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

16. Parting Gift

Apparently Crono had a hell of a time trying to wake me up that morning without talking or touching me--or I imagine he did, because by the time he yanked the throw pillow out from under my head and started flogging me with it, I was so engrossed in a dream that I woke up mumbling, "Mnh, can't do that... Pythagorean won't work... has to be right angle."

Once all the foggy geometry cleared out of my mind, I found Crono standing over me with an amused smirk, piecing together two 'loser' signs with his thumbs and forefingers. Even your dreams are square.

"Aw shuddup," I grumbled, and then rolled off the couch and joined the others for breakfast: toast and processed cheese. We puzzled over the ingredients label for a while, wondering exactly how one can claim it's "made with real cheese" if the whole block only contains one percent. Judging by the consistency and melting point of the stuff, it was more like a yellow brick imitating cheese.

Mishu showed up at the door right before we were ready to leave, and Magus finally graced us with his presence outside, where he was leaning petulantly against the graffiti-covered wall as if he had been waiting for us all along. Marle tried to small talk her way into finding out what he'd been doing the past two nights, yet when a minute of stony silence wasn't sufficient feedback, Magus issued a pithy, "Shut up, Princess." Marle then stuck her tongue out, called him a 'meanie' and gave up. Some things were never going to change.

We rode out of town the same way we rode in, crammed into the back of Jerad's ragged old truck. Without all the tool boxes in the way, it was even more of a bed of rust laced with paint chips, and there was nothing to sit and hold on to save our own behinds. It was impossible to get comfortable and not slide all over the place, especially when Jerad hit every turn at no less than twenty miles-per-hour, but ultimately I couldn't care less, because we were finally back on our way to meet Ramezia.

I still had no idea how that encounter was going to play out--not that we didn't have enough questions for her. Why did she build the gates? Why won't she show her face to Jerad and his research team--or give them their due payment, for that matter? Why did she ally with Heckran's gang of Mystic thugs? What did she want with the Rainbow Shell, the Sun Stone and the Dreamstone from Ayla's village? Why did she murder...?

...I decided to take a page from Crono and Marle's books and not worry over what I couldn't possibly foresee. We would just have to figure it out when the time came.

Out of all the commotion of moving, Marle unsteadily crawled towards the cabin and asked the driver, "So what does Ramezia's 'contact' look like?"

Jerad slowed down a few notches to consider it. "Uh... Tall. Pale. Wears a black cloak with a hood that hides his face. Can't really tell you much else. He's always real stiff and proper. Talks like a butler or something."

Later on, the hands-free radio built into the dashboard crackled with Ryan's voice. "Hey man! You on the road?"

"Yeah, I'm dropping everyone off at the contact point."

"Cool. I'll be at the lab later. Oh! Dude, you heard what happened to Xabie last night?"

"That AI company? Don't they build security robots?"

"Heh, not anymore! I heard on the AIQ that their main factory got burned down by a vampire."

"A vampire," Jerad deadpanned.

"W-What?" Ryan hiccupped with laughter, aware of how absurd his report sounded. "Seriously though, the place is toast. There's like, witnesses saying it had just been robbed by some tall, pale guy wearing a cape."

I looked straight at Magus, but then held my tongue. You know what? I wasn't going to ask. I'm sure it was just a terrible misunderstanding that could only be resolved by setting someone on fire. However, I did want to talk to him about something else. I shuffled along the bouncy bed until I was close enough to tug on his cloak, and this got his irascible attention. "I looked through that book."

Magus looked torn between wanting to hear more and wanting to pitch me over the back the truck. "...And?"

"You said you've used it before, before it was translated. Mind if I ask how you could read it? The script in that thing is almost completely indecipherable."

"And yet you could translate it," he countered.

I sputtered. "Bu--Yo--You don't know that was me!"

"Am I wrong?"

I wasn't going to take credit for that. It was creepy. "Listen, I was four years old," I retorted, not exactly denying things, either. "All I liked to read back then were pirate stories, dime books and the comics in the paper. Well, and the Buntzen Manuscript. But that doesn't count; it had pictures of mermaids all over it." Blathering wasn't helping my case, I realized, so I shut up. Mishu suddenly had an interested eye on our conversation, and Frog was pretending to look ahead, but I knew his peripheral vision better.

