|The Third Guardian
Author: Auron's Legend PM
Braska's 3rd Guardian. Adventure/humor/romance. Jecht is so much more than he seems. Has Auron met his match? Braska watches his three Guardians smiling to himself! A saga of four special people who learn who they really are. A panorama of Spira & its people. Reviews are so helpful and appreciated! Enjoy!Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Humor - Auron - Chapters: 79 - Words: 462,203 - Reviews: 402 - Favs: 63 - Follows: 52 - Updated: 05-10-13 - Published: 08-27-09 - id: 5335528
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
THE THIRD GUARDIAN
He stood with crossed arms resting on the wide top of the chest-high wall, watching brilliant diamonds dancing on the ocean's surface, listening to the grating calls of soaring, white seagulls as their black eyes searched for morsels of food in the water.
Here at this outer wall on the lowest level of the city was where he could think best. There was nothing to interrupt him and it was soothing to watch the unceasing movement of the water.
As Commanding Officer of the Special Services Unit, he had broad latitude in what he could do without anyone questioning it. Very broad latitude. But with this mission he wondered if he was close to, if not on, the far edge of that latitude. Well, no worries about that; he was going regardless.
This mission was unique and important on so many levels. No one had undertaken this venture before and he knew there were great risks involved. He just hoped that he had the time to carry out the entire series of missions he had planned before the wrong people in the temple took an interest in their activities and possibly put a halt to it. There was nothing in writing that said he wasn't allowed to go there, so all they could do after the fact is relieve him of command and remove him from the military if they so chose – but by that time, the intel would have already been gathered and disseminated.
He especially wanted to avoid the notice of Wen Kinoc. His lips pressed together tightly as he thought of the man who held a position he was in no way equipped or prepared to handle. Now it was all palace politics and currying favor, anything else be hanged. He was perhaps the least trustworthy of all in that pit of vipers.
"Fayth, please keep all of them away from us!"
In this last year since the Missing Mission team had vanished there had been no call for the Unit's services. This didn't surprise him since the Unit was or had been under something of a cloud of suspicion. Consequently, Mikel had had to keep his men busy with constant training, exercises, and study.
That had served him well on two fronts: if anyone in the temple had been keeping tabs on them, all that would have been observed was routine and expected activity; and, it kept his men extremely fit, well-informed and on top of their game. After this length of time, any interest from the temple would more than likely have been satisfied long ago. They weren't known for long attention spans. There was always some intrigue within their own walls that kept them occupied watching out for themselves and scrabbling for the next high position.
He snorted quietly to himself. His men just might be the best prepared troops Bevelle had seen in a long time. Not disregarding Commander Collin by any means, but his former CO had had several major events and important issues with which to deal that he himself hadn't. At least not yet. So it had been train, train, train and train some more.
Except for the small handful of men in the Unit who had been brought in on a need-to-know basis, the rest assumed that their CO was just setting up a new training exercise - which, in a way, he was. And frankly they were looking forward to a new challenge as something to break their normal routine. They had done about all the training that could be done in the confines of their compound and they badly needed something new in order to keep a keen edge on their skills. Their CO knew that the plans he had for them would be more than enough change to last them for a good, long while.
He sighed and ran a big hand through the dark hair that was being ruffled by the steady, cool ocean breeze. He had planned and prepared for everything he could think of, but there were so many unknown factors. How do you plan for that?
What had he forgotten? What was he overlooking? Were they as prepared as they needed to be for the place he would be leading them? Was it too late in the season to begin or should he wait until spring?
He had been over the lists so many times he had memorized them. Several times he had asked Leman, his Second-in-Command, to go over them to see if he could spot anything that should be added or removed.
Always the same response. "No, sir. Looks like you have everything covered."
"If you think of anything, let me know."
A bit of a smile crossed Mikel's face. At least he needn't have any concerns about leaving the Unit in Leman's capable hands while he was out on this first excursion. He was smart, conscientious, completely trustworthy - and extremely well-trained.
