Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 37: "The Summons"
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters: Auron, Isaaru, Gippal, Paine, Nooj, Baralai, Bahamut
Word Count: 2500
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Our Story So Far: This is it! Spira's defenders gather for an epic showdown. Lulu has received her invitation as the Guest of Honor. Auron is waiting for her. Old lovers will soon be reunited -- as adversaries on the field of battle!
"There. That should do it." Nooj hesitated, his hand poised over a blue hemisphere bolted to the console. "Baralai. I still think you should go back. If this fails, I'd rather not be responsible for the death of Bevelle's chief administrator."
"And leave you alone with Vegnagun? Not a chance." Baralai leaned forward, stroking a somber series of notes to weave a protective bubble around them. "Punch it."
"All right." A low bleeping started when he pressed the switch. Nooj hunkered down, bracing himself against the sidewall while Baralai played on. "You still don't trust me, do you?"
The maester frowned, brow knitted in concentration. "I've gotten out of the habit, Nooj. Even those I trust go behind my back."
"She'll watch your back even when you don't want it. Especially then."
"I suppose you would know better than I."
The bleeping was rising in pitch. The cockpit began to vibrate. The lake boomed and cracked as Vegnagun pitched forward, tearing its feet free of the ice.
"Hang on," Nooj said. "Phase in ten seconds...five...four...three...two—"
There was a roar, a downwards lurch, and the sickening sensation of plunging through solid matter. Nooj and Baralai were enveloped in a sphere of unreality mediated by Vegnagun's awareness. Cometary plumes wailed around them with the voices of lost souls. Spira's surface unrolled overhead at a furious pace. They dodged the deep roots and bottomless pools of Macalania Forest, burrowed beneath pitted bedrock whose surface was crawling with lightning's discharge.
"Sin!" Baralai shouted, or thought: they were the same thing in this in-between state.
"This must be what it's like!"
Swimming under the iron foundations of lightning rod towers, Vegnagun began to pick up speed as if some tidal force were sweeping it forward. Nooj and Baralai sensed a yawning chasm rushing to meet them, a hole ripped in the very fabric of space. Rafts of pyreflies seemed to be flowing into it along invisible lines of force.
"Guadosalam," Baralai said. "The Farplane."
"Not yet," Nooj snapped. He strained against the mental interface, trying to regain control of navigation. Before he could wrest back the helm from Vegnagun, the machina exploded upwards through rock and vegetation into open air, stinging rain. A titanic bolt struck just behind them, blinding them for a moment.
Then they were out of the storm, plunging into a sickly green haze at the southern rim of the Thunder Plains. Shadowy forms hurtled past, shattered trunks and masses of vines piled into mountainous heaps like driftwood after a storm. There was a splintering crash. Vegnagun ground to a halt, claws plowing through spurs of old trees. With a final shudder, the machina hissed and settled. The fog reduced its lamps to dim, bilious spheres of light.
Visibility was almost nil, but they seemed to have landed in a humpy wasteland of deadwood and tree-stumps of tremendous girth. Above, the fog thinned to drifting clumps. Ahead, the ground dropped away into a vast bowl filled with soupy brownish-green haze. Gnarled creepers the size of Shoopuf legs spilled over the crater's rim and disappeared. Pyreflies kettled up from below. There was a musty stench of fungus and rotting wood, but unlike a living jungle, there was no scent of green, growing things. Here and there, the pyreflies reflected off bits of colored glass strewn across the landscape. Those shards were the only trace of the Guado's ancient home.
"Charming spot," Nooj said. "Any idea why Lucil chose it?"
Baralai shuddered. "It's uninhabited now, thanks to Sin," he said. "Better than risking the evacuation camps in the Calm Lands."
Shinra's disembodied voice reached them through a crackle of static. "The fog may conceal our operations. Plus, there's easy access to the Farplane."
"You still with us, kid?" Nooj said.
"Affirmative. My sensors show you've parked right on top of my homing beacon."
"You're a genius," Nooj said. "The autopilot worked perfectly."
Baralai played a few sharp notes. A bowl-shaped map of the area materialized around them, complete with miniature flashes of lightning spattering the plain to the north. "Shinra. Have you dropped a beacon through the Farplane Gateway?"
"Yes, but I haven't activated it yet. Didn't want you locking onto the wrong one."
"Good thinking," Nooj said.
Gippal piped up. "You two playin' nice? Nobody shooting anybody?"
"Not funny," Nooj and Baralai said in unison. They eyed each other as Gippal's laughter blasted out the link.
"What's your status?" Baralai said.
"We've dropped off the statue," Shinra said. "Elder Cid and Rikku are stowing the loaders in the hold. We'll move out as soon as the summoner's aboard."
"I'm parked outside," Gippal said. "I'm ready when you two need to bail."
"There will be little margin for error," Baralai said. "Please be careful."
