Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy Tactics or any of the characters therein. I am using them without permission and will cease to do so if asked. Please don't sue.
Chapter Ten: Roses For No One
Time passes. I don't know how much, because I'm ignoring almost everything but the feeling of Ramza's hand in mine. Eventually a thin layer of sweat develops between our skin, and I wonder vaguely if it's him being nervous or me. Maybe both. I haven't looked at him yet to see what's on his face, either, because I'm waiting for him to say something, waiting to see if I'm to be accepted or rejected. For all I know, he only took my hand to soften the blow of the old "Agrias, you're a beautiful woman, but..."
He's not saying anything, though. I lower my head and stare at the rocky ground below where my feet are dangling from this rock. His muscles are tense, too; though I'm gently caressing his skin with my thumb, he's not moving at all.
Despite my worries, I'm still smiling. I can't stop.
"So," he says eventually, his voice low, with little inflection. "You said you talked to Meliadoul about this. Is that why I've been seeing you only every other night over the last week or so, like clockwork? Did you have this... arranged?" There is no accusation in his voice, almost no anything.
"Yes," I admit simply at my lap. I'm not going to lie to him.
"Why? You were... managing me... without my consent, or even my knowledge."
"That's true. You want an explanation?" I pause, thinking, hearing cloth rustle beside me as he nods. "Fine. I'll get there, but first I want to clear some things up so I don't make a fool of myself."
He sighs. "Okay, go ahead."
"Okay," I echo. "First... what does this mean?" I ask, lifting our clasped hands a short distance above the rock. "Are we now... us?" I shift about on the rock, twisting to face him.
Ramza stares at me without expression, his eyes weary. Finally he sighs again. "I don't know, Agrias. I think so."
Well, that's better than nothing. "Okay, then, did you just start liking me these last few days? Or did you want this before?"
His lips curve faintly in bitter amusement, or perhaps simply scorn. "Before."
I thought so. "When did you realize that you wanted us to be together?"
"A long time ago," he answers quietly. "About... when I met you."
I pause at that, perhaps blushing again, but I'll ask him about it later. "And yet you didn't say anything to me. Why was that?"
His face darkens in anger. "This isn't..."
I cut him off with my free hand. "I'm sorry; let me explain. I'm not trying to turn this back on you. I just want to know your reasons. I'm not going to... judge you, or anything."
He nods slowly. "I didn't know if you felt the same way," he replies. "Then, when I was fairly sure you did, it seemed like a... sensitive subject for you, so I didn't want to bring it up."
"You thought you'd scare me off," I conclude.
"Yes. Is that what you're saying you thought about me, too?"
I smile slightly. "In a way. I thought you returned my feelings, or had, once, but Meliadoul was here and so I didn't have the time to wait and see. If the same thing had happened to you... if, say, Hannibal was trying to court me earlier, what would you have done? Just told me what you felt?"
Ramza's face slowly assumes a thoughtful frown, but shortly he chuckles. "Probably only if I thought I was losing," he admits, squeezing my hand once. I can feel my smile widen, but he simply shakes his head. "God, Agrias. I waited so long. Months, with you right before my eyes the whole time. I'd given up hope."
There's not much I can say to that, so I don't even try. Instead I just continue to stroke his hand and stare at him, letting him see whatever jumbled but loving mess is visible through my eyes.
"Oh," he groans, but he's grinning. "Don't look at me like that."
I hadn't intended to give him a puppy-dog stare, but I find myself sharing his grin. "Are you still angry at me?"
"I... don't think so," he decides. "It's hard to stay mad at you."
I smile a little more widely, and on a whim I lift his hand and rub its back against my cheek. After a moment, though, my smile fades. "What about Zalbag? Are you going to...?"
He starts shaking his head even before I finish my sentence. "I'll get over it, yes, but I'm not there yet. Talking to you helped, though. Thank you for..." He trails off uncomfortably, not meeting my eyes.
"There's no need to thank me," I chide gently. "I'm here. I'm yours." As the words leave my lips I can feel my eyes widen; was that too much to say?
Ramza doesn't seem to think so, because he reaches forward to engulf me in a tight hug. I return the gesture, relieved.
After a moment, he releases me. I lower my gaze to my lap and begin to fidget with the cuffs of my coat; it's all I can do not to stare at him and grin, and I suspect something like that would just unnerve him. "We should probably get back," I suggest quietly, "and help with the camp."
"Yeah," he answers. "Are we going to tell them about... about us?"
I eye him for a moment, then shrug, smiling. "They'll figure it out."
He snickers. I slide from the rock, waiting for him to do likewise, and together we stroll back through the tall grass and wildflowers towards where everyone else is still unpacking and stretching.
Just as Ramza parts ways with me to tend to his own belongings, I spot Meliadoul glancing up in surprise; green eyes dart between the two of us in measuring calculation. I don't think she'd even noticed that we'd gone off together. Eventually her gaze settles on me and she frowns slightly.
I'm going to have to talk to her, I realize. Otherwise, she'll spend tomorrow evening trying to work her charms on Ramza again, and I can't have that. Or, alternately, I could just show her. And everyone.
I blush just thinking about it, and break my staring contest with the Shrine Knight. What the hell happened to me? A year ago, I never would have... well, I know what happened to me, and he's still standing over there trying to get out of his dustcloak. I'm still a long way from being used to this.
As I think, my eyes slip back over to Ramza and I start grinning again. He's mine. I can actually say that about someone, now: he's my man. We do things.
Sighing at my own idiocy, I wander over to my things and start unbuckling all the weapons from my body, followed by the lightweight armor we stole from Elmdor; after an actual battle today, there will likely be no training. Which is nice, really, since it gives me more time to converse with the rest of the party, inasmuch as I ever do.
Soon Orlandu begins to toss together scrounged wood for a fire. I still can't believe Thunder God Cid is happily willing to go about ordinary camp duties. Perhaps feeling the same way, Ramza once tried to exempt the man, but Orlandu insisted, and who's going to argue against him? If he wants to make fires and carry wood around, I'll let him.
Ironside happens to be doling out the food, so I quickly make my way over to him. Hannibal gets there before me, though, and the ninja parcels out his share.
"Oh, rations," murmurs Hannibal, apparently delightedly surprised. "Lovely." Ironside grunts.
Soon the lancer steps out of my way and I claim what I need before heading over to the as-yet-unburning fire. I seat myself a short distance away from Orlandu as he stacks his kindling into a neat pyramid.
"It's a science," he explains absently, without even looking at me, "but an inspired science, one that requires soul as well as intellect." He pauses, adjusting one stick carefully. "The textbook approach is a solid one, but never the best one, for it doesn't take into account the environment. Is it raining? Windy? What materials and resources are at your disposal? The prepared mind just needs to strike one spark, and then everything will burn exactly as it needs to, in the right order, for as long as you want." He glances at me once, then cracks flint and steel together near the leaves and dry reeds under his kindling. It catches, and under his gentle breath grows into a flickering candle-like flame.
I smile. "Are we talking about fire-making or strategy?"
Orlandu gives a deep chuckle. "Is there a difference? Everything is strategy." He meets my gaze for a moment, then spares a significant glance towards Ramza before watching the growing fire.
Ah. "I think my strategy there is doing well enough," I explain, trying to keep the grin off my face.
The old general smiles at his growing fire. "I see. Carry on, then."
I chuckle quietly, tearing off a bite of dried venison. After a moment, Rafa appears with Malak and seats herself beside me with a handful of nuts and dried fruit; she never eats as much as the others here.
Quickly she turns to me in concern. "How is Ramza? Is he taking everything well?"
"He's grieving over Zalbag," I explain quietly. "But that's it."
