Chapter 31: Strength
It was time for the race to begin…
Yuna woke up on the ground. All recollection of what had happened escaped her as she rubbed tenderly at her temples. The last thing she could remember was standing at the gate, ready to start the race. The doors had opened. They'd walked through…
Yuna got to her feet, staring around her at the poorly lit alcove she found herself in. She braced herself against the wall and moved toward the opening before her, coming out on the other side into a cobblestone walkway. The walls along the walkway were too high to see over, and she could just barely see that the tops were lined with blue flame.
They had been separated. Part of the rules?
Suddenly realizing her situation, Yuna turned to her right and ran. She had no idea where she was going or if this was the right direction, but she did know that she had a time limit. Spend too much time thinking it through, and she'd end up dead before she reached anywhere near the center of the maze.
A few quick turns later and she was lost, realizing that her panic had only led her to move without thinking. She paused in one of the hallways to catch her breath, leaning against a nearby wall. She watched the flickers of blue light wave mockingly above her head. Her eyes moved down from them, searching the wall for anything else of significance. A marking. Writing. Anything.
Her eyes snapped away from the wall and she heard something approaching from the direction she had just come from. The darkened part of the hallway wasn't giving up the silhouette of whatever was headed her way, but the clicking sound of something sharp against the stone was getting closer. She could swear it was right next to her, and she tensed up, slowly moving away from the wall to run. Her hand was on her hip holster, easing out the gun as she back up.
A sickle-like object flew at her head, missing it by a hair as she ducked away from it and ran. She glanced back and saw that the weapon was really the foreleg of a creature that had materialized from the shadows. It looked like a giant crab, and it was now running after her.
She made it to the end of the hallway and turned, firing a full clip into the creature, causing it to rear up. She'd shot out a few of its many eyes, only to successfully tick it off even more. She ran again, loading another clip as she went.
She was ignoring where she was going, and at the moment she didn't care. As long as she survived the ten foot monstrosity, she'd then worry about figuring out the labyrinth.
As she started to her left she felt the floor give way, but she kept on running. She heard the creature cry out, and she picked up her speed, trying to make it before the entire floor gave out under her. Reaching a full sprint, she launched herself into the adjacent passageway just as she felt her last footing give away.
Gasping for air, she remained on the ground, looking back at where she'd come from. The creature was crying softly and twitching from where it was impaled on a spike. Underneath the floor there was nothing but sharp rocks and darkness. If she'd been too slow, she would have shared in the creature's suffering.
"Better you than me," she said, rolling over and getting to her feet.
She was tired. More so than she thought she should be by this point. She knew it had to do with losing energy to this place. In order to survive, she'd have to ignore the strong desire to rest and keep pressing on.
There was no way she could head back in the direction she had come from. She was about to chose a new path when she heard someone running in the adjacent connection. She aimed her gun at that hallway and waited.
Tidus rounded the corner and stopped when he saw her and the gun.
"Whoa," He said, holding up his hand. "It's me."
A wave of relief washed over Yuna and she dropped the gun to her side. "Good to see I'm not the only one completely lost."
Tidus nodded back toward the way he'd come. "Don't go that way."
"Why?" She asked.
"Just trust me on that one," Tidus said, looking nervous. He didn't want to go into detail about the several traps he'd almost fallen victim to. He grabbed Yuna's hand. "Come on. I think I figured out the way to navigate this place."
"Wait…I think I get this!" Selphie sang from her hiding spot behind a few rocks.
Irvine was next to her, jumping up every once and a while to shoot at the creatures that had them pinned at a junction, blocking their progress forward. They'd met up a few turns back and had decided to stick together. Selphie had said she felt there was a pattern to the maze. Irvine had just smiled and nodded. That was until their turns started to actually get them somewhere.
She heard a few shots go off and watched as Irvine quickly slid back down beside her. A large burst of flame hit the rocks where they were and dispersed around them.
"I think I'm just pissing them off," he sighed.
