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

9. The Dragon Lady

When we reached the other side, we didn't appear any closer to the origin of the gate shrines, but I was getting a hunch that whoever built them really liked dark, creepy caves. At least this one was refreshingly dry and cool, and the fire of the gate played sea-blue ripples across the smooth stone.

Ayla scanned the room with her nose crinkled and her hands cocked on her hips, looking disappointed. "No one here? No smell monsters."

"I guess not..." Marle determined. "Should we go outside and see where we are?"

Crono liked that idea enough to lead the way. The tunnel heading out of the gate shrine was long and winding, yet clean and straightforward. There were several dips and cavernous pockets along the way, but not any branching paths to confuse us. It was also pitch dark, so we were relying on Magus's unique torchlight and the glow of the Rainbow to make our way around.

Eventually we reached the end, where daylight carried a blustery chill. When we stepped out under the clouds, we were buffeted with snow rather than rain.

"Oh my gosh!" Marle clutched her parka tight and walked to the edge of a cliff that dropped to reveal an incredible mountaintop view. White-capped rocks tumbled away for miles, gradually thawing into muddy slopes and verdant trees, and the plains beyond were shrouded with precipitation so thick we couldn't see the horizon. The clouds sparked and rumbled in the great distance, and below one could faintly make out a road that would surely lead to civilization--otherwise, there wasn't a landmark in sight. "We're so high up!"

"I can't tell where we are. What about you guys?" I piped up.

There was a round of headshakes. "Wherever we be, it is storming hither as well," Frog noted.

"It's just a coincidence, right?" Marle asked, looking around for reassurance, although none of us knew better enough to answer. I didn't like it at all.

"Yon path looks steep and fraught with ice, and the late hour encroaches," Frog assessed. "Wouldst it be fair to make camp and resume our journey in the morning?"

We checked the sky, which was turning from looming grey to smothering indigo. "Yeah, we should rest up before trying to climb down," I agreed.

"Camp inside cave?" Ayla supposed, glancing back the way we came. We all turned in time to witness Magus charging into the cave with undue abandon, as if in pursuit of something.

"Magus??" I chased after him, and everyone followed. Something was wrong. Magus tore through the dark corridors with long, determined strides, making it difficult to keep up. Once inside one of the larger antechambers he abruptly stopped, one outstretched arm barring our path. We all stumbled blindly to a halt behind him. "Hey, what gives??" I demanded.

The light in his hand was cautiously dim, and he refused to look back. "That's enough," he said with enough strength to forge deep echoes in the placid rock. I suddenly got the feeling he wasn't talking to us.

Crono drew his sword again as Marle asked, "What? What are you talking about?"

"We're being followed," he said.

We all started, feet shuffling over the floor, and I heard a second ring of metal as the Masamune was bared. "What?? Are you sure?"

"Someone's been following me since I woke up in your time. I wasn't certain, so I tried to lose them in the prehistoric age, but they tracked us down again." Magus glowered into the hall leading back to the gate. "Now I'm sure."

My glasses slipped down my nose as my eyes widened. "You mean somebody's been following us through the gates?"

"Is it the Mystics??" Marle asked, duly alarmed.

A frown weighed on his expression as he considered it. "I sense some magic, so it could be."

Then, to our greater surprise, the Masamune shuddered and started glowing hotly, saturating our half of the cavern with insistent blue and pink light. I recognized Masa and Mune's voices right away.

"It's worse than that!"
"I shoulda known those gates would've brought one of those here."

"What? Those what?" I pressed, biting back dread and panic. If it was bad enough to make the Masamune's spirits freak out, it was serious business.

It was Magus who challenged the shadows. "If you want to live, I suggest you come out now."

For a time, nothing moved, and we watched Magus's torch cast deceptive, skittering shadows around every corner. Then, one of the shadows stood up, making my heart jump and the Masamune sing a keening note. It was anthropoid in height and build, and emerged from the secluded rim of the cave with slow, deliberate steps, not making a sound. Through the dark I could discern the glint of a pair of eyes staring back at us. The flame in Magus's hand shifted to a brighter orange hue, drawing the mystery figure into light.

