A Single Foot of Earth [FFX]

Near the foot of the mountain we visited a yogi who dwelled in a hollow tunneled beneath a boulder. He pondered our notion of climbing Shivling and said: "First travel, then struggle, finally calm."
--Greg Child

They that stand high have many blasts to shake them; And if they fall they dash themselves to pieces.
--William Shakespeare, Richard III

"The marvellous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."
--Ernest Hemingway, 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'

     (for my father)

He has not been able to feel his left arm for several hours now, though he supposes that this is preferable to the alternative. It hurt, at first, but now the pain has become little more than a dull pressure that lets him know he has something hanging from his left shoulder that may or may not once have belonged to his body. Whatever it was, his body doesn't want it back now. He keeps his eyes away from it. He still hasn't looked to assess the damage, and is fairly sure that by now he really doesn't want to know. Unfortunately, ignoring your own arm is as easy as ignoring a mountain.

Given the choice, he chooses the mountain. He keeps his eyes straight focused on the path before him. He has covered this ground before, and he feels as though he should have a better idea of where exactly it goes, but it leads down, and that's the most important thing. Down one last time.

The last time he fell, he tried to reach out to catch himself, but remembered too late that his left arm had divorced itself from his brain's commands. He remembered this precisely as his face hit the snow. That was when he caught a glimpse of something bruise-purple sticking out from his side, dragging along next to him, with what looked like a hand and fingers curled stiffly at the end. And then he fought his way back up the twenty feet he had fallen to reclaim the sword his good hand, tucked inside a heavy leather glove, was almost too stiff with cold to grip.

They would laugh at him now, if they could see his form. All the years of training reduced to this -- flailing his blade around at anything that moves, or appears to move. More than once on his way down had his sword struck solid rock, echoing back for his error vibrations that rattled his skull and drew more beasts to him. Stealth had been an option before. If he tries it now, he will freeze to death where he stands.

Of course, the rational part of his mind reminds him, he's in enough danger of that as it is. He slumps against an ice wall, out of the way of the wind that rips down the mountain's exposed face and blows the snow in fine white clouds, and draws a small vial from inside his coat. A potion. He can't have many more of those. He feels around and hears the clinking of glass, however, which means more than one. More than one is hope.

The weather has been clear, and he can see the stars through the fog of his breath. He takes as much air into his lungs as he can, then lets it out in a raspy sigh that just turns into a coughing fit. He makes sure to turn his head to the right and buries his mouth against his shoulder to muffle the sound. Tiny clouds of warm white rise into the air, smaller than they should be before breaking on the cold sky. The cold has gotten into his lungs. He doesn't want to think about that.

Instead, he looks at the sky. The moon which had been so good to him hours before has finally given up the ghost and disappeared behind the high peaks in the distance, leaving him to stumble near-blindly. The only safeguard he has against the gaps hidden beneath the snow is his own trail, cut only hours before, but even that has become obscured by the shear of the wind across the surface of the snow. He must be close to the base, he reasons; he can no longer see where he had once been. He hopes he is close to the base. He doesn't have much strength left in him.

He jams his sword into the snow, blade down, and reaches for the ceramic jar at his side, which has long had its more familiar contents replaced by snowmelt. But his hand shakes weakly as he lifts it to his lips, and the water misses his mouth and soaks his front. He cries out, and the vessel falls from his hand, rolling off the path and into the darkness below. It is several seconds before he hears the shattering sound, too far away, followed by the rustling sound of several things. Hungry things. He tries to bite his lip to keep from crying out, then realises that he is already biting his lip. This is when he first notices he can no longer feel his face.

But the night is clear, and the weather has been good, and he supposes he should be grateful for this. Travelling in storms should be avoided at all costs; he had learned that lesson out of practicality in the days before he had even been allowed to leave the monastary for spans of time longer than a single day. He supposed some would say that Yevon has blessed them with good weather. But it had seemed like nothing short of a slap in the face, there, underneath the endless dawn, watching Braska

(appeared at his door precisely in the middle of dinner, which startled Auron somewhat; monks tended all to eat at the same hour, a habit acquired after growing up under a most rigourous schedule, and other than his brothers, he received no visitors. And of late, he received no visitors at all. He had been so taken by surprise that he had answered the door with his bowl of rice and chopsticks in hand.

