Dreams of Memories
At the end of all things, he remembers a waking life, and at the end of memory, he dreams.
Braska's eyes snapped open. He started awake in a strange bed, alone, his heart racing and his eyes dark-blind. His breath was coming fast.
And in the back of his throat, in the open, sweat-stained space of skin stretched over thin flesh and the protruding bones of his shoulder blades, a formless fear had settled: choking; cloying. Watchful.
Braska closed his eyes, though it made little difference. He had not been long in the Bevelle temple, but they had begun to teach him the rudiments of meditation, of finding peace in prayer to Yevon.
Braska closed his eyes, and prayed.
He thought of the whisper of snow across the woods, the warmth of the fire, the slow passing of winter days. He thought of the temple of Macalania and Shiva's melancholy hymn, the winter winds sweeping mournful echoes across the empty expanses of the frozen lakes, of the hush inside the temple and the peace of Yevon wrapped around it like a cloak. Shiva. Yevon...
His eyes almost snapped open again— the feeling of—awe, watchfulness, weariness, a strange cold burn—crescendoed, a chill touch upon his spine. He squeezed his eyes tight. Emptied his mind. Breathed. Prayed.
His breath came slow and forced, a dry whistle through his throat, then slow and steady, wetter and softer and less gasping. His frantic heartbeat slowed, its thunder fading from his ears to be replaced by the calm, even breathing of the other acolytes. And as he opened his eyes, he found enough time had passed that he could see. The moonlight limned his pale skin, glistening faintly upon his sweaty palms.
Braska exhaled. It was not the first time he had found comfort in the teachings. He had received few lessons yet, but... they were a comfort.
Nor was it the first time he had awoken in a freezing sweat, alone among his fellow acolytes. Nightmares had come often at first: half-formed recollections of Sin, augmented by the fledgling demons of a young mind; and the numb, empty loss of his parents. Those awakenings had grown rarer with the passing weeks.
Tonight had been different.
He could not remember what had woken him. No fading traces of Sin's touch on his mind, no fleeting images of terror and destruction. Strangely, he seemed to remember the summoner who had come and danced for Macalania, and the light touch of a pyrefly on his skin.
He had been taught of the summoner's Sending today, how each dance was unique, how to draw the souls of the slain towards the Farplane. Braska had liked that lesson, the feeling of peace and freedom and the reassuring weight of warm wood in his hand as he practiced. The dance came easily: Bevelle was rich in the music of the pyreflies; her halls echoed with the hymn of the fayth.
A shiver scrabbled up his spine. Braska waited, shoulders tense. Breath studied and even. Nothing came.
Somewhere in the temple, a door opened and closed as a monk went about his rounds, and a whisper of the hymn floated down the dormitory hall, evanescent and clear and full of peace. The moonlight waned, and with it Braska's wakefulness. He lay back down, wondering, and slept.
Bevelle was beautiful in the warm light of morning. Even months after coming here, Braska marvelled at the elegance and majesty, at the vast open spaces, indoors and out. So different from his home: all closed to keep in the warmth, low-ceilinged to draw down the heat. When he had first arrived, it had registered in disconnected drifts through his Sin-sick haze. Each day had brought small revelations: first the clothing, light and free; then the space, open and welcoming. Finally, the deep core of peace, a stillness his soul welcomed.
This... this was a good place to be. He wanted to bring this peace with him, always. Everywhere.
There were many other orphans in the compound. The temple overflowed with them: refugees and acolytes of every ilk, all mixed together in the chaos. Some planned to stay and become priests, monks... summoners. Several were from Macalania, like him, though none were the friends he had known, and none shared his lodgings here. The acolytes had been crammed together, four and five to a room, young summoners and priests and monks, to make space for the common folk to lodge in the monks' quarters at the edges of the temple compound. Braska had a pallet to himself, but four others were jammed close to it on the floor. This would pass, he was told, as Macalania Temple recovered from the influx of refugees and could welcome its displaced folk home. The last attack had been nearly unprecedented in magnitude: Sin was growing stronger. The temple walls groaned with the pressure of too many lost souls, dead and living. Crops lay rotting in the fields for want of harvesting. And Braska was startled to sense in himself a strangely distant horror at the hollow eyes of the children—when had he begun to think of them as children?
He had seen it in the faces of some of the orphans, had been surprised to see his own face set in the same hard lines when he caught his own reflection. This could not continue. There had to be another Calm soon.
The priest's voice broke through Braska's reverie, kind but unwontedly stern. "This will be the most important lesson I will give you," Takla said. The other acolytes, his fellow summoners-in-training, sat up as the day's teachings began, alert and expectant at Takla's grave introduction. Takla gathered himself after that pause, speaking into the students' silence. "We have all experienced loss. Some of us found it through Sin and its spawn. Others have seen ill come from those lost to Yevon's teachings. Many have known loss from the fiends of souls unsent."
A small ripple of nods passed through those assembled. Braska kept still, and watched, and listened. He saw the eyes of some students harden, their jaws set.
Takla walked among them, speaking on. "You have chosen the path of the summoner. This is a noble calling, and a hard one. You may think the difficulty lies in acquiring the fayth, in the long journey ahead, or in the sacrifice you are asked to make." He touched some students on the head or shoulder, those whose frames were set and resolute but whose eyes were still wide with fear. "Or you may think—" he smiled "—that the hardship lies in listening to the droning of old men before you are allowed to walk your chosen path." Braska smiled as well, as did some others, but Takla's tone grew heavy and serious again. "There is indeed hardship in these things. But," he paused, having circled back to the front, "these are not the most dire trials you will face."
The old priest took a deep breath, and looked at his students again. "My children, you must not let yourselves hate."
In the short pause, the silence was complete. And in that silence, Braska was breathless and did not know why.
