F E T T E R S
Written on December 25, 2019 (♑)
Author's Notes: Originally written for noahfronsenburg for Yuletide 2019; set in an alternate universe in which Wiegraf wins the battle at Riovannes Castle and survives as Belias. It is very very very very very sad. (I usually don't repost giftfic here, but this one--much like "Let Your Curse Be On Me"-- is extremely dear to my heart and written for a prompt that allowed a great deal of artistic liberty on my part.)
Violent Imagery/Character Deaths: There is a detailed description of a character having their head bashed in. Other characetrs die due to stabbing, neck snapping, and gunfire. Dead bodies show up rather routinuely. There is intended to be a very vague sense of the threat of rape during warfare. Everything is just generally terrible.
At the outset, it would have been incorrect to imagine that Belias was some shell or surface underneath which Wiegraf was trapped; to do so allotted Wiegraf too much substance. Nor, for that matter, would it have been apt to imagine Belias a thing that lurked underneath Wiegraf’s exterior; that attributed to Wiegraf too much cohesion. Rather, if one was to put an alchemical metaphor on the situation, one might imagine Wiegraf to be something like a suspension intermixed with some vast and more potent body from which he had seemingly become undifferentiated. To most observers, there was no Wiegraf; he was indistinct from the Lucavi who had claimed him. However—ever so occasionally—those remnants of a human being would collect, adhere, and float to the surface of the menstruum containing them—like oil or scum atop water.
One such occurrence befell him as they made the long ride out of Riovannes, the bright cloaked band of Templars slowly pressing through the mire and phantoms of the wood beyond. Wiegraf was suddenly aware of the scent of earth and the chill of a rain that attested to the coming winter. His body that was not his body did not take heed of the elements, so he knew, as he shivered under the numbing cold of his wetted tabard, that he was in some portion a man again.
He blinked and his vision came to focus on the face of a pale and trembling girl, who shivered in the damp of her thin clothing. She was young; she was evidently frightened; he recalled very quickly that she was not with them under her own volition. As he looked around the clustering men about the camp, he realized that they had made no fire for her, not needing warmth for themselves.
“Hashmal...” His voice was halting. He was uncertain with whose intention it was that he spoke. “It would not do for the vessel to perish of cold.”
Hasmal—Vormav—whomever the thing was that leaned against the side of a grey and rotten tree, gave a nod and gestured to Rofel, who fumbled about in his pack for tinder and flint.
The fire, once started, did nothing to abate the numbness of his limbs, but the girl—ever silent—seemed relieved by its presence. He tried to remember what her name was outside of any associations with the great divinity to come. He did not recall if he had ever heard it. He was certain, though, it must have been some shout that went up as he had pushed her into Izlude's arms—some exhortation drowned out by the erratic of racing of his own fading pulse.
His thoughts melted around him and he was suddenly lost in the creaking of windmill gears—in the haze of stone dust and sunlight. She peered up at him as Golagros paced, gesturing his way through his rationalizations, fidgeting with the edge of his sleeves. It was a nervous tic he’d seen out of him before. He should have known he was about to do something foolish.
She spoke, eyes never meeting his, and he was brought back to the crackle of the fire and its fight against the low drizzle of rain. One maiden merged with another. He realized that the creature they were carrying to Murond had spoken. He realized that the girl at Fovoham had been somebody else.
He nodded in acknowledgement. The child, her hair looking more and more an elf-locked fright as it dried, tried to smile but failed. Her hands still shook even in the heat of the flame.
“You killed my brother, didn’t you?”
He nodded again, and with a sudden sharpness, the events of the past few days returned in a dismal haze.
He was stunned to realize how profoundly he had forgotten the fulfillment of his revenge.
If there were moments when there was no Wiegraf—when there was only that most ancient of ancients who once stalked the temples of old Ydora—the fragments from which Wiegraf might once again coalesce seemed given to dreams or recollections. At least, he felt the burden of heavy thoughts upon each return. The metaphysics of the situation eluded him. As he had once told Vormav, theology was not the province of blacksmith’s sons or soldiers.
As he receded this time, he fell beyond the windmill at Fovoham and back to the vast, grey plains of Gallione. The Romandans had landed on the white shoreline. The plague had spread outside of Dorter. They had made him captain of the kingdom’s ragged band of volunteers, and they had set him in the thick of it all. He was all of twenty.
It would be of course, in his ill-starred life, that Miluda returned to him now, savage and sullen, her gold-red hair awkwardly cropped off in uneven hunks until from a distance she resembled a boy. She had walked the four leagues from their village to find him, her boots bound in rags and three stolen shirts insulating her against the autumn frost. She told him that she was joining as a hanger on. Upon telling her to go home, he was informed that they no longer had one.
He did not weep to hear of it. He did not even ask for the particulars of the calamity. He told her that a peasant army was no place for a girl of thirteen.
She refused to leave, telling him that a wasteland full of enemy soldiers or some city packed full of refugees would not be kinder to her—telling him that she had no brothers there. He did not concede, if he recalled. She merely sat by the fire and started scraping a pot, and he did not tell her to go.
He came back to the surface again with the taste of ashes on his lips and realized that he had just finished eating: bread, barely risen and dense as stone. They were in some country inn or another. From out the window, he saw the blue grey expanse of one of Limberry’s salt lakes, and he wondered what had been done in however many weeks he was absent. His mouth seemed full with the burden of words not spoken, and patterns and signs lay somewhere behind the range of his eyes. He knew that something in him chafed to wear a human countenance.
The girl was there, sitting silent on the bed alongside a slender woman in green who broke off bits of her own loaf and soothingly bade her eat. She did not seem to be meeting with success.
“You must be strong, Alma. We cannot let our griefs overmaster us.”
