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

22. The Magic Machine

Gritchen selected the rune on the gate that held the coordinate for Ramezia's second lab. It was the 'shadow' one, which was grimly appropriate.

However, our very first order of business--before jumping headfirst into a fluke of nature or a Mystic trap or who knows what else to rescue some old man and save the world--we made Mishu show us how exactly she had been using the gates. She threw off Gritchen's cloak, cracked her knuckles and brusquely marched up the shrine's steps, declaring, "It's simple. Trained monkeys could do it. Well, monkeys trained to use magic."

We stood back and watched as she approached one of the pillars, reached out and set her palm in a chalky engraving shaped like a paw print. "These things are hollow. You cast a spell inside it, see, like this..." Mishu paused to focus, an airless wind building to a whistling pitch around her feet. There was a soft lilac glow that vanished beneath her fingertips, seemingly absorbed by the stone. As the murmur of magic died down, that same hue streaked through the fluorescent cables around the pillar, into the floor and up to the pedestal that supported the gate. We heard a muffled yet resonant click within the column, and Mishu stepped back, nodding at it.

"There. Like that. It sets the switch in there. You do it to all four and it opens the gate. It's designed that way so not just any numbskull can accidentally trigger it." So that's why a bunch of common Mystics armed with clubs and pitchforks could open these gates, while a team of college students versed in quantum chronodynamics was stumped. The key actuator was magic, something beyond the average human's grasp.

"And what kind of spell was that?" Frog enquired.

Mishu shrugged, not deeming that detail pertinent. "Any spell. Wind, water, whatever." Really? Any spell? I could set the thing on fire?

As if she were reading my mind (which was disturbingly possible), she contested, "Just use magic--it soaks it right up. Don't believe me? You try it."

Magus strode forward, intending to do just that. He stopped at the pillar next to Mishu's and touched the imprint. Barely a thought whispered past his lips when a dark violet pulse snaked through the cables around the column and likewise into the gate. Click. "Huh," he flatly remarked.

"That's it? I wanna try it," Marle said, and she skipped to the third pillar. The paw print there dwarfed her small hand, yet it received her spell just the same when she closed her eyes and prayed for ice. A streak of neon blue joined the other two colors at the gate's pedestal. Click. "Oh! That is pretty easy. Cool."

I was thinking about a lot of things as we unlocked the gate, namely Gritchen's report that Ramezia was waiting for us in the past. That didn't ring right with me. Supposing that her base of operations was in the past, where she found that machine--which sounded dreadfully familiar, and I think Magus agreed with me, even though being on the same page as Magus about anything was scary--but anyway, if her big plan was being executed back in time, wouldn't we already have seen the ramifications in the future?

Case in point: Lavos. We knew we had to save the future from Lavos because Lavos's shot at apocalyptic world domination was successful--the effects were obvious; the damage was done. Yet here, it was just... raining a lot, which was inconvenient, but world-flooding magic spells don't precipitate through time like that. The purported effect of the Vitraevos hadn't been fulfilled, which made me wonder if it would even work the way Ramezia intended. I mean, if her plan really was successful, we should've been dog paddling the minute we stepped out the gate into this era. Ostensibly, the Vitraevos will--has--failed by default and we could all just turn around and go home--unless you wanted to use Marle's dead Reptite logic and say the spell fails because we go in and stop it, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. Fate. Predestination.

Bullshit.

Then there's what Gritchen said about how she's casting the spell: with the machine, through the gates. How exactly did that work? In which time era would the spell be localized? Here? Then? All of them? Is that why we were getting rained on everywhere? What was fueling this deluge, all the world's oceans? It was drawing water from somewhere--you can't cast elemental magic in a vacuum (or can you? That would make an interesting experiment...)

Not to mention that this entire complex was suspiciously void of occupants. If this laboratory and gate were so important to Ramezia, then why hadn't she posted any guards? And don't give me any of that Fardon pacifist rubbish--what about staff? There was a lab crew in charge of this place, right? Where were they? Who was watching the gate? How did I know that rune stood for 'shadow'? Why was there a fin on the back of Gritchen's head? And where the hell did my bag go? So much of this didn't make any damn sense.

