Psyche in Hades
When swords and magic are gone, how can Lulu and Auron prevail? They have one last weapon.
"Auron," the mage called over the roar of his opponent. "Let go now."
The swordsman had his hands too full to reply. His victim was thrashing under him like an untamed chocobo. Lulu waited until Auron seized his chance, eased his choke-hold, and went rolling across the ground, coat flapping behind him. The instant he was clear, the air above the Nidhogg split open. A river of water came sluicing down. Already weakened, the huge reptile quickly succumbed to the battering deluge.
She slipped towards the warrior as he heaved himself to his feet. "Everything in one piece?" she asked, reaching out to straighten his glasses.
Auron nodded, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "One would almost think that you enjoyed leaving me tied up."
"Sorry about the delay." Blue beads clicked behind her as Lulu drew herself straight. "I'm a little tired."
His hand hovered near her shoulder like a hesitant butterfly looking for the right petal, but after a moment he closed his fingers and lowered it to his side. "Come on," he said gruffly. "We're getting close."
The sorceress gave a weak laugh. "You've said that three times, now, Auron," she murmured, reaching out and lacing her fingers with his. "I do remember the way, you know."
The pyreflies parted for them, and they pressed on. At last, the curving tunnel yielded to an open space with one blackened and scorched husk of a tree standing sentinel at the foot of a cliff. Spotting the bleak marker to their first battlefield, Lulu was moved to give a silent bow, hands cupped in the gesture of prayer. Auron snorted beside her, but she did not care. The sweet flowering scent of a fruit tree at an unexpected oasis in the Bikanel desert could not be more welcome just now. The spare landmark affirmed his patient reassurances: the entrance was not far off.
First, however, they still had to escape. Lulu surveyed the wall of tumbled rocks barring the exit. "Well," she said ruefully, "that was not very strategic."
"But effective," he replied, striding towards it. He held out his hands to help her climb. Her skirts and belts were also less than strategic.
Just as Auron reached the top of the wall and flung a leg over, there was a whoosh and a flare that lit up every boulder and pebble with ruddy light. The tunnel beyond stretched out like the path of the setting sun across a lake. The swordsman was engulfed in flame. He lost his grip and went sliding downwards in a tumble of loose stone, landing roughly. Lulu scrambled down behind him, ignoring the stones shifting ominously underfoot.
"Lulu?" he wheezed. Magical fire did not usually linger long enough to ignite hair or clothing, but it started within, and the damage there could be deadly.
"That wasn't me." She cast her eyes upward and hissed. "We've got company." She could just barely make out the liquid gleam of pyreflies reflected on two dark, shimmering shapes floating overhead.
Abruptly, Auron threw himself across her as a wall of water came crashing down. Lulu fought back a most unwelcome surge of panic at the sensation of being pinned, but it only lasted for a moment. He staggered back a step, giving her room to work. "Heal," she told him tersely, hearing the telltale rasp of his breath behind his collar. Then she pivoted on one heel to address the fiends.
Luckily, Auron was a seasoned enough Guardian that he knew better than to save supplies and rue too late. "That's my last," he warned her. "Be swift."
Well aware of the need for speed with these, the mage drew her hands together with a curt, emphatic snap. A starburst of ice shards and snow exploded outwards from one of the fiends, raining down tiny needles of cold. Not enough/, she observed with an inward groan. The Dark Element quivered under the battering, but held its integrity. A wave of -- /something -- struck her in the gut, and she tasted poison on her lips.
Wonderful. "You want to play with fire?" she snapped, trying to ignore the oily, crawling sensation of the venom beginning to sink into her like insects wriggling in her arms and stomach. Water crashed around her, bombarding and blinding her, but she got off a messy burst of fire that stung her pride but got the job done. One fiend rolled over and melted in dripping tatters that became dancing lights. The heat of its demise beat against her upturned face. Yet her skin was clammy, and she felt herself weakening. "Now, where are you hiding?" she grumbled to the second of the pair, peering into the abrupt darkness in the fireball's aftermath.
"Right above you," Auron growled behind her. The ache in his voice brought a wan smile to her lips. He wanted to fight; he would have made a poor Summoner.
"Not for long," she remarked.
Lulu had only a split second to grasp the horrifying sight of her thunderbolt folding itself double, bouncing off the glassy skin of the fiend, before she was lifted and thrown backwards by a blast that set every nerve on fire for an instant before her limbs went numb. Apparently she had blacked out for a few seconds. Auron was stooping over her, lifting her head and shoulders and setting a small vial to her lips. She recognized the last of her stores from Besaid, given her by the temple priest before he blessed Yuna's journey. She turned her head away stiffly, pressing her teeth together. "Zombie," she insisted.
"This is no time to be stub--" Auron went rigid as another bolt struck him from behind. Numb as she was, Lulu could barely feel the unpleasant buzz of the shock jumping from his arm to her shoulderblades. For an eerie moment, every line of the looming rock walls around them was cast in knife-edge contrast. Auron's careworn face flashed before her, his eye squeezed shut as the jolt tore through him. The crack of thunder jarred every bone.
"Do it," she pleaded, voice more breath than speech, "or we'll be discussing it on the Farplane." The Dark Element swirled behind him like a fiend's madness made visible: a living enigma of ill-omen, veins of darkness and silver rippling through its translucent flesh.
"Not on my watch." Stonefaced, Auron stood and set a heel against the rock wall behind him. As the fiend bore down on them, he exploded upwards in one of his improbable leaps, swinging one arm over an upper curve of the strange glyph-like creature, scrabbling for a foothold on one of its lower limbs. His boots skidded as if on the rungs of a greased ladder. The Dark Element writhed and twisted, sinking lower under the man's weight. He curled the fingers of his left hand into claws and struck out with an oblique, cutting motion, then fell to all fours as the fiend let fly another blast where he had been a moment before.
Closing his gloved fist around the vial, the warrior flung his outstretched fingers upwards. Clear droplets settled into the hollows and curves of the fiend's complex shape, leaving white welts and streaks wherever they touched. Auron wasted no time in reaching across Lulu and retrieving the last precious potion. She barely felt his hand brush her wrist. Even the crackle of poison in her veins had dulled to a faint shimmer like crickets on a hot summer's night.
As her lids drifted shut, she saw the fiend spin, wobble, rip apart into long black streamers, and vanish in a sparkle of pyreflies. /Efficient/, she observed, making a mental note for future battles. The poison's farewell kiss precluded further musings.
The rocks, the pyreflies, the pale white flowers clinging stubbornly to crevices overhead: these gave mute witness to the pent-up howl of fury that erupted from the older Guardian's throat. Lulu might have scolded: he risked drawing enemies with his outburst. But she had not heard.
Grimly, Auron gathered up the slight woman in his arms and made the final leg of the journey alone.