The morning was waning and the sun was slipping long thin fingers almost to the bottom of the cliff-walls when at last the party set out. They were tired of the shuddering, fitful breeze, despite the ever-present dance of swallows weaving patterns overhead. All of them were glad to be quit of that glorified crack in the ground that seemed designed to catch travelers a few days before journey's end.
One pleasant delay held them up at the far end of the gorge. The earnest young officer who had escorted them into camp the previous evening came dashing after them, waving his arms.
Yuna halted and turned, waiting for him as her Guardians automatically fell into formation around her. "Hello again. Is something wrong?" she asked innocently.
Lulu and Auron exchanged wary glances behind her shoulders, but the soldier was beaming as he advanced on them. "Can you wait just a little longer, Lady Summoner? We have some gifts for you and your Guardians! My men are bringing them now."
Auron managed to exude impatience without twitching a muscle, and Lulu shot a bitter glance towards the yawning cave mouth off to the right that she had been hurrying past as quickly as possible. Yuna simply clasped her hands together and smiled. "Oh, you really shouldn't have," she said warmly, "but we'll wait."
Around the bend appeared a bedraggled chocobo hauling a small wagon, escorted by a half-dozen soldiers whose faces were red and freshly-scrubbed. They fell over themselves drawing out bundles from the cart and passing them around. There were warm cloaks and mantles for everyone except Auron and Kimahri, who tended to be overlooked despite or because of his formidable presence. For Sir Auron, they had reserved a special presentation. At their leader's signal, two Crusaders drew out a long flat object and threw back its hide wrappings to reveal a truly outlandish-looking weapon whose silhouette Auron recognized. The metal was still black and pitted in places, but most of the surface had been burnished to a dull luster that seemed to soak up and devour all reflections. Apparently someone had labored to clean away as much rust and corrosion as possible. The long edges of the sword had been sharpened and honed, but the curves of its cruel-looking flanges had been left untouched, presenting ragged, serrated edges.
"Sir Auron," the young officer said with a fisted salute. "My men observed you practicing with this sword last night. We've tried our best to restore it. If you would care to--"
Auron lifted and lowered one shoulder in a shrug. "Keep it."
The Crusader's proud smile froze. "Sir?"
"It's your history, not mine." Auron turned away. "It belonged to Lord Mi'hen. I suggest you consider it an omen. Take good care of it."
There was a collective gasp from the squad, and the young captain bowed deeply. "Sir!" Before he could collect himself for a more eloquent reply, the taciturn swordsman was on the march again, and the rest of the Guardians were trotting after him. Rikku had her hands over her mouth, biting back laughter. Yuna lingered briefly to bow to the exulting yet crestfallen troops. "Thank you so much," she said in that soft voice that restored crests to their proper places.
"Good luck, Lady Yuna!" The soldiers' cheers and well-wishes followed them until they turned the corner at the top of the trail.
"'An omen'?" Lulu asked Auron drily.
He shrugged. "Strategic tact."
Rikku giggled. "Some gift! Somebody ground it so hard that it's a wonder there aren't holes right through it. It would take some pretty fancy magic to fix that thing." She grinned back at the dour Guardian, but thought better of whatever comparison she was about to make and skipped on ahead.
At last. They had come up on the south rim and headed for the rickety old bridge spanning the gorge. The ground rose higher on the far side, ascending in rolling leaps and bounds to join the lower slopes of the great mountain. Broad, frowning, mostly shrouded in clouds so that they could not see where Gagazet ended and sky began, it looked like an impenetrable wall from this distance. Lulu glided over the aged planks with head held high and eyes fixed upon their next opponent. She felt as if a gate had swung open and shut as she stepped off the bridge onto unknown soil.
Tidus had fallen behind along with Yuna, and the others paused in the narrow draw leading into the foothills to wait. The Summoner must be saving another memory, or saying farewell to one. Formerly, Lulu would have stood beside her with a gentle, "Take your time." She felt a pang of sympathy for the young man who was there today instead; he was beginning to understand Yuna's silences. Usually she would be monitoring them closely, but that would mean a farewell glimpse of the Calm Lands. She simply waited, readying herself for the rocky trail coiling out of sight on the forested slopes ahead.
As they topped the first rise, Wakka turned around and waved his arms. "Hey, Yuna! Whatcha doin' back there? Come on, we can't be guardin' ya if ya don't keep up! Get up here an' save me from dis heathen. She's sayin' all sorts of disrespectful things about blitzball."
Yuna laughed and hurried forward. "Coming!"
Rikku jiggled happily as her cousin took her place in the midst of her Guardians. "Well I'm /right/. The stadium's just one big machina, you know!"
