Chapter 42: The Lady
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Rating: R for violence.
Word Count: 4200
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Our Story So Far: Thirteen years after Yuna falls in the Final Summoning, another summoner and his guardians penetrate Sin's inner sanctum.
Yu Yevon seemed to have called a truce: the fiends had disappeared back into the mists that bred them. Privately, Auron wondered where they had been diverted; Sin had gulped down half the pyreflies of Guadosalam, and he doubted Yu Yevon had applied them only to Sin's outer hull. But that was a matter for later. Now...
Now he had to resist the gnawing regrets that threatened to add him to the local fiend population.
"Are you all right, sir?" said a boy, shy and solemn at his elbow. Not Tidus. More armor, less bluster.
"There has to be a portal," Auron said, barely aware of his voice. "We search."
Ignoring a red-haired man's maddening glance of compassion, Auron focused on the heavy sword braced across his shoulders, letting its weight carry him forward. Oaths to keep. The world resolidified around him, a slap of cold water. Grimacing, he stepped off the blood-veined ice into Sin's temple, a shrine to mutual failure.
Rearing out of the fog, an enormous dome rested on four piers of stone. Yevon's banners, tattered and begrimed, hung from its inner vault like cobwebs. Below lay a wide circular mosaic, scuffed and worn as if from centuries of ordinary human traffic. The memory was unmistakeable: the floor of Besaid's shattered temple was copied to the last tile. It was paved with a wheel-like mandala of concentric rings and spokes, orbiting a polygonal crest of squares and diamonds. Around the perimeter stood four monumental sculptures, twice the height of ordinary summoner statues. Reversing the usual arrangement, they faced outwards like sentinels, each one framed by a vaulted archway.
Only one of them was a summoner.
As always, Yuna danced on her pillar of water: real water, here, as much as anything in this place was real, frosted over like an iced lily. Her portrait's details were picked out with colored shells and flower petals. To her left was a cheerfully garish figure molded in plastic: Tidus, captured in mid-lunge with sword drawn, articulated like an oversized action figure from Luca's souvenir stands. To Yuna's right was a rough-hewn mass of weathered quartz and granite, vaguely Ronso-shaped, its fist wrapped around a pillar of ice. Completing the memorial was a traditional temple portrait carved out of varnished, dark-stained wood. The black sword, wine-colored coat, enigmatic glasses and gray hair of thirteen years ago were painstakingly rendered in Bevelle's classical style.
Rikku, kneeling in the lee of Yuna's statue, was gazing up at her cousin with tears trickling down her cheeks.
Privately agreeing with the sentiment, Auron stumped towards her. "Mourn later. We need to find a way in."
"They shouldn't have had to die." She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, sniffed, and got up to join Elma and Pacce in scouting the open-air chamber. Its patterned floor drew her attention. When she approached the center, the crest at the heart of the design rose up, dividing into four square pedestals with recessed sockets on their upper faces.
"Hey," Pacce said, hurrying over. "They're like in the Cloister of Trials, right? So it's a puzzle. There should be spheres."
"Oh, right." Rikku wiped her eyes and looked around. "Ummm..."
"With the statues, maybe?" Elma said. "And what's Sir Auron doing here? His statue, I mean."
"Well, he is a stiff," Rikku said. "That's weird. It should be Wakka's brother. Or maybe she thought Auron got killed in the Final Summoning, and now it's too late to redecorate?"
"Stay focused," Auron said. "Rikku, look." He brushed his gauntlet over a faint glyph etched into the surface of one of the pedestals. Each of the four bore a different sign.
"Huh? Oh! Four elements. 'Cept there's no lightning—" she screwed up her face— "just fire and ice and water. What's that one?"
"Air," Isaaru said, joining them. "But aren't these holes rather small for spheres?"
"Yeah. Come to think of it..." Rummaging in the pouch at her hip, she came up with a handful of glowing marbles, picked one, and popped it into the nearest socket. A plume of ice shot up. "Score! Okay, everybody. Grab a marble and— whoa, Pacce, don't touch that one, it's a dud. Here's fire, and that's water, and that one's zu poop. No, really. It's like a pocket tornado..."
"I'm lost," Elma said, shaking her head. "Just tell me what to do."
"Maybe we have to activate the glyphs, then push them in front of the statues," Pacce said.
"Sounds like a plan! Let's try...unh...dragging this one over to Kimahri. He's gotta be ice. And then..."
Exchanging mute glances, Isaaru and Auron drifted away from the bustle. Isaaru lowered his voice. "Beyond the Trials, the Final Aeon awaits, no?"