He recognized the high priest’s daughter. She was still alive, still ignorant. He looked to the roseate blush of her skin underneath her hood’s shadow; he saw the soft tremor of a body breathing in rhythm with a human heart.
“You know…” Her voice dropped, hesitant. “I lost a brother too.”
The moment that the word “brother” left her lips, the girl—Alma—turned her eyes immediately upon Wiegraf. He tried not to look away for all he feared with a surreal irrationality that her gaze might somehow annihilate him—might banish him back to whatever depth it was from which he’d emerged.
“Meliadoul,” he said quietly, uncertain of her name until he spoke it. “I do not think it mete to compare…” He faltered, fragments of him rushing back to a bygone march, wounded and alone, to the frost-covered plateau. His breath had clouded the air as he came upon that nest of corpses in Corpse Brigade green, half frozen in the mud where they’d fallen. He had been grateful, as he approached, that nature had been kind to stay the hand of decay long enough that he might recognize her...
No. He wrested himself back, refusing to proceed along those lines. He felt the body he didn’t belong to tremble as he fell forward a little, shaking as he caught himself.
“Every grief is different,” he stammered out as Meliadoul rushed to his side. There was a shock that ran through him as he felt her small hands on his arms, as if the hungers within him wished to reach through his skin to consume her. “You mustn’t expect…” He closed his eyes trying to remember how to force air into his lungs. “...let her fast if it is her wish.”
“She nearly died of fever, Wiegraf,” she replied sternly. “If we’re to get her to sanctuary, she needs to eat?”
“Sanctuary?” he replied, obviously still pained.
Meliadoul looked at him as if he had gone mad, and he realized that this had probably been discussed with him before.
“Sanctuary ...in the legal sense. Father is sure that the High Confessor will extend her shelter and clemency once it is explained that the heresy was not her own.”
Wiegraf nodded, wincing as he recognized that Alma Beoulve had continued, unerringly to stare at him. Meliadoul gestured for him to sit down.
“You did not sleep for two days, Wiegraf. You should rest.”
He kept nodding, imagining well that he had not given any semblance of sleep that the girl would recognize. He knew, whatever his own phantom existence might be to him, that Belias—Gigas, Father of Abjection—had no need of slumber.
“I’ll see if they have anything to calm your nerves,” she said, frowning a little. She patted him on the shoulder. “We need you able to fight if it goes poorly at Bethla.”
She left, and as her light step faded, he leaned back against the wall, letting his eyes rest on Alma’s. She seemed thinner, certainly, than he’d last remembered her, although she still had the soft grace of one used to noble living. The rich, when they starved, faded romantically into the sleep of jilted lovers and penitents; he could not yet envision her sick and skeletal, the traces of the death’s head emerging within her face.
His breath hitched as he felt some part of him crawl and slither in rebellion. He felt the phantom pain of the horns that he did not wear. Somehow, he remained.
“How did he die?” Alma asked quietly.
He wondered that nobody had told her. He wondered if anybody could. He wondered if she even spoke to the others. This was the second time she had addressed him and him alone with the aim of soliciting some confession.
He leaned into the wall against which he was propped as he tried to conjure the scene—tried to tread the fine edge between the man who had wanted vengeance and the beast that had taken it. He recalled so much of the castle: the dim torchlight playing on all the ornaments of wrought iron, the halls glutted with the Grand Duke’s fallen retainers, the dulled glint of Izlude's armor, dented where it had been crushed into him. That he should not recall the particulars of Ramza Beoulve’s death seemed an absurdity.
“He told me my sister would be disappointed in me,” he said after a while, not knowing where the thought came from. “He told me she would weep to see me.”
He had. He could not bring shape to the words or the scene, but that sentiment had lingered with him. Alma put her hands to her mouth, as if to stifle a sob. Wiegraf realized as she did so that his own face was wet.
“I’m so sorry...”
The words came, floating like a poison into the air between them, but he did not comprehend which of the two of them had spoken. As she curled her body against itself and balled into a soft, convulsing mass on the bed, he thought to comfort her, but he realized the both the futility and impossibility of doing so.
He fell soft into that next darkness, although he could see before him the shadows of altars, lit by the dim glow of censors as the language of his worship fell into forms more and more arcane. Belias was but the outermost of many names, and as each one was shed, he grew both more and less substantial. They called him Herald of Wretchedness, Lord of Storms, Lord of Magic, He of the Cloven Hoof. The veiled world outside of himself would recognize him as such soon, and all his pronouncements on the vanity of belief would show themselves truths. Wiegraf, whatever he was, would live on only as absence—remembered as the sky must remember dead and unseen stars.
Wiegraf remained, however, and as he drifted this time, the image of Alma Beoulve drifted with him. He felt the tremors of her weeping as if he had held her, as if he had some hope of stifling them. The choking animal howl of her grief only fell silent when it dissolved into rain and thunder. He was clutching Miluda as she sat pale and quiet within the ragged circle of their camp. She was shivering. She was shivering, and they did not speak as they looked to the boy in Romandan sables who lay in the pooling mud. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen, scarcely any older than her at any rate. The growing downpour had begun to wash clean the congealed blood that cut across his face where a paring knife had been stabbed through his right eye.
She had explained without much prompting. He had come upon her suddenly, evidently having seen smoke and smelt the thin stock she had coaxed from the quail Golagros had taken the night before. She told him it must have been the food—that he must have been starving. They were already cut off from supply lines in the hills between the flats and the desert, and a man this far inland was unlikely to be there under orders. She explained to him—to herself—that he must have been lost.