Really, I was worried about the Vitraevos working because of our interference, rather than despite it. Wasn't anyone else considering this? Of course not; even if the rest of Gritchen's tale was bunk, we were still going to rescue an old man--which was another convenient story to keep us motivated, if I do say so, myself. 'Oh by the way, there's a hostage. You might want to save him, too.' Nice how Gritchen slipped that one in, real sly. Even Magus was going along with this, though that didn't surprise me. He didn't care about the future; he just wanted to get back his own in the past. Whatever that was. But even if he was thinking what I was thinking, why should he speak up and stop us? Of course, I could have changed back and said something, but--I didn't. I was so...

"May I?"

Frog stepped up to the task, next and last. The fourth pillar accepted his watery blue offering, and the portal fired to life with a click and a boom, sapphire gales filling the room and striking us with that split second of awe that always precedes a jump into an unknown gate. I remember Frog smiling, then--a real smile, a smile with a purpose. We loved what we did. We lived for it, and we lived so that others could, too. It was easy to forget it all and remember everything important when staring into the eye of eternity.

Take a deep breath. I was riding on Crono's shoulder again. I couldn't read his face, but when Marle nodded, he nodded back.

One, two, three... And if we never came back, it might be okay.

Jump.

I had to retract everything I thought about the lab not being well staffed the moment we set foot on the other side of the gate, hands and wings wheeling for balance over the marble steps falling away from the shrine. We checked behind and around us--Gritchen didn't follow. That figured. Directly ahead, a silver emblem reminiscent of a long-forgotten land hung over an open door, where a Fardon man in a white shawl was brandishing a strange, ivory-toothed pike in our direction.

"Noc tah. Who goes there?" he issued a typical guard's hail.

Magus took the lead, towering over the diminutive guard in less than three seconds. "Ramezia. Where is she?"

"Busy," the guard responded tersely, and I could tell by way he looked Magus up and down and shrank an inch that he was reconsidering his manners. He gruffly spun about and nodded out the door. "...Follow me." Discretion was the better part of valor, indeed.

He led us down a corridor of interlaced archways, where the floor gave way to obsidian tiles that mirrored the warm molten torchlight mounted on the walls. The brass skirting was cracked and corroded where salted decay chewed through the corners, and some of the slabs of dark blue steel were better polished than others. We passed a statue that caught my eye--sheer bronze once, now coated in briny tarnish and lime that hadn't been scrubbed out of all the creases. Its ruby eyes winked at me, and I realized that I had seen it before, in its glory days--in a city that hence plummeted into the ocean. It was the image of a woman with a dragon's tail and wings, crouching like a gargoyle. I had wondered what it resembled once, yet now I wondered why.

'Neiphiti?' reverberated in my thoughts, and Mishu checked over her shoulder with a wince, overhearing me.

'What?'

I shook my head, dismissing the apparition. 'Nothing...'

We turned into a wide room, where a pair of Fardons were reclining in a pool of water paved with porous bricks. Another was standing off to the side, looking rather absurd in a lab coat and wire-framed spectacles. Their conversation ceased the moment we waltzed in, although the surprise was ours once another figure bolted out of his chair on the other side of the room. He gaped at us and we returned the favor, astonished.

"Melchior?!" Marle squeaked.

"Ugh, so it's you," Magus grumbled, sounding just a little disgusted.

He looked... well, I wouldn't say fine and dandy, but I wouldn't say mistreated, either. His shirtsleeve was rent at the shoulder and he wore a pallid, harried countenance under the starchy white mustache, yet he didn't bear restraints or other trappings of a prisoner. The squat man hobbled towards us like a shell-shocked zombie, uttering adulations to the highest star. "Good sweet heavens, it's you. You've returned. Praise to the great fates and every god that doesn't exist!"

