Chapter 5: "Pearl"
Final Fantasy X
Characters: Isaaru, Maroda, Pacce, Auron, Lulu
Word Count: 2800
Summary: "Well, I am a goddess, you know."
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters)
The Story So Far: Sir Auron, Maester Isaaru and his brothers take up the pilgrimage 13 years after Yuna dies defeating Sin. Attacking the new Sin at Kilika, Auron is lost when it disappears beneath the waves.
Auron slogged through darkness. He felt the lash of rain against his skin like tiny sullen barbs, warning him to keep his distance. Now and again lightning flickered, but never long enough to show him what kind of landscape this dream-world might be. He felt parched despite the rain, and his feet were numb with cold. At last, after he had forgotten what time and distance meant, he found a wall of leaping flame barring his path. He braced himself for searing heat and pushed through.
On the far side, darkness took on clarity and shape. It was the black and silver of moonlight, wisps of cloud and patches of night sky overhead where stars glittered. At his back was a whispering jungle, shimmering with crickets and the distant cries of fiends. Its lush, fiercely alive scents nearly smothered him. Before him lay a placid harbor, gentle flecks of crested waves rising and falling like a woman's breast in sleep.
He trudged through sand towards the breakers where kelp flexed over hidden shoals just offshore. When the sand gave out, he clambered over submerged rocks encrusted with shells. Mussels crackled underfoot. Water had never been his element, but it was Sin's, and it suited her now as much as fire's wrath, lightning's flash and icy disdain had suited her before.
There. A glimmer of white. He pulled up short, arrested by the same vision that had spawned a cult. Familiarity was no defense.
Lulu lay back against the rocks and purple seaweed with regal indolence, braids swirling around her each time a wave lapped over her. Fishnets still clung to her legs, but that was all she wore. No, not quite all. Her hands were cupped behind her head, manacles discreetly hidden. She was chained to the rocks.
He stood gazing too long, apparently. A stinging smack of seawater drenched him, burning his eye with salt. "Yevon has me still," Lulu warned. "And you, I suppose. You never meant to stay."
He shrugged. "I made a promise."
For a moment he was not certain whether he still had his sword— Sin's dream was a haphazard slice of reality— but its reassuring weight balanced against his shoulder. Picking his way around to her, he raised the blade slowly, inexorably, like a guillotine's indrawn breath. Lulu did not flinch. It dropped with a bone-jarring clang. Sparks flew from the chains, but it was the sword's edge that came away notched.
"Yu Yevon has me," she said again. "I am nearly his now. I've fought him for so long, Auron. He rides anger so easily." For a moment, an image of Yuna was dancing on the crest of a nearby wave. Then she tumbled beneath it, lost from view. It was hard to see in the moonlight, but the damp sand left by retreating waves was stained red.
"Yes, I knew all their names," she said, eyes remote. "Even the infant's."
"You make a good Sin."
That drew a ripple of laughter, enough to set the waves sparkling under the moon. "Of course," she said with a hint of professional pride. Then the haughty smirk faded, and the moon withdrew behind a cloud. "Thank you for stopping me, this time."
"You stopped yourself."
"No." The mage shook her head, chains clinking as she flicked a hand dismissively towards herself. "There's just one way I've found to keep Yu Yevon out of my mind for a while. One way... and it is a momentary diversion at most." Her lips twisted in a reflective smile. "Memory is a poor substitute, even here."
With a wrench it came whirling back to him, those nights late in the pilgrimage when weariness and delay were eating at his mind, threatening to unravel him with the transition to fiend that all unsent must undergo soon or late. A ritual very much of the living had helped to keep him bound to his own flesh. Or at least, she had distracted him from regrets for a while.
He snorted. For Lulu, even the arts of Venus were a weapon.
He laid the sword on a bank of mussels and lowered himself into the water. He tried not to think of the foul thing inside her as he waded over and gathered her face in his hands.