Since he had selected Leman as his SiC last year, he had applied himself diligently, always quietly observing, asking intelligent questions, becoming a superior SiC - also frequently referred to as the #2 - and, in the process, was learning to become a Commanding Officer himself.
Also to Leman's credit, he had taken Renton, the Unit's Third-in-Command, under his wing and was training him in the duties and responsibilities of being a SiC.
When he resigned to join Collin, he was going to recommend that Leman succeed him as CO. Unless Leman wanted to come with him – which wouldn't surprise him at all.
At the suggestion of the previous Commander, Mikel had carefully vetted Leman concerning what the Unit referred to as the Missing Mission. During one of these conversations, the CO had asked Leman about his thoughts on what may have happened.
Sitting in the very small office reserved for the CO, Leman had thought carefully before answering.
"I tell you, sir, I've always felt that there has to be more to it than they 'just went missing'. No one knows where they were going, what their assignment was, and for not even one of them to return just doesn't add up. They were the best. Commander Collin - - - "
The sandy-haired young man sighed and took a deep breath before continuing. "Nobody was going to get the drop on the Commander unless it was a set-up of some kind, a trap. And so much crap – pardon my language, sir – but there was so much crap going on at the time, who knows what happened. Look what they did to Auron."
The CO was sitting in a relaxed position, slid down in his old chair, long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankle, left elbow propped on the desk, his chin resting on the thumb of that hand. The thumb of his other hand was, as usual, hooked into the thick leather belt he wore around a trim waist. Clear, gray eyes were studying Leman closely. They had had several of these private conversations and Leman was wondering why.
After several long moments of silence in the small office, the CO sat up straighter in his chair, still examining the face of his second-in-command with serious, narrowed eyes.
Seeming to have made a decision, the Commander said, "Leman, these talks that we have had are, as you know, classified and may not be discussed with anyone not now present. That means just you and me. That's all for now."
"Yes, sir." Leman excused himself and returned to the Day Room and his book entitled "The Fiends of Spira".
He wasn't sure where all this was leading, but Commander Mikel never made a wrong move, was always right on top of everything. When he wanted to tell him what it was about, he would tell him.
He wondered if that was a common trait in Commanding Officers. Commander Collin had been that way, Auron was that way (somebody should be hung out to dry for mistreating him the way they did) and he would be the CO right now if not for that debacle, and Commander Mikel was like that.
Leman knew he was very fortunate to be in the position in which he found himself. As the Second-in-Command on the Unit roster, he quietly observed everything his boss did, and appreciated that the Commander included him in all plans made for the Unit, that he was asked questions and that his responses were listened to with respect. He realized that he was learning a lot in the process of it all.
Commander Mikel was on a par with Commander Collin, had the same inner character. Had the same expressions in their eyes at times, missing nothing, commanding quietly, keeping everything low-key but happy.
Both handled their charges with a light touch. There was never anything expressed in front of brothers-in-arms except praise, an acknowledgment of something done well, and the like. Any negatives were always quietly discussed behind closed doors.
And, the COs never regarded themselves as above anyone else in the Unit. Nothing was ever asked of any of them that they themselves weren't willing to do. And that included regular turns on the nightly dishwashing/kitchen cleanup detail.
The sum of all this was that the men serving under them would walk through fire for them, would follow them through anything and sincerely held both with highest respect.
Mikel had told the man now known as Boss of his read on Leman and had agreed to bring him to down to the third level headquarters building for a meeting.
On the afternoon of the appointed day, Mikel had stuck his head out of his office door and called, "Leman! Got a minute?"
Mikel's #2 came from the direction of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. In the doorway of the office, he asked, "Yes, sir?"
Mikel had smiled. "Take a seat – and push that door to, if you will." It was a rare time when the CO's door wasn't open.
Mikel studied the younger man for a moment or two. Those gray eyes seemed to be boring straight through to his very soul. "Leman, you know those talks we've had on the Missing Mission?"
