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

17. Rapier Games

"Lucca? Is everything okay?"

When I came to, I was not lying on the floor, which I mistook for a good sign. For a moment I stared at the back of my hand, fingers splayed over the cement where I caught the ground. I was kneeling with my back to the group, and Marle's voice of concern gradually rippled to the front of my mind. I thought to stand up and answer her, but then I found the first real indication that something was amiss: I couldn't move.

Yet I could still breathe, and speak, even as my lips moved without my permission. "...Yesss," I heard my voice slide over the word, as if savoring it. "I'm fine. I just slipped."

'What?' my thoughts baulked. I didn't mean to say that. I didn't say that at all. No, I wasn't fine, oh crap, oh crap. Somebody look me in the eyes and I'll show them I'm not okay. What was happening to me??

'Heheh, it'ss more fun if you relaxx,' the intruding voice said.

'Screw you!' I flailed, although I couldn't stop myself from standing and walking back towards the group, as if nothing were the matter at all. 'You're the one controlling me?! You bastard!'

"Oh, okay..." Marle said thinly, perhaps not convinced--but the interest to pursue the question obviously wasn't there. She was already snooping around the dark corner ahead while Crono flicked me a hurry up. Ayla issued a quick, friendly warning. "Stay close; no fall behind. Ayla smell danger."

If only I got that memo two minutes ago. 'What's going on? Who are you?? What's your game?'

'Game? I'm glad you asked. Gamess are my favorite. I'll be your conductor thiss evening. Sssit back, enjoy the ride, and don't worry, I'll give your body back--as sssoon as I'm finished screwing with all your friendss! Keheheheh!'

'Nooooo!'

Just to verify that this wasn't my typical black voice, I heard the other two speak up, full of cool and fiery outrage, respectively.

'I would release her, if I were you.'
'You fucking stealing scab!!'

'Oh? I wasn't aware this was disssputed territory.'

'I'm afraid so. You just picked the wrong vessel, my friend.'
'You don't know who you're fucking with!!'

'Oh my. Finderss keepersss,' the intruder hissed, toying with a grin at the corner of my mouth.

'You're only going to regret this.'
'You little son of a--'

'This vessel must be awfully important, for you two to be making such a fusss. She doesn't sseem that strong, but perhapss I got the pick of the litter, after all... keh, heh heh...'

Oh my gawd, I was hearing voices, and they were fighting over me. 'I'm not anybody's damn vessel--whatever! Let me go!! Who the hell do you think you are?!'

'My name is Seth. Body-ssnatching is what I do. And what'ss your name, girly?'

Seth was the creepy voice talking to Darwin; I should have recognized him sooner. If he was working with the Mystics, I definitely wasn't planning to cooperate. 'What? Why should I tell you?'

'Just thought that we should get acquainted... Unless you'd like to be called girly.'

'I don't want to be called anything! I just want you to let me go!'

'But the fun'ss just beginning...'

That portentous note was followed by silence. The other two voices didn't speak up for me again--not that I wanted their help. Our group continued venturing down the corridor, oblivious to my plight. We descended a wide flight of stairs into what appeared to be a grid of utility tunnels. The stucco had been stripped from the walls, leaving a sloppy layer of off-white paint on brick, and dull green emergency lights flickered around rows of pipes that zigzagged across the ceiling. Between our echoing footsteps I could hear the faint buzz of electrical boxes, and absolutely nothing else--no sight or sound of life in any direction.

"Why are there still lights on down here?" Marle wondered out loud.

"T'would say this place still be in use," Frog responded.

"I believe we got that impression from the robots trying to kill us," Magus sneered, and everyone quit discussing the obvious. We took the first right turn and explored onwards. Seth kept me quiet, as well, although I wasn't sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

There's a phenomenon that allegedly occurs at least once in every person's lifetime called sleep paralysis, wherein a semi-conscious sleeper is trapped in their own bed, aware but unable to move. It's caused by a glitch, you could say, in the human sleep cycle, and it's happened to me once before, on some uneventful night when I was... thirteen or fourteen? I can't even remember that detail, but this was almost like that--that helpless, vaguely conscious sensation--only I was moving and speaking completely without my accord. I felt like a mere passenger in the back seat of my own mind, only marginally connected to everything around me. I could sense my feet touching the floor as an aftershock, and hear my own breath as a phantom wind, but everything I did and said didn't belong to me. I wanted to scream, but I was only suffocating.

