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

20. Lord of the Mystics

I woke up on the floor in an odd sandwich, trapped under Crono's arm and pressed against Marle's back. It was as if he meant to cuddle me like a stuffed toy and spoon his girlfriend at the same time, but I couldn't complain since it was pretty cozy, even without that beast link leaving me in a euphoric coma. It was just startling, since I had forgotten overnight about my new shape and had to scramble to remember why everyone else was suddenly so big. Once I realized that I was the small one, I settled down before I disturbed anybody's much-needed sleep. I let the cool fire of a beast's touch and the subtle, even sound of my companions' breathing lull me back into slumber (Crono wasn't snoring, for a change--or drooling, which he does despairingly often, especially when sleeping on my couch.)

I don't think my nap lasted twenty minutes before the dank, backlit, utilitarian dungeon we were camping in got a better idea. Everyone jumped at a distant, thunderous yawn--a drawling boom that shook the dust off the walls.

"What the devil was that?" Frog asked, nonplussed--and as if he were summoned by that oath, Magus stepped out of the adjacent hall and walked past our half-dozing group as if he had never left in the first place.

"It came from that way. Let's go, weaklings," was all he had to say for himself, and that was enough to get the rest of us grumbling to our feet. It was going to be another wonderful day, I could tell already.

We gathered our things and started after the warlock, heading down a corridor that followed the southern wall of the basement grid (I was pretty sure it was south. I've mentioned I'm pretty good at keeping oriented in such places.) Unfortunately, I realized that traveling in my present state was going to pose a problem: I couldn't walk very fast. Flying would have been a different story, but the halls were too cramped to afford it--and even if they weren't, I would've then had the opposite problem of moving too fast and passing everyone up (in the absence of wind, one has to maintain a certain velocity to simulate the proper flow of air to maintain lift, you understand.) The last thing I wanted to do was get separated from the group again, so the moment I started falling behind I flailed my wings and threw out petty little pigeon-warbles until someone took pity on me.

"Useless..." Magus growled sternly from the front of the line. He was losing his patience with us--with me in particular.

"Heh." Ayla bumped me with her foot, teasing, "Bird too slow! Must be hard on tiny legs. Too bad not human, huh?"

Okay, fine, I see what she was trying to do. I wouldn't be coaxed into changing back, though. I wasn't ready...

When are you going to admit that you're a monster?

At last Crono stopped, rolled his eyes and passed me a tired sigh--one that said It's too early for this, and Why DON'T you change back? at the same time. Nonetheless, he knelt to the floor and offered his arm, and I climbed aboard, perching on his shoulder. I heard his low chuckle, despite himself--he must have thought it was cool because he looked like a pirate. I didn't mind; it beat hobbling around on my skinny bird legs, at any rate.

Marle got one look at us and tittered. "That's cute! You look like a pirate, Crono." ...Thanks, Marle.

Glenn was hanging at the back of the group--Frog, I mean, he's still Frog--but damn, it's hard to keep that name associated with him when he doesn't look anything like a frog anymore. I occasionally peeked around and found him swinging his sword in practice strokes, still trying to warm up to his new (old?) form--which was incredibly handsome, by the way. Have I not mentioned that? I don't want to sound like a fawning girl or something, but good grief, Frog is a total dish. ...Okay, I'll shut up about it.

"Mishu, do you know why?" I overheard Marle asking, and it took a second to realize that she was wondering after me.

The dragon lady glanced my way and sniffed, shrugging the matter off. "Hrmph. Even if I did, it's not my business to tell you."

That was strangely noble of her. I didn't want to feel like I owed that woman anything, but... 'Thanks.'

'Whatever,' I got her terse reply, and nobody asked any more prying questions.

We passed three more uneventful blocks before we discovered a well-lit room beyond an open door, its shaft of light cutting across the green pallor. The scene we met within was almost comically derelict, and everyone stopped short just inside the threshold.

The place might have been an office or a security booth, in another life. The sundry, fractured, lifeless screens of a smashed computer terminal consumed the back wall like a technological morgue. Naked phosphor bulbs glared at us from the ceiling, a few of them sputtering like angry bees where water dripped in through rotten tiles. It was leaking here, there and everywhere, feeding puddles on the floor and drumming on rusty file cabinets with so many dents that they looked more like big tin punching bags.

