted, letting out the breath she had been holding. "It was an incident in the desert, during our training. Nooj-- he-- Nooj tried to kill himself. He approached a fiend unarmed and only survived because I stopped him." Once again, she looked away from Auron, but now she gazed up into the sky. "Nooj is a Deathseeker."
The shocking statement took a moment to penetrate. And even when it did, Auron found himself at a loss for a response. The idea was completely beyond his comprehension. How could anyone with a gift so precious as life spurn it? Especially a life won with such difficulty?
"I'm sorry I hid this from you," said Paine, still watching the clouds drift by. "I should have told you the truth before, but I didn't want you to think less of him. Stupid, really, trying to protect him when he won't protect himself." She dropped her forehead to her knees with a bitter chuckle.
Auron reached out to his niece, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her into his side. "I understand why you didn't tell me earlier. But I thank you for sharing the truth with me now."
She leaned her head on his shoulder with a sigh. "Does this change anything?" she asked. "Are you going to relieve Nooj of command? Because I think that would be a bad idea -- he cares so much about your opinion of him. If you take his responsibilities away, well, I don't know exactly how he would react, but it wouldn't be good."
"I did not grant the command, so I have no right to remove it," Auron responded. "But still, I wish to speak with him. Soon, if possible."
Sitting up, Paine lifted her head and looked into the distance. "Or maybe even now," she murmured, "since I see him heading this way."
"All right." Auron rose to his feet, and Paine followed. "I would like to talk to him alone, if I may. But before you go-- tell me, are you all right?" He rested a gloved hand lightly on her upper arm.
Paine shrugged, shuffling her feet uncomfortably. "Sure. I suppose."
"You care for him, don't you." He stated it as a blunt fact, but his voice was gentle, sympathetic.
She released another soft sigh, then looked up at her uncle. "Very much," she admitted, almost whispering again, and he saw love and pain warring in her eyes.
Auron tightened the hand on her arm. "Thank you for telling me this," he repeated. "We will speak again later."
"Yes," she said, and then she left him as Nooj approached.
The sun was at its zenith and the dusty ground had given way to tall coarse grass surrounding small copses of broad-leaved trees which offered a welcome shelter from the heat of the day. Men and women sprawled in small groups, munching on cold rations and drinking whatever liquid they had to hand. The buzz of conversation competed with the droning of insects on the drowsy air as the army took its ease after the morning's march.
Across the way, Nooj could see the red-coated figure of Auron talking to Paine. Damn! That was not what he had hoped for. He needed to confer with the guardian alone; this was none of Paine's affair and she would only try to defend and explain him to her uncle, which would worsen the entire situation.
It was with a sense of relief he saw the two separate, Auron patting Paine on the shoulder and sending her on her way. Nooj hastened his step as much as was possible in order to engage the older man before some other person claimed his attention.
"May I have a moment, sir? There is something I think we should discuss." Without waiting for his mentor to reply, the Crusader continued. "I feel we should decide exactly how the responsibilities are to be divided or shared in the command of the troops." Nooj planted himself in front of Auron more belligerently than he intended, his cane precisely between his feet, his weight evenly distributed on the tripod thus formed. "I'm not sure just how far my authority extends or how much I am expected to clear with you before I issue orders. Sir, I am fully aware that you have in no sense constrained my actions nor have you suggested I defer to you but I am aware of your eye upon me at all times and, frankly sir, it is bothering to me. Your advice and counsel are welcome but I need to know just how much I am trusted." He paused and closed his lips firmly, indicating he would say no more until the other spoke.
Auron fixed his eye on the young commander and considered him. The blend of arrogance and insecurity that Auron had come to know as Nooj's defining characteristic was out in full force -- his posture tall and tense, his mouth set in an imperious scowl, his words spoken too quickly, so as to hide any nervousness he might have betrayed otherwise. Still, ten minutes ago the guardian would have been able to answer this question easily, giving the officer his full confidence and meaning it. But what Paine had just told him changed matters.
