On the way to Mushroom Rock Lodge, Isaaru's party discovered the fabled gardens of Sin.
Three days out from Luca, they reached the turnoff to Mushroom Rock Road as the last bars of sunset were fading from the sky. To their right, the black sea stirred and sighed restlessly, lapping the rocks below the edge of the road with leaden waves. Behind them, a beaten shelf of dirt and rock lay exposed to the elements and scoured by the wind. Ahead, a finger from the cliffs above arced down over the main road to form a natural buttress. Beyond, the land was utterly transformed. It was difficult to make out individual forms in the dusk, but swaying dark fronds draped over the arch like a lush curtain, with nodding white flowers as wide as a woman's hand winking between tendrils and broad leaves. A profusion of other plants carpeted the path below, some of them crushed or snapped by the passing prints of travellers, despite which they seemed to thrive: blue blossoms from Besaid and the coral-pink orchids of Kilika, ivy and hibiscus, lilies and irises, even the glassy trunk of a Macalania sapling with a few glowing seed-pods tucked into the forks of slender stems.
"Yevon," Isaaru breathed, reining his chocobo to a halt and gazing up at the floral tapestry in wonder. "What enchantment is this?"
"Nobody knows," Elma said. "Good thing it's so remote; even so we have to save a few tourists from fiends every month. They forget the danger. Speaking of which, be on your guard; those vines can hide a full-sized Iguion. We try to keep the path clear up to the lodge, but they grow back fast."
She turned left and dove into a narrow crack in the cliffs which opened into a ravine. Sentries lurking in the shadows drew back spears and saluted as they passed.
As promised, the path here was mostly cleared, but creeping vegetation spilled over the lumps and crags of the cliffs on either side. Sea-fog had collected on shelves and dimples in the rock along the edges of the winding road. The larger basins had mats of dark-green pads with pale flowers helping to illuminate the shadowy ravine. A few glowing wisps of pyreflies were spiralling upward from their fragrant blossoms.
"I don't believe it," Isaaru said. "Moon-lilies! But they need slow-moving water, nutrients, a swamp—"
"Well, it rains here fairly often now." Elma spoke in a hushed voice, but sounded oddly pleased.
"They're so pretty," Pacce breathed.
"Keep your eyes open, Pacce," Maroda said. "Remember what the Commander told you. Macalania's pretty too, and it's got chimeras."
They jogged along in silence, going at a slower pace now so that those riders who did not know the way wouldn't steer their mounts over a precipitous drop by accident. Rustlings in the undergrowth on either hand kept them wary, but either the group was large enough to give the fiends pause, or patrols had been through recently enough to clear out any fiends that might pose a threat to their VIP guests.
As they penetrated deeper into the canyon, they began to pass cleared patches on the walls where registers of names had been carved into the cliff-face. Here the vegetation was sparser, but delicate ferns and stonecrop tumbled down over the inscriptions. Isaaru paused again to bow and cup his hands in Yevon's prayer; Maroda and Pacce, unusually solemn, followed suit.
Auron bowed his head, although he did not pray. He noticed a white vein of quartz cutting through a nearby pair of glyphs that might read /Gatta/.
Iguions about were a nuisance; their speed had always given him trouble. However, they were not the only menance in these parts. Auron felt his hair ruffled by a gust of wind from above, bellowed "Down!" before he remembered why, and rolled from the saddle as two huge featherless claws came down out of the gloom to rake his mount's shoulders. The chocobo shrieked, thrashed in a flurry of feathers and blood, and bolted. Unfortunately, Auron's foot was still caught in one stirrup.
He was dragged a dozen yards before he lunged for his sword still stuck in the sheath lashed to the saddlebags. A black crevasse yawned under him. Cries and shouts were erupting behind him, and he felt the air pulse with the forceful beat of massive wings.
Bumping and bashing against the chocobo's flank, Auron's patience had run out. He swung the sword around for an awkward blow, striking the neck and a vital artery. It wasn't a clean kill, but it sufficed. Auron leapt free as the wretched bird, jerking in its death-throes, tumbled over the edge into the dark canyon.