It was a woman. She didn't seem extraordinary at first glance, with pale skin and unkempt dark hair--but then something rustled at her back and I realized they were wings--like a bat's, or maybe a dragon's. She was clothed in purple rags and wore a subtle yet insidious smirk that did nothing to inspire good faith. It's a horrible thought, but everything about her appearance and dress made her look like the bastard lovechild of Ayla and Flea.

"Who are you...?" Marle wondered.

There wasn't a moment to answer before Masa and Mune screamed in unison, "Neiphiti!!" "Bitch!!"

The stranger grimaced and then outright scowled at Frog's weapon. "Excuse me, did that fucking sword just call me a bitch?!"

We all gaped at the outburst. The woman's accent was bizarre and undeniably foreign, and none of us knew the name she was called. Magus, ignoring the exchange, held his fireball towards her with a threatening flick of the wrist, like aiming a gun. "I believe you're the one who owes us answers."

"Don't bother!" Mune spat. "She's a neiphiti! They're all made of lies! She wouldn't give you a straight answer if her life depended on it!"

"Whoa, wait! Do you two know her?" I asked the sword.

Frog edged in with a question of his own. "Art thou a fiend?"

"Yeah, are you with the Mystics??" Marle backed him up.

The stranger screwed up her brow, looking suitably confused and insulted. "A what? Who? Hell no! Don't associate me with any of the mongrels on this planet! I'm an outsider."

"An outsider?" I picked on her diction. "To what, the planet?"

"That's what I just said, isn't it?!" she snapped.

Half of us reeled while Marle stammered, "W-What? Are you saying you're--you're an alien? From another world?"

"What? There's no way!" Even as I said it, I couldn't rule it out. After all, Lavos had proven that life from outer space not only existed, but also knew how to find us. I just didn't expect the second extra-terrestrial we ever met to be so... "But you look more human than anything."

She scoffed. "You people think this is the only world with humans on it? You guys have come a long way thanks to my kind, I'll have you know."

This remark inflamed the Masamune even more. "You arrogant bitch! It's because of your kind that--"
"Mune, hush." Masa's tempering tone interjected. "I thought we weren't going into this."
"No way, it's our job to warn the boss about the likes of her! Do you guys have any idea what her people have done to us??"

The stranger shook her head, aghast. "I have no idea what you little shits are talking about."

Mune seethed. "Like hell you don't! What about Genova? And the Abornite slave camp! That ring a bell??"

She seemed taken aback, some vague acknowledgement creeping across her features, but Masa broke it up before she could speak for herself.

"Peace, brother."
"But... but the war! They started it!"
"Bygones, bygones. She speaks the truth. Look into her heart."
"I don't want to!" Mune whinged. "It's probably filled with worms!"
"Oh come on, who are we to carry a grudge? Let's be the good guys, here."

The sword dimmed pensively, and then Mune chirped, "Hah, I guess you're right. We're the Great, Magnanimous Masamune! We kick ass."

"Err..." Frog croaked, at as much of a loss as the rest of us. Mune fired a parting shot across the room. "Now listen lady, just because you're not lying doesn't mean we trust you!" Then, to Frog, "Keep a real good eye on her, boss."

At that, the Masamune's glow faded away, leaving us alone with the stranger. "Hrmph, your sword has some nerve," she sneered.

I quickly found my wits. "No, Magus is right. You owe us some answers! Why were you following us?"

She crossed her arms and glanced aside, irritably tapping her foot. I saw something swish behind her knees--was that a tail, too? "Because... because!" At least she didn't try to deny it. "...Because I'm lost."

"What?" Marle wasn't sure she heard correctly, and neither was I.

She wasn't delicate with her words, that was for sure. "I said I'm lost, damnit! I came to this planet looking for something. But I didn't find it, so I decided to go home--except when I tried to put in my planet's coordinates, it wouldn't work! Something's gummed up the whole gate! You can't adjust it or anything. I didn't even know what the hell that fourth ring was for--so I went ahead and took the gate, to see where it went. That's when I found you..." She indicated Magus. "...on the floor, knocked out. I waited until you woke up and then followed you to see if you'd show me what's up with these gates."

I was astounded. "You mean, that's what those gates are designed to do? To create portals to other worlds?" That must have been what the other three coordinate rings were for--except they were locked in place.

