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A Long Road To Destiny

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If not for the high probability that there were fiends in the water, Cloud might have been tempted to throw himself overboard and swim for it the moment land came into view. Actually he was tempted anyway, he just wasn't - quite - desperate enough to try it. He clung to the rail and willed the island to approach faster, trying not to throw up. Again. Not that there was anything left in his stomach to lose, but bringing up bile hurt.

"Who ever heard of an Al Bhed that gets seasick?" he heard a crew member comment to another behind him.

"I still say it's suspicious that he wants to go to Besaid," the other replied. "I can't believe the captain let him on the ship."

Cloud flushed and ignored them, as he had ignored all such comments since the moment he'd boarded. Since the day he'd left home, actually, but it got worse the closer he got to his goal. An Al Bhed travelling throughout Spira was hardly an unusual sight, but one bound for the home of the first aeon was rare indeed. He couldn't exactly lie about his destination to these sailors; this ferry didn't go anywhere except between Kilika and Besaid.

And there it was, rising up out of the ocean like a tropical jewel, covered in lush greenery with the occasional ruin poking up here and there out of the trees. The beaches that surrounded it were so white against the cerulean blue of the ocean they were almost blinding. Cloud had never seen anything so beautiful in his life, and not just because it meant he'd soon be back on solid ground again. In just a few minutes he would reach the end of more than a month of exhausting travel, the dream he'd been striving towards for nearly ten years now.

Of course, if he succeeded, he was going to have to turn around and go right back again, but this time he'd be making the journey as a summoner. Everyone who had ever laughed at him, ever picked on him for his damned Al Bhed eyes, ever told him there was no place in the world for someone neither properly Al Bhed nor Spiran - they would all have to eat their words. He'd show them he was more than just worthless trash.

"Docking complete, captain," the first mate reported. "We can start letting the passengers off, now."

Those were the magic words Cloud had been waiting for. He heard a couple of snickers as he bolted for the gangplank, but they were easier to ignore than usual. All he cared about was the beautiful, wonderful, blessedly solid land only a few feet away.

Standing on the shore was bliss. Reaching the cool shade of the trees overhanging the path to the village was even better. Raised on a mountainside that was half-frozen even in the warmest part of summer, Cloud could never have imagined any place could get so hot. Kilika had been bad enough, but Besaid was ridiculous.

When he crested a hill and the village came into view below him, he forgot all about the heat. There it was, rising up like a giant stone shepherd with a flock of tents and huts; the temple of Besaid, home of the first aeon. The start of every summoner's pilgrimage since Sin had first appeared. Here, if he could prove that he was right and the fayth would accept a half-Al Bhed summoner, Cloud would begin his own journey.

But first he had to convince the priests to let him into the temple.

He kept his eyes on his feet as he made his way into the village. There were some blond Spirans, and here in the islands they weren't as rare as further inland. He suspected there was more Al Bhed blood in the islander population than the prejudiced Spirans were willing to admit. Cloud was dressed like a Spiran, and he knew the only accent he had was that of the Calm Lands, where he'd been raised. If he could just keep anyone from seeing his blasted eyes, he might be able to fool them into thinking he was truly one of them.

Excited whispers sprang up all around as people took note of him, and at first Cloud thought his ploy had failed. He cringed, waiting for the first angry shout - which hopefully would come soon enough before the first angry fist that he'd be able to turn tail and run. But as he strained his ears, he realized that the word being repeated over and over was not 'Al Bhed', but 'summoner'.

Some of the tension drained from his shoulders. Of course. Here, at the start of the summoner's journey, the people must be used to seeing potential summoners come and go. Now that Sin and its spawn were rampaging once more, not many people were risking the dangerous ocean voyages. So any stranger to this tiny village would almost certainly be either a summoner candidate or a guardian.

As he approached the temple the door swung open, revealing a kindly-looking priest of Yevon. Cloud kept his eyes down as he made the obeisance, pretending to be even shier than he actually was. The priest returned the bow, and smiled at him. "Have you come for the Trial, my son?"

"Yes, maester," Cloud replied, ducking his head a little further. For once he was grateful that his hair had gotten too long during his journey, since his spiky bangs helped to hide his face.

