Three months. It was three months -- and a wedding, and a coronation -- on since Kain had taken his leave with little more than a brusque farewell and a swift departure.
Three months was more than enough, so Cecil believed. In that span he'd arranged for a council to aid him (what did he know of governing a kingdom? -- the thought still turned his vitals to jelly as often as not), formally received the grievances of all those sovereign kingdoms, great and small, that had suffered at Baron's hands, at his own hands ... and throughout this needed reconstruction, his thoughts strayed again and again to that blighted mountain and the grotto at its peak.
I should have stopped him then.
But he was angry, so angry ... at me? Himself? Rosa? All of us?
Why did you truly take up that quest ...?
Too many nights, he'd woken slick with fear-sweat, dreaming of Kain's bones picked clean and bleaching on those cliffs, of Kain's ravaged corpse become another conscript for Ordeals' unholy army.
Baron was on a steady path.
It was time.
Less than a mark passed before the onslaught began.
The restless dead had no time for the likes of him, oh no; but his bright blade tore through their ranks as readily as it had done before, and Cecil pressed forward, searching, scanning for any sign of Kain. A glimpse of a lean shape leaping from the rocks; a shred of violet-teal chain, a battered plate of armour, anything to show him where the dragon knight had passed ...
... and thus passed a day into his own quest, and there was nothing but fading claw-wounds and slowly growing fear to show for it. As the sunlight dimmed Cecil found a cavelet to bed down in and barred the passage. Perhaps tomorrow ...
Now he was cornered by a shambling horde the size of a full wing or better; cornered on the pinnacle platform where Scarmiglione had lost his life twice over, and his strength was flagging, body numb from their soul-killing claws. There was only so much one life could withstand ...
A shadow flashed across the unholy mass. The air tore with the whistle of some violent passage.
In the same heartbeat the dead fell like mowed hay beneath a gleaming, wind-keen lance, and Cecil rallied, staring in half-fearful wonder at the bloodied, unbowed dervish that leapt and struck amongst the dead even while he threw himself back into the fray --
-- and when the last corpse crumbled, came up short and staring as that shining lance was leveled at his heart.
The voice was even, composed; no malice lay behind it, no sign of Golbeza's tainted mark. But that lance did not waver, and Kain -- bloodied, pale, thin-faced and dark-eyed, proud dragon's armour stained nearly black, hair tangled and wild -- stood his ground and stared into Cecil's wondering eyes.
"You came all this way, and were nearly overwhelmed, Cecil. I'm disappointed.
"Show me a quarter-year on a cushioned throne hasn't made you soft --!"
The lance plunged towards Cecil's breast -- and was deflected. Bright-shining blade held high, Cecil tossed his head and lunged at his assailant.
And he smiled --
By the time they collapsed, gasping for breath, leaning on crimson-spotted weaponry, the very platform was cracked and scarred from their clashing. Head low, hair spilling around his shoulders, Cecil leaned forward as he knelt and gulped long draught of air, with Kain barely an arm's length away from him, crouched on one knee and doing likewise, held up by a death-grip on his lance's battered shaft.
How long had they fought? Cecil wasn't certain; the sun still rode high, but it felt like an eternity and the Mount could play tricks with the mind. But, did it matter ...
"... so, Master Highwind -- do I pass?"
The noise that came from 'Master Highwind's' throat sounded very much like a strangled, wheezing snort.
"I suppose ... you'll do.
"What do you think you're playing at --"
Cecil threw his head back abruptly, his turn now to stare down Kain.
".. I'm playing at nothing. I more than half expected to be carrying scraps of your corpse back down the mountain.
"Three months, Kain -- a quarter-year, as you said, and not a whisper."
His mouth tightened.
"Why? Did you think I didn't care?"
Kain turned his face away, half-hidden by a fall of tangled, dirty gold. The angle made the sharp hollow of his cheek all the more apparent, and Cecil hid a wince as worry panged through him; then the hoarse voice spoke, distracting him.
"... I stayed because I knew you'd say that, Cecil. I stayed ... because I care. Because I --"
-- a pause, laced with darkly bitter laughter --
"-- because I learned to admit that I could care. That it was no weakness, admitting that."
Trailing off, Cecil waved his off-hand in one all-encompassing arc, taking in everything: the Mount, the fallen dead, Kain, himself, all. Kain shook his head, still turned away.
"Make no mistake, I came here for myself. For my pride. What happened ... that, I will not tell you, not now. Perhaps not at all. But that will be my flaw, not yours, if so.
"And I ... I have learned the price of pride. That much I will tell you. I've made my mistakes."
He paused and sighed, easing himself fully into a kneeling posture, and Cecil tried to ignore the old blood flaking from the battered plates.
Now Kain did face him, eyes dark and haunted.
"I came here for myself. I stayed for you."
Wordless protest welled up and Cecil began to heave himself to his feet, to close the gap between them, only to have Kain lean closer, hold him down by the shoulder with one raw, sinewy hand.
"No. I stayed, to give you time. Only that.
"Time to accept ... what could have happened. What did happen. To remake yourself again -- you would not be here if you had not left the kingdom stable, am I wrong?
"His Majesty loved you like a son. You're as much his heir as any would have been. But you would have been distracted, if I had been some lurking shadow. You hardly needed to deal with that while convincing yourself you had the mettle -- that I knew existed -- to rule."
"I've feared you dead for months."
Cecil's hand shot up like a arrow to clamp onto Kain's, milk-pale against the battered flesh, and squeeze as if in warning.
"Feared you dead -- that would be the best I'd dared to hope for when you didn't return! Waiting this long ... this has been ... no, let me end with the lectures. It doesn't matter. It does not matter. Not now."
He did not let go; but, with his free hand, reached out for that still clutching the lance, that battered symbol of all that had fueled one prideful, driven life --
"Kain. Come home."
For a heartbeat, the world was silent.
Then the flagstones rang like bells with the sound of bloodied metal as Kain seized that outstretched hand --