Halftime

By Aaron Ziegler
spanner@visi.com

Chapter 21: Time to Spare

Mastery of martial arts, as a rule, requires self-discipline and sharp mental focus. So it is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that Ranma's (arguably) most potent technique is one that requires a near total loss of self-discipline and a hopelessly skewed mental focus. This technique is called the 'Cat-Fist'. Ranma's father, never one to coddle his boy while training, attempted to force his son to learn this coveted technique by covering him with fish sausage and throwing him into a pit of starving cats. This indelicate training style had two effects: first, Ranma developed an overwhelming and unreasoning fear of cats, and second, he learned the 'Cat-Fist'. Provisionally. Provisionally, because Ranma could only actually execute the technique when his fear of cats reached such a level that the larger portion of his brain went into shock, leaving more animalistic parts of his psyche in control. Basically, Ranma would become a cat in all aspects except body. Potentially, a very dangerous cat. A cat with the knowledge of the 'Cat-Fist'.

"RRROWLL!" screamed Ranma, leaping from the pit and tackling an extremely startled Dalton. The two of them tumbled into the spring Dalton had intended for Robo.

Dalton evidently lost concentration, because the force fields ensnaring his remaining prisoners abruptly dropped. Frog grabbed the Masamune and wasted no further time in making his way over to the wounded Robo. "Cure2," Frog chanted, and the air shimmered around Robo's metal form. When the air cleared, Robo's gash was gone, and his power was restored.

There was a great deal of thrashing, spitting, and howling coming from the pond where the now-feminine Ranma was pounding on Dalton. Finally, with a feline screech, she struck Dalton and sent him flying out of the pool. Ranma scrambled out of the pond, looking as angry as...well, as angry as a wet cat. Dalton, amazingly, was still conscious. Ranma hissed and leapt at him, only to be knocked to the ground by a bolt of energy. Dalton looked bruised and furious, as he prepared to deal a more lethal blow to the recovering cat-girl.

"Lucca, Robo," Magus suddenly called. "Let us finish this." The two turned to look at the dark sorcerer and found that he was holding an egg-sized blue stone.

Lucca nearly leapt with joy. "You've got the Blue Rock? Hot dog! C'mon, Robo!"

Robo nodded, and the three shouted, "Omega Flare!" The bodies of Lucca and Magus suddenly began to flicker, appearing to exist in two places at once. Their four images formed a diamond with Lucca on the right and left, and Magus on the top and bottom. Magus's magic grasped Robo and lifted him high into the air, where the robot's body underwent an odd change. First, the two halves of his torso split apart, as they did when Robo needed to vent excess steam. Then, the luminescent green sphere in the heart of Robo's workings extended on a single piston-like rod. Four small cylinders emerged from Robo's torso to point at the extended sphere, positioned in a diamond-like pattern reflecting that of Magus and Lucca.

Now came Lucca's turn. Lucca began to channel an intense stream of raw fire magic into Magus, who, in turn, broadcasted it up to Robo as shadow magic, a type more compatible with Robo's energy weapons. The four cylinders around Robo's heart sphere beamed shadow energy into the sphere, and the sphere's green glow began to fade, gradually turning from green to black. When the sphere was too intensely black to look directly at, a black laser beam, thick as a tree trunk, blasted forth to tear a gash into the ground near to where Dalton was standing. Magus, still channeling Lucca's power, expended a little of his own to carefully rotate Robo to point his laser at the target.

Dalton had abruptly realized that Ranma was probably not as great a threat as the hideously powerful beam of black light that was chewing up the ground as it slowly neared him. The Sorcerer of Jusenkyo called upon Lavos for aid, and constructed a magical shield using every ounce of power Lavos was willing to loan him.

The laser beam finally found its mark, and Lucca began the final phase of the technique. Basically, she doubled her power output. Magus, no longer needing to adjust Robo, now had his hands full channeling Lucca's additional power, which soon poured forth from Robo in a multiply enhanced laser beam. The dark beam lashed forth, and struck Dalton's shield with a tremendous explosion of dark energy.

There was a reason that Magus was willing to participate in this particular Triple Tech. Lucca was by far the greatest magic user of the group in terms of raw power, but lacked the precision and control to make her magic truly effective. Magus, on the other hand, had spent years mastering control. The Blue Rock allowed Magus to channel and control Lucca's power using his own magic, a task he would normally not be powerful enough to handle. Throw Robo into the mix as an engine for further channeling and concentrating power, and the result more than made up for any diminishing of Magus's own techniques. When Lucca, Magus, and Robo had finally faced off against Lavos on their world, it had been the 'Omega Flare' that had finally destroyed the creature. It went without saying that Dalton and his second-hand magic didn't stand a chance.

