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Aftermath

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In his dream, Beclem rode a seesaw. Zalitz sat on the other end, and they rocked up and down, laughing as though they were children again, until the rest of the Goers piled onto Zalitz's side of the seesaw, yelling and screaming, flinging Beclem up into the air, propelling him skyward, wind whistling around his ears. Then he hit the ground hard. It took him a few seconds to understand that he was awake, and that the smooth wooden surface beneath him was the floor of his cabin on the S.S. Meera, the former Yevonite sailing ship, sailing straight into the heart of a storm.

Beclem stood, only to be nearly knocked off his feet again by the pitching of the deck, and he had to grab the bunk next to his to maintain balance. The shouting voices from his dream continued: the sailors, communicating with each other as they fought to keep the ship under control. Glancing around the room, he saw that the other bunks were empty -- his shipmates were gone, and their rucksacks littered the floor. He grabbed the handles of the nearest two and tossed them in a drawer that had slid open, then took a minute to collect the rest, chasing them as they tumbled around the cabin. After kicking the drawer shut and pressing down the latch with his toe, Beclem made his way up the stairs and opened the door from the cabin to the deck.

The scene that greeted him was utter chaos. The ship slammed up and down through the waves at crazy angles, waves crashing over the railings. Between the waves and the rain falling in sheets, the deck was covered in at least an inch of water. Beclem stepped through the door; the force of the wind slammed it shut behind him and pushed him up against the wall the cabin, driving raindrops into his face. Soaking-wet sailors clambered over the masts to pull down sails and rigging. One of them caught Beclem's eye, and he motioned toward the bridge.

Beclem wiped water from his eyes and cupped his hand around his mouth. "Do you need help?"

The sailor shook his head firmly, and pointed at the stairs leading to the bridge again. Beclem took the hint and walked himself the few steps to the stairway, gripping the rail along the cabin wall, buffeted by rain and wind with every step. Finally he reached the door; he yanked it open and flung himself inside. The captain stood at the wheel, her hands gripping the handles with grim determination; five Crusaders -- Nooj, Kazi, and three others, one woman and two men -- sat on the benches that lined the wall. Some of them looked rather green.

Beclem took a minute to catch his breath, pressing his back against the wall and dripping on the floor. Then he lurched over to the nearest available stretch of bench. It happened to be next to Nooj, who had clamped his hands around the head of his cane, the knuckles on his right fingers white with tension; he seemed to be bracing the cane hard against the floor, presumably to keep from being jostled out of his seat. He acknowledged Beclem with a grunt. "You all right?" Beclem asked; Nooj nodded. "Good." Beclem shook his head. "Remind me why we're rushing off to Bevelle again?"

Nooj's frown lost some of its grimness as he looked into the distance. "For truth. What better cause could there be?"

"None, I suppose." Beclem settled back against the walls of the cabin, holding himself in place by pushing his hands against the bench. Truth, and the opportunity to uncover more evidence against Yevon. It was hard to argue with Nooj's logic, and yet Beclem kept questioning it. Nooj's decision to abandon Kilika for the Seekers still seemed like an abrupt change of heart. He risked a sidelong glance to his right, but Nooj faced resolutely forward, his expression shuttered once more, not suggestive of an invitation to probe any deeper. The ship pitched hard to the right; tensing his arm to compensate, Beclem closed his eyes and hoped it would be over soon.

-x-

Plowing through two storms in a row had one good side effect: when Bevelle finally appeared in the distance on the afternoon of the sixth day of the voyage, Beclem was able to take pleasure in the sight. The enormous spire of St. Bevelle glinted in the setting sun, a bright contrast to the dark clouds massing on the horizon behind it. The ship pulled into the dock; as Beclem stepped off the gangway, he almost collapsed in relief at feeling solid ground beneath his feet. He was the last of the former Crusaders to disembark, and he walked over to the group gathered in front of a man dressed in an old warrior monk uniform.

"You the ones Lucil sent from Kilika?" He looked them over, fixing his hard blue eyes on Nooj. "We were expecting you days ago. What kept you?"

"We were delayed by storms," Nooj replied. "Believe me, no one is more eager than I to begin work with the Seekers." Beclem cast him a quick sideways glance, noting the determination on Nooj's face. There it was again: that sudden eagerness to get out there and look for spheres. Nooj had never been this interested in Spira's history before. Maybe he'd developed a taste for the topic during his convalescence? Now there was a subject Beclem had no desire to raise. Still, he wondered.

"Fine." The man uncrossed his arms and bowed in a half-hearted prayer gesture. "Well, welcome to Bevelle. I'll show you to your temporary quarters; dinner will be ready shortly. You'll meet with Lord Trema tomorrow, and he'll tell you more about what we're doing here. Any questions?" He didn't wait for anyone to answer before he turned on his heel and marched down the dock.

Beclem followed, keeping himself a step behind Nooj. The dock was at the edge of the temple complex, which looked much as it had on Beclem's single previous visit to Bevelle, when he has sworn his oath to Yevon and Maester Kinoc at the end of his Crusader training. Nooj had been on that trip, too, but he had been different then -- barely a teenager, so eager to fight and to serve Yevon. So many things had been different.

"Stop that," he muttered to himself, jolting himself back to the present with a sharp shake of his head. He looked up at the spire again, and this time he could see the deep gouges that Sin had left behind during its final battle, as well as the scaffolding that had been built all the way up the tower. He nudged Nooj and pointed up. "Looks like they're doing some repairs. Typical Yevon! Focusing on symbols while people go without homes. Imagine if that money and effort could be diverted to Kilika and other towns damaged by Sin."

