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Chapter 36: The Ghosts of Zeakden

…even the official histories cannot conceal the seams that reveal where the official account meets with actual truth. Yes, Delita Heiral and Princess Ovelia fled into the woods, with traitorous Hokuten in hot pursuit. But nothing accounts for their joint disappearance: little is known of either over the weeks to come, until their reappearance sparked the War of the Lions. Where did they disappear to? And how was a full Hokuten garrison, prepared for war, driven from the Araguay Woods with wounds and casualties, and not a single body of their unknown enemies to show for it?

-Alazlam Durai, "The War of the Lions"

Three days of hard marching before they reached Araguay Woods. Three days pounding over hills as they followed the same stream-bound path along which Delita had taken the Princess Ovelia. They could not know that he would stick to it, of course, but they had to hope. What other lead did they have?

They never rested for long. Alicia would set a timer in the form of a magic pentacle, and in the thickest heat of the day, when the humidity and sun would combine and reduce everything to a thick, choking, moist heat, the little group would bed down in what shade they could find, each resting for two hours and standing guard for thirty minutes. Then off again, to eat on the road and drink from the stream when they found time, with only the most grudging stops to relieve themselves.

Conversation was sparse upon the road. No one complained—the guards did not, for their Princess was ahead of them, and Ramza did not, for Delita was alive in the world and he needed to know why.

But he was not alone here. He knew why he and the Lionesses labored so hard in their chase. Why did Radia

"Radia," he said, doubling back a little so they trailed behind the Lionesses, marching a little slower so they would not slip back down the rain-slick hill.

She didn't look at him. Her breath was a little ragged and her face a little pink, but otherwise she looked none the worse for wear. "Yeah?"

"Why..." Ramza trailed off. Even after thinking about it for several hours, he still wasn't quite sure what he wanted to ask. Besides, it seemed a foregone question at this point. She was hardly going to stop this grueling march now, so far from the main road and civilization.

Radia seemed to confirm this belief, since she did not answer. Ramza continued to trudge along beside her, his eyes heavy, his mind still bright with questions.

"I thought we were the only ones," Radia said, and Ramza's gaze snapped back to her. "Who walked away from...from Zeakden."

He remembered the rumbling of the gunpowder explosions, the fires burning as the fort collapsed around them. He swallowed and nodded.

"And he's...he's Teta's brother, right?" Radia said. "I'd...I'd like to meet him."

Ramza nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak. He reached out and gave her shoulder a hesitant pat. She gave him a wry look, and Ramza flushed.

"Shut up," Ramza said.

"I didn't say-"

"Having a nice chat back there!" came Agrias' harsh cry, and Ramza and Radia both looked up guiltily. Agrias wasn't even looking back at them, just marching on through the miserable drizzle. Lavian's eyes were fixed forwards as well, though Alicia shot them a sly, smug glance.

Ramza exchanged wide-eyed glances with Radia, whose eyes abruptly glittered.

"We were, actually!" she shouted back. "Hope it doesn't bother you!"

"If you've breath enough to talk," Agrias replied. "We can march a bit faster, can't we?" She picked up her pace, and with a curse Alicia and Lavian followed suit. Radia rolled her eyes and trotted forwards, outpacing Alicia and Lavian, forcing Agrias to march still faster. Ramza struggled to keep up.

Ramza was still annoyed with Agrias hours later, when they'd slowed to a more reasonable pace to accommodate the aching in their calves. Radia had insistently strode at the head of the group, probably to mock Agrias. To Ramza's surprise, Agrias dropped back until she was walking next to him. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, but watched her from the corner of his eye. He imagined she was doing the same to him.

"He's your friend," she said abruptly.

Easy to guess who she meant. "Yes."

"So who are you, Ramza Lugria?" she asked. "That you keep company with a man like Gaffgarion? That you know a man who has kidnapped our Princess?"

Venom in her voice, but her face remained stony, her eyes fixed forwards. Ramza did not answer right away. She had reason to distrust the Hokuten, which meant she had reason to distrust the Beoulves. What could he safely say?

"We fought with the Hokuten," he said. "During the Death Corps Rebellion."

"Hokuten," Agrias scoffed.

Ramza nodded. "When we saw what they were doing, we...we had our doubts. But we were deployed to Zeakden."

He saw her brow furrow. "Zeakden?"

"For in the north," he said. "The last battle. Someone blew it, and...I though he died."

They marched on in silence for a minute or more.

