Chapter 1: The Gardener
Light and Dark...
Joy and Sorrow...
Peace and War...
Even Life itself stands across from Death.
Always, they clash violently.
Always, they reach stalemate.
Neither can be victorious...
For if one were to be stronger...
What chaos would be unleashed upon the unsuspecting world?
CHRONO-PALOOZAWritten by ker-plop
Chapter 1: The Gardener
The sun beat down on the emerald-green hills that surrounded the town of Truce. Seagulls flew through the air like detached kites in the fresh ocean breeze. The sapphire ocean twinkled in the late-morning light. Vendors hauled their carts down old, dusty roads towards the popular Leene Square in hopes of selling wares to passersby.
It was a typical morning in the peaceful kingdom of Guardia, circa 1005 AD.
At the household of the Ashtears, a renowned family of inventors, the young, lone gardener tended to his client's flowers. He had short, brown, spikey hair, kind, blue eyes, and he wore a green tunic and a battered old fedora. He whistled a cheery tune as he pulled a green, rusty wheelbarrow out of a rotting old tool shed in the corner of the yard. Almost as soon as the wheelbarrow was out, though, the shed wobbled, then collapsed altogether, sending up an exhausted cloud of dust.
Twenty-one year-old Lou Soffer muttered crossly to himself as he regarded the debris; the stupid thing had fallen down dozens of times already since he had taken the maintenance job. Every time it had fallen into a sad mess of wood and nails, he had worked overtime and reassembled it. The wheelbarrow had to be sheltered somehow.
"OK, first things first..." he muttered as he reached into the wheelbarrow and produced a hammer and a bag of nails. He crossly began hammering the wooden planks back together when a shadow fell over him.
"Oh, great. Did that piece of crap fall down again?" a voice asked.
Despite his sour mood, he smiled and looked up to see his friend, Lucca Ashtear. "Yep," he replied. "Fourth time this month."
Lucca grinned sarcastically, the sunlight flashing off of her oversized glasses. She was a spirited girl of the same age as he was, and the daughter of his employer. She had shining, blue eyes and short, purple hair which was usually hidden beneath a mechanical-looking helmet. She loved machines of all shapes and sizes, and she was rarely seen without a tool or a piece of shrapnel in her hands. Often when Lou worked with the plants, she was inside her house banging away on some strange gizmo that he had yet to see.
She stifled a chuckle. "Well, at least we know it'll get repaired," she pointed out. "You've fixed it every time, and pretty well, might I add."
Despite his objection to that statement, Lou nodded. "Thanks," he replied, not knowing what else to say. "Of course, it keeps falling down anyway... One can only do so much with only a hammer and nails."
Lucca regarded the mess again. "I know you're kind of busy, but Dad told me to tell you that it's weeding day again," she said. "He especially wants you to get rid of all the dandelions."
Lou visibly winced; pulling dandelions was his least favorite chore. "...Right," he agreed through clenched teeth.
Lucca paused, then energetically put her hands on her hips. "Well, then!" she said. "Since we've decided that this shack's a hopeless cause, how 'bout I start building a metallic one? It should be done by tomorrow, I think."
Surprised by the offer, Lou looked at her again. "You would do that?" he asked. "It's no trouble?"
"Of course not!" Lucca laughed, giving him a friendly slap on the back. "Dad hates it when the garden's a mess, and you'd have more time to make it pretty if you weren't always fixing this old shack, right?"
Lou couldn't help chuckling. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he admitted. "Maybe then I could get a day off..." He paused for a moment, then looked at the wheelbarrow. "...Not that I know what I'd do with one..."
Lucca's smile waned a bit. Lou was a strange fellow in many ways. He had just appeared one morning the year before in the center of Truce Village, with only the clothes on his back and an old shovel. Though he was able to speak, and he knew his name, he had no recollection of his life before then. The village doctor had declared him amnesiac and let him move into a spare room in his house. Things went well for about a week, but then Lou had gone looking for work; he didn't want to be a burden to the people who had taken him in.
