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

6. Mystic Mountain

Time can be a delicate thing. Seemingly inconsequential decisions can cast ripples that pass down the ages. We watched a man in Porre turn from a greedy deadbeat dad into a generous, outgoing father at the drop of a stone.

On the other hand, sometimes it seems like there's a balance to it all that straightens history's course regardless of interference. Sometimes I wonder, would that make all our efforts futile, in the grand scheme of things?

I've said I don't like talking about fate, and I mean it. Case in point: on our initial adventure through time, when we first visited the prehistoric era, the Reptites stole our Gate Key. Ayla helped us storm their hideout and take it back, slaughtering dozens of Reptites in the process. Long after we thanked Ayla and went on our way, I started to consider the ramifications of our actions, and ended up in a debate with Marle.

"I don't get it..."
"What?"
"All those Reptites back there... I know they weren't human, but they were still people, right? Like the Mystics? And who knows how many we just killed! I know we were helping mankind and all, but the historical backlash should be enormous! The descendants of the descendants of those Reptites and anybody related should be lost! Why don't we notice such a dramatic change in our time?"
Marle hummed and shrugged, as if we were talking about what to have for lunch. "Hmm... Maybe they aren't people we know, so we don't notice."
"I'm not talking about just a few people being missing. I'm talking about radical changes in the course of history! People make history, you know, and if enough of the right people aren't around, over the course of millions of years..."
"Maybe nothing's changed because... that's how it's supposed to happen!"
"What?"
"Maybe they were supposed to die, so that's why nothing's different."
"Supposed to? No, now you're getting into predestination, and I don't believe it. It's not rational."
"Well, Ayla was with us, right? Doesn't she fight the Reptites all the time? Aren't dinosaurs extinct anyway? Maybe the descendants of those Reptites aren't anyone who doesn't get killed later."
"Perhaps. That still makes the odds of not affecting long-term history astronomical."
"Maybe you just need to let it go, and accept that it worked out somehow."
"Huh! That's why you don't have a scientific mind, Marle. You never question anything."

We watched Lavos blow the Reptites away later, so maybe Marle wasn't too far off the mark. Still, it bothers me to go back in time and do things like that--because few things are as permanent as taking a life.

Anyway, I digress.

We took the gate and arrived in a new time and place. The shrine at our backs stood just like the others, though the scene before us was a little different. This cave was much more spacious, coated in lime, and smelled more like dirty straw than rotten meat. A winding corridor at the far end filled the chamber with diffused daylight. All over the stone floor were grimy puddles, and above a score of stalactites that concealed the lofty corners.

What caught our attention right away, though, was the pack of Mystics playing cards right in front of us. A gargoyle, two gnashers, a naga-ette, a winged ape and an ogan were parked around a wooden crate, and they paused their game to gawk at us. I'll never quite forget their faces--the ape's in particular, who had a six of clubs dangling from its lower lip. We couldn't have caught them more off guard if they were all on the toilet.

"What the-?" the gargoyle started.
The pair of snakes chimed together, "Humans!"
The ogan didn't sound pleased to see us. "How'd they just walk in here?"

We likewise froze, and there was an awkward standoff for a fraction of a minute before the first of us stepped forward and spoke. Frog's voice echoed around the cave with a ring of calm authority that would have made him a great public speaker, if only his every sentence weren't punctuated with a croak.

"We bear no quarrel with thee! We are naught but explorers. Please pardon our intrusion and allow us passage. We do not wish to fight."

Somewhere between 'quarrel' and 'intrusion' the ogan rose to his feet, dragging with him a nail-studded wooden club that was bigger than his leg. He sank one meaty hand around the handle while pointing a fat finger in our direction. "Kill them!!"

So much for diplomacy. Cards scattered like a flock of birds as the ape barreled over the crate and charged us on all fours like a runaway coach. Crono bounced forward, the Rainbow flying from its sheath with a sharp twang, and the Masamune was bared half a second later. I jumped off to the side, trying to settle a good angle for my gun, while Magus stood back and surveyed the room, one gloved fist clenched in front of him.