He imagined he looked like an absolute idiot standing there, dressed only in his light robes from meditation, his hair loose about his shoulders, holding what passed for dinner in his hand and blinking uncomprehendingly at the man standing on his doorstep. He was still trying to make heads or tails of the situation when Braska smiled at him. "May I come in?"

Auron shook his head free of the cobwebs, feeling somewhat abashed, and opened the door wider. "Lord Summoner." He gestured to the interior of his house first with the rice bowl, and then with his free hand, standing straightly attentive as the summoner swept in, robes tracing the ground behind him and giving him the appearance of a man who does not walk but floats.

Braska turned as he reached the room's small table, his fingers resting lightly on a small shelf of ceremonial items -- two knives, a bell, a stick of incense in an earthen bowl, nothing fancy or elaborate. "I caught you in the middle of supper; I apologise." He bowed slightly, but did not make the formal gesture of prayer. "If I'm disturbing anything, this could certainly wait until later--"

"No," Auron assured him. He reached for a small cord from his pocket and tied his hair hastily back. He had been introduced to Lord Braska years before, had spoken to him briefly at a midwinter ceremony, but had no reason to think the summoner would even know who he was. "How may I be of service to you, Lord Summoner?"

"Well," the older man replied, "you can begin by calling me 'Braska.'" He folded his hands inside his elaborate robes, smiling at Auron gently, and the smile made Auron realise how much he missed being looked upon with kindness. "And as for other matters, Luca has sent a message; they're in need of a good summoner." He shrugged in the way he did when he was taking himself lightly. "Sadly, I'm the only one available, so they'll have to settle for me. I leave in the morning; will you come with)

his water gone, he contemplates briefly melting more snow, but dismisses the idea. He will if he needs it. If he lives long enough to need it. He tries not to think about it like that. The mountain is quiet again. He needs to get moving.

The mountain cleans up after itself; the monsters he slaughtered in his most recent trek across this path have all vanished, most likely into the jaws of those that survived. Only deep tracks and red smears remain. He coughs and spits, adding his own blood to the snow, then stares at it quizzically, briefly unable to remember where it had come from. His lungs, right. It looks to him like a sacrifice. His head has begun to hurt.

He almost feels bad for the snarling beast that paws its way into his path and bares its teeth. Almost. He feels for it more when it is in halves. Hours ago he had stopped cleaning the blood from his blade; he can see it all frozen there, caked and clotted in webs across the delicately etched surface of the metal. He coughs again and spits, this time on the blade. He can't tell the difference.

But the beast has friends. One hits him from behind, sending him pitching forward on his knees again, but his hand clamps tight to the sword and he is back on his feet in a defensive stance as quickly as he went down. Years of training have taught his muscles to act beyond exhaustion, and in moments he stands, breathing heavily, surrounded by three more carcasses. Their blood smokes as it runs onto the snow, then cools to thick red ice. He looks down and sees the knees of his pants torn and bloodied. But he has no cloth he can spare to bind the wounds.

The sky has begun to lighten, he believes. It can't be his imagination, not this time. In the distance, across the jagged horizon the sky is a paler blue, and the shapes in front of him have begun to separate into categories more than light and dark. Dawn, then. The sun was just past set as he reached the summit to descend to the ruins. Before noon he had started his ascent. And the morning before he had seen, for the first time with his own eyes, what Sin was.

That had been yesterday. Had he slept? He doesn't think so. Had he eaten? A little, in the ruins, and some of the dried fish from the provisions they hadn't expected they'd tempt the end of. How much food do three men need to cross a mountain? More than they had planned for, he knows that now. His brain finds something funny in the idea of taking such care to keep alive two men who had died anyway. But there is nothing funny about the fact that he has failed.

