Operation Stolen Fayth, phase II. All too many painful reminders of Operation Mi'ihen...
As far as Auron was concerned, Luzzu's jest was just salt for an old wound. Perfect strangers had lived long years in Lulu's presence, known her before she walked the path of the condemned beside a dead man. He had been occupied by more important matters during the brief time they shared, largely ignoring company at hand for the sake of those lost. At any rate, Lulu's old friend from Besaid was probably correct: lightning must be her favorite color.
Lightning was fine, but Auron could do without the rain. His white forelock tickled, and its slow drip was maddening. How long were they to stand in this anemic drizzle, tarnishing the Crusaders' armor burnished for a maester's arrival?
It had taken the work-crews half a day to extricate the statue from the temple cloisters. Auron's job had been to keep Luzzu away and watch for Sin, conveniently avoiding more stonecutting duties. So he had suffered himself to be led around in an inspection of Djose's defenses. The day had been a blur of names, introductions, soldiers crowding around for a scrap of news or a hero's notice.
The exhausting charade had been relieved by an unlikely arrival, Maester Lucil herself driving a covered wagon to deliver "gifts of Yevon" for the soldiers. She must have emptied every shop and storehouse in Luca, bringing an entire cartload of armor, swords and medical supplies. Their distribution threw the ordered frenzy of battle preparations into utter chaos. During the confusion, Elma's team was able to trundle the tarp-wrapped statue up the loading ramp and into the back of the wagon without anyone noticing. It was neatly done, Auron had to admit. Now if only the engineers involved did not forget their oaths of silence.
At the moment, Auron wished maesters were bound by vows of silence. Isaaru had set aside the title but not the platitudes, and could not seem to pass any concentration of Spirans without making a speech. Again Auron wondered how the man dared to invoke the name of Yevon, knowing what he knew. But at least he had been brief, and the troops seemed happy enough with the blessing. They had moved on now to the tedious protocols of military leave-taking.
"I can't thank you enough, Your Grace," Luzzu was saying before an honor guard bracketing the wagon outside the temple doors. "Your presence is a huge boost to the troops' morale. I wish you were staying longer."
"As do I, Captain. It galls me that the Crimson Blades may face Sin when I can no longer lead the charge." Maester Lucil's calloused fingers tightened around the pommel of a cane whose grip was wrapped like a sword-hilt. "But you have enough duties without having to babysit senior officers. I must go. Yet I am gratified to know my troops are in excellent hands."
Luzzu bowed his head. "Ma'am."
"He looks kinda relieved," Pacce whispered to Maroda, slouched against the side of the wagon. "Guess he's not on probation anymore, huh?"
"Nah, he's just glad to have Lucil out of his hair." Maroda ruffled Pacce's scalp, already a mass of spiky tufts from the humidity and charged air.
Isaaru nudged them. "Shh."
Commander Elma slipped forward to help Lucil onto the driver's box, maneuvering around the maester's robes with practiced efficiency. Just then, a trumpet blast sounded, echoing off the natural amphitheater behind the temple. The assembled soldiers scattered like startled fish, rushing to their posts. Cries of Sin! Siiiiiiiin! broke out along the sea-wall.
Lucil pushed herself up on Elma's shoulder, squinting out to sea with narrowed eyes. "Not good. Captain Luzzu—"
"We'll hold Sin off as long as we can, General," he said. "Get the fayth to safety. Djose will put up a good fight."
Lucil's face froze for a beat. "Lord Mi'ihen guard you and yours, Captain," she said, matching his salute with a fierce smile. "Isaaru! Guardians! Kyou! Get in. Move!"
Swearing, Maroda seized Isaaru's belt and propelled him up the loading ramp ahead of his sputtering protests. Pacce scrambled up behind. Father Kyou stayed rooted to the spot. "I will not abandon my temple to—"
"Fine," Auron said, slamming the tailgate shut and heaving himself over it. The planks of the loading ramp clattered to the ground behind them as the wagon lurched forward.
"Tend the wounded, Kyou," Isaaru called, gripping the sides of the wagon and gazing impotently at the figures of priest and soldiers receding jerkily behind them. His guardians hastened to find seats in cramped quarters as the wheels bumped and clattered over the bridge.
"It grieves me to be abandoning them like this," Isaaru said.
"We feel the same, sir," Elma said over her shoulder, perched on the driver's bench next to Lucil. "But this is what they signed on for. Don't worry! Luzzu can look after his men now that he doesn't have to look after us!"
