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Chapter 66: Intrusion

If you wish to understand the sophistication of the Ydorans, consider Lesalia. Defended by stout walls and potent magic, supplied in trade by overland routes to Zeltennia through the wide but defensible Duguera Pass, with easy access to the fertile bounty of Fovoham to the north and supplied in ores and coal by the mines of Goland to the south. Is it any wonder the kings and queens of Ivalice made their home here? And it is any wonder that, when war devastated, refugees would flee here? The Ydorans did not think merely on the scale of cities, but of nations: not in the scale of years, but of generations. If we hope to match their achievements, we must expand our own minds likewise.

-Alazlam Durai, "Guest Lecture to a Masters Class on City Planning."

The chill wind cut straight through the ragged, roughshod cloak draped across Ramza's shoulders. He shivered and hunched in deep on himself, still patrolling the fringes of the hill where he and his friends and made camp for the night. Dusk was gathering on the horizon, as flakes of hesitant snow drifted out of the grey sky, clear against the twines, wisps, and pillars of smoke that rose up from Goland and the dozens of fires that surrounded it.

"You could come back to the fire," Mustadio said from behind him.

Ramza shook his head. "I needed space." When he glanced back at Mustadio, he found the young man shuddering worse than he was in spite of his ragged leathers, his hands buried in his armpits and a sour look on his face. "You can go back, Mus. I don't need the company."

Mustadio shrugged. "S'okay, Ramza. Hard for me to take it easy, after...after Baerd."

Ramza nodded. "It's okay, Mus. We've got the papers, after all."

As he said this, however, Ramza felt a twinge of doubt. Those papers—the fake orders Mustadio and Besrodio had carefully put together, modeling them off some of the old mercenary contracts Radia had rescued from Gaffgarion's house and with advice from Agrias about Lionsguard practices—were supposed to give them a reason to carry weapons in the field, as none of them were particularly eager to go unarmed with so many unknown enemies abroad. Ostensibly, they were mercenaries on their way to Lesalia for some delicate assignment for a mid-level Hokuten commander.

But even assuming they only encountered Hokuten on this journey didn't assure their safety. After all, almost every one of them had killed Hokuten soldiers in the fight in Araguay, and some of their number were supposed to be co-conspirators with the traitorous Princess who had embroiled the country in civil war. And what if the Church came after them officially, declaring them heretics? What if Dycedarg tracked them down?

Or—never spoken, but always visible in the weary eyes around the camp fire—what if another monster like Cuchulainn came calling?

Mustadio stayed silent behind him, as they watched the refugee fires beneath the wintry dusk. To the east, the smoke was just as thick—along the Hokuten lines just a few miles away. Men and women dying in the war they'd set out to stop.

"I confess, I do not nurse much hope of your success," Daravon had told him, the night before they left. "Zalbaag was not exactly forgiving as a cadet. I do not imagine the years have softened him."

"I know," Ramza said. "But I-"

"Have to," Daravaon said. "I know that too." He took Ramza's hand and squeezed it gently. "Can I do anything to help?"

Ramza squeezed Daravon's hand in turn. "You've already done too much."

But that had not stopped Daravon from giving them cloaks, coats, blankets, rations, and gil—far more gil than he should have. The old man had apparently spent very little of what they had brought into the house.

"My father will be okay?" Mustadio asked, as the silence stretched on the cold hillside.

"If Beowulf thought so..." But Ramza did not add the thought he knew was already going through his friend's head. The Hokuten, the Nanten, the Church, and the Lucavi themselves might all be their enemies. There might no safe place in Ivalice.

"Come on, Ramza," Mustadio said, and reluctantly Ramza returned with his friend to the fire. Alicia and Lavian were asleep in the same bedroll: Agrias practiced her sword strikes at the very limit of the firelight, while Radia stared into the fire and did not look up when Ramza and Mustadio returned.

There was nothing of righteousness here—nothing of the delusional certainty that had led Ramza away from Gaffgarion, or let him challenge the Gryphon Knights to free Ovelia and the Lionesses from Golgollada Gallows. He didn't know if he could ever feel certain again—not after what the Cardinal had become.