My gaze locked on Marle's back, directly ahead of me. 'What's her name?'

'Who?' I stalled.

'Don't play dumb--the one we're looking at. Pretty Miss Blondie, with the ponytail.'

'Why should I tell you anything?' I reiterated.

'Because I'd hate to kill her before I even knew her name. It'ss not good etiquette.'

'Don't you dare!!'

I felt a twitch--my hand moving to my side and closing around the grip of my pistol. 'Her naaaame?'

Damnit. '...Marle. But you're not going to get away with whatever you're scheming! My friends aren't stupid.'

'Not sstupid, you ssay?' Seth rebounded, the melodious pitch in his voice accepting a challenge. 'Oh, jusst watch...'

I didn't have a choice--my eyes were stuck whichever way Seth was looking. We were all still walking, moving together, searching for a light at the end of these mystery tunnels, and I couldn't do a thing to stop anyone, much less cry for help. As soon as we reached a clearing where the grated ceiling opened into a box-shaped chamber, Seth--that is, I broke the calm, the joke sounding so natural it was unnerving--a perfect ruse.

"Hey Princess, your epidermis is showing."

Okay, that was really juvenile. Surely Marle wouldn't... "Huh? Where?" She paused, spun around and raised her parka, checking herself. Good grief, she fell for it.

Wait a second... Why would Seth ask for her name if he wasn't going to use it? 'How did you know she was a princess?'

'Ssserioussly? Hah! Lucky guesss.'

Great, I only gave him more ammunition. Seth wasn't finished, either, and the next words out of my mouth held enough malice to make me ill. "Hah, sucker. Were you born this stupid or did it take years of practice? I bet your family's gene pool uses bleach instead of chlorine, you dumb blonde bitch."

"What...??" Marle whirled to me and everyone else stopped. I watched the vulnerable, betrayed look build up to overflowing in eyes so frightfully wide they shimmered, and then there was a spark of the princess's flintlock anger. "What was that for?!"

Crono spun around, his shock just as quickly giving way to a rebuke, and with a cutting look that I never wanted to be on the receiving end of again, he started to say, What the hell is wrong with you? However, as soon as our eyes met, he stopped short, his expression dropping like a brick. He could tell, and Seth could tell, and there was an awful second where the next move could make or break everything.

"Marle," Crono uttered, not even thinking--his hushed tone terribly obvious in the stock-still room--trying to warn her. Of course, Marle's reflex was to turn back to him, and that was it. The moment she was looking the wrong way, Seth lunged, hooked her by the neck, twisted her arm behind her back and held her tight.

If the others hadn't realized something was wrong by now, Marle's disarmed shriek gave it away. "Lucca!? What are you--"

"Shut up!" My voice cracked off the walls like a whip. I almost didn't register my pistol being drawn and held to her temple. "Just shut up, you squeaky brat. Nobody move, or I redecorate this place with Her Highness's brains. Got it?"

Oh, crap. Crap crap crap we were screwed. It didn't matter that Crono was right after him, katana pointed at Seth--at me, because the hesitation was there and too late. Even though Crono's grip was tense and steady, the blade held an unwavering pace away from my throat, the quivering glint to his eyes said everything. He wasn't ready for this. He didn't know what to do. Marle gasped and immediately quit struggling, while everyone else reeled in a circle around us.

Mishu squinted at me, appropriately perturbed. "What the fu--"

"What be the meaning of this??" Frog was on his toes, hand reflexively resting on his sword.

"Hrmph. Is this a Mystic trick?" Magus asked.

Seth's conniving grin was painful to bear. "Bingo. What if I told you I was in league with the Mystics all along, hmm?"

Crono's gaze was fixed on me as he shook his head adamantly. Ayla wasn't fooled, either. "You! What going on? Where Lucca? Give back friend, now!"

Thankfully their conviction was contagious. Frog lowered his brow with what I could swear was a growl, and the Masamune flashed before him. Could frogs growl? "Thou art not Miss Lucca. What hast thou done with her?"

"Tch, looks like not all of you are brainless," Seth remarked. "Oh well, that makes it more fun for me. So what are you going to do now, dear friends? I wouldn't be so hasty with those weapons, if I were you. Let's remember that I'm the one with the gun, here." Marle squirmed and he wrenched her closer with a gag that surely left a bruise. A reciprocal cry caught in Crono's throat and his foot jerked forward, itching to jump to her rescue--yet he grit his teeth and lowered his sword, wisely not testing Seth.

