Once again in Leene Square, the masses had only begun to recover from the untimely death of their king, Guardia XXXIII. His long reign had seen unprecedented peace and prosperity. He, too, would be remembered for all time. Despite the king's recent passing, this assembly was for a day of joy, not sorrow. They had lost a king, but would not remain without a leader for long. The people stood in silence, watching their future unfold.
Crono stood before them, barely noticing the muted crowd. He was a boat in the ocean of his thoughts, with the coast of the present nowhere in sight. It was difficult now to remember when it all began. A year ago, perhaps? Bouncing through time had left his biological clock in a mess. Still, the memory of that day was vivid in his mind. The Millennial Fair. The chance encounter. Was it pure chance, or the glimmer of destiny, that had turned his head that day, so that he would not see her cross his path until it was too late? Had he collided with fate, just as he collided with a blonde-haired, green-eyed girl? Was it honor that had prompted him to follow her through a rift in time, or just the lingering image of those eyes, glowing with life? His recklessness had started the adventure of a lifetime, an experience which he would not give up for anything.
Warping through the fabric of time and human history, he had formed bonds of friendship that most only dreamed of. His eyes had witnessed firsthand more than any single person could ever see. He had saved the world from a power far greater than he could comprehend. And he had found true love. Not the weak lust that most experienced, but genuine, eternal love too strong for even time, the consumer of mountains, to ever destroy.
Crono realized that this was the most important moment in his life. There was no going back after this. In fact, it was already too late to turn back. He could have a week ago, at the jewelers. Maybe two days ago, at the banquet. But not now. He was here, standing before all of Guardia. He had knelt before the Chancellor, and the crown had been placed on his head. The crown.
Noticing the new weight on his head again, Crono suddenly slipped from his memories back to the present. He was facing Marle, beautiful beyond description in her dress of white and pearl. Her pendant hung from her neck, freshly cleaned and polished. Those green eyes met his gaze, as bright and loving as on the day he first saw them. The Chancellor had performed the ceremony, and Marle had just said 'I do'. If his memory was correct, so had he. The Chancellor, standing beside them in his finest robes of state, had just informed him that he could kiss the bride. Still dazed from his nostalgic trance, he could think of nothing else to do but comply. Marle's warm lips pressed against his, filling him with an indescribable feeling of peace and joy. For that brief moment, Crono was truly alive.
The silence was broken as a cheer tore through the crowd, bursting from their lungs and resounding across Leene Square. The now familiar tone of Nadia's Bell could be heard even over the ecstatic masses, ringing in the new year, and a new era.
Crono, Guardia's greatest hero, was now King...
The window was open, letting the night breeze creep inside and gently rustle the curtains. The moon and stars glowed brightly, as always, and illuminated the small room with their heavenly rays. It was quiet, aside from the calls of the night birds, and peaceful. The light dimmed briefly as a cottony cloud drifted in front of the moon on unseen currents of air.
Crono was awake, though still in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. The
clock on his desk told anyone who cared to look at it that it was ten minutes passed
two. Crono continued to gaze up, not actually seeing the dancing play of moonlight
on the ceiling. Finally, he called out to no one in particular, or perhaps the
whole world, the single burning question eating away at his mind. "Where did that
"Wake up, Lucca!"
Lucca slowly opened one groggy eye. Marle was still there, and they were still in a small clearing in Guardia Forest. She and her friends often met there on the weekends when they didn't have school. The clearing was rather deep in the forest, far enough to be sheltered from the noises of the road and the castle nearby. Crono had found it while wandering in the forest, lost, as he often did. This was one of the few good things that his odd habits produced. Marle was motioning to the tree stump between them. "It's your turn, sleepy head!"
The young inventor eyed the wooden bishops and pawns apprehensively. "Marle," Lucca complained, "you know I don't particularly care for chess. Haven't we played enough yet?"
Marle shook her head. "I'm not stopping until I manage to beat you."
"Why do you even want to play chess?" asked Lucca, making her move with barely a glance at the board.
"Dad keeps telling me I should try some more intellectual activities. My tutor's been teaching me to play, and I think I'm learning rather well." Marle shifted a pawn forward.
Not a surprise. As Lucca had begun to notice, the Chancellor was pushing Marle harder and harder to live up to her heritage. As the only child of the king, she was destined for the crown. "Why chess? It hasn't been one of the favorite royal pastimes in a hundred years. Why not learn Medinan Checkers or something like Trivial Pursuit? That's intellectual." Lucca moved a knight, taking Marle's pawn.
"It's trivia. I want to learn something that requires strategy. Dad says my mind needs to be as refined as my beauty." Marle moved a bishop, putting Lucca in check.
Lucca refrained from commenting. With her golden hair and musical voice, Marle was certainly beautiful, but it took a certain stretch of the imagination to call her refined. The future queen of Guardia was a bit of a tomboy. She'd learned to be a princess but chose to forget whenever possible. Of course, Lucca was hardly refined either. She reached over and took Marle's bishop with a rook. "There, checkmate," she said. "Can we stop now. That makes twenty-three times. I'm tired of it."
Marle stared at the board. "That can't be checkmate!" She studied the pieces again, occasionally referring to the small pocket guide she'd taken to carrying. Finally, she accepted her twenty-third defeat. "I never saw it coming," she said with resignation. "I need way more practice, Lucca. Just two more games, please?!"
Marle rearranged the chess pieces, getting it right on the first try this time, and without the help of her book. Perhaps, Lucca thought, this was not so hopeless. Marle admired her work with pride, then said, "Okay, Lucca. New game. I'm going to beat someone at chess before we go home."
"You've got to play until Crono gets here. He's not as smart as you, so maybe I can win against him!"
"But that could be hours," Lucca said. Besides, Crono was at least as good at chess as she was, when he took it seriously.
"I don't care. Somebody's going to play chess with me." Exasperated, Marle checked the watch in her pocket. "Where is Crono? He should have been here an hour ago, and that's assuming he was a bit late."
Crono was always late. Another of his oh-so-wonderful qualities. Lucca had a good guess where he was, but that did not tell her when he'd arrive. "He'll get here eventually. Whether or not we're still here is the question," she mumbled.
Marle looked up from the board. "That reminds me. I've got to be back at the castle by six. I need to check on my dad of course, but the Chancellor wants to talk politics, mainly about my trip to Porre and Medina. There are a few things he wants me to try and bring up in my speeches if possible. Most of it's just propaganda, but some of it is important."
Lucca nodded. "I guess you'll just have to get used to all this responsibility. How is the king? Is he improving any?"
Marle shook her head. "No. The doctors aren't really sure what's wrong," she said, her head hanging low. "At first it just seemed like a cold, but it's not going away, and it's slowly getting worse."
"I wish I could help, Marle. If you want, I could take a look at some of the doctors' reports."
"Thanks, but that's okay." Her smile was dazzling, as always, but Lucca saw that it was forced. Marle's eyes were focused on the chessboard. "He's not even very old," she said, after making her first move. "It can't be that he's just old. I mean, we all have to die eventually, right? But him, now?" It was difficult to tell, but Marle was struggling to hold back tears. Though she often came across as silly and naive, time and again Marle had revealed incredible reserves of strength that Lucca had to admire. "He's not just the king to me, you know. He's my dad!" A single tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. "I just don't want to lose him, not yet." Lucca moved to sit beside her and put an arm around her shoulder.
"It's okay Marle. These things happen, but we have to accept them. King Guardia's not dead yet, and he may get better."
"You're right. I know that I shouldn't be worrying so much right now. It's just..." She was silent for a moment, then asked, "Lucca, do you think I can make a good queen? Honestly?"
Lucca sighed. "Yeah, Marle. I think you'll be just as wise and noble a ruler as your father." She moved back to her side of the stump. "So, shall we finish our match?"
"Yeah. And just one more. I'm getting tired of chess, too. Thanks, Lucca." She wiped her face again and smiled.
"For being such a good friend, of course. You don't know how important you and Crono are to me. I'm glad you're coming with me on my tour of the kingdom. I feel a lot better about it just knowing you'll be there with me."
Lucca could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. She'd gotten so few compliments in her life that Marle's sincere smile could still make her blush. "Hey, what are friends for? Crono and I don't mind coming along at all. You know that we'd take any excuse for a vacation. I certainly won't mind missing my history classes."
Marle nodded. "That must be weird."
"Yeah, teaching other people your own age and older does feel odd, but having Crono in one of my classes is even stranger. He's a difficult student. Most of the others are just difficult people."
"I could talk to Crono, if you'd like. Maybe ask him to behave himself."
"Don't worry." Crono loved to torment her, but it was all in good fun. "So, we leave Tuesday, right?"
"Yep," Marle said. "Just us. I'm still trying to smooth things over with the Chancellor. He isn't too keen on me traveling without the royal guard, but he's pretty much given in already. I thought we'd just walk and camp. It will be wonderful to spend more time with you guys than just Saturdays." Marle wasn't interested in the game anymore, so she just moved a random piece. "Think Crono will be agreeable?"
"Of course he will. He loves wandering about lost."
"Good." She sighed, checking her pocket watch once again. "I do wish he'd hurry up."
Lucca smiled to herself. "He told me he might have somewhere to stop. I wouldn't fret over it." Lucca moved a rook. "Checkmate."
Marle just stared at the board.
"Just keep practicing, Marle. You'll improve."
The door flew open and a groggy teenager stumbled out, then worked his way up to a fast jog. Crono checked his watch again. "Holy crap! Lucca and Marle are gonna kill me! Gotta run, gotta run, gotta-" Crono skidded to a halt. "The door," he reminded himself. He ran back and shut the front door. "Now, where was I? Ah yes, running."
Crono dashed through Truce on his way out to the forest. Past the marketplace, past the school, past the church, past the mayor's house, past the guard station, past the little fireworks shop on the edge of town. His boots pounded against the road as he ran full tilt.
Crono glanced at his wrist. "I might make it in under two hours late!" He was entering the forest. Run, run, run, "Wait!" Crono slammed into a tree and fell to the ground. "The present." Picking himself up and dusting off, Crono turned around. "Gotta get the present. Focus, Crono, focus!"
Back past the little fireworks shop on the edge of the town, past the guard station, past the mayor's house, past the church, past the school, back to the marketplace. Saturdays were always the busiest days for the market, and the streets were packed with the usual crowd of shoppers. Between the permanent shops on either side, traveling merchants had parked their carts and spread their wares in the streets. Crono searched for the shop he wanted. Weaving his way through a human maze of bellowing vendors, angry housewives, and crying children, he found the familiar storefront. A painted sign of an axe hung above the door. Nailed to the door itself, a much smaller sign read, "Melchior, Blacksmith."
Crono stepped in, and as the heavy door shut behind him, the noise of the street became a distant hum. The front room was small. A counter was opposite the door, and racks of iron tools and weaponry lined the side walls. Behind the counter, an open doorway led to the workshops. His eyes drifted from polished axeheads to the point of a bejeweled rapier. Presently, a squat man with a prominent grey moustache entered from the back rooms, moving with apparent effort. "Beautiful Saturday, isn't it?" he said, noticing his customer. Light glittered on his round spectacles.
"Morning, Melchior." Crono stepped forward to shake hands with the Guru.
"You're here for this, no doubt." Melchior lifted a large package from behind the counter. "Just as you requested." Crono accepted the package carefully, propping it over his shoulder. "By the way," Melchior added, "are you still keeping in practice?"
Crono rested his free hand on the hilt of his sword. "I try to, but I've been slacking off lately. I'm getting lazy these days."
"Truly, these are lazy days. Mind if I see it for a minute?" Melchior asked. Crono unsheathed his sword and held it over the counter. Even in the dim room, it shone brilliantly. The Guru carefully examined the katana, paying careful attention to the blade. He ran a finger down the edge, too lightly to draw blood. "The Rainbow is a unique sword. I must admit that I had never made a sword of shell and was unsure of how it would turn out. Now," he said with a smile, "I find myself wishing I had more of the material. I would certainly like to see a creature that made its shell out of a material that can be worked like steel." He held the sword up to Crono. "Continue taking such good care of it, and I hope that you find my latest work satisfactory."
"It's a present for Marle," Crono said.
"Yes, I thought so. The poor girl could use some cheering up. Life must be getting hard for her," he said with a sympathetic frown.
"She's been having a lot less free time lately. With the king's poor health and all, everyone's been pushing her harder and trying to get her to take over some of the royal duties. She's got to go to Porre and Medina in a few days, in place of her father. Lucca's been helping her work on her speeches." Marle's public speaking skills needed no assistance, but as for what to say, she liked to have a speech planned out, usually with help from Lucca or him.
Melchior nodded. "I hope she manages well. She's a strong young woman."
"One good thing is I get to miss school for a couple weeks. Lucca and I are going with her. She likes to have us around when she has to go so far from the castle and its guards."
Already the smith was returning to the back rooms. "She'll have nothing to fear with the two of you along," he called. "If you'll excuse me, the forge calls. Have a pleasant day."
"You, too," Crono answered. Melchior returned to his work as the boy rushed out the door.
Crono forced his way through the crowd as best he could. He had the added burden of Marle's present, so he could not squeeze through the press of bodies as well. Unfortunately, he got caught up in a crowd listening to some 'prophet' as he was passing a vegetable stand. Such individuals had become painfully common with the end of the millennium, but were slowly losing steam.
"Repent, and the Great Kilwala shall smile upon your mortal shell. Fail to do so, and thou shalt feel the flames of his revenge!" the man said. He was dressed in only a turban and a teddy bear print diaper. A small candle was on top of the turban, slowly burning. "The Great Kilwala has smiled upon Guardia. Praise him, or he may see his choice as a bad one, and all shall pay! Come, someone of the crowd. Join me and repent your sins and be granted admission into the Promised Land. You, young man!"
Crono stopped trying to shove past observers. He pointed a finger at himself. "Me?"
The man nodded solemnly. "Yes, come and be forgiven, child of the Kilwala!"
Before he could refuse, the crowd had shoved him up to the holy man. He smiled at Crono. "Do not try to hide your sins, child. The Great Kilwala is not fooled on the day of destiny." He placed a hand on Crono's shoulder. "Come, share your sins, and be forgiven."
The crowd was staring at him, waiting for him to speak. The prophet was just watching him, trying to look friendly in his teddy bear diaper. "Well, once I put a squirrel in an electrical outlet to see what would happen. And there was the time I left fake dog shit all over the castle steps, but I was seven then."
"Speak no more of this, child." The man placed a hand on Crono's forehead. "With the holy powers granted to me by the Great Kilwala, I shall look upon your true being. Only then will you be truly purified." The man's eyes rolled back into his head.
Crono just stood there. "See anything interesting yet?"
The holy man's eyes returned to their place after a minute. He stepped back in fear. "Away, spawn of darkness!" The man pulled out a small cross and held it in Crono's face. There was a small, crucified Kilwala on it. The expression on its chubby face suggested constipation more than sadness. "Taint not my mind with visions of your wretched soul!"
Everyone stared at Crono. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling
rather awkward. "Um...I did find a little girl's cat for her once...if that's worth
"This really isn't necessary, okay. I'm perfectly happy being a rotten sinner doomed to eternal damnation in the fires of the Burning Sea. Honest!" The townsfolk carrying him weren't listening. They continued their march to the center of town. "I'm very very late! Put me down!"
The diaper-clad prophet motioned to the well up ahead. "Submerse him in the Water of Life," he proclaimed. "Only then will he be pure, and our sacred duty to the Great Kilwala will be fulfilled!"
"It's not that I have anything against your Great Kilwala, I just have more
important things to do." They ignored him. "Just put me down!"
Two candles lit the room, one at each end of the table. The smell of burning wicks was smothered by Ozzie VIII's pungent odor. The blue rolls of fat quivered with each wheezing breath. A small green imp scurried up beside his leader's chair. He mumbled, "Is this wise, my lord? How much do we really know about these people. Not all mercenaries can be trusted with such a...sensitive matter."
Ozzie waved the imp's complaints away with a slight gesture of his hand. "These sorts are always loyal, as long as they're paid. These ones are the finest to be had."
"Finest what?" the imp asked. "Their last jobs have all been simple, uneventful guard duty. What kind of a resume is that?"
"Don't pretend to not know their When was the last time someone was at war, huh?" Ozzie asked, poking the imp in the chest. "The pickings have been slim for their kind. I am certain they are the best for the task." At least, he hoped so.
The imp frowned, but decided not to argue with his master anymore. "When will they be here?"
On cue, a form seemed to ooze out of the shadows in front of the table. The imp hissed in surprise and backed away a step, trying to make itself as unobtrusive as possible. Ozzie frowned. "You are but one."
The figure as masculine, and of average height. Nothing especially intimidating. A large staff was at his side. Ozzie could see little else in the half-light. "I didn't feel the need for us all to come," he said. "I am our leader, so to speak."
Ozzie nodded his bloated head. "Yes, Draino isn't it?" He didn't respond. "I contacted you to make a request for your services."
Draino lifted an eyebrow. "I'm listening."
"You are obviously aware of Medina's friendly relations with Guardia. The ferry will be finished soon, we get lots of human visitors, and so on. Very pesky bunch, humans. Always running through town going, 'Mommy, Mommy look at the funny animals'. Personally, I find being called an animal rather offensive, especially by some pathetic human child. And then, with fall here and Halloween soon, they'll be all over the place. A very silly holiday. All those children, and even grown men, prancing about in cheap costumes, half of them modeled after us, asking for tricks or treats. I'll show those brats some tricks all right, if any of them have the nerve to come over here and knock on my door. Make 'em shit in their little pants." Ozzie noticed the rather annoyed look on Draino's face. His large blue ears twitched with irritation. "Four hundred years ago," he continued, reluctantly getting to the point, "the Hero defeated Magus and his general, Ozzie I."