Marle rushed forward, taking his hand where a cane would normally support him. "Melchior, I can't believe you're here! Are you okay?"

Melchior breathlessly nodded. "Yes, yes, I am well. That's the least of our worries, I'm afraid."

One of the Fardons climbed out of the pool, swept an unassuming glance over our group and then tipped a look at Melchior. "Friends of yours?"

"Ah! Yes, they are." Melchior brought the strangers forward. "Everyone, this is Mal, and Tikal, and over there is Samera, the head researcher of this laboratory. They're all from the Fardon Colony."

Frog bowed courteously towards the Fardons, who mimicked the gesture. "Yes, Gritchen told us about your people."

Melchior relaxed with a sigh. "Oh, you've met Gritchen. Good. He's been helping me."

Marle smiled brightly and extended her hand, the usual introduction bubbling out. "Hi! I'm Marle, and--"

Magus abruptly grabbed her by the chin, squeezing her cheeks so that her lips puckered shut. Marle froze on the spot, blinking until her startled expression transitioned to a mildly outraged one, and she stood quietly glaring up at the warlock with her fists balled at her sides, miffed. Hilarious.

"You, stop talking," he commanded in a blunt, irritable tone that no longer afforded patience. Magus then stabbed his free hand towards Melchior. "You, start talking. What's going on? Where's Ramezia?"

I think this was why we didn't let Magus lead our party the last time.

"Very well," Melchior acquiesced. "I'll tell you everything I know, but it might not be much. You see, I've been imprisoned here against my will."

"By Ramezia?" Frog made the obvious guess.

His cheeks flushed with anger. "Her and that damn Seth! He controlled me! He made me restore the Mammon Machine at Ramezia's bidding."

So it was the Mammon Machine, the cursed centerpiece of Zeal's Ocean Palace--surprise, surprise. Wait, did he say Seth?! At our shocked reactions, he elaborated, "Seth is a rapier. They feed on the raw spirit energy of lesser creatures. They can't devour something as complex as a human soul, but they can still possess the body and assume all its knowledge and powers."

Mishu snorted humorlessly. "We know. We ran into Seth on the way here."

"You did?" His round cheeks crinkled with a leery squint. "If one of you brought him back here, so help me...!"

Mishu blithely waved him down. "Relax, you geezer. We got rid of him."

"Are you sure...?" he said, peering critically at each of us. My feathers prickled with shame. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a hand reached around my neck, but it was only Crono scratching under my beak--again, like I was one of his freaking cats. Not that I was about to stop him; the gesture was incredibly soothing (probably due to our beast link, but... I could see why cats would enjoy it, at least.) And I knew what he was trying to say--it was the same thing he told me last night. I didn't have anything to feel guilty about. It was too bad knowing that and feeling that weren't the same thing.

Magus scoffed. "That's funny. One of your 'captors' said you agreed to work on the machine willingly."

Melchior wrung his hands ruefully. "Er... Yes, that is partly true. I struck a bargain with Ramezia. I was hoping to buy time to make my escape. Ramezia agreed, but as soon as she looked the other way, Seth possessed me despite our agreement. He thinks human beings are toys. He said the only reason he didn't kill me was because it would be more fun for me to watch Ramezia's spell damn my kind to a watery hell."

Marle (who had wrenched out of Magus's hold and then forgiven him just as easily) shook her head sympathetically. "That's awful..."

"He's a monster, pure and simple. Hearing you've gotten rid of him is the best news I've received in weeks. But yes, I did agree to help Ramezia, and that is my shame." Melchior gave Magus a pointed look. "It was to save your life, I'll have you know, Janus."

I heard his breath catch with a husky snort--that was enough to shut Magus up for a while. Still, his whole secret past identity thing might've been more scandalous if we didn't already know all about it. Janus was a little brat. Magus was a big brat. End of story. Melchior just wasn't as subtle as Gaspar when calling him out on it.

Frog picked up the slack. "What exactly happened there?"

