Isaaru and his companions pursue Shuyin into the labyrinth beneath St. Bevelle as the palace burns.
Soot lay in eddies and glyphs about their feet. The stout doors creaked, their stone bulk dampening the roar of the maelstrom beyond. The very floor quivered underfoot as if Ifrit might burst through to demand a new statue.
"Wait!" Rikku said. "There's another way! Remember, Auron? When Kinoc and his goons caught us, they didn't take us back through the Cloisters. Those tunnels—"
"The Via Infinito, used by the Elite Guard for initiations, interrogations, executions." Auron's face went blank to mask bitterness: not at the memory of Kinoc's betrayal, but for a darker crime. He could no longer remember the face of the hapless monk whom Yevon had executed for blasphemy, but the dead man's child would have been proclaimed Auron's son, had Auron not rebelled against a hasty marriage to the high priest's daughter. "Too far, too risky. I don't know the lower levels. I'm sorry, Rikku."
"For all we know, they've already gone up in smoke," Maroda said.
"We're running out of time," Auron said, turning to Isaaru. "Can you shield us?"
"I believe so." Isaaru drew his hands together in Yevon's prayer. "Lady Yuna's gift gave me thirteen more years to temper my magic. Yet I have never put the spell to such a test. I shall not fault any of you for turning back."
Maroda stepped to his brother's side at once.
Rikku hugged herself, staring unhappily at the stone doors. "I can't abandon Pops."
"Elma?" Isaaru said kindly. "If Pacce is here, it is possible Maester Lucil may also be in the city."
"What, you think I can face her after pulling a Clasko?" The Crusader gave a strained laugh. "I'm not bailing on you guys."
"Very well. Keep close, all of you. The effect extends only a few paces around me." Beckoning them closer, he rested his hands on Maroda's and Elma's shoulders. A shell of bluish-white light sprang up around them. The soot on the steps whisked away as if struck by a hurricane blast. Auron's hanging sleeve began to flap violently, falling limp when Isaaru stepped up behind him. "Tread in my footsteps, Lady Rikku. Take care not to trip on my robes. Sir Auron, we are ready."
The guardian set his palms against heated stone and thrust outward, nearly stumbling headfirst when an unseen force wrenched their weight away and flung them them wide open, slamming them against the walls. Rikku gave a startled scream as whirling embers and flames billowed towards them. Yet as with the soot, the flaming debris was deflected by an invisible wind, streaming away from them in a fiery fan.
"Go!" Isaaru said, shouting to make himself heard above the roar. "We don't have long!"
Auron strode forward, barely glancing at the life-sized votives of pious donors being consumed like a forest of rush-lights. Near the center of the chamber, the inferno's eddies had drawn together in a spiral, forming a fire tornado. Not daring to deviate lest those behind him move out of synch, Auron marched straight into it, feeling searing heat on his face for an instant before the writhing pillar of flame exploded outwards.
Rikku was whimpering, the sound all but lost in the storm. Elma caught Auron's cowl and shouted something. He stopped, turned to see Maroda lifting Rikku onto his back. Her face was clenched in pain. For a moment Auron could not tell why, then he noticed the soles of her rubber-soled shoes dripping like wax. Auron had not registered the heat of the floor beating through the thick leather of his boots.
"I've got her!" Maroda shouted. "Go on!"
"Faster!" Elma added. She, too, appeared to be in some discomfort: her soft leather riding boots were no match for the stovetop floor.
They moved. The burning statues of Yocun and Braska were before them now, and Auron adjusted his course to the left. The flower-like pedestal on which Yuna's statue danced had transformed from faux water to living fire. Her arm and staff came crashing down on top of them as they passed beneath. Isaaru gave a cry as some of the molten steel from her staff dripped through the barrier. "Run!"
Auron reached back and grabbed Isaaru's collar, then lunged forward. A stairwell opened up at his feet. Burning timbers and cracked stone were falling now, and Isaaru's shield was failing. Auron threw himself headlong, tumbling into darkness-- how far was the nearest landing? The noise of destruction grew to a crescendo. By the sound of it, the dome of the great hall was imploding. Auron grunted as his shoulder struck a stone floor, mercifully cool. The summoner landed on top of him, partly extinguishing his burning coat. More thuds meant at least two of the others had followed. Before Auron could catch his breath, a massive fist of water came sluicing down on top of them, striking blistered flesh like a battering ram and snuffing out anything that had caught fire.
