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

24. Quietus

'For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.'

So said a famous priest that lived in Guardia around the fifth century AD. He was a man my mother quoted often when she wanted to shut me up on a pretentious note. I adored my mom--I would've done anything for her--but there was always one major point of contention that kept me from being as close to her as I was to Dad. Guess what it was over. Just guess.

I've told you God and Science don't get along, and my mom was the religious type. She did the church song and dance. She read 'the good book.' She had a trite, God-inspired non sequitur for every situation. It drove me up the wall sometimes, but the heavens forbid I make a smartass, irreverent remark about the Powers that Be, lest Mom go on a tirade about how she didn't raise some godless heathen. One of my favorite comebacks was that 'religion' is just another word for well-organized superstition. Sometimes Dad played mediator by telling me to go to my room, as if I couldn't hear the oaths Mom was uttering in regards to my immortal soul from there.

Yet, despite all that... I wish I hadn't been so proud and obstinate about it. I can't retract my beliefs (or the lack thereof, in this case), but if I only had the gall to be honest with Mom, when she asked if I believed in the existence of a god... I would've told her that I can't be certain. If such an omnipotent yet mysterious being truly existed, there would never be enough evidence to prove or disprove it. All you can do is quibble over the finer points until you lose sight of the big picture, and therein lies the fact of faith--the greatest logical fallacy of all time. No explanation is possible.

I can't explain the afterlife. Science didn't give me a logical, physics-bound explanation for standing at Cyrus's grave, or Toma's, and chatting it up with ghosts (I was going to chalk it up to 'mass hallucination,' but Robo was a witness as well, and robots can't hallucinate.) Relatively speaking, astrophysics and even time travel make more sense, but there are so many things that shouldn't exist that I've seen with my own eyes, anyway.

For instance, I was looking at my own dead body. Knock me over with a feather.

Once I was finished gawking at my misfortune I flew down for a closer look--genuine morbid curiosity, if you will. Crono, Frog and Ayla skidded down the slippery rocks and squatted around the body (holy crap my body, my dead body), staring at it with a disquieting lack of direction, much less words. Ayla wore a smoldering mask, Frog seemed reservedly distressed, and Crono's expression was blank--glassy, hollow. He looked petrified, as if that ice bolt had struck him, too--and when I came to think of it, it was rather as if it had.

That scream... our beast link. Crono must have felt it snapping like a twig. I started wondering why I kept my beast form, even after getting shot off the side of a cliff, but then I realized that--well, in reality, I hadn't. It was then that all the little things I should have noticed before became unnervingly obvious: the dry rain, the airless wind, and the way sounds and voices cast about the rocks and sky without regards for composition, density or distance, as if the world were enclosed in a giant soundproof bubble. I wasn't even sure of my own substance; I could touch the ground, but it almost felt like a formality, like I didn't have to if I didn't want to.

So, this was what it was like to be a ghost. Why a ghost bird, though? Was it because that was the guise I was taking at the time of my--my death? Was I going to be stuck as a feathery longneck for the rest of my afterlife? (Here's a weird thought: if Frog had died before his curse was lifted, would his spirit have remained amphibious?) This really sucked.

What bothered me more than anything, however, was that needling, insidious black voice I could scarcely tell apart from my own. 'Your pretty little healer's gone. I think you're fucked.'

Oh no, oh hell no, that was the worst thing--realizing that Marle had been abducted by a zealous psychopath corrupted by the forces of Darkness, and instead of hurrying up to go save her and our planet, my friends were sitting around staring at a useless corpse. Damnit guys, get up and do something!

Frog turned to Ayla and asked with overdue urgency, "What happened?"

The woman sprang to her feet with a burst of vengeful enthusiasm. "Ayla saw! Darwin! Shoot with strange arrow."

"Holy shit," Mishu's belated reaction projected from the top of the cliff. Glad she could join us, I guess.

Crono snapped out of it last--really snapped, taking his sword and battering the brittle cage of ice with the hilt. "Grk-Crono! C-Careful..." Frog's feckless objection petered out with a vestige of a croak, and he watched the ice get punched and kicked into a hundred frenzied little pieces. Once broken free, Crono knelt over the body (it, her, me--gawd, this was confusing already) and reached under my scarf, feeling for a pulse or a sign of... anything.

