Spectres Of The Past - Chapter II: Reunion

[01.09.02] » by Jason Connor

Chapter II: Reunion

          The light of the dawning sun shone brightly over the snow-blanketed land, bringing with it the first stirrings of life in the Earthbound village of New Algetty. Atop the nearby mountain stood a solitary figure, snow and gravel crunching beneath his plated boots, his ice-blue hair and magenta cape fluttering softly around him, his sad, ruby eyes regarding the last remaining refuge on earth for human life.
          As he watched the village begin to waken, Janus Zeal realized that a part of him still looked down on them, still condemned them for their inferiority, their lack of wisdom and vision, their refusal to accept the benefits of life given by magic. It was an odd feeling, to have been away from this time, this world, for so long, for most of his life in fact, and find his old prejudices still lingering.
          Odder still was the fact that, despite how the Enlightened Ones had once treated them, despite everything that had occurred, they were able to put aside their differences and accept the remaining inhabitants of Zeal into their fold, to live and work together as equals. The boy, Crono, and his friends had held this attitude towards himself, in fact, but it was still a concept Janus found difficult to understand.
          And perhaps the strangest feeling, Janus realized with shame, was that, in a way, he envied the Earthbound Ones. He envied them, not for the 'weaknesses' that had always been the basis of Zealan prejudice, but rather for the strengths that Zeal itself had never had. Without the seduction of power to hold their attention, they were able to lead simple, carefree lives, occupied with nothing more than day-to-day concerns, surrounded by friends and family, companions and loved ones. Everything they needed was provided; what they did not have, they did not need or desire. Yet another way of life Janus found foreign.
          Unlike the Earthbound Ones, Janus no longer had a place to call home, people to call family or friends, even simply a place to fit in, and for that he envied them.
          And yet, he reflected, hadn't it always been that way? Janus, a child, young and innocent, heir to the kingdom of Zeal, shunned by his peers for his lack of magic; his life carved into stone, laid out for him, because of his heritage. Janus, a teenager, banished from his home and thrown into a world utterly foreign to him; raised as Magus, leader of the demi-human Mystics, able at last to wield magic but no longer among his own kind, his life yet again controlled and directed by someone else. Janus, the adult, no longer the naive child he once was; wandering the stream of time, burdened with guilt over his part in Zeal's fall, shackled by a vow he could not fulfill, mocked and controlled his entire life by Lavos and even time itself.
          His entire life was a study in contrasts, from prince to pauper, from human to Mystic, from an age of enlightenment to an age of darkness, and from innocence to impurity; even his name had been prophetic of his dual nature, of the twin, opposing facets of his existence...and destiny.
          Perhaps, then, that was also his curse: to forever walk the blade of reality, to hover constantly, painfully even, above the fine line that separated stability and chaos, sanity and madness; to live a life of uncertainty, of falsehood, neither good nor evil, neither truly alive to the present nor truly dead to the past; an undying shadow in a world of light.
          And yet, Janus did not mourn these losses, did not regret the path he had walked. To do so was to dwell on the past, a pointless gesture and a waste of time. The past was gone, unchangeable, as he had found out the hard way.
          The one thing he did regret, though, the one sin he could never be forgiven of, was that he had not fulfilled the vow he had made so long ago and countless times since: he had not saved his sister.
          Whereas he was a shadow in a world of light, she had been the light in his world of shadow, a ray of hope that had always lit his path. Schala was the only one who had ever truly cared for him, and naturally the fates had taken it upon themselves to deprive him of even that much. Now, at last, he was truly alone.
          All those years, he thought bleakly to himself, feeling the weight of time. All that anger, built up and channeled into power, focused on others, always with the intention--with the delusion--of one day coming back here to rescue her... And look what it accomplished. Absolutely nothing.
          He knew that part of it was beyond his control; ignorance of the workings of time meant nothing to history. But deep down, there'd always been doubt, a part of him that couldn't help wondering...if maybe it was just as much his fault. If maybe he'd chosen a different path, if he had walked the path of light his sister had, never allowed the anger to consume him....then maybe his sister would still be alive...
          It was only because he'd been looking at the village that his eye caught the snap-flash of green light in the sky.
          It was a good distance away, roughly southeast of the village, off to Janus's left, but against a semi-dark horizon the swirling light was more than distinguishable enough for Janus to recognize: a Gate, momentarily open. Something about the fact that it was green rather than the normal blue bothered him, but he couldn't tell what. And from the Gate came--
          The Epoch? Janus identified it, tentatively at first then with conviction as the Gate closed in on itself only a moment after it had opened, and the saucer-shaped craft soared through the sky, the dawn sunlight glittering on its silvery white hull and golden wings. Janus frowned; as far as he knew, Lucca had planned on dismantling the time machine. But if the Epoch was here, now...
          Even as he wondered this, though, his eyes watched the ship as it arced smoothly towards the mountain, his mind calculating its trajectory until he realized where it was headed.
          He turned to his left, his eyes scanning the base of the mountain, until he saw the familiar blue snap-flash of another Gate opening; obviously, the Epoch's target. He started to look back towards the Epoch, but froze, his heart literally skipping a beat as he saw a figure tumble out of the Gate, robes and hair whipping about as the figure rolled to a stop in the snow.
          Her features were indistinct at this distance, but even if they hadn't been enough to destroy his disbelief, the familiar aura surrounding her was more than enough to confirm what he had not dared to hope.
          His sister was alive.
          For the first time in his life, Janus shed a single tear, because for the first time, the fates had deigned to smile down upon him.
          He'd been given a second chance.