"Where is your guardian?"

Cloud bit his lip, and chose his words carefully. "I've had to come a long way, maester. I didn't want to risk anyone else's life before I knew if I would even succeed. I'm sure once I've proved myself, I'll find a guardian." Maybe. If there was anyone out there crazy enough to agree to guard a half-Al Bhed. Cloud had a sneaking suspicion he would be the first summoner to complete the journey without a guardian, as well as the first one with Al Bhed blood.

"Ah." That seemed to satisfy the priest, at least. "Very selfless of you, my son. There are those who desire to be guardians but have no summoner; they often come here to wait for candidates who might need them. I believe there is one in residence this very moment. He arrived yesterday. But come. First you must face the Trial."

Relieved that it apparently wasn't completely bizarre to arrive with no guardian, Cloud followed the priest into the temple. His eyes widened, and he looked around with a sense of awe. There was a tiny little chapel dedicated to Yevon in Nibelheim, but this was the first time he'd ever been inside a proper temple. The one in Bevelle undoubtedly put this one to shame, but Besaid's temple was more than enough to impress a country boy like Cloud. Surrounding the central room like a ring of stone guardians were statues of every High Summoner who had come from Besaid. Arching above them were much larger statues of Lady Yunalesca and Sir Zaon, the first summoner and guardian. The statues were beautifully worked, every detail lovingly picked out and brought to life in the stone. The oldest statues looked a little worn, as if they'd been polished so often the stone was starting to wear away, but somehow that just made them appear even more perfect.

The priest turned to say something, and a shocked look crossed the old man's face. Too late Cloud realized he'd lifted his head to get a better view of the room, and revealed his eyes.

He spun and tried to bolt, but the priest was fast for his age. He managed to get a hand on Cloud's collar and jerked him half off his feet. "Heathen!" the priest thundered. "How dare you set foot in a temple of Yevon?"

Cloud twisted frantically, trying to slide out of his tunic. He only succeeded in tangling himself so his arms were bound, making it that much easier for the priest to hold him. Worse, the yelling was attracting the attention of the other priests, who were converging on them from other parts of the temple.

"An Al Bhed!" one of the acolytes exclaimed, skidding to a halt as he got a good look at Cloud. "What's he doing here?"

Boiling over with shame and fury, Cloud glared for all he was worth. "I'm not hurting anything by being here, damn it. I'm only half Al Bhed!"

They weren't listening. Two more acolytes grabbed at him, pinning him securely in place. The old man shook him roughly, like a dog with a cactuar. "You seek to defile our temple, is that it?" he demanded.

"No! I just want to take the Trial," Cloud spat.

There were gasps from the group of priests, and he saw at least one make the holy obeisance like a reflexive attempt to ward off his heresy. "Planning to sabotage the Trial, no doubt," one said grimly.

"Or desecrate the Chamber of the Fayth," the old priest agreed. "Throw him out, and be certain he doesn't get back in."

Cloud growled, but didn't bother to defend himself further. The fucking Spirans were all alike; they took one look at his damned eyes and assumed he had to be up to no good.

The junior priests and acolytes were not gentle as they 'escorted' him to the door. More than one took the chance to punch, kick, or otherwise hurt him, taunting him all the while. He refused to give them the satisfaction of responding in any way. That was a lesson he'd learned the hard way, from the bullies at home in Nibelheim. But when they literally threw him out the door he landed awkwardly against the stairs, and Cloud couldn't quite stifle a cry as he felt something in his arm snap.

He lay stunned for a long moment, gasping for air as pain and the heat pressed down on him. He felt like he was being smothered, as if there wasn't enough room in his body for air and his despair at the same time. All around him he could hear shocked whispers turning to angry mutters as the priests informed the villagers of their version of events.

Cloud wanted very badly to cry. Not only had he failed to become a summoner, not only was he now too broke and injured to even be able to crawl home again, but if he was very lucky he was about to have a mob of angry Spirans out for his blood. Well, at least that would solve the problem of what to do next, since they'd likely rip him to pieces for 'defiling the temple'.

