Approaching Bevelle, Gippal's ship comes under fire.
_______/"May I have your attention, guys and garudas! This is your wake-up call. Rise and shine! We hit Bevelle in twenty minutes."/
"Hopefully without leaving a crater," Maroda muttered as he and his brother stepped onto the bridge, bracing for the pop of static as the intercom cut off.
Gippal, slouched in the pilot's seat, tossed a vague wave over his shoulder. "Yo, Yevon-dudes. Prepare for Operation Freak the Hell Out of Bevelle."
"It's already started," Shinra said, hunched over his console. "I'm reading energy discharge."
"How bad?" Maroda said, giving a grudging nod to Auron as the older guardian moved back to join him and Isaaru.
The northern sky ignited with a brilliant splash of ruby light, cutting out the shapes of distant towers and terraces against the horizon. Darkness poured back over the city at once, but a few orange splinters were left behind, twinkling like stars of ill-omen. The real stars had vanished, veiled by a skin of cloud thickening into thunderheads to the east: Sin's tracks, an even more ominous reminder.
"Hard to say," Shinra said. "The causeway's on fire. Some rooftops and towers."
There was another soundless explosion, this time spraying the clouds with lime-green light as well as red. A flower of orange and gold blossomed from some high point over the city and began to burn like a beacon-fire. Gippal nudged the steering yoke, angling towards it.
"The Tower of Light," Isaaru guessed, cupping his hands and bowing in prayer. "Yevon grant that we may be in time."
"Macalania," Auron said. "Tell them."
"Oh, right." Shinra pointed straight down, where the gloom seemed more gray than black. There was a faint moving shimmer far below them, reflecting the running lights of the airship. "It's frozen solid."
"That's how it's supposed to be," Maroda said. "The Fayth keeps the lake frozen year-round. Maybe we can visit the temple after we've dealt with Cid."
"Unlikely," Shinra said. "The temple's embedded in the ice. My best guess is that Sin thawed the lake, flooded it, and re-froze it. You'd need mining equipment to get down there."
"/No/!" Isaaru's face contorted in a fleeting spasm. "Captain, we have to help them. Your weapons: have you any with the power to--"
"Belay that," Auron said. "They're already dead."
"It wouldn't work, anyway," Shinra said. "We'd just pulverize the temple."
The summoner drew a hand over his face, struggling to master himself. "There was a monastery," he said in a faint voice, "and a score of brothers and sisters. /Yevon/, I sent two orphans there just last month to begin their monk training."
"Sorry, man," Gippal said. "Heck of a way to go."
"Dammit!" Maroda turned on Auron, seething. "You'd better hope your friend dies when we take on Sin, mister. Everyone in Spira's gonna be calling for her execution!"
Auron gave him a stony look and said nothing.
"Maroda," Isaaru said. "Please. The Lady has no choice about Sin's predations, whatever the Cult of Sin may say."
"Like hell she doesn't! She chose to become Sin, right? Now she's choosing her targets! And if you don't think—"
The doors whisked open again. Elma marched onto the flight deck, engaged in a familiar duty. Nooj, whose new artificial limb looked suspiciously like the modified stock of a rifle, was leaning on her shoulder. If the Crusader felt any discomfort from the grip of cold machina, she concealed it with a wink at Isaaru.
"Report," Nooj said, ignoring the one-sided shouting match between Maroda and Sir Auron.
"Cid took a few pot shots on the way in. Fifteen minutes to intercept." Gippal slapped the intercom again. "Yo, Rikku, the party's leavin' without you."
"Mmmrph," came a sleepy reply. "/Vilg oui/, Gip."
"Love to, babe, but Wakka'd use my head for a blitzball. Hurry up. Meet the landing party in the hold."
As they descended, the Tower of Light rose high above the citadel at the city's peak, living up to its name in dramatic fashion. Its crown of suspended walkways, the open-air cathedral where Yuna had once been wed in unholy matrimony, was now one vast torch. Flaming debris rained down on the city below, showing fleeting glimpses of domes, flying buttresses, airy promenades and piazzas at many different levels. For once, ordinary men not Sin were to blame for chaos and destruction, but Sin would probably have approved of their chief target.
"Where's Cid?" Nooj said.
"Crash landed," Shinra said. He pointed towards a flicker of green flames and smoke on the far side of the tower. "Northeast sector, right near the temple."
"Crashed?" Elma said, with a rising squeak that betrayed her own fears about their current mode of travel. "You don't think Cid is—"
"It doesn't matter," Nooj said. "Shuyin will seek a new host."
"Doesn't matter?" Gippal said. "Hey, Nooj, Vegnagun may be your first priority, but mine is getting Elder Cid back in one piece."
"Speaking of Vegnagun," Shinra said. "I've got something. Could be important."
Nooj pivoted towards the boy at once. "Let's hear it."
"It's using a pyrefly interface: it can actually read minds at close range. If anyone approaches it with intent to disable it, a robust cascading self-defense program kicks in. It may take aggressive counter-measures or even retreat to the Farplane. That's why Maester Baralai wanted someone working on the problem remotely."
"Not just because you're a genius?" Nooj said.
"That too, of course." Shinra continued pecking away at his workstation. "But I need more time. I'm still analyzing the sphere data he sent us."
"We'll try and buy you that time, kid."
"Translation?" Elma said, listening with a pained frown.
"Don't even think about trying to disable it," Shinra said. "Avoid using weapons near it that could damage it. No high-powered guns. No explosives."
Elma snorted. "No problem there."
"Someone had better sit on Rikku," Gippal said.
