The Crimson Squad reunited, while Isaaru and his guardians head into the fire.
“The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us then ten-thousand truths.” -- Alexander Pushkin
"Um...you should know, I can knock all of you down," Rikku said, crouched crablike behind the massive winch that operated the palace gates. She had gotten that far alone, unwisely. The squad that had faltered in pursuit of her father seemed to think they would find redemption by running a stranger through. They advanced, bayonets forward. There was no answering explosion, despite Al Bhed bravado; Auron guessed she was running low on nightcaps. For the first time in years, he recalled why he had been glad to be rid of a warrior monk's helm. Only one man turned at the sound of thudding footsteps before he barreled straight into them.
Two went down. Auron swept an arm out, scooping Rikku from her hiding place and hoisting her over his hip. She gave an indignant yelp, but had the sense to wrap herself around him, clinging with elbows and knees as he plunged into the darkened entrance hall. The remaining soldiers fired wildly after them.
"Some guardian," Maroda said, jogging towards the gates.
"Rikku's more of a target," Elma said, matching his strides. Together, they provided at least some protection for the summoner behind them.
"You're dressed like her, you know," Maroda said, staring straight ahead. Any moment the overzealous warrior monks would turn and see them, and the Crusader was at a loss whether to brandish his spear.
"Well, good! Then they won't aim at Isaaru!"
"Stop!" Isaaru cried out. "In Yevon's name, stop! Isaaru commands you!"
It seemed these warrior monks had not yet heard of his apostasy.
"Grand Maester Isaaru!"
The stammer of gunfire died away, leaving numb silence in a vast empty plaza usually buzzing with life. The very air seemed dead: even the steady sea-breezes had abandoned the city. Every window and street-lamp was dark, save for baleful orange reflections. Overhead, a low ceiling of lumpy smoke had taken on the texture of a glowing bed of coals, growing brighter as the fires began to spread. Proud Bevelle was bleeding flames from many small wounds, and there were few inhabitants left to delay or witness its creeping ruin.
The warrior monks swarmed around Isaaru, touching his robes as if they conferred some sort of holy blessing. Wide-eyed under their helms, the soldiers clutched at rifles and started at shadows, speaking in hushed mumbles. A few bayonets swayed in Elma's direction.
Exuding calm, Isaaru moved easily among them, clapping the shoulder of one who had his gun trained on Elma. "Easy, old friend. That was Sir Auron and Lady Rikku, former guardians to High Summoner Yuna. These two you know: Captain Maroda and Commander Elma."
Stunned murmurs of Sir Auron rippled from lip to lip, prompting a snort from Maroda.
"Your Grace!" The man he had addressed spoke gruffly, fighting tears. "Why, you've got the nerve, breezin' back in the dead o' night in the middle o' bedlam, with no one the wiser! Your brother said you'd died at Djose!"
"Pacce?" Maroda said, suddenly animated. "He's here?"
"Aye, sir, you just missed him! He followed the prisoner inside!"
"Then so shall we," Isaaru said. "Sergeant, do you know Lady Shelinda's whereabouts?"
"Aye, milord. Northgate, overseeing the evacuation. But Maester Baralai—"
"Lord Baralai and Captain Juno have evacuated the palace and taken the wounded to Yuna's Cloister. Collect your squad and report to Lady Shelinda. I and my guardians will recapture Cid."
"But, Your Grace, the tower's a-fire!"
"Pray for us, my friends. But do not despair; Yevon is with us." He bowed in Yevon's blessing.
"Maroda, Elma, follow."
"Sergeant Wedge?" Elma said, her hesitation a minor but uncharacteristic breach.
"Commander?" The man squinted. "I thought you were one o' them heathens."
"No time to explain. Do you know if—" She stopped short, grimaced, and held out her hand. "Oh, forget it. Give me your nightstick. I left my sword in Djose."
"Ma'am." Averting his eyes from her bared midriff, he unclipped the metal baton from his belt and pressed it into her palm.
"Sure you don't want to borrow a rifle, Commander?" Maroda teased.
"Choke on a chocobo chip, Captain," Elma muttered. She nodded to Wedge. "Thanks. Get your men to safety, Sergeant."
Herding his brother onwards, Maroda led the way into the cavernous entrance hall, where the only illumination came from the ruddy light shining down through clerestory windows. Despite the faint film of smoke hanging in stale air, the fires had not yet penetrated this section of the palace. The trio's footsteps echoed between massive columns, unseen tapestries and sphere-powered torches that contained only a sickly brown glimmer.
Waiting for Maroda to collect a torch and shake it to life, Isaaru turned to Elma. "Commander, if it would ease your mind, go back and ask—"
"Nah, they're warrior monks. Can't expect 'em to know anything," Elma said, clinging to a dogged grin. "Anyway, I know the general's alive. Pacce can tell us my troops' status when we find him."
"He's a warrior monk too, remember?" Maroda said.
