They didn't exit the springs the same way they'd entered; crossing the mountain was significantly easier when you could go through it rather than around it, after all. Even without using her belt - something she was becoming more and more reluctant to do after Belgemine's 'warning' - Rikku was still able to cast enough magic to melt them back out into the harsh cold of the mountain's exterior. Lulu had taught her at least that much even before she'd acquired her garment grid.
The shock of cold air greeting her upon exit was nothing compared to her surprise at seeing the tall pillars rising along the uneven path. Had she really brought them out this close to the Scar? Realization came upon her all at once. Turning, she held up her hands to the others, eyes wide.
"Umm, I think I brought us out the wrong way! Probably got turned around inside the mountain, 'cause we definitely-"
Braska wasn't listening, his eyes trained on the pillars. As if he could sense it.
And worse yet, Jecht was behind him, pushing past. "The hell ya talkin' 'bout, Blondie? Look at them stones! We're in the right place!" He stopped to look at Braska, still and silent, and then turned to stare down the path. "Somethin's here. I'm goin' first."
"Jecht, wait -!" Rikku yelled, chasing after him. Maybe that was what really gave it away. He looked over his shoulder, saw her panic, and broke into a run.
She was right behind him. Jecht was fast, but she was faster, damn it! She latched onto his arm, digging her heels into the ground.
Jecht tore out of her grasp and skidded to a stop just as the path opened wide into the Eternal Summoning. Eerie blue light covered everything, shifting and wavering just like the water tumbling down from Gagazet's peak. The water collected into the pool beside them, swirling and shifting with the magic sheen of the summoning to fill the entire area with its soft glow. Not even the crashing of multiple waterfalls could mask the siren song of the pyreflies that danced through the air. But not a single mote of light was in sight.
Of course not; how could they be, when they were all being converted into the massive, twisting bridge of water being siphoned away into the clouds above? The slowly rotating pillar rose straight into the sky, even higher than Mount Gagazet's peak. It continued well past the low-hanging storm clouds overhead, wisps of blue light trailing off of it in every direction like an enchanted mist.
Below that, much more obvious, were the Fayth. Wedged tightly between brightly colored murals, they were embedded into the side of the mountain by the dozens. Each person was trapped, twisted and frozen into the rock. Not a single face could be seen among the masses. Some were curled in upon themselves, as if in agony. Others had their arms outspread, caught in ecstasy. No matter the position, they were all piled unceremoniously one over the other, a sea of things once-human, crawling over the entire rockface. Sheer numbers robbed them of their individuality and made them look like macabre tapestry of flesh. Occasionally over the ambient sound of water and pyreflies, something like a sigh could be heard - low and deep, or high and wistful, just as varied as the countless Fayth themselves. The whispers of the dead chased around the small recessed pool, echoing unnaturally.
Jecht froze, open-mouthed. His trembling hand reached out, and Rikku slapped it away. "Don't touch it!" she whispered furiously, remembering Tidus's collapse.
He looked at her in a daze, his expression lost. Realization dawned because she couldn't keep a poker face even if she tried. And then he gave her a tired, shaky half-smile.
"Are ya tellin' me I can't touch myself?"
Her breath left her in a rush. "You're joking about this now?"
He stepped away from the wall of Fayth and rubbed the back of his neck. "What else am I gonna do? Sit down an' give up? S'not like I didn't know already." His hand stilled, and he stared up at the Fayth, as if trying to pick out individuals from the morass. "Jus'... when ya meet the truth, an' it's all up in yer face like this…" He trailed off, the weak smile dropping away. He ran his hand down his face, stopping to cover his eyes. A few painful, still moments passed, neither of them moving.
Then, abruptly, he spun on his heel and stared intently at the pillar of water.
"Jecht?" When he didn't answer, she took a tentative step forward and risked poking him gently with a finger. "Jecht!"
He turned on her, and the look on his face made her pull her hand away and take a large step backwards.
"I found him. I finally found him!"
"Rikku?" Auron's voice interrupted them; he stepped onto the path slowly, eyes wide. There was a beat of silence as he took in the wall, and the pillar, and then his gaze landed on her like a targeting beacon.
