Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 8: "Best-Laid Plans"
Final Fantasy X
Characters: Isaaru, Maroda, Auron, Pacce, Lucil/Elma
Word Count: 2500
Summary: Planning the next Operation Mi'ihen. Is this a good idea?
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
The Story So Far: Thirteen years after Yuna falls defeating Sin, Isaaru sets the mantle of maester aside to resume his pilgrimage with his brothers. Teaming up with Auron in Besaid, they discover a pattern to Sin's attacks: it seems to be targeting temples. They meet Maester Lucil at Luca Stadium to report their findings.
The carnival ambiance of the blitzball tournament ebbed and flowed around Isaaru and his companions like another world pinned by pyreflies to a gigantic sphere. Fans cheered for their favorite players, bickered over team loyalties, lived and died with every goal. In the maesters' box, all was still.
Isaaru had been uncharacteristically stark, blunt, and brief as he narrated the bare bones of their journey. Now he and Lucil sat between two worlds, surrounded by a sea of noise. Clapping when the crowd roared, feigning interest in a match that no one but Pacce actually watched, they waited for the final moments of a Bevelle upset ("That's one for the history books, folks!") to play out so they could slip away to ponder the fate of the world.
As soon as the buzzer sounded, Isaaru and Lucil retired to a VIP suite below the maester's dais. The chamber was as dark as a Cloister of Trials, despite a few skylights. Luxurious furniture and refreshments could not disguise the fact that it had been built into the stadium's walls as a fortified retreat against attack— from Sin, or from an angry mob, to judge by its defenses. Years ago, Lucil had commanded the removal of the machina weapons embedded in the heavy doors leading out to the stadium, but the peepholes of gunsights and the stripped mountings on the doors' inner faces were a sober reminder of what Yevon could be.
Isaaru settled into a high-backed chair, his guardians forming a triangle around him. Elma helped Lucil into the seat across from him. The maester in charge of Yevon's military concealed her infirmity in public, but a chocobo accident had left her partially paralyzed. Her aide was no longer a starry-eyed cadet, but a seasoned officer with a scar half-hidden under short dark hair and a complexion weathered by years of riding.
Elma gave orders to the sentries outside and shut the doors. "There. No one's going to disturb us for anything short of a Sin sighting. The next match is in forty-five minutes, if you mean to keep up appearances."
"Thank you, Commander," Isaaru said, forgetting that he was no longer the senior official in the room.
"Djose, then." Lucil steepled her hands in her lap, expression grave. "Elma. Provide Summoner Isaaru and his party with mounts and escort them to Djose. Send couriers ahead to Mushroom Rock Lodge, advising the captain to begin battle preparations and await your arrival. We will need his ground forces as well for this operation."
"Maester Lucil," Isaaru said, half-rising from his seat. "I appreciate your support, but I cannot accept it. Did we four not agree that the tragedy of Operation Mi'ihen must never be repeated?"
"I do not forget a single face of the fallen whom our predecessors betrayed," she snapped. "But if Sin wipes out the aeons, it will strip summoners of our only weapon against it. We must defend the fayth at any cost." Her eyes flicked to Elma, who gave a melancholy little smile in return.
"Actually," Maroda said, "Sir Auron had an idea about that."
Isaaru's brows jerked upwards. "Oh?"
Auron said nothing, but looked at Maroda.
"Move the fayth." Maroda shrugged. "We can't stop Sin yet. So put the statue where it can't be harmed. Hide it."
"But won't that screw up the spirit inside?" Pacce said. "I mean, can it survive without the temple and hymns?"
"It's been done before," said Auron.
"Is that so?" Isaaru leaned towards him. "I should like to know which fayth, and where. Baaj Temple, perhaps? I have been trying to pinpoint its location."
"We're wasting time," Lucil said. "Lord Isaaru, if my Crusaders provide wagons and engineers to move the statue, can you and the priests of Djose ensure the fayth's integrity?"
"In theory, I know what prayers sustain and strengthen the bond between statue and spirit, and I have a link with the fayth which may let me soothe its unease. I believe it can be done. But I cannot be certain. If we do nothing, however, the fayth will certainly be lost."
"Then we must deploy, taking every care to minimize casualties. Elma, you will assist Lord Isaaru in removing the statue to a safe location. I suggest Lord Mi'ihen's Grotto. Order Captain Luzzu to deploy perimeter defenses around Djose Temple. Your mobile units will defend the Highroad between the temple and Mushroom Ridge. Luzzu's infantry and your knights will provide cover for the operation, keeping Sin at bay and staging a mock-defense of the temple."
Elma cleared her throat. "Ma'am, I hate to remind you, but Captain Luzzu is still on probation for heresy. What if he can somehow tell Sin our plans?"