Ayla joined him, leaning close and listening for the slightest stir. At length she pulled back and announced, more sober than ever, "Cold, but... still alive."

What. What?? I couldn't--after all that--the fall, the ice, the bloody arrow--there was no way. Crono's shock mirrored my own, and he tentatively grasped the shaft of the arrow as Ayla suggested, "Maybe pull out?"

Frog opened his mouth to interject, hopefully to the tune of don't yank that stupid thing out so she bleeds to death for sure, but then the voice of reason came from above, pithy and callous. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Magus was standing next to Mishu at the top of the cliff, where the line of their concern was drawn. Frog squinted up at him through the rain. "What?"

"It's an ice arrow." No shit? "That ice is probably the only thing keeping her alive right now." I must have been dreaming--since when did Magus care whether I lived or died?

Ayla sat back on her haunches, relinquishing the case to someone hopefully more qualified. "Try magic?"

Frog blanched before the gruesome task. "I--I can't--I don't know healing magic as well as..." The name fell short on his tongue as his gaze fixed on the arrow buried so deeply the blood didn't even have time to run--frost salted the wound. "I wouldn't know where to begin."

"Well then what the fuck??" Mishu asked loudly, generally disgruntled, while Frog put it more delicately. "What are we going to do? We have to pursue Ramezia, but..."

Ayla smashed a loose chunk of ice with her fist. "No leave! We leave, Lucca die. Never leave friend behind!"

"But we have to rescue Marle, too!" Frog argued, duly adamant.

Magus frowned down his nose at us--that same 'you are all pathetic,' mightier-than-thou look he always uses. "You numbskulls are forgetting. That spell hasn't been reversed yet."

Frog nodded grimly. "Right, the Vitraevos. The Mammon Machine is still standing, which means..."

"If we don't move our asses and stop it, we're not going to save anybody!" Mishu concluded.

Ayla shook her head fervently, wet blonde locks lashing her brow. "No! Not right! Save everyone, Lucca and Marle too! Not giving up!"

Frog pressed, "We're not arguing with you, Ayla! We're just saying..."

I didn't hear the rest--I'm ashamed to admit I lost focus. It's hard to imagine what could be more fascinating than a discussion over one's own rescue and whether or not it compromised the welfare of the entire world, but something else grabbed my eye and wouldn't let go. A few feet away rested an old hardcover book. I knew before I even got close--it was the T'torlan. It must have been thrown from my bag in the impact. It had fallen to an open page, where the pristine ink was unspoiled, even as the tanned paper soaked up every inch of rain. There was no blurring, no smearing, and not even a tiny smudge where mud threatened to splash over the text. It was as if the tome were immune to the elements--which began to explain how it lasted over four hundred years.

It was the design on the page that was captivating, though: an equilateral triangle divided into four segments, underscoring an illustration of a large bird. Its expansive wings and braided tail feathers were rendered in glorious detail, and on the opposite page I could read the translator's cryptic description:

Fire - Light - Life
The Phoenix

A chill rippled through me along with a heavy boot, which phased through my insubstantial form as if I weren't even there--which I had to remind myself was true. I nonetheless shuffled out of the way as Magus stooped to pick up the book and, after inspecting it thoughtfully, tucked it into his cloak. I was going to (ineffectively) object to essentially re-stealing from me, but that train of thought was brought to a screeching halt by the last voice I expected to hear.

"Shut up! Just shut up, damnit!!"

I wasn't the only one surprised; everyone dropped their arguments and turned bewildered looks towards the speaker. It was funny. Crono never talked, criticized, commanded or even suggested a damn thing, yet in the event of a real crisis everyone deferred to him. Crono always led by his actions, but this was... different. It wasn't right this time. Nothing felt right. He clenched his fist and ran his other hand through his hair, his frustration almost palpable.

Frog swallowed his last thought and broke the frozen peace first. "Crono..."

