The Price Chapter 1
The Damage Has Been Done
A palm of sunlight waved over the serene Truce Canyon and banished a quiet layer of fog from the recesses of the valley. As the haze burned off, the nearby city slowly woke up and the townspeople began their morning routines, opening shops and shuffling off to workaday jobs. Aside from a handful of the occupants of Guardia Castle, nobody had any idea that a mere fortnight earlier, one of their own sons had embarked on a journey that culminated in the destruction of an alien creature disposed towards annihilating life as it was known. None of the lives in Truce village had been changed enough that such a thing could even be suggested to them. Only those who had witnessed the battle themselves had any idea what kind of events had been changed.
A trio of seagulls soared over a small two-story dwelling, and one of those witnesses watched the birds pass. Lying on his back on the roof of the house, the red-haired young man rested his head in the palms of his hands and stretched his legs with a yawn. It had not been the best place to sleep, but he enjoyed gazing at the night sky enough to endure the cost to his spine. As he eased himself to a sitting position, kinks in his back spent themselves and he pumped his arms in horizontal semicircles around his chest so as to loosen his shoulders. The faint bustle emanating from the crowds beneath him on the road gave way to a single voice:
Leaning precariously over the edge of the roof, the lad caught sight of who had beckoned him. Squinting against the rising sun, the dark-haired inventor Lucca waved boisterously at him.
"You gonna jump off or what?" she teased as she removed her leather-skinned helmet and held it in front of herself as if preparing to catch him in it.
Clenching a fist in mock anger, Crono swung his legs out in front and readied himself to drop from the roof into his bedroom window. While he did so, the bespectacled young scientist dashed into his house and scaled the flight of stairs to his room, hastily greeting his mother as she did so. An attempt to creep up behind him as he climbed backwards off of the windowsill failed; Crono instead sat himself down in the frame of the portal and grinned tauntingly at the inventor.
"Wish I could do that," Lucca mused, peering out the window towards the roof. "My mom keeps too close an eye on me now. It was easier to sneak around when she couldn't walk."
Arching a quizzical eyebrow, the torch-haired lad frowned uncertainly at his friend.
"No, don't get me wrong," she corrected, flashing her palms defensively at him, "I'm glad she's up and around. It's just that nothing good comes free, you know."
His frown melted into a smirk as she chuckled nervously, and he shook his head slowly while turning his attention to the sunrise. She watched his cautiously relaxed expression for a moment before speaking again.
"Was it a nice night for stargazing?"
Nodding her head, the mop-topped girl pulled the chair out from under Crono's desk and seated herself. Resting her head in palms propped up on her elbows, she continued to study his face.
"So," she piped up, "have you given any thought to that apprenticeship with Melchior?"
His face reflexively crunched into a half-scowl, and he grunted quietly. "Yes."
"Something wrong with it?" she queried, trying to keep her voice plain.
"Not with it," he mumbled, casting his eyes back into the house, past her and towards the staircase.
Without turning her head, she glanced as best as she could in the same direction as he. After allowing him a fruitless moment to elaborate, she tossed him a question:
"What does your mom think about the idea?"
Forcing a sigh through his nose, he returned his glare to the windowsill. "Not much."
"Doesn't she want you to go?"
Slowly shaking his head, the lad rolled his eyes before directing them back to the sunrise. A quiet moment passed before Lucca asked:
"Does she think it's a bad idea?"
"She thinks Medina isn't safe," he explained, arching a critical eyebrow. First tightening his mouth, as if he was trying to keep himself from saying anything more, the young man reluctantly aired his frustration: "She's old enough to know better."
"Well, don't give up. You'll break her sooner or later," the scientist claimed, straightening her posture optimistically.
"She thinks there's nothing more to talk about," Crono pronounced, throwing his legs into the room and bounding onto the floor by way of the desk. As it groaned under his weight, Lucca dodged to one side and replied as he jumped past her:
"Give her a few more days and she'll crack. Maybe this would be a good time to take that trip to Porre. You can show her how well you handle yourself in another city, and the two of you will be rid of each other for a few days."
