Author's notes: I have to give credit to Enigma of Bishieness and Kortir for prompting me to get off my ass and write something both more action-oriented and with significant deviation from the canon storyline. So hopefully this story kills two birds with one stone. Or, actually, three birds; there's another feature I wanted to get into a story, and I'll be putting it into this one. What's the third bird? You'll see. :)
The name of the story is a reference to the Eugene O'Neill play, not the guy from X-Men. Though it's not all that closely related to either, really. Also, the M rating is for... well, a lot of stuff. You'll see what I mean, eventually. It's not a lemon or anything, though.
I don't own Final Fantasy Tactics. If I did, I'd be rich, and would have a way cooler job.
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can't shoot them anymore.
-- Bob Dylan, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"
Chapter One: Somebody's Sister
"Ouch! That hurts! Let go of me!" Teta struggled to free her wrist from the kidnapper's grasp, but to no avail; his grip was like iron, and he weighed half again what she did. "Let go!"
"Shut it, brat," muttered the man, tugging her out of Igros Castle, into the angling afternoon sunlight. An errant breeze swirled his cloak, the forest green of the Death Corps, and his stubbled face contorted into a grimace as he tugged her arm painfully. "Come on, move it. Don't make me get rough."
Squinting against the sudden light, Teta leaned back, hoping to slow him down, and succeeded only in making her slippers drag along the greyish paving stones towards the man's chocobo. A short distance away, another green-cloak was already tossing a dazed Alma atop a second bird. "Stop it! Let go!"
With an impatient snarl the raider yanked her arm, pulling her stumbling forward to her knees. "Such a pain," he growled. "I hope you're worth the rans..." Abruptly he trailed off, voice growing faint. "Oh, sh--"
Sunlight flashed on metal; the raider screamed and fell back, releasing her arm. Before she could do more than blink, a grey blur turned into Zalbag racing forward, bloodied blade held in one fist.
The other raider flinched. "Damn it!" Snapping his chocobo's reins, he turned and heeled the bird onward, quickly outdistancing the charging Beoulve and disappearing with Alma.
As soon as the man was gone, Zalbag skidded to a cursing halt, then stared off after the lost kidnapper. A few beads of crimson dripped from the tip of his forgotten sword, painting jagged little circles on the stone. Eventually, though, he seemed to stir. "Teta? Are you well?" He spoke over his shoulder, without tearing his eyes from where the other man had disappeared with his half-sister.
Teta nodded with a scowl, working the arm the dead man had been holding. "Yeah, I'm fine, but Alma..."
"Yeah. I know." After a moment Zalbag sighed, then turned to face her with an expression of subdued concern painting his noble features. Rather than say anything more, however, he furrowed brows in a thoughtful frown and advanced to toe the body of the man he'd killed. "We'll have to..."
A staggering Dycedarg interrupted him by appearing from the castle gate. One hand was hidden in the folds of his garments, clutching a wound that had stained his silks liberally with blood. "How did...?"
"Brother!" Forgetting the fallen Death Corps raider, Zalbag bolted to Dycedarg's side and helped ease him to the ground.
"Don't worry about me," snapped Dycedarg, though pain robbed his voice of its usual command. His face was pale behind the beard. "How's Alma?"
"She's gone." Zalbag didn't release his brother, and in fact seemed to be holding him up. "They killed five people and took her."
Dycedarg nodded once, pale eyes drifting to peer in the direction of the escaped raider. "They... were after me, but Zalbag... find them. Hunt them down."
"I will," assured Zalbag grimly. "They won't get far."
"Good." Dycedarg swallowed, fumbling at his wound. "Those bastards are..." His eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped groundward.
Forgetting her own pain, Teta scrambled to her feet and rushed to him, but Zalbag was already there, shaking his brother. "Hey! You there? Dycedarg?"
Slowing to hover uncertainly beside the two men, Teta chewed a lip and found herself gazing over at the dead green-cloak who'd tried to capture her. How had this happened? Igros was a fortress. It was safe. People just didn't hack their way in and run off with nobles. And yet somehow they had, and now Alma was in the hands of renegade knights who hated the aristocracy. Alma... please be safe.
After a moment Zalbag exhaled in clear irritation and lowered Dycedarg to the ground. "Teta... go find a medic, if you would." Honey-colored eyes hardened as they slid to meet her own. "We're about to become very busy."
Ramza felts his hands curl into fists at his sides. "What do you mean, she's gone?"
"I said she's gone," repeated Dycedarg irritably, staring up from his bed. "The Death Corps came here after me, and took her. Zalbag is out hunting them down as we speak. Don't worry about it, though; everything's all in hand. We won't do anything until she's safe."
Ramza nodded, unwilling to speak. He stood in a study-turned-sickchamber, a tight but cozy space lined with stately mahogany bookshelves, with a crimson rug to soften the stone lines of the floor. The room was hot, courtesy of an unnecessary blaze in the far hearth, and though the heat was doing little for his temper, he had no wish to be rude to his brother. "Do you know where they took her?"
Dycedarg shrugged under the heavy covers. "They'd be insane not to head back to Zeakden. Anywhere else in Hokuten territory would present too much of a risk of us finding her." Sweat slicked his pale face, rolling down through his beard, as though he were sick rather than merely injured.
"Fort Zeakden," echoed Ramza, frowning. That meant mountains. Fighting in the mountains. Zalbag, if he was leading the recovery force, would be unable to advance very quickly. What would he do if the Death Corps put a dagger to Alma's throat and demanded that the Hokuten forces lay down their weapons or some such? The deserters would know who was chasing them, of course, and would have plenty of time to issue such a threat if they wanted to.