"Indeed," Nooj replied, frowning. "We should speak to Trema about that. A New Yevon should have new priorities."

The party passed through a doorway into the temple and down a long passage, then into a large room -- a cafeteria. A dozen round tables stood in rows, about half-full of diners who looked to be a mix of monks, priests, and former Crusaders. Beclem's stomach, still unclenching from days of rough seas, started to rumble. Nooj cast him an amused glance, and he scowled in answer. Their new minder didn't stop, though, leading them through the room and into another hallway. He gestured them into a room filled with bunk beds.

"Take any bed that's not made up," he said. "Someone will deliver linens after dinner. You'll be on second mess, which starts in half an hour. Until then, make yourselves at home. Baths are through that door at the back of the room, the rest of the temple complex is at the other end of the hallway we were just in. Interior rooms of the temple are off limits for now, but you're welcome in any of the courtyard spaces. I'll be back tomorrow morning to take you to Trema at eight hundred sharp. Breakfast opens at six. Any questions? See you tomorrow." Once again, he took off before any actual questions could be asked, leaving the recent arrivals to look blankly at one another.

Beclem slung his bag and weapons on an empty top bunk, leaving the one below for Nooj. "Bath," he said to no one in particular, pulling out clean clothes before making his way to the back, eager to wash himself clean of the unpleasant voyage.

-x-

Half an hour later -- scrubbed, changed, and feeling halfway human again -- Beclem headed for the mess hall to complete the transformation. He went through the cafeteria line and selected bread, a mug of ale, and a hearty-looking stew before taking a seat at an empty table. Breaking off a piece of the bread, he dipped it in the soup; the bite halfway to his mouth, he paused at the sound of a chair scraping across the stone floor, and he looked up.

"Anyone sitting here?" The speaker was a man, about Beclem's age and height, deeply tanned with dark hair and eyes, one hand resting on the back of the chair while the other balanced a tray piled with bread and vegetables.

Beclem shook his head and gestured for the newcomer to sit. "Feel free."

"Thanks." The man set down the tray, then sat. "You new?"

"Yes, I just arrived from Kilika. Beclem."

"Welcome to Bevelle. I'm Maroda." He pulled his chair up to the table. "Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt your supper. Go on, eat. We'll finish introductions later."

With a nod, Beclem returned to the bite he was about to take, popping the bread soaked with gravy into his mouth. Then he forced himself to keep chewing, despite the heavy, greasy taste of the stew. The bread was so tough that it took him much longer than he would have liked to finish the mouthful, and then he had to wash it all down with a huge swig of ale. "Damn!" He looked at Maroda, who looked back with a half-smile. "Chef having an off night?"

Maroda's grin widened. "Haven't eaten in Bevelle before, have you?"

Beclem shook his head. "Just an official state banquet when I was sworn in as a Crusader, and I wasn't paying much attention to the food. They didn't house us at the temple while we were here." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glared at the bowl -- he hadn't noticed the grayish cast to the meat before, but now it seemed to look back at him, mocking him with the promise of a hearty meal marred by a thin sheen of grease on the surface. "I got the impression that things were better in Bevelle, but I guess the fall of Yevon affected even the heart of things."

"Nah." Maroda dipped a spoon into the jar of honey on the table and drizzled it onto a slice of bread, which he had already buttered. "Bevelle Temple has always had terrible food. If anything, it's improved since the Maesters abdicated and gave up their private chefs, who always skimmed the best stuff off the top."

"Hmph." Beclem picked up the spoon and toyed with it. Finally, hunger won out, and he took another bite, this time scoring a potato that had been boiled into tasteless mush. "So, you were stationed in Bevelle? You were a warrior monk? I have to say, you don't have the look of one. But if you were a Crusader, I don't remember ever meeting you."

Maroda shook his head. "Neither. I grew up here. My dad was a priest of St. Bevelle. Still is, kind of. He works for Lord Trema, doing research in the temple archives. Then I stayed here to train as a guardian."

Beclem set down his spoon; he felt it clack against the table. "A guardian? To a summoner?" The stupidity of the question clanked in his ears even as he asked it.

"Yeah. My brother, Isaaru. We were on pilgrimage at the same time as Lady Yuna, although of course she beat us there." Maroda paused, finally seeming to notice Beclem's expression. "What?"

"Nothing." Beclem looked away; he didn't want to get into his feelings about summoners and their guardians here at the dinner table. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Maroda shrug and go back to his bread, and he returned somewhat half-heartedly to his stew, regretting his decision to come to Bevelle more with every tasteless, heavy bite. He should have realized that he'd be surrounded by committed Yevonites here, but he hadn't really wanted to think about that. Anything had seemed better than Kilika.

"Maroda?" Beclem turned and looked up at the sound of a new voice as Maroda set down his glass and twisted around in his seat. The newcomer stood behind Maroda, his hand on the back of the chair. "May I?"

Without a pause in his eating, Maroda waved at the chair next to him, then toward Beclem as the other man sat down. "Isaaru, this is Beclem, just arrived from Kilika. Beclem, my brother Isaaru."

Beclem nodded to Isaaru. "My--" He checked the next word that was about to come to his lips, as automatic as breathing. Was the use of the honorific still that deeply ingrained? Now that his brain had engaged, he wasn't sure he could bring himself to say it. An awkward silence fell, lasting long enough that Maroda looked up from his food and raised his eyebrows. Feeling like an ass, Beclem took a breath and started again. "M'lord."