Dalton's shield held for a few moments, and then splintered. Fortunately for the Sorcerer of Jusenkyo, the resulting explosion threw him clear of the direct path of the deadly black light. Dalton was stunned, and severely drained. He quickly sat up, and saw the wrinkled old woman whom he had imprisoned before. "Good night, child," the woman murmured, and then poked Dalton firmly with her staff. For Dalton, the world went black.

Six of the seven former prisoners gazed impassively down at the defeated Sorcerer. (Now that Dalton was no longer a threat, Ranma had completely lost interest in him, and had begun to try to lick herself clean.) The various Jusenkyo soldiers had (wisely) decided to stay far away when their master began to battle his former prisoners, and (equally wisely) moved even farther back once he had been beaten.

"Should we kill him before he wakes up?" Lucca asked reluctantly. The young inventor had little stomach for killing an unconscious man, but could see little alternative. Dalton was far too powerful with Lavos backing him up.

"That will not be necessary," Cologne responded. "He will not wake until I release the sleep-point I have inflicted upon him."

Abruptly, Magus noticed an aspect of Dalton's aura that had previously been hidden by the immense power Lavos had been channeling to the Sorcerer. His eyes widened, but returned to their usual contemptuous gaze before anyone had a chance to notice. "At any rate, I believe it would be in our best interests to leave him alive, for now." A few of the others glanced at Magus in puzzlement, but accepted his judgement. If Magus, of all people, wanted to leave an enemy alive, he must have an extremely good reason.

Ayla shouted to the cowering Jusenkyo. "Dalton beaten! Jusenkyo people are no more. Go tell army surrender, and we not hurt. Ayla promise." Ayla repeated her ultimatum in ancient Chinese, for those who, for whatever reasons, had not learned their master's tongue. The response was immediate, and positive. Most of the hidden warriors emerged and began cheering (evidently Dalton had not been the most popular of leaders), and several ran off, evidently to inform their fellow soldiers.

"And what about Ranma?" asked Robo curiously.

Cologne sighed. "Do not fear. She should return to--Son-in- Law! Do not eat that bug!" Ranma hissed resentfully at Cologne, but the beetle she had ensnared managed to escape her grasp. "As I was saying, she should return to normal once Akane Tendo arrives. She seems to have a calming influence on her when she is in this state." 'If only Shampoo were to have a similar effect,' Cologne thought bitterly.

* * * * * *

When Akane, Crono, and the others finally arrived with the Joketsuzoku army, a festival of sorts was in full swing, with the former Jusenkyo people celebrating their release from tyranny, and the former Jusenkyo conscripts celebrating their release from imprisonment. The Joketsuzoku were only too happy to join in the festivities to celebrate the end of the war.

The moment Akane came into view, Ranma yowled happily and bounded over to rub her head against Akane's leg. Akane, tired and distracted, was nonetheless able to resist the immediate impulse to hammer Ranma into the ground for being a pervert. Instead, she smiled and said, "Hello, Ranma. Good kitty!" Akane asked for some hot water.

Shampoo, for once, wasn't throwing herself at Ranma. She had her hands full guarding an unconscious Mousse from Lucca. "Stupid Fire Girl! Mousse no in good shape for see you now!"

"Like you care, you Amazon bimbo," Lucca snapped. "I bet you did this to him yourself! Outta the way!"

A resounding slap distracted the two from their 'discussion' for a moment. Akane was stamping away from Ranma, muttering something about ungrateful jerks, while Ranma himself (now male and no longer catlike) was massaging his sore cheek and looking confused.

Ranma's attention was suddenly caught by Troffimov, who was chatting with Ayla, his arm wrapped around the shoulders of a pretty brown-haired Joketsuzoku maiden, one who was constantly gazing up at the mustachioed Saxophone Tai Chi master with undisguised adoration. "Such charming customs your people have, my dear," Troffimov chuckled. "When lovely Rouge here challenged me to a duel, I never imagined that she intended to wed me upon my victory." The saxophonist smiled at his companion. "Not that I have any complaint, mind."