For his sins he will die on the mountain. The price of his failure is his life, and it is not an unfair bargain. In the past several hours he has begun to accept this, and the conclusion is so logical he can hardly be upset about it. He finds himself wishing that he had kept his head and tended to matters before returning to conclude unfinished business, but there are aphorisms about spilled milk, and he knows them all. He wonders if this is how Braska felt, from the moment he knew he would become a summoner, except he knows that Braska had done nothing wrong

(ones you'll end up burning your mouth off like you did last time." The ceramic vessel swung lightly by Auron's side as he walked through the street, its owner casting a glance over his shoulder every now and then to make sure the dark-haired foreigner was still following behind him. He always was.

"Yeah, that's something to remember, all right," Jecht grinned, reaching back to scratch the back of his head. His shirt -- an addition most recent to his outfit -- hung open in the front, proudly displaying his tattoo, but it covered his shoulders and back, and it was more clothing than Jecht had worn since Auron first had met him. For this, Auron was grateful. "So, green ones hot, red ones mild. Right?"

The market was less crowded than it could have been, and they moved easily through the people, drawing little attention. "That's right," he nodded. The sun shone down warmly, and it beat on his exposed left arm; the warmth made him smile. "Anything else?"

Jecht shrugged, looking around. "Yeah," he laughed, "there's a lot else. Lemme think." He brushed his hair back from his eyes, and Auron was pleased to see that the man's entire countenance had changed. He had expected Jecht to pick up a bottle within an hour of his vow; it had been three days now, and he had been as good as his word. There were times when he looked as though he would have been happier drunk, but those times were growing fewer and further between.

Most importantly, though, the grim, haunted look that had weighted down Jecht's eyes had disappeared. Grinning in the sunlight, the stranger from the city that didn't exist looked almost like a guardian. Almost.

"All right." Jecht turned to Auron, raising his hands and then curving him in front of his chest, as though he were holding a spherical object, and bowed. "That. You've got people all over the place doing that to say hello, doing that to say goodbye, doing it for just about anything. What the hell do you people think that means?"

Auron paid for a pair of apples and tossed one lightly to Jecht. "It's a prayer," he answered. "Well, it's not the prayer itself, but it accompanies the prayer. It is a gesture of gratitude to Yevon, and a gesture of respect. It claims that whatever the person is doing is done in the name and spirit of Yevon."

"But I've never seen you do it," Jecht pointed out, idly juggling the apple from hand to hand. "You're supposed to be working for this Yevon, aren't you? I mean, being a guardian and all, right?" He leaned against the fruit vendor's cart, crossing his arms. "Aren't you supposed to do all that stuff too?"

The apple was crisp, if though a bit sour from being underripe. "I left the flock of Yevon years ago."

"Uh-huh." Jecht's eyebrows furrowed curiously. "So ... why are you doing this?"

He had been asked this question before, though always with derision; the genuine curiosity behind the inquiry surprised him. Auron smiled, and the smile was a little distant and sad. "Because no religion or teaching has a right to say who can and cannot save)

the potions, as he has yet no idea how much further he must travel, but still he reaches into the coat and pulls out one of the two remaining vials. Another two hours to live? Three? A cruel extension. He hates artifical healing, but can also recognise extenuating circumstances. These are extenuating circumstances.

He puts one foot in front of the other, each foot a little lower than the last, and this is how he walks down the mountain. One step at a time. He had asked the Ronso before they three began how high the mountain was, and he had, in essence, been told most respectfully to fuck off. The mountain is as tall as it takes steps to climb. A fair answer. He supposes a lot of guardians get to hear that. He supposes a lot of guardians leave their souls in the snow before that number of steps is completed. He wonders how many of them left their fiend-blood on his blade and coat.

But this is the Calm. The people are dancing in the streets far below and singing that Sin has been defeated, and they are safe for another generation, and he knows they'd show their gratitude more directly if it didn't belong to a dead man. But the life of a single summoner doesn't matter, because they and their families are safe, and the fiends are gone.

Not just from the towns and villages, either, but apparently from the whole of the earth. He supposes he had expected to be stopped at the base of the mountain by creatures his sword couldn't scratch, but those creatures haven't come. The teeth and claws he meets do not belong to fiends, but to the mountain's version of local wildlife. Just pack animals, with distended canines and shaggy hides he recognises from every pelt a Ronso ever wore. Just protecting their territory from trespassers.

