6-7 July 2004

The sky was awash with reds and oranges that not only soaked the sky in rich colour, but accented the dark clouds as well. What would have been blue and grey was red and ash, as if a volcano erupted, recreating the sky in the fiery image of molten earth and soot. The stormy clouds struck lightning out in occasional great bursts, the bluish white bolts spidering out only to disappear into the same clouds that created them. The only thing that touched the earth was the harsh white light. The sunset and the storm were beautiful.

But the terrible, beautiful spectacle of the earth and sky was completely lost on the four huddled in the Travel Agency just outside of the Mi'hen high road. Lord Braska and his two guardians stood at the windows, arguing, as Rin looked on with a raised eyebrow.

"C'mon, we can take it, can't we Braska?" Jecht slapped the summoner on the shoulder with a roguish grin.

'LORD,' Auron corrected silently. 'LORD Braska.'

Rin stared at them, dubious.

Braska surveyed the creature from the safety of indoors as it raised a chocobo over its head, snapped it in two, and shoved it into its toothy maw. "Auron? What do you say? Up for a little exercise?"

"My Lord, it is NOT the responsibility of a summoner to exterminate every troublesome creature that crosses his path." Images of Braska, snapped in half and chewed up, skipped lightly over Auron's mind as a boom of thunder shook the Travel Agency.

"Auron, you pitiless old stick-up-the-" Jecht started.

"It IS my responsibility to protect people," Braska corrected in a tone altogether more abrupt and harsh than was characteristic of him. He shot a look to Auron, one of annoyance and—perhaps, anger?

Auron felt as though he'd been slapped. Instead of show this sensitivity to either his summoner or to the pest Jecht, he simply shut up and nodded. "Yes, Mi'lord." He moved his eyes away from those of his summoner, choosing not to express anything but compliance.

"That's the spirit!" Jecht grinned wider, gesturing with a fist and starting toward the door. "Let's kick this thing's sorry chocobo-eating ass!"

Braska followed him out. "Jecht, your choice of diction never ceases to amaze me."

Auron trailed quietly behind, hand reaching for his sword.

The thing pounced. It didn't look like it was capable of pouncing, as large and lumbering as it was, but it pounced anyway. Auron shoved his summoner out of the way and took the brunt of the blow in his stead as Jecht charged forward to attack.

Braska took a moment to catch his breath, swinging his staff in some odd formation to direct a healing spell at his attacking guardian. Jecht was sporting an interesting looking slash from his left shoulder to his right one, but nothing deep. Knowing the eccentric athlete, he was already hoping for a scar to brag about. Auron was maintaining his usual battle stance and dishing out his usual amount of damage, but he was moving slower than Braska had known him to move in the past. Something was wrong, but he wasn't showing a specific wound, so there was nothing Braska could do. As for the summoner himself, his right leg was bruised from where the creature picked him up, squeezing mercilessly until Auron shoved his sword into the creature's upper arm. The fall was short and Braska's reflexes such that he landed on his feet, but he remembered the whomping Auron took for the offence. Jecht, upon seeing Auron knocked down and pinned, charged and earned himself the nasty looking shallow gash from shoulder to shoulder.

Nothing a few spells couldn't take care of later. For now, Auron was shouting something at him.

The rain began in earnest, the fiery clouds finally making themselves known.

"What, Auron?" Braska shouted, hoping that his friend was giving him some clue as to the defeat of the monster. The red-clad guardian was particularly good at picking out the weak spots on fiends.

"—pushing us back towards the ledge," Auron's voice barely reached him as the creature roared and charged, arms outstretched towards them. "We're going to fall if—" his warning was cut off as the creature shoved them backwards several yards.

Braska landing on his back, but his head dangled over the side of a cliff. The sensation created by being that close to a drop wasn't something he wanted to experience ever again. He heard Auron's voice return the creature's roar and Jecht shouting in pain. Moments later, Jecht was hauling the summoner back to his feet.

"We've got to move forward again, we're too—" Jecht started, but he stopped as Auron roared again.

Thunder crashed over the scene. A flash of lightning illuminated the creature as it raised Auron over its head in one great, oddly-fingered hand, and snarled at Braska and Jecht.

"Oh shi—" Jecht started, but was again cut off as the creature swung its other massive arm at them.

