The Seeker Files – Book 1

Author's Notes before beginning:

1) To my mind, there has always been a question when it comes to Barthello:

Is he stupid, or merely convinced that he is?

And: if he's slow instead of dumb, then how smart could he be, given the chance?

I have gone on the 'smartest' assumption, as it seems to be more interesting. If you don't agree, then…meh.

2) The following characters are inventions: High Father Brock, Elder Hallon, Vyna, Father Lerdin.

…That's it. All other characters are owned by Square Enix.

3) This story is based on the 100%-in-one-go scenario.

Written in Verdana 9pt, Justified, with Web Paragraph (1.5 paragraph spacing), using MS Office 2003 Word. Italics used in places, so avoid pasting into Notepad text-docs.

Chapter 1

Priestly garments dominated the gathering of several dozen of the faithful. Lit by the sacred fires of Ifrit, Kilika Temple also burned with righteous indignation.

At the head of the stairs to the Trials, the temple's new high priest pontificated at length upon the evils of secularism facing Spira in general and Kilika Island in particular. Barthello stood at the back of the crowd, at the head of a small contingent of senior warrior monks. He could not help but notice several glares directed at him by the high priest.

How could he have found just one book missing? There must've been dozens there! He stared at his feet, trying to look properly penitent for High Father Brock's latest glare. A subtle, satisfied sneer replaced the anger for a moment, before regaining its properly indignant glow. "…The sheer effrontery of importing these lies to Kilika cannot be forgiven!" Righteous catcalls echoed around the hemispherical temple hall.

"However!" A somewhat feral grin came to the high priest's rat-like, bearded face. "We have struck a blow for Yevon! At my behest, and thanks to Sir Barthello's efforts at the docks," he bestowed an only slightly soured smile upon the former guardian, "we have succeeded in purchasing every single copy of the offensive material!" His gaze moved in definite satisfaction to the two crates of books, placed on either side of the stairs, under the solemn gaze of the four High Summoners. "There can be only one way to treat with such filth and lies, contradictory to Yevon's teachings. With fire!"

The faithful proceeded to cheer and praise Yevon for several minutes, as the books were carelessly broken out of their sealed crates and tossed into Ifrit's sacred flames by the warrior monks. Their task completed, Barthello led the warrior monks out under High Summoner Yuna's statue and into the courtyard, while the high priest continued his harangue on the assorted evils repugnant to Yevon.

Outside, the warriors monks dispersed to their usual duties, two of them audibly thanking Yevon for missing out on the rest of the sermon. Barthello's duty was far more onerous.

Now he had to go home, to face his wife.

Chapter 2

Barthello sat alone in an small clearing high in the forest, overlooking Kilika Town.

He lowered the cloth from the livid bruise on his cheek, bestowing a brief glare on the new Youth League base which had been the source of so many arguments with his beloved Dona. As so often before, tears overcame him as his gaze shifted to their home.

The anger which had greeted him in the town was terrifying to behold. Every last town elder had been waiting at the gates, with Dona at their head. The first thing she did was to punch him in the face. The second thing she did was to bar him from the town's gates indefinitely, backed by the hard-eyed elders. He had run in shame, tears streaming down his face, back into the forest.

And I couldn't even give her the book!

His miserable gaze settled on his bag, now holding all his worldly possessions, flung at his head by Dona (the third thing she did). A fresh burst of tears flowed for a moment.

He remembered, then. Barthello rummaged around in his thigh-pocket, clumsily pulling out what he had stashed there in a vain attempt to stem Dona's anger. The book's title flashed a polished jet black against the light-brown canvas covering in the speckled, uncaring sunlight:

'The Final Summoner'.

It occurred to him to wonder what the high priest had found so objectionable about the book. For a moment he considered going back to the temple and asking the high priest. Flinching at the thought – all those glares! – he then thought more seriously about asking young Father Sonio, who was far more patient with his fumbling questions about moral piety (and, incidentally, avoided High Father Brock's sermons like the plague). But he couldn't bear to see the not-so-secret looks of amusement on everyone's faces when they learned that his own wife had banished him from the town. Not this time.

For a moment, he even seriously considered leaving Kilika Island. Surely they would let him through the town if he were only doing so to leave Kilika forever—

Yet, despite Dona's harsh words, Barthello simply could not accept a world without Dona in it. Besides, he had the distinctly uneasy feeling that Dona wouldn't let him leave Kilika. An unusual spike of anger rocked him, as he faced the harsh reality of his often-estranged wife's blatant sadism. And searching for some way, any way to redirect his attention away from such unthinkable topics, he turned the book over in his hands to study the back cover.

Barthello suddenly noticed smaller words on the back cover. Remembering Dona's books, with their… 'blurb'? was that what she calls it?... he looked more closely at the black script, reading with his customary difficulty the words inscribed. …"encapsulating the true history of Spira"… …"Yevon's manipulation of the people"… Yes, he could see now why the priests wouldn't like this. He went to put the book aside, and an unread word leapt out at him.

"Sir Auron?" He grabbed the book, reading the words again: "With contemporary commentary on events by the (deceased) legendary guardian, Sir Auron!" He gasped, torn between casting the book away and returning to the temple, and reading the book about his hero, Sir Auron.

In the end, it was the need for anything to take his mind off his troubles that triumphed. He opened the book and began, with some difficulty due to the scholarly script, to read it.

Chapter 3

Barthello blinked.

Over… what has it been? six days? he had barely moved from his seat in the clearing. He had fallen asleep over the open book, several times. Upon waking, he had stretched and then returned to The Final Summoner. He had eaten a bare handful of times, riveted to the spot, and the book. He reread section after section as his mastery over the spidery script improved, returning often to ponder previous quotes with new eyes.

And that's only a third of the book!

Barthello was, he had to admit – often, in Dona's presence, far from the brightest ember in the fire. He had often wondered what had cause Dona to denounce the temples and join the Youth League. In his confusion in the wake of all the upheavals, in his ignorance of their underlying causes, he had always relied upon his faith – in his elders, in his betters, and in Yevon – to guide him through the times of uncertainty. For days, he had tried to refute the words of his hero.

I must be the biggest fool in Spira.

The latest minor functionary ran screaming from Dona's presence, causing an outpouring of riotous laughter outside. A mirth-filled voice called out, "Hey, I warned you about her…"

She tossed the report aside, repressing with long practice the urge to scream in frustration. Instead she finished her tea. No doubt the rest of the council must have thought it vastly amusing to pester their supposed leader with the minutiae of running the town. She briefly indulged herself in the fantasy of summoning Ifrit to burn down the entire stupid island, sighing at such an impossibility – even had the aeons not passed onto the Farplane, Ifrit would never have sanctioned such abuse of his fires.

A native of Bevelle, she had always thought herself so sophisticated as to run rings around these Kilika hicks. Not, she hastened to assure herself, that she would be so crass as to do so to their detriment. For all their coarseness, the people here were by-and-large pretty decent. (She mercilessly crushed down her longing for one in particular.) Yet it seemed stubborn stupidity had its advantages. For all of her vehement refusals to administer the town, the elders had been recalcitrant beyond her endurance. Literally – they had pestered her for days, letting the entire town grind to a halt and refusing to fix it without her express, official imprimatur of command.

At a rustle of the entrance mat, she whirled to face the next entrant. Father Sonio visibly flinched under her iron glare, but refused to run away. She sighed. "What?"

Master Sonio cleared his throat, clearly nervous. "It is the temple's understanding that the town council has barred…your former guardian from the town."

She snapped, "Who, Barthello? Afraid to say his name?" Her tone dripped with venom and scorn, her grip tightening ominously on the teacup. Oddly enough, the young priest straightened under her eye.

Sonio shrugged, "Honestly? Yes. But that is beside the point." He drew a slow breath. "You have barred him from the town?" It was not a question. At her ominous nod, he asked, "Not even to leave Kilika?"

She shrugged. "If he wants to leave, then we'll let him leave. It's none of our concern."

Sonio leant forward, fixing her with a surprisingly intense gaze. "You are certain? Barthello is still on Kilika? And not in the town?"

Intrigued, Dona allowed her rage to ratchet upwards a notch. How dare you look at me like that, Yevon scum? "He is not in the town. He has not been allowed in the town since we barred him. He has not attempted to enter the town. Now will you get to the point?"

Sonio deflated. Sudden regret flashed in his eyes. "Sir Barthello has not been at the temple either. He's been missing now for six days. We can't find him." And he turned and left her home in silence.

Behind him, the hut seemed to echo with the crack as the empty teacup shattered between her hands.

Barthello jerked at a sudden thump to his right. Tearing his eyes away from The Final Summoner, he noted the presence of a large lizard – not a fiend mimicking a lizard, as with the tight grouping of needles through its head a fiend would be dissipating by now. Merely looking at it brought on tearing pangs of long-ignored hunger, and he thought seriously for the first time in nearly a fortnight of returning home.

But they wouldn't let him in the town, and he no longer wanted to return to the temple. Not after what he had learned. On the other hand, there was an edible, non-poisonous, freshly killed lizard right there—

Of course, that brought up the subject of its hunter. The needles indicated a cactuar, which was strange because there had never been cactuars on Kilika— No, wait… He seemed to remember a visit by High Summoner Yuna and her husband Tidus, two months past now, during which a cactuar hunt was mentioned. She'd even mentioned a clearing, much like this one. Could this be that same clearing…?

Racking his strangely muzzy brain for several seconds yielded a name – but then he remembered, in the hazy, happy recollection of the days following his reunion with Dona, that Bartschella was the cactuar which had lodged in their hut; in his current state of exhaustion he had forgotten. He thought a little longer, and came up with another name. "Chiapa?" A congratulatory chittering burst through the clearing, from a bush to his right. "For me?" Another burst. He smiled. "Thank you very much, Chiapa."

He fell upon the fat lizard without further ado, eating it raw as he had not done since he was a child, taking care not to stain the book with the juices. Then he fell asleep, once again over the book, replete for the moment.

Chapter 4

Dona put down the latest unsanctioned 'update' from Kilika Temple. Its contents were quite worrying, especially the accounts of the high priest's recent exploits. It was becoming increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that Father Brock was planning a renewed crusade. It was less clear whether this move originated from Bevelle, or from the mind of Kilika's paramount religious authority.

Attached to the report was a small scrap of paper, hastily wedged into the binding clip. It contained six words:

Still no sign of him. Sonio.

Her lips pursed, the only outward sign of her inner anguish.

Barthello had been missing now for nearly five weeks. Carefully worded enquiries to the fishermen, the ferries and even the Youth League fleet captains had uncovered no sign of Barthello's passage off the island. Several days after Sonio's visit, he had sneaked a slightly longer missive out with the weekly reports of one of the warrior monks sympathetic to the Youth League's ideals – or at least, unsympathetic to Father Brock's ideals. Barthello had gone from the temple to the town, had been barred and driven back into the forest – and had never been seen again.

Even Barthello had never been this stupid. Dona was forced to contemplate the likely probability that he was dead.

She hastily composed her face to its usual stern mask as the doormat rustled.

Barthello stood, with a grunt of effort, and stretched.

Water dripped from his newly bearded face and gaunt frame. Hefting the waterskin over his shoulder next to a freshly killed, 5-foot snake – venomous, but tasty if its head was removed, he trekked back the short distance to the clearing.

Climbing the tree, he sat down with the book once more. Chiapa chittered away contentedly, his diminutive green form rocking from side to side at the edge of the cliff. Tossing the waterskin over to Chiapa, he hacked off the skin with his belt knife and began carving off pieces of raw snake meat. Uncaring of the strong, bloody taste, Barthello sat and chewed, his mind sorting through concepts previously incomprehensible to him.

Barthello had never felt the need to learn the intricacies of scholarly thought, preferring as a child, and then as a young man, to learn the more heroic intricacies of swordplay and guardianship. Besides, he'd always been told, with varying degrees of tact, that he was simply too stupid to understand such intellectual pursuits.

Not stupid. The proper word is 'slow'. Or, to put it another way, 'thoughtful'. It had never occurred to Barthello to question the fact of his stupidity. He was astonished now to discover how he had enjoyed his time in the wilderness. Just thinking. The waterskin slid over, a little emptier.

Smiling absently in thanks to his vegetative friend, he washed his hands and face clean of the blood. Barthello wiped his hands on his trousers, and turned to the final chapter.

Rikku grinned at Dona from the doorway. "Whatcha up to?" Behind her, Paine nodded politely. Utterly uncaring of the proprieties, Rikku strode over to the desk and sat down in front of Dona's seat; Paine was more restrained and elected to stand a little to the side of the doorway, shaking her head in resignation at Rikku's behaviour.

Dona swallowed her first response. I won't give her the satisfaction. "Running the town. What do you want?"

Rikku shrugged, seemingly ignorant of the rebuff. "Well, I'm here looking for a cactuar. One of the Ten Gatekeepers – you remember them?" Dona nodded impatiently. "Chiapa's run away again. Benzo says he told his mother he was heading here, to a place he wanted to visit again."

Dona frowned. "You mean that pest who lodged in my house? I haven't seen it."