The room had been thoroughly trashed, and seated at the head of it all--upon a large oaken desk that bowed and splintered under the crushing girth--was a beast. It was made of heavy, compact muscle; tough blue scales; a thick, spike-laden tail; the snag-toothed, crooked muzzle of an alligator; and massive arms with enough strength to bench-press Jerad's truck with Ryan inside it. The claws at the tips of its broad, meaty feet and hands were a sinister length, and it was picking its teeth and reclining--heels propped on the desktop and everything--with an affectedly bored expression as we filed into the room.

"That's him..." Marle whispered, transfixed by the monster that I was just identifying as a heckran--the heckran.

It interlaced its claws and snorted. "Heh. About time you showed up. I was getting bored." He had a gravelly voice that reeked of overconfidence.

"Are you Lord Heckran?" Frog asked first, his sword held at ease even as his shoulders tensed, never far off guard. The others rested hands on hips and weapons, ready for anything.

The heckran laid his arms flush on the countertop and regarded us with a shrewd, humored gleam to his large yellow eyes. "That's me. After a gang of low-life, nosy humans like yourselves killed my father three years ago, I took over our clan. Heh! But that was another place and time, right?" He narrowed a wolfish grin at Marle. "It's nice to see you again, Princess."

She gasped. "So that was you in our armory!"

"Guilty as charged." Heckran then pulled his feet back and leaned forward, the desk creaking in protest as he lowered a threatening scowl at our lot. "And which one of you savages killed my nephew?"

"Savages??" Marle fired back. "You're the ones who broke into the castle, killed our guards and took the Rainbow Shell like a bunch of robbers!"

Magus uttered one flat note of amusement and then volunteered, "If you're talking about that pea-brained meatsack that jumped on us in the dark, I took care of him."

Heckran's gaze lit on him, eyes and nostrils flaring with a deep, throaty snarl. "You..." He then sobered, his brow twitching with recognition. "If you ain't the spittin' image of the Magus."

"In the flesh."

"Heh! Heh heh..." Heckran slumped back in his seat with a bemused cackle. "I'll be damned. The Fiendlord himself! Bet you took care of Seth too, huh? Not that I gave a damn about that whelp. Guy was a bastard. Wouldn't take orders. Didn't know the meaning of the word 'loyalty'." Here he bored Magus with a keen, censuring look, its undertones as palpable as the water dribbling onto our heads. "...Ain't that right, Magus?"

Magus began adjusting his gloves with a disdainful harrumph. "Sorry, I don't pledge allegiance to the weak."

Huh. I wonder if he realized he just indirectly complimented us?

Marle was less interested in banter between two ostensible leaders of the Mystics and more concerned with the point of our quest. "What are you up to with the gates? And the Rainbow Shell and Sun Stone?"

"And red rock!" Ayla reminded us.

Heckran beamed at her, large canines flashing maliciously in the artificial light. "What does it look like, Princess? You been enjoying all this rain? It's my favorite kind of weather."

"The rain...?" Frog took the hint. "You mean you're responsible for this incessant downpour?"

"Heh!" He seemed to relish our obliviousness. "While you humans have been taking your dear sweet time getting here, Ramezia's spell is almost ready. She's gonna help me wipe you stinkin' apes off the face of this planet for good."

Marle shook her head, eyes wide with painful disbelief. "Why? Why would you do that??"

Heckran talked in smooth, firm tones that gave me the impression that he was a great orator among his kind--even with the heavy country accent. It wasn't hard to imagine how he assumed control of a sizable force of Mystic rogues, at least. "Oh, I dunno... Humor me. What exactly do you plan to do when you finally find Ramezia? Or what about me? Are you going to kill me to avenge a bunch of guards, after you've already paid their lives back threefold with the troops of mine you've slaughtered?"

No, I was going to kill you for the Sun Stone that your troops raided my house and murdered my parents to get. I wasn't forgetting. I wouldn't dare forget. Crono must have heard the seething sound I made in my throat, since he tightened one hand around the Rainbow and the other around my leg, holding me down. I wasn't about to do anything stupid, I swear.

