Our Story So Far: On a rampage to destroy the temples of Yevon, Sin transports Isaaru and most of his companions to Bikanel Island, where Wakka and Rikku are raising a family. Gippal gives Rikku and Isaaru's party a lift to Baaj Island to the south, where Sin has just attacked the new Al Bhed Home.
____________The small flyer wobbled under the weight of extra passengers, punctuated by Rikku's creative swearing in two langauges. Maroda rode white-knuckled; his brother with serene resignation. Elma, the machina-phobe, clung to her seat with a dour expression, but gave herself away with a loud whoop when the flier hopped over a sand-wyrm that unexpectedly rose up behind a crumbling ruin. Auron simply played barnacle. Gippal was quiet too, for once, focusing on his steering for the sake of the two passengers with no seats, straps, or anything else to keep them from flying over the back rail if the craft dropped suddenly.
They were streaking towards a gray hump emerging from the shoulders of the dunes. The shape soon resolved itself into a bulbous, unlovely hulk of an airship with the profile of an oversized bathtub, its hull a crude patchwork of added fins, engine pods, exhaust ports and mismatched panels. It was anchored on the southern tip of the island with the bulk of its fuselage hanging out over open water. A loading ramp extended from a rear entrance down to the beach. Gippal banked sharply, angling towards it. For a terrifying moment, a collision seemed certain. Then the flyer slowed to a crawl and slithered up the ramp into the belly of the ship, coming to an abrupt halt against a stack of barrels The engines roared loudly in the metal bay, then faded to a whine and silence. Insulated from buffeting wind and sun, the passengers felt deaf and blind as they roused themselves and tried to make out their surroundings. Floor-to-ceiling stacks of crates and gun racks loomed on all sides, making it a wonder they had not struck anything on the way in.
"Well, here we are," Gippal said, hopping up onto the flyer's windshield to kick a knob set in the wall. The ramp and cargo bay doors began to close with a hiss of hydraulics. The cavernous hold grew pitch-black as the square of daylight behind them narrowed to a crack and vanished. A few dingy amber light panels flickered to life in the ceiling.
"You gotta get a new paint job for this bucket, Gippal," Rikku said, standing and stretching. "It looks like a flying turd."
"Flies like one, too." Gippal dropped to the floor, circling around the small craft to secure it with magnetic clamps and connect several hoses. "Joyride's over, people. Head upstairs. I'll be there in a minute."
Rikku pushed past Auron, scrambling over the side and heading for a long ladder scaling the forward bulkhead. Auron climbed up after her. The others followed slowly, feeling their way in the alien environment. They emerged in a dim corridor whose far end opened onto the flight deck. Here the Yevonites pulled up short. The walls, floor, and ceiling of the cone-shaped compartment were made of a clear, transparent substance that looked like glass but clanked like metal. There were four crew stations arranged in a vertical diamond in the nose of the ship: a pilot's seat suspended from the ceiling, a gunner's station set in a well below, and navigation and operations consoles on either side.
Rikku slid into the ops station and started pecking at the controls. A sphere of blue light materialized above her fingers, a smaller version of the scanner on Cid's airship. "Oh," she said, glancing over her shoulder at the logjam of people hugging the short tongue of opaque flooring in front of the doors. "Take any seat but the top one. Don't touch anything."
Gippal emerged from the back as they were settling in. He chuckled at the shellshocked expressions of his three Yevon passengers. "First time flying, eh?"
Elma daringly lowered herself into the gunner's bubble with nothing beneath her but ocean, then looked up with a crazed grin. "Wow. I think I'm gonna have to do all kinds of atonement when we get back to Bevelle."
"We, uh, were on Cid's airship once," Maroda said, helping Isaaru into the navigator's seat. "But we couldn't see out like this."
"Oh, that thing." Gippal leaned past Isaaru to key in a few commands, calling up a small map and adjusting a red cursor to select the easternmost of a cluster of islands south of Bikanel. "That's a luxury yacht. This is an old army transport...with a few enhancements. Hey, Rikku, you remember how to work the scanner?"
"I'm on it." She waved Maroda over. "Take a look. Red dots are fiends. Green dots are alive. Green dots with a white circle around 'em are alive plus metal, which means people. Simple, eh?"
"Or a sand wyrm that's eaten a machina," Gippal said, climbing into the pilot's seat and pushing the steering yoke forward. The airship began to descend, swinging out over the waves and back inland. Dunes began to scroll beneath them, gradually accelerating to a blur. "Sing out if you spot anything."
"I'm not sure if Lucil's carrying anything metal," Elma said, squinting at the desert rushing between her feet.
