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

21. The Secret City

We stared out the window at this strange creature for a good, long minute--while the creature stared right back, making me feel like we were trapped in some kind of freak reverse-aquarium.

"Is it a naga?" Marle guessed.

"Not like any naga I've ever seen," Frog contradicted. Naga didn't have legs, for starters. Long fins fanned from its hips and elbows, flowing like silk around its childlike figure. "Perhaps a naiad?" A water nymph, what? Frog's been reading too many ye olde fairie tales.

It tipped its head sideways, regarding us with an open expression. "It seems curious about us," Mishu noted.

"Good curious or bad curious?" Marle had to ask. Curiosity denoted intelligence, but that didn't necessarily bode well. Giant, shipwrecking, man-eating squid are considered 'intelligent.' Chimps are intelligent--compared to, say, ants or rocks. Heckran are intelligent, and they still want to rip our faces off.

Before we could direct any more questions at an insentient sheet of glass, the creature started swimming in the opposite direction. "Oh! It's leaving."

"We scare away?" Ayla considered.

Magus observed its pausing strides through the water. "Doesn't look like it's in a hurry."

"It's heading down towards that reef," Frog pointed out. "Should we follow it?" Marle asked.

"Nothing ventured..." Frog began to say as Crono pushed the throttle, and our little boat puttered ahead. We descended into the colorful trench after the creature, navigating through rings of coral. Exotic fish spun around our boat in black and yellow streaks, green kelp and red anemone wafted overhead like tree branches in a deep blue breeze, and within fissures in the canyon walls we could spy volcanic vents issuing scalding minerals in almost pleasant trickles. The hot springs explained the proliferation of sea life at such a cold depth, at any rate.

The creature occasionally looked over its shoulder, checking on us, and its patient strokes rather suggested that it wanted us to follow it. Before long a great, cinder-coated dome was looming ahead, with ghostly shapes flashing and waning within its pearly black shell. A tunnel was hidden beneath a shelf of coral at the base, and after a second's hesitation we squeezed into the dark passage. As we neared the ocean floor, the hull of our vessel groaned ominously, and I kept an anxious eye on the sign by the instrument panel that read, 'MAXIMUM DIVE: 500 M.'

Our way was lit by a straight row of lights along the jagged roof of the tunnel, which was graciously short--as soon as the path opened into a shallow bay, I felt the cabin pressure spike with a unanimous sigh of relief. A glassy ceiling marked the surface, which the creature breached without a second glance, vanishing from sight. Crono haltingly brought the boat as close to the shore as he dared before killing the engine.

We basked in dim, uncertain silence for a moment before Marle stood up and declared, "Well, um... I guess we're here?"

"Wherever this be," Frog concurred. "Shall we go and see?"

Without further preamble we picked ourselves up and shuffled out of the submarine, Crono punching the hatch open and going first (and I second, perched on his shoulder again.) Sedimentary slabs of copper oxide and lime converged above us, forming a wide, hollow cavern. The dull green rocks were painted in flickering, refracted light from the restless water below, and ahead was an even platform that led to a couple of metallic panels in a wall of sculpted onyx--a remarkably artificial facade in such a natural harbor.

Crono hopped onto solid ground and the rest of our shambling crew followed, breathing in the cool, moist air. Standing on the platform between the suspicious door and us was that creature--that strange person, and we kept our distance, huddling on the edge of the rocks.

It was even smaller up close--a petite biped with blue speckled skin and uniform slits along its ribs, presumably gills. It had a nub of nose as well, on an impish face with eyes set forward beneath a long, sloping brow. There were webbed digits on its small hands and feet, and ridged fins on the sides of its head that resembled ears. Its arms were curled up to its chest in an apprehensive stance, even as it blinked at us with wide, guileless violet eyes.

"Hello..." Marle spoke up, failing to sound more friendly than cautious--and to our surprise the creature spoke back.

"Are you... humans?" It--she--had the voice of a little girl, brimming with naivet\'e9.

Marle took a step forward, encouraged by her timid manner. "We are. And what are you?"