"Not Dycedarg, then," she muses, nodding thoughtfully. "I can see that. I suppose I could talk to him, too." Rafa pauses, lips pursing as she gazes at the fire, but shortly she returns her attention to me with a smile. "Any news on the other front?"
"There is some," I answer simply. Out of the corner of my eyes, I can see Orlandu; it seems as though he's just staring through the fire, but I'll wager he's listening. "You'll see later, probably."
"Oh?" She quirks an eyebrow. "Is it what I think?"
I shrug. "You'll just have to wait and see," I answer mischievously. "If nothing happens, I'll just tell you."
Her eyes turn pensively inward. "I bet I know what it is," she decides. Malak glances at us both in ill-concealed disdain.
A short time later, Ramza and Mustadio appear at the fire. Though the mechanic simply drops to his backside where he stands, Ramza glances over at me, hesitating, and I want to curse myself; there's not enough room for another person between myself and Orlandu, and Rafa's leg is actually touching mine where she sits. Eventually Ramza simply shrugs slightly and seats himself next to Mustadio.
Over time, the rest of the party joins us around the fire. The mood is still subdued after the day's events, and while I'm sure everyone can see that Ramza no longer looks ready to do murder, I doubt anyone but me really knows why that is or how long it might last.
Meliadoul, I note, seats herself next to Ramza due to the sparing amount of room near the fire, and I feel myself bristle at that. However, I shortly notice that she pays little attention to him except when he speaks directly to her, in which case she reacts as anyone else might. She even meets my eyes once, as if to impress upon me how well she's keeping up her end of the bargain.
I nod faintly to her through the dancing flames. I'm mildly impressed at how honorable she's being with this.
In any case, sitting around a fire with a dozen or so other people is a little odd when there's so little to be said, so eventually the different party members wander off to seek private conversations or their own blankets. Ramza eventually stands and strolls into the star shadows around the camp, likely to start his watch.
I stare after him, then stand. A weird fluttering fills my stomach and chest, which confuses me; aren't we more or less an established pair already? What do I have to be nervous about?
Something nudges my calf. I glance down to see Rafa giving me a conspiratorial grin. Without a word she nods significantly towards Ramza, and one of her eyebrows lifts in slight question.
I nod once. "Watch." Fighting to keep my face straight, I step in his direction. Slowly I advance, making my way as stealthily as I can.
I doubt I've surprised him -- his senses are surprisingly acute -- but he doesn't turn around as I approach. Smiling to myself, I slip arms around his shoulders and hug him from behind, resting my head against the back of his neck.
"That better be Agrias," he mutters, and I laugh softly. His arms, pinned somewhat to his sides by mine, reach back to return the hug as well as he can manage, though all he can do is press the small of my back against him. I don't mind, though; I like having his hands there.
After a time I release him, then shuffle through the grass to stand at his side. "I hope you don't mind that I've come over here," I murmur.
"Oh, not at all," he answers, apparently not realizing I was teasing. "I was hoping you would."
He falls silent and I don't say anything either. The comfortable silence between us is filled only by the chirping of crickets ahead and distant bits of fractured conversation floating from the rest of the party behind us. The occasional breeze rustles the grasses like the world sighing.
"Agrias?" he asks eventually.
"I know I said it before, but thank you for earlier." He pauses, and I get the feeling he is searching for words. "Not everyone is patient enough to sit through that, but ever since I met you, you've been there for me every time."
I shake my head at his earnest gratitude. Grabbing his hand in mine, I lift it and plant a kiss on its back. "Thank you for letting you get that close to you."
Cloth rustles as he turns his head, and I eye him sideways, but he's not looking at my face. Instead, he's staring down the length of his arm, to where our fingers are still intertwined. "Agrias?" he asks again.
"How do you..." He pauses, and his swallow is audible even over the wind and the crickets. "How do you feel about... holding hands and..."
"And what?" I prompt, already fairly certain what he's going to ask. I turn to face him full-on.
"And kissing?" he finishes faintly. His hand tightens on mine, perhaps without thinking.
He seems so young all of a sudden, but then I'm probably just as nervous as he is; I just don't let it dominate my face and manner. Where I once might have used his inexperience as a reason not to get closer, I now find it endearing. I share it too, after all. "I don't know," I answer quietly after a moment, watching his face. "Kissing sounds like an awfully big step."
"Oh. Yeah. I suppose it would be." He stares at the ground, toeing the stalks of grass between us.
I can't help but smile. Since his face is downcast, it presents no problem at all for me to lift mine up to kiss him on the lips.
I think he's too surprised to move. He doesn't kiss me back, but I'm too busy sighing in contentment to care. His lips are soft; usually I think of men as being all rough and hard and scratchy, but of course his lips are probably little different from mine. Though I understand people normally open them during kisses, he doesn't do so more than a little, which I attribute to his startlement. I take my time, not pressing him farther than he might be comfortable going.
Eventually I break the kiss and open my eyes, gazing up at him. He's still staring at me, frozen in shock. "Ramza? Are you alright?"
"You..." he manages. "You must be..." He blinks, then slumps in relief. "God, Agrias. I'm not used to you... kidding around."
"Sorry," I grin. "You might want to expect it more from me." In truth, I've always felt a little left out when everyone in the group teases one another, but now I have someone to try it on. I slowly let my smile fade before continuing. "To answer your question, though, I think they're both great ideas."
He smiles weakly at me, rubbing a hand through his hair. "And what about the rest?"
I raise an eyebrow at this, surprised that he'd take the initiative to ask about it. Surprised but pleased. It's good to know that his usual wide-eyed innocence won't prevent him from... well, anyway. "The rest," I echo, thinking.
He shifts uncomfortably. "Yeah. I don't want to... you know..."
I silence him with a finger on his lips. "Ramza, don't worry. You won't ever hurt me, and in the odd chance you get close, you'll know." Taking a deep breath, I hold it for a moment, then exhale. "As for your question... we can go as far as..." I cut myself off with a grimace, blushing, and scramble for a new way to say it, one that doesn't make me sound terrible. "I mean... I see no reason to... hold back from anything, but we need to... I don't know. Pace ourselves. You know?" My God, my cheeks feel like they could set my hair on fire. I'm shaking again as well, I realize.
"Oh, I know." My unease seems to soothe Ramza slightly, and he smiles at me. "Don't worry about it. I'm just glad to have you."
I wrap my arms around him once more. This time, I'm acutely aware of how toned his slim body must be under the clothes, and it takes me some time to stop shaking.
As I just stand there silent, he starts touching my face, running fingers through my hair. "So," he sighs quietly. "It looks like my watch is once again going to be the best part of my days."
I frown, then push back from him. "We don't have to keep this isolated to just one hour a day," I point out. "As long as we can act responsibly in front of everyone else, I don't mind us showing affection. I want you to be... comfortable around me."
"Oh." He stares back at me, then grins suddenly. "In that case, stop distracting me. I don't want cuars to gore us because I didn't notice them coming."
I laugh softly, stepping back to his side. "I remember when it was me giving you pointers on watch protocol."
He chuckles. "I remember that. They were all things I knew, too, but had forgotten because I was next to you."
I smile at the backhanded compliment, reaching to grip his hand again without looking as we gaze through the starry moonless night. "And to think," I murmur, "that I almost killed you that first night."
"What?" he exclaims, turning to face me. "What are you talking about?"
Oh. I laugh nervously, thumbing an earlobe as I slide my gaze back across the plains. "I thought you were an assassin," I admit sheepishly, shrugging. "You know how it is."
He frowns at me for a moment, then grimaces. "I'll just have to remember to stay on your good side," he mutters, giving my hand a squeeze.