"In hate, in resentment, in anger—there lies the greatest danger. It is so easy to hate, is it not?" He paused again, and everyone was too still, and in that stillness Braska caught the hesitation in their breath. "As summoners, you will see... more suffering than most. Perhaps more suffering than any." Takla closed his eyes briefly, mouth tight, spidery troughs fanning from the corners— lines of age, memories, grief; all thrown into sharp relief by the bright sun. The day seemed too sunny and clear for Takla's words, and Braska felt an irrational surge of apprehension as Takla continued. "You will be called upon to comfort the mourning and Send their loved ones to the Farplane. You will travel Spira and see Sin's traces as clearly as your own footprints, as clear as the tracks of tears on childrens' faces. And wherever you go, the people will ask great things of you. They will speak their hate and anger to you and expect to walk away at peace. They will feed and lodge you, no matter how hard the times, out of hope that in your journey and your sacrifice lies their salvation. They will point at you to show their children, and the elderly will entrust you with the legacy they cannot live to protect."
Takla lowered his head for a moment, shoulders rising in a slow inhalation. When he looked up again, his eyes were soft and beseeching and weary.
"Oh, my children! Do not hate! Do not hate the fate that led you here, do not carry anger in your heart at the sorrows of the world. Above all, do not hate those among whom you will walk, who will place so heavy a burden on you." Takla took a breath, gaze grave. "Above all... my children... do not hate yourselves."
Takla was silent for a time, watching them. Braska realized he had not taken breath, and his shaky inhale was too loud to his own ears. No one spoke, and a minute passed in silence, full and heavy, not even the restless rustle of robes to break its slow weight.
Takla took another breath, deep and loud in the still air. The sun shone gentle and warm on his face, and Braska was struck in that moment, as he had been many times before, by the priest's stillness, the years weighing down on his papery skin and the deep well of compassion in his voice and quiet eyes. "You have completed the first part of your training. You have been taught the rudiments of the summoners' arts and know as much as those who will become the priests who guide you and the monks who guard you." Takla looked at them all, and Braska's chest tightened at the hint of pride in his eyes, in his small smile. "Here, today, your apprenticeship will truly begin. The lessons now will be long and hard, and few of them will be learned here in these halls of teaching." The dregs of his smile melted away. "When you began your training, you were asked to judge yourselves and decide if this path was meant for you. Look within yourselves once more. Look within your heart. Do you hate? Can you overcome it? Can you find Yevon's peace and carry it with you always?"
Another pause. Some students shifted, some looked down or away.
"Your teachings for today are over. Walk these halls, hear Bahamut's hymn, and consider yourselves. I wish you clarity, my children. I wish you peace." Takla bowed in prayer.
The students rose in a startled shuffle to answer the prayer, then milled about, looking uncertain, exchanging low, uncomfortable whispers, hesitant to leave as Takla walked to a far corner to lean on the railing of a balcony.
Braska was unsure what to think. He did not remember what it was to feel anger. He remembered, in hazy snatches fading between one indistinct moment and the next, weeks spent under the spell of Sin's toxins, weeks of comforting confusion that held at bay the overwhelming sense of loss... but still invited fear. He was not sure if he was still afraid. He was not sure what to think of Takla's words.
And he was unsure of what he wanted to say, but he felt he needed to ask... something. He walked over to stand at a respectful distance. Takla looked up. "Yes, my son?"
"I... I am not sure what I wanted to ask." Braska paused, gaze sliding towards his shifting feet before meeting Takla's eyes once more. "Is this really your last lesson?"
Takla smiled. "It is, though I am sorry for it. I am no summoner, to teach you the ways of power. All I can do is guide you down your path."
Braska hesitated before continuing. "How can you tell which path is right? Is... is there only one way of following it?"
Takla's look sharpened, but his voice remained kind and gentle. "Are you asking whether the summoner's path is right for you? Or do you ask if one can choose this path and know it to be right... and yet doubt he can walk it the way I instruct? The way anyone instructs..." Takla's eyes were searching. "You are not afraid of the Final Summoning?"
Braska hesitated again. "I don't know. I know what the Pilgrimage leads to, but I... I do not think dwelling on it would help."
Takla nodded, then smiled a little, sadly. "Are you asking if it is possible to be a good summoner and still carry anger with you?"
"It is one of the things I wonder about." He had no better answer, and yet he felt like he was hedging— he couldn't catch hold of a feeling to put words to; it made him uneasy and his words stilted.
Takla nodded again, looking distant. "I believe that there is danger in hate, that it is impossible to hate and not infect others with it. Hate, envy: these are the sources of fiends, and grief. A summoner sees much grief, and it is their calling to comfort, heal, and protect. To do any of these thing truly, my son... I believe one cannot hate."
Braska thought for a few moments. "I... do not think I am angry. I don't know."
Takla's look was full of sympathy. "I think you are still grieving, my son. You are all..." his eyes wandered over the thinning knot of acolytes behind Braska, "so very young. There are many who start down this road in their youth, full of fire and vengeance. I think we spend our youth too quickly these days." Takla met Braska's eyes, and he looked old, and sad, and unimaginably weary. "We do not have much of it to spare."
"But even those who follow a different path do good things, don't they?"
Takla looked startled for a second, then another smile spread on his lips, warm and unexpected. "They do at that."
Braska bowed in prayer and left, thinking of how many ways there were to be a summoner. He did not think of how many ways there were to grieve.
Braska thought of hate. He thought of fear. He thought of wakefulness and grief. He thought of Sin. He thought of dying, of Sending, of dreaming...
Or he did not dream, for he did not wake so much as stop breathing, stop thinking—stop hating—under the pressure on his chest, the noiseless thunder in his ears, the blinding black flare, the weight of weariness—
His opened his eyes. He was being watched.
He could breathe. He breathed. He was not dreaming, he did not hate, and when he turned his head, he met the sharp amber eyes of another acolyte. Wide, frightened—young—there was hate there. He— something knew this. It ran taut as a cord between them, vibrating—the air trembled there, between him and the boy, between the two of them and—
The acolyte stared across the breathless gap between their pallets, and Braska could see his bare chest rise and fall rapidly—the boy was panting.
Their eyes locked, and held. The boy said nothing. Braska could think of no comfort to speak. He breathed, and each breath held the beginning of a question left unsaid.
He said nothing, and the boy's breathing slowed to match his own. The boy closed his eyes, deliberate and firm, and turned from Braska. Braska watched the rigid spine that didn't relax, the small shadows that never grew and never shrank.
The boy was gone the next morning, his bed empty.
Takla did not return to teach them the next day. A summoner stood in his place, his robes elaborate and heavy and his staff tall and intricately carved. He was smiling as the students shuffled in. His smile, Braska decided, was not like Takla's.
