The Purge Part 2

As the Machines Resume

By Turambar

Crono sat cross-legged on the bed he'd been given onboard the 'Lost Rachel'. The ship, a merchant vessel from Porre, had picked his companions and him up from Shellac's island the night before. It was about noon, so they'd probably reach Truce in a few hours. He was shuffling a deck of cards over and over again. Shuffle. Tap. Cut. Shuffle. Tap. Cut.

Malt sat facing Crono, mindlessly watching him shuffle. Her mouth hung open slightly, saliva slowly collecting at the corner of her mouth, threatening to slip over her lip. Her violet eyes had taken on a glazed appearance.

The shuffling stopped. Crono glanced up at the girl. "Are you on something?"

Malt's eyes refocused, and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Yeah, I've been snorting cocaine all morning. You?" Crono went back to shuffling his cards. "I was just hypnotized by your rhythmic shuffling. You wouldn't happen to have another deck, would you?" Crono paused long enough to reach back and grab his backup deck. He tossed it to Malt. She opened the pack and took the cards out. Studied the pattern on the back for a moment. Started shuffling.

Nothing was said for a few minutes. Finally, Malt asked, "If we stay at this long enough, will we become perfectly synchronized?"

"Most likely," Crono said. He looked up but didn't stop shuffling. "I've never tried though. Most people don't want to join in; they just threaten to kill me if I don't stop."

Malt smiled at a particularly graceful shuffle. "That was a nice one."


The Purge

Part II
As the Machines Resume

by Turambar

-- 16 --

The steady drumming of the rain on the concrete roof. The occasional burst of lightning, followed swiftly by an explosion of thunder. Wedge didn't like storms much. He never had. Sure, he'd stopped wetting himself by five and hadn't hidden under the furniture since he was eleven, at least not on a regular basis, but he still preferred a quiet, sunny afternoon to this.

Wedge took another sip from his coffee. It definitely wasn't doing anything to calm his nerves, but at this point he was certain that it wasn't even worth trying. There was another crack of thunder, and the rain seemed to pick up in strength. Fighting back the urge to hide under the table, he stood up to pace around the bunker. Surely this claustrophobic anxiety would snap his sanity soon. He almost dropped his mug when the radio beeped to alert him of an incoming signal. "Hey, pick up, man."

He picked up the mike and flipped the switch for the active frequency. "Base here," he said. "Report."

"Man, Wedge, do you realize how fucking hard it's raining out here?" a voice answered back.

"Yeah, Biggs. I can hear it." He glanced over to the nearest window. "And see it. How's the patrol?"

"There ain't nothing out here, man. Just trees, squirrels, and us dumb fucks. Liese is with me. Say hey, Liese."

A second voice, female, chirped over the radio, "Hey, Wedge. Everything okay at base?"

"I'm hanging in."

"Don't hide under the bunks, this time," Liese said with a giggle. "There was a dead bug under there this morning. Big sucker."

Wedge felt his face turning red. "Why would I do that?"

"Because you do every time we have a shower like this. I mean, grow a spine already!"

"What are you calling a shower?" Biggs's voice this time. "Wedge, man, we're heading back to base, okay. There's nothing out here."

"What are we looking for, anyway?" Liese asked.

"Hell, I don't know," Wedge said. "Bandits, most likely. They've been having problems with something like that around here lately. Look, radio the others and tell them to head in, too. There's nothing you can do out there right now."

"I here you, man. It's as good as done."

"See you soon, Wedge! You better not be under the desk when I get there!"

Wedge flicked the radio off. Just out of curiosity, he glanced under the bunks. Just a dead beetle. Big one, though. He settled into his chair to wait out the storm.

After ten minutes, Wedge went to the coffee maker and freshened his mug. It would still be at least another fifteen minutes before everyone got back. He sat back down and tried to ignore the storm. Fifteen minutes passed. Then another five. And another. Wedge went back to the radio and switched all the frequencies on. "This is Base. Does anyone hear me?" He waited a moment. It was certainly possible that the storm was slowing everyone's return, and disrupting the radios as well. "This is Base," Wedge said, his voice more anxious now. "Somebody please answer." Nothing. Another five minutes passed as Wedge paced in front of the radio.

Footsteps. Wedge turned to see the door swing open and a soaked Liese fall through. She scurried to her feet, throwing water everywhere, panting for air. "Wedge! We've got to get out of here!"

Biggs stumbled in behind her. "Come on, man! We need to get back to town!"

"What is it?" Wedge checked his sword and grabbed his coat.

Biggs leaned on the table, trying to catch his breath. "There's something out there, man. I'm not sure what."

"What about the others?"

"We lost contact with them," Liese said, her voice becoming more and more panicky. "We're not kidding here! We've got to leave NOW!" She and Biggs ran back out the door, Wedge following close behind.

The rain pounded down on him. He could barely see where he was going. Trees materialized out of the blur. He avoided most, but ran into others in his haste to get away. Somehow, he managed to find the road, but he'd lost Biggs and Liese. It had turned into a muddy river. His feet sank in with each step, pulling free with a disgusting pop, but Wedge pressed on, not wanting know what had cut him off from most of his group and scared the crap out of his friends. He heard a muffled cry behind him. It was probably Biggs. A moment later a scream tore through the air, but was cut off as soon as it started. Liese. Wedge drew his sword and pressed onward.

Something hit him from behind, knocking him into the mud. It clung to his back, poking at him through his coat. Wedge thrashed in the mud, managing to throw his attacker off. He scrambled to his feet, his sword still clutched in his hand. His crazed, desperate eyes squinted through the rain and darkness, searching for the thing that assaulted him. It was a spider, or at least looked a lot like one. It was made of polished metal, probably had a chrome finish, but he couldn't tell in the rain. Within seconds, the thing came at him again. He reacted on instinct. A flash of steel. The spider splashed in the mud, cleaved neatly in two. Sparks flickered in its open gut but were quickly extinguished by the rain.

He left it sputtering in the mud and ran. He wasn't sure how far he was from town. Everything seemed the same in the storm. There was no time to worry about what that thing had been. It was dead, whatever it was, and no longer a threat. Now he just had to make sure no other threats caught up to him.

Wedge finally stopped to rest and catch his breath. He knew that he still had a way to go, but it seemed like he wasn't being pursued anymore. A small noise, like the snapping of a twig, reached him through the howls of the storm. Wedge spun around, scanning the road behind him for more of the chrome spiders. Just mud. Trees. Rain. Nothing. He sighed and turned back to the path ahead.

And promptly wet himself for the first time in quite a while.

-- 17 --

Stretching, Crono breathed in the moist sea air. He was tempted to sit down on the edge of the pier and enjoy the chilling breeze, but he knew he had more important things to do. With the unexpected attack on Marle, things would certainly not calm down for a while. A royal carriage had picked her up as soon as they had gotten off the boat, leaving him with Lucca and Spekkio's twins. He sighed, already picturing himself taking care of twelve-year-olds. That made him laugh, something he loved to do. He believed in finding the humor in any situation, no matter how dire or serious.

Someone ran into him from behind, knocking him to the pier. The two bodies rolled into a confused tangle. Malt extracted herself from the heap. "Tag! You're it, Uncle Crono!" She smiled at him, a wicked gleam in her eyes, before she dashed away toward the town.

"Dammit! Stop calling me that!" She had started while on the boat, and hadn't called him anything else since. Crono rolled onto his back. The morning sun stung his eyes. "Explain to me why we agreed to do this."

A shadow covered his face. Lucca looked down at him, her sympathetic face blocking the sunlight. "Because, Crono, Spekkio is our friend, and we always help friends in need."

He frowned. "Since when?"

"Since I said so," she said, offering him a hand. He took it and climbed to his feet. "Malt's just being friendly. It wouldn't hurt if you'd be friendly back."

The female twin was at the base of the pier, waving at him. "I suppose you're right, Lucca. She's young, in a new place, kind of lonely. She just wants acceptance and love from us, the mother and father figures."

Lucca nodded. "Exactly."

"So, obviously we should set a good example by acting in a responsible, seventeen-year-old manner."

"Obviously. We need to provide them with a source of stability and morality, which will be quite a challenge for us."

Crono grinned. "Which is exactly why I'm going to chase her and get my revenge. In a responsible, seventeen-year-old manner, of course." Crono dashed down the pier before Lucca could say anything. Malt saw him coming and, with high squeal of joy, ran away.

Lucca and Hops watched them go. Distracted by Crono's antics, Lucca failed to notice the second of Spekkio's twins until he spoke. "You wouldn't happen to have a home, would you?" Hops asked.

"Yeah. Why?"

He shrugged. "I really need to raid your fridge."

Food! It seemed like days since she had eaten. Only now did Lucca acknowledge the complaints of her stomach. No doubt Hops was equally hungry. "Oh. Sure, we can go ahead to my house. Crono will bring Malt there eventually."

Hops smiled. "If he can catch her."

"Crono stays in pretty good shape. He shouldn't have too much trouble."

"Malt's an award-winning distance runner, and she can sprint well, too." He picked up the small amount of luggage Crono and Lucca had taken south and started down the pier. "He has his work cut out for him."

"I suppose that does make a difference."

Crono followed Malt down the main road to the center of town. He wasn't gaining on her, but he wasn't losing ground either. He smiled to himself. Malt didn't have a chance. He knew this town like the back of his hand. He'd be able to spot every chance to cut her off. No matter how fast she ran, he'd catch her.

Up ahead, Malt turned right onto another road. That would take her past his house. Crono took an earlier right. This path went diagonal to the road Malt was on and would take him straight to his doorstep. He'd come out on the main road considerably closer to her.

Oak trees lined this path, but Crono somehow managed to keep his footing on the layer of acorns. He winced as he remembered a similar situation in which he hadn't. He pushed those thoughts aside as he turned onto the next road, right in front of his house. Malt was only a few meters ahead now. She glanced back and let out a gleeful squeal when she saw him so much closer. She turned left, onto the road that led to the marketplace. She'd have to slow down in the crowd.

Crono raced down the road after her. She glanced back at him again. "Looks like somebody should have exercised more," she called over her shoulder.

Allowing himself another smile, Crono sped up as much as he could. Malt was getting closer and closer. When only a meter separated them, he dove, latching onto her ankles. Malt cried out as they both skidded to a halt on the cobblestone road. Malt twisted around to look at Crono, who refused to release her feet. "Okay, you caught me. Happy? Now let me go."

"If I let go, you'll just run away again."

Her face showed false amazement. "ME? After you beat me fair and square? I think I have more honor than that."

Crono grinned. "I don't think so."

"You're mean, Uncle Crono," she said, frowning. "I was just playing. Let me go." He shook his head. "Oh come on! I scrapped an elbow! I need immediate medical attention!"

"I scrapped both my knees."

"So? You're the one who tackled me on a road. It should have been fairly obvious that we'd both be injured."

Crono just stared at her with a look that said 'I'm mentally disturbed.'

Malt frowned, twisting around on the cobbles in an attempt to break free. "My dad better not have left me with some dirty child molester."

"Oh, don't worry," Crono said. "I only molest sea cucumbers, and that's only when they look at me the wrong way. Of course, you look a lot like a sea cucumber, so I may be willing to make an exception."

"I'm bleeding to death here!"

"It's just a scrapped elbow. You'll live. Still, you'll have this ugly scar on your elbow. Everyone will notice and think poorly of you because of your imperfection. Spekkio will disown you, since he wouldn't want such a freak associated with him. Hops will abandon you. You'll never have a boyfriend. No one will go to a dance with you. You'll never be married. You'll grow old and ugly and die alone in a cardboard box in a back alley."

"I think I get the point," she said, glaring.

"Holy crap!" Crono yelled, startling Malt and several passers-by.

The girl clutched at her heart. "What's the matter with you?"

"Look at the back of my hand! I've got this kickass mole! I never saw that before."

Malt sighed with disgust.

Neither of the pair noticed all the strange looks they were getting from people, who all gave them a wide berth.

"Malt," Crono said at last. "I'm going to let you up now, okay? Then we're both going to walk around town and have a jolly time. Then we'll go to Lucca's house. Deal?" It was, to his credit, an honest attempt to be reasonable.

Malt stared back at him with her large, violet eyes. She gave him a horribly cute pout. "Do you promise we can do whatever I want?"

"To a degree," Crono answered flatly.

"Dammit! Why doesn't my unbearable charm work on you?"

Crono shrugged. "Oh, it's quite charming, I'm just very demented. That's what happens when you go hunting planet parasites." He released Malt's ankles and climbed to his feet, brushing dirt from his clothes. His knees stung, but he could still walk. "Well, Miss Unbearable Charm, what do you want to do?" He offered her a hand.

Malt took it, but pulled much harder than she needed to. "I don't know. What's there to do around here?"

Crono shrugged. "Nothing."

"I thought as much. But I think I know something we can do."

"And what could that be?" Crono asked.

Malt didn't say anything, only turned and bolted into the crowd. She was out of sight before Crono could even begin to react. He sighed. "This is going to be a long day," he mumbled to himself before he went after her, his knees limiting him to a hurried shuffle.

The porch was just as she had left it. A stone was loose in the second step. The door hadn't received any new dents or scratches. The welcome mat was still there. It said, "Abandon All Hope." Lara had objected to it, but then she rarely saw it, so Taban let it stay. It suddenly occurred to her that some might find it odd that she referred to her parents by their first names. She shrugged it away. Since when was anything she did normal?

She knocked, the sound reverberating in the thick oak door. There was no answer, no sound of movement; no call of "Let yourself in."

"Do you suppose they're not home?"

Lucca turned. Hops just shrugged at her, his expression hard to read with his eyes concealed by his bangs. "I guess not. I have a key somewhere." She twisted to reach into her pouch, searching for the keys.

Hops came up the steps to stand beside her, his foot slipping on the loose stone. Maybe she should have warned him? It didn't trip him though, and he didn't complain. "I'm afraid I left all my hope in Zeal, so I don't have any to leave on your porch. Will that be a problem?"

"No," she answered. "We're overstocked on abandoned hope as is. Yours won't be missed." Where were those damn keys? She knew she had them in here somewhere.

"That's good to know. Do you have much food?"

"I wouldn't know. I've been gone for weeks, remember?" HA! The key!

Hops frowned. "No, I don't. I wasn't with you for most of that trip. As far as I know, you've been away from home for just a few days."

"Don't be difficult. I have enough problems putting up with Crono." Damn! It was the wrong key! Back to the hunt.

"You thrive on difficult people."

That made Lucca pause. He had a point. Didn't he? "Did they make you a psychiatrist in Zeal or something?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. You have any Cheez Whiz?"

Lucca stopped her hunt long enough to glare at him. "I told you I don't know what food there is here. You can have whatever we find."

"Assuming we get in." There was the slightest hint of a smirk on his mouth.

She didn't answer, but found another key. She slipped it in the lock, mentally crossing her fingers as she turned it. It worked! Lucca turned the knob and shoved. The heavy door flew open, revealing the main room of the house. It was covered in books and electronics, as usual. That, at least, hadn't changed. She took a few steps in. She knew it was silly, to be acting like this, but everything seemed so different to her. After all, she hadn't been away from home for more than a day since Lavos's defeat. The house meant more to her than she realized.

Something suddenly compelled her to run up the stairs to her room. Years of practice allowed her to move easily through the layers of junk. She burst through the door, into the hectic mess, worse than the living room if such was possible, and to her bed. She promptly launched herself onto it, bouncing on the aging mattress. The springs creaked horribly, the frame shook, but that only made it more perfect. Lucca threw off the heavy helmet she always wore and wrapped her arms around her pillow. She writhed on the unmade covers, losing herself in the welcoming feeling of her bed. HER bed! Damn, she loved this thing. It was hers, all hers! No hotel bed, no matter how nice, could possibly compare to it. Lucca inhaled, drawing in the comforting smell of HER room. The room that looked just right, that smelled just right. For the first time in almost two years, she was in heaven.

"Aren't we happy?"

Lucca sat up, suddenly aware of how bizarre she must look, but she ceased caring just as suddenly. "What, don't you know what it's like to have a room that's all yours, in every way imaginable?"

Hops shrugged. "Not really." He threw back his head, opened his mouth wide, and sprayed it full of canned cheese.

He'd already attacked the food supply? How long had she been wallowing in bliss? "That can is yours now."

"You bet," Hops said. "I claim it whether you want me to or not."

"Trust me, you can have it now." She forced herself off the bed, giving her room a quick assessment. Just as she had left it. "I'm going to assume you've already made yourself at home. You can have one of the two guest rooms. One's on the second floor; the other is in the basement. Unpack your things whenever you want. I'll be-" Something horribly obvious suddenly registered in her mind. "You and Malt didn't have any luggage."

Hops swallowed another mouthful of cheese. "What you see is what you get."

"You didn't bring anything?" He shook his head. "Why not? You do own some stuff, don't you?"

"Okay, I lied." He produced a small satchel. "We each brought enough clothes."

"That's it?"

Hops nodded.

Lucca sighed. "Well, you two are certainly light packers. Nothing wrong with that, it just surprised me. I mean, if I was going to be stuck with a bunch of strangers for some indefinite amount of time, I'd have brought more stuff."

"We've got what we need, and you'll provide the rest, right?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

Hops smiled. Somehow, Lucca felt as if she'd just handed out a blank check. "Oh yeah! I found this on the refrigerator door." He held out a slip of stationary, the kind Lara loved to use. Lucca took it. "I guess that explains the quiet around here."

Lucca read over the note. "Taban and Lara have gone to visit my grandparents in Lockton. They'll be there until New Year's." She mentally kicked herself for not visiting her relatives while she was passing through Lockton. How could she have forgotten something like that? "They don't expect me to come, just to watch over the house and behave responsibly." She looked up at Hops. "Well, this is unexpected. I guess we have more space here than I thought."