Marle didn't even blink before she answered, as bright and bold as ever, "We're going to stop you and save the world!" Crono nodded.

Heckran chuckled darkly. "Heh! Heh heh... Save the world. That's funny. That's what we're trying to do."

"I beg your pardon?" Frog said, edging into a combative stance.

"You know, one thing I've noticed about this wonderful future of yours is that we Mystics aren't anywhere in it. Now I wonder why that is?" he mordantly pondered.

"Huh. So natural selection really does work." Wow, score another one for Magus.

Heckran fixed him with an icy glower. "Think you're smart, huh? Well, me and Ramezia don't have much in common, but we agree on one thing: you humans have been running the show long enough. And you've screwed it all up."

"Really? And what makes you think you'd be any better?" Mishu spoke up, even though she didn't particularly have a stake in this. She was neither human nor Mystic, we all knew.

That boulder of dragon muscle lumbered up onto the desk that cracked and trembled beneath him like a rickety soapbox. No fewer than three weapons were aimed at him in a heartbeat, yet Heckran merely laughed. "Heh! Let's let the planet be the judge, shall we? Whoever's the better swimmer makes it out alive."

Nobody even had a shot to ask what the hell that was supposed to mean. Heckran crouched and threw his arms behind him, about to pounce, and everyone drew back their feet and forward their blades. His attack wasn't what anybody expected, however. Instead of jumping out, he jumped up, powerful legs launching him like a big blue rocket and shattering the desk in his wake. Marle's crossbow landed a few bolts, but they barely stuck in his hide before he was up and gone, straight through the ceiling as if it were a sheet of paper. We heard the groaning and snapping of ironwork over our heads, and then all at once the roof collapsed with a surge of water, like a broken dam. The deluge was so swift that it slammed the door behind us and drove everyone to the walls, overwhelmed by the flood that filled the room to the brim in an instant.

All light was smothered by chunks of the ceiling that had crumbled to pieces and come crashing down, and all sound was reduced to a gurgling thrum. I panicked; I was sure I was going to drown. Birds can't hold their noses, you know. I thrashed blindly through the pitch, striving not to get crushed by debris, even though I could barely tell up from down in the chaos.

Then there was a spark of electric blue--a fluorescent halo coalescing before a demonic silhouette. I watched the black and sapphire tendrils spiral around Magus until he threw up one arm, pitching a spell that drove everything out and away in an explosive blast. The sky tore open with a geyser of magic, a foggy light filled my senses and I kicked madly for the surface. There I paddled like a lame duck, choking for air while inky water and chunks of concrete and rebar rained all around us.

By the time I got my bearings, Magus was already standing on the bank of the swimming pool Heckran graciously carved out for us, turning a scouring eye westward towards an invisible shore. Ayla sprang out of the water like an acrobat, landing deftly on all fours and then shaking herself off like an animal. Mishu burst free a second later with a sharp whistle of wind that was redolent of magic. Crono, Marle and Frog came up gasping and dazed, yet pulled themselves to solid ground without any trouble.

The best part, of course, was that we were all officially soaked to the bone--again. "Oh my God, what was that??" Marle had to ask. Thunder cracked high above while that portentous rain continued to fall, drowning out any refreshment the outdoors should have brought.

"A trap, methinks," Frog said bitterly as he checked himself for injuries and slid the Masamune back into its sheath. Crono followed suit with a frustrated tsk.

Mishu stamped and cursed, her gaze whirling around the surrounding lot of empty warehouses. "Where is that son of a bitch?!"

Ayla padded towards a distant pier, sticking her nose in some depressions in the gravel road. "Tracks! Heckran! This way!"

"Let's move it," Magus commanded, booking no argument. Everyone chased after Ayla except me. I floundered and squawked until Crono skidded to a stop, threw up his arms in an exasperated shrug, turned back and scooped me out of the water. "Damnit Lucca..." he grumbled under his breath as he raced to catch up. Yeah, I know, I'm useless, right? What else is new?

