Chapter XVI - Excelsior

She had decided that snow was a funny thing. An enigmatic, mystical substance that somehow managed to warm the heart and cool the skin. For how could someone see a fragile little snowflake and not feel a shiver of peacefulness ripple through their body? The snow was a very funny thing indeed, and as most things, it got Rikku to thinking. Thinking about her journey, about love, and about life in general.

It seemed that she had been doing that a lot lately. Contemplating the future, sticking her head further and further into the clouds. For if she could think it long enough, maybe even offer a couple wishes to those ever twinkling stars, it could come true. It was truly unfortunate, however, that life did not work that way.

The things she wanted most she could never have and the things she despised would always be held near. It was a bitter paradox that would spiral, just like Spira itself. How ironic and a little bit sad, that she was doomed to live a life that she hadn’t even spun herself.

With a slight grimace upon her face, she looked up toward the peak of the impressive mountain before her. Snow sprinkled lazily upon her upturned face, melting instantly upon contact. This was it. Her final mountain to climb per say, in all intendments of the word. One more mountain till Zanarkand, one more mountain till the end. The end of everything.

The death of her happiness lay over those craggy peaks. Her love and her joy were going to leave her. It was going to be quite a blow to the little Al Bhed, as hard as it might be to admit it. She didn’t want Yunie to die and she certainly didn’t want Auron to vanish. It was selfish, of course. But, at this point she really didn’t care anymore. It was ridiculous that their own salvation was the sacrifice of the innocent. After nearly one thousand years of torment, all they could come up with was to kill someone. It was really sad how the human race resorted to the most simple and outlandish means of solution. Just as long as it wasn’t them, right? Just as long as they didn’t have to dirty their own hands and spill their own blood. That was all that mattered. They would send some willing being instead, some amazing person that would gratefully give their life for their homeland. It was nauseating.

And of course, sad.

With a poignant sigh, she lowered her head and returned her gaze to the party before her. They all seemed to be taken aback by the mountain before her, each contemplating as she had. Yuna, however, did not look ahead. Her gaze lingered backward toward the valley they had just exited, as she said her farewells. Her final goodbyes to a land that spurned her and sentenced her to death. That very land which she loved with all her heart.

With that sight, Rikku could almost feel the tears rush to her emerald eyes. The tears which she had cried far too many times, the tears that she welcomed as well as feared. For allowing those tears to fall once more, she would admit defeat. And by the gods themselves, she would not give up now. She had come too far and labored for too long to just let this thing go. Yunie would not die, and neither would Auron. They would all triumph if it was the last thing that she ever did.

The crunch of snow pulled her back to reality, as she noted that the group was continuing forward. She started slowly behind, her body finally able to realize how unreservedly cold it was. She instantly hugged her arms to her body and ran toward the group before her. Body heat, was the word rushing through her mind right now.

Go body heat!

She met the group within seconds and immersed herself between them; namely Kimahri and Auron, the one’s most appropriately suited for this artic weather. She felt a bit silly for not preparing herself better. She had known where they were going, but she hadn’t thought it would be this cold. Yet, it seemed she was not alone in her plight. Tidus would be the next suspect, but he and Yuna trudged arm in arm, utterly obviously to the wintry conditions. And here she was, doomed to receive frostbit all over her body. Goodness, it seemed that things would never get any better.

A slight chuckle emanated from beside her and Rikku looked up in surprise. Kimahri was looking down at her, a wiry grin planted upon his feline features. Rikku stuck her tongue out at the Ronso by force of habit, yet immediately regretted it afterward. Oh, how the cold stung!

"Rikku cold?" The Ronso inquired, even though he obviously knew the answer. Her body was taken completely over by shivers and her teeth chattered incessantly. No, of course she wasn’t cold. She felt like a human ice cube, she was beyond cold. She simply nodded fervently to the Ronso’s odd question, not trusting her voice to be able to speak the words in an understandable manner. She was rewarded with an equally deep chuckle from her other side, as Auron voiced his view on the situation at hand.

