Two warriors, both dead, take two different paths.
A/N: So tempted to name this chapter "The Bridge at Z'ha'dum."/
Vegnagun had vanished, taking with it almost all light and sound. In the hollow silence, two distant splashes offered bleak testimony to ears that strained to hear. The only remaining illumination came from the elevator's lights and a swarm of pyreflies left behind, drifting hungrily towards the remaining combatants.
The fight had ebbed but not ended. Juno and Elma had Pacce pinned to the deck. He fought back in a snarling frenzy, thrashing and biting their arms. Nooj, meanwhile, had picked up Juno's sword and was limping towards them, using it as a crutch. He balked at the edge of the pyrefly cloud, taking a deep breath before wading in.
On the far end of the bridge, Isaaru kept lonely vigil. Weeping as he prayed, he was dancing for both the fallen and the foe.
Shuyin's madness was spreading. Juno, kneeling on Pacce's chest, suddenly bent forward to wrap her gauntlets around his throat. Elma moved to stop her, but somehow wound up grabbing the younger woman's helm, twisting it like a cork. Pacce redoubled his efforts, flailing at Elma's unprotected eyes with his fingers curled into claws. All three were sucking in pyreflies with every breath.
Nooj had reached them now. "Don't listen," he snapped. "Elma. Juno. Focus. Think of something you love. Shuyin's trying to control you."
Elma let go with a gasp. "Son of a—!"
Her oath was cut short by Juno's mailed elbow punching her in the face. She crumpled with a yelp, clapping her hands over her nose.
Taking advantage of their distraction, Shuyin gave a violent heave and broke free. Pyreflies streamed from his shoulders as he snatched up his sword and charged towards his brother.
"Dammit!" Cupping her nose with one hand, Elma swiped at empty air. "Sir! Watch out!"
For a moment Isaaru seemed unaware, twirling in a sluggish dance that mimicked the lazy arcs of the pyreflies. Then he raised his hand. "In Yevon's name," he said with strained conviction, "You will release my brother. Begone. You have no place in Spira!"
Pacce stumbled, hunkering down with fists clenched and head lowered. "Yevon? That old conjurer won't help you." He took another menacing step forward. "You've been praying to a lie, summoner."
Juno had caught up with Pacce. She gripped his hand and wrist, wrenching his sword away.
"Faith is no lie." Isaaru drew dignity about himself like a cloak and began to dance again, wet cheeks gleaming under the pyreflies. "What kind of a man were you, Shuyin, that you would destroy the world for love?" His voice rose and fell, swinging between bitter anger and quiet, gentle sorrow. "What kind of a woman was she, to deserve such a memorial? Would she take joy in causing a lover's betrayal? Daughter's blood on father's hands? Brother turned against brother, all unwilling? Was Lenne such a monster, to condone such cruelty?"
"No!" Pacce was trembling now, barely struggling when Juno pinned his arms behind him. Pyreflies boiled upwards like clouds of steam. "Lenne gave her heart to the world, and it betrayed her!"
"And you honor her love with hate?" Isaaru kept spinning, his gestures growing more emphatic. Yet his voice changed from stern to coaxing, swelling with sudden warmth. "Pacce. Believe in yourself. I still do."
Pacce shuddered, tears starting in his eyes. "I c-can't."
"Yes, you can, kiddo." Elma had joined them, thanks to a potion, and slipped an arm around his shoulders. "Nobody could fight Shuyin alone: not Elder Cid, not us, not anybody. It wasn't your fault you couldn't. But Isaaru's here now. He's the best spirit wrangler around, eh? He can kick this guy's ass."
A luminous form began to emerge from the young man's body: taller, leaner, a golden figure advancing on Isaaru with drawn sword. Shuyin was growing more transparent with every step, but still he came.
Juno released Pacce and started forward, although the battle was squarely in the summoner's hands now. But before she could overtake Shuyin, a second glowing figure coalesced in front of Isaaru. A slender woman stood there with arms outstretched. Her clothes were of a style unknown to them, a short ruffled dress of sparkling blue.
"You must stop!" she said.
"Lenne?" Shuyin froze. "Lenne. They deserve it. They—"
"Leave vengeance to the Lady," she said, soothing. "Rest, Shuyin. Rest with me."
He took a faltering step towards her. "Is it really you, Lenne? I looked for you. I searched for so long."
"I wrote a song for you, Shuyin." She smiled, catching him as he tumbled forward. "Maybe you've heard it. Listen." Soft and low, she began to purr into his ear. "Ieyui nobomeno..."
Pyreflies converged on the pair as they embraced. Unearthly cries on the edge of hearing merged into the Hymn of the Fayth. The lovers faded one pyrefly at a time. Isaaru brought his hands together to seal the ritual. He fell to his knees.
Hurrying over, Juno offered him a hand up with a gruff, "Isaaru, I'm sorry."
Pacce was sobbing on Elma's shoulder. As Isaaru started towards him, a glimmer of white caught his attention. A shadow stood where Shuyin and Lenne had been a moment before. Was it Lenne? But this woman had fuller curves, bone-pale skin, a long black gown that fell to her feet.
"Milady?" he said, dazed.
The stranger turned and glided away, pyreflies in her train. The others seemed oblivious to her presence. Isaaru gave a cry when she reached Pacce and planted a light kiss on his forehead. Then she was gone.
Two figures sank through a void with pyreflies for stars. The second was no more than a faint silhouette. The first was substantial, not yet reconciled to his condition.
/Dammit. You know, if Isaaru hadn't been sending Shuyin, someone coulda slapped me with a phoenix down.