Lulu greeted him with a profoundly private, delicate, reverent kiss, like those she used to give his ruined eye the few times he'd let her touch it. Yet the merest graze of her lips now threatened to drag him under. Her siren's allure was the tug of the moon on tides— dream though this was, and both their bodies a lie meant to fool the living. Or, if she were not merely teasing, a god.
Perhaps he lingered longer than necessary for her lids to droop and her breathing to quicken. The wind picked up, driving flecks of foam against his face and bare arm. Reluctantly he pulled away, caressing her cheek. Even that seemed to sear his skin right through the glove.
"Sorry. No time for worship. Lulu, I must know: why is Yu Yevon freeing the fayth?"
Sir Auron! A voice from a different life cut shrilly through the timeless music of lapping waves, transgressing Sin's inner sanctum. Please, sir, wake up!
The dream-world rippled, shattered in spreading rings, and smoothed out again.
"Isn't it obvious?" she said. "Yuna and I, and you and Kimahri, we came very near to destroying Yu Yevon. The pilgrimage has become a threat."
Auron frowned. Something was inside out. At first he could not place it, until he realized they were no longer seeing eye to eye, his left eye mirrored by her right. The sweep of black hair covered the wrong side of her face. He reached out to brush the black curtain aside. When it fell back, her face had reversed from left to right again beneath his touch.
"You know," she whispered. "Yu Yevon thinks he knows."
"Sir Auron!" The braying summons came again. Auron abruptly felt himself fighting for air, choking, straining to hold the fabric of the dream around himself like a fraying cloak. The sea hissed angrily. Lightning tracers scurried across the sky. Her braids coiled around his arms, chest and throat, spilling into his lungs. Mine, mine, the surf seemed to snarl. His vision went from half to none. It felt like a crew of Al Bhed nailing his brain to the inside if his skull.
Then smooth arms were lifting him towards the surface as gently as jungle fronds reaching for the sun. Concern washed over him in a fading echo. "Go. Hurry. Be. Look for me in my garden, Auron. We'll talk later."
And the dream tore.
It wasn't every day the dead returned to the light of day to find themselves drowning.
That was Auron's second thought. The first was to punch the dark figure crouched over him, compressing his chest with forceful thrusts accompanied by a wet crackling noise he failed to recognize as the sound of his own lungs. The water gushing out of his nose and mouth should have been a clue, but Auron's skull was still pounding. Luckily, the second thought made him chuckle, and that triggered a fit of coughing that kept him occupied until he had reclassified Maroda as non-target.
Auron clamped onto his wrist. "Enough."
"Whew!" Pacce's moon-face hovered into view. "You all right now, sir?"
Still half-drowned by dream, Auron transferred his grip to Pacce's collar. "Where is she?"
"Oh, great," said Maroda. "Sin's toxin. Hands off, or I'm throwing you back where I found you."
"Sorry." Releasing the boy, Auron turned his head towards the sound of surf.
"Were you trying to rescue somebody?" Pacce said, rising to scan the harbor.
There was still a harbor. Auron lay on a sloping shelf of rocks hemming the shore. Close by, a causeway extended out to the village and marina. The settlement was built right out on the water, away from the fiend-infested jungle, spread across half a lagoon like an offering on Sin's altar. The houses were plastered partway up their sides with splintered wood, nets and fishing floats, but their walls were intact. Puddles quivered on plank walkways. Barrels and other flotsam bumped against their pilings in the water below. Muffled sobs came from a nearby hut where pyreflies rose from the smoke-hole. But there were people about, cleaning walkways, collecting debris, spreading sodden belongings on thatched roofs. Against all odds, the village had been spared obliteration.
You're welcome, Lulu.
"Sir?" Pacce prodded. "Do you want us to help look for her?"
Auron struggled to his feet, weighed down by his waterlogged coat. He searched the narrow strip of ocean visible beyond the breakwater. Sparkling blue sped off to the horizon without the faintest scar to mark Sin's passage.
"No," he said. "She's gone."