"Well!" The summoner spoke before the students had finished settling. "I guess you're the ones Takla hasn't managed to scare away." His tone was light and easy, his voice strident in the open air. "My name is Zakel. I'm stopping here on my pilgrimage, and I've been roped into teaching you." His smile never faded, and some of the students smiled back.
Braska listened as Zakel breezed through the lessons he was to teach them: the healing white magics, drawing pyreflies for the Sending, navigating the Cloisters, the rituals in the Chamber of the Fayth, summoning the aeons. He didn't walk among them but leaned easily on the balcony railing behind him, his staff loose in one hand.
"We'll start with the basics. No Sending or summoning today, just meditation." Zakel grinned at the palpable disappointment and the scattering of suppressed groans. "You were all excited, weren't you? You've heard it before. You walk before you run, and you meditate before you Send or summon. Come on, everyone. Sit down, get comfortable. Close your eyes. Listen to the hymn, listen to the pyreflies, breathe in.... breathe out, slowly... don't think, just listen..." His voice dropped, no longer strident, but calm and steady, cadence slow. Braska was unused to this—Takla had always meditated with them in silence, but Zakel spoke, instructions coming in small swells of words and tone followed by long, slow sentences: breathe in, breathe out. Braska felt himself breathing together with the others, with the rise and fall of Zakel's voice, with the silent buzzing whisper of the pyreflies, the swell and hush of the hymn. It was unfamiliar. It was peace, it was listening...
Time did not pass so much as wait for every breath to slide down his throat and fill him up and hiss quietly by, and the sounds of the late morning faded, Zakel's voice blending with each inhalation, like the words soaked in with every breath, into the slow rush of his blood, the sun on his skin...
And he breathed in ages.
And he breathed out eons of waiting.
There was music, the music of the Sending, the song of the aeons, the lilt of the pyreflies, and Braska felt more than still. He felt... full. He felt... not as if he was listening but being listened to; he felt some thick and quiet intent weighing the air, he felt attention... he felt something waiting. He waited, too, caught on the edge of expectation.
Was he afraid?
"Open your eyes."
Braska's eyes snapped open. He blinked; it was past noon and his legs were very, very sore. The sense of... intent, of scrutiny, was gone.
"We will be meditating every day until you can hear the world waiting for you. I can guarantee you'll like it when you get there." The grin again, and an easy wink. "Now get up while you can still remember how to walk."
Everyone staggered to their feet, weaving as their legs steadied. The blood was rushing in vengeful bursts of needling pain past Braska's knees again, and he rubbed his aching calves with careful hands, wanting to shake his head at himself, an ironic quirk stealing across his lips. He was definitely going to lie down next time, even if Zakel threw a knowing smile at him for it. The students grumbled good-naturedly, about their stiff legs, about the length of this session, and whatever the world-waiting thing was. Braska accepted some friendly pats on his back and nodded from near his knees at the jokes and questions as to the well-being of his circulation.
One of the older students, Dappul, came up and waited while Braska ministered to his legs, shifting on his own, his eyes darting around the crowd. "So, did you feel anything? Was the world waiting?" Dappul grinned his own tight grin — tense but open, and again different from Zakel's.
Braska smiled wryly in return. "I felt... something waiting. I wouldn't say it was the whole world."
Dappul laughed. "I'm sure you'd have noticed, yeah? I just felt sleep waiting."
"You'll learn," Zakel's voice floated over. The summoner drifted by on his way out and widened his smile at them, though Braska felt Zakel held his eyes a second too long.
Dappul laughed, and turned to Braska again, talking of temple affairs, glad that the acolyte monks and priests had been moved to their own quarters again now that the refugees were returning to their villages. "They're rebuilding everywhere, you know? And they're all coming back to help. I wish I could go back too, sometimes, but I'm learning to help more here, yeah?" He chattered on, and Braska nodded.
He was glad, too. But his thoughts lingered on the moment time had stood still, and on Zakel's wide smile. He put himself to work the rest of the afternoon helping set the temple to rights as the Macalanian refugees began to trickle out and the monks and priests reclaimed their quarters. He worked in the temple, though he saw some of his fellow acolytes on the outskirts of the temple grounds, helping the refugees carry their meager belongings. He might have gone to see them off, too, but... he felt distant, disconcerted. He watched them for a time, the setting sun's heavy warmth sliding over his skin, leaving cool twilit shadows in its wake. He shivered, and returned to his room to drag the extra pallets out and hand them to a harried-looking temple servant, retreating into the warm, airy rooms of the temple.
Braska waited, alone, the room feeling large and hollow. He stared into the open dark, the space feeling vast and expectant all around him. Braska closed his eyes, and breathed, and waited. He breathed as the moonlight crawled across the bed, sliding sinuous and pale across his face and fingers, until it covered him and until it was gone. He breathed, and he listened to its inaudible slither, listened to the pyreflies whisper of its passing, listened to his own heartbeat slow.
He listened until the pyreflies stilled and began to listen, too. He listened, and he was very cold.
He listened until it crept along him as the moonlight had, until it slid slick and cloying down his throat with his heavy breath, until it congealed cold in his gut, until his spine, sweating against the mattress, thrilled with it. Until the fear choked him, and he could breathe no more.
Until he drew a shuddering gasp and his eyes flew open and the pyreflies sang their murmuring song again and there was nothing waiting at all.
The next night, and the next, and for many nights thereafter he did not meditate, he did not pray, and he did not wait.
Zakel's easygoing lessons continued. They meditated until there was a sober silence after every session before the jokes would begin again. Zakel pushed along, smiling and making them smile, though the tasks were growing hard. He taught them the white magics, how to gather strength from the waiting pyreflies and let it out like life-giving breath, to heal and protect. Braska liked these lessons: the healing was like a release of pressure, warm and gentle. They practiced on their own sore legs first (Zakel's grin was knowing), then on injured animals from the city and the countryside.
