(Thank you for your patience, everyone! We're finally into Part 3, and should be able to keep up weekly updates for at least the next several months. And if you check out quickascanbe dot com, there's plenty more to keep you busy while you wait)
Part 3: In Search of Honor
Chapter 62: Purposeless
The war should have ended with the first strike. Count Orlandeau led a devastating raid on Lesalia, cutting straight through the patchy royal defenses, capturing Queen Louveria, and retreating behind the Nanten lines, which the Hokuten could not break. But even before they had returned to Bethla Garrison, young Prince Orinus (now just shy of his sixth birthday) was coronated King of Ivalice, and his regent, Prince Larg, declared the Nanten traitors. The Nanten, in turn, claimed Orinus' coronation an illegal act, and all who followed him traitors themselves. The Queen whose tyranny had set the war in motion no long held the reins in power, but like a boulder pushed from atop a mountain, the war continued to escalate, rushing to claim more victims down below...
-Alazlam Durai, "Lecture to Freshman History Students and the Royal College"
"He can't breathe!" hollered one of the nurses, wild-eyed and pale.
"Let me through," Ramza said, drawing the little knife from its sheathe on his arm. He cut along the scar on his palm and hurried to the patient's side, cleaning the blade as he went. The patient was a young man from one battlefield or another, burned and scarred, gasping for air as blood-flecked spittle dribbled down his cracked lips. Ramza grabbed at one of the boy's his hands, which nearly slipped away from him—the boy had only two fingers remaining. He cut, swift and true, across the young man's palm, dabbed one finger in his blood, mixed it with his own, and quickly sketched a rune upon the young man's bare chest. It glowed briefly, and Ramza felt a little weakness in his legs, a little dizziness in his head, but the boy's breathing eased almost at once..
"Thanks, Ivan," the nurse sighed, brushing back her hair.
"No problem, Rose," Ramza answered, but before he could say more someone else was shouting down the hall of this overcrowded hospital, and Ramza raced off towards the latest crisis. So passed his day—casting simple spells to buy the doctors and Healers time to work, applying poultices and bandages, helping move crates of supplies. At day's end, he was weary as always, and the pouch of gil he held in his hand felt too light for the work he'd done.
He exited the hospital—a stately wooden building that had belonged to some minor noble in a bygone age—and headed down one of Gariland's wide cobblestone streets, ducking his head against the cold wind as it rustled in the bare branches of the trees. Soon, cobblestone turned to dirt and gravel as Ramza followed a winding rut through tall grass. He heard the distant sound of a hammer upon a nail before Daravon's squat, sunken estate swam into view—a wide, once-white building with signs of disrepair, cracked paint and missing shingles, ivy grown wild upon one wing.
"Ramza!" someone shouted from behind him. Ramza looked over his shoulder to find Alicia hurrying after him, wearing a prim dress of faded pink fabric. She had a bag slung across her narrow shoulders. As he watched, she reached up to adjust the strap. The three fingers that remained on her right hand pulled with thoughtless dexterity. "Any sign of Lav?"
"You know they always keep her later than me," Ramza answered, pausing to let Alicia catch up. "How were lessons?"
Alicia's face contorted into a grimace. "Bah," she spat. "Ain't no one buying Gariland neutrality these days. All I got is rich kids learning a few tricks."
"No one else?" Ramza asked.
Alicia sighed. "A few kids who came her on scholarship. But with the Academy closed down..." She patted her bag and managed a weak smile. "Grabbed us some more gear, though."
"Nice of your old professors."
"Not as a nice as yours," Alicia said, nodding towards Daravon's manse.
They had kept walking towards the manor as they talked: now they were close enough to spy the source of the hammering. Besrodio Bunansa was hammering boards and shingles into place over the worst parts of the roof. He waved at them absently as they came close. "Lavian back yet?" he called, his voice a little clumsy through the nails between his teeth.
"What do you think?" Alicia asked.
"Too bad. I've done some more work on her staff. And on your gloves."
"Thank you, Mister Bunansa."
Besrodio chuckled. "I thought I had asked you not to call me that?"
Ramza shrugged. Besrodio waved them on, and Ramza and Alicia made their way inside the manor. They shied away from the ancient wooden doors whose old hinges were so unreliable and instead took the kitchen door, unlocking it with one of their rusty keys. Daravon was already within, coaxing a fire from an old rune on his oven, humming to himself as onions sizzled on an iron skillet.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, smiling through his trim silver-black beard. "You're the first ones back!"
Hardly unusual—the others' jobs tended to keep them away for far longer. Wordlessly, Ramza and Radia both dropped their pouches of gil on the wooden table that occupied that middle of the cramped kitchen, and made an effort to help Daravon cook. As always, Daravon waved them away, sipping from a glass of whiskey as he did so. They protested, but only half-heartedly—in the six months they'd been here, Daravon had only accepted their help in preparing dinner twice.
But truth be told, Ramza was little troubled by pangs of guilt. He was as eager as Alicia to get down to the training room.