Crono and Frog stood off against the ape together, braced on each side of its charge, and when the beast drew close it reared up, swinging its massive, hairy arms over its head. Frog jumped and Crono rolled simultaneously, respective blades tearing through an arm and a leg, and the ape twisted on its last good foot with a dribbling shriek. Its blood drew a jagged ying-yang in the floor while its spittle shot straight into the air, only to be vaporized by the arc of lightning that Magus pitched at the naga-ette's head. The electric punch was like a bullet from God, blasting the serpent woman's brains out the back of her skull so fast and hard that she continued sliding forward for another three feet before it occurred to her nervous system that she was dead. She then toppled forward like a pile of pink sausage.

I would have been morbidly fascinated if I weren't busy taking shots at the gnashers that were zipping straight up to the shrine. Pop pop pop, pellets skirted their thick purple scales and made them dance ever closer. I made one flinch with a pop to the snout, but by that point I'd had enough. My dinky little air gun wasn't going to cut it.

A pair of fangs lapped at my toes and I skipped back, flinging fire off my arm. Both snakes skittered back at the hot splash and I lobbed another fireball after them, lighting their tails like candles. They squealed and squirmed in circles, trying to bat the fire out in a nearby puddle. Magic is awesome.

The Rainbow circled back, cutting another slice out of the ape's side, and that's when the ogan stepped up behind it, hurling his club at Crono's back. The Masamune deftly intercepted it, cleaving the slab of wood clean in half, and before the ogan could act stunned Frog rammed his shoulder into the brute's gut with enough force to knock both to the ground. Meanwhile Magus had the gargoyle's feet cemented to the floor with ice.

All that fuss must have been too much for the cave's other inhabitants, which came crashing down on us with their thrashing wings and beady eyes. There was something to add to the list of critters I can't stand, on top of spiders, rats and frogs: bats. I had never seen so many damn bats in my life, and I couldn't even begin to tell you what happened for the rest of the fight because I spent the whole time freaking the hell out. It was like standing in a cloud of tiny beating fists, some kind of massage from hell, and I ducked and yelled and swatted the things out of my hair and it was generally the worst thing ever.

Since running out of the cave at full tilt wasn't a good idea, my next reflex was to set every one of the bastards on fire--which probably wasn't any smarter, but I was pretty desperate. I at least had enough sense to aim the spell up instead of out towards my friends, and the small explosion mushroomed to the roof with a hollow gust that sucked half the air out of the room. The cave fell deaf for a delayed second, and then it started to rain charred bat, while the survivors flew outside like bats out of... okay, you get it.

I ruffled my hair to make sure one of the little sneaks wasn't still in there and then took stock of the cleared cave. In the middle of everything, Crono was standing upon the impaled corpse of the ape, looking around with a touch of wonder. Frog staggered away from the slain ogan, spotted the two gnashers streaking towards the exit and chopped off their heads with a cluck of distaste. Magus appeared as if he hadn't moved the whole time, although fifteen paces away there was a gargoyle in three frozen pieces.

And the floor was absolutely littered with twitching, crackling, crumpled bats. At last Frog commented ruefully, "'Twas fun, that." Crono chuckled and cleaned his blade on the ape's pelt. Geez, when did we become acclimatized to this sort of thing? I can't remember, except to blame Lavos.

"Dang it," I cursed as I tiptoed across the bat-field. "We could have asked one of them about the gates, you know."

"I don't think they were open for questions," Magus flatly remarked.

I laid eyes on the smoldering naga-ette, playing cards laying in a circle around her fallen form like a fortune-teller's ritual suicide. "Still, it's a shame..."

We left the cave to try and discover where--and when--we were, and the first thing to greet us was a blast of icy air. Over our heads was a slate-white sky, behind us were shelves of snow, and below were steep cliffs that tapered into peaked forests. It was a little disorienting to find ourselves so high up, but at the same time the mountain view was spectacular.

"Wow! Do you have any idea where this is?" I asked over the wind. In the great distance there was a valley dotted with smoke, but any settlement was impossible to identify.

Crono shrugged and nodded down a slope beaten out of the rocks. Let's go find out.

It would take until noon to get down the mountain if we didn't waste time, so that's exactly what we didn't do. We were hardly halfway there, however, when something bounded up our way--something blonde, swathed in lilac furs and scaling the boulders off the side of our path as gracefully as a cougar. We held our ground, as cautious as we were curious, although when the figure skidded to a stop and peered up, it made an unmistakable image.

"Ayla?!"