"I'm a Fardon," she recited slowly, like a schoolchild. "Mommy says humans are 'the scudge of the earf'. That's why we stay away from human places. Is a scudge like a monster?"

"Aww, we're not monsters..." Marle knelt closer, putting on an amicable mien--the same one she puts on around puppies and babies. "We won't hurt you, we promise. What's your name?"

"Pillie..." she replied diffidently, pawing the ground with her foot.

"Pillie? That's a cute name! I'm Marle, and this is..." What was this, round three? Four? Marle was our official greeter.

Before anyone could teach her different, Pillie's eyes lit on me and she exclaimed with a bright grin, "A fire birdy!" She rushed up to Crono and me and held up grasping hands that made me recoil with a startled murmur. "Just like in the stories Gritchen tells me! What's its name? Can I hold it? Please please please?"

Crono smirked and gladly passed me into her clutches. "Pigeon." I was going to kill him. Suddenly the bastard was a hell of a lot more talkative when I couldn't talk back--how about that?

Marle and Frog sniggered while Pillie mishandled my gangling bird self, hugging me at a weird angle and letting my feathers stick to her wet skin. "Oh, it feels dry and funny! I like Pigeon. Is it a girl birdy or a boy?" I hate my life.

"Hehe, she's a girl. So what were you doing out there, Pillie?" Marle gently questioned.

"Oh..." She stopped her fumbling petting and turned a thoughtful look to the ceiling. "I was looking for Levi."

"Oh? Who's that?"

"Levi's my friend! But I think Mommy took him away..."

Ayla looked like she was about to say something, but right then the metal doors opened, retracting into the wall with a mechanical woosh. We whirled to face the figure that entered: a tall, stiff-statured humanoid in a black cloak and hood. He strode across the dewy floor on flat feet that clapped like a duck's, calling, "Pillea!"

Pillie dropped me, ran out and embraced his legs, chirping merrily, "Gritchen!"

This Gritchen person didn't mind us for a moment, stooping to chide Pillie first. "Your mother had us looking everywhere for you. Now isn't the time to be playing outside."

"I'm sorry... I was looking for Levi. He wouldn't come when I called and I couldn't find him anywhere," she sniveled.

"He's with your mother," he curtly consoled her, and then finally leveled with us. His hood slipped down to reveal a ghastly visage in contrast to Pillie's. He had the angular chin, brow and nose of a man, a stark white complexion and eyes like shiny coals--his stare was a black abyss.

"Hi there, we were just..." Marle started, faintly apologetic. It was hard not to be intimidated by a face like that.

"You're the humans," he cut her off, no explanation apparently necessary. His tone--though calm--was just loud and blunt enough to sound hostile. "I presume you are here to learn the truth."

Marle dropped the courtesy and began firing questions. "That would be a start! Are you with Ramezia? And Heckran and the Mystics, too?"

His gaze drooped, oddly submissive--I then noticed the way the back of his head tapered into a tail-like... projection, with a spaded fin like a dolphin's. You can't tell me a bizarre appendage like that is in any way functional under the water. What exactly were these people? They didn't quite look like merfolk, and they didn't quite look like nereid, either--and that pretty much exhausted the bestiary of aquatic humanoids (both real and imaginary.) "You are suspicious. I understand. My name is Gritchen; I am Lady Ramezia's retainer. And Miss Pillea is her daughter."

"Daughter?!" We reeled back a step. Retainer? This must be the 'contact' of Ramezia's that Jerad described, the one 'like a butler.'

"So you are working for Ramezia," Frog emphasized, his hand straying towards his sword.

"Yes," Gritchen plainly confessed. "I beg you stay your weapons. I will not have violence before Miss Pillea."

Magus raised a piqued eyebrow, flexing his spellcasting hand through his glove. "So you'd have it elsewhere?" Good grief, diplomacy is just not our strong suit.

"What's going on? These humans aren't bad, are they?" Pillea asked fretfully into Gritchen's cloak.

Gritchen rested a pale, long-fingered hand on her shoulder and merely said, "No. No, they are friends. They're here to help us."