"Who else is going?" he inquired, wandering over to the wall of his room and retrieving a sword from the collection he had amassed on his travels.
"Well, just the two of us and Marle," the inventor said, standing and following him to the wall. "It'll be a kind of reunion for the three of us. Beside, we haven't seen her since the parade."
Bending his eyes away from the weapon in his hands, the swordsman directed his gaze westward, as if he could see Guardia Castle through the wall of his house. With a guarded smile, he mused: "Yeah, you're right."
Moving towards the flight of stairs, Lucca tossed her head in the direction of the front door in a beckoning gesture. "Come on, let's get out there and do something. It's painful trying to get you to talk."
Smirking in reply, he meticulously sheathed the sword and fastened it to his belt, then proceeded after her as she trotted down the stairs and out the door. As he hit the bottom of the flight, he nearly collided with his mother, carrying an armload of sheets.
Huffing in irritation, she quickly forced a smile and inquired: "Where are you going, son?"
"... Out to see Marle," he responded.
Her eyebrows threatened to clench together as she said: "Okay, but be home for supper."
Nodding mechanically, he slipped past her and bolted after his friend.
* * * * *
"I'm sorry, but not even you two can get in the castle."
The soldiers stood like chiseled effigies in front of the gate to the king's stronghold, not moving in the slightest, but allowed their expressions to betray their apologies. Having originally met Crono and Lucca under false pretenses, they acted as if the two heroes should be owed a debt for the swordsman's unwarranted imprisonment weeks earlier.
"But we just wanted to talk to the Princess," Lucca explained.
Gritting teeth in frustration, the first officer to speak frowned apprehensively. "Listen, if it was up to me, I'd take you both to the princess myself. But I have strict orders not to let anybody past."
Stepping forward, Crono inquired: "Why aren't they letting people in?"
"We've been receiving an unprecedented amount of death threat messages," the second soldier asserted in an unwavering bass. "Usually one or two every couple of months is normal for the king, but the receipt has been tenfold in the past week."
Biting her lip, the inventor furrowed a concerned brow. "Wow. Well, do you have any idea--"
"That's all I can tell you, I'm afraid," the second soldier interrupted.
The first officer glanced sideways at his companion. "To be honest, we haven't heard much beyond what we just told you. They keep those of us on the outside privy to as little as possible, I guess in case we're captured or something."
"You mean all of the time?" Crono asked.
"Not really; just this time. Something about this whole thing must have His Highness worried. He keeps movement in and out of the castle to an absolute minimum, and only sends his most trusted people outside."
Scratching her chin, the young scientist laughed nervously. "Well, I suppose it wouldn't do us any good to tell you we have a message for Nadia."
The soldier's face once again warped into an apologetic smirk. "The chances of me ever seeing her are slim, and I can't guarantee you a response even if I can get it to her."
Moseying backwards, Lucca waved a dismissive hand. "That's okay; don't worry about it. Thanks, though." She beckoned to Crono as she turned and started down the path through the surrounding forest.
Following her tentatively, he kept an eyes on the second soldier for as long as he could, etching the man's partially concerned expression into his mind.
* * * * *
Squawking had never been as ingratiating a sound as it became to a passenger of the steam-driven ferry to Porre. Seagulls trailed after the boat for much of its trip, taking advantage both of its proximity to land and the captive supply of people who might have an extra crust of bread or dinner roll to share. Despite the numerous warnings of the captain of the boat, passengers often fed the birds, and their companions were left to deal with the animals' consequential begging.
Two such passengers made every effort to ignore the incessant screeching. Having ridden the ferry before, they knew that it would be a matter of time before the boat's path took it far enough away from the coast that the birds could no longer trail it safely. Until then, Crono and Lucca forced themselves to push the shrieking to the backs of their minds.
Pacing anxiously, the inventor grinned uncomfortably at her friend and declared: "You know, the Epoch is a lot faster and quieter than this, and there's less chance of you getting pooped on."
