(Well, I hope you've enjoyed the story so far! One more regular update to complete this part of the story, then we'll be taking a two-week break so I can make sure everything fits together in the coming chapters, as well as work on some other projects. But if you're looking for more of my writing while I'm gone, you can find it at quickascanbe dot com)
Chapter 40: A Righteous Rest
All modern magical techniques are descended from our Ydoran forebearers. This is not to say magic is unknown beyond old Ydoran lands: after all, with proper training almost anyone can learn to use their field in small ways. However, many of these tricks could be dismissed as accidents or chance—a wound that heals a little more quickly, an arrow that misses a vital organ, a flame that takes a peculiar shape. To manifest more extraordinary magic requires, not only training, but also the proper runes and the proper materials. With runes, energy can be absorbed and channeled. Certain mystics of ancient tribes tattooed these signs upon their body, to call upon various magics at their will. The Ydorans experimented with these runes and found their power could be amplified—through certain alloys, metals, woods, gems, crystals, liquids, and even certain ceremonial and sacrificial rites. The Ydorans used creative combinations of these to achieve a level of military strength, technological innovation, and national prosperity that has not been equaled, even in the thousands of years that have passed since the Fall.
-Excerpt from "Introduction to Magical Theory," required reading for all attendants of the Royal Magic Academy in Gariland.
They collapsed together in the shadow of a wooded copse, barely able to keep their feet. Agrias was a stumbling zombie of a woman, with Alicia and Lavian only a little better off. Olivia had been visibly swaying for nearly half an hour, but would not answer Agrias' entreaties that they take a break. Only when the little copse drew close did she finally sink to the ground. Agrias helped her to her feet, and led her stumbling on, until they reached a little clearing that had seen travelers before—the cleared dirt ground and the old remains of a fire gave evidence to that.
"Your bedding for the Princess, Ramza?" Agrias said, in a low, lulling kind of voice. She had one arm wrapped protectively around the Princess, whose eyes were half-lidded, her body half-slumped.
Ramza tossed Agias the bag, and Agrias set to work at once lying the Princess down for the night. As she did, the rest of the company sluggishly gathered twigs and logs and leaves from the forest around them, and dragged them back, aching and groaning, to the center of their clearing. Alicia placed her scepter against the pile, but could not light it. She cursed and sank back.
"Flint?" Lavian asked hopefully.
Agrias shook her head grimly. "In my bag."
Everyone save Ramza had lost their bags in the clamor and chaos of the fight against the Hokuten, and Ramza had only kept his because he'd slung it around Boco's neck. He examined the women around him, all of whom seemed far more exhausted than he was even after Gaffgarion had drained him of a part of his strength. But of course, every one of them had used magic he didn't know. Besides the physical exhaustion of the past days—besides the frantic flight from Orbonne, the battle in the woods, the beatings and injuries the Lionesses had taken—they had used, over and over again, something he didn't fully understand.
"Can I try?" Ramza asked hesitantly.
Alicia gave him a wry look. "Did you take four years' training at the Royal Magic Academy this afternoon?"
"No," Ramza said. "But I didn't use any magic, either."
Alicia and Lavian exchanged glances. Then Alicia shrugged, and handed him the scepter. "You know the rune for fire?" she asked.
Ramza shook his head. Alicia nodded, hunched forwards with a groan, and touched the tip of her finger to the green gem on the tip of the scepter. A rune dimly flickered into being—the same jagged one that had appeared when she'd been blasting fire at the archer in the mountains. Ramza studied it for a time, trying to memorize it as he'd memorized the runes he'd used during his time with the Hokuten. Then the rune flickered out, and Alicia slumped heavily against Lavian, who wobbled dangerously beneath her weight.
"Lucavi take me," Alicia sighed. "I'm tired."
Ramza lifted the scepter, and pointed it to the fire. He tried to picture the rune she'd prepared for him—the jagged rune with the delicate curves along its sides. A wavering image formed in the crystal tip, and Ramza started in surprise and almost dropped the scepter.
"Easy," Alicia mumbled. "Focus, and...picture the...f...fire..." She trailed off sleepily.
Ramza nodded, and pressed the scepter against their pile of branches, leaves, and logs. He pictured the rune first, saw its clumsy lines flicker into being in the crystal, and then tried to picture a fire. Still nothing happened. He cursed quietly, then tried again, this time trying to do what Radia had taught him—to imagine the field around his body, to imagine it moving according to his will, a shroud of fabric he could control like a hand, imagined it becoming fire. And not just any fire, but (and this appeared unbidden in his mind) the great scorching gouts at Zeakden. The fire he'd thought had killed Delita.
With a roar, fire exploded out of the end of the scepter. Everyone jumped, scrambling for their weapons. Ramza collapsed backwards, gasping at the pain in his chest, an ache at once sharp and heavy, like a pointed stone digging into his ribs. The woods were much brighter now, with little embers burning all around them, as their new fire crackled merrily.
