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Chapter 70: Heretic

...but understanding a man's story does not mean condoning his actions. What matter if Germonique thinks himself a hero, for betraying our Saint? The Fall proved him wrong. God shows all sinners and heretics the true worth of their deeds. And we are arbiters of His word, fellow travelers on the path that our Saint illuminated for us at the cost of his life. We know what must be done. Our task is to see His paradise realized: to win the confused over with words and deeds, and to right the wrongs of those who know the true path and refuse to walk it. What matter that there are Germoniques in the world, confident in their righteousness? We have the Judgment of God on our side, and if they will not stand with us, we will see them Fall.

-Marcel Funeral, "On Following God in a Godless World"

He did not remember leaving the severe, angular Hokuten headquarters. He did not remember the streets of Lesalia, or the panic of soldiers running to and fro. He barely saw the scars from the Nanten's last attack—the rubble still uncleared, the sections of wall shattered and broken, the construction at work on the crater at the base of the towering Lion's Den. Signs of the battle in the city, of the war that was still killing thousands, a war he couldn't stop.

"Ramza."

Bastard and betrayer. That was what Zalbaag thought of him. Was he wrong?

"Ramza?"

All the wrongs of his life were pouring down atop his head: failing to save Teta, failing to keep his oath to the Valkyries, killing Argus in the snow, killing Gaffgarion at Lionel, and how many other poor souls had been lost to his sword because he did not have the courage to-

"Ramza!"

Ramza stopped, as the sharp voice finally pierced his thoughts. He blinked against the cold sunlight, looked for the source-

Found Alma, with her arms folded across her chest.

A heavy red cloak was folded around her simple beige dress. Her hood was up, with only two locks of her golden air peeking out. Her green-eyed, imperious gaze seemed a little confused, torn between anger and concern. "Ramza, what's wrong?"

Ramza shook his head. "I can't..." He trailed off, fighting the sob rising in his throat. "I..."

Tears blurred his vision: he closed his eyes, so she wouldn't see him crying. Then her hands were on his arm. "Come on," she said, pulling him close, so he was half-draped across her shoulders. "Where are you staying?"

"The...the old..." It was getting harder and harder to speak. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other.

"The Estate?" she asked. "Hold on."

Step by step, as the world faded around him. Ramza felt his mind reeling and spinning, trying to make sense of everything. He had led his friends out of safety and into the thick of Hokuten territory, where the servants of Duke Barinten had already tried to shadow them. He had done this in the hopes of appealing to Zalbaag, and ending the war. But Zalbaag hadn't listened. Had looked at him with scorn, suspicion, and derision. No more than he deserved.

"How...did you..." Ramza tried to focus on anything but his endless failure.

"Dyce has got me traveling with Zalbaag," Alma said, her voice strained. "Figures I'm safest wherever the Hokuten commander is, y'know? I've been paying off some of his staff for intel."

Ramza blinked down at her. "What?"

Alma rolled her eyes. "I learned a long time ago not just to rely on what you guys tell me. If you had your way, I'd just sit in a locked room, combing my hair and saying my prayers." She propped him up as they navigated the thick press of refugees still streaming through the gates of Lesalia, steering him like a boat over troubled waters. When they had parted from the crowds, she asked, in a low voice, "Ramza. What's wrong?"

At Alma's question, Ramza's failures hammered home with renewed voice. He gave a gasp that was half a sob. "I fucked up," he breathed, his voice thick with tears. "I fucked everything up."

He started to talk, and couldn't stop. It poured out of him like water through a broken dam, a flood of words and thoughts and feelings he was helpless to quell. He started with what had just happened—with coming to Zalbaag, hoping to find a lever with which he could stop the war, only to fight a rancorous, bitter, heart-breaking fight. And from there, he told Alma everything else that had happened since that day he'd left the Beoulve Manor with Reis, Beowulf, and Delita at his side. He told her of the fight against the Valkyries, of Wiegraf's revelations, of Teta's death. He told her of Gaffgarion, and Ovelia, and the Church conspiracy. He even told her of Cuchulainn.

By the time he'd finished talking, they'd reached the overgrown orchard outside the Estate, and could walk no further. Alma and Ramza sank together against the trunk of bare-branched tree, its barren boughs hanging heavy over their heads. Alma was shaking, but Ramza was too lost in memory and pain and failure to reach out and comfort her. It was all he could do to keep from weeping.

With a rustling of wings, a bird alighted on the tree, chirping quietly to itself. Other than that, there was no sound in the cold orchard.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Alma asked. Her voice was a low, miserable whisper.

"I almost did," Ramza answered at once, speaking as quickly as he thought. "I...back at the inn, in Igros, and...but..." Stumbling again, lost in the darkness, drowning in regret.

