For Want of a War
Chapter 20: Lede
Quick Note: I updated about a day ago, so make sure you've read Chapter 19 before reading this. Cheers!
"Master, what did you do with our silks?" I hissed, following the mortal through the castle. Presently I was wearing an old blue tunic of his with breeches and boots, my sister wearing a similar outfit in red. While not uncomfortable, I would have preferred the silks I'd grown accustomed to in this body.
"You two were sleeping fairly soundly, so when I got up this morning I sent them for cleaning with my own clothes," he explained, shrugging a bit. "That you'll be more modestly attired for when I meet up with my sister later today is just a pleasant bonus."
"Our outfits were magical creations. Just like a magic weapon, they don't need to be cleaned!" Celia protested, crossing her arms as she glared at him. "You're of noble stock. You should know that!"
"I do," Ramza admitted with a bit of a chuckle. "It was just an excuse to have you pair properly attired for once."
"Petty spite is beneath you," I informed him bluntly, and he glanced back at me at that.
"Of course it is," the young man agreed, tilting his head a bit. "However, as you've chosen to use it as our latest battleground, I find myself with no other choice but to battle you on your terms."
I glanced at my sister as Ramza turned to once more focus on the path ahead of him, and she shot me an amused look in turn. Petty spite was good. It was a sign that whatever he might say about his resolve, the constant pressure we'd been applying was beginning to be a strain on him.
That was good.
It meant that we were making progress. It meant that sneaking into his bed, the constant flirtation, taking every opportunity to embarrass him, it was all starting to get under his skin in a way he could no longer completely ignore. Sooner or later, he would get completely sick of it all and his reactions would grow more and more severe.
Sooner or later he would release us, if only to be rid of the constant irritation.
Eventually, we reached our destination, a practice field near the castle. A low stone wall surrounded hard-packed pebbles and dirt, and in the middle several men were sparring with wooden blades. Ramza's attention was immediately drawn to a man with close-cropped blond hair and a goatee, clad in ornate black armour trimmed with silver.
"Zalbag!" Ramza called, waving as he approached.
The man turned, grinning as he saw our master. He reached down and grabbed a pair of fingerless gloves from where they were sprawled on the stone wall, curiously long with overlapping silver plates running from the back of the hand to near the elbow. As soon as Ramza came close enough, the gloves were thrown.
"Welcome back, little brother," Zalbag said with a broad smile, folding his arms as Ramza caught the gloves. "Enjoy those. They were meant to be a birthday gift, but Tristana's capture of you was far longer than anticipated."
"Indeed it was," Ramza agreed. Our master rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, tugging the gloves on, the new leather creaking as he made a fist. He glanced up. "They're a little tight."
"I suppose I underestimated your size. To be fair, you were a man when you left, and you returned to us an ox," the older man grunted. He then smirked a bit. "Would you care to test them out? Father mentioned this morning that you'd grown strong enough that he wasn't sure if I would win in a fight. Shall we see if he's right?"
"Angel Rings, first death?" Ramza prompted eagerly, to my surprise. Our master had never been so... Eager before. He blinked, glancing once at us. "Actually, wait a moment. I have to confirm something first."
"Father told me about you'd picked up strays," our master's older brother noted, taking us in with a grin. "He didn't quite mention the details of your arrangement, and he certainly neglected to tell me the quality of the ladies you've managed to enrapture. I think I'm jealous, little brother."
"Don't be," Ramza stated bluntly, rolling his eyes and cutting me off as I began to speak. "They're more trouble than you can imagine. However, if you'll excuse me for a moment?"
"Take your time," Zalbag said, gesturing before turning back to face the practice field.
Ramza motioned for us to follow him, and he stopped only a short distance away, just out of earshot.
"I know that our bond would be broken were you to die," Ramza informed us, frowning. "However, I'm given to wondering what happens if I die and am revived before crystallization occurs. Would that be enough to sever the bond?"