It was at that time that Taban, Lucca's father, had been looking for a gardener. This was a stroke of luck on Lou's part. He loved plants; he had an affinity for all flowers and botany, and since he already had a shovel, he got the job. He had been tending the Ashtear plot ever since. He spent most of the sunny hours each day planting new flowers, sifting dirt, and pulling weeds, and rarely complained about the work. He was never seen without a friendly look on his face. He seemed happy enough, but every so often he would stop working, sit back and stare off into space. Lucca suspected that he was wondering just why he was there.
"I'm sure you would find something fun to do," Lucca said. "Truce has lots of stuff! There's kite flying, or watching the ferries go by, or just going to Leene Square and hanging out... There're plenty of ways to spend a day off."
Lou nodded slowly. "Sounds cool," he said, then chuckled embarrassedly. "Heh... Listen to me; I've been here a year and I still don't know much about this town."
Lucca put her hands behind her head and stretched. "Well, it isn't the most active place, but it's home," she replied. She paused, then looked up at the clouds. "Of course, things are always changing... Have you heard the news lately?" she asked.
Lou thought for a moment. "What, about that big country with the growing army?" he ventured.
"Yeah, Porre, just south of us," she said, frowning. "Ugh... I don't know how they got so powerful... but what I really meant was the other news, about the ghost sightings."
"Ghost sightings?" Lou asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, they were talking about it yesterday," she went on. "Some people say they've been seeing weird people or weird creatures appearing suddenly all over the kingdom... and then disappearing just as fast!" She paused and scratched her chin. "They're claiming that they're ghosts, but I'm not so sure... Maybe they're actual people!"
"Actual people?" He asked, raising an eyebrow; he knew Lucca well enough to guess that she didn't buy into superstitious things like ghosts, and what she was proposing sounded even wackier. "Why would you say that?"
Lucca paused for a moment, then sighed and shook her head. "Oh... Never mind," she said. "I'm just thinking out loud. Don't worry about it..."
Lou was about to pursue his question when she turned and started back to the house. "I'll talk to dad; maybe he'll give you a day off tomorrow," she said over her shoulder, then shut the door.
He stood there for a moment, staring in confusion at the house. Lucca seemed very interested in the news about ghosts... almost as if she knew something else. What could be concerning her so much?
He stared a while longer, then turned his attention back to the shed. With a shrug, he started to mend it again. Whatever she was thinking about, it was probably way over his head. After all, she was a genius, and he was just the gardener. Well, a gardener who might get tomorrow off, anyway.
Lou spent the rest of the daylight hours planting, digging, and rearranging the Ashtear garden. He pulled out all of the weeds, taking special care to eliminate every dandelion, and shifted the earth around to make flower growth easier. Just because he was employed didn't mean he was not allowed to be creative, however; he arranged his new batch of flowers in a circular shape, with several colored flowers forming two lines in the center, almost like a clock. He outlined the arrangement with bellflowers, a type of purple flower. They were his favorite flower because of their color. Purple was comforting to him; it soothed his mind when he was agitated.
After hours of toil and hard work, the sun disappeared into the ocean and the stars and a bright, blue moon came out. The gardener looked up and sighed with relief; the stars meant that it was quitting time. He smiled with the satisfaction of a job well done and wiped the dirt from his face.
"Whew..." he said as he took off his fedora and tucked it under his arm. "Another day, another couple of Gs... Well, I'd better store my things for the night."
As he wheeled the wheelbarrow back to what was left of the old shack, he paused and glanced over at the Ashtear house. Only one light remained burning; as usual, it was the one in Lucca's window. He chuckled to himself. "Always doing something..." he said as he pulled a tarp out of the mess and covered the tools; he would deal with the shack tomorrow. "I guess I'll let her know I'm going."
He walked beneath her window and looked up. "Hey, Lucca!" he called.
There was a pause, and then Lucca's unhelmeted head popped out of the opening. "Oh, hi, Lou," she said. "Hang on a second!"