"I have a question for you first," he replied, taking a step closer to Nooj so that he could speak quietly -- it would not do to have this conversation overheard. "I have heard it said that you are a Deathseeker. Is this true?"
Nooj took a step backwards, his eyes glazed for the moment with shock. Without speaking he gestured with his head toward the small grove of trees on whose edge they stood. Auron followed the limping man into the quiet shade where they were assured of privacy.
"The Al Bhed call me Taydrcaagan; it sounds less dramatic." Nooj snarled softly. There was a flare of anger in both his eyes and voice. "I must assume your niece shared this morsel of gossip with you. You need not confirm it. I make no great secret of my distaste for my existence. After all, my life is my own and I have the sole right to dispose of it as I will." He did not turn away, instead fixing his gaze unflinchingly on the older man. "I trust you will pardon me, sir, if I wonder just what concern it is of yours."
"It is entirely my concern," Auron answered, a spark of anger creeping into his tone as well. "You hold the lives of hundreds of men and women in your hands, and I entrusted you with them. What happens to them if you die before this campaign is finished? There is a reason the army's commander does not fight on the front lines."
"I have always fought at the front whether I led or followed," Nooj broke in furiously. "I am no coward. I have reasons for my choices no matter what you and your niece think. If you have the idea that because you have decided to pretend I am the leader of this army, I will skulk behind the lines like those desk jockeys at headquarters ..." He stopped himself just on the point of stuttering and took a deep calming breath. "Unlike some, I am not afraid of death. I can see the value in sacrificing for the common good. I am aware of the sweet nothingness Death holds as her gift for the Warrior. I have been close to that nothingness and know its appeal." He leaned forward as if to menace Auron. "I hear the call and am willing to answer. Again. Sir."
To his chagrin, Auron found himself fighting an outburst of laughter. Death, a promise of sweet nothingness? Nooj seemed to be entirely sincere in this belief, but even so he might find himself rather surprised some day. With some effort, Auron swallowed this inappropriate response and took a step backwards in hopes of diffusing the tension that thickened the still air of the grove. Still, he could not resist one last sharp retort. "I am a guardian twice over," he said, voice low and clipped. "I took the oath, and meant it. And I fought by Braska's side as he and Jecht gave their lives for the Final Summoning. So do not presume to lecture me about sacrificing life for a greater purpose."
"I have nothing but respect for those who willingly sought Death for what they thought was the good of the many, no matter how deluded I think they were. Lord Braska and Sir Jecht died honorable deaths, an ending I can only hope to emulate. However, you still live and, while that is no disgrace, it does make your chiding me for the dream of dying inappropriate. Armies have lost their generals, even their most important ones and not failed in their war. No man is truly indispensable. ... I have no wish to fight you. For us to go down such a path would be the most damaging act we could perform against our cause. But you do not have the right to judge me and my intentions. Yes, I am Deathseeker and have been for most of my life. Now more than ever. You can have no idea of what my life is like and why the prospect of death is like a cool cup of fresh water on a hot day. Don't preach to me, sir. I have come so close to Death that I have felt her breath on my face and I long for her beyond all else." Nooj, his expression bleak and hopeless, spoke with a weariness beyond words.
Auron could not help himself this time. He chuckled, wryly, under his breath. Nooj was not the first young warrior he'd known to have romantic ideas about death, although he might be the most stubborn about it. Perhaps he needed to see an alternate viewpoint. "I know more about death than you realize," he responded. "Every warrior has had a brush or two with death, and I am no exception. But one of mine came somewhat closer than that." He locked his eye on Nooj's face, which had shifted expression from weary anger to confusion. "You, like everyone, assume that I survived the Final Summoning. To be fair, this is true. I didn't die on that day. But a few days later I fought again, and that battle I did not survive." He took another step back, and let his grip on physical existence slip for just a moment, allowing a few of the pyreflies that made up his undead form to fly free. "I am Unsent."