"Boots," Maroda suggested. "Buckles. Her cane. Is that enough for the sensors to pick up?"
"Should be," Gippal said. "Oh, that reminds me...Rikku, what's Nooj done to get himself locked up this time? He got left behind when Home was evacuated. Cid blew me off about it."
"Oh," she said. "Gip, Nooj had another fit and shot up the R&D lab. Landed Shinra in the infirmary. Pops is still trying to decide what to do about him. He's a genius with ancient machina, but if Shinra can't figure out what's making him fritz, I'm afraid he may get his death wish." She sighed. "Assuming Sin didn't save us the trouble."
"The Nooj?" Elma said. "He's still kicking? I thought he was dead."
"Not for lack of trying," Gippal said. "hiddo umt sukchukkan."
Isaaru eased out of his seat and paced back to Auron, who had planted himself against the rear bulkhead beside the doors.
"Sir Auron?" he said, lowering his voice. "Your thoughts?"
"We're running out of time."
"Yes. But we must make certain that Pacce and Lucil are not lost in this Yevon-forsaken wilderness." Isaaru smiled at Auron's sour expression. "I know: Sin won't wait. But in all honestly, my friend, do you believe we are ready to face Sin?"
"No." Auron gave him a hard look. "This pilgrimage is going nowhere."
"As I thought," Isaaru said, unruffled. "I must speak with Elder Cid. His machina may be our only chance of saving Bevelle."
"We won't reach it in time. Sin's heading north. We're headed south." Auron considered. "Except...its next target may be Macalania. And it's expending a great deal of power. Eventually it has to rest."
"May Yevon grant it so." Isaaru bowed in Yevon's prayer, then glanced towards Rikku. "I'm eager to learn what is on that sphere. Do you know, Sir Auron?"
Auron grimaced. "Probably."
"You don't sound pleased." Isaaru tilted his head. "Are you afraid of what it will show us?"
"You'd learn sooner or later," Auron said, shrugging. "I just hope 'sooner' turns out better than 'later.'"
___________An hour later, they had found nothing more than a few machina, a survey team in the ruins of Old Home, an insane Zu that seemed determined to defend its territory and kept bouncing off the windshield until they gave up on that sector, and a great deal of featureless nothing. Elma was starting to drift off after miles upon miles of undulating sand. Gippal nudged her with his foot. "Yo. Don't touch that, or you'll really have something to atone for." He leaned back, turning to Isaaru. "Well, that's the whole island. You folks satisfied? We've got to turn for Home eventually. Cid's gonna blow a gasket as it is."
"But—" Maroda said.
Elma jerked away from the gun controls and exhaled, staring glumly at the monotonous landscape spread out below them. "I know how you feel, Captain, believe me. But we've got a job to do, eh? Pacce's a trooper; he'll be fine wherever he is. And the general wouldn't want us wasting time on her."
"We must hope and pray that they were left behind in Djose," Isaaru said. "Meanwhile, Sin continues its pilgrimage. We must resume ours."
Rikku gave the soft-spoken summoner a dubious look, but kept her mouth shut. She rolled her eyes at Gippal.
"I'll take that as a yes," Gippal said, throwing the steering yoke hard to one side. Elma gave a yelp as the ground tilted steeply and a burst of acceleration pressed them into their seats. Maroda went skidding backwards on the glassy floor. The dunes below quickly gave way to reef, then open water, dropping away rapidly as the ship climbed.
"Whew," Rikku said. "You've been tinkering with the engines again, haven't you?"
Gippal flashed a smug grin, easing back on the steering yoke. "You'd better believe it. Though I can't take full credit. I'm test driving a new booster design for Shinra."
Maroda righted himself with a scowl at Auron, who had not budged. "Give us a little warning next time, eh?" Maroda said, coming forward again as the ship began to level off. "So how long till we reach Home?"
"We've got about four hours," Gippal said, easing back on the steering yoke. He pressed a button, pushed away the controls and propped his boots on the handlebars. "Phew. I'm beat. I've locked us on cruise. Rikku, think you could handle things up here if I crash for a while? I haven't slept in two days."
"Sure, leave it to me!" Rikku giggled at Elma's expression: the woman's eyes had rounded out to spheres at the word crash. "Don't worry. I know how to fly this thing. I just can't land!"
"Oh, great," Elma said.
"All righty, then. No rearranging the control preferences while I'm out." Gippal climbed down from the pilot's seat, giving Rikku's rump a passing swat. "I'll see you in a few hours. Buzz me if the scanner starts pinging." With a wave, he ambled past Auron and disappeared through the doors.