          The mountainside was a blur to Janus as he literally flew down it, all thoughts of the green Gate and the Epoch gone from his mind. His cape flapped wildly behind him as he just barely dodged boulders and trees in his haste. He realized that he had no idea what he was going to say to her, but he also found that he didn't care at the moment.
          After what seemed an eternity, he reached the bottom, his heart beating loudly in his ears. He scanned the area, eyes narrowed fiercely, but it took him only a moment to find her. She was sitting in the snow, propped up on one hand, her other holding her robes tightly to her, her back to him as he approached.
          She turned, and at last Janus saw that it was indeed his sister, looking exactly as he'd last seen her, so long ago in the Undersea Palace: clothed in purple robes, hair the same ice-blue as his framing a beautiful demure face, blue-green eyes that were depthless but sad. Those eyes locked onto him, looked up into his face and widened, and reflexively she gasped and began scrabbling away from him, kicking up snow.
          "Wait," he said gently, raising one hand to show he meant no harm. He started forward, and that was when he heard the high-pitched noise coming from his right. He turned his head, and his eyes tightened in alarm as he saw the Epoch bearing down hard on him.
          Both Janus and Schala ducked and turned away as the Epoch roared through the space between them, its wings narrowly missing Janus, snow churning up around them in its wake. Janus looked back up in angry disbelief, just in time to see the cockpit dome rise. As the Epoch flew onward, eventually to bring itself to a halt some distance away, a dark blur sprang from the ship, flipping end over end as it tumbled through the air, and Janus realized that this was not Crono nor any of the boy's comrades. Another time traveler? Janus thought at first, then he remembered the green Gate, and wondered if it meant something else.
          The blur resolved itself into a figure, who landed hard in the snow less than five meters from the two of them, knees bent, hands outstretched in the snow. He stood up, his movements slow and measured. He was the same height as Janus, and was also dressed identical to Janus--boots, trousers, sleeveless tunic, his face shrouded by a cape's hood--save that it was all a deep black in color. Muscular arms a shade darker than his own hung at the man's sides, ending in gauntlets that matched the rest of his outfit. And dangling from the right hand, its tip buried in the snow, was--
          No... Janus thought reflexively. How can this be...? But it was. Despite the odd stylistic design, the vibrant blood-red color, the arcane symbols now carved into its hilt, the aura surrounding the weapon was exactly the same as that of the weapon Janus had so long ago tried and failed to acquire for himself.
          It was the Masamune.
          And as Janus stepped in front of Schala to meet the stranger, he was surprised by the sense of power, of sheer malevolence, emanating from the man. Never had Janus encountered such a person, yet there was something familiar about the man's aura...something he couldn't identify but that somehow bothered him.
          Janus reached behind his cape, withdrew a metallic rod, and held it before him. He turned a stud on one end, and the other end suddenly telescoped out to its full two-meter length, while on the stud's end a long, razor-sharp blade snapped up and into place, its thinness belying its strength.
          "Who are you?" Janus demanded. The man stopped less than two meters away from him and looked up, locking eyes with Janus, and as he pushed his hood back, Janus nearly dropped his scythe. He didn't even hear Schala's startled gasp, because all he could think of was that somehow fantasy had just become reality.
          He was looking into his own face.

