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Chapter 59: Cuchulainn

Cuchulainn the Impure is listed as one of the known Lucavi (Lucavi whose names have been found in enough records to confirm their basic existence, if not their precise nature), with extensive magical powers that manifest mainly in the form of potent poisons. Earliest records, however, point to some manner of Mage King in pre-Ydoran Zelmonia, known as Cuculainn the Purifier for his work establishing irrigation canals and potable water sources for his people. His life and death are unknown, though scattered tomb carvings make note of him being poisoned by an heir...

-Alazlam Durai, "In Search of Myth"

It was too real.

That was the problem, from the outset. The thing the Cardinal had become—this many-mouthed monster that named itself Cuchulainn—was so terribly solid, a ghastly mimicry of humanity, too large and too potent and too present. It assaulted their senses with its weighty reality. It struck them dumb with the force of its undeniable existence.

There were monsters in the world, of course—even before Ramza had joined Gaffgarion, he had seen such things, panthers streaking across the Mandalia Plains, goblins screeching and scampering back from soldiers' torchlight, brooding purple-skinned behemoths in royal menageries. With Gaffgarion, he had seen still-stranger sights—malicious birds with each wing as a big as he was flocking the sky, herds of minotaurs pounding their way across rocky hills, and once in the thick of a swamp several skull-faced creatures clutching stolen weapons in their clumsy hands.

But in some sense, those had been more understandable. They were beastly enough to be mistaken for ordinary animals, their ghastly forms just inhuman enough to not unsettle the mind. Not so Cuchulainn—not so this abomination of human outline and inhuman substance, the thick grey-green flesh marred by gnawing, laughing, grimacing mouths. This thing that had once been Cardinal Alphonse Delacroix, and which still spoke in a voice that echoed him. Its pupiless eyes regarded them merrily from its grinning head, and Ramza and his allies were frozen before it, struck dumb.

So even after it spoke, they were still. Even as its largest mouth—that great, gaping maw that stretched across its gargantuan belly—began to glow with sickly green light, they did not stir. And when at last someone gasped (Ramza wasn't sure who; it might even have been him), it was too late. The blast hammered out, caught Agrias full upon the chest with a sound like the whistling of the wind mixed with the ringing of metal against metal, and smashed her off her feet. She flew backwards and crashed into Alicia; they tumbled to the floor.

"No!" Lavian cried, dashing towards Agrias and Alicia, and like that the spell was broken, because whatever horror they faced it was dangerous and every one of them was used to facing foes who wanted to kill them. Mustadio snapped up his gun and fired: a little splash of black goo drizzled out from the grey flesh on Cuchulainn's chest, and the monster's many mouths laughed.

Ramza, already charging the beast with spear in hand, had time enough to think, Oh, that's not good before he was within reach of the monster, which smashed out with one thick arm. Ramza twisted aside, and the arm missed him and instead cracked a settee in two pieces. He thrust with all his strength, reached out intuitively to sap away some portion of the monster's field-

Nearly collapsed.

By the Saint, the power of it! It was like reaching out to the handle of a pan, only to find it was too hot when it burned your hand, or perhaps more like reaching out to pick up a small object, only to find it much heavier than you expected. He had not expected the sheer, shocking weight of it. This creature was more than human: touching on its ambient magic walloped him, winded him at the level of his soul. He staggered backwards, half-blind, half-heartedly thrusting his spear. Cuchulainn reached out with one great hand, a sharp-toothed mouth grinning on his palm.

The percussive bang of Mustadio's gun was followed by one of Cuchulainn's fingers bursting off in a flecking spatter of hissing black good. It burned against Ramza's face, and he fell back shouting at the pain, the spear falling from his panicked finger as he desperate rubbed at the painful spots upon his face with the leather and cloth on his forearms.

"Ramza!" Radia cried, and something hard exploded into the side of his ribs. Ramza fell with a gasp of fresh pain, but this pain was familiar. It felt like a shoulder catching him along the side. A human hurt, and somehow that hurt stabilized him, calmed him a little, and he rolled away without thinking—just in time, if the sudden impact and shaking of the ground was any sign. He staggered to his feet, blinking the tears from his burning eyes, his lungs aching with strain.

