(Thanks for reading, all! Due to the holidays and family emergencies, I'm afraid I need to take a short hiatus. I should be able to start getting content up again by 1/17. I apologize for the delay, and appreciate your patience. Remember, if you're hungry for content in the meantime, there's plenty more at . Here's hoping you all had good holidays and that you have a happy New Year)

Chapter 53: Bloodstained

...every civilization across our world has always had magic of one form or another, though the precise form that magic has taken has always varied widely from continent to continent, culture to culture, or even town to town. Individuals who can consistently draw spectacular results from their field alone are rare, and their power usually earns them a place in the history books (one has only to look at Elidibus to see this is true even in Ivalician history). The prosperity and power of a nation has almost always been at least in part decided by its aptitude for magic and magitek. The Ydorans were adroit at enhancing runic invocations with materials—specific gems, minerals, alloys, and woods—which have informed Ivalician practice, while Zelmonia practiced a rich variety of traditions, including the bloodline talents of the village of Galthena. The earliest nations found that blood magic—the enhancing of magic by the ritual of spilling of blood—made for a potent enhancement. You can trace these traditions and practices throughout human history, and in so doing can usually understand something of the history of the time, as well...

-Alazlam Durai, "Guest Lecture to the Department of Magical Theory at the University of Gariland"

They were running out of time.

All three of them knew it. How long could the Church be expected to wait to bring the sword down upon Ovelia's head, with the holy day fast approaching? Would she be executed first, or last? So far as Ramza could tell, no one had been killed, and if they were using the Gallows to execute her for heresy there would surely be some degree of ceremony. But Delita had warned them about how little time they had, and it had taken long enough to get here.

Ramza crawled and slithered among the outlying hills, daubed with mud and grass so he would better blend in with his surroundings. They had been camped in the lea of a hill for a little more than a day, trying to get a sense of their enemies' patrols and their strength. But Mustadio, for all his skills, was not a soldier, and Agrias, for all her strength, was a guard-captain and had no experience in scouting, so it fell to Ramza to use the knowledge and techniques he'd acquired across the battlefields of the past two years to stalk the Gallows from afar.

"What news?" Agrias asked, as Ramza joined them in their lea towards noon. Mustadio stirred fitfully beneath his bedroll, but did not wake.

"Four patrolmen beyond the outer wall," he answered. "With a staggered shift change."

"Doesn't give us much time," murmured Agrias. "And within the Gallows proper?"

"Hard to say. I'd say at least another dozen men, but we might want to plan for twice that."

Agrias cursed under her breath. "They're not sloppy."

"No."

They were silent for a time. Agrias pursed her lips, and lifted her eyes to Razma. "What do you think?"

"I think the longer we wait, the more we risk."

Her eyebrows arched. "We are but three, and may face as many as thirty."

"We may," Ramza agreed. "You're welcome to leave, if you're afraid."

Agrias' eyes flashed. "You dare-!" but then she broke off when saw Ramza's smile. "This is no time for jokes."

"Tim enough," Ramza said. "We cannot take the Gallows until nightfall."

Agrias pursed her lips again. "What do you suggest?"

"We wait for dawn," Ramza answered. "There's always a shift change at dawn. They'll be at their least alert."

"And then?"

"Just as we discussed."

Agrias nodded. She drew her sword, and set to work cleaning and sharpening the blade. Ramza followed her example, studying the bundled arrows he'd packed away, packing a quiver and removing the felted tips from one bundle, so he could snap it into the quiver once he emptied it. Likewise he packed his belt and sheathes, so he would always have a weapon near at hand.

So many weapons, and so many memories with each. Most of death and pain—of Argus' arrows sinking into Corps' throats, of the bastard sword and daggers he'd claimed by killing Baerd's enforcers on the outskirts of Zaland. He took care arranging his gear—bow, arrows, and sword would both be placed across his back, to make the night's work as easy as possible.

And what a pretty euphemism that was! "Night's work." You'd find such tactful phrases all across the kingdoms of Ivalice—and Ramza suspected you'd find them in Ordallia and the Empire, as well as any other place you might find human beings of ambition. The little lies that sketched around the murderous deeds required of merchants and farmers, soldiers and mercenaries, nobles and scholars and all manner of men. Curtains carefully arranged to hide the grim reality.

