Chapter 24

Sephiroth’s internal clock told him that it had been little more than two hours since Ghaleon’s disappearance. But he couldn’t keep from wondering if that figure was inaccurate. It seemed like it had been much longer.

These middle tiers of the spire, above the strange city and its pitiable citizens yet still below what he assumed was the summit of the spire and what he assumed was the dwelling place of its rulers, had no inhabitants. It seemed to be a maze, perhaps to keep those who lived below from entering the upper tiers.

If that was its intent, it did a very good job. Sephiroth was unused to the experience of being lost, and he could only assume that it was the unfamiliar magical world presented by the Cetra goggles he wore that was disorienting him.

It seemed that the three of them had been going in circles for some time now. He knew that was impossible. They had followed the corridors, and always they led upwards. Yet Sephiroth had not detected any change in the air pressure the way he had earlier in their ascent.

A mystery that he had no way to solve. There were no distinguishing marks on the walls, nothing but the same solid mass of black stone and pulsing magic. And they had nothing to do but continue.

Somewhere in this spire, the -Heirs- awaited rescue. It was convenient that all three were here. If they could be found. Sephiroth was becoming doubtful about that.

And all four Destined Ones were needed, as well. Ghaleon’s foolish decision to teleport away without explaining himself should, by rights, not be rewarded with a rescue, if one was called for. But he was necessary, perhaps just as much as the -Heirs-.

Sephiroth came to a junction, two corridors leading off into the darkness. Both appeared to go up.

He turned. Perhaps one of Atriedes’ True Runes could help them puzzle out what was going on around them.

But Atriedes was not there.

He, and Rufus with him, had disappeared behind a solid wall of the spire’s strange black stone.

A wall that had not been there a few seconds before.

Suddenly, the paradox of their constant upward movement did not seem so paradoxical. They might have continued for days without making any progress, if each level they ascended simply flowed down into the one beneath, then reformed above. How such a thing could be accomplished, he had no idea. But it seemed it was possible, and that it was occurring.

The sound of a heavy claw scraping against the smooth floor came to Sephiroth’s ears, muffled, but distinctly there.

His hand dropped to the energy blade at his waist, and he spun.

The walls around him were liquefying, puddling up and then flowing downwards. And where the walls had been, there were Espers. Dozens of Espers, nearly a hundred by Sephiroth’s estimate. Each as strong as the very mightiest he’d faced in Burg.

Aside from the sealed corridor behind him, there was no cover, nothing he could use to block off a flank or rear approach. The room that had been formed by the sinking walls was easily large enough to encompass the entire Esper force, and in the whole of it, there was no advantage his soldier’s mind could glean.

No doubt the Espers had detected their guests some time ago, and this reception had been planned ever since. The spire was an impressive citadel. But it was an even more impressive trap.

Sephiroth wondered what had alerted the Espers. Had Ghaleon been captured? Had he betrayed them? Or had they been detected as soon as they’d entered, and Ghaleon alone might have had some chance to escape? There was no way to determine.

No way, and no time.

The Espers surged forward, a solid wall of sinew and flesh, claw and blade, metal and bone.

There could be no escape.

There could be no failure.

Sephiroth’s energy blade flickered to life.