Shadows of Hatred
by Andrew Vant
I wrote this for my own entertainment. If you don't like it and would enjoy flaming me, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you have more constructive criticism to offer, or just want to comment or question, you can mail me at the same location. I would like to emphasize that this work is not definative and may contain errors; it has been a long time since I last played the game. If I screwed up big time, please tell me!
All right, I'm done. Enjoy!
It was the gray light of dawn, and the fiery orb of the sun had just begun its long trek across the sky. Dewdrops covered the grasslands surrounding the town of Baron. Peaceful for over a year, the kingdom was no longer feared by its neighbors. The mighty airships of Baron, the Red Wings, no longer sought battle.
This was directly attributable to the recent change in the government of the nation. The old king had fallen, and Cecil, Paladin of the Light, had ascended the throne. He took the White Mage Rosa as his queen, and the two ruled jointly. Under the leadership of Baron, the world began to recover from the ravages of the Crystal War.
A year had passed since then, and the ties between the nations had strengthened over time. The crystals were returned to their proper places, and the world seemed to once again come to order. The last thing anyone expected was another war...
"Edge! Rydia!" a voice called down from the battlements, "Good to see you again after all this time!"
"Nice to see you too, Cecil," Edge called back, "Think you could open your gate? It's freezing out here!"
"No, actually we thought we'd leave you out there," another voice called out. This one belonged to Cid, Master Engineer. Cecil groaned inwardly, wondering why on earth the two had to act like this. They absolutely reveled in irritating each other.
Speaking of which, Edge had already made his return sally, and Cid had responded in kind. Cecil needed to stop this before it went any further. He motioned the gatekeeper to open the massive wooden doors barring entrance to the castle, turning from the parapet to go down and greet his companions.
"Aw, do we have to let him in?" Cid asked, grinning widely. Cecil resisted, but eventually he had to grin back. Cid was one of Cecil's oldest friends, and his protests were sometimes so outrageous that he had an entire room in laughter. This had the makings of a good day, he thought. Rosa would be elated.
Still, something felt slightly...wrong. Had felt so, off and on, for the last month or more. He shook off the feeling.
Edge had already entered when they reached the gate. He'd struck an arrogant pose and was trying to give the impression that he was ruler of all he surveyed. Rydia stood slightly to his right, calm and collected, her green hair falling almost to her waist. Cecil had never really gotten used to that color. He supposed it was a characteristic of the Callers of Mist.
The four of them joined up at the gate, and Cecil watched with a mixture of amusement and dismay as Cid and Edge immediately descended into pointless bickering. Cecil himself dropped behind them to speak with Rydia. He had a rather special friendship with the young woman, dating back to when he had, in the first few days after meeting her, saved her life.
The two of them walked in silence for a few moments. No words were exchanged; none were needed. Only so much can be said without sound, however, and after several seconds, Cecil spoke.
"Can't they ever grow up?" he asked wryly, waving his hand at the two men ahead, arguing like schoolchildren.
"Probably not," she replied, smiling slightly, "They remind me of Palom and Porom, always fighting over something, whether there's something to fight over or not."
"Not quite. I never heard Porom say something like that." Cecil muttered, wincing at a particularly vulgar comment from up ahead.
"Maybe not. Speaking of them...have you seen them lately? Or any of the others?"
"Actually, the twins are here right now, and I saw Yang just last month. Most of the others have dropped by from time to time. Kain...I don't know where Kain is. I can only hope he's all right."
Rydia grinned at him, "If he is, he won't be for long after he gets back. I talked to Rosa after your wedding, and she was just a bit put out with him for missing it."
"A bit?" Cecil asked, his eyes dancing, "I thought she was going to take it out on me, and I really don't think a cell would agree with me."
"She wouldn't do that, Cecil. She loves you too much."
"I wouldn't be too sure. She was really mad about it."
At this moment, the object of their conversation appeared at the door to the main keep, having been informed of the arrival of the foreign dignitaries. She caught Edge up in a bear hug, squeezing the breath out of him, and then hugged Rydia in a somewhat gentler fashion, murmuring greetings in her ear.
"Hi, Rosa," Edge said grandly, bowing down on one knee. "It is with great joy that I do prostrate myself before your luminous beauty."
"Careful, Edge," said Cid, "'Prostrate' is just a bit long of a word for you. You might lose track of your thoughts, and then where would we be?"
Rosa smiled widely at the two of them, "Still playing the flirt, I see. You seem to be forgetting that I'm already married. It's only been a year, after all.
"And you!" she said, rounding on Cid, "I'm of half a mind to have you thrown in a cell. Insulting visiting royalty! The embarrassment to our throne knows no bounds!" She delivered this short speech with such an earnest face that Cecil couldn't help but laugh out loud.
This was going to be just like old times.
"So," Cecil began, after pleasantries had been finished with, "What brings you here to Baron?"
"Officially or unofficially?" Edge asked.
"Let's start with the official, I suppose. Might as well keep up the appearance of a dignified government."
"Officially, I'm here to discuss the possibility of hiring Baronian engineers for help in rebuilding Eblan Castle. Not Cid," he added, grinning.
"And unofficially?" Cecil prompted.
"Unofficially, I wanted a chance to see the two of you again," he said. His face sobered a bit. "Actually, it was Rydia's idea. That we should come ourselves, I mean, not send a messenger. She said she had something she wanted to discuss with Rosa. I told her that if she wanted, she could talk to me about it, but she said no."
"I'll ask Rosa about it later. If Rydia doesn't want to talk to you, though, I probably won't be able to either."
The conversation moved on, with Cecil paying only half a mind. His thoughts drifted back across this strange relationship between two of his dearest friends...
Edge had rather ardently pursued the beautiful Caller for several weeks after the crystal war, going even so far as to neglect his own government in favor of spending time with the object of his affections. She had gently but firmly rebuffed his advances. And eventually he stopped.
Apparently, Rydia found him far more attractive when he wasn't trying so desperately to win her. She stayed with him when the companions left Baron, and they journeyed to the underground kingdom of Eblan. And there they stayed. As Cecil learned during later visits from a bit of discreet questioning, it seemed that each had learned to love the other for who they were...and neither was willing to do anything about it. Cecil wasn't sure why. The two of them were seldom far apart, always close, never touching. He wondered why Edge hadn't followed up on any of it. It wasn't like him. Maybe, Cecil thought, he just doesn't know how to handle real love. Goodness knows I didn't. He smiled slightly at the thought.
"What's so funny?" Edge asked him angrily, jolting him out of his reverie. He hunted back in his memory of the last few minutes. Edge had been discussing the extent of the damage to Eblan. No wonder he was upset.
"Um, I'm sorry. I was...thinking about something else."
"Well, don't. Pay attention, Cecil. This is important."
They sound of speech continued on, long into the night.
It was dark, nearly midnight, when Cecil finally turned in for the night. He treaded softly through his chambers, not wanting to wake his sleeping wife.
"There's no need to walk like a thief, Cecil," came a tired voice from the bed, "I'm already awake." He smiled wryly to himself. He should have known better than to think he could sneak past her, light sleeper that she was.
"Just get in bed, Cecil. You're letting in a draft."
"As long as you're awake, there's something I meant to ask you about. Have you spoken with Rydia today?"
"Of course," she said, "Why?"
"Edge said that there was something Rydia wanted to talk to you about... something she wasn't willing to share with him. I was wondering if you could shed some light on it."
"Why do you want to know? Don't you think that if Rydia wanted him to know, she'd tell him?"
"I wasn't thinking of telling him," Cecil said defensively, "I was just curious."
"Well you're just have to go on being curious, dear," she said, then paused. "I'd keep a doctor nearby, though. Edge might have apoplexy."
"I don't suppose this has anything to do with their...relationship?" Cecil asked.
"It's not nice to talk about that sort of thing behind someone's back, Cecil," she reproached him, "Now go to sleep. You're going to be very busy tomorrow."
Chapter 1: The Calm Before The Storm
Stomach rumbling, Palom wandered through the halls in the early morning twilight. He was looking for food at this moment, and, as always, whatever mischief he could find. His sister had said, once, that his goal in life seemed to be to break every rule.
No one who knew him would disagree with that assessment.
As he walked, he thought. His mind skittered from idea to idea, never lingering for long on one thing, always moving on. At this particular moment during morning hush, his nimble brain was occupied with the peculiar activities that seemed to have sprung up in the castle almost overnight. The women were sneaking, men were skulking, and the general air of the place had taken on an anticipatory, expectant, almost excited atmosphere. And yet, Palom could have sworn that these people had no idea at all what it was they were expecting. He was like that sometimes, and had more than once startled his sister with an uncanny ability to sense people's moods.
This place reeked of intrigue, but it was a good feeling. So different from last time, when it had felt dark and sinister. He even considered asking around, trying to find out what the big secret was. He turned the idea around in his head, and eventually decided that it would be too much trouble. No one would talk to a fifteen year old, not even when he was a wizard from Mysidia.
He paused for a moment. What was that? Something in that sense - or maybe outside of it - was black; not the cooling black of his magic, but dark in a different way. He had a momentary impression of a great wave, washing over and leaving behind a rotten, stinking residue. He tried to examine this new feeling, but as suddenly as it had come, it disappeared. Did it mean anything? Palom wasn't sure.
Besides, he thought, he would find out eventually anyway. His thoughts flitted off again, and he forgot his musings in them.
"Morning, Cecil," Edge greeted him, munching away at breakfast.
"Morning, Edge," Cecil replied, sitting down, "How's the food?"
"Good enough, I suppose, but I could use some wine to go with it," Edge said, hopefully.
"At this time in the morning? Are you sure?"
"Yeah. It helps me wake up."
Cecil motioned to a servant, who asked what was needed. "Some wine for my friend here," Cecil said, "Nothing too strong, though."
"Actually," Edge protested, "I was hoping for-"
Cecil cut him off, "It's way too early in the day to get drunk, Edge." He turned back to the servant, saying: "Go ahead and find something."
There was silence for a few moments. Then, Edge spoke up:
"Did Rosa tell you anything? About whatever was bothering Rydia, I mean."
"Actually, she told me to mind my own business. She did say that something was going to happen, but I don't know what. I got the impression that it had something to do with you, though. I hope you got enough sleep, my friend."
"Well, I didn't," Edge grumbled, "And if what you say is true, I probably won't tonight, either. I talked to Palom earlier, and he says that this whole place stinks of secrets. Whatever your wife set up, it's going to be big."
"I wonder if she'll break it over us lightly?" Cecil asked, smiling wryly.
"Not a chance. Sure you don't have any idea what's going on?"
"No idea," Cecil said, but that wasn't entirely correct. He had a bit of an idea, drawn from what he had seen and heard this morning. Edge would probably be grateful...but only after he woke out of his dead faint.
He hoped Rosa knew what she was doing.
Rosa had no clue what she was doing.
It had all seemed so perfect last night, but now...she wasn't sure she could pull it off.
"Things are already in motion," she told Porom, groaning. She'd confided in the young wizardess, who was far too serious to enjoy something like this. Sometimes Rosa forgot that she was speaking to a child and not an adult; Porom could do that, sometimes. At least she knew she wasn't spoiling anything for the girl.
"I can't help you," Porom said.
"I know, but I had to tell somebody."
"Well..." Rosa hesitated, "Most of the others...they would enjoy the surprise. I didn't want to spoil it for them."
"Oh," Porom smiled ruefully, "It's my own fault then, I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"Just because I always act so serious doesn't mean I don't enjoy a surprise."
"Not your fault."
They were quiet for a few moments. Then Rosa spoke up again.
"Are you sure there's no way you can help?"
"What?" Porom said with mock surprise, "Are you really asking a kid for advice?"
Rosa smiled at her, "No, just for a friendly suggestion."
Porom sobered, "The way I see it, you could just call it off-"
"I can't do that, and you know it."
"You mean you're just not willing to. The only other option I can see is to play it through, and hope it comes out for the best."
"That wasn't what I wanted to hear."
"I know." Suddenly, Porom broke into a wide smile, "Actually, I think you should just play it through. It's a good idea, really..." she grinned even wider, "Besides, I hate to admit it, but I can't wait to see Edge's face."
"Or Rydia's," Rosa murmured.
Porom gaped at her, and then they both collapsed in gales of laughter.
"I'm sorry, but I can't stay here any longer. I have to get back to Eblan."
The six of them were sitting in a room about halfway up the west tower. Once a storage area, it had later been emptied and now provided a place where King Cecil could confer with others more or less privately. Edge and Rydia sat next to each other, Palom and Cid across the table, Cecil and his wife just a bit further down. Porom was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is she?" Cecil whispered to his wife, while the other four conversed.
"She's...helping me with something. I...had something I had to do, but I had to be here, so she offered to take care of it for me."
"How come she's allowed to know what's going on, and I'm not?" he teased her.
"I didn't say it had anything to do with that."
"You didn't have to. When are the you going to spring this thing?"
"Soon, I guess," she said, darting a nervous glance toward the end of the table, "If he's leaving today, it'll have to be. Whatever you do, don't look at me when this starts. I might crack up, and that would ruin the whole thing."
"All right," Cecil whispered back, then returned his attention to the others. Something in there hadn't rung quite right, but he couldn't put a finger on it. He supposed he would just have to wait and see.
"Cecil, I don't suppose you could provide us with an airship?" Edge asked, sipping at his wine, "It's a long trip without one."
"I don't know. Cid, do we have anything free?"
"Well, we could give him the new one...the one that doesn't have propellers yet."
"Grow up, Cid."
"Not a chance." He made a face. "Actually, we do have a ship that's not being used, but it'll take time to get prepped. It won't be ready until tomorrow, earliest."
"Will that be all right?" Cecil asked.
"If it's all you've got, I suppose it'll have to be. Are you coming back with me, Rydia, or do you want to stay here?"
"I don't know," she said, with an entirely false tone of indecision, "I'll have to-"
"Oh, of course she's going to go with you, Edge!" Rosa cut in. Cecil felt a slight tinge of anticipation. "Honestly," she continued, "I'll never understand why the two of you tiptoe around each other like this. Foolishness!"
The statement seemed to be made in perfect honesty, but Cecil recognized it as the first move in an elaborate game. He almost felt sorry for Edge, knowing exactly how he would respond - and knowing that it would leave him wide open. Rosa had a flair for this sort of thing, and Cecil knew that she could manipulate the man as a weaver manipulated threads on a loom...or maybe more like a smith manipulating steel. He had to work hard to keep from laughing.
"What do you mean?" Edge asked, giving a wonderful impression of honest confusion. Cecil nearly laughed, seeing his friend walk innocently into his wife's trap.
"Hello? Is anyone in there?" she nearly shouted, looming up over the table. "She loves you, just like you love her! Shove that one through your thick skull, dimwit!" So saying, she sat back down. Cecil surveyed the result.
Edge was watching her with alarm, looking almost as if he'd been poleaxed. His eyes were darting back and forth like a hunted animal. Rydia, on the other hand, was blushing to the roots of her hair. Cecil smiled to himself, certain that she had known all along. Cid and Palom were biting their lips to keep from laughing.
Cecil waited for his wife to play her final card.
Patience was rewarded. "Oh, you two are hopeless," Rosa said, with a mixture of despair and exasperation, "Do I have to handle everything myself?"
The two of them stared at her.
"Oh, enough of this!" she burst out, "Neither of you is leaving here, not until I see you properly married!"
Rydia fainted dead away. Edge spurted out his wine, spraying everyone. The rest of the room collapsed in laughter.
The last of the preparations had already been made, thanks to Porom, and the wedding took place that evening in the chapel. Palom, sitting next to his sister, watched from one of the upper rows of seats. The elder of Mysidia, who had arrived that afternoon on an airship Rosa had dispatched the previous evening, performed the ceremony. It was unfortunate that none of their other friends had been able to make it, but Rosa had been adamant that it be that evening. Apparently she still thought they would wriggle out of it somehow. Not a chance, Palom smirked to himself. He would have to ask Rosa how she had managed this. It had never occurred to him that she had such a talent for getting her own way. He said as much to his sister, who shushed him.
