Disclaimer: I do not hold any rights to Chrono Trigger in any form or fashion, nor do I make any profit out of writing this fic.

Reviews: As always, thank you all who have spent your time on letting me know what you think about the fic! I can't stress enough how great having your story reviewed feels, although it's something that every writer is well aware off ;)

GoldenSunGeek: Thank you! I had to remove Marle somehow to keep the three in a party rule. Not that I had to (and I intend to change that later on), but I had enough trouble with managing a three on one battle as it was... o0

Shaded Mazoku: Thank you and I'm glad to hear you liked it! I keep trying to make the story feel real and add many details, but the exhaustion factor is unbelievable! I have no idea how people can do it easily o0 Anyway, Lucca's full reaction was intended for after she wakes up but it didn't make it into the chapter. I did try to make her struggle with her thoughts a little, so I hope it came out fine. And thanks again for reviewing!

Indigo Tantarian: Thank you. The seapuck will make a come back later on and Magus is nearly there (as far as POV is concerned) ;)

zipis1: Thank you! And I agree, many people seem to think that it's enough to write "they're friends" and that's it. But a lifetime friend is like the back of your hand and shares years of experiences! Aaaanyway, the Frog narration was intentional, although my aim was to show that was trying to distance himself from the events. Which is pretty much the same thing. And there some LuMa foul play in this chapter, but I will make up for it, I promise!

ShadowCatYumi08: Thank you! Yes, unfortunately I couldn't think of anyway the make the last chapter better, but as you said, sometimes one just has to commit such things. And Magus is nearly knocking on our door, I swear!

David Morris: Thank you. To be honest, I think I'm making Crono and Frog pretty flat so far, but I'm glad to hear you like Lucca's characterization, she grasped me the most of the CT characters. And I'm very glad you noticed my attempts to describe Magus without showing him. I've been doing something similar in my other fic for 120 000 words and nobody ever mentioned it! Shucks! Aaaanyway, thanks again for reviewing!

ladyvella42: Thank you! Ayla had to get cut out somewhat because the fic would stretch into impossibility if I tried to depict everyone thoroughly and in much detail (and I'm not good enough to do a good characterization and quick action in few words...). Unfortunately, I might also cut out the other Ayla adventure, simply because I'm very eager to get to the Zeal part. And I know what you mean about personal replied – it does feel much nicer when the author replied to you personally! Oh, and I hope that this chapter won't be disappointing!

The Dragon Sorceress: Hahaha, thank you, but don't torture yourself!

Quizer: Thank you! Hopefully, the Magus battle will not be disappointing... And Lucca will face herself more in the next chapter, but the 'doubting Lucca' is pretty much gone now ;)

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

Chapter 10 – The Loft of Iniquity

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

"Well, then," Lucca said, popping the small vial open, "bottoms up!"

Her companions uncorked their own ethers and all three tipped the vials, drinking the shimmering contents. They stood on Devil's Mane, not far from the exit from the undersea passage. Around them, the forests of the island swayed on the night breeze, distant whispers rustling in the darkness. The full moon crawling up the dark skies bathed the surroundings in pale glow, draining the color out of the world.

They had found the entrance to the passage easily thanks to the well-traveled path leading straight to it. The journey under the sea was damp, monotonous and long. They kept to the shadows, trying to avoid any possible and needless encounters, but still had to combat a few rogue Mystics. Victory came easily, but the long trek and repeated skirmishes left them thoroughly exhausted when they finally reached the other end of the rocky passage. Especially since all they had to eat were a few stale sandwiches Crono had slapped together hastily back in Lucca's kitchen.

But although the idea of hiding in the forest for the night and resting was appealing, they decided to follow Frog's advice and continue without intermissions. As he had told them, nighttime offered stealth and secrecy. Considering that they had little idea what exactly they would find deeper into the island, it could prove to be a significant advantage.

"Let us make haste," Frog said sternly, discarding the now empty ether vial.

He stepped onto the path that led through the woods and to the north east and his two companions followed. Lucca eyed the short knight pensively. He was even tenser than before and she doubted whether it was good for him. On the other hand, his determination seemed to have finally overridden his reservations about using the Masamune. When they reached the Chantas Mountains, they found that the entrance to the undersea passage was blocked by a huge rock; the path led straight to it and ended abruptly. Lucca had been already mentally construing a bomb when Frog turned to Crono.

"Hand'eth over the Masamune!" he said firmly, and Crono obliged at once.

What followed could only be described as another illustration of the Masamune's magical nature. The sword, which had been dull and unexceptional in Crono's hand, lit up with blue glow the moment Frog's fingers curled around the hilt. Winds picked up around them, lashing out at clothes and hair, as if the spirits of the sword were expressing their approval.

"My name is Glenn!" Frog lifted the Masamune into the air, his jaw set. "Cyrus's hopes and dreams... And now the Masamune... Forthwith I shall slay Magus and restore honor!" Jumping up high, he slashed at the rock. The blade didn't even touch the surface, yet the massive bulk cracked in two, as if overcome by the sheer pressure of the movement. Crumbling, the rocks raised a cloud of dust that engulfed them for a moment.

In Lucca's opinion, it had been a slightly overdramatic display, but it served its purposes well enough. The passage was uncovered, and Frog and the Masamune got together. The sword was now swinging at the knight's hip, jangling metallically as they walked under the dark canopy of branches. The moon shone in the skies ahead, a pallid hallmark leading them up the forested path.

Despite its foreboding name, the island didn't bear any noticeable signs of belonging to an evil mage. A few sharp rock formations jutted out here and there, but the rest seemed ordinary, not to say almost picturesque. Owls hooted in the night forest, dry leaves rustled when small rodents scampered away from the predators. On a meadow they passed by, tall grass swayed like a grey carpet and a hare watched them curiously among the blades, before leaping away hurriedly.

After an hour of walking, they followed the path up a small hill and finally saw their true destination. In the small valley ahead, dark towers grew from the base of a shadowy forest, stabbing at the glowing orb of the moon.

"One mystery solved. He lives in a gothic castle. Kinda big gothic castle," Lucca said, pushing her glasses up. They were still too far away to discern all the details, but 'gothic castle' was the most adequate description of the construction that bore vague resemblance to the 'ominous' architecture of Medina Village. Two round and wide towers rimmed the smaller central bulk, their roofs cone-like and sharp against the faint glow of the moon. Large arching windows gaped in the nearly black walls, some flickering with dim light. A statue sat atop the central roof, but all that was visible from afar were massive wings, black against the moon behind it.