"Whoa! He's a rapier!" Masa spoke up.
"Yeah he's got her totally possessed," Mune confirmed.

Frog startled back a notch. "Possessed??"

"'Rape-er'? What that? Can Ayla fight?"

Mishu's query was more practical, if no more discreet. "How the hell do you get rid of it?"

"Well, you, ah, uh..." Mune floundered for an answer. "What're you supposed to do again, bro?"
"Grab your ankles and kiss your ass goodbye, I think. Rapiers can spontaneously kill their hosts."

I almost had a heart attack right there. 'What!?' Marle stiffened with a suppressed squeak. Seth was merely amused by the proceedings.

"Hah! A talking sword. How novel. Not that it'll do you fleshbags any good." 'Heh, don't worry. I won't kill you before I've had any fun.'

"What you want? Say now, or Ayla make you talk!" she bellowed, unnecessarily loud, although the force of her sentiment was clear.

The sound of my mad laughter was sickening. "Ahahaha! And how do you plan to do that, hmm?"

"Guys..." Marle whimpered tearfully, right by my ear. I wanted to cry, too. 'You son of a bitch!' I fired uselessly. 'Whatever you're doing, it isn't going to work!'

'Shut up and watccchhh...'

Seth looked over his captive audience, appraising the stalemate with a derisive smirk. "Look at you stupid humans. Don't even know what to do with yourselves. This is great. Two hostages for the price of one! It's almost too easy. To be honest, I'm not supposed to do anything. I was only asked to watch you people. But I got bored, so I decided to spice things up a little. I'm sure nobody would object if I killed you all, instead."

Frog croaked. "Fiend! Thou must be Seth!"

"Right-o. You're not too bad at this." He tapped the barrel of my gun against Marle's head, musing, "Think you're clever enough to save your pretty friend, though? I wonder..."

Magus folded his arms, the picture of callous indifference. "What makes you think we care?" Crono shot him a look fit to kill.

Seth was delighted. "Hah! The wizard has some balls. By the way, I have to thank you all for taking care of those robots. They're the most obnoxious things, no fun at all. I much prefer playing with flesh and blood."

Well, if anybody still wasn't convinced that I was possessed, that comment should've cinched it. Seth loosened his grip on Marle (although not on the gun, everyone noticed with dismay) and seemed to be fishing for something, although I couldn't recognize what my left hand was doing. "Let's see, what else..." With a snap of the fingers a tongue of flame appeared on the tip of my thumb, like some gimmick lighter. "Ah! A fire mage. I like this vessel even better. Playing with fire is one of my favorite things. For instance..."

He swept a pointing finger over the group that landed on Frog. Without further warning--not even the typical trill of a magic spell--the tail of his cape ignited. Ayla sprang away from the sudden burst while Frog jumped in a circle, trying to stamp out the blaze without tripping over himself.

Seth cackled all the while. "Looks like frogs and fire don't mix. Ahahaha!"

I'd never underestimate Marle's ability to seize the moment again, because dead in the middle of that laugh she threw her weight backwards, jamming her elbow into my diaphragm and nearly knocking a lung out. It was the most reckless move ever, if effective, yet as I fell onto my back Seth squeezed the gun's trigger. The wild shot flew to the ceiling, where it knocked loose a rusty pipe and sent it clanging to the ground. Crono leapt sideways, pushing Frog out of the way and narrowly avoiding it, himself. Marle stepped on me as she staggered away (presumably on accident, since she yelped, "Sorry!" of all things) and I saw stars for a minute as Seth scrambled for control over my winded faculties.

'Get up, you useless vessel!' he cursed, and the only thing that hurt more than a heel to the gut was realizing that I couldn't reach my only window to freedom because I couldn't catch my breath. Then someone pounced on me--I couldn't see who it was, but it felt like getting trampled by a really big, unapologetic dog. The gun was kicked out of my grasp and my shoulder pack was yanked away in one swift moment, and then whoever it was tore off. Once the spots cleared Seth seized me, and I clambered to my feet.

Seth had to size up the room all over again. Crono helped Frog put out his flaming cape. Marle had picked up my gun, and Magus was by her side, giving her a fair idea of what to do with it. "What are you waiting for? Point it at her."

Even from where I was standing I could see Marle trembling. "But, I..."

"Do it. She's still possessed, you idiot." I was almost surprised Magus didn't tell her to go ahead and shoot.