"I don't need a history lesson," Draino said, interrupting him.
"Perhaps some other sort of lesson," Ozzie said, sitting up straighter. Draino remained quiet. "We have not forgotten. I'm sure you can understand how humiliating it was for that rotten toad to slay our leaders. Only recently has my family been able to show their faces in public. Oh, the shame! I remember being a little Mystic, how all the other kids insulted my family for its failures and lit matches between my little toes. Scorched them badly. I've still got a few scars. Very sad. Anyway, our association with Guardia is false, though, for the sake of security, not all of our people are aware of it. Sometimes, such measures are necessary for the greater good. Has unfortunate results, though. Mystics no longer spit at humans whenever they pass nearby. Some even like humans. Can you believe they feel like that? I've even heard some rumors of intermarriage." A shiver ran through his abundant mass. "Disgusting, isn't it."
"I'm human, you know," Draino said flatly.
"Yes, but you are not a loyal Guardian. There is a difference. I have contacted the Purge to help us return to our former glory. If not for the Hero, we'd rule the world. That may yet be reality, though." Ozzie smiled. "The Mystics will rise again."
"Loyal Mystics have been saying that for the last 400 years. I see no signs of any attempts to back that statement up."
Ozzie scowled. "Might I remind you that I am the employer. We are willing to pay the Purge dearly for assistance. The Mystics will overthrow Guardia, and within my lifetime if I have anything to say about it. I am told you have experience in this field."
Draino nodded. "If you want a revolution, we can start it. If you want a war fought for you, I'm afraid I need to be going."
"We have an army, Mr. Draino. A mighty army. But no army can conquer the whole of Guardia in a frontal assault. It is simply too expansive. We ask your organization only to cause disorder in Guardia. Assassinations, revolts, anything. We offer you full freedom in operation. When Mystic soldiers set foot on Guardian soil, we will be willing to pay you whatever you ask, within reason...and possibly then some."
"Is there anyone you would like left alive, specifically?"
Ozzie shrugged. "Humans make good slaves. No indiscriminate slaughter, please."
"I meant more along the lines of royalty and such."
"Oh, well, I'd like to listen to them scream as we slaughter them, so try to leave some. You don't need to destroy all organization in the kingdom, just...really addle them."
Draino nodded. "Your request sounds reasonable. But do we have a deadline?"
Ozzie considered this. "As long as you are still working toward the objective, you have as long as necessary." He extended a hand. "Do you accept the job?" Take it, he thought. Give us one more piece to play.
Draino smiled. "I believe so," he said, eyeing the small, blue hand expectantly waving in the air with concealed disgust. "You will not regret dealing with the Purge. I'll return tomorrow to negotiate the final terms. I must warn you, do not cross us."
Ozzie shook his head. "We wouldn't dream of it."
Draino left without touching the Mystic's hand. Ozzie clenched it into a fist, feeling somewhat offended. The imp made its presence know again, sneering after the mysterious human. "I trust them less."
"I didn't ask for your opinion." Ozzie VIII leaned back, still clenching his
fist. In a matter of months, never again would anyone speak to him like that. We
will cross whomever we please, he thought, no matter how infamous.
Draino stepped out into the noon sunlight. He was dressed in loose, dark clothing with a flowing cape. His hair was a silvery white, though not from age, as he looked to be a young man still. At the head of the staff he carried was a perfect sphere of some green stone. It pulsed with its own light, though the glow was hard to see in full daylight. Draino looked up toward the sky. "Finally," he said to himself. "Real employment. This job will put food in our stomachs." He glanced from side to side, but didn't see what he was looking for. "Shellac! Where the hell did you go?"
He was answered by silence. "Shellac! Get your straw ass over here now!"
A cluster of spinning feathers appeared under a tree. Crow feathers. They glowed purple, and materialized into Shellac. The oddly dressed scarecrow tipped his tattered red hat. "Right here, Draino. You call?" He could move his mouth enough to speak, despite the stitches that crisscrossed it. "I've got something for us." He held out his hand, holding a bag of coins. "I stole them from this really cranky, really short old guy. Looked kind of important from his clothing. We should be able to buy food and toiletries for at least another week. Maybe we could even splurge a bit and get some matches. You know, quality ones, not the kind you can lift from inns."
"Not now, Shellac. We have a job."
Shellac looked impressed. "We do, huh? Not another pile of manure to guard, I hope" he said. "I still smell faintly of shit from the last job we had."
Draino shook his head. "I mean a real job. The kind with actual killing."
"Really?" Shellac smiled. He removed the scythe that hung from his back and examined the blade. "Any burning? Killing just isn't worth the effort without pyrotechnics."
Draino nodded. "Most likely. Just try not to burn your arms off this time."
Shellac frowned. "They grow right back in a day," he said. "It's an acceptable price for a good blaze. What are we burning?"
"Nothing yet. I just said we might burn some stuff."
"I hope we burn things. What's the job? Some farmer wants us to raze a competitor's field? That's usually low-paying, but it can be fun. Is it another demolition job? There's burning involved with that. Or are we stealing cattle? No fire there, but things always get wonderfully complicated on easy jobs."
"Will you shut up about the burning already?" Draino asked.
Draino looked him in the eyes. "We're ushering the fall of Guardia."
"Oh, just that," Shellac said. Wait...what had Draino said? "BRINGING DOWN GUARDIA! Finally, a real job. Who the hell's hiring us?"
"The Medinans are out to rule the world. Crazy bastards. But that's not our concern. I've been considering this, and I think we shall be able to move our own plans forward as well. How's Lysol coming with deciphering those texts?"
"Okay. She still hasn't found all of what you're looking for. I think she said it should still take a month or so to finish. She wants to be thorough in case there are any catches."
"What I'M looking for?" Draino glared at the scarecrow. There was impatience in his face, not surprise, as if this was a frequent argument.
Shellac glared back. "This is mainly your dream. I think the rest of us are content as we are."
"Let the others speak for themselves."
"I think I know how they feel about it better than you do."
Draino didn't answer for a second. "Just remind her," he said finally, allowing the argument to drop.
Shellac didn't answer, but his empty eye sockets remained fixed to Draino.
Draino turned away. "I may interrupt her, if she's needed. The Medinans are willing to pay serious money, so we're not messing this one up."
Shellac nodded, returning to studying his weapon. "Sounds okay. What do you think we should start doing?"
"I'm sending the others to cause some riots, get the people in the distant areas worked up, that sort of thing. You have a special job."
Draino flashed an evil smile. "How does kidnapping sound?"
"Kidnapping?" Shellac sighed. "What is it with you and kidnapping? It never accomplishes anything."
"You'll be kidnapping Princess Nadia."
Shellac put an arm around Draino's shoulders. "Must you be so cliche about it, too? Kidnapping princesses?" he pointed out. "Are you sure there isn't anything a bit more original I could do? I mean, what kind of reputation are we going to have if the best we can come up with is to kidnap a princess? She's got that punk to come and rescue her and everything. It'll be a mess. Fun, yes, but a big mess."
"Trust me here on this. If the history books want to call us uncreative, fine. I want this money. Now get going." He shrugged Shellac off. "Start stalking her or something. You're good at that."
"At least you're giving me something fun to do." Shellac disappeared in a
swirl of feathers.
Crono finally reached the clearing, panting and soaked. He put the package down and waited to catch his breath, clutching a stitch in his side. "Hey, Lucca. Hey, Marle," he finally managed. "I'm not too late, am I?"
Lucca shook her head. "Of course not. You're just a little bit later than average."
Marle frowned, noticing Crono's soggy clothing. "I'm glad you made it, of course, but you're sort of wet, Crono."
"Sorry, I had some errands to run, and then I was held up by the following of the Great Kilwala. They decided I was impure and threw me in the Water of Life." He bent over and rung his hair out, producing a sizable puddle. "But the important thing is that I'm here, and it's actually still Saturday. So what are we doing?"
Marle motioned to their makeshift table. The chess board sat neglected on the tree stump. "Lucca was helping me practice chess, but we got tired of it. We were talking about my tour of the kingdom. The Chancellor still has issues with it, but that shouldn't be a problem." It was only now that Marle noticed the package sitting at her feet. "What's that you brought with you?" she asked, picking it up. It was quite heavier than she expected.
"Lucca and I were feeling sorry for you, so we got you a present. It's what I had to stop and get."
Marle immediately hopped up and clung to Crono. "You two are so sweet! What is it?"
"Just open it," Crono told her. Marle tore into it. Wrapping paper flew everywhere. "No need to hurry or anything." Marle finally got through the packaging, and removed a crossbow. The workmanship was beyond comparison, easily exceeding any one she had owned previously. It was of reddish, lacquered wood with silver inlays. It was absolutely splendid in the afternoon sunlight.
Marle stared in awe. "It's amazing. Where did you find it?"
Lucca got up and walked over to join them. "Melchior made it. We knew the Chancellor had insisted that all of your others be stored in the armory, and won't let you near them."
"So," Crono continued, "we got you a new one. You can keep it somewhere other than the castle if you're worried about the Chancellor confiscating it. We thought you could use it, with the trip and all."
"Thank you so much," she said, hugging them both again. "I can't wait to try it out." Marle set it by the stump. "Not now, of course. The day isn't gone yet. What should we do? Chess is out," she said, dismissing that thought with a wave of her hand.
"Annoy people?" Crono offered. It was the first thing that came to mind. Marle lacked his love for being a mild nuisance, but it was worth a shot.
"No, we spent six hours in the overnight lockup with Toothpick Bob last time we tried that," Lucca said, shuddering. That had been...interesting to say the least.
"Oh yeah..." Crono forced images of Toothpick Bob's 'Potato Game' out of his mind. He pondered. "Lacking anything better to do, we could always call it a day and go home."
Marle nodded. "Coming home early ought to help me get on the Chancellor's good side."
"And I've got stuff to work on and papers to grade," Lucca added.
Crono shrugged. His day had only begun, and he'd have no trouble finding something to do on his own. "Guess that's it. Sorry I was so late."
"It's okay, Crono. Thanks to both of you for the crossbow. See you Tuesday!" Marle called as she left.
Lucca and Crono were left by themselves. Lucca packed the chess set into her bag. "The next couple of chapters should be easy for you," Lucca said.
"The Mystic War. You were there." The two of them had fought in that last stages of that war, alongside a knight cursed with the body of an amphibian, Frog.
"Yeah. And I'll try to behave for the next two days. I suppose it's the least I can do."
Lucca shouldered her bag. "You'd better behave for the rest of the year. The class is bad enough without you trying to exploit the fact that we're friends."
Crono grinned. "Yes, Miss Lucca." Plenty of people called her that at school, but Crono knew how to say it just right to get on her nerves.
"I meant that. I don't want a repeat of last year's School Pride Day ever again."
"It really wasn't so bad," he said.
"You egged and rolled the whole school. Isn't that just a bit excessive?"
"I was showing my school pride...or lack there of. And you were laughing, too," he accused. "You can't deny that it was funny."
Lucca glared at him. "Until I found my room full of stink bugs. You got the keys from me, remember. I was in deep shit for quite some time."
"I did that to the principal too, you know. And the counselor got a cow, and his office is on the second floor."
"Just leave me out of your displays of 'school pride' from now on," she said. "They aren't worth the headaches."
Crono shrugged. "Whatever. Just look forward to Tuesday. I'll be out of annoying student mode for the little journey we're going on."
"Just don't do anything too stupid in two days." Lucca disappeared into the forest. For the first time, as Crono watched her leave, he took notice of the wiry muscles of her slightly-tanned legs and her slim frame hidden beneath clothes a size or two too large. She was so unlike the soft, pale bookworm that had been his best friend for years. Indeed, they had all been changed so much.
Crono was left alone. With luck, this trip would go fine. He plopped down on
the stump, right on a blob of bird dung. But with his luck...
Lucca dashed around in the damp grass. She was chasing dragonflies. They darted left and right, hovering in one spot until she came too close. The glitter of their compound eyes mystified her. One stopped right in front of her face, its transparent wings a blur at its sides. She giggled and tried to grab it, but it flew away before her small hands could grasp it. She sat down in the grass, watching the insects dance around her. She was four.
"Lucca! Come here, honey." Lucca turned. Her mother, Lara, was calling her from the door. She watched as Lara walked toward her. Turning back, she found most of her friends gone. They had flown over to a patch of flowers; dandelions and daisies. It struck her as an odd combination for some reason. Lucca turned her head heavenward, her attention now consumed by the night sky.
She felt arms wrap around her and lift her off the ground. "You don't need to be out this late, dear. You'll catch cold." She brushed the dirt off Lucca, noticing the grass stains that decorated her dress.
"There are so many, Mommy. Has anyone ever counted them all?"
"So many what?" Lucca pointed to the sky. "Oh, no, honey. No one's ever tried to count them all. There are too many."
"What are they?"
"You're father would tell you they're big balls of burning gas, or something like that. It's reasonable enough, I suppose."
Lucca stared in awe. "Are they magic?"
Lara smiled. "Of course not. But then again..." She pointed to one off to the north. It was brighter than all the others around it. "Do you see that bright one?"
"Yep." It was the prettiest one Lucca had ever seen.
"That's the North Star. It's always in the north here. If you're ever lost, you can find north by looking for it."
"Yes. And, if my memory serves me, people worshiped it a long time ago. They thought that as long as you could see the North Star, nothing could go wrong."
Lucca continued to stare. "Is that true, Mommy?"
"People really thought that, but I don't know if it's true. I don't see why it couldn't be, though."
Lucca stared at it. It's light seemed to consume her. Her mother's arms were a blanket wrapped around her. She was seven. The night air was cold, and the blanket didn't help much. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. She had sobbed until the tears refused to pour anymore. The stone porch she sat on was freezing.
Inside, the doctors were tending to her mother's legs. She had gotten caught in Daddy's machine. Lucca couldn't stop it. Mommy wouldn't walk again. Lucca had failed. She was waiting outside, angrily writing on a sheet of paper, adding to her diary. She resolved not to mess up again. Not to fail. Not to let the ones she cared for be harmed. As she wrote, the muscles in her arm tensed, begging to lash out at something, release some of the built up energy. Lucca finally gave up and scribbled down the rest of the paper. It didn't help. She flung her pencil and watched as it spun through the air. It fell to the ground, scattering a group of dragonflies hovering over a patch of flowers. She slammed her fist down on the porch. The pain only fueled her rage.
The tears came again.
The smallest arrow, little more than a line, moved along steadily. The other two moved barely at all, creeping to their destinations that they passed each day. The tiny one passed the nine, then the ten, followed by the eleven and twelve. As it passed twelve, the other two hands met it there. Above the face, a small wooden door opened. Painted across it were the words 'The Smartass'. A furry poyozo waddled forward, stopping at the open doorway. A fake cigarette was gripped loosely in its mouth. It gave a powerful, full-body smile, jiggling its roly-poly mass.
"Twelve noon, you big buffoon!" it announced. "This hour's advice, 'Never count your hairs. There's just to many of the damn things, dumbass! You'll go mad!'" The door shut as the poyozo waddled back into the clock.
Marle glanced up at the clock Crono had given her on her last birthday. It was odd, but she couldn't have refused it. And as far as she could tell, The Smartass had yet to repeat the same bit of advice. How useful that advice had been...well, that was another matter. Sighing, she glanced at the door to her room. She heard the door down the hall opening, the muffled 'Good day' to the guards.
Tuesday had come quickly, but the wait proved to be the least of her annoyances. As she stuffed several sets of clothes into her bag, the Chancellor walked in, glancing around, absorbing every detail, as he always did. He thought it was being thorough and alert. Marle thought he was just nosy. The Chancellor cleared his throat to get her attention. "May I help you, Chancellor?" she asked, as politely as she could manage.
He stepped closer, his eyes darting to the crossbow on her bed every few seconds. "No, no, Princess, I merely came to check on you. You see, I've been going over the rosters and deciding on the men to escort you on your travels. Guardia should be proud of her military. So many fine young lads of such exceeding skill. Very hard to choose indeed, but I assure you that I'll only send the best."
"I've already told you that the royal guard is to remain at the castle, she said. "All of them."
The Chancellor stepped closer again. "This is the last time I'm going to try. Please, Princess. Try to see reason."
"I said not to send any with us."
He sighed. "Come now, my dear. I cannot have you wandering around so far from the castle without royal guards nearby. It just wouldn't do."
She shook her head. "I know my way around, and my friends will be there to help me. I'll be perfectly safe."
"Really, Princess Nadia," the Chancellor said, "just think for a moment. The kingdom is not as safe as the castle. There are all kinds of unpleasant types roaming around." Marle remained silent. "Con artists and bands of thieves led by very unsympathetic men are all over our lands. Murderers, rapists, and terrorists are, too. The royal tax collectors are out there, for crying out loud. Not that they'd harm you or anything, they're just rather frightening people to encounter at night, or at day for that matter. Makes little difference really." He sighed, realizing he was getting off topic. "Look, you must understand that you need trained, loyal soldiers of Guardia to protect you from these horrors."
"Are you suggesting that Crono is neither trained nor loyal?"
"Not at all!" the Chancellor answered, knowing that he couldn't win this argument with reason. "I trust your friends, but if anything were to happen...I wouldn't be able to face the king ever again. You know how much he cares for you. He doesn't need to be told his daughter was harmed while traveling on what should have been his journey. His health is not improving."
"I know," she said solemnly. "But I need to get away from this royal lifestyle for a while." She glared down at the Chancellor. "I may not be able to take many breaks from it soon. Don't you understand?"
The Chancellor turned away and thought. "You have a point," he said, pacing in front of her. "But if anything goes wrong, I want you back here at the castle as soon as possible. We can forget making the people love you if they try to kill you."
"No one wants me dead," she said.
"You don't know that." The Chancellor was always overly paranoid. Marle figured that he was mainly worried about his own job. "Not all of the world loves the government. I still don't fully trust the Medinans."
