Chapter 27

It could not have been helped.

Ghaleon had resisted every form of ‘persuasion’ that Zalbard had attempted. Mental, physical, magical, psychological, all compressed into such a short time that Ghaleon had been certain that he would die. But he had not. Somehow, he’d lived, and he had told his captor nothing.

Until Zalbard had awakened Althena.

All the things that he had subjected Ghaleon to, the monstrous tortures that he had so expertly enacted, he then threatened to inflict upon her. "She will not be permanently damaged, of course, but I do not imagine it will be pleasant," he had said.

And he had lifted a claw-shaped knife, a weapon for torture that would never be usable in a battle, the blade still stained with Ghaleon’s blood where its dull point had been used to inflict the most exquisite pain. He held it before Althena’s eyes until she drew back, then dragged it along her skin - never quite enough to draw blood, but to show that he could, at any time.

Zalbard had given Ghaleon one last chance to speak.

And Ghaleon had told him what he wanted to know.

He could not bear to see any harm come to Althena. He had sworn to protect her, he would. No matter what the cost, no matter how she protested. No matter what happened to the other Destined Ones.

And now that he’d done it, he had to suppress a smile.

For even as he’d knelt, bloodied and bruised, his eyes desperately following the path of the knife, helpless to halt it, Ghaleon had thought. He alone could not defeat the Espers. Even if he had not been unfocused with rage, there were too many of them.

But the Four together... no force in the worlds could oppose him if Sephiroth and Atriedes fought at his side, and even Shinra, with his Cetra weapons, could be of some help.

If the Espers wanted to use the -Heirs-, then they surely had their own plans for the Convergence. And so, they, too, needed the Destined Ones. Alive.

And when they were brought together, when there had been time for Ghaleon to replenish his powers, then he would punish these Espers. He would punish Zalbard. For what they had done, and for what he had done, and most of all for what he would have done, had Ghaleon not told him what he wanted to know.

Just as soon as they were brought together...

"Ghaleon, no..." Althena had whispered as tears, no doubt of disappointment, had welled up in her incomparably beautiful eyes when he’d told Zalbard where the other Destined Ones were, what they planned.

Better tears of disappointment than of pain. And soon enough, he would brush away those tears, and explain why it had all been part of his plan.

"You have been most cooperative, Player," Zalbard said abruptly. "Your aid in capturing your friends was invaluable, and I must say, you were more honest than I thought. I was sure you would have made some attempt, however feeble, to deceive us."

Ghaleon said nothing.

"Instead, you have fallen far short of my expectations. Your description was invaluable - their probable location, their powers, right down to the equipment that the Leader was using." Zalbard laughed. "It is really a pity that such honesty will not be rewarded in a manner befitting your candor."

No doubt Zalbard wanted to get a rise out of him, some sign that he still had fight left in him. But Ghaleon kept his eyes fixed on the floor, a dull, lost expression on his face. The blood that ran from his mouth and from the small cuts on his body, the bruises, his torn robes, his bound hands - all conspired to make him appear every bit as beaten and bedraggled as he wanted to seem.

He would wear the trappings of a slave, for now. It would not be long before he could once again reveal himself as the master, a master whose fury would make Zalbard’s tortures seem paltry in comparison.

Zalbard raised the claw-like knife to Ghaleon’s throat. "You see, Player," he said, his grin widening, "all the Destined Ones have a purpose. But the strings of fate have already been played, hmmm? All the pieces are on the board, the cards are on the table. Your part of this grand play ended when the Leader joined the Seeker and the Bearer."

Ghaleon looked up, fighting to keep the desperation in his eyes, trying to seem as pitiable a creature as possible. Zalbard would pay for this humiliation, too.

The knife pressed upwards. "We have no need of you, Player," Zalbard said. "Your presence is a needless complication. It would be far, far better if you were to simply... die."

And all of Ghaleon’s plans for vengeance suddenly seemed far off, for the knife was cutting into his throat. No! He must live! He had promised Althena that he would remain at her side.

It was not an oath he would break, nor did he care to.

Zalbard did not seem to share his inclinations in that regard. The vicious joy on his aquiline green face made him look even more devilish than he already did.

"Stop!"

Althena’s voice, clear as crystal, so beautiful, filled the lushly-appointed chamber, and there was such command in it that Zalbard’s hand paused for an instant.

"And why should I stop, little -Heir-, dearest -Heir-?" Zalbard looked over his shoulder.

Ghaleon gauged the pressure of the knife, trying to find a way to slip free from the Esper soldier who held him, to grasp the blade before Zalbard pushed it deeper into his throat. But Zalbard was inhumanly strong and fast. Without magic, Ghaleon could not hope to fight him.

Though he was sworn to protect Althena, though he had come here with no other thought than to free her, all Ghaleon’s hopes, even his very life, were in her hands for the moment. Only she was in a position to halt the fatal strike from that hateful torture knife. It was an irony that he would have appreciated more under other circumstances.

"If you do not stop," Althena said, "I will never perform the ceremony for you."

Zalbard said nothing, barely moved at all, but Ghaleon could see the corded muscles of his arm tense. It was a threat that, it seemed, he could not ignore.

But the tension soon left him, and he laughed. "You may think that, delectable little -Heir-, but such noble sentiments rarely stand up to the cold practicality of pain. Physical pain, I have found, is often less effective on a female. But emotional pain... What would you do if you had to watch the death of the Player? Again, and again, and again? Hours, days, however long it takes, your existence nothing but the moment when, slowly choking on his own blood and on the blade that spills it, this man passes from this mortal coil?"

But Althena was not without resources of her own, even now. "If any harm comes to Ghaleon, I will destroy myself," she said calmly. "I have lived too long in sadness. Hope alone has kept me alive until now."

Ghaleon prayed that she did not mean her words. If Zalbard followed through with his threat... Althena would not take her own life. She mustn’t.

"You cannot," Zalbard said - a bit too quickly, Ghaleon thought. "The Cetra would not have been so shortsighted as to leave you and your sisters such an option for escape, not when you are so important."

"On the contrary." Althena gave him a faint, defiant smile. "The Cetra are a cautious people, and feared the misuse of our powers more than that our powers would not be used at all. All three of us are quite capable of taking our own lives."

Her eyes flashed red, brighter than Ghaleon had ever seen them. The hot, gentle breeze from the window stirred, moving faster and faster. Her body, like her eyes, began to glow with an inner fire. The blaze grew brighter, filling the chamber with light, glowing hotter than the sun. The room itself seemed to draw back from the glow. The red of Althena’s eyes turned orange, then yellow, then the same white heat that emanated from her body. Her mouth opened, but no words came out, just a silent cry of agony.

Ghaleon gasped, choked out that she must stop, couldn’t make himself heard.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Althena slumped back to the bed, the deep breath that escaped from her lungs the only sign that anything had occurred at all.

Slowly, Zalbard lowered the knife from Ghaleon’s throat. "It seems that your argument has weight," he said.

Althena nodded, fatigue lining her flawless skin.

"Losing you would be as unpleasant as unacceptable. I suppose that the Player lives... for now."

Ghaleon remained silent, his mind far from the Esper’s words.

He would make certain that Althena’s willingness to suffer for him was not in vain. Somehow, he would get back his powers, find the others...

And make Zalbard pay.