The tension lessened; Maroda finished his bite of bread, and Isaaru shook his head with a sad smile. "Please, just Isaaru." He held no tray, only a glass of water, and he set it down on the table as he lowered himself into the chair. "Welcome to Bevelle."

"Thanks." Beclem looked at Isaaru more closely, then at Maroda again. He'd never seen two brothers who looked less alike -- Isaaru was tall and fair with light eyes and a slight build, mostly hidden by his heavy robes, while Maroda was shorter and stockier with much darker coloring. "You're Maroda's brother?"

The men exchanged a quick glance, and Maroda shrugged before meeting Beclem's eyes. "Same father, different mothers. Same with our younger brother Pacce, who I'm sure you'll meet sooner or later."

"Ah." Beclem nodded to Isaaru. "So, you're a summoner?"

Isaaru winced. "I... was." His hand curled around the glass, and he looked into the distance, eyes unfocused, as a hint of desolation crept into his voice. "When there were still aeons to summon."

Beclem suppressed a groan. Was every summoner in Spira a useless emotional wreck? "You can't really believe that Spira isn't better off without Yevon and the aeons. "

Isaaru turned to look at him, pursing his lips into a hard straight line. "I would not expect you to understand."

"You're right, I don't." Beclem set down his spoon and glared at Isaaru. "A thousand years of summoners sacrificing themselves to a lie? Why would anyone be nostalgic for that?"

Another silence descended: Isaaru turned pale, while Maroda shifted in his seat. Beclem clenched his hand into a fist in his lap, half-dreading the thought of a fight, even while part of him hoped for a confrontation. Maybe he had gone too far, but he found that he wasn't really sorry.

Then Isaaru pushed his glass away. "Pardon me, I have another engagement." The darkness in his eyes cleared as he stood, and he favored Beclem with a small bow. "Beclem, a pleasure. Perhaps we can continue this conversation another time." Then he turned and strode through the hall, every move exuding confidence, showing not even a hint of the emotions that had lined his face a moment before.

Maroda half-turned in his seat to watch Isaaru leave, then tossed back the rest of his drink. "I should be going, too." He stood with a sigh that held more than a touch of exasperation, which he then covered with a polite smile. "See you around." He followed his brother, leaving Beclem alone with a half-eaten meal and a surplus of nervous energy.

-x-

The next morning, the new recruits stood together in the large hall at the center of St. Bevelle. Their minder -- who had finally identified himself with a name: Soren -- had gathered them up early and led them here. Now they stood in a row and waited. Beclem had slept poorly; as a result, he was restless and fidgety. It didn't help matters that his clothes, sent to the laundry shortly after their arrival, had come back overly-starched. He tugged at the stiff sleeve of his uniform jacket and shifted his shoulders, trying to get comfortable, then snuck a glance at Nooj, who stood on his right, unmoving.

Then the door to the balcony opened, and Beclem shaded his eyes against the brilliant sunlight that flooded the room, catching the motes in the dusty air. It took him a moment to register the figure that had entered, a featureless silhouette against the morning sun. Then the door closed with a decisive click, and the newcomer spoke.

"Welcome to Bevelle," he said, his voice echoing off the walls of the large chamber. On the last word, the torches surrounded them flared up, painting the stone and tapestries with their flickering light, and Beclem could see again. Their new leader was elderly and bore more than a passing resemblance to Mika, the former Grand Maester, down to the pointy gray beard and the heavy robes, and Beclem wondered if he was also an unsent. The man opened his arms in a gesture of welcome and benediction, then closed his hands into the prayer position, and bowed to them.

Nooj snorted even as he raised his arm in salute. "I see Yevon has lost none of its taste for drama," he said under his breath, just loud enough for Beclem to hear.

The man rose from his bow, and spoke again. "I am Lord Trema." He stepped forward onto the lift bobbing at the edge of the balcony. Beclem held his salute as the lift made its way across the yawning pit in the middle of the room, then stopped in front of them. Trema disembarked and stood before them. "At ease, my friends," he said with a brisk nod. "We may respect the traditions of the old order here, but we have no desire to recreate them. This is a new Yevon, and I hope we can all work together to retain the best of the past while still looking toward creating Spira's future."

Beclem caught Nooj's eye; Nooj nodded, almost imperceptibly. This was better than Beclem had hoped to hear in Bevelle, but he retained the right to be skeptical.

Trema stepped forward and looked straight at Nooj. "So, you are Nooj. The Undying, formerly of the Crusaders." Nooj raised an eyebrow, and Trema chuckled. "Oh yes, your reputation extended throughout all Bevelle. There was not a warrior monk or official of Yevon who did not know your name. When I heard you were on Kilika, I searched our ranks for any Crusader who had personal acquaintance with you and might be able to bring you to our cause. And you as well, Beclem."

Stunned, Beclem broke ranks to step back, and he stared at the old man. "Me?"

"Of course." Trema nodded at him. "You were key in the planning of Operation Mi'ihen. Misguided as that offensive turned out to be, it showed initiative, creative thinking, a willingness to buck tradition. The old Yevon may not have valued these traits, but I do. Quite highly, in fact. Lucil was the first, and you are the second. I hope to recruit every remaining leader of that mission to the Seekers."

Beclem clenched his jaw. "If you know of my role in Operation Mi'ihen, then you know why I'm not likely to believe anything you say."

Trema spread his arms again. "I do. But it is my hope that you will learn to trust me, and the others of the priesthood who have joined us, in time."

This time, it was Nooj who caught Beclem's eye; Beclem shrugged, and returned to an attentive stance. Trema walked down the rest of the line, asking names and giving words of welcome and reassurance, then returned to the front, Soren taking a place at his side.

