Nooj moved with unaccustomed ease through the camp, quickly surveying the conditions and morale of his army. His cane seemed less a necessary support than a swagger stick as he strode across the ground with far more grace than usual, almost lightly.
Now that the Thunder Plains were a good distance behind them, the divisions chosen to go on to the Macalania Temple had completed the transition to preparing for the snow and freezing weather on the way to their next destination. Boots had been stuffed with whatever insulation came to hand and machina weapons were protected against the elements with grease and wrappings. Alchemists circulated among the troops making sure each soldier was supplied with medications and restoratives.
The march would be difficult, along icy badly marked paths where a good defense would be hard to mount. Most of the fiends native to the area were fairly feeble with the exception of the various gels which changed their natures without warning and that close relative of the chimera, the rhyos. These needed to be avoided when possible and approached with utmost caution if battle became inevitable. Beclem, Squab, and the other officers had instructed the army not to unnecessarily weaken itself by picking random fights; not everyone had received these orders graciously, but Nooj did not doubt that the rules would be followed.
Food was another problem. Because of the harsh climate, foraging off the land would be increasingly unfeasible as they moved farther from the main road. Ferata took the responsibility of assuring there would be rations for at least five days. He had no particular qualifications for the post save one - he was willing to do it.
It had been decided to leave most of the chocobos with the larger contingent guarding the access to Bevelle in order not to risk the beasts on the narrow precipitous roads leading around the lake. That meant leaving behind the bulk of the supply wagons as well, which presented a problem unless the visit to the Macalania shrine was as brief as the episode at Djose. The army would have to carry what it would need. Ferata made sure that the load for each soldier was carefully calculated and evenly distributed.
The army had passed through the forest some distance from the Pilgrimage Road, coming upon the shores of the frozen lake nearly a day's walk from the Macalania Travel Agency. The plan was to make two short marches to gain the temple, camping overnight at the Al Bhed way-station, replenish any necessary supplies, and then pressing on to the temple and its resident aeon on the morrow. Yuna would be fresh for her ordeal and, if all went as was hoped, some of the warrior monks at the temple could be persuaded to join the rebels. Best to take everything slowly and as it came, Nooj thought as he considered the task before him. Haste was not a friend to those who built an army on the fly.
Auron took a moment from his preparations to take in the scene before him. All across the site, a bustle of activity was evident. From a distance, it looked like the total turmoil of a disturbed ant hill but, when examined closely, it was organized and efficient. The pilgrim contingent which had both emotionally and practically prepared itself for the visits to the Temples had only to adjust its expectations to include a possible minor battle in order to be ready for this next encounter.
Yuna was trying to convince Kimahri that she would be quite warm enough in her normal clothing and did not need his hirsute arms to protect her from the light snow. Lulu diligently inventoried her spells and placed in the fore the ones she thought she was most likely to need. She expected the Fire family to be the most useful, if only to light cooking flames to heat the food. Wakka and Tidus sparred with one another, both to keep warm and to work off the accumulation of energy which long waits generate in young men. Auron had already made the rounds, ensuring that everyone was safe, properly readied, and had the items needed in order to set out on the twisting path. He was mostly concerned that no one stray off course and freeze in the featureless landscape, and so alerted certain of the Crusaders and the monks to keep an eye out for stragglers.
As he watched his charges with an air of satisfaction, he heard himself hailed by Nooj.
"Sir Auron, have you a moment?" The commander approached quickly and with remarkable ease. Auron was pleased to note the aura of self-confidence and the lack of hesitancy in the younger man's demeanor.
"I am at your service," he replied with a nod. "How do things look to you?"
"I believe we are ready to move out. Too much more delay -". Nooj suddenly winced and caught his breath in a smothered cry, bending forward and to his left.
"What's wrong? Are you all right?" Auron reached out a hand to steady his protege and then withdrew it hastily at the shake of the other's head.
"It's nothing. I get these twinges occasionally. They pass." Nooj pulled himself up to his full height, only the flicker of pain in his eye revealing that all was not well.
Wary of intruding onto the dignity of the young man, Auron made no further comment. He waited with patience for Nooj to collect himself and continue to speak.