When he didn't answer further, Dycedarg nodded up at him. "I heard you destroyed the thieves' hideout. Good work. You should just relax for a while and let Zalbag handle everything else."
Relax? Ramza compressed his lips at this. How can I relax? Dycedarg didn't really feel the same way about Alma as he did; their difference in age, along with the fact that there was only a half-blood relation there, was enough to make his eldest brother view her as sort of a distant niece. Suggesting that he relax demonstrated clearly that his brother didn't understand the situation, not at all. I'm not going to relax if Alma's in danger.
Eventually, though, he just shook his head. "How's your wound?"
Dycedarg's lips twisted in frustration. "It looks worse than it is. Don't worry. I'll be up in no time."
"Good. I hope so."
"Yeah. If you see Spencer around, send him here. Fool's going to kill me with that fire."
Recognizing a dismissal, Ramza offered a curt nod and spun on his heel, striding for the door. Outside, in the hallway, Delita and Algus straightened from where they'd been leaning against the wall in a chilly silence. Or at least it was chilly on Algus' part; Delita seemed not to care, brown eyes blinking mildly around. Before they could speak, Ramza jerked his head in a silent command to follow, then stalked away from his brother's room, towards the castle gates.
His companions hurried to catch up. "What did he say?" asked Delita.
Ramza shrugged without turning around. He hated being so cold in manner with his friend, but Alma's absence was twisting his insides into knots and Delita would understand. "The Death Corps has Alma and Zalbag is hunting her down. And Dycedarg will probably be on his feet in another day or two."
"The Death Corps took Alma?" echoed Algus beside him in a dark mutter. "Bastards. To think that commoners would lay hands on a noble in such a fashion."
With effort Ramza kept his silence, suppressing the urge to punch Algus. Who in the world cared about their birth? That the Death Corps had kidnapped Alma far outweighed any other fact about them. Lengths and turns of grey hallway drifted past in his rage, illuminated at stark lengths by the occasional oil lamp affixed to one wall.
"So..." Delita trailed off, then cleared his throat. Ahead loomed a golden rectangle of sunlight, the open doorway to the castle grounds. "So, what are you planning to do?"
"I'm going after her. I can't sit here while she's in enemy hands." He wouldn't be able to face Alma later if he simply sat idle while she was gone.
"Oh?" Algus' voice perked up at this. "Lord Dycedarg sent you to follow?"
Ramza felt his lips writhe in helpless frustration. "No. He said to stay here."
"And you want to go anyway?" When he didn't answer, Algus snorted. "Ramza, you shouldn't do anything to endanger your standing with your brothers. They control how quickly you'll advance in rank."
A few steps into the sunlit grounds, Ramza slowed, feeling a frown steal across his face. Then he stopped and turned to face Algus. Something shifted inside, a curiously light and tingly feeling. "Rank?" he repeated in a whisper. Some distance ahead, new leaves on neatly-trimmed trees rippled in a feeble breeze.
Algus nodded, sapphire eyes fixed confidently on his own from within a classic aristocratic face. "Yeah. Zalbag knows what he's doing, doesn't he? Anything you can do with your squad is nothing compared to Zalbag and however many hundreds of soldiers he has with him."
Ramza shuffled a half-step forward, narrowing his eyes. Somewhere nearby, birds chirped happily away, an incongruous and inappropriate sound. "Nothing? She's my sister. It doesn't matter what Zalbag is or isn't doing; I'll do everything in my power to make sure she's okay. You don't get it, do you? Do you even have a sister?"
The other man's golden eyebrows climbed in obnoxious skepticism. "Yeah, but Sabrina's already married; I haven't seen her in over a year. What does it matter, though? Orders are orders."
Ramza surprised himself by laughing, though it sounded harsh to his ears, and he took another step forward. "Orders? I don't--"
Somehow Delita appeared in front of him, between him and Algus. "Let's calm down, shall we?" he suggested, glancing from Ramza to Algus and back again. "Getting in each other's faces isn't going to help this."
With a scowl, Ramza turned away and folded arms across his chest. Delita was right; this wouldn't help anything, but he couldn't find it in himself to apologize. The frustration was still boiling too fiercely. "Whatever. Algus, you don't have to come if you're worried about endangering your rank." Sunlight sneaking into the corners of his eyes blinded him, gave him a headache, and he fought the urge to rub his temples.
"Well, I am," sighed Algus grandly, "but they shouldn't have captured a noble like that, like with the Marquis. I'll come along."
Something clicked inside, and Ramza turned back to study Algus narrowly. "Like with the Marquis," he repeated. "You're doing this just because of Alma's rank, aren't you?" He doesn't care about her at all. She's just a title to him.
Algus spread his hands, puzzled, as though the question were daft. "Of course. You think I'd bother for a commoner?"
Delita tensed, eyes narrowing, but Ramza held up a hand to forestall him, all without taking his eyes off Algus. "Alma is half-commoner," he pointed out, "like I am. What do you think about that? Are you only going to put half the effort into saving her?"
The other fellow shrugged. "No, I'll help. Your name more than makes up for your lineage."
My name, huh? Baring teeth in what he hoped would be interpreted as a smile, Ramza shouldered past the other man and stalked along the path. "Go away, Algus," he called over his shoulder. "I don't want you in our party anymore. You don't... you just don't get it." As he walked, Delita fell in beside him, scowling at the ground.
"Oh, come on," groaned Algus from back near the doorway. "You don't really mean that, do you? What's with you, anyway?"
"Nothing. But don't follow us. I never want to see you again." Tight pain branched from his hands up through his arms, and he took a moment to unclench shaking fists. What's with me? I've never been this angry before.
Delita remained silent as they strode through the stone paths of the castle grounds, though as they neared the gate to the city he glanced sideways. "Don't you think that was a little harsh?"