"Quiet, Palom," she hissed at him, "You don't need any help causing trouble."
"Doesn't the elder always tell us that we're here to learn?"
"That's different, and you know it. Shut up and watch, Palom. You probably won't see anything else like this for a long time."
"Not unless Prince Edward finds a new girlfriend." Porom elbowed him in the stomach. "Ouch! What'd you do that for?" he demanded.
"You've got to learn to have some compassion, do you know that?"
"What do you mean?"
She shook her head, "Never mind. Just...don't talk about that, okay?"
"If you say so. I still think you're being too sensitive."
"Just watch, alright? Just watch."
Palom fidgeted throughout the rest of the ceremony. He was still young, and such things really had no appeal for him. It seemed to drag on and on, and eventually he just laid back his head and relaxed.
"Ouch!" Porom had just elbowed him again.
"Wake up, Palom."
"I wasn't sleeping," he said defensively.
"People don't snore unless they're sleeping."
"I wasn't snoring!" he protested.
"How would you know? Never mind. They're almost done, so you need to wake up anyway. Even if you don't enjoy this like I do, you'll still want to join in the party afterward."
"Party?" he asked, waking up completely, "What party?"
"Don't you remember Cecil's wedding?"
"Not really. All I remember is stealing that wine bottle."
"You went through it dead drunk, didn't you?" she demanded, "I always wondered what caused that headache you had the next day. I'm surprised you even made it into bed!"
When he didn't answer, she turned her head. He was staring at the air in front of him, a horrified expression on his face. "Palom?" she said, "Are you all right? Palom?"
Palom had always been sensitive to moods, emotions, feelings. And right then, an enormous wave of pure malevolence washed over this sixth sense, almost like a blow. Porom, her magic tied to his in some way that neither of them understood, felt it too.
Their screams were lost in sudden cheers, as Edge kissed his bride...
Chapter 2: A Hint of Darkness
"Well?" Rosa asked.
"What did you think of it?"
The two of them were sitting on the outer parapet, hanging their legs over the edge. It had been a good night. No one had gotten too drunk, nothing had been spilled or smashed in the course of the festivities. Cecil smiled at his wife.
"I really didn't think you would actually go through with it."
"You knew!" she accused, "Who told you?"
"No one. It wasn't that hard to put it all together. I was just the only one lucky enough to have enough pieces."
"Oh," she said ruefully, "I guess I'll have to do better next time."
They laughed heartily, and hugged each other. It wasn't often that they had moments alone like this, and they wanted to take advantage of the chance. They stared out over the grasslands surrounding Baron for some time before Cecil spoke again.
"How did she find the courage?" he mused, almost to himself.
"What do you mean, dear?"
"Rydia. Where did she get the guts to ask you to arrange this for her?"
Rosa stared at him quizzically. "Actually, she just asked for some help."
"Yeah. Some help." Cecil chuckled. Then his mind caught up with what Rosa had just said, "Wait a minute...you mean she didn't...? Rosa!"
Rosa grinned at him, "She had absolutely no clue."
Cecil stared at her, "She asked for advice, and you responded by beating them both into marriage! How could you?"
"Aw, come on, Cecil. It really did need to be done."
Cecil's brain was still trying to cope with the idea. He laughed helplessly. "I'm surprised she didn't throttle you."
"Me, too. I hate to say it, but it's probably a lucky thing that she passed out."
"She still had plenty of time after she woke up." Cecil pointed out.
"That's why I tried to keep things moving. I was afraid that if I stopped beating at them, they'd start beating on me."
"Oh, well. I suppose it turned out for the best. Where are they now?"
"They already turned in. Good thing, too. Edge was well on his way to getting hopelessly drunk."
"That's Edge, all right," he said, blushing slightly. He remembered his own wedding night quite vividly, and he doubted that Edge was making any attempt to sleep off the alcohol.
"What's that?" Rosa asked, pointing across the grasses toward the town.
Cecil gazed out where she had pointed. As far as he could tell, it was an armored figure, on foot, walking from the port area of the town of Baron to the castle.
"I don't know," Cecil said thoughtfully, "It looks like a person, but no sane man would be out at this time of night."
"Whoever it is, he's coming this way." Rosa noted.
"Maybe we should go down and meet him as he comes in."
"Do we have to? I was enjoying this."
"No one goes out this late without a reason, Rosa. We go down."
The two of them got up and slowly strode down the steps, not hurrying. By the time they reached the gate, the gatekeeper was already in conversation with whoever it was. Upon hearing footsteps behind him, the man turned. A look of relief crossed his face.
"King Cecil!" he said, saluting, "There is a man here who desires entry."
"Who is it?" Cecil asked.
"He won't say, my Lord. He insists on speaking directly with you."
"Me?" Cecil asked, startled. Very few people came to Baron for the purpose of seeing the king. In fact, it was practically unheard of from anyone other than official types, and none of those would have arrived in the middle of the night.
"Yes, my Lord. Shall I let him in?"
"By all means, yes," Cecil said, curious, "One man certainly doesn't pose much of a threat."
"Very well, my Lord."
The keeper disappeared into the gatehouse, and the huge wooden doors that closed entrance to the castle slowly swung open. Cecil stared at the figure revealed, trying to make out who it was. At first, all was shrouded in shadow. Then it stepped into the light of the torches, and Cecil gave a start of recognition.
The man who stood in the archway was Kain.
"Hello, Cecil," he said tonelessly, "Well met."
"Kain!" Rosa called out, hugging him in spite of his armor, "Where have you been?"
"I...no, I'll explain later," he said, "It is good to see you again, both of you. It's been a long time."
"It's been a year, Kain," Cecil said. "Things have changed in your absence."
"I'm sure they did. I heard about your wedding. I'm sorry I missed it."
"Not sorry enough!" Rosa chimed in, "I'm going to make you pay dearly for that, Kain," she grinned widely, "actually, I might have to stand in line for the pleasure. You missed Edge's wedding - by about six hours."
"Edge is married? I thought he would never settle down. Who's the bride?"
"That's surprising. I knew he'd been courting her, but I thought she wasn't interested."
"That changed after he stopped chasing so hard. For some reason, though, she was refusing to say anything about it."
Cecil laughed, "My wife started issuing ultimatums, that's what happened. She told them that she wouldn't let them leave until they were married."
"I'm sorry I missed it," Kain said, a rare smile crossing his face. Then his face sobered. Cecil...are any of the others here?"
"The twins are, now that you mention it. Cid's here too, and Edge and Rydia of course."
"I don't suppose you could gather everybody while I get out of my armor? There's something you all need to know, and I don't want to have to repeat myself."
"I'll go find the twins," Rosa said, "but they may already be in bed. And Edge and Rydia are probably...busy. Can it wait until morning?"
"Maybe. Find whoever you can, and I'll let you decide."
Rosa strode off. Cecil and Kain made their way to the conference room in the east tower, talking in low tones.
"Where have you been?" Cecil asked.
Cecil stared at him. People went to the mountain, of course - warriors wanting to prove their worth, wizards in search of the power of Meteo, or simply people who felt they needed spiritual cleansing.
Perhaps it was not so surprising, at that. Kain had a very strong sense of honor and shame.
Cecil had gone up the mountain himself, once. Had gone up a Dark Knight, the evil in his weapons a part of him; and had come down a Paladin of the Light. Had Kain gone with the same purpose? But no. He sensed no change in his old friend, none of the indescribable difference that Rosa had told him about after her rescue. Either Kain had gone for some other purpose, or he had tried...and failed.
"Why?" he asked.
"That's another thing I want to explain to everyone together."
"If you say so."
Cecil waited for a moment. Then he asked: "How come you never sent word? Rosa tries to hide it, but we were both worried sick over you."
"Sorry, Cecil. I'm afraid it never occurred to me."
A short walk brought them the the conference chamber chamber. Kain removed his armor, not speaking. Cecil began to get concerned. Shouldn't Rosa have been back by now? Kain's dark attitude had made Cecil jumpy, and he became worried over things that normally would not have caused him unease. He was about to send a servant to find her, but she and Cid walked in the door before he had the chance.
She looked nervous, "I found the twins," she said, "They were asleep in the chapel. I...Cecil, I think you should hear what they have to say."
They followed her in.
Cecil gaped at them. They're faces were white. Porom staggered slightly as she entered the room, and her brother looked on the verge of collapse. Each had their arm over the other's shoulder as if for mutual support, and that frightened Cecil all the more. Neither had ever admitted to needing help from the other. Ever.
"What happened?" Kain said, flatly. Cecil marveled that he could be so calm.
"A...a wave," Palom stuttered, "Darkness..."
"Let them sit down, first," Rosa cut off further questions, "I don't know what it is they went through, but let them recover before you start pestering them."
"No," Porom coughed, "We're all right..."
"No, you're not." Rosa insisted, "Shake it off before you do anything else."
The two of them reluctantly sat down. The color returned to their faces, Palom's first, Porom's shortly after. Neither of them would let anything keep them down for long; they were just too stubborn to allow something to have that kind of power over them. And, though each sibling would have denied it vehemently, they took comfort in each other's presence. After they had calmed down, Kain spoke.
"I think," he said, in an emotionless tone, "that you should explain."
"Ask Palom," Porom said. "He's the one who felt...it...strongest."
"It was...hatred," Palom spoke haltingly. "Physical hatred, I mean. It felt...like a wave crashing over my head. As if this whole tower fell down with me in it. I...I can't explain it...very well," he finished, weakly.
"Did Porom feel it, too?" Cecil asked.
"Yes," she answered firmly, "but only through him. I knew what he felt, but I didn't experience it as fully as he did."
"Can you add anything?"
"Not really. Like I said, he felt it stronger than I did." She frowned, "Actually, there was something. It's probably just me, but...I could swear that there was something conscious, in this wave."
"I'm not surprised." Kain said softly.
Everyone turned to him.
"What do you mean?" Cid asked.
Kain sighed. "Perhaps," he said, "It is time to explain where I have been this last year...and why I returned."
There was a pause. "We're listening." Rosa said.
"I spent a great deal of time alone, after I left you." Kain began, "For a period of several weeks, I wandered wherever my feet took me; by ship, by Chocobo; even, occasionally, by airship. Eventually - and later I learned that this was around the time of your wedding, Cecil - I reached Mysidia. I asked the Elder there for help, and also asked that he keep my visit to himself.
"He gave me much the same advice that he once gave you, Cecil. Go to Mount Ordeals...although he did not tell me to visit the Chamber of Light. That...no, I will tell this in the order that it happened. Suffice it to say that I spent several months there, sleeping when I needed it, eating when I needed it, fighting the monsters when they appeared. They fell quickly before my spear.
"I went back to Mysidia several times, when my supplies ran low. But I never stayed for long. I still had this unbearable feeling of guilt, and I felt...unworthy would be the best word...to be among other people. This went on for about half a year. And then..." He trailed off.
"Then what?" Cecil prompted.
"I went to the summit," Kain said, "I felt that, if I was accepted as a Paladin, it might cleanse me of my guilt. I took my test in the Chamber."
He was silent for a few moments. "I failed," he finished finally.
"I'm sorry, Kain," Cecil told him, "But...don't hold it against yourself."
Kain ignored him. Perhaps he was so deep in the pain of these memories that he did not even hear.
"The test was...difficult. Staring at my opponent was like looking in a mirror, but only the dark aspects of my being were contained therein. I...we fought. At first, I held my own, but the apparition did not tire; indeed, it seemed to gain strength with every blow I struck home." Cecil gave a sad nod, sympathizing. It had taken him some time to realize that his task was not to destroy the evil in his soul, but to renounce it. Kain, it seemed, had come to no such enlightenment.
Perhaps that was the true test.
Kain continued: "Eventually," he said, "I fell and could not rise. My double disappeared, and the voice informed me that I'd failed. It told me also, that I could return if I wished...but if I did, I must be absolutely sure of my ability to forswear the darkness. If I failed again, I would not be allowed another chance.
"So I went back down the mountain, and lived for another six months. Eventually - this was about four days ago - I looked down into my heart and could find no trace of darkness. I was sure it was there; in truth, I could not believe that it had given up its hold on me so easily. As in turned out, though, I never had the chance to try again. The spirit on the summit accosted me when I was about to enter the Chamber, asking if I felt pure enough in spirit to attempt the test. I did not have time to answer, for the spirit seemed to shudder, as if from a great blow. And then he told me to turn around, leave the mountain, and find you."
"Did he say why?" Cecil asked.
"Yes," Kain answered, "and you will not be happy to hear it."
He paused then, and looked up, and there was such a terrible mixture of bleakness and despair in his eyes that Cecil was nearly felled by it.
"The evil in the hearts of men," he said, "has once again taken on form. Zeromus has returned."
Chapter 3: Plans
The room was silent with shock.
Cecil's brain could not comprehend the fact of what he had just heard. We fought so hard, he thought, and what did it gain us? A year's reprieve? Somehow it seemed far less than that, as if the tumultuous events in the depths of the Lunar Moon had taken place only yesterday. He had observed the victory with his own eyes, had taken part in it himself...and had watched as the being known as Zeromus had died, vanishing like so much smoke.
He heard Cid swear under his breath. He looked up, and his eyes met Rosa's. In them, he saw fear and disbelief that he knew must be mirrored in his own. Palom alone seemed unaffected. It was no surprise, really; he must have known, deep down, what that wave of darkness had been. How had he described it? Hatred.
That was how Zeromus had once described himself.
The color returned to people's faces as the shock began to wear off. Cecil eventually found his voice, "Can you..." he swallowed, then began again. "Can you tell us more?"
Cid muttered agreement, that information was needed.
"Not much," Kain said. "I was told to bring you to the mountain."
Cecil gnawed on his lip. "I think," he said reluctantly, "that we had better get the others in here. I hate to break this over them now, but I don't think we have any choice."
"I'll go get them," Cid offered, standing up.
"Cid!" Rosa protested, "there's no need to make a bad situation worse. Edge'll be irritated enough without your help."
"Oh..." Cid said regretfully, "This probably is the wrong time, isn't it?"
"Yes, Cid. I'm afraid so." Rosa told him. Maybe, Cecil thought, the gnarled old engineer had finally decided to grow up.
No such luck. "Palom," Cid said, "You go get him." The boy smiled weakly at him, but no amount of trauma would keep him from his favorite pastime: causing trouble. Cecil noticed the exchange with a certain amount of relief. It was proof that his friends could still function.
His wife, apparently, didn't see things in quite that way. She threw up her hands and sat there with a look of profound disgust on her face.
After about four minutes, the door burst open. Edge, his face irate, strode through with a powerful step. "Who's idea was it to send that intolerable little fiend to fetch us?" he asked loudly.
"Never mind, Edge," Cecil told him. "Just forget about it. There's something you need to know."
"Can't it wait? You, of all people, should know exactly what I'm missing right now."
Rydia, who had followed behind him, blushed.
"Kain, I didn't know you were here." she said, trying to change the subject. "Where have you been?"
"That," he said, "is a part of why you were brought down here."
Then he told them.
Edge went white in the face. Rydia, suddenly weak, held on to him for support. He put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"Oh, no." she whispered. "I thought...but we killed him. We had to have killed him!"
"Apparently, he didn't stay dead." Cecil said. He tried to put some sympathy in his voice, but his own shock had forced him to think coldly, as his brain dealt with the crisis by forcing out all emotion. "The question now is, what do we do now?"
They were silent. "We can't stay here," Cecil reminded them. "We have to move."
"The first order of business is to alert the other nations." Rosa said with certainty, "Whatever plans we make can wait until everyone knows the situation."
"It's not that easy," Cid spoke up, "We only have one functional airship here right now; the one you had me prep for tomorrow. No others are expected back for at least a week."