The floor where Ramza had fallen was cratered and cracked where Cuchulainn had hammered one of its tree-trunk legs into the ground. A long, shallow wound had been torn across its chest, oozing black goo: Radia was weaving backwards from Cuchulainn's grasping hand. A bony finger had sprouted anew from the stump left by Mustadio's bullet. And there was something else, an odd tint in the air that was somehow heavier than light...

It took a moment for Ramza to understand—to see the little puffs of green gas chuckling from the monster's many mouths. To understand that the tightness in his chest was more than exhaustion, and the burning in his eyes more than pain.

"Get back!" Ramza shouted, and found his voice strained by the poison slowly filling the air. Radia ducked under the grasping hand, and Ramza saw with horror that the grinning, sharp-toothed mouth exhaled a fresh gust of gas, right into Radia's face. Her eyes widened, her face paled, and her mouth worked like a fish. She fell to her knees, still within Cuchulainn's reach.

"NO!" Ramza cried, lunging forwards in spite of the tightness in his throat, the pressure in his chest. He ran forwards, trying not to breathe, squinting his eyes as he snapped up his fallen spear. Radia slashed wildly, crawling backwards as Cuchulainn advanced steadily upon her, ignoring the wounds that Mustadio sank into his body. Ramza lunged again, drove his spear into the demon's chest: the spear pierced through the flesh easily enough, and then spear shuddered in his hand as though he had tried to thrust it through a thick stone wall. It wedged into Cuchulainn's chest, and would not budge.

The demon's many mouths were still laughing, still breathing heavy gas, and Cuchulainn twisted to one side, tearing the spear from Ramza's scraped and grasping hands. As it reached for him again, Ramza turned back, bent low, scooped up Radia even as his arms ached, and dashed towards the back of the room. He looked over his shoulder, and saw the green glow in the creature's stomach-mouth.

"No you don't!" Mustadio bellowed, and reached into the satchel he carried and pulled out one of the makeshift gunpowder bombs he'd used to such effect in Lionel city. With a simple flick, he set the fuse ablaze, and tossed the tightly-wrapped cylinder at Cuchulainn. Ramza threw himself down behind a chair as Cuchulainn's green light caught the bomb. The ensuing explosion rattled Ramza's bones, and sent ringing through his ears: he clung tight to Radia, gasping in spite of himself, eyes burning, throat tight with the effort it took to breathe.

"No escape, sinners!" howled the many voices of Cuchulainn. "Fight all you like! Your fate is sealed!"

Radia was pale in Ramza's lap, her breaths whistling in and out of bloodless lips. Without thinking, Ramza drew one of the daggers from his waist and slashed across his palm, sketching the old runes on her skin—runes to ease her breathing, and boost her immune system against foreign toxins. He forced power into each bloody rune, which glowed faintly. And as he worked, his skin crawled with the fear that one of those green blasts would smash the life from him while he cowered.

"A demon!" Mustadio spat from somewhere on Ramza's left. Ramza's head jerked towards him: he could just make out his friend's legs. "I should have known."

"Demon!" laughed Cuchulainn, and the voice sighed and giggled and snickered from other mouths across its body, repeating the phrase—demon, demon, demon. "It is not I who puts a torch to the Church's offices, and comes with threats of violence to its Cardinal."

"Look at yourself!" cried Mustadio.

"What matter the form, if the spirit is pure?" answered Cuchulainn.

Mustadio traded words with a monster. No, not a monster: a Lucavi. A demon of myth and legend, a thing out of stories, and it was in front of them, it might kill them, and-

Ramza shook his head against the cold, too-real weight, set Radia down gently and rose again. Perhaps ten seconds had passed since the explosion: furniture lay broken and burning in a wide radius around the corpulent monster. The stone floor was cratered with the impacts of its terrible legs and hands. The green toxin seemed much less thick than before—perhaps Mustadio's explosion had destroyed it somehow—but the many mouths still breathed and chuckled, so a small and deathly cloud was forming around it yet again. The spear Ramza had left in its chest jiggled merrily with every step. Below the spear, a green glow had begun to leak from between the stomach-mouth's tombstone teeth.

"You consort with criminals," Mustadio retorted, a fresh bomb in one hand, a gun trained on Cuchulainn in the other. "You kidnap my father. You oppress my city. There's nothing pure about you."

As Mustadio spoke Ramza curled the fingers of his left hand so they dipped into his bloody palm. With his bloody-fingers, he started to sketch a rune of fire on his uninjured hand.

