Dawn of New Light
The city of Luca had been burned down and beaten into ashes. As time had passed, reconstruction had begun, but the road to recovery was a long and hard one. The man standing in the blitzball stadium knew that intimately.
His long, black hair reached to his shoulders, while his eyes were slitted and colored a dark green, much like a cat’s. His nose and mouth were small, his ears smaller than those of a Guado but larger and more elongated than that of a human. Broad shoulders and a muscular frame as well as dark brows gave him an imposing look. He wore a robe so deeply blue it was almost black, with sharply angled shoulder pads flaring out dramatically. The long, flowing, similarly colored cape he wore began at these shoulder pads and extended to his ankles. Most impressive of all were his hands; they had five long, delicate fingers that ended in razor-sharp talons. On his feet he wore black leather shoes. At his side he wore a sword sheathed in a scabbard seemingly too large for it, even though the hilt of the sword was nearly a foot long and as thick as a man’s spinal cord.
The cape picked up the morning breeze, fluttering in the wind. Despite the noontime sun, his shadow was impressively long thanks to the cape. Repair teams seemed to instinctively avoid him, while small animals that had made the wrecked stadium their home scurried away at the sound of his footfalls.
Finally he reached the middle of the stadium. He slowly placed his hand on the hilt of the sword at his side.
A grumpy-looking Guado workman spotted him and growled, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be here-”
The mysterious stranger let his rage loose with a howl that shattered every glass construct for a mile. He drew his sword in a flash. Instead of a blade at the end of the sheath, a long, fiery, and deadly whipcord of energy lashed at the workman, cutting him in two. The whipcord retracted from six feet in length to five, and in a flash of light and a blast of heat resolved into a smoldering steel blade. The blade was long and thin, with finely honed edges and flames licking its sides. The blade itself was not entirely solid; hollow areas perfected the fearsome look of the weapon. People were suddenly running towards him, shouting curses in many different languages. They drew various blades and the occasional gun.
A split second before a hurdling mass of angry people and sharp swords descended upon the casual murderer, the ground split open around him. Dark and nameless things skittered out of the deep places the fissures reached to.
* * *
Yuna stared in disbelief at the explosion. The little residential building that had been hastily completed for her and Tidus’ arrival shook with the force of it. Pictures and mementos fell of the shelves and walls. They would have crashed to the ground and made a huge mess had Yuna not mentally caught them in mid-air, a considerable effort.
Tidus came falling out of the kitchen area, where he’s been catching up on old times with Wakka. “What the hell what that?” he shouted.
“The entire blitzball stadium just exploded!” Yuna shouted back.
Wakka came bounding out of the kitchen and looked out the window. A look of pure horror plastered itself on his face. “The stadium! There’ll be people hurt!”
Yuna shook her head. “In a blast that big? No… anyone within a mile of that stadium is dead.”
Ten minutes later they were in front of what was left of the stadium, which was next to nothing. The heat was still intense, and law enforcement officials desperately sprayed water on any remaining fire while ushering people away from the blast zone. Wakka simply stared at the carnage in a sort of stunned disbelief. Tidus put a hand on Wakka’s shoulder.
Yuna turned as something caught her eye in the center of the ruins. Where the blast had originated was an untouched area. It was about four feet in width and length, and it was formed in the shape of a seven-pointed star. Yuna blinked, but the image did not vanish.
Tidus walked over to it, sweating. He turned and said, “The air’s cool when you stand inside the star.”
Yuna raised a skeptical eyebrow and stepped into the star. Immediately the ambient temperature dropped by thirty degrees. Wakka stepped inside and whistled. “What do you suppose did this?”
* * *
The inside of the tavern was smoky and the illumination was low. People skulked in the shadows or staged an uproar at the results of an ill-fated card game. The bartender was a suspicious-looking Guado… but everyone in the tavern looked suspicious.
The tavern was located in the city of Bevelle. It had suffered much the same fate as Luca; it had been pillaged and made a base of operations for the First Race. However, the city was always full of assault machina that responded rather violently to any threat, meaning Bevelle weathered the change of management much better than Luca.
Tidus put his foot up on the table in front of him. The booth he and Yuna shared was a bit cramped for his tastes and there were several large tears in the faded leather upholstery of the seats. The table itself looked like it could be used as a shield in case someone drew a gun, and Tidus had not missed the drain in the center of the room – easy cleanup in case of a bloody mess. To fit in with the clientele, Tidus wore a black shirt with a dark leather vest, along with long, black pants with red highlights, as well as black gloves.
Yuna was half-sitting, half-lying in the booth, head propped up on her arm. She wore a short-sleeved, white shirt underneath a dark blue jacket with open, flowing sleeves. She also wore dark blue pants and had dyed her hair black. Auron had insisted that they meet him there, and had told them what to wear in order to blend in.
Tidus stretched and started to yawn, then thought the better of it. “When is Auron going to show up? He’s twenty minutes late.”
Yuna shrugged. “Auron’s probably keeping us in suspense. You know, for dramatic effect. I always get the feeling he likes to do that sort of thing.”
Tidus nodded sagely, then narrowed his eyes as a tall, brawny human male dropped slid into their booth. He grinned, displaying a perfect set of white teeth that Tidus wanted very badly to dislocate.
However, Tidus only broke the man’s jaw when he sneered at Yuna, “Hey, legs. Why you hanging out with pretty-boy here?”
As the jerk crawled out of the bar, Yuna raised an eyebrow at Tidus. “Touchy.”
“I didn’t marry you just to have some guy call you ‘legs’ and ask you why you’re hanging out with me,” Tidus said amiably. “Besides, you’re already five months pregnant.”
Yuna nodded, a pinched look on her face. “I’m starting to feel it. Our kid is kicking me in the middle of the night.”
It was Tidus’ turn to raise an eyebrow. “So that’s why you woke up and blasted me out of bed with you. We still have the dent in the east wall of our bedroom to prove it.”
* * *
Auron sighed dejectedly and stared at the sign above the entrance to the tavern, which boldly proclaimed the bartender could serve up any drink a man could name. Auron had used the place as a meeting area for many years and he had never been able to get Ronso whiskey.
Looking around, Auron could clearly see how much the area the tavern was in had degraded – and that was saying something. He’d had to stare down eight wannabe thugs to get through one of the streets.
As someone tapped him on the shoulder teasingly, Auron inwardly cursed himself for getting his eye scarred. Women had said it lent him a dangerous look. Maybe if I still had two eyes… oh, never mind.
Auron sighed pointedly and said to the woman behind him, “No, I don’t have any money. Take your business elsewhere.”
“That’s no way to talk to me, is it?”
Auron stiffened at the voice. He stiffened even more when the woman who’d spoken turned him around and kissed him full on the mouth. Surprised, he disengaged from her.
“Italia,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Indeed it has,” Italia replied.
Italia was truly a stunning woman. Her long, blonde hair reached to her waist, highlighted with gold as it cascaded and twisted in the breeze. Large, luminous brown eyes could draw any man into them. Her face was flawless, her form strong but slim.
After ten years of missing her, it was hard not to jump all over her.
Auron withdrew several paces from her and said, “I’m here to meet someone. Follow if you wish but please keep out of it; we can catch up later.” With that he turned away and entered the tavern. Italia smiled and went in after him.
Tidus was suspiciously scanning the crowds as Auron slid into the booth next to him. Tidus turned and said, “About time! You’re twenty-two minutes late.”
Auron looked him in the eye and replied evenly, “Twenty-three. Is there a problem?”
“No, not at all,” Yuna answered before Tidus stick his foot in his mouth. “What do you need to talk to us about, Sir Auron?”
“It’s about the explosion at the blitzball stadium three weeks ago,” Auron said. “I believe I know who’s behind it.”
“Would it be that woman?” Tidus asked jokingly. Auron looked in the direction of Tidus’ gaze and saw Italia. Auron sighed, said something to himself that Tidus was disappointed he couldn’t make out, and replied, “Her? You’ll find out about her soon enough.”
“You two ever involved?” Tidus asked bluntly.
“Oh.” Tidus elbowed Yuna playfully and said, “That’s Auron-talk for ‘yes’, you know.” Auron cleared his throat, and Tidus leaned back and said, “So, who’s behind the explosion?”
* * *
Twenty-two-year-old warrior monk Auron stared at High Priest Cimarron and coughed into his hand. “Let me clarify what you’ve just told me, High Priest,” Auron said carefully. “You want me to marry your daughter.”
The High Priest nodded amicably and replied, “You’re physically fit, mentally healthy, and spiritually strong. You’re honest, kind, you don’t make mistakes… I don’t believe there could be a better man for my daughter.”
The rotund priest patted Auron on the shoulder with a meaty hand. “Think about it, my friend. Fame, glory, power… all these things come from marrying Simne, my daughter.”
As the High Priest left, Auron sank to his knees, holding his head in his hands. This certainly complicates matters.
