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

4. The Haunted Castle

I got bit by a snake, once.

It was on the last night of the Millennial Fair, after bidding my friends farewell and watching the gate in Leene Square close for good. I was just walking home with my parents when the slimy bastard jumped out of the grass and bit me on the leg. It was an absolutely rotten way to end such a beautiful and bittersweet evening. I wasn't even able to catch and skewer the culprit, but luckily its venom wasn't lethal--it was just a pain to walk for the next few days.

What was really strange about the entire mishap was the bruise-like scar it left behind: a livid contusion that slowly spread up my calf and thigh. It turned my veins spidery black, was numb to the touch and sometimes ached to the bone, and when a couple of weeks passed with no signs of it fading away, I started to fear necrosis. I remember sitting up on the kitchen counter while my mom fussed over it, telling me with her kind, strong voice not to worry, that some things needed more time to heal than others. I must have looked like I was about to cry. She kissed me on the forehead and said I was being silly--that there was nothing to be scared about. Meanwhile, my dad stood back and laughed it off. 'Don't worry! If your leg falls off, we'll just build you a new one!' I laughed back and told him he couldn't even build a new leg for our kitchen table, and even my mom cracked up at that.

The irony didn't escape me, but weirdly enough, my father's words were comforting. He always knew just what to say to lighten the heart of a room.

My leg never did heal. The scar kept spreading bit by bit, just a millimeter every day, though over the years it added up. Some days it felt tender and sore like a real bruise, some days it seethed like a fresh burn, and some days I couldn't feel it at all. I learned to walk it off, and over time it became as natural as anything. I tried to say I didn't care if it looks ugly--that my looks were never a priority, anyway--but honestly, I couldn't help being self-conscious about it. I took to wearing long pants all the time for that reason.

However awful all of this sounds, let me assure you: even as I bear these scars and the occasional leg-cramp to my dying day, it can never, ever possibly amount to the pain and trauma of a single night of heckran poisoning. Crono proved me that.

Magus's Castle wasn't any more inviting on the inside than it was on the outside. It was ghastly, if richly furnished, filled with stone beasts and golden demons that leered at us through the banisters. The windows were cased in black iron webs, and tapestries depicted monsters in black and bloody tones. Summoning Lavos had taken its toll; for whatever sections remained standing, the bricks were shaken, the tiles were splintered, spots in the floor and ceiling had eroded and many of the halls had caved in outright. Though the place was deserted, it seemed to still knew its master, and welcome him. Magus led us up the foyer's grand staircase and into a far wing of the castle, a dark draught licking his cloak and lighting every sconce in his wake.

The halls were sickeningly quiet. All I could hear was the carpet gnawing on our footsteps and Crono's breath over my ear, stuttering and labored. I half-dragged him the whole way, his arm thrown over my shoulder as I resolved to hold him up. Even without reading his face, I could tell he was sick by the way he limped and trembled. Wherever Magus was leading us, I wasn't sure we would make it, since there was no way I had the strength to carry his dead weight if he passed out. I was pretty scrawny, even for a girl, and Crono was not exactly a lightweight.

Just wait until the rest of the poison sets in, a pessimistic--and slightly sadistic--voice muttered in my head. That happened sometimes, whenever I was alone or trapped with my own thoughts--that murky, hissing, insidious voice, suggesting things... unpleasant things. I never used to hear it before I encountered Lavos. I would wonder if there was a connection, but generally I shut it out because I preferred not to be crazy.

I nearly jumped out of my boots when Magus stopped, held his arm out towards a door and kicked it open with the force of his will. Sawdust trickled from the wooden frame and the shattering hinges echoed all the way down the hall as the door crashed against the inside wall. Magus nodded into the room. "You can rest in there."

We dragged our feet through the threshold and looked around. It was an austere, boxed-in space with dingy brick walls. There was a bare bunk in the corner and a wooden stand next to it, beneath a high, grated window. Upon the table and beneath a sheet of dust was a candle set in a human skull. If I didn't know any better I would've called it a prison cell, but this was Magus's Castle, and if memory served, the dungeons were at least twice as despicable (and full of animated skeletons.) I rather assumed it was a private barrack.

"Uh... thanks," I dimly thanked Magus. The first thing Crono did was flop face-first onto the bed, obviously spent. I found a clear space to sit next to him and likewise took a break. I had to think of what to do next. I had to take care of Crono, somehow. I was the only one around to do it, since I couldn't count on Magus to give a damn. Heckran venom... It was dangerous, but Crono had weathered through it before. I only had to make sure the wound stayed clean and he got enough rest.

