The city of Baron was burning. Everywhere Cecil looked, pieces of the fortress lay shattered on the shadowed cobblestone. Flames danced over the faces of ancient tapestries. The stone walls dripped white embers. Ash covered the motionless bodies that lay in the corridor.
His wife’s name ripped from his throat in a frothing scream. As his mouth opened, the smoke-poisoned air rushed into his lungs, plunging him to his knees. Cecil gathered his strength and dragged himself forward. His vision blurred crimson. The floors of the castle flowed in dark rivers of blood. It was boiling to the touch.
One hand slipped. Cecil felt himself sliding forward. The world jolted as he landed in a roll. A cool breeze shifted past his face, carrying the scent of burning flesh. His body reacted in a violent retch.
Then Cecil heard it.
Laughter. It was smooth… warm… golden… and so chillingly familiar.
He lifted his head to find himself crouching in one of the castle courtyards. It was strangely peaceful in the silence of the night. The scent of roses mingled with flame-licked stone. The single disc of moonlight capered on the calm surface of the fishpond.
The voice held the same golden sound as the laughter had. Cecil recognized it at once.
A man was standing there, his face turned away. He peered up at the blazing pillars that were once the castle towers. His silhouette was immense. Pale green flame rose around him, arcing above his head as if to trace translucent wings of darkness. Very slowly he turned, his long white hair framing a face both familiar, yet obscure.
His eyes shown brilliant green as he cast a gaze down on Cecil. Vast wings unfurled with a darkness that veiled the midnight heavens. A haunted smile crept on his lips.
Cecil recoiled as the man flicked his wrist forward in one quick motion. A metallic sound filled his ears as something landed, shimmering golden on the stones at his knees. He lifted it between his fingers, revealing the object within pulsing firelight.
Rosa’s wedding band.
A strangled gasp ripped from his throat. But, the only thing that he could hear was the sound of the golden voice.
“Welcome home, brother.”
Cecil woke with his senses reeling. His heartbeat drummed heavy in his ears as he cast his emerald eyes around. Then, he realized…
It was only a dream.
He was safe. In his bed. In his room. In Baron Castle. And Rosa was there, curled up beside him in peaceful slumber.
He reached over and carefully drew back silken strands of hair from her pale face. One finger lovingly traced the delicate curve of her cheek. Her slender hands were folded within each other. In the dim light, Cecil could make out the golden twinkle of her wedding band.
It was only a dream.
Cecil threw the sheets off. The cool night air clung to his prickled skin, the chill comforting him. The window was open and the early spring breeze roused him out of any remnants of sleep.
The fire… it felt so real.
Sliding carefully out of bed into a light over-robe, Cecil padded his way across the silent chamber. He paused once to glance back at his sleeping wife before he let the door close with a gentle click. The stairwell down the tower was dark, but after years of treading the stone steps, his feet could pick their own way without vision.
“Is your Majesty feeling well?” the guard at the entrance of the tower inquired upon sight.
Cecil brushed a hand through his bushy white hair, realizing how he must have looked. Then he waved the man’s worry away with one hand, “Yes, everything’s fine. I just need something to drink.”
“Majesty, allow me to–”
“No really. I’m fine… but thank you.”
Though the Paladin worked to keep his voice level, he couldn’t help the twinge of irritation. Nothing annoyed him more than when others insisted that because he wore the crown of Baron on his brow, he should constantly be under someone else’s watch.
I know I’m a king now. Still. I’m certainly capable of fixing my own drinks!
The guard looked less than pleased.
Seeing this, Cecil added, “Besides, you wouldn’t want to leave Rosa alone in the tower, would you?”
Cecil… you’re such a hypocrite sometimes.
This reasoning seemed to satisfy the other man. The guard saluted briskly, despite the fact Cecil hadn’t said anything worth saluting. The young king nodded politely and turned to make his way towards the kitchen.
Habit found him wandering into the soldier’s mess hall. It was just as he remembered it — living up to its title in cleanliness. Happy memories of his early years in training still lingered in the shadows.
The Paladin dropped one palm fondly upon the dingy table top. A soft sigh escaped his lips, “If only I had known how fortunate I was back then… how careless and free…”
“I’ll drink to that!”
Cecil turned on his heel, as shadows shifted in the back corner of the room. A pair of sharp blue eyes glittered, returning his gaze in the dusky light.
