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Chapter 38: Blood to be Spilled
As always, Colonel, I am grateful for your attentiveness and your diligence, but in this case I fear it is unwarranted. The garrison near Dorter will suffice to bring these Nanten traitors to heel. And even if by some chance these soldiers should prove insufficient, Prince Orinus has loyal servants far from Lesalia and Gallione who, God willing, will see justice served.
-Letter from Dycedarg Beoulve to Colonel Orrick of the Hokuten Garrison in Gariland, denying offer of reinforcements.
Ramza's blood was singing and sizzling, his mind blurry with the sheer breadth of what he had seen and faced. Ovelia, with Teta's name upon her lips: Delita, for all his differences alive and recognizably his friend; the Hokuten soldiers making their attempts upon all their lives; the thrill of the stand-off, his last arrow upon his bow, friend and Princess close at hand, with no idea what came next.
And then Gaffgarion crested the hill, and all Ramza's energy drained from his chest as though from a wound. He stared slack-jawed at Gaffgarion, who smiled cheerfully.
"Been a merry chase, hasn't it?" Gaffgarion said. "Harder than we expected, eh, Major?"
The pot-bellied man beside him grunted, his beady eyes glaring between them. "Killed my men," he spat.
"No crime to kill traitors," Delita said lightly.
"Traitors!" the Major exclaimed. "You call us traitors! We serve the crown!"
"By killing your Princess?" Delita sked.
"By serving our Prince and our Queen!"
"You fucking snake," Agrias slurred. "You..." She shook her bruised and blood-crusted head slowly from side to side.
"And why am I a snake?" Gaffgarion asked. "I do the job I'm paid to do."
For a long moment, Ramza's mind had simply stopped working. He had seen, but he had not understood. Now with a jolt the gears began to turn once more.
"You knew!" he roared, glaring at Gaffgarion.
Those dangerous green eyes lifted towards Ramza. The old mercenary considered for a moment, then shrugged. "We were only supposed to be insurance," he explained. "In case things went wrong." His eyes flickered towards Delita. "As well they did."
Delita's eyes were darting quickly around the wide circle of soldiers and captives. Still he had presence of mind enough to say, "Happy to disappoint."
"Oh, no disappointment," Gaffgarion said. "You raise so many questions. A dead man yet alive. Aware of matters far above your station. Who do you serve?"
"No one," Delita said. "I'm hear to save the Princess."
"You're joking!" Gaffgarion guffawed. "Are you a noble knight fighting for what's right? Did the Saint himself illuminate our plot for you? "
"Why not?" Delita asked.
"Even your friend no longer believes such tripe," grunted Gaffgarion, jerking his head at Ramza.
"You'll tell us who you're workin' for," the Major growled. "Willingly or not."
"I'll tell you nothing," Delita said. "I'm taking the Princess to safety."
"She's not going anywhere," Gaffgarion said.
"Your Highness!" Alica croaked from within her captor's grasp. "Run!"
The woman holding her twisted her hair back savagely, and drove a knee into the small of her back at the same time. Alicia's exhausted voice trailed off into a strangled cry, and Lavian gave a weak shout and fought her own captor until his fist struck her across the cheek
"Alicia!" Ovelia cried, taking a step towards her guards. "Lavian!"
In spite of his confusion Ramza saw the way the whole company shifted at the Princess' movement—the archer on the slope tracking her with his arrow his arrow, the swordsmen and the spearman shifting their weapons towards her.
"Ovelia!" Delita shouted. "That's what they want!"
Ovelia froze, her eyes flickering between the faces of her guards. Gaffgarion sighed.
"Your Highness," he said. "Meaning no disrespect-"
"You bastard!" hissed Lavian, spitting blood.
"-but you are going to die today," Gaffgarion continued. "The question is, who dies with you?"
Ramza stared at Gaffgarion. His mind was racing now, trying to see the larger picture, trying to think the way Gaffgarion thought. "So that was our job," Ramza said, in part to stall for time, in part because he needed to know.
"If all went as planned," Gaffgarion said. "We would make a fortune just for bearing witness to the inevitable. As it is..."
"The inevitable?" Delita asked. "Why not spell it out?"
"Why not?" Gaffgarion agreed. "The Princess is a sword ever-pointed at Orinus' heart. The Queen will not suffer such a threat to live. One way or another, she will see her removed."
"Ah, but you're being modest!" Delita exclaimed. "Why simply kill an inconvenient Princess, when she could be used to guarantee the Largs' ascendancy?"
Gaffgarion pursed his lips. "Wild speculation."
"Oh, I don't think so," Delita retorted. "See, Ramza and I know this game well. A plot to destroy one threat and diminish another in one fell stroke, and the only cost is that innocent people die. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?"
