A sending and a perilous night on Besaid.
The sea-breeze buffeting the headland had faded. The air felt pinched and still, as if Sin's passing had peeled away part of the atmosphere. In the village square, smoke-trails spiralled upwards in straight columns. The torches' blue flames barely flickered. In ones and twos, drifting pyreflies chased the smoke like furtive children stealing out after curfew to play in the fiend-haunted jungle.
Below, guardians and monks kept vigil while Isaaru circled the graves, his solemn gestures a restrained echo of Lady Yuna's whirling dance. Maroda watched intently, but for less than pious reasons: he had noticed his brother's knit brows and taut face. The summoner was waging an inner battle far from his guardians' aid. At last, Isaaru halted and sagged against his staff. Maroda started towards him.
The maester waved him off. "It is done. They are free." He nodded to the monks, who bowed and fanned out to clear away the trappings of ritual.
"Leave the torches," Sir Auron called from the temple platform, keeping watch. "We'll need them tonight."
"What?" Pacce said. "But if we hurry, we can reach the beach by sunset!"
Maroda raised his eyes to the sun setting beyond the snaggle-toothed roof of the jungle. "If we hurry, we could run straight into the jaws of fiends," he said. "Sir Auron's right. We don't want to get caught in the forest after nightfall. Don't worry. The ship's not going to leave without us."
"I'm sorry, Pacce," said Isaaru. "I've put us in some peril in order to perform a proper sending. But I have faith in my guardians." He winked. "It's like old times together, no?"
Pacce managed a strained grin. "Yeah. I suppose."
"Come on," Maroda said. "There's cots and mats in the lodge we might be able to salvage. We can spread them out by the fire ring—"
"Out in the open where nothing can sneak up on us. Right."
Isaaru sank onto a block of stone, smiling faintly at the give and take between them that was almost on equal footing now. He propped his staff against the ground and rested his forehead against the lacquered wood.
Gravel crunched nearby. "A hard sending," Auron said at his shoulder.
"Indeed. The only spirits clinging to their bodies after so many days are those who don't want to leave— and they are bitter, stubborn or in pain. But we were in time for a few."
"Maester thirteen years, yet you still think like a priest," Auron said. "All Spira needs you. You may not have the luxury of saving a few."
"Perhaps not." Absently he reached for the bone pendant tickling his skin under the stiff collar of his robes. "But I think High Summoner Yuna would have done the same."
"Yuna made mistakes."
"As have I," Isaaru said. "I trust, Sir Auron, you will share with us what you know of the journey ahead, so that I may avoid other mistakes."
"You're awfully quick to trust."
"Yes and no." The maester gave him an odd smile. "I wonder, Sir Auron, if you are still a traitor. If so, I should like to know what you make of this." He drew the necklace over his head and cupped it carefully, shielding it from the view of the nearby monks.
Auron arched an eyebrow. "An odd talisman for a maester of Yevon."
"It belonged to a sailor on the ship that brought us here. I believe he carved it from memory. He had encountered Sin before. Do you recognize the image?"
"May I see it?" Auron always sounded gruff, but there was a certain strain in his tone that Isaaru noted and filed away. He placed the delicate triangle of bone in the man's gloved hand, watching him closely.
After a moment, the guardian shrugged. "Another of Sin's victims, no doubt."
"You think so?" Isaaru lowered his voice. Pacce and Maroda had returned, and were arranging cots and mats in a semicircle nearby. "There are those who call Sin the Lady now, and hold her in greater awe than Yevon. Sin's cult is growing. They thank her for the good harvests these last few years, for the gardens of Djose and the rains on Bikanel. Those who breathe Sin's toxin see this face... say she is Sin. Yet according to other sightings, Sin is the same as ever, a behemoth covered in loathsome scales. Who is she?"
"Sin." Auron's fist closed loosely around the image.
Isaaru waited for the man to go on, but the stones of the ruined temple would probably speak sooner. The warrior's attention seemed fixed on the simple token. A few bars of white shone through the cage of his fingers.
"Ah." The maester leaned forward. "Then...who was she?"
Auron raised his head and squinted towards the jungle. For a moment Isaaru thought the guardian was still ignoring him. Then he felt it: the earth was shuddering beneath them. Before Isaaru could frame a question, the pulse crossed hearing's threshold, and from the heart of the forest came a tramping, splintering sound of trees groaning and breaking. Something massive was churning through storm-tossed trunks. There was a sliding crash as whole bank of broken tree-tops, upheld only by a snarl of limbs and thick vines, gave way at the crest of the hill. The jungle canopy tossed and thrashed in the path of something unseen. Limbs and leaves began raining down from the eaves.
"Durren!" Isaaru called, rising to his feet. "Get back! Come away from the trees!"
His monks had laid aside their gear and reached for their rifles— one innovation of Kinoc's he had not canceled— and were lining up at the edge of the village clearing.
Sir Auron jammed the necklace into his belt and marched towards them with a terse, "Don't summon yet."
Pacce and Maroda dropped what they were carrying and snatched up their weapons, jogging towards Auron. "What've we got?" Maroda said.