A curious expression crossed the roughshod face atop Cuchulainn's body. It was an expression almost of regret. "Necessity has compelled me to unfortunate action," he said, in a musing voice that was echoed by his other mouths. "But I will yet-"

"TRAITOR!" Agrias screamed, and burst out from behind the Cardinal's miraculously-intact desk, just behind Cuchulainn. Ramza blinked in confusion—how had she managed to recover so quickly, much less circle around to the far side of the room without being seen?—and his surprise seemed to shared by Cuchulainn, who took a startled step backwards—a comically human action from such an inhuman form. A flare of emerald energy burst out of the monster's stomach; Agrias continued charging unafraid, slashing her glowing sword. There was a burst of force, shimmering white clashing against flaring green...and below that roar of sound, a lower, crackling rumble.

With a crack so deep it seemed to tremble in Ramza's blood, the floor between Agrias and Cuchulainn gave way. Agrias managed to stagger back from the crumbling stonework; Cuchulainn was not so fleet of foot. With a bellow of rage that was uttered in several discordant voices, the monster plummeted down through the floor, and landed with a resounding thud beneath them. The ground shook a little more beneath Ramza's feet.

Silence in the room. Agrias was panting with her sword in hand, her face and body mottled with little burns and wounds. On the other side of the room, Lavian was helping a bruised and wincing Alicia to her feet. Radia's head poked up from behind the chair where he'd left her.

"Can you see it?" Ramza whispered, afraid to move for fear that the floor would fall away beneath his feet.

Agrias shook her head. "Not from here. Maybe-"

A beam of shattering green exploded through the floor just behind Agrias, cleaving straight through the Cardinal's desk and smashing a hole into the far wall, exposing the cool night beyond. Agrias yelled and darted to one side, eyes flickering between the hole in the floor she'd made and the one the demon had just breathed into the world.

"Damn!" Mustadio shouted, dashing forward and igniting the fuse on the bomb in his hand. He hurled it down into the largest hole, then threw himself backwards. With a terrific boom, fire and smoke curled up through the hole, tearing away more of the stonework beneath them, widening that initial hole. The floor felt as though it were slanting, slipping away like ice.

But even before the smoke had cleared, the voices were babbling again, laughing, and a fresh beam of green force tore through the floor on the far side of the room, perilously close to Radia. The floor creaked a little more.

Alicia staggered from Lavian's side, scepter in hand, and jabbed it down towards the largest hole in the floor—the one through which Cuchulainn had fallen. Fire poured out of her scepter, a steady stream of flames cascading down into the room below, and though Alicia was pale and strained she stayed upright, raining fire down on the beast below. Until she flung herself back with a cry, as a green beam of force cleaved through her flames and struck the ceiling above, raining chunks of debris down upon the salon. A large hunk of masonry hit Ramza's shoulder, sending stunning waves of pain down his arm.

More beams of green force, more creaking from the floor below them, and Radia was back on her feet, unsteady but standing. "We need to get out!" she shouted. "This room's going to-"

Another beam, just by the door. With a final, splintering roar the floor beneath them gave way: Ramza fought to keep his feet, realized the pointlessness of it, and instead dashed towards the hole in the middle of the room. He flung himself through, twisted through the air so he would hit the ground at a roll. Too fast; he slammed hard into a wall, and agony lightninged through his back as his head swam with stars.

Though he was dizzy, spinning with pain and momentum, Ramza struggled to his feet. He couldn't quite manage it; he sank to the ground, sitting up with his back braced again the wall he'd hit, struggling to make sense of the vertigo world into which he'd fallen. Broken stone and flickering flames painted a confusing picture, so it took him a moment to figure out what he was seeing.

They were in some manner of chapel, though the pews burned, and among the broken stone Ramza dizzily spied his friends. Mustadio was on his feet, though limping heavily: Alicia was pulling Lavian to her feet, both dusty and apparently unharmed: Radia was slumped behind a pew, with Agrias' unconscious head in her chest.

At the farthest end of the room was a stained glass window that stretched all the way up to the apex of the high-ceilinged chapel, depicting the blonde, beatific Saint Ajora, his hands upraised as he preached to his disciples from atop a hill. The sun was radiant above him, with a scarlet Virgo symbol gleaming in its depths. And beneath this chapel window, its back to the purple-clothed altar from which a priest would pronounce his sermons and offer his sacraments, was the monstrous form of Cuchulainn, its many mouths still sighing green gas, the black burns on its skin slowly popping back to their heavy grey. Green light was still glowing in the depths of its stomach-mouth.

