(Updates every two weeks at least until Part 4 is finished! Hope everyone is healthy and taking care of themselves in spite of the state of things out there. Please check out quickascanbe dot com and follow me on Facebook and Twitter if you're looking for more distractions)
Chapter 93: Our Fathers' Shadows
There were two things that bothered Alma Beoulve. The first was the seeming carelessness with which her captors treated her: she practically had the run of her wing of the Castle, even extending to certain common areas. She could take in the flowing water of the fountain room, or watch the picture window. She could go to the common library on the lower floor of the castle, and have her pick of books. She was brought meals at regular intervals, and could even call for a servant if there was anything else she needed.
The second thing was how superficial the carelessness was, and how easy it was to make out her chains if she cared to think a little. Because the meals that were brought to her at regular intervals were brought to her wherever she happened to be—whether in her room, in the library, or intentionally trying to make herself a bit hard to find in some remote, isolated corner of the castle. And if she tried to leave the designated bounds of her captivity, a polite Khamja soldier would appear and regretfully inform her that they could not allow her access to a given room for "security" reasons, and ask her if they could accommodate her some other way.
The combination of the two was maddening. There were hours when Alma could almost forget she was a captive, free to roam and read and think as she pleased. But then she would come against one of those reminders—the meals brought to her wherever she was, the door she thoughtlessly opened only to find her path barred—and she would remember. This was not a safe place.
She kept up her vigilance as best she could, but it was a losing battle. She had seen neither Rafa nor Malak nor any other member of the Hand since her audience with Barinten, She didn't know if Rafa had reported her words to Malak, or to Barinten, or...or to anyone. She didn't know if they had met Ramza. She didn't know—she couldn't know—anything.
So what was she supposed to, but make her rounds in her captivity? What was she supposed to but pick from the threadbare library any book that could tell her anything about magic, infiltration, or dramatic escapes? What was she supposed to but lower the runelights of her room and lie awake as the rain pounded down against her window, trying to conjure any magic she could without her ring?
It was probably pointless. There was probably nothing she could to escape from this place—at least without rescue. She would never awaken to magical power to rival Elidibus, to shake down the castle walls and smash aside the opposing army. She couldn't slip on a clever disguise and walk unnoticed through Khamja's ranks. She couldn't even fashion a rope out of bedsheets to slide out her rain-slick window—it was barred. And even if she could get off the castle grounds, she would still be in Fovoham. Still in the seat of Barinten's power, far from any hope of rescue.
Alma's accomplishments were few and far between (though she would cherish until her dying day the memory of breaking an Inquisitor's spell), but she knew that her lack of achievements was not her fault. The game had been rigged against her from the start—from her relative insignificance as the child of her common-born mother (however well-to-do her mother was) to the rules that constrained all noble-born girls when her father had taken her in. Sometimes she wondered if Balbanes might have changed his mind, had their only been time to convince him. She'd spoken so confidently to Ramza about his humanity, but she really had loved her father, and if he could be a little deaf to her desires or overly traditional, he was always willing to listen in those rare moments they had together...
No, focus. You have achieved things in your life. Your skill with magic is your own, hard-won from pestering Simon. Your awareness and insight into the people around you is your own, practiced on nobles and commoners alike from your first toddling days. Your ability to see levers around you and use them is your own (though watching Dycedarg helped a bit in that regard). You are Alma Beoulve. Keep your eyes open. Be ready. You are not powerless. You are never powerless.
The door to her room was flung open, and a nightmare shambled through.
The weak runelight in the hall cast the figure in shadow. It was too wide across the front, had too many arms and too many legs and at least one too many heads. It made a weak, piteous sound as it lurched inside, and Alma was on her feet and did not remember rising from her bed, her hands shimmered with gauzy webs of light, but without her ring such weak spells would barely block a clumsy punch and this thing was no soldier, this was a monster, perhaps even one of the Lucavi her brother had told her about, ravenous for her flesh, ravenous for her soul-
"Move," growled Malak's voice, as one hand slapped an activation rune near the door, and as the lights in her room brightened she saw the nightmare figure was two figures, Malak pale and gasping as he supported Izlude into the room. Alma stared at them.
"Did you hear me?" Malak snapped, and Alma jerked out of reverie and stumbled out of the way. With a grunt of effort, Malak lowered Izlude onto the bed. The Templar who'd once captured her starred blindly at the ceiling, his eyes wide and glassy, his hair damp with sweat. His lips twitched frantically as though he were trying to speak, though he spoke no words.
