Scene 4

Trials by Blood

Kain was not afraid of death. What is such a thing to one who'd braved the reaper's scythe a dozen times before? Thus, as the flames burst from the dragon's mouth like a cone of crimson death his mind cooled as a fast-freezing river leaving only determination behind. A determination to keep his promise to Rosa—protect Cecil.

Though he fully intended to do that, the dragoon was not the one doing the protecting. Sheer seconds before the flames struck, Cecil threw out his cape as a textile wall over them both. The material, though of fine material and quality (despite a few recent rips), could not possibly withstand such an assault. Yet it did. Upon contact the fires dissipated, leaving the two relatively unharmed.

Kain couldn't keep the grin off his face as the paladin lowered his 'shield'. "Damn, Cecil! You got to teach me that sometime!"

Coughing, Cecil favored the expression with one of his own, if a shade less enthused. "Right after you teach me how to catch falling fools."

A comment dangled in the dragoon's head but he crushed it at the sight of the dragon's sweeping paw. Exerting his body weight, Kain bowled the paladin over, sparing them both from being skewered. Frustrated at his failure, the dragon screamed. The sheer volume forced Kain to slam his fists against his ears. Several tiles shattered. That disturbed Kain who figured the structural integrity of the edifice would not allow such a thing.

It would be too fine an irony to defeat the dragon only to die beneath mounds of stone.

Not something he liked to dwell on.

"Left-right, dragon style?" Cecil called to be heard over the cacophony. Kain frowned, though not because of the words. It was a long-standing understanding between them, these battle-oriented routines. Why the dragoon suspected they could execute it half-blind. No, it was the tremor in the paladin's voice that told him something was terribly amiss.

Unfortunately, Kain could devote no time to shedding light on that as the paladin started the routine, rushing toward the dragon's haunches, Excalibur unsheathed. Kain hurried to stay in step. In parallel lines the two flanked the creature, halting just past his mid-quarters. Whipping his blade in a blinding arc, Cecil slashed its hindquarters. The dragon reared, then sent out its left leg. Kain added to the fray with a quick dart in and a swift blow to its side. Naturally, the creature aborted its attack on the paladin turning his concentration on its newest threat.

The narrow space disadvantaged the dragon by blinding it to the attacks of its opponents. It sought to even the odds by thrashing with its tail at the two. Kain dodged easily, his grace preternatural even for a dragoon, his gaze shifting to the paladin. Cecil rolled forward, evading the attack by a mere hair's span. The frown returned to the dragoon's face. What, in the Red Wings, was the matter with Cecil?

Predictably, the dragon roared. Flames sprang from his mouth to no avail. The two were simply not within range. For a few rounds, the routine continued. Kain snapped his fingers, signaling the paladin to swap sides. Gasping, Cecil waved back. Again, Kain performed the stab-roll combo and waited for the paladin to follow suit. Then his navy eyes widened beneath his visor as Cecil ruined his normally impeccable series of slices and stumbled to a knee.

"Cecil!" Kain abandoned the routine and tried to slip under the dragon. A tail struck him, sending him several feet back. The pain sang in his head, nearly lulling him into unawareness. He shook his head, knowing that to lose consciousness was tantamount to death. Death of him, death of Cecil. He must reach Cecil before...

...the paw fell.

Crack!

"Oh, damn! No—what?"

Out of the dust Cecil stood, mostly intact, especially considering what should have been a messy demise. Then the dragoon's navy eyes lowered to where the dragon had stomped. There lay a shattered shield. Cecil's shattered shield. That explained the cracking sound. But not, still, the draining of color from the paladin's face.

Be it lady fortune or a fool's mistake, Kain seized the opportunity to dish out some damage. He landed a stunning blow on the dragon's wing. A shriek sounded, and Kain unwittingly released his hold on the spear. Without thinking, the dragoon leapt forward to reclaim it. An error, that. The dragon swung the spear, still stuck in his wing, at Kain. The force drove the dragoon at the far wall.

The landing jolted all the nerves in his body, setting every cell to screaming. Again, Kain struggled remain awake for he could see the dragon inhaling deeply. Though the paladin's cape defended them before, he somehow suspected that the magical field was dependent on the wielder's energy. If Cecil's chalk-white face were any indication, the cape would not last another fiery onslaught.

Grimacing, Cecil appeared at his side, attempting to haul the dragoon to his feet. The effort failed. "You're badly wounded...I'll heal you...Hold still...and watch out for...the dragon..."

Kain spat out blood. "Save your strength. You'll need it."

Cecil's lips twisted as he gestured at the dragon with his chin. "Better to use it on you than him." Nary another word, the paladin laid his unburdened hand on the dragoon. Instantly a rush of emerald energy flowed from Cecil's arm directly into the dragoon's body. Kain was quite accustomed to the paladin's restorative abilities but the erratic wave patterns confused him.

A shadow the size of a claw enveloped them.

Kain shouted, "Cecil, behind you!"

