Auron vs. an urchin. Cameos by Dona and Barthello.
It wasn't every day that the dead returned to the light of day to find themselves drowning.
That was Auron's second thought. The first— no, not a thought, just instinct— was to punch the dark figure crouched over him, compressing his chest with deep thrusts accompanied by a crackling, gurgling noise that he failed to recognize as the sound of his own lungs. The water gushing out of his nose and mouth should have been a clue, but Auron's skull was still pounding like a Zanarkand stadium. Luckily, the second thought made him chuckle, and that triggered a gut-wracking fit of coughing that kept him occupied until he had reclassified Maroda as a non-target. Instead, he clamped onto the man's wrist and pushed. "Enough."
"Whew!" Pacce's moon-face hovered into view. "You all right now, sir?"
That voice. Still half-drowned by dream, Auron transferred his grip to Pacce's collar. "Where is she?"
"Oh, great," said Maroda. "The toxin." He sat back on his heels, glaring. "Hands off, man, or I'm throwing you back where we found you."
"Sorry." Releasing the boy, Auron turned away and squinted towards the ocean, resting on his side until another fit of coughing had passed.
"Were you trying to rescue somebody?" Pacce said, standing to scan the harbor.
There was still a harbor. Auron lay on a sloping shelf of rocks hemming the shore, but to his right a sturdy causeway extended out to the village and marina. Quivering puddles gleamed on plank walkways. Wails from the nearest hut told of broken bodies on the breakwater, fishermen who had gone out each day to feed their families, setting themselves on Sin's altar as daily offerings. Pyreflies were spiralling up from the hut's smoke-hole. But the harbor was clear, apart from a few listing boats and the imposing mass of the SS Korra moored to the end of the main pier. Murmuring locals— Sin's leftovers— clustered in scattered knots along the docks, huddled together like restive gulls driven ashore by the outriders of a storm. There would be more sendings today, but the village had been spared obliteration.
You're welcome, Lulu.
"Sir?" Pacce prodded. "Do you want us to help look for her?"
Sitting up and squinting, Auron searched the strip of ocean visible beyond the seawall. Sparkling blue sped off to the horizon without the faintest scar to mark Sin's passage.
"No," he said. "She's gone."
"Oh." Blinking back tears, Pacce bowed in Yevon's prayer for some imagined damsel in distress.
Fighting the weight of his waterlogged coat, Auron hoisted himself to his feet and grunted at Maroda. "Thanks."
"Sure thing." The dark man grinned and got up, loping over to the end of the causeway to retrieve his spear propped against the pilings. "Just don't make a habit of it, man. I thought I was going to need a winch."
"I can't believe you jumped overboard with your sword, armor and all," Pacce said. "Weren't you afraid they'd pull you under?"
Auron shrugged. "Didn't matter. I can't swim."
"Correction," Maroda said, raising his voice. "It's not Sin's toxin. He's just crazy."
"Pilgrimage entails a certain degree of folly," Isaaru said, walking towards them from the hut where wails had given way to poignant silence. A warrior monk and a priest marched behind. Isaaru's face was haggard, but his summoner's smile was undimmed. "Sir Auron. The villagers have asked me to convey their utmost gratitude; they saw your fight from afar. Your courage has saved Kilika."
The summoner raised his eyes to the smoke billowing up from the heart of the jungle behind them. "Yes. If you are recovered, we must go to the temple at once. There may be survivors. If not, we can at least pay our respects."
"Is that a summoner's command, or a priest's?" Auron said, voice gruff yet strangely gentle. "Sin won't wait."
"No. But where it is now, only Yevon knows."
Auron grimaced and said nothing.
"Sir Auron?" Pacce said shyly. "You know where Sin's going next...don't you?"
"Djose." He fixed the maester with a level stare. "After that, probably Macalania and Bevelle."
"No!" Isaaru pressed a fist to his breastbone as if trying to staunch a wound. "The aeons...and thousands of people in Bevelle—"
"Now, wait just a minute!" Maroda burst out. "With all due respect, sir, it's about time you explained how you're able to predict Sin's movements."
"You said it yourself," Auron said, ignoring the spear subtly angled towards him.
"Yes." Isaaru set his hand above Maroda's, silently commanding him to stand down. "Sin is growing smarter. She's making the pilgrimage ahead of us, to prevent the Final Summoning, yes?"
Auron arched an eyebrow at the apparent slip. "Correct."
"So why'd Sin get so clever all of a sudden?" said Pacce.
"It's like someone's telling it where we're going," Maroda said darkly.
"Maroda, please." Isaaru raised his hand, warding off further debate. A delegation of villagers was trickling towards them along the causeway, led by an old man, a woman and several children. The little ones bore armloads of flowers, purple jungle blossoms and fuchsia interwoven with white rose petals. The straggling procession halted a few paces away and bowed in Yevon's prayer.
"Your Grace?" the woman said hesitantly. "My Lord Summoner?"
"Welcome to Kilika," the old man said, flashing a snaggletoothed smile. "Though so far it's not been a welcome fit for a summoner, let alone the Grand Maester of Yevon. We'd like to make amends, my lord."