Ayla smiled. "Is good law. Ayla help write. With law, only strong blood come from outside tribe. Also encourage women to stay strong, so can fight off unwanted mate."

As Troffimov moved on, Ranma asked Ayla, "Is that true? Did you really help to write the Amazon laws?"

Ayla turned to him. "Ah, Ranma! It good see you normal again. Ranma make very handsome man, but very ugly cat!" Ayla winked, and Ranma blushed. Then Ayla answered Ranma's question. "Yes, Ayla help write laws to help make Joketsuzoku strong. Why?"

Ranma frowned. "Even the one where any Amazon defeated by an outsider woman must give that woman the 'Kiss of Death'?"

Ayla looked puzzled. "'Kiss of Death'? What that?" Ranma described the death sentence awarded to any outsider female who defeats an Amazon in combat, and how he had received one from Shampoo the first time he had defeated her (he had been female at the time).

Ayla snorted. "Is stupid law. Ayla not write. It do nothing make Joketsuzoku strong. It maybe make outsiders weak."

"It is, nevertheless, the law, though it will not be written for centuries," Cologne's voice suddenly interrupted. "And like all the laws of the Joketsuzoku, good or bad, it must be followed." Cologne glared at Ranma. "Son-in-Law, I detect your intent. It will do no good for you to appeal to Ayla regarding your marriage to Shampoo."

Ayla raised a questioning eyebrow at Ranma, who started to shuffle his feet. "Yeah, I was kinda hopin' you could get Shampoo outta my hair. I accidentally defeated her as a guy, and now she's tryin' to force me to marry her!"

"This true?" Ayla asked Cologne. The old woman nodded, grimly. "Was not intent of law to force outsider to marry, only Joketsuzoku."

"It is how the law has been interpreted," Cologne responded. "I can name six precedents without trying."

Ayla frowned, and shifted into her ancient Chinese dialect for privacy from Ranma's ears. "Ranma already in love. He not love Shampoo."

Cologne answered in the same dialect, though a bit haltingly, having never spoken it aloud before. "But Shampoo loves Ranma. Shampoo's welfare is my sole concern. Besides, it IS the intent of the law to strengthen the blood of our village, and I have rarely seen blood as strong as Ranma's. Once he is wedded to Shampoo and safely returned to our village, his other love will fade, to be replaced with love for his wife. Shampoo will be a good wife for him, and I have found no better husband for Shampoo."

"Is wrong!" Ayla insisted.

"It is the law," Cologne answered, nonplussed.

Ayla's mind whirled. She had never imagined that the laws she had written could be abused in such a manner. She had mistakenly assumed that it would be understood that an Amazon's defeat at the hands of an outsider gave that outsider the OPTION of marriage. (Though Ayla had also been of the opinion that few outsiders would refuse such a prize; the women of the Joketsuzoku were, in Ayla's opinion, almost uniformly attractive and energetic.) Completely unintentionally, Ayla had added to Ranma's burden. She recalled the unspoken vow she had made after training with Ranma by the riverside. She would help Ranma, if she could. And, there was, technically, a way. "Ayla know another law."

Cologne's eyebrows lifted. Ayla continued, "Is right of any Joketsuzoku to challenge elder when disagree with decision on law. Ayla Joketsuzoku. Ayla challenge you."

Cologne's eyes narrowed. It was true, though such challenges were, for the most part, rare. It was a long-standing tradition that to oppose the decisions of an elder was rash, and more than a little rude. So, through the power of social customs alone, the decisions of an elder were regarded as final (save by rash, rude fools like Mousse). But Ayla lived many centuries before even the roots of those social customs and traditions were established, and felt no such bar. "It is true, you have that right."

"Of course it true," answered Ayla smugly. "Ayla write that law, too. Law say also, Cologne can choose champion, if too old to fight."

The woman was deliberately mocking her. Ayla knew quite well that Cologne was more than capable of taking care of herself. Founder or not, Cologne was sorely tempted to teach the woman some manners. "Don't be absurd."

Ayla nodded, and shifted back to Japanese for the benefit of Ranma, who was looking hopelessly confused. "Ayla make challenge. If Ayla win, Cologne renounce Shampoo's claim."

Ranma was a bit worried. Cologne was a tough opponent. "And if you lose?" asked Ranma, a bit hesitantly.

Ayla shrugged. "Nothing change. Is right of all Amazons to challenge elder."

