The canyon was eerily quiet. There was just the faintest rustling of wind moaning across broken rock. Now and then a sentry passed with a crunch of booted footsteps. The Crusaders gripped their weapons warily when the big man approached, but drew themselves to attention and clenched their fists to their chests in a salute when they recognized him. Apparently they had opted to ignore the orders coming out of Bevelle to arrest the traitors on sight. Being excommunicated by some of the same church leaders who had tacitly supported their last operation must have opened their eyes to a few painful truths.
Auron smiled grimly. The Teachings of Yevon were coming apart at the seams. So much the better.
A quick circuit of the camp turned up no sign of the mage. Stepping out onto the canyon floor, Auron retraced the party's steps, making his way back towards the entrance to the gorge and the hidden gateway leading down into the the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth. A sentry patrolling that end of the canyon called out and hailed him. "Sir! Nothing to report--"
There was a muffled boom that shook the ground, and a patter of small stones and rocks rained down from the cliff beside them. The watchman's eyes widened and he reached for his sword.
Auron turned towards the yawning mouth of the cave sunk into the base of the lefthand cliff. "It came from down there," he observed. "Did a woman pass by here just now?"
"Sir?" The sentry shook his head. "Not that I've seen. Unless you mean the girl with Lady Yuna--"
Auron pushed past him brusquely and headed for the dark archway, sword braced across his shoulders.
Inside, it seemed less like a cave and more like a slot canyon, a narrow tortured scar of split stone biting deeply into the cliffs. Most of the tunnel was roofed over, but in places the stony vault had cracked open to reveal a dim slit of sky. Black spires rose up on great piers of rock. Here and there crystals embedded close to the surface made the rock face pulse with a strange green glow. Pyreflies danced past Auron with a familiarity that the stoic wanderer stonily ignored. Water more heard than seen was tinkling down from cracks in the broken walls. His footsteps echoed loudly in that narrow space.
There was another louder boom, and the walls on either side shook and groaned. The swordsman quickened his pace.
Sliding around a corner, he found his way blocked by a fresh rockfall forming a barrier higher than his head. A cloud of dust was still rising from the rubble, obscuring the faint light from the glowing walls. Through gaps in the uneven barricade, he could see a few pyreflies spiralling upwards and melting away.
Auron set his hand against the stones and started climbing. Rocks shifted dangerously underfoot as he stepped from foothold to foothold, deftly scaling the wall. Just before clearing the top, he crouched down, calling out, "Hold." There was a grinding sound beneath his knees, and he leapt free just as the last vestiges of a crushed Epaaj winked out of existence at the foot of the slide. The rocks let loose again, a few more boulders tumbling down with a shuddering crash.
Beyond the rubble, the tunnel widened slightly and ended in an oval-shaped amphitheater open to the sky. There had been grass here, but it was scorched. A few flames were flickering out on the spidery husk of a dead tree against the far wall. Lulu stood beneath the blackened branches, faintly illumined by the sphere of fire burning fiercely in her palm. He caught a glimpse of her pale face turned towards him, eyes narrowed and wary. Then she swung away from him, pivoting smoothly on one heel and turning back to face the tree and surrounding rock-face. Straight-backed, motionless, black braids falling down her back, she seemed to fit this bleak and shadowed landscape: confined, secretive, a maze of pinnacles and black stone one could get lost in, yet punctuated here and there by a hidden gleam of glowing stone, or a spray of white blossoms clinging stubbornly to life in the most forbidding places.
Sinuous shadows were trickling down the steep rock face, and it was not merely water seeping down from above. Firelight glinted off skeletal joints, bladed claws.
"I hope I'm not intruding," Auron said, unsheathing his sword and striding towards her.
"On the contrary." Her crimson eyes were fixed on the ominous shadows inching stealthily closer. "You're late." She drew her hand back slowly, cupping the flames close to her body, taking slow, even breaths. The alien shapes detached themselves from the broken rock, blending in with the treebranches that served as camouflage. Two of the scorpion-like creatures bunched together as they squeezed past a narrow neck between outthrust piers of rock. Lulu opened her hand. Fire exploded outwards from her fingers, lighting up every stone and blade of grass in the narrow cul-de-sac. The fiends were smashed back against the rocky wall by the impact. There was a brief halt in their advance. Then they resumed their descent, a foul stench emanating from their scorched shells.
The pair she had just singed swung to the ground with a soft rattle of limbs and paused on either side of the dead tree. Their front legs probed the air before them as if sizing up morsels of food. Mage and swordsman exchanged quick glances.