Cecil found himself floundering under the weight of formality. An invisible wall of words flung up between them. So it was ever since the day his childhood friend returned from Mt. Ordeals to the Kingdom of Baron.
The Dragoon Captain looked unruffled. He simply leaned back in his chair and plunked both heavily armored feet up on the wooden table. “You’re getting rusty.”
“What?” Cecil spluttered.
Then he realized the other man had a whimsical smile on his face. Just like old times.
“I coulda jumped you five different times since you walked in that door. Considering the dazed look on your face, you never woulda seen it coming,” the Dragoon stared up into space with a thoughtful expression. “It must be all that time sitting on the throne. You’re losing your edge.”
“Now, come on…”
“What’s that?” the Dragoon quipped, poking a finger at Cecil’s mid-section. “You’ve been gaining some weight there?”
“Kain!” the Paladin protested. “What in Indra’s name has gotten into you?”
“That’s better,” Kain nodded with a grim smile. “None of that ‘Captain Highwind’ crap. Formality is for strangers and pulling rank. Yeah?”
Cecil paused, “You’re right. All this time in court is just getting to my head, I guess.”
“Seems so. Just don’t let it happen again.” Still propped against the wall, the Dragoon reached over and dropped a mug on the table next to his own. He motioned for Cecil to take a seat.
He did, watching somewhat cautiously as Kain lifted a pitcher and poured a second drink. Pulling the mug across the table, the Paladin sniffed it to identify its contents. It was just one of those things Cecil had lived with all his life — he was terribly allergic to any form of alcohol. This lead to a number of more embarrassing moments in his life as a young soldier in the Baronian ranks. Over time, Cecil learned to be careful. Very careful.
“Relax. It’s just kantal,” the Dragoon waved a hand. “You think I want to see you break out in green spots and foam at the mouth tonight?”
Cecil smiled wryly, “I suppose not.”
“So…” The blond man took a long draw on his own mug. He dropped his feet to the floor and leaned slowly forward, voice tinged with concern, “What’s up, Cecil?”
“Eh?” the young king lifted his head to meet the big man’s gaze.
“Come on, you know better than that. I can always tell when something’s eating you.”
“Nothing?” Kain’s echo was slightly disappointed. “I suppose it’s ‘nothing’ that has you up and wandering around the castle at three in the morning?”
“I just needed a drink, that’s all.”
The sharp blue eyes observed him sternly. “You’ve been having those dreams again, haven’t you?”
“I…” Cecil paused, mouth open slightly.
Kain always knows. I’m not sure how, but he always does.
The Dragoon shifted his weight forward, leaning both elbows on the table. “That’s not a good thing, is it?”
“I’m not sure if it really means anything or not.”
“You know very well your dreams always have a meaning. They did even back when we were kids.” Kain ran a hand through his hair, muttering darkly as he stared down into his drink, “And it was never good.”
“Yeah, well… I’m allowed to have a nightmare every now and then without it signaling the end of the world, aren’t I?”
The Dragoon’s look was sharp. “You dreamt about the end of the world?”
“No… no!” Cecil gave a half-hearted laugh. “I was just saying…”
“Then, what did you dream of?”
The Paladin froze, his face growing sober. Instead of answering, he finished his mug of kantal and reached for the pitcher to fill it again.
Kain caught his friend’s hand roughly, “Cecil, what did you dream of?”
“If I tell you, you won’t like it.”
“Probably not. I still want to hear.”
Cecil shook his head, pulling the pitcher away from the Dragoon’s grasp. Then he filled his mug and took another long drink.
“Cecil?” Kain looked somewhat wounded. His deep blue eyes silently pleaded for trust.
The Paladin gave a long sigh before he answered, “I dreamt about Golbez.”
And the blood of the Nations spilling across the castle floor…
Kain’s face grew suddenly unreadable.
The death and destruction of our kingdom…
“Golbez. He was here… in Baron.”
Shiva… would he… would my brother… really do that? Even after…
The Dragoon shifted back against the wall again, hunching over his drink. After a moment of silence, his voice came. It sounded startlingly weak. “You’re right. I don’t like it.”
“I’m sure it means nothing, right? I mean, that’s not even possible.”
The Dragoon’s blue eyes did not meet his gaze.