Chrono Trigger: Until the End of Time Part 2
An original fan-fiction by Demon-Fighter Ash
Based on characters created by Square
Part 2: The Cogs of Fate
Insanity leads to chaos, then to solitude...
The fruitless effort of adding meaning to what is meaningless.
A lone crimson tear falls to the sea...
The echo of the remaining star cries out in the infinite vacuum
The least I can do is send my distant prayers
Over the wind of time, setting sail on dreams...
--The Poet of Arni Village, Chrono Cross
Chapter 1: Among the Ruins
January, 1010 AD
Lucca walked alone down the small hiking trail that led from Truce back to the bridge and her house, two bags of groceries balanced atop her shoulders as she stepped down a low grassy hill, glancing back over the crest toward the village. Wooden scaffolds rested against the sides of the buildings and a few villagers browsed among the newly-built houses and shops far below the crest of the hill between Truce and the bridge to her house. Leene Square still lay in ruins, the bell cracked and fallen, the stone courtyard still scorched black from the fire that had engulfed it five years ago, when Porre had burnt both the castle and the village to the ground.
When Guardia fell five years ago, she'd thought the village of Truce would die with it, the people scattered across the continent as nomads and refugees--but somehow life had gone on and she had helped rebuild the town. Some of the same people even lived in the small village that had sprung out of the ruins of old Truce; Fritz and Elaine still ran their shop and the mayor's house had just been rebuilt and converted into a school.
She looked back at the road with a smile and then suddenly stopped, her smile fading as two Porre soldiers, wearing navy-blue uniforms and blue helmets with glass visors that covered their eyes, emerged from a small grove of leafless tree onto the road, led by a dark-haired young officer wearing a small headset, headphones covering his ears and a small microphone dangling from the headset in front of his thin pale lips.
"Lucca Ashtear," the officer said in a thin clipped voice, as the other two raised their rifles and watched her intently, "I'm Commander Gereth of the Porre military police. We have orders for your arrest."
"Not this again," she rolled her eyes, "look, I've been through this before. I'm in a hurry, you're not going to take me in, so why don't we just call it a day? I've really got to get some of this food to an ice-box..."
"This is serious," the young officer interrupted, "the council has demanded your apprehension!"
"Oh, the council," she said sarcastically, "alright, fine. Just give me a moment."
Gereth nodded to his soldiers and they lowered their rifles as she stooped to the ground and sat the bags of groceries down, then stood back up, a small grin on her elfish face as she looked at them.
"You actually thought I was giving up, didn't you," she snickered to the officer, "oh, come on!"
"We're armed," Commander Gereth answered, "don't try anything stupid."
"You know," she said, flexing her fingers, "Porre should really brief its soldiers better. Sure, you have guns, really impressive. But then again," she paused for a second, "so do I."
She suddenly whipped a gleaming automatic weapon from her belt and slid back the bolt before any of the soldiers could react. She pointed it straight at their leader, a red dot of light appearing on his chest.
"Boys, meet the Zonker-3800," she said with a grin as she stared them down, "laser targeting, magnetized denadorite barrel, sunstone-charged battery and self-loading rounds. So tell me about your guns."
"They, uh," the young officer said, then paused for a moment, glancing sheepishly down at the plain rifle in his hands before raising his voice, "it doesn't matter what kind of guns we have, we're acting under the orders of the Porre council! You have to come with us!"
"You didn't say the magic word," she answered, gun still pointed at him, "not that it'd do much good."
Their leader nodded to one of the soldiers, and the man began to squeeze the trigger. He suddenly tumbled backward with a cry as a small burst of electric light exploded against his chest. Gereth looked back as Lucca whirled toward him, smoke wafting from the barrel of her gun as the soldier tumbled limply to the ground.
"It's also got a stun-feature that lowers the charge just enough to knock people out," Lucca said, "but for some reason the switch keeps flipping back and forth, no matter how much I work on it. If I keep firing, it could probably go back to kill-mode any second now."
"Subdue the suspect," the officer shouted, "use any means necessary!"
"Take five, you lousy mugs!"
Lucca bent her hand sideways, twisting the gun at an angle toward the other soldier, and this time Gereth caught a glimpse of a small orb of light fly out of the barrel of her gun as she pulled the trigger, hurtling through the air and smashing into the Porre soldier's chest. The man screamed as a burst of energy swept through his limbs and he collapsed onto the ground as the commander looked back up to find the gun pointed back at him.
"Nya ha ha," she cackled, "see what happens to fools who challenge the mighty Lucca!"
"This is Commander Gereth," the frightened officer whispered into his microphone as he pressed a small button on his right earpiece with one finger, "two officers are down, suspect is armed and dangerous! Proceed to phase two immediately!"
The trees around them rustled and shook, dried leaves fluttering down through the air, and suddenly a large group of soldiers leaped down from the treetops, all of them dressed in brown camouflage fatigues and holding rifles. They landed on their feet all around the bemused young woman, guns all aimed straight at her.
"You can't shoot all of us at once, no matter how advanced your gun is," Gereth said, his voice steadying at the sight of the platoon surrounding her, their guns raised toward her, "so just surrender."
"I guess so," she sighed, lowering her gun, then suddenly thrust her right hand into the sky.
Blasts of scorching air swept across the fields from every direction and the soldiers stared around in shock, rifles dropping to the ground as a crimson glow filled the sky. Bubbles of liquid fire floated overhead, each sphere swelling into a dim scorching sun hovering over the grove and searing the treetops. Gereth looked around at the shimmering landscape, beads of sweat rolling down his face--and the bobbing spheres of fire suddenly exploded, knocking the soldiers onto their backs. The commander blinked through a cloud of stinging tears, his lungs burning from the blistering air, until the incandescent red glow began to fade into cold winter sunlight.
Most of the soldiers had fallen unconscious, but Gereth and several others had weathered the firestorm and remained on their feet, although Gereth's skin burned against the sunlight and his lungs still ached with each breath. He groaned as he tried to take a deep breath, then managed to curl his charred lips into a defiant smile.
"I've heard stories about a secret explosive weapon," he panted, "but we're still standing."
"That was just a warning blast," Lucca said, arm still raised, "there's a lot more where that came from!"
"Stand down or we'll open fire," Gereth said, and then his voice slowly faded as twilight fell across the road and engulfed the small grove. He looked up and gave a sudden surprised gasp as the yellow afternoon sun seemed to shrivel and blacken, the blue sky fading into darkness. An ocean of thick white mist rolled across the twilight landscape and he twisted around as he heard a deep booming voice echoing from the unnatural darkness.
"You guys are in trou-uuble," he heard Lucca taunting from behind the thick wall of mist.
The mist suddenly seemed to burn against Gereth's skin and he heard the rest of his men screaming in pain as his own skin seemed to burn with some kind of cold heat, the mist scorching and freezing his already-burnt flesh as he stared around frantically through the purple fog-drenched twilight. Shadows twisted and tumbled around him as some of the soldiers collapsed, their lungs aching from the dark noxious mists...and then he noticed another shape gliding through the mists, red eyes glaring out of the gloomy twilight.
A wooden pole slammed against the side of his face and he staggered backward, spitting out the shattered pieces of his back teeth as he shook his head, trying to regain his bearings. A shadowy figure swept forward, a pole gripped tightly in its hands, and he grunted as he felt the staff swinging across his gut, his body doubling over the wooden staff. The rod slipped out from beneath him and then swung down across his back, knocking him onto his stomach as the figure disappeared again, taking down each one of the coughing, choking soldiers.
The mist suddenly evaporated, the dusky landscape suddenly drenched in bright sunlight, and Lucca bent down to pick up her groceries, quickly glancing at the fallen soldiers, then back up to the brooding figure standing among them, his long blue hair braided, dressed in a gleaming white tuxedo with gold trimmings and gripping a wooden quarterstaff in both hands as he narrowed his red eyes at her.
"You shouldn't toy with them Lucca," he said in a low voice, "Porre might have ended this with a single gunshot."
"Yeah," Lucca nodded as Janus glided forward and took one of the grocery bags from her, "but if I used my full power at once, it might have killed them. By the way, they're not..."
"No," he shook his head as they continued through the small clump of trees toward the bridge, "they're just unconscious. When they awake, I imagine they'll return to Porre and tell their generals you used a secret explosive weapon. After all," he added with a small grin, "they know Porre won't tolerate any rumors about magic."
"Speaking of magic," she suddenly said, "wasn't dark-mist magic a little bit of overkill?"
"It wouldn't be necessary," he answered with a sideways glance at her as they neared the small wooden bridge that led to Lucca's house and the island her family had owned for three generations, "if you didn't insist on this outfit. How much fear could I inspire if they saw me in a tuxedo?"
"Hey, it's stylish," Lucca protested, "besides, Porre knows the stories about Magus. If they saw someone wearing his clothes, it'd make them suspicious, not to mention what the older children might think. This way nobody'll recognize you."
"I barely even recognize myself," he replied with an embarrassed glance at the suit, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, then quickly shook his head and changed the topic, "but we should hurry."
"Why," Lucca suddenly asked.
"When I saw your magic on the horizon," he answered slowly, "I had to leave the kids with Melchior."
* * *
Lucca jogged out the back door and into the backyard of her old Victorian house to find Melchior with the small group of kids, looking over their shoulders as they sat at the picnic tables, scribbling with crayons. Tall pine trees lined the yard, casting deep green shadows across the wooden tables while the distant roar of the ocean filled the otherwise-silent air. She sighed with relief and glanced back as Janus came up behind her.
"Wow," Lucca said softly as Melchior smiled and waved her over, "they're actually behaving."
"Lucca," Kid cried out eagerly as she grabbed her sheet of paper and ran across the yard toward the two of them, holding a brownie in her other hand, "look, I made a drawing! You too Janus, look!"
Janus smiled and stroked his five year-old sister's shoulder-length blonde hair as she thrust her drawing over her head for him to see, then took the paper in one hand, "so you've listened to Melchior like I told you?"
"Yeah, he's been telling us stories," she answered breathlessly, gripping a half-eaten brownie in one hand as she looked up at them, "so then we drew about the story."
"Good," he said, bending his knees so the little girl could look at the drawing too, "this is really good--you drew Frog's cloak right and you even got the words on the side of the Masamune...right..."
He slowly stopped talking as he realized what he was looking at, then glanced to Lucca, who stood on Kid's left side looking at the picture too. She nodded to Janus, then looked down to Kid.
"Kid, exactly what stories did Melchior tell you?"
"He told us about how you and Janus and the king and queen and Froggy and Robo and Leah flew around on the wings of time and fought a monster called Lava with a mastermune and a timed egg!"
"I think you mean Ayla," Janus snickered quietly, "and Lavos, and the Masa..."
Lucca took a single deep breath and slowly sighed, glancing to Janus and shaking her head silently for him to stop. He nodded softly and looked back to Kid's eager face, handing the picture back to her.
"Do you know what the wings of time are," Janus asked, "or the time-egg?"
"Well, the wings let you fly like a clock," she answered slowly, trying to figure it out, "and a timed egg, um, comes from timed chickens. It's sorta like an Easter egg."
"Something like that," Lucca answered, a smile flickering across her stern face, "we'll hang your drawings up in the living room in a little bit, okay? Until then, why don't you show it to the rest of the kids? We'll be over there in just a moment, after we talk with Melchior."
The little girl cheered and ran off to tell the five other children still drawing at the table as Melchior walked on his cane toward Lucca and Janus, smiling innocently as they glared at him.
"Melchior," Lucca said, exasperated, "we didn't want to tell them about that, least of all Kid! She's way too young to understand all of it, we want her to be her own person!"
"Don't worry," Melchior reassured her, "I just told them a fairy-tale, that's all."
"A fairy-tale starring all of us," Janus replied, "you at least didn't tell Kid about...about Zeal, did you?"
"No," he smiled reassuringly, "Lucca's her big sister, Janus is her friend, and she's just Kid. But you'll have to tell her about all of that someday--it's part of who she was, who she is now."
"I know," Lucca nodded with a sigh, "but right now she's so independent, so free-spirited. She's a unique individual and I don't want her to grow up thinking she's just a copy of someone else's life."
"Besides," Janus answered, studying Kid closely as she showed off her drawing to the rest of the children, "she may remember it on her own. Melchior, did you tell her about your insignia on the Masamune?"
"No," he answered, puzzled, "I didn't even tell her I made it."
"She knew," Janus said in a low whisper, "she drew your name on it, just as it appears on the blade."
"Could she have seen it," Melchior asked, tilting his head with confusion.
"No," Janus shook his head, "it's been locked in my closet for the past five years, since she was an infant. She's never even known about it, much less seen it."
Melchior adjusted his darkened glasses and brushed his moustache thoughtfully as the three of them sat down at one of the wooden picnic tables, Janus sitting beside Lucca as Melchior sat on the opposite side of the table, Lucca watching the children out of the corner of her eyes as they talked.
"Then it might really work," Melchior said softly, "how close are we?"
"Maybe a month or two," Lucca shrugged, "I've still got to calibrate the output frequency to match her own brain-waves and we have to make absolutely sure it's safe, but the theory's sound."
"But she won't remember any of it," Melchior asked.
"Not if it works," she answered, "the machine should shift her brain-activity from the frontal lobe of her cerebrum to her long-term memory. She won't be conscious, but she'll have access to all her memories, and she'll be able to describe them to us. If the original timeline's buried in her memories, we'll find out what happened to her."
"And perhaps what happened to this world," Melchior said, "whatever's changed history, whatever created this new world, I have a feeling that she's a part of it."
"Brave new world," Lucca whispered, a hint of bitterness in her voice, "that Crono and Marle never got to see. I just hope we've done the right thing, helping Truce rebuild instead of going after Porre..."
"You've said it yourself," Janus answered softly, "Crono and Marle would've wanted us to help Truce and its people, and to try to help the people of Porre. Revenge wasn't their way."
"Yeah," she smiled weakly at him.
"Speaking of Porre," Melchior said reluctantly, "I've heard news of them. There's a new figure in the Porre council, a demi-human from El Nido named Lynx. I've heard he looks like a panther, but he's very intelligent, very manipulative. He's promised them the legendary treasure of El Nido--a treasure that's supposed to grant wishes."
"It's a lie," Janus shook his head, "every power has its limit. Nothing could grant every wish."
"I agree," Melchior answered, "I don't think it grants wishes either, especially after I heard its name. I think Lynx is just using that legend to gain influence over the council, though I don't know why."
"What's this treasure called," Lucca asked curiously as she cleaned her glasses with her shirt.
"The frozen flame."
The three of them sat stunned for a moment as birds and crickets chirped in the pine trees overhead and the kids played tag across the yard. Lucca finally answered, giving voice to all their silent thoughts.