They fell. They fell what seemed to be forever, but was only three or four stories. Braska heard Jecht land with a thud a split second before he made his own landing. Luckily, he landed in a pile of spiky shrubs; his ornate robe protected him from the thorns, and the shrubs protected him from the ground. He heard Jecht groaning somewhere to his right, and figured Jecht wasn't as lucky as to land on shrubs.

"Gawd Almighty," Jecht cursed. "My ankles."

Braska stared up at the gap between the stone wall and the ledge they fell off of. Lightning illuminated the space, and rain continued to fall. It was very dark. "We're on the old road," he announced to Jecht. "There are a lot of fiends here, but mostly weak ones. Do you see Auron anywhere?" Braska casted a cure spell over his right leg to staunch the bleeding and make the pain somewhat more tolerable.

"No," Jecht announced worriedly. "It's too dark, I can't even see you. Do you suppose he's still up there, fighting?"

"I don't think so." Braska began to pick himself out of the brush. "I can't hear him or the creature anymore, and I think I hear… is that breathing?"

Jecht's hands appeared in his range of vision, grasping the front of his robe and hauling him out of the brambles. "Probably just me."

Something was wrong. Braska could feel it in the very deepest part of his insides. It wasn't the smell of blood, exactly; enough blood dripped from his right leg and Jecht's chest that the smell was all over the place. It wasn't particularly cold, but he shivered anyway.

It was too dark. It shouldn't have been that dark, even in the dead of night. The walls of the old road blocked out even the glow of lightning.

"Jecht? See if you can get some sort of fire going," Braska advised, voice suddenly quiet. "We need some light." He turned from Jecht and took two steps forward. "Auron?" he called tentatively, then paused for a reply. He expected to hear a gruff answer of, 'Over here,' or 'Are you alright?' or 'Are either of you hurt?' Even a jab at Jecht's lack of intuition would have been comforting, but there was no answer. "Auron?" he called a little louder. "Auron, are you down here?" He took three more steps, one arm stretched out in front of him.

A steady incandescent light flared up behind him. Jecht brought the strange device toward Braska, pointing it ahead of them. The summoner turned to stare at the device, then at Jecht, who held up the pocket-sized flashlight attached to his key chain. "Th' wife said I might need this someday. Never thought the occasion would be one like this, though." He chuckled nervously.

Braska nodded, turning back to his search. "Auron?"

No answer.

They proceeded a few more feet up the road, careful of their steps.

"Auron, this is NOT funny," Jecht called gruffly. "If you're just gonna pop out of the darkness at us, then my fist is just gonna pop you in the face, you hear me?"

Braska turned to gaze worriedly at Jecht.

Jecht gazed just as worriedly back at him.

There was a small noise to their right and ahead of them.

"Auron, say again, we can't see you," Braska encouraged, turning in the direction the noise came from.

The noise came again, quieter and shorter.

"Sounds like some sort of animal," Jecht told him nervously. "It's too thin a sound to be Auron."

Braska's hair stood up on the back of his neck, and he strode forward anyway. "Auron, we're coming."

A few more steps, and Braska nearly tripped over a prone figure. The smell of blood was almost overpowering.

"What's he—oh geez," Jecht pointed the flashlight straight down on the scene so Braska could see him.

Braska hesitated a precious few seconds, looking his guardian over. Nothing appeared wrong, except the unnatural direction his leg was bent in and the pool of dark blood. He knelt and gently turned his guardian over.

Jecht gasped and stepped back, but kept the light on them. He shone the flashlight down first upon Auron's face, then followed the trail of blood with the beam of unforgiving light.

Blood oozed from his scalp down over his face, where deep gashes marred his right cheekbone and jaw. The trail of blood led from his nose and mouth down to his right collarbone, where the gashes became one continuous wound, deepening as it crossed to where his armour hid his flesh. The wound continued, though, beneath the armour; the black leather was roughly cut from the neckline, down across his chest, then deeper across his stomach, down to his left hip, where they could clearly see bone. Blood poured thick and red from where they couldn't see.

Auron stared up at them, breath strained. "My lord… are… are you…"

Braska winced and began casting on the gashes on Auron's face and neck, where he could see. "Shh, shhh," he shushed his friend. "I'm fine."

Auron shivered and closed his eyes.

"Open your eyes," Braska ordered roughly, holding Auron's face between his hands. "Auron, open your eyes."

He complied, gazing wearily at them. "My lord… leave me here… in the morning… return to Send me…" His speech came in short exhalations with his breath.

