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Chapter 94: Firmly Planted

...I think now with fondness of those miserable days upon the road. That fondness does not douse or negate our misery: we were tired, hungry, and fearful. We marched against the machinations of kings, generals, and empires. Sometimes we went days without fresh water, or without a scrap of food. Sometimes we marched until our legs were numb and our boots soaked with blood. Sometimes we fled like foxes before hounds baying for our blood.

But in those day, were were united. We were together. Bound by a common cause against a terrible foe. As tired, hungry, thirsty, blood, exhausted, terrified...as miserable as we were, we fought, shoulder-to-shoulder, to make this world a better place.

I do not regret what I did to Ajora. But neither do I regret those days I spent as his side. They are some of the fondest in my memory.

-The Gospel According to Germonique, I.S.V. (Inquisitor Simon Version)

"Here, you think?" Ramza asked, squinting around this odd little cavern beneath the roots of an ancient, overgrown tree. The grey mud around them stained everything it touched, and Ramza kept seeing things wriggling and writhing from the corner of his eye, but at least it was some relief from the pounding rain outside.

Rafa nodded, watching the rainy haze just outside their covered culvert. "No one else knows where it is. I found it...years ago."

The weariness and wariness in her voice was too much to bear. How could someone so young sound so tired of the world?

Did you sound any different, after the Death Corps?

Ramza shook his head, and kept searching the rooted ceiling for some convenient place to hide the Germonique Gospel. His neck prickled with anxiety—what if he turned up empty-handed, and they hurt Alma to punish him? But then, the alternative was worse: if they simply pried the Gospel from his captive hands, and killed him and Alma both. Everything now had to be done with any eye to getting her out.

And to making sure Rafa's master paid for his crimes.

It was an impossible long-shot. He knew that. Ramza was no slouch in a fight, but Barinten would be in the seat of his power, surrounded by his well-trained army, and likely protected by the same well-trained squad of kidnapped children. His Hand.

Anger in the pit of Ramza's belly. It was an unusual feeling these days (the last time he'd felt it clearly had been in Orbonne, with Wiegraf before him and Alma beyond him, and Ramza flinched against the memory of the fire-wreathed Lucavi born of Wiegraf's dying fury), but ever since his brief stay with Olan, Ramza had felt it more frequently. Something about the plight of the Hand spoke to him, and meeting Rafa had only strengthened that feeling.

"How did you find it?" Ramza asked, as he felt around a little hollow between the roots that seemed about the right size.

"Training exercise," Rafa said. "Hand had to either avoid or defeat Khamja scouting units. Made this place my base." A slender, feral smile darted across her face. "I won. Defeated 30 of the 100."

"You fought 100 men?" Ramza asked

Rafa chuckled. "Not all at once. There were...what, ten groups of ten? They were supposed to stick close together so we couldn't pick them off..." She chuckled again. "Didn't help'em much. And none of'em found me here." She stared out into the rain, her face solemn again. "I thought about staying. Just...hiding here."

"Why didn't you?" Ramza asked.

Rafa shrugged. "Didn't know what would happen if I got caught." She folded her arms around her knees and pulled them close to her chest. "Didn't know what would happen to the others, if I didn't."

It was easier for her to talk than it had been in the sewer. The last few days traveling together, trudging through mud and muck as they avoided the pontoon roads that wound their way through the marshy reaches of northern Fovoham, had been a damp, cold, stinking misery, but talking to Rafa was a welcome relief. She was sharp, with a dry wit that revealed itself in sudden flashes. But it was her seriousness Ramza liked most: she regarded the world with solemn attention, taking her time to understand it, and acting decisively when she had. Ramza found he admired her.

"You think he would?" Ramza asked. "Hurt them?"

Rafa nodded. "Not...right away. Not unless he had to-" She broke off, shook her head. "Not unless it could get him what he wanted."

"That's about what Olan said," Ramza grunted. "Called him a vulture, like the Church."

Rafa chuckled grimly. "Olan's got some guts, doesn't he?"

"He took you and your friends on by himself."