They had eaten enough of the beasts, there on the other side, among the ruins, waiting and watching to see if the drop in altitude would somehow quiet the awful laboured sound Jecht's breathing had acquired. For a week they camped there, among the ruins, the only living things in Zanarkand. There he had slept, both out of sheer exhaustion and the spells Braska had forced upon him without his knowledge to keep him under. He strikes down another beast and wonders if he could somehow build a fire, to cook its flesh and warm himself. He has tinder, and the creature will burn, if only for a few minutes, but it could be enough.

He doesn't stop. One foot in front of the other, he staggers down the mountain, falling more than walking. Time after time, he pitches forward into the snow, crying out as he hits the ground, first because of the pain and then because he cannot feel the pain any longer. The fire would keep him alive, perhaps, but there is not much of him to keep alive.

The realisation brings with it a fatalistic strength. He lunges forward and pays for the motion with another coughing fit, spitting onto the snow and wiping his lips on the shoulder of his coat. He leaves behind a bright red smear of blood on the fabric, and wonders, in a detatched sort of way, whether the blood originated in his lungs or his face. He brings his unfeeling right forearm to his mouth, holds it where he feels it meet the resistance of his face, and draws it away; against the swollen redness exposed by tears in the fabric of his sleeve he can see ragged flaps of skin that must once have belonged to his lips. His face, then. He vows not to look again if he can help it.

He takes a deep breath and spends a moment flexing his fingers, making a fist as tightly as he can and letting it go again when he cannot bear the pain any longer. Each time he tries the fist becomes weaker, and he fears what will happen when he can no longer hold his sword. Then he will run, he tells himself, with what strength he has left in his legs, and he will not stop

(Auron!" Braska's voice cut through the still air of the mountain, echoing off the sides; he heard his name from a hundred summoners in rapid succession. "Auron!"

He whipped his head around and saw Braska descending quickly, his heavy grey cloak brushing behind him as he ran, giving him again the eerie appearance of floating. For a moment he saw only this, a dark figure against the impossibly bright snow beneath the afternoon sun. And then he saw what Braska was running for, and he, too, dropped his pack and ran.

He reached Jecht's fallen body quicker for gravity, sliding heavily down the trodden snow and nearly toppling Braska. Jamming his sword into the snow, he gathered Jecht into his arms and touched at his face, running his gloved fingers across lips tinged a sickly blue. Jecht wheezed every time he took a breath, gurgling softly his unconsciousness; he shivered so violently Auron himself shook. He looked up at Braska, wide-eyed, who looked back at him with a look of concern and panic so raw Auron was surprised he hadn't shouted louder. Or maybe he had, and Auron just hadn't heard him. Braska had no idea what to do. He looked to Auron. And Auron looked at Jecht.

"We've got to get him off the mountain," he whispered to no one in particular, though his words seemed too loud. He slipped his arms beneath Jecht's and began to pull him in the direction of a nearby cairn. "Go get the pack," he told Braska, sounding much calmer than he felt. "The pack I dropped, go get it."

Braska nodded and rushed off; Auron reached for a small flask of water he kept at his belt and poured some across Jecht's lips. Jecht swallowed, and then coughed and sat upright. His eyes fixed on Auron's face, trying their best to focus but obviously failing somewhat. "I'm all right."

"You're not all right." Auron smoothed back Jecht's hair from his face, looking over his shoulder to see Braska lugging down a pack far too heavy for him. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Jecht tried to smile, but the smile turned into a grimace as his lungs siezed into another coughing fit. "Didn't want to ... worry you guys." Then he did smile, but the hollowness of it made Auron shiver. "Gimme another drink ... and I'll be ready...."

Auron shook his head. "You're not. We're going back down and we're taking--"

His words were cut off as Jecht reached for the collar of his coat and fisted it tightly in a hand powerful no matter his condition. "I said I'm fine," he gritted. "Gimme the fucking water. We're not goin' anywhere but up."

Braska rushed back over, kneeling beside them and placing a hand on Jecht's chest. The sun shone off his bare skin as brightly as it did off the snow, and Auron barely saw the light of a healing spell. "Jecht, are you all right?"