"Damn, he's right," Edge muttered, "How do we get word out? By the time we visit each country in turn, it may be too late."
"And I have to get to Mount Ordeals." Cecil said glumly.
"Why's that? Rydia demanded.
"I should be able to get some more information there. I'll tell you about it later," he added hastily. "Right now we need to find a way to reach everyone as soon as possible."
"It might not be impossible," Rosa noted, "If we can get someone through the cave to Mist...don't they keep tame Chocobos there?"
"Yes, but not many," Rydia said, "Most of them ran off when it...burned down." she gave Cecil an apologetic look.
"Well..." Rosa began. This was a touchy subject. Best to get it over with. "If we send a few men through the cave, they could take Chocobos to Kaipo, then use the hovercraft there to reach Damcyan. They cleared out the pass between Mist and the desert around Kaipo, you know." she added. Rydia flushed, embarrassed.
"That's two down." Kain approved. "I intend to go with Cecil to the mountain. If Edge stops there, we can alert Mysidia."
"Actually, there's no need for that." Cecil informed him. "The elder is here; he spoke at Rydia and Edge's wedding."
"All right," Kain said, "We'll talk to him in the morning. We can take ship to Mysidia, drop the elder and the twins there, and go from there to Mount Ordeals. Edge and Rydia can continue from there on to Eblan. That covers two more countries."
"What about Fabul?" Rosa asked, "And the people of the underground?"
"I'm not sure how we deal with that." Kain admitted. "We could send a standard sea ship to Fabul, but it'll take time."
"Not much longer than the trip to Damcyan." Porom pointed out.
"Except that the next ship isn't due here in port for two days," Cid said.
"It can't be helped," Cecil said with a tone of resignation. "There's only so much we can do. As for the Underground...Rydia, can you get in touch with Asura and Leviathan?"
"Good. Ask them to inform Giott, and the Sylphs."
"Do you want to involve the Silverans?" Porom asked. "Or the people of Agart?"
Cecil considered. "Only if seems like they're threatened. They probably won't be much help, and there's not much point in frightening them. The Toroians, now...how do we reach them?"
"As I recall," Cid said, "There's an airship due at Damcyan in a few days. If it's still down when the messengers reach the castle, then they can use it to get to Toroia."
"Maybe," Edge said dubiously, "But what if it's not?"
"By then we have several ships converging on Baron itself. We can send one of them up without a problem."
"Why not just do that, then?"
"It'll still take a couple extra days."
They sat there for a few moments, without moving. Then Cecil rose to his feet.
"All right then, I think that's it. Is there anything we left out?"
"There is one thing, actually," Porom spoke up. She looked at her brother before continuing, and he nodded. "We're not getting off at Mysidia. We want to go with you, to the mountain."
Cecil looked at them. "Are you sure?" he asked them.
"Yes." Palom told him, and for once there was no trace of mockery or humor in his voice. "We are."
"Very well, then. If you're sure."
"What about me?" Cid asked, "What do I do?"
"You stay here with Rosa and keep everything running smoothly. If any airships come in, keep them here. No, cancel that; send the first one down to us at the mountain. We'll need someone to pick us up. The rest of you, whatever airships have touched down at your ports of call, send them to Baron. We may need a fleet sometime soon."
He paused a moment. Then he said: "Everyone, try and get some sleep. We're all going to need it."
It was only a few minutes later. They stood in the bedchamber, neither quite ready yet to fall asleep. Perhaps it was fear of the dreams; or maybe it was fear of what the next day would bring.
"I'm not staying here, tomorrow. I'm going with you and the twins."
"Rosa, it's dangerous..."
"So was the Lunar Moon, and I was there. I want to see this...place. When I saw you again you had...changed, somehow. I always felt guilty, that I'd missed something so important to you. But...I might not have been able to be there, but I want to see where it happened. Please, Cecil?"
"All right. Just...stay close to me, okay?"
Cecil stood over the glass case in the corner, in a pensive mood. In the case lay his sword. He had other swords, of course - some sharper in the edge or stronger of blade, others not quite so effective as this one. For some reason, though, this was the one he used most often. For some reason, he had chosen to have it kept here in his room, where no other weapon had stood for more than a year. Why? Maybe, he thought, it is because this blade contains some small part of myself, a reminder of all that I was and all that I have become.
"What are you thinking about, Cecil?" Rosa asked him, coming to look over his shoulder.
"Nothing. It's just...I never thought I would have to use this again. I thought that I was done with fighting."
"There's no need to feel sorry about it, dear. If you have to use it, well...at least there's something worth fighting for."
"Yeah," he said, "I suppose you're right. Still...I can't help thinking that there's another way to deal with this." He shook his head, "Never mind, I'm not going to worry about it tonight. Let's go to bed."
They held each other tightly in the darkness for a long, long time.
Chapter 4: The First Spark
"Try to keep everything on schedule, Cid." Cecil called down from the gangplank. "Send the team to Mist and get that ship out as soon as possible."
"I know what I'm doing, Cecil." He said gruffly, "Just try not to get yourself killed."
"Don't worry about it. See you in a couple of weeks." Cecil turned to go, then stopped. "Cid, remember when Golbez used our ships to bomb Damcyan and Fabul?"
"Are any of those weapons still knocking around somewhere?"
"I don't know. Possibly."
"If not, you'd better start building more. We may need them."
Cecil strode up the plank and onto the deck, where the others waited.
"Are we ready to go?" Kain asked.
"I think so. They've started to cut the cables.
"Good!" Palom said, "This was starting to get really boring."
Cecil shook his head. Palom never changed, no matter how much the rest of them had. It just wasn't in his nature.
"Here we go," Cecil said as the ship shuddered from bow to stern. "Better hang on to something."
The airship shook hard, threatening to throw them all off the edge. There was a rumbling sound like a hungry dragon emanating from deep within its belly. The propellers began to turn in unison, catching the air. Then, with a great lurch, the ship rose off the ground, heading for the endless blue of the sky.
Cecil had always loved flying. He had observed when the first prototype had soared through the sky, and on that day, he had decided that eventually he would captain one of the "flying boats" as Cid had once so eloquently termed them. He remembered quite clearly the day he had, for the first time, explored the sky at the helm of one of these soaring behemoths. He felt some of that thrill now, looking down as the landscape unfolded beneath him. It was unfortunate that he had so little time these days, for flying.
The tremors in the deck ceased, and it was no longer necessary to work to keep one's feet. Rosa joined Cecil at the railing.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she murmured.
"Yes," he answered softly, "It is."
"I've been thinking about recommisioning the Enterprise. It wasn't a bad ship, even if it is a bit out of date."
"What on earth for?"
"Well...I just wanted something we can have for ourselves. So that we can do this on our own. These days, the only time we get to see this is when we're on a state visit or somesuch. We need a pleasure yacht."
"Your own personal airship?" Cecil said with a smile. "Stretching a bit high up, aren't we?"
"In more ways than one." she said, smiling back.
The two of them waited there for a few minutes, enjoying the moment as they watched the countryside of Baron slowly slide by beneath them.
Cecil sighed, "It's too bad, really. I get the feeling that we won't have too many moments like this anytime soon."
"Maybe not, but we still have the next few days. Let's enjoy it while we can." she turned from the railing. "I want to talk to Rydia, apologize for what I did the other day. She...never mind, it can wait."
"What's the problem?"
Cecil looked. Edge and Rydia stood by the opposite railing, and were looking over the edge much the same way the two of them had just been. Cecil wondered idly what they were saying.
"Oh," he said, "I see." Then he grinned, "You could always talk to Kain. He's been gone a long time, and he looks awfully lonesome standing there by himself."
"By himself? Where'd the twins go?"
"I'll go find them." Rosa decided. "You go talk to Kain."
He watched her go, smiling to himself. Sometimes he forgot exactly how lucky he was, to have Rosa for a wife.
Kain looked up as he approached. "Good morning, Cecil." he intoned. "Did you have a restful night?"
"Not really," Cecil said, ruefully, "For some reason I had trouble getting to sleep."
"I probably should have said this last night, Cecil, but..." Kain sighed, "I'm sorry that our reunion had to be under such unhappy circumstances."
"Don't worry about it."
The airship sped on as the land flowed by beneath it.
They dropped the elder off at Mysidia two days later. Edge, Rydia, Cecil, Rosa, Kain and the twins continued on to the mountain. They reached it at midday, descending through an overcast sky to touch down at the base of the path. Farewells were brief; they expected to see each other again quite soon. Still, no one could bring themselves to leave without saying something in departure.
"I'm still not sure whether to thank you or strangle you." Edge told Rosa as the five of them started down the gangplank.
"Thanks would be preferable." Rosa said, with just a hint of a smile.
"Yeah, well, I'll get you back someday, if only for making me embarrass myself in front of everyone."
"Try to keep your brother out of trouble," Rydia was telling Porom.
"If you think I need you to tell me that, then you really don't know us very well."
Rydia laughed, "Maybe not," she said, "but then, what else could I say?"
Cecil strapped on his sword, preparing to leave. Edge came to him and slapped his armored back. "You take care of yourself, you hear?" he said. "I don't have so many friends that I can afford to lose one."
Cecil grinned at him, "Don't worry about me, Edge. I've been here before, remember? I know what I'm doing."
"Just making sure. You do remember how to use your sword, right?"
"For once, I'd like to sit back and let someone else take care of these things."
Edge snorted, "No way. You have to deal with this right along with the rest of us."
"I know, but I don't have to like it."
Kain said nothing. He simply waited.
Eventually, they could put it off no longer. The group backed off as the plank was drawn in, and the massive propellers sprang to life. They waved as it rose up into the air.
After it had risen above the clouds, Cecil turned to the others. "All right, then," he said, "Let's get moving."
The five of them began marching up the path, and a serious mood descended upon all of them, even Palom.
"Hey," the boy murmured, as they passed a point in the rock where the ground had once been scorched with fire. "I remember this place."
Cecil looked around, and saw that the boy was right. "Ah," was all he said.
"What is it?" Rosa asked.
"When I first came here, this area was blocked by a very large blaze. You can see the remains of it in the ground here."
"Oh..." she said thoughtfully, "Why would that have been there? And why isn't it here now?"
Palom coughed, and Rosa looked at him. He looked down at the ground.
"When the elder sent us up here with Cecil, he told him we were going with him just to help. That, uh, wasn't entirely true." Cecil listened with only half an ear. He had heard this before, but he knew Rosa hadn't.
"We were actually sent to...keep an eye on him." Palom continued. "to make sure he wasn't doing anything like...the things he used to do, you know?" Rosa nodded, interested. Whatever they had done in the past, she had no doubts regarding them now, after all that had happened.
The boy looked up at Cecil, embarrassed. "The fire thing was something Porom and I thought up. We thought that it might help Cecil trust us, if we provided some help getting up the mountain. So I set the fire the night before we started up, and put it out with an ice storm when we got to it."
"Now that I didn't know." Cecil remarked.
"You didn't?" Porom asked, startled.
"No. Or if you told me, I must have forgotten.
They hiked on.
"How far is it to the top?" Rosa asked, after they had left the charred section of rock behind.
"About a day's hike." Cecil said. "We'll have to stop for the night, but that's okay. There's a place about halfway up the mountain that's open enough to set up camp. Oh, and before I forget; this mountain isn't deserted. There are a number of undead monsters that wander around the paths: the first part of the test, a winnowing process. Watch your back while you're up here."
"You don't sound worried." Rosa noted.
"I'm not, not really. There's nothing here that's nearly as bad as what we found in the Lunar Moon. Still, it never hurts to be careful."
Cecil's worries seemed unfounded, however, and they encountered none of the creatures as they made their way up the side of the mountain. The sun began to set in the west, and still they had seen no sign of the reanimated corpses and spirits that had dogged Cecil's steps the first time he had made this journey. He wondered if he ought to be apprehensive about that.
Palom approached him while they were setting up the tents. "Is it just me," he asked, "or does this place seem a little more creepy than it did last time?"
"You know, I noticed the same thing." Cecil said. He thought a moment. "Is your...feeling sense...picking up anything."
"Only a little," Palom admitted. "But I still don't like it. Last time, there was a sense of interest, somehow. That's still there, but it's been joined by something else. I can't identify this other feeling, but it just doesn't feel as if it belongs."
Cecil bit his lip. "That doesn't sound good. Tell you what, Palom. You and your sister sleep lightly tonight, and get yourselves ready in case we need your magic."
They finished the tents and started on the fire. Rosa did the cooking; none of the others had much skill at anything beyond travel rations. Dinner was short, without much attempt at conversation. A shadow seemed to have been cast across the party, and not even Palom seemed inclined to speak. Presently they were done. Kain took the first watch, and the rest of them sought their beds.
"Cecil," Rosa asked as they were getting in their pallet, "Was it like this last time? Everyone subdued like this?"
"Yes...but it was for a different reason. None of us were really sure that I could succeed in renouncing my past. This time...I spoke with Palom before dinner, and he feels some sort of presence here. Something separate from...from the spirit of my father."
"Does Kain know? That it's your father, I mean."
"I'm not sure. Maybe."
They were silent for a few moments. Then:
"What was it like?"
"What was what like?"
"Everything. Meeting Tellah again. The fight with Milon. The Chamber of Light. Your ordeal..."
"I can't really explain it. Meeting Tellah, I felt...surprised. And joyful. Milon, now...I felt helpless. My sword could do nothing against his minions, and I had to rely on Tellah and the twins to destroy them, so I could strike at Milon himself. Afterwards, when we had thought him dead, he rose up again and struck at us from behind. I was angry, then, to have come so close to my goal and have this creature blocking me from it."
"And the Chamber?"
"The Chamber seemed suffused with...peace. Peace and a touch of sadness. It's not something I can explain very well, but you'll have a chance to feel it for yourself. And my ordeal..." he trailed off.
"Cecil?" she prompted him.
"That's...another thing I can't really explain."
"It was...startling. I felt...doubt. I wasn't sure that I could do what I had to."
"But you got through it all right," Rosa reminded him, "You proved yourself to your father."
"Not really. I mean, yes, I did but...what I really did was prove something to myself."
"I don't suppose that I'll ever understand that one."
"Probably not. Go to sleep, Rosa. You'll see it for yourself tomorrow."
Cecil woke to a light tap on his shoulder. "It's your shift," Kain said softly.
Cecil rolled out of the pallet and dressed himself while Kain stood watch at the tent flap.
"Any problems?" he asked, in a low voice.
"I'm not sure. I kept getting this feeling, like I was being watched, but I couldn't find anything when I searched."
"I'll keep an eye out," he promised.
"Be careful. I don't intend to sleep tonight, so don't hesitate to call if there's a problem."
"I know what I'm doing, Kain. There really isn't any need to stay up."
"You may be right. But if there is, I want to be ready. Do you need help with that?" he asked, as Cecil reached for his breastplate."
"No, I can manage."
After Cecil had managed to set his armor, strap on his shield, and pull on his helmet, he pulled the tent flap closed and began his lonely watch. Kain disappeared into his own tent, and then there was silence.
The fire had gone out, but Cecil left it that way; a bright light source, while comforting, would destroy his ability to see into the shadows around him. Normally, he would not have worried, but Palom's warnings and Kain's unexplained feelings had made him jumpy. He paced back and forth through the night. A rattling sound made him jump, but it was followed by the chittering of small animals. He relaxed. Animals. He laughed softly at himself, that he was so nervous that a rat could scare him.
He circled the camp repeatedly, gazing out into the night, expecting at any moment to be confronted by the undead. But nothing happened. His watch drew to a close. It was time to wake the twins, who would hold watch until dawn. They had insisted. Cecil only counted himself lucky that Rosa, too, had not demanded the same. He didn't like to think of her in danger.
He stood at the entrance to the twins' tent, reluctant to rouse them from sleep. He took one last look around, then reached out to pull the flap.
He didn't get the chance.
