He heard the gate's howl. He heard their footsteps. Two--no, three of them. Four?
He was not so keen to anything as he was to the scent of man's blood, the look of their tracks, the sound of their tread...
He waited, poised in the darkness. Into the shrine he could see them. The glow of the gate washed the tiny chamber a dancing blue, like an aquarium, and with no light besides he could see the fish in such same hues.
A young man--average height; sturdy build; a disarray of thick spikes for hair, the leafy clumps piled atop his head like a potted plant with the aid of a clean headband; a simple tunic and trousers; acute, icy eyes; a sword--yes, a man's claw.
Another man--large--broad and tall; pale; pointy face; dark eyes--very dark... A long, concealing cloak.
A girl--short; lightweight; plain of face, and shape, and garb--some large glasses excepting--so shiny--can see the ocean in them--no, just the gate; a cloth satchel--taking what out? ...bent....stick...?
Lucca missed the Epoch. It made travel easy, even--especially--through the fourth dimension. It wasn't the most brilliant idea their posse contrived to hurtle the time machine down Lavos's throat, but perhaps it was a fitting way to close that avenue to subsequent generations with an impulse to joy ride through history. Of course, the price of burning that bridge was relying on these new gates.
Gates were a dizzy, unstable, unpredictable, radical approach to time travel. Lucca hadn't yet--and wouldn't soon--yield to sickness, although she was dragged to the brink on many such trips. It was no help, either, that her body had forgotten how to cope with the rough ride once it had acclimated to the comfort of the back seat of the Epoch.
Crono never seemed bothered, though, and the girl privately resented his hardy constitution.
While she waited for the vertigo to pass Lucca fished her weapon from her bag. It was something she had the foresight to pack (as opposed to the blind spot that packed Alfador.) She could kick herself for that. And Magus knew! The bastard was waiting to get back at her, she'd bet, for making a fool of him with their "deal." On that note, she wondered why he hadn't yet done away with her and taken the key himself, as per his threats. She wondered if a piece of him that he would sooner kill than reveal actually wanted company.
She supposed she shouldn't have yelled at Crono--it really wasn't his fault--but he was a proximity target more than the bearer of blame (and she couldn't afford to stress the wizard's patience any more than she already had. Logic's pyrrhic victory over her temper.)
Back to the immediate, it seemed a good idea to be armed. Crono was searching the room with wary glances, one hand resting on the base of the sword at his belt (she was simultaneously relieved and unsurprised that he had thought to bring it). Magus had thrown his cloak off his shoulders, exposing his ready armor. He was tightening one of his gloves around his fingers; this, if nothing, assured her that he smelled a fight. Magus was generally unexpressive, so subtle changes in body language, particularly habitual ones, became easy to read... Perhaps all those years "not talking" to Crono had given her a sense of such things.
Unlike the boys, she wasn't much for combat in close quarters, which was why she toted a gun. It was a child of the Wondershot, a weapon she had crafted three years back, when firepower was in certain need. It was fueled by a shard of the Sun Stone, an enchanted item picked up in the quest against Lavos. After that conflict passed she had endeavored to create a more compact model of similar caliber, which she brought with her now: the Lil' Wonder. It was indeed smaller and lighter, just as a pistol, if less powerful and more reliable than its parent.
Magus confirmed in words what she had suspected from his bearing.
"I smell mystics."
He would know better than anyone, and with paranoia judging from the circumstances, the pungent one or ones in question weren't of the peaceful faction. Lucca was at once glad to have her Lil' Wonder; her magic wasn't in good practice anymore. She was certain Crono was in the same position when he unsheathed his katana, the iridescent alloy of the Rainbow glimmering in the blue light like the coat of a wasp. He held it relaxed yet steady at his side as he stalked into the slender hall that led out into a black alley.
The air was tense and thick, like the lull before a storm. The only rapping was that of three pairs of feet filing into the passageway. Crono paused at its mouth. The room ahead was impenetrably dark. The only visible path was the dim patch framing his shadow just inside; without the gate behind them they wouldn't see a thing. He hesitated, drew a deep breath, and stepped out.