"But?" Alma repeated, sounding as lost as he did.

"But if...I told you, you wouldn't..."

"I wouldn't stay with them," Alma finished.

Ramza nodded. Alma whirled on him, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him as her voice climbed into a trembling screech. "Of course I couldn't, Ramza! Zal killed Teta, and Dyce tried to kill Ovelia, and you want me to stay here and-!" She seemed almost to be gagging for a moment, choking on the words.

Then she regained control: her eyes narrowed into a ferocious glare, and when she spoke her voice was level, sharp and cold as an icicle. "No, Ramza. I'm not going back."

Ramza shook his head. "Alma, you have to-"

"You know where we are, Ramza?" she asked.

Ramza looked around them. The ground was thick with overgrown plants, many as bare as the wide-limbed fruit trees that surrounded them. It was a small orchard, grown riotously wild with the inattention of the Beoulves. The chill had stripped away much of the greenery, but a certain verdant splendor remained. Even in the winter cold, this place felt alive.

"The...the orchard," he managed.

"Not just the orchard, Ramza," she said. She reached past him, and rapped her knuckled on the trunk of the tree. Ramza turned slowly, stared at the tree and felt himself falling into the past again. He hadn't even noticed the letters carved into the bark. D, A, R, T. Delita, Alma, Ramza, and Teta. In spite of the cold, he felt the memory of the summer sun above him. He remembered the feel of the kitchen knife in his hand, helping Teta carve her letter (Alma, of course, had stubbornly waved away any help she was offered). He heard Delita snoring, heard Alma and Teta talking amongst themselves. He remembered watching the way the sunlight had trickled through the green leaves above him, as he looked up into infinite blue skies, and felt young and strong and alive.

He remembered a kiss, hours later, when dusk had painted the horizon in colors like liquid flame. He remembered because the kiss had felt just the same, like molten metal smoldering somewhere inside him.

"Now," Alma said. "You're telling me that our brothers are the reason Teta's dead. That our brothers tried to kill Ovelia. That this whole stupid war is being fought for lies by...by the Church..." Her voice weakened a little, then steadied again. "That a fucking Lucavi sprang up from a Zodiac Stone. No. Ramza. I'm not staying here."

Ramza stared at his sister's face—at wild eyes like his, beneath hair like his. He stared at her, with the initials of his friends at his back.

"Are you the sister?" asked a strange voice.

As Ramza turned, he had time to really consider that voice. It was higher in pitch than you expected for a man, a little braying, a little shrill. Yet something about it carried, like a drill sergeant or a commander addressing his troops. It was both professorial and militant, knowledgeable and confident. The moment it had spoken, Ramza had felt compelled to look to its owner.

The man who owned the voice was likewise an odd mixture. He was a little portly, his thin, greying hair a little askew. He looked faintly puzzled, his thin lips pursed beneath his broad nose, his grey eyes searching. He wore simple grey robes with white trim and an ornate necklace dangling upon his chest, and carried a thick book stuffed with papers under one arm. Rings gleamed upon his fingers.

"I thought you and your brother were estranged," the man murmured. "Curious, curious..."

"I'm sorry, sir," Alma said, turning to face him. "This is the Beoulve Estate, and you are trespassing. Who are you?"

"Zalmour Lucianada" the man answered. "Inquisitor of the Church. You are Ramza and Alma Beoulve, correct?

Ramza stared in disbelief. His eyes flickered down to the necklace the man wore, and saw that the Virgo symbol was at the center of the ornate design, with other elements Ramza did not quite understand. "Inquisitor?" Ramza repeated.

Zalmour's eyes narrowed in confusion. "Are you hard of hearing?" he asked. He reached into the book under his arm, pulled a sheaf of papers out, and began to flip through them. "That wasn't in the dossier..."

"No, I...I heard you." Ramza felt cold inside. "I'm...I'm sorry, Inquisitor. What are you doing here?"

"Inquiring," answered Zalmour. "As is my purpose. Three mercenary soldiers were appointed to the Princess' guard. One returned to Igros, to be questioned about the events at Orbonne. Two disappeared. It took quite some time to find confirmation of what had happened—of the Beoulve and the Gaffgarion who were present at moments of trouble all across Lionel, and who were last spotted in Zaland fleeing north with Lionel in ruins behind them. It would appear you are involved in the death of Cardinal Alphonse Delacroix, and we must conduct an official inquiry in Mullonde to see if your guilty of heresy or other crimes. If you will come with me?"