"I'm satisfied with his explanation that it was the toxin speaking, Commander. And if not, then who better to convince Sin we are defending Djose Temple than one of its devotees? The statue's relocation will be on a need-to-know basis. Keep it concealed during transport. Use the pretext of evacuating the temple, its scrolls and relics."
"Heresy?" Isaaru said.
"Sin sightings are frequent off the coast of Djose, my lord, as you know," Lucil said. "Our patrols are sometimes affected by the toxin when it comes too close to shore. Some have fallen prey to the Cult of Sin. I confess that is one reason for our exchange program with the warrior monks. Those suffering a crisis of faith are sent to Bevelle, where Maester Shelinda can take them under her wing."
"Or to the Calm Lands to be whipped back into shape," Maroda said, shaking his head. "I wondered why you kept sending us your scraps."
"But Captain Luzzu has commanded the lodge at Mushroom Ridge for ten years," Elma said. "He's refused promotions or transfers. He's gone a little loopy. I caught him up on the headland just talking to Sin one day. He said he was keeping it company so it wouldn't attack."
Maroda snorted. "Sounds like someone else we know."
Auron ignored the jibe. "Are we finished?"
Lucil nodded. "Indeed. Summoner Isaaru, have you any other suggestions?"
"Only that I would urge you to authorize machina for this operation. Your troops—"
"—will stand a better chance than they did thirteen years ago, if we don't use forbidden machina and provoke Sin's retribution. However, this will be a good time to test the new Lightning Rock Shield."
"Anyway, Sin's not going to blow up its garden," Elma said with a chuckle. "It's mellowed."
"Don't worry, ma'am, I'm not going to start worshipping it just because it's sending us flowers." She sobered. "So. Move statue, check. Keep it under wraps, check. Have Luzzu's lodge guard the temple, check. Chocobo Knights along Highroad. Activate shield. Fall behind the barriers the instant Sin starts glowing. Are we set?"
"You have your orders, Commander. And... Elma?"
Lucil clasped her forearm firmly. "I will see you when this is over. I expect a thorough debriefing. Understood?"
The officer's cheeks colored. "Yes, ma'am."
"Please have it," the youth standing in the road said, holding up a leather pouch to Maroda. "My mother carried it on pilgrimage. There's a half-dozen remedies. She... didn't get a chance to use them."
The boy looked about Rikku's age, thought Auron, watching the exchange with fatalistic detachment. He knew the pattern, he recognized the cycle, he knew every tiresome beat of this movement in futility, but somehow when the faces were new and young he could entertain a fleeting hope that it might play out differently. That had been his downfall the last time, after all.
"Well..." Maroda shot a glance at Auron, as if the legendary guardian's fame were somehow to blame for these obstructions.
"Just take it," Auron muttered. "It's quicker."
No, he corrected himself. Not Rikku's age. She should be almost thirty, practically old enough to be the boy's mother. It was a minor slip, but troubling. Auron's grasp of time had been growing fuzzy, a warning sign that he might not have much time left.
"We shall honor your mother's memory," Isaaru said warmly, "and use your gift to help us save Spira. You have our thanks."
"Get back to the village now, kiddo," Elma said. "My knights have been pulled off patrol to escort Lord Isaaru, so there may be fiends about." In fact, most of the Mi'ihen Highroad patrols had been sent ahead to prepare. The four mounted Crusaders accompanying the summoner's party were hardly sufficient to cover so much territory.
"Yes, ma'am... thank you, my lord!" The youth bowed in Yevon's prayer, then turned to head back to the cluster of homesteads that had sprouted on the bluffs around the Al Bhed trading post. Faces peeped through windows, watching the cavalcade go by.
Maroda passed the pouch to Isaaru. "Fourteen-year-old potions," he said in a low voice. "Don't get them mixed up with the rest."
Isaaru slipped it into a saddlebag. "Thank Yevon he turned them over to us before someone tried to use them."
"We can drop them off at the hazardous items dump below Mushroom Ridge," Elma said. "Come on, let's put some leagues behind us. Ya!"
Chocobos. Auron had never enjoyed jogging along on a giant bird whose neck stood in the way of a good swing, but speed was vital. They had already wasted half a day in Luca.
Swift couriers had been sent ahead with Lucil's orders, but Isaaru had stayed through the tournament to present a semblance of normality and curtail rumors already brewing around his abdication and Sin's latest attacks. The Bevelle Bells' victory parade had turned into a citywide farewell celebration for Summoner Isaaru, since their achievement was hailed as a good omen for the grand maester's pilgrimage. There had been balloons, showers of flower petals (but no rainbows), special pre-Calm sales from street vendors, and live music provided by the Macalania artists colony. Sphere had cameras flashed like fireworks among the throngs lining the roads, eager to record pictures of the next High Summoner and his soon-to-be-legendary guardians. The city PA system had broadcast coverage of the parade interwoven with hastily-thrown-together retrospectives and expletive-laden interviews from sailors recounting Sin's defeat at Kilika. Auron's fight with a dragon in the stadium thirteen years ago had been shown at least a dozen times.