"Lavos," she said slowly, repeating the words that she'd heard more than 65 million years ago, moments after Lavos's fiery descent from the heavens had left the fortress and capital of the ancient reptites' empire in ruins, "Ayla's word. 'La' means fire and 'vos' means big."
"Big fire," Janus nodded, "and frozen flame. That can't be a coincidence, not if it's in El Nido."
"Maybe we'll learn more from her," Lucca watched Kid sprint across the yard to tag Sarah, then turn around to run as the older girl gave chase, "by the way, I couldn't help but notice that Kid had a brownie."
"That's right," Melchior smiled, "I gave each of them a brownie while they listened to our story."
"It was Kid's idea," Janus sighed, "wasn't it?"
"Yeah," the old man said, tilting his head slightly, "why?"
"I don't suppose she mentioned," Lucca asked suspiciously, "that she's not allowed to eat any sweets until she starts eating her vegetables at dinner, did she?"
"It must have slipped her mind," Melchior winked.
"I've also heard some interesting stories," Janus said slowly, looking up at Melchior, "about a small group of teenagers who rob the Porre outposts and bring the money back to help rebuild Truce."
"That's right," Melchior nodded, "they call themselves the Radical Dreamers, I think."
"I've heard they have a mentor," Janus said, looking intently at the guru, "an old man in bright orange and blue robes, wearing dark glasses and a pointed hat, who leads them and helps plan their raids."
"Melchior," Lucca gasped in surprise, "YOU'RE the guy who founded the Radical Dreamers?!"
"Why, I would never get involved with such scoundrels," Melchior protested, then laughed, "oh, who am I kidding? Yes, I'm the one who started it. Catchy name, isn't it?"
"That's dangerous," she shook her head, "those kids could get hurt, and if Porre found out about you..."
"Those kids were actually planning to attack Porre," Melchior answered seriously, "and they came to me for the weapons. I talked them out of the attack--that would have been suicide--but they were determined to make some difference, to do something. So we came up with the Radical Dreamers movement."
"The Guru of Life leading a band of thieves," Janus said wonderingly, "I'd never have thought it."
"You two have taken in these five children," he replied, "you've guided the rebuilding of Truce...this is my way of helping. Besides, it's not as shocking as you two make it seem," he grew somber, "if there's anything that I've learned as one of the Gurus of Zeal, it's that the worst thing you can do in the face of tyranny is nothing."
* * *
Janus stood atop the hill, leaning with one arm pressed against the oak tree as he watched the dim flickering lights of Truce across the river, then he turned around to see Lucca emerging from the darkness, dressed in a pair of brown slacks and a loose green shirt, her blue eyes shining beneath her clear glasses. He smiled a little at the sight of her and turned back to watch the feeble red glow of sunset fading into the deepening twilight, as they often did together on warmer nights such as this one, after everyone else had fallen asleep.
"The girls are asleep," he asked, almost rhetorically.
"Yeah," she answered as she leaned against the front of the tree beside him, "Kid didn't want to go to sleep, so I told her about the life-cycle of white-dwarf stars, with diagrams and everything. She didn't last ten minutes."
"I thought," Janus snickered, "we weren't supposed to use sleep-spells on her."
"Well I think it's fascinating," she giggled, "if it makes her fall asleep, her loss. How about the boys?"
"They're bathed and in bed," Janus nodded, "Jacky wants to know more about Magus, the wizard he read about in school. I told him we'd talk about that tomorrow."
Lucca laughed quietly to herself and looked at Janus.
"Do you think they'd even believe us," she shook her head, "if we told them the truth?"
"I wouldn't," Janus snickered and met her blue eyes with his own ruby gaze.
"It's all so different from what I imagined," Lucca sighed, looking back out at the village, "and yet, we made it through, and Truce made it. Despite everything that's happened, we're still here."
"The strong always survive," Janus nodded, "and Guardia will survive too."
"Do you think it's really strong enough?"
"Of course," he smiled, looking over the village and then back at her, "it survived me."
"Hmm," she smiled, a little tired, and leaned against his shoulder. He slipped his right arm down her back and held her as she closed her eyes; she'd sometimes fall asleep like this when they talked on the couch at night and he'd spend almost an hour carefully slipping loose from her, making sure he didn't wake her up.
"Should we go back," he asked softly as she leaned against him.
"It's okay," she answered, her eyes closed as she snuggled against him, not wanting to go yet, "Melchior's staying in the guest room tonight, since his house is half a day's ride back. We don't have to go back yet."
Janus nodded and gently lowered himself onto the ground, letting her lean against his shoulder as they sat against the base of the tree, looking across the moonlit fields at the starswept sky, thin wispy clouds rolling across the white glow of the moon, the light of the pale orb shimmering and melting through the clouds.
"It never changes," Lucca murmured softly, "the sky, the moon, the sea. We could be children again and it would look just like this. We'd swing on the swing we used to have tied to the tree-boughs when I was a kid, and then we'd walk down to the village and see the castle, and it'd all look the same, the tree, the hill..."
Janus brushed her short brown hair back over her ear and smiled softly as he looked at her face, her eyes closed as she imagined the kingdom restored, waiting for them to descend into it. He knew better--this sky was not the sky of her childhood: the second moon, the red moon, was simply on the other side of the world right now.
The night sky wasn't familiar to him at all: the stars had all changed, none of the constellations he'd known as a child existed anymore. But she was still right; some things hadn't changed. The ocean still smelled like salt, the waves still crashed against the shore. Stars still twinkled in the night sky. Truce, even after the war, still looked like the village he'd known four centuries ago. Lucca, through it all, had never stopped being Lucca.
He sighed through his nose, not daring to make a sound, as he held his arm around her. He remembered the first time he'd seen her with Crono and Frog at his castle, decades ago, when he'd considered her an enemy. She'd won his respect during the countless battles that followed, but he'd still resented her appearance in the Epoch a few weeks after he'd returned to his era. The search for his sister had been his alone, she'd no right to interfere, and he'd spent months resenting her, annoyed that he couldn't intimidate her the way he had so many others.
She'd forced him to treat her like an equal, his stubbornness matched only by her own tenacity, and, in time, he'd come to see her as one. His search for the truth about his reborn sister had become her search also, and, without his even realizing it, the thrill of her discoveries, her compassion for the children and her grief for her friends and the kingdom had slowly become his as well. He had never dared to let himself care for anyone before--he knew such feelings could destroy him, as they nearly had when he was a child.
Yet he'd found his love for his sister gradually spreading to the rest of the orphans, and to the first person he had ever allowed himself to truly consider a friend--especially now that they were the last of the small group that had fought and destroyed Lavos, the only two who shared the memories of that battle and of the world that once was, the world that should have been. Over the past year he had gradually become aware of another feeling that had developed over the years of living with Lucca and the children, of helping her take care of them and fighting alongside her against the Porre troops; a trembling nervousness around her that he'd never known before, that he'd never felt around anyone. It'd taken months for him to realize what it meant, and countless more after that to admit that such a thing was even possible for someone like him.
"Lucca," he whispered softly, forcing himself to finally tell her, as he'd sworn weeks ago.
"Yeah," she asked, opening her blue eyes a little to look up into his face and he nearly lost his nerve.
"We've known each other," he paused, "a long time, haven't we?"
"Thirteen thousand years," she laughed quietly, "give or take a millenium or two."
"Yes," he replied, then stopped, suddenly unsure of himself, "are we...are we friends, Lucca?"
"Of course we are," she said with a warm smile, looking up into his eyes, "we've been friends ever since you helped us rescue Crono, though you probably didn't think so back then."
"A lot has changed since then," he answered, "we're both different people now."
"No," she looked up from his shoulder and shook her head, "we're the same. We've just grown."
"We have," he nodded, his chest tightening as he closed his eyes and focused on his words, "my feelings have...grown too, since then."
"What do you mean," she lifted up a little and looked into his face.
"I mean that I," Janus paused, instincts born from a lifetime of suspicion screaming for him to stop.
"I mean," he started again, taking a deep breath before finishing, "that I care about you...more than a friend would."
Lucca thought carefully about that last sentence, lost for a moment by its awkward structure. Janus looked into her distracted eyes, then suddenly stiffened, his blood freezing in a way he hadn't felt in years.
"Weakness," he muttered to himself, his heart wrenching back into his chest as he stared out at the moonlit village below them, "a stupid weak indulgence. I was an idiot to think such things."
"Then we're both idiots," Lucca answered, pressing her palm against his cheek and tilting his hardened face to look at her delighted smile, "Janus, I've felt the same thing! I have for awhile now."
"You have," he asked, his voice wavering between suspicion and joyous disbelief.
"Of course I have," she gently teased him, "hey, I don't cuddle under the stars with just any guy!"
Janus leaned against the tree and simply looked at her as she watched his face. He hadn't thought past this moment and he hadn't dared consider that she'd felt the same way, no matter how obvious it seemed when he looked back at the past few months. In a way, he'd almost wanted her to mock his feelings, to give him a reason to harden his heart again, to fall back into the familiar role of Magus that he'd slowly given up over the past five years with Lucca, Kid and the children--instead, he felt more open than ever before, his heart bare to her.
"That's wonderful," he smiled, then paused in confusion, "but...what do we do now?"
"I'm only giving you one hint," Lucca said, and she took off her round glasses, gently setting them atop one of the tree-roots and looking deep into his eyes as she slipped her fingers into his half-open left hand.
Janus tilted his head as he leaned forward, watching her soft blue eyes close before he closed his own eyes, suddenly realizing that he'd been imagining this moment for months, without even admitting it. His nose brushed beside hers and a second later he felt her warm lips touch his mouth, sliding slowly over his lips. He tilted her chin up toward his face, caressing her soft lips with his own, losing himself in the growing passion of their kiss.
He suddenly looked up, tilting his head the other way as he gazed into her half-open eyes, both their eyes speaking a longing that had silently grown over the past five years, that'd grown too powerful for words to ever speak. He closed his eyes and sank back into their kiss, his hand sliding up her back to brush her hair through his fingers. She slipped her left arm around his neck, squeezing his palm tight in her right hand as she pulled him closer to her. The rest of the world seemed to slowly dissolve around them, time itself melting away to leave the two of them alone together, sharing a single endless moment in each other's arms.
Chapter 2: The Goddess of Fate
February, 1010 AD
Lucca descended the wooden stairs into her basement laboratory and glanced around the long narrow room as she opened the door. Shelves lined the sunlit room, holding half-finished devices and machines, and three long wooden tables sat in the middle of the room, each one crowded with wires and generators to power the experiments she still performed down here. The telepod set that she'd invented for the millennial fair still sat in the far corner of the room, half-dismantled as she'd studied each one, trying to figure out how to improve the technology.
She suddenly noticed Kid cheerfully skipping between the tables, the blue pendant bouncing against her dress as she dodged the small green robot dancing and leaping after her.
"Kid," Lucca said, smiling in spite of herself, "you know you're not supposed to be down here!"
"I know," she pouted and stopped to face Lucca, "but it's boring outside and I wanted to play with Fido, and since he stays down here..."
Fido, the little green mechanical robot that Lucca had made years ago as a reminder of Robo, skidded to a halt and twirled around on one spindly leg, then automatically bowed at the sight of Lucca.
"Aren't Janus and Gato playing with you outside?"
"Yeah," the little girl answered forlornly, "he's showing us how to fight Gato with that stick, but he won't let me try to beat Gato. He says its too dangerous, but he lets Leda and she's younger than me!"
Lucca chuckled a little at the reference to Janus's quarterstaff--the orphans had never seen him fighting with his scythe since, at Lucca's insistence, he'd put it away in favor of the non-lethal staff years ago.
"I know it doesn't seem fair," she answered gently, kneeling down to look at Kid's face and wide blue eyes, "but I know for a fact he lets you train with him, and he doesn't let any of the other children do that."
"I guess," Kid scuffed her feet against the floor and looked down, "but he always lets me win, it's boring! Maybe he just doesn't like me as much as the rest of them..."
"No," Lucca answered, her heart aching at Kid's words, "it's just the opposite. He worries about you a lot, Kid, that's why he doesn't want you to play with Gato yet...he's afraid you'll get hurt."
"But even Leda can do it!"
"I know," she sighed and smiled, "tell you what--if you'll help me down here, I'll let you play with Gato, and we'll talk to Janus to see if we can get him to let you play with the older kids. Okay?"
"Okay," Kid answered happily, always thrilled to help her big sister with grown-up work, "hey Fido, we're going to help Lucca do experiments, come on!"
The little green robot swiveled toward Kid and bobbed happily after her as she skipped back around the laboratory, and Lucca smiled as she turned toward her latest project. She lifted the metal gun in one hand, the whole gun made from curved gleaming steel, the barrel tapering into small metal rings and a faint blue glow pulsing within the thin transluscent surface of the futuristic weapon.
"What does that do," Kid asked, peering over the top of the table with both hands.
"It's an ice gun," Lucca answered, "if there's ever a fire, you can point this at it, pull the trigger, and it'll put out the fire with an ice-beam. But it's very dangerous--you'll have to wait until you're older to play with it."
"Aww," she frowned, "I'm too young for everything!"
"You're not too young for Fido," Lucca answered, "and you'd better go get him."
"Fido," Kid cried out in mock-exasperation as she saw the robot trying to walk into a corner, hitting the wall, falling down, shaking its head and then trying to walk into the wall again, "come back over here!"
Kid ran across the room to pull Fido back and Lucca smiled at the sight of the cheerful little girl, so different from the gentle young woman she'd known in Zeal--and yet so many little things reminded her of Schala, such as the dimples when she smiled, her shining blue eyes, her apple-red cheeks. She often wondered how Janus felt, watching his sister growing up just as she had once watched him grow up.
The ice-gun dropped from her hands and Lucca looked up in confusion, suddenly finding herself in her bedroom, standing in front the space-capsule she'd built last month, her notes spawled across the floor. Lucca blinked, then suddenly appeared back at the basement table, the half-finished ice-gun still lying on the shelf in front of her...then suddenly disappeared again, now finding herself standing behind Kid in the back of the basement lab. She glanced around, then looked down at Kid as the young girl playfully tapped the buttons on one of her inventions.
"Kid," she said quickly, before she vanished again, "stop pushing that button!"
"What's wrong," the little girl asked, glancing curiously up from the machine at Lucca.
Lucca looked down at the device that Kid had been playing with, a spade-shaped metal box about the size of a violin case, with a red crystal orb embedded in the middle, a round metal crank on top and small buttons below the now-glowing orb, then looked back up in surprise at Kid.
"How did you get this to work," she asked.