"Did you hear me?" Selphie asked. "I said that I think I figured this out."
"Well that's just wonderful, darlin'," Irvine said, firing around the rock just for the heck of it. There was no point in aiming. The things just kept getting back up. "Let's hear it."
Selphie pointed to the ground in front of her. There was a half sphere sticking up among the pebbles and debris. She waved her hand over it and it turned blue.
"These are at every crossroads, intersection, and connection," she said. She paused as Irvine nodded and then went back to firing.
He returned and pointed at the sphere, "You were saying, sweetheart."
"Blue is straight, red is left, green is right, yellow is go back," she said.
"Go back?" Irvine said, making a face. "What the hell is the point of that?"
"Sometimes the pathways change on you. I've been checking these things as we've gone along."
Irvine sighed. "So what you're saying is that we have to make it through these things?"
Selphie nodded. "Blue is an order to move your butt forward."
"Darlin' I have no idea how you figured this all out, but you're a genius."
"Aww," Selphie smiled sweetly. She then made a very serious face, startling Irvine slightly. "Let's kick some ass."
Lulu was pretty sure that they had been down this pathway before. She searched the right wall, running her fingers along the cracks until the tips fell into the indentation there and her heart sank. Her fingers traced the 'L' of her initials and she knew concretely that they were exactly where they had started. She'd carved them there in case they managed to double back. She'd been hoping that wouldn't have to be the case. But here she was now, out of breath, and back at the beginning.
"We circled, ya?" Wakka asked, watching Lulu sink against the wall and groan. He came beside her and saw the crude carving. "Great. Just great."
"It's got to be like the Cloister right?" Lulu asked. "There has to be a pattern."
"The problem is we're too busy running from the traps and who knows what else to look for it."
Lulu chewed on her bottom lip and looked down at the ground; it was then that she saw the orb embedded in the floor. She bent down and touched it. It flared to life, giving off a red hue before dying.
"What was that?" She asked.
Wakka shook his head. "Think there are more?" He asked.
She got back to her feet brushing herself off and looking down the hallway. "Only one way to find out…"
Yuna and Tidus came to an oddly arranged room. The walls were lined with the odd blue flamed torches and the floor was covered in multi colored panels. Each one had a symbol written on it. They paused in the doorway, studying the layout and wondering if they should go forward.
The panels ended halfway through the room, and the room was larger than two inner sanctums of the temple back home. Yuna looked at the writing along the walls and compared it to the panels.
"Do you read ancient Aeolian?" She asked Tidus.
He smirked and shook his head. "No. I failed our language in school; you think I've picked up this one?"
Yuna smiled weakly and then slumped against the doorway, the sudden feeling that all her energy had dropped into the floor overwhelming. Tidus was there by her side in a second, holding her shoulders.
"Are you alright?" He asked, concern laced in his eyes.
She nodded and pushed away from the wall. "I'm alright."
He nodded toward the room. "We need to keep moving. We have to be close."
At least that was what he hoped. There was no way to determine how far they had to go still, but Yuna's pallid complexion had him worried. There was no other option. They had to be close.
They moved into the room slowly, and the second their feet touched the outer panel, the door slammed down behind them. The ceiling started to move downward, and Tidus grabbed Yuna's hand, sprinting for the other side of the room. The door on the other side came down just before they could make it.
"Shit!" Tidus swore, looking around frantically for another exit.
Yuna ran back to the first one and tried to find a switch near that door. When she couldn't find anything she backed away from the door, her eyes going to the ceiling that was coming down upon them.
Her foot hit one of the tiles and she felt the whole thing go down underneath her weight. The sound of gears ceasing their movement met her ears, and the ceiling stopped its decent.
"Wait, wait," Tidus called out to her just before she was about to move. "Stay there!"
Tidus jogged up to her and looked down at the tile beneath her feet. Both doors in the room were still shut, but she had stopped the death trap from moving.