Ramza rolled his shoulders irritably. "I don't care. Don't tell me you weren't getting tired of him either."
"Well, I was," admitted Delita with a shrug. "But it's just... well, no matter. Maybe this is for the best."
"Yeah." There was no need for Algus in the squad; Knox was far stronger, and Ramza himself just as skilled with the blade. "We'll be fine. Is all your stuff still packed?"
"How could it not be? We dropped everyone off in the city and then marched straight into the castle."
He nodded. "Good. We're leaving as soon as we can." The path they were following arced over a sculpted brook and around a miniature grove of blossom-laden plum trees, but he ignored it all.
Delita's lips thinned. "Do you care if I tell Teta what we're doing first? I want to say goodbye, at least."
Teta. His sister. "Of course." Ramza paused, then sighed, shaking his head. "Of course. Go find her. I'll be in the city, getting the rest of the group together."
His friend grinned. "Okay. Spider's going to be pissed he can't spend the night drinking."
"Whatever. He'll be fine."
With a chuckle, Delita spun and started trotting back towards the castle proper. Ramza continued on, unclenching his fists once more, forcing himself to relax grinding teeth. Alma, don't worry. I'm coming.
"Aaaaand, here you go." Jasmine smiled and shifted on her rock. "Though I have to say it would be more appropriate for you to be giving me meat."
Delita laughed as he accepted a handful of cured and salted beef from the chemist. With dark hair and eyes and tanned features, she was pretty, if a little short of beautiful, and flirted like that with all the men in the group. "Isn't there a... a line, or something?"
Her smiled deepened and she ducked her head. "Oh, I wouldn't make you wait." Beside her, Spider snickered but didn't look up from sharpening his daggers; a shorter fellow, his face was shaped such that he always seemed to be wearing a vicious grin, even when he was bored or sleeping.
"I'm sure." Holding Jasmine's eyes a moment longer, Delita silently excused himself and turned away. Almost immediately, however, he collided with the hulking and brutish Knox, though the other man just offered a pleasant nod before slipping past to get his own food.
Tearing a bite from one of the strips in his hand, Delita wandered a short distance away, squinting against the low orange light from the setting sun. Though Mandalia Plains boasted a well-deserved reputation as a place teeming with bloodthirsty monsters, it was peaceful this evening. Peaceful and pretty. Chunks of pale stone jutted up through the ground like stubby fingers, catching the warm sunset glow from the west, and a thin slice of crescent moon was already visible in the east. It wasn't a place to swallow a painter's heart, to be sure, but pleasant enough.
As he chewed, quiet footsteps in rustling grass announced someone approaching; a backwards glanced showed it to be Vector. Wiry and quick, Vector often seemed to be nervous, and looked the part tonight as well, with a wavering smile and his hair in disarray from running fingers through it. Delita greeted him with a nod.
"Hey," offered the other man breathlessly, clearing his throat. "Where's Ramza? June was looking for him just now."
Delita paused to swallow, then pointed off to the northwest. "He wandered over there, probably to think. I was going to talk to him anyway, so I can let him know about her. What did she want, anyway?'
Vector laughed, dark eyes cutting away. "She... I don't know. I think she wants out of watch duty on account of her cold."
Snorting, Delita tore another bite from his rations. "I'll tell him, but I doubt she can expect much sympathy."
"That's what I told her," chuckled Vector. "I'll just... I'm... yeah. Hungry." Smiling again, he half-lifted a hand as though to wave, but paused in the middle of the gesture before awkwardly completing it. Then, sucking air through his teeth, he hurried back towards the main body of the camp.
With a shake of his head Delita continued his own dinner and wandered over to where he'd seen Ramza disappear moments before. The noble wasn't a private man, as such -- he would answer almost any question if asked, though not without possible embarrassment -- but he seldom believed others to have any interest in his problems, and so never spoke of them without prompting. Right now he was doubtless worried sick over Alma. Delita could understand that, himself; just imagining the possibility of Teta getting kidnapped was enough to make him want to punch one of the rocks dotting the plains.
Sure enough, in moments he found Ramza slumped against a chunk of pale stone, staring blankly off at the distant sunset. Some ten paces away, Delita hovered for a moment, gauging the other man's mood, before deciding company was not unwelcome. Stuffing the last of his rations into his mouth, he shuffled forward and dropped to sit next to Ramza.
Long moments slid past before the noble finally spoke. "I... I keep trying to look on the bright side. You know, telling myself she's probably going to be fine, that we got Marquis Elmdor back with only minor injuries." Warm sunlight glittered in worried hazel eyes.
Delita offered a judicious nod. "That's probably true. I get the feeling they only hurt the Marquis just enough to keep him from trying to escape, so since Alma isn't a fighter, she might actually be safer."
"Yeah." Ramza's voice was soft, barely above a whisper. "And she's... pretty, you know? A young woman, and they're mostly men. But they used to be soldiers, right? They should be disciplined, so they wouldn't..." He trailed off, swallowing.
Delita lifted his eyebrows, surprised that sheltered Ramza would even think to worry about such a thing. Rather than answer right away, he tugged a stalk of long grass from the dry soil and began to snap it into ever-smaller segments. "Alma's... she's useless to them except as ransom value, right? So I don't think they'll... you know, hurt her if they're just going to trade her back later." The Death Corps' own self-interest would see to that, if nothing else; future hostages would bring them less gil if previous ones had been mistreated. Everyone had interests pointing their behavior in certain directions, whether they knew it or not.
Ramza shook his head. "That's the whole point, though. She's... 'useless' to a lot of people. How much ransom will Larg really pay them? What if they don't think it's enough? They might just kill her, for... credibility, or whatever."