Jecht looked up apologetically. "Leave it to me," his words rattled out from his throat, "to fuck everything up, eh?" He coughed, then spat. "I'm fine. Just got a little tired." He tried to sit up, simultaneously pushing Auron's hands from him and taking the flask from the other guardian's belt. "We're going up."

Concerned, Braska cast his gaze upon his guardians in turn. "But you--"

"I said I'm fine," Jecht growled. His tone of voice suggested that this was the end of the argument. He pushed past his friends and picked up his pack where it had fallen from his shoulders. "Come on. I once played an entire Blitzball game against the Beaters with a broken ankle. A broken ankle!" He laughed loudly, too loudly. "They were talking about it for weeks! The Great Jecht, they called me then. Singlehandedly won the game, and did it with a bum ankle."

"This isn't Blitzball," Auron called after him.

Jecht turned over his shoulder to look long at the two of them. "No," he agreed. "It's more important than that." And he ascended, leaving)

the water, Jecht had told him once, was a lot harder than entering. That's why a lot of Blitzball players just hold their breath. The sword of breathing the water was double-edged -- the player first had to learn how to make his body breathe the water, and then how to make it breathe the air again. After each of the few games he played in Spira, Jecht would balance himself upside-down on his hands and cough aggressively for a few minutes. He had asked Jecht if that got all the water out of his lungs. Jecht had laughed and told him that nothing could ever get all of it out of your lungs.

He supposes he finally understands that feeling now. He feels like he himself has been trying to breathe underwater for hours now. The air tastes so thin, even to one accustomed his entire life to breathing air; how could they have expected Jecht's lungs would have reacted to it any way but badly? Whatever they gave him to drink he coughed back up, not from his stomach but from his chest. Once, while Jecht slept, he placed his ear against his breast and heard what sounded like a saturated sponge being squeezed again and again and again.

They should have summited just after nightfall of the day they began; it was not until the fourth day they reached the ruins of Zanarkand. He passes another cairn, pausing for a moment to contemplate the body beneath it. How many Blitzball players, he wonders, leave the water as they commit themselves to following their summoners faithfully the entire way, only to die thousands of feet above sea level when they drown anyway?

A beast slinks out from behind the stones, eyeing him assessingly, and he reaches for his sword. In the end, however, it turns away, and he has to laugh a little to himself. It is strangely comforting that he has become battered past the point of being a decent meal. But the comfort is cold, like everything else.

The cloak he purchased still hangs from his shoulders, the cloak that had matched his companions' and had made the three of them look like identical grey shades, identifiable only by what they carried and how far they lagged behind. It is woolen, woven from the flocks kept by the Guado, and has done its best to keep him warm. But four trips over the same rugged mountain path has become too much to ask of it. If he leaves it behind he can travel faster.

He thinks while he walks, as he has little other option. The sky has become a pale grey, and he can see where he is going now; more importantly, he can see the lights of the Ronso below him. Still too far below him, perhaps, but close enough to reach. If he discards the cloak, he can travel faster, as it will not catch the wind and snow, and will no longer drag behind him. But if he leaves the cloak behind....

He stops a moment and looks out over the valley. A mist hangs low and heavy in the valleys among the far peaks, and he is high enough that he can see their tips breaking its white surface. For a moment, he lingers, staring at the beauty of the landscape; then he reaches up to the cord that holds the cloak around his shoulders and tugs the knot free. The heavy fabric falls to the snow behind him. His hand, now nearly completely numb even in his glove, pulls out the last potion. This will have to do.

The surge of energy it gives him is always unexpected, but now far from unwelcome; he can hear his heart race, and even though he is colder than he can ever remember having been, a tiny sheen of sweat breaks out across his forehead. It turns almost immediately to ice.

The sound of animals from behind him, growling and calling to one another, draws his attention away from the landscape. It is settled. He does not have much time. Leaving the cloak behind him, stretched out like a dead thing across the snow, he resigns himself to his fate and heads down the mountain

(nights drew them together out of sheer desperate need for warmth. The wind blew sharply, roaring through the valleys as though they had angered it, extinguishing all but the smallest of Braska's flame spells. To build a real fire would have been an impossible task.

