chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4 | chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9
chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16 | chapter 17 | chapter 18
chapter 19 | chapter 20 | chapter 21 | chapter 22 | chapter 23 | chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26

10. Death Peak

\b0 We left the gate cave and headed out that morning under a leaden sky. The snow had let up, so the way down the mountain was clear, though ridden with frosty gales. The wind howled through the gorges, kicked snowy tumbleweeds across our path and made my ears burn, and not for the first time I wished I had brought my old helmet. At first I was too hurried and excited to fish it up, and the last time I stopped at my house... it wasn't exactly foremost on my mind. I couldn't even recall where it was hiding--the thing was probably on the floor of my trashed room, or buried in the attic like the Gate Key had been.

At least all that wind smacking me upside the head was a reminder that I needed a haircut. I like to keep it short so it'll stay out my eyes, not to mention any machinery I'm working on. I suppose I could simply tie it back like Marle, but she has such pretty, rich and wavy hair, and mine is just lank and ugly.

...What the heck am I going on about? Anyway, it was tough going down the mountain because of the icy rocks and snow banks, and we had to watch our step at every turn. Marle remarked that it was just like our trek up and down Death Peak, and I had to agree that the scenery was familiar--almost eerily so. Thankfully she didn't press that observation, because I wasn't up to waxing nostalgic over one of the most traumatic legs of our journey to defeat Lavos, even if it did have a happy ending.

At length we entered a ravine where the high cliffs blocked the wind and the ice broke into a tiny black stream. Evidently Marle and I weren't the only ones who recognized the landscape, because as soon as we found that quiet reprieve, Mishu spoke up. "Hey, we're talking time travel and shit, right? Like you guys say, you're all from different times?"

"Yep!" Marle replied. "Why do you ask?"

Mishu shrugged, flipping a thick dark lock out of her face. "For what it's worth, this is the time I'm from. I remember this place from when I first got here."

"Verily?" Frog questioned her. "Dost thou know what year it be, then?"

She snorted sardonically. "No, I don't know what year you people would call it."

That seemed reasonable; according to her story, Mishu wasn't aware she was time traveling until after she found Magus, so why would it occur to her to look up the time in the first place? Regardless, she was bound to be familiar with the local geography, so I asked, "Is there a town or something nearby?"

She nodded down the ravine. "Yeah. A ways south, they've got this city. I think it's called Traven."

I had never heard of such a town, and neither had the others. Then again, tons of settlements had risen and fallen throughout the ages with hardly a footnote, and there were places in-between the gates we knew that were vastly unaccounted for. Perhaps this was a date none of us had visited before.

"South it is, then," Magus flatly declared, strolling along without a second thought. Nothing seemed to excite that man, but for me, the prospect of discovering a new time era was just a little thrilling.

Marle felt the same way. "I can't wait to see what it's like. Do you think we're in the past or the future? I wonder if the cities here are under big domes, like the ones in Robo's time."

I really missed Robo. He was a great friend. It would be wonderful to see him again, even if the chances of him recognizing us in the future we altered were slim-to-none. If I had put any consideration into it, I could've visited him at Fiona's plantation back in the Middle Ages, but that ship had already sailed, and like the frog said, Magus waits for no man--or robot. It was amazing that he even brought the knight along, though if his attempt to take the Gate Key from me was any indication, Magus probably had much, much less luck getting the Masamune away from Frog. The risk probably outweighed the hassle.

"Traven is," Mishu answered the dome question.

"Really?" Now I was especially intrigued. If it was after the year 1999, this could be our best chance to observe the new future we created without Lavos. I had always wondered what it would be like without the destruction and desolation that monster wrought--a world where humanity and technology are thriving in harmony. For the first time since we set out on this adventure, I had something to really look forward to.

We came across a swath of trampled snow, leading down a forgiving slope in the semblance of a road. Frog squatted over the trail, investigating the crude ruts and sooty blotches. I watched him and tried not to laugh at the snowflakes that had accumulated in the creases of his sticky skin, drawing funny white lines that resembled an old man's beard.

"Strange tracks..." he mused, picking up a wad of greasy snow. "Th'rt like a carriage, yet not. Whate'er it be, it seems to bleed black oil."

Ayla bent over his shoulder, sniffing thoughtfully. "Smell like raw boot! What you call--maw shin?"

"A machine?" I translated. "Maybe it's a motorized vehicle of some sort."