She shook her head. "I guess that's why he got MIA and KIA mixed up."
They caught up with Auron and Rikku at the first junction. Auron waited patiently, facing back towards the entrance. Rikku was prowling around him in a restless orbit, scanning each corridor in growing agitation.
As the others drew near, her whispers resolved themselves into words. "...and enough with the smug-and-cryptic routine, already! You were a monk here, weren't you? You've got to know which way leads to the temple! We can't afford to wait for those—" She broke off, reverting to a normal volume. "Oh, hey, there you are. Did you guys stop off in Lulu's leather district to do some light shopping, or what? Let's scoot!"
"Sorry, my lady," Isaaru said. "I needed to put off pursuit. But fear not. Your father and Shuyin are strangers to St. Bevelle. Yevon willing, we shall reach the Cloisters first and waylay them there."
"Assuming we don't get roasted," Maroda observed, pointing his spear up at the clerestory windows showing a narrow slice of the nearby tower, its shaft now fully engulfed in flames. "Temple's right under that."
"Then it's fortunate I've a spell against fire, no?" Isaaru said, unruffled. "Lead on, my brother."
As they threaded the warren of the palace, the threat from above grew greater. Four times, they were forced to divert around smoke-filled passages. The ceiling of one was actually beginning to smolder. After the last check, Isaaru lagged behind, letting Auron catch up to him. The summoner's breathing was labored, although he made no complaint. He seemed to be fighting the weight of his robes as they hurried through the palace.
"Problem?" Auron said, eye fixed on the others marching ahead.
"Perhaps." Isaaru lowered his voice to a breathless whisper. "Elma. I fear she is a target for Shuyin in her current state."
"If you send Shuyin, it won't matter," Auron said.
"Of course. But the sending of an unwilling spirit is difficult, as well you know. I must draw close to Cid, so there will be no error. Then you must stand well apart."
Auron gave him an oblique look.
Isaaru winked. "Your task will be to draw her away, no?"
"Hmph." Auron shrugged. "You should trust your guardians."
"This from a guardian who trusts only Sin," Isaaru said, eyes crinkling. "Please, humor me."
Auron shrugged. "As you wish."
"Well, here we are," Maroda called, standing at the head of a short, shallow flight of curving steps that ended at at ornate stone portal with Yevon's glyphs etched into it. "You two coming?" he said, turning back to glare at Auron, as if he were the cause of Isaaru's dawdling.
"Finally," Rikku said, putting her hands on the wide metal bars that served as handles. "Ow!" She jerked away, shaking out her fingers. "Hot!"
"Stand back," Auron said. Mounting the steps and pushing between them, he set his gauntlet against one door and pushed. Sparks and embers swirled through the gap with an angry roar. Auron had a glimpse of the circular great hall lit as if by Ifrit in full frenzy. The rear half of the chamber was an inferno; the arching overhead portraits of Zaon and Yunalesca were boiling figures of flame. He could not but feel a twinge of bitter satisfaction as he heaved the door shut.
"Now what?" Rikku said. "I don't think NulAll can cope with /that/."
"This is is the only way into the Cloisters, milady," Isaaru said. He smiled and opened his arms, palms tilted towards them in a priest's blessing. "I'm afraid you have but one choice: trust in Yevon."
Gippal, flattened against the pavement, lifted his head warily as Wedge's squad jogged away. "Whew. They've gone. Up you get, Nooj."
Nooj levered himself up with his cane, ignoring Gippal's hand. "We'll have eleven more of them to deal with shortly," he said, nodding towards Juno's squad scattered around them like chaff. "Some of them may wake first. Can you drag Baralai and Paine into an alley? That may buy us time."
"Aw, man. Baralai's not too bad, but I think Paine's put on weight." He rapped her armor with his boot.
"You have five minutes."
Gippal needed the full five; Baralai and his maester's robes were nearly as cumbersome as monk's mail. Nooj limped beside him, tightlipped, powerless to assist.
"You okay up there, boss?" Gippal said.
Nooj gave a soft snort. "Oddly, yes. It takes some getting used to, being in charge again."
"I bet." Gippal swore as Paine's armor rang out, colliding with the base of a street-lamp. "Why'd she have to — unh — go and join the warrior monks, anyway? I'd love to peel her out of this fuel tank, but she'd—" Gippal caught Nooj's glare out of the corner of his eye, and grinned— "you'd take my head off. Doesn't suit her, though."
"Doesn't suit /Paine/," Nooj said, retrieving her sword and lugging it across his shoulders. "But she's dead. Thirteen years ago, I suspect."
"You don't have to buy into that crap," Gippal said, puffing. "People make their own choices, Nooj."
Nooj shook his head. "I should have tried to tell her. Apologized."
"Well, yeah, but could you?" Gippal dropped her arms with a clank and staggered to the front stoop of a doorway, plunking down with a sigh. "Not like you ever told us."