"I dunno," Kid answered with a shrug, "I just took all the wires in the back and put the colors together. Red looked good with blue, and green went with yellow, and then black and white."
"That means," Lucca muttered to herself as she lifted the box and studied the back intently, "that the power source has been rerouted directly to the infrared laser, which now loops to the conversion orb instead of the memory cartridge like it used to. That could work...that could actually work!"
"Did I fix it," Kid asked, "what does it do?"
"It's a teleporter," Lucca answered, "remember how I told you the telepods can turn people into energy and take them to different places in the blink of an eye? Well, this kinda does the same thing, except that you don't have to stand on a telepod. You just program who you want to bring to you, and then you push a button and the device sends out a beam that finds them, turns them into energy and drops them right in front of the machine."
"So I can bring anyone I want right here," Kid asked excitedly.
"You have to program it first," Lucca smiled, "and right now I'm the only one the machine knows."
"But you can program it to know more people, right?"
"Yes," Lucca nodded, "and you'll be able to program it too. You might turn out to be a better inventor than me, Kid! After all, you're the one who figured out how to make the teleporter work."
"Come on," Kid scoffed, "nobody's better than the Great Lucca!"
"Not yet," Lucca winked, "but you could be anything you want...even the Great Kid!"
A computer terminal perched on the far side of the shelf, in the left corner of the lab, near the telepods, began beeping and Lucca glanced over at it curiously, then back to Kid's innocent, baffled expression.
"Did you fix anything else?"
"No, just the wires on that box."
Lucca walked over to the terminal and typed the password into the keyboard, the blank screen suddenly alit with rolling numbers and letters as she carefully studied the display.
"It's a transmission," she said softly, "the dish-antenna on the roof's picking up a signal..."
"What does that do," Kid asked curiously, looking up at the screen.
"It picks up radio waves from the air," Lucca answered, staring at the screen, "I built it to search for life on other planets, but since then we've used it mostly to listen to Porre...but this isn't Porre..."
"Who is it?"
Lucca suddenly gave a sharp gasp and turned toward Kid, her eyes wide with surprise.
"Kid, I want you to find Janus right now. It's important."
"I'm here," Janus called out from the basement door, "Kid, we've been looking for you. You shouldn't sneak away like that, it could be dangerous."
"Janus," Lucca said, not turning around, "come look at this screen."
He gave her a puzzled glance and walked around the wire-strewn benches and tables, then looked at the black monitor over Lucca's shoulder, trying to read the string of numbers rolling up the screen.
"They're numbers," he said tersely after a few moments.
"No, no," Lucca shook her head, "they're a computer code transmitted over an amplitude-modulated radio broadcast from some unknown source. It's a holographic program, but I think I can modify the telepods to receive a holographic transmission and play it. The program's vast, it'll take several hours just to receive the file and process it on the computers here. But that's not the important thing, the important thing's the language..."
"They're numbers," he said again, still shaking his head.
"Janus, it's Robo's code!"
"What," he asked, tilting his head and glancing between Lucca, Kid and the screen.
"The code, the identification markers...I don't know how, but the transmission's coming from Robo!"
* * *
Lucca tightened the connections to the old telepod and peered down into the inner circuitry beneath the base of the machine, the innards of the teleporting platform gutted and replaced by holographic lasers, lenses and a computer system infinitely more primitive than the transmission it had to process. Janus stood a few feet away from her and shook his head in bewilderment at the blinking lights and sprawling wires of the lab, still lost by the workings of modern technology. She glanced over at the computer screen and keyboard lying on the floor beside the converted telepod, plastic wires connecting it to both the dish-antenna on the roof and the telepod itself, staring intently as the screen counted the seconds until the transmission ended, until the message started...
"What do you think will happen," Janus asked, staring at the round crystal platform and the circle of loose wires stretching out from its metal base to the computers and wall-outlets around them..
"I don't really know," she shrugged, "but it's definitely a holographic transmission so..."
"Transmission complete," the screen flashed in bright green, "file-conversion in progress..."
Lucca turned quickly toward a keyboard propped against the base of the telepod and began typing, fingers racing over the keys as she activated the holographic projectors and linked them to the receiving dish. She finished the program and stepped back as the monitor began to flash red again.
"File conversion in 0:03...0:02...0:01...program R-66Y has been initiated."
The tiny crystal diodes in the base of the telepod began to flash and twinkle as five thin beams of light shot up through the booth in a ring, the lasers spinning faster and faster until the whole booth glowed with a thin wall of light. The shell of white light around the telepod began to fade and a ghostly translucent figure appeared atop the glowing platform. The short cylindrical figure seemed to look at the lab with green crystal eyes, its plate-like head swiveling left and right, leather flaps hanging across the torso of its otherwise-golden metallic body.
"Robo," Lucca cried out joyfully.
"Greetings Lucca," the transparent image of her robotic friend chirped, "it's been far too long."
"A ghost in the machine," Janus asked, puzzled, as he stood beside the device and waved his hand through the image, Robo's shape flickering a little as his fingers passed between the lasers.
"Magus," Robo answered, swiveling to look at him, "an unexpected pleasure. No, this shape is just a kind of message I'm sending. I'm quite alive, although I'm actually somewhere else right now."
"I understand," he nodded slowly, "but I go by Janus now."
"How long has it been for you," Lucca asked, "it's been ten years on this side."
"I'm actually in this era as well," Robo answered as he turned back toward her, "but for me, it has been more than 8,000 years since we last saw each other."
"How," Lucca gasped, "that would mean you came from 10,300 AD!"
"No," Robo answered with a digitized chuckle, "I haven't gone quite that far into the future. The sequence of events that took me through 8,000 years is more complex than that."
"What brought you back here," Janus asked.
"That's a long story," Robo said, "and there isn't time for me to explain it all--this transmission could be detected and interrupted at any moment. Are Crono and Marle here as well?"
"They're gone, Robo," Lucca answered sadly, "they died during the war with Porre. Porre's not like it used to be, they destroyed Guardia. They're taking over the world, piece by piece..."
"I am sorry," Robo beeped forlornly, "I knew that history had already been affected but I never imagined it would lead to anything this extensive, or this terrible..."
"So history really has been changed," Janus said tensely, "what changed it?"
"An enemy that we created ourselves during our adventures ten years ago," Robo answered, "one that is now fighting a temporal war for control of the future. Crono and Marle were casualties of that war, and the war with Porre was just one battle in the larger conflict."
"What kind of enemy," Lucca asked quietly, "is it in Porre?"
"No," Robo's image said, "but it is using Porre, changing their history to make them into its own army."
"But how did we make it," Lucca shook her head, "all we did was save the future from Lavos!"
"Yes," Robo answered, "but that event had repercussions stretching through centuries of history. There is little time to explain it all and there is something else I need to tell you before my transmission is caught."
"You're being watched somehow," Janus answered, beginning to understand, "you're a prisoner..."
"Yes," Robo answered with a short string of chirping beeps, "which is why I don't have much time."
"Then we'll rescue you," Lucca said quickly, her expression drawn tight, "just tell us where you are!"
"I can't do that, Lucca."
"Then just tell us how we can find you," Janus answered, "we'll take care of the rest."
"You don't understand," Robo beeped sternly, "you mustn't attempt to rescue me, or the same energy that brought me here would be unleashed again and history itself might come to an end. Right now I am the only thing that stands between the power of the frozen flame and the enemy. If she unlocked it, she might claim this timeline as her own empire, or she might inadvertently annihilate it."
"The frozen flame," Lucca whispered to herself, stunned, "when you say she, who do you mean?"
"I mean our enemy," Robo answered, "the goddess of fate."
"Porre worships the goddess of fate," Janus replied softly, "every battle is fought in her name."
"Then we'll defeat her," Lucca answered, nearly shouting, "we beat Lavos and we can beat some goddess!"
"I know you want to help me Lucca," Robo beeped softly, "but this isn't the way. It's possible that you two could defeat the goddess. But her destruction would cause the frozen flame to fall into the hands of an enemy even more powerful and destructive than her, one that would use it to annihilate the human race."
"Then we'll beat THAT enemy," Lucca cried out, "we have to save you, Robo!"
"You might not be able to defeat that one," Robo said, "just as we fought with the power of the planet itself when we defeated Lavos, so that new enemy would fight with the power of the planet against us. Even if we were to destroy it, the flame itself would then be released and the devourer of time might be summoned."
"I don't understand any of this," Lucca despaired, "there has to be some way to pull you out this web!"
"The war has created a delicate balance across the span of time," he answered, "disturbing a single part of that balance could destroy it, and the loss of that balance could lead to the death of our world."
"Our world is already dying," Janus said bitterly, "it might be a slow death, but every year Porre conquers another country and establishes a new set of colonies. Their goddess is winning."
"For now, this is the only way," Robo beeped softly, "but listen to me. I've contacted you to warn you of two powerful enemies that are coming for you, that will try to convince you to release me, to separate me from the frozen flame. Don't let them fool you--both of them want to use it to destroy our past."
"Who are they," Lucca asked.
"I believe one of them may already be known to you. He has assumed the form of a feline demi-human and may have recently gained political power in the councils of Porre."
"Lynx," Lucca answered with a firm nod, "yeah, we know about him."
"He's the embodiment of the goddess," Robo chirped, "and he will use any means to gain the power of the frozen flame. But he is neither the most dangerous nor the most powerful of the two."
"Tell us about the other one," Janus asked grimly.
"Thousands of years ago the goddess fought a war against a powerful entity called the Dragon. The entity was split into six elemental forms and imprisoned, but the seventh and most powerful of them has been unleashed. Lynx has entered into an alliance with this seventh dragon...the Dragon of the Dark Moon."
"What does it want," Lucca asked.
"The same thing as Lynx, to unlock and obtain the frozen flame. Their ultimate designs for the future are different, which is why the war was fought. They have forged a temporary alliance for the purpose of regaining the frozen flame, but that alliance will end once they've succeeded."
"But what do they want with us," Lucca asked, "we don't have the flame."
"The goddess has it," Robo answered, "but I have control of it and have sealed its power. With the flame sealed, the goddess's awareness is confined to this time period. You are the only one in this era who knows about my technology, who would know how to separate me from the flame."
"And so they'd need me to disconnect you," Lucca answered glumly, "so they can go back to fighting their temporal war and taking over the future."
"Yes," Robo beeped in agreement, "they will come for you, Lucca, and you must be ready for them. Lynx is a dangerous and powerful opponent, the dragon even more so."
"We'll be ready," Lucca said, "and once we've finished them off we'll rescue you, Robo..."
The hologram suddenly began to twist and shudder, Robo's image breaking apart into millions of pixels and then reforming back into his shape. His upper mantle lifted up from his body in alarm, then sank as he spoke.
"A diagnostic scan has been initiated," he chirped quickly, "I must disconnect to prevent this transmission from being discovered. Be careful, both of you..."
"Robo," Lucca shouted, "wait!"
The ghostly image dissolved into pixels again and the lasers suddenly faded, the white glow of the telepod dying away to leave Lucca and Janus alone in the cluttered basement laboratory. Lucca suddenly ran to the monitor and began typing frantically on her keyboard, quickly scanning through pages of digital code.
"What are you doing," Janus asked cautiously.
"I'm bringing him back online," she said quickly, barely listening to him as she continued to reprogram the dish antenna outside, trying to bring her friend back.
"Lucca," Janus knelt behind her as she pounded at the keyboard in frustration, touching her arms gently as she kept typing, staring at the monitor, "that wouldn't help."
"How stupid could I be," she suddenly threw the keyboard against the wall, the thin plastic shell shattering and keys flying across the room as the broken keyboard tumbled to the ground, "I should have made a stronger transmitter, installed a third backup hard-drive, accounted for holographic transmissions..."
"Lucca," he said quietly, "Robo told us that he only had a few moments. He doesn't know fear, he'd only worry abou being discovered if it was truly dangerous--and trying to reconnect could make things worse. He's still alive out there, he simply had to cut his message short. He's still okay."
"He is NOT okay," she shouted as she turned around and banged the side of her fist against his chest, then suddenly sank into tears as he caught her and lifted her up into his arms, "the goddess is taking everything from us! I used to take ferry rides to Porre as a kid and when we came back, it was a shipyard! She took Porre, she took Guardia, she took Crono and Marle...and now she's somehow got Robo trapped over there and we're supposed to sit here and do nothing about it while she ruins the whole world!"
"We are not doing nothing," he said sharply, his arm around her waist as he tilted her chin up to look into his red irises and dark pupils, "you've cared for six children who might be homeless without you, you helped rebuild the village, you've fought off Porre troops every time they've tried to raid the village, and done so without killing a single soldier. Without you Porre would have long since razed this land and set up their own colonies."
"But it's not enough," she shook her head, her blue eyes glittering with tears as she leaned her head against his shoulder, "the world's falling apart and all I've done is hold onto the little patch around us. You said it yourself--the world is dying."
"You've done what you needed to," he answered slowly, "when the time comes we'll take care of Lynx and this Dragon of the Dark Moon, and then we'll find and rescue Robo. We'll take this world back from them."
"Alright," she managed a small smile through her tears as she hugged him again and looked up into his face, "but we don't have to worry about finding Robo. The computer traced the source of the transmission."
"Where did it come from?"
"Where else," Lucca sighed and closed her eyes, hugging him tighter and leaning against him, "the same place everything else started...El Nido."
* * *
Melchior leaned over the wooden table in his living room, studying the convoy schedules as a small group of teens sat with him. Kyra, an athletic young woman with short blonde hair, glanced over his shoulder as she walked back toward the table from the crackling fireplace and Seth, a lanky older teenager with shaggy brown hair, looked out the window toward the twin moons that filled the night sky before turning around toward the group again.
"What do you think," she asked Melchior as she sat down and looked over the schedule.
"It's dangerous," he said thoughtfully, looking up from the paper at the teenagers gathered around the table, "that's a valuable shipment and Porre knows it. They'll have armed guards escorting the transport. Three, maybe four riflemen...and that's if we're lucky."
"That's exactly why we should go after it," Seth answered as he paced back toward the group, "that money could go a long way toward restoring Truce...or building even more gunships for the Porre fleet."
"He's got a point," one of the other teens nodded.
A sharp scream cut off their conversation and all of them jumped up from the table. A second shriek filled the room, the cries coming from behind the front door, and they all looked back to Melchior.
"Get ready," he whispered, "it could be Porre's military police..."
The front door of Melchior's house slammed open and a blast of burning wind swept across the room, ruby eyes glaring from the darkness at the group of teenagers gathered around the table with Melchior. The old man rose to his feet, reaching to the back wall and snatching one the hanging swords in one hand. The small group of young men and women drew their daggers as the intruder emerged from the darkness.