She disappeared from the window and reappeared in the house's doorway within moments. She smiled warmly. "All done?" she asked.
"Yeah," Lou replied, motioning to his shovel. "Everything's put away, and I'm going to go home."
Lucca looked at the garden and grinned. "Wow... Even in the dark, it looks pretty," she said. "You put a lot of work into that, don't you?"
"No more than you put into your machines," Lou reasoned. "We all have our talents."
Lucca nodded, but sighed. "Machines are fine, but it's just a matter of using the right tools and the right math," she said.
"Oh, don't be so modest," he replied. "You have to have a good mind for that... Not many folks are that smart."
"Yeah, I guess..." Lucca admitted, her ego stepping on her modesty for a moment, "but it takes something else to grow gardens like yours... Plants are alive. You have to care for them and treat them well... You have to have a kind spirit for that."
Lou scratched the back of his head; he was always embarrassed when he was complimented like that. "Oh... They're just flowers..." he mumbled.
Lucca gave him a silly face. "NOW who's being modest?" she laughed.
He paused, then laughed as well. "Heh! Yeah, you're right..." he said. "We should both start taking more pride in our work, huh?"
Lucca nodded in agreement, then leaned against the wall and looked up into the starry night. "Whew... It's a nice night..." she commented.
Lou hesitated; he was tired and aching and hungry, but he sensed that Lucca wanted to keep talking. With a sigh, he leaned against the wall next to her and looked up too. "Yeah, it is..." he agreed.
"Whenever I look up on a clear night," Lucca went on, her eyes probing the darkness, "I always think about what I've done in my life... You know, the people I've met, the places I've been..." She paused for a while, then adjusted her glasses. "Sometimes I wonder if I should have done some things differently..."
Lou looked at her. "Differently?" he asked. "Did you mess something up?"
Lucca shook her head. "I don't know," she replied, a worrisome twinge in her voice. "I don't think I ever will, either... "
She paused and noticed that Lou was eyeing her strangely. She covered with a laugh. "Ah ha ha!... Oh, don't mind me, Lou. I just get nostalgic sometimes." She looked at the stars again. "So, what do you think about when you look at them?"
Lou looked up at the glistening orbs. They sparkled with a cold, wondrous light. "I look at them and I say to myself how beautiful they are," he replied.
Now Lucca looked confused. "You don't think about your past?" she asked. "Don't you want to know who you are, and where you came from? I know I would."
"Sometimes," Lou agreed. "Sometimes I wonder about that... what I used to do, other friends I might have had, what I was cut out to be..." He sighed again and looked at Lucca with a smile. "But what's the point in wondering too much?" he asked. "I'm here now, tending flowers, and it suits me just fine. Does it matter what I did before that?"
Lucca started to respond, but found that she couldn't argue with his statement. "...No, I guess... I guess it doesn't," she finally said.
"Don't get me wrong," Lou elaborated. "I'd like to know about myself... but at the same time, I know that I should accept where I am right now. It's not like something's suddenly going to give me my memories back."
There was a long silence as they both stared at the stars. Finally, Lou coughed and shouldered his shovel. "Well, I should be going," he said. "I have to rest up so I can come back tomorrow and do it all again!"
"Right..." Lucca said, still looking at the sky.
"OK, then... See you tomorrow," he replied, starting to walk away.
"Hey, Lou..." Lucca ventured. He stopped and looked back at her, and she smiled again. "Thanks," she finished.
Lou smiled back. "No problem," he replied. "Good night."
"Good night..." Lucca echoed, and walked back into her house. With that, Lou turned and headed back towards his lodgings. Though it was a long walk, and though no lampposts lit the way back into the center of Truce, the light of the moon was enough for Lou to navigate the road. As he walked, he could feel the day's fatigue setting into his arms. A few moments later, he gave a loud yawn and then chuckled to himself; gardening was exhausting work.
