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

3. The Magic Cave

Once we reached the other side of the gate, I dropped to my knees and waited for the world to turn right-side-up. One of the first things I saw was Crono rising from a cat-like crouch, one hand on the hilt of his sword. He always weathered those jumps better than the rest of us.

Sometimes I missed the Epoch. It made our rides through the fourth dimension smooth, quick and easy. Gates are a dizzy, unstable, unpredictable, radical approach to time travel. I don't get motion sick--well, easily--but gates have more than once brought me to the brink. I speculate, though, that even if we hadn't flown that time machine down Lavos's throat, we would have decided to dismantle it, anyway. The Epoch helped us immensely, but it was not to be used lightly, and I take the business of time travel rather seriously (hey, one of us has to.) Some things mankind really isn't meant to mess around with.

Don't get me wrong; I'm still a total hypocrite.

The chamber we arrived in was almost identical to the one we left, and for a minute I thought we hadn't gone anywhere. This cavern was smaller, however, with the ceiling closed in, and the walls had a gritty, reddish hue. There was a single, narrow hall leading out into darkness, not daylight.

What first made us realize we had a problem was that Magus was gone. I wasn't sure which I was about to remark on first: that the jerk abandoned us already or that something reeked terribly of mildew and excretion. I was paused when Crono raised his hand, his gaze stabbing into the dark. Listen.

I couldn't hear a thing, but Crono wasn't fooling around, so I pulled out my gun. He started pacing down the corridor, and I followed shortly behind. The light of the gate receded as the passage opened into a wider cavern, this one pitch black. The air was tense and heavy, like the lull before a storm, and with each step that stench grew stronger. "Seriously, what is that funk?" I hissed, and Crono tossed me the shush look.

If I had been paying attention, it might have seemed familiar. Even if I recognized it, I doubt I could have stopped the huge, ungainly blob that shot out of the dark and knocked Crono down like a passing train. Both flew out of my line of sight and off to the right, where I heard a powerful, echoing thud, something sharp skidding across stone and then a hideous snarl. Spurred by panic, I charged in after them, sweeping my gun in aimless circles. I could hardly find my bearings, much less anything to shoot, until a sliver of hope rang out: the magical alloy of the Rainbow glimmering in the dark as it was drawn from its sheath. It cast a firefly-glow around the immediate area, and I found Crono waving it like a torch as he staggered to his feet.

I locked my sights on the hulking silhouette between me and the sword. It was as tall and hefty as two grown men, and when it spoke its voice was toothy and blaring, like a broken tuba. "BAKAN KILL HUMANS!"

It lunged forward, swinging arms as thick as barrels, and the light was lost for a moment as Crono ducked under its swipe and then jabbed upwards, burying the Rainbow in the beast's torso. The monster--Bakan--threw its head back with a deep, gargling shriek, though before Crono could break away he was grabbed by the collar, hefted off the ground and flung across the room. The sword was yanked free with an ugly splattering sound while Crono tumbled to the side, and just as Bakan lurched as if to pounce, I took my shot.

My gun was fairly powerful for an air pistol, but not worth much more than killing rats and squirrels. I didn't expect to do any real damage against something as big as a coach, but that wasn't my intention. I managed to bury two pellets in the side of its snout, distracting it to the point of crying and whirling around. As it faced me, I took stock of its appearance: the stout, muscular legs and trunk; the scabrous reptilian skin; the oversized forelimbs tipped with scissor-like claws; and the twin rows of quills running down its hunched back to the tip of its short, meaty tail. It fixed me with a pair of big yellow eyes, although its next attack wasn't what I expected.

"DEATH TO THE MYSTICS' ENEMIES!" it seethed, inky blood oozing from its ribs and gaping jaws as fluorescent blue mist began brewing between its palms. That's when I realized what we were facing, a second too late--it was a water dragon, a heckran.