The same pride that kept his burning eyes from spilling over also forced him to his feet. By the fayth, he would at least face the bastards like a man, not the coward they liked to call him. Swaying with pain and exhaustion, he spat at the temple. "Bnazitelat yccrumac!" he shouted hoarsely, lapsing into Al Bhed as he sometimes did when he was too angry to think in Spiran. "Cuhc uv y ceh clyma yht y lyldiyn!"

"Okay, I got the gist of most of that," an amused tenor said from behind him. "But what's banizlat mean?"

"Bnazitelat," a deeper voice corrected him. "It means 'prejudiced'."

Surprised to hear someone speaking his language with no discernable accent, Cloud turned. To his further surprise both men before him were obviously Spiran. One, dark-haired and broad-shouldered, looked oddly familiar, though Cloud was certain they'd never met. The other, taller and more solemn than his companion, had a face much too young for the pure silver colour of his long hair.

A guardian and summoner, or Cloud would eat his sword. He was probably about to eat their swords. Grimly he braced himself and glared, daring them to do their worst. Let them strike the first blow. The rest of the village would follow soon enough.

The dark one winced and gestured at his arm. "Ouch. That looks painful. Hey, Seph, you gonna do something about that, or make me waste a hi-potion?"

A cool green glow settled over Cloud's body, and the pain in his arm vanished. Startled, he stared at the taller man, who was murmuring the last words to a cura spell under his breath. Gingerly Cloud flexed his hand, then bent his arm, testing it. There was no pain, not so much as a twinge. When he reached up to wipe the blood from his mouth he found the cuts and swelling there had vanished as well, along with the bruising that had been threatening to force his eye shut.

All that with a cura? Most of the healers Cloud had ever met would have needed to cast curaga to heal that much with a single spell. Cloud was awed.

"Better?" the brunet asked. "What was that all about, anyway? The priests here seemed nice enough when I talked to them yesterday. They sure as fayth didn't break anything throwing me out!"

"You're not Al Bhed, Zack," the tall man pointed out with a sigh that said he was used to having to state the obvious for his companion.

"Well, no. But still... hey, can you even understand us?" The man, Zack, was looking at him in concern. Cloud hadn't found his tongue yet, too shocked by the rescue from an entirely unexpected quarter. "Uh, crap, I don't think he speaks Spiran. The only Al Bhed I know is rude. Seph?"

"Lyh oui ihtancdyht ic?" Seph asked. As before, his accent was flawless.

Finally Cloud managed to remember how to talk. "I'm an Al Bhed who was just thrown out of a temple of Yevon. Most Spirans would have left me to rot, at best. What does a summoner and his guardian care about me?"

Zack blinked, and grinned. "Oh. I guess you do speak Spiran. Well, good. That makes this a lot easier."

"I am not a summoner," Seph demurred. "But that is beside the point. Why were you trying to enter the temple?"

Cloud's crushing defeat got the best of him, and he spoke without thinking. "To sabotage it, obviously. To defile it with my evil and unholy presence. Because I certainly can't think of ten better ways to accomplish that than just walking in and..."

Black spots ate at his vision, and Cloud lost track of what he was saying. Cure spells were useful, but they still required some energy from the one affected, and this one had pushed him past already strained limits. Distantly he was aware of a concerned voice, but his knees had gone weak and it took everything he had just to stay on his feet. Strong hands braced him by the shoulders, nudging him to sit. Cloud obeyed gratefully, ending up with his head between his knees as he fought just to breathe.

When his vision cleared he found both of the strangers crouched next to him. "Take it easy, kid," Zack said gently. "We're not the bad guys, okay?"

"When was the last time you ate?" Seph asked, frowning.

"In Luca," Cloud mumbled, ducking his head in embarrassment. When Zack made a shocked noise, Cloud gave a half-shrug that ended with his shoulders hunched. "I get seasick. I couldn't keep anything down."

"A seasick Al Bhed? Wow, that's a new one." Zack looked bemused. "Tell you what. How about I buy lunch, and you can tell us your story when you're not all cranky and fainting from hunger? Never saw a situation that didn't look better when you're sitting on the outside of a good meal."