"That's not possible," Nooj responded flatly. After the experience at the courtyard of the Djose temple and the summoning of Ixion, his logical mind refused to entertain any more mysticism. "The Unsent do not walk among us. According to doctrine, they either dissipate altogether or become fiends. I don't believe you. Sir. I don't know what sort of game you're trying to play but the production of a few fake pyreflies is not going to convince me you're anything except what you look like. You're Auron, alive and functioning. This is beneath your dignity, sir." The final word was spat out like an expletive. "I'll leave you now, sir, and go my own way. Please tell Paine goodbye for me." He began to limp away.
Auron said nothing, only waited. Nooj would pass by him in the process of leaving the copse; perhaps he would not believe his eyes, but the sense of touch might be harder to deny. If not, well, his loss to the cause would be unfortunate, but having a leader that out of touch with reality could be more harm than good in the end.
The guardian kept himself insubstantial, and as Nooj approached, he closed his eyes, lowered his head, and placed his right arm directly in the youth's path. His timing was perfect; it was too late for Nooj to stop or step aside, and he passed through the arm as easily as air.
Nooj stopped as though he had been pole-axed. He spun to face the man so suddenly he almost lost his balance. Gripping his cane and teetering, he stared around him, eyes wide and filled with horror. "You're not there! What is all this?!"
He reached out with his right hand and tried to grip the closed fist which protruded from the red coat. When his hand passed through the image of the flesh, he crumpled to the ground, slowly but unavoidably landing on the mossy surface with a clumsy jolt. His head sank towards his knees and he felt the darkness of unconsciousness encircling him. The young commander fought the encroaching shadows and pushed them back with a supreme effort of will.
"You are dead and unsent? How? Do the others know?" He looked up at the guardian looming over him with horrified dismay. "Why aren't you at peace in the Nothingness? Is there no truth in anything?"
With a gasp, Auron snapped back into solid reality and stood still for a few seconds, just breathing. It was much more taxing to hold himself together when he couldn't use physical substance as an anchor to the world. He looked at the young warrior kneeling on the ground before him, quivering with shock and terror. "It is as I told you," he said, resigned and calm. "When Braska and Jecht lost their lives defeating Sin, I snapped. Rash, foolish, half-mad with grief, I went back to Zanarkand to avenge them, but the foe I found there was too strong, and I died. As for why I am still here, I have promises to keep. I gave my word to Braska, and to Jecht, and not even death will allow me to break it. The Farplane awaits me, but I will not go there until my duties to them, and to Spira, are discharged." He crouched down, bringing himself back to Nooj's eye level. "I have obligations, Nooj. And so do you, whether you like it or not."
Nooj started shaking his head again, and opened his mouth as if to speak, but Auron cut him off -- the boy had had his turn, and now he would listen. "I do not question your courage. Of course you will fight, and you may lead from the front if you choose. But it is one thing for the commander to die in the natural course of battle; it is another entirely for the commander to purposefully put himself in risky situations in hopes of being killed. Even setting aside the issue of leaving a vacuum in leadership, such a strategy puts those who follow you at even greater risk, because, not knowing of your ultimate goal, they will give their lives to protect yours."
Nooj, still huddled on the ground, had no further resistance left in him. He was badly shaken by what he had experienced and now heard. He was unwilling to speak to or touch the man so near and was almost afraid to look at him lest he see the trunks of trees through a transparently unsubstantial body. All he could do was nod and keep his eyes fixed on the small flowering patch of moss at his side. If he looked long and hard enough, the blossoms would become real and tangible and he would understand what had happened and what was truth and what was a fantasy.
The words reaching his brain through his ears had a kind of meaning but he was as yet unable to sort out what made sense and what did not. No, he could not risk others in his search for Death and what was the purpose of that search if it did not lead to escape? It was too much and he was still trapped in a universe of unbelief. But unbelief in what?
