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

18. The Beast Talent

I don't think I was out very long, because I woke up in the middle of a squabble--and it couldn't have been an ordinary trifle, because Marle only adopted that loud, fussy tone when she was royally pissed off.

"You were going to kill her!!"

"That was the idea."

For a blissful moment I couldn't remember what I was doing on the floor, how I got there or why Marle was angry. I assumed that Magus had made another of his typical jerk moves, and considered myself lucky not to be witness to it.

"Excuse me??"

Actually, altogether I felt nice and... fuzzy, and there was a pleasant warmth stemming from my left arm that I didn't recognize until I opened my eyes.

"Did you want to keep that idiot spirit occupied or not? Your foolish plan wouldn't have worked if I hadn't looked convincing."

Crono was close, sitting next to me and looking off in the direction of the argument with an expression that was unnervingly solemn and reserved. From that alone I could tell something bad had happened, although it took Magus's words and the gentle squeeze of my fingers (Why was Crono holding my hand...?) to awaken a flood of memories that would've been better repressed.

"Ah...!" I sat up with a gasp, taking my hand back and watching the room whirl into dark and dreary focus. That kind, bleary warmth trickled out of my arm and I heard the muffled score of five pairs of feet shuffling towards me. The first thing I saw clearly was Crono leaning off one knee, asking if I was all right with a paranoid tick that didn't suit him, even while braced to jump in the opposite direction. Of course he didn't trust me--nobody should, but that thought didn't exactly assuage the twinge of guilt in my chest.

What had that--why didn't I--how could I have let that monster possess me and attack my friends?

I glimpsed Frog and Mishu at a safe pace behind Crono, covering his back, and Ayla wasn't too far away, although she was standing at ease. I couldn't quite read her face. Magus was out of view, probably behind me. They were waiting for me to say or do something out of the ordinary, although I couldn't form half an excuse for myself before Marle swooped in like an angel of mercy, her halo splintering into a mess of blonde curls. She looked flushed with receding rage and sounded surprisingly apologetic. "Lucca! Are you okay? Do you remember anything? That Seth guy, he was like a ghost! He possessed you for a while. He made your eyes a funny color, too--like, orange. It was scary."

"Yeah, I know," I croaked. Well, I didn't know about the eye color thing. That was interesting in a creepy way, though I wasn't concerned with the visual details of the possession at the moment. My throat felt dry and stuffy, and I couldn't get my hands to quit shaking, even when I leaned back on them to shy away from the princess's prying graces. Wasn't she worried that I would do something rash--if I was still possessed? I knew that Seth was gone (although I wasn't sure how), but how could she be so assured? Why was Marle always so...?

"I know," I started again, bolstering my words with strength I didn't have. "I could see everything, I just couldn't..." I met her eyes, full of trust and concern and emerald water that could heal the blind if she only prayed for it, and my heart broke. Marle's faith in people was astounding--something I could never grasp. She believed in me, and yet I just... "I... I-I'm sorry." My voice cracked, and everything I meant to say fell to pieces. "I'm so, so sorry, I didn't..."

Marle knelt to the floor and hugged me. "Shh, it's okay, we know. We're just glad you're okay." She smelled like lemons. It was nice. How did she always smell so nice? We had been on and off the road for what felt like a week now, and I was pretty sure I reeked of wet socks.

"Everyone fares well. That be all that matters," Frog spoke.

Ayla stepped forth with an encouraging nod. "All good! Seth gone, no one hurt bad. Glad Lucca back."

I wished no one got hurt at all... "And Seth...?" I asked feebly.

"Magus make lightning, zap good. Turn into ash and blow away," Ayla explained. Marle passed the warlock behind me a flustered look and elaborated, "He was keeping Seth distracted with that spell, although he didn't have to be such a jerk about it."

Magus delivered a poignant, "Whatever," and drew his cloak around himself, shunning the group.

I swallowed a couple of sobs and scrubbed my eyes. I wasn't sure what I was sorry for--being an idiot, maybe. Magus was right; I was useless. I couldn't even save myself. I needed to fix that, starting now--I had to say something light to pick up the mood. "Heh... I don't deserve you guys."

Marle gave me a friendly shake and said with forced merriment, "Hey, that's what friends are for! That was a close one, though. You're pretty tough, you know that? It's a good thing Crono knocked that ghost out of you."

