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

23. The Storm

I got into a semi-debate with Crono once (in front of all the others, no less) over which of my long running list of experiments were more disastrous than scientific. I think Marle started it by asking, but I can't remember for sure. I do remember the point when Crono tried to count my Telepod as a failure, and at that I had to snap, "Listen buster, the Telepod worked."

He made an exasperated pantomime of a clock and tearing a large sheet. You ripped a hole in the fabric of time!

"Hey, that hole was already there!" I wasn't trying to sound childish. It was technically true, even if I didn't know that while Marle was getting sucked through a life-sized glitch in inter-dimensional space. Inter-dimensional space is a fascinating tangent to what we would define as 'regular' space. All regular space in all its parallel forms (other dimensions, time vectors, etc.) is connected by this interspace--a singularity that can function as both an origin and destination to a dimensional jump at once, allowing instantaneous warps if... I'm rambling again, aren't I?

Anyway, a time gate doesn't actually traverse inter-dimensional space, but when it gets large or unstable enough it can default to it, and to conserve the universal balance of matter and energy, travelers will regress to the origin plane at the temporal point of least resistance, which is usually the End of Time but in our case with Ramezia's aeonic well was the median of space-time delineated by all local planetary gates. Does that make sense?

...Maybe it's easier to just tell you what happened.

There's nothing quite like waking up from a trip through a dreamlike stream of time's subconscious to the cold, dark, crushing depth one can only find a hundred feet beneath the ocean. I've had buckets of ice thrown on me in bed (Crono is a jerk) that were more enjoyable, yet as shocked as I was by the saltwater that instantly arrested me, nothing surprised me more than the white-hot blink of teleportation magic that turned the sea and sky upside-down and dropped me on top of the waves.

I was tossed over the turbulent surface like a piece of misbegotten laundry for over a minute, thinking only of how much it would suck to drown after everything that's happened, but then my feet finally grasped something solid. I flopped my way onto a piece of land that felt more like quicksand but might as well have been heaven, gasping like a big dumb bird choking on a fish--which I then realized I was. Once I finished retching, I found myself staring at the tiny carp that had been lodged in my throat. Before I could dwell on which was more absurd--that I had inadvertently swallowed a whole fish in the turmoil of time travel or that carp were freshwater fish so it was impossible to find one in the ocean, much less choke on it--our locale dawned on me.

We had reached the shore of... somewhen. I spun around and counted the heads of my friends, who were likewise dragging themselves out of the waves. Muddy sand stretched out to our sides, some rocks built up to a steep drop a little ways ahead, a mountain was obscured by murky clouds in the distance, a frothing expanse of water was behind us, and all around was a blustery storm, the rain drumming a sloppy tattoo on the beach. It was midday, although the precise hour--much less date--was imperceptible.

Ayla was beating the water out of her lungs while Marle coughed a little more discreetly, Crono patting her shoulder. Frog was slicking back his mussed-up, moss-colored hair and making sure the Masamune was secure. Mishu burst out of the surf like a bat flushed out of a cave with a grenade, spitting and cursing as usual. Magus flitted onto the nearest rock without moving a step, light shuddering around him as he shrugged off the after-image of his last spell. So, he had just saved us from another watery grave. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he was developing a magnanimous streak.

Our soggy reunion was curtailed by another arrival. Ramezia washed in on the next wave, lithely anchoring herself to the beach as the tide peeled away from her elegant form. She rose to her feet in the middle of our group and threw around a furious, accusing look, clutching her naked breast.

"You... you cretins!" Cretins? Was that the best insult she had? Can't these villainous types come up with more original lines? Three different pointy and lethal objects were brandished in her direction, but Ramezia's venomous gaze landed solely on me. "Where is it?!"

Oh, right, uh... that necklace. The one I sort of botched taking from her. I didn't light on Crono's shoulder out of any self-preservation instinct, really. Ramezia raised her arm at us, dark energy sizzling in the palm of her hand, and Crono held up the Rainbow in a defensive stance.

"You mean this?" Magus answered before another fight broke out. He had strolled across the beach and fished a glinting scrap of Darkness out of the sand at such a leisurely pace he might as well have been on vacation hunting for seashells. I just couldn't believe that necklace had turned up so quickly and easily after being dumped in the ocean with the rest of us--I mean, what were the odds of that?

'Yes! The necklace!' a little black voice rejoiced. 'Tell him you want to keep it!'
'She can't speak, remember?'
'Gah, stupid bird! Why do you keep being useless??'