In his quarters he shared with fellow warrior monks Kinoc and Jyscal Guado, Auron explained the situation. Kinoc stood in the middle of the room, jaw hanging open. Jyscal nodded slowly and said, “Well, I sincerely believe High Priest Cimarron made a good choice as to whom to marry his daughter to,” he said softly. He always spoke softly; it was his nature.
Auron simply sat on the side of his bed, staring at the floor.
“Auron, pal, haven’t you even considered what might happen if Da-Priestess Simne doesn’t like you?” Kinoc asked. “Do you love her? Do you even like her?”
“That’s not the point,” Auron replied, exasperated.
“You have a point,” Jyscal agreed. He then walked over to Auron, knelt down next to him, and nodded slowly. Physical contact had never been one of Jyscal’s strong points, unless you counted spilling out an enemy’s innards with no more than a dagger. “I would consider this carefully, my friend.”
Auron didn’t raise his head to reply.
* * *
It was eleven o’clock at night. Most of the Palace’s residents had gone to bed. Auron had taken to wandering the halls, thinking. Finally he had arrived at the gym and decided to go a few rounds with training machina.
That had been an hour ago. Now Auron in front of a large pile of smoking bits and pieces of machina. He idly picked a bit of wiring off his sword, thinking it was about time to go to bed. That was when he heard the muffled noises. Auron frowned, instinctively calling upon what he’d been taught as a boy. He immediately confirmed the sound was not coming from the gym. Following it, he walked down the hall… and arrived in front of Da-Priestess Simne’s room.
Inside he could hear Simne conversing with someone. Whoever was inside the room with her also sounded extremely angry. Auron’s curiosity took hold, and he knocked on the door.
“No! Don’t come in!” he heard Simne say.
“Quiet!” snarled the other voice, and there were sudden footsteps pounding towards the door.
Auron leapt away from the door as it splintered into a hundred pieces. Standing in front of Auron was a man wearing a cape and robe, with long black hair and strange green eyes. His ears were elongated but not as long as a Guado’s.
“Oh, it’s only a human,” the man muttered. “Of no consequence.”
Simne appeared behind him. Her blonde hair, brown eyes, and slim body were highlighted by the silk nightgown she wore, and Auron made an effort to keep his gaze fixed on the man and not her. “Auron! Run!”
“I said QUIET!” the interloper snapped, and waved his hand at Simne. She groaned and fell over, shuddering. Auron drew Masamune and growled, “Who the hell are you?”
The man looked back at him and said, “My name is Affectus. I’m here for the Da-Priestess. And you would be…”
“Warrior Monk First Class Auron,” was the reply. “I’m… the one that High Priest Cimarron wants the Da-Priestess to marry.”
Affectus stared, then threw his head back and laughed. “Cimarron has such terrible taste! The fool could not have picked a worse specimen to wed his daughter to!” Then he looked closer at Auron and sneered, “It’s too bad about what happened a few months ago, don’t you think?”
Auron ground his teeth together and snapped, “Shut up and leave or fight me. It’s your choice, but I would go for the leaving part – I’m ready for anything you can throw at me.”
“You’re but half right,” Affectus said imperiously. “Physically you are in excellent health. Mentally is your weakness. You are plagued by self-doubt, and a recent loss clouds your mind.”
“How do you claim to know that?” Auron asked, tightening his grip on the Masamune.
“Should you survive this encounter, take a while to set your mind straight,” Affectus replied, and without further adieu pulled his sword from its scabbard. Auron raised the Masamune to block the strike. His eyes widened in horror when a long, green whipcord of energy sliced at him instead of a blade. Upon impact with Auron’s sword, it threw Auron back into the hallway. Auron landed heavily, but was back on his feet in an instant. The whipcord suddenly shifted into a long, deadly blade, colored a poisonous green. Sharp protrusions lanced from its sides and the end split into three points. Upon its surface were etched lines following the curves of the weapon, and the air around it rippled with a barely contained power.
“Let us fight.”
Affectus came forward in a sudden blur of motion, bringing the blade down on Auron’s head. Auron raised Masamune to deflect the strike. The two enchanted blades met in an explosive clash, sending both combatants flying backwards again. As Auron got to his feet he mentally gathered the essence of weakness and insufficiency and channeled it into the Masamune. His blade began to glow an explosive red. Affectus rushed forward again, but this time struck low at Auron’s ankles. Auron twirled Masamune in his hands with only minimal difficulty, blocking the strike. Before Affectus could move, Auron hurled Masamune at him. Affectus ducked, though it did him little good as the power of the Masamune brought the entire wall crumbling down on him.
The last thing Auron saw of Affectus was the green blade fizzling out of existence. He walked over to the pile of rubble and pulled Masamune out of it. Supporting the sword on his shoulder, Auron ran towards Simne’s room. He failed to notice the white glow coming from the rubble.
Simne walked tentatively out of her room. Seeing Auron in one piece, she ran forward and embraced him. Auron stiffened, not sure how to react to this display of affection. He decided on a professional manner.
“What did that man Affectus want?” he asked.
Simne drew away from him a bit and said, “I don’t know. He kept asking about a ‘key to the temple’.” She then looked over Auron’s shoulder with some difficulty and gasped, “Look out!”
Auron whirled, Masamune at the ready, but it was too late. Affectus had risen from the pile, and he had a glowing white blade. Its edges swept gracefully upward at its hilt, but then melted into two gradually straightening circular sections and ended in a straight point. Down the middle of the blade were hollow areas in the forms of hourglasses, bordered by outward-facing, hollowed semicircles split down the middle with an arrowhead.
Affectus lunged forward, ducking beneath Auron’s guard, and slashed at Auron’s leg. The leg suddenly went numb, and the rest of Auron’s body quickly followed it. Only then did Auron realize the blade was poisoned.
Affectus grabbed Simne by the shoulder and sneered, “I’ll be leaving, now!” As he ran towards Simne’s room, he sheathed his sword. The blade flowed into the scabbard as water flows into a glass; there was no friction at all, despite the scabbard being three times too thin for the sword to fit.
Feeling instantly returned to Auron’s body. He leaped to his feet and ran after Affectus and Simne… just as Affectus dragged them both off the balcony extending from the side of Simne’s room and the Palace. As they fell into empty space, the balcony exploded and Affectus’ chilling laugh could be heard for miles.
Jyscal and Kinoc had found Auron lying in a heap in Simne’s room. When he had woken up he’d explained everything.
“I need to find Simne and this Affectus on my own,” Auron said as he walked towards the Palace’s exit. “It’s my fault that she was kidnapped in the first place.”
“Did you ask this man to come and steal her away?” Jyscal asked. “It’s not your fault, Auron.”
Auron spitted Jyscal with a glare and said, “You know what I mean. See you later.”
Jyscal shook his head sadly as Auron walked away. He turned to Kinoc and said, “Do you want to tell High Priest Cimarron about this, or should I?”
“You’re the diplomat of the squad,” Kinoc said. “You can be sneaky and conniving while you still remain a patriot.”
“Everyone’s a cynic,” Jyscal replied.
“High Priest Cimarron is going to be the ultimate cynic after he finds out what happened,” Kinoc muttered. “It’ll be hard to explain to him.”
Jyscal raised an eyebrow and asked, “So you’re volunteering?”
“Who, me? Not on my life!”
* * *
Auron stopped about halfway into Bevelle’s main market with the realization of the utter futility of his quest. He was supposed to search all of Spira for two people? He didn’t even know where to start!
Auron had taken to leaning against a wall and was contemplating his dilemma when something brushed against his foot. He scooped it up without thinking and saw it was a ball about the size of his fist. While he was wondering who threw it, someone tugged on his robe. He looked down and saw a small girl, five or six judging from her age. She had light brown hair, a blue and a green eye, and was grinning like someone had told her it was her birthday.
“Can I have my ball back?” Her voice was sweet, but a little on the high-pitched side of the octave. Auron handed it to her without a word. The little girl scrutinized him and then asked, “Why are you wearing those funny clothes?”
“Yuna! That’s quite impolite!”
The little girl turned around and said, “Sorry, daddy.”
A tall man wearing a bluish robe and an old warrior monk headpiece bearing the seal of Yevon approached Auron. He had kindly eyes and his smile gave him a peaceful look. “I’m sorry about my daughter, Sir Monk. She can be overly curious at times.”
Auron nodded and said, “It’s all right. My name is Auron, Warrior Monk First Class.”
“My name is Summoner Braska.”
Auron jerked at the name, then said, “So you’re the fallen summoner everyone was jeering about three or four years ago. I’m sorry.”
“It was my decision to marry an Al Bhed,” Braska said softly.
“I’m here on a mission. I’m going after-”
Braska shook his head, then looked Auron straight in the eye and asked, “What’s happened to Simne?”
Hiding his surprise, Auron replied, “A man named Affectus recently kidnapped her. I don’t know why, but I’m making it my mission to find out.”
“Think I could tag along?” Braska asked.
Auron gestured towards Yuna, asking, “What are you going to do with this lovely little girl of yours?”
“I have a friend who can take care of her while I’m gone – her name’s Nien. Charming woman, really.”