Yuna looked at the tile and then back up at the walls. Her symbol was ablaze on the wall next to the door. The border of the room was made up of one long text inscribed in stone. Seeing the first symbol full of light made her realize that was the key to getting out of there.
"We have to complete the text," she told Tidus, "Find the next part."
She moved off of her tile and the ceiling started its decent again, showering the two of them in dust and gravel. She stepped back on the tile again to stop it and looked up at Tidus, panicked.
"I guess I have to stay here."
Tidus looked bewildered himself, "Please tell me we don't need to keep every single tile compressed as we go…"
He found the next symbol, stepping on it and looked back to see that his section of text was completed on the wall.
"So…" Yuna started. "Do I move?"
Tidus shot a glance up the ceiling and noted how far it had come in their scramble to figure out the puzzle thus far. It descended slowly enough that they could risk it. However, they only had one of two options, stand there or move. It was looking like Yuna would have to find the next part of the puzzle.
Yuna stepped off her tile, and breathed a sigh of relief when nothing happened.
"Progressing locks the last one in place," she smiled.
She found the next one, and Tidus moved onto the next. They played the temple's game until the last one was compressed. There was still half the room to cover, but the puzzle tiles ended at the mid point. Their exit opened to them, and Tidus started for the door.
"Come on," he urged Yuna.
He was drenched in sweat now. They both were. All they'd been doing was playing a sadistic game of hop scotch. That wouldn't be enough to normally take them down, but this place was taking the life from them. He hoped that this was somewhere close to the middle of the maze. They were running out of time and energy.
She stepped off of the tile and the door shut. She cried out and moved back to the tile, but the whole room had reset itself.
"No!" she cried. "We finished it!"
The ceiling moved faster this time, and they ran back to the beginning. Exhausted, Yuna threw herself at the beginning tile and lay on top of it. The huge slab of descending stone above their heads halted and Tidus slid to Yuna's side.
The room height was now just inches above Tidus' head when he stood. They couldn't risk that happening again. He helped Yuna up and they made their way to the end again.
Standing at the end of the puzzle, halfway from their destination, they knew if they both left, then the trap would reset.
"I'll stay," Yuna said, shooting Tidus a 'don't worry about me' look.
He shook his head, "Maybe if we run…"
"Tidus," Yuna spoke gently but sternly. "I'm tired. You have to make it to the end of this. Maybe if you reach the end, then the whole labyrinth will reset."
"I'm not leaving you! End of discussion!"
Yuna sunk to her knees and Tidus moved to her side, taking her shoulders again. She smiled at him weakly. "You're faster than me," she whispered. "Look, I can barely stand right now. Who do you think stands a better chance of making it to the end of this?"
Tidus couldn't believe what she was asking him to do. He couldn't just leave her there. What if he got lost. What if he couldn't find the center of the maze.
"Stop worrying," she said, placing a hand on his face. "Just go. If you want to help me then go."
Tidus hesitated, looking back and forth between her and the door.
"Go!" Yuna said pushing him away.
He gave her an apologetic look, nodding. "Hold on, alright." He scrambled to his feet and sprinted. He had no idea where he was drawing as much strength as he was, but he knew that it was up to him. He couldn't guarantee that the others were going to find the center. He also couldn't guarantee that once he made it, then everything would return to normal. But right now he was running like he was the last one standing. He was running like he believed it would make a difference.
It was breathtaking. Well, either the structure itself was breathtaking or all the running he'd been doing was what was causing his light headedness. Before Tidus was the center of the maze. A large pyramid shaped stone was set at the center, stair steps on every face of the giant slab of stone. Three temples in Besaid, stacked one on top of the other wouldn't even come close to the height of the thing in front of him.
The very center was the top tier, and Tidus, exhausted from sprinting as hard and as fast as he had, wasn't sure that he could make it to the top. He rested himself at the bottom, leaning against the bottom stair and stretching out his calves.
