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

15. The Magic Book

Jerad eventually pacified his girlfriend by offering to take her into town, and to this end he stuck his head around the door and asked if we could watch his apartment until he got back.

Marle was as amazed as the rest of us by the request. "Really? You trust us here alone?"

He cracked a faint, harried grin and jested, "Sure. Just don't blow the place up, okay?"

I stumbled over a laugh. "Heh, eheh, sure." If he only knew he was asking a virtual pyromaniac.

Jerad's eyes lighted on me, and he snapped his fingers with a reminder. "Oh! Lucca, I'm still going to show you that--"

Allie's whining call sounded from the end of the outside hall. "Jer-ad...!"

He flinched, finishing his thought with, "Um, later." Then he scurried off. Crono cracked an invisible whip after him, and Marle tittered.

Ayla wrinkled her nose with disapproval. "Girl mean and loud! Ayla no like. Jerad not strong man, though."

"Would not be the first man belittled by beauty," Frog remarked.

Marle looked around the entrusted furnishings, focus falling on the dirty magazine propped under the broken corner of a bookshelf. "What do we do, now?"

The answer was more movies and video games, which was fine by me. Both were fun to watch, even if I was more preoccupied with the book Magus gave (back to?) me. I sat at the end of the couch and studied it under a lamp while everyone played with Jerad's v-screen. I had meant to go through it sooner--I mean, I like books, and this one looked more interesting than most--but for some reason I had a hard time picking it up. Every time I glimpsed the cover, I got a slight, eerie chill that felt like black voices whispering in my ear. It was almost as if I were afraid--but of what? It was just knowledge, nothing I would normally shirk. I finally convinced myself to stop being ridiculous and get started.

The contents of the T'torlan are difficult to describe. There's a preface that runs like a narrative, telling the story of a long-ago war on a long-ago world, and about six heroes "blessed by Bahamut" to end the conflict. Basic fairy-tale stuff. After that, it breaks down into a not-too-coherent catalogue of swirling script and bizarre inkblot illustrations. Some pages are no more than lists, and others are filled with pictographs so intricately arranged that it baffles the sight--more than once I had to take off my glasses and scrub my eyes to clear out the spots.

What was truly disconcerting about the tome, however, was the very thing that intrigued Magus: its 'translation.' The handwriting was sloppy and juvenile, yet remarkably erudite. There were footnotes, parenthetical asides and complementary sketches. The tone of the entire work was educated yet informal, not like other written works of the medieval period--I even encountered the phrase, "bump on a log," which my mother liked to use all the time.

One page jumped out at me: an elaborate rendering of an alien creature, its quill-like projections filling the corners and framing the 'eye' like a toothy mane. The smooth, graceful lines and symmetry would have made it a gorgeous drawing if I didn't recognize the subject in a heart-stopping blink. All I could do was stare, transfixed by the heinous visage. Then the fact of what I was looking at struck me--Magus owned this book. Magus used this book. Magus used this book to write spells, to invoke spirits, and to summon...

"Lavos..." I breathed, gingerly fingering the edge of the paper as if the ink were caustic. When I finally got the nerve to flip the page, I saw that the translator had a field day with that one, etching across the entire sheet in bastardized calligraphy:

SpaWn of DarKnEss
DEvourEr of StaRs
DraGonKin OmEga

And then at the bottom, in tiny script: (Replicate of Jorumgand. Can harvest life to reproduce? Parasitic breeding not intended in original design.)

Lavos--a replicate? Designed intentionally? I sat still and pondered that for a long time, reeling under the possibilities. We all knew that Lavos came from outside our world, but there was never any speculation over where or how the monster originated. The answer seemed as unapproachable as the origin of life itself. However, if there was a sentience behind its design, what could that mean? What kind of entity would create such a thing, and to what purpose?

And how would the translator know about it...?

Thankfully the others were too enthralled with their game to catch me spacing out--or they thought that was normal. I'm not sure which made me feel better. I had to move on before I lost my mind, though, and the next pages were a little more forgiving.

That started to bother me more, however--that I could nearly tell what was on the page before even checking the notes. Occasionally a character would cross my mind with a murmur of familiarity, just like the glyphs on the gate rings. Fire, water, light... I could decipher fragments of runes that were not supported by anything. It was like the words just popped into my head. Was that part of the book's magic? What kind of sorcery penned this thing?