"The Medinans have been our allies for the last 400 years. You can't still hold a grudge over something that happened that long ago."
"We all have a right to our own opinions." Marle didn't answer. "Look, I know that all of the main urban centers in the world are friendly to Guardia, or at least act like it, but that doesn't mean the people are. I'm only concerned for your well being. Now, I'll let you go. Just you and your friends. I trust you and them enough. But don't put yourself in any unnecessary danger. You're the only heir the king has." The Chancellor walked away. At the door he stopped briefly and said, "Please, Nadia. Try to remember that."
He left Marle's room, leaving the princess alone. A rare occurrence in her
life. Marle checked the bag on her bed, adding a few odd items she had forgotten.
Her new crossbow was beside it, along with her quiver. The Chancellor had
apparently chosen not to comment on its presence.
Lucca leaned back against her desk, glancing at the textbook that lay open beside her. The classroom was dim and stifling, the only light coming from curtained windows on the opposite wall. Electricity was still novel, new concept in Truce, and it hadn't yet made it as far as the school. "Now," she began, "one must consider the situation in Guardia at the time of the war. Magus' armies had been slowed when the fighting on Zenan Bridge caused its destruction. The Mystics have always had an odd reluctance to use boats, particularly for moving troops, the reason it has taken 400 years for a ferry to be built to join us. Guardian morale was at the lowest point in the war. The Hero, Sir Cyrus, was nowhere to be found. It is not known exactly why..." Lucca paused. "Crono, please but your hand down."
Crono frowned. "Aww, but..." Lucca glared at him. "Fine." He lowered his hand.
"As I was saying, it IS NOT KNOWN exactly why Sir Cyrus disappeared or what became of him. Several people claimed to be the Hero, one even had the Hero Medal; however, these all proved to be frauds. A true replacement for Cyrus appeared in the form of Sir Frog. Frog's curse, most likely caused by Magus himself, suggests that there may be some truth in the theories that Cyrus died fighting Magus. It is believed that Frog was Cyrus' squire, Glenn, though no written records exist that prove this..." Crono's hand had gone up again. Fine, Lucca thought, I'll use you. "Class, if you will recall, it was stated earlier in our text that historians use a variety of sources, often categorized into primary and secondary. Now, many primary sources exist from this period, such as letters and diaries written during the war. We also have secondary sources, like the records of royal historians from later years."
She stalked toward Crono. "We are lucky enough to have our own living, breathing primary source in this very classroom." Everyone looked to Crono, who quickly lowered his hand. "Crono, as you all know, is credited with saving the future of mankind. Whether he did or not, we cannot really tell. Knowing him, he's probably doomed us all. But, the important fact is that Crono was there. He fought beside the Hero, Sir Frog, and helped defeat Magus. Obviously, he could tell us a great deal about this Sir Frog and the events of the end of the war. Unfortunately, Crono is absent from our text, and, since I'm being paid to teach you exactly what this propaganda-saturated book says, we'll just have to ignore Crono's opinion on the matter, despite its historical accuracy. Not that anyone's opinion has any real importance anyway."
"Hey, I happen to have some very good opinions."
Lucca sighed. "We know, Crono. You share them with the class on a regular
basis. But this his Guardian History, not What Really Happened Back Then. Go
figure. Now, how about a test so I can sit here and do nothing, but still get
paid?" The class groaned. Lucca smiled. Teaching was great.
The princess shuffled something around in her bag, then glanced around her. Apparently, she didn't see what she needed. After digging through the closet, Nadia left her bedroom to search for the missing whatever, shutting the door behind her. Outside, Shellac pried his face off the window. "Well," he mumbled, "I'm remembering why I usually leave this stalking stuff to Old Dutch. I think it's time for me to check in." So far, he knew more trivial data on the princess than was healthy. Thankfully, his time spent with his face pressed against dirty glass had not been wasted. One, he knew that no one bothered washing the windows this high up. Two, he knew that the princess was going to be without royal protection. That simplified things a bit.
He glanced at the clock inside the princess's room. "Yep. Farewell, sweet
Nadia. This invasion of your privacy has been not unlike cheap lighter fluid, both
fun and educational, but, alas, all good things must come to an end someday. Don't
say anything I need to hear while I'm gone." Shellac stepped back from the window.
As he began to fall, he recalled that he had been standing on a window sill. "Why
do I always do that?" The scarecrow dematerialized in a flurry of feathers.
Biggs raised his binoculars to get a better look. "Whoa." He and Wedge were looking into the window of a building in the town. He frequently praised the wonder that was high-powered binoculars. "Look at her..." It was their lunch break, though they were ignoring their food at the moment. Steaming bowls of some kind of pork stew sat on the rampart in front of them. It was yellowish and smelled strongly.
"Those knives..." Wedge said breathlessly.
"I know, man. Look at them shine. You can cut through copper piping with those things."
Wedge nodded. "Look at the way she dices those carrots. Up and down. Up and down. It just slides right into them."
"Man, if we had a set like that, we could..."
"We could what?"
"Hell if I know. But it'd rock."
"Dude." As the woman left their field of view with a pile of freshly cut carrots, Wedge glanced back at the castle they were supposed to be guarding. Why a big, stone, indestructible castle needed guards was beyond him. Up near the top of one of the towers, he could see a figure pressed against a window. A trace of pity flashed through his mind. He felt bad for anyone who had to be so close to those windows. He raised his binoculars. The figure, dressed mainly in reds, was definitely looking through the window. Something was wrong with it. The proportions looked off. No person had such long limbs compared to their body.
The thing pulled away from the grimy window, but then stepped off the side of the tower. Wedge watched as the falling figure seemed to sparkle, then suddenly disappeared. He glanced over at Biggs. "Hey Biggs?"
Biggs was staring at the tower, too. "Yeah man?"
"Did you just see what I saw?"
"I think so. You see the blade that thing was carrying? Some big scythe. It had this neat green thing in the blade. What I wouldn't give for a scythe like that. It looked sharper than the guillotine in the town square. If we had a blade like that, man, we could..."
Biggs shrugged. "Hell if I know. But it'd rock."
"Dude." The two stood in silent reverence. "So what do you think that thing was?"
"It was a scythe, man. I already said that. What are you, some kind of dumbass or something?"
"No, man," Wedge said. "Not the scythe. Of course I saw that. I mean the thing carrying the scythe. What do you think it was? Looked like some sort of straw man to me, but it was moving. Straw men ain't supposed to move, ya know."
Biggs thought. "Must be the poi."
Wedge looked at the bowl beside him. "Strong stuff."
Dashing down the shaded street, Crono could see Lucca up ahead. It was fall, and a thick layer of acorns crunched under his boots, threatening to trip him. Oaks were very common and popular in Truce, so it was impossible to keep the roads clear. Almost caught up, he thought. Just a few more steps...
Lucca glanced over her shoulder and stopped. She watched as an acorn under Crono's boot rolled, throwing him off balance. He stumbled around trying to regain his footing, but found it impossible. Lucca marveled at the awkward grace with which Crono fell. The loud thump he made as he hit the pavement face first was both humorous and strangely satisfying. She knew he wasn't seriously hurt. "Finished with detention, miscreant?" she asked.
Crono pried himself of the street and stood, brushing broken bits of acorn off his clothes and out of his hair. "Yes, I am. Thank you for your concern."
"It actually wasn't me who gave it to you today. A rare occurrence indeed."
Crono plucked an acorn out of his left nostril. "I'm getting out of school early today, but I still have to stay for detention," he complained.
"We must all keep our appointments, no matter the circumstance."
"But today's the day we go with Marle. You could have gotten me out of it."
Crono had a point. "Still, you need it. Maybe if you spend enough time in detention, you'll learn how not to get into trouble and still keep your brain from rotting at school."
"Miracles are rare, and never happen to me. But we can hope. So, where is Marle waiting for us? If either of you told me, I've forgotten." That wasn't too unlikely. Crono had a serious problem remembering anything of minor importance. If it was meaningless or absolutely vital, no problem, but if it fell in the middle, well...
"You actually didn't forget. We didn't bother mentioning it to you. Sorry. She's at the signpost where the main road meets the path to the castle, where she always waits when we head west." There was a patch of ground by the sign worn barren of grass from Marle pacing back and forth over it for hours.
"That makes sense."
Lucca sighed. This was going to be a long trip. "Marle's going to be busy most of the time while we're in towns. What do you think we should do? I don't think we need to stand by her all day guarding her, and I'd rather not if given the choice."
Crono shrugged. "We'll worry about that when we get there. You bring all your stuff?"
Lucca shook her shoulders, jostling the large pack on her back. "Everything but the kitchen sink."
Crono smiled. "Guess what."
Lucca frowned. "I thought you would."
"It's not the big utility kind, but it will do."
"Then we're as set as we'll ever be." Lucca grinned evilly. "Guess what I packed five canteens full of?"
There's only one thing that makes her do that, Crono thought. Dare I guess. "Might it be the only thing you can cook properly and that you got the recipe for far in the past?"
Lucca stumbled around with a stoned look on her face, her arms out like wings. "Weeee! Poi... It makes me happy..."
"Have you forgotten what the man at the detox clinic said already?"
Lucca looked offended. "Hey! I did not need detoxification! And I only fix it on special occasions. This happens to be a special occasion."
"So your going to lose yourself in that weird pork stew while Marle's life has been placed in our hands?"
Lucca frowned. "Your being awfully harsh today. Marle can take care of herself just fine."
"I know. I'm just trying to be friendly and conversational like Marle's always telling me I need to be. What have you been up to lately? I've been teaching my cats to sing hard rock. You know, the Robinsons have been acting strange as of late. Do you suppose they've...GONE INSANE?!?" Crono disliked it when Marle bugged him about not being outgoing enough. She was always trying to teach him manners and get him to engage in small talk like royalty was expected to. He hated it, and wasn't too good at it even when he did honestly try. Marle had stopped inviting him to parties lately.
"Don't listen to her advice on behavior. We 'common folk' are simply not suited to her 'royal' code of conduct."
"How the hell do you eat with ten utensils? Whatever happened to a fork, a spoon, and sometimes a knife? You could simplify it even more by using a spork."
"I still eat like that, if it's any comfort."
Crono threw an arm over her shoulder and gave a light squeeze. "Well, we'll always be fellow weirdos to the end I suppose. Idiotically breaking the constraints of society. Moronically stepping outside the boundaries of good taste. Boldly doing what everyone else wouldn't dare do."
"We are weird, aren't we?" She smiled. "I like it that way."
"Do you remember that time in third grade when that fruity foreign language teacher came in and spouted some nonsense at the class, then looked at us like he expected an answer? Then you shouted 'SCREW YOU TOO!'?"
Lucca smiled. "How could I forget?" Childhood had been great.
"If some third-grader shouted 'screw you too' at me, I'd fall over laughing."
"You did when I said it, and we were both third-graders."
"Yeah, well that's what I'm talking about," Crono said. "Ah, where has our youth gone? I feel old."
"I think it got sucked up by Lavos, right along with our DNA."
Crono shook his head. "No, I think it disappeared before that."
He's right, she thought. We lost it long before that...
It was a typical Tuesday in Guardia. Children were at school, their parents at work or running errands in the city. There was the muted sound of conversation, fading as they got further from the center of town. The leaves were changing colors and dropping to the ground. A light wind carried them far from their home trees. They reached the edge of town, staying on the shady path just within the forest. Every so often, Crono would make a comment on something or another, but for the most part they remained in silence.
They finally reached the crossroads were Marle was supposed to be waiting. She was there, sitting by the sign. Several squirrels were around her, one even sitting on her shoulder. It didn't strike Lucca as odd. The concept of anything being frightened by Marle was inconceivable. She looked up and waved as they neared. Her woodland friends disappeared into the trees.
Marle gave Crono a quick hug. "You're actually on time for once. You should be proud."
Crono shrugged. "Yeah, well I surprise myself sometimes."
"Anyway, we should be going. I've been thinking about what I'm going to do. We need to stop in all the small towns on the way. I probably won't make any big speeches, that's for Porre and Medina, but I'd like to at least say hello. Gotta make sure they know we haven't forgotten they exist."
"You can just walk through the center of their village and let them throw stuff at you. People like that stuff. Makes them feel good," Crono suggested.
"But how will I know their feelings toward Guardia if I don't speak to them?"
"It all depends on what they throw."
Lucca sighed. "Just say hi and tell them that Guardia loves them. It works."
Marle smiled. "I can stand around looking pretty, and Crono can kiss babies!"
"I don't know about the babies, Marle," Lucca said. "There are laws against child abuse. They might take it the wrong way."
"Are you implying that I molest small children?" Crono asked.
Lucca answered in all seriousness, "Pedophilia isn't a problem, it's a badge of honor."
Marle looked at them both, unable to formulate a response. "Don't worry about it," Crono said. "I think Lucca had some poi before I caught up with her." Lucca began mumbling something about cheese. "Anyway, I don't want to kiss infants. They'd probably all be ugly little bastards. I might get some weird lip fungus."
Lucca smirked. "You'd be at more risk of that if you kissed their pets."
"Are you implying that I--"
"So," Marle interrupted, "has anyone read any good books lately? I read a book. It was about a princess who lived in a big castle. Of course, that was at the end. At first, she lived in a small grass hut in the jungle. Her only friends were the jungle animals. They had lots of fun together, but then one day this mean man came and made her leave the jungle. He took her to this big city and put her in a cage. She was sold to this big fat ugly guy who sold books, but then he didn't want her anymore, and she was sold to another slaver guy. She went all over the place, but no one bought her. She escaped and joined this club that killed people to please the Great Kilwala and used funny magic spells. They were selling plants in their shop, this little room in an old building, when guards came in and shut them down. They found out who she was and gave her back to the slaver guy. Then, one day when she was walking to the next town with all the other slaves, this prince saw them. He really hated slavery, so he freed them all. He thought the girl was pretty, and they fell in love, so he married her. They lived in the big castle, and the girl had her jungle animals brought to the castle to live with her. She and the prince never had any kids, though, because the prince had been injured in a war. But they lived happily ever after anyway, and the castle was free of the sound of whining brats."
It was Crono and Lucca's turn to stare. "You know," Crono said, "I always figured they monitored what she was exposed to a bit more than this."
"Yeah, me too," Lucca added. "I guess we were wrong. There goes my faith in reality."
"It was illustrated, too," Marle said. "I think they were etchings."
The sun was beginning to sink beneath the horizon, turning the sky a mix of purple and crimson. On either side of the road was farmland, mostly wheat or corn. Scattered here and there were scarecrows pinned to wooden poles. They were not serving their purpose too well. Marle checked her watch. "It's getting late. I don't think anyone would want us to sleep in their fields. Where are we?"
Lucca checked their map. "We're making good time. There's a village, Goat Path, about two or three miles ahead. We ought to be able to make it there before it's too dark. I imagine we can find somewhere to sleep there." She glanced at the map again. If they didn't sleep too late, Lucca figured they could reach Lockton, the town on the north end of Zenan Bridge, by Saturday night. It would be another five days to Dorino, then maybe two weeks to Porre. It depended on the number of stops they made. "All is actually going pretty much as planned. Except..."
"What?" Marle asked, sounding genuinely worried.
"Nothing to get worked up about, Marle. I just remembered that I left a bunch of junk out behind my house. I hope my dad has enough sense to throw a tarp over it. Just some scrap metal, some fuel for a small boat, miscellaneous stuff like that. I was between projects, so I decided to see if I could find any uses for it. Still, I wouldn't want it to get rained on."
Crono slapped himself in the head. "Stupid Crono!" Lucca and Marle both raised an eyebrow. "I forgot to pack an umbrella. Not that I mind being rained on."
Lucca tucked the map away in her pack again. Walking like this, just the three of them, made her recall their adventures of the previous year. She was fairly certain it had been a year from the time Crono had brought Marle to see her Telepod to their return in early 1001 A.D. It was hard to tell for sure while jumping back and forth through time. "Hey guys?" Her companions turned to her. "You ever wonder what exactly we did to the future? I mean, did it really turn out better, or did we make it worse? I guess we can't know."
Marle nodded. "You're right. I suppose it's just important that we do what we can now to make sure it ends up better. Like making sure Guardia doesn't fall apart."
Crono shrugged. "I doubt it will effect us again, so there's no reason to worry too much. If we're lucky, we made the world a better place. If not, there's nothing we can do about it now." He smiled at Lucca. "Like you said earlier, we probably messed it up beyond all hope."
"I hope not," Marle said. "I really wanted to help."
"And we did everything we could," Lucca assured her. "We do know that Lavos won't harm anyone again, and that's an accomplishment. But the present is more important right now." Lucca decided to change the subject. "How's your mom, Crono?"
He shrugged. "Same as always. I wish she'd get out of the house more. It can't be healthy for her. I keep telling her to visit your mom more often. They don't see each other enough. She still doing okay?"
"Yeah. She's taken up knitting. I'll have plenty of sweaters by winter at the rate she goes. I've got a couple with me, if anyone wants one. They're pretty big. Taban's fine too. He's been working on some stuff for the city, but he's not getting paid nearly as well as he should. He's determined to help out in the community, no matter what anyone thinks about him, or me."
Marle frowned. "I can't believe he gets so little thanks for his work. He made Nadia's Bell, and everyone loves that."
"By the way, how's King Guardia?" Crono asked. Lucca gave him that look that meant either he had a whole cucumber between his teeth or he had said something less than intelligent again.
Marle looked down at her feet. "Not any better. The doctors don't think he'll make it to New Year's."
"Oh." Crono understood the look now. "Sorry if I brought up something I shouldn't have."