Ramezia narrowed a baleful look at Magus, who was turning the stone over in his hand like a trick coin, smirking at his game. "You..." For a moment I thought she was going to say 'cretin' again, but suddenly a bit of that regal eloquence returned. "You haven't a clue what to do with that. It belongs to me--it's chosen me. Give it back and I might allow you to live a few moments longer than the rest of your mongrelous race."

Wait, is 'mongrelous' an actual word? That can't be a word. The first thing I'm doing when all this is over is finding a dictionary and flogging Ramezia's dead body with it. I think the hardcover one my family keeps in the attic would make a nice headstone.

The second thing would probably be to find a psychiatrist who didn't think flippancy in the face of danger was a lousy psychological defense, but I don't think anyone could blame me for going a little crazy under the circumstances. I recall saying something supremely tactless and demoralizing in the cockpit of the Epoch moments before we drove it nose-first into certain doom (probably about dying horribly and pointlessly) but everyone forgave me anyway. Luckily birds can't talk.

"Not a clue, huh?" Magus toyed with her, closing his fingers around the dark trinket. "It's a gamble, then. I wonder what would happen if I did this...?"

My feathers ruffled with a black wind as the voice in my head pleaded, 'No no no, don't destroy it!'

Ramezia had only managed a halting step forward when Magus clenched his fist, crushing the stone with an audible crackle of shadow magic. He then demonstratively brushed the ultraviolet dust off his gloves, letting the remains dissipate in the storm.

'Gaaaaaah...!' I couldn't help feeling satisfied by that wail of defeat.
'It's okay. This doesn't change anything,' consoled the cool voice.

I want to say Ramezia looked angry, but that word really isn't strong enough. I had never seen anyone shake with raw contempt like that before. A pitch aura glistened over her blighted skin, and she stamped her foot hard enough to make the atmosphere rattle with a percussive chorus, like striking a titan's cymbal. We cringed beneath lightning so close it sheared the foam off the waves. "You insolent dog! That was a piece of the mother earth. Now I'll never hear her voice again. Your ignorance and disrespect know no bounds. If I can't bind you with darkness, I'll crush you with the sea!"

Ramezia's entire form shimmered like a mirage as her incantation began. "Ramezia, stop!" Frog bid her one last time, as if her retaliation could be staved by a voice of reason--I think Frog knew it was futile as soon as he opened his mouth. "Calm down, you crazy bitch!" Mishu wasn't helping, either.

"A'kest esto espiere... Come, tsunami warden! Serpent of the abyss!" the sorceress shouted with a flourish, her arm outstretched towards an intangible heaven. "God of the sea, Leviathan!"

Three ethereal orbs inscribed with esoteric runes swooped out of thin air, enveloping Ramezia in a transient void. Just as she disappeared completely, our feet were pulled out from beneath us by an ominous quake. "Look!" Ayla pointed out to sea, where we saw something incredible: a funnel of water rising above the waves, large enough to swallow a boat. It reared up like a cobra, and then with an ear-splitting shriek the water broke, revealing a massive dragon. Its streamlined head was framed with spiky fins and its long, slender body was clad in pearly rainbow scales. When it opened its beak-like maw and screamed at us, the sea parted with an explosive gust, opening up the beach and leaving us exposed to its wrath.

Marle covered her ears and shrank from the summoned beast. "This is that sea serpent?!"

"Leviathan..." Magus granted it only the respect of a name before unhitching a rod from his belt. At a flick of the wrist, the ordinary stick extended into a long pole and sprouted a wicked steel blade. Once his enchanted scythe was out, we knew Magus meant business--although I'm positive he only prefers such a large and unwieldy weapon because it makes him look like the grim reaper. Psh, theatrics.

The sea serpent rushed in, the shallows collapsing in its wake and bringing a wall of water to bear on us. Once again I lost my perch to a force of nature as the surge swallowed our group in one gulp and drove everyone to the rocks. I barely took off before getting swept away, and when I skimmed the water for signs of my friends I saw that Mishu had saved herself with her own wings. Magus jumped free next, his scythe tearing through his conjured bubble of air and towards the monster's neck. Leviathan doubled around the swipe and swung back, its tail dredging up a sharp squall as it dragged the water--one that knocked Frog off the rock he had just found. Magus darted up and out of the way, sailing on a telekinetic breeze.

