There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.
-- Mario Savio
Chapter Fourteen: The Days Grow Hot, O Babylon
In a seldom-used library buried under the temple at Murond, by the warm and flickering light of a half-dozen candles, Rofel sat studying a spell. It was a simple spell, but its simplicity was deceptive; unlike others of the same genus and arcanum, a mistake would not simply result in failure, a harmless fizzle. No; failure meant a spectacular release of energies. An explosion that would likely kill the caster and anyone near him.
Just as well, he dismissed. I won't fail anyway.
With a twist of his lips he bent back over the yellow pages of the Germonik Scriptures. But then he stopped. Lifted his head, frowned at the distant, dimly-lit bookshelves gathering dust in the still underground air. "It's you."
"It's me." Footsteps rang hollowly behind him, approaching him, leather boots on unyielding stone floor. "Surprised?"
"A little." After a moment he returned to his studying. "Are you planning to kill me?"
"Not right away. I need information from you first."
"Ah. Of course." His hand drifted towards his side, slowly, hopefully concealed from the visitor behind him.
"Touch the sword and I'll cut that arm off before you can do anything. You don't need to be in one piece to answer my questions."
The rain kept up all day. It was little more than a blur to Ramza; another nearly-sleepless night had left him fuzzed and slow to react, and that didn't even take into account the things happening during the night. The fight against Ruvelia, the destruction of the inn room. Agrias had paid off the innkeeper, and they'd waited for Jasmine and Vector to return before moving, only to find out that Delita had apparently attacked the city during the night. So an hour before dawn, while the battle still raged in and around the palace, they'd left the inn. Threaded through the dark city, stepping around constellations of crystals left unclaimed in the streets. Left the city of Lesalia altogether. And he'd been walking ever since.
Now it was late afternoon-ish, but the swollen grey clouds and his fatigue made that a rough estimate at best. South of Lesalia, well off the road to Goland, the world was little but jagged green hills studded with rocks and stumpy, twisted trees. Sodden, sorry grass, muddy ground that squished and shifted under his boots. Some four hundred yards west of where they walked lay an abandoned mine, boarded up with half-rotten planks of wood and overgrown with weeds and shrubs besides. He hadn't even known there'd ever been a mine out this way.
Rafa walked beside him; he wished she'd leave. Alicia and Agrias trudged onward ahead of him, with Vector and Jasmine hovering in the middle of their makeshift file. It was silent but for the rain and the sound of wet footsteps; conversation had been in short supply today.
Abruptly Jasmine stopped, so suddenly he almost stumbled into her. "Hey, Ramza?"
"What?" He steadied himself with a hand on her white-robed shoulder, then pushed himself away.
She turned around with a frown somewhere between thoughtful and irritated. "Why can't we just stop here?"
He frowned right back at her, then squinted up at the sky. "Is it late enough? I can't tell."
"Who the hell cares?" muttered Alicia, grimacing as she worked one shoulder. "Not like we're trying to get anywhere specific."
"Exactly." Jasmine's dark eyes were uncharacteristically weary as she regarded him in pleading. "No one got much sleep last night. It wouldn't kill us to turn in early."
He frowned at her, aware without looking of Rafa beside him, head down as she caught her breath, of Agrias adjusting her sword belt with a grimace. "Yeah. We'll... yeah."
Jasmine slumped in relief and nodded, shrugging out of her backpack. Vector did the same, sighing as he dropped his bedroll into the mud, while Alicia simply sat down where she stood.
Ramza waited until Rafa was busy chatting in a low voice with Agrias, something to do with the state of the latter woman's armor, before making himself scarce. A muttered explanation, and then he slipped past a stunted apple tree and around the slope of the hill; with luck the others would think he'd just gone to relieve himself. Once he could no longer hear them he dropped to the ground, placed his chin in his hand and stared across the next valley. Green and more green, all vibrant from the excess of recent rain. Apart from the odd tree or boulder, the only thing in the vast space below was a slanting farmhouse that looked to have been abandoned decades ago. Perhaps its occupants had moved on when the mine closed.
Cold rain pattered into his hair, slid down the back of his neck. He stared at nothing, and couldn't summon the energy to move a muscle, barely even to blink.
Some time later, maybe a quarter hour, wet grass rustled a good ten yards behind him. That was her way of letting him know she was there; she didn't have to make any noise. He closed his eyes for a moment before forcing words out. "What do you want?"
Footsteps whispered towards him and then Rafa folded herself up to sit beside him. "Can you tell me what happened?"
His lips twisted of their own accord, and he didn't look in her direction. "Don't you already know?"
"I want to hear it in your words."
"Fine." He sighed. "She'd approached me a few times when I was alone, like when I was on watch, before last night. Wanted to sound me out, see if she could misdirect me and send me after Delita or something."
"And then stuff happened. We had sex."
"No, earlier. Last night she showed up and I decided to kill her for her stone."
Rafa didn't answer, and he still kept his gaze on the distant farmhouse. It was such a sorry-looking place, with its paint long worn off and the wood clearly rotting, even from this distance and through a haze of rain. The windows were nothing but square holes into darkness.
Eventually she shifted. "Why did you do it?" Her voice was soft, barely above a whisper.
He shrugged. "She... turned me on too much."
Rafa sighed but nodded. "Do you plan to do that a lot in the future?"
He blinked, then turned to scowl at her. "What? You say that like all's forgiven."
Wide brown eyes stared back at him without pretense. "I guess... like I said, it would hurt me if you kept doing that, so I'd like it if you didn't. But apart from that, you--"
He reached forward, gripped her shoulder, hard, and stared into her eyes from inches away. "Rafa, I fucked the queen."
She didn't blink, didn't pull back, just stared confidently back at him. "I know what it's like to be unable to stop things in bed. To kick an unwelcome guest out."
"I killed your brother."
"He attacked you. If anything it was his fault, not yours."
He swallowed, squeezed her shoulder tighter, and it was an effort not to grind his teeth. "You'd... you'd forgive me for anything, wouldn't you? No matter what I did."