It fired that green light, straight at Alicia and Lavian.

"NO!" Alicia screamed, and raised her scepter once more. Runes flashed in rapid succession like shooting stars passing through a night sky, and a moment later a beam of bright white burst from her scepter's tip, and crashed into the green beam. They caught each other, burned against each other, a searing power that curled the hairs on Ramza's arms. The stone where the two blasts had met was glowing red with the heat of it, threatening to melt entirely.

But Alicia's beam, potent at first, began to flicker and fail. She fell to one knee, screaming still, and more runes flickered and flew from the tip of the scepter, but with every moment her white force dimmed and the green remained feverishly bright.

As her own beam failed, Alicia tried to twist aside. She was a hair too slow: Cuchulainn's green beam caught her in the arm, and sent her spinning through the air. She flew one way, her scepter another, and she careened into a pew, which splintered beneath her weight.

It was hard to see Cuchulainn's details now—even with the many holes the monster had carved into the ceiling, it had created a thick and noxious cloud around it. But even through the cloud, Ramza could see the threatening green glow of another nascent attack.

It speared through the air, straight towards Alicia, and splashed against a flickering field of shimmering force. Lavian, hunched over, her hands out-thrust, glared at the demon trying to kill Alicia. "You will not hurt her again!" she shrieked, and with one great effort turned the beam aside, so it smashed through the wall to her right.

"I will punish her!" howled one of Cuchulainn's voices. "As I will punish you!" The green glow through the cloud again, getting thicker, larger, closer. And Lavian stood panting at Alicia's side, swaying unsteadily as though she might collapse at any moment.

Another beam hurtled out of the cloud. Lavian raised her hands again, and then a red-headed figure fell between Lavian and Cuchulainn, red-bladed sword in hand. The green energy seemed to flow into Radia, and with every moment she stood a little straighter, a little more confidently, but there was something wide and terrified in her face now, her mouth open in a wide o-shape of pain, and when she shouted her voice cracked with agony.

"GET BACK! BACK!"

Ramza, dazed and dizzy and aching, struggled to his feet and stumbled across the room. Mustadio—and to his surprise, Agrias, though she seemed riddled with wounds—did the same. Mustadio and Ramza carried Alicia between them, while Agrias and Lavian leaned on each other as they staggered back to the chapel's large doors.

A high, terrible sound, human and inhuman, made Ramza turn his head. There was Radia sword still held as though it might cut through the beam, drawing the energy into herself, not screaming but whining, like a kettle of tea about to boil. She was burning with Cuchulainn's power, bright and horrible. She looked like the stones when Alicia's beam had crashed into Cuchulainn's—glowing with the heat of it, close to melting. The toxic cloud was fearfully close to her now.

The moment ended, and Radia turned, and moved—with speed that shocked Ramza, a vague flesh-colored blur pounding across the chapel floor, fast as a chocobo. She skidded to a halt, the red-bladed sword clattering to the stone floor, and screamed, "LAVIAN!"

Lavian's head jerked up, and Radia grabbed at one of her hands. Her body shimmered, pouring power into Lavian, and Lavian's eyes widened and she snapped up her hands. As another green beam burned out of the poison cloud, a bubble of raw force burst into being, thicker somehow than any of the bubbles Ramza had seen her create before. Though it was translucent, it felt solid. And when Cuchulainn's beam splashed harmlessly around it, though it flickered a little.

"Clever!" laughed Cuchulainn, hidden by the fog. "But you will not last!"

"We need to get out of here," Mustadio panted, moving towards the doors. They rattled in their frames, but would not budge.

"Damn it," he hissed. "Agrias, can you-" He gestured vaguely.

"Not without my sword," she replied dully, and again Ramza was struck by how terrible she looked, mottled by raw wounds and oozing burns. "But even if I had it, it's probably hurt one of us. And..." She gestured around them. The chapel was thick with the poison, and with every moment the flickering field around them seemed feebler and feebler, and within the toxic fog Cuchulainn's shadow moved sinuously. Tts many mouths were laughing, and every laugh was a fresh gust of noxious gas.

"Hold on," muttered Radia, her face pale, as energy shimmered from her hands into Lavian's shoulders. "Just...just hold on."