I snicker, eyeing him fondly. "I'll leave you alone, then, but not before making certain that you remember me."
"Why wouldn't I remmmbmmm..." His lips are silenced by the sudden presence of mine, and this time he actually kisses me back.
Later, I'm fairly certain my feet touch the ground as I head back to my blankets, but I can't say for sure. However, before I reach them, I round one of the bigger rocks nearby and find myself staring at Meliadoul's chin. Blinking, I lift my gaze to meet the Shrine Knight's oddly-emotionless green eyes.
"I've already lost," she murmurs absently, eyes shifting as she reads my face. "Haven't I?"
My wits are still addled after kissing Ramza just now, so it takes a few moments for her words even to reach my awareness at all. After that, I chew on a lip, uncertain how to explain it without sounding like I'm gloating.
Meliadoul's face darkens slightly. "Of course. Is he happy?"
I give myself a shake to clear my head. "Apart from Zalbag and everything... yes."
She nods almost imperceptibly. "He'd better stay that way," she warns in a low voice, and for a time we just stare at each other. Shortly, though, she deflates. "I can't really blame either of you. Just... don't rub it in, and we'll be fine."
As she turns to go, I surprise myself by reaching out to catch her wrist. She turns and stares at me with dead eyes. I want to tell her I'm sorry, but... I'm not. "I'm glad we were able to keep it clean," I offer instead.
Meliadoul gazes at me for a time, then nods. "You were a... worthy adversary," she concedes. Then, without waiting for a reponse, she turns and wanders over to where she's set up her bedding.
Frowning in concern, I watch her for a moment, then shake my head and slip into my blankets. I fall quickly into dreams of warm hands and insistent lips.
The next morning, as we are dressing and preparing, I catch Ramza smiling at me a few times. I smile back every time, feeling myself blush, which in turn makes him blush. It's silly, and it feels like we're not acting our respective ages, but there it is. Rafa seems to find it all vastly amusing, and even Orlandu has a belly laugh over it.
As we start travelling across the Plains, I walk with Ramza, perhaps more closely than we had been before, but the difference isn't great. Meliadoul actually accompanies us for a time before falling back; despite her grim mood last night, she seems fine enough now, chatting and laughing with the others.
Monsters and a pair of squires attack us around midday, and shortly we're on our way again with a little extra gil. We don't quite reach Gariland by nightfall, remaining some few hours to its west, and as the fire gets going I battle Malak. The thought occurs to me to let him smack me again so Ramza can heal it for me, but I'm not that silly, and I get plenty of bruises even without taking a fall on purpose.
As we wander back to the fire, I smile at the thought of being with Ramza again tonight, and every night. No more having to trade off.
I sit next to him, of course, and we hold hands the entire evening. It makes me feel warm inside, just being with him like that, and I realize with mild surprise that I'm genuinely happy for the first time in memory. Always before the knighthood had gotten in the way, and after that my pent-up feelings for the man next to me. Now, we have the Shrine Knights and demons and everything, but they don't worry me because I'll be facing them with him.
I end up sharing his watch, and to my regret I can't bring myself to sit on his lap and keep him occupied with kisses; he is on watch, after all. Perhaps next time I'll think to sneak him away beforehand.
Eventually he wakes Hannibal to switch, and I go to sleep. Next to him, of course. We're close enough that I could just reach over and pinch his nose, but I keep to myself. I don't know what else would come of it if I didn't, and like I told him, I want us to move along at a responsible pace.
The next day we reach Gariland Magic City; despite its name, it is also a port, one of the more important ones since it lies almost directly north of the Holy City, Murond. While Opal and Mustadio range out into the city to find passage aboard a ship, the rest of us claim a few tables at a portside inn.
I know we'll have a few hours, at least, so I take the chance to sit next to Ramza. It's hard to steal kisses decently in a room full of people, but I find a few ways. Shortly Strawberry begins to scowl at us, though, and I regretfully stop.
Eventually the monk and the mechanic return, claiming to have passage about a Lionel trade vessel called the Spring Sprig. However, the two of them come back with some interesting news.
"Cidolfas," greets Opal as she claims a seat at our table. "Did you know you're dead?" Mustadio grins as she speaks.
The old general pauses with mug of ale halfway to his mouth. "Dead?"
She nods. "You and Goltana killed each other at Bethla, apparently."
Orlandu sits there frozen for a moment, blinking, then shrugs and resumes drinking from his ale. "Jolly good, then," he remarks. Mustadio seems faintly put out at this lack of reaction, but Opal merely nods.
It strikes me as a little odd that we're just hearing about this now, but I suppose we've barely been in any cities recently for longer than it takes to walk from one end to the other. I wonder vaguely if this is a deliberate untruth put forth by someone trying to cover up Orlandu's embarassing disappearance, or if someone is genuinely attempting to give him a fresh start. I suppose I'll never find out.
About an hour later, the whole lot of us are strolling up the gangplank of the Sprig, though Ramza and Ironside have to push Boco forcefully. The chocobo seems fine once on the ship, however, so the rest of us carry our things up afterwards. Countless gulls circle and cry above, searching for dead or dying fish near the piers, of which there are likely many.
In moments, we're all up there, and the shiphands untie the vessel from its moorings. I watch them go about their handiwork for a time, but shortly the arrival of the captain, a bearlike man calling himself Galchanza.
"Choco can go in the holds," he grunts at us, standing with meaty fists on his hips. "Rest of you can sleep in the passenger bunks. Four to a room."
Ramza nods, holding an armful of feed we picked up for Boco. "When will we arrive in Murond?"
"Right about dawn," answers the captain curtly. "Do as you please, but don't interfere with me or my men."
"We can do that, Captain," agrees Ramza pleasantly. The bigger man nods once and wanders off, yelling at a crewman who's not moving fast enough to suit him.
Ramza turns to the rest of us, shifting his grip on the awkwardly-large sack in his arms. "Let's stow our things. We can meet back up here afterwards."
I nod, and the rest of us file down belowdecks. I drop my belongings in the same cabin as Ramza, but in the opposite bunk; I want to be able to hear him breathing as we sleep, but that's about it. I do have some consideration for the others with us.
Another thing I have, I recall uncomfortably as I begin climbing back to the main deck, is an uneasy stomach on the water. I don't know why, but I never even think about it until after I've gotten onto another ship, and it takes just long enough to start affecting me that land is usually just out of sight when it strikes. I therefore spend the entire evening slumped near the... whatever it is they call the rail around the deck keeping us all from sliding off. I sit on a coil of rope, which doesn't help any, and Rafa, the sweet girl, sits next to me the whole time, rummaging through her pouches for anything that might remedy my condition. Ramza tries to sit next to me as well, but when he attempts to comfort me with a hug, I have to snap at him to get him away. I'll have to apologize later, of course, but I think he understands.
In any case, the night doesn't fare much better. I drift in and out of slumber the whole time. When Orlandu pounds on our door to tell us Murond's harbor is in sight, I roll out of my bunk with as much pleasure as I'll likely ever feel on a ship.
Perhaps a half-hour later, I am stumbling down to the rain-slick piers of Murond's harbor. I'm wearing a grey hooded cloak to conceal my identity to some degree, and Ramza has seen fit to wear a very similar green one, probably a loan from Meliadoul. Cold drizzle pelts the bottom half of my face as we stroll through the sparsely-populated morning streets of Murond.
The Cathedral here is a grand and imposing affair, towering lordlike over the surrounding city; it is an apt place for the heavy-handed Glabados Church to make its home, in my opinion. Fortunately for us, we are not headed into the main church, but rather a smaller adjoining temple where the Shrine Knights are based. Constructed of simple golden stone, the St. Murond Temple is considerably more humble in appearance and manner than the main church, as though the Knights are perfectly content to be overlooked.