"Oh... I had better get some extra money for that arrangement," he muttered as he walked. "Those bellflowers didn't come cheap!"
Just then, he looked at the night sky again and paused. Lucca's rhetoric was still cycling through his mind. It was true that he enjoyed being where he was, but her question had struck a chord inside of him. The more he thought about it, the more curious he became.
He ran his fingers over the wooden handle of his shovel. That shovel was the only clue he had about his past; why did he have it, and where had he gotten it from? How had he used it? Was he originally a prospector, searching the world for underground riches... or had he been a gardener then, too? Where had he worked? Who were his friends? What about his parents; did he have any? The questions throbbed in his tired brain.
He hesitated, then shouldered the tool and kept walking. "Dang it, Lucca," he muttered. "You're going to keep me up all night with this."
Resolving to try not to think too much of it, he increased his pace, contemplating just what he could have for his late dinner.
Her eyelids growing heavy, Lucca put down her pencil and decided to call it a day. She folded up the blueprint she was drawing and turned off her desk lamp, then set her glasses on a nightstand and crawled between the sheets of her bed.
"Well, that's another day..." she murmured as she waited for sleep to take her. "I'll set up the new shed in the morning... Everyone'll like that..."
Her breathing slowed and her eyelids dropped. Suddenly, she was jolted back awake from a loud banging; someone was at the front door, and whoever it was sounded pretty impatient.
"Ugh... Son of a...!" she grumbled as she forced herself out of the warm covers. Her parents had gone to bed hours ago, and both of them could sleep through a hurricane. She quickly pulled on her shorts and jammed on her glasses and stomped downstairs, opening the door with a sharp "Yeah? Whaddya want! Do you know what time it-"
Her spluttering ended as she got a good look at the visitor. Before her stood a tall man dressed in a dark cloak and a military-style cap. A sharp, dangerous-looking sickle was in his hand. He leered down at her with sharp, yellow eyes that seemed to glow with their own light.
"Lucca Ashtear?" he asked in a cruel, growling voice.
"Yeah?" she said, involuntarily stepping back at his tone.
The man stepped into the house, his sickle flashing. "Come with me," he growled, extending his free hand.
As he stepped into the dimly-lit home, Lucca realized something else about the man's hands; they were coated with fur. She looked up at his face and her eyes widened in horror; he had long whiskers, spikey ears and sharp fangs. This man was a feline demi-human, and he did not look friendly.
She silently cursed herself; she had a small gun for protection, but she had left it upstairs. Her eyes darted around, looking for some sort of weapon. "No way!" she huffed. "I'm not going anywhere! Who the hell are you, anyway!"
The cat man's eyes flickered with malice. "I am Lynx," he said, raising his weapon, "and if you won't come willingly..."
Lucca snarled angrily and leaped away as Lynx's scythe embedded itself in the wooden floor; she might have been spending most of her time building machines, but she could still dodge quickly. Finding nothing she could use, she ran at her assailant and crashed into him, sending both of them rolling into the garden outside.
"Fool!" Lynx growled. "I have you now!"
His grip around her tightened, but Lucca still had a plan. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists, remembering one of the magical spells that she had learned years ago. "FIRE!" she cried, thrusting her palms into Lynx's chest. Instantly a burst of flame enveloped the cat monster and propelled her backwards out of his grasp. She looked at the burning garden and brushed herself off. "That'll teach you to watch where you're grabbing!" she declared.
Suddenly, Lynx leaped out of the flames and landed before her without a scratch. "I knew you could do that," he growled.
Lucca's eyes widened with fear and she backed away, only to crash against the side of her house. Lynx smiled wickedly. "No place to run," he said, reaching out and grabbing her by the neck. "Now, come!"
Lucca gasped as Lynx's claws dug into the back of her neck. She had no weapon, and her magic spells had no effect on the monster. She only had one last way to save herself; it might sully her reputation as "Lucca The Great," but it was worth her life.
With all that she could muster, she took a deep breath and let out a shrill scream.