"Well." Maroda cleared his throat. "Since we've got some time—"
"Gotcha," Rikku said, digging Wakka's sphere out of her beltpouch. "Gimme a sec. I think I can project the recording onto the front screen." She popped the sphere into the panel in front of her and hesitated, turning around in her seat. "Um...Auron? If you've got anything to say, better do it now."
Auron shook his head. "Just do it."
The breathtaking panorama of ocean and sky was suddenly obscured by a floor-to-ceiling hologram, a nebulous darkness spattered with stars and swirling lights. At first, it was impossible to decipher what they were looking at. Then the lower half of a girl's face flashed into view, filling most of the screen. Elma gasped. Thirteen years had passed since anyone had seen the High Summoner save through temple statues and rare sphere recordings, but her etherial, sweet smile was unmistakable.
Rikku hunkered down, folding her arms tightly around herself.
The view tilted crazily as Yuna set the sphere down and stepped back, revealing a night-shrouded landscape of rubble and broken spires. The darkness was not merely black, but a tapestry of somber colors too subtle to distinguish. Rivers of pyreflies flowed over the shadowed ruins in sluggish eddies, weaving across the shells of puverized walls and broken pavement. It a was beautiful, terrible, unreal vision, a dream flirting with the shores of nightmare.
"Zanarkand?" Maroda said in a hushed whisper.
Isaaru rose to his feet in reverent awe, bowing deeply and sweeping his arms in formal prayer.
Floating before them, Yuna's slim form seemed to soar through a daylit expanse of open sea and puffy clouds. As their eyes began to adjust to the double image, a dark figure standing behind her suddenly stepped forward into focus. Yuna's companion was completely camouflaged by her black garments, so that her pale shoulders, neck and head seemed to be hanging in mid-air. Black hair falling over her left eye reduced her face to a bone-white triangle.
"The Lady," Isaaru said. "In Yevon's name, who...?"
"Hello, everyone!" Yuna said brightly, clasping her hands and beaming out at them. "Um...I just want to say...thank you so much. And I'm sorry. Lulu and I have gone on ahead. But before you go chasing after us, I...I want to explain. Please, hear us out."
"Giving you a bigger head-start," Rikku muttered.
"I know..." Yuna took a long breath, steadying herself. "I know this isn't what we talked about last night. But we've come so far. All the way to Zanarkand, despite all that's happened. I can't stop now. If I did, all we've been through— all the sacrifices of the people we've lost— would be for nothing." Her voice died. She turned away fingering two necklaces, one with an abstract pendant of Al Bhed design, the other a Y-shaped silver charm. Lulu opened her arms and held Yuna until she regained her composure. "And now...Sir Auron says even the pilgrimage is a lie. But fighting Yunalesca won't bring my father back, or save Sir Jecht, or help Spira."
"A lie?"" Maroda said, turning to glare at the white-haired guardian. Auron did not answer, transfixed by the sight of old ghosts. He had stepped away from the wall. His detached mask had fallen away, replaced by raw, impotent anger so bleak that it seemed to hold a tinge of madness.
Yuna, stubborn and certain beyond the reach of any protests, kept talking. "Sir Auron, you were right: there is another way. We've talked it over. Lulu's found a way to break the cycle, really and truly. When we've finished, I'll be with Tidus, she'll be with Chappu, and Spira will be free of Sin...forever. So you mustn't be too sad for us."
"Yunie," Rikku breathed, eyes starting to water.
"But we'll need every one of you for this to work. So I've got to ask you to help me one last time, although it's the hardest thing I've ever asked you to do. Please. Help me...help us end Spira's sorrow. I know we can do it, together." Again Yuna's smile flashed out like a pyrefly's gleam.
Lulu placed a hand on her shoulder and began to speak in the same measured tones that she had once used to instruct Tidus in Spira's mysteries. "Sir Auron has given us a weapon possessed by no summoner or guardian before: the truth. At last we know what the Final Summoning means, and we can prepare for it. Yuna and I will vanquish Sin. Then it will be up to you to defeat the next Sin, before Yu Yevon can replenish it. Listen closely." Another audience, one that neither Yuna nor Lulu could have anticipated, held their breaths. "In the battle against Sir Jecht, I shall expend every power that I possess. Thus, when Yu Yevon joins with me, I will be powerless, and Yu Yevon at his most vulnerable. That is when you must—"
"Jecht?" Elma said, bewildered. "Yu...Yevon?"
A gruff voice cut through Lulu's speech. "You're not going."
Isaaru half-turned, startled from his dumbfounded trance by the sound of Auron's voice. But this, too, was part of the recording. A younger image of the old guardian appeared, swimming at the edge of the field of view.
