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...
They followed the retreating zombie into the next room and up a short flight of stairs. These led to a great wide chamber that was richly decorated. Wall hangings of many colors, all bearing the emblem of Guardia adorned the room. Unlike the other rooms the floor was crafted out of fine marble, instead of plain stone, and in the center of the room sat a small round table with three eloquently made wooden chairs placed around it.
Streams of light flowed from windows on either side of the room. From their vantage Flare and Tai could see that they were well above the tops of the tallest surrounding trees. These trees weren't as shrunken and sickly as they would be in the future, but they had already lost their healthy sheen.
At the far end of the room there was another door, and in front of it stood the zombie in the golden armor. Its rotting face was twisted into a wicked grin. An unsettling noise was emitting from the creatures mouth. The zombie was laughing.
"We must have reached the top floor. This has got to be the master's chambers," Tai said as they entered.
"And our well dressed zombie friend seems to find something rather amusing," Flare stated.
Indeed the zombie's laugh was growing louder. It was now rising into a hysteric warble. Along with it the echoing breathing noise was also growing in volume, and a third sound joined the choir. This one was a deep, slow heartbeat. Unlike the breathing, which came from everywhere, the heartbeat had a definite source. From behind that last door, and in the next room over the heartbeat throbbed.
The three unholy noises flowed into one another and enhanced each other. They became a song, a dead and rotting song. "It's the chorus of the damned," Flare murmured.
He raised his crossbow and fired. The bolt struck the laughing zombie in the eye. Its laughing ceased as it fell face forward to the ground. The zombie's armor clanged loudly and then absolute silence followed. For a moment the silence persisted. Then the breathing and the heartbeat returned with a start.
"I guess all that's left is to have a little look-see into that room," Flare said.
But before he could take another step forward, the wall around the door shook violently. Not the door itself but the entire wall. Flare stopped his advance as the wall shook with another tremendous blow. He glanced over at Tai who just shrugged.
"What the hell is it?" Tai asked.
"I know what it is," replied Flare. "It's big."
As if it wanted to accent his comment, the thing behind the wall slammed forward again. This time a large crack tore down the face of the wall. Another shuddering blow caused hundreds of smaller cracks to spider web out of the first one. Flare glanced down at the crossbow in his hand. Deciding that it wouldn't be much help against something this big he tossed it to the side and gripped his sword with both hands.
The next blow sent pieces of stone crumbling off the wall. Flare looked at his friend and then pointed with his sword to the left side of the room. Tai nodded his understanding, and ran to the far left. Flare moved over to the right side and took his battle stance. The wall trembled one final time and then completely collapsed kicking up clouds of dust.
The dust cleared to reveal a gigantic skeletal beast. Its head resembled a giant human skull but with enlarged razor sharp fangs. The skull was attached to the main portion of the body by a long jagged spinal column. The rest of the body was a massive bloody ribcage with long clawed arms on its sides. The empty sockets of its eyes were black as midnight except for small red embers that glowed deep within.
Its fiery eyes roved the room until they settled first on Tai and then on Flare. Its great fanged mouth fell open and it gave a thunderous cry. It was a terrible shrieking sound that drained the warmth from the air.
The color drained out of Tai's face as he took a reflexive step away from the horror, "Um....don't suppose that you happen to have a brilliant plan...do you?"
"As a matter of fact I do," said Flare who had blanched. "Run away."
Tai turned to do just that but stopped when he saw the doorway. Dozens of skeletal arms had grown from the wall and linked together in front of the only exit out of the room.
"Door's been sealed off, Flare," Tai called over to him.
"Plan B," Flare called back. "We kill it."
The monstrosity responded with another shrieking howl and swiped one of its deadly bone claws at Flare. Diving backwards the young swordsman was able to narrowly escape death. The monster's claws hit the ground only a few feet away from Flare and gouged a huge piece out of the marble floor. Taking full advantage of the opening Tai charged the creature from the side.
The Azure Wind rebounded harmlessly off of the massive skull twice before the monster swatted him away with a powerful backhand. Tai's body flew backwards into the table which shattered with the force of his impact. He rolled a few more feet before coming to a stop in the pile of smashed wood.
Even as Tai was swatted away Flare was charging. The skeleton beast sent another claw at Flare, but the nimble warrior jumped over the limb and continued his attack. Flare's sword proved to be no more effective than Tai's as it bounced off of the skull without causing more than a scratch. The beast snapped its powerful jaws at Flare but caught nothing except air.
Flare retreated away from the monster, hoping to avoid any attacks from its claws. He almost made it too, but just as he was leaving its attack range the monster used one of its arms to drag its body forward with stunning quickness. Its other arm slashed Flare across his chest. Luckily, Flare had gotten far enough away to escape all but the very tips of the razor like claws. His mithril chain mail absorbed most of the blow, yet the strike still sent him crashing to the ground.
He and Tai both scrambled to their feet and ran to the back of the room. The skeleton beast cried out again as it started to drag itself forward to its prey.
"That freak show's indestructible!" Tai cried in frustration. "We're barely scratching the damned thing!"
"Remember what Refla always told us!" Flare returned. "We've got to find a weakness, nothing's unbeatable!"
"Hold on! The eyes, Flare, the eyes! Use your crossbow while I distract it!" yelled Tai a he charged the beast again.
This time Tai fought more defensively. He focused on jumping over or ducking underneath the creature's swipes as he repeatedly feigned attacks at the beast's head. Flare hurried over to the corner where he had thrown his crossbow and retrieved it. He loaded a bolt and took aim. "Tai, look out!" he called.