Yuna listened to the banter with remarkable calmness, not blinking or showing any kind of shock at the things being said.
“Are you sure Yuna will be all right?” Auron asked.
Braska shrugged and replied, “I’ve had to go on long trips before. Yuna was perfectly fine about it.” He crouched down in front of the little girl and asked, “Weren’t you, Yunie?”
The little girl nodded solemnly. Turning to Auron, she said, “You take care of my daddy. I want him back.”
Auron chuckled and said, “All right, I’ll take care of him… I promise.”
* * *
Auron looked around the tavern Braska had brought him to. The interior was smoky, badly lit, and there was a rather conspicuous drain in the middle of the floor. Calling the place a dive would elevate it several notches.
Braska slid into the booth with Auron and said in a low voice, “I’ve always met friends here. An informant that owes me a favor always comes here at six-thirty – that’s in five minutes. Watch for a man in a cloak.” Auron nodded and took a sip of his yet-untouched drink. Looking around to make sure nobody was watching, Auron poured the rest of his drink into the only potted plant in the room. The specimen suddenly changed colors and grew two feet in height. Auron quickly turned away and pretended not to notice.
He did notice, however, the man that sat down next to him in the booth. He was in a black cloak that concealed all his features. No part of his face was visible.
“Glad you could make it,” Braska said. “What news do you have for me about Da-Priestess Simne?”
“Well, Auron told the truth-”
“Wait a minute,” Auron cut him off brusquely. “How do you know my name?”
“It’s my business to know things of value. Your name is one such thing.” Turning back to Braska, the man continued. “Auron told the truth. Simne was kidnapped by a man named Affectus. I know they were last seen heading south towards Luca.” Without further word, the man gathered up his cloak and disappeared into seemingly thin air.
Auron stared at Braska, who shrugged and said, “He’s very good with children, I’m told.”
* * *
Auron looked around at his surroundings. They were not the most innocent ones. He was standing inside a large, opulent penthouse filled with furniture, food, and all the trappings of wealth… including half-naked women.
Shaking his head, Auron wondered why Braska had led him into this private whorehouse. Anyone with half a working brain could tell the man in charge was not the kindest soul on the face of the planet.
Braska emerged from behind a sliding door, followed by a muscular, well-built man with a strong jaw and a full hairline. Motioning towards the man, Braska said, “Auron, I’d like you to meet Sirius, an old friend of mine.”
Auron nodded but said nothing. Sirius waved his arms in an encompassing gesture and said, “My friend, don’t you like my home?”
Auron stiffened as an especially noticeable woman brushed past him. He replied, “It’s certainly… different.”
“Please make yourselves at home. Hopefully you will be able to find what you seek here.” With that, Sirius turned and left.
“Braska, how is it you know a man who runs a private whorehouse?” Auron asked in a low tone.
“He prefers to think of it as an elite club,” Braska replied in lower tones. “Besides, we went to school together.” He raised his head, scanned the area, and said, “To your right. Do you see him? The one surrounded by the masseuses?”
Auron looked but couldn’t see anything for the masseuses to surround. “You mean there’s someone actually trapped in that circle?” Braska nodded, and Auron frowned. “Is it traditional for a wealthy man’s masseuses to wear almost nothing?”
“Ignore that for now,” Braska said. “That man’s name is Don Tseng. He’s the one who can get us transportation to Luca fast enough to beat Affectus.”
“All right, then let me handle this,” Auron said. Braska held up a hand of warning, but Auron was already striding purposefully over. Instead of trying to push through the throng of women surrounding the man, he kicked over the table of lotions that was next to him. The throng abruptly withdrew, bringing into view a small, weasly-looking man. “You’re Don Tseng?” Auron asked incredulously.
The man nodded and said, motioning towards the spilled lotions, “Those were very expensive.”
“I’ve got something even more so in mind,” Auron said threateningly. He ignored the frantic gestures Braska was making and grabbed Don Tseng by the collar of his robe. Seemingly out of thin air, five burly men appeared. Auron froze, then released Don Tseng and said, “I can pay for the lotions.”
Then he was dropping to the floor as the five henchmen all leaped at the spot he’d been standing in, crashing into Don Tseng instead.
“You idiots! Get him!”
“Who are you calling an idiot?” one of the men asked.
The slip-up on the thugs’ part gave Auron enough time to get to his feet and deal one of the men a solid kick to the jaw. He jumped and grabbed hold of a large lamp hanging from the ceiling, then sent it flying into the face of another man. At the same time, Auron scooped up the table he’d knocked over with his foot and hurled it into the third man’s gut.
He didn’t have time to do anything else because that was when the fourth and fifth men took him in a wild tackle. Auron braced himself for several broken bones and an extremely wounded sense of pride before Braska knocked both men unconscious with a twirl of his staff.
Auron got up and grabbed Don Tseng by the collar again, growling, “Now, maybe you’ll be more willing to talk with us.”
* * *
A few days later Auron swore under his breath as his chocobo nearly tripped over its own big feet. He shot a withering glare at Braska and accused, “You never said this crime boss of yours specialized in chocobo travel.”
Braska shrugged and replied, “Well, it’ll get us there faster than Affectus. Besides, don’t you like the feel of the wind in your face?”
They had passed through Macalania Wood, the Thunder Plains, Guadosalam, and the Moonflow. Now they were just starting down the Djose Highroad, and after six days of chocobo travel Auron was just plain sick of it.
Then, as Djose Shore came into view, Auron smiled for the first time in what felt like forever. A passing trade caravan had apparently made camp upon the beach. “Braska, look! It’s a trading caravan.”
Braska looked at it for just a bit too long, which made Auron nervous. “Braska, what are you staring at?” Auron asked.
“The caravan… there’s something wrong with it.”
“What do you mean? The caravan is perfectly fine,” Auron replied.
“You sound like a little boy, insisting the fee to enter the carnival isn’t too high.”
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing-” Auron started, then froze. He had been wondering why all the sand around the caravan was red. Now he knew - it was stained.
Auron ran down the slope, leaving his chocobo behind. He looked wildly around at the scene, wondering what had caused the devastation.
“Look,” Braska said. He held up a man’s torso, perfectly severed at the waist. “I’ve never seen such a clean cut.”
“I know what happened,” Auron muttered. “Affectus was here.”
Braska straightened and said, “Wait a minute. I hear something.”
Auron quickly drew Masamune and said quietly, “He strikes very fast. Be ready to dodge anything he throws at you.”
Braska drew his staff and said, “Easy. You search by that pile of bodies, and I’ll search by this one.” He then drew closer and whispered, “Be ready to come to my aid. Whoever is hiding is hiding by my pile.” The two split up, trying to stay quiet while instinctively avoiding the bodies sprawled all over the ground. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Braska yelled and something wet and meaty hit the ground.
Auron was next to him in an instant, and Braska said sheepishly, “Sorry. A corpse fell on my head.”
“What caused it to fall?” Auron asked.
“I did,” replied a voice.
Auron tensed, but not nearly fast enough. The pile of cadavers exploded, spraying red blood and gore everywhere. Braska put up a mental shield, but Auron got a liver full in the face. He swore heatedly and ripped it off just in time to dodge Affectus’ long whipcord. The whipcord slammed a huge gash into the ground and missed Auron by a hair. He sighed and muttered, “This is getting… old.”
“It’s always fresh for me,” Affectus laughed. The whipcord solidified into the long and deadly green blade he’d used before. “You’ll note I’m leaving you in one piece because I took the liberty of slaughtering those chocobos of yours. Goodbye for now.”
He leaped ten meters into the air, pushed off the nearest pile of bodies, and practically flew away. Auron turned around, furious, and saw the river of blood streaming down the slope from where they'd left their chocobos.
Auron swore heatedly, not for the first time, and then swore again as he saw Affectus grab an unconscious Simne and get away. “We have to follow him!”
“Stand back,” Braska said. He closed his eyes, then space around him erupted in magical energy. The sky itself seemed to peel back, and the Aeon Bahamut landed on the beach with a thunderous crash. Auron held his breath; he'd heard stories of Aeons tearing people they didn't like apart on a whim.
“I have him under control,” Braska said. “Get on his back.”
“You want me to ride that thing?” Auron asked, dumbfounded.
“You have a better idea?”
A second later they were on Bahamut's back, flying at high speeds after Affectus. Auron swallowed and tried not to look down; he had never been afraid of heights until now.
Then he spotted Affectus streaking down the Mi'ihen Highroad, Simne in tow. “Over there!” he shouted, and Bahamut swooped down on an extremely agressive angle of attack. The wind nearly tore Auron off Bahamut, but he managed to hold on. Affectus spotted them in turn, then drew his sword. An angry red whipcord of energy sliced out at them, but it had extended to several hundred feet instead of six. Bahamut dodged hastily, then responded by throwing blue-black balls of dark energy at Affectus, who dodged easily. “Braska!” Auron yelled over the wind. “Don't hurt Simne!”
