The Cavern of the Stolen Fayth was far more perilous and long than Lulu remembered. She had been too naive the first time to know how great were the risks they ran. Travelling with Yuna and five Guardians had made for a deceptively easy journey, barely more dangerous than a forest stroll in Besaid. This time, every tunnel was another story, every skirmish another near brush with death. Yet apart from their harrowing run-in with the stone-lizards, Lulu could not remember the last time she had basked in the thrill of battle quite so much. Just for a change, there was no Summoner whose life depended on her, no friends to fret over, no clueless newcomer in need of coaching. Sir Auron's expertise was gratifying, and his skills complemented her own almost exactly. Wakka, of course, had balanced out her magics on their last pilgrimage together, but he had been inexperienced and preoccupied, and asked almost as many questions as Tidus. She found the swordsman's silence restful.
Sir Auron did not even ask where they were headed. He had probably guessed at the start. The warrior kept pace with her without a single word spoken between them. Their only conversation consisted of combat, an unrehearsed dance of strikes and mutual defense that was almost as satisfying as their more intimate liaisons. Whenever they came face to face with one of the cavern's hulking fire-breathers, Lulu could not help but savor the spectacle of the warrior charging forward like a wave breaking on the beach and hewing through the huge monster's neck with one inexorable swing. She felt a thrum of quiet satisfaction when Auron leaned on his sword to watch her dispatch a Dark Element with one blistering burst. Best of all was when they worked in tandem, blade and magic weaving a two-pronged attack against anything unlucky enough to cross their path.
Step by step they were nearing their goal. Lulu was still putting off awkward explanations. Auron was making it easier for her, but she hated having to keep him in the dark. Finally, as they crossed the last intersection before their destination, Lulu glanced back at him. "There's one thing I want you to understand," she whispered. "I urged Yuna to come here for her sake, to win her one more Aeon. Had she preferred the quickest route, I would have returned alone after the pilgrimage."
"In that case," Auron replied drily, "It's a good thing Yuna was agreeable. Throwing one's life away after victory is worse than foolish."
The mage might have protested his unflattering assessment of her chances, but there was a hint of self-deprecation in his tone that roused her suspicions. Torn between curiosity, sympathy, and impotent frustration at his fate, Lulu did not press him further. Instead, she changed the subject. "I would have preferred not to involve you either."
He smiled faintly. "I know. But I'd rather you bent your pride and asked for my help, than for us to find you dead in the morning." He shook his head. "I gather that you had not heard much about this place, when you were here before. One Summoner and one Guardian have little hope of passing through."
Lulu sighed. "So we discovered." There was another pause while they edged past a huge, rusted hulk whose metal surfaces gleamed dimly in the light of the pyreflies. One could never be too sure whether these old abandoned machina had been decommissioned. "Did Lord Braska seek out Yojimbo?"
"Yes." The swordsman grimaced. "But we did not summon him often."
The mage stepped to one side, the signal for Auron to squeeze past her. He plunged forward and dropped his sword through a Thorn barring their path. "No wonder," she breathed, sealing the blow with a firestrike. "I'm surprised Braska needed any Aeons, between the two of you."
"Hardly. It was more a matter of being strapped for cash, after exhausting our funds early on paying for that Shoopuf." Auron straightened and waited for her to take point again. "Did Lady Ginnem ever summon him?"
"Yojimbo? Only once," Lulu answered bleakly.
Lulu had thought the hair-raising journey to Yojimbo's inner sanctum would be the worst part of the adventure, but she found it was just as bad to be left at the entryway while her Summoner faced the unseen spirit alone. Against her better judgment, the young Guardian found herself inching partway down the tunnel, chafing her cold hands and straining her ears to hear what might be happening in the chamber beyond.
She need not have bothered. Lady Ginnem's ringing voice reverberated clearly back through the stony passageway, passionate and stern. "What is there to negotiate? You are a Fayth! You gave your life to save Spira! What use have you for gold?"
