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Chapter 56: A Grim Night's Work
The first attacks came at dawn.
From Lionel Castle, nestled behind its high cliff walls, they could not hear the explosions. They had no inkling of what had happened until a singed messenger rode in, pleading for help. The Gryphon Knights operated little patrol stations along all the major Ydoran thoroughfare, little more than glorified sheds with a stable for a chocobo and room for two men inside. Almost every one of these around the city of Lionel proper had been attacked with some manner of explosive magic.
' In response, the garrisons of Lionel proper were mustered out to patrol the surrounding roads, wary of any new attack attack. But come noon, a thunderous boom echoed and reverberated behind the cliffs that guarded the castle. When no messenger came, the castle garrison dispatched its own scouts, and found that one of the larger garrisons in the city had been leveled by an explosion set off by putting the torch to its gunpowder stores.
But not before they had been raided, it seemed. The first gunpowder bomb detonated late in the afternoon, setting a clerk's office ablaze...and burning the receipts and records of tithes taken in from the Lionel churches. Throughout the afternoon and evening, gunpowder bombs and magical explosions seemed to appear at will across the city, striking at places precious to the Church and the Gryphons. More and more soldiers were called up from the castle, until the city was thick with Gryphon Knights looking for the culprits. Until only a skeleton crew manned the walls.
In the thickest dark of the night, long after the soldiers of Lionel Castle had been dispatched to search the city, the door to the gatehouse burst open, and Ramza stepped through with a bloody Ydoran spear between his hands. The gatehouse was less a house and more a room build into the base of the wall, guarded by thick oaken doors with the mechanism for opening and closing Lionel's mighty gates near at hand—a sizable winch connected to an elaborate network of geras
Gaffgarion was not surprised to see his old pupil. But Ramza was surprised to see his old mentor—his eyes went wide, and he raised his spear in a clumsy parry as Gaffgarion darted for the kill.
"Just like the pirates eh, Ramza?" Gaffgarion said, focusing on his field the way old Cecil had taught him, imagining his magic as a separate limb and grasping with it, wresting Ramza's energy from him. Ramza staggered back, his face white with strain, his eyes gleaming feverishly.
Even with his prodigal protege in front of him, a part of Gaffgarion's mind was back in the past. Pirates had seized control of a Fovoham town and ruled with terror from an old fort: Gaffgarion, Radia, and a handful of other mercenaries had set fire to the tavern where half the pirates had been holed up, and Ramza had slunk inside to take on the skeleton crew. Admittedly, the taking of Lionel Castle was a far more ambitious enterprise, but the form was the same: challenge the enemy in the open, so as to weaken their stronghold and decapitate their leadership.
The cliff walls complicated matters, but not unduly. After all, Gaffgarion, Ramza, and Radia had once climbed a sheer mountainside so as to kill a mage bandit who had been harassing merchants in Zeltennia. Gaffgarion knew the boy had the skills, but had not known what route he might take (and what powers he might have to back him, not after that great spell he'd cast back at the Gallows) and so had chosen to wait for him in the gatehouse, where he must surely come if he inended to admit his friends.
And here he was, just as Gaffgarion had predicted. Here was the fool, rushing in to kill himself trying to stand against the powers of the world. If he so longed for death, Gaffgarion could grant it to him.
Nearly a week since the battle the Gallows, and both men had their strength again. Ramza's field resisted him stubbornly, giving him only the dregs of its energy: at last, Ramza thrust him back, and the two men faced each other, their faces cast in shadow.
"Just like the pirates," Ramza agreed, his spear pointed at Gaffgarion's torso as his eyes studied his face. "But they only wanted the town. You and yours want the country."
Gaffgarion laughed and took a step towards Ramza, his sword held carelessly at his side (in such a way that it would be easy to flip up into a guard at the first sign of movement—Gaffgarion was no fool). "Me and mine? I'm a hired sword, as I've ever been."
"Hired by monsters," Ramza spat.
"Hired by men," Gaffgarion retorted. "Like any others. Better-intentioned than most, in fact."
Ah, but all their good intentions would not spare him from their wrath, should he fail again. He had purchased his life with a dutiful report and the claim that he could still catch Ramza: he could not afford to lose this fight. He well-remembered Baerd's screams, and the warning that had preceded them. Success rewarded. Failure punished.
"As if their intentions matter to you," Ramza said. "As long as they're pay-gah!"
He ducked back as Gaffgarion lunged, aiming for his throat, fighting for his field. Gaffgarion felt a piece of it tear lose, felt it in a sudden flush of strength, his tiredness washing away. Stronger in the thick of the fight, as he'd always been. That was the great asset of the Draining Blade: that as his foes weakened, Gaffgarion grew stronger. So had he learned to fight across the battlefields of Ivalice. He might have spent his lifetime in running, but it was running that never wearied him, running that he excelled at.