Right, that was how it happened. Crono used that... weird touch, thing... to get Seth to release me. I almost couldn't believe that worked. Where did he get such a crazy notion? Were the others aware of what he had truly done? I watched Crono's shoulders slump with relief and felt a little better, despite myself.

"Huh, yeah, I..." I trailed off, fixating on a piece of cloth on the ground in front of me. It was purple and burnt around the edges with rugged, umber stains. I looked ahead and found Mishu wearing the matching tattered skirt. She was leaning passively on one leg with her arms crossed, affecting indifference, and hadn't yet said a word. Initially I felt another surge of guilt, because that proved my fire magic responsible for hurting her, too, but then I found it funny--in a really detached way--that my attention was brought to that rag, because with the scorch marks and all it looked just like...

...Wait a minute.

"Crono..." I said quietly, forgetting Seth's strife and everything not connected to what was now egregiously obvious. I crawled forward, picked up that cloth, examined it for a moment--same texture, color and everything save the blood ciphers--and then handed it to him. "What does this look like?"

It took him maybe ten seconds. Crono peered at the cloth, looked at me, looked back at the cloth, looked at me again, and then looked at Mishu--hard. She stared back with a vexed and apprehensive, "What?"

I couldn't think quickly enough to keep Crono from rising, drawing the Rainbow and whipping it towards Mishu so fast the air whuffed a beat. Everyone else startled, capes and scarves flying as weapons were reproduced.

"Crono!"
"Wha?!"
"Whoa!"

Mishu was either amazingly bold or a good judge of distance, because aside from tipping her chin away from the blade that stopped inches before her jugular, she didn't flinch.

"What be the meaning of this?" Frog edged in, enough authority in his tone and the partially revealed Masamune to make an army stand down. Crono flicked him a glance I didn't catch, yet I could read from his stance that he wasn't about to compromise.

Disturbingly enough, Mishu grinned straight down the Rainbow's iridescent edge. "Heh. You think that queer sword makes you look tough?"

"I wouldn't try him," Marle said, backing up Crono's unspoken threat even though she didn't have a clue what was going on.

Ayla shook her head and rocked back on her heels, fists raised and guarded. "What happen? No more fight each other! 'Rape-er' again?"

"No, it's not a rapier," I rushed to say before the disorder got out of hand. I climbed to my feet and faced Mishu, as well, although my gun was missing--didn't Marle take it? I never minded it--it was the last thing I would need, especially with Crono bearing a razor-sharp confession out of her.

"Figured it out, huh?" Mishu said with flat, dry amusement. "I was wondering how long it would take."

I swiftly realized I had to become the mediator in this, since all the others were out of the loop. I also figured there was nothing more to lose, so I might as well throw everything out in the open. "You! You've been following us the whole time! What are you really after? What did you do to me and Crono?" Marle fidgeted and Frog blinked at that last question. There was going to be some explaining to do, but I waited for Mishu to go first.

"I wasn't following all your clown asses!" she snapped defensively. She then looked at me and said, grudgingly subdued, "I was only following yours."

Crono's focus didn't waver, although there was now a disconcerted pinch to his brow. Mishu rolled her eyes towards Magus and then back to me, mindful not to make a sudden move otherwise. "And the shadow mage's. At first. For a while. But I was more interested in you."

Magus tipped his gaze in our direction with renewed interest, and any threadbare conviction Marle was showing dissolved into confusion. "Huh...?" I was thrown off guard, myself. "What? Me? What for?"

"Couple of reasons. You're the one who had that key thing, to work the gates. I thought you could fix the shrine, so I could go home. But then I realized you'd make a good test subject."

"Test subject?" I bristled, and I could practically see Crono's hackles rise as his arm tensed. "What the hell you mean by that??"

She licked her lips, hesitating--weighing my reaction on the Rainbow's rigid scale. "...You're the one who asked me about the blight."

That... came entirely out of nowhere. "What's that got to do with it...?" I asked, dread slowly filling the empty hole in my gut.

"The blight. The Darkness," she said, speaking with the same sobriety she used that last night on Jerad's roof. "This whole damn planet reeks of Darkness, but you're the first person I've seen with the blight. You're the first human I've seen anywhere with it. Humans are supposed to be immune."

