Chapter 30

Jowy averted his eyes from the too-bright light of the sun beating down on the Espers’ world. In contrast to the darkness of the spire, it was almost painful to feel the hot rays beating down on him.

Zalbard and his soldiers had brought Jowy and Rufus here, leading them up steep inclines that took them ever higher. And after a seemingly endless monotony of passages, their legs aching from the climb as they had not from all their marching through the jungle and mud, they emerged into the light.

Atop the spire.

Jowy’s eyes adjusted to the light, faster than he would have thought possible after so long in darkness. He looked around.

The summit of the spire was dominated by a strange outcropping of the same black stone as the rest of the structure, rising from the center of the flat roof. Jowy’s eyes were drawn to it, and even as he watched, it seemed to expand outward.

Perhaps, he thought, the size of the spire was being increased? If so, it was not built, but grown.

He tore his eyes away from the rock that seemed alive, looking instead to the occupants of the roof.

Most striking were the three women who stood, clad in identical gowns that matched the deep cerulean of their hair, their heads bowed.

Beside him, Rufus whistled, softly and slow.

It was not hard to see why. The -Heirs-, for they could be no others, were a breathtaking sight. Althena had done little to show her beauty when she’d lived - for decades, wasn’t it? - in that tiny cabin. The Espers, however, had prepared their prizes well, though little preparation was needed.

Jowy looked down. Never had he found it so difficult to resist the desire he felt for a woman. Though he was loath to admit it, he knew that, were it not for the memories of Jillia’s love that he called to mind, he would have willing obeyed a command from any one of the -Heirs-, would have thrown himself from the spire and smiled all the way down.

He smiled now, just slightly. Rufus had never spoken of any love in his life. Jowy could well imagine how the almost overwhelming beauty of the three -Heirs- affected him.

His control regained, Jowy’s gaze swept back over the other occupants of the spire’s roof. So great was the resemblance between the three -Heirs- that Jowy could not even say with certainty which was Althena.

But he could guess.

Next to the farthest -Heir-, Ghaleon knelt. His thin, aristocratic features were haggard, and blood had dried on his chin. His nose looked like it had been broken. His aura, normally glowing with fierce power, was as dim as Jowy’s own. But when he saw Jowy watching him, his eyes flashed with the same crimson fire as they always did.

And beyond him, there were two other figures.

One was clad in ornately inlaid black armor that seemed to be fashioned from the same material as the spire itself. A cloak of solid shadow flowed behind him, pooling up on the black stone floor, curling around Ghaleon’s knees and the feet of the -Heirs- like mist.

His face, even in the bright sun, was hidden by the shadows of his helm.

This, Jowy knew, was the one the Espers called ‘Master.’

And beside him, his eyes closed, an impossibly long katana in his hand, stood Sephiroth. The sweat-soaked clothing that he’d worn through the jungle was gone, replaced by a shapeless black robe.

"Sephiroth!" Jowy shouted, ignoring the momentary pain when one of the Esper soldiers struck him in the back for breaking the silence.

There was no response from the Seeker.

"It seems your friend has decided to join the winning side," Zalbard said, stepping past Jowy into the light.

Even as Jowy shook his head in disbelief, Rufus muttered, "I knew it."

The ‘Master’ spoke, his voice the same in person as it had been at a distance - echoing yet close, everywhere at once and in Jowy’s mind, terrifying. "We are pleased by your arrival."

Seeing the owner of the voice, Jowy could not so easily push back the fear that clawed at his mind.

The ‘Master’ ignored the discomfort of his listeners - even Ghaleon and Zalbard had drawn back when he spoke, though Sephiroth made no move - and continued. "Guards, you may leave us."

Wordlessly, no doubt relieved to be away from the presence of their terrible leader, the Esper soldiers retreated into the dim green light of the spire. Jowy listened to their heavy footfalls, trying to keep his mind focused on how to get the upper hand, Runes or no. But the fear, irrational fear, continued to intrude upon his thoughts.

There were only two Espers. The four Destined Ones were there, and the three -Heirs-. Surely the -Heirs- would render aid to their rescuers, not their captors. Seven to two should be good odds, even under the circumstances.

But the Master was there.

Besides... Jowy wasn’t sure what to think about Sephiroth’s actions. Surely he hadn’t betrayed them.

When the other Espers were gone, the Master spoke again. "Observe," he said, raising one gauntleted hand to the burning sky. "The time is coming."

Jowy’s eyes followed his gesture, and the path he traced out. Where before the sky had been clear, there were now dozens of worlds, their lines indistinct, dreamlike, filling the sky. And in the center of them all, the outline of an impossibly vast sphere, a world unimaginably greater than any Jowy had ever seen, all but invisible in the bright light.

And where the disk of that great orb met the empty sky, there was a single point of light.

Silver light.

Cetra light.

"We go," the Master said, "to the Core."