A/N - It's back!
I hope to get onto something of a regular update schedule again; like before, I expect new chapters to come in fits and starts as I have time and inspiration.
A quick refresher on the original characters: Lissira, a.k.a. Liss, is the daughter Auron that never knew. She's a cadet in the Spira Defense Force, the group that sprang up to replace the Crusaders. Arelle, a.k.a. Relle, is her mother. Maura is her roommate. Kenna, Repparu, and Sam are other cadets, all friends of Liss's. Kal is a commander in the Defense Force and served with Auron in the warrior monks. He's also Sam's uncle.
We left off with Auron's death in the Calm Lands Travel Agency. The story picks up on the same day, some hours later.
When I woke, moonlight was streaming through the window of my room in the Travel Agency.
I sat up. The pain was gone, which should have been impossible. Gingerly, I reached up to touch my face. It was crusted with dried blood, and I still could not open the right eye. I realized then that I would probably never open it again.
But I should not have been able to open either eye: I had died. I knew that with utter certainty. My injuries were fatal; I had felt my body fail. How was it that I had even awakened? Was this a miraculous recovery? Had I returned from death somehow?
I swung my legs over the side of the bed and carefully stood. Then I turned back to the cot and froze.
A man lay there, totally unmoving. The limbs did not stir, the chest did not rise and fall with breath, no pulse throbbed in the throat. The right side of his face was slashed from hairline to jaw and his flesh was a pallid gray. There was no doubt that this man was dead.
And there was no doubt that he was me. I was looking at my own corpse.
I swallowed, hard. For a moment I wondered why I could do that, then dismissed the thought. There would be another time to examine my physical form; first, I needed to figure out why I was still here at all, why I was--
My mind shied away from the word, refused to think it or give it form. Later, I would face that particular truth later.
I had refused to accept Braska's death, or Jecht's. Apparently, I was also refusing to accept my own, and I began to search for a reason. Naturally, my first thought was of Arelle. Was she holding me here, keeping me from the Farplane?
The realization cut through my soul with pain sharp as a dagger, but I also knew it to be true. Every promise we had made to one another, every oath we had sworn, was said with the understanding that death released us from them. I still loved her, would always love her. But I was no longer bound to her. She was not holding me to this world, would not in fact want this for me. She would want me to rest, as I would wish for her at the time of her death. No, it was not Relle.
Nor was it Braska. I had seen him safely to Zanarkand; I had protected him as he defeated Sin; I had done all I could to ensure that Yuna would be safe, well-cared for, and far from Bevelle. My duties to him were discharged as well.
What remained? What promise had I...
I groaned aloud. Was this the promise that bound me? Of all the things for my honor to seize upon as a reason to continue beyond death: a rash oath sworn to a man I barely knew, rarely understood, hadn't respected half the time, and who somehow despite it all had become a friend.
But there it was. This answer resonated with me. I had sworn to protect the son of Jecht, and death had not excused me from the vow. Somehow, I would find a way to the living Zanarkand, to the boy, to Tidus.
First, though, I would need to do something about the body.
The sun shone down on the Highroad, promising another perfectly gorgeous late summer day. The cadets gathered quietly, shading their eyes against the bright sunlight, peering at the instructors who waited for them on a grassy plain. Lissira stood restlessly, Paine's old sword strapped to her back, the unfamiliar machina rifle the assistant instructor had handed her loose in her hands.
"Greetings." Paine saluted the class, and her students returned the gesture with the usual polite responses. "Welcome to today's rifle session. I'm sure you're all looking forward to using live ammo and hunting fiends for the first time. First, please take a moment to welcome Commander Kal, your special guest instructor." She gestured to where he stood on her right, then melted into the background. The cadets stood a little straighter, saluted a little higher, said "good morning sir" with a little more force. Liss followed suit, although she was having difficulty reconciling the man in the pressed uniform with the jovial fellow with whom she had lunched and reminisced yesterday afternoon.
"Thank you, Captain. Greetings, cadets." Kal looked the recruits over, then began speaking on the use of projectile weapons. Once the lecture was finished, the assistant came around with a stock of ammunition and organized the cadets into groups of three. She found herself teamed with Repparu and Sam. The Al Bhed boy showed the other two how to load their weapons and work the controls, and then they were led to the nearby firing range.