*   *   *

          The cuckoo clock on the wall of the workroom suddenly sprang to life, heralding a new day and severly irritating Lucca Ashtear as she was startled awake from a too-short night's sleep. The clock abruptly fell silent as Lucca hurled a book at it, striking the little wooden bird dead-on and knocking the whole thing to the floor, where it crashed in a heap of splintered wood and broken cogs.
          Satisfied with her handiwork, Lucca laid her head back down on the desk where she'd finally fallen asleep late last night, and, taking a lesson from Crono, attempted to claim that the morning had cheated and risen early.
          A minute later she gave up the futile struggle and admitted defeat.
          She'd never been one for sleeping late anyway. It was a mixed blessing: a gift when school was in session, a curse when on vacation. But like so many other things, she'd learned to accept it and live with it, although today she wouldn't have minded an exception.
          Yawning, she stood and stretched, wincing as a few minor aches and bruises from the previous day's battles announced themselves. She ran a hand through her purple hair and pulled on her glasses, then looked around the room, noting with not a little guilt that it was just as cluttered and chaotic as always: the desk and table covered with open notebooks and journals, books stacked up in chairs or on the floor, tools and lab equipment lying where they'd last been used, half-finished inventions sitting out in the open. For some odd reason, she'd half-expected things would suddenly be different from how she remembered; just as oddly, she found she was both relieved and a little disappointed to find everything the same, as though nothing had happened.
          Her mind seized on that train of thought, and for a moment she wondered; but no, surely the past month couldn't have been a dream or an hallucination. Lucca turned back to the desk, spotted the photograph sitting on the far end, and chided herself for even entertaining the thought.
          Before the end of the Millenial Fair, despite numerous grumbled complaints from the males, she'd forced everyone--except for Janus, who'd flat out refused--to squeeze together for a picture before finally going their separate ways and returning to their own times, and now she was glad she'd insisted on it.
          Lucca picked up the photograph, ran her fingers over the glass, smiling at what a motley crew they'd been: Marle, sweet and innocent to a fault, holding tightly to Crono's arm wrapped around her waist; Glenn, standing proud and loyal, his hands resting atop the Masamune; herself, the 'mad' scientist, brilliant but egotistical, both of which were more true than she sometimes wished; Robo, towering over them all in the back, raising one metallic fist in mimickry of his human friends; Ayla, simple but fearless, sitting cross-legged in the grass and grinning like an idiot; and Crono, her best friend and the closest she'd ever have to a brother.
          Aside from her memories and a now-defunct Gatekey, this photograph was the only proof that their adventure had ever taken place.
          That, and the time machine sitting quietly in the basement.
          The Epoch... The world's first time machine, the holy grail of modern science. Lucca still found it hard to believe that this dream had actually been given life, that the Epoch was able to reach beyond the boundaries of time and travel between eras, that decades of scientific theories had turned obsolete the moment it'd taken its first flight. But if it hadn't been for the Epoch, Lucca thought, they wouldn't have been able to save the future. They wouldn't have been able to save so many lives, prevent so much suffering in a world stricken by an all-consuming intergalactic parasite.
          A darker thought occurred to her. The future...a world more dark and bleak than was imaginable, nearly void of life, victim of the creature called Lavos. Had they truly saved the future? Had they actually destroyed Lavos and changed the course of history? From the start, logic had dictated that their goal was impossible, yet despite that they achieved it. Or was it merely the illusion of victory? Was a paradox even now wending its way through time, undoing their actions, and they only had a short time left?
          The irony of it was that they wouldn't even know for some time. Marle's disappearance in Queen Leene's era had proven that a temporal change was not instantaneous, at least from their perspective in the relative past. This was the same situation: they had changed the past of a future they were a part of. Only this time they weren't trying to correct their actions. Logic dictated that, because that future was the result of the Day of Lavos, destroying the creature and changing that past would severely alter the future, and likely in a way that would prevent their discovery of Lavos.
          The obvious thing to do was to travel back to the future, to see if they'd been successful. But none of the others had thought of that, and Lucca was, simply put, afraid to find out for certain. And even were they to return to the future, they still might not know for sure. Quantum mechanics offered a third possibility: that a parallel universe had been created when they'd attempted to change history. If that was so, then returning to the future would prove nothing. Unfortunately, she realized, whatever the case was, the only thing they could do now was wait and see.
          And besides, she reminded herself, none of that changed what she and Crono were going to do today. Even soon after they'd found the Epoch, Lucca had realized that, as much as she would rather keep it and spend a lifetime drooling over it, one day they would have to dismantle or destroy the time machine. The others had been able to grasp that they had actually traveled through time, but they remained blissfully unaware of just how many times they'd come close to disaster.
          The simple truth was that the Epoch's continued existence represented too great a danger.
          And that was her true concern, wasn't it? That the Epoch might someday be misused, that another accident like Marle's might occur, only this time there might not be a way to correct the paradox. If they had indeed altered the flow of time, they had erased the sadness and suffering they had seen, but at the same time they had destroyed the lives that had come into existence, and created new sadness and suffering in this new future. What if someone in that new time decided that their actions had been for the worse, and decided to seek revenge on them? What if someone found the Epoch, used it to undo the changes she and her friends had made to time? Perhaps even come after them personally, to capture them...or even kill them?
          The room around her suddenly seemed cold and empty, and Lucca shivered with the thought. No, as much as she hated to destroy the time machine, that was a risk she was not willing to take.
          Putting that thought out of her mind, she busied herself with attempting to clean up the room--knowing Crono, he'd be late as usual--and tried very hard not to think about the time machine sitting in her basement.