"Stop right there," Melchior shouted, then stopped, his eyes widening, "Janus?!?"
"I apologize for the theatrics," Janus said tersely, "but your lookouts tried to ambush me on the way in."
"You know him," Seth asked Melchior.
"It's alright," Melchior answered, lowering his sword slightly as the white-clad figure stepped into the glow of the fireplace and looked around at the group with a mild, detatched curiosity, "at least, I think it is...Janus, what in the world are you doing here?"
"I came to offer my assistance," the wizard answered.
"What," Melchior shook his head in disbelief, "you're saying you...want to join the Dreamers?"
"I'll help defend the dreamers during their missions," he nodded, "and use my magic to distract the soldiers and take out their gunmen while you make your raids," he looked to Melchior, "you know what I can offer."
"That I do," Melchior nodded slowly. Throughout the magical empire of Zeal, nobody had ever wielded as much magic as the young prince Janus--and Janus had since spent more than forty years developing that power.
"But you have other responsibilities," Melchior shook his head, "the orphanage and guarding Truce..."
"I haven't forsaken those duties," Janus replied firmly, "and I won't be able to join you in all your attacks or skirmishes. But the robberies I can help you stage against Porre will be legendary."
"Really," Seth asked skeptically, annoyed by the outsider's smug arrogance, "and what would you have us rob that we couldn't steal anyway?"
"Simple," Janus answered, glancing toward the teenager, "the frozen flame."
"The what," Kyra asked in surprise, "the treasure that grants wishes?!"
"Janus," Melchior said sternly, "we don't know anything about the flame..."
"Or even where it is," Kyra said, "we could spend forever searching for it..."
"We'll retrieve it for Lucca to study," Janus nodded to Melchior, "though she mustn't know about this plan. She hasn't fully accepted the Dreamers or your methods."
"But we still don't know where it is," Seth cried out in exasperation, "it could be anywhere..."
"This should narrow the search," Janus answered and he tossed a piece of paper onto the table. The group of young thieves leaned over the table to look at the sheet of paper as Melchior glanced down at it, then gave Janus a questioning look, the room filled with the teens' whispers and excited conversation.
Janus silently nodded to the guru and they both looked back down at the map of El Nido and the smaller reef-circled sea marked within it...the Sea of Eden.
Chapter 3: The Vengeance of the Future
March, 1010 AD
Kid sat asleep in the cushioned living-room chair, electrodes taped to her forehead, Janus sitting beside her while Lucca adjusted the dials on the computer and checked the screen, the small spikes of her breath-rate, heartbeat and brain-wave activity slowly and steadily rolling across the screen. The rest of the children were still at school or over at a friend's house--Lucca had spent weeks arranging to be alone with Kid and Janus tonight.
"Do you think she's ready for this," Janus asked, looking down at his sleeping sister with concern.
"She has a full vocabulary," Lucca answered, "and the device should only stimulate her memory, the rest of her brain shouldn't be affected at all. But I know what you mean...at the first sign of trouble, we pull the plug. If this works, we'll be able to ask her about her life. My theory is that she has both sets of memories, just as you remember both the prophet and the original timeline, and that she simply forgot her previous life as she grew up since she couldn't make sense out of it. If that's true, she'll be able to remember what changed, what brought her here."
"Let's do it," Janus finally nodded, and the two of them sat down on two kitchen tables opposite Kid. Lucca tapped a few buttons, starting the program, and Kid's eyes instantly opened.
"Kid," Lucca asked as she adjusted the dials on the device and checked the readout of the young girl's vital signs once more, then nodded with satisfaction, "can you hear me?"
"Yes," the entranced girl answered in a dull muted voice.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Yes, you're my big sister Lucca."
"Yes," Lucca answered with a smile, adjusting her glasses as she sat down and focused on Kid, "you are safe, Kid, nothing bad can happen to you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I'm safe. Lucca's with me"
"Right now you're just asleep and having a dream. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Now, I want you to think back, Kid. I want you to remember the first time you saw me. The very first time, as far back as you can go. Can you remember that? Can you describe it?"
"Yes," the little girl answered with the slightest lisp, "I remember you were standing below great big trees, lots of trees, and you were big. I was in a small place that smelled like straw."
"Amazing," Lucca whispered to Janus, who had shifted forward to the edge of his seat, "that must be the forest when I found her. I didn't think she'd be able to go back that far so quickly."
"Yes," he whispered back, "but she'll have to go much further than that to answer our questions."
"I know," she whispered, before checking the brain-wave readings and speaking again in a normal tone of voice, "now, I want you to try to remember the place before the straw and trees. I want you to think back to where you were before you came to the forest. Can you remember that?"
"I don't want to," the little girl answered, her voice rising into a small squeak of something almost resembling panic, "it's scary over there and she's mean sometimes. I don't want to go back there."
Lucca looked slowly at Janus and tilted her head questioningly. He glanced back and shook his head, also confused by her words. Lucca took a final look at the screen and sighed before continuing.
"It's alright, we'll be here with you. I need you to think about where you were before the forest, okay? It's okay, you'll be safe with us. Can you remember where you were before the forest?"
"No," Kid answered reluctantly, "but she can."
Lucca looked over at Janus's baffled expression, and he nodded to her. Lucca nodded back and then turned back to Kid.
"Then we need to speak with her, Kid. Can you talk to the girl who's over there, before the forest? Will you tell her we need to talk to her? I promise you'll be safe."
Kid trembled and squirmed in her chair fearfully then answered them.
"I'll tell her," Kid said nervously, then suddenly went limp in her chair, her eyes tightly closed. Janus quickly looked at Lucca and she looked down at the screen, the young girl's vital signs spiking and suddenly bursting into chaos. Lucca quickly began to abort the program, trying to bring Kid's brain-waves back to normal...and then they suddenly fell back into a steady pattern on their own, one she'd never seen before.
"Kid," Lucca asked apprehensively, looking up from the bizarre pattern to the seemingly unconscious girl, "can you hear me?"
"No, she can't," a woman's voice answered as Kid opened her eyes again, and Lucca shivered at the sight of the little blonde-haired toddler talking to her in a grown voice, a voice she recognized. Janus spoke to Kid for the first time, his voice trembling.
"Schala," he asked, his voice nearly a whisper, "is that you?"
Whatever presence had been awakened within Kid didn't seem to hear him.
"It's cold and dark here. I can't get it out of my mind," she said in a soft low voice that belied the emotion of her words, "it makes me think thoughts I don't want to think about and it makes me do things I don't want to do," she said, almost as though she were singing a jump-rope song, before sobbing "I can't hold out much longer."
"Schala, where are you," Janus asked anxiously, tensed against his seat, "what's going on?"
Lucca leaned over to him and whispered, "Kid's just remembering another timeline. Don't worry, she's right here in front of us. These are just her memories," she said reassuringly, before thinking to herself, "at least I hope so."
"Janus," the girl suddenly said with a smile that at once seemed tender and dreadful, looking straight at him, "you're here. I love you so much," she said gently in the same soothing tone that she had comforted him with as a child in Zeal, "that is why I sometimes desire to smash you to pieces."
Lucca glanced away, the shock and pain in Janus's face too horrible to take in.
"Lucca," he whispered plaintively, his voice shaking, "what's wrong with her?"
"I don't know," she whispered back.
"Don't you see, little brother," the girl asked in a cold empty voice, holding her palms out before her, "the past is dead. In the end there is only the void, and all we can do is prepare for the abyss."
"No," he whispered, shaking his head, horrified by the familiarity of her words.
"Melchior," she calmly replied, "is no more foolish than the rest of you for clinging to hope."
"Janus," Lucca whispered as she looked down from the staring girl to the computer screen, "look at these readouts. These aren't memory engrams, there are active thought-processes occurring here."
"What does that mean," he whispered back as the blank-eyed girl looked back and forth between them, then he looked down at the monitor. Where small wiggly lines had followed the center of the screen before there now ran huge mountains and valleys, the waves stretching from the top to the bottom of the screen.
"I don't know," Lucca answered, studying the screen and then looking back up at the girl, "but her brain's showing signs of actual thought. It almost looks like she's conscious."
"But you said that'd be impossible," he whispered harshly, "these are only supposed to be memories!"
"It IS impossible," she whispered back, "the frontal lobes of her cerebrum are completely inactive. These signals are coming from her memory-center, but they're not capable of this by themselves. It's like they're linked to somewhere else..."
"I want to help him," the girl continued to herself in a childish voice and they turned back to her, "because he's so close and he's crying. He reminds me of Janus and I want to help him, that's why I sent you."
"Schala," Janus answered softly, trying to reach through to her, "I'm right here."
"I called him to us and I helped him, I made him better. But it made me do something else to him, something terrible. He doesn't know about it yet," she fell into that same childlike sing-song voice, "but he wii--iill."
"Who did you help," Lucca asked, trying to keep her voice steady, "what did it make you do?"
"It's a secret, but she knows about it too," the girl whispered, staring at the living-room wall behind them, "that's why she wants to kill him."
"Schala," Janus suddenly shouted, jumping up from his seat, "just tell us where you are!"
"Janus, don't," Lucca said in a frightened whisper, grabbing his left hand tight in both of her hands, keeping him from running over to the calmly watching girl, "I don't think this is Schala. Not completely."
"The ochre lands have withered and dried," the young girl said, her lilting voice deepening a little as she tilted her head questioningly at them, "don't you understand? This planet would be peaceful if there were no humans around."
"We've heard this before," Lucca said in a hushed, awe-struck whisper.
"And yet you still want to fight," the toddler asked, "why?"
"We should wake her," Janus, still standing, whispered to Lucca, "we've learned all we can."
"Our species will replace you," she continued, glancing back and forth between the two of them, "so stop your foolish struggles and succumb to the sleep of eternity."
"Oh no," Lucca suddenly groaned as she looked at the screen, then began to type frantically at the keyboard, "the thought-patterns are spreading, they're rewriting her synaptic patterns!"
"English, Lucca," Janus demanded as he glanced between his sister and the monitor.
"It means we're losing Kid," Lucca shouted as she typed faster, "I'm trying to shut down the connection between her long-term memory-center and her cerebral cortex, that seems to be the link. Janus, whatever's speaking to us is invading Kid's personality, it's spreading through her brain!"
"Dark power, wild energy," the young girl suddenly started screaming, "no...stop it!"
"Lucca, wake her up, NOW," Janus shouted as she screamed and howled in pain, her hands pressed tight against her head as she rocked back and forth against the chair. Lucca pounded at the keyboard, her fingers almost a blur as she raced against the spreading energy, trying to bring the young girl's brain waves back to normal as her panicked screams grew shrill, loud...and suddenly inhuman.
Janus quickly wrenched back toward his sister, his crimson eyes wide in horror at the sound of her shriek as Lucca jerked up from the computer in shock, then twisted her head back down toward the fluorescent screen, her fingertips racing frantically against the keyboard as she fought to break the growing link between the young girl and the madness that they'd accidentally unleashed within her...
Kid suddenly snapped upright, the curious gleam in her eyes unmistakably hers, and she squirmed a little as Lucca dropped the keyboard and ran over, lifting her into her arms in a tight hug. Janus sighed deeply as he saw Kid's innocent, slightly confused expression and then rose from his chair without a word, lost in some inner tempest, the door slamming shut behind him as he stepped out into the twilight darkness beyond.
"Um, Lucca," Kid protested, wriggling out of Lucca's arms, "you're squeezing me too hard. I just took a nap like you said I would. What's the big deal, and where did Janus go?"
Lucca turned her head to wipe the tears from beneath her glasses and then smiled.
"You're right, Kid. The experiment worked perfectly, thanks to you. You were a great subject."
"Of course I was," Kid said with a grin, "I'm the Great Lucca's sister!"
"Yeah," Lucca sighed, and smiled again, "Kid, I want you to wait here for a minute. I'm going to find Janus and then we'll all go out to Truce Inn for dinner, okay?"
"Alright!," Kid shouted, always excited when they took her out, "I'll go get dressed!"
"No, wait, Kid, I'll dress you," Lucca gave up as Kid ran upstairs. Kid really didn't have a firm grasp of how clothes worked, often putting on shirts backwards and shoes on the wrong feet, but she always insisted on trying to put on her own clothes before reluctantly asking for help. Kid always wanted to do things for herself, she thought with a smile, just like Lucca herself had when she was Kid's age. She then turned to look outside for Janus.
* * *
"What do you think?"
Janus stood outside the house looking at the sunset, his white suit sweeping against the wind and his fists clenched with an anger Lucca hadn't seen in many years.
"I think," he said slowly, "that Schala's still out there, and she still needs my help."
"Janus, Schala's inside getting dressed so we can go out to Truce tonight. Whatever happened to her, it's over now. She's safe, those had to have been memories from another timeline...like your memories..."
Janus shook his head and looked back over his shoulder, his features profiled in shadow by the dying rays of the setting sun, his eyes alight with unspoken pain, and as darkness stretched over the sky, she realized why both the Mystics and the knights of Guardia had feared him so much, why they had called him Magus.
"It's not over," he answered, his head just barely turned over his shoulder, "you heard her quote my words from that night four years ago. Kid was already with us then, so Schala must have been somewhere else, somewhere where she could have heard that conversation, before she ever arrived in the forest."
Lucca closed her eyes and tried to visualize the tangled lifeline Kid must have led.
"So you think," she answered slowly, deliberately thinking out each word, "that Kid came to the forest, to 1004 AD, from the future, that she didn't come here straight from the time-crash of Zeal."
"She knew too much," Janus answered grimly, "you heard her quoting the Mother Brain computer. Those words should never have been spoken, Lucca, not after we destroyed Lavos."
"No, you're right," she shook her head, "it's almost like there were two voices. Schala and...something else that spoke by quoting other people, by using history's words as its own voice."
"And they were becoming one," Janus said, staring into the darkening sky, "she knew about things in the present and past. I don't think she was transported to the future, I think wherever she is, she was over there four years ago, she's over there now, and she'll still be over there in 2300 AD when Mother Brain exists."
"A place where she can see all of history at once," Lucca replied thoughtfully, "where she doesn't age..."
"The End of Time," she suddenly shouted, realizing the truth.
"Exactly," he answered, "and the only way to get there is lying in pieces at the bottom of the ocean."
Lucca's heart sank as she remembered that she'd sunk the Epoch. Keeping it after its engine had burnt out probably wouldn't have done much good, and she hadn't dared to risk Porre seizing the vessel, but still...
"Melchior can help! If anybody knows temporal physics, he does! Besides, with my brain it'll be a cinch to find some other way to travel through time and get her! That is, if somebody else hasn't already rescued her..."
"What," Magus demanded irritably.