"Auron, shut up," Jecht told him, kneeling to examine his friend's mangled left leg. "Damn, you took quite a beating." He started going over his first aid training in his mind—the Zanarkand Blitz League required all blitzball players be certified in first aide. Surely he could set Auron's leg and construct a decent splint while Braska took care of the heavy stuff.

Braska's hands shook slightly as he cast another spell over the bleeding collarbone; miraculously, neither Auron's collarbone nor his skull seemed anything worse than cracked. It would cause him no permanent damage. His hands strayed to the blood-soaked red coat, then brushed down to the blue belt. He undid the belt and pulled the coat away, gently lifting Auron out of it and setting him back down. He reached to the clasps at the side of Auron's armour—

"Leave it," Auron begged. "Leave it, please."

"Auron, if I can't see it, I can't hope to heal it," Braska told him gently, placing a hand on the guardian's forehead. "If we leave it, you'll bleed out."

"If you remove my armour… I'll bleed out anyway." His sentence ended abruptly as a wave of pain washed over him. He didn't bother to struggle above it; he simply gave in to the weak whimper that went with it.

Braska turned to watch as Jecht tied the now set leg into the splint with fragments of what used to be Auron's left pant leg below the knee. His hand strayed again over the black leather armour separating him from his friend's wounds—or his friend from death? It was hard to say, but Auron seemed certain it was the latter.

Then again, Auron seemed certain he was going to die, as well. Braska wasn't going to let that happen.

The crack of a twig breaking snapped Braska and Jecht out of their respective thought processes.

"We need to move him someplace safer," Braska whispered, gazing into the gloom uncertainly. "The fiends will smell his blood. We can't risk any more injury to him, not now."

"He's not walking anywhere soon, that's for damn sure." Jecht cast about with the flashlight for something to make a stretcher out of, or a sling, or something.

"It's too dark to try and construct anything, even with your light," Braska told him.

Auron tugged on a part of Braska's robe that he could reach. "Mi… Mi'lord… leave me..."

"Auron, would you quit that, please?" Braska shook him off with a tone of annoyance, trying to mask his fear.

The guardian complied, and stilled himself. A moment later, he jolted slightly and his eyes widened. "Br… Braska?" his hand flung out in the same direction it had before, seeking a section of his summoner's robe for reassurance.

The summoner caught his hand and held it tightly. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"…it… it's dark… It's too dark… it shouldn't be this dark…"

Jecht rolled his eyes and shined the light on Auron's face. "Well, yeah, it's dark. You scared or somethin'?"

Auron's eyes didn't react to the light. They stared, unfocused and with still pupils, up at the darkness. His breathing was fast, and it was clear from the expression on his face that he was terrified.

"Oh Yevon," Braska whispered, grasping his guardian's hand even tighter. "It's… it's alright, Auron, Jecht's light went out," he lied. "We're going to take you someplace safe, and fix you up." Braska stared at Jecht as he spoke, willing the other man to understand. "Jecht, there's a ledge with an overhang at the very beginning of this road, I saw it when you first lit that device. Do you think we can get him back there? Surely it's dry enough to start a fire."

"The ledge?" he paused a moment, reading Braska's expression. "Sure, sure we can get there. We're probably only a few yards from it, just can't tell. I figure I can carry him, if you can make sure his leg doesn't bang into anything on our way there."

Braska nodded. "Good. Good. Come over here, then, hand me—yeah. Okay, ready?"

Jecht handed the still fully-functional flashlight to Braska and knelt to lift Auron. "This is gonna hurt like hell, buddy," he warned him. "Try to stay awake." He shoved his arms under Auron's shoulders and the small of his back, and lifted him. It took more strength than he thought he possessed, but he held the shorter but heavier man securely and staggered forward a few steps. Braska pointed the flashlight ahead and down, leading the way.

Travel was slow. Way too slow. Somehow, this registered in Auron's mind.

"Put me down," Auron told Jecht. "I'll try to wallk."

"What? No way, man!" Jecht objected. "Like you can walk on that leg."

Auron released a sound halfway between an irritated growl and a groan of pain. "We're moving too slow. If something were to attack us, you'd be off hand and unable to react, and someone needs to protect Braska. If you let me walk, and suddenly required the use of both hands, it would be easier to let me stand than to drop me, and much faster."