He had a sudden impression of danger, like a knife driven through the base of his skull. Cecil spun, drawing his sword with one swift motion. There was a steely hiss as the blade came clear of the scabbard. Behind him, half hidden by the darkness, was a terrible array of skeletons, cadavers, and evil spirits. It was a virtual army of the undead.
He set his sword in guard position. "Wake!" he shouted, hoping the others could hear him. He met the first charge alone, his great sword carving arcs of bone and flesh from the enemy ranks. Once, when he had first come here, such enemies had been untouchable by his weapons. Not so now.
He was joined almost immediately by Kain, who had not only remained awake but had not removed his armor. His spear, earned deep in the Lunar Moon and shining with an inner light, dispatched the walking dead with a single touch. But even with their superior weaponry, the two were only barely able to hold their ground. They were slowly forced back toward the tents.
The twins woke at Cecil's first shout, leaping from their pallets in unison. As Cecil had suggested, they had made an effort not to sleep too deeply. Neither had undressed to sleep. After a moment to orient themselves, they rushed from the tent.
"Wow." Palom said. It was, Porom thought, the only way to describe the situation.
Cecil had not, at first, grasped the scope of the opposing forces. Instead of the few dozen he had at first seen - a formidable force, but not unbeatable - there were over a hundred of the hideous creatures, a real danger. Porom began speaking in a loud voice, calling on her magic, and heard her brother's voice rise to match hers.
The paladin heard them, and redoubled his assault. Together, the twins' magic was much more powerful than either could manage alone. But they would need time to work the spell. He needed to buy them that time.
Where was Rosa? He hadn't seen her, and his mind screamed at him in worry. "Rosa!" he shouted, "Rosa, where are you?"
"Here!" she called from the tents. He turned to see her running through the flap, bow in hand; and clad only in a nightgown. Though in was irrational at a time like this, he nearly told her to wait and put on some proper clothes.
His attention was diverted as a large skeleton smashed its sword against the back of his helmet, dazing him. He turned and clumsily swung his blade, taking off the creature's arm, but it was replaced by a warped, rotting corpse - a zombie.
The thing raked its claws across his breastplate, leaving long dents in the metal. He killed it, and then another, but they kept coming. Cecil caught a glimpse of Kain through the melee, saw him leap over a cadaver's head, invert himself in the air, and drive his spear right down the back of its neck. The dragoon turned and dispatched another with a blow to the head.
So far, the battle had centered itself on the two trained warriors. But now it seemed that whatever commanded these dark forces had made a decision. Cecil spotted a lone zombie shambling towards Rosa, who was consumed in her own spellcasting and was unable to defend herself. Disengaging himself from his current set of opponents, he threw himself in that direction, swinging his sword in a wide arc. It struck in the hollow between the creature's neck and shoulder, nearly cleaving the thing in half. Rosa was so deep in her magic that she didn't even notice.
More and more of the enemy line began disengaging, heading for the three mages. Kain disappeared in the rush, felled by a blow to the head. His helmet absorbed most of the damage, but he was still stunned and disoriented. The tide of battle began to change. Cecil was forced to fight a short, vicious melee less than five feet from where Rosa stood chanting. He looked across the camp, saw a skeleton raise its sword unopposed over Porom's head. The blade began to descend...
The twins released their spell.
The sword fell from limp bones as dozens of blazes lit up the night, each centered on one of the undead creatures that opposed them. They died en masse, consumed in white-hot fire.
Yet it still wasn't over. The pale ghosts Cecil had observed when the fight had first begun could not be harmed by fire; they lived with it, thrived in it.
Fought with it.
The spirits of Mount Ordeals did not need long spells or complex castings to work with this element. It was a part of their being. Pain struck Cecil as the ground beneath him spawned red energy, heating his armor, stretching through his visor to scorch his face and set his hair aflame. He saw Kain through the haze of pain, wreathed in the same elemental fire. But the twins were safe, protected by a wall, and so was Rosa. She was still chanting.
Rosa finished her spell just as the pain became unbearable, and she released it. Directed at any living thing, her spell could have closed the largest wound, replaced lost blood, banished any vestige of harm.
The ghosts were not alive.
There was no display, no impressive set of pyrotechnics. The ghosts simply...vanished.
The flames ceased. Cecil took one short step towards his wife before collapsing to the ground. She rushed to him, taking up her chant once again.
Cecil stopped her. "Kain...the twins..." he asked. "...all right?"
"They're fine, Cecil," she told him. Her words were all business, but there was a strain in her voice that betrayed her worry. "Shush, and let me work."
Cecil shushed, and she began to work her magic. Within minutes, the burn scars cleared up, the bleeding stopped. The pain left him. He looked up, making sure that everyone was fine.
They were. The twins had been protected behind their wall, and even now Porom was tending to Kain. Cecil smiled weakly. The young wizardess might not be as skilled as Rosa, but she knew enough. He had no doubt that the man would be walking again in short order.
After wounds had been seen to, they regrouped near the newly relit campfire. Cecil looked up, saw that the moon had moved only a very short distance across the sky since it had begun. That surprised him. He had thought it had been much, much longer.
"I'm never going to get used to that." Palom grumbled beside him.
"Used to what?"
"Only having one moon. Now that the Lunarians have left, it just seems... different."
"Try not to think about it."
"Is everyone all right?" Kain asked.
"Yeah." Cecil answered him, "But we were all very lucky."
"Nothing special, we'll just wait for morning. I don't want to try to continue in the dark. No one go back to sleep; we could be attacked again."
"Yeah..." Kain said thoughtfully, "Cecil...when you were here, did you ever see monsters appear in large groups like that?"
"No, and that's another thing that has me worried. What happened tonight was completely contrary to the way such creatures normally act."
"In what way?" Rosa asked.
"They've left us alone all day. Then they attacked in a unified group, just when we were at our weakest. Not only that, they timed the attack for when the guard was being changed. The undead just don't plan things like that. They have no minds, no concept of working together. Alone or in a small group, a skeleton or a cadaver isn't much trouble to deal with. It's only when they come like this that there's trouble."
"So someone must have been controlling them."
They were silent for a moment. "Zeromus." Palom said darkly.
"We don't know that." Porom protested. No one responded. Whatever anyone said, they knew.
They waited, through the night.
Chapter 5: The Spirit of the Light
The next day dawned bright and clear, and the companions breathed a collective sigh of relief as the sun rose up over the horizon. No more attacks had come during the night, as the five of them waited tensely for the rattling sound of a skeleton or the shuffling steps of a cadaver. But none came.
They had packed up the tents during the night, put away the cooking tools and gotten rid of the garbage. They set out again as soon as the sun peeked above the treetops. It was rough going, but a welcome relief to waiting for something hideous to step from the darkness. The eerie quality that had marked the previous day was gone.
They were attacked regularly as they proceeded up the side of the mountain, but never by whole armies. The undead monsters appeared only one or two at a time, never more than six; they were never too much trouble. This was more as it should be. Cecil remembered the first time he had climbed this mountain, with only the twins for company. They had faced much the same.
"Wait," he said, when they were passing a certain point he recognized. "Let's stop here for a few minutes."
"It's a bit early for lunch, Cecil." Kain noted.
"That's not why I want to stop."
Porom spoke. "This is where we met Tellah." she said softly.
Kain was silent, and Cecil wondered what he was thinking. The old Dragoon had never met Tellah, never really knew him. Neither, for that matter, had Rosa. But both of them had heard enough from their companions to know exactly how much his loss had hurt them. They stopped.
Cecil sat down, dangling his legs over the nearby cliff. He remembered this place, remembered turning the corner to see the feisty old sage staring off the mountain, into the distance. He remembered, too, the pain he had felt when the old man passed away in the tower of Zot, high above the surface of the planet.
Rosa sat down beside him. "Are you all right?" she asked.
He sighed. "You know, sometimes I go for weeks, or months, without thinking about it. And then I'll see something, and it all comes crashing down on me. And I think to myself, I'll never see him again. Never. And that hurts. He was always there, always dependable, like a rock. I never really thought that he could...die."
"Cecil, I'm sorry."
"Why did he do it? Didn't he know that he couldn't possibly control the power he was using?"
"I think he did, but I don't think he cared. After his daughter died... revenge was all he lived for. But it didn't get him anything, in the end. After his fight with Golbez...when he realized that not even the Meteo was enough to destroy him..." Cecil was silent for a few moments, then continued. "You should have heard him, Rosa. He sounded...broken. That, I think, was what really killed him. There was no spirit left in him."
"I wonder what he would have said, if he had known."
"Nothing, most likely," Cecil said bitterly, "He would have been too busy trying to kill me."
Rosa didn't say anything. In truth, there was nothing to be said.
"Please, go ahead and start setting up for lunch. We may be here for awhile."
She stood up and walked off. Cecil stayed behind, weeping silently.
Lunch had been eaten. Everyone had rested. There was no longer any reason to remain. Still, neither Cecil nor the twins wanted to leave.
"Come on, Cecil," Kain called from behind him.
"I'm coming, I'm coming."
He followed the others reluctantly away, head down, absorbed in his pain. They walked in silence.
It was more than three hours after they had left the place before Cecil regained his composure; and even then, it took extreme circumstances. The group rounded a corner and was suddenly set upon by five zombies and a skeleton. Cecil reacted instantly, the instinct of a trained warrior breaking through his sorrow. When the short, ugly fight was over, he had completely recovered.
By now, they were nearing the summit.
The highest reaches of the mountain were actually divided into several smaller peaks. The one they were aiming for was only slightly higher than the rest. It had sheer sides for almost fifty feet down, and was only accessible by a bridge from a nearby, smaller peak.
"There's the summit." Cecil said, pointing.
No one bothered to respond. No one had to. They crossed the bridge in silence. Here, Cecil thought, was where we fought Milon. I wonder why it doesn't still reek of his evil.
They reached the summit, where stood a massive stone monolith.
"Where's the entrance?" Rosa asked.
"Here," Cecil said, reaching out to touch the flat side of the rock. "Here."
There was a cracking sound, and a humming. The rock face slid smoothly upward, leaving a large opening. The five of them went inside, into the Chamber of Light.
The sight was stunning. The inside of the Chamber seemed far too large to fit inside the monolith, and yet it was small, small enough to be almost claustrophobic. The room itself seemed made of glass, like the Crystal Tiles inside the Lunar Moon. Yet the glass was harder than diamond. The walls were like mirrors, and yet more than just that. Each person who entered the Chamber saw, in their own reflection, the truth within their very soul.
When Cecil had first entered the Chamber, what seemed so long ago, his reflection had held an inner darkness. Now, it was filled to bursting with Light.
"Hello, my son." called a voice.
"Hello, father." He saw Kain jump at the term. He must never told his old friend.
There was silence.
"You asked me to come, father?" Cecil asked finally.
"Yes. There are certain truths you must be made aware of."
"I understand from Kain that Zeromus has returned."
"In a way."
"What do you mean?" Cecil asked, bewildered.
"I will explain in a minute. The first thing you must know is that he is here, now, on this planet. This is not as it was before, with Zeromus on the Lunar Moon and us beyond his immediate reach."
"I don't understand. Why has he not moved against us himself?"
"He fears you. He knows that you can destroy him again."
"Where is he now?"
"I do not know. But I do know that he is not the only threat."
"A human wizard named Dalsher, though that is not the name he was born with. He discovered a way to take his hatred and make it a part of the mesh of reality, effectively re-creating Zeromus."
"But if that is true, then it's not really Zeromus, is it?"
"That depends on your point of view."
The voice sighed. "Let me see if I can explain. Suppose you have an airship, of wood and steel. Over the years the hull is repaired repeatedly, the beams replaced, until eventually no part of the original ship still remains. Is it still the same ship?"
"Of course," Cecil replied promptly.
"Now suppose that you dismantle the ship, then build it again using new planks and steel beams. Is it still the same ship?"
"Yes," Cecil said, a little less sure of himself now.
"Even if years pass between the dismantling and rebuilding?"
"I don't see how that would make any difference." Cecil responded, totally confused by now.
"And if the ship is destroyed, rather than dismantled, and a second is built in the same way...is it still the same ship?"
Cecil paused. "I don't know." he admitted.
"Neither do I. This, essentially, is what has happened. This new being is identical to Zeromus in every respect - and, I believe, also has his memories. Whether he is truly Zeromus or not...is irrelevant."
Cecil was silent, not knowing what to say.
"Enough of this. Either way, I do not believe Zeromus will show himself except as a last resort. This sorcerer, Dalsher... he will not wait before attacking the nations. The ripple in creation he caused by his act shook the whole world."
"I know," Cecil heard Palom murmur, "I felt it."
"One more thing, Cecil. Protect the crystals at all costs. Either Dalsher or Zeromus is seeking them; I am not sure which. Do not allow them to capture any of the crystals."
"Father," Cecil asked, "Why is Dalsher doing this? What is it that he hates so much that he can turn the hatred into physical reality?"
"I do not know. Perhaps it does not matter. Go now. I regret that I can only watch the coming battle from here."
"Wait." It was Kain, "I want to take my test, here and now."
There was silence, and Cecil could almost hear his father considering the request.
"Why?" Kain demanded.
"If you became a Paladin, it would be an asset. But the second time a person faces their past, they must either win...or die, and we cannot afford to lose you. If you wish, you may return when this is over. But I will not test you now."
Cecil held his breath, expecting an outburst.
"Very well." Kain said.
Cecil sighed in relief.
They left. The door shut behind them.
The trip down was quiet, as it had been the first time Cecil had visited the Chamber. The weather had turned bad, and they covered ground slowly. The trip down took nearly two days.
"What did you think of it?" Cecil asked his wife, on the evening of the first day.
Rosa gave a start. "The Chamber? Oh, I, ah...I don't know."
"You did want to see it, if you remember."
She smiled at him weakly, "Yes, I did, didn't I? I'm not so sure, now, that I should've."
"Why? Did you see something you didn't like?"
"I think we all saw something we didn't like. You might not have noticed, you were speaking with your father, but...everyone else was looking at their reflections. Even me."
"You're all right, though?" Cecil asked, concerned.
"Of course I am. I know that I'm not perfect."
"If you say so..." Cecil said dubiously.
"Well, I do say so. Now shush up and let me cook."
They reached the base of the mountain in the early morning. There was no sign of an airship.
"It's all right." Cecil assured everyone. "It'll be here in a few days." But he himself felt a sliver of doubt, fearful that something had gone wrong.
His fears proved unfounded. Two days later, an airship picked them up. It landed shortly after noon.
"Captain Belrae, commander of the Dawnrunner, reporting, sir!" the captain greeted Cecil as he reached the top of the gangplank.
"Good to be here, captain. We can take off as soon as everyone's on board."
The others reached the deck in short order, and the huge ship began to lift off.
"Captain?" Cecil asked.
"Yes, my lord?"
"How soon will we reach Baron?"
"This is one of the newest ships," Belrae said with pride, "Two days, tops. Less if we have clear skies."
"Good." For some reason, Cecil felt an obscure sense of urgency. If he could have been in Baron right now, he would have given almost anything for the chance.
The airship, though, would not oblige him. It sped on quite normally through the skies.
Chapter 6: Waiting for War
Cid, Edge, and Rydia met them as they disembarked.
"How did things go?" Rydia asked.
"Pretty good, actually." Cecil said. "We had some trouble on the way up, but it was worth it."
"Tell us about it, please."
Cecil did, sparing no detail. They walked as they talked, eventually reaching the very top of the north tower. He stopped his narrative, staring.
"Wow." was all he said.
No fewer than twenty-one fully operational airships were parked behind the castle, out of sight from where they had first landed.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Cid asked.
"Where on earth did you get this many ships? Last I heard, there were only eighteen active in the world!"
"Seventeen, actually, and most of those are here now. The others...there was an airship in Mysidia. The Elder ordered it here, and sent something around a score of wizards with it. They offered their help in building new ships."
Cecil shook his head in disbelief. "How long have they been here? How did they do it?"
