(Sorry for the break, everyone, work started up again and things got busier. By way of apology, I will try to update next Wednesday as well, to get us back on schedule. Hoping everyone is healthy and taking care of themselves in spite of the state of things out there. Please check out quickascanbe dot com and follow me on Facebook and Twitter if you're looking for more to read)

Chapter 90: The Ambitions of Monsters

"They didn't stand a chance," I whispered, looking out over the blackened husks, twisted and broken, littering the hillside around the smoking rebel fortress.

"No one does," Ajora answered me, his eyes as hard as iron. "The Empire's power cannot be resisted."

"So what are we doing, Aj?" I asked.

"If you cannot fight a monster in the open, you must weaken it anyway you can," Ajora answered. "And pray for the day when it is weak, and you are strong." His iron eyes blazed. "And when that day comes, you drive your knife into its throat without hesitation."

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

"You didn't have to help me," Ramza said.

Rafa shook her head. "I did."

"Why?"

She looked down at her hands, clenched them into fists, and did not answer. Ramza studied her for a moment, then looked away. The stench of this sewer no longer bothered him the way it had (after wading through the runoff beneath Zaland, he found few smells truly bothered him anymore), but it had been harder to bear when Rafa had first led him here.

Hours later, and the memories of that chase still left a taste of adrenaline in his mouth; their steps pounding up into the gathered dusk of Yadrow's narrowed streets, the shouts of her comrades close behind them, and the old battle focus fueling Ramza's senses, following Rafa where she led him.

One sharp turn led them ducking down into another dead-end alley, and for a moment Ramza's focus was marred by panic, certain he had been wrong after all, certain the girl had led him into a trap, but then she juked left into a dank rut between a building and the wall to one of the obseqious noble estates, and led him down into a rusted canal passage that led right beneath the wall, into a hunched, cramped passage of damp stone, rusted metal, and noxious fumes.

Ramza conjured a faint light from his glove to guide their way, and Rafa swiftly led them onwards, until they reached an opening beneath some sort of courtyard, metal grates on all sides admitting shafts of moonlight to give the chamber a a dusky glow.

Ramza's lungs ached, as did his legs. He drew shallow breaths through his mouth, trying not to breath the smell in his nose, and looked at the younger woman, the hem of her white pants black with muck.

"I'm Rafa," the girl said. "Rafa of Galthena."

They had taken a little while to catch their breath, in the slimy unease of this sewer chamber. Ramza did not push Rafa for answers; he had enough to occupy his mind, as his ears pricked at every drip and scrap out in the sewers that might indicate Rafa's companions had found them.

"Your sister."

Ramza's head jerked up. Rafa was still staring down at her clenched fists. "Alma?" he asked.

Rafa gave a fractional nod. "She...we talked. We were..." She took a deep breath. "We were trying to...to figure out how to talk to you. Convince you to come with us."

Ramza arched his eyebrows. "To ally with me?"

Rafa shook her head again. "That's...what the Hand was told."

"By Barinten."

Rafa's face darkened. "Yes."

"What would have happened to me?" Ramza asked. "If I'd gone with you?"

The darkness deepened on Rafa's face. "Nothing good," she whispered.

Ramza felt a stab of fear. "Is Alma...?"

Rafa looked at him, the darkness fading a little. "Safe," she said. "Barinten's no fool. You sister's not been named a heretic, and he know better than to anger your brothers. As long as she poses no threat to him, she won't be harmed."

Ramza smiled with a mix of relief and disbelief. "He doesn't think Alma poses a threat?"

"She hides it well," Rafa said. "She only gave me a hint, right at the end. That you could...that you might be able to..." Rafa shook her head once more. "But I couldn't. Not until you told us about Galthena." She paused for a moment, swallowed, locked eyes with Ramza. "Who told you about us?"

"Olan Durai," Ramza answered at once.

Rafa snorted in disbelief. "The little spy who revealed us?"

"He's a pain in the ass, isn't he?"

Rafa's laugh was less reluctant this time. "You're not wrong." She looked at Ramza again, a little more relaxed. "You don't think he was lying?"

