Chapter 41: "Sea of Sorrow"
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters: Nooj, Baralai, Gippal, Paine, Auron, Isaaru, Elma, Rikku, Pacce
Word Count: 4100
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
Our Story So Far: The Crimson Squad brings down Sin using Vegnagun in an epic battle over the Thunder Plains. Now Summoner Isaaru's party must deal with what lies within.
Sin lay like a split anvil, a mountainous ruin. Lightning painted it in stark relief against the clouds. Below, the flicker of energy weapons answered with feeble red fire. Cold rain pinged against acres of cooling shrapnel hurled from the Thunder Plain's newest crater.
A thunderclap and a muffled shriek pierced the air.
"You should go back," Auron said, gruff voice holding a hint of kindness.
"I'm not scared!" Rikku said, words muffled behind her knuckles. "I'm just worried about you guys. All of you, you know?"
"I know." His hand tightened around the brand across his palm that was, finally, beginning to cool. Lulu's time was running out.
Another explosion blossomed to their left. Auron adjusted his sword-grip, but he had needed to swing it only once since they left the cover of the airship's guns. Baralai and Gippal were providing an efficient escort across the fiend-infested plain. Rikku was less than helpful, hampered as she was by borderline terror, but Auron was secretly touched by her dogged presence.
He returned his attention to the scabrous gray slope rising before them like a cliff. Raw fissures in Sin's armor vented wisps of steam from the smoldering machina crushed beneath it. Drizzle sifted down through the cracks. Most of the monster's eyes were hidden from below. Those that were visible seemed glazed, unfocused, barely twitching. The only other hint of movement was the slow flex and heave of broken ribs. That, and the gleam of sinscales crawling over the broken skin like maggots, shining when the lightning flashed.
There was a sizzling crackle and a shout at his back. Auron checked his stride and pivoted. Elma and Pacce were bracketing Isaaru, facing outwards with blades drawn. Pyreflies eddied at their feet.
"Hey, watch where you're pointing that thing!" Elma said.
"Wasn't me, babe." Gippal sauntered to the left and slightly behind the summoner party, hefting an ungainly shoulder cannon. "I think Bar wants to be Grand Maester real bad."
"Thank you, my lord," Isaaru called to Baralai, trailing them off to the right. "Any sign of Nooj or the captain?"
Baralai shook his head. He had barely spoken since Sin and Vegnagun rammed into the plain.
"Nope," said Gippal, halting to blast a dark shape scuttling between piles of debris. "But the good news is, I haven't seen a single scrap of wreckage. From the flyer, anyway."
"It was pouring a minute ago," Rikku said. "They're probably just laying low unt—" A deafening crack of thunder triggered a scream. She hunkered down until Gippal's laughter brought her to her feet, glaring. "Yeah, yeah. Someone's getting sand wolf doots in his air recycling system."
Conversation tapered off as they approached the buckled edge of the crater. There were more pyreflies here, streaming towards Sin in a last-ditch effort to repair it. Auron was forced to contribute a few more, clearing away sinscales while he waited for the group to assemble on the rim.
Hugging herself, Rikku pressed close to Auron and surveyed the impact zone. The crater's basin was filled with a carpet of oily black smoke, pyrefly-flecked, churned by unseen forms. A charnel reek hung in the air. At this distance, Sin's craggy bulk towered over them like the eroded heart of an ancient volcano. They could hear the groan of its labored breathing, booming like sluggish surf.
"Do you think she knows we're here?"
"She knows we're coming," Auron said, scanning for entry points.
One by one, the rest of the party reached the rim and looked down.
Isaaru closed his eyes and bowed in Yevon's prayer.
"Hoo boy," Gippal said. "Good luck, guys. Glad I'm not going in there."
"Gee, thanks," Elma said, jabbing at a pile of scrap metal that snapped back, recoiling when Gippal blasted it point blank. "Hey, leave some for us!"
Pacce tried to sound nonchalant. "So, uh, we gotta get inside, right?"
"There." Auron pointed. Behind the nearest fin, there was a rupture broad enough for a hover to use as a garage. "Gippal."
"On it, boss." He adjusted a dial and laid down a wide ribbon of fire, playing over the smoke-shrouded terrain between them and Sin. Pyreflies went up in gouts.