At his nod, the children tumbled over the side of the bridge and fanned out across the rocks, each one carrying a garland to Isaaru or one of his guardians. Isaaru bent, smiling, allowing one boy to hang a lei around his neck. "Even Sin cannot quench Kilikan hospitality."
"And we'd also like to welcome your guardians," the woman said. "Please accept these small tokens of thanks. Tomorrow will be a feast of thanksgiving. We hope you'll join us as guests of honor."
The youngest girl had taken too long in choosing a target and stood frozen, staring at the water dripping off the hem of Auron's sodden coat. He held out his hands. Mistaking the gesture, she scampered towards him with outstretched arms. He hesitated, expression inscrutable, then scooped her up and lifted her onto his shoulder. The urchin squealed and poked at his glasses. "He's old."
"Deir," the woman chided. "Please give Sir Auron his flowers."
Chastened, the girl hastened to drape the garland haphazardly around Auron's head, snagging it over one ear. She fussed for some time with the arrangement, trying it both outside and inside his collar before wrapping a few loops around the earpieces of his glasses and turning the garland into a wreath. His damp, salt-caked hair attracted her attention as well, and she gave it a thorough grooming with her fingers. Auron stood patiently until she was finished, then set her down with a gruff, "Thanks." A few nervous titters arose from nearby spectators.
Isaaru's lips twitched. Maroda tapped the end of his spear against a rock impatiently.
A woman's sneer drifted out to them from the curtain of vines fencing the jungle path. "Enjoying ourselves, are we?"
"Oh, great," Maroda muttered.
Dona stalked out into the sunlight and halted, propping a hand on her hip to survey the gathering. She appeared little changed, save that her summoner's ribbons were conspicuously absent. Barthello blundered into the open behind her, acolyte's robes giving him the appearance of a badly-upholstered couch. He was smudged with soot from head to toe.
"Barthello!" Pacce crowed, taking an eager step towards the bulky man before remembering his post. Blushing, he altered course and planted himself by Isaaru.
"Lady Dona," Isaaru said with a courtly nod. Unruffled, he turned back to the villagers. "I and my guardians are honored and humbled by your generosity, people of Kilika: you're what makes a pilgrimage worth doing. I wish we could stay, but we can't rest until Sin is stopped. I'll send your fallen before we go. My priests and monks will remain here to tend the wounded and clear away sinspawn; they can follow on the ferry. Now, if you will excuse us—" He stooped to lift the smallest child back onto the causeway, ruffling her hair. "It seems Lady Dona would like a few words with me."
"Your Grace," The woman bowed reverently.
"Come back when you've put Sin to rights, then!" the old man said brightly. "We'll have another feast. See he doesn't forget, eh, lads?" He winked at Pacce and Maroda.
"Uh." Maroda peered down at the village elder as if checking him for signs of toxin. "Right."
"Good lad." The old man gave him a sympathetic pat, then turned to help herd the children and spectators back towards the village. There were many warm and beaming smiles as they departed, but no one save the children and the codger would meet Isaaru's kindly gaze directly.
"You can save yourselves the trouble of a climb," Dona said. "There's nothing left."
"The priests?" Isaaru said quietly. "The nuns?"
Dona shook her head. "We lost three and five— more, if this idiot hadn't decided to play hero." Barthello straightened and flexed. "The survivors are gathering what's left for sending. We'll be getting back to them after I've checked on things here. So what exactly happened?" She nodded towards the village. "Not as bad as I expected."
"Sir Auron was an idiot!" Pacce said daringly. "He jumped on Sin's back and attacked it! He turned it away!"
Barthello's wooden face barely twitched, but his eyes shone. Auron gave a minute sigh.
"Must be getting senile," Dona said, eying the white-haired veteran skeptically. "Sin, that is. I assume this was after it blasted the temple into a molten crater."
"Before, actually," Maroda said.
"Hmph. Well, I suppose we should thank you, Sir Auron, although Isaaru's probably going to miss that aeon." She cocked her head at Isaaru. "Are you going, or do I need to come out of retirement?"
Barthello drew a step closer to her, unnoticed; he gave Isaaru a pleading look.
"No." The maester smiled. "I trust that won't be necessary. Guard Kilika. I hope Sin will not trouble you again before I and my guardians have dealt with it."
"Thanks. Enjoy being Spira's new darling — not that you weren't already." For a moment she seemed at a loss, smirk covering a hint of worry— or regret. Then she shook it away. "Come on, it looks like the village needs a few sendings. Why don't you boys play in the jungle while Isaaru and I finish up here." She snapped her fingers in dismissal at the four guardians, then stepped onto the causeway beside Isaaru. "Nice perk," she commented of the monk and priest who still hovered behind Isaaru as honor guard. "Maybe I should try for maester myself."
"Rumor has it there may soon be an opening," the red-haired man said good-naturedly, offering his arm as they started back towards the village.
"Come on, Barthello!" Pacce said, clapping the giant on the shoulder. "Let's find Sir Auron a sword! Sin took his. You've got to see his killer armor breaking move!"
"I'll catch up with you all later," Maroda said grimly. "One of us should guard Isaaru. Don't get hurt."