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Chapter 58: Pain and Punishment

Nothing mattered. Not anymore.

Alphonse stumbled up the steps, his head fogged with wine, his eyes glazed with tears. Each step seemed to take too long, as the moments slid along with his awareness into the vast empty gulf that had opened inside him since word had first come of the raid upon his caravan. Of what had happened to his wife. Of what had happened to his son.

The thought brought pain, but only for a moment. Just a little flare of the old grief, and then it was gone again, drained down into the emptiness along with everything else inside him. Only anger ever stayed for long, and then only when he watched the work in the dungeons, or took a hand in it himself.

The Gryphon Knights were not the mighty war machines of the Hokuten and the Nanten—the temporal powers of Ivalice only begrudgingly accepted Lionel as an extension of the Church, and that after frustrating negotiations that might be abolished at a moment's notice. But though their power was comparably limited, they were still stronger than any force within their borders. The assassins might have fled the scene of their crime, but the the Gryphons found them swiftly, and dragged them to Lionel Castle to meet their punishment.

Emptiness and pain had coexisted in the Cardinal in equal measure. He set out to inflict that pain upon those who had so hurt him. First with the casual cruelty of regular men, but that was too good for the likes of them, and watching the swinging of fists and the kicking of booted feet seemed so hollow, even as the assassins wept. So the Cardinal found other men and women—men and women whose life's work was the dungeons, and all the tools that came with them. He had Baerd send some of his best men. He searched the gaols of Lionel for the worst criminals, and brought them here with promises of clemency, so long as they would turn their appetites upon the Cardinal's enemies.

And every time, he would come down into the dark, and watch, and listen. Only in those moments, when they screamed and wept and begged, when screws turned and ropes pulled and hot coals sizzled against skin, when blades carved and needled pierced and hot iron sang, did Alphonse ever feel like the world would be right again.

But it was not enough. These assassins were merely the worst of the rot that was killing Lionel, just like they had killed his wife and son. He sent the Gryphons far and wide in search of other men and women in need of punishment. Soon the dungeons of Lionel were full to bursting, and every night the Cardinal would descend to listen to their punishments.

There were objections—soldiers who would not carry out their duties, healers who would not treat his prisoners so that they could stand their next punishment, long-time servants and advisors who struggled to pull the Cardinal off his path. Fools, the lot of them; they did not see clearly enough. He arranged for them to be sent away, to toil in the archives of Mullonde or to patrol the hinterlands of Lionel. Soon, no one objected. Soon, he was left to correct the sins of Lionel, the only way he could.

But even the screams began to feel hollow. All the punishment did not resurrect the dead. And Lionel—no, all Ivalice—felt yet more rotten with every passing day.

The Cardinal sat at his desk with a nearly-empty bottle of wine, tired but unable to sleep. The waves of drunkenness echoed inside him, down into the void. He grabbed clumsily for the bottle, and knocked it over, so the maroon liquid poured across the desk and down into his carpet. He watched it drip away.

What a waste. Just like Lionel. Just like Ivalice. Just like everything.

There was a knock upon his door. Without looking up, the Cardinal mumbled, "Go away."

Silence for a moment. Then the knocking came again, louder. Anger, hot and bright, streaked like a comet through the emptiness. "GO AWAY!" bellowed the Cardinal, with authority enough to silence a whole battalion of men.

A moment's silence...then another knock, louder than the last, and the comet of rage burst into hot flames, and the Cardinal moved with such terrible speed, amplified by his drunkenness so he almost punched a hole straight through the door. But no, that was too much a warning, and this intruder might run if he had a chance to glimpse the fate that awaited him. Whoever continued to knock in spite of his orders would soon find what it was to be punished. He would show them what happened to those who defied him.

He flung the door open, and his curses died upon his lips. Vormav Tengille stood on the other side, his muscular arms folded across his broad chest, his head cocked to one side.

The Knight-Commander of the Templar. Had Marcel sent him? And if so, why? Did he intend to try and stop Alphonse?

But when Vormav spoke, his voice was calm almost to the point of disinterest. "Good evening, your Grace."