Another page of the translation was surrounded by squiggly pencil lines, as well as another mark that made me pause. See, whenever I'm writing, my pencil tends to get sidetracked alongside my mind, and doodles happen. Back in grade school I used to turn in homework that was accidentally riddled with little stars, parallel lines and pyramids--I'm partial to pyramids. A teacher once complained in a letter to my parents, writing that, 'She does well on individual assignments, but always seems lost in her own little world.' I was a distracted child, I guess.

But there's one other thing I'm prone to draw when my pen slips, and I never really gave it much thought. It's a funny little S-shape with feet and wings, something like the dragon figure on the royal Guardian coat-of-arms. I had figured that was where I picked it up, but then there it was, right in this book.

Suddenly I remembered a moment from my earliest childhood, with my ears burning at the top of the stairs while my parents talked behind my back.

'Taban, she's into that strange book again.'
'Ain't no harm, is it? She's just drawing.'
'I know, but I don't like it one bit. We don't even know what it says. Those symbols look frightening, like the devil's handwriting. You should have thrown that awful thing away ages ago.'
'Aww, don't fret so much. It's just a picture book. Let her play.'

That was what was terribly familiar about the whole thing--I had seen the book before. And... drawn all over it. Great, my dad let me play with an evil sorceror's study guide. It's amazing I turned out a halfway-adjusted human being. Even if the translation wasn't mine (really, honestly, it couldn't be) those doodles were, of that I was certain.

I couldn't have had anything to do with the rest, I determined, which was unfortunate only because I couldn't dredge up the answers Magus was looking for. How the book got into my house in the first place would probably remain a mystery forever, along with the translator's identity. Unless... the same sorcery that was unlocking the words in my head had the same effect on a well-read, highly impressionable and incredibly bored four-year-old...?

"Heh." I shook my head. Preposterous. Maybe all that synchronized telepathy Mishu was talking about was making me believe crazy things.

I skipped ahead, until another of the page headers caught my eye: 'Hexes and Curses.' And following was an index of such things, like a laundry list for magical pranksters and evildoers. I flashed back to a suspiciously bloody purple rag found days ago, and wondered if I was on to something. I then combed through every article in that section for something that resembled what was happening to Crono and me, to no avail.

Before I could ask myself if I was looking in the wrong section, after all, the bullet for 'Transformation Curses' piqued my interest. Now, whom in my immediate acquaintance might that possibly concern? I got a sneaky, delicious idea and read on.

A beast curse* can be rendered permanent if it is grounded in the soul's heart, which can be left vulnerable after a traumatic event, in near-death or during a shock to the entire system (i.e: a lightning spell.) In that case, the curse cannot be fully dispelled without the death of the caster.

I frowned at the dumb book, pouting. Wasn't there a non-killing option? Must it all end in violence?

Once upon a time, on our journey to defeat Lavos (we were scaling the Black Omen, if I recall correctly), Frog's patience with Magus snapped, and the shouting match that ensued was so fierce that none of us dared get close, much less intervene. Even Marle, who was our group's referee-cum-cheerleader, stood back with wide, frightful eyes and remained silent. I can't remember how it started (with Magus being a true bitch, I'm sure) or how it played out, except for the way it ended.

Magus loomed over Frog--practically leaning into the glowing-hot tip of the Masamune--and uttered in a voice that was lethally quiet and booming at once, "Do it, then. Finish me off, if you think it'll make your life any less miserable. You'll always be a wretched toad, even if you break that curse."

None of us could believe what we were watching, and I think everyone broke world records for breath-holding and staring contests, respectively. If I were in Frog's shoes back then... I can't really imagine what I would've done. If my mercy were put to that test, I probably would have failed. Nonetheless, it was Frog's sense of honor that prevailed, and he pulled back, spitting at Magus's feet.

"No," he had said with a break of his accent that was all the more venomous. "I'm not like thee." Then he walked away.

That made the second time Frog refrained from taking his due revenge. I might have imagined it, but it seemed Magus showed a little more respect to him from then on out. Still, Frog's curse was never broken. Life's never fair, is it?

Alternate measures not recommended. Mixed potions can destabilize in non-human digestive tracts, and have unpredictable results. A sheikh's Eye of Truth can only reform visual perception to the onlooker, just as a possessed mirror can only reform on the surface of the glass. Combining these trinkets is duly dangerous and can lead the subject to be lost in a mirror world.