"I fear much more delay will erode our readiness and I propose to give the order to march very soon, unless your group needs more time." Nooj finished his statement, took a very deep breath and looked directly into the eyes of the guardian. "And, sir, I have to offer my apologies for the names I applied to you last night. I was not myself at the time, sir."
Auron laughed lightly and placed a fatherly hand on the Crusader's shoulder. "I understand and wouldn't like to guess what I might have said under the same conditions. Give the order when you choose. My group will be ready at your command."
Still Nooj paused, "There is one other thing, sir. I took offense at a term used by your friend, the monk Kal. I should not have done so. I now understand he meant no disrespect by his words. Paine explained things to me." He hesitated as a quick wash of color swept his face and as rapidly vanished, leaving him paler than before. "So far as I am concerned, the incident is forgotten; I would be pleased if you would let him know my sentiments."
Widening his remaining eye in surprise, Auron looked sharply at the lad standing before him. Now what had brought all that about? There was a great change in the boy -- no, no longer boy -- man. The beginnings of one, at least. He had found his confidence and his balance. Was Paine working some sort of her own private magic to effect such a transformation? Or was it Paine? Maybe Nooj had done this all himself, in spite of the blows to his beliefs and the pain he obviously still felt. Yes, he was starting to become the man he was intended to be. Now, the only job would be to keep him alive after this campaign. Auron shook his head, pulling back from the thought. It was none of his business if the Deathseeker chose to die although it would be a great loss to the forces of light. Still, it remained his own affair. If he was destined to live, that was up to him -- and, perhaps, to Paine.
The guardian watched thoughtfully as Nooj turned and walked away, signaling to his lieutenants and issuing the orders to march.
The snow fields that stretched from the edge of the dark forest to the ice-fringed borders of the lake were deceptively peaceful. They lay like marshmallow frosting on a dark cake, unmarked and serene. The members of the army who were familiar with this terrain passed the word warning against flying fiends who would leave no trace of their movements and strike out of the leaden skies.
At some places along the route, the path grew narrow and ledge-like as it traced between partially thawed areas in the vicinity of rapidly flowing streams leading in and out of the lake. These rivulets, which ran beneath the covering of the crusted snow, were generally discovered by the plunge of an unwary foot breaking through the surface and into the frigid water. Ice covered boulders also made the footing perilous in such spots and reaffirmed the wisdom of leaving most of the chocobos behind.
Nooj found it unexpectedly difficult to pick his way over the uneven ground with most of the dips and holes hidden beneath the smooth unbroken surface of the snow. He pretended not to notice Aquelev hovering always near him, ready to serve as another pair of legs if necessary. Paine was there as well, keeping her eyes open and unobtrusively leading through the most deceptive patches. She was as agile as an alpaca over even the worst, most treacherous terrain and could be relied upon to find the best way.
The line of sight was often obscured by the erratic snow fall -- now heavy and blinding, now so light as to consist of only a few flurries. With no sun visible in the sky, keeping the correct heading was a constant problem. If they veered off course, too much time could be lost trying to recover the path to the Travel Agency. So they covered ground more slowly than the open fields might have invited.
The body of troops had progressed a considerable way when they encountered the first resistance. Tidus, bored with the tedium of marching over the bleak landscape, had been amusing himself by shying small stones at the dark spots in the snow when he beaned a sallet and precipitated an upheaval from the field ahead. Thinking back later, no one was sure whether the beasts had set a deliberate ambush or if this was their normal reaction to a disturbance, but a mass of the armored creatures, together with their kin, the barbutas, boiled up from under the white expanse of the field and made directly for the army. Auron swore under his breath and, pausing only to make sure of Yuna's safety, drew his sword and waded into the turmoil.
Tidus, grinning as widely as he could at the prospect of some action, swung his blade around his head and, with a grunt, bisected the beast in front of him. "C'mon, Wakka, over here!" he called to the red-haired man and was answered by the crack of a blitzball smashing the shell of the barbuta waddling toward them.
"Right behind you. Look out to the left!" Another ball shot by, taking out yet another fiend.