Marle raised an incredulous look. "Like a car? All the way up here? In the mountains?"

Crono shrugged. Why not? "Yeah, I'm sure the future has technology that's more than capable of traversing terrain as rough as this," I concurred.

Mishu stood over us, her hands on her hips and her brow scrunched disparagingly. "What the hell is everyone looking at? It's like you d'shis have never seen a gods damn car before."

I didn't know what d'shis meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn't nice. "Hey!" Marle objected, her hands flying to her own hips. "Maybe some of us haven't, okay? No need to be rude about it."

Her argument was a little misleading--Marle, Crono and I had seen futuristic cars before, and even ridden in one, though it wasn't fair to speak for everyone on that experience. ...I wondered if ol' Johnny was around this age.

"Didst thou see such a thing pass hither?" Frog asked.

Mishu looked askance, thinking about it. "Nah, but... The first time I was coming down here, I saw some kids going up towards the gate shrine. They were talking some karatosh I didn't understand--something about 'peaks' and 'troughs' and the gates. It sounded like they were working on them."

All at once, we were interested--I was, anyway. "Working on the gates??"

"Some kids, ye say?"

"Humans, like us?"

Mishu swept a depreciatory look over our group. "Yeah, they looked real young and scruffy, like you bunch."

"Hey..." Marle drawled, starting to take offense again, but then Magus pushed past us, plodding right through the tracks. "Let's move along, children."

Marle turned her indignant glare to the mage's backside. "Hey...!"

We followed the suspicious trail for another hour or two before stopping to catch our breath in the thin, cold mountain air. We had gradually descended into a wooded area, where icicles hung from the interwoven, snowy branches like crystal ornaments, and on a sunny day I imagined it all sparkled beautifully. As it was, the shards of ice and pointy limbs looked like a mesh of jagged teeth and skeletal hands, biting and clawing at the bellies of dark clouds.

For lunch we distributed the rest of our jerky rations (and a few of the biscuits Frog had stashed from Magus's castle--which was pretty crafty of him, I must say.) It didn't beat the sandwiches at Rick's, but it made a good excuse to take a break, and it was during this lull that Mishu decided to share with us, "Heh, I remember somethin' else, 'bout those kids."

"Oh?" Marle prompted.

She huffed, humored by the memory. "When they were talking, they said something about staying on the path, or they'd get eaten by some giant death worm or something really stupid like that."

"Giant death worm?" I echoed, vaguely horrified. I didn't believe that story for a second, but have I mentioned I don't like worms, either?

"Someone say worm??" Ayla called from the trees. She was picking off icicles and eating them like rock candy. "Mmm, this one have berry inside! Or bird poop."

Marle shouted back with enough discretion to wake the dead, "She said stay on the path, or we'll get eaten by worms!"

"Singular, so just one, apparently," I corrected, and then grimaced at the imagery. "A giant death one."

Crono snorted, finding something in that amusing, and then walked off the trail and into a clearing where the snow piled up to his knees. He crossed his arms and panned a challenging look around the mountainside, like a boxer inviting an opponent into the ring. What a showoff.

"Oh com'on Crono, don't be stupid," I berated him. "There's no such thing as this giant de--"

I watched Crono stumble backwards as the entire field shifted and slid downhill like a carpet of quicksand being pulled out beneath him. The whole mountain shook, Marle shrieked, Frog dropped on all fours, and then we heard a startled wail from Ayla before she was catapulted up over the trees like a rag doll. She landed in a snowdrift not far from where Crono was buried, though before any of us could rush out to meet them, the forest erupted, snow and rocks spewing across the clearing as if Jack Frost himself had just sneezed.

The woods crackled and warped out of the way of the massive thing that emerged from the ground--a fat, gruesome white maggot, almost as big as a house. Its segmented body was laced with quivering cilia and its radial jaw was brimming with rows of shark teeth. It barreled towards us like an oncoming train, turning up any trees or boulders in its path, and we all scrambled to safe ground as it roared by.

I couldn't believe it; we were getting attacked by a giant death worm. Irony, thy timing is impeccable. I climbed onto the highest rock within reach and frantically traced its path. Frog was already bounding through the plowed snow, Masamune gleaming in hand. On the other side of the trail, Marle was clambering onto a stone shelf, and to my left Crono and Ayla were digging themselves out of an avalanche. I checked my hand and found my air gun, drawn practically out of instinct--but then I realized the puny thing was going to be so utterly useless against this behemoth that I might as well toss it off the side of the mountain and spare the trouble. I packed it away and kept looking for an alternative.

