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Chapter 89: Breaking Point

We fled the chasing Ydoran guard and their allies as far north as we could go, seeking shelter under the auspices of the Exile (only too delighted to use his little kingdom to spit in the face of the men who had ousted him from Mullonde). He bade us wait for a formal invitation in Yardrow, and amid the swamps and toiling poor, far from the comforts of a real Ydoran city, we made a tattered camp and contented ourselves with what food we could find that was not consumed by rot.

"This is not a city," I said to Ajora, as we stared out at the hovels that ring the grand Ydoran manses of the Exile's courtiers.

"No?" he said. "Why not?"

"Look at it." I gestured to the villas and their coronas of poor of and desperate souls.

"Looks Ydoran enough to me," he answered.

I stared at him in disbelief. He smiled sadly, and said, "All of the Empire is like this, too. The places of power that bend all the world to their will." His smile faded. "They just disguise it better."

-Gospel According to Germonique, ISV (Inquisitor Simon Version)

Ramza could never breathe that old shit-and-piss stink of a poor, packed city without thinking of Dorter, but it had been many years since it had smelled this bad. Perhaps it was the surrounding swamps and marshes that kept it swirling around you, mixing with it unmistakable stench of rot. Or perhaps it was because, like Zaland, so much of this city was built around walls. Unlike Zaland, however, there was not one big slum district, but many.

When Ramza had descended from the mountains, he had caught a glimpse of Yardrow in the distance: grand, gaudy estates with ornate emerald lawns, opulent islands surrounded by dense sea of brown and grey. As he got closer to the city,the brown and grey swelled into collections of broken buildings, woven together around the islands of wealth like a corpse-laden spider's web. The spiders remained: so did the numberless dead upon which they had fed.

It was dusk now, and the people hustled to and fro, hurrying to finish the day's business and return home. This was the first place Ramza had been in a long time that was completely untouched by the war; no bodies choking the streets, no wounded huddling in the shadows, no weary soldiers moving like packs of wild-eyed wolves. But the look in their eyes was not one of peaceful people well-cared for. Some wore the same broken look the refugees had had on the road to Lesalia; some had the wary, coiled danger of soldiers pushed to their limit, ready to strike.

There was life in this city (Ramza could not deny it, not with that too-ripe shit-and-piss smell still clogging his nostrils, not with the crowded streets), but the life was like the shadows in the Zaland slums, or like the hush of Goug when Baerd's men showed up. This was a city fighting a different kind of war.

"Ramza Beoulve."

Ramza turned his head slowly. He recognized the speaker; the whip thin girl who had floated like a leaf during their battle outside Goland. She wore a tight hood to hold back her hair, and held herself with military poise. Ramza felt a slight pang; she barely came up to his chest.

"My sister?" Ramza said.

"Show me the Stones," she replied.

Ramza shook his head slightly. "I don't have them with me."

The girl stiffened. "You-"

"And I'll tell you no more," Ramza said. "Until I see her."

The girl closed her eyes. She tensed for a moment, lethal as a drawn bowstring. Then she nodded, and turned on her heel, indicating with the slightest nod that Ramza should follow her. Ramza followed at once, feeling himself coiled just as tight as the girl, conscious of the sword on one hip and the dagger on the other, of the bow and quiver upon his back, of the pack slung so it wouldn't touch any of them, and the weight of the Gospel within. His mind inventoried every rune upon his gloves, and he felt the old weight of his iron-lined greaves.

She led him from the first cluster of buildings where he'd entered the city, out along a wide dirt path, then down into a second cluster of slightly higher-end buildings, not so strictly separated from the gleaming fortress-like building in the distance. A girl pushed a cart of red flowers by, and offered him one. Ramza shook his head with a smile, but felt another pang. The girl pushing the cart was young. The girl leading Ramza was younger.

He thought of the documents Olan had shown him. He thought of what he'd been told, about the Hand and the Grand Duke they served.