Meliadoul's face, I note as we approach the temple, is a grim mask of determination. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had to attack the St. Konoe Knights? Well, likely I'd just kill them and be done with it, but I've not been in their fold for quite some time now; for Meliadoul, the break is a much more recent wound. I hope she doesn't flare up at someone while we're in there.
Before long, she guides Ramza to the temple's main gate and we wander through it. Curiously, a handful of guards stand within, rather than outside, but they challenge us nonetheless. Ramza, being Ramza, identifies himself openly and explains about Alma, and it's all the Shrine Knights can do to acknowledge him before they try to kill us. They aren't very skilled, and our party is in a rather serious mood, so after a few moments we leave them crystallizing behind us.
Meliadoul directs us towards the temple's main hall, and we jog through a few well-lit hallways before reaching it. Once there, though, we slow and stop, weapons drawn and ready.
Three men are standing there to meet us, completely unsurprised, all wearing the distinctive robes Shrine Knights seem to favor. The first to catch my eye is Vormav, I assume, based on his tangible presence of command, which makes the other two fellows Rofel and Kletian, his little pet spellslingers.
"So, you're Ramza," greets Vormav reasonably upon our arrival. "Nice meeting you. I'd ask you to dinner, but I'm too busy, so forgive me. I don't have much time." He pauses, dark eyes appraising Ramza and completely ignoring the rest of us. "So," he continues, "let me get down to business. If you want your sister, give me the Germonik Scriptures and all the Zodiac stones. If you don't do what I say, your lovely sister is dead. Now, hand them over!"
I can instantly see how this is the man orchestrating much of the world's present evil. Whereas others we've seen before have blustered and shouted, he is simply laying a choice before Ramza, in a voice as calm as though he were asking someone to choose between stew and steak for dinner. It's clear he knows how the balance of power lies in the room.
Ramza's face grows stormy. "Where's Alma?" he shouts. "Unless you show her to me now, I'll not hand over the Scripture or the stones!"
I gape at him, and Vormav blinks in apparent surprise as well. "Didn't you hear me?" he wonders curiously. "You have no choice. I'll say it again: hand them over!"
Ramza hesitates, glancing to me, but I just nod; whatever he does will almost certainly be the right thing. Chewing a lip, he steps forward, holding the leather-bound Germonik Scriptures over his head. "Only the Scriptures!" he decides. "I'll give you the stones only after I see Alma." He sets the book carefully on the ground and retreats a few steps.
The Shrine Knights exchange silent glances, and shortly Rofel trots forward. He retrieves the book, ignoring us in contempt, and begins to leaf through its aging pages.
Vormav grows impatient. "Well?"
"It's here," nods Rofel, slapping the book shut. "It's a simple curse."
I wonder at that. There are spells in the Scriptures? Why didn't we notice that? Perhaps Ramza should have read it in its entirety... at some point, when we had a week to do it. I sigh.
"Good," purrs Vormav. "Now that we know, they're finished." He pauses, seemingly weighing something in his hands. "I could let them go," he muses, "but I'll get revenge for Velius and the others."
Ramza pales with fury. "You deceived me!" Vormav's only answer is laughter.
That doesn't sit well with Ramza, or with me. I think I'm growling as much as he is as we rush forward to attack. With only three of them, I'd like to think we have decent odds, but each of these guys probably has at least one stone.
"Why do you let Alma live?" wonders Ramza as we are fighting, with calculation in his voice, and I must admit the question is a good one.
Vormav jerks. "What?"
"You even killed your own son," notes Ramza as he trades blows with the man. "Why do you keep Alma alive?"
"That's none of your affair," replies the other man in a curt growl. "If you want to know, kill me."
"Father," calls Meliadoul, distracting him as she absently shatters Kletian's armor with one of her skills. "Are you really my father?" Her voice is oddly soft, with pain there I've never heard in it.
"Of course, dear daughter," coos Vormav reassuringly. "Why are you over there? When did you become the enemy?"
"I'm here because you're not the father you used to be," she snaps in response.
Vormav smirks, but in a moment his face is all wounded ignorance once more. "What do you mean?"
"At Limberry," she clarifies, "Marquis Elmdor used the Zodiac stone to turn into a monster. Father, wasn't it you who killed the people at Riovanes Castle... and also Izlude?"
"You're saying we're monsters?" repeats Vormav. Once again his voice lacks any semblance of concern, as though he were just asking about the weather. Blades continue to ring out against one another as we battle.
"You're not my father!" she shouts, impaling him with another attack that sends shards of metal clattering all over the temple. While Vormav is reeling, I unleash a blade spirit, lacerating him and Rofel.
The head Shrine Knight collapses to one knee. "I won't be beaten here," he rasps, glancing around in calculation. "I must escape!" Before anyone else can react, he leaps to his feet and bolts away, limping slightly as he runs deeper into the temple. The wounded Rofel and Kletian follow.
"Running away?" snarls Ramza. "Coward!" Breaking into a run, he chases after the other men, and the rest of us follow a half-step behind.
Vormav's pet sorcerors break off shortly in different directions, and Ramza ignores them, focusing on Vormav alone. I approve of this, not that he would ever have done anything different, so we follow down a broad set of stairs and into a part of the temple I assume is not used particularly often.
When it becomes clear Vormav has penned himself in a room with no other exits, we slow and spread out, weapons up and ready. "No more time to waste," he mutters to himself, standing near what looks to be a coffin and using it for considerable support. "I want to end this now, but you probably won't go quietly. I'm afraid your life must end here. My servants will be your opponnets." He pauses, smiling, a hard gesture that doesn't even come close to touching his eyes. "A coffin... just the thing for you. Rest in peace."
While Ramza is still struggling to come up with a suitable response, the air flickers and starts glowing ahead, slowly resolving into a trio of massive demons. Vormav isn't done, however, judging by the grin. "This man will also be your opponent," he declares.
The next figure to materialize drops my jaw. Zalbag. He doesn't look well, not at all, which I suppose makes sense considering he's dead. Or... undead.
"Zalbag!" shouts Ramza. Swords quiver in his fists.
"He may be your brother," remarks Vormav conversationally, "but he's joined our family. Think you can fight with him?" Without waiting for an answer, he disappears; his laughter echoes long after his body has vanished.
Ramza whirls, looking for the Shrine Knight, to no avail. "Dirty..." he mutters.
"Zalbag," calls Vormav's distant voice, "kill the boy before you! Don't let him leave this temple alive!" Zalbag's pale face lifts in an eerily-silent acknowledgement.
"Brother!" shouts Ramza in desperation. "Zalbag! It's me!" The rest of us spread out further and dart forward, tackling the slow-moving demons flanking the elder Beoulve.
"Is that you, Ramza?" asks Zalbag hollowly; his voice is a dead rasp, hardly recognizable as such. He lifts his blade slowly, then hesitates. "What am I doing? Can't feel a thing..."
"You're being controlled by Lucavi!" answers Ramza, typically to the point.
Zalbag seems surprised by this. "I'm... fighting you? Why?" His dead face frowns, and he lurches forward, swinging at Meliadoul, the nearest target. "Go, Ramza!" he calls. "Run! Or else I might... kill you."
"Brother!" Ramza's voice is an anguished whisper.
I turn away from a demon corpse long enough to notice that he's not engaging Zalbag; perhaps he's hesitant to bear steel against the brother he considers an innocent. I could understand that, from him.
I, on the other hand, am not so forgiving. Zalbag tried to kill my Ramza at Fort Zeakden and is being compelled to do it again now. I don't hesitate at all to unleash a Holy Explosion at the thing that used to be Ramza's brother. Meliadoul impales him a heartbeat later with one of those signature attacks of hers.