Cloud would have liked to protest that he didn't want charity. However much he might not want it, unfortunately, he did need it. The last of his gil had bought him passage on the ship to Besaid, and he was too weak to fight fiends to earn more. Assuming he wouldn't pass out in the middle of a battle, like he had just now. At least it seemed as if these two Spirans genuinely wanted to help him, for whatever bizarre reason.

"Fine. But I don't owe you anything," he said, wanting to make that clear. The fayth alone knew what these two wanted from him. They had to want something. Nobody was nice to an Al Bhed just for the hell of it. He'd learned that lesson all too well in his life.

"Paranoid little bastard, isn't he?" Zack remarked to Seph, clearly amused. "No, you don't owe us anything. C'mon, let's get some food into you."

There weren't exactly a lot of options for buying food; Besaid was such a tiny village that the only reason there were services for travellers at all was because of the temple. Zack managed to cajole a young mother into selling him some fried balls of fish paste and coconut. Every time she cast a suspicious look at Cloud, Zack would smile and distract her by flirting, making her blush. Something about his smile made Cloud certain he recognized the man, but he couldn't figure out how for the life of him.

Zack had been right about one thing, at least; with more than his fair share of the fish balls in his stomach, Cloud found he suddenly had a much brighter outlook on life. The mob had been deflected, he wasn't injured, and for the first time in days he wasn't either starving, or sick, or both.

"So?" Zack asked, watching with that amused smile still on his face as Cloud polished off the last of the food. "What's your name, kid? You gonna tell us your story, or do we have to start making guesses? Because I'm warning you, I've got a hell of an imagination."

"And an amazing ability to embarrass people in the most spectacular way with your conjectures," Seph commented drily. "I suggest you not put him to the test," he added to Cloud.

His mouth twitching with a desire to smile despite himself, Cloud ducked his head. "My name is Cloud. I came here to take the Trial," he admitted, braced for the cry of outrage that would surely follow.

It never came. "Huh," Zack said, sounding intrigued. "I didn't think there were any Al Bhed who followed Yevon."

"He's part Spiran," Seph said.

"How can you tell?" Both Cloud and Zack stared at him in surprise. Then they blinked at each other, startled by their perfect unison. Cloud shook his head. He knew he looked like a full-blood Al Bhed. Hadn't people been calling him a bastard and his mother a whore his whole life, for just that reason? She swore she had never been with anyone but his father, but Cloud was probably the only person in the entire village who actually believed her.

Seph raised an eyebrow at them. "He has blue eyes," he pointed out. "Pureblood Al Bhed always have green eyes. It's subtle, but unmistakeable if you know what to look for. Was one of your grandparents Spiran?"

"Two of them, actually," Cloud said, unable to keep a touch of bitterness out of his voice. "My father was Spiran. So my mother claims, but..." He looked up at Seph shyly. "You're the first person who's ever been able to tell." Maybe his faith in his mother wasn't so misplaced after all. He tried to remember the Al Bhed he'd met on his journey here, but he couldn't recall noticing their eye colour. He'd seen blond hair and the distinctive swirled pupils, and hadn't needed to look any further. He flushed, realizing he'd behaved exactly like one of the Spirans he hated so much for judging him by his eyes. "Do they really all have green eyes?"

"Wouldn't you know?" Zack asked him curiously.

Cloud shrugged. "Until a month ago the only other Al Bhed I'd ever seen was my mother. She has green eyes, but how was I supposed to know it wasn't just her?"

"So you were raised Spiran," Zack exclaimed in the tone of one who has just had a revelation. "That explains the clothes and the lack of accent. And the seasickness, I guess." He smiled, taking the bite out of his teasing words. "And that's why you follow Yevon. Makes sense. Must be hard on you, though."

"Don't get me wrong," Cloud corrected him, eyes narrowed. "I grew up in a Spiran village, but my mother raised me to be smart enough not to believe anything on blind faith. I don't follow Yevon and I do think you're all nuts for sitting around, hoping to someday be 'good enough' that Sin won't return. But I'm Spiran enough that I respect the Summoner's Choice, and I think if one person is willing to sacrifice themselves to buy everyone else a little time to breathe, they should be honoured."

"You don't believe in Yevon, but you want to be a summoner?" Zack stared at him. "You realize that's a total contradiction, don't you?"