The whipcord resolved itself into a long, red blade with razor-sharp edges. The air around it constantly shimmered with heat.
“I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!” Affectus yelled. He swung the blade, and the air began rippling wildly all around him, distorting Auron's view of him.
When the distortion cleared, Affectus was gone.
Auron sighed and wondered why he’d let himself by convinced by Braska to undertake this quest of utter stupidity. He then corrected himself, realizing he had drawn Braska into the quest and not the other way around.
“I have an idea,” Braska announced.
“That’s good. What is it?”
“We swoop in to an extremely low altitude on the Oldroad so as to avoid detection,” Braska explained, “then when we encounter the dead end we should pull up and surprise Affectus as he tries to enter Luca.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Auron agreed. “The question is, can Bahamut fit in that small a space?”
“It’s not really that small,” Braska replied. “And Bahamut can tuck his wings in to minimize his target profile and the space he takes up.”
* * *
The trip was uneventful until they reached the dead end in the Oldroad. As Bahamut began to curve into a ninety-degree ascent, Auron realized he’d left out a crucial factor in his calculations: managing to not fall off the Aeon when it began flying in a vertical direction. He gripped Bahamut’s shoulder as hard as he could, and the Aeon barked a low growl of annoyance.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Auron yelled over the screaming wind as the Highroad came into view.
“Trust me, it’s safe,” Braska yelled back. “Bahamut would never let us fall.”
Affectus was back. As he flew through the air, he whipped out his blade. The whipcord was a long green one again, and Auron found he was tiring of that particular hue.
That thought was quickly dismissed from his mind when the whipcord sliced through Bahamut like magic through paper. The Aeon groaned, then went limp and began a long, curving descent. Auron yelped as he was nearly thrown off.
Then the Aeon disappeared in a burst of pyreflies, and Auron was sent shooting towards the stairway leading down into Luca from the Highroad.
He landed just short of it, but bounced to it and rolled down all the steps at a high speed. Auron finally smacked into a guardrail and ended up staring down at one of Luca’s main marketplaces.
Braska landed deftly on his feet next to Auron. “I think I’m going to throw up,” Auron muttered.
“No time for that! Look!” was Braska’s only reply. Affectus leaped over them and into the crowded marketplace, Simne still in tow.
“If we lose him in there, we’ll probably never find the Da-Priestess!” Braska said urgently. “Auron, get up!”
Auron painfully got to his feet and said, “Let’s go.” He drew Masamune and charged down into the marketplace, following the blue flashes of Affectus’ cape. Braska, apparently quite an agile man, leaped from rooftop to rooftop, chasing Affectus in concert with Auron. Affectus was quite the runner, though, and both the humans found it hard to keep up.
When Affectus leaped fifty feet into the air to avoid a large statue, Auron decided the last straw had broken the camel’s back. He was tired of being in the dark about Affectus.
“What is he?” Auron shouted.
“I don’t know!” Braska shouted back. “He’s most certainly not human, though, that much I can tell. Look at his ears and his feet.”
“I noticed,” Auron said. “That sword of his is certainly something, though.”
“I have a theory about how it works,” Braska said. “I’ll tell you it after we catch him!”
Just then Affectus turned and slashed at Auron with the whipcord. It was the searing red variety, and it left a rather large and unseemly gash in the street. Auron increased his speed even more, knowing it was becoming increasingly likely he would trip over his own feet at this rate. At that moment Simne decided to wake up.
“What… where…” Simne was silent for a moment, then she screamed at the top of her lungs.
“Quiet!” Affectus hissed, but Simne just took the command as an invitation to scream even louder.
“AURON! HELP!” Auron gritted his teeth and took a wild leap, managing to catch the edge of Affectus’ cape. A second later he was being dragged in Affectus’ wake. The man made sure Auron slammed into most every obstacle he passed, but Auron endured, refusing to let go of Affectus’ cape.
“GRAB MY HAND!” he yelled at Simne. She reached out and grabbed his hand, then Affectus leaped high into the air and went into a full, three-hundred-sixty-degree spin. His cape ripped nearly in half, and Auron went flying.
A moment later he slammed into Braska, and the two of them fell off the low warehouse they were standing on.
Auron picked himself up off the ground and said, “Now I’m sure I’m going to throw up.”
Braska shrugged and said, “You take your chances.”
“We need to think of a plan to trap him. He’s just too fast and agile for us to catch like that.”
“Did you figure that out by yourself, or did it take divine intervention?” Braska muttered. Raising his voice, he said, “If you have an idea, now’s the time to say so.”
Auron shook his head.
* * *
They’d rented a room in a blitzball hotel. Sighing, Auron rolled over on his bed. It was full of water and its pillow was shaped in the likeness of a rather flattened blitzball. You win some, you lose some, he thought. Braska was still downstairs, finishing his soup. Auron glanced wearily at the clock and realized Braska had been finishing his soup for three hours. He put his ear to the door and thought he could faintly hear women’s shrieks of delight from downstairs.
Maybe I misjudged him, Auron thought. Maybe he’s just a no-good drunk whose only pleasure comes from renting rooms in fancy whorehouses like this one. Wearily he went down the stairs, intent on tearing Braska away from any less-than-innocent activities the man was engaging in.
When he arrived, he realized the blitzball hotel wasn’t a whorehouse like he’d thought. The dining hall had been transformed into a full-fledged casino, and Braska was in the middle of it all. He had a sizable stack of chips in front of him – then Auron realized they were all gold chips. Auron mentally multiplied the number of chips by sixteen, found three percent of the number and subtracted it – one had to be honest about one’s taxes, after all – and he was looking about seven hundred thousand Gil.
He whistled, and Braska spotted him. “Auron, friend! Come on down!” he yelled. “Get down here, help me win some more, and we’ll split it fifty-fifty!”
Numerous groans issued from the surrounding spectators at Braska’s proclamation. Auron put on his best grin and smoothly slid down the banister. He walked up next to Braska and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “And I thought you were down here up to no good.”
Braska arched an eyebrow, but made no comment. The pile in front of them quickly grew to a million Gil. Auron felt sweat start to break out on his brow and whispered to Braska, “Why are we doing this? What the hell are we going to do with a million Gil? It’ll be like a hole in our bank accounts.”
“Trust me,” Braska whispered back. “Even people like Affectus have to eat, and this is the only place in Luca that serves food at this time of night. Did you think I came down here for fun?”
“How do you know this is the only place open?” Auron countered.
“I’ve been to Luca before, you know,” Braska replied.
At that moment what seemed to be no more than a shadow slipped into the lobby. It slid over to the man at the front desk, whispered something, and the man hurriedly gave it some money.
“Braska, are you by any chance prophetic?” Auron asked quietly.
“Braska? Summoner Braska, the Fallen Summoner?” It was a man in the crowd gathered around their million-Gil stash, a newscaster by the looks of him. “And this must be the young warrior monk Auron, pledged to marry the Da-Priestess Simne of Bevelle!”
“Shut up!” Auron urged, but it was too late. The shadow tilted its head and looked at them, then went for the exit.
Auron drew his sword and started after him, but Braska acted faster. “HELLFIRE!” he shouted, seemingly on a whim.
The ground in front of the door exploded, and the Aeon Ifrit dragged itself out of the molten depths of the earth. It engulfed the shadow in a fireball of immense proportions, then heaved up a huge chunk of flooring at the shadow. One apocalyptic explosion later, Affectus was lying on the floor, still alive.
Auron walked over and carefully nudged Affectus with the toe of his boot. Without warning Affectus’ eyes sprang open and he drew his blade. The whipcord of pure white energy missed Auron’s head by a hair, then resolved into the hourglass blade he’d seen before. Auron leapt backwards, yelling, “Braska, careful! This blade is poisoned with something that freezes your muscles!”
Affectus backflipped onto his feet, laughing. “A very well-executed trap, Summoner Braska! If it had been an ordinary human you were facing, you’d have caught him for sure!” With that he turned around, ran up the wall, and pushed off towards Braska. He flew horizontally through the air, spinning like a top while his sword flashed in front of his head. Braska fell on his back to avoid the blow, then brought his staff up squarely into Affectus’ gut. The move didn’t even slow Affectus down. He went crashing into the wall behind Braska, spiderwebbing it with cracks. Ifrit roared, conjured a flaming meteor, and hurled it at Affectus. Affectus rolled out of the way, and a large hole was blown through the wall. Outside, Auron could faintly see the stars glimmering.
“We must do this again!” Affectus yelled. He ran out the hole and was gone.
In the dead silence following the battle, Auron said, “Well, the million Gil we won should just about cover the damages to this place.”
Braska nodded and said, “Of course. You think I decided to gamble a million Gil for fun?”
Auron sat back and relaxed for what felt like the first time in ages. The ferry he and Braska had boarded was headed for Kilika Island, where Affectus had most certainly gone. The only thing that could go wrong in their pursuit was if Sin decided to show up suddenly. Auron dreamed of one day beating the accursed thing, but if he couldn’t beat Affectus he certainly couldn’t beat Sin. Braska was on deck, talking with sailors about any suspicious people they’d seen in Kilika port. All the reports so far seemed negative, however, which was good news, considering that if Affectus was already at Kilika they had no hope of catching him.