They reached an alley between two buildings, just wide enough for one person to walk through comfortably, just narrow enough that two people would have to squeeze close together to pass each other by. There had been the occasional torch and runelight through the streets, but none of that reached here. The shadows were thick with gathering night.

"In there," Clarice said.

Ramza looked down into the dark alley, then around the slightly less-dim street. They'd have no trouble ambushing him in there. He had to assume that was their plan. But they couldn't kill him until they had the Stones and the Gospel. And he could think of no other way to reach Alma then to walk into the trap and hope he could best it. He'd done it before.

Ramza entered the alley. He heard a whisper of wind behind him, and turned at once. The wiry girl was gone.

"Ramza."

Ramza spun around, searching for Alma's voice.

"Ramza," she said, a little louder. "Here."

Her voice was a hoarse whisper, and Ramza's skin prickled with it. He narrowed his eye and took several tentative steps down the alley, searching the shadows. With the slightest creak, a door opened, spilling out the faint, flickering gleam of candelight. A moment later, and Alma stepped through the doorway, and Ramza almost sagged with relief. Until this moment, some small, unspoken part of him had been sure this would be Teta all over again; that he would reach his sister, only to find her dead or gone.

She was wearing the same worn combination of leathers, trousers, and tunic they'd been able to fashion for her from their gathered clothes, her dark blonde hair stringy with grease, her green eyes wide and terrified.

"Alma," Ramza said, and took a step towards her.

"No closer, Beoulve."

The voice had a peculiarly muffled quality: it reverberated like a mallet striking a drum. A long Doman katana swung out of the darkness, though there was no hand to wield it, and its sharp edge pressed gently against Alma's throat. It took Ramza only a moment to recognize the voice: the same one that had uttered is threats from the melting bird, now vibrating its way across the red-tinted sword.

"Who are you?" Ramza asked.

"A proud servant of Grand Duke Barinten," the voice answered.

"One of the Hand?"

There was silence from the sword. Even Alma seemed startled, her eyes darting down to the sword on her throat, then back to Ramza. She knew something he didn't.

Credit where credit was due: the short pause might have given the game away, but the young voice bluffed with aplomb. "Our fame and our lord's precedes us!" The laugh that followed sounded genuine. "Than we can dispense with the pleasantries. I will send someone to fetch the Gospel and the Stones. Then your sister will-"

"-be killed," Ramza finished. "As will I. If we're going to dispense with the pleasantries, let's dispense with the lies, too. I've got the Gospel here, and my friends outside the city have the Stones." Not technically a lie. "You get the Gospel first. You give me my sister. You get the Stones when I've left. We all walk away distinctly unhappy."

"Indeed we would," the voice answered. "Especially with Lucavi at work in Ivalice."

Ramza frowned at the sword. His eyes flickered up to Alma, whose lips were pressed into a thin line. "What did you tell them?"

"They said you were a heretic," she answered. "I told them that you weren't, that you were trying to stop the Church and the Lucavi and-"

"Enough," barked the young voice, and Alma fell silent, her eyes flickering down to the sword once again. In a more pleasant tone, the voice continued, "Is it true what she says, Ramza Beoulve? Do you battle demons?"

The voice did not sound like it was mocking him. It sounded merely curious.

"And if I was?" Ramza asked.

"Then I would suggest that there is no need for us to be enemies."

Ramza arched his eyebrows. "You'll forgive me if I don't take you at your word, what with your blade at my sister's throat."

"And I'm sure you would utterly willing to listen if I released her?" the voice laughed. "We have spoken with Izlude Tengille, Ramza Beoulve. We know what you are capable of."

"You should know better than that," Ramza said. "You've fought me before. As I recall, my friends and I bested you."

"And where are those friends now?" asked the voice.

Ramza smiled as confidently as he could manage, and did not answer.

The voice waited a few seconds, and then continued, in a more subdued tone. "Here, then."

The sword drifted away from Alma's throat. She stared at in shock. "What?"

"Here, Alma!" Ramza said, and Alma took two hesitant steps forward, than sprinted to his side, sheltering just behind him.

"Are you alright?" Ramza muttered.