"Well, if Kid's here now," Lucca answered thoughtfully, trying to mentally untangle the web of timelines that must comprise Schala's life, "that might mean somebody's already freed her from the End of Time."
"Or it might mean that we're supposed to free her in the future," he countered, "we have to find her, fast."
Lucca simply nodded, knowing that this was far too important to Janus to argue over grandfather paradoxes and time-travel theories--and she agreed that if Schala was somehow still out there, they had to save her, as quickly as possible. Only one thing Schala said had made any sense: she said she couldn't hold out much longer.
And though Janus hadn't mentioned it, probably didn't even dare to think about it, she knew that he'd recognized the scream Kid had given just before they'd awakened her, a sound that had haunted Lucca's nightmares for ten years and Janus's dreams for far longer, a sound she'd prayed the world would never hear again...
For just a moment, Kid had shrieked with the same monstrous voice as Lavos.
Chapter 4: Orphans of Fire
March, 1010 AD
"It's almost finished," Lucca said as she screwed the top half of the golden egg over the small machine-filled capsule. Janus and Kid sat at the living-room table with her, looking at the egg-like machine and then the scattered notes and diagrams spread across the table beneath it, Kid dressed in her powder-blue pajamas.
"Is that a timed egg," Kid asked, gripping the table with both hands as she looked at it.
"That's it," Lucca said proudly, "the electromagnetic containment field's in place. In theory, a microscopic black hole could be contained within the polarized shell by the magnetic field, and rotating the chrono trigger's field should also rotate the singularity within the black hole."
"Uh-huh," Kid asked doubtfully and turned toward Janus, "what does that mean?"
"Among other things," Janus said with a smile, "it means your bedtime was over an hour ago."
"But I want to help Lucca build the egg," she said anxiously.
"Don't worry," Lucca smiled, "you'll get to see it all tomorrow. Besides, you've already stayed up later than the rest of the children. If you stay up too late, you'll sleep through the experiment tomorrow morning."
"Okay," she answered and trudged up the stairs to her bedroom, Lucca rising from her seat and climbing upstairs with her to tuck her into bed. She came back down a few minutes to find Janus sitting at the table, studying the device and glancing over the papers at her notes.
"She asked a good question," he asked, looking up, "what does that mean?"
"Well," she sat down beside him, "a spinning black hole creates a ring-shaped core called a singularity, with a kind of tunnel within it that crosses time and space. If we can rotate the hole fast enough, then the ring will expand into a spatial fold, joining the space around the trigger with another space at another moment of time."
"So it could send anyone near it into a moment of the past or future," he answered, lifting the golden device in one hand and studying it, "just as Gasper's trigger allowed us to go back to a single frozen moment."
"Exactly," she nodded, "except this time-egg's been programmed with a different angular velocity, so it will connect our space-time to the End of Time and Gasper...and hopefully to Schala."
"Do you have any idea what we'll find over there?"
"I don't know," she sighed, "but given what we heard, we should probably be ready for anything."
"Could it work now?"
"Not quite," she answered, "I still can't figure out how Gasper ever managed to create a microscopic black hole in the first place. Without that the trigger's useless, like a boat without an engine."
"Melchior might know that secret," Janus offered, "we should find him."
"Right," she nodded, "Janus, will you stay here with the children? I'll take the time-egg to him and try to figure out how to finish it. With any luck we'll be back tomorrow afternoon to use it."
"No," he answered slowly, rising from the chair to his feet, "it's too dangerous for you to travel alone with Lynx and the dragon searching for you. I'll make the trip and bring Melchior back here."
"But it's a half-day's journey," she protested, "it'd be quicker for me to go to him to help fix it."
"It's only a half day for boats," Janus said, "I can bring him back by sunrise. Besides, I'm not letting you leave Truce alone, and one of us has to stay here. Let me do this, Lucca."
"Alright," she whispered and rose from the table to hug him, her arms tight around him as she kissed his cheek and looked into her eyes, "but please be careful out there, Janus."
He nodded and kissed Lucca's forehead gently, then slipped her glasses off and began softly kissing her lips, her arms sliding tighter around him. She moaned softly into their kiss and clutched the back of his white jacket tightly as their crushed lips slipped and brushed each other. Janus pulled Lucca's slender body against him and they looked at each other after a moment, the warmth of their kiss lingering between them as they gazed into each other's eyes. Janus suddenly reached down into the collar of his shirt and pulled out a small amulet.
"When I was child in Zeal," he said softly, slipping the necklace from his neck and clutching it in his right hand between them, as he held Lucca with one arm, "Schala gave me this amulet. She said it would always protect me and keep me close to her. Throughout forty years it's done just that."
Lucca silently nodded and looked at the amulet, a beautiful tear-shaped charm carved from purple amethyst and linked to a thin golden chain. She remembered watching Schala giving young Janus the amulet, just before she went to the Ocean Palace. Throughout his life, Janus had never been without it.
"The amulet," he said, nearly whispering, "is yours now."
"Janus," she said, her voice trembling, "you know I can't take this..."
"It's protected me," he interrupted her, sliding his fingers along her arm and curling her palm open to slip the amulet into her hand, "and now I want it to protect you. I want you to have it."
"Alright," she said, sliding the amulet around her own neck and looking up into his eyes, "but it's still your amulet...and I promise I'll never take it off, no matter what."
"Fair enough," he smiled, and kissed her forehead once more, then hovered into the air, sweeping through the front door into the night. Lucca lifted the amulet back up, her hand trembling slightly as she remembered Schala giving the amulet to Janus, telling him it would always keep them close together. He had never taken the amulet off after that day, through a lifetime in the middle ages, his search through the ruins of Zeal, over the past decade in the modern era: until tonight, when he had given it to her, to keep her as close to him as it had kept him to Schala.
"Janus," she whispered softly, her eyes gleaming, "I love you too."
* * *
Lucca stood at the front door, looking across the teenager's shoulder at the faint red glow over the eastern horizon, the hanging black clouds hinting at a storm tomorrow afternoon. The young man waited as she looked back down at the handwritten letter. It'd taken her almost a week to decide what to write--how much did she risk giving away if Porre intercepted the letter or Luccia turned it over to the military? She didn't dare be too specific, lest Porre and its goddess find it and learn about Kid's importance, or about their own plans...
She'd been pleasantly surprised to discover that Luccia still remembered her, that despite all the changes in history, their lifelong friendship had somehow survived in this timeline. But she still wasn't totally sure if she could trust her friend, the young woman who, in this world, had joined the Porre government and built Grobyc.
But if anything happened to them, Luccia might be the only person who'd remain to tell Kid what it meant; her position in the Porre military would shield her from the forces aligning against them. Tomorrow morning she and Janus would use the time-egg to travel to a darkness beyond time, to confront a madness that defied comprehension and hopefully emerge from it with Schala. She still didn't know what would happen to Kid if they succeeded--would the rescue erase the child they'd raised, or would it fulfill her history somehow?
She had to leave a message behind for Kid if something went wrong out there or if Lynx, the feline monster that had come to Porre for her, actually captured her somehow. She hoped and prayed Kid would never have to read this letter, but she owed it to her to make sure that the letter was there, just in case. She unfolded the paper and read over it once more, ignoring the young man's impatient expression...
"My Dear Kid,
"How are you doing? I wonder how old you are as you read this letter? Perhaps you've matured into a beautiful woman, raising a happy family, by now? I was hoping to talk to you in person when you were old enough, but just in case something happens, I'm writing my feelings down on paper and leaving it with Luccia. Perhaps you already know, or perhaps you yourself are also now caught up in some historic crisis as a result of all this. But, anyway...
"A long time ago, we--my friends and I, that is--changed the future in order to save our planet from being devoured by Lavos, a monster from some unknown planet. We still feel proud of the role we played in saving our world, and in how we were so freely able to change the flow of time.
"But sometimes I think of the darker side of what we did...what has become of the future that was once supposed to have existed? Where did the "time" that now is no longer allowed to exist "go?" It is true that, thanks to our altering the flow of history, we were able to save so many lives and prevent so much sadness and suffering...
"But when you think of it, we also caused the deaths of so many that were meant to have come into existence in the time line we destroyed, and also caused new sadness and suffering further along in the new future we created. That is why I worry that someone might seek revenge on us for what we did. I have had a constant dread in my heart that someone in our new future will travel back in time, just like we did, and try and kill or capture my friends and me. So, even if something dreadful does befall me, Kid, know that what was meant to happen will happen, and that I was always prepared for the worst.
"Oh, but don't you dare think the Great Lucca is going to go down without a fight! (I've got a reputation to uphold!) Whatever lies waiting for us around the next corner better watch out, 'cause it's gonna find a pretty mean counter-attack coming its way!
"Kid...when I think of you, I remember someone I once met a long, long time ago in the distant past... Heh! But she was the complete opposite of the you in this time line...so quiet and gentle...someday I'll also tell you about her...when you are ready to know of your real name and heritage.
"I'm not the slightest bit worried about you, Kid! I know that, no matter what happens, he will always be there looking out for you! Or perhaps he has already found you and is there by your side as you read this? If so, hello Janus! Please take good care of my 'little sister' for me!
"There is so much more I want to tell you, but I must leave it for another time. Don't worry! Everything is okay! We will overcome whatever woes may occur! That's for certain! Later, when you're all grown up, I'll come visit you and we'll talk over tea. I look forward to that day! Well, anyway Kid, until we meet again...
"Forever and ever your friend,
(No matter which time line it is!)
"P.S. Cut out the tomboy act! Believe me! You'll become a beautiful young lady one day, or my name isn't 'Lucca the Great!'"
She folded the paper again, wishing she could tell more but knowing that she couldn't risk writing about the goddess, the flame, or Zeal--writing about such things could endanger Kid if Porre found the letter. Kid would have to learn about those things for herself if anything ever happened to Lucca. She slipped the folded letter back into the envelope and gave it to the brown-haired young man at the door.
"Are you sure you'll be able to get this to her?"
"It'll be tricky," he answered, "Luccia lives in the Porre capital. But sneaking into the city shouldn't be too difficult since Porre's defenses were really only built to guard against direct assaults."
"If there's anything I can do," she offered, "money..."
"Definitely not," he replied, "I know you don't agree with our methods, but we're both committed to Truce and the restoration of Guardia, and that dream would never have been possible without you. This service couldn't begin to repay the debt that Truce and the Radical Dreamers owe you."
"Be careful, Seth. If it gets dangerous, forget about the letter and just get out of there."
"Without danger," he said as he pocketed the letter and disappeared into the night, "where's the fun?"
* * *
Cold dark water capped by white foam split open as the tuxedo-clad figure swept above the surface of the sea, the deep wake trailing behind him crashing inward as he flew across the heaving ocean toward the distant shape of Melchior's seaside house, the shadowy crag of Mystic Mountain looming behind it. He glided onto the beach, arms spread slightly as he landed, and he continued his pace as he strode across the fields toward the lonely house, glancing once at the glowing eastern sky with a frown before looking back at the front door.
He looked about the dark windswept fields, trying to see the heat of any of the teens who might be lying in wait for intruders. The fields and blowing grass were empty. One less inconvenience, at least.
"Melchior," Janus shouted as he pounded on the front door.
He sighed and looked in through the windows, the house shrouded in darkness. He banged on the front door once more, then held out his hand and, with a single whispered word, blew the door open.
He stepped into the house and looked around at the main room. Maps and schedules lay scattered over the table and a new folder filled with the latest Porre schedules sat unopened on the old guru's desk. Janus recognized most of the maps on the table; he had helped plan many of their attacks and had even delivered the opening shots of their battles, using his spells to blind and confuse the soldiers while the teens robbed the convoy vehicles.
A faint chill wind howled outside and Janus suddenly stiffened, turning around toward the small bed in the left corner of the main room, and the blanket-shrouded shape within. He paced across the oriental rugs and wooden floor, silently counting each step, and pulled back the covers from the old man's face, rolling him onto his back.
Melchior lay calmly in his bed, his eyes lightly closed and a faint smile on his face, but Janus felt the cold of the man's flesh against his fingertips. Janus took a step back from the bed and shook his head slowly, trying to see the guru's fading aura. The pall of death hung over the bed, but it was a calm aura, with no howling winds or black shadows. Melchior had passed away peacefully in his sleep, without waking. There had been no intruders--after a lifetime split between two worlds, old age had claimed the guru while he slept.
The enlightened ones all lived longer than the earthbound ones--Janus himself was nearing fifty, although he still looked like he was in his thirties, just as he had twenty years ago--but even they couldn't last much longer than the two and a half centuries Melchior's eyes had seen...
Janus tore the covers off the old man and ripped open the collar of his sleepshirt, exposing the cold white flesh of the guru's unbeating chest. He pressed his left palm against Melchior's chest and closed his eyes.
A bolt of electric energy filled Janus's veins and swept down his arm, coursing through his fingers and spreading through Melchior's chest. Janus counted to himself, then focused, sending a second and third blast of electricity into the guru, the old man's heart clenching and relaxing with each jolt of lightning. The body arched up against the bed with each blast and finally collapsed again as Janus lifted his hand away.
It had been too long. Life had faded completely from the guru's aura and, no matter how many times Janus made his heart pulse with electricity, it would never beat on its own, nor would he would ever wake up. A faint shudder run through Janus as he suddenly realized Melchior would never come visit the orphanage again--the guru had been like a grandfather to him as a child, and perhaps even more so over the past five years. He glanced about the room and noticed the blue and orange uniform of Zeal draped across the foot of the bed, the same uniform Melchior had worn every day since his life as a guru. Melchior had remained a faithful guru his whole life, loyal to the Kingdom of Zeal and its people even when such loyalty had demanded that he challenge the kingdom's corrupt queen.
"Guru of Life," Janus said softly, straining to remember the eulogies of the state funerals that he'd learned as a young prince, trying to give the guru the requiem that he would have received in Zeal, that he'd deserved to receive, "you've brought the warmth of life to the eternal kingdom of Zeal and have served the heirs of her throne well. Your spirit has transcended the bounds of space and time and so you shall live on forever in the hearts of those who now share in your enlightenment."
He drew the covers back over Melchior's body, dropping them lightly across the guru's peaceful expression, and then rose up from the side of the bed, walking slowly across the room toward the front door and hesitating for a moment before stepping back out into the night.
* * *
Lucca looked up from her notes as a loud steady knock filled the living room. She sighed and walked to the door, wondering if Seth had run into trouble or had come to give the letter back for some reason, then paused for a moment, suddenly suspicious of the short clipped rhythm of the knocks. She jogged silently back to her desk and pulled a small key out of her pocket, unlocking the bottom drawer and lifting up the Zonker-3800, then she slipped the gun beneath her belt as she made her way back to the front door. She took a deep breath and turned the doorknob.