"I'm not sure about that," admitted Delita with a frown. "Whatever else, she is a Beoulve. To save face Dycedarg and Zalbag would have to attack the Death Corps even more fiercely if they killed her."
"Face," sighed Ramza. "But that's what my brothers doing now, as it is. If things don't go exactly as the Death Corps want, they have next to no reason to leave her alive. And I don't think the name will stop them, Delita; they're anarchists. They kill nobles all the time; that's what they do." Squeezing his eyes shut, he let his head thump back against the stone and rubbed a weary hand down his face.
Delita chewed a lip, letting pieces of grass flutter to the ground. Clearly Ramza was in no mood for consolation, so perhaps another approach would be in order. "Are you still set on the plan we talked about earlier?"
The other man didn't answer for some time, but eventually he exhaled briskly and nodded. Straightening, he scooted back against the rock. "Yeah. They'll be busy fighting Zalbag in the passes, so we should be able to slip in the back and get her out."
Delita nodded as well, holding back a smile as he plucked another stalk of grass from the ground. Somewhere in the distance, a bird's two-tone call echoed. "When was the last time you played the reed flute with her?"
Ramza's lips quirked. "A few weeks ago. Just before graduation, before we started taking missions. She laughed and said she was better at it than I was."
"Yeah. Always will be, too."
Delita chuckled, then pressed his thumbs carefully against the blade of grass and lifted it to his lips. An undignified buzzing assaulted his ears as he blew past the stalk.
With a wry shake of his head Ramza found a likely piece for himself and started playing it. Together under the orange sky, they sat without speaking, played grass and drove nearby insects batty.
Ramza slowed to a cautious halt, staring up at the knights and spellcasters blocking his way through the plateau. A capricious breeze ruffled his hair and blew reddish rock-dust into his eyes, so he squinted against the stinging while his free hand sought the familiar weight of his sword's hilt. Uphill, against mages... this wouldn't be... wait. That's Miluda!
"That's Miluda," murmured Delita beside him, nodding up the rocky slope. Dark hair slapped into his face in the wind, and with a grimace he brushed it back.
"Yeah, I see." Scowling, Ramza stepped forward, but the knight ahead spoke before he could.
"I'd rather die here than get taken prisoner!" she growled to a subordinate near her. "Besides, if they catch us, they'll execute us anyway. Fighting is the only way out!" As she spoke her blade left its scabbard with a glittering hiss, a gesture repeated among all her weapon-bearing troops.
Doing likewise, Ramza stared angrily up the slope, but there was no time to demand answers; they were already rushing. With a scream he did the same, shield held upright before him, blade swirling over his head, but rather than attack mindlessly, he sought Miluda. She was the officer here; she would know, if anyone did, what Alma's situation was. The rest of his group charged as well, those not hanging back to wield bows, potions or spells.
Before he could reach Miluda, however, another knight darted to meet him. A vicious swing with her heavy blade rattled his shield arm up to the shoulder, and he countered with a low swipe that managed to catch her left calf without totally crippling her. The woman grunted, but didn't scream and didn't back down. Sometimes the higher ground provided no advantage.
Shouting and chanting from elsewhere on the slope spoke to the battle joining all around, and he paid attention with only half an ear. The Death Corps mages were busy preparing nasty surprises for his people, he suspected, while Delita took the opportunity simply to hack one spellcaster down in the act. All too soon, however, the wounded knight recovered and began to circle him, limping, hoping to find an opening on his shield-less side.
Ramza wasn't about to let that happen. Once she attacked, he twisted into it, again almost losing feeling in his shield arm due to the forceful impact. Then, without slowing his momentum, he continued on into a backhanded slash that hacked deeply into the woman's thigh. This time she did scream, but not for long, because whooshing flames abruptly engulfed her garments, courtesy of June, and an arrow hissed into her throat, courtesy of Vector.
Ignoring the knight, Ramza glanced about in search of Miluda and found her a short distance away, blade held high as she prepared to deal the finishing blow to a crouched and wounded Spider. Shouting, he ran at her, stumbling as his boots slipped on a bare rocky surface, and managed to bowl into her just as her blade was whistling down.
The weapon's edge caught his shoulder, but he had only a blink to recognize the pain before they both tumbled against the rocks in a tangle of fists, shields and armor. Snarling half in fear, half in desperation, he tried to keep one hand gripped around the woman's wrist while he fumbled for the sword he'd dropped, but all it earned him was a mailed fist in the face and stars in his vision. Damn it! She's strong. With a frustrated grunt he let go of Miluda and rolled away to where his blade lay, then grabbed it and hopped to his feet.
She was already up, already facing him, windblown hair rippling into her grim and scowling face. "You won't capture me, Hokuten."
"I don't care about you," he growled, hacking at her and serving only to add a dent to her shield. "I care about my sister. Where is she? Where's Alma?"
"Oh? You're a Beoulve?" Miluda actually laughed at this, then slid sideways to deliver a wicked slice to his midsection, which he barely blocked. "She's in a safe place. Where did you think we'd put her?"
"She's a monastery student," he snapped. "An innocent. She has nothing to do with this, so just give her back!"
"Yeah," snickered Miluda, delivering an overhead slash to his shield. "We'll get right on that. Right after you nobles give back all the things you've taken from us. When are you going to do that, Beoulve? I'm sure you'll sister will be interested in finding out."
Ramza snarled, locking blades with the woman. She countered with a knee to his crotch, which he avoided as he drove an elbow into her face. "Alma never took anything from you," he hissed. "Neither did I! This doesn't help anything! At least if you'd taken... Larg, or Dycedarg or someone, I'd still fight you to get them back, but I wouldn't hate you." As soon as the word left his mouth, he blinked, and the distraction nearly cost him an arm to a looping backhanded slash from Miluda.