Crono shook his head and paced furiously, thinking. Deliberating. I knew what he wanted--it was the same thing his stupid, selfless bravado always demanded. He wanted to save Marle. He wanted to save me. He wanted to save everyone. And he knew he couldn't. Thunder rumbled a weighty reminder; we were running out of time. Finally he stopped, picked up his sword, sheathed it with a decisive click and then spoke again.

"...Frog, Ayla, go with Magus and Mishu. I'll take care of Lucca."

The impulse to scream, 'No, damnit, go after Ramezia! Save the damn world first!' wouldn't have helped and I knew it, even if he could hear me. The damn fool had made up his mind.

Magus made a commendable effort not to sound like he cared as he asked, "Splitting up, huh? And just where will you take her?"

Crono paused, gazing over the featureless horizon. Frog likewise panned a look from the foreboding rock formation to the west to the storm clouds in the east. "I think the Mystics retreated to their base, over towards that mountain. It looks like we're right outside the Heckran Caves. Medina might not be too far from here, but the road's going to be treacherous in this weather."

Ayla protested, "Let Ayla come! No go alone."

Crono shook his head. No. I can handle this.

Frog gravely counseled, "Crono, if you're sure..." He must have understood that whoever was going after Ramezia was going to need all the help they could get--not to mention the Masamune, which was practically the only thing that could dismantle the Mammon Machine. Crono didn't want to spare any more manpower--and magic power--than necessary.

Mishu scoffed, finding something about this mess horribly amusing. "You think you can save her because of your beast link?"

Crono looked away, regressing into silence--one fraught with too many uncertainties. The neiphiti snickered. "Heh. Maybe. Maybe not. I guess it's just as dangerous for you, either way."

What was that supposed to mean?? I didn't want to put Crono in any more danger. It was bad enough that I was responsible for nearly getting him killed by Heckran...

"Are you sure that's what you want to do? She has the blight too, you know. She'll only turn into a fiend later. Maybe the merciful thing is to let her go."

Huh, and I could have gone to rest without worrying any more about that stupid blight. Thanks a lot, Mishu. 'Heh heh, maybe they should listen to her...'

Ayla treated the notion like a slap to the face, whirling towards the dragon lady with her fists raised. "What you say?!"

Magus butted in, leaving no more room for quarreling. "We need to move, now."

Crono agreed with a firm nod, and that was all the persuasion Frog and Ayla needed. He then passed the wizard a hard look. "Magus..."

Magus held his gaze for a moment before glancing away with a distasteful cluck, as if he couldn't stomach a generous thought. "Tch. We'll save your stupid princess."

Crono nodded soundly, grateful for the oath regardless. Ayla set her hands on his shoulders, forcing eye contact--and his resolve. "Crono! Take care, be safe. We bring Marle back and help."

He patted her arm, favoring the sentiment. I will. Thanks.

Frog stifled a nervous frown with a serious one, shouldered his sword and started back up the cliff. "Good luck, Crono. Let's go."

I watched the splintered party sprint up the rocks and over the ledge, torn between following them and staying where my obvious interests lay. I would be beyond useless to them, but I really I wanted to go, even if my only petty reason was to not have to watch Crono suffer the inevitable. I glanced back at the shattered, soulless shell that was supposed to be me and knew better. Crono wanted to save everyone. He was going to fail.

And I couldn't do a thing but watch. I flew to the top of the cliff, perched on the limb of a lonesome, dead shrub and stayed back while the others ran to the beach. They huddled around a spot Magus had designated in the sand, and with four little white flashes they were gone. At least they had made it that far safely. The rest was, disturbingly, in Magus's hands.

I looked down, behind me, where Crono was gathering his wits for the long walk ahead. He found my glasses in the mud and wiped them clean on the tail of his dirty shirt--a pointless bid at being thoughtful, though I figured it was more of a distraction, to clear his head. He pocketed them, sighed raggedly, stepped over to that frozen body and picked it up like some twisted corpse bride, mindful not to upset the well-lodged arrow. Then he simply turned his back to the mountains and walked.

