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Chapter 65: To Stem the Tide

"…but consider the larger picture! Yes, Bodan Daravaon only fought in one battle, but that battle was an overwhelming success against a numerically-superior foe which had seized the higher ground! And the man was Master Instructor at Gariland Military Academy! Consider the breadth of his knowledge, the contacts he must have on! Bodan could absolutely have defeated Denamda!"

-Alazlam Durai, "Transcript from an argument at the Dissidia Fantasy Combat League"

Ramza struck out with the heel of his palm, and Daravon ducked backwards, jabbing in with an elbow. Ramza danced away, the air rushing in his hears, his heart pounding as Daravon pivoted out from his elbow jab into a flurry of punches, finishing with a leaping kick that whistled as it missed Ramza's head by inches.

Saint above, how was the man so fast? Ramza had rarely seen Daravon fight before—only a few demonstrations in front of the class, or the occasional instruction during practice to help a struggling student understand. Seeing him in action was a different thing entirely. He was swift, deliberate, economical. He reminded Ramza a little bit of Gaffgarion, except that Gaffgarion had always cut straight to the heart of the problem. Daravon flowed a little more, danced a little more, played a little more, but his playful strikes still hammered where Ramza's guard was weak, and nothing Ramza could do could turn the tide. Ramza was holding his own, but he could not defeat Daravon.

They broke apart at the same time, Ramza's skin stinging with the echoes of blows, crouching low with his hands raised defensively. Daravon stood ramrod straight, smiling a little.

"Very good," Daravon said, smiling. "You're learning quickly."

Ramza managed his own flickering smile. "Not quickly enough to beat you."

"Quickly enough," Daravon said. His face was flushed but his breathing was even. Saint above, wasn't this man as old has Balbanes had been when he'd died? "You were one of the best at unarmed combat in your class, and you have only improved. Sadly there's not much call for it in Ivalice."

Ramza fought to control his own breathing, even though it made his chest feel tight. "Where did you learn this?"

Daravon shrugged. "Learning is life. I never stop."

Ramza's smile widened. "I like that. But it's not exactly an answer."

Daravon's smile softened to something conspiratorial and mischievous. "Ah, we had a visiting instructor from Fabul some time ago."

Ramza frowned. He knew the name, thought it felt unfamiliar. It took him a moment to recall some old lesson from geography. "That's the island nation on the other side of Romanda?" He shook his head. "Why would he come all this way?"

"Yang was an interesting fellow," Daravon said. "And a man best discussed over drinks." He gestured for Ramza to follow him back upstairs, and as they walked, they talked. "Such journeys are common among the masters of Fabul—a way to learn new arts from other countries and to strengthen Fabul by bringing fresh styles from abroad. He taught me when I was an Assistant Instructor, and I taught him. It was an interesting experiment: in Fabul, the philosophy is that you train the body to be deadly on its own, before you introduce any weapons or magic to it. But Ivalician traditions are descended from Ydoran philosophies, which mostly considered unarmed combat to be an emergency resort when your other weapons fail you. With the exception of the Heaven's Fists."

Ramza frowned. "Who?"

"The Ydorans had magic we can't replicate. They had an entire legion of soldiers whose magic was focused inwards, not outwards. It strengthened their muscles, hardened their skin, sped their regeneration. Their bodies were finer weapons than any sword. So did they earn their monikers: the Heaven's Fists."

"How does that work?"

"The Ydorans conducted generational experiments. Magic is in part biological—who we are, and who are parents are, has some influence. The Ydorans would breed people with certain talents, to create new kinds of magic."

Something about the idea made Ramza's stomachs squirm. "What, like...breeding chocobos?"

Daravon shot him an amused glance. "Or breeding noble heirs?" Ramza smiled a little at the joke, and Daravon continued, "No need to feel disgust, Ramza. You've met one of them."

Ramza frowned. "Who?"

"The girlfriend I'm not supposed to know about," Daravon said.