The first two nights they had been lucky -- alcoves in the mountain shielded them from the worst of the wind and had kept the creatures enough away. Auron had hoped that they might reach the summit and get to the other side by nightfall, but Jecht's breathing had worsened considerably and around noon their progress had come almost to a complete standstill. Braska was faring little better; unaccustomed to carrying so much baggage, the summoner had pressed on admirably well under the new load, but the strain was showing. Around two that afternoon, Auron had given up and stopped for the day, pulling them beneath a ledge. They would continue their progress tomorrow, for they would make no more today.

Jecht slept fitfully, waking far too often; Braska slept a little deeper, rousing himself every two hours to cast another cure spell on Jecht, who slept with his head resting against Auron's chest. Braska curled across their legs, placing his head in Jecht's lap, and Auron extended his cloak to cover the both of them. He himself slept sitting up and almost not at all.

Both his companions dozed while he kept watch, his fingers curled around the hilt of his sword. While there still had been sun, he had built up a windbreak out of snow, and then he had slept a few hours while Braska prepared an evening meal with what provisions they had left. He could sleep during the day; the sun kept things warmer, the beasts were less inclined to hunt in broad daylight, and even Jecht's breathing sounded more reasonable.

Things didn't get miserable until after the sun went down. By then they had huddled together behind the windbreak and Braska had set Jecht to sleep as much as he could. The summoner had then looked at his guardian and friend, saying nothing. There really was nothing left to be said. To be prepared for death in a ritual that saves the people of Spira from pain and suffering was one thing; to face death in obscurity on the side of a mountain was quite another. Auron had reached over and touched his friend's face, and Braska had closed his eyes and slept.

Jecht's breathing was now so loud that it pained Auron to hear it, and every time Jecht exhaled, Auron waited to hear how long it would be before he breathed again. Sometimes the wait was unbearable. He began to count -- seven seconds, eight, seven again, fifteen, ten, seven again. Each time Jecht's chest began to rise with its awful wheezing sound, Auron felt twin stabs of relief and despair. He hoped, in his exhausted state, that it might stop, and then hated himself for hoping it, and then hoped it again.

"He deserved better, you know?" Jecht's voice startled Auron, and he had to listen to make sure he wasn't imagining things. The words were almost overpowered by the roar of the wind; Braska did not hear them, and did not stir. "My boy. I love him, you know? I don't want to die on this mountain. I want to see my kid again."

Days ago he might have had something comforting to say, that they would find a way back to Zanarkand, that everyone would be returned to his rightful place. Now it felt like the lie it was, so he said nothing, but pulled Jecht tighter to his chest. His other hand released his sword for long enough to tuck Jecht's hood closer to his face.

The night was dark, but when Jecht looked up at Auron, Auron could see that he did so with weary eyes set in a face that hadn't seen a rest for days. Bits of blood were flecked frozen in his beard, and Auron reached up to try and brush them away, but Jecht caught his hand and held it fast. "I was a lousy father," he choked out. "I was a fucking lousy father, and my boy deserved so much more. He's a great kid." His voice choked up, and he hid the emotion with a coughing fit. His body trembled only slightly now; he had stopped shivering with any force hours ago.

"You need to sleep," Auron said, resting his hand on Jecht's hair and drawing his head back to his chest. "We'll move on in the morning. It'll be all right."

Jecht's shoulders shuddered as he exhaled, then coughed again. "I don't want him to turn out like me," he rasped. "I don't want him to turn out a fuckup like his old man." The wind whipped around the windbreak, blowing loose snow about wildly, but the packed snow held fast. "I'm never gonna get to tell him that I love him."

Left with nothing to say, Auron shut his eyes tightly and stroked Jecht's hair, listening until his laboured breathing had slowed again. Eight seconds, ten, five, nine, twenty. When he was finally certain Jecht had fallen asleep, he leaned his friend's head back and with his bare hand melted away the tears that had frozen)

in place, staring at the monster known as Sin. He doesn't want to think about that, either, about how he should have died there. Not all guardians die beside their summoners, he thinks, but there is a saying on Spira about old guardians and black chocobos and how fast they run. If he is honest with himself -- and why shouldn't he be now? -- he had expected from the beginning to die at Braska's side.