"We have two main goals here in Bevelle." Trema placed his hands behind his back. "The first is to keep our fighters well-trained, and the second is to increase our knowledge of Spira's true history. To that second end, we have split our organization into two halves. One is the former priests, nuns, and acolytes who spend their days in the huge, ancient libraries of Bevelle, scouring the books that have languished there too long for information. The second is the Seekers, the group which you have come to Bevelle to join. You will travel Spira in small teams, searching every city, town, and wild place for spheres, wherever they may be hidden. When you find them, you will return them to Bevelle, where the research team will watch them, catalog them, and add them to our growing store of knowledge. Meanwhile, as you travel, you will train and fight fiends, and in that way you will maintain and even improve your fighting skills."

One of the other recruits raised his hand. "But my lord, why do we need to keep fighting, with Sin gone?"

"A fair question." It was Soren who answered; he then looked down at Trema, who motioned him to continue. "Sin may be gone, but the fiends are not. And who knows what other dangers lurk in Spira? Better safe than sorry."

"Indeed." Trema shifted his hands forward, now buried in the folds of his sleeves. "We no longer need a military as large as the one we once had, but it would be foolish to disband entirely."

Beclem smiled to himself -- of everything the old man had said, this made the most immediate and obvious sense.

"So." Trema looked up and down the line. "I will leave you with Soren to receive your assignments. Good luck."

The recruits murmured words of thanks and saluted Trema again; Soren bowed to him, and he left. Then Soren turned back to them, and they all straightened, years of military discipline straightening Beclem's spine and stiffening his arm with no conscious thought -- no one had yet informed them that Soren was in charge of the Seekers, but Beclem knew a commanding officer when he saw one.

"At ease. You'll each be assigned to a different group for now," Soren said. "Once you've learned the ropes, you can form your own teams, probably after you've been on a scouting mission or two. Most people choose to stay with their training team, but it's not required." He pulled several slips of paper out of his coat pocket and passed them down the line. "On this paper is the name of your new group leader. They're waiting for you out in the courtyard, to take you on your first mission. Welcome to the Seekers."

Beclem unfolded the paper, and managed not to laugh with surprise. Next to him, Nooj had crumpled his paper in his fist, and Beclem looked up just in time to see a flash of frustration cross his features. "What?"

Nooj shook his head. "It doesn't matter." He began walking toward the courtyard, and Beclem fell into step with him. "Who is your new commander? You seem pleased."

Beclem thought he caught a note of irritation in Nooj's voice, but he decided to ignore it. "It's just funny; I met this guy at dinner yesterday. He's a former guardian, name of Maroda."

"Guardians." Nooj sniffed. "Failed guardians, no less. It seems this place will take anyone. Almost anyone." He glared at the paper in his hand, which crinkled as his fingers tightened.

There was no mistaking Nooj's tone now, and Beclem pulled up short. "Hey." Nooj stopped, but would not look at him. "What's going on?"

Nooj turned, slowly, his eyes snapping with anger. "It appears that Trema has summoned me to speak with him personally. About a 'special assignment', designed for my 'particular circumstances.' Hmph!" He flung the wad of paper into a corner.

"What?" Beclem looked at Nooj, noting how his metal hand clenched the head of the cane. "Oh."

"Is that all you can say?" Nooj swung his head around, turning his glare onto Beclem. "Of course it is. You agree with them. You think I should be here, chained to a desk in the library, that I'm not good enough for the field anymore."

Taken aback, Beclem stepped away and raised his hands. "Oh, come on. Don't be ridiculous! Of course you should be in the field. Come with me. I'll talk to Maroda about having you on our team."

Nooj's eyes narrowed. "Don't do me any favors," he snapped. "I'll take care of it." He pivoted on his heel and stalked off in the direction that Soren and Trema had gone only moments before. Beclem watched him go, then shook his head, letting out an exasperated sigh. Fine; he'd smooth things over later. It took him a few brisk steps to catch up with the other recruits as they stepped into the courtyard, where Maroda awaited him with a grin.

"Welcome to the team," he said, offering a salute. With only the slightest hesitation, Beclem returned the gesture. "Hope you don't mind that I asked for you."

"I'm just surprised, after yesterday." Beclem dropped his arm and stepped back. "I wasn't sure I'd made the best impression."

Maroda sighed. "Isaaru... has had a rough time, for sure. This business with Lady Yuna and Yevon really shook him. It got to me, too. But it's been months now, and he's barely even left the temple complex. He needs something to shake him out of it, and if it takes a stranger yelling at him in Bevelle mess hall... Well, maybe that's what it takes." He rolled his eyes a little; Beclem thought of his own younger brother and smiled. "Anyway, that's why I asked for you. I like someone who will stand up to power. Now let's get started. C'mon, I'll introduce you to the others." Maroda walked off, and Beclem followed, more than ready to begin.

-x-

Beclem spent the rest of the day getting used to his new surroundings: Maroda introduced him to the other members of his team and gave him a tour of the temple complex, then set him loose to explore the city for the rest of the day. Bevelle was a bustling city, almost as lively as Luca with markets and working docks. The only thing missing was the blitz stadium. It was a pleasant way to while away an afternoon, but Beclem found himself impatient, ready to get down to business, and dinner came as a relief: Maroda gathered the team again for a mission briefing.