"A jacket may have been a wise purchase," Auron advised, ever sagacious and irritatingly correct. Rikku sighed in reply and shrugged her shoulders. Of course a jacket would have been a wise choice, but it was a little late for that now. Perhaps, there would be someone somewhere with a jacket. If she was really really lucky…

"Summoner Yuna and guardians, leave here at once!" A deep voice sliced through the artic air halting the band of travelers as once. As they raised their faces they were met with the angry gazes of many…Ronso? Rikku’s mouth almost dropped at the sight, but she resisted the urge on account that it may not make the best impression. So, this was where the Ronso lived? In all her years she had never known, but in all seriousness, Mount Gagazet made the most sense. Their thick fur and warrior-like attitude made them most suited for life in the harsh mountains. How stupid she felt for not figuring this out sooner. Where else would they live? Sanubia Sands?

The main Ronso, a familiar creature, stood tall and proud before the group, baring his teeth portentously at them. This was definitely not a good sign. Rikku stood her ground however, as Kimahri and Yuna took to the forefront. Yuna stood almost as proud and strong as the Ronso before her, her petite frame not allowing for her to rise to the lofty Ronso’s exact level. But, she still served as a formidable sight. A woman on a mission. That overgrown kitty better watch his back.

"Gagazet is Ronso land, sacred mountain of Yevon. The mountain will not bear the footsteps of infidels!" Yuna only flinched slightly at the sting of the Ronso’s words. She remembered where she had seen him now. He was the an ex-Maester, and the one that oversaw their trial. Maester Kelk, if she remembered correctly. Well, ex-Maester Kelk now.

"Enemy of Yevon is enemy of Ronso! Leave, traitors!" A fearsome looking Ronso stepped forward, with skin a deep cobalt and hair, blazing gold. His massive chest heaved with each intake of the mammoth’s breath, his crude armor barely able to cover the spans of it. She stared up at the magnificent creature in awe. He was nearly twice the size of Kimahri and he was a spectacular sight to behold; even if he was insulting them.

"I have cast aside Yevon. I…I follow the temple no more," Yuna stumbled only once over her words, but those words seemed to cut the last tie to the temple. No longer were they upon a pilgrimage, just a journey. A simple journey to save the world. Goodness, how cliché that sounded.

"Then you shall die by those words," Kelk growled, as the other Ronso began to advance behind him, growling and barring their teeth.

"So be it. Yevon has warped the teachings and betrayed us all," Yuna answered quickly, as she visibly tightened her grip upon her staff. Rikku did a double take at the summoner. Was the cold getting to her? She didn’t possibly think that their little band of rag tag guardians could take on a horde of Ronso, did she? They’d slaughter all of us for sure! Crazy thing was, Rikku was kinda liking the idea. Maybe the cold had warped her mind, as well, but fighting would be a nice way to warm up. The others were shifting in place, contemplating the idea of fighting these huge cat-like creatures, when Wakka stepped up besides Yuna.

"Nothing but a bunch o’ low down trickster, eh?" He chirped in, punching a single fist in the air to finalize his remark. A smile visibly crossed Rikku’s face at Wakka’s irreligious comment. Maybe, he wasn’t a lost cause after all.

"Yeah!" Tidus cried in agreement to Wakka’s comment, as he clasped a hand upon Yuna’s shoulder. She looked up at the blitzer and smiled in gratitude. Rikku too stood forward, her eyes fixed upon the grand Ronso’s.

"Yeah!" She cried, a wave of confidence surging through her veins. It was like they actually had a chance against these kitty cats, even though deep down they all knew that it was a futile idea. Why not, though? What else could they do?

"Blasphemers!" Spat one of the Ronsos. He stood at the flank of the fearsome looking Ronso, a little taller, but not quite as magnificent as his friend. He looked more like a flunky, than a hardened fighter.

Kimahri growled at the Ronso’s insult, charging forward to stop before the fearsome Ronso. The Ronso was far taller that Kimahri was, but Kimahri was still a formidable looking opponent with his great spear and dexterity, that the larger Ronso could not possess. They stared at each other long and hard, neither looking away for a second. Maester Kelk stepped to the fore at this, touching the fearsome Ronso’s shoulder lightly. The Ronso backed away a step, but did not, for a moment, take his eyes off Kimahri.