How many nights had Ramza done such work? Too many now—working as guards for merchants, or as hired blades for noblemen. Putting down rebellions here, and bandits there. And few between were the men who did not use politeness to mask their violence. Few indeed were the men who spoke not of casualties but deaths, and not of victories but murders. Few indeed were the men who could own up to their sins.

Ramza had sins—too many to count. How many men had died, by his action or inaction? Surely there had been another way to spare those rebels, save those captives, let those men and women go, to drive back Argus without driving a blade through him, to save Teta before the arrow flew, to spare the Valkyries and Gustav and even the man who had tried to kill him upon the Mandalia Plains.

Ramza joked to Agrias because he feared what was to come. He feared the night's work ahead of him—the arrows he would loose, and the swords he would swing, and the blood that would drip and the pleas and sobs he would hear. He was afraid because, win or lose, he would kill men and women with dreams just like him, with hopes just as cherished, with friends and family and lovers who would grieve.

"Ramza."

Ramza looked up. Agrias had ceased cleaning her blade. She was looking up into the blue sky, with the breeze toying with her hair.

"Do you know my family?" she asked. Ramza shook his head. Agrias nodded. "The Oaks are as lowborn as you can be, and still be called nobles. Soldiers one and all."

"Ah, wait," Ramza said. "Your...grandfather, was it? Promoted to noble for..." He trailed off, embarrassed that he was unable to remember.

She nodded. "For saving Denamda's life at Zelmonia. But..." She sighed. "We're soldiers. That's all. No one wants us anywhere else. I've risen the highest, and I've..."

She looked down from the sky, and stared at her sword. "They wanted more for me. That's why they had me taught the Bursting Blade, and why they bought me this sword, and my armor, and..." She lifted her eyes to Ramza, and Ramza nearly fell backwards before the rage blazing therein. "And I was made to guard the Princess, Ramza. I was given a charge to prove myself, and now...!"

She closed her eyes. Ramza remained where he was, watching her. In some ways, he still didn't quite know what to make of Agrias Oaks. She was prickly, awkward, steadfast, loyal, and gracious. It was a confusing combination that had made for tension during the whole time he'd known her—as she distrusted him, threatened him with death, thanked him for his help, and helped him rescue Mustadio even as she forswore responsibility for him.

Ramza was surprised to find he understood her perfectly. He well-remembered the discomfort that had pervaded his life, from the Beoulve Manor to the Gariland Military Academy, as he had tried to live up to a name he had never felt worthy of. And Ramza, too, had failed when he had finally felt a charge that seemed to validate him. When he had decided not to kill, and tragedy had followed.

How hard it was, to stick to a worthy charge. How fragile your honor felt, in a world that besieged you from all sides. How you longed for the simple and straightforward, and feared the muddy waters of compromise.

Ramza had spent the past two years swimming in those waters. Killing men and women, and trying to salve his conscience in one way or another. He no longer dreamed of a battle where he might keep his hands clean. But he still hoped for righteousness. And he could think of a few better causes than saving Ovelia, her Lionesses, and Radia.

"We'll save them," Ramza said softly.

Agrias nodded, though she did not speak.

The sun sank away, and night cast a shadow over the hills around them. In the thickest dark of that night, Ramza crawled across the hillside. The moon was a thin wedge, barely casting any light. The stars glittered, and the cool night air hung still and serene.

Ramza's eyes flickered between the horizon and the hills, watching for any signs of patrolmen. Agrias and Mustadio were somewhere behind, concealed in shadows, waiting for his word. He had nocked an arrow to his bow, and held himself very still. He wanted to reveal no sign of himself, before the moment came.

And there; the horizon brightened, casting one soldier in silhouette, rounding the base of a nearby hill. Ramza trained, drew, and loosed: the arrow flew, swift and true, and sank into the soldier's neck. The figure tumbled away, head over heels.

No time now: they had to move for the Gallows, before the execution was carried out. Ramza bent low and kept moving, navigating the outlying hills, a fresh arrow already set to his bow. He kept searching for any sign of-

There, movement around a nearby hill, and Ramza ducked low and readied his arrow, waiting for a clear shot, and...

Wait! Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement, turned his head and found a man with his own bow and arrow cresting the hill, much closer to him. The old razor calm filled him, whetted his thoughts so they seemed sharp as swords and clear as crystal, and he pivoted, loosing his arrow at the closing man. The arrow's tip bounced harmlessly off the man's chestplate.