Rikku shook her head. "The other one, the one we found in that clearing in the forest. I'm pretty sure Chiapa's sitting there right now." Scratching her cheek with a finger, she mused, "I hope he'll go home without a fuss… What's wrong?"

Dona shook her head slowly, her mind racing. That clearing…! Could Barthello be there? Shook her head again, more sharply. After five weeks? "Nothing." Her eyes shot to Paine. "And you?"

Paine stepped forward, handing over two pages. "My credentials." Dona scanned them, her eyebrow quirking at the level of authority invested in the young swordswoman by the Youth League. She nodded with a modicum of courtesy to Paine, who clarified, "The rank is temporary; my services were contracted to resolve things here in Kilika. If you have the time, I would like to talk with you, regarding the recent activities of High Father Brock."

Dona nodded slowly. "Nooj or Lucil?"

Paine grinned in a decidedly sardonic fashion. "Beclem's idea, actually. It turns out his talents extend into the field of intelligence." The grin evaporated from her lips as she turned to stare down at Rikku. "Why are you still here, Rikku?"

Rikku glared at Paine for several seconds – and then stood. "Oh, poopie!" And she flounced out.

The angle of Paine's head indicated that she was listening with some care; after maybe half a minute, she abruptly nodded. "She's actually gone. One of Kilika HQ's captains passed along your queries regarding Barthello's location. Have you considered the possibility that his absence is aimed at you? That the temple has killed him – or simply had him pronounced missing without his knowledge?"

Dona shook her head emphatically. "The temple has said not a word at his absence; in that, your surmise may well be accurate. But our agent in the warrior monks has passed on the private, 'unofficial' conclusion. They believe that I am responsible for his absence, having let him pass through the town secretly to leave Kilika, then claiming his demise to throw blame against the temple." She gifted Paine a thin smile. "And never mind that I haven't claimed his demise. That conclusion may also be disinformation – while the man is trustworthy, they must suspect the presence of agents."

She handed over the two pieces of paper from Sonio. "Father Sonio, on the other hand, is acting in a manner that doesn't fit with any realistic pattern of disinformation. Barthello has never had a bad word to say about him – for a priest of Yevon, he actually seems to be rather decent. The blitzball team know him well. Their captain Vuroja is convinced that Father Sonio is merely attempting to 'do the right thing' by a missing man's wife." For all the venom dripping from her voice, she couldn't stop her face from crumpling for a moment. She snarled, daring Paine to say a single word.

Paine didn't twitch a muscle. "This Father Sonio… a potential agent?"

Dona composed her features with an effort. "I think not. He strikes me as the kind of man that we could deal with in an honourable manner. He would not turn, and I believe that our interests would best be served by not trying. Were such a man to become a high priest, Kilika's troubles would be greatly diminished."

Paine raised her eyebrows in surprise at such a positive endorsement of a priest, but nodded after a moment. "Understood. Beclem will be glad to hear it… Until that happy day comes, however, we need to deal with Father Brock."

As they compared notes and thoughts on the subject of the over-opinionated Kilikan high priest, Dona painstakingly rebuilt her emotional walls. She spared a brief moment to imagine a lasting vengeance on Paine for witnessing her weakness, then cast the idea aside. Paine, she decided, seemed a worthy and courteous person, who might even be worth befriending. Stranger things had happened, after all…

Barthello closed the book.

His head buzzed. With fatigue; the snake had been his first meal in several days. More so with new suspicions, suspicions that now cried out to him, despite his fatigue, to be tested. He pulled his legs into the lotus position, dropping into the trance of the samurai, seeking his centre.

Whenever he had found that centre, he had basked in the imagined presence of Yevon, his certainties and his faith replenished. Now he found only himself. And yet… If Sir Auron was right, this is all I need. He went through the procedure of grounding himself – and was rewarded. His senses flowed across their surroundings with a speed which was gratifying, and more effective than it had ever been. Sir Auron was right! My faith was holding me back all along! Shorn of his blinders, he had attained a new mastery in his chosen vocation. Had Barthello been told two months ago that he could do this by reading a book instead of training, he would have scoffed.

He felt dozens of tiny prickles on his stomach as Chiapa settled in his lap, cooing appreciatively. His mouth moved in a wry smile as a spiny green presence nestled in the back of his mind; it seemed the cactuar had their own abilities in this direction…

Over the past several weeks (he knew it had been around that long), he had increasingly slipped into a numb state. Similar in some ways to the shocked, hypersensory spells which, following a vocation which promised near-death experiences by the bushel, were intimately familiar to him, this state seemed different. Instead on focusing fruitlessly on the tactual details of his surroundings, he focused solely on what he was thinking about. Calmly. Without bias, without delusion. Within that emptiness, even Dona's absence was a distant, abstract thing. Which was, of course, why he was spending most of his time there now.

Well, mostly. Within that void, speed of thought was irrelevent. Hours had passed as he sat, examining long-held concepts and new ones from every angle he could think of. Returning to concepts he'd run through days ago, in light of a new perspective gleaned from The Final Summoner. And as he had spent more time in his meditative state, Barthello had come to realise other things.

As the beginnings of an ordered structure, a view of reality freed of Yevon's many unexplained contradictions – unquestioned before now as a matter of faith – as they took root, he was finding that it was taking less and less time for him to work through each concept. Easier and easier to work through more than one concept, fitting each within an ever-expanding matrix of reasoned surmise. And then, buried in a dry, scholarly description of Sir Auron's bushido code, it had occurred to him to wonder if his empty, calm state might in fact have something to do with the samurai's trance.

His mind tickled as the cactuar's essence pulsed a message to him. The flavour's meaning was unmistakeable, for all of the incomprehensibilities of communication with a radically different life-form: Chiapa had been sensing him for… Well, weeks, though the little cactuar's sense of time seemed to be observed in a curiously nebulous fashion. Directing his mind through the turns, Barthello came to the conclusion that the empty state was a lesser version of the samurai trance, and that cactuars could communicate with those in such trances; in doing so, he also confirmed that he could continue to think in such a trance as he did in the lesser state. One thing left to do…

At the edge of their senses, a disturbance. Chiapa bounded to the top of his head, bouncing in place to direct his attention behind him. Barthello ignored him, focusing instead on the task of reordering, internalising the new certainties of his existence.

Rikku climbed up to the clearing, already aware of Chiapa's presence. What surprised her was the fact that he was perched on Barthello's head.

She had disdained to eavesdrop on Paine's conversation with Dona – especially considering Paine's unhealthily sharp ears. Instead, she had simply asked the townspeople. Barthello's disappearance and presumed demise was the town's worst-kept secret, and learning the juicy gossip was a cinch for a hot, scantily clad babe such as herself. And here he was, alive and…extremely scruffy?

First, though, Chiapa had to be dealt with. She pulled out a small sphere and activated it. From its blazing depths burst a cacophony of chittering and popping, which Benzo had assured her was his mother's pleas for her son to return.

Chiapa spun slowly in place on one foot, appearing to think deeply. A hesitant chittering was directed at Barthello. His voice, when it answered, was rusty but unmistakably reassuring. "You're free to come back anytime. My word on it."

That appeared to be enough for the little cactuar, who bounced in place a few times and then bounded to stand over by Rikku.

"Cool! How're ya doin', Barthello?" She came forward to sit next to him. Chiapa sat down between them.

Barthello took a deep breath, opening his eyes, and stretched his legs out in front of him. His response was decidedly peculiar. "Wiser." He still appeared deep in thought, not appearing to notice Rikku's intense, wondering scrutiny. At length he seemed to returned to himself. "Hello, Rikku. I hope you are well?"

Rikku grinned and stretched. "All another day in the life of the Gullwings! Yuna and Paine may have left, but the fun just keeps on coming." She kicked back, lying down with her arms behind her head. "The Cactuar Nation found a sphere in the Bikanel's Southern Expanse. But they didn't want to hand it over until I did them a favour. So I agreed to find Chiapa for them. And now I have. The sphere's as good as ours! And are you eating raw snake?"

He shrugged, swallowing, "I wasn't going to cook it in this forest. It's not that bad, really – I enjoyed this sort of thing when I was a kid." Hesitation. "How is Dona?"

She couldn't bring herself to look at him. "Barthello, why didn't you go back to the temple?"

"How is Dona?"

She sighed. Obviously she was getting nowhere. "Barthello… They all think you're dead."

He stared. "And Dona?"

Rikku shrugged hopelessly. "Like I'd know. I think she kinda doesn't like me." Silence. She looked at him, truly noting for the first time the entirety of his change in appearance. It didn't offer any reassurance. "Barthello? Are you okay?"

He stood, his features radiating decision and resolve. His hand grasped hers, pulling her to her feet. Chiapa bounded onto his head while Rikku wiped her bloodied hand on the grass. He flung away the remnants of the snake, and bent down to wipe his own hands, picking up a book she hadn't noticed. A book? Barthello, reading a book?

Shoving it in his pocket, Barthello turned back to her. His gaze on her was cryptic. "I will explain later."

The gate guards gaped at the apparition approaching the gate. It took them several moments to recognise Barthello. Then one of them tripped the mechanism to throw the gate shut.

Pandemonium exploded, on both sides of the gate. Rikku began screaming indignantly at the guards. The other guard began screaming at the first, demanding the gate be opened. The first guard screamed at the other about their orders, at Barthello to turn away, at Rikku to shut the hell up…

Barthello didn't scream. He didn't even slow down. As he reached the gate, his fist drew back.

Three blows later, he walked through the hole in the gate. As Rikku clambered through the hole behind him, he yanked away the first guard's thrusting pike and broke it over its wielder's head without pausing in his progress. Townspeople turned to gape at the odd party – complete with a cactuar still bouncing on Barthello's head, as they headed into the centre of the town.

Chatting amiably with Paine over a glass of wine, Dona paused at a sudden commotion outside. Paine's head cocked, and she sighed loudly. "What's Rikku done now?"

The answer was immediately apparent, as Rikku stepped inside – followed by a hauntingly familiar shape.

Her eyes drank in the changes in her husband. His trousers were crinkled, stained with grass and blood. His frame, formerly so massive, now shrunk to the point where his ribs were clearly visible. Blood there, too. Covering his arms, speckled through his unkempt beard. Drenching his face.

Her eyes met his. His arms encircled her.

"Barthello, let go of me this instant!" He lowered his arms, but did not step away. Belatedly she realised he could not. She lowered her own arms, furious at her lapse.

Dona drew breath, fully prepared to deliver the verbal thrashing of a lifetime—

And her eyes met his.

As he headed upstairs to clean up, Dona attempted, with some small success, to get her breath back. Snatching up her wine, she tossed it back and poured another. "What was that disgusting taste?" Such derision! Yes, she was back to normal.

Rikku shrugged, "Raw snake meat, probably. I guess no-one knew about that clearing."

Dona drew another deep breath. "So… Did you find the cactuar?" The look Rikku flashed at her was one of vast amusement.

Paine answered. "It was bouncing on his head, Dona." She looked over. "Not bad, Rikku." Rikku grinned back, giggling.

Still unsure whether they were joking, Dona returned to more important matters. "What happened to him?"

Rikku reflectively scratched her cheek with a finger. "I dunno, really. He wouldn't say much – but he did tell me I could stay while he explained everything." She was suddenly confronted by two distrustful stares.

"…Did he?" Dona asked.

"Really…" Paine stated.

"Yes," Barthello answered, walking down the stairs. "I wanted you to hear this first, but I promised her she could stay and hear it too." He poured himself a glass of wine, without asking, and sat at the window, staring meditatively at the temple, high up on the volcano. His appearance – cleaner, clothing changed, yet still jarringly different, underlined his next words.

"You were right, Dona. About all of it. I chose faith over reality. I chose to be blind. I chose a false god over my own wife. I'm sorry, Dona." He turned to look at her.

Her mouth hung open, her retort evaporating from the tip of her tongue. Of all the things he could have said… Rikku was the first to speak. "What happened to you, Barthello?"

In answer, he dug out a battered book from his bag and gently tossed it on the desk before her. Dona's eyes bulged in shock at the title:

'The Final Summoner'.

The book, the burning of which had started the whole horrible argument.

Sitting in front of her.

Paine cleared her throat. "All right: now I'm curious."

Rikku turned to stare at her. "Huh?"

Paine explained to Rikku what had been briefly discussed with Dona. "The Seekers in Luca published a book a couple of months ago, called 'The Final Summoner'. It was the story of Yuna's pilgrimage, with a difference: every last political machination instigated by the Maesters of Yevon was accurately detailed and explained. Note the authors."

Rikku picked up the book and examined the front cover. "…Maechen?"

Paine nodded. "One of the founding Seekers." She looked over at Dona and Barthello. "An unsent, collecting histories across Spira for over 1000 years. If any one person could possible reconstruct the truth, it would be Maechen. And yet he hasn't been seen anywhere since Yuna, Rikku and I saw him in Zanarkand six months ago." Paine drew a deep breath. "It seems he's back." She shook her head, opening The Final Summoner to the first page as she continued her explanation.

