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Chapter 49: An Unexpected Rescue

The difference between the Vampire Knight and the Mage Masher may seem academic (if you'll pardon the pun), but through my research I have discovered the two arts are really quite distinct. The techniques of the Draining Blade are fundamentally designed to appropriate magical energy on the behalf of the wielder. Careful training and discipline is required, and a potent magical field besides. The techniques of the colloquial Mage Mashers required even more careful training, but very little magic on the part of their users. Mage Mashers were adroit at creating feedback loops in the fields of their enemies, directing them inwards to weaken them. Such elite troops were trained to oppose enemy mages, but were largely disbanded in the latter years of the Ydoran Empire, after a number of highly-publicized rebellions and assassinations where the talents of the Mashers made them hard to put down. There are some who theorize that Ajora himself may have had training as a Mage Masher, but these reports are at odds with the considerable magical powers he was supposed to have wielded besides...

-Alazlam Durai, "Letter to the Professor of Ydoran Military Arts at Gariland"

"I admit, I am impressed," Baerd said, looking around the wrecked workshop. Holes had been smashed into the walls; an anvil by the furnace had been split in two: papers had been tossed and shredded, and the floor crunched underfoot with broken glass. "We searched this place from top to bottom, and found no sign of the Stone."

Mustadio did not speak. Blood coiled on the corner of his mouth, where one of Baerd's men had struck him when he hadn't answered fast enough. Besrodio sagged against one wall, with his muscular captor near at hand. Barich and Baerd's men were scattered around the room, weapons in hand, all faintly damp from the miserable drizzle that had begun just as they had reached the spacious warehouse that held Besrodio Bunansa's workshop.

Ramza stood in the back, his hands bound in front of him, watching these events with dispassionate curiosity. He should be making a plan. He should be watching his enemies, searching for signs of weakness, for a moment to steal the advantage. But it was so very hard to think—of the danger that surrounded them, or the one that stalked Ovelia, Radia, Agrias, Alicia, and Lavian. Things had gone so catastrophically wrong. Ovelia had led them into one trap, and Ramza had walked into a different one, and now who knew what fresh danger might fall upon them?

It all felt too much, an overwhelming tide that threatened to drown him. So Ramza had taken a step away from the pounding terror and despair, away from his feelings. He watched, as though what happened in front of him had nothing to do with him.

When Mustadio still did not speak, Baerd gestured nonchalanatly, and the muscular man twisted Besrodio's bound wrists so that Besrodio gave a whimpering scream. Mustadio flinched upright. "Please stop!" he beggged

Baerd gestured again, and the man relented; Besrodio sagged against the wall once more. "I do not wish to resort to violence," Baerd said. "But if you wish to keep your father alive, you will respond promptly."

"You did not-!" Mustadio began, and then closed his eyes. The blood on his head had dried to a sticky maroon. "What do you want me to say?"

"Where you hid the Stone," Baerd said.

Mustadio opened his eyes and stared at Baerd.

"No, Mus," his father groaned, and the muscular man slammed him against the wall.

"Keep quiet, Besrodio," Baerd said, without looking at Mustadio's moaning father. "This is between me and your son."

Mustadio stared at Baerd for several long seconds. The tension in the room thickened and stretched. Baerd sighed and made to life his hand; Mustadio flinched, and jerked his head towards the bronze furnace set against the wall, with its chimney reaching up through the roof. "There," he said.

Baerd's thin eyebrows arched. "We searched the furnace."

"Not the furnace," Mustadio said. "The chimney. On the left side."

Baerd glanced around the room. All his men looked as nonplussed as he did.

"How would we have missed that?" Baerd asked.

Mustadio shrugged. "It is on oiled hinges," he answered. "Have to push it in twice to get the catch to release."

Baerd pursed his lips. "Clever." He moved towards the furnace and peered into its dark interior. "Very clever," he said, his voice echoing. "Perhaps too clever."

Mustadio stiffened. "What do you mean?" he asked, too quickly.

Baerd smiled. "Well," he said. "If you hid it so cleverly, why would you not set a trap? Say, gunpowder that detonates if not disarmed just so?"

Mustadio shook his head. "I didn't."

"Well, then you won't mind if your father does the opening, will you?" Baerd asked. He nodded towards the musucular man, who kicked Besrodio behind the knees and dragged him stumbling towards the furnace. Mustadio stood stock-still, white-faced and trembling.