Melchior scratched his head and spoke for the morose warlock. "I can't say for sure, but I imagine he got too close to this lab and triggered the security system. There's a monster Ramezia commands to ward off intruders."

"A sea serpent?"

"So I hear. I haven't seen it, myself." He then directed at Magus, "Why that beast didn't slay you on the spot, I'll never know, but it delivered you to our gates in one piece instead. Perhaps Ramezia was curious, or maybe her kind really is opposed to bloodshed. At any rate, I was able to convince her to spare your life in exchange for my services. I had secretly hoped that you would return and bring help."

"Why you?" Frog wondered. "Why did she get you to help her? How did Ramezia even find you?"

"Hmph! I've been asking myself that for ages. It seems my reputation preceded me for ill, this time. Ramezia has been working with some Mystic rogues that knew my name was connected to the Masamune--how that rumor spread about is anybody's guess. They barged right into my home and dragged me off, the brutes. I woke up here, and that's when Ramezia told me she was going to use my skills to restore the machine."

"The Mammon Machine..." Marle was just putting it together. "So, this place is..."

"The Ocean Palace. Did you recognize it?" Unfortunately. "It's amazing what the Fardons were able to do with the materials that were left. Of course, in this era it's only been a few years since the incident."

Nice how he called that whole 'waking up Lavos to wreck the world and bring the most powerful kingdom in history to its knees' debacle 'the incident.' I would've also bet my life that 'a few years' equated to three. None of this surprised me; it stood to reason that the place Lavos had first been summoned left an indelible mark on the temporal as well as geologic plane of our world. It was just a matter of time before the Fardons found it.

Melchior cleared his throat and straightened his shirt. "But yes, that's all in the past. Let's get to business, shall we? I take it Gritchen told you about the Vitraevos? We have to stop Ramezia from casting it, before it's too late."

The Fardons in the room stirred at this announcement. I thought they were going to object, but then the scientist of the bunch, Samera, spoke up. "We shall not impede you. We've been watching everything that's happened, and we want to rescue Lady Ramezia from the throes of that machine, as well." The others nodded, and the guard clacked his pike against the floor emphatically.

Well, it was nice to have local support. Melchior nodded gratefully. "Thank you, all. You have been most gracious hosts." He then anxiously inspected our group. "Now, by any chance did you bring the Masamune? Oh! And the pendant?"

Frog patted the handle of his sword, and Marle fished her heirloom out of her parka, dangling it by the chain. "Here?"

Melchior gave another sigh of relief. "Yes, excellent, thank goodness. You'll need them both to stop the machine. Allow me to explain."

And he did, with Samera chipping in some vital details. Basically, Ramezia was using the power of the Sun Stone to sustain a sub-temporal aeonic well, which is a fancy term for a really big time gate. The Mammon Machine was drawing fuel for the Vitraevos from this gate (so basically, yes, from everywhen) and storing it in its core, which can compress magical components into energy with--well, I won't say the capacity is limitless, but asking for the density of magic is a lot like asking how many angels can fit on the head of a pin (allegedly an infinite number, by the way. My mother was fond of such religious rhetoric.)

Interestingly, before the Mammon Machine came into the picture, Ramezia had attempted to cast the Vitraevos through the gate shrines manually--and failed, although in an amazing way. It nearly killed her, and a side effect of the attempt was the rain that had started pouring in every era. When persuading Heckran to join forces with her, she managed to twist that failure into an impressive credential--how many sorceresses can claim to control the weather on a global scale?

At any rate, the Mammon Machine was going to accumulate enough water magic for the greatest flood in history, and once it was ready Ramezia would unleash it back through the aeonic well, supposedly to an era of her choosing. That was her plan as far as Melchior and Samera knew, and both doubted Gritchen was any better informed. The Fardon scientists were worried that Ramezia would be unable to precisely redirect the Vitraevos through the gate, or that the absolute power of the spell would overwhelm and kill her--or both--while Melchior's greatest concern was the massive influx of magic damaging the time stream. It didn't sound like a good idea to any of us, but here was the question: Once you open a floodgate, how do you stop it?