"Better now," Alma replied, though her voice shook

"Is that a token enough of our good faith?" the sword asked. It looked very strange, floating in the alley all by itself. The back of Ramza's neck crawled at the thought of ghosts.

"What's to stop me from leaving with her?" he replied.

"I hope you're not expecting me to say something like, 'your honor'," the voice said, a little amused. "I think you know you're surrounded." Ramza shrugged, and the voice continued, "Besides which, my lord and I both believe there is the possibility of an alliance."

It had to be a trap. He glanced sidelong at Alma, trying to read her thoughts, but her eyes kept darting to the shadows, not even looking at him. Saint above, she was truly terrified. What had they done to her?

"An alliance?" Ramza said, turning his glance at Alma to a pointed search of the shadows around them.

"The Templars manipulate Larg and Goltanna alike," the voice said, and Ramza's head swiveled towards the sword. "We have been working to undermine their efforts, but had little hope of real success. We followed you, hoping you might know something we didn't."

Ramza smiled slightly, thinking of Olan. "Hoping I could give you leverage?"

"Exactly," the voice said.

"The Gospel should give you that, no?" Ramza patted the bag at his side.

"Over the Templars. But what of the Lucavi?"

Ramza laughed. "So you believe me."

"My liege lord neither believes nor disbelieves your story yet," the voice admitted. "But he knows your sister believes it, and he has seen the lengths some of the Templars will go to seize the Stones. Their efforts give him pause. Even if you are lying, your lies seem most effective; why else would the Church be so quick to declare you a heretic?"

"To discredit me," Ramza replied.

"Oh, I don't know about that," the sword said. "Certainly, declaring you a heretic marks you for death in all the Saint-fearing corners of Ivalice...but it also raises your profile considerably, no? Before, you were a promising cadet who disappeared in the chaos of the Death Coprs rebellion; even recently, you were merely a moderately-talented mercenary in the employ of a moderately well-known man. But now...now your name has reached the ears of the high and mighty in every corner of Ivalice. A Beoulve, and a heretic Beoulve besides!" The voice lowered into a conspiratorial tone. "Our allies tell us that there are many questions among the powerful about what exactly transpired in Lionel. The Church wanted to make sure no one believed your claims of demons among them. That makes us think they must fear those claims."

"Will you get to the point?" Ramza asked.

"Come with us."

Ramza stared at the store. "Come...with you?"

"To Riovanes. Tell us what you know. Share with us the Gospel, and the Stones, and more besides. Join our ranks, and help us put an end to the schemes of the Church, and bring peace to Ivalice again."

Ramza almost laughed. "The Cardinal made a similar offer."

"Before you killed him?" asked the sword.

"Before he turned into a demon," Ramza said. "But then I killed the demon, yes."

"Then we need your expertise," the sword said. "Ramza Beoulve, if you have heard of the Hand, than you know Grand Duke Barinten values talent and experience. He made us his most trusted agents, young as we are: he has gathered mages, warriors, and scholars from Doma, from Romanda, from Ordallia, and from places farther off besides. Even if you are telling me lies, you are a heretic fighting the same Templars we hope to best; if you are telling the truth, you are an outcast fighting demons that stalk the highest halls of Ivalice. Let us join forces against these foes."

Olan's words tickled the back of Ramza's thoughts. "And I suppose Barinten has no interest in who sits the throne when all is said and done?"

"I cannot say what is in my lord's mind," the sword answered. "I will say that I would see him sit the throne, if I could make it so." The voice sounded terribly young now, and terribly honest. "I have seen his intelligence, his ambition, his generosity, and his compassion firsthand, and I cannot imagine the golden age he might bring to Ivalice, had he only the chance?"

Olan's words stabbed at Ramza's mind with special force. Had Barinten manipulated his young charges so thoroughly? Had he blinded them to his corrupted, the same way Dycedarg had blinded Ramza when he was young?