"So did you."

Ramza shrugged. "Didn't have a choice."

"You did." She looked over his shoulder, smiled at him. "Your sister knew you would."

"Yeah?"

"Told me you could do it. Save me. Save all of us."

"I know you don't want to hear it," Ramza said. "But my sister does think too highly of me." He patted the roots again, and sat down. "I think you're right. Wrap it tight, tuck it up there...can't think of anywhere safer."

He strolled to her side again, watching the rain beside her. Barely a streak of white remained on Rafa's clothes after the past few days of hard traveling.

"Before you hide it," Rafa said. "Can I...read it?"

Ramza looked down at her, and smiled. "Why not?"

They pulled a little farther back into the covert, and Ramza carefully unwrapped the bundled Gospel. Rafa took it from him just as gently, and flipped it open. Ramza took her spot by the opening under the tree, legs crossed, eyes closed. He played with his magical field a little, trying to accelerate it as Agrias had taught him, trying to steal drops of rain or to freeze them, trying simply to get a better sense of his own abilities.

The way Vampire Knights used it made a certain kind of intuitive sense to him: even in the early days, when he'd barely known what he was doing, it had felt like a little-used limb, frustratingly weak but responsive when he started exercising it. He'd gotten better with his magic runes, but even those weren't good for more than a few flashy displays, and while those simple spells had saved his hide more than once now, it seemed too little with the scale of the forces ahead of him. Barinten and his Khamja were bad enough, but Rafa had told him about the Templar delegation sent to discuss an alliance. What could Ramza do, against two such forces?

And if he could stand against them, could he stand against the demons who walked in their ranks?

Again, that nightmare figure, four-armed Belias wearing fire like a robe. Cuchulainn had been monstrous enough: that many-mouthed, annihilating terror, breathing poison and death in all directions. Belias seemed more nightmarish still. Wiegraf the man had been strong enough to fight armies: who could say what Wiegraf the demon might do?

And Ramza had done this to him. Had resisted any offer of peace. Had struck him down when he stood in his way. Had left him to die behind him. Had left him at the mercy of the Lucavi.

He wasn't playing with magic anymore. His eyes were closed, and his shoulders felt heavy. He could not escape his ghosts.

"Ramza?"

Ramza looked over his shoulder. The Gospel was open in Rafa's lap, but she wasn't looking at it. Her glassy eyes were on the rooted ceiling. "I can't...make them see the truth," she said. "Can I?"

"I..." Ramza shook his head. "I don't know."

"That's assuming we get there before the Templars," Rafa said.

Ramza's stomach lurched. "I know."

Rafa was still staring at the ceiling. "We hide the Gospel," she whispered. "Tell them we'll take them to it if it's just Alma and the Hand. Try and tell them the truth." She lowered her gaze. "Right?"

The plan sounded as weak to Ramza's ears as it did in her fearful voice, but Ramza nodded. "Right."

"And who's to say they don't just...take us. And..." She closed her eyes. "Break us."

No one. Nothing stood between them and that awful fate. Ramza kept his eyes on the same point of the ceiling as Rafa, so he could pretend he didn't see her shaking.

"I...I get it," Rafa said.

"Get what?" Ramza asked.

"Why you left them. Your friends."

Ramza's heart ached. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." She shook her trembling head. "It's...bad enough, thinking about what...what he might do to me. But when I think of what he might do to them..." Her voice cracked with a barely-swallowed sob. "Berkeley teases him, plays with him, he doesn't know how the Duke plays, and Clarice and Clara admire him, they'd do anything for a kind word from him, and Malak..." She buried her face in her hands. "At least I...at least I know what he is. If he hurts them..."

Ramza didn't know what to say. He started to reach out for her, hesitated. He didn't want to hurt her anymore than she'd already been hurt. So he watched her, as the rain pattered down outside.

"Rafa," he said. "The first person I ever killed was my friend."

Rafa looked up. Her eyes were dry. "What?"

"I...for a long time, I tried to...to fight without killing."

Rafa's eyes widened. "What? I thought that was just a story!"