And finally, Zakel began taking them on excursions: to the warrior monks' quarters, to the Crusader outposts and smaller temples around Bevelle, where grim-faced warriors—many scarce older than Braska himself, too many even younger—battled against Sin's ravages. Braska saw a great many Crusaders then, and monks, too, rust-dun and red robes hiding the bloody extent of their wounds. Their eyes, meeting his as he removed his hands from a healing wound, lingered in Braska's memory: dark brown and the occasional blue, bruised and weary, and sometimes—the youngest ones, the ones that stirred something vast and distant in his heart—wet with unshed tears. And, once, a sharp amber stare, young and resentful, that bit into his back as he worked on a broken leg bone, leaving him feeling unsettled and cold—a memory of eyes meeting across a breathless vibrant stretch of air, dense with things unspoken, and the hovering, intent presence...
And he saw many die, monks and Crusaders and civilians alike, though Zakel and the handful of overtaxed summoners laboured to save them. Zakel did not smile as much then. None of them did.
Not until they learned that in their smiles there was healing, too.
Once they had mastered drawing the pyreflies' energy in and then out through breath and spells and comforting words, Zakel began to teach them how to draw the pyreflies themselves.
It was not until they began to study the Sending in earnest that Braska woke in the night again. For the night after he drew the first few pyreflies to his hands, hesitant and warm, he woke feeling cold and watched.
He could breathe this time. But his breath was uneven as he shivered under the expectant touch on his mind, panting in the face of the overwhelming vulnerability even as he pressed his bare back into the sheets.
He closed his eyes and thought of warmth, then of nothing at all.
The Sending lessons continued. Zakel had them practice calling the pyreflies while sitting still, then while dancing, until the bidding came easily—and the parting as well. "You must remember," he cautioned, "to let them go. I know how it feels to have so much power drawn around you—quite heady, isn't it?" An uneasy ripple through the students: a nervous jest here, a jostling of elbows there, in the face of things they would rather not face, not in the hard summer sunlight. Braska watched it, watched the brightness of their courage and ambition casting shadows all the darker for it; watched as Zakel spoke on. "You won't be ready the first time you Send truly, the first time you draw the souls of the slain to you. Trust me, no one is. But the next time, and the next—remember they have a long way to go. Let them go."
Braska found the warning odd. It was true that drawing so much energy felt powerful—but it was a power that pressed, a power that felt alien and expectant, or too familiar, and Braska always wanted to heave a sigh of relief when he let it go. But he watched Zakel, and watched the other young summoners, and said nothing as some of them nodded, casting their eyes down or to the side.
And Sin reaved on, ravaging the land; Zakel took them to heal, again and again. But he would not take them to Send. It was, he said with a wry quirk of lips, not something that should be done any more often than necessary.
He moved on instead to praying to the fayth. He did not say much of the Cloister of Trials other than that the skills they had learned would "come in handy" and that the Trials existed for them to navigate for themselves. Of the fayth, he said even less. "You know the drill. Kneel, and pray. Open yourself up like you do for the pyreflies, and if you are skilled enough, if the fayth wills it, the fayth will come." His ever-present smile had grown hard as he spoke, and no one asked questions afterward.
It was on summoning that Zakel spent the most time.
"Call the pyreflies to you and draw from their energy the lines of power. If you've ever seen a summoning, you've seen the sigils. Pretty designs, aren't they?" Braska had never witnessed it, but a couple of the others nodded. "Well, you're going to have to memorize them." Those who had nodded groaned. "Yes, yes, it's all fun and games until I make you memorize things, isn't it?" Zakel laughed, and some acolytes with him; the strange black humour of those walking open-eyed towards death. "Each aeon's summoning spell is unique. Be glad they are known now, and that you don't have to divine them for yourselves with the fayth watching over your shoulder."
Someone raised their hand to ask a question. "What about the Final Summoning?"
Zakel's smile flickered. "That fayth is different. The High Summoners each knew how to summon it, and if you ever stand at that crossroads, you will too." They all sobered. Zakel didn't give them time to think on it much more; he straightened suddenly and hefted his staff, setting it before him with a deliberate, hollow crack of wood on stone. The noise made some of them flinch, and Zakel's smile ticked up minutely. "Now, I'll show you each spell. Don't try to call anything forth. Just follow the lines. We'll start with someone a few of you should know quite well." Braska started when he thought Zakel met his eyes for a moment, but the glance—fleeting, knowing— it was gone, and Zakel was speaking again. "This... is how you summon Shiva."
Pyreflies gathered around him, condensing, glowing. Slowly, lines of light curled themselves around Zakel's feet, intricate, luminous—beautiful. Zakel's eyes were closed. He had raised his staff, and for the first time Braska saw a true summoner in him—graceful, serene, and full of power.
The designs grew in interlocking circles, and Braska's eyes were drawn away from Zakel's face to the compelling lines of light. They thickened and multiplied and curled around themselves; Braska thought of watching frost form on Macalania Lake, and shuddered. He felt the buzz of the pyreflies thicken around him, felt the condensed energy like the winter sun harsh on his face, felt the call, the yearning, the worship embedded in the spell. And, faintly, snatches of a sorrowful hymn, felt more in the undulation of energies than in the vibration of sound. The design was completely alien to him, but it— it felt familiar. He felt a faint brush across his memory like a light snow falling, and he thought, for the first time in months, of home.
And at the thought he felt a burst of cold in his heart, a soul-deep chill, and his breath rattled in his throat under the warm sun.
"Try it." Braska startled at Zakel's voice— it sounded— not strained, not quite distracted, but— far away.
They all shuffled apart to give themselves room. Braska wanted to close his eyes, but he concentrated on the unfamiliar design, on its familiar feel. It took a long time. Slowly, slowly, the floor around him started to glow with a tracery of light, with circles and squares and shapes he could not name but could feel forming in his mind, with layers of calling and control, with spangles like the glint of snow, with the shimmer of power.
And oh, he felt cold.
His heart hammered in his chest.
It was done and— Braska was panting with effort and a strange resonant ecstasy, with the pressure of the spell and the touch of cold on his heart. He saw that some had completed their spells and stood within a circle of glimmering light, chests heaving with too-controlled breathing, while others were still tracing the outer edges of the design with slow, careful, shining strokes.
Zakel's breathing was heavy, too, and sweat glistened on his brow and lip, but he stood straight and held his staff high, eyes closed. Braska did not know how the summoner could tell when the last student had completed the spell, but as soon as all the designs were done, Zakel drew a long breath in and let it out, slowly. The spell faded with his breath, dissipating like cold mist.