Each team was called up to the firing line; the commander took a moment with each cadet to check on grip and stance. Then the three fired on the targets, and Kal critiqued their performance, giving praise and correction as needed. Liss's group went last, and she took her place on the line between the boys, nerves jangling. She was filled with a powerful desire to prove her skill, to show this commander that she was worthy to be known as her father's daughter. She lifted the sight to her eye, doing her best to line it up with the target. Kal, who had merely glanced and nodded at Repparu, moved on to Liss and adjusted her grip. "Fine," he said, nodding again. Then he turned to his nephew. "Not like that, Sam, like this." He pulled the weapon from the boy's hands and reseated it. This time Sam was the one to nod, a slightly grim expression on his face.
"Ready?" The assistant's high, clear soprano rang out. "Aim, fire!"
Liss pulled the trigger, hitting the target, although nowhere near the center. The command was repeated three more times; each time, Liss came a little nearer to the bulls-eye, but she never quite made it there.
The commander came back to the group and looked over their targets. "Fine job," he said to Repparu, who had hit near the center three times out of four. "You too, Liss. A little more practice with your aim and you should have it. Good effort, Sam, we'll talk later." The Kilikan's bullets had found their target only once, a hit on the edge of the outer ring. Sam looked past his uncle and stalked away from the line, refusing Liss's attempts to catch his eye.
"All right!" Kal clapped his hands once. "Nice work all around. Now let's see how you do against the fiends. Cadets, form up and follow me!"
Clutching her weapon and a pouch of ammunition, Liss fell into formation between Maura and Repparu, her attention drawn to Sam's stiff shoulders two rows ahead of her as they marched out to the Highroad.
Clothing was the first order of business. The night was chilly, and dead or not, I could hardly walk around naked. I had caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and I appeared to be substantial, an impression confirmed when I kicked the bedpost and felt pain in my toes. I stripped the corpse and then dressed. The entire procedure was rather eerie, and I only got through it by forcing myself not to think about the reality of what I was doing. Then I wrapped the body in the sheets so that I wouldn't have to look at it any more.
My coat was hanging on a hook on the back of the door, and I put it on, pulling both arms through the sleeves for warmth. Two swords and a jug were propped against a nearby wall. I fastened the smaller sword, Jecht's sword, the one I had promised to deliver to his son, to my belt, opposite the jug. I then picked up my own much longer and heavier weapon and took an experimental swing. It still felt natural in my hands, like an extension of my arms. So I had retained my skills along with my senses; good. I sheathed the sword and strapped it to its accustomed place on my back.
Now for the disposal. Deep water would have been easiest, but there was no lake or ocean for days in any direction. I could build a cairn or dig a grave, probably the former since I had no access to digging implements. But where would I find enough small stones for that on the Calm Lands? I then considered hiking to the gorge and tossing the corpse into its depths but quickly discarded that idea -- the chance existed, however small, that someone might find the body, and it would take more than a day to reach the lip of the gorge; I might be seen on the journey. Some instinct told me that I didn't want the fact of my death widely known. Without physical evidence, Rin might assume that I had made a miraculous recovery, then left under my own power.
There was only one solution, really. It would have to be fire.
I took one last look around the room. There was a small stack of paper and a quill on the desk in a corner. I picked up the pen, dipped it in ink, and wrote one word across the top sheet, one of the few bits of Al Bhed that Tessa had taught me: "Drygnc."
I opened the window as far as it would go, pushed the corpse through, then followed, rolling onto the ground. I went around to the back of the inn and lifted several logs from the woodpile, then wound them into the sheet. With a grunt, I lifted my heavy, grim load and tossed it over my shoulder, an odd echo of the way I had carried Braska to his final resting place only a few days before. And I began to walk.
It took me two hours to be comfortable with the distance I had put between myself and Rin's establishment. After stacking the wood and laying the still-swaddled body across the top, I pulled a flint from its permanent home in my right coat pocket and lit my own funeral pyre. I shaded my eyes from the heat and brightness of the flames but did not look away -- I needed to watch this. Perhaps viewing the destruction of my body, of the shell which had housed my soul for twenty-four years, would make the fact of my death real to me.
It did, in a way. Eventually, when ash and bones were all that remained, I could finally bring myself to say the word. "Unsent," I murmured aloud, casting my eyes to the first streaks of dawn in the eastern sky. "I am unsent, and so I will remain until my quest is fulfilled." It was time to make my way to Zanarkand.
With no real thoughts on where to go, I decided to head for the ancient Zanarkand ruins. Perhaps I would find some answer in that place. I no longer had any doubt that Jecht's Zanarkand was a real place -- the utterly bleak expression in his eyes upon seeing the ruins of his home city had convinced me that he was exactly who and what he claimed. It existed somewhere, and I would find a path that led there. I set off to cross Mount Gagazet one more time.