While he was at it, Auron decided to wonder why Braska had joined him on this quest at all. He had already been married, he had a wonderful little daughter… why did he risk his life for a stranger he barely knew? Why risk his daughter’s future?
At that moment Braska slid into the seat next to Auron. “Greetings and salutations,” Braska said. “You look as if you just had a revelation of divine proportions.”
“Braska, why?” Auron asked. “Why are you risking yourself and your daughter to help me on this quest to find Simne? You have everything to lose, while I have nothing.”
“Several reasons,” Braska replied. “First… Simne is a relative of my wife, meaning she’s Al Bhed. That means I also know about the estranged sister, Somne. She was sent away to be raised in a fighting school. I think the name of the establishment was Sine Helka Vor. It’s supposed to mean ‘Warriors of the Gods from Hell’ in a forgotten language, signifying that the warriors in question have both the powers of heaven and hell on their side, making them the ultimate fighters.”
“I know,” Auron said, suddenly fully awake. “I was raised in Sine Helka Vor.”
Braska stared at him for a full minute, then replied, “Well, that certainly explains where you learned how to fight so well.”
“You said something about having a theory on Affectus’ sword,” Auron probed.
“Right,” Braska replied, still uncomfortable. “It’s a very ancient weapon called the Coma Vorpal, also known as the Prism Blade. It emerges as a different weapon from its sheath depending upon the emotional state of the user. Red is anger, white is patience, green is calm, blue is sad, purple is passionate, and yellow is envious. It is rumored there is a final blade when true mental perfection is achieved, but nobody has been able to prove it.”
“Of course there’s a final blade,” Auron muttered. “Every great weapon has to have a secret to wielding it.”
Braska nodded sagely at Auron. “It certainly seems that way. Nobody knows what emotional state triggers the final blade, either.”
Before Auron could open his mouth to continue the conversation, one of the ferry’s crewmen ran over to them and said, “Excuse me, sirs, but we’re nearing Kilika. There are also possible signs of Sin in the region; please be ready to defend yourselves.”
At that moment the water to the starboard of the ship churned and Sin shot out of the ocean in all its destructive glory. The shockwave of water swamped the entire ferry, nearly capsizing it. When the wave seceded, Auron and Braska were the only ones still on the boat.
“This is bad,” Auron declared.
Just then a lone figure leaped from Kilika. He flew impossibly towards Sin.
“That’s Affectus,” Auron yelled, pointing.
Affectus drew the Coma Vorpal. The whipcord was long and white. It glanced off Sin’s outer energy shield. As the whipcord formed into the Blade of Patience, Affectus impossibly penetrated the energy shield without disintegrating. He slashed one of Sin’s eyes with it, and the creature suddenly dropped like a stone back into the water.
“TAKE COVER!” Braska yelled. The resulting tidal wave swamped the ferry, breaking it in two this time. Auron and Braska barely managed to hang onto the guardrails lining the ship.
Affectus descended into the water after Sin. When he hit, another tidal wave resulted, and the ferry was torn to shreds.
* * *
Auron slowly and painfully opened one eye. When Simne met his bleary gaze, he got to his feet and panted, “Simne! You’re alive! Where’s Braska? Where’s Affectus?” Auron was ready for any answer, no matter how gruesome or brutal.
However, he was still surprised when the woman punched him full in the mouth. He had to take a step back to absorb the impact; she was that strong.
“NEVER, EVER say that name when I’m around!” she growled. “My damned sister is lucky we’ve never met eye-to-eye!”
Auron got warily to his feet and said, “You’re her twin sister? What’s your name?”
“My name is Somne,” the woman replied. “Ever since that bastard Cimarron decided he could only have one daughter, which was about twenty years ago, I was raised in Sine Helka Vor.”
“That’s impossible,” Auron replied. “I was raised in Sine Helka Vor, and I never met you.”
“You just don’t recognize me,” she said with a smile.
Auron’s eyes widened. “Italia?”
The sun set in the east, casting a golden reflection upon the water. Gentle winds whipped along the island of Kilika, and Braska stood on the shoreline and watched Auron and Italia embrace as long-buried memories suddenly crashed upon the shore…
* * *
Sixteen-year-old Auron smirked to himself as his opponent, a seventeen-year-old named Chidun, stepped onto the mat. Sine Helka Vor was blooming with colorful flowers and plants of all kinds. It was about noon, and the sun, shielded by a few wisps of cloud, beat down on the fighting home with a bit less intensity than usual. The campus was circular and had an area of about twenty square miles, most of which was made up of carefully prepared terrain and wilderness to test the abilities of all the children and teenagers who lived there. The main building was three stories high, had eight sides, and served as a central hub for the eight smaller, squatter two-story buildings that surrounded it on all sides. It was connected to them by long, enclosed, and transparent walkways made entirely of glass. The walkways protruded gracefully from the second floor of the main building and connected to the top floor of the secondary buildings, which were all about a quarter of a mile away from the main building. The first floor of the main building was the lobby, dining hall, and armory. The second floor was the transit floor, made almost entirely of enchanted glass as well. Nobody knew what was on the third floor except the staff, and armed and armored guards stood vigilantly in front of the only way to the third floor: a staircase. The lower, squat buildings all had sleeping quarters on the second floor and a fighting arena on the first. Four were dedicated to boys and four were dedicated to girls. Each of the squat buildings was connected to the two next to it by similar, all-glass walkways, but guards were posted on the walkways between the boys’ and girls’ dormitories. The general architectural and color scheme of the buildings were black marble floors, jagged, bloodred marble pillars, and long, vaulted ceilings composed of polished, unsmoothed obsidian. There was not a painted surface in sight.
None of that mattered, however, because Auron had a duel to win.
He started with a forward somersault that took him over Chidun’s head, then kicked out behind him as he landed. Chidun went down on the mat with a grunt. Auron spun, rolled forward onto Chidun’s back, then slammed his palm into the small of the larger boy’s back, compressing all the nerves on his spinal cord.
Chidun was down and defeated in less than four seconds.
“Well done, Auron,” the sensei declared. “A very impressive display. You may go now.”
Auron got to his feet, bowed at the waist to his sensei, then turned to leave.
“Before you go, Auron, Italia would like to speak to you.”
Auron nodded, then turned and left the battle arena, going up the stairs to the second floor. He felt short of breath, though it had nothing to do with the short match between him and Chidun.
Italia, the most beautiful girl in the entire school, the girl every man I know tries to impress, wants to talk to me?
* * *
Italia was sitting about five miles out into the wilderness. The rock she had chosen was smooth and had plenty of room for two. A willow tree cast shade over it, and the sun was nearly out of sight in thick clouds. A small stream ran nearby, and the grasses came up to Auron’s knees.
The beauty of the environment seemed to wither and die when Auron compared it to Italia. Her blonde hair went down to her shoulders. Her brown eyes could suck a man in and keep him there for as long as she wanted. Everything about her was perfectly proportioned, creating a woman that men would kill for.
What in all the hells of reality does she want to talk to me for? Auron wondered.
Auron cleared his throat and said, “You wanted to talk to me?”
Italia turned her head to look at Auron. Her gaze swept up and down him, then finally focused on his deep brown eyes. Auron simply stood there, impassive, though Italia could almost sense the gears turning inside the young man’s head, wondering what she wanted to talk to him about. It’s funny he doesn’t get lost in my eyes, she thought. Every other boy in this school does, but not him.
“Hello, Auron. I think you already know who I am,” Italia said carefully. Her voice was light and perfectly pitched, the kind of voice to catch one’s ear even in the middle of a crowd. It provoked a reaction from every boy she’d ever known. Auron didn’t even twitch.
“Yes, I do know who you are. What did you want to talk about?” Auron asked. His voice, though soft and mature, was still tinged with the excitement and brashness of youth.
“Yes, I did want to talk to you. I don’t know you very well, Auron.”
Auron cautiously moved to stand next to her. In turn, Italia pulled him down onto the rock to sit next to her.
“What do you mean, you don’t know me very well? You’ve talked to every friend I have about me, asking questions that none of them would tell me about.”
“It’s because I told them not to,” Italia said with a faint smile. “After all, what strapping young man could decide not to do me a favor?”
“I could,” Auron stated flatly. “Simply because you have every other boy under your thumb does not mean I have to be in the same situation as the rest of them.”
Italia laughed lightly and replied, “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You never seem to be around when the boy-versus-girl exhibition matches are declared, simply because I always enter them. Yet every other boy does, and I beat all of them.”
Auron smiled and said, “The reason they enter isn’t to win – it’s to have an excuse to get you in a headlock or another fairly close position.”
Italia nodded. “I thought as much. Why don’t you enter the exhibition matches? With the way you fight, you probably wouldn’t have to get me in a headlock to win.”