"Isaaru," Baralai said.
The summoner wrenched his attention away from their adversary. "My lord?"
Baralai bowed low, hand over his heart. "Our prayers are with you."
Isaaru returned the gesture, adding Yevon's sign. "And mine with you and your comrades, my friend. Please convey my thanks, when you find them." He took a deep breath as Gippal's covering fire died away. "Sir Auron, we are in your hands."
Auron paused, glancing obliquely at Rikku.
"Yeah, yeah." She batted at his elbow. "Don't strain yourself. You said goodbye once already. Scoot."
He smirked and set off as she mimicked his obligatory hmph. Isaaru followed with a curious joy animating his features, despite his burdens. Pacce trotted along beside him, eyes darting towards every shadow. Elma took over Auron's post as rearguard.
Gippal, Baralai, and Rikku watched from the lip of the crater. The summoner party's progress was slow, hampered by the noxious fumes of burnt machina that choked them and set their eyes streaming. Isaaru had to stop several times to apply Esuna. At last, Auron clambered up a jagged metal spur protruding from Sin's side. A cluster of sinscales hissed just in front of the breach. He stepped aside to let Elma and Pacce finish them off.
Auron reached up to touch gray, putrid flesh sagging over the entrance. A feeling of...expectancy? Dread? Denial? brushed his mind.
It's time, Lulu. Stay with us.
The last of the sinscales was sputtering into pyreflies. Squaring his shoulders, Auron strode into the pitch-black opening. Isaaru followed without hesitation. Pacce had to steel himself before making a run at it, dashing through like a child trying to dodge raindrops. Last of all, Elma halted on the threshold, turned, and raised her sword in a high salute, catching the lightning's flash. Then she, too, vanished inside.
"See what I mean?" Gippal said. "Captain Choco-buns is all over me. I'm telling you, Bar—"
"Shut up, Gippal," Baralai and Rikku said in unison.
"It's a good thing your shop doesn't sell clues," Rikku added, "because you're always out of stock."
"For your information— hey, did you swipe that from my stores?" Gippal frowned at a talon-shaped knife strapped to her hip. "That's custom work, you thief! No freebies."
"Ku du ramm, Gipp."
Gippal lowered his gun with an exasperated sigh and propped it against his knee. "Great, now it's both of you. Bar, stop worrying. Rikku, what's eating you? What happened to Princess Sunshine?'
She hunched her shoulders, flinching at another peal of thunder. "Three guardians," she said. "Yunie had six— five, I mean, at the end."
"Yeah, well, your uncle only had two, right? And Auron gets the red carpet from…"
"Hey, do you hear something?" she interrupted.
Baralai's head snapped up. There was a faint, chugging drone in the distance, growing louder.
Gippal broke into a grin. "Yes! What did I tell you, Bar? Juno's a great pilot!"
At last the flyer skimmed into view over the ruins of the abandoned Agency. The little craft was hugging the ground like a ferret. A lightning strike on one of the nearby towers showed why the pilot was risking a crash by flying so low.
Baralai exhaled. "Nooj is driving."
"Well, good. Her landing could use work."
They waited impatiently for the flyer to put down. Baralai sprinted across the gap and scrambled into the back. He engulfed Juno in a fierce hug. "Dammit, Paine, that was a direct order."
"Take it up with the maesters." She met his embrace firmly, checking him over. "And look who's in fiend territory without an armed escort."
"Armed escort, eh? What do you think this is, a paintball gun?" The flyer bounced as Gippal slung his cannon onto the deck, then climbed up to join them. "Man, it's good to see you guys."
Baralai rested his chin on Juno's shoulder, burying his face in her rain-matted hair. At length, he opened his eyes, meeting Nooj's neutral but intent scrutiny. The younger man took a deep breath and released her. Stepping forward, arms stiff at his sides, Baralai bent at the waist in a deep bow. "Nooj."
"Um," Gippal said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"I'm glad you're all right," Nooj said smoothly, holding out his hand. "Sorry about Vegnagun."
Gratitude flooded Baralai's features. "Like Juno always said, it's only a machina." He stepped forward and gripped Nooj's hand. "Not a friend."