Ramza shook his head. "We ran into each other by chance. He showed me documents. I don't think it could be a trick. It wouldn't make sense."

Rafa's face darkened again, and she closed her eyes. Ramza did not push her.

"Your sister said you could help me," Rafa said. "Help us."

It was Ramza's turn to snort in disbelief. "My sister has a high opinion of me."

Rafa's eyes flashed open, glaring at him. "I didn't save you so we could end up back in his clutches," she hissed. "Not after what you told me. Everything he's done..."

"What?" Ramza asked. "What has he done?"

The darkness was so heavy in Rafa's face now that it hurt to look at her. There was a depth of pain in her eyes Ramza had only seen once before: when he had faced the last of the Valkyries, on the very edges of Barinten's lands. And thoughts of the Valkyries took him to Wiegraf, to Miluda, and to Radia.

Ramza hesitated for a moment, then stood slowly, and approached Rafa as carefully as he could manage, slow and languid, keeping his limbs far from any of his weapons. He knelt in front of her, one knee planted firmly on the damp stone, as he might have when speaking to a scared child at the hospital in Gariland. "Rafa," he said softly, and Rafa's dark eyes flickered towards him and then away. "I don't think you're tricking me. I don't think this is a trap. You pulled me out of the fire, and I'm grateful, and I'm here. I'll help you anyway I can, and I'll be as honest as I can." He swallowed, searching for the right words. "You tell me what you need to tell me. I don't need you to prove anything to me."

Rafa was still not looking at him, but the darkness on her face had lessened slightly, and there was a hint of a wry smile on her lips. "I think I've used that line on Malak before."

"Did it work?"

"A little." She looked at him again, and the determination in her eyes outshone the pain. "He's...he's a good man. Malak, I mean."

Ramza shook his head. "He might be good," Ramza said. "But he's a boy, not a man."

Rafa's eyes narrowed. "How much older were you, when you fought the Death Corps?"

Ramza remembered the Valkyries more keenly, and closed his eyes. "Not much."

"It's hard, isn't it?" Ramza opened his eyes, and found Rafa looking off into space, her gaze misty with her own memories. "Soldiering. I like it. Is that...is that strange to say? I'm good at it. I'm a good fighter. The best of the Hand."

Ramza smiled slightly. "I remember seeing Mus' bullet bounce off you. I think I almost shit myself."

Rafa grinned. "That's my power," she said. "The Fist of Heaven, they called it. I can't...cast magic, like most people can." She held up her hands. "My field is...bound up with me. With my blood, my body. I can't throw lightning bolts or fire. But..." She paused for a moment. "Agrias Oaks tell you much about Mage Knights?"

"A bit," Ramza said. "Daravon told me more. With the right sword, you can focus your magic on your blade, right? Discharge it in ways even the most talented mages can't."

"Right," Rafa said. "My power's like that, but my body's the sword. When I focus, I can make my skin harder than the hardest steel, and my muscles stronger than a behemoth's."

Ramza whistled. "Sounds useful."

She nodded. "I...I don't remember my parents much, but they were proud of me."

A long silence, in the dripping stench of this sewer chamber. Ramza felt a question rise to his throat, bit it back. He remembered when his world had shattered at Zeakden. He remembered how hard it was, to think and talk.

"My friends all have powers," Rafa said, staring into the distance again. "Clarice's field plays with gravity in ways most mages can't, so she can...jump higher, fall harder, hit you like an avalanche. Clara's a Time Mage-"

"A Time Mage?" repeated Ramza in disbelief. "Thought none of them were left?"

"So did the Duke," Rafa replied. "The Ydorans wiped'em out, and all records of'em, too. Even teaching her's been hard, she has to do do much by herself..."

"What about..." Ramza hesitated for a moment, remembering the not-Alma who'd put him in a chokehold.

"Berkeley," Rafa said. "Their magic's a bit like mine, but they can...change their body a bit. Make it look, sound, feel like someone else. It's...mostly an illusion, but it feels real. No one can do the things they can."

Rafa fell silent again. Ramza did not wait quite so long this time. "And your brother?" Ramza asked. "Malak?"