"So you do remember the book."

I sighed, giving in. "Yes, okay, I've seen the thing before. Doesn't mean I understand anything about it, and I couldn't tell you who wrote that translation. For all I know, it could've been you," I fired back.

"Tch. I would never make anything so sloppy and pointless. That's your chicken-scratch. And I could already read it because it's like the scripts I was forced to study as a child."

"Bull crap," I called him out. "That's not Zealian script. I know what that looks like, and it's a lot easier to decode."

"I didn't say it was Zealian. I said it was similar. And I think I would know better than you."

"Similar? What do you mean, like, structurally?" The writing did seem familiar, in that regard--but as Magus just said, I was no archaic cryptographer. I liked books, but I wasn't born in Zeal, and I didn't grow up in a haunted dungeon studying how to turn people into frogs or make their heads explode with my mind. That was one field I had to yield to him. "Would that mean both languages have the same roots, or that one is derived from the other?"

He shrugged and looked out over the passing scenery, appearing to lose interest. "Who knows."

"Huh..." With that line of talk exhausted, I scooted away, giving him back his precious space. I wanted to look more into that book--there were still so many pages left to uncover--but I didn't want to risk losing any precious material on the road, as bumpy as it was. Once we passed through the toll booth on the southern edge of the dome, the barrage of rain made reading impossible, anyway. We waved farewell to Traven and got smacked in the face with a wall of water in return.

"Oh my gosh, can you believe this??" Marle yelled over the din. The waterlogged plain that stretched out before us was incredible. If the road weren't paved and elevated, the truck would have been washed away--and even as we drove along, a tide of fresh water lapped at every dip and sinkhole. The rain wasn't stopping. The heavens and earth were beginning to blend into mist, making the distant mountains look like waterfalls. Ahead of us were even darker clouds and a hazy grey line that could have been a wave-tossed coast, on a fair day.

"Aye, this rain, 'tis extraordinary," Frog remarked. "If it is not curbed, it could turn calamitous."

I held my bag as well and dry as I could and hoped that our present dilemmas weren't related to any imminent flood. We had pulled off some crazy feats across history, and saved a lot of civilizations from destruction, but none of us knew how to cure the weather. We wouldn't know where to start.

We didn't see many passing vehicles on our way, and even less once the highway diverged onto a narrow country road. At some spots we were treading an inch or more of water, and Jerad wasn't entirely sure we were going to make it, but surprisingly the truck held up. Finally we rolled to a stop in a puddle-strewn gravel lot, completely vacant save some faded signposts and brick markers. A complex of lifeless buildings lay ahead, enclosed by a chain-link fence that had whole patches sheered away an unperceivable while ago--along with a sign thrown to the ground that read, "Private Property." Unlabeled silos, busted light poles and unmanned towers sprawled into the immediate distance. The seagulls wheeling overhead signified that we were close to a shore.

As we crawled out of the truck, stretching our legs and wondering at our surroundings, Marle asked first, "What is this place...?"

Jerad stepped out to join us, explaining, "It used to be a chemical plant. Now it's nothing. The plant shut down a little while after I was born."

"Looks like a bunch of ruins," Magus blandly noted. Marle shivered, hugging herself through her parka. "It's kinda creepy..."

"And you meet Ramezia's contact here?" I asked scrupulously.

"Yeah... I know it looks pretty shady, but Ramezia has never asked my team to do anything against the law. She just insists on being anonymous. All we do is carry supplies and instructions she gives us here up to Death Peak."

I shrugged. "I guess we'll have to look around and see what we can find."

Marle glanced back and asked lightly, "Are you coming with us, Jerad?"

"Ah, well..." He scratched his head and looked apologetically at the ground. "To be honest, I shouldn't be caught snooping around here, and I've got a lot of work to catch up on back in town..."

"It's okay," I said, waving off his excuses. "You've done a lot for us, already. We shouldn't ask you to wait up for us."