She nodded, swaying the straight brown hair hanging out of her hood. "That's what it means to love."
"No. That's what it means to be naive."
Rafa flinched at this but still didn't pull away, didn't look away. Some of the water sliding down her cheeks looked not to have come from the rain.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Ramza released her, pressed his face into his fist. "What... why are...?" The words wouldn't come out; his throat was tight, choking, and his eyes burned. He was shaking as well, and his breath came in great ragged gasps.
A gentle hand touched his face. "I know why you strayed, Ramza," she whispered. "You hate yourself so badly, and you want someone else to hate you in the same way, to make you feel justified in how you feel about yourself. And it can't be an enemy, someone like Meliadoul; she hates you just for one thing you did, and doesn't know you at all. You want someone who knows you through and through to hate you like you hate yourself, and that's why you are the way you are. But I'm not going to do that. There's a good person inside you, which is why these things still upset you. Someone worthy of hatred would just shrug it all off."
"No," he groaned, sniffling. "No, that's not... I'm not good. Not for you, not for anyone. I'm not...."
"Hush." Warm fingers brushed away his tears.
"No, listen. I've just... it's like I've just been using you, you know. At Bethla, you... you offered, and I wanted to know what it was like so I...."
"Ramza." Her hands slid around his shoulders, pulled him over into a one-sided embrace. "I don't believe that, and I don't think you do either. But if it's really true, that you were using me, then... it's okay. I love you, so if using me makes you happy, you can."
"No! Rafa, you can't just...." He cut off, gasping, and couldn't continue. He could only shake and shiver in her arms. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
She didn't answer, only kissed his forehead and held him. Held him until the warm oblivion of slumber stole away his tears.
Steady rain hissed down into muddy puddles and peppered Meliadoul's face as she rode bent over the neck of a chocobo she'd stolen in Dorter. Ramza had been headed to Lesalia, she recalled -- him and all the Nanten, apparently -- so she had hopes of catching him there. If she rode this bird into the ground and didn't sleep much. Already the choco was wheezing with every labored breath, a sound that just a month ago probably would have brought tears to her eyes, but now it barely touched her. Too much had happened, too fast; she'd seen things, done things, she never would have imagined before, so it was just... hard to summon much feeling. For anything.
A quick glance back showed the crouched huddle of Goland disappearing among the wild hills in this region of Ivalice, further obscured by the grey curtain of rainfall. Jaws clenched, eyes tight, she shifted her gaze back to the road. Whipped the reins to speed the chocobo up, and it complied as best it could; they were stubborn animals, not willing to give up short of death. Groaning, wheezing warks, the smell of wet feathers. Mud squishing under clawed feet, spraying up to the hem of her ragged robes.
A short time later, dark figures resolved out of the rain on the road ahead. Two men, four women. Familiar body language.
Narrowing her eyes, Meliadoul heeled the chocobo for greater speed to close the distance between them, a few hundred paces. They recognized her immediately, of course, and fanned out as if in anticipation of an attack, blades drawn and everything.
Focusing only on Ramza, she leapt off her mount at twenty paces and ignored how it collapsed into the muddy road behind her. Instead she limped briskly towards him; her left leg hadn't healed quite right after the fight with the demon in her father's body. Ramza watched her approach without visible alarm, arms motionless at his sides, though everyone else had adopted battle stances.
Just short of his reach, the Oaks woman darted out and blocked her passage. "What the hell are you doing here?" Rainwater dripped from the sodden braid hanging out from under her helmet. "And why should we leave you alive this time?"
Pushing aside the Holy Knight's heavy weapon with her bare hands, Meliadoul focused on Ramza, who just stared back at her with vacant hazel eyes. "I talked to my father."
His expression didn't change. "And?"
"And I found out he's a demon. He told me their plan and I just... I had to stop him. Couldn't fight him; he almost killed me, but I got away." She hadn't spoken to anyone in days, but now the words spilled past her lips in a dead monotone. "You have no idea what they're doing, but his plan is so... so absurd, so obscene, I just... I had to stop it. No matter the cost to him, or you or anyone." Or me. Reaching into her robes, she ignored the sudden grimness painting the others' faces, and instead pulled out a folded square of parchment and held it out to Ramza.
After a moment he took the thing, then unfolded it carefully but clumsily under the protective shell of his oiled cloak. "What is this?"
"It's a spell. One to open a... a door to hell." The ink on the parchment traced out the spell in its original magic, and also in a pronounceable transcription for anyone else to use. "Where his power is. Where he's planning to use someone innocent to act as a host body for something called the Blood Angel." She couldn't bring herself to call it Ajora.
Ramza's eyes lifted from the page to meet her gaze. "Why are there bloodstains on it?"
"Rofel didn't want to talk, so... I tortured him." Her voice remained dead; despite her efforts she couldn't put any feeling into it. "I didn't know how to do it properly, but that's why the writing is so bad."
Ramza paused at this, while the others around him displayed either distaste at this tale or interest in the document in his hands. Or hand. But eventually he just nodded. "So Rofel's dead now?"
She nodded as well. "That was a few days ago, and I haven't eaten at all since then. Barely slept. But since then it's occurred to me that... I'm like you." She paused, tilted her head, and continued to meet his gaze. "I've only met you once, for less than a day, and it was enough for all your evil to seep into me and infect me. I never would have done something like that before. You're a monster. And now I'm a monster too."
He shuffled forward without expression. "Do you hate me?"
She squeezed her eyes shut. "Yes."
"Are you still planning to kill me."
"Yes. But not until after you stop my father."
Something touched her shoulder. A hand. His hand. "Come with us."
She swallowed, opened her eyes just enough to squint at him. "Why should I?"
"A couple of years ago, I was you," came his flat response. "And today we want the same things."
"But you still killed Izlude. I'm still going to kill you."
"No, it's not," she snapped. Somehow an emotion had bubbled out of the void in her heart: irritation. "You're trying to talk tough or brush it off, but I have every intention of going through with it. I go to sleep every night praying for the moment I can sink my blade into your heart for what you did to my brother, and to me."