Her vision doubled. Auron was still there, but he had shades keeping his eyes hidden, and the collar of his red coat was pulled up high. She was sixteen again, full of suspicion and anger and that familiar panic that she thought she'd left far behind.
"This is your journey, too."
She'd been furious for about all of two seconds, and then crushed by his answer. She'd thought he was missing his heart, and was ready to tell him so right then and there, until Tidus stopped them all and defended Auron.
"What is this?" Auron asked her, his voice a mix of wonder and horror as his gaze strayed back to the wall, shaking her out of her memory.
"Fayth," Braska answered, walking in slowly behind them. "And they are dreaming."
Silence reigned. It wasn't that anyone in the group was particularly slow on the uptake, but with Jecht standing there, glaring at the pillar of water as if he wanted to dive right in and swim up it, Rikku was fairly certain that everyone had at least an idea of who was being summoned.
I should be able to do something. Shouldn't I? Helplessness gnawed at her, as well as a sudden, visceral understanding of exactly how helpless Auron must have felt when she confronted him all those years ago.
Age… time… they don't bring anyone answers, not really, not when you're faced with something like this. But I did learn one thing by now, at least… It sucks to face the truth alone.
She traded a glance with Auron and Braska, then scooted herself beside Jecht, leaning into him. He twitched, then grunted when Auron flanked his other side and Braska came up behind him to place a hand on his shoulder.
Rikku kept her eyes firmly on the undulating waves of water when Jecht began to shake. His irregular breathing and raspy, shuddering breaths made it pretty clear he was 'not crying', of course. Eventually, the tremor in his shoulders subsided, and he brought his hands to his face again, scrubbing it clean. She risked a glance at his face.
"Can it," he sniffed. "I ain't cryin'. It's all this damn mist from the water." He cleared his throat, then crossed his arms. "Well, we sure as hell ain't swimmin' up that, so might as well keep goin'," he grunted.
"Jecht… are you sure?" Auron asked, sounding almost… concerned, for once.
"Naw, but whatever, man," Jecht replied gruffly, shaking off their concern and walking down the path. His feet slowed by the wall of Fayth, but he resolutely turned his chin in the other direction and kept walking. "Let's get goin'. Sin ain't gonna wait for us forever, right?"
They trailed after him along the precarious cliffside. Rikku tried to ignore the endless Fayth lining the path, but it was hard to stray far from them without risking a fall into the creepy summoning-water below. She kept her eyes focused on the back of Auron's coat, her eyes trained on the bright phoenix down twisting in the breeze. It looked unnaturally bright and out of place against the rest of their cold, dour surroundings; a little scrap of life, in a mountain so thickly steeped in death.
Blinking, she glanced over her shoulder and noticed Braska was falling behind. "Hey, Braska! Keep up!"
He looked away from the wall of Fayth he'd been staring at. The blue of the summoning light caught against the blue of his eyes, which seemed to be glowing with the same intensity in that moment. She bit back her yelp of surprise; it was as if one of the Fayth had moved, turning away from the mountain to stare back at her.
"Yes, of course," he said, breaking the spell. He gathered his robes and picked up speed. Rikku pressed her back closer to the Fayth to let him pass ahead of her. A tingling chill traveled down her shoulders.
As soon as she could she pulled away from the wall, chasing after the others into the dark cavern ahead with no small amount of relief.
The cave of trials was much warmer and more welcoming than the rest of Gagazet. Maybe it was because there was finally some relief from the harsh, bitterly cold wind. Or maybe it was just the lack of dead people lining the walls. Either way, everyone seemed to be relieved to have left the Scar behind them.
The path forked in two before them, but Rikku tugged them away from the steep upwards climb.
"This is kinda like a Cloister of Trials," she said, pointing at the rocky downward path to the submerged passage. "Only Jecht and I can solve it, though."
Auron stopped, already halfway down the rocks at her instructions. He looked up at her, bemused. "Why?"
"Because the rest of you can't hold your breath long enough to solve the puzzle," Rikku informed him, pushing past him to point at the reflective surface of the water close to his boot. The others might have even missed that it was a pool, if not for her prior knowledge of the area.