"A summoner and her guardians…" The Maester drifted off, fading into deliberation. A recently silent part of the little band stepped ahead at this moment of silence, her long skirts lagging elegantly behind her. Ever graceful and tactful Lulu was. Even the bitter cold did not mar her beauty, if anything it heightened it.

"Lord Kelk, a word if I may?" The Ronso looked slightly skeptical, but nodded his head nonetheless.

"Have you not also turned your back upon Bevelle?" Lulu inquired, raising a brow at the summoners seemingly duplicitous behavior. Rikku’s eyes brightened at Lulu’s question. Goodness, that woman was always thinking. Perhaps, she could dig us out of this with her natural astuteness.

"You still stand at as a guard at Gagazet as Ronso, not a Maester. Yuna could be seen as much the same," Kelk lowered his head in deep contemplation. It seemed that Lulu had gotten through to the only levelheaded looking Ronso at the moment. The fearsome Ronso, however, did not buy Lulu’s logic.

"Elder Kelk, no listen! Let Biran rend them asunder!" He growled, as he cracked his knuckles forebodingly. He bared his teeth in a fear-provoking grin, and Rikku swore she saw him lick his lips. This was it, she was doomed to become kitty food.

"No escape, not one!" Biran’s not so little lackey taunted, as he in turn cracked his knuckles. Rikku swallowed hard but stood her ground. Maybe, she could get one grenade in before they tore her to shreds. If she was lucky…

"No we will not flee! We will fight and continue on," Yuna exclaimed, slamming her staff upon the ground in finality. Kelk now raised his head, training his dark eyes upon the lithe summoner. He raised a hand for Biran and his lackey to step down, as he, himself, steeped to the forefront.

"You have been branded a traitor, yet you still fight? Lost to the temple, hated by the people, yet you still continue this journey? Everything is seemingly lost! What are you fighting for?"

Rikku could hear Yuna swallow hard as she probably completed the most intelligent approach toward this. Auron stood stone-like at her back, a silent pillar of strength that hopefully could help to ease Yuna’s burden. A slight smile crossed Rikku’s face, as she also took a small step forward. They were all here for her and they would lend her their strength if need be. Yuna raised her head slowly as she looked up at the Ronso, resolution written all over her lovely face.

"I fight for Spira. The people still long for a calm, and I believe I can give it to them. It’s all I can give. Defeating Sin, ending pain, if only for a little while. This, This I can do," Silence followed Yuna’s declaration. Complete and utter silence. Pride welled through Rikku’s veins as Yuna proclaimed what they all knew, what they all believed. Even though she was not all for this dying bit, it was still noble and she had to commend that. Besides, she was working on cutting out the dying thing.

"Even sacrificing yourself?" Kelk inquired, and Yuna nodded quickly in reply. The Ronso sighed and turned away, walking back towards the mountain. Rikku’s eyes widened as she watched him turn away. He wasn’t seriously not going to let pass, was he? Yuna had just proclaimed the most noble of reasons for fighting and the ex-Maester was just going to walk away? This had got to be a joke! Rikku started forward, ready to give that snobby Maester a piece of her mind, when a brawny arm caught her advance. The arm released and then snaked around her shoulders, and pulled her close. A rustic scent suddenly overpowered her senses, and she knew at once who had halted her. She looked up at him, and he, in turn looked down at her. Question was written all over her face, and Auron seemed to get the clue.

"Just wait…" He whispered, as he returned his gaze upon the retreating Maester. Now warmer and a little less ticked, she too looked toward the Maester, who had paused his retreat.

"Ronso…" He called suddenly, breaking the cold silence that had overcome the area, "Let them pass."

A sigh of relief erupted through the little band, and a smile finally returned to Yuna’s face. Kelk had turned to face them again, and now he addressed Yuna directly.

"Summoner Yuna, your will is stronger than steel. Tempered steel that even the mightiest Ronso could not hope to bend. Yuna, we bow to your will! The sacred heights of Gagazet welcome you!" Kelk cried, raising his hands toward the grand mountain tops. A smile burst forth upon Rikku’s face, as the Ronso eased their fighting stances and dispersed. It seemed that maybe things weren’t going all that bad after all.