"No idea." Cid said cheerfully. "They've been averaging about one ship a day since they got here. The one you came in here on was the first one they built; I don't know what they did, but the thing's almost twenty percent faster than anything we already had."
"Good." Cecil said, calming down, "Has there been any word from the other nations?"
"Only from the Underground." Edge answered him. "We expect a ship back from Toroia any day now. And Fabul might take three days or a week, depending on whether or not there's a ship there."
"We'll take what we can get. What did Asura have to say?"
"She's already spoken with both the Dwarves and the Sylphs. They'll be coming to help."
"Do we need to send them ships to bring them up here?"
"No. Now that the tower of Bab-il has been cleaned out, they can go half way up and then take the caves of Eblan, the same way we did...except that we were going the other way."
"Good." Cecil said. He grinned suddenly. "I wonder how the dwarves will react to what they see up here?"
"Who knows? Giott's already seen it, but most of the others have been Underground their entire lives. I'd get ready for a large number of visitors, by the way. The way Rydia tells it, I get the impression that we're in for a complete migration of almost the entire population of the Underground."
"How have the two of you been, anyway? Did you get over your... indisposition?"
"Oh, I think that he did." Rydia said, walking up from behind them.
"And how are you, my Queen?" Edge said grandly, grinning from ear to ear. She blushed.
"I'm never going to get used to that." she complained, "Being royalty, I mean. It sounds so...high."
"You'll get used to it." Cecil told her. "It took Rosa a bit of time, as I recall. Have you two gotten your own forces ready?"
"Yeah." Edge answered him. "It took a bit of time, but we finally got everything together."
"What was the problem?"
"Uh...let's just say we were busy with...other things."
"Ah." Cecil said delicately. Edge looked highly distracted, and he seemed to have forgotten Cecil in favor of staring worshipfully at his new wife. She didn't seem to mind; in fact, she was staring right back. Things were going rapidly downhill here.
He considered trying to snap them out of it, but decided that it wasn't worth the trouble. "I think I'll go down and get something to eat." he said resignedly.
"You go and do that." Edge said absently. "They were serving some delicious venison earlier. Why don't you see if they have any left?"
Cecil shook his head, turned, and left.
"Where are they?" Rosa asked him at the base of the steps.
"They're still up there. Edge lost interest in things shortly after his wife showed up."
"I hate to tell you this, Rosa, but you picked the worst possible time to push them together. We have a crisis on our hands, and neither of them can really concentrate."
"Maybe you're right, but still...it seemed like a good idea at the time. Nothing we can do about it now, anyway."
Cecil grunted, noncommittal.
"Oh, guess who just came in by airship."
"Come and see."
Cecil followed, absorbed in his own thoughts. The newly arrived group stood in the outer courtyard.
He stared, astonished. "Edward!" he exclaimed joyfully, "When did you get here?"
"Less than five minutes ago, old friend. Rosa caught us at the gate. I heard about what she did to Edge and Rydia, by the way."
"Funny, we were just talking about that...I'm sorry we didn't have time to invite you."
"It's all right, Cecil. I can live with it.
"How goes the reconstruction of Damcyan?"
"Slow, and we're still not done yet. This thing isn't helping any. What's the problem?"
"You don't know?" Cecil asked, startled.
"Your messengers weren't very informative, Cecil."
"Tell you what, why don't you come this way a bit?" he led the young prince off too a side table in the main hall. "Sit down, have a drink."
Edward wasn't buying it. "Out with it, Cecil." he said with an uncharacteristic bluntness. "What's got you so worked up that you won't tell me what it is?"
Cecil told him.
Edward sat down hard, his face pale. "On second thought, I could use that drink."
Cecil turned and grabbed a servant passing by. "Some wine," he said, "and quickly. Something strong." The servant nodded and hurried off.
He returned in short order, carrying not one, but two bottles of a brand of wine that could knock out a cow. Edward upended one and started chugging it down as if it were water.
Cecil stared at the other bottle, considering. Why not? he thought to himself. I don't have anything better to do...
He woke up late the next morning with a stuffy nose, a splitting headache, and a mouth that tasted like a rotting corpse. He sat up, and the world spun around him like a top. He lay back again.
"Serves you right." a voice told him, and it was a moment before he could place it. Oh, yes. Rosa.
"You got drunk, that's what happened. The twins and I had to carry you to bed."
"Oh, now I remember." he said. "Is that what's making the room move all over the place?"
"I wouldn't be at all surprised. Can you get up by yourself, or do you need me to help you with that, too?"
"No, I think I can manage."
"What on earth prompted you to do something like that?" Rosa asked him as he slowly and painfully dressed.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Did anything important happen while I was out?"
"Not really. Edward went to bed in the same state you did, but that's not news."
"What time is it?"
"Almost noon. You should get something to eat."
"Sounds good to me. You want to come?"
"I already ate, dear. I have some things to take care of, so don't worry about me."
Edward met him in the dining hall. He didn't look good.
"You're in the same situation I'm in, I take it?" the young man asked.
"More or less. I knew I shouldn't have had that second bottle."
"Or the third or the forth, eh, Cecil?"
"Did I really drink that much?"
"Yes, I'm afraid you did." Edward grinned at him, then winced in pain. "You come down for breakfast?"
"If I can keep down what I eat, yes."
"Mind if I join you?"
"Be my guest."
Nothing of importance occurred for the next three days. On the third day, a servant woke Cecil with news that would signal an end to the tedious gathering of information...and a beginning to battle.
"My lord," the servant said, "An airship has just arrived from Fabul.
"They are under attack."
Chapter 7: Tinder on the Fire
"How many airships are here, active, and armed right now?" Cecil asked. He stood in the conference chamber, addressing the leaders of the nations and accompanied by his own advisors and friends.
Cid answered him. "Twenty-six active. Of those, only eighteen are stocked with cannonballs and firebombs...and only thirteen have the equipment to use them."
"Are there any more that can be completely outfitted within the next twelve hours?"
"Only one...not enough to make any difference."
"How many troops do we have?"
"Five thousand or so," Edge answered him, "from several different nations. But the maximum capacity of an airship is only a hundred and ten. Even if we send every ship, we can only get about twenty-eight hundred men to the battlefield."
"But according to captain Telcair, there are almost five thousand monsters assaulting Fabul," Rosa objected. "That puts us at a two to one disadvantage."
"It's not as bad as it sounds." Rydia pointed out. "The Mysidian wizards are worth ten times their number in soldiers, and we have the airships. Not to mention the thousand or so martial artists inside Fabul itself."
"We have them outclassed," Cecil said, "But only if we can get to Fabul before they can breach the gates. Once they get into the city, we can't use magic or air-based weaponry against them for fear of hitting our allies. We'd be forced to set our men down outside the gate and storm it ourselves. Even if we did manage to break through, we'd take so many casualties that we couldn't possibly win the next battle."
"Do you want me to start loading our army onto the ships?" Cid asked.
"Yes, but get the wizards on first. After that, cram the ships as far beyond capacity as you can and still be able to get them off the ground."
"All right." Cid turned to leave.
"Oh, and Cid?" Cecil stopped him before he had the chance.
"That applies to the one we're going to be on, too."
"Very well, Cecil."
The flight to Fabul took four days, slowed both by the extra weight and by horrendous weather. On the third day, however, the rain ceased, and the remainder of the trip was completed at a somewhat faster pace.
"We're here," Edward's voice called out of the darkness.
Cecil started, and woke. "We are? Good."
He dressed hurriedly, and followed the young man out onto the deck. Most of the others were already there.
"What's it look like out there?" he asked.
"See for yourself," Edge answered him. Cecil looked out over the railing.
"Damn." he muttered.
The monsters were spread out approximately half a mile from the walled city of Fabul. Facing them from the walls, outnumbered at least five to one, were the karate fighters of the country, looking small and somewhat puny against the inevitable onslaught. They waited, patiently, as the monsters prepared for their charge.
Neither side had prepared for the coming of the Red Wings of Baron.
"Shall we start our attack?" Cid asked.
"By all means, yes." Cecil answered absently. Something felt wrong here... he shook the feeling off. "Let's take out what we can before they reach the walls."
"Signal the other ships," Cid ordered the captain. "Drop altitude and begin our bombing run." The deck tilted under them as the thing ponderously turned, slowly settling onto a new heading. The other ships followed suit, and the ground loomed closer beneath them all.
"Cid..." Rydia said, looking troubled. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. It's just that...something isn't right down there. No, never mind." She walked to the railing, watching their decent.
Cid looked at Cecil, and he shrugged. There was undoubtedly something to the woman's vague sense of unease, but unless she could be more specific they couldn't do much about it.
Rydia herself peered intently toward the ground, barely listening as the others discussed the military situation. She sensed something far below her. It was magic, certainly, but she couldn't quite identify what it was. From this distance, the only real impression she had of it was a faint tingling sensation at the back of her mind; as if a tiny bumblebee had flown into her ear and deposited itself in her head. She stretched out with her senses, trying to see something more.
"We're in position." Cid told the others. "Ready to fire on your command, Cecil."
"Yeah," Palom piped up, "Let's blast 'em."
Cecil had his doubts, but he had to agree. "Might as well start now. Signal the other ships to-"
"No, wait!" Rydia exclaimed suddenly.
They stared. "Why not?" Palom asked indignantly.
"Look at Fabul," she said excitedly, "What do you see?"
"I see an army," Cid replied, sounding slightly confused, "But what's so special about that?"
"How large would you say it is?"
"About a thousand strong. Why?"
"How many men did Telcair say they had?"
"A thousand." Cecil answered her. "I questioned him myself. What are you getting at, Rydia?"
"I think I see..." Edge said slowly. He broke into a wide grin. "You really are brilliant, you know."
"Thank you." She beamed at him.
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Cid complained.
"According to Telcair," Edge told him, "Fabul had about a thousand men, while Dalsher - or Zeromus, however you prefer - had five thousand camped outside the walls. But that was eight days ago. There's no way that that much time could go by without either side taking any casualties. How, then, do both sides have the exact strength that the captain reported?"
"Damn." Cid said, "He's right."
"But what does it mean?" Cecil asked.
Kain answered him: "It means, Cecil, that someone has...or possibly still is...deceiving us."
It sank in for a moment.
"Cid," Rydia commanded. "Take us down further."
"Just do it!"
They descended. Rydia returned to her vigil over the side.
"There!" She said.
"Where?" They all asked simultaneously.
"Take a...no never mind, you won't be able to see it. It's like a net. A weaving of sorts. I couldn't see it before; we were too high up. Whatever it is, it doesn't have any edge as far as I can see."
"I don't see anything." Cecil said.
"Trust me, it's there. Rosa, can you see it?"
She peered over the edge. "Not clearly. It's not made of White Magic."
He joined them at the railing. "Yeah, I can see it. What's it for?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe it's supposed to block our weapons, or keep us from landing, or...no, that can't be right."
"What can't be right?" Edge asked.
"Whatever's down there doesn't have a really solid feel to it. It's like...it feels bent, somehow, or maybe it's doing the bending." She made a decision. "Cid, take us down another hundred feet or so. I'm going to try something."
She waited by the railing, and Edge came to put an arm over her shoulder.
"Will you be all right?" he asked her, "I mean, you're not going to do anything dangerous, are you?"
"If I did, I certainly wouldn't tell you about it." she teased him. Then her tone became more serious. "Actually, it's probably not entirely safe. I've never tried anything like this before."
"Are you sure? If it isn't safe...I think I'd die, if I lost you."
"That's sweet of you, love, but I can't simply back off anytime there's risk in something."
"I know, but..."
"Don't worry about it. I'll be all right."
Cid called down from the foredeck. "Is this all right, Rydia?"
She regretfully took her eyes from Edge's face, and looked over the side. "Fine!" she called back. She leaned out slightly, chanting under her breath, projecting her consciousness down to where she could now clearly see the fabric of magic beneath her.
She lost contact with her body, lost all sense of touch and sight and hearing, lost herself in the spell. She ran on strings of pure magic, a tightrope walk through the clouds. Somewhere, she knew, her body still stood, still spoke the words of power. Once begun, a spell needed only life and will to sustain it.
And then she was there. She walked among the silken cords of Black Magic. It was amazing, a true work of art. The vast weaving was perfect in every respect; she truly admired the one who could build a thing such as this. For a time - a short time, but a time nonetheless - she allowed herself to be drawn in by the perfection of it. Eventually, however, she was forced to get down to business.
The bending was more pronounced here, more noticeable. She would move toward a point, and then suddenly find that she was going in another direction entirely. She had to get above it again, try to see the whole picture. She moved up, headed for the sunlight.
But now it was behind her again! Resolutely, she reversed course and went once more for the sky; only to find herself a second time in the suddenly confusing, directionless interior of the magic. Panic rose within her; she could not get loose! She fought it down, pushed it into the back corners of her mind. But it was still there.
She pondered this a few moments, watching closely. She had not turned even the slightest in her movement. She knew that as surely as she knew her own name. Yet somehow, the light of the sun had shifted.
And suddenly, it hit her. It was the light that was being bent, twisted by the magic to form an image that did not, in truth, exist.
The whole work was one vast illusion.
I should never have attempted this, she thought to herself. This is too large, even for me. But I must try.
The substance she drifted in was like a web of magic, a thousand strings knotted together. She headed for one of the knots, one that had clearly been badly made; the magic didn't fit right, it had an aura of...disharmony. She pushed her own magic between the threads, pulled them apart, unraveled them, forced the knot to loosen. After a bit of searching, she found what she wanted.
A loose end. A point where the threads didn't meet just right, where the magic went in one direction but not the other. She took that end, threaded it back through the knot, drew it out. She took it and ran back down it, reaching another knot. But she did not undo this one. Instead, she added her own magic to the thread she held, looped the result around the knot. She took it and raced down to the next knot. She repeated the process, felt the bond between this knot and the last tense and harden. Satisfied, she moved on, working to a pattern that she knew by instinct yet could not have described if her life depended on it.
Up above, knowing nothing of her actions, the others watched in silent contemplation; altering their vigil between the husk that was her body and the depths below. They heard changes in her voice as it continued her spelling of its own accord, and took this as a hopeful sign of progress. But nothing happened for what seemed an eternity.
Then the air beneath them seemed to imperceptibly darken. Cecil exclaimed in wonder as the darkness coalesced; for now it seemed as if they saw the battlefield through a pane of glass. The glass clouded, became opaque. It seemed brittle almost, like it would crumble at the slightest touch.
Which it would. Rydia, her work almost complete, observed the web around her. The strings had been tightened, strained almost to the breaking point. She had attached each one to a central hub, where a single tug could pull at every thread and knot.
She pulled, and the strings began to fray. To those above her, spiderweb cracks appeared in the smoked glass. She could tell directions, now. She returned to her body, but only long enough to stop one spell and begin another. Once again she was caught in the casting, once again she lost all sense of being. But this time, she was not projecting her mind. She was drawing in power.
It grew and grew inside her, and when it was so great that it could not be held longer, she released it. There was a roar in her mind as a thousand gleaming blades of Black Magic plummeted towards the ground.
They struck, and the glass shattered. Shards of visible magic fell toward the ground, then disappeared as their spell completely unraveled.
"Oh, goodness!" she heard Rosa exclaim, but she paid scant attention. She slumped, exhausted almost to the point of death. Edge caught her before she could fall.
"Rydia! Are you all right?" he yelled, almost in her ear. She smiled at him weakly, to reassure him.
She rested a few moments, longer than was really necessary. In truth, she wanted nothing more than to remain enfolded in his arms; but she knew that this was not the time. She stirred slightly. "Help me to the railing, Edge. I need...I have to see what's down there."
Despite her assertions that yes, she could walk, and no, she wasn't going to shatter at a breath of air, he insisted on practically carrying her to the side. She looked over.
"Crap." she said.
With the illusion gone, the true battlefield was spread out before them. The opposing forces were already hotly engaged, and it seemed that there was nothing the Baronian troops could do to prevent the men of Fabul from being overwhelmed.