Rather than clinging to land, Ayla went straight for the kill, charging out of the surf and up the ridges of Leviathan's back as if it were a flight of stairs. She met Mishu at the head and teamed up, a fist and a foot claiming each of the monster's reptilian eyes. Mishu's claws scratched its cheek as it swung aside--and into the brunt of Ayla's attack. Her uncanny blow punched out the lens of its eye with a gush of egg-like pulp, yet the monster's backlash caught Ayla by one of its crowning spines, tearing open her leg and knocking her down with such momentum the water didn't even break the fall--the splash sounded more like a bone-smashing thud.

Magus's next strike was with magic, and he flung a bolt of lightning at Leviathan's flank just as I was trying a spell on the other side. Neither attack succeeded, my flames splattering into nothing while flecks of electricity ricocheted off its scales without even leaving a mark. I ducked mid-flight to avoid getting speared by a rogue bolt.

By then the tidal surge was receding, giving everyone room to stand, although that only gave Leviathan more open targets. Crono and Frog barely got their bearings when the monster pinned its remaining eye on them, charging up a magnesium flare on the tip of its tongue. The spell it unleashed was a beam of glaring white energy that hit the beach like a bombshell, scattering debris and people alike. The swordsmen jumped clear of the blast while I dropped to cover Ayla, who was lying inert in her own crater. I could only cast a fickle flame shield in time to save us both from being incinerated--the surrounding sand was instantly vitrified into a brittle plaster.

A chunk of ice clashed against the side of the monster's head, and Leviathan whirled towards Marle. She had taken position on a rocky outcrop and was loading her crossbow, yet Mishu intercepted the incoming beast with a spell of her own, buffeting the monster with a blast of wind that only made it flinch.

A shadow bolt met the same fate as Magus's lightning one, and I was about to kick him upside the head before the warlock killed us all with friendly fire. "Damnit, it's impervious to magic!" Magus informatively cursed. I wondered about those scales, which shone just like the magic-resistant alloy Melchior was able to craft from the Rainbow Shell...

Frog tested the Masamune, which glanced off Leviathan's armored hide just as well as our magic had. He was nearly buried by the monster's careening girth, yet fortunately the sand was soft enough to mould him into a ditch while Leviathan plowed right over him like a rolling pin. Frog clambered free and regrouped by Crono's side. "My blade 'tis no use, either!"

"Well damnit, it has to have a weak spot somewhere!" Mishu swore in return. Right then Crono stood up, and I could tell by his intense expression that he had a really, really, really stupid idea. He held the Rainbow back and ran ahead, straight into Leviathan's path.

"Crono!" Marle cried as Leviathan greeted him with a gaping hiss. Crono waved his arms, flagging it down, and Leviathan pounced like a snake on a hapless rat, wide jaws scooping Crono up before he had a chance to change tack. "Crono!!"

We watched in dumbstruck horror as the monster took our impeccably moronic friend in its mouth and tossed its head back to devour him. Frog raised the Masamune with a wretched yell, ready to cleave Crono out of that serpent's gullet if necessary, although he checked that impulse once Leviathan started to flip the hell out--when we looked closely, we saw why.

Crono had the tip of the Rainbow jammed into the roof of its mouth, and his heels braced against the serpent's mandible. All we could see was a little red-headed blur as Leviathan whipped back and forth, trying to dislodge its prickly meal. I couldn't tell whether the whiplash or the guillotine-jaws were going to kill Crono first, but we weren't left in suspense much longer. I heard the whistling of magic and glimpsed a bright flash in the serpent's mouth, as if it were charging another energy beam--but then Leviathan convulsed savagely, its whole body racked with what I suddenly recognized was a lightning spell.

The monster screamed and thrashed, kicking sand, surf and yellow sparks everywhere and forcing us to run for whatever slippery cover we had. It continued to eat throat-scorching particles for lunch as it death-rolled down the beach in ever-frantic spirals. Just as it dashed itself against some jagged rocks, it spit up a boy-shaped wad of phlegm that soared over our heads and landed flat in the sand. Leviathan curled in on itself with a gurgling moan, steam issuing from its every pore, and within seconds the entire beast transmuted into aquamarine smoke, each scale fading into wisps of expired magic. The unearthly serpent passed from our plane of existence without a trace, leaving only dazed and battered spectators.

Mishu settled in one of the beast's mammoth ruts, surveying the damage. "Holy hell, was that a real esper?"

An esper... I was too astonished to consider it. Marle scurried over to our next concern. "Crono! Are you okay??"