"Just one more thing to worry about," Crono replied mechanically, leaning against the outer railing of the deck and glaring back towards the village they had just left.
"Something wrong?" Lucca queried. Receiving no response beyond the further wrenching of the lad's mouth, she entertained the foremost idea in her head. "She'll come with us next time; it's not like we can only do this once a year or anything."
"Yeah," he trailed off absently.
"You're worried about her, aren't you?"
He glanced over his shoulder at her for a second, then resumed his study of the boat's wake and cleared his throat.
"She'll be fine," Lucca assured him. "They've got all kinds of guards at the castle. Nobody will get in." He persisted his silence. "Look... I guess things have been kind of off kilter for you, but it'll all work out eventually. You need to cheer up," she offered, administering a hearty slap to his back. "You saved the world, after all."
Finally breaking his frown, the swordsman turned his mouth up a little as he lifted his head and shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, I guess... you're..."
His eyes pinned themselves to the sky to which they had just been raised. An aberrant formation of clouds swirled several miles behind the ferry. Sitting alone in the freshly cleared field of blue, the mass of haze seemed to be tearing at the very fabric of the atmosphere. The air around the phenomenon turned a sickly purple color, as if the heavens themselves had been injured by the intruding cloud. Its ghastly agitation persisted uninhibited for what could have been several minutes; with an eruption of electrical energy, the spectacle exhausted itself and dissipated.
After following the swordsman's eyes, Lucca found herself as hypnotized by the display as he was. Waiting a moment after it dispelled, she asked: "Where... did that come from?"
"I didn't see," Crono replied flatly, still fixing his eyes to the location of the disturbance.
"I guess it could have just been a small cloud or something," the scientist suggested, adjusting her glasses and studying the atmosphere.
The lad said nothing, and kept a suspicious face to the same spot as the boat continued its voyage. His concentration persisted until a portly, balding man emerged from the cabin of the boat, positioned himself between Crono and Lucca, and whistled loudly in admiration at the sky.
"Did you see that storm out there a minute ago? Weird-looking thing, wasn't it? Never saw a storm that small way out in the open like that. Course, I don't boat much; my wife never wanted to ever since she got seasick when we sailed to Choras two years ago. Let me tell you, don't ever try it. I mean, we didn't make it there, so I guess the trip could get better after the first day of sailing. Ah, they told us it was a dumb idea, especially since it was the first time either of us ever got on a boat. But I figure anything is worth trying once; just don't tell my wife that. She won't even ride this ferry, and I tell her it's a lot different from a sailboat..."
As he elaborated on his story, the young inventor quietly sidled out of his eyesight and snuck towards the other side of the deck, leaving her friend alone with the rambling passenger. Whatever squawking a flock of seagulls could have made quickly became preferable to the hour or so of continuous talk from the complete stranger.
* * * * *
"No, no, the one where you've got that neat left-hand melody."
While Lucca argued with the squat, fur-covered piano player, her companion leaned on the bar and took in the ambiance. Sitting outside of things felt good for the moment, and he relished in all the surrounding activity that had nothing to do with him. In the Snail Stop tavern, arguments flew as easily as jokes, and the general revelry of the place drowned out the thoughts he had been trying all day to exterminate from his consciousness. A clumsy discordant banging emanated from the piano, and a flurry of anger ushered the young scientist from the instrument. Trotting back to her friend, the inventor masked herself with an obviously forced and comically indignant expression. Hopping up to the barstool next to Crono, she chuckled and admitted:
"It's been a while since I took lessons. I don't think I showed him the right song."
Confining his laughter to his nose, the young man hefted an unwieldy mug to his lips and downed a mouthful of the thick, bitter liquid inside. Lucca's face soured.
"How can you drink that stuff?" she inquired. "I can't stand it."
"It grows on you," the swordsman shrugged with a satisfied grin.
"Well, at least you've loosened up," the scientist observed, running her fingers through hair that had been confined to her helmet for the entire ferry trip.