The CO looked down at his hands resting on battered top of the old desk a moment more. "What would you do if you ever discovered that any of them were still alive?"
Leman's brown eyes got big. "A – Alive, sir?" getting a single nod in response.
He seemed to be having trouble forming an answer to the question. "I – I just don't know, sir. They've been gone so long - -" His voice trailed off as furrows deepened between his brows as he tried to organize his thoughts.
After thinking for a moment, he looked at the man on the other side of the desk and asked quietly, "They would be in trouble if – people - knew, sir?"
"Very much so. The palace would have them immediately arrested for treason and as many other charges as they could think of, then they would be executed very, very quickly."
Brown eyes steadily met the gray ones of his Commanding Officer, "Well, sir, that being the case, I'd have to make sure that their presence was a carefully guarded secret and make very sure that none of them ever came to the attention of any who would wish them harm. They – they were my brothers in this Unit, they were the best of us."
A straight-forward, honest answer. Exactly what he wanted to hear. He smiled. "Yes, I concur in your assessment, Leman."
Mikel looked down at his strong hands that were mindlessly turning his pen over and over, thinking another minute before continuing, "I want you to go somewhere with me, Leman. You'll need to follow my lead without question until we arrive at our destination. By agreeing to go, you are agreeing that anything you see or hear until we arrive back at this compound is private, classified 'Highest Secret', and is not for dissemination to any person or persons for any reason without my express written permission. Do you understand those terms and do you swear to that on your honor?"
Leman's face was serious as he studied his Commander's face and listened to his words. Then he stood, came to Attention and raised his right hand saying formally, "Sir. It will be my privilege to accompany you. On my honor, I swear to never reveal anything I see or hear without your specific written permission. Sir."
Mikel stood and shook Leman's hand. "Thank you. Are you available now?"
'Right now? Wow, that was quick.' "Yes, sir. Do I need a fresh uniform before leaving?"
"No, in fact a civilian shirt would be even better. We don't want to attract attention to ourselves. The pants and boots are fine."
"Yes, sir. I'll only need a moment. Shall I speak with Renton, sir?"
"I'll have a quick word with him after I change and will meet you in the Day Room or outside."
"Yes, sir." His heart beating a-mile-a-minute, Leman headed in the direction of the sleeping quarters that they called "the barracks."
Mikel went into his small, private room and removed his perfectly creased uniform shirt, opened a small wardrobe and selected a plain, long-sleeved black pullover that he neatly tucked in. After running a brush through thick, dark hair, he walked to the doorway of his office.
Waving him into the office, he told the #3, "Leman and I will be out of the compound for a while this afternoon. You'll be in charge."
"Yes, sir. Anything I can help with or any instructions, sir?"
"No, but thanks. Not quite sure when we'll be back but it shouldn't be too long." He paused. "You know what to do if the wrong people should come snooping around."
"Yes, sir. Not a problem, sir."
Renton returned to his chair in the Day Room and the chess game that was in progress.
The CO walked out into the compound grounds. A moment later, Leman, now wearing a dark green shirt, also neatly tucked in, fell into step beside him.
Closing the door of the compound, both members of Spira's most elite military unit automatically scanned the area before heading to one of the long, sweeping stairways to the second level.
Given a quick, silent hand signal at the bottom of the stairs, Leman split off from the CO while surreptitiously watching for anyone who seemed even mildly interested in either of them and keeping an eye on the Commander's location at the same time. It wasn't easy given the number of people in the enormously wide plaza.
Several minutes later the SiC was roughly a hundred feet away from the Commander when he spotted a woman who appeared to recognize the CO and was following his meandering path with her eyes. He eased into a position off to the side of and slightly behind her, and when the CO's casual-appearing gaze swept in his direction, he barely tipped his head in her direction.
His eyes following Leman's alert, Mikel saw an all-to-familiar face. Not again. He sighed and continued turning away, breaking eye contact immediately as if he didn't recognize her before she mistook anything as an invitation to join him.
