Chapter 28

The chaos of the battle raged around Ghaleon. His magical senses warned him that Atriedes had unsealed the Beast Rune. That he had sprang upon Sephiroth, and that they were embroiled in a battle. That most of the enemy, and perhaps all of the villagers, were dead.

But he was only dimly aware of those facts.

His attention, his whole attention, was directed at the prone form, defiled by mud and blood and ichor, laying before him.

"Althena," he whispered, kneeling beside her.

She did not stir.

Desperately, he placed his hand at her throat.

She yet lived.

Thank... what did one thank for the life of a Goddess? He could not say. This, too, was a question which he would have to consider.

He brushed a strand of long blue hair from her beautiful face, but her eyes remained shut.

He leaned forward to awaken her with a kiss.

A jagged blade cut through the back of Ghaleon’s armour.

He gasped, more from surprise than pain.

But there was pain, too. A great deal of it. With a curious detachment, Ghaleon discerned that his backbone had been severed, halfway down.

A heavy boot prodded his stomach, rolling him onto his back.

The creature called Zalbard, clutching the shattered, bloody remnants of his scythe, looked down at Ghaleon and smiled. "What a pity, Player," he said. "You seem to have lost the tune to this particular piece."

He reached down to grab Althena.

Ghaleon’s gauntleted hand closed around his wrist. "You will not have her," he said.

Zalbard tensed, but Ghaleon tightened his grasp. Life began to flow from Zalbard into Ghaleon, healing the bloody gash in his back. The arm in Ghaleon’s hand, already strangely thin, began to shrivel up.

Black lightning shot from Zalbard’s free hand, playing across Ghaleon’s arm.

Ghaleon’s fingers twitched open, and Zalbard pulled back.

"Nice try, Player," Zalbard said. "I hope your wound was fully healed?"

"Certainly." Ghaleon smiled. He wished he were telling the truth. He doubted that his legs would obey his commands - certainly he could not walk. Most likely, he would not be able to stand, either.

But he was not about to admit any of that.

And standing was highly overrated.

Ghaleon rose, hovering a few feet off the ground. "And your arm?" he asked, pointing to the shrivelled appendage.

Zalbard glanced down at it. One of the crystals he wore began to glow, and his arm was restored to its previous state. "It has never been better, actually," he said. He chuckled ruefully. "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my scythe."

The broken weapon fell from his hand.

"This idle chatter never ceases to amuse," Ghaleon said, extending his hand. "But Althena and I will be leaving soon. And... one does not like to be late."

Zalbard nodded. "Of course."

Neither of them gave any warning. Ghaleon’s energy blast and Zalbard’s black fire shot out, meeting halfway between them. The air where they met shimmered, distorted by heat and energy.

Ghaleon furrowed his brow. His powers had been greatly taxed already. He did not care for the thought of a protracted battle against such a foe. He split his power, maintaining only a small barrier before him. The rest, he channelled into a dozen tendrils of energy, arcing around to strike Zalbard from behind.

Ghaleon could just make out another of the crystals Zalbard wore on his neck glowing brighter. It seemed to expand outwards, like a shadow, into the form of the lion-creature.

Ghaleon’s attack impacted on its phantom body, and dissipated.

"It is time you learned the true power of magicite, Player," Zalbard said. He pointed his finger at Ghaleon, and the phantom-thing leapt past Zalbard. It lashed out, its gigantic fist altogether too solid for Ghaleon’s tastes.

It struck his barrier and was held there, but the impact of magical forces knocked Ghaleon back. He could feel the jagged wound in his back re-open.

He could not afford such weakness!

The phantom-beast gave one last roar, then disappeared.

Zalbard took a step forward.

Althena-!

Ghaleon reached out his hand. He tried to gather his thoughts, but pain, accursed pain, tore at his concentration.

A sudden wind whipped around Zalbard, pushing him forward.

Ghaleon frowned.