"Plenty of room for us to move around in." He smiled again, and Lucca feared for the safety of her house.

She was also suddenly aware of how horribly thirsty she was. "Well, pick a room and trash it to your liking. Who knows how long you'll be around, right? If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen." She pushed past him and rushed down the stairs to the kitchen. It looked normal, too. She opened the refrigerator and immediately noticed how well stocked it was. Her parents hadn't left her without nourishment. The question was how long it would last with all these guests. It wouldn't be a problem. She could send Crono to the store whenever they ran low.

Grabbing a gallon jug, she sat down heavily in a chair and started flooding her gut with poi. Between gulps, she could vaguely hear the sound of canned cheese being emptied into Hops.

The sun had just set. Panting and sweating, Crono stumbled up to the door, nearly falling on that damn second step. He turned the knob, finding it unlocked. As soon as he stepped in, he lost his footing on some random bit of junk. Books flew and floorboards creaked as he fell hard. Lifting his head, he was greeted by the image of Malt standing in the doorway to the stairs, a huge smile plastered on her face. "Hey, Uncle Crono! Took you long enough!"

Lucca looked up from a book, a half-empty jug of poi in her hand. "About time you joined us."

If he hadn't been so exhausted, Crono would have broken something. Anything.

Hops watched the scene from a distance, his face blank. He threw back his head and emptied the last of the can into his waiting jaws.

-- 18 --

It was one of those dreams again.

This was the third time, so she'd learned to recognize the feeling. They were different from other dreams. No matter how obvious it was that none of it was real, it felt as real as her waking hours did. Lucid dreams, she was pretty sure they were called. But she'd had one or two of those before, and these didn't feel quite the same. She wasn't in control of this.

But she knew it was a dream, since she knew she went to sleep in her bed that night. Logically, there was absolutely no way Lucca could be standing outside Arris Dome.

It was just as she remembered it. The towering dome was dark, covered in dust and blackened by the fires of Lavos. Red dirt stirred at her feet. The air was thick with the smell of death. To the south was Death Peak, the final abode of Lavos. The wind howled, ripping through the air like the cry of this dying planet. Seeing it all again sent chills down her spine.

"None of it exists now."

Lucca turned. Sitting in the cab of a ruined vehicle was the man, his perfect violet eyes locked on her. Images of Malt and her similar eyes flashed before her. She ignored them, somehow knowing they couldn't be linked.

The man stood and kicked the door open. He climbed out of the cab, running a hand through his shining brown hair. "At least," he continued, "not in this form exactly. You changed all this, remember?"

She could only nod.

"It's a pity really. This truly is a wonderful world. No joy, no progress, no budding life. Just death," he said, savoring the taste of the word on his tongue. "Despair. This is how things were meant to be." He took a few steps closer to Lucca. "I'm afraid all I can say is...thank you."

Lucca frowned. "Why?"

"Well, I have you to thank for destroying this perfect future. You to thank for my current state. So, thank you."

This wasn't making sense.

"Confused? Obviously. You missed all the juicy details. Would you like for me to share?"

Lucca blinked, then suddenly found her mind a bit clearer. She could think. "Of course."

The man twirled on his heels, kicking up red dust, a smile of pure delight on his face. "It's truly wonderful, when you take the time to consider it. It makes you and your friends look so horribly pathetic." He stopped moving and locked his gaze on her. "You, sweet Lucca, destroyed me. For that you WILL suffer. Your soul has already been damned to whatever hells may exist. But, for now, you have a purpose." He turned to look at Death Peak. "Can you guess who I am?"

The answer seemed obvious, but Lucca found she had difficulty believing it. How? "You're Lavos, aren't you?"

Lavos spun back to her. "BINGO! Tell our lovely contestant what she's won for that brilliant answer!"

She was in the courtroom of Guardia Castle, Lavos in the judge's chair. A small creature, very much like a mantis, crept out from behind him. "The TRUTH!" it hissed.

Lavos dropped his jaw in mock surprise. "Talk about your lucky day! So be it. The truth she will have." He leapt out of the chair, landing before her, now a perfect copy of Gaspar. The old man smiled. "I kept a secret from you and your friends. A secret that I could not reveal, or risk dooming the world. For who would fight Lavos if they knew the only way to do so was to become Lavos?"

Lucca stared at the guru for a moment, his words not quite registering. "Become?" she asked at last.

Lavos was back to his normal self now. "Yes, to put it simply. The being Spekkio granted you magic, did he not?"


"Well," he said, staring at here as if she was an idiot, "where could that magic possibly have come from?"

They were back at Arris Dome. "So he gave us some of the power of Lavos. Isn't that what the people of Zeal did for several thousand years?"

Lavos looked up at the sky, releasing a nostalgic sigh. "Oh, and those were some beautiful years. Actually, what most of the Enlightened were doing was a bit different from your situation. But it was fun. And of course, I had a body to call my own then. The fact that you received my power doesn't bother you?"

"Should it?" she asked, shrugging.

He sighed again. "Clearly the implications of this are lost on you," he answered flatly. "Fine, I have shared enough of the truth for tonight. Perhaps I'll share more later."

Lucca stood, shocked. "Wait! You're leaving me at that? Tell me what the hell you mean! What's this amazing secret I don't get?" She couldn't believe she was reacting so strongly. This had to be just some weird dream. It wasn't like any of this could be true.

They were in an auditorium. The one at her school, she realized. Lucca was on the stage, wearing a pink dress. Judging by the odd sensation on her face, she guessed she had rosy circles painted on her cheeks. "What the hell is this?" she yelled. She saw strings trailing away behind her, attached to her arms and legs.

Lavos was in the lighting booth at the far end of the room. He was Bekkler, the floating head. He smiled down at her, then turned the spotlight directly on her face. She cringed under the blinding light. "I'm tired of being serious. We both need to loosen up."

Lucca felt the strings pull at her limbs, causing her move. Lavos was making her dance, and horribly at that. She had no control of her body, was completely helpless. She could hear Lavos laughing, that absurd laugh Bekkler had. Out in the rows of seats, swarms of the mantis creatures chattered with glee. Her shoes tapped an annoying tune on the stage.

This couldn't be real. It was just a dream. She'd had a gallon of poi that day. It was just the poi. Her subconscious was creating all of this shit. Lavos was buried deep within the planet and would die when it tried to surface. It couldn't exist in her mind. She wanted to wake up, to be free of this nightmare. That's all it was, a nightmare.

Lavos stopped laughing. "I'm bored with this," he said with a frown. "It ends."

The strings disappeared, dropping her to the floor. It was cold, soft, wet. Picking herself up out of the snow, Lucca glanced at her surroundings. A frozen stream. Tropical trees leaning under the weight of the snow in their branches. She'd been here, but there hadn't been snow. Stepping forward, she saw Lavos, his violet eyes closed, standing beside the lifeless stream. "Where are we now?" she asked cautiously.

Turning, Lavos opened his eyes. They were now a luminous green. He shrugged. "I grew tired of disturbing you with the purple eyes. I much prefer this hue." She didn't answer. "The world after I arrived. Lovely scenery, don't you think?"

"It looks...dead," she said, staring at the white blur around her.

"Yes, it does. You're very good at seeing things as they are. I would have said...desolate, maybe?" He shook his head. "No, too many frozen trees for that. Depressing? No, this place brings me great joy, to tell the truth. Lifeless? Essentially the same as dead, but I must agree that 'dead' suits this place best. Flat, prosaic, one syllable." He smiled. "No poetry for this wasteland."

"What were you saying? About Spekkio and Gaspar giving us some of your power?"

"Willing to take me seriously now, are we?" he asked, cupping her chin in his hand.

Lucca jerked her head away. "Just trying to be open-minded."

"That's good. Intelligent life functions much better with an open mind." Slowly, he turned back to the stream, away from her.


"Another time, perhaps," Lavos said with a sigh. He started walking away, his form slowly disappearing in the white haze.

-- 19 --

That had been unpleasant. Still, it couldn't ruin how truly comfortable her bed was. Lucca rolled over and glanced at the clock. Seven. No one would be up yet. She could dig something up for breakfast, eat it in peace before the demons woke up. If Crono and Malt continued competing at this rate, they'd drive her insane in a week. She couldn't help but laugh at how well they were getting along, in a brother-sister kind of way. They refused to let one have more control than the other. Of course, they were likely to destroy Lucca's house with their power struggles.

Tossing the covers aside, Lucca got out of bed and changed into fresh clothes. Marle was always bothering her about her tendency to go days without changing. As long as she didn't notice her own smell, Lucca reasoned, why bother? She at least bathed regularly. Marle couldn't see things her way though. Well, no point in worrying about it. Lucca didn't care.

The house wasn't cold, just pleasantly chilled. She opened the living room windows to let the morning air in before she went to the kitchen. Opening the door, Lucca was surprised to find that she wasn't the first person up.

"Morning," Malt said, cradling a mug of hot chocolate in her hands. A pot of hot water sat steaming on the stove. "I hope you don't mind. I just made myself at home."

"Oh, I don't mind at all," Lucca said as she joined Malt at the table. "Treat this place like your own home. I suppose it is for now."

"Thanks." Malt gave her a friendly smile. Lucca noted just how beautiful Malt really was, even with her hair tangled and dirty. It also occurred to her that Malt had never been wearing makeup the whole time she'd seen her. Hers was a striking natural beauty. "There's still some hot water, and plenty of mix if you want some too."

"No thanks. I was just going to dig something cold out of the pantry, but I'm not really hungry anyway."

Malt blushed slightly. "Well, I have some biscuits in the oven. I can't eat them all." Lucca blinked in clear surprise. "I was hungry. I haven't eaten much since we left Porre, you know."

"It's not a problem," assured Lucca. "I didn't think you'd bother cooking, at least not on your first morning here."

Malt shrugged. "Hops and I are used to taking care of ourselves. Cold food is good, but sometimes you just want a hot meal. So we learned to cook. We're both pretty good, but I must say that I'm much better."

"Your surrogate family in Zeal didn't pamper you?"

"Not really," she said with a chuckle. "They didn't want us, and made that clear to us every day. Well, everyone but the grandmother, who gave us milk and cookies whenever we asked. I don't know how Spekkio got them to agree to raise us. They must have owed him a favor." She took another sip from her mug. "Hops and I were free to do whatever we wanted. If one of us disappeared for a few days, we weren't missed. Hops used to do that a lot. We didn't get a formal education either. Instead, they sent us to apprentice under a local mage."

Lucca had to interrupt. "You know magic?"

"Yep." Malt nodded, then smiled. With a mumbled word she caused her napkin to burst into flames, only to go out just as quickly. "We're better than any of you. Dad was rushed, so you guys really got gypped in that department."

"Really? We were able to kill Lavos. I'd say that's quite powerful, you know."

She frowned. "I said better, not necessarily more powerful. Dad just taught you some basic elemental manipulation. That's not too complicated, just flinging energy. You are aware that the shouting is unnecessary, right?"

"Yeah, the shouting is a focusing technique, and it makes it more fun," she added with a silly grin. As interesting as it was, Lucca was already lost. Her actual knowledge on the subject was all but nonexistent. "But, could you elaborate?"

"Are you familiar with Mysticism?"

"A little." She had read some on the Mystics and knew a bit about what they could do.

"Okay, let's start with the basics. There are basically two magical traditions, so to speak: Mysticism and Zealian magic. Zealian magic is only used by humans, for various reasons. Mysticism is used mainly by all things nonhuman, though humans have been known to become Mystics."

Lucca nodded. "Magus."

"Exactly," said Malt. Apparently she'd heard of him. "Dad couldn't do shit for him because he followed an entirely different path. The two rely on totally separate sources of energy. Mysticism is essentially nature magic. The Mystic draws power from the planet. I think they call it something like Mako. There is supposed to be a network of lines or streams of the stuff all over the planet. They have several religions based around the whole planet-worship thing. It's really fascinating stuff if you look into it. However, it takes a lot more time and effort to become powerful with it than with Zealian. Lots of meditation and showy rituals."

"What about Zealian magic? Where does its power come from?"

A door opened and closed somewhere in the house. It sounded like the front door. Before Malt could answer the question, there was a light knock against the kitchen doorway. The two turned to see Hops standing there, canned cheese in hand. "Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all," answered Lucca.

He walked to the oven, setting down his can on the table as he passed. "They smell ready. Everyone want some?"

Malt blinked. "Oh. Thanks for getting those for me. Yeah, we're all eating."

"Was that the front door I heard?" Lucca asked.

Getting three plates from the cabinet, Hops said, "Yeah, I went for a walk. Truce is a nice place. It's really dark at night."

"You were out walking all night?"

He nodded as he came back to the table with three full plates and sat down. Malt frowned at him. "Like I said, he has a tendency to disappear, especially in the middle of the night. We were talking about magic."

The biscuits tasted great. The canned dough never cooked this well for Lucca. "Your sister's been showing me how horribly ignorant on the subject I am."

"Now there's something I'm missing from Zeal. Mistress Kyra had a huge library. Thousands of texts on history, magic theory, quantum physics; I mean everything. And she let me borrow whatever I wanted from her. Most of the time I spent away from home, I spent reading. I went to that park a lot, to just sit and read. You remember that park, Malt?"

"Oh I remember the park." Her voice had a slight edge to it. "We went there all the time so you could sit by the pond and read, and all the strange men could try to molest me."

"Hey, you got to practice all the self defense skills Kyra taught you."

"A nine-year-old girl can't defend herself against a grown man!"

"You could."

"Those were malnourished park bums. They don't count." Hops didn't say anything. "Fine, the park bums weren't a problem. Of course, Kyra's library isn't the only thing you miss about her."

There was silence. "Does anyone want another biscuit?" Lucca asked.

"You were always early to the lab and late to leave, if my memory serves me."

"Leave Miss Kyra out of this," Hops mumbled.

"How many times did you 'accidentally' stumble into her room when she was changing? I seem to have lost count. Oh, and you were so enthusiastic about swimming lessons, weren't you. You just loved it when she wore that cute little bikini of hers. It was quite little, wasn't it?"

Hops flung a biscuit at her. She dodged easily. "Just shut up. At least I didn't glomp onto her like you did to half the guys you met. You never complained much about going to the park with me, even though you knew there'd be a dozen strangers offering you a lollipop."

Malt turned away. "Perverted jackass," she mumbled.

"Filthy whore," Hops mumbled back.

"Has anybody seen my other sock?" Everyone turned to Crono, who was standing in the doorway looking bewildered. "I've searched the whole house, and I can't find it. I don't even remember taking it off." He hobbled over to the table, trying not to bend his injured knees.

Malt lifted her leg into the air. A white sock was tied around her ankle. "My ankle got cold, so I borrowed it. You don't mind do you, Uncle Crono?" she asked, giggling. Hops gave her an 'I told you so' look. She glared back at him.

Crono frowned. "Keep it. I'll just go sockless today."

"Ooo, sockless..." Malt purred. Crono's face stayed blank.

"SO..." Lucca said. "Now that we're all awake, what do we want to do today?"

"Uncle Crono wants to go sockless," said Malt in a sultry voice.

"I'm going to go visit my mom. Let her know I'm okay. She'd love it if you went to see her, Lucca, and you two are welcome to tag along."

Lucca couldn't help but smile a little. Crono's mom was a nice person. A little odd, but very nice. "Sure, I'll go with you."

"I'm going to wander around town," Hops said, "if you don't mind. Get to know what it's like. See if there's anything interesting."

"That's a good idea," Lucca said. "You need to find stuff to do, since Crono and I won't be here to entertain you during the day."

Crono groaned at the reminder. "Why do we have to go to school? It's already fall. We've been there enough for this year."

"I have to teach, and you have to earn more detentions."

Everyone turned to Malt, who'd just finished tying Crono's sock around her neck. "Oh, I'll go with Hops. I'm sure we can keep ourselves entertained for the day. We'll meet your mom eventually."

Crono nodded. "Sounds like a plan." Something suddenly clicked in his mind about his current surroundings. "FOOD!" Crono dove for the remaining biscuits.

"Food excites Crono," Malt said, emphasizing the middle word. Hops got up and left. Lucca rested her head on her hands. This was going to be a very trying period of her life.

Politics suck. This is a fact. It can't be argued. The entire point is to get along without ever making any actual attempt to do so. If it works out well, everyone is too busy offending each other to get anything important done. Everyone will be happy. Marle wasn't about to deny any of this. She'd grown up submerged in politics. She had to breathe it like air.

Only, right now, no one was happy. Clearly, something wasn't working right.

Life had been hell since she got off the boat at the docks. Apparently, Guardia--correction, the world--couldn't run itself without her. She leaves for a few weeks, not that long really, and civilized life decides it's going to go insane.

Okay, it wasn't quite that bad. Yet. If the current trend continued, Marle predicted that world politics would slowly spiral into chaos, much like a flushing toilet, only less sanitary.

She watched as a large, unclothed man left the dining room, clearly pissed as all hell at her. The door slammed shut. "Do they really think I CARE?!" she hollered as she stood up, knocking her chair over.

The Chancellor stood less violently. "No, but they think you should."

Marle quickly downed her glass of wine. Nice stuff. She didn't really know wines, though. That was for the cook to worry about. Breathing deeply, she didn't feel comforted. "More," she commanded, holding out her glass.

"You've had enough. Giving yourself a buzz wouldn't fix anything."

"A BUZZ?" Marle laughed. "I'm getting DRUNK here! Do you know how much of this stuff that'll take? MORE!"