Cid started barking orders, commanding the ships to turn around and head for the castle. He turned to the others. "It may not be too late. Yang and his people won't quit easily."
"How are we supposed to hit the right people?" Edge demanded.
"See for yourself, Edge. We might not be able to strike right at the line of battle, but we can sure tear their reserves to shreds."
"While they tear Fabul to shreds." Edge countered, but more out of habit than any other reason. He knew as well as anyone that the unarmed ships could put their troops down during the bombing.
Cid turned to Cecil, ignoring Edge's remark. "I await your command, my King." he said, grinning like an idiot. Despite himself, Cecil smiled back.
"Let's do it."
A few commands had the ships moving in the right direction, about half of them still headed for attack position, the others dropping to the ground. The job was timed so that the army would come swarming out about two miles from enemy lines, just as they were smashed from above by the airships.
"We're in position, Cecil!" Cid called from the command deck.
"Fire!" Cecil shouted back.
"You heard him, men! All starboard weapons, fire at will!"
Every ship rattled from tail to tip, lurched to one side as dozens of cannons and catapults discharged all at once, launching chemical explosives and eight inch cannonballs towards the ground. The iron balls struck first, maiming and killing whatever was in their path.
Then the firebombs hit the ground, and the enemy army was engulfed in a crimson wall of flame.
Some survived, of course. The enemy reserves were widely spread, and could not be exterminated by a single volley.
The Red Wings were in no way restricted to such.
Within two minutes, the entire enemy reserve had been wiped out. The remainder broke off from the engagement at the gates of Fabul and ran for the woods.
It appeared that someone on the other side had brains, for the retreat was directed directly underneath the fleet, in the catapults' collective blind spot. Cecil smiled inwardly; Their opponent was obviously not versed in modern aerial warfare. In olden days, airships had not held cannons in their undersides. They did now, and the enemy army was quickly being decimated. The organized retreat was quickly turning into a wild scramble for cover.
In desperation, the bedraggled force of monsters made a final dash for the forest. The Baronian army was waiting for them.
Chapter 8: Gathered From the Corners of the Planet
Twenty minutes later, Cecil and his wife met Yang atop the remnants of the attackers.
"There he is!" Rosa said, as they watched him walk across the open plain. "I hope he's all right."
"I'm sure he is, dear." Cecil said. They waited.
Yang, always stiffly formal, saluted when he reached them. "Well met, Sir Cecil." he said.
"Well met, Sir Yang." Cecil responded. He didn't really like this sort of formal greeting, but he could stand it, for his friend's sake.
"We of Fabul thank you for your aid. You turned the tide of battle in our favor."
"You're welcome." Cecil said. "Yang, can we cut short on the formalities? I have to talk to you."
Yang regarded him, expressionless. "Very well," he said, "Come."
"We received your messenger four days ago," Cecil said as they walked. "We would have come sooner, but we ran into bad weather."
"It was not necessary, in truth. We were outnumbered, but our army was more than a match for those that faced it."
Cecil had his private doubts about that, but he didn't mention them. Instead he said: "Maybe so, but I had to come anyway. Like I said, I have information you need."
"Then why not tell me now?"
Yang changed the subject. "Are the others here?" he asked.
"Most of them yes. Everyone except Giott, Asura, Leviathan, and the Mysidian Elder.
"Where are they?"
"On the ship. Cid is covering the technicals, Edward's entertaining the crew, Edge and Rydia are probably in some secluded corner...they got married, you know."
"It was bound to happen sometime." Yang said, without flickering an eyelash. "Why wasn't I invited?"
"It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing, and you weren't the only one who missed it. I'll tell you about it later." he said hastily, when Yang seemed about to inquire further.
"The twins are asleep; they were up all night. Kain was feeling sick, so he's in bed. He wanted to be down here, but Rosa insisted that he get his rest." His wife smiled at him over Yang's head.
Yang chuckled, and lightened up a bit. "That's Rosa, all right." he said.
"Hey!" she protested.
"No offense intended, of course."
They spoke of simple nothings, until they reached Yang's room. There, they sat.
"Very well, Cecil. We're alone; tell me what you wish."
"Zeromus is back." Cecil said, without any attempt at evasiveness. He knew he didn't need any, and he was right. Yang barely blinked.
"How?" he asked.
Cecil and Rosa related to him each thing that had happened, since the day that Kain had returned with the grim news.
"The problem is," Cecil said after they were finished, "What do we do now?"
"I should think you can see that, Cecil."
"What do you mean?"
"Gather the crystals, Cecil. Your father told you that the enemy is seeking them. If you bring them together in one place, you will not need to go after Dalsher; he will come to you."
Cecil stared at him. "Yang, that's brilliant."
"No. It is common sense."
"Sense or no, you spotted what none of the rest of us did." Rosa congratulated him.
"Go give the orders, Cecil." Yang said pointedly. "The Crystal of Air is here, but the some of the others may be unguarded."
"You're right, of course. Where should we bring them?"
Yang smiled widely at him. "Another thing I thought obvious. Where else but Baron Castle?"
The orders went out within the day. Airships were sent to every corner of the planet, to gather up the precious, mysterious Lunarian relics that had once held in them the salvation or destruction of the world. Perhaps they still did. Cecil lay on his back, in his chambers. The airship Summer's Dawn raced across the sky, to Baron and battle, but Cecil paid the coming fight no thought. Gloomy thoughts infested his mind. Was humanity doomed to repeat this endless struggle? If hatred could be made into a living weapon, what was to keep it from happening again, and again, and again? As long as there is evil in the hearts of people... Cecil smiled bitterly at the memory. The creatures of evil could be destroyed, weapons could be dismantled, the world could be brought to peace...but no magic, however powerful, could negate the one inexorable fact of hatred.
"Are you all right?"
Cecil looked up at his wife, who had just entered. He turned to look out the porthole.
"Yeah, I'm all right. It's just...I can't help thinking, Will this make a difference? We can win now, but not forever. As long as there is evil..." he stopped. Rosa remembered as well as he did.
"Don't talk like that, Cecil. Don't even think like that."
"Because you'll drive yourself into despair. Because without hope, we can never win."
"Can we win anyway?"
Rosa sighed "Maybe you're right," she said, sitting beside him. "Maybe this world is doomed. But even so, you can't just give up. If we lose, think about it. All the people, the next generation...they won't exist. If we win, we may not be saved...but at least the ones after us will have a chance at life. That's worth it, isn't it?"
"Yeah...I guess you're right."
"Good." She got up, kissing him lightly. "I need to talk to Rydia about something. I'll see you this evening."
He stood up after she had left. "Thanks, Rosa." he said, though there was no one, nothing present but empty air. "Still...I think it's hopeless."
He lay down again, and suddenly a thought struck him. He reached back in his memories with an odd feeling, looking for something, finding it. He remembered a time, just before he had left Baron for Mist. They had had much the same conversation then as just now. He had been in despair over his own morals, over what he had done. Rosa had come to him then, giving words of consolation and hope.
She had been right, then. Was she right this time? Cecil wasn't sure, but he knew one thing; he would fight with his whole heart. If not for the world, then for her.
"The crystals..." Cecil whispered.
It was a week later. Fourteen people stood in a chamber of surpassing beauty, a chamber constructed by magic for the sole purpose of housing the eight Crystals of the Planet. It was not made of the glassy tiling of the true Crystal Rooms, of course; such work was far beyond human capability. Even so, it was one of the most spectacular things Cecil had ever seen.
And he had eyes for none of it. No one saw it's unrivaled magnificence, for it was completely overshadowed by the presence of the Crystals.
They were unremarkable, in and of themselves. They glistened, but no more than an ordinary jewel. It was more than that. Around them hung an aura of... power. As if each on its own could tear the castle apart, and all eight together...could wipe out the planet.
Cecil looked to either side of him. To his left stood Kain, Cid, Rosa, Yang, the twins, and their Elder. To his right stood Edward, Giott, Edge, Rydia, Asura, and Leviathan. The people that had become his family, in a rather strange sense of the word. They stood, and each thought their own thoughts under the glowing light of the Crystals.
Cecil thought of the future, and the past. He may or may not win, this time. There was never certainty, always life was held on a balance scale. He remembered a time when he had felt no pain. He had been a child then, true, but he would give up all he had gained as an adult to feel that sweet innocence again...
Rosa thought of the good times they had shared. She remembered waking in Kaipo, after following him so far; waking to see him standing over her. She remembered fighting at his side, as they traveled the mountain passes that led to Fabul. She remembered the Tower of Zot, waiting for his rescue. She remembered the Lunar Moon, when she had spoken to him, urging him to finally accept the brother he had once despised as a hated foe. She waited, and remembered...
Cid thought of his discoveries. He could still feel the wild joy of his first flight, the triumph of knowing that man had finally conquered the skies.
The twins thought with one mind, or perhaps two joined minds.
Well? Porom asked her brother.
The fight. Using your strengths to help others. Turning yourself to stone.
What are you trying to say? Palom asked calmly. Though they fought, griped, and argued out loud, within their minds there was always a mutual respect and honesty.
Was it worth it?
He paused a moment. Yes. It was worth it.
Would you do it again?
Yes, he thought back at her. I would...
Kain thought of Mount Ordeals. When this was over, he would go back. He would prove himself, in the Light and in his own mind, or he would die in the effort...
The Elder thought of his home, that he had worked so hard to protect. If he failed...
Yang thought of the old King, who had died in his sleep. Would that you were here to see this, my Liege. This will be mankind's finest hour...
Edward thought of his lost love, Anna.
Giott thought of his nation, and his daughter. The dwarves had remained underground for so long that they had lost all memory of the world above. It was too bad, really, that they could not adapt themselves to this life again, for he found this place beautiful...
Rydia thought of Edge, and Edge thought of Rydia. Life might be short, but love was eternal...
Leviathan thought of his choices. In bringing Rydia to the Land of Summoned Monsters, he had irrevocably involved himself in the affairs of the outer world. Monsters were not meant to dwell with humans. Should he have chosen differently? Would things have turned out differently, if he had? No. All must bow to change, but he did not have to like it...
Asura thought of the people, of all races, all species. The world was at war, and Her children had to face it as one...
"What now?" Rosa asked, breaking the silence.
"Now," Cecil told her, "Now we wait."
Chapter 9: In Full Blaze
"Isn't this an awfully large risk?" Edward asked.
"Of course it is." Cecil said. "But realistically, what else can we do?"
"What if they hit us somewhere else? Suppose that they strike at Damcyan, or Toroia, instead of here?"
"Please, Edward, don't start saying 'what if'. You'll have everyone jumping out of their skins."
Kain joined them on the battlements. "Nervous, Edward?" he inquired.
"Of course I'm nervous! I'm no warrior."
"Try not to think about it."
"How do you suggest I manage that? You can't look anywhere around here without seeing someone sharpening a sword or building a catapult."
"True, but you can always pretend they're not there."
Edward snorted, but said nothing.
"Has there been any further word from the scout ships?" Cecil asked.
"Not yet. No large bodies of monsters have appeared anywhere on the continent." He paused a moment. "You know, it occurs to me that we may have gone about this wrong. What's to keep Dalsher from slipping his forces here two or three at a time? He has to know that we'd see him, otherwise."
"You have a point." Cecil admitted. "But how does he intend to bypass Mist?"
"Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he intends to wipe out Mist first."
"If he does, we may not have to fight here at all. Between the six airships hidden in the mountains and the combined power of the Callers, we could tear his army to shreds."
"Do we have any idea where he is now?" Edward asked. "If he's on another continent entirely, we could be waiting here for months."
"There's not much we can do about that." Cecil said. "Besides, there's no reason to believe that he's left this one."
"No reason to believe that he hasn't, either." Kain pointed out.
"True." He pointed up at the sky. "Here comes another ship. Maybe this one saw something."
They met the captain at the landing grounds. It was Belrae again.
"Any word, captain?" Cecil asked him.
Belrae grinned at him. "Actually, yes. They emerged from the cave of Mist three hours ago. I was going to take a few potshots, but my first officer pointed out that you might not want them to know that we know that they're here."
"Good." Cecil approved. "How long until they get here?"
"I'd say about four days. They're not moving very fast." His face sobered. "There are a lot of them, my lord. More than we've got here. About three times as many."
"They'll have a lot less when they get here. Take ten ships and head back out."
"How is he going to see them?" Kain asked.
Cecil looked at him. "You're right, of course. Edward, get hold of the Mysidian Elder and have him send a wizard with each ship. Belrae, when you're out there, stay close to the ground. If Dalsher has any kind of shield up, you'll need to be less than twelve hundred feet off the ground for the Mysidians to detect it."
"Yes, my Lord. I'll send the orders out at once."
"You do that."
Belrae walked off, headed for the Red Wings' barracks. Cecil and Kain went off to tell the others.
"Your opinion, Kain?" Cecil asked.
"We're in trouble."
"That wasn't what I meant."
"I know." Kain thought for a moment. "If Dalsher's got that large a force, even ten ships won't be able to diminish it to a reasonable size before he gets here."
"True. But every bit counts."
"We need to find a way to eliminate as many of his troops as we can, and we have to do it at minimum risk to our own men."
"And I suppose you have a plan for this?" Cecil asked.
The two of them walked on, and they vanished into the castle.
It was four days later. Cecil stood in his room, silently regarding his attire for the day. Crystalline armor, helmet, shield, and gauntlets; artifacts acquired from the very bottom of the Lunar Moon. Lighter than a feather, yet harder than diamond; nothing could touch him when he used these. Today, he would wear them for the first time in over a year. He had a blade, too, of a similar material to the Crystals. But he would not use it today. He would fight with the same sword he had received on Mount Ordeals.
"It's almost time." he heard Rosa say.
He donned his armor in silence, Rosa helping him with the legpieces. It fit perfectly, as it had when he had first worn it. He had always wondered about that, but he concluded that it didn't really matter. He put the armor on, strapped the shield to his arms, placed his helmet on his head. He pulled his gauntlets over his hands, set his sword in its sheath, which was attached to his back. He turned to face his wife.
"You look good, dear." she told him.
"Does it make a difference?"
"It inspires the soldiers."
They walked out, went down the steps of the tower. They joined the others in the main hall.
"Cecil." Kain greeted him.
"They'll be here in an hour. Maybe less."
"When do we start?"
"Let them get as close to the castle as possible."
"Is that safe?"
The conversation was unnecessary, of course. They had gone over the plan in detail, several times. Still, each was nervous about the coming contest. They had fought seemingly hopeless battles before, and lived to tell about them. But it was not death they feared. It was fear for what would come if they failed.
The group slowly marched up to the battlements. Below them was arrayed the combined armies of the known world, over fifteen thousand in number. Across the plains of Baron were the armies of Dalsher...or Zeromus. Cecil was not sure who truly pulled the strings, just as he had been unsure with Zemus. He had come to a conclusion, though: no matter who led, who was the true master, Zeromus would not appear until Dalsher was destroyed.
The enemy forces numbered forty thousand; monsters of the darkness, hideous beasts, undead specters, and elemental beings. Cecil wondered where they had come from. Were monsters truly this numerous? Such a host of them had not been seen in the history of the world. Had most of them simply been created?
The bombardments of the airships had proven ineffective. Every monster that had left the cave of Mist four days ago had survived to reach this battle ground. The efforts of the Mysidians had not sufficed to break the barrier surrounding their enemies; bombs and cannonballs had deflected harmlessly off a wall of force. Whatever happened, today's battle would be fought without support from the sky.
If not for Kain's trump card, Cecil would have thought they had no hope of winning.
Two days ago, airships had returned from Mist, each crowded full with the Callers of the valley. At first, Cecil had wondered at this suggestion; with the Summoned Monsters already here, what use was the ability to call them?
"Think." Kain had told him.
"Out with it, Kain." he had answered
"When a Caller summons a monster, does it make a difference how far away the monster is?"