"Eyes forward, Commander," Lucil said. "Monitor Sin's movements. Maroda, I need you to watch behind."
"Aye." Maroda clambered over Auron's legs to peer out the back. "Defenders manning their stations along the sea-walls. No sign of sinspawn."
"I don't see— wait, there," said Elma. "Sin's just off the point at Mushroom Rock Ridge. I can't tell where it's headed."
"All right." Lucil spoke in cool, crisp tones pitched to cut through a battlefield's din. "I propose that we turn off at the crossroads to the Moonflow and observe the battle from there. The banks will provide some cover. Afterwards, we can take the fayth to Mi'ihen's Grotto or return it to the temple, depending on what transpires."
"I defer to the maester's judgment," Isaaru said. He had made an art of sitting still, Auron observed. Such composure must be another part of summoner's training, feigning to ignore every jolt. The man's green eyes were fixed on the temple and cliffs dwindling into the distance behind them. In his mind, perhaps, he was already sending the dead.
"The fayth?" Auron said.
Isaaru looked down, dropping a hand to the gray canvas wrapping the statue like a shroud. "He sleeps. I do not think I should disturb him, if we are attacked. But I still have Spathi."
"Good call on the crossroads, ma'am," Elma said. "Sin's barely budged. If we'd tried to reach the grotto, we'd be heading straight towards it."
A pair of chocobo riders dropped behind, guiding their mounts into a ditch to let the wagon pass. There were a few patrollers on this stretch, since Elma had stationed the bulk of her knights south of the crossroads, where vegetation would provide camouflage. Here the Highroad was narrower and meandering, shielded from the sea by a stone parapet where it ran along the cliffs or earthen berms when it veered inland.
"What's Sin waiting for?" Maroda said. "Us?"
"Maybe it's visiting the gardens," Pacce said, chuckling nervously.
Auron stiffened, cursing himself for a fool. Of course! Look for me in my garden, Auron. But here he was, trapped like a fayth under glass. "Can we commander chocobos to ride?" he said. "We're nothing but deadweight in here." There was another word he needed to strike from his vocabulary.
"Negative, sir," Elma said. "It would take too long to flag down my knights and send for extra mounts. Anyway, an escort might attract attention. With any luck—"
There was a shuddering boom that rattled the metal cage reinforcing the walls.
"What the—?" Pacce said.
"So much for Mi'ihen's Grotto," Elma said grimly. "Sin's blasted the beach and the bluffs behind it. First casualties, I'm afraid."
Lucil sighed. "Let us pray the barriers shielded some of them."
Fine drizzle, more mist than rain, obscured the contours of the land, but a thin line of fire showed the profile of Mushroom Rock Ridge. A long fence of flames marked the site of the Crusaders' camp where they had lodged the night before. Dark smoke curled upwards, fusing with the overcast sky.
"Damn," Elma said. "I've lost Sin. Look sharp, people."
"She's burning her gardens," Pacce said, dazed.
"Pacce!" Isaaru said sharply.
He blinked. "Sorry. It, I mean. But why? The Crusaders say Sin always leaves the Memorial Gardens alone when it comes by. It hasn't attacked Djose since Operation Mi'ihen."
"Shield's coming up," Maroda said. "Sinspawn falling on the causeway."
"Thank you, Captain," said Lucil.
Looking back, they could no longer see the temple, camouflaged by its rocky shell. There was a flurry of movement along the stone parapets and bridges. Rain blurred the dark writhing shapes of attackers and defenders into a heaving mass. Out over the water, a white shimmer was coalescing into quivering cords of lightning like horizontal versions of the pillars in Djose's great hall. But these energies were channelled on a far greater scale, spanning the whole bay in a curtain of woven light. As the shield strengthened, all the veins of electricity in the crags around the temple were snuffed out. Hair and armor began to prickle. One particularly massive bolt began to ricochet crazily from Mushroom Ridge to Lightning Rock and all around the bay in a fading discharge, reflected by Djose Spheres embedded in the rocks above the high water mark. Thunder clashed in a bewildering tumult, reverberating off every crag and cove.
"Some bouquet," Auron said, drawing a quizzical look from Pacce.
They passed another pair of mounted knights whose raised lances were limned by a blue nimbus of sea-fire. One of them lowered his spear and pointed urgently towards the water.
