Crono and his companions challenged everything in order to save the future. Still, they were only one group of adventurers to travel the sea of time. Now a new group of heroes have their own challe...
Flare had hoped to catch Gina's boat right away. He figured even if Tai and himself were dog tired, they'd still be able to catch up to her. After all, they had two people paddling to her one; however, Gina's boat moved with uncanny speed, away from the coast, and further out to the deeper waters of the sea.
"How...how is she moving so fast?" panted Tai. It took all that the two of them could muster just to keep up with her.
Flare shook his head. He was wondering the same thing. There was no way for Gina to out paddle them both. Even if they were both physically exhausted, it just wasn't possible. Thanks to their hard, occasionally harsh, training at the hands of Refla, the two of them were at the peak of physical condition.
"Paddle harder," directed Flare. "The sun's almost gone, and if we don't stay close we'll lose her in the dark."
They both gave a burst of energy that pushed their boat forward with enough speed to keep Gina in sight. It wasn't long before the sun completely vanished, and they could barely make out the form of her stolen boat in the starlight.
They paddled in silence as the coast grew smaller, and smaller. Even if they had wanted to speak, they didn't have the breath to waste on words. Soon the lights from the coast were difficult to make out, even in the dark of night. How far had they gone? It felt like they had been paddling their stolen boat for over an hour.
"She's stopping," Tai announced with an audible sigh of relief. "It looks like she's come to and island or something."
"Wait," said Flare. "The only island that should be out here is Ratcleff Isle."
"That's right." Tai agreed, and then added with a touch of unease, "Isn't it suppose to be haunted or something?"
"That's what they say, but it doesn't matter. Something's not right, and I intended on finding out what's going on."
Up ahead they could see Gina climbing out of her boat, and onto the sandy beach of the supposedly haunted isle. Many centuries ago the isle had been named after the Ratcleff Fortress that stood upon it. At the start of the Great War, a band of mystics laid siege to the fortress, slaughtering it's human owners. It was rumored to be haunted ever since, and nobody human or mystic had claimed the isle thereafter.
By the time they reached the isle themselves, Gina had already vanished into the darkness. The island seemed to be unnaturally dark, and the air had a damp chilling quality that brought an image of graveyards into Flare's head. "Hey Gin! Where'd you go?" He called into the darkness.
Getting no response, the two tired, worried, and cold friends climbed from their hijacked boat, and onto the island shore. The air seemed to stand perfectly still, but even without a breeze the air was cold and wet. The only sound that could be heard as they marched through the darkness, was the soft crunching of sand underneath their feet.
Tai shivered in the chill night air. He wished that he had brought his jacket, but there had been no way of knowing that they'd end up on a haunted island, miles away from shore. Worse than the cold; though, was the creepy atmosphere that the island gave off. It seemed to ooze from the darkness like a foul stench. A foul, yet somehow odorless stench.
"Something doesn't seem right," whispered Tai. Why he chose to whisper he couldn't say. Anything on the island would already know of their arrival, due to Flare's first call to Gina.
"Nothing seems right," corrected Flare. "This island, the way Gina's acting, this damned darkness. Where the hell'd all the stars go?"
Tai just shrugged at Flare's rhetorical question. A gesture that was all but pointless in the suffocating dark.
Now they traveled in complete silence. They had cleared the sandy beach, and were now walking through grass. Tai realized just how comforting the soft crunch-crunch of the sand really was. The silence was now as deep and unnatural as the dark, and what made it worse was that both seemed to be deepening.
Each step they took seemed to make things a little darker, and a little quieter. It felt as if they were walking into a gaping black hole. The world behind them was long gone, and from here all they could do was walk further into oblivion.
Tai couldn't take it anymore. "Gina! We know you're on this island! Answer us! Say something! Anything!" He shouted without expecting a response. He was desperate to break the silence. If he didn't shout, he thought he might start screaming instead.
But he did get a response, not the verbal kind, not even a nonverbal noise. Instead, a bright bluish light burst from the darkness, a mere fifty or sixty yards away.