“No offense intended, but I could easily beat you. I don’t want to, however, because it would distance me from my friends. I would become the ‘guy that could beat Italia’. I just want to be considered an ordinary student like everyone else.”
Italia inched closer to Auron, who in return stiffened just a bit. She nodded slowly, pursing her lips and thinking to herself. After a few seconds she got to her feet, turned to face Auron and said, “How about we have a match right here?”
Auron raised an eyebrow and asked, “Are you sure you want to?”
“Unless you’re scared I’m going to beat you,” Italia challenged him.
Auron slowly got to his feet and threw back his traditional student robe, revealing the red coat and black vest he always wore. He dropped into a fighting stance and nodded at Italia, who did the same.
“I’m waiting on you.”
For the first few minutes of the match, the two simply circled each other, looking for signs of weakness, neither willing to make the first move and open themselves up to the other. Finally, when the circling brought Auron to a point where he was facing Italia and she had her back to the rock, he made the first move.
Auron leapt through the air at Italia, right foot first. Italia shifted her weight onto her back foot and braced herself, right arm ready to block the kick, her hand open to grab his ankle if the opportunity presented itself.
It did not.
Too late, Italia realized Auron was not launching an attack at all. His right foot landed on her shoulder, and he lightly pushed himself off her. Italia immediately lifted her right foot in a one hundred-eighty-degree kick to her rear, but hit only empty air. As soon as he had landed upon the rock, Auron had jumped again, this time grabbing hold of one of the willow tree’s branches. He used his initial momentum to twirl himself around the branch, then, when he was facing straight down, pushed off with his hands.
He hit Italia like a load of bricks. She groaned as he landed on her back in a crouch, then pushed off her, did a full backflip in mid-air, then landed deftly in another crouch about two feet away. Italia was pulling herself to her feet when his foot connected with her jaw hard enough to snap it shut and send her entire body flipping backwards onto the rock. Italia gasped for breath as she lay on the rock, then exhaled as she saw what Auron was going to do next.
Auron tucked himself into a continuous forward roll. As he rolled over Italia, he grabbed her by the shoulders. One roll later, he sent her flying into the small stream five feet away.
As Italia came to a couple seconds later, she laughed and pulled herself out of the mud. “That was incredible,” she managed to get out.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Auron admitted.
“What, let yourself go like that?” Italia asked. “If you’d let me win I’d be very disappointed in you.”
“No, I shouldn’t have done the rolling throw. It messed up your hair.”
* * *
Two years later both Auron and Italia turned eighteen. It was the age of Release. After completing a final test, eighteen-year-olds were released from Sine Helka Vor to find their path in the world, usually as a summoner’s guardian.
Auron’s test would be a special one.
That day the head of Sine Helka Vor, one Tyr Unus, had summoned Auron to his office on the third floor of the main building. The guards respectfully stepped aside as Auron ascended the staircase he had never been up in all his life.
Once one ascended the staircase, the entire world changed. All the harsh marble was gone, replaced with smooth, gently curving glass through which pure saltwater was circulated. Inside the saltwater teemed a multitude of sea life. The walls, floors, and ceilings seemed as living creatures unto themselves. It was all a little overwhelming at first, but Auron quickly drank it all in, fascinated.
Tyr Unus worked at a desk carved out of a piece of Sin’s carapace. Behind him was the only glass in the room that had no water behind it: a huge display case with a miniature model of Sine Helka Vor.
“Welcome to my office, Auron.” Tyr Unus stood from behind his impressive desk. The man was physically fit, broad in the shoulders and quite powerful. A dark purple robe swirled around him. His dark green eyes had a surprising depth to them, and his neatly combed brown hair gave him a dignified look. Looking over Auron’s shoulder, Unus added, “It appears my other guest has arrived, as well.” Auron turned around and saw Italia enter, apparently just as wonderstruck as he was about the third floor.
“Headmaster,” Auron asked, “What do you want to talk to us for?”
Unus settled back in his chair, which had belonged to Lord Zion, Lady Yunalesca’s husband. “Please, sit down and everything will be explained.” Auron opened his mouth to ask where to sit, but the floor beneath his feet shifted. The glass arose as a shimmering column and formed into a chair. The same thing happened for Italia. Auron warily sat and found the glass chair surprisingly comfortable.
Unus steepled his fingers and began, “First of all, I want you two to know that personally I believe the both of you are the most successful students I’ve trained in years, and I wanted to offer congratulations. Now for the real reason I asked you here: your final tests.
“You will be working together on this final test. I understand the two of you are the best of the best, so this test will be a special one. Your task is to head to the hollow interior of Mount Gagazet. There we believe is a way to the very roots of the mountain. Lately a fiend known only as the Myrmidon has been terrorizing the Ronso populace. We know the fiend makes its home in the depths of the mountain. Once you have exterminated the Myrmidon and brought back proof of your deed, you will be graduated from this fighting academy.”
Italia raised an eyebrow and asked, “Why doesn’t the Ronso populace simply exterminate this Myrmidon themselves?”
“We’ve told them two of our finest students will handle the situation for them, at no cost to them,” Unus replied proudly. “I’m confident you two will hold up your end of the bargain. Dismissed.”
As they descended back down onto the second floor, Auron asked Italia, “How do you feel about this assignment? Sort of odd for a final test, isn’t it?”
Italia nodded and replied, “Maybe it is, but we are the best of the best. Besides, it’ll be our first excursion out into the real world. Why not do it together?”
Auron nodded sagely, privately agreeing with her. Over the two years since they’d met, Auron had started to develop feelings for Italia, though he hadn’t told her about any of it. As far as Auron knew, Italia only considered him a friend. Therefore, the feelings he was experiencing weren’t mutual. Therefore, they should be left alone.
* * *
Three days later, Auron felt freezing cold for the first time in his life. It was not an entirely pleasant sensation. He trudged along the frozen roads of Mount Gagazet, Italia right beside him. They did their best to avoid the fiends in the region, armed as they were with Ronso pikes specifically designed to fight the armored body of the Myrmidon.
“I never thought snow was so… cold,” Italia shouted over the screaming wind.
“What did you expect?” Auron countered. “If my estimation is correct, we’re just a few hours away from the inner cavern!”
“Not in this storm!” Italia said. “Make that nine hours! Plus we’re going to freeze if we keep going like this! We have to find shelter!”
“Over there!” Auron pointed to the hastily erected grave of a summoner, marked only by a large boulder. The boulder blocked the wind, though, which made it a good resting place.
Italia laid out a makeshift camp and suggested, “We had best get some sleep. The storm should recede by tomorrow, and we can make for the inner cavern then.”
Auron nodded in the affirmative, then lay down on a blanket Italia had laid out and pulled another, woefully thin one over him. He was still freezing, but at least he wasn’t in danger of death. Italia did the same about two feet away from him.
Just as Auron was falling asleep, he felt himself being engulfed in a great warmth.
* * *
Auron stirred and woke up. Italia did the same at exactly the same time. The reason was sometime during the night they had become entangled in each other’s arms.
Auron pulled away with a start, his heart skipping a beat. “What happened?” he asked.
Italia sat up and said, “We must have rolled over in our sleep.”
“I’ll say,” Auron said, embarrassed in the extreme. “Sorry about that.”
Italia shrugged. “It’s not your fault.”
Embarrassed, the two gathered the camp up and made ready to leave. Italia, though chilled to the bone, wiped her brow; obviously Auron hadn’t stopped to consider the fact he hadn’t moved from the spot in which he’d bedded down.
Italia was just about to strap her pack onto her back when Auron took hold of it and put it on the ground. She raised an eyebrow at him, then felt her heartbeat quicken as he said, “I didn’t move last night.”
Italia was trying to summon up a reply when Auron stepped forward and enfolded her in an embrace. Italia angled her head upward, and her lips met Auron’s. They stood there like that for what seemed to be a long time.
Finally Auron disengaged from her and said, “We had best get going. We still have a test to finish, after all.”
Italia nodded and felt a bit of shame when she felt herself blush. The storm had indeed burnt itself out overnight, and the two of them made steady progress. They rounded the bend in the road to the entrance to the mountain cavern and entered. Inside, the sound of dripping water lent a sense of increaed monotony to an already monotonous search for the entrance to the roots of the mountain.
Finally Italia spotted something a less careful observer would have overlooked entirely: a crack in the wall. A faint light glowed from deep within it.
“Auron? I think I’ve found something,” she said. Auron walked over, took one look at the crack, and whistled.
“I’ll say. It looks like we’ve found our entrance.”
Italia looked skeptically at the crack, which one could barely fit a sword through. “Two things, Auron. First, how are we supposed to squeeze through there? And second, unless this Myrmidon fiend is as thin as a piece of paper, I don’t see how it could get out.”
“There’s probably another entrance into the roots of Mount Gagazet that we haven’t found yet,” Auron replied. “But,” and at this he meaningfully hefted the explosives he’d bought from a Ronso tradesman, “as long as we’re here, I say we take this way.”
One explosion later, the two of them were walking through a narrow passageway. A light constantly glowed at the end of it, but it never seemed to get any closer.