"I'll do it."

The eyes in the room turned towards Ramza. He didn't understand why at first, because he hadn't realized he had spoken.

"I'll do it," he said again, conscious of it this time, and just like that he was back in the room, just like that he was back to clammy skin and a racing heart and the despair and fear of having walked into a room and come face-to-face with your own death.

He was going to die here. And that galled him plenty, made a pit open up in his stomach that seemed to suck at his guts, made his heart ache with the fear, but worse was the thought of what might befall Ovelia and Agrias, Alicia and Lavian, Mustadio and Besrodio and Radia.

If only he'd stayed at the Castle. Maybe he could have saved her. At the very least, he could have died at her side.

He walked towards the furnace as though in a dream. He raised his bound hands, and after a moment's consideration Baerd nodded, and a knife sawed through the knotted rope. Ramza reached up inside the furnace, feeling the sticking soot dusting against his fingers, prodding tentative fingers against the wall...

There. A section of it sank beneath his fingers. He hesitated, remembering what Mustadio had said—press it twice to release the catch. And perhaps the explosion? Would the force snap his fingers, char his flesh?

Electric terror radiated out from a pinprick of pain in his his back. He glanced over his shoulder, and found that the knife that had cut his bonds was prodding against his back. Ramza closed his eyes and pressed again. The stone pushed in beneath his fingers, then sprang loose. Ramza stood frozen; he sensed by the weight of the tension on his shoulders a similar immobility behind him.

"Well?" Baerd asked, in a high and stringy voice.

Ramza reached past where the stone pnael had been, and felt cool glass beneath his fingers. He hesitated, then wrapped his fingers around it, and pooled it out into the dim interior of the workshop. The orange Stone did not glow as the Cardinal's had, nor did it carry the same weight; indeed, it felt almost absurdly light in his soot-stained hand, so fragile that it might break at any moment. But the Taurus symbol upon its front was unmistakable.

There was a sigh of relief that seemed to encompass every inhabitant in the room except for Ramza, Mustadio, and Besrodio. Barich, his gun holstered at his side once more, strode towards Ramza and plucked the Stone from his hand. He examined it closely, frowning.

"So light," Barich murmured.

"Barich," Baerd growled. "We agreed I would be the one to return it."

Barich shrugged, and tossed it nonchalantly towards Baerd. Baerd fumbled with it, gasping, his face flushed and sweaty. "Watch it, you fool!" barked Baerd.

"Auracite doesn't break that easy," grunted Barich. "You've got what you wanted."

Baerd held the Stone delicately between his stubby fingers. "Yes," he whispered. "I have."

"Good," Barich said. "Then I'll be taking the Bunansas into my custody."

Silence in the room. Baerd looked up, frowning. "Come again?"

"We need good machinists for our work in the Archipelago," Barich said. "I already spoke with the Bishop-"

"No," Baerd said.

Silence again. Everyone seemed to be clutching their weapons a little tighter.

"I'm sorry?" Barich said slowly.

"I don't care who you've spoken with," Baerd said. "I have my instructions"

"And I have mine," Barich said.

"Instructions?" Baerd laughed. "Let me guess, my friend. You spoke to your superiors and told them that the Bunansas could be useful and got permission to recruit them for your special project. All well and good, but the Cardinal gave me orders and I intend to follow them."

Barich nodded slowly. His fingers curled and uncurled at his sides, dangerously close to his pistol. "You're crossing the Inquisition."

"I don't think I'm crossing anyone," Baerd said. "Except for a no-name machinist who thinks he can throw around the names of his friends to get what he wants. And as long as I put the Stone in their hands, I don't think they'd care if I spilled your blood here. Do you?"

Baerd was smiling pleasantly. Barich was stony-faced. All Baerd's armed men leaned a little closer, their weapons ready—including the man who had held the knife against Ramza's back.

Barich looked over his shoulder to Mustadio. "I'm sorry," he said.

Mustadio stared straight ahead. "Do not worry," Mustadio said. "I did not expect anything from you."

Barich closed his eyes, and shouldered his way past Baerd and out into the hissing rain.

"I do apologize," Baerd said. "But you have put our mutual friends in a very delicate position, and they intend to make sure you pose no threat to them." His eyes glittered, and his smile darkened. "I do detest the sight of violence, but I would be lying if I said I do not derive some small pleasure from thinking of giving you your due recompense for the trouble you've caused me."