And walked. I can't say what he hoping to accomplish, exactly. Maybe if we made it as far as civilization, I would have the luxury of dying indoors. Frog was right, though; the road was difficult. To be more precise, there wasn't a road--it was more like a giant, protracted stumbling block comprised of greasy clay, wet rubble and the occasional clump of soggy grass. I followed overhead in lazy spirals, feeling too much like a buzzard circling my soon-to-be carcass. It was surreal.

Still, traipsing hopelessly towards my demise gave me some time to think about things that weren't so bleak--namely, the novelty of flight, which I hitherto hadn't taken a moment to appreciate. It's not that gravity and aerodynamics necessarily applied to me as a ghost as they did before, but there was a special, exhilarating quality about soaring through the air under one's own strength, the scenery zooming out and over your shoulder at the flap of a wing... It would've been breathtaking, if I had any breath to take. I wasn't the biggest fan of heights, and sometimes flying is more like 'controlled falling,' but I could really get used to this--er, could have gotten. Past tense. This would be my last flight, so I had to try to enjoy it.

Who knows? Things just might work out for the best, anyway. We've beat tougher situations than this, right? Magus and the guys would rescue the princess, stop the evil sorceress and save the day. And I would... stay out of the way. Once I'm gone, the blight wouldn't be an issue. Nobody would have to worry about fiends, or the Darkness, or me turning into a monster. The more I thought about it, the more my reasoning leaned towards Mishu's--it would've been the wiser course to just leave me behind.

It's not like I had a family to go back to, but I didn't particularly dwell on that thought.

Any time my thoughts lifted towards something positive, however, I looked back to the ground and my heart broke a little. Crono wouldn't quit going. His boots were almost constantly mired in sludge, and he stumbled over every hidden dip, rock and puddle, but again and again he picked his chin up and moved on. I knew he was trying to be a good friend and take whatever illogical action tantamounted to the Right Thing, but why did he have to be so stubborn?? Didn't he know an exercise in futility when he saw one? If I had to watch him slog through the mud any longer it really was going to kill me.

One such slip piqued my alarm, and I circled closer as Crono dropped to one knee and paused for a spell. After a minute he staggered back to his feet and trudged forward, but there was something off--something bothering him more than a tough road and an icy burden--something that made him seem unreasonably tired. I tried to walk along and read his face, but it was next to impossible with the way the rain made his spiky hair droop over his eyes, and those streaks of purple blood across his temple from where Heckran--

Oh, crap. Heckran struck him. Heckran struck him hard enough to make him bleed, and what are heckran claws notorious for? I can't believe everyone overlooked this--Marle even healed the wound afterward, which just sealed in the venom. Either Crono saw this coming and volunteered for this suicide mission to make sure he didn't get in the way of Marle's rescue, or he honestly forgot, which either way makes him a total idiot. Yet what does that make me, since I forgot, too?? Not that I could have warned anyone. I was useless, even as a ghost (especially as a ghost.)

Crono stumbled again, and I heard his breath catch with a pained hiss as he plucked his ankle out of a pothole. He took a lurching step onward, wobbled a bit, and then took another. His every movement turned increasingly sluggish, and every couple of yards he would hesitate, blink twice, shake his head and reaffirm his grip on the dead weight he was carrying--a grip he was slowly but surely losing. Oh crud oh crap oh, shit. What was I going to do??

I furled my wings and started pacing alongside him, trying to stay close, even if my presence didn't mean a thing. At least he couldn't trip over a ghost. Speaking of rogue spirits, little black whispers hounded our every step.

'Are you sure....this? I thought you said....trigger....summoning.'

This was a nightmare--all of it, everything from the moment Magus magicked his cold-hearted ass into my room. I had to wake up soon. I couldn't imagine it getting any worse.

'We're run....options. If she dies, the seed won't....and....our work....to naught.'

I hate when I try to imagine things getting worse, because reality always trumps me.

'...still don't like it.'

We made it to the top of a hill when lightning struck, not anywhere immediate but close enough to jarr Crono and make him slip on a patch of clay. It was all downhill from there, with Crono falling sidelong into a tumble that made a few sloppy, disjointed stops on some boulders before hitting the bottom. As valiantly as he tried to hold on to his charge, the body was knocked out of his arms just as he bounced off another slab of clay. It fell crumpled on its side (I can't give this cryogenic cadaver a more personal pronoun or I'll go crazy) while Crono rolled face-first into the mud a few feet away.

