Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 43: "No Matter How Dark the Night"
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters:Auron/Lulu, Isaaru, Elma, Pacce, Rikku
Rating: PG-13 for violence.
Word Count: 3600
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Our Story So Far: Thirteen years after Yuna falls in the Final Summoning, Isaaru and his guardians have brought down the Final Aeon. Yu Yevon pounces Auron as a last-ditch substitute.
The Farplane promised longed-for release. Auron was so tired, a husk of secondhand pyreflies glued together by phoenix down and scars. Rest, sang the sky beyond all skies. Your journey is at an end. Yu Yevon promised nothing, but its dissonant, teeth-cracking whine turned every thought to despair, to the frenzied attack of the maddened hive. Defend, defend, defend, destroy, came the mantra, and he wanted to lash out at something, at anything, as if the violence he had just committed on Lulu's body had unleashed the ravening fiend within. All that held him back was pain, the pangs of childbirth magnified a hundredfold. Why was Erinyes screaming into his mind?
A pressure on his hand, light as the swish of a braid on bare skin, was proof against chaos. Choose, Auron. Choose. This is your story.
A fiend was still a man, as long as he remembered his name.
Auron jammed himself back into his body like an ill-fitting shoe. Rikku, shaking him frantically, gave an indignant, "Hey!" as he elbowed her aside and stood, feeling the weight of sword-hilt against callouses.
Lulu's garden was lost. In its place, brackish waters lapped from horizon to horizon, flooding the ruins of a ghost city under a bruise-purple sky. Jumbled stone blocks were scattered, patternless, a puzzle that could never have formed a coherent whole. Bolted to them were rusted pylons and transformers, a maze of drooping cables and catwalks leading nowhere. Bleached, coralline huts teetered on rotting piers, side by side with soulless skyscraper façades. A few dying Macalania trees glowed pale and dim in the shallows. Over the dome of Baaj Temple, carrion birds wheeled in an endless gyre.
No, not Baaj. Erinyes.
Seymour's aeon had sprouted from the temple foundations like an unholy mushroom, its flesh stained and gangrenous, its reflection mirrored on stagnant water. Around it orbited a pair of misshapen monoliths, last remnants, perhaps, of Lightning Mushroom Rock. At the aeon's foot stood a small figure in an old red coat.
Auron began to run. Leaping, skidding from rock to algae-covered rock, he tore a careening course across the sunken city. A blunt snout and long neck burst from the water, arching across his path. He hewed it and kept going. Crackling explosives on his heels told him that Rikku was following. There were more dark forms moving in the water around them. He should wait, make sure she was safe. But others needed him more.
"Let him go." It was Lulu's voice, hoarse with disuse. "Release the summoner. He did not kill your son, Keta. I did."
There. Between the feet of a sheared-off summoner's statue, Isaaru lay unseeing, his body arching and falling back in fierce convulsions. Pacce held him, weeping. Elma stood guard, glaring down at black fins cutting the water around their perch. Her sword dripped pyreflies.
They would have to hold on.
So would Lulu, sinking down with one arm cast across her face in a warding gesture. Flying past her, Auron braced his sword against his hip for a full-body ram. Spray went up as he hit a thin sheet of water. A Flare spell curtained ahead of him in a rolling barrage. Puddles flashed to steam. Blinded and scalded, he crashed into the aeon at full speed, knocking the breath from his lungs. The sword plunged deep. Erinyes lurched and screamed, straining against its chains.
Any pity he might have felt for its fayth, Yevon's newest prisoner, had been negated by the sight of what it was doing to Isaaru, what it might be doing to Lulu behind his back. "We killed Seymour," he said, when he had breath to speak.
It took all his strength to yank the blade free. With the follow-through, he swept it around in a Break, softening steel to lead and bone to sinew. Erinyes fought back, screeching into his mind. My son, my sin, my beloved! Acid waves washed over him, chewing through his body like a plague of insects. He stumbled, pitched face-forward against the aeon's armor, and felt the cold smack of a Hi-potion across the back of his neck. Lulu must have raided his coat. There was a weak tug on his belt.