His grip tightened on the armored plates covering her shoulder. He was a good head taller than her, and stared down at her without expression. "I believe you."
She swallowed again, averted her gaze. "How can you say that so calmly?" she whispered. "I want you to die. I want it so bad it hurts."
Ramza shuffled forward, enough place his lips near her ear. "I know exactly what you are," he murmured, "and how deeply you hate. After what you've done, your dreams won't be pretty -- they'll hurt you, rake you over the coals -- but they'll be the only place where you can face yourself. You need to sleep."
She opened her mouth, then paused, too tired to argue. Then her legs buckled anyway, taking the choice from her, depositing her on her knees in the mud in front of him, a humiliating position but one she couldn't help.
"Come on," he continued, bending. One arm found its way around her midsection, and then just like that he was heaving her off the ground, to his shoulder, armor and all. "You're shaking. Let's get you some rest."
Meliadoul closed her eyes against the warmth leaking down her cheeks. "Why don't you hate me?"
"Don't be an idiot." He started walking somewhere, swaying her with every step. "I have nothing but respect for people who want to kill me."
"It has to have been the Shrine Knights. It has to. No one else could have abducted her like that."
Teta sat in a folding chair in Lesalia's throne room, watching her brother pace and reason aloud. It was just the two of them in the vast and gaudy space; he'd sent everyone else away hours after the battle's completion. Ruvelia's touch was still strong in the place -- Hokuten banners, opulent silk streamers hanging from the ceiling for no reason on either side of the throne -- but that would doubtless change in the next day. Delita didn't like leaving reminders of his enemies.
He paused in mid-step, then whirled to face her, dark eyes burning and intent, so much so that she swallowed. "Don't you think so? The guards even found some Hokuten assassins there, so whoever took her was more capable than they were. That leaves a pretty short list."
"Delita." Teta stood, adjusting her dress to give herself more time to frame a response, then stepped over to him. "Although I don't really know about these things, it does sound like it was the Shrine Knights. But more importantly, you need to calm down. Wherever Ovelia is, she's alive. That gives you time to find her."
"Yes." He glared at one marble wall, then shook himself, and the expression faded to a mere scowl. "Yes. I don't know how they got in there -- the guards didn't see anything -- so I don't know how they're moving, but it's not impossible she's already back in Murond."
Teta said nothing, just waited, watching his face. He was struggling with something, something apart from the obvious; the unusual lines of tension in his shoulders told her that.
After a moment he took a deep breath, then let it out in a long, ragged sigh. "But... I have to stay here, don't I?" A weak, self-conscious smile twisted his lips as his frustrated eyes sought and found hers. "Razma. Ramza killed Ruvelia and I'm sure he's already after them. He'll get her back."
Teta frowned at this, shuffling directly in front of her brother to stare up at him, searching his expression. It wasn't like him to leave something of this magnitude in another's hands. "Do you trust him that much? He's changed."
He forced a laugh and shrugged. "Of course. I grew up with him, didn't I? I know what kind of guy he is, and that's not the sort of thing that changes. And besides...." His voice dropped to a whisper, and he sighed again. "Besides, it's not like I can do anything, can I? People here need me, so I just need to... do what I can, and accept that I'm helpless. I'd like nothing more than to run out there and break arms until I find her, but... I can trust my friend to do it."
He's grown up so much. Nodding, she closed her eyes, rested her forehead on her brother's armored chest. His arms wrapped around her shoulders, and for a time she just stood there, being near him, doing what she could to help.
Some time later, the massive doors at the far end of the chamber whispered open. "Majesty?" came Olan's low voice, echoing. "Ramza Beoulve is indeed gone from the city. Our long-range scouts spotted him heading south earlier this morning."
Delita pushed Teta away to arms' length and winked down at her. Then, nodding, he spun to face the scarred Olan. "Alright. Any word yet on the damage to the city and palace? I want the engineers' report by mid-afternoon, no later. Also, let's move the captured Hokuten to someplace a little more hospitable than the...."
Teta folded arms over her chest and watched him trot off, out of the throne room, busy organizing his new country. The country he'd be king of, officially, as soon as Ovelia was found and the coronation ceremony complete. He could just as easily crown himself in her absence, but wouldn't.
She smiled at the polished marble floor, then gazed sideways, up at the vacant but glittering throne. He meant to rule from Zeltennia, not Lesalia. So that'll leave you all alone, won't it? If they don't just melt you down for the gold.
Chuckling, she turned and made for the pale double doors. Delita had a country to see to, and she had her studies.
Vormav stood over the unconscious form of Ovelia Atkascha lying on a stone slab deep under Orbonne. She hadn't been touched, and still wore her garments from the night he'd kidnapped her. A simple white dress, modestly cut, embroidered skillfully and in understated fashion with thread-of-silver around the sleeves. He'd never appreciate how small she was, before, how pale and doll-like, though perhaps the underground moisture had something to do with that.
You just get passed off from hand to hand, don't you? Bending, he brushed a lock of golden hair away from her face. How tragic. But you don't need to worry about that much longer.
Behind him, a door creaked; the hinges weren't oiled often, this far down. "Vormav? What are you doing?"
He straightened, then turned to face the questioning glance on Balk's face. "I'm waiting for Ramza."
The rain finally tailed off around nightfall, leaving the camp a collection of wet shadows. Even Vector couldn't get a fire started with so much moisture around, so the shadows turned out to be cold as well as wet. Agrias kept to herself, eating quietly, watching the others and thinking.
After Meliadoul's unexpected arrival earlier in the day, she'd done little but sleep. Even when Ramza had heaved her to the ground an hour later, she'd barely stirred, just enough to mutter something about "kill you." But somehow, despite that, despite having to put down the Shrine Knight's exhausted chocobo, everyone else's mood had lifted, something Agrias was still trying to figure out. Vector had made a few lame jokes about not being sure they could find any water around, and Alicia was back to punching Ramza. Jasmine seemed to watch it all and smile.
Once her meal of bruised apples and salted jerky was done, Agrias frowned, then climbed to her feet and sought out Rafa, also eating alone. Standing in front of the white-clad woman, she stared down at her for a moment, then shifted her feet. "Mind if I sit here?"