It had happened so fast that nobody had screamed—not until somebody came sniffing around for dinner and found a corpse by the fire. In the clamor and chaos it had taken them all a while to notice her, stone still and wrapped tight in the green of her cloak. He had interrogated her twenty different ways as to whether she was okay. Somebody kicked the body. When it was all out and all over, more than one man clapped her on the shoulder with an irritating over-familiarity and congratulated her on her first kill.
He was vaguely aware in the next interim as to what was happening. He could hear shouts and choking over Bethla plain. The sound of Hashmal’s unwavering, sonorous voice left its impression without imparting its meaning. It was like those long days marching towards the eastern front, moving through the night until one was dreaming on two legs, thinking every moment you were awake until you were jostled back into true consciousness and could appreciate the difference. Wiegraf, as Belias conveyed him through the wilds of Araguay, imagined he knew where they were headed—that they would soon be afloat in the sea between Gariland and Murond—that whatever end was fated for their journey was soon to be at hand. He almost recognized, in the midst of these meditations, what an odd thing it was for him to have them: that there was a growing wholeness to him where there ought not be.
He came to a more full awareness to find himself mistaken as to their course, his eyes lighting on the white stone walls of Igros and the blue flags that hung from their towers. He wavered upon the threshold of consciousness as they rode through the castle gates, and somewhere he recalled that he must have been here before—that he must have been defending the capital.
It was strange that he should feel most fully himself when he sat in some chamber with every man a Lucavi, his hands folded on an ornate table of inlaid blue marble that was surely a relic of Ivalice’s richer years. He felt a spy in his own body; it was at a moment such as this that Belias ought desire full control. Hashmal stood, arms upraised in the midst of some oration, and he saw that Zalera sat next to him, the silver hair of his host catching the sun that streamed through a lead-light window. All the lesser servitors were absent, as were both mortal women.
Wiegraf turned his head and registered no surprise as the door opened and the lord of House Beoulve walked in, his only remaining brother following close behind. It was barely a matter of seconds before he recognized the signs of what had befallen them. Dycedarg’s eyes reflected a light that seemed to come from nowhere within the bright lit room, and his heart kept the erratic pace of a thing that had to remember to beat. As for Zalbag, who stood stiller and paler than all the statues that graced the castle’s echoing halls, his heart did not beat at all.
“Adramelech,” Hashmal said, closing his eyes in quiet frustration. “What is that thing?”
“There will be many political considerations in the days ahead, and the war may still need battles fought. I thought if we had a general…”
“We have a general,” Zalera responded with a cool flippancy. “...or at least my host might be made one easily enough. War heroes are scarcely in short supply when mortal men have spent half a century accruing them.”
Adramelech, for that was the name that Belias knew and Wiegraf now understood, looked darkly about the room. Any creature used to the surrender and adulation of older ages chafed to be thwarted.
“Am I to assume that none of you hold any thralls? Is it just us four on this pilgrimage now?”
Hashmal tuned to look at him.
“There is a difference between thralls and fetters,” he said solemnly. “It must be clear that you ride your host and do not give them means to ride you.”
Wiegraf’s mind burned at those words, and for an instant he feared to think on them; he feared to think at all—feared even to be. The idea that a Lucavi could be ridden... did Hashmal mean him? Could he know who it was who looked out from his eyes? His faint and wavering presence in this moment seemed precisely the circumstances being cautioned against, and here he was, aware of himself, his condition, and that he had once been a man. If Belias was riding him, he certainly did not feel his full weight.
Adramelech petulantly flung Zalbag to the floor, and the revenant gave an inarticulate cry as it fell, unable to catch itself. “I scarcely think my host thinks kindly on this poor shadow.”
“Hate is just as much an entanglement as love,” Hasmal replied, evidently unfazed by the outburst. “Any attachment holds unfortunate potentialities, and we are drawing towards a time where we will need to take every precaution available to us.”
Wiegraf did not move, nor did he know if he could. He was torn between wishing he might recede into the safety of nothingness again and ardently needing to understand what these precautions entailed. In this morass of darkness, the talk of fetters and their unfortunate potentialities seemed as though it might bode some slender hope, mad as it must be.
Zalera stroked his chin thoughtfully. “If you must summon such shadows, Adramelech, consider bringing back something you can treat with complete indifference. I doubt my host even remembers my servitor’s name.”
“Yes,” Hashmal continued in agreement, “It’s held a strong enough link could even throw off the possessor altogether.”
“So you have nothing near to a fetter then?” Adramelech said tersely, “Any of you?”
Wiegraf was waiting for Hashmal to speak when he was suddenly aware that the door had been left open and that the shape of a thin, hooded figure stood framed within it. He could not tell how long it had been, but Meliadoul’s drawn and frightened face told him she had heard more than she ought.
She noticed that his gaze was directed at her and stepped over the threshold, evidently aware that she now needed to explain her presence.
“Father…” she stammered, turning towards Hashmal and trying deliberately not to look to where Zalbag still lay crumpled and unmoving on the floor. “Lady Beoulve is... in some distress.”
Nobody spoke. Hashmal nodded and then tilted his head as if to bid her continue.
“She says she knows where she is. She’s been screaming inconsolably this past hour through. She is...” She closed her eyes, trying and failing to hide her fear. “She is calling for her brothers.”
Neither brother had any observable reaction. Neither, he suspected, was capable of mustering one. Hashmal smiled.
“Daughter,” he said soothingly. “You must send her my apologies that we are taking so much of her brothers’ time. I assure you that they will be at liberty to meet with her shortly.”
She nodded very quickly, tensing as she began to turn toward the door. As she did so, Wiegraf saw the high priest's posture suddenly stiffen, and he tried as best he could to watch dispassionately as this trace of an emotion left him.
“Meliadoul,” Hashmal continued after the moment's hesitation. “Please come here.”
She froze, and Wiegraf knew that every word he might speak was frozen along with her, the insistent force of a master he had most assuredly not cast off him keeping him silent. He did not dare try to move.