She knelt over her boyfriend, who was laying perfectly still and supine on the ground, the Rainbow sticking out of the sand where it had fallen nearby. Frog crept close as well, watching for a sign of life, and I might have joined them if I weren't rooted to the spot with dread. Marle shook his shoulder. "Crono? Wake up, say something!"

Crono responded--barely--holding up one languid finger. Give me a minute.

Marle huffed with relief and punched his arm while Frog burst out laughing. "Haha! Crono, you are the luckiest fool to walk the earth." Frog just validated what I had been telling the idiot for years. 'Thank you,' I meant to say, so emphatically it passed as a loud warble instead. Crono sat up and shook his head, grinning like a dope and blinking the spots from his eyes. He looked a ripe mess, the spikes of his hair pasted together with mud and snake slime--it was amazing he didn't electrocute himself before Leviathan was finished. I can't believe that worked.

Yeah, me neither. Damn idiot, giving us all heart attacks. "Hey!" Mishu barked, grabbing our attention. She stood over our other injured party member and said, "Forgetting someone?"

I fluttered ahead of Marle, landing by Ayla's side. Her leg was bleeding profusely, although the twitch she gave when our healer's hands fell over her was reassuring. "UuuoooaaaaAhhh..." Ayla groaned vigorously as magic stitches turned a deep cut into a sore memory--just another scar to garnish her brutal trophy collection. Ayla recovered as she always did--with gusto, even as Marle begged her to quit squirming and hold still.

"Uuooaaoo! Ayla fine! Just hit head, ow." To make her point, Ayla rubbed the fuzzy knot on her scalp, flexed her limbs and bounced to her feet. "Ayla good, ready! Where monster? Want fight!"

She got her wish almost immediately--and twofold. First, Magus's voice cracked across the beach. "Ramezia...!"

We spun around and there she was, right on the shore where we left her, stepping out of a black fold in reality with a vexed and aghast expression. "They defeated Leviathan...?" She wouldn't even address us.

The next voice, however, did. It was booming, brash, ugly, and unmistakable over a hundred yards, even through the rain and wind.

"Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in."

We turned back the other way and discovered the leader of the Mystics in all his heavy-footed glory, swaggering onto a boulder on the outskirts of the beach. "I thought I heard a ruckus. You look like a bunch of drowned rats! Heheh."

Ayla bared her fists. "Heckran!"

He feigned an aching heart. "Miss me already? I was afraid you'd forgotten all about me."

Right away our party split, Magus jetting over to the sorceress--the greater of two evils, necessarily. Mishu followed suit, calling over her shoulder, "We're going for Ramezia!"

"Okay!" Marle confirmed. "We'll join you in a minute!"

Heckran grunted, looking slighted. "Huh. Just a minute? Pretty confident. And I wanted you to meet all my friends, too..." He clapped his hands and another Mystic jumped at the cue, this one light-footed and hawk-faced--that akio, Darwin. Sparing us any pleasantries, Darwin stood atop a tall rock, turned and waved a signal to something obscured below--a big something, something that made the puddles quiver and every grain of sand tremble around our toes. We heard metal grinding and snapping alongside a primal, sonorous roar, and then a bulky, rust-colored, bone-studded cranium reared up over the side of the cliff--followed by a saw-toothed jaw, a muscular neck, a sturdy trunk and a set of powerful legs that hoisted the monstrosity twenty feet over our heads. It shook all over, the broken iron chains of its manacles battering the surrounding rocks and littering the wasted beach with rubble and dust.

"Oh... my... God..." Marle drawled, flabbergasted at the apparition that was either a huge anachronism or a huge nightmare. "Tyranno!!" Ayla hollered, identifying it beyond belief. Okay, fine, Heckran somehow secured the service of a giant man-eating dinosaur. That was... remotely plausible, given the gates, even though trying to picture fitting a tyrannosaur through one gave me a headache (do you push it in head-first or...? You know what, nevermind.)

"What's another overgrown lizard, aye...?" Frog said wearily, meant to encourage us. Crono picked up his sword with a harried grimace. You've got to be kidding.

Frog was right, though--after taking down the god of the sea, what was a pesky little tyranno? We've beaten those before. I was sure that even combined with Heckran, we could handle those forces... but then the rest appeared. They showed up in droves--gargoyles, imps, rolypolys, goblins, ogans, henches, gnashers, winged apes, nagas, weevils, and even a freaking kilwala. They peeked over the rocks on every side, surrounding us with ravenous yellow eyes, wooden clubs and snarling muzzles. We could hear claws and roughshod swords sharpening on rocks, and helmets clacking over a low-hanging murmur that made the misty air teem with bloodlust. Believe me when I say there was over a hundred Mystics altogether; I have a photographic memory. Maybe a hundred doesn't sound like a lot. Well, it is. And there were only five of us.