When Zakel opened his eyes, they were twinkling and hard, diamond dust on snow. "Now... let it fade, slowly. Don't cut it off, but let it dispel with your breath. Give the power back. Let it go, like you let the pyreflies go."
Braska closed his eyes, finally, and concentrated on the gentle release, drawing in clean air and breathing out spent power. Slowly, a little at a time. There was not much to dispel, but he felt—he felt it draw him, he felt it calling, he felt it waiting, and he tried not to choke on his own expelled breath, thick with power. There was— something in him shied from it, vast echoes of grief and anger, and a terrible desperate love, urgent and earnest as prayer. It felt achingly familiar, like coming home—no, like leaving home.
He let it go.
There was a last small strain of longing, and then it was done and he felt... strange, distant, something still hovering on the edge of his awareness. When he opened his eyes he was puffing and his legs were shaking. He was trembling. A few of the others seemed to be in similar condition—some were those who had recognized Shiva's spell. Others he remembered had nodded when Zakel talked of clinging to power.
Zakel grinned at them. "Well, looks like that's all for today. Try to draw out the design tonight. Tomorrow, we'll do this again, until you can do this in your sleep."
He was waiting for it, Zakel's last comment echoing in his mind. Staring at the ceiling, back pressed into the thin barrier of the bed, still feeling exposed. Uneasy still at the glimpse of... something. Something vast, something that tugged at his memory— his awareness skittered away from it, seeking stillness, Bevelle's peace. The tracery of Shiva's hymn, the flurry of snow and summoning—they had felt familiar and strange. Like the expectant presence he had felt some nights before... and yet, unlike.
An hour after everyone else had fallen asleep, with the moonlight creeping slowly towards his bed, it had not come.
Braska sat up, his back prickling and open to the cool air. He closed his eyes and breathed into prayer, into meditation, and waited. He could feel the pyreflies flitting lazily about. Far away, he could hear the dim echoes of the hymn.
He thought he felt a touch of expectation, but he could not tell if it was his own or... not.
He shivered again, suddenly cold.
Braska expelled a held breath and lay back down. Exasperated, disappointed, relieved—all three—he could not tell.
They practiced the spell until the tracery would burst forth in an instant, fully-fledged and glowing, on the floor beneath them. The weeks passed, and after Shiva's, Zakel taught them Ixion's spell, fierce and flickering, thundering and complex; then Ifrit's, full of flare and fire and a haze like smoke. Valefor's was almost simple, almost—radiating warmth and open spaces like the free air, and a steadfast sense of loyalty. Valefor's spell was hard to release, and Braska was glad it had not come first.
With each spell Braska waited for the touch of cold fear, the expectant sense of waiting. It did not come. And Braska's heart beat on, and Braska's breath sustained him, and he went through the delicate motions until the last.
Bahamut was last.
Bahamut was hardest.
Bahamut was waiting.
"Our friend here has the hardest spell," Zakel had said, perpetual smile wry and sharp-edged. No one questioned why after they saw it, sigils full of grace and power; searingly intricate and blazing sun-bright and infused with the weight of stone and ages.
Braska had been waiting. And when the choking prickle of wariness ran down his spine and settled between his shoulder blades, he was half-expecting it. He almost didn't have to look at Zakel's spell—he recognized it now, could feel the filigree of energy, could almost trace the shapes of the summoning from the memory of hours of wakefulness in the deep of night. Could feel the chill in his heart as it stuttered. He kept his eyes open and breathed through his nose, slow and controlled. And he traced the spell as he had traced the others. It grew around him, light and dark and shimmering in shades of strength: a pattern wrought in light on sun-warmed stone. It grew, pressing on his mind, powerful and encompassing.
It was complete, and Braska felt nothing.
He stood in the center of the sigil, holding the power balanced, carefully not reaching out to call—exactly as he had stood for the other aeons' spells. Except the first, except Shiva's—he suppressed a shiver of cold.
This was Bahamut's spell, and nothing was happening.
Zakel's voice broke though the numb and hollow haze. "Good job, everyone. We'll do this twice more this week. You're all almost done." Braska caught his breath as the students dispersed, controlled inhalations through his nose. He watched Zakel, and saw that the summoner's face was tight, nostrils strained and dilated like his own. Zakel delivered his usual parting words and smiles and made his way to the hall.
He entered the dark, cool hush of the hall. Blinking as his eyes adjusted, he called out. "Summoner Zakel?"
He heard footsteps stop. And he heard them continue.
He frowned, and made his way further down the hall, following the fading footsteps. His soft acolyte's boots made almost no noise, and he picked up his staff, carrying it in his hurry. He was entering the depths of the temple, farther than he had gone before. It was cold in here—Braska preferred to wander the warmth of the vast, open balconies and upper chambers—a shudder crawled down his back in a vague unease. The steps descended further into the temple, and Braska realized that the hymn was growing louder. Zakel was approaching the Cloister.
Braska hesitated, thinking it ill of him to follow this far, when he heard the steps turn aside to a chamber off the main hall, and Zakel's voice speak.
"Yes, my l— Zakel."
Braska started. The answering voice was female.
"Good. It's about time I came to face the dragon again."
Braska backed away, looking to leave before he made the situation any more awkward. He had turned to make his way back down the hall when he heard a hard, measured step approach from an intersection. A monk. He could ask the way out of here. He was about to call out when the monk emerged from an intersecting hallway. Carrying a gun.
Braska's eyes widened; he choked down on the beginning of his call, feeling it clot thick and dark in his throat; a lie of omission, fear where safety should be sought— He pressed himself back against the wall, clutching his staff higher above the floor lest his quaking hands make it clatter against the ringing; shuffled sideways until he felt the recess of a door behind him. He squeezed himself into the shallow alcove, fumbling his staff, unsure whether to keep it in front of him where it would proclaim him a summoner, or try hide its ornate glint behind him—
He forced himself to breathe, try to stop panicking. But—
What were machina doing in the heart of Bevelle?
The greatest transgression, the evil that had called down Sin upon Spira, the machina that invited death and destruction and—
He was trembling, and the roiling tumult within him felt alien and strange—and half-remembered like the remnants of a dream—was he angry? Was he afraid?