"What are you doing here?" Alphonse demanded.

Vormav's thick eyebrows arched. "The Saint's Work." His eyes flickered past the Cardinal to the spilled wine on his desk. "Are you?"

Alphonse glowered at him. "In my own way."

"I'm sure," Vormav replied. He stepped past Alphonse, not bothering to ask his permission (another comet of anger soared through the darkness, warming Alphonse a little).

"Marcel sent you?" Alphonse said, giving voice to some of his anger.

Vormav circled the room once, looking for all the world like a curious cat examining a new home. When he answered Alphonse, he did not look at him. "The High Priest has given me a task, yes. I had hoped to involve you in its completion."

And now Marcel meddled in his affairs. Another warm comet of anger rose up in the darkness, and Alphonse clenched his hands into fists. See where their meddling led—to loved ones dead. "What do you want?" growled Alphonse, his throat thick with rage and grief.

Vormav looked at the Cardinal, and now there was anger in his eyes. "What do I want?" he asked. "I want a man of reason and intelligence. I Cardinal Alphonse Delacroix, not this sniveling wretch."

The fire this time was not a comet but a volcanic burst, cleaving through the fog of drunken sorrow: Alphonse took a step towards Vormav. "Watch your tongue," he spat. "You may be Knight-Commander, but-"

"But what?" Vormav snorted. "Will you lock me in your dungeon and make me apologize?" Vormav's arms were folded across his chest, but somehow his stance drew attention to the sword on his hip. "You're welcome to try."

"You dare threaten me!" bellowed Alphonse, taking another step towards Vormav, raising his hands as though he might strangle the other man by will alone.

Vormav's eyebrows arched. "Only one of us has made any threats, your Grace."

Some dim, distant part of Alphonse's mind recognized that was true—that Vormav, though frustratingly familiar, had for the most part been perfectly civil. But that whisper of truth was drowned out by a fresh flare of rage. He took another step towards Vormav, so close now he could almost have reached out and...

And what?

Before he could answer the question, Vormav had raised a forestalling had. "I did not come here to quarrel with you, your Grace," he said. "And I admit I spoke poorly. To serve our Saint properly, I require the Cardinal Delacroix whose name is synonymous with fairness and trust across Ivalice. And if I may be frank, your Grace, you do not seem like that man."

A laugh surprised Alphonse, bubbling from his lips like bile. "You think you wound me with such words?" Alphonse asked. "That man lived for God, and God repaid him by-"

The laughter died, choked off by a fresh wave of grief. Alphonse dribbled down into the nearest chair, buried his face in his hands and drew ragged, sobbing breaths to try and keep from weeping. He did not want to feel this. He didn't want to feel anything.

"What use in serving God," he muttered. "If this is your reward?"

Silence across all Lionel—silence in the salon, through the castle halls, and inside Alphonse himself. He stared into the darkness formed by his cupped hands, hoping it would swallow him.

"This was not the work of God."

Alphonse looked up. Vormav was staring at him, his craggy face neutral but his flint eyes glowing with conviction. In spite of himself, Alphonse was captivated.

"Not the work of God," Vormav repeated, after a moment's silence. "But men. Men acting as men do, without a proper hand to guide them—to hold them back from folly, and punish them for their sins and protect the righteous among them. Men without the light of the Saint."

Alphonse managed to laugh again, though the sound was weak even to his ears. "What of it?" he asked. "I have spent my life trying to spread His light, and still...still, I..."

Vormav nodded. "I know your pain."

A brief flicker of rage. Alphonse opened his mouth to snap at Vormav, to scream that he could not be understood...and then faltered. Something had happened to Vormav's wife, hadn't it? Yes, he remembered now. She had been killed while pregnant during the War.

Perhaps Vormav could understand. If anyone could.

"I remember what it was like," Vormav said, as Alphonse bit his tongue. "I remember..." He trailed off and shook his head. "I questioned everything. I almost left the Templars."

Alphonse started in surprise. "You?"

Vormav nodded. "But the Saint provides. As he always does. As I hope I can now."