"What-" Alma began.
"He needs healing," Malak answered, and tossed something to her underhand. She fumbled it, managed to catch it as it spun out of her grasp, clasped her hand tight around cold metal and smooth gemstone. When she looked down, she saw it was her ring.
"You're a guest at Riovanes," Malak said. His voice was taut. "There's no reason you shouldn't have it."
Alma slid it slowly over one finger, though her eyes searched Malak. He still had a weak, washed-out look to him, and his hands trembled faintly.
"You have healers," she said.
Malak shrugged. "We do. They've been tending to him for days now. After the interrogations."
Alma's eyes flickered down to Izlude, his eyes half-shut now as his head lolled back and forth. A low, miserable whine whistled out of his throat, like he was a beaten dog.
"What did you do to him?" Alma whispered.
Malak did not answer, but stumbled out of her room, shutting the door behind him.
Alma stood where she was for several seconds, staring down at her one-time captor. He had led the mission that had left Simon bruised and battered on the chapel floor. He had struck her when she was close to her brother. He had flung her numb and breathless body across a chocobo's back. He had led them into this imprisonment, into the clutches of Grand Duke Barinten. He did not deserve her help.
But she remembered how they had abused him, long before they reached the Castle. She remembered the anguish in his voice as they had sat bound together on the road to Riovanes. "My father...my vows..." She remembered thinking he was not unlike Ramza.
And besides, he was a trained warrior. If she could get him on his feet fast enough, perhaps she could escape after all.
She reached for the familiar warmth behind her solar plexus and bent over Izlude. Warmth from her inner sun flickered like tongues of flame finding a new log, washing across her arm with especial heat and running into the intricate runework of her ring. A soft wash of light spilled from her hand, and slowly she traced a path over Izlude's body, her fingertips hovering just above his forehead, down the curve of his face, across his chest.
This was healing magic, not diagnostic (she had never learned this obscure latter branch, though she knew all trained Healers had to), but she had enough insight to know she wasn't doing much to help him. Some inflammation, some bruising, something subtler and stranger, almost like poison, and his breathing eased and the whine stilled in his throat but still his eyelids fluttered and he moved like a man suffering from a seizure.
Healing physical injuries wasn't helping him. Treating poison wasn't helping him. Whatever was going on inside him, she didn't understand it.
She hesitated for a moment, old warnings from her instructors at Igros and from Father Simon playing in her head. Magic was a difficult, dangerous thing to learn and understand. This was obvious with more destructive forms—miscast a fire rune and watch your home burn down—but every branch of magic carried risks. Healers had to be trained so carefully because of this. She had heard horror stories of bodies swollen with tumorous flesh, of overgrown bones that speared through skin because an overambitious Healer dared too much. The Ydorans had built special research facilities in the remote corners of their Empire just to manage such dangers.
But Izlude was suffering, so Alma took a deep, steadying breath, and tried something new. She had never tried to train herself as a Mage Knight, but knew enough of wards and of healing to understand its basic principles. Rather than try to build up her own magic to an explosive point, perhaps she could invest her magic in Izlude. Strengthen him the same way a Mage Knight strengthened themselves, not to hurt others but to let him heal himself.
The easy warmth of her familiar healing spells did not flow this time. Her ring had not been built as a focal point for such strange magic, and Alma was trying to do something she'd never done before. Rather than the smooth, undulating transformation of inner fire to soothing light, there were fits and starts, flashes of light so bright Alma had to squint her eyes and a weak shimmer in the air in which occasional embers winked like little stars. Every effort cost her, sapped the strength from her legs, until she was kneeling by Izlude's side, her head swimming.
Finally, she could do no more. She dropped her numb, shaking hand to her side, and leaned forwards so her head rested against the bed. She wasn't sure how long she laid there, her head swimming with exhaustion, her legs still trembling beneath her. Her head was empty of everything but the pattering of rain outside her window.
She lifted her head on creaking muscles. Izlude was no longer shuddering. His eyes were shut tight, and his mouth pressed into a thin, painful line.
Alma wasn't sure what to say. "Feel him?"
Izlude shook his head weakly. "Malak...inside...me."
Alma shot straight to her feet, her head swiveling towards the door. "What did he do?" she snarled, feral rage giving her momentary strength, light swirling around her clenched fist.