"No, it's okay. I can't go around denying it, can I? It helps to talk." Marle forced herself to look up and smile. "Anyone have any plans for the future? I'm going to be queen, as far as I can tell. I'll be as good a ruler as my father was. Right wrongs and stuff. Plant flowers. I'll probably have to marry someday. I'll have a great big happy family and live to be very, very old. What about you two?"
Crono smiled. "I'm going to be a professional bum for the rest of my life. Adventuring earned me all the money I'll ever need. I'll get my own house, and just generally live it up. I'll be the weird neighbor that children create all kinds of farfetched legends about. Like the fact that I was a great warrior, or that I used to decorate my front door with dead bodies. Then, when I'm old, I'll sit out on my porch and yell at children and tell them a bunch of bullshit about when I was their age. That's the life." He and Marle looked to Lucca.
"I'll be an inventor, just like always. Doesn't matter if I'm ever famous or not. It's my work that matters to me. I think I'll travel a lot, too. I still haven't seen everything in this world."
Marle patted her shoulder. "That sounds great. I wish I had so little
responsibility, but I have my place in life, and you guys have yours. I think I see
Goat Path up ahead." She pointed down the road. A large silo could just barely be
seen. "I can't wait to get some rest."
One of the scarecrows in the field lifted its head enough that it could see the three travelers just under the rim of its hat. Shellac watched and listened. He noted that he could give Draino an update on the King's health, assuming he didn't know it was this bad already. He allowed himself a smile. This was going to be good.
He noticed a pinching sensation on his arms. Crows. Without warning, he
grabbed his scythe from his back and brought it down in an arc around his head. One
crow fell, sliced in half, another gutted. "DIE, BIRDS OF DEATH!" He swung again,
downing another of the birds. They backed away, cawing wildly. Shellac paused,
strengthening his grip on the pole he clung to. "Nasty birds." One came close
again and perched on his forearm. He stared into its beady black eyes. It stared
back. "Get it off, get it off, get it off!!" Shellac flailed his limbs, scaring
away the crow, then dematerialized, causing the whole flock to fly away in surprise.
Lucca thought she heard something rustling in the corn field and the sound of
excited crows. She glanced over, but only saw a wooden pole jutting up out of the
cornstalks. A single crow landed on top of it and cawed. She was fairly certain
she had seen a scarecrow there a minute ago. She shrugged and turned back to her
friends. Crono was saying something about the importance of dung beetles to the
economy. Marle smiled politely, not really listening. Crono knew, but he went on
"Goat Path sure fits the place," Crono muttered. The town wasn't much more than a dirt road and some glorified shacks. There actually were several goats wandering around.
"Keep it to yourself," Lucca warned. "We're not here to insult their village."
Marle glanced around, visibly excited. "This place is so neat! It looks just like the little villages they talk about in books. I can't believe people actually live in places like this. I thought it was all made up."
"Surprise, surprise," mumbled Crono. Lucca elbowed him in the gut. "What? It's just further proof that they don't let her out enough."
"Maybe they'll let us sleep in a barn!"
Lucca put a hand on Marle's shoulder. "I don't know, Marle. They'd probably prefer that we leave the animals alone. It would be better if they let us stay in a building designed for humans." She motioned to the largest of the residential structures. "Let's go ask them if they have room to spare for the princess."
Marle smiled. "Okay." The two walked off to get them a place to sleep. Crono followed a few steps behind them. He stopped to converse with a goat, not because it was something he normally did, but it seemed to annoy the people around him.
Lucca came back to get him about the time the goat lost interest and trotted away. Apparently, it did not care to hear Crono insult its milk. "We've got a place, Crono. They're going to let us sleep on the floor in their kitchen. I doubt we'll get a better offer. Unless, of course, you want to go talk to that old woman who keeps looking at you."
Crono glanced over his shoulder. An old woman was standing on her porch,
staring at him. She smiled and gave him a little wave. He turned back to Lucca.
"I think the floor will do just fine."
Crono slowly woke up, noting that someone was kicking him in the kidneys. He opened his eyes, remembering that he was sleeping on someone's floor. One of the numerous children who lived in the house was kicking him, and clearly enjoying every minute of it. As much as he'd like to make the kid happy, he had just gotten up and would prefer to have two functional kidneys. He looked up at the kid. "Stop kicking me, dammit!"
The boy turned to the door. "Mommy! The funny guy on the floor said a bad word!"
Crono forced himself to sit up. He normally liked to take his time waking up, but he'd make an exception today, considering the circumstances. He looked around. Marle and Lucca were gone already, but the kid hadn't left. "Where are your parents?"
The kid's mother walked in. She grabbed Crono by the bandana around his neck. "I'll have no foul language in my house. Now I let you stay 'cause you were with the princess, but you're wearing out your welcome mighty quick." She released him and stepped back.
"I'm going. Sorry for any inconvenience we may have caused." He glanced at the boy. "You have wonderful children." The mother started to walk away, but her son kicked Crono in the knee. "Aw, shit! Little bastard, " Crono mumbled.
The woman turned around. "What did I just say to you, young man?"
"Sorry! I'm going." The kid kicked him again. "Your son is assaulting me."
"You must have done something to provoke him."
Crono didn't argue, just went to the door. He got another kick to the pants as he walked away. Crono forced himself to ignore the punk and left. Marle and Lucca were waiting on the porch. They must have been up for a while. Lucca handed him his pack. "You could have gotten me up earlier," he said.
Lucca shrugged. "Marle thought you needed your sleep, not to mention that you're hardly a morning person."
Marle skipped down to the road. "Isn't this so much fun! I think the right
side of my body is sore from sleeping on that hardwood floor!"
Shellac materialized in the Purge's current base of operations. The small, two-story cottage was dark. His room was as he had left it. He didn't have a bed, since he didn't need sleep, or any lights, since he could usually see well enough from the light coming in through the window. He kicked aside some of the junk on the floor and walked into the hall. He, Lysol, and Windex all had rooms on the second floor. He glanced into Windex's room: empty. No surprise, as he was rarely ever there. Draino had probably put him to work. Lysol was in her room even less, so he didn't bother checking it and walked to the stairs. A small light was coming from below. He carefully navigated the mess of old candles and food wrappers that covered the steps.
The main room was no better. Books and paper covered the floor. The only light was coming from a few candles that sparkled in the corner, but it was enough for him to see by. Shellac could see Lysol in the lit corner, slaving over her books. She was wearing her brown cloak. The shoulders were covered in iridescent feathers, and it pooled around her, covering some of the mess. Her long, brown hair was loose, rather than pulled back as she usually had it. It framed her pale face, the contrast making her seem almost colorless.
She glanced up, finally noticing the oversized scarecrow. Her brown eyes sparkled. "Oh hey, Shellac. How's life?"
"Fine," he answered. "Same old, same old. I came to check in with Draino..." He glanced around the room. "...but I guess I missed him. Where are the others?"
Lysol frowned. "I don't have any idea where Draino is. He hasn't been here at all today. Windex went shopping for supplies we need. I think Old Dutch went with him, but I don't see why. Grocery shopping isn't something Old Dutch usually does."
Shellac frowned. It was odd. "Well, thanks anyway. If Draino comes by after I leave, tell him I was looking for him." Lysol smiled and nodded before she returned to her work. "Hey, Lysol?"
She looked up again. "Hm?"
"Don't you think you need to get out a bit more. It can't be healthy to stay in here all day with these moldy tomes. Why don't you take a break and get some fresh air? Frolic in nature, go to town, do something. Get Windex to go somewhere with you."
"Thanks for the thought, Shellac, but I'm fine." She smiled. "I know it sounds strange, but I like this work. Of course...maybe I will bug Windex when he gets back."
Shellac nodded, then went back up to his room to relax for a while.
"FREEZE!! THIS IS A STICK UP!!" A heavily muscled man in black waved a sword at the clerk behind the counter. Another sword was sheathed at his side. Everyone in the store was motionless. "Good. Everyone keep doing what you're doing and nothing bad happens. Start bagging that money," he told the clerk, who obeyed him without hesitation. So far, so good. He ran a hand through his blond hair. "Now everybody be sure to get a good look at me, though I know you can't help yourselves." He winked at a young woman standing by the lobster tank. It made her blush furiously even in her current state of terror. "I want you all to be able to give good descriptions of us to the officials. They need the help to catch us. My name is Amanda Hugankiss, which all you ladies are free to do."
A withered old man appeared from one of the aisles, pushing a laden grocery cart. "And this is Prince Albert. Keep in mind that he's not in a can...yet."
The old man glared at him. "This is unnecessary, Windex. We can afford to pay, but not to draw so much attention."
The large man's shoulders sagged, and he looked at the old one with exasperation. "Dammit, Old Dutch! You told them my name." His massive fist slammed the counter. "You never let me have any fun. And Draino said we were on a budget, one that did not include grocery money."
The man looked sour, but consented. "Get it over with, and ignore the women."
Windex frowned. "Can't a guy even wink at girls? I don't see why that's so..." He was stopped by the thud of boots outside. The local militia had arrived up the street, and they were rushing to the doors. Windex glanced at his companion. "Looks like the clowns are here to entertain us. Ready?" Old Dutch nodded. Windex pointed his sword at the approaching soldiers. A storm suddenly formed above the militia, pelting them with rain and hail. They stopped, trying to shield themselves from the pounding water and golf balls of ice.
Old Dutch raised his hands in front of him, forming a sphere of blue energy. The sphere shattered, unleashing a blast of freezing air that blew out the doors and windows on the front of the store. It reached the soldiers an instant later, freezing them where they stood. Bits of glass ricocheted off their icy forms.
Windex walked over to the cart Old Dutch had filled. He checked over it, making sure everything was there. Something was missing. He looked up at the old man. "What? No Windex?"
"No one cleans the windows."
Windex looked shocked. "Really, Old Dutch! If someone names a product after you, you have to keep some of it around. It's not the usefulness, it's the principle of the thing."
"Windex is not named for you. You're probably named for it, which means you have odd parents."
"Are you trying extra hard today to crush my little world?" Old Dutch didn't answer. "Old Dutch isn't much better, you know. Let's go."
They walked out of the now empty doorways. Windex gave the militia a little salute as they passed.
"I still think this was a waste of time and effort," Old Dutch said flatly.
Windex frowned. "Oh come on. Admit it. It was fun." Old Dutch remained silent. "Couldn't you have gone along with the name bit? It was really funny."
"I could have made it worse. Oh well, I'm sick of you spoiling my fun." He glanced down at himself. "I'm sick of these disguises, too. I'm used to your weird, normal self." Windex shook himself like a wet dog. His muscles seemed to ooze off, leaving him with a much leaner build. His hair darkened to its normal black. Old Dutch's wrinkled, outer skin tore apart as his far bulkier form was freed. Windex glanced over at the spectre-like being beside him. Old Dutch wore a heavy mantle. Spikes hung from it like icicles. A green sphere like the one in Shellac's scythe was embedded in the center. His face and slightly glowing, green eyes were hidden by his grey hood. Windex had never seen beneath it. The rest of him was mostly blocked by his cloak, revealing only loose grey clothes and massive metal gauntlets covering his forearms and hands.
Windex sheathed his sword. It too had one of the green stones in the base of the blade. The other matching sword lacked it, though. "I suppose Draino will have stuff for us to do when we get back. I don't really feel like getting people all rebellious today. Maybe he'll give us a break."
"I don't see why."
"Maybe just because he's feeling nice? Maybe I thought it would be kind of him? You don't have to tell me all that crap Draino spouts. I know this is important, but I'd rather be around Lysol more."
Old Dutch forced him to take the cart. "Just work."
"Okay, who gave the third...king of Zeal a...new...bedroom set because his old one was...destroyed in a...accidental fire caused by a...candle and the king's...pet squirrel?"
Lysol smiled. "Easy. It was the current Guru of Time, I forget which one that was."
Shellac shrugged. "The card just says Guru of Time. You got it." He put the card back. "Tell me again why we're playing Trivial Pursuit from the Golden Age of Zeal."
"Because it's fun, and you need to stay in practice with your Zealian." She rolled again and moved. "Wild card."
Shellac drew a card. "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"
Lysol looked scandalized. "That can't be the question on the card!" They both froze as the front door opened, letting in the chilly autumn air. Draino walked in and shut the door. "Hey, Draino. Welcome back. Have a nice trip to wherever?"
Draino glanced at Lysol and Shellac. They were sitting on the floor playing a board game. "May I ask why you're not working?"
Lysol frowned. "I...I just wanted a little break. Shellac offered to do something with me and..." She paused. "I'm ahead of schedule anyway. How much could I get done in an hour or two?"
Draino didn't move. "Your schedule is to get done as fast as humanly possible."
"So sue me for being only human. I told you I would have it found by the end of the year, and I will. I'm getting faster at translating it, but you're the one who demanded that there be no errors."
"You have as much need for this as I do. I'd translate the texts myself, but I can't do it as well. You're the only one of us with much understanding of ancient Zealian."
"She could teach you," Shellac commented.
Draino was looking particularly rough today. His jaw line was bristly with two day's stubble, and his white hair was matted and dull. Over the years, Shellac had seen him keep his appearance immaculate for months, only to let himself fall apart in a week. He usually returned to normal fairly quickly, but his down times were becoming more frequent and severe. Windex attributed it to madness and lack of sex. Shellac had yet to pass judgment.
"It would take too long," Draino said. His eyes were red and glazed from insomnia. "This is faster."
Lysol stood to face him. Draino was not quite a head taller than her. "I could wait longer. Has it occurred to you that just maybe the rest of us aren't so obsessed with exploiting the full power of the Eyes?"
Draino's eyes narrowed. "You're assignment is to search these writings, not to goof off."
Lysol stared back at him. "You know that what you want is probably just a legend. The Eyes of Lavos are powerful, but could anything realistically do this? No one would put that much power into their creations. You know that. Would you put all your power where others could tap it? We're wasting our time if that's all you desire from these books." Draino didn't answer. Lysol sighed. "Come on, Draino! I'm telling you as plainly as I know how. IT IS A LIE! THE EYES CANNOT MAKE US GODS!!"
Draino swung his staff, aiming directly for Lysol's head. It didn't hit. The sound of the staff hitting Shellac's scythe echoed in the small space of the room.
"A little sensitive about that, aren't we?" Lysol muttered.
Draino glared at the scarecrow, his eyes blazing. Shellac glared back. "I think you've had a long day, Draino. Perhaps you should go lay down. Rest. There's no reason to get worked up."
"And what about you? I don't see a princess around here. I'm not surprised you tried to delay Lysol from her tasks."
"You've tried to stop this since I proposed the idea. You have something against it, but I can't see what." The edge of madness in his voice was unmistakable. "You stand to gain just as much as any of us. Don't you want the might the Eyes can give us?"
"But at what price?" Shellac grabbed Draino by the back of the head and forced him to turn back to Lysol. He shoved him at her face, barely inches from her nose. "Look at her! She hardly ever gets out anymore. Why? Because you force her to read your damn books! I can remember when her skin had color. She looks like a damn albino! This isn't healthy. It's not so important that we risk our health. What if we need her to enter combat? Does she look like she's in any condition to fight? And with the job you've landed us?"
Draino looked directly into Lysol's eyes. "Why don't we ask her? Lysol, do you feel that you're being mistreated here?"
"To be totally honest.." Draino's eyes narrowed again. Lysol hesitated, unsure of the wisest answer.
Shellac had had enough. He flung Draino, by his head, across the room, into a shelf and the pile of trash that surrounded it. Draino hit hard. The shelf fell over him, knocking his staff away from his hand. "Why do you do this?"
With a grunt of effort, Draino shoved the shelf off and retrieved his staff. He slowly got to his feet. A smile was on his face, but it was more like a wolf baring its teeth. "Where's our lovable fool now? You're not yourself, Shellac." He rubbed his neck, stretching it until it popped audibly.
"You know Lysol and Windex won't stand up to you or your bitch."
"Old Dutch doesn't take well to insults."
"Let him tell me that to my face! Oh, I forgot. He doesn't have to vocal skills to do that. Where the hell did you pick that freak up? The Purge was just fine before you two showed up with your Eyes of Lavos and forced us to follow you. Just because Windex and Lysol danced to your tune, you seem to have forgotten that I'm still a member. I think I speak for all of the original members when I say we've had enough of your shit," he said coldly.
Draino just pointed his staff at Shellac. "CRYING HEAVENS!!" The bolt of lightning struck out, slamming into Shellac's chest, knocking him back into the wall. "You want to dispute my leadership, straw-boy?!"
Lysol ran over to Shellac and helped him up. "Crap! Are you okay?"
Shellac stood. There was a smoking hole in his chest. Strands of burlap and straw were already stretching across the opening, sealing it up. "I'm fine." He turned to Draino. "I think we all need some time to relax and ponder what has been said. Don't you agree? We need to work together for this job, remember."
"I'm working on it. I know exactly where she is. I'm going to act when she reaches Porre. Soon enough for you?" His expression dared Draino to argue.
"It will do."
Shellac nodded. "Good. Now, I'm going to leave." He looked at Lysol. "I suggest you do, too, Draino. Lysol needs quiet if she's going to get any work done, doesn't she? Do I need to pick anything up for someone?" No one spoke. "Okay then. I need matches. Bad. Bye." Shellac dematerialized.
Draino glared at Lysol. "Found anything new?" Lysol handed him a stack of paper. He glanced at it, but his bloodshot eyes didn't seem to focus. "This could be useful. Keep working on whichever books this came from." He dropped the papers to the floor, then turned and walked out the door.
Her latest work scattered across the floor, mixing with the jumble already
there. Lysol shuddered, but not from the sudden blast of cold air.
"Can I get you something, sir?"
Crono glanced up at the waitress waiting by his table. She was dressed in one of those pink waitress outfits that seemed to be used everywhere lately. She had four earrings in her left ear. Not a widely popular or accepted look. A lot of conservative people these days. The tablet she carried was blank. "No thanks."
