Portraits of Empire: The Hunt [FFXII]

Olan hears the riders' approach long before he sees them, secreted as they are in the high keep. Such space seems absurdly big for them -- they number merely a dozen now, ten men and the twins, steeled to fight off whatever might come their way in the hopes that they might somehow see the other side of day. The storm-dark sky stretches before them, an early night whose wind whips through rain-soaked clothes and sets teeth to a clatter. He places his hand on Islude's shoulder. "You hear them?"

Gravely, Islude nods. "The storm and darkness will give them cover. I cannot guess their number without sight." He takes a breath into his lungs and lets it out in a frost-white cloud erased in a moment by the rain; the difference of only a few degrees keeps the matter from the sky liquid, suspended a hair's breadth from snow. "Take the tower and see--"

"Two steps ahead, as in everything save birth." Olan lifts his bow, a sight affixed to the wood. His hand brushes a soaked strand of hair from Islude's brow. "I am with you until the end, brother."

Islude places one gloved hand over Olan's wrist. Olan's eyes lock his twin's, blue to blue, and the love for his brother, absolute and unquestioning, burns bright within him. Once he swore absolute devotion, and even now he feels within him no stirring of regret. "Do not waste breath on unnecessary words," says Islude quietly. "But go."

In a trice, Olan does, swinging his body up the side of the turret, holding himself fast with the rope suspended from the top until such time as he can pull himself fast beneath the awning. He gazes out over the darkened terrain; mountains and night alike make the sighting almost impossible, but Olan's joy is the hunt, and his eyes settle on the landscape until he can detect motion, then make the outline of the motion. A small approach, then, moving fast, too fast for feet, too few for regular cavalry, too fleet to be anything save--

"What see you, then, brother?" calls Islude from below.

Olan sets his jaw grimly. "Our doom." He nocks an arrow and takes aim at the closest of the approaching Judges Magister.


When the first volley whistles toward them, glancing harmlessly off Judge Zecht's armour, Vayne knows they have been spotted. "Ride hard!" he shouts, spurring his chocobo forward and motioning the Judges Magister behind him to keep pace. He knows the identity of the archer by how his three companions (particularly Bergan, who pulls a quarrel from his leg and curses loud enough to be heard over the rain) find themselves subject to a barrage of well-placed arrows, while he remains untargeted. No other archer would fire with such accuracy yet take such care.

Then his mount goes down, and Vayne pitches forward, nearly dashing his head on a pile of nearby rocks. It is only Judge Bergan's quick reflexes that save him this fate, as Bergan grabs him by his arm and hauls him with a mighty jerk from his failing mount and onto Bergan's (landing him, Vayne only notes later, directly between Bergan and the archer's path). Vayne recovers and grasps the great bird's neck, bending forward to keep from falling. Next to them, Judge Drace's body jerks, and he hears her shout as she draws a short throwing spear from her left arm; then they are too close to the wall for the sniper's advantage to aid him any longer.

As they ride through the gate, he dismounts, landing hard on his knee and coming out into a roll. He cuts down one footsoldier with ease, though his advantage there is the element of surprise, one he has since forefeited. It matters little -- another charges them, and Bergan makes short work of him. Vayne does no more than he must, as he knows enough of battle to know that the Judges Magister are best when their allies are not so foolish to get in their way.

Vayne hears Islude before he sees him, a hoarse cry uttered as his eldest brother lunges toward them, polearm at the ready. It strikes Vayne's shield, and Vayne sends Islude back with a wild swing of his sword. "Bergan!" he screams, the sound as raw as his brother's. "Drace, Zecht, to Olan! Bergan, to me!"

This is madness, his mind wheels as he turns cold steel against his brother as the wind whips his hair into his eyes, their hiding in this keep, madness born of fear. Instead of resolutions, they run when there is no need. If they are truly innocent -- and he wants to believe they are, no one wants to believe his brothers traitors -- they do themselves great disservice fleeing like the guilty. He has neared zealotry in his pursuit of them, he knows, yet has never once felt such zeal to be unjustified.