A strange look on Rafa's face, almost hysterical. She closed her eyes. "Devil's Blood," Rafa said. "Blood magic is...strong, you know, because it leaves traces of its owner's field, and the Blood...the Blood leaves it connected to yours. So you can manipulate what it's a part of."

"Like birds and swords?" Ramza asked.

Rafa nodded. "Like I said, I don't...I don't remember my parents much, but it was a big deal, the two of us...having our gifts. Supposed to be a sign, I think. Mal remembers...more than I do. He doesn't like to think about it."

Another long silence. Ramza waited as long as he could before he spoke. "What I said. About your village. You believe me?"

Very slowly, Rafa nodded. Her face moved strangely—her closed eyes would squint briefly, her temples pulse and her jaw clench, her lips twist and twitch one way or another. "It...fits." She swallowed. "I've...known for awhile he...lies to us. More than...more than the others do. They know he does...unpleasant things, but...but the missions he's sent us on, they think...they think it's necessary. Not good, but..."

"But I've seen...other things." She opened her eyes for a moment. "He...captured a Death Corps soldier, when their rebellion was almost done. Made Mal use his Blood on him, even though it nearly killed him. When...when Mal failed, he was furious, and he tried to hide it, but he...I saw...what he did. To the soldier. The soldier talked. Until he died."

Rafa fell silent again. Ramza looked away, guilt churning in his guts. Who had that Death Corps soldier been? Someone Ramza had known? Or Wiegraf? Or Radia? Or just some poor sod, tortured and killed for the convenience of a powerful man?

"He's kind to them," Rafa whispered, and Ramza looked back at her. "He's kind to us. What he does to me, he...he called it training. Had to teach me...the way he taught the others. I tried...I tried to tell them. I tried, but he, he didn't, they believed him, I believed him, had to believe, he loved us, he wouldn't hurt us without reason, he wouldn't, he wouldn't, he he he he he-"

She broke off, and drew a shuddering breath, and hid her face behind her hands.

"I wanted to believe him," she said. "I...wanted it to be okay."

She lowered her hands, and her dark eyes were deep in a way that made Ramza tremble. Like staring up into the night sky and losing yourself in its depths. There was an enormity of feeling there that Ramza, for all his experience, could scarcely recognize, much less imagine.

"But...but if he's been doing this from the beginning...if he burned Galthena..." Fire burned in her eyes, like stars in the dark. "It's...it's worse than I knew. It means it wasn't...none of it was..." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "It's not...like the Lucavi," Rafa said. "Like a monster crept in while I wasn't...he was always a monster." She looked away from Ramza. "And my friends don't know it."

They were quiet for a moment.

"I'm sorry," Ramza said, because he didn't know what else to say.

"Don't be," Rafa snapped. "I don't need your apologies. I need your help."

"To do what?" Ramza asked.

Rafa clenched her jaw. "To kill him."

Ramza looked at her a moment, then nodded, "Alright."

Rafa blinked. "What?"

"Alright. We'll do it."

"Just like that?" Ramza nodded. Rafa looked more confused than before. "Why?"

"Well, first and foremost," Ramza said dryly. "He does have my sister."

Rafa shook her head. "That's not enough. You have your own troubles, your own..."

"So did you," Ramza said. "And you still helped me."

"That's all?" Rafa asked.

"No," Ramza said. He scratched nervously at the back of his head. "How old are you, Rafa?"

"Almost fifteen."

"Almost..." Ramza trailed off, and closed his eyes.

"So what?"

Ramza did not speak for a moment. "You asked me earlier...about when I fought the Corps? I was...just a little older than you. Didn't know what I was doing. Didn't know what my brothers..."

Images cascaded through his head; of Zalbaag, and Dycedarg, and Beowulf; of Ivan Mansel and Corporal Lambert; of Argus Thadolfas, of Miluda Folles, of Teta Heiral. Of Wiegraf.

"I haven't been through what you've been through," Ramza said. "But I know what it's like to find out that...that the people you're fighting for aren't...what you thought." He shrugged. "You're...you're already stronger than I am, Rafa. You decided on your own, you didn't...you didn't have to lose someone you loved to...and even then, I didn't..."