At length we encountered a choppy, swollen sea, its slate waves sluicing over the vacant docks. "This is a dead end..." Marle whimpered. As soon as Crono stopped running and quit jostling me around, I crawled onto his shoulder and peered around the rain-blurred horizon. Too far away to grasp, a jagged arc of light rent the stony clouds, and the sky and sea shuddered.

"Do you think he went... into the ocean?" Frog fathomed. Heckrans were water dragons, so it was a definite possibility.

"Where it all began..." Magus said gravely, looking out to sea with dread resolve. All this time he had been trying to get back to that place he found on the ocean floor, the one that shouldn't have ever existed. We had taken the long way about it, but fourteen thousand years later, we were back where he started.

"Look here!" Ayla called from a neighboring dock. "Ayla find... boat?"

We walked over and found what she was talking about. At first glance it looked like a capsized dinghy, only its rudder was more of a capsule with a hatch on top, bobbing over the water like a buoy. Crono leaned over the edge of the dock and inspected the teardrop-shaped, brine-encrusted hull sloping under the waves, and an inkling of the vessel's true nature began to occur to him. He passed Marle a hopeful, intrigued grin.

"Wow, could this be, like, a submarine?" she guessed.

Frog pedaled back a step, naturally wary. "Er... a what?"

"It's a boat that goes under water!" Marle explained, a lot less technically than I would've. Submarines weren't really of our time--Robo had mentioned them in conversation once, and it was just one of those tidbits about the future fascinating enough to remember.

Before anyone could dissuade him, Crono jumped the short way between the dock and the slippery deck of the vessel, grappling the rust-eaten rungs of the sail. It took him a while to steady himself (my frantic flapping as I dug my toes into his shirt for balance probably didn't help--note to self: find somebody else to hitch a ride on), and one of the footholds actually broke off in the process. He then knelt over the hatch, studied its brittle handle and gave it a forceful yank. The door yielded with a hollow, crackling twang that didn't inspire confidence, and a draught of stale air issued out of the dark hold.

"Ahh, Crono, do you think this is prudent...?" Frog tried to call him back, but it was no use, especially when Marle hopped on board after him.

You know, when we were ten or eleven years old and thought kites and such things that could defy gravity were really cool, I constructed a hot air balloon and invited Crono to ride in it. Don't ask me how we managed to crash the thing--we just did, and I learned an important lesson about using flameproof materials. Luckily we crashed in a body of water, albeit two hundred yards out to sea, and it was a heck of a paddle back to shore.

Once we shook the sand out of our shoes and caught our breath on the beach, Crono turned to me and immediately asked to do it again. That's always the kind of guy he was--delighting in adventure regardless of the outcome (or property damage, as was often the case in my experiments.) Sometimes I wondered if he preferred it when things went off the chain or exploded, and merely befriended me to satisfy his appetite for disaster. If all other variables in our lives had been reversed, I believe Crono would've made an either astoundingly great or astoundingly terrible villain.

I never tried to build a submarine, but I had a feeling this one was going to go exactly like that. I made a purring noise of dissent as we stared down the hatch, and Marle echoed my sentiment. "Yeah, this doesn't look very safe..."

Crono shrugged off all sound advice and climbed inside, afraid of nothing. It was just more exploring, to him. We entered a cabin with deceptively spacious acoustics, although we couldn't see a thing. I got a light thump on the beak, and once my eyes adjusted to the dim environment, I noticed Crono making the sign for fire. Got a light?

Yeah, because it would've been a really good idea to start a fire in an air-tight compartment that reeked inauspiciously of lead paint and gas. I rapped him upside the head and hoped he got the message.

"This is kind of cool, if spooky..." I heard Marle shuffle in behind us and immediately start pressing anything that passed for a switch or button, which was pretty much her modus operandi for any technology alien to her. "Hey, what's this do?" were her famous last words. We then heard a click followed by a low-key, buzzing pop, and I cringed for cover.

A circle of dull white lights smoldered to life overhead, illuminating the cabin in soft tones. At the front sat a bucket seat before a pilot's console, and beyond a wide glass lookout screen. Two padded benches lined the bulbous sides of the hull, barely long enough to accommodate six. There was a niche in the back that resembled a utility closet, with spliced wires hanging out an ajar breaker box, and past that a door hardly big enough for a dog to squeeze through, labeled 'ENGINE.'