Moving so that one of the huge columns supporting the upper level was in her line of vision, he quickly zigzagged to a location off to her right and with satisfaction saw that she was still looking where she had last seen him, a puzzled expression on her face.
With a sigh of irritated exasperation, she pushed blond hair out of her face and returned to her errands.
Not knowing the situation with the woman, Leman had wisely crossed his arms and leaned a shoulder against another of the massive columns as if just looking at the crowd, waiting for a signal from his boss before moving. He saw a workman brush past the CO, not even slowing before disappearing into the crowd. A contact?
Mikel waited a few seconds, scanning the area one last time before tipping his head very slightly toward the nearby set of stairs to the lower level. Watching, Leman followed a short distance behind.
Once on the lower level, Leman continued following cues from the CO, finally joining him at an ordinary-looking wooden door of a building that was inconspicuous in appearance. There was absolutely nothing about the place that would cause anyone not associated with it to ever give it any notice. There were any number of such nondescript places on this level, mostly warehouses or other structures that served shipping in and out of the port.
There was a hint of a smile in the CO's eyes that flicked toward him for an instant before tapping a code onto what sounded like a very heavy, solid door. The door opened a few inches as visual identification was made, then opened for the guests to enter.
Leman was prepared for most anything, he thought, but he was totally staggered as one familiar face after another bid him welcome with a smile, a nod, a quick handshake, a clap on the shoulder, and finally accepting the outstretched hand of Commander Collin.
Leman had served under Commander Collin for several years but seeing him that first time in the headquarters building, Mikel's #2 couldn't stop himself from staring, mouth agape, at his former Commander, clearly thunderstruck.
Questions were tumbling around and colliding in a brain that was experiencing a complete system overload. Where had they - - ? What were - - ? How - - ?
He saw the Commander motion the Commander to the table, and the Commander gestured him to a seat on the other side of the table across from the Commander.
Leman's befuddled brain was thinking, 'Wait a minute - - '
Commander Collin laughed at the expressions rolling across Leman's face like the images on a sphere.
"They just call me Boss now, Leman. The Unit has only one Commander at a time."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Would you like some coffee?"
Leman shot a fast look at the cup in front of the Comman – uh, Boss – then at the Commander - his Commander - and saw the tiniest nod of his head.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Collin laughed again. "I know it is a shock, Leman, but just relax a little."
Chuckling, he pointed his thumb to himself, saying, "I'm just 'Boss'." Pointing to Mikel, he continued, "However, this is your Commanding Officer."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Fully understanding the shock of their former teammate, the men of the Missing Mission couldn't help but find humor in Leman's rote responses. Each had imagined himself being in those same shoes and tried to gauge his own reactions, but realized it just wasn't possible to fully appreciate what others who had known them before experienced.
Collin's eyes sparkled momentarily as he wondered what response he'd get if he asked Leman if he wanted to spend the next two weeks cleaning the sewers of Bevelle. He could hear it now: "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Both Collin and Mikel knew that bringing him into the small circle of confidants was the right thing to do and also knew that their trust in him would not be misplaced. Beneath that well-built exterior with the boyish-looking face was one very tough, smart soldier.
Coffee mug in hand, Collin turned to Mikel, "How's it going? About ready?"
"Getting that way."
Taking a sip of fresh coffee, Collin just nodded. He had to admit he was just a little bit jealous. How he would love to be making this trip with his former protegé. But – it simply wasn't possible. His mission was here in Bevelle.
Collin's eyes were drawn to the small vase of yellow flowers sitting on the table. Actually he wished that he could have gone some weeks earlier with another party that was headed north.
Taking a deep breath, he brought himself back to the present and began telling Leman the basic story of their decision to vanish and why; not telling everything, certainly, but enough to answer the questions that required immediate explanation.
Leman's eyes hadn't wavered from his former Commander's face, dropping to the table only when Boss had finished.