"Probably not, but at least—"
"You could try now." Juno rolled onto her side. Her face was shadowed by the helm, but her voice sounded crisp and lucid.
Nooj broke into a slow smile. "Perhaps I just did." Leaning heavily on his cane, he stooped to hold the sword out to her, understated gallantry in the gesture. "But let me be clear: Juno, I'm sorry. I failed you. My hand, not my heart, pulled the trigger that day, but you've lived with that betrayal all this time. I'll do whatever it takes to make amends, now that I'm free."
Her hand closed tightly over his, separated by a gauntlet. Holding his eyes, she rose to her feet, taking care not to pull him off-balance. Suddenly she shifted her grip, locking her fingers around his wrist, and drew her sidearm with her free hand. "By dying?" she said, pressing the gun against his stomach.
"Paine!" Gippal said, scrambling to his feet. "You stupid—"
"That would be somewhat ironic, don't you think?" Nooj said. "But yes, of course."
"Gippal. Don't try it." Juno stepped around Nooj, pistol slipping around his ribs, using him as a shield. "What have you done with Maester Baralai? My team?"
"Hey, that was Rikku!" Gippal said. "Sleeping powder, same as what hit you. We don't like getting shot at!"
"Baralai's right here," Nooj said. "It should be wearing off any time now."
"Gippal. Wake him," she said.
"Damn, cra'c cdemm y pedlr," Gippal muttered, moving to Baralai's side to give him a firm shake.
"Yht oui'na cdemm yh ycc," she shot back.
Baralai awoke to the unusual sound of Nooj's dry laughter echoing in the narrow alley. The maester stood with a lurch and a step backwards, hand smacking against his empty holster. "Juno, are you still with me?" he said.
"Yes," she said, prying her sword from Nooj's hand. He offered no resistance. She stepped to Baralai's side, passing him her sidearm. He kept it trained on Nooj.
Gippal groaned. "C'mon, Bar."
"Shut up," Baralai said. He raised his eyes, expression bleak. "Bevelle's burning, and we don't have the resources to stop it. All we can do now is head off Cid and Isaaru before they reach Vegnagun. Otherwise—"
"Otherwise, Vegnagun may activate, perceiving them as a threat," Nooj said. "Baralai, we know. They know: Isaaru and the others who went after Cid. Don't worry. They won't use any weapons that might provoke it."
"Don't you get it?" Baralai said. "You think our cannons have the range to strike an airship? That wasn't Bevelle firing at you. That was Vegnagun. Cid's attack roused it. You're lucky your ship isn't as well-armed as his; it would have obliterated you before you reached the ground."
His words were drowned out by the rumble of engines. Gippal bolted for the mouth of the ally, just in time to see his ship lumbering skyward. "Shinra!"
There was a faint tinny pop from Gippal's overalls. Swearing, he fished out a sphere. "Shinra, where the hell are you taking my ship?"
"Away." Shinra's voice was hard to make out through the static. "Soldiers trying to board. Sensors show Sin's on its way. Want me to pick you up somewhere?"
Gippal shook his head. "Nope. How long until it gets here?"
"Forty minutes, maybe an hour."
"Shinra," Nooj said, "have you figured out how to deactivate Vegnagun?"
"Negative. If Sin attacks—"
"Yeah, we know, kid," Gippal said. "Get going; stay out of the blast zone. We'll catch you after it's over. Assuming we're still here."
"Affirmative. Be careful. Crimson Avenger out."
Nooj's mouth twitched. "Crimson... Avenger...?"
"Yeah, well." Gippal ducked his head. "Normally I just call her The Gippal Express. So, Baralai, what's the plan?"
"I'm going back to Vegnagun," Baralai said. "I'll move it out of Bevelle, if I have to. Juno, collect your team and warn the healers in Yuna's Cloister to prepare for Sin's arrival. Get those who are mobile into the bunkers."
"I'm coming with you," she said. "If Isaaru's false, you'll need backup. I'll order my squad to the Cloister."
"And us?" Gippal crossed his arms. "We came to help, Bar."
"Baralai," Nooj said. "That.../thing/...that's possessed Cid was in me for thirteen years. I'd like to see its end. Vengeance for all of us, if you like. And if Isaaru fails, and Cid reaches Vegnagun, I'll give my life to bring him down. You have my word."
"Your word doesn't hold much weight with me, Nooj." Baralai shifted his attention to Paine, who was watching Nooj with quiet intensity. "But hers does. Juno, what do you think?"
"Let them come." She grimaced, peeling off her helm. "I'd like to believe him."
Nooj drew a sharp breath, not at her words, but at her gesture. Her face was in shadow, but a deep scar ripping through one cheekbone was visible even in the dark.
"All right," Baralai said. "But stay alert. Be prepared to kill them if they try anything. Bevelle, maybe all of Spira, will pay the price this time if he betrays us."
"Man, it's so nice getting back together like this, y'know?" Gippal said, leaking sarcasm. "You're the navigator, Bar. Lead the way."