Shuyin eludes Isaaru and his guardians. Meanwhile, the Crimson Squad heads for Vegnagun to keep it from enemy hands.
(Chapter title reference: "Nightmare in a Cave", piano arrangement of "Vegnagun Awakens" from FFX-2 OST)
___________The Cloister of Trials groaned and shuddered like the hold of a sinking ship. A handful of stinging sparks rained down. Auron cast a jaundiced eye upwards, surveying the lattice of struts and moving light-paths.
Maroda, still squirming from his brother's parting shot, snatched up his spear and pelted towards the exit. "Pacce! We're right here! Pacce, wait!"
"Wake Elma," Auron grunted, blocking Isaaru's path.
Isaaru strained against his arm, a rare surge of anger in his voice. "While my brothers try to kill each other?"
A distant concussion rocked the tower's foundations. High above, a long span twisted loose with a squeal of shorn rivets, banging off others all the way down until it crashed to a halt just overhead, wedged against the wall and a support beam. Most of the pathways winked out, leaving them in near-darkness.
"You'd leave her here?" Auron released him with a scowl and turned away. "Rikku. Hurry. This place isn't safe." Then he began to run, vaulting most of the stairs and vanishing through the open archway.
"Gee, thanks," she said, crouched by her father with her first aid kit. Soot concealed the extent of his injuries, but his limbs were slashed and bleeding, and his face was swollen. He was spluttering curses as she applied Al Bhed ointment to his blistered scalp.
Isaaru took two steps towards the exit before Auron's words penetrated. His hands moved in a feeble prayer before he shuffled back towards the crumpled Crusader.
Rikku made an exasperated noise. "Oh, for goodness' sake. Go on! Find your brothers! I'll take care of choco-lady!"
"Nay, Lady, tend to your father." His voice steadied as he poured himself into the soothing mantra: /Esuna, Esuna/, a timid lullaby in that vast, alien hall.
Elma rolled onto her side with a groan, planting her face in the hem of the summoner's robes. "Huh? Oh!" She popped to her feet with a woozy salute. "Orders, sir?"
"Follow me, Commander. Sir Auron and Maroda are on Pacce's trail. Elder Cid, can you travel?"
"We're right behind ya," Cid said, slinging an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "I don't fancy getting flattened by your damned temple."
"Manners, Pops!" Rikku said, patting his wrist. "Yevon just saved your butt, you know."
"I'm tryin' not to think about it, kiddo."
They fled none too soon. As they reached the archway, all the lights failed. They were forced to feel their way along a dusty, disused tunnel. Ominous creaks and bangs echoed down the narrow passageway, magnified by the great drum of the Cloister. They hurried away from the sounds of the tower settling, towards an archway of light at the far end.
Cid was wheezing as they stumbled along. "Hell. I shot up Bevelle pretty bad, didn't I? I don't care what you do t'me, Isaaru, but don't take it out on the Al Bhed. They had nothin' to do with this mess."
"The blame is Shuyin's," Isaaru said. "And the toll is less grievous than it could have been. Bevelle was evacuated ahead of Sin. Homes, as you say, can be rebuilt."
"You got that right." Cid harrumphed in oblique apology. "After this is over, my people could help with repairs."
"I fear Shuyin's attack may rekindle Yevon's suspicions of the Al Bhed," said Isaaru, sounding drained. "But I pray the maesters accept. Thank you."
"Oh!" Rikku turned to Elma. "Speaking of suspicions. Sorry I smacked you with a nightcap. We thought Shuyin was getting to you!"
"'S'okay. He almost did, actually." The Crusader gave a ragged laugh. "I told him to piss off. Maybe the general really is dead, but no way is some crazy unsent gonna tell me what to do about it!"
Emerging into the guardians' antechamber, where sphere-torches seemed unaffected by the tower's demise, they found that Pacce's pursuers had not gotten far. Auron was on his knees and Maroda on his face, both lashed by a flurry of sword-cuts. Blood pooled in the cracks in the floor around them. The stone portal of the Chamber of the Fayth stood open, its fanlike inner barrier torn to shreds.
"In Yevon's name." Isaaru hurried over to Maroda, spreading his hands to muster his strongest healing spell.
"Don't waste power," Auron rasped. "You'll need it for sending."
"What the heck was that?" Swaying, Maroda pushed himself upright with his spear. "He didn't learn that move in basic training!"
Auron frowned. "Tidus called it 'Slice and Dice.'"
"Tidus?" Rikku said sharply.
"I don't know, Rikku." Hefting his sword across his shoulders, Auron trudged towards the entrance to the Chamber of the Fayth. "He went in here."