"Finally," she muttered.
The intercom on the dashboard bleeped. "Welcome back, kids," Cid said. "Rikku, you there? We're getting a call from the Celsius."
"The Celsius?" Nooj said. "Impossible. There's no way it could send a signal this far."
"Beats me," said Cid. "Get Rikku on the link, pronto. I'd like to know what that damn fool son of mine needs to tell his sister that he won't tell his old man."
"Roger that. Hey, Rikku—" Gippal broke off, looking around the flyer. "Where'd she go?"
"She was right next to us," Baralai said. "Maybe she kept going towards the ship?"
"Sin," Juno said.
A splash of lightning blinded them for a few seconds. When darkness returned, they spotted Rikku as a tiny speck of orange and gold scrambling up Sin's flank.
Gippal groaned. "Oh, no. Rikku!" His bellow went unheard or ignored. The tiny figure ducked into a crack and vanished. "Vilg. If Cid doesn't kill me, Wakka will."
Every brush with Sin was a journey into darkness. There was no sullen rain prickling Auron's cheeks this time, only mist. He kept moving, ignoring the stench of scorched, rotten flesh until all odors faded. Isaaru walked behind him, resting a hand against his back. Pacce and Elma followed. They could hear distant howls, screams, the eldritch wails of pyreflies at the edge of hearing, but the only ghost-lights they saw were their own eyes playing tricks on them. The footing was yielding, spongy, wet. The damp air tasted of salt.
"So... is there like guts and all in here, or what?" Pacce said, clinging to Elma's sword-belt. "How are we gonna find Yu Yevon?"
"I can't see a thing, sir," Elma said. "Bet the fiends can smell us, though. Anybody got a light?"
"Save it," Auron said, halting as Isaaru lifted his hand away for spellcasting. A dim spark of light sputtered out almost before he had finished conjuring it. Auron waited again for the pressure of fingertips against his spine before moving on.
At last, he felt the subtle resistance of a membrane barring their path. He bent his head and pushed through. There was a blinding flurry of light and color. Abruptly, they found themselves in a vast plain of dark blue ice, clouded over by a thin layer of slush. Spiraling bands of glyphs formed eerie tunnels in mid-air, slowly rotating into the ground and rising up overhead. The sky was awash in all the colors of sunset, but no sun, only rafts of motionless clouds stretching to infinity.
"Stay alert," Auron said. "Anything can happen in this place."
"Um, yeah," said Elma. "It's bleeding architecture."
Here and there, the icy surface was broken by broad, sluggish streams of dark red liquid. A logjam of bizarre shapes was bumping along these arteries: metal cubes, modular blocks, windows and doorframes and huge chunks of superstructure, slowly deforming and conforming to the shape of the channels carrying them along.
"Is it the Farplane?" Pacce said.
"Close enough," Auron said.
"A dream of the fayth," Isaaru said with hushed reverence. "We're inside an aeon's shell, instead of viewing it from without."
"Or a nightmare," Elma said.
Something was whipping the fog into eddies overhead. Auron barked a warning just as a trio of winged eyes swooped down and spun towards them, leering. "Ahriman," he said, drawing his sword. "Don't meet their gaze."
Unfortunately, his reflexes were slower than Elma's. She had sprung forward, sword and eyes raised to meet their attackers. Her face went slack. Turning, she made a wild slash at Pacce's head.
"Commander!" the boy said, backpedaling.
"Hit her," Auron said, waiting for a fiend to dip within sword's range. This could be bad. Jecht or Wakka would have handled these easily, but without a mage or air specialist—
"Don't breathe!" came a familiar call. A green canister arced over their heads, striking a brassy wing and exploding on contact. The monsters went rigid, turned the color of clay, dropped and shattered.
Pacce smacked Elma's cheek with the flat of his sword. "Elma, wake up!"
She came to with a jerk. "Whoa. Sorry about that."
"I-it's okay," he said. "Maroda warned me about those things."
"At least it wasn't Auron!" Rikku said, sauntering up. "He practically cut me in two, once. Lulu always kept a doll handy to bop him." She set her hands on her hips, surveying the bleak dreamscape. "Yuck. So much for the garden Yunie told me about. Where to?"
