Chapter 15

From the clearing, the jungle had seemed thick. But it wasn’t.

It was thicker.

Sephiroth brushed aside another rubbery branch, keeping his hand on it so it wouldn’t snap back and strike him in the face, as one nearly had Shinra when they’d first plunged into the jungle.

Sephiroth couldn’t shake the concern that they had already passed the Spire the Esper had spoken of... if it existed at all. High ground was difficult to come by, and the canopy of trees was so thick Sephiroth wouldn’t have trusted his levitation ability to get him above it.

They’d been walking for hours, and the burning sun, mostly hidden by the trees, still had not set.

There was no way for him to know how far they’d come, still less how far they had to go. If the Espers attacked now, there would be no room to raise his blade, no warning - he could not know for certain that they, or something more dangerous still, had not silently picked off the other Destined Ones - he could barely see far enough ahead of him to know that there were more trees.

Atriedes was suddenly right behind him. "We’ve got to find another clearing, maybe some high ground. It’s the only way we can see where we’re going."

"I know," Sephiroth said. "The others are with us?"

"Present and accounted for," Shinra yelled, muttering something else that was hidden from Sephiroth’s ears by the sounds of the jungle.

Ghaleon acknowledged his presence a moment later.

"Judging from the increase in humidity, there would appear to be a water source ahead of us," Atriedes’ talking sword said. "If it is a river, following it could lead us uphill. It is, admittedly, not a certainty, as its source might be an underground spring, but - "

"That’s the best chance we have," Sephiroth said, cutting the weapon’s words off. He could feel its glare in the back of his mind, but ignored it. If its telepathic abilities extended to attack or control, it had not revealed them.

The water was not far. One minute, there was nothing but more jungle ahead of Sephiroth. The next, he stood at the edge of a river. There was only a few feet of muddy ground between the edge of the trees and the water.

He held up his hand and hoped that the others would see him. From what he’d seen of this world, he didn’t think that the river was as tranquil as it appeared to be, and didn’t care to plunge into it unprepared.

"Why did you stop?" Atriedes asked as he emerged from the jungle.

"It seems your sword was correct." Sephiroth nodded at the wide river, then leaped across it without any difficulty.

The other two emerged, onto the bank.

"About time something went right," Shinra said. The smallest of the Cetra guns he’d picked out was in his hand, and he held it with a casual wariness that told Sephiroth that the former president of ShinRa had lived a soldier’s life for some time.

Perhaps he might be useful, after all.

Atriedes stepped forward. "I think I might be able to find the source," he said. The tattoo representing the True Water Rune was glowing.

"Then by all means," Ghaleon snapped, "get on with it."

The Bearer plunged his swords into the muddy ground despite the protests of the one, then knelt by the edge of the river. His eyes closed as he dipped his fingers in the water, and the blue glow of the Rune ran down the lines between his hands and the tattoo.

Sephiroth scanned the surrounding jungle, relying on his hearing more than his eyes. He couldn’t see through the trees, but if something moved, he would know it.

"The source," Atriedes said, his voice echoing as though he were far away, "is a larger river. North of us, far north. It would take days to reach it."

"Days going in the wrong direction," Sephiroth added, his concentration still on the surrounding mass of trees.

Atriedes said nothing for a few more moments, apparently focused on probing the river’s length with his Rune. At last, he spoke. "There’s a waterfall. A big cliff, ten, eleven miles south of us."

"That would be ideal," Ghaleon said. "We should be able to see this ‘spire’ from such a height."

Sephiroth’s assent was cut off by the sound of a Cetra pistol. Atriedes shouted, and Sephiroth’s concentration was broken.

Something had moved. But not in the jungle.

In the river!

A tentacle, thick and the same brown as the muck of the riverbed, was wrapped around Atriedes’ arm, and he was being pulled into the water. Shinra shot again, then, cursing, threw the pistol aside and reached for a larger gun.

He didn’t get it out in time.

More tentacles shot out from the water, reaching for the Destined Ones.

Sephiroth’s energy blade was in his hand, slicing aside the tentacle that reached for him, but the one that grasped Shinra was quicker. It jerked back, and the Leader was pulled into the water.

Sephiroth dove in.

The mud had been stirred up, and he couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear, either, the cacophony of whatever beast lived in the river drowning out all other sounds.

So he moved by touch.

There, rubbery flesh - he stabbed with his energy blade, pushing the glowing weapon deep. The creature’s blood was as black as an Esper’s and it further clouded his vision. He cut again, not so deep this time, not daring to plunge it any deeper lest he injure his ally as well.

Another blind cut, and then there was a different sort of motion. Blooded, the creature was on the move, and he caught a glimpse of its body, long and flat, moving past. It struck him, pushing him against the bank, pinning his sword arm.

And then it was gone, and he shot to the surface, gulping down a breath of the humid, magic-laced air.

Atriedes and Ghaleon had already pulled Shinra from the water. The Leader was battered, but he drew a breath.

He would live.

Sephiroth pulled himself up onto the bank and scanned the river in the direction the creature had gone. Nothing.

Shinra was hauled to his feet. He spoke no word of thanks, and as before, Sephiroth had not expected one.

They kept their distance from the river, staying just close enough that it remained in sight. That creature had been phenomenally strong, tougher than even the strongest Lifestream-altered beasts in North Cave. He didn’t care to tangle with it again.

Sephiroth could certainly see why the Espers wished to leave this world, why they wanted revenge for being imprisoned here.

Yet Bugenhagen had called it a paradise.

What had happened here?

Sephiroth shook his head. He would probably never know the answers to those questions, and unless they affected the outcome of his mission, he could not afford to care. It amazed him how easily, with Aeris safely away, he slipped into the cold combat mind that had kept him alive on countless SOLDIER battlefields.

He lost track of the hours, but above, the sun slowly faded behind the distant horizon. It was nearly night, and he couldn’t help but wonder what nocturnal creatures lived on this world.

And then the Destined Ones emerged from the jungle.

Seeing the waterfall, Sephiroth could almost ignore the sweltering heat, the poisoned air, the magical energy that he could feel pulsing about him. Here, he saw what Bugenhagen had meant.

Each individual plant below was no doubt as twisted and bizarre as those around him, but he couldn’t see that from here. As the sun set, the thick, cloying atmosphere was lit by its last rays, a brilliant display of color and light. The waterfall plunged hundreds of feet, ending in a raging torrent of water that, even so far below, filled Sephiroth’s ears with its roar.

He scanned the vista, looking for some sign of what he sought.

There!

Rising from the jungle, half-hidden by stubby mountains, was a black pillar. A spire. He pointed to it. "I believe we have found what we were looking for."

"Doesn’t look very impressive," Shinra said.

Ghaleon laughed. "It is massive. Otherwise, we would not be able to see it from here."

"On foot, three weeks journey," Sephiroth said, estimating the distance to the spire. Assuming, of course, that no other obstacles barred their path.

Atriedes had been the last to emerge from the jungle. "It’s not three weeks by Gate, though."

"That would be imprudent," Ghaleon said. "Such a distance, with this magical interference? Your body would be scattered across the entire world!"

Shinra leaned out over the edge of the cliff, then pulled back when he saw the distance to the jungle below. "I say we pass on the teleportation. Even if we made it alive, anybody with a halfway decent magical sense would know we were coming."

"We walk," Sephiroth said.