I panicked and dove after them, landing between him and the body. For an awful moment, Crono didn't move. I could have screamed, but before a better idea came over me he gave a twitching start, dragging himself out of that puddle and gasping for air. He was a wreck, crawling and pale and shaking, caked with half a mile of grime and not going anywhere, fast. He didn't get back up; Crono's arms buckled and he collapsed, the last of his strength extinguishing with a trembling sigh. His eyes glazed over with a familiar, abject haze--Heckran's neurotoxin had finally hit its mark, and I realized with a pang of dread that this was as far as we were going to go.

I had given up on my own survival before this insane trek even began, but my heart sank with the thought that nobody was going to find us out here, and if someone didn't help Crono, then... then. Despite myself I inched close, offering an invisible, impossible warmth that couldn't comfort him as he lay in the rain and dirt like a dog, wheezing and shivering. My dad shot that poor dog. Somebody give me a bullet.

"...s...sorry..." he whimpered, the word so faint it was next to nothing, and then that lost, helpless look in his eyes dimmed and went out completely, his body going limp. I could discern some sedated breath, but Crono was otherwise out cold.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I thought of Marle pointing a gun at me and Magus telling her to pull the trigger. I flailed over my fallen friend, screeching with a voice that only Mishu could have intercepted, and even then in more of a living dimension, 'Damnit! Damnit it all! This is all my fault! I couldn't stop Heckran, I couldn't stop Ramezia, I couldn't stop Seth, I couldn't help my parents, or Alsten or Crono or Marle or do anything but slow everyone down! Why am I so useless?!'

"That is an excellent question."

I shot up, shocked cold by the voice that was once a demonic haze, but now cut as clear as a diamond. I turned around and saw them, sitting side-by-side and staring complacently at Crono and me as if they had been there all along. They were hardly bigger than badgers, yet they didn't have any real shape or form. They looked like blobs of charcoal dust with sharp, glowing eyes--one set red, and the other blue. Set upon their limbless, airy bodies were traces of facial features--the blue-eyed one had a gently sloping, equine muzzle while the red-eyed one had the pointed, menacing countenance of a dragon.

'Who... are you?'

They grinned unpleasantly. The blue one spoke first, detached and suavely masculine. "Brother, should we tell her?"

The red one's tone was not as sophisticated, husky and rich with malice. "Nah... It's no fun that way. Make her guess."

Then I realized; these were the voices--the voices--their physical forms. Or metaphysical, at least. 'You two... you're real!'

The red one laughed. "Gwahaha, whaaat, did you think we were figments of your pretty little imagination? Sorry to disappoint you."

I shrank from the pair as I realized something worse. 'You're rapiers, like Seth!'

"Hmm," the red one mused. "You're half right."

"Seth is an aberration to our kind," the blue one explained. "We would never try to possess you or your friends."

"The heavens forbid," his 'brother' grumbled. "Humans are so disgusting."

'What do you want with me? Why have you been, been--stalking me?' I couldn't think of a more fitting word.

The blue one hummed a beat, mulling it over. "I'd love to answer that, but I do believe you have more pressing concerns at hand, wouldn't you agree?"

'What in the world are you talking about?' Instead of waiting for whatever absurd answer those two spectres were going to concoct, I got myself a reality check and stormed off. 'Actually, you know what? Screw you guys! Screw all of this. For what I know, this has all been an elaborate near-death hallucination triggered by degrading neurological signals in my brain, and I'm gonna either wake up for cark it any moment.'

The red one sniggered. "Heheh, you got at least that last part right."

I spun back around, unable to help myself. 'What??'

"I'm afraid it's too soon for you," the blue one said. "We can't allow you to escape this mortal coil just yet."

"Heh, we anchored your beast to this plane to keep you from passing on."

Mister Blue went on to state matter-of-factly, "Yes, it's the very reason you can see us now. Of course, we can't hold you down forever. In just a few minutes, I'm afraid, you're going to die."

