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Chapter 76: By Any Means
Alma's lips were pulled tight, her hands moving feverishly over Simon's wounds. None of them were fatal, as far as she could tell, but Simon was not a young man, and Alma's healing skills were not as sharp as she would have liked. Radia stood nearby, fingering the hilt of her blade, her eyes fixed back down the hallway where the others had gone.
"You can go," Alma said. "I can handle this."
Radia shook her head. "Ramza would never forgive me if I left you alone."
Alma chuckled. "Ramza would forgive anyone anything."
Radia shot a wry glance back at Alma. "If you believe that, you don't know him as well as you think you do."
No, perhaps she didn't. Again, that terrible memory, Ramza driving the knife into the soldier's throat with such deliberate ease. It played in her mind over and over, for all her attempts to drive it out. Her skin crawled with every repetition.
It was not the first time she'd seen killing, but every time she'd seen it before there had been an element of desperation, like a blow flung at a friend in a moment of rage. The way Ramza had done it...so quick, so confident, like a butcher cutting meat. She had trouble reconciling the kind, hesitant brother she'd known with the swift and certain killer.
She knew there was hypocrisy here—that she should mock Ramza for being surprised at how she could wield a sword or weave a spell, and still be so aghast to see him kill, as soldiers killed. She had seen men die at Zalbaag and Dycedarg's hand, and barely spared them a second thought. But Ramza had always been so kind. The only time she'd seen anything of certainty in him was when he'd tried to fight without killing. How could he kill like that? How could both those things exist in her brother?
She was distracted from her thoughts by Simon, his eyes creaking open to look up at her. "You've...improved...Lady Alma." His eyes were still a little glazed and his face still mottled with bruises, but many of the smaller cuts had scrapes had scabbed over, and the swelling had gone down.
She managed a smile, though she was tired with her ministrations. "I had a good teacher."
Simon shook his fractionally. "Not...a good one. Merely...an able one."
Alma frowned down at Simon. She'd thought there was pain on his face, but there was something else, too. Something of guilt, and something of loss. A different kind of pain, like the kind she'd seen on Ramza's face when he'd recounted the wretched tale of the past two years.
"Simon?" Alma asked. "What's wrong?"
"This...would not be..." Simon closed his eyes. "I...did this."
"Yeah?" Radia asked, glancing back at him. "You beat yourself up, Priest?"
"This...is less...than I deserve."
"What, for keeping a Monastery?" Radia asked.
Simon gave Radia a derisive glance. "There is nothing...in your past...that you regret?"
Radia went silent. Alma's arms felt weak, and she didn't want to look away from Simon while she was tending to him, but she risked a single glance Radia's way. Her face had gone perfectly still.
"What did you do, Father?" Alma asked.
Simon chuckled weakly. "You ask...heavy questions...Alma."
"But you think you deserve this?"
Simon nodded. "For my...folly. Yes."
Simon fixed his glazed eyes on her, and opened his mouth to speak.
"Wait," Radia said. "Do you hear that?"
Alma frowned, concentrated. She didn't hear anything, just the rasping of the wind outside, making the Monastery doors creak. No, wait: hidden in that creaking there was a sound, growing steadily. Almost like the tromping of feet, but lighter somehow, a trace more delicate, oddly familiar.
"Riders!" hissed Alma.
"Can we move him?" Radia asked.
Alma nodded at once. Truth be told, she wasn't sure, but she had been healing him for several minutes, and anyways leaving him here for Templar reinforcements was out of the question. Radia grabbed his legs while Alma grabbed his shoulders, and they shuffled behind the altar, crouching low over the priest. Radia drew her red-bladed sword again, the finger of a free hand pressed to her lips. She adjusted her stance into a runner's starting position, her hands braced over the sword.
"...both dead," huffed a high-pitched man's voice.
"Hmph," grunted a deep, commanding man's voice. "Vormav was right."
"You doubted it?"
"You have to admit, the man doesn't lack for paranoia."
"We are besieged on all sides by the enemies of God-"
"Yes, yes, Radcliffe. You don't have to convert me."
"Orders, sir?" asked a stiff woman's voice.
"Mmm. We can't rule out the possibility that Izlude and the others need reinforcements."
"Our orders are clear-" began the high-pitched voice again.
"Our orders," growled the deep voice. "Are to secure the resources of Orbonne Monastery against all threats. But if you would rather take the chances of losing another Stone, Radcliffe..."
The high-pitched voice grumbled, but said nothing. "Search the building," ordered the deeper voice, with a note of satisfaction. Rustling sounds, as footsteps moved first one way and another. One set of footsteps stepped halfway into the chapel, then came to an abrupt stop.
Alma's flesh crawled as her mind raced. Shit! Fresh soldiers all around them, searching the building and going after Ramza! If they didn't act fast, Ramza would be caught between the soldiers below and the soldiers above! But what they could do that didn't leave Simon alone and exposed? Hell, what could they do when there were only two of them, and who knew how many soldiers?