"Inside...me," Izlude repeated. "My...mind...my...memories..."
Her rage stumbled. Not a rapist then. But maybe something as monstrous. What magic allowed you to rip into a person's mind? Into a person's memories?
"He saw," whispered Izlude. "He saw...everything."
Alma's hand was still clenched tight into a fist, still shimmering with light. She could smash through that door in righteous fury. She could, perhaps, even strike down the first soldier she saw. It wasn't impossible. But what about every other soldier between her and vengeance for poor Izlude?
Why do you want to avenge him?
Because the pain in his voice was familiar. Because he sounded like Ramza, weeping in the orchard outside of Lesalia.
"I'm sorry," Izlude whispered, jerking Alma out of her reverie. His eyes were closed again, tears pooling in their corners. "I...did this. My fault. Mine."
Alma stared at him, opened her mouth to protest, shook her head. Could she honestly tell him it wasn't his fault? He was the one who'd attacked Orbonne Monastery and beaten Simon; he was the one who'd taken her captive rather than leave her with her brother. Maybe the Hand wouldn't have captured him if he'd been alone. They certainly wouldn't have captured her.
But what if they had captured him? Would things have been any different?
She took and deep breath and sat down on the bed, next to Izlude's feet. "I don't care whose fault it is," Alma said. "Even if it is your fault, you don't...you don't deserve this."
Izlude shook his head fiercely. "I do."
"A Templar should be stronger than this," Izlude whispered. "A man should be stronger than this." His eyes screwed up so tight that that the corners were white. "A Tengille should be stronger than this."
In spite of everything, Alma snorted a little. "Saint Above, you really sound like him."
Izlude's eyes slitted open. "Who?"
"You...compare me...to a heretic?" Was it her imagination, but was there actually something a little amused in Izlude's tone? Alma almost wanted to make her own joke—a half-dozen half-decent replies ran through her mind—but an older, colder anger quelled any ghost of good humor.
"It wasn't him who beat Father Simon."
Izlude's eyes were still open, staring at her. Alma stared steadily back.
"I...had to," Izlude said.
"Bullshit," Alma spat.
"The Princess...took too long...to reach...Goltanna," Izlude said. "Because...she had magic...she wasn't...supposed...to know. And you...shouldn't know...how to break...Inquisitor's...spells."
"Why the hell not?" Alma demanded.
Izlude closed his eyes, and drew a shuddering breath. In spite of his trouble talking, his color looked a little better, and both his voice and his breathing seemed less shaky. "We can't...save Ivalice...without...the Stones."
"Save Ivalice?" Alma repeated. "You work with literal fucking demons."
"Spare me...Lady Beoulve." Izlude's eyes opened again, a little more than before. "I know...you love...your brother. But have you...ever seen...a Lucavi?"
"I don't have to," Alma said. "If my brother says it, I believe him."
Izlude shook his head. "The Stones...are powerful," Izlude said. "And the Ydorans...genius. In their hands, perhaps...perhaps whoever held a Stone...could be like Elidibus. A force of nature. I think...that's where the stories...come from. Both the Braves...and the demons."
"And the Cardinal?" Alma asked.
"He...took...the Princess," Izlude replied. "Your...brother...killed him."
"After he became a demon."
Izlude shook his head again, but did not speak. Alma stared out her window, trying to put on a fiercer face than she felt. There were demons loose in Ivalice. Ramza had told her so. He wouldn't lie to her.
He lied about Teta.
"Some people...don't need one."
"Huh?" Alma looked back at Izlude, whose eyes were still closed.
"Some people...don't need...a Stone," Izlude said. "To be...like that. Legendary. Elidibus. Your father." He paused a moment. "Mine."
Alma tried to remember what she could of Vormav Tengille. She did not believe she'd ever met the man, or heard too much about him. The Tengilles were a bit like the Oaks, if she recalled. She wasn't sure they technically held any title, but such things mattered less to the Church (Cardinal Delacroix had been only a minor Count of Lionel before his rise during the war), and the histories of Ivalice had seen more than one Tengille as stalwart defenders of the faith.
"What's he like?" Alma asked. "Your father, I mean."
Izlude was quiet for a moment. "Devoted."
Alma laughed, a little more cruelly than she'd intended. "I don't think any member of the Church can claim to be a man of peace, Izlude."
Izlude's eyes slitted open again. "What...about...your father?"
A slight chill on the back of Alma's neck. "What?"