"What...?!" I shook my head, reeling. "I don't have the blight!"

Mishu growled. "Please, bitch. If I know anything, it's the dark scars when I see them." Heedless of Crono's sword, she grabbed one strap of her top and wrenched it aside, baring her shoulder--enough to show the spidery black veins and purple blotches gradually eclipsing the healthy skin like an infectious bruise. "Does this look familiar?"

Degrees of shock and disgust rippled through the room, and before I realized it, I had backed up to the wall. Even as the words spilled out, I couldn't modulate them to a safe tone. "No, no it doesn't! I swear! I've got nothing to do with your blight! Are you crazy??" It was just a snake bite. A snakebite.

'Heh, heh heh...' the black voice chortled thickly.

But it was too late. Half the room was looking at me like I was the crazy one, and it was Marle who asked with that damning thread of suspicion, "Lucca, what is she talking about...?"

Mishu pinned me with an incriminating finger. "Check her right leg! It looks like the fuckin' plague. I've seen actual fiends with less obvious marks. You don't trust me? See for yourself. It's the fuckin' blight."

"Shut up!! It's a lie!" The more I tried to sound adamant, the more I sounded like I was panicking. Maybe I was. Frog was staring, and Ayla offered an outstretched step that seemed to fall short, her hand hesitating in midair. Crono had this wide, bemused look on his face, like he didn't know what to think. I retreated another step and suddenly remembered there was a wall, so my knees buckled and I slipped to the ground. "It's not true! Stay away from me!"

I clutched my head, trying to shut out the black laughter as it soared into a crescendo. 'Ha, hahahaHAHAHAHAHAHA!'

Marle jumped to fill my place, holding her crossbow down yet ready as she accosted the disingenuous dragon lady, "Hang on! You haven't answered anything! What did you do to Lucca, and what does it have to do with Crono?"

Mishu rolled her shoulder, readjusting her top, and clucked disgracefully. "Tch. I was only trying to help. I wanted to see if it would cure the blight. It's not my fault it didn't work."

"Not thy fault what didn't work?" Frog pressed, although his sword beat him to the punch, in a sense. Mune's voice rang out, "We could have told you that, you dumb broad! That's not what beast links are made to do!"

"Beast links?" Marle echoed, still lost--and so was I, though my mind was scrambling to make a connection to something I skimmed over in the T'torlan. I took the opportunity to quell the bile seeping up my throat and find my composure. I almost succeeded--I was able to stand without throwing up, at least. I didn't have to let anything that rotten bat lady said get to me. It was stupid, it was wrong, it was just Mishu trying to... to... I couldn't even figure out what she wanted. Maybe she was lying for the hell of it, to screw with us. I don't have the damn blight. I wasn't turning into a monster.

"I beast linked you kids," Mishu brashly admitted, nodding at Crono and me. "It's a type of soul bond. It joins one person's beast to another."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I rebounded. "What the hell is a 'beast'? You're still not making any sense."

Mune began to expound, "Beasts are a part of the tritoch soul theory. You see, they're for... uh... the neiphiti use them to..." His voice caught, and you could almost hear a sheepish grin. "Eheh. I can't say it! Spot me, bro."

Mishu spoke before Masa got a chance. "Oh grow up, you dick knob. Beast links are for married couples. It's supposed to complete the bond, in a normal ceremony."

"Married couples?!" Marle and I exclaimed while Crono gaped at the implications.

"Yeah. It's not like a full-on soul meld or anything huge like that. It only forms a bond between two people's beasts--just a fraction of their souls. It also heightens certain senses to encourage... heh." She cracked a sardonic grin. "We use it for breeding on my home world, if you must know."

Holy hell. That explained a bit too much. "And you did that to me and Crono? Are you nuts?! What the hell for??" I railed at her.

"If it's done right, it has healing properties completely different from white magic," she stressed, defending that clause. "Magic don't do shit about the blight, but a strong enough beast link can cure diseases and even save people from death. It's powerful stuff."

"But it doesn't help against the Darkness," Masa stated her conclusion.

"No, apparently fuckin' not," she conceded bitterly. "But you can't tell me it wasn't worth a shot."

