Chapter 26

Jowy batted aside the point of a wickedly barbed spear with the Star Dragon Sword, plunging the King Dragon Sword into the exposed belly of his assailant.

Blood poured from the wound, mingling with that already soaking the ground and with the rain that had begun to pour from the magical storm clouds above.

Normally, Jowy would have been glad to have dealt an enemy such a wound. He could have turned to face another opponent, confident that the first would go down.

But these espers did not go down. If they bled, they were still alive. And so long as they were still alive, they would be back. Quickly.

Only when they turned to crystal did they truly die. And they did not bleed when they were killed.

He reversed the swing of the Star Dragon Sword, and it bit into the neck of his foe.

This time, the esper did not merely bleed.

Behind Jowy, there was a scream.

The -Heir-!

He spun around, his feet slipping in the muddy ground.

The leonine esper, larger than all the others Jowy had seen, held Althena in one massive claw. Its bestial face turned, and it grinned. "Velius spoke highly of you, Bearer," it growled. "I’m looking forward to this."

Jowy could not say the same.

But Sephiroth seemed to be tied up with Zalbard, and Ghaleon...

Well, Jowy wasn’t going to trust him.

"Velius caught me at a bad time," Jowy said, pointing the Star Dragon Sword at the esper’s chest. "A time I was short of Runes."

The Soul Eater’s power stretched out at a thought from Jowy.

With his aura sight, he could see it descend upon the esper like a cloud. It bypassed barrier and sinew alike, plunging deep into the massive body to find its target. Now that it was unleashed, it needed no further guidance from Jowy. If anything, he had to hold it back.

The esper shuddered. It opened its mouth to roar, but no sound came out. Its free hand stretched weakly toward Jowy.

He shook his head.

It fell to one knee, sending a tremor through the ground.

And then it looked up, a grin spreading across its broad face. "Those tricks won’t work on even a common esper, much less one such as myself," it said. Jowy suspected that the deep, menacing rumble in the back of its throat was as close to laughter as it could come. "Our ‘souls,’ and our powers with them, will not fly so easily from our bodies."

Jowy lunged, plunging his swords into the esper’s side. Black blood poured forth, running down the lengths of the blades.

But if the esper noticed, it gave so sign. Its gigantic fist closed around Jowy, and it tossed him into the air.

He hit the ground, hard. The impact jarred his body, and the sickening crack of bone told him that, somewhere, it had done worse than that. If he didn’t hurt so much all over, he would have known where.

He couldn’t even hurt a monster like this!

Not with the kind of power he had.

To fight such a beast...

He raised his head.

"I will need to become a beast myself," he muttered. He could control the Beast Rune. Once before, he had stayed his hand. He could do so again. He could, and he must.

"I do not think that this is a good idea," the Star Dragon Sword said.

Jowy shook his head. "I know what I’m doing."

I hope, he added, but only to himself.

The seal his will had placed around the Beast Rune was a strong one. But it was his seal, his to break.

He did so.

Memories, desires, instincts, power. All flooded his mind, calling out to him.

He must control it!

"Ah... Bearer..?" The Star Dragon Sword tried to shift from his grasp.

His fingers clenched around it.

Jowy closed his eyes.

The Hunter opened them.

The prey, the big one that thought it was a predator, brought its fist down, roaring simply for the joy of battle.

The Hunter cut off that fist, his sword cleaving a clean line through the flesh and bone of the prey.

He smiled.

The prey took a step back, then tossed the worthless garbage in its other hand away. "I see what Velius meant," it growled. Still, it gave no sign of pain, of weakness.

The Hunter could respect that. But just because it showed no sign did not mean that it was not weak, in pain... and afraid. He could smell its fear.

And why should it not fear?

He lunged forward, tearing into it with his swords. Long bloody streaks appeared across its chest, the smell of its hot ichor fuelling the Hunter’s thirst. He leapt up its hugely muscled chest and raised his swords.

Now it could not keep the fear from its deep-set eyes.

The Hunter thrived on such fear. It was that very fear that gave him strength. He plunged his swords into the prey.

It crumpled.

And then disappeared.

The Hunter landed easily, his head swinging back and forth. Where had it gone? Had it escaped him?

He looked down.

A black shard lay on the blood-stained ground.

So that was where it had retreated to. He could feel it in there, its soul hiding from his hunger even if its body could not.

He brought his foot down on the crystal, again and again. But it would not shatter.

His eyes narrowed.

No matter.

He straightened up. Another prey was approaching him from behind.

He turned.

It raised its sword. But when it saw his face, it faltered and took a step back.

The Hunter smiled.

It turned to run.

He was on its back before it even took a step. It slid face first into the muddy ground, but by then it was already dead.

It, too, escaped into a crystal.

The Hunter snarled and swung his head around.

There were more of them, rushing about him. His eyes focused on one. It was raising a huge club over its head, preparing to bring it down on some unseen prey.

The Hunter buried his swords in it and tossed it aside. It slid off the blades, dead and crystallized before it hit the ground.

The prey on the ground behind it looked up. "Thank you for saving me," the prey said weakly.

The Hunter raised one of his swords, and the relief on the prey’s face turned to horror.

Horror just like that of countless weak prey, helpless before him.

Pigs! Worthless swine!

He remembered them, each one.

Remembered countless dead and dying, remembered all those who had been his prey. Though he had been in many different bodies, always the slaughter was the same.

A body called Luca. Fire raging about him. A girl, her skinny arms clutching tightly at a stuffed toy. She raised her eyes to meet his. She trembled with fear. No cry escaped her lips as his sword came down.

No! Jowy fought to regain control, to focus his mind on that image of Pilika as Luca Blight loomed over her. On Jillia’s face as he stood, blade in hand, the Beast Rune commanding him to strike her down. He could not forget! He must regain control, or-

The Hunter’s blade came down on the prey before him, and he was rewarded with a body that did not fade away. Blood, a healthy, nourishing red blood, flowed onto the ground at his feet. This prey had not escaped.

The Hunter threw back his head and laughed.

Prey, strong and weak alike, fell before him. Once, one of the strong ones even managed to land a blow. Angry, he smashed the prey’s skull in with the hilt of one of his swords, ignoring the bleating of the blade as it spilled ever more blood.

Weak, cowardly thing that it was, it did not understand his precious slaughter.

The Hunter beheaded another prey which had strayed too close to him, then raised his eyes.

The blood of the prey, the smoke of their burning shelters, the smell of fear coming off them in waves, all this he had felt a hundred times, a thousand.

But now, there was something else. Familiar, but unknown. He turned, his eyes narrowing.

Another prey stood, his back to the Hunter, cutting a swathe through the strong prey with a blade of glowing light.

Prey? No.

The Hunter took a step back. This one was no prey! Another hunter, then. One like himself. And when two such as they met, only one could survive.

Win or lose did not even matter.

To fight one such as this, that was enough. This was his purpose. The Hunter, the greatest Hunter in the world, would at last prey on the strongest of all.

Or die.

The Hunter grinned and raised his sword.