"Really...?" Marle asked as the rest of our group exchanged baffled looks. Was this guy supposed to be our enemy or what?

Gritchen started to guide his charge towards the door. "Pillea, would you wait for me in the commons? I must discuss some important business with our new friends."

"Aww, but..." Pillea whined as she complied, plodding out the gate that automatically closed after her. Once she left, Gritchen focused those inky eyes on us again.

"This is a delicate situation. I do not doubt the trouble Heckran and his Mystics have given you, but this colony is a safe haven, so long as I am in charge."

"Just what the hell is this place?" Mishu asked.

"We are the Fardon Clan, and beyond this gate is our main city. Our people have lived here in peace and isolation for nearly four hundred years."

"Four hundred years? And where were you before then?" Marle wondered.

I thought that was a funny question to ask, yet Gritchen's answer was even stranger--almost as strange as how easily he divulged it. "You see... We are not of this world. We are refugees from our home planet, which was constantly torn by strife and war. We Fardons did not believe in taking up arms against our brothers, so we fled to this world through the gate shrines."

"That's amazing! So you're aliens, like Mishu," Marle inferred, flicking a glance towards the dragon lady that Gritchen caught.

He squinted leerily at her. "A neiphiti? The archmage isn't conducting an investigation on this planet, is he?"

Mishu scoffed. "No. I'm not with the damn Peacekeepers."

"Ah. Just as well." Gritchen henceforth ignored her, resuming his narrative. "Our colony was established here so that other sentient races may not find it. We never wished to become entangled in the affairs of your world. However, everything changed since Lord Rufu died. That's when his cousin, Lady Ramezia, assumed control of the colony. I've always held the highest esteem for Lady Ramezia--she is kind and just, and her rulings wise--but this latest arrangement with Heckran has cast a dark shadow on our fortunes. Worst of all, I'm one of the only ones who know of it. Hardly anyone knows the true nature of our alliance with the Mystics. I've had to keep Miss Pillea from discovering the truth." His gaze fell as he somberly admitted, "If my people only knew what is truly taking place... I cannot believe they would stand for it."

"Why no speak, then? Tell people what happen. No one help if no one ask for help," Ayla accosted him.

"I cannot speak. Lady Ramezia's utmost confidence is in me. If I were to betray it, the consequences could be severe."

"You're just a coward, then," Magus snubbed.

Gritchen's expression sharpened. "Do not mistake us. We Fardons are not a militant people. Harmony with one another and with nature is our chief ideal. We would never condone violence against humankind or any other intelligent race."

"You tried to sack our castle!" Marle pointed out, exasperated.

"That was Heckran's doing. He was only commissioned to retrieve the stones. Whatever methods he employed are of his own vindictive agenda. He believes he has to avenge his father's death with blood. For what it's worth, you have my condolences for any losses your people have sustained."

Gee, for some reason that didn't make me feel better. "What exactly is Heckran doing with Ramezia?" Marle asked.

"Their objective is mutual: to eradicate humankind. Heckran desires war, yet as I have mentioned, my people would never support it. Lady Ramezia's solution, however... it is almost more heinous."

"How? What is she going to do?"

"She intends to..." He hesitated, gathering a grim idea. "Have you ever heard of the Vitraevos?"

"No, I--" Marle began to answer, but then Magus interjected, "It's a water spell, the most powerful one in the books. It's said to be capable of wiping out entire cities, but it's nearly impossible to cast without an immense amount of time and power."

Gritchen nodded. "Yes, so you do know of it. Lady Ramezia intends to cast that very spell, but on a scale that's never been achieved before. If she succeeds--and I pray she does not--the entire planet will succumb to the ocean, and every inch of land will be washed away."

Our group staggered through shock and outrage. "What?! She can't do that!"

"Why? Why do such a thing?" Frog uttered, appropriately horrified.

Gritchen frankly explained, "Lady Ramezia swears it's the wickedness of the humans that drives her to purge them from this world, but... I sincerely believe it all began with that necklace."

"A necklace?" Marle's fingers reflexively curled around her own pendant.