He reached inside his robes, and after a moment drew out a dark maroon stone, round and gleaming. No, not just gleaming: glowing, gentle and potent as a star in the sky. Alphonse's eyes were transfixed by that Stone, and then he felt pure elation rocket through him when he saw the insignia shining upon its surface.

"Is that..." he began. "Can that possibly be..."

"A Zodiac Stone," Vormav said. He set the maroon stone down upon the wooden table, where its glow faded. "We have six in our possession."

"Six...six..." Alphonse repeated the word over to himself like a litany. Six Stones, six of the twelve. He knew that at least one was kept among the High Priest's personal collection, but that was the only one he knew of. Six? Half of the greatest miracles God had ever given to the world?

"Such is the aim of our High Priest," Vormav said. "We shall find all twelve, and form the Braves anew, and soothe the troubled soul of Ivalice. But if we are to reform the Braves, we will need men and women worthy of miracles. Men like the Cardinal of Lionel."

The Cardinal stared at the light of the Stone, but on hearing Vormav's last words felt the void inside him darkening and intensifying. The Cardinal had lived in the illusion that God cared for him, that he would protect the righteous and punish the wicked. Even if Vormav was right—even if what had happened was not the work of God, but of men—what hope was there for Braves in a world where God did not protect his faithful?

"I will leave the Stone in your care, your Grace," Vormav said. "And with your permission, with spend the night here. Perhaps by morning you will have found reason to listen to me."

Vormav moved past him, pausing only to squeeze one shoulder before stepping into the hall. Alphonse did not move or speak. He felt helpless to do either, tempted by the Stone that lay upon the table, promising him all he had dreamed. He had loved the story of the Braves since he was a child in the busy household of a Lionel priest: in the busy household, often lost among his numerous brothers and sisters, he would entertained himself with fantasies that he had found a Stone, and earned his place among the Braves. His earliest memories were of listening to his father preach, his mother sing, both voices soaring high into the vaulted reaches of their Church. In that sound he had heard the touch of the divine—of power from within that could fill the world, and something in him had equated those childhood fantasies with that sound, that power—the power of the Church, in all its rituals.

So he had devoted himself, body and soul, to the Church. So he had become one of its warriors, priests, and generals. And now one of its greatest relics lay before him, as though God had ordained it to be so.

But what did that matter? For if his devotion had led him to the Stone, it had also led him away from the side of his wife and son, so he could not keep them safe. So he could not even die at their side. Now he remained, lingering on in this meaningless, Godless world.

The emptiness reared up inside him once more, a silent wave threatening to swallow him. And for the first time in days, Alphonse feared that emptiness. Filled with memories of the child he had been—memories of his own nascent family, of warm touches in the darkness and his son's bright laugh—he feared that he would never feel again, if he allowed that void to fill him once more.

Without thinking, he reached out, and touched the surface of the Stone.

Poor child.

A whisper in his mind, as though in an imagined conversation, but louder somehow. It felt three-dimensional, as though the speaker was just out of view—or rather, as though the speaker were somehow inside him.

No, child. Nothing so sinister.

This voice came from the same place, but was not the same voice. It was lighter somehow, softer—younger or more womanly or both, Alphonse could not say.

Childish distinctions. Whatever our voice, we speak with the same will.

We?

We. The miracle of which the legends speak.

Miracles? Alphonse's eyes widened, and he looked down at the glowing Stone, warm to the touch against his fingertips. He pulled his hands away, not in fear but in experimentation. The glowing dimmed, and when another voice spoke—this one older, creaking with age—it was quieter, as though the speaker called to him from another room.

Yes, child. The Stone.

Alphonse's mouth felt very dry. No sooner did he touch the Stone then a miracle presented itself, the legends manifesting before his eyes. He tried to speak, and felt the words caught in the desert of his throat. He swallowed, then tried again. "I...I am not a child."

Laughter from many throats. Not a child to men, no. But to us.

"Who are you?" Alphonse asked.

We are the power of the Stone.

"That's not an answer."