The creature’s deep green skin seemed to be taking on a bluish hue. His hair, even his carefully groomed beard and moustache, were covered with tiny ice crystals. The deep mud around his legs hardened as the water in it turned to ice. Rain falling from the magical storm raging above turned into tiny icicles that impaled themselves in his flesh.

And finally, Zalbard stood, frozen in place. The wind calmed.

Ghaleon looked up.

Nall, in his full dragon form larger even than Quark had been, came to rest behind the creature’s frozen body.

"This is a novel experience," Ghaleon said, ignoring the pain in his back. "I do not recall being glad to see you before, Nall."

"I won’t make a habit of it," the White Dragon of Althena said, a smile on his reptilian features. Then his eyes shifted to his mistress, and the smile faded. "Is she-"

"She is quite alright," Zalbard said, melting the ice away from his body. He lifted free of the frozen mud and smiled.

Ghaleon’s eyes snapped back to the creature, and the words to a spell formed instantly on his lips.

It was nowhere near fast enough.

The crystal which Zalbard wore at the centre of his chest was different from all the others Ghaleon had seen. It was blue-green, not black, and its light was pure and clear.

The phantom-beast which emerged from it, however, was as jet black as any Ghaleon had yet seen. A dragon, larger even than Nall’s full form, spread its half-real wings and turned its long, serpentine head toward Nall.

The White Dragon’s ice blast shot towards it.

But this black dragon’s attack was more like Ghaleon’s own - raw magical power, unfettered with elemental trappings. It vaporized Nall’s attack and sent the young dragon tumbling back through the air to land with a crash at the edge of the village. Then, it turned its beam toward Ghaleon.

Ghaleon’s spell struck it in the centre of its dark-scaled body, and it, too, vanished.

Zalbard stood, his hand on the crystal. "So... these -Cowards- have power, too," he mused. His finger tapped its surface. "I see why the Master chose this one."

Ghaleon whispered the words to another spell, this one a concentrated beam aimed for the middle of Zalbard’s forehead.

His tongue slipped on the last syllable.

Damn!

He shook his head to clear it. The wound! It was preventing him from concentrating. This was unacceptable. It would not be allowed.

Ghaleon spoke the words, loudly and clearly, and a shower of tiny meteorites sprang into being. They shot toward Zalbard, but the creature had been given all the time he needed to react. His barrier met each of the projectiles and sent them spinning aside.

"Tired, Player?" he asked. "Perhaps it is time you took a nap."

Ghaleon braced himself for the impact. His powers, though, were growing weak. The barrier he erected held Zalbard’s magical flames, but only just.

And those flames had pushed Ghaleon farther from Althena.

He blinked. Loss of blood was taking its toll. Over-taxing his magical energies did not help.

He must protect Althena!

"You are certainly a stubborn one," Zalbard said. With a wave of his hand, he lifted Althena into the air beside him. "I suspect your loyalty to this little -Heir- has to do with more than worship, or even destiny, hmm?"

Ghaleon’s snarl was wordless, but he doubted its meaning was misunderstood.

"What a pity, then, that when she awakens, it will not be in your bed..." Zalbard’s spidery green fingers ran across Althena’s cheek.

How dare he! He was not fit to look upon her, much less to touch her!

"No, Player, she will not awaken in your bed. She will awaken in mine."

Ghaleon lashed out, sending a bolt of magical lightning straight for Zalbard’s head.

The creature laughed.

Ghaleon fell to the ground.

He had used... too... much... power.

He looked up, his vision clouded by the darkness which threatened to engulf him.

Sephiroth, hand extended, leapt for Zalbard. But he seemed to be moving in slow motion, far, far too slow.

Zalbard, his cloaked arm enfolding Althena, glanced at the Seeker, then back to Ghaleon. Their eyes locked. "Come and get her, Player," he said.

And then he, and Althena with him, disappeared.

Sephiroth’s fingers closed around nothingness.

Ghaleon blacked out.