Chapter 14

Ghaleon ran his fingers over the bark of one of the strange trees. Its texture was more akin to the rubbery flesh of a kraken or similar beast than to the rough surface common in trees.

What had caused it to grow this way? Was it a function of its species? Or was this unusual surface more suitable to life on its inhospitable world?

Almost as many questions leaped to Ghaleon’s mind here as had in the Core.

No doubt, given time to study these strange plants, so infused with magical energy, he would learn a great deal.

But there was no time for botany or any other scholarly pursuit.

He was on this world for one reason.

To find Althena.

If any harm had come to her, if Zalbard had dared to -

Ghaleon looked up. He was certain that he’d heard something moving in the jungle, hidden from sight by the leaves and from magic by the latent energy of this world.

He took a step back, a spell already prepared on his lips. Whatever was moving about in the trees was unlikely to be harmless, not on this poisoned world.

His caution was rewarded. He had a fraction of a second more to whisper the words to his spell before the Esper that lunged from the jungle was on him. His magical blast struck it in midair, dissolving it into magicite almost instantly.

It seemed the Destined Ones’ arrival had not gone unnoticed by the natives.

There was no need to shout a warning to the others. Now that the ambush was sprung, the Espers charged from the jungle en masse, howling like animals.

The clearing erupted in motion, Espers everywhere, and Ghaleon could hear the sound of Shinra’s guns and Atriedes’ spells over the din of the charge, and then he had no time to assess the situation, because the Espers were upon him.

Some carried weapons, clubs wrapped with thorny vines, longer branches with ends sharpened to spear points, here and there a simple axe of carved black stone. All primitive fare. With such pathetic trappings, it was no surprise that most elected to use their natural weaponry.

An Esper’s claw snagged Ghaleon’s robes, and might have snagged his flesh had he not already called for his armor.

Ghaleon engulfed the creature with magical fire, and it ran screaming for the jungle. Before it reached the thick underbrush it fell, and the flames were quenched by the wet mud. Ghaleon had no time to finish it off, for more were attacking. He lashed out, vaporizing one of the nearer Espers and sending a second tumbling down.

So many! Far more than he had fought in Burg, that was certain.

But Ghaleon’s spells scythed through them with ease. Even when one leapt onto his back, trying to push him into the mud and mist, he easily swatted it aside. Another, an axe-wielder, found its weapon useless against his barriers. It fell, an icicle buried far deeper in its chest than its axe would have been in Ghaleon’s.

None of these creatures were nearly as dangerous as Zalbard. They were not even as dangerous the weakest of his soldiers. They attacked without skill, and, indeed, without much strength.

Black blood sprayed on Ghaleon’s face, and he turned to see the smoking ruin of an Esper beside him, frozen for an instant with club raised, its chest blown open by one of Shinra’s Cetra-built guns. Perhaps the Leader would be of some use, after all.

As more Espers fell upon Ghaleon, he cut them down, one after another, and suddenly he found his corner of the clearing empty. He glanced around him. The other three Destined Ones stood, weapons drawn, as covered with sickly brown mud and black esper blood as he was.

A larger Esper, its strongly muscled body covered with scales, armor made of the bones of some great beast around its chest, charged at Sephiroth. Unlike the others, it had a real weapon - an energy blade not unlike Sephiroth’s own.

Though it was similarly armed, its skill was no match. The Seeker sidestepped its clumsy swing and cut it down with one swipe.

That was the end of the ambush.

The other Espers cried out, a wordless exclamation of despair, and fled. They scrambled into the jungle, disappearing as quickly as they had come.

"Must have been their leader," Shinra said, nodding at the place where the big Esper, now nothing but a magicite shard, had been cut down.

"It would seem so," Ghaleon said absently. These creatures were a far cry from those in Burg. Even when the odds had turned manifestly against them, those Espers had not broken. Yet the death of a leader caused these new enemies to panic.

Interesting.

Something brushed against his leg, and he sidestepped, at first thinking the Espers had simply drawn back to regroup. But it was not an Esper that was on the move. It was one of the vines, and then they were all moving.

To the blood.

Though the Espers left no mortal remains but their magicite, their oily black blood did not fade with their flesh. The vines, it seemed, found the blood a better source of nutrients than the liquid that puddled everywhere.

Ghaleon spied one of the fallen Espers, its leg pinned to the ground by one of the black crystal blades of which Atriedes was so fond. The creature still lived, not yet dead from loss of blood. He strode over to it and lifted it up just before the vines reached it.

It cringed, pulled away from his touch, and tried feebly to claw at his armor. He ignored it. "Where is Althena?" he demanded. The possibility that this pathetic creature knew anything of Althena was remote, but the words slipped automatically from Ghaleon’s lips.

If the Esper understood, it gave no sign. It hissed, and more blood sprayed onto Ghaleon’s face.

He frowned.

His patience was short. This Esper’s lifespan was likely to be shorter. Already, its feeble clawing had ceased, and it hung limply in his hands. There was no time to properly interrogate it - and besides, Ghaleon doubted that his fellow Destined Ones would much care for his methods.

But the creature must know something!

Something that would lead to Althena.

"Where is your master?" Ghaleon asked in his most lilting, melodic voice.

The Esper opened its eyes and blinked. Slowly, it turned its head toward the south, and extended a finger. "Sp... ire," it croaked.

Ghaleon raised an eyebrow. Beasts like this would not construct anything worthy of the word ‘spire,’ but Zalbard and his kind might well do so. "Spire, you say?"

It nodded enthusiastically, no doubt realizing that Ghaleon could help it if he cared to.

He did not.

He let it fall to the ground, ignoring its all too brief screams as the vines engulfed it, then turned back to the others.

Atriedes stepped toward him. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

Ghaleon glanced behind him, where the Esper’s body had already faded to magicite as the hungry vines claimed its blood. "You would have let it live?" Ghaleon asked. Somehow, he was not surprised.

"It helped us," Atriedes said. "And if I did kill it, I’d at least do it mercifully."

"Then do so, when you take a captive." Ghaleon looked around the clearing. There were no other living Espers, except for those that had already escaped. "We should find the others, kill them before they tell their leaders about us."

"I doubt these Espers have any connection to those we fought before," Sephiroth said.

Ghaleon considered. Emaciated, with the lean, hard shapes of those who had once been strong but who had long since lost much of their strength to malnutrition. "Yet this one understood when I spoke of a ‘master’."

"Or it just wanted to be let go," Shinra said.

Ghaleon laughed. "If that was all it wanted, then its wish was fulfilled."

Sarcasm aside, what Shinra said was certainly a possibility. The Esper’s command of their common language had not seemed extensive.

"It is doubtful that we could catch them in the jungle, even if we attempted it," Sephiroth said. "They are familiar with the terrain, and it favors escape. They have a lead of several minutes now, and minutes may count for hours in the jungle."

Hunting down those Espers would only delay them further. Perhaps it was just as well that they had not done so immediately.

Ghaleon looked to the southern edge of the clearing. "This ‘spire’ the creature spoke of is the only lead we have. I suggest that we pursue that lead... at least for now."

"So we go south?" Atriedes asked.

"That would seem to be the obvious course," Atriedes’ sword said dryly.

"Indeed," said Ghaleon as he plunged into the jungle.