"All right." Maroda looked around the table at the team: four Crusaders, two warrior monks, and Beclem. The warrior monks and two of the Crusaders were strangers; the others Beclem knew slightly from Operation Mi'ihen. "Tomorrow, first thing, we're heading for Macalania. We've got one day to search the temple for anything we can find. The priests took as much as they could in the evacuation, but--"

"Evacuation?" Beclem interrupted, raising an eyebrow at Maroda. "What happened?"

Maroda turned to Beclem. "You hadn't heard?" Beclem shook his head. "The temple was suspended in the ice, kept frozen by the fayth's magic. When the fayth passed into the Farplane, the lake started to melt. The ice supporting the building is getting really thin. So it could crash into the bottom of the lake any day now."

Beclem sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. "Figures. The fayth isn't there to prop up the temple anymore, and it crumbles."

Maroda raised his eyebrows. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"I couldn't have invented a better metaphor." Beclem jutted his chin in the general direction of the temple's main hall. "Yevon was forced to face the truth; Mika abdicated, and the rest fell into chaos."

One of the warrior monks frowned, but Beclem noted that the other Crusaders in the group were nodding. Maroda drummed his fingers on the table but said nothing.

Beclem took a drink, then set his water glass back down. "All I'm saying is that I hope that Trema intends to build his New Yevon on something a little more solid than the fayth."

Maroda sat up, and his brow smoothed. "Fair enough. And uncovering the truth about Spira's past seems pretty solid, yeah?" He looked around the group, and Beclem felt the moment of tension pass. "That's why we're being sent to Macalania: Lord Trema wants a thorough search done before the temple collapses, in case there are any important spheres still there. Other groups have been through the rest of the temple complex. Our mission is search the core of the building itself." He looked around the group. "Any questions?" He looked around the circle, then smiled with satisfaction. "Okay, that's enough from me. Anyone hear about any good finds today?"

-x-

After dinner, Maroda directed Beclem to the armory, where he picked through a selection of weapons, choosing a short sword for close-quarters fighting, then handed over his armor, helm, and pistol for a thorough cleaning. He had expected some resistance over the machina, but the attendant hadn't even blinked while promising to have everything ready first thing in the morning.

She had been as good as her word: the next day, Beclem returned from breakfast to find everything assembled and waiting for him on his bunk, a box of ammo sitting on his pillow. The pistol had been oiled, the sword sharpened, and his bracers, greaves, and helm were polished to perfection, all the dents hammered out and a broken lace in the left bracer repaired. He was already dressed in the rest of his Crusader uniform: boots, leathers, the blue jacket with the light plate sewn over the shoulders. This last he took off to fit the bracers on beneath the sleeves. Once he had strapped them into place, he followed with the greaves, hung the weapons off his belt, and shrugged the jacket back on. Tucking the helm beneath his arm, he saw a motion out of the corner of his eye; he swiveled on his heel toward the source, then laughed out loud.

It was a mirror across the room, catching his own reflection. Beclem had hauled the Crusader uniform for three relocations now, all across Spira, and sometimes he'd asked himself why. The image in the mirror before him provided the answer. Looking at it, he felt more like himself than he had in ages. He walked toward the mirror, a smile spreading across his face as he approached; he turned just enough to see his profile, then faced forward again. His reflection looked back, the smile fading into a look of contentment. This was what he was born for, Beclem thought. He was called to serve Spira in this uniform, not building floating walkways and especially not lazing around in Luca. Coming to Bevelle was looking like a better decision. He tossed his helm into the air, giving it a flip so that it spun in a complete circle. Catching it with both hands, he pulled it down over his head, adjusting the nose cover to bring the eye holes into place, then nodded with pleasure.

"Looking good."

Beclem pivoted in the direction of the voice, then relaxed when he saw that it was only Maroda. "Thanks. It feels good, too."

Maroda nodded. "I remember. When Isaaru cut his pilgrimage short, I was mostly relieved. But I was also kind of disappointed to realize that I might be done fighting for Spira. Then Lord Trema founded the Seekers, and it gave me a purpose again. So I think I know how you feel." He raised an eyebrow. "Am I right?"

"And how." Beclem glanced in the mirror one last time, then stepped away from it, focusing his attention on Maroda. "So, are we ready?"

"Yeah." Maroda gestured toward the door. "The rest of the team should already be waiting in the chocobo stables. Do you ride?" On Beclem's nod, he continued. "Excellent. Macalania, here we come."

-x-

The team mounted up and rode together, out the side entrance and toward the forest, through grasslands blending into the wood and then onto the trails that wound through the wood. The chocobos carried them without complaint, surefooted even on the steep path -- at the stables, Beclem had learned that Bevelle bred and trained birds specifically for making the journey to Macalania. A little over an hour later, they emerged from the forest to see the shore of the frozen lake. Maroda dismounted, and Beclem followed suit, the snow crunching beneath his boots as he landed. They walked the chocobos to the Travel Agency, tucked into the side of the hill, and as he tied his bird's reins to the hitching post where they would wait for the remainder of the day, he noted a small group of tourists gathered by the lake's edge, staring down the path that presumably led to the temple.

"Hey!" The leader of the group ran over to Maroda, tugged at his arm. "The guy in the Travel Agency told me it wasn't safe to go down there; why do you get to go?"

"Salvage mission, sir," Maroda responded, pulling his arm free with a smooth bow. "We're from Bevelle."

"Oh." The man stepped back and gave a half bow in return. "Well, okay. As long as someone is taking care of things there. Feels like things are falling apart, with no one in charge." He returned to his party, and they all crowded around him, eager expressions on their faces, and Beclem wondered how the new Spira felt to all the people on the outside. They seemed ready to grasp at any suggestion of a leader. The thought made him a bit queasy, but he tamped it down as he followed Maroda down the pathway.