Ramza flushed with embarrassment and his old foolishness. God, what a stupid noble boy he'd been, dreaming of being an impossible hero like his father! "I didn't...the Death Corps, they weren't...they didn't deserve to die. I didn't want to kill them. I tried not to. But then..." He rubbed his eyes. "I'm sorry, I don't know...why I'm telling you this. You don't want to-"

"I do." Rafa was giving him that solemn, serious look. "Please."

So Ramza told her. About finding Argus Thadolfas amidst the ruin of the Corps' attack on the Marquis. About Wiegraf, and Miluda, and Gustav. About the desperate fight north to rescue Teta, alongside Reis and Beowulf. About how Zeakden had burned, and how Ramza had driven his sword through Argus' back: not to save Delita, but to avenge Teta.

And once he'd started, he couldn't stop. About how the last of the Valkyries had rescued him, nursed him back to health. About how Gaffgarion had taken them both on as apprentices. About the mad battle in Araguay Woods, and the Cardinal's trap, and his monstrous transformation. About killing Geoffrey Gaffgarion, because he'd had no other choice.

And about the long road of futile hopes that had led him here. The hope of rescuing Ovelia, only to find the war that had engulfed Ivalice with her help. The hope of sharing the truth, only to be met by his brother's cold indifference. The hope of the Stone at Orbonne, only to be met with Alma's kidnapping...and Wiegraf's transformation.

"I couldn't...do it, Rafa," Ramza said, the fallen night thick between them. "I couldn't do it again. I can't lose the people I care about anymore." His voice was hoarse with talking, and he discovered he'd had a reason for the story he told. "I...left because I...couldn't fail them. You left because you're trying to save them." He found his own voice cracking. "Everything you've been through, and you're stronger than me in every way that counts."

The Gospel was still open in Rafa's lap. She was still watching him with that serious, solemn expression. Ramza was surprised to find tears in her eyes. "I know," she said. "I...know I'm strong. I've had to be strong. I'm...I'm so tired of being strong."

Ramza reached out slowly, and took one of her hands. She closed her eyes, but didn't pull away.

"They're not...opposites," Ramza said. "You're still strong, even if you're tired. You're still strong, even if you need to rest." He squeezed her hand, and smiled tentatively. "I'll be honest, though. I'm not sure we're gonna have time to rest for a bit."

Rafa laughed, and squeezed his hand back. "Right. Got an army to beat."

"Maybe two."

Rafa shook her head. "There's only three Templars."

"And the Hand's only got five members," Ramza said, raising his eyebrows. "Three Templars can do a lot of damage, even if they're not demons."

"Maybe they'll kill Barinten for us."

"We would be so lucky."

Rafa shook her head. Her face was solemn again. "Not lucky," she whispered. "If they kill him, Malak and my friends...they'll try to fight'em."

Ramza sighed and rubbed a hand across his eyes. "So we've got to kill him before the Templars do?"

"Thought I'd keep it interesting for you," Rafa said, with a tentative smile. "Give you a challenge worthy of your talents."

Ramza laughed. "Not much in the way of talent, Rafa."

"Don't sell yourself short," Rafa said, and squeezed his hand again. "If I'm strong, so are you."

The darkness was so heavy now he almost couldn't see her. He took the Gospel from her, bundled it tight, and tucked it up beneath the roots. He slept beneath it, already afraid to leave it behind. Simon's life work. His leverage against Barinten. His leverage against the church. His best hope of stopping the terrible forces that seemed so insurmountable. His best hope of saving his sister.

Neither of them kept watch: both needed their rest, to be at their best for whatever tomorrow held. Ramza didn't know if Rafa slept well. He knew he didn't. He stared up into the raining dark for a long, long time.

He must have slept eventually: he blinked once, and darkness was replaced by delicate light. The rain had stopped sometime in the night, and a cool mist undulated into their little cavern. Ramza rose, feeling surprisingly clear-headed in spite of his troubled sleep, and checked the Gospel once again. He remembered Simon's dying words, his dying regret, and his dying mistake. Thinking Ramza was Balbanes.