Multiple glowing stalactites broke through the surface of the dark water. When that water lay still and unmoving, it appeared as though the cavern was deeper and darker than it was, and peppered with softly-glowing dripstone columns. Fortunately, the stalactites provided enough light to see by. Unfortunately, the deceptive formations had probably led many a summoner's Pilgrimage to an unexpected end when the less fortunate fell into the fiend-infested water unawares.
"Amazing," Braska said as he stepped closer, kneeling to put one hand in the underground pool. Its glass-smooth surface broke, spreading ripples further than anyone could see in the dark cavern. "It's warm, at least."
"Might not want to do that," Rikku warned Braska. "There's splashers and worse in there. They'll bite your fingers right off!"
Jecht did a double-take. "... Ya expect me to go swimmin' after sayin' somethin' like that, Blondie?"
She rolled her eyes. "They're fish, Jecht. We can take 'em!"
"Ah huh," he said, still eying her warily. Then he sat down, checking to make sure the ends of his wetsuit completely covered his ankles.
"We'll be relying on you," Auron said as he stepped back from the water. "You know what you're doing?"
"Mostly," Rikku said, dropping her pack by Auron's side and tiptoeing to give him a light kiss. "We'll be back before you know it!"
"Yeah, yeah. Let's get goin'. Man, fish ain't supposed to have teeth that big," Jecht complained as he eyed one of the tiny fish swarming near the surface - Braska's disturbance hadn't gone unnoticed.
Cheerfully, Rikku reached into her pouch and tossed a gem into the water. There was a crackle and a loud bang when the jewel hit the water with an accompanying bright flash of light, causing a chain reaction of cringing and swearing from the men. When it faded, the dark forms below were already floating towards the surface, belly-up and leaking pyreflies the entire way.
"I got you covered! Besides, the ones with the mouths are easy. It's the ones that don't have mouths or eyes that you have to watch out for!"
Jecht didn't look entirely heartened by her assessment, but grimaced. "C'mon, let's go 'fore they come back." He took a deep breath and dove below the water.
"See you soon!" Rikku said, waving before she followed after him.
The trip to the cavern's puzzle and back was easier than Rikku remembered. Maybe it wasn't fair to Tidus, but Jecht was kinda better than his son when it came to maneuvering underwater. He also had pretty good aim with that flying sword of his. Of course, Rikku personally thought that the translucent cage protecting the sphere that would unlock the rest of the path to Zanarkand would have shattered upon being hit by a Celestial Weapon, but Jecht's blitzball pride kept him from testing out her theory.
All in all, the worst part of the trip, besides beating back the aquatic fiend life, was seeing how many discarded weapons and items had piled up along the bottom of the passage from Pilgrimages that had ended in there in the water.
When they broke the surface, Auron and Braska were nowhere to be seen. Jecht climbed out after her, shaking himself off like a wet dog.
"The hell did they go?" he asked her, confused.
A cavern-shaking roar answered his question. Trading a look, they raced up the rocky steps, only to find Auron and Braska facing off against a Behemoth.
"Holy crap! That's the biggest cow I ever saw!" Jecht looked up, and up, and up, at the angry fiend that dwarfed them. The behemoth seemed to take issue with Jecht's comparison, because it charged straight at him, horns lowered.
"Whoa!" Jecht yelled, scrambling backwards. Braska waved a hand quickly and the fiend staggered and crashed face-first into the stone, sliding forward to stop at Jecht's feet. It let out a loud snore, a line of drool escaping its mouth between the rows of wicked teeth.
"I almost feel bad killing it when it's sleeping like that," Rikku said, crouching down and peering into the Behemoth's peaceful face.
"I don't," Auron said, swinging his sword around and stabbing it through the back of the neck without ceremony. Pyreflies rose around him. "Were you successful?"
"No problem!" Jecht said, crossing his arms. "So, we conquered this mountain yet or what?"
"Not quite," Rikku replied, leading them deeper inside the caverns. "We have a little more swimming to do. And we need to use that remote-controlled sword of yours again. That thing's really handy, you know?"
"Ahh, c'mon, I hate piranhas!" Jecht groaned, though he trailed her to the next darkened pool of water.
"Even more puzzles?" Auron wondered, staring into the dark water. This time, a carved stone stairway led below the surface, clearly indicating the path they had to follow. "This is no temple proper. How should Summoners prepare for Gagazet's trials without this knowledge?"