"That's what the damn things are supposed to do," she confirmed, exasperated. "But like I said, somebody stuck their dick in it and fucked it all up! Now I can't figure out where the hell I'm going, and listening to you guys talk about time travel only makes it more confusing!"

"That's because the gates we know usually traverse time, not space," I filled her in. 'Usually' was now the functional key word, there. Something else in her story snagged me. "Hang on, how can you open the gate without a key? Didn't that Mystic say it takes magic?"

"So?" she rejoined. "Don't you know magic?"

"Twist not thy words, and answer our questions forthwith," Frog warned. Just because the Masamune had grown quiet didn't mean it was put away.

She sighed and rolled her eyes dramatically. "Fine, yes. I know magic. All neiphiti know magic. It doesn't even take that much to work the gate rings."

"So you're following us to find out where these gates came from, too?" Marle interpreted.

The woman snorted. "For what good it's done! None of you d'shis know what's going on, either--and apparently I've been jumping back in time without even knowing it! This is the craziest shit I've ever seen."

"You have no idea," I remarked, the feeling definitely mutual. Marle continued, "If you don't mean us any harm, why didn't you just come out sooner?"

She shrugged, as if it were trivial. "I'm trained to stay undercover on a strange world. Can't trust anybody not to be hostile. That's rule number one."

I didn't like what 'trained' implied. "Says who? Are you working for somebody?"

Another harrumph, this one more contemptuous than the last. "No. I work alone."

"What is it you want?" Magus asked in a tone that wasn't open to negotiate.

She nodded towards Marle. "Like the girl said, I just want to get off this rock. If I have to track down the people who did this to the gate and beat the crap out of them, then that's what I'm gonna do, and if the fastest way to find those people is to follow you guys, then that's what I want to do."

"Okay, so..." I panned an uncertain look around my comrades. "Where does that leave us?"

Magus wouldn't budge, his face a stern mask. Frog was likewise focused on the outsider, his gaze riveted to her every move while the Masamune was held ready. Ayla stood more relaxed, if no less wary. Crono shifted his grip on his sword, vacillating between distrust and acceptance. He passed me an ambivalent look that I shrugged off to Marle.

"Well... I..." Marle faltered, apparently not as ruffled by the proposition as much as the task of phrasing it. "...don't see... why not... you come with us?"

Frog suppressed a not-so-amphibious noise, and Magus shot the princess a look that said he objected to the highest degree, yet both's lips were sealed.

"If it's... okay with everyone else?" I tried, barely more confident. Crono surprised me by sheathing his sword and crossing the room to meet the woman. He offered his hand, and she looked it over with a weird mix of trepidation and disdain before shaking it.

Crono nodded, approving, and Marle threw up a cheer. "Yay, the more the merrier!" Frog drew a calming breath and tucked the Masamune away, ever trusting the intuition of the descendant of Leene. Magus lowered his fireball of doom with an unswayed frown--I think he was disappointed over not getting to use it. I was surprised he didn't go ahead and kill her despite us, like he did with that diablos.

"So, what's your name?" I had to ask, since we were all getting familiar.

She tossed me a fishy look, as if she were considering a false answer, or not answering at all. In a tone that would've better fit 'none of your business,' she then said, "Mishu."

We let Mishu camp with us. Magus and Frog were impressively tolerant, despite the Masamune's protests, while Marle and Ayla were openly fascinated by the addition to our group. They grilled her with innocent--if intrusive--questions that were batted away with such vitriol I had to wonder if she was normally that foul-tempered or if it was just the circumstances. For someone we elected not to kill for stalking us, she sure wasn't gracious about it.

"Do those wings really work? They look scaly. Can I touch them?"
"You strong? Have to show Ayla how strong sometime! Back home, Ayla have contest, make strong drink, drink lots!"
"Yes. No. What?? Fuck off, already, I'm trying to eat!"

Crono and I sat back quietly, chipping in where appropriate. I was incredibly curious, myself, but something about that woman was a little intimidating... and to be honest, I was getting tired. It really had been a long day, and I just wanted to eat my jerky and crawl into a corner for the rest of the night.

