Burgundy sails snapped in a fitful wind that set the sailors muttering. The sea-witch had her ways, they said, and owned both sea and sky. Ships plied the waves by her permission, or not at all. There had been frost at sunrise, great spears of rime coating the rails and ropes. The tropical sun had banished it quickly, but it was yet another sign of Sin's proximity. That, and the lightning's balefire dancing on the mast at midnight.
The call was hardly needed. All eyes not bent to shipboard tasks were fixed on the wisps of smoke billowing on the horizon, fading now like the last breath of a dying fire. The rising column veiled half the sky in a grayish-pink fume that stretched clear back to Djose. For six disquieting days, the SS Korra had sailed under that gray pall, seeing only an orange smudge where the sun should be. Flecks of ash came fluttering out of the sky, dissolving to powder wherever they touched. A stark whiff of burning hung in the air.
One of the harpooners began to sing the Hymn of the Fayth. The subdued refrain spread out in ripples from the ship's bow as roughened sailors' voices took up the chorus. On the railing above them, a red-haired man in priestly robes smiled and cupped his hands in Yevon's prayer. Neither he nor the pair of guards flanking him joined in the singing, however.
Footsteps clattered up the ladder behind them. Stepping onto the observation deck, a woman raised her arm in salute. "Your Grace. We'll reach Besaid by sunset."
"Very good, Captain. Tell your crew the danger is past. Sin is at least a day from here by now."
"With all due respect, milord," she began. Suddenly, she pivoted towards the man keeping watch before the mast. "Tatts, what's that thing you're wearing around your neck?"
The sailor's hands flew to the bone pendant that had slipped out from the bib of his overalls. "It's, ah, it's nothing, Cap'n. Just a carving of a pretty lady, y'know, that caught me fancy." His wind-scoured cheeks reddened.
"Sin!" she spat. Heads turned as the petite woman stalked towards him, sea-boots hammering the planks. "The Grand Maester of Yevon sails with us, and I have an idol-worshipper who wears Sin over his heart! Hand it over, or I'll throw you overboard with it."
The sailor blanched. Torn between duty and devotion, the wretched man drew the thong over his neck and dropped the pendant into her waiting palm. Raising her arm, the captain prepared to fling it into the waves.
"Please, let me see it," the maester said.
For a moment it seemed that she might feign deafness. Grand Maester Isaaru was a soft-spoken man, after all, and the sails boomed like a drum-head. However, his shorter bodyguard, a heavyset youth who looked too green for such an important post, was blocking her throw. Scowling, the captain held out the necklace. "I'm sorry, Your Grace. Sailors are too far from the temples, too close to the sea. And that one came close to meeting his unholy god six months ago. The toxin—"
"He survived a Sin attack?" said the second guard, an older man with dark skin and a hawk's profile, all angles where his younger counterpart was rounded like fresh dough.
Isaaru examined the bone charm intently. At a distance, its triangular silhouette could easily be mistaken for a shark's tooth. With economy of line, the stylized carving captured the shape of a woman's head and shoulders, square jaw and fine features. There was a haughty arch to the brows— or rather, brow, since the left side of the face was cut away at a slant. Empty space showed where the hair should be.
"The same face," he mused. "Always the same."
When he slipped the sacrilegious amulet into his robes, the captain stiffened. He chuckled at her expression. "Have no fear, Kiyuri. A scrap of whale-bone the size of a thumbnail is hardly likely to draw Sin's attention...or mercy," he added to the anxious sailor. "If it returns, we are all in equal peril."
"But, Your Grace—"
"Look after your ship, Captain, and let the maesters look after Yevon, no?"
"My lord." The woman gave a jerky salute, glared at the watchman and went below.
"Now," he said, turning to Tatts with a reassuring smile. "Perhaps you can tell us what you saw. We need to know all we can, since Sin has changed its ways."