I had lost track of Magus and Mishu completely; Frog was the only one remotely prepared to fight. From my vantage point, I could see the worm burrowing around a bend in the trail and heading back our way. I pointed after it and hollered, "Frog! There! It's coming back around!"

Frog followed my directions and skipped onto a rock ledge to see for himself. He watched the traveling mound of snow grow closer, braced his feet, and then threw himself off the ledge and onto the passing monster, his blade brought down for a chopping blow. The Masamune split the air in a straight, bright arc, like a guillotine of light--if only a fraction of a second off its mark. The worm breached the surface with a throaty screech, skidding wildly away from the impact, and when I looked closer I spied the last three segments of its tail cleanly severed. It bled green slime that peppered the ground and surrounding trees with fake blotches of summer.

Frog stood by its twitching tail while the rest of the worm reared up and swung around, tearing towards the knight with a vengeance. Just then some giant, bat-like shadow fell over me, and I cringed and ducked before realizing that it was Mishu. Her leathery wings flapped around her like sails, yet I was too spooked and amazed by everything going on to make some insipid comment like, 'So, you really can fly with those things.'

I noticed her carrying a broken tree branch nearly as long as herself. Mishu looked at me and brusquely shouted, "You! Fire mage, right?"

"Uh, I--what?" I stammered before catching on. "Yes! Why?"

She held out the heavy branch, her whole body twisting against her madly beating wings to stay aloft. "Light this thing!"

I didn't know what her big idea was, but I didn't waste time asking. I threw out a spell that set the branch's spindly tips on fire, and then watched Mishu carry it off like a flaming banner.

Frog danced around the worm's lunging maw, his sword snipping at its pale flesh. Some of its viscous green blood splashed across his arm and face, and I heard a warbling frog's bellow as the fluid seared through his skin, apparently caustic. Frog quickly tried to wipe it off, but then he slipped on the rocks and fell, scalded and disarmed. The worm bore down on him, its breath steaming through its hundred teeth, but then Mishu swooped in with the flaming branch, battering the monster and driving it to distraction.

The worm shrank from the fire, shuffling backwards until it entered the clearing where Crono and Ayla were still finding their footing. The monster's thrashing retreat churned up enough loose earth to drag the two down even further, and soon they were clinging to the corner of a sheer cliff, snow rushing around them like a waterfall. "Crono!! Ayla!" Marle cried as she raced across the field, nearly getting caught in the avalanche, herself. With an ingenious stroke of magic, she channeled the plummeting snow into a solid cradle of ice that caught both our friends before they fell over the edge.

The monster held its ground in the meantime, swimming against the torrential slush--until a huge, vacuous explosion blossomed directly beneath it. It was a dark bomb, one of Magus's spells, and it forged a crater of shadow magic in the side of the mountain large enough to swallow a tank. Rather than get sucked in, however, the worm was kicked into the air with the force of an imploding black hole. It sailed down the slope, right over Crono and Ayla's heads, and off the side of the cliff, dropping at least fifty meters before hitting the rocks below with a splattering thud.

The rubble and ice gradually rumbled to a standstill, and we were all left in awe.

Crono and Ayla popped out of the freshly settled snow like gophers, looking bewildered. Marle ran across the field to help pull her friends out of the snow. "That was crazy! There really was a giant death worm. Is everyone all right?"

I heard Mishu cussing from the bushes the dark bomb had thrown her into. Frog sat on the ground, tentatively licking his wounds, while Magus sauntered out of the woods to finally join us. "Son of a fucking gr'bon!" Mishu raved as she tore free of the brush, stamping on the cinders of the branch that had landed on top of her. "Almost burnt my gods damn hair off."

There was no doubt that giant, grotesque thing was dead, but Ayla stuck her neck over the side of the cliff to see with her own eyes. "Wow! Big worm fall hard! Look like squashed fly down there." Just for good measure, Mishu chucked her burnt tree branch down after it, cursing its lineage all the way.

Crono started laughing--that airy, silly, dazed laugh of someone realizing he's lucky to be alive, and as soon as he was within slapping range I cuffed him on the back of the head. "You dummy! You could've gotten killed."

He shrugged defensively. What?? We're all fine. He then combed a hand through his hair with a muddled wince, looking at me like I was the crazy one.

"Wha--" I started, but then checked myself. The hand I struck him with was tingling and hot, to a paranormal degree.