"You can't just destroy the machine," Melchior quashed that notion before it was even raised. "The pent-up magic in its core would be released, obliterating this whole lab in an instant. Judging by the stage the spell is at now, it would probably wipe out the mainland, too."

"Then what can we do?" Marle pleaded for the guru's solution.

Melchior reluctantly obliged, lowering his voice. "You have to neutralize the spell first. There is a force capable of this, but it's extremely dangerous. It's what you might call anti-magic."

Frog screwed up an incredulous look. "Anti-magic?"

"I know it sounds ineloquent, but that's the best way to describe it. It's a chaotic null, a counterbalance to the order of magic. It exists mostly in theory, in the dead space between elements, yet there is one being that exudes this power--one that's been connected to the machine from the start."

Magus spoke for the first time since his lapse into stony silence, his tone colder and harder than ever. "Lavos."

"Yes... Lavos," Melchior said weakly, enfeebled by that name. "The essence of Lavos's power is that anti-force, that darkness."

Mishu recoiled, eyes wide with horror. "Oh hell no. You're talking about the Darkness, the bane of all magic."

I blinked at her. Could Lavos's power be the same Darkness that Mishu's people attribute to the blight? Would that explain why I...?

Okay, hold that thought. So, Lavos still existed in this time period--that's given that we challenged it--him--whatever in the year 1999 AD, although the exact time and place we defeated him was nebulous. It was an uncomfortable truth that we never confronted, realizing that even though we disposed--will dispose, whatever--of that monster in the future, Lavos would be sleeping peacefully beneath our feet back in our home times. It was a little ironic that this fact would come to our benefit, yet if Melchior was proposing what I thought he was...

"You want us to use the Mammon Machine to draw out Lavos's power?" Frog surmised, less than thrilled by the prospect. "Don't you remember what happened the last time someone did that? It's suicide."

"But it would stop the spell..." Magus started to catch on.

"If you don't draw too much, it should be safe. You'd have to use the pendant as a control switch. That's what it was designed to do," Melchior explained. "Of course, it needs someone with incredible magical prowess and restraint to use it..." He trailed off, eyes lingering on our resident warlock. "Janus--"

"Shut up," Magus coolly snapped. "Stop calling me that and I'll do it."

Marle passed him a surprising look of concern. "Magus..."

He returned an inscrutable stare, and I couldn't tell if he was about to backhand her, or Melchior, or just turn around and leave. "I can handle it."

"Ah, of course." Melchior nodded solemnly. "I don't doubt it. You are your sister's brother, after all."

Magus's brow twitched, and he clenched his fists and turned aside. "It's not that," was all he said, and nobody dared say otherwise.

Crono crossed his arms, smothered a sigh and flicked a glance out the door, nervously drumming his fingers on his elbows. We need to hurry.

Melchior adjusted his spectacles, switching tack. "All right then, that's settled. Once the spell is neutralized, you can use the Masamune to smash the machine. That will break the mechanism that's holding the Sun Stone, too, which will close the well. The only trouble will be Ramezia herself."

"She's not going to just let us walk in and break everything," Frog said.

"No, she certainly won't. It will be up to all of you to keep her occupied."

"And if she won't listen?" Marle asked, hopelessly.

Melchior set his jaw. "Do whatever it takes." Our group exchanged morbid looks--shotgun diplomacy, got it.

Ayla tapped her foot and waved her hand impatiently. "Ayla ready, we go. Where Ramezia? Take us."

"I'll lead the way. It's down the hall, here..." Melchior started out the door, and Samera and the others bid us good luck. We followed the old man into a grand hall, where our objective and the root of all this trouble were waiting for us.

