More perils, more problems: getting out alive is no easy task when Auron's unarmed.
They had put some distance between themselves and Yojimbo's cave when Auron dropped back and propped a hand on the stony wall, interposing himself between the mage and the tunnel they had just exited. Lulu halted, painfully aware of his keen gaze measuring the taut line of her shoulders, her straight back, and the disheveled hair falling in wild waves across the side of her face. She flinched at his voice, although he spoke so softly that she had to strain to hear him. "I'm sorry." He cast a wary glance behind them. "I underestimated him."
Lulu's voice seemed to come from some other person: dispassionate, cool, measured. "I am not your responsibility, Sir Auron, and I should not have asked you to accompany me. No apologies are required." She exhaled. "But thank you. Forgive me if I do not say, 'I am in your debt.'"
He grimaced. "Please don't." The slightest movement of his shoulders towards her was enough to make her take a step back. "Lulu, listen to me."
The mage stood stiffly with arms folded, hating herself for the way her heart pounded when he loomed over her. He was using that compelling, softspoken voice that could whisper trust at her ear without her laughing in his face. I trust him, she reminded herself, but right now it was painfully difficult to remember what that felt like. "Yes?"
"The sword. It's a piece of metal, a valuable tool, nothing more. But I could not let him know that, or--" He reached for her cheek with a knuckle, checked the motion, and let his fist drop. "Do you understand?"
She swallowed, the concern behind his words seeping in slowly. "I... think so."
"Good." Auron fixed her with a level gaze. "Because now you have to be Guardian for both of us. I'm trusting your strength. Stay alert. Or at least stay angry."
The sorceress blinked rapidly. "Auron, I--" She swayed, nails digging into her palms. Fatigue and throbbing pain were finally catching up to her. He reached down to steady her, and Lulu stiffened as his gloved fingers closed over her shoulder.
Auron released his grip at once and turned away from her. "Lulu." The rhythm of his words washed over her like a caress. "Hold on. I know you're hurt. I can't carry you, not all the way back to the gorge. You wouldn't let me anyway. Keep fighting."
Lulu nodded, willing back tears. Auron was holding her with his voice instead of his arms. She listened, tasted it, fought against the invisible hands roaming her body even while he spoke. "I'll do my best." She stared at him, seeking that wall of strength that she knew she could lean against, trying to push away the nightmare that laughed in his voice and leered with his face and made his every movement seem threatening. Against her better judgment, a question slipped out. "Auron? Were you still there, when Yojimbo... took over?"
Auron hesitated. His brows knitted together as he glanced over his shoulder again, ostensibly to check behind them for threats. She knew the answer from his silence before he spoke. "Every instant," he said finally.
Every instant. Three years on, Lulu remembered every instant of her own frozen limbs' betrayal, the sight of Ginnem struggling to gasp out one more spell as the lizards swarmed over her, pulling her to the earth and tearing at her until the screams faded away. No wonder he had retreated behind the barricade of his collar. Auron shoved his glasses firmly against the bridge of his nose. "We need to get moving."
The sword was nothing, only a piece of metal, but its owner had paid a terrible price for her sake. She would not waste time with guilt any more than she had with Ginnem. She simply raged for him, for herself, and for vengeance unrequited.
Lulu held out her hand to him, subdued. "I believe I can manage angry."
~ * ~
Later, Lulu could recall very little of the return journey. Her body was bruised, and every step served to remind her of where and why she ached. She allowed Auron to steer her unless there was damage to be done. Keeping a gentle grip on her hand, he drew her through the shadows, hugging the walls at a maddeningly slow pace. So they crept past most of the fiends unnoticed. Most, but not all. Their healing supplies steadily dwindled. At least they met no lizards.
Finally the ground began to rise, and they were coming to the reaches of the cavern where the wind howled across broken gaps in the roof high above. A few dim stars peeked through. The air was getting colder. Chilled and numb, Lulu barely realized that they they had halted again. Peering past Auron's shoulder, she suddenly noticed a dirty yellow gleam near the floor up ahead. It was coming from a small lantern, and it was inching closer.