Just a little farther. Just a few more dirty deeds before he could finally stop running.
They parted ways again, circling each other like wolves, Gaffgarion calm and strong, Ramza panting with exertion. "As long as they're paying?"Gaffgarion asked, as though he had not just tried to kill Ramza (he had found over his years that a casual and professional veneer could be infuriating to opponents as any insult: it made them feel powerless). "That's our profession."
"Your profession," retorted Ramza. "Not mine."
Gaffgarion laughed. "You were a mercenary for two years, boy," he said. "You've been a rebel for...what, a month? Serving a rebel princess and killing good and loyal men, but let's imagine these are good deeds. Do you think they wash away two years of sin?"
Ramza flinched as though struck. "I'm doing what I think is right."
"A child yet!" sneered Gaffgarion. "Good God, boy, how can you stomach your hyopcrisy!"
"You speak to me of hypocrisy?" Ramza exclaimed, driving Gaffgarion back with a series of clumsy thrusts.
"And why not?" Gaffarion demanded. "Power and privilege the likes of which most can only dream, and you threw it away! Threw away your position! Threw away your name!" He parried Ramza's last spear thrust, drove forward again, pulling at Ramza's magic, feeling little fragments of it sucked away within him, a constant undercurrent of vitality and rejuvenation that made him feel as though he could swing his sword forever.
Yes, Ramza Beoulve had everything Gaffgarion had ever wanted in easy reach, and walked away from it. No, that wasn't right: walking away implied a choice. It gave credence to the lie that Ramza was taking some principled stand. He had run away, just like he was running now—running from the difficulties and complexities of the world. Running because he had been hurt once, and was scared of being hurt again.
He would never stop running. He would never stop fleeing in the world of selfish fantasy—the world where good intentions wrought good deeds, and the virtuous lived happily ever after. He would play a hero, just like Radia, and suffer for it. And perhaps Gaffgarion could throw up his hands and leave him to his delusion, except Gaffgarion was not running away from the world, but towards the safety and security he had so long craved. The boy who had had that safety was standing in his way, and Gaffgarion had not spent decades fighting his way through this wretched world to have all his plans torn apart by one mad fool who refused to see clearly.
He moved again, striking with all his strength, prying at Ramza's field, draining his magic with every moment, draining his strength with every blow of his tireless swordarm, and with every moment Ramza's steps grew slower, his thrusts more feeble. Too tired for words now, exhausted at last, and perhaps Gaffgarion could end this without killing him but that time was past. Ramza had proven he would not learn, and there was only one sure cure for fools.
Ramza twisted, thrusting his spear towards Gaffgarion's chest. Gaffgarion ducked, slashed up and knocked the spear wide. With the same motion, he ducked low and brought his sword slashing down. Ramza tried to dodge, too slow: Gaffgarion's crimson blade cut across his armored front, tore through the metal and carved into flesh, and Ramza cried out in pain.
A stab of guilt, just for a moment, as the spear clattered from Ramza's grasp as his desperate hands clutched at his fresh wound. For a moment, Gaffgarion did not see the fool who would put all his plans to ruin; he saw the boy who had slept in his cottage, and in his tent, and who had fought at Gaffgarion's side through so many battles these past two years.
He allowed himself his moment of guilt, but he did not allow it to slow him down. He had offered the boy a chance to live: he had been refused. The boy wished to resist the tides of the world. Gaffgarion would teach him how irresistible those tides were. One last lesson, before the end.
Gaffgarion lunged for the kill, slashing for Ramza's throat; Ramza twisted to one side, reached down with his bloody hands and drew his daggers from his sides. He kept twisting, spinning, slashing wildly, and Gaffgarion followed relentlessly, jabbing with his sword, sapping more of Ramza's fleeting strength. Cecil's Ydoran sword made that possible—a sword made for Vampire Knights like himself, in a time when they had been some of the best of the Ydoran forces. Even without the sword, Gaffgarion was good enough to keep most enemies off-balance: with it, he was a terror.
He knocked one dagger from Ramza's hand as the boy stumbled backwards through the open door, nearly falling outside. There was no moon up above, and the stars were gleaming pitilessly over the castle grounds. The runelight from the high wall showed Ramza's pitable state, bloodied and pale and panting, one hand slashing with his dagger, the other clutching at his wound. Gaffgarion followed grimly, feeling strong and fresh and furious. He did not especially want to kill Ramza, but the boy had left him no other choice. He spat on his attempts to teach him; he betrayed his attempts to spare him.