You stared at us, searching for a miracle. You touch a stone, and hear a legion of voices that answers your thoughts. What more is required?

"A name."

As many names as the Stone has had wielders. But do you what name we would like to have?

The answer sprang unbidden into Alphonse's mind. Whispers of approval surrounded him.

Yes. That name.

"Why?"

Silence for a moment—silence as profound and terrible as that which had hung between Alphonse and Vormav, but more intimate somehow. Alphonse could feel the void where the voices had been, deeper and darker even than the empty gulf that had drowned his days. He trembled with sudden fear, reached out and touched his fingers to the Stone once more.

"Please," he said, a tremor in his voice.

Another moment's absence, as Alphonse's stomach plummeted with dread...then the voices returned, softer than before and yet deeper, as though the speaker whispered into some inner ear he'd never known he had.

Poor child. Betrayed by those you sought to protect. We know this pain.

We know such pain, added a different voice, thin and regal. So much pain.

For such did we wield the Stone, murmured a haughty man's voice. To make sure those who harmed us would never hurt again.

And to visit upon them the pain they would bring into the world.

Do unto others! laughed a bright child's voice.

We shall reward the righteous.

And we shall punish the sinners.

More and more voices, and the glow of the Scorpio Stone was brighter still, bright enough that it should have hurt Alphonse's eyes. But he found it easy to look at, the light leaking through his eyes until it seemed to glow somewhere inside him, brightening the void within. The babbling voices soothed him, like a gentle hand stroking the back of his neck, a hand he would never feel again because a Godless madman had killed her, killed their son, and taken hope out of his world.

Alphonse's fingers tightened around the Stone, as tears burned in his eyes. The voices spoke more quickly, almost frantic with reflected grief.

Poor child! How the world has wronged you.

We can do better.

We can make it better.

"Yes," Alphonse.

Silence, as all the voices stopped speaking at once. But he could feel them around him, within him. The Stone felt so powerful in his hand.

You accept our aid?

"Please," Alphonse whispered.

This time, the voices all spoke as one, a mighty host with power crackling beneath their every word. We wish to aid you, child! But this path is not for the faint of our heart! Once the oath is sworn, you cannot recant!

The Stone pulsed steadily in the Cardinal's hand. He clutched at it as he had clutched at his wife's hand, staring into her bloody face, as though it was an illusion that would melt away, a prank in bad taste. Looking for any sign of life in her lifeless eyes

"Reward the righteous," he said. "Punish the wicked."

And the Stone burst into light, burning with power and energy that filled the salon. That wild, ecstatic light poured inside him and through him; the voices bubbled and babbled, surrounding his thoughts. He supposed he should have felt afraid—could not these voices smother him, drown him?—but there was no fear. Like his comets of anger, they warmed him, but unlike his anger the warmth didn't fade. It seemed to mount steadily, filling not only the vast gulf inside him but every inch of his body and mind, a heat like sunlight, like orgasm, like alcohol, but brighter somehow, clearer, more powerful than any healing magic, than any spell he'd ever cast. Each of those voices came with its own warmth, its own brightness, its own power. If it had been him alone, he would surely have burnt to ashes, or burst with that strength. But he was not alone. He would never be alone again.

Alphonse receded into that mass, into that power, becoming only one part of a greater whole. But somehow he was not diminished by it: it was rather like the feeling of marching in an army—that feeling of solidity, of power, of being part of something greater than yourself. Unlike an army—unlike even the armies Alphonse had led in his time, fighting on the frontlines, swinging his sword for the glory of God and country—Alphonse was both commander and soldier. He was a member of the host, and he oversaw the host. And those voices consolidated and coalesced together into a more substantial whole—a whole that was shaped like the man who had reached out to the Stone, a whole of which Alphonse was a part, but infinitely stronger than he had ever been, a whole of many parts and many wills and many powers. A whole that could do all the Cardinal had ever dreamed, and more.

He rose from his desk, the Scorpio Stone clutched between his strong fingers, his mind ablaze with possibilities, his body radiant and resplendent with light and shadow in equal parts.

"Ah," came the satisfied voice of Vormav Tengille. "I knew I was right to trust you."