He finds it hard to concentrate on one thing for very long now. He drifts, realising that there are many things he would like to give one last thought towards, but his mind slides off them. He bites his teeth down on his tongue -- which still has sensation, he is somewhat pleased to notice -- and the pain brings him back into focus. The mountain. He has to get off the mountain.

The sky is pink ahead of him, a dull rosy colour. It makes him think of sleep, and he wonders why for a minute before he realises that everything makes him think of sleep. He could even, if he wants to, rest against that rock for a minute. The cold isn't even bothering him any longer. He can rest until day, and then when the light comes his path will be easier--

He bites his swollen tongue again, this time hard enough to draw blood and make his eyes water. He can not afford the rest. No matter how far he has to go, when he lies down, he will never get back up again, and he knows it. Time to move.

But the distraction has cost him. Turning back to the path, he has time neither to register what is happening nor to react before feeling a sharp pressure against his right cheek. His head snaps back and he falls, knocked to the ground, hand still clutching his sword. The creature circles around and dives; moving with instinct and a sudden burst of energy, he has the sharp-taloned raptor impaled on his sword before he has even registered that it was a bird that wounded him. With a cry and a nasty splash of blood, it dies.

He shakes it from his sword and picks himself up from the ground, staring at it blankly. It looks strange. It takes him almost a full minute to realise that it is not the bird that is strange, but the way he sees it. Taking a deep breath, he bites the tip of his glove with his teeth and pulls it off, letting it fall useless to the snow. He has no way of getting it back on now. Steeling himself, he lifts his hand to his face.

He takes the fact that he feels nothing as a bad sign -- not only from his face, but also from his hand. Only the pressure his body registers of something pushing against his head lets him know that the two have made contact. He tries to move his fingers individually, and can almost feel them obey. But as he tries to look at his hand, he can only see it from the left side of his face. And that is when he knows.

As he pulls his hand away, he stares at it half in horror. The skin has already begun to discolour, starting white near the palm and wrist, moving out into a deep plum purple, and then to charcoal black at his fingertips. Adding to this collage of colour now is what he assumes to be the remnants of his eye, a viscious gel clear in places, but mostly stained red with his blood. A certain five-year-old curiosity invades this examination -- so this is what a punctured eye looks like -- but it is quickly replaced by nausea. He falls to his feet, retching; what he coughs up has little more substance than water, and fails to impress the snow it taints.

He feels as though he should pray. After all, that was what they had taught him in the monastary -- in times of distress, call upon that which is greater than yourself and ask for help. But Yevon and Yevon's followers had abandoned him years ago, and he felt no loyalty to the Fayth that had taken his friends for nothing more than a temporary promise of peace, one he now knows will never hold.

So though it is heresy, he finds himself bowed in prayer to Sin. He does not know how he expects what he knows to be Sin to hear him, or even what he thinks it could do for him, but he prays anyway, and vows that the part of Sin that was once Jecht he will save, and the rest he will strike down. If it what he must do to atone for what he has done and what he has neglected to do, and to avenge the deaths of his friends, then he will see it done.

Grabbing his sword with his bare hand, ignoring the complaint from his knuckles and joints, he pulls himself to his feet and staggers his way again down the mountain. One foot in front of the other, always down, always toward the lights of the houses. If he can make it there, maybe, just maybe, someone will find

(that the wind had died down, something for which Auron had been silently grateful, even though now it would have been at their backs. The stretch of mountain path that had taken days to ascend had taken only six hours to come back down. Auron was almost unwilling to allow himself to be grateful for the fact that their travel speed had increased tenfold. Almost.

Braska had not said a word since his returning from the last prayer chamber, and Auron had not asked it of him. But Braska had refused to meet his eyes, and when Auron had tried to catch his gaze, the summoner had looked away. Never before in all the years they had known one another had Braska refused to meet his eyes. That was when Auron knew that Braska was far beyond determined -- he was resigned. The pure desire to end Spira's sorrow had been drained, and in its place stood a man too tired to fight inevitability.