"Uh, actually, you might just give the boy the blight too--you consider that?" Masa censured her.
"Bet not, stupid neiphiti," Mune grumbled.

Crono shook his head, more nonplussed than anything. I blanched and caught the wall again, fingers digging for purchase in the cracks between the bricks. Having this blight nonsense was one thing (which I did not), but if I gave it to anyone else, let alone Crono... No, no no. I would have rather died right then. I'd rather die than let Crono know what it was like--the scars, those voices...

'Don't forget turning into a monster.' Shut UP. "You still could have told us!" I yelled, almost as outraged as I was horrified. No, stay calm, keep cool--there's surely a rational, scientific explanation for everything. Right?

"I didn't think it would be such a big deal! You two looked pretty damn cozy the other night in that castle. I thought you were his girlfriend." Crono did a double-take while Mishu smirked in Marle's direction. "It got pretty hilarious when she showed up, though."

"Huh? Wait, you guys..." The gears were turning in Marle's head; she was starting to understand--or misunderstand, as Crono feared. He turned a mortified look her way while I fired back at Mishu, "No, it's not funny at all! That's what happens when you assume stuff! I'm not anybody's girlfriend!"

Mishu snorted. "Yeah, and I'm starting to see why."

I was dumbstruck. We were pointing weapons at this woman, pretty much threatening her life if she didn't give us some straight answers, and she was smirking and flinging insults. And I was supposed to be the crazy one??

"Ohhh!" A figurative light went off over Marle's head. "So that's what's been going on." She then turned a hurt, innocent look on her boyfriend. "Crono, why didn't you just tell me?"

That's a funny question to ask a mute guy. He gave an abashed grimace and started running his free hand in open, disinvesting circles. "We didn't even know what was happening. It's not our fault, you know? We didn't do anything, I swear," I reasoned on his behalf. Speaking up for him probably didn't help his case, but if we waited for Crono to sort out his own we would've been there all day. He shot me an irked twitch and then sighed, wagging his head in defeat. Sorry. I should've told you.

"So that rag they found came from you," Magus spoke up with an inflection of the shadiest curiosity. "That was blood you used to write on it, wasn't it?"

I almost envied Ayla and Frog, who were watching everything from the sidelines with guiltless, clueless fronts. "What in the world...?" the latter muttered while Mishu supplied, "Yeah. Do I look like I carry a fuckin' pen on me?"

She barely carried real clothes, so I guess that was one point for her. "Whose blood? Yours?" I questioned.

"No, yours," she said, as if it were supposed to be obvious. "Whose did you think? It's part of the ritual. You slit the wrists and then tie them together."

Crono and I checked our arms--we didn't bear any such cuts. "You slit our wrists? How?? I don't see a scar or anything..."

Mishu shook her head and stated, "Nope, there shouldn't be any. That's how you know the link took--it'll heal overnight."

"Geez, and if it didn't, we would've just bleed to death??"

Her reply was as abrasive as ever. "If you do it like a fuckin' retard, yeah! But I didn't screw you guys' link up, so quit whining. It's actually what just saved all your asses from that rapier, so maybe you could call off the knives and pitchforks and be a little more grateful." Her wings flexed and shifted behind her back as she squared a challenging look at Crono. "...Well?"

Their eyes locked, scrutinizing one another for any false intentions, and at length Crono backed down, sheathing his sword. "You think this makes us even? You've been playing games with us all this time! That doesn't make you any better than Seth," Marle reproached, even as the grip on her crossbow relented.

"Oh fuck you, Princess," Mishu spat indignantly. "I didn't just try to mindfuck everyone in this room to death. I don't want to kill anybody."

Even if I shouldn't have bought that, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and attempted to negotiate. "...All right. What do you want?"

Mishu huffed. "Aside from fixing the gate rings and getting off this rock? Nothing, that's it. I'm asking what you want."

Marle blinked. "Uh... us?"

"You can break this beast link whatever, for starters!" I demanded. Crono nodded insistently.

Mishu grimaced and drawled ruefully, "Yeeeaah... No."

"What do you mean, 'no'??"

"I mean it's not a curse; you can't just lift or break it. It's a soul bond, okay? It's like gluing two pieces of paper together. If I try to rip it apart it'll probably just kill you both."