"Note also the list of contributors. They include Mevyn Nooj, Praetor Baralai and Gippal, the three heads of the three most powerful organisations in Spira. High Summoner Yuna, of course. Rin, the Al Bhed – probably the richest man in the world by now. And, most importantly, Sir Auron. Most of the political conclusions in here were derived from his speculations of the time, backed by Baralai's insider information. Short version: this book was about as close as you could get to the unvarnished, indisputable truth about Yevon."

Rikku's brow creased. "Hang on – something like that would destroy New Yevon, right? So what's Baralai doing helping them out?"

Paine shared a significant look with Dona, who answered cryptically: "Sonio."

Paine nodded with a certain grim satisfaction. "No it wouldn't, Rikku. Across Spira, anger would be directed at the temples responsible for such a series of deceptions. Within the temples, honest priests would be recognised for their own decency, and would be elevated by Bevelle in another, more complete restoration. The result that Baralai would have hoped for would be a more peaceful temple, one which could be counted on to co-exist in the new Spira." She sighed. "There was just one small problem…"

Barthello chuckled, "Their enemies weren't fools." Three sets of eyes locked on, intent. "One of the printers sent word to the temples."

The doormat rustled yet again, causing Dona to wonder just how many more people were going to walk through her door today.

The man who entered was unknown to her, but she would be willing to wager that if anyone ever managed to cut him in half, they would find the words 'drill sergeant' written on his guts. He spared a brief nod for Paine, otherwise completely ignoring the room's other occupants as he marched over to her desk.

"Their first move was to apply financial pressure on the Lucan press. The press there prints most of Bevelle's teachings, at a considerable profit. The Yevonites threatened to withdraw their contract. Beclem." He thrust out his hand.

"Dona." They shook hands. Youth League's new head of intelligence. My, my, my…

He continued without pausing in his quick-fire report. "They failed. The pressure had come from Yevon's higher ranks, but the publishers had Baralai's personal assurance that New Yevon would not meddle in the publication. So instead, they went to the distributors. This time they didn't attempt extortion – they simply bribed the head distributor to suggest that the initial release of The Final Summoner begin from Kilika. Nooj and Baralai agreed, to give the publication's launch an air of bilateral co-operation."

Barthello nodded in understanding. "And I was sent to intercept the delivery. The books went to the temple, where they were burnt."

Beclem's eyes fell upon the book on the desk, and an almost imperceptible sigh of relief escaped his lips. "How was this copy saved?"

Barthello shifted in his seat, distinctly uncomfortable at being put upon the spot in company. Dona's face threatened to burst into an urchin's grin. He hates it when he knows he'll look stupid… Blushing, he managed, "I knew Dona would be angry with me for taking the books. I thought to save one for her, so she wouldn't be so angry." He shrugged miserably. "It didn't work. I couldn't say two words before she tossed me out of the town."

Confronted by a trio of incredulous stares, he hung his head. "I couldn't go back to the temple. Everyone would have laughed at me, and I think Father Brock might have spotted a book missing. And I couldn't leave Kilika! I needed to do something, anything!" He raised his head, a sudden hard light in his gaze. "So I read the book."

Stared full into Dona's disbelieving eyes. "I only started because it had Sir Auron's commentaries in it. It took me a whole day just to read the first two pages. But my choices were to read it, or face reality. So I read it, and ended up facing reality anyway." He turned away, looking at the Youth League intelligencer. "Did any other copies survive?"

Beclem nodded. "A few deluxe editions were sent out beforehand. Six copies, to be precise. Three went to Mevyn Nooj, Praetor Baralai, and Gippal, as you might expect. The others went to Tromell Guado, Kimahri Ronso and Yuna."

He looked around, his mouth grim under the mask. "Only Nooj received his copy. Baralai's copy seems to have reached Bevelle, but Baralai is claiming he hasn't received it. The other four couriers were waylaid by 'bandits'. In each case, the book's charred remains were found nearby. The master copy was lost in a suspiciously localised fire in the vault where the Lucan press kept its manuscripts. Do you understand?"

Paine sighed. "The Youth League could publish their copy, but it would run against a pre-emptive, co-ordinated assault from New Yevon. Baralai could do no less without widespread public knowledge of the contents – either he'd co-operate, or he'd lose his head. The New Yevon copy is almost certainly lost. Only two books remain, and one is unusable. And the other is hardly usable either."

Dona blinked. "But, if Barthello were to testify—"

Beclem shook his head emphatically. "The half-witted, besotted husband of a Youth League leader? Even worse than using Nooj's copy."

Over the next hour, Barthello sat in a miserable lump as the tense conversation flowed around him.

Several possibilities were considered and rejected. Paine had advocated underground publication of the book. This was rejected on the basis that Yevon would seize upon this as heresy, provoking the very civil war they were trying to avoid. Rikku had volunteered to penetrate Kilika Temple and grab Father Brock, and make him talk – an idea scoffed down by the others. Beclem seemed increasingly resigned to the probability of an unavoidable war, and was in favour of returning to Mushroom Rock HQ to advise pre-emptive mobilisation.

Dona stuck stubbornly to the idea of having Barthello testify before a court of Yevon. Her faith in him warmed his heart, but his head was filled with the knowledge of Yevon's techniques. He knew Beclem was right. After all, he was the half-witted, besotted husband of a Youth League leader.

Still perched on his head, Chiapa chittered and popped away in a distinctly worried fashion. Of all things, it was this reminder of all he had gained which brought him to a sense of his advantage.

As the argument raged on around him, ensconsed in his emptiness, he poured himself another glass of wine and considered all of his new-found knowledge. The varied machinations of Kinoc, Seymour, Mika and Trema had left him stunned at their treachery. Now that he came to think of it, their sheer skill at it was just as amazing.

So how could a two-gil priest like Father Brock hope to live up to their standards?

The masterminds in Bevelle would surely not wish to delegate their power so far from their spheres of control. Those who had learnt at the feet of the masters could not even contemplate such a foolhardy act – for this would place power in the hands of an only somewhat controllable priest with too much ambition—

Wrong question.

So how could a two-gil priest like Father Brock learn to live up to their standards?

And as simply as that, the answer came to him.

He straightened, to find all four companions staring at him. Only now did it occur to him that Chiapa had been bouncing up and down, squealing and whistling, for several seconds. Chiapa's confidence filled him. He grinned.

"There's another book."

Chapter 5

Utter silence.

Which, as a plus, had meant Chiapa had stopped shrilling and bouncing on his head.

Beclem found his voice first. "On what do you base that assertion?"

Barthello shrugged, "I've read the book. The fact that it took me five weeks to read it only means that I really understand what's in it." Beclem's eyes narrowed behind the visor of his half-helmet, not in disbelief but it the beginnings of comprehension. Barthello took heart at this.

Barthello had, more or less, become accustomed to thinking in terms which would be recognisable to a scholar. But he'd not yet had to test his ability to communicate it. A brief drop into the trance dispelled the panic, and gave him time to think. As the others waited patiently for him to begin, a thought came to him: perhaps he should try to do it like a teacher would.

"What is the reason for the Yevonites to make a move such as this? What's in it for them?" He raised an eyebrow, like Father Sonio would when he was trying to make an obvious point. Dona twitched.

Beclem suddenly smiled, with a hungry edge. "To cling to power. To continue as they always have before. Go on."

Barthello said, carefully to ensure that his tongue didn't trip over the unfamiliar words and syntax, "Those Yevonites arrayed against the new Spira… They learned at the feet of Mika, and Seymour, and Kinoc, and Trema. They were children, learning from the masters. If they wish to make things as they were, they need to use the same methods."

Paine noted inconsequentially, "So you would support the conclusion that the coup is being plotted from Bevelle, by their old cronies. Your point?"

Barthello smiled, "So analyse their methods. If you want to make people do what you want, then you have to leave them no other choice. You have to control them."

Beclem nodded slowly, almost a bow. "I understand." He looked around. "But keep going. It seems these slackers have yet to catch up."

Barthello glowered for a moment at having his wife called a slacker, but was by now too caught up in the novelty of explanation. "Father Brock grew up here. He's never been to Bevelle. So why would the Yevonites in Bevelle trust him?"

Dona, the former Bevellite, had caught on now. "They would rely on his ambition, for the moment. They could always crush the grubby little rube when the time came. Keep going."

Barthello, by now growing tired of the unwavering attention, hastened to the finish. "But Father Brock isn't that stupid. He'd know all that too. So I asked myself a question: how could he hope to live up to their standards?"

And Paine exhaled, realising his intent at last. "He'd have to learn. And if no one would teach him, he'd have to find another way. He stole his own copy of the book."

Clearly still lost, Rikku asked, "But how does this help us?"

Now Barthello grinned, and Chiapa began spinning in place on his head. "Because he hid it. At the purifying ceremony, the crates with the books in were still sealed. Not too well, obviously." He pointed with a thick finger at The Final Summoner, lying on the desk. "But he pretended the crates had never been opened. If he has a copy of the book, then he can't have told most of the priests."

Beclem added, "And if they were true believers, they would be horrified at the thought of reading it. May I assume you've come up with a plan?"

Barthello shrugged. "Someone grabs him, and pins the book to him. Then Baralai calls the trial, and I testify. I haven't thought that far ahead. Sorry." At the…strange looks his last word provoked, he added, "I may not be stupid like everyone thought, but I'm still pretty slow."

At which everyone else burst into sudden, riotous laughter. Rikku kicked her legs on her seat, giggling insanely. Dona's face, hidden behind her hands, sunk to the desk as her shoulders twitched in a quivering staccato. Paine's head jerked at the force of her quiet chuckles. Beclem simply exploded into a full-throated guffaw. Even Chiapa joined in the merriment, cartwheeling in tight circles on Barthello's crown. Barthello sat there, blushing bright red.

Beclem was the first to get words out. "Slow you may be, Barthello, but you're still doing better than us!" As the other reined in their mirth, wiping their eyes where necessary, he went on, "We can probably do better than your plan, such as it is. But keep thinking on it anyway, while the rest of us figure out what we do next."

Barthello couldn't argue with this. So he sat once again and thought, as the much more hopeful debate flowed around him.

Almost immediately, something else occurred. He stood. "Dona?"

She smiled at him. Smiled! "Yes, Barthello?"

"Am I still barred from the town?"

Dona pretended to think about it. "Oh, I suppose not."

He smiled and nodded thanks. "I need to check something."

And he headed out into the town. Three steps into the town, to be precise. A town elder was waiting outside. As the bearded dignitary opened his mouth, Barthello cut in, "Dona's let me stay. Come with me for a moment." The tone of command worked. Elder Hallon, blinking, fell in beside him as he headed for the gate.

The guards at the gate had not been changed. The one with the bandage around his head thought about attacking for a moment, but was restrained at the sight of a town elder walking with him. More importantly, the gate remained closed.

The second guard came to attention, and reported to Elder Hallon. "Sir! Barthello's entry through the gate appears to have damaged the latch mechanism. We can't open the gate until it's repaired, sir." Hallon nodded, but Barthello cut him off again.

"Has anyone else been through the hole since I made it?"

The gate guard shot a querying look at the elder, who was obviously mystified but nodded after a moment. "We don't know how safe it is. We had to turn away old Vyna a few minutes ago. She wanted to go to the temple to pray." The elder winced in sympathy.

Old Vyna… He thought carefully about the querulous old matriarch. She continued to pray every day, mainly out of habit but also to see her grandson—

He whirled to the gate guard. "The next time she tries, let her through. Don't let anyone else out until… until Dona says so. This is important – there's a small chance that New Yevon may attack from the temple." He thought some more for a moment, ignoring the incredulous looks from his audience. "If anyone from the temple wants to enter, tell them there was an accident or a fiend or something, and the gate is wedged shut for the moment. And don't tell them that I'm back."

And he turned away to find old Vyna. Behind him, the elder shrugged and told the guard, "Do it. Get another guard up to the gate lookout – with the gate busted, that won't look too suspicious…"

While old Vyna was carefully sliding through the hole in the gate, Barthello headed back for home, mind awhirl with his new plan.

Inside, the argument was still hopeful, but still going. Beclem was shouting, "…And how can we trust Baralai – or any arrest force from Bevelle?" Barthello silently took his own seat, where Chiapa immediately moved back to his customary perch on his head. Beclem went on, "Youth League requests to arrest various priests are a gil per dozen. How could we possibly stop our enemies from finding out about this?"

Barthello cut in at this point. "The Youth League doesn't."

Silence, staring. Rikku muttered Barthello's own thought: "Here we go again…"

To Rikku, Barthello began speaking. "When I broke through the gate, I broke the latch gear that opens it. The only way to the temple is through the hole. The Youth League guards are keeping people away because it's not safe." He looked around. "So the temple doesn't know that I'm here. And the guards are going to keep it that way, for at least a day or two. Rikku: did you bring the Celsius with you?"

She blinked and frowned. "Of course! Why?"

He directed his answer to Dona. "I got old Vyna through the gate."

Her eyes went opaque for a moment – and then glowed. "Father Sonio's grandmother? Very good, Barthello."

Chapter 6

By the time Father Sonio arrived, more chairs had been brought in. Dona silently made the decision to authorise the town council's request for a purpose-built town hall. She'd always thought such an extravagance unnecessary; but knowing the town council, she was willing to bet they would subsequently insist on holding every last council in her one-room hut until she gave in.