"Saint above!" crowed Agrias. "What was that?"
"My fault," Ramza squeaked. "I'm sorry."
"Well," Alicia mumbled. "I'm awake now."
Ramza shook his head numbly. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I didn't mean..."
"I know," Alicia chuckled. She reached out for her scepter, and he shoved it into her hands as though it were a snake that could bite him at any moment. She chuckled again. "Not your fault. Scepter's a...pretty fancy piece of magic. Refurbished Ydoran. My, uh...parents got it for me as a graduation gift."
Lavian snorted. "Your parents."
Ramza looked at the two women curiously. "You're both...you're so much better than any mages I've..." He shook his head.
Alicia shrugged. "I'm nothin' special," she said. "My folks just got a lotta gil to throw around, and I had good enough scores to get me into the Academy. You want a real prodigy, look at Lavian here."
It was hard to tell in the shifting light of the fire, but it seemed like Lavian was a little redder than usual. "I'm not," Lavian mumbled.
"Prodigy," Alicia said again. "Academy's been courtin' her since she was-" She broke off and looked guiltily at the ground. Rama looked in puzzlement between them.
"Since I was at the orphanage," Lavian finished. Ramza gave her a startled look, and she shrugged. "War ophan. There's a lot of us runnin' around."
Ramza supposed he was one of them. It was odd—he'd never thought of himself as one.
"Academy sends scouts around," Alicia continued. "Tests kids for natural aptitude. Old Ydoran practice—never know when the right blood's gonna make the right talent. S'how they found Elidibus."
"I'm not Elidibus," grunted Lavian.
"I didn't realize..." Ramza trailed off, unsure what he meant to say. "It's just...you seem to use magic much more easily." He looked at Alicia.
Alicia nodded. "Scepter," she said. "Ydoran craft, good materials, runes on demand. That, and my magic's easier than hers."
"That's not true," Lavian said softly.
"Is so," Alicia scoffed. "Breaking's always easier than making."
Ramza frowned. "How do you mean?"
Alicia nodded towards the fire he'd made. "Bet it hurt to get that blaze goin'," she said. "Even with my scepter." Ramza nodded, massaging his chest even while he realized that the pain he felt was deeper than that, something so fundamental to him that it was hard to distinguish from his thoughts.
"So imagine," she said. "Wood burns. That's easy. What if you had to rebuild the tree from the branch?"
Ramza shook his head. The idea made no sense to him. What would that even look like?
"It's not like that," Lavian said.
"Easier to break a wall than to build it," Alicia continued. "Me, I'm a hack, so I use my fancy tools and weave my big flashy spells. Parlor tricks." She jerked her head to Lavian. "This lady here? She keeps us alive. And she made that crook herself."
Ramza shot Lavian a surprised look. "That's your work?"
Lavian shook her head. "Needed a focus," she mumbled. "Had an old training tool none of the kids wanted, but it was good wood—kind that soaks up your field while you're holdin' it. I just..."
"Just made it something almost as cool as mine," Alicia said.
"Almost?!" Lavian squawked indignantly. Alicia gave her a rakish smirk.
Ramza studied the two of them. He'd talked to them so little—at Orbonne there had been mostly frosty silence in between the shift changes, and the grim march from Orbonne had been frostier still. Now they seemed so much warmer, so much more human.
"I'm glad you're both alright," Ramza said.
Lavian shrugged awkwardly. Alicia's smile vanished. "That's thanks to you," Alicia said. "He caught us off-guard."
"Gaffgarion?" Ramza asked.
Alicia nodded. "Came in shouting for peace, like there'd been some big misunderstanding. Got close, and..." She snapped her fingers. "Like all my blood got sucked out at once. So weak."
"Draining Blade," Lavian said, shaking her head. "Should've realized."
"You know it?" Ramza said.
"Read about it," Lavian said. "Big thing about healing...you gotta know what you'll heal. Burns. Breaks. Bolts. Ain't many Vampire Knights out there, but it takes a lot to fend'em off."
Ramza looked between the two women again. He remembered how easily Gaffgarion had overwhelmed his own field, and how little he'd been able to contribute to that last fight by the bridge.
"I know it's not the time," Ramza said. "But if you're willing to teach me magic, I'd like to learn."
The women looked at him and then at each other contemplatively. "If there's time," Lavian said.
"And not tonight," Alicia added.
"Not tonight," Ramza agreed. He helped them to their feet, and at their instruction led them to a tree at the edge of the clearing. He settled them against the trunk, then rose back on his creaking thighs and took a walk around the edge of the clearing. His head felt heavy upon his neck, and his body felt like it wasn't his, like it was something foreign and unknown, resisting him at every turn. But still, he forced himself to move. Every time he stopped to rest, his doubts and fears caught up with him.