"What would attack us?" Jecht forced another couple of steps, stalling.

Auron raised an eyebrow slightly and rolled his eyes. "We both smell of… blood and we're moving… very slowly. What… wouldn't attack us?"

Jecht didn't want to mention he had no idea where his weapon landed. "Ah… but…" he crept forward another couple of steps. "I'm sure we're almost there anyway."

"Don't be stupid… You've only taken… nine steps…"

Ten. Eleven. "You sound like my boy, you know. All your damn logic."

"Your boy must… be very smart. Put me… down."

Twelve. Thirteen. "Too late, we're here." Jecht waited as Braska pushed aside the brush between them and the overhang of the ledge.

Auron shivered and forced another breath into his own lungs. Something was gnawing at his insides. Eating his lungs. Drinking his energy.

"No no, don't do that," Jecht chided, giving Auron a little shake. "Stay awake."

His head tipped to the side to rest against Jecht's chest. His eyes drooped. Just as he felt he was slipping, a jolt of sharp pain brought him back.

"Slide him toward me," Braska ordered. "Out of the rain."

He was lying on stone. He felt Jecht's hands on his upper arm and his right hip, pushing him toward Braska's voice.

"I'll look after him, you get a fire going," the summoner told Jecht. "He needs the warmth."

He felt something soft but damp wedged between the back of his head and the cold stone floor. 'Must be his headdress. Smells like him.'

More cure spells closed the wounds across his scalp and his cheekbone. Someone wiped the blood away from his face.

"Braska?" Jecht's rough voice queried as warmth sprang up to Auron's right. "Why's he blind?"

Braska was about to shoot him a death glare, but noted the lack of alarm on Auron's features and frowned instead. "Head wounds. Shock. Blood loss. I honestly don't know."

More cure spells cleared Auron's head, but his sight didn't come back and he still felt incredibly sleepy and weak.

"Auron, open your eyes!" Braska's voice echoed into his mind. He felt as if he were hanging in midair again.

"Auron!" Jecht's voice followed him down. "Auron, wake up!"

A crushing grip around his midsection. The monster bit down on his shoulder. The teeth scratched his flesh, but didn't puncture—his armour stopped what could have been excessively painful. Instead, the monster roared again. Auron roared right back, wishing his sword was still in his hands instead of over the edge of the cliff.

"What are these?" Jecht asked, running his hand along the yellow-white lumps embedded in a jagged semi-circle across Auron's armor.

Braska turned his attention to them, creasing his eyebrows together.

Angrily, the monster squeezed Auron and raised him high above its head.

Auron shouted in fear now as he saw the creature's grotesque arm swing out and push Braska and Jecht over the edge of the cliff. Thunder drown out his shout.

The creature squeezed Auron again and slammed him against the ground. Auron felt bones in his back rearrange themselves. The creature's hand released him, allowing him only time for one precious breath before closing around his legs and lifting him up again.

"Teeth," Braska murmured, yanking one of the serrated, pointy objects from the black leather.

Teeth closed around his midsection and powerful jaws tested themselves against him. He felt a few of the teeth lodge in his armour, more of them pierce through it and rip holes in his flesh, and even more of them enter his body. He didn't cry out in pain; it wasn't that he was feeling particularly brave at the moment, though. The creature's jaws crushed the air out of him.

Finding him too tough to be palatable, the creature spat him out and flung him at the ground. Of all the targets to miss, the ground would be one of the least likely. However, the creature missed. Auron took a breath as the gap sped toward him.

"That's not what caused all this, then?" Jecht asked, running his hand along the gash through the blood soaked armour.

Rocks tore into him. He fell headfirst, the edges of the stones colliding with his skull and face and collarbone. He grabbed for anything, but only succeeded in turning himself right-side up. He free-fell a couple feet, then came to a bone-crunching stop, nearly impaled on a rock.

"Pull the teeth out," Braska advised, going to work. "It's possible this creature is poisonous. Try to get them all, but don't dig through his armour trying to get to them."

Jecht complied silently.

The pointed stone slid through the skin of his left hip, then reached through his armour, into his belly, towards his spine. For a moment, Auron was acutely aware of the sound of the rain on the floor of the old road and the murmurings of Braska and Jecht on the road below, of the smell of stone and brush and the air, of the feel and taste of blood as it rushed up his throat, out his mouth and nose, and onto the stone in front of him. Of being cold all the way to the very centre of his bones.