Zalbag's eyes widen in a very believable expression of surprise, and he collapses to one knee. "I'm so sorry, Ramza," he gasps, "to make you suffer. Save Alma... you're the only one who can. Goodbye, Ramza. Thank you." With the last word, he tumbles to the stone floor and dissipates eerily into nothingness.
Ramza stumbles forward a few steps. "Zalbag!" Tears are streaming visibly down his face now. I want to go to him, to wrap my arms around him, but motion out of the corner of my eyes stops me.
Meliadoul is striding towards him, an oddly-intent look on her face. Gripping Ramza's shoulder, she turns him about, then hugs him fiercely. I can still hear him sobbing, and I think her stiff expression is likely a mask against tears as well.
I turn away, leaving them to their privacy. They both had to fight close family members today, and I can't even imagine what that must be like. Beckoning the others with a gesture, I step out of the chapel to give them a moment.
Eventually they join us. Meliadoul's face is uncharacteristically subdued, while Ramza simply looks as though he just watched someone drown a kitten. I slip my hand into his, and together we set about searching the temple.
There remains little of interest but the scattered debris of tragedy, corpses generated as the church was betrayed by one of its own. I feel sorrow for some of them, the lackeys, those without a clue, but I can't make myself shed a tear for Funeral. When the old man gasps with his last breath to Ramza that Vormav and the others went to Orbonne Monastery, I find myself wondering if he even knows who he's talking to. Certainly there's some irony there, to spend the last year of his life hunting Ramza only to help him at the end, after being done in by Vormav.
As we step out of the temple and into the city of Murond, my heart is pounding. I'm looking forward to this, I think. I'm actually eager to head to Orbonne to pursue Vormav and his stooges because... because I hate them. I hate them. I don't think I've ever hated anyone before in my life, but I hate these guys. They're literal demons and they have some kind of personal vendetta against Ramza, and I want them to stop.
Fortunately, we're able to find another ship back to Gariland before any alarm is raised in the city. I wonder idly if maybe Vormav didn't help us out a bit there, by gutting the temple's leadership structure before we even got there, but as we're sailing away from the Holy City I can't make myself wonder about it too much.
In any case, after fighting Ramza's undead brother in the bowels of the Shrine Knights' temple in Murond, getting seasick strikes me as something of an anticlimax. I spend most of the journey alternating between nausea and a shallow, uncomfortable sleep. When we finally reach Gariland, it's dark out, and I'm just conscious enough to stumble down the gangplank and onto the pier. I'm vaguely aware of us finding an inn for the rest of the night, but its name and location totally escape me. All I notice as I drop onto my bed there is that it's even harder than those on the ship, and smells of sawdust besides.
The next morning, thankfully, I'm back to normal. We rise shortly after dawn and leave east out of the city.
Ramza is silent as we travel. That doesn't really surprise me, given what transpired yesterday, but what troubles me is that he's even quiet with me. Granted, there's not a lot of time for us to be talking as we hurry across Gallione.
When we stop briefly at midday to eat and rest, I pull him a short distance away from everyone else. "Is everything well?" I ask quietly, trying to conceal a smile; it seems one of us is always asking the other something along these lines. "I mean, as well as can be expected?"
He blinks at me for a moment as my question sinks into his mind. Behind him, the rest of the party stretches and seats itself among the scattered trees here.
Eventually he sighs. "I don't know, Agrias. It's all just... starting to weigh on me, I think."
I nod, throwing an arm around his neck to bring his face close to mine. "It doesn't have to, you know. You can let it weigh on me as well; that's what I'm here for."
His face creases in a weary smile. "I know that. I don't want to burden you with everything, though."
Well, that's his choice. I can't make him share everything with me, nor would I if I could. I nod, rubbing my cheek against his, and let him go.
Once we start up travelling again, he still doesn't say much but at least he's not just staring off into space. We make good time, crossing more than half of Sweegy Woods while daylight still reigns.
There's not much conversation around the campfire, and I can tell Ramza's not in the mood for kissing, so instead I just sit there and let him lean into me, his back against my chest. I hold him like that for perhaps an hour in the flickering orange light of the fire, and neither of us says a word. I think he actually dozes for most of that time, but when it's his time for watch, he climbs to his feet, gives me a quick kiss and wanders off into the darkness.
The forest's monstrous inhabitants do not disturb our slumber, so come morning, we are on our feet and moving again. We travel quickly; I think everyone can sense that things are drawing to a conclusion of sorts, that we've identified Vormav as our primary enemy and that he's running out of places to hide. Ramza is not the only one who stares at the eastern horizon grimly, as though expecting justice and perhaps death to be waiting just past it.
We reach Dorter just before nightfall. It's drizzling slightly as we shoulder through the door of Samuel's inn -- I can never remember its name; I just think of it as his -- and claim our rooms for the night. The food is warm, a pleasant change from our usual fare, and the beds are as soft as I remember, a fact brought to my attention sooner than I would have expected as Ramza leads me away from the party and into our room.
As soon as the door closes, he seizes my head in both hands and kisses me deeply. This, or at least his fierceness, catches me totally by surprise, causing my suddenly-weak legs to drop me onto my backside on the floor. He seems rather alarmed at my reaction, but I laugh it off and override his concerned questions with a kiss of my own.
Somehow we get to be lying on our sides on one of the beds -- I don't know whose -- and I can sense right away that Ramza wishes to... escalate our intimacy by a degree. I let him remove my coat, but when he goes for the shirt I wear underneath it, his hands are shaking so badly that I make him wait; there's no rush. He seems simultaneously relieved and frustrated, and I'll admit I tremble a little as well as I run my hands under his shirt, across his bare back.
That's as far as we get, and I'm not going to complain. It's weird, but sometimes I get the feeling that his hesitation is for my sake, like he thinks of me as some innocent thing whose virtue he needs to protect, but if anyone meets that description, it's Ramza himself. Granted, this is all new to both of us, but... I don't know. It's endearing, I suppose.
Some time later -- I have no idea how much -- I pull my coat back on and we wander back down to the common room to let everyone know it's safe to retire; Mustadio and Alicia are supposed to be sleeping in our room as well. When we get down there, however, a pair of musicians have started playing, and half of our group is up dancing. This amuses me greatly; I would not have expected, say, Orlandu to dance so well, but he twirls a grinning Meliadoul around like she's made of feathers, and Mustadio's not bad either. Hannibal, I note, dances only with Strawberry.
After some cajoling from Rafa, I agree to dance with Ramza. He's not totally unskilled, I find, but he does keep staring at his feet to make sure he's not stepping on mine. It also probably doesn't help that I keep distracting him with little kisses.
Eventually we do make it to bed, perhaps later than we should. As I lie next to the snoring Strawberry in our narrow bed, though, I can feel the smile that's been stuck on my face for hours starting to fade into a frown.
I hope he didn't do all of this tonight because he's afraid he's going to die tomorrow. He's not that fatalistic, is he?
By morning, my worries seem as distant as the stars that watched over them, and we leave Dorter under a few lazy clouds and a grinning sun. The mood among everyone seems a little lighter after dancing and such, but we still press ourselves hard. As we stride under green and arching boughs, I can't help but shake my head; it all seems to come back to Orbonne Monastery. It's where I met Ramza and where we later lost Alma to the Shrine Knights, and it's now where we hope to retrieve her. And kill Vormav.
Slowly the morning wears into afternoon, and eventually the spires of the monastery grow visible through the branches of the surrounding woods. I can feel myself tensing as we approach, and when we can finally see the doors, I sigh. They're standing open, as though someone stode through and flung them aside, not bothering to close them again.