Hate. He'd never used the word aloud before, not in seriousness... but it fit. There was no twist to his gut to tell him he'd been lying, no nervous fluttering in his chest prompting him to grin and backpedal and apologize. Miluda was someone who could capture an innocent and laugh about it. I hate her. I hate all of them.
Still, he reflected as he scored a gash across an unprotected line of the woman's arm, there was no need to get carried away. No need to get lost in it, no need to stew. It was enough simply to keep on as he was, with hatred simply an additional motivation; he wasn't comfortable enough yet with the feeling to do more with it. Whatever else, hate or not, there would never be an excuse to threaten innocents, to gloat over it to someone who cared about them. That's what separates me from these people.
Abruptly his introspection was shattered as Miluda's blade sank into his side and then sawed back out. Panting, rasping, he dropped to one knee, clutching the wound with his shaking shield hand. A line of bright crimson splatters inked the rocky ground, following the arc of his opponent's weapon as it had withdrawn after cutting him, and more liquid leaked through his fingers to join it as he watched. Drawing a ragged breath, he squinted up at Miluda's face, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. The fingers of his other hand tightened on his sword's hilt.
"Our cause is just, noble," declared the knight standing above him. Pale hair fluttering in the wind made a makeshift halo around her head, and sunlight gleamed brilliantly on her stained blade as she raised it to rest on one shoulder. "You can't crush justice with force. Someday, my brother and I will--"
He interrupted her by lunging to his feet, sword in hand, driving the weapon's point up through her chin and into her skull. Miluda jerked, dropping her own sword, and then they were falling, toppling to the hard scrub-kissed rocks.
Somehow he landed on his injury and the pain nearly drove him to unconsciousness. Gasping, he rolled aside and curled into a shaking ball. Fish hooks and barbed lightning screamed through his whole torso and he simply lay there for a moment, waiting for the pain to subside.
As it was doing so, strong hands gripped him, pulled him up to a seated position. "Can you stand?" asked Knox's quiet voice.
"Damn it. Yeah." Swallowing, Ramza shook the remaining stars from his sight and found Miluda. She was very obviously dead, lying on her back with his sword still grotesquely entombed in her head. "Where... how's...?"
"Everyone else is fine," assured the knight, helping him to his feet. "Or at least alive. You just had to seek out the most skilled opponent again, didn't you?"
Sighing, he glanced around to see that the other man was correct; his people were already looting the enemy dead, waiting for precious crystals to form. Spider was the only other one to carry any serious wounds, and Jasmine was tending to him already.
Almost immediately, though, Ramza's eyes snapped back to Miluda's corpse. Something stirred in his middle, something sour and uncomfortable. "Knox, I've... I've never killed a woman before." His words came out in a whisper. "Not like that, not with my own hands." My brother and I. She was somebody's sister.
Beside him, the mountainous knight nodded once, dark eyes tight in a broad face as they examined the body. "She attacked us, Ramza. She was a soldier. She knew what she was getting into."
"A soldier." Somebody's sister. The hilt of his sword hovered above her stomach, still locked in the angle in which he'd driven it into her, and her eyes, pretty green eyes, were fixed in wide surprise on some point in the sky. "Yeah."
A soft scraping, leather on stone, announced Delita approaching. He was limping and a moderate amount of blood stained his right thigh, but he seemed otherwise in good health. "You okay, Ramza?"
Rather than answer, Ramza found himself glancing down, at his hands. They were red. Totally red, as though he'd washed them in paint, red and dripping up to the elbows. Some of it was his own. Some. "I... I should have tried to talk to her more."
Delita shuffled to a halt on his other side. "What?"
He closed his eyes for a moment before explaining. "I asked her about Alma and she didn't answer me, but then I just... fought her. I should have tried to talk more. Should have tried to figure some solution out."
A short silence followed; glancing up, he saw Delita and Knox exchanging strange, unreadable glances. Eventually, though, Delita shifted and delivered a playful punch to his uninjured shoulder. "Come on. Let's get you potioned up."
Delita wiped sweat from his eyes as they topped a rocky hill. Less than a quarter-mile away stood a lone windmill spinning in lazy majesty, seemingly out-of-place among the barren and craggy folds in the world's surface. Vector had scouted ahead earlier in the day and claimed this was the place, but Delita could see no one in evidence anywhere near it. Had they already left? Moved to some other temporary base?
"Where are they?" wondered Ramza beside him. Under a mess of sand-colored hair his face had tanned noticeably in recent weeks, despite the chill in this part of the country. "Let's go ahead before they notice us." Without another word he trotted forward, clinking with every step.
Rolling his eyes, Delita followed, and the rest of the party did likewise along with him. At his side, June tugged that ridiculous straw hat even lower over her eyes, though why, he couldn't say; her face was little but shadow even as it was.
Shortly they reached the cleared area around the windmill. Ramza slowed, hazel eyes darting all around in obvious suspicion, at the windmill itself, at the rocky path leading to it.
Delita frowned next to him, drawing his own sword from its scabbard. Above, a regular creaking issued from the windmill blades, wood and rope and canvas rotating in an endless cycle, but apart from that... it was too quiet.
After a moment Ramza cleared his throat. "We should--"
He stopped with a grunt as people started appearing from around the corner of the windmill structure, first and foremost among them the unmistakable striding form of Wiegraf. Following in the wake of his flapping cloak came a handful of his people, all women, knights and monks and even a chocobo.
