She focused, vision narrowing until all that existed for her was the target, and the crossbow. The weapon became a living extension, replacing her hands. In an instant, Princess Nadia fired, the bolt flashing through the evening air and embedding itself neatly into the bulls-eye. Within seconds, another joined it, and the Princess lowered the weapon, praying silently that she could go now. She knew that behind her, across the flower and stone courtyard, her weapons instructor was critiquing her shots, weighing their worth. She resisted the impulse to bolt, and clenched her aching hand. They'd been practicing for 5 *hours*. Wasn't that enough torment for one day?
Nadia's mind wandered back to the months three years ago, when she had actually enjoyed using her crossbow. Now, made into a perfect model of a princess, it was a ritual performed with little joy or importance. Another adventure would have been suitably pleasant, she thought, and turned to face her arrogant teacher. Miguel had been the head general for her father's army, before a training accident had caused him to lose his hearing in one ear. No longer fit for battle, he had been assigned Nadia's mentor, a position he had not wanted, nor enjoyed. And while Nadia knew he blamed her personally for making his life miserable, nobody else seemed to notice.
"Speed was poor. Accuracy good, though not perfect. And you were holding the damn thing wrong. Again." He sniffed, jumping in again before Nadia could protest. "Really, one would think that a princess could catch on quicker. My, our kingdom will be in trouble when you take the throne, won't it?" Nadia felt her rage coloring her face a deep crimson. God, how she hated this man!
"I'm sorry, Miguel." she managed to hiss through clenched teeth. "Can I go?"
"Sorry won't do, princess. And no. I want you to work on your hold again. And this time, if you don't get it right, we'll practice till dinner!"
She bit back a comment that princess' shouldn't even think about using, and moved onto the firing range yet again, crossbow grasped in a rigid hand. Shit! It wasn't her fault that her first teacher had trained her differently!
Nadia stopped and pivoted, a wide smile gracing her beautiful features. She was deeply in debt to the guard that was jogging over to the practice range, for interrupting practice. Miguel sneered at the young man, as he pulled to a stop, breathless. She threw her crossbow to the ground, and grinned again.
The soldier saluted and managed to pant out : "Soldier Kapp, Princess." Nadia scoffed, and pushed his arm down.
"Oh, poo. I hate that formal stuff. So? What's the problem?" She stood back, and placed her hands on her shapely hips.
"No problem, majesty. Sir Crono and Lady Lucca are here to see you. They're in the throne room now." Nothing could disguise the look of pure joy that passed over Nadia's features. Her whole face lit up in a smile that rivaled the sun itself and even seemed to make the whole courtyard as bright as high noon.
"Oh! Thank you so very much for telling me!" She jumped into the air in glee, then took off running toward the castle, before Miguel could even utter a statement about missing her lessons. Instead, he scowled dangerously at the guard, who shrugged and returned to his post, unfazed. Princess Nadia had always been a little excitable.
* * * * *
"Crono!!" The boy jerked his head up, a huge smile stretching across his face, as the princess threw herself at him. He returned to the embrace, and said to the delighted girl.
"Oh, god, lemme see you! How long's it been?"
Lucca, standing a few feet away, rolled her eyes. "Oh, *days*. Such a very long time. So, you two lovebirds going to have to be pulled apart by a crowbar?"
Princess Nadia, or Marle, rolled her eyes back at the other young woman, who was watching the whole thing with bemused impatience, then pulled away from her boyfriend. "So?" She said. "Why are you guys here? Anything important?"
Crono gestured towards the door. "Lucca's got something to show you. And no-" He added hastily. "It won't explode."
"I feel so loved." Lucca said dryly, pushing her glasses up her nose. Marle giggled, and nodded.
"All right. Can't you guys give me a hint, though?"
"Out of the question!" Lucca said, ushering Marle to the door. Crono followed, grinning at the suspicious guards. Once outside, the two lead Marle to the edge of Gaurdia forest, under a particularly nice tree.
"Why here?" Marle asked, confused. Crono slipped an arm around her waist and grinned.
"Because, dear princess, we don't want anyone, particularly some idiot guards-" He scowled at the word 'guards' "-to see what we've got."
"Fine with me." She replied, and snuggled closer, just enjoying his presence, even if she was a bit worried about the odds of some miscalculation on Lucca's part. "Oh, and Crono? You gotta get over that guard thing. They were just following orders when you got arrested."
He shrugged, as Lucca triumphantly pulled the surprise from her backpack. "Aha!" Marle squirmed out of Crono's grasp, and peered the machine.
"And this is?" She asked, blinking at Lucca, who sighed and waved her hand dramatically.