Cloud sighed. "I thought... maybe if a half Al Bhed became a summoner, it would make both groups stop arguing over religious differences and start working together to find a real solution. Instead of just doing the same things over and over again, creating more and more hostilities between the races."

"A noble sentiment. Unfortunately for you, Al Bhed are indeed forbidden from setting foot in any of Yevon's temples." Seph frowned. "However, any Spiran who wishes to attempt the Trials may do so. As a half Spiran, you should fall into that category."

"He oughta know," Zack told Cloud. "I think he's got every temple rule and precept memorized."

Curious, Cloud studied the tall man. He wasn't dressed as a priest, and claimed not to be a summoner. Yet he knew so much about Yevon, and there was a sort of... otherworldly aura to him, as if there was a part of his attention fixed on a world nobody else could see. Cloud knew that look; he saw it in his own eyes sometimes when he caught an unexpected glimpse of his reflection in a pond or window. And it had been on the face of every High Summoner's statue in the temple.

"I think perhaps I'll just go have a chat with the priests," Seph said as he rose, a determined glint in his eyes. "Remind them of some of the tenets of their own faith. I believe you two have private matters to discuss."

"Huh? We do?" Confused, Cloud watched him walk away.

"I think I know what he means," Zack said. "I'm gonna take a wild guess that you don't have a guardian yet?"

Cloud snorted. "Are you kidding me? Who in their right mind would guard an Al Bhed summoner?"

"Well, me for one, though I'll admit people have accused me of not being in my right mind before this," Zack informed him cheerfully. "Lucky for you, I happen to be a guardian in need of a summoner. Works out nicely, I think."

"You... what?" Cloud stared at him, certain he'd misunderstood. "You're offering to be my guardian? You don't even know me!"

"I wouldn't know any other summoner I happen to meet here, either," Zack pointed out. "I like your attitude. You've got guts, and heart. And I know you're doing this for a good reason, which is more than I can say for the glory hounds."

Cloud flushed. He might say he had lofty and noble reasons for sacrificing himself as a summoner - and he did, on some level. But the true reason he was doing this was to prove that everyone who had ever called him a loser was wrong. Including himself.

"Do you realize what you're letting yourself in for?" he asked. "These priests won't be the last to call me a heretic and throw me out. Spirans and Al Bhed will be trying to stop me, maybe even hurt me, for stepping all over their beliefs. They'll call you a traitor."

"You're facing all that and worse. If you can handle it, so can I," Zack insisted. "So what do you say?"

Cloud was totally at a loss. This ran completely counter to everything he'd ever learned about people. Zack seemed sincere. If he had an ulterior motive or hidden agenda, he was the best damned liar Cloud had ever met.

"I'd be crazy to say no," he finally replied, shaking his head. "But I won't hold it against you when you come to your senses later."

"Not gonna happen. I don't have any senses to come to, at least if you believe Seph and my mentor." Zack stood and clapped him on the shoulder. "Now, c'mon, Seph's probably got those priests nicely cowed by now."

They found Seph on his way back to them, looking very pleased with himself. He raised an eyebrow when he saw them walking together. "You've come to an agreement, then? Excellent. I believe you'll find the priests have had a change of heart. They're in a much more tolerant and welcoming mood, now." He inclined his head to Cloud in a respectful nod. "Luck has little to do with the success of a summoner, so I will simply wish the blessings of the fayth upon you, Lord Cloud."

Cloud sputtered and blushed. "I'm not a summoner yet," he protested. "I haven't earned that title." He didn't think he'd ever get used to hearing people call him that. Assuming anybody other than these two crazy Spirans bothered.

"I have faith in you," Seph said with a small smile. "Take care of him, Zack."

"Yes, sir!" Zack gave him a Crusader's salute, though the solemnity of the gesture was somewhat ruined by his huge grin. Seph waved them off, and headed for the path to the beach.

"Who is he?" Cloud asked Zack under his breath as they walked to the temple.