Retreating, he risked dropping his guard for a glimpse of her. Scarred wrists, snarled coils of hair, the hem of his coat staining the water around her ankles red— another spike of rage threatened to snap his control. "Sorry I'm late."
"Nonsense." Holding another potion, she mimed drawing it from her bosom with a wink and a flourish. "You're just in time, Auron. If you would?"
"Hmph." Smiling faintly, he took the potion and tossed it back. Cool healing soothed the burning needles of pain burrowing under his skin. Then he sprang forward, throwing out his left hand in another Break that he had not needed in thirteen years. "Peeling the fruit for her," Lulu used to call it: stunning fiends' pyrefly-bonds so spells hit twice as hard. Blue sparks showered around him. Pivoting away, he braced as Lulu swept up her hand in an emphatic command. The air quaked. Ultima's black jaws closed around the aeon, pinching it down to a point before exploding outwards in a bubble of insanity. Just before the shockwave reached them, it reversed, crushing the aeon in torturous slow motion.
"I'm sure I told your summoner not to bring any aeons," she said, observing the spell's progress with detachment.
"Summoners are stubborn."
"Well." She half-turned. Across the water, Isaaru was sitting with his head between his knees, but at least he was no longer being jerked like a puppet. "I suppose I cannot fault him. I'd rather fight her than you."
"Hey, guys," Rikku said, popping over a stone curb and landing next to the mage. "The flirting's kinda cute, but can we go now?"
"Go?" Elma called over. "First we kick Yevon's ass!"
Twice, three times space ruptured and folded, buckling the pavement almost to their feet. Puddles of water drained away, streaming into infinity. When the aeon snapped back into focus, Lulu rotated behind Auron, drawing Rikku with her. Striding forward, the swordsman renewed his attack with a flurry of hammer-blows before the aeon could recover.
"Augh!" Rikku reached for a grenade clipped to her belt. "Guardians!"
"Rikku, wait," Lulu said. "You've done enough. Keep clear. Wakka needs you."
"But we need you, too!" Rikku's voice rose to a frustrated squeak. "I came to rescue you, not watch more friends die!"
"I know. Thank you." She brushed a few strands out of Rikku's eyes as once she had clucked over her summoner. Her words, too, recalled Yuna. "Go, now. Please... believe."
"That's not funny, Lulu."
"Not in us. In him." The mage gave a gentle push. "Just a little longer."
Rikku might have stayed to argue, but Lulu summoned a portcullis of lightning that slammed down on the aeon and arced along its chains. Whining about black mages playing dirty, Rikku fled. She scrambled back over the wall and tumbled into waist-deep water, sloshing towards the others.
"Watch out!" Elma said, spearing a dark shape swimming below. "Super-sized piranhas down here."
"Eeee!" Flinching, Rikku tossed a grenade. The ensuing geyser drenched Isaaru and his companions, but several eel-like fiends floated to the surface and dissolved into pyreflies. The rest scattered.
"Come on," she said, wading out to the trio. "They won't stay away long."
They shuffled Isaaru to dry ground, fighting his sodden robes. Taking refuge behind the ceramic ribs of a stripped machina, they hunkered down to watch the struggle taking place on the temple platform.
"Pacce," Elma said. "Think you can watch Isaaru's back without me?"
"No. I beg your pardon, Commander," Isaaru said, his voice a papery whisper. "Erinyes fights with talons you cannot parry. Sir Auron and the Lady...may have one advantage."
"If anyone gets killed, I'm holding you responsible," Rikku said, folding her arms.
"Grant them this battle, milady." He smiled, wan but composed. "Never again will Spira have such a chance."
"Oh, great. That's what Lu said last time."
Meanwhile, the swordsman and mage were rediscovering their old dance. Auron was always fore, attacking with ruthless overhand blows, the disciplined savagery of Ifrit's hellfire. Lulu glided behind him, fingertips whispering annihilation. Sometimes the slivers of ice and fire that fell splintering on Erinyes stung him too, but he barely noticed such love-bites under the aeon's scourges. These came at lengthening intervals. The aeon must be tiring. Unfortunately, so was Lulu. She had exhausted her magic too quickly in triplecasts, then burned through all the ethers he had bought from Gippal two weeks ago on the slimmest of hopes. Now she was forced to fall back on weaker elemental spells.