Rafa smiled and shook her head, patting the ground next to her. "Not at all."
Nodding her thanks, Agrias took the seat, such as it was, a soaked patch of ground the same as any other. It was unusual to find the assassin alone, as she tended to stick to Ramza's side, but with his attention now focused on the waking Meliadoul, Rafa had time. Time for some questions.
Moments later, Rafa glanced sideways, still smiling. "You wanted to ask me something, didn't you? What it is?"
With effort Agrias cleared her frown, then shifted her gaze to Ramza a good twenty paces away. She leaned closer to the other woman before speaking, and kept her voice low. "How are you doing?"
Rafa smiled at her lap. "I'm fine."
"No, I...." Agrias shook her head, wondering how to explain it, wondering also why she felt awkward, as though she were explaining sex or war to a child. "I mean, with Ramza. You're really fine? Even after... after... the thing with Ruvelia?"
Rafa pursed her lips but nodded. "Yes, really." As she spoke, her thumbs rubbed absent circles on the smooth wood of her staff. "We talked, and I think I know what was going on in his head, so... I'll get over it. We're fine."
"My God." Agrias shook her head once more and frowned at the distant Ramza. "I mean, we weren't mistaken about what happened, were we? The two of them... they really did, uh...."
"Wow." She paused, then chuckled, though she felt little humor. "I'd kick him in the nuts if he did that to me."
Rafa swayed, perhaps in a silent laugh, and a sideways glance showed her wearing a fond smile. "The world is full of people who want to kick him in the nuts. But he needs someone who won't."
"I'll take your word for that." Across the campsite, Ramza and Meliadoul were making a strange sort of conversation, one curt response after another, most no more than one or two syllables, and neither was looking at the other. He was probably thrilled to find someone who hated him so much. "I'm surprised you're worrying about him, though, not yourself. It's pretty clear he's the one in the wrong, and you're the victim."
Rafa followed her gaze and shrugged.
Agrias frowned, considering a new tack to the conversation. "Anyway... how's he taking it? He seemed much worse off than you were. Than you are."
"Yes." Rafa sat forward, drawing her knees up to her chest and hugging them tightly, though her dark eyes still watched her questionable lover across the campsite. "Of course. He blames himself for everything, whether it's his fault or not."
"Yeah, but this obviously is his fault."
"Oh, I know. I meant to say his conscience is full of scars, so something of this magnitude really hurts him. And then to be forgiven for it, that made him cry for half an hour."
"Hmm." Agrias pondered that, then sighed. "Well, I... don't claim to understand, but if you two think you're okay, then... I guess you are. Although if you decide otherwise, you can come find me at any time. Same is true of him, really, if you think he needs someone less... forgiving... to talk to. Though I'm not really any good at this stuff."
Rafa smiled again, at Ramza. "Thank you, Agrias. I'm sure he knows but I'll tell him anyway."
"Okay. Good." Agrias chewed a lip, then leaned back on her hands to watch the others. "What do you make of Meliadoul, anyway? She seems... odd."
The assassin shook her head, making dark hair whisper. "She's finding out she's not the person she thought she was. That hurts her and frightens her, but she's sitting next to an expert on that kind of pain. I think she'll be fine."
"I... suppose." Agrias rolled her shoulders, somewhat uncomfortably. "She's sitting awfully close to him, though. Aren't you a little jea--"
Rafa shrugged again.
"Right," muttered Agrias, running a hand through her hair. This is awkward. I should talk to someone shallower.
The sun shone over their arrival in Dorter. Ramza breathed deeply of the city air, of the odors of seaspray and pitch and spices and body odor, then exhaled sharply. He had things to do here. Secret things. Rafa had given him a second chance, one he hadn't wanted, but now that it was his, he wasn't going to waste it.
He kept his face low as usual while threading through the city's crowds. There were dozens of inns in the city and Agrias chose one they'd never been to, as she did each time, the better to prevent him from being recognized. Apparently the establishment had several rooms to spare; with the war, paying travelers were few, and word of Delita's victory at Lesalia was only now reaching this far south. Agrias claimed three two-person rooms for the price of two, then shuffled upstairs to drop off her gear, while the others followed.
Ramza did so as well, trying to keep the determined frown from his face. His plan would be ruined if any of the others found out what he was up to. After stowing his bags in one of the empty rooms, he turned to Rafa and Meliadoul, the two people closest to him, just outside the doorway. "I'm going into the city for a while. We need potions and stuff, and I never get sent to get them, so I'll go and the rest of you can rest here."
"Okay," acknowledged Rafa with a smile. Meliadoul just shrugged.
Nodding, Ramza patted his coinpurse, then slipped past the women and down the hall. Down the stairs, out of the inn. A few questions around the city provided the name and location of the vendor he sought, and then in the shop a few questions and a handful of gil provided what he needed.
The sun was just setting as he stepped out of the chemist's shop, but it was to the south that he turned his squinting gaze. South, towards Orbonne. If Meliadoul's information was correct, Vormav was probably already there. Waiting for him, as one enemy to another. The Iceman's coming for you, Vormav. I hope you're prepared.
Once back at the inn, he paused to drop the satchel full of bottles in his room, then made his way back downstairs, to where the others were just finishing their meals. The rest of the common room remained only sparsely-populated, just a few merchants and a half-dozen guards between them, all spread between four tables. Despite the low murmur of conversation, of silverware clicking against wooden bowls, there wasn't enough noise to provide any privacy.
Thus he stopped at the foot of the stairs and caught Rafa's eye. Jerked his head towards the room in a wordless summons.
She smiled and murmured something to the others as she pushed her chair back. As she flowed to meet him, it struck him anew how graceful she was, how beautiful, in those white clothes that set off the chestnut of her skin and eyes. He'd seldom stopped to appreciate that before.
On reaching him she opened her mouth to ask of his intentions but he didn't wait for her to speak. Instead he gripped her wrist without a word and led her upstairs. To his room. His and hers; he'd move Vector's stuff later.