Finally the passage opened up into a small room. It was completely empty except for a very startling object in the middle of the room: a doorway. It was a wide, arched door, colored a bright red and wreathed in flame. Ornate carvings decorated the door, saying things in a forgotten language. The whole doorway was about twice as tall and wide as Auron. Possibly the most interesting thing about it was there was no passage behind it. The door was simply there.
“The passageway dead-ends here, unless you count the door,” Italia said. “We might as well go inside.”
Gingerly, Auron touched the only part of the door that was not on fire: the doorknob. He turned it ever so slightly…
The door burst open in a blast of flame and heat. Auron yelped and tried to let go of the door, but he was thrown into a searing inferno through which nothing could be seen. Italia flinched backwards, then dove in after Auron.
The door slammed shut behind her.
After what seemed like an eternity, Auron and Italia came back to consciousness. Within seconds of doing so, both wished they hadn’t.
The two of them floated weightlessly in the middle of hell itself. A huge sphere made of equal parts lava and solid rock enclosed them. Fire issued from seemingly out of thin air. A long, armored, centipede-like creature – without legs – whipped past the two humans.
“That must be the Myrmidon!” Auron yelled.
“Where are we?” Italia asked.
“The planet’s core,” replied a deep voice that shook the entire sphere. “I have not burned human flesh in ages. Thank you for coming.”
For the first time, Auron noticed the ball of pure flame at the very center of the sphere. It resolved itself into a catlike creature with four legs, horns, and a wreath of flame.
“We really are in the planet’s core!” Auron shouted. “That’s the Balrog, which was imprisoned here by Omega long ago! He made the core possible to live in so the Balrog would be forced to spend eternity here!”
“Mighty Balrog, let me help you in this battle, so that I may feast upon manflesh again,” hissed a serpentine voice that apparently emanated from the Myrmidon. It twisted through the air in dizzying contortions, its huge maw flashing pearly white teeth stained with blood.
“Then attack,” the Balrog boomed. Auron sighed, thinking that this was going to get ugly. Just then, an idea occurred to him of how they could dispose of the Myrmidon and the Balrog in one fell swoop.
“Italia! Stay out of the way! You’ll know what to do when the time comes!” Auron shouted. With that, he kicked through the air, building up momentum in the apparently weightless core of the planet. The Myrmidon was a thousand times more agile and fast in this environment, and it corkscrewed after him, hissing with delight. As it was about to swallow Auron whole, Auron spun and slashed the Myrmidon’s face with his pike. The fiend hissed and peeled off, its back end whipping around and smacking Auron hard in the chest. He pushed off a wall of the core, burning off the soles of his boots in the process, and flew straight towards the Balrog.
The huge fiend roared. A stream of flame shot from its mouth at Auron, who spun out of the way. The Myrmidon angled in for another attack, and Auron fended it off again, herding it ever closer to the Balrog. After a fifth repitition, Auron was flying right towards the Balrog’s mouth, the Myrmidon close behind him. Italia was floating several meters away.
Just as the Balrog opened its maw wide to swallow Auron, he yelled, “Italia, now!” Italia swooped through the air and rammed into Auron at full speed, sending them both off course and away from the Balrog’s mouth.
The Myrmidon was not so lucky. It flew straight into the giant fiend’s gaping maw, all one hundred-plus meters of it. The Balrog belched flame everywhere, and inside its ghastly body the Myrmidon could be seen writhing and twisting as the Balrog unintentionally cooked it alive.
Then the Balrog exploded into a million glittering pieces. Auron and Italia grabbed each other instinctively, and as a huge piece of rock was about to hit them, the door opened behind them.
* * *
Auron and Italia, both with their robes caught on fire, came tumbling out of the doorway from whence they’d came. They rolled end over end until they finally came to a stop. The door slammed shut. Auron picked up his pike; it was stained with the Myrmidon’s blood and had an armored plate stuck to it. Auron didn’t bother to remove the armor plate, knowing it would serve as their evidence of taking the Myrmidon down.
Italia rolled onto her back and wheezed, “Well, we did it.”
Auron stamped out a last flame in his robe. “I’ll say.”
“Wait until Tyr Unus hears we took down the Balrog too!” Italia said excitedly.
“I don’t think we should tell anyone,” Auron replied. “Some extreme religious groups take the Balrog as their god.”
“Pretty damn extreme,” Italia muttered, and Auron found he could not help but disagree.
* * *
Auron groaned as he felt a leg muscle pull – and not for the first time. The trip back to Mount Gagazet’s entrance was infinitely more difficult than the trip to the cavern, considering the debilitated condition both he and Italia were in. Plus the storm from the night before had come back with double the force.
The two of them had taken refuge behind the boulder again, though the temperature always remained at about ten degrees below zero. The wind was kept away, though, which meant Auron could light a small fire. He hadn’t the first time the storm struck for fear of the Myrmidon seeing it and taking them by surprise in their sleep.
And the way we were sleeping, it would have had one mouthful on its hands instead of two.
Italia rolled over under her blanket and said through chattering teeth, “Auron, we’re both going to die of cold if we don’t get some more warmth.”
“At least you have a legitimate reason this time,” Auron replied calmly from the other side of the fire. “Before it was just infatuation.”
Italia suppressed a growl and snapped, “So what if it was? Do you take offense at my finding you attractive?”
Auron snorted and said, “Please be serious. You’re the most beautiful and talented woman I’ve ever met, and there were a few even in Sine Helka Vor, believe me.”
Italia rolled over again and looked Auron in the eyes through the flames of the small fire. “So how do you explain your hesitation, then?”
Auron paused, then answered, “We’re not married, we still have a mission to complete, and it really wouldn’t be proper at any rate.”
“Auron, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, freezing to death. Nobody is going to find out what happened between the time we killed the Myrmidon and got back.” Suddenly the sound of Auron’s snores interrupted Italia’s chain of thoughts.
“Fine!” she pouted. “If you feel so strongly about it, then just go ahead and play saint for a while.” Italia readjusted her position under the blanket and firmly told herself she was going to stay right where she was, and not move an inch for the rest of the night.
Then she felt Auron’s arms wrap around her.
“I thought you said it was a bad idea,” she whispered.
* * *
To their credit, the two of them had managed to make it through the night alive. They were still chilled to the bone when they woke up, but the storm was mostly gone, with only a few errant breezes left to impede their progress.
Six hours later, they reached the Ronso-guarded entrance to Mount Gagazet, where their airship pilot awaited them. “About time,” he exclaimed. “I was getting worried about the both of you!”
Auron and Italia exchanged meaningful glances. “We got along just fine, believe us.”
“As well you should have,” interjected a new voice. Tyr Unus, ducking his head, got out of the airship parked alongside the cliff. “I had your pilot swing around and pick me up while you two were off Myrmidon-hunting.”
“We brought proof,” Auron said, holding up the armored plate his pike had gouged from the fiend’s body. Unus took it from Auron, inspected it, and nodded.
“Very good, Auron, Italia. You pass.”
* * *
About seven months later both Auron and Italia had turned nineteen. As customary for graduating students of Sine Helka Vor, they had been given the proper credentials and legal papers for any job they chose to undertake in life.
Unfortunately, neither of them knew what they were going to do.
Sine Helka Vor received generous donations from the Order of Yevon and many third parties, so it was one of the richest places to live in all of Spira, though only those chosen at birth could live and train there. Besides taxes and the occasional bribe, the sinu jindo had nothing to really do with all its money. So it gave considerable amounts to graduating students.
Auron and Italia were living off that money in a small apartment in Bevelle, but the two of them still had to get jobs.
“I never really thought so far ahead as to what I was going to be in life,” Auron said one day as he relaxed in an armchair he’d bought at an auction. “I was always looking just ahead, thinking how to win that fight or pass that test.”
“I think all who attend Sine Helka Vor have that mindset,” Italia theorized. “Maybe it makes getting into life a final test, one that even the largest sinu jindo couldn’t accurately simulate.”
“Sine Helka Vor is the largest sinu jindo on Spira,” Auron reminded her. “It’s practically the only one left that follows the old traditions. Every other sinu jindo asks that you pay to get your child in, and none of them are as good as the one we came from.”
Italia was draped over a large couch, thinking. “Supposing that my theory is right, we should not try to think ahead, but back. Auron, what have you dreamed about doing in life?”
Auron shrugged and replied, “Defeating Sin once and for all.”
Italia snorted and said, “Every boy dreams about that one time or another. I mean, what career could you take to accomplish that?”
“Guarding a summoner, of course,” Auron replied. “They’re the only ones capable of defeating Sin.”
“And most fail anyhow,” Italia mused. “Why not become a scientist and develop weapons to make fighting Sin easier?”
“I hate math.”
Italia opened her mouth in a silent oh, then pursed her lips in thought. Auron joined her, and the two of them probed every possibility they could think of, all of which ended up as dead ends.
Auron was just contemplating the possibilities of becoming a banker – the one bank that has no fear of robbers would be his motto – when the door to their apartment burst open.