Alma looked at Radia, hoping to see some sign of a plan on her face. Instead, she found a look of uncertainty. Radia looked over her shoulder at Alma, chewing on her lower lip. Then she spoke, in a carrying whisper: "Wiegraf?"
Wiegraf? Wiegraf, commander of the Death Corps? Wiegraf, who had wounded Zalbaag badly enough to lay him up for two months? Wiegraf, who had fought to protect Ramza and Delita when they had rushed to avenge Teta.
Silence in the chapel. Then the deep, commanding voice whispered back, "Radia?"
Radia poked her head out over the altar. There was a short intake of breath, and quick footsteps approached.
"Don't come any closer." Radia's voice was short and sharp, her sword half-raised. With her free hand, she held her palm flat and pushed down, indicating for Alma to stay where she was. Alma crouched lower, breathing so slowly and quietly that her chest ached for air. The footsteps had stopped.
"Is this what we've come to?" Wiegraf asked. "You really have to threaten me?"
"What are you doing here, Wiegraf?"
A moment's silence. "I think you know the answer to that, Radia."
"Working for the Church." There was frost in Radia's voice.
"Working for Ivalice," Wiegraf retorted.
"Oh, of course!" Radia scoffed. "How helpful you and your friends have been! Kidnapping princesses, cutting down dissidents, starting wars..."
"You have not named a single thing the Corps refrained from," Wiegraf said. "And even if you had, the Corps failed. I do not intend to fail again."
Radia's glare burned brighter. "Yeah?" she said. "What was it you always said, Wiegraf? That how we fought mattered? So the people who came after-"
"I know what I said," Wiegraf grunted. "But I did not think..." He paused for a moment. When he spoke again, he was cautious. "Isn't a kidnapped princess better than a dead one?"
"We were protecting her!" Radia growled, but there was a little doubt in her face.
"Protecting her while the assassins closed in." Wiegraf sighed. "Assassins who served the same master as your father."
"Don't you dare-!" Radia hissed.
"I mean no insult, Radia," Wiegraf interrupted. "I did not like what we did at Orbonne then, as I do not like what we are doing now. But if there is another way to help the people, I cannot see it."
"And that excuses what you're doing?" Radia demanded.
"I'm not trying to excuse it!" Wiegraf snapped. "But I will not see the people of Ivalice murdered and broken just because I lack the stomach to dirty my hands!" His voice softened. "Come now, Radia. Do I really have to convince you?"
"Your Church tried to kill me."
"And we both tried to kill Ramza Beoulve. Good can come from evil, Radia. You should know that better than most." Wiegraf was silent for a moment. "Do you really want to fight me?"
Radia was quiet in turn. Her glare had faded; she was studying Wiegraf over the altar. "Is there another choice?"
Before Wiegraf could answer, there was the sound of quick footfalls just outside the chapel. "Down!" Wiegraf hissed, and Radia obeyed at once, slinking down besides Alma. Her sword was still in hand, her eyes closed in a look of concentration.
"Sir!" came the stiff woman's voice from before.
"What news, Theda?" Wiegraf asked.
"No sign of him, the Stone, or the Gospel, sir!"
"Hmm. Perhaps they're all down below." He thought for a moment. "Theda, gather the others and lead them down. Quick searches only. Make contact with Izlude."
"Yes, sir!" There was no sign of movement.
"Something else, Theda?"
"Sir, if Izlude has not been informed-"
"We shall cross that bridge when the time comes," Wiegraf said. "I trust your judgment on the matter. I'll stand guard up here."
"Sir, you cannot-"
"I will not risk any more lives!" Wiegraf snapped. "Not when the future we've hoped to build is so close at hand. Protect Izlude. Find the Stone. I will make sure no one else troubles you."
"Yes, sir!" There was a note of admiration in Theda's voice, and then her footsteps hurried away. She was shouting, and other voices answered her, and a great many footsteps filled the hall, and faded away. Alma's mouth was dry, her skin clammy. Everyone heading down after Ramza.
"Satisfied?" Wiegraf asked.
Radia rose slowly. She was no longer glaring at Wiegraf. Her face was a little confused, a little unsure. "Ramza's down there."
Wiegraf sighed. "Then I had best hurry down myself. Hopefully we can prevent further bloodshed."
"You mean it?" Radia asked.
Wiegraf chuckled. "My ideals may be bruised, but they're still intact. I suspect you know the feeling."
A flicker of a smile across Radia's face. "Suppose I do," she said. "I'm not alone back here."
Radia gestured for Alma to rise. Alma hesitated, then poked her head out over the altar. Wiegraf Folles was a tall man, his strong jaw outlined but a faint blonde shadow, his golden-brown hair trimmed short. He wore golden armor with red accents, and the Templar symbol etched over his heart. His blue eyes were wary, but kind.
"And who might you be?" he asked.
Alma swallowed against the lingering dryness. "Alma."
Wiegraf stared at her. The corners of his mouth twitched. "Of course," he murmured. "We would meet like this." He studied her for a moment. "I met your friend while she pretended to be you."
"You..." Alma's head was spinning. "Teta?"