"This is fun, right? I mean, it's been pretty dull just plodding." The blond lad was not even out of breath as he hacked away at the slow but heavily armored creatures. The ground around him and Wakka was quickly marshy from the steaming entrails of the beasts and the various fluids which leaked from their split bodies.
"You like this, ya? Hah!" Wakka aimed his weapon with a practiced skill, paralyzing a column of the lumbering enemy. "Give it another few weeks, eh? Routine fiend bashing'll seem pretty dull, too."
Tidus laughed, disbelieving, as he and some of the Crusaders fell upon the helpless prey and dispatched them efficiently. As more of the army came forward and involved themselves in the slaughter of the foe, it quickly became evident this was less a battle and more a release from tension for those fighting.
It was only when the Eyes appeared that the magic users and other more advanced warriors entered the fray. Attracted by the sound of battle, the flocks of Winged Eyes swept down and strafed the human forces. They were a strange if dangerous sight, with their pupils glittering in the reflected light from the snowbanks and the sparkles of their attacks casting fireworks across the blank white canvas of the land.
Nooj stepped up and, laughing, did not even shoulder his gun but, using his left hand, swept three of the creatures from the air and stomped them into oblivion, enjoying the feel of the popping explosions as they burst under his feet. "Have at them, Paine. The killing will warm you up," he shouted to the woman at his back.
"Too easy," she laughed in return, employing her sword as a scythe and taking out an entire group on her own. She continued to haphazardly lop away at the clouds until they grew so scant as to not be worth the bother.
Auron had quickly sheathed his own blade, not wanting to deprive the less-experienced of their pleasure and hid his smile behind the collar of his coat, ducking as the odd fiend zoomed past his head on its way to extinction. It had not been part of the plan to instigate an attack, but since one was in progress, it seemed easiest to let the soldiers have what fun and practice they could find in the exercise. Stepping up to the side of Nooj, who had also stepped back from the fray, he murmured in the Commander's ear. "Good target practice, I think."
Nooj replied in the same tone, "Loosens them up with not enough danger to worry about." The two leaders stood and watched as the mop-up operations proceeded, and the newly invigorated army celebrated itself and the victory. A few of the human combatants had suffered small injuries but the healers quickly made the necessary repairs and a vindicated group was soon back on the trail, more confident than before of their prowess and more certain of their eventual success.
Nooj looked at them with inward amusement. The threat has been slight but he was glad of the opportunity for action. It had settled the edgy soldiers down nicely and they had bonded with one another more strongly during the shared battle -- inconsequential as it had been.
Hours passed. The snow had increased almost to a blizzard with the once wide and heavy flakes shredded by the force of the winds which whipped them into miniature tornadoes of crystal beads. The army marched on as the individuals which composed it protected themselves from the stinging whirlwinds as best they could. The ground remained treacherous, deep drifts of wet snow topped with blade-sharp frozen tops alternating with areas swept almost clear by the relentless gales.
"I see it! I see the light!" Wakka, who had insisted on taking a turn at the very front of the struggling columns shouted over the howl of the storm. "Hang in there. It's right ahead."
Auron breathed a sigh of relief. He had been doubtful for the past half hour, fearing they had lost their way and would have to camp rough for the night. The sun had not made an appearance during the long day; only blind reckoning had kept them heading in the right direction.
He turned to Nooj, who was limping just at his heels. "I hope Wakka's right and this isn't a snow mirage."
The commander was too winded to answer aloud and merely nodded his head in agreement. The last few miles had been almost impossibly hard for him to manage with the heaviness and the awkwardness of the machina leg threatening to drag him to the ground with each step. He had been forced to rely on the cane to bear an increasing amount of his weight. Paine had helped as much as she could, but she was not capable of physically dragging him through the snow. At least he no longer tried to conceal his pain and exhaustion from her -- his honesty made helping him much easier. Aquelev had offered a tactful arm or shoulder as well whenever possible. However, the situation was becoming critical, and the shout from Wakka had been welcome to them all.
Within a few more paces, all those in the van of the army could see the golden light reflected on the rounded shapes of the drifts. It was as though they had reached the promised land of the legends, the paradise of the virtuous. Stumbling, halting, straggling, covered with snow and half-frozen, they pushed into the warmth of the Travel Agency and collapsed as they came, tears of melted snow staining their faces.