"Not expecting it?" he asked, letting his gaze wander to the crawling blotches of red painting the evening sky outside.
"Fearing it would never happen," she replied. "But let's not get into it. We don't need to be talking about that."
"Yeah, give it another hour."
"I meant for this trip," she smirked, ruffling his perpetually-tousled red hair.
He sniggered and ducked away from her attack. The grapple died off when the Snail Stop's pianist began playing. Resting her elbow on the counter and turning away from him towards the musician, Lucca frowned. "That's not the song I wanted."
Crono laughed rowdily and tried to throw back another massive swallow from his mug, foreseeing too late the elbow rapidly making its way into his rib cage and being completely unprepared for the bartender's arrival in time to catch his spewed mouthful of liquid right in the face.
* * * * *
Emerging from the modest inn at Porre, the pair surveyed the quickly rising sun; Lucca made a passing mental note of its reflection off of the multitudinous slivers of grass sporting caps of frost. She began walking towards the western edge of town, but stopped herself upon realizing that her friend was not following. Crono had fixed his eyes on the same patch of ice-capped grass as she had, but appeared hypnotized for the moment by it. A timid breeze wafted across the lawn of the inn, barely stirring either the grass or the young man. With a steely glare, the lad eventually stared down the frigid vegetation and blankly raised his head.
"Well," the inventor finally spoke, "let's get going so we can catch the ferry home at a decent hour. There's a little shop on the west end of town that I want... to..."
Her speech decelerated as she caught sight of a rapidly approaching vehicle. Clamoring through the field to the north of the town, a small horse-drawn cart bounced roughly as it hit the larger rocks of the graveled road that reached out of the village. Its ominous pace notwithstanding, the cart careened back and forth madly, the product of a distracted and panicking driver. As the vehicle sped into the city limits, it suddenly veered to the driver's left, barreling straight for the pair. Lucca dodged out of its path, and Crono, freshly roused from his study of the grass, froze in place as the horses were fretfully halted.
Peering through the kicked-up dust, the young swordsman noticed the name of the market keeper from Truce emblazoned on the side of the cart, and the gangly driver as a fellow he had met once before. His face a mixture of sweat and tears, Fritz all but fell out of the vehicle, stalked up to Crono and seized the lad by the arm.
"Crono," he wheezed, "you have to come home right now. Your mother..."
* * * * *
Walking into town from where the shopkeeper's son had left him had not been a problem, but as soon as he beheld his house a thick presence congealed inside his head. His steps drifted back and forth, tracing a wavy path, and he could no longer hear Lucca and Fritz following him. Whatever was in his head began ringing, and he nearly tripped over the porch of his house and fell through the front doorway. The door had been unlatched, and he clumsily batted it open as he struggled to regain his balance. A couple of Guardian soldiers flanked a short man in a regal-looking waistcoat. Marching towards Crono, the man started to talk, but one of the soldiers stopped him. Whatever the soldier said to the official-looking man was lost to the boy, and Crono lumbered towards the other man, who was surveying the floor of the kitchen area.
The first soldier left the man in the waistcoat and took Crono by the upper arm. He said something, but the words blurred themselves in the dense, ringing haze filling the boy's head. As the second soldier tried to join the first, Crono pushed past both of them and staggered up to what was lying on the floor. His head lazily pitched to one side as he fought to gain focus on the object. While his eyes distinguished the familiar dress and apron, he forced himself to walk close enough to witness the entire thing. Recognizing the face of the body, his spine imploded and left a harsh vacuum in the pit of his being. Knees collapsing, he dropped to the floor. A hand went out to the body, but he could no longer hold himself up, and he slapped his forearm onto a crusted dark stain on the floor while trying to keep his body propped up. Before he lost consciousness, he noticed a rough leaf of parchment lying across the body; in the split second that his eyes took to review it, the message scrawled hastily across the torn parchment burned into his memory:
You have changed time irreversably.
you will pay with the Things that are most importent to you.
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