Ramza dropped his bow and charged up the hill towards the staggering soldier, drawing the bastard sword from his back. The man tried to raise his bow: Ramza's sword cleaved through it, and took most of the soldier's fingers along the way. Before the man could scream, Ramza dropped the sword, drew a dagger from his waist, and buried it in the man's neck. Blood squirted across his face.

He heard the crossbow bolt before he realized what it was, threw himself low as it whistled overhead. He glanced back towards the figure he'd first aimed at, a woman with a crossbow in hand, a fresh bolt already loaded, trained on him-

There was that crack like thunder and she collapsed with a cry.

Ramza glanced in alarm over his shoulder, where Mustadio stood with gun in hand, already loading a fresh bullet into his pistol. Beyond the hill, someone shouted, "Enemy attack!"

"CHARGE!" Agrias bellowed, rising from cover with her sword drawn, and just like that they were off and running, Ramza pausing only to scoop up sword and bow and wrench his dagger from the throat of the man he'd killed.

Another crack as Ramza vaulted over the crumbling stone wall that encircled the Gallows: the same voice that had shouted an alarm gave a scream of pain. Ramza found the screamer clutching at his stomach, and hurried on. Beyond was the Gallows proper, its aged walls still strong, its single wrought-iron gate impassive. Two soldiers stood above the gate, one with a bow and one with a crossbow. Through the holes in the gate, Ramza could glimpse a swarm of activity—soldiers swarming with weaopns in hand. And beyond them...

Beyond them, Alicia's thin head was bent low, her hands bound behind her. The cowled figure above her hefted his axe.

"AGRIAS!" Ramza shouted.

"I see!" she roared, and put on an extra burst of speed. She seemed impossibly fast, tearing ahead of them towards the gate. A crossbow bolt hurtled through one of the gaps, passed by her head close enough to stir her hair. A crack, and the man who'd loosed the bolt crumpled where he stood, as his comrade with the bow ducked back for cover.

Then Agrias was at the gate, and her sword was cutting through the air, and Ramza well knew what would follow the slashing of her shimmering blade. He closed his eyes and braced himself for the blast.

The explosion was even bigger than the one with which Wiegraf had devastated a hilltop on the southern fringe of Fovoham. Even through the thunder, Ramza could hear the squealing of the metal torn loose, and as he blinked his eyes clear he took in the smoke and the chaos, the shattered gate and the broken bodies of the soldiers that had not understood the danger of the woman who had charged them.

Already Agrias was fighting again—some brave soldier had charged through the gap, sword in hand, and now they ringing of their steel filled the air. Alicia was huddled upon the gallows, with the headman nowhere in sight: Ramza raced past Agrias, trying to reach her.

A figure materialized from behind the gallows, sword in hand—the executioner, his axe replaced with a sword. He darted for Ramza, sure and certain, agile and familiar, and Ramza had time to register a moment's surprise, to lift his sword to parry-

And when blade met blade, the strength was drained from Ramza's limbs, as the air shimmered around the executioner. Ramza staggered, tried to swing his sword, and found it knocked from his hand. A line of fire was carved across his palm, and he fell to his knees, clasping at his injured hand.

"Enough!" shouted Geoffrey Gaffgarion, pulling the black hood from his head to reveal his ivory hair and matching mustache. His sword was at Ramza's throat.

Silence then. Where he'd fallen, Ramza could just make out the gate. Agrias stood over the slain body of the man who'd moved to stop her—perhaps a half-dozen others lay strewn around her, dead or wounded from the metal shrapnel of the shattered gate. Mustadio was just behind her, his gun trained on Gaffgarion. But around them, other soldiers were emerging—soldiers with spears, swords, maces, axes, one man with wire-rim glasses holding Alicia's scepter.

But while some dim, distant part of Ramza perceived the changing circumstances around the Gallows, most of his attention was focused on Gaffgarion. His sense of calm had been obliterated.

"What are you doing here?" Ramza whispered, hating the weakness in his voice, because even he was uncertain whether it was what Gaffgarion had done to him or the sight of this man who had been his mentor and employer and foe these past two years.

"I was hired to do a job," Gaffgarion said.

Ramza almost laughed. "First fight against them, then for them?"

Gaffgarion shrugged. "You fought for the Hokuten, before you fought against them."