He just had to keep his mind on the prize, and treat this like a blitzball match. There were many times when he'd exhausted himself in a match. The game would be tied and the fate of the game lay with the final point. That was where he had to go, to the arena in his mind. Just one more obstacle to go before he could rest. Just one more place to sprint.
Yuna. Think of Yuna…
Again, he knew he had to give this everything he could. He had to run for anyone that had fallen, and for those who were still trying to get there. Who knew, maybe someone was making their way up the other side of the pyramid now, but Tidus somehow knew in his heart that wasn't the case. He had to run now, fast and hard and like there was no one else coming.
He started up the stairs, letting the blood pump through his veins like fire. Every muscle ached and every bit of energy storage in his body was giving him what little was left to give. As he ascended the stairs, moving as fast as he could, he could feel his lungs giving out and burning painfully. No matter how much oxygen he breathed in, or how hard he pumped his arms, he could feel his body giving out.
Don't give up…you're almost there…
He heard someone running behind him. He looked and saw Selphie leap the first stair and start her own torturous sprint up the side.
Past the blood ripping through his ears he could hear more footsteps echoing throughout the cavern. He couldn't see his comrades, but he knew that they were with him. It was up to whoever got there first, and Tidus started to relax in the thought that they had this one covered. They could win this.
That was until he heard her cry out and fall. He stopped and saw Selphie sprawled out among the stairs, she was shaking as she was trying to get the energy to get back to her feet.
"Keep going!" She shouted up to him.
Tidus nodded and turned to run, he heard someone else call from the other side of the temple. "Tidus! He's coming!"
It had been Irvine's voice, and at first Tidus had no idea who the 'he' was that Irvine was referring to. That was until he leapt up onto the final plateaued tier and started to run for the center.
Tidus hadn't realized who Irvine was referring to until he'd reached the pillar of light at the center of the pyramid. He reached through the beam of light, feeling his hands wrap around a piece of stone. He retracted his hand with the gate key, just as the light disappeared, and a huge war hammer came flying at his head.
Tidus rolled under it, but Gannon had brought the other end of his weapon across his back, tearing through the skin. Tidus dropped the key, which came to rest at the edge of the large slab of leveled ground.
Gannon moved in and picked up Tidus. The huge hulk of a man was able to lift Tidus without any effort.
"Give me the key," Gannon demanded.
Tidus realized that Gannon hadn't noticed that he'd dropped it. "No." He said.
Gannon smiled cruelly, "Wrong answer." He then tossed Tidus through the air, hoping he'd plummet over the edge, but Tidus caught himself, sliding to a stop and getting to his feet.
The second that he'd touched the key, he'd felt his energy restored. Unfortunately, he knew that meant Gannon was ready to go ten more rounds as well. The temple was reset. Tidus only hoped that Yuna was able to get out of the room, and that he'd been able to save her before she'd been taken by this place.
"Where's the girl?" Gannon asked. "Too rough on her? I do hope she's still alive. We've got so much to talk about, her and I."
Tidus didn't play into the man's hands. He wasn't in a caring and sharing mood anyway. He just wanted to get the key and get the hell out of there.
"I have nothing to say to a brute like you," Yuna's voice came from behind them both.
Tidus' eyes went wide and Gannon grinned.
"Yuna? How?" Tidus started.
"I got a second wind. Lulu found me…told me to come help you."
Gannon laughed at that. "You need a little girl to help you." His smile then turned sinister. "You'll need a lot more than that, Outsider."
"You really like to hear yourself talk," Tidus sighed, getting into a fighting stance.
"Give me the damn key!" Gannon ordered again.
"This one?" Yuna asked, the small stone orb dangling from a chain in her hand. She then took out her gun with the other hand. "Come and get it," she sneered. "I dare you."
A/N: One down, nine chapters to go in this forty chapter mammoth project. Thank you all who are still with me. I know you all hate me for dragging this out for so long. Special thanks to ghikiJ. Just because you're awesome. Enjoy.