Auron nodded. "Prepare yourself for the sending. Yu Yevon won't go willingly."
"Yes." The whispered question was kind. "Will you?"
"Lulu and I...have unfinished business." He shook his head at the summoner's pained expression. "But whatever happens, don't stop. Our goal is to eliminate Yu Yevon. If we fail, there will be no more chances."
"Understood." Isaaru's shoulders sagged. "In case there is no other chance to say this: Sir Auron, I am in your debt, such that any words of thanks would fall short of the mark. I...wish you peace, wherever your journey takes you."
"Hey, lazybones," Rikku called. "Come take a look at this. It's not working."
"Water goes with Tidus," Auron said, noting a pedestal topped with a tiny fountain behind Yuna's statue.
"Oh, now he tells us. Get over here and help us push these things around."
He joined Pacce in rearranging the pedestals. When the last one clicked into place, there was a familiar chime and a flash. The center of the floor vanished, replaced by a glowing glyph that was not of Yevon. Rikku gave a faint squeak, recognizing the fan-shaped symbol of Lulu's Venus Crest. A swelling globe of pyreflies started to coalesce above it.
"Uh oh," Elma said.
"Yeah!" Pacce said, so engrossed in puzzle-solving that he failed to look up. "We did it!"
"Oh, no fair!" Rikku said, turning and bolting.
Auron grasped Pacce's arm and dragged him out from under the huge marlboro as it ballooned out of the fog and dropped to the floor with a disgusting squelch. Stout green tentacles flailed in all directions, scattering drops of acid that smoked where they struck the tiles.
"Pacce," Auron said. "Protect Isaaru."
"Sir." Staring at the fiend in shock, the boy hurried to his brother, herding him towards Kimahri's statue for cover.
Auron took a deep breath of clean air and charged. To his surprise and irritation, his sword bounced off the toxic vegetable's rubbery tentacles. Elma was discovering the same problem, to judge by the curses coming from the other side. They needed fire. Pure magecraft was alien to his being; however, there was one sword-invocation that might suffice, if he could still remember it.
"Get back!" Setting his feet, he whirled the heavy blade like a hammer, drawing the nearby fog into a spinning column. The marlboro began to spin too, caught up in a roaring tornado. When it had nearly reached the ceiling, he unclipped his jug, took a quick swig of Kulukan's ale, and flung it into the midst of the maelstrom. The tornado burst into flames. The marboro came crashing down. So did part of the dome.
"And we drank that stuff?" Elma said, popping up from behind one of the pedestals and diving in with a shriek that made him wince. Apparently she had a few tricks of her own. There were flames dancing along the edge of her sword, burning as she tore into the stunned prey with bloodthirsty precision. The malboro thrashed, opened a toothless maw like the rind of a rotten fruit splitting open, and made a yawning hiss whose significance Auron remembered too late. Both guardians were engulfed in a choking black cloud.
Poisonous fire invaded Auron's mind and sinews, and he barely felt the monster's rasping gums closing around him.
He came to with the crackle of phoenix down prickling his eyelids. Rikku slapped a hand over his sword when he reached for it. "Let Isaaru deal with this one," she said, a quaver in her voice that had him on his feet even faster.
A scorched marlboro was hideous enough, but the creature looming over it was worse. Auron recognized it with a grimace: Seymour's aeon, chained and keening, swathed in mummified flesh and a furled bony shell like a living coffin. Its head snapped back with a cry. The marlboro reeled. Then the fiend simply sank into the ground, dragged under by a reddish-black miasma that smelled like bile. It did not come up again.
Erinyes turned, but it was looking past them, weeping blood from its single eye. The vestigial pair of arms around its neck struggled against its bonds. It gave another furious screech, head jerking like a whip-crack.
"Isaaru!" Pacce's cry was barely enough warning. Auron saw the creature convulse again, and Elma toppled a short distance off. It turned towards him. He raised his sword, staggering under the burning glare of hate and malice. His skull pounded as if every mother who had ever lost a child was screaming into his mind. Then, mercifully, the aeon began to dissipate, growing translucent and fading away.
Pacce was standing over Isaaru, wide-eyed and pale, sword braced for anything else that might come hurtling out of the mist. Auron nodded approval, falling into a watchful stance beside him. "Tend him."
Kneeling with a clank, Pacce fished out another capsule of phoenix down and sprinkled it over Isaaru's face. The man's eyes were leaking blood again. He came to with a mindless snarl, flailing until Pacce caught his arms and held him with a tearful, "Isaaru?"