Maddening. How normal this moment was—how they'd repeated it over and over again, on so many battlefields over the last two years. Arguments about captives and pay, about who to fight and when and how, and Gaffgarion always won. He was so quick of mind and tongue, and whatever brief victories Ramza had nursed would fall apart if Gaffgarion did not concur. The mercenary would see to that, one way or another.

And now here he stood, sword in hand. Had he orchestrated all of this?

"What do you want?" Ramza hissed.

Gaffgarion smiled, and his eyes flickered up towards Agrias and Mustadio. "Captain Oaks!" he called. "So delighted to see you! I missed you at Lionel!"

"Silence, knave!" Agrias cried.

"Or what?" Gaffgarion asked. "I have your friends." He gestured vaguely, behind him, and Ramza saw with a sinking heart that a soldier with a cut on his cheek had his axe poised above Alicia.

"We could still kill you," Mustadio said, in a shaking voice.

Gaffgarion chuckled. "I doubt it, boy. But even if you could, you won't walk away. None of you will. Now, if you put your weapons down-"

"And let you slit our throats?" Agrias hissed.

Gaffgarion sighed. "I have been given permission to do what I have to secure the Stone," he said. "And I was asked to bring this one back into the fold, if it was possible." His sword point flickered towards Ramza: Ramza could feel the air from the blade wash across his neck. His hair stood on end. "If he pleads for your safety, I imagine it might actually be granted."

Ramza's mind felt as sluggish as his body, still stumbling to recover from what he had seen and what had been done to him. It took him a moment to follow along. "My brother," Ramza whispered. "You're still working for him."

"My contract with the Church doesn't exclude it," Gaffgarion said.

"You..." Ramza trailed off, his head swimming as embers of anger burned in his chest. By the Saint, how long had he spent dancing on his brother's strings? How many men and women had to die before his brother was satisfied? Before Gaffgarion was satisfied?

"The Church won't spare us," Mustadio said grimly.

"Why not, if you've a powerful enough protector?" Gaffgarion asked. "Stand down-"

"You think we trust a word you'll say?" Agrias snarled. "You tried to kill the Princess!"

"I did," Gaffgarion said. "As I was paid to do. And now I am paid to retrieve the Stone, however I may." He smiled pleasantly. "Why fight when you don't have to?"

Ramza stared up at Gaffgarion. Gaffgarion's eyes weren't on him, but Ramza knew better than to think he wasn't being watched. Gaffgarion was rarely caught by surprise.

"Were you going to kill Alicia?" Ramza asked, in a weak voice, clutching more tightly at his injured hand.

"If I had to," Gaffgarion said. "You were taking too long."

"And Radia?" Ramza asked.

"You think I would kill my own daughter?" Gaffgarion asked, his eyes flicking towards Ramza dismissively.

"Depends on how much you're getting paid."

Gaffgarion's eyes flashed. "All this time, and you still think you can judge me." He gestured around them with his free hand. "You are surrounded. Your friends lives are in my hands. And you risked everything for a Princess who isn't even here."

Ramza felt his stomach drop away. Agrias flinched, and raised her sword. "Where is she?!" Agrias screamed.

"What does it matter?" Gaffgarion asked. "Her fate is out of your hands, as it is out of mine. The powers of Ivalice will decide what to do with her—and I'm afraid that doesn't include poor pawns like us."

Ramza felt a heavy weight of cold pooling in his stomach It was so much worse than he'd realized. Gaffgarion here was already bad enough—what did that say about Dycedarg, or any of the others? But now he found that the Princess had never been here? Had Delita been lied to? Or—oh, by the Saint and all his Apostles how it hurt to think—had Delita lied to them? Had he let them walk into this trap?

His despair and confusion must have shown on his face. Gaffgarion gave him a brief look, and his face shifted. He looked just a little sad. "Do you understand yet?" he asked. "All you've done is delay the inevitable. Even if you can walk away from here with your lives, they won't stop. Lower your weapons. Give up the Stone. Live."

All for nothing. All the blood Ramza had shed, both today and on the many days before. All the choices he'd made, everything he'd ever tried. His grip tightened on his wounded hand, and he traced a nervous pattern on his wrist with a bloodstained thumb.

"They all live," Ramza said.

"Ramza?" Agiras exlcaimed in disbelief.

"Everyone," Ramza said. "You touch a hair on anyone's head, and I'll see you dead."

Gaffgarion smiled in relief. "Good sense at last." For all his relief, his sword did not waver. "But first I'll need the Stone."

