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Chapter 72: Duty

"Breathe, Mal. Breathe."

He wanted to, but even Rafa's voice and her cool hand upon his brow could not soothe him now. Every breath was agony: it scorched down his throat like the winds of the Zeklaus desert, leaving him gasping for air and water. He was shaking and shuddering with it, sweat pooling at the base of his back so his tunic clung to him, his fingers digging in the dirt at his side as fevered pain crawled along his skin. The heat inside him and the cold snow around him was a debilitating contrast.

"It's okay, Mal," Rafa whispered. "It's okay."

Even with their special preparations, even with Clara weaving spells to prolong the effect of the Blood, Malk should have jumped ship hours ago. The poor bird itself could barely fly towards the end, and Malak had felt its weakness and pain echoing across his own form. Huddled in the snow outside the cave, burning inside as it froze outside, clinging to ragged, desperate life because Malak needed more information.

But he had what he needed. Before the bird had burned, it had heard what Alma Beoulve had had to say.

"Orbonne," Malak croaked.

Rafa stiffened. "What?"

"Orbonne," Malak said again. Saint above, every syllable was sandpaper rasping across his throat. He swallowed and tried again, his body still shuddering. "That's...what they said. A Stone...at Orbonne."

Clara, dozing under a blanket from her huddled place in the corner of their little valley between hills, jerked her head up. "The Monastery?"

Malak tried to nod, and couldn't manage it: his head jerked erratically, his brain trying to give signals to the wrong body. Normally using the Blood was instinctive, simple orders given that the animal he put his blood inside could translate into its own commands. But the longer he spent in a body, the more it felt like his, even as it burned and melted and died. He thought the rat had been bad, butt it was nothing compared to the bird.

"Y...yes," Malak rasped, cursing his clumsy tongue. "H...his sister..."

Rafa nodded. "She was a student there. She saw a Stone."

"S-s-so...s-she s-s-says." He hated the stutter. He hated his weakness. He was the trusted leader of the Grand Duke's Hand, and now he lacked the strength to stand.

"How's our birdbrained leader?" asked a creaking voice. Malak's head twitched towards the source: from the corner of his eye, he could just make out the hobbling figure of a wizened old man making his precarious way down the slope of a hill, his figure concealed behind a heavy cloak. Light and shadow rippled, and Berkeley walked cheerfully upright, spinning their knob-headed cane in one hand. They carried a heavy sack over one shoulder.

"Food and medicine," they said, tossing the bag on the ground near Malak. "Something good for cramps and shakes, plus something to dull the pain."

"You could give it to him," Rafa huffed.

Light and shadow rippled again, and the old man quivered upon his cane. "But it is so cold," he lamented. "And I have already walked so far. Please, poor child-"

"Fine," grunted Rafa, pulling a green vial out of the bag and shaking it vigorously. She put the vial to Malak's lips: he closed his eyes as the thick, bitter liquid oozed across his tongue, and struggled not to gag. They had plenty of gil, but he was supposed to be a leader, and he would not waste the medicine. Berkeley might make light, but it was a fair trek back to Lesalia as a fresh blizzard blew up, and it was a trek they only needed to make so Malak's connection with the bird remained secure. If he were stronger, none of this would be necessary.

There was a tense moment when the liquid felt too thick in Malak's throat, and he thought he might vomit it all up. Then in one swallow the moment passed, and Malak instantly felt a little steadier. There was a chalky coating in his mouth and throat, but the trembling had stopped, and he could breathe a little easier.

"Thank you," he sighed. Rafa tucked the blanket around his shoulders. Malak didn't bother protesting: when he overused the Blood like this, and over such distances, he was prone to weakness. He needed to rest if he was to lead properly.

"We got info?" Berkeley asked, melting back into their usual form.

"There's a Stone at Orbonne," Rafa said. "That's where they're heading."

"Oh, man!" Berkeley clapped his hands together. "That's a helluva lead."

"Doesn't begin to cover it, does it," murmured Clara, her voice drowsy.

"Sleeping already, Clarabelle?" Berkeley asked.