"My lady," Isaaru said. "How did you—?"
"You should go back," Auron said. "It's not your pilgrimage."
"Look, Mister High-and-Mighty-Pants." She waggled a finger. "You and Lulu aren't our chaperones anymore! I'm here to make sure you don't screw up."
"Hey!" Pacce said, bristling. "This is Sir Auron you're talking to! Best guardian alive! Best—" He broke off, perplexed.
Sir Auron was laughing. It was a quiet chuckle, at first, but it built into rolling guffaws that had the summoner and guardians grinning, too, staring at him incredulously.
Rikku smirked. "So, is that an 'I'm so happy Rikku is coming along with us' laugh or an 'I'm laughing so I don't have to give a straight answer' laugh?"
"It's up to the summoner."
Isaaru's tentative mirth drained away. "Elder Cid will not be pleased." He raised a hand, fending off her retort. "I have no wish to endanger any more lives than necessary. But you are a guardian, no? And Lady Yuna's cousin, as well." He paused, looking towards Auron for a sign, but the man had turned his back on them. Finally, Isaaru nodded. "Very well. If you are willing to risk it, I would be honored by your presence, milady."
"It's Rikku. And I'm just here for Lulu, okay? I couldn't care less about your dumb pilgrimage, especially if he's got anything to do with it."
"Dumb?" Elma said.
"It's all right, Commander," Isaaru said. "Lady Rikku, I understand your position. Let us continue."
The plain mocked them. There seemed to be no end to it, nor to the fiends that lurked where the mist thickened. Elma's sharp nose steered them around crystalline beds of fungi, whose sickly-sweet odor she recognized from patrolling the Djose Highroad. Roving packs of scorpion-like fiends proved more troublesome.
Rikku was a welcome addition. She had a knack for guessing unknown fiends' weaknesses, and carried custom explosives for the more common ones. Elma proved a formidable fighter, complementing Auron's devastating but slow attacks with leaping strikes, snap-thrusts and circling slashes that reminded him painfully of Tidus. Extra guardians meant Auron could leave Isaaru a few steps back with Pacce, to the boy's chagrin. Once, at least, Pacce got to save his hero by punching a blade scorpion after Auron's legs went out from under him on the slick ground.
At last, just when Rikku's third are we there yet had reminded Auron that Yuna's pilgrimage was filled with annoyances as well as laughter, Pacce spotted a monumental stone cupola in the distance.
"Finally!" Rikku said. "Come on, Isaaru, let's see some hustle! This is your big day, right? Hup-hup-hup, we're nearly there!"
He gave a weak laugh. "I beg your pardon, milady. It seems priest's robes were not meant to keep up with Al Bhed enthusiasm."
"Well, take them off, then! At this rate, Yu Yevon could put Sin completely back together and make souvenir knock-offs before we find the bastard." She skipped ahead, disappearing into the fog. Auron tensed and started after her.
Damn. He glanced at Elma, who winked and charged forward, angling away to give him room to swing.
A behemoth materialized above them with a roar, flattening the pair with fists the size of wagon wheels.
"Oops," Rikku said, popping out of the fog and throwing up a glittering wall of sparks. It caused little damage, but blinded the beast long enough for Isaaru to whip off a Cura or two. "What the heck is that thing?"
"Purple!" Elma said, bouncing up with a shaky grin. "Looks like we get to play tag with a thunderstorm. Yaaa!" Sprinting past Auron, she launched herself at the creature's tail with a banshee shriek.
Auron had no time to debate tactics. He was fully occupied with dodging swipes that flung him dozens of paces every time one connected. This time, the slippery footing proved a blessing: skidding absorbed some of the impact. Rikku was fast enough to avoid being crushed. She came to the rescue when he went down, splashing his throat with an Al Bhed restorative that seemed to quicken his reflexes. He suspected he would pay for it later, but for the moment, the rush of adrenaline was keeping him between Isaaru and the enemy.
He charged in for another attack, trying to hamstring the creature as Tidus would have done. On his second blow, the treetrunk leg buckled. The fiend came down on all fours, bellowing in pain. Auron rolled out from under it— he found himself missing Kimahri, who would have ended it right then with one spear-thrust.