"And I'm just supposed to believe you?" she asked.

Why should she? He was lying as they spoke.

The silence stretched again. After a moment, she said, "What's he like?"

"Smart," Ramza said. "Thinks very fast, and he's...he's an excellent fighter."

"But you don't know if he has help?"

"I don't."

The rain was easing off now, leaving only the thick humidity of summer in its wake. Ramza's lungs felt heavy with it, and his clothes sodden.

"You were right," Agrias said. "I cannot afford to turn away help. But the Hokuten takes an interest in their Princess just before her kidnapping? They send a man like Gaffgarion, accompanied by his daughter and a man who knows her kidnapper?" She shook her head. "You cannot be trusted."

Ramza did not argue. He had no right to.

It was late afternoon when the woods came into view in the distance, and already Ramza could tell something was afoot. Soldiers moved along the edges of those woods, with the gleam of metal on their breasts and hips and the feathered shapes of chocobos tied in the centers of their camps. Agrias broke into a trot, and the others followed her as she closed the gap between them and these patrolling soldiers. Ramza still felt a little stab of cold when he saw the white lion upon the sky-blue cloak.

"Gaffgarion made good time," grunted Agrias, over the heavy breathing of their group.

"Halt!" came a high shout, shaky and young. Ramza and Radia obediently slowed; so, too, did Alicia and Lavian. Agrias continued to charge unabated.

"Halt!" cried the same thin voice, and they could see the speaker now—a short, pudgy young man with a mild corkscrew of red hair above his round face. He was gesturing frantically, and a nearby archer was hesitantly cocking an arrow to his bow. "Or we will be force to-"

"I am Agrias Oaks, Captain of Princess Ovelia's personal guard!" she bellowed. "Stand aside!"

The pale young man went paler still, his eyes bulging. He waved in the opposite direction, but stood his round. "I'm sorry, Captain!" he squeaked. "I have my orders! No one is allowed through until the Princess is secured."

Agrias came to a stop, her hand resting casually upon the hilt at her hip. Ramza and the others hurried to catch up with her. Ramza looked along the treeline, and found that there were other little clusters of Hokuten soldiers stationed at regular intervals, with patrols moving between them. Several of the nearer clusters were moving towards them. In total, there looked to be some fifteen men and women nearby, with who knew how many farther along. He tried to figure out how large the Dorter Garrison might be, and how many men they'd send for such a mission.

"As I said," growled Agrias. "We are her guard-"

"I'm sure that's so, ma'am!" the young man managed. "But Major Gerhardt gave strict instructions!"

"And what exactly were these instructions?" Alicia demanded, with a theatrical flourish of her scepter that left a little trail of sparks behind it.

"Th-that their was a plot to kidnap the Princess," the young soldier answered, sidling away from the scepter. "And th-th-that we h-had to make sure th-that the p-p-princess was s-safe. H-had to make sure no one got in, and no one g-got out."

Ramza could see from the corner of his eyes that other soldiers had surrounded them—the archer, and a woman with a spear, and several other in a loose circle. Alicia and Lavian clutched at their shimmering weapons; Agrias stood with one hand wrapped around her hilt and the other curled into a fist.

"If I may, Captain?" Radia piped up from the back. Agrias shot her a distrustful glance, then gave a fraction of a nod. Radia turned to address the young man. "Name and rank, soldier?"

The young man hesitated. "C-coporal Deryk, ma'am," he stuttered at last.

Radia waved a hand airly. "No need for that, Deryk," she said. "I'm just a guardsman. Not a Coporal like you." There was a little warmth in her voice. "And so young, too! You can't be older than...what, 21?"

Ramza's mouth twisted in amusement. Radia wasn't older than 21 herself.

"Twenty," the soldiered managed, though he seemed to be blushing.

"So young!" she exclaimed, placing a hand upon his chest. "You must be quite the rising star."

Ramza was still amused but he felt something else too—a little bit of poisonous heat in his stomach, as though it were being sunburnt from the inside.

"A rising star like you," she continued, apparently ignorant of how flustered the Corporal was. "You must know all about royal orders, and how they supersede common law?"

The Corporal blinked. His mouth opened and closed like a fish.