Ramza looked back at Delita, who was standing close to Ovelia as his eyes flickered across the troops who surrounded them. He felt the bird between his thighs—Wiegraf's bird. Delita said that Ramza knew the game. Why would he know it, unless he'd seen it play out before? Seen the Death Corps torn apart, and heard from Wiegraf why.
"Dycedarg," he breathed.
Gaffgarion considered for a moment, then shrugged. "What of it?"
What of it? What of the past two years he thought he'd spent beyond his brothers' shadow? What of the world he thought he'd seen with his own eyes, by his own strength? The battles he'd fought, the deeds he'd done? What of who he was supposed to be? Was he still his brothers' creature? Was he doomed to live in their shadows, for all his days to come?
As Ramza stared at Gaffgarion, feeling all their travels together melt into something hollow and false, Gaffgarion turned back to Ovelia. "Princess!" he called. "You're a smart girl. Think on it. We had no need to kill your guards. We have no need yet, if they will keep their peace. The future of Ivalice requires only your blood. Are you truly content to let them die for you?"
"Don't listen!" Alicia snarled, and the woman holding her twisted her hair again, but Gaffgarion held up a forestalling hand.
"Don't listen," Ramza repeated, so soft he could barely hear himself.
Gaffgarion shrugged. "You're going to die, your Highness. You're surrounded and outnumbered. But if you surrender yourself willingly, we will spare the lives of our guards. You have my word."
"That doesn't mean a lot coming from you!" Radia called.
Gaffgarion stiffened. His eyes flickered back to the rise behind him, as Radia slowly rose from behind the concealment of some fallen shale. Her sword was drawn, and her armor torn, but there were no wounds upon her person, even where the leather had been ripped to show the skin beneath. Her eyes were fixed on her father.
"Aim!" shouted the Major, raising a hand.
"No!" Gaffgarion shouted, and then softer, "My daughter. She doesn't realize-"
"Oh, I think you've explained it well enough," she said. "But I probably should have figured it out. 200,000's a lot to guard an unloved Princess. But for a royal assassination? It's almost insultingly cheap."
"It was not-" Gaffgarion began, then stopped. His nostrils flared, his mustache bristled, but with a deep breath he calmed himself, settling back into a relaxed posture. "We were paid to do an unpleasant job. That's the line of work we're in."
"It's not my job," Radia said. "I was paid to guard a Princess."
"Knowingly or not, you took the job."
"You knowingly took this shitty piece of business," Radia said. "I knowingly chose to protect her." She shook her head disparagingly. "Really. If only you'd told us the truth."
"This is what we do, dear daughter mine," Gaffgarion said.
"It's what you do, dad," she snapped.
"It's what you've done these last years," Gaffgarion said mildly. "Bloodied your hands and filled your pockets. And before that, you fought to tear the Crown down, until you found their servants weren't all monsters. Now you'll doom Ivalice to war to soothe your conscience? What kind of monstrous hypocrite are you?"
Radia's eyes flashed. She gave a short, odd noise that might have been a laugh or might have been a cough. "You really think you're clever, don't you?"
Gaffagrion shrugged. "I think I get the job done."
"For a clever man, you're being awfully stupid," she said.
"Am I?" Gaffgarion said dryly. "Enlighten me."
"Whatever our job was supposed to be," Radia said. "I thought it was to guard the Princess. So why wasn't I with them?"
Gaffgarion pursed his lips. "How should I know?"
Radia's eyes flickered away from her father, towards the bluffs towering above them. "Wiegraf!" she shouted.
Gaffgarion's eyes widened. He jerked his head to follow her gaze, and Ramza turned his head as well, looking to that same section of the rocky slopes. But no one was there.
The slightest scrape of a boot against the rock from Gaffgarion's direction: Ramza's head snapped back around and found that Wiegraf had burst from beneath the rise, just behind Gaffgagrion and the Hokuten, his sword exploding into a burst of white force. Gaffgarion yelled in panic, snapped his sword up and shimmered: the force around Wiegraf's sword twisted as though being sucked down a drain.
"Ramza!" Radia shouted, leaping towards her father, and Ramza understood at once. He felt the cobwebs and the nightmares fall away, the fears and doubts and shock replaced by the same cold calm clarity that he had acquired in the heat of so many battles these last two years. This was a fight, like any other: these soldiers were enemies, whatever their allegiance: Gaffgarion was their leader whatever else he was supposed to be.
Ramza twisted atop the chocobo and loosed his arrow, which hurtled, swift and true, for Gaffgarion's back. It bounce off his black plate. Ramza's hand snapped back towards his quiver, found it empty.