"They beat us here," mutters Ramza beside me, apparently making the same observation. His face clouds.
I nod. "But they don't know we're coming, this time."
"Maybe," he acknowledges with a grunt. "Let's hope we're not too late."
There's not too much I can say to that, so I just nod again. Really, with all the fighting that's been going on at Orbonne, I'm surprised there aren't more guards here.
Shortly we hop up onto the exposed portion of the underground libraries and, after instructing Boco to wait, make our way through the front doors. No one greets us with weapons drawn, which surprises me slightly.
"Underground," suggests Meliadoul. Ramza eyes her in silent acknowledgement, and we proceed without delay to the stairway leading us deeper into the shadowed earth.
After some four floors, we finally see some Shrine Knights. They attack us without bothering to issue threats or demands, and so we kill them without bothering to offer quarter. Just as the last of them is falling, I can make out the sound of rapid chanting floating up from somewhere below; I think it's Rofel's voice, and the sound sets my skin crawling.
"I won't let you go!" growls Ramza at no one in particular. Without looking back, he breaks into a run towards the stairs again, and the rest of us follow.
As we reach the next floor down, Rofel finishes his chanting and starts shouting at us. "I've been waiting for you, Ramza. That's far enough! Rest eternally beneath this monastery!"
We file out of the stairway to face the mage and his minions. Ramza shuffles forward, a look of vague recognition painting his features. "This feeling's the same as when I fought Celia and Lede! You're not human."
Rofel grins like a madman. "No, I am not. I've risen above humans. I have obtained eternal life with the help of Vormav's power." He pauses to giggle. "You can't understand the joy."
"What are you trying to do?" demands Ramza. "What do you want?"
"Do you really want to know, Ramza?" laughs the robed man. "If you do, then you'll have to beat me. That is, if you can!"
Shaking my head at his arrogance, I advance a step behind Ramza and fire off a Holy Explosion at Rofel, ignoring his thugs. Meliadoul seems to have the same plan, for she does likewise with one of her steel-shattering attacks. Rofel grunts, sidestepping a blow from Ramza and hurting Ironside rather badly.
Shortly, however, blinding light flares up through the Shrine Knight as Strawberry works her arts with ruthless precision. Rofel screams and staggers. "I can't die here," he gasps, eyes growing wider, even more wild. "I haven't finished my duty. Ramza... I invite you to Hell!" He begins to chant again, a desperate cadence of blood-freezing syllables.
Scowling, I stride over towards the fool to hack him down once and for all, but he finishes the spell before I can reach him. Then the floor begins to shake.
I hesitate, glancing about. An odd mist begins to develop, floating about, touching everyone present with ethereal tendrils. The floor continues to rumble, more violently now, until I can hear chunks of stone falling against it and shattering.
Abruptly white light obscures everything. I throw back my head to scream, and find that I cannot; I'm frozen, trapped like an insect in amber, and I can't see a thing. A million violent pinpricks ripple through my body from front to back, and I would gasp and whimper if I could.
The sensation ends with all the gentle letdown of a kick to the skull. I stand in place, wide-eyed and trembling, and it takes a moment for my surroundings to register.
We're on a... platform, of sorts, I can see, elevated above the floor in an unfamiliar room. The rest of our party is scattered about in disarray; I spot Rafa groaning with her eyes closed a short distance away, while Hannibal is pushing himself up on hands and knees, shaking visibly.
On the floor near the wall, I spot Rofel, who looks to be dying. A gleeful smile, one of triumph, twists his features, looking rather incongruous given his situation.
"What is this?" gasps Ramza, shaking himself free of the aftereffects of... whatever spell that was. His voice seems to carry differently than I would expect, as though something is awry with the air here.
"Welcome to Murond, Death City," whispers Rofel, gesturing grandly. "Now that you're here, you can never return. All we have to do now is to destroy that entrance..." Raising a hand, he closes his eyes and concentrates.
The platform under my feet begins shaking. With a panicked yelp, Ramza leaps to another nearby surface. Gritting my teeth, I do likewise, pausing to assist a shaking Lavian. The rest of the party completes their leap to safety an instant before the platform crumbles and falls, huge chunks of stone tumbling into a fathomless black pit. I frown at that, thinking; under the monastery, there should just be clay, or maybe...
Something draws my eyes up. And up. The ceiling above where we arrived is missing, and where the sky should be is just a... swirling black vortex, something that has no place in the world I know.
Oh... my... God. He wasn't kidding. We're actually in hell.
Rofel speaks again, tearing my attention from the unnatural sight above. "Go on," he rasps. "Your sister is waiting." With the last word, he slumps, manic grin frozen on his face forever.
"Alma," whispers Ramza. Shaking his head, he hops carefully to the floor, then waits while the rest of the party makes its way down as well. "How is everyone feeling?"
"Like hell," grunts Hannibal. I meet his mischievous gaze for a moment, then start giggling. Soon my giggles turn into laughter, which I hear echoed from others around the room as well. It's so silly, so absurd to joke about being here, but what else are we going to do?
"Let's go," sighs Ramza, striding for the doorway. I follow, slipping my hand into his. I don't even mind being in this place as long as it's with him.
We wander out of the odd little structure where we arrived and find ourselves on a vast plain of... something like stone. Ramza leads the way, and though it seems he's moving about at random, the look of concentration on his face leads me to believe otherwise. Above, the glittering blackness swirls vertiginously.
It doesn't take us long to find more people. We crest a jagged rise, and on the other side a handful of Shrine Knights whirl to face us, headed by Kletian.
"So," he greets evenly, "Rofel's been defeated? Then, unless I defeat you, I can't face him. Come on!"
I don't need more encouragement than that. I sprint ahead, tacking towards the goons on the right flank, and fire off a Holy Explosion, killing one and wounding another. Vaguely I'm aware of Ramza and Kletian shouting at one another as they battle, but I ignore them as I often do, preferring not to be distracted while people are trying to kill me. I really don't want to die in this place, as I'm... not entirely certain what would become of me, if anything.
In moments we've killed off the muscle, leaving only a crippled Kletian standing before Ramza. "Forgive me, Rofel," he gasps, then collapses.
Ramza scowls at the corpse, but before he can speak, a flash from one direction draws his attention, and a thundrous rumble soon follows. "Over there?" he wonders grimly. "Let's go."
I spare a quick glance at the sorceror's body as we rush past; it still strikes me as odd that anyone can die here at all, but I'm not going to second-guess what I've seen. I give no more thought to the fallen, though, as we rush ahead.
In short moments we come across another squad of Shrine Knights, led by... Balk, it seems. What the hell? He's dead. Of course, I guess that's no reason we can't fight him again here.
"Nice to see you, kid!" he offers in an almost friendly fashion. "I was beaten before, but not this time. I'll make Death City your grave!"
Growling, I ignore the yelling duel that erupts between him and Ramza. Leaping over a narrow divide, I land with a roll and slice another Holy Explosion at a... hydra, I think. My attack spears the thing, but doesn't kill it, of course; they're remarkably tough beasts. The hydra, however, counters with a trio of searing blasts of flame. Only one hits me, but that's enough to blind me with pain and bring me to my knees.
Moving by instinct alone, I roll to one side, feeling more than hearing a clawed foot stomping into the ground beside me. Trying to ignore how my breath rattles in my lungs, I slash my sword forward again, spearing the creature with another pillar of holy light. A beastial cry rewards my efforts.
Sagging, I fumble around on my person for the hilt of the katana with the healing spirit, then draw it. A circle of gentle tears falls, washing away some of the charred areas on my exposed skin. Heaving a sigh of relief, I stand and try to gain a quick measure on the fighting.