Delita and Wiegraf were alive. And neither of them had wanted to join him. They had walked away, to places unknown, for reasons unknown. Why hadn't he gone after him? Why had he stayed her, besides this Princess he didn't know?
"Ramza," Radia said quietly.
Ramza looked over his shoulder, found Radia standing a little ways behind him. She reached out and caught his fingers in her calloused hand. Her thumb traced its way across his knuckles. "Come on," she said, and pulled him back the way he'd come. He stumbled after her until she found a place against a tree, the ground around it heavy with mulch. She pulled him down besides the trunk, folded his arms around her, and leaned back in his chest.
Ramza let her move him as she pleased, and tried to make himself as comfortable a pillow as was possible. He suspected he was failing miserably. It was hard enough to find a place to rest upon the mulchy ground, especially since they had lost much of their supplies in the frantic battle in the woods: he didn't see how he could make her feel comfortable.
But maybe physical comfort wasn't the thing. He hadn't started these cuddle sessions—she had done that after their second mission with Gaffgarion, terrified of what she'd done to the men and women rebelling against the baron, terrified that she'd become like her father. He had not know whether it was alright for him to do the same, but had fallen beside her on the edge of tears after two captives he'd taken had been executed by the bloodthirsty Fovoham viscount they'd been working for—boys no older than Ivan Mansel, no older than Delita and Ramza had been during the Corps, what possible purpose could their deaths serve, why...!
Ramza closed his eyes against the old guilt, and found Delita's face looking up at him from the darkness. He huddled closer to Radia, pulling her tight against his chest, feeling her breathe as he breathed.
"Hell of a day," she mumbled, so her breath tickled his ear.
He nodded fiercely, and found his throat too thick to speak. Delita, gone again, with Wiegraf at his side. And the past two years had assumed a grim cast. There had been few happy memories in those bleak fights and battles, but he had at least felt like they were his—his choices, his sins, his life lived as he chose. Now he found that he had been beneath his brother's shadow once again: that Gaffgarion had never allowed him another choice. And how much worse must Radia feel, having drawn her sword against her father.
"I'm sorry," Ramza murmured.
Radia shook her head so her soft hair brushed against his lips. "Not your fault."
"That's not what I-"
"I know." She shuddered: he felt it tremble down from her scalp to the soles of her feet as she shivered against him.
Silence again. Radia's warmth muffled all the other sensations—the oozing of the mud beneath his back, the aches in his abs, thighs, shoulders, and biceps. His mind wandered.
"I didn't know the Draining Blade could..." He shook his head. "What he did to their magic..."
Radia nodded. "It's all magic," she said. "Whatever form it takes. But he's got an edge, with that sword."
Ramza had seen that ruddy blade before. He knew it made Gaffgarion a better Vampire Knight, but he wasn't exactly sure how it worked. "Why?"
She shrugged. "One of his prizes," she said. "Got it for a job. Belonged to a whole order of Vampire Knights, back in the day."
"Ydoran?" Ramza asked.
Radia shook her head. "Kingdom they fought. Barrage or Baron or something. That's how they learned about the Draining Blade."
"I thought the Ydorans invented it," Ramza said.
"Dad said...he..." Radia drew a shuddering breath. "Ramza, what did I do?"
She was shaking again, shivering as though she were freezing, and Ramza didn't know what to say or do so instead he tightened his embrace around her, tried to imagine that he could somehow pass strength to her. Maybe he could—wasn't that the whole essence of the Draining Blade? Couldn't he just give her strength?
Whether he could or not, she stopped shaking. She took a deep breath, much steadier than the first. "I just..." She shook her head again. "I had to, right?"
Perhaps it was his reunion with Delita, or the revelation of Dycedarg behind the scenes, but Ramza's mind was filled with Zeakden. With Zalbaag, giving his grim order. With Argus, letting his arrows fly as he spewed his hate. "No you didn't," Ramza said.
Radia's head lifted up towards him, her eyes wide and hurt. Ramza felt a pang in his heart. "I didn't mean-" Ramza began frantically. "I meant I...I've seen people do worse. Choose the...the wrong thing. You know."
Radia rolled away from him, so he couldn't see her face. She pulled a little away from his body, though she didn't try to break his embrace. "I know."
Silence then. Ramza felt his skin prickling with shame. Fool Ramza. Everything she'd been through, and you put her through more.
No, that wasn't fair. He was at the end of his rope, too. He'd killed Hokuten today—men of his brothers' army. He'd met Delita, and Wiegraf. And he'd learned...learned that Gaffgarion...
"I'm so sorry," Radia whispered.
Ramza was jerked out of his reverie. He stared at the back of Radia's head. "What?"