The first thing we noticed was a shallow fountain rimmed with interwoven bands of bronze and iron. It was raised two feet off the ground, spanned ten feet across and was planted in the center of a room just wide enough to accommodate it. Its surface shimmered like water, yet as we drew near, the spectral ripples of the whirlpool grew evident. This was the aeonic well, the gate. It was remarkably placid for such a large distortion, but then I glimpsed the elliptical dial at the head of the fountain and saw what was tempering it: the Sun Stone. Stationed on a dais overlooking the fountain, its bloody quartz tendrils dipping into the temporal pond like tree roots, was the Mammon Machine. Its hideous facade dominated the back wall.

And standing over the fountain and behind the stone, facing the barrel-chested core of the machine was--presumably--Ramezia. She seemed enthralled with the Mammon Machine, refusing to look away even when addressing us.

"So, Melchior, you brought friends. Welcome to my humble lab, humans. I'm glad at least some of you could make it in time to witness your race's glorious demise." She had the sublimely confident voice of a queen, threaded with a hint of malice.

Frog drew the Masamune, which flashed in light of all the chaotic energy pooled before us. "Ramezia! We know what you're scheming, and we're here to stop you!" During his speech, while Ramezia's back was turned, Magus stepped over to Marle and wordlessly confiscated her pendant.

"Fa, ha ha... Stop me? What's there to stop? Do you see this?" She gestured towards the machine's core, which shone with swirling red and blue light. "It's already begun. Once the red turns to blue, all will become one with the sea, and the Vitraevos will be complete."

I'm not sure what I was expecting. She was supposed to be a sorceress, so I had this preconceived mental image of a haggard old witch with a big crooked nose, or a menacing cloak like Magus's. Yet when she finally turned around, I was actually thrown by how... beautiful she was.

Like the other Fardons, she wore little, her womanly curves accentuated by a belt of silver scales and a pair of bangles around her wrists and ankles. She was dark-complexioned like Pillea, with sun-dappled dorsal spots that faded to a lighter blue in the front. Her fins bore long, supple ruffles, and glittered with the iridescent sheen of the well. The crest of her head fanned outward like a crown, with false eyes on each end like a peacock's tail.

The really eye-catching piece, however, was her necklace: a strand of unrefined diamonds supporting a lurid violet shard. It left a spider-trail of livid veins where it touched her skin, feeding a pernicious rash that covered her breast and neck and highlighted her eyes with an unnaturally dark glow.

Mishu bared her fists with a snarl. "Grr, Darkness! She has the fuckin' blight, too!"

Magus narrowed an impossibly insightful look at her necklace before saying, "I see now. It's a piece of Lavos. All the more reason to destroy it."

The blight, the blight, she has the blight, the mark of Darkness. Lavos, the Darkness, the blight--so they're all connected? My head was spinning--I needed a second to think that I wasn't going to get, because just when I thought I had eluded them, the black voices found me again.

'Look brother, there's another dark seed,' the cool voice chimed.

'Gah! How did we miss it?!'

'Doesn't matter. We can still use it. Lucca,' Then it was talking to me--that was the first time I'd ever heard the voices speak my name. 'Get that necklace from her.'

'What? Why should I??' I railed, not wanting to do anything for those nasty little voices.

'Do you want to stop Ramezia or not? That necklace is what's poisoning her mind.'

'I don't know...' the hot voice mused. 'The more I listen to her plan, the more I rather like it.'

'Shush, now's not the time,' the cool one chided him. 'Lucca, go now. If you can take it away, it'll release the Darkness's hold on her.'

That sounded fun and all, but... 'What do you want me to do, just fly up there and take it?!'

'We'll help you.' Yeah, right. Getting 'help' from those psychotic voices was about as useful as a kick to the head. It definitely didn't help that I was starting to... well, not like it, but I preferred the cool one. It was the voice of reason--the lesser of two evils, you might say. I didn't trust its beguiling tone one bit, but at least it was pretending to be nice to me.

Meanwhile, a whole other conversation was carrying on without me. Ramezia lowered a mordantly intrigued look at Mishu. "A neiphiti? Quite a surprise to see your kind here. Last I checked, this wasn't one of the archmage's colonies. How are the Peacekeepers faring these days?"