"Seph? He's, well... Seph." Zack shrugged helplessly. "He doesn't like to talk about his past, much. I spent a year in the Crusaders, and my commanding officer was an old friend of his. Angeal introduced us when he took me under his wing, and then Seph and I just sort of stuck together after I left." Zack sighed and looked rueful. "I convinced him to come with me to keep me company while I waited to find a summoner because I was kinda hoping to talk him into coming along. He needs something to make him feel useful, like his life is worthwhile. Obviously Yevon had other plans, though. Or he wouldn't have dumped you so blatantly into my path. Might as well have had a glowing sign over your head."

Cloud wasn't sure he much liked the idea of Yevon messing with his life, even if it had won him a guardian and entry to the temple. But he decided it wasn't worth arguing the point. The last thing he wanted to do was alienate Zack now by starting a religious argument.

He couldn't stop himself from tensing up as they walked into the temple. Zack hitched his sword harness a little higher, making it easier for him to get at the hilt of the huge broadsword slung across his back. It was a subtle gesture, nothing the priests could object to, but Zack might as well have shouted that he would back Cloud against the priests.

Despite himself Cloud was touched by the obvious and unquestioning support. He still had to wonder about Zack's sanity, but he no longer doubted the man's sincerity.

The acolytes glaring at them from the wings noticed, too. They hesitated, then turned their backs, deliberately ignoring Cloud and his new guardian. That was more than fine with Cloud, who was just as happy not to have to deal with them again. There was no sign of the old priest, either.

"I hope you know the way to the Trial, because I don't have a clue and I don't think they're going to show us," Cloud whispered.

Zack glanced around, then pointed at an open staircase ending at a closed door. "Up there, if this is the same layout as Kilika temple. You first, Lord Cloud."

"Don't you start," Cloud grumbled. Zack only laughed at him in response.

Nobody stopped them as they headed up the stairs, but past the first door they found only an empty room with four solid walls. Cloud halted, looking around in confusion. "Is this the wrong place?"

"I think maybe it's the start of the Trial," Zack said. "Let's just poke around a bit."

It took them some trial and error to work their way through the ensuing maze of spheres and invisible hallways. Cloud was awed all over again by the blatant and prolific use of magic. Seeing people cast the occasional esuna or fira spell was one thing. This was something else again.

As they rode the large platform down into the depths of the temple, the quality of the air around them changed. It felt almost electric, so pure it hurt to breathe, like standing at the top of the world's tallest mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm. A high, sweet voice that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once sang the Hymn of the Fayth. It was the most beautiful thing Cloud had ever heard, and he closed his eyes so he could absorb himself in it.

"...oud? Cloud? Hey, Cloud! Wake up!"

Someone shook him by the shoulder, snapping him out of the hypnotic effect of the music. Dazed, Cloud flailed, and nearly struck Zack by accident. When he realized it was his new guardian holding him and not an enemy or a bully, he calmed slightly, but he was very confused to find himself sitting on the floor in the middle of the elevator. Hadn't he been standing a moment ago?

"Hey, you okay?" Zack asked him, concerned. "You zoned out on me, there. Thought I'd lost you for a second. What was that all about?"

"Sorry, I just..." Shaken, Cloud rubbed a hand across his eyes. "It's the Hymn. It's so beautiful, I guess I... got lost in it." That had only happened to him once before, when he'd been a young boy. That it would happen now seemed to confirm his suspicions about the nature of the fayth. He was certain they would never hurt him, but it was still disturbing.

"Hymn?" Zack looked baffled. "What Hymn?"

"What Hymn?" Cloud stared at him. It wasn't as loud as it had been a moment before, but it was definitely still there, the soprano voice soaring like a bird in the sky. "The one someone is singing right now."

"I don't hear anything," Zack informed him uneasily. "It's dead silent down here. We must be way underground."

"But... but..." Cloud didn't know what to say. The song was so clear to him that it felt like the singer must be right behind him, just out of sight. How could Zack not hear it?

"Maybe it's a summoner thing," Zack suggested, offering him a hand up. "I don't have the aptitude for it, that's why I'm a guardian instead of a summoner myself. Can't be good at everything, I guess." He grinned. "Besides, I'd rather be around to enjoy being a hero once the journey is done, I'll admit it."

"Maybe," Cloud agreed, subdued. He looked around, and found they were in a large room with walls of carved stone. The elevator behind them and a broad staircase ahead were the only obvious exits. He decided he might as well try the visible one before searching for more hidden passages.