Ramza risked another glance at Alma, but she was staring at the sword with a strange expression on her face. Looking at her stiffened his resolve. He had come this far to save her. He had to get our. Perhaps if he unbalanced the Hand enough, he could escape them, and flee back south to Daravon (or rush her straight to Lesalia or Igros).

It was Gaffgarion's echo, looking for reasons to tell the Hand the truth as a tactical advantage. But Ramza knew how it galled him, to hear that young voice speak with such admiration for the monster he served. The Hand were all terribly young, and all terribly deceived.

"High praise," Ramza said softly. "For the man who killed your family."

There was a short bark of laughter from the sword. "Spare me your lies, Ramza Beoulve."

"No lies," Ramza said. "Who do you think burned Galthena?"

Utter silence. Then: "Rafa, no!"

Ramza blinked, gasped as a dark shape in white cloth smashed into the sword, burying it in a nearby wall. She turned towards him, her eyes wide: "BEHIND YOU!"

Ramza turned in confusion, found nothing but Alma, ducking low in an unfamiliar pose, leaping towards him, her face strange now, so strange that Ramza almost thought it wasn't his sister behind him but someone else, some monster wearing her face, and the moment the thought occurred to him (too slow, too slow) he raised his hands to block her but she slammed into him and knocked him to the ground. He struggled in her grasp but she, twisted, pivoted to keep him off-balance, and soon Ramza was pinned, her strong arms wrapped in a sleeper hold across his throat, the world going dim around the edges as Ramza's thoughts grew soft and strange, and an unfamiliar voice whispered, "Don't fight it, don't fight it..."

In front of him, the dark-skinned girl was sprinting towards him, but from above her, a human figure fell like a bolt of lightning. The girl in white skidded to a stop and raised crossed arms above her head: when the slender girl in the sky slammed into her, they cracked the ground beneath their feet, throwing up a pall of dust. Ramza, choking, gasping, and struggling to free the grip upon his neck, shut his eyes against it, the darkness illuminated by bursting stars of pain.

A bolt of clear thought through the cloud of dust: his eyes opened, his hands slipped from the arm around his neck, closed together, one finger thumbing for the rune for wind. Pressed, invoked, and a strong gust hurled both Ramza and his attacker backwards, slamming them into a wall: their grip went slack, and Ramza found his feet, ducked forwards and hurled the fake Alma across his shoulder, to land with a loud, "oomph" upon the ground.

Ramza snatched up his hand, his finger finding the rune for fire, images of Zeakden filling his head. The flames exploded from the palm of his hand.

"NO!" shrieked a high female voice, as a blurred shape landed in front the fallen figure. The flames slowed their river rush, until they trickled like droplets dripping slowly down a wall.

"Up, Berk!" the short woman cried, and jabbed her staff forwards. The flames burst apart before a rippling wave of distorted light, crashing down the alley towards Ramza. Ramza remembered the peculiar stillness that had grasped him in his first battle with these children, steadied himself and reached out with his field like Radia had taught him. He felt that warped magic crawling beneath his skin, felt everything so strange and slow around him, and when Ramza stepped forwards the step carried him far farther, far faster than it should, and he darted around to her side, drawing his sword from his side to strike at the almost-frozen figure of the young woman with the staff...

And found he could not strike. Frozen like this, without the adrenaline of combat or the electric danger of violence, she looked so terribly young.

The world sped up again. She swiveled, and Ramza lunged backwards, and the air was electric again, and he felt a twinge of regret: he was still trapped in this narrow alley, still trapped with enemies in front of him-

But there, the dark-skinned girl in white was sprinting down the alley, and the woman with the time-bending magic turned, too late: the other girl ducked low, and her fist flicked like a bullet, and the young woman crumpled, and the dark-skinned girl had barely broken her stride. "With me, Ramza!" she bellowed, and Ramza could not believe this mad melee was a trap, could not believe her sudden leap to his defense was some elaborate scheme, and besides all that his sister was not here, was replaced by this mimic and the child soldiers it served with, and if Ramza did not run now he would have no chance to save Alma.

So Ramza turned, and ran after the girl, with the rest of the Hand chasing after them.