The Chancellor shook his head. "No more. You need sleep. I'm sure you're still tired from your...unfortunate encounter."

"You wield understatement like a true master. A toast to your prowess!" That just got her a frown. "Fine, no more alcohol. Chancellor, why do people even bother bringing shit like this to me? They know I have more important things to worry about. And I really do this time. I'm not just whining."

"No, you're not whining. There are some very serious issues facing us."

Feeling very tired, Marle slumped down into the nearest chair. "The nudist came back. He came all the way to Truce. WHY?! To beg permission to frolic naked with his fellow nature-lovers, something he CAN legally do in the middle of town, on an island he doesn't own. Does he think I'll make someone give him their island just so no one has to see him exposed?

"And before that, that woman who tried to show me a document that proved her rightful place here at court. One of my ancestors promised her great-grandfather the job of exterminator. Does she have any idea how bug-infested this lump of carved rock is? I know she has fewer insect problems in her home. She owned a clock store, a very prosperous one at that. Exterminator is a job we normally reserve for prisoners and your pet cat. Do all cats love to eat carpet lint as much as yours?"

"Well," the Chancellor sputtered, "It's not common, but I wouldn't call it...rare."

"Your cat's a freak, dammit!"

"E-excuse me?" the Chancellor managed, clearly caught off guard.

"Just say it. It's what you meant. Your cat is the only cat stupid enough to consider carpet lint a delicacy. Right? Of course!" she said before he could answer. "Is this the only reason my dad keeps you around? Your inability to say anything that might offend?"

Shrugging, he said, "It couldn't hurt."

Marle burst into a fit of giggles. "Your pathetic!" she said when they subsided. "How do you get dressed in the morning? Oh, do you arrange your clothes based on how neutral they make you look?" That only made her giggle more.

"You've had too much."

Marle stopped giggling, her face showing shock and offense. "I have not. I'm just exhausted. Tired of these idiots. Tired of being the princess." She looked over at the doorway. A cat was scratching at the carpet, searching for fuzz that had escaped the cleaners. "Tired of your damn cat!"

"They aren't all idiots. The Chorans have a serious problem on their hands." He paused. Quietly, he continued, "You'll have to go along with them, you know. She's an obvious suspect, despite her...fairly clean record."

That made her wince. "I know," she said, more sober now. "Don't remind me."

The picture was about a year old, relatively speaking. It was taken far longer ago, compared to this time period. Nothing in it existed now. The frame was about as old. He'd made it himself, just for this picture. Carving it had taken months; the cherry tree on the left, with its floating blossoms, and the classic image of a nature spirit on the right. That was how nature spirits always looked in the books and paintings.

Hops lifted the picture out of his satchel. Kyra's image stared back at him, smiling. Her silvery hair. Those sea green eyes. He missed her. It had been about a year since he'd left Zeal. Spekkio had come back for his children, never asking if they wanted to leave. Hops had wanted to escape his situation, but not Zeal entirely. Not it's radiance. Not Kyra.

Kyra had never seemed like a mother to him. She was too young, only about five years older than him. She'd be about Crono or Lucca's age now, if he hadn't left. He didn't see her as a sister either, just a friend. A good friend. Maybe he could go back someday. See her again. It could just be for a little while. She didn't even have to know it was him.

He stood the frame on the desk by the bed. His desk and bed, for now. He cut off his previous train of thought. "I'm as bad as Dad," he mumbled to himself.

"Hardly." He turned. It was Malt at the doorway. "Spekkio would turn himself into a swan if it meant he could get laid."

"True," he said, a half-smile on his lips. "I hate to think some of that's rubbed off on me. Are you going to wear that all day?" he asked, eyeing the sock still tied around her neck.

"Why not? I can dress however I want," she said, walking closer to the desk. She leaned over to get a better look. "Like I care what anyone around here thinks of me. And I miss her, too. She was a great person. A troubled one, too. It wasn't easy for her to live on her own, you know."

"I think that's why she was so tolerant of us."

"I think," Malt said, "that you're right, but we have to move on. No going back, at least for some time."

"Maybe," he suggested, "we just weren't meant to be happy."

"For now, at least." The world was a horribly unfair place. That was just something you had to accept. They had. Long ago. Malt rested her hand lightly on his shoulder. "She loved you just as much as you love her."

"I know," Hops said.

"Let's get going. We have a town to explore. We have to go parading, before it's too late."

Yeah. They did. It was time to make the best of what life had given them. It's what they had always done. They were good at it.

"Thanks, Setsuna," Lucca said, accepting a glass of some sort of herbal concoction. She took a cautious sip, and then politely set it down on the table. She wouldn't be drinking much of that.

Crono's mom smiled. She was a pleasant woman in her mid-thirties, with hair as red as her son's. "It's so good to see you, Lucca. You really must stop by more often. And call me Mom." She turned to her son. "As for you, you need to stop leeching off Lucca's family so much. Get Lucca to leech off us now and then."

"I don't leech off of her that much," Crono said weakly.

"What have you two been up to lately? Is the princess okay, after that whole kidnapping thing?"

"News sure travels fast around here," Crono commented.

"Everyone knew about it before you even got back. Now, sit down and tell me about everything that you've been up to." Crono obediently took a seat, and Setsuna sat down as well.

"Well," Lucca began, "Marle seemed okay on the ride back, but she'd been at the castle since. I imagine she's trying to clear this whole thing up so she can get back to her normal work."

"The girl has it rough," Setsuna said, "but she does okay. Have you heard the latest on the king?"

"No," Lucca said. "Is he improving?"

Setsuna shook her head. "Everyone's saying that the crown will officially switch heads by the end of December. He's unconscious most of the time, so your friend is already our queen in all but title." She smiled, changing the subject. "Did anything interesting happen on your little trip? Hopefully something good?"

Crono and Lucca just looked at each other. No one said anything.

Setsuna looked at Crono. She looked at Lucca. Back at Crono. Back at Lucca. She clapped her hands with glee. "Are you serious?"

"MOM!" Crono yelled. "Stop thinking like that! Lucca and I are friends! I'm ashamed of you!"

"I know, sweetie," she said, "but you two are just so cute together. You really should consider..." Setsuna paused. Crono was giving her that look again. The one he used whenever she tried to steer his life for him. "Fine. What did happen?"

"Well, while we were in Porre, we met an old friend," Lucca said.

"Really? Who?"

"Do you remember Spekkio, Mom?" Crono asked.

Setsuna thought for a moment. "The shape-changing thing at the End of Time?"

"Yeah, that's him."

"Heavy drinker, right?" she asked.

"Yes," Lucca said. "When we met him, he was being carried into a restaurant by his kids. He has twelve-year-old twins."

Crono nodded. "We sort of agreed to watch over them for a while."

"That sounds great!" Setsuna said. "It will be wonderful practice for you two."

Crono refrained from commenting.

"Where are they?" Setsuna asked.

Lucca said, "They were going to explore the town. We'll bring them to meet you sometime." Lucca took another sip of the drink, just to be polite. It wasn't so bad, but she'd rather have some water. Setsuna was fond of anything that was supposed to be healthy.

"Make it soon. Are they boys are girls? Or both?"

"Both," Crono said. "Hops is the boy, Malt is the girl."

"Is she cute?"

"She's twelve, Mom."

Setsuna frowned. "I was just asking." She just looked at Crono. He stared back. Lucca sat by quietly, amused. Crono and Setsuna had such an interesting relationship. "Well?" Setsuna asked.

"Yeah, she's cute." Crono said. His mother just smiled to herself. "Mom." Crono said flatly.

"I didn't say anything, dear."

"You were thinking."

Setsuna smiled at her son. "I have the right to think whatever I want. You don't know what I was thinking, so you can't complain."

"I can make a good guess."

There was silence. Setsuna finally said, "Actually, it's not that uncommon-"

"Don't start, Mom," Crono said.

"I'm only thinking of you. You're already seventeen or so; I'm not very sure these days. I was raising you when I was seventeen."

"Well, think a little less. I don't need you to hook me up with a preteen."

Quiet again. Lucca took another sip of her drink. "People get older." Setsuna said carefully.

"You haven't even met her yet!" Crono yelled. "Can we please just drop this? Did I mention that I slept on someone's kitchen floor? A little punk kicked me until I woke up. I was sore for days."

Setsuna just stared at him. "Dear, you're not being clear. Do you want motherly sympathy, or do you want me to say rude things about the youth of today?" Crono let his head fall to the table. "There's no need to injure yourself. Fine, I won't try to find a girlfriend for you anymore. Would you like some more tea, Lucca?"

Lucca smiled and raised her full glass. "Sure, Setsuna. You know how much I love your...tea."

Crono's mother got up and went to refill her glass. "Call me Mom, dear. How are your parents? Have they left to visit your relatives yet?"

"Yeah. I've got the house to myself until after New Year's. Well, not just to myself, since the twins are staying there, and Crono will probably be there a lot. In fact, he better be, since I'm not watching them on my own."

"Malt and Hops are welcome here during the day. They might get bored while the two of you are at school." She returned Lucca's glass, which was about as full as it had been before.

"I hope my students haven't missed me too much," Lucca said sarcastically. "I'm sure I'll need to get to school a bit earlier to straighten my room."

Setsuna's eyes lit up with an idea. "You can spend the night with us! It's much closer to the school, and it's not fair that Crono is always at your house."

"But what about the twins?"

"Oh, they'll be fine," Setsuna said quickly. "PLEASE?"

"It's kind of you to offer, Setsuna, but..."

"We have a couch and plenty of floor space. You're welcome to sleep wherever you want. The guest room's a mess, but you're welcome to it, too."

Lucca couldn't ignore her pleading expression. "I guess so," she sighed. "It'll be fun."

"That's great, dear. Crono, go clean up the guest room. It's your stuff that's making such a mess."


Setsuna glared at him. "Just do it." She turned back to Lucca. "And call me Mom."

-- 20 --

With a final stir and a quick taste, he turned the stove off. Windex carried the large, bubbling pot to the table. "Dinner is served," he said, setting the pot down in front of the other three. A few drops of murky brown fluid sloshed out, slowly oozing down the side of the pot.

"I love the End of the Month Special!" Lysol exclaimed. "You truly are a master chef!" She gave him a quick kiss before they filled their bowls and started eating.

Draino and Old Dutch didn't move. They watched in silence as the other two consumed their first helpings and went for seconds. Draino leaned forward to examine dinner more closely. "What the hell is this?" he asked flatly. Draino was looking pleasantly clean today. He'd shaved, and his hair was washed and combed. Surely it meant that he was on the rebound. Hopefully it would be a while before he descended into another funk.

"Everything we have!" Windex said proudly. "I took all the food we had left around here, put it all in a pot, and cooked for twenty minutes."

"It's very good," Lysol said. "You should try it."

"That's sick," Draino said. "It's probably tasteless." Lysol and Windex both nodded vigorously. "Why didn't you just buy more food?"

Lysol shrugged. "No more money."

Old Dutch said, "If we were this short on food, we could have stolen more." His voice was deep and monotonous, like thunder rumbling in the bowels of the earth.

Windex looked offended. "Hey, we may be mercenaries, we may commit indecent acts in public, and we may have reenacted an animal sacrifice--JUST ONCE--for the hell of it-"

"That was actually a lot of fun," Lysol mumbled, her cheeks a little red.

"-but we aren't thieves! The Purge only steals from grocery stores once a month. Tomorrow's the first of November, so we can restock then, but for now you'll eat this and FUCKING LIKE IT!"

"Have the Mystics paid us anymore since we took the job? The advance money didn't last us very long." Lysol asked through a mouthful of food. Draino was about to answer when the lights cut off. The moonlight from the windows wasn't enough to help.

"Power bill?" Old Dutch asked. He spooned a generous helping into his bowl, but didn't eat it.

Windex smiled weakly. "We ran out of funds, you know."

Draino sighed. "No, the Mystics haven't paid us anymore yet, but I believe I'll be having a chat with Ozzie."

"Shellac was always good at scrounging up money," Lysol said, a hint of anger in her voice. There was silence. From outside, the quiet murmur of pedestrians could be heard on the street.

"I'd best be leaving now," Draino said. He stood, throwing his cloak over his cape over his shoulders and collecting his staff. "Medina's pretty far, and we need the money as soon as we can get it. Watch over things, but don't make any serious moves."


Draino turned. Windex was staring at him with fiery eyes. "What?"

"When do we get our revenge? We can't ignore his death, you know. We look out for each other."

Draino thought for a moment. His lips curved into a slight smile. "No, now is not the time. Not yet. But soon." He turned back to the door and left, his smile growing.

"Sooner than you think," Windex murmured. That earned him a dark stare from Old Dutch. "What?"

"Don't provoke the big spooky shadow man, honey," Lysol cautioned. "He'll do not nice things to your vital organs."

Old Dutch took a sip of his food. The other two watched, unsure of what to expect. The dark one grunted. "It will do."

"I'm going to take that as a compliment," Windex said.

They continued dinner in silence, until Lysol leaned over and whispered, "Windex, honey?"

"Yeah?" he whispered back. Old Dutch, who could hear them just fine, chose to ignore them.

"Can we do it again, with a moose this time?"

-- 21 --

"What now?" Hops mumbled, struggling to wake up. The sound refused to stop. He assumed someone was knocking on the door, but sounds were muffled in the basement. He was lucky he'd heard anything at all.

Hops rolled out of bed. With a slight shake of his head, his hair fell into place. "This had better be good," he mumbled to himself. It was probably Crono and Lucca, finally stumbling home at... He glanced at the clock. Three in the morning. They probably went to a bar and drank themselves into a stupor. He went up the first staircase to the living room.


Yep, someone at the door. Plodding up more stairs, Hops opened the other guest room. Malt was in bed, staring at the ceiling. "I hope that isn't you making so much noise."

"Someone's at the door," Hops yawned.

"REALLY!?" Malt leapt out of bed. "Come on! We have to greet our visitors. She shoved past him and went downstairs. Following close behind, Hops saw Malt pass the door and go down to the basement.


"You know," he called, "the door is on this floor." Rustling noises were coming from the basement. The sound of a cinder block landing on one of those inflatable clown punching bags echoed up the stairs. "Malt, what are you doing?" Hops asked carefully, afraid to know the answer.

"Preparing my greeting," she called back. "I'm looking for something."


Malt came back up the stairs. "Do you know where Lucca keeps her guns?"

Hops shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe in her room?"

"I'll check there." After Malt disappeared up the hall stairs, Hops could hear more bumping around.


"Wow," said Hops. "They must really want to talk to us. You'd think most people would have given up by now."

"That or broken down the door," Malt said, returning from the second floor with her arms full of various handguns, which she dumped on the sofa. "Lucca's got to have something bigger than these around here somewhere."

"Are you sure you checked all of the basement?"

Malt thought. "I'll check again," she decided. "Couldn't hurt."

"I'll help," Hops said, following his twin down the stairs. Aside from the small room that served as his bedroom, the basement was a large open area covered in piles of junk that had built up over the years. Boxes were stacked to the ceiling, and the floor was hidden beneath a thick layer of trinkets. Hops started searching a tower of boxes beside several rolls of charred carpet. He found lots of old clothing, a crushed toaster, and a box of snack cakes, but no heavy weaponry. "You find anything this time, Malt?" He tore open the snack cakes and sniffed. Stale. Too bad.

He got no answer, just a muffled cry. Glancing over, he saw that Malt was buried in packing foam. On to another stack then. Hops continued searching, climbing a stack of old cookbooks to get at a higher box.


"Hops!" Malt yelled. She thrust her hand out of the foam peanuts. "It's perfect!"

Lieutenant Garik sighed. He had to have been knocking for at least twenty minutes. Logically, he should have left long ago. But then, the others would bug him about this if he came back empty-handed. He'd never live it down if he couldn't even find and arrest some teenager. It was pointless though. Clearly, no one was home. However, one last knock wouldn't hurt. Maybe someone would hear it this time. He raised his fist but stopped when the door swung open. "Oh," he said. "Excuse me-"


"WHAAAAAAAAA!!" Garik stumbled backwards, slipped on a loose stone in the second step, and landed heavily on his rear. Shaking his head, he looked up, right down the barrel of a large shotgun.

"What do you want?" Malt asked, poking the royal guard in the forehead. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

Garik was still bewildered. "Time? No...I don't know..."

Malt lowered the gun with an exasperated sigh. "Neither do I. Well then, I guess we're both pretty much screwed. Want a Tic-Tac?"

This was officially the strangest arrest he'd ever tried to make. Garik slowly got to his feet, not wanting to frighten the girl with any sudden movements. "Um...I don't mean to be prying or offend you or anything, but does a Lucca live here?"

"A Lucca? What's a Lucca? Hey, Hops!" she called back to the house.

Hops appeared at the doorway. "Yeah, Malt?"

"What's a Lucca? This guy wants to know if we have any."

Hops thought for a moment. "Aren't they little yellow and pink things? Kind of like rabbits, only cuter?"

"The one's with only one foot?"

Hops smiled. "And they do that helicopter thing with their ears!"

"Yeah! I think that's them. We got any?"

"I don't know about all that," Hops said, "but we might have some dust bunnies."

"Um, actually," said Garik, "I think Lucca is a person." Malt and Hops glared at the guard. "I could be wrong, though," he said weakly, a large sweat drop forming on his forehead.

"OH!" the twins yelled in unison, nearly giving Garik a heart attack. "THAT Lucca!"

"Oh yeah," Hops said. "Lucca lives here."

Garik tried to make himself look taller and more official. "Send her out. I must speak with her."

Hops smiled. "She lives here, alright."

"But she's not home," Malt said.

"She isn't?" Garik asked. "Who are you two, anyway?"