I sighed and twisted around to check on my 'patient.' "All right, you big lug, let's get a look at those scratches..." I shoved him and he steeled up with a hiss. "Com'on, roll over," I insisted, pushing harder. "Now's not the time to be stubb--"

I wasn't prepared for the knee to the gut, but what shocked me more was the wavering, frenzied shout Crono gave as he pushed me off the side of the bunk and kicked himself into the corner. I yelped and recoiled, as stricken with fright as I was with surprise. I had never seen--much less heard--Crono lash out like that. He sat hunched against the bricks, his breath harsh and shallow, his knees pulled up to his chest and his eyes clenched shut as he cringed all over like a mouse. One of the neurotoxin's more brutal effects must have been setting in, the one that amplified every false move into searing pain.

I swallowed my breath--he nearly knocked the wind out of me--and put up a calm front. "Whoa... sorry. I didn't mean to." To hurt him, that is. I still meant to examine those cuts, so I sat down on the bunk again, treading with caution. He let my hand rest on his clean shoulder, to my slight relief. His skin felt sticky and cold. "Hey, look at me."

He did, one eye cracking open and peering at me through his shaggy mop of red hair. I could see the strands sticking to his brow with icy-fresh sweat. There was a quivering, tortured glint in his eye, though his expression softened with a touch of apology. Sorry.

My throat felt tight; I swallowed again. It almost hurt. "'s okay. Listen, I'm going to go find some supplies, maybe some medicine... You stay here, okay?"

As if I had to ask--he probably couldn't walk if he tried. He nodded shakily and ducked under his arms, wrapping himself in a ball. I got up and moving. I couldn't stand to leave him like that, but frankly, I couldn't stand to watch him like that, either. It made my stomach sink and my chest ache. Crono was always the strong one. He didn't whine, he didn't complain--well, he never said anything, but he never acted hurt, either. He was dumbly impervious to suffering in a way that was infectious, making us all feel invincible. When something like this happened, I didn't know what to do. Marle would...

...Anyway. Supplies. I figured the derelict old castle had to have bandages or tonics stashed somewhere, so I decided to ask Magus. I stepped outside and called him out. "Hey Ma...!" As soon as I did, however, I was struck by my query's fatal flaw. "...gus."

He was gone.

"Son of a... damnit," I cursed impotently, scanning both ends of the hall for any sign of the wizard. Vanishing into thin air was becoming his strong suit.

I didn't have much of a choice. Despite the risk of never finding my way back again, I went out on my own. I was actually good at mentally mapping my way around places, and it wasn't as if I had never visited the castle before. I thought it would be spooky to navigate the most infamous castle in the world by my lonesome, but I was too driven to find something useful to let the creeps to get to me. Back when we first visited (invaded?) the place, it was nighttime, and under the full moon were all those old clich\'e9s you find in horror stories. In the daytime, however, there was an odd, sedated pall about the grounds, as if every malicious spirit were still asleep. It wouldn't be too treacherous, as long as the paths weren't still booby-trapped.

Fortunately, I wandered for an hour and didn't uncover any traps. Unfortunately, I wandered for an hour and didn't uncover anything. I stumbled over some food stores at one point, but every bag and crate was torn and emptied, with loose grain, flour and rat pellets scattered over the floor. The sight of the looted pantry made my stomach growl, and I realized none of us had a bite to eat all day. I had to keep going on empty. The best luck I had was in some spare quarters similar to the room Magus gave us, where a mystic flunky apparently kept a bottle of tonic and a flask of whiskey under his bed.

Later I discovered an inner courtyard, its quilted masonry overrun by moss and vines. It was such a nice, peaceful garden for such a foreboding place, even if it was mostly weeds. Next to an old-fashioned stone well was a tattered white sheet on a clothesline, and I took it along with a pail of fresh water.

I made it back to our room without incident, though grudging Magus's absence. The man could have at least told us where he was going. Crono wasn't in any better shape, although he had curled up on his side upon the bed. He greeted me with a wan smile, and I forced a smile back. I then sat on the edge of the bunk and started to unpack my findings. I was going to lament the total lack of food, but on second thought I realized that hunger was probably the furthest thing from Crono's mind.

Instead, I gave him the tonic and ordered him to drink it all. I hoped its numbing properties would relax him enough to let me treat his injuries, though when I asked him to take off his shirt next, he fixed me with a reluctant grimace. You're killing me.

"I know, but just do it," I said plainly, trying to sound reasonable. I needed Crono to trust me. "If those cuts get infected, it's just going to get worse."

He nodded, pulled the ruined shirt over his head and then fought to sit still while I did the best I could with the well water and torn sheet. There wasn't anything to do about the venom itself, but I was able to apply the whiskey as an antiseptic, even if Crono nearly punted me off the bed again for adding fire to an already burning wound.