The party has done well without me, it seems; only Balk is left among our enemies, and as I watch, a snarling Meliadoul hacks him savagely down from behind. Well. I'm glad we agree on how these guys should be treated.
Something flashes within Ramza's garments, and he glances down in surprise. "The stone is sympathizing," he murmurs. "That way," he decides, pointing straight ahead. Opal sidles up to me and offers a chakra, healing the rest of my injuries, and we begin to move again.
Guided by the stone that I still don't trust, we roam the lonely plains of the underworld. I expect a battle again any moment, but one fails to materialize, and I find myself wondering about that. With Vormav apparently able to use even dead servants against us, why don't they keep coming? Is there a reason we don't just fight, say, Balk until he manages to kill us? Or Zalbag again, perhaps, or even Velius?
As we continue to roam, perhaps becoming lost -- though such a distinctiion matters little here, I suspect -- another thought dawns on me. I know people can die here, as I've seen it happen, and since the dead do not continue to plague us... are we really in hell? Or is this just some other... place... separate from both the world and the underworld? In that case, Rofel's words notwithstanding, there might indeed be a way out. In fact, there ought to be anyway, if the Shrine Knights are using this world for whatever it is they're...
"Whoah," says Ramza suddenly. His hand pulls me to a halt.
I blink about, realizing we're in a massive field of what look to be old airships, just like the stories always told about. Odd. I could have sworn they weren't here a moment ago. Frowning, I turn slowly in a full circle, gazing out across the silent wooden wrecks, but it seems they extend past the range of my vision in every direction.
"That's a little weird," notes Alicia helpfully.
Ramza nods absently, gesturing off to one side. "Over here."
Adjusting my grip on his hand, I accompany him. The party is moving slowly now, cautiously. I don't even know why, but it seems the sheer strangeness of this place subdues any sense of urgency we might have.
Carefully we step under one wreck after another. I can't help but feel as though we're at the bottom of some sea, since the airships above sway slowly as though to gentle unseen currents. Most even have anchors of sorts, heavy iron things sprouting chains which arc up into their floating hosts. Every time one of them creaks, my skin crawls and I grind my teeth.
Some time later, Ramza stops again. "It's this one," he whispers, gesturing up a length of chain that rises... I don't know how far. At least fifty paces. The holy stone in his fist glows in soft agreement.
"So... do we climb it, or what?" asks Mustadio, scratching his head. Strangely, this place doesn't seem to have affected his mood at all.
"I suppose," shrugs Ramza. Pocketing the stone, he stares up the length of the chain and begins to climb.
Oh, God. My stomach is swirling just thinking about climbing that high on a thing that's not even straight. Ramza seems to be having little trouble, using the giant links almost as he might a ladder, but I can feel my face going pale watching him.
Once he's a short distance up the chain, Alicia sets up after him, followed by Ironside. I pull my gauntlets off and wipe sweat on my coat front, watching them.
Slowly the party members scramble up the chain, taunting me with how easy they're making it look. Eventually it's just myself and Orlandu at the bottom, with Mustadio just beginning to climb.
"You can go ahead," urges the general, gesturing at the chain. "I can bring up the rear. Or... bottom, in this case."
I offer him a weak smile. "I'd rather go last." At least then if I fall I won't kill anyone but myself.
He frowns at me for a moment, then chuckles, patting my shoulder reassuringly. "I understand. You'll be fine, though." Once Mustadio is a good five paces up, Orlandu smiles at me once more, then begins ascending, a series of rhythmic clinks.
Swallowing, I rest my hands on the chain, watching him climb. The metal hardly sways at all under the motion of everyone on it, which I suppose is reassuring, but it still begs the uncomfortable question of how and why it's floating at all.
All too soon, Orlandu is far enough up that I can start to climb. I... need to go up. I can't make them wait on me, can't delay or ruin what could be our chance to find Alma. I can't do that to Ramza, I realize. I'd rather die than let him down.
Blinking, I start to climb. With that decision in mind, it doesn't even bother me that much, though the flakes of rust in my mouth and on my hands get old quickly. About midway up, I pause to wipe sweat from my palms again, then resume my passage.
Before I even realize it, I'm squirming through a pulley of some sort and into a little chamber near the... bow, I think, is what they call the front of a ship. Ramza and Opal are there, grabbing my arms and pulling me the rest of the way up.
"This way," he whispers, gesturing with the holy stone at an iron-rung ladder set into the vessel's wooden walls. Faint shadows shift eerily on his face with the movement.
I climb, reaching the deck a short moment later. Everyone else is there, crouching behind a short structure from which rises one of the ship's masts.
Ramza appears right after me and nods a question at Ironside. "What's happening?"
"Vormav's there," explains the ninja quietly. "With Alma, who's unconscious. He's just muttering to himself."
Ramza's face tightens but he nods again. Without a word he steps out to face the Shrine Knight, drawing his blades. I follow a step behind him, hastily pulling on my gauntlets again.
As Ironside claimed, Vormav is standing in the center of the deck, scowling down at a motionless Alma. At the motion of our arrival, he glances up, not visibly upset. "You're here."
"That's far enough, Vormav!" calls Ramza menacingly, or as menacing as he can be. "Virgo's not working, so give up and hand Alma over!"
"No, it will work," insists the other man distantly; he seems preoccupied somehow. "It just needs more... you didn't hear? It just needs more blood." He pauses to smile, and the distracted look disappears from his eyes. "Lots of blood is needed for the Angel's resurrection. Much bloodshed since Ajora's death, but I guess it wasn't enough. I guess I'll have to go on another rampage!" His grating laughter floats up through the darkness towards us. "Don't worry... I'll sacrifice you first!"
While he's still laughing, lightning crackles in a sphere around him, quickly obscuring his form in blinding golden light. When it shortly explodes, in his place is the Zodiac demon I recognize as Hashmalum. "Master," he roars at the heavens... or, at up. "Bloody Angel! Let me offer you blood darker than wine and hotter than burning lava!"
I draw my blade, running to attack him, or it. Ironside beats me there, hacking with two blades into demonic flesh, while Meliadoul is advancing with her weapon whirling.
Ramza, however, rushes to the side of his unconscious sister. "Alma! Hold on, please! Open your eyes! Alma!"
"It's no use," growls Hashmalum, swatting Ironside aside like a troublesome fly. "You cannot wake her."
Ramza turns to snarl at the demon. "What have you done to Alma?"
"Her existence impedes our goal," explains the thing that used to be Vormav. "When she wakes, she will remember her mission... her important mission to call our allies."
Shouting wordlessly, Ramza attacks, his edges almost blurring with speed as he slices into Hashmalum. I summon a Lightning Stab into the demon, to avoid hitting any of my friends, then watch as he gestures, freezing Meliadoul in time. Ironside still hasn't gotten up from where he was thrown earlier, I note.
Strawberry lets loose some devastating spell or other on our enemy, and I follow it up with another Lightning Stab. While Hashmalum is still reeling, Ramza sinks both edges into his chest, into where his heart would be if he had one.
The Zodiac demon howls and stumbles backwards, tearing the swords from Ramza's hands and clattering them carelessly to the deck. "Master," he roars, "you are not awake yet?"
Something flashes near Alma, likely another stone. She stirs, sitting up groggily and touching her head. "Where am I?" she mumbles, glancing about in confusion.
Ramza, in the middle of retrieving his weapons, darts towards her, sliding the last pace on his knees. "Alma!"
She jerks, staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment. "Brother? Ramza?"
"I won't let you interfere," snarls Hashmalum. "Bloody Angel! I offer my own life for your resurrection!" And, to my horror, the demon plunges claws into his own chest and starts to shake. A moment later he explodes like all the others have, a brief dazzling flash of sunlike light, and then his stone drops to the ground.