"Her parents, of course. I mean, DUH! Forget this idiot," Malt said, walking back into the house. "I'm going back to bed. She's at her friend Crono's house. You ought to know who he is." The door shut, leaving Lieutenant Garik to stand alone and very confused.


Yawning, Setsuna opened the door. "Who could be here at this hour?" she wondered aloud. The visitor was an officer of the Royal Guard. He was covering his head to ward off an attack. "Umm...can I help you?" Setsuna asked.

Lieutenant Garik carefully looked up, and then sighed with relief. "I'm looking for a Lucca. I checked her place of residence, but she wasn't there. I was told I might find her here."

Setsuna turned to the stairs. "LUCCA!" she yelled. "Some punk in uniform wants to talk to you!" Garik twitched. He wasn't getting any respect tonight.

A moment later Lucca stumbled down the stairs, groggy from sleep. "What is it, Setsuna?" she asked. "Can't it wait? I was having this great dream."

"Was my son in it?"

The inventor thought about it for a moment. "Yeah."

"Was he naked?"

Lucca blinked. "No. Actually he was wearing an elephant suit and painting my roof. I wouldn't mind if he really did do that. The roof needs repainting."

Setsuna frowned. "You're answering the door. And call me Mom." Setsuna walked back to her room.

Lucca went to the door. "What is it?"

Garik puffed out his chest and tried to deepen his voice. "Are you Lucca?"

Lucca thought for a minute. "Do you mean one of those-"

"ARE YOU LUCCA OR NOT?!" Garik yelled.

Carefully removing her glasses, Lucca wiped Garik's spittle off with her shirt. "Don't have a coronary. Yeah, I'm the world famous Lucca. Why do you seek an audience with me?"

"On behalf of the Guardian government, I hereby arrest you. Come quietly and there won't be any trouble. After the night I've had, I'd really like to avoid any more problems."

Lucca turned around at the sound of someone coming down the stairs. Crono stumbled down the steps, clutching one of his pet cats like a stuffed animal. "What's going on? Why is everyone awake?"

"This mean, mean man is trying to arrest me," Lucca said. "That makes me the damsel in distress, and you the knight in shining armor. Figure it out."

"What?" asked Crono.

"Meow?" asked the cat.

Garik sighed. "Look people. Could you just play along here? I'm the Royal Guard. You're the loyal subjects. The loyal subjects obey the Royal Guard. I thought everyone understood this concept."

"Got a warrant?" Crono asked. Lieutenant Garik handed him a sheet of parchment. Crono and Lucca both read over it. "It has Marle's signature," Crono said.

"And this is her handwriting. She wrote it herself."

"So," Garik said. "Am I going to arrest someone tonight or not?"

"What am I under arrest for?" Lucca asked.

Garik pointed to his rank insignia. "See this. I'm a measly lieutenant. They don't tell me anything."

"Should you play along, Lucca?"

Lucca frowned, then turned to Garik. "I'm going to go along with this. I need to talk to Marle and find out what this is all about."

Garik's eyes watered with joy. "Praise the Great Kilwala! They're respecting my authority! Okay, let's go. I want to get some sleep tonight."

Lucca waved to Crono. "I'll see what this is about. I shouldn't be too long."

Crono watched as the lieutenant and Lucca disappeared down the road. This was strange. Why would Marle order Lucca's arrest? She hadn't done anything, or at least to his knowledge. "Come, Smelly Cat! We must go and confront Marle about this outrage. But first, we'll pick up the twins. They need to see the incompetence inherent in the justice system." Crono walked out, dressed in his pajamas and barefoot, and locked the door behind him.

"Meow," said Smelly Cat.

Crono stumbled up to Lucca's door. "Knock, Smelly Cat." He held the cat up to the door.

"Meow." Smelly Cat clawed at the door, leaving deep scars in the wood.

The door opened, revealing Malt, who was wearing a rather revealing nightgown. The white sock was still around her neck. "Sorry. I'm not labeled for individual sale."

"That gown is wasted on you."

"Thanks," she said, her voice tired. "What the hell do you want?"

Crono pushed past her, looking for Hops. His eyes stopped on the large pile of firearms on the sofa. It was quite an impressive collection. He blinked. "I was going to clean up before you came back," Malt said. "I didn't think you'd be here until tomorrow afternoon."

"I'm not even going to ask. Where's your brother? We have a family crisis."

"We're not family."

Crono glared at her. "Now you know that that's completely beside the point. Here, hold Smelly Cat."

Malt took the cat into her arms. "Hello, Smelly Cat." Curious, she brought him up to her nose. "You sure know how to name pets, Crono."

"Hops!" Crono yelled down to the basement. "Get up!" Getting no answer, he went down to check on the twin. Hops was staring blankly at the ceiling. "Come on, get up."

"I wanted to sleep tonight. Was that too grand a dream? Too distant a goal?" He sat up, rubbing his eyes. "This is the second time someone has interrupted my sleep tonight. What is it now?"

"Crono!" Malt hollered from above. "Smelly Cat's trying to scratch my chest!"

"What chest?" Crono called back. He didn't get an answer. To Hops, he said, "Just wake up and get your shoes on. I'm taking you on a field trip." He went back upstairs. Malt was holding Smelly Cat at arm's length. Her nightgown had frightened him for some reason, and he was determined to kill it. Crono walked past them to the main stairwell. Malt followed after him. He went upstairs and down the hall to one of the doors. The room was fairly empty, just a bed, dresser, and mirror. The bed wasn't made, and a pile of wrinkled clothes was already forming in the middle of the floor. On the dresser sat several ornate boxes.

"That's my room you're trespassing in," Malt said. Crono ignored her, going straight for the closet. "That's my closet you're defiling."

Crono threw an oversized sweater on her head. "Put that on over what you're wearing. And get some shoes on." Something seemed odd about the situation. His eyes moved from the closet of clothes to the large boxes on the dresser. "Where did all this come from?"

"Huh?" Malt scanned her room. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. "What do you mean? This is my stuff."

Crono still looked puzzled. "All you were carrying was a little bag, but you've got all these clothes and those boxes over there. Did you buy it all today?"

"Oh! This stuff." She leaned over to let Smelly Cat jump to the floor. "No, I brought it all with me."


"I have my ways," she said, a hint of mystery in her voice. She tugged the yellow sweater on. "Where are we going anyway? I don't mind being out late, but I was sleeping, and I was enjoying it very much."

Crono was already going back to the living room. "The castle," he called back to her.

With Smelly Cat trailing behind her, Malt followed him downstairs. Hops was up and jogging in place to wake up. "Why are we going to the castle in the middle of the night?" he asked.

"Actually," Malt said, "we're well into the second half."

"Look," said Crono, making sure the twins were listening, "Marle has had Lucca arrested. We need to find out what's going on, and there are a lot of other things I need to talk to Marle about as well. You two need to come along; you need to know, too, and you might have some input." The twins just stared at him, mouths hanging open. "What are you waiting for?" he asked, scooping up Smelly Cat.

"Meow," said Smelly Cat as Crono left.

The twins followed after him, Hops locking the door as they left the house. Catching up to Crono, Malt asked, "Why was Lucca arrested? Has she done something illegal?"

"No idea," he answered. Smelly Cat sighed, having decided to just enjoy the ride.

"You're not wearing any shoes," Malt said. Crono didn't answer her. She took that as a 'shut up.' They continued in silence to the castle. The moon and stars all shone brightly, so the path was easy to follow. The distant hum of insects was the only noise aside from their walking. Footsteps sounded like thunder in the empty night.

Crono slowed as they cleared the forest surrounding Guardia Castle. "Just stay quiet, okay? We don't know what's going on, so let me handle things." Malt and Hops both nodded their agreement.

As they reached the front gates, Crono paused. He was already regretting that he'd left his sword at home. "Help me, will ya?" Together, the three pushed one of the massive oak doors open. At first glance, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.

A guard approached them, his hand falling to rest on the hilt of his sword. "Halt! What happened to the guards outside?"

"Sleeping on the job, I guess," Crono answered with a shrug and a grin. "We're here to see the queen."

The guard opened his mouth to speak, then froze. "How...?"

"Just let us by, okay."

The guard stepped in front of them. "You're that Crono guy, right? I'll go ask her Majesty if she wishes to speak with you."

"That's okay," Crono said, shoving the guard out of the way. "She REALLY wants to talk to me."

Malt and Hops stayed close to Crono as they went up the steps to the next pair of large doors. The guards here decided it was best to open the doors for them. They knew exactly who this was. The doors swung open, revealing the throne room, and Marle.

-- 22 --

Crono strode forward, clad in his pajamas, Smelly Cat clinging to his left arm. The stone was icy on his bare feet. "Greetings" he said, kneeling. With a glance up, he added, "Queen Nadia III."

Marle turned beet-red. "It just became official this morning. I'm still getting used to it."

"I was surprised. No one expected this to happen for a few more months." He smirked. "That WAS a three in your signature, right?"

The new queen nodded. "It's a bit messy, isn't it?"

Crono stood and nodded to the twins. They each took a step forward. "I'll stick with Marle, if you don't mind, out of habit. The king hasn't...?"

"Oh, no. He's still alive." Marle's expression became a bit more downcast. "It's been decided officially that he's no longer fit to rule. So, as his only heir, or heiress if you want to be specific, I've taken his place. It's only until he recovers, though. Normally, I'd stay princess until the king died, but it looks like we could be entering some awkward times, and the people need to know they have a healthy leader." She smiled. "And they really like, me, so putting me in charge is a really good morale booster."

"You'll do great, Marle," Crono said. "I didn't just come to check on you, ya know. Where's-?"

Marle raised a hand to stop him. "Leave us," she said firmly. The Royal Guards on duty in the throne room departed without hesitation. "You were saying?"

"Where's Lucca?"

Marle sank into the throne. It was far too big for her small frame. She looked like a child trying to wear her father's shoes, yet somehow she'd have to make them fit. "The prison towers," she mumbled.

"Why?" Hops asked.

Marle looked up at the sound of a different voice. She hadn't really noticed the twins yet. "It's pretty complicated. I'll tell you, but you have to understand that it can't leave this room." The three visitors all nodded, so Marle continued, "There have been some problems in Choras lately. Here, I'll show you." She got up and drew the curtains away from the west wall. Behind them was a large map of the world. Marle pointed to the heavily wooded region in the northeast of the Choran continent. "This area's relatively uninhabited. Just a few military and weather outposts, one-room bunkers and the like." Crono noticed that the area she was pointing to was covered in red dots. "Two months ago, reports from some of the deeper positions began coming in about what witnesses described as metal spiders. Big spiders, though, about the size of a small dog. The sightings became more frequent and, about a month ago, a weather station stopped reporting. All those stationed there were found dead. In fact, one person on the investigation team was killed as they tried to leave the area."

"So," Crono said, "Choras needs some serious exterminators."

"The attacks have only increased. All these locations have fallen, and more are being added each week." Marle pointed to the largest dot, one disturbingly close to the capital city. "Last week, this military base fell. There was an investigation almost immediately, but it found no new information. All the radio signals from the time of the attack are unclear and panicky, but they seem to suggest that there was something bigger than the spiders there."

Stepping closer, Hops studied the map. "I'm starting to see how Lucca comes into this."

Marle frowned. "The Choran government has been keeping this quiet to prevent panic, but they can't hide it much longer if population centers are attacked. They want to end it, preferably without major military force. They seem reluctant to move any of their troops, most of which are in bases along the eastern coastline. People would notice the troop movements and might become alarmed. They're hoping that there's a person or group responsible that they can arrest and execute to end this. Lucca's technical ability is known worldwide. It's not surprising that she's high on their list of causes, right up there with alien invaders and ancient demons."

"But she's locked in a Guardian dungeon," Hops said. "Are you planning on handing her over to the Chorans?"

Malt plodded back to her throne and slumped into it. "The day we got back from Porre the Choran ambassador demanded that she be turned over to his government. I knew that if I gave her to them, they'd kill her and hope the attacks stop. If I didn't, they'd take her anyway. I needed to put her some place safe so I could watch over her. Taking her into custody was the only legal way I could protect her. The Chorans would have my head if I just hid her away."

"But technically, arresting her isn't legal either," Crono said. "She hasn't done anything. They could catch you on that and demand that you hand her over."

Marle gave him an odd smile. "I'm Queen Nadia III. The monarch can speak only truth, and her truths are final. Any decision made by the monarch on legal matters cannot be disputed by anyone, because NO ONE is above her."

"Well aren't we medieval," Malt said sarcastically.

Marle shrugged. "We have a very fair justice system, but the royal loopholes have never been cut out. In this case, they'll work in our favor."

"So Lucca should be safe for now," said Crono. "And it was just her they wanted? They didn't suspect her father?"

"I had noticed that, too," Marle said. "No, they just want Lucca."

"I guess the question is," Crono said, "'What now?'"

Marle sighed deeply. "I honestly don't know. Wait this out, I suppose. We need to think of something, though, because this won't just blow over. Plus, it's not the only problem we have. There's also the matter of my kidnapping."

They were all silent for a moment. Crono asked, "What do the Mystics have to say?"

"It was an extremist group that attacked me. They sent their apologies and their thanks to us for getting rid of them."

"And the scarecrow?"

"I didn't mention him." Marle shifted in the throne, unable to find any comfortable position. "I'm almost more concerned about that than the Choras matter. We could have a serious threat on our hands." She shrugged. "Or, maybe not. I just don't know."

"Well," Malt said, giving Marle one of her beautiful smiles in an attempt to raise her spirits, "let's look at this reasonably. What do we know about the kidnapper?"

"He was a large scarecrow with distorted proportions who flung balls of fire at us," Crono said. "He seemed like an okay guy. I think he might have let us win. Does anyone know if we killed him? I didn't think to look for a body."

Marle frowned. "His name was Shellac and he was around 15,000 years old. He was a mercenary, apparently part of some group called the Purge, led by someone named Draino. I don't know how many of them there are, but I think at least one is female, since he mentioned a she when he was talking about the beach painting. He was very nice, liked his food well done, and had no intention of harming me. He said that this Draino person was the one who wanted me. It had something to do with a larger plan. He carried a scythe that had a green stone in it, which usually glowed when he attacked. And I think he was a bit preoccupied with fire."

The other three all blinked. "Wow," Crono said, his voice filled with awe. "Did he tell you his neck size, too?"

"The point is," Marle continued, "he was part of an organization that none of us have heard of, and we have no idea who has hired them, if anyone, or what they are trying to do."

Crono noticed that Malt and Hops were both staring off into space, twitching nervously. "Do either of you have anything to add?" he asked.

Hops jumped as his thoughts returned to his surroundings. "Well, you see, I think I may have heard of the Purge before."

"May have?!" Malt shouted. "We're talking about THE PURGE! Everybody knows who they are!" Marle and Crono both stared blankly at her. "They were legends in Zeal! They were the best fighters in the world during the wars before the Golden Age."

Hops broke in, "Shellac, Lysol, and Windex! THE PURGE! I can't believe it didn't occur to me when I first saw Shellac. You have to understand that no one knew what they looked like. But I knew Shellac was a scarecrow. There was a warlord who animated scarecrows to be his soldiers, so it was assumed that Shellac used to be a part of his army."

"Windex was supposed to be a cross knight," Malt added. "They were people whose fighting style used two swords. Lysol was a sorceress. She's believed to be the first master of Zealian magic. They were unstoppable. They fought for the highest bidder, but were believed to sometimes act on their own. They're remembered as being some of the greatest warriors in history."

"I guess this puts me on the list," Crono said.

"Yeah, sure," Malt said sarcastically.

"No one heard from them after the wars," Hops said. "I can't believe that they've resurfaced after all this time. I didn't think they could still exist."

Marle held up her hand for them both to stop. "Let me get this straight. You're saying that the Purge is a mercenary group that has existed since before the time of Zeal."

Malt nodded. "Of course, I don't remember anything about a Draino."

"It doesn't matter," Marle said. "I think the important thing is that they do exist, and someone hired them to kidnap me."

They all nodded their agreement. "That's really not much to go on," mumbled Crono.

"Meow," said Smelly Cat.

There was a commotion outside the door. Some shouting and exchanging of verbal abuse. Marle glanced up, steeling her nerves for what was about to happen. The doors flew open, and a tall man stormed in. He was wearing one of the elaborate robes of state common to Choran politicians. A kimono, Marle was pretty sure they called them. He looked at least sixty, his bald head and weathered face showing signs of his age. Solidly built and in very good shape. Clearly very angry as well. "Explain yourself, Nadia."

Marle gave him a weak smile. "How good to see you, Ambassador Sarkin. It's been a whole three hours since you were last here, hasn't it?" To Crono and the twins, "Now might be a good time for you to visit Lucca. She's in the same cell you were in. I'm sure you remember the way."

"For some reason," Crono said, "I think I should find that ironic."

Malt mumbled, "Don't burst any brain cells thinking about it." They exited the throne room, keeping well away from Sarkin.

Sarkin continued staring down at the princess. "What do you want me to explain, Sarkin?" Marle asked.

"Why has Lucca been arrested, rather than given to me?" Everything about this man proclaimed that it would be very unwise to push him too far. Marle gave him another shove.

"What can I say? She looked at me the wrong way. I had no choice but to lock her up."

"Perhaps she is innocent," Sarkin said, "but it can't be denied that she's a danger to your people. If I were in your place, I'd be overjoyed at the chance to dump her on someone else."

Marle felt a headache on its way. She hadn't planned on talking to Sarkin so soon. "Why haven't I seen anything from the royalty? They don't seem too interested in Lucca. It'd help immensely if I had a request from Tyria."