She took a moment to curse all stubborn Kilikans, bar one. It was still amazing to her that she felt no anger at all when it came to Barthello. Indeed, she was warming greatly to her newly thoughtful husband.

Curious as to how much old Vyna had told her grandson, she was gratified to see his jaw drop as he espied Barthello, thin and bearded, now sitting in his rightful place beside her. Sonio limited his subsequent show of relief to a single exhaled breath before looking around the room. He frowned in puzzlement. That frown deepened as introductions were made.

"All right, I can see this is important. What do you wish to speak about?"

The others looked at each other, wondering who should begin. Pride of place went to Barthello. He held up The Final Summoner. "Do you know what this is?"

Sonio blinked. Frowned for a while. Then his eyes narrowed. "One of the books High Father Brock got so flustered about. I guess he didn't get them all."

Barthello shrugged, "I took this one before giving him the crates." He gently lobbed the book over to him. "After I got barred from the town, I couldn't bear the idea of returning to all the teasing. So I found a secret clearing I remembered in the forest. And to pass the time, I read the book."

Sonio seemed unfazed at this. Scanning the back-cover blurb, he noted, "'…with commentary by Sir Auron…'? I can't blame you. The dangerous thing about trying to hide forbidden knowledge is that doing so just gets people curious about what you're trying to hide. Add Sir Auron to that, and I'd be surprised if you didn't read it."

Dona was a little surprised at his offhand acceptance of Barthello's transgression, but what he did next explained much about him. He opened the book, flicking through to the page of contributors. Oh, a scholar… No wonder he understands the urge to read. "Quite a list of contributors here. A broad swathe of Spiran high society." His brows rose. "Including some influential Yevonites. Praetor Baralai, Summoner Isaaru…" Sonio closed the book, his nails tapping a staccato on the hard cover as he thought. "Now why would such dignitaries of Yevon co-operate in the printing of such a book?"

Barthello answered this, to Sonio's visible surprise. "Yu Yevon himself has been discredited. Enough people know that much." He leaned forward, staring with intensity at him. "You know that much. So what is the stated purpose of New Yevon?"

Dona held her breath. This was the single most important part of the meeting. If they, if she had misjudged Sonio…

Her spirits rose with his solemn smile. "With Sin forever gone, we have time to think. Carefully. About where Spira heads next. We no longer have to rush about here and there, trying to build a new society in a day in case Sin knocks it down tomorrow." His intelligent gaze swung to Rikku. "For example, if the Al Bhed want to rebuild Home, they now have decades to do it. There's no rush." As Rikku smiled, he looked around again.

"I know that those of you here don't think much of New Yevon. But look at it from our perspective. There's no real need for the Youth League to charge on ahead without slowing to think about where that headlong gallop is taking Spira. So if New Yevon has to stand in opposition to slow the Youth League down, and give everybody time to adjust, then that is what we must do."

Silence reigned for a moment. Then Paine gifted him with a wintry smile. "I think Praetor Baralai is going to like you."

Dona couldn't help but chuckle at this. "I think Isaaru's really going to like you. Back when we were captives of the Al Bhed, he used to fill my ear constantly with such nonsense."

Beclem shrugged. "And if we come to agreement here, you are going to meet them."

Sonio blinked. "And what would this agreement be?" He was clearly sceptical about doing any kind of underhanded deal. I was right, it seems. We could not have made him an agent of the Youth League. Dona smiled.

An agent of Baralai, on the other hand…

Paine now spoke. "As far as New Yevon's stated purpose, you may have a point. The problem is, many of its priestly members have done nothing but change their name. They think the same as always, they act the same as always… Surely I don't have to tell you this."

Father Sonio nodded sadly. "Each temple is split. Some priests are outspoken, in favour of rapprochement or returning to the days of old. Some pretend to follow one view, but deal with the other, whether for ideological reasons or for their own profit. Some sit on the fence, being wooed by both sides – again, often for their own profit. Many simply remain as inconspicuous as possible. Some even believe Yu Yevon is still the light to follow." He tapped his robed breast. "Me? We have to move on. Times are changing, and we must all change with them, with all due care."

He drew breath, and looked around once more. "Now… Let's get to the point, shall we? What is this all about?"

Four mouths opened. Four mouths shut. Four sets of eyes shifted to the fifth. Dona stifled a chuckle, with some difficulty.

Barthello sighed. "The Final Summoner has two uses. The first, the intended use, is as a tool of public opinion. Baralai and Isaaru backed the book's release to put themselves on the right side of the people's anger. Everyone reads the book, and gets angry, and calls for something to be done about the temples. And Baralai and Isaaru use that support to reshape the temples, so that those who believe in New Yevon's stated purpose are in control of its direction. You understand, right?" Sonio's nod was decidedly approving.

"The other use, the accidental use, is as a tool for the priesthood. That book has all the Maesters' plots in there. And they're all laid out, in all the detail any ambitious priest could wish for. This, Father, is what it's all about: High Father Brock didn't just destroy all of Kilika's books. Those books were meant to go all over Spira."

Beclem explained, "All but seven books, including the master manuscript, were in that shipment. The master and four of the other books were destroyed, at the behest of renegade priests operating from Bevelle. Bevelle might have a copy, but Baralai doesn't know where it is or whether they've destroyed it. And Mushroom Rock has a copy, but if the Youth League re-released it then its opponents would simply write it off as propaganda."

Barthello went on, "And my marriage to a Youth League leader makes that copy," pointing at the book in Sonio's hands, "just as useless. But we think there's another copy."

Everyone held their breath as Sonio worked it out. And he did.

"You think High Father Brock retained a copy for his own use." He thought further. "To read it, learn from it. To use its techniques against his masters in Bevelle." His audience nodded, and breathed out. "I assume you have a plan. But first, there is something I must have an answer for." He turned to Barthello. Took a deep breath.

"Why is there a dancing cactus on your head?"

Chapter 7

Father Sonio could think but one thing as he looked up at the rapidly shrinking bulk of the Celsius.


As the airship departed to the west, for Bikanel Island, he marvelled at the mysteries of the world. With more awe than usual, at least. He marvelled all the time. It was a measure of his constant curiosity.

Tossing his shaved head briefly, he set out along the Highcastle path, making his second pilgrimage to Bevelle.

Father Sonio could think but one thing as he looked up at the sacred temple of St. Bevelle, the seat of New Yevon's power.


Ambling through the massive doors into the main cathedral, he looked around like the curious island rube he more-or-less was. Priests, nuns and warrior monks rushed hither and thither, ostensibly in a great hurry. A few minutes' study of the patterns brought comprehension: this was, more or less, the standard inner life of a temple. Multiplied tenfold.

Presumably there was some appointment system for those wishing to see the Very Important Priests. Sonio presumed to deal with this by means of delegation.

He set out along a series of corridors, tracking down an old teacher's office.

After a while, he found where that office had been moved to. His old philosophy teacher had moved up in the world since they'd first met, but he was still free to visit with a minimum of fuss. He walked right in.

"Long time, Father Zuke."

Zuke frowned for a while, and then beamed. "Ah, Sonio! Kilika treating you well, young man?" The Senior Assistant for New Yevon's Metaphysics Department hoisted his plump form out of his comfy-chair and crushed one of his most promising former young pupils in a powerful hug. "Have a seat. And while you're at it, have a drink."

Sonio grinned as he was shoved into one of the two seats in front of Father Zuke's desk. "I won't say no. And as for Kilika…" The fine wine was plonked in front of him. "A little exciting for my taste, of late." Over the rim of his wineglass, he studied the reaction of the former summoner. He wasn't disappointed – he reacted just as Sonio had always fondly remembered. Zuke grinned back, sitting back down with a 'whoosh' of expelled breath.

"Yup. Hell in a handbasket. Again. So, did you come here for a job? If you're still as good as you were, I could use a decent teacher."

Sonio shook his head, with a measure of regret. "Sorry, Father. I just like Kilika too much. No, I'm here to deal with the handbasket. How hard would it be to get an interview with Isaaru?"

"Quite easy, actually," Director Isaaru stated, stepping out of the attached commode and seating himself in the other chair. He smiled at Sonio's obvious surprise and discomfort. "In fact, we were just discussing Kilika. High Father Brock is becoming a serious problem. If you have anything to contribute, we'd love to hear it."

Sonio shrugged, and took a deep, slightly nervous breath. But the wine was doing its work, and he was gratified to find that Isaaru seemed just as easy to talk to as Zuke was. "You know about The Final Summoner, right? What happened to the shipment?"

Isaaru nodded, sipping at his own wine. "Idiots."

Sonio shook his head. "Worse: traitors. Did you ever find the book that was supposed to get here?"

Zuke spoke as he topped up Isaaru's wineglass. "Oh yeah – only a day or two ago. Burnt to a crisp. Couldn't find the courier, though."

Isaaru cursed. "And now, of course, there's only one copy left."

Sonio shook his head again. "Two." He withdrew Barthello's purloined copy and put it on the desk. "At least." Grinning at their expressions, he went on, "The silly bastard thought to use Summoner Dona's husband to take the books. And indeed he did – but he kept one back."

Isaaru blinked. "Sir Barthello? Why would he do that?"

Sonio's grin grew. "To keep his wife on-side, of course! Didn't work – she kicked him out of the town. Long story short, he read it, understood its importance, and handed it over to Dona."

Isaaru's gaze narrowed. "And… Why are you here?"

"Dona had a few visitors at the time. Rikku." Isaaru nodded. "Paine." Nodded again, frowning. "And yes, she's Youth League. And so is Beclem."

Zuke whistled. "The head of Youth League intelligence himself! Bloody hell!" He grinned. "Brilliant blitzer, though." Like Sonio, Zuke was an avid blitz fan. "But Father Brock is New Yevon business… which is why you're here, I'd imagine. To make sure it stays New Yevon business."

Father Sonio smiled, glad for his mentor's perspicacity. "It turns out that Sir Barthello is a far deeper thinker than any of us gave him credit for. This is his plan."

By the time he was done, Isaaru and Zuke were nodding with great approval. Isaaru noted, "I can't say that this will certainly work. But this is Kilika – so if it doesn't work, then that will set the tone of the backlash. And quite frankly, making an undue fuss here over Kilika's latest explosion will just make our opponents look silly. No offence, Father Sonio."

"Hey, it's true enough," Sonio conceded. "So… the Praetor?"

Isaaru emptied his glass and stood. "I'll see him now. I can do that much without arousing suspicion. How soon can we move?"

In answer, Sonio rummaged in his robes for a moment. He flicked a switch on the box-like device. "Sonio calling Celsius."

A static-filled male voice responded from the speaker. "Hey, Sonio. We'll be done in about 20 minutes."

Sonio smiled at Isaaru. "Thanks, Buddy. I'll call you when I need that lift. Out." He grinned at Zuke as Isaaru set off. "Damn, don't machina have their uses…"

Zuke leaned back in his chair, swirling his wineglass. "So, onto more interesting topics… You met Beclem, huh? Did he show you any moves?"

Sonio regretfully shook his head, but brightened immediately. "I did make it to Luca for that exhibition match a month back. You know, the one where the Youth League team took on Tidus and his Besaid Aurochs? What a cracking match that was!"

Zuke shot forward. "Cough up those details, boy…"

Sonio's grin crept wider. "I can do better than that." He pulled an embossed sphere out from his robes. "I bought this while I was down there. I was thinking of sending it over for your birthday. Wanna watch the spherecast?"

Sonio and Zuke ambled right back out of St. Bevelle, arms draped companionably around each other's shoulders, obviously a little inebriated. A few heads turned to watch, faces painted with disapproval. Not with surprise, though – Father Zuke was well-known for his enjoyment of fine wine, as well as fine blitzball. Ostensibly oblivious to it all, Sonio and Zuke argued the merits and flaws of what had, after all, been a magnificent exhibition match. It was not every day that a 10-minute game was extended by twenty-five minutes.

As the gate guards faded from view behind them, Sonio mused, "You know, I think they should set up some kind of trick-shot competition, do you reckon that'd work?" His voice dropped. "And do you think we're far enough away?"

Zuke nodded, his voice dropping to its normal conversational volume. "Yup – but damn, that was fun. Precedent-setting, too. It'd be interesting to see if the defenders ever learned to keep pace. You're closer to Luca – you should see if you can get the league to set up that competition."

As they neared the end of the Highcastle road and the save sphere at the forest edge, four warrior monks became visible. One was dressed slightly differently, though at this distance it was hard to tell. Sonio and Zuke stopped, and separated for long enough to clasp hands. "Drop by again some time. Even better – if they ever get that competition set up, we can meet up in Luca and I can act like a drunken fool there, too." Zuke unleashed a final bear-hug and meandered away in the direction of the canal boat.

Sonio withdrew the radio and called Buddy, nearing the party by the save sphere. Initially wary of ambush, he was relieved to recognise one of the warrior monks he had shared lessons with while he was receiving finishing instructions in Bevelle five years past. Then the identity of the fourth 'monk' caused him to stop and gape.