It sounded pretty good to Ranma. He knew from experience (painful experience) that he himself was, as yet, no match for the irritating old woman. If Ayla was, the fight would be worth it merely to see Cologne finally get demolished. "Thanks for doing this for me," he told Ayla earnestly.

"Ranma have many problems. Ayla try to solve the one Ayla helped make."

"Let us begin, then," announced Cologne impatiently. She was standing with her staff poised and ready. Ayla nodded, and adjusted her stance.

Cologne's eyes widened for a moment. Ayla had chosen a fighting stance that indicated-

"Cat Attack!" shouted Ayla, leaping at Cologne.

No, not the 'Cat-Fist', but something similar, if less refined. Cologne would not be surprised if this 'Cat Attack' technique was the forerunner of the devastating technique she was more familiar with. But even a crude form of the 'Cat-Fist' was likely to be very painful if not properly met.

Cologne's staff whirled, fending off the complex series of kicks, punches, scratches, and bites that Ayla attacked her with. Suddenly, Cologne saw an opening. A chance to finish the fight before it truly began. While blocking a vicious punch with her staff, Cologne jabbed a pressure-point just above and to the left of Ayla's navel. But nothing happened.

Desperately, Cologne lashed out with her staff, managing to knock Ayla away for a moment, but received a painful scratch on one arm in the process. What could have gone wrong? Cologne's exhalation-point had been flawless. Ayla's diaphragm should have expanded, abruptly forcing all of the air from her lungs. Not a fatal, or even serious attack, but it would have been enough to distract Ayla long enough for Cologne to hit another pressure-point, perhaps the same sleep-point she had used on Dalton. It should have worked, but obviously did not.

What Cologne failed to take into account was evolution. Ayla was a product of the distant past, and while humankind had evolved little in the 65 million years since Ayla's time, a few changes had been made in the human physique. Nothing major, but enough to redirect many of the lines of chi upon which pressure-point techniques depended. If Cologne had, instead, struck a bit farther to the left, she would have attained the desired result.

The end result was that most of Cologne's most potent techniques had been rendered all but useless, though Cologne attempted two more pressure-points before admitting it to herself. She was reduced to her more physical arsenal of attacks. Fortunately for her, it was a formidable arsenal indeed.

"Bakusai-Ten-Ketsu!" Cologne cried, jabbing her staff at the ground before her. The staff connected with the breaking point of a buried boulder, causing it to shatter. Cologne's precision with the technique allowed her to direct all of the jagged fragments toward Ayla.

The primitive Amazon leapt high into the air, crying, "Triple Kick!" as the fragments passed by beneath her. Ayla's leap terminated against the side of a nearby boulder. Ayla braced herself against the boulder, and launched herself at Cologne foot extended. Cologne caught the kick on her staff, and Ayla flipped acrobatically through the air to brace herself against the edge of a hut (which was, fortunately, sturdy enough for her purposes). Ayla launched herself again, and was once more blocked. This time, Ayla used the staff itself as a springboard to launch herself straight up into the air. A moment later, Ayla plunged downward, both feet extended for the final kick. Once again, Cologne caught the blow upon her staff--but this time, the staff shattered into splinters.

Cologne cursed herself for a fool. She had been so certain that she would win with ease. This battle was not going at all well. Ayla had already drawn blood (though not much blood; Cologne's old skin was tough and leathery, and Ayla's scratch had barely broken the surface), and all Cologne had to show for it were a few bruises on Ayla's body where her pressure-points had misfired. Worse, Ayla had destroyed her staff. Cologne had not fought unarmed (outside of training) for more than eighty years.

"DIE, STUPID FIRE GIRL!!!" Shampoo's voice suddenly rang out.

Cologne's eyes narrowed, and met Ayla's inquisitive gaze. By unspoken agreement, the two of them ceased their fight for the time being. This needed to be sorted out.

The two of them, along with Ranma (who had been astounded by Ayla's performance), turned just in time to see Shampoo lunge at Lucca, bonbouri at the ready.

"Protect!" Lucca chanted hastily, and a magical barrier against physical attacks coated her from head to toe. A bonbouri slammed into her gut, but its effectiveness was greatly reduced by Lucca's shield, merely knocking her onto her back. Shampoo struck again, and this time Lucca caught a bonbouri in each hand. "Fire," she snarled, and channeled heat into each spherical mace. The weapons almost instantly began to melt, flowing down around Lucca and Shampoo's hands. Lucca was immune to the heat that she produced, but Shampoo was quickly forced to drop the ruined weapons. Lucca threw the molten masses to the ground and, without a great deal of grace, lunged for Shampoo's throat. She collided with Shampoo, and both were knocked to the ground.