But they had to keep moving. They had to try. In the hospital, Ramza had seen wounds aplenty: on the road, he had seen still worse things. The remains of buildings still smoldering where some Nanten raiding party had broken through, or some Hokuten counterattack had scorched out their enemies. Roads and hills choked with people fleeing north, to the supposed safety of Lesalia. Hollow-eyed children watching from the backs of ghosting caravans. Eerie silence from stumbling masses who did not have the strength to talk.

And everywhere, corpses: corpses fallen face-first in trampled fields, or lying peaceably on their bedrolls where they had refused to rise again the next morning. Ramza well-remembered the dead left in the wake of the Death Corps flight to Zeakden. Here it was again: poor souls flying into the teeth of winter, searching for safety from a war that had not been of their making.

Lost in memories, Ramza drifted somewhere between sleeping and waking. He only realized he'd fallen asleep when someone shook him by the shoulder, cascading aches across his knotted muscles. He blinked awake, found Radia standing over him, staring off in the dark.

"Something's happening," she said.

Ramza rose unsteadily to his feet. His skin felt tight with the cold, and the fire had died to bare embers. The others were all awake, bunched towards one side of the hill. Ramza stumbled over to them, staring out into the night. Other fires still flickered in the distance, candles in the dark, but there were no stars or moon above.

Except...what was that? There, in the nearby night, flashes like starlight, like the night sky had shifted down to earth just for a moment. A short, sharp bark of something that might have been anger or might have been pain.

"Hokuten?" Mustadio suggested.

"Can't be an official patrol," Radia murmured. "They wouldn't bother being quiet."

"The Church, then," Agrias said grimly.

"Wouldn't they be after us?" Alicia asked.

Another flash of starlight, much clearer this time (the same impression, a patch of darkness with stars spattering it, like an imitation of the night sky). Ramza frowned. "It's coming closer."

Alicia and Lavian shifted, raising their scepter and staff: Mustadio pulled out his gun, as Agrias and Radia drew their swords. Ramza drew no weapons, though he flexed the runic gloves he wore upon his hands.

Another flash of starlight, at the base of their hill. Now Ramza's eyes could just make out a stocky shadow, dodging and cursing under his breath as something whisked through the air. Something like a blade.

"Help!" cried a young, rasping voice, startling Ramza in spite of himself. The shadowy figure bounded up the hillside.

"Come no closer!" Agrias hissed.

"Please, if you don't help, they'll-!" The voice trailed off in a yelp as the shadow flung itself to the ground: something hurtled out of the dark, and buried itself in the side of the hill.

"Light, Lavian!" Agrias ordered, and Lavian raised her staff and jabbed it forwards, so a faint light shone from the top, like a torch. It illuminated the scene: the young man with the dark ponytail clinging to the ground, his yellow leathers bright against the snow and earth, and the short sword embedded in the ground just in front of him, where it had sailed past his head.

And then the sword pulled itself from the ground, whipped through the air and tried to stab the young man through the back. The dark-haired man yelped and flung out his hands: bracelets on either wrist flared with symbols, and a slash of starry darkness intruded between his body and the blade. The blade skidded across this field as though it were made of stone, spun off into the darkness and then rose again, as though held in someone's hand.

"The hell?" Alicia managed, in a strangled voice.

The next moment, something plunged from the sky and hit the hill with a walloping impact that shook the ground beneath Ramza's feet. Through the spray of snow and clods of flying dirt he could just make out two figures—one muscular and powerful, the other wiry and agile. The wiry shape darted after the dark-haired man: the muscular one turned to face them.

Agrias and Radia were already in motion, swords raised: Ramza was just a step behind them, breaking into a run as Mustadio cried, "Don't move!"

The muscular shape—shorter than Ramza expected, in flowing white clothes—took only a single step to the side, to shield the slender shape darting after the dark-haired man. Ramza heard the percussive bang of the gun firing, then heard an odd crunch. In the dim light shedding from Lavian's staff, he could just make out the bullet that had bounced off the woman's skin, spinning off into the snow.