Spoken very softly, Leman's response had been a very quiet and thoughtful, "No, sir. Thank you, sir."
A tall figure ambled up and leaned against the wall beside him, crossing his arms to rest on its top.
"How's it going?"
Smiling, Mikel replied, "Good. You?"
Collin smiled and nodded.
They stood in companionable silence for several long moments, just leaning against the wall.
"As ready as we're ever going to be. Auron's information has been and will be invaluable, especially this first trip out."
Collin asked, "You sent word to Rin?" and received a nod in response.
Raiel's brother smiled, "You're going to love the hovercraft. If the rest of Spira only knew how useful they are, we would be knee-deep in them. I sent Rin a note with a few suggestions for a some things that may be useful to you. He'll tell you about them."
Again, Mikel just nodded.
After a time, Collin observed, "Something's bothering you."
Mikel shot a glance at the man now known as Boss and smiled slightly, "Yes, but I can't figure out what it is. You ever have that?"
"At times. When I did, I knew it wasn't in the planning or preparation; it was something within me that I had doubts about."
In surprise, Mikel glanced at him again. "You never showed it. You always seemed to know exactly what to do and how to do it."
Collin smiled briefly. "I learned to keep it from those in my command. Like you do now. Your men trust you implicitly because they believe about you exactly what you just said about me. When they have trust and confidence in their leader, they have trust and confidence in their training and themselves."
They both returned to their study of the late afternoon sun's brilliance on the constantly surging water below them.
Collin was thinking about the doubts that he himself had faced at times. He knew that Mikel was smart, tough, strong and a superb Commander who was really facing the biggest command decisions of his life with this mission that he knew needed to be made, had to be made. He was aware that the CO knew he had done all possible to see that he and his men returned from a successful mission in the unknown lands north of them. Anything else was up to fate and the Fayth.
After some moments, Collin spoke quietly, "Mikel, I think anyone who has led others, being responsible for their well-being and safety, at one time or another has these same self-doubts. We want to know with all certainty that we aren't jeopardizing them, leading them into situations that we can't get them out of or that they can't get themselves out of. But, in spite of how carefully we think and plan, we don't have that certainty. We never will. The very nature of a soldier's life places him in dangerous circumstances, but it is the life he chose for himself. He knows it and accepts it."
The CO nodded slightly, listening to the low voice of the man beside him. Mikel never had any doubts about his ability to lead and understood all that it entailed. Perhaps it was that this would be his first time of leading his men into a place from which it was very possible that none of them would return.
He turned his head and gave his friend a long, steady look, asking softly, "How did you do it?"
"Lead your men on your current mission. It was entirely possible that none of you would have returned for real."
It was Collin's turn to consider before answering. .
A slow smile crept into place as he turned his head to look Mikel in the eyes. "The same way you are doing with yours, Commander."
Later that afternoon after his return from the wall, Mikel met for a moment with Leman and Renton, then strode through the Day Room, his rich voice filling the place, "Briefing Room. Two minutes."
The men of the Unit appeared from all parts of the building, their boots drumming on the floor as they hurried to the room. The Commander stood on the raised platform waiting for them, boots shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind him in the small of his back. Three steps behind, flanking him on the right was Leman, Renton on the left, both identical in posture as the CO.
When all was silent, he addressed them, "All of you know that several of us will leave early in the morning for an unknown period of time to scout out and lay the groundwork for a new set of exercises I have tentatively planned - missions, if you will - that will keep us quite occupied for some time to come. The mission on which we leave tomorrow will reveal if these proposed missions are realistically feasible."
"In my absence, Leman will serve as Acting Commander until my return. Renton, will serve as Acting Second-in-Command for that same period of time. Sgt. Dailon and Cpl. Dickson will be accompanying me, so any gaps resulting from their absence will be filled by whoever Acting Commander Leman selects."