In turn, their little band dispersed, agreeing upon departure tomorrow morning. Why not use their newfound welcome for the best? One more night of rest sounded quite nice, and perhaps she could finally find a damn coat. She parted from Auron’s side, wandering off to find the local shop. He could wait to talk to her amazing self a few more minutes. All that was on her mind now, anyways, was warmth.

The village was found over the rise of the hill. The little crude huts were built into the mountain side, with tiny paths leading to and fro between them. There was no Al Bhed shop in this settlement, but it seemed that one of the Ronso did own a boardinghouse of sorts. Probably to accommodate the summoners that have passed through here over the years. It was, in fact, a small hut with three rooms. It seemed the merry little band would be doubling up tonight. Oh goody. Another item to add to her list was a thick pair of earmuffs, not only for the cold but for a chance she may get some sleep. She adored Kimahri, but truly he sounded like a raging train at night. Wakka wasn’t much better, and even Auron had a slight snore; nothing compared to Kimahri or Wakka, but it was still a small annoyance.

The creaking of a sign caught Rikku’s attention. "Shop" was etched in crude writing into the weathered wood. The wind blew it back and forth, acting as a natural incitement. Who needed gaudy lights when you could have an un-oiled sign? Rikku made her way over that way, nonetheless, thoughts of warmth speeding her travel.

She opened the large wooden door, which creaked loudly, much like the overhead sign. A blast of cold air was the first thing to meet her, as she slammed the door behind her. To her surprise, the inside wasn’t much warmer than the out. There was no fire, or even insulation to warm Rikku’s freezing body. Damn, these Ronso, being furry and all. Couldn’t they at least have concern for the poor human travelers? Who cares if us humans only came up once in a blue moon?

The lady Ronso stood tall behind the countertop, eyeing Rikku strangely. Rikku offered a weedy smile in return, but quickly turned her attention toward a nearby rack. There had to be coats in this damn shop somewhere. The rack that she had moved towards, was in fact a coat rack. Quite a small one really. Actually, all truth be told, there were only three coats on the whole rack; large, extra large, and extra extra large. All in Ronso sizes, of course. The large alone was enough to engulf Rikku whole, she didn’t even wanna take a peek at the extra large, and don’t even mention the extra extra. In short, Rikku was screwed. She’d either have to suck it up and become the smallest snowwoman ever created, or buy the large and alter it herself. Maybe, if she was lucky, Lulu or Yuna would be able to help her fix it up.

Now, her only problem was how to get the damn thing off the rack. See, the rack was quite tall, made for Ronso’s much larger than herself to reach. She could ask the cat lady to help her, but she didn’t want to look incompetent. It was just getting a coat of the rack, anyways. She didn’t need help. If she could take on Evrae, she could definitely get a coat off a tall rack. She’s just have to formulate some plan of how to do this without knocking over the rack or falling over, herself. It would be a difficult task, but she was confident that she could handle this. Somehow…

After several moments of deliberation, Rikku decided on the jump and grab approach. In which she would leap into the air and grope blindly for the coat. There was a slim chance that she would actually miss the coat, so it couldn’t be that bad. She rubbed her hands together and did a few test leaps to make sure she was warmed up. When she felt she was, in fact, ready to do this; she leapt deftly into the air, her arms flailing about in a desperate attempt to catch the coat before she hit the ground again. Fortunately, she did grab the coat, unfortunately, however, she snagged it upon one of the other coat and the entire rack came tumbling loudly after her.

The saleswoman rushed around the counter to the fallen coat rack. There was now a huge pile of three coats upon the ground, which wouldn’t have been that much if they had been normal human coats. But, in this case, the three Ronso coats seemed to form a monstrous heap. Rikku was nowhere to be seen.

The door to the store burst open, allowing two ready to act guardians to come pouring in. Tidus and Wakka peered about quizzically, seemingly surprised to see no bloodsucking fiend. The shopkeeper acknowledged them with a nod and pointed toward the coat pile upon the ground. A tiny shock of blonde hair was peeking through the massive heaping of coats. Next, a tiny head poked through, revealing a very red Al Bhed. Wakka, at once burst into hysterics, followed in suit by Tidus. This, however, only caused the Al Bhed to grow all the more redder. A sheepish grin crossed her face, as she looked up at the shopkeeper.

"I’ll take the large please…"