Of course. Gaffgarion would not risk his contract. That was his nature—the nature of a man who always got what he wanted, whatever Ramza tried to do to stop him. And such a cunning man was still a pawn like they were—a servant of men like Dycedarg and the Cardinal. Gaffgarion might be an adroit master of the battlefield, but he was not the man who made such battlefields for the sake of their ambitions, time and time again.

What had all these men and women died for? What had Ramza killed for?

"We don't have it with us," Ramza said. "We left it at our camp."

"And I'm to take your word for it?" Gaffgarion asked.

Ramza shrugged. "Search me, if you like."

"Ramza," Mustadio whispered. Ramza's head turned slightly: his friend had his gun in hand, but his eyes were wide with grief and disbelief. "You can't mean...you can't...after everything..."

"I know," Ramza said. "But what choice do we have?"

Ramza jerked his head up, indicating he wanted to stand. Gaffgarion considered him impassively, then took a slight step backwards, giving him room to rise. Ramza shifted his weight, and made as if to stand. At the same moment, he lifted his wounded hand. The rune he'd sketched in blood upon his wrist—the Ydoran rune for fire, which he had spent so long learning under Alicia's instruction—glistened in the dawn light.

He was not the boy he had been when he had first signed on with Geoffrey Gaffarion, uncertain of his place, uncertain what it meant to be a Beoulve. Nor was he the listless killer who had struggled with moral questions on a dozen battlefields. He was not naive enough to think he could win without killing, not foolish enough to think he could change the world alone, and not beaten enough to think it wasn't worth trying. He had fought too long and too hard, he had hurt too many people and lost too much, and even if he knew there was little hope of serving the twin ideals of Justice and Service in a world like this he was not going to give up now. What matter if Delita had lied to him or not? Ramza believed in the cause he preached—in a world where there would no more Miludas, and no more Tetas.

An image of Zeakden aflame filled Ramza's head.

The fire seemed to ignite in his chest first, filling his body with such heat that for a moment he thought he might be boiled from within. Then it exploded out of his hand, as though geysering from the wound Gaffgarion had cut into his palm. Gaffgarion cried out and threw himself to the ground, a little of the fire spiraling down into his chest, but caught off-guard as he was he could not dilute it and that was alright because Ramza had not been aiming for Gaffgarion. He had been aiming just beyond him—towards the gallows, where Alicia lay bound with an axeman poised above her.

The spout of fire chewed through the wooden support beams, and with a creaking croak the gallows pitched to one side. Alicia's chest braced against the chopping block, while her captor tumbled down and hit the ground hard.

But though Razma's legs were weak and his head was spinning and his chest fight tight with exertion, he did not allow himself to rest. There, to one side, a crossbow lay askew, with a bolt wound fast: Ramza lunged for it, scooped it up even as his wound burned with fresh pain. Just before him, the mage who held Alicia's scepter had turned towards Agrias, who had already slain the soldier nearest her He lifted the scepter, and lightning burst from its tip and hammered into Agrias. She slashed with her sword, and the bolts crashed into the blade and her hair burned and her clothing smoked as she roared in pain and rage.

Ramza raised the crossbow and loosed its bolt; the man holding Alicia's scepter fell with blood streaming from his throat, his lightning winking out to leave Agrias staggering but upright.

"FOOL BOY!" bellowed Gaffgarion somewhere behind Ramza, but Ramza did not bother to look back, because he was already charging towards the fallen mage, and he knew there were archers and soldiers all around them, knew these were still long odds but damn it he had meant what he said to Agrias, he had meant that this was worth doing, and even if the Princess wasn't here he did not intend to stand aside and let the whims of the powerful decide who among his friends lived or died.

And he was not fighting alone. He heard the crack of Mustadio's pistol: he heard Agrias' wordless roar. He dropped the crossbow and snatched up the scepter, spun round and fell to one knee, took in the scene once more—Alicia struggling to her feet, Gaffgarion and Agrias with swords locked and the wooden gallows burning behind them, Mustadio staggering back with the shaft of an arrow in his shoulder, his gun hanging limp in his injured arm.

"I will leave you broken and bleeding here, you fucking cunt!" snarled Gaffgarion.

Agrias answered him with another enraged bellow, and the sword in her hand exploded in a blast of white force, throwing Gaffgarion across the gallows, to smack against the far wall. He staggered, but kept his feet. Agrias remained where she was, still howling her fury, covered in burns and blood.