"I'm tired," grumbled Clara.

"Looks like what you did to the Blood worked," Rafa observed.

"Maybe," Clara said doubtfully. "He doesn't look so good."

Malak sat up a little, in spite of his dizziness. "M'fine, Clara. Couldn't have done it without you."

"Did more than me," Berkeley said, with a note of self-loathing. "All those people, and I couldn't-"

"Couldn't what?" Rafa asked. "They left town. How were you supposed to tail them? You can only change your shape to other people, Berk. Were you supposed to hide behind a tree?"

Berkeley's mouth twisted. "Couldn't tail the Inquisitor either, could I?"

"And shouldn't," Malak said, laying back down. "Templar magic is not to be trifled with. Shapeshifters are rare, Berk, but they aren't unknown, and if there's anyone who could catch one-"

"Right," Berkeley said, in a voice more doubtful than Clara's. Malak didn't bother to reassure them. Clara had pushed herself to her limits, but Berkeley might have found another way to get them, information, and it was always good to consider if such a thing were possible. It would make them all better soldiers.

And they needed to be better, given the scale of the forces involved here.

Their mission had already been strange enough—tracking a Beoulve bastard implicated in the death of a Cardinal and following his course a scant few miles behind the lines of the war. Now an Inquisitor was involved. An Inquisitor of inarguable power, based on that display back at the orchard. An Inquisitor could call upon local constables, on knightly orders and governmental forces, on the personal soldiers of fiefs both major and minor. An Inquisitor could mobilize the Templars, and move openly across Ivalice, in pursuit of their target. He could capture and execute Ramza before they learned anything.

The Hand could fail.

The fear of failure hurt Malak worse than his time in the bird. It did not leave nauseous and weak: instead it left him sinking inside himself, thoughts chasing each other in self-recriminating loops. Should they have taken Ramza and his company before they reached the city? No, too risky, they were always grouped up, and the Hand was good but not so good they could take them all without wounds and Malak would not fritter away his friends on such a conflict. Perhaps they should have taken Ramza himself when he had been alone in Lesalia? But he had never been alone: he was always with or near Hokuten functionaries, and anyways abducting a Beoulve from the capital would have been too risky, and-

And all these practical reassurances did not mask the larger weight pressing against his soul. Barinten had trusted him with this mission. Barinten believed they could find the information that would let him claim his rightful place, and spread his cautious benevolence across Ivalice. And for the first time Malak really felt like he might fail in his duty. That hee would fail the man who had cared for him. That he would fail the others, the men and women of Ivalice who would be saved if Barinten's hands could hold the reins of power.

He drowsed, haunted by fever-visions of failure—of his friends hurt, or of Ramza in the clutches of the Church, or of a war that consumed more and more of Ivalice and left more orphans in its wake without men like Barinten to care for them. He drifted into uneasy consciousness as Clara awoke and set out to patrol the hilltops. Berkeley asleep besides the fire, where Rafa tended to a little pot. She ladled broth into a bowl and it to Malak. He sipped at the thin soup and was pleased to find his hands no longer trembled. He drained the bowl, stood a little clumsily, and found his legs supported him.

"We've taken too long," Malak said.

"We took as long as we had to," Rafa said. "And we know where they're going."

Yes, that was something. For all his resources, the Inquisitor would have to track Ramza and his company the old-fashioned way. The Hand could head straight for the Monastery. Hell, since they were a smaller group, they might even beat Ramza and his friends there, if thy were careful.

"We might have to run interference," Rafa continued thoughtfully. "If pursuit gets too close to Ramza, before we're ready to act."

Yes, but act how? How could they serve the trust that Barinten had placed in them? Clarice had already used her vile of Blood to contact him yesterday, informing him that they were to continue on their mission and be cautious of attracting further attention. She was to rendezvous with them here two days from now.

But Malak wasn't sure they could wait two more days. The Inquisitor's involvement posed new questions. Was he a part of the Church activity they had seen? Or a conspiracy of demons, as Ramza claimed?

