Chapter 23

Zalbard looked down the bridge of his long nose at the man who, pressed to his knees by a pair of powerful Esper soldiers, knelt before him. It was really almost pathetic, seeing the mighty brought so low.

Almost.

A wave of Zalbard’s hand and one of those soldiers grabbed Ghaleon’s long white hair. And pulled.

The Player winced, half from the pain, half from the rage that still surged, visible to Zalbard’s magical senses, through him.

Zalbard leaned down until his face was a few scant inches from Ghaleon’s. "I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your visit, Player," he said, his eyes locking with Ghaleon’s burning red orbs.

Ghaleon said nothing.

"Of course, I’ll wager that Althena would be even more happy to see you, if she didn’t need her beauty sleep?" Zalbard stepped back a bit, letting Ghaleon’s gaze fall upon Althena.

There was a reaction. A break in his solid wall of hatred. That flicker of longing that passed over the Player’s face was all Zalbard needed to see.

The Master had said that, once the Four were brought together, there would be no need for the Player. But Zalbard had a need for this man. He needed to break him, crush him, to destroy him. That would show Althena just what her hero was worth.

Nothing.

Zalbard’s hand drifted toward Althena’s flesh, covered only by the silken sheets. His fingers slid along the silk, raising it ever so slightly.

Ghaleon snarled something that was not quite language, surging forward toward Zalbard.

He struggled half to his feet, his hands darting forward, his face so close that he looked as though he were planning to tear Zalbard’s off with his teeth. Lightning crackled about his fingers, played across his face. And he almost broke free.

Almost.

But the soldiers held him fast.

And when his momentary fury had passed, he sank back down to his knees, the last of his power spent, the force of his rage with it.

Zalbard brought his foot up and forward, feeling a satisfying crack as it struck the Player’s chest.

He coughed and a spot of red blood stained the perfectly pristine black surface of the floor.

Zalbard frowned. He did so hope he hadn’t caused any permanent damage. He prodded again with his foot, feeling at the broken ribs. There were certainly more careful ways to determine the extent of the damage. But the job was done.

No, it seemed the Player would live.

Zalbard withdrew his foot. Physically, Ghaleon was beaten. But it was not his body that had made him dangerous. It was his mind. It was that mind that Zalbard would have to break.

"You may be wondering how I caught you, hmmm, Player?" Zalbard waited until Ghaleon, a trickle of blood running down his chin, looked up. "It’s probably a matter of professional curiosity for you. I am feeling generous, so I’ll tell you how I accomplished that feat."

Zalbard’s hand again came to rest, seemingly by accident, on Althena’s unconscious body.

Ghaleon’s eyes followed his movement, but that was all.

"Believe it or not, our mutual conquest -" That drew a brief flare of hatred again in Ghaleon’s eyes, but it was quickly extinguished. "- was the one who alerted me. You see, she continues to resist my attention... not well, I admit, but one must credit her the attempt."

Zalbard’s smirk widened. But he got no further reaction. Perhaps Ghaleon lived up to his prophetic title, and he’d realized the game that was being played?

"In any case, I was doing my best to persuade her that resistance was pointless, when her demeanor changed most abruptly. You see, she’d found reason for, of all things, hope! Can you believe that?" Zalbard shook his head sadly. "Such a silly thing, hope. But she was feeling it. And do you know why?"

Ghaleon simply stared.

"Because of you, o’ knight in shining black armor. Your presence within the spire, known to her no doubt because of your own magical searchings, was quite enough to catch her attention. Unfortunately for both of you, her reaction was enough to catch my attention as well." Zalbard waved his hand around the room, encompassing the dozen soldiers who stood behind Ghaleon and the two who pinned him down. "And as you can see, it did not take long for me to prepare."

"What do you want?" Ghaleon croaked, his eyes as hard as bloodied ice.

Zalbard, surprised at how quickly he’d accomplished his objective, grinned. "You did not think you were given this admittedly lacking reunion for nothing? Well, you are right. You, dear Player, are about to pay for it."