Frog bowed shortly. "We hath appreciated thy accommodation."

"I hate to just leave you guys like this, though..." Jerad trailed off reluctantly.

"We'll be okay!" Marle asserted. "We're experienced adventurers, right?" Ayla whooped in accord, kicking a puddle hard enough to upset a flock of blackbirds. Crono stepped forward to shake his hand, and with that settled Jerad backed towards his truck.

"Okay, then! Uh... Good luck! If you're ever back in Traven, you know where to find me, I guess. Um... Ow!" He reeled from knocking his head against the roof of the truck. "Damnit..."

Huh, so this was it. I had a hunch I was never going to see him again. It didn't feel like a proper farewell, so I had to say something--or do something. It was probably going to be lame and dumb, but... "Hey Jerad, wait a sec!"

He paused with one foot in his truck, rubbing the knot on his head. "Uh?" he eloquently replied.

I started talking as I dug through my travel pack. "Listen, Jerad, thanks for everything. You were a big help; you have no idea. I wish there was a way we could repay you, but there's a good chance we won't cross paths again, so..." I found it, and then, before I gave it too much thought, I handed him the Gate Key. "Here, you can have this."

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Crono and the others outwardly shock. I couldn't see Magus behind me, but I was sure I was receiving a glare worthy of certain doom. Screw him and his no-good deal; at the end of the day it was my invention, and I could give it away as a gift if I pleased. It was the only token of gratitude I had that was remotely worth a damn, anyway.

The long look of surprise on Jerad's face was priceless, and he began to fumble the key back to me. "Wha--you--oh no, I can't, I couldn't--"

I grabbed the key and shoved it insistently, forcing him to catch it. "Take it, okay? It's my way of saying thanks. Just take good care of it, okay?"

"Oh, I..." He held the key tightly--possessively, even--as his humble panic eased into a clumsy, elated grin. "Thank you, thanks so much! I will!"

Satisfied with that exchange, I headed back towards the others. Magus was, indeed, damning me with his eyes; Frog treated me with one of his open, neutral expressions; and Crono tossed a bemused look from me to Jerad and back, indicating the key. Aren't we going to need that?

"It's okay, we don't need it anymore," I assured everyone. "Mishu knows how to open the gates without it, right? How else could she have followed us? Besides, I can build another one later."

Magus's censuring look darted from me to Mishu before he harrumphed and walked away, flapping his cape in one of his little brooding wizard tantrums.

"W-Wait, Lucca!" We all turned back as Jerad ran out of his truck, tripping over a second thought. He stopped in front of me and ran a hand through his wet hair, looking nervous. Then he drew a quick, resolute breath and said, "It's you, isn't it?"

"Hmm?"

"Doctor LEA. I saw some of those notes you were writing and--n-not that I was snooping around or anything, I just couldn't help but notice, er..."

I folded my arms and smirked, looking away. "Figured me out, huh?"

Jerad hit the figurative roof. "Oh my God, so it's true! You're--" He caught himself mid-revelation. "Oh my God, Dr. LEA is a woman. Er, a girl--er, I mean...!"

Marle was giggling at that point, which only fueled the fire to Jerad's ripe-red cheeks. He clutched his head and staggered. "Oh boy, I'm gonna faint."

I held out my hand, formally--and hoped he took it before the poor fool actually keeled over. "Lucca Elaine Ashtear, if you must know." He hesitantly shook my hand, and I added with a smug grin, "Although really, I prefer 'Lucca the Great.' Kindly correct the University of Porre's archives, if you could."

"Ashtear... Ahaha, yeah, I'll remember. I promise."

At that, we waved goodbye and finally parted ways. Jerad's shin struck the frame of the door as he climbed into the truck. I rolled my eyes at his awkward cursing and rejoined the group.

"That lad is... not graceful," was Frog's only comment.

Marle had a considerable deal more to say once Jerad's truck drove away. "Awww, that was so cute!"

"What?" I responded testily. I knew what was coming.

She nudged my elbow, ribbing, "You two!"

