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Chapter 80: Captive Captors

A fist drove into her stomach, knocked the air out of her and the will out of her, knocked the consciousness out of her. Her mind felt thin as gossamer, and the outside world registered only as dim sensations.

It wasn't just pain. It wasn't just a punch. She'd been hit before, and it had hardly stopped her from fighting. There was some kind of magic at work here, spreading out from the point where he'd punched her. It had happened so fast that it had barely registered as magic, but now some dim part of Alma could recognize how it had unfurled. First the fist, and the pain carving a jagged path across her nerves. Behind that pain had come numbness, like a healer easing the paining of a wound. Except this numbness kept spreading, paralyzing its target.

She understood this, so she could not understand how long it had taken, or what had happened in the interim. She only became vaguely aware of the coldness of water soaking into her clothes, and the pins and needles of nerves freshly restored. After that came the sound of a chocobo's footsteps trotting upon the ground, and the feeling of a man's legs beneath her chest.

She didn't let herself react. She moaned a little, in case she'd given any sign that she'd been stirring, and shook her head from side to side. But while it was still hard to move, it wasn't impossible. She hadn't been tied up. Maybe there hadn't been time? Or maybe her captor had expected her to be out for longer?

Reason didn't matter. There was opportunity here. Now was the matter of what to do with it. Wait a while longer? No, if she was supposed to be out longer her captor would have some rough idea how long and might take measures to keep her unconscious once that time grew closer.

The moment she realized that, her course of action became clear. She was awake, and didn't think her kidnapper knew that. And Alma Beoulve was not going to let a golden opportunity for escape pass her by because she was a little afraid.

Focusing on the ring on her finger, not quite daring to cast yet. Their enemies were Templars and Inquisitors, their powers great and unknown, and her body was still numb from that strange blow. But she could start thinking of what she'd cast the moment she got her moment: just a burst of energy, like the rushing of a stormy wind. Not yet...not yet...!

Now! She willed, poured magic into her ring. She felt her captor gasp, reach out to grab her, too late: the magic burst in a roaring spurt of rushing air. The bird they rode upon gave a strangled cry, staggering: Alma rolled one way as her captor was flung the other.

She hit the ground hard, a stinging impact across her back that ached particularly between her shoulder blades. She gritted her teeth and kept rolling until she was on all fours, than pushed herself upright. A shape of green and gold blurred out of the misting darkness: Alma raised her ring again, so a shimmering wall of pearly luminescence rose between them. Her would-be captor swung his fist, and the wall burst with a rippling shudder: Alma felt something crack inside her soul, and gasped at the pain of it. Without thinking she willed again, shoving her ring-bearing hand out with the same gesture so a blast of air exploded from her fist: her captor crossed his arms in front of him, skidded backwards but kept his feet.

"Stand down, Lady Alma," he growled, glaring at her as he lowered his hands.

"Or what?" Alma retorted, hands still raised.

"Do I have to cut something off?".

"With what?" Alma asked. "Your fists?"

Her captor's clenched fists tightened. "I'll-"

"What?" Alma demanded. "What will you do? Hit me again? I've been hit harder by nobles girls. The really weak ones."

Her captor pursed his lips. A livid bruise had formed under his right eye, but he seemed none the worse for wear. Behind him, the chocobo they'd ridden upon had recovered its footing, and seemed content to wait until its erstwhile riders had resolved matters. The drizzle whispered down around them.

"You'll run out of magic before I do," her captor said.. "And I would prefer not to have to beat you bloody to keep you under control."

"You're not going to beat me at all," Alma spat. "You're going to let me go or you're going to die."

Her captor laughed. "You think you're going to kill me, Lady Alma?"

"I don't have to kill you," she said. "I just have to stall you long enough for my friends to get here."

He took a step forwards. "You overestimate yourself."

"Do I?" she asked, her mind racing. Wiegraf had captured her to try and make Ramza stand down: she had to assume this young man had done the same. "You want to use me as a hostage against Ramza," she said. "Which means you can't kill me, and I'm strong enough to give you trouble. And the longer it takes to bring me down, the closer my brother gets."

"Wiegraf will stop your brother."

"Nothing will stop my brother."

Her captor inhaled deeply. His eyes searched her face. There was something a little uncertain there. Maybe he would listen. Maybe not. Maybe he really would hurt her. But she'd go down fighting. She was still a Beoulve, and if she could not swing a sword as well as he liked she was still strong enough to-

Movement, flickering above her captor. He jerked back as a slender figure slammed into the ground where he'd been standing, then lashed out towards him with whipping limbs. Alma stood frozen, watching the two of them fight: they were so terribly fast.

They were fast, and neither of them was paying any attention to her.

She turned, and started to run. She had only taken two steps when she felt foreign magic closing upon her. She raised her ring, summoned her own magic-

Everything distorted. The world drained of color, so everything was painted in harsh shadows. Her lungs heaved in her chest, trying and failing to draw in air. She wanted to fall to her knees with weakness, and couldn't. Or rather, she started to, but her body moved like congealing mud, oozing downwards. Everything was so terribly slow.

The eternal instant passed. Alma was on her knees, gasping desperately for air. Her captor was facedown in front of her, his slender opponent towering over him with a foot placed upon his back. It was an odd thing; he looked like he was being crushed by some enormous weight, as though the foot on his back was a boulder he couldn't shake off.

Alma looked up. Two figures stood over her, barely visible through the darkness closing on her eyes. One clutched at her hand, pulling the ring from her finger. She was too dazed to fight. She had the same nightmarish feeling she'd had when Wiegraf's sword had stabbed into Simon. The world felt unreal, with horrors boiling beneath its surface.

"Easy, Clara," a young man's voice murmured. "We want her alive."

"She is alive," answered a girl's voice.

"What of him?" called another voice—thinner, sharper.

"We take them both," the male voice replied. He knelt in front of her—a dark-skinned face under a soldier's cut of black hair, and eyes as black and hard as obsidian. "Alma Beoulve and Izlude Tengille? Worthy prizes for our Duke."