“Daughter.” His voice was firmer, albeit still very soft. “Come here.”
All watched as she tremblingly approached him, whereupon he smiled, and placed a hand upon her shoulder as if to draw her into an embrace. She smiled back. He brought her close to him and, with a motion faster than mortal eyes might trace, twisted her head quickly upwards and to the side, breaking her neck.
As she collapsed, Wiegraf told himself again and again that the shade of green enshrouding her was different—that it had a touch too much blue to resemble the fern-colored garb of the Dead Men. He sat there, however, unable to look away from the cloaked lump of a fallen woman, trying as best he could not to drag himself into other memories—trying as best he could to remain in this sun bright room where he could at least persist as a spectator.
“Well,” said Zalera nonchalantly. “That was a rather theatrical answer.”
Hashmal was silent. He looked at the corpse at his feet, and the briefest shadow of feeling flickered across his features—something more like relief than sorrow.
“I take it nobody is presently watching the vessel then?” Zalera continued.
Still fuming, Adramelech raised a gloved hand in a gesture of obvious significance and spoke soft a strain of High Ikoku. Zalbag Beoulve, much as he had in life, moved quickly under the power of his brother’s words. In an unsteady, unnatural motion, the revenant pried itself off the floor and brought itself back to standing. A spatter of rusty black stained its lips; it had evidently injured itself in the fall.
“If it would please you all to have this... 'fetter' out of sight for the time being, I am happy to spare at least one brother on my sister’s account.”
Hashmal’s eyes narrowed. “You have no sisters, Adramelech. If you had any in that age where you sat a majestic king of bronze and fire, they are long since crumbled to dust. You must know what a foolish plan it is you propose. Having that to guard her will only make her more desperate.”
In the next uncomfortable silence that ensued, Wiegraf thought he could hear a peel of distant weeping—although he imagined that even his preternaturally acute senses might be mistaken in the midst of a castle so full and flush with the noise of human life. He noticed, however, that the thing that once had been Zalbag closed its eyes sharply around the time of the seeming cry.
Wiegraf willed himself to stand and was shocked as his body obeyed.
“I will see to it,” he said abruptly.
All looked to him. He feared it was with a dawning recognition as to how little he had spoken and what that might forebode. He did not allow himself to think on it, however. He did not allow himself to look at the corpse. He did not stop to ask permission or offer explanations. He simply willed himself, one step after the other, to leave the room and walk into the winding hallways of Igros. The others might bicker as they may, he was—for the time—Wiegraf Folles, and he was moving, and he would not yet fade, however much it seemed that he stumbled through a darkening mist in seeking out the room from which Alma cried.
When he arrived, when he flung open the dark oak door behind which she was embowered, he found her kneeling on the edge of an open window, her head in her hands and the open sky facing her. She shrieked when he caught her in his arms and struggled madly as she was dragged back to the safety of her room.
“Tell them I’m here!” she howled. “Tell them I’m here! I’ll go to Murond—I’ll step onto the pyre myself—just let them see me!”
Whatever the interim had been since he last truly beheld her—it had not treated her kindly. She was thinner still. Her hair was dull and her voice cracked with weeping. Everything about her had a wild, wraithlike look that seemed as terrible and strange as the mien of any other in their demon-touched party.
“I’ll jump if you leave me alone again,” she said forcefully, half laughing as Wiegraf turned her to face him. “Bring me to my brothers, or I will jump, and Mullonde can lend sanctuary to my bones!”
He felt the pulse of a blue flame and the hiss of low voices as he tried to focus on what he might say. Belias had not forgotten him. He longed to hold her fast with more than two arms, to tether her forever to this spot such that there might be no risk she would depart.
“You do not... you do not want to see them,” he stammered out at last.
“Are they dead, then?” She continued to laugh. “Have you killed all of them?”
Wiegraf looked into her eyes, wishing that he had some means to convey the full force of what had befallen them through a glance. As he could not, he merely repeated himself in resignation.
“You do not want to see them.”
“I know that something terrible awaits me in Murond. “She trembled. Her tone was approaching on full-pitched mania. “I know that they are not good men, but… would you have let your sister fall to this, Wiegraf?”
He tried not to grip her any harder at the sound of his name or the mention of his sister, fearing that to give into that impulse might shatter her in his grasp. With a halting, awkward stupidity, he just barely managed to shake his head.
He would not have let his sister fall to this.
“You aren’t like the others, Wiegraf,” she said—dropping her voice as she began to cry again. “You can’t be.”
He nodded. It came a little easier this time.
“You won’t deliver me to that end,” she whispered. “You won’t. You had your revenge, and you aren’t… you can’t be... you look human now.” She was rambling. “None of them, none of them even see me. Nobody except... “ She gasped, choking back another sob as she suddenly went silent.
“Where’s Meliadoul?” she asked in a hushed panic.
As the corners of his vision dissolved into the nothingness of something beyond sleep, he felt her begin to cry again, and a voice that he had not heard since he lay bleeding on the steps of Orbonne spoke once more to him directly.
She is not for you, Stonebearer.
He fell again, through the pilgrims on endless death marches to shrines that did not exist, through the shouts of sacrifices sealed within the pit, through all things that the wearer of the horns demanded out of whim and caprice. It was sudden, immediate; he sank into the dark like a man caught in the pull of the angry sea.
“You have your own ghosts to play with, Stonebearer,” Belias continued. “Concern yourself not with these passing shades.”
Wiegraf tried, as best he could, to disobey—to pull the image of Alma Beoulve down with him to whatever blackness he was destined for. If he could hold her, shade or phantom as she might be, he had a link—a fetter Hashmal called it. She was the sister of his sister’s murderer; that, whisper thin as it was, led him back to Miluda. That was a way to remain.