Was he mistaken?
His breath was coming quick, thundering in his ears.
Braska jumped, nearly dropping his staff, and forced his breathing to quiet, willing the thunder in his ears to subside— it was the woman from before, Zakel's companion. Her voice was coming from just a little ways down the hall. Braska could see light spilling from the chamber Zakel had walked into. He listened, fearful of their approach, seeking distraction—
"Are you sure you're— Are you sure this is the right time? When you obtain the fayth, we will be going to Zanarkand..."
Zakel snorted. "Not up to me, is it? Besides, if he will come to me today, it will be good. I'm almost done with teaching." Braska remembered how Zakel's smile had hardened when he talked of calling the fayth, its wry, sharp edge when he demonstrated Bahamut's sigil.
"You don't wish to... stay here a little longer?" He heard the soft hesitation in the woman's voice, an edge of tension... fear? Desperation? He had wondered, often, why someone such as Zakel would stay his path long enough to teach summoning for a season.
But when Zakel spoke, his voice was hard. "There is nothing here for me but Bahamut's fayth. It's time and past I finished this journey. I have nothing left to lose but time."
His voice had grown louder, and Braska saw him emerge, hard smile in place, and turn to continue down the hall. And he saw the woman following. She was small and dark-haired, and as she stepped out, her face caught the room's light and Braska saw a sad softness in it. Not fear, no. But a quiet desperation— longing. She carried a small figure shaped like a shoopuf. A black mage's channeling tool. She was a black mage, a guardian. Braska had never thought to wonder who Zakel's guardian might be.
Zakel turned back to her, looking expectant. Braska pressed himself back in his niche, but not before he had seen her face had schooled itself to calm. Her voice was even when she spoke. "Yes. Let's try again."
Braska heard the shuffle of heavy robes shifting. "I'm s— Did you want to stay longer?" Braska heard an odd uncomfortable note in Zakel's voice, and an strange echo, as if he had turned away. Both were gone when Zakel next spoke—he had turned back. "I can wait a few more days."
"No," Noru said. "You are right. Let's go."
Their steps retreated down the hall.
Braska did not know what to think.
He listened for some seconds more before emerging from the shadows of the doorway, glancing around, taking care to be quiet, painfully aware even of the soft shuffle of his shoes and the gentle rustling of his robes—and of a pervasive quiet hum: machina. He had been engrossed in following Zakel, to ask him about Bahamut, to demand answers, to know why Zakel's gaze slid over him so slow and hard— he'd had no thought for anything else, only a shiver at the cool hush in the deep of the temple. He looked around now, and saw—locks, lights, buttons. Machina, everywhere, subtle and ubiquitous. He was far below ground, he knew. There were no machina in the upper levels of Bevelle, where people came to pray. But here, now, he sensed it—a small high-pitched buzz, like and unlike the pyreflies' whispers.
He was not sure he was supposed to be here. This was not the main way to the temple proper.
Braska looked around, and heard the distant footfalls of more monks on their rounds. A vague guilt congealed in his belly. He walked quickly to the nearest stairs he could find leading upwards, and made his way up and up until he felt the temperature rise a little, until he began to recognize the halls again.
He needed to talk to someone. He needed to ask about Bahamut. And... machina. And... maybe Zakel, too.
He thought of his fellow summoner students. He had... he hadn't been making friends here. His friends were dead, or in Macalania. They had stayed, and he had left. He thought of Dappul's hard, determined smile and his open, likable face.
He thought of Takla's weary eyes.
He went in search of Takla.
When Braska found him, Takla was making to leave the temple. Braska called out, hesitating. "Father Takla?"
Takla stopped and turned; his face creased in a smile of recognition. "Young Braska. What brings you here?"
"I'm sorry to bother you. I... had some questions."
Takla raised his eyebrows. "Well, my son, I would be happy to try to answer them."
Braska felt a little lost at Takla's manner—he missed feeling he could talk to the man as he had when he had been Takla's student.
"I wanted to ask about Bahamut. And... about something I saw."
"Bahamut? Are you sure you don't seek your teacher? Zakel?"
Braska looked away. "Zakel has... some business. May I speak with you instead?"
"Of course you may. Would you like to walk with me? There are not many warm days left to the year." Takla smiled at him, warm and welcoming, and Braska's heart lifted. He fell into step beside the priest, and was startled to realize he had grown taller than Takla. They walked onto one of the vast balconies, to an airy walkway stretching between Bevelle's spires. The day was still warm, but Braska felt the chill in the winds off Macalania Wood. He had come here in the spring, as the air grew warm and wet with the offshore breeze. Winter was coming to Bevelle. He shivered.
"What is on your mind, young summoner?" Takla walked beside him, face uplifted to savour the sun and wind.
"I'm not sure how to explain..." Braska's hands shifted on his staff, as if groping for a place to begin, something to start to make sense of this. Bevelle, Bahamut, Bahamut, Bevelle... "I don't remember coming here very well."
Takla nodded. "Sin attacked Macalania. You likely suffered from Sin's toxins."
"I think so. But... after some weeks, I began... having dreams. Waking in the night. I am not sure how to explain, but I thought Bahamut was calling me. I could... I could feel something watching me. I could hear the pyreflies, and I would wake feeling... very afraid."
Takla stopped and turned to face him. "Tell me, my son, were you in training to be a priest at Macalania Temple before coming here?"
Braska startled. "Yes. I— I had just started my training."
Takla looked thoughtful. "You are probably more sensitive than most to the magics here, then. Most people who come here have not had any teachings in listening to them."
Braska nodded slowly. "I suppose you are right. I would wake most often when... when Zakel taught about listening to the pyreflies, or Sending. I thought it was Bahamut because... I am not sure. It felt like him."
Takla nodded. "Bahamut's presence here is not hard to sense."
"But... today, when we were taught Bahamut's spell, I felt... I felt nothing. I thought— I thought something would happen." Braska's hands clenched on his staff, twisted, relaxed, clenched again. "He has been in my dreams and my sleep for so long. I thought I would feel something when I drew his sigil. I had felt something the first time we were taught a summoning spell, and I'd been waiting, expecting. I wanted to ask Zakel about it but—"
Braska broke off the sudden torrent of words, feeling shamed, eyes sliding sideways. Takla leaned against the walkway's railing, looking out to the distant sea. They stood there in the cooling breeze for some time. Braska was not sure what he wanted ask, what he wanted to say.