Once inside he reached past her to push the door shut, then kept his hand there as she leaned casually back, comfortable standing so close to him. "I need to apologize."
She shook her head. "Ramza, there's no need."
"There is too a need," he countered tersely. "I've been a jerk and I've hurt you, badly."
Rafa's lips thinned as her dark eyes scanned his own. Then she dropped her gaze. "Well, that's true. I can't lie about that."
He nodded, let his hand drop to his side. "But I can tell you it's not going to happen again. You shouldn't have forgiven me -- I wouldn't have, if our positions had been reversed -- but since you have, I'm not going to spit on your kindness. I'm not going to let you down again."
Her eyes rose once more to his own, studying, and a small smile touched her lips, one he doubted she was aware of. "Ramza, what are you planning?"
He blinked. "What?"
The smile grew and she reached to toy with the front of his shirt. "You're different now. You're up to something."
Damn her. He gripped her hand in his own. "I am not."
She chuckled, a low, throaty sound he'd seldom heard before. "I'm not angry at you, but I'm not fooled either. You don't need to lie to me."
Great. Way to start off on the high road, Ramza. He sighed and shook his head. "Alright, fine. I have something in mind but I don't want to tell you, or anyone, just yet. It's nothing bad, though."
Her confident eyes rose to his own while her arms slid over his shoulders, crossing behind his head. "Okay. I trust you."
He swallowed and nodded, resting his hand on her waist. "Okay."
This time he took the lead. Pressed his lips to hers, pinned her against the door. She didn't fight, far from it; her arms tightened around him, and when her mouth slid to his ear, her breath came in hot, irregular gasps.
Her clothes were complicated to put on but not so hard to get off. Somehow he managed to stumble to one of the beds, dragging her with him, and they remained there for a long, long time.
Agrias yanked her sword free of a lancer's chest, then grimaced at the spray of blood that came with it. People were shouting elsewhere in the underground library, screaming, chanting; with a hasty wipe of one hand she cleaned the worst from her face and surveyed the situation. Two mages on either end of the battle, arms raised and chanting. Ramza standing behind another lancer, breaking his neck, while Rafa and Alicia cornered the lone chemist. Meliadoul was just now stepping over the faintly-smoking body of a third lancer, while Vector was stealthing behind one of the mages. Jasmine seemed busy healing her own injuries.
This is already over. Leaping over the body she'd just made, Agrias strode towards the free mage and loosed a Holy Explosion, but not before his spell completed. Roiling fire arose from nowhere, washing over her, over the others. Charring her skin, searing into her bones.
But not enough to stop her.
Once the spell faded, she fired off another attack to topple the injured mage, then glanced around once more. Her breath rasped, and her left wouldn't eye didn't open anymore, but at least the fight was over. The mage she'd killed had inadvertently burned one of own his friends, the chemist, in addition to Alicia and Rafa, and Meliadoul and Vector together had apparently sliced apart the other mage before he'd even known what hit him.
Exhaling heavily, Agrias relaxed, then sucked air between her teeth at the pain it brought. Damn mages. She wasn't the only one hurt, either; everyone else had taken wounds, if most not so serious as hers. "Alright, shall we wait for the crystals? Then we can head--"
"No," interrupted Ramza. "No time, and we shouldn't waste magic either. This was one of the reasons I got extra potions in Dorter. Here." Bending, he reached into one of the party's scrips and rummaged around, shortly producing several of the high-end potions, which he passed around.
While the others murmured their approval of this idea, Agrias watched Ramza with narrowed eyes. He was different today. Last night, too, if his... alone time... with Rafa was any indication, but it was his body language that alerted her now. He was too intent, too openly driven. He was never this thoughtful, either, and had explained too much.
As he handed her a potion, she nodded her thanks, but then let her arm fall to her side once he moved on to Alicia. When his back was safely turned, she crouched to the floor and muttered an incantation, one from the catalogue of healing spells she knew. Light sparkled around in a helix around her, knitting her wounds together, soothing her burnt flesh. Ramza didn't notice. Meliadoul did, though she merely frowned around her potion as she drank it.
Ignoring the former Shrine Knight, Agrias uncorked her own bottle and dumped the contents to the floor. Then, standing, she wiped her mouth with one sleeve and tossed the empty bottle back to Ramza.
He caught the thing, along with three others, and awkwardly tucked them back into the leather bag. Agrias watched him, then shifted her gaze to others, trying to note every detail. Alicia was frowning at her open hand; was that unusual? No, not particularly. Vector was bouncing on his toes, lips thinned and humming, eager to get moving again. Meliadoul was leaning on that heavy sword while trying not to look like it, Jasmine was rummaging around in her own bag and Rafa was back on Ramza's side, clingy and smiling, as though the fight had never--
Alicia's eyes rolled up in her head and she dropped to the floor. Jasmine's sharp eyes jerked towards her, and her mouth opened, but before she could speak she was collapsing as well. In a heartbeat the only people standing were Agrias and Ramza.
He frowned at the others, then lifted his gaze to her and shook his head. "I should have known better than to think something like that would work on you. Always the bodyguard, huh?"
"What...?" She licked her lips, darted her gaze between all her fallen friends. "What did you do? Are... are they dead?"
"No. The hell you take me for?" He grunted, straightened from the bag at his feet, and shifted to face her full-on. "Sleeping powder. Enough to knock a person out, but they'll wake before long. They're fine."
"You...." She swallowed as his meaning sank in. "You're planning to go on alone." It wasn't a question.
He didn't bother answering it, either. Running his good hand through loose sandy hair, he made a frustrated face. "What gave it away? How'd you know not to drink?"
"Too many suspicious things about you." She spoke with only half her attention on her words; the rest, she focused on Ramza, watching him, studying him as she edged closer. "And I saw you choose one specific potion out of the bag for yourself. I assume the one without the powder. Not very good at this, are you?"
"I'm afraid not." He was studying her in return, with no expression at all in those hazel eyes. Watching her approach.
She shook her head firmly. "Okay, we can just wait for the others to wake. This was silly, but we can just--"
"There's no way I'm doing that, Agrias."