I wasn't the best nurse in the world, but eventually I had the nasty gashes washed and wrapped. Crono dropped back onto the mat with an appreciative grunt. He looked utterly drained, clenching his fists with every drawn breath, and the tenuous look in his eyes phased between bleary exhaustion and acute pain. I tried to get him to speak to me (well, "speak" as much as Crono would) but I could hardly read his bearings, much less his expression, and if I tried much harder it would make me sick with empathy. I didn't know what to do, except wish him a good rest and take a seat on the floor.

I was getting tired, myself. I sighed raggedly and let my head fall against the edge of the bunk. I could've taken a nap, if only my clothes weren't still soggy, the floor wasn't hard and my stomach would quit grumbling. I wished the room Magus picked out had another bed, but it was too late to ask, and Crono was too paralyzed to move again. I didn't want to leave his side.

Nothing, nada, no food anywhere, Magus, Ozzie and rats be damned. Since I had nothing better to do than sit and think, I wondered what exactly we were looking for when we got to this era. There was something special about those shrines, and I was determined to find out who built them and what made them tick. I just didn't know where--or when--to start looking. Why didn't the gate take us back to the Dark Ages, where Magus (presumably) came from? We had to be in the Middle Ages, judging by the... recently renovated look of Magus's Castle, but that knowledge didn't solve anything. It just threw another wrench in the dark.

And what about that heckran? It was a long shot from its natural habitat. Heckran dwelled around water--specifically, in the Heckran Cave on the Medinan continent. Did those caves even exist yet in this time? I wanted to believe so--that four hundred years wasn't very long ago geologically speaking--but I wasn't sure. So what was that one heckran doing right outside the gate? Perhaps the same thing that sea serpent Magus was talking about--guarding it, maybe? From what--or whom? Hadn't it said, 'DEATH TO THE MYSTICS' ENEMIES'? That sounded familiar... Perhaps it was a disgruntled war veteren; the Mystic Wars left plenty of those to spare. That still didn't answer what it was doing around the gate...

I got a headache; I couldn't think any more. I closed my eyes, just to rest them for a moment, and before I knew better I was asleep.

A while later--it must have been a few hours--I started awake with a crick in my neck. I had a dreamlike inkling of footsteps passing the door, but when I looked that way, the hall was vacant. I rolled my shoulders, yawned and glanced out the tiny window, where a blue eastern sky was fading to purple. Still no sign of Magus. I was going to kill him, if he ever came back.

He's going to leave you here to rot, murmured the bad thoughts. I ignored them. Magus was going to come back, and I was going to kill him. ...Maybe those thoughts weren't much better.

My gaze fell from the window to the candle on the nightstand. It wasn't lit, though I didn't have a lighter or any matches on me. I cursed the dawning darkness and my lack of provisions for a while until that voice cackled in a tone that sounded disconcertingly like my own, for a change, Yes, it's too bad you don't know FIRE magic.

"Oh, that's rich..." I muttered as I smacked myself on the forehead. I sat up and leaned on the table, inspecting the candle and its holder. An empty eye socket stared right back. Geez, Magus was a classy interior decorator. Did everything have to look like a rich sadist's tomb? I never minded the skull and focused on the candle.

I was a little out of practice, I knew. Magic wasn't the sort of thing one could just brush up on in the comfort of one's home, and I never let my parents know I had the ability to set the house on fire with a simple chant (I was bad enough at setting things on fire without magic, thanks very much.) It was the same for Crono and Marle, albeit more political for the latter, since magic-using humans hadn't been very popular since the Mystic Wars, and it just wouldn't do for the princess of Guardia to be an ice witch. More than once she had affected a, 'So what? I don't care!' attitude on the subject, but evidently her sense of discretion overruled her rebelliousness, since I never heard any trouble over it.

At any rate, I was no Magus. I could dish out some serious damage if I put my mind into it, but I didn't have his finesse. I wondered if I could light such a tiny little candle without--voosh.

"Ah! Damnit..." I fell back and sucked on my scorched fingertips. The spell had jumped right out of my hand like a wild rodent, razing the top half of the candle and leaving a splatter of wax on the wall behind it. At least the wick was lit, so mission accomplished.

The flash of magic jarred Crono out of his dozing with a dull yelp, and his eyes frantically darted around the room as he raced to catch his breath. "Oh! My bad, my bad," I quickly apologized. I then sheepishly gestured to the candle, as if it were a consolation prize. "Um, look! Magic."

He dropped his white-knuckled guard and regarded it with a strained, bemused blink. That's nice. Before it occurred to me to ask if he was feeling better, Crono shivered, rolled onto his side and buried his face in the mat, shutting me out. I turned away and sat down again.

I worried, I wondered, I waited--I got bored. I played tic-tac-toe in the dust until I realized that the outcome is always determined on the second player's first turn (If O chooses a corner, it's a tie. If O chooses a side, O loses. If O takes the center, O wins. Isn't that nice to know?) Then I pulled out my sketchpad, deciding to work on my latest idea. I sat with the paper in my lap and a pen in my hand for at least ten minutes without a single notion crossing the page. I was at a loss--I couldn't think of anything useful.