"Aye, it has, me lord," the sailor stammered. "That is, She don't bother any ship that leaves her waters in peace. Stray not west o' Besaid if ye sail under Yevon's holy seal. The Al Bhed heathens live free of Sin's wrath, they say, all around the western isles. Me last ship, me captain tried to make the old run from Luca to Bevelle the short way 'round. Three days northwest o' Luca, the Lady put the ice to us till every sail and line were coated with it and men couldna walk the deck. Then the gale-winds came up and shattered the sheets. At the last, lighnting struck the mast and split the hull right down into the water like roots o' tree."
"How did you escape?"
"Al Bhed ship picked me up, then, didn't it? Me and a few other souls. Dropped us off near the ruins of Old Guadosalam."
"And you saw Sin? What did it—"
"Your Grace," the younger guard interrupted, "with all due respect, can't we finish this later? You're too exposed up here. There may be sinspawn in the harbor."
"Just a moment, Pacce—"
The second guard cut in. "No, Isaaru, he's right. Yevon's your job, but ours is keeping you safe. You don't make it easy for us! Get under cover. I'll stay up here with our Sin-worshipper and find out what else he knows."
"All right, Maroda, all right," Isaaru shook his head. "Tatts, for all of Spira's sake—" he would have said Yevon, but this man clearly followed a different allegiance— "please answer my brother's questions as well as you can. May High Summoner Yuna bless you."
"Th-thank you, Your Grace."
A melancholy smile played across the maester's features as he descended the ladder. Sin and the church of Yevon might be scrapping for souls these days, yet oddly enough, no one had lost faith in the High Summoner, although her Calm was coming to an end.
Lost in thought, Isaaru was nearly flung overboard himself when the ship gave an abrupt heave. Lunging to block his fall, Pacce helped him down the last few rungs. Cries of Sin rang out. The harpooners leapt to their posts.
"I'll cover you, Big Brother!" Pacce said eagerly. He planted himself in front of Isaaru, shielding him as a wave crashed over the side. "The wheelhouse, it's closer!"
Isaaru shook his head and grasped a line, steadying himself. "Pacce, it's not Sin, it's—"
A flurry of scales and long fins burst from the waves in a surge of battering spray. Thudding onto the deck, huge fishy forms landed among the sailors and pounced upon them with terrifying speed. Pacce drew his sword with a yell and jammed it at the nearest one, twisting the blade in a gush of pyreflies.
Blood was already running over the boards. Sinspawn were tearing through unarmed sailors with cruel, snapping jaws. Before he could summon them, Isaaru's contingent of warrior monks came charging out of the wheelhouse, straight into the mob of fiends swarming between them and the ship's crew. Some monks started hacking through the living barrier with bayonets. Others raised their rifles, trying to pick off sinspawn threatening particular sailors, but the pitching deck and furious melee thwarted their shots.
Isaaru flinched at a shriek from above. Looking up, he saw Tatts pressed against the railing, trying to fend off two fiends with his arms crossed in front of his face.
Forgetting his brothers' admonitions, the ex-summoner raised his hands, letting fly a silent call to the aeon of Besaid. Pterya, old friend, we need you. He had not summoned in so long. Would she heed his prayer?
Everywhere was din, panic and chaos, yet to Isaaru's inner ear there was a hollow silence. No Hymn of the Fayth sang in his mind. No beating wings unfurled around a crimson-feathered spirit arrowing down from heaven's gates.
He watched in anguish as one of the sinspawn clamped down on the sailor's arm, another on his leg. Where was his brother? A thrusting spear answered his question an instant later, but it was one instant too long. Even as Maroda dispatched one of the creatures, the other leapt off the deck, dragging its screaming victim overboard.
Pterya was not answering his summons, and Isaaru saw with painful clarity that many lives would be lost if he left the warrior monks and Maroda to deal with the threat alone. But the deck would surely buckle under Spathi's weight, assuming there was even room for Bevelle's massive aeon. Pitch, rope and oiled boards were ill-suited for Grothia's fire, but Isaaru was running out of options. Shutting out the sounds of melee, he sketched a familiar series of gestures in the air that he had not needed in thirteen years.
