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Chapter 57: The Cardinal's Offer

...so many versions of the Zodiac Brave Story across the ages, but some details change surprisingly litle. There are 12 Stones (or sometimes 13, if the apocryphal Serpentarius is included), and the heroes wield them together against a great evil—a wicked emperor, or a sinister conspiracy, but most often their enemies are the Lucavi, demons of myriad forms and terrible powers. As with all myths, it is hard to discern how much is truth and how much is fiction, and enough indications of both to prove extra confusing. Some stories are clearly fanciful, and some embellishments, but some seem to map to actual events and even geological records. This is especially true of the Lucavi: some are monsters too ridiculous to be believed, but some records (such as the battle at the summit of Mt. Gulg) are more-or-less verifiable—something of extraordinary power reawoke that old volcano. So if we except that at least some of the myths are founded on truth, we are left with a daunting question: what exactly were the Lucavi? Mages of extraordinary power? Beasts of unprecedented magical ability? Or were they truly demons summoned from a world beyond our own?

-Alazlam Durai, "In Search of Myth"

Though there was little time—though they were in the stronghold of their enemies, and the army they had distracted could return in force at any moment—they waited until Gaffgarion had ceased to move, and his glassy eyes had fluttered closed. Ramza did not quite dare to move—it was the first time he had ever drained anyone so completely, and the sharp shift from staggering agony to relative health felt surreal and dreamlike.

That, and he did not want to see Radia's face.

He fucked her one night, and killed her father the next. What kind of man was he? What kind of monster?

"Ramza," Radia said, her voice soft, almost calm, with just the faintest ragged edge of grief.

Ramza swallowed against the dryness of his throat "Yes?" he said, and he could hear the tension and guilt in his own voice, coiled so tight he sounded like he might crack at any moment.

"I'd like his sword."

Ramza looked down to the sword he still held in his hand, its red blade made redder still with her father's blood. With Gaffgarion's blood. With the blood of the man who had taught him, protected him, betrayed him, and tried to kill him. With the blood of the man Ramza had ultimately killed.

When he had stood above the old man, Ramza had suffered that peculiar doubled vision again. For a momoment, itt had not seemed like Gaffgarion was dying alone. For a moment, Argus' shadow had hung heavy over him, and he had been ankle-deep in the snows of Zeakden once more.

"Ramza."

Ramza looked up, and found Radia watching him. As it had before, her gaze nearly shattered him: her green eyes watery with tears and yet still so bright and fierce, so determined. Her hand was extended towards him.

Without speaking, Ramza flipped the sword around, holding it by the flat of the blade so Gaffgarion's blood oozed between his fingers. She took the hilt of the sword, and rose to her feet, studying the bloody blade. Ramza was unable to bear the sight of her: he turned away, stumbling back inside the gatehouse to grab his spear.

He wrapped his hand its solid wooden shaft, and remembered the woman he'd killed to claim it—the woman with those eyes like his, a little amused in spite of their grim circumstances, and determined all the same to stop him. For a moment, his grip tightened on the spear, and he felt the sticky residue of Gaffgarion's blood upon his hands. Was Gaffgarion really wrong? If he had simply swallowed his feelings and stood by his brothers, could he have avoided all of this?

And if I had, what would have become of the Princess?

His grip tightened on the spear. The thought was hot and painful, a burning coal nestled in his mind. It reminded him of Delita—Delita, who might have lied to him and sent him headlong into danger, knowing there was no Princess to be saved.

But Ramza had saved Delita. He had saved Ovelia. And now that she had fallen into the hands of her enemies, he intended to save her again.

Ramza had killed Gaffgarion, just like he had killed Argus. But the difference was that this time, he had managed to slay him before he could harm Ovelia. This time, he was not too late. This time, it would not be like Teta.

He left the gatehouse behind with his spear in hand. Radia no longer looked at her father; now she was facing the squat, sold bulk of Lionel Castle with the crimson sword in hand. Without looking back at him, she started striding for the castle: the others followed her, all clutching at their own weapons, ready for the fight to come.

But there was no fight. The castle was empty.

They moved, swift and silent, through the carpeted halls, searching the runelit rooms for some sight of any enemy. They crept along corners, always checking for ambushes, but there were no soldiers in sight. Perhaps this could be explained—they had planted their bombs and attacked with spells just for this purpose, and most of the soldiers that remained could well have been stationed at the wall, where Ramza and his allies had already fought. But there were no signs of any staff, either—none of the important functionaries who must surely help to keep a castle running, much less a nation. No servants, no maids, no cooks, no chefs. No clerics, no chancellors, no diplomats, no clerks. Just the eerie silence of empty halls.