"Trust me, Bar, I'll be in and outta there faster'n Sin can sneeze," Gippal said. "By the way. Juno told me to tell you guys to watch yourselves. She expects you back in one piece. And you know better than to cross her."
"Thanks," Nooj said. "I hope we can oblige."
Baralai said nothing, suddenly preoccupied with the scanners.
Gippal listened to dead air for a few beats before closing the link. He leaned back and propped his feet on the hover's windscreen. "I think Bar's still pissed at you for letting Nooj handle that junk heap."
"He'd be even more pissed if he knew I was here." Juno peered through the murk. The dingy glow of Vegnagun's lights shone some distance away, on a level below the sheared-off stump where they were perched. A bent, white-haired figure began to coalesce nearby from pyreflies seeping up from the ground. She averted her eyes with a scowl. Guadosalam was gone, but the Farplane ghosts lingered.
"Tellin' me. I'm surprised you and Lucil and Commander Choco-buns all came out for the party, leaving no one to mind the store. No offense, but I've known Hypello potions with more wits than Shelinda."
"Don't underestimate her. We'd never have gotten the city evacuated in time if she hadn't spent the last five years prepping us for a Sin attack."
"Okay, okay." He raised his hands. "I'm just sayin'. Who's gonna keep Yevon together— and off our Al Bhed butts— if Sin takes out all of you guys?"
"Maester Lucil will be observing at a distance with Elder Cid. That should minimize the danger to essential personnel." She frowned. "Except for Baralai, and we need him to control Vegnagun."
"Essential, eh? Gee, thanks." Gippal cocked his head. "How'd you talk him into letting Nooj drive, anyway?"
"I gave him three choices: bring Nooj, bring me, or fight me...and if he lost, I'd smash Vegnagun into a cliff."
"Ha." He grinned. "Same old Dr. P."
"Yeah, whatever. C'mon, lighten up! This is what we trained for with the Squad, remember? Beat Sin, save the world, win everlasting glory, get laid—"
"End of discussion."
"Hey, I saw you and Noojster makin' eyes at each other—"
"End. of. Discussion."
Gippal groaned. "Man, I knew I should've brought Rikku along."
"Just...don't do anything stupid, okay?" Rikku cringed at a thunderclap but stood her ground. "You won't be much help to anybody if you're dead!" She glared at Auron as he began to chuckle.
"Rikku, get your butt in here, now!" Cid's bellow echoed down through the airship's cargo doors.
"You should go," Auron said. He met her eyes, remembering their first encounter. This one would be farewell. "Sin may strike at any time."
"Yeah, well, if she takes too long, we'll drop off some sandwiches for ya." She stood on tiptoe, giving him a peck on the cheek. "See ya soon." With a parting wink, she trotted off towards Gippal's airship.
He returned his attention to the two brothers. Pacce was keeping watch while Isaaru prayed. The fayth's statue lay on its side in a shallow crater filled with rainwater, illuminated by a soft golden glow. Ferns and dark leaves spilled around it. Tendrils of fog oozing from the dead forest seemed to shrink from its aura.
Pacce noticed Auron's scrutiny and straightened. "Sir?"
"Guarding Isaaru is your responsibility." He drew his sword, resting its point against the ground. "My focus will be on Sin. Understood?"
The boy nodded, hollow-eyed but determined. "Yessir."
Pacce did not know it, but his presence here was due to Auron's intervention. He hoped he would not have one more death weighing on his conscience, but he could not leave the boy behind, any more than he could have left Tidus to his faux existence in Zanarkand.
"If you order him to stay, Isaaru, he will live the rest of his life knowing that you had faith in Maroda, not in him."
"But he could be killed!"
"Do you think he could live, blaming himself for one or both your deaths?"
Auron raised his voice. "Isaaru. It's time."
Pacce had to shake Isaaru to rouse him. The summoner rose stiffly, wiping mud from his knees. Blood mixed with rain trickled down his cheeks, but he was smiling. "Forgive me. My first fayth. I needed to say goodbye."
"You need to leave."
"Yes." Isaaru bowed to him in Yevon's formal blessing. "Good luck, Sir Auron. When Sin falls, wait for us. This is one battle you cannot fight alone."
Auron grunted a vague assent.
Draping an arm around Pacce's shoulders, Isaaru turned and trudged towards the airship. Suddenly Pacce gave a choking cry. A dark-skinned man was standing in the shadow of the ramp, leaning on his spear.
"It's an illusion," Auron said. "He's not there. The pyreflies are mirroring your thoughts."
"But—" Pacce stared longingly at the apparition.
"Come." Isaaru's voice was steady. "We'll take it as a sign. Our brother is watching over us from afar." Patting Pacce's shoulder, he marched up the ramp, right past Maroda's transparent likeness. Echo or mirage, it took no notice of them.