"One day several months ago, Miss Pillea was playing in the Uroborus Trench nearby, where she discovered some buried ruins. She gathered some shiny stones she found inside and made a necklace out of them as a gift for her mother. One of those stones... It had a strange aura about it. Lady Ramezia could sense some arcane power within, not unlike her summon stones, and when she wore the necklace she claimed it gave her supernatural insight. She is a caller, you see, so such things are not out of the ordinary--"

"A caller?" Marle interrupted.

"A summoner, one who calls the magic beasts that protect this planet. Pillea has the gift, as well. But yes, from that day forward the lady... changed. At first I mistook her zeal to expand our colony for a good sign, but her ambition soon lent towards obsession. She became difficult to approach and unreasonable in her demands, and the matter only worsened when she discovered that strange gate."

Ayla bristled with interest. "What gate? Where find?"

"Lady Ramezia had Pillea show her the ruins where she found that stone. Inside was an anomaly that we first mistook for a collapsed gate shrine. We restored it and built a lab around the premises, yet when we tested the gate, the results were unexpected. We traveled back and forth through the gate, studying the ruins we found on the other side, although it was not until much later that we realized where it truly led."

"Into the past," Magus deduced, and Gritchen nodded again.

"Yes. We had stumbled over the secret of time travel. It was a novelty at first, but soon this grandiose notion came over Lady Ramezia--the idea to change the past, to improve the world. She studied your planet's history, and it was not long before she determined that the best course for this planet's welfare would be to remove human beings from it altogether. It was then that Lady Ramezia found the means to do so--a machine uncovered in those ancient ruins."

Marle looked perplexed and disturbed enough for all of us. "A machine?"

"That is the only way I can describe it. It is a man-made construction almost beyond our comprehension. It seemed to once serve as a conduit for a great form of energy, and was insulated with a red mineral of the highest magical density. Lady Ramezia had our chief engineers restore it and some of the ruins around it, creating a second laboratory. She sought an alliance with Heckran in order to procure materials and labor from the surface, and she contracted a group of humans researching time theory to stabilize and enhance the gates--all covertly, of course. From there, Lady Ramezia plotted to use the machine to cast the Vitraevos in such a way that it would draw strength through the time gates, from every connected era."

"A machine, huh...?" Magus muttered darkly, yet didn't speculate any further. "So you needed the Dreamstone, the Rainbow Shell and Sun Stone to restore the machine," Frog realized.

"The Dreamstone was essential, yes. The Sun Stone provided a power source with which we could test the machine." Gritchen's head ticked lightly to one side, bemused. "I know nothing of a Rainbow Shell. You might have to ask Heckran after that."

Marle gaped. "So he just took it for no good reason?!"

Frog scowled. "I'm sure that fiend meant to stuff his fat pockets with it."

"Has Heckran been here recently?" Marle pressed.

"Indeed, he just passed through. I believe he took the gate out to meet Lady Ramezia."

"We need to go there!"

"Of course. I shall escort you," Gritchen consented with a bow, as formal and agreeable as a housemaid.

Marle held back, trading wary looks with Frog and Crono. "Really? Just like that?"

Gritchen gave a quiet sigh and said weightily, "I know it is not easy to understand or trust me, as we have only just met, but... I require your help. To save this colony, and... to save the world." If that was to be believed, it would explain why he just out and told us everything with our barely asking.

Ayla nodded soundly. "Good, we help. Take us to gate, we fix." She always made these things sound so simple, like we were going to change a light bulb in the closet rather than rushing to stop the most apocalyptic magic spell the world has ever seen. If only we had gotten here sooner...

"I can guide you through the aeroducts," Gritchen offered. "However, it will not do for you to cross the city as you are. Though my clan does not believe in violence, humans are still not trusted here. It would be preferable if you were disguised."

"O... kay?" Marle mulled over that while Magus loosened his cloak and drew it over his head and shoulders, concealing himself just as he did when he played Zeal's prophet. "Hrmph, that's easy for you," Mishu grumbled at him, and Crono snickered at the dragon lady's scanty attire.

"Oh!" Marle snapped her fingers with a bright idea. "Hey guys, why don't we use that beast thingy Mishu just taught us?"