Ramza's skin blistered with winter chill. His throat felt very dry, and the hair on his head, his neck, his arms, his testicles, all seemed to crawl with tension. No matter where they went, the castle was empty. No sign of the armies of Lionel. No sign of its dignitaries. No sign of its people.

Until they reached the salon on the second story, where Cardinal Delacroix had first spoken to them of plots and Stones and sanctuaries. In that room, where the Cardinal had plied them with sweet food and sweeter words, they found him—Cardinal Alphonse Delacroix, reclining in an armchair with a glass of wine in his hand.

"Stay where you are!" Agrias barked, as they hurried to surround him.

The Cardinal shrugged. "Why not? If I'd had any intention of leaving, I would have gone with my staff."

"Where are your men?" Radia asked, her voice coiled tight like a frightened serpent.

"Most of them are out in the city, looking for you," the Cardinal answered. "Those who could not fight, I dispatched on various errands. Your father seemed quite confident you would come, and I thought it best to simplify matters."

At the mention of her father, Ramza felt a pang in his heart, and he saw Radia wince—just the slightest wavering of the sword in her hand.

"You will tell us where the Princess is," hissed Agrias, her sword pointed at the Cardinal.

The Cardinal's eyes blinked in surprise. "Of course! That was always my intention!"

There was a moment of silence. Ramza felt his own confusion magnified around him.

"What are you talking about?" Agrias asked, her anger marred by doubt.

The Cardinal chuckled. "I have had a certain...revelation," the Cardinal answered pleasantly. pleasantly. "I confess, when I first heard that you had bested Gaffgarion's trap at the Gallows, I feared incompetence on his part. But now, well..." He smiled over his glass of wine. "You have escaped every trap and every prison we have arranged for you. Such deeds alone would speak to your talent, but instead of fleeing you capitalize on your success, run circles around my soldiers, and move to seize me!" He raised his glass to them. "Not incompetence at all, I wager. You are simply far more talented than we understood.

No one responded to the Cardinal. They had fanned out throughout the salon, eyes and weapons trained upon Delacroix, who himself seemed perfectly at ease.

"What has become of Gaffgarion, by the by?" the Cardinal asked. "Dead, I take it."

No one answered, though the hurt in Ramza's heart seemed heavier, and Radia winced again

"I apologize for our error," the Cardinal continued, as though he weren't being menaced by armed soldiers he had tried to kill. "I will rectify my mistake my bringing you to your Princess, so you may serve her once more."

Silence again, but this time there was a rather flabbergasted quality to it. Ramza looked around the room, and found his comrades doing the same, looking to one another for reassurance. Agrias, Alicia, and Lavian seemed the most baffled of all.

"What do you mean?" Agrias said at last, clutching her sword with white knuckles.

It was the Cardinal's turn to blink in confusion. "I thought I was clear," the Cardinal said. "You will be brought to your Princess' side, so that your tremendous talents will be aligned with her will. So you may help her become the Queen she is meant to be."

"You're joking," Alicia said.

The Cardinal frowned. "Do I look like I'm joking?"

"You have betrayed us," Mustadio whispered, the barrel of his gun fixed on the Cardinal, his hand steady. "Kidnapped our friends. Kidnapped my father. Ordered us killed when we'd outlived our usefulness. And now when we have you in our power, you try to bargain with us?"

The Cardinal chuckled. "You must admit, now would seem the best time to bargain. But you mistake me." He set his wineglass down. "I am not bargaining. Her Highness has accepted our aid, and will attain her rightful position as Queen of Ivalice. Your talents-"

"What?" Agrias breathed.

"-would be instrumental to our shared cause," the Cardinal continued patiently. "With our help, Queen Ovelia will challenge the usurper Louveria and all her rotting ilk, and when they are expunged from power, we shall build Ivalice anew, in the image of the Saint."

"And all will dance to the Church's tune," Radia grunted.

The Cardinal shook his head. "No one is being made a puppet. Her Highness realized that we offered her the best hope of restitution, and aligned herself accordingly."

"You're lying," Lavian said.

"I have no need to lie," the Cardinal replied. "Church and Crown, united in service of Ivalice and the Saint...there can be nothing better for our world."

"And now that you've failed to kill us, you want us to serve you?" Ramza said quietly.

The Cardinal shook his head and sighed. "I want you to serve her."