Of course. Just what they needed right now.
"Don't even think about it, Auron," Lulu hissed, stepping in front of him.
The small green knot of menace watched them from the shadows with brass button eyes. If only they could slip past it! But inexperienced Guardians often met their end that way, those that were not quite so foolish as to think a Tonberry as harmless as it appeared.
"Focus first," Auron reminded her.
"I know." Gritting her teeth, the mage tried to settle her nerves by running through mental exercises, tasting the currents and energies around her. Auron's powerful presence felt alarmingly like a fiend's. Both were Unsent. To her inner sense, they seemed to broadcast an alien, disquieting pang of discontinuity like a splinter of ice in a wound. With the Tonberry so close, however, she could plainly perceive the difference. Fiends were power without purpose, thrumming with a seething energy like insects boiling out of a hive to attack a trespasser. Auron was a focused fist of self-identity, as rooted as an old tree.
The Tonberry had taken a few steps closer while the mage centered herself. She fell back upon the banter that helped her push aside worry and achieve that neutral balance she needed for control. "It's too chilly down here, don't you think?"
A wild burst of flames danced across the fiend's scaly green skin, bubbling and frothing, causing the Tonberry to stagger. Righting itself, the diminutive creature began to sway from side to side. The baleful golden light of its lantern burrowed into her skull, closing off her throat. Howls, cries, and snarls beat against her ears. It was far worse than she remembered from her last run-in. She felt Auron's hand braced against her back. When her vision cleared, the small creature was a pace closer, although she had never seen it move.
Lulu shuddered and raised her hands again. She saw Auron out of the corner of her eye, gloved hand clenched around a weapon that was not there. Scowling, the mage glared at the tiny fiend crouched in the center of the narrow passageway. A column of ice crashed down and shattered in a thousand bright shards. Again the Tonberry was flattened, but only for a few seconds. Lulu tried to look away, but the sinister swing of the lantern was oddly compelling.
There was a sickening wrench, and the howls and plaintive voices beat at her through every pore of her skin. She felt the life being leeched out of her. Auron was gently guiding her towards the wall and easing her to the floor. She recovered her senses just in time to see him make a running leap at the wretched creature, slamming a hard kick into its midsection. The little figure tumbled over, righted itself, and thrust the gleaming light in the warrior's eyes. Auron buckled, sinking to one knee with a groan.
Eyes burning, Lulu sent a sizzling bolt past his shoulder and gritted her teeth at the inevitable wrenching backlash. "Auron," she panted. "Just wait."
"No time," he growled, heaving himself to his feet. Both fists came crashing down on the Tonberry's skull. Before she could muster her power for another volley, Sir Auron collapsed face-first to the floor. The Tonberry walked right over him. A cold knife gleamed as it closed on her with mindless malice.
A cold, bitter rage blasted through her. Not again. The power was singing dangerously in her now, and the threads of her control began to snap. Lightning lifted up and out of her fingers, snaked along her braids, sparked off the buckles and fastenings of her clothes, and again and again pounded the hateful creature. At last it tumbled over and the lantern winked out. Ghost-lights drifted upwards as the dust settled.
Utterly drained, she hurried to Auron's side and struggled to turn him over. To her astonishment, he was still breathing, although his face was ashen. "Well done," he rasped.
"Idiot." A flood of relief washed over the mage as she fished in her sleeve for another precious healing potion. A hint of color returned to Auron's haggard face after she held it to his lips, but he was hardly his usual hale self. Reluctantly, she sipped another potion for herself and felt strength return to her shaky limbs. She was painfully aware of how few they had left. "That's my second to last," she sighed. "How many do you have now?"
"No point in worrying about it," he grunted, helping her to her feet. "Let's keep moving."