*   *   *

          It was, oddly enough, akin to looking into a mirror: a widow's peak of ice-blue hair that trailed down his neck, elven ears, an angular nose and chin; thin lips, twisted in a sneer; the blood-red eyes, glaring disdainfully at him...all of it identical to his own...
          Janus cursed inwardly, forced himself to regain control by gripping the scythe tightly in his hands, using its familiar weight to refocus his attention. "Who are you?" he hissed.
          The man narrowed his eyes at Janus, a hint of condescension, mockery....even hatred, in his baleful stare. "Fight me," he hissed; even his voice matched Janus's.
          "Fight you?" Janus replied, frowning. "What for?"
          The man glared at Janus. "I know what you're here for. I will not allow you to accomplish your plans, Prophet. Or should I say, false Prophet?"
          The attack came without warning. The Masamune came swinging upward, its tip flinging snow at him. Janus turned his face away from the snow as he held the scythe up before him like a staff, right hand above left, and the once-holy sword slammed into his weapon, striking it between his hands. The Masamune hit with more force than he'd expected, and the blunt end flew from his left hand as the sword continued past to his right. Janus turned to his right, turning the scythe's momentum to his advantage, building it up by spinning it himself. His feet danced in the snow, his cape swirling around him as he spun away.
          Simultaneously, the man in black continued his own spin, using the Masamune's momentum to turn counterclockwise, to his left and away from Janus. He brought the sword up, his own cape whipping about as he completed his turn, then swung the sword down, just in time to meet Janus's scythe at the junction of blade and staff, the two weapons clashing in a shower of sparks.
          Janus pulled back, spun the scythe clockwise, momentarily creating a barrier between them, and then the blade was on his right, and he slashed forward, a move that would have decapitated the other, but the man in black pulled the Masamune up and stabbed down his back, the sword barely stopping the scythe inches from his neck.
          Janus immediately swung the other end of the scythe forward, hoping to hit the other in the face, but the man in black pulled the Masamune back over his head and down, chopping hard at the blunt end of the scythe and knocking it away. Janus saw the opening, slashed down and to his left, but the other had used his momentum to bend at the waist. As the man in black pivoted along his left hip, his head going low, the scythe's blade whispered cleanly down his back, his left foot swiveled, and his right boot came up in a vertical kick, catching Janus squarely across the face, knocking him to the side. The man in black completed the pivot, came forward to press his advantage, but as Janus fell he stabbed the scythe back over his left side, catching the other hard in the stomach.
          As Janus hit the snow, he cradled the scythe across his chest, rolled back and kicked up, flipping heels over head to land in a slight crouch, the scythe in guard position before him. He watched as, several meters away, the man in black straightened up and turned towards him, and Janus wondered again just who this person was. Never had an opponent presented such a challenge before; it was like fighting himself, almost as if the other knew every move he would make before he himself knew.
          The man in black came forward, his eyes glowing, a visceral smile on his lips, the Masamune again dangling from his hand. "My turn..." he murmured, and he suddenly became a blur as he hovered forward, moving so fast he created after-images in his wake.
          He came in fast, spinning clockwise halfway through his charge, ending with a backhand slash to Janus's right. Janus parried the blow with the scythe, then pivoted to his left as the other stabbed at where he'd been. The man in black pivoted to his right, bringing the sword up into an overhead block as Janus slashed back over his right shoulder with the blunt end of the scythe. The man in black spun to his right, the Masamune now swinging towards Janus's neck, but Janus twisted to his left, his back momentarily to the other, and caught the sword with his scythe's blade.
          But as Janus thrust the other's weapon away, the man in black let go with his right hand and held it open before him. Light and sound flashed in his palm, and a giant invisible hand seemed to slam into Janus's back. He grunted as he flew face-first through the air, and then the snow and ground slammed into him, stunning him and knocking the scythe from his hands.
          Abruptly, he found himself rising into the air, turning, his body now held in an invisible grip, his arms and legs dangling uselessly at his sides. He watched, helpless, as the man in black stepped forward, his left hand outstretched in a lifting gesture. His gloved hand then closed, and Janus could feel the grip tightening around him, choking him, threatening to render him unconscious or worse. The man in black pulled his closed fist to his chest, and Janus hovered forward until he was barely a meter away.
          "Who...are you...?!" Janus bit out through gritted teeth, his breathing labored, as he struggled to break free, but the other's magic was more powerful than Janus could have imagined. More powerful, in fact, as much as he hated to admit it, than his own.
          "I am what you claim to be..." the man in black whispered, his eyes tight, his gaze burning into Janus's. "I am the Magus, the true Prophet.."
          Even as darkness began to creep into the edges of his vision, part of Janus rebelled at the other's words. But part of him couldn't deny the aura and power of the other, the way he'd fought; even the clothing and name were too similar to be a coincidence.
          Somehow, in some way, this man truly was him.
          "All too easy..." the Magus said with a tight smile. "Your deceit--and your life--end here," he continued. "Goodbye....Prophet...."
          He clenched his fist, the grip tightened, and as Janus's world turned to darkness, he wondered idly if this would constitute suicide.