She screamed in a disconsolate fury as they stood in the streets of Lesalia, nearly causing some farmer’s thick-hocked bird to bolt out of the merchant’s quarter and into an alley. The senate had passed down their decision. Of all useless, ugly things in a useless ugly war, it seemed such a bitter draught that what should make Miluda weep would be a gaggle of soft, fat-faced old men. Wiegraf did nothing to stop her, even knowing that her outburst might bring the Lionsguard down on them. He was, frankly, in a fit mood to cross paths with some gold-gilt knights who’d only had to stalk about palaces guarding princesses this past decade.
She evidently had other ideas. She calmed herself, gripped the pommel of her sword tightly, clenched her jaw, and walked briskly towards the inn where they’d been set up. If she had as much a mind to strangle the king by own guts as he had, she’d the better sense to announce her plans somewhere other than the open air. He did his best to keep pace alongside her.
“We’ll manage,” he said, not certain how. “We’ve managed worse.”
“We managed because those bastards fed and bled us enough to keep us standing.” She spat. “They don’t need us anymore. They’d boil us down for broth and glue if they could pay reparations with them.”
He touched her shoulder, wanting to say something reassuring but finding himself at a loss for words. She’d doubtlessly thought it through more than he had: what they’d do once they returned to Gallione. He imagined it must weigh upon her more heavily to go back empty-handed.
“We made it so far…” Her voice cracked as she looked skyward. “We made our way through it so many times… we lived so many times... and there’s no poetry to it, Wiegraf. All those escapes and the end of the story is we disappear.”
He grabbed her closely, telling her in as many ways as he could that that was a lie—promising her that he’d prove it.
She fell away regardless, and he tried to cling to her—to one her or another—to at least move up that chain of memories and find Alma where Miluda had fled. Belias rode now, but he could close in. He could hear the sea. He could feel the faint outlines of Mullonde’s sepulchral towers and the toll of the high cathedral’s bells. Faram faram faram . Penitents and priests marched and divided around him. He knew the time. He knew the place. It had been five days journey out of Igros, back through Gariland and out with the tide. They had time for arrangements; all moved as it ought. He felt Rofel's hand on his shoulder, and he was suddenly alight with the thousand flaming colors of a great circle of stained glass.
“Hashmal is seeking audience with his holiness. He asked that you keep your eye on House Beoulve.”
There was a hushed emphasis to his words that confirmed that Adremelech had continued to be a cause for concern, although some portion of him was already aware. He nodded and walked through the tapestried and carpeted halls, knowing already where his course led him. He was waxing in his power. Enough of him had remained throughout to know where they were and what they were doing. If it was true: if he could cast off Belias altogether and become a man…
He tried not to think on it. Too much focus and his resolve would draw attention. Belias knew he had tested his bonds, and he would not fade lightly back to the realm of his origin. If he was to hold onto hope, slender and impossible as hope seemed, he must not hope too brightly.
He opened the door of a rich and ornamented chamber, its walls seemingly gilded with the lacy arabesques of reliquaries. Seated on a stone bench sat Alma Beoulve, her hair neatly combed and bound behind her. They had evidently circumvented the pontiff’s authority and absconded with the Church’s most sacred relics, for she wore a faded saffron robe that Wiegraf recollected as featuring in any number of paintings and icons of the Saint. Kneeling before her was the shape and semblance of what had once been her eldest brother, the ashen-faced remnant of the other leaning stiff and silent against the wall.
Alma did not weep this time, nor did she tremble. It seemed to him that she had been hollowed of her tears. As he stepped into the room, Adremelech turned sharply to look at him and stood.
“I’ve explained things to her. She has been told that she is to gain her absolution through pilgrimage.”
Wiegraf’s eyes narrowed. He could not imagine that Hashmal would have entrusted any such explanations to one whose host was so near to the vessel.”
“You understand then, Lady Beoulve?”
Alma looked at him and nodded. As they caught one another’s gaze, an intense, pleading look flashed across her visage before she spoke.
“It was good of the High Templar to have my brothers explain the situation to me,” she said. “I am grateful that I should be thus spared.”
“I am glad, milady.”
He stood uneasily in the doorway. He could not speak freely here, and he could not leave. He knew Alma’s fears were by no means allayed, but there was nothing he could do to address them. He sensed that both he and Adramelech were waiting in the hopes that the other would go elsewhere. He wondered if he suspected him of being something other than Belias.
Nobody stirred, until somewhere across the echoing halls and towers, there came a shout of panicked discovery. He knew, without any further announcement, that the High Confessor was dead. It was only Alma who started at the sound of screams. As he turned in feigned surprise, he saw the slightest motion out of the corner of his eye. Adramelech's hand stretched itself into something that just might carry with it the faintest trace of magic.
His ears were pierced by a sudden and terrible howling: a pained animal shriek that chilled him in its inarticulate brokenness. He turned back to see Zalbag suddenly in motion, flying towards his siblings, sword drawn. His hand trembled as he grabbed for his own blade. As he saw what seemed in all ways the shape and person of Dycedarg Beoulve stand unmoving in the path of the revenant’s fury, he wondered just how many in the room were in the midst of slipping their bonds.
Alma dashed away with a sharp gasp, but she did not scream. She ran instead for the door. Wiegraf stumbled forward, sword in hand, doing nothing whatsoever to hinder her escape. If this had been Dycedarg’s scheme—if he had thrown Adramelech just enough to loose his brother and create the pandemonium necessary for his sister’s flight—he had no wish to thwart him.
Wiegraf’s head swam visions: of iron idols stained red with rust and blood—of things that spoke to how small a mote he was in the greater presence of the thing that held him. He thought he would retreat. He thought he would lose what tenuous grip he had and watch as He flew after her. As the sinews of his body ached to move within a form more terrible, he struggled to maintain his shape and his control over it.