"...No, I it won't," Celia admitted after a moment's thought. "The bond doesn't disappear unless the stone holder's stone does, and that only happens after they are killed while bonded body and soul with their Lucavi."
"Excellent. That's all I needed to hear," Ramza informed us, turning back to his brother. "Brother! As I was saying, Angel Rings to the first death?"
"Someone has grown exceedingly confident," Zalbag retorted with a smile, before nodding. "Of course, I'll be happy to take you down a notch or two. I'll be back shortly with the rings."
"Master, this is foolish," I informed him with a scowl, folding my arms. "Your brother may be strong, but just yesterday we learned that you slew a Lucavi, essentially on your own. Do you really think he can match you as you are now?"
"He's second in command of the Hokuten, directly under my father," my master explained simply, fingers flexing and relaxing with nervous energy. "He oversees the movements of about ten thousand Hokuten personally, and liaises with generals in charge of another thirty thousand. During a time of war he can call up another fifty thousand in off-duty reserve troops before he has to resort to conscription or mercenaries... And he is, without a doubt, one of the best fighters among them."
There wasn't much I could say to that, though Celia watched our master with an interest matched in my own eyes. Thus far, we'd seen Ramza fight from an ambush once, defeating Celia in what had been a fairly close fight. His exchange with his father, Balbanes, had been a brief exchange.
We had yet to see him fight at his full capacity as observers.
This would be the best time to figure out his strengths... And his weaknesses.
It was not long after that Zalbag returned to the field, bearing his sword, shield, and a pair of rings which he and our master slipped on. After a breath or two, each of the Beoulve men had a wispy image of an angel circling their heads, a spell which would revive them from death if they perished.
As the pair moved onto the field, everyone present immediately dispersed, leaving the two brothers alone in the hard packed circle of sand and pebbles.
"The last time we fought, I didn't have to use my skills as an Ark Knight until the very end," Zalbag called to our Master, unsheathing his blade and resting it on his shoulder. He smirked, and met Ramza's eyes. "I don't think I can be so gentle this time!"
In response Ramza slashed his hand once, sending a flurry of sand and stone at his foe. Zalbag simply raised his shield, ignoring attack. Only centuries of experience allowed me to see the younger Beoulve darting behind the debris, using it as a screen to hide his movement.
His brother anticipated this, and had set himself accordingly. When Ramza struck, Zalbag's sword was there, and only a quick swipe of his arms and the vambraces his brother had given him not moments before prevented the fight's premature end. Zalbag slammed his shield into his brother, opening the distance necessary for another sword swing.
Rather than fight him at midrange, Ramza faded back a step, the blade missing his throat by the breadth of a hair before he was back in, taking advantage of his foe's momentary imbalance. Zalbag raised his shield, predicting the path of his brother's attack with ease.
Ramza's lead hand slammed into the shield palm first, and he used the leverage to dart his feet forward just enough to brace himself properly as his other hand came forward in a powerful swing, impacting the shield and sending the elder Beoulve stumbling back. Before he could follow up, Zalbag brought his sword across in a horizontal slash, forcing Ramza to step back once more.
"Desk, flabby," our master noted, prompting a fierce scowl from his brother.
"Experience will still trump the day, little brother!" Zalbag replied, stepping forward and swinging. Ramza easily dodged this, once more attempting to dart in while his foe was recovering. Unfortunately for him, his elder brother had planned for this and rather than halting the momentum of his swing he spun with it, the elbow of his sword arm rising to meet Ramza's nose as he sidestepped our master's punch.
Even many yards away as I was, I heard the crunch of Ramza's nose breaking and he tumbled into the dirt for a moment, forced to roll away from a follow up swing which would have caught him directly in the chest.
"You've got dust on your backside," Zalbag noted with a grin, and Ramza frowned in turn, wiping the stream of blood running down his face on his gloves.
And then the two were at it once more, Ramza darting in and out of range of his brother with a graceful ease that was astonishing to behold. Celia had told me of her fight with Ramza, but from the description she'd given me I'd assumed he had just outlasted her with his freakish stamina. Even catching my first feint before he hammered me down into oblivion was something I'd attributed to carelessness on my part, not skill on his.