It shot out of the sightless pitch and collided with the boy like a passing train. Both flew into the shadows to the right and were gone with a powerful thud, the skidding of some sharp things on some hard surface, and a hideous snarl.
Crono was on the floor now, disoriented, with a heavy silhouette perched atop him. Its breath was a hot, wet, awful rank. Its voice was blaring, toothy, and right there.
"BAKAN KILL HUMANS!"
There was a mechanical whine some distance behind the beast, near the entryway, and then immediately a hot flare pounding into the monster's left shoulder, scraps of singed flesh and bone showering off the impact. The monster reared up, clutching its wound with a gurgling scream. As it did, its tonnage was lifted from the dumbstruck boy, and with the return of blood to his limbs he found his sword in his fingers.
With the length of his backside still throbbing from the wreck, adrenaline plunged the Rainbow into the meat of the shadow above, which wailed like a mammoth. A hot spray trickled down the shaft of the katana, soaking the hands clasped firm around the grip. The boy struggled to brace his feet against the stone floor while the monster was bellowing its agony, and with a determined lunge he shoved the blade up into the brute's trunk. Its fluids poured over him, sticking to his tunic and hair like bitter syrup.
The monster choked, cringed all over, and amazed the lad by not dying, but rather taking hold of the boy by a scruff of clothing and launching him across the room, sword and all. Crono hit the ground in a tumble. He rolled drunkenly over backwards, trying to set himself upright while berating his luck.
This fight wasn't going so well. Probably not bad for fighting in the dark, though. At least he still had his sword. He wound his fingers more securely around the soaked grip of his blade to think of it.
It wasn't so dark anymore, he realized as he sat up. Some high-mounted braziers encircled the otherwise barren cave. He saw Magus pacing casually around the room, lighting one at a time with a magic touch. Crono sagged into a shrug, staring at the wizard with flustered aghast.
Lucca was nearby, he noticed next, and she was thankfully more interested in the violent ruckus. Her gun was steadily aimed at... He looked, getting his first visual perception of his attacker. Behind the veil of cardinal humors and ruined scales, there was a heckran. Lucca's shot had taken a grizzly chunk out of its shoulder blade, and through its breast was a deep hole that leaked profusely. The stocky brute was a mess of blue, white and red, like a crumpled palette, its running colors glossy with the gold of firelight.
It turned on them both--eyes flaring an ethereal yellow--and hollered through its bloody maw, "BAKAN... KILL HUMANS!"
Lucca answered with another shot. It didn't have the spunk of the first, and merely shaved the heckran's blunt thigh. The mystic wavered, compensating for the blow, and then stood its ground flatly.
Neither kid could believe that this monster was still standing, but there it did. It seemed oblivious to mortal marks. This... Bakan was suddenly more dangerous than presumed. It leveled its good arm with its shoulder, reaching for the humans at a standstill, each claw as large as a man's forearm. Its attack wasn't sensed until an enchanted breath funneled around the chamber, sucking dry the brazier Magus had just lit. The wizard smirked at his wasted effort.
Crono was up and ready to ward off some magic, hoping the Rainbow could bat away this attack as it did many, many times before. He watched Bakan's outstretched arm intensely to determine the type and power of the spell. The last heckran he fought tried to turn the tide with blasts of water, and he suspected little different from this one.
To serve Crono's speculation, a mist began to brew around Bakan as the moisture in the air was summoned on the blue wind. The droplets suspended in his cloud multiplied and coalesced as they were pulled into Bakan's open palm like strings of diamonds. Bakan gave a throaty hiss through what could pass for a grin.
The orb of water in his clutches, hardly as large as a kickball, did not appear to amount to a threat until it was unleashed. It was thrown mightily at the ground between the two humans, and before they could leap somewhere safe it touched off a sprawling whirlpool. Crono had only the sense of being picked up, and then everything was fast, blurry, and inverted.