Gravity took its course, dragging him backward and toward his final fall. The stone, resenting its inability to grasp the warrior and keep him, settled for causing as much damage as it could, being an inanimate object and all. It slid into the gap between the sides of his rib cage, up onto his ribs, and across the right side of his chest. His armour finally resumed protecting him just between the end of his ribs and his collarbone, only to end and allow the stone access to his collarbone again. Finally he fell free, and landed to lie face down, bleeding into the dirt.

Braska casted an esuna to neutralize any poison that was flowing though his friend's blood. "I can't do any more for him," Braska announced finally, tossing to the ground the last tooth he could find. "I can't do any more for him without supplies and a lot of help. He needs a professional healer."

Auron stirred slightly, fighting with everything he had to breath deeply and trying to regain consciousness. He allowed himself a sound halfway between a grunt and a groan.

Braska instinctively took his hand, but kept his eyes on Auron's wounds.

"Braska?" Jecht called his attention again. "These… We didn't get all the teeth, did we…" He pointed out one of the deep punctures in Auron's armour, where blood still flowed freely.

"No," he whispered. "No, we didn't."

Auron shivered and squeezed Braska's hand weakly.

Jecht stood up and picked up the pocket flashlight from where he'd lodged it between the rocks after lighting the fire. He turned towards the darkness. "I'm going for help, then."

"No," Auron cried out to him. "Stay with Lord Braska."

Jecht turned to Auron, meaning to throw some rude retort at him, but not having the heart. "Auron, you need some serious medical attention, you can't wait any longer."

"Take… Take Lord Braska… with you... then…"

"Who'll stay here with you, then?" Jecht countered.

Silence.

"I won't leave you here," Braska told Auron. "I can't. You're my guardian."

"Then… why are… you guarding… me…?" he breathed with a bit of wryness.

Braska nodded at Jecht. "Go."

Jecht nodded back and started out.

"No," Auron almost cried, shivering.

Braska shifted out of his outer robe and draped it over Auron. "Shh," he set a hand on his guardian's forehead as he would for a sick child. "Shh."

The darkness was thick. For Jecht, it was especially unnatural. In Zanarkand, there was always light, even in the stormiest midnight, usually for safety reasons. It was a custom Jecht thought Spira should strongly consider adopting; he stubbed his toe on a raised root for the third time and cursed loudly. The fiends and creatures of the area stayed outside his circle of light, even though he smelled strongly of blood.

He shined the flashlight up the stone wall to find at last what he was looking for—a decent place to climb back up to the top. He set the flashlight between his teeth and started up. The stones were slick with water, but he was careful. It wouldn't do to fall again and end up like Auron.

'Yessiree,' he told himself. 'Rocks are bad. Very bad.' He hauled himself up and up. It seemed to take forever to find each foothold. 'Hopefully the critter isn't up there waiting for me. Surely old Rin called in reinforcements by now. Shoulda seen what happened to us from the agency… maybe he's already called for help. I hope Braska can handle whatever fiends Auron was worried about.'

Auron drifted in and out of consciousness. Braska dozed off once in awhile, but made a valiant to stay awake. Finally Auron nudged him with the back of his hand. "Mi'lord… You being awake… isn't going to help me any."

Braska frowned at him. "What if some fiend attacks?"

Auron forced a chuckle. "I'll be sure to… wake you up and tell you."

The summoner smiled a little, and stretched out on the ground beside his guardian. "I guess you're right, we're mostly helpless, aren't we?"

"Mostly?" Auron chuckled again.

Braska rested his head on Auron's chest.

"What-?" the guardian was confused at first, but his clouded mind caught up in a moment or two. 'He's searching for a place he can hear your pulse.'

Finding where a little extra weight wouldn't hurt him, Braska curled up with his ear to Auron's heart and commenced dozing.

Auron felt his mind clear a little; he was suddenly very alert but very peaceful. The thunder slowly dulled down to an occasional rumble, and the lightning was distant. The rain and the breath of his summoner were the only things to meet his ears. He felt his heartbeat slowing dangerously, but wasn't afraid; Jecht would be back soon to look after Braska. As much as he hated leaving the task of guardian to such a bumbling drunken idiot, it was better than abandoning Braska to travel alone.