The waitress walked away. Crono was alone, in a restaurant in Lockton. Marle had decided to go shopping for walking boots, something which she had never owned in her life. Lucca thought it would be best if she went along to make sure Marle got a pair that would really be useful for walking. Crono had told them he'd wait here. He idly shuffled through his pack, not looking for anything in particular. Outside the sun was near the horizon. Lockton was a large town, and people remained in the streets well past dark. Much like Truce. Crono had a feeling that he wouldn't be sleeping much tonight. He felt like staying up all night, though he had no real reason to. He pulled a small pouch out of his pack. Opening it, he dumped the contents out on the table. Several large feathers, some teeth, a few horns off small animals. He kept them from his trips to the far past, mainly because they looked nice.
He picked up a pink and orange feather. He could probably sell them for quite a bit to the right people, if he wanted to. He had enough money already, though. Seeing the feather triggered memories of the previous year. It had been great, aside from the dying part. Honestly, he couldn't recall that very well. His mind drifted to memories of the future. He couldn't help but wonder what they had done to it. He felt old. Stopping a giant parasite from destroying mankind did that to you. He smelled chicken, baked not fried.
A bell jingled as the door opened. Marle and Lucca walked in, chatting quietly. To Crono's mild surprise, Marle wasn't covered in bags of junk. She'd kept the fact that they were walking in mind. Crono didn't want to have to carry anymore.
Marle sat down in the other chair at his table. "I got some walking boots. They feel great, but not as good as my sandals, at least not right now. I suppose that I'll appreciate these more when we get back on the trail. Miss us?"
Lucca pulled a chair up from another table. "I'm hungry. I'm also starting to miss my house. I haven't been away from it this long since the Lavos mess. I had this bed in my room. It was big, and smelled like my bed, because it was my bed. These hotel beds and living room floors can't compare."
"I know what you mean," Crono said. "We got a place for tonight yet?"
"Yep," Marle answered. "Lucca and I already rented a room. It only has two beds, though, but I think we can get a cot."
"I'll take it, as usual."
"You don't have to, Crono," Lucca said. "I'll share a bed with you as long as you behave."
"A tempting offer to be sure, but no thanks. I don't mind the cot. It certainly beats the ground."
Marle nodded. "True."
The waitress came back and took Marle and Lucca's orders. Crono decided he might as well eat something and ordered some manner of pork chop with gravy. Nothing else sounded tempting. "How did the little gathering go today?" he asked. Marle had shared some inspirational words down by the bridge earlier. Crono had skipped out with some lame excuse.
"As well as I could expect," Marle said. "No one shouted anything bad. They just cheered." She paused, frowning. "Then I finished the other half of my speech, and they cheered again. I think I put too big of a pause in there."
"Well," Lucca said, "practice makes perfect. You'll do better next time. It isn't normal for a crowd to cheer after you insult their cousins, but hey, whatever works."
Marle's eyes bugged. "I did that?"
"I don't think anyone noticed. It really depended on your interpretation. Or, maybe, they really dislike cousins around here."
"The pig reference wasn't out of place, was it?"
"No, not here. But don't use it in Gracchus. They're fond of their pigs there."
"But they raise pigs here."
"Yeah, but in Lockton they don't dress the pigs in sweaters and keep them indoors," Crono said.
"That is true. What about promising a reduced crime rate?"
Lucca answered, "No one keeps track of that anyway, so you're safe."
Crono leaned over to whisper to Lucca. "I thought you helped her write these things?"
"We weren't expecting to say anything here. Marle had to improvise. She did a damn good job, too. It takes skill to bullshit a thirty-minute speech."
The waitress brought their food out and, a bit reluctantly, told them to have a nice meal. She clearly wasn't working here for her entertainment. Crono looked at the plate in front of him. It looked vaguely like a pork chop and was covered in grey liquid. It was bubbling. "Yum."
Lucca looked up from her meal. "Like what you ordered?"
"It effervesces, and clears my congestion in minutes!"
Crono tried it. It was edible, but he'd had much better. "What is this gravy? Liquid pig brains?"
Lucca though for a moment. "I believe they make a fine squirrel gravy in this area. Popular with the locals and in Porre, but not widely eaten elsewhere. It's supposed to be very healthy, high in protein. They claim it's good for your thyroid, but I don't see why. Is it good?"
"You know I love a bit of squirrel in my gravy." He shoved another bite into his mouth.
Marle watched in awe. "You're EATING that?"
Crono swallowed. "I've had worse. Plus, my doctor says I need to be thinking of my thyroid." He ate another bite. "Tastes kinda...minty. Maybe a little nutmeg in there, too." The next bite had something hard in it. Real hard. He spat it out. "Ah. Just a squirrel femur. Looks like it'd make a good toothpick." He picked it up and used it to dislodge a bit of pork from his teeth.
Marle politely excused herself and ran to the little girls' room.
It was certainly late. It had to be late. He'd been laying here for what had to be hours. He just couldn't sleep. His stomach hadn't yelled at him yet for eating the pork chop with squirrel gravy; that wasn't it. The day hadn't been particularly exciting, and tomorrow would be nothing special. What was it then? Oh, well, at least the cot was comfortable. The room was dark. The ceiling was plain. This was boring. He didn't have any covers; autumn this close to the water was only mildly chilly. They'd turned in at nine, hoping to get an early start. Lacking anything better to do, Crono reached down to the floor and picked up his watch.
"One o'clock. This is sick. I admit for once, I need sleep, or at least want it." He dropped the watch.
"You can't sleep either?"
Crono sat up. In the darkness, he could barely make out Lucca on the other side of the room. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, something in her hands that reflected the weak light. "You too?"
He could see her nod. "Just bored, I guess. Cleaning my gun." Clouds blocking the moon must of moved. The room brightened slightly. Crono could see her better. The handgun was disassembled, the parts lying neatly on the sheets. Several clips were beside them. Lucca took good care of her guns. He couldn't blame her. She was one of the few people in the world who carried one regularly. If the future he had visited was any indication, they would catch on eventually. "Never know when you need a weapon, eh?"
Crono nodded. "Is Marle asleep?"
Crono nodded again, at a loss for words. He was tired. Finally, he said, "Marle's going to be queen of all Guardia by next year." He paused. "I don't envy her."
Crono looked at her again. Still working. He reached over and got his sword. Unsheathed, the blade sparkled in the moonlight. He checked over it, looking for nicks.
"Hey Crono." He looked up. "Has Marle said anything to you about the whole situation with her father?"
"Only when you're around. She talks to you more about personal problems." There was silence. "She's freaking out, isn't she?"
"Yep. She tries not to show it, but I can tell. She's falling apart."
Crono nodded. Marle seemed fine outwardly, but he could tell something had been wrong for some time. She had only recently recognized her father's love for what it was. To lose him so soon... It had to be tough. "Anything you think we can do to help her?"
Lucca frowned, the expression barely visible in the light. "I think this trip is helping. She's able to spend time with her friends and get some practical experience in politics, something she's lacked for most her life. I knew she was expected to talk today, but I didn't tell her. She's let me keep her itinerary, so it caught her by surprise. I thought she needed practice at saying something convincing without any preparation. Leaders have to do that sometimes."
"True. You said she did well."
"All things considered. They all cheered."
"But will the people in Porre cheer?"
Lucca nodded. "And what about Medina?"
"I really hope we're expecting a boat, because I can't swim that far. I mean, I'm in good shape, but really, that's pushing it."
Lucca smiled. "Of course. The problem is that the Medinans might be a tough crowd. Our relations aren't perfect."
"But good enough to send the heiress to the throne," he pointed out. "Still..." He looked Lucca in the eyes. "Make sure that thing works."
"You make sure that pig-sticker of yours still cuts. Marle's our responsibility. But don't think she that can't take care of herself." Marle still had her crossbow and her magic, making her a formidable opponent for the denizens of 1001 A.D.
"I'm well aware of her ability to beat the crap out of people. I would know." He glanced at Marle's sleeping form. "I never told you why she stopped inviting me to all those fancy dinners." Lucca stopped working on her gun. "I didn't like the things from the beginning, but I wanted to be polite, you know. Well, about a month ago, I went to the castle for one of these things. The mayor of Gracchus was there. This is why I'm well aware of how much they care for their pigs, but at the time, I didn't know the limits to it. The mayor was discussing at length the fine art of making attire for a swine. I found it all rather interesting. A novel concept really. There's nothing wrong with being fond of a pet, and why not a pig for a pet. Plenty of people have them.
"Well, to make a long story less painful to remember, I suggested that he should have brought a pig in a dress and one in a sweater with him, just to show off the talents of his townspeople. That was dumb. The mayor got up and called me a long list of obscenities and stormed off. Apparently, sweaters are great and fashionable, but there is some unwritten law that a pig must never wear a dress. I meant no harm, but it was far too late. The man had blown up over the offense and left. Marle gave me one of those looks that means I had better become scarce immediately, so I did just that."
"Marle came over later to my house and beat the shit out of me, explaining at length the problems I had caused and the fact that Gracchus would hold a grudge against Guardia for several decades. I think I told you the next day that I had been hit by a wagon."
"I doubted that."
Crono frowned. "It was surprisingly similar to the truth, as far as number of bruises was concerned. That was one of the rare occasions where I've seen her truly pissed. You see, she had arranged the dinner, and the mayor had attended on her personal invitation. For once, she was trying to be the princess, and I had ruined it for her."
Marle rolled over, mumbling something about Mr. Lemur. Crono got up and found her pack. "Crono, don't go through her stuff," Lucca said.
He ignored her and fished through it. He pulled out a hardbound book. "I think this is the book she was talking about the other day."
Lucca frowned. "I'm sure it's harmless."
Crono flipped through the book, glancing at the illustrations. He stopped and read from a page. "'Christine and her Prince Charming played Jenga and Scrabble all through the night.'"
"You're reading into it too much."
"This picture says I'm not." He held the book up.
Lucca studied it. "So they're in a slightly compromising position. It's Twister, after all." Crono pointed to something in the background. "Oh."
"And they're all marvelous etchings," Crono said. "Somebody spent some serious time on these pictures."
"Such detail," agreed Lucca.
Crono closed the book and put it back. He found another. "A book of contemporary plays." He flipped through. "These seem clean." He paused on a page. "Never mind." He put it back. "Has Marle always been like this?"
"I wouldn't know. You've known her a whole ten minutes longer than me." She went back to cleaning her handgun.
"One has to be careful not to pass judgment on people to soon. You never can tell what they're like until you see what they read in their spare time." He put Marle's pack back where he found it, then crawled back to his cot. "I'm going to sleep. Maybe I will have forgotten I found that stuff by morning."
"Night." Lucca put all the parts of her gun back together, then loaded one of
the clips. Ten rounds. She raised the gun, sighting along the barrel to aim at the
window. Satisfied, she slipped it under her pillow, then covered up to go to sleep.
It was colder now.
The blanket over her shoulders didn't help at all. The doctors were gone. It was hopeless. Her mother would live, but not walk. Lucca had long since stopped crying. It didn't help ease the pain. Nothing helped any more. To be alive was torture. She was pathetic. A child. Seven.
Lucca felt drowsy. Maybe sleep would help. She'd wake up in the morning, and she could go on. Maybe. Hopefully.
She heard a familiar buzzing. Her friends. Her only friends. Except for one other, her best friend, Crono. She looked up. The dragonflies were hovering above a patch of flowers, like always. Only this time, they weren't alone. A man stood among the dandelions and daisies. He was tall, had the face of a million idol personalities, gorgeous, fake. He wore blue. His dark hair gleamed, as if wet. He walked forward. Stopped a few feet in front of her, towering over her small frame hunched on the porch.
"Hello," he said, a familiar voice.
She stood, looked him in the eyes. "Hello."
He reached out and wiped a tear away from her cheek. "You are sad. You should be. You feel you failed to help those you love, and that you should be punished for it. Yet no one punishes you, only yourself. I know the feeling well."
She stared back at him, in awe. "Who...?"
"You know me. I gave you a gift once. A very special gift."
He pointed to her chest. "It's in you. But perhaps calling it a gift is being misleading. No...a blatant lie. I cursed you." Lucca was silent, unmoving. "It was the only way. But that doesn't excuse it. Words are weak when lives are concerned."
A spark of recognition. "Spekkio?"
A nod. "I said you know me. I did what had to be done. The greater good, right?" A strange smile played across his perfect lips. "The victims have trouble seeing it that way, though. Don't they?" No answer. "Of course they do."
He looked into her eyes. Deeply, past the outside, into her very being. "I did something to you that cannot be forgiven." His eyes sparkled, a perfect blue. "You are but a child, and cannot understand what I say. We are all children, especially me. Perhaps we will grow up someday. Perhaps a curse can be a gift."
His eyes shifted color, blue to purple. "We can try. Your mother's legs are mangled. She will never walk. You would like to fix that."
"You're not Spekkio anymore."
He shrugged. "Not important. What difference does it make to you, really? Do you care who tells you how to reconstruct your life? How to be happy?"
"Yes." She shivered.
"Embrace the curse. Make it a gift. Prove you are strong enough to control your life. Do not be a pawn. That's what you are, you know. You gained magic only to defeat Lavos. Now, you will be ruined by it. Master it. Take control. The power within you is limitless. Harness it."
Lucca didn't move.
"Will you try? You could save yourself. Save your mother. You have the power to make her legs whole. Better than before." He smiled, a smile that frightened her. "Will you take my hand?" He offered his hand.
Lucca looked at it. It was pale. Looked like rubber, half-melted latex. Not human. The hand of Lavos's Core. She looked back at the man's eyes. They were still purple. She raised her hand, carefully touched the smooth skin. Like rubber, warm, inviting.
Then hard. Cold. Railing. She looked around. The man was gone, now only a place she knew well. The End of Time. She was fifteen, the age she had been when she first came here.
She stepped back from the rail that separated her from the endless blue void. She turned and saw the lamppost. A man in brown was leaning against it, watching her. "Gaspar."
The man nodded. "My apologies."
"You know." She did. He frowned. "He is right that we cannot be forgiven for our actions. Not by you or your companions. The greater good sounds high and noble, but not when real people lose everything for it; everything they believe in, everything they stand for. Have you lost everything?"
"No... at least I think not."
He nodded. "You would if you knew."
"I can't say. I don't know." Gaspar was her, a perfect copy. The new Lucca stepped forward. "I will, though. Then you will know."
"Oh." A long pause. "I suppose so."
Lucca opened her eyes. Crono was standing over her, looking slightly worried. "Yeah, I think so. Weird dream." She sat up. She was in one of the most comfortable beds she had ever slept in. "Where are we?"
Crono stepped back. "Porre, remember. We got here last night, did the big welcome thing, went to sleep. Don't feel bad. You had a lot of poi last night." He frowned. "So did I, for that matter. It's Thursday, the twenty-eighth of October, I think."
She looked around. They were in a huge room, probably on an upper floor. A large table was not far from the beds. A dozen platters of food sat on a red lace tablecloth. She eased herself to her feet, suppressing the wave of dizziness that threatened to knock her back down. "They sure want to treat us right." Her stomach grumbled. "But I don't know if I can eat."
"I can't either, so don't worry."
She pressed her palms to her forehead and tried to steady herself. "What exactly happened last night?"
"The various dignitaries of Porre officially welcomed Marle. It was a big to-do, we put up with all we could handle, then we came up to the room and drank poi until we both passed out."
Lucca racked her brain, trying to recall anything from the past week or so. "It'll come back to me," she said. "Where's Marle?"
Crono walked over to one of the large windows. "She's in the town hall, talking to the important folk of the town. She asked to go alone, handle it herself. I thought it was a good idea."
Lucca joined him. They were on a high enough floor to see over most of the buildings around them. Roof after roof. You could see the port at the far side of town, the sparkling ocean beyond it. "It's for the best. Beautiful day, isn't it?"
They stood there for several minutes, just watching the clouds. There were only a few, drifting in from over the ocean, wisps of white against the cerulean sky. "So," Lucca finally said, "what do we have to do today?"
Crono smiled. "Absolutely nothing."
She nodded. "Then what do we want to do?"
"Well, I was thinking we should stay around here until our stomachs quiet down, then eat some of this wonderful food."
"I haven't been to Porre in a while, so I don't know my way around as well as I used to. They've been building a lot lately. You want to just walk around, see what there is to do in town?"
Lucca nodded. "I want to by some useless trinkets, just to remember this trip by. I rarely come here, except to pick up various parts you can't get anywhere else. Copper wiring is really cheap around here. And of course, I really haven't been too welcome after that incident."
Crono frowned. "Refresh my memory."
"I burned the church down."
"Oh yeah. Accidental fires are a bitch, aren't they?"
"They doubted the accidental part. That really increased my problems with the clergy. Dad didn't ground me or anything, just pointed out the mistake I made with the wiring for the air conditioner I was installing for them. They decided to just sweat."
Crono shrugged. "Their loss. Air conditioning is great."
"I'm going to work on an invention I brought along with me until I feel like eating." She found her pack and got out a small, metal box. She threw it on the bed and climbed on with it, sitting cross-legged. "It's something I saw in the future. I picked up a defective one, but I'm trying to make my own working model. It shreds herbs."
"You dripped some sarcasm on your chin."
He brushed at his face. "How careless of me." Crono stretched, basking in the
sunlight that streamed through the window.
Lucca threw the box aside. It refused to shred anything more substantial than air. She looked at Crono. He was shuffling a deck of cards over and over again. Shuffle. Tap. Cut. Shuffle. Tap. Cut. "Screw breakfast. I rarely eat it anyway."
Crono looked up. "And waste this good food that the people of Porre paid for with their tax dollars?"