"Beast talent," Mishu clarified, while Ayla bounced in place, excited. "Ha! Good plan, Ayla like! Watch!" And right there, impressing us with her powers of recall, she spoke the Gi'ira's incantation perfectly, down to the last syllable. "Tae'lo espirie encantu bae'ra sec l'on!"

No sooner had she said this than she changed, that golden fire consuming her form and smelting a giant sabre-toothed cat from a woman. We jumped back, amazed by how quickly and fluidly the transformation took place, as if it were second nature to Ayla. In no more than ten seconds we were looking at a grunting, pacing feline that looked both impatient and pleased with itself at once.

If Gritchen was fazed by the spectacle, he didn't show it--not even flinching. "Ah, a neiphiti trick...? Fascinating."

Marle nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah! It's like... Um..." She bit her lip and then said sheepishly, "How does it go, again...?"

Mishu rolled her eyes and coached her through it, and after listening carefully Crono followed her example, joining the flock of birds we were starting. Three's company, and all. Frog was less eager to become a dog again, but under the circumstances he relented. Interestingly, the Masamune refused to change with him, and it took an extra minute with Gritchen's assistance to strap the sword securely onto his back.

That left Mishu, who was receiving an insistent stare from Gritchen. "What?" she spat defensively. "I'm not a damn human! I shouldn't have to change. My beast form wouldn't fit through that fuckin' door, anyway." A pity, since I was curious to see what it looked like--probably a very nasty dragon.

"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck..." Magus cracked an obscure joke.

Gritchen was less subtle. "You do appear human, though. Here, take this..." He removed his cloak, revealing a lean, smooth, masculine body with narrow cartilaginous fins, like oars. The naked fish man made a bizarre sight. He gave the garment to Mishu, who grimaced at its rubbery texture.

"Ugh, what is this thing made of?"

"Stingray skin," Gritchen replied with such a straight face that I nearly burst out laughing.

"Are you fucking kidding me...?" Mishu griped as she put it on anyway. It was an awkward fit, the bulge of her wings making her look like a hunchback. Thus satisfied with our guises, Gritchen opened the door and led us through. Crono, Marle and I hitched a ride on Ayla's back, Frog walked alongside us and Magus and Mishu took up the rear--we looked like a roving circus, or a delinquent zoo.

"Heh. Dog," Magus made a point to mock Frog's condition, apparently finding it the most hysterical thing since turning him into a frog in the first place. The dog threw back an indignant whuff in reply.

We entered a circuitous promenade, where turquoise and coral tile drew an elaborate mosaic on the floor--fish, waves, whales and clams, all rendered in a piecemeal tapestry that was so splendid it felt like a shame to walk on it. I was almost too captivated by the ocean motif to notice the real deal when it unfolded around the next bend, and when Crono cuffed me with one of his short wings I turned so we could collectively gawk at the Fardon's amazing city.

Just a few feet to our right was a convex wall of water supported by nothing as far as we could see, yet it contained a globe that spanned half a mile, at least, and this space was filled to the brim with sea life. Tiers of buildings that looked like adobe huts were arrayed in spiral avenues around a seashell at the center that was as large as a small mountain. Schools of brightly colored fish and people like Gritchen populated this vast enclosure, swimming in and out of niches in the nautilus-esque masonry, which was festooned with silver banners that floated in the watery draughts like gossamer curtains. There were lamps on the corners of superficial streets that glowed like fireflies, and stripes of soft green light that painted nearly every surface in zigzagging, arcane patterns, both illuminating and animating this submerged metropolis as if by an untold source of power.

It was glorious in a dreamlike way, just like our first impression of the kingdom floating in the sky. Every column we passed opened a new window to a unique district of the city. Gritchen had to spur us on before we became fixtures, and we paced slowly around the panorama, drinking it all in.

"It is amazing, yes?" Gritchen blandly boasted. "We built every brick of our colony around the ocean floor, hiding in the reef and taking sustenance from it. We farm from the kelp fields to the east, and the turbines we constructed over the volcanic springs harvest its power and provide us fuel and energy. We make our lives here, and give all we can back to our matron ocean."