There, above the gate—the unslain archer who had struck Mustadio. Ramza raised his staff and again remembered Zeakden, and the fire that had consumed it. Though his chest was tight and his limbs were heavy, though his hand yet hurt and his head yet swam, he was determined that this would not be another Zeakden—that he would not fail now as he had failed then.

Again, a burst of fire: Ramza nearly fell to one side, his head spinning, and only barely kept the scepter trained upon the archer. The archer screamed as fire consumed him and the platform on which he stood; he fell burning to the ground, clawing at the flames as he tumbled through the air. He hit the ground with a rushing thmph and went still.

Just behind the burning corpse, Mustadio had raised his good arm with gun in hand; from the corner of his eye, Ramza saw rushing movement, and twisted around to find a brawny woman with a gleaming spear barreling towards him. With a crack, the woman stumbled, as blood dripped down from a ragged wound in her shoulder. Ramza tossed the scepter in Mustadio's direction, then rose clumsily from his kneeling position, drawing the twin daggers at his belt. The muscular woman growled and rose to her feet, shifting her stance to the bulk of the spear's weight was on his uninjured side.

What followed would have been comical, if death hadn't threatened him at every step. Without her other shoulder, the woman could barely train her spear on Ramza, much less thrust it with any force. But Ramza was too tired to slip past her guard, too slow to outpace her, too weak to wrest the spear from her grip. So the two of them struggled to wound one another, tripping over their feet as they fought.

He saw a little of his own feeling echoed in the woman's eyes—a little of the baffled, almost amused sensation, that their vengeful rage and determination should have come to this. But if he saw a matching detached amusement, he also saw the other feeling—that feeling of determination and fury, that would not allow either of them to stand aside.

They fought on. What choice was there?

Razma ducked low, slashing, and the woman stepped backwards and tried to pin Ramza but was too slow to catch him. He kept moving, kept slashing, stabbing, even though his legs burned with the effort, even though he was so dizzy he felt he might vomit at any moment. He struggled on in a nightmare vertigo, where brief glimpses of the battlefield beyond reached him through an unsteady, nauseous fog. There, Mustadio scrambled across the dusty gallows ground, with a wounded swordsman in pursuit: there, Agrias was collapsing before Gaffgarion's limping advance, as her wounds overwhelmed her furious vigor; there, Alicia struggled to keep her feet, masked by a fog of smoke and fire.

They needed his help. His friends needed his help.

Ramza forced strength into his legs, forced himself to stand straight even though it made him want to pitch to the ground, and then lunged backwards. The woman followed, spear in hand, and Ramza twisted, spun on his heel and hurled the dagger just as he'd practiced. To her credit, she was good: she twisted aside, landing rather clumsily with her legs spread unevenly. In that moment, Ramza lunged back towards her, dropping his boot upon the place where the head of her spear met the shaft. It was a proper Ydoran spear, well-crafted: the head held. But it unbalanced the woman: she stumbled towards him, struggling to wrest the spear from beneath his boot, and at that moment Ramza plunged the dager down into the silver of open skin above her chainmail, beneath her collarbone. He felt his blade hit the bone, jarring his hand, and the blade dug into flesh at an awkward angle.

The woman gave a scream of pain and threw her body and spear to one side; woman and Ramza fell to earth together, awkwardly entangled, as the spear clattered away somewhere behind him. Ramza clutched desperately at the knife, as the woman hammered elbows, palms, and knuckled into his body, and Ramza yelled in pain and drove his knife in deeper and drove his own elbows into the hard chainmail on the woman's chest, but even wounded she was so strong.

He rolled away, and felt something sharp prick against his side. He gasped, reached for the wound before his hands flinched away from the edge of the fallen spear. In a lightning instant of energy, his hands darted back, closed upon the shaft, and he managed to take his feet. Across from him, the woman was trying to rise: Ramza rushed forward, stumbled, and then shoved the spear into her belly. The chainmail held for just a moment, resisting him, then gave way, and he felt the strange cushiony sensation of a weapon driven through flesh.

The woman stared at him in disbelief, reached up towards her wound, and then fell to one side, the weight of her pulling the spear from Ramza's hands.

"I SAID ENOUGH!" roared Gaffgarion.

Ramza turned towards him. The fires still smoldered in the wooden gallows, but Agrias was splayed you beneath him, with his sword braced across her throat. Her own blade lay a short ways away, just out of reach.