They trudged down the frozen walkway, squinting against the brilliance of sun off snow. Ten minutes into their walk, Maroda stopped short, then peered down the trail. "Fiends!"

Beclem craned his head to look around Maroda, and then he saw them: Two snow wolves with an Evil Eye hovering above them. His hand fell to the pistol holstered against his right hip, already drawing the weapon as he judged the distance to the flyer; could he take it out before the fiends even noticed their presence? He lifted his arm, stepping to the side of the rest of the party to clear his shot, then sighted along the barrel before pulling the trigger. He heard Maroda's shout of surprise seconds after the report of gunfire; the Evil Eye then let out a cry, shuddering in midair as it turned its deadly gaze on them. Beclem fired a second shot, and the fiend was down, wings fluttering as it returned to pyreflies.

Maroda stared at Beclem, open mouthed. "You carry a machina weapon?"

Beclem gestured toward the wolves, who were snarling over the disappearing body of their fallen companion. "First things first. We can argue theology later. Are you going in, or can I keep firing?"

The point was made moot as the wolves rushed the party -- it was going to be close combat. Beclem holstered his gun and pulled his sword; he heard Maroda do the same, and then they closed with the wolves. Beclem slashed downward into the first beast's muzzle, but the wolf dodged, snapping at his legs. He just had time to get out of the way; another of the party had run up behind him, and she skewered the wolf on her lowered spear. The wolf howled as it died; a second later, another yelp of pain filled the air as Maroda cut the other wolf's throat.

Maroda straightened, looked around the group. "Everyone okay?" They murmured assent, and his eyes fell on Beclem. "Whatever works," he said. "Just give a little warning next time, okay? We'll talk more later."

Beclem nodded. "Yes, sir."

On the walk down, they encountered two more groups of fiends, which the team dispatched with ease. The sunlight bouncing off the snow created a terrific glare; reaching the darkened entrance to the temple was something of a relief. Once inside, the snowy trail continued, winding through near darkness. Beclem had to blink a few times before he could make out the main door in the pale blue glow of a traveler's sphere, and he hesitated. "Is it safe?"

"So far, so good." Maroda shrugged. "But step carefully, and watch for cracks and slippery ice. Anyone feels any dramatic shifting, give the signal and clear out as soon as possible. Everyone else in the usual teams; Beclem, you're with me."

The group fanned out, each pair heading in a different direction. Maroda started up the stairway in the middle of the room and Beclem followed, testing each tread with care. So far everything seemed stable despite a few ominous creaks from other parts of the building. He reached the landing a step behind Maroda, who paused at the heavy iron door. Although Beclem had never been inside this temple, he could make a pretty good guess at where they were headed: the Cloister of Trials.

Maroda stood frozen to the spot, his hand resting on the doorjamb, his expression distant. With a sigh of impatience, Beclem brushed past Maroda and pushed the door open. The hinges were stiff, and the bottom of the door first dragged, then stuck on something; Beclem leaned his shoulder against the door, putting his full weight behind it, and with a grunt got the door open, creating a gap just wide enough for him to pass.

He slipped through and found himself in a world of white. The walls and floor were made of packed snow, but every surface glistened with water, and puddles sprawled across the floor. Though no torches were visible, a dim light from some unknown source suffused the space, and it was brighter than the rest of the temple. Beclem could hear a soft dripping noise in the distance. Glancing back, he saw that the door had been caught in snow that had melted and refrozen, trapping it in place. He also saw Maroda stepping into the corridor, his eyes better focused now.

"Thanks for getting the door open." Maroda looked around, then fixed his gaze on Beclem. "Sorry about that. It's just weird, being here without Isaaru. I keep thinking about what it was like before, and how once I wouldn't have dared come in here without him."

Beclem shrugged. "Things change."

"So they do." Maroda's gaze dropped, focusing Beclem's sidearm. After a moment's consideration, Beclem drew the weapon and laid it into the flat of Maroda's open palm. He looked up and met Beclem's eyes. "Is that from Operation Mi'ihen?"

"Yeah." Beclem held out his hand to Maroda. "Go on, it won't bite."

Maroda raised an eyebrow. "Inside the temple?" He shook his head. "I know it shouldn't really matter, but..." He took a deep breath, let it out. "Thanks, though; maybe I'll take you up on it later."

"Fine. Although you might change your mind if there are fiends in here." Beclem holstered the gun and turned away from Maroda, looking down the hall. "Where should we start searching?"

"There are some chambers beneath this passageway, accessible via a ramp at the end of that hallway." Maroda frowned. "If the ramp is still there. And we should be careful; the floor here was held up by the temple's magic, and who knows how stable it is with the fayth gone."

Beclem snorted. "Just like the rest of this place. We should probably go one at a time, then, in case it won't bear our combined weight. You wouldn't happen to be a healer, would you?"

"Nope." Maroda shook his head for emphasis. "That was my brother's department."

"Oh well." Beclem took a tentative step forward, then another; the surface seemed solid enough, even though his boots made an ominous squishing noise against the softened snow. "I hope you have a lot of potions." He made his way down the hall, stepping carefully but also quickly, not letting himself settle in any one place for too long. The hallway ended at another stone door, and he could see a ramp made of packed ice to his right, leading down into what looked like a cavernous room. On his left, there was a stone pillar, about waist-high, edged with notches that looked like they would just fit a recording sphere.