*   *   *

          To Lucca's complete astonishment, Crono showed up at her house on time. Like her, he was still dressed in his clothes from yesterday, having gone straight to bed and fallen asleep from exhaustion the night before. When she explained her reason for calling him over so early, he surprised her again by immediately, if reluctantly, agreeing to her plan. Like her, he'd seen and understood the danger time travel represented; the Epoch had been a boon to their efforts, but it had served its purpose. Seeing no need to prolong the inevitable, they proceeded to move the Epoch out of Lucca's basement and down to the southern tip of the island.
          The thin grove of palm trees there was one of Lucca's favorite spots, close to the beach and the gulf surrounding the island, but also nice and quiet, a great place to come just to sit and think, to let her mind wander or play with ideas for inventions. The area was also fairly secluded, a safe distance from her house and far enough from prying eyes, and it was to the small clearing near the center that they brought the Epoch.
          A faint smile on her lips, Lucca slid her hand affectionately over the Epoch's cool metallic skin, which sparkled in the rays of sunlight coming down between the branches and wide leaves. "You've been a good ship," she murmured softly, almost to herself.
          "Are you going to kiss it goodbye like you did Robo?" Crono teased her gently, a mischevous smile on his lips.
          Lucca's reply was just short of a rude gesture. "Like you would understand," she retorted, making a face at him. "You're just jealous because you don't know a logic gate from a time Gate."
          Crono grunted in dismissal of her remark, then grinned at their playful banter. Lucca laughed and returned the smile, and Crono caught himself thinking about how cute she was, standing there in the morning sunlight, her velvet bangs brushing against glasses that accentuated her shy, aqua eyes, her pink lips an attractive contrast to the blushing warmth in her cheeks, and for a moment Crono completely forgot what they were here for.
          The road not taken...
          There had been a time, long ago, when he had thought their relationship might develop beyond friendship, when he had started noticing girls, when he had stopped seeing her as a tomboy and had begun to see her for the attractive young woman she was blossoming into.
          And then her mother's accident had happened, and everything had changed between them. Crono certainly couldn't remember, and it had never been proven that it was his fault for certain, but he knew there had been no other conclusion to draw when they discovered that the machine had been turned on without anyone realizing it, and that Crono had been the last one seen playing near it.
          No one had tried to blame him; it was, after all, an accident, and even Lara had gone out of her way to make sure he knew she held no hard feelings towards him. But he couldn't help feeling otherwise, couldn't help the guilt he felt at having played some role in her mother's accident.
          After that day, things between him and Lucca weren't the same anymore. They had still played together, still worked together on school projects and experiments at her house, but he was more reserved than before, not as out-going, barely saying more than one or two words at a time, almost as though he'd been afraid of his own voice hurting someone. And his father's death almost two years ago had only reinforced the self-inflicted solitude.
          The guilt had faded somewhat over the years, he'd learned to deal with the loss of his father, and he'd begun to act more like his old self, more recently since their travels through time. But the guilt, the remorse, had never truly gone away, and it never let him forget.
          The accident had not destroyed their relationship, fortunately, but it had drawn a line that had determined the boundaries of that relationship forever, a line that neither of them had ever dared to cross, and for that, Crono was sorry. Neither of them knew where their relationship might have gone, and now neither of them would ever know.
          Abruptly, he realized she was staring at him, an odd, distracted look on her face, her mouth hanging slightly open, and for a moment he was afraid she'd deduced his thoughts, an irritating habit of hers.
          Crono lifted his eyebrows. "What, is there something on my face?" he asked in a light, distracting tone, then he realized she wasn't looking at him, but rather past him, over his shoulder. Frowning, he turned, wondering what had so captivated her attention.
          He didn't wonder very long.
          There, not five meters away, was the last thing he'd expected to see: strobing sparkles, shimmering ribbons of blue-white light, rippling and falling in upon themselves as the fabric of spacetime folded, a strange wind whistling into existence and whispering in Crono's ears, an odd forward pull as gravity was distorted, and at last a portal swirled into existence.
          It was a Gate.
          And something was coming through.