So far, this book was doing an excellent job of teaching me how not to help Frog. What's more, my not-too-surreptitious glances caught his attention, and he looked back with a disturbed crease to his brow. "I am put out of ease by the way thou stares. Dost thou plot something against my person?"

I grinned, feigning innocence, and held the book closely out of view. "Plotting? Me? Never."

He gave a low, incredulous croak, squinting at me, and then turned back to the movie. Sorry, Frog. If it weren't so damn objectionable, I would've gone ahead and killed Magus, myself. But it's never that easy. And I wasn't suicidal. And maybe--just maybe--we really needed his help, and I didn't want anyone to die, even if it meant sparing that jerk.

Reformation of the soul is possible, if difficult without a spirit guide.

There was a footnote.
* Not to be confused with the beast talent.

What was that supposed to mean?

Jerad came in later that night, looking weary yet relieved. He immediately checked his computer at our behest, but found no messages.

"Okay, I can't get in touch with Ramezia," he announced with a resigned sigh. "I don't really have much control over when she mails me." He snapped his fingers with a fresh idea. "But what I can do is take you to the place we usually meet her contact. How does that sound?"

Our group nodded, and Marle spoke up. "Really? That would be great. When can you take us?"

"First thing tomorrow sound good?"

It did, and on that note we all turned in for the night. I tucked the T'torlan away in my travel pack and tried to forget about it long enough to invite sleep. Luckily I underestimated my exhaustion, and I was out before I could think to turn out the lamp.

I dreamed of... a black wind... flowing like a creek, babbling over the cobblestones at the End of Time. There was a snake swimming on the surface, circling my feet. It had lurid red eyes, and spoke to me.

'When are you going to give up this ruse and admit it?'

Admit... what?

'That you're a monster.'

What? No, no... I'm not a monster. We're all human.

'Humans don't bleed Darkness. Look.'

Look...?

I woke up. It was dark, with only the orange pallor of streetlights sifting through the kitchen window. Ayla was snoring at my feet, my toes stuck in her hair again. I tried to sit up, never minding the crick in my neck and a sharp stinging in my leg. Damn snake bite. I would pay real money to find out what that was and how to get rid of it.

'It is called the blight.'

Almost as much as I would pay to get rid of those voices. I couldn't believe how inured to the buggers I had become in three short years--particularly in the past three days. 'The blight...?' I echoed, testing the word in my head. This night he ('he'? Good grief, I really was starting to personify this madness) sounded like the old voice, yet had the refined, informative tone of the new one. Exactly how many of these black voice things were there? It was like counting sheep in my head, only to usher on insanity instead of sleep.

'Just the two of us, if you must know,' it answered me unbidden. 'But go on, ask the neiphiti woman about the blight. I'm sure she'd be delighted to share her story with you. Mweh, heheh...'

Yep, that was the old voice. And as if my night didn't have enough ghost stories, I heard the second voice speak up, berating the first. 'Are you tormenting her again?'
'And doing a smashing job of it, if I do say so myself. Isn't it fun?'
'Hrm. Just try not to have too much of it.'
'Why, isn't that the point? The tormenting?'
'That's your point. Our point is to nurture the seed.'
'Psh, same difference.'
'Not always. Just remember that Darkness thrives best in solitude, so leave her alone once in a while.'
'Gah, fine.'

Seed? Darkness? Her? They were not talking about me, right...? Just like the night before, they were talking as if I weren't even there.

'What's with you, anyway?'
'With me?'
'Asking me to be all nice, like you sympathize with her.'
'Don't be ridiculous. I just wish you would be discreet when speaking to her.'
'Psh. What harm is it? It's not like she can touch us. She doesn't even think we're real.'
'And it would be nice if we could maintain that delusion as long as we can. We must be as careful as we are patient if this plan is to work.'
'Bah. Why is it taking so long, anyway?'
'It can't be helped. There's not enough Darkness in her heart. Lavos is doing most of the work. She IS one of the keys, after all.'
'Yeah I know, her and those other two brats. ...You know, if we had three seeds, and you didn't throw one AWAY, we wouldn't have to worry about this.'
'Come now, we didn't throw it away. You know very well it went to good use. Quit trying to blame me for our short fortune. We make do with what we've got.'
'Tch. Still, damnit, if we were done already, we could go on back to Master. It's almost time here, you know.'
'I know, but we have to stay with her until the job is finished. Don't worry, we won't miss the fun.'
'Sure, we'll just have to wait another damn thousand years for it! Unless we could persuade her to stay here...'
'Hmm... I'm not... That's actually not such a bad idea...'
'I am capable of good ones, you know. Oh, and just think! It'll break the link, too. He goes back, she stays here...'
'I see... That would work better than we could imagine.'