How wrong I was. Ramza's skill alone was arguably on the same level as my sister and I. It's very easy to see how my sister could have come so close to vanquishing him as she had... He simply hadn't been prepared for our esoteric assassination techniques. His skill at dodging, his ability to read the flow of a fight, it was beyond compare. Time and again he would back off just enough for the blade seeking him to skim his skin before he was once more in close, constantly forcing his brother to step back and circle to avoid being overwhelmed.
Even though he was taking frequent shallow cuts from his brother, the few blows he was able to strike cleanly were powerful things, blasting Zalbag back steps, leaving him reeling and scrambling to recover.
"He's not using his skills," Mustadio noted, and I turned to see the engineer watching the fight curiously. I'd felt him approach, of course, but hadn't dared to turn away from the display in front of me.
"He can't. Neither of them can," Celia provided, shaking her head at the engineer. "They're both so focused on hammering each other down that they're not providing each other any space, any breathing room."
"Perhaps they don't dare? I don't know about Lord Zalbag, but some of Ramza's techniques tend to be rather overwhelming," Mustadio mused, his eyes tracking the fight. "I'm sure Lord Zalbag's are the same. If either of them are able to use them, it'd surely be an end to the fight."
Interesting. For someone who frequently claimed to be a noncombatant, his observation was a keen one. The distinction he'd made would have been lost on a talentless amateur.
In front of us, the fight seemed to be coming to a conclusion. Both Ramza and Zalbag were panting hard, our master bleeding from myriad cuts and his older brother stumbling from the occasional, bone-shaking blows he'd suffered. They both stumbled back from one another, grinning broadly.
"Marvelous! Tristana really did exceed everything she promised with you, little brother," Zalbag praised, shifting his grip on his blade as he slid a foot out, preparing to charge. Ramza didn't respond, simply beginning a sprint forwards, once more using his monk arts to send a torrent of stone and sand to obscure the vision of his foe.
When the dust settled, I saw Zalbag's sword impaled straight through Ramza's lower torso, the younger Beoulve gasping in surprise. Taking no chances our master's foe ripped his blade free through his side, showering the ground beneath the pair with blood, the force of the move putting his back to his younger brother.
Ramza grinned, and struck his brother twice in the back, Zalbag's muscles locking as he screamed in pain. Ignoring the way the rapid movement further injured him, Ramza quickly moved around to face his brother, striking him high in the sides twice on each side, something I knew would rob Zalbag of any magical or chakra granted strength.
Ramza opted to skip the single point in my sister and I's assassination technique, instead simply burying both fists into the space just below Zalbag's ribs, robbing him of his breath. Unlike my sister's attempt against him, he struck with finality at the final two points on either side of his brother's neck, killing him instantly.
This seemed to rob him of the last of his strength, and he expired a moment later.
"You'll catch flies like that, ladies," Mustadio pointed out, and it was only then that I realized my jaw was dropped. So was my sister's.
"You didn't..." Celia began, her eyes wide as she turned to face me.
"No!" I confirmed, shocked by the events I'd just witnessed.
I'd known Ramza could win. That was not surprising in the least. What was surprising was that he'd apparently recreated an assassination technique which had taken my sister decades to perfect after he'd been struck by an incomplete form of it just once.
That was impossible. Mortals had avoided the attack before. They'd even survived it, due to an excessively formidable constitution or ridiculously strong magical enchantment. Never before had anyone duplicated it, certainly not with such ease.
As my master and his brother slowly climbed back to their feet, the enchantment granted to them from their rings returning them to life, all I could do was stare at the blond fighter to which I and my sister were bound.
"Sister, I do believe that our master may be a little too interesting," Celia noted to me, troubled.
I couldn't help but agree.
If the numbers for the Hokuten seem high, it's based on the numbers cited for the deaths during the war in the game. Anyhoo, just wanted to drop some more story stuff for you all.
Hope you enjoyed it!