"Balbanes...Beoulve. Finest Knight...outside Heaven. How many...did he kill...in his life?" There was iron in Izlude's voice now. "It's not...blood...on your hands...that makes you...evil. Even...the Saint...had to fight. It's...why...you fight. What...you fight for."
"And what are you fighting for?" Alma asked, and was surprised at the earnestness in her own voice.
"A world...where no one...has to see...their loved ones...killed."
A terrible flash of memory: the Death Corps soldiers in their ragged garb, the sword ripping through her ward, a scream hoarse in her throat as the chocobo raced into the distance with Teta slung across its back.
Alma looked back at Izlude. His eyes were closed again, tears trickling down his cheeks.
"You didn't-" she began.
"I did," Izlude whispered. "Ripped it out of me. Saw the plan."
"That's not your fault."
"I'm...a Templar. I'm...I was...a Brave." His eyes screwed up tight again. "They took my Stone. I'm nothing."
"Izlude..." Alma shook her head. "You were sent on a mission to Orbonne. You got ambushed by my crazy heretic brother, three Lionesses, a Machinist, and a Vampire Knight. When you got away from them, you ran into a hit squad of psycho children with powers I've never heard of. What else were you supposed to do?"
"Something," Izlude whispered. "Should have...something."
Alma opened her mouth to protest, caught herself again. This man had kidnapped her. She had to stop trying to comfort him.
"You sound...like my sister."
"Huh?" Alma looked back down at him.
"My sister," he repeated. "Melia." He smiled. "She's...stronger than me."
"Not a high bar to clear," Alma replied.
Izlude tried to give an exaggerated wince, but the pain still lingering in his face rather spoiled the effect. "You wound me."
"Sister are always stronger than brothers," Alma said. "Didn't you know?"
A thin smile creased Izlude's face. "Between you and Melia, the evidence...does seem to support you."
"Older or younger?" Alma asked.
"Older," Izlude replied. "Just a little bit. But sharper, too. Learns fast. Trains hard." Tears in his eyes again. "She...she deserved the Stone. Not me."
Echoes of her own thoughts in Izlude's words. She studied him awhile before asking her next question. "So why didn't she get it?"
Izlude thought a moment. The bruises were faded, his breathing easier. He looked terribly young, and terribly human.
"I...thought about that," Izlude said. "Thought about it...a lot." He shrugged helplessly. "We Templars...we're more friendly to female soldiers than most. But there's a limit. No Knight-Commander has ever been a woman. The Church is..." He shrugged uneasily. "You know."
Alma nodded, and Izlude continued, "But talent like hers...our family name...she could be more than she is. Could be a captain. Could...be a Brave." He shook his head. "But she...didn't want to be."
Izlude's eyes scrunched tighter. "Our father."
He fell silent for a time. Alma didn't push him.
"Our father," Izlude repeated. "Melia thinks..." He trailed off, shook his head. "Melia doesn't understand."
A flicker of frustration. "Understand what?"
Another silence. Alma's frustration was mounting steadily. This was captive captor, her battered, exhausted kidnapper, and why was she supposed to keep watching out for him? Why was she supposed to keep protecting him? Why couldn't he just say what he meant?
"The things he's seen," Izlude said. "The things he's done. So many battles...so many lost..." Tears in his eyes and in his voice. "Not...not just mother. Not just Quan." He swallowed. "So many friends...comrades...superiors...subordinates...I can't even imagine..." The tears were a little thicker, and he closed his eyes. "I...keep thinking about...about the soldiers I led to Orbonne. The ones your brother and his friends..."
He trailed off. Alma didn't know what she was supposed to say. Her mind flooded with images of Ramza killing the soldier outside Orbonne with practiced ease.
"For...for a long time," Izlude said, his eyes still scrunched tight. "Every war's been...meaningless. We started the 50 Years' War. Our foolishness caused the Death Corps rebellion. Even this...this 'War of the Lions'-" his face twisted into a dismissive sneer. "-is just greedy, powerful men fighting for more power. All those...years of loss, and...what's it been for?" He shook his head. "Melia's...not all wrong. Ivalice...isn't what it should be. But father, he's...he's trying to make it...better." His jaw set, and his eyes opened, without a trace of tears. "And I...I want to help him."
So many echoes of Ramza. But Alma's thoughts were back at Orbonne.
"So you beat up an old man?" she said softly.