"None whatsoever." Lulu's scalp prickled. She had never heard a Fayth speak before. Even accounting for echoes, there was no doubt that the alien, uncanny voice came from nothing this side of the Farplane. "How much are you willing to pay for everlasting glory, Summoner? Your life? Your Guardian's life? The stakes are high. I do not waste time with just any beggar who stumbles upon my doorstep."
"High indeed: all Spira is waiting while we bandy words! You must help me and my Guardian defeat Sin. I, Summoner Ginnem of Djose, command you!"
The long cold laugh echoing up the tunnel set Lulu's teeth on edge. Foreboding crawled down her skin like bitter rain.
"So be it," said the strange voice. "Your life will be the cost."
"That I knew."
In her mind's eye, Lulu could see the stubborn serenity in her Summoner's face, and wanted to howl a protest. She did not have long to ponder the exchange she had overheard before the older woman's clipped, hurried footsteps were returning up the passageway. The headstrong young Guardian expected to be berated for eavesdropping, but Ginnem swept past her without even noticing the slip of a girl pressed against a niche in the wall. Lulu hurried after.
Later, Lulu had often wondered whether the Fayth had put the fiends on their scent to collect his fee.
Auron grunted. "So you did make it to Yojimbo's sanctuary first, then," he muttered.
Lulu glanced over her shoulder, mouth pressed in a thin line. "Exactly."
She said nothing more to him until the last tunnel was threaded and they stood once more at the end of a wide, oval-shaped chamber, empty save for a few pyreflies. Lulu's amber eyes swept across the barren floor, noting a few scorch marks from their recent battle and remembering another that was indelibly seared in her memory. There was no marker, no sign to honor a Summoner's passing. For that matter, there was almost nothing to hint at the sleeping power nestled at the heart of this cavern like a vigilant spider. Even the Hymn of the Fayth, hastily incised in an arc over the dark, round opening on the far wall, was so crudely carved that it was easy to miss.
Head held high, the sorceress stalked towards the forbidding archway. Sir Auron subtly lengthened his stride to fall into step beside her.
"Master Yojimbo," Lulu called out, bowing in prayer before the portal. "We seek an audience."
"So I see," boomed a hollow voice from the depths. Suddenly, framed against the darkness of the inner cave, there was a luminous figure taller than a man, garbed in the stark red and blue of an old Crusader's uniform. A steel mask crafted to mimic the head of a bird of prey hid the face from view. Inhuman eyes gleamed behind it. "I was beginning to wonder whether I should send my Aeon to collect your debt."
Auron shot a wry glance at his companion, but he seemed less than surprised. "I assume there is a reason why you did not settle this when we were here earlier?"
"Yes," Lulu said curtly.
The spell gripping her limbs in stony shackles suddenly let go, and Lulu fell to her knees as pyreflies gently wafted away. Paralyzed and trapped in her own body, she had not been able to turn her head and see what had finished off her assailants. She had only a fleeting glimpse of one of the lizards falling under a hail of ghostly daggers.
The carnage the fiends had wrought of Ginnem's body was spread from wall to wall. Lulu thought she had seen gruesome deaths before, when her family and friends had been strewn across the beaches of Besaid like broken driftwood. Nothing had prepared her for this. The furious shriek wrenched from her lungs was less than human. Wrapping her arms around herself, she wept silently and rocked until there were no tears or fire left inside. Only then did she realize that a strange Aeon was looming over her, faceless, its body hidden by an elaborate costume whose cheerful colors were almost macabre under the circumstances. Nearby stood a massive dog with its tongue hanging out, blood on its teeth, burning coals for eyes. Its tail wagged a slow drum-beat against the blood-soaked ground.
"Why?" she whispered. "Why come too late? Are we just toys to you?"
"Her life: that was the only price your Summoner was willing to pay." Yojimbo's sibilant voice echoed behind her. "I obliged. You should thank her."
Numbly Lulu reached down, touching the blood with white fingers.
"However, you present me with a quandary. The debt was hers, not yours. I suppose I owe you a way out."
Lulu gazed towards the dark tunnel leading towards the surface, face set and cold. "I hardly need your assistance for that, sir."