Ramza's argument with the Inquistor lingered in Malak's mind. The Cardinal, turned into the demon by the magic of the Zodiac Stone. Was such a thing possible? But how? Members of Khamja spent as much time researching as they did training, learning new techniques or getting a better understanding of potential foes. They all had a basic grounding in magic, techniques, and legends from many nations. And of course, any who grew up beneath the auspices of the Glabados Church would hear of the Lucavi who had corrupted the Ydoran Empire, before Ajora and his Disciples rose to challenge them with Stones in hand.

But everything implied the Lucavi were myth, conventional enemies made to look absolutely evil so Saint Ajora could seem an absolute good. And nothing Malak had ever read pointed to a connection between the legendary Stones and the Lucavi they had been used against. So was Ramza lying? And if so, why that particular lie.

Too many questions, and too much uncertain.

"Clarice contacted me too soon," Malak whispered. "We need to get word to the Duke."

Rafa nodded. "We'll send Clarice back when she-"

"No," Malak said. "The Inquisitor changes things. We'll need Berkeley to trace them now, Clarice to track them later, and Clara to give us breathing room if things go wrong."

Rafa was silent for a moment. "You don't mean-" she started.

"I needed you here in case we needed to capture Ramza," Malak said. "At the moment, that no longer seems possible."

"And if you fight the Inquisitor? Or the Templars?" Rafa demanded. "Sending me back-"

"Sending you back is the only choice I have," Malak said. "You're the fastest of us."

"Not if you send a bird!"

"Look at me, Raf!" Malak snapped, gesturing down at his still-feeble body. "Serious use of the Blood right now is..." He shook his head. "I can't do it. I want you here, but..."

"Don't send me back, Mal." Rafa's voice was low, unsteady, pleading.

Malak hesitated. Truth be told, he didn't want to send her back. She had cared for him, steadied him, made him feel equal to the chaos they faced. It had been a long time since they'd spent more than a night apart. More than that, he understood his sister's reluctance to go. He knew she wanted to be here, on the front lines, where they could best serve Barinten.

But serving the Duke required sacrifices from all of them.

"Barinten has to know what's happened," Malak said. "I'll have Clara prepare one of her seplls for you. If you use your magic sparingly and forego the roads, you might be there before just after Clarice rejoins us, and we can get a better sense of what we should do. It's the best way to serve the Duke, Raf."

"I don't want to serve him!" Rafa cried.

Malak stared at her. Something inside him felt colder than the night air, and hotter than the flames that had devoured the last bird. "What did you say?" he asked, and he could hear the cold and the fire in his own voice.

Rafa was pale, her lips pressed into a thin line. "I just mean...I..." She shook her head. "I...can't keep you safe...or anyone, and...and the Duke..."

Fire and frost alike dimmed a little, but Malak still watched his sister warily. The way her voice had sounded, so shrill and pained...it brought to mind again that day when she had smashed through soldiers and walls in her hysterical attempt on the Duke. But she looked calm enough, present enough. And if some ghost of her old nightmares troubled her, shouldn't he reassure her? He wasn't just her commander, after all; he was her brother.

Fire and frost alike were gone. Now he was just looking at his sister, trying to figure out what he wanted to say to her.

"I don't want you to go, Raf," he said. "I want you here. You keep us all safe." He let his fear and doubt creep into his voice now, because if he couldn't be honest with Rafa who could he be honest with? "But the Duke has to know what we're facing. He has to make this call. You're our best chance of getting word to him quickly, without losing our quarry. It has to be you. Otherwise, we...we're not doing our duty."

Rafa was silent, her head bowed so her hair concealed hear features. She nodded a fraction of an inch. "I know."

Malak smiled, and put his hands on his sister's shoulders. "Thank you, Rafa," he said. "I couldn't do this without you."

Rafa offered another fractional nod and pulled away from him, heading back to her pack. Malak watched her with a little ache in his heart.

But it was for the best. She could move faster than anyone but Clarice, and right now they needed every advantage they had if they were to outrun the Inquisitor, and do their duty.

Malak was afraid, but fear was a tool, and he would use that fear to drive him on.