"Was I always this feeble?" she said, contemptuous. "No more Ultima, I'm afraid."
"Good." He carved another gash in the aeon's flank. Hadn't he hit that spot earlier? "You're not Sin anymore."
Even for Sin, the battle was surreal. Their foe stood rooted like a quintain on the warrior monks' training grounds, yet they were the ones rocked by unseen attacks. Twice the aeon's mind-rakes felled Lulu. Twice, Auron dodged an unsteady Thundara while setting her back on her feet. Black ichor flowed, spattering his face and arms. He struck and struck and ceased to feel any pain. It might be their final battle together, but at least they were free, fighting for vengeance and lost chances, fighting for each other and for old comrades, staking everything on one last tryst of havoc and destruction.
It was not enough. It should have been enough. The damage they had inflicted should have vanquished Sin itself, let alone an aeon. But Erinyes fed on pain like a leech. Auron wanted to warn Lulu away, shield her from what was coming, but he needed her spells to keep the foe off-balance. If they could just beat it down before...
Reality began to tatter and warp. The ground melted. The aeon dragged them down and down, deep into the bloody heart of hell where the pyreflies of lost fiends fetched up at last, a wailing void of anger and despair. There was a second Erinys down here, inverted, crowned and horned and maned with strips of desiccated flesh. It knotted its fists, roared, shattered its chains, and began to pummel them. Auron parried the first punch and the next, but blows came thick and fast, turning armor to anvil. At last, with a fiery explosion, space flipped like an hourglass. He fell, struck ground and lay in a bloody welter of pain. Lulu landed beside him, limp.
Isaaru's profound healing washed over both of them with the force of Holy. Ignoring stabbing protests from half-knitted bones, Auron arose. Elma crumpled a few paces off. The Crusader must have attempted to take his place in a head-on charge to distract the aeon. Moving like a sleepwalker, Isaaru headed towards her.
Failure. Auron felt the same sick numbness that had gripped him when he woke to find Kimahri's corpse and a blasted plain. Thrusting it aside, he dropped to one knee next to Lulu and offered his arm. "Can you find the exit?"
"No!" Lulu's eyes blazed as she levered herself up. "We're not letting him get away, Auron. I swear to you—"
"To hell with Yu Yevon," Rikku cried, scurrying towards them. "We can figure out how to beat him later. We're getting you out of here!"
"There are lives at stake, Lulu," Auron said.
Looking at Rikku, Lulu drew a sharp breath. The last of the Lady's inhuman cruelty bled from her face. "Yes. All right. Let's collect your summoner."
"Pacce!" Elma said, reorienting herself after a heady dose of Isaaru's white magic. "Wait!"
The boy had darted towards the monoliths orbiting the field of battle. Auron had barely registered them: grotesque pillars like fossilized excrement suspended above the ground. An apt symbol for Yevon, he noted sourly. Pacce had leapt on the highest block of stone he could reach and was blunting his sword against one monolith as it glided past. It slowed, then moved on. Erinyes gave another shriek, and Pacce toppled off his perch.
"Keep back," Auron commanded, catching Elma's eye. Still woozy from a Life spell, she nodded and tackled Isaaru, hooking her arms around his elbows to pin him. Striding over to Pacce, Auron seized him by the collar and started dragging him towards his brother. "Guard your summoner," he snapped, as soon as they came within range and Pacce's eyes fluttered open.
"Sir! Th-the stone things. Isaaru says we've got to stop them!"
Auron's brow furrowed. "What?"
"They're healing Er—" Isaaru began, but it was his turn to collapse under Erinyes' baleful glare.
"Of course!" Lulu said. "I should have known. Rikku. Disable them."
"Uhhh...okay." The Al Bhed unclipped another grenade. "Don't breathe!"