Leaving Zanarkand, Auron had been struck by the absolute stillness of the ruins. Only the water moved, ebbing and flowing with a soft pulse; no fiends rose to meet them on the way out as they had on the way in. The night sky stretched out, with the moon falling softly to a far horizon, shining more stars than Auron could ever recall having seen. He turned to point out the constellations to Jecht, falling miserably silent when he looked to his left and saw that he was again the sole guardian.

He tried to persuade Braska to hold off crossing the mountain until the sun had risen, but Braska shook his head, and that was the end of the argument. The Second Tenet states that a guardian must treat the word of the summoner as though it were the Teachings of Yevon, and though the latter had fallen in Auron's estimation years before, he still held fast by the former. If Lord Braska said that they would climb the mountain tonight, it would be done.

It was as though the mountain understood that treading upon its sides now was no ordinary summoner, but the Lord High Summoner who held the power of the Final Aeon. No ground gave way beneath their feet, no drifts of snow came crashing down around them, and even the fiends and beasts kept to a respectful distance. Braska insisted, in his silent way, on walking ahead, and Auron followed close behind, his hand hovering on the hilt of his sword. But he never drew it.

The moon disappeared, leaving them in darkness, but Braska trudged unthinkingly on. He refused first Auron's request that the summoner take food and water, and then Auron's insistance that they stop and rest. He simply kept moving, mournfully, a man in a dream.

Auron could not make out the line of the horizon for the darkness, but he let his eyes fall repeatedly on the place where he knew the earth separated itself from the sky. Sin would already have begun its journey there, moving through the water as silently as they moved across the land. He pulled his cloak close around his shoulders and tried not to think, letting his his path be worn and his steps numbered by the figure)

that stumbles into the midst of the Ronso village this dawn barely resembles a man. Its left arm sticks out from its side at a grotesque angle, testament to a shoulderblade shattered when its owner was dropped from a height; the arm itself is swollen and purple, nearly completely black with tissue death. Its right hand and forearm are in much the same condition, though here the hand has frozen in a fist around the hilt of the large sword it drags behind it. Severe frostbite covers to some degree every exposed patch of skin, manifesting itself in tiny white blisters at the warmest places that spread out to the horrific charred colour at the extremities. Its coat, too thin for these conditions, is ripped and bloodied, and its pants are tatters below the knees. Most horrifically, the left side of its face is covered in gore that has not only caked but frozen there as well.

Taking it for an orphaned fiend, the children run screaming to their parents, who return with their spears and blades. But the man is no threat. He sways once, opens his mouth to speak, and collapses soundlessly in a heap.

The hands that turn him over might be warm, but he is too far gone to tell. He looks up at the large blue Ronso that holds him, then reaches out and wraps his clawed hand tighly around the Ronso's beaded necklace. He has two charges to keep, but to tell both would be to see neither done, and he knows this. But one is a beginning. One is hope.

Using what little strength he has left in his withered right hand, he draws the Ronso closer. "Braska's daughter," he hisses, cursing his damaged lips for being unable to produce the sounds properly. "Find her. Find Braska's daughter. Take her to Besaid." He fixes his remaining eye in the sternest glance he can possibly manage. "On your blood and the blood of your fathers, swear it."

The Ronso nods gruffly. "Kimahri swears." His eyes shine understanding, and the man knows that few Ronso would have consented to the request of a dying man, guardian or not. Few Ronso would have picked him up at all.

He nods. "Then that is all." A tear trickles from the corner of his good eye, down his cheek and onto the ground. It does not freeze.

Above him, far away, the Ronso growl in their own language, one he does not speak. He cannot find it in himself to care, however. Whatever they do with him, it does not matter anymore. It cannot matter, for he has no strength left with which to protest. With his good eye, he can see the pink sky has given way to clear cloudless blue.

He understands more than feels the Ronso hands lifting him up, off the ground and away from where his sword has fallen. A good guardian is never far from his blade, but a good guardian does not let his summoner die. All the sky is blue now, stretching as far above him as he can see, and there is sunlight. If he tries hard enough, he can use it to remember what it was to be warm.

He is dead before his body hits the bottom of the crevasse.

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