"I wouldn't have it any other way." He set the cards aside and put his shoes on. Lucca put her helmet on and hopped off the bed. They left the room without bothering to see if it even could be locked. The stairs were down the hall. Lucca noted that they were on the fifth floor. Buildings in Porre tended to be higher than those in Truce. They were in the government building, one of the larger buildings, which was also the mayor's home. Offices seemed to occupy the lower floors, but the fourth and above were reserved for the mayor and any guests. A servant, dressed in a starched, red uniform, greeted them on the first floor.
The main door opened directly onto the street, a thin strip of uneven cobbles sandwiched between the rows of buildings. The streets of Porre were narrow and irregular, nothing like the wide boulevards of Truce. Space was at a premium here. Fiona's Forest was considered almost holy, so few were willing to damage it much. Expansion in any other direction was stopped by the ocean. Lucca glanced around. "Where to?"
Crono shrugged. "Left, right, or forward. You pick."
"Left." They walked left, passing numerous houses and stores. The town seemed to have everything, including a store that sold nothing but sinks. Crono decided a visit there was required. They stepped in, a little bell notifying the clerk to their entrance. It truly specialized sinks, with a few sink accessories as well.
"Can I help you two?" Crono and Lucca both jumped. A short man in a plaid jacket had come up behind them. His eyes darted about nervously as he ran a hand through his greasy hair. "Looking for something in particular?"
Lucca shook her head. "No, we're just looking around."
"Terrific!" The man herded then to one of the displays. "May I direct your attention to this beauty, our basic model." It was a sink, plain white, a normal bathroom sink. "Observe the fine molding made from only the best materials." Crono immediately noticed hairline cracks in the porcelain. "It has a faucet, where the water comes out, and these two knobs to control the flow. This one is hot and the other is cold. Or maybe it's the other way around?"
Crono frowned. "Looks plain."
The man's eyes bugged with fear. "You don't like it? Maybe this one!" He guided them across the room to another bathroom sink. "See, same fine white color, but more advanced. The faucet swivels side to side and there's only one knob." He demonstrated. "You just turn it from off, to cold, and then hot. Very user friendly. It even comes with a little depression thing for soap, and a toothbrush holder." He put a fake bar of soap on the toothbrush holder and a toothbrush where the soap went.
"We really were just looking," Lucca said.
"I know just the one." He took them to another sink display. "This one's for the kitchen. Always need a kitchen sink. Look at this beauty." It was metal, two sinks in one, really. "Two faucets, two drains, two everything." He squatted down and ran a hand over the piping below. "See these nice pipe things. Always need the pipe things." He stood up. "Garbage disposal, too!" He let his tie fall into the drain and hit a button by the faucet. "OH GOD!! SOMEONE GET ME OUT OF THIS THING!!" he shouted over the roar of the blade motors and shredding fabric. Crono reached over and hit the button again. The man pulled away from the sink and took a minute to recover. "Works great! This model even has one of those snaky squirter things." He sprayed himself in the pants.
Lucca took a few steps back. "I think we need to leave."
"Not yet," Crono said. "But I want to see some more of the bathroom models."
"Bathroom, of course!" They were dragged back across the store. "How about this?" It was another double sink, half baby blue, half pink. "His/her sink! Like it? It has matching cupboards below, if you don't mind the pipe things underneath." He got no reaction. "Newlyweds! You're newlyweds, right?" They held up their hands. No rings. "No, not newlyweds. Cohabitants! That's got to be it! Let me take you to the back. We have products just for your type."
He started to take them back, but Crono grabbed him by the collar and lifted him up, one-handed. "Damn, you're light." The man cringed. Crono pulled him close to his face. "You don't know shit about sinks, do you?" he asked, smiling.
The man opened one eye. "No. Is that a problem?"
"Not really." Crono put him down. "Let's go somewhere else," he said to Lucca. They turned and went out the door, leaving the salesman to whimper in confusion, the ringing of the bell marking their exit.
The two walked around town for most of the day, stopping in any shop that caught their interest. A book store, several clothing shops, toy shops, including one that sold all handmade toys.
As they sat on a bench in the town square, a large open plaza near the north end of town, Crono checked his watch. "Four o' clock. Think we should be heading back?"
"Probably. I think I'm over the poi now."
"Yeah, me too. Maybe we can get them to go ahead and serve us dinner. If that was breakfast, I can't wait to see the main meal of the day."
Lucca started to smile, but stopped. "But how exactly do we get back?" They hadn't bothered to keep track of the path they had taken.
Crono looked around. "OOOO! A You-Are-Here map!" They both snatched up their enormous bags of junk and ran over to the sign, pushing each other to get ahead. "Where's the X?"
Lucca pointed. "There! Find the mayor's house on the listing!"
They both madly searched the list, trying to be the first to find it. "I got it!" Crono shouted. "Number 1285! You'd think it'd be a lower number." They both started scouring the map for 1285.
"I can't find it. Why do they have to mark every building?"
"It's in the northern area, right?"
"Do you two need any help?"
They both jumped from surprise, then turned. It was a Mystic, one of the diablos sort, but abnormally large. It had to be near six and a half feet tall. The voice sounded male. He was wearing light armor in a design common to the higher ranking of the Mystics. Lots of red, purple, and grey. "I couldn't help but notice you were having difficulty locating something."
Lucca regained her composure first. "Oh, thank you. We were looking for the mayor's house, but couldn't seem to find it on the map. It's number..." The diablos pointed with a clawed finger. "...1285. Thanks."
A toothy, lipless smile. "My pleasure." He bowed his head slightly to each of them, then walked away.
Lucca turned to Crono. "That was nice of him, wasn't it? Shall we be going?"
"Sure." Crono watched the diablos disappear into the crowd. He vaguely wondered how he had know the location of the mayor's house so well. Probably just very familiar with the town.
"Well?" Lucca called. She was half way across the plaza. He ran to catch up.
They were greeted by another servant at the door. Dinner would be at seven in the main dining hall. Crono and Lucca went upstairs to their room. The food from that morning had been cleared. Marle was there, wearing a elaborate, light blue dress. She smiled when she saw them enter. "Hey. How was your day?"
Crono plopped down on his bed. "Fine, fine. Nothing worth mentioning."
Lucca set her stuff on her bed. "More importantly, how was your day, Marle?"
The princess shrugged. "I guess it went fine. Endless political junk. As soon as anyone of any importance shows up, everybody's got a problem that just can't wait to be solved. Lots of yelling and begging. I was told by one person that the most important issue facing the kingdom right now was current price rises on chairs made in Truce. If it were shipping costs, that'd be different, but just the chairs?"
Crono propped himself up on his elbows. "Your people have to sit somewhere."
"And then," Marle continued, "I found out that there's this little island near here that wants to break off from Guardia to become a nudist utopia that grows and cans pineapple." Silence. "I mean, WHAT THE HELL?"
"I know where I'm retiring," Crono said.
Lucca put a hand on Marle's shoulder. "You always get weird stuff like that. Just handle it as best you see fit."
"Was their representative naked?" Crono asked.
Marle clutched her stomach. "And he was the size of a barn. We had to get him two chairs."
"Forget I mentioned any interest in the place."
Marle sat down in one of the chairs at the table. "Half the people there were looking to either marry their son to me or marry me themselves, the nudist whale included. Not surprising, considering I'm the young, beautiful heiress to this whole mess. Of course, the Chorans had no interest in me. They're separate from Guardia and proud of it. Their royalty's moving back into their old castle."
"The Northern Ruins?" Lucca asked.
"Yeah. They've finished a lot of the major renovation work. No one's lived in there for five hundred years." Marle rested her head in her hands. "This is exhausting."
Lucca sat down beside her. "You want to skip dinner? Rest up here?"
"No. The mayor's invited a few notables. It'd really make him angry if I didn't show and chat politics with them."
Lucca nodded. This was working Marle hard, but she was taking it well. A good sign. She really was a born leader.
Marle stood. "Well, I need to go and stand around, using my position to intimidate people. They seem to expect it. The rally's tomorrow, at the town square. You don't have to come, but you're welcome to watch with the rest of the crowd. The mayor doesn't want you two on the stage."
"Why not?" Crono asked. "Does he have something against us, or is he just silly?"
"He wants his own guards up there, protecting me. It's to make him look good."
"Well," Lucca said, "We'll try to catch some of it, but you have to understand that what the masses want to hear can be pretty boring."
"It's not so bad when you're saying it. Just moving my mouth keeps me
entertained." She walked to the door. "See you at seven."
Dinner was mind numbing to Crono, as he had expected. He and Lucca hadn't bothered to change out of their normal clothes. Lucca had just put on some baggy green pants, rather than the bicycle shorts. He couldn't complain about the food; it was great. The conversation was another matter. How meaningless shit like that could interest anything more mentally complex than dirt, he would never be able to personally understand.
Talk began on the subject of Marle's trip to Porre. She explained it all at great length, though modified for the attention spans of the guests. She focused on the fact that she didn't have any major foot problems from all the movement and sleeping in unprincess-like locales, like on the ground while it was raining. She also mentioned a fictitious encounter with forest bandits near Fiona's Shrine. Crono and Lucca had protected her, and they even managed to steal money from the robbers. That earned Crono a room full of golf claps and a refill on his glass of orange soda. The chef greatly resented him for requesting it, and the serving staff ignored him whenever they could. Typical of the dinners he'd been to before with the financial and political elite.
The discussion drifted to the king's health and the situation at the castle. Marle assured everyone that her father was hanging in there, and might yet recover. Everyone there knew it was a lie, but you never come out and say the king is as good as gone until it happens. More typical politics. With nothing more to be said on that topic, someone brought up relations with the Mystic Empire. No one had much to say. Mystics friendly. Ferry system working. Ought to have them over for tea.
Everything of importance had been said, so it got bad after that. A strange man with a goatee talked for an hour about a duel he had with another chap who had called his wife "both as thin and as vicious as a praying mantis." They met on a hill, each with a servant to carry their things. He had had to stab the poor bastard seventy times before he died. Apparently, he had the poor luck of being unable to hit anything vital that day. This reminded another woman about the price of rice in Truce, which in turn made the mayor recall his first hunting trip as a boy, where he killed a squirrel by throwing small rocks at it until it fell from a tree and broke its neck. His father had given him a gold piece and called him a natural. Crono had wanted to scream when a man in green started up about the first fish he caught. It turned out to be a block of cement with a tibia and fibula sticking out. The truly sad part was that some of the stories might have been interesting, even funny, if not for the boring way that these people always seemed to tell them.
As soon as it was over, Crono and Lucca each chugged a canteen of poi and went
straight to bed, declining the invitation to play Pachisi until daylight.
Morning came slowly for Crono. He had a strange dream that seemed to go on forever. He remembered standing on a pier, looking at the sea. A sea nymph, clad only in ribbons that shimmered like pearl, invited him to swim with her in the kingdom beneath the waves. He dove into the water and swam to its depths. Somehow he was able to breathe through his armpits. When he reached the bottom, he found Toma, the adventurer from 600 AD. They went on a quest to find the Oily Mayonnaise Jar. They never found it, and the last things he remembered seeing before waking up were three hermit crabs dancing on Cyrus's grave. Poi. Gotta love it.
He forced himself to sit up and check the clock. Noon. He'd slept late. He got out of bed and put his shoes and belt on, making sure his sword was secure. Marle and Lucca were both gone, and there wasn't any food on the table. "Getting cheap, eh?" he mumbled.
He picked up a canteen and drank some more poi. Unlike alcohol, it couldn't
kill your liver. He walked to the door and found a note taped to it. It was in
Lucca's hastily scribbled handwriting.
Got early start. Meet me at cafe you can see when you look out the window and straight down.
He dropped the note and walked to the window, taking another swallow as he went. The sun was painfully bright. Looking down, he saw a caf‚. A sign above the door read "The Biggie Piggie." He put the canteen down and walked out into the hall. At the bottom of the stairs, the servant greeted him yet again. Crono paused. "Do you do anything other than stand there and greet everyone who passes you?"
The man shrugged. "It pays good, and I get room and board."
"Such aspirations," Crono muttered as he passed.
Crono walked out the door and into the noon light. Still too bright. He turned left, guessing that it was the right way to the caf‚. He stayed beside the mayor's house, since it had been next door. He had to loop around fairly far, so he figured right had been right for once.
On the outside, the Biggie Piggie looked like any other caf‚. Inside, it still did, only it was decorated entirely in pigs. From glancing at tables, every meal was served with a little yellow piglet made from something edible. He saw Lucca in a booth by a window and walked over to join her.
"Finally up, lazy bones?"
He sat down heavily. "How can you be this alert after all that poi?"
She shrugged. "Don't know. Marle's big rally in the square has already started. You could here the fanfare from here."
"No I couldn't."
Lucca frowned. "Order something. I think that's what got me going. The food here is great."
Crono went up to the counter and demanded coffee. He got it, chugged it, and threw the disposable cup in the trash. He sat back down with Lucca. "I feel much better. The taste of coffee in the morning always wakes me up, considering I can't stand the stuff."
"Effective method. Disgust yourself awake."
"You want anything? I need some food to get rid of this coffee taste."
Lucca thought. "Just some tea."
As Crono was about to get up and order some food for them, the door to the caf‚ opened. Everyone stared at what came through. A man, badly in need of a shave, dirty, and generally looking roughed up, not to mention obviously dead drunk, was being carried in by two kids who couldn't be more than twelve.
The first was a boy, rather thin, holding the man by the shoulders. He had black hair that hung loosely down to his neck. His bangs hung down far enough to hide his eyes. He was dressed in a loose, long-sleeved shirt, very baggy pants, and worn leather shoes. Deep purples, blues, and oranges.
The second, who had the man's feet and was equally thin, was a girl. Her long black hair framed her face, and her eyes were deep purple. She wore clothes very much like Marle's, only in colors like the boy's. For someone so young, she was strikingly beautiful, and those large, vivid eyes were a major factor in that. Something about the colors and cut of both the children's clothes seemed familiar to Crono.
The two kids lugged the drunk across the caf‚, paying no attention to the stares of the other patrons, finally dumping him on a table in the corner. Crono watched as the girl walked up to the counter. Halfway there, something about the way she moved shifted almost imperceptibly, but everything about her suddenly oozed charm. She stopped at the counter, looking up at the clerk. "Excuse me, mister," she said. Her voice was not too high, but unbearably cute. "We were wondering if we could get some food." The guy just stared, dazed. "The problem is, we don't have any money." She giggled, yet another cute sound. "Could you give us a little something on the house? Just this once?"
Crono shifted his attention back to the table where the drunk had been left. The boy was slapping the man on the face over and over again. "Wake up, Dad! We're here." His voice was typical preteen, just beginning to deepen. He gave up on slapping. "You can stop acting stupid anytime now, Dad." Several people had gotten up and left, food untouched.
"This is odd," Lucca commented.
Crono looked at the kids again, finally recognizing what they made him think of: Zeal. He stood. "I think I need to intervene now."
"Is that wise? This isn't really our business."
"Of course it isn't wise." He decided to save the poor guy behind the counter first. He walked up behind the girl and tapped her bare shoulder.
She turned slowly, locking her eyes on his. They seemed almost hypnotic. Almost. Any sane man would have instantly melted into mush. Crono figured that if he clung to his insanity, its power would save him from becoming a blob of putty. She smiled. "And who are you?"
"Crono. Ring a bell?"
It was worth a shot. He had a fairly widespread reputation. "Is that your dad on the table over there?" he asked.
She looked past him to the drunk. "Yep. Would you mind ordering us all some food?" She edged closer to him, enough that he could feel the warmth of her young body. "Out of the goodness of your heart?"
"Follow me." He turned and went to the corner table, the girl slowly following him. The drunk was coming to. He got to his feet, brushing himself off. Crono stopped in front of him, waiting until he had the guy's attention. "Do your kids always have to drag you around town?" The man looked at him, then wrapped his arms around Crono in a bear hug. Crono didn't move. He asked, "Do I know you?"
The drunk let go and stepped back. He smiled broadly. "Just the person I was looking for. Good to see you!"
Crono frowned. "I'm afraid I don't recall how we know each other."
"Oh. Yeah." The man pulled a bottle out of his pocket and took a few gulps. "I'm not myself right now." A bright blue glow engulfed him. Anyone who hadn't left already ran for it. The glowing figure began to reshape, the head and body joining, the limbs thinning. When the glow finally faded, Crono was staring at a pink nu, only an inch or two taller than the kids.
Crono recognized him now, but hardly believed it. "Spekkio?"
The nu slapped him on the back. "Yep, punk, it's me. Haven't seen you in a while. Well, to be totally honest with you, in the End of Time you don't notice time as much. Make sense? Me either. I would have visited sooner, but you know how busy I am."
The boy choked down a snort of laughter.
Lucca had joined them by now. "Dad?" she asked.
Spekkio nodded sagely, then emptied his bottle. "You better believe it. I'd like you to meet my twins: Malt..." The girl smiled sweetly at them. "...and Hops." The boy shrugged. "A pair of bloody angels, eh? They're gonna make their old man proud one of these days." Hops squirted a whole packet of ketchup into his mouth. "One of these days." Spekkio snatched the empty ketchup packet from his son. "What would you're mother say if she saw you acting like a pair of morons?"
"We have a mom?" Malt asked.
"Course you have mom! Your pop isn't some genderless sponge! You think I could just snap my fingers and divide into a whole freakin' extended family? Why don't I just bite my toenails and make you a third cousin, twice removed?"
Lucca smiled weakly. "Well, it's great to see you guys. Since when did you have kids, Spekkio?"
"Since before I met you idiots. You would've met them before, but I had them at...extended day care."
"Dad ditched us in Zeal," Malt mumbled.
"Just so that nice family could raise you right. Sometimes I think I could have done a better job, though. They pampered you too much. A good spanking would a done you a world of good."
"You don't spank us now, Dad," Hops said.
"You're too old for spankings now, punk. Drop and give me fifty." Spekkio pointed to the floor.