"Like I would know!" Mishu retorted. "You trapped me here so I can't go back, and now all this crap about killing everybody is pissing me off!"

"Oh really? What concern of yours is the fate of this planet, neiphiti? The Peacekeepers have no stake in this world."

"I don't give a fuck about that! I just don't negotiate with fiends! But if I was with the Peacekeepers, I'd tell you that genocide is a little illegal."

"Ahaha! An ironic sentiment. Do you even study your own history? The neiphiti are notorious for blood spilling. You're all no better than human."

Mishu bit back another growl as Ramezia continued, "We Fardons have ruled the seas peacefully for four hundred years, yet it is you humans who persecute us--fishing our oceans dry, dumping your trash, your oil and chemicals... You spend all your time and resources finding better ways to slaughter each other and crush any races beneath you, and you throw away everything else. I have no reason to listen to your barbaric banter. We are the superior race, and we will inherit the spoils of your wasted existence!"

"Hey!" Marle piped up, suitably offended. "We humans might not be perfect, but we were still here first! What gives you the right to decide our fate?"

"I have the authority of the whole world!" she brazenly declared. "The planet has spoken to me! It tells me how it longs to be rid of the likes of you."

"Planet my ass," Magus spat. "The only one talking to you is Lavos. You're just like that old queen. It's sickening."

"Ah, Lavos, the scapegoat of the ignorant," Ramezia sang. "If you truly believe that, then we have nothing further to discuss." She snapped her fingers, and there was a brilliant flash of pink light that crystallized around us into solid walls of magic. The spell boxed us in on all sides; Ayla hammered fruitlessly on the transparent surface.

"Hey! Let us out!"

"Drats, a prism barrier!" Melchior cursed.

Ramezia cackled richly. "Ahaha! Stay right there, little humans, and watch my beautiful spell come to fruition."

"No thanks," Frog said, not impressed, and when he struck the magic glass with Masamune, it shattered into a million harmless motes that fell to the floor like confetti. We charged at once, racing up the steps surrounding the fountain while Magus jumped straight over it, his cape flaring after him like a set of great bat wings. Mishu followed him, gliding up to the platform and flanking the sorceress.

"Give it up, Ramezia!" Marle issued our ultimatum while the rest of us inched around the sides, blocking her escape. For a moment, the only sound in the room was the unnerving thrum of the Mammon Machine.

'The necklace, the necklace! Get it!' the hot voice spurred me on, yet I held back. Ramezia surveyed her predicament with a distasteful cluck. "Tch, meddling humans... If you won't behave like proper guests, I'll have to ask you to leave."

Melchior climbed up the steps behind us, petitioning, "Ramezia, that's enough. Please don't pursue this any further. Is not all life precious? Would your people truly condone the extermination of an entire race? Please don't make us resort to fighting for our survival. This need not end in violence."

"Old man right!" Ayla backed him up. "Fardons good people. Humans can be good, too. If we talk, no need to fight."

Ramezia retreated a step, shaking her head and clutching her necklace. "No, you can't understand... I'll never give up..." she said, her voice cracking into tears as a mad, raving screech effervesced to the surface. "I'll never give up until you know the enmity this planet holds for you!"

Then she attacked, white wisps of magic curling off her skin like steam as a strand of plasma balls slid off her arm. She fired them like grapeshot in all directions, scorching anything in their path. That's when things got a little hairy--I should mention that this platform wasn't very big, so with all of us hanging around, it was pretty crowded. Crono threw his back against the wall, Frog and Marle ducked to the floor, and Ayla somersaulted over the first projectile and bounded ahead. The platform's guardrail and a few encompassing structures took the brunt of the attack--a metal rod was knocked across the room like shrapnel. The balls splashed on impact, and Frog winced as he was pelted with some of the residual magic.

Mishu slid around Ramezia's back, avoiding the onslaught and getting in position to kick her knees out. Ramezia whirled, catching Mishu's foot with her own and then throwing her palm up to smash the neiphiti's nose. Mishu leaned back, barely avoiding the swipe, and then Ayla was upon them, making Ramezia eat a vicious fist to the gills that threw the sorceress off her feet and onto the floor.