"Is everybody okay?" Elma said, jogging up with Rikku. They pulled up short, staring open-mouthed at the usually self-composed summoner.
"Isaaru," Auron said. "Are you still with us?"
Isaaru rolled onto his hands and knees, taking slow, steadying breaths. "Not...entirely. It seems that Erinyes... has realized that I am not her son."
"Eh?" Rikku said. "Wait. That was Seymour's creepy-ass aeon, wasn't it?"
"A bad aeon?" Pacce said, distressed. "It's inside you?"
Isaaru closed his eyes. "Yes, Pacce. Do not fear. She is angry and full of grief, but she is not evil. Father Zuke can help me release her, when we return." He offered them a haggard smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. "I begin to have some inkling what being Sin is like. Let us hurry. Was that a gateway, or a trap?"
"Both," Auron said, nodding towards the ghostly sigil pulsing over the hole in the floor. "Come."
There was no sign of a bottom, no way to tell its depth. It was a black pit. Isaaru, who had followed Auron into darkness already without a qualm, did not hesitate. Mimicking the guardian, he stepped out and disappeared with snapping robes.
"It won't kill us, after all," Rikku said to Pacce, who stood looking down in shame and misery. "They would've dropped the temple on us, if they wanted us dead."
"Right." The boy nodded, fists clenched. "O-okay." He jumped.
"They dropped a marlboro," Elma said, swinging her legs over the edge. She grinned at Rikku. "So, time for a rematch."
In dreams, one might trip over a Luca balcony and die on the pavement below, or leap from the peak of Gagazet and alight on the grassy Calm Lands with barely a jolt. This was no featherless glide, but at least it was not fatal. Icy boughs tore and broke, skinning bare flesh and slowing their descent. Tangled nets of thick vines caught and gave way. Roots and gravestones made a hard landing. Winded and blinded, they lay waiting for their eyes to adjust to the darkness while Isaaru healed them.
When he was finished, Auron pressed a vial of aether into the man's hand.
Accepting it meekly, Isaaru crushed it against his throat with a gasp and looked around. "I could swear I've seen this place before."
"It's Djose," Elma said, voice tight and rueful. "Almost. What's with the big rocks?"
The darkness of Sin's garden had assumed a more specific color, blue-black to match the faceted trunks of Macalania trees. Golden light filtered down from the great crystalline moons of seed-pods snagged in their branches. Dark vines and creepers curtained everything. There were fewer flowers than Auron remembered: a solitary orchid nodding here, a spray of jasmine there with just a few waning stars left, a dusting of withered rose petals clinging to spiderwebs.
"It's beautiful," Pacce breathed.
"Yeah." Rikku reached out, brushing her knuckles against a yellow hibiscus. "Guess this is the garden Yunie dreams about."
"It's pretty and all, sir," Elma said, "but I smell an ambush. Let's get to open ground."
Auron grunted and turned to the fence of young trees penning them in. Brutal overhand swings made short work of their trunks. With only vague glimpses of the bluffs to orient him, he started clearing a path uphill.
"Hey!" Rikku said. "Bad enough that you stomped my tomatoes!"
"If all goes well, my lady, I think your friend will be glad to leave this garden," Isaaru said.
They emerged onto oceanless beach, a vast spreading wilderness of dark vegetation spilling over gravestones, bathed in a wavering mirage of blue flames that consumed nothing. Ignoring the others' awed exclamations, Auron scanned the bluffs for any sign of white.
"This one's written in Al Bhed," Pacce said.
"Huh? Let me see." Rikku crouched, pushing aside dried-up aloes to peer at a chunk of sandstone. "It's..." Her voice hitched. "Anna. My Pops' sister."
Gazing out where the sea should have been, Auron spotted a thin blush of salmon-pink tinting the horizon. Below it was a streak of the same hue, tremulous as a tongue of flame stealing along the edge of a piece of parchment.
Rikku put her hands on her hips and began to shout. "Hey, Lu! We made it! Come and get us! Come out, come out, wherever you-- aaah!" She gave a startled scream as a plump fruit let go from one of the vines, striking her on the temple and bursting open. "Ew! Thanks a lot, Lulu!" She reached up to wipe seeds and glop off her face.
"Shouldn't we keep quiet?" Pacce eyed the rustling vines fearfully.
"Heheheheh." Her chuckle was not very convincing. "Just trying to get it over with."