Heckran's loud, sardonic laugh carried over the excited din. "Haw haw haw! You're on our turf now, humans!"

"Why are you doing this?!" Marle shouted across the impending battlefield. "Heckran, listen! You can't trust Ramezia! If she gets her way, you'll all die, too! Don't you see that?"

The leader rubbed his snout with a dismissive snort, either not hearing, not believing or bluffing on both counts. "Like I'm gonna listen to some stinking human! This is what you get for standing in our way!" Heckran waved the horde forward with a determined bellow--the same battle cry that condemned his nephew days before. "DEATH TO THE MYSTICS' ENEMIES!"

They charged, all of them, every single damn one at once--and the tyranno too, thundering down to meet us on the beach. It was like standing at the bottom of a ravine and watching a dam full of knives and bowling balls break. There wasn't any time to think or talk it out; we jumped right in. I took flight like my tail was on fire--and it kind of was, once I routed the initial wave of roly riders with a flame bath. The spell didn't stick through the mud and rain, but it was enough to scatter the rollers and spook the imps in line behind them, who flinched long enough for Crono and Frog to use their heads as springboards.

Crono catapulted onto the back of a ape, cinched one of its wings like a rein and rode the brute like a crazed horse, the Rainbow hacking through the weevil and gargoyle that tried to pull him down. Once the ape got sick of the joyride, it reached over its shoulders, grabbed Crono and threw him bodily at a hench, who in turn knocked over a naga-ette and three gnashers like a row of bloody dominos. Frog caught the ape in its moment of hubris, the Masamune splitting it from pelvis to sternum before it could beat its breast twice.

Ayla barreled headlong into a pair of nagas. She somersaulted over the sticky webs they spit from their throat glands, planted a foot in each of their faces and then crossed her legs, bashing their skulls together like a couple of coconuts. Marle cemented a third naga in ice long enough for Ayla to punch a hole through its flash-frozen torso. Never say teamwork wasn't our forte.

I headed for the tyranno, hoping to divert it long enough for my friends to clean out the rest of Heckran's army. I swooped low across its path, dusting a line of ogans with fire that made them squeal and haphazardly fling their torched clubs at the backs of the goblins' heads. The goblins swung around with a knuckle-cracking rebuttal, but then thought better of it when they caught their comrades scrambling out of a trench of sheer flame, the hair on their backs smoldering. Man, I love fire magic.

The tyranno backpedaled before the conflagration, churning up enough mud beneath its feet to bury the blaze (and three imps.) Before it could right itself I darted past, singeing its nose and provoking the giant lizard to snap and chase me.

This was all in the first thirty seconds. I couldn't tell you how much longer the battle dragged on, except that I lost more feathers than I could count between belts of misfired magic and a set of big, hungry incisors. My only advantage was that I could fly circles around that oversized proto-chicken before it could put one dumb foot in front of the other, yet I knew that even my best-focused spells were mere mosquito bites on its thick, wet hide. While turning for another dive I spied Darwin sitting stoically on a ledge, bow and arrow drawn. I wondered if I should try to pick him off real qui--whuff, the tyranno's next snap claimed one of my kite-like tail feathers as a gust of its rancid breath nudged me off course, and I stopped worrying about less immediate threats.

Ayla took a gnasher by the tail and was swinging it around like a makeshift flail. It bludgeoned two imps and a hench into submission before getting its head chopped off by an ogre's scimitar, which Frog then met blade-to-blade. The Masamune eventually disinvested the ogre of its sword hand--and then its face.

Crono staggered clear of four gargoyles he had just slain and locked eyes with Heckran, who was standing on a hilltop, his arms crossed with a domineering smirk. They exchanged a few silent, lethal words in a single glance, and then Crono marched through the throng of Mystics and straight towards the water dragon with an all-too familiar look that said, One asskicking, coming right up.

Heckran jumped down from his vantage point and shoved aside any Mystics that had strayed between him and his next opponent with a wall of magic water, like parting a curtain. "Com'ere boy," he growled, and Crono squared off against him, never wasting his breath on taunts.