The spell snapped in its finale, breaking hold of its captives and allowing inertia to carry them both to their respective walls.
Lucca feebly felt for the ground, hanging along the wall of the cavern in a washy stupor. She found a way to sit and see the world straight, and then adjusted her dripping glasses and rubbed a welt on the back of her head. 'Should'a brought my helmet...' she thought sourly.
Some more lights had been extinguished in the waterworks; it was that much darker, allowing the heckran to dodge visibility. She could spot a lump on the opposite side that resembled Crono, however, and she missed a breath to notice that it wasn't moving.
"YOU LIKE THAT?" the shadows asked.
"Like a hole in your face!" the girl hotly shot back, not caring if she made sense, so long as she was armed. In the next second she realized that she wasn't. Where was her gun?!
It must have been knocked loose by the whirlpool, which also put out the lights, which also screwed her because she couldn't see it now and damnit! That thing was going to die.
Neither heckran nor girl had a moment to resume the brawl before a bold, golden streak intervened, arching across the ceiling and snagging the dragon mystic like a sparkling grappling hook. The lightning chained the beast to the spot, its every fiber snared in an electric vice. Any howls on Bakan's behalf were drowned in the scream of the ripped air and the fierce crackling of rampant electrons shredding the heckran's hide like a fiery grater.
The fluke of nature seemed to sustain itself for a torturous eternity before shattering, its florescent beads dissipating in the cooked atmosphere.
Lucca blinked in the aftermath, amazed. The heckran--what was left of it--laid smoldering, only the noxious spectrum of its barbeque scenting the cavern. Opposite the slain beast was Magus, turning to relight a brazier, as if putting it out were the very capital offense.
"How long were you gonna just stand there before helping us?" she fired, knowing the answer even as she asked, yet awaiting the wizard's brilliant excuse.
"You're both pathetic," was his final answer, and he proceeded to skim the walls for an alternate route. Lucca smirked. Magus was such an ass, but she had nothing to refute the truth.
A short walk away was the Lil' Wonder, now exposed in torchlight. Lucca reclaimed it after a cursory inspection, deeming that it was indeed okay. Crono was called to her attention when the familiar lump in the other corner shifted uneasily and tried to rise. By the time Lucca reached the boy he was apparently fine and standing, if somewhat shell-shocked.
"I can't believe we ran into a heckran," she began. Crono shook his head, rolled his shoulders with a wince, cleaned and sheathed the Rainbow, and turned clear eyes to his friend.
"...You look like a butcher," she remarked after looking him over. Crono took a bunch of his tunic in his hand, inspecting the fresh stains, and shrugged. Oh well.
'Oh well!' she inwardly dwelled on his passiveness. 'You're only covered in the blood of a monster more than twice your size that just tried to kill you. When did we become desensitized to mindless slaughter? I suppose Lavos takes the blame there...' She smirked. '...again...'
"This way," Magus called as he disappeared around a hidden bend in the cavern.
Melchior sipped his tea. It was certainly a noisy day, his thoughts remarked as he overheard the thunderclouds' riot. He would not test the outdoors in such heavy weather, but there was little to do within his simple home without making a muddy trip to the tool shed and fetching some forging implements.
No work would be done today, apparently. It was a casual business at any rate, so to shirk a day's production was no cause for alarm. There would always be customers, some way or another. There was not man nor beast in all the land that could claim greater skill as a smith than he. His tools were renowned for their durable strength, and his weapons... why, some were legendary.
The old artisan set down his teacup, briskly removed and polished the pair of lenses that balanced upon his fat nose, and idly stroked his snowy mustache as he peered out the window.
It'd been a good while since he'd seen a storm like this. The rainfall was like a silk curtain; he could hardly see the heckrans' mountains to the immediate west. A long walk the opposite way would take him to Medina, the mystics' village. Many mystics, particularly those of ancestry, were intolerant of mankind and pitched their civilization leagues apart from human settlements. It had been hundreds of years since the Mystic Wars, however, and these days more agreeable mystics were in charge. It was in fact that the mayor of Medina was cooperating with Truce to construct a ferry route between the two towns.