"Ramza!" Delita howled, and as Ramza glanced back he saw Delita reaching for the arrow in his shoulder, pulling it out in one fluid motion and tossing it underhand through the air. Behind him, the archer on the cliffs loosed his arrow: Ovelia's hands rose, and pearly light caught the incoming arrow so it clattered to the ground. Ramza caught the arrow, felt the shaft wet with Delita's blood rolling across his palm, then turned and fired once more as Wiegraf stumbled backwards and Gaffgarion twisted. This time the arrow slipped through leather and mail, and found a spot on the right side of Gaffgarion's chest.
Gaffgarion gave a cry of pain and staggered, his free hand clutching at the wound. Radia burst past him, raised her sword high and brought it down as though willing thunder to fall along its edge: the air around her shimmered, and that shimmering exploded outwards, hanging like cobwebs along the soldiers who held Agrias, Alicia, and Lavian. Each of them wavered, their knees wobbling, their fingers going slack, and then Agrias burst up right, whirled on her captor and drew the sword from his scabbard before slamming it through his belly. She turned on Alicia and Lavian's captors as Radia whirled on her father.
"Ramza!" Delita shouted again, and Ramza turned to find soldiers closing in, with Delita's injured arm dangling loosely at his side, his sword strokes wild as he tried to keep the closing Hokuten at bay, shielding Ovelia as best he could as she kept the pearly dome of light between them and the archer on the cliff.
Ramza shook his chocobo's reins, and it took off at a quick trot. At the same time, Ramza whisked his saber from its sheathe. The blonde man with the axe saw him coming, brought his axe u[p in a terrific strike that sent the sword flying from Ramza's numb fingers: Ramza cursed, jerked the reins up, and the chocobo jumped clean over the axe-man's head.
"Here!" Ovelia cried: with one hand outstretched to maintain, she bent low and fumbled for the spear by the corpse near her feet. She tossed it clumsily towards Ramza, who leaned and caught it, whirling around for another charge, as Delita lunged for the axe-man's back.
A brawny man with a mace advanced upon him steadily: Ramza hefted the spear once to get the feel for its weight, then rattled the reins so his chocobo would charge once more. As he rushed towards the man across from him, he took in the chaotic scene: Radia was helping the fallen Lionesses to their feet, and Agrias was standing above the fallen body of the Major, wrenching her sword from his clasping hand as the other two grabbed for their weapons. Just beyond them, Gaffgarion advanced through a wall of white flame that parted around him as though he were a stone in a stream, and Wiegraf lunged towards him, thrusting with his blade.
But then Ramza's eyes were back to the man in front of him, swinging back his mace, and Ramza twisted in his saddle and thrust the spear and the soldier dropped his mace with a scream as pieces of his wounded hand dribbled along its sides, and then his screams were cut off with a squelch when Ramza's spear drove through his throat. The twitching of the dying man vibrated up the length of the spear into Ramza's tingling hand.
The man fell backwards, and as Ramza made to jerk the spear out of his throat there was an explosion that nearly deafened him: he felt the force of it rattle his bones. Beneath him, the chocobo warbled in alarm and jerked to one side, so that Ramza was thrown off-balance. The spear tumbled from his hand as he fought to keep his seat.
He cursed and looked away, found Delita pulling Ovelia across the bridge. Alicia was staggering along, her pale pale as she gestured with her scepter, loosing roaring gouts of flame upon the slope as the archer frantically twisted and scrabbled upon the shale, trying to keep away from the fire. Lavian, Radia, and Wiegraf were running for the bridge, while Agrias was howling in fury as she swung her reclaimed sword. Eplosions of bright force ignited from the edge of the blade, reached Gaffgarion and seemed to melt into him, making him stronger. He advanced on her steadily, his green eyes bright with rage.
"Captain Oaks!" Ramza cried, urging the chocobo on to a run, and her bruised face twitched back above her shoulder to look at him. Gaffgarion's eyes flickered towards him, then back towards Agrias: he raised his sword and lunged.
"No!" Alicia roared, snapping her scepter towards him. A bolt of crackling white lightning flew from the tip of her scepter and exploded towards Gaffgarion, who snapped up his sword. Lightning hit the blade, splashed and danced in wild arcs, and seemed to be slowly sucked into a point somewhere in Gaffgarion's chest. He seemed to blur along the outlines, to move a little faster: his steady advance broke into a pounding charge.
Was he immune to magic? Was that the strength of the Draining Blade?
