Summoner Isaaru & co arrive at the Al Bhed's new Home in the wake of a Sin attack.
A white wreath of steam and smoke marked the sunken island of Baaj long before the piers of New Home rose from the sea. Late afternoon sun flared off distant panels and windows. As the airship began to descend, the jumble of structures resolved itself into a circular hive of old-fashioned stone buildings built on a vast field of submerged ruins, interconnected by arching bridges of metal and glass. The town was surrounded by a fortified ring-wall of more typical Al Bhed design, an intimidating exoskeleton of girders and rusted metal, massive guns facing out to sea. Baaj Temple loomed at the heart of the settlement. Black smoke vomited from a gash in its central tower.
The temple's cracked dome was not the only testament to Sin's passing. All the windows facing north had been punched out. Struts and spans tilted at dangerous angles. Porches and awnings had been ripped away from houses. Every channel of open water was fretted by a spiderweb of snapped cables drooping from twisted pylons. Yet apart from a few roofs peeled back like bark, most of the structures appeared to be intact.
Gippal, returning to the flight deck with noisy disregard for his somber passengers, patted Rikku's back before vaulting into his seat. "Buck up. It's not as bad as it looks."
"Easy for you to say, Gip," she said, drooped over the ops console. "You're gonna make a fortune selling building materials, right?"
"Two percent," he said. "Rin wanted a big markup, but I won't kick the home team when it's down."
"What a mess," Elma said. Ensconced in the gunner's bubble, she had a vivid bird's eye view of the devastation crawling beneath them.
"At least they had warning," Isaaru said. "Thank Yevon they fled in time."
"Besaid got hit a lot worse," Maroda observed. "Maybe Sin was trying to pull its punches?"
"If that's pulling punches, I'd hate to see a direct hit," Rikku said.
"I have," Gippal said, glancing over his shoulder at the stoic figure slouched against the bulkhead. "Wish I hadn't. Okay, people! This is where you get off. Exit's through the back, the same way you came in." Gippal flipped a switch on the steering column, hopped down and extended a hand to Elma. "Machina cooties?"
"Yevon cooties?" she shot back, grasping his forearm and pulling herself up.
Descending through the ship's bowels, they stepped out into humid sunshine and a light rain falling from a few shreds of clouds, the last wrack of the spent storm. At the foot of the loading ramp was a flooded courtyard that the mainlanders recognized as the outer hall of a temple whose dome had fallen in. A semicircle of broken summoners' statues jutted from the shallows. The area was spanned by crisscrossing catwalks, some leading to archways in the walls, one leading to a crude square opening cut into the second story of the great stone tower that formed the hub of New Home. Cid's gaudy airship was moored on the far side.
As they stepped off the airship's ramp, a pair of armed Al Bhed emerged from the tower, marching behind a stumpy figure in a stifling head-to-toe coat and goggled mask. It was impossible to tell age or gender, but the leader was slightly shorter than Rikku.
"Protect," Auron said.
Maroda gave a grudging nod. He and Elma closed ranks ahead of Isaaru and marched shoulder to shoulder as if they had served in the same company for years. Auron trudged along as rearguard, as usual.
Isaaru sighed in fond exasperation. "We're among friends here, remember?"
"That remains to be seen," Auron said.
"Yo, Shinra," Gippal said, sauntering towards the small welcoming party. "Got some visitors. Where's the boss?"
"Working on the generators," the young man said, voice roughened by a respirator. There was a boom and a blue flash from the far side of the tower. "Gippal, I've found Nooj. He was still in his cell after all."
"He okay?" Gippal said. "Wait... are you okay? Rikku said Nooj went nuts and shot you up pretty bad."
"No and yes, thanks to Rikku's new potions. Got a minute? We need help digging Nooj out."
"I beg your pardon," Isaaru said with a gracious bow. "I am Isaaru, a summoner. I came to speak to Elder Cid on a matter of grave importance. But first, may I and my guardians offer aid?"
"Yevon?" one of the guards said, raising the muzzle of her weapon.
"Feyd!" Rikku interposed herself between guard and guardians. "I'll vouch for them, Shinra. They're gung ho on fighting Sin, but they don't mean us any harm."
"That's all we need," Shinra said. He peered up at the man, debating. "Well, they could help with Nooj."
"I am a healer," Isaaru said. "If one of your people is hurt—"
"This way." Shinra turned and clanked back towards the tower. "Follow me."