"Keep your voices down," Lulu said automatically.
Auron glanced down and sideways at her as the others resumed their argument. "How are you feeling?" he whispered.
She shook her head. "Ask me tonight."
He nodded curtly and lengthened his stride, moving up to join Kimahri in front. Lulu wondered why for a moment until Tidus materialized at her elbow, his eyes following the retreating back of the older Guardian.
"I think he's avoiding me," Tidus confided bitterly. "The closer we get to Zanarkand--"
"One sword ahead, one sword behind, and the most versatile fighters in the middle. You know that, Tidus."
She shook her head. "Watch. Guard. That is today's task. Is this a question that will help you do those things?"
The young man sighed and gave her an irritated look. "No. It's about Zanarkand. We've got to decide what we're going to do before it's too late." He spread his hands. "Please, Lulu, you know as much as anybody besides Auron, and he won't tell me anything. You've got to help me and Rikku-- "
"Guard Yuna /now/, or she will never reach it. Tidus, I'm sorry, but this will have to wait. I need to focus."
"Sorry," he growled in that tone that said he was not. Blue eyes glared at her accusingly, but his anger bled away as he looked at her face. "Nevermind," he said, suddenly subdued. "Just... if you have any ideas..."
Lulu nodded, wishing she could taste that hope that fired him and Rikku. "Of course."
Tidus walked along beside her, giving Rikku a casual thumbs up when she looked back at him. Lulu barely noticed.
She felt like a closed flower that had confused night and day. A grey light cut through the hazy sky giving no warmth, casting few shadows, and colors were far more spare in this barren land. As they mounted Gagazet's outskirts in rolling rises, they came to forested slopes occupied by silent, strange dark trees with pole-like trunks, branches set in spokes, dark needles for foliage. Their wild resinous scent seemed to suit the lonely land. The trees grew more stunted as they climbed, and began to alternate with barren rocky fields of tumbled and chipped slate sifted off from the heights above in immense slides that must have been clattering down these slopes for more than a thousand years. Normally, the mage would have been drawn to this rarified, bleak environment so different from Besaid. Today, her surroundings and the breeze and flow of conversation among the other Guardians might as well have been playing in a murky sphere. She scanned diligently for signs of danger, but details had a way of blurring together like characters on a page.
It was not that the memories of last night were still gripping her. Yuna's gentle healing had soothed away the last vestiges of soreness. The sound of Auron's curt replies to the other Guardians had only twice triggered a jarring flashback hurling her momentarily against the rocks beside them, darkening her vision until she clenched both fists and clawed her way back to her present surroundings. Otherwise she had been able to leave horror behind in the gorge. But she felt a weary fatigue in her slender frame for the first time on this journey, as if all the leagues they had walked between Luca and Gagazet's foothills had caught up with her at once.
Maybe Tidus had noticed something amiss, for he had moved a few paces ahead of her, and did not meet her eyes when he looked back. Was he angry with her? Had she been short with him? She could not remember.
They were just entering another somber grove when fire and ice exploded around them. Tidus gave a cry and ran forward, lunging for the three-headed monstrosity that had detached itself from the shadow of a moss-covered boulder. Confused, Lulu answered with fire herself. The chimera gave a lusty yell but did not seem the least discomfited by its own element; if anything it was a sound of raw, primal pleasure. Tidus was making headway with his nimble-footed spin-and-swipe lunges until a clenched fist sent him flying. Wakka's spiked ball drew another roar as the blitzer took aim, and Rikku darted in fearlessly, uncorking some ghastly-smelling concoction that flashed and blinded them and set the fiend howling. Meanwhile Yuna dragged Tidus off to one side, and Kimahri and Auron swung back to plant themselves over her.
By the time Lulu had found her focus and launched the proper spell, Rikku's mad alchemy and Wakka's gung-ho ballistics had already sent the creature crashing to the ground. Waterga splashed harmlessly over pyreflies.
There was a brief check while Yuna inspected Tidus for damage, a ritual that the other Guardians tolerated with patient smiles. Wakka and Rikku fanned out to scan the trees on either side of the path. Lulu kept watch over the party with hands folded.
Moving on, Auron thumped the Ronso's chest with his glove and waited for the rest of the party to file past. "Tidus, take front with Kimahri," he instructed curtly.
Swordsman and mage fell into step again, and there was no sign to show this was different from any other day when they held the rearguard with forbidding steel and magical blasts warding against unwanted pursuit. They exchanged no words, but Auron's glance was grim.
Gagazet. Twice now, Lulu had stopped before reaching it. She felt hollow inside as she gazed at Yuna's petite figure marching ahead of them, receding before her eyes.
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