"I doubt he lives alone," Crono turned to her in the darkness.

Lucca cocked an eyebrow. "You mean we should expect to find Mrs. Magus and mini-Magi inside?"

"He meaneth we shouldst expect hordes of faithful followers, ready to cast their lives away for their master," Frog replied impassively, his eyes fixed on the castle looming ahead. "Let us go."

He walked down the hill, his hand already on the red hilt of the Masamune. Lucca sighed, following after him and Crono. She could understand why Frog was so tense, but he was pushing it in her opinion. What was it that her father had said about Magus fighting with a scythe? 'Apparently, he had a sense of style', that's right. That was all there was to it. Magus fitted perfectly into the image of a dark mage, starting from having a name like that, through using a scythe, down to living on a secluded island in a gothic castle. Whether it was intentional psychological strategy or simple buffoonery remained to be seen, but it was hardly a reason to loose one's spirits.

Following the path, they entered the forest around the castle, keeping to the side. The branches stretched out above the wide path, shielding it even from the faint moonlight. They walked on cautiously through the darkness, ready to face any Mystics that could chance upon them from ahead. Soon, a low murmur of voices reached their ears, and a faint light flickered in the distance.

But just then Lucca paused, suddenly noticing a change in their surroundings. The forest around them was no longer green and thick, foliage no longer shaded the path. Because there was simply no more foliage anywhere in sight. The trees around them were barren, stripped naked of leaves. Their bark was dark, almost black; the branches were gnarled and contorted, like black skeletal fingers trying to grasp their clothes.

Frowning, she reached out and fingered a branch, somehow expecting it be slimy and rotten. It was not, but was unnaturally dry and clearly dead. And it wasn't just the trees, the undergrowth was just as blackened and lifeless. Bushes, shrubs and all. What happened here...? Why did the forest look as if it had been...

"'He calleth forthe the darkeness to devour them'...?" Crono whispered into her ear from behind. The branch sprang away from her fingers and her frown deepened.

"Oh, please," she scoffed flatly, "not only 'darkness' cannot 'devour' anyone, but even if – what exactly did the forest do to piss him off?"

"I don't know," Crono replied, "but if I did, I'd be sure never to do the same."

"Keep thy voice down," Frog whispered from ahead. He unsheathed the Masamune, his movements slow to minimize the noise, and cautiously moved towards the flickering light ahead, keeping near the line of the blackened trees. Crono unsheathed his katana and followed after him, falling into a crouch.

Pushing her glasses up, Lucca shook her head and trudged after them, trying to keep quiet. After creeping through the dead forest for a few minutes, they reached a large solitary archway at the end of the path. Black curved columns spiraled skywards and a stone gargoyle was sneering at them from the cresting beam. The archway was grotesque in its uselessness; it held up no doors and was attached to no wall. Just a pointless ornament. Yes, Lucca concluded once more, Magus definitely had a sense of 'style'.

Behind the incongruous archway stretched a large courtyard. A few minor buildings stood to the sides, but all were dwarfed by the dark castle looming above them. A large fire was blazing in front of one of the small buildings, to the left of the archway, and numerous Mystics were gathered around it. Some they recognized easily, Imps, Diablos, Omnicrones, Naga-ettes; others were of kinds neither had encountered before. The assorted group was celebrating something; clawed hands held tankards and mugs, sharp teeth bit on bloody chunks of raw meat.

Suddenly, one of the Mystics stood up and raised his mug. "Tonight, it's the beginning of the end for all humans! Lavos is about to be born! To Lavos and Maou-sama!" A roar of approval rolled over his comrades, who all raised their own mugs towards the eastern tower of the dark castle.

A small tug pulled on Lucca's sleeve, and she turned to see Crono's wide open eyes. 'Tonight...?' he mouthed to her and she could only nod. Tonight. It was still well before the end of the month history had given them and yet it almost too late. If they had camped out for the night, they'd miss the event by a hair's width. And they still could. Now was the time to get all tense and stern.

Next to them, Frog gestured questioningly to the eastern tower and they nodded in agreement. The Mystics' salutations were aimed that way, so in all likelihood, that was where they would find the master of the castle. Slowly, they crept among the blackened trees rightwards from the archway and away from the Mystics. Time was of essence and needless combat had to be avoided as much as possible. Leaving a wide berth between them and the partying cohort, they crept through the shadowy courtyard and flattened themselves against the dark wall of the castle.

A few feet away arched massive oaken doors, the last obstacle between them and the innards of the towering fortress. They moved stealthily along the wall, hoping that the shadows would keep them hidden from the eyes of the Mystics. The entrance was but a foot away when a wing of the massive doors creaked open. Their backs instinctively pressed against the wall, they expected to be discovered any moment now. But the Mystic that appeared from inside missed them completely. He sneezed viciously just as he stepped outside and walked right passed them with his eyes squinted and a hand rubbing his nose.

Now was their best chance, Crono decided as the massive wing of the oaken door was beginning to swing shut again. Crouching down, he sprang forward and straight into the shadows inside. Lucca and Frog followed without missing a beat and made it just as well, although Frog's cape was nearly caught by the heavy frame. The loud thud of the closing door was their sole greeting to Magus' premises.

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

A distant cackle rippled through the otherwise soundless corridors, making the small hairs on the back of the party's necks rise uncomfortably. Lucca's lips thinned. It's was annoying, the whole goddamn place was annoying! It became annoying soon after they found a staircase and followed it upstairs and just wouldn't stop getting even more annoying from then on!

At first, Magus' 'evil lair' looked in-style, but otherwise unthreatening. When the massive door closed behind them, they found themselves in a spacious hall, the ceiling soaring high above. Torches and candelabra flickered along the stone walls, adding deceptive warmth to the burgundy carpeting and draperies. Tall, carved pillars upheld the high ceiling and stone statues of gargoyles and bizarre chimeras stood here and there, further enhancing the gothic ambiance of the place.

They kept to the right side and searched the multiple corridors for a way to go up. The Mystics who had the misfortune to chance upon them were disposed off as quickly and quietly as possible. After following a few hallways they found broad stairs leading to the upper level of the eastern tower and climbed it quietly and warily. Unfortunately, the stairs led only one level up, so they had to search for some other means to go climb further.