Frog spun in a wide circle, his sword singing a whirlwind of death that sucked in two gnashers and a couple of diablos and severed an ogre at the shins. Marle stuck a crossbow bolt in the ogre's eye before it got the idea to hit the ground. There was a growing swath of bodies between the tyranno and my friends that was definitely telling me we were doing well--if participating in the mass slaughter of armed and disgruntled Mystics was what we could call "doing well." I wondered how Mishu and Magus were faring with Ramezia--their confrontation got carried away behind a rocky ridge, closer to the sea.

Heckran caught the Rainbow between his scissor-like claws, but Crono twisted it free, feinted for the dragon's arms, and then his legs, and then swiped Heckran upside the chin when he hopped back to save his knees. I'll call Crono an idiot and say he doesn't know jack about anything all day long, but I will never, ever say he doesn't know how to fight with that sword. Frog's technique is nimble and powerful--he could get the drop on a mountain and chop it in twain with the Masamune (I've seen it), but what Crono does is fight fast--and smart. I'm pretty sure that of the three percent of the brain an average human utilizes, Crono spends two of those percents solely when fighting (and sleeps off the other one.)

Still, Heckran's strength and size were formidable--fighting him was one of those cases where one good hit would be all it took to lose. Heckran nursed his split lip with one hand and lashed out with the other, nearly knocking Crono's head off. He dropped to avoid the swing, but then was caught in the mine-blast of water that followed. Heckran laughed as Crono's feet were kicked up over his head, and he fell to one side--and then the other, and then again, getting rattled by one water bomb after another. The dragon paused the bombardment long enough to spring on him while he was down, claws and fangs bared front and center, yet Crono countered with a sonic slash that at least cleared three feet between him and the dragon, if it didn't knock some of Heckran's teeth out.

I had just woven a ribbon of fire between the tyranno's legs for it to dance around when something grazed me--no, pierced me, or that's what it felt like. It was a blood-curdling shock that made my vision warp out a moment. I shook myself back to reality, blinked the red haze out of my eyes, drummed up a stable lift on my wings and then checked over my shoulder to find what the hell just blindsided me. I glimpsed a strange, fiery projectile plummeting over the cliff and out of sight, like a miniature comet. I shrugged it off; that was a close call, whatever it was. But then came the most gut-wrenching sound I'd ever heard in my life, and that's after nearly getting my eardrums burst by the six-megaton wail of a giant pissed-off space tick.

Crono screamed.

Now, Crono doesn't even talk unless it's strictly necessary or to be a smart alek, and even then it's in a key just below conversation level. You'd be lucky to get a soft swear out of him if he dropped a brick on his foot, and he didn't even cry when Lavos ripped him apart on the molecular level, which had to hurt like holy burning hell--he told me so later. So you can only imagine how nerve-racking it was to hear his guttural, keening scream over the cacophony of thrashing Mystics and pouring rain. He simply clutched his chest and dropped to his knees, face hitting the dirt as the Rainbow bounced away uselessly. I couldn't even see what struck him--I had just missed it.

At that same moment Ayla froze in her tracks, shooting a feral look across the field that would have put a grown man six feet under. She fixated on the akio on a far ledge, who lowered his bow and tipped back an intrigued brow--both acknowledging a crime and daring Ayla to do something about it. Her wild visage turned vengeful in a heartbeat, and Ayla's mad sprint was enough to get Darwin up and packing. I'll never see a human being break a speed record like that again; Darwin hadn't even shouldered his bow by the time Ayla was upon him. She flew up that ledge and punted that bird so hard and fast that--I swear to every field of science I'm not exaggerating--his head popped off his shoulders and sailed fifty yards up and out, like a damn football.

With Darwin out of the picture and the bulk of the Mystic forces starting to thin, Frog and Ayla honed in on the tyranno, granting me the relief I needed to take off and try to help Crono. Heckran sauntered over to his prone form, clucking with malicious mirth. "Tsk tsk, what's the matter, boy? Getting a little faint of heart?"

I raced in, aiming a fireball at Heckran's big ugly mug, but instead of casting a spell it felt more like dry heaving. I stumbled and veered away, my initiative lost. What just happened?? My mahna pool didn't feel depleted...

Heckran tangled his claws in Crono's thick hair and gruffly yanked him off the ground--he gave a strangled yelp that made my blood run cold. There weren't any visible wounds, but Crono could scarcely catch his breath, and the arm that reached for his sword was pale and trembling. I lighted on Heckran's elbow and tried another, harsher spell, one intended to blow up in the dragon's face. Nothing happened--he didn't even notice. What was going on??