She nearly wrenched back in surprise, then quickly regained her composure, still staring at the tall man in a black gold-trimmed trenchcoat with the collar pulled up around his neck, topped by a tall black hat crossed with golden bands, standing silently beyond the threshold. She strained her eyes into the shadows and suddenly realized it wasn't a man at all--the beast stared calmly back at her with bright yellow cat-eyes, whiskers twitching against a white-furred muzzle, and short golden fur covering the top half of his face as his pointed ears flickered against the sides of his hat.
A feline demi-human...Lynx. So it had finally begun.
"Lucca Ashtear," the monstrous panther-beast asked in a clear, intelligent, almost refined voice, "I presume?"
"None other," she answered suspiciously, "but who are you?"
"My name is Lynx and that young woman behind you is my associate, Harle."
Lucca whirled around and jerked back at the sight of a slender young girl dressed like a harlequin standing in the living-room, wearing blue silk pants, a red vest and floppy red cloth horns atop her white painted face. She leaned casually against the glass capsule as though she'd been waiting for Lucca to notice her.
"Bonjour, mademoiselle Lucca," the girl announced in a light, cheerful french accent, "how do you do?"
Lucca shook her head in disbelief and stared at the pretty young clown's bright red clothes and friendly smile as the girl looked back at her from across the room. Robo had said that Lynx would be accompanied by another far more powerful and dangerous--how could he have possibly meant this harlequin? Perhaps Lynx had left that more powerful enemy behind, or maybe Robo had made a mistake. She prayed he'd made a mistake...
"You make a cute couple. But what can I help you with?"
Lynx snarled a little, apparently resenting being associated with the harlequin more than necessary, then continued in the same calm reasonable voice.
"As I'm sure you already know, I've come from Porre to meet you. Apparently there were some mistakes in the communications between the leaders of Porre and its soldiers, which led to their misguided attempts to arrest you. I came here personally to offer my apologies for that and for the trouble we've caused."
She tilted her head a little and tried to make out the feline's expression. He looked bizarre but over the years she'd gotten pretty used to dealing with bizarre-looking characters. Aside from the cat-like face and paws, he might have been a Porre general--he wore a kind of black uniform himself, though one she'd never seen before.
"It took them long enough to figure it out! Do you know how much trouble your soldiers have caused in Truce?! Every time they come running in after me they end up destroying another building!"
"I know, I've read the reports. I've approved an order to repair the damage done to the village during their attacks, starting tomorrow. I'm truly sorry, those attacks on Truce should never have happened."
"Well, that's a start."
Lucca shook her head softly and tried to figure out the black-clad feline demi-human and his surreal partner; this wasn't going anything like she'd imagined it would. She tilted her head back toward Harle as she spoke.
"And what's her story?"
"Je suis une amis de Monsieur Lynx," she answered with an amiable wave of her hand, "I am here to study hiz, er, diplomatical skillz, non?"
"Ms. Ashtear," Lynx interrupted, "we need your help. The Porre military has found something in the El Nido archipelago, something that we believe you might have an interest in."
Here it comes, she thought, taking a deep breath.
"What did you find?"
"A circuit-board buried deep in the heart of what seems to be a prehistoric computer. It's an incredible find and we're still trying to figure out exactly what it means. The circuit-board had your family's name on it, and what's more, it seems to be sentient. It used the computer's visual interface to speak with us."
"Everybody knows that artificial-sentience doesn't exist," she played along, "how's that possible?"
"The sentient said that it came from the future, from the year 2400 AD. It said it has been trapped within the larger computer for many years since it was thrown back in time. It also asked for you by name, to ask for your help in freeing it from the computer within which it's now contained. It said to tell you that Robo needs you."
Tears filled Lucca's eyes and she quickly wiped them away. She wanted to believe him, she wanted Robo to be safe so badly, she wanted to go to El Nido and help free him from whatever kept him prisoner there. But she had to be sure, she had to test them, to make sure that the situation really had somehow changed...
"When did you find him?"
"Just a few days ago. I came by boat to Truce as soon as he told us your name."
"Did he ask about Crono and Marle?"
"Yes, he did. We told him that they were the casualties of a regrettable war and that they died noble deaths trying to protect their people. He was saddened, but relieved to know that you were still alive."
"Liar," she hissed under her breath, "how dare you speak Robo's name!"
She whipped her gun out of her belt and quickly took aim, relishing the look of shock on Lynx's face just as she pulled the trigger. A small round ball of light flew out of the barrel and he roared like a tiger as it struck his chest and ignited his fur. He fell to the ground as the flames spread over his paws and face and suddenly a writhing shadow rose out of his body, enveloping it like smoke and extinguishing the flames as he stood up.
"Robo already knew about Crono and Marle because I told him," she shouted, "and he warned me about you, Lynx! And your makeup-obsessed girlfriend over there!"
"How rude," Harle exclaimed behind her, "you should learn zome respect, you petite-chienne!"
Lynx shook his head to Harle and looked down upon Lucca. As he stepped through the doorway Lucca realized for the first time just how big Lynx really was.
"I'm glad you already know of us," he said calmly, "that makes this a great deal simpler. Prometheus and Belthasar were fools, Lucca, timidly second-guessing their own ambitions. If it hadn't been for their cowardice, we would have brought order to this war-torn planet long ago."
Belthasar, she wondered to herself, what does the Guru of Reason have to do with any of this? This wasn't the time or the person to ask, though, so she just ignored the name for now. Besides, Lynx seemed to think that she already knew everything about him. She had to hold onto that advantage.
"The only war I've seen is the one you caused yourself! And look at you two, a werecat and a freaky harlequin-girl! What kind of order would two monsters like you bring to this world?"
"You of all people should not know not to judge people by their appearances," Lynx said with a slight tilt of his head, obviously enjoying this, "but I don't have time for a philosophical debate. You will either accompany us to the El Nido archipelago to release the Prometheus Lock or," he said in a low, threatening voice as he raised his right claw into the air, "we will destroy this orphanage and all its squalling children."
"No," Lucca whispered as a fiery orb began to take shape around the palm of Lynx's hand, "why don't you make it a fair fight. We go outside and settle this ourselves. Unless of course," she taunted with a smirk, "you don't think you're strong enough to take down the Great Lucca all by yourself!"
"Interesting proposition," Lynx answered with a tilt of his head, "I'm tempted. Harle," he called out behind him, over his shoulder, "what do you think of her offer?"
The petite clown-girl suddenly stepped out of the shadows outside and glided through the front door, and Lucca glanced back in bewilderment to where the harlequin had just been standing behind her, only to find the living room empty. Obviously the clown wasn't as harmless or powerless as she seemed.
"Moi? I zink," she started in her lilting french accent, "zat human beings use honor as an excuze to hide zeir weaknesses. Wouldn't you agree Monsieur Lynx?"
"Exactly Harle," he said with a slow smile, "there's no strategic sense in not exploiting every advantage."
A crimson flood of light filled the room and Lucca twisted her head away with a cry as a towering, whirling column of flame rose from Lynx's hand to sweep through the ceiling and upward through the second floor, smashing through the roof. The light faded after a moment, leaving the smell of acrid smoke, the sound of crying children and a cleanly-burnt tunnel stretching from the ceiling up into the cloudy night, lit by rings of spreading fire around each of the gaping holes, flames writhing down the walls and across the floor of the old house.
"That," Lynx explained calmly, as though he were giving a lecture, "is one of the elements of fire. I'm sure you've seen such elements during the war. We've spent over 8,000 years harnessing their power and even your magic can't possibly stand up to them. If you value your remaining children's lives, surrender now."
Lucca hadn't heard a word Lynx had said, her ears crackling instead with the sound of flames devouring the oak walls and burning away the carpet, her eyes filled with the red gleam, the cat's mouth moving soundlessly as her blood began to seethe with a fire hotter than the elemental flames dancing around her.
"You monster," she hissed, "I won't let you lay a finger on these kids!"
Lynx simply smirked, his fangs baring beneath his muzzle, and lifted his claw again. She screamed as a red glow began to swirl about his paws again and she lifted her own hands toward him, her wrists pressed together and her fingers spread out to make a bowl shape as she closed her eyes tight.
A rolling stream of liquid fire whirled between her fingers and lashed out through the air, engulfing Lynx's paws in flame and shattering the small crystal he held between his hands. He staggered back against the wall with a roar and lifted his singed claws up to his face, studying the blackened rock in his hand before throwing it down.
She smiled as she realized that she'd smashed his precious so-called element, that whatever power he'd had over fire before, he'd lost it. She only wished she could use something stronger than basic fire-magic, but she didn't dare to cast any stronger fire-spell within the old dry-wood house, not with the kids still around. Beads of sweat ran down her face and she looked through the shimmering air at the feline monster; countering his fire element with her fire-magic had left the air heavy with free-floating heat. She wiped the sweat from her eyes and glared at him.
"So," Lynx whispered, his yellow eyes wide, "that is the power of Lavos. Harle," he called out in a mixture of pain and impatience, "I could use your help over here."
"Of course, Monsieur! Here I go!"
Lucca drew her gun again and pulled back the chamber to load another energy-charge. She took aim at the open doorway behind Lynx's shoulders, into the darkness where she'd heard Harle's voice, and waited for the clown to attack, taking slow deep breaths, using her shirt to block out the swirling clouds of smoke as she stared into the darkness, waiting for some shadow or hint of movement, her fingertip pressed to the trigger.
"Looking for moi?"
Lucca twisted back toward the living room a moment too late and she screamed in pain as a silver dart flew through the air and pierced her arm, a faint trickle of blood running down her wrist as the gun dropped from her hand and slammed onto the burning wooden floor. Lucca tore the dart loose from her arm and covered the wound with her left hand, then fell to her knees with a cry as another dart stabbed her right leg. She looked up, her eyes blurred with pain and smoke, at the slightly pouting clown above her as Harle took aim with a third dart.
"I am tres-sorry mademoiselle," Harle whispered, apparently not wanting Lynx to hear her, "I have noz'ing personal against you, but ze dragons must be awakened!"
"Dragons," Lucca groaned, "so Robo was right...you really are the dark-moon dragon..."
Harle tilted her head with a curious expression and looked at Lucca, confused.
"How could you know about zat," Harle asked as she lifted the dart, "ah well, it does not mat'ter..."
Something slammed through the air and hit Harle's face, then pounded against her porcelain-white cheek again and again. Lucca yanked the second dart from her leg and looked up to see Gato standing over Harle, his red boxing-glove covered with white powder. The young clown gave an indignant cry and crawled through the room as he gave pursuit, his metal wheels squeaking over the floor and both his fists outstretched. He chased her across the room and then turned back to Lucca, his boxing-glove fist folding back into his metal torso.
"Madam Lucca, you need medical attention. I will contact..."
A curved metal blade suddenly ripped through his steel torso-plate and tore through his circuitry, pulling backward and yanking wires and transistors out from the ragged hole in his metal frame. Gato's eyes lit up with alarm and he fell backward, his speakers crackling and limbs twitching as sparks flew from his torn-open circuits.
"Error...error...I have been damaged...motor-controls not responding...I am...sorry..."
"A primitive automaton," Lynx said as he shoved Gato's bulky metal body out of the way and brushed the wires off the blade of his scythe, "but amazingly advanced for this era. It's a testament to your skill, Lucca Ashtear, and a shame I had to destroy it. How much more destruction will you tolerate before you stop fighting? Will I have to burn down this whole orphanage? Come with us and there'll be no more need for such senseless violence."
She shook her head, realizing that she had to get these two away from the orphanage, so that the children might have some chance of getting out of this unhurt. She reached to her chest for Janus's amulet, for some measure of comfort, and felt her heart clench as she realized that it was gone--the latch must have torn during her fight with the harlequin-girl. She sighed and sank onto her knees, knowing she'd never be able to fight without her gun anyway, not unless she could somehow get them away from the orphanage and the children, where she could use her full magic against these monsters without having to worry about anybody else.
"Fine, you win," her heart sinking, "I'll go with you and get you your stupid flame."
"A wise choice, Ms. Ashtear," Lynx muttered, then raised his voice, "Harle, come! We're leaving!"
"Une minute, s'il vous plais!"
Harle walked up to Lynx, brushing soot off her skintight cherry-red outfit, and smiled at Lucca.
"Tres bien! I am glad you decided to join us, mademoiselle!"
Lucca looked around despairingly at the pictures the children had drawn, Crono, Marle, Ayla, the whole gang burning away in the fire. She closed her eyes, listening to the children crying, her heart breaking as she heard Kid sobbing upstairs, knowing the only thing she could do to help was to get Lynx and Harle out of here, and pray that once these two monsters were gone the children would be able to escape the burning house.
Lynx swept one arm around her waist and picked her up as Harle stood beside him waiting. He suddenly grabbed her glasses in his other hand and yanked them off, throwing them to the floor.
"What," Lucca cried out, the world suddenly reduced to blobs of red and black, "what did you do that for?!"
"I don't want you trying anything you might regret on the way. When the time comes we'll give them back to you, and until then you won't need your sight."
Despite the swarming whirlpool of colors, Lucca suddenly noticed another shape further off, a blue animate form that, after a moment, she realized was a person. Apparently the other two noticed it as well.
"Who is zat?"
"Nobody important," Lynx snarled, "probably just a village boy. Let's go!"
Harle raised one hand toward the burning half-collapsed ceiling and with a cold sweep of black whirling air, the three vanished, leaving the burning orphanage empty except for the sound of crackling flames and crying children.
Chapter 5: Let Love Bleed
March, 1010 AD
Thin blowing sheets of cold rain swept through the air and pounded against the rippling water as Janus made his way across the small bridge leading onto Lucca's island. He stared at the drops of icy water slamming into the planks as he walked, still thinking about Melchior. The old man shouldn't have been alone, he thought grimly to himself, they should have let him live with them. It wasn't that he shouldn't have died--it was his time and Janus had long since decided that death is merely the price one finally pays for living. But he knew that Melchior would have wanted to be with his friends when he went. He'd owed the old man at least that much.
Amid the cold prickling scent of the half-frozen rain, Janus smelled something else--smoke. He suddenly looked up, the raindrops he'd been telekinetically deflecting hitting his face and rolling down his cheeks as he stared across the bridge in disbelief. He quickly shook himself back into awareness and swept across the ground, the tips of his boots scraping the mud as he flew quickly through the downpour toward the house.
A thin black skeleton of rafters and beams stood against the ash-gray clouds, the ground beneath the rain-pierced roof choked with soot, only a few ash-covered walls left standing to mark the old two-story Victorian house that had once stood in the center of the grassy isle. His heart shriveled at the sight of the ruined house, leaving an aching hollowness within his chest as he stared at the smoldering shell.