Instantly Wiegraf froze, and his attention snapped in the direction of their party. Forceful dark eyes flickered past, towards where they'd approached, and shortly his lips peeled back in a snarl. "It was you, wasn't it?" he roared, one fist quivering in front of his chest. "You cadets are the ones who killed my sister!" A breeze tugged his white cape haphazardly about his ankles while his soldiers assumed cautious stances nearby.
Ramza spared Delita a strange glance. "He's Miluda's brother?"
Delita lifted his eyebrows and nodded back at Wiegraf without speaking. The Death Corps captain was too dangerous an opponent to ignore in favor of idle chatter.
"I have no choice, then!" continued Wiegraf. "I'll avenge Miluda!" Drawing his sword with grim purpose, he held it sunward for a moment, then slashed it forward with a wordless shout.
Delita was already running, as were the others in the group. Most of the green-cloaks were atop a short ridge, accessible only by a narrow set of stairs, and Ramza was already angling towards them. In that case, he reasoned, I should head over--
A sharp and savage cry interrupted his thinking as one of the enemy monks leapt from the rocks. A blink later one of her boots connected solidly with his head.
When the stars cleared Delita climbed to his feet and grimaced. Damn it! Seriously, who does that? The monk was just rising as well, watching him guardedly.
As the sounds of joining battle swirled around him, he lunged forward to cut backhanded across the woman's stomach but she simply leapt back, just out of range of his strike. Before he could recover, she danced back towards him; somehow her arm got tangled into his own, and then he was flipping, flailing to crash on his back onto the hard ground.
Rather than try to rise, he reached instinctively back and found an ankle. With a snarl he tugged it, pulling the slippery woman off her feet. She landed with a rough curse behind him and he followed without releasing her, without allowing a chance to recover. While he climbed up her legs to grapple, she pummeled his head and arms with quick snapping strikes. She hit hard, too, with fists like rocks, but he ignored the bruising he was taking, instead wedging his sword between their bodies and using it to saw open her throat. The nameless monk spasmed once and went still; red liquid life spilled over his gloved hands.
Shaking his head groggily, Delita took a deep breath and climbed back to his feet. Ramza might have issues killing women who were trying to kill him, but he wasn't quite so squeamish.
A quick moment of surveying the battle found his childhood friend engaged in single combat with Wiegraf, the two men circling and sidestepping as they exchanged clipped words in heated voices. Vector was kneeling a short distance away on the stairs, one eye squinted shut as he aimed an arrow in Wiegraf's direction, while Knox stood like a wall protecting the archer from two enemy monks intent on taking him down. Down below the ridge, near Delita himself, Spider and June seemed to be having some difficulty with the chocobo, which had undoubtedly healed itself at least once already.
I hate fighting those things, sighed Delita as he limped towards the yellow bird. Never know when to give up and--
Blinking, he twisted, then barely managed to catch a thrown potion from Jasmine before it struck him in the face. With a nod of thanks, he tugged the cork out with his teeth, then spat it aside and downed the tart concoction in one grimacing gulp.
A familiar heat washed through his limbs, accompanied by a vague sense of relaxation as some of the pain from his injuries melted away, but he was already jogging forward to where his friends were battling the damn chocobo. One savage slash cut the wounded animal down from behind, earning him a weak grin of gratitude from Spider and absolutely nothing from June, who ignored him to start casting something at Wiegraf.
Before the spell could go off, however, an arrow appeared in Wiegraf's already-bloody side and he stumbled to one knee. "Miluda, forgive me," he hissed through clenched teeth, "but I can't die here."
Ramza stared coldly down at him. "You're not running away, Wiegraf."
The other man laughed and climbed unsteadily back to his feet. Odd patches of blood stained the ornate splendor of his white cape. "Remember, Beoulve. Ask Dycedarg about the Marquis and watch his eyes. You'll see he's lying to you." With another laugh, he turned and stumbled off into the surrounding rocks.
Ramza tensed, eyes narrowing as though he were considering giving chase, but then he spun to stare at the windmill shed. "Alma!" Without another word he sprinted towards the door.
"Damn it! Ramza!" Ignoring the ache of his remaining injuries, Delita ran to the ledge then jumped and pulled himself awkwardly up. Once to the top, he ducked around Jasmine tending to Knox and shouldered through the door after Ramza.
The interior of the shed was stark and utilitarian, containing only the massive shaft of the drive mechanism, a few scattered wooden crates and the hollow glow of ambient afternoon sunlight. It was also obviously empty of people, but Ramza hurried from place to place searching anyway, even going so far as to peer up at the gears of the drive. Eventually, though, his face went tight with ill-controlled anger and he kicked a crate, rattling a slat from one of its sides in the process. "Alma," he whispered, staring down at clenched fists. "Delita, she's... I thought she might be in here, but..."
Nodding, Delita shuffled across worn floor planks to where his friend was slumping to his knees. "Hey. She's probably at Zeakden, right? I mean, that was our plan all along, to get her back there."
"Yeah, I know." Ramza squeezed his eyes shut and drew a ragged breath. The lost expression on his dust-smeared face belonged to a much older man. "She's... I know."
"So it's no big deal, right?" continued Delita, trying to keep his voice optimistic. "I mean, it would have been nice to find her here, but now we're just extra-sure that we know where she is. We'll still get her back."
Ramza's eyes flickered back open, then stared soberly up at him, steady bronze circles brooking little in the way of illusions. "What if we don't? What if she's... hidden somewhere else, or already dead? What then?"
Delita smiled in what he hoped was an assuring fashion. "Don't look at it like that. If you're just going to assume the worst, why even try? You can't live without at least some hope."
Moments slipped past in a silence broken only by the rhythmic creak of the windmill mechanism, but eventually Ramza sighed and nodded. "Yeah. I... I guess you're right."