*   *   *

          With a sound like crackling electricity, coruscating bolts of pure white energy ripped through the air, striking the Magus squarely in the back, causing him to cry out involuntarily, his head falling back. His hands clenched spasmodically before him, uncontrollable, and the Masamune fell to the snow at his feet.
          The invisible hand gripping Janus abruptly disappeared, and he landed on hands and knees, his chest heaving as he struggled to breathe. His hair dangling in front of his face, Janus looked up, and was shocked to see where the bolts that were assaulting the Magus were coming from.
          "Schala--why?!" the Magus bit out through gritted teeth, his face twisted in pain as he turned to face her. She stood before them, her robes and hair billowing wildly, the flickering light distorting the anguished look on her face, her hands directing the ribbons of energy as they played over the Magus's body.
          For a moment, it appeared the Magus would succumb; he bent over and crossed his arms, shielding his face and chest from the assault, backing away. Then without warning he straightened back up, throwing out his arms with a cry, his body momentarily surrounded by a faint green aura, and before Schala could react, the bolts rebounded off the Magus's magic wall and came back at her.
          The instant Schala's scream pierced the air, for Janus time slammed to a halt. For a single moment, a sort of calm overtook him, his vision clouding over as the Magus attacked his sister.
          And then the anger, the rage, was suddenly there, as though he had unconsciously summoned it, bubbling just beneath the surface, like a pent-up river that had built up for years against an impetuous dam of self-control that had dared to hold it back.
          It was a familiar feeling, a welcome one, and it lit the blood in his veins on fire, worked him up into a fury rivaling that of the Black Wind, which now howled silently in his ears. The world became draped in a red haze, and all thoughts faded from his mind, all cares about what Schala might think, as he became focused on destroying the enemy before him.
          Janus raised his fists above his head, then brought them back down, slamming them into the earth, and his entire body recoiled from the impact, lifting him into the air. His right arm snapped behind him, and as though of its own accord, the scythe leapt from the ground and into his palm. He brought the weapon around in front of him, spinning it so fast it was nearly invisible, and Janus floated back to the ground, legs spread, left hand open and tensed before him, his right hand holding the scythe at an angle behind his back, his face a mask of living fury as an animal-like bellow of rage exploded from between drawn lips.
          The Magus turned at the sound, and for the first time since he'd appeared, the other faltered, his expression one of hesitance, gripped by the soulless look in Janus's eyes.
          An image, unfocused, surrounded by greyness, flashed before Janus's eyes: the Magus, in pain, curled helplessly at his feet. A vision--of the future?
          For a single, brief instant, his earlier thoughts returned and Janus nearly denied the anger, the rage that was ready to burst forth, to serve him, but he hesitated, and that was all that was necessary for the rage to decide for him.
          In that moment, Janus knew that the man standing before him was going to die.
          He took one step toward the Magus and sprang into the air, the Magus turning to follow as Janus flipped over and landed behind him, his weapon now held in a double grip. In one fluid motion Janus pivoted on his right heel and stepped back to his left, then slashed at the Magus, who kicked himself into a backflip, the blade just barely missing his legs as it passed underneath.
          As the Magus landed in a handstand, he simultaneously grabbed the Masamune and pushed against the ground, kicking himself up and back and completing the flip. He landed in a crouch, the sword held before him, and he barely had time to bring it up before Janus was on him.
          Janus's arms and weapon were a blur as he launched attack after attack, stabbing with the blunt end, slashing with the blade, up, down, left, right, every opening he saw, every chance he had, the rage pushing him, feeding his strength and fury. The Magus was barely able to defend himself, each block and parry pushing him further back, eating away at his own strength. Again and again the blades clashed in a shower of sparks, the sound of metal on metal startlingly loud, almost as though the weapons had taken on their masters' intentions and now fought each other.
          Janus feinted the blunt end of the scythe at the Magus, slashed left with the other end as the Magus moved to parry. He barely ducked in time, the blade missing his head by centimeters, and Janus thrust with the back of the blade, this time allowing the Magus to parry it aside, leaving his left side exposed, and in a flash Janus spun, his left foot coming up in a roundhouse kick that caught the Magus hard, knocking him to the ground.
          Janus moved to stand over him, the scythe drawn back over his shoulder, ready to plunge down into the other's chest. Abruptly, he remembered his vision, saw that it was actually coming true, hesitated for only a moment--
          And as quickly as it had arrived, the rage left Janus, physically taking his strength with it. His legs collapsed beneath him, sending him to his knees, his breath quivering, his entire body suddenly feeling weak, drained and exhausted.
          The moment was all the Magus needed. He curled his legs up over his chest, then kicked up and out, flipping back onto his feet, and he grabbed the Masamune, a murderous glare in his eyes, as though Janus's rage had entered him, and he held the sword up--
          Only to stop and back away as a stream of sparkling, blue-white energy hit him, twisting and curling around his body, wrapping itself around him and the sword like a snake, and just as he realized what was happening, he thrust the Masamune outward, as though stabbing an invisible enemy, and then the energy enveloped his entire body and solidified with a sound like crackling ice, literally freezing him in place.
          "Come on," Schala said, her ethereal voice soft but tense in his ear, as she suddenly appeared and knelt at Janus's side. She hooked his arm over her shoulders, helped him get to his feet. "That won't hold him for long."
          Janus looked at his sister, confused by her helping him, wanting--needing--to talk to her, to ask her so many things, but there was no time now. He looked at the Magus, now frozen in a block of ice, his face contorted in an expression of anger and frustration. But even as he watched, a dark red glow appeared within the ice, centered around the Masamune, and Janus realized that the Magus was melting the ice; already thick rivulets of water were trickling down the icy form. Another few seconds and the ice would break completely, and the Magus would be free.
          Turning away from the Magus, Schala closed her eyes in concentration, gestured with her free hand, and to Janus's astonishment, a Gate swirled into existence. She can create Gates? He held the thought for a moment only, then knelt back down, picked his scythe up from the ground, twisting the knob and returning it to its more compact form before storing it away. He stood back up, shakily, grudgingly allowing Schala to keep a firm hold on his arm to support him.
          "Where are we going?" Janus asked, his voice barely above a whisper, as Schala guided him towards it. He could already feel its gravitic pull, the wind whistling loudly as they drew close.
          "To the future..." his sister replied cryptically. Behind them, the Magus finally broke free, his cry of rage mixing with the sound of shattering ice, and then they were inside the Gate, bathed in its soft blue light, and the land of snow and ice around them disappeared--