"Oh." Blinking back tears, Pacce bowed in Yevon's prayer for some imagined damsel in distress.
Auron gave a belated nod to Maroda. "Thanks."
"Sure thing." He grinned and picked up his spear. "Just don't make a habit of it, man. I thought I was going to need a winch."
"I can't believe you jumped overboard with your sword and armor," Pacce said. "Weren't you afraid they'd pull you down?"
Auron shrugged. "Didn't matter. I can't swim."
"Correction," Maroda said, raising his voice. "It's not Sin's toxin. He's just crazy."
"Pilgrimage entails a certain degree of folly," Isaaru said, stepping out of the hut where sobs had now fallen silent. Two warrior monks guarding the door fell into step behind him. Isaaru's face was haggard, but his smile was undimmed. "Sir Auron. Praise Yevon you've survived. I feared my rash words had cost Spira its greatest champion. But your courage has saved Kilika."
The summoner raised his eyes to the smoke billowing up from the jungle's peak. "Yes. If you are recovered, we must go to the temple at once. There may be survivors. If not, we can at least pay our respects."
"Is that a summoner's command, or a priest's?" Auron said. "Sin won't wait."
"No. But where it is now, Yevon only knows."
"Sir Auron?" Pacce said. "You know where Sin's going next, don't you?"
"Djose." He fixed the maester with a level stare. "After that, probably Macalania and Bevelle."
"No!" Isaaru pressed a fist to his breastbone as if trying to staunch a wound. "The aeons... and thousands of people in Bevelle—"
"Now, wait just a minute!" Maroda said. "With respect, Sir Auron, it's about time you explained how you're able to predict Sin's movements."
"You said it yourself," Auron said, ignoring the spear angled towards him.
"Yes." Isaaru set his hand over Maroda's, commanding him to stand down. "Sin is growing smarter. She's making the pilgrimage ahead of us to prevent the Final Summoning, yes?"
Auron arched an eyebrow at his choice of pronouns. "Correct."
"So why'd Sin get so clever all of a sudden?" said Pacce.
"It's like someone's telling it where we're going," Maroda growled.
"Maroda, please." Isaaru raised his hand, postponing further debate. A delegation of villagers was marching towards them, led by an old man, a woman and several children. The little ones bore armloads of flowers, purple jungle blossoms and fuchsia interwoven with white rose petals. The procession halted at the end of the causeway and bowed in Yevon's prayer.
"Your Grace," the woman said, adding with some uncertainty, "My Lord Summoner?"
"As you will. May I be of service?"
"Welcome to Kilika," the old man said, baring a snaggletoothed grin. "Though so far it's not been a welcome fit for a summoner, let alone the Grand Maester of Yevon."
At his nod, the children fanned out, carrying garlands to Isaaru and his guardians. Isaaru bent to let a boy to place a lei around his neck. "Even Sin cannot quench Kilikan hospitality."
"And we'd also like to welcome your guardians," the woman said. "Please accept these small tokens of thanks. Tomorrow we will hold a feast of thanksgiving. We hope you'll join us as guests of honor."
The youngest girl stood frozen, staring at the water dripping from Auron's coat. He held out his hands. Mistaking the gesture, she scampered towards him with outstretched arms. He hesitated, expression inscrutable, then picked her up and lifted her onto his shoulder. The urchin squealed and poked at his glasses. "He's old."
"Deir," the woman chided. "Please give Sir Auron his flowers."
Chastened, the girl tried to drape the garland around Auron's head, snagging it over one ear. She fussed for some time with the arrangement, trying it both outside and inside his collar before looping it around the earpieces of his glasses and turning the garland into a wreath. His salt-caked hair attracted her attention as well, and she gave it a thorough grooming with her fingers. Auron stood patiently until she was finished, then set her down with a gruff, "Thanks." A few nervous titters arose from the villagers.
Isaaru's lips twitched. Maroda tapped the end of his spear against a rock impatiently.
A woman's sneer drifted out from the curtain of vines fencing the jungle path. "Enjoying ourselves, are we?"