The...who was he referring to? Then Ramza's mind cleared, as he remembered the woman who had made the shadows of dragon wings appear around her. "Reis."

Daravon nodded serenely. Ramza was silent. He had not spared much thought to Reis, or to Beowulf. Here he was, living in his friend's house, with no idea what had become of his friend. He had appeared like a flash of lightning and disappeared like a dream at dawn.

"What happened to them?" Ramza asked.

"Hm?"

"The Heaven's Fists."

Daravon laughed, though it was a rather sad sound. "What happened to the Ydorans, after the Fall?" His smile darkened. "Some who'd inherited the art apparently survived in Zelmonia, but they did not survive the War."

Of course they hadn't. So few had. Not his parents, not Delita's, not Ovelia's.

Daravon lit the fire in the old fireplace—the one they had sat in front of, when Beowulf, Argus, Delita, and Ramza had ridden in triumph from their campaign against the Death Corps, each drunk on victory, purpose, confidence, and Daravon's whiskey. Every one of them was doing exactly what they wanted to do.

And look what had become of them.

"I had word from Baron Madoc this morning," Daravon said, sipping from his glass. "You remember his son?"

Ramza nodded, barely looking at Daravon. He remembered blonde, arrogant Madoc, one of the most persistent of Delita's many would-be assailants.

"He's dead."

Ramza looked up. Daravon was watching the fire, the shadows dancing along the lines of his face, weaving a dark mask for his features.

"I'm sorry to hear it," Ramza said.

"As was I," Daravon said. "He was an officious little bastard-" the genial way in which it was said startled a laugh out of Ramza. "-but he was too young to deserve this. They all are."

Ramza cocked his head. "All?"

Daravon nodded soberly. "The Academy trained officers for the Hokuten and Nanten alike. In every clash, at least one of our students is wounded or killed." He sighed heavily. "Some were your classmates. Some were mine."

How strange. Ramza had never stopped to think that some of his classmates might now be Nanten officers. Even the ones destined for the Hokuten had mostly kept their distance—only a few suck-ups had tried to ingratiate themselves to the brother of the Knight-Commander, and between Ramza and Delita they had put a stop it.

But of course, he should have remembered. Now Delita himself stood among the ranks of the Nanten. And for what purpose? He had helped them against the Church, and lied to them about what they faced. He had sent them knowingly into danger, and provided them the tools to escape the trap. Who was he really working for? What did he really want?

And of course, whatever he sought, he must be closer than Ramza was. He stood in the open, on the council of Duke Goltanna. While Ramza hid away, as people he knew died.

"And of course," Daravon murmured. "There is Beowulf."

Ramza looked up. His old teacher was staring stolidly into the fire, his face strangely impassive and made far more ancient than his years by the flickering shadows.

"It is good to know my son yet lives," he continued. "But a rather tiring thing, to know he is far afield for purposes unknown." He raised his eyes to Ramza. "And involved in the same strange conspiracies that trouble you and your friends."

Ramza shrugged uncomfortably. He and the others had all agreed to tell Daravon as little as was possible—they did not want to put him in any more danger than he might already be. But the Master Instructor had always been sharp, and he seemed very aware of the troubles Ramza and his friends were facing, for what little they'd told him.

"He has not returned home since Reis brought him here two years ago," Daravon said. "He went after her as soon as he was able to walk—and long before he should have been up and about, of course." There was a note of amusement in the older man's voice.

Ramza smiled himself. "I don't believe he ever took his injuries seriously."

"You have no idea," Daravon chuckled. "He broke his arm when he was six, and kept trying to practice his sword strikes. With the broken arm."

Ramza laughed. "How did he manage that?"

"Not very well," Daravon answered, with a smile. But Ramza felt his momentary good humor dying away. The smile on Daravon's face was ragged and thin, and the eyes above it shadowed with pain that flickered like the flames in the fireplace.

"What happened?" Ramza asked.

Daravon shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "He would not speak of what happened in Fovoham. He left as soon as he was able. I received word he had joined the Templars-"

Ramza blinked. "What?"