"No it wasn't!"

"Yes it was! You should've asked him out." Count on Marle to come up with the most absurd suggestions.

"I..." Don't blush don't blush don't--damnit. "We don't have time for stuff like that!"

"You're turning red! Hee hee, Lucca has an admire-er..." she started to sing, and Crono couldn't resist laughing.

I hate Marle. "Shut up...!" I wailed maturely.

Magus, who had already marched up to the dilapidated front gate, cleared his throat excessively loudly. "Children."

"Isn't that insult getting old?" I snapped back at him as we caught up, and then proceeded into the abandoned chemical plant.

Upon entering the nearest building, a faint, yet familiar odor greeted us: a cocktail of mildew, formaldehyde, methane, freon, dead animals and other lovely products of the nitrogen cycle. The halls were gutted, lined with steel plate and floored with cracked clay tiles. The ceiling was composed of some kind of synthetic foam that was rotting and falling to pieces as rainwater dribbled in. None of the lights worked; the computer console in the foyer was dead, the screen shattered and the keyboard dismantled. If not for the occasional skylight, there would be no way to see into the narrow, branching corridors.

It was only a slight dose of the decay we encountered in the ruined domes of the future, yet enough to set the mood. Ayla stood back from a lime-encrusted drinking fountain, wrinkling her nose in wary distaste. "No like this place. Bad smells confusing."

A graffiti artist had decided to creepily scrawl, 'WE SEE YOU' on one wall, and sign it with a skull and crossbones. I glanced into a high corner and spied a security camera, its lens blotted with a wad of what looked like chewing gum. "Seems like nobody but vandals has been here for years," I observed.

Frog croaked once and the sound echoed down the halls for a chilling length, punctuating the empty, haunted feel of the place.

"It won't hurt to look, anyway," Marle determined, and we kept exploring. It felt like we had walked half a mile in the semi-dark before we discovered a factory house of sorts, with crates stacked against the wall, a mechanical crane suspended from the rafters and a couple of motionless conveyor belts set over trenches on each side.

Marle leaned across one such conveyor belt, her gaze following its path into a deep, black tunnel. "Neat. I wonder where this goes?"

"Probably outside," I conjectured. "This looks like where everything gets boxed and shipped out."

Mishu peered at the rust-perforated tin roof, wincing as a raindrop struck her brow. "Tch, a dead end... We're not gonna find shit at this rate."

Ayla stopped and whirled to the door, unseen hackles bristling. "Listen!"

We hushed, all ears turned towards the outside hall, and heard a strange voice and a pair of footsteps drifting closer. "...ere are you?"

Marle gasped. "Someone's coming!" Everyone passed around variations of the same stricken, muted question, wondering what the hell to do--Frog's sword was out in a flash, while Magus and Mishu looked as if they couldn't be bothered--until Marle belted out, "Hide!"

Nobody questioned her. Mishu ducked behind the nearest crate, Ayla jumped inside that crate, and Magus vanished with a flourish of his cloak--I didn't even know he knew an invisibility spell, but it didn't surprise me. Crono dove through the crevice between the conveyor belt and the edge of the floor, hiding in the trench below, and Marle followed. I crawled in after them, and Frog--after scrambling for a few more seconds--decided that was the best place to hide, too. He laboriously squeezed through the narrow opening, a squeaky croak emitting from his puffed cheeks as Marle and I pitched in and grabbed his arms, hauling him the rest of the way through. We heard his cape snag and tear on one of the belt's gears, and Marle offered a regretful grimace.

Let me just say that for all of our achievements--saving the planet and everything--stealth has never been one of our group's finer assets. In fact, on the three occasions we had to perform prison breaks, our methods were the exact opposite of stealth. When you travel around with a half-ton robot that can barely fit through doors and a woman who was born before doors were properly invented, you learn to get by without the element of surprise.

All that said--this time, it wasn't my fault, I swear.