And he wondered: could Balbanes, commander of all the powers, resources, and respect of House Beoulve, have done what Ramza did now? Could he have set off alone across Ivalice, facing Templars and Khamja alike, to save his sister? And if he couldn't have, could Ramza?

He took a deep breath, patted the Gospel to make sure it was secure, then attended to his gear. When his cuirass and iron-lined grieves were in place, he secured his weapons: the sword on his left hip, the dagger on his right, the throwing knife just next to the sword, the quiver and bow upon his back, the runed gloves upon his hands. Rafa was just outside, punching the misty air with shimmering hands, flipping up into high, skull-shattering kicks. She had cleaned the muck from her white clothes as best she could, so their washed-out grey blended with the mist around her.

They looked back at the tree where they'd hidden from the rain, massive and twisted with age, its roots clawed deep into the low hillock on which it sat, its boughs spreading out in all directions with garlands of hanging green. Then, wordlessly, they set out for the main pontoon road to Riovanes.

The mist faded away as the morning sun rose higher, and the rolled logs on which they walked creaked into the muck with every step, as the mingled trees around them, living and dead, rustled in the occasional breeze. Several switchbacks later, and the great bulk of Riovanes rose up before them: a central, grey dome ringed by fresher, Romandan-style towers, evocative of Fort Zeakden's sunken mass but maintained with much greater care. There were echoes of Lionel in that building, and something just a little haphazard about its construction: when Ramza squinted, he could make out scaffolding along the outer walls. This was a castle that never stopped improving itself.

"Hold."

Ramza stopped at once, glancing back at Rafa. Rafa was not looking at him, or at the castle: her eyes were on the sky. A moment later, and the thin, strawberry-blonde girl plunged down to them like an arrow, then drifted in stuttering motions to a stop in front of them, like a leaf falling from a tree.

"Clarice-" Rafa began

"I have no words to exchange with traitors," Clarice said shortly. "You will make your way to the main gates, and surrender yourself." She looked at Ramza. "That is, if you would see your sister unharmed."

She leapt away before they could say anything else. Rafa squared her shoulders, and closed her eyes. "Let's go."

Closer and closer to the castle's imposing bulk, with the great forested marshlands glowing green in the bright morning sun, shining down upon them through a cloudless blue sky. Such a gorgeous, glorious day to be marching right into the teeth of danger. Ramza felt that stringy, powerful clarity that sometimes came to him just before a battle, as though his eyes were clearer and keener than they had ever been before.

Before them, the gates of Riovanes stood open. Through those gates stood rings of soldiers in full regalia, armed to the teeth. The castle and its towers loomed overhead, and Malak stood upon the steps, his twin swords hovering at his shoulders.

They came to a stop. The castle gates creaked shut behind them. The waiting soldiers were silent. There was not even birdsong on the air.

"My sister?" Ramza asked.

"Inside," Malak replied. "The Gospel?"

"I'll tell you where it is," Ramza said. "When I see Alma."

"You're in no position to bargain," Malak retorted, and gave a curt gesture with one hand. "Take them both to the dungeons."

"No one is taking either of us anywhere," Rafa said flatly, with a glare at a pair of approaching soldiers carrying gleaming spears.

The soldiers hesitated, glanced up at Malak. Malak's eyes flashed. "If you value his sister's life-"

"Do you value yours?" Rafa asked.

Silence before the castle gates. Ramza kept his hands carefully by at his side, though he was conscious of every weapon he might reach in time to fight.

"Then we will dispense with lies," Malak said, and smiled brightly. "I am sure you have already obtained everything I might have asked of you."

Ramza frowned. "What do you-"

"You haven't figured it out?" Malak asked, and gave his sister an admiring look. "We hatched the plan together, Beoulve. She would pretend to be your friend, as she pretended to be your sister's friend, buying your trust so you would confide in her what you would never admit to us."

Ramza felt a flash of pure, icy, terror. Had Rafa deceived him? Had it all been a lie?