          To be replaced by a warmer, greener world as the Gate dumped them unceremoniously onto sandy ground before folding back in on itself. But even as they landed, Schala was already pulling Janus to his feet, not even bothering to get her bearings and take in their surroundings, knowing that the reprieve wouldn't last.
          "Schala?" a voice gasped to her left.
          She turned, recognition and surprise flickering across her eyes when she saw the boy and his companion. She realized he was just as surprised to see her alive as she was to see him. They'd each thought the other one dead; they'd both apparently--fortunately--been wrong.
          Lucca came up next to Crono, her eyes wide behind her glasses. "What are--how did you--"
          "There's no time to explain," Schala cut in, shaking her head. "He'll be right behind us."
          Crono frowned. "Who?"
          "The Magus," Janus bit out sourly as he rose to his feet.
          Lucca looked incredulously at him. "What?"
          Before he could answer, the wind shifted again without warning, much quicker than Schala had anticipated, and she realized their time had run out.
          Light exploded off to Crono's right, accompanied by a thunderclap, and he turned his head, only to see another Gate swirl into existence. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Schala reaching out to the three of them.
          "Forgive me, Janus," she whispered, pressing her pendant into his hand even as Janus turned to her, disbelief in his eyes as he realized what she was doing, and she pushed. An invisible force manifested itself out of thin air, sliding around her and slamming into her brother and the children, knocking them away from her.

