Chapter 23

Jowy’s feet settled gently onto the stone balcony of Leknaat’s tower. The True Wind Rune had carried him here faster than he would have thought possible. It hadn’t been a pleasant trip through the frigid night sky, but then, it was unlikely to be a pleasant visit.

He looked around. He didn’t sense any enemies on the outside of the tower. If Leon was not here, all the better. Jowy could prepare an unpleasant surprise, which would go a long way toward tilting the odds in his favour.

Of course, if Leon bore True Runes, as Luc said he did, then he might already know of Jowy’s arrival, and have a surprise of his own planned.

“Perhaps we should have prepared a bit more?” the Star Dragon Sword asked.

“Perhaps.” Jowy peered into the darkness of the tower’s interior. “But I’d rather be the one striking first. If these espers Luc spoke of were tracking him, they would have found us eventually.”

“A distinct point,” said the sword.

Jowy stepped into the tower. It was pitch black inside. He considered using a simple fire spell to light his way, but that would certainly alert anyone inside. His other senses, mundane and magical, would have to do.

There was magical power all through the tower, but no concentration that would indicate the presence of a True Rune.

Which meant that Leon either wasn’t here, or that he was masking his power. It wouldn’t be particularly difficult for a skilled runecaster, not against a backdrop of mid-level magic.

Either way, Jowy would have to find him.

One fortunate consequence of the latent magical power that permeated the tower was that Jowy could see the floor, walls and ceiling as clearly with his magical senses as he could have in daylight with his eyes. It made navigating in the dark far easier.

He wasn’t about to rely only on that, though. Paying too much attention to one of the senses was the surest way to be surprised by something hidden from that sense.

Jowy’s caution paid off a few moments later.

He turned down a passageway that appeared no different from any of the others to his magical sight. But he could hear breathing.

“Who goes there?” he asked, raising the Star Dragon Sword.

He got no verbal answer, but there was certainly a response. A brilliant aura flashed into visibility just a few feet away, standing out clearly even against the tower’s magic-charged walls. An instant later, the owner of that aura threw a punch that nearly sent Jowy into the far wall.

He quickly willed the True Water Rune into action. Rather than smashing into the wall as a solid, he bounced back off, almost without a scratch.

“We seem to have found the opposition,” the Star Dragon Sword said helpfully.

Jowy nodded.

Even for Jowy, it was difficult to fight using his magical senses. Living beings appeared not so much on the basis of their actual physical form as on the basis of their magical power and will.

At a thought from Jowy, the True Fire Rune illuminated the corridor.

His attacker was a hulking creature that nearly filled the arched hallway with its bulk. It’s head and cloven-hoofed feet were ram-like, but most of its four-armed body was humanoid, albeit gigantic. As near as Jowy could tell, it was smiling.

The Star Dragon Sword made a sound suspiciously like a gulp. “Oh, dear. It seems Luc wasn’t waxing metaphoric about the Espers.”

“Dangerous?” Jowy asked.

“What do you think?” said the sword.

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

Dangerous it might be, but the Esper certainly appeared slow as it lumbered down the passage toward him. It couldn’t manoeuvre very well in the hallway, either. Jowy stepped forward and slashed at its chest.

The magical blade bit into its flesh and came away coated with black blood, but if the Esper noticed, it gave no sign. If anything, its leer got even wider. Two of its powerfully muscled arms shot out and grabbed Jowy. It leaned forward. “Not even a challenged,” it rumbled, its hot, musty breath washing over Jowy.

“I agree,” he said. The Black Sword Rune on his forehead glowed. The black crystal blade that shot into its open maw had far more the desired effect than the Star Dragon Sword had.

It screamed, stumbled back a few steps, and released its hold on Jowy. He gripped his sword with both hands and drew it back for a finishing blow.

One of its massive hands blocked the blade. It got to its feet, slow, ponderous - and seemingly unhurt. “You’ll have to do better than that, little man,” it said. Its voice, not pleasant to begin with, was as mangled as its features by the Black Sword Rune’s strike.

Jowy tried to pull the sword back from it, but it held on to the blade. Its blood ran from its clenched fist, but it had three others. Jowy released the sword and rolled away before one of those fists could strike him.