Ramza leapt off the back of the chocobo, somersaulted upright next to the body of a fallen soldier, and plucked the sword from his dead hands. He lunged into the fray, brought his blade crashing against Gaffgarion's, felt the old mercenary exerting his powers against him—the tugging sensation in his chest and behind his eyes, like a strong wind was blowing from inside him. He fought against it as Radia had taught him, honed his field and tried to resist what Gaffgarion was doing, but it weakened his hands, slowed his thoughts: Gaffgarion advanced steadily, and it was all Ramza could do to keep the blade from his throat.
"A fool when I found you, and a fool you remain!" Gaffgarion snarled, and with one terrific slash knocked the blade from Ramza's hands. He lunged forward, thrusting his blade for the kill. Ramza dodged aside, kept dodging and twisting as the blade slashed and stabbed, and Ramza could hear it sing as it cut through the air. Still Ramza danced, keeping just ahead of the blade, as the roaring of the falls grew louder and louder behind him.
Before he reached the cliff's edge, Gaffgarion lunged again: Ramza spun on the balls of his feet, ducked low and kicked: Gaffgarion stumbled past him and Ramza kept spinning, lifting his arms beneath Gaffgarion's shoulders, wrestling the other man to the ground as his sword clattered to the stone. Still he struggled to keep his magic under his control: still he felt Gaffgarion fighting for it, saw it in the form of constant heat shimmer whirling along the edges of his vision.
With a bellow of rage, Gaffgarion threw himself backwards: Ramza lost his balance, and his body was hammered from both sides with the pain of impact—the stone on one side, Gaffgarion's armor on the other. His grip loosened: his focus drifted for just a moment, and he felt some part of his strength draining away. He fought the feeling, steadied himself in and out, but by the time he felt stable again Gaffgarion was already diving for his sword.
Ramza risked one quick look around his soldier, took in the bleeding and the wounded soldiers, the swaying of the rope bridge Alicia and Agrias hurried across, saw the golden feathers of the chocobo as it paced and jigged where it stood, head jerking wildly from side to side. Then he turned and ran for all he was worth. His breath came in rasping gasps: his head spun. Damn, how had Gaffgarion done so much damage in so short a time? How was he so strong?
He heard the clanking of boots behind him: he forced himself to run harder as fire unfurled from his thighs, coursed up into his belly and down into the souls of his feet. He leapt for the chocobo's back, twisted desperately and fumbled for the reins. "Go!" he shouted, and the bird took off at a scampering dash.
It hit the bridge at a full-on sprint, kept its footing even as the ragged bridge twitched and swayed beneath them. Across the bridge, Alicia stumbled as she neared the edge, and Ramza clung for dear life against the sweaty musk of the chocobo's neck, and he felt Gaffgarion set foot upon the bridge behind him.
In front of him, Delita raised his sword.
"Boco!" Wiegraf bellowed. "Jump!"
The bird sprang up, its small fingers flapping desperately. Ramza yelped as they bounded into the air, looked down and regretted it in an instant of vertigo nausea: the steep cliff walls, the rushing water, the rising mist. He thought he heard his shout of alarm echoed in a different voice behind him, but was too lost in dizzy terror to be sure.
Delita's sword slashed down, and in a shimmer of force the ropes and posts anchoring that side of the bridge exploded into broken fragments. The ropes and slats of the bridge shuddered and began to collapse, and Ramza felt his heart and stomach collapsing with them, his bowls watery, his skin cold, his eyes wide. The wind roared by him as the chocobo flapped its wings and still plunged down, down, and Ramza opened his mouth to scream.
The chocobo's curved toes found the cliff's edge. It lurched, wobbled unsteadily, and Ramza threw himself forwards and there was Radia's hand, Wiegraf's, Delita's wrapping around him and the reins of the bird, pulling them both to safety as the broken bridge collapsed down into the river with a clattering splash. Ramza panted, his chest aching with the pounding of his heart, the veins in his temple and neck throbbing with the rush of blood. He half-collapsed down from the chocobo's back, planted his hands upon his knees to keep himself upright. For some time, he stayed just like that, panting and gasping, deaf to the noise and confusion around him.
Movement from the corner of his eye: he lifted his gaze and found Gaffgarion slumped on the opposite side of the gulch, his sword askew in the dirt in front of him. Wild green eyes stabbed out at him across the gulf. Slowly, Gaffgarion rose from where he lay, picking up his sword as he climbed to his feet. He stood there, black plate and dented mail glinting with moisture rising off the Falls.
Ramza straightened himself in turn, wobbled a little until Radia's stable hands helped him steady himself. He glanced at her, and she gave him one brief, pained look. Then they turned back to Gaffgarion. Together they stood, shoulder to shoulder, staring back at the man who'd taught them, trained them, and betrayed them.
Gaffgarion shook his head, and turned away.