It was hard to speak now, his throat thick with guilt, with things he hadn't been able to explain to anyone else, even to Radia. About what had brought him here. Not just to make sure he lost no more friends, but to make sure he caused no more tragedies, no matter what it cost him.

"So I'm helping you," Ramza said at last, looking up at her.

Rafa shook her head in disbelief. "Saint Above..."

They were both quiet for a moment, thinking their separate thoughts. Then Rafa said, very quietly, "Thank you."

They locked eyes for a moment. If the darkness had been deeper before, now the stars were so bright they almost blinded him. The hope and relief in her gaze was almost palpable.

"We need to start making plans," Rafa said, and the stars and darkness alike were gone; now she was all business, with the poise and tone of a commander reviewing the order of battle. "My brother was supposed to make contact with Barinten at dawn, so my guess is he'll keep searching for us until then. That's when they'll take their rest, and that's when we'll move out. Where are your friends hiding?"

Ramza blinked. "My friends?"

"Your allies. The ones holding the Stones. Radia Gaffgarion, Mustadio Bunansa, the Lionesses..." She trailed off. Ramza imagined it was because of the guilt on his face. "What?"

"My friends...aren't here."

"Yes, I can see that, Ramza, that's not...not what I..." She stared at him, her eyes wide. "You don't...you don't mean..."

"They're still in Gariland.

Rafa stared at him in shock. "You...are you...?" She shook her head. "Unknown powers took your sister hostage, the Church calls you a heretic, you've fought demons, and in the face of all of that, you came alone? What kind of fool are you?"

Ramza smiled slightly. "In my defense, I never claimed I wasn't a fool."

The faintest flicker of a smile on Rafa's face. "Now he tells me."

"Here you are."

Rafa and Ramza leapt to their feet, her hands snapped up in a martial stance and glowing faintly. They searched the room, but saw no sign of the speaker until a little shadow hopped its way out of one of the gutters running on the corner of the room—a bubble-skinned frog, blood leaking from its dark eyes.

"So clever," spat the frog, though its words were masked by a distressed, whimpering sort of ribbit. "As though I couldn't find you, Rafa. I thought our liege cured you of this madness long ago."

"It's not madness, Mal-"

"Be silent!" snarled the frog, with a miserable croak gurgling beneath its words. "Nothing has changed. You will keep him under guard, you will keep him isolated from his comrades, and you will bring him to Riovanes. We will deal with the rest afterwards."

"I won't-" Rafa hissed.

"You will," Malak said. "I know you well, sister. I know your heart. You took this risk knowing we couldn't kill his sister, and I'm sure you've told him as much." The frog took another hop forward. "But just because we can't kill her doesn't mean we can't hurt her. A finger here, a toe there, an eye..."

"Don't you dare!" roared Ramza, taking a step towards the frog.

"You had your chance to bargain!" barked the voice. "You chose betrayal instead. Beg for mercy if you like. You will get none, unless you obey my instructions."

The frog's distressed ribbits climbed into a sort of wailing shriek, and its flesh melted into the stone. Ramza stared down at it, nightmare visions filling his head: of knives slicing into flesh, and of Alma's screams falling on numb ears.

"He wouldn't."

Ramza's head jerked towards Rafa, staring at the melted frog. Rafa was pale, but her eyes were firm. "He wouldn't do that, Ramza. That's not my brother. We've done...we've done some bad things, but nothing like that. I promise."

"And Barinten?" Ramza asked, his voice strangled by fear.

The darkness flooded Rafa's gaze again. Neither of them spoke.

"We have to go," Rafa said. "If the frog found us, the others-"

"We're heading for Riovanes," Ramza said, with all his fear, all his terror, and all his determination in his voice. "We're not leaving my sister in his clutches."

The darkness thickened on Rafa's face. Ramza took a deep breath, and added, "We'll save her. And we'll kill him."

Rafa stared at him. The faintest gleam of stars shone in the darkness again.

"Follow me," Rafa said, and together they walked into the stinking, musty dark of the sewers, to try and save their siblings.