Chapter 25

Jowy knew something was wrong. It was even more wrong than everything in the spire, in the Espers’ world. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about the past hour or so of their ascent had felt... false, somehow.

Silently, he’d probed the walls with the Rune of Illusion, searching for some sign. Bearing all 27 True Runes had, in a way he didn’t entirely understand, given him greater insight into their powers. If the type of magical energy one were attuned to were in use, it would detect it. Jowy didn’t think even Ghaleon’s illusions could have stood up to a careful inspection.

But there had been nothing. No illusions were woven around the walls, driving them into some prepared trap.

Still, Jowy couldn’t help but think that something was wrong. The spire was massive, yes, and the slope of its corridors was not so great, but there should have been some change.

Of course, seeing the magical spectrum did little to help him. Even Sephiroth and Rufus, close by and occupying known positions, were almost invisible against the backdrop of the tower walls. Sephiroth in particular, with his strange, black aura, faded into the background radiation ahead.

It was almost like he was...

"Sephiroth?" Jowy called, halting in mid-step.

There was no response.

"What now?" Rufus asked, nearly bumping into Jowy.

"Sephiroth’s gone," Jowy said. "It’s like the wall just closed up behind him."

Jowy ignored the Leader’s muttered curse and put his hands on the wall, trying to find some switch, some indication of what had happened. How had the wall slid down without his noticing it? It made no sense - he would have heard it shut, unless the mechanism was absolutely perfect.

The True Earth Rune offered no answer. Though the wall was made of stone, the Rune rejected it, shied away from contact with its surface. He’d never had it do something like that before, it or any of his other Runes.

"Star Dragon Sword, do you understand this?" he asked.

The sword, which he had almost unconsciously drawn from its scabbard when the wall had closed up, seemed to be frowning. "I’ve never felt anything quite like it, actually. I am not convinced that the walls are genuinely made of stone. If they are, it has been so magically altered as to be unrecognizable."

Jowy nodded. If he couldn’t get the wall to open up on its own, he would just have to do it by... other methods. Chances were, Sephiroth had already turned back and was trying to get through from his end.

Jowy’s hand settled upon the too-smooth surface of the wall, and he called upon the power of his First Rune, the Black Sword Rune. He visualized a wedge of black crystal forcing open the wall, and then set about making it happen.

The blade he formed, wider and less knife-edged than the usual creations of the Rune, slid easily into the less solid magical wall, and began to further expand.

The wall flowed around it.

Behind him, Rufus called his name.

"What is it?" Jowy asked, his attention focused on the strange wall. It was solid to the touch, but the Rune seemed to pass through it, ineffective, as though it were water.

"We’ve got company," Rufus said.

Uh-oh.

Jowy withdrew the Black Sword Rune’s energy and spun around. He might well need it.

He knew immediately that the infiltration was at an end. From this point on, if they were to reach the -Heirs-, they would have to fight every step of the way.

The Espers filled the corridor, forcing Jowy and Rufus toward the implacable wall.

"Ever hear the old saying about a rock and a hard place?" Rufus asked.

"Once or twice," Jowy said. "I see your point."

The Leader shrugged, one of his Cetra guns raised. "Any suggestions?"

"We aren’t getting through the hard place, that’s for sure." Given time, Jowy might have found a way to open the wall. But unless Sephiroth came up with something, it was going to stay shut, at least for now.

Rufus alone might be able to hold off one Esper. Two at the most.

There were dozens in the hallway.

How many Espers, ones as strong as those which were advancing, slow and deliberate, down the hall, could Jowy hold off? For how long?

He didn’t care to find out.

But it looked like he would have to.