Maroda followed on his heels, but stopped short in the doorway. "Dammit. Where'd he go?"
"Inside, all of you," Isaaru said, smiling at Elma's double-take. "You, too, Commander."
The heavy door dropped behind them, and they halted in varying degrees of awe. Beneath the glassy floor sprawled a titanic form bathed in golden light, its outspread pinions drawing their eyes like a mandala. A disembodied child's voice soared above, piping out the Hymn with heartbreaking purity. Hanging tapestries bearing Yevon's crests seemed exquisitely crafted to evoke epiphanies. Despite their urgency, they found themselves lulled by a false sense of peace, insulated from the struggles taking place in the world above.
"Well, I'll be," Cid muttered. "It's not half as creepy as Baaj."
"What now?" said Maroda, momentarily subdued.
"We search," Auron said. "There must be a hidden exit."
While his guardians circled the chamber, Isaaru knelt with head bowed. The tension in his posture bled away as he prayed. "Lady," he said, inclining his head to Rikku. "The fayth says you and your father may rest here. The warrior monks dare not profane his sanctuary, although they may barricade the chamber yonder."
"Thanks. And, uh, tell him thank you for us, okay?" Rikku scratched her cheek. "You're bustin' all kinds of rules for us, aren't you?"
Isaaru's eyes crinkled in a wan smile. "Your cousin taught me a few things, milady."
"What the—?" Maroda gave a squawk from the far end of the room. "Yo! I've found it!" He withdrew his spear from the spot where it seemed to have embedded itself in the wall behind a hanging tapestry.
"Let's go." Auron looked at Rikku, brows knitting. "We'll come back for you," he said.
"You'd better!" She raised her voice as he disappeared through the illusory barrier. "No getting yourself killed, Auron, you hear? Wakka's gotta whup you for making me break Yunie's sphere!"
After they had gone, Cid scooped Rikku into a fierce hug, face puckered with the effort of holding back tears. "Dammit, kiddo, I've never been so glad t'see you! That creep had me convinced I'd sent you to Mother."
"Nope! All better, see?" she said, patting her stomach. "Isaaru's pretty good with white magic."
"He'd better be." Cid shook his head. "That Shuyin's liable to carve them into scrap metal. Good thing you're stayin' here with your old man."
Despite thirteen years and three gunshots, the former Crimson Squad members quickly slotted back into their customary orbits. Baralai shortened his stride subtly to match Nooj's limp. Gippal kept pace beside Nooj so casually that it seemed an accident when he was there as a brace against the tower's death-throes. Juno, guarding the rear, observed the trio in keen silence.
Baralai threaded an efficient path through nearly-identical barracks and prison blocks beneath the Court of Yevon, a labyrinth of dark tunnels clad in cold metal plates. When he started herding them into a cell, Gippal balked until he spotted the crack between the floor and the door-frame. Inside, Baralai tabbed the keys of an ancient control pad whose numbers had worn away. He pressed his pistol against Nooj's hip as the room began to descend.
"C'mon, Baralai, put that thing away," said Gippal. "What if you sneeze?"
Baralai shrugged. "Then we're even."
"Not quite," Juno said from her corner. "Three sneezes."
"Hey," Gippal said. "That's not funny, Dr. J."
Nooj's gravelly laughter rolled over the Al Bhed's complaint. "I see. If I'd known all I had to do for forgiveness is serve as a handkerchief to a maester of Yevon, I'd have come back sooner."
"There may be a few other requirements," Baralai said, stiff-lipped.
"If you think of any, let me know." Nooj was smiling— by his standards, the man was practically giddy— but quickly sobered. "About Vegnagun. Are you sure you know how to operate it? There's no margin for error."
"I'm well aware of that, Nooj," Baralai snapped. "With Sin on its way, we have little choice. I've worked out some of the basics using its training program, but there's a lot that I don't understand, and a lot more I haven't dared touch. Gippal, I'm counting on your expertise."
"It sounds pretty advanced," Gippal said. "I may not be able to help much."
The elevator car lurched. They leaned against the walls for a sickening moment of free-fall until it resumed its downward crawl.
"Damn." Baralai shot a quick glance at Juno, but her expression was masked once more by her helm. Chewing his lip, he turned to Gippal. "Nooj was working in salvage operations, right? You said he had a knack for ancient machina."
"Correct," Nooj said. "But most of that was Shuyin. Now that he's not inside my head—"
"Shuyin?" Juno said, suddenly intent.