In the other corner, Ayla was holding my bag--she was the one who mugged me? Crono hurriedly motioned for her to pass it to him, and Mishu bounded to his side right after that, a gust of what looked to be magic catching her wings and making her steps light. She muttered something over his shoulder and Crono looked at me--first with surprise, but then an intent nod. What did Mishu just tell him? Did they have a plan? I didn't dare let Seth hear my hopes.

"Heh!" He simply laughed, never showing a lapse of confidence. "You stupid humans. This doesn't change anything." To wit, he spun a ball of flame into one hand and then looked straight at Marle--straight past the gun tentatively aimed between my eyes. "Go on, shoot me. You'll only kill this girl. Then I'll just have to play with another one of you."

Marle's aim fell and she shook her head furiously, loose strands of hair catching in the swollen corners of her eyes--she was crying. "No!" she yelled, seemingly at everything, her fear and frustration impossible to articulate beyond that single word.

"Like hell you will..." Mishu snarled, just as everyone else rallied behind Marle.

"Ayla not let you take anyone!"

"Over our dead bodies," Frog asserted as he recomposed himself, the Masamune held on the defense.

Seth cracked up. "Hah! That's the plan!" He threw an arc of flame at everyone's feet with a flourish, making the group skip back. "Let's get started, shall we?"

I would've done anything in the world to stop the fight that unfolded, yet powerless as I was, at that moment I would have settled for not having to watch. But I had to watch--I watched Seth throw me into battle under a mantle of flame. The first spell was a clumsy, playful chord meant for Marle, and she successfully danced out of reach. Mishu wasn't that lucky--the next fireball was fast and direct, clipping her skirt and eliciting a curse. Frog and Ayla ducked under one wave of fire, and Crono hurdled the next. Seth was picking on them--herding them around the room like harried sheep, not affording anyone a second to stop and regroup.

The worst part was that it wasn't a real fight; I was the only one attacking. When no one advanced to stop him, Seth started dabbling in ranged magic--spells that could turn the baseboards to ash and blow the paint off the bricks like hot wax. At the rate I was casting, I thought I would run out of what the Zealians called "mahna pool" (or "magic juice," as Spekkio put it)--because it's happened to all of us before and it's a very distinct and unpleasant drained sensation--but under Seth's influence the magic just kept flowing. I wasn't tiring at all.

If I could count on one thing, it was my friends' ability to act as a team, even under duress. A conversation struck up while everyone was scurrying from one fiery hazard to the next.

"How are we supposed to kill this motherfucker?!" Mishu posed as she skidded behind a barrier of ice Marle constructed. Seth knocked it down in a heartbeat, yet Marle held her ground and called forth the magic again. Frog was taking a more combative approach, bouncing around and mopping up my rampant spells with the Masamune--which was mulling over a solution between every swipe.

"You gotta zap 'im when he comes out," Mune instructed.
"Rapiers are most vulnerable while they're taking or leaving a host," Masa elaborated.

Which was why Seth waited for one of us get to singled out. Damnit. "That doesn't help us right now, you shits!" Mishu impatiently snapped.

"So magic will work?" Marle asked, grasping that thread of hope.

"If you can draw him out, yeah. Maybe if the host is--whoa buddy!" The blade absorbed a wide swath of fire before resuming. "--knocked out?"

"I can hear everything you knuckleheads are saying," Seth cut in, impressing even me with the booming tone. There was no loss of relish in what he said next. "You know, I can override this vessel's nervous system and keep her awake for days, so you'd better kill her before I get bored."

I hated being this sick bastard's joy ride. 'That's a hell of a bluff,' I spat.

Seth might have had a witty retort, but my friends' response was impossibly prompt. A sheet of ice crashed into me like a truck, driving me into the wall. It was a low-level, brittle spell that shattered on impact, although it was enough to shear cloth and skin and leave me scratched and dazed.

"Magus, don't!" Marle wailed an objection, although it was Seth who made the next move, and he wasn't fooling around anymore. The magic that sailed off my fingertips was so hot and fast it was like tossing an exploding grenade, and I couldn't remember casting a spell that potent since Lavos. I was only relieved that it was intended for Magus and not the whole room, because I was sure I knew even stronger spells, and if Seth tried to access--say, Flare--in such close quarters, the results would be devastating.

Magus didn't have a problem, regardless. While everyone else recoiled from the fireball, he swatted it aside like a fly, tendrils of a blizzard wafting off his knuckles. "You're going to have to do better than that," he flatly mocked.