He had formed his life and actions around a particular set of rules and goals. Now those articles of faith were being shattered and he was left isolated in a world he no longer understood, where the landmarks had all changed. He was not longer sure he even recognized himself.
Auron looked carefully at Nooj and noted his distress. Clearly, he was taking the truth hard. It could not be easy to have such a cherished view challenged, and Auron felt a moment of sympathy. "It may not be the same for everyone," he mused aloud. "Death, I mean. I have seen many people die, and it is different every time. Some struggle against it as I did, but most greet it peacefully in their own way. Braska was one of those." He glanced at Nooj, who had finally dared to look at him, although trepidation was still written on his face. "He may be on the Farplane, or he may have found your Nothingness, I do not know. I'm hardly a theologian. But my experience has taught me a few things, and one of them is this: Yevon is not wrong about everything. It is as they say -- moving on from life is about acceptance. I remain among the living because I would not accept death, neither Braska's nor my own. But given that you are seeking death, I do not think you will share my fate."
The words broke through the fog which had shrouded Nooj's mind since he had accepted the truth of Auron's state. Like a balky machine, his brain started to function again. He always felt himself at a disadvantage when he was off his feet so he began the laborious process of standing up. Auron extended a hand in assistance and, after a moment of hesitation, Nooj took it. He was relieved to feel flesh and a bony structure in his grasp.
"Thank you. If I am to stay sane, I have to believe that. I will do as you ask and take care not to involve the army in my personal pursuit. I give my word that I will lead them as best I can and protect them so far as is feasible with the completion of our shared mission. I will seek my own ending only when it will not put others at risk. You have my word and my honor to secure that word." He stood somewhat shakily before Auron, meeting the older man's eyes without fear but with awe and wonder. "Am I the only one who did not know you are ... what you are? How do the others respond to this? I have never heard of such things before. Are they more common among the monks and pilgrims than among those of us who are only Warriors?"
"On the contrary," Auron replied, "you are the only one who does know. And I would prefer to keep it that way. Tell no one, not even Paine." Nooj nodded. "As for your other questions, I don't believe the state is common. To my knowledge I have met only two others, both in the ruins of Zanarkand. Like me, they are driven to remain by some great purpose. Otherwise we would be fiends like the rest." He shuddered inwardly at the idea. "And now, back to your original question. You are the leader of this army, its sole commander. If you recall, this is not a charge I laid on you -- it was granted by the Crusaders when they chose you as their leader. So it would not be in my power to remove you from command even if I wanted to. But I do not. Keep me informed of your decisions when you can, and I will advise you if you wish it, but the ultimate power is yours. There is no need to consult with me unless Yuna is directly involved."
Nooj saluted with another nod, then made as if to leave.
"One more thing." Auron stopped him with a hand. "I appreciate your promise and accept your word and your honor. As you say, it is your life and if you seek death, that is your own choice to make. Not that I would particularly welcome your death, but the mission is my top priority, and as long as it is fulfilled it is one to me whether you live or die. I suspect, however, that it is not one to Paine." Off Nooj's look of surprise, he chuckled again. "No, she didn't tell me. Although, now that I'm thinking of it, don't hold the revelation of your secret against her. I asked her a direct question and left her little choice but to answer. But the nature of your relationship I discovered on my own. There is nothing wrong with the one eye I do have."
Nooj flushed slightly. "Do you object, sir?"
Auron shrugged. "Why should I object? Paine is fully capable of making her own decisions in these matters. As long as it does not compromise the mission, do as you will."
Nooj hesitated for a moment, almost as if he had more to say or, maybe, to question. Then he turned and made his way back toward the open spaces there to seek a place to digest the information he had been given. It surprised him to see the sun still high in the sky; the conversation with Auron seemed to have filled an entire day and more. As he traced a path in the direction of the least heavy concentration of people, he felt older and more cynical, confused and troubled.