The Esper tossed aside its prize and stepped forward. It was moving a lot faster now than it had been - had its sluggishness been just an act?

Jowy backed off. It had to have some kind of a weakness. But what? He’d used his strongest runes against it, and it had shrugged off those attacks with ease. It wasn’t like some of the creatures he’d faced, which had obvious vulnerabilities to certain types of magic.

He could always use the Beast Rune.

No. He wasn’t that desperate. Carrying the Beast Rune was something he had to do. But he didn’t trust himself to employ its power. Jillia’s warning still rang in his ears.

The Esper wasn’t giving him time to think. Its large hands were working intricate symbols in the air. Jowy narrowed his eyes. Was this some sort of martial art? It hardly seemed to need any skill, as overwhelming as its strength was.

There was magic in the air - a thicker, more acrid smell than there had been before. Jowy threw himself to the ground just in time to avoid the mass of writhing, smoky tentacles that the Esper sent flying at him. It had used magic without a rune! How was that even possible?

How didn’t really matter, for it worked all too well. Jowy scrambled away and focused more power from his True Fire Rune. A wall of flames shot up, filling the corridor.

The Esper stepped through them, its monstrous grin still in place.

“Come on, Star Dragon Sword,” Jowy muttered. If the sword didn’t come up with a solution, he was in serious trouble. Unless...

He glanced over his shoulder. He was nearly backed up to one of the tower’s outer balconies, and that gave him an idea. He turned and ran through the narrow archway, leaping onto the edge. He could see the moonlight reflected off the water

With a bestial roar, the Esper charged after him.

Jowy waited until the last possible second. Then he jumped off the balcony.

The Esper followed.

He had a True Wind Rune to hold him aloft.

It did not.

He floated back to the balcony and held out his hand. The Star Dragon Sword slid back into place. “I wondered how long it would take you to think of that,” it said.

Jowy didn’t answer. Instead, he started back toward the tower.

But before he even reached the archway leading in, a strange glow surrounded him. He tried to throw himself clear, but the magic worked too fast.

A moment later, he was standing in the audience hall of the tower, facing Leon Silverburg. The massive hall took up nearly an entire floor of the tower, and Jowy stood in its centre. The soft glow that permeated the chamber barely illuminated its edges.

“Most impressive, Jowy,” Leon said, rising from the chair that had once been Leknaat’s. He smiled. “Velius, I’m told, is one of their strongest warriors. Of course, I’ve always said that brains are more powerful than brawn.”

Jowy looked around. There were a dozen robed figures surrounding him in the dim light. They ranged in size from little over half his height to even taller than the one called Velius.

“All Espers,” the Star Dragon Sword whispered.

Leon interrupted. “It was really quite convenient of you to deliver six True Runes to me. There remain only five to complete my set, and the minor setbacks I suffered in Greenhill were only that.”

So Leon had sixteen of the True Runes already. If he was telling the truth, his powers would be truly incredible. Jowy suspected that he had, at the very least, the Bright Shield, True Dragon and Soul Eater Runes - he seemed the most likely candidate for those thefts. And he clearly had the Rune of the Gate, since he’d used it to bring Jowy before him.

“I seemed to have underestimated you,” Jowy said. “You’ve assembled more power than I thought.”

“Your problem, Jowy, was always that you were just smart enough to get away with being so confident.” Leon laughed. “That’s why, after Leknaat’s little apprentice escaped, I saw no reason not to let him go to you. I could hardly have set up so perfect a trap if I hadn’t known you would fall into it.”

Leon’s boasting grated on Jowy. Particularly because he was telling the truth. His power alone overmatched Jowy’s, and with twelve creatures as powerful as the thing in the hallway...

But Leon, however much power he had, was no warrior. As far as Jowy knew, he’d never lifted a sword in his whole life - he’d once said that physical combat was beneath a man of his strategic ability.

Jowy had one chance, and it was a slim one. But he had to take it. “Just what exactly is this all about? Amassing power? Eliminating rivals?”