I couldn't freaking believe this. "So we're stuck like this permanently??"

"No..." She said cautiously, mulling over the options with a whiff of uncertainty. "It'll wear off eventually. I think. As long as you leave it alone and don't do anything to consummate it." She bounced a funny, testing look between Crono and me. "You idiots didn't consummate it, did you?"

Crono spun a bewildered look around him--and then at me and Marle, before shaking his head like a madman. "I'm afraid to ask what that even means!" I nearly gagged.

"Heheh," Mishu snickered. "If you don't know, then you didn't do it."

"Are you going to keep following us?" Magus got to the heart of the matter.

"What do you think? I'm after Ramezia, too. How else am I going to get home? I'm not kidding about the Darkness here; I want to get off this planet as soon as possible," Mishu confirmed. "Tell you people what, though: I can offer you something. A kind of power you won't find on this world."

Marle then said the wisest thing I'd heard all day. "Then why would we want it...?" Exactly. You can't trust people offering power.

"It might help you get to Ramezia. Trust me, this is unique. It's a type of magic--summoning magic, but it calls on the beast within you. We call it the Gi'ira. I can teach it to all of you."

"Ayla not need magic!" she finally chipped in. "No can learn, anyway."

"That doesn't matter. If you're human and have a soul, you've got the beast talent. It just needs to be awakened," Mishu assured her.

How gullible did she think we were? "Oh, please!" I scoffed. "How do we know you won't just put a real curse on us?"

Incredibly, it was Masa who backed her up. "She's talking about the Gi'ira sec l'On. It's a blessing neiphiti spirit mages can grant to humans."
"Phbt, 'blessing.' If you can call it that."

"You're a spirit mage?" I wondered, while Marle had to ask, "What does it do?"

"That giant butter knife can try to explain it to you all day, or I could just show you." She beckoned Ayla with one clawed hand. "Com'ere. Since you're such a knuckle-headed skeptic, you can go first."

Ayla barely gave it a thought, marching forward to accept Mishu's invitation. Frog issued a warning ribbit and tried to bar her path, but Ayla brazenly pushed his arm aside. "Okay. Try anything! Ayla not scared." I had to admire her confidence, I supposed.

"Oh boy. This is going to get interesting," was Masa's last comment.

Ayla stood before the neiphiti with her hands braced on her hips, ready for anything, and Mishu gripped her shoulders with an unpromising sneer. "Good. Hold still and relax. This won't hurt a bit."

It looked just like an ordinary magic spell, at first. Mishu closed her eyes and began murmuring some unintelligible chant beneath the climbing howl of an intangible, ethereal wind. I can't believe we all stood back and watched Mishu perform her strange voodoo beast curse on one of our friends, but something fascinating about the unknown prospect (and Masa and Mune's lack of objections, which differed from their usual attitude towards Mishu) grounded us to the spot. Curiosity killed the cat, they say.

I'm not sure how to describe it--it was like watching a grass fire catch, spreading from Mishu's hands and enveloping Ayla in a blazing golden aura. Ayla jumped back as if scalded by the touch, but by then she was almost too bright to look at, her entire form blending into a solid, dancing orange flame. Her shape twisted and bent, the winds of magic roaring about her, and I vaguely heard Marle cry Ayla's name over the din. It seemed as if Ayla phased out of the third dimension for a moment, becoming a white silhouette over the grimy, scorched floor, but then the light began to fade and assume a new form, like cooling lava poured into a mould.

The winds died down, and the result--the thing that appeared in Ayla's place was... uncanny. It was covered in short, dusty blonde fur and hunched over the ground on four powerful legs. It had broad shoulders, a stout neck, and a pair of round nubs set behind its sloping skull for ears. Its long, slender tail swished and arched over its lean, muscular back as the creature panted in a rough, throaty, bestial snarl.

It was a big, living, breathing, sabre-toothed cat. It was huge, too--the rest of us could probably ride on its back together with little effort (well, maybe not Magus. We'd have to push him off.) "Oh my God..." Marle said numbly, and I only wished I was that articulate at the moment.

I looked at Mishu, who was wearing an altogether smug expression. Eventually, I found the words I needed. "Did you just... turn Ayla... into a smilodon?"