And that was when the place grew annoying. On the second level of the tower, the murmur of the Mystic voices from outside that had been still audible on the ground floor disappeared behind the thick walls. Silence engulfed them completely; so absolute was its stillness that it was almost ringing in their ears. Occasionally, a haunted cackle carried from both nowhere and everywhere, making them jolt nervously. At other times, a rustle of leathery wings whispered in the shadows and red eyes of bats glistened in the darkness.

That was another annoying thing, Lucca thought irritably as she followed her companions under a tall arch of a doorway. The castle was dark and shadowy, but the darkness on the second floor was different than anything she had encountered before. It was heavy and suffocating, like a shroud trying to drape itself over them. The flames of the torches and candles seemed choked down, as if the darkness found them insolent. It was almost as if the shadows were... alive. Instantly, Lucca scoffed at herself. Nonsense! The place was creepy alright, but that was all there was to it!

"...sacrifice..." a coarse voice whispered from behind and they pivoted to face the attacker. It was the undead. Four pallid skeletons emerged from the shadows, as if birthed by the darkness. Red light shone in the hollows of their eyes and their fleshless maws grinned at the party hungrily. Lucca quickly stretched out her hand and called forth her fire. The blaze scorched not only the bony monsters but also the numerous pieces of armor and weapon around. In their search for a way to go up, they must've stumbled upon an armory of sorts. Various kinds of armor, shields, swords and other types of weapons were amassed within the large room, the metallic surfaces shining dully in the dim light of the moon that seeped through the arch of the window.

As the fiery rage shooting from her palm abated, Crono and Frog hacked at the skeletons, mindful of the bone-like spears. One undead crumbled from the waste up under Crono's katana, his fleshless hips and legs still stumbling about. Another shrieked ghoulishly when the Masamune split his skull in twain. But he too kept moving, swinging his spear wildly. Those undead were much more resilient than the ones from Zenan bridge, as if the eerie darkness of the castle was enhancing their defenses.

Lucca stretched out her hand again. "Why don't they just die!" she asked nobody in particular, once more engulfing the skeletons in red inferno.

Crono slashed at another undead with a grunt. "Maybe because they can't? They are the undead, after all."

Lucca snorted half-heartedly. But as ridiculous as the explanation was, it was actually the most logical one. Just as Crono and Frog finished hacking the skeletons, the chopped up bones pulled together, rattling against the stone floor, and disappeared back into the shadows. No muscles, no sinews, no brains, and yet they moved, talked and even seemed capable of forming strategies. And the worst thing was that it was hard to say whether they hadn't been battling one and the same group over and over again. They kept running into the undead, but since all looked almost the same and all disappeared back into the shadows when defeated, they might've been wasting their time on trying to kill something that couldn't be killed.

"We shouldst worry more about the living," Frog said, flicking the bone dust off the Masamune. "Magus' henchmen couldst very well be in the castle."

"Don't they have a war to keep an eye on?" Crono asked, his eyes on one of the swords hanging on the wall.

"Lavos' creation couldst be more impor... I wouldst not touch it if I were thee." Crono's hand froze just as he was about to touch the intricate blade. "Who knowst what dark powers lurk within it."

"Yes, who knows what you could get turned into," Lucca joked flatly. Pushing her glasses up, she moved back towards the exit from the room. "Let's go check the other side of the tower, there's no stairs on this side." After reaching the second floor they set out to explore the right side of the expansive tower, but it seemed to be the wrong choice. Despite checking all the wide corridors and multiple rooms, they found no means to reach the upper levels. Only the undead and some other Mystics.

Lucca left the room and her companions followed after her. Without agreeing on it openly, they followed the patches of light cast by the faint flames, even though the shadows offered stealth. But here, the shadows seemed to offer also a stealthy spear to the ribs, if not worse.

After another encounter with the undead, they reached the stairs again and passed them to investigate the rest of the floor. This side was no different than the other. The same dark stone walls, the same tall pillars, the same burgundy finishings and sculpted chimeras. And the same dead silence and living shadows. Lucca grimaced unpleasantly as they came across two rather magical Mystics. The unsettling atmosphere of the place kept grating against her rational nature. There was no reason to feel unsettled! The place was creepy, of course, some of the Mystics commanded strong magic, yes, but so far they've been progressing smoothly.

Crono finished off one of their opponents with a lightning and Frog sliced the other one nearly in half. There! They were doing fine and dandy and if things continued that way, by the end of the night future would be saved and she would get her answers. A happy ending all around. ...Except for Magus, but at the current moment he was even lower than before on her list of 'people to be nice to'.

The order in her mind restored, she continued through the darkness after her friends. Not long after they finally found stairs leading to the upper levels. The broad staircase spiraled upwards in a wide arch, inlaid with a wine-red running carpet. They followed the carved wooden banister up three flights, reaching an end to the stairs, but no warlocks.

"He's gotta be in good shape if he has to run up those stairs all the time," Lucca panted as they stepped out onto another wide corridor. It might've been just a few flights of stairs, but the floors here were at least fifteen feet tall each, so her breath escaped her and she was now hunched over trying to recapture it.

"Need a breather?" Crono asked sympathetically, tilting his head to accommodate for her current position.

Lucca waved a hand a straightened up. "No, no, I'll be fine. But I officially hate stairs."

"...Let us search for a way to continue the climb then." The Masamune still firmly in his hand, Frog ventured further into the candle-lit corridor.

They had hardly walked a few feet when a voice rang behind them, as if the owner had followed them up the stairs.

"Well, well, if it isn't Sir Froggy... Been a while, eh?"

They spun around hastily, weapons drawn and ready. At the top of the stairs stood a tall Mystic, dressed in oriental looking loose clothes. His skin was dark violet in color, including his pointy ears and completely bold head. Two features were prominent about him. His thick and wide, fish-like lips, and a very sharp and long katana in his right hand.

"It's been ages, Sir Slush," Frog replied deadpan.

The heavy and hairless, Imp-like brows of 'Sir Slush' contorted angrily. "It's SLASH, you slimy dolt!" He swiped his katana through the air but regained his composure. "Still playing the comedian, eh Glenn? You'd be singing a different tune if Cyrus hadn't been there with you last time! And it looks like you got some replacements for him. But don't worry, you'll be enjoying a reunion with your dear Cyrus soon enough."

The katana glinted in his hand metallically as he raised it for an attack. Frog's hands tightened around the Masamune and he secured his feet on the ground. But before the blades could clash, a throaty laughter chimed behind them.

"Trying to hog all the fun, Slash? So naughty!"