Perhaps my memory had been too kind, but she was much more... rough than I remembered. The only places I could tell a healthy tan apart from a healthy layer of dirt was where old scars left pale stitches over her skin. Still, she was comely beyond any stereotypical picture of a cavewoman, and in mind of the colder climate she was wearing a ragged shawl over her usual bikini. Her wild hair thrashed about her face in the mountain gusts as she threw up her arms and beamed at us, obviously delighted.

"Crono! Lucca! Frog! Scary man! Ayla happy see all! You come see Ayla?"

I hardly got an "uhh..." past my lips when the woman hopped in place with a savage realization. "Must mean true! Gate here??"

"Yeah, we just came from the gate!" I replied. "What are you doing up here, Ayla?"

She shook her head and waved downhill, back the way she came. "No talk now, hurry! Everyone! Come to Ioka! Ayla caught one! Caught one good, make him talk! You all come, see!"

Before any of us could ask, she leapt off her boulder and sped away through the brush. I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted after her, "What?? Caught one what? Ayla...!"

It was no use; she was gone. That felt familiar. I spun around and checked my companions. Crono looked nonplussed, Magus seemed uninterested and Frog's head was tipped to an intrigued degree. "As spirited as ever, ist she not?"

I shrugged, exasperated, and motioned to follow her lead. "Well com'on!"

It was after lunchtime, but we finally made it down to the valley where Ayla's village was located. By then my right leg was killing me, and it took all my willpower not to limp behind the leader. It wasn't an ailment I wanted to explain to the others, and I definitely didn't want to show any sign of weakness in front of Magus, who was probably looking for a good excuse to rob me and dump my body on the side of the road. Crono or Frog better avenge my death, damnit--I know the latter didn't need a better reason to run the Masamune so far up that miserable warlock's ass he choked on it.

\'85Anyway. Ioka Village hadn't drastically changed since our last visit. It was the same loose assembly of animal-skin huts on dirt and grass, although the scenery had slightly altered. The chill of Lavos' ice age was just setting in, for better or for worse, and though the temperature in the valley was mild compared to the mountain, much of the greenery had withered away. There was a stripped, winter-esque ambiance about the place that stood in contrast to the tropical summer I used to associate with Ioka.

The people we passed wore shaggy layers of clothes and regarded us with mixed looks of distrust and curiosity, yet a handful recognized us enough to wave. Ayla took it all in stride, and she spoke jovially as she led us through the village.

"Much happen while Crono gone! Cold times come, big game gone. Hunt many small animal instead!" She laughed heartily, apparently finding that funny.

I heard a faint peal of thunder and glanced to the sky, which looked a little heavier than before. Was it going to rain here, too? "What was it you wanted to show us, Ayla?" I eventually asked.

Her keen eyes lit up with pride and a hint of mischief. "You see! In chief's hut. Kino watch for me!"

Ayla's hut was only a little larger and more decorated than the others, just enough to stand out in a crowd. We filed through the flap of the doorway and drew in our surroundings. Dark, earthy tones were tinged with warm firelight from the spit in the corner, and great cat-skinned rugs were spread over the floor. It smelled like spiced meat, fresh dirt and old socks. The first thing I did was sit down and pretend not to nurse my sore leg.

Ayla's partner, a lanky blonde guy named Kino, was squatting on one of the rugs, and he sprang to his feet upon our entrance. "Ayla! Back already? Find thief on mountain?"

The woman shook her head and gestured towards us. "No. Better! Find Crono and friends!"

"C-Crono!?" Kino was outright perturbed by our appearance, which, if you'll excuse me, was a little hilarious. The guy never quit being jealous of Ayla's special time-traveling friends. Crono smirked and rolled his eyes, and I bit my lip to hold back a snigger.

There was a flash of movement and a grumble from the wooden support in the middle of the hut, and we all circled around to investigate. Ayla noticed our diverted attention and explained, "Last night, thief come, steal red rock from Ioka. Many run, but Ayla catch one before get away!"

"A Mystic?" Frog recognized the prisoner first. More specifically, it was a diablos, a stone-colored breed of gargoyle with a beak-like snout and stumpy wings. He was bound securely to the post with rope, and regarded us with weary disgust. His sharp, shadowed eyes fixed on Ayla as he spat, "What do you want, you human bitch?? I already told you everything I know. Why don't you go to the mountain and see for yourself?"

There was a sadistic ring to Magus's voice that I hadn't heard since we stormed Ozzie's Fort, three years before. "Oh, I don't believe you've told everything..."