"You didn't know?"

Ramza shook his head. "I...no." Another soldier among the Templars. Another hint of the purposes of the Church.

Daravon nodded. "I believe it was the same division that Reis was training for. But then he disappeared, and the next time I heard from him was when Besrodio Bunansa found his way to my doorstep because my son had sent him."

Silence again. Ramza was still mulling over the implications of this. Delita had told him that it was the Church who moved against them. Beowulf now fought against them, though he had once been among their number—and he appeared to be doing it with Delita's help.

Or was that really so strange? Ramza remembered the other man who had helped him and Mustadio to escape the trap laid for them: Barich, who had helped lured them in the first place. Who were these men, who fought with such cagey cunning to achieve their ends, and who risked their own lives on a whim? How could they move with such purpose, when Ramza had lost all sense of his own?

"I'm sorry," Daravon said, running a hand over his face. "You are burdened enough. I should not add my troubles to your own."

Ramza shook his head urgently. "It's no trouble, Instructor. After everything you-"

But he broke off. A look of deep pain had settled across Daravon's face, weighing him down so his shoulders seemed Sunken. He stared into the fire, his hands clenched in his lap.

"Instructor," he murmured. "We trained so many students, Ramza, from the far corners of Ivalice. We wanted to provide strong, capable soldiers in every corner of the country, so no Ordallia could ever threaten us again. And...and now they kill each other." He glanced at Ramza. "What if Madoc was killed by another of my students? What if Beowulf...what if..." Daravon sighed, and looked back to the fire. "What was the point of it all?"

Ramza stared at his old teacher helplessly. He did not know what to say. These same questions had haunted him in the darkness when he tried to sleep. He had yet to find an answer.

Something of his impotence must have shown on his face, for Daravon looked up and shook his head. "Ramza..." he said. "No, I am sorry, I did not mean to trouble you. It is simply..." He looked away from Ramza, away from the fire: he stared off into the shadowy corners of the room. "These are difficult times."

Neither Daravon nor Ramza spoke again. After a few minutes of terse, thoughtful silence, Daravon rose again, and drifted down the hall to his bedroom. Ramza remained where he was, watching the fire die to embers, draining his glass, refilling it, and draining it again. Dizzy now, his throat and eyes burning, desperate for some measure of oblivion to quiet his thoughts and his doubts.

Because Daravon felt it too. The hopelessness, the helplessness, the purposeless wasting of their days as other lives were spilled in this unnecessary war.

Something in Ramza's head hurt. Something in Ramza's heart hurt.

He stumbled to the upstairs room he shared with Mustadio, careless of who he might disturb along the way. He staggered inside, sank on his bed with his sweaty clothes sticking to his body. The chill of winter sank in through the roof and the walls, and Ramza shivered where he lay, upon a bed in the house of another friend gone to places unknown for purposes unknown, another question added to the endless list, another note of grief and regret in this song that would not end.

Daravon had asked the right question. What was the point of it all?

Alone in a darkness that seemed eternal, accompanied only by Mustadio's faint snoring, Ramza struggled desperately to find some answer to Daravon's question. Some answer that might avenge the deaths of the men and women being killed across Ivalice, and prevent any more poor souls from joining them. Alone in the dark, Ramza tried to find a point.

And over and over, it was Delita he thought of. Delita, who, whatever his true purpose, seemed determined to achieve it. Whether he lied to Ramza about his true intentions with Princess, or lied to his employers about his true intentions for Ramza. Whatever he had to do, whatever the risk, Delita would not stop, and now his name was known far and wide across Ivalice as Ovelia's savior.

Delita, Barich, Beowulf. What could Ramza do, to equal these men, and fight for his own cause?

He did not know how long he laid there, thinking. But he was not surprised at the faint rapping of knuckles against the door. "Ramza," said Lavian's muffled voice. "We're going to be late."