Finally, he continued, gazing fixedly at the landscape. "I... followed him." He forced himself to look at Takla again. "I meant to ask him about Bahamut. I called out to him, but he didn't wait for me. I was confused, I'd been waking nights for months and then nothing happened, I did not know who to ask... So I followed him further. I didn't realize how far down I'd gone, when I heard him talk to his guardian."
"Yes, the lady Noru. She was from a small village on the Moonflow. Sin came there some years back."
Braska remembered the black mage's shoopuf doll. "Yes... I heard them talking. I meant to leave then, but— I saw a man. With—" a dull awareness of the enormity of his next words wrung a hesitation from him, but he plunged on: "with machina."
Takla's face hardened, and Braska went cold: there was no surprise stretching Takla's features, and the hardness etched into the weary lines of Takla's face was alien to him: layers and layers, lies under lies. Braska swallowed.
But Takla's features softened once more, and something in Braska eased with it, a terrible comfort at the familiar weariness of Takla's voice when he spoke. "Yes, you went deep into the temple. There are machina there, all through the core of Bevelle."
Braska felt hollow. "But I have always heard that machina are a sin. Against Yevon's teachings."
Takla took a long breath and met his eyes. "There are many sins in Bevelle, my son. It is an irony. We are privileged here. Machina makes the lives and tasks of those high enough to use them easier, but the same ease cannot be given to the people of Spira, for it is indeed dangerous." Takla looked away, then, towards the distant sea, eyes far away and thoughtful. "I do not know what is right. The machina make it easier for Bevelle to guide and govern and give aid. And yet it is unfair. But if the people knew, there would be too much resentment. So say the maesters."
Braska was not sure he understood. But Takla had known. Braska swallowed an irrational sense of betrayal; he had enough to shame him for one day. He was silent for a time, uncomfortable and confused. Takla waited beside him for some minutes, until the priest closed his eyes and spoke again.
"Zakel was much like you in his youth."
Braska's head jerked up, eyes wide.
Takla's smile was gentle and a little sad as he spoke. "He trained here, too, after his village was destroyed. I taught him, as I taught you." Takla sighed. "He was upset, too, to learn about the ironies of our service here. I wish sometimes that I had... I wish I had instructed him better. I have learned much from teaching here."
Braska remembered Takla's final lesson, on hate and anger. He remembered waking and choking on both. "I... I am still not sure what my dreams mean."
Takla looked at him, eyes serious. "You could go speak to Bahamut yourself." Braska turned to meet Takla's eyes, his own grown wide. "Your summoner's training is near complete. If Bahamut has called you, then perhaps you should answer his call. Perhaps he calls on you to speak with him, and begin your pilgrimage."
Braska looked down. He spoke slowly, hesitating. "I think I knew this. But..." He closed his yes. "I did not want to think on it. I was afraid."
Takla shook his head. "You are braver than you think, my son."
Braska squeezed his eyes tight. The words meant much to him. Too much, maybe. A chill wind swept down from the Wood, and Braska shuddered.
"I will go speak with Bahamut." His mouth was dry.
Takla nodded, and when Braska met his eyes, he wanted to look away. Takla did not speak again, but Braska saw things he could not have borne to hear said aloud in those compassionate eyes.
He gripped his staff, hand clenched tight as he headed back to the temple. For once its warm weight held no comfort.
The endless winding staircase, he decided, was a bit much. He felt bitter, and he knew his thoughts were twisted to more irony than was his wont. But each step, going down and down, filled him with more apprehension. The hymn swelled around him, and now that he knew to listen for it, he could hear the faint buzz of machina. It permeated the deeper chambers. He saw the machina all around him.
And the air was growing cooler.
His heart was pounding in his chest, and his mouth was dry.
But Bahamut had called him, and he had come to find out why.
He was nearing the bottom of the stairs, and his mind buzzed with questions, with a vague sense of anger and betrayal—and with fear. He swallowed, and approached the Cloister.
Someone was exiting the sacred room—Braska's heart jumped to his throat.
His eyes widened when he saw—it was Noru, and slumped at her side, one arm slung over her thin shoulders—Zakel.
Braska barely recognized him. His face was ashen, his eyes wide and white; sweat glistened on his brow despite the chill; and in place of his usual relaxed carriage he stumbled now, and bowed under the weight of exhaustion. But it was Zakel's smile that chilled Braska to the core, terror and revulsion running like ice-cold water down his spine and pooling in his belly, and his mind screamed to flee this place of the fayth.
The smile was hard, harder than ice and harder than stone; it held no mirth; it held no hope. It held no soul.
Braska stumbled back—out of their way, or simply away—and Noru looked up.
Her eyes were blue, ice-blue, and Braska wanted to turn away from the hard determination, the hopeless desperation he saw there as she supported her summoner's shaking steps. His stomach turned with his guilt, and he choked on too much understanding.
They ascended, and Braska was left alone on the threshold of the Cloister, shaking and cold.
He was afraid.
He was alone with the machina and the pyreflies, and he was afraid.
He entered the Cloister.
Braska floated through the trial as through a dream, the eerie light rippling around him. The puzzle was vexing, but he was beyond worrying over it. The chamber resonated with magic and machina, his mind buzzed with it, and it was in a daze that he felt the spheres and searched and sifted through the welter of energies for a matching pedestal. When he solved it, he paused a moment. This is where a guardian would stop, he thought. Only summoners were permitted to speak to the fayth.
He wondered what Noru had felt when she had watched Zakel enter without her.
He stepped inside.
The Chamber was not as elaborate as he had expected, but— his gaze fixed upon the statue on the floor. The statue of the fayth. He had never heard them described. It was terrible. It was beautiful. The vast span of a pearlescent wing, the dizzying colours, the ripple of muscle in a strong back.
The statue had no face. He felt sick.
He knelt before it, his heavy breaths heaving in his chest. He tried to slow his mind, meditate and pray and wait.
He was shivering.
He was not sure how long he knelt there, trying to marshal his scattered mind, when he felt an overwhelming, terrible presence swell before him, familiar and alien and vast.