Wait a second--that thing that nearly hit me! Could it have been a mute spell? And Darwin's arrow--if he didn't shoot Crono, then...?

The will to fight grit between his teeth, Crono grasped the Rainbow and weakly hefted it against him, but Heckran lifted one blunt foot and kicked it aside. "You..." the dragon seethed, nostrils flaring with ripe hate. "I can smell my nephew's blood on you!" He then raised his other arm and delivered a spiteful slap across Crono's face, knocking him to the ground with a short spray of blood. "Heh! You disgusting ape... Is that all the fight left in ya?"

I was going to kill this bastard if I had to peck him apart bit by bit. However, as soon as I lunged, I slipped and kissed the ground. Everything felt weird and wrong; I couldn't get my act together. I watched Crono pick himself up in pieces, shaking and disoriented, purplish blood streaming down his cheek and neck--blotting bright red hair and light blue tunic with macabre ink. Heckran loomed over him, claws poised for one final strike, his revenge revolting and terrifying to behold at once.

"Goodbye, hu--"

Shink.

Heckran twisted a long look of shock down at the crystal lance jutting from his gut. For a minute the three of us were transfixed by what looked like a spear of blue quartz as wide as a fist, its facets laced with rivulets of crimson. Heckran tried to wrap his hand--and mind--around the thing, but was interrupted by another shard, this one stabbing through his jugular with a sickening crunch. His countenance washed blank, his eyes lolled into his head and he toppled backwards, skewered by glacial spikes that cracked and crumpled along the seams where his blood seeped hot.

Standing behind him was Marle, panting and rigid with adrenaline-fury, her arm held level with her cold mark. Holy hell, score one for the ice princess. Her stony mask melted as soon as Heckran quit breathing, and she rushed to Crono's aid in a tearful fit. "Crono!!"

He sat up, embracing her and the curative magic that sapped away fatigue in a shower of cool green-blue. "Are you okay? What happened?" Just what I wanted to know--but there I sat, useless. Crono stared at her with clear eyes that seemed to just wake from a horrible dream. I don't...

The earth shook again; the tyrannosaur fell, its titanic wail a death knell to the morale of the remaining Mystics. I watched Ayla boost Frog into the air, where he took his sword and drove it down between the dinosaur's eyes. The twenty Mystics still standing tucked their tails between their legs and fled for the hills, tripping over the motley spread of squished, burnt and dismembered fellows. You could hardly see the sand for all the bodies.

"Is everyone all right?" Frog trudged over to us, sticky with sweat and gore that mingled with the rain like paint smearing down a canvas.

Marle tucked some unraveled strands of hair behind her ear and gave a flimsy nod, which Crono mirrored. "I think so..."

Ayla's eyes were glazed with an unbidden thought that had barely congealed when Frog opened his mouth first, cutting her off. "Ramezia!"

We didn't need to finish that thought; we got up and ran to the place we last found the sorceress, hoping we weren't too late. Down the beach and around the bend we met the critical group, with Mishu and Magus more-or-less standing at odds around Ramezia. The wreckage was daunting: rocks scorched black, sand turned to glass, and potholes filled with brackish oil. Mishu was squinting through a busted eye, she favored her right leg, and one of her wings was bent at a disagreeable angle. Magus's cape was rent down one side in a frayed crescent, his pasty arms were rife with scrapes and burns, and a sliver of blood was trickling down his brow.

And Ramezia... was broken. She glared flintily at her attackers, hunched over, wheezing and oozing dark ichor that stained the beach an unholy scarlet. The fire of Darkness had dimmed, leaving her eyes as grey as the clouds and bleeding out tears that faded before they even touched the ground. Willowy fingers dug into a shoulder that was running every color but blue, the flesh rendered into gangrenous molasses. A rake had been drawn across her back, and a sickle down her side. Mishu held back like a trapper watching an injured wolf, and Magus just stood there, unassumingly proud, explaining nothing that the cursed humors running down the blade of his scythe couldn't say on their own.

Ramezia saw us coming, and greeted her apparent execution squad with a wry smile. Her voice was dark and viscous, like tar. "Humph... heh, ha ha... this won't... stop the spell... the Mammon Machine will see that my dream is fulfilled..."

"Hang on!" Marle commanded as she barged through our shabby ranks, and it took a second to realize she was talking to everyone--Ramezia included. Crono tried to snag her parka but she jerked past, kneeling by the sorceress's side. Ramezia made a gravelly noise in her throat, but no longer had either the strength or the willpower to recoil from the impetuous princess. We all watched in fretful astonishment as Marle took her arm, closed her eyes--and prayed.

