Ritual disclaimer: The recognizable names and places in this pathetic offering belong to Square/Enix. What has been done with them, for good or ill, is my responsibility and does not reflect on any other.

This is a sequel to The Exit.

As Flies to Wanton Boys

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.

William Shakespeare

Chapter One

He no longer dreamt. At least he no longer remembered if he did dream. His life was consumed now with the destruction of the spawn of Sin and attendant fiends. At the end of a day of fighting, he was likely to sink down where he stood and sleep wherever his body found sufficient space to lie, stretched out or curled like a grub, it no longer mattered. It was less sleep than the departure of consciousness. And he welcomed it, this deep darkness into which he found himself descending at intervals, this place of no sensation and no memories.

Blood and less savory fluids had dried and caked on his exposed skin. He could not remember the last time he had washed. Sometimes in the midst of a fierce battle, he would find himself mentally transported back to a time when he had been clean both physically and emotionally, when he had felt at peace and could bear to touch his own flesh without a shudder. There was never any time nor ever any facilities for rest and bathing. Existence had become reduced to an unending slog through a mephitic fog of kill and try to stay alive.

Why try to stay alive? He was Deathseeker and always, even in this unthinking condition, aware of that. Nothing he had yet encountered seemed worth the dying. He was sworn to seek a proper place to die with honor and falling to the feeble attacks of purely bestial fiends did not meet those standards. He would be damned if he would die anonymously in a minor struggle with inferior foes.

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Nooj had made a relatively ordinary entrance into the Crusader Corps upon graduation from the three year course of training mandated for those who would be officers in the Spiran Army. As a junior, he had been given command of a platoon – the Crusaders did not organize into large groups, preferring to field smaller more flexible units and rewarding individual distinction over mass action.

Once supplied with his crimson dress uniform, which set off his dark hair and eyes very well, he slipped into his place in the initial reviewing with only the slightest of stirs. Certain details of his nascent career had preceded him but nothing to his discredit. Some of the less mature of his fellow lieutenants strained their eyes to catch a glimpse of the famously scarred back as he smoothed the tight garment which made up most of the uniform over his shoulders and across his chest. He ignored the murmurs as they took note of the most recent, still scarlet, marks of the whip.

The elastic fabric of the uniform felt so strange after the loose fit of his cadet garb and defined the shape of his body so exactly he was uncomfortable before the staring eyes of the others in the room. He rarely used a mirror thus knew little of how he appeared to those around him but he was sensible enough to realize there was a good percentage of lust in the gazes which lingered so obviously on his form. It was with some relief he discovered he was not expected to wear the close-fitting outfit for any but ceremonial events, it being too colorful for field use. However, since the more subdued uniform for actual fighting was hardly less snug, his relief was short-lived. He had to admit it was useful to wear clothing which did not snag on obstacles and did not offer fluttering sleeves or such as a target, but he would have been more comfortable in garments which did not reveal quite so many of his contours to the casual onlooker.

He was made even more uncomfortable by the fact he was now responsible for about thirty persons of both genders and varying degrees of skill in the arts of war. During his three years in training, he had been required to take on the leadership of groups and had, during the execution of exercises, lost two persons under his command. Although neither loss had been his personal fault, he had felt the failures acutely and had, in fact, suffered the whip's thongs for each. Now, he was in charge of a platoon and in line for the leadership of more and he hated it. All he had ever wanted was the privilege of going alone in pursuit of his own Death. Taking a sizable number of other persons with him held no attraction.

Nooj was Deathseeker. In any society which is forced to value physical force as a means to defend itself and to elevate the military to a revered position, there will be a certain number of persons who find the concept of actively hunting a way and place to die irresistibly appealing. After so long a time of struggling against Sin and the threat of that mighty enemy, Spira had accepted the existence of such nihilists and given them a name – Deathseeker. There were never many at any given time for the obvious reason they tended not to live long lives and not many persons found the notion of suicide greatly attractive. A felo-de-se, while inherently romantic, does not reap the lasting rewards of heroism or fame. Exact records had never been kept but it was generally assumed that there would be no more than two or, maybe, three of that persuasion at any given moment. In fact, so far as anyone could determine, Nooj was the only one living at this precise time. Since Spira found fatalists to be of use in the continual battle, no effort was made on the institutional level to dissuade them. However, such tolerance was not the rule on the ground. Few troops were eager to be led by a known Deathseeker.