“What is about? Why, Jowy, I though you would know that much, at least.” Leon’s smile was cold enough to freeze the True Fire Rune. “It is about my being the Bearer. I’ve read this Prophecy very carefully, my boy, and Leknaat made a mistake in choosing you. Here, I’m going to prove that.”

“So you’re going to have them fight me?” Jowy asked, waving his hand at the espers behind him.

Leon raised an eyebrow. “It seems prudent, yes.”

“That proves nothing,” Jowy said. He met the older man’s eyes.

“Hah! It proves your defeat, which is all that matters. I will take your Runes, and then I will take those of our mutual friend, Mr. Ghaleon Dyne.” Leon took a step forward. “I don’t share your foolish romanticism about man-to-man combat.”

Before Jowy could answer, a third voice spoke up. It was strange combination of harsh and smooth that Jowy could only assume came from an Esper. “The boy has a point, Lord Silverburg.”

Jowy looked over his shoulder. The Esper who had entered was not lightly clad as Velius had been, nor did he wear concealing robes. He was green-skinned and unnaturally tall, but from his rich clothing and elegant movements, he might have been a Highland nobleman.

“What are you talking about, Zalbard?” Leon snapped.

The Esper - Zalbard, it seemed - bowed. “This boy, this Jowy Atriedes, has issued you a challenge. That you do not accept is not only anathema to my people, it also shows that you are afraid. Of what use to us is an ally who is so easily frightened? You have sixteen of the most powerful True Runes - obtained with our effort, not yours. Is it not time for you to employ that power?”

“I’m not the only one who’s afraid, it seems,” Leon shot back.

“I am not afraid, Lord Silverburg,” Zalbard said. He rose from his bow. “But I am concerned. The loss of Yuber and Belselk was unfortunate, yes, but their services are not so crucial that they need to be dispatched again immediately. But Velius... Velius is an elite of nearly my own rank. He is useless for months now. This displeases my master greatly. How would he feel if we were to lose a second elite? A third? Your operations are costly. It is time you started paying for them yourself.”

Jowy fought to keep a straight face. He couldn’t have planned that better than it had worked out. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that he caught Zalbard winking. Perhaps this had been planned... Just not by Jowy.

“Damn cowards, that’s what you are,” Leon said, glaring at his Esper allies. But they didn’t move toward Jowy.

“What’s wrong?” Jowy asked, turning to Leon. “Why don’t you want to fight me, Leon?”

“I’ll fight you, boy,” Leon said. He drew the sword he was wearing from its scabbard. “King Dragon Sword,” he intoned, holding up the blade, “grant me your protection.” First the sword, then Leon’s arms, then his whole body, were engulfed in a golden halo.

“That sword is a manifestation of the Sovereign Rune. It projects a barrier that turns away all magic,” said the Star Dragon sword. “It renders him invulnerable, even to True Runes.”

“You said you could break any barrier,” Jowy whispered.

“I can,” the sword said. “But only if I hit it. I would suggest engaging him in melee at the first opportunity.”

Jowy nodded and strode toward Leon. It was quite a lot of distance to cover. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he said.

“What are you muttering about now, boy?” Leon asked. He held up his right hand. “Soul Eater, consume this fool.”

Jowy could feel something on the edge of his consciousness, tearing at his life force. He didn’t try to flee from the spectral claws. His will and the power of the Soul Eater met. But the rune could not tear his soul free. He shuddered for a moment, but the feeling passed.

Leon narrowed his eyes. “Not bad, Jowy. Perhaps a gift from your friend would be more appropriate? Bright Shield Rune, smite him.”

A beam of white light pierced the darkness that shrouded the audience hall. Jowy focused on his Black Sword Rune. The two halves of the Rune of Beginning were equal in power, but Jowy easily deflected Leon’s attack. He’d been using that rune for what seemed like an eternity now, while Leon had probably never employed his half before.

Leon didn’t announce his next attack. Perhaps he was tiring. More likely, he realized that Jowy could defend against the spells better if he knew beforehand what they would be.

Jowy took only a few steps forward before he began to feel the effects of Leon’s next choice. His motion slowed, and his arms and legs felt like lead. Breathing wasn’t easy, and his flesh, deprived of blood, was taking on a greyish cast. What power was this?