Praetor Baralai, the ultimate leader of the New Yevon movement, gifted him with a gentle smile. "Father Sonio, it is a pleasure to meet you. Your visit has cause a great many people to change their plans; I have arranged to meet with Mevyn Nooj at Kilika. It is my understanding that we will be travelling on the Celsius?" Still stunned speechless, Sonio nodded. Baralai smiled again. "An unexpected pleasure, indeed."

Approaching out of the rapidly encroaching night to the west, the Celsius swooped in to hover over its new passengers.

Chapter 8

And now I have the praetor of New Yevon sitting in my house. …Great.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for Dona to bear the constant presence of important personages wandering through her home. By this point there was no longer enough room to fit all of the chairs required. Dona had at least kept her desk, though she now had to sit on Barthello's lap.

Not that she had any particular objection to that. Still…

Rikku and Paine were perched on either side of her desk. Beclem was leaning next to the entrance, which was blocked on the other side by guards of New Yevon and the Youth League. Baralai was in Barthello's previous seat, while Sonio stood beside him. The other chair was taken, too.

Mevyn Nooj, his crutch leaning against the chair, nodded to her with a trace of apology. "I owe you my thanks for bearing with our intrusion. We will attempt to keep this brief. Baralai, I understand you have a potential solution to our mutual difficulties."

Baralai's mouth quirked as he wordlessly pointed to Father Sonio. Sonio ruefully shook his head and pointed in Dona's direction. She rolled her eyes and shifted so that Nooj could see Barthello's face. He looked exhausted.

Barthello drew breath.

Nooj blinked.

He had heard of Dona's New Yevon-affiliated husband. Everything he had heard was universally disparaging of his intelligence. If this is in any way indicative of what The Final Summoner is capable of inducing in its readers… Having read it himself, he could readily believe it.

Mulling over Barthello's plan, his eyes roamed around the room. Rikku, he skipped over as a non-entity. Paine and Beclem looked decidedly approving. Dona seemed a complex mix; she looked proud fit to burst, furious fit to burst, with a hint of worry whenever she looked at her husband. Barthello mainly looked haggard, pushed beyond exhaustion. Sonio looked extremely nervous, as well he should.

Baralai, on the other hand, was looking speculatively between Sonio and Barthello. It was this, in the end, that decided him. He retrieved his crutch and stood.

"Understood. The matter of Father Brock is obviously New Yevon business. I shall leave it to New Yevon to handle its own internal affairs. My party will retire to the Kilika Youth League base and await the other arrivals."

Baralai caught the hint and stood as well. "If Rikku and her compatriots have no objections, I shall retire to the Celsius."

Rikku had caught on as well. "Yup-yup! Do you wanna come too, Paine?"

Paine thought about it for a while, then smiled. "Why not? You, Father Sonio?"

Sonio shook his head. "My grandmother would appreciate a visit, and I wouldn't want to keep her up too late." He shivered. "She'd kill me."

Chuckling, they all made their way outside. Nooj and Beclem made their way over to the ship that would take them to the base.

Standing at the prow, their escort milling purposely around behind them at a discreet distance, Nooj mused, "And Sir Barthello finds himself without a side to call his own. I wonder which way he'll go…"

Beside him, Beclem shrugged. "He'll follow his wife, I imagine. I wouldn't mind having him on my side, sir. He's no slacker." His eyes darted sideways. "Of course, if you ever repeat that I'll have to beat you to death with your own tin leg."

Nooj's teeth shone in the moonlight. "Understood." He never could work out when Beclem was kidding.

Barthello sat in a numb haze. His head spun even as he sat motionless. All of the events of the past five weeks were lining up now, to present their price.

Returning from the entrance, Dona stood over him. Her eyes glowed in a way he had never seen before. "Don't think you're sleeping here with that scruffy mat on your face." Her eyes didn't change, though.

She fussed about, moving furniture and fetching various items and chasing Chiapa outside, all the while muttering various obscenities under her breath. The imprecations continued as she sat down with a razor and a bowl of hot water and proceeded to shave his chin herself. His vision gradually narrowed to a tunnel, her words drifting into insensibility as he drowned himself in those glorious brown eyes.

He didn't remember moving to the bed. Between one dreamlike moment and the next, he found himself on his back, under a sheet, with Dona in his arms. His mind drifted for a moment on what would happen tomorrow. For now, it was no matter.


All was well.

The next morning, as the sun rose from the west, sudden shouting from the gates woke them. A messenger burst in, seconds after they had finished dressing. The temple's warrior monks were attacking the gates.

Chapter 9

In the end, salvation arrived from a most unexpected source.

Barthello's idea had been brilliant. But its timing had been predicated on keeping Kilika Temple ignorant of his reappearance. Everything had been accounted for – except for a simple parishioner who had sent off a request via a homing gull for some confessional advice. In his message he had mentioned Barthello's return, and the arrival of the Gullwings.

Already nervous over Barthello's potentially embarrassing disappearance weeks ago, High Father Brock needed hear no more. He organised a dawn attack.

It was unclear what, if anything, he was trying to accomplish. It could ostensibly be argued that if the town had locked its gates for reasons unknown, then the temple's forces were well within their rights to bust the unsanctioned blockade. But in reality, it recalled in Sonio's experience nothing so much as a redux of the barricades torn down barely six months ago. It was simply too soon for the townspeople to countenance it, in the town or the temple.

He said as much to the praetor, who stood to his right as they faced the rhythmically thudding gate from a safe distance. To the praetor's right, the mevyn shook his head.

"There are differences. This time it looks as if Brock has sent most of his warrior monks down here; previously the temple was sufficiently protected at all times. This bears the signs of an all-out attack."

Sonio nodded. To the best of his knowledge the temple no longer boasted the impressive bevy of war machina that was imported to protect the temple from its own Chamber of the Fayth. The sole model remaining, elderly and in ill repair, was busy lobbing shells at the gate.

His brow creased for a moment. Sonio turned to Baralai. "Could I retrieve the radio for a moment, your grace?" Baralai complied. "Sonio to Celsius."

Buddy responded, "Hear you have some excitement down there, Sonio."

Sonio nodded in reflex. "Yes. Is the same kind of excitement happening in Bevelle, Luca and Besaid, do you know?" The radio went silent for several long moments.

"Nothing out of the ordinary. Isaaru in Bevelle and Lulu in Besaid say all's well, and the spherecasts out of Luca are trucking on as always."

Sonio expelled a relieved breath. "Music to my ears, Buddy. Out." He handed the radio back to Baralai. "Ambitious little rat."

Baralai nodded in agreement, unrelieved. "Either way, it seems this is where the new civil war starts. I can't imagine the gates will hold."

Nooj sighed, "Not for long enough. They'll be through before the HQ's reinforcements can get here. Fighting in the streets…" He sighed again. "This will be ugly."

Dona appeared behind them, Barthello trudging along in tow. She looked pointedly at Baralai. "Well, you're the head of New Yevon. Order them off. You can do that much, can't you?"

Baralai shrugged sadly. "That will only work after the battle. Before then, they'll simply be too busy to listen."

Sonio spoke up again. "If the object is to get them to stop fighting, how about a distraction?" Raised eyebrows confronted him. "Like, say, the Celsius?"

Baralai immediately liked the idea, but Buddy knocked that enthusiasm right over when asked. "Sorry, guys. This baby's pretty well-known here. Wouldn't give you that distraction you're after. Besides, we're not even armed." Baralai's shoulders slumped – then jerked upright as a new voice spoke through the speaker. A young male voice, with a smirk riding its broadcast.

"No, but we are."

Itching with curiosity, the party made for the canal bridge, from which they could see over the gate. At first though, there seemed nothing out of the ordinary.

Then a single, dart-like missile streaked over their heads, shot with dazzling speed over the gates – and suddenly homed directly onto the New Yevon mech. The small explosion nevertheless took out its head, enough to disable the temple's only source of artillery.

For a moment, the warrior monks did nothing but stare in amazement at the smoking mech. Then their heads whipped round to stare at the entrance to the forest. Another six missiles, three on each side, had being directed around Kilika Town. Each hit the ground with a small but very loud explosion, each in the space of just two seconds, two-thirds of the way from their positions to the forest entrance.

By the time the smoke and dust had cleared, a small airship hovered over the forest. Unlike the Celsius, this airship was most certainly armed. As several miniguns tracked on their targets, a tinny voice echoed from the hovering gunship's loudspeaker.

"Lower your weapons and surrender. You've got twenty seconds, starting now. If you're still holding weapons by then, you will be sorry."

Unsurprisingly, it seemed to work.

In the stunned silence following the sudden and unexpected destruction, Baralai climbed the guard lookout post.

He cleared his throat, looking out at the monks. "Now that we have your attention… My name is Praetor Baralai! You are all under my direct command! Is that understood?"

The massed warrior monks stood to hasty attention. "Yes, your grace!"

"Now pick up your weapons!" They did so. "This gate is actually stuck, so the first thing that must be done is to open it! I want battering— On second thoughts…" He used the radio for a moment. "Everyone move away from the gate! Now!" He followed his own advice with alacrity, chivvying everyone away from the damaged gate.

And none too soon. Four more missiles streaked from the airship, straight for the gate. Two hit near the hinges, the others on either end of the massive latch mechanism.

For several seconds after the smoke and splinters cleared, nothing happened. Then one more missile was launched. It hit in the exact centre of the gate – and bounced off without exploding. The entire gate, still in one battered piece, fell inwards with a great thud.

A short chuckle came from the airship. "Well, it was broken anyway."

While the two captains of the warrior monks organised the former attack force for the march back to the temple, Baralai gestured from the head of the forming column for Sonio to come forward. "You… Father Sonio, was it? I can't turn up on the temple's doorstep with no warning. Run ahead and warn them, will you?" He turned to point to his party of monks from Bevelle. "They'll go with you."

Sonio bowed with unseemly speed. His 'yes your grace!' practically dopplered as the four sprinted for the forest. The assembled warrior monks chuckled at the much put-upon Sonio's behaviour.

Once they hit the forest, they slowed down a little. Sonio's former classmate grinned at him as they trotted along. "So… was that more embarrassing than leaving Bevelle?" In the lead, the party took the left path.

Sonio nodded. "At least in Bevelle I could get drunk first." They stopped in front of a tree; it matched Dona's description. As Sonio began climbing, he wondered aloud, "You think…there were any scouts or messengers…or whatever in the forest?"

His old friend shrugged, waiting for Sonio to finish the climb onto the secret shortcut through the forest. "Only one way to find out, I guess."

Sonio surveyed pandemonium in the courtyard of Kilika Temple. Ecclesiastical personnel were running about in a panic. Worse, a messenger was slumped to the side, breathing heavily and gulping water. Damn. They began walking.

One of his fellow priests, a well-meaning, harmless twit by Sonio's measure, approached him at a run. "Sonio, what are you—"

Sonio cut him off with a wave of the hand, without slowing. "Where is High Father Brock?" Father Lerdin gaped. "Where?"

Lerdin shrugged, "In his quarters, getting ready for the praetor's visit, where else? What the—?" Sonio and his entourage had started sprinting again.

As they reached the door, it opened. High Father Brock stood there, blinking in the sunlight. "What is the meani— Sonio? What are you doing here? What is going on here?" The last question had been prompted by the manhandling of his person by two of the warrior monks as they dragged him from the door.

The third charged into the high priest's quarters while Sonio himself barred the door from entry with his slight form. "What in Yevon's name are you doing? Unhand me this instant, you heretics!" At this, every last priest and nun turned and stared. Several started striding towards Sonio. Unregarded, clangs and bangs echoed from within the room behind him. I hope this works…

In a way, it did. The last monk came out of the High Father Brock's room, holding a book. It was charred – but, Father Sonio was ecstatic to see, still smouldering and smoking. Even better, the front cover had mostly been saved. The Final Summoner glinted a glossy black in the harsh light of day. The approaching priests espied the book and froze. Sonio turned to Brock.

"High Father Brock, you are under arrest, by the authority of Praetor Baralai. You are to be charged, among other matters, for the crime of breaking your own stated edict and possessing the same literature that you proclaimed forbidden to all faithful Yevonites on Kilikan soil. Have you anything to say to defend yourself at this time?"

Barthello's guesses had been correct to this point. It now remained to see if his own surmises had followed suit. It irked him to play the lawyer, especially outside a court, but the growing crowd left no other option. If they weren't convinced, or at least delayed, the whole plan could still come to nothing…

The High Priest of Kilika Temple was quick off the mark. He drew himself up in the iron grip of his captors, snarling. "What nonsense! That book was never in my quarters. Your tame warrior monk must have put it there!"

Sonio smiled. "And which copy would that be? After all, you destroyed most of them." He carefully picked up the book, pointing to a section of the pages where the edges had survived. "Note the plain edging on the pages. The only other releases of this book had gold edging, according to the Lucan printers. Every last book without that edging was in those crates. Therefore this copy came from those crates." He dropped the book.

Brock gaped for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed. "Barthello! That traitor! He must have stolen it from the crates before delivering them. Then you took it and had it planted in my quarters!"