It slapped its puddle of magic like a child playing in a wading pool, and out flew a tidal wave, crashing around the room and knocking me against the wall. For a while all I could see and hear was black water, murmuring in my ears and pasting me to the rocks like a hapless starfish. The spell subsided a minute later, leaving everything slick and steaming with an odor not unlike a sewer while I was left rubbing the knot on the back of my head. My gun was washed away in the tide, and I'd almost thought I lost my glasses, too, until I scrambled a little ways and picked them off the ground.

The Rainbow came into focus first, lying on the ground distressingly sans-owner. A set of stumpy, scaly legs shuffled in front of it, and I had to look up to meet the heckran's face, its crocodilian mug grinning doom at me.

"BAKAN..." it said again, stupidly yet savagely, and I grimaced as hot spittle landed on my cheek. I was too busy figuring whether or not I could dodge the blow it was raising against me to notice the low whistle of a magic wind sweeping towards the back of the cave. The next thing to strike was a streak of white-hot gold that arched across the ceiling and skewered the heckran like a meat hook. I sat thunderstruck while Bakan was chained to the spot by the lightning bolt, and though it jerked and writhed profusely, any howls were drowned in the buzzing ozone.

I had never seen a spell of electricity sustained that long, but after an eternity it dissipated with a resonant crack, like a shattered string of stars. Bakan twitched and then crumpled, hitting the floor with a wet, sizzling thud.

I blinked in the aftermath, blinded and amazed. The heckran--what was left of it--laid smoldering, its noxious barbeque adding one more aroma to the cavern. I shakily stood and looked for the spell's caster, but when I found Crono crawling along the opposite wall, washed-out and disoriented, I realized it wasn't him. I turned the other way and there was Magus, standing plainly with his hand outstretched in the heckran's direction. He lowered his arm and then faced me with a flat expression that could have meant anything or nothing at all, the way the shadows fell over his brow.

"Magus!" Maybe it was the overdue adrenaline rush making me aggressive, or maybe I knew better than to expect a genuinely helping hand from the man, but right away I sputtered, "What the--you--how long were you gonna just stand there before helping us??"

He didn't respond. I reached to wipe off my glasses, and when my sleeves felt damp and heavy I realized what was worse. "Wait a second--a lightning spell? Hello?? We're completely covered in water! Water conducts electricity, thank you! Were you trying to cook us all alive?!" Actually, pure H2O with no contaminants or dissolved ions does not conduct electricity at all, but the 'purity' of the water in that rank cave really wasn't up for debate.

"I missed," Magus sneered resentfully, obviously touched by my gratitude. He tilted an impatient look towards Crono, who was just recovering his sword. I skipped around the smoking pile of dragon meat to join him.

"I can't believe we ran into a heckran," I said. Crono shook his head dazedly in accord. I can't believe a heckran ran into ME. He rolled his shoulders with a wince, shook dry the Rainbow and started to sheathe it, but then changed his mind, holding it by his side for a makeshift lantern. Its iridescent tinge made the dew on the surrounding rocks shine like soap bubbles, and I could see where Crono's clothes was sheared and mottled with blood.

"You look like a butcher," I remarked, nudging his arm, and Crono huffed with a small grin.

"You're both pathetic," was Magus's verdict, and that's when it sank in: the reason he didn't help sooner was because he was testing us.

"Wha--why, you...!" I wasn't sure whether I was more offended by the principle or the humiliation of it all, but before I could call him every nasty name in the book he turned and strode off, a tongue of flame balanced in the palm of his hand like a candle.

"Com'on."

That was the closest thing to an invitation we were going to get, so I bit my tongue and followed. If I didn't trip over my gun on the way, I would have left it behind. We worked our way through a serpentine cavern that looked and smelled like a golem's intestines, while bats chirped over our heads and rats scurried behind us. The walkway would level and narrow at lengths before stepping up or down in tiers, lending the impression of stairs. The whole design appeared suspiciously deliberate--not to mention familiar--although Magus was taking each corner too quickly for us to catch up and dwell on it.

He eventually paused at a fork in the path. I took that second to read Crono's outlook on the place, just to make sure I wasn't going crazy with deja-vu. He met my searching look instantly, eyebrows drawn together and lips slightly parted on the verge of asking, Haven't we been here before?