"My request isn't sufficient?" Sarkin asked, his expression betraying how thin his patience had become. In response, Marle just shrugged. With a sigh, Sarkin forced himself relax, his muscles visibly unknotting as the tension flowed out. "I only want to stop this. All of Choras will know about it soon enough. Please understand that we're desperate."

"Lucca has nothing to do with the machines that are attacking you."

"You're probably right," Sarkin said. "Of course, you don't know. Lucca's your friend, and I'm afraid you're letting that get in your way. I think we both know that she is capable of starting this. The power to bring a nation to its knees doesn't belong in the hands of a seventeen-year-old, especially one with a history of destructive behavior. That Crono person that just left is a danger as well. If those two hold enough power to stop that Lavos creature, what's to stop them from using such power irresponsibly? They are both of very questionable character. Personally, I'd sleep far better at night knowing they were out of the picture."

Marle glared at the ambassador. Her eyes smoldered. "I trust those two with my life, Sarkin, and I will not permit you to insult them in my throne room. While they may not be model citzens of the state, they are probably the better for it, and still far more decent than you or any of your mindless lackeys." She got up, and, walking past Sarkin, pulled the doors wide open. "Just go." Sarkin stared down at her. Compared to his bulk, she seemed laughably insignificant. However, after a moment, he turned and left the room without complaint. Marle shut the doors behind him before collapsing in her throne again. "He still thinks that Lucca's responsible," she mumbled, a hint of disbelief, but not surprise.

Lucca was asleep on the small cot in the cell. It was the only furniture. She looked so peaceful, lying there, lost in her dreams, that Crono was tempted to leave her sleeping. No, he needed to talk to her, and she needed to know that she hadn't been abandoned. He rapped his knuckles against the bars. "You still with us?"

One eye opened. "Hey Crono. Here to return the favor?"

"No, not today, but if it comes to that I'll gladly bust you out of here. We just came to check up on you. Marle has already explained everything she can to us."

"Oh, I've heard the whole story, and I don't want to hear it again." She sat up, stretching. The cots in these cells were horribly uncomfortable, and Lucca was already getting stiff joints. "Did you two come by choice, or did Crono drag you along?" she asked Malt and Hops.

"A little of both," Hops answered.

"And I'm glad to see you, too," Lucca said, shifting her attention to the last of her visitors.

"Meow," said Smelly Cat.

"Are they treating you okay, so far?" Crono asked.

Lucca was pacing around her cell now. "Sure. I'm just a little pissed about being caught up in Marle's political mess. Looks like you'll be having a substitute in history tomorrow. No, today, technically."

"Come on," Crono complained. "I shouldn't have to go to school during a national emergency. Normally it just wastes my time, but now it's wasting time I could be using to plot a way to get you out of this."

Lucca shrugged. "Do what you want, but I don't need help right now. I happen to enjoy festering in prison. With luck, an agreement will never be reached, and I can spend the rest of my life in here."

"We'll get through this," Crono said. "We've managed to put our heads together and come up with a lot of information on Marle's kidnapper."

"Really?" Lucca asked. "Should we be concerned about that anymore, or is it over?"

"Hard to say. There may be more where he came from."

"Terrific." Lucca sighed. She turned to Malt and Hops. "You two need some sleep. Why don't you go on home? I need to talk to Crono."

Hops shrugged. "Sure," Malt said. They both disappeared into the night. They remembered their way out well enough.

"So?" asked Crono.

"I suppose we should have expected this."


"While we were time traveling and hunting Lavos, I couldn't see past the moment. All my attention was on how to deal with the next problem, defeat the next foe. I never stopped to think what I'd be doing when we finally destroyed Lavos. I guess, deep down, I never thought we would."

"But we did."

"Right," Lucca said, but Crono noticed a trace of doubt in her voice. He didn't know what that meant, and it disturbed him. "And now look at us. Back here in 1001 A.D., the place we grew up in, spent sixteen years of our lives. All the others went back to their times, and they had something to do with their lives. Ayla had her people to lead through an ice age. Frog had a victorious kingdom to lead into a new era. Robo had a new future to explore. Magus had his search for Schala."

"In this time, Marle has her kingdom," Crono added. He was still pondering why Lucca would be uncertain about their victory.

"But what about us?" Lucca asked. She breathed a heavy sigh. "What is there for us here? What could compare to what we went through in just the last year? I hate to think we've become killing machines, but I'm really starting to miss the rush of a good fight. The attack on Marle was terrible, of course, but it gave me a chance to spread my wings again, you know? It was great, and now I'm left with normal life again. Sure, I'm currently locked up in the Guardia dungeon, but it's not the same as racing through time."

Crono could only smile. "Do I sound that silly?" she asked.

"Hardly. I know exactly how you feel, Lucca. But, things are starting to look pretty shitty. The world's changing, and it doesn't appear to be for the better. Maybe we'll have some new heads to bash in soon?"

Lucca smiled. "Marle would hate us for saying it, but it would be nice.

"We can always hope." He paused, letting her think about that before he continued. "You sounded a little doubtful when I said we beat Lavos." The expression that appeared on her face was one of panic, but she quickly suppressed it. "What?" Crono asked. Lucca sat silently, thinking. "Is there something I should know?"

"I don't know. I was sure we had, you know. I was there. But, lately, I've been having these dreams, and I know that they're probably just my mind playing with me, but they just seem so real, and some of the stuff makes sense, in some twisted way, and they've really been scaring me..." She stopped rambling. The cell felt colder than usual. Crono watched her, waiting for her to continue. "Crono...I just want you to be careful, okay? Even if the dreams I've been having are meaningless, we are going through some rough times. I'm sure everything will be okay, but you need to watch out for yourself. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"

"Yeah, I do, and I'll remember it. You need to take it easy, okay. Try not to worry about all this, and try to figure out why you're having weird dreams. We'll clear this up."

"I know. Thanks for visiting."

"No problem." She watched him until he was out of sight. Alone again. Sleep wasn't very appealing, but there wasn't much else to do.

The throne. As a symbol, it conveyed great power and authority. As a chair, it was horribly uncomfortable. Marle twisted around again, trying to find a comfortable position. She ended up sideways, her back resting on one arm, her legs hanging over the other. Her dress wasn't helping either. Something on the back of it was poking her shoulder. "Geez, royal living sucks."

"Is the Guardian royalty rich?" It was Malt. The twins were loitering in the throne room, having insisted on waiting for Crono to walk them home. Well, Malt did, and Hops just went along with it, not much caring whether he got home before sunrise or not.

Marle could only shrug. "Reasonably so. Why?"

"For a castle of the ruling family, this place looks pretty damn cheap."

"My father tried not to waste money on too many useless decorations," Marle said. "He felt the money could be put to better use helping the people."

"A commendable belief," Hops said. "It's amazing how much money was spent on decorating palaces in Zeal."

The door creaked as it opened. They turned to see Crono enter, his spiky hair disheveled from the windy walkways in the prison. "Lucca seems to be doing okay."

"Good," Marle said. "I was worried she'd kill me for this one."

"She may tear out your pancreas when she gets out, but she'll forgive you. For now, though, I guess we should just play it by ear. I'm going to get educated, and these two can do whatever."

"You're welcome here anytime, if the city gets boring," Marle told the twins. They both nodded, but the tapestries on the wall had more of their attention. To Crono again, "Our ambassador to Choras has already gone to investigate personally."

"Seems like a dangerous situation to be nosing into. Is that wise?"

"Of course not," Marle said, "but I couldn't talk him out of it. We'll see what happens, but I can guess. Have fun at school."

"Shut up," Crono grumbled.

"It's not so bad. Nothing's going to happen while you're expanding your mind."

"Whatever. You've never had to go to normal school. Come on," he said to Malt and Hops. "We need to be going. Don't try anything drastic without me, Marle."

"Sure." When they were gone, Marle leaned back, stretching as many muscles as she could. "This chair's not half bad when you sit like this."

-- 23 --

Crono stood at the front of his school, the only high school in Truce, dressed in his navy school uniform. He hated the damn thing. He had to say that, of the schools he'd seen, he liked it the most. The campus was very open, which he found much more pleasant than the more recent schools. The current trend was to build schools that looked like bunkers, concrete blocks with no windows. This place was clearly ancient, and it had an aura of history. It would have been torn down and replaced if not for its historic value. He was glad. He'd hate to see it go.

Other students passed by him, chatting to each other, not paying any attention to the guy standing in the way, his face blank as if in a trance. Crono didn't know many people here. He and Lucca had basically kept to themselves throughout their education. Someone bumped into him from behind, mumbling a quick apology. Crono didn't move; he didn't see any reason to react. It wasn't that he was unpopular; for a while he was everyone's best friend when word got out that he knew the princess. The other students knew who he was; they just didn't pay much attention to him anymore. They realized that he was never going to join their cliques and stopped bothering.

The morning bell rang, so Crono started walking to his first class. His surroundings weren't registering in his mind. He knew his way around so well that he didn't need to watch where he was going, just float through the crowds to his classes. He was too busy thinking. About Choras. About the tower cell where his best friend was currently locked up. About the children he was now a guardian for. About the past, the present. About the future.

The hours crept by, but he didn't really notice as he coasted through the day. His Language teacher had said something to him, but he couldn't remember what. He was it pretty sure it had been a question, and that he had answered it. It didn't matter. None of this did. That was the first decision he made that day.

He'd been back in his original time period for almost a year now. Two more months and it'd be 1002. His life had become increasingly duller by the day. All he knew for certain was that this was not what he wanted.

History was next. With Lucca in prison, another history teacher with the class off took over. Crono had already read the lesson: the end of the Mystic War and the peace that had prevailed over the last 400 years. If anything new had been said, it went unnoticed. Crono just thought about how much he missed the Middle Ages. Magus being a bitch. That funky thing Frog did with his throat. Frogs were cool little critters. That was the second decision he made that day.

Math was uneventful. The stuff they taught in school couldn't compare to the complex theories Robo used to show Lucca. Even she had trouble catching on to some of them. Most of the class was spent thinking about poi recipes. The variety was mind-boggling.

The day went by like that until after lunch. He had study hall, which meant he was to go to the library and study. What he did was wander the halls. No one cared, and it was more fun than the alternative. At this point, Crono was running the battle with Shellac through his mind over and over again. Whenever the Crono in his mind reached the door to the scarecrow's hideout, he went back to the point when he drew his sword. "Because I must," Crono mumbled under his breath. What exactly had the scarecrow meant by that? Do you ever truly HAVE to do something? What exactly did Shellac HAVE to do? Fight them? Lose?

Something was odd about the air. Crono came out of his trance to see where he had walked. The boiler room was at the end of the hall. It was kept locked most of the time, the only keys in the hands of the janitors. Looking closely, Crono saw that someone had left the doors slightly ajar. His first assumption was obvious; a janitor was in there, working on the heating. It hadn't been working in the Math hall. Nothing out of the ordinary. He was about to keep walking, but something just didn't feel right. He felt something tingling in the back of his mind. It got stronger as he approached the door. Crono was starting to think he could place it. An emotion. Depression?

That was when a large pink fist burst out of the wall beside the door. Battle instincts instilled by a year of constant conflict took over. Rolling away from the flying debris, Crono saw the bloated hand grip the side of the hole and tear another chunk of plaster out. A second hand tore through, widening the hole even more. Crono could only watch, slack-jawed, as the two hands pulled a fat, pink humanoid, about eight feet tall, through the hole, and it collapsed unceremoniously on the floor. Picking itself up, it shook the dust from its body. The way it's rolls of fat jiggled was both nauseating and hypnotic, like waves in a stormy sea. "It could have used the door," Crono mumbled.

A bit too loudly, since the creature took notice of him. Now sufficiently clean, it spoke. "I am Lugu, Spirit of Teen Angst! In the name of all things pink and chunky, I will MAKE you feel my pain!" Crono was at a loss for words. It didn't matter, since Lugu didn't give him time to respond. The spirit rushed forward with amazing agility for a being of its girth. Crono was caught off guard, letting one of the massive pink fists connect with his chest. "I feel so lost in this adolescent malaise!" Lugu shouted as it attacked.

Crono collided with the opposite wall, just barely moving his head in time to avoid another blow. "Why are you always holding me back!?" Lugu's next punch missed as Crono dove away, but a large pink foot caught him in the stomach, winding him. "Why do you always deny me my freedom, Mother!?" Another quick jab ground Crono into the linoleum. "You don't understand me at all!"

While he wasn't hurt too badly yet, Crono was definitely starting to feel a bit punch-drunk. His vision was wobbly, or maybe that was just Lugu's stomach. Either way, Crono wasn't going to let it get in his way. He rolled across the floor, dodging an attempt by Lugu to belly flop on him. The Richter scale must have hit eight on that one. "Fuck," Crono swore, now on his feet, but having trouble staying there through the aftershocks. "Somebody's grown fat on the anxiety of the student body."

Lugu was back on its feet as well. Tears flew wildly from its hysteric, blubbering face. "I try so hard to make you proud, but it's NEVER enough is it?" Scanning his surroundings, Crono saw something very useful: a length of piping had been knocked free when Lugu destroyed the wall. He continued dodging punches, trying to slowly move toward the pipe. Lugu managed to get in a lucky hit, knocking Crono off balance long enough for another kick to the gut. It hurt like hell, but the benefit was worth it. Crono landed only a matter of feet from his destination. Crono could hold his own in a fistfight, but he was by no means a master. A weapon could quickly turn the fight around. Scrambling across a floor littered with sharp debris, Crono heard the angst spirit approaching behind him. He lunged for the pipe, his fingers wrapping around the cool metal, and with a tug, pulled it free.

Lugu drove a fist into Crono's back, making him cry out in pain. "Is this all there is in life? Is it even worth living?" It was the spirit's turn to howl when its next punch was batted aside by a steel pipe.

Back on his feet, Crono readied himself, gripping the pipe like a baseball bat. Lugu's right hand hung limply beside it, the fingers twisted out of alignment. "What did I do to deserve this agony?" it bellowed. Crono swung, hitting Lugu in the side of the head. It fell over, nearly shaking Crono off his feet yet again. "I was molested as a child! My uncle took me into a closet and-" it was cut off by another blow to the skull, assuming it even had one. "At last, I can be free from the hurt." Crono slammed the pipe into the spirit's head a third time. Lugu's massive body vaporized into a pink mist that quickly dissipated.

The spiky-haired teen was left standing in the hall, alone and winded, the emergency alarm ringing in his ears. He hadn't noticed it before, or the blood running from minor cuts on his arms. There was no more sign of Lugu, only the destruction it had caused. The aura of depression had lifted.

Cautiously, Crono approached the boiler room. The dimly lit space was filled with the machinery of the heating and cooling systems. If the heat had been broken before, it was going to need some serious repairs now. Lugu had apparently torn a large section of the heater to shreds. Gas was escaping from a dislocated pipe. Crono's nose wrinkled at the foul smell. A bit of white caught his eye next. Moving further into the room to inspect it, he found a girl's uniform short, torn and smeared with machine grease and blood. There was a sound, very faint, coming from even deeper into the boiler room. Sobbing.

There was a girl, about his age, curled up in the corner, crying. Her hair was matted with sweat. Exposed by her sleeveless undershirt, a tattoo of a dragon twisted around her neck and down her left arm. The dragon's head looked like it was about to bite down on her hand. She was clearly terrified. Crono would have shown some sympathy for the girl, if not for one thing. The middle finger of her left hand was missing. The stump still oozed blood. Seeing that, he also noticed the patterns scraped into the tile floor and the bloody pocketknife. He just walked away, letting the steel pipe clatter to the floor. The Royal Guard would be sent for something like this. They'd be arriving soon enough. This was their problem, not his.

Right then and there, Crono dropped out of school, which in Truce was a simple matter of not going anymore. It was time for some serious changes in his life. That was the third decision he made that day.

-- 24 --








Crono stopped, panting, his sword held to the side at the end of a swing. His bare feet dug into the dirt, the cool grass feeling wonderful to his toes. The brisk fall air refreshed him. He was about to start again when he heard someone clapping.

Marle was standing on Lucca's porch, applauding his display of swordsmanship. He hadn't noticed her arrival. She was wearing a dress that was simple, yet decidedly royal. He relaxed as she approached him.

"I see you're practicing again," she said. "I'd been worried; you've been neglecting your skills lately."

He smiled. "The fighting in Porre made me notice how sluggish I'd become."

"I'd say you did just fine."

"Yeah, but I've been better."

Marle smiled sympathetically. "I'm sorry about yesterday. No one had been expecting something like that to happen, so we weren't ready. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Marle. Magic isn't something to be taken lightly, particularly the way Mystics do it. That girl was lucky the spirit didn't kill her before going on a rampage." Crono sheathed his sword before sitting down in the grass. Marle joined him, not caring if she got grass stains on her dress.

"So," Crono asked, "what brings you here this morning?"

"Well, the main reason was so that I could check on you. The other was so that I could talk to you about Lucca."

"Anything new come up?"

"No," Marle said. "No good news, but then, no bad news either. I've just been trying to think of the fastest way to clear this up. I think I'm pretty much decided, but I wanted your opinion, since it'll require your help."

Crono lifted an eyebrow. "What's the plan?"

"I think our best course of action now would be to send Lucca to Choras to deal with this herself."


Marle nodded. "Lucca can take care of herself. If it's too big for her to handle, then she'll know to get help. You're the rash one, remember? Anyway, I can't send our army to wipe out these things. Choras wouldn't stand for it. They won't even use their own troops yet. Also, I can't just tell them to leave us alone. That would ruin our relations with them."

"So we're going to send Lucca to try and deal with it on her own," Crono said. "How are you going to justify releasing her to go without letting the Chorans take her into custody?"