The creature was disoriented, swaying on its padded toes and panning a feral set of violet eyes around its company--not angry or frightened, just... bedazzled. "T-That's a big cat..." Frog stammered as he pedaled backwards, away from its snooping muzzle with the wickedly long incisors.

Marle crouched before the cat, gazing into its feline visage with a mix of awe and unchecked wonder. Geez, it looked big enough to swallow her in one gulp. "Ayla?? Is that really you?"

We jerked back in alarm as the cat nuzzled Marle hard enough to knock her onto her rump. I got over my mild heart attack once I heard the princess squeal and giggle in delight while Ayla smothered her with a giant cat's tongue. "Eeeee! Ehehe, oh my gosh, cut it out!! That tickles!"

Magus harrumphed his disapproval. "This is the power? To turn into animals? Useless."

Mishu sniffed back, "Hey, I said it was a unique power, not a great one. Everyone's beast is different."

Ayla let Marle go and began to prance around the room, leaping from corner to corner and sweeping her whiskers over everything like an oversized kitten. "Ayla seems to be getting a kick out of it..." I remarked as we tried to stay out of her way.

Marle wiped the cat slobber off her face and got back on her feet. "Can she change back?"

Mishu answered with an airy shrug. "If she wants."

Ayla, overhearing that, paused as if to consider the possibility of being a giant cat forever. She grunted, shook her large head, and then just like that ignited in that molten amber light again. The transition from beast to woman was much smoother, leaving Ayla on all fours and shaking off the sparkly vestiges of her transformation like a wet dog.

"Brrrr!" She jumped up, roaring and beating her breast like her usual self. "Yes! Ayla love it! Be like beast, great hunter cat, raaaawr! Can do again?"

"You can do it whenever you want. The power is yours now," Mishu granted.

Marle began to hop in place, her exuberance evident. "Oh! Oh! Can I try next? Please? That looks so cool!"

This felt familiar--Crono had the exact same, extremely reluctant look he was sporting when Marle first volunteered to try my Telepod. Maybe you shouldn't...

Ayla was all for it, however. "Marle try, have fun! Make feel strong, full of life!"

"Okay!" She nodded and skipped up to Mishu, who simply rolled her eyes. "Alright, Princess. Hold still, and remember this chant..."

The light was different this time--light blue, much like the aura that surrounded Marle when she cast ice spells. It swept her off her feet in a whirl of cerulean flame that made her shrink, rather than grow like Ayla, and for a second I feared the magic would consume her frail shape and make the princess disappear. When the blizzard parted, however, we were gawking at an airborne animal: an eagle. It was a specimen I'd never even heard of, its plumage as blue as the sky and ticked with snowflakes. It bore a long crest slicked back from a sharp, grey beak, and tail feathers that trailed in graceful, shiny waves.

"Egads..." Frog uttered. "Such a wondrous creature."

"Hah! Great bird! Pretty, too! So strong, suits Marle well!" Ayla approved.

Marle twirled on her taloned feet, flapping her large wings and making crooning sounds that passed for excitement. She started off the ground once and then twice, but worked her wings too clumsily to achieve flight. Ayla laughed heartily at her progress. "Haha, flying too hard? Need practice! Ayla should take to dactyl nest, show how fly there. Mother push baby dactyls right off cliff! Hahaha."

I spied the gemstone hanging off the bird's neck by a familiar gold chain. "Hey, is that her pendant?" I hadn't even noticed Marle wearing it before, but it must have been hidden beneath her parka.

"That's weird..." Mishu commented. "What's that thing made of? It should've transformed with her."

"'Tis Dreamstone, a very peculiar mineral. Its magical properties are extraordinary," Frog disclosed.

"Yeah, it doesn't surprise me that it's still intact, considering what that pendant's gone through before," I noted.

Crono shook off his amazement and scooped Marle off the ground, letting her balance on his outstretched arm with an enraptured expression. This is the coolest thing ever. Marle agreed with a soft, preening screech.

Mishu fixed her conniving grin on Crono, next. "Your turn."

Any reluctance was discarded at Marle's encouraging nod, although Crono trained a sharp, wary eye on Mishu while consenting to the spell. Marle took a fluttering leap to the ground and kept her distance while the incantation took effect. This time the light was like a shred of sunrise, fiery citrine, and the shape Crono took was even smaller than Marle's.