“Moon Rune,” the Star Dragon Sword hissed. “He’s trying to turn you into a zombie. Sierra must be having a fit over its theft, but it’s nothing I haven’t dealt with often enough.”

Right then, Jowy didn’t care who was having a fit over what. He could only last so long, especially with his runes drained from the battle with Velius. The Star Dragon Sword’s countermeasures did their job, though, filling Jowy with vitality.

He broke into a run.

Leon frowned, but he clearly hadn’t run out of tricks yet.

The floor in front of Jowy began to buckle, as if a great force were pressing against it. He leapt over it and spun.

A huge serpentine head shot out. It unleashed a blast of magical fire that engulfed Jowy.

This, at least, was an enemy whose kind he’d faced before. Dragons weren’t common in the wild, but they were common enough for him to know how to deal with them. The size of this one was impressive, but he had the True Water Rune now. A single blast from it, concentrated at the dragon’s maw, quenched its flames.

Jowy landed on the other side.

He could hear the dragon swing its head around to follow him, but he kept on running. A dragon that size would require both the Rune of the Gate and the True Dragon Rune to bring forth and control - if Leon fell, it would return to wherever it had come from.

Leon hefted his sword with both hands and pointed it at Jowy. Lightning shot from its tip, scorching the floor in front of Jowy. Jowy again leapt into the air, this time using the True Wind Rune to keep himself aloft. Leon’s spell followed him, but Jowy was too fast. The dragon pursuing him, however, was a very wide target. It roared as the True Lightning Rune’s blast hit it.

Jowy landed to one side of the bolt and kept running. Almost there - !

He lashed out, his sword passing easily through Leon’s body. Leon crumpled to the ground.

“You should have done more research on the True Runes, boy,” he said from behind Jowy.

Jowy spun around, but he wasn’t fast enough to keep Leon from plunging the King Dragon Sword into his side.

Leon smiled and pushed the heavy blade deeper. “The Rune of Illusion was never copied, so its power remains quite strong indeed. Strong enough to hide me from all of your senses, apparently, even your sword’s. And strong enough to make that duplicate quite real enough to fool you.”

Jowy tried to soften his flesh with the True Water Rune, to heal his wounds. But the King Dragon Sword’s anti-magic field had extended to him as well.

“A pity, really. You put on a very good show for my allies and I. But, all good things must come to an end, boy.” Leon leaned down on the sword.

Jowy gasped. He forced himself to reach up and grab Leon’s arm. If he could just strike with the Star Dragon Sword, he could heal his wound and -

Leon took one hand off his sword and pulled off Jowy’s glove. “You asked what would be proven, Jowy? This. The true Bearer will absorb True Runes when he touches the flesh of one who holds them.”

Jowy winced as the King Dragon Sword pressed deeper into him.

“And I am the true Bearer.” He clasped Jowy’s hand.

Leon’s face went pale. He tried to pull his hand free, but it was fused to Jowy’s as though they were one. The Rune of the Gate emblazed on his forehead began to fade. The King Dragon Sword slid from his hand.

As soon as the sword left Leon’s hand, it’s power was lost to him. Jowy willed the True Water Rune into action, and the wound in his side closed smoothly shut. He placed his other hand on Leon’s face.

“I... Impossible,” Leon said. His eyes were wild.

Jowy could feel the sixteen True Runes that Leon had carried etching their likenesses into his own skin. Compared to the pain from the King Dragon Sword, it was nothing.

“I am the True Bearer!” Leon shouted. He stumbled and fell on his back.

Jowy looked down at his former ally and would-be rival. He said, “Your problem, Leon, was always that you were just smart enough to get away with being so confident.”

Leon held up his now unmarked hand. He looked to Jowy.

Jowy didn’t return his gaze. He picked up the two fallen rune swords and turned away.

“Why don’t you finish me?” Leon demanded.

Jowy shook his head. “You’re not worth killing, old man. You’ve lost your powers. No one is afraid of you anymore. For justice’s sake, I would strike you down, but I think it’s better to leave you to the mercy of your ‘allies.’ I’m sure they will be very accepting of failure.”

He held up the Rune of the Gate and disappeared.