Times surely change... It was good, though, that more trusting mystics were in command of his trading route, else he would have to peddle his creations personally, and he was much too old now for that sort of business. Besides, he enjoyed the luxury of living, very nearly, in the middle of nowhere, where his cares were limited and only those sincerely interested in his services would accost him.
The front door rattled. He dismissed the pounding thunder at first, but then there it was again. "Someone there...?" he asked in a voice that only questioned himself.
And again. Surely, someone was knocking. Someone out there in this tempest! Must be important. "I'm coming, I'm coming...!" the old man called as he hauled himself out of his chair and hastened to the door.
A less worldly one would have found himself answering two gargoyles abandoned on his front step, but this man, well-acquainted with the variety of mystics, recognized diablos when they appeared. These were a short pair, as even the poorly-statured smith was looking down upon them. Their serpentine eyes were lurid behind granite complexions, and their diminutive wings shivered with wet.
As the first spoke, the other grinned iniquitously. "Melchior, the swordsmith?"
As with any dealing with strangers, the portly man corrected his posture before the duplicate mystics, setting forth a dignified comportment. "I am he. What is it you want?" he asked tersely.
One nodded to the other.
"You're coming with us."
"Our lady is waiting for you."
"I beg your pardon??" Melchior returned, outrage and alarm tinting his rubicund cheeks.
"We were sent to take you to our lady."
"What's unclear about that?"
"If you have any questions, take it up with the lady Ramezia."
"And if I don't want to go??" the smith challenged.
Their nefarious grins only broadened.
"If you don't want to go..."
A bedlam erupted behind Melchior as a thunderclap mingled with the shattering of windows. The old man abruptly whirled around and met a small horde of henches clambering through the broken portals, their stumpy, careless footing decimating the china cups and plates arrayed over the countertops.
"Stop!" Melchior stepped towards the amassing henches, bursting with indignant authority. "Get out of here! What do you think you're--"
One of the invaders produced a sooty ball in the meat of his hand. He hurled it at Melchior's feet with a swinish grunt and the ball exploded into an asphyxiating cloud. The old man choked and reeled into the blinding haze, at length collapsing in the doorway. What last glided into the swordsmith's bleary, darkening vision were the sneering masks of twin diablos, looking down the ridge of their snouts at him.
They were still grinning in his dreams.
Lucca didn't believe in it beyond granting the concept's existence--that is, she was never inclined to attribute the paranormal to what was merely a trick of the mind, or rather a lapse of memory that caught up with itself on a triggered instant. Marle... heh, Marle was in the other school, the one that drank in the spirit world and was eager and willing to attribute anything not readily explained to magic or ghosts.
Her rolling thoughts braked to wonder what had made her think of Marle. It had been a long while since they had spoken; generally the girl's visits to Truce took up Crono's time, not Lucca's. Marle--or should be called, Princess Nadia--was a capricious, high-spirited optimist with a loathing for rules and boundaries and an impetuous streak that lured her away from the smothering security of Guardia Castle on more than one notable occasion. If it were not for one of her random ventures, Lucca supposed that she and Crono would have never broken the bounds of time, and began the quest that quashed Lavos. Marle was just that way--a catalyst for adventure wherever she went.
Where would she be right now...? Probably at the castle, Lucca figured. Even if it was not in Marle's nature to stay put anywhere for very long, it did not take a scientist to know better that the princess would sooner stay "cooped up" than get damp and sticky in the climate of late.
But here and now was an ambience entirely different. The magician, the swordsman and the inventor explored the crawling fingers of the extensive cavern. The walkway rose and fell in seemingly deliberate steeps and carved dips. Short steps dropped into wet ditches that took bright seeds from the sparsely arranged torches and sprouted golden blossoms over the wavering surface.