Two warrior monks stood silhouetted there. One was a Guado, and the other was a bearded human.
“Can I help you?” Italia asked, stretching languorously before getting to her feet. The Guado punched his human companion lightly on the shoulder as the man whistled, then put on what had to be his straightest face and said, “Greetings, citizens of Bevelle. My name is Warrior Monk Third Class Jyscal Guado, and this is my associate, Warrior Monk Third Class Kinoc.”
“That’s good,” Italia said. “What do you want?”
Jyscal and Kinoc looked slightly taken aback at this direct approach, then Jyscal palpably mustered his courage and replied, “I have heard rumors you and your friend are from the famed sinu jindo, Sine Helka Vor. We’ve come to offer the both of you first class assignments in the elite cadres of warrior monks in the service of Yevon. Both of us are third class in this organization. I can guarantee the pay is good and the work is never dull.”
“What about places for us to stay?” Italia asked.
“Rooms will be provided for the both of you,” Kinoc replied, then leaned closer and said playfully, “though Jyscal and I have a bunk open in our shared room.”
“I’ll take that bunk,” Auron interjected brusquely. “Italia should be given a room of her own.”
“Then it’s settled,” Jyscal said with satisfaction. Kinoc looked disappointed and smitten at the same time. “I’ll tell the unit commander. If you could just sign here…” Jyscal offered the both of them a small contract. Auron and Italia read through it carefully, then signed it with a pen Kinoc offered them. Jyscal looked at their signatures and, apparently satisfied, tilted his helmet in a gesture of respect and gracefully stepped out of the apartment. Kinoc followed with a nod.
The door closed behind them, and Auron growled. “That guy was hitting on you,” he complained.
Italia tossed her hair over her shoulder and struck a pose. “Let him.”
* * *
A week later Auron and Italia had been installed among the ranks of the Warrior Monks of Bevelle.
As Auron left, he inspected his purchase for the fifth time: a beautiful ring made of silver, with a sapphire jewel embedded in it that refracted light as beautifully as a prism. The ring had cost him four months’ pay, but he didn’t care.
An hour later Auron made his way back to the palace and noticed something was wrong. The two guards at the front checkpoint were apparently sleeping on the job, slumped in their seats. Auron stiffened his back, thrust out his chest, and put a serious expression on his face as he walked forward to reprimand the two monks.
He deflated like a popped balloon when he realized they were dead.
In a split second Auron was inside the palace, witnessing to his horror the carnage that had taken place. People had been sliced and hacked to shreds. The polished floors were glistening with blood, and several dead bodies hung from the statues that lined the halls of the palace. Auron recognized several of the bodies as fellow monks, but then thoughts of Italia thrust themselves to the surface of his thoughts, and Auron ran to her quarters like the legions of hell were after him.
Auron slammed the door open just to see a man cloaked in a dark blue robe and long, dark blue cape pick Italia up by the collar and hurl her out her five-story window. The cloaked man leapt after her, and Auron stood there, stunned for a second. Then reflexes kicked in and he ran to the window and looked out, dreading what he might see.
There was no sign of the robed murderer, but Auron’s heart leapt in equal parts joy and horror when he saw Italia hanging over the edge of a balcony a story down. Auron ran back out into the hall, raced down the steps five at a time, and went out onto the balcony in less than ten seconds.
Auron threw himself forward, hands outstretched, just as Italia lost her grip. Auron caught her, and tried to haul her up. The balcony was made out of smooth stone and Auron could find no traction. He rolled onto his back and braced against the guardrails with his feet. Italia managed to grab the balcony with one hand, and Auron finally pulled her up onto the balcony.
The two of them lay there, panting, as the wind whipped by them. Italia rolled over onto her side and gasped, “Thanks.”
“Italia, can I ask you something?” Auron asked, getting to his feet.
“Of course,” Italia replied, getting to her feet as well. Her face lit up and her eyes sparkled with refracting light as Auron opened the small case containing the ring.
“Will you marry me, Italia?”
Italia just gaped at the ring for several long seconds, then, leaning on the guardrail out of shock, she replied, “Yes, Auron. I will.”
Auron felt his breath catch. Time slowed, and Auron felt his heart nearly stop as a dark blue figure rose up behind Italia, seemingly on the currents of the wind. The wind whipped the man’s cape in front of his face, hiding his features. Auron started to move forward, to warn Italia, but he was too slow. The cloaked man grasped the balcony guardrail with both hands, strained for a moment, then ripped it off. Italia gasped as she fell, still in slow motion, away from the balcony and down into the streets. The cloaked man pushed off the balcony with a foot and was suddenly gone.
Auron reached for Italia’s hand, trying to save her again…
* * *
For months Auron remained despondent, unable or unwilling to be comforted. Then one day Jyscal came up to him. Auron muttered a greeting. In return, Jyscal nodded and said, “The High Priest Cimarron wants to see you. He’s in the Palace right now. I’m not sure what he wants to talk to you about, but I’ve heard several rumors it’s about his daughter, the Da-Priestess Simne…”
* * *
All this passed in front of Auron’s eyes and through his mind in a heartbeat as he embraced Italia on the shore. He drew away from her and said, “You have got some explaining to do.”
Italia nodded and said, “All right. I owe you that much, certainly. After I fell, I landed in one of the large fountains in the main square. It was still enough to break most of my bones. A man in the crowd took me into his home and healed me. Since I was considered dead, I had my hair colored to hide my identity and I’ve been looking for you and Affectus ever since.”
“I mean, about you assuming this identity of this Somne person. I want an explanation about that.” Auron crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow.
Italia simply remained quiet for a while and gazed into Auron’s eyes, then sniffed and broke down crying. Auron found himself embracing her again. “What’s the matter, Italia?”
Through her sobs, Italia managed to say, “Auron, I am Somne. The person you know as Italia was created as an identity for me to be raised by at Sine Helka Vor. The reason for this was because the High Priest Cimarron bore me along with Simne. We’re twin sisters. Officially he did this with his wife, the Priestess Erilan, but it was really with someone else. I don’t know whom. It was disastrous for Cimarron. Everybody knows that Priestesses of Yevon are magically rendered incapable of having more than one child in their lifetimes, and only with Priests of Yevon, to preserve their sanctity. If I was allowed to stay in the palace, Cimarron would be found out and stripped of his post. So he sent me to Sine Helka Vor under the name Italia, to be quietly raised there and ultimately forgotten.
“But then Jyscal and Kinoc threw an unexpected hitch at him by recruiting the both of us as warrior monks. Cimarron figured he could keep it contained, but when he found out we had fallen in love and that marriage was inevitable, he knew I would eventually tell you all of this. Since you are officially the finest warrior Bevelle has ever seen, Cimarron must have been scared to death of the idea of your retribution, so he sent Affectus to get rid of me.”
Auron gasped, then shook his head and said, “Affectus. I should have realized he was the one that 'killed' you. But why has he kidnapped the Da-Priestess Simne?”
“I don’t know,” Italia replied. “It could be that Cimarron angered him, or something. All I know is I’m here to get revenge on Affectus and Cimarron, not rescue my no-good sister.”
“Italia, you’re still alive,” Auron said plaintively. “What need do you have for revenge?”
“I’m not avenging myself,” Italia replied. “I’m avenging you. Affectus and Cimarron must have hurt you very badly when you thought you had failed to save me – even worse, they just opened a wound and let you make it worse for yourself by self-blame.”
“There’s another thing,” Auron said through gritted teeth. “Cimarron has told me I’m to rescue Simne… and marry her.”
“That bastard!” Italia spat. “One final act of contempt for me, Cimarron?” She shook her fist at thin air, the expression on her face enough to burn the gold out of Cimarron’s robes of office.
Auron took Italia by the shoulders and said, “Italia, I swear that I will never marry Simne. I’ll resign my commission and rot in hell before I do that, now that I know you’re alive.”
Italia smiled faintly and said, “All right, Auron. That sounds good to me.” Braska, sensing the conversation between the two was winding down, walked down the beach towards them. Italia nodded at him and said, “You must be Braska.”
Braska nodded and said, “Yes, I am, Italia. Or shall I call you Somne?”
“Italia, please. Somne is dead.” Italia walked over to the ocean and took a small bottle from her belt. She opened it up and poured what looked like a lotion into her hair. Immediately, all the black fell into a puddle at her feet, and Italia’s hair was golden again.
“I think we have one more matter to attend to before we resume our chase,” Braska said. He retrieved a small bag from its robes and handed it to Auron, who reached a hand inside and found a small case. Opening it, he saw the ring he’d presented Italia. “Remember Sirius?” Braska asked pleasantly. “He told me this ring had been in your quarters when a local thief picked it up during your initial absence and gave it to him. Sirius, upon seeing me with you, handed the ring over free of charge.”
I guess he wasn’t such a bad guy after all, Auron thought. He nodded and said, “An informal ceremony to be sure, but I think well deserved, don’t you, Italia?”
That night the two bedded down as a married couple.