A wicked smile crept over Marle's face. "I'm not going to justify it. Someone's going to bust her out of prison and get her on the first boat to Choras."

"And that someone is..." Marle just smiled. Crono got to his feet, feeling a hint of the familiar spark of adventure. "Looks like I'll be a wanted criminal again."


Crono turned back to the house as something tore through the roof, scattering shingles across the lawn. He watched in awe as a toilet sailed through the morning sky, crashing down to the earth near the bridge to the mainland. It shattered into a hundred white shards, each glittering in the sunlight.

Hops's face appeared at one of the second floor windows. He leaned out, looking at the crash site. "Malt! You've destroyed the porcelain god!"

Malt shoved him aside to see for herself. She was wearing an aviator cap and goggles. "That's porcelain goddess!"

"What the fuck did you do?" Crono yelled up at them.

They disappeared from the window. A moment later, the front door flew open and the twins ran out. Hops went to the side of the house, tape measure in hand, and lined himself up with the gaping hole in the roof. Malt took the end of the tape and ran with it to the broken remains of the john.

"Well?" she called when she reached it.

"Eighty-four feet!" Hops shouted. "A new record!"

Squealing with glee, Malt picked up the undamaged toilet seat and ran back toward the house with it. "I'm going to hang this on my wall!"

Something grabbed her by the shirt, stopping her victory parade. She turned to see Crono glaring down at her. "Is something wrong, Uncle Crono?"

Crono just sighed. "I'm not going to do anything to you, even though I should. Just don't let me see that bathroom until you've cleaned it and replaced the toilet. And don't do this again, okay?"

"Sure, Uncle Crono! Hops and I promise not to launch toilets into low earth orbit ever again." He released Malt, and she hurried back inside to display her latest trophy.

She sat on the cot, her chin resting on the windowsill. Outside, the view stretched on for miles and miles. It was mostly forest, the horizon hidden by trees that grew out toward the unsettled regions to the north and west. She couldn't help but wonder how many people lived in just the parts she could see from her cell, their homes concealed by autumn branches.

Lucca inhaled deeply, trying to pull in as much fresh air as she could. Despite having a window that couldn't be closed, the cell became quite stuffy in the afternoon.

She glanced at the stone floor. Everything she'd managed to acquire from the guards was piled in the center. She'd been trying to make something to escape with, but nothing was working. The most she'd accomplished so far was to make a gas mask out of a mug, a washcloth, and lots of duct tape. She didn't trust it to actually work. Her current project was a pair of low-light goggles, but the guards refused to give her anything electric, so development was proceeding slowly.

After nailing in the last ceiling board, Hops climbed down the ladder to admire his craftsmanship. The bathroom ceiling looked just like it used to. He'd reshingle the roof later. "Not bad, eh Malt?"

Malt looked up. "Perfect. Now, what do think of the toilet?"

Hops studied the toilet they'd found at the local dump. "It's not quite the same as the old one."

"It's the best we can do. A little scrubbing and no one will know the difference." She stepped closer to it. "Well, she'll at least appreciate our effort. Help me with the plumbing," she said, pointing to a wrench.

Hops picked the tool up, glancing skeptically at the exposed piping. "Are you sure you know how to do this?"

"Sure." His sister pointed to an open book sitting on the sink. "I found a How-To book in the basement."

Hops checked the cover. "This is on decorative fountains."

Malt just shrugged. "What's the difference? Here, just tighten that for me."

Crawling between the toilet and the shower, Hops searched for the pipe Malt had pointed to. It was clear where the old plumbing ended and was replaced by the new pipes. Malt had found a sale on neon-colored pipes and bought all they could carry home. They even glowed in the dark. The unused pieces had already been added to the living room decor. "Hey, Malt."

She looked up from the section on proper fountain cleaning. "What?"

"Don't you suppose we should be thinking about the reason we're here?" he asked as he wedged himself into the hole in the wall.

"I guess so, but it's not like there's any rush. Right now it doesn't look like we'll have to do anything ourselves. Everything seems to be taking care of itself."

"I'd like to get it over with as soon as possible."

"Yeah, well I apparently lack your motivation. No one's going anywhere, so you might as well relax and try to enjoy our time here." She waited for a response, but didn't get one. Just the sound of metal turning. "We aren't joined at the hip, you know. You don't have to have my approval to do stuff. If you want to hurry up and deal with it, I won't stop you."

"I turned the water on. Give it a flush."

Malt reached over and flushed the toilet. She waited, and then tried again. Nothing happened.

"Check the tank," her brother suggested.

"I'm serious, okay," she said as she lifted the cover. It looked like something was out of place. "I think the problem is in here." She started checking all the parts. "I know how important this is to you."

"I'd think it'd be just as important to you."

Malt frowned. "It is. It's just that I'm not in such a hurry." She flushed it again. This time it worked fine. "How's that?"

Hops was still crammed into the wall. "Something's leaking. I'm going to turn the water back off."

"Okay," Malt said, putting the tank cover back on. "I wish I had some reason to care about it more. I'm really envious of you."

"Don't be," he answered, his voice muffled.

Malt couldn't help but smile. "I knew you'd say that."

-- 25 --

"What do you want this time?"

She was outside, in a forest, standing in a wide pool at the base of a waterfall. Here the current was weak, before picking up and flowing way in a narrow stream that meandered out of Lucca's sight. In front of her was the wreckage of a machine, gargantuan in size. It appeared vaguely humanoid, but had been gutted by fire and the elements. To her left she clearly saw a hand, a twisted mess of joints and actuators; before her rested what she assumed to be a head. The blank, glass-like panel of its face was shattered, revealing the ruined assemblies within. "Show yourself!"

Lucca waited, but he didn't come. She didn't hear his voice.


She walked, not because she had a reason, but just because. As she approached the goliath, she spotted an opening in the torso. Unlike the many other gapping, blackened maws that covered the machine, this one was part of the original design. The sound of the waterfall faded as she neared her destination. Carefully, she climbed up to the hole, scorched and cracked paint chipping away under her hands, and peered in.

Darkness. He wasn't there either.

She was about to climb back down when she noticed movement in the shadows. Looking again, she saw a figure huddled beneath what looked like a broken television screen.

She almost laughed. It was an interesting reversal of roles. "Why are hiding from me? Aren't I the one who should be afraid?"

The figure moved, slowly creeping into the light. A hand. Skin as white as chalk. A dark coat. Black hair framing a female face as white as the hand, yet smeared with darkness. Eyes, a luminous green like those of the man Lucca had expected to find.

"Who are you?" Lucca asked.

The woman made no response. Her green eyes were fixed on Lucca, or perhaps some point beyond her.

"This is an odd place to make a home, Pearl, but I can see how it would suit you," a male voice said. It came from behind Lucca. She turned to see who had spoken, but found herself in a new place.

The giant machine and the waterfall had been replaced by a dark, square room. There were windows to her left and right, allowing a bit of moonlight into the space. Suits of armor stood on stands, and racks of weaponry, familiar and unfamiliar, lined the stone walls. Hesitantly, Lucca stepped forward. Her attention was drawn to the far wall, where the largest suit of armor rested in a chair, as if it had a wearer. It was a marvel, with heavy plates decorated with ribbing like columns and spikes like spires. Sitting so still on its throne, the suit looked more like a fanciful castle or fortress than armor to be worn by a man. She halted then, with a slight gasp. Indeed, the suit was not empty. Two eyes stared back at her through the thin slit of the visor.

-- 26 --

Lucca opened her eyes. "Wha...?"

A guy about her age was kneeling in front of her cell, dressed entirely in black. His dark hair was molded into near-vertical spikes. The lower half of his face was concealed by a black bandana. He raised his finger to his mouth, suggesting silence.

Lucca sighed as she sat up. "Crono, what are you doing?" she whispered.

Crono rolled his eyes. "Breaking you out, of course. What do think of my disguise? Marle helped with the hair."

"How the hell are you going to get me out?" Lucca asked, still astonished.

"By cutting through the bars. Can't you tell what I'm doing?"

Lucca just stared in amazement for a moment. Finally, she managed, "With a NAIL FILE?"

Crono glanced down at the tool in his hand. He glanced at the progress he had made in the last half hour. "I see your point."

"Idiot. Please tell me you weren't serious."

Crono smiled. "Just trying to cheer you up." He reached into his pocket and extracted a set of keys. "I've already knocked all the guards unconscious."

Lucca was already gathering up all the useful stuff in her cell. "Hurry up and open the door!"

"Alright already," Crono said as he unlocked the cell door. It swung open with a loud squeal. "You happy now?"

Happy didn't begin to describe it. After spending just a few days in an eight by six cell, the simple act of stepping into the hall felt like paradise. Lucca was literally bouncing with glee. "I am never going to be caught for a crime! I'd go mad if I had to spend a week in jail. So, now what?"

Crono chose not to say anything about her use of 'caught' instead of 'commit'. "Don't be in such a rush to leave. Crono Claus comes bearing gifts." A small bag sat at his feet. Crono knelt and began to empty it. "I brought you some stuff you might need." He reached in and pulled the first gift out. "Your favorite gun."

Lucca snatched it away and immediately checked its condition. "Good."

Crono went back to the bag. "Ammunition."

"Hand it over." She stuffed the clips into the many pockets of her pants. It was a good thing she was wearing them rather than the usual shorts.

"A couple canteens of poi for the trip." Those went straight to her bag, but not before she took a quick gulp. "And finally," Crono pulled out the last of his presents, "a scarf and mittens, so she doesn't catch cold," he said in his best imitation of Lucca's mother.

"That was pathetic."

"I know."

Lucca finished packing everything away. "This is all great, but where am I going?"

Crono frowned. "Marle hasn't talked to you?" Lucca shook her head. "I assumed she would have. Oh well, dumb me. We're shipping you off to Choras, all by your lonesome so you can deal with the problem directly."

"And if I can't?"

That made Crono pause. "Well...that'll be your problem, too."

"How comforting," she said flatly.

"It's the best we can do. Anyway, cheer up! It ought to be fun!"

"I guess so." Her eyes darted nervously back to her cell. "Can we leave now? I want to get far away from this prison."

"I know the feeling. We have to take it slow, though." Crono tiptoed to the doorway. "For I am a ninja and go unseen."

Together they stepped out into the windy night. The dizzying heights of the prison walkways didn't really bother either of them. They'd dueled with guards on these narrow bridges. The path back out was long and convoluted. The architects had designed it that way, hoping to slow down escaping prisoners by getting them hopelessly lost. It apparently had worked for the last millennium; the stories of convicts disappearing in the royal prison were numerous. Whether any were true or not was debatable. In fact, the most effective part of the design had nothing to do with the confusing layout. There was only one way down to a safe height. Guards need only block the bottleneck to catch escapees. All of the walkways were far too high to jump from.

Of course, both Crono and Lucca had been in the prison several times, for various reasons, and knew how to get out. As they followed the numerous stairways down closer to ground level, they passed the guards Crono had left unconscious. Lucca was tempted to check their pockets, but decided against it. It was the procurement instinct she'd developed while adventuring, when supplies could be scare. Right now, the guards needed their belongings more than she did.

They didn't say much as they walked. Crono briefly contemplated telling Lucca about her bathroom, but now was a bad time. As they crossed the last walkway, Crono paused. Lucca stopped as well. "What is it?" she asked.

Crono was silent, listening. "Did you hear that?"

"No. What was it?"

"It sounded like..." He turned to the far archway. "There it is again."

"I think I hear it," Lucca said. She focused on her hearing, trying to pick out the noise again. "Rumbling?"

"Yeah, that's it." They both looked at each other. Crono raised an eyebrow. "It couldn't be." The noise got louder. Their gazes shifted to the archway. "It is. I don't believe it," Crono said.

At the other end of the walkway, a large metal dragon rolled out of the archway. It wasn't just a Dragon Tank, it was THE Dragon Tank. The yellow plating was charred, and the whole tank seemed to be leaning a bit to the left. The wheels squealed, begging for a good oiling.

Lucca stared in awe. "They fixed that thing. WHY!?"

The top hatch opened, revealing a Royal Guard. It was Lieutenant Garik, the Guard who had arrested Lucca a few nights ago. "Halt, evil-doers! Bow down before the awesome power of the Dragon Tank, New Version 6.0!" With a shriek of tearing sheet metal, the lower jaw of the dragon head fell free, bouncing off the walkway with a clang before spiraling down to oblivion.

The world ground to a dramatic halt. With the grace of a swan and the power of a tiger, Crono drew his mighty prismatic blade. The cold metal swung in a slow, laborious arc until it stopped, tip pointing directly at the ironclad menace. He squinted his eyes, preparing to call forth a bolt of lightning from the heavens to strike down his opponent.

"Um, Crono," Lucca whispered.

The warrior turned to his companion. "What is it?" he whispered back. "I was about to blow it to hell and back."

"Yeah, I noticed that. Correct me if I'm wrong, because I could be, but aren't you in disguise?" Crono checked his reflection in Lucca's glasses. "Don't do that. It's really annoying."

"Sorry," he whispered. "Yeah, I'm going incognito."

Lucca nodded. "How many people do you know who can throw bolts of lightning from their fingertips?"

"Well..." Crono pondered. "One?"

"That person being...?"

"Me?" Lucca smiled. "I think I understand."

"Excuse me! I'd like to finish this before my tank rusts," Garik called. "Hey, aren't you-?"

"No, I'm not," Crono said.

Garik thought about this. "Oh, okay."

Crono shrugged. "So, if I fry the thing, everyone will know that I freed you. Makes sense."

"Yes," Lucca whispered. "We need to think of another way to deal with it. We could always try reasoning with them."

"No, not enough pyrotechnics. We could see if my sword can do enough damage to it for us to slip by."

"Lieutenant Garik!" a voice from within the tank called. "I'm getting some weird readings from the engine!"

"What!?" Garik started praying as the Dragon Tank began to shake violently. Loud grinding noises were coming from the engine.

Lucca took one of the ammo clips from her pockets. "You know, I could probably rig this so that we could use it as a sort of grenade. Then we could throw it at the tank and blow it up."

Crono shook his head. "It'd be pretty, but we don't have that kind of time. We need to act fast, you know, steal the initiative. They had the advantage of surprise, so we need to make up for that with a swift counter." They both nodded, deep in thought.

"Um, Garik, sir, I think we might want to get out of this thing!"

"That's a good idea, Private!" Garik and the Private scrambled out of the jury-rigged tank, running away with all possible speed.

"You know," Crono said, no longer bothering to whisper, "we could always just sort of give it a push, you know."

With a final, mournful sigh, the Dragon Tank gave up its fight for life, collapsing noisily. Crono and Lucca both turned back to it, watching with surprised eyes.

Nothing was said for several minutes.

"Slow down! Please!"

Crono glanced back over his shoulder. The guards were still following them, but were falling behind. He and Lucca had picked them up as they left the castle, and the guards had pursued them on and off for the last half-hour. He pushed himself harder, running with all the speed his body could manage.

"Crono!" Lucca panted. "I can't keep up if you don't slow down a bit!"

"But the guards..."

Lucca glared at him. "Stupid! They're not going to catch us!" She almost tripped as Crono stopped suddenly. Rather than slowing down, he scooped her up into his arms and took off again. "Um...I guess this will work, too." They turned a corner, arriving at the docks. A wide variety of ships bobbed in the gently rolling water. Of course, none of them would help much unless they could get on one and make it move. "Crono, you wouldn't happen to have a boat ready for me, would you?"

"Actually," Crono said, "I do. Now if only I could find it."

"Hopefully today," Lucca said.

"Ah! Here it is. I knew I hadn't forgotten which one it was." Crono had stopped in front of a medium-sized boat, a sort of personal yacht by the looks of it. "All you have to do is enjoy the ride."

"This boat IS going to Choras, right?"

Crono shrugged. "Supposedly. If it doesn't, then I'll have to have a talk with someone." He let her back down to her feet. "Now remember, don't try anything stupid. If you need help, get it."

"I'm a big girl, you know."

He rolled his eyes. "No kidding. Have you been drinking a bit too much poi lately? You're heavy!" That earned him a smack upside the head. "Just joking!"

"Halt! You are both under arrest!" The guards had caught up and were approaching from both sides. They looked exhausted, but that was only making them angrier.

"Crono, the boat's leaving!" The yacht was indeed pulling out. Thinking quickly, Crono picked Lucca back up and threw her into the escaping boat. He then dove off the pier.

"Shit!" Lucca moaned. "I think I landed on the anchor." She stood, massaging her sore rear. The yacht was rapidly gaining speed. The harbor would be out of sight in minutes. Turning back, she scanned the dark sea for any sign of Crono. He was floating near the dock, waving to her. "What are you going to do?"

"I shall doggie paddle to safety!" he called. "Have fun in Choras!" Lucca watched Crono paddle away awkwardly until he was out of sight. She stayed at the back of the ship, watching the ocean churn in its wake. The stars seemed to brighten as they got further away from the city. The air was a lot colder over the water, but Lucca didn't mind. She put on the scarf and mittens Crono had brought her. They helped far more than she had thought they would. It was so quiet, as if she was the only person for miles. Was there even anyone else on the yacht? Didn't matter, really, as long as it went to Choras.

Choras. Lucca was confident that she could deal with whatever awaited her. It would be fun.

A wave of drowsiness passed over her. Not wanting to risk disturbing the owner, she found a comfortable corner on the deck to curl up in. As sleep overtook her, she recalled the eyes of the woman from her dream, and the eyes looking back at her from the armor.

Bright green, just like His.