There had been no "fireworks and wailing women," but Jecht would have been delighted. On the whole, Auron shared Braska's preference for a discreet exit.
Unfortunately, fans were not found only in Luca. Pacce was bubbling over again, thanks to Elma's loose tongue. "Hey, Sir Auron, is that where you killed the Chocobo Eater?"
Auron gave a noncommittal grunt.
"That's how it's done," Elma said. "Local Al Bhed had been having problems with it for weeks, but all it took was a few swords and Sir Wakka beaning it with a blitzball! So much for machina!"
Not to mention a black mage capable of roasting a chocobo in ten seconds, Auron thought. Apparently, sports icons and disgraced warrior monks made better celebrities than an aloof young woman, however striking.
Riding made speech difficult, so they ceded conversation to the wind for a while. At their next check, walking the birds across a bridge, Isaaru spoke again. "Commander. I wish you'd reconsider the use of machina. Normally I should never presume to second-guess the general's wisdom on military matters, but I am worried that personal feelings are impeding her judgment. Her desire to atone for the mistakes of Operation Mi'ihen is causing her to make another."
"Sir," Elma said, "if Maester Lucil allowed personal feelings to sway her judgment, she'd never put me in charge of such a dangerous operation. For that matter, she'd not have authorized it in the first place. It kills her every time she has to send the Crusaders into battle while she sits on her ass."
Behind them, Pacce made a choking noise.
Elma grinned. "You're authorized to laugh, kiddo. There's no warrior monks around to give a damn." She waved an arm vaguely at Auron. "At least, I don't think there are."
Auron snorted. "No."
"I respect that Lucil has always put personal…considerations aside, but that's not the same thing," Isaaru said. "It's her feelings towards machina that blinker her. We are pitting the Crusaders directly against Sin, something we had hoped never to do again. As the general said, we must use everything in our power to minimize casualties."
Elma shook her head, holding the reins of his chocobo for him to remount. "I know you're trying to save lives, sir, but you should know better. Machina fall under 'matters of conscience,' remember?"
"Ah. Yes. I'm sorry, Elma."
"Hey, no problem." Elma swung herself up on her own chocobo. "Look, we have safeguards in place that we didn't last time. And we're not going to engage Sin more than we have to. This is a defensive operation, not an attack."
"'Matters of conscience'?" Auron said as they set off again.
"Questions for which the teachings are inadequate," said Isaaru. "In practice, issues on which the Four Maesters disagree. A necessary reform, we felt, to correct Yevon's mistakes. For such questions, no one, not even a maester, may impose his judgment on another. On matters of conscience, each Crusader lodge sets the rule, and any soldier who believes differently may ask for transfer to another lodge."
"Most Crusaders don't permit use of machina," Elma said. "Except for that renegade there." She grinned at Maroda.
Maroda tapped the spear strapped beside him. "Does this look like a grenade launcher to you?"
"Don't play coy, Captain. I know how you train troops to deal with basilisks."
Maroda chuckled. "That's because my men don't use big flapping chocobos to run away."
"As you were," Elma said, when one of her knights twisted in the saddle to glare. "Yo, Maroda, wanna come hunting with me tonight and back up that big talk? Let's see how you handle a dual-horn."
"Elma, Maroda, please," Isaaru said. "Sparring must wait for a later date. How much farther until Mi'ihen Lodge?"
"We'll be there by sunset, sir, if we keep making good time," said Elma. "Oh! By the way, you guys haven't seen the Memorial Gardens yet, right?"
"No, we haven't," Isaaru said.
"You're in for a treat, then."
"Does Sin really make the flowers grow?" Pacce said.
"Hard to say, kiddo. The weather's been crazy these last few years, but that doesn't explain how we started getting roses growing in sand that's half salt." Elma laughed. "One thing I know for sure: if Sin's behind it, it's not doing it to give the off-duties someplace to sneak off and get laid."
You never know, Auron thought, his quiet "hmph" masked by Pacce's nervous laughter. Nevertheless, he suspected other powers besides Venus were at work.
Look for me in my garden, Auron.
He was sourly amused at himself for the impulse to kick the damn bird to run faster.
Next Chapter: Memorial Gardens
Meta: It's never spelled out in-game, but the maesters under Mika each seem to be responsible for a branch of government: military (Kinoc), religious (Seymour), and judicial (Kelk). Their replacements here are Lucil, Shelinda, and Baralai. Baralai is also civil administrator of Bevelle, while Lucil oversees the Crusaders from her seat in Luca.
Chapter Renumbering: This was originally chapter 10 (the meeting with Lucil) and chapter 11 (on the road).