"It's different," Magus nonchalantly remarked, and that was as close as you could get to impressing him.

One of the Fardons surprised us by approaching the rim of the globe and passing through the wall. He effortlessly found purchase on the dry floor and then stood before us. He seemed to be male, like Gritchen, although shorter and with broader fins. He cast an inquisitive look over our party. "Hello Master Gritchen! Are you on your way to the laboratory?" he politely enquired.

Gritchen answered with the bearing of a undertaker, "Indeed. These Mystic scientists and I are escorting some specimens to the lab."

The stranger blinked at Magus and Mishu before speaking cordially again. "I see. Such exotic creatures! Surface dwellers, yes? I wonder what use the lab has for them. I heard there's going to be an assembly there soon. Lady Ramezia's secret project is nearly complete, I take it? The commons have been rife with rumors."

"We shall see," was all Gritchen would say, and the stranger was taken aback by his cold demeanor.

"Ah, well. I won't delay you, then. Good luck, Master Gritchen," he said, shying back the way he came. Once he vanished, our trek resumed.

"I hope we will not have to evacuate the colony," Gritchen gravely remarked.

We circumambulated the city globe, heading into a room that was blocked off from the public. It was decorated in more of those carved onyx slabs, and situated in the middle was a set of steps leading onto a gilded platform. It was painfully familiar for the pentagram engraved on the top, and Gritchen explained why: it was a magic teleporter, and it would take us instantly to the undersea lab. We followed his lead onto the circle etched in the stone, which lit up green on contact and washed out the world around us with that distinctly disorienting warping sensation.

When we reappeared in the next room, most of us in our beast forms tumbled out of them, the lapse in concentration enough to reverse the spell. I was thrown off Ayla's back with a nearly blinding flare, but of our lot I was the only one to keep my composure and not turn back into a human. I was a little proud of that feat.

Gritchen paced between the archways leading out of the teleporter room, giving a cursory check for unexpected guests. His unburdened posture on his return indicated that we were luckily alone. Without another word, he motioned us down a short hall and into another room, this one occupied by the very prominent and recognizable edifice of a gate shrine. The gate within was definitely active, its electric fire reflecting off the silver rings and cascading over the four surrounding pillars in alluring blue ripples.

Ayla bounded up its steps and waved exuberantly, no mind for caution, stealth or any other kind of subtlety. "Yes! Gate! We go, stop Ramezia, help everyone!"

The rest of us gathered around the base of the shrine and circulated an uncertain look that drifted back to Gritchen. "Yes, Ramezia should be beyond that gate, in the past. You should go to her before it is too late."

Magus scathingly questioned, "You expect us to believe that you'd ally with us against the woman that rules over your people? And we're not walking into another trap, because...?"

"I suppose I cannot offer you any assurance on that," Gritchen responded candidly. "It is up to whether or not Lady Ramezia anticipates your arrival. If Heckran went ahead to warn her, she will be prepared for an intrusion. I only trust you all to survive because you have made it this far." He then looked directly at Magus. "That old man's faith in you has been upheld, it seems."

That esoteric remark got our attention. "What old man?" Mishu asked.

"Lady Ramezia is holding a hostage, a human skilled in magic craft. She has coerced him into working on the machine. The man resisted at first, but then agreed to help so long as your life was spared. He must have believed that you would return and bring help."

So, the people who captured Magus in the very beginning were Ramezia and her clan, and they released him through the gate at the behest of some old man? How was that story believable on any rational level? Who on Earth but the most senile geezer would place that much trust in Magus?

"Really? We have to go save him, then!" Marle asserted, oblivious to any other connotations--maybe Ayla really is her ancestor.

Once more Gritchen nodded, looking at each of us and supplicating in such an earnest tone that it was impossible not to believe him, "I understand this is a difficult request, especially coming from a stranger and a foreigner to your world, but I implore you: please save Lady Ramezia. Stop that evil machine, before it destroys her."

He then lowered a sullen, dire look that overcast the cool gleam in his pitch eyes. "...Before it destroys us all."


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