Their heads spun back at once. It was a woman, standing behind them further down the corridor. Slender and graceful, she wore a tight top, a short red skirt and a flimsy cape. Her hair was bound into a high ponytail and braided; in the light of the few candles it looked almost maroon in color, but it was obvious it was actually lighter.

"The pink-haired woman...," Lucca said pensively, recalling the story of Cecil, the waitress from Sandorino.

Frog took a step away towards the wall to keep an eye on both Mystics. "Keep your guard up!" he said tersely, "This is no ordinary woman! It's Flea, the magician!"

"Hey!" The woman stared at him in a mix of disdain and outrage. "I'm a GUY, you ignorant tadpole!"

To say that this was a surprise would be an understatement of the year. Lucca pushed her glasses up and squinted her eyes at the woman in confusion. No, she decided firmly, there was no possible way this was a guy! Not only her features were delicate and utterly feminine, with large blue eyes, a pointy nose and full rosy lips, not only her exposed legs were slender and curved just right around the hips, but her skimpy top actually left uncovered the curves of her breasts! And they looked more than real! Only her voice was less than feminine, it was slightly too low and throaty, especially for somebody who was otherwise an embodiment of physical femaleness.

"T, that is a guy...?" Crono stammered, clearly experiencing the same mental discomfort as Lucca.

The woman, man, or whomever Flea was, indifferently flicked of an invisible speck off the light cape. "Male... female... what's the difference? Power is beautiful, and I've got the power!" Lucca and Crono were still blinking in confusion but the magician ignored them and focused on Frog. "Poor little Froggie! You must be lonely now that Cyrus is gone. And to be turned into something so hideous! Dreadful! But since you've brought your new friends over to play... I'll show you all a good time!"

Without further warning, Flea threw a blast of fire at them, almost scorching even Slash in the process. The party rolled out across the corridor. From the other side, Slash attacked with both his sword and ice magic. Masamune clashed against his blade, lightning split the shadows.

"You take care of fish-lips and I'll put out the hermaphrodite!" Lucca shouted to her companions and darted past Flea and deeper into the corridor. They needed to separate or else the duo would have them cornered like sitting ducks. Turning back, she shot a blast of her own fire at Flea, making sure that the he/she was going to follow her. Behind Flea, the sound of metal clashing against metal reverberated against the walls as Frog and Crono fought with Slash.

When the flames dissipated, Flea was virtually unharmed, only a few puffs of smoke were rising from the girlish clothes. But the diversion worked. The epicene focused solely on the scientist. Great! Or was it...? The air around Flea swooshed with wind and the magician's cape billowed out on the sudden breeze. In a blink of an eye, Lucca found the pretty face of the ambiguous magician mere inches from her own.

The rosy lips stretched in a lazy smile. "Such an ugly little thing...," Flea purred, sending an irrational chill down Lucca's spine. "Wanna play...?" Suddenly, the candle-lit corridor behind the man-woman dimmed before Lucca's eyes, replaced by a black void. Only a pair of ice-blue eyes shone in the darkness, drawing her into them.

"...give in...," a husky whisper swirled in her head, "...give in to me..."

Her body felt heavy and lethargic, her thoughts dissolved into an incoherent hodgepodge of loose threads. ...Hypnosis! The realization worked like a spell, allowing her to grasp onto a shred of her own will. Clenching her fist tightly, she drove her nails deep into flesh and forced her thoughts into repeating the multiplication table. Two times two... three times two... It was more difficult than a marathon up endless stairs. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead and her breath came out short and ragged. The ice-blue eyes narrowed angrily, annoyed at the resistance.

But the combination of pain and concentration worked. Her thoughts pulled together and the numbness left her body.

"No thanks," Lucca breathed, lifting her hand up and sending a fire blast straight into the alluring face of her opponent.

Flea shrieked coarsely, staggering back. Her breath still ragged, Lucca dashed deeper into the corridor, reaching for her gun. Fire seemed to be hardly working against Flea, but bullets ripped through any flesh, magical or not. A sudden gust of wind rushed past her and she threw herself to the side, barely in time to avoid the fiery blast that followed the wind.

"Naughty girl," Flea hissed as Lucca struggled to her feet. "Scorching my face like that! You need to be disciplined!"

Before Lucca could refuse the new offer, the enraged magician threw a whirlwind at her. The blast slammed into her painfully and sent her flying through the air. The large double-winged door behind her burst open when her back crashed into it and she was thrust onto the smooth floor inside, sliding deeper into the dark room. Not good, Lucca thought as her gun slipped from her fingers and flew under a large table nearby.

"How dare you go in there, ugly!" Flea's voice, no longer purring but furious, rang from the corridor.

'You threw me in here, psycho!' Lucca retorted mentally, scuttling to her feet again. Flea burst inside behind her, carried by a strong gust of wind, and Lucca ran towards the other exit from the room, looking for a way to shield herself from the windy blasts. But to no avail. The large room seemed to be a study of sorts; books were spilling from the countless shelves on the walls; papers, scrolls and parchments were strewn messily over the large table and on the carved desk under the arching window.

Flea's wind washed over the room, throwing the papers into disarray and into the air. Like white petals carried on the pale moonlight, they lingered on the tendrils of wind, dancing in Lucca's face as she burst through the other double door on the opposite wall.

Shit! she cursed mentally, skidding to a halt. The room she just ran into was even more useless for hiding than the study that led to it! There was nothing inside except a large bed in the very center and heavy maroon curtains fastened around the tall arch of the window. Neither too good for shielding herself with...

"You're mine now!" the psycho's voice hissed right behind her and Lucca spun around just in time to get slammed by another whirlwind. The force of the blast thrust her back and sent her soaring through the air again. But her already tender behind was spared; she landed sprawled on the soft bed in the middle of the room.

The ice-blue eyes gleamed in the shadows, narrowed in fury, and Flea snarled at her. "You wench! Get off Maou-sama's bed!"

The enraged magician lunged at Lucca, for the first time trying to attack her physically. Lucca instinctively kicked at the advancing figure, shoving her foot high in the air. Miraculously, the heel of her heavy boot rammed straight into the epicene's face. The force of the blow threw the magician tumbling down onto the stone floor. With a loud thud, the man-woman's head smacked against the stone and only silence followed. The graceful body was no longer moving; Flea was out for the count, at least temporarily.

With a heavy sigh of relief, Lucca collapsed onto the bed, breathing heavily. What an annoying s/he! Not only was Flea creepy in some odd, sleazy way, but to get so pissed off because of...