Lou sighed contentedly as he saw the lights of the village doctor's house; he would soon be eating a nice meal and catching some serious z's. "Whew... Finally," he said as he stuck his shovel in the dirt and approached the door, imagining a nice plate of pasta or a sandwich that might await him.
Suddenly, a high scream filled his ears, practically making him jump out of his skin; somebody was in trouble. "Wha! What!" he asked, whirling around and looking in all directions. "Who's there!"
His eyes finally met the road that he had just been walking on, and he gasped. Off in the distance, a bright red light flashed, and dark smoke curled up into the air, shrouding the starry night. Lucca's house was ablaze.
"HOLY!..." he cried. Without thinking to call the other villagers, he grabbed his shovel and charged back up the road at breakneck speed. He only hoped that he would be in time to save his friend... and his employer to boot.
Lou was not the only one that heard Lucca's cry. With a loud thump, the Ashtear house flew open. Out stepped Lucca's parents, Lara and Taban Ashtear. Both of them had been awoken by the screaming, and they did not look pleased. Taban clutched a baseball bat and frowned. "What in the name of sassafrass is goin' on out here!" he yelled as he looked around. "Lucca, what's all the-"
He froze when he saw Lynx, just as Lucca had. Lynx held Lucca up and put his scythe to her head. "Don't move, old man," he growled, "or I'll cut a limb from your family tree."
Taban gritted his teeth, but did not advance. Lara helplessly cowered behind him. Lucca, seeing that she would get no help from them, sucked in air and started another shriek.
"Stop that! Be quiet!" Lynx growled as he shook her around, but she refused to be silent. Snarling angrily, he threw her down on the ground and swung his sickle again. Too hurt to move much, she rolled and only barely avoided the blade. Lynx sensed her fatigue and leaped over her, his massive legs blocking her on either side. With a gleam of triumph in his eyes, he raised his weapon once more. Lucca gulped and shut her eyes.
"Lucca!" Lara cried.
"Stop it!" Taban yelled.
Suddenly, there was a loud CLANG, and Lynx tumbled to the ground with a howl. Lucca looked up and saw Lou standing over her, his shovel gleaming in the moonlight. "Are you OK!" he asked.
"Thank goodness!" Lara sighed.
"Lou, yer gettin' a raise!" Taban shouted.
Lucca scrambled to her feet. "Yeah, I'm OK!" she answered. "That guy just showed up and attacked me!"
Lou turned and faced Lynx, who was getting to his feet as well. "Who are you?" he asked. "Why are you hurting my friend?"
Lynx looked cruelly at Lou, and suddenly the house burst with flames; Lou whipped around and looked, then glanced at Lucca. "Get a hose!" he commanded, pointing at the burning building.
Lucca looked at the house, then back at Lou. "What?" she asked.
"Get a hose!" Lou repeated. "NOW!"
Lucca turned and disappeared behind the house while Lynx flew at Lou. "Fool!" he growled, his sickle flashing.
The scythe and the shovel clashed ferociously. Though Lou was holding his own, it was clear that Lynx was more skilled. He started to swing to the right and Lou blocked, but then he turned and struck from the left. Lou cried out as the sickle scratched his leg and a trickle of blood ran down his pants.
"Idiot," Lynx growled. "Don't interfere with me!"
Lou sank to the ground on his hurt leg, the smell of the burning house filling his nostrils. He raised his shovel, but Lynx knocked it away, then aimed for his throat. Just as he was about to swing, though, a giant blast of water tore in from behind and caught him, pushing him into the soggy grass. Lou looked over and saw Lucca standing tall with the garden hose on full blast.
"Are you OK!" she called.
Lou pointed at the house. "The house! Put out the house!" he shouted as he grabbed his shovel again. "I'll deal with this guy!" He charged after the demi-human with a war cry.
Lucca raised an eyebrow and looked at her house again; it looked all right to her. "What's he talking about?..." she asked herself.