It was only after several months and numerous missions against the burgeoning fiend population that Nooj was able to begin to extricate himself from the more conventional part of the Corps. He volunteered for single forays which were considered too dangerous for most of his companions and gladly joined with one or two other risk-takers to engage in behind the scenes guerilla-type actions involving assassinations and the like. In spite of his height, he possessed the enviable skill of being able to disappear when he wished, to come from nowhere to remove a traitorous figure, then vanish back into the landscape before being identified.

It was one such deed which earned him his public cognomen. At the headquarters to which Nooj was attached, it had become known that a certain Guardo had thrown his lot in with profiteers who were preying upon refugees who were making their way from the devastated areas near the shore toward the supposedly safer region inland. Darundum, for such was his name, had set up a small but reportedly impregnable camp on the near side of the Moonflow from which he extorted what little of value the fleeing people had managed to retain, both by overcharging them for supplies and by directly selling them 'protection' for the next stage of the journey. This enterprise was itself protected by an army of thugs who served as bodyguards for the Guardo chief and as the mercenary defenders of those to whom he sold safety. It was generally agreed amongst the Crusader leaders that the removal of Darundum would cause the criminal network to fall apart and would deter others who seemed set on the same path. The problem – how to reach into the organization and pluck out the central figure? It was a suicide mission with small hope of success. Of course, upon hearing of the tentative plans, Nooj stepped forward. It was just what he was always looking for.

When he returned from this excursion, carrying the head of the Guardo in a pouch at his belt, his clothes torn and bloody, he was hailed as a hero. Then when he collapsed and it was revealed he had been shot through the thigh and slashed deeply across the ribs by a saber and had still managed to slaughter a goodly number of the outlaws who had defended the chief criminal, he was exuberantly celebrated as 'Die Hard' or 'Undying' by those who found it difficult to conceive of mastering pain and injuries in order to finish a job. It was at this point many reconsidered the advantages of serving under the command of this particular Deathseeker. He seemed lucky in a contradictory fashion. To their disappointment, he showed neither a desire for followers nor any awareness that he would be readily followed.

After removing Darundum, Nooj found it easier to pursue his solitary way. The Crusaders became his home in a way Kilika had not been since the death of his parents. He was no longer expected to shoulder the responsibility for ordinary troops, being saved for those times when a unique and skillful strategist was required. He still fought in the set battles against Sin spawn and other congregations of monsters, but those battles had become little more than practice games for him, events in which he could experiment with the various ways of prolonging the deaths of his foes. He was becoming quite inventive in that art.

In his personal life, he maintained a rigorous privacy. During his years at training camp, he had permitted into his citadel two living creatures: Kaith, his second in command and his lover, and Nepetu, the orphaned kit of a pair of Coeurl he had killed. These two shared his bed, one platonically, the other not, and his innermost thoughts. When Kaith died in an exercise Nooj himself had designed, he had been unable to mourn her properly and so she remained an unresolved part of his past. The coeurl he had been forced to return to the wild when he entered the Crusaders, there being no place for animal companions in the Corps. The pain of those losses made him resolve never to permit such closeness again.

So Nooj was alone. He did not make friends easily and chose to hold himself apart from his fellows in the service, not wanting to risk human concerns clouding his judgment or hampering his decisions. So, for diversion, he availed himself of the pleasure houses which always spring up near army encampments and, more cautiously, those less easily found houses which cater to other tastes. In this manner, he was able to sublimate to a degree the cold despair which had become an integral part of him in order to concentrate on his unvarying resolution.

Within months of entering the Crusaders, the young officer believed himself to be well positioned to accomplish his primary intention – his own honorable death. He offered his life again and again, only to find it handed back to him like an dropped handkerchief. It mystified him that so many of those around him died with such apparent ease while he remained breathing. In an effort to rectify the unbalance, he became ever more daring, rushing into dangers even immortals would have found daunting and yet emerging, shot, cut, bruised, burned, but alive. So it was that those who served with him almost forgot his proper name, calling him simply 'Undying' as had those who were familiar with the Darundum exploit. The scars he bore equaled the decorations he earned and yet he lived.

It is generally understood amongst professional military philosophers the most difficult and important part of making a soldier is not teaching techniques of weapons use nor strategic planning nor any of the other minutiae which go into the making of war, but rather training the individual how to summon up the mental strength to kill. In this, Nooj had a rare and very nearly unique edge. He had never lacked that ability. He was able to step aside from the act and judge it dispassionately. He was one in whom nature and experience had combined to shape a Warrior – for however brief or extended a time. As such, he killed his enemy when it was necessary and ignored him when it was not. He could maintain his mind as a compartmentalized structure in which various realities did not overlap. This enabled him to be Deathseeker and yet not die carelessly and to no purpose. He was beginning to come to terms with his existence, for so long as he must endure it.