I gagged on a wad of nothing--okay, so despite all my griping, dying was still an... intimidating concept.

The blue one took stock of my reaction and said, sublimely sarcastic, "Shocking, I know."

"Yes, it would be a real pity, wouldn't it? You wouldn't want to die here, would you?" the red one concurred with barely concealed mirth.

The blue one's expression leveled to something businesslike as he proposed, "Which brings us to the point: we're going to tell you how to save your life."

'What...?' I baulked from any assistance these two had to offer. 'Are you trying to help me? I don't understand...'

They grinned like wolves. "It's not a matter of helping or hurting. It's not your time. It's that simple."

"We'll let you know when it is," the red one sneered.

The blue one abruptly looked aside, his attention caught by something imperceptibly far away. "Oh dear. I'm afraid we have an unexpected complication coming our way."

The red one snapped to look over his brother's 'shoulder.' "What?"

"One of Bahamut's. I sense he's come to collect her."

"What? Already?! Meddling espers! They can't breach this dimension like that!"

"I'm afraid Lord Odin can. He is called the God of Death for a reason."

The red one looked ready to boil over. "Grr... Odin! Fuck! We can't just stand here while he shows up!"

Meanwhile, the blue one maintained a cool facade. "No, we can't... There's only one recourse." He looked directly at me, his tone dipping into something dark and dire. "Listen carefully, Lucca. Call upon your beast partner. Just say eto espirie Traukee and he will come. The Key of Light can save you from certain death. But just in case that isn't enough motivation for you, consider this..." And here his brother piped in, his grin turning truly iniquitous. "If you die now, you'll drag your friend Crono down with you."

Every feather on my not-body stood on end. 'You... You're bluffing! I don't believe anything you say!'

"Are we?" the blue one met my challenge.

"Mweheh, destiny is a cruel mistress. She has a way of choosing your enemies for you. One of them is coming to take your life now. Your existence is considered a threat."

I couldn't let these guys get away without any answers. 'Why? A threat to what?'

"To their existence."

'Who are you talking about?'

"The espers."

'What...?'

"Shush, brother. It's time to go," the cool one chastised him, and then turned once more to me. "I mean it, girl. Call the Traukee before it's too late. If you truly think we're lying, now's the perfect chance to test us."

'Wait, what??' They vanished before I could get a word in edgewise, evaporating into thin air like smoke.

And that was all, so it seemed. I was losing my damn mind. I looked back at that rumpled girl-like thing, my human body, hair and clothes stained red while the skin was bleached down to the veins, and then at Crono--who wasn't too far away, in either sense. Those crazy voices were right about one thing: I was going to die. I was going to die, and then Crono...

No, no no no. I couldn't let that happen, even if that meant buying into some retarded voodoo taught to me by a couple of ghost dogs. I had to try something, anything. 'I can't believe I'm doing this...' I self-consciously muttered as I stood over my friend's sickly form and recalled that incantation. Go go go, photographic memory.

'Eto... eto espirie. Eto espirie Traukee.'

Nothing. I suppressed a sigh, closed my eyes and tried again. Maybe something would happen if I treated it like a magic spell, just like the beast talent.

'Eto espirie Traukee. He said the Key of Light would come. Please... I'm desperate. Please help.'

I felt a breeze rush beneath my feet, balmy and warm, and when I opened my eyes I was looking at an... egg of light, like a soft incandescent bulb, sitting on Crono's shoulder. The moment I squeaked and jumped back it hatched, the effervescent shell peeling away to reveal a fully-fledged bird. It stumbled away from where it spawned, golden licks of flame streaming off its plumage, and when the dusty light cleared it poked around quizzically, looking for its bearings.

Geez, I asked for help, and got another bird. Somebody up there hates me. It wasn't even as big as me--it looked more like a kestrel, of all thi--wait. 'I--wha--Crono??'

The kestrel snapped its quick eyes to me, looking as perplexed as a bird of prey could. 'Lucca??' it--he--oh cripes it WAS Crono--voiced at length.