Mustadio glared at Baerd. "No less than you deserved."

"Funny," Baerd said. "I was about to say the same."

He left the room, walking out into the rain with his Stone in hand. Mustadio shouted, stepped towards him as the man and woman guarding him tried to pull him back. For that moment, all eyes were on the two struggling people near the center of the room.

Ramza was still heavy with fear. His righteousness was as useless now as it had been during the fight against the Corps. It had led him here, away from Ovelia and Radia and the Lionesses. Perhaps it was already too late—perhaps some other trap had been sprung, and Ovelia and the women sworn to guard her were dead. Perhaps even if there was a chance to save them, there was no hope of fighting his way free of this room—and, even if he alone could escape, he could save the Bunansas.

But he would not save anyone standing frozen here, as blades were drawn across their throats.

All eyes went to the two struggling in the center of the room. That included the man holding the knife, standing a little ways in front of Ramza. And as Mustadio struggled, there was a flash of lightning, and a bone-shaking crack of thunder, and Ramza took that as a sign and moved. He hammered his fists into the back of the man's head, and as he crumpled to the floor Ramza snatched the knife from his insensate fingers and rose to his feet.

The razor calm that he had learned on other battlefields filled him now, because there was a fight to be won and Ramza intended to win it, odds be damned, so he pivoted on his heel as shouts rose up from a dozen throats. The muscular man holding Besrodio was fumbling for the knife at his own belt, and Besrodio was struggling in his grasp, and Ramza let his stolen knife fly and after what had happened with Mustadio Ramza had practiced, trying to feel the weight of the knife and control the spin of the blade and he had not had much time but he had gotten better, and the knife flew true and buried itself in the muscular man's shoulder.

The muscular man roared in pain as Besrodio tumbled free of his grasp, and Ramza was already turning because he knew he couldn't save everyone but he intended to try and for the moment he thought Besrodio was as safe as any of them were. Across the room, Mustadio had just headbutted a woman so the top of his head and her nose were both a bloody mess, and an archer standing behind them had pulled and leveled an arrow—not as Mustadio, but at Ramza.

Ramza dove as the arrow whispered by above him, shattered glass tinkling beneath his shoulders and digging into his palms before he somersaulted to his feet besides the broken anvil. As he rose he was already grappling for the sundered slab of weighty iron, pivoting on his heel like he was trying to throw a discus, arms and shoulders straining against the back-breaking weight, garbling nonsense syllables as he twisted. The anvil hurtled through the air and slammed down hard in the thick of a pack of Baerd's men, who scattered with startled yells.

His heart pounded in his chest. His throat felt hot, his mouth dry. Maybe he would die today, but he would die fighting.

He moved towards the men he'd scattered with his thrown anvil, leapt towards a fallen sword at the same time as its owner moved to scoop it up. They crashed together in a tackling, thrashing mess, scrabbling for the sword, clawing at each other.

And then there was a scream.

Ramza jerked away, sword in hand, eyes raking the room. Mustadio had fallen, and men and women surrounded him with weapons in hand. But by the door, the archer who had loosed an arrow at Ramza was falling with blood upon his back, as a man stepped through the door and even after everything that had happened Ramza found he could still be surprised.

The man storming through the door with a sword in either hand was blonde, though that fact was obscured by the heavy cloak he wore with the hood pulled tight. Likewise obscured was his face—Ramza could just make out a jutting jaw, a prominent cliff of a nose, and a flash of cocky blue eyes. The way he moved was unfamiliar, too—brutal efficiency, with the faintest shimmer along the mismatched blades he held in either hand (one long and thin, almost like a fencing foil, the other short and broad, like a butcher's cleaver).

But even if it had been two years—even if the glimpses of the face Ramza saw were free of acne, and looked much older than he should have—he could still remember his friend.

"Beowulf?" he whispered in disbelief.

"Move, Ramza!" shouted Beowulf, and Ramza moved, and for a moment he wasn't sure where he was, when he was. Were these men and women in front of him Baerd's, or believers in the Death Corps? Was he a mercenary whose hands were soaked in blood, or a child dreaming of a bloodless victory?

It lasted only a moment, before his sword rammed through the woman standing above Mustadio. But the ghost of that moment hung heavy with him. The ghost of who he had been.

