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Never Do This

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In retrospect, the battle should have been a warning sign for them to turn back. Lulu remembered that day for another reason entirely.

Her first malboro: the mage had read about them in her studies, but nobody had thought to mention that they stank like decaying fruit. Also, the guidebooks had failed to give a sense of scale. She was almost grateful when Ginnem put a hand on her shoulder and stepped forward to summon.

Lulu retreated with a sullen glare to watch the battle from a safe distance. A huge fan of ice sprouted from the ground at Ginnem's feet. She must be testing out their newest ally. The mage caught her breath and waited, watching the earth for some shaggy shape of horn and claws to spring forth, a beast of winter like the ogres she had read about on Mt. Gagazet. She nearly missed the etherial figure descending from the sky. The blue and white figure was stunning, even for an aeon. All the rest had been four-legged or winged or crowned with horns, animal spirits that embodied elemental powers. Not she— for Sedna was a she. Gloriously bared to the sky, ice personified, she tossed her long hair and leapt towards the foe.

The malboro greeted her with a noxious cloud. Frozen daggers cut through the murk. The aeon spun in, struck, spun out again. If Kilika's aeon brawled, this one danced.

Lady Ginnem was too close to combat. It was a common mistake among summoners, usually not fatal, but this time costly. The fringes of the poisonous cloud settled over her. She swayed and tottered towards the two combatants.

It took Lulu a moment to realize what had happened. "Lady Ginnem!" She rushed forward, seizing her mentor's robes and dragging her back. The last remnants of the malboro's foul exhalation stung Lulu's eyes and throat, churned her stomach.

Ginnem's face was slack. Her eyes held no sign of recognition. Setting her teeth, Lulu smacked her cheek, hard. The lady blinked and refocused on her, confused awareness changing to alarm. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She patted the girl's shoulder and pointed away from the battle, grasping her wrist and yanking it when Lulu stood her ground.

"Don't be silly. I'm not leaving you." The girl folded her arms, planted herself between Ginnem and the fight, and turned back to watch the aeon's deadly play.

It was well worth seeing. Body straining like a bent bow, Sedna was spraying the malboro with her native element, binding it within an enormous geode of ice. The aeon straightened with arrogant poise, examining her handiwork, then snapped her fingers with a cruel smile. The ground shook as the icy cage shattered. Nevertheless, the malboro showed no signs of hurt.

Horror seized Lulu: either this enemy was too strong, or it was ice-resistant. Either way, Ginnem was in no condition to summon an alternate aeon.

"Come with me," Lulu urged. "Surely it can't outrun us."

Ginnem shook her head, mouth set in a firm line. Her eyes were fixed on the battle. If she took her attention away, the aeon would disperse. Right now, Sedna was the only thing keeping the malboro distracted from an easy meal.

Again Lady Ginnem pointed away from the battle, an emphatic command.

Aeon on the field: guardian, yield. It was a fundamental law of pilgrimage. Lulu had obeyed every stricture with religious zeal, but now she had no choice. Abandoning her summoner was not an option. Ducking around Ginnem's flailing grab and running forward, she raised her hands and called down the puniest of spells, fire.

It worked, at least a little. She saw a few tentacles curl and blacken. Then Sedna whirled in front of her. A blue shimmer in the air between aeon and enemy must be a shield. The vile liquids spurting from the malboro's tentacles struck the magical barrier and stopped. Lulu's stomach clenched. She knew from her reading that victims of such an attack usually died in agony.

Cowering behind the aeon hampered spell-casting. Was she making any headway at all? The malboro writhed and gurgled under fiery plumes. Some of its limbs were burning on their own, now. Unfortunately, this foe was enormous. She might just as well try to burn down Macalania Forest.

Sedna spun in for another futile attack, bouncing off rubbery tentacles. One of the heavy weights at the ends of her hair struck Lulu across the forehead and knocked her flat. Swearing, she started to rise, only to see caustic black fog spewing out from the malboro's maw. She held her breath.

The world went dark. She could hear the aeon's hammers of ice crashing down. She could hear the fiend's hissing. She could smell the awful stench of cooked malboro. She could feel the ground shuddering. But she could not see. As toxins went, blindness was a minor inconvenience for a mage, but the odds were already stacked against her.

Anger welled up in Lulu's heart. Failure! Ginnem's pilgrimage would end here. Chappu's I told you so would be small comfort to him, waiting week after week for news that never came. Despair welded itself into a knot of fury. Lulu bared her teeth and let fly another spell, refusing to die running. Her fires became an inferno, blooming into staccato explosions whose heat burned her face. The marlboro was gurgling in what she hoped was pain.

The fiery cloudburst was spent as quickly as it came. The aeon must be directly in front of her: she could feel cool air bathing her cheeks. Doomed but determined, Lulu lashed out with another simple spell, trusting the magical fire to find its mark.

She missed the innocuous kweh in the midst of battle.

"Hold!" a voice called. "We'll take it from here, ma'am!"

There was a ring of metal, the clamor of many voices: Crusaders. Some of them were using magic, or perhaps fire gems. The air was buffeted by sudden heat, and she could hear the roar of flames far surpassing her own. Exhausted, the mage sank to the turf.

A cocoon of ice enveloped her just as a fireball detonated nearly on top of her. For a moment, she could not breathe. Bathed in flames, the ice melted away almost instantly. Her skin was uncomfortably warm, and her hair was steaming. Then cold arms were sweeping around her, lifting her like a doll.

"Ginnem," she croaked.

Frigid lips pressed against the gash in her brow where the aeon had struck her. It numbed the pain. The aeon had taken some hurt in all this, too: her arms were trembling, footsteps unsteady. Sedna gently lowered the girl to the ground, then toppled to one knee, slumping like a dying flower.

Lulu realized her eyesight was beginning to clear: the confusing haze of color and white light before her eyes was a rising cloud of pyreflies. The ice-spirit's figure was growing insubstantial, translucent. Through her body, Lulu could see Lady Ginnem on the crest of a short slope of green grass, leaning heavily on her staff.

Lulu was soaked to the skin. Suddenly she realized what Sedna had done, and why she was not dead.

As the aeon faded away, Lulu stood and set her hands on glassy shoulders. Her fingers burned with cold. Standing on tiptoe, she planted a shy kiss on her cheek.

The haughty smile thawed a few degrees. Well done, little sister. Then she was gone.