Thinning his lips, Delita nodded as well and offered a hand down to the other man, helping him to his feet. "Look. By nightfall tomorrow we'll be sitting around a fire with Alma and you'll be explaining to her why it took you so long to save her."
Ramza chuckled at this, though only a ghost of a smile touched his lips. "Yeah. Let's get everyone else and go. I want to move as quickly as possible."
"...enough to blow you all to hell and back!" a man's voice was shouting. "Got it? Then get out!"
Teeth clenched in tight desperation, Ramza hurried along the edge of the fort, leaping over green-cloaked bodies gathering a dusty coating of snow in the overcast twilight. The white Hokuten cloak he was wearing against the mountain chill flapped awkwardly around his ankles with every step, threatening to trip him; he wasn't accustomed to wearing it, but it was cold out.
As he hurried around a corner of the stone structure, another party, dressed in similar fashion to his own, popped into view atop a snow-crusted ledge ahead. He spotted Zalbag at their front, golden eyebrows drawn together in stern indignation, though his attention was focused on someone near the front of the fort, probably the man who'd been speaking. Beside him stood Algus at rigid attention, crossbow in one hand, and beyond the two of them waited a handful of other Hokuten, knights and wizards standing motionless in silent menace.
Zalbag's eyes flickered briefly towards Ramza but when he spoke again it was at the first man. "The Hokuten will never be threatened by you!" His clear tenor rang out, defiant but muted by the snow.
Quickly Ramza reached the next corner of the fort and turned to see who the other man was... only to skid to a horrified halt in the fluffy snow. Up on a wooden walkway to the fort's entrance stood a Death Corps knight he recognized by description as Golagros, but what caught his attention was Alma, hands tied behind her back and in the knight's grasp. She looked pale, cold; they hadn't even given her a coat.
It took a moment before he could find his voice. "Alma!" He couldn't tear his gaze away from her, couldn't do anything but stare. How to get up there, without alerting Golagros?
Her head jerked up and her eyes grew wide. "Brother!" Fear twisted her features but she struggled anyway, trying to pull away from the knight who held her captive.
Golagros tensed in response, inching backwards along the walkway, drawing Alma along with him. "Get out!" he shouted. "Now!" Panicked eyes darted from side to side, attempting to keep both Ramza and Zalbag in view.
"Go on," ordered Zalbag's voice. "Do it."
"Yes, sir!" acknowledged Algus. A crossbow snapped.
Though the bolt struck Golagros in the chest, Alma flinched at its passage. Booted feet slid back, then slipped on ice-crust. Terrified brown eyes widened further, if possible, as she pitched backwards, off the walkway.
Ramza broke into a sprint, heartbeat nothing but hollow thunder. Red silk rippled downward through the snowy dimness. Nobody said a word.
She struck the ground an instant before he reached her.
His legs gave out, throwing him to skid on his knees over the last few paces, and with shaking hands he touched his sister's shoulder. She lay face-down in the snow, golden hair in pooled disarray around her head; much of it had come loose from that ribbon she always wore. "A... Alma?" His voice came out choked, broken, and he swallowed. "Alma, are you...? Please..."
She didn't move, didn't answer. Snowflakes alighted on her dress, on her bare hands, some quickly melting.
"Alma?" Trembling, he gave her shoulder a gentle shake, then rolled her onto her back; she flopped limply over in his hands.
Eyes just like his own, the color of polished oak, of honey, stared widely up at the heavens, past his face. Her mouth was open, frozen perhaps in a gasp, perhaps in preparation to scream. Drifting snowflakes settled on the tiny freckles dotting her nose and cheeks, on her eyes, and she didn't blink them away.
He gasped a sudden laugh. "Alma, don't... don't play around. Now isn't the..." Warm tears now fell with the snow, fracturing against her chin, disappearing into her dress. "You always... Alma, please... please just..." Moisture blurred his vision, stole the words from his throat. Squeezing his eyes shut, he leaned forward, pressing his forehead against her own, and shook. Shook and waited and held her.
Some time later -- he had no idea how much -- someone's boots crunched faintly in the new snow behind him. Two pairs of boots; two people. They stopped a short distance away.
Swallowing hard, he lifted his head from his sister's and brushed pale hair away from her face. Her neck was... there was something wrong with it, he saw now, like it was angled slightly wrong. Broken. She still stared fearfully past him, gazing skyward. At her new home, he supposed.
Slumping, he closed her terrified staring eyes, then placed a kiss on her forehead. Her skin was already growing cool to the touch.
Before he could totally lose his composure he stood on legs that felt like lead. Somehow Alma looked very small now, very pale in spills of red silk slowly gathering a coating of white. The snow kissed his own cheeks as well, stuck to lines of cooling moisture traced down the skin there, and with an angry scrub of one sleeve he wiped them dry before turning around.
Delita and Algus stood there a few paces away, a little farther apart than they would have stood before. Though grim anger clouded Delita's face, Algus looked the same as always, arrogant and a little angry.
Ramza nodded stiffly to greet them, then blinked. "Where's Zalbag? He should be here."
Algus shrugged. "We received reports of the remaining Death Corps only a short distance away on the path, led by Wiegraf, so he went to meet them."
"He left? At a time like this?" Surely Zalbag could have left the Death Corps to a subordinate while he himself checked on Alma.
"Of course. It's not like Alma is going anywhere." As he spoke, Algus glanced back, to where Zalbag had been.
Ramza stiffened further, forcing himself to calm down so as not to strike the other man. "Golagros?" He could vaguely recall more fighting after he'd run to Alma, more shots from the crossbow; likely the knight was already dead on the walkway above.
"Got him," grinned Algus, lifting his crossbow for a moment. "He was the last one here." The other soldiers, of both groups, began wandering over to where the three of them stood, perhaps deciding the mood was sufficiently mundane now.