I hopped in place, both astonished and infuriated with the fates at once. 'This is what that's supposed to do?? This isn't helpful at all!'

The kestrel glimpsed his own poor, disconnected human body stranded in the mud and flapped his wings in a clueless tantrum. 'Whoa, what's going on?!'

This was going to end well. At least we could communicate? I tried to explain, 'Crono, listen I--'

That's when destiny came knocking, and everything else quit mattering. I'm not sure any words I use can adequately describe this. It's like the sky opened up, every patch of light between the clouds stripped down to a black web, blanketing the landscape in darkness that seemed to stop time. The wind, the lightning--even the rain froze to the last drop, suspended in air that didn't breathe. A stone's throw away, a black gate opened, and Death's own persona rode forth. I swear to hell.

He was the epitome every rock-hard knight you never wanted to cross on the battlefield, as tall as two grown men and decked in cast iron plate heavy enough to sink a battleship. He wore a wickedly horned helmet and a war-torn cape that billowed in a timeless draught, and was seated upon a six-legged horse with an ashen mane and eyes that simmered like hot pokers. His face was inscrutable, pitched in shadow, but it's not as if you'd be looking for it--you would sooner notice the six-foot sword he carried at his side, inscribed with runes that glowed under a devilish enchantment.

The death rider strode calmly through the gate, stopped a short ways before us and dismounted. Crono and I just stared at this monster of a man, unable to move. He never introduced himself. He raised one arm, reaching and pointing at us, and uttered one word dark and dense enough to forge a singularity.

"Come."

Something pulled me, something more intense and pervasive than gravity itself, and it felt like the only way to keep standing was to move forward, towards that man's beckoning hand. I couldn't resist his draw, much less consider where I was going--one foot in front of the other, and the other, and the other, marching ever-slowly into the gate that reaps. A pinprick in the back of my mind told me to stop and think, but it was miniscule next to the overpowering urge to walk and keep walking--until a wall of yellow-brown feathers dropped directly in my path.

'Lucca, wait!' Wait. Wait what? This wall of feathers was talking. It sounded like Crono. The black knight flexed his hand and spoke again.

"Come."

That ineffable force pushed and pulled--I fell flat into my kestrel friend, who stumbled and dug his tiny feet into the earth to compensate. He held out his short wings, catching me and bracing against unseen powers that could bend mentality and mortality alike. 'Lucca, hang on! Don't go!'

"Do not stand in my way, Ellichronrisen," the black knight issued a warning, though my mind drew blanks at his every other word. Why stand? Whose way? Elliwhat?

Did I... even care...?

Don't be useless, a voice scolded from the recesses of my memory, and it sounded just enough like Magus to piss me off. I retched at the imagery and shoved myself backwards, giving Crono space to breathe. 'Are you okay??' he frenetically asked.

I shook myself free of that terrible, suicidal compulsion. 'I--ah? Crono, I--' will never get to finish a damn sentence. Clanking armor interjected, each footfall like an incoming tank as the black knight plodded closer. Although it felt like eternity, before we could blink twice he was towering over us, demon sword raised for a blow that couldn't possibly miss. We were dead. We were just dead, that was it.

Crono wasn't convinced. He jumped ahead of me again, feathers bristling and wings swept low to the ground with a territorial screech. 'Get away!'

I had not witnessed anything play out in slow motion like that since we fought Lavos on the battlefield of the fourth dimension. The black knight swung his sword and Crono sprang into the air the same instant, a spell roaring to life between his talons that was somehow too clean and bright to be lightning. I had only seen it once before--the product of last-ditch desperation, a blast of pure magic that was the antipode to Magus's shadow bomb and twice as potent, blinding everything that wasn't sucked into its sphere of destruction and white-washed off the palette of existence. We had found Crono sitting in a mahna-drained daze in the aftermath, and any attempts to ask what the hell happened were shrugged off with a dopey grin.

I was about to get one more chance to find out, but like a spring snapping in a clock, time unwound too fast and all at once--a metal blade sang, a ball of magic plasma ignited, and the entire world fell apart.

I... think I screamed.

'Crono!!'

---

Next
Back to Esper Junction