I squinted at the bird formed at our feet. "I think it's... a kestrel?" It looked just like the ones indigenous to Guardia Forest, only with tawny yellow feathers and a distinctive crown of three feathery spikes.

"A falcon of sorts, to be sure," Frog said.

"Another bird? Look strong too, but so little!" Ayla bent down and poked him, and Crono squeaked, his feathers swelling around his neck like a disgruntled lion's mane. Marle's bird danced around him, chirping inquisitively. She was over twice his size--it did look pretty funny. I had to laugh. "Haha, I think he's embarrassed!"

Crono squawked and hopped away, apparently not amused. After three starts he actually caught the drift of flight, glided into the exposed rafters and darted from perch to perch like a spark of lightning. He then tested such a spell on a steel beam, reveling in the crackling report and generally making a boisterous racket. I couldn't tell if he was having fun or throwing a tantrum.

"H-Hey, settle down up there!" I shouted up. Marle spread her wings and braced against the ground as if to try to fly again, but suddenly she burst into icy flame and shape-shifted back to normal, catching herself on hands and knees.

"Whoa! Whoops..."

I knelt beside her and checked to see if she was okay. "What happened?"

Marle sat back and laughed sheepishly. "Oops, I didn't mean to do that! It's kind of hard to stay like that, you know? But it was fun!" Bright, eager eyes lighted on me. "Lucca, you need to try next!"

"Absolutely. Step right up," Mishu said in accord.

"Uh..." I hesitated. I wasn't comfortable letting Mishu do any more witchcraft on me--I was surprised Marle even talked Crono into it (then again, Marle talks Crono into all kinds of crazy things, like jumping into random, unknown portals through time.) Besides, I almost agreed with Magus; it all seemed rather... impractical? What was I going to turn into, a dog or something? "I think I'll take a rain check..."

Marle playfully shoved me. "Don't be silly! It's really great, like Ayla said. It's such a rush--you'll feel so energized! And you can just change back if you don't like it."

"Okay, okay..." I caved in, stepped up to Mishu and held my breath.

"Heh. Ready? Listen carefully..." Her hands felt cold to the touch--and then blistering hot, in a matter of a few words.

"Tae'lo espirie encantu bae'ra sec l'on. Gi'ira r'pon."

The whole world warped. Sound, light, gravity--everything safe and sure around me was flipped upside down and distorted. I could have compared it to gate jumping, but it was more like getting dunked head-first in warm water and having all your senses washed out. I would have been convinced I blacked out, if only I didn't see so much red--red deeper than fire, like the bloodlust red of Magus's cloak.

When the shock passed and the room's normal ambiance filled my ears, everything was completely new. I felt light, and... short. My legs and feet looked like twigs, and my arms felt heavy and cumbersome. When I tried to stand up, it was like remotely operating a machine, blindfolded. Movement was awkward and disjointed, with parts I didn't know I had bending in directions I didn't know they could. I wasn't scared, though--it wasn't like being possessed by Seth, where I had no control at all. It was just... weird.

I attempted to look at my own hand, only to be met with a mitt full of primary feathers. They looked kind of neat--crimson-hued with gold bars across the middle. Wait, feathers?? I was a...

"Another bird!" I heard Ayla crow, high over my head. "This one... not look strong. Bigger than Crono, though."

"Good grief..." Frog sounded... surprised? Disturbed? Exasperated? I wonder why?

"Ohhh, it's a pretty crane!" Marle said. I'm a crane? That's... great, I guess. What was up with all the birds, really? Marle sat on the ground and patted her lap, calling me over. "Com'ere, you look so soft! I wanna pet you."

Hey, I'm not a housecat or something! I watched Crono drop out of the rafters and hit the floor in a tumbling heap--I guess if Marle needed to work on take-offs, Crono needed to practice his landings. He righted himself in a flurry and then transformed back, sitting on his hands and wearing a dopey grin. Marle and Ayla laughed all the more while Crono scratched his head, giving up on recovering his dignity and laughing right with them.

I joined the gigglefest, though the laugh that bubbled out of my throat wasn't anything I expected. It was a warbling trill that threw Marle into stitches. "Oh my gosh, she sounds just like a pigeon! Ehehehe!"