During this period of hard but sporadic fighting, Nooj exercised rigorous discipline over his memories. He had carefully and meticulously stripped as much humanity as possible from himself before he had accepted his commission in the Crusaders. He was not about to permit any softness to erode his purpose now. When the fragile image fragments of Nepetu or Kaith made themselves manifest at the corners of his mind, he banished them with efficient dispatch lest he be seduced into grieving for his losses. Still, sometimes in the night, when he was very tired and his defenses were at their lowest, he was visited by the phantoms of his humanity and touched the great cat or the woman with fingers which hungered for softness. He never remembered any of this in the mornings.

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It was with some trepidation, Nooj received the summons to report to the office of his chief that morning. He was reasonably content with his position in the Crusaders and dreaded any change. He had earned the rank of Captain and was mostly left to his own devices. And always at the back of his mind was the possibility of his private amusements being uncovered and official notice being taken. Therefore, when he stood at attention before the desk of Major Ciele, he regarded the man with a wary eye.

"Sir. You commanded my attendance, sir."

"Yes, Captain Nooj, I have been reviewing your actions and behavior since you came into the corps a half-year ago and have noted your talent for undertaking difficult assignments on your own. That has given me an idea."

"Yessir." Nooj was properly suspicious of new ideas. All too often they were inferior to the old ones and, like a cat, he did not like change.

The Major continued, shuffling the papers on his desk, "I have in mind the creation of a squad of approximately eight to ten men to constitute a mobile, highly flexible source which can be quickly dispatched to handle tricky problems like the one with that Guardo, Darundum. It takes too long to ready, form up and march a Company or more of us to put out brush fires and such a small effective group would be more in accord with the original spirit of the Crusaders. What do you think?" He peered near-sightedly up at the young man.

Nooj was taken aback. It was not the usual thing for a senior officer to ask a junior's opinion. "I have no thoughts on the matter, sir. It is a question for an experienced Warrior such as yourself. Sir." He added the second honorific just to be safe.

"But I intend to appoint you to head the squad. Go over to that table. The rolls of the available troops are there and I want you to select the ones you think would be suitable. Choose those you can work with well." Ciele gestured carelessly and promptly ignored the bristling Nooj.

The young Captain did as he was told, all the while raging within. He had learned some discretion during his final year in training. Choose people he could work with! Choose suitable people! He had made no intimates amongst his fellow Corpsmen and worked best alone. The only guidelines he could use were the names of those he had accompanied on other forays. Would there be enough of them to fill a squad? He knew from experience that any who had fought alongside him personally would follow him because he had the reputation of putting his own life at risk before hazarding that of his men. They would not be deterred by his reputation as Deathseeker. With some searching, he found nine who were suitable and grudgingly made a list. There it was - once again, he would be bound to the leadership cross and forced to consider, not just his own fate, but that of those he led. Bah! As so often before, he was confirmed in his belief that change was generally a bad thing.

He surveyed his list one more time - none of them had yet made rank higher than lieutenant. He thought, with justification, those who needed to rise would be less likely to hold back in the face of danger and wished for the first time he had taken the trouble to get to know some of the younger inductees better before being forced to this decision.

"Will this be adequate, sir?" he asked stiffly as he laid the paper on the Major's desk.

Ciele looked at the names. "I note you are choosing those with no strong ties to anything other than the army. Well done. I knew I could rely on your intelligence. This is fine. You may inform your choices of their good fortune, have them pack their gear and be ready to leave in two days' time. ... Oh, and if you like you have permission to choose a name for your squadron." He laughed a little nervously at suggesting so puerile a thought to the frozen faced Nooj. For some reason, he was nervous around the man, finding in him something so far undefined and frightening. "Some find it helps unit cohesion. Dismissed."

Nooj looked at the man who was a Major in the Crusaders with a contempt which was well masked by the control he exercised over his features and, saluting smartly, turned on his heel and left the room. He was more irritated than honored by the new assignment and looked forward to assuming his new responsibilities with some disgust. So he must play the nanny again? Time for a visit to that discreet building behind the shoopuf agency.

Oct 10, 20055181298