"I can't," gasped Lavian, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I can't."

Ramza looked around. Agrias was barely standing: Alicia was still unconscious, her right arm blackened and bleeding; Mustadio clutched at his gun as though by will alone he could fill it with bullets once more. And every moment, the bubble of force protecting them from the toxic cloud shrank and flickered and threatened to fail.

And as he saw the sheer, horrific scale of their situation, he felt the old razor calm settle over him, narrowing his focus, quieting his aches. He took in the sight of all his flagging, failing friends, all of whom had risked so much and tried so hard to best the impossible monster that stood before them. And all they'd done seemed to click together into one coherent whole.

"Mustadio," Ramza said, and Mustadio's sweat-drenched head jerked back to him. "You have one bomb left?"

Mustadio nodded jerkily. Ramza moved back to Radia, and grabbed her sword from where she had dropped it when she had grabbed for Lavian, to feed power into her.

"Ramza?" Radia breathed. "What are you-"

"Lavian," Ramza said, ignoring Radia because whatever his guilt there wasn't time now. "Can you drop the front of the field, just for a moment?"

Lavian moved her head a fraction of an inch in a marginal nod, the tendons on her neck and the veins in her forehead standing out with the strain.

"Ramza!" Radia cried. "What are you-"

"Nothing less than you," Ramza said, and they held each others' eyes for a moment. She nodded at last, and Ramza turned away from her, and took Mustadio's side once more, as Mustadio clutched at another of those rough-wrapped gunpowder bombs.

"Get ready to throw," Ramza said, and then, "NOW!"

Mustadio pulled back his arm to throw. At the same time, the field in front of them disappeared, and green mist poured through the opening—and Ramza raised his free hand, with its rune of blood drawn upon the palm, and unleashed a steady tide of orange flames. He took two quick steps forwards as all his strength poured through his hand and cried, "Mustadio!"

He stopped casting, and threw himself down behind an intact pew as Mustadio's bomb hurtled out into the oncoming fog. His eyes had already begun to burn as the explosion thundered through the room, the force of it nearly knocking Ramza backwards, but Ramza braced himself against the fallen pew and with his free, trembling hand reached up to his chest, and touched the two runes he'd carved there.

These runes were not new—he had etched them onto this chestplate, as he had etched them onto every chestplate he'd worn since the campaign against the Death Corps. Though it had been an awful long time since he had nursed hope of winning without killing, he had never shaken the habit of carving this pair of runes. One to ease his breathing. One that boosted his immune system so it could fight off foreign toxins.

He rose to his feet, rushing towards Cuchulainn (one arm now blackened by the force of Mustadio's bomb), and the corpulent monster turned its grinning head towards him, the mouths upon its arms and legs still sighing gas. Its great mouth glowed green with threatening force.

"Come, Beoulve!" laughed the many voices, and the great mouth opened and spat out a beam of enervating force, straight towards Ramza. And Ramza, his eyes burning, his chest tight, raised Gaffgarion's red-bladed sword, and drank it in.

It was so much. He had known from his brief touch earlier how powerful it would be, and had seen first-hand the potential danger when Radia had sucked one of those beams into herself. He had been thrown by the sudden healing clarity of draining Gaffgarion's field, but that was still within the realm of his experience. It was a strong breeze in a world where such things were uncommon. But Cuchulainn's green beam was a tornado of force, and it boiled beneath Ramza's skin. He felt it within him, a force that threatened to tear him apart and leave nothing but a smear of blood and soul within the chapel, but he forced himself to keep drinking, forced himself to bear it, forced himself to keep walking on as the energy hammered into him, hammered through him.

But it was too much, pouring into him, filling him to bursting, as though every organ in his body was a bladder full of fire, a hot pressure that would sunder him. He staggered on, one step, two, three, and then it was too much for him; he fell to one knee, barely keeping Gaffarion's sword between himself and the green blaze, steadying himself upon the rubble-strewn floor with his other hand.

And his fingers did not quite touch Alicia's scepter.

So close. So close. He had traced its path as Alicia had been sent flying: everything had been to get this close, and wield her scepter once again. To steal the strength that Cuchulainn had used, and turn it against him. But the scepter was out of reach, and without the scepter he could not command the same magic, and so he would die here, and his friends would die here-

No. Unacceptable. He had not fought so hard to let them die. He had not killed Gaffgarion to fail here. He had not fought and killed and bled to die here, demon or no.