The diablos jerked to face him so fast he could've snapped his neck. "You! You're...!" He gulped, terror dawning on his already ashen face. "No, you're dead, you can't be here."

I had no idea if this diablos had actually met Magus before, but the recognition was definitely there. Infamy could be a powerful tool, and I couldn't think of a man more infamous than Magus--a man directly associated with the Mystics, no less. I sat back and let him take charge of the interrogation that ensued--Frog and the others certainly weren't about to stop it.

It was apparently more fear than loyalty that inspired the diablos to kick and plead, "Let me go! I'll tell you anything, everything, I swear!"

Magus didn't fool around, and his tone booked no argument. "Tell us what you're doing here."

"We're on a mission. 'Operation Tritoch,' I think it's called. Our team leader, Darwin, he has your Dreamstone. He took it back to Lord Heckran."

"Lord Heckran?" Frog echoed, and then panned an inquisitive look around the room. The rest of us shrugged.

Magus frowned. "Never heard of him. Is he the one behind these new gates?"

"The gates are for us!" the diablos declared. "They take magic to work. Only a Mystic can open them."

"Really?" I spoke up. And here we had been forcing them open with the key. "Why is that?"

"It's so meddling humans like you don't interfere with Lord Heckran's plan!"

"What's he after?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the diablos boldly replied. "Death to the humans and glory to the Mystics! The war will finally end the way it was supposed to. Lord Heckran will see to that!"

Magus snorted. "You simpletons will never rule this world. Who really made those gates?"

He considered his answer carefully. "...There is someone else, but I don't know anything about 'im. I'm just a grunt; I swear they don't tell me anything. All I heard is a name: Ramezia."

"Ramezia?"

"Yeah. Like I said, I don't know anything, just that he's close to Lord Heckran. I heard he might be a powerful sorcerer, like the Magus! That's all I know, I swear!"

Just when I thought it wasn't possible, Magus frowned even deeper. "Ramezia... Never heard of him, either. 'Operation Tritoch,' is it? Tell us about it."

"The gates need magic, like I said. Powerful magic. The kind of magic you need a source of power for. That's why we're out to get us some magic stones. Darwin sent us to get the Dreamstone, and the rest went into Guardia to loot the castle vault. Supposed to be some real nice magic stones there. Lord Heckran says once we get the stones, we'll have a weapon that'll wipe out the humans for good."

I jumped up, alarmed. "Guardia castle?? When?!"

"Last night. We all set out at the same time."

I was about to smack this guy. "I said when!?"

The diablos flinched. "Er, our home time! The eleventh century."

"Is that where the Dreamstone's being taken? To your base?"

"Yes--er, no. Not exactly. I don't know."

"You're lying," Magus called him out.

The diablos started to squirm in panic. "No, I'm not! Our base is in the Heckran Caves, but I don't know where they're keeping the stones, I really don't. I think that's Ramezia's gig. You'd have to ask Lord Heckran yourself--or Darwin, but you'll never catch him! He's an akio, the fastest and the best. He knows every outlaw trick in the book."

Akios were those birdmen that tried to stop us from finding the Masamune in the Denadoro Mountains. They were pretty quick and stealthy; that much wasn't a lie.

Considering my home time, I got struck with an idea. I whipped out my notebook and approached the diablos with the page open to the gate diagram. "One more question: which one will take us to the eleventh century?"

The diablos looked around shiftily, hesitating, and then pecked one of the symbols with the tip of his nose. "That one. Fire is the Truce Canyon gate."

"Fire, eh...?" I took my pencil and made a note. "And where do the others go?"

"Psh, I don't know--they only told me how to get home! Said not to touch the others. Darwin said we'd get killed if we used the wrong one."

That was interesting... Did he mean he would get punished for stepping out of line, or that those other gates led into danger? "What do you mean?"

He sputtered. "I don't know! I didn't want to die to find out, okay?? I just do what I'm told."

"Is that all?" Magus asked, impatience creeping into his tone.

"Yes, yes I've told you everything," the diablos answered breathlessly. "I kept my end. Let me go, take me with you, hold me hostage, whatever you want! Just please don't--"

I'd never seen anything like it--there wasn't a trickle of wind, a trill whistle, a static charge or anything that usually accompanied magic. The diablos's head simply exploded. It was like watching a melon spontaneously combust, pulpy gore and ripe skull fragments splattering in all directions. Frog croaked like a trumpet, Kino squealed like a girl and we all jumped back, bewildered--except for Magus, who stoically examined the carnage.