A cascade of orange, purple, and shocking pink explosions engulfed both monoliths. One by one, their spinning segments ground to a halt like jammed millstones.
"Lulu, now," Auron said.
"Keta," Lulu said. "Let go. We've both lost. Let Yu Yevon lose with us."
Flare's inferno went off like a bomb. Elma whooped and sprinted towards the aeon before the flames had completely sputtered out. Auron followed. The Crusader's blade ignited as she leapt— the woman was a lunatic, running up one of the chains to stab at the eye— while Auron pounded the aeon's trunk. Bones pulverized. Pieces of carbonized flesh and clotted blood came raining down. With a final gurgle, the aeon exploded, leaving behind a pile of fused chains and a blackened ivory pendant etched with a woman's full-length portrait. Elma fell and rolled, snuffing out flames beginning to scorch her uniform. Something black and billowing catapulted up into the sky.
For a moment, Auron feared Yu Yevon might escape, taking refuge in some back pocket of the Farplane that he and Lulu might never find. Then he looked up and realized there were other reasons why they might never find him. Lots of them.
"Augh!" Rikku said. "Incoming!"
The air rocked with sonic booms. Featherless wings and claws came swooping down, covering Yu Yevon's flight. It was not one garuda, but many. At the same time, an army of fiends burst from the sea, surging over the platform from every side. Sinscales, tentacles, water serpents, tusked maelspikes engulfed the party in a heaving mob of fins and teeth and spines. Auron scythed through a scaled hide, reaching Rikku and Lulu just before the mass of foes grew impenetrable.
"Circle," Elma shouted, shoving Isaaru behind her and closing ranks with Pacce. "They're not getting this summoner!" They were cut off, too far away to provide mutual support to Yuna's ex-guardians.
Lulu drew back her hand and gasped, sweat beading on her skin.
"What is it?" Auron said, slashing at blue-flickering wings over her shoulder.
"Fight. Don't let him back in."
"No, not that." The tremor in her voice was close to panic. "He's sucked me dry. I couldn't light a candle!"
A cluster of spines drove into Auron's arm. He doubled over for a split second, clutching the wound. That was all it took for a leaping sahagin to shove past his guard, wedging itself between him and his friends. The amphibian reared back and spat digestive fluids in his face, delaying him further. For every foe he mowed down, two more pushed him farther away from his friends.
"Lulu!" Rikku's cry was another jolt of pain, but Auron could do nothing more than keep hurling himself at the growing wall of fiends. A tumult of pyreflies swirled around him, tokens of petty victories. He was losing ground. He was losing them. The lack of pyrotechnics was an ominous sign. Either Rikku was out of explosives, or...
Red lines of focused energy stabbed down, taking out two of the maelspikes looming over him. They tipped belly-up and faded away. Before he had had time to process what that meant, there was a whining roar of braking engines, a loud chuff, and a detonation on the temple platform immediately behind him. Heat blistered the back of his arms and legs. The tide of pyreflies streaming past his shoulders told him just how close he had come— to what?
A hefty figure leapt down beside him, lugging a shoulder cannon even larger than Gippal's. "Legendary jackass is right. Rikku, you okay?"
"Wakka!" Rikku hurtled out of the chaos and snuggled against him, back to back, brandishing a knife. "The Celsius?"
"Yeah. Buddy's watching the kids at the Moonflow. Where's Lu?"
"Over here! Come on!"
Wakka's gun was cumbersome for close combat, but useful as a ram. Auron followed them, dispatching the fiends it knocked down. Off to their right, Elma and Pacce had been joined by Juno, forming a triangle of swords around Isaaru. More fiends fell to lances of red light from above. Looking up, Auron saw the flash of Baralai's white hair. He was leaning over the side of Gippal's flyer, picking off fiends with a marksman's precision. Nooj, braced against the opposite railing, was shooting down garuda.
"Orders, boss?" Gippal called, waving through the windshield. "Hope we're not too late to the party!"
"Clear the fiends," Auron said. He turned, searching for Lulu.