So there we squatted beneath a grimy, broken-down factory belt, looking out for the mysterious figure that shortly entered the room. Marle drew a taut breath at the sight of him: a small-statured anthropoid with the head and feet of a bird. His hooked beak was streaked with black pigment, and ink-tipped, feathery blades fanned from his elbows, making spurious wings. He wore a bandana on his head, a bow and quiver across his back, and a leather vest over his tawny plumage.

He was an akio, a Mystic. The diablos we captured mentioned one of his ilk, and Marle confirmed our suspicions, turning to us and mouthing, 'That's him!'

The akio stood at the door, sweeping the room with flinty eyes. He carried a haughty posture that was reinforced by a rich, even voice. "Seth, come out of hiding, now. I don't want to play games with you."

The response startled us, resounding from outside and all around the room at once. It was raspy and maniacal. "Ohhh, but what'sss the fun in that?"

The akio spun about and replied back through the door, as if the speaker were behind him the whole time. "I have a job for you."

"I don't recall having to take ordersss from you..." the disembodied voice sneered.

"This order is directly from Lord Heckran and Ramezia, so I wouldn't recommend ignoring it."

"Is that ssso?"

"I know you have a penchant for mischief, but try to take this one seriously. This is reconnaissance."

There was a calculating pause, and then, "I'm lissss'ning..."

"We've found evidence of some humans running amok through the gates. They've killed at least six of our forces and the worm, as well as Lord Heckran's nephew. I need you to find these people and report to us their bearing and intentions, so we can send a team to intercept them."

"Huuuumansss, you sssay..."

"Yes, humans. Have you seen any?" the akio inquired in an uncompromising tone.

"Perhapsss..."

We were so focused on their conversation and not being noticed that nobody dared to move. That's why when something with eight spindly legs dropped in front of my face, it spooked the daylights out of me.

I. Hate. Spiders. I believe I've mentioned this before. It never stopped being true. I don't care if they're harmless or beneficial to the ecosystem or whatever--they're creepy, crawly, nasty, bitey... that's not a word, but you get the point. They terrify me on a primal level that's not to be reckoned with. And this wasn't just a spider--it was the biggest damn spider I'd ever seen in my life, black and slick and wretched, dangling by a thread so close it could tickle my nose.

It took another dazed second to recognize my savior was Crono, who won points for catching me before I blew everyone's cover, but then took a penalty for pulling me into his lap--the last thing either of us needed to do in close quarters. Sapid fire roiled every humor in my gut as the brush of his fingertips burned through my shirt. It was just as wonderfully awful as that first time--worse, even, because my back was pressed up to his chest, close enough for me to notice that he still smelled like dragons and tonic, even while his touch was excruciatingly warm. I wasn't sure if I was about to throw up or cry or scream again, but the murmur I made from the bottom of my gullet was definitely addled and pleading. I felt Crono tense up with a critical hiss, succumbing to the backlash of his thoughtless 'rescue,' yet there wasn't a damn thing either of us could do but grit our teeth and ride it out, hoping no one else would notice.

"At any rate, Gritchen supplied us with some security robots. They'll be stationed here with you."

To make matters worse, the spider was still there, sliding down a thread poised right over my knee. There wasn't any more room to maneuver, much less pick up my foot and stamp the thing out of existence, so I was stuck staring haplessly at the little monster as it invaded my personal space. I was going to kill this thing. And Crono. And then pass out--I just wasn't sure which was about to happen, first.

"You know machiness are ussseless to me..."

Our peril was not overlooked, although thankfully Frog's scouring eyes pinpointed the spider before he got a better idea. Still, he couldn't quite reach us without his armor making a racket, so he picked up the unsheathed Masamune, and then--with deft, silent precision that would have been laudable if the circumstances weren't ludicrous--stuck the spider to the nearest wall. It died in writhing, impaled agony, the little bastard.

"Exactly why I'm leaving them with you."

"Very funny..."

If I had any breath left I would've sighed in relief. All I had to do was put up with Crono for a few more moments--although that was becoming more of a daunting task by the second--and we were in the clear.

...Until Mune's voice projected from the sword, loud and brash, "Hey! Wha'do we look like, a damn fly swatter?"