Staring at the arched ceiling, Lucca blinked suddenly.

...get off Maou-sama's bed...

...Maou's-sama's bed...

"Ack!" She leapt high into the air, tumbling down to the floor right next to the fallen magician. Her head snapped back towards the bed and she half-expected the dark mage to rip out from the shadows behind it. But the room was silent and empty, no evil warlocks lurking around.

Stupid Lucca, she chastised herself, her hand up on her chest where her heart was doing some very irrational flip-flops. It was silly and childish of her to lose her cool because of a simple bed. After all, even dark mages bent on exterminating humanity had to sleep somewhere, didn't they? But, she frowned, why was it so empty here...?

Pushing her glasses up, she inspected the large room carefully. It was dark inside, the faint moonlight seeping through the glass-less arching window was the sole source of light, but even with the limited visibility one thing was plainly obvious. Apart from the bed and the heavy curtains, there was nothing in the room. No furniture, no decorations, not even a candle.

Although... Something dark under the bed caught her eye and she crouched down, her face nearly pressed against the cold floor. Reaching past the carved bed-leg, she felt around for the object, a book as she was guessing. Just as her fingers were about to touch the thick cover, a random thought popped into her mind uninvited: What if it was cursed like the sword Frog told Crono not to touch...? Rubbish, she chided irately and clasped her hand firmly around the book. There, she thought straightening up, nothing happened. She was still in her own body and still of her own mind.

Casting Flea a check up look to see if the magician was still incapacitated – s/he was – she got up and moved closer to the window, to inspect the book with the help of the moonlight. How odd, she thought, flipping through the pages. Despite her half-conscious expectations, it was not some satanistic bible or a villain handbook. In the ghastly light of the moon it was impossible to read the ornate print, but the colorful and intricate illustrations made the contents quite obvious. It was a fairytale compilation.

The find was so utterly incongruous with her mental image of the mage that she could only stare at it with a frown. Somehow, during their stealthy infiltration of the gothic castle her previous mocking notions of a quaint cottage and bunny slippers had flown out of the window and now it seemed downright absurd to her that the owner of the unsettlingly grim fortress would read fairytales when tucked in for the night.

A distant outcry made her jump up in surprise and her eyes shot up towards the exit. That's right, out in the corridor Crono and Frog were still fighting with Slash! Now was not the time to ponder Magus' odd choice of bedtime reading. But... She looked down to the book in her hand pensively, curiosity burning bright within her. Snapping the book shut, she pushed it into her bag, right next to her own thick tome, and headed towards the open door to leave the bizarrely empty bedroom.

But in the doorway a new thought occurred to her and she turned back to Flea, frowning. Right now Flea was out of their way, but it would be best if the state continued for as long as possible. Killing an unconscious opponent was a very grim option, but there were other means to keep the gender-confused magician out of their hair.

The solution came to her quickly and she marched back towards the curtains. The dark-yellow tieback ropes were the exact thing she needed. Disentangling them from the heavy fabric, frivolous tassels included, she returned to the still unconscious magician. In the accompaniment of a small grunt of effort, Flea was rolled over to face the floor and then tied up like a calf during a rodeo show, all four limbs sticking into the air. It was harder to do than it seemed, Lucca learnt, but managed to nevertheless.

"There," she told the pink-haired s/he, "now you can 'play' all you want. ...With yourself, that is."

Wasting no more time, she walked back into the study and fished out her gun from under the table. The books lining the shelves and the papers scattered everywhere were a mighty temptation, but one look at a human skull that stood on the heavy desk and had a candle stuck on top was enough to restrain her urges. Alas, poor Horatio, she sighed and left the shadowy room.

Out in the corridor a crack of lighting joined the metallic sounds of sword combat, and another sharp outcry followed. Picking up her pace, she hurried towards her companions, but found that they were doing well enough on their own. At the top of the stairs, Slash was crouched down painfully, holding his bleeding side. His breathing was labored and his katana was lying on the floor far from his reach.

"Impossible...," he breathed, glaring at the two swordsmen who had overcome him. "But falling in the line of duty for Magus–" he edged back towards the stairs, "–leaves me few regrets!" Without prolonging his goodbye, he jumped over the banister and disappeared into the darkness of the staircase.

"No point in chasing him," Crono noted when Frog moved to follow the escaper, "let's better look for Magus. The night won't last forever."

"Yeah," Lucca agreed, "not to mention that he could be creating Lavos as we speak. But you guys could first use a Tonic or two."

Both Crono and Frog bore the unmistakable signs of heavy combat. Frog only had a few scratches, bruises and frost still biting onto his cape, but Crono had a deep gush running down his left arm and a similarly bleeding cut on the right thigh.

"Thou art right," Frog agreed, sheathing the Masamune. All three pulled out medicinal items and Lucca helped them apply the greenish goo to wherever needed.

Crono suppressed a whimper when the last needed portion of the sticky medicine made it onto his skin. "I really wish there was some better way to do healing..."

"I couldst heal thee," Frog offered, "but we shouldst save our magic for Magus."

"Yeah," Crono agreed. They had made it against Slash and Flea, but he still wasn't entirely sure how they were going to fare against Magus. Magic was indeed of essence. "Alright, let's search for some way up."

"I think I know where to look," Lucca replied, heading back into the corridor. On her way she had passed by a shape that looked like a steep spiraling staircase. Her companions followed, but not before Crono inconspicuously picked up Slash's discarded katana. It didn't turn him into anything and was too good a spoil to just leave it like that. Plus, without the katana Slash would be only half the trouble should he make a comeback.

"Say," Crono asked Frog, "isn't Ozzie the last of Magus' cronies? Shouldn't we be expecting him to make an appearance too?"

"Maybe he's still at Zenan Bridge?" Lucca suggested. "Plus, he's not much of a threat anyway, he can barely move under all that fat."

Frog shook his head. "Do not let his appearance deceive thee. He mayst be a weak fighter, but his magicks are strong. And he is shrewd and cunning, using deception and trickery to ensure victory."

"Sounds like he fits right in with Flea," Lucca commented, recalling the magician's underhanded hypnosis attempt. They reached the staircase, for it was indeed a narrow, spiral staircase, and climbed the stairs cautiously until heavy iron door loomed before them. Lucca drew a deep breath, turning to her companions. "Okay, this is it. Everybody ready?"

Frog and Crono nodded, their expressions somber. As far as preparations went they were ready, at least as ready as they could've become in such a limited time. All had weapons and magic, and they had divided medicinal items among themselves even before entering the undersea passage. There was nothing else to be done, except for passing by the door and doing their best to stop Magus, in whatever way possible.