At that, Sonio just had to laugh; Brock had clearly just remembered that Barthello had likely pinched a copy. "In that, Brock, you are almost right. Barthello did steal a copy. He did give it to me. But that," he stated, pointing at the glowing book, "is not it." He reached into his robes. "This is the copy that Sir Barthello stole."

The onlookers, captivated by the drama, gasped at the book. One of the more hidebound priests blustered, "Heresy!"

Sonio opened the cover, withdrawing a piece of parchment. "Praetorial dispensation. Are you suggesting, High Father, that Sir Barthello stole two copies? Used one to set you up, and kept another just for the hell of it? Barthello?"

He was aware that he may have just said the wrong thing, in such a way as to cast unfounded suspicion on his own role in the disappearance of the books; but one of the nuns then chimed in. A notoriously uncharitable soul, but he could have kissed her. "Yes, so that he could read it in his spare time." Nasty chuckles rippled through the crowd – Barthello's dislike for intellectual pursuits was well-known here. Sonio managed to keep a straight face, with some difficulty. This became more difficult when he heard, at last, the subtle pulses under his feet of several dozen warrior monks marching in time.

He looked hard into the rat-like eyes in front of him. "I suppose you could try claiming that he stole two copies of the book at my behest – although that would be pretty silly, considering that you didn't even tell Barthello, let alone any of us, what you were planning. In order for me to set you up, I would've had to have known about this five weeks ago." He raised an eyebrow, inviting the next response. The last, given that by the rumbling the warrior monks were almost here.

"You must have known. The Youth League—!" In response, Sonio simply waved the dispensation under his nose. This was almost disappointing. Brock slumped in comprehension at last. "No, not the Youth League. Baralai."

Sonio shook his head. "I didn't set you up. I didn't need to set you up." He looked around, exuding an air of finality. "As some of you may know, each temple has a radio link, left over from one thousand years ago, by which every outpost of the Faithful can maintain contact with Bevelle at need. Outside of Bevelle, only the high fathers may use that link. After I visited Bevelle yesterday, Praetor Baralai informed me that six weeks ago, you received a direct order from him, instructing you not to declare the book forbidden. And you agreed to abide by that order."

The hidebound priest who had spoken before yelled, "Bevelle has no right to just give out orders like that! Each temple has the right to govern itself!" This was actually true; it was in fact a long-standing avenue of dissent within an outwardly united organisation.

Sonio answered, "You are correct; High Father Brock could indeed have refused to carry out Praetor Baralai's instruction. But he agreed, and from that point his agreement bound him. More to the point: Praetor Baralai didn't mention the shipment in that exchange."

"Meaning that someone else informed you of its impending arrival."

All heads present whipped around to the head of the stairs, where Praetor Baralai stood at the head of their own army. "Brock, formerly known as High Father Brock, you are hereby stripped of your stewardship of Kilika Temple, for the offence of oath-breaking. You will be transported to St. Bevelle to face the High Court of Yevon," he leaned in, "at which it will prove almost impossible for you to avoid execution if you do not tell me everything you know about your co-conspirators."

Brock cringed – then suddenly spat in the face of his praetor. "Go ahead, traitorous dog. Get your farce over with. But you won't be the praetor at my trial. You are being toppled even as I speak."

Sonio gasped in shock. He hadn't seen this coming!

But Baralai burst out laughing, wiping away the spittle without fuss. "How could they?" He leaned forward again, inches away from Brock's face. "The only legal provision under which I may be replaced in my absence revolves around the High Court." Brock continued to sneer. "The High Court Chamber. Strange rule, but it's been in place for over four hundred years. And you know, they may have difficulty entering just now…"

Immaculately polished ranks faced each locked door. If one were to approach, one might hear the pervading series of low-toned grousing, inevitably emanating from the vicinity of any set of soldiers given a boring, apparently pointless duty. Of course, Captain Maroda did not approach. He was a soldier too, after all.

His little brother Pacce was wandering around the room, 'ooh'ing and 'aah'ing at the opulent furnishings. His big brother watched Pacce with a fond smile. Maroda sighed.

"Here we are, protecting Bevelle together… again." They shared a quiet chuckle.

There came a scrabbling at one of the doors, and muffled voices. The guards at that door stood ready as the brothers strode forward.

The lock snicked. The door swung open.

Eight Yevon high council clergy stood blinking before their unexpected company. Gleaming in the lead councillor's hand was a key.

Pacce wondered, "Hey, he's got a key too! Don't you have the only key, big brother?"

Isaaru shook his head sadly, "Making illegal copies of the Key to the High Court Chamber? What is the world coming to?"

Maroda inclined his head. "Take them."

The warrior monks charged.

Baralai raised an eyebrow.

Brock's eyes flitted from side to side, seeking any way out of his predicament. And he hit on the only one left to him. "Traitor to Yevon! You who barter away the Most Holy Faith for base power: you shall not be suffered to pollute the world with your presence any longer! Arrest him!"

It is unlikely that this could have worked. Any priests who might wish to obey had the warrior monks, all seven dozen, to worry about. Any warrior monks who might wish to obey had the same problem to contend with. Frantic looks were shot between all concerned for several tension-fraught seconds, each one afraid to make the decision that would start the bloodshed.

And then it became utterly irrelevant. The diminutive but deadly airship suddenly shot upwards into view over the temple stairs, guns trained on everybody.

"I wouldn't, if I were you."

Chapter 10

Well, at least this meeting's not being held in my house.

Dona had not set foot inside Kilika Temple since the Eternal Calm began. Her distaste for the temples, and for this temple in particular, knew no bounds. Given her choices, she would have preferred the summit to be held at the Youth League HQ, or on the Celsius, or… well, almost anywhere else.

But, if nothing else, her house simply couldn't hold this many people at once.

Small mercies.

The summit had initially been scheduled for a couple of weeks after The Final Summoner's general release. But despite the beginnings of a lively purge in Bevelle, Barthello's copy of the book remained too controversial a choice for republication at present. Maybe in a month or two, after the details of the several upcoming Yevon trials had been released, work could begin on the updated edition. In the meantime, Nooj and Baralai in the same place was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Still… small mercies.

Barthello sat to her left, his hand welded to hers under the table. In the three days since he'd returned from the forest, he had begun to replace the muscled bulk that he'd lost. And wonder of wonders, he was also attacking her book collection. A slight blush came to her olive cheeks. The sheer, unexpected sight yesterday of his lean, sweat-drenched form, doing push-ups and reading one of her books… "Nothing."

To her right, Paine's eyes slid sideways. "I didn't ask."

Dona shrugged. "True." A catlike smile spread across her face. What had happened next was, she knew, something she would remember for years… "Still nothing."

Paine shrugged in turn. "I heard you the first time."

Dona had to chuckle. After a moment, Paine joined her. I gauged her right, it seems: courteous in all the ways that actually matter. To Paine's right, Rikku stared at the two of them, clearly mystified. They laughed harder.

Reining in her mirth with some effort, Dona let her eyes drift around the grand hall, taking in the people sitting and standing around the makeshift, more-or-less circular line of tables. She actually approved of the transience of the arrangement. As Barthello had pointed out, such an arrangement would be difficult to pin to any one place without conferring undeserved advantage on the chosen place. Put that way (albeit using simpler words as Barthello remained uncomfortable using educated language when he didn't need to), Nooj and Baralai had both agreed readily.

It was quite an assembly, however one measured such things. Gippal, leader of the Machine Faction, had turned up, and was enjoying a glass of wine with Baralai and Buddy in the brief interval before the summit's actual beginning. Nooj was being waited upon hand and foot by his lover, Leblanc. The diplomatic necessities of the occasion dissuaded her from the temptation to sneer at the sphere hunter. Brushed-up Calm Lands tart. At least she left her goons at home… Elder Kimahri of the Ronso was speaking in quiet tones to Lord Tromell of the Guado, presumably about some kind of peace treaty. Elder Cid of the Al Bhed was speaking in a surprisingly expansive manner with his countryman, the highly influential businessman Rin; Sonio hovered near them, seeming to wish to speak to Rin as well.

High Summoner Yuna was smiling down at two opportunistic Al Bhed boys, who were chatting away to each other whilst tucked into her sides. The little twerp probably doesn't even realise what they're doing… She frowned for a moment. Given their presence in this august gathering, one would be the mechanical genius and former Gullwing, Shinra. She murmured to Paine, "Who's the other one?"

Paine followed her eyeline. "Ah… That one is Benzo, the ambassador of the Cactuar Nation." Her lips quirked. "Well, the ambassador's translator. Look to your left."

Filled with a sudden sense of foreboding, she turned to look at Barthello. And then up.

"My, my, my, my, my…"

Chiapa spun in place on top of Barthello's head, chittering a greeting.

"Shut up."

She looked at Barthello long and hard. He shrugged helplessly.

(Behind her, meanwhile, Paine cursed quietly. Rikku leaned over, a smug smile on her face. She whispered:

"Pay up.")

Dona sighed. It was, she conceded, politically unfeasible to swat away the ambassador of a foreign nation like a pest – even if it was. She looked around again.

The absences were unsurprising, most of them. Director Isaaru and Commander Lucil would be busy, holding their leaders' organisations together in their absence. Gippal had made Brother's absence a condition of his attendance; the Gullwings' captain was probably still screaming over that little insult. Lulu and Wakka were missing as well, with an infant to occupy them. The temple's high priest was notably absent, to no-one's surprise. Father Sonio was here instead, mostly looking thoroughly terrified – and given the present company, well he should.

But one absence was mystifying – wait…

There he was. The world's pre-eminent blitzballer, and Yuna's husband…to be? Not that it mattered. Loosely aligned now with the Machine Faction, Sir Tidus' intervention at the helm of the airborne gunship had been instrumental in averting bloodshed. Currently he was leaning against the wall in a shadowed alcove, talking to… some old man or other. The wizened man walked out into the courtyard, apparently unnoticed by anyone else. Some elderly servant, no doubt.

Well, not quite unnoticed. Yuna's mouth hung open. She seemed on the brink of standing. Tidus shook his head, and she stayed put. Or not…? Oh well, I'll find out later.

She looked around again, increasingly impatient. While there were certainly advantages to the idea of a world-encompassing group of individuals dedicated to the maintenance of Spira's fragile peace, Dona's gorge still rose at the jarring sight of all these friendly, relaxed faces in a political gathering. Will this mutual admiration society never cease? "This is so cloying, I may well be sick…" Paine flashed a grim little smile – and Sonio might well have heard too, for he took a deep, calming breath and began to usher wayward dignitaries to their seats.

Most of them. He wasn't fool enough to try moving Chiapa.

Praetor Baralai was the first to begin speaking.

"Before we begin the summit proper, I believe it would be prudent in this instance to announce what would under normal circumstances be New Yevon's matter alone. For those of you who have not been properly introduced, I give you High Father Sonio – the newly appointed high priest of Kilika Temple."

A smattering of polite applause, of varying enthusiasm, echoed through the temple. The new High Father spluttered and protested, with an impressive display of surprise and horror. He might even have been kept ignorant of his new appointment.

Baralai stood, and pointed a threatening finger at him. He shut up.

Nooj leaned forward at that point. "And onto more…controversial news, concerning the fate of The Final Summoner. I find myself the last owner of a copy." Something niggled at the back of Dona's mind at this – something wrong with the entire premise. But what…?

Surprisingly, Barthello was frowning as well. While Dona was now afire with curiosity, she had by now divined the best way to work out what Barthello was thinking: to let him finish.

Nooj had continued. "Refraining from distribution of this book for any time, in my opinion, is not an option. I want its contents disseminated as soon as humanly possible. That said, I am well aware of the likely pitfalls involved in straightforward publication." This was met by a chorus of murmured agreement. Dona had noted over the years that most political gatherings were characterised by much the same phenomenon. "I have devoted some thought to alternate means of dissemination; I would like to hear your own thoughts on how to accomplish this."

This was met by a brief silence, as the hall's assorted visitors looked at each other. For some reason, Tidus looked about to speak – and then he closed his mouth, looking extremely curious – and looking at her husband. Dona had her own ideas on the topic, but Tidus' strange behaviour distracted her.

It was Buddy, navigator for the Celsius, who thus spoke first. "Spherecast. The Lucan wavecasters do specials on the lives of big blitzball stars – you know, like Graav, Bickson and Wakka. Maybe you could get them to make something like that about The Final Summoner?"

Kimahri countered, in his bass rumble. "Five hundred pages. Many, many spheres. Quicker to print book than to make." At this, Rikku sat up.

"And how many people were ever going to read five hundred pages, anyway?"

Yuna nodded thoughtfully. "The book needs to be there, so that people can choose to read it. But most of them won't. So long as they know the gist of it, they'll leave it at that, I think." This met with more nods. "How many copies came to Kilika, anyway?"

Dona answered, "Three hundred, according to what I was told to expect in the shipment. About two-thirds of them were to be distributed at cost, to various small villages and farming communities, so that the most remote wouldn't miss out."

Cid called out, "I don't get it. What's so damn important about the whole book anyway?" He was the sudden recipient of a lot of frowns. He rolled his eyes. "I get that. But there were plenty of things back then that were pretty damn nasty by themselves. Those don't really need to be tied in with everything else!" Ever the Al Bhed xenophobe, he went on, "Like the attack on our Home!"