"An unsent," Nooj said, "killed in the Machina War when he tried to hijack Vegnagun. His lust for vengeance was the only thing keeping him from turning into a fiend. He touched your mind, too, Baralai; that's the vision of Vegnagun you saw."
"It's true, Bar," Gippal said. "I was there when Shuyin popped out of him. Pyreflies all over the place. Everybody was acting twitchy. Then Cid walked in, flipped out and started shooting us. Just like in that cave."
"An...interesting story," Baralai said. "If true, how do we know Nooj is free of this 'Shuyin'? Most of the Crimson Squad was affected."
"You don't," said Nooj. "He could be influencing you, too."
"Hm." Baralai lowered his pistol, but did not holster it. "Touché."
"Nooj," Juno said, leaning towards him. "If Shuyin's been haunting you all this time, what made him leave you?"
"Guess." Nooj gave her a wry look. "When Sin attacked Home, I saw a chance to be free of him. I made sure to be left behind when the Al Bhed evacuated. I hoped no one would find my body. Unfortunately, I still have friends."
"Sucks to be you, Noojster," Gippal said cheerfully. "You sure don't make it easy for us, though."
A chime sounded. Juno steadied Nooj as the elevator came to an abrupt halt. Baralai shot a perturbed glance in her direction. Gippal let out a low whistle.
The doors had opened on an enormous shaft with ribbed walls stretching out of sight above and below them. Spanning the abyss was a slender metal bridge, widening to a circular platform near the middle of the chamber. Looming over it was a monstrous horned head, its sweeping tusks forming a sort of balustrade around half the platform's perimeter. Below, the bulk of Vegnagun's body clung to the platform's central pillar with squat legs the size of sand wyrms.
"Mog on a frickin' shish kabob," Gippal breathed. "That thing could eat Gagazet for dessert."
Baralai exhaled. "Nooj? I could use your help as well."
Nooj smiled. "You've got it."
A low, throbbing hum filling the air began to build to an uncomfortable whine. Floodlights came on and swiveled towards them, blinding them. Baralai strode forward into the glare, raising a hand and speaking in the reassuring tones of a chocobo handler. "Easy. It's me. They're friends. Don't be afraid." The lights dimmed slightly. The behemoth quivered, sending vibrations through the platform where they stood. Wisps of dust rose in the gloom.
"Looks like Baralai's got a friend," Nooj said, noticing Juno's expression.
"A pet," she muttered, watching this interaction with lips pressed together in a thin line.
"Hot damn." Gippal sauntered after Baralai, gawking. "Shinra'd give his left nut to see this thing."
Juno stepped out and turned back to Nooj, still rooted inside the car. "You coming?"
"Sorry." Leaning on his cane, he limped after her. "I've dreamed of this thing for thirteen years. The nightmares didn't do it justice."
Baralai scaled a short ladder and swung himself into the sunken cockpit in the crown of Vegnagun's head. "All right, gentleman, let's get to work. Juno, keep watch. We may have visitors. Do whatever it takes to keep them away."
"Understood." She drew her sword and rested the point on the floor, facing the elevator. "They won't get near you guys."
Gippal helped Nooj up the ladder, and they squeezed in on either side of Baralai. "Man." The Al Bhed stared at the curving bank of blank keys and the curtain of gray tubes forming an upright semicircle behind them. "I don't even know what I'm looking at. Is this a dashboard or a pipe organ?"
Baralai took a steadying breath, spread his fingers, and set his hands to the keys with a gentle, almost caressing touch. Colors rippled to life, blue-white bars of light spreading out from his fingertips, mirrored by the pipes above. Lonely notes in a minor key began to coalesce as his fingers wandered, molding motion into chords, phrases, scales. The baritone drone of engines grew louder. Leaning forward in rapt concentration, Baralai launched into a wild skirl of notes, arpeggios chasing each other in a rising tide.
Gippal's jaw dropped open. "Holy..."
"It's both," Baralai said in a reverent whisper. "Don't look at the light panel. Look past it, through it, the way you'd look into a sphere."
"Unbelievable," Nooj said. "Armageddon delivered by music without a soul."
"No, that's just the bridge." Baralai was having trouble shaping words as he played. "Relax your minds. Listen. Watch. You can't control Vegnagun. You have to let it control you."
Nooj stiffened. "That's asking a lot."
"I see it!" Gippal was staring, transfixed. "I've got it now. It's like...Vegnagun's my own body. I can see the whole city. Man, the Fahrenheit got utterly trashed. Is Vegnagun going to get confused, with three of us linked in like this?"
"Juno and I...used to practice." Baralai kept playing. "I'm bringing up the navigation simulator. That's where I'm stuck. Flying's easy. But there's some way to...cut through the Farplane. Jump in, jump out. Otherwise the launch will tear Bevelle apart."