Receiving confirmation, Lucca placed her hand on the heavy metal handle and pushed it down. For a split second she considered that the door might be locked. After all, if she was Magus, she'd make sure nobody disturbed her. But the engraved iron surface yielded with a soft whine of the hinges. Slowly, Lucca peered into the room through the crack of the open door.

"Anything...?" Crono whispered behind her.

"Nope, it's only a vestibule or something like that." Her palm flat on the cold iron, she pushed the door fully open and the small room behind it came fully into their view. Even though there was no mage inside, it was clear that they had reached the top of the tower. The conic ceiling disappeared in the shadows far above their heads, held up by two massive pillars. Faint moonlight trickled from the narrow window and behind it the dark mass of the sea waved off into the horizon.

As they slunk towards the tall and wide door on the opposite wall, Lucca noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere. The shadows and silence were heavy on the floors below, almost oppressive in their intensity, but here something else, something new, coiled in the darkness around them. It was as if the very air was trying to pressure down on them, to crush the perpetrators who sought to disperse the darkness. Grimacing, she flexed her fingers, trying to shed off the odd tingle prickling her skin.

Ahead, Frog placed a gloved hand on a wing of the tall door and turned to his companions with an unspoken question in his eyes. Crono and Lucca nodded their readiness and the door yielded silently, exposing the true innards of the tower's summit. They slithered inside wordlessly.

The darkness blinded them at first, so intense that it was nearly fulgent, and even more oppressive and tangible than it had been below. Lucca felt her skin crawl slightly; a voice was entwined with the prowling darkness, low and discord, like a myriad of voices united into one dark sound. Evil mage casting his evil spells, what else, she told herself, trying to fight off the irrational shiver bristling up her spine.

Tightening his hold on the Masamune, Frog stepped further into the murky darkness, to follow the path outlined by the massive pillars that stretched forth from the entrance. Their senses alert and weapons ready, they carried on through the shadows and towards the eerie blue light ahead.

"Now the chosen time has come..."

Their steps faltered for a split second when the mage's voice slid through the darkness. Lucca blinked; the voice was no longer discord and unnatural. It was somehow both smooth and coarse and definitely masculine, but normal. Human.

The pillars, imposing and disappearing off into the shadows above, guided them deep into the room, to spread away into a ring around the dark heart of their charge. There, a crimson pattern shone eerily on the ground, intricate and numinous. Circles embraced circles, lines crossed with lines; a crimson seal pressed upon the black ground. Small blue flames quivered around it, pallid and wraithlike, unable to overcome the heavy darkness.

Their eyes locked on the foreboding figure within the esoteric circle. The mage. Shrouded in the darkness, he was but a dark outline against the feeble light of the eerie flames. His back was turned to them and they slowly crept closer, their blood pounding in anticipation and unease. Only brighter streaks of long light-colored hair stood out among the shadows, but the quivering blue flames gave off enough light to illuminate the mage's feet.

Lucca's grip on her gun momentarily loosened and her hand traveled up to her glasses as she stared at the sight in incredulity. The mage's feet, in heavy leather boots with metal ferrules, were hovering leisurely a foot above the ground... He was floating, as if suspended on invisible strings, defying the absoluteness of gravity with seemingly no effort...

"Exchange this world for...!"

"Magus!" Frog called out sharply, the blade of the Masamune cutting into the shadows between him and his enemy.

The feet shifted slightly in the quivering blue light and the mage's voice, deliberate and amused, rang in the room. "I...it's that stupid frog! Kissed any princess lately?"

Lucca felt her eye twitch lightly. Next to her, Crono's head turned to her slowly, his eyes as befuddled as hers had to be. What the hell...! Evil sorcerers about to destroy the world were not supposed to crack lame jokes and ruin the entire setting!

Only Frog seemed unaffected by the mage's unexpected turn of character. "I rather enjoy this form," he replied with a croak, "and I oweth it all to you! I have something for you!" The Masamune tolled metallically in his hands.

"Ah...," the smooth voice drawled in the darkness, "the Masamune! And I bet you're just dying to use it!"

The floating feet and the dark outline disappeared from their view in a faint rustle of cloth to reappear on the other end of the crimson circle. "Okay...," the mage said mockingly, "give me your best shot... If you're prepared for the void!" Two red points lit up within the darkness, blood-red stains against the shadow of the mage's face.

He was not taking them seriously, Lucca realized just as Frog dived at the mage with a terse shout. The clash of metal against metal announced that the blow had been blocked. Lucca pushed up her glasses. This was going to be difficult. From afar, the mage was a barely discernible shadow, only his feet, illuminated by the eerie blue flames, were a decent indication of his position.

Next to her, energy crackled as Crono focused his magic into a strong lightning attack. When Frog jumped back after exchanging a few more blows with his enemy, lightning split the air. Moving with impossible speed, the mage dodged it by a hair's breadth and the red slits of his eyes ignited with surprise.

"You can use magic..."

"Aye," Frog replied, "we hath learnt it just for thee. Thy time hath cometh, Magus... Thou shalt pay for all thine crimes!"

"I'm shaking with fear," the mage's voice jeered in the shadows, "'Thou hath' grown even more amusing than before, bog-breath. Go on, entertain me!"

Frog stretched out his hands, gathering his magic. Suddenly, Lucca felt a tingle ran through the air, like a ripple of energy before a discharge. But Frog's attack quickly masked the odd sensation. Blue waves shot from his hands, laden with moisture, and arched towards the mage. The dark silhouette took the attack head on and they watched in befuddlement as the blue waves crashed against it harmlessly and dissipated without inflicting even one ounce of damage. Was he impervious to magic...? Or was Frog's attack just too weak...?

"Is it my turn now?" the smooth voice asked mockingly. Light grew in his outstretched hand, and they threw themselves off to the sides just as multiple lightning bolts split the shadows. Lucca almost made it behind a pillar when the thunderbolt slammed into her, with force that even ten of Flea's whirlwinds put together couldn't boast. The lightning ripped into her like a thousand knives and she was hurled into the air, her bag flailing against her hip. The crash against the stone floor added to the painful trembling of her muscles and the dark blotches dancing in her eyes. A pained gasp somewhere nearby told her that she wasn't the only one hit.