"S-sorry," Rikku hissed through clenched teeth. "Water marble."
"Good thinking," Elma said, coughing for breath.
"Steady, my friends," said Isaaru, reassuring as always. Soothing white magic poured over them. The pain quickly receded.
Auron stood, getting his bearings. A few dying embers lay steaming on the wet steps above them, but it appeared that the head of the stairwell had been blocked when the great hall's roof collapsed. The party was all here, singed and bedraggled but more or less in one piece. Maroda had a field knife out and was cutting Rikku's shoes away. Auron moved to her side, holding her and letting her bite his forearm while the brothers tended her feet. Maroda had to slice off burnt flesh along with her shoes, but Isaaru worked quickly to repair the damage.
At length, Rikku raised her head and blew her nose on Auron's sleeve. "Ow and more ow. I don't think I could've done that if I'd known it was gonna hurt so bad."
"Forgive me, milady," Isaaru said, offering her his hand. "I did not think it would."
Tears were still trickling down her cheeks. "Enh, well, I needed another phobia."
"Can you walk?" Auron asked, in that gentle tone he used to reserve for Tidus.
"Uuuum...." She looked down and wiggled her toes. "Looks like it."
"I hate to mention this," Elma said, staring back at the debris-choked stairwell, "but if Cid's behind us, he's not going to be able to get through that."
"Pacce may know some other way down here," Maroda said. "He just finished training with the Guard, remember."
"Great time to mention it," Rikku said, clutching at Auron as the floor shook again. "Let's just go. We know where Pops is headed, anyway."
Ten levels down, they reached the depths where sanctimonious Yevon architecture gave way to secrets and blasphemy: machina, forcefields, wiring and panels pulsing with geometric designs lacking calligraphy's vital spark.Maroda groaned audibly, but Rikku brightened at once. Plucking a sphere from an ornate wall panel, she waved them towards a dais at the end of the landing, where an incongruous stone pedestal stood in the midst of gaudy high-tech display. "Come on! This is the fun part." She popped the sphere into a socket on the top of the pedestal, and a glowing white glyph appeared under its base, covering most of the dais.
"Fun?" Elma said incredulously as they squeezed in around her. "What the heck is this?" She gave a squawk as the glyph shot sideways, then plummeted downward, carrying them with it.
To a Yevon-trained eye, Bevelle's Cloister of Trials was an incomprehensible landscape, like writing to a blind person suddenly cursed with sight. A vast drum beneath the temple plunged down into darkness, housing a bizarre crystalline latticework of paths up, down, sideways, diagonally, racing off in every direction. There was no free range of movement, however, only prescribed paths along which glided circular platforms maintained by force fields, sanctified by the glyph representing the Teachings. Step off that illusory foundation, and one would fall into the abyss, plummeting through fast-moving patterns of light that crawled along the surface of insubstantial pathways.
"Whoa!" Rikku said. "Everybody off." She stepped onto a passing landing, one of several small balconies fixed on either side of the streaming paths. The transport pad slowed, backed up a few inches, and came to a halt.
"What's wrong?" Maroda said.
"Oh, nothing, there's just a break down there." Rikku pointed to the nearest junction, where a slanting path dropped away to the right. Partway down, a metal strut had fallen across the ramp. Above it, the regular patterns of colored bars and grids and circles blurred out and pooled together, like water piling up behind a dam. Past it, a single line of green flowed across the gap to the next fully-lit panel. "If we cross that, the transport pad could fritz."
"Can't we just climb down there and jump over it?" Elma said.
"The floor's not solid." Rikku waved a hand at the white glyph they had been standing on. "That is. That's it. I'll have to reroute the program. There's another ramp farther on, but right now it flows up." She retrieved the Bevelle sphere and inserted it into the base of a control panel anchored to the railing. Flipping up the lid, she pulled out a probe from her tool belt and peered into the box. "Ooo, what a mess. No wonder nothing here goes in a straight line." She began fiddling with the toggle switches inside.