Seth was still smiling. He was having the time of his life at our expense. "I could play this game all day." He raised a hand, armed with the next spell. From the corner of my eye I watched Crono crouch in the corner and root through my stolen travel pack. He withdrew something tiny, white and round, studied it for a second and then handed it to Mishu with a whisper. So they did have a plan. If only Magus could keep Seth distracted...

Unfortunately, he noticed just as well as I did. 'Heh, what is that, a rotten egg? Do they plan to stink bomb themselves out of this or what?'

'Yeah...' I thought cautiously, letting him believe whatever he wanted. I wasn't going to risk an outright lie; if Crono could read them crystal-clear, Seth probably could, too.

Seth's next flame was quicker, more compact and slightly more lethal, and Magus dodged that one rather than deflected it. He then struck back with a lightning bolt that Seth was lucky to sidestep, even though it grazed my right arm and seared the nerves up to my shoulder like a jellyfish lash.

If this was going to be a contest of magic, Seth was going to lose--and I think he was counting on that. He knew I didn't have the strength or resources--magically, anyway--to stand up to Magus. I don't think anybody on the planet did, save the wielder of the Masamune.

"Gweh, heh heh!" Seth laughed like a loon, swaying on my feet as he shook off the numbing shock. "Nice! Nice one..."

"Hrmph. Useless. I should've just killed you in the beginning," Magus said in a low, aggravated tone that wasn't directed at Seth anymore. He stood tall and unaffected, outstretched arm leveled at me--blunt, accusing and charged with magic. I realized that he was blaming me for this--for falling behind, for being weak and careless enough to let Seth take me, and for being a general inconvenience. He must have been waiting for a chance to get me out of the way the whole time, and giving away the Gate Key--our only bargaining chip--was just the last straw.

'What great friends you have! They're doing all the hard work of killing you for me.'

'Shut up!'

"Stop, Magus!" Ayla barked, braced to jump between us. She didn't get the chance. Magus's hand opened with another crackle of lightning, his face a stony mask. Rule number one, never forget: Magus didn't care about any of us. He always said that anyone who got in his way would perish. I just wasn't counting on it ending like this when he appeared in my bedroom that morning.

Then came the flash. My last, highly absurd thought was that I was about to die just like that heckran in the Magic Cave. There was a snap of light so intense it was like having your photograph taken on the surface of the sun, and then I was barreled over.

I blinked, staring blindly at the ceiling, yet before I could be amazed that my capacity to blink had returned--or that I had eyelids left to blink at all--I realized that crushing, electric weight wasn't a lightning spell. There was someone sitting on me, anchoring me to the ground with a set of hands clamped around my neck, and once the sunspots washed out of my vision, I saw who it was.

'Crono!' He leaned over me, frazzled and a little breathless, yet his trenchant eyes told me he was acting with pure, unabated purpose--that is to say, he had some stupid idea, and it was supposed to save me.

"...told me... it would... fuckin' bright!" I blearily heard Mishu complain from an obscure corner.

"Oh my gosh, what the...!?" At least Marle was as bewildered as I.

"Fcksus... human..." Seth seethed, shakily pulling up my hands to latch onto Crono's wrists. With what felt like the last of my reserves, another spell smoldered under my palms, burning the flesh I touched like a branding iron. Crono winced with a flush of hissing pain, yet set his jaw and refused to budge.

'No! Idiot! He'll kill you!' I fruitlessly hollered, but then I started to feel it--that endermic foxfire, our weird connection--eroding the cold sand smothering my senses like a warm ocean tide. I could almost count the rapier's intangible fetters snapping one-by-one, and Seth's presence became a violent stirring beneath my skin, racking my whole body with a spasm. Crono steeled up, piling his strength into his arms and holding me down with his every ounce of determination (and yet his eyes were squinted shut--he couldn't even look at me, he couldn't even watch.)

It was all too much--enough to make me sick and dizzy and giddy, wondering if the ghost I watched rise out of my chest like smoke was my own. It looked like coal dust, was no bigger than a cat and had eyes like candles, orange and fierce. It was only when Crono reared away from it with a baffled, distressed look that I determined it wasn't some trick of my oxygen-starved brain--holy crap I was choking, I was choking the whole time.

The thing's hazy mouth gaped as if to scream, and then I heard one last, railing screech against the confines of my mind, desperate and confused. 'WhAt iS tHiS?!'

"Now!" "Get him!" Masa and Mune shouted in unison, and I lapsed into peaceful, oblivious black.

---

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