"But why now?" Ramza insisted.

The Cardinal shrugged. "I am not the only actor on this stage. But you will recall, when first we made our move, we only acted to remove her from your power. We meant you no harm: we simply feared that you could not serve her, and might well spell her doom. After all, one of her killers stood among your ranks, and none of you knew."

"A killer you hired to dispose of us!" Radia cried, though her voice was ragged with grief.

"Such is the nature of this rotten Ivalice," scowled the Cardinal. "We must make do with the tools we have, tainted as they are." His faced burned with anger for a moment, but then he took a deep breath and seemed calm once more. "We originally considered all of you mere inconveniences. When you continued to interfere, we had to find a way to stop you." He shrugged again. "But now you have demonstrated your abilities. You have bested every foe set against you. You could further our cause. You could help to build a brighter world."

"We'll never help you," growled Alicia.

The Cardinal titled his head in bemusement. "No? You have come to save a Princess who is in no need of saving, and I offer you a chance to take your rightful place at her side. Is that not what you set out to do?"

"You offer us a chance to help you keep using her!" Lavian exclaimed.

"No one is being used," the Cardinal said, as though he were correcting an irresponsible rumor.

"No?" Agrias asked. "So why was our Princess kidnapped? Why were we lured into your castle under the pretense of safety? Why were they almost killed-" she gestured towards Ramza and Mustadio. "-and they almost executed?" She gestured to Alicia and Lavian. "Why, if not to silence us, so you may have the puppet you desire?"

The Cardinal smiled, though the smile did not reach his eyes. "You sound much like Ovelia did, before she understood."

"That is because Her Highness is no fool," Agrias hissed. "And whatever honeyed words you choose to spew, you cannot mask your monstrous deeds."

"Captain Agrias-" the Cardinal began.

"NO!" Agrias bellowed. "No, I think we have heard enough from you. We have played this game before, Cardinal—in this very room. You plied us with honeyed words, so we would not know them for the poison that they were. And then when we had been lulled by your song, you moved to slit our throats." She took a step towards him, lifting her sword so it was level with his throat. "You will tell us where she is, or you will die. That is our offer."

The Cardinal regarded her for a time. His smile was gone, his face set. There was something odd there, something dark and strange that made Ramza hesitate and his grip weaken upon his spear.

"I see," the Cardinal said at length. "So. You turn against the Church, and you turn against God."

"We turn against you!" Radia exclaimed.

"Yes, of course," rumbled the Cardinal, and he seemed larger than he had a moment before, as though he were imposing himself upon reality, a shadow of power spreading out around them. "Selfish causes and selfish reasons for selfish people who refuse to see the larger picture, even when it is clearly laid out before you. You lack even the proper courage for heresy. You are simply cowards."

"Cowards or not," Agrias said, taking another step towards the Cardinal. "We have you surrounded."

The Cardinal smiled, and this was a genuine smile, this was a smile that reached his eyes and made them glow like hot coals, and that smile seemed far too big for his face, and his face seemed bigger too. It seemed as though the Cardinal was expanding, stretching, changing, and that darkness seemed far more concrete, and the runes on the walls were dimming before the vast shadow that stretched beyond him.

"You may have me surrounded," the Cardinal said, and it was the Cardinal's voice, yes, but there was more to it than that, layers to it, reverberations of sound that Ramza could hear not only in his ears but also in his mind, shaking in his heart, quivered in his bowels, and he saw the others in the room falling back before that awful voice. "But I have you trapped."

He reached inside his robes and pulled out the Scorpio Stone, which throbbed with a merciless bloody light like a miniature sun. And then that crimson orb exploded into violent glory, its light coalescing and congealing around the shape of the Cardinal, driving them all back with force and fury and fear, joining with the shadow, joining with the Cardinal.

The light never faded: instead, shadow and radiance solidified into a bloated, gargantuan shape, a putrid mass of miscolored grey-green flesh. A proportionally too-small head grinned cheerily from atop the corpulent mass, its pupilless eyes flickering to each one of them, its grin widening hungrily at the sight of their fear. It was not the only thing grinning—little mouths spoke and laughed and chuckled and smirked ll along its body, down its thick arms and its fat legs. Its irregular torso held the largest mouth of all, a great maw with black tombstone teeth. It was nearly twice as tall as the Cardinal had been, and wider and thicker still.

"You have chosen your sins," said the creature's many mouths, in voices that echoed the Cardinal's. "Now Cuchulainn will punish you for them."