Few here had seen an aeon, and there were more screams of horror when the flaming hulk burst from the deck with a defiant roar. Snarling at its master's command to refrain from flames, the ill-tempered spirit charged into the fray, pummelling and biting. Although these sinspawn had the edge in speed, there were so many that Grothia's swipes usually found targets. It slapped them aside like an ogre swatting wasps.
Gradually, the chaos died down as fighters and aeon gained the upper hand. Blades and spears flashed through eddies of rising pyreflies. Shielded by Pacce, Isaaru moved from one wounded man to the next, healing those he could save. He would send the others later.
When the battle was over, the ship cast anchor a league out from shore. The surviving crew set to work clearing the carnage and repairing the damage. There beneath a shroud of smoke and a bloody sunset, Isaaru performed his grimmest duty, sending the spirits of the dead before their bodies were committed to the deep. Tatts' corpse was not among them, but there were probably a few other closet heretics who would have been comforted to know that the summoner who sent them carried Sin's token in the folds of his robes.
*[A/N: In Final Fantasy X, Isaaru's aeons look just like Yuna's, but have different names: Pterya, Grothia and Spathi for Valefor, Ifrit and Bahamut. Perhaps each summoner has a unique name for his/her aeon that arises out of the bond between them.]
They spent a restless night in the lee of Besaid Island, huddled to the southwest where the air was clear of ash. At dawn they weighed anchor and headed towards the harbor, hugging the shore. Soaring green cliffs splashed with plunging waterfalls would have made an idyllic landscape, if not for the enormous, jagged gashes in the slopes of the jungle high above. It was hard to imagine a force that could shatter trees and blast away dirt right down to bedrock, a full ten fathoms above the waterline.
Obviously, there was no question of mooring at Besaid's dock; that much was clear before they reached the harbor. Rounding the point, the Korra encountered a grisly soup of bobbing planks, rope, snarled fishing nets and slats of boats, all thumping and scraping past the prow. To the crew's dismay, a few bodies were tangled in the floating debris. They heaved the dead aboard with nets meant for other kinds of catch. The warrior monks set to work wrapping the pitiful remains in funeral shrouds. At this rate, they might run through their stock even before they came ashore.
The beach had been scoured, its once-golden sands strewn with muck and dead fish. A fine layer of white ash coated everything. Beyond the beach, acres of blackened trunks made shocking inroads into Besaid's verdant jungle. Some of the trees still smoldered. A few carrion-birds circling the bluffs were the only signs of life— almost.
Robe blazing red in the dawn, a man stood upon the water. No, not on the water. One scrap of dock had escaped Sin's wrath, it seemed, forming a small platform out in the middle of the harbor. Excited murmurs spread across the ship, whispering a name— or, more often, a title.
The Legendary Guardian. He was back again, from wherever heroes were stowed when the world did not need them.
"It's Sir Auron!" Pacce was beside himself. "I don't believe it! It's really him!"
Maroda was silent. His thoughtful look meant that he and Isaaru would be having a difficult conversation later, out of their younger brother's earshot.
So, then: a brief detour to pick up a singular passenger. Isaaru ordered a dinghy to be lowered. The crew's fear had evaporated at the sight of the warrior silhouetted against the smoking treeline, and Kiyuri had to select rowers from among too many volunteers. While they winched the boat down to the water, Maroda argued vigorously with Isaaru. The spearman seldom lost his battles. A short time later, Isaaru and a frustrated, fuming Pacce were watching the small craft sculling across the harbor, shoving its way through debris-choked water.
Approaching the patient figure standing on the water, Maroda called out to him. "Sir Auron! What are you doing here?"
The response was inaudible to those left aboard, but Pacce would dig it out of his brother later. "Waiting for a ship."