The ice was slipping from beneath Ramza's feet again. He had been haunted by many fears since the night at Lionel, visions of soldiers breaking down doors and of demons spewing poison as they laughed with many mouths. But Inquisitors were of a different order, a handful of men and women who existed outside the ordinary strictures of class and power within the Church and without. Inquisitors were the law of the Church, with broad powers all across Ivalice, and sometimes beyond them. He remembered some story Daravon had told him, about an Inquisitor who had been able to pursue his suspect across the Romandan Empire. And such a man now stood before him, accusing him of the death of Cardinal Delacroix.

"I'm sorry, Inquisitor," Alma said, bowing her head contritely. "I should have recognized the symbol of your office. It's just a long time since I last saw one. But I must ask, have you properly notified the relevant authorities? It would be quite a scandal if the Church were to take custody of Dycedarg Beoulve's brother without obtaining the correct permissions."

Zalmour chuckled. "A monastery girl through and through! But I am an old hand at this, Lady Beoulve. I assure you, I have given adequate notice to anyone who might be troubled by my actions."

Alma's eyes flickered to Ramza. "I see," she said, in a small voice.

Odd. Why was her voice so small? Why the look of betrayal and hurt in her eye? Why that faint sense of...what was it? Meaning? Think, Ramza, think: what had she said to the Inquisitor? About how it might cause a scandal for...for...

Dycedarg. If an Inquisitor was arresting a Beoulve, it was either with the intent of provoking the whole family, or with their knowledge and permission. And Ramza already knew Dycedarg had had some hand in Lionel. Why else had Gaffgarion been there?

The ice fell again. But this time, the darkness did not yawn. It was like a sudden plunge from a high place. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. Ramza laughed.

The Inquisitor's eyes narrowed. "Is something funny, Ramza Beoulve?"

"Where to begin?" Ramza said. "You've my brother's permission in this mad endeavor—the same brother who tried to see Ovelia killed, and who sent an assassin after us when protected her."

"Ramza-" Alma started, with a warning look.

"But of course your Church is willing to work with him!" Ramza exclaimed. "The same Church that tried to kill one of my friends. The same Church seeking out the Stones."

Zalmour's face whitened. "What do you mean?"

"Tell me something, Inquisitor," Ramza said, talking very quickly, careless and wild. "Did you go to Lionel Castle? Did you see the damage that had been done to it? Did it look like the work of a human being?"

Zalmour's face whitened further. "Are you...are you confessing to the murder of Cardinal Alphonse Delacroix?"

"I am confessing," Ramza began, feeling wild and careless and exultant. "To facing a Lucavi that sprang from the body of the Cardinal Alphonse Delacroix, fueled by the Zodiac Stone he held." He was aware of how mad the truth sounded, and aware also of a curious ecstasy, a sense of liberation "I am indeed confessing to killing the demon who tried to kill my friends."

Zalmour's face had settled. He regarded Ramza coolly, as though assessing distant terrain. "I see," he said. "It seems there will be no need for an inquiry. You share your sins with pride."

A gesture with one hand—so casual, as though making a point in an animated conversation. Ramza had already started to raise one glove to stop it before the column of light hammered home around him. The air was pulled out of his lungs, and he gasped and choked as his body jerked into the air, as though suspended upon countless hooks.

"You transgress against your country, your Church, your God, and your Saint!" thundered Zalmour, his voice carrying a preacher's weight now. "Heresy has only one cure!"

The next moment, the pillar of light warped and broke. Ramza sank to his knees, gasping desperately for air: he could just barely make out the translucent light around him, like stained glass woven out of mist.

"How did you..." Zalmour's outrage was marred by confusion. "Ah, of course. Simon has been teaching you things he's not supposed to."

"You're not taking my brother," Alma snarled, with a ferocity that surprised Ramza even as he rose to his feet, reaching for his sword.

"Lower your hand!" snapped Zalmour: with another gesture, a beam of light smashed out towards Ramza. The multicolored light around Ramza and Alma seemed to solidify briefly before being blown aside: a gust of force nearly knocked Ramza and Alma off their feet.

"I warn you, Alma Beoulve!" Zalmour bellowed. "Aiding and abetting heresy makes you complicit in that heresy!"

"She has nothing to do with it!" Ramza shouted, stepping forward to try and shield his sister.

"It's not heresy if it's the truth!" Alma yelled, shouldering her way past Ramza.

"The truth?" Zalmour asked. "The Cardinal of Lionel, a Lucavi? Your brother walks Germonique's road! He murders a man of God and calls it justice!"

"He's not a murderer!" Alma cried.

"He confessed, child!" Zalmour thundered. "That he did so while pretending the Cardinal was a demon does not absolve him of his crime!"

"He didn't pretend anything," said another voice. "The Cardinal was a demon."