"No?" she said. "Well, let me enlighten you." She was very close to the Corporal now, and though her hands were nowhere near her sword something in the way she held herself seemed to suggest she could draw it in an instant. "You see, our protection of the Princess is a royal charge, which means that we can do whatever is necessary in pursuit of it and can only be held accountable by the House of Lords or the royal family. And I'm sorry to say, Deryk, but you and your friends standing here, telling us we can't do our jobs? Well, that counts as standing in the way of our charge." She lowered her voice. "Now, a smart young man like you probably knows the right thing to do. I believe in you."

Deryk blinked. Still his mouth opened and closed, though no sound came out. Ramza shifted slightly, so his hand rested on his hilt; Agrias did the same, a moment later.

"Let them pass!" Deryk squawked.

Radia patted his chest, and moved past him without a backwards glance. The others followed, as shouts and questions and Deryk's stuttering explanations sounded behind them. Radia grinned at him over her shoulder, and then they were into the thick woods, pushing their way through underbrush and tripping over roots.

But Deryk's orders seemed much more sensible when they found the first body, long after they had left the noise of the Hokuten line behind. His chestplate was cracked in half, and his hair was wild. It was as though a bolt of lightning had crashed into his chest.

"Your friend?" Agrias hissed.

Ramza shook his head dumbly. "I don't know. I don't...he didn't know magic when-"

"Captain, this is high-level," Alicia said. "Look how clean the bolt is."

Agrias grimaced, but said nothing. They moved as quickly as they could through the forest, and found more signs of battle as they went. Here, fires smoldering in the grass as charred corpses lay in disarray; here, the bloody dead were in a wide circle with their weapons shattered; here two corpses had been left dangling from the branches. Every time he saw a corpse, Ramza felt a shock of fear: then they drew close, and he saw it was not Delita, but some nameless Hokuten.

Agrias hurled no accusations his way. No one man, whatever his training, could do all this. So the question was, what could?

In the distance, the sounds of fighting: shouts of alarm, and a thunderous boom that rattled the trees. Agrias took off again, and the others followed her at a wary pace. Ramza had already nocked an arrow to his bow: Alicia and Lavian held their stave and staff at the ready. The clanging of blades and the screams of dying men filled the woods as leaves crunched underfoot.

In a small clearing formed around an outcropping of rock, a battleaxe slipped from the dying fingers of the brawny man who'd held it. His killer sat on chocobo-back above him, the blood dripping down from his shimmering sword. His hair was shorter than it had been when Ramza had last seen him, cut close in military style; it still straddled the line between blonde and brown, so much lighter than his sister's. The nostrils of his hooked nose flared; the chiseled jaw dropped, and the blue eyes widened.

Wiegraf Folles looked just as surprised as Ramza felt.

"Wiegraf?" Radia squawked.

"Radia?" Wiegraf whispered. "Ramza?"

Agrias had been moving forward with blade raised. Now she halted and shot Radia an alarmed glance. "You know him?" she said.

Radia nodded. "We, uh...we fought together. A long time ago."

"What are you doing here?" Wiegraf demanded.

"We were hired to guard the princess," Ramza said. "What are you-"

"You were hired?" Wiegraf said. "How the hell-"

"Wait, Wiegraf?" Lavian murmured, and though her voice was soft it seemed to cut right through the clamor and the confusion. "As in...as in Wiegraf Folles?"

Ramza did not like the tone of recognition in Lavian's voice.

"Who's that?" Alicia asked.

"The commander of the Death Corps," whispered Lavian, leveling her staff at Wiegraf. Agrias raised her sword as Alicia pointed her scepter and the air shimmered around Wiegraf's blade.

"No!" Ramza and Radia shouted together, leaping between the two warring parties, weapons lowered, hands out imploringly.

The hatred in Agrias' gaze staggered Ramza where he stood. Her whole face was contorted with rage. "Anti-royalists," she hissed. "And the friends of assassins and kidnappers." She raised her sword.

"I was in the Corps!" Radia shouted. "We wanted to-"

"Traitors!" Alicia cried, and embers danced above the gem of her scepter.

"HALT!" came a confident cry, and suddenly the rustling of feet upon grass and deitrus was all around them, faces half-glimpsed between verdant shadows. No one too close, but the woods were too thick, and Ramza could not make sense of their numbers.

"Oh, hell!" Wiegraf spat.

"Don't you move!" Agrias shouted.

"All of you are to throw down your weapons and surrender, by order of his Highness, Prince Larg!"

Agrias did not take her eyes off Ramza. "This is Agrias Oaks of the Lionsguard!" she called. "We have some of the conspirators captive!"

"She thinks us conspirators?" muttered Wiegraf.