Good grief, how do I turn them off?? If this was what going crazy was like, I wasn't going to enjoy it. I stood up, seeking respite. I could try the roof again.

'On second thought, a thousand years is quite a leap. Such a prolonged absence might grieve Master. What if he calls for us in the interim?'
'Bah. We can tell him we were... out fishing?'
'How ingenious. I'll have to say no.'
'Spoil'sport.'

Okay, definitely going to get some fresh air. I fumbled around the coffee table, looking for my glasses, and then my boots.

'Oh look, you dolt. I think she can hear us.'
'No--what, really? She's never heard us before.'
'Just shush.'

As soon as the door clicked softly shut behind me, there was blissful silence. Then I heard a far-away dog bark, the report of gunshot, a pitiful yelp, and then silence again. Geez, how did Jerad put up with this neighborhood? I shook off the violent ambiance and headed up the stairs.

Only partially to my surprise, I found somebody already up there. Emboldened with restlessness and wasting no time with formalities, I strolled across the roof and took a seat on the rail next to her. "Hey, Mishu."

She didn't budge any farther than to follow me with a nonchalant smirk. "Hey. Don't you ever sleep, kid?"

"Tch, I wish. Haven't had much luck with that, lately." I pinned her with a retaliatory leer. "Don't you ever sleep?"

"Hah, I'm dragonkin. I can go without sleep for a week," she boasted with a flick of her spaded tail.

"Aren't you lucky," I grumbled. I threw my legs over the side and listlessly treaded open air. There was a cat fishing through the dumpster on the ground, three stories below--I wondered if that had to do with the stench of rotten seafood wafting out of the alley.

"Huh," Mishu snorted, merely amused. "What's eating you?"

Impending insanity. "Nothing, really... This is gonna be a weird question, but have you ever heard of something called 'the blight'?"

I could have reached over and punched her in the gut and received a less shocked reaction. Suspicion and trepidation washed over her countenance in conflicting waves, and then she lowered her brow and asked darkly, "Where did you hear that?"

"Um..." From the creepy voices in my head? Yeah, this was a great idea. "Nowhere? I mean, I read it in a book. I was just reminded of it, is all."

"What book?" she pointedly inquired, a thread of outrage putting me on edge.

"A book... about monsters?" I tried, weakly. Mishu continued to glare until I wilted under the pressure. "Sorry, I guess it was a weird and dumb question." How was she going to know some nonsense I heard in my head? I really was losing my damn mind.

"Was it the T'torlan?" she asked at length, somewhat mitigated. I nodded at the cat, fibbing like hell.

Mishu relaxed with a seething sigh, leaning on her arms as she joined me over the wonderful view of strewn garbage. "...It's called tek t'karie in the old dragon language. It's supposed to mean 'dark scars.' But some just call it the blight."

I perked up, cautious if still curious. "You know it?"

"Yeah, you could say that," she replied somberly, not meeting my gaze.

"What is it, exactly?"

"It's a mark of the Darkness. It shows you're infected with it."

"Darkness?" I blanched. The black voices mentioned Darkness, too. "So what is that, like a disease?"

"Not exactly. It's more like a poison."

"Where does it come from?"

"Nobody's sure. All the religious nutjobs back home say it's a sign of Ragnarok, the end of the world."

'Religious' is one of those key words that automatically turns me off. In case you couldn't tell, Science and God have rarely been on good speaking terms, and I'm only a religious person when taking a few choice names in vain. I adjusted my glasses, trying not to look too prying as I asked, "Well, what does it do? What happens to people who have this blight?"

She scoffed, as if I had just made a bad joke. "If it doesn't outright kill you?" Mishu then hesitated, slipping into a tone so grave it was almost frightening. "...It destroys you. Eats away your soul until you're nothing but a mindless, bloodthirsty shell. You won't be able to wish for death--you won't wish for anything. You just become a monster. We call them fiends. And fiends... Well, fiends don't stop until they're either dead or everyone around them is."