They had reached the open water south and west of the capital, where Bevelle's merchant fleet was moored on the southern shore across the straits from the city. By the dim glow from the burning Highbridge, a long raised causeway spanning the bay, they could make out the harbor's forest of black masts. Gippal eased the ship down, following the line of the Highbridge all the way in. Ahead, Bevelle rose up behind huge, terraced sea-walls, a manmade mountain fortified with reinforced slopes stout enough to withstand the fearsome attacks of Sin —or of ancient machina. By night, the city gave only a vague impression of looming mass. It was utterly dark, apart from the fires burning on the upper levels.
"Something's wrong," Maroda said. "The watch-fires are out. I can't even see the main lighthouse."
"That burning tower works pretty well, " Shinra said.
"That's not what I meant," said Maroda. "Where's the lights?"
"Captain Kiyuri," Isaaru said with sudden hope. "If the SS Korra risked the Western Sea to convey my warning, Baralai and Shelinda will be preparing the city for Sin's arrival."
"Seven minutes," Gippal said, banking the ship as a warning sensor gave a shrill chirp. The view around the cockpit abruptly vanished as they plunged into a curtain of smoke. "I'm gonna try to put down in the square behind the tower, near Cid. Get to the hold and find something to hang onto. I'll operate the cargo doors from here."
"Thank you, Captain," Isaaru said. "Good luck."
"And you. Oh...Auron?" Gippal glanced back as they began to file out. "Almost forgot. Your sword's in the first gun rack to the left of the ladder. Sorry I didn't give it to you yesterday: Cid's orders. You guys are so friggin' clueless. Didn't you realize I'd taken you all prisoner?"
"Yes," Auron said.
"Heh. Guess that's one way to see the boss. Now hurry up and go find him!"
Rikku was waiting for them in the hold, scrounging through lockers on the back wall. She tossed Elma a packet from Gippal's stores, then cursed and grabbed a locker frame for support as the ship lurched. "Doesn't anybody know how to fly these things?" she said. "Gippal drives like my brother."
Auron walked over to the nearest rack and set his hand on a familiar grip protruding from the shadows. With a grunt, he drew out a blade whose weight and balance were a part of himself. A new sheath had been tooled to match it: two strips of black metal bolted around an inner leather sleeve, a utilitarian Al Bhed design. The sheath bore no glyphs or decoration, but a crude talisman was bound to the sword's hilt.
"Well, I'll be," Maroda said loudly. "Looks like Auron's girlfriend left her calling card."
"Play nice, boys," Rikku said. "I gotta save my stun grenades for Pops."
"It's a sign, no?" Isaaru said, giving a melancholy smile. "The Lady blesses our endeavor."
Stiffened by seawater, a leather thong had tangled around the hand-guard in a crisscross pattern. A triangle of bone peeped out from the webbing, held fast against the scrollwork that was the sword's only ornamentation. Auron touched the crude likeness of Lulu's face in mute greeting, then slung the sword over his back, anchoring the straps to his belt and gorget.
Elma and Nooj emerged from the freight elevator just as the floor gave a violent shudder. The Crusader managed to keep him on his feet by heaving him against the wall.
"Thanks," Nooj said, wedging his metal arm in the doorframe to steady both of them.
"Is he trying to get us killed?" Maroda said, wisely staying on the floor where the jolt had thrown him. "This is some ride."
"All Spira must endure a difficult passage, my brother," Isaaru said.
"Sometimes, Isaaru, you're a pain in the ass. You know that?"
There was another jarring concussion. Air began to whistle loudly through the seals around the loading ramp in the floor.
"Um," Rikku said. "I don't think that's Gippal's fault. That's coming from outside."
"Machina weapons," Nooj said grimly. "Typical Yevon piety."
"Can we take cover somehow?" Elma said. "I don't fancy getting my toes blown off by Maester Baralai's cannons."
"Get in the hover," Rikku said. "It may not help much, but it's a few more layers of metal."
They staggered and crawled to the small craft strapped to the forward bulkhead. Auron heaved them over the side as the buffeting worsened.
The final minutes of descent were an escalating nightmare. Equipment racks spilled out their contents, which began to bounce around the hold like so many pebbles in a child's rattle. The light panels wavered, then failed, plunging them into harrowing darkness. The party clung to one another desperately as the hover shook loose from its moorings and began to skitter around the floor, jostling against everything that had come loose and slamming against anything that had not. The roar of the engines rose to a deafening crescendo. The hull groaned and boomed under the hail of heavy artillery as if Sin were trying to hammer its way in with its tail. At last, the loading ramp dropped partway open, twisted with a ponderous shriek, and peeled away. Orange light flickered against the ceiling through the breach. From their current position, the helpless passengers could not tell the size of the rupture, but from the squeal of tortured metal and the rising force of the wind, it seemed to be growing larger by the second. They had no way to know whether the ship's violent pitching and rolling were the pilot's attempt at evasive action, or loss of control as the vessel began to tear itself apart.
With a final, wallowing shudder, the ship slowed and came to a swaying stop, miraculously still aloft. The barrage of weapons fire continued, but it had changed timbre from the thudding of shells to the crackle of bullets, some of them rattling around in the hold's interior.
"Will you guys just /cut it out?/" Rikku shouted, her shrill voice cutting through the din. "D'you want to get your own maester killed? We've got Isaaru!"
The clatter of gunfire died away. Groans, curses, and the creak of the ship's joints filled the jangling silence as the battered group lay stunned in the bed of the hover, too numb to move or speak.
A woman's voice boomed out from below. "You have five minutes to surrender, or we'll kill Elder Cid."
"/Paine?/" Nooj said, stirring feebly under the ceiling panel that had fallen across them. "It seems Fate is toying with us."