There. Wakka's orange crest nodded on the other side of a pack of sinscales. Cutting his way through, Auron found him stooped over Lulu, tenderly applying the last of Rikku's potions while Rikku danced around him fending off fiends with knife and targe. Baralai's sniping kept her from being overwhelmed, but a few sword-strokes cleared the area.
"You stay back," Wakka growled, not looking up. "This was your boneheaded plan, ya? Trying to get Lu and Rikku killed this time."
"Hey, I came on my own," Rikku said. "They needed someone with brains."
"The plan was mine, Wakka," Lulu said. "And now that you are here..." Opening her eyes, she raised a finger, pointing weakly at the sky. "That is the true face of Yevon. Have you brought Atonement?"
"Lu!" Wakka broke into a teary-eyed grin. "Yeah, she's right here. Glad I didn't have to use her on you this time." He squeezed her hand, then turned to retrieve his ungainly cannon. "That's Yu Yevon? Hard to believe we ever prayed to that thing."
Stepping away from her, he propped the gun against the ground and his shoulder, tilting it up like a mortar. The fiends had thinned enough for Auron to look away. Yu Yevon was no more than a flickering inky blot against into the clouds.
Wakka was muttering to himself. "Tryin' to play cactuar tag, huh? Dodge this." A shaft of blue-green light as thick as his arm shot from the barrel. High above, Yu Yevon swerved right into the beam. There was an eerie black explosion. Ribbons of shadow began to peel away from Yu Yevon's bloated shape. Nooj turned, aiming his smaller energy weapon at the twisting mass as it began to fall, writhing, towards the leaden sea.
"Yeah!" Rikku crowed. "Machina power!"
A sinking heaviness seized their limbs. Air, blood, bones: everything suddenly seemed impossibly heavy, pulling them down. They could not breathe. There was a clang as Juno's heavy blade dropped, a louder clank as Wakka collapsed under the weight of his gun. The flyer's engine strained, whined, and coughed to silence. Gippal gave a shout and wrestled the stalled craft to a messy landing as it tilted and plowed nose-first into the water. Even Rikku tripped and went sprawling.
"Gravija," Lulu whispered.
The weight of his sword dragged Auron to his hands and knees. Crawling towards the mage, he saw the frustration in her eyes, the aching powerlessness of one grown used to godlike powers.
"End this," he said, pressing his palm against hers.
She stiffened. The pyreflies whined loud in his ears as he willed his will to her: his slow simmering anger steeped in two decades of failure and betrayals, his lost faith, his grief for the fallen, his loyalty, his broken oaths, his stubborn sense of justice, his deep-seated compassion veiled under a cynic's mask, his laughter at life's follies (especially his own), a burning love never named that kept him here, here, here— everything that drove him, Entrusted to her like fire leaping from one dead tree to the next—
Her fingers laced with his. He was uncertain whether he heard her voice aloud or in his mind. "For Yuna." Ultima's first salvo exploded outwards. Had the hover not fallen, it would have been ripped apart. "For Chappu. For Tidus. For Kimahri. For Ginnem. For Braska—"
Again and again the sky ripped inside out and outside in, worrying the shapeless mass of Yu Yevon like a chocobo in a fiend's jaws. The two inert pillars of stone were drawn up and into the vortex, spiraling faster and faster until they slammed together with Yu Yevon crushed between them. Brilliant spokes of white light spurted out, speckled by fine black grains like charcoal sifting down. Solid rock began to unravel.
With a shattering roar as if all of Spira had been dissolved by the force of her last spell, Sin's nightmare burst and disintegrated. Sky and water, stone and fire flew apart. Light and darkness, sound and scent, every form of sensation ceased.
Slowly, slowly, their senses returned.
Thin and remote, a solitary lightning bolt struck a tower beneath a very ordinary bank of thunderheads.
They lay on solid ground. A light rain was falling through a net of pyreflies drifting as far as the eye could see.
Auron looked down. Lulu's eyes were closed. He bent and kissed her temple with a gruff whisper that he hoped she could hear. "Welcome home."
Next Chapter: Chrysalis