"Of course. The farther the monster is, the more difficult it is to summon."
"Suppose the monster is standing right next to the Caller."
"What would happen? It wouldn't be going anywhere."
"Of course it would. A Caller can control where the monster appears. Distance has no effect on that."
"What are you getting at?"
"If the monsters were standing right there, a Caller could conceivably take up four or five at once, and have them appear a few hundred yards off. As in, say, right behind Dalsher's army."
Cecil smiled to himself as the group walked along the parapet. It still surprised him, that idea; he never could have thought of it himself. It might just win the battle for them.
They passed the Callers now, monsters at their sides. There was a nervous tension among this group, more than Cecil would have expected, as they were not going near the battle itself. Something nagged at the back of his mind, some reason for their fear. Rydia had had to speak with them for some time before they would agree to the plan...he shrugged, and tried to put it out of his mind.
Edge and Rydia stood with the Callers, sharing a quiet moment. Cecil broke off from the group. He hated to disturb the two, but it had to be done.
"Hi, Cecil." Rydia said as he approached.
"Good morning." Edge spoke along with her.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," Cecil said, "but I needed to ask you something, Rydia."
"It's been about a year since the Lunar Moon left our planet behind. Can you still reach Bahamut?"
She looked at him for a moment. Had she flinched, just then?
"Yes," she said, "but it'll take time."
Edge looked at her sharply, and Cecil got the impression that the prince of Eblan had somehow seen something he'd missed. But Edge didn't say anything.
Rydia had already begun her chant. She stood on the edge of the wall, arms outstretched to the sky.
"I can't get used to that." Edge complained.
"Why not? You use magic, too."
"Not much of it. And that has nothing to do with it, anyway."
"I hope you don't mind if I stay here. I'd like to see this thing work."
The two of them stood and watched as the enemy forces approached. The largest of Dalsher's monsters had the lead, huge ogres and behemoths. Against them, the human forces that made up the front line seemed puny.
The line gave way as the monsters reached them, forming a deep cup that reached almost to the walls. The monsters pressed their advantage, forcing themselves deeper into the trap.
And then the Summoned Monsters began to appear.
It was subtle at first. A minor dragon or two, a few lightning beasts, some Jinns. They joined up at the back of the enemy line, blending in perfectly. The opposition, their attention riveted on the battle, did not notice. Cecil watched as they began to pick off Dalsher's rear line, one by one. Imps and Sandmen were maneuvered into a group of freindlies, then slaughtered without a sound.
Their actions did not go unnoticed for very long; soon, the alarm was raised. By then, however, it was too late. The Summoned Monsters were too numerous, and the strongest of the enemy monsters were already engaged with the humans. The small but powerful force bit large chunks out of Dalsher's army.
Until one of them died.
Cecil was watching the battle from the very edge of the wall, when he heard a cry behind him. He turned, curious but unworried, wondering what had caused it. Edge was kneeling next to the fallen body of one of the Callers of Mist. A number of monsters had appeared on the wall, and for a short moment Cecil thought that they had been the cause. But no. The monsters were making no aggressive movements, and Edge was ignoring them. The monsters of the dead man, then. But what had killed him?
A number of things fell into place, and Cecil felt a chill run through his body. No wonder the Callers had been afraid.
Edge ran up to him, looking slightly bewildered. "I don't understand it, Cecil. Nothing touched him, nothing at all. He just...died."
Cecil ignored him, as another thought crossed his mind. He turned again, looked to where Rydia stood. She was speaking in a strong voice the incanation that would bring Bahamut here, all the way from the Lunar Moon.
The great dragon was immeasurably powerful. But he was not invincible.
Cecil's thoughts returned to him, as he felt Edge tugging on his arm.
"Cecil? Cecil?" the ninja was saying. "Are you all right?"
"Put your armor on, and get your swords. We're going out there."
"Cecil! What's going on?" Edge demanded as he turned to go. "Damn it, Cecil, give me a clue here!"
Cecil paused for a moment, thinking quickly. If he told Edge of the danger his wife was in, the man might lose control completely. On the other hand...he had seen Edge fight in such a situation before. He made his decision.
"There's a certain relationship between a Caller and their monster." Cecil explained as calmly as he could. "If the monster falls, the Caller also dies."
Edge didn't need to be told more than once. He went.
Cecil started to go, then paused. He looked out over the battlement. Something in his own weak magic, told him that Bahamut was about to arrive...
And there he was. His body coalesced in the very center of Dalsher's army; tactically, the best place for him to be. Also characteristic of Rydia's disregard for her own safety in favor of the greater good.
Cecil closed his eyes, knowing what was coming. A blinding flash punched right through his eyelids. When he opened them, nothing opposed the great dragon but ashes.
He hurried down to the gate. Bahamut's flame could incinerate rocks, yet he could not use it indiscriminately. Some reservoir of fire in the creature's system required time to recharge, and between bursts he would have only his own teeth and claws to defend himself. Cecil had to hurry, or time would run out for the dragon...and for Rydia.
They stood at the gate, four of them. Four against the host outside the walls.
Edge was there, of course, looking wild in the eyes. Kain stood with him, his bluish battle armor glinting in the midday sun. Next to them, a short distance off, stood Leviathan, which surprised Cecil. He had not thought that the monster King cared that much about Rydia. Perhaps he'd been wrong.
"Are we ready?" Cecil asked.
"Completely." Kain said tersely. He drew his spear. Edge unsheathed his twin swords. Leviathan shed his human guise, shimmering and morphing into the huge water serpent that was his true form. Cecil himself drew his sword, the Mysidian legend etched into its blade.
"Open the gate!" he called out.
There was a pause, and a creaking sound. The iron portcullis retracted into the top of its arch. Edge rushed out, roaring like a titan gone insane. Cecil and the others followed after him.
In the din of battle, it was difficult to keep track of his comrades. The four of them weaved their way through the human line, moving towards the boundary between the Baronian forces and Dalsher's army. Cecil wondered fleetingly where Dalsher was, but then the battle was upon him.
For a moment, the monsters seemed not to notice that a human had penetrated into their midst, but the moment did not last. Cecil's head rang as an ogre smashed its club against his helmet. The impenetrable crystal kept his skull from being smashed open, but the blow still stunned and disoriented him. He pulled himself together quickly, and swung three times at his opponent; once down the chest, another across the belly, and a third that laid open the beast's throat. It fell, gasping, only to be replaced by another monster. Cecil cut at an adamantine's front leg, then swirled and made an upwards slash through a cadaver's midsection. He pushed forward through the melee, trying to catch a glimpse of his friends.
He saw Leviathan easily, the serpent's body crushing smaller monsters beneath it, his jaws dealing with larger beasts. His body was streaked with blood; unlike Cecil, he had only his thick hide to protect him. Kain was nearby, and also easily spotted; he was spending more time off the ground than not. Cecil searched for a moment, then saw Edge far ahead of them. The prince of Eblan was fighting like a madman, his twin swords striking like dark vipers, quick as lightning. Though he seemed to wear no armor, his attire was infused with Black Magic, and bent weapons around it in much the same way as the shield above Fabul had bent light. The stuff was nearly infallible, and his enemies found themselves confronted by a raging demon that could not be touched.
Cecil was brought violently back to himself as a huge behemoth closed its jaws over his body, immobilizing him. It bit down hard, yet even its razor-sharp teeth could not penetrate his armor. Cecil struck hard with his sword, piercing the creature's eye. It screeched, and threw him bodily a hundred feet with a rear of its head. He crashed down on Leviathan's back and slid to the ground. Above him, he saw a red dragon take a breath, and he flinched involuntarily.
Kain descended, and his spear split the monster's skull.
The Dragoon helped Cecil to his feet, and the two of them continued to move forward. The battle degenerated into a blur within Cecil's mind, a series of indiscreet encounters that blended together, occasionally lit by the blinding flashes of Bahamut's fire. Time lost all meaning; he found it difficult to remember exactly when he had left the safety of the walls. The only thing he knew was the urgency, the sense that he must reach his goal immediately; though he was no longer entirely sure what his goal was. The underside of his mind worked towards it by instinct, while his conscious brain was engaged with staying alive. Not even the strongest armor in the world was absolute proof against death.
He was fighting blindly, his sword locked with that of an unholy specter, when the thing was literally incinerated right before his eyes, the edge of the blast heating his armor to the point where it almost burned his skin. Ahead of him, he saw Bahamut's mouth close. Cecil shuddered. Two steps closer, and not even the indestructible crystal that encased his body could have saved him from being burned down to the ground.
The dragon waited, giving him time. As he crossed the now empty ground towards it, he took a detached look at the situation. His companions had already made it, and had taken up positions behind Bahamut, out of range of his fiery breath. Kain had lost his helmet in the melee, and streaks of blood crossed his face. Edge, the protection of the magic in his clothing having momentarily failed, bore a large slash across his side. He didn't even notice. Leviathan was bleeding in places, and appeared to have broken several bones near the end of his tail. Bahamut himself...
At first, Cecil found it hard to believe that the great dragon was still standing. He was covered in blood, both his own and that of those who had opposed him. About five feet of his tail was missing, and every bone in the remainder had been broken. One shoulder had been cut wide open, the right eye had been put out, and the left wing was hanging loose from the base. And yet, the monster stood tall and faced his enemies as if the pain was nothing, a minor nuisance. Every bit of his bearing declared that those he opposed were barely worth destroying.
"Greetings, Paladin," the dragon said in a gravely voice, and Cecil marveled that it did not sound tight with agony. "Well met."
"Greetings, Lord." Cecil returned respectfully. Even in their desperate situation, he would not risk offending the huge beast.
"Remove yourself from my path, Paladin. I would not have you killed along with Rydia's enemies."
"And mine, Lord, and mine." Cecil said softly. But he knew that the dragon did not care. Bahamut respected Cecil, not as an equal in strength but as an equal in spirit. He respected Cecil, but it was Rydia to whom he had given his power. Cecil moved behind him.
"How goes the battle?" Leviathan asked him.
"Not well. If not for Bahamut, it would have turned against us long since. As it is...we may lose anyway."
All speech was cut off as monsters approached again, and then it was fight, fight, and keep on fighting; sword and spear, tooth and claw, life and death. The monsters came on and on. And then they fell back under a mad rush by Edge, fire in his eyes. Desperation and fear for his wife had finally removed all trace of sanity in his mind, and he attacked like a berserker. He drove forward a full twenty feet, punching a hole through the center of the enemy group. Leviathan pushed through the hole, widened it, forced a path behind him. Eventually, however, they both had to fall back. The odds against them were too great. They were pushed back, and back, until they were where they had started.
"Duck." Cecil heard Bahamut's voice behind him. He threw himself to the ground, saw the others do the same...and felt rather than saw a great sheet of fire stream over his head, transforming the monsters into living torches.
"We have to get out of here." he said, once the smoke had cleared.
"I will not run, not when I have been called to do battle!" Bahamut said angrily.
Cecil looked at him for a moment, then set his shoulders. "Forgive me, Lord," he said, "but not even you can destroy so many. And if you fall, Rydia falls."
Bahamut was silent, and for a moment Cecil was afraid for his own life. But he needn't have worried. "You are right, Paladin. But we cannot simply leave here. It is a great distance to your lines."
He thought rapidly, struggling to come up with a solution. The monsters struck again before he could. There was a short, vicious fight before they had a chance to speak again.
"If we can reach Dalsher, kill him, maybe this army of his will fall apart." Cecil panted when it was over.
"Or perhaps it will grow stronger. I know of the force that resides within his dark soul."
Cecil's heart sank. He had nearly forgotten. "It doesn't matter." he said. "Realistically, it's the only chance we've got."
"Very well, Paladin. Which way?"
Cecil froze in dismay, but then relaxed. Ever since he his first journey to mount Ordeals, he had been able to sense evil when it was close, like a shadow across the fabric of reality. He stretched out with that part of his mind that was touched by the Light, searching, searching.
"This way!" He called out. He charged, forcing his way through the throng. He struck out randomly as he went; drawing blood here, severing a limb there, snuffing out a life in between. He wasn't trying to do serious damage, just trying to open a hole for his companions.
Leviathan slithered along behind him, Kain and Edge following in the beast's wake. Bahamut forged his own path; when one saw where he had been, one would swear that a giant meat grinder had come alive and gone on a rampage. Bahamut's fire worked in bursts, but his teeth and claws struck constantly, ripping even the toughest creatures into dogmeat. Cecil ducked under a skeleton's sword, swung back but missed, felt its blade smack against his side and bounce off his armor. He took the grinning skull off the thing, slashed at another just like it, and then was off again.
And then they were clear. Or at least, Cecil was. He looked around him, confused by the sudden lack of opposition. Five feet behind him was a roaring melee, but around him...nothing.
His friends were still in the battle, right at the edge, yet they could not seem to get to him. He saw Leviathan stub his snout on a wall that was not there. The serpent stared at the invisible obstruction, recognizing that he could not get past. His eyes met Cecil's, and for a moment Cecil thought he saw emotion there. Hope? Despair? He wasn't sure, because Leviathan turned to face his enemies. The four of them, Edge, Kain, Leviathan, and Bahamut, were cornered against something that did not exist.
"They will die, you know."
Cecil turned, knowing somehow the voice of his enemy.
The man was quite ordinary, in a physical sense. Brown hair, blue eyes, medium build. He was clad in standard steel armor, and had a perfectly normal sword in a sheath at his side.
In a physical sense, he was ordinary. In other ways, he was not.
Cecil could see into Dalsher's soul, somehow. And what he saw sickened him. Inside the man was Light, the same light that infused Cecil's own spirit. Had he not known what the wizard had done, he would have said he was in the presence of another Paladin, a kindred spirit. Except that the light was poisoned, mixed with shadows as blood mixed with a snake's venom. The light was beneath, and the darkness coated the surface. Something in the sensation made Cecil want to retch.
"They will die," Dalsher continued, "And you will die. And when the dragon falls, the Caller will die. And when the castle falls, the others will die. Including your wife." he added maliciously.
Cecil refused to let it touch him. "Why?" was all he said.
"You don't even know, do you? How typical, that you do not even understand what I am."
"No, I do not understand. And I will not, until you explain it to me."
Dalsher was silent. The battle raged around them, yet never came within a dozen feet.
"You are a symbol," he said. "of all that I was and no longer am."
"You were a Paladin?" Cecil asked.
"Does it surprise you, King of Baron? It should not. Come now, you must be able to sense it in me." Dalsher was looking a little wild around the eyes, now, and he sounded as if he desperately wanted Cecil to believe him. An illusion, of course, a trick of the eye. Why fight against one whose approval you craved?
Cecil nodded. "I feel it, yes, but it is wrong, tainted with darkness. Did you do that to yourself, or did Zeromus force himself upon you?"
"Both...and neither. But that is none of your business."
"Do not presume to question me!" Dalsher snapped. Cecil looked into his eyes, and there he saw...madness.
"I will question," Cecil said, "Until I understand why you are doing this."
"Why I am doing it? Or why Zeromus is doing it?"
"Zeromus wants the crystals. I want you."
"I already told you."
"You didn't make it clear enough. I want to know why you want to destroy me."
Dalsher paused. "You," he said, "have what I do not. You have the Light, and I hate you for keeping what I have forever lost."
Dalsher shrugged. "If that is what you wish to call it."
"Very well." Cecil drew his sword. "Dalsher," he addressed the man, "I cannot allow you to live. Every death that occurred at this place, I call to your due. The return of Zeromus, I call to your due. The destruction of your own soul...that also, I call to your due. Defend yourself, Dalsher, or die."
"A pretty speech." Dalsher grinned evilly. He drew his own sword. "But it means nothing. I came here to die, but whatever you do, you will also die. And I will stand in the depths of whatever hell awaits me, and laugh."
Cecil didn't bother to answer. Instead he struck, and Dalsher's blade came up to meet his. The two swords crashed together, gleaming sword of Light against plain steel. Cecil struck again, and again, and again. He forced Dalsher back across the open ground. The wizard parried a stroke and riposted, but Cecil did not bother to dodge. The steel was easily turned by the untouchable crystal.