Tai dove to the side and Flare fired. The creature shifted its head at the last moment and the bolt nicked harmlessly off the side of its head. The beast howled and started to drag itself forward again. Flare swore and hastily reloaded his weapon. Aiming carefully, Flare waited until the monster let out another horrible shriek before he fired.
The bolt entered the eye socket, and a small pillar of fire burst out of it. The skeleton beast stopped its advance and shook its head wildly. It screamed in agony and rage for another moment before stopping. Then a strange red light flowed out of the eye socket. When the glow was gone the eye had returned to normal.
"It worked!" yelled Tai as he ran back to Flare. "That hurt it!"
Flare shook his head. "It healed itself. If we want to win we have to take both eyes out at once."
"Okay, I'm ready when you are. Let's just kill the damn thing," Tai agreed.
"Hang back until I say so," Flare instructed as he clipped his crossbow back onto his belt.
"Right," said Tai as he readied himself for the charge. "Just say the word, Flare."
The skeleton beast howled as it moved its hulking form toward the two humans. It had its prey trapped between itself and the wall. They had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. It was pleased. Then it made its first and final mistake. It got hungry for the warm flesh of mortals, for their living blood, and it got careless in its hurry. Figuring it had them trapped and beaten, it used both arms to drag itself forward to quicken its pace.
Both young warriors saw this mistake at once. Flare had barely screamed, "NOW!" and they were both on their way. The monster saw its folly too late, and before it could react both men had leaped onto its face. Their finely crafted swords plunged into the beast's unprotected eye sockets.
The creature shrieked with outrage and flung its head high into the air. Both Flare and Tai fled to the far corner as the dying beast thrashed about wildly with their swords still embedded into its face. It slammed itself against the walls and the ceiling with such force that the two were sure it would bring the fortress down on them. Then it gave one final cry and crashed to the floor.
They approached it apprehensively expecting it to spring back to life at any moment, but the beast started to crumble until all that was left was a pile of fine white dust. The two recovered their swords and headed to the room it had burst out of.
They stopped at the edge of the rubble where a wall used to stand and peered into the darkness. All around them the air seemed freeze with a nervous calm. The breathing noise was still present, but it sounded different some how. It sounded weaker than before. The heartbeat on the other hand was still coming from within the dark room as strong as ever.
"We've come this far," Tai said. "Might as well go all the way in."
Flare nodded and then smiled at his friend, "Hell, what could be worse than the thing we just killed?"
Tai chuckled. "Famous last words."
They enjoyed a short laugh before they plunged into the darkness. They walked about fifty feet and then stopped. The sound of the heartbeat was louder now than ever. It throbbed in their ears so loudly that they felt dizzy.
"What now?" Tai called over the deafening pulse.
"We wait and let our eyes adjust," he answered. They waited for a few endless minutes and then a small light off to the side caught Tai's eye.
"Look," he said grabbing Flare by the shoulder and pointing to the right. There was a small glimmer of light coming from what must have been the wall. "I bet it's a window."
They walked over to the light to get a closer look. Sure enough it was a window, only it was completely sealed off with what looked like skeletal vines. All except for the small portion that had caught Tai's eye. Flare raised his sword above his head, and smashed through both the skeletal shield and the glass.
The window turned out to be deceptively large, and as soon as more light had filtered in they finished smashing out the pieces, until the window was fully uncovered. Light flooded the room. And revealed the terror that was inside.
The walls and ceiling were both covered in what looked like living tissue. Blood veins and long twisted skeletal arms twisted through the bloody tissue that covered the walls. Hanging on the far wall was a giant beating heart. Even in the dim light they could tell that the heart was black. With each beat the walls pulsated like a living thing.
"We're in a nightmare," gasped Tai as he beheld the awful room. "Is this room alive? Or would it be considered undead."
Flare shook his head and approached the heart, "I don't know, but soon we'll classify it as just dead."
He stepped up to the heart and raised his sword to strike, when a great wave of malevolence assaulted his mind. Inarticulate and wicked emotions flowed from the black heart like a great river. If he had to name them he would have chosen words like Hate, Suffer, Rage, and Disgust. They hit him with such force that he stumbled backwards and almost dropped his sword.
Flare regained his balance and focused his will against the overwhelming thoughts. Soon he realized that they were just that, thoughts and emotions. They had already killed the physical manifestations of these feelings in the other room. The heart could no more hurt him than a newborn could. Well, not yet anyway. Flare knew that it would eventually regain its strength and recreate the horrible skeletal beast, or summon the hoards of zombies upon them.
No, he wouldn't let that happen. The heart would die here and now. Flare himself would ensure this. He steeled his resolve against the emotions and raised Crimson Eon again. This time when the wave of hatred hit him he didn't stumble or sway. He slashed downward with all of his considerable might.
His blade cut through the heart easily and a great torrent of black blood gushed out. The blood smelled of rot and death, but Flare forced himself not to puke, not to open his mouth for anything. The last thing he wanted to do was drink this thing's blood. He raised his sword again and brought it down, and then again, and again, and again.
Each slash caused more blood to spew forth. Flare was drenched from head to toe in the black ooze. Hatred screamed inside his head blinding him from everything. Everything save for what mattered most. Killing the heart. He continued to slash until the blood stopped gushing. Soon it had lost most of its pressure and simply poured out in thick streams onto the ground.
Flare sheathed his sword and backed away from the heart. It continued to scream into his mind for a few more moments before the wordless hate started to fade. Then it was gone, and the heart was dead. The fort was filled with silence. The heartbeat had stopped and the breathing had stopped. Fort Ratcleff was dead.
Flare wiped the blood off of his face and mouth then turned around, "C'mon Tai, let's get out of here." Tai nodded but remained silent. They left the room without looking back.