Waves crashed. Armor gleamed dully. Rank on rank of warriors stared down the sea. Black tendrils were creeping into the bay, spreading and darkening in the gray water.
Lucil shared a small, private smile with the crimson-clad warrior at her right. That was all the disciplined captain permitted when they were on duty.
"Right beside you, ma'am," the younger woman said, eyes shining in a way that said more. A slight breach of protocol. Under the circumstances, Lucil would condone it, even if she could not afford to let her thoughts dwell on the reasons for it - not now.
The commander of the Djose Chocobo Knights glanced up towards the point where the command center had been erected. She frowned. The blue crest of Maester Seymour was clearly visible, nodding like a second signal flag, and a bright gleam of white and indigo beside him must be Lady Yuna. It troubled Lucil for them to be here. It was not safe. Yet she was touched to know that Lord Braska's daughter would dance for her troops, when this bloody day was finished. Better that sad duty than the one the Lady had set out upon.
Sinrise. A mile of ocean lifted up groaning, and the bloated behemoth rose from the depths. Hideous writhing forms dripped from its carapace into the water. The air around its mottled snout shimmered like the membrane of a blitzball sphere. That was why the Al Bhed were here. As for her knights -
She had volunteered to lead the charge. Someone must, and her troops were the finest Crusaders in the world. They were brave and disciplined, proud to be offering up their lives to end Sin's menace once for all. Elma's adoration for her was unshaken, although both knew that Lucil's next order would probably be the last given and obeyed.
The surface of the ocean was boiling towards them. A leathery jointed spine whipped out of a wave-crest just beyond the breakers. Dark shapes were propelling themselves towards the shore, outriders of Sin's wrath, pawns sent to clear a path and snarl their defenses.
The flag dropped. The Crusaders' cannons went off, thundering blasts echoing from cliff to cliff.
Captain Lucil, commander of the Djose Knights, raised her sword one last time and bellowed for the vanguard to charge.
The clawed feet of their avian mounts drummed the sand. Spray flew beneath the birds' pumping legs as they hit the sheet of water rushing up to meet them. Lucil's sturdy chocobo outraced the rest, hurtling into the deeper waters with no more fear than its rider. In a moment, they were in among the sinspawn, and had no more need to run.
Lucil had a brief glimpse of her knights around and behind her, twisting in their saddles and turning spears or swords on submerged foes. Sinspawn were exploding out of the water all around them. Cries and shouts went up, scales and fins and claws were sheared off, black ichor and slime and pyreflies flew, and some of the chocobos were faltering, their riders pulled under. Lucil lunged and snapped a sword-stroke out and down, instincts faster than thought sending her blade's point into a ghastly eye and the brain within. Her chocobo jabbed its beak downward, tearing at the passing tail of another.
Huge pincers wrapped around her left calf, pulling her down. She heard Elma's shout the instant before the churning water closed over her head. Then she was struggling, jabbing, slashing, trying to take this last foe with her. She was choking; she had not managed to take a breath before being dragged under-
The creature was worrying her leg, but just before she blacked out it went limp, although her sword was merely thudding off its bony shell-
Firm hands were grasping her collar, pulling her upward-
The sea shuddered like an enormous mass of muscle, a clenching fist. The ocean boomed against her skin, her eardrums, her lungs-
She came back to pain, choking and gasping and retching. Firm hands pumping her chest were pushing out seawater. Her shoulder felt dislocated; her mauled leg was stinging furiously. An angry red smear above her resolved itself into Elma, haggard but alive.
Lucil raised a mailed hand and gripped her wrist.
"Captain!" Elma gasped. Their hands locked. For a moment Lucil feared the younger woman would embrace her - she knew that fervent look, felt it wash over her like the exact opposite of Sin's deadly shockwave - but her lieutenant restrained herself and merely helped her to her feet.
Elma had learned from her not to mince words. "Gone, ma'am. Except Clasko."
Lucil stiffened: not unexpected, but still appalling. The end of the Chocobo Knights. Clasko seemed an improbable survivor, but the more important question was: "Sin?"
Elma shook her head. "Unknown, ma'am. I was underwater and didn't see what happened." She pointed towards the headland, where the Al Bhed installation had been a short time before.
Lucil nodded grimly. "Signs are not good."
Elma's shoulder was bleeding, she noticed abstractly. If there were any healers still alive, it would need tending.
"Captain Lucil!" They swung around. Pale and ashen, Clasko was stumbling towards them looking bewildered, lost, and dry.
Elma's eyes bored into him accusingly.
"I'm so glad to see you're all right, Captain!" he said.
"Report," Lucil said.
He drew himself to attention and saluted. "S-Sin came out of the water, and there was this huge sphere of white light, and- and then I don't know. I was thrown up the beach. When I came to, the bay was empty. I haven't found any survivors yet. Oh, except my ch-chocobo!"
"Yeah, she-" he blushed and hung his head. "I couldn't hold her, ma'am. I'm sorry. She turned and bolted when the battle started."
Elma was fuming beside her, but Lucil merely nodded. Of course, she knew full well that Clasko was good at one thing only: handling chocobos. He of all of them should have been able to master a panicking bird. The shame in his eyes was answer enough, for now.
The captain turned, surveying the few mangled and scattered bodies tossed around on the sand nearby. She raised her eyes to the cliff-tops. High above, a slender white figure was dancing, spinning, weaving. Pyreflies were beginning to rise from the bodies on the shore, and from the waves as well. Lord Braksa's daughter was sending them home, as she had promised.
Captain Lucil raised her fist to her heart and began to recite. "Ardof. Gan. Noren. Efka. Leyli..."
Elma and Clasko joined in the litany of their comrades' names, Elma hoarsely, Clasko with stunned tears. While they chanted, they watched the bedraggled, lonely chocobo wandering aimlessly over the bloody sand, pecking nervously at flotsam.
"All for nothing," Clasko whispered when the ritual was over, awed and dazed. "All in vain."
"For Spira," Lucil corrected sternly. "For hope. They died as Crusaders should die, defending Spira from Sin."
"Yes, ma'am." Clasko sounded miserable.
Elma stirred beside her, moving like a sleepwalker. "Orders, Captain?"
"We search for survivors." Lucil smiled at her sadly. "We begin anew. Come."