"Ah, the minds of today. This, Marle-" The inventor paused, much as she had done with Crono, and bowed flamboyantly. She dropped to one knee and held the metal box out to Marle, as if offering a sacrifice to some strange, blonde god. The latter rolled her eyes yet again at Lucca's sarcastic dramatics. " -is the brand new, improved, and non-explodable version of the Gate Key."
Marle, stared at Lucca, then at Crono, her eyes wide. "Oh..." she said, and suddenly leaned back against the tree. "Oh, my. I feel faint. Lucca, please tell me you aren't joking." The addressed looked annoyed, and knocked on Marle's skull.
"What are you, hollow in the head? Of course I'm not joking. Why would I?"
The princess felt a smile stretch across her face, and suddenly hugged Lucca, who cried out in protest. "Ohmigod!! This is ssoooo great!!" She squealed, and then let Lucca go. "So? When are we leaving? Oh, I should probably get my stuff, right? My crossbow? And I'll have to tell Father . . .he wouldn't like it if I take off again without telling anyone. Who are we visiting first? Are we visiting everyone? What about . . ." she trailed off as she noticed her friends staring at her strangely. "What?"
"Um, we weren't really planning on leaving right away." Crono offered. Marle frowned, dismay evident.
"Well, why not?" Lucca shrugged, her glasses slipping down her nose. She pushed them up with a grumble, then sat on the grass.
"Seems kinda sudden, that's all. I say we wait for a while. At least until after the Summer festival. You're going to be busy with that, aren't you?"
Marle joined her on the ground, and Crono followed. "Kinda, I guess. Father wants me to start 'keeping an eye on things'. So I got stuck with the most drunken holiday of the year." She snorted. "Humph. I hate all this responsibility crap."
"Everyone hates responsibility crap," mentioned Crono, who stretched out, arms behind his head, and closed his eyes. Marle fondly smiled, and ran her fingers through his hair.
"And you would know, wouldn't you?"
Presently, the conversation floated away from the new Gate Key, and time travel in general, towards more mundane prospects. And, as the warm, pleasant day invaded their senses, spoken words soon drifted out of existence all together.
The landscape spelled death, not just to him, but to any who ventured to the secluded North Cape. Below, the ocean's gray waves bashed themselves to death against the rocks, and farther out, islands of ice rocked silently with the water. The wind howled like some demented, frozen wolf, whose icy teeth bit through any clothing, and frenzied the falling snow into a white maelstrom. Without magick, he would have long ago succumbed to hypothermia.
Magus was oblivious to all. He stood on the edge of the cape, lost within some temple of his mind, silently gathering the mana needed for the task ahead. Eyes closed, head down, breathing so slowly that it seemed like he wasn't breathing at all. Inside his body, the magick pulsated, waxing and waning with each heartbeat, defying the cold, denying the strain of blood, bone, and muscle. This much magick in one place, it hurt, but he wasn't about to let pain stop him.
The decision to leave this time had been made easily, now that there was nothing here left to live for. Schala, Zeal, all gone. There were, of course, a few Enlightened living with the Earthbound, but they knew him as the Prophet, a man who shouldn't be trusted. And besides, their magick was already weakening. It wouldn't be long till it was limited to those non-magick techniques that the populace in the future used. He was the last of a dying, fading grace, the final glory. How ironically appropriate.
His muscles shook with a thousand pounds of magickal pressure, and a tiny stream of thin blood trickled out of his nose, freezing into red ice on his face. Magus couldn't hold on for very much longer before the tension broke his body. It was already bending. Inhaling a freezing cold breath, he began to chant words that emptied from the mind as soon as they entered. His skin took on a faint, barely visible phosphorescent glow, and a humming pitched high enough to be heard over the wind built in intensity. With a whirlwind of snow and mana, he released the spell, bracing himself as the gate spawned, expanded, and pulled him inward. Without a second thought, secretly pleased to get out of the bitter cold, he strode in. The blue light closed in behind his retreating form.
Krimla squeaked, and darted back as the bright indigo brilliance streamed forward to engulf him in it's hateful blaze. The prey had called light to help him, some horrible spell meant to burn away Krimla's flesh from his bones. The living mass of muscle and skin quivered, like a stinking lake disturbed by wind, and cried out for his master to save Krimla, help Krimla, oh, oh, hurt-light . . .
Follow him, you foolish beast! That light won't hurt you, but remember, *I* most certainly will if you fail on this trivial mission!
Not even light was as bad as that hurt. Krimla hobbled up, and squealed as the radiance began to pull him forward into the gaping blue maw. He scrabbled, desperately trying to get a handhold in the snow, watching with horror as the white powder just gave my under his clawing fingers. A second later, he'd been pulled in, nothing left. Not even an echo, for he made no noise, his throat closed up by terror. The gate shuddered, and compacted the entrance smaller and smaller, till it finally closed.