"Perhaps that is the point," Braska said, seating himself on the steps that weren't submerged. "If a Summoner can't adapt to the unexpected, then they are likely to be unable to defeat Sin. It is anything but predictable, as we've seen."
"Well, just wait for us here. It's not much of a trial anyway, by Temple standards," Rikku scoffed.
"By Temple standards, it's rather extraordinary to have both an Al Bhed and a Blitzball player as your Guardians," Braska replied. "Just because these challenges aren't difficult for the two of you doesn't mean that they are not difficult."
"Huh. I never thought of it that way," Rikku admitted. She crouched by the water, considering the dark, dangerous shapes circling around the dripstone columns. There weren't actually that many people who could fight well underwater, even if they could swim. "Lucky us, I guess." She looked up at Jecht, who gave her a nod.
"Then let's do it, an' prove we're the most bad-ass team of Guardians to ever walk Spira," Jecht said, pumping his fist into the air.
Giggling, Rikku stood up and lowered her goggles. "Back in a jiffy!"
The final climb towards the exit of the cavern was the steepest. They went slowly, carefully making their way over the newly-summoned rocks revealed by passing the trial's tests. At least that's what Rikku told herself, her steps getting slower and slower, until even Braska in his long robes was climbing faster than her.
Reaching the top of the path, he turned around to face her. "Is something wrong?"
Sweating, Rikku leaned on her knees and nodded. Her stomach clenched. "I know what comes next."
Auron and Jecht were waiting at the top; Jecht waved at them impatiently, while Auron was watching them with the closest thing she would call to a nervous look on his stone-chiselled face.
"... I see. It must be unpleasant, to make you drag your feet this much."
"You're not gonna like it."
Braska folded his hands together. "If you wish to tell me, then tell me. Standing here, shedding sweat and obtuse clues about an unknown danger does none of us any good. We have come too far to turn back in any case."
Rikku shifted her weight. "Weeell," she hummed, feeling rotten. "I mean, you're not gonna like her."
Braska's eyebrows went up. "Her? What her? Does someone actually live up here? How?"
"Living might be overstating it," she mumbled, cringing when Braska's face went white.
"Even more Unsent? By Yevon, just how many restless souls are walking around Spira right now?" His face was going from white to flushed, and he opened his mouth to continue.
"It's Yunalesca!" she near-shouted to stop him before his indignant tirade began.
That worked, by the way his mouth opened and closed a few times.
"Lady Yunalesca? The First?" Braska repeated, staggering back.
Rikku nodded miserably. Auron was already marching back down to them, the nervousness on his face already full-blown worry.
"What's going on?" he asked, looking between her and Braska.
"Lady Yunalesca awaits us," Braska replied faintly. He closed his eyes and let out a bitter laugh. "A Church built on lies, from its very foundation. No wonder the spiral of death draws us all in. Are any of the Teachings true, I wonder?"
Auron was similarly stunned. "She remains here? An Unsent?"
"Yeah." She winced.
All things considered, Auron was taking it pretty well. He'd drawn his sword and was smashing it into the side of the cavern, cleaving a few new sword-sized chips into the walls, teeth grinding together.
"'Ey, calm down Red!" Jecht yelled, jogging back down the path to join them. His shout did make Auron stop redecorating the cavern. "I don't know what you guys are doin' down here, but I blame Blondie."
"Thanks, Jecht." She gave him a flat stare.
"No problem. Anyway, if ya keep on makin' that much noise, you're gonna make the thing waitin' outside come in an' get us," he added helpfully, pointing a thumb over his shoulder.
A low, dangerous grumbling drifted in from the exit.
"Yeah, so I took a lil' peek while y'all were losin' yer shit in here, an' there's a big-ass dragon waitin' ta fight us outside." Jecht added.
"Um, yeah, so Yunalesca sent it, kinda to test us," she explained. "Only the strongest and all that."
Auron swore under his breath.
Jecht, however, smacked a fist into his palm and cracked his neck. "Yeah, whatever. Wanna get it together an' kick its ass?"
"It's the third trial of Gagazet." Braska sighed, collected himself, and gripped his staff tightly. "We haven't much of a choice."