The boy slashed: Gaffgarion twitched his wrist, and the dagger went flying off into the night. Ramza shrank back, fists held up defensively, gasping and pale, and wild-eyed.
This was what it had come to. All his power, all his opportunity, and he would die here like any other fool, rather than except the murky compromises this world required of you.
"Goodbye, Ramza," Gaffgarion growled, lunging towards him.
Movement from the corner of his eye. Gaffgarion hotfooted it backwards, head jerking around to search for the source even as he kept Ramza in the corner of his gaze so he could not be taken off-guard. But there was nothing visible, just a faint trace of movement in the air, like motes of dust in a sunbeam. There was something familiar about that movement, though, something that brought to mind Orbonne Monastery—that last happy day, when he and Ramza and Radia had walked together into one of the most lucrative contracts of their lives, before everything had spiraled out of control. God, he had not known he missed it so. Those days had been so fraught and strange, but with Ramza and Radia at his side the world had felt full of purpose and potential.
Then he remembered the last time he'd seen that strange movement in the air. He remembered the tell-tale shimmer of someone cloaking themselves with magic upon a hill outside Orbonne.
Gaffgarion snapped up his sword as Alicia bubbled back into view, her magic rippling inwards to reveal her body, her scepter pointed towards him. Lightning crackled at its tip, ready to burst towards him, and Gaffgarion was already shifting his field, trying to pull at the bolt the same way he pulled at the magic of his enemies, and it wasn't so different because a spell was simply the magnified and refurbished field of his enemy, ripe for the taking. It was delicate work, though, hastily untangling the spell, dissipating what he could not simply absorb, and-
And his field faltered, as powerful arms wrapped tight around his shoulders, and jerked his blade to one side. Gaffgarion twisted his head, shouted in rage as he spied Ramza's pale, sweaty face-
And then the bolt burst free, and hammered into them both with searing force. And Gaffgarion bellowed with pain as his hand clenched desperately at his blade, struggling to convert that lightning into strength but it was hard, too hard, Ramza was screaming into his ear and yet at the same moment had entangled his field with Gaffgarion's, pressed upon it so every effort felt like trying to moving a hand through mud, and without his field he could not transform this lightning into strength so it felt like his body was burning inside and out and still Ramza fought him, and Gaffgarion could divert and disrupt the lightning but he could not best it and he could not steal Ramza's strength so all that was left for him was the hurt.
The endless instant of crackling agony ended as abruptly as it had begun. Gaffgarion collapsed to his knees as Ramza fell away behind him. Almost as soon as he had hit the ground Gaffgarion was moving again, stumbling back towards the gatehouse, trying to get clear of that awful scepter or any other attackers, his eyes raking the wall above him in search of some new assault, moving even as his body burned with pain.
But the new assault came from behind him—a shuddering, staggering impact that knocked him off of his feet and sent Cecil's sword flying from his hands. He caught himself on his palms, scrabbled to his feet as Ramza drove forward again, slamming his shoulder into Gaffgarion's chest plate with winding force. Gaffgargion bellowed in pain, his too-tight skin itching with it, and he'd diverted as much of the lightning as he could but he was still hurt and it was Ramza's fault, it was the boy's fault-!
Ramza struck towards him again, and Gaffgarion ducked low, rammed forwards and caught the boy's torso with his own shoulder, pivoted and hurled him over his shoulder like a sack of grain. He turned, mindless with anger and pain, mindless with the need to drown some his pain by inflicting it upon someone else, and saw too late that Ramza was rising to meet him with a red sword in his hand.
Cold pressure, like someone had driven an icicle into his gut. Gaffgarion's world suddenly felt very sharp and very clear. There was an impact somewhere in his soul, as though he had had the wind knocked out of him, and he could feel his magic draining away, sucked out of him in one clean breath, and he watched with wide, disbelieving eyes as Ramza's mottled burns puffed back to health.
Ramza pulled out the sword (and that hurt, a burst of strange fire in his guts, stirring little embers of pain across his body), and Gaffgarion gasped and staggered backwards. He slumped against Lionel's lofty wall, clutching at his wound, feeling the aches and pains, the peculiar burns and jarring echoes of broken bones. He stared at Ramza in disbelief, trying to make sense of what had happened.
"I...I don't..." He shook his head. "What are..."
Ramza knelt in front of Gaffgarion. His face was visibly pale, even through the darkness. "I wasn't trying to open the gate," he said. "I was trying to clear out the guard."
"Trying to..." Gaffgarion murmured, and then realization dawned on him. "Oh. Oh, that's rather clever."