They lunged away from each other without word or gesture, Ramza twisting around and bounding across the room. Besrodio was crouching in a corner, his teeth bared as his muscular captor staggered towards him, clumsily swinging a knife as blood seeped from the blade buried in his shoulder. He saw Ramza from the corner of his eye, twisted with his knife in hand, tried to drive him away with a serious of ungainly jabs, but Ramza ducked low and slashed high, tearing a bloody wound from groin to sternum, and the muscular man collapsed in a wide-eyed mewl of pain.

Ramza turned again, moving fast, thinking fast. This was like the fight to rescue Mustadio, the same old righteous warmth, except with Beowulf here that warmth was so hot it felt like he might melt from the inside but he wouldn't, he wouldn't, because he felt so much stronger, so much faster, so much surer. It was like seeing Delita again, except where questions had hung thick about Delita like cobwebs the sheer shocking surprise of Beowulf's unexpected intrusion into the scene had blasted away anything but hope.

Because alone, with two bound men, Ramza felt doomed to fail. But with Beowulf...!

"Run!" cried a man with his sword in hand, slipping past Beowulf and towards the open door to the workshop, but before he could quite make it outside there was a flash and a roar as golden fire exploded outwards and the man felt back, charred and screaming, as a man in a red scarf walked in with gun in hand. Barich's hands moved, deftly sliding out one block of smoking metal and snatching another from his pocket, and when a woman with a spear drove towards him he leveled his loaded gun once more and pulled the trigger. The explosion this time was closer, brighter, fiercer, the sound of it enough to deafen Ramza from across the room, and when the blackened corpse hit the floor there was no screaming.

It was over then. Alone, Ramza, Mustadio, and Besrodio had managed to hold for a moment against Baerd's men; against Beowulf, whose shimmering blades brought men to their knees before he ever slashed them open, and Barich, whose gun killed so effortlessly, there was nowhere to run, and no hope in fighting.

Beowulf and Barich entered the room, and within two minutes every one of Baerd's men was dead. Ramza fished his blade from the back of the man he'd first attacked—the man from whom he'd wrested the knife—and stood up. Barich stood in the door: Beowulf stood above the bodies of the men he'd slain, his strange swords slick with blood.

"What the hell?" Mustadio mumbled, from his place against a far wall, with blood—his and others—crusting his face.

"Cut him loose!" Ramza called, riding that same strange, warm wave, and at the same time he turned around and slice neatly through Besrodio's bonds, helping the older man to his feet and then back to the center of the room.

"You've gotten better, Ramza," Beowulf said, with a cheery grin.

"So have you, Wulfie," Ramza answered, amazed at how easy it was to fall into the old rhythms of banter.

Beowulf laughed. "Wulfie! Haven't heard that one in..." He trailed off, and his face darkened a little. "Too long," he murmured.

Barich moved towards Mustadio: Mustadio, chafing his wrists, snapped his fists up. "Do not come near me."

Barich rolled his eyes, waving his gun casually from side to side. "What, you gonna punch a spell out of the way?"

"I might punch you out of the way," Mustadio growled.

"I saved you and your father," Barich snapped. "What more do you-"

"Saved us?" Mustadio cried, stepping towards the other man. "From a trap you shoved us into!"

Barich grimaced. "It was the only way-"

"It was NOT!" roared Mustadio, stomping one foot upon the debris-laden floor. "You did not have to tell Baerd, or the Church! You chose." Mustadio's voice dropped, and his eyelids fluttered closed. He looked very tired. "And now they have the Stone. And the Princess..."

Mustadio trailed off and stared blankly at his feet for a moment. Barich stared helplessly at him, trying and failing to speak. Then Mustadio crossed to his father and embraced him, and they clung to each other with desperation, as though afraid one or the other might fade away at any moment. Ramza felt a pang somewhere in his heart.

"How long's it been since you've seen your dad?" Ramza asked, in a low voice.

He regretted the question almost at once. Even from the corner of his eye, he could see Beowulf flinch; when Ramza turned to face him, he found the angular face wracked with pain. "Too long," mumbled Beowulf.

"I'm sorry," Ramza said. And that was twice now that he had accidentally hurt his friend. "What are you doing here, Beowulf?"

"Came to rescue you," Beowulf said.

"I appreciate it," Ramza answered. "But how'd you know I needed rescuing?"

Beowulf shook his head. "There's things I can't say. But, well..." He gestured vaguely at Barich with one of his strange swords. "Lotta different factions looking to claim power. That includes the Church...though we all have different ideas of how we want power, and what that power's for."