He looked up, and the dragon Bahamut was before him. The dragon flexed its massive shoulders, and the sail-vast wings shuddered. Braska swallowed, and blinked. When he opened his eyes, the dragon was gone.
A boy stood in his place, his robes strange.
And from him, from the fayth, Braska felt it. An overpowering familiarity, a presence that had hovered on the edge of his mind since he had come here, haunting his dreams. Haunting those moments as he woke, and the fayth, the fayth was a young boy, and he remembered wide, hateful eyes meeting his in the dark, like and unlike the eyes he met now—amber, these eyes, a shade that could not be mistaken, the hard yellow of an afternoon sun, inhuman and incomprehensible in a child's face. The countenance of the fayth, his presence, was terrible, full of waiting and weariness and hate, a hate so deep and fathomless that it had grown sympathy as a fast-rooted tree grew leaves, groaning and whispering under the steady pounding of the wind. Braska remembered the hate, remembered waking and shuddering with it.
And yet, it did not feel quite right.
Braska pushed the confusion aside, and bowed in prayer. "I have come to pray before you and ask that you lend me your power on my summoner's pilgrimage."
A pause, agonizing with the thick beat of his heart, breaths passing dry through his throat.
And the fayth answered.
"You do not want to become a summoner. I will not come to one such as you."
Braska's mind felt sticky and slow. The words did not seem to be sinking in. "But... you have been calling me. I felt you waiting."
"I am always waiting. It was you who called out to me."
Braska shook his head dumbly. "No, weeks after I came, I woke. In the night, you would come and watch and wait..."
The fayth's voice held no expression. "You do not remember because you do not wish to remember."
Braska shook his head again, numb and senseless.
"You came touched by Sin, but the touch was fading. When your memory began to return, you called out to me."
Braska's breathing was becoming ragged. The fayth did not pause or slow, his words coming in even, measured, toneless tides.
"You were afraid. You are still afraid."
Braska gasped in a breath. "I am not sure."
The fayth shook his head. "You are afraid."
Braska attempted to gather himself and look at the fayth, speak clearly through the thick buzz in his mind. "I do not think I feel afraid of the pilgrimage. Or the Final Summoning."
The fayth's gaze remained steady on him as he spoke again.
"You are afraid of living."
The words hung there for a moment as Braska's mind screamed away from them. But he closed his eyes and swallowed and heard the truth.
And Braska's world crashed down around him. The memories that had been circling came thundering back, writ in the blood that pounded in his ears—so much blood, his blood, their blood, and the pyreflies all screaming their agony and hate, the hate, the poisonous envy a rage of jealousy, Sin's fathomless anger seeping into him, infecting his blood, toxins and poison, the cold, Yevon, the cold, and dreams, dreams of such destruction, and those souls close to fiends with the blood dripping from their teeth, the blinding need to taste life—
Oh, he screamed, and the temple swallowed his screams whole, wrapped them in the hymn and smothered them with the buzz of machina and swallowed them up in the vast hollow spaces of nothing, no heat and nothing closed to keep in the warmth and the blood and the death.
And Braska wept. For the first time since Sin had come, he wept.
He wept for his parents, he wept for his home, he wept for his lost friends. He wept for Shiva's hymns and for bloodstains in the snow, for the closed spaces and the cold; he wept for the machina under the prayerhouses, he wept for Zakel's anger under his pride, for Noru's desperate love and quiet terror, for Takla's sorrow layered over his weariness.
He wept for the pyreflies screaming and then silenced.
He was young, and he wept for himself.
The fayth, ageless and without pity, watched him in silence. When Braska knelt exhausted before the statue, the fayth did not speak.
Braska breathed, shuddering in vast, hollow gulps. He felt weary beyond words, raw and sore. And he felt angry, and full of grief; confused, unsure, lonely. Afraid.
Alive, and aching with it.
His mouth was dry, and his lips had stuck together in the long silence. He pried them apart to croak a whisper. "Thank you." The words tasted bitter coming out, a bitter irony, and yet... his heart beat freer, and he had felt the need to say it.
The fayth said nothing.
Braska sat up. His knees hurt from the stone floor, and his hands looked red and raw. He pressed them against the floor, slow and deliberate, feeling its solid press against his palms, and rose, halting and shaking, to his feet. He felt light and light-headed, and lucid, as if he had woken from a long dreaming. He looked up at the fayth.
He did not know what to say. The fayth granted him no mercy then, either.
Finally, Braska, overcome with exhaustion, drained and stunned, spoke. "I do not know what to do."
The fayth stirred. "You have dreamed. We know something of dreaming. You are waking, and you are free. What will you do with your waking life?"
Braska shook his head, tired beyond measure. "I had chosen my path. You tell me my choice was wrong."
"I am not one to tell you your choice was wrong. But it was ill-founded, and you are afraid and do not know your own heart."
"You will not come to me?"
The fayth shook his head. "You are not ready."
Braska heaved a sigh, too numb to think about how much relief it held. He felt a distant need to eat and drink, and a much more pressing need to sleep. Exhaustion was pulling him into unconsciousness. But there was a thought hovering on the edge of his mind, and he grasped at it before his awareness could slip away entirely. "You say I called you. But you listened and watched. You were waiting for me."
The fayth's chin dipped in a nearly imperceptible nod. "I am waiting."
A familiar chill ran down his spine at the careful words, and Braska straightened enough to bow into prayer with dignity. "I still believe the path I chose was right."
The fayth said nothing, and when Braska rose from prayer, he was gone.
But Braska had his answer. As he stumbled out of the Chamber, glassy-eyed, and made his way through the shimmering Cloister in a daze, he knew.
And when he returned to his bed and slept soundly, warm and dreamless, he knew. When he received his summoner's surplice and set it aside, he knew.
And when Sin attacked a nearby village days later and Braska came with the others to heal the wounded monks anyway, summoner or no, he met sharp amber eyes amongst their number with a shock of recognition like an electric jolt: amber, yes, a darker, mortal shade, edged still with the echoes of fury, an anger so pure that it had resonated between them, echoing his own, echoing the rage of a fayth, of a child who was no child, of a dream that waited with the patience of stone.
Bahamut was waiting.
End of Part I.
Continue to Part II: Waking Life