"We shouldn't get involved," Maroda said, dropping back to whisper in his brother's ear. "We're falling behind schedule again. But this time, we're racing Sin, not another summoner. We've got to find Cid and finish our business here as quickly as possible. Bevelle needs you."
"Maester Baralai and Maester Shelinda can hold Bevelle just as well without me," Isaaru said. "And we must earn Elder Cid's trust. We need machina and aeons to stop Sin."
Elma gave an exasperated snort.
Entering the tower, they descended a short ladder whose bottom rungs were coated with slime and seaweed. A floating walkway bobbed slightly underfoot. Facing them were stone steps rising out of the water to ancient doors graven with runes, flung open to reveal a vast circular hall. The interior was a bizarre fusion of old and new, Yevon architecture with ornate columns and grotesque statues scattered like pieces on a gameboard between concentric rings of machina workstations. All the consoles and screens were dead. Several Al Bhed were crawling under the computer banks with hand-lights, inspecting a network of cables crisscrossing the floor.
Shinra waved at the technicians, but did not enter the control room. Instead he turned left, following the walkway around the perimeter of the tower. Passing several other doors, most of them smashed or sealed tight, they eventually reached another flooded antechamber. To their right, a metal ramp mounted broken stone steps leading up to a glyph-etched door. It was flanked by two squat statues of stylized dragons.
"What is this place?" Elma said, voice echoing in the dank chamber. "It looks Yevon-built."
"Correct," Shinra said. "Baaj Temple. Former prison of Seymour Guado and his mother. We use Baaj spheres and the Chamber of the Fayth for power, the way you do at Djose."
"Hey!" Elma said. "We don't—"
"Prison?" Maroda said. "When was this?"
"When his father's hold on the Guado was less secure," Isaaru said. "Yet another dark secret of the old regime."
"It still is a prison, in a pinch," Gippal said, stepping over a tangle of metal bars whose bolts had shaken loose from the cracked stone frame of the inner door.
One by one, they followed Gippal and Shinra into a long rectangular hall. Six more statues, two of them toppled, crouched along the walls of the chamber, frowning at each other across the aisle. Colored spheres set in steles before their knees provided eerie illumination. The far end of the chamber had collapsed, choking the portal to the Chamber of the Fayth with huge blocks. A sparse cloud of pyreflies drifted in aimless eddies over the rubble.
"No," Gippal said, sprinting towards them. "Nooj!"
"Isaaru," Maroda said, barring his brother at the door. "Stay back. Let your guardians make sure it's safe. This guy sounds dangerous."
"Oh, come on already!" Elma said, hurrying after Gippal. "Man down. Let's do something."
Shinra turned to one of his companions. "Ehvuns Amtan Cid drao'ja lusa. Rikku yht Gippal fedr dra Yevonedac." The woman nodded and slipped out.
"He's under there?" Gippal said, staring glumly at the pile of broken masonry. "You sure? He's got to be dead."
"My scanners show there's a pocket of open space," Shinra said, "and someone in it. Faint heartbeat. Still alive, but weak."
"Then we'd better hurry."
They converged on the rock-fall, picking their way down the aisle between the statues. The hall had been designed as a waiting room for a few guardians, not eight people, and the debris made movement even more difficult. They quickly organized themselves into two brigades. Shinra, Elma and Rikku cleared away smaller fragments while Auron, Gippal and Maroda levered away the larger blocks. Isaaru, shooed off by his brother, paced around the chamber, pausing now and again to peer at inscriptions. The remaining Al Bhed stood guard by the exit, gun sloped against his shoulder.
Gradually they cleared away the mound of rubble, uncovering a large block that had once spanned the portal. It had dropped straight down and cracked in two, forming a triangle with the threshold. Fragments from the door's moldings were wedged under the two halves, propping them inches above the floor. An unrecognizable spur of red cloth and twisted metal jutted out from underneath.
"Wait," Gippal said. "I see him. Damn, this looks bad." He leaned against the wall, panting. "How the heck do we get that off?"
"See him where?" Maroda said. "All I see is a smashed machina."
"That's him," Shrina said. "Be careful. His leg's supporting most of the weight."
"His leg?" Elma said, staring incredulously.
Preoccupied as he was, Gippal smirked. "Yeah. Shinra, got your scanner handy?"
Auron had stepped clear of the rubble to give the Al Bhed room to plot their next move. Abruptly he swung towards the summoner, who had frozen on the dais of a toppled statue as if posing for his temple portrait. "What's wrong?"