'...a monster.' My thoughts crashed into a wall, losing me for a minute.

"Why do you ask?" Mishu asked, flippancy coloring her words again.

I shook my head, resisting the impulse to scratch my leg. "No reason, just... It sounds awful, is all. Isn't there a cure for it?"

"No. Not yet, anyway." The grin she flashed was distant and tinged with... regret? "To be honest... It's why I'm here."

"Really?"

"Yeah. The Darkness drove me away from home. Now I'm stuck wandering around, looking for something nobody believes exists."

"Like what?" I was most keen about learning her motive for following us, not to mention hanging around this planet, so I made sure to pay attention.

I waited, and waited, and... watched her turn away with a dismissive huff. "Hrmph. It doesn't matter." She looked back at me and chuckled faintly. "I don't know why I'm telling you anything. You're a weird girl, you know that?"

I rolled my eyes. "I get that a lot."

Sensing an opening, Mishu pursued her own inquisition. "So what's the story with you people?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean traveling like this. Not many people jump around through time portals like it's no big deal. You all act like you've done this kind of shit before."

"Heh, we have. It's a long, long story."

She cocked an eyebrow. "Got a fuckin' short version?"

I thought about it, turning over the beginning in my head--all twenty of them--opening my mouth to start once or twice and then falling short. Sometimes, when you consider your audience, some things really aren't worth explaining. "No," I said, shaking my head and laughing. "No, I really don't."

"Huh." Mishu let it go, a grin still fringing her expression as we looked out over the city for a spell. I was about to make some trite comment over how it all looked--well, majestic, with the neon lights and sculpted towers coming together in the middle of the dome like an ornate ship in a bottle--when she asked completely out of the blue (or black, since it was night), "Say, your friend, what's his fuckin' deal? I don't think I've heard a whole damn sentence out of his mouth since I met 'im. He mute or retarded or what?"

I snickered so hard it was more like a sneeze, and I had to throw my head back to laugh. "Ahaha, Crono?? Noooo, he's just..." I fixed my glasses and nodded sagaciously. "It's just his way."

Her smile turned sly. "You always blush like that when talking about him?"

"I--no!" I squeaked, making a poor case for myself. "Hey, what are you saying??"

"Nothing, nothing..." Mishu quibbled.

I shoved her side emphatically. "Please, like you can tell anyway! It's the middle of the night." Modesty is not one of my faults (unfortunately?), but I do blush a little too easily for my tastes--usually over stupid, petty things. But Crono? No way, he's my friend. It's just been a little... weird lately.

"Heheheh. I'm just fuckin' with you. You kids are a riot."

"Glad we can be of amusement to you," I said sarcastically.

Mishu stood and stretched her limbs--all seven of them, wings quivering with a yawn. "Hell, at least one of you is. Beats talkin' to that pointy-eared faglock."

"Heh. Is Magus around?"

"Who fuckin' cares? I did see him a couple of hours ago, though. He's just drifting around."

"I guess that's his way, too." I was relieved that he hadn't gone rogue and left the city. It was easier to keep him in check when he stuck with the group.

"Anyway, whatever. I'm off," she abruptly declared.

"You're leaving? Where to?"

Mishu shrugged. "Doesn't matter."

"Oh!" I had almost neglected to mention, "We're leaving in the morning, by the way. Jerad's taking us to this meeting place for Ramezia's contact."

"No shit?" She gave a vaguely interested twitch. "That's progress, I guess."

"Yeah. You're coming with us, right?" When did I go from not liking or trusting Mishu to suddenly wanting to keep her around? She must have had some strange alien charisma. What if it was a telepathic trick? Note to self: go back to not trusting Mishu.

Amendment to note to self: paranoia is not conductive to sanity.

...Too many notes to self probably aren't, either.

Next thing I knew, Mishu was crouched on the ledge, her clawed fingers and toes scratching the cement as she panned an appraising look over the patchwork skyline. She passed me one last glance, long and messy locks veiling the meaning in her eyes, and said sedately, "The Phoenix."

"Huh?"

"I'm looking for the Phoenix." Then she spread her wings and took off.

---

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