Right, that--that was something I'd wanted to talk to him about. It had just been difficult to get a minute alone together, without explaining to the others what for and why. I wasn't ready to have that talk with everyone, and I had a feeling Crono wasn't, either--not until we figured out what we were talking about.

I got an idea. "Hey, Marle." I flipped a thumb towards the frog trying to lick raw acid off his arm--I had to credit his self-reliance. "I think Frog's hurt."

I didn't need to say more. "Oh! Hang on, I'll help." Our dedicated healer scurried off to do just that. "Frog! What are you doing? That could be poison!"

"They'rt mere burns. I shall fare fine," the knight assured her, though Marle insisted with her curative magic.

Ayla walked over, contributing to the fuss. "Yuck, green worm blood like fire water, only bad. Make burns like lava! Frog hold still, no try eat."

Well, that worked. I sighed and turned back to Crono. I severely doubted he had any better idea of what had happened between us than I did, but I still had to ask. "Hey, um, listen, about that thing last night..." Wow, 'that thing.' I sounded so educated. Why was I nervous? "Did you, uh, did it feel like...?" I couldn't think of a way to put it that didn't sound creepy.

He grimaced, catching my drift, and then leaned close enough to mumble over the wind, "Yeah, that freaked me out. I thought I was imagining it at first."

"Okay thank God," I blurted out. I wasn't crazy--for that, anyway. "So you felt it, too? What do you think that was?"

Crono glanced over the horizon, shaking his head. I don't know, but... He frowned a tick and rubbed his elbow. "Made my whole arm go numb." He then gave a twitch of a smile and admitted so quietly the wind almost carried it off, "...felt really good."

"Um..." I pretended to clean my glasses. Yeah, it did. That was kinda the worst part. "Say, you remember yesterday morning, when we woke up..."

I didn't have to finish my sentence. He snapped his fingers and then circled his wrist.

I nodded. "Yes, exactly. There has to be a connection--I think that cloth we found is linked to what started this. I just wish we had more evidence..."

It wasn't quite what I was asking for, but all of a sudden Crono grabbed my hand and held it, kindling a sweet fire through my fingers and all the way up to my shoulder. My breath hitched and I tried to blink back the strange, dizzy flush that came over me, but after a few seconds (minutes, hours, an eternity) I wasn't even sure I could keep standing. If I had any presence of mind left I would've jerked back or told him to let go, yet Crono simply stood in front of me, running his thumb over my knuckles with a kind of soft, open fascination that was definitely not helping at all.

"I... it..." I said dumbly, and flicked my gaze up to read his expression. He met me halfway, light blue eyes dark and wide--marveling at the sensation that had to be mutual--and I couldn't tell if the red on his cheeks was a blush or wind burn. He looked a little lost, a little faint and a little bit of... something else... I either couldn't place or secretly didn't want to. It was like he wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words and didn't know how to shrug it off.

My pulse was wild and my nerves grew skittish--I was about to crack. Crono abruptly looked over my head and then broke away, releasing me. I staggered half a step, trying not to fall to my knees in relief. What in the world had possessed him?? I drew one long, deep breath to clear my head, and then finally noticed what he was staring at--or rather, what was staring at us.

Mishu was perched on top of the nearest rock, grinning down at us with a peculiar, unsettling expression. "What are you looking at?" I asked peevishly.

Her smile only broadened, like a cat laughing at a mouse. "Nothing. Just a couple of kids." Her tail flicked curiously as she glanced back towards the others. "Looks like your frog friend there is fixed up. Time to move out, wouldn't you say?"

"Yeah..." I agreed warily, trudging past the gargoyle of a woman. We'd barely met, but I already didn't like Mishu. If I ever got a chance, I meant to ask Masa and Mune more about the neiphiti, as they called her. As eccentric as those spirits were, I trusted their word a lot more than I did hers, and I really needed more answers. About everything.

We immediately regrouped. Magus stood back from everything, as condescendingly aloof as ever, and refused to take any blame or credit. Frog cleaned his sword and then bowed appreciatively to show he was ready to go. Ayla shook off the snow like a wet dog. Marle caught Crono in a quick hug, yet as he returned it he passed me one last look--I wasn't sure what it meant. It was a cross between 'sorry' and 'later.'

As we all got back on track and continued down the mountain, the only answer I got was a black one. 'Beware of dragons. Hah, ha ha...'

---

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