Meanwhile, Elma had reached its head. Clinging with both legs and an arm wrapped around one horn, she appeared to be at an impasse, sword-arm flailing. Then the beast hunkered down and roared. One moment of relative stability was all the Crusader needed. She twisted and buried her sword to the hilts in the nearest eyeball. The behemoth convulsed, flinging her loose, and toppled chin-first into the ice. Auron was hurrying over to where she had landed when Rikku shouted.
He looked up. Apparently the death-throes of this particular fiend included a magical component. Enormous boulders were falling like hailstones. He dropped his sword — it was more likely to survive lying flat — and braced for impact.
It never came. He could not dodge all of them, yet somehow, they fell around him. He stared in fascination as a slab of rock suspended over Elma's prone form slowed, rolled to one side and hit the ground next to her with a boom. Then the bombardment was over, and he was picking his way around boulders to reach her.
By the time he reached her, she was sitting up and gripping her left shoulder in pain, but triumphant. "Ow. That thing had quite a finishing move, didn't it?"
Shouts of Sir Auron and Hey, Choco-lady! assured him the others were unscathed, so he knelt to examine her injury. Elma kicked him in the gut when he gripped her upper arm and gave a quick jerk, setting the bone back in its socket. Auron waved off her mortified apologies as the other three came running over.
"Oh, man, I thought we were gonna find a couple of legendary floormats over here," Rikku said. "Who needs a medic?"
Elma wriggled her toes. "Me."
"That was totally cool," Pacce said, awe tinged with envy. "Commander Elma, legendary knight!"
"Nah. Only one legend here, kiddo, and it ain't me." Elma submitted meekly to Al Bhed curatives. "Used to be, you couldn't call yourself a real Chocobo Knight until you'd wrangled your first basilisk. Please don't tell the general, though. She banned that stunt a couple years ago."
Pacce's dazzled grin held a hint of mischief. "No way! This'll make all the spherecasts in Luca!"
"Impressive," Auron murmured to Isaaru, standing off to one side.
"I beg your pardon?"
"That wasn't an ordinary Protect spell."
The summoner glanced at the nearest boulder. "Ah, no. NulEarth, I suppose you would call it. Once again, I owe a debt of thanks to Lady Yuna for allowing me to continue my studies." He gave a rueful nod towards Pacce. "I was far too rash on our first journey."
"So. Everybody okay?" Rikku offered Elma a hand up. "C'mon, there's a treasure chest over there, and I didn't dare pop it until I had backup!"
"A treasure chest?" the Crusader said, bewildered. "Inside Sin?"
"Hey, it's no weirder than anything else."
Auron, customary backup in Rikku's treasure-hunting operations, gave her a jaundiced look and followed.
The chest did not explode or turn into a pile of animated junk when Rikku popped the lid. "Woohoo! Thanks, Lulu!" She lifted out her prize. It was a pinwheel-like shield with serrated edges and a sunburst pattern of copper, brass and ochre-colored shell. "Ta-da!"
"Wow." Elma said. "That's sure not Crusader issue."
"Yep!" Rikku strapped the targe to her left arm. Tugging on it to make sure it was secure, her face fell. "Oh."
"What's up?" said Pacce.
"Is there a problem, milady?" Isaaru said.
"H-huh? Nope! Now I've got a gift from the Lady, too!" She spun around, showing it off. "She only gives them to heathens, so neener!"
They resumed course for the temple-like structure whose dome floated over the mist. Once again, Isaaru began to fall behind. Halting to let him catch up, Auron leaned close to Rikku. "What did she give you?"
"Oh, um..." She touched a copper wire on its edge, voice faltering. "Ochre Targe. Lightning Eater."
"You knew what Lulu's Final Aeon was like. You should have thought of that before following us."
"Yeah, but I thought she'd turned into Sin! I thought we'd already beaten her with Vegnagun. So all we gotta do is knock out Yu Yevon and steal her back, right?"
"It won't be that easy." Seeing the sick fear growing in her eyes, he added, "If you panic, I won't stop to help you."
"Oo-oo! You're still the biggest meanie in Spira. Remind me to hit you after this is over. With a forklift." She stuck out her tongue and danced away, as he had intended.
Next Chapter: The Lady