"You in here with us, Nooj?" Gippal said.
"Not yet," Nooj said, jaw clenched. "Go on. I'll try and catch up."
Gippal flinched away from the viewscreen and pointed. "Um... Baralai? Company."
"I see it." Baralai was sweating. "Take over flight controls."
"What is it?" Nooj said.
"Sin," Gippal said, reaching for the lower bank of keys as Baralai shifted to the upper. There was a painful discord of clashing notes. "Dammit. I can't do it, Bar; I don't have the foggiest clue what you're doing with the keys."
"Don't try to play anything," Baralai said. "Just relax. Vegnagun guides you as much as you guide it. I'm switching to weapons. I've got to keep overriding them manually, or we'll drop out of training mode into active combat. See if you can get through the simulation without crashing or getting eliminated by the self-defense systems."
"I'm already dead," Gippal said. "Touchy, isn't it?"
"Try again. If it decides it's being hijacked, it'll kill us."
On the platform below, Juno kept lonely vigil. She listened with silent longing to the rise and fall of old, familiar voices, Gippal's careless banter and Nooj's incisive remarks, Baralai's soft-spoken earnestness. It was difficult not to turn around, climb up to watch them together when Baralai began to play. It was easy to picture Gippal agape, but Nooj— no, she dared not look, nor even to imagine his expression.
Vegnagun's clashing music drowned out the elevator's faint chime, and she missed the indicator lights until an instant before the doors opened. Chiding herself for carelessness, Juno strode towards them, sword braced against her hip for a swing.
The intruder was stocky enough for Cid, but clad in monk's armor. The tufts of black hair sticking out around his ear-flaps were instantly recognizable. Soot streaked his mail, and there seemed to be tear tracks on his cheek-guards.
"Cadet. This is a restricted area," she said. "Why aren't you with Sergeant Wedge?"
"C-Captain Juno!" Pacce snapped a hasty salute. "The prisoner's escaped! The rest of my squad turned back. I-I lost him in the temple. I'm very sorry, ma'am."
She frowned. "Did you see anyone else with him?"
"All right." She lowered her weapon. "Help me keep watch."
"Aye, Captain." Drawing his sword, he raised his eyes to the behemoth and the music pounding out behind her. "I don't suppose you can tell me what's going on?"
"Absolutely not," she said, turning to follow his gaze. "And you are forbidden to tell anyone anything about what you've seen here— not Wedge, not your own brothers. Speaking of whom—"
Nooj's cry gave just enough warning for her to turn into Pacce's attack, taking the brunt of the strike on the front of her shin-guard instead of the back of her knee. She barely had time to think, /Idiot/, before her exposed chin slammed against the lip of the metal platform. The world went white. Her awareness narrowed to ringing pain and the iron taste of blood.
When her vision cleared, Nooj was lying on the deck beside her, metal arm warding Pacce's sword away from his own throat by failing inches. The belts securing Nooj's artificial leg had been sliced through, and it lay twisted under him at a distressing angle.
"Trying to save her this time?" Pacce laughed, flicking the blade to sever one of his shoulder-straps, scoring his chest. "Pathetic. To think I was forced to wear you for thirteen years."
Turning her head slightly, she closed her fist over the hilt of her dropped sword. Pivoting the blade upwards, she set the point against Pacce's stomach, finding the seam under his breastplate. "Leave him alone."
He gave a bark of laughter. "Go ahead," he said. "Kill the boy. Your student, isn't he? I'll find someone else. One of your friends, or..."
"No!" Baralai shouted behind her. "Gippal, put the gun down!"
Vegnagun growled and lurched, driving Juno's sword-point an inch into the leather. Pacce jerked back with a snarl.
"Baralai!" she called. "Hurry!" She rolled to her feet, parrying a flailing blow as he whirled to face her.
"So, you're Paine." The youth's chubby features twisted in an alien smirk beneath his helm. "I should thank you."
She swung at his legs, forcing him back a step. "I don't think so."
"He thought about you often," A lightning-quick swipe sent her skidding sideways. "It made it easier to control him, ride his pain."
"Don't listen," Nooj said behind her, furiously impotent. "Anger is his path into your mind."
The mocking laughter in Pacce's voice was jarring, a wild braying above Vegnagun's ocean of sound. "Anger, despair, love: in the end, they're all the same road. Aren't they, /Juno/?"
"Shut up." She smiled grimly as he spun away from her slicing blow and pivoted to strike back. "All right, Shuyin. Let's dance."