"Sir Auron?" Yuna said. "You would stop me now, after guiding us all this way?"
"No." He stepped towards her, looming over the petite summoner. "If you are resolved, I am still your guardian. But there is no reason for her to die."
Yuna flinched. "I...I don't want anyone else to die. But if it truly ends Sin forever..."
"Sir Auron," Lulu said, interposing herself between them. "I have trained for this moment all my life, although I did not understand clearly until now what I was preparing for. When Yuna chose the summoner's path, I made my choice, too." Her hypnotic voice rang with conviction as she turned back to Yuna, holding her friend's eyes. "I told you the morning we left: This is our journey."
"Lulu," Yuna said, hugging her.
"I made a promise to Jecht," Auron said. "And there is no need to sacrifice another guardian, when—"
"Which is precisely why you cannot be the Final Aeon," Lulu said, cutting him off. "Above all others, you cherish Sir Jecht and Lord Braska. Loyalty to them is what brought you here. I came here for /Yuna/. Did you not say that the bond between summoner and summoned is what gives the aeon its power? But even if Lady Yunalesca accepts you, just as you are—" she gave him a pointed look— "how could we hope to kill you, when nothing else has? Please, Auron. Help us. Don't hinder us. The others may awaken at any moment."
He stared down at her. Unseen viewers waited with bated breath for history to affirm itself. Finally, he gave a grudging nod. His answer was couched in a surprisingly gentle whisper. "Let's go."
Yuna smiled fondly at both of them. "It...has been an honor, Sir Auron."
Marching away, the two guardians fell behind their summoner in lockstep. Forgotten, the abandoned sphere kept recording until they were swallowed by Zanarkand's shadows and its pyrefly custodians. Back on the flight deck, the stunned viewers sat or stood frozen in place until Rikku wiped her eyes, reached forward, and switched off the recording. The unobstructed view of sun-washed, cloud-studded blue sky returned.
"So," Elma said into the heavy silence, when no one else seemed inclined to break it. "About how many years should I atone, do you think, for hearing that? Operation Mi'ihen took three."
"Don't you get it?" Rikku said. "Yevon's a stupid lie. It's a big fat tick that eats guardians and summoners!"
"Hey!" Elma said, rising indignantly out of the gunner's bubble. "That's blasphemy!"
"Elma, Rikku, please," Isaaru said. Even now, he sounded unperturbed, although his smile was melancholy. "The truth, it seems, is that love defeats Sin. It transcends even Yevon: both the foe whose terrible weapon inspired our religion, and the wise teachings that arose from that unpromising beginning."
"Sir?" Elma said. "Do I wanna know what you just said, or can I just forget about it and wait for orders? "
"You've gotta be kidding," Rikku said.
"The truth," Maroda said, turning and storming towards Auron, "is that he wasn't going to tell us any of this. So when were you going to let us in on the big secret? In Zanarkand? After me or Pacce volunteered for the Final Summoning? After Isaaru was dead?"
Auron sagged back against the wall, his face hidden by his collar. As Maroda reached him, the white-haired guardian slid to the floor, doubled over. A single pyrefly drifted from the folds of his coat. When Maroda stooped over him, Auron suddenly lashed out, swinging a wild punch that Maroda dodged with a startled curse.
"What the—?" Rikku said.
"The toxin, maybe?" Elma said.
Exasperated, Maroda threw himself at Sir Auron. He fell upon the older man with his full weight channelled into a knee to the gut, his other knee pinning the man's arm to the floor. Kneeling, Maroda seized the man's collar, barking in his face. "Just what are you playing at, old man? Are you trying to stop Sin...or protect it? No, her! The Lady's your girlfriend, is that it? You've been talking to her all along, haven't you?/ Haven't you?"/ More pyreflies floated loose as Maroda shook him. Auron snarled with bared teeth, freed his right arm from his coat and grasped for the man's throat.
"Maroda!" Isaaru said, starting towards them in shock. "Sir Auron, stop!"
"Toxin, probably," Rikku said, slipping off her seat and edging towards the scuffle. "I guess if Lulu doesn't make 'em horny, she gives 'em PMS. Isaaru, hold up! Everyone, hold your breath!" She tossed a small pellet towards the grappling combatants.
There was a bang and a bright yellow flash, accompanied by an acrid stench. Everyone's vision tunnelled. Isaaru staggered. Maroda and Auron went down, collapsing awkwardly on top of one another and falling in a boneless heap blocking the doorway. Rikku ran past the swaying summoner and sat down on them, kicking her heels against the floor with a vague air of triumph. "Wow. Is there something in the teachings that says guardians have to be blockheads?"
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