They could now see through the seemingly endless dark. Not just in front of them, but all around them. It was like the bluish light had returned the very stars to the sky. They stood before a large crumbling gateway that led into the ruins of a stone fortress.
"I'll be damned," muttered Flare. "It's the ruins of Ratcleff Fortress."
"Never thought I'd be here, especially not at night," admitted Tai.
They entered the gateway and walked into ruins. The light was coming from a room further into the ruins. Flare led the way through the deserted hallway, and into the very gut of the forsaken place. With light returned to the world, the silence also vanished. Their shoes had started making reassuring clicks against the stone floor.
At last they came to the room where the light had come from. It was a large room that at some point must have served as a grand meeting hall. The light was being emitted from iron torches that were placed around the outline of the room in a circular pattern. Standing in the middle of the torch lit room was Gina.
Flare cautiously stepped into the room and called out softly, almost fearing that his very breath might extinguish the torches and plunge them back into the darkness. "Hey Gin, it's me, Flare. What's going on? What's the matter?"
"Nothing is the matter, Flare. What would give you that impression?" A voice answered.
Flare jumped. The voice had come from Gina's direction, but it wasn't Gina. This was a high cold voice, nothing like Gina's warm and up beat voice, which brought a smile to Flare's face whenever he heard it. No, this voice was cold and mocking. Its very sound made Flare shiver. Plus, the voice belonged to a man, undeniably so.
"Who's there? Show yourself!" Flare demanded, scanning the room to see where the mystery voice had originated from.
"I'm right here. Can you not see me, dearest Flare? I'm right in front of you." Even as the voice began to speak, a form started taking shape along side of Gina. By time it had finished speaking, a man stood to the right of Gina's unmoving body.
Both Flare and Tai gasped. The man had appeared out of nowhere! Had he been there the whole time? Had he been invisible?
The man laughed at their surprise. A laugh that made his voice sound jolly by comparison. Flare had another case of the shivers as he beheld the strange and frightening man.
The man was dressed entirely in black causing him to blend in with the shadowy surroundings of the fortress. Not many details about his face could be made out in the dim lighting. The man's very appearance had caused the once brilliant torchlight to dampen. His hair was black (or some other dark color) and was reflecting the blue torch light, almost as if each strand was made from glass.
"Who are you? And how do you know my name?" Flare demanded, not backing down despite his growing fear.
"Pardon me, where have my manners gone? I am called Xavius, and I know that you are Flare, and I know who you are too, Tai. I know these things because I have been watching you."
"Watching us? Why?" Flare tried to sound confidant, but in truth he felt weak and puny.
"Well, not watching you really, but watching this girl. Gina. I just know about you through her," he answered correcting himself.
"What...do you want...with Gina?" Flare's voice was a deadly calm. All fear had been replaced with a growing red hot rage.
"You would not understand my designs I'm afraid, for my plans are above the comprehension of lowly riffraff such as yourself," he remarked casually. "But I assure you that she is very, very important to my ultimate goal."
"And just what, do you plan on doing with her?" Flare's voice still held its razor tipped calm, but his body was now trembling with fury.
"Oh, don't fret Flare. I promise that she shall not be harmed. I need her alive and well. Unfortunately, I will be taking her far away from here. Someplace where you will not be able to follow me, no matter how much you might like to try, and I doubt very much that you should ever see her again. So say your goodbyes and I will be on my way," his voice was as sing-songish as it was cold.
"Okay," Flare agreed. His rage had come to a boiling point and he could no longer keep the tremor of fury out of his voice. He glared at the black clothed man and said between clenched teeth, "Goodbye."
Overcome with rage Flare charged Xavius with abandon. Refla would have scolded him for such a reckless maneuver. 'Never attack without a plan,' had been one of Refla's principle teachings.
But Flare was out of options, and even in his highly emotional state he knew that he was at a major disadvantage. He was caught weaponless against an unknown opponent, and to make matters worse, fleeing wasn't an option. If he had to choose between dying and giving up Gina, he would die. No choice. No thinking.