The black voice in my head started laughing uproariously. Crono gaped at the remains of our prisoner, which sagged against the ropes like a bleeding sack of grain. It took me a second to catch my wits and shoot the wizard an inflamed glare. "What the hell!?"

Ayla bared her fists. "Why Magus do that?!"

Magus faced us with the most deprecative apology ever. "I'm sorry, did you want to send him back to our enemies to tell on us?"

"Well, no," I conceded. "But that was really... cruel!"

"He died quick. I think it was quite humane."

"You are a bastard," I said with a note of finality that left an excellent opening to change the subject.

Frog cleared his throat. "What this Mystic spoke of could pose a true threat. If these are enemies of humanity just as the Mystics of my time, Guardia Castle in thy time might be under seige as we speak."

There was a portentous pause, and then Crono bolted out the door. I knew what he was thinking--he was wondering if Marle was all right. I was worried, too. I tried to catch up, but it was Ayla who stopped him first, pulling ahead of his path.

"Crono, wait! Go to castle, yes? Take Ayla with you. Ayla want help, fight Mystics, take back red rock!"

Take on board the most powerful warrior this side of prehistory? Crono didn't even have to think about it. He nodded.

Kino then burst from the hut with a flail of protest. "But Ayla...!"

She whirled to him. "Kino! You chief again while Ayla gone."

He hung his head dejectedly. "But, Kino want stay with Ayla..."

"No!" she shot him down. There was no doubt who wore the pants in this relationship. "Kino need be chief. Ayla trust Kino best. Kino do good job chief for Ayla?"

The flattery seemed to mollify him. "Oh... okay. Kino do best. Ayla come back soon!"

"Hang on, I'll make this simple..." Magus offered, surprising us. He held up one hand, fingers splayed strangely, and by the time I noticed he was muttering an incantation into his cloak, there was a flash of blinding white light and a paralyzing jolt, like getting punched in the gut and kicked in the head at the same time. I saw stars for a moment, and then a cold rock floor, rushing up to meet me. I threw out my hands and fell to my knees just in time, embracing the ground. When my vision finally cleared, I was staring directly at the gnarled, grotesquely fuzzy, claw-tipped remains of a... bat.

I yelped and flew back, falling hard on my butt--and another damn dead bat. When I looked around, they were everywhere, and it didn't take another second to recognize where we were and how we got there.

Frog figured it out just as quickly, and he clambered to his feet with a scowl aimed directly at Magus. "Some advanced warning wouldst have been kind!"

The wizard shrugged off the wispy vestiges of his teleportation magic. "I said 'hang on.' What more did you want?"

Ayla began sniffing around the cavern like an excited dog. "Where this?? What happen? Dead monsters, so many!" She stopped before the slain ape, prodding its sword-rented hide with a strange brand of appreciation and understanding. "Crono do this?"

Before any of our party could answer, she sprang up to the gate shrine. "This gate?? So big! Look different, not like others!" She spun around and faced us, hands propped on her hips with an air of open fascination that was almost a challenge. "We take?"

"Aye," Frog confirmed, if somewhat less eager. "We should hasten to Crono's time, before 'tis too late."

"Right, right..." I muttered, again navigating the bat-riddled floor as if it were a minefield. I skipped up the steps to the gate rings and then pulled out my notebook, which now had a tasteful streak of blood across the most recent page. Great.

"Okay, so fire is the Truce Canyon gate, he said..." I took the inner ring and turned it so that the symbol fit the top notch just as the diablos indicated. "That's it, I guess... Is everyone ready?"

Crono nodded, and I saw his fingers twitching around the hilt of his sword. He was anxious, I could tell, and I didn't want to mention that if what the diablos said was true about their operations running simultaneously, we were probably already too late. I had to hope that the castle guard, with their years of training, experience and dragon tank technology, wouldn't be easily compromised by some rogue band of Mystics.

...Crap, they were screwed.

Well, at least Marle would be there to handle it, although I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing, as far as consoling Crono. He could be pretty protective, and it's not like I wanted to see anything bad happen to her, either, but...

I shook myself back to the present and took out the Gate Key. For once, it was better to hurry now and think later.

---

Next
Back to Esper Junction