Barich was still staring at the Bunansas, but he came back to himself and turned to face Ramza and Beowulf. "Don't lie to the boy," Barich sneered. "You're not working for the Church anymore."

"And you are?" Beowulf asked.

Barich shrugged. "A powerful Church has no reason to fear Goug."

"And saving the Bunansas serves the Church how?" Beowulf asked.

Barich's face reddened. "The urge to silence the Bunansas is the same urge that keeps Goug under their heel. They have their Stone. They don't need bodies, too."

Beowulf shrugged. "Whatever you need to tell yourself."

Barich scowled. "I am rather tired of people questioning my motives."

"Maybe if you stopped betraying people they wouldn't?" Beowulf suggested.

Barich's eyes narrowed. "Rather hypocritical, given who your allies are."

Beowulf stiffened. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I think you know," Barich retorted.

"But I don't," Ramza said.

Both men snapped their eyes towards him. How strange; Beowulf and Barich looked so different, moved so differently, talked so differently, but in that moment they shared the same expression of guilt, fear, and resolve.

"I've been here too long," Barich said at last.

"You have," Beowulf agreed.

Barich turned to go.

"Wait!" croaked Besrodio's stringy, cracked voice. He disentangled himself from Mustadio over his son's protests, and stood, frail but upright, on the far side of the room. Barich stood at the door, bodies of the dead to either of side of him.

"Thank you, Barich," Besrodio said. "For saving us."

"Dad..." Mustadio said, in a low voice that mixed affection and disagreement.

Barich looked back over his shoulder with a stricken look in his eyes. "You don't owe me your thanks, Master Bunansa," Barich said. "If I were stronger...if I could do more, you would never have..." His voice wavered, and he drew a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, Master Bunansa."

Besrodio shook his head. "I have lived in Goug longer than you both," Besrodio said. "I know too well the compromises required, if you wish to live the life of a machinist in earnest. But, ah..." His voice lowered, and his eyes softened. "Be careful, Barich."

Barich nodded stiffly, and pushed his way out into the rain.

"You're too nice to him," Mustadio asked. "He's a traitor."

Besrodio nodded slowly. "But to who, I wonder?"

"This is all very interesting," Beowulf put in. "But the longer we stay here, the worse our chances are. We need to go."

"Go where?" Ramza asked. His battle calm had never left him: shocked as he might be to see Beowulf, he understood how precarious their position was. These dozen men, enforcers of a vast criminal organization that had hounded Mustadio across southern Ivalice, were nothing compared to the dangerous weight of the Church.

But even through his calm, questions intruded. How far did this conspiracy extend? Barich had cited the Templars and the Inquisition; Baerd had made it clear the Cardinal played a central role. Exactly how numerous and powerful were their enemies?

While Ramza's mind raced through these doubts, fears, and suspicions, Beowulf answered him. "Out of Lionel," he said. "Between the Cardinal, Mullonde, and Baerd it's too dangerous here."

"We can't," Ramza and Mustadio said together, and then looked at each other in surprise. But Ramza saw his own feeling echoed in Mustadio's eyes, and turned back towards Beowulf, who had sheathed his swords and now wore an exasperated look.

"You have to," Beowulf said.

"They have the Princess," Mustadio said.

"And our friends," Ramza added.

Beowulf shook his head. "Ramza, I've been fighting them for months. I know how frustrating this is-"

"Months?" Ramza asked, and ripples of curiosity and confusion threatened to disrupt his calm. "Beowulf, what-"

"We don't have time, Ramza!" Beowulf exclaimed. "The longer we stay in one place, the better their chance of finding us! Whatever your intentions, we need to move."

The peculiar doubling of memory over reality faded at once. The Beowulf of Ramza's youth—the young man who had deserted the Academy for the thrill of the fight—was not the same man who stood in front of Ramza now, advocating a cautious path. Ramza knew why that was—after all, there was no mistaking the cadet Ramza Beoulve with the mercenary who had just killed four men and women—but nevertheless he felt a jab of cold loss. What had happened to them? To Delita? To Beowulf? To...

"Beowulf," Ramza said softly. "Where's Reis?"

If Beowulf's face had darkened before, now it nearly blacked out. The eyes flashed with something like rage and something like grief, and the face contorted into a grimace that made his face seem almost corpse-like. Ramza took an involuntary step backwards.

"Why do you think I'm fighting them, Ramza?" Beowulf asked, in a dry, despairing voice.

