Chapter 11

Bugenhagen’s arsenal dissolved before Jowy’s eyes, just as the Core had when they’d left it for Cosmo Canyon. And in it’s place-

Jowy nearly slipped in the slick mud that replaced cold metal beneath his feet, only remaining upright because his boot caught on a vine.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the too-bright light, but already he knew that something was wrong.

As Bugenhagen had said, the world around him was awash with lush greenery, life everywhere. The vine that had spared him a muddy fall was part of an almost solid carpeting of undergrowth, and the clearing where the four Destined Ones stood was surrounded on all sides by thick trees.

But it was no paradise.

The air was thick with moisture, coating everything, and Jowy’s clothing already stuck uncomfortably to his skin. Whatever the liquid was that made the air so humid, it was certainly not pure water - the acidic, pungent odor of it burned his nose, his mouth, his lungs. The vines were half-hidden by a greenish mist of the stuff.

And it was so hot! The heat, mixed with this horrible mist, clung to him, threatening to pull him down from exhaustion even before he moved.

His magical senses told an even more horrible story. The mist, the plants, even the ground itself, was thick with magic. So much magic, uncontained, should long ago have killed everything in sight. Yet these plants seemed to have adapted, even thrived, on it.

And if he wasn’t mistaken, one of the vines was moving.

"Shit!" Rufus had slapped one of the environment field masks over his mouth. "This is Mako!"

Jowy frowned. Mako. He’d heard the word, Sephiroth and Aeris had both used it. Magical gas? Poisonous magical gas.

Sephiroth, a Cetra breathing apparatus already over his face, said, "It seems to be some sort of residue. Not Mako, or at least not refined Mako, or we would already be dead."

"It sure smells like Mako," Rufus muttered, but he didn’t press the issue.

Before he slid his own mask on, Jowy expelled the tainted air from his lungs with the True Wind Rune. The magically charged gas seemed to resist the Rune for an instant before it gave in and emerged in a greenish cloud. "Is this even the right place?" Jowy asked.

"Perhaps our illustrious Leader did not properly use the device?" Ghaleon was looking out of the clearing, his gem-like red eyes probing the jungle beyond.

Rufus shrugged. "I did what the old man said. If somebody screwed up, it was him."

"It has been ten thousand years," Ghaleon said. "I suppose that some change is understandable."

Some change?

Bugenhagen had described this place as a paradise.

Again, Jowy couldn’t shake the feeling that some of the vines had slithered closer at the sound of their voices, stretching out from the jungle.

The trees, the more he looked at them, seemed twisted. Their bark looked rubbery, thicker than a normal tree. But what was normal for a place like this?

A creature, looking half-amphibian and half-insect, leapt out of the mist near Jowy’s leg then disappeared back into it a few yards away, clearing the distance in a single hop. Its stubby tail had ended in a needle that would have made a similarly sized bee envious.

No doubt defense against whatever predators lurked in the mist. Such were the animals of this paradise. Creatures hardy enough to survive poisoned air, raw magic coursing through their veins... and each other.

Jowy couldn’t entirely suppress a shudder, glad for the breathing mask on his face and the force field, however weak, it projected around him. Glad for the True Runes that had inscribed a webwork of faint black lines across his flesh, and the two blades he wore at his waist.

No, this was no paradise.

But it could easily pass for hell.