"Hey Magus, do you know where we are?" I spoke up.

Magus looked left, then right, and then reached up, passing his flame onto an obscure projection that caught it instantly. The fire blossomed into a proper torch, and all at once similar fires sprung to life, all along the upper walls of the passageway. We could hear vermin scrambling for the cover of shadow in all directions as the cavern's naturally rusty colors ignited in the torchlight.

"Hmm," was all Magus said about it, and then he picked up the pace, turning left.

"H-Hey!" I tried to stop him, but then we were playing catch-up again. It wasn't long before we finally found an exit, an arched stairway stepping out into fresh air. It was such a relief to breathe in the outdoors and look up to a clear afternoon sky that I almost didn't notice what was directly ahead.

It rose like a small mountain at the end of a beaten, leaf-strewn path, enclosed by scorched trees and thorny brambles. Its massive, wilting towers were laced together with rubble and narrow bridges, like a petrified spider's den. Its corners were cracked and crumbling, the keep at the center long fallen, though the outer segments remained intact, if as dead and hollow as a graveyard.

"Whoa, this is...!" I buried my heels in the ground, as if that could anchor me against the evil gravity of the place. Even in its ruined state, it was an unmistakable, haunted edifice. Nothing in history could match it.

Magus stopped ahead of us, appraised the abandoned mystic citadel with a wide, roving gaze, and then smirked. "Heh. Home." Magus's Castle.

I stood back and rationalized our locale. "So, that gate took us into the Magic Cave. I don't get it, though. Gates are supposed to traverse the time-stream, not relative space. This isn't the same geographic latitude as Truce Canyon--we're not even on the same continent!"

"Obviously these gates are different," Magus drawled sardonically.

I took a hint. "Okay, so... We're going in?"

The question hung on an eerily chilly summer breeze. Magus stood like one of his statues, considering it, while I passed a silent version of my query to Crono. I had to turn around completely to find him; I hadn't realized he was lagging behind. He was on his hands and knees, his head bowed in an unreadable stance.

"What in the world are you looking at?" At first I thought he might have found something, but as I approached, Crono collapsed face-first into the dirt.

"H-Hey! You okay?" I tried not to give my sense of dread room to talk as I dropped next to him and prodded his side. "Com'on, this isn't funny."

He shuddered and snorted like a sick horse, but refused to face me. Since asking him was useless, I took his arm and dragged him upright. He was alarmingly pliant for his usually obstinate self, and when I glimpsed his face I saw why: his expression was a blank slate, glazed and faint.

My voice hitched a note higher as my heart stuck in my throat. "Geez, you're pale! Hold still, okay?" I instructed as I began to scan for injuries. What I didn't notice under torchlight was obvious under the sun. His tunic from shoulder to sternum was shredded all the way through the shirt and to the skin, as with claws. Big, sharp dragon claws from big, venomous dragons. I pushed aside the ruined fabric and found two long, deep lacerations, the surrounding flesh already turning an unsavory purple.

"Shit," I cursed under my breath, not caring if it was unladylike. Crono had certainly heard worse out of my mouth when one or another of my inventions went haywire. I neglected to call him a dolt like I normally would, but I couldn't honestly say who was more of an idiot: him for not saying anything, or me for assuming all that blood was the dragon's. "I think that's heckran venom!" I announced, and Crono decidedly heard me, his dim blue eyes widening with a strangled gasp.

"We don't have time for this," Magus remarked, about as concerned as an undertaker. I jumped to my feet, fists balled at my sides, and aimed a righteous glare at the wizard. "Gimme a break! Do you know what heckran venom does? This is serious! Now that it's caught up with him, Crono's not going anywhere, and neither am I. We need to find a place to rest, like, now."

Magus narrowed a critical look, either sizing me up or staring me down. I wasn't about to take his jerkoff-ery with the only person I could count on--my best friend--in jeopardy (even if jerkoff-ery wasn't a word.) When I returned his silent treatment with just as much vitriol, he rolled his eyes with a sigh, turned and marched up to the castle's gothic front gates. They groaned open at the wave of his hand.

"Fine. Com'on."

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