"Oh wow, this is neat!" the princess marveled as she crawled up to the cockpit and tilted a craning look out the murky window.

"...awfully convenient, don't you think?" Frog was muttering as he descended the hatch to join us. Ayla came sniffing around the bend after him, and before long our whole group was packed into the submarine's hold.

A debate then ensued out over whether or not to commandeer our newfound vessel. I won't bore with the details, but it broke down like so:

Marle thought it was cool as hell, Frog thought it was suspicious as hell, Mishu said it stank like hell, and Magus hoped it sank and sent us all to hell.

Ayla was the one to compare the boat to the Epoch, and by her simplified logic, if a big metal bird could fly in the air, a big metal fish could swim underwater, too. At any rate, she fully supported the venture.

Crono didn't need to be talked into it; he had already made up his mind. The only real trouble was starting the thing--I mean, we had no idea how long that deathtrap had been sitting there, or why it was sitting there, or how much fuel it had, or what kind of fuel it used--and judging by the luminance of the cabin lights, it didn't have much battery power left. Crono nudged me with an entreating look, asking for my expertise--since by the powers of deduction I was the only one qualified to work on the thing. It was a fascinating locomotive, don't get me wrong, and under any other circumstances I would have loved to check out its machinery, but we were kind of in the middle of a pursuit and pressed for time, not to mention Magus's patience.

Besides, no offense to Ayla, but this was no Epoch--not even close. Seriously, how did we keep getting stuck with these broken-down rust buckets? First Jerad's truck, now this... I'm sure it would have been easier with a human body, but as I was, I gave the engine compartment a cursory inspection, just getting an idea of the type of propulsion it used and whether or not any parts were in immediate danger of disrepair. It was interesting; I found what I suspected were hydrogen fuel cells, coupled with some oxygen and hydrogen tanks. If the gauges read correctly, fuel wouldn't be a problem. The rest was up to Marle's favorite game of pushing random buttons until something happened. I hate to admit it, but it's always worked out for us in the past. ...Science help us.

Eventually something went right, because the boat rumbled into a rough-yet-steady start. Once Ayla threw off the mooring lines and Crono manned the captain's seat, everyone sat back, crossed their fingers (Frog made a hasty sign of prayer and looked up to whatever deity protects you from a horrible lung-crushing death) and enjoyed the ride. It was just like old times, right? It was slow going at first (our esteemed pilot couldn't discern port from starboard, although to his credit the levers were aligned vertically rather than laterally), and even with a headlight it was tough to see through the turbid shallows, but once the floor dropped, the sea seemed to open up for us.

For a minute there, the danger of sinking or running into deadly sea monsters receded from everyone's minds, because the sight that unfolded was just too spectacular to ignore. From the bed of the ocean rose a mountain range of coral that glowed under its own eerie light, in micaceous flecks of neon color that countered the sea blues and dazzled all the more for it. Crimson flora blossomed along rocky arches that were so delicately and symmetrically arranged it almost seemed deliberate--they blanketed a canyon that led all the way to a colossal mound of smooth, gleaming obsidian. With all the natural architecture and supernatural lights, it was a hauntingly beautiful parallel to the domed city we left behind.

"Gadzooks..." Frog scarcely remembered to breathe.

"Ayla never know world under sea so pretty, like every flower and firefly in the world."

Marle was likewise enthralled by the view. "This is amazing... Who would have dreamed something like this was down here?"

"It seems so out of place... It's almost like someone put it there," Magus didn't fail to remark. He was seeing what I was seeing, then; that this veritable garden under the sea had to have a gardener.

What caught our attention, however, was a figure that darted right in front of our boat. It was a lithe blur that circled around and back to the window with inhuman speed, like a shark sizing up a potential meal--only it wasn't a shark, we realized once it stopped and stared at us from a fair distance. It wasn't any Mystic or dragon we were hunting for, either. Even with the aquatic grace and translucent fins it looked strangely, surprisingly...

...Well, human.

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