After all, was it not Drace who had said to him once that an innocent man ought have nothing to fear from the Law?


Drace is dimly aware of Zecht's place behind her as she approaches, though she pays him no more than a fleeting thought. Her quarry is in front of her, standing still as a man who knows the sound of his death's approaching, hair knotted away from his face. The weather is infuriating; she tears off her helm and sends it to the ground at her feet, unwilling to suffer the impediment to her vision, unable to face him without being able to look him in the eye.

Olan draws his sword, and she prepares herself, mace of office in her right hand, her left useless and bloody at her side. "Yield, Olan!" Her voice catches on the wind, and it is only for the flinch on his face that she knows it has not been swept away entirely.

"Nay, my lady!" Olan's voice, booming and deep, is a false juxtaposition to his appearance, haggared and weighted as he is under layers of sopping black leather. How miserable they all are now. Though she can feel the heart in her chest turn from muscle to stone, she gives Zecht the signal to stand by and braces herself, then charges headlong at the man in front of her. They might almost be sparring, as so often they had in the past, yet no more. Weapons clash, and there is no hint of restrained force behind their terrible concurrance.

The battle is neither lengthy nor hard-won, save that her opponent is twofold -- the man in her memory and the man before her, each turning blades of their own upon her. But the latter, flesh-and-bone man is exhausted from running and hiding, underfed and sick with worry. She lands a glancing blow, and they stagger apart, considering one another from a distance.

"Yield, Olan!" Drace's cry now borders on the desperate. "We have your brother! There is naught for you here but to die on this mountain!"

With a savage cry, he lunges at her again -- a reckless move, far too wide, his entire stance ill-though. She raises her remaining weapon, sending him spiralling back. Before he can regain his feet, she thrusts the mace into the ground near his shoulder, letting its bladed edge rest against the underside of his throat. She is breathing hard, the rain falling down her face indistinguishable from sweat even in the cold, and as she finds her body stilling, she feels a cold seep into her bones the likes of which she fears she will never be able to exorcise.

"Yield," she repeats, no longer a plea, but an irrecusable demand.

He looks at her, eyes bright despite all else, and spits blood from the corner of his mouth. "Yield, my lady," he grits, "but never surrender."

Drace will remember this later as the last thing he ever says to her.


In a way, Islude is grateful for the hood, as it keeps the rain from his face. He is somewhat less grateful for having his hands bound behind his back, or having to share a mount with Zecht, but he supposes such things are unavoidable at this point.

The chocobo's gait across the uneven ground has knocked the hood slightly askew, and though he doubts anyone looking at him could suss his identity from the visible sliver of his beaten, exhausted face, he can now see more clearly his brother's cloaked, bound figure. Olan has been placed behind Bergan, and appears to be comporting himself with great dignity, which is more than Islude might otherwise have expected from such a situation. Islude cannot see Olan's face, and for this is grateful, as he does not wish to see the defeat written there.

He tries to summon within him the appropriate sense of guilt for having brought Olan to this point with him, but Islude finds he cannot. For what, after all, would Olan have him feel guilty? He knows that were their situations reversed, Islude would not bear to have Olan feel such, and that Olan would suffer none of the same from him now. This was Olan's choice since long before any of this began, to stand beside his brother, and there is no regret now that they are together.

Between them rides Drace, reins perched in one hand, the other held close to her side; and behind her sits Vayne, stiff-backed and formal. He looks so much like their father here, the same proud profile, the same set jaw. Islude tries to remember a time he held himself with such regal bearing, bent as he his now, beaten and ferried to rather certain doom. There must have been a time when he wished to be emperor, a time before the consuming need took up residence within his belly, gnawing its way out through his skin into every thought and deed, until the want of peace demanded the highest price he or Olan could pay. Surely there was a time when nothing in the world could have cast a loyal son of empire from its arms, driving him into the night, only to be brought back a prodigal to his death.

Try as he might now, he cannot remember.

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