Auron rocked his sword back into its sheath and seized Isaaru, unceremoniously heaving the priest over his shoulder. "Run." He did not wait, but started blundering towards the cliffs, trusting the younger guardians to follow. This was no open field. The trees and vines that had broken their fall were suddenly a deadly obstacle course, concealing rocks and boulders that could send them sprawling.
Baffled but unquestioning, Elma caught up with him quickly. "Higher ground, sir?" She pointed towards a rising slope that narrowed like a funnel as it climbed. Hundreds of Crusaders had perished in its real-world equivalent, trapped in the bottleneck. Yet a few might thread the gauntlet to reach a broad shelf midway up the stepped bluffs. Auron nodded and trailed after her, ignoring Isaaru's gasping questions.
The onrushing wave was eerily silent. Had that streak of dawn not reflected off its crest, he might not have spotted it until too late.
Laden as he was, Auron reached the level ground well behind the others. Elma was making for an out-thrust leg of the cliff that had been eroded to form a natural stone arch. Inadequate, but it would at least break the full force of the water. Auron set the summoner on his feet and turned to face the menace rumbling towards them. They could hear the roar of the ocean now, crashing as it overtopped trees, bushes, memorials.
"What's she doing?" Rikku said.
"Yu Yevon's taking no chances," Auron said.
"A trap," Elma said, stoic. "Is there anything we can do, sir?"
"Everyone, stay close," Isaaru said. "I can buy us time, Sir Auron, but no more."
"Understood." Auron closed his eyes. "Pacce. Guard him well."
"Aye, sir." Apprehensive, the boy moved to stand back to back with his brother, bracing his feet and sword against the ground, his shoulders against Isaaru's. Elma and Rikku wedged themselves under the overhang. The Al Bhed, more trusting, threaded her feet into the tangle of old vines snaking around the rock. The water was rising quickly now, devouring the beach they had just vacated. The summoner was praying. A faint green membrane of light sprang up around them.
Stepping away from NulTide's flimsy barrier, Auron strode out to the edge of the natural balcony and raised his bare hand, displaying the brand she had given him. "Summoned, we have come! Lady, heed my prayer. I bring you Grand Maester Isaaru, High Priest of St. Bevelle, to answer for Yevon's crimes!"
"What the hell?" Elma said.
"What's he doing?" Pacce said.
"Avenge Yuna. Avenge Tidus. Avenge Chappu. Avenge Kimahri. Avenge all of those whose memories you guard in this dream of death."
"Making her mad," Rikku muttered.
Auron's booming voice echoed off the curving walls of the limestone bluffs, trumpeting above the sea's thunder. "Now is the time to break the spiral, Lulu! No more Yevon! No more pilgrimages! No more teachings! No more cages! No more lies!"
The swirling tide spilled over the brim of the rocky shelf. It flowed as a river, not as a wall, forcing Auron back step by step until it lifted him off his feet. He was carried backwards, narrowly missing the stone spur sheltering Isaaru and the others. His head struck the cliff. Held there by tremendous pressure, he could dimly see them clinging to each other a few paces away, surrounded by a faint sphere of light that was trembling like a soap bubble. The water rose to his shoulders, then began to recede, drawing him with it.
"Auron, you idiot!" Rikku's outburst had him smirking as the water dragged him towards the edge.
There was a splitting thunderclap. The bolt struck directly where he had been standing, but instead of fading, it opened like a fan. A blinding white figure stepped out of it.
Chains and straps of leather whipped around like angry snakes, plunging into the waves and coiling around his arms, his legs. They held him fast in a bizarre tug-of-war with the sea. The current pulled him down, down, draining through the mesh. He hung suspended against the scarp, waterlogged and half-drowned. When he could collect his wits, he clambered up the rock face using the net as a ladder, rolled over the edge and lay stunned, retching saltwater.
Yuna's Final Aeon stood over him, implacable, a figure of glass and steel and white fire whose head and shoulders rose above the heights of Mushroom Ridge. Ropes of hair flared out like Shiva's, forming the butterfly fan of the Venus Crest against the sky.
The lightning began to fall. Branching fingers coiled around the rock sheltering the summoner and guardians, blasting away the vines lacing the stone. Pacce took the brunt of the first attack and fell, mail smoking. There was a fainter flash, and Isaaru's barrier shifted from green to gold. The bolts began to flow around them. Assured that the summoner was safe for the moment, Auron pushed off the ground, slashed through his bonds and advanced upon the aeon, bracing himself for the first kiss of lightning slamming down. It staggered him, but he could bear it.