"Now, come share what you have learned," Malak said. "And claim your rightful reward." Malak's smile widened. "The Grand Duke is most pleased with us."

Rafa did not look at Ramza. She straightened her back, as her hands clenched into fists at her side. "What do I care for the pleasure of a monster?"

The silence that had held the castle yard in its grip had been ominous. The silence that fell over them when Rafa spoke was deafening. Not a soul moved.

"Still your tongue, sister." Malak was no longer smiling.

Rafa shook her head. "No. Never again."

"You don't understand-" Malak hissed.

"No, Mal!" Rafa snapped. "You don't understand. You've seen exactly what he wants you to see, and become exactly what he wants you to become. I was more stubborn. I had to be broken." She glanced out around the surrounding soldiers. "I doubt I'm the only one."

"More of these lies-"

"Not lies, Mal!" she cried. "Not fantasies, not delusions, not nightmares. The truth. He broke me so I would serve him. But I'm. Not. Broken." She took a step towards him. "I will not serve that monster anymore. I've come to kill him. And if you want to stop me, you'll have to kill me."

For a long, long moment, no one moved. And then, beneath the bright blue skies, there was a terrible crack of thunder.

Ramza had been around a fair number of explosions at this point of his life; ones made by magic, and ones made by gunpowder; ones made by demons that shook castle walls to pieces, and ones made by desperate men powerful enough to level a fortress. But the force of this roaring burst of noise was so enormous he could think of nothing but the full fury of a raging storm, and the terrible crack of thunder as lightning struck a nearby tree. The force of that noise spoke right to the scared animal in Ramza: it spoke of a howling storm that would drown, burn, and break anything that could not find shelter.

Ramza flinched, throwing himself low. He was not alone. All around him, Khamja soldiers flung themselves to the ground. Credit where credit was due, Malak was not one of them: though he hunched over, he kept his feet, his blades hovering beside him. But even he was not so ready as Rafa, who was visible as a blur of grey cloth and brown flesh just above him, leaping towards the source of that terrible noise.

And as Ramza lifted his eyes, he saw the source for himself.

A geyser of broken stone, billowing smoke, and crackling golden light hung where one part of the castle roof had been mere moments before. It was as though a stormcloud had flung itself down from the heavens like a cannonball, smashing it apart in a burst of lightning force.

It looked just a little bit familiar to Ramza's eyes. It looked just a little bit like the broken sections of Lionel Castle, as Cuchulainn's burning beams had torn it apart around him.

"What?" Malak managed, in a strangled undertone.

"The Duke!" someone else shouted, and Malak whirled back to look at the castle, but as he was spinning there was a high, strangled shriek from the far edge of the gathered soldiers. Ramza snapped around, and saw a bestial shape of fire crash into a small knot of soldiers, igniting them with its incinerating touch. A moment later, and a human shape of ice glided down beside it, and thrust an icicle fingertip through a soldier's chestplate.

"Watch-!" came another cry, from the opposite edge of the camp, and then choked off in a strangled screech. Three dark shapes were ripping through the gathered soldiers in a flurry of stabs and slashes: men and women fell before them like wheat before a scythe.

"We're under attack!"

"Form up-!"

"The Duke-!"

"What's-!"

Ramza did not know who these unknown attackers were, or why they were assaulting Riovanes Castle. But their attack was an opportunity, and one Rafa had already seized: he lunged after her-

And found a sword hovering at his throat.

"Call them off," Malak growled.

"They're not my friends," Ramza said.

"Liar!"

Ramza nodded at the golden cloud hovering over one destroyed wing of the castle. "That's where the Templars were, right?"

Malak was pale, his eyes wild. "You expect me to believe this is the work of a demon?"

"Whatever it is," Ramza said. "It's inside the castle with my sister. And yours."

Malak's eyes flickered between the screaming lawn of Khamja soldiers, the elemental shapes, the black-clad reapers, and the golden cloud of crackling energy hovering over the broken wing of Riovanes.

"Come on!" he snarled. And when he turned to run, Ramza was just a step behind him.