"Impressive," the mage's voice drawled leisurely, "you're still alive." The shadows quivered for a split second, as if a ripple had run through the air. "Let me rectify that for you!" His voice down nearly to a growl, he uttered words that had no meaning to their ears and magic shook the shadows.

There was only one term Lucca knew that could describe what happened then – agony. She was rammed back into the floor with relentless force; darkness blinded her, so complete that she could've been blinder even if her eyes had been gouged out. And every cell and organ of her body felt like it was being torn apart, shredded with force so immense that there seemed to be no end to it. Her mind was pierced with a scream that could not make it past her constricted throat and it echoed around her brain, rattling every neuron.

When the onslaught stopped, she was flat on her back gasping for air, her body shaking uncontrollably. Something warm and wet slid down past her lips and she raised a trembling hand to wipe it off. Blood.

A faint fizzle in the dark pushed her thoughts onto the right track. Forcing her body into obedience, she reached into her pocket arduously, pulling out the strongest Tonic she had. They only had two of those each, but without it, she wouldn't even be able to stand up. The liquid, much less gooey than the average Tonic, streamed down her throat, almost instantly restoring a great deal of her energy.

Collecting herself from the floor heavily, she edged back towards the eerie blue light and the dark silhouette. The desperate reality of their situation had just crashed onto her mind painfully and there was at least a dozen feet she should be chewing on at the moment. Magus was not only real, he was also as powerful as all nine circles of hell combined! But this was no time to be self-conscious. Suddenly she realized why the trees around the castle were dead and blackened and what caused the skin prickling feeling throughout the tower. It was a side effect of the power that had just nearly killed them, that would've killed them were they ordinary, unmagical humans.

Crono's feet appeared suddenly within the quivering blue light and the spike-haired boy slashed with his katana at the mage. Clash of metal resonated through the room along with an annoyed snarl, "Seems like you need more help with dying!" A momentary flurry of heat washed over them and after another clang of metal Crono was sent flying back by a powerful blast of fire. Something flickered in Lucca's mind.

"Thou shouldst worry more about thyself," Frog snapped, the Masamune arching towards the mage.

A tingle of a discharge, a ripple through the shadows, a flurry of heat. And no damage from water magic after the tingle. The elements merged in her mind, finally making sense. When Frog's feet hopped away from the mage's boots, she stretched out her hand and put the hypothesis to test. The flames roared towards the mage, too sudden for him to dodge. This time, the dark silhouette staggered with a vicious hiss. Frog wasted no time on questioning the success and lunged at the mage again. The crunch of steel ripping through something soft heralded the success of the strike, but there was a price tag attached. Cloth rustled, steel clanged and suddenly the Masamune flew right past Lucca's head and off into the darkness of the room.

"Not so tough now, eh, pond-hopper?" the mage snarled, the red slits of his eyes narrowed even further.

"Get away from him, Frog!" Lucca shouted, blasting fire at the dark outline again. "And get the Masamune!"

Frog rushed past her just as a tingle ran through the air. Lucca leapt behind a pillar hastily, already knowing what was about to happen. The lightning bolt crashed into the massive pillar and a sharp outcry nearby told her that Crono had been hit. Holy hell, she gasped, covering her head as the pillar exploded and large chunks of rock were hurled through the air above her, covering her in dust. Either the mage just got pissed off or just got a boost to his powers!

"If you're done, you know where the door is, I'm rather busy here," the smooth voice sneered in the darkness and Lucca's eyes narrowed in the general direction of the boots and their shadowed owner. No, they were not done! And he was still not taking them seriously! But that was actually an advantage. If he reached for the big guns and that flesh crushing attack again, they wouldn't last much longer.

Further down the aisle of pillars Crono was groaning painfully, trying to lift himself off the ground, as it seemed. Lucca opened her mouth to yell at him to move it and use lightning while the mage was still on that elemental barrier, but closed it again promptly. As long as the mage didn't know they had figured it out, they had even more of an advantage. Casting a quick look towards where Frog was shuffling about to retrieve the Masamune, she jumped out from behind the pillar and made a dash towards Crono.

Another lightning split the air, missing her in mid jump by an inch. The thunderbolt crashed into another pillar, and this time not only this one exploded but also the one behind it, as if the mage's powers were growing. She skidded to a halt next to Crono and pulled him by the scruff of his tunic to hide behind the pillar on the other side of the pathway. Across, the Masamune jangled in the darkness, finally retrieved, and another realization split through her head.

"Frog, keep him busy for a while!" she shouted as she pulled out a Tonic to restore Crono. "And whatever you do, don't let go of the Masamune!"

Whether Frog agreed or not, she didn't know, but the purpose of the Masamune finally made itself clear in her mind. It was not to cut the mage, no, he was just as corporeal as they were and any weapon could harm him. But the moment the Masamune was away from him, his powers grew, as if they had been restrained by the presence of the sword before. That was why the sword was said to be the only thing that could bring Magus down – because otherwise the attacker would be dead before he got close enough to strike a blow.

Steel clashed against steel as Frog put the Masamune to use again. "Crono," Lucca said as her friend sat up, healed somewhat by the medicine, "attack him with lightning only when you feel a tingle in the air! It's useless otherwise!"

"A tingle...?" Crono questioned, shaking his still dazed head.

"A tingle, like a faint discharge of electricity," she explained impatiently. "He can hide behind some kind of barrier, that's why Frog's attack didn't work. Only the magic that he uses can harm him and it's easy to tell in advance by that faint sort of an afterglow in the air. Didn't you feel it?"

Crono's eyes looked to her with concentration through the shadows. "Yeah, I think I did... So when it's a lightning tingle, whack him with lightning?"

"Exactly!" Lucca agreed emphatically. "Now, come on, let's go help Frog!"

Getting up, she crept back towards the eerie blue light of the flames, where the clash of steel indicated ongoing combat. Her bag hit her hip again as she moved in a crouch and she pulled the strap over head in annoyance. The bag was heavy and useless at the moment and she chucked it behind a pillar on the way. It was slowing her down and she was not too fast to begin with.

"Whack him now," she whispered, turning back to Crono, "He's probably still on lightning!"

The thunderbolt split the darkness just as Frog jumped back from an attack. Judging by the stagger of the feet in the feeble blue light, Lucca's guess was correct.