"Hah, pigeons funny too! Ayla like."

"We're going to call you Pigeon from now on," Marle declared with a devious wink. Wonderful, I'd just subscribed to the Marle Name Simplification Scheme. Crono flashed a thumbs-up and I knew it was doomed to stick. I started to object, but all that came out was more of that damned noise.

Mishu tilted a questioning look across the room, at the warlock. "Care to give it a try?"

"No thanks," Magus shot her down. "You can keep your weak parlor tricks to yourself."

"Oh, you're such a spoilsport!" Marle griped, though she didn't waste any more breath badgering him. Even Marle knew a lost cause when she met one. "What about you, Frog?"

The knight recoiled a step and drew a straight breath. "Ehhh... Pardon if I am leery of such craft, as well."

Saw that reply coming. Poor Frog... I could completely understand why he wouldn't want anything to do with it, although the possibilities were too intriguing for Marle to hold her tact. "Oh com'on, it won't be bad! I really think you should give it a shot. Pretty please?"

Ayla wasn't helping. "Frog try! Ayla bet have strong beast, even more strong than frog!"

I wanted to pitch in with, 'Com'on guys, let's not twist his arm,' but I almost forgot that birds can't talk. Mishu shrugged again. "It's up to you, Froggit."

The corners of Frog's mouth quivered irresolutely, but then crinkled warmly in his best impression of a smile. "I cannot decline you fine ladies' request..."

Marle clapped and cheered, and Mishu took her place before Frog. His sword was strangely silent, even once the chant began. The warping flame was green this time, although the pink sparks that shot out and zapped Mishu's hands were worrisome, especially when she jumped back and cursed. "Oh shit!"

Oh shit. Spellcasters weren't supposed to say 'oh shit.' What was happening to Frog?? Was the Masamune interfering with the spell, or...?

The emerald pyre receded just as well as the other times, revealing another four-legged beast swathed in fur--green and shaggy grey. Large, conical ears; long snout; bushy tail; skinny legs; big paws--a canine. The naked Masamune clattered to the ground beside him, completely inert.

Marle stared in baffled admiration. "Whoa... So what's that, like a wolf?"

"Not so big..." Ayla weighed in. "More like pack dog. Big ears, howl at moon, see?"

Did she mean a jackal? Because that's what I was thinking--not that we could make an affirmative match to any real species, but it was fun to guess. Frog (Dog?) shuffled unsteadily towards us, anxious hazel eyes blinking widely. Marle immediately ran up to him and combed a hand through his verdant pelt. "So cool! See, Frog? It's not so bad, right?"

Crono nodded at him. Definitely cool.

"Are we done wasting time?" Magus snipped from the sidelines. "We need to get back on track."

Marle spun around with a retort that didn't make it past three syllables once a loud, ominous crack jarred the room. Frog reared up and howled such an abject chord that we all staggered back in fright, and then a band of red lightning surged through the creature, binding him in an excruciating vice. It started to appear as if he were reverting back to his usual form, but the writhing, wailing shape that rose out of the green flames was not Frog.

"Frog!!" Marle screamed, even though we were all helpless to watch. Ayla's rescue was warded off with such a ferocious whiplash of energy that she was kicked across the floor and into the wall.

Then there was an electric pop--an explosion that rendered the whole room blind and deaf. I fluttered uselessly for my bearings, and it took several seconds for everything to settle into a disquieting calm. I found myself facing Marle and Crono, who were staring ahead with their jaws on the floor, shell-shocked. Magus was behind them, a harrowed shadow drawn across his brow that made the most aghast expression I had ever seen on the remorseless wizard. I turned around slowly to see what they were looking at, and...

Frog was gone. There was someone else there, bent and shaking on his knees, bowed towards the ground, wearing Frog's cape and bronze armor--a perfect imposter. He achingly lifted his head, looking at the first thing in his line of sight--which was me--and I saw the clean, pale, awestruck face of a man who had just been blindsided by fate. His clear, guileless eyes were partially veiled by long locks of green hair that couldn't conform to a proper style, curling and sticking in every haphazard direction.

At great length he opened his mouth, words sliding past his lips that were as young and witless as they were rich and masculine. He didn't know what to say. None of us did.

"I... I'm... human."

---

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