"Why not?" she snapped. "And if you don't want to wait for them, then just the two of us can go. Let somebody help you, at least."
He was already shaking his head before she finished speaking. "No. I'm not dragging the rest of you down with me."
"What? You're planning to die there, aren't you?"
"Wouldn't you?" His voice was soft.
She paused, tried to think of another angle. "You'd leave everyone here helpless? Orbonne is controlled by the Church, and it's unreasonable to think they'll just leave everyone alone."
"They're dead, Agrias." He was moving now as well, shifting to one side to avoid her approach. Circling. Like an enemy. Behind him, the fallen Shrine Knight defenders started flickering into ghostly crystals. "The doors were open when we got here, and we haven't seen anyone here but the Shrine Knights. They killed everyone on their way in, and now we've killed all of them, so our friends here are safe. Take care of Meliadoul for me."
"What? Why her?"
"If I'm already dead, she won't be able to kill me, so she'll have to learn forgiveness." He thinned his lips, still watching her. "It'll be a good lesson for her."
"You think of everything, don't you?" Agrias scowled. "What about Rafa? She trusts you like a child."
A pained expression crossed Ramza's scarred face but he didn't glance away from her. "I know. But she'll understand. She always knows my motives better than I myself do, anyway. This is the best thing I can do for her, now."
"She loves you."
"I know. But she shouldn't." Ramza shook his head, and his eyes remained wary, on her. "I've owned up to my mistakes, but you can't change who you are. I'm a killer. I'm cold-blooded, the kind of guy who can stab a friend in the back. I'm a--"
"So is she. She's an assassin. You two are perfect together."
"No, she's not like me. But that's exactly why I have to...." He sighed, and again his face crumpled up, though in a blink he'd smoothed it again. "I can't explain it to you, and I don't expect you to believe me or to understand. But I'm going. Alone."
She regarded him narrowly. "How? Vormav is there. He almost killed you last time, and now you're missing a hand. You didn't even put on the knife this morning. How do you expect to beat him?"
"The knife is just silly," he muttered, forehead creasing in irritation. "A crutch. I have a plan, and I'll beat him on my own merits."
Her lips twisted. "A plan?"
He nodded. "One I have confidence in. Do you trust me?"
"I don't know," she whispered, taking another step closer. "I don't know anymore."
Ramza's shoulders slumped but he nodded again. "You're determined to come with me, aren't you? I can't allow that to happen."
Agrias swallowed, blinked away the hot tears in her eyes, but her grip on her sword hilt was steady. "I don't want to fight you, Ramza. But I will."
He gave his head a slow, weary shake. "I don't want to fight you either."
She attacked while he was still speaking. A shout, a Holy Explosion. No mercy; she was striking to drop him unconscious, to kill. He was far too dangerous to toy around with, and once he was down she could bring him back, safely subdued.
The familiar column of light lanced upwards through him, blinding, but he was already moving. He was fast on his feet, too fast; the injury she'd given him wasn't enough to weaken his punches or slow his kicks. She blocked what she could, dodged what she couldn't block, and tried to keep him at bay, but it wasn't enough. He was too fast, a damn demon, and he knew exactly what to expect of her; her strikes hit only empty air, and it was only through desperate acrobatics that she managed to avoid crippling blows from him. Bastard studied me just for this, didn't he?
Gritting her teeth, she planted a boot on his chest and pushed him away, sending him skidding a pace back, across the dusty stone floor. While he was recovering she leveled her sword, summoning another Holy Explosion. One wouldn't drop him, but two would. Two would--
He reacted first, getting inside her range, and the flat of his hand struck knife-like against her sword. The weapon cracked, falling in pieces to the floor.
Before she could do more than blink, he was on her again. One foot snapped sideways into her knee, breaking the bones there, and when she grimaced and stumbled, he delivered a brutal backhanded punch to her temple.
Then she was on the floor, spitting blood, blinking away fog. Trying to push herself to her feet, but her head hurt so much it made her stomach hurt too. A concussion, then. He'd answer for that, once she--
His boots shuffled into view beside her head. "I'm sorry, Agrias." One foot drew back, then snapped forward.
After Agrias collapsed into a boneless heap, Ramza straightened and surveyed the room with a grimace of distaste. Six still forms, some in awkward or painful positions; Jasmine had struck her head on a bookshelf when falling, and he'd broken Agrias' leg badly. And he had only the word of a back alley chemist that the sleeping powder wasn't actually fatal. Still, better to risk death than die for certain. Nobody going through the spell's portal would be coming back; he knew that. If I was going to let them all come with me, it would make just as much sense just to slit their throats now.
His eyes slid to a white-clad form lying face-down, arms sprawled haphazardly beside her. Agrias' crack about Rafa loving him had hurt, had hit a little close to home. Because of her, he almost hadn't gone through with it. She deserved better. But then, that was the whole point. Of course she'd have disagreed with this plan; like Agrias, she would've wanted to come with him, to die with him. But part of being a leader was doing what was best for your people even when they themselves wanted something different. If he'd been weak, if he'd just given in to their wishes to come, although they'd have died happy, it would still have been a betrayal of the trust they'd placed, or misplaced, in him.
Or maybe this is just the coward's way out. What the hell do I know? Shaking his head, he stepped over Agrias and Alicia to where Jasmine lay, then rummaged gingerly around in her robes until he found the spell Meliadoul had brought with her. Another moment of digging through the party's assorted packs and pouches netted him all the Zodiac stones, which he stuffed into his own packs. Next came one of the two flickering lanterns for use underground.
Then, with one last glance over his unconscious friends, he turned his back on them and headed down the monastery stairs. Into darkness.
The lowest level of the underground library lay silent. Empty. A broad, stone-floored space with the shelves pushed roughly off towards the walls, leaving the center open. Someone had chalked a circle there as well, with unreadable symbols lining the edge. Balk, probably; he was the only Shrine Knight left, apart from Vormav himself. The symbols on the floor, he realized after a moment, were the same ones on the sheet of parchment in his hand.