Time became soft, faltering, fluid. Zalbag, clouded eyes wide and frightful, ran his blade through his brother’s breast, tumbling them both to the ground. Wiegraf had to act. There could be no plausible deniability of his growing agency if he neither attempted to stop the melee nor ran in pursuit of the girl. He wrenched himself forward, laying hold of the corpse before it could continue its assault. Dycedarg, his heart keeping a fast but steady tempo as he bled, remained on the floor, fingers pressed against where the blade met his flesh. He shuddered, silent, teeth clenched. His eyes blazed with an intensity that seemed, to Wiegraf’s limited reckoning, wholly human in its anger.
You save none here.
He continued to resist, continued to force himself into the limbs and brain of his own clumsy body. He thought of Alma, imagining her racing out into the streets of the city where someone must surely lend her succor. This hope was not bright. It was not overweening. He was ready that it should disappoint him.
The rapid clatter of footsteps sounded in the distance as he threw the revenant to the ground, pressing his sword into his chest. He did not shudder as he saw the traces of purple black fluid that stained the man’s cheeks. He did not show his revulsion at the spectacle of a hero laid low. He willed himself to act, running the blade through until it struck down to the floor.
Zalbag did not die. He gripped the weapon and writhed as best he could around it, trying in vain to pry himself up. As the blade cut into the leather of his gloves and into the flesh of his cold hands, he turned his dim, unfocused gaze up towards Wiegraf.
“Kill... me...” His voice was terrible. It was clear that the effort to force air between his lips was no longer intuitive. “Kill me now... before it falls upon me again.”
Wiegraf faltered as Belias’ refused him his strength. He could not pull free the sword.
“Kill him!” Dycedarg barked hoarsely from somewhere behind him, panting in pain. “Kill all of us if you can!”
New shouts echoed from somewhere beyond them all as Wiegraf fell to his knees and gripped Zalbag’s head in his hands. He wished not to look at the thing he destroyed, but it was an unavoidable portion of all the ugliness around him. He dashed the man’s skull against the floor as best he could, watching as he continued to mouth the same plea. Even when the side of his face had caved, even when the greater part of him seemed spilled out into a splotch of black ichor crawling across the floor—even then, some power tethered a spirit to that poor wreck of a body. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. It seemed the only honest prayer in that city of priests.
He eventually wrested power over himself enough to tear down one of the room’s gilt candelabras, with which he bashed in Zalbag’s head beyond recognition. By the time Wiegraf seemed satisfied that all was still, splintered into fragments of bone and brain that would never be recalled, he had lapsed from an exact awareness of anything other than his immediate task.
He looked up to see the bright-hued robes of the Templarate clustered before the door. Hashmal stood at their front, his hand around Alma Beoulve’s wrist. Her expression seemed a perfect emptiness, and he could catch no sign of sorrow in her face that had not already been etched there prior.
Is this your triumph, Stonebearer?
He turned and saw Dycedarg, still crumpled upon the floor. He was laughing. Behind him, the shadows of relics and antiquities spun into the form of something far darker than the light should allow for. The shape they formed seemed to gain in its weight and presence when last son of House Beoulve finally turned to his sister and called her name.
Are these the fruits of your rebellion?
Wiegraf resisted the urge to dissipate and dissolve, even when the full weight of Adramelech was cast from Dycedarg and stood before the assembly in all the majesty of his godhood. Struggling to his feet, he tried with a passing glance to scan Alma’s features for some sign or symbol that would let him cleave to her. He needed to remain. He needed some chain to bind him to the world and all its potentialities.
“Belias,” Hashmal said firmly. “End this. We have no need of vessels that do not hold.”
It was as before. He could not hesitate. It did not take much to wrench the blade that lay in already in Dycedarg’s chest to meet his heart, and the man certainly had no desire to hinder him Through each step of the process, through every motion he forced the fibers of his body to take, he thought of the girl to whom the dying man looked. He did not think of the great horned thing that stood suddenly realized within the room amidst them; he did not think of its companion that lived within and around him. He thought of the child whose three brothers he had now killed, and he through her tried to wind his way back to Miluda.
Things became a blur, but he did not fade: not as Hashmal hissed a series of orders to Rofel and Kletian, not as he forced himself to retreat into the hallway, not as the great beast that now inhabited the room spoke of its fury in words he trembled to realize he no longer understood. He spent every instant he could focusing on Alma, imaging that within her there was sympathy. Even if Wiegraf had slain her family just as thoroughly as House Beoulve had slain his men, he imagined that could only bind them together in this darkness. It must.
Throughout the long, monotonous walk through panicking clerics and white buildings, throughout all of Hashmal’s stern pronouncements as regarded Adramelech's carelessness, Wiegraf clung to her. He had to persist. To return control to the Lucavi now would put an end to any freedom he might have. Belias would not risk a repetition of what had just transpired. If he was to throw him off, he would have to stay and await the right moment to do so.
That man had better means and a sharper mind than you, and what was the yield of his schemes?
He ignored the voice. He must not imagine his failure. As he drifted, it was not back to that place of darkness in which he was a suspended nothing, but to thoughts through which he could remember what had once anchored him. Miluda. He would look to Alma, and he would sift her through until he came back to Miluda. As they moved to the docks and the sea beyond, he did not leave the girl’s side.
Wiegraf wished for so much in her presence, but he could not tell her he was sorry. He could offer no apologies. To do so would be to alert one creature or another in their nest of devils that he was in power. He offered only a glance, a measured breath, a touch of the hand. He carried with him the consideration that she was not and could not be Miluda—that sisters could not be shuffled and traded—but this brought into focus the profound and maddening difference between them.