Auron turned back to watch the northern horizon. The ramp slammed shut with a bang. Some of Shinra's repairs needed fine-tuning. The engines roared to life. Rain blew sideways, then resumed its steady patter as the Crimson Avenger lifted, wheeled and headed south over the ruins of Old Guadsalam. Auron was left alone in the rain, listening to the constant rumor of thunder.
Here, too, Sin's handiwork was evident. Behind him were the looming eaves of the dead forest. Beyond its stranglehold of groping roots, a carpet of ferns and ivy spilled out across the Thunder Plains, pocked by fresh lightning scars and patches of ash. Even the bases of the towers were sheathed in scorched vines and living leaves.
A child's voice brushed his mind. Isaaru. He's a good man.
Auron was not alone after all. A small, ghostly figure was sitting on the lip of the crater, legs dangling in the pool. The fayth's bare feet made no ripples.
The guardian shrugged. They needed a good summoner, not a kindly soul. In retrospect, Dona might have been the better choice.
Believe in him. He believes in you.
He shook his head. "Naiveté is common among summoners."
Perhaps. What did the Lady give you?
For a moment, the non sequitur did not register. Then Auron drew his left hand from his coat. The brown scar was still there. In Sin's dream-world, the burnt flesh had formed the signs of his own name. Out here, the glyphs branded into his palm spelled two words: Oath Keeper. Cool rain soothed the burn but could not quench it. Pain's clarity cut through the stupefying chant of the pyreflies whispering in the back of his mind: Faithbreaker. Friendslayer. Fallen Knight...
"Auron," he said, clenching his hand into a fist. It hurt, but it was a useful reminder of body and purpose.
Ten, fifteen minutes ticked by. Auron scanned the clouds, letting his mind rest on the gentle susurrus of the rain. It might be the last time he heard it.
She is coming.
"How long?" Tucking his hand back into his coat, Auron searched the northern horizon. Lightning fit for Sin's current mistress laced half the sky.
The Avenger launched into motion just as Isaaru and Pacce reached the flight deck. Cid swore and threw the steering yoke hard over, banking sharply to miss a lightning tower. The brothers were flung against the wall. So was Elma, standing in the nose of the cockpit next to Lucil.
"Easy there, Pops," Rikku said, tucked into the gunner's bubble. "This rig doesn't have seatbelts."
"Y'all in one piece back there?" Cid said, leveling out.
"Ow." Elma picked herself up, massaging a shoulder. "You okay, ma'am?"
"Yes." White-knuckled, the maester was gripping the sides of the navigator's console. It had saved her from a fall. "Isaaru?"
"Undamaged, milady." Isaaru gripped Pacce's shoulder. "What news?"
"V-Team is priming weapons," Lucil said. "G-team is on standby. I gather Sir Auron refused to join us?"
"Yes. He's convinced he can distract Sin for a short time. That should give Baralai one clear shot."
Cid snorted. "More guns, less guesses."
"He did it in Kilika," Pacce said.
"Very well." Lucil clung tightly to her station as Cid executed another shallow turn, rising up over the fog. "Meanwhile, Commander Elma has a request."
Elma saluted. "Reporting for guardian duty, sir!"
Isaaru blinked. "I thought you were returning to Djose, Commander."
"Yeah, well." She raised her eyes and stared out across the landscape. Past the dead zone of Guadosalam, past the green forests beyond it, the broad silver ribbon of the Moonflow meandered southeast, spanning the horizon. Somewhere on the far side lay the Djose coast. "Gippal's offered to give me a lift home when this is all over. I can't let the warrior monks get all the glory, now, can I?" She winked at Pacce.
"The Crusaders have opposed Sin for eight hundred years," Lucil said. "It seems fitting that one of us should strike a blow on behalf of all those who have fallen."
Isaaru hesitated, then bowed. "We would be honored, Commander."
"Cool!" Pacce sounded relieved.
"Thank you, sir!" Elma gave an eager salute.
"We've got contact." Shinra poked a button, projecting his scanner's display onto the forward screens. "Sin sighting. ETA fifteen minutes."
Rikku craned her neck, eyes on the red diamond streaking down the map. "Whoa. Looks like she's in a hurry!"
"Good." Cid set the ship into park and folded his arms. "Time to see what this Vegna-whoosit can do."
Auron waited. His sword-hand was tingling. The blade's edge was limned by a faint blue nimbus, the sailors' sign that Sin was near.
Above the plain, black thunderheads were churning in a boiling vortex. Pillars of lightning were leaping skywards from Bilghen's towers, converging on the turbulence in vibrating spokes. They began to weave a spherical cage, merging into a bubble of white light. Inside, a menacing shape was descending rapidly through the clouds.
Goodbye, Sir Auron, the fayth said with Braska-like serenity.
The world exploded.
Next Chapter: Venus/Mars