With a shrug he stepped to the center of the circle, placed the lantern on the floor with a click, and began to recite the spell. It was short, surprisingly short for something of such power. He'd hoped for a tingle, a sparkling thrill, at casting magic but there was nothing at all of the sort, just as though he were reading nothing but gibberish. A made-up language.
That changed with the last syllable, however.
A silver fog arose from nowhere. An echoing ring. A searing light boring through his eyes, into his head, taking residence there as a brutal pressure, one that threatened to split his skull in half. He fought it, pushed against it with everything he had, screamed at the top of his lungs while his hand muscles cramped with the effort of making a fist.
Then something shifted, and it all stopped. With a groan he dropped to his knees, touched his forehead with a shaking hand and was surprised to find it whole and free of blood. He swallowed past a throat gone rusty, forced his eyes open and climbed staggeringly to his feet.
It had worked; he could see that at a glance. He stood on a stone slab of sorts, perhaps a reception area for those bold and foolish enough to use the spell; below it lay irregular chunks of rock inside four walls without a ceiling, as though whoever had built the place hadn't quite finished it. Above, where the ceiling should be, was only blackness.
Rubbing an eyebrow, he gazed sideways at a grey-robed Shrine Knight slumped against one wall, eyes and mouth open, bleeding from the nose and ears. Balk, I guess. The sequence of events leading to that was clear as day: Balk had cast the spell but hadn't been strong enough to survive it, so it had transported his corpse here and Vormav had just left him there. But that means he's here. I'm in the right place.
Letting the written spell flutter to the stone slab, Ramza hopped down and strode outside, into, literally, hell. A barren desert of rock stretching infinitely far in every direction, dotted with the occasional wisp of glowing spirit, the restless souls of the damned. A slow turn in place informed him that the building he'd come from had disappeared as soon as he'd set foot outside it.
Well, whatever. He hadn't been entirely truthful with Agrias. He didn't need the knife to defeat Vormav, and he'd left his friends back in Orbonne, but that didn't mean he wasn't ready to accept help.
Digging into his pouch, he pulled out the first Zodiac stone his fingers came into contact with. A blood-red ruby, Scorpio. Figures. With a shake of his head he gripped the stone, frowned into it. One of your friends is here somewhere. I need you to find it for me, if you don't mind.
Silence. Nothing but wind howling over empty stone, the distant moans of the dead.
Something drew his narrowed eyes to one side, though. A nameless, gentle weight in his mind, as though he'd forgotten something over there but hadn't completely forgotten about it.
Letting his hand drop, he shrugged and set off into the wind. Followed where the stone led him.
Some time later, hours at least, he found himself under a floating airship, staring up at it. He was mildly surprised nothing had attacked him while he'd been wandering, but Vormav was the only Lucavi here and he'd doubtless been busy with other matters. Or perhaps the stones had simply frightened off the locals.
Tucking Scorpio back in his pouch, he hopped atop a rusting anchor three times the size of a man and began to climb the chain leading up to the ship. The ascent proved easy, almost boring.
In moments he was on the airship's deck, frowning at the spectacle in its center. Vormav knelt there almost as though praying, and in front of him lay Ovelia, eyes closed, clearly unconscious, in a simple white dress. "I thought I'd find you here."
"And I thought you'd come," answered Vormav. His eyes were closed and his brow knitted in concentration; not a flicker of worry crossed his angular face at being discovered. "Do you really think you're going to kill me here?"
Ignoring the question, Ramza shuffled a few steps closer, squinting at the stone in the other man's hands. "Which one is that? Virgo?"
Ramza nodded. "Meliadoul told me you needed a host body, but I didn't know it was her." He paused, tilting his head. "You really think Virgo's going to work? Is she even still a virgin? She and Delita are awfully close."
"That's not how it works," snapped Vormav without opening his eyes. "Virgo is for the purity of the Blood Angel, not a reflection of the state of the host."
"Uh-huh. And how long have you been here, trying to do that?"
Silence stretched. Eventually Vormav cracked open his eyes to regard Ramza with a thoughtful frown. "Perhaps you're right." Pushing himself to his feet, he slapped dust from his gold-armored knees and straightened. "Perhaps Virgo needs more blood. In that case, I will offer yours."
Of course. Without bothering to answer Ramza fired off a Wave Fist, careful not to damage Ovelia lying between him and his enemy, and bolted off to one side.
Vormav leapt to avoid the attack, flipping some six paces through the air, and landed with a savage sword slash that rumbled through the ship and shattered several deck planks, sending slivers of wood flying. Ramza skidded awkwardly back, out of the way, and focused an Earth Slash, but Vormav was glowing. Using his own stone.
Lightning arced in a shell around the Shrine Knight, merging into a blinding sphere, as the stone sucked in spirits from the surroundings like water swirling down a drain. When finally he exploded, Ramza was already attacking again, further shredding the ship's deck and punching the massive lion-like demon backwards.
Vormav -- Hashmalum -- hissed, gesturing; razor-sharp darkness laced through Ramza, spraying his blood in a broad arc behind him, but the beast attacked again, claws ripping, tearing skin and muscle like paper.
No. On the offensive. Ignoring the pain, ignoring how his breath bubbled, Ramza twisted an arm around one of the demon's and then punched the thing in the throat, twice, a third time. Hashmalum growled and heaved him aside, then summoned another stab of sinister magic; the attack struck Ramza in midair, drawing more blood and cramping his stomach, because he was already leaping back to attack. A swift kick to the thing's face, snapping its head back to expose the neck and abdomen to five more strikes, quick as lightning and hard as hammers. Bones cracked and shifted, and the demon howled, an eerie, angry sound that echoed in the endless underworld.
Skidding back, Hashmalum clutched its chest and breathed heavily. "You fight well," it murmured in a deep voice, dark eyes glittering like gems, "but I'm stronger than you are, here. You cannot win."
Ramza wiped blood from his eyes with a shaking hand and swallowed before speaking. "Yeah. You are stronger. But you also have a weakness here that I don't." Not much time left. He's killing me.