No, Beclem realized, they would fit a recording sphere. There was one, on the far side of the pillar and almost buried in the wall, glittering white. This was almost too easy. "Hey, a sphere!" He reached for the treasure.

"Stop!" Maroda shouted; Beclem froze in place and looked up to see Maroda sprinting down the hallway. "Hold on, don't touch it!"

Beclem straightened, waiting for Maroda to reach his side. "Why not? Isn't this why we're here?"

"Not these. That's a Macalania sphere. It's the key the summoners used to unlock the way to the fayth. It's the magic I mentioned, that the fayth used to hold up the floor we just walked on. You take that out, and the whole structure might collapse."

"Or it might not," Beclem retorted. He should have figured that a former guardian would be full of superstitious nonsense about the temples. "If the fayth is gone, how can it still be supporting the floor?"

Maroda nodded to the sphere. "Maybe the magic is in there."

Beclem shrugged. "Only one way to find out." And before Maroda could react, he wrapped his hand around the sphere and pulled it free of the ice that had half-frozen around it. Maroda gasped, then whirled around to stare at the floor as Beclem stepped away from the pedestal, the sphere cold even through his leather glove.

Nothing happened.

Maroda let out the breath he had been holding in a rush, a cloud of steam surrounding his head. Beclem stood by the door and tried not to look too smug; from the expression on Maroda's face as he turned back, he wasn't succeeding very well. But Maroda said nothing, just started down the ramp to the floor below. Halfway down, he turned again.

"Come on," he said. "If I'm remembering right, there are two more of those Macalania spheres down here somewhere, plus a couple of others."

Beclem slipped the sphere into his bag and obliged.

-x-

It took them over an hour to properly search the Cloister of Trials, seeking out every nook, cranny, and small chamber. When they were done, they climbed the ramp, Beclem's bag heavy with four spheres, three of the blinding white Macalania spheres and one other, a green one that Maroda called a glyph sphere. Once they reached the top, Maroda turned the handle of the heavy wooden door, but it twisted uselessly in his hands.

"Locked," he said. "Or the mechanism is frozen. Either way, we aren't getting in there, not without blasting down the door, and I'm afraid if we tried that it might knock the whole temple over." Maroda looked at the stone pedestal, still frozen into the wall. "And there's nothing in there anyway."

Beclem let Maroda sit with his realization for a moment before responding. "No. But this is still a pretty good haul. Let's see if there's anything on this one." Beclem turned the sphere around in his hand, but he could see no sign of the catch one normally pressed to play the contents of a sphere. "This must be really old."

"As old as the temple, at least." Maroda took a step closer to Beclem and looked at the sphere. "Maybe the button is worn down. Or maybe there's nothing recorded on it."

"That's possible, I suppose." Beclem pulled off his gloves and ran his fingers over the sphere's surface, hard as ice and almost as cold. It winked at him, the center glittering a pure white that was almost too bright to look directly into. Finally, his finger caught in a depression barely a millimeter deep, and he glanced at Maroda with a triumphant grin. "Ha! Got it. Ready to see what's on here?" Maroda nodded, a touch slowly, but Beclem pretended not to see his hesitation. "Okay." Beclem pressed his finger into the depression, and held the sphere out so that he and Maroda could both watch.

The brilliance at the center dimmed, then faded away altogether. In its place, Beclem saw a woman standing in the center of a round room, flanked by what appeared to be two warrior monks in red uniforms. The shapeless robes of a nun covered her completely, leaving only her face visible. There were several other men and women in the room, standing in a circle around the woman.

"That's the antechamber beyond the Cloister of Trials," Maroda whispered. "On the other side of that door behind us."

Beclem nodded, not taking his eyes from the sphere. The recording was ancient, marred with static and skips, and there was no sound, but the images were easy enough to make out. One of the men, apparently a priest, raised his arms over his head and said a few words. Then he turned and walked up a small flight of stairs and through a door. The nun followed him, her head held high, the monks walking by her side. As the door closed behind them, a heavy stone panel falling from the ceiling, one of the bystanders fell to his knees, reaching out to the door, his face a mask of pain as he cried out. The woman next to him wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. Beclem had only a moment to wonder at this interplay before the scene froze on that image, then disappeared, replaced once again by the white light of the sphere.

"She can't be a summoner," Maroda muttered. "Not with that mob of people around."

"Right." Beclem pulled another white sphere from his pouch. "Maybe there's more on this one." The playback catch was easier to find this time, and as Beclem pressed it, the scene reformed, this time in a smaller room, its walls painted with the symbols of Yevon. The woman stood at the center of the room, the monks still at her side, her expression serene. The priest paced a slow circle around her, chanting -- there was sound this time, and though he couldn't be certain through the churn of ancient static, Beclem thought it might be the Hymn of the Fayth -- and then he stopped directly in front of the woman. He spoke a few words; the woman nodded, then closed her eyes and lifted her arms high, her hands opening to the ceiling. The monks stepped forward and then ripped the robes from her body, tearing them into jagged halves to reveal her nearly naked body, covered now only by a thin blue skirt and her long hair: bound into several braids, it fell past her waist. She did not move, or even appear to shiver in the wintry air. Instead, she began singing along with the priest, her voice clear and beautiful. Slowly, she lowered her arms and brought them out before her. The priest laid a thick silver chain across her hands, then bowed his head, folding his hands in prayer as he stepped away from her. And she began... to change.