Yes, of course. The plan had never been to open the gate. Ramza had made the climb, just as Gaffgarion had predicted, but after he had climbed and cleared the watchers from the walls he had anchored ropes for his comrades to follow after. If the gates were closed, and the guard slain, then no reinforcements could rush back to the castle. There would be no escape for the Cardinal.
And Gaffgarion almost chuckled in spite of his pain. Bold, this plan. Half a dozen soldiers against one of the great fortresses of Ivalice. Against a military man with his own forces, and the weight of the Glabados Church behind him. Bold, and foolish. So foolish.
More figures emerged from the darkness, one-by-one. First the two mages: then Agrias; then Mustadio; and last of all, there was Radia. She dropped to one knee besides Ramza.
"Fools..." murmured Gaffgarion, too hot in his face, too cold in his guts, everything strange and warped and distant. "Both of you..."
"I know," Radia said softly, stroking his cheek.
He looked up at the two of them—so tall, so remote, so much stronger than he remembered. He struggled to find the words. "I wanted...you deserve..." He sighed, and that sigh seemed so much harder than it should be, wheezing out of a tight chest.
Children, playing at heroics. Didn't they know how such stories always ended? The suffering that would follow in their wake? Their greatest deeds frustrated, their little triumphs made bitter by the weight of time? Nothing good lasted in Ivalice. Eventually the powerful would reclaim what they had lost, and punish anyone who had dared to challenge their rule. They had seen what became of the Death Corps. They had to know how this story ended
But look at them, with tears in their eyes and yet no hint of weakness. Hurting, agonized, and determined all the same. Still the same fools they'd always been, for all the lessons he'd tried to teach them. Another failure to add to his long list.
By the Saint, what a miserable life. And here he'd though himself content with his unhappiness, but as death closed it he found it rankled. How close had he been, to putting an end to his running? How many times had he risked his life, and bloodied his hands? Only to fail here, at the hands of a boy he'd tried to save. God, he'd just wanted to rest. He'd just wanted to be free.
So dim, so dark, so distant. Their faces floated like moons in the night, glowing with a life that was leaving him.
"It...will end...badly," he sighed. "You...you know that."
Ramza and Radia exchanged the slightest glance, then tunred back to him. "Maybe," Ramza said.
"But we're still gonna try," Radia said, her voice tight.
"Of...of course..." Gaffgarion chuckled. "Fools to...to the last."
Ah, their faces were fading away with the pain. Everything felt hazy and distant, almost serene. A part of Gaffgarion was glad for this last moment of peace, that he might pass into death so easily. A part of him detested it. He didn't want to die. He wanted to keep running. He wanted whiskey and a good book, and to rest his feet by a crackling fire. He wanted to live.
But he knew better than to think his wants would change his fate. The world cared little for the desires of men. At lease there was time enough for farewells.
"Goodbye...boy..." Gaffgarion murmured, focusing on the blurred outline of Ramza's face.
"Goodbye, Gaffgarion," Ramza said, and there were tears in his voice, too. What a fool, to weep for an enemy who would have killed him. What a damnable fool, who had been born to everything Gaffgarion had ever wanted, and still insisted on this miserable life.
He turned away from the fool he couldn't save, and tried to find his daughter's face. He remembered the first time he'd seen it—angry, bitter, and tired from the long war, returning to Limberry in search of a daughter he half-expected was someone else's brat, forced upon him by guilt and old obligation. But then she had looked up at him, with her mother's red hair hanging heavy on her shoulders, and her father's green eyes sparking at him with defiant fear. From that moment, he had loved her face, and the girl who had worn it. From that moment, something strange had settled on him, and he understood that he had to protect her, one way or another—from the cruelties of the world, and from the kind and loving heart that would make it a still-crueler place for her.
But he could not see her face now. The darkness was too thick, an impenetrable veil of fading night, and Gaffgarion felt a noxious disappointment choke him. Too bad, that. He would have liked to see her face, one last time.
"Goodbye...dear...daughter..." he sighed.
All for nothing, wasn't it? All his attempts to be safe and secure, all his attempts to teach them, all his attempts to save him. Saint above, he didn't want to die like this. Warm and gentle as this darkness was, he despised it.
Then a voice drifted out of the dark, and though it was tight with grief it seemed like music to his ears, a lullaby quieting his thoughts and soothing his abraded mind. He felt himself relaxing to the sound of that voice, no longer fighting the darkness, no longer resenting what had brought him hear. He closed his eyes so a curtain of absolute void blanketed his thoughts, drifting away on the waves of that beloved voice.
Oh, my daughter. I hope you're happy, whatever comes.