"Oh?" Hashmalum tilted its head, more curious than worried. "And what's that?"
Rather than waste the breath on a reply, Ramza leapt into the air. But not at the demon.
"Wh-- Noooo!" Hashmalum scrambled into action, sprinting towards the motionless princess, diving to cover her, to protect her. "I need her! You can't--"
So predictable. Ramza's foot snapped out, connecting with hard demonic flesh, exactly where he'd anticipated Hashmalum would be. A dull, resounding thump; the wet crackle of snapping bones.
Hashmalum's momentum carried its massive body over Ovelia and into a panting heap beside her, while Ramza sprawled awkwardly on his face a few paces away. Then he climbed to his feet, planting a hand on his blood-soaked knee to keep himself semi-upright. His eyes sought out Hashmalum and waited.
Slowly, ponderously, the demon pushed itself to sit upright. Felt with trembling fingers at its head and neck.
Amazing. Ramza shook his head, too tired to speak. That thing can move even with a broken neck?
"You... you fool!" Hashmalum's voice gurgled now, and had grown raspy and shallow. "You nearly...." A low growl built arose in its throat, quickly turning into a howl of rage, directed at the smothering blackness where the heavens should be. "No! Master! I offer my own life, my own blood! Be resurrected!" Holding its arms wide, Hashmalum extended claws like daggers, then plunged them into its own chest.
For a long moment the demon remained like that, before slowly slumping back to the deck of the airship, to a puddle of black blood. Then it exploded, sending light and fury lancing in every direction, moaning long and low in frustrated agony. When it finished, Leo dropped to the deck with a wet click.
Dumbass. Ramza sighed, then made his way towards Ovelia, or tried to; his legs wobbled and gave out, forcing him to crawl. A gentle grip on the girl's shoulder, a worried shake, left bloodstains on the pure white silk of her dress. "O... Ovelia? Are you..."
Her eyes fluttered, then snapped open. For a heartbeat she stared wildly around, clearly not recognizing a thing, before her gaze settled on him. Then she gasped, sitting upright in a hurry, scooting away as one panicked hand clutched at her chest. "Ramza? What... where are...?"
"You were kidnapped," he explained. "Vormav took--" A fit of coughing interrupted him and he grimaced, twisting aside, hoping to shield the princess from the sight of him coughing up blood.
"Where are we?" Her voice was a terrified whisper. "And what happened? This is... I don't...."
Ramza shook his head and pointed a shaking finger at fallen Virgo lying next to her. Not enough time to explain. "Take... take that stone."
"This one?" She gripped it gingerly, perhaps afraid of its power, perhaps just unwilling to get blood on her fingers.
"Yes. It can... can take you back." He paused, drawing a deep breath, but slowly, so as not to aggravate his punctured lungs. "You love Delita, right?"
She blinked at him, then lowered her gaze. A shy smile touched her lips as her cheeks flushed a faint rose. "Yes."
"Good. Just... just think of that. Hold that in your mind and...." Pressure in his stomach flared to a burning pain and Ramza froze, eyes squeezed shut, teeth clenched. "Just... think of him," he instructed in a hoarse whisper. "And ask the stone for help in bringing you to him." I hope that works. "And then have him destroy the stone afterwards."
"Um... what about you?" She was watching him now, in concern rather than fear, holding the Zodiac stone tightly to her breast.
"Are you kidding me? I've had worse than...." More coughing interrupted him, curling him up, pressing his face against the rough deck of the ship, and this time he couldn't hide it from the princess. Long moments later he managed to straighten, to hold himself up while his crippled arm clutched uselessly at his midsection. Turning his head to face her took all the strength he could muster. "I'll... be fine. I have things to... but... you're the priority. Just go and leave the rest to me."
She met his gaze, wide brown eyes seeming almost hypnotized, before glancing away. "O... okay. I will. And... Ramza?"
"I figured if anyone would rescue me it would have been Delita, but... thank you." She leaned forward, pressed a gentle kiss against his sweat-damp hair. "I'll... let him know. About here, about you."
She knows. He closed his eyes. "Just go."
She didn't answer, just sat there without moving. Shortly a soft white light flashed, visible even through his eyelids. She was gone.
Letting his breath out in a ragged sigh, Ramza flopped to his back and fumbled around behind his head until his numb fingers encountered the hard shape of Leo. Held it up before his face, regarded the blood-damp stone in his fist for a moment. Then, setting it on the deck next to his waist, he dug into his pouches again, rooting past the other stones, until he found what he wanted. A lump of cold metal, something the chemist had had an obscure name for, but Ramza cared only that it was hard. The holy stones had powers he didn't understand, didn't want to understand, but ultimately they were still gemstones.
One swing of his arm, one solid crack, was all it took to break Leo into a dozen sharp pieces. Rolling his eyes, he let the others tumble from his belt pouches and did the same to them, before finally tossing the lump of metal away.
Finally. Letting his head thump back to the deck, into a pool of Zodiac dust and his own blood, he stared up at the black sky and waited. Is she going to be angry when she sees me? Probably.
As his breath bubbled and his body grew cold, he did something he hadn't done in a long time. Not for almost two years, since before Alma died.
A/N: Yes. Yes, that is the end.
I was trying to figure out why I felt so relieved at finishing this story and then realized, ah, yes, it's because I've been working on it for OVER A YEAR. That's not the most effort I've put into writing something, but it is for a fanfic. Sheesh.
As usual serious thanks go out to everyone who read and reviewed. You're why I write, and for a story which sucked up as much time as this one did for me, your feedback is doubly important to me. I'm actually surprised that this one has gotten such a good reception, since I kinda figured people would object to this kind of grim Ramza, but I'm not going to complain. On the contrary I giggle and glow over every review you guys leave, even if it's just a "moar!!1" or it's critical. I don't know of a way to continue on this vein without lapsing into a self-serving shout-out, but the moral of the story is you guys rock and you all deserve a fist-bump.
Also, much credit is due to Jeretarius, without whose hard work and keen insight this story would not have been nearly as good or plausible. So if you liked it, he deserves your thanks as well.