"I could swear there is someone here," Isaaru said, face drawn and dazed. He gestured blindly towards the choked doorway of the inner chamber. "The fayth...it /weeps/, Sir Auron, but I do not think it has been destroyed! Perhaps I can reach it."
"Forget the Fayth," Elma said. "Haven't we lost enough people already for some damned statue? Let's just get this guy out!"
"Shhhh!" Rikku said, making frantic hushing motions with her hands.
There was a faint croak from the far side of the rubble. "...a dead man. Forget him too."
"Noojster!" Gippal said. "Not cool, man. Is your arm free? Give us a hand. You're the one with the built-in forklift."
"Ugh," Elma said. "Are we trying to rescue a man or a machina?"
"Both," Shinra said. "We replaced the arm and leg he lost in battle. My father's best work."
"Your father was a sadist," came Nooj's muffled retort. There was a scraping sound from the other side of the barrier. The two halves of the lintel shifted slightly, dust and flakes of stone pattering down between them. "No good. Can't get leverage."
"Hang on," Rikku said. She cocked her head at Isaaru. "You've got white magic, right? Life too, just in case?"
"Yes, milady. But I don't think—"
"Spirit stuff's your specialty; creative chemistry's mine. Take cover, everybody. Nooj, cover your head if you can." She plucked a small metal cylinder out of her belt-pouch and worked it into the widest part of the crack in the broken lintel. "You too, Gip. You don' wanna lose the other eye."
"You sure you know what you're doing, Rikku?" Gippal said, backing away reluctantly. "We're running out of replacement parts for this guy."
"I'm sure. Trust me, Gip. Get behind a statue."
She flipped a tiny recessed switch on the end of the capsule with a fingernail and scampered backwards. There was a loud pop, a white flash, and the rattle of of falling rocks. A cloud of dust obscured the rear third of the room.
"Nooj!" Gippal said. "Nooj, you still with us?"
Shinra started forward, trusting his mask to filter out the dust. "Someone give me a hand."
Expressionless, Auron followed him into the gray haze. They emerged dragging a barrel-chested man between them, his metal limbs rasping across the flagstones. Nooj's artificial leg was bent, crushed, and snapped off below the knee; dried blood obscured his face.
Auron suddenly lurched and dropped Nooj's shoulder with a clang. He staggered backwards, swatting at the pyreflies weaving around them like hungry mosquitoes.
"Hey, watch it!" Gippal said, hurrying forward to help lower Nooj to the floor.
"Sir Auron," Isaaru said. "Focus. Sin awaits, remember?"
"There's someone here," the white-haired guardian said through clenched teeth. "Unsent."
"Nooj?" Gippal said. "Dammit, Rikku, if you've killed him—"
"No, it's the Fayth," Isaaru said. "It's been damaged. I've never sensed such pain! Don't listen to it, Sir Auron." He hurried over and dropped to one knee beside Nooj, compassion in his eyes as he surveyed the battered shell of a man. "Well, now. I must defer to your people's art for mending that leg. But as for the rest—"
"Point that thing somewhere else!" Elma said sharply, launching herself towards the silent Al Bhed by the door. The guard's gun was off his shoulder. As heads turned, he shifted his aim towards the charging crusader.
"Fayd!" said Rikku.
Elma did not wait. She dropped into a sweeping kick that cut the man's legs out from under him as he fired. A bolt of energy struck the ceiling, scattering slivers of rock. Elma fell on the guard with a yell and wrenched his gun away, slamming the butt of it against his chin. The Al Bhed went limp under her.
"Elma!" Maroda said, dashing towards them. "Stop!" He reached her an instant before Gippal, grappling with her to pry the gun out of her hands. "What the hell are you doing? Calm down!"
"Calm down?" she said, jabbing an elbow in Gippal's stomach as he struggled to pry her off of her victim. "Machina everywhere, Yevon a lie, Sin about to wipe out Bevelle, my troops decimated, Pacce and Lenne dead for all we know—"
"Lenne?" Shinra said, looking up. "Nooj was hunting for spheres of her."
"Who?" Elma bristled. "I said Lucil! Maester Lucil."
With Maroda's help, Gippal had managed to pin her arms behind her back. "Ow. Sorry life sucks, lady, but what the hell gives you the right to take out your troubles on us?"
"Your man was taking aim at our summoner!" Elma said, heaving against his grip. "And if you weren't so busy -- oof! -- fraternizing with these machina-lovers, Maroda, you'd have noticed he was about to blow your brother's head off!"