Hops ignored the order. Spekkio just grumbled to himself.
Crono put his hand on what he thought was the nu's shoulder. "Now that we're all friends here, why did you come?"
Spekkio looked shocked. "Are you assuming I'm here to get something from you? Can't a proud father show off his perfect twins to his old buddies? I'd never impose on you." Crono didn't move. "Okay, I need a favor."
Lucca smiled. "That's more like it. We know you too well, Spekkio. Now, what's the favor?"
Spekkio threw an arm around each of his kids and pulled them close. "I need you to watch over my wonderful, angelic children for a little while. Nothing permanent."
Crono nodded. "How long?"
"Not too long." Crono glared daggers at the rotund, pink creature. "Until I come back," the nu mumbled.
Malt sighed. "That should be a few years."
"I promise I'll be back soon. Just for a bit, okay?"
Lucca patted the nu's head. "You know we'll do it. Anything for a friend."
"Where are you going?" Crono asked.
Spekkio shrugged. "No place in particular. Just have some business to handle." Crono could tell this was going to be more than a few days. "Anyway, they aren't allergic to anything...I think, and they're house trained. Have a blast." He waddled to the door. As he went, he morphed into a clean cut businessman, then disappeared out the exit.
Lucca watched him leave, recalling the dream from the other night. The dazzling figure claiming to be Spekkio. She forced herself to ignore it.
"So, what do you want to do?" Crono asked.
"We need to eat," Hops said.
Crono looked around. The place was empty. "Well, I guess just help yourselves." The twins disappeared into the kitchen area. Crono turned to Lucca. "I've never taken care of kids in my life."
Lucca shrugged. "Neither have I." Unlike most of the other girls in school, she'd never taken up baby-sitting to earn extra money. No parent would have trusted her with their children.
"Shouldn't be too hard. They look old enough to take care of themselves, anyway."
Suddenly, the building shook from the roar of a distant explosion. With startled glances to each other, they both bolted for the exit, one thought on their minds:
Marle had gotten an early start that day, anticipating the total lack of order in the town square. The organizers had been running around like chickens with their heads cut off, fretting over each tiny detail. She had simply flowed with it all. The stage was set, guards posted, the crowds gathered, the trumpets blared, and she had made her speech. It had gone perfectly.
Now she was still standing in front of about five hundred people, not even close to the expected turnout, waiting for the next part to begin. The mayor got up in front of her to address the crowd. "Good people of Porre! Thank you for showing up today. Now, as a special treat, Princess Nadia will take your questions, and answer them herself!" The crowd cheered, and several people waved their hands, wanting to be picked.
"I will? I...guess this could be fun." She pointed to a raised hand near the barricade. There was a good twenty feet between the crowd and the stage, for security reasons.
A woman raised her voice to be heard. "Your Worship, what are you going to do about all this milk? Do you have any idea how many cows it'd take to get all the milk they sell at the market? There just aren't enough of them cows in Porre for all this milk. They've got to be overworking the poor critters. It just isn't right!" There was a cheer of agreement from the people around her. "What if it's really goat's milk?" That got more shouts.
Marle stuttered, unsure of how to answer. "Well, I'm sure we all share your concern for the well-being of cows...and the quality of milk...and...I'll do my best to assure that no one is doing anything wrong."
"But my Bessy Sue is tired. Her udder's sore!" shouted a fairly old man. "Something's has to be DONE!" More cheering.
Marle didn't know what to do about this one. "How about...ROYAL DECREE!" Everyone cheered. They loved royal decrees. "All cows now have the right to refuse to be milked if their udders are sore. Markets may not sell more milk than is reasonable, as compared to the number of cows in the local area. If milk is goat's milk, it must be clearly labeled as such." The crowd cheered. The mayor scurried up beside her and tapped her shoulder. "What?"
The mayor was wringing his hands nervously. "Not to be rude, Princess, but I'm not entirely sure you have the authority to be making royal decrees. You are the heiress, but not the ruler yet. The people might become agitated if they find out that what you said isn't truly law. Could you please be more careful as to what you say?"
"Don't worry. It's just a bunch of nonsense about cows. Who's next? How about you?" She pointed to a man a bit further back in the crowd.
"My name is Jed, and I want to be your husband. I'm a nice guy, and I got my own liquor bottling business. I don't drink but one case of my brew a day, so I'm usually sober, kinda."
Marle frowned. "No, I'm sorry Jed, but I'm not planning on marrying right now. No one else ask, okay?" Most of the hands went down. She pointed to another man to the far left. "What's your question?"
He cleared his voice. "My boss hasn't paid me in three months, and he's been stealing my chipmunks. You see, I got these chipmunks at my house. They're really great, even sing little songs. Should I steal his lawn gnomes to get back at him?" The crowd was silent, waiting for her answer.
This was getting pathetic. "Look, this is something you should talk about with a professional counselor, someone trained to solve disputes like this, not me." She sighed. "DOESN'T ANYONE HAVE A QUESTION THAT I JUST MIGHT BE ABLE TO ACTUALLY ANSWER?!" Six green imps had been jumping up and down at the barricades, trying to get her attention. She nodded to them. "Let's hear from you."
The imps scurried over the barricades, into the no-man's land between them and the stage. Several guards moved forward to force them back behind the barriers, but Marle motioned for them to stay away. The first of the imps bowed. "We wish to sing a song for her Majesty, if she wishes to hear."
A song? "Why not? Go ahead."
They scurried forward. The first three dropped to their hands and knees, the
next two climbed onto them, and the last stood on their shoulders, forming an imp
pyramid. The top imp took out a kazoo and blew a single note.
We are Mystics, happy Mystics,
Running through the trees!
Some of us wear leather pants,
But others just go free!
Marle cringed. Their singing was awful. Another kazoo tone marked the
beginning of the next verse.
We clean our little homes
And dust metal figurines!
Judging from our pudgy cheeks,
It's clear we're no Marines!
We are Mystics, drunken Mystics,
Lapping up the Mystic wine!
I'd let you have a little sip,
But I'm afraid it's mine!
We Mystics like to roll in mud
And hit each other with the sludge!
But if you tell us to go away,
>>From our mudpit we will not budge!
We are Mystics, stinky Mystics,
Choking on our own green phlegm!
You humans make us laugh so hard!
Now, let the real fun begin!
The imp took out a match and reached for a cord hanging from it's jacket. "Bye bye, Princess!" Marle stumbled backwards, taken totally by surprise. "What...?"
"HELL GEYSER!" The ground below them erupted in fiery energy, engulfing the pyramid of imps. The explosives strapped beneath their clothes detonated, but the force of the blast was directed upward, away from Marle. As the blast cleared, the unrecognizable remains of the imps fell to the ground in a charred pile. Behind them stood a seven and a half foot tall scarecrow, dressed in red, carrying a scythe.
The crowd, guards included, cleared out of the plaza as fast as possible. Imps were flowing out of the surrounding buildings, advancing on the stage.
Shellac glanced at the charging Mystics. Dilemma: did he help the princess, so as to keep the plans intact, or did he walk away and let the Mystics kill her. They were his employers, after all. He sighed. The Mystics had promised not to get in the Purge's way, and had broken that promise. He hated employers who lied. And besides, she was cute. "Looks like you require some assistance, your Majesty."
Marle nodded dumbly, then forced herself to focus. She hadn't done any
serious fighting in almost a year. This might be refreshing.
Crono turned another corner, still a bit behind Lucca. Sword in hand, he sprinted after her. "Do you even know where you're going?"
"Of course not! Hurry up!" She disappeared at the next turn. Crono was about to follow when an imp dropped down from a window and landed in his way. It smiled devilishly and drew a dagger from its belt. Crono glanced behind him. Five more were approaching him, armed like the first.
"You want to make trouble, huh? Well, considering the situation, I suppose I'll have to do something about that." He lunged at the first imp, driving his sword through its large forehead. Imps had big heads, but not particularly hard ones. He kicked its lifeless body away, then turned to meet the others.
The first two ran forward, daggers ready. Crono blocked the first strike easily. He sidestepped the second and grabbed the imp's arm. It squealed in surprise as he lifted it up and flung it aside. It crashed through a window, landing on a china display. It tried to climb out, but only succeeded in impaling itself on the jagged glass. The imp's bleeding form collapsed on the pavement to expire.
The first struck again, but Crono blocked and kneed the imp in the face. It stumbled backwards, it's nose broken and bloody. Crono swung his blade, leaving a deep cut across the imps chest. It stared at the wound in horror as it stumbled away.
The other three imps ran away as fast as their little legs would carry them. Behind them stood the diablos Crono and Lucca had seen the day before. It smiled, a lipless, toothy grin. "I'm afraid you cannot stop us. The Princess will die today." He drew a large scimitar and began twirling it around in an elaborate display of swordsmanship. Cyrus himself would have been impressed by the Mystic's skill.
Crono sighed and raised his sword. "BOLT STRIKE!" The lightning bolt hit the unprepared diablos in the gut and knocked him back about ten feet. His smoking body landed with a sickening thump and didn't get up. Crono shook his head. "I hate showoffs," he mumbled.
Lucca came running back around the corner. She stopped and glared at him. "What's taking you so long?"
Crono gestured at the blood and the destruction. "I was busy!"
"You have killed our leader, you monsters!" They both turned to see that one of the imps had returned and was staring in shock at the charred body of the diablos. It drew it's dagger and readied itself for battle. "For this offense, you must die!" It rushed forward.
Lucca raised her gun and emptied three rounds into its head, the shots echoing in the narrow streets. Crono gave her a thumbs up. "Not bad."
"Just hurry up." She ran ahead again.
Crono sighed. "Doesn't anybody respect my efforts?" He ran after her.
When they reached the town square, they both froze. The plaza was covered in the burning, bloody bodies of perhaps a hundred imps. The smell was overpowering. The pavement was broken and blackened, the splendor of the town square destroyed. Even the You-Are-Here map was demolished. At the center of the carnage, on the stage, stood Marle, as cheerful as ever and apparently unharmed, and a large walking scarecrow with a scythe.
Marle saw them and waved. As they approached, weaving through the carnage, she put her hands on her hips and glared at Crono. "What took you so long, Crono? I had to kill all these imps by myself."
"Isn't anything I do good enough these days!?" Crono chopped madly at the nearest post to unleash his frustration.
"Oh yeah. I had some help from this nice scarecrow." She paced around the stage cheerfully, looking for any imps that they might have missed.
Lucca wiped her forehead. "Today has officially been the weirdest day I've had in a long time. First Spekkio has kids, now Marle and a scarecrow defeat a legion of Mystics. What next?"
Crono froze. "That's right! The twins! We forgot them!"
"Shit!" They both ran back in the direction of the Biggie Piggie.
Marle surveyed the pain and suffering she had caused. "A pity Crono missed this. He would have loved it." She looked at her companion. "By the way, what's your name?"
The scarecrow bowed. "Shellac, and it was a jolly slaughter, wasn't it? I told Draino this would get messy, though admittedly, this isn't exactly what I meant." He rubbed his chin with his hand, studying the massacre. "It could have used some more fire, though."
"Shellac? That's an interesting name."
"Most people think so."
She smiled warmly. "To be totally honest with you, I've never seen a living scarecrow before. I mean, I've seen some strange stuff, but not anything exactly like you."
Shellac brushed the ashes from his shoulders. He might as well get this over and get Draino off his back. A pity, really. The princess seemed like a rather nice person. "Yes, well I'm sure I'm just plain amazing to most people, but I'm afraid I really must be kidnapping you now. Hahahahahahahaha!"
Shellac grabbed Marle's arms and started tying them behind her back. She frowned. "You weren't kidding, were you?"
Shellac paused and thought. "Nope," he said.
"But wait! You can't kidnap me! My friends will-" Shellac gagged her, making sure it was nice and tight. He lifted her up and threw her over his shoulder. He started walking to the southern part of town.
"Come along now, and no kicking. You have to understand that it's nothing personal. This is just part of a much larger plan." He paused. "Why do villains always expose their plots?" He shrugged, jostling Marle. "Oh well, it isn't exactly my evil plot anyway. Kidnapping you is part of a bigger goal, mainly so we get paid and can buy those necessities of life, like food and toilet paper." He sighed, his empty eyes taking on a wistful look. "Ah, those were the days, when all the Purge wanted was to earn a living. None of this big-time junk to gain astronomical power. Anyway, it's Draino who wants you."
"He fancies himself my boss, but I don't particularly like the way he runs things these days." He kept walking. "You're probably wondering about what I will do with you."
"I hope that wasn't important because I have no idea what you said. Anyway, we're going to the docks to get a boat. I don't have a ticket, so we'll just have to permanently borrow one. I hope you don't have a moral problem with that."
"That's good to know. Ee-fwub and mu-ghwah and all that. I have this island with a charming little beach house where I'm going to put you. You'll have a jolly time. Ever been kidnapped before?"
Marle shook her head. "O."
"Me either. Oh, look, the docks." He surveyed the piers. The only boats in the entire place were a pair of tiny boats that each would just barely hold himself and his captive. "Well, I guess this will have to do. Try not to rock the boat too much."
"EEE!" Shellac threw her into the first one. Glancing to the side, he waved
at the man in the ticket booth, then jumped down with her. He looked at the stern.
"Why aren't there any motor boats here? Am I just having bad luck today or what?"
He grabbed the oars and started rowing.
When Crono and Lucca got back to the Biggie Piggie, Malt and Hops were sitting at a table, their food long finished. They were blowing straw wrappers at each other. Judging from the number of wrappers that covered the restaurant, they'd been at it for quite a while.
Crono stabbed his sword into the table to get their attention. "Come on, you two. We have to go."
Hops hit him with a wrapper. "You guys aren't off to a good start," he said. "Even Spekkio's never ditched us in a cheap restaurant." Crono grabbed their arms and pulled them to their feet.
"I'm telling Dad you're harassing me," Malt said with an evil grin.
Crono shook his head. "Your dad wouldn't care."
"Good point, but I could always scream 'rape' really loud and get you in some serious trouble." Crono let them both go.
Lucca sighed. "Let's go. There's no reason to argue like this. We're all going to get along just fine and have a great time. You said yourself that there's no telling when your father will get back, so let's try to become great friends. You're going to be here a while."
Malt crossed her arms. "Tell Crono to promise not to manhandle me. I am a delicate flower that must be treated with care and love."
Lucca glared at him. "Crono?"
"I promise," he mumbled.
"Good. Can we go now?" The four left the Biggie Piggie and walked to the town square. The townsfolk were coming back outside now that the incident was over. The damage had been mainly in the square. They reached the plaza, where efforts had begun to clean up the bodies. The mayor was on the stage, directing the cleaners. Marle was nowhere to be seen. They went to the center to see the mayor.
"Excuse me," Lucca called.
The mayor hopped down to greet them. "Look at this mess! I can't believe this could happen in my beautiful city. I assure you both that the city of Porre had nothing to do with this. If I could have known-"
"Where's Marle?" Crono and Lucca asked in unison.
The mayor looked at them in surprise. "You don't know? It's absolutely horrid! The Mystics got her! A large scarecrow carried her to the docks. All my ships are away right now, but I assure you I'll send some to look for her as soon as I can."
Crono shook his head. "We've had enough of your assurance for one day. Let's go to the docks." They pushed past the mayor and headed south.
"Looks like you're doing a great job of protecting the princess," Malt said sarcastically. "I sure feel safe."
"How do you know that we're here to protect her?" Crono asked.
Malt gave him an exasperated look. "It's pretty obvious. Why else would you be looking for her? Because you want to kidnap her?"
Crono just stared at her. Hops smirked. "You're really pissing him off this time, Malt."
"So?" she said. "He promised not to do anything to me, remember Crono?"
"I promised not to manhandle you."
"What," she asked, "are you going to tickle me until I behave? I don't need to be disciplined by a pair of teenagers like you."
"How does a kid develop an attitude like this?" Crono asked no one in particular.
"By being Spekkio's kid," Lucca said. "Can we please save this until we find Marle? Once we're all back in Truce, we can have a jolly time getting each other invitations to the overnight lockup. I promise to show anyone who cares to get on my nerves too frequently the true wonders of science." The hint of a threat was lost on no one.
When they reached the docks, they found the ticket building empty. The staff had cleared out for some reason. Crono glanced around for more attackers. "See anything?"
"No," Lucca said. "They've gotten away. Didn't Marle say the scarecrow helped her defeat the imps? Why would it do that if it was one of the Mystics?"
Crono nodded. "They wanted her dead, not kidnapped. We're definitely dealing with a separate group."
"They're getting away." Crono and Lucca turned to Malt. "That's probably her," she said. She was pointing to a tiny dot out on the water.
They ran to the piers, though the situation wasn't hopeful. "I don't see any boats," Hops said.
Crono pointed. "There's one left." They all looked at the one remaining rowboat, bobbing slightly in the gentle waves. No one said anything.
Lucca frowned. "I think we're all going to get to know each other very well."
"Ro-o! U-ah!" Marle called as they approached.
Crono wasn't sure how to react. He'd been rowing hard nonstop to catch up with Marle and her kidnapper. His arms were tired, and he imagined that Lucca's were, too. They were all cramped and irritable.
And that scarecrow freak was FISHING! He was just sitting in the boat, line dangling in the water, Marle restrained and seated beside him.
Their rowboat stopped a foot away from the enemy's. The scarecrow was just staring at them, slightly amused. He pulled his line out of the water and placed the pole in the boat, waiting for them to act.
The scarecrow politely tipped his hat. "Good day to you all! It's so wonderful to finally meet Ro-o an U-ah in person. She's been telling me all about you. I was trying to catch us a light snack, but, as you can see, I had no luck."
Lucca drew her handgun and aimed for Shellac's chest. "We're not here to play games. Hand over Marle."