Alma, haggard and numbed to despair that surrounded her, was still alive.
Alma could be saved.
In the absence of sleep, he did not dream, but he still remembered. He registered the day to day occurrences in which he found himself, and he had mastery over them. They had left Murond two days since, leaving Adramelech and one lesser servitor or another to stalk the papal palaces in the midst of the tumult. Hashmal had said that other hosts could be found should he need a human mien once more.
Nobody spoke. The water was a deep enough blue to verge on blackness. He recalled the plains outside Viura, and the feeling of running until all was flight—until one could not understand that one’s legs still brushed the ground.
Their unit had been cut to ribbons, and they’d realized that the real push was several leagues north—that they needed the Southern Sky to press into the capital and they needed warm bodies to slow Devanne down before he changed course. The nobility’s future plans had never been contingent on the Dead Men’s survival.
As the boat flew towards land, he remembered the grinning chain of stars along the sky as they fled with whomever was left. The Thundergod could suffer an upset for all he cared. In that instant, he would have been quite content should Ivalice herself have fallen. As he pulled Miluda's slender wrist along with him, he thought she was sobbing at the wreck they left behind. She’d grown up alongside most of the fallen.
She bounded ahead of him as he tired, and he realized, as the glint of her sword flashed behind her under the moon, that she had been laughing. In the humid air of the Ordallian summer, the stink of death still clinging to their skin, she carried on like a child but playing at war, running through the sedge and bramble as though it had all been a game.
Alma, however, did not laugh. She did not weep. She looked to him occasionally with obvious expectation, but he could tell her nothing. The lot of them had come to treat her as a thing inhuman as themselves. Although the journey was brief, they had no food with them. Wiegraf reckoned that they did not anticipate she would long have need of such considerations.
If he had possessed anything, he would have turned it over with no thought. He could think of no marker of sentiment more profound than giving food to someone who hungered, and it was a rare piece of kindness he would have been able to veil as necessity. He fell back to those last days before Ivalice’s final capitulation. They had been hungry then. It seemed they had been hungry all their lives for all he knew that he was once a stocky guildman’s son, used to a suckling at each high holiday and jam that lasted all the winter long. They had to have been hungry then. The Ordallians seemed as though they had meant to chase the two of them alone all the way back to Zeltennia; four nights on the run, arm in arm, as they tried to keep ahead of the army.
Alma clutched at him as they made port—soft-eyed, bird-bone fragile. He wanted to tell her in as bold and swaggering a tone as he could muster that they would make it. They would run through and find themselves back in the thick of fellow men. How many of every order had perished in that calamity, back then? How many soldiers had sunk into the blackness of the dust? He had lied and lied and lied to them again. He had explained that they would live, he had vowed they would not vanish, and for ten blighted years, he had forced those lies into what truths he could make of them.
Belias said nothing now as Wiegraf repeated to himself new promises, new lies for himself. He would throw him off; he would save the girl; he would stop the coming calamity. It had happened before. He’d survived the slaughter on the plain, the weeks caught in the gap between Zelmonia and Zarghidas, the siege at Bethla, the snowfields that stretched out under the flames of Zeakden. The Romandans, the Ordallians, the Northern Sky: he’d survived them all. If they killed him at the end of this last act—and God, they would—it was a benediction anyway. The hope now was not to live, the hope was to leave something—however weak and fluttering it might be—that would live out this disaster. All things could not descend forever into the dark.
It was raining again. He realized Alma had spoken.
“I don’t know if you meant any mercy by it, but thank you.” She did not look at him, nor did she name the act for which she thanked him.
She looked downward. “I imagine the four of us will be together soon.”
He pulled the side of his cloak over her. It would not do to have the Saint’s robes ruined in a downpour.
He nodded but said nothing. She continued.
“If you could tell me of Ramza before this pilgrimage ends, I would thank you on that count as well.”
He nodded again, not letting her know how little he remembered the boy and his death. He tried not to think on him, as much as he wished her the comfort of knowing. Thinking back to Riovannes would summon more than memories.
In all the days and nights on the road that followed, she would ask him more than once on the same subject, and he would look to her sympathetically with no answer. Belias, for once, seemed to be the lesser part of him. He could not risk the opening of that box again. He could not call to that time when he stood, hollow-eyed with four arms raised, and told the world of the God he was and once had been. They would both have memories enough for them waiting at Orbonne, and he wished to reserve his strength until then.
That, he thought, would be the moment to act. When they walked back to where once he’d lay dying while she was carried off into the dark—that would determine how things were to fall. He could not drift now. He could not waver. Although the weight of so many nights without sleep fell heavy on the mind of a mortal man, he did his utmost to focus his thoughts towards escape. He would draw; she would flee. If she’d truly grown up there, she ought to know the countryside better than the rest of them. She would flee, and God willing he would be a man again before they cut him down. He could perish as he ought have on the cold slate of the abbey steps. He could undo the pact, and re-inscribe it with something worth dying upon.
In the fragile haze of that long march, Wiegraf must have recognized how poor a plan it was. It didn’t matter. He’d made worse plans before and lived through them. He’d marched in front of the Romandan lines once, a stolen flag his only shield from fire. They’d spent that homecoming drunk as lords on something Gustav had fermented out of a spoiled batch of potions. He would wander back to all that—to being young and stupid and full of the idiocy of his ideals if it would stave off doubt. He’d trace that line until he could imagine the world might be just.
And so he went, stumbling through until he looked and saw the dark pointed tower of Orbonne on the hill. They approached, and Alma breathed heavy and blinked as her tears joined the rain.
As always, there was rain.