His eyes flashed wide, and he snapped up his other hand again—the hand with the rune of blood upon its palm. Another flash of fire, bright and brutal, Cuchulainn's stolen power pouring through him in a flare of white heat, burst from his hand and crashed into Cuchulainn's thick legs. The creature staggered, gasping and cursing, and its great stomach-mouth ceased to breathe its green death and Ramza stumbled, dropped Gaffgarion's sword, and grabbed at Alicia's scepter.

His hands closed upon the cool metal, and Ramza tripped, stumbled, forced himself to roll to his feet even as his head pounded and his shoulder ached. Even after casting his spell there was still so much of Cuchulainn's energy inside him, wild and frenzied and fierce, and as Ramza rolled up right he was already sprinting, running so fast that the world around him was little more than a blur, leveling Alicia's scepter like a spear. The other mouths kept breathing out their terrible poison, and Ramza's chest was tight and his skin itched feverishly and his very thoughts seemed aflame but the runes on his chest kept feeding him strength and Cuchulainn's stolen energy was warding him, too, and he had his chance now, and the monster was close and its great stomach-mouth was burning with green light once again.

Ramza lunged forwards, and shoved the tip of Alicia's scepter into the mouth on Cuchulainn's copious belly. And at the same moment, he imagined fire, and forced all his stolen strength into the scepter. What ignited was less a fire and more a miniature sun, a volcanic explosion of heat and strength that Ramza could not have imagined tearing through him, burning away the cloud of poison around them. It was though he was vomiting power into Cuchulainn's body, such force and fury and acidic brilliant that it left his throat, his bones, his soul raw with it. Brighter, hotter, more and more, and soon fire was dribbling from the other mouths on Cuchulainn's body and all the myriad voices were screaming with pain as the monster burned. The mouth upon its human head opened wide, and belched fire as the pupiless eyes bubbled and popped, and black ooze dribbled from the sockets like tears.

At last, the terrible stolen strength was exhausted. Ramza sagged backwards, away from the sunken, burnt, blackened mass. A few mouths still worked, whispering, pleading. Something else seemed to be happening, just beneath Ramza's awareness; it was as though the demon was losing substance, evaporating like water set to boil.

"How..." rasped the monster, voices whimpering with pain. "This...cannot...I was to...to make a kingdom worthy of...to make sure that..."

As before, a shadow seemed to hang around the monster, only this time the shadow as draining away, fading with every passing moment.

"The Angel...I will not...die I...I must punish...I..."

There was a terrific burst of light, streaked (thickened?) with underlying darkness. The force of it shattered the stained glass window beyond it; Ramza staggered backwards, dropping Alicia's scepter as he shielded his eyes from the rain of tinkling glass. Slowly, the light faded; Ramza blinked the tears from his eyes, and saw the Scorpio Stone hovering before him, still glowing faintly.

Then the glow dimmed to nothing, and the Stone fell to the ground with a heavy clink.

Ramza stared at the Stone upon the ground. In the fury of the fire he had unleashed, his mood had changed. He felt sluggish and surreal, barely tethered to reality. Slowly, as though moving in a dream, he turned to face his comrades at the rear of the room. The bubble was gone; Lavian had her hands wrapped around Alicia's shoulders, pouring energy into her. The others stood at various points across the room, staring blankly at the place where Cuchlainn had been. Now that the threat had passed, they all seemed stunned.

"That...that was a..." Lavian seemed unable to speak.

"A Lucavi," Agrias managed, shaking her head. "A Lucavi...I don't...how..."

Ramza felt the same shock in Agrias' voice echoing inside him, reverberating through his bones, amplifying his aches and pains and exhaustion. He looked around and searched the faces of his friends, and saw his disbelief mirrored there. Everyone shaken, everyone reeling, everyone pale.

A Lucavi. A demon of legend, springing from the body of a Cardinal, powered by the magic of a Zodiac Stone. How was it possible? How was any of it possible?

"We...we have to move." It was Radia who spoke, her face as pale as any of theirs, but her eyes narrowed in concentration, as though trying to blind herself to the impossible thing they had just faced. "The longer we're here...no one except us knows what the Cardinal...what..." She took a steadying breath. "We have to move. If we don't..."