A road stretched out in front of Auron in his mind; he knew this road. This was the road a monk trained for years to walk. Auron had walked this road before. He stood and felt the ground beneath his feet, solid and stable, but unforgiving. He turned his face to the sky and let the sun beat down upon his skin, warm but hostile. The wind blew through his hair and ruffled his coat, cool but indifferent. He tolerated the road because he knew he had to reach the end, but the road loved him.

'I can't walk yet,' a voice in his head screamed. 'I can't walk this road until Jecht returns for Braska.' He told it to shut up. He knew that if he didn't reach the end of this road before he bled out, he would become a fiend when he died. This road was the road to the Farplane.

'No!' the voice roared at him. He started forward and waited for what he knew was coming.

Memories washed over him gently, showing him the death of his parents. He saw himself as he was the first time he began to walk the road—a small boy of only five. He stared down at the boy, who stared back up at him in empty recognition.

"Is it time to go now?" the boy asked him, voice far too tired and sad for one so young.

Auron nodded, and held out his hand. The boy Auron took the outstretched hand, and they began walking together.

'No!' the voice in his head screamed, trying to force him to lose focus. 'No, you traitor! Honourless!'

Auron ignored it. He saw himself at the age of seven, lying on the ground in a transparent river that existed but didn't exist. He saw the older warrior monk assigned to teach him, his cold eyes glaring down at the lad on the ground. He remembered the second time he encountered the road, but at that time, he was too weak to walk it. He'd forgotten how. If his master hadn't shown pity on him then, and taken him to the healer, he would have died and become a fiend.

Auron ignored the image of his master and knelt, taking the lad into his arms and continuing on. He remembered himself, lying in the rough cot in the healer's hut, delirious with fever and still begging his master to forgive him, long after his master left.

The three walked on, the road becoming smoother for a piece, then uneven again. He saw himself at the age of seventeen, running from his executioners. They shouted after him, chasing until his lungs gave out, and he fell. He remembered the warrior monks he trained with, his former friends- how they looked as they attacked him even as he lay defenceless on the ground.

Auron set the lad on the ground and drew his sword, waiting for the monks to attack. In the moment the first one brought a blade toward his seventeen year old self, he swung out his sword and blocked. The warrior monks disappeared. The young man on the ground gazed at him in awe as Auron picked him—himself—up and dusted him off.

"Are… are you-?"

Auron nodded to the young man.

"How does it happen?"

"In defence of our friends," Auron told him.

"In battle?"

"Yes."

The young man nodded and turned to walk with him. "Good."

The four walked on, until they met the present, and the sheer drop into nothingness that sat before him.

"What do we do now?" two of his three other selves chorused.

Auron sat on the ground at the edge of the drop. "We wait for the bridge." He didn't regard them, but he saw them in his mind anyway. He was a sorry excuse for a warrior; each time he started this road to the end, it was in sadness, pain, or shame. Only now could he truly make it to the end. His lose ends were all tied up. Nothing remained to anchor him to the world.

He first became aware of the water some time later. He stood, lifting his unconscious self in his arms and knowing his slightly younger self would pick up the youngest boy. The cold, tugging river of death began tugging at his ankles. He stood firmly, refusing to be washed over the edge.

"How old are we?" his second-to-last self asked.

"Old," Auron told him with a snort. "Not too much older than you, though."

"Are we married?"

"No."

"Are we in love?"

"No."

"Hn. Do we have any illegitimate children?"

Auron wrinkled his eyebrows and turned to stare at him.

The young man shrugged. "Don't stare at me like that, you would've asked the same."

Auron chuckled and turned to stare back over the edge, waiting.

"Who are our friends, that we died for them?"

"We are a guardian," he told him.

The young man nodded. "Good."

The river picked up its pace, pulling more resolutely at Auron's ankles, hoping to unbalance him.

"Are… are we ready?"

'No, no we are not! You cannot walk yet!' the voice in Auron's head bellowed, willing him to step back and start back towards the start of the road. 'Braska lives. You cannot walk yet!'

Auron bowed his head, and did not answer.

Braska awoke with a start, hearing Auron's heartbeat slow to such a dangerous rate that the summoner was hard-pressed to decide if he'd actually heard the previous beat at all. "Auron?" Braska whispered, placing a hand where his ear had been. "Auron?" The summoner pried open the guardian's jaw and commenced Spira's form of CPR. After the third time attempting to restart Auron's pulse, he abandoned the method and chose instead to employ a phoenix feather. The down feather of a phoenix was expensive, usually more than a summoner without extensive backing could afford, but Braska chose to keep one around for emergencies. The magical properties of such feathers could bring someone back from near death and sustain them a short while. Braska figured it counted as an emergency.