The rest of the manse might be a little worn and decrepit, but the training room that occupied the entire basement level was immaculately maintained. Ramza had never seen its like. There were echoes of some of the sparring chambers at the Military Academy (reserved almost exclusively for specialist classes), and Alicia and Lavian said that it reminded them of some of the training rooms at the Magic Academy. It was a wide, high-ceilinged, rectangular room, with floors and walls of patterned stone. Each wide stone block upon the floor had carved upon it a large rune, while the walls and ceiling held rows upon rows of them. The smaller runes included some for light, but there were many others besides—runes of healing and strengthening, runes to subdue magics of various kinds. The runes upon the floor were far more specialized—some strengthened the body, while others weakened it; some amplified certain kinds of magic while restraining others; one particularly insidious rune magnified gravity itself within its space, making it harder to stand, much less act.
Near the door was a wide table that Mustadio and Besrodio both used as a workspace when they had time. Lavian's new staff sat upon it—this one a quarterstaff that Besrodio was slowly modifying, inscribing the runes she carved with the materials Alicia could get from around town and from her old instructors. Alicia pulled out the little pouches of materials from her pack and laid them out in the corresponding places on the table. While she did, Ramza grabbed the gloves Besrodio had made for him: care-worn and dexterous, made of a fine thin leather that had seen better days. Along the wrists were runes of many kinds, carefully crafted. The left was principally for attacking: the right for healing. Ramza flexed his fingers in each.
"Ready?" Alicia asked, picking up both her scepter and Lavian's staff.
Ramza nodded, and they stepped into separate squares. Ramza's weakened any destructive spells cast within it: Alicia's strengthened defensive spells. He lifted his left hand, touched the rune, and unleashed fire. Within the square, his magic thickened like syrup: familiar as he was now with the act of converting magic to fire, it still took effort, and the resulting flares and flames were embers and faded shadows.
They rotated back and forth between the two squares, testing themselves with casting spells of both kinds. By now, Ramza was much more comfortable with lightning, and had even added a rune for wind (easy enough to create, though much more difficult to create with such force to have any effect). Ice gave him the most trouble: Alicia had explained that forms of energy were easy, but physical objects much more difficult. She had demonstrated by having him first move water, and then try and create water. The first was easy, mere force applied in one direction or another; the latter left him kneeling on the floor, gasping for breath.
"Ice spells are tricky," Alicia admitted, as they lounged back against the work table, passing a canteen of water back and forth between them, both still a little hard of breath. "But useful. Harder to block. Solids are always harder, even if they're more predictable. It's an energy thing."
"How do you mean?" Ramza asked.
"Well..." Alicia pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Fire and lightning are basically raw conversion: you just turn your magic to that energy, and unleash. But to do ice spells, you gotta do a couple things at once. Gotta create the water, and then freeze it. And that means expending energy to extract energy."
Ramza's brow furrowed. "I don't follow."
"Water boils when you heat it, right?" Alicia said. "When you add energy. Ice is created when you take away heat—subtracting energy."
Ramza nodded. "And in this case, our magic is the energy."
A thought occurred to Ramza. "So..so what if I used the Draining Blade while creating the water?" he asked. "Suck heat in as I create?"
Alicia smiled patiently. "It's a good thought, Ramza. But the Draining Blade works on magic. You can't just suck in heat. If it's heat created by an enemy, sure—at its core that's magic, and wants to be converted back." She considered for a moment. "Think of it this way. If I shot fire at you, you might be able to drain it, right? But you couldn't stick your sword into a fire and absorb those flames."
Ramza nodded, feeling a little dumb. She patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. It's a good thought, but at a certain point you're running up against the fundamental laws of the universe."
"Resting already?"Agrias called.
Ramza and Alicia jerked away from the table as though it had shocked them. Agrias was striding across the room, wearing the ill-fitting leather armor Daravon had scrounged up for her. The old scars from their battles in Lionel gleamed all across her body.
"Time enough to talk, time enough to work," Agrias said, shedding the rough iron sword she wore when guarding merchants and grabbing for her Ydoran blade.
With Alicia, training was studious and intellectual: they tried to learn new techniques together, and to perfect what they already knew. With Agrias, training was a grueling ordeal, fast and brutal. Pivoting from one square to the next, forcing Ramza to match her blow for blow, to teach her how to resist having her field drained; forcing Alicia to raise shields against her, or cast magic that she would knock aside with a flick of her shimmering sword.
Agrias talked very little these days. She worked for whatever merchant would have her, for whatever cause they would hire her. And when her work was come, down she'd come to the training room, to work herself into a lather.
"No!" Agrias shouted, trying to teach Ramza the basics of the Bursting Sword. His head swam dizzily, and he swayed on his feet. The Bursting Sword was so much more difficult than ordinary magic, supercharging your field into a burst of raw shattering force directed along the edge of a blade. "You keep trying to cast!" Agrias said fiercely. "But our discipline is not a mage's discipline! You must learn to channel your energy along the edge of your sword. Again!"