"STOP THIS!" Cologne commanded. Shampoo and Lucca flinched, and disengaged, glaring angrily at one another. "Now, what is the cause of all this?" asked Cologne, all too afraid that she knew the answer.

"She say Shampoo love only Shampoo!" Shampoo accused.

"It's true!" Lucca shot back. "Ranma doesn't want you, but you try to take him anyway. I want Mousse, but you keep him for yourself, even though you don't want him! You're selfish and heartless!"

"Ranma do want Shampoo! Ranma love Shampoo!"

Lucca raged, "Then TAKE him, and let me have Mousse!"

"Hey-" protested Ranma.

Shampoo rolled right over his protest, "Fire Girl no can have Mousse. Mousse MINE!" Abruptly, Shampoo bit her tongue.

"Oh, Shampoo," Cologne muttered, shaking her head disapprovingly.

Ayla looked stern. "Two husbands is too many. Shampoo need to choose."

Shampoo looked defiant. "Shampoo not marry Mousse! Mousse is weak, stupid-"

"-Mine," Lucca finished for her. "Since you hate him so much, I'll be happy to take him off your hands. You can have Ranma."

"Um, don't I get a say in this?" offered Ranma.

"NO!" shouted Lucca, Shampoo, Cologne, and Ayla. Ranma was suitably cowed.

"How about me?" offered a weak voice.

"Mousse!" Lucca yelped gleefully.

Mousse, having only recently regained consciousness, looked somewhat haggard and resigned. He had witnessed the fight between Lucca and Shampoo, and had come to a decision. "I know how to bring this to an end. Shampoo, I love you. I love you with all my heart." Shampoo resisted the urge to grin triumphantly. "I've loved you since I was a child, and I would gladly die a thousand deaths for you. More than anything else, I want you to be happy. But I've finally begun to realize that what would make me happy is not what would make you happy. If I were to marry you, I would be the happiest man alive, but your happiness would be forfeit. My happiness is nothing compared to yours. When Lucca returns to her world, I will go with her. Ranma, be a good husband for Shampoo. Make her happy."

"Why won't anybody LISTEN to me?" Ranma protested. "I'm not marryin' ANYONE!"

Predictably, Ranma was ignored. "Lucca," Mousse continued. "I do like you. I'm not sure whether or not I love you, but if it will make you happy and it will make Shampoo happy, I'll be glad to stay with you."

Lucca frowned accusingly at Shampoo, undoubtedly blaming her for Mousse's obvious state of distress. Shampoo herself was in shock. She had never expected Mousse to give her up. Mousse, whether Shampoo appreciated him or not, had become a pillar of her existence. He was also (as much as Shampoo hated to admit it) a safety net. If, for whatever reasons, Shampoo was unable to marry Ranma, she would always have Mousse's love to fall back on, whether or not she ever decided to actually accept that love.

Cologne studied Shampoo's trembling form with concern. "Ayla, may we finish our confrontation another time? It would seem that my great-granddaughter needs to study her heart in greater detail." Ayla nodded sympathetically.

* * * * * *

Some time later, it was agreed that something needed to be done about Dalton. The seven from Crono's world, along with Cologne, gathered around the peacefully sleeping former dictator.

Crono suggested that they should wake the man to interrogate him. Crono had been joyfully reunited with his eleven cats (though somewhat uneasily, knowing that they all turned into wolves in cold water; fortunately, once they had been fed, they were generally rather friendly wolves), and was eager to know what had happened to his mother. There had been no sign of her among the prisoners.

Marle shook her head sympathetically. "You heard what the others said. Dalton is just too powerful."

"With all seven of us here, not to mention Ranma and the others, we should be able to contain him," suggested Robo.

"If I might interrupt," answered Magus. "I believe that there is something you should know. Dalton is cursed."

A few eyebrows raised, but no one really seemed surprised. "Really? What does he turn into?" asked Lucca.

Magus shook his head. "No, you misunderstand me. That," Magus announced, pointing at Dalton, "is his cursed form."