"Machina at Yevon's heart. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency?" Elma said, drooping over the guardrail.
"Maroda began to question, too, when we first saw this place," Isaaru said. "I took longer. I did not wish to see. It's why Baralai and I loosened the interpretation of scripture. I've debated whether to show this to Maester Lucil, but I never had the heart to bring her down here."
"I'm glad you didn't," Elma said. "She breaks a drill sword after almost every Council meeting. Last time she broke my arm." Suddenly she stood and pointed. "Wait, I see them! Six levels down!"
Isaaru turned, following her finger. "Pacce!" he called, alarmed. "They're fighting!"
There was a blue flash as Rikku jerked away from the control box. "Shoot. We'll have to go around for another pass. Auron, gimme a push! Follow me, folks!"
Expressionless, he shoved the stone pillar out onto the transport pad. Everyone but Elma piled onto it.
"Come on, Commander," Maroda said. "It's still Yevon, y'know."
"I'll delay them," she said, climbing onto the guardrails running parallel to the track.
"You'll fall!" Rikku said.
"Already did!" Elma called after them with a strained laugh. As they sped away, she edged sideways along the rails to the nearest junction. There she threw one leg over the bannister of the malfunctioning ramp and slid down, disappearing from sight.
"Idiot!" Maroda said.
"Maroda, watch her," Isaaru said. "She bears up bravely, but I sense her despair. So may Shuyin."
"Folks, I need you to watch for more spheres," Rikku said crossly.
"What are you trying to do?" Auron said.
"Trick it into--no, no, left! Aaagh! I hate Yevon!"
"Calm down," Auron said. "Your father's as trapped as we are. He's on another transport pad. Pacce's keeping him busy."
"But if one of them pushes the other off—" Maroda said.
"Have faith, my brother," Isaaru said.
"In what?" Maroda glanced down and gripped Isaaru's shoulder. "Dammit, Rikku, can't you stop this thing? I've got to get down there!"
"No room," Auron said. "Trust his training."
The moving patterns, scaffolding and crisscrossing pathways afforded only brief glimpses of the duel rushing past on a track several levels below. There: Auron spotted Cid and Pacce circling on a treacherously narrow platform, the boy whirling his sword with upward sweeps that he must have learned from Juno, while Cid, wielding a rifle like a quarterstaff, was relying on darting slices, spry leaps ill-suited to his large frame. Shuyin's moves, no doubt, but why did they seem familiar?
Irrelevant. The party had circled back to its starting point without passing a single sphere. They needed a fallback plan, quickly.
"Rikku," Auron said. "Would a memory sphere work?"
"Nah. We need a glyph sphere, 'cuz... uuuum...hey. You know, it might. For a little while, anyway. Only problem is, the floor'll go 'poof' when it shorts out." Rikku tensed, gathering herself for a spring. "Gimme a count, Auron. Any stop'll do."
"Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two--"
"Yaaah!" She pushed off, landing on the same narrow siding where they had parked a few minutes before. The transport pad glided to a halt. The stone pedestal rose out of it. "Here goes!" Rikku said, snatching the sphere from the top of the pedestal and inserting it back into the control box. From her hip pouch she drew out another, slightly larger sphere. Despite her urgency, she hesitated, cupping the sphere in both hands like a rare egg.
"Will it fit?" Maroda said.
"You can only save the living," Auron said.
"Wakka's gonna kill me." Biting her lip, she jammed Yuna's sphere into a socket beside the first. Several display lights on the box's lid blinked on. Sparks began to dance over the memory sphere's surface.
"Okay," Rikku said. "Keep your feet on this balcony 'til I give the word. If I screw up, the transport pad could vanish too." Flipping the lid back up, she fished out another tool and frantically began laying down lines of solder. "Pops' Rule Number Two: never rewire when the power's on."
Smile fraying, Isaaru turned to gaze down towards the lower levels. Impulsively, he cupped his hands to his mouth. "Pacce, we're coming!"