"Allow me," Auron grunted, and flung himself forward, closing the gap between Guardians and fiends in three ground-eating strides. His left arm came free from his coat, palm outstretched, as he swung the black blade around in a glancing blow across the legs of the right-hand creature, striking blue sparks. Then, as the monsters whirled to slash at him, he brought the blade up and blocked the other's claws as they came slicing down. Chiton screeched against metal with another flash of blue.
Lulu raised her arm smoothly and let fly another burst of fire at the first one Auron had attacked. This time, the flame seemed to burrow into her target. Its legs and jointed skeleton glowed redly like a brand of iron in a forge's hearth, then dissolved into pyreflies. The swordsman pivoted away to give her room as she blasted the second one into the ground. He spun back and dispatched it with two efficient snapping strikes. Ghost-lights wafted up around his blade as the husk of the creature collapsed and faded at his feet.
"Thank you," she murmured. "I do so enjoy it when someone peels the fruit for me."
"Several of these look ripe," Auron warned, dropping back beside her as four more tumbled down and lurched towards them. "Keep back." He planted his sword in the earth for a moment and stooped over it, face clenched in concentration. Powerful shoulders tensed. The ground itself seemed to tremor as he collected himself for the kill.
Lulu waited at his shoulder, breathing deeply and gathering a sphere of energy into her hands. Her lips curled into an appreciative smile as a serious of depth charges burst from the tortured earth, consuming the spiny carcasses of the creatures in furious explosions of rock and fire. A fine layer of ash and dirt rained down on them as pyreflies spiralled away.
Their remaining enemies pushed through the dwindling smoke with mindless tenacity. Dagger-like claws flashed as the predators hit the ground and parted in two waves. They slithered to both sides of the dead tree and propelled themselves off the rocks with leaping springs, coming down right on top of the two Guardians. Lulu flung her hands over her face at the last second, letting the ball of lightning explode directly overhead, deflecting the the Epaaj that might otherwise have crushed her. Auron suddenly burst into motion at her side, whirling, striking, surrounding her in a web of steel as the sparks from her spell rained down on them. The mage twisted sideways when one of the creatures slipped past his guard and took a swipe at her. She gritted her teeth as a flailing claw sliced through the stiff fabric of her sleeve. Auron turned back and sheared through its talons. Lulu followed up with another blast of fire, glaring as the creature melted away.
The swarm came faster now, pouring down from the rockface on all sides. Auron's economy of movement was a deadly poetry. He carved and struck and whirled, cracking shells, breaking chinks in their armor, spraying bloody trails of black ichor as he held them at bay. Lulu followed in his wake, raining down lightning and flame. Sometimes she varied her magics with an violent burst of water to quench the ground when Auron's boots started smoking from the heat. They stood in the midst of a whirlpool of deadly claws and flailing limbs, the swordsman orbiting the mage in a weaving dance. Lulu anchored herself at the very center of the maelstrom, face set and flat with concentration as she struggled to follow his every move with the hammer-blows of her dark sorcery. Pyreflies eddied and swirled upwards like sparks cast from a burning log.
Lulu was beginning to feel faint, dizzy, euphoric. Auron's powerful swings and calculated strikes were thrilling to watch in such close quarters. He never stopped moving, yet every few seconds the flash of her fierce magic captured an after-image of his hurtling shape, illuminated by fire or lightning's painful clarity. It was like the face of the sun caught fleetingly by a swordblade. Her heart was soaring, even as sweat began to pour down her face. She did not consciously feel the pain singing in her veins, she only knew that fire was within her now as well as outside. A last wild explosion threw Auron to his knees-- too close, dangerously careless of her-- and she found herself crumpled on the ground, breathing heavily. Dazedly she watched Sir Auron run at the rockface and twist, his momentum carrying him up several feet into the last of their foes. His sword drove straight through its head, and he and the Epaaj fell together with a crash that made her stomach clench. The fiend hit the ground hard and exploded in a puff of pyreflies. Auron picked himself up stiffly and leaned on his sword.
Silence fell. They were alone once more in the closed-in cavern, with the last flames of her anger dancing across what was left of the withered tree.
Sir Auron turned in a slow circle, scanning the shadows above to make certain there were no other dangers lurking, then glared down at her. "I thought you had more sense," he said irritably. "Yuna would be none too pleased to find herself short a Guardian."
She smiled at the scolding. "You are right, of course. I had hoped you would--" she took a sharp breath-- "join me. But I did not expect so many."
"I expect such stupidity from Tidus." He moved to her side and stooped, taking her forearm gently in his hands. "Hm." He reached into his coat and pulled out a small flask, one of the Al Bhed remedies, removing the stopper with his teeth and dripping it liberally over the angry-looking slash. The venom faded when its owner expired, but it usually took several minutes for the effects to clear.