The outcome was preordained from the start. Dalsher's blade could never reach Cecil's skin however hard it was swung, and the Paladin systematically dismantled his armor. A series of expert swings knocked away his shield, tore off his helmet, and left almost half his breastplate missing. He fell to the ground, gasping, after Cecil gave him a jagged wound across the ribs.
He looked up with resignation on his face, and for a moment Cecil believed he would surrender, spare him the duty of delivering the killing blow. But no. Madness revived itself in Dalsher's eyes, and he leapt at Cecil with a cry of rage.
When he came down, he spitted himself on the Paladin's sword.
For a moment Cecil stared at the body laid over the tip of his blade. He kicked it off, and looked at the corpse. Why? he thought. Why did I have to kill you? Was there no other way?
He looked around, noted the continuing melee, and waited.
The world went black.
Chapter 10: The Absolute Evil
He stood above a dark wasteland. Nothing supported him but clouds of energy, shifting, swirling, buffeting him. He knew this place. Here, in this shadow of reality, he and his companions had confronted Zeromus, and destroyed him.
This time, Cecil was alone.
He feared this place. Not for itself, but for its denizen of evil. Matter and energy were twisted here, allowing the dread being to assume form. Absently, Cecil wondered where this place was. Last time, he had come here from the very bottom of the Lunar Moon. But the moon was far distant now, having catapulted itself beyond the far reaches of the solar system. How, then, was this possible?
"PALADIN." The voice echoed in his soul, spoke its thoughts without sound.
"Who are you?" Cecil called out. Was this truly the same demon that they had destroyed, a year ago?
He felt momentary confusion. Good. If he could see into the beast's mind, perhaps it would give him an advantage.
"YOU KNOW ME." The voice stated, as if it were obvious.
"I do not." Cecil spoke aloud. "Who are you?"
"YOU KNOW ME. AS ZEROMUS."
"That name, I know. But we destroyed you."
"YOU DESTROYED MY CORPOREAL FORM. NOT THE ESSENCE OF MY BEING."
"How is that possible?"
"THE BODY IS AN EXTENSION OF THE BEING. NOT ITS SOURCE."
"How did you invade Dalsher's soul?" Cecil asked suddenly. He was playing for time; he had to keep Zeromus off balance until he could develop a plan.
"I DID NOT NEED TO TAKE HIS SOUL. I ALREADY EXISTED WITHIN IT."
"I FEED ON HATRED, PALADIN. I AM HATRED. HE HATED, THEREFOR I EXISTED."
"Others hate, too. Why not infest them?"
"I DO INFEST THEM. WHERE HATRED EXISTS, I EXIST."
"Are you saying that there is a part of you in every man's soul?"
"EVERY SOUL, BUT YOURS. THAT IS WHY I MUST DESTROY YOU."
"I defeated you once. I can defeat you again."
"YOU DEFEATED ME WITH THE AID OF THE CRYSTAL." Zeromus's thoughts exploded in his mind, triumphant, assured of victory. The void shimmered, sparks of power came together to form a cloud of energy that was all too recognizable.
"WHERE IS YOUR CRYSTAL NOW, PALADIN?"
That was the clincher. Zeromus had forced Cecil to reveal his hand too soon; he was not ready yet. No help for it. There was nothing left to do but play the cards for all they were worth.
"Here." he said, pulling off his gauntlet.
Cupped in the palm of his hand was the Crystal of Water. It seemed fitting, somehow, that the first crystal brought out was the first that had been contested, so long ago.
"And here," he continued, taking the Crystal of Fire from his other gauntlet. "And here." Now a Dark Crystal, from the back of his boot.
"And here. And here. And here."
Soon, every one of the crystals was in evidence. When he was done, he pushed the Crystal of Fire against his sword. It sank in, melding to the blade instantaneously. The Crystal of Air followed, and Earth, and the others. Zeromus watched, but did not move. Cecil felt something in the mind of that substance.
"Well?" he asked, waiting. He had to portray a completely unshakable front, as if sure of his supremacy. He could win, but he would need every advantage.
"YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME AGAIN. NOT ALONE." But there was no certainty in the voice.
"Shall we find out?" Cecil asked, pleasantly. He didn't wait for an answer, but channeled his life energy through the crystals embedded in his sword. He had done this before, though the crystal had been separate, then.
Working together, the crystals were far more efficient than one alone. Where once Zeromus had groaned and solidified slowly, now he instantly coalesced. The formless fog became a hideous, gargantuan...thing. The incarnation of absolute evil, every nightmare ever invented come alive in the form of a beast. Cecil looked upon it, unwavering. He knew what would happen.
There was no warning whatsoever. Cosmic energy from the very beginning of time stuck him, paralyzed every muscle, shorted every synapse in his brain. Power from the beginning of time, for indeed hatred had existed from the beginning of time. He weathered the barrage, accepting the pain, taking the indescribable agony without blinking. When he could stand no longer, he fell, and still the lightnings flowed throughout his body. The clouds swirled wildly around him. For a few moments, he was certain he was going to die.
The lightnings ceased. The great beast stood back, swaying with fatigue. Believing it had won.
Zeromus's huge body flinched as Cecil rose to his feet, marching straight into the maw of the horror. Now was the time. All doubts must be cast aside. Yet as he advanced, he felt...apprehension, at what he was about to do. In the first battle, the crystal had revealed the evil's true colors alone, nothing more. At no time had it been brought into direct opposition with Zeromus.
Cecil forced all thought out of his mind, and struck. The crystals, protruding from the flat of the blade, sank into Zeromus's body.
The concussion was titanic.
Cecil was thrown backwards with unimaginable force. His armor, completely impervious, was ripped apart, the pieces disintegrated. If not for the armor, it would have been him. Whatever had supported him during the battle had vanished; he fell into a bottomless abyss, listening as explosion after explosion rocked the very air around him. His sword was gone. Perhaps it had remained in Zeromus's body. Sound beat at him as a tidal wave beat at the ground. His brain, overwhelmed, began to shut down. His world was plunged into darkness.
"Is he awake?"
"Let him be, Rosa. See to the dragon; he needs your help more."
Cecil came back to consciousness slowly. He mentally checked for injuries, found none beyond a few cuts and bruises, and a penetrating ache. He was surprised; he had expected to wake a cripple, or perhaps not wake at all. He listened, heard voices. He strained his mind, trying to place each voice. He heard Edge nearby, and Rydia. Rosa was chanting some distance off. How could they be here? He had been mired in the middle of a raging horde; Rosa and Rydia, at least, had been on the walls. Cecil opened his eyes, trying to get up.
Edge saw it. "Welcome back to the world of the living, Cecil." He congratulated him.
Cecil grinned weakly. "Glad to be here, Edge, glad to be here."
"You better stay lying down. It might not be safe to move you, and Rosa's busy right now."
"What with?" Cecil asked. He struggled onto his side, looking to where he heard her voice. She stood before the still form of Bahamut. For a moment Cecil feared that the great dragon was dead, but no; if he had been, Edge wouldn't be nearly so calm.
Cecil laid his head back. "What happened?" he asked. "Did we win?"
"We won, all right. After Dalsher died, whatever was blocking our ships broke down. Cid went in and blew half of them straight to Hell. After that, all our troops had to do was clean up after him."
"It's over then?"
"Not quite. Zeromus is still at large, remember?"
"Not anymore. I killed him."
Edge stared hard at him. "Are you sure you're all right, Cecil? Zeromus never showed up."
"Then what happened to my armor?"
"We found it lying around you...in a large number of very small pieces. Are you saying Zeromus did that?"
"No. That happened when he died."
"It didn't last time." Edge noted.
"No one tried actually touching him with the Crystal, last time."
Edge gaped at him. "You did what?!!" he spluttered.
"I jammed a Crystal into him. All eight of them, actually."
The ninja looked awed. "I wish I could have seen that one." he mumbled.
"Trust me, you wouldn't have. I was there, and I'm already trying to forget about it."
"Damn." Edge muttered. Then he shook it off. "I'll get someone to bring a litter. Rosa won't be done for a while, and we need to get you somewhere to rest."
"Don't bother. Nothing's wrong with me that I can't heal on my own."
Edge protested, of course, reminding him that it could be dangerous to practice magic when injured. Cecil ignored him, dove right into the spell. It was a weak one, of course. Cecil was no wizard; what magic he had was a side effect of his experience on Mount Ordeals, and not worth much. But it was enough. He felt his blood vessels close up, his bruises slowly vanish, the ache fade until it was barely noticeable. He got up.
"Where's my sword?" he asked.
"Stuck in the ground about a half a mile from here. It's buried almost to the hilt, as if it fell from a few thousand feet up. No one was willing to go near it, so we just left it there."
"All right. I'll go get it after Rosa finishes."
They waited. Eventually Rosa completed her spell. An immensely powerful curative magic, it healed the great dragon almost instantaneously. When he stood, nothing could have told the looker that he had been injured at all.
Well, almost nothing, Cecil amended as Bahamut approached him. His tail was still five feet too short, but that would grow back. His eye, though, would not. The beast would be half blind until the day he died.
If Bahamut cared, he did not show it. He still moved with the same inner certainty, surety of his own strength. He moved up to Cecil, and stopped.
"Well met, Paladin." he intoned.
"Well met, Lord." Cecil replied.
"It is done?"
"It is done, Lord."
"Good. I am done here. Fare you well, Paladin."
Rydia began to chant again, high and with a faint tone of sorrow at parting. The figure of the dragon shimmered, faded, and vanished.
"Goodbye, Bahamut." she whispered under her breath. Cecil wondered absently if the woman really was on a first-name basis with the dragon Lord.
The four of them walked slowly back to the castle. Epilogue: Acceptance of the Light
Cecil and Kain stood at the cliffside, looking out across the nearly endless forest far below. Two weeks had passed. The corpses had been removed from the field, though the stains of blood in the grass, the missing faces in the castle, stood mute testimony to that day of despair. For a full week, no laughter had been heard in the halls of Castle Baron.
But all that was far away, now, and far from Cecil's mind.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Cecil asked.
"I told you once, yes. I have to."
"It is not proof against evil, Kain. Remember Dalsher."
"I remember, yes, but...I don't think it was Zeromus that corrupted him. I think he just took advantage of what was already there."
"True. But the same could happen to you or me or anyone else."
"Maybe. But I won't feel clean of my actions during the War, not unless I have something to make up for it. Something to prove that I am not the monster I was."
"You were never a monster, Kain. You were not in your right mind."
"Remember what your brother said? That there must have been some darkness in him, for him to be controlled as I was? He was right, I think. The same applies to me."
"All right. But Kain...be careful, okay? I don't want to see you die."
"If I do...very likely, it will be for the best."
"Don't say that, Kain. It's not true, and you know it."
"We shall see."
Cecil watched as his old friend turned, walked toward the stone pillar. Kain's blue battle armor gleamed in the midday sun, projecting an aura of confidence and power. And it will do him no good, Cecil thought sadly. In there, the strongest armor in the world was no good. Only the strength of one's own soul could protect you. He wondered if the test was the same for everyone. Would Kain win in the same way he had, or would there be some other end to it, some other path to victory. Cecil had had to renounce his past, to declare by his actions that it was no longer a part of him. But that was not Kain's problem. Kain's problem was his own guilt. Did he know that?
He felt Rosa's slim arms slide around his waist, offering comfort. She had been the only one to come with them; because she thought she owed Kain her support. She and Cecil had been the ones most hurt by Kain's betrayal, and he knew this. Coming with him had shown that they forgave him.
"Do you think he'll make it?" Rosa whispered in his ear.
"I hope so, Rosa. I hope so." Cecil said, as Kain disappeared into the Chamber of Light.
"Are you ready?" the Voice asked him. Kain stood in the Chamber, ready to accept his destiny. He was no longer armed with spear and armor. Instead, he held only the bright sword of a Paladin.
"I am." he declared.
"Turn, then, and face what you were."
Kain turned, and looked in the mirror of his soul.
The figure that stared back was him, certainly. It wore the same armor that he had carried into battle countless times. The spear was his own. The face was his own. Every aspect of the reflection was him, yet it showed the darkness in his heart as a true mirror never could. The armor did not gleam; the spear radiated the same shadows with which it had once been put to use. It hurt, gazing at that image. It reminded him of everything he had done.
Fabul. He saw again as he fought Cecil, his dragoon training more than enough to defeat his friend. He watched again as Cecil fell, then he took Rosa hostage, the one thing guaranteed to draw the knight to him...
Baron. He spoke again his dreadful demand, that the Crystal of Earth be turned over to the forces of darkness.
Zot. He watched silently as Golbez betrayed his promise, and silently exulted at the victory.
The Sealed Cave. Having once regained his own mind, he lost it again, and took the Dark Crystal.
The memories flashed across his mind, one after the other, and each one hurt like a dagger wound. Kain raised his sword. He would fight, and this time, he would destroy his past.
The reflection placed its hand on the inside of the mirror, and a ripple flowed across its surface. It stepped through, its spear held in ready position. Then, without warning, it struck. Kain caught the pike on his sword, deflected it effortlessly. He riposted with a massive blow to crush his opponent, but it met only air. His double responded by slashing at his knees, but Kain jumped. He soared over his opponent's head, took one blind stab, then rolled as he hit the ground. He turned, and rolled again under a lightning fast spear strike. The warrior and his shadowy doppleganger struggled up and down the room, neither one able to hit home. Kain fought with a cold determination, but the darkness that was also Kain gave back a riposte to every slash, turned every defense into an attack.
Kain recognized his disadvantage. He had no armor; only his thin clothing protected him. Moreover, his opponent was hampered by no sense of honor. Every dirty trick came into play, here, tricks that Kain would not allow himself to use. If he was to lose this battle, he would lose with honor. Nothing could take that from him. He cut at his opponent, and his blade slid off the blue armor. He dodged a return attack, parried another, struck again. And then his enemy's spear took him through the shoulder.
Agony brought Kain to his knees, but he refused to stay there. He stood, fought, took another wound. From there, it was a downhill fight. Eventually, as he had before, Kain fell and could not rise. He looked up.
His past stood before him, triumphant. And yet, there was something about it. It was so hollow, so...empty, something he hadn't noticed the first time. If Kain had to put a meaning to what stood before him, it was that this part of him didn't matter, had no place in his being. He thought back on what his past had been like. True, he had committed evil, but he had made up for it. True, he had turned against his friends, but they did not blame him. Only he blamed himself. He had held on to his guilt for so long, it had almost consumed his life. Was I right? he thought. Am I in fact what I believe myself to be, a blister on the face of humanity?
No. I can't be. Whatever else, I will die clean.
And in that instant, Kain forgave himself.
He braced himself for a blow that never landed. As he watched, his shadow shimmered and vanished. Kain stood, and looked in the mirror. Before him stood the image of the Light.
"Did I win?" he asked.
Kain pondered this turn of events. Then, he swiveled on his heel and left.
Cecil saw the door open, and looked towards it with hope and fear. He felt Rosa's arms tighten around his shoulders.
"Please..." he muttered under his breath.
Kain stepped out of the darkness. Cecil breathed a sigh of relief, and heard it echoed beside him. His friend no longer wore his blue battle armor; from now on, he would wear the arms of a Paladin. At his hip, was sheathed the holy sword of one touched by the light.
The change in appearance was surprising, though expected. The change in his soul was subtle, but far more profound. Though he knew Kain himself could not see it, Cecil saw his spirit as radiating Light.
Kain smiled as he approached, and he no longer seemed to carry with him the self-loathing that had so long haunted his sleep. No words were spoken; congratulations were given without sound, understood but not given voice. The three moved as one, and they headed down the mountain.
Cecil stopped at the bridge, let the others go on ahead. He looked up at the Pillar of Light.
"Thank you, father." he said, and went.