"I will have the Stone!" Gaffgarion shouted. "I have risked too much for it!"

Ramza, empty-handed with all his weapons strewn across the battlefield, shook his head. "You'll have nothing."

Gaffgarion sneered at him. "I'll cut her throat!"

"You're welcome to," Ramza said. "We all came here ready to die."

A lie. An easy lie. No one was ever ready to die—Ramza had just seen it in the eyes of the woman he'd killed, and in the desperation of the archer he'd set aflame. But in spite of that fact, there were things worthy dying for. And maybe Ramza had spoken too quickly, because pinned as she was, with a line of blood on her throat where Gaffgarion's blade had pressed against it, Agrias' eyes still blazed fearlessly.

Which was good, because it made the next lie easier.

"Besides," Ramza said. "If you cut her throat, you die, too."

Gaffgarion chuckled. "I don't care what magic you have, boy-"

"Oh, it's not me," Ramza said. "It's her."

He jerked his head back behind the gallows, where Mustadio and Alicia stood together. The wounded swordsman who had chased Mustadio lay dead a little ways away: Mustadio had just finished cutting through Alicia's bonds with a stolen sword, and returned the scepter Ramza had tossed his way to her hands. Alicia, bruised and unsteady, seemed to glow with sudden life, and she leveled the scepter towards Gaffgarion.

Silence then, save for the crackling of the flames. All the red-cloaked Gryphons of Lionel lay dead or dying around the Gallows.

"You know your magic can't hurt me," Gaffgarion said quietly.

"No," Ramza agreed. "But his bullets can." He nodded towards Mustadio (though the very act of nodding made his head feel so heavy he nearly collapsed), who had leveled his gun at Gaffgarion. "And there's plenty of other weapons around here." He gestured vaguely towards the weapons scattered all around. "Do you think you can dodge all of us?"

Gaffgarion said nothing. His red blade was still braced against Agrias' throat, and his dangerous green eyes were fever-bright.

"You can still walk away," Gaffgarion said. "All of you. Deliver the Stone into the Cardinal's hands-"

"And let men like the Cardinal play their games with the lives of Ivalice?" Ramza asked. "No." Ramza paused for a moment, then said, "But you can, Gaffgarion. You can lay down your sword. You don't have to die here."

Gaffgarion's eyes blazed. "The arrogance-!"

"You're outnumbered," Ramza said. "And surrounded."

Gaffgarion stared at Ramza. Ramza stared at Gaffgarion. And for a moment, Gaffgarion smiled.

"I can't decide if I taught you too well," Gaffgarion said. "Or too poorly."

Then he moved—not towards Ramza, but towards Mustadio and Alicia. Mustadio pulled his trigger as Gaffgarion slashed his sword; the gun cracked as the air shimmered, and Mustadio slumped to the ground, gasping. Alicia jabbed her scepter, which spat bolts of white-hot lightning, but Gaffgarion had already turned aside, leapt cleanly over the burning gallows and rolled to his feet on the other side, a few steps from Ramza, the blood from his fresh bullet wound pouring down his shoulder.

The two men locked eyes, just for a moment. Then Gaffgarion was gone, pelting out into the morning light, his burns already faded by the energy he'd stolen from them, and Ramza could cease his pretense of strength, and fall to his hands and knees, his breath coming in an uneven rasp.

But only for a moment. The battle was won, but their victory not yet assured.

Though his legs ached and his arms quivered, though the wound in his hand still burned and he was so dizzy he might vomit, he staggered down the steps of the gaol. Nor was he alone; Alicia, Mustadio, and Agrias, all bruised and bloody and ragged, followed in his wake. In a haze, they found the keys to cells and manacles alike; in a haze, they half-fell into the gaol proper, unlocking cells and chains; in a haze, Alicia and Lavian collapsed weeping into each others' arms, as Agrias caught them fast in an embrace and then sagged against them for support, and Mustadio leaned against one wall with his gun shoved clumsily through his belt, watching with a dazed smile on his face.

In a haze, Ramza stumbled on with keys in hand,, and found her at the far end of the gaol. She looked up, her green eyes wide with disbelief.

"You came," Radia whispered.

"You would have done the same," Ramza answered, without thinking.

Her eyes screwed up, as she fought against tears. Ramza felt his own eyes burning, and stumbled in to unlock her chains.