It was not with any great weight of deliberation that things began. The moment came, and he stumbled, the horror of the past rushing back to meet them all. “Run!” he barked, and there was a shout that went up as he spun, blade in hand, wind beating back his cloak. He told himself that Alma would run, must run—that she would disappear into the distance and live where he would not. He told himself that he would shake the devil, he would save the girl, he would unmake their doom. As they fell towards him, as Zalera flashed and flew into the melee and a scream shot through the air, he felt full of the sudden grace of martyrdom.
He parried, counterattacked, tried to advance. The blast of burning powder sparked through the air, and a bullet grazed his side. He did not look back. He did not heed the voice that would move him.
Turn around, Stonebearer…
He did no such thing. For all his memories of ancient and forgotten atrocities, for all he ached to wear once more a crown of horns, he would be a man tonight. As the former Marquis finally landed a hit that would draw blood, he rejoiced to feel the mundane reality of its sting. He stepped back, telling himself that soon he would be sundered from that which held him.
Who is it that you fancy holds you here?
She had made the run from Gariland to Dorter, laughing again as she loosed from her hair from the thin stripe of Northern Sky cloak she’d taken as a trophy. After ten years of running, they ought have suspected more of her. She must be running now. The smoke of the gunfire melted into the growing downpour, and he staggered forward, catching his opponent’s mail at the arm and twisting fast in the hope he would mangle.
What is it you hope cleave to?
There was a sharp gasp from the assembly. Zalera stumbled gracelessly back before he rebounded, and he wondered when would be the time for all to shed their masks. Belias lay but light upon him now—like a loose garment he might finally cast off. That the beast should mock him was surely borne of desperation.
She is not your sister.
He had not turned before, and he had no intention to do so. However, as those words passed through him, he felt the sharp burn of a blade between his ribs. As he fell, he twisted and saw the collapsed form of Alma Beoulve kneeling beside him.
She had never run.
She hadn’t run, and as the Templarate looked on in silence, he saw how she clutched her side, red running down the robes Murond had kept immaculate for twelve centuries. The bullet had clearly done more than graze her .
Do you feel quite the hero, Stonebearer?
They both crumpled, and as he felt the warm blood poor out of him and mix with the cold rain, he wondered how on earth he could have so thoroughly mangled things as to think he would save anyone.
Alma looked to him, eyes wide and dark as the clouded night above them, and with a halted, failing motion, tried to lay a hand on him.
I suppose you have put things out of motion for a while.
He tried to say something to her, but each breath with which he might form a word burned too hard to master. His lips traced a name that wasn’t hers, and somewhere above him, he could hear Balk cry out as the Templars rushed to hover over them.
Another vessel will need to be found.
He was back at Lenalia suddenly, clutching a corpse to his breast and sobbing like a beaten child. He was slipping, and whatever sense of freedom he might have hoped at slipped with him.
We can wait together, you and I.
The weeds and snow were frozen into the matting of her hair, and looking to her face, he was stunned and dismayed to find in her features nothing that seemed an accusation. He had wanted—wanted above all things at that moment—to meet with a gaze that condemned him. He had wanted some sense that she might haunt and hound him, but there was nothing malevolent to Miluda. She was dead. She was still. She could offer no condemnation or comfort. She was nothing.
I should think, Stonebearer, that you will learn to hold.
It was clear that Belias meant for him to vanish now, meant for him to flee back into that sunken state where he was nothing but memories loose and intermingling. For once, however, he pulled himself back up the chain—he moved from Miluda back to Alma, and saw in the pale girl’s features the same absence. Alma, for all the misery he had brought on her, looked to him without any indictment. As he felt the great sink of his heart’s blood rushing out of him, he recognized whose glance it was that had likewise failed to give him the comfort of blame.
He made a fumbling grasp for her hand, and watched as the pupils of her eyes widened. She was, for the moment, still alive, even if the panicking Templars may be unaware of it.
He breathed her name—painfully, slowly—and thought she recognized it. It seemed of such obvious significance that he should lie here again, bleeding out as she faded out of his sight. He wished very much he could explain to her who else had fallen before him without of accusation, and as he faded into the darkness from which he had no promise of ever awakening, he wondered what it was that Ramza had thought when he met his end.
Dark faded into light for once, and he was suddenly at Igros, sunlight turning all the fading gray back to gold. She sat next to him on the roof of an inn, and they watched the white flags of the Northern Sky stream down the streets of Igros in procession, the pale blue sky matched to the Gallione lion. They had been given bread. They had been given beer. They had been told they would receive their pay someday after Ordallia capitulated. For the time, though, the Romandans were busy dying in Romanda and would not plague them.
Miluda leaned her head on his shoulder. Her hair had grown back, and it tickled at the side of his face.
“They’re marching out too, you know,” he said softly. “We’re all food for the sword once we’re over there—even if nobody walks us through the streets first like we’re some beasts from a menagerie
“I suspect the Beoulves have been allotted something a touch better than a mug and a half of stale Dorter lager to make up for their discomfort
As he passed, the Savior of Ivalice did, in fact, look less than pleased to be the centerpiece of such pageantry, and the white gold bird on which he rode seemed exceedingly nervous to be in a throng of celebrants. None of the other members of his house seemed much more at ease being subject to spectacle, save for a bright, laughing child who had been placed on her father’s saddle. She had no conception that this parade was anything other than a party put on for her.
“We’ll be fine,” he tried to say in as jovial a tone as he could muster, turning his attention back to his sister. “They know how to manage better out east. More experience. Besides…” He smiled. “You have me. I’ll protect you—same as always.”
Miluda laughed, obviously a bit more affected by the alcohol than him as she flopped away from her brother and onto her back. “Is that what you’ve really thought all this time?” She giggled as her gaze drifted to the late afternoon sun.
“Have you really thought that it’s you protecting me?