After brushing the snow from her hair and stamping it from her boots, Paine made a beeline for the Travel Agency counter. She leaned up against it with a conspiratorial smile. "Any messages for the Captain?" she asked in serviceable Al Bhed.
"Oac" was the answer. The employee knelt behind the counter, then popped back up with a letter, addressed to Dra Lybdyeh in Baralai's careful hand.
He's getting more cautious, Paine thought as she took the envelope with a nod of thanks, if he's writing in Al Bhed now. She retreated to a quiet corner and opened the note for a quick scan. The letter itself was written in Spiran, to Paine's relief -- her Al Bhed had improved greatly, but she didn't think she was up to reading the other language for secret messages. On the surface, the letter's contents were innocuous and dull, but as she looked more deeply, she found plenty of patterns and significant wordplay, their hidden meanings both encouraging and worrisome. After a third read-through, she formed her conclusions and stood, ready to seek out Nooj. She found him almost immediately -- he was warming himself by the fireplace and giving instructions to Beclem and Squab. He turned, caught her eye, and beckoned her over.
"Letter for you," she said casually, flashing the envelope for his eyes only, sharing a knowing nod with the other officers. "Is my uncle around?"
"No," Nooj replied, lowering his voice. "He mentioned some errand, then took Tidus and Yuna to the south."
Paine raised an eyebrow. An errand? In the middle of nowhere, during a snowstorm? Auron must have more secrets than she'd realized. But she only shrugged. "Okay. We can catch him up later."
"Agreed." Nooj glanced around the room. "Shall we invite Captain Beclem into this conversation?"
"I think so."
"All right. Squab, see to the other things we were discussing. Beclem, Paine, you're with me."
Cold, exhausted, and smarting from a barrage of elemental spell attacks, Tidus and Yuna collapsed into the chairs nearest the fireplace. He stared at the ceiling, eyes unseeing, a hand protectively resting over the pocket where he had placed the sphere containing Jecht's message, while Yuna watched him with a concerned air. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Tidus stretched in his chair and yawned, then focused on Yuna with a smile. "Yeah. Tired. Thinking."
"About the sphere?" She tipped her head. "Or what Sir Auron said?"
"Both, I guess." He frowned slightly. "It looks like he changed so much. From acting like a tourist on vacation to being really serious about what he had to do. I never saw him so serious about anything. It makes me wonder, y'know? About how being here changed him." He lapsed back into thought, and Yuna followed him into silence, listening to the homey popping of the fire and to the comfortable hum of activity that surrounded them.
After a time, Tidus shifted in the chair, draping himself over its arms. "I'm gonna have to fight him." His tone was flat, resigned.
"I know," she said, sad. "So am I. You understand that? Even though he's your father, I--"
"I know," Tidus repeated, a little grimly. "But he's also Sin. And that's more important. Stopping him. And I think... I think he probably wants this over as much as we do." He bowed his head, and he let an arm fall, dangling over the side.
Hesitantly, Yuna took the free hand loosely in both of hers. "We'll save him together," she murmured.
Tidus moved only enough to turn his head and look into Yuna's eyes. They relished the simple physical contact for a long time. Then he smiled, and tightened his fingers against hers. "Yeah," he said. "We will."
Auron had followed his young charges into the Travel Agency but left them alone as they went to comfort themselves with warmth and one another. He had known that seeing the sphere of Jecht wouldn't be easy for Tidus, but he thought it was necessary, to give the boy a chance to know his father a little better, and hopefully inspire him to the battle with Sin that must eventually come. The fight with Sin had been postponed, but it was still the top priority. The only priority, really, in the end.
But Yevon would be dealt with first, and to that end he had began looking for Nooj. When he didn't find the commander in the agency's main room; a few discreet inquires directed him to one of the rooms in the aboveground portion of the inn. He made his way to Nooj's quarters and, after lightly rapping on the door, pushed his way inside.