Maroda leaned out, straining for a better view. "It's working!" he said. "Sin's stopped dead in the center of the bay!"
There was a distant groaning scream that made Auron wince.
"'Ware Sinspawn!" Elma said. "Get ready! The walls are armored, but they may punch through!"
The wagon rocked as something heavy struck the side. One of the chocobos squawked and kicked. Luckily, these were combat-trained birds, inured by constant exposure to the fiends along the Highroad. The wagon swayed and reeled as the chocobos put on a burst of speed. Auron grabbed Maroda's harness to keep him from tumbling out the back.
"The shield's dropping!" Pacce said. "It's losing power!"
"Yevon, no," Isaaru said, voice swelling with sudden dread. "The fayth... its power is in the very rocks, but now—"
More scales began to slam into the roof. The wagon lurched again as a wheel rolled over something. On the road behind them, blue-black flickering wings were unfurling in a fast-growing crop. Pacce flung up an arm and yelped, stung by a spine burst.
"Get down!" Auron said.
"General, we've got to get out and fight!" Maroda said.
"Nearly there, Captain. We'll take shelter at the turnoff. Let's get the fayth out of Sin's line of sight."
One of the left-hand chocobos screamed and stumbled, causing the wagon to list alarmingly towards the ocean as the right-hand pair kept running at a full clip. Lucil reined them back, checking the dangerous tilt.
"I'm on it!" Elma jumped down with an exuberant yell and pelted forward, charging into the fiend and punting it over the edge of the road. She drew her sword and hopped onto the ruffled chocobo, soothing it with her free hand. "C'mon baby... yeah, yeah, I know." She raised her weapon in the signal for the cavalry-charge. "He's okay. Let's go!"
"Green flares going up," Maroda said.
"Fallback signal," Lucil said, icy calm. "Good."
And then many things happened at once. A hard armored snout crashed through the roof, raining splintered wood and rivets all over the passengers. To his credit, Isaaru's first instinct was to fling himself across the statue. Auron lurched up onto one knee to meet the foe, but there was no room to draw his sword. Maroda, more agile and less encumbered, raised his spear from the truck-bed and braced it like a pike, fending the creature off.
Meanwhile, Pacce, staring out the back of the wagon, gave a horrified shout. "Djose!"
Out of the corner of his eye Auron saw the white flash, the rolling shockwave at the fringes of sight, stone bridges shattering into shrapnel, a soundless explosion as all the spires of Lightning Rock came crashing down inexorably. Pillars of dust billowed up into the sky, enveloping the temple area and sweeping across the Crusaders engaged in desperate melee along the sea-cliffs.
And Lucil screamed. Yuna had made just such a sound on the peak of Mt. Gagazet, with Tidus' body at her feet and his head clutched in Seymour's jagged claws.
The wagon stuck fast, tipped to the right and smacked the high bank beside the road with a grating crunch.
"Out," Auron ordered.
Maroda struggled to hold off the fiend burrowing through the ceiling until Isaaru was clear. Pacce tumbled out the back, drawing his sword and whirling it in the figure-eight he had seen Auron use back in Kilika. That kept the nearest sinscales at bay while Auron helped Isaaru clamber out. Maroda dove out the front, scrambling to reach Lucil, who had been thrown under the tongue of the wagon. Bloody feathers and shredded harnesses were all that was left of the lead chocobos. The surviving pair shrieked and struggled in their traces. There was no sign of Elma.
Protected by Auron and Pacce, Isaaru staggered around to the front of the wreck. "Lucil—"
"I'm unscathed," she said tonelessly, lying on her side where she had fallen. "Get to safety, Isaaru."
There were more sinscales on the road ahead, but they were being swept aside by a pair of Djose knights charging up the road towards the wagon at full gallop.
"Pacce!" Maroda said. "Where are you going?"
Pacce had eased himself over the parapet, fumbling for a foothold. "Elma's... body is down there," he said, fighting tears. "I think I can reach her."
"Guard your summoner, boy," Lucil snapped.
"Run!" Auron was moving before he knew why, grabbing Isaaru and hurling him into the ditch beside the road. He had just time to identify that achingly familiar sound, the sizzling hiss of the lightning's intake of breath, an instant before air and wood and stone exploded in a blinding, searing flash with the sound of a million shields being riven into scrap metal. Every nerve shrieked pain.
No, said Auron's fading thought. Her favorite color is what follows the lightning. That settled, he yielded to black.