Flare had hoped that his sudden attack would catch the mystery man off guard. How he longed for a sword! He wished for nothing more than a long sharp blade. At that moment he would have found the greatest pleasure in running Xavius through with a fine edged weapon of war. This man was trying to take the most important person in his life away from him, and Flare would stop him. Had to stop him.
Xavius was not surprised by the sudden rush. He in fact had expected no less from the headstrong youth. The sorcerer extended his arm and pointed at his charging adversary. When the boy was only feet away from the outstretched appendage, Xavius flicked his wrist upward. The air wavered for an instant, as if it had turned into rippling water, and Flare was sent flying back the way he had come.
He slammed hard into the ground and continued to slide backwards until he was stopped by the opposite wall. The breath rushed from his lungs in a violent whoosh as he impacted against the stone. Despite his rage and desperation, Flare could do nothing but lay on the cold stone floor moaning in agony.
The dark sorcerer laughed at the sight. "Temper, temper. Nobody likes a sore loser, Flare."
"You son of a bitch!" roared Tai who had stood by idly long enough. Knowing how futile another charge would be, he scanned his surroundings for some form of weaponry. Settling for a large chunk of stone from the crumbling wall, he lifted it into his powerful arms. Mustering all the strength that he could, Tai heaved the heavy stone across the room with surprising force.
A simple wave of Xavius's hand was more than sufficient in stopping the projectile in mid flight. A second wave sent the stone hurdling back toward its thrower. Tai reflexively dropped to the ground, but Xavius fired a bolt of energy into the airborne stone causing it to explode directly over Tai.
Tai screamed as his back was pelted with shrapnel. He could feel warm blood rise where the pieces of stone had torn into his skin.
Regaining himself at last, Flare rose to his feet. He glared at the sorcerer with an unbridled hate. To his left Tai was rising as well. He was injured and plenty bloody, but none of his injuries looked life threatening.
The two shared a quick glance and a nod before charging in unison. Xavius laughed at the foolish attempt. How much would it take before the two of them caught on? There was to be only one victor on Ratcleff Island that night, and that victor would be Xavius.
He made an exaggerated hand clapping gesture as the two figures rushed him. The air wavered on both sides of the charging friends. The impact sent them flying together with a sharp crack as their heads collided.
This time neither one stood back up. Flare tried to rise again, but he fell back to the cracked and cold stone floor. His eyes were dazed and foggy as they regarded the man who stood in front of them, the man who had beat them with so little effort, the man who was about to steal the girl he loved.
Xavius waited until both companions were coherent before he continued, "Now that you have said your 'goodbyes' I shall allow Gina to say hers."
The life seemed to flood back into Gina's previously vacant eyes. She glanced around, unsure of her surroundings until she laid eyes on her two would be rescuers. Then it all came back to her. She remembered the man in black, and she remembered his magic and her fear. "Oh god! Help me, Flare! Pleas-," she started to shriek in panic as soon as she came to fully grasp what was happening, but her cry was cut short as Xavius put her into the trance once more.
Flare heard her plea for help and saw the light drain out of her eyes as she fell back under the man's wicked spell. He wanted to do something for her, or say something to her. At the very least comfort her, but his head was still ringing in agony, and he could barely move. His heart tore in two as he lay there helpless.
"Now I want you both to watch very closely. I'm about to show you a trick that you'll never see again." He spoke slowly, as if to small children who were either too young or too dimwitted to comprehend.
Xavius raised his left arm above his head as his right hand clasped Gina's forearm. He started to chanted. It was too soft for either Flare or Tai to understand, but each word carried around the room in silent echoes. A faint aura started to glow around Xavius as he extended his magical powers to their peak.
Then all at once a brilliant blue light erupted from behind him. It came from a large blue circle, that swirled and spiraled like an insane whirlpool. Xavius stepped backwards into the spiraling blue lightshow, taking Gina with him.
Flare and Tai watched in disbelief as Gina vanished into the portal. Then it closed, and they were all alone, in the ruins of Fort Ratcleff.