"Oh, great," Maroda muttered.
Dona stalked into the sunlight and halted, propping a hand on her hip to survey the gathering. She appeared little changed, save that she no longer wore summoner's ribbons. Her guardian blundered out behind her, acolyte's robes giving him the appearance of a badly-upholstered couch. He was smudged with soot.
"Barthello!" Pacce cried, taking an eager step towards him before remembering his duties. Blushing, he altered course and planted himself by Isaaru.
"Lady Dona," Isaaru said. Unruffled, he turned back to the villagers. "I and my guardians are humbled by your generosity, people of Kilika. It is for Spirans such as you that we summoners must play our part. I wish we could avail ourselves of your hospitality, but I must not rest until Sin is defeated. My warrior monks will remain to clear away sinspawn until the next ferry. Now, if you will excuse us—" He stooped to lift a child back onto the causeway, ruffling her hair. "It seems that Lady Dona would like a few words with me."
"Your Grace," The woman leading the delegation bowed. "Lady Dona.""You better not have lost all your beer barrels in the harbor, Kulukan," Dona told her. "Sending is thirsty work."
"Come back when you've put Sin to rights, my lord!" the old man said. "We'll have another feast. See he doesn't forget, eh, lads?" He winked at Pacce and Maroda.
"Uh." Maroda peered at him, checking for signs of toxin. "Right."
"Good lad." The old man thumped him on the back. There were beaming smiles as the villagers dispersed, but no one save the children and the elder would meet Isaaru's gaze.
"You can save yourselves the trouble of a climb," Dona said. "There's nothing left."
"The priests?" Isaaru said. "The nuns?"
Dona shook her head. "We lost three and five— more, if this idiot hadn't decided to play hero." Barthello straightened and flexed. "The survivors are gathering what's left for sending. We'll be getting back to them after I've checked on things here. So what exactly happened?" She nodded towards the village. "Not as bad as I expected."
"Sir Auron was an idiot!" Pacce crowed. "He jumped on Sin's back and attacked it! He turned it away!"
Barthello's wooden face barely stirred, but his eyes shone. Auron sighed.
"Must be getting senile," Dona said, eyeing Auron. "Sin, that is. I assume this was after it blasted the temple into a molten crater."
"Before, actually," Maroda said.
"Hmph. Well, I suppose we should thank you, Sir Auron, although Isaaru's going to miss that aeon." She cocked her head at Isaaru. "Are you on pilgrimage, or do I need to come out of retirement?"
Barthello drew a step closer to her and gave them a pleading look.
"No." The maester smiled. "I trust that won't be necessary. Defend Kilika. I hope Sin will not trouble you again before I and my guardians have dealt with it."
"Thanks. Enjoy being Spira's new darling— not that you weren't already." For a moment she seemed at a loss, smirk covering a hint of worry or regret. Then she shook it away. "Come on, it looks like the village needs a few sendings. Why don't you boys play in the jungle while Isaaru and I finish up here?" She snapped her fingers in dismissal, then joined Isaaru on the wooden walkway. "Nice perk," she commented of his warrior monk escorts. "Maybe I should try for maester myself."
"Rumor has it there may soon be an opening," Isaaru said, offering his arm.
"Come on, Barthello!" Pacce said, clapping the giant on the shoulder. "Let's find Sir Auron a sword! Sin took his. You've got to see his killer armor breaking move!"
"I'll catch up with you all later," Maroda said. "One of us should guard Isaaru. Don't get hurt."
Thanks to Mintywolf for this amazing fanart!
The Arts of Venus
Next Chapter: Half-Truths
Chapter renumbering: In the original version, I split this chapter in two, Chapter 5 (comments), and 6 (comments), at the behest of a reader who preferred shorter chapters. I've trimmed and recombined them in the remaster.
NPC Trivia: In FFX, Kulukan is a member of the Kilika Beasts and the owner of the village tavern, big sister to that girl Tidus rescued.