Paine gave him a grim nod. "And Operation Mi'ihen. I get your point. Battles and such would go pretty well in a special spherecast."

Rin added, "And we could make those fairly quickly, too. Interviews with the survivors, accounts of the battles… Yes, it should sell quite well. But we need something more. Publicity works best when applied to many fronts."

Baralai turned to Nooj. "Have you considered staggered publication? Printing each chapter in pamphlets?"

Nooj shrugged back, "Printed where? The Youth League can't print them. The Lucan printers are compromised – no offence, Rin." Rin, the majority owner of most of the presses for nearly a year now, nodded with some regret. While he also had a considerable stake in the wavecasting corporations, he was no doubt sad to see the added profits from the press go. "And I'm not going to be willing to hand my copy over to anyone else for some time."

Rikku suddenly brightened. "How about Tobli?"

Shinra nodded. Well, Dona thought, it was probably Shinra. "The problem is that you can't release it – not that you can't print it. To build a press to sell to Tobli would be easy."

Buddy's dark face was split by a white-toothed grin. "While you're at it, you could build a bunch of them. Print a few back-up copies yourselves. Keep your own copy, and send out the others. We'll be willing to deliver them." His grin widened. "At a good price."

Nooj nodded, but still seemed skeptical. "We would still encounter difficulties from New Yevon in releasing those pamphlets."

Tromell Guado spoke up for the first time. "Perhaps if you were to edit sections of the text, releasing them to coincide with the spherecast …specials?"

Rin added, "Maybe in a promotion deal with sales of the spherecasts? That could work. The material would in reality be relatively inoffensive to New Yevon, yes?" He darted a query at Baralai.

Baralai raised a hand in a tipping motion. "Not inoffensive – but a great deal harder to deny. Operation Mi'ihen, the Guado attack on Home, the Gagazet massacre… these matters are well-known. For members of New Yevon to ridicule such specials would merely make their cause appear foolish." He shared a growing smile with Nooj, who was by now visibly enamoured of the idea.

"Yes… Our enemies have handed Spira a setback, but it may yet be ameliorated."

A moment's silence was jarringly broken. Dona's head whipped to her left, with sudden anticipation.

Chiapa was shrilling and popping as if it were about to burst. Benzo was leaning forward, clearly shocked. More importantly, Barthello's eyes were glowing in realisation.

"I think there's another book."

Over the next ten seconds, two things happened.

The first was of little importance. Rikku muttered under her breath – but in the silence (for Chiapa had shut up once more), it echoed throughout the hall.


Everyone remained too stunned to laugh at this. Then the second thing happened.

Tidus stood… and applauded.

Every last eye in the room (bar those of Chiapa, who was still twirling merrily in place on his hairy perch) was riveted to the pair, or to one or the other. Barthello looked rather puzzled at Tidus' ovation – then glared at him.

Tidus laughed, his mirth not at all mocking. "Sorry, big guy. And yeah, there's another book." The room susurrated with the gasps at this revelation, delivered in such an offhand manner. "But tell us how you figured it out." Barthello just glared harder.

Dona squeezed his hand. He always did hate explaining. Barthello eventually dropped his glare, and squeezed back.

"We all forgot something. Or maybe you all 'knew', and I just didn't know enough to question it." The puzzled frowns remained in place, including, she knew, on her own face. "All this time, we've been so fixed on the book, and what's in it. So I asked myself a question." His eyes wandered around the room, settling on the three heads of Spira's pre-eminent organisations. "Who are the Seekers?"

Nooj and Baralai were blinking, uncomprehending. Then Gippal suddenly smacked his hand into his forehead, muttering a phrase in the Al Bhed language. Paine leaned over and murmured to Dona and Barthello. "He's saying, 'I'm such an idiot'."

Gippal explained the basics – which, Dona suddenly realised, had never been explained to Barthello in the first place! "When Sin fell and the Eternal Calm came to Spira, it became obvious pretty quick that no-one really knew what Spira's past was. For 1000 years, Yevon's priests made it up to suit what they wanted to do. There were little clues, all over the place. But we had no real idea what the world was like before Sin – what the world needed to learn, and quick, to survive without Sin."

Yuna, still looking quizzically at her love, took up the explanation. "Sin united the world. Sin gave all the peoples of Spira a common enemy."

Sonio nodded. "A point of reflexivity. Two peoples, utterly unalike in customs, race or beliefs, could empathise with each other, because Sin would attack their communities. Thus they could relate. Thus they could ally."

Gippal chuckled, "Plus, the constant fighting and rebuilding kept everyone busy."

Nooj continued. "But once Sin was gone… All that many people knew was combat, strife, despair. And with Sin gone, they could now look at other societies and recognise no common ground. So they would fight, when they should be talking. Fight, when they should be thinking." Dona was unsurprised to see Father Sonio flash an intrigued look at the mevyn. "So, a small number of people, of diverse backgrounds, started a group."

Paine nodded. "They were the first sphere hunters. They searched for any sphere of historical significance, looking for anything to help Spira to adjust to its new peace."

Baralai sighed, "And it was begun by Trema. When he disappeared into the Via Infinito eighteen months ago, he took most of the Seekers' collected spheres with him."

Yuna tore her gaze from Tidus, and looked around. "When YRP met him in the depths of the Infinito, he told us that he'd destroyed them all." This news was met with several gasps. Dona had never heard this! "His reasoning was that history had begun anew. Therefore, if we were to prosper, we had to cast away history altogether and start afresh." Her face was grim, yet somewhat satisfied. "It was a pleasure to end him."

Tidus levelled a laden stare at Barthello. "Of course, all those spheres were really only useful, not essential." He raised an eyebrow. Barthello understood almost immediately.

"No. They had Maechen."

Barthello shook his head a little, then. "But you're not getting it. Who are the Seekers?" He was right – no-one was getting it, except for Tidus and Gippal. "Who are its members, apart from Maechen? Where are they based? Why aren't they here, at this summit?"

Gippal smirked. "Well, technically Nooj and Baralai are both members. Remember, the original Seekers became the Youth League. And then Trema switched sides, and more Seekers joined New Yevon. What the Seekers are now is mostly a bunch of dried-up old scholars. So beyond that, no-one really cares who they are." His teeth flashed in a friendly grin. "For a New Yevon man, you've got some brains. Finish up for the others, willya?"

Barthello sighed at the prospect of yet more explanation, but complied. "All you've told me about the Seekers really proved what I'd thought. So, here goes:

"The Seekers are a group of historians. You've told me they've already lost a lot of records. So they wouldn't want to lose more of them. They kept their own copy – maybe even more than one copy, before sending the manuscript to the printers."

Now that it was laid out like that, it seemed so… obvious! And it had never, never occurred to her. It was no salve to her pride that no-one else had worked it out, although it was of some consolation to see it sinking in for the others. But…

She was so proud of her husband.

Then that oh-so-casual earlier comment sunk in. And not just for her, either. Eyes all around the tables swivelled to Tidus.

In reply, he propped up a nondescript book on the table in front of him. "Each of the unaffiliated Seekers has their own copy – not all of them joined a side, you know. This was Maechen's. You can keep this one – Maechen's had another copy made to replace it."

Kimahri leaned over to peruse the book, opening it to squint at the words inside. "Scrivened. Not many Seekers."

Tidus shrugged, "Doesn't have to be. No-one really cares about some dried-up old scholars, right?" His demeanour suddenly darkened, his normally sunny features exuding a menace that was breathtaking in its unexpected intensity. "Unless, that is, our enemies find out that they have to wipe every last Seeker from the face of Spira to stop the book's publication. Most of them are in hiding as it is. So here are the Seekers' instructions:

"The first spherecast you will release will be the story of what happened here. It will be as true as it can be, except for one thing: Maechen turned up here today and handed over his own, personal copy so that the truth could be told as he intended. After all, he did turn up here today." His gaze settled on the book for a moment. "He just didn't make an issue of it. The other spherecasts, and the edited pamphlets and so on, handing it off to Tobli: all of that sounds good, so go ahead. No-one mentions anything they know about the Seekers, other than the obvious stuff you knew before I told you all this. Keep your mouths shut about all that, at least until the book is out."

His gaze hardened even further. "Do you all agree?" Dona would honestly not have been willing to bet on anyone who had said 'no' leaving the temple alive. Not that it mattered, for they all agreed with alacrity. After all, the need to protect the Seekers was obvious.

Then Barthello chuckled. "Now for the rest of it."

Tidus and Barthello shared grins.

"Well, first: I delayed telling you I had a copy for two reasons. The first was because I was curious what ideas everyone'd come up with. Honestly, the Seekers don't really get the whole 'publicity' thing. Second, because I had a side bet with Maechen, over whether anyone would realise the Seekers probably had their own copies." He grinned wider for a moment. "I owe him a hundred gil the next time I see him."

There were a few chuckles at this. Everyone was still staring at him. "Go ahead, ask."

In the end, it was Leblanc who asked.

"So how do you know so much about the Seekers?"

In answer, Tidus dug out another book, propping it next to the first. Dona focussed on it, her shock growing to new dimensions as she understood at last. Several jaws dropped. There were a few unbelieving chuckles. She was fleetingly aware of several other reactions; Yuna, for instance, was as flabbergasted as anyone. Kimahri, on the other hand, just smiled.

Barthello nodded, having understood everything. So proud.

"This one is my copy."

Chapter 11

As the sun sank into the eastern sea, turning the sky a canopy of subtle pinks and yellows, the silence of the secret forest ledge was broken by the sounds of scrabbling from below.

Four humans climbed the trunk, coming out onto the ledge. Looking out over Kilika Port from the elevated vantage point, Chiapa chittered a greeting from the edge. The unexpected guest's presence caused different reactions. Barthello smiled, and Yuna waved a greeting. Dona sighed. And Tidus looked at it long and hard. "…The Ten Gatekeepers thing you mentioned, right Yuna?"

In answer, her fist lashed out, thudding into his stomach. Tidus gave no reaction to the blow, except for a slight wince which rode his next words. "I'm sorry, Yuna. I only joined a couple of weeks ago, and Maechen told me to tell no one – not even you." He shrugged, "Actually, it was the Seekers' leadership that told me that. When Maechen came in at the temple, he said I could tell the people at the summit." He sat down with a rueful, and slightly winded sigh. "Forgive me, Yuna."

Yuna stared at him for a moment, and then sat beside him. "I hurt you, didn't I?"

Tidus chuckled, "Not as bad as Rikku did, the first time we met. Of course, she was wearing gauntlets…" Tidus and Yuna shared a smile. "Then again, if I remember it right, she also apologised first."

Dona glared down at him, her arms crossed. "Did you invite us here to see your weak attempt at a lovers' quarrel?"

Tidus' face became solemn. "No, I didn't. Actually, it was Barthello I wanted to talk to. You're here because he wouldn't agree to anything I suggested if you weren't. And Yuna's here because I really did a pretty nasty thing to her, leaving her out of the loop until now – even if I didn't want to. So given that she knows about the Seekers anyway…" He shrugged again.

"So here goes nothing… Barthello, have you given any thought to what you want to do now? Apart from staying with Dona, I mean?"

Barthello sat down slowly. His expression was pensive. "Not really." He sighed, "I suppose I should. Could you let me think about it for a moment?"

The others were considerate enough to step over to the other side of the clearing, though Dona's face was unsurprisingly stony. Looking over the edge, they conversed in quiet tones. Barthello paid them no attention, deep in thought.

Far below, the various dignitaries were entering the port town's wrecked gate, searching for accommodations for the night; the summit would continue tomorrow. Dona stared through them, her thoughts racing in decidedly unpleasant directions.

To her side, Tidus pre-empted the conversation's burning topic. "It'll be interesting to see how far Barthello gets with this one. From everything I've heard about him, from everything I remember, he's never been able to think straight when it came to you." He hurriedly added, "Not that it's a bad thing, of course! Phew…"

Dona had lowered her fist, though not for Tidus' frantic back-pedalling – an old remembrance had occurred to her. "I understand. Barthello told me about finding your party in Macalania Forest, just after the Al Bhed captured me. Apparently he was distraught." She shook her head, trying to clear it. "What are you talking about?"

Tidus gave her a measuring glance. "He's got pretty good at thinking, you know. A lot of people are going to want him on their side. What do you reckon the Youth League would do if he joined them?"

Dona smiled at this sally. "For a former guardian? Nooj would probably make him a captain. He's been light on them since Maroda shifted to Bevelle." The smile drained. "But he might get a squad in Mushroom Rock."

Yuna shook her head. "I can't see him agreeing to that. For that matter, High Father Sonio would no doubt like to have him in his former position as head of Kilika Temple's warrior monks." Shook her head again. "Though I'm sure he wouldn't if you didn't want him to."

Dona thought about it for a moment. "…No, I can't see that working. Before, he believed in New Yevon. Now he may be too disillusioned to go back. Besides, to be honest, I'd rather he wasn't with them. I'm sick and tired of my husband being used as New Yevon's cat's-paw." In all honesty, she would rather not be talking about this subject; however…

It had been Tidus who had given her the confidence to abandon her pilgrimage. If she had not done so, she might be dead and Sin might still be rampaging across Spira. This bought the ex-guardian some small measure of respect, if not trust. "I'm guessing you want him for the Seekers? Because the Machine Faction is probably the only group that doesn't want him."