Alone, in the center of the living room, Old Dutch sat. And wasn't doing much else. Or at least, not much else visible to the eye. Beneath the grey hood, chilling eyes blazed against a darkness purer than any mere shadow. He was thinking. What about was anyone's guess. Metal clinked as he flexed his gauntlet-encased hands.

From the stairs, Lysol watched with interest. She didn't understand much about Old Dutch. He had been with Draino. Beyond that, not much was certain. Lysol wasn't sure what he was exactly, how long he'd existed, or even why he followed Draino as a part of the Purge. She hadn't had many conversations with him since they'd met, but that was probably her fault. If she wanted to talk to him, she need only say something. Old Dutch was good about answering, just rarely spoke first. That's why she was so shocked when he spoke to her.

"He's back."

Lysol suppressed a surprised yelp. When she recovered, she asked, "Who's back?"

Old Dutch didn't say anything. One of his heavy, metallic forearms extended slowly. The hand stopped on the carpet. The spectre turned his hidden face to Lysol. Like tiny, silver legs, his fingers crept across the floor. From beneath the hood, a jagged, glowing mouth smiled out of the darkness, as if what he had done was humorous.

Apparently it was, since Lysol fell over laughing, partly because of what it meant, but mostly because Old Dutch had just smiled at her.

The front door opened with a creak, Draino walked in, a large bag in hand. He dropped it on the table. "Here's our latest payment. Maybe now we can get electricity back." His nose twitched. "Have we had to break out the incense candles?"

Lysol nodded. "Anything that'll burn. I think it's getting to Old Dutch, though. He just smiled."

"I'd hate to see him high. Who knows what he'd do."

The cloaked figure sitting in the middle of the room coughed. "I am right here. You don't need to act like I am invisible," he said in his throaty rumble.

"Sorry," Lysol said.

Draino didn't bother apologizing. Instead, he checked the kitchen. "Where's Windex?" he asked.

"Right here!" Windex called, hurrying down the stairs to take a seat next to Lysol. "I'm feeling light-headed," he mumbled.

"The Mystics don't trust us as much as they ought to. They seem to have hired someone else to spread confusion in Choras."

Lysol snickered. "It's that idiot Darma and his piece of junk."

"Exactly," Draino confirmed. He focused on Windex. "Deal with him."

"Just me?" Windex asked. "Why not send Lysol along with me? She hasn't seen any action in quite a while."

"That's debatable," Lysol mumbled. Windex smirked.

Draino frowned. "Getting back to the subject, trust me on this. Darma won't be a problem for you, Windex. I have something equally important for Lysol to do. She'll get to stretch her legs."

"Oh really?" she asked.

Draino only nodded.

-- 27 --

The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon, it's reflection churning in the ocean. The water was hardly still, but not too choppy. Just right. Lucca watched the water ripple in the yacht's wake, feeling good for some unknown reason. She didn't allow that uncertainty to bother her; it was better than being sad. While the day was warming quickly, she knew it would still be chilly. The boat was heading south and fall was showing the first signs of the approaching winter. It would only get colder.

"Up at last," a voice said from behind her. She turned to see who had spoken.


The ancient Guru nodded, grinning broadly. He reached up to adjust his round, highly-reflective spectacles. "So good to see you, Lucca. I get enough of Crono whenever I visit Truce, but I rarely see you." His brow lifted in thought. "Why, it has to have been at least six months, maybe longer!"

"Sorry," she said with an apologetic smile. "You know how it is."

"Of course, of course" The guru chuckled merrily. He held out a warm mug of coffee. "Here, warm yourself up. It's not the best, but it's all I have to offer right now, unfortunately."

Lucca accepted the drink gratefully. She had never been very fond of coffee, but her stomach was demanding something. Prison food was far from the best in the world; this coffee was nectar compared to it. She downed half the mug before speaking. "Thanks. It's wonderful."

"You are most welcome. The least I can do for a wanderer of Time."

"I think those days are gone now," she said. "I suspect I'll have to resign myself to the age I was born into."

"Don't be so sure," Melchior said. Lucca could tell he meant it only to cheer her up. "Who knows what the future brings!"

"I'm really hoping it brings me another can." Hops climbed up from below deck, canned cheese in hand. Apparently it was empty, since he promptly threw it overboard. It made a small splash before sinking out of view.

The sight of the dark-haired boy was, quite possibly, more unexpected than Melchior. In her surprise, all she managed to say was, "You shouldn't just throw stuff into the ocean, you know. Bad for the environment."

Hops just shrugged. "An empty can is the least of this planet's worries."

"Unfortunately," Melchior said, ending their digression, "hope is not necessarily the truth, only a wish that may or may not come true."

Hops frowned. "In other words, you don't have another can in the hold."

"Yes, that's one way to put it."

"What is he doing here?" Lucca asked, finally able to sort out the jumble in her mind. Crono had said nothing about the boy.

"He asked to come along," Melchior told her. "I couldn't very well refuse a guest on my ship."

"Yeah, but..."

"I want to be here," Hops said. "I...feel compelled to make sure things go well. You don't mind the help, do you?"

Lucca shook her head. "No. I was just expecting to handle this alone." Compelled to make sure things went well? An odd thing to say. Lucca kept the thought to herself, but she studied Hops more closely. He was dressed the same as always, his eyes still hidden beneath overgrown bangs. How did he plan to help?

"Wonderful," Melchior said, smiling. "Any quest is easier in the company of friends. I for one am glad the boy is here. I've been wanting to talk to him again for some time now."

"You've met?" Somehow, this failed to amaze her.

Hops was staring out at the waves, apparently oblivious to the conversation. Melchior nodded. "In a time not unlike the present. He told me a great deal while you were sleeping. Much about his time with you so far. I must say it's quite intriguing."

"What am I getting into?" Lucca doubted the guru knew, but she had to ask. Anything he could tell her would be a help. Melchior remained deep in his thoughts, as if deciding whether or not he should speak. Not only did he hold the knowledge of an age long gone, but he traveled extensively in this era. No doubt he heard news and rumors in many lands. "You can tell me if you know. I think I deserve to understand what's going on."

Melchior raised a bushy grey eyebrow. "Do you?" he asked. He continued before Lucca could answer. "Of course you do. However, I don't think that it's my place to tell you. I can say, though, that much will become clear soon. Just give the world time, and it will explain itself when it's ready."

Lucca pondered this. A frustrating answer, but to be expected. It was typical of her past dealings with any of the three gurus. "Okay," she said. "I can accept that for now. I have another question, though. What do you know about the Purge?"

Melchior nodded, a grin spreading across his face. "I knew that was coming. Hops mentioned that you had an encounter with them."

"Well?" Lucca asked again when he didn't answer.

"The Purge," he began, "is beyond my understanding. I'm sure that sounds pathetic. I'm supposed to be knowledgeable and whatnot, but you've found a topic where even I am out of my league. Suffice it to say, those three are more than they seem."

"There are more than three now," Lucca said. A doubtful expression appeared on the guru's face. "I think at least four."

Melchior only shook his head. "No, there are three. There has never been any more, and there never will be. I'd know. My predecessors trained them." He waited, but Lucca had no response to this. "The Guru of Time trained Shellac. I'm sure of that. As for Lysol and Windex, I forget who trained whom. It was before my time, and no official record of them ever existed. The most important thing I can tell you, though, is not to confront them. They are truly in a league of their own. Plus, I doubt they'd actually mean you any harm."

"But we killed Shellac. What does that mean?"

"Really?" Melchior asked, amusement in his eyes. "He let you win, that's for certain. Whether he's really dead or not, that I wouldn't be willing to bet money on, even if I saw a body. The Purge is funny like that."

"But why?" Lucca asked. "If we did kill him, why would he commit suicide like that? I could understand if it was a 'dying in battle' sort of thing, but against such weak opponents?"

"Give yourself a bit more credit. You're far from weak. As for Shellac, do you think I know what went on in that straw head of his? I'm only eighty-seven."

His mention of age caught her attention. "That's another thing," she said. "How can they still exist? Have they traveled through time, like you, or can they be immortals?"

"Nothing is forever," Hops mumbled, finally contributing to the discussion.

Melchior was slow in formulating an answer to that one. At last, he said, "My dear, there are some things in life that have a certain timeless quality, don't you agree?"

Lucca was going to ask for a better explanation, but the look in the Guru's eyes told her that she wouldn't get any more out of the old man. Sighing heavily, she sipped her coffee. It was strong and almost unbearable, but the discomfort helped to ground her, keep her focused. "This is a nice ship."

"Thank you," said Melchior. "It's my home now. I sold the old house, bought this boat. The neighbors were getting cranky, and I felt it was about time for a change."

Hops was still watching the sea. They were alone, no land or other ships in sight. The sun was half way over the horizon now. The waves were more golden than blue. Melchior disappeared below deck, returning with his own cup of coffee. He watched the silent boy as he drank. With a sigh, he turned back to Lucca. "You have another question?" The inventor had been staring at the deck, in thought. She looked up, startled. "Ask away. One should never hesitate to ask for information."

Hops spoke up before Lucca could. "Melchior, do you know why I'm here?"

The guru smiled. "No, I do not, and I think I'd like to remain ignorant. It's not my business." Hops didn't say anything in reply. Lucca did not say anything on the matter either. She knew why Hops was hear, or at least the official story. The way he had posed the question to Melchior, however, left Lucca certain that there was more to it. There would be time later to ask him about it.

"Um," Lucca said at last, "Melchior, I was wondering. Lavos is still alive right now, correct?" Her recent dreams aside, it still wasn't a comforting thought, knowing that the parasite still lurked below.

"To the best of my knowledge," the guru answered. "You don't kill it until 1999, correct?"

"Right." Lucca paused, clearly uneasy. "Well, you see, I think Lavos has been talking to me." Melchior raised an eyebrow, but that was all. "In my dreams, I mean. At first I thought it might be just my mind, you know, just a dream. I kind of doubt that now. Have you ever heard of such a thing happening?"

The guru careful put his mug down. "Stop right there. For the same reason I told Hops, I have to ask you to not say anymore." The old man smiled. "Such things just aren't my concern these days."

"Not your concern!?" Lucca shouted, standing up. She nearly spilled what was left of her coffee. "But I need to know what's happening. I need to know what Lavos is trying to tell me, assuming it's even Lavos who's doing the talking. Either I'm going horribly insane, or there is something else VERY wrong with me! A giant bug that I'm going to kill in the future is making me feel like a total idiot! I have to know if I'm just an idiot, or if that thing's trying to scare me, or warn me, or kill me, or destroy my sanity, or...whatever!" She stopped yelling, noticing that both Melchior and Hops were just watching her, expressionless. She sat back down. "I'm just confused, that's all." And that was the truth. More than anything else; anger, fear, hate, depression; she felt confused. "I just want to know what I'm doing. Where I'm going." She almost felt like crying, but the tears weren't coming. "I spent a year of my life doing what most would call impossible. When I think about it, I realize that I have no idea what happened over that year. I know that it must have been important, and I would very much like to understand it."

The sun continued to climb into the sky.

Melchior nodded, readjusting his spectacles. He seemed embarrassed, whether for her outburst or his own inability to help, she couldn't tell. "I believe the person you need to speak with is Gaspar."

"I don't see any gates that we can cram four people into," Lucca said, "so how do you propose I find him?"

Melchior could only shrug. Lucca's eyes dropped back to the deck. After a moment, she spoke. "Thank you for what you've done for me. It was more than I could ask for." She didn't want to seem an ingrate. She respected the guru, and valued his respect in return.

The hint of embarrassment had passed, and was replaced with sincerity. "I'm only sorry that I couldn't help more. You, Crono, and Marle are certainly worth it."

Hops continued to watch wave after wave pass by, keeping his thoughts to himself.

-- 28 --

Of the three great nations of this time period, Choras was the smallest by far. It controlled the smallest continent and had the lowest population density. It was quite likely that the birds barely knew it was even there at all. If one were to look down upon Choras from the air, they would see a continent covered in forest, broken only by a single mountain range and the largest of the population centers. The Chorans believed strongly in the preservation of nature, living among the trees rather than leveling expanses of the forest.

Choras was also the oldest surviving nation. Founded several hundred years before Guardia or Medina, it had managed to survive by avoiding conflict with its neighbors. In fact, the Chorans avoided any foreign contact whenever possible. They saw it as a devotion to neutrality. Foreigners usually interpreted it as an elitist attitude. This worked in the Chorans' favor, of course, since it discouraged others from trying to improve relations. Choras was content to leave the world alone and be left alone in return.

Of course, this attitude wasn't enough to save them from the Mystic War. Early on, the Mystics attempted to invade Choras, hoping for an easy victory. They were driven off eventually, but not before causing severe damage to Choras. Much of the farmland had been razed, and the royal castle had been all but destroyed. For the next 400 years, it was to be known as the Northern Ruins. No efforts were made to rebuild it, due mainly to the poor condition of the nation as a whole.

The years after the Mystic War were the worst in Choras's long history. However, the people made it through, and were actually able to make their country more prosperous than ever before. In recent months, work had begun to restore the Northern Ruins to their former glory.

The rest of the world seemed to think that it was finished. Apparently, they hadn't been inside.

Tyria was a beautiful woman. Tall and thin, yet decidedly curvaceous, she was 25 and shone with her youth. She knew exactly how attractive she was, and judging by her usual wardrobe, she wanted everyone else to know as well.

Scattered torches illuminated the interior of the ruins, but they weren't enough to stop the shadows from pooling in the corners. Tyria watched the light of the flickering flames play over the worn stone as she walked down an ancient corridor. Centuries ago, this was the great hall that cut through the center of the castle like a stone spine. The walls soared upward before curving inward to form the vaulted ceiling. It was far less imposing at the moment; the torchlight failed to reach the crumbling arches.

Behind her, at the north end, were the remains of the throne room. Reconstruction had already been completed in that room. The workers had started with that chamber first. Only a handful of others had been finished now, along with most of the exterior.

Brushing a lock of long, dark blue hair over her shoulder, Tyria paused and turned around. Her movements were those of a woman trying to impress a crowd, despite the fact that she was practically alone. Trailing along behind, two large suits of samurai armor now came to a halt as well. Clearly crafted for a more feminine form, they were able to move silently despite their bulk.

"Atril. Tabanne." The two helmets stared intently at their mistress. No faces were hidden behind the demonic masks. "How long has it been since the machines were last spotted along the front line?"

The suit on the left, Atril, was of a reddish hue. Its voice was high and singsong. "Eight days, madam. They have made no advances. As anticipated, the scout sent into their territory two days ago has yet to return."

Tyria nodded. "We shouldn't send anymore scouts. While it comforts the generals to keep busy, they are wasting resources. They have other matters to attend to."

"Agreed," said Tabanne, the green suit on the right. Its voice was almost exactly the same as its twin's. "We have received no word from Sarkin, madam. Should we concern ourselves with this?"

"No," Tyria told them. "I don't much care what Sarkin is doing. In fact, I want him recalled to the capital. By going to Guardia he was defying me and wasting his own time. Send word that I order him to cease his nonsense and return here, where he might prove useful for a change."

"Yes, madam," both the guardians said.

Tyria sighed and stretched, her body shifting in ways her clothes were not prepared to handle. If anyone else had been there to see, they would have received quite a show. Yawning, she asked, "What time is it?"

"8:32 AM," Tabanne said.

Tyria smiled as she straightened her clothes. "I would like to spend the day in town again." She started moving again, walking briskly toward the south exit from the hall. Atril and Tabanne lumbered quietly in her wake.

Lucca collapsed on a bench, her feet tired from the morning's walk. Melchior had left them in Mobliz, a small fishing village just a few hours walk from Choras, the capital of the country with the same name. Mobliz had been a nice town, not unlike Goat Path, a city in Guardia she'd passed through recently. It was the sort of place that, if you blinked, you were likely to miss it. She and Hops had stopped for breakfast there before heading inland.

With a bit more grace, Hops sat down beside her. The locals walked by, going about their usual routines, barely noticing them. "What do you really think we can do here?" Hops asked.

"Nothing," Lucca answered. "Think of this as a vacation."

"I was already on vacation, you know."

Lucca considered this. "Well, if you take a vacation to 1001, you have to see the whole world, right? It's not like visiting a city. This is a whole time period!"

"Good point. Still, we have a problem."


Looking down at his clothes, Hops asked, "Do we look enough like tourists?"

Lucca checked her own clothes. Neither of them was wearing the latest in fashion, that was for sure, but they didn't scream tourist either. That could be fixed, though. "You have a very good point as well. Come on." Lucca laboriously extracted herself from the bench. She grabbed Hops by the wrist and pulled him up as well.

"Where are we going?" he asked cautiously.

"A clothing store," she said. "We have to acquire true tourist clothing. Our foreign attire won't cut it."

"What's true tourist clothing?" Hops asked. Lucca turned to stare at him, slack-jawed. Judging from the expression on his face, he was serious.

"Are you kidding me?" Lucca asked.

Hops shook his head. "How many tourists do you think we had in Zeal?"

"I swear," Lucca said. "You and Malt have had the most deprived childhoods." She smiled, already making plans in her mind. "Okay then, it is my sacred duty to show you the proper ways to make oneself a total nuisance in foreign countries. Clothes are still first. They are a vital part of being a tourist."

The first clothing store they found was a small place called "The Chum Bucket." Before Hops could ponder the name, he was dragged inside. The place looked normal enough inside, if you could ignore the pickled shark in a display case. Its leathery skin had somehow been dyed neon pink. Lucca pulled him past this wonder of the modern world to a row of extremely bright shirts. Glancing around, she selected a predominately blue one and held it up to her companion. "Here, try this on," she said, thrusting the shirt into his hands.