"Sir Auron," said Nooj, looking up from his conversation with Paine, Beclem, and Kal. "We were hoping you'd be here soon. We've received another communication from Baralai."
"What have you been able to make of it?" Auron took a seat next to Kal and leaned forward, eager for news.
"Well, it's heavily coded, and some parts are vague," Paine said. "But we're pretty sure about a few things. First, there's been a serious falling out within Yevon. You know that Maester Jyscal died a few weeks ago, and Seymour was elevated to his position? Well, Baralai found evidence that Seymour murdered his own father, looking to take Jyscal's place. Sounds like Baralai quietly planted some words in the right ears, and the resulting uproar split the Maseters. The Ronso maester has left Bevelle for Gagazet and withdrawn his support for Yevon. It seems likely that the Ronso will stay out of this conflict, at least for now."
"Good. That will make taking Bevelle far easier." Auron nodded. "What else?"
Paine took a deep breath. "Seymour is at Macalania."
Auron sat up, surprised and concerned. "For any particular purpose?"
"The letter doesn't say. But Kal has a theory."
The warrior monk glanced around the room, then at Auron. "Remember I told you that Julien is commander at Macalania?"
"Ah." Auron settled back into place, lip curling in a slight sneer as he remembered. "Kinoc's favorite pet."
"Exactly," Kal said with a nod. "If Yevon is dividing into factions, Seymour will need Macalania on his side. I bet you anything he's come here to search for allies."
"Do we have a chance to divide Kinoc and Seymour further, then?" Nooj looked at Auron, the question echoed in his eyes.
"I am not the person to ask," the guardian replied. "My knowledge of Yevon politics is too outdated, and Julien and I have never been friends. Kal or Beclem may have better insights than I."
Kal shook his head. "I wish I had something for you, but if anything my relationship with Julien is even more strained than Auron's. He'd probably join with Seymour just to spite me. The best suggestion I have is to take him out with my first shot, shake up the squadron command, but he's too canny to allow that. He'll protect himself; he might not even come out to the front lines."
All eyes fell on Beclem, who shrugged. "Nothing comes to mind. My knowledge is of Bevelle, not Macalania. The alliances are constantly shifting, and I never worked with Commander Julien. Sorry, sir, but I can't help with this either."
"So, it is as we thought earlier. We will probably have to fight." Nooj looked around the room, his resolved expression matched by everyone else there. "Paine, can you find Squab and the other officers please? Along with some dinner? We need to convene a full council."
"Yuna as well, if you please," said Auron. "Seymour is a summoner as well as a Maester. If we are to battle against him, we will need her assistance."
"Sure." Paine stood and headed for the door. Before she walked through it, she glanced at Nooj, who had closed his eyes and tipped his head back. In that moment, Auron thought the commander looked very tired, like he had passed some limit of endurance and needed to sleep for a week. Then he opened his eyes, met the concerned gaze of Paine, and waved her out with a wry smile, the exhaustion lifting slightly as he watched her go.
Kal tossed a sideways look at Auron and raised a quick eyebrow. Auron shrugged and smiled briefly, then turned to Nooj. "So. What are your thoughts on laying siege to the temple and neutralizing Seymour?"
Nooj tapped the handle of his cane, the click of metal on metal a sure sign of a thoughtful mood. "Well, sir, I want to get your input, and that of the other officers before committing to anything, but let me share my first instincts." His voice gained strength as he spoke. "First, I would like to say how impressed I was by the adroit diplomacy Sir Auron used at the Djose Temple. Of course, the presence of Kal," here he nodded toward the monk, "was a great advantage. However, I think we should still try a peaceful approach first and entreat the defenders of this temple to remain neutral if they cannot find it in their hearts to join us. In other words, let's try the Djose technique to begin with. I am a Warrior, but I was taught and believe that battle is the last resort and all efforts to avoid casualties should be exhausted before swords are drawn. If we appear in force at the gates, perhaps that will be enough to convince the garrison that resistance will not be to their advantage. The presence of Seymour is a wild card, but I strongly urge that talking come before killing." He gathered them with his gaze and saw no argument. "Ah, I think I hear the others coming. Let's try to settle on a plan as quickly as possible. It has been a long day."