Oh, crap. We collectively froze, and the akio snapped straight to us, hawkish gaze nailing us in our tracks. "Who's there? What are you doing here?" he barked.

Ayla and Marle were on top of things, springing from their hiding spots and surrounding him. The princess's sleek ebony crossbow was loaded and ready as she commanded, "Hold it right there!" Magus and Mishu reappeared in the next beat, backing them up, and Frog was on his way (with difficulty.) Crono and I were delayed a bit, but once I got my much-needed space, shook off the ineffable sensations and caught my breath, I scurried onto the main floor with everyone else. We didn't waste another second getting our bearings, lest our next lead get away.

The Mystic was impressively unfazed, and made no move to flee or draw his bow. "This makes it easier," he said with unsettling confidence.

"You!" Apparently Ayla recognized him, too. "Ayla remember thief! Why take red rock from Ioka? And Rainbow Shell from castle? And Sun Stone! If want, should ask nicely!"

The akio regarded her with one blithe eye. "Ah. Cavewoman. Quite frankly, it's none of your business."

"All Ayla's business!" she blustered, bouncing in place and brandishing her fists. "You steal from Ioka, you steal from Ayla's friends, you steal from Ayla!"

I finally recalled the name that diablos dropped, and aimed my (not new, but improved!) pistol at the akio's head. "So, you must be Darwin!"

"And you must be those meddling humans," he coolly riposted. "I'm sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but your vain little crusade will have to end here."

Marle shook her head adamantly. "Oh no, not before we get some answers, first!"

Darwin's answer was to reach into the pouch at his side, and before we could catch him snapping his (one would think non-existent) fingers, the space in front of him exploded with light and smoke. We flinched at the flash and then stumbled through the ashen cloud that instantly filled the room. I made the mistake of inhaling some of the noxious stuff, and spent the next moment coughing and scrubbing the tears from my eyes.

I barely discerned Mishu shouting through the bedlam, "..ckin' smoke bomb?!"

The last we heard of Darwin was a retreating order. "Seth, deal with them!"

"Oho, is that a carte blanc?" the mystery voice chortled.

"He's getting away!" Marle hoarsely cried.

We barreled ahead, more-or-less in the right direction. Ayla got to the door first and took off like a blonde comet streak, in fast pursuit. By the time the rest of us ran clear of the smoke and made it to the next juncture, a barricade of lurid cyclops-eyes rose up to stare us down.

"INTRUDERS-ENCOUNTERED," intoned the wall of unblinking spotlights, and I realized we had run into a pack of robots--unfriendly, spider-legged ones. They were waist-high and flimsy looking, yet effectively intimidating in a pack of a dozen. Our group ducked and scattered like waterbugs at the ominous crackle of rifles being armed; the first spurt of laser fire grazed Magus's cloak and left a hole in the web of Mishu's wing like a cigarette burn in a tablecloth. She gave a harpy's curse and crumpled against the wall while Magus stepped into her place, a magmatic spell brewing in the palm of his hand.

My trigger was a touch faster, and I got to test my first flash pellet on the closest spider-bot. The explosive charge burned so hot and quick on impact that it looked like a bud of lightning, punching clean through the bot's cranial plate and flash-frying its primary circuit board. The machine shuddered and collapsed with a belch of sparks, sending the surrounding bots skittering backwards--one of which ate a volley from Marle's crossbow that shattered its optic sensors and sent it careening into its neighbor. Frog sheared through another pair of bots with a single swipe of the Masamune, the blade absorbing the discharge of lasers and short circuits with a supernatural splash of pink light.

The second round of laser fire was deflected by a lightning spell, an electric web that flitted overhead like a divine net. It hardly stunned the bots, yet absorbed the brunt of their attack before dissipating like torched gossamer. I was about to credit Magus for using his magic to protect us rather than outclass us, for a change, but then I checked over my shoulder and found the actual caster staring after his outstretched hand with a witless, serendipitous expression. I don't think Crono had quite meant to do that; his magic was a little rustier than he would care to admit.