A rattle of gunfire broke out as the monks fell back. The nearest trees gave way and fell outward with splintering crashes as a hulking form lurched into view. Branches and vines trailed from the iron giant's joints. It reached the stupefied monks in four strides. A huge blade flashed in the dusk. Guns clattered to the ground as three torsos jerked and fell sideways like heads of grain.
Isaaru cried aloud in anguish, but his guardians took no notice, converging on the foe from three points. Maroda's spear glanced off with a clang. Pacce lunged beneath another scything stroke; Sir Auron, slower, caught the brunt of it. Somehow his armor held: he skidded backwards across the flagstones and fell to his knees, parrying some of the force of the blow with his sword braced before him. He barked something, but his words were drowned out by the ring of battle and the screech of ancient machina. Maroda and Pacce darted in and out, harrying the creature while Auron hammered at its knees. Yellow sparks flew from the older guardian's blade. Suddenly all three broke and ran for the cover of the woods. The behemoth roared and swung around, stomping after them.
Praying he had understood, Isaaru pointed his staff at the sky, gathering himself for the most difficult of summons. Green fire leapt from his shoulders. He felt a breath of benison on his upraised cheeks as the amber-streaked heavens split open, seared by a mighty star plummeting through glyphs etched in living light. The ground quaked again as Bevelle's aeon alighted with a roar, great wings beating the air as it lunged towards the fray. Spathi, youngest and eldest, a child taken captive from Zanarkand who might have become the greatest summoner of all had he not been bound: he never failed to make Isaaru feel like a child before him.
This aeon could dwarf a giant. There was no contest between the two, with Auron's gift for turning armor to eggshells. Ancient plates buckled under Spathi's massive fists. Curlers of rising steam turned abruptly to a shimmer of pyreflies as the iron giant toppled backwards and hit the ground with a final teeth-jarring concussion. Spathi roared in victory and hurtled upwards, swiftly vanishing from sight.
Isaaru whispered a silent prayer of thanks, then made his way wearily towards the sad remains of the monks. Maroda and Pacce emerged from the wreckage at the forest's edge and stumbled towards him.
"We're fine," Maroda said, answering his keen glance.
"Speak for yourself—" Pacce said, and stopped short.
"It should not have been here," Isaaru said dazedly, barely able to hear his own voice after the deafening din. "Do you remember? We fought such creatures on the Thunder Plains." He shook his head and stooped over the bodies, stomach clenching at the puddle of warm blood that immediately began seeping into his shoes. "Forgive me, old friend." He closed the monk's eyes and moved to the next corpse, barely registering Maroda's hand clamping onto his elbow to steady him.
Out of the corner of his eye he noted the tears dribbling down Pacce's grimy cheeks. Usually he had sure words of comfort to bolster the youth's bright spirit, but now that well was dry.
Durren had been a fine tutor.
One more summoning. One more sending. Spira's next Calm could not come too soon.
I'm too old for this.
Auron tasted blood and irony on his lips as he lowered himself with a grunt onto a leaf-plastered bench set in a clearing well back among the trees. Dimly he registered the struts and shredded canvas of a ruined hut looming behind and partially overhead. Drawing a small flask from the inner pocket of his coat, he pulled the cork with his teeth and spat, then drank deeply. The cool potion slid down his throat.
Auron sagged as the stabbing ache of a cracked rib subsided. He allowed himself a fleeting memory of this place, glancing up and filling the shadows above with curved beams and a dome of tapestries backlit by moonlight. Below, the blush of candlelight played across her shoulder-blades where Lulu lay draped in casual elegance across a surprisingly plain bed. The scent of the damp jungle and the dried bundles of herbs and spell-components hanging from the ceiling mingled with the musky hint of a perfume he had despised for the first half of the pilgrimage. He remembered the murmur of her voice rising and falling as she read to him the tale of two pagan gods that a follower of Yevon ought not to know. Despite the title, it had not provided many clues for their sigil-quest.
"And Venus born of sea-foam renewed her virginity each year—"
"—bathing in the waves by the grotto where first she had come ashore. There he waited for her, and for one night only war was in abeyance. For then did Mars put off his shield and panoply to help her renew her womanhood."
"Not much use in the bath, then."
She opened her hand, and the scroll rolled itself shut with a crack. "We should be heading back."
"I thought you said you'd burn through the hull of the airship if you were cooped up in that machina one more night."
"Yes, but your thick skull is starting to look tempting."
That languid laughter had always been more dangerous than her barbs. "Among other things."
A slithering rustle in the underbrush drew Auron's mind back to the present. The jungle darkened as the vision faded away. He'd taken more than enough time for ribs to knit. Lifting his sword and laying it across his knees, he ran gloved fingertips along the edge, finding a few notches. There was no nimble-fingered Al Bhed to sharpen it for him tonight.
"Sir Auron?" Pacce's anxious calls filtered back through the trees. The summoner must have finished the sending. Heaving himself to his feet, Auron started back towards the village.
Something snapped under his boots when he stood up. He looked down. Peering through the gloom, he could just make out the broken bones of a wicker cradle. Someone else must have moved into the mage's old home when she did not return.
Auron knelt, fishing the sailor's charm out of his belt. He stared at the face of bone gleaming in the darkness. After a moment's hesitation, he draped the necklace over the cradle's shell with care, rose quickly and stalked away.