Something stirred a little within the ashes. A faint high-pitched sob rose and fell in the wind.
Janus suddenly swept through the open doorway and looked around the wet ash-covered remains of the living room, then turned toward the remains of the staircase, peering through a soft steady rain of ash mingling with the cold thin streaks of water. The middle third had collapsed into a black jagged pit surrounded by upturned broken planks. The stairs had collapsed. The children slept upstairs.
He levitated into the air and glided over the spike-lined hole, setting back down onto a scorched creaking platform dangling from one of the walls and looking around at what remained of the room. Parts of the wooden floor had collapsed, leaving crumbling soot-lined pits, but some of the floor still clung onto the walls, supporting charred wreckage that had once been furniture--and other remains that he'd seen far too often not to recognize.
"Is anyone in here," he called out, calmly and rationally, as if this were just another nightmare.
"Here," a young girl's voice weakly sobbed from the far corner of the room and he floated across the loose dangling planks, feet barely touching the other side of the floor, not daring to trust both their weight to it. He looked around at the floor and finally made out a coughing soot-covered shape: Leda, the youngest child, barely four.
"It's okay," he said blankly as he lifted her into his arms and glided back up into the air, above the sinking floorboards, "what happened, Leda? Have you seen anybody else?"
"Just Tevon," she coughed up soot-filled phlegm, "he's in his room. I heard him..."
"Alright," he answered, sinking down through one of the bigger holes and gliding back out into the rain to set her onto the grass, "wait here and I'll find Tevon and everybody else."
"Just Tevon," she answered as she started to cry.
He lifted back into the sky without a word and slipped through one of the smoothly-burnt holes in the wall, trying to make sense out of the burnt struts and girders, trying to remember where Tevon's room would be. He heard a soft choking sound and instantly swept toward the brittle flame-streaked walls, a faint glow of black energy rising from his flesh and dissolving the wooden boards into a black mist as he passed through them. The coughing groans grew louder and he peered through the debris-choked hallway, finally seeing the huddled boy in a closet.
"Tevon, it's me," he lifted the boy up, the soot-faced child closing his eyes tighter, "it's Janus."
"There were monsters," he whispered as Janus lifted Leda in his left arm and flew back across the bridge to Truce, both of the children clinging to his shoulders tightly, "I saw them downstairs. I heard them shouting, so then I looked down the stairs and...I saw monsters..."
"What do you mean," Janus asked softly, but Tevon closed his eyes tighter and shook his head.
Janus settled lightly onto the hard earth of the village square and banged on a door with the side of his fist, pounding at the door until Fritz opened it, his half-closed eyes suddenly widening at the sight of the three.
"What happened," he asked, stunned, as Elaine looked over his shoulder from within the house, rubbing her eyes sleepily, then quickly waking up as she saw them.
"Oh my god," she choked in surprise, "what--"
"Did you see anything," Janus asked quickly, "did you hear anything?"
"I don't," Fritz shook his head, "I mean, no, I didn't. What happened?"
"They burned," he said, and he stopped as he felt a flash of rage swelling, glancing down to Tevon and Leda, "just wait here. I'm going to find Lucca and the others."
He flew away, racing back over the bridge in a blur of white and purple, and plunging back into the burned-out shell, calling out for the rest of the children, for Jacky and Sarah, for Leda, for Lucca and Kid. Nobody answered, nothing stirring or rustling in the wet ashes of the charred husk, and Janus began to scream for Kid and Lucca to answer him, smashing through crumbling walls and kicking down the doors as he raced through the creaking house, no longer caring about the scorched, creaking beams threatening to snap overhead.
"Kid! Lucca," he screamed, panicked and absurdly angry at them for not answering, "tell me where you are! Wake up and tell me! I SAID TELL ME..."
Something glittered within the pile of soot in one rain-drenched corner of what used to be the living room and he bent down to pick it up, his screams fading into choking gasps as he lifted the small object.
Lucca's glasses, frames and lenses half-melted, arms bent. Blood staining the shreds of carpet left on the floor, metal darts lying scattered among the ashes, the feel of magic in the air, dark magic, not like Lucca--nor even like real magic. It felt different and, after a moment, he realized it wasn't magic at all, but a crystal-element...
"No," he shook his head, refusing to believe it, "nonononono..."
Lucca couldn't see without her glasses, she couldn't even walk without them, she only took them off to go to sleep. Besides, she'd never leave any of the children behind...not even to save herself...not even...
Something else gleamed within the ashes along the blackened edge of a wall and he lifted it up in one hand. A scorched, cracked amulet made of amethyst and gold, the latch smashed...
"Lucca," he groaned, dropping to his knees, clutching the shattered amulet by the chain, "Schala..."
Janus had never known murder. He had known killing, of course--he'd killed countless times, striking down thieves, knights and beasts. But they weren't people, they were just enemies, adversaries who would have gladly killed him had he not struck the first blow. Crono and Marle had been killed by the faceless cowards of the Porre army, but it'd been during a battle, and he'd repaid their deaths with death, a bloody commerce as ancient as man. He'd known slaughters, massacres. But not deliberate, senseless murder, not like this...
"They're dead," he choked to himself, his fingernails stabbing his palms as his fist tightened around the amulet, blood running down his wrist and knuckles as they dug into his flesh, striking bone, "they're all dead...Lucca..."
Tears slid silently down the sharp pale contours of his face, blending with the drops of rain running across his cheeks, and he stared up at the gray blanket of clouds beyond the collapsing roof, his glittering vermilion eyes reflecting the darkness of the sky. The air began to spark and crackle with energy as he clenched his blood-soaked fists tighter, a low trembling groan rising from his lips. Streaks of snaking flame circled around him as he shuddered and the air glowed as raw magical energy began to seep from his skin and clothes like writhing smoke; liquid streams of darkness twisted through the air, sparks of lightning coursing between the scorched rafters...
He suddenly screamed into the heavens, an animal shriek of pain and rage...and after a moment of ringing silence, the sky answered his cry, exploding into a seething chaos of energy and engulfing the island...
* * *
"Sir! A scout from Truce has arrived"
"Then send him in already," General Lensh said, not looking up from his desk. Porre had largely ended their military presence in the impoverished village of Truce, but they still kept a small military contingency at the Zenan Bridge, to monitor transactions with the mainland and to make sure no self-deluded villagers got the idea that Porre's occupation of the scorched wastelands that'd once been the lands of Guardia had ended.
Scouts regularly arrived every three days to report on the village, but today wasn't one of those days, and a thirty mile trip on foot or beast was a serious waste of resources. He glared at the panting sweat-covered scout as the man gave a weak salute and then frowned; the scout looked as though he'd ran the whole distance.
"What's your report?"
"Sir, I've come from the fourth division. Ashtear Island, south of Truce village...it's gone, sir."
"What," Lensh frowned in confusion and impatience, "how do you lose an island?"
"Come look for yourself sir," the young scout staggered across the room to the window, still panting, "the outpost reported what seemed to be a fire just before sunrise, and a little less than an hour later there was an explosion, type unknown. The island...the island's just not there anymore."
Lensh snatched his field-glasses from the corner of the desk and paced over to the window himself. Even without them, he could see a distant column of black smoke rising from the horizon, and a shocked gasp crossed his lips as he looked through the lenses. Heavy waves crashed and surged around a few broken rocks in the middle of the bay and the bridge that'd linked the small family-owned islet to Truce had collapsed, dangling from the low cliffs along the mainland. It seemed too short, and he quickly realized that most of the bridge had been burnt to ashes.
The bridge that had once led to Ashtear Island now pointed toward a churning whirlpool.
"How," he choked, slowly letting his field glasses drop from his hands as he stared at the rising plumes of dark smoke, "nothing we have could do that...what in the name of the goddess happened out there?"
* * *
"Halt," the soldier frowned at the figure stalking up the road toward Zenan Bridge and the reconnaissance outpost set up around the entrance, "who goes there?"
"Halt," he tried again, reaching for his gun "stay where you are!"
The rain-drenched figure stopped at the checkpoint, his long blue hair hanging limply around his shoulders, a dark purple shroud covering his white suit. The figure slowly turned his crimson gaze toward the young guard and uttered a single hissing word under his breath.
The drops of rain filling the grey air suddenly boiled into steam and a vast sphere of fire erupted from the figure,engulfing the soldier and the wooden building behind him, the shimmering orb of flames lighting the dreary sky and pouring smoke into the clouds, the air silent except for the twisting flames. The cloaked shadow within the solid sphere of fire raised his hand and the fire suddenly vanished, leaving a pile of blackened skeletons heaped amid the burning remains of the outpost and Zenan Bridge. He levitated into the air without a backward glance and swept across the rocky canyon, ruby eyes focused on the distant gleaming towers of Porre...
* * *
Slate-gray clouds rolled across the sky, above the cobblestone streets of Porre's downtown square, and the red-and-black flags of the Porre Republic fluttered against the cold morning wind. General Lensh scowled at the three confused groups of young men gathered below the steps of the capitol building, dressed in wrinkled hastily-donned uniforms, then he looked back across the plaza as a scout darted across the stone courtyard toward them. The civilians had all been ordered to evacuate the central district and stay in their houses. The streets now belonged to the Porre army.
"Sir, we've spotted three more explosions to the north. New Dorino, Fort Denadoro and Fort Fiona have all been destroyed in the past hour, in that order. The destruction's moving southward."
"Straight toward Porre," the general answered grimly, "toward the heart of the republic."
A deafening blast shook the capital and a hot dry wind swept across the town square from somwhere beyond the towering row of factories and offices lining the northern edge of the district, and Lensh watched a second man staggering into the city square, his uniform engulfed by flames.
"The gates," the soldier screamed between shrieks of pain as he staggered forward, "it broke through...it's in the city..."
"It broke through the gates," the sentry whispered as the soldier fell to the ground, his screams dying away as the flames consumed his clothes and flesh, "denadorite walls, mounted automatic turrets, electronic self-locking mechanisms. If it broke through that, what can we do..."
"Stop it," Lensh suddenly barked, and he turned to the crowd of soldiers, "this is the capitol of the Republic of Porre and we are the last three divisions of home defense! We stay here and fight, no matter what!"
A second figure emerged from between the northern cluster of factories, a dark man with windswept blue hair and glowing red eyes, and a second later the whole industrial district exploded into a firestorm, casting a dim crimson glow across the plaza like a flickering, crackling sunrise, choking black smoke rolling across the town square as the trudging shadowy figure emerged from the wall of fire unharmed, dark cape billowing around him in the blasting fiery wind, a tall scythe gripped tightly in his right hand.
"Open fire," Lensh growled, "take it down!"
The soldiers lifted and fired their rifles at the walking figure, the crack of gunfire filling the air, and Lensh shook his head in confusion as the streaking bullets looped around the solitary man, wrenched away from him by invisible forces as he slowly paced toward them. One of the soldiers suddenly rushed forward to stab the cloaked figure with his bayonet, then gave a single choking cry as the figure twisted in a circle, ripping the young man's throat with the curved gleaming blade of his raised scythe. He ripped the bloodsoaked blade free and the man spilled onto the ground.
"Charge," Lensh shouted to his men, "attack the intruder hand-to-hand, it can't possibly stop all of us!"
The low grey clouds overhead began to rumble and glow with hidden energy and suddenly countless bolts of lightning pierced the sky and swept through the plaza, streaking across the stone roads and lashing through the soldiers, their screams fading into silence as the smell of scorched flesh and burning fabric filled the city. The electric arcs swept across the city and between the buildings like a spider's web, and the distant towering hulk of a munitions factory suddenly exploded into a vast sphere of fire, glowing cinders and ashes blowing lightly across the stone plaza like a snowstorm as arcs of lightning crackled and spread outward across the whole city.
The flickering glow and sulfer-stench of the still-spreading flames filled the sky, blotting out the low morning clouds behind a thick blanket of choking smoke, while the dark figure strode forward, seemingly oblivious to the glass walls of office complexes and skyscrapers shattering on either side of him, or to the ring of destruction spreading around him as factories and warehouses exploded into a rain of mortar and pulverized bricks, stepping lightly across the smoldering bodies and tumbling rubble as he made his way silently down the street toward the center of Porre.
Lensh whirled back toward the second division as it began its charge, rifles raised as they dropped to their knees and took aim...and then his mouth dropped open in horror as the soldiers began to scream in pain. Their warm pink skin suddenly crystallized into hard blue stone as a sheet of solid ice spread out from their boots across the cobblestone square, the crowd of soldiers reduced to ice-blue statues, their eyes covered in a sheet of icy tears, their faces frozen into their final, agonized expressions.
A blast of hot sulpherous wind toppled one of the still-kneeling bodies and the corpse tumbled to the ground, the frozen flesh and cloth shattering like glass against the stone plaza, as the dark crimson-eyed figure lowered his outstretched palm and continued his inexorable stride toward them.
Lensh glanced back to the third and final division, enraged by the slaughter of his troops, his ears ringing with the blasts and whistles of shattered glass and marble raining across the capitol...
"I've seen this before," he growled to the men as the figure continued its slow walk toward them, suddenly remembering the invasion of Guardia and the Guardia king's final devastating attack against them, and the hail of bullets that had finally ended it, "surround him and attack all at once, he won't be able to focus his powers. Come on, move out--now!"
The large crowd of soldiers quickly scattered around the sides of the square, each of them dropping to one knee and raising his rifle, all their guns pointed right at the center of the burning square and the lone cloaked figure in the middle of it. Lensh nodded and raised his hand, giving the signal to fire as he stared at the figure with rage.
His fury suddenly froze into terror as the man's own hate-filled ruby gaze turned toward him.
The wizard raised his hand in the air, no longer needing to speak his spells, and silently willed the shadows and darkness of the burning city into life. The town square suddenly faded into night and the surrounding soldiers found themselves lost in a cold formless void--and then screams began to pierce the abyssal darkness, along with other sounds, ripping, cracking noises that finally drowned out their terrified cries.
Lensh looked around the empty square for his men, their screams seeming to come from nowhere, and then fading into dreadful silence. The last few remaining soldiers ran blindly forward to attack, ignoring his sudden orders for them to stop, no longer worried about their duty to the Porre Republic, now driven into battle only by sheer self-preservation.
The ruby-eyed demon that legends had called Magus walked slowly in measured steps through the burning blood-drenched streets, telekinetically blasting some of the soldiers through the air with a single wave of his hand, occasionally swinging his scythe forward to slash one of the charging soldiers through the chest as he paced relentlessly toward the capital building. He barely even noticed the attacking men; his glazed eyes stared into the past, into the life these insects had taken from him...
The taste of her lips the first time they'd kissed, under the twilight glow of the winter moon...