Behind them, her husband's thoughts ran along similar lines, albeit currently at a tangent.

I think I understand. Auron's actions had once again proved Barthello's inspiration. I don't need to choose a side. My priorities are my own!

A vociferous, perpetually fixated corner of his mind screamed out in protest: but Dona! Yet had he not joined New Yevon in the first place, against her express wishes?

Now that he thought of it, he privately admitted to some curiosity over her unreasoning rage at his choice. Was it just because I was going against her wishes? or because she truly saw how stupid I was being? It was, he knew, a question he simply could not ask. And he didn't really need an answer. He would do what was right. If he did not know what was right, he would find out.

If the light of his life understood and approved, that would be vastly preferable to what would happen if she did not. He would make his choice regardless.

With that decision made, he turned his attention to the question: what will I do now?

This much was obvious: he wanted to help people, however he could. He had joined New Yevon, in a dimly understood way, for much the same reasons (being frightened of change, and expecting that others would be frightened as well). As a trained guardian, as someone who had been expected to sacrifice his life to vanquish Sin, he could do no less than care for their welfare.

What is best for Kilika? No – what is best for Spira?

The existence of the very book which had opened his mind was now a complex dilemma. While he might wish to join the Youth League alongside his love, such a change of allegiance would cause a great deal of trouble in the upcoming trials in Bevelle. The entire purpose of Praetor Baralai's reforms could well fail if his credibility was so severely undermined, and a constructive counterweight to the Youth League's excesses – which even Dona was willing to admit existed in plentiful measure, could be replaced by a reactionary, manipulative roadblock to peace.

He had to admit, the prospect of returning to Kilika Temple with Sonio at its head was far from as unpalatable as it might have been with Brock still in charge. And yet… The most I could do as a leader of warrior monks in Kilika is a job which half of them up there could do, and would gladly do. To help in a more substantial way, he would almost certainly have to relocate to Bevelle, a prospect which did not appeal to him in the slightest.

He methodically ticked off the other options, intentionally leaving the likely pending offer from Tidus for last. The notion of becoming a sphere hunter interested him more than a little, and might be financially rewarding to boot – he remembered some of Yuna's stories about her time in the Gullwings. However, there were really only two groups of note which he might wish to join, given his purpose. The Leblanc Syndicate was out of the question – it would be joining the Youth League by proxy, with all of the same problems. As for the Gullwings… No. Rikku and Paine had also shared some stories, and his recollection of them indicated that Brother was not in the least interested in Spira's welfare – and was a egotistical pillock into the bargain.

Rin, Cid, Shinra… Rin was a businessman, and Barthello had neither the aptitude for, nor any interest in business. Cid's mission was one which Barthello was not exactly comfortable with; he suspected that while the idea of building a machina city might have its advantages, peopling it only with one race was a recipe for future disaster. And Shinra… He had his suspicions. Besides, he'd have the exact same problem with Shinra as he would with the Machine Faction – his enormous strength was a decided disadvantage when it came to operating delicate machinery.

He briefly contemplated doing nothing, joining no side, at least until the trials were done. But in the eyes of New Yevon's reactionaries, that would be tantamount to joining the Youth League if he did not also leave Dona – and that he would not do, least of all for such a reason. Other, far more unlikely options were considered – starting his own group, opening a school, becoming an explorer – but these required the sort of massive funds that only an established group could provide.

It seemed his best option was to at least hear the Seeker's offer.

Barthello's head was raised, his eyes on her. By this, Dona surmised that he was done thinking for the moment. The three drifted over once more; Chiapa followed to join them.

Tidus leaned back. "So, big guy. What'cha come up with?"

Barthello mused, "Well… I can't join the Youth League, not yet at least. That might upset the trials." She blinked; she hadn't actually thought of that. "I won't rejoin New Yevon. To be useful in the way they probably want me now, I'd have to leave Kilika. And I can't stay on the fence for too long, because the bad guys in Bevelle will just assume I've joined the Youth League. Or joined Dona, at least." His audience remained silent, giving tacit assent to his reasoning. "So may I ask a question?"

Tidus grinned, "Well, sure! Go ahead."

"What would I be doing if I joined the Seekers?"

Tidus' gaze became intent. "There's a few things that need to be done; which of them you do is your choice. Just for starters: eventually the Seekers are going to have to go public and start recruiting new members. Dried-up old scholars don't live forever, you know. The Seekers need people to represent the face of the group, in a way that the old guys just can't. I can handle a bit of that when the time comes, but I need others to help out – because I do have other duties, and so will anyone we recruit." Dona was most amused to behold the shade of grey Barthello's face turned at this prospect.

"No?" Tidus shrugged, "Well, that's just a sideshow to the main job." Now he leaned forward. "See, as a former guardian yourself, you should well know just how much gil cutting down a few hundred fiends can get you. Right?"

The others nodded agreement. It was well-known that fiends were the ghosts of Spira's unsent dead, and that they usually carried many of their living possessions with them. It was also considered bad form to use gil garnered in such a way. Of course, Dona mused, I doubt anyone told Zanarkand-boy that. She herself had amassed a significant amount of gil on her pilgrimage. She still had a fair amount of it, given that the standard recourse when lumbered with such ill-aspected gains was to give it to the temples, and she was still breathing.

"Well, on Yuna's pilgrimage, I was the quartermaster. No one else would touch the stuff, for some reason." He shrugged, wryly. "So when Yuna sent me to the Farplane, I departed with most of the party's gil – upwards of three million, in fact." Dona's brows raised at the amount – she herself had barely a tenth of that left. "That more-or-less quadrupled the Seekers' fund pool when I joined them. And we're putting it to good use, too."

He looked at Yuna. "Remember when I wanted to meet Shinra a few days ago? That's 'cause I had some business with him. We've commissioned him to design a pyrefly analyser, like the one Seymour used to create that vision of my Zanarkand – only with portable pyrefly collectors." He looked around at the others, a wondering smile on his lips.

Dona could hardly blame him, or Yuna for the awed look on her face. With such a device, there would be for the first time a chance of reconstructing an accurate account of Spira's history, free from Yevon's bias! She frowned as a thought occurred to her. "Where would you put it?"

Tidus responded with an impatient look. "Anywhere we like. Not in Bevelle or Mushroom Rock, and probably not in Guadosalam, but there's a bunch of places. That's not the point." He leaned forward again, looking at Barthello.

"For this to work, we're going to need a lot of pyreflies to read. And as you know, most of them are in places with lots of fiends. So as you can guess, we're going to need to kill a lot of fiends." He raised his eyebrows to belabour the point. "Like, a LOT of fiends. Not the sort of thing we can count on a bunch of dried-up old scholars doing.

"So what we're really going to need, not now but soon, is people who are good at killing them, so that the scholars can get those readings. That's one of those duties I'll be having to do when the time comes, but we need everyone we can get… as long as we can trust them."

He shrugged eloquently. "If you're looking for a way to help Spira, Barthello, this has gotta be a pretty good way, right? Think about it! Killing every fiend you come across – not just for the safety of the living, but to tell the stories of the dead. It makes Spira a better place, no matter which way you look at it! Whaddaya say, big guy?"

Tidus was right – it did sound wonderful. And by the smile spreading across Barthello's face, it certainly appealed to him. There was just one problem.

Then again, there was just one solution to it.

Dona stood, with great ceremony. She crossed her arms, clearly furious – and clearly determined. Yes, that should do! "Barthello, there is no way in Spira that I am going to let my guardian go gallivanting about the world while I stay behind in Kilika! You will not do it! Do you hear me? You will not!"

All her reserves of decorum barely sufficed to hide the urchin's grin that threatened to split her face at witnessing Barthello's expression. Ha! He might have changed, but he's still slow enough that I can catch him out! More to the point, Yuna had seen through it. A sly smile spread across her face. "So, why don't you go with him?"

Dona nearly burst out laughing. "Oh please, I'm a member of the Youth League, and the mayor of Kilika Port to boot. The mevyn, the town council – what would everyone think, if I were to just walk away from those responsibilities?" Barthello's stunned expression hadn't changed – but Tidus' face did, as the subtle reminder registered.

He rolled his eyes. "Dona, we've had this conversation before. Who cares?"

Barthello suddenly frowned, no doubt on the way to working out the ruse. It was that, combined with anticipation of the looks on the town council's faces when she finally, at long last told them to get stuffed, which finally broke the façade. Her warm, throaty chuckle rang across the clearing.

"Oh, screw it. Why not?" She laughed harder.

The firelit gate into Kilika Port beckoned to the small party as they came out of the dark forest. The mood was expansive, in accord with the recently reached agreement.

Tidus turned to Yuna, who was holding his hand. "So, are you in too?"

Yuna's teeth flashed in the warm light as she grinned at him. "Of course! Did you think I wouldn't?" She shrugged, "Besides, I must admit I'm missing the travel a little. This is the most perfect excuse I could wish for."

He squeezed her hand. "Still not used to the life of a dignitary, huh?"

She sighed. "I think Beclem may have been right when he denigrated the summoners. I just can't see myself in twenty years time, still being idolised for something I did when I was barely out of childhood. Still being gifted all that power when I haven't done anything lately to deserve it." Her face became solemn. "I need to feel useful. I must be useful. I just can't live any other way."

The two guards at the gate saluted the party as they headed through. Tidus confessed, "Well, that's actually kinda why I chased up the Seekers in the first place. You seemed so miserable – like on your pilgrimage. Something in the way you were smiling." His mood lightened. "Recruiting Barthello and Dona was just a bonus, to be honest."

They stopped for a moment at the Kilika Youth League ship, where Dona left them to report her change of plans to Mevyn Nooj. As the ship's boat set off to the Youth League base, Tidus turned to Barthello. "Wanna see the airship while she's busy?" Barthello shrugged and nodded assent. "We'll need to use the save sphere, of course. What with three airships in port, the harbour's a little crowded."

By the time they reached the end of the dock, most of the visiting dignitaries had shifted through the save sphere onto their ships. In fact, only three remained. Benzo and Shinra sat on either side of a tearful Rikku, trying their lacklustre best to comfort the Al Bhed ex-guardian. Yuna ran forward to kneel before her. "Rikku, what's wrong?"

Angry, brimming green eyes looked up at her. "My," a burst of vituperous, censor-worthy Al Bhed, "big meanie Brother threw a huge hissy-fit because I got to go to the summit and he didn't. So he fired me." She descended into a long bout of Al Bhed obscenities, utterly uncaring of the young company with which she sat. In fact, if Tidus was not mistaken, Shinra was covertly recording the fiery display for later perusal. At length, she ran out of breath.

Rikku slumped, the anger draining away. "I don't wanna go back to working for my cantankerous old fart of a father…" Her head dropped into her hands. "What am I going to do now?"

Tidus' laughter rang out across the dock, puncturing Rikku's abject misery. The recipient of a bevy of disbelieving, furious glares, he just laughed harder. Barthello was the only one to get the joke by the time Tidus could get his breath back. Even Barthello's quiet chuckle attracted glares – for a moment. Then Chiapa's excited chittering, from his habitual vantage point on Barthello's head, had Benzo staring at the cactuar.

Tidus decided to bring matters to a head, before he was beaten up… again. Four in one day. A good day for the Seekers. He sighed in satisfaction.

"So, Rikku… Do you want a job?"

Author's endnote:

So there ends my first completed fanfic. Good bit of writing practice, at 21,000-odd words. The first 10 chapters took about a week, and I added the 11th a month or two later.

From here, I can see two main avenues of exploration. The main one would be a series of shorts, detailing various historical events – not the standard 'put a character back in time' gig, but actual 'as it happened' cracks. (Hence 'The Seeker Files', yes?) The second would be the standard 'let the plot roll' take, based on the continuation of this and subsequent scripts. These would likely be more substantial than the historical shorts (well, maybe – there's some fertile ground in them shorts…). Feel free if you have suggestions for events to tackle.

(Actually, there's also a third vector – though I'm rather reluctant to use it at this point. Note that I said 'pyrefly collector', not 'reader'. In theory, and if I could ever bring myself to do it, this would provide a halfway-believable excuse to bring in deceased characters, or even (gods forbid!) other FF characters. Personally, I doubt I'll ever go for it, though the tale of a spirited attempt at it might work.)

The next (likely) story will be an account of the first expedition using a portable collector. It should finish the setting of circumstances for the subsequent historical shorts. And no worries - next time, I'll chop it into chapters like I should've done with this one...

And in closing, a final note:

Timewise, my internet use is severely limited and will likely be so for the near future. As such, and as a new contributor, I am well aware that the contents of this fanfic may have infringed uncomfortably upon stories already posted. I say may, because I simply didn't have the `net time to perform an in-depth check on pre-existing fanfics.

If you are aware of, or especially if you are the author of such a fanfic, please send me details of the fanfic in question so that I can check.

Until next time (note the assumption). Thank you for taking the time to read this.