"Don't distract him," Maroda said.
"Don't distract me," Rikku said, wincing as a spark arced across her knuckles.
Auron looked down. Pacce was parrying Cid's hammer-blows, but weakly: the boy's speed was the only thing saving him, and he seemed unable or unwilling to take advantage when Cid left legs, hips or flank wide open. He doesn't want to kill, the swordsman realized, having faced the same dilemma from time to time. Fortunate, but it left Pacce perilously vulnerable. He was down on one knee now. Maroda made a despairing sound in his throat and drew back his spear. A futile gesture: it was a thrusting weapon, and there were too many obstacles for a clean cast. Then a banshee scream echoed up through the shaft. Elma came tumbling down from somewhere, landing on Cid's back and bringing him crashing down across Pacce. Cid rose with a roar, nearly throwing her over the side, but suddenly the odds were even. Pacce grabbed the rifle and slammed the butt-end upwards, connecting with Cid's jaw. The larger man crumpled between them.
"Can you send?" Auron asked Isaaru.
"Not at this range."
"Done!" Rikku said, brandishing the soldering iron. There was a white flash, a whiff of burnt plastic, and every floor-segment of the maze was suddenly anchored by motionless glyphs and a fence of stone pedestals. "Let's go!"
Skidding on the glassy surface, they raced along the walkways. Clouds of pyreflies were wafting up from Cid's prone form. Below, Elma was raising Pacce to his feet. Suddenly she twisted, wrenching his sword-arm behind his back and setting the metal truncheon across his throat, lifting him off the ground.
"Rikku!" Maroda said. "Nightcap, quick! Shuyin's got Elma!"
"Last one," she said. "Here goes!" She reared back and lobbed a pellet across the gap to the path two levels down. Elma crumpled. Pacce rolled a few paces away.
Auron gripped the railing and vaulted over it, putting the forcefields to the test where he landed. Pyreflies surged around his shoulders, coyly greeting Yuna's guardian and Braska's guardian and Tidus' guardian, Captain of the Guard and all his other past, failed selves. Ignoring the insidious chant inside his skull, he lifted Cid by the shoulders and started dragging him towards the nearest solid ground. There was another landing at the far end of this span, and the welcome sight of an ordinary staircase beyond that.
"Isaaru!" he called. "Send!"
"Sir Auron!" Isaaru said. "Please, step away from him, before I—"
The pedestals around them began to flicker in and out of sight.
"MOVE!" Rikku said. "The field's coming down." Skidding down the last ramp, she dashed towards Elma, struggling to pull her out from between the pedestals where she had fallen. Auron strode back to help, slinging the woman over his shoulder and sprinting for the exit. The brothers had reached Pacce, and were dragging him between them. As Maroda lunged over the lip of the landing, all the glyphs and pedestals winked out. The colorful river of lines and patterns resumed its dizzying dance.
Cid was coughing, pushing himself onto his hands and knees. "Dryd lnywo meddma bihg— ra'c kud ed—"
"Pops!" Rikku hurried over, stooping and patting his back. "Pops, you in there?"
"Send," Auron said again, drawing his sword and bracing it against the floor.
"Sir Auron?" the summoner said, hesitating. "Very well." He raised his hands, sweeping them together in Yevon's sign to begin his stately version of the dance.
The floor under Auron's feet seemed to be melting away. Not much of a summoner/, the pyreflies whined, his own voice ringing in his skull. /Not much of a summoner. How much of a guardian? He gripped the sword and hung on.
Maroda, bent over his little brother, gave a shrill cry and crumpled, clutching his groin. Pacce exploded past him, wielding the hilt of his sword like a battering ram. Auron, lurching into action, took a swing at the boy, but his sword cut the air behind him. The older guardian stumbled to his knees. Pacce disappeared down the steps and through an open archway piercing the wall. He ran with long, loping strides that seemed to belong to a taller, rangier young man. A trail of pyreflies floated in his wake.
"He...he didn't even know who I was!" Maroda gasped, doubled over.
"Tried to tell ya," Cid said. "Little punk said somethin' about avengin' his brothers. That's when Shuyin jumped him."