The rest of us barely avoided the wall of flame that rolled by next. It was so intense that it sucked the air out of the room with a great whoosh, and crushed the remaining spider-bots like a steamroller made of lava. When I peeled myself off the sticky-hot floor moments later, wiping the fresh sweat from my brow, I beheld a smoldering heap of scrap metal--an amalgamation of pots, parts and pans that looked like a funeral pyre for a kitchen.

"Holy cow!" Marle exclaimed, and it was hard to tell if she was appreciative of Magus's handiwork or just flabbergasted. I could have thanked him for insta-drying all our clothes, but I knew that was furthest from his intentions.

"Damnit, can't you warn us before pulling stunts like that?!" I flared at the wizard. "You really could kill us one of these days!"

"...Duck," Magus said remorselessly late. I wanted to kick him in the groin right then, but he was wearing a codpiece, the protected bastard.

We altogether shook the dust off our feet and made sure nobody was injured. Mishu batted away Marle's offer to examine her wing ("I'm fine, stow it.") That's when Ayla reappeared, trudging out of the adjacent hall with a defeated slump to her shoulders.

"Ayla sorry... Let bird man get away. No could smell. Too many bad smells here, confuse Ayla."

"So we lost him. Useless," Magus censured, and together Frog and I shot him another glare. Ayla didn't deserve his demeaning bullshit.

Marle ignored him and patted Ayla's shoulder consolingly. "It's okay, Ayla. You did your best."

A stray thought hit me. "Uh, so did anyone see that weird guy Darwin was talking to?"

Crono shook his head with a twinge of anxiety that was mirrored in Marle's response. "Seth, wasn't it? No, I didn't see him at all..."

"Ayla no find, either..."

"Nay, I saw no more than thee. Didst you all hear the uncanny tenor of his voice? 'Twas almost more of a spectre than a man."

"You think that creep is still lurkin' around here? Maybe we should hunt for him, too," Mishu proposed.

Marle shrugged, and Crono nodded down a passage yet to be explored. Let's go.

We kept walking, but it was all more of the same--nothing fruitful at all, that is. We went up some stairs, crossed a catwalk, and entered an abandoned laboratory attended by two more spider-bots. They were dispatched easily, and though I was granted a minute to search the lab's compartments, nothing useful turned up--just a welding hood, a broken beaker and a corroded acetylene torch. We left through another door, took some stairs back down, crossed two more nondescript rooms and then entered an unbelievably long, dark hallway that seemed to slope down towards a sub-level.

We hardly spoke the whole way. We were trying not to draw the attention of whatever security robots were left, while listening out for Seth, Darwin or anyone else to interrogate. It was unnerving at times, trying to distinguish footfalls from rainfall and whispers from birdcalls, not to mention the way the building creaked and groaned under the relentless encroachment of nature. Periodically thunder would grumble, just to remind us it was there.

To keep my mind occupied, I thought about our mission, our targets... and 'Seth' in particular. Whoever this person was, he already had me especially freaked out, and not just because he sounded like a ventriloquist from hell. It was really because, on a base level that I couldn't quite describe, he sounded just like those damn black voices, the ones I had been hearing all the time lately. I had to keep that special observation to myself, though.

'Don't fall behind.'

I snapped out of my musings long enough to realize that I was trailing at the back of our party. They weren't far--the tail of Ayla's scarf was about twenty feet ahead, although it was worrisome that I could lose track of myself so far, so fast.

'Walk faster, move it.'

And speaking of those black devils, they were giving me advice now? Naturally, the first dense thing I do when a voice in my head tells me to move faster is to stop and turn around to see what the hell it's talking about.

Right away, I saw nothing. Then I blinked and noticed a pair of detached, bright orange slits, like jack-o-lantern eyes, gleaming from a shadowed crook in the hall. Then the nothing reached out and struck me. It was like getting overwhelmed by a tidal wave, so swift and shocking that I didn't even have a chance to cry out. Everything went icy-hot and numb, my knees gave out, and the last thing I heard was another black voice--a third one--so sonorous it was as if it was talking right between my ears.

'Greetingsss, human.'

And then, for a fatal moment, I blacked out.

---

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