My mother used to tell me that an idle mind is the Devil's workshop. Let's have a talk.

'Let's not,' I humored the voice, talking back within the confines of my mind.

Let's suppose your dear friend doesn't survive the night...

'He will, shut up.' I wasn't in the mood to debate, especially with myself. Or within myself--I wasn't sure, but I wasn't willing to let it drive me crazy.

Not yet, it retorted, and I didn't think to ask whether it meant the crazy part, the shutting up part, or...

I didn't hear another word, although my right leg started burning. I gritted my teeth and kneaded the sore spot through the fabric of my pants, cursing the timing of it all. That scar--I still didn't know what to call it, really--always picked the perfect moment to act up.

That's when I heard a quiet, keening moan behind me, and suddenly all my crazy little discomforts didn't matter so much.

Once upon a time, my dad tried to catch a muskrat he suspected was digging in our garbage. We waited until we were about to take a three-day trip into town and then set a bunch of steel traps around the back of the house. Turns out, we didn't catch a rat; we caught a dog, some stray that had been rummaging around our island. The trap snapped over its leg, which got twisted and mangled from the dog trying to wrench itself free. It had to have been trapped for days, and I couldn't forget the way the dog looked then, laying on its side over the blood-streaked grass, eaten by mites and emaciated. Its eyes were dark, glassy and distant, and its panting was distorted with a weak growl, as if it were still kicking and fighting in a demented half-dream. It didn't move when we approached, or seem to acknowledge us at all, but my dad bid me stay back in case it was rabid. I then ran into the house while he took his rifle and put the dog out of its misery.

Crono looked like that dog. His eyes had that same glazed, low-lidded look, and he breathed in short wheezes that sounded like growls. He lay limp and shriveled on his side, his skin bleached and glossy with sweat. He would occasionally dig his fingers in the mat with a more pronounced gasp and a twitch of pain, but he didn't see me or the table in front of him or... anything. He just kept murmuring like a stray caught in trap, slowly bleeding to death.

Why not put him out of his misery, too? It's not a rifle, but you DO have a gun handy... Hah!

I climbed onto the edge of the bunk and sat with him, since my company was the only thing I had to offer. "Sorry..." I whispered, feeling irrepressibly stupid and helpless. "What can I do?"

Nothing, really. Just watch him suffer.

'Shut up!' I fired back, even if it was detrimental to my sanity. There was a lump in my throat that tasted like sick, but I couldn't swallow it. The voice was right; I couldn't help him. I didn't have another tonic or any medicine at all, and I hated myself for being useless. I couldn't remember if it was this bad the last time--Marle was with us, and she had a healing touch. I was only good at burning things.

I laid my hand on Crono's wrist, hoping he wasn't too delirious to respond--and that's when he snapped. It was so swift and sudden I thought he was about to kick me again, so I flinched. The last thing I expected was for him to jerk across the bunk and throw his arms around me, and I squeaked and stiffened like a dolt. I didn't dare move--breathe, even--for an agonizing minute, my face pressed into his shoulder as he squeezed my ribs in a bear hug. He smelled like dragon musk, sweat, dried blood and alcohol, and I could feel the trembling in his arms and the furious pounding of his heart. His breath was hot and raspy in my hair, and the next thing I heard over the feverish thrumming in my ears were his own words--desperate, low and pleading.

"...don't go."

One of these days, when I wasn't on the spot like so, I wanted to tell Crono that I loved the sound of his voice. I was just afraid that if I did, he'd speak more often, and it wouldn't be as special anymore.

"U-Um, okay..." I stammered, dumbstruck, and it took another minute for my head to quit swimming. I wanted to say something soothing and rational--intelligible, even--but I gulped and my mouth was dry. I don't know how he managed to wreck my composure with a hug, but Crono was always talented like that.

He seemed content with my response anyway, making a gravelly noise in his throat that almost sounded like a purr. "Um..." I tried again, losing my nerve as I realized my skin was on fire too, as if the heckran's fever were contagious. I tried to relax, though Crono wouldn't let go, and I found myself returning the embrace, my fingers fidgeting with the tail of his headband. My voice never came back, but Crono didn't mind--he would never say if he did, anyway.

The night dragged on, creaking and crawling with all those dark things that made the castle a haunted playground. I couldn't say how long we sat up together, but I remember rocking to sleep. I remembered kinder, more innocent days long gone, when Crono and I would take naps under our favorite birch tree, his quiet, steady protection all I ever needed. I remembered sleeping by his side in the shade under a hot afternoon sun, rather than sweltering under a fever inside a wretched fortress.

And I remember dreaming of a vampire standing over the bed and kissing my hand...

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