He was halfway up the stairs when he realized Zack wasn't following him. "Aren't you coming?" he asked, turning to look back over his shoulder in concern. Zack hadn't already changed his mind about being his guardian, had he? Had Cloud's little space out moment upset him that much?

Zack shook his head, but he didn't look like he was having second thoughts. "That's the Chamber of the Fayth up there," he said. "Nobody but the summoner is allowed inside. I have to wait out here. You're on your own, kid. Good luck."

On his own? Cloud panicked. What if there were more stupid puzzles inside? He'd needed Zack's help to get through the first set of Trials. What if there were traps, or fiends? What good was a guardian supposed to be if he was waiting around outside?

Reason reasserted itself. Gritting his teeth, Cloud turned and marched up the stairs, not allowing himself to look back. An hour ago he'd thought he would have to do all of this by himself, with no guardian at all. To whine now that it wasn't fair to deprive him of his guardian was ridiculous. He could do this.

He would do this.

He'd half expected to find the door locked by another puzzle, but it opened easily at his touch. When he stepped inside it snapped closed behind him again, abruptly enough to make him jump. Gingerly he tested it and wasn't really surprised to find that now it was locked.

"Great," he muttered, speaking aloud to keep himself company. "Just great. I guess that was my last chance to change my mind." Not that he planned to, but it was always nice to have the option of escape. Being cornered like this made him nervous.

His eyes were slowly adjusting to the muted light, and he surveyed the room. What illumination there was came from the eerie glow of the complicated glyph inscribed in the centre of the floor. Beneath it he thought he could see something, like a statue of some kind. There were no other exits, no sign of spheres or other glyphs to activate.

Approaching the glyph, he bowed and held his hands before him in the traditional prayer. Then his mind blanked. What was he supposed to do now? Was there some ritual or spell he was supposed to perform? Most apprentice summoners trained for years in a temple before attempting this, but that hadn't exactly been an option in his case.

Reminding himself of a promise he still had to keep, Cloud took a deep breath and drew strength from the Hymn. "I know I'm not a normal summoner," he said awkwardly. "I don't know all the rituals and frills, or how to be properly pious, or whatever. But I need your help. Uh, please." Not sure what else to do, he made the obeisance again.

"So. You've made it this far."

The voice matched the soprano still singing the Hymn, and when Cloud looked up he found a young girl standing on the glyph, watching him. She wasn't transparent or floating or any of the other traditional ghostly qualities, but the edges of her form were indistinct as if he was looking at her through water or flawed glass. There was also a sort of glow around her, like pyreflies so thick he couldn't see any one individual.

Cloud had seen something like this once, long ago. He stared at her, feeling both awed and vindicated. "It is you," he breathed out. "I'm not crazy." Nobody had ever believed his wild story of the fayth who'd saved his life on the frozen slopes of Mt. Gagazet. He'd soon stopped telling anyone, wary of being labelled insane. But he'd never forgotten the events of that day.

"You've made it this far," she repeated, tilting her head and studying him solemnly. "But can you go the distance? Can you do what needs to be done? It won't be easy."

"I know. The Spirans and the Al Bhed are both going to hate me." Cloud clenched his fists. "I'll do whatever it takes."

"Then take my power if you can, if you dare, child of two worlds. Prove that you have earned the right to be a summoner. Show me that you have the strength of will we need from you."

She reached out towards him, her expression challenging. Cloud felt a deep sense of foreboding, but he stepped forward to take her hands. His only other choice was to run away, and that was no choice at all.

Power slammed into him the moment his skin touched hers. It felt like he was frying inside his own skin, and he couldn't stop himself from screaming in agony. She gripped his hands tight to keep him from pulling away, and poured her essence into him until he was sure he would burst.

He screamed until his throat was raw, and then he screamed some more. Tears streamed down his face, but he was hardly aware of them through the haze of agony consuming him.

The Spirans had been right after all; the fayth would not accept an Al Bhed summoner. Cloud didn't know why this one had suddenly rejected him, but he was going to die here, alone and unmourned, and he had only himself to blame.