A Porre soldier ran beside him and swung his rifle toward the wizard with a desperate scream, the bayonet aimed for his heart. Magus's scythe whistled through the hot, ash-filled wind and both pieces of the rifle fell to the ground, followed after a moment by the soldier.
Her curiosity, her love for the world around her, her desire to learn how it all worked...
A small group of soldiers crouching near an alley fired their rifles at Magus and he lifted one palm toward them, the bullets glowing and melting away into vapor as they flew through the air. He turned his eyes to meet the soldiers and they began to choke and scream as the lurking shadows within the alley suddenly came to life and engulfed them, yanking them backwards into the darkness as their screams suddenly died into silence.
Her head on his chest, her soft breath against his neck as she fell asleep in his arms...
One of the lieutenants dashed forward and silently he drove his bayonet through the mage's cloak, plunging the tip deep into his chest. The wizard glared down, more annoyed than threatened by the wound, and grabbed the rifle tightly, stopping the blade just short of his heart. He tore the bayonet out of his chest and swung his scythe down with one hand; the young man's head bounced across the ground, his body dropping a second later.
The sound of her laughter...the way her hair smelled in the sun-drenched morning...
One of the younger soldiers turned around and Lensh screamed for him to stop as the terrified young man raced through the square, sprinting toward the northern gates of Porre. Magus glanced backed over his shoulder and lifted his hand, a streak of blue lightning piercing the hanging smoke and twisting downward through the flickering air, blasting through the fleeing soldier, his flesh exploding into a red mist, a charred blackened skeleton suddenly clattering against the street as the seperate bones crackled and sparked with humming arcs of electricity.
Her blue eyes and dimpled cheeks...her slender body...her brilliant mind...her love..her...
The dark figure twisted sideways, his cape whipping through the air as he dodged a small burst of automatic gunfire and, with a single fluid twist of his scythe's handle, he knocked Lensh's pistol across the ground. Magus lifted his right arm and quickly threw his spread right palm forward; Lensh suddenly flew upward into the air, grabbed and lifted by an invisible cloud of magical force, hovering above the stone plaza for a second before slamming backward against the side of the capitol building.
He looked up to see the wizard calmly pacing up the wide marble steps, his right palm still raised, telekinetically pinning the general against the wall as he strode forward, twirling the blood-stained scythe in slow circles with his left hand. Lensh stared over the figure's cape-covered shoulders at the town square, at the remains of his troops--nothing stirred or breathed in the still-burning industrial district. He was alone with the wizard.
Magus suddenly swung the blade of the scythe forward and Lensh screamed in pain, then looked up again as he realized that the blade had merely stabbed through his shoulder--the wizard could have killed him. He looked up in terror at the snarling red-eyed creature that had just annihilated the entire Porre municipal guard and devastated the heart of the city, the creature that now looked up at him with rage, his snarling lips curled back to reveal glistening white fangs. The sorcerer spoke for the first time since he had smashed the walls of Porre and devastated the city, his raspy voice seeming to freeze the fiery air.
"You have one chance to answer me," he hissed, "WHO?"
"I don't know what you," Lensh stammered, shaking his head frantically with confusion, "what do you want?"
"I want her back," he growled under his breath, then he suddenly screamed into the general's face, "I WANT ALL OF THEM BACK!!"
He tightened his grip on the scythe and a black swirling energy began to course down through the wooden pole and into the blade, filling the general's veins with a cold dark power. Lensh's muscles began to tremble as the icy liquid magic coursed through his limbs and his chest suddenly tightened as it filled his heart and lungs--he tried to scream and found his lungs choked with the dark energy, his voice reduced to a hoarse whisper.
"Wizard...wizard of Truce," the general whispered through the gripping black poison in his lungs, "we thought you were a legend, a story the refugees told themselves...to feel better, like Robin Hood or..."
"Darkness is filling your veins," Magus said slowly as he wrenched the crackling energy-filled scythe away, "your blood is being devoured and poisoned by the spreading magic. You only have an hour until your body begins to decay, so unless you want an even more painful death than this one, you will tell me who ordered the attack on the orphanage, and the names of all the men who did it."
"Orphanage," the general choked, shaking his head once more in confusion, and then his eyes suddenly widened in realization, "Lynx..."
"What about him," Magus demanded, lifting the twitching man into the air with one hand and slamming him against one of the marble pillars, the general's limbs turning deathly white as the dark magic spread through his veins.
"He was obsessed," Lensh gasped, "he ordered the arrest of Lucca Ashtear...petitioned the council to attack the orphanage and capture her. The request was denied...and he left..."
"And what about Porre," Magus hissed up at the dying man through clenched fangs, "you're saying you had no interest in her?"
"Of course we did," Lensh choked as the wizard shoved him against the column, fingers tightening around his throat while his arms and legs began to tingle from the blood-consuming poison, "she was a war-criminal associated with the Guardia royalty...but she wasn't worth the military investment, we made a few attempts and gave up...Lynx wouldn't accept it, he kept on sending more and more troops...the council finally voted him down..."
"So Lynx made the attack on his own. Where is he now?"
"I don't know, nobody knows! He disappeared after the vote, we think he's already left aboard a pirate ship going back to...maybe back to El Nido...?"
"Then it seems I have business in El Nido," the wizard snarled and he threw the general to the ground, turning toward the shipping yards along the southern rim of the fortified city, the smoke-filled sky illuminated by the flickering red glow of the inferno, the munitions and factory fires spreading and consuming the city itself as he walked away from the plaza.
"Wait," Lensh shouted, then screamed as his heart seemed to ripple and twist, nearly tearing itself apart at the touch of the black ice-cold liquid spreading through his chest, drowning his lungs and flooding his weakening, struggling heart, "help me, please...I told you everything..."
"Which is the only reason I haven't destroyed the capital building and the rest of the bureaucrats skulking within it," Magus answered with a slight glance over his shoulder at the collapsed, deathly-white officer and the marble columns and walls of the capital behind him.
"I'm going to take one of your boats and go to El Nido," the sorcerer continued as he turned away from the building and looked across the city at the distant docks, "I'm hoping you'll send your ships to stop me."
"No," Lensh shook his head as he sank onto his knees and then rolled weakly onto his back, wheezing loudly now, "you can have them..."
"You'll be dead within the hour," Magus replied coldly, "when I leave, I assume your leaders will come running out those sealed brass doors to find out what I've said. Tell them that they have three days to evacuate all their cities, abandon their outposts and empty their fortresses. Tell them that they have however long it takes for me to find and kill Lynx to beach their ships and hide in the forests. Because when I return, the Republic of Porre won't even be a memory."
* * *
Lucca fumbled around the blurry silver landscape and Lynx pressed something into her hands.
"You'll need these. We've already made them to your prescription."
"Isn't that thoughtful," she remarked bitterly as she put the glasses on and blinked. She blinked again.
All around her stretched a vast city of steel and glass, computer terminals lining the walls and holographic images hovering in the air above her, fiber-optic wires and electronic pipelines reaching for miles in every direction, hovering security robots gliding about the complex. Lynx shoved her into a glass elevator stretching through the middle of the complex, he and the harlequin stepping in behind her as the automatic doors slid shut.
The elevator began to hum and Lucca gasped as she looked down, the glass chamber descending through a shaft that seemed to stretch downward for miles. Lynx stood bored by the control panel while Harle stared curiously around at the city, and Lucca marveled at how many decades must have been spent building something like this gleaming complex. She'd never seen technology like this anywhere in her life, except in the ruins...
They stepped out of the elevator onto a long metallic bridge leading across a vast bowl-shaped arena lined with laser-projectors and power-cables, a huge tower rising out of the middle of the chamber. As they led her across the walkway, Lynx shutting down each of the massive security robots with a singe gesture, it suddenly hit her.
"This is from the future we saved," she whispered in awe, "this whole city must have traveled back in time..."
"Yes," Lynx replied impatiently, "now undo the lock. It's over there."
He gestured with one arm toward a sealed metal door and a wall-mounted console at the end of the bridge, the only opening into the otherwise solid tower. He dismissively swept his hand away from it in a clear gesture of distaste and she walked over the silver floor, the chamber seeming to drop infinitely down below the sheer mirror-like surface of the bridge. She began studying the console's design and keyboard, a chill running up her spine as she realized that the frozen flame must be within the tower, seperated from her only by the locked doorway.
She noticed a device with a red hand-shaped mark across the surface built into the wall, and a small lens that looked into a laser-projector--fingerprint and retinal scans, she remembered from the broken devices she'd seen in the domes of 2300 AD. She ignored them and instead pried open a thin panel beside the interface to reveal a keyboard and black screen set into the wall, each no bigger than a notebook.
It looked a lot like Robo's programming interface and she realized that it was the exact same model as the one she'd used to repair his damaged programming core, except mounted into a wall rather than within his torso panel. A horrible suspicion came to her and she pulled up the menu screen, glancing over her shoulder at Lynx and Harle before entering the password she had created long ago, the password to access Robo's program directly.
"Lucca," the green letters read against the black screen as a single camera lens built into the wall above the panel twisted and focused on her, "I did not warn you in time. I am sorry."
"It's not your fault," Lucca typed back, trying not to look back over her shoulder at the two monsters, knowing that would make them suspicious, "Robo, I've missed you so much."
"I missed you too Lucca," the computer silently printed across the screen.
"What is this place," she typed.
"The ruins of a city that came here from the future," the screen silently answered in green letters, "in the new future we created, Belthasar and I terraformed these islands and this complex as part of an experiment meant to control time, using the properties of the frozen flame. But we lost control of the flame and this entire archipelago was thrown ten thousands years into the past. The people of El Nido are the descendents of the original scientists who worked on the Chronopolis Experiment."
"So the islands really did change everything," she whispered to herself, then typed, "what is the frozen flame?"
"It is a shadow of Lavos," the screen answered, "the energy signature of Lavos distorts space and time all around it. That energy has leaked into this world from all the parallel worlds where Lavos was not destroyed."
"Lynx said the flame was asleep," she typed into the interface, "what did he mean?"
"Right now I have access to the locking-mechanisms Belthasar designed to counter Lavos's anti-entropic energy. I am suppressing the flame's effects. Lynx wants to shut down those mechanisms and release it."
"What would happen if he does that?"
"I am not sure, Lucca," Robo wrote through the terminal, "this center is now under the control of a sentient computer-system evolved from the Mother Brain computer. She is the one Porre and the people of El Nido now call the Goddess of Fate. Lynx seeks to release the flame so she can control it and use its time-altering properties to regain her control of history, to create a new future calculated to ensure her dominance."
"Would that work?"
"There are too many variables, I can't make an accurate calculation. Lynx's plan may succeed, but there are other possibilities. The dragons imprisoned by FATE might be released. It is also possible that a window may open into the parallel worlds of the flame and bring Lavos back into our world."
"No," she whispered in horror.
"And there are," the screen silently printed out, "still worse possibilities."
"Unlock the flame now," Lynx growled behind her as Harle peered over the rim of the bridge at the limitless depths of electric cables stretching from the walkway into the concave chamber below, "we've waited too long already."
"It takes a few minutes for the upload to complete," she lied, glancing back over her shoulder at them with a quick glare, "just hold on a second!"
"Robo," she typed, turning back to the screen, "what should I do? What if I used magic?"
"Lucca, they'll hurt you if you try to stop them," Robo answered, "and using the power of Lavos this close to the flame could be dangerous," the cursor paused for a moment before the screen cleared and a new sentence began, "I want you to disconnect me from all the locking-mechanisms and open the doors to the chamber containing the frozen flame."
"But you just said," she typed, then the cursor suddenly vanished as Robo began writing.
"We'll find a way to defeat them later, but for now we can't let them harm you. Unlock the flame and later we will figure out a way to take it back. You have to stay safe Lucca, that's all that matters right now."
"But it's not," she whispered sadly before typing again, "Robo, I know you want to protect me, but I have to stop them. There's too much at risk; if we unlock the flame we may never get the chance to fight back."
"Robo," she asked suddenly, quickly typing into the interface keyboard, "what would happen if I can't unlock the flame? Could they release the locks themselves?"
"No," Robo replied, "they can't undo the locks themselves since I have control over them. They can't attack me because my circuitry is hardwired into the defense-system. If they destroyed me, the Flame would be locked forever, with no way of releasing the locking devices."
"Is there anyone else who could unlock the flame?"
"Yes, there was one," Robo answered, "but he is dead. You are Lynx's only hope and he'll do anything to make you unlock it. That's why you have to shut down the connecting mechanisms. I will not resist."
"Then that settles it."
"Lucca," Robo wrote as she began to exit the programs and shut down the console, "what are you doing?"
"What we've always done," she typed back before closing the interface, "saving the world. I'll miss you Robo, please be careful. History's in your hands now."
She shut down the interface and performed a final check on Robo's systems, making sure they were still running at optimal efficiency before patting the console tenderly and locking the interface again. She turned slowly back around to Lynx and Harle, then paced carefully to one of the power-cables running along the side of the bridge.
"What are you doing now," Lynx snarled.
"There's been a power interruption to the interface. I have to adjust the levels to compensate for it. Look, you brought me here to do a job, so let me do it already!"
"Fine," he muttered, "but I'm only giving you one more minute."
She nodded and looked down at the crackling metal wires, popping her knuckles and bracing herself.
"Hey Lynx," she called back, her back turned to them, "there's one thing I want you to know."
"The future belongs to all living things," she continued, "not you and not any computer. Someday one of us humans is going to destroy you and bring things back to the way they're supposed to be."
"If the Great Lucca couldn't defeat me," he smirked, "what makes you think anyone else can?"
"Maybe I couldn't defeat you," she said in a low, clenched voice as she lifted her hands and stared down at the bundle of exposed cables and wires, "but I can make sure that you never, ever unlock the frozen flame."
"Lucca," Lynx answered in a choked, panicked voice, suddenly realizing what she intended, "don't do..."
Lucca took a deep breath and grabbed the wires. Fire burned through her muscles and she screamed as her body convulsed against the powerful surge of electricity, her hands gripping the cables tightly as lightning crackled between her fingers and flooded her whole body. Pain engulfed her senses as a horrible black smoke began to drift upward from her scorched clothes, but her thoughts flickered with triumph as she heard Harle and Lynx behind her.
"Monsieur, stop! You'll be killed if you try to grab her!"
"We'll never get the flame without her!"
"We'll find some other way, non?!"
"The Arbiter is dead, there IS no other way! Without her the flame is lost!"
Lynx's voice began to fade from her ears, along with the city, the smoke and the pain, all of it giving way to a final, absolute darkness, her last half-conscious thought echoing through the darkness before fading to silence.
"Janus, if you're still out there...please watch over Kid..."