Everyone was silent. Without a word, Magus reached into his cloak and withdrew a thermos that he had prepared for this meeting. He poured the hot water onto Dalton's sleeping form. Dalton's arrogant features shifted and changed, and his body became smaller. Soon where Dalton had lain, was a matronly, middle-aged woman, still dressed in Dalton's eyepatch and now-oversized clothing.

Crono's eyes widened as he recognized his mother.

Everyone stared for a moment with shocked fascination. Then, the moment was shattered by a loud explosion, apparently only a few tents away.

"Hmph," muttered Magus. "So passes the Dalton Energy Engine Mark I." Magus snapped the cap back onto the thermos with a flourish. He eyed the thoroughly unthreatening woman lying before them. "Now, I believe, our captive will be much easier to 'contain'."

Crono stared imploringly at Cologne. The ancient Amazon warrior nodded, and tapped the pressure-point that would revive Crono's mother.

After a few tense moments, Crono's mother's eye blinked open. "Crono?" she whispered upon recognizing her son. "Crono!" She quickly sat up, and embraced the redheaded swordsman. "Oh, Crono! I had the most awful dream!"

Abruptly, she realized that she couldn't see out of one eye. She suddenly clawed at her face, and ripped off the eyepatch. She stared at it with horror, her face becoming pale. She looked down at the rest of her clothing. "It wasn't a dream, was it?" she asked, hoarsely. "All those people we...he...I drowned... I...he...we were going to k-kill you!" Crono's mother began to sob. "I was going to feed you to your own cats! Oh, Crono!"

As Crono's mother cried, the others looked on with compassion. All save Magus. Had anyone been watching his face, they might have been surprised to see a look of unmistakable envy appear for a moment before vanishing beneath Magus's perpetual contempt.

"Does this mean what I think it means?" asked Marle, color draining from her face.

Magus nodded. "Somewhere in these training grounds is a cursed Spring of the Drowned Dalton. It is unusual, to say the least, to have a spring with so specific a curse. I don't believe it still exists in 1995. But more importantly, as long as it exists, anyone that falls in is going to become Dalton."

"That is really weird," noted Lucca. "But it makes sense, in a way. Lavos could use Dalton until he got himself killed, and then make another one using the pool. The new Dalton would only have the memories of the Dalton that drowned in the pool, and so would be happy to build a new energy machine for Lavos. I wonder if Lavos ever intended to grant Dalton his immortality at all?"

"Did Dalton even know about the pool?" asked Marle.

Crono's mother finally pulled free of her son's embrace. Still sniffling, she answered, "Yes. He considered it 'insurance'. He had made arrangements so that if he was ever killed, a prisoner would be tossed into the pool where he drowned himself. I was the first." She laughed bitterly. "Dalton was amused at the thought of using his enemy's mother for his revenge."

"Are there any other Dalton's?" asked Cologne pointedly.

Crono's mother shook her head. "None authorized. It really would be best to destroy that pool before someone accidentally stumbles in, though," she added.

Crono asked how a pool could be destroyed.

"Dry it up," answered Crono's mother and Magus simultaneously. Crono's mother smiled at the dark sorcerer, who merely grimaced.

The smile soon faded to be replaced with a more serious expression. "You also need to destroy Lavos, and the sooner the better. I'll be happy to show you how to get to Lavos, and then I can guide a few of you to the Spring of the Drowned Dalton."

"Wow," noted Marle.

Crono's mother smiled wanly. "Like it or not, I have Dalton's memories now. Might as well use them. Let's go."

Crono helped his mother to her feet, and the nine of them made their way outside to inform the others of the situation.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, a few miles beneath Jusenkyo, Lavos contemplated its situation. It was a creature whose structure was the product of the genetic and technological evolutions of countless planets, though most of those had been inherited from its parent. Yet despite the supposed genetic superiority of Lavos's kind, there remained a few primal components that had yet to be weaned from the genetic soup. One of those components was the emotion known as fear, and Lavos was now experiencing this emotion to a tremendous degree.

The fear began, perhaps, when it felt its cousin die. To Lavos's knowledge (and Lavos's knowledge included everything that it or any of its ancestors had ever learned), no Lavos had ever been destroyed. There was fear there, but also fascination. If it could acquire the genetic makeup of the creature or creatures that somehow actually managed to destroy one of its kind, it could be a genetic leap of unheard of proportions.