Wiegraf nodded. "She was a kind woman. She deserved better." There was genuine grief and regret in his deep voice. "I'm sorry."
Everything felt distant and surreal. She hadn't expected this man—this menace from bygone days, who had commanded the group that had stolen Teta from her, who occupied such a strange place in the stories Ramza had told. In the midst of this precarious danger, he was a huge unknown. But she knew Ramza liked him. Alma was surprised to find she did, too. She couldn't find it in herself to doubt anyone who seemed so sad about Teta.
"So what now?" Radia asked.
"Leave," Wiegraf said. "I'll head below, try and arrange a peaceable end to things. If nothing else, I'll try and get them on the caravan. Under a light guard. I can't be blamed if some enterprising young mercenary overpowers me and whisks away the prisoners...especially if she does it without casualties."
Alma and Radia exchanged uncertain glances. It was a big risk, and Alma didn't like the idea of standing by while her brother was taken captive, even under false pretenses. But if Wiegraf was truly willing to let them go, she supposed she could trust him to hold to his word. He did seem to have a lot of pull here. And besides, Radia and Alma could hardly face so many soldiers by themselves.
Radia nodded slowly. "Please, Ser Folles-" Alma began.
"Ser?" repeated Wiegraf, with a wry grin. "Never thought I'd hear a Beoulve call me that."
Alma offered a shaky smile. "Can you give us a hand? We've got a wounded man."
Wiegraf sighed heavily. "Of course you do." His eyes flickered back down the hall, where everyone else had gone. "Right, quickly now."
He sheathed his sword, and hurried towards them. Radia sheathed her own sword in turn, and Alma bent low to examine Simon. The old priest did not seem fully conscious: his eyes were glazed, his breathing uneven. She frowned, gathered magic from her ring again, tracing her fingers just above one of the bruised scrapes in his skull. Radia bent by her side. "I'll get his shoulders," Radia said. "Wiegraf, can you-"
She cut herself off sharply. Something about the sudden silence drew Alma's attention, jerked her head upright. Wiegraf was standing over them, staring down at the priest. His expression was eerily familiar to Alma. It was almost precisely the same face Radia had made when Simon had asked her about regrets.
"Wiegraf?" Radia's voice was soft, almost pleading.
Wiegraf did not look at her, but nodded slowly. "I see," he said. "Of course."
He lifted his gaze, just for a moment. He and Radia locked eyes. Then he moved, lightning-quick: his sword was already in hand as he lunged forwards, and buried the blade in Simon's stomach. Alma felt a ludicrous moment of vertigo: the way he moved reminded her of how Ramza had killed the soldier outside. Matter-of-factly, with the callous confidence of a butcher cutting meet.
"NO!" screamed Radia, as Simon gave a croak of pain that flecked blood across Alma's face. Alma stared down at the priest, and at the sword in his stomach. Her mind flashed back to Dycedarg at the Beoulve Manor, struck down by another Death Corps soldier at another time. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Radia lunging towards Wiegraf in turn, heard a fleshy tear as Wiegraf's sword slashed out of the hole it had made in Father Simon and parried her blade. Another spray of blood from Wiegraf's sword, flecking against her chest, her throat, her face.
Without thinking, Alma bent low over the wound. She could heal Simon. She could save him like she'd saved Dycedarg. She could-
Impact, a flash of light, a harsh whoomph of hot air. Alma was tumbling backwards, out past the altar. Simon flew overhead, landed in a crumbled heap against a stone pillar. Radia was on her knees, her hands empty. Alma lifted her head on a creaking neck, saw Wiegraf striding towards her. His eyes were hard and merciless. Simon's bloody still dripped from his shimmering blade.
Radia hurled herself at him, rose her hands. Mirage shimmers fluxed off her body, bled away the glowing edge to his sword. Wiegraf cursed, jabbing the tip of his blade at Radia, who dodged and started between his stabs. RUN, ALMA!" Radia screamed.
Run. Had to run. Couldn't end up like Teta. Couldn't get caught. She'd told Ramza she'd be safe here. Had to stick to her word. She was already running. When had she started? Hard to tell, with her ears ringing and old memories intruding on present terror, and there were footsteps behind her, too close, and Alma ducked low, threw up a hand, willed magic to form a wall-
Another impact, shattering her magic, fracturing something inside her. Alma stumbled backwards with a harsh croak of pain, her eyes squinted against the terrible light of a Mage Knight's attack. A hand knotted in her hair, hauled her upright as her scalp burned. "That's enough," Wiegraf breathed.
"Let her GO!" Radia roared, and there was a blow behind Alma, knocking her to the floor with Wiegraf on top of her. Scrabbling scuffling on top of her, tearing one sleeve open, thudding her forehead painfully against the stone floor, but soon the weight was gone and Alma crawled to her feet, staggering blindly down one hall. Half-lit steps stretched downwards in front of her. The Archives. Yes. Alma had been down there before. She could hide there. She could-
Heavy footfalls behind her. Fear and pain gave Alma an extra burst of energy: she was sprinting almost at once, and screaming as she ran.
"RAMZA! RAMZA, HELP!"