The spirit laughed mockingly. "A pity. I thought I sensed a spark of strength in you. Nevermind. Go, then. There's a fiend lurking around the next bend that will make short work of you."
Turning her back on the unsettling Aeon and its hound, Lulu came face to face with Yojimbo himself. "What do you want?" she demanded, recoiling as the spirit's insubstantial image brushed against and through her.
Yojimbo's masked head shifted to and fro like a raptor scanning the tall grasses of the Calm Lands for prey. "Pathetic," he pronounced at length. "You carry nothing of value. Well, I do not normally render service in advance, but I'm feeling generous. Don't tell anyone, mind: it's bad for business." He gave another eerie laugh. "I'll see you again someday, Guardian. You can pay me then."
Someday had finally come due. The mage faced the airy image of the Fayth with a hint of trepidation. "I am here now."
Yojimbo's eyes flicked towards Auron's solid figure beside her. "As is another."
"I have not told him our business," she said firmly. "If you prefer, I shall conduct negotiations with you alone." She nodded towards the tunnel at the spirit's back.
Sir Auron rumbled beside her. "I think not."
Yojimbo chuckled, circling them slowly. "No, he may stay. It is not often the great Yojimbo gets to meet another hero, especially an Unsent. Sir Auron, isn't it? I hope they haven't forgotten you already." His attention returned to Lulu. "Shall we get down to business, girl? Name your price."
With a slight bow, the mage drew out a small sphere of jet-black crystal. Within its smokey depths, fire and lightning throbbed angrily, casting out tiny chains of sparks that skipped harmlessly across her outstretched palm. "This seemed appropriate. A black magic sphere. Very rare."
"Hm." The spirit's image flickered and steadied. "Is that all?"
"And you thought Rikku was the thief," the mage muttered under her breath. "I'm sorry, Auron."
The swordsman merely folded his arms, watching her impassively.
"No, that is not all." Drawing a shimmering velvet pouch out of her bodice, the mage hefted it in both hands as if the small bundle was strangely heavy. "We found this on the body of a Guado Maester. I have not come across one before, but I believe it may be a tetra elemental."
The Fayth threw back his head and laughed. "Now that's an uncommon souvenir! Your first Summoner might have fared better, had you handled the bargaining for her."
Lulu exhaled and set the bag down on a niche in the entryway, eyeing it with regret. "Very well."
"Not so fast." Pale eyes glittered behind the uncanny mask. "As I warned you, it is not my habit to render services in advance. You have had three years to ponder your good fortune and my magnanimity. I expect to be paid with interest."
Sir Auron interrupted flatly. "If I understand the nature of the bargain, then you value this woman's life more highly than all the gold in Bevelle. That is no mere bauble."
"Ah, Sir Auron," Yojimbo thrust a ghostly finger towards him. "You disappoint me! Do you imagine I have the slightest interest in the lifeless offerings that people bring me? No, but my suppliants will show proper respect! Yojimbo is no pawn to be summoned and put away and forgotten like a handkerchief. If others would use my sacrifice for their own ends, then they should be willing to sacrifice too."
Sir Auron levelled a pointed look at the Fayth.
"What would you have of me, then?" Lulu asked coolly. "I travel light. I brought little else with me."
"You brought him."
Lulu stiffened. Eyes narrowed, she watched the ghostly figure waft towards Sir Auron. If Yojimbo was looking for some token of respect from the legendary hero, he was disappointed. The stoic swordsman held his ground, barely a flicker in his wooden expression when the specter came to hover inches before his face.
Yojimbo chuckled. "They say the Unsent envy the living-- but not you, I think." The masked figure leaned close and whispered into Auron's ear with all the familiarity of a trusted confidant or lover. "Tell me, hero, how does it feel to fuck warm flesh and blood? You've got a pretty little cunt there to spread her legs for you."
Auron's gloved hand tightened around the hilt of his sword, but that was all. Lulu gasped and drew herself to her full height, red-faced and seething.
"That is my price," Yojimbo stated diffidently.
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