Chains battered him, sending jolts along the links. Heavy straps scourged his head and arms, biting with edges fringed in slivers of glass, scoring bloody welts. The electrical barrage was relentless. Clothed only in a sheath of living lightning, the aeon mauled him with pitiless talons of fire, seeking, snaring, searing nerves and flesh again and again. Every rivet and plate of his cuirass was white-hot torture.
The sheer futility of Lulu's old plan reasserted itself as he stumbled and hit the ground with his teeth.
Healing washed over him. Lifting his head, he saw Rikku through the aeon's glass calves. She was cowering, struggling to keep the targe up and not clap her hands over her ears; some of the vines and chains had wrapped around her legs, pinning her to the ground. None of the aeon's blows fell directly where she was crouched, but the recoil of the lightning strikes upon Auron and Isaaru splashed over her, sinking into the wires of her upraised shield.
He rose and moved forward, gritting his teeth in anticipation as the next shaft of lightning descended.
The pain was less. Rikku must have conjured a magic barrier from her alchemy kit as well as a restorative. Angling around so that he would be an easier target for her missiles, he closed in, throwing every break he knew against the aeon's slim ankles. Jangling bolts and elixirs crashed over him in a disorienting barrage.
This, too, was a lie. Lulu had to be here, just inches away, locked inside that murderous shell. Raising his eyes, he willed himself to see her. If he could just bend the pyreflies to his will as she had done many times since she gained Sin's powers and chains, he might twist Yu Yevon's lies back to the truth. Could he still find it in himself to believe?
Another bolt lashed him like biting words. Auron, really. Stop pretending you're a cynic.
Yes. For one moment, the mage was there, her proper size, arms raised in equivocal greeting, calling down the storm.
His sword went through.
The aeon's chrysalis shattered. Shards of silvered metal and black steel and ice and crystal came raining down, smashing and sparking across the ground. His sword went through, burrowing into layers of metal, glass, fabric, flesh, bone. He felt sick.
Lulu crumpled — black — white — red — was she still wearing his coat, or was that all blood? — and the lightning ceased.
"Auron, you didn't!" Rikku rushed forward. He snared her arm as she tried to push past him.
The mage was lying in a bed of salt-covered roses, knee-length black hair and white limbs falling in a graceful spiral as if she were still only a symbol. Lulu might have appreciated the imagery, blood staining white roses red, but he was no poet. They were just damned weeds, and she was really lying there, blood pumping from a huge gash through the fourth and fifth rib (breasts, you fool, they don't grow any finer) and he hoped he had missed the heart.
If she still had one.
"Wait," he said, drawing Rikku away.
"Let me save her!"
The body shimmered with blackness. A boiling cloud of red and black, viscous and foul, began to bleed upwards from Lulu's pale flesh.
"Auron, come on!" Rikku struggled against his grip.
The demon burst free and catapulted into the sky, veering wildly, searching, a churning knot of hate.
"Hurry," he said, releasing her. Then he turned. "Isaaru. Send."
Isaaru, supported by his two guardians, stepped out into the open. Curling his hands together in that accursed prayer, he began to dance.
Pyreflies lifted from Auron's collar. He turned back to Lulu. Rikku was kneeling over her, crying and shaking out six phoenix downs at once, spitting Al Bhed curses at the mage and at him. Lulu's face was bone white, that familiar spill of black hair falling across one side of her face with artful carelessness: the Lady, even now. He wanted to hold her, to press that dire wound closed, to weep like the passionate young monk who had died before she knew him. He wanted to stay long enough to see shadowed lids open, a true smile of freedom, Rikku beaming with triumph before she turned to glare at him through snot and tears and really let him have it. He had waited too many years to miss this moment. But there was a god to kill.
The fayth had been right. Isaaru was stronger than Auron had given him credit for. His sorrowful, reverent, insidious summons was paring away pyreflies like waves lapping at a sandcastle.
"Sir Auron!" The sending slackened.
For a moment, Auron thought the summoner had caved in to misplaced sentiment, then he realized Yu Yevon was bearing down on him. He moved away from the two women as the seething cloud exploded overhead. It enveloped him in a vortex of desperation, hunger, madness, cold fury and implacable will. Auron was no fayth, but he was unsent, halfway there, a last-ditch prop to latch onto. Shouting defiance from every last fiber of his being was not enough; it had not been enough for Jecht or Lulu. Yu Yevon's bottomless soul was devouring him.
"Keep sending!" There was a reason why Yunalesca had rejected him at the Hall of the Final Summoning— or so Auron hoped.
Then the world was pain.
Next Chapter: No Matter How Dark the Night