"What are you doing, you fool??" Magus boomed, but Marle was beyond listening. In seconds a healing wind blew in, radiant specks of mercy percolating through the sand and rain. The gentle blanket of water magic overwhelmed Ramezia, and her ravaged body mended itself in moments. The slick and healthy texture to her skin returned, the blood was rinsed into insubstantial glitter and the rich glow to her eyes was restored, whereupon she gazed widely at her savior, vexed and bedazzled.

"Why...? Why, you..."

You see, Marle has this... thing, where she forgives people. Indiscriminately. I don't even know where to begin--actually, you want the biggest example? She's the one who convinced us to let Magus join our team in the first place. I can't explain how, but her justifications always sound convincing at the time.

"Because, I refuse to believe that the mother of someone as nice and sweet as Pillie can be a monster." I could tell she meant every word from the bottom of her limitless heart. "I know you're not evil, just like we humans aren't evil, either! Are we really all that horrible?"

Ramezia's expression softened, her eyes brimming with watery rue. Something Marle said seemed to get through to her--just not the right part. "Pillea...? How do you know my daughter?" Like flipping a light switch, her mien darkened and her tone boiled to a fever pitch. "Where did you take her?!"

Marle blinked, taken aback. "W-Wait, what? I didn't--"

She was too close and we were too far to do anything about it--with a flare of Darkness, a black vortex blossomed around the two, just as Ramezia reached over and ensnared Marle in her shadow's grappling net. "You, you'll give me back my daughter!" Not even a squeak passed her lips before Marle fell through the wormhole and out of reach of sound and light. She disappeared with the sorceress, who left nothing behind but a tendril of nether-smoke.

Crono skidded over the spot a moment too late, and he threw a frantic and fruitless look around the beach while Frog scuffed the sand and cursed, "Tch, damnit! Marle!!"

Mishu gaped at what wasn't left of our friend. "Did you see that?! That psychobitch just teleported out! How the fuck are we gonna find them??"

Magus crouched over the ground, his finger drawing an invisible circle where Ramezia had forged her escape. "I can track them. The scent of the spell is faint, but..."

"Do you have enough magic left to follow them?" Frog asked, noting the wizard's disheveled state.

"It doesn't matter, does it?" Magus retorted, juggling overconfidence and indifference.

Crono passed him a stricken, pleading look while Mishu stamped her foot and raved, "The hell it doesn't, you big spewing fa--!"

All of a sudden Ayla howled, loud and long and with a touch of feral grief that chilled even Mishu's fierce temper. We looked for the source and found her yards away--she hadn't followed us to Ramezia, but rather taken off in pursuit of what we were too blind with haste to notice. We dropped what we were arguing about (some of us more reluctantly than others) and ran back across the ruined field, catching up with Ayla on the edge of a cliff that marked the end of the beach and the start of a rolling plain.

I was the last one there, before Magus and Mishu; I watched everyone react to it before I could see it for myself. Ayla didn't explain a thing; she simply threw herself down the cliff and out of sight. Frog stopped short and uttered an oath that the rain couldn't translate. When Crono looked over the precipice he cringed, made a throttled sound redolent of panic and jumped down after Ayla. "Shit, what now??" the neiphiti griped.

When I thought about it--and it's a good thing I took a second to think before looking--I recalled that weird fireball that grazed me during the battle, and how it had fallen exactly where Ayla led us (photographic memory, yep.) Judging by the way my magic was stunted, I suspected a subversive brand of magic, and had started to figure it was one of Darwin's arrows.

Well, it was--there was just a body stuck on the end of it. Suddenly I was staring slack-jawed (beaked?) at a human form thirty feet below, its back flush against the top of a particularly flat boulder. It was stapled to the rock by tethers of solid ice that converged at its middle, where an arrow had pierced the abdomen. A puddle of blood dyed its purple hair and backlit the ice with clashing red. It was a girl, cold and pale, wearing my orange tunic and dark pants and yellow scarf, and just out of her unconscious reach was a chipped pair of glasses.

"Lucca!!" Frog cried out as he tore down the cliff and to her side, and then I realized that what I was looking at--that mannequin sprawled and broken over the rocks and stuck with a pin of ice like a damn insect under glass--was a corpse, the fresh death already frozen over.

I was looking at a dead body.

I was looking at my own dead body.

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