A woman? No, barely a teenager, dark-skinned and young, younger than Ramza had been when he'd left the Academy. But Ramza was certain he'd never moved with anything like this deliberate speed. Each movement—even that single step to the side to intercept Mustadio's bullet—seemed to carry with it the weight and power of a thunderclap.

Ramza did not know if Radia and Agrias had seen the bullet bounce off the woman. Either way, they did not slow their strides: they raised their respective swords. Radia's shimmered, while Agrias' glowed white hot.

Ramza threw himself to the side just in time for the explosion, stealing just a little bit of its power to speed his steps. Up ahead, the dark-haired young man was darting and weaving around the seeking sword, still drawing up sweeping fields of twilight to shield himself. The other woman—as young as the muscular, bulletproof woman behind him, clad in a tight black outfit with a hood pulled over her pale face—twitched after him, moving as erratically as a leaf floating through the air. Except her movements, though strange, were clearly intentional—she rose high in the sky, plunged down like a spear, floated backwards as though sailing across water and then flew back as though fired from a sling. Her blows were accompanied by a great rushing of wind: where she struck the ground, she often left craters in her wake.

A shout of anger, and a streak of fire cut through the night, straight towards the hooded woman's head. But before it reached her, a blurred shape burst out of the darkness, skidded to a stop, and raised a hand. The incoming streak of fire slowed, crawling through the sky, its flames flickering with graceful lethargy, like flags in the wind.

Ramza caught only a brief glimpse of the woman standing in front of the flames with her hand raised—as young as the rest of these strange assailants, wider of hip and breast than the slender hooded woman behind her, with strawberry blonde hair flowing back over her shoulders. Then she raised a hand towards him.

Instinctively, Ramza reached out with his magical field, ready to try and pull in whatever she shot his way. He succeeded—he felt the magic pull beneath his skin, strengthening him—but for a moment the world stretched horribly, the sounds of battle warping and changing. His vision went blurry and strange, his eyes tearing up as he tried to process disjointed, unrelated images. A high-pitched whine filled his ears.

Then the world lurched back into motion. Ramza, stumbling, found that things had changed in that strange, stunted instant. The dark-haired man was higher up the hill, and the strawberry blonde woman was pinned between his field of night and Alicia and Lavian's magics, in a clash of shifting, melding energies that strained Ramza's eyes to look at. None of it quite touched the strawberry-blonde woman, but it kept her from casting.

Farther up the hill, Agrias dueled the muscular woman, whose fists deflected her burning blade effortlessly. Just down the slope from her, Radia clutched at the hilt of the flying sword, her body shimmering, her arm occasionally twitching as the blade tried to escape her grip. Nearby, Mustadio was firing his gun into the air, keeping the slender hooded woman from interfering with any of the ongoing fights as she flicked here and there across the sky.

Ramza started moving without thinking (faintly dizzy, mentally unsteady, not quite trusting that the world would not spiral away into strangeness again), racing up the hill. As he ran, the dark-skinned woman clapped her hands together, catching Agrias' blade between her palms. She wrenched the blade from Agrias' grip, and with the same motion hammered a kick into Agrias' side that sent the Lioness flying.

The muscular woman was already pivoting, leaping through the air (not quite as high as her soaring friend, but higher than any jump Ramza had seen before, higher than he had imagined a person might go). Ramza put on an extra burst of speed, skidded on his knees just behind the dark-haired man, and lifted one gloved hand, clutching at the relevant rune on his wrist. A shimmering dome of force burst from his fingertips: the woman cut through it as though it were cloth, though the impact diverted her so she landed a little ways away.

Ramza barely rose to his feet in time to feet her second charge. She was shorter than he was, but faster and stronger by far: as talented at unarmed combat as Daravon had been, and Daravon's blows could not deflect metal. Ramza lost his thoughts in a blur of motion, struggling to keep ahead of those lashing fists and legs.