Along the way, I experimented with this new existence. The body with which I had found myself still craved food, water, and rest, though in lesser quantities than before. When I slept, I woke refreshed, but it was an odd sort of sleep -- I closed my one working eye and was gone, with no sense of dreams or of time passing between then and waking. I had no supplies, so I hunted for food and melted snow for water. My reflexes and sword-wielding ability seemed unchanged, except that my aim was often off, my sword falling short or missing its target about half the time. I blamed my sudden lack of depth perception; I would need to adjust. Because of this problem, I soon learned that I could still be injured, that wounds bled and hurt as much as they ever had. Since I had no source of healing, I traveled with care and avoided battle whenever I could.
One major difference presented itself: I could choose to be insubstantial. At first I had visions of simply walking through the mountain, but I found that keeping myself ghostly required tremendous concentration, and it took almost as much effort to push myself through solid rock as it would have taken when I was alive. So I kept to solid form and traveled in the conventional way.
With my reduced need for rest, it took me only three days to reach the Gagazet summit. Once there, I paused and looked out over the ruins. Now what?
I looked around wildly for the source of the familiar voice.
"Auron! Over here." The voice speaking directly into my mind was Jecht's. I felt an irresistible mental prodding in the direction of the Zanarkand ocean; I peered out and saw a small dark shape there. A gray creature, covered in scales, swimming in circles. Sin. A small Sin, a weak Sin, but Sin nonetheless.
If Yunalesca had told the truth, it was also Jecht.
"What should I do?" I thought back.
"Get down here, any way you can," came the reply. "But make it quick! I don't know how much longer he's gonna let me stay here."
Despite the changes to my physiology, I would probably spend a day walking down the mountain trail. But I had another option. After taking a moment to collect myself, I took a running leap off the edge of the cliff, springing forward with as much force as I could.
Even knowing that the fall couldn't kill me any deader than I already was, plummeting through the air was terrifying. At the last second, I made myself insubstantial and aimed for the water. Immediately after the moment of impact, I returned to solidity and broke the ocean's surface, splashing and sputtering.
"Okay, now go ghost again," said the voice in my head. I obeyed, and Sin rushed me.
For a moment everything went black. Then my vision adjusted, and I saw that I stood on a platform above a darkened city, my hands resting on a railing. The metropolis before me was just as deserted as the ruins of ancient Zanarkand, but the buildings of this city were intact and lit up with machina tubes and globes. Jecht was standing next to me, absorbing the view. Then he glanced at me. "Hey." He looked me up and down. "So you're dead?"
I paused, then nodded. "Yeah."
"Huh. Looks like it hurt," he said, gesturing to the eye.
"It did." I peered at him curiously; he looked much as he had before disappearing into Yunalesca's chamber. "What about you?"
"Am I dead, or did it hurt? Short answer to the second question: yes." He shuddered. "Don't wanna talk about that, really. And the first, well. I can't really say. Alive, dead, maybe somewhere in between? Still not really sure what's goin' on here. But I do know one thing -- we can take you to Zanarkand. That's where we're goin' anyway."
My friend shrugged. "That's one of the things I don't understand. There's someone else here, and he needs to go to Zanarkand. Not this one; mine. Don't know who he is, exactly, or which of us is in control, but if he wants to head for Zanarkand I ain't complaining. Well, let's go!"
The platform lurched beneath my feet and the world swirled into a confusion of light and sound. I grabbed at the handrail and held on; it was the only thing that remained substantial. Time passed as we traveled -- I could not be certain how much. Then we stopped with another jolt and I found myself hurled forward with such force that my grip slipped and I flew through the air, everything in my vision turning white. Perhaps I lost consciousness for a moment. When I was aware again, I found myself standing on a beach at sunrise, gulls crying overhead in a cloudless sky, the dark shape of Sin disappearing into the distance.
Jecht's voice echoed in my head one last time. "Remember your promise. Find my son. I'll be back someday."
I unlatched my jug and raised it to him in salute. Then I turned my back on the sea and was immediately struck by the sight of a metropolis. As large as Bevelle but with much taller buildings, it gleamed with metal and lights and machina.
Machina. I was going to have to get used to that. It seemed that I would be getting used to a lot of things. But worrying about all that could wait. My first priority was finding Tidus. I took my first steps off the beach and onto a metal walkway leading into the city where I would spend the first ten years of my death.