Jerking halfway, the paladin swung up with Excalibur. The blade impaled the dragon's claw, sending rivulets of blood down Cecil's face. Another shriek came from its lips as the dragon retreated, favoring its wounded paw. That gave the paladin enough time to complete his spell casting. They rose as one, eyeing the dragon warily. It seemed content to lick its wounds, though Kain figured that wouldn't last long.

"Dragon's flight?" Cecil asked, teeth clenched.

Before Kain could get a word in edgewise he watched a peculiar glow emanate from the paladin. Cecil gasped sharply, doubling over. The light that circled him shot straight at the dragon, appearing to be absorbed by it. To Kain's horror, the dragon straightened, healed, and resumed inhaling.

Like pieces of a mirror reassembled, the picture came in stark relief to Kain. "He's draining your life-force, isn't he?"

The paladin chuckled amidst a groan. "Oh, Kain, I never thought you were the motherly type."

"And you're not the kind that jokes around!" the dragoon snapped. "It's true, isn't?!"

A shadow passed over Cecil's face, of stubbornness. "Dragon's flight!" Cecil shouted as he genuflected. Then he stretched out his arms, crossing them at the elbows and braced them against his knee. Kain recognized the stance. It was another routine—Cecil the catapult; Kain the canon. The height reached by the maneuver consistently surpassed a regular dragoon jump.

Kain sighed, promising himself he would return to the matter of Cecil's life-drain. Perhaps if he could quickly eliminate their adversary, the weakening would halt. In a decisive leap, he 'boarded' and gave a grunt, indicating for the paladin to toss him. Within a heartbeat Kain soared in the air.

Once reaching the apex, Kain stabbed at the dragon, aiming for the brain. He missed, jabbing its left eye instead. A scream of pain and rage came from the beast and it swatted at the dragoon. The pressure from the wave disoriented the dragoon, disarranging his jump down. Five talons closed in around the dragoon, quenching his sight and halting his descent.

For several tense seconds, the dragoon couldn't draw breath. Is this how Cecil felt as the walls of Castle Baron threatened to smother him? This is not how I would like to die...But, then, how would I like to die?...I do not fear death...do I?

The sudden retracting of the claws quashed the rampaging thoughts, and Kain continued his freefall to the mirror-tiles. With his dragoon agility Kain should have been able to right himself. Yet the claws had robbed his concentration and the dragoon plunged straight down. The irony of the situation amused Kain.

A dragoon falling to his death. What a novel idea. He'd have preferred to perish by crushing.

Fortunately Kain was spared that momentary humiliation (and subsequent demise) as he landed directly into Cecil's arms. The paladin staggered beneath the weight. Immediately, Kain sprang off and reclaimed his spear. With fluid grace he lifted the spear over his head to guard the ailing paladin against another swinging paw.

"Many thanks, Cecil!"

Cecil was starting to appear as a wraith but he pulled together for a brief smile. "Pleased to help...You are the damned ugliest damsel in distress I've rescued, though..."

Kain laughed. "Hey! I'm not the one donning the drag, remember?"

As his mouth opened to reply, so did the paladin's eyes open. Wide. "Run!" he shouted and immediately beelined for the nearest pillar. Feeling the heat, Kain did likewise. The Temple of Klu-Ya contained two support pillars to suspend the myriad of mirrors that made up the ceiling. They were composed of a sturdy marble. Fortunate, that.

A wave of flames gushed past, right between the two pillars. After the coast clear was clear, Kain nodded at the paladin. Cecil reciprocated. Together they abandoned the pillars and rushed straight at the dragon. They hacked and slashed in a chaotic manner that seemed entirely without method, though a trained eye could appreciate the confusion tactics. It wasn't long before the dragon sustained several serious injuries to the head, shoulders and legs.

"She's almost down!" Kain shouted with glee. That glee turned to horror, though, as he witnessed the life drain from his friend yet again. As before, energy in the form of pure light fled the paladin's body to be absorbed by their adversary. Soon the dragon was back on its feet, more invigorated than ever.

It was a hopeless endeavor Kain realized, as his scratched his chin. Whenever they stood a chance at destroying the dragon, it would suck life from Cecil. Each time they returned to square one—or worse. Kain had never understood magic, nor liked it. But right about now he wished he had attended that course of arcane all those years ago back in training.

"Damn it, Cecil. What do we do? Man, I wish Rydia was here...After all, a few shots of Meteo would take this guy down before you can Mysidia..."

"...I know what I must do...the price of my pride...the cost for his destruction..."

The instant Kain glanced at his friend's resigned face, a jolt shot up his body. The look was all that required for the dragoon to know what Cecil's words entailed. He spun on a heel to curb the paladin's deadly course of action. The dragoon could no more halt this than the moment when Cecil sought to reach his 'father'.

It all happened in slow motion...Cecil lifting the Excalibur...gripping it tightly...plunging it directly into his chest...then, he drew it out...the blade dropped from his bloody fingers...a harsh clang...his body slumping face first...his white cape wafted over his head like a funeral shroud...