So, it had reached out across the interstellar void, as well as through time, to try to ensnare one of the creatures. The first thing to reach its notice was a simple teleportation portal, apparently generated by one of the natives of the world. Lavos connected to the portal and pulled the native through it. The creature it found was, regrettably, not one of the ones for which it searched. So, it reached out again, and this time, felt a flicker of a temporal anomaly. Reasoning that these Lavos-destroyers might very well possess time-travel, it diverted the path of the anomaly just before it closed. This time, it returned with twelve creatures, only one intelligent, and none of them could possibly have been the ones it sought. Finally, it decided to interrogate its acquisitions.

To Lavos's delight, it found that the first was familiar with the Lavos-destroyers, and, even better, had several ideas to help Lavos thrive on this world. The creature--Dalton, it called itself--provided descriptions of the Lavos-destroyers precise enough for Lavos to pinpoint them all, even though only three of them had been engaged in time travel at the time. Lavos transported them all to its world, but, due to the inexact nature of attempting temporal-interstellar transportation without an existing portal or time gate to connect to, scattered them through time and space. One ended up in the right time, but several miles from Jusenkyo. One actually landed in a spring of Jusenkyo, but several thousand years too late. The rest ended up on a large, densely populated island to the west of the continent under which Lavos rested, merely a few years shy of the date of Lavos's planned emergence. The Dalton creature seemed certain that they would find their way to them eventually, and encouraged Lavos to help it to conquer the world while they waited. The Dalton's reasoning, that a conquered world would be much less threatening to Lavos, seemed sound, and so Lavos loaned the Dalton the power it needed to construct the Cursed Training Grounds of Jusenkyo.

All had been going according to plan. As the Dalton had predicted, the seven Lavos-destroyers had converged on their time and location. But what it had not foreseen, was that they had picked up allies. Lavos didn't know whether these companions were themselves Lavos-destroyers or not, but together, they managed to overwhelm the Dalton, and destroy the machine that the Dalton had been using to feed Lavos. It had suddenly become clear to Lavos that these Lavos-destroyers, rather than ending up on its genetic menu, might very well destroy Lavos itself.

Lavos's fascination disappeared, and the fear became very real. The first thing Lavos did was to shut down the short-range gateway it had established between its underground lair and the surface. The gateway had been used by the Dalton on those rare occasions when it needed to deal with Lavos personally (most of the time their telepathic connection sufficed). The gateway was well hidden, but Lavos had no intention of providing its hunters with easy access.

Next, it began the laborious process of trying to dig its way deeper underground. The digging members of its protective organic shell-housing had not seen use for millions of years, since the day it first dug its way underground. It would take time for them to resume work. Lavos's proverbial heart leapt into its throat, when its shell-housing suddenly registered the presence of an intruder just outside.

* * * * * *

"Bakusai-Ten-Ketsu!" snarled Ryoga, stabbing once more at the rock before him. The rock wall shivered into fragments, revealing: more rock. "Where on Earth did all this stupid rock come from?" Ryoga wondered aloud, with more than a trace of frustration in his voice. "And where the heck am I?"

Ryoga was lost. Again. And, as usual, it couldn't have happened at a worse time. Akane had been only a few foes away, Ryoga was certain. Akane had needed him; there was just no way that she would have been able to hold out without help of some kind. So Ryoga fought, blindly smashing a path towards Akane. Which is when he had come across the rock wall. Ryoga wasn't positive, but he thought he remembered Akane fighting by a number of large boulders. So, there was a chance that punching through the barrier would lead him right to her. That had been hours ago.

"Bakusai-Ten-Ketsu!" he cried again. Another layer of rock bit the dust. And this time, there was an opening.

Ryoga found himself in a tremendous chasm. Directly in front of him was a huge wall of some sort of fleshy organic substance. The wall was glowing in places, which provided Ryoga with the wan light that allowed him to see anything at all. There were spikes protruding from the wall at regular intervals. Near the ground, where Ryoga was standing, the spikes were rather small, only a few meters in length. Far above, where the fleshy wall began to curve out of sight, the spikes were much, much larger. Directly ahead of him, Ryoga could see an odd sort of dome, divided into three sections. As he watched, the dome extended toward him, much like the head of a turtle emerging from its shell, stopping a mere foot away. The three sections split open, revealing a single, alien eye.

Ryoga was standing practically nose to nose with Lavos itself.

* * * * * *

Inside the shell-housing, Lavos viewed the life-form that had invaded its chamber. It was not one of the seven confirmed Lavos-destroyers, but it was one of their chosen companions. Lavos elected not to take any chances. It began to send the mental commands to arrange a full-power disintegration beam.