The campfire was another of Magus's conjurations, and a good thing, since a real fire would have required tinder we didn't have and produced smoke we couldn't vent in the small cave. It was more to provide a decent source of light than to cook over, since we didn't have anything fresh to roast. There wasn't much to do about getting comfortable, either, since all around us was stone and more stone, so we made pillows out of the couple of towels we brought from Crono's house and whatever articles of clothing we could spare. Magus, in his vampiric nature, was prone to rest on his feet, so no one could tell if he was ever truly asleep or creepily watching everyone--and I've seen Ayla passed out in trees, on tables, in gutters and between every rock and hard place imaginable, so at least it wasn't a problem for them. Thankfully, Mishu slept on the ground rather than hanging upside-down from the ceiling like a bat.

I knew I was tired, and I should have gotten some rest, but long after the fire was out, everyone was snoring and the only illumination was the wan blue glow from the gate around the bend, I was still awake. Maybe it was lingering doubt over the well meaning of our new companion. Maybe it was the stupidly hard and chilly cave floor. Maybe it was the stinging throb in my right leg again. Or maybe I needed some quiet time to think--to let everything I discovered that day finally catch up with me.

We just met an alien. From another planet. I now had to consider an otherworldly source for the gates, which was--needless to say--daunting. And even if Mishu was lying about all that, the wings and tail still made her a specimen of interest. I wondered if she was going to be any help to our cause. I wondered how Masa and Mune allegedly knew her. Didn't they call her neiphiti? I knew that word from somewhere, somewhere so deeply engrained in my memory that it was impossible to dredge up. Strangest of all, I wondered where I had seen the likes of her before...

I could try to reference it. My mom kept an antique bestiary on the shelf in her room. I could ask her to look up--no, I couldn't. My parents were dead. They weren't ever coming back. My life would never be the same. Even when all this was over\emdash whatever all of this was--I would be going home to an empty house. And then I would have to figure out what to do with myself. I wasn't looking forward to that decision.

I wished I had been there. I could have stopped it. And then I really wished Robo was with me, to tell me not to dwell on the unpleasant 'what-if's.'

...What did they do to deserve that? My parents were honest and kind. They never even whispered an unsavory word about a Mystic. This band of Heckran's was just ruthless, heartless and despicable. I scrubbed my eyes--I hated crying. I wanted to be angry, to feel the need for revenge, but it wasn't coming as easily as the tears. My heart wasn't in it. I felt like I was letting my mom and dad down, just for that, though perhaps they wouldn't want me so bent on vengeance. It was a rotten, bloody path, I knew, and my gaze subconsciously drifted to Magus.

The Fiendlord... He had gone so far to get what was his back from Lavos, but it was never enough--not on his own. I didn't want to end up like that. I couldn't give up and walk away, either, but... Maybe I could see where Frog was coming from. A little.

The only bad thing about getting time to think to myself was that I never really got any, thanks to the black voice.

'It's going to get very interesting from now on.'

I know better, but sometimes I talk back to it anyway, just for the hell of it. 'Oh? How's that?'

'It's going to be just you and us...'

Us. The black voice said us. I mentally filed that slip away. It didn't say any more.

I'm not sure how, but I sensed a pair of eyes watching me, so I started looking for them. In a well-shaded corner I saw a shock of red hair bob slightly. So, Crono was awake. I squinted and found him reclining against the wall, legs kicked out over the floor. I then spotted Marle tucked in on his right side, her head propped on his shoulder. They looked pretty cozy. I flipped my nose at him with a funny smirk. Caught you.

Either it was too dark or I was being too vague, but he didn't get it, and he tilted his head back, perplexed. The ironic thing about Crono's little language was that it didn't translate both ways. I could discreetly pass a message across a room if I had to, but if I tried to hold a conversation with the exact same signs he used, most of it would be lost on him. Maybe he doesn't pay attention to how dumb he looks sometimes, who knows. He can, however, read lips (and even eyes) with surprising efficiency under almost any light, and that's what I have to rely on when the occasion calls for silence.

He patted the ground on his free side, beckoning, and I obliged, tip-toeing around Frog's prone form (he was sleeping right on top of his sword, just in case, I supposed.) I treated Marle with a long, careful look before settling down, just to see if she was awake too, but her face was the image of perfect slumber.

I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest and watched for what he had to say, if anything. Sometimes Crono simply called me over for company, which was just as nice, although he had Marle with him, now--I couldn't see how he'd need me for that. He showed me his knuckle, which had been scraped raw from punching that door and then smoothed over as with a healing spell--it looked like Marle's handiwork. Sorry about that. He then rolled his brow with a pang of shame. Sorry about all of that.