          Crono hit the ground, slightly stunned but otherwise unaffected. He looked up in time to see what had come through the Gate, only to not believe his eyes as the Epoch came roaring out, bearing down hard on Schala. Halfway to her, the bubble cockpit rose up, revealing a person who could only be this Magus that Janus had mentioned. Crono watched in astonishment as the ship, apparently identical to their own, barrel-rolled upside down, swept Schala up into the cockpit, and simultaneously closed the bubble and righted itself before juking between a pair of trees and tearing away from the grove.
          To his credit, Crono didn't let his astonishment paralyze him. He started after the Magus, only to stop as Lucca called out to them. He turned, saw her climbing into their Epoch's backseat, and realized she had the right idea. They weren't about to catch the Magus on foot; their only chance was to go after him in their own Epoch.
          The question of just who this doppelganger of Janus's was--not to mention where the Epoch had come from--would wait. Schala was obviously in trouble, and that was all that mattered for the moment; they still owed her their lives for her sacrifice so long ago.
          Crono sprinted back to the ship, quickly bounding up the side and depositing himself in the pilot's seat. Apparently Janus had come to the same conclusion, for a moment later he landed next to Lucca in the backseat. His face was an unreadable mask as usual, but Crono and Lucca could easily feel the utter rage pouring off of Janus; for once, neither of them blamed him.
          "Hang on," Crono warned them as he started the Epoch's engines and lowered the cockpit dome. The engines roared briefly to life before settling down into a softer drone, which manifested itself as an almost massage-like vibration through the seats. The ship hovered easily into the air, and then they were off, pushed into their seats by the sudden acceleration, the wind whistling loudly even through the canopy, the grove of trees flashing by on either side until they were out in open air.
          In front of them, the Magus's Epoch roared away, sand churning up and spraying to either side, like waves in a speedboat's wake. Ahead of him, the island's perimeter was approaching fast; beyond that, the gulf surrounding the island, and the forested mainland further ahead.
          If the Magus made it that far, there would be no stopping him.
          "Hurry, Crono," Lucca urged him, her face tight as she leaned her head over the seat. He nodded in reply, then blinked as a sudden thought clicked. The Magus didn't have to get away from them physically. Not if he could just as easily get away temporally.
          But even as Crono realized what was happening, he knew it was already too late.
          "He's opening a Gate..." he blurted in realization, and as if on cue, an explosion of greenish-white light blossomed into existence around the Magus's ship, briefly silhouetting it before swallowing it completely.
          Lucca sucked air through her teeth. "We're going to lose him--"
          "No, we're not," Janus stated matter-of-factly, the skin around his eyes stretched taut. He stretched his hands up towards the Gate and reached out to it through his magic, surprising even himself by forcing the portal to remain open.
          The Gate loomed ahead of them, flashing angrily, its edges oscillating as it tried futilely to fold in on itself. Janus bared his teeth, his breath becoming labored, perspiration breaking out on his brow as he fought the Gate's resistance.
          "I can't watch," Lucca whimpered as she covered her eyes and turned away.
          The Epoch surged forward, closing the distance rapidly, and then they were across the threshold, the sandy ground and blue sky giving way to the greenish interior of the Gate, the rear of the vessel shuddering as the portal was finally able to close in on itself, rocking them almost as if in retaliation.
          The wormhole was effectively identical to all their previous travels through time: beautiful, coruscating ribbons of florescent temporal energy, rippling and crossing through each other, stretching across infinity, flashing past on all sides, always coming dangerously close but never quite touching the time machine. What was different about this Gate was the greenish hue to the light, rather than the typical blue, and the fact that it seemed to be taking longer than normal to reach their destination, wherever--whenever--it was.
          And then, abruptly, the tunnel ended, and the Gate in turn gave way to sandy ground and blue sky. The sky here, though, was paler, and the sand was not limited to the boundaries of an island; rather, it stretched out in all directions away from them, and Crono realized they were now flying over a desert.
          "There," Janus spoke up suddenly, pointing in a direction a few degrees to the right of their current heading.
          Crono's eyes followed, narrowed as he spotted the flare of the other ship's engines, shimmering in the heat. "I see him. Hang on," he warned again as he brought the ship about.
          The Magus continued steadily away from them, across a flat plain and up a large sand dune, disappearing briefly as it crested the peak. Crono urged the Epoch after him, climbing up the side of the dune, reaching the top--
          Only to feel his jaw drop as the largest sandstorm any of them had ever seen suddenly came into view.
          Directly ahead of them, impenetrable and disturbingly close, the column of wind stretched from the desert floor seemingly to the sky itself, swirling and writhing like a living thing. Sand and dust were pulled up into the storm at frightening speeds, so fast that the minute particles became almost a solid wall.
          And the other Epoch was heading straight for it.
          Crono bit off a curse as he guided the Epoch forward, down the side of the dune and after the Magus. The other was insane if he thought he would get away by flying into a sandstorm. If he was anything like Janus, he would have something else in mind. And the most likely possibility was that he was going to open another Gate.
          Crono throttled the Epoch forward, racing to catch up to the Magus in time to follow him through again. The desert floor flashed by beneath, and then the twister was looming before them, impossibly huge, the roar of the winds audible even through the canopy.
          Ahead of them, just as the ship reached the periphery of the storm, a Gate swirled into existence in a snap-flash of bluish light, the other Epoch disappeared, and the portal folded in on itself before Janus had a chance to act.
          And before Crono could react, the storm was upon them, and he realized with a horrible feeling that they'd flown straight into a trap.
          Lucca's scream of terror was drowned out by the howling winds as the Epoch was suddenly pulled in like a toy ship. The sandstorm was a column of darkness, sand and dust swirling all around them, and it was all they could do to brace themselves, to keep from being tossed about like rag dolls. The gusts and eddies of the storm pounded the ship, peppering it with sand, pitting and scarring the canopy.
          Without warning the storm began to die, and suddenly they were free of the turbulent winds, the darkness mercifully giving way to light, the Epoch spinning and corkscrewing crazily until Crono finally managed to bring the ship somewhat under control.
          Just in time to see the sand rising up to meet them as the Epoch plunged fatally to the earth.

To be continued...

Others by this author
Others about this game