* * * * * *

Lavos screamed. Crono and the others had tried to describe the soul-rending sound for Ryoga's benefit, but their descriptions did not do justice to the chilling cacophony the bandannaed martial artist was hearing. When the sound died away, Ryoga noted that the eye had begun to glow, and was emitting a weak beam of light. A beam of light that was growing stronger by the second.

Ryoga Hibiki suddenly realized that he was about to die.

Afterword:

Ooh, the suspense! Betcha can't wait for Chapter 22!

Chrono Trigger buffs may notice that Crono's mother doesn't act much like the one from the game, who is rather Kasumi-like in nature. Crono's mother spends nearly the entire game at home, taking Crono's adventures and his bizarre companions in stride. Well, Crono's mother in this story, to quote Ryoga Hibiki, "has seen Hell!" She's been witness to some nasty stuff through the eyes of Dalton, and has lost something of her innocence as a result. She's still a kind, gentle person, but now has more experience--experience of a rather unpleasant nature. She's hoping to atone for the atrocities of Dalton by helping her son and his friends to defeat Lavos, the source of Dalton's evil power.

Chrono Trigger Tip #21:

Hey, that 'Omega Flare' thing was cool! Where can I find these Rocks, or whatever they are?

There are exactly five Rocks in the game: Blue, Black, Silver, Gold, and White. Some are easy to find (like the White), and some are bloody difficult (like the Gold).

White: This is the easiest rock to find. Basically, it's in a treasure chest in plain sight on the Black Omen. Just fight your way through the Black Omen, opening each chest that you find, and the White Rock will be yours. The White Rock enables the 'Poyozo Dance' tech for Ayla, Lucca, and Marle. This tech will deal moderate Shadow damage to all enemies, and causes Chaos (enemies affected by Chaos will attack anyone--themselves, you, or other enemies--with reduced damage).

Blue: Probably the second easiest to find, the Blue Rock is located in a half-hidden treasure chest in the ruins of the Reptite's castle in 600 A.D. Watch carefully as you explore the fortress--the chest is partially obscured by a section of rock. The Blue Rock enables 'Omega Flare' for Lucca, Magus, and Robo (as you've read in the chapter), a tech that deals heavy Shadow damage to all enemies.

Silver: Late in the game, return to the ruins of the Laruba village (north of the Ioka village). There will be a Nu at the north end of the village. Talk to him, and he'll give you the Silver Rock. (He'll also give you a chance to change the name of whatever character is in the lead, assuming that you've tired of that name, or for some other reason want to change it.) The Silver Rock enables 'Spin Strike' for Robo, Ayla, and Frog, a Triple Tech that deals massive Physical damage to a single target.

Black: A bit tricky to find. The Black Rock is located in Balthasar's secret room in the city of Kajar on one of the floating continents of the Enlightened Ones in 12,000 B.C. These rooms can be revealed by opening the Water, Fire, and Wind books in the proper order (namely, Water, Wind, and then Fire, as one of the Enlightened Ones will tell you by way of a poem). The Black Rock is not in a chest. It's contained in a Poyozo doll lying in the center of the floor. Anyway, the Black Rock enables 'Dark Eternal' for Magus, Marle, and Lucca, which deals massive Shadow damage to all enemies.

Gold: This Rock is virtually impossible to find unless you've been told how to do it in advance. First off, you need to set Cyrus's ghost to rest. When you do so, he strengthens Frog's Masamune, upgrading it to a more powerful form (incidently, the sword Frog uses throughout Halftime IS in fact, this more powerful form). Equip Frog with the Masamune, and set him at the front of your party. Now, return to the Dendaro Mountains in 600 A.D. (where you first fought Masa and Mune for half of the shattered Masamune), and fight your way through it until you find that annoying Free-Lancer that keeps throwing rocks at you. Let him pelt Frog for a few moments, and eventually, Frog will catch one. That will be the Gold Rock. This Rock, unlike the others, can only be equipped by Frog, even though Marle and Robo are also required for the Triple Tech. They just can't hold the Rock. The Triple Tech is called 'Grand Dream', and it summons the spirit(s) of the Masamune to deal massive Physical damage to all enemies. I think that its damage peaks when your characters are low on hit points (like Frog's 'Frog Squash' and Ayla's 'Dino Tail'), but I don't know whether all of your characters have to be low, or just Frog.

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