Of course. A desperate battle against a demon did not put an end to their mortal concerns. They had run circles around the Gryphon Knights of Lionel, but those soldiers were still out there, looking for their assailants. And their battle against the Cardinal had not exactly been quiet. Even Lionel's gates would not stop their pursuers for long.

"Agrias," Ramza said, though even with the anxious pressure of unseen dangers his mind and tongue still felt terribly sluggish. "How did...how did you...when Delita saved you, how..."

Saint above, so hard to speak, so hard to think, so hard to act, and what little concentration he'd managed to must dissipated in a stab of pain and doubt when he said Delita's name. Had Delita known of Gaffgarion's presence? Had he known about the Cardinal, and the Stone?

"A postern," Agrias said mechanically, her tone flat, her eyes wide. "Leads out where the river...in the mountains. Had me swim out. Met me later, with my gear."

"Can we...?" Mustadio started, and then trailed off.

"I...yes," Agrias answered. "Yes, it's...it's this..." Then her eyes widened still further, and her face contorted with sudden fury. "What in God's name!" she howled. "A Church plot is bad enough, but the fucking Lucavi? Is this a children's tale?"

"Easy, captain," Lavian mumbled, though she was not even looking at Agrias: she was still slumped on the ground, with Alicia's head cradled in her lap as her shimmering hands worked to heal Alicia's blackened arm.

"No!" Agrias bellowed. "This is not easy. There is nothing easy about this! How...how do we...how can we..." Her face was red with rage now, and she seemed to be choking on her anger.

She was right. Nothing easy at all. Nothing easy about searching for a Princess when the whole world conspired to keep them separated (and did Delita? He had warned them of the trap, but not of Gaffgarion, and not of the Princess' absence. Had he known? Ramza could not escape the question). Nothing easy about killing Gaffgarion, with his daughter at your side. Nothing easy about confronting a corrupt Cardinal, and seeing that Cardinal transformed by a holy relic into an unholy terror. Ramza felt just as had when the floor had begun to cave, only this time it was the foundations of his world that were crumbling beneath him, threatening to plunge his sanity down into the dark.

And unbidden, a face appeared in his mind's eye. A round, weathered face, framed by dark hair. The face of Baron Grimms.

"Grimms," Ramza said aloud, and looked at Radia. "Baron Grimms."

Radia's narrowed eyes narrowed still further, until they were little more than slits. "What?"

"Grimms!" Ramza exlcaimed. "Grimms and the Black Sheep!"

"Oh," Radia said, and then her eyes widened. "Oh!"

"The Black Sheep?" Agrias repeated, with a note of distaste. "Those mercenaries?"

"Mercenaries, sure," Ramza said. "Mercenaries who already distrusted all these rebellions. Bet we can get the Baron on our side, if we let him know what the Church is doing."

"You think he can stop this?" Radia asked.

"I think he's got the contacts, and the motive," Ramza said. "And besides..." He looked toward Agrias. "Whatever the Church plans with Ovelia, it would help to have more soldiers."

Agrias nodded. "It...it might indeed."

"It's a start," Radia agreed. "He was headed for Zeltennia?"

"Looking for some cult," Ramza said.

Radia nodded. "Then let's get moving."

Radia made to head back to the altar, to grab her scepter. She tripped almost at once, her tired legs entangling with one another. Ramza, weary himself, hurried to her side, but when he tried to help her she shrugged off his hands. Ramza flinched away, and Radia lifted her green eyes to him and shook her head. "I can't," she said.

No, of course not. She would not want to be touched by the hands that had killed her father.

Radia stumbled on. One-by-one, the exhausted cohort managed to take their feet, and grab their weapons. Alicia was still unconscious: Ramza and Mustadio carried her between them, as Lavian used the scepter to tend to her. At the front of the room, Radia was kneeling in front of the maroon Stone, reaching out to touch it as though it might burn her. When nothing happened, she picked it up, and began to crawl through the shattered window where the stained glass had been. One by one they followed in her wake, but after Ramza had helped Alicia through, he took a moment to look over the devastation of the chapel, the broken masonry and shattered stones, the flickering of the cracked runelights. The weight of the night's events settled heavy on him, and for a moment he closed his eyes, and felt the yawning of that bleak chasm beneath his mind.

But there was still hope. They had knowledge of a great plot, and a potential ally with power enough to help them. He could not afford to give up yet—for his sake, and the Princess', and maybe all of Ivalice's.

He staggered after the others.