Nodding, Ramza rubbed a hand over his face. He was still shaking.
Algus seemed to noticed this as well, for his grin faded and he cleared his throat. "So," he began, shifting his feet, "I guess... I don't know. Maybe you should look on the bright side."
Ramza paused with his hand still over his mouth, then felt himself frowning at the other cadet. Bright side?
When he didn't speak, Algus shifted again and continued with an encouraging nod. "Yeah. I mean, she was your sister and everything, but only Zalbag's and Dycedarg's half-sister, so hopefully they won't feel as upset as you do. As a half-blood, she..."
Without hesitation Ramza punched him in the face. Algus staggered backwards a few steps, now bleeding freely from the nose. A half-dozen swords left their scabbards all around, from both groups of soldiers; one of Algus' archers leveled a broadhead arrow at Ramza over this offense, causing Vector to target him in turn. The spellcasters simply crouched in place, hands raised, prepared to cast. Snow still drifted sedately downward in a world inching closer to dusk.
After a moment Algus seemed to recover, shaking droplets of blood from the hand he'd used to clutch his nose. A cold sneer stole over his features, and the grin that curled his lips had nothing of joy in it. "What the hell's your problem, anyway? I should warn you not to cause any trouble, though; I command the knights still here... and, since you ran off when you were supposed to stay put, I command you. I could have you flogged for assaulting an offic--"
Ramza punched him again, and this time did not allow a moment of recovery; while the other man still reeled, he drew his own blade and slashed Algus across the stomach. Someone shouted, maybe Delita, and then everyone was fighting, blades clashing everywhere. Hokuten fighting each other. Ramza ignored them all, though; he only wanted Algus.
His new enemy wasted no time on gloating this time. With blood already dripping from his nose, leaking out from his stomach, he raised his crossbow and fired off a bolt.
Cold pain stabbed into Ramza's thigh, near the bone, making him stumble to one knee. This, however, presented him with an opportunity to hack upwards, into and through the other man's outstretched arm.
Algus screamed, doubling over what remained of the limb as his forearm and crossbow tumbled wetly to the snow. Ramza kept up the attack without mercy, hacking again into his former friend's side before simply tossing his sword aside and tackling Algus to the ground with a wordless roar.
It was a simple matter to climb on top, to use his knees to pin a snarling and struggling Algus into place. Then, with his hands free, Ramza started punching again, driving one fist after another into the man's face, screaming the entire time. He couldn't remember ever being so angry before, but it hardly seemed important now. A red haze obscured his vision, but at least it let him see what he needed.
"Why did you do it?" When his rage finally found words, he punctuated them with savage punches, strikes intended not to injure or stun but to crush. "My sister was right there! What the hell did you think was going to happen? I hate you so much! I--"
Someone grabbed his wrist. Snarling, he spun to strike with his other hand, only to see his fist splat into Delita's open hand.
Vector crouched nearby as well, smiling awkwardly. "Ramza, he's, um... I think he's already dead."
Blinking, Ramza glanced around, noting his people just standing there, watching him; Knox seemed to be bleeding heavily from a wound on his head, though Jasmine was tending to it, and blood had soaked Spider's whole left sleeve. "What? What happened to everyone else?"
"Fight's already over," explained Delita in a low voice, planting hands on his knees and standing upright. "You've been beating Algus for a while now. Look at him."
With a sinking sensation in his stomach Ramza complied. And then froze. Algus was... totally unrecognizable. There was next to nothing left of his face, and the bones in it had fractured and collapsed, leaving a halo of crimson splatters in the snow around his ruined skull. Ramza's own hands sported several cuts, or perhaps just places where his knuckles had split under impact, and once again his arms and chest were nearly solid red.
Part of him supposed he should feel disgusted or possibly sick, but there was curiously little inside him as he climbed to his feet. The Hokuten cloak tugged at his neck and with a grimace he fumbled the thing apart, using it to wipe the blood from himself before letting it settle over Algus like a shroud. I'll never wear one of those again. Without its protection the icy mountain chill started settling into him.
Delita and the others were still watching him, silent, uncertain. He just stared back, wondering what the hell they expected him to do. Fluffy snow drifted down out of the dimness, tickling his face, settling on the bloodied corpse below him.
After a moment he turned his back on them and stepped to where Alma still lay. Squatting on his heels, he slid arms under her motionless form and lifted. It had been a while since he'd carried her anywhere, a few years, but she was still light, a limp and lifeless weight dangling arms towards the ground. Some of the blood he hadn't been able to clean from his armor stuck to her crimson silks, and he wanted to shake his head. She'd always gotten annoyed whenever he'd gotten things on her clothes, mud, sometimes food.
"Ramza?" Delita's voice called out from behind him. "What are you... do you need some help?"
He closed his eyes for a time before exhaling slowly. "No. I'm going to find somewhere to bury her."
"Do you want someone to go tell Zalbag what happened?"
"No." His jaw clenched at the thought; Zalbag had seen his sister fall, and then had run off to fight the commander of an already-doomed militia without bothering to check on her. "No. He's not a brother anymore. I don't care." Snow crunched under his boots as he set off walking away from the fort, away from everything.
"Ramza? Should... we can make camp if you want."
He shook his head at this, though the gesture seemed like almost too much work to be worth it. "Don't bother. Everybody just... just go home. I'm done fighting. The group is disbanded. Go back to... to your families, or whatever."
"Ramza, are you sure?" A note of concern had crept into Delita's voice. "Wait. Just..."
Ramza ignored him. Instead he carried his sister away, hoping to find somewhere peaceful. Somewhere she could rest forever, rest until it was his time to meet her again.