"Cecil!" Kain dropped to a knee to cradle the paladin. "Damn you, Cecil! What the hell were you thinking? We could have found another way..."

Like his voice rose from beneath dark waters, Cecil whispered, "I did what I had to do...I trusted you, Kain, and I still do now...Please..." His hand crawled over to Excalibur, still shining red with his blood. "...Take her...and defeat him..."

Ah, a clean shot...the dragon was inhaling one final time...to send them to the moon...

Kain lifted the Excalibur...

What makes you think you can do it right this time?

Kain's arm froze in mid-air...

You never were good enough. Not for your mother. She died giving birth to you. Not enough for me. I left you as a child. Not for Rosa. She spurned you for your best friend. What makes you think you're worthy of accomplishing anything? You'll fail, Kain...Remember the dream...

A spear, cracking.

His spear lay in pieces.

A dragon, flying.

The dragon beat its wings.

A temple, burning.

Flames climbed the walls.

A father, summoning.

His father's image flashed.

A man, dying.

Cecil's blood steamed the tiles.

I remember the dream, Kain spoke silently. I also remember the end. With that, he hurled the blade directly at the space between the dragon's eyes. Like a bolt of lightning flung from a god's hand the weapon flew true. It severed the delicate cords in the dragon's brain and blood splattered onto the temple floor.

"No!" the dragon screeched. Flailing with his appendages, legs and tail, he proceeded to bash the walls of the temple. Again the walls held, though barely. Kain wondered how long that would last. "I cannot be defeated. What of your promises? What of our great victory? How could I be destroyed by mere mortals?"

The dragon's spiel was beyond Kain's reckoning. Beyond his caring, too. All he cared for now was to be free of this evil place and to restore Cecil. He lifted the paladin's lifeless body and heaved him over his shoulder. Then, with a last burst of energy born of desperation, Kain rushed toward the door. Fear slivered down his spine—this same very door could not be brought down by any means he possessed. Perhaps this shall be our grave...

The fear was unfounded. With a simple shove, the door opened. Behind him, Kain could hear the sounds of destruction: the walls rent apart, the ceiling fell to pieces, the very flooring burst into fragments. Despite his waning strength, the dragoon pushed himself to the limit, determined to make some distance should his other fear prove warranted.

A boom, loud enough to fell the Monster of Babil, sent shockwaves across the icy air of Mountain of Ordeals. Kain quickly realized that his prudence in moving as far away as possible probably saved both their lives. He stared, transfixed, at the ruins of a once beautiful and pristine Temple of Klu-Ya. A single column of smoke wafted into the clouds.

"Kain...If I live, you swear on your honor...You will return to Baron with me..."

The dragoon dropped to a knee beside his friend. Cecil's face was ghastly now, as if the paladin had already perished and just needed to cede the fact. Working as fast as his tremulous

hands could manage, Kain wrapped up the king's wound. "I swear, Cecil." The dragon clenched a fist and pounded his left breast. "Now you must survive. I don't give my word lightly."

"Kain...I see it..." A tiny smile spread across the paladin's lips.

Swallowing a lump in his throat, the dragoon hoarsely said, "What? The light? The gates?" Having been witness to a number of deaths, Kain remembered how they'd claim to see bright lights and shining arches. And, then, they would fade away.

"...The ship..."

"What?" Kain glanced upwards into the dawning skies. Cecil spoke truly. Parting the morning mist, the Enterprise floated towards them. In fact, she was almost in perfect view. And had been, for the past few minutes. Laughing ruefully, Kain mock-glared at Cecil. "You knew she was there, didn't you?"

Cecil's answer was laughter as the ship came to bring them home.

Author's Notes: First of all, let me thank the people who have read and commented on the fanfic. Comments, praise or critique, are always appreciated. I'm sorry that the story wasn't out sooner but if I may make an excuse, it was because I was a little under the weather last week. I dare not write when I'm sick or else some very off the wall stuff results.

Hope6: Thank you for your comments. I always give an honest effort.

Spacemanstiff: I appreciate you informing me about the need to add the game (FFIV). That helped in garnering more reviews. As well, I'm glad you liked the Cain-Abel reference. It was begging to be noted somewhere, so I did!

C.R.Carter: Thanks for reviewing and commenting, especially about the Japanese text. I think I shall go read up on some of that now. I'm always eager to learn more about the game, and thus, make it even more detailed and accurate. And, don't worry, we all make mistakes. You are NOT an ass!

TobyKikami: I'm glad you liked it! There's more where that came from.

Titania: Thanks, my dear. It is always important to me to keep the characters IN character. And I particularly liked the drag line myself, as you can probably tell.

SorceressAsh: Pleased that you enjoyed it. Thank you.

Rydia Asuka: I'm glad you like it. Don't worry, other of my stories will contain Rydia. Promise!

Anyway, I hate the author's notes that go on too long, so I'll just take a bow and thank you all!

Good night!