"Annoying brats," the mage's voice snarled and fire blazed forth towards them right after a small wave of heat. They scattered about, trying to hide behind the pillars. The mage's magic was back to a bearable although undeniably painful level now that the Masamune was nearby again. Peeking out from behind the pillar, Lucca shot her own fire blast at the dark silhouette. And that's how she remained for a span of time that seemed to stretch into eternity; cowering in hiding and shooting fire when the mage used fire and shooting bullets to distract him when Crono and Frog were attacking with swords. Whether any of the bullets actually hit the target was doubtful considering the darkness in the room, but the technique seemed to be working fine as a distraction.

But just as she fired again and the Masamune clashed against the scythe, another question popped into her mind. Why wasn't Magus using that horrid attack that nearly wiped them out at first? Not that she wished he did, but it seemed illogical. One or two more and they'd be down for good. It couldn't be that he didn't have enough magic for another one, he kept dishing out lightning and fire and not even once did she hear the unmistakable fizzle of an ether being used. Then why...?

As if answering her question, a ripple ran through the shadows and the world crashed down onto her with agonizing pain. She writhed on the floor, her mind torn apart by the unvoiced scream of anguish, her body shredded into an incongruent mass of quaking cells. The torment stopped just as her consciousness was about to collapse into darkness. Black spots dimmed her vision and her body just wouldn't move, except for the shallow and painful intakes of breath. He'll finish them off now, she thought idly, feeling strangely detached from her last moments in life. This was the end of the road.

Time stretched agonizingly yet nothing happened. Her senses slowly began returning and she could hear the pained groans and heavy breathing of her companions. But no attack. Lifting her hand that seemed to weight a ton, she reached into her pocket for the one remaining strongest Tonic. No time to look the gift horse in the mouth, she thought dazedly, pouring the liquid down her throat.

When she lifted herself off the ground heavily and glanced towards their opponent, the reason for the lack of attack became clearer. Gloved hands joined the feet within the eerie light of the slowly dying out blue flames. Heavy breathing that matched their own rustled in the shadows. The mage was finally overcome, probably having finally ousted himself of energy.

Leaning heavily against a pillar, she looked to her companions. Crono and Frog had too taken their last strong Tonics and were gathering themselves laboriously from the floor. She glanced back to the crouched down figure beyond the blue flames.

'...to make sure that Magus would never create Lavos, we'd have to kill him, not just defeat him...'

Crono's words from what seemed like ages ago circled her mind. The mage was down, at least temporarily. Now they had to kill him. There was hardly any honor in that but the equation was simple. His life or the lives of millions in the future. She didn't even need to recall the image of the red wasteland and darkened skies to know that there was only one possible answer to the question. But that didn't make the sour aftertaste of the decision any lesser...

Crono rose to his feet next to her and she glanced to him, to see her thoughts reflected on his face. Could they do it...? Could they righteously execute him for denying people their right to live...?

The Masamune tolled in the darkness behind Crono, and Frog moved forward towards the crimson ring and the still heavily breathing mage.

"Prepare thyself, Magus," he said slowly, taking another step closer to the crouched down silhouette.

An odd shudder suddenly shook the tower, like a sigh of some monstrous beast. The lighter patch of the mage's head snapped up just as another quake rumbled all around them. This time, it was not a sigh, it was a roar. The floor danced under their feet, the weakened pillars crumbled and dust rained down from the ceiling.

"Bad timing...!" the mage breathed, suddenly jumping back to his feet and turning his back to them, "Don't wake up on me now!"

Lucca blinked, holding on to the pillar as the tower shook again. "Wake up...? Lavos...! Didn't you create him?"

The dark silhouette shifted irritably. "Fools! I only summoned him! He lives in the inner earth, absorbing the land's power and growing ever stronger!"

Before any of them could voice their astonishment, the mage's voice began whispering odd, incomprehensible words and a wave of energy hit them. It was skin-crawling and nauseating, faintly resembling the attack that had hit them but a few minutes prior. He was trying to control Lavos, Lucca realized just as the tower quaked again and a few chunks of rock fell down from the pillar she was holding onto. And she also realized another thing. If Magus was summoning Lavos, not creating him, and they had interrupted him, then a part of his powers must've been still engaged elsewhere during the fight. She felt bizarrely grateful for it, but then another wave of the dark energy hit her and she doubled over slightly.

"What's going on...?" Frog asked, taking a step back as the tower shook violently again.

Before Lucca could reply, a disturbingly familiar blue whirl grew behind the mage, peeling out from the darkness the back of a blue-haired head and pointed ears.

"A G, Gate!" Lucca gasped in incredulity. The Gate was larger than any other they had encountered before by at least three feet in diameter. She felt her feet being pulled towards the whirl and frantically latched onto the pillar. "It's going to draw us in! Grab onto something!"

With a thwack of metal against stone both Crono and Frog tried to stop their slide by ramming their swords into the floor. Lucca held onto the pillar with all her strength, but her hands were progressively slipping off the smooth surface. Unless the Gate dissipated soon, they were going to be pulled in!

"You," the mage snarled, "if you hadn't shown up...!"

The feel of the dark energy intensified and Lucca's stomach churned. Damn it! The pillar was slipping from her grasp; next to her Crono's katana slid out of the stone and with a strangled cry the boy was thrown towards the whirl. Lucca's head turned after her friends form and her hands slipped off the pillar.

"Ahhhhh!" She was flying straight into the still standing mage and flapped her hands in a desperate attempt to avoid the collision but to no avail. Pulled in by the immense power of the gate, she smacked right into him and her head banged against the blue-haired scalp with enough force to rattle her brains.

So he really did have 'flowing hair', she thought incoherently as the body she had smacked into yielded and all four of them were hurled into the whirling Gate. And then darkness closed over her.

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

Phew! I wouldn't have been more exhausted even if I had just given birth to an elephant! Which is why the chapter ended sooner than I intended, I wanted to include their awakening, but I'm too dead tired to bother with proper closure.

Anyway, since it was such a massive effort (especially since I've never written such a huge amount of action before... or much of any action for that matter), I would like to ask the readers for honest opinions. To make it easier, I'll specify what I'm interested in.

1. Did the introduction, i.e. everything before the fight with Flea and Slash drag? Did you feel compelled to skip it or actually skipped it?

2. Were the descriptions of the scenery and setting helpful to visualize the thing or were they too much?

3. And of course – was the fight with Magus easy to follow and enjoyable?

Please, don't hesitate to tell me what you found to be ill-written or off! Even a biting critique can be more useful than just simple praise.

Oh, and I know I made them fight practically in the dark, ergo never get to see Magus properly, but trust me, it's a very useful plot contrivance ;) And if Flea came off as weird, then all is well, since it will be explained later on.