Dark, creepy place. What was she thinking about...? Ghosts? That was what reminded her of Marle. Marle was too superstitious for her own good sometimes. Lucca placed all her stock in the irrefutable facts. Elders have said that the world is not black and white, but rather shades of gray; in her travels the young scientist became increasingly convinced that there were in fact even more colors to the picture. Science had no room for wizardry and devils, but then if Lucca claimed she'd never seen a ghost or dealt in magic she'd be quickly pegged a liar.
There had to be something, nonetheless, to explain the sensation of having trespassed these corridors before. It was not any more assuring that Magus was out-pacing Lucca and her friend, taking corners with an innate sharpness that could only have grown from familiarity. It was too unlikely that he was a good guesser in such a gloomy, unaccommodating labyrinth.
"Do you know where we're going?" she finally nerved to ask, and in the echoes of her question Lucca thought she heard the flurry of fleeing rats.
The wizard stopped as if to answer her, but she quickly noticed that there was an end to their path, which Magus hesitated only to study. An archway ahead invited some natural light to wash out the dusky cavern. Magus continued through it, and when the others followed they found a fresh afternoon sky. A broad path stretched ahead, laced with wiry obsidian trees and fences of prickly brambles. At the end waited...
"Whoa!" Lucca wiped her sleeve across her glasses, just to make sure the castle was real before her eyes. Its gate was bare, no moat or portcullis fending off visitors; the stronghold was formidable enough on its own. It rose from the bed of the earth like an embattled baobab. Its spires pierced the firmament, narrow bridges and ribbed walls crossing between them. Crowning the tall keep was the stone figure of a dragon, its outstretched wings and swooping, open maw attacking the morale of entering souls.
It was an unmistakable, haunted edifice. Nothing in history could match it.
"I thought so," Magus cut into her revelation with the same disgruntled tone he used in all discourse. "That gate took us into the Magic Cave."
"But, why...?" Lucca shook her head. "Gates are supposed to traverse time, not relative space. Magic Cave is not in the same relative position as Truce Canyon--they're not even on the same continent!"
"Obviously these gates are different," Magus snarled at her analysis of the obvious.
Lucca took her hint without aroused offense. "So... we're going in?" she wondered aloud, at the risk of another of Magus's biting retorts. She tossed each of her companions the query in a look. "What do you think, Cr....Crono? Are you okay?"
The lad was on his hands and knees. Staring into the dirt as he was, the girl couldn't see his expression for his fiery mane, and thereby couldn't read his condition. As Lucca took an inquisitive step his way the boy collapsed onto one shoulder with a quiet moan.
"Hey, Crono!" She jumped to him, knelt on the chapped earth, and shoved him gently. "Com'on, this isn't funny."
In response Crono coughed shakily, not turning his nose off the ground. Lucca took him by the arm and helped the boy sit up. A jolt of panic pinched her stomach as she glimpsed his face. 'He's so pale...!'
"Hold still, okay?" Lucca instructed him as she began to scan the boy for injuries. It was amazing what was plain in the daylight that she couldn't notice back in the dim cavern. His tunic was shredded across his chest, as with claws. She dug through the ruined cloth and found two long, blistering scratches that sheered through his shirt and grazed the skin.
Damn! And she had played off the assumption... all that blood... it had to have been the heckran's...!
Her friend gave some guttural whimpering at her touch. "Oh geez..." Lucca muttered as she witnessed the flesh around the cuts turning a frightful purple. "I think that's heckran poison!"
At this announcement Crono's eyes widened with a strangled gasp.
"We don't have time for this," Lucca heard the Magus remark, and that was enough to provoke her fighting spirit. The girl hopped upright and aimed a stern glare at the wizard. "Hey, gimme a break! You know what this means, don't you? Heckran poison is very serious. Now that it's caught up with him Crono's not going anywhere. We need to find a safe place to rest, like, now."
Magus rolled his eyes with a sigh as he turned away from the two kids and marched up to the front gate of the supposedly abandoned mystic citadel. It groaned open at the wave of his hand.