Hops examined the shirt. "Not to insult your fashion sense, but flower print just isn't me."

Lucca sighed. "These happen to be the most masculine floral shirts in existence. You aren't a true tourist without one."

Sighing, Hops put it on over his other clothes. "It's a bit big."

"It's perfect! Just trust me." Lucca found an orange one and threw it on. "See, these shirts alone have made us ten times the tourists we were before."

Hops looked at himself in a mirror on the wall. "We're really going to stand out."

"Exactly!" Lucca shouted with glee. "You're catching on!"

She walked away to the front of the store to pay for her shirt. Hops stayed behind, looking at the other clothing for sale. He found a baggy pair of shorts that went well with his over-sized shirt. There was an empty dressing room, so he slipped inside to exchange his pants for the shorts. They were almost as long as his pants had been. Tucking his pants into his bag, he went up to the counter to pay. Stores in Zeal had been different. Clerks there would have flipped if you asked to pay for the clothes you were wearing. Thinking about it, Hops wasn't sure why. The people of Zeal were just odd.

Walking out of 'The Chum Bucket,' Hops stopped when he looked up. Quite a few other people had stopped, staring, as well. Across the street, Lucca was caressing a parking meter with her tongue. This didn't shock Hops nearly as much as it did the passers-by. Actually, he was more concerned about why there would be a parking meter here. What was there to park, horse-drawn carts? He walked through the growing crowd, unsure of what to do. Lucca looked up at him, finally noticing his presence. She tried to pull away from the parking meter, but something was stopping her. "I tink m tung ist shtuk t th col me-al."

Hops leaned closer, examining her tongue. "Is this part of being a nuisance?"

"Elp e," she tried to say.

"Okay, just stay put." Lucca rolled her eyes. "Look, I'm trying to help here." Stepping around the parking meter, he got behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "This might hurt a bit," he warned her.

Lucca screamed as best she could as Hops started tugging on her. To someone walking by, this could have easily looked like something it wasn't. Despite Hops's efforts, Lucca's tongue didn't seem to be coming off.

Hops paused for a second before giving one final tug. There was an audible pop as Lucca's tongue came free of the parking meter. Without the resistance on that end, the two collapsed on each other in the grass. Lucca was laughing hysterically. Hops was just smiling, which for him showed as much amusement as Lucca's laughter.

-- 29 --

The room was chilly, but it was at least warmer than outside. They hadn't paid much for it. Who knew how long they'd be here, so Lucca felt it was best to start conserving money. Still, it was a roof and two decent beds, so she wasn't complaining. She'd fallen asleep the moment her head hit the pillow, tired out from a long day of disturbing the peace. It had been a pleasant diversion, but her worries rose anew from their corner of her mind as soon as she'd relaxed. It took a great deal of determination to ignore them.

She was awake now. Something must have shaken her out of sleep, but she didn't know what. The room was the same as it had been when she had passed out. Sitting up, she saw that Hops was gone. The clock said it was five past midnight. She wasn't surprised. Malt had warned her about this. She could only assume that the boy would be back by morning. Without a second thought, she rolled over to go back to sleep.

Slowly her eyes opened.

It was still dark, still night. It was rare for Lucca to have trouble sleeping, but she was too groggy right now to worry about it. She dragged herself to the edge of the bed and leaned over to retrieve her pack. It was starting to look rather ragged, having served her well since she bought it the day before the Millennial Fair. She needed a new one, but this one held too much sentimental value. Plus, she was lazy.

Inside, she found exactly what she was looking for. Two canteens filled with her own homemade poi were nestled in between her ammo clips and a dog-eared paperback she'd read twice before. Unscrewing the top of one of the canteens, she pushed back up to a sitting position before taking a large gulp. The thick pork stew flowed down her throat, warming her insides as it went.

It was only now that she noticed Hops sitting on his bed. Apparently he had returned while she was sleeping. He didn't seem to notice her at all. A small shot glass was balanced on his palm.

"I don't see any liquor," Lucca said. If Hops was startled, he didn't show it.

"I wasn't drinking," he answered, not looking up at her. "It's my dad's glass. To be honest, I don't know why I carry it with me. It doesn't comfort me at all."

The two beds were close enough that Lucca could crawl across the gap to sit beside him. "Well, he IS your dad. I'm sure that somewhere, deep down, you care about him. Otherwise, why would you want to have something of his?"

Hops didn't answer immediately. He rolled the glass across his fingers. "I think it reminds me of my goals in life. You know, my dreams. My hopes."

"Care to share?" Lucca asked, moving closer. When he didn't respond, she said, "You don't have to answer. Here, I'll tell you my goals first." She went on, even though Hops wasn't showing any signs of listening. "I intend to spend my life doing whatever it is that makes me happy. Right now, I guess that would be inventing and ass-kicking. I admit, the latter isn't the most noble of pursuits, but I don't suppose I can help it. I was just drawn into it all of a sudden, and now I can't seem to find a way around it anymore. I don't think I even want to put it behind me. Maybe I'm just a violent person."

"I don't think so," Hops said. Apparently he had been paying attention. "You didn't ask to learn of Lavos. It was just something that happened. You found yourself in a new situation, and you adapted to it. Perfectly normal."

Lucca considered this. "Still, I didn't have to deal with Lavos. Early on, I could have just gone back to my time and ignored the whole mess. It's not like my life would have been affected by it."

"Once you saw the future," Hops said, "can you honestly say that you could have forgotten about it?"

"No," Lucca answered. "And I'm where I am now for that very reason. When I found out that a giant bug was going to kill the planet, and that there might be something I could do to stop it, I couldn't just forget it. I might have come home, but I would have been back through the closest gate in less than a day." She sighed heavily. "Anyway, I've had enough of that subject. So, are you going to share now?"

The glass danced back across his fingers. "I want to go back."

"To Zeal?"

Hops nodded. "I've wanted to go back since I left. I think that was about a year ago. I remember when Spekkio showed up at my house one morning. I'd just eaten breakfast, grape juice and some sort of cereal I think. I was in my room, reading, when my foster mother told me I had a guest. He was the last person I expected to see. He wasn't a stranger to me. I knew exactly who he was the moment I saw him, even though I'd rarely seen him growing up. He was a pink nu, the same as most of the times I'd seen him. He must like that form. He was sitting on the sofa, smiled and greeted me like it was the most normal thing in the world. Asked where Malt was, he had something to talk to us about. Malt had left home already. Kyra had asked her to come early that morning. I didn't know why." He stopped, checking to see if Lucca was still listening. She was, so he went on. "I told Spekkio. He said that was great, we'd go get her. We left the house, walked down the road to Kyra's home. We didn't say anything to each other. It was summer, but then it's always summer in Zeal. I guess floating continents can have whatever seasons you choose. Malt was outside of Kyra's house, collecting logs from the woodpile out back. I guess Kyra needed to start a fire for something. That, or she had sentenced Malt to manual labor for some reason.

"Spekkio hugged her, said we'd both grown so big. Asked us how we were doing these days. Did we eat enough? Were we happy? Then he said that something had come up. It was time to go home." A long pause here. "I didn't know what that meant. As far as I knew, I was home. I'd been wrong. We went over to the well, and Spekkio told us to jump in. We did, and he did after us. The last I saw of Zeal was a wall of mossy stones."

He looked up at Lucca. "I would have liked to say goodbye to Kyra." He shrugged. "I miss her a lot. There were a lot of things that I would have liked to do...that I'd still like to do."

Lucca wasn't sure what to say. She was still thinking about what he'd told her. Nodding in thought, she asked, "What happened next?"

"Next? What happened next was probably the strangest my life has ever been, to say the least. I'd rather not talk about it," Hops said. "I learned a lot then, and grew to hate Spekkio, only to find that I couldn't stay angry at him. I understood his reasons too well to hold any of it against him." He noticed that Lucca was very attentive. "Sorry, but I'm not going into details. Let's just say that I eventually found myself in Porre, dragging Spekkio into the Biggie Piggie. You know the rest."

They sat quietly for a while. Both found the other's presence calming. On impulse, Lucca reached out to Hops's face. He didn't flinch away. Carefully, she lifted the thick black bangs that hid his eyes. His hair was soft, very fine. Hops raised a now visible eyebrow in question.

"Just curious," Lucca said. "I didn't know what color they were." She pulled her hand back, letting his hair fall back over his dark blue eyes. Not a striking shade of violet like his sister's. Not a glowing green like his.

"You've been far too kind to us," Hops said. "We haven't done anything to deserve your hospitality."

"Don't worry about it," Lucca said quickly. "You don't owe anyone anything."

"Apparently I do," Hops said quietly. When Lucca looked at him, expecting an explanation, he just shook his head. "My life is too complicated to explain."

Lucca didn't turn away. "Oh, no one understands me! You can't know what it's like!" she moaned, playfully mocking him.

"There was more Melchior could have told you," Hops said, ignoring her. "He chose not to because he felt that I should be the one to tell you. That green stone that was embedded in Shellac's scythe, I know what it is."

A hand came to rest on his shoulder. Lucca shook her head. "Right now, I don't really want to know."

"It's called an Eye of Lavos."

Neither spoke. They just sat there, enjoying each other's warmth, as the planet continued to spin them back toward the sun. Outside, no clouds drifted by in the cool November air. No birds called out in the darkness.

"He won't go away," Lucca said. Her voice was a faint whisper.

"He will," Hops whispered back. "Someday."

"Tell me the rest some other time."


-- 30 --

Hops picked up another piece of the shiny, reflective metal. With the sun high overhead, they were easy to find. The battle had left them scattered across the pavement. The medical crews had cleared away all of the bodies the day after the attack, but hadn't touched these inhuman remains. Hops shook it, watching the pieces swing back and forth. It, like most of the others, looked like a spider's leg.

Spotting Lucca near the front of the complex, he called, "Hey, Lucca! What exactly should I be looking for?"

Lucca turned her attention away from the pile of debris before her. "Souvenirs!" she called back. Grunting, she shoved another piece of broken concrete aside.

With a sigh, Hops added the unmoving leg to his growing pile of spider scraps. He figured he had the pieces for at least five of the critters from the good parts he'd been able to find so far, though he lacked the knowledge to reassemble them. This corner of the base was fairly clear now. The main bunker still needed to be checked, but he wasn't really feeling like it at the moment. He knew what he'd find. They'd been at this for a week. The little bases and weather stations had been simple enough to scour. For the most part there hadn't been anything useful at those. They'd finally moved on to the large installation that had been hit recently. As close as it was to town, it was a wonder that the attack had remained secret to the public. While there was no sign of anything large, there were broken pieces of the mechanical spiders, more and in better condition then they had found anywhere else. Hops knew that they were well beyond his limited technical knowledge, and he had a feeling that the same was true for Lucca.

"You know," he called again, "these remind me of pictures I've seen. Before the Golden Age, mechanical soldiers were used by some of the warlords. They seemed to be fond of chrome."

"So," Lucca shouted, straining to move another slab of concrete, "are you suggesting that we've found more leftovers from Zeal?"

"If the Purge is still around, I don't think it's impossible."

Lucca gave up on that heap of wreckage and went on to a different pile. "So a warlord of ancient Zeal is trying to reconquer the world?"

"I guess that is pushing it," Hops said.

"Someone's found an abandoned weapons cache and is trying to take over the world?"

Hops thought about it. "More likely, but still a little farfetched. It would mean that the person knows how to control these things, which is unlikely."

"What if it's one of our mercenary friends?" Lucca asked. "They would have known about the weapons, right?"

"True," Hops agreed. "Of course, we're assuming quite a bit. There's no proof to point to anyone, just some broken chrome spiders."

Dusting off her hands, the young inventor walked toward him. "I hope Marle wasn't truly expecting me to fix things here. There hasn't been another attack since we got here, and no one we've talked to is even aware that it's happening! We have absolutely nothing to go on!" She kicked a spider leg into the side of a bunker and watched it break into even smaller pieces. "These things aren't very durable at all. For them to be effective weapons there must be dozens of them." She breathed a heavy sigh. "I told you this wasn't going to accomplish anything, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did," Hops answered.

Lucca looked him in the eyes. "I was right. Do you know why I was right?" The boy waited for her to answer herself. "Because I am the great Lucca, mightiest genius on the planet!" Hands on her hips, she began pacing aimlessly around the base.

"I don't know about you," Hops said, "but I'm taking these back to the inn." He'd had his fill of scavenging for the day. The parts he'd found went into a large bag. Maybe he would poke around in them if he became extraordinarily bored. "Are you coming along or not?"

Lucca waved him away. "I'll be along in a little while. There are still a few places we didn't check. I don't want to risk missing something important." Inwardly, she laughed at herself for saying that.

"Whatever." Hops shouldered his bag of spider parts and set off down the dirt road. It would be two hours' walk back to town; just the thought of it made the bag seem heavier. At least it wasn't hot. The chilly air would be pleasant.

Meanwhile, Lucca pushed at the door to the main bunker. It had been warped during the fighting and was now thoroughly jammed. Pounding and kicking weren't getting her anywhere. Backing away, Lucca raised her hand, palm out.


A sphere of fiery energy shot from her palm and hit the door. The force of the blow knocked the door deep into the bunker and ripped apart the concrete doorframe. Lucca flinched as hot shards of concrete bounced off her exposed skin. She made a mental note to stand further away next time.

Climbing over the smoking debris, Lucca entered the central building of the complex. It was very dark, lit only by the weak, pinkish glow from the few emergency lights that still had power. One sputtered and died to her left. Just from looking around, she wasn't sure what the place was used for. The center of the room was dominated by a large, round table. It was covered in a map of the local area. Lucca immediately recognized that the recent attacks were all marked. An empty helmet sat in the center, marking the base. In the poor light, Lucca could only assume that it was blood staining the table.

A radio console had been in a small alcove to the right. It was smashed, its remains scorched and lifeless. There were a few other clusters of electronics along the wall, but all were crushed beyond recognition. To the left was a metal door barely clinging to its hinges. Lucca tried to pull it open carefully, but it tore free of the wall and fell to the floor with a bang. The sound echoed off the dark concrete walls. Through the frame was a hallway, lit by a few overhead lights. They hung from thin cables, swinging slightly because of the air currents inside. It was surprisingly long, ending in metal double doors. Whatever was beyond those had to be outside of the base perimeter. Lucca started walking, nearly tripping over a heavily scarred sword. Perhaps the boot beside it belonged to the owner.

Halfway down the corridor, Lucca paused. She could hear something overhead, a clicking sound, metal on metal. Her hand strayed to the handgun at her side. It was fading away, and as she inched forward, it sounded more and more distant. There was a louder clang, but then the noise stopped. Lucca did as well, this time drawing her weapon.

Another step forward. Another clang, louder, and then another. She waited for at least another minute, but there were no other sounds. As she stepped forward, however, there was a loud crash behind her. Lucca spun on her heel, bringing her gun to bear on whatever her target might be. One of the lamps had broken free of its cable and fallen. The hallway leading back was nearly pitch black now, the doorway at the end bright in contrast. A wave of relief passed over her, but her pulse quickened. She still didn't feel safe.

There was another crash behind her. Spinning around again, she saw only a flash of silver. The hall was flooded with sound as her handgun thundered with more power than its size suggested. The thing blew apart, and its sparking pieces skipped across the floor. It had fallen through the ceiling, probably an air vent. Lucca was now fully alert.

The double doors burst open, and her opponents flowed out. She saw them clearly in the light above that end of the corridor. They looked like large metal tarantulas, only they didn't move like tarantulas. They bounced forward, shoving passed each other, chittering with their chrome-plated mouthparts. Lucca had lost all interest in seeing the far room.


The ground exploded just ahead of the pack, shredding the leaders and bashing others against the walls. It barely slowed them, though, as the others bounded over their destroyed comrades. Lucca turned and ran, cursing herself for not thinking. This corridor was underground. A blast like that could have collapsed the tunnel on her.

They were waiting for her. A second group had gathered at the other end, blocking her escape. They stared at her with bright orange eyes, chittering excitedly. She leveled her gun at them and opened fire.

Though horribly outnumbered, she would manage.

She had, after all, seen worse.

-- 31 --

She let the cold water flow over her for a few more moments before she turned the knob, shutting off the shower. Except for the sound of water gurgling down the drain, it was silent. Malt stood still, letting the air chill her wet body. The noise of the drain stopped. It occurred to her that she should get out of the shower. Sighing, she pushed the shower curtain aside and stepped out.

Lucca's bathroom was nice. This was the one on the second floor, the closest to the room she had picked, and the one in which she and Hops had recently shot the toilet through the roof. Someone kept the bathrooms very clean, in sharp contrast to the rest of the house. A little polishing had done wonders for the replacement toilet. Malt stumbled around, searching for a towel. There was a small closet by the door. The towels were there, along with just about any other bathroom product she could need. Reaching to the back, she found a bottle of kiwi-scented body wash. What did kiwi smell like anyway? She wasn't interested enough to check. She closed the closet and started toweling off.

These first few weeks had been odd, yet fun. Recently, it had been lonely without Hops, but Crono was entertaining. She glanced at the full-length mirror on the wall across from the sink. Her reflection glanced back. Not much to look at, she had to admit. Of course, she was just twelve.

She wrapped the towel around herself and stepped over to the sink. There was a comb by the faucet. It slid easily through her dark hair. Watching her reflection in the sink mirror, she sighed again.

Her dad had ditched her, she was stuck in an unfamiliar place with some of the strangest people she'd ever met (though she didn't have much room to talk), and her skin was beginning to develop something akin to a tan. She was getting too much sun.

Despite all this, things were going very well.

Studio Dhampir
Revised: 2003

Part 3

Turambar's Fanfiction