He would have to apologize to Elma later. These Djose Knights took their chocobos seriously. Staggering on legs stiffened by a day's ride, Auron turned and charged back towards the fray.
Overkill, really. Four fighters — one of Elma's knights seemed to be missing, and two were herding the remaining chocobos plus a protesting Isaaru out of harm's way — were more than enough to handle a garuda, especially with Maroda's spear. Pacce seemed to have found an innovative technique, scurrying under the monster's belly and bracing his sword over his head like a spike every time the fiend stooped to strike. They would probably have made short work of it. Auron, however, was tired, stiff, and eager to press on. Timing his strides, he barrelled in from one side, raised the sword high, and threw all his momentum behind a scything blow to the neck. The blade was nearly jarred from his arms: standard Crusader issue could not shear through bone and spine like his old sword. Nevertheless, the garuda came crashing down, and he was smothered under a heavy, leathery wing.
The fiend wasn't quite dead, but now it was an easy target, twitching and gurgling in agony. Elma, Maroda, Pacce and the fourth knight waded in to finish it off. Auron lay under the suffocating weight and hoped that no one passed a weapon through him. A few moments later, the fiend dissolved into pyreflies.
Pacce immediately crouched at his side. "You okay, sir?"
"Fine," he said, standing and wiping feathers and blood out of his eyes. Forestalling an awkward conversation, he added, "The chocobo didn't fare as well. I think it fell." He gestured towards the edge of the crevasse.
"Damn," Elma said. "That's one of Clasko's chicks. Lord Isaaru, are you all right?"
"Perfectly, Commander," Isaaru called, voice echoing around the last bend. "But one of your men is not. I will tend him." There was a blue shimmer off the walls as they trooped back to find a circle of chocobos and knights fencing the summoner and prone rider. The unconscious soldier groaned, stirred, and sat up shakily.
"Good man," Isaaru said, offering his hand.
"All right, let's move before anything else pops out looking for dinner," Elma said. "Sir Auron—"
"I'll walk," he said. "I remember the way."
"Hm." Elma gave him a skeptical look. "Suit yourself. Let's go."
He might not have been so eager to have ditched the bird, Auron reflected shortly, had he realized the Al Bhed lift had been replaced with switchbacks.
A knee-breaking climb later, they emerged onto the wide shelf sweeping around to the promontory overlooking the bay. A fierce wind off the ocean scoured their cheeks with salt. Somewhere out there in the dark, where breakers crashed on a lonely beach below the cliffs, a generation of Crusaders had met their deaths in a hopeless cause. Blue lightning wavered in the distance, outlining the looming bluffs on the opposite side of the bay.
Elma turned away from the ocean towards lanterns planted on pillars around the sprawling Crusaders' camp. A clamor of voices and smith's hammers spoke of preparations for the coming battle. As they dismounted, a tall, red-haired man emerged the camp's gates and marched towards them. A few Crusaders hurried to keep up with his long stride, fanning out to take the chocobos' reins and lead them away.
"Lord Isaaru." Luzzu drew his fist to his chest. "Commander Elma. Captain Maroda. Welcome. We have quarters prepared and supper waiting for you in the main Lodge."
"You'd better. A garuda tried to make dinner of us back there," Elma said.
"I'm very sorry, ma'am. Orders said we were to pull in patrols for this operation. Does anyone require a healer?"
"It's taken care of, Commander," Isaaru said. "Don't worry. My guardians needed the exercise." He gestured towards Auron, who had just slogged into view. "Some more than others," he added with a chuckle.
"Sir Auron." Luzzu saluted again. He stared at the white-haired guardian keenly, then beckoned to the party. "Please, follow me. If you wish, Commander, we can review plans for the operation over your meal."
"Food first," Elma said. "Young Pacce here's not used to a long day's march; he's only had warrior monk's training."
Auron paused outside the entrance to the camp and glanced down. There in the shadows was a delicate, ground-hugging variety of rose pounded into the dirt by foot traffic. Stooping with a grunt, he found one intact blossom. Its color was impossible to guess; a patina of salt had painted it a ghostly white. Auron plucked it, tucked it into the blue beads dangling from his belt, and followed the others into camp.