"I brought you to my dad," Radia said. "I brought you home, I'm the reason your brother...it's my fault, I'm sorry Ramza, I'm-"
"By the Saint, Radia!" Ramza breathed, and pulled her back towards him without thinking. She curled back against him, and Ramza felt a moment's self-conscious panic—was he going too far? Was he doing the wrong thing? But then he brushed aside those concerns. He was too tired and felt too strange, when there was blood on his hands and Gaffgarion against them and Delita and Wiegraf alive and fighting for purposes unknown. And besides all that, he needed to make it clear that there was no way on earth he could blame her.
"You saved me Radia," he said. "Not just my life. After Zeakden, I...I didn't know who I was, or what I wanted. I...I still don't, but you've made it..."
Ramza trailed off. His words felt insufficient, for his feelings. And more than that, he didn't know what he wanted to say. How to explain, the bizarre confusion of gratitude, uncertainty, and betrayal? How to explain that he was questioning every mission and every kill of the last two years, looking for hints of Dycedarg's bloody hands on every deed? And how to explain that none of this made him regret leaving the Hokuten, and traveling with Radia?
Instead of trying to explain, he asked, "Are you okay?"
"How could I be?" she asked.
"So why..." He trailed off as she craned her head over her shoulder, giving him a wry look. Something in her green eyes made his face feel very hot.
"Wiegraf and Delita in front of us," she said. "You know why."
Of course. Wiegraf and Delita. The man who'd led the Death Corps in which she'd seen the echo of the Braves she loved. The man who's sister had been taken for no crime besides her relationship with the Beoulves. Both men they'd thought dead. But that raised its own question, didn't it?
"So why are we here?" Ramza asked. "Why did we..."
Radia sighed, and turned her head so she faced away from him again. "I don't know," she whispered. "I...my dad...I couldn't let him..."
Ramza nodded. "I get that."
"But your brother, Ramza!" she exclaimed. "He's...all this time, and it's my-
"It's not," Ramza said firmly. "It's just not, Rad."
She snorted. "Don't call me that."
Ramza privately agreed, but he liked the exasperated expression on her face. "I don't know," he said. "I think it kinda suits you, Rad."
"Stop it," she said, with mock sharpness.
Ramza chuckled. Radia chuckled, too, and rolled back to face him. He could feel her breath on his cheek.
"They're alive, Ramza," she said.
Ramza nodded. He knew he should be just as awed to see Wiegraf, but his head was too full of Delita—Delita, crouching in the snow with Teta's body in his arms; Delita, illuminated by lightning at the rear of the Monastery; Delita, shielding the Princess' body with his own; Delita, his head raised towards the clear blue sky as the Zirekile mountains loomed around them.
Alive. Alive and himself. So many questions still—who did he work for? How had he learned of the plot against the Princess? And what ally did he have at Bethla Garrison who could protect her from the Nanten? But those questions felt irrelevant, before the larger fact. His friend, alive in the world.
And Ramza couldn't have followed him.
He felt that with sudden certainty. It was a relief to have that doubt assuaged. There was something noble in it—in the protection of a Princess betrayed by her kingdom. And there was something personally satisfying in it, too—in protecting Alma's friend. And if he was completely honest, there was something a little petty, as well; the idea of frustrating Gaffgarion's clever plans and Dycedarg's schemes, of having been played by them for so long onto to turn upon them and throw all their careful plots into chaos.
With those doubts laid to rest, and the glow of satisfaction warming his heart, he felt his mind settling down into the sleepy muck. His eyelids fluttered closed.
"Kinda nice, isn't it?" Radia said. "Doin' what we want to again."
Ramza nodded. "Like old times."
He felt something soft against his lips then, a gentle pressure that seemed to shoot lightning through his mind. His eyes snapped open, found Radia's face so close to his, her green eyes lazy with sleep and her soft lips pressed against his, and without thinking Ramza kissed her back, hard as he could, and for a moment everything was lost in a warm haze of limbs and lips and rushing blood, and he wanted her closer, wanted to touch every inch of her, and then there was a flash of self-conscious panic, because what if he was doing something wrong? Ramza had no idea what he was doing, he'd kissed one woman in his life and she was dead now, burned away beneath Zeakden with an arrow in her heart, and Ramza pulled away from Radia and shook his head. His heart was pounding so hard he thought it might break his ribs.
"I can't," he said.
Radia's eyes were still soft, warm, and sleepy. They crinkled a little at the corners. "Okay," she said.
She huddled close, pressing her face against his chest. Ramza wrapped his arms tight around her. His heart raced, and his head swam, and he felt his consciousness draining away even as butterflies of anxiety stirred the placid surface of his sleepy thoughts. Delita, Wiegraf, Gaffgarion, Dycedarg, Radia...
But after days of hard marching and harder fighting, they had won. The Princess was safe. And with Delita Heiral alive in the world, anything felt possible.
He slept, and was surprised to find he was content.