Shellac frowned. "I respect your devotion to your friend, but I simply can't do that. She's of great value to myself and several others. If we don't kidnap her, we don't eat. Simple as that. What can I say?"
"You can give us Marle," Crono reiterated, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
"Sorry," Shellac said. "No can do. I can, of course, give you all tickets to the Traveling Beetle Circus of Ishmael Yamabushi." He produced four tickets and held them out. "Wonderful show. He's got these little beetles that can dance, and some that run on little hamster wheels."
Hops took the tickets and examined them. He found the date on the backs. "These are for a show over three hundred years ago! What are you trying to pull on us?"
"Om-on ep e!" Marle wailed.
"Enough!" Lucca shouted. Everyone turned to her. "Give us Marle now or we get mean." She held her gun level, unwavering.
Shellac stood, readying his scythe. "My only regret is that I don't have more time to spend with you morons. Do your worst!"
Lucca fired two shots into the scarecrow's chest, punching two holes through his straw and burlap body. Shellac gave them a stitched smile as they both began to slowly seal themselves up. "Weren't counting on that, were you?" He extended his empty hand. A large rock materialized over the far side of Lucca's boat.
She slipped the gun back into its place under her tunic. "No! Don't do that!" The rock dropped, dumping them into the water as the boat capsized.
Shellac laughed. "What strange persons!" He sat back down to continue rowing
to his destination.
Marle could barely see in the low light of the building. Well, building wasn't quite the right word. Shellac had taken her to an island, a rather pretty one actually, where they had gotten out of the boat and walked down the beach until they reached a gray, concrete bunker built just where the dunes seemed to end, to be replaced with autumn grass, a mix of browns and greens, and some light trees. The door was heavy, clearly able to withstand serious punishment before buckling.
Inside they had gone down a series of hallways. She half noticed other branches, the occasional door. The place struck her as something more likely to be found in the far future she had seen, not 1001. Thick piping and cables lined many of the walls and ceilings. The floor was grated, with more conduits running just beneath it. Their feet clanged on the metal.
Shellac led her to a large door, not quite so solid as the front entrance. The scarecrow pressed a button on the wall, and the door slid open. He waited for her to walk through, then followed, the door sliding shut behind him. There was an audible click as it locked.
The room was large but simple. A bed, a desk, a short shelf. There was a small lamp on the shelf, the single bulb not nearly enough to illuminate the whole room. There was a simple green rug in the center of the floor.
The most noticeable feature of the room was one of the walls. The entire concrete slab had been painted to look like a view of the beach and sea, the mainland just visible on the horizon, as if to mimic a window. Marle had to admit, it was very well done.
Shellac walked toward it, studying it carefully. "Not exactly like the real thing," he said, "but it's something to look at. A friend of mine painted it. I particularly like the water. Water can be so hard to do, but she managed it so wonderfully here, don't you agree?" It was a moment before he went on. "You're going to be here for a while, though I'm not sure exactly how long. It's only important that you're missing." He slowly walked behind her. "I assure you that I will do you no harm. I doubt the others will, either." He began to untie her. "Try to make yourself at home." He reached up to release her gag. "There's a meal on the desk, if you're hungry. I'll bring you three meals a day. My cooking tends to be a bit well done, but I assure you it is edible. Behind the curtain on the far wall is the bathroom." He stepped back. Marle turned to look at him. Despite being the person that had just abducted her, he wasn't intimidating. The empty holes in his head seemed to betray as much as any pair of eyes would. "If you require anything later, ask."
Marle smiled. "Thank you. I'm sure few kidnap victims are treated so well, especially when there's no ransom involved. Are you sure this is necessary? Guardia could use you, or at least I could. I could pay you, give you a place to stay if that's all you desire from this."
A friendly smile crossed his stitched mouth. "I must thank you for your offer, but I'm afraid I must decline. Understand that I have nothing against you personally. But, I'm sure you'll agree that we must all choose our own paths through life. We cannot let others force us down the one they choose." He shrugged. "I chose this path a long time ago, and it is my place still."
Marle nodded. "I respect that. You don't know how true that is to me."
"I could imagine a similar situation in your place. Heiress of Guardia, has to be the queen someday. Got to do everything how everyone's always done it. But, what if you don't want that?"
Marle was speechless for a moment. "Exactly..." she managed.
Shellac shrugged. "I've been around. I've seen stuff. I wasn't given a choice in the beginning of my existence."
"When was that?"
He thought. "Around 15,000 years ago."
"Oh. That must get boring."
"No, not really. You've just got to learn to live differently. Slower. Watch the passage of history. Of course...it can be hard when no one else lives as long as you do."
Marle sat in silence. The very thought of living so long overwhelmed her. To have seen so much...
"I may be a worthless mercenary, but I have my own honor, my own pride. And there are those I cannot abandon." He took a step back. "Maybe we will meet under better circumstances one day. Maybe I can take your offer then."
"Unfortunately, I doubt it," he said, his face emotionless. Shellac disappeared in a swirl of glowing crow feathers. Marle stood, unmoving. The rush of events only now allowed her to catch up, to feel the panicked, wild, confused emotions that she'd suppressed. To really consider her situation.
She was at a loss. Nothing was ever as black and white as they wanted you to see it. Just gray, like the walls. She ran her fingertips over the concrete as a single tear rolled down her cheek, leaving a wet trail on her skin. Like the wall.
Cold and gray.
Crono plodded out of the water, up onto the beach. He was soaked. He was cold. It was windy and getting late. Damn it all. He glanced around him. The island was simple, small. Beach, then trees. Lucca and the kids were already lying in the sand, resting from their swim. The rowboat had refused to right itself, forcing them to come the rest of the way by their own power. Fall was a terrible time to be swimming.
He collapsed beside Lucca, panting. "It's cold. It's getting dark. What do we do?" he asked between breaths.
Lucca tried to move her shoulders in something vaguely resembling a shrug. "We've got to find Marle. She's somewhere on this island, and so is the scarecrow. This guy is not a Mystic, I'm sure of that."
"Yeah," Crono agreed. "The Mystics just don't operate like this. They just go ahead and kill you. This guy, he's seriously trying to get us to give up." He smiled. "But do you know what?"
"We don't give up." They both didn't move, enjoying the break. "When we have Marle, I suggest we cancel Medina and go straight home."
"Agreed," Lucca said. "Spekkio's kids?"
"They're ours for who knows how long. I guess we'll just find them places to stay with us. I've got an empty guest room. Well, it was empty last time I was at my house."
"We've got more room than we know what to do with. No, I take that back. We know what to do with it: fill it with electronic junk. But they could both easily stay at my house. You could just come over every day."
"You are not dumping both of them on me."
Crono nodded. "I know, but I still think we'll make horrible parental figures."
"Worse than Spekkio?"
Crono thought. "Yes, actually. With Spekkio, they at least know that he is their father. With us, we're just a pair of bums that Daddy knows. Have you been wondering how Spekkio got here? The gates are sealed, right?"
"He and Gaspar can probably make temporary gates from the End of Time," she said. "At least, I wouldn't be surprised. Gaspar would have figured it out sometime, and he's got a lot of time on his hands there. That's probably why Malt and Hops have to wait for Spekkio to come get them, rather than just going home."
"Is the End of Time their home?"
That was a thought. Did these kids ever have something to call home? "From what Spekkio said, I'm guessing the closest thing they've ever had would be some place in Zeal," Lucca answered. "Has it occurred to you that these kids would probably scare any child psychologist?"
"Spekkio's their father, he apparently was rarely around, they were raised in Zeal, yes, these children are messed up beyond hope. This should be interesting." He managed to get up to his knees. Malt and Hops were digging in the sand. He tapped Lucca's shoulder. "Let's get this over with."
He got up to his feet and walked over to the kids. "You two stay here, okay," he said. "We've got to go get Marle. It's probably extremely dangerous, and Lucca and I don't want you to get hurt."
Malt smiled. "Great, we'll just make sand castles for the nice crabs. If you don't come back, we have survival training. Dad will come get us eventually." She gave him a little salute.
"That's just great. Your confidence is inspiring."
"Sarcasm is rude," Hops said.
"Perhaps," Crono agreed, "but it is ever so fun." Lucca called him. She was
already walking down the beach. Crono checked his sword and took a deep breath to
calm himself. "Let's rescue us a princess."
They found him atop a dune, illuminated in the darkness by the faint green glow radiating from the stone in the scythe he carried. His cape billowed slightly in the breeze. His face was blank, showing no fear, nor any pride. The buffoonery had once again disappeared. He was a warrior, and despite the tattered rags of his clothing, he was a terrible and glorious image. Lucca's gun was in her hand, resting at her side. Crono drew his sword.
All three waited.
The scarecrow spoke first. "Leave." He was not speaking loudly, but his voice carried over the dunes.
"I can't," Crono said. "I have to save Marle."
Shellac's fathomless eyes closed. "Leave. Just walk away. You will be needed elsewhere shortly. Your friend is safe."
Crono shook his head. "If you don't mean us harm, why do you oppose us?"
The scarecrow stood, unmoving. "Because I must."
"Yes," Lucca said. "We must do what we must."
Shellac's eyes opened. "Then let us end this." He raised his scythe. "HELL GEYSER!" Crono barely leapt away in time. The column of fire washed the beach in orange light. He rolled to his feet, readying his sword. Shellac was running toward Crono, arms to his side, moving effortlessly over the sand. There were several gunshots as Lucca emptied her clip at the scarecrow, punching a few small holes in his body. Shellac neared, raising his weapon to strike. For a moment, Crono feared he was mesmerized by the look in the scarecrow's face. He thought he could see pain and reluctance in the creases of Shellac's burlap face. The urgency of the situation shoved Crono out of his trance, and he assumed a fighting stance to meet his advancing opponent.
He glimpsed the scythe crashing down on him before dodging to the side. He struck back, his blade flashing in the light of the stone. Shellac was too fast. The sand was not impeding him at all. He easily blocked with his scythe, immediately twirling it back around. Crono stepped back, the blade slicing through the air scarcely inches away from his chest.
He leapt forward again, sweeping his blade in an upward arc. Shellac deflected it from his torso, but the sword caught his left shoulder, tearing into his cape, but not hurting him. He slammed the butt of his scythe into Crono's chest, lifting him off his feet and flinging him back. Crono managed to land on his feet, nearly losing his balance in the sand. His chest had a shallow cut, nothing that would stop him.
Shellac didn't let up. He charged forward again, swinging at Crono's neck. Crono ducked, then used his legs to propel himself up at the scarecrow, sword aiming for where a heart should be. Shellac knocked the sword away with the shaft of his scythe, but Crono still slammed into him, forcing him to stumble back.
He shook as more rounds tore into his back. Lucca had finished reloading. "It's bad form to shoot a man in the back," Shellac said with a sardonic smile. He leapt almost thirty feet into the air, landing half way between his two opponents. He swung his scythe in Lucca's direction. "DEVIL SHOT!" Three purple fireballs sped toward her. Lucca dove away, trying to get behind a clump of tall grass. The first two barely missed, kicking up showers of sand, but the third caught her leg, the blast flipping her through the air. She landed on her back, winded, her leg scorched.
"BOLT STRIKE!" The lightning bolt hit Shellac's left shoulder again, disintegrating most of it. Straw and canvas fibers immediately stretched across the damage, beginning repairs. Somehow, his arm continued to function normally. Shellac spun around, blocking a strike from Crono. Their weapons locked, and they stood there, struggling against their equal strength. Crono put all his strength into an upward push, knocking the scarecrow back. He swung, slicing into his stomach. Shellac grunted, finally showing signs of pain. Crono struck again, but was blocked. He leapt back to catch his breath.
Lucca climbed to her feet, her gun lost and her leg aching. She charged forward her hands out in front of her. "FIRAGA!" A ball of flames shot from her hands at her opponent. A foot away from Shellac, it erupted, consuming everything in a ten foot radius in a wave of energy.
When the blast cleared, Shellac was still standing, though singed all over his body.
He ignored Lucca for the time being, rushing Crono, his scythe ready to strike. Crono blocked two attacks, then lunged forward. Shellac jumped up to dodge, but Crono was expecting it. "BOLT STRIKE!" The attack knocked Shellac higher into the air, no longer in control of his flight.
"We don't have time for this!" Lucca shouted. She began glowing red, then was consumed in an orange ring of energy. "FIRAGA!" She raised her hand, launching a pulsing projectile far more powerful than the last at the rapidly descending scarecrow. It hit, exploding outward. The blast lit the entire island as it surrounded Shellac, the magic burning through his already weakened body. His tattered form fell, disappearing behind a dune. Lucca struggled to stay on her feet, exhausted.
No one moved. The only sound was their heavy breathing. "He's gone," Lucca said.
"Looks like it," Crono said. He smiled weakly. "Looks we've got a big problem on our hands. That was no Mystic."
"I'm just hoping he was the only one."
Crono glanced around, spotting the bunker nearby. He sheathed his sword. "Come on! Marle may be in there."
Lucca looked where he was pointing. "Yeah. Let's check it out."
They both ran to the door. Crono pounded on it, listening to the deep roar it produced. Lucca saw the panel that opened it. It was a keypad, obviously requiring a code. Rather advanced for this time. She leaned closer to examine it. It was barely noticeable, but the three, seven, and eight were slightly more worn in appearance than the others. Odd, but perhaps helpful. She tried several combinations of those. The door slid open on 7-3-8.
They advanced slowly. It was dark inside. The whole place was way beyond it's time. Crono felt like he was back in 2300, only this place was in far better condition. They wandered down the echoing halls, finding several dead ends and no sign of anything alive. The two eventually reached a featureless door. Crono hit the button beside it.
The door slid open, revealing a simple gray room. One of the walls was painted like a beach scene. Very good, actually. Marle was sitting on a bed, her face red from crying. She looked up at the sound of the door.
"Crono!" She ran forward and threw her arms around his neck.
Crono hugged her back. "Are you okay?" he asked.
She let go and stepped back. "I'm fine," she said. "Are you guys okay? You look a little roughed up."
Lucca smiled. "We're fine. Just ran into a little resistance on our way here. Nice place they had you in."
"It could be much worse. I'm grateful."
"I'm not sure how we're going to get home," Crono said. "The mayor of Porre should be sending boats to look around. Hopefully they'll come here first."
As tired as she was, Lucca knew that rest would have to come later. "We need to be going," she said. "We left Malt and Hops alone, and it's getting cold. We need to make sure they're alright."
"Who? Do you mean those two kids who were with you in the boat earlier?" Marle asked.
Crono and Lucca looked at each other, unsure of how to begin. "It's a very long story," Lucca said, "but for now, suffice it to say that they're Spekkio's kids. Twins, actually."
Marle was astonished. "Spekkio has kids?"
"We thought the same thing," Crono told her. "We don't know the details, and Spekkio's already gone. We may be able to get something from the kids themselves, but I don't know how likely that will be."
"We've been recruited to watch over them until Spekkio comes back to pick them up," Lucca explained. "Fun, huh?"
Marle was still speechless from the thought of the Master of War having offspring. Crono motioned behind them. "Let's be going now, okay? Lucca's right. We need to make sure the twins are fine."
"Wait," Marle said. "Where's Shellac?"
"Who?" Lucca asked.
Shellac stared at the stars, unable to get up. His body was torn, leaving him immobile. The stars were all he could see. So many. He thought he might count them, just to pass the time.
His body was slowly repairing itself. Too slowly. He knew he wouldn't make it. He'd been bested. His long life was coming to an end.
But it was his life. Always had been.
Always would be.
He thought of Lysol and Windex. Draino would order them around as usual. Hopefully, they'd stand up to him. They had to realize by now that Draino was going to far.
"How is my sweet fool now?"
Shellac turned his head, pain stinging his body as he did. He had expected this. "Good day, Draino. Or should I say night? It's a tad dark for day, but you don't normally greet with 'good night.' Have your perfect plans fallen apart?"
"No," Draino said. "Guardia knows that it wasn't the Mystics who attacked the princess, supposedly some rogues. They know some strange psycho kidnapped her. My plans will continue."
Draino sighed. He was unkempt and smelly, still in one of his off periods. "Why did you always oppose me, Shellac? You could have had anything when the plan was completed." His eyes sparkled at the thought. "Anything. I don't understand why you don't long for it as much as I."
Shellac coughed. "I don't believe that what you seek to do can be done. I just wanted to live my life my way, as I was. The Purge had gotten by fine without the Eyes before you came. We were famous, among those who knew of such things. We never failed." He shook his head. "Then you came, promising greater power from the Eyes, greater still once we found the necessary spell. We've tolerated you this long, even given you our trust, but you're pushing our hospitality." Shellac sighed. "Draino, you know there is no spell."
"You're lying to yourself again, Shellac. I'm right, and you are wrong. That is simply the way things are. And also, don't fool yourself into thinking I need you three."
"No, you're the one lying to yourself." He sighed, turning his gaze back to the stars. "This will not end well. It's written in the stars."
Draino looked up. "Where?"
"Oh, I don't know. But it's there, somewhere. I'll miss this world."
"Do you think there's anything for you to go to now?"
"Who knows. I guess I'll find out soon enough."
Draino smiled. "Give my regards to the greater beings. I'll be joining them soon as well, but under better circumstances I should think."
"Just go, Draino. You don't care what happens to me."
"Your right," said Draino. He reached down, lifting Shellac's scythe. "Won't be needing this, will you?" The Eye of Lavos glowed slightly, then slid out of its place in the scythe's blade. Draino caught it as it fell. "I'll be going now. I'll leave you to contemplate your foolishness, for however long you can." He turned and walked away down the beach.
Shellac sighed. He considered closing his eyes, but decided against it. The
stars were soothing. He had been a fool. One hell of a fool.
But then, the fool was often the wisest man in the court, in his own foolish
The stars were truly beautiful that night.