"As always, any information pertaining to this Unit will not be discussed with anyone not now present. If you are asked, you say that you do not have that information or you can simply refer that person to your Acting Commander."
A hand raised near the back which the CO acknowledged, "Macran."
"Yes, sir. Can you tell us where you're going, sir?"
"Not at this time. Need-to-know only for the present."
More hands, more responses.
Another acknowledgment. "Jesper."
Jesper stood and said a little haltingly at times, "Commander Mikel, the uh, rest of us just wanted to wish those of you on- on this mission the best of luck and – we look forward to your uh, return, sir – and may the Fayth be with you."
The Commander nodded saying, "Thanks, all of you. If this first mission goes as I expect, everyone will be spending an equal amount of time there in the months to come."
No hands raised.
As the others got up to leave, the CO asked, "Sgt. Dailon, Cpl. Dickson, will you join me in the small classroom, please?"
A pair of "Yes, sirs!" reached his ears over the sound of heavy, clumping boots. Mikel hung back for a moment as he thought over the briefing just now ended. Not nearly as many questions as he had anticipated. Maybe they had figured it out, maybe not, but these were a smart bunch.
Continuing into the smaller classroom of the two on that side of the building, he saw the sergeant and the corporal waiting for him.
Putting a smile on his face, he asked if either had been able to think of anything they needed that wasn't already included in the three huge, mostly-filled backpacks.
Sgt. Dailon replied, "It sure would be nice to have a Battle Mage with us, sir."
Mikel smiled for the benefit of the two men, saying, "That would be very nice, Sergeant. Any idea where we can find one at this hour who is totally trustworthy and willing to go with us for no pay whatsoever?"
The two men chuckled.
The smile on his face gave away no clue that his heart had clutched tightly when the subject of a Battle Mage arose. He thought of only one he wanted with him – and that wasn't happening.
"Well, I guess we finish filling in the space with spare socks, some soap, other personal items. Food will be the biggest issue so it's more important to carry as much as possible. But be sure you have your heavy uniform jacket. Completed your individual checklists?"
"Good. Let's get our showers and turn in. Long day tomorrow. Questions?"
Sgt Dailon answered, "No questions, sir. You have us well prepared, we're packed, and we'll handle whatever comes our way. And, uh, and, Cpl. Dickson and I – well, we just wanted you to know that we're proud to be making this first mission with you, sir, and thank you for choosing us. We won't let you down."
Very quietly, the CO responded, "Thank you, both of you. I appreciate that very much. I think this is going to be quite an experience for all of us."
Holding out his hand, they shook his hand strongly. "Sleep well, gentlemen. We'll be off before daylight."
"Good night, sir."
The CO stood there for another moment. 'Good men,' he thought. He had selected them for this first excursion for their steadiness and sureness, as well as for their personal thoughts and beliefs regarding other races of people in Spira. Both had been vetted carefully before being selected and fully briefed in private. Recalling their wide-eyed response at the prospect of actually riding a hovercraft, he smiled.
He stood for another moment or so just staring at the three huge bags. The three of them had even practiced getting rid of the big, heavy packs quickly in order to fight fiends they were bound to encounter. He had made sure that all three of them saved plenty of room for the vials of potions that he would purchase from Rin.
Collin had provided him with a list of the vial colors and what each potion was for. Neither Dailon nor Dickson had asked where he had obtained the information, but the three of them had spent a lot of time in the privacy of that small classroom memorizing the list, discussing the potions, knowing full well that their lives might depend on these unfamiliar substances.
As far as was known, no one other than Summoner's parties had been in the Calm Lands in much more than a thousand years. Could he and his men survive there without the benefit of powerful Aeons and magic skills? 'I guess we'll find out soon enough,' he thought.
Later, after a long hot shower, Mikel stretched out on the narrow bed that barely accommodated his six foot two inch frame, clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling as his thoughts sailed past in an unbroken armada.
The next thing he knew, Leman was quietly tapping on his door. "Your Wakeup, sir."