It's okay, I know, I mouthed. Normally I would have kicked him for thrashing my house, but the situation wasn't normal--and the damage was already done by then, anyway. I couldn't think of anything to say after that, but the great thing about Crono was that I rarely had to. I rested my head in my arms and closed my eyes, drinking in the respite.

A minute later, Crono tugged on my sleeve. You okay?

I was agitated by the question--almost angry, really--because when it had come from Marle, it felt like an affront to my fortitude. That wasn't very fair to her, I realized, since she was only trying to be a good friend--just like Crono was, now. I sighed, trying to loosen up. Yeah, fine.

He gave a dopey, kind smile and reached out to tousle my hair. It was meant to be a soothing gesture, I knew, but--completely out of his control--it had the exact opposite effect. It was like getting licked by foxfire, electric goosebumps trickling down my neck and spine. I nearly yelped out loud as I bolted forward, landing on my knees, but I bit my hand to stifle the sound.

What--was--that? I paused, breathed, and glanced back to gauge Crono's reaction. He seemed shocked, for sure, although I worried whether it was due to my reaction or because he felt that... thing, too.

What was that?? I asked, and when he dazedly shook his head I knew I hadn't imagined it. He stared at his offending hand with a wide, awestruck look, flexing his fingers.

Crono wet his lips and passed Marle a nervous look, hoping not to disturb her. Once he confirmed she was still asleep, he waved me closer, guilty curiosity etched on his face. Come back here, I want to try something.

I'm a scientist; I like to experiment. I'm just not too keen on experimenting when all of a sudden I'm the test subject. I knew what he was about to try, and I almost didn't want to comply, but then I almost couldn't stand to refuse. I shuffled over and sat squarely with my hands on the floor, grounded for another shock, even as Crono told me in so little words, Hold still.

I flinched and held my breath as his fingertips grazed the hair on the nape of my neck, roiling invisible hackles. It was too gentle to be real, yet when he touched my shoulder it felt like cat's claws, searing through flesh and nerves that bled pure ambrosia. It was cold lightning, mineral ice, angel's teeth and devil's tongue, making my skin crawl with a bittersweet sensation that rattled to the core. When his hand dipped under my collar and down my back it felt like a ghost drawing a rake through my insides, turning everything inside-out and icy-hot, and I was never going to catch my breath again but if I did the first thing I was going to do was kill him because it was the most intense caress ever--I was going to melt--I was going to die, and it took every ounce of willpower I had not to unleash a feral moan that woke everything on the mountain.

Some incriminating noise must have escaped me, because in a flash Crono's hand jerked away, and when I blinked I was a puddle on the floor. I groggily pooled my arms beneath me and forced myself to sit up, rallying my senses. "Holy hell," I breathed.

Crono was breathing hard, positively flustered; I couldn't imagine what that heady touch did to him. A stricken look crossed him. Are you hurt?

'Hurt' was the last was word I'd use. I shook my head.

Marle reminded us she was there by stirring softly, her eyes peeling open with a yawn. Crono tensed up, frozen to the spot, and I wasn't about to make a sudden move, either. She found me sitting nearby and blinked sleepily. "Hey... what's going on?"

I gulped, scrambling for a response. I didn't want to lie, but I wasn't even sure what the hell just happened, much less whether she saw any of it.

Marle didn't pay me much mind, anyway. She nestled further into the crook of Crono's arm, her hand splayed over his chest. "Mmm, you moved, my big strong pillow..." She abruptly pulled away and studied his face, roused by concern. "Huh? What's wrong? Your heart is racing."

Crono started gawping like a fish, and I had to save him. "Bad dream," I supplied, noting with a wince how short my own breath was. Hopefully it just sounded like whispering.

"Aww, you poor thing..." she cooed, wrapping her arms around his neck and drowsing like a happy feline. Crono returned the hug with a big sigh of relief, peered over the top of her head and mouthed the most emphatic, Thank you, I'd ever seen.

I almost laughed--I was practically delirious. You're welcome, you dolt.

I left the couple alone, crawled back into my corner and tried to sleep, my skin still teeming with an eidolon's kiss.

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