"What happened?" Ramza asked. "Where is she?"

Beowulf shook his head. "It's a long story," he said. "And we don't have time to tell it. Not if we're gonna get you out."

Again, Ramza looked to Mustadio. Again, in spite of everything, he saw his feelings echoed on Mustadio's face. Mustadio nodded, and turned to face his father. "Dad..." he began, and hesitated, unsure what to say.

But Besrodio shook his head, and put his hands on Mustadio's shoulders. "After all you have sacrificed to save me, you think I begrudge you this? Do what you need to do."

Mustadio smiled weakly. Beowulf sighed. "You don't understand," Beowulf said again.

"So tell us!" Ramza shouted.

"Tell you what, Ramza?" Beowulf asked. "How far their reach extends? Where can you go where the Church does not have agents? You want to know who you can count among your enemies? The Cardinal, of course, and Knight-Captain Tengille, and Archbishop Bremondt, and do you know who they're working for, Ramza?" Beowulf glowered at him. "High Priest Funeral!"

With every name, Ramza's dim fears were crystallized into cold clarity. The Church had plotted to take the Stones; the Church had plotted to steal Ovelia from assassins and guards alike; the Church, in all its power, now counted them as enemies to be silenced.

"Delita?" Ramza asked.

Beowulf laughed grimly. "Your guess is as good as mine."

Ramza shook his head. Put like that, it did start to feel overwhelming. But whatever the odds stacked against them, he could not abandon the Princess, the Lionesses, and Radia to these unknown schemes. He had made a promise.

"We have to, Beowulf," Ramza said.

Beowulf's mouth pursed, but there was the faintest hint of a smile. "Fuck me, Ramza," he grunted. "When did I become the voice of the reason?"

"We've all picked up our bad habits," Ramza answered, startling a laugh out of Beowulf.

"Do we know what they want with the Stones?" Besrodio asked.

Beowulf hesitated, searching the air as though the answer lay concealed beyond their mortal coil. "I've heard a lot of things," he said. "I've seen first-hand the kind of power these things can command, but mainly I think the Church just wants them under their control."

"What powers?" Ramza asked.

"Too long a story, Ramza," Beowulf repeated. "I've got a friendly ship chartered to take you out of Goug. We need to get to it fast."

"And what about you?" Ramza asked.

Beowulf smiled a little. "I was happy to help you," he said. "But I didn't come to Goug just for you. There's some stuff I need to see."

"Will you be safe?" Ramza asked.

Beowulf chuckled. "No less safe than you."

Ramza laughed in turn. Nothing was very funny—their enemies were numerous, their friends in danger, their allies unknown. But still, it was a good joke. He had thought himself unsafe when he counted only the Hokuten and Nanten among his enemies. Now he felt the headman's axe dangling overhead. Not much hope of safety, if these were his enemies.

"I was actually gonna have the ship make port near Gariland," Beowulf said. "Have my father look after you. I think that's still the safest place for you, Besrodio."

Besrodio inclined his head. "Thank you for your kindness."

"Now can we go?" Beowulf demanded.

"Hold a moment," Mustadio said. "Is Barich gone?"

Beowulf frowned and looked towards the door. Ramza stepped through it, poked his head out through the pounding rain, turned his head either way and saw no sign of anyone. He ducked back inside, shivering a little as cold rain dripped down his neck. "No sign of him."

"Good," Mustadio said. He turned back to the furnace, braced himself against the side as he fumbled around. Even over the pouring rain, Ramza heard the same click of a panel giving way. A moment later, Mustadio pulled his soot-stained hand from the furnace, and the Taurus Stone glowed in his hand.

Silence in the room, save for the rain and the thunder. Everyone stared in disbelief.

"What?" Beowulf managed.

"How?" Ramza said.

"I do not..." Besrodio shook his head.

Mustadio, Stone in hand and grin upon his face, said, "Two false panels. I made a fake."

"You...when?" Besrodio asked.

"Just before they took you," Mustadio said. "Too many rumors. Even if Baerd could be trusted, it was too risky. So..." He tossed the Stone into the air and caught it deftly.

"I'll be damned," Beowulf said. "You might just pull this off."

He pulled up the hood on his cloak, and waited for the rest of them to gather their supplies—fortunately, Baerd's enforcers had been kind enough to bring their confiscated weapons and gear with them as they marched to the workshop. Then Beowulf led them out into the storm.