Lou ran to the drenched Lynx and smacked him with the blade of his shovel. The monster fell over on his back and Lou put the shovel to his throat. "Agh!... You rotten...!" he snarled.
Lou eyed him angrily. "Why did you attack her!" he asked. "What do you want! Tell me!"
Just as Lynx began to speak, he gave a pained shriek. As Lou watched in surprise, his body became transparent, then vanished altogether. The red light behind him disappeared as well. He turned around and saw that the fire was gone. Lucca was finishing drowning the garden blaze with the hose. The stars were twinkling again, no longer hidden by smoke.
"Lou, what happened?" she asked, dropping the water and rushing over to him. "Where's Lynx?"
"He... he just disappeared," Lou said, looking around in the grass. "There's no trace of him..." He turned to her and smiled. "But at least you put the house fire out. Thank goodness!"
Lucca shook her head in confusion. "Lou, the house wasn't on fire," she said.
There was a long pause. Lou dropped his shovel. "...What?" he asked.
"The house never caught fire," she repeated. "Only the garden did."
Lou's face showed immense confusion; he could have sworn that her house was blazing when he got there; that was why he ran so fast. Why would she say that there was no fire?
Despite his confusion, he still had his wits. If he kept claiming that he saw fire, everyone might think he was crazy. "...Oh..." he said slowly. "...It... it must have been my imagination... Sorry."
Lucca smiled. "Don't worry about it," she said. "You saved me, and my parents! I don't know what that guy wanted, but he was going to put that scythe of his through my... Oh! Your leg!"
Lou suddenly remembered his wound. He looked down expecting to see his left pant leg completely stained with blood, but there was none. There was not even a rip in the fabric where the sickle had cut him. "...What...?" he asked, growing even more confused. "Didn't he...?"
Lucca blinked a few times and scratched her chin. "Yeah... I saw him cut you..." she agreed. "Why aren't you hurt...? This is weird..."
Lou sighed, rubbing at the spot. "Well, weird or not, I'm just glad everything's OK..." he finally said, then looked at the black smudge where his flowers had been.
"Well, except that you'll hafta completely replant that garden," Taban chuckled lightly.
"Yeah..." Lucca murmured, only half listening to him. She looked at the burned-out garden for a long time. So long, in fact, that Lou thought she might have forgotten that he was there.
"...Lucca?" he asked.
Lucca jumped at his voice. "Oh! Sorry," she apologized. "When I think hard, I forget where I am..."
"What were you thinking about?" Lou asked. He was just as curious how he could get cut by something as nasty as that sickle and not even have a puncture.
"I... Oh... It's still too jumbled..." she replied. "I have to think about this for a while..." She turned to go back into her house, then remembered something else. "Oh, yeah! Lou, Dad said you could have tomorrow off."
Lou raised his eyebrow at the change in topic. "Uh... OK..." he said, "but what are you going to..."
"I need to sort this all out," Lucca said, rubbing at her head. "I'll explain it to you when I'm finished. Oooh... And here I was thinking that I'd get some sleep tonight..."
"Well... All right..." Lou answered. "I'll, uh, I'll just turn off the water before I go..."
"Yeah, please," Lucca agreed. "Goodnight, Lou... See you later." She walked past her parents and back inside.
Lara gave Lou a short bow. "Thank you, Lou," she said, then walked back inside.
Taban laughed. "Heh heh!... Fine time to get a day off, huh? OK, see ya later, Lou." With that, the Ashtear door closed. A few moments later, only the small light of Lucca's lamp remained in the dark night.
Lou walked around to the side of the house and shut off the hose, then grabbed his shovel and started back down the road again. If he had been puzzled before, he was twice as such now. Who was that demi-human? Where did he come from? Where did he go? What if he came back? Why did only he see Lucca's house on fire? What did it all mean?
His head began to hurt, and he hushed it all away with another sigh. It was all too confusing for him, so he decided not to think about other things. It was almost midnight, and he hadn't eaten since noon. He had the day off tomorrow; maybe he would sleep in.