Beclem had no better words to describe what he was seeing. Her skin, already light in color, began to shimmer and harden and lighten further, starting with her toes and moving up her legs, then into her torso and down her arms. Even as the color leached from her arms, it intensified in her clothes and hair, turning them a brilliant blue. With a thrill of horror, Beclem suddenly realized what was happening: The woman was turning into stone, becoming the fayth of Macalania Temple. Her breaths came faster, shallower, but she kept singing, even as she toppled forward, fell to her knees, landed face-first in the shallow pit at the center of the room. The braids in her hair spilled outward, forming a sunburst pattern around her head. Her arms and legs twitched violently, then stopped, but the singing continued; the priest knelt by her side, ran his fingers over a stone braid, and bowed his head as the scene faded away.

"Damn," Beclem breathed as he looked up, tearing his eyes from the white light of the sphere. "That was..." Beautiful? Terrible? Both. He turned to Maroda, looking to get his opinion, but Maroda was still staring at the sphere, his eyes fixed on it, round with what appeared to be horror. His face had turned ashen, and his hands were balled into fists. Beclem hesitated, then laid his hand on Maroda's shoulder. "You okay?"

"The fayth." Maroda stammered out the words. "That-- she was-- if that's what it's like--" He covered his eyes with a hand and moaned. "Yevon save me."

And then Beclem understood -- Isaaru had been a summoner. Maroda had been his guardian. If Isaaru had attained the Final Summoning, then Maroda...

He gave Maroda's shoulder a firm shake. "You were saved. We were all saved. Not by Yevon. From Yevon." Maroda looked up, meeting Beclem's eyes with a bleak stare. "Yevon did that to people. And now no one ever has to become a fayth ever again."

Maroda took a deep breath, shuddered, then nodded, and Beclem dropped his hand and stepped away. "You're right. Of course you're right. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Beclem gestured to the door. "Now let's get out of here while we still can." He followed Maroda, picking his steps carefully across the floor, which looked more treacherous than it had only an hour ago. He breathed more easily on reaching the stone stairway, but still he walked slowly until they were outside again.

-x-

The return trip to Bevelle was uneventful, and by the time they returned to the temple, the dinner hour was almost over. Maroda stayed with the team as far as the chocobo stables; once they had left the birds with their minders, he gathered them into a circle yet again. "Do I have everyone's spheres?" The other teams had turned up half a dozen others from different parts of the temple, including the sphere that Lord Jyscal had recorded to implicate Lord Seymour in his murder -- Beclem had been impressed to witness that bit of history for himself. Sons murdering fathers, fathers accusing sons: more proof that Yevon had been rotten to the core.

Maroda looked around the group and excused them to the evening meal. He held Beclem back with a look. "Thanks for your help today. You still up for that target practice? Maybe after breakfast tomorrow, assuming Lord Trema doesn't give me another urgent assignment after I turn these over?"

"Sure."

"Great." Maroda slapped Beclem's shoulder. "Welcome to the team. Again. See you tomorrow morning." And then he was gone, leaving Beclem a few steps behind his new teammates. He entered the mess hall and moved to join them at the table they'd selected at the center of the room; then he saw Nooj, seated alone, out of the main flow of traffic.

Beclem stepped out of the stream of men and women exiting the hall and debated with himself. Nooj had not been in his bunk when Beclem had gone to sleep the night before, and the bed had already been made when he got up. Where had Nooj been for the past day and a half? Beclem was concerned, but he held back. Did he really want to subject himself to another fit of temper?

Taking a deep breath, he made his way to the table and let his hand fall on the chair across from Nooj. Then he cleared his throat.

Nooj looked up, expression solemn but not angry. "Good hunting?" he asked.

"I'll tell you all about it if you like." Beclem paused. "Did you clear things up with Trema?"

Nooj's eyes narrowed. "My initial guess was correct: Trema assumed that I would prefer to join the research team, rather than hunt spheres in the field." He snorted. "Because of my 'condition'."

Beclem could hear two years of anger in Nooj's voice as he spat out that last word. "That's crazy," he said, shaking his head in sympathy.

"I know." Nooj met Beclem's eyes. "And I know that you wouldn't think otherwise." It was as close to an apology as Nooj ever got, and Beclem accepted it with a solemn nod. "Well. We spoke, and I... disabused him of that notion. He promised to speak with Soren about finding me a team tomorrow."

"Good." Beclem hesitated, then dropped into the empty chair. "But before you let anyone else decide that for you, I have an idea. See, we went to Macalania Temple today, and made a really interesting discovery." And he proceeded to tell Nooj about the temple spheres and the story they told.

When he had finished, Nooj leaned forward on his elbows, brow furrowed. "Fascinating," he said. "So Maroda thinks every temple will have these?"

"That's what he says, yeah. And we're going to go get them." Beclem sat up, noting the gleam in Nooj's eye with great satisfaction. "You should come with us. We'll go back to Kilika, and to Djose and Besaid. And maybe even--"

"Zanarkand." Nooj exhaled, sitting up so straight that Beclem half-expected to see him salute. "Can that truly be possible, that I might see Zanarkand?"

Beclem shrugged. "Don't see why not. We just need to get someone free enough of superstition to take us there."

"Zanarkand." Nooj repeated the name yet again, as though he were testing the sound of it, and his eyes focused on something very far away. Then he snapped back to attention, looking at Beclem with a curious expression of longing. "Yes. I will come with you. Assuming your team leader will have me."

"He will." Beclem nodded.

Nooj drummed his metallic fingers on the tabletop, the thump audible throughout the emptying hall. "Then I will speak with Maroda in the morning, and we'll convince Trema together."

"Sounds like a plan." Beclem grinned at his friend, and then stood up to hit the cafeteria line, looking more forward to the next day than any other time he could remember.