"Oh, great, now she's got the toxin," Rikku said, checking over the unconscious guard. "It's Lulu's PMS Overdrive."
"Commander Elma," Isaaru said, his view obstructed by the red coat of the guardian who had planted himself between the summoner and the fray. "Forgive me, but you must be mistaken. Perhaps you misconstrued his gesture."
"Isaaru," Auron said. "We need to leave this place. Now."
"And go where?" The metal ramp outside the chamber clanked under heavy boots. Cid entered a moment later, dressed in an ugly orange jumpsuit grimed with oil and soot. He halted in the doorway and surveyed the tableau with a scowl. "Gippal. I thought I told you to keep our 'guests' secure until I got here."
"Pops!" Rikku said, springing to her feet.
"Good to see you, too, kiddo," Cid said, giving her exposed midriff a dig. "Put some clothes on."
She stuck out her tongue. "You like it when Nhadala dresses like this."
"Excuse me, but..." Gippal's voice cracked. "Nooj is dyin' over here!"
"Thought that's what he wanted." Cid said. He glowered at Isaaru, mostly hidden behind Auron. "Don't suppose you know why Sin suddenly decided to pulverize Home right before you lot showed up, eh?"
"Elder Cid," Isaaru said, rising with a bow. "Sin is targeting the temples, securing itself against the aeons' threat. I am Isaaru. Some years ago, you hosted me and my brothers in your Summoners' Sanctum. I shall never forget how your people protected us during the Guado attack. It is a debt I must repay. Please, allow me to help this man."
"Isaaru, eh?" Cid said. "I remember you. Grand Maester o' Yevon, now, eh?"
"No longer." Isaaru said. "I abdicated. A summoner's first duty is to fight Sin."
"Hmph." Cid shook his head. "You Yevonites never change. And as for you," he growled, staring murderously Auron, "what've you got to say for yourself, eh? Where's my neice?"
"I'm sorry," Auron said. "Yuna was... determined."
"Sorry?" Cid's scalp and ears flushed crimson. "You sent her to her death, and now you're sorry, eh? I'll show you sorry!" He took a step towards the man, hands balling into fists.
"Augh!" Rikku stepped between them, pressing her knuckles against her father's chest. "Can't you guys hold off pummeling each other until we've dealt with Nooj and Sin?"
"Sin?" Cid said. "You're playing guardian again, is that it? And now you and these bungling Yevonites lead Sin straight to Home, and we have to rebuild all over again!" He broke off with a violent fit of coughing, face contorting as he doubled over.
"Pops?" Rikku slipped an arm around him. "Whoa. Deep breaths. Home's gonna be fine; we'll fix it! And I'm not guarding anybody 'cept family, okay?"
"Isaaru," Gippal pleaded.
Isaaru nodded and hurried over, setting his hands on Nooj's chest.
"Great. Just great. 'We'll fix it.'" Cid wheezed with bitter laughter, his voice taking on a strange timber. "Yeah, that's right. I'll...fix it." Moving with startling agility, he yanked the gun from Maroda's hands and trained it on Auron.
"Hey!" Maroda said.
"Rikku!" Auron said, stepping away from Isaaru. "Stun him!"
Rikku scooted around Cid to block his line of fire. "Pops!"
Horror flooded Cid's eyes an instant before he pulled the trigger. Howling as she collapsed, he fired again at Auron lunging to shield her. The guardians' chamber exploded into madness, bolts of energy and shrapnel ricocheting off statues, walls, floor tiles. The others charged him, but their initial moment of shock proved costly: Maroda, Elma and Gippal were mowed down before they could reach him, and Shinra was caught diving for cover. Taking aim at Isaaru, Cid stumbled over his daughter and glanced down. His face contorted in anguish.
"Elder Cid." Isaaru rose to face him across the suddenly still chamber, voice soothing and deliberate, reaching out to him as a summoner might pray to a fiery-tempered fayth. "Stop. You are not yourself. Please, let me help you. Let me heal her. There is still time."
"Time?" Cid laughed brokenly. "You're late... a thousand years too late. I'll avenge her. With Vegnagun and Sin." His lip curled in a sneer, noting Isaaru's hands making the sign of Yevon over his heart. "A follower of Yu Yevon, eh? See you on the Farplane."
It was a tribute to a summoner's training -- or folly -- that Isaaru's smile did not falter until the bolt struck.