Izlude winced. His eyes fluttered for a moment, but did not close. "My soldiers...got carried away," Izlude said, after a moment.
"He was lying there," Alma retorted.
Another moment's silence. "Yes."
"You beat him, and then left him to heal himself," Alma said. "And then one of your fellow Templars killed him. In front of me."
Izlude's jaw clenched. "I would not have killed him."
"But your father would," Alma said. "Wouldn't he?"
Izlude's head gave a little tremble that was neither a nod nor a shake. After a moment, he said, "My father...would do what was best."
Alma scowled at the echoes of Ramza, Zalbaag, and Dycedarg in Izlude's words. "Fathers aren't gods."
Izlude did not answer. Alma kept scowling at him, and past him: at Ramza, who was still so unsure after years on his own, and at Zalbaag, whose certainty had killed Teta, and at Dycedarg, who wore their name like armor against any accusations...
And at her father, dying in front of her, hollowed out by disease. She'd been too young to see him clearly then, and she'd tried to better understand his flaws and his failings (the cowardice he'd shown in not properly marrying Mother before the plague had taken her, his naivete in fighting to enroll Delita in the Military Academy while consigning Alma and Teta to the grinding indignity of the Igros Preparatory Academy), to understand him as human being she'd never gotten a chance to know.
Because in her head, there were only two images of Balbanes Beoulve. The hollow shell who'd died in front of her, taken from her too soon. And the man she'd known in glimpses and visits before then: the towering titan who seemed like he could do no wrong.
This third man she'd built? The one as flawed and fallible as Alma herself? He was a creature of her imagination. She would never get to know her father, as she would never get to know her mother. She had to piece something together from the scraps that remained.
A wave of grief and impotent rage washed over, tingling across her skin, itching in her feet and tensing in her hands. She looked away from Izlude, sat heavily down on the bed. Neither of them spoke for a time.
"I know." She looked over her shoulder. Izlude's eyes were open, though he wasn't looking at her. "I know," he repeated. "Father Simon shouldn't have died. My father gave the order." He risked a flinching glance at her, the tears bright in his eyes, and then glanced away again. "But I don't...know what to do."
Alma sighed, and looked down at her hands. "Neither do I," she whispered. She leaned back slowly, she was lying on the bed. She could feel Izlude's warmth just above her, even though they weren't touching.
"How do we...fix it?" Izlude asked.
Alma shook her head. "I don't know. I've been...trying to figure that out. For a long time. But nothing feels...fixable."
Another moment's silence. "He's coming here," Izlude said. "My father."
Alma cocked her head up at him. "Yeah?"
"That's what...Malak..." His voice cracked with pain. Without thinking, Alma reached out with her ring-wearing hand, and folded his hand in hers, pouring another wave of light and strength into him. Izlude sighed with relief.
"They went to get my brother, too," Alma said softly.
Alma spun around to face Izlude. "What?"
"He's safe," Izlude repeated. His eyes were screwed shut. "When...when Malak..." The pain flashed again: Alma poured a little more light into him, though her head spun with the effort. "He saw...me. But I saw him. A little. He's safe. Malak's sister is...bringing him here."
Rafa was with Ramza? But why? Had she listened to Alma after all? Was it some trick? It must be, Ramza didn't know how dangerous Barinten was...
But he had walked into danger before, and won through. There was no reason he couldn't do it again. He was safe. He was free. He was alive. And as long as you're alive, there's hope.
"Why's your father coming?" she asked.
Izlude shook his head. "Barinten...wants something. An alliance, maybe? I don't..." The pain thickened in his voice again: Alma's grip tightened on his hand, warm light glowing between their palms.
"You could tell him, you know," Alma said.
"Huh?" Izlude's voice was sleepy.
"Your father. You could tell him...what you're thinking."
For a little while, all Alma heard was the sound of Izlude's steady breathing. "If your father...were still alive," he asked at last. "Would you?"
"I don't know," Alma said. "But...I hope so."
"Figures," Izlude sighed.
"Sisters...always stronger...than brothers."
Alma leaned back the way she had before, her hand wrapped around Izlude's, and stared up at the ceiling. Ramza was with Rafa, though she didn't know why. Ramza was coming here, and she couldn't do anything to help him. The malice of the Grand Duke pressed down on her, as weighty as the strong stones of the castle that caged her, as heavy as the rain still drumming against her window.
But somehow, in spite of all that threatened her, the world felt a little less hopeless tonight.