Ramza rose slowly from his bed. Though it seemed as though he had barely slept, he felt clear-headed. His thoughts felt as sharp and clear as an icicle dangling from the side of a bridge, pointed towards the abyss, precarious and unafraid. And in that strange moment of fragile clarity, he made his decision.

He moved quickly to the door, flung it open and asked, "Are the others up yet?"

Lavian blinked. "I...starting to be. I'm always the first-"

"Wake them," Ramza said. "And bring them downstairs." He ducked back inside his room an shook Mustadio from his snoring sleep, ignoring his friend's muttered curses. When the curses turned to questions, he ignored those too, hastily gathering his things in the dark, packing for the road. He shouldered the pack he'd prepared and headed downstairs, with a silent Mustadio stumbling along behind him.

The others were all waiting in the sitting room—including Daravon and Besrodio. Ramza blinked at the Instructor, who offered him a little smile.

"We have jobs to get to, Ramza," Agrias groused, jerking Ramza's attention back to her..

"Why?" Ramza asked. "What do they accomplish?"

Radia scoffed from her position leaning near the fireplace. "They keep us fed. They keep us alive."

Ramza shook his head."Safe while people die in a war we know the Church arranged. The Church and that...thing the Cardinal became."

Both Daravon and Besrodio looked bemused, but the others in the room—the ones who had stood at his side, in desperate combat against a monster from barely-remembered legends—pointedly refused to look at him. Alicia's good hand moved to cover the place where her fingers had been.

"We agreed that we would not-" Radia began.

"Not tell them?" Ramza asked. "Why not?" He gestured at Besrodio. "He was captured and beaten, and he-" he gestured at Daravon. "Is no fool. His son is missing, one of his friends sits on Goltanna's council, and the other fled Lionel just as the Cardinal died. We all know something's wrong."

"Of course something is wrong!" Agrias shouted, rising to her feet. "They have Ovelia!"

"She's Queen now," Lavian said, in a small voice. "Would she even want us to-"

"Of course she would!" Agrias cried, whirling towards Lavian..

"Even if she would," Radia said, meeting Agrias' glare. "Could she?" Her eyes flickered back to Ramza. "We've talked about all of this," she said. "The Church wants this war. Goltanna and Ovelia want this war. Larg and Dycedarg want this war. We couldn't keep Ovelia safe. What the hell are we supposed to do?"

Ramza reached into his pack, and pulled out the gleaming orange Stone he had taken from its hiding place behind the fireplace upstairs. Silence in the room: a few of the others drew back. None of them had been eager to spend much time among the Stones after seeing what the Scorpio Stone had done to the Cardinal.

"Is that..." Daravon began, and trailed off, his eyes transfixed by the gentle glow.

"It is," Ramza said. "The Bunansas found it beneath Goug. For that reason did the Church kidnap Besrodio."

Daravon nodded slowly. "Of course," he said. "Whatever the power of the Stones, there is power in the legend as well." He shook his head. "What do they aim to do?" His face contorted, as though he had been struck by a sudden thought. "Wait. What did you say about the Cardinal?"

The silence in the room was profound. It was all Ramza could do to keep himself present in the room, to keep his attention on the fact of this simple salon so he would not remember the burning in his legs, the aching in his soul, the laughter and the poison spewing from Cuchulainn's many mouths.

"People are dying," Ramza said, fighting off those grim memories. "We can stop it."

"How, Ramza?" Radia asked. There was a trace of ire to her voice, but also genuine curiosity, and just a hint of need.

"Even if we could get across the battle lines, we do not know what Goltanna would do," Ramza said, and the words burned in his throat the way the whiskey had last night. "And we know Dycedarg and Larg wanted this fight. But perhaps there's another Beoulve we can turn to."

Radia's eyes widened. She stared at him with almost unbearable compassion. "You don't mean-"

"I do," he said, hearing the ghost of old words in his head—words shouted in the snows of Zeakden, as they had faced each other with sword-in-hand. "Knight-Commander Zalbaag Beoulve."