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