The Cardinal—the sublime, infinite, powerful Cardinal—looked up from his desk with eyes that saw the world more clearly than any human eyes could see, that saw it painted in colors of power and potential, implicit promises of all he could do if he only willed. But when those new eyes saw Vormav Tengille standing in the doorway, they saw light and strength like a burning sun. The Cardinal blinked his clumsy human eyes as involuntary tears filled them.

"Not Vormav," murmured the Cardinal. "Which of us are you?"

Vormav smiled a little. "You're newly awoken, friend," he replied. "I doubt you even know yourself."

"I..." the Cardinal trailed off. Curious! So many voices, so much knowledge, so much strength...too much, in fact. He felt like a clever scholar searching through an unfamiliar library, reading quickly and moving confidently from one area to another, but aware of shelves and shelves of knowledge not yet read. Strange, indeed! He knew he was the Cardinal, but that was not his first name, nor his true name.

"Quite right," he murmured. "Quite right. So long since I last..."

How long? Something there, something difficult to process or untangle, lost in the mists, in visions of fire and fury and power and pain that sent a little tremor of fear through all the myriad voices inside him.

"It's alright, friend," Vormav said. "I will gladly remind you of your name, and our place. There is time enough yet to punish the sinners, and restore order beneath the wings of our Bloody Angel."

Ah, and wasn't that a warm thought! The vision that filled his head then, of the power and radiance besides which the Cardinal and Vormav pale embers in the dark, stretched all across his mind. He smiled and nodded. "Yes...yes..."

Vormav's smile widened. "But first, I believe you've some business to attend to."

That thought was no less bright than the memory of the Bloody Angel. His many voices chuckled in rabid glee. "Quite right," he answered. "Quite right."

Stone steps flew by beneath his feet: the halls of Lionel Castle, empty in this late hour, seemed to blur past him (God the power in him, inexhaustible, as though he walked through a sunlit world with a strong breeze at his back, as though he could run forever and never tire). He hurried down into the musty dungeons that reeked yet of blood and shit. Moans and sobs drifted out like mist from the many doors. Guards and interrogators and torturers stood mystified as the Cardinal ushered them out, gently or firmly or fiercely as their resistance warranted.

When the dungeons were empty of all but prisoners, he opened the farthest, heaviest cell door, which opened on a wide and spacious room. The man in chains whimpered, pulling as far back as his chains would allow against the wall, his one remaining eye wet with tears; the dour-faced Healer looked up, his red-and-white should patches dusty with his day's work, his face sallow.

"He's not ready yet, your Grace," said the Healer, in a bored tone.

"That is alright, Tenes," the Cardinal answered. "Your services will no longer be required for this prisoner."

The prisoner's whimpers rose to a frantic pitch. Tenes looked between the Cardinal and the prisoner, shrugged, and rose to his feet, dusting himself off as he went. He left the door cracked behind him, and the Cardinal waited patiently with hands clasped behind his back.

"Pleath," mumbled the man, the words stumbling off the half-tongue that had been left to him, tripping across broken stumps of teeth. "Pleath, no more. I'm thorry. I'm thorry."

The Cardinal smiled, and felt his power burning in that smile. He felt such strength, such brightness, such fury. But where the anger of the man he'd been had had a sour note, a note of impotence and terror and grief and fear, there was no such detritus on this new, bright rage. Anger fogged the minds of men: in the minds of the Cardinal—in the minds of the bright, beautiful creature that ignorant men had so long castigated as a demon—he felt only clarity of purpose. He was angry, yes. And he knew how best to use this anger.

"No," the Cardinal said. "You are not sorry. Not yet."

He allowed his new power to burn, his new voices to speak. He felt his body changing, reflecting the myriad strength . He saw the terror in the eyes of the prisoner, and relished it.

The righteous would be protected from the sinners. The wicked would be punished for their sins. If God would not guarantee it, the Cardinal would, with every power at his disposal. And there was more power at his disposal now than most men ever dreamed.

The assassin started to scream. It would be hours yet before he stopped.