Ramezia sat up in a beat, not even winded, and that's when she spied Magus standing at the foot of the Mammon Machine, dreamstone pendant in hand. The core gleamed hotly, responding to the interference, and Ramezia's face fell with a stricken look. She screamed in a twisted, disembodied voice that sounded like a drowning devil, "Get away from there!"

There was a flash of purple-black, and when I looked closely I saw her necklace radiating this strange darkness, like an ultraviolet beacon. Ramezia lashed out, and a shadow of her arm--a giant, phantom, claw-handed shape reached out of the black light towards Magus. The warlock turned slowly, too slowly--beholding this awful black thing about to grab him, his face scrunched up between concentration and consternation--but then there was a blur of white and strawberry blonde and little pink triangles barreling into his side, as if to knock him out of the way. "Magus!!"

I'll never know what Marle was thinking. The shadow hand seized her and Magus both, arced back over Ramezia's head and pitched them like straw dolls over the side of the platform and into the well. "Marle!!" Frog yelled as he and Crono chased them to the edge of the fountain. There was only enough time for a glimpse of Marle's gaping, shocked expression juxtaposed to Magus's obscenely alarmed one, and then they were both swallowed up in cloak and tumbling limbs and a ripple of liquid rainbow, the vortex barely stirring to their passage.

"Holy shi--" Mishu uttered, but Ramezia cut her off, that demonic, shadowy voice rising over a hellish gale.

"Be. Gone."

Everything real and solid bent around her, the floor undulating with a shockwave of what I knew in the shadiest part of my mind to be pure Darkness. It struck us all like a bomb blast, tossing us into the air and over the aeonic well after Marle and Magus. My perch was torn out from beneath me--Crono threw up a grasping hand before peeling out of this plane of reality--and the only thing that kept me from falling into the gate after him were my wings. I spun around in dizzy circles, looking for my remaining comrades.

I watched the tail of Ayla's scarf disappear beneath the surface while Mishu beat her wings wildly, her body half-submerged. After a couple of seconds of thrashing she sank too, unable to resist the gate's gravity. I hovered in place as best I could and kept searching, though all I found was Melchior hiding in the niche between the fountain and the platform. Fantastic.

Ramezia paced to the edge of the well and peered down into it with a satisfied smirk. She didn't see Melchior, and she didn't even spare me a glance--I must not have registered as a threat, being a dumb bird and all.

'Lucca,' the cool voice insisted, urgent now. 'The necklace, go.'

'You've got to be kidding,' I thought back, even as my body betrayed me and dove for it--to hell with it all, I was the only one left to fix this. I had to do something, or be damned trying. Ramezia had turned back towards the Mammon Machine, so I had a blind spot to shoot for. I lunged feet-first at her neck, catching the clasp of the necklace in my toes, and Ramezia jerked around, her teeth gritted under a mask of unadulterated wrath. This was it, I thought--she was going to Darkness-punch me so hard I would just explode into little black and red feathers.

Everything unfolded in four, maybe five seconds.

My wings skipped a beat and I fell back, the chain of the necklace going taut as it grabbed Ramezia and tugged her towards the ledge. She was reaching for me, a black spell simmering at her fingertips, but then it looked like my shadow--my shadow--jumped out and slapped her in the face. I couldn't make that up. Ramezia dropped the spell, stunned, and inertia carried us over the edge just as the chain snapped.

'Nooooooo!' "Nooooooo!!" the Darkness wailed in my ears and in my head as the necklace fell apart, scattering through the air. Ramezia desperately scrambled for the vital piece, throwing herself off the platform. One hand took hold of a useless fistful of diamonds while the other took my leg, and I made a stupid, honking bird yelp as she yanked me down with her--down and down and down into the temporal bath that washed out our sense of time and space.

The last thing I saw was that shard of Darkness vanishing into the gate with a muted plunk after us.

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