As if in response, Alma's stone flashes as well. A column of braided light flares down from above and into her, quickly exploding into radiant excess. When my eyes clear Hashmalum is gone, and Alma is standing there instead. Her features look... different, though, somehow.
She grins suddenly, plucking at her red-and-white dress. "I have my body back."
I swallow. That wasn't Alma's voice, or at least not her normal inflection. So that was their plan with her, after all.
"Alma," whispers Ramza, shuffling uncertainly forward.
Her stone glitters, reacting to something. "What?" mutters Ajora, apparently confused. "What is this?"
The stone flashes fitfully again, and Ajora clutches her... his?... head. "Help... Brother..."
"Alma!" Ramza darts forward, hovering nearby as though to catch her if she were to fall.
"Brother Ramza," rasps the strange new Alma. "Stop. Don't... interfere." Her face twists in exertion, and she begins repeating herself in a mutter. "Do not interfere... Do not interfere..." Ramza simply stands there, helpless and horrified.
Another column of sparkling light lances down into Alma, and I throw an arm in front of my eyes. When it seems the pyrotechnics have dissipated, I dare to look again, and then there are... two Almas. One looks... well, evil.
Ramza slides over to where his sister is now. "Alma! Are you okay?"
"Brother," she breathes weakly, still crouched on the ship's crumbling deck, "I'm alright. We have to... kill Ajora. Hurry."
"Are you trying to stop my resurrection?" hisses Ajora without even raising his head. It unnerves me to no end to see him like that, speaking with such obvious malevolence while wearing Alma's face and her red dress. It would be comical, if we weren't floating on an abandoned airship in the middle of hell. "I won't let you! Come out, my servants!"
Ajora doesn't even move, but four massive demons materialize behind him, grim and muscled things ready to claw our faces off for their master. "I will not let anyone prevent my resurrection!" shouts Ajora. A rippling mass of crimson and violet light surrounds him, rumbling the entire ship with the mere proximity of its power, and when it explodes away, a winged... thing... is floating in his place. I recognize it only by description, from something Ramza read in the Germonik Scriptures, but I think it's Altima.
Odd. I'd always thought Altima was male, and yet this thing... well, anyway.
"Prepare yourselves, powerless ones!" she rumbles. Claws extend from her wings and through what look to be scarlet leather gloves.
Ramza screams like a madman and rushes the demon, or demigod, or whatever it is, scoring two nasty gashes with his blades. Torn, I stand between Altima and Alma, trying to protect the girl by being an obstacle to any blows directed at her, then level a Holy Explosion at the demon. She manages to claw Ramza rather badly across the face, making him scream, while Hannibal jumps in and sticks a spear almost clear through her. As I'm hovering, looking for an opening to strike without crippling any of my friends, Meliadoul finally snaps free from her earlier torpor and, without even asking what's going on, shrieks a wicked slash into Altima's ribs.
The winged demon cringes in visible pain. "No... this can't be!" she gasps. "You're... the descendant of the one who killed me before. No. I won't be beaten... I won't be beaten..." While I'm vaguely wondering why these Lucavi types find it so astonishing that they can die, Altima disappears into thin air.
I blink, exchanging a confused glance with Ramza. I open my mouth to ask something... I don't even know what... but I don't get the chance to speak.
An unbelievable concentration of power builds somewhere nearby, invisibly, then spills out into reality in a deafening display of magical capacity that literally drives all thought out of my mind. I can only watch, transfixed, as energy flexes and flows around us, a torrent of pale blue light that sweeps away the forms of the other demons as though they were less than dust. Eventually it concentrates into a blinding ball and explodes violently.
I shake myself, staring up at the new form of Altima. This one, though still winged, is at least three times as tall as a man, and grins down at us with an empty skeletal face. "I will kill you!" he thunders.
Before the words are out of the thing's mouth, one of Strawberry's spells lances through it, leaving a faint trail of wispy smoke in its wake. Ramza and Hannibal both attack, weapons whirling, and I think they both draw blood... such as it is... but things are moving so quickly I can't be certain.
Behind me, Alma starts whispering a spell and runs off towards the aft of the ship, so I take the opportunity to blast a Holy Explosion through the new Altima. Meliadoul hacks into the thing as well, taking a vicious claw for her troubles, and before she can do anything Ramza finds another opening, laying open Altima's back with his two blades.
The demon freezes up and begins to tremble. "More... power..." it grates, a sound capable of shattering glass.
As I watch, Altima's form begins to crack and splinter, with odd wisps of color drifting out as though the body is no longer strong enough to contain all the magic needed to sustain it. Little bits of wood, I note with some alarm, are beginning to float into the air as well, while a dull rumble somewhere below grows steadily louder. When a muted explosion sounds from someplace nearby, I move by instinct, throwing myself between Altima and Ramza.
There is light, an all-encompassing white light, then pain. Then darkness.
Warm. Silent warmth, sunlight on my face. I open my eyes.
I'm in the courtyard in Lesalia, sitting on a bench with my chin in my hands. It's green here, a painfully-beautiful verdant freshness as though it's the bloom of spring. I can smell the vegetation as well, the growing and flowering things all around, thick in the air like perfume.
There's a rosebush in front of me. I blink, staring at its tender blossoms; nearby, birds chirp and converse, unconcerned by anything except the fact that it's spring. After a moment, my eyes well with tears and I shut them.
The roses are too beautiful. It hurts me to gaze upon them further. My mother would love to see them, though. Where is she, I wonder? Should she be here? I don't know why she wouldn't; this is Lesalia, but I don't know where she is, and now the roses are radiating their sublime beauty into the courtyard for no one but myself to appreciate. I don't deserve to behold such a sight.
I lift my head, confused, and glance about, but I find no one. The voice... was it a voice?... was familiar, someone I know, someone who moves me to tears once again without even knowing why. My father, perhaps? I know I haven't seen him in some time, but I would like to do so again sometime soon.
Agrias? Can you hear me? Please, not you too...
I frown uncertainly, staring at my hands. I can't move them, like something is... constraining them. Holding them. But there's nothing there, not even my gloves. My creased palms stare back at me, pink and clean as though freshly washed.
Agrias, please wake up. Please.
Additional warmth caresses my cheeks, oddly localized in little spots like teardrops, but I'm not crying. They're not my tears. I stand up, whirling about. Who's doing this? My heart pounds, a frightened drum.
Agrias, please come back to us. To me. Please.
Something in the voice stirs faint memories, and a blurry face appears in my mind, growing more distinct by the moment. My breath catches somewhere in my throat. Ramza? "Ramza?"
"Agrias." His voice cracks with relief. Warm lips press against one of my closed eyelids, then the other, and his tears run affectionately over my face.
My body is wracked with pain -- I don't even want to think about how many bones I've shattered -- but my lips curve into a smile without any effort at all, because he's here. "Don't tell me we made it."
His short laugh carries as much sorrow as mirth, and his lips press another kiss against my forehead. "Okay, I won't."
Author's Notes: ...okay, it's done. Finally. This ended up being longer than I expected. I did not intend this story to be a full-fledged walkthrough, but there you go.
Serious thanks go out to everyone who's read and reviewed this thing. Without your feedback it likely would have languished after five or six chapters, only to be finished as time and whimsy allowed. Kudos to you all.
If anyone cares, the name of the fic is lifted directly from the song by DJs Force and Styles. While it's technically a breakup song, I suppose, it's sweet and loving and honest, which are the moods I wanted to convey here. Probably none of you have even heard it anyway.
Once again, thanks for the patience of everyone who waded through this. Perhaps I can return the favor sometime.