Zalmour pivoted smartly on his heel, so he could keep Ramza and Alma in his peripheral vision and still see the newcomer. Radia was strolling through the orchard, her red-bladed sword in hand. She was smiling pleasantly.

"Radia Gaffgarion, I presume?" Zalmour asked, his voice taut. "You are also ordered to Mullonde, to face an inquiry-"

"No need, Inquisitor," Radia said. "I'll confess right here. The Cardinal turned into a demon and tried to kill us. We killed him first."

Zalmour's even teeth were bared in a terrible grimace. "Rarely have I seen heretics so brazen-"

"Well," Radia said mildly. "We're pretty confident in ourselves. After all, you came alone."

Zalmour's grimace intensified, and his fingers flexed. "Do you think your Draining Blade will protect you, heretic? I am an ordained Inquisitor. You are not the first Vampire Knight I have faced."

Radia shrugged. "Maybe not, Inquisitor, but I still don't like your odds here. Maybe you can stop me, maybe not. But Ramza's armed, and I guess Alma can block your magic, so you're already at a disadvantage. That's not even getting into the royal-caliber mages-" In a ripple of dispelled magic, Alicia and Lavian appeared to one side, their scepter and staff trained on Zalmour. "Or the royal Mage Knight-" Agrias pounded out from behind a nearby tree, sword drawn. "-or the machinist with his gun trained on you." She pointed: Ramza followed the direction of her finger, and found a humanoid figure on one knee at the very edge of the orchard wall, his gun fixed on the Inquisitor.

Zalmour was standing very still now, his eyes flickering among the faces of the soldiers who surrounded him. "You are already consigned to hell for what you have done!" he snapped. "Come, then! Compound your sins upon me! I do not fear you!"

But there was something about the man that gave Ramza pause. His voice was strained, even if it was defiant: his face was pale, even if his eyes were set. He did not look like the Cardinal, making casual decrees from on high. He looked like a man, fervent in his belief, prepared to die for his cause if that was what was required of him.

"We're not heretics," Ramza said.

Zalmour glared at him "Deny all you like-"

"We're not heretics!" Ramza repeated, louder. "We're telling you the truth. You want proof?" Ramza gestured. "Go. Tell your superiors what I told you."

Zalmour studied Ramza's face, his lips pursed. "Do you hope to give me false hope before you take me?" he asked. "Do you think I will submit to such a trick?"

"It's not a trick," Ramza said. "We had no choice but to kill your Cardinal. I don't think we have to kill you, Inquisitor."

Zalmour studied Ramza a moment longer. Again, his eyes flickered around the soldiers who surrounded him. His ringed fingers tightened on the book under his arm.

"Do not think your pangs of conscience will spare you," whispered the Inquisitor. "I will not take your pretense of mercy for a sign of virtue. When the time comes, I will be your hunter here on Earth, to consign you to hell in the hereafter."

"Well, in that case..." Radia drawled, taking a step towards him.

To his credit, Zalmour didn't flinch. He gave her one defiant look, and strode purposefully off into the distance, neither hurrying his step nor looking back over his shoulder to see if they were moving after him. Ramza and the other watched him until he was out of sight.

And the moment he was, Radia's pretense of cool command collapsed. "Back to the manor!" she shouted. "We need to get out of here!"

Ramza knew she was right. They had only driven Zalmour out because he was alone: he would be back, and soon, with reinforcements in tow. But there was the matter of Alma, standing next to him. Alma, who had faced an Inquisitor. Alma, who had protected an avowed heretic.

"We have to get you back," Ramza said.

Alma had been staring after Ramza, looking exactly how Ramza felt—wide-eyed and disbelieving, pale and disheveled. But the moment he spoke, she seemed to recover herself, and turned to face him with fire in her eyes. "Yeah?" she said. "You think Dycedarg's gonna fight for me if an Inquisitor comes calling?"

Ramza hesitated. Unlike Ramza, Alma was still a credit to the Beoulve name. Dycedarg would not allow her to be taken easily. But how hard would he fight for her, really? How much of the Beoulve's power and reputation would he risk for a bastard sister? And was he even here to do the fighting? Zalbaag was closer, and Zalbaag had just proven how little he would risk his neck for the sake of his family, if his faith or honor were challenged. He had already proven it once, when the arrow had flown at his order.

While Ramza's thoughts were fluttering frantically, like a frightened flock of birds, Alma was already moving, striding off towards the estate that Ramza's comrades were all running to. She seemed just as confident, and just as unshakable, as the Inquisitor had seemed, marched in the opposite direction. How could she seem that calm, as the world fell apart around them?

How could he let her walk alone, when he was the whole reason she was in danger.

Ramza jerked out of his reverie, and hurried after his sister.