Auron took a step back from the edge with such a sudden abruptness he nearly fell into the water.

The young man that was himself turned to him, concerned. "What is it?"

"It's… Braska… He's trying to bring me back."

"Will he make us fall?"

"He might, but it isn't his intention," Auron answered. Braska's voice echoed across the road, calling to him.

"We have to go," the young man decided at the same moment his current self did.

They turned together and started back, against the flow of Death.

He dug the feather out of the inside pocket of his outer robe and held it about a foot over Auron. When he let go, it drifted down to rest over his heart. A gentle white light pulsed out from it, and Auron's entire body jolted in no particular direction. His breathing began again, steadier.

Braska sighed in relief and rested his forehead on Auron's chest, beneath the feather. Rocks shifted just outside the entrance of the cave, heralding another presence. "Ah, Jecht, finally. Took you long enough." There was no answer. Braska wrinkled his eyebrows together and lifted his head. He stared straight across the embers of the dying fire into the reflective, glowing eyes of the biggest wildcat he'd ever scene.

The water was up to Auron's knees and was quite insistent on pushing him down. He trudged up the river with himself, wordlessly. Suddenly, something attached itself to his heart and pulled him upriver faster than he could react. He and his three other selves slammed into the invisible wall that was the beginning of the road. They stood again on the road.

"Now what?" the youngest boy asked.

The wildcat growled for a moment, coiling itself, then sprang forward with a snarl, both paws outstretched and claws unsheathed, aiming for Braska. The summoner fell backwards and scooted away, kicking his feet out to attempt to do some damage and shouting reflexively in fear.

Braska's fearful shout echoed in Auron's mind and over his road. The young man and the youngest boy stared in shock and wonder as Auron dropped the image of his seven-year-old self and charged through nothingness, disappearing from the road.

A hand closed around the wildcat's back leg, pulling it away from Braska before it could do any damage. Enraged, the beast turned on the now fully-conscious Auron and lunged for his throat. The hand released the back leg and closed over the cat's neck, squeezing mercilessly. The cat and Auron locked eyes for several moments, snarling at each other. It swiped at Auron, shredding the guardian's arms and face with many shallow scratches. Unable to see it, Auron ignored it and continued squeezing until the cat went limp and collapsed. Barely a blink later, Auron released it and allowed it to fall over him, no longer a threat. He turned to face Braska's general direction.

Braska stared at him wide-eyed. "You… you're… thank Yevon."

Auron used the last of his adrenaline to push the wildcat off him, then rested for several moments.

"Auron?" Braska crept over to him and took his hand again. "Can you see?"

Auron shook his head slightly. "No, my lord. I… I heard you, while I was there. I heard you calling me, and then you shouted."

"While you were where?"

"On the path, waiting for the bridge."

Braska's eyes widened.

A voice echoed across the old road to the little escarpment Braska and his guardian currently called home. The rain had stopped, and Jecht climbed back down the wall on a rope ladder provided by Rin. After him came Rin and two healers he sent for upon seeing their initial fall—an old woman and a young man. "Braaaaaaskaaaaa!" Jecht shouted. "Auron! We're coming!"

Braska appeared in the grey pre-dawn haze, sans his headdress and outer robe and looking quite abused. "Jecht! Rin! Thank Yevon. Please, hurry." He rushed back to Auron's side, motioning for the entourage of four people to follow.

"Yevon," the healers both began swearing under their breath as soon as they saw Auron.

"The majority of the damage is beneath his armour," Braska told them, trying to be helpful. "Once you remove it, you'll have to work quickly. He's already lost a lot of blood."

Rin and Jecht pulled the corpse of the wildcat out and away from them.

Jecht examined the cat's massive claws and whistled softly. "Damn. No wonder he didn't want me leaving."

"After I revived him the last time, he told me I'd called him back from the path. If we can't save him, he is sure to become an Unsent."

"'We?'" the young man healer raised an eyebrow.

Lord Braska rolled up his sleeves and wiped his forehead across the back of his hand, then nodded. "We. Let's do this."

The young man healer unfastened the clasps on Auron's armour, and peeled it away.