...Or not, I guess. What the hell did you have to go and drop me for?
Uh...right. 'No comment,' eh? Death hasn't changed you a bit. Speaking of which, what're you doing here? I'm the one with the great big hole in my gut.
Oh, no. Don't tell me. That's what you were hiding? And the sending got you, too? Jeez, man. I don't know what to say.
...Idiot/, maybe. Wasn't sending this guy /your clever plan? And now Isaaru's short two guardians.
Poor Pacce. He's gonna be a complete wreck.
So...um...hey. You're unsent, right? You pulled it off once already. So why can't we both go back? It's just killin' me, leaving 'em like this./
A woman's voice rippled through the one-sided conversation: "All you need is determination."
Huh? I'm pretty damned sure I don't want to die, lady!
"None of us wants to die. But existence is more than negating a negative. What is it you cannot forsake? What drives you, warrior, that you would endure a waking death, forgoing the Farplane's peace?"
My brothers! I've got to get back to them. This totally sucks, you know?
"Such bonds may be strong. But they are not you. Who are you? What is you?"
Huh? Look, lady, just show me the way—
"As you wish. But the path I'll show you goes only one way."
In the uttermost depths of Bevelle, two corpses struck water hard enough to fracture bones. One kept falling.
The other was not so lucky.
He awoke on black sand. His eyes were closed, but still he knew it: those coarse, glassy grains radiated sunlight like a furnace, burning anyone foolish enough to dare the beach in bare feet. The air held an iron tang that told him that he was home, truly home, lying at the foot of high, faceted crags weathered red by rain and wind. The voice of waterfalls and pounding surf met together on the toes of old lava. He had forgotten that sound. The burdens of the past forty-five years had driven out all memories of of earliest childhood. But the intervening time had slipped away from him, and this was all he had left.
Fire and water had fought here, spawned burgeoning life in the fertile soil that covered older parts of the island. A fatalistic people had made the volcano their goddess for centuries, content with what she gave them, enduring when she took back the gift. But Sin had finally put an end to their covenant. The few survivors fled to Yevon, some adopting other islands, a few reaching the mainland. They still bore the marks that set them apart, although Yevon had stamped out the lore behind them: eyes the color of rust, black hair that turned ash-gray, sometimes even in youth.
He had returned only once during warrior monk's training, fighting fiends that might have been his kin.
He could no longer remember the island's name. Then again, he could no longer remember his own.
One odor did not fit: a hint of lilac. Someone was bustling about him, composing his limbs in the manner of portraits on old Crusader coffins. His hands were crossed over the hilt of his sword, laid lengthwise along his body. His jug was placed at his feet. Thorny brambles and salt-stiffened leaves prickled his bare arm. His head rested against a boulder of basalt.
There was a crackling, sizzling sound like red-hot metal splitting cold stone.
Auron lurched, thrusting his left hand upwards with his knuckles scraping the grave marker. Searing heat branded his palm. The pain jarred him fully awake.
"You'd give up on me?" he snarled.
Agony eased as a layer of ice flowed between his palm and the smaller hand pressed against it. "Never in a thousand years, Auron. But I do not hold you to your oaths. You do."
Auron sat up, painfully aware of every aching, bleeding limb, He withdrew his hand and wrapped it firmly around his sword-hilt, clutching it as an anchor. The rich greens, reds and blacks of his birthplace faded away. He found himself back in Sin's garden, on the ghost of the Djose shore. The only trace of his childhood home was the spray of ohia berries spilling over the black pillow of lava behind him, its surface unmarked. All around him stretched Lulu's overgrown bower: roses and Macalania trees, orchids and moon lilies, driftwood and skulls and the endless teeth of tombstones.
He glanced down at his hand. Freshly blackened skin was branded with two glyphs, the signs of his own name. "Thanks."
There was a rustle of skirts as she settled beside him, not touching now. "You were distracted."
He grunted. "It was...necessary."
"Then I think you had better not tell me. He is curious what is going on here, in Bevelle."
"Lulu," Auron said, changing the subject quickly, "Why did Shuyin look like Tidus?"
"Shuyin? Oh, yes." There was a long pause. When she spoke again, she sounded disjointed, as if she was transmitting another's words. "Zanarkand is a dream. But Zanarkand was real. Dreams are woven of things that were. Of people, too. But sometimes, dreams—"
"Are better than the truth." He sighed. "I see."
Auron had been struggling to avoid looking at her. She remained a precipice, and his grip on his sword and his name was still tenuous at best. But her indrawn breath drew his attention.
The brambles had begun to grow around her arms, her neck, intertwining with her braids and belts. There were too many of them. As he took hold of the briar tightening around her throat, it transformed into barbed metal, digging into her skin. She averted her eyes, abandoning the pretense of speech. I think you had better go. Her lips twisted into an impish smile. I believe I may have annoyed him.
Auron growled in frustration. "Don't take risks, Lulu. Put me down."
Another belt was unfurling across her face, covering her eyes. Are you sure you want to go on? Others can write my story, you know.
"No," he said to both statements. "Lulu, hurry."
Very well. Soft lips brushed his cheek.
The vision of Sin's garden tore like cobwebs, catapulting him back into a body that was aching in so many places he barely noticed the burn. He found himself lying in a shallow, stinking puddle at the mouth of a sewage pipe. Blood stained the fetid water the color of rust. A gentle, quiet drizzle was falling upon the smoldering city in the gray dawn.
As he groaned and rolled over, her voice came to him in the susurrus of the rain. I'll see you soon, Auron. Tell Zaon when you're ready.