Lulu propped her forehead against his shoulder, unable to keep a smile from her lips. The throbbing began to subside and the sides of the cliff stopped wavering and leaning precariously towards them. Laying his sword across his knees, Auron slipped an arm around her and waited stoically, gazing into the darkness.
Presently she reached up to sweep back the unruly lock of hair that was forever tumbling down between his eyes. "Please tell me you enjoyed yourself, at least a little."
"Hmph." His collar masked the lower half of his face, but she knew a smile when she heard it.
The silence after a battle was always more profound than the one before it. For once, Auron did not seem to be in a hurry to move on, and Lulu was grateful for the respite. Finally she stirred and stretched her torn arm experimentally. The wound smarted, but the Al Bhed concoction had done its work: the bleeding had stopped.
He glanced down and sideways at her with his good eye. "Better?"
"Mm." She sat up and looked around, face composed and calm, as if they had merely been watching the sunset over a still lake. "I needed that."
He made one of those noncommittal grunts. "Apparently so." Almost absently, his gloved hand caressed her side. The familiar pleasant tingle of his touch sank through the fabric.
Lulu was disinclined to move or speak. In fact, she was only half aware of him just now, despite the comfortable familiarity that had settled between them. Her attention had returned to the stony cliff-face before them, and she glanced off to the left to make certain that the narrow crack leading farther into the labyrinthine tunnels had not been blocked.
Sir Auron straightened and regarded her with a wary sidelong look. "That was a difficult Sending today."
The mage frowned and stirred from her reverie. "For me or for you?"
That small concession drew a flicker of a smile from the sorceress. "I thought you told me that you were skilled at dodging," she admonished. "As for me: I'm fine. I'm pleased that we were able to Send Lady Ginnem before she became something she would not have wished to be."
Th warrior's face tensed, and he made no reply. Not that his silence was unusual.
"Auron?" she pressed gently.
He shook his head, gaze averted and grim. "Glad we could help."
With those words, an invisible wall tumbled into place between them as solid as the rockslide covering the entrance to the rocky cloister. Lulu did not mind. She enjoyed the shared silence between them, even when it veiled secrets. Tonight, however, she had one more secret than usual to worry about.
Auron caught her quite by surprise when he set a hand under her chin, turned her face towards him, and hammered home a fiery kiss.
Still slightly light-headed from the poison, Lulu felt her cheeks flushing as Auron dove forcefully into her mouth. She felt she was drowning. It was glorious, it was intoxicating, it was...
just a little too like those greedy-eyed gentlemen who spoke to her breasts and not to her.
Fighting for air, Lulu casually placed her palm against the broad metal blade propped over his thighs and applied a subtle pressure. Sparks skittered down and through the metal surface. Auron jerked and yanked away from her, staring at her in perplexed irritation.
"You are trouble," she murmured flatly, though the twinkle in her eye belied her severe tone. "But so am I. Please remember that."
Auron was seldom ruffled for more than a moment. Collecting himself, he broke into a low chuckle, reached down and laced his gloved sword-hand with hers. "It would be hard to forget, Lulu."
"Good." She gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
The swordsman jerked his chin towards the rockslide behind them. "So. Are you ready to head back?"
Lulu frowned. "As a matter of fact," she said quietly, "I... oh, this is difficult for me to ask."
He exhaled. "What's wrong?"
"The Cavern of the Stolen Fayth," She paused, letting those words sink in, and then went on. "Remember, this is as far as I've ever gone. Wakka says I'm stronger, and I know it is so, and yet: my knowledge of our road ends here. Traveling with five other Guardians, I have not had much of a chance to test myself. It is hard to know for certain whether I will have the power to protect Yuna from what lies ahead."
"Hm." He looked at her skeptically. "So this little demonstration was for yourself?"
Lulu nodded. "You told me to remember that Yuna is not Lady Ginnem. But I am still myself. Can I protect this Summoner better?"
He shrugged. "In the end, there is no way to know before we reach Sin. Dwelling on doubt is pointless. You know that."
"I do." Lulu met his gaze squarely. Despite her words, her usual reserved air of self-sufficiency scarcely seemed impaired. She merely looked troubled.
The older Guardian folded his arms across his chest, watching her. "You're not telling me everything."
An odd little smile flickered across her face and faded quickly: amusement, sadness, frustration. "Correct."
"Fine." He smirked, hefted the heavy blade across his shoulders, and offered her a hand up. "Let's get this over with."
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