The ending of Might & Magic II raises all kinds of implications that we must discuss, but for now, suffice to say that I've saved CRON.
Before I go into the specific endgame steps, I'll point out that thanks to a comment from Ziad, I picked up a final quest before the end of the game. It involved going to two previous centuries, killing the ancestors of Lord Haart, and retrieving artifacts from each of them. This was worth 250,000 experience. I had found clues on dungeon walls as to their locations. Neither was hard to kill.
As far as I can tell, this quest and giving King Kalohn the Orb are the only reasons to time travel. I tried going back to the first century to see if I could catch the elemental wars, and to the seventh century to see if I could see Kalohn defeat the elemental lords in the Dead Zone, but no luck.
Thanks also to Ziad's hints, I know the Circus only appears late in the year, and I don't need the attribute boosts enough to wait around for it. I also declined to finish the dragon caves, mostly because I was on a roll and wanted to finish the game tonight.
Now, on to my issue at Dawn's Mist Bog Cavern. The solution was so idiotic that I hate to write it. When I first hit upon this solution, I actually thought I was cheating--exploiting the way the game deals with NPCs to avoid finding the "real" solution. But, nope, it turns out this is, in fact, the "real" solution.
Ready? I had to give the Orb to an NPC, "dismiss" the NPC from the party, and go pick him up back in town. How much sense does that make? If my PCs couldn't get out of the cave with the Orb, how did the NPC manage to do it? At least MM2 isn't alone in this foolishness: in Baldur's Gate II, your NPCs always manage to find their way back to the Copper Coronet no matter how remote a place you ditch them.
With the Orb in hand, I took Lord Peabody's time machine back to the 800s and returned to the location where King Kalohn fought the Mega Dragon. This time, my arrival actually did some good:
Returning from the ninth century ("returning" simply involves resting until you get kicked back to your own time; I guess time travel is a temporary condition), I visited the Luxus Palace Royale and found King Kalohn on the throne instead of his daughter. Hell, for all I know, he doesn't even have a daughter in this timeline.
Below I've pasted a video of the part of the endgame described above. It bogs down a bit in the middle because I got attacked by a horde of goblins. I tried to show some other features of gameplay, such as inventory and mapping, at the same time.
Square Lake is just outside Middlegate. It was inaccessible until Queen Lamanda named me the "chosen one." It's a very linear dungeon, greeting you with this sign upon entrance...
...and throwing a tough combat at you every 15 steps. I got through it without too much difficulty, although I had to flee combat a few times and raise dead characters five or six times. After about 15 combats, I made it to the final corridor. I was greeted by 66 devil kings, who "bowed down" to me as the "chosen one." The game gave me the opportunity to attack them, I guess as a kind of last epic battle, but I declined.
Beyond the Devil Kings was my old nemesis from MM1: Sheltem. He was surrounded by some other demons and devils, but he went down surprisingly quickly.
Apparently, Sheltem had been up to some mischief, because beyond the battle was a computer monitor that informed me CRON was about to collide with a sun. I stopped this using the WAFE password that King Kalohn had given to me.
But WAFE only got me into the computer. At that point, I read Sheltem's message and got one of the most unique end-game challenges I ever experienced:
That's right: not only a cryptogram, but a timed cryptogram. I didn't even notice the "timed" part until it was too late. I was messing around taking notes for this entry, and by the time I got to trying to solve it, I only had three minutes left. Moreover, I had absolutely no idea what the thing was asking of me. How does a cryptogram have a single-word "answer," and what "code" is it looking for?
Ultimately, I figured it out: the game wanted me to spell "Preamble" using the cryptogram's own code. But to do that, I would have to crack the cryptogram first. I couldn't do it in three minutes and CRON was presumably destroyed just after I was.
I reloaded and fought my way through Square Lake again, resolving to use the full 15 minutes. It turned out that I didn't need it. "Preamble" had put the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in my mind (for my non-U.S. readers, most U.S. high school students end up memorizing the preamble at some point), and I realized almost immediately that this was the preamble to the U.S. Constitution ("We, the people of the United States of America, to form a more perfect union..."), but with "United States of America" replaced by some other five character word (represented above as "Gqlli").
So to render the word "Preamble" in code, I simply had to find the first letter of the third word ("people," as in "We, the people"), the letter that corresponded with the third letter in "perfect", the second letter of "We," and so on. Getting it right produced the screen at the top of this entry. I got enough experience to raise my characters to around 75, and the game let me continue playing. A return visit to Kalohn showed that the game world did acknowledge my victory.
Okay, let's ponder the implications of what we've learned. CRON, like VARN in Might & Magic I, is actually a space ship. The winning screen says that I saved "CRON and all of its VARNs," so the VARN (Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle) must be a part of a CRON (Central Research Observational Nacelle). CRON had been created by the "Ancients" to populate a distant planet, and it looks like we've just arrived.
What is the name of the planet? Well, it's contained in the cryptographic preamble above. "Gqlli," based on the other letters, resolves to "Terra." And Might & Magic III is subtitled "The Isles of Terra." Pretty cool!
But none of this makes sense. If the Ancients created CRON, then what is the relationship of the elementals to the Ancients? The game's backstory (covered in the first posting) isn't simply mythology: I've been to the elemental planes and battled the elemental lords. Did the Ancients create the elemental lords? Are the Ancients the elemental lords? "Terra" is the Latin word for "Earth"--am I supposed to have just witnessed the original population of Earth?
Even more mysterious, the same elemental planes and lords show up in later Might & Magic games set on different worlds, but it's pretty clear to me that in this game, the elemental planes are part of CRON.
Also: how, precisely, did I get from the VARN in MM1 to CRON? How do we explain things like magic and undeath in the context of science fiction? How did King Kalohn know the password to the computer in Square Lake? Was my time travel just limited to this CRON, or could I have traveled back to meet the Ancients? Who, precisely, are Corak and Sheltem? Are they Ancients?
I'd see if any web sites answer these questions, but I don't want to see spoilers for later games (I played III-V so long ago I barely remember them). Feel free to discuss in the comments. In the meantime, I'll put my GIMLET together.