And so Ramza came at her again, swinging his sword and feeling it with his will, hurled through the air as Agrias swatted him aside like a bug. "Again!" she shouted, and Ramza rose without complaint and obeyed.
They needed to exhaust themselves. It was the only thing keeping them sane.
It had been an agonizingly slow journey across Lionel, dodging patrols of knights and mercenaries hunting for the heretics who had assassinated the beloved Cardinal. They were exhausted, wounded, and demoralized: even their victory over the monster the Cardinal had become could not assuage their fears, their doubt, their confusion. So Agrias had stewed and fumed, limping along and refusing to let Lavian spare more than then simplest spells to ease her wounds; so Lavian was pale and exhausted, stumbling on her feet when she wasn't crying over Alicia's missing fingers; so Radia was terse and silent, not speaking to any of them.
And that was before they reached Zaland, and heard the news. Of the great battle to the north, the Nanten marching in defense of Ovelia, rightful Queen of Ivalice.
They had all known that retrieving Ovelia was already a feeble hope. They did not know where she had been taken, or who might have her, and between them stood the power of the Church and the sudden, impossible danger of the unknown Lucavi. But how could they rescue a rightful Queen? How could they even reach her, with an army to protect her in a country at war?
So they had gone to the only safe haven Ramza could think of. And, by luck or by providence, found Besrodio Bunansa already waiting for them at Daravon's Estate.
Lavian came in halfway through training, and she and Alicia left the room together. If Agrias noticed, she gave no sign. An hour later, as Ramza guzzled water and sagged against a wall, Mustadio entered the room.
"Looks like things are going well," Mustadio said, eyeing the sweat-drenched pair.
"Still got energy left, if we need to whip you into shape," Agrias growled, pointing with her sword.
Mustadio shook his head. His broad forehead was marked with soot, his fingers smudged with grease. "Working on the caravan engines keeps me fit enough. Daravon says food's ready."
They ate a quiet dinner in the dining room. The table was cracked, and one or two of the chairs wobbled, but it was no longer thick with dust. Between themselves, Ramza and his friends had managed that much. Daravon was the only one who spoke with any enthusiasm, asking them questions about their day. Ramza answered automatically, his ears pricked for the sound of the door.
He would not hear it until much later in the night, sitting in a chair alone by the fireplace with a candle on the table next to him. He was trying and failing to read the book Daravon had loaned him, half-dozing in the dark room, when the creaking of the door and the soft sound of footsteps reached him. He blinked awake, turned his head in time to see her, entering the room with a heavy chest in hand.
Radia stared at him. He stared back.
"How was it?" he asked, his voice low.
She shrugged. "No one's bothered it much. Then again, most people don't know about it."
"His gil," she said. "Some weapons. Some contacts. I burned the rest and locked the place up."
The little house upon the cliffside, where Gaffgarion had raised Radia, and where Radia had nursed Ramza back to health. The place where he'd transitioned from his life as a noble son who dreamed of never killing to his life as a mercenary who cut his bloodsoaked way across a dozen battlefields. Cut with such skill that even the man who'd trained him had fallen to his blade.
"Need a hand?" Ramza asked, as the months-old guilt crawled fresh up his throat.
Radia hesitated. It seemed almost as though she'd flinched when he'd asked the question. No, that wasn't it: it was though she were flinching every time he spoke.
"Do you hate me?" Ramza asked.
Radia shook her head at once. "You know I don't."
"Do I?" He hated the weakness in his voice, but couldn't help it. The feeling inside him, thick and hot in his throat so it felt like it was choking him, overrode any defense he could raise against it.
Radia's eyes were somber. "I thought so."
What was he supposed to say? They both knew what lay between them. His sword had killed her father. He had not tried to spare him, to weaken him, to capture him. He had not believed it possible. And perhaps more than that, he had been desperate not to die himself.
"I know there's nothing else you could've done," Radia said softly. His head jerked towards her, but she wasn't looking at him. "I know he was trying to kill you, and even if you'd tried-" She shook her head. "We both know how dangerous he is." She winced. "Was."
Right. The man who had trained Ramza, had led him here and there across Ivalice. The man who had turned against him, with murder in his eyes. The man Ramza had killed, just like he'd killed Argus.
"I know that," she said. "But it doesn't change how I..." She shook her head again, looked away and marched past him, towards the stairs.
The feeling in his throat, smothering like humidity inside him, like a storm that threatened to blow him apart from the inside, seemed to crack with unexpected thunder. He stumbled out of the chair, pushed his way through the glass doors that led onto the little balcony. The moon was dark, the sky cloudy: he could not see the tall grass, or the distant trees. His memory filled in the details, but who knew how accurate his memory was? In his memory, he had stood triumphant with his friends, victorious and certain, ignorant of what was to come.
So what would tomorrow bring? More work, more injured and sick and dead, too little money and too little progress and nothing to gain. The days churned on endlessly, pointlessly, purposelessly.
Ramza buried his face in his hands.