Her skin was like armor: Ramza's every blow against it shot waves of aching impact through his bones, and no matter where he struck she seemed unperturbed by his blows. He tried to drain her field with his own, but before he could quite manage it she would drive forwards again, trying to pin him or sweep his legs out from under him, and Ramza's focus would be lost in a desperate frenzy to keep her back. He knew he could not allow her powerful grip to close upon him. If he did, he would be lost.

But Ramza couldn't help but notice that she wasn't going for the kill. He kept guarding his throat, head, joints, and groin, but she seemed only interested in disabling him, trying to knock him off his feet or shove him away. Ramza didn't know why she'd want to spare him

(a lunatic thought intruded, that she was like him in the old days, trying to fight without killing that it was all happening again, a strange reflection in the winter misery)

but he pushed the questions aside and focused on the woman in front of him. He could not strike her down. Perhaps he did not have to.

When she grappled for him again, Ramza shoved forwards, into her grip. It was the first time she'd actually managed to get ahold of him, and Ramza knew at at once he'd been right to fear her grasp. The power behind those fingers was nightmarish: in the delicacy of her grip he could feel how easy it would be for her to simply snap his bones like kindling.

But even before he'd started focusing on unarmed combat, he'd been a fair wrestler, and she was surprised by his movement towards her, her powerful grip unsteady, clumsy. Ramza used that, kneeling, ducking, twisting around to lock her elbows behind her head. He felt her straining against his grip at once (God, what strength! His muscles strained with the effort to hold her, his chest felt tight and breathless, and with every moment her strength grew), but all Ramza had wanted was space to focus again.

And so he drained away as much of her field as it could.

It felt strangely familiar—like draining away Agrias' sword attacks, the supercharged power that was so hard to properly process. She gasped against his chest, ducked low and threw him across her shoulders. Ramza rolled across the ground as snow sprayed into his mouth and nose, but sprung to his feet and struck at her, a solid kick that sent her stumbling backwards. In that moment, her skin had simply felt like skin.

Shouting reached Ramza's ears. He risked a glance down the slope, saw torches bobbing in the distance—at least a dozen of them, weaving around the other fires and towards the hill on which they fought. The way they moved looked organized. Too organized.

The dark-skinned woman followed her gaze, and hissed in frustration. For the first time, she spoke in a raised voice—surprisingly deep for her size and age, rough and weary with experience. "Retreat!" she barked.

At once, all of them moved. The dark-skinned woman pounced past Ramza, twice as fast as before, as the hooded woman landed in another earth-shaking impact on the opposite side of the mages, knocking them down. Ramza fought his way through the cloud of moist dust that obscured his vision, saw the dark-skinned woman shove Radia aside so that the flying sword was freed from her grasp. Then the three of them were running, with the sword floating along beside them.

"Get back here!" bellowed Agrias, limping over the top of the hill with a dent in the side of her armor. But the figures had already faded from view: the hooded woman grabbed ahold of the dark-skinned fighter and they leapt skywards, while the blonde woman sped up and blurred out into the night.

"No time!" the dark-haired man shouted. "I know a safe place! We have to go now!"

Agrias speared the man with a glare. "You are the one who brought them down upon us!"

"And if we don't hurry, we'll have the Hokuten upon us, too!" the man retorted.

Without looking back at them, the dark-haired man plunged up the hill and began packing up their gear. Ramza and the others, all panting, stayed where they were, staring with varying levels of confusion and anger at this strange man who had intruded upon them as he tried to fend off a flying sword.

Mustadio was the first to move, jogging his way up to the top of the hill. He looked back over his shoulder and called, "Might as well! I wouldn't be standing here if you hadn't helped me."

Ramza stared after Mustadio, and looked around his panting, exhausted friends. But every moment they delayed, the Hokuten grew closer. And if they wanted answers, they had to follow the dark-haired man. More importantly, he might be there only way out of the Hokuten's grasp.

Ramza staggered up the hill. The others followed him.