"She thinks us captives?" Radia said, and her grip tightened on the sword pointing towards the ground.

"Hold your tongue!" Alicia snapped.

"Please," Ramza started. "We don't-"

The scene was interrupted by an arrow from the woods around hit Wiegraf in the shoulder so he fell cursing form the back of his squawking bird. Agrias lunged towards him: Ramza was on his feet in moments, and Radia snapped up her blade and met her, sword against sword.

A horrendous, whispering smack as something shattered against metal. Agrias stumbled, as the broken pieces of an arrow rained down from her armor. She gasped from the impact.

"No!" Lavian shouted, and hammered the heel of her staff into the ground. A moment later, and a shimmering orb expanded around them. Two arrows were caught fast, each clearly angled for a different member of her party.

"Fucking mages!" came a murderous cry from the woods.

"Watch your arrows!" Alicia screamed.

"They were, you fool!" Wiegraf barked. "They were aiming for her!"

Alicia looked befuddled. Agrias shook her head as more arrows hissed into the field. Lavian was already on her knees, hands tight around the staff, swaying unsteadily.

"That makes no sense," Agrias said. "Why-"

"Who do you think tried to kill your Princess?" Wiegraf growled

"The Nanten!" Agrias snapped. "You!"

"We saved her," Wiegraf said. "From Larg's plot."

"And we're supposed to trust the commander of the Death Corps?" Alicia demanded.

"You're supposed to recognize that I haven't tried to kill you," Wiegraf said.

"He's right," Ramza said. "He could have."

"How would you know?" Agrias scoffed.

"I tried it before," Wiegraf said mildly. "And Delita, too."

Ramza's heart fogged with confusion again. "You're here with him?"

Wiegraf's eyes flicked in a wide arc around them. The figures of the Hokuten were much closer now—some fifteen men and women, five archers and ten with other weapons. One spear-bearing woman was close enough to prod the sphere with her spearpoint. Lavian flinched with every prod.

"Not the time, I think," Wiegraf said.

"We're asking the questions!" Agrias insisted.

"A battlefield is no place for questions," Wiegraf replied.

"Ours is a royal-"

Other soldiers had moved closer now, all with weapons drawn.

"Lavian," Radia said, resting her hand on the woman's shoulder.

"Don't touch her, traitor!" Alicia cried, but Lavian's color looked better at once, and she seemed much more steady.

Radia gave Alicia a withering look, though she seemed much paler than before.

"What did you do?" Ramza asked.

"Like Wiegraf said," Radia answered, though she seemed a little slumped and drawn. "No time for questions."

"Assassins on all sides," Wiegraf said. "Gunning for your Princess' heads, and ours as well. Do you intend to bare your throat to their blades?"

Wiegraf and Agrias glared at each other. "Lavian," Agrias said. "Get ready."

"Yes, Captain," Lavian said in a small voice.

"Ramza," Wiegraf said. "Your friend is heading for the Falls."

"I know," Ramza said.

"I do not think he will make it on his own."

Wiegraf and Ramza locked eyes. Ramza's head was swimming with questions—how had Delita survived? What was he doing here? What was Wiegraf? What did the Hokuten want with the Princess, and what did Wiegraf and Delita want?—but one by one they melted away with the clarity of the fight. He felt like their little forest scene was crystallized before him; the shadowed light leaking through the canopy of leaves and branches above them; the rippling of the bubble Lavian had made to protect them, abutting even the rocky outrcropping that protected them on one side: Lavian, Alicia, and Radia standing together, watching each other and the lurking Hokuten with wary eyes; Agrias, slightly hunched where the arrow had struck her, sword in hand, eyes wild; Wiegraf, staring steadily back at Ramza, with his chocobo just behind.

"What are you after?" Ramza asked.

"No more Miludas," Wiegraf said. "No more Tetas."

The words were lightning in Ramza's veins.

"Now!" Agrias shouted, and the bubble burst outwards, throwing the spear-bearing woman and a dark-faced swordsman on their backs. Radia was upon them in an instant, thrusting her sword into the belly of the swordsman, and there was a gust of hot flame as Alicia gestured with her scepter and Ramza was moving, not towards the surrounding Hokuten but towards the bird, vaulting onto its back in one fluid motion, and Wiegraf shouted, "Go, Boco!" and the bird went tearing through the white tree trunks with Ramza hunched low upon its back, racing for the Princess he'd promised to protect, for the friend he'd thought was dead.