Spectres Of The Past - Chapter VI: Redemption

[01.09.02] » by Jason Connor

Chapter VI: Redemption

          The calm of the ocean's surface was shattered as the Epoch, engines flaring, burst through in an explosion of water. Janus leveled the ship out, circled once in case the Magus were still nearby, then brought it around to bear due east. Keeping one eye open for any surprises, he began punching a series of commands into the navi-comp, directing the ship's sensors to find and lock onto any anomalous quantum signatures; hopefully, it would find the wake-trail of the other ship's flux capacitor.
          Contrary to what the children might have thought, Janus wasn't technically challenged. Far from it, in fact; he understood the underlying mechanics of the time machine more than they ever would, in ways they would never have dreamed of.
          As the ship flew through the air, Janus glanced out the canopy. There, far off to the south, was the half-continent that the Earthbound village, New Algetty, resided on; nearby, the mountain that he'd stood atop only this morning. Or rather, a mountain identical to the one he'd stood atop.
          The irony was that, for all Lucca's genius, she still had it wrong. She thought that they were in the future, and granted she had good reason to believe so. There had never been a Figaro castle in any of the eras they had visited. The people weren't that different from them; they even spoke the same language. Even despite the Epoch's chronometer's insistence that they hadn't left the year 1000, all other evidence had indicated that they were in the future, especially given the potential for change now that the Day of Lavos had been prevented.
          And Janus would have had to agree with her, if it weren't for the Magus.
          Janus was fairly certain he'd never gone traipsing around in such dark attire, let alone attempted to kidnap his sister from himself, which eliminated the Magus being himself from the past. The Magus was roughly the same age as Janus, but it was just as unlikely that the Magus was a future version of himself. And if Janus had learned anything from humoring Lucca's unsolicited technobabble, that left only one possibility.
          The Magus was an alternate version of himself.
          Which meant that this was a parallel dimension.
          Sometime, somewhere in the past, there had been a divergeance, an unraveling of history's tapestry, and this world had been created, parallel to their own. Or perhaps it was the opposite: their world might have spawned off from this one. Either way, he belonged to one, the Magus to the other.
          Whichever had come first, it was of no concern to Janus, nor was the cause of the divergeance. All that mattered now was finding his sister.
          A ping from the console clamored for his attention. He turned back to the controls, saw that the computer had found what he was looking for: a trail of tachyon particles, widespread and with a clear direction, easily found.
          Too easily, in fact. For a moment, Janus considered listening to the suspicion nagging at the back of his mind. The trail had obviously been left on purpose, with the intention that Janus would be certain to follow.
          Which meant some kind of trap, naturally. But there was no other choice. The Magus had his sister. Janus was going to get her back. It was that simple.
          The engine room in Figaro Castle was in an area that had once been below sea level, which was why the Epoch had appeared underwater; fortunately for Janus, Belthasar had had quite a bit of foresight, and had designed the Epoch to operate underwater.
          The question now, though, was how deep could it go? Because that was where the trail was leading Janus now: straight down, into the ocean.
          Only one way to find out, Janus thought grimly to himself. He tugged back on the flightstick, pulling the Epoch up into a loop that ended with the ship facing straight down, then he engaged the engines and plunged beneath the ocean's surface.

          The light from above began to grow dimmer, and the Epoch's headlights now cut a swath through the semi-darkness as the ship dove further and further into the ocean's depths, eventually revealing a bed of silt and coral, just over three kilometers down. Janus began to follow the ocean floor, grateful for the refracted light that was reflecting curtain-like through the water and on the rocks.
          Rocks and water that were curiously devoid of any sort of marine or plant life, almost as though something had systematically scoured this part of the ocean floor...
          As Janus guided the ship onward, ignoring the claustrophobic feeling of the ship's tiny confines, one question continued to bother him: what could the Magus possibly be after that was worth traveling to the bottom of the ocean for? If what he'd seen above was any indication, the Zeal of this world--this dimension--had in all likelihood been just as thoroughly destroyed as his own...by the power of Lavos. It stood to reason that if this world was this similar to his own, then it was just as likely that Lavos existed here as well. But that begged the question, was this world's Lavos still in this time period? Or had it, too, been summoned away to another time, as Janus had summoned Lavos in his world?
          For now, those questions would have to wait, as Janus had expected. What he hadn't expected, though, as the Epoch banked around an outcropping of coral, was for his first question to suddenly answer itself.
          There, not half a kilometer away, resting in the very center of a deep depression carved into the ocean floor, barely illuminated by the scant few beams of sunlight that managed to penetrate the murky depths, was a building, resting above the ocean floor on the remains of an island. A main tower and its smaller sister tower rose up from the central structure, casting the front of the building in the thickest of shadows. Scattered around the island, half-buried in the sand and dirt, were the broken remains of chambers that had been breached, as well as the glass and wood of doors and windows that had been unable to withstand the pressure. The building was nothing more than a shadow of its former glorious self, looking for all the world as though it had been here forever, but Janus knew it had not, for the moment he laid eyes on it, despite the long years it had been since he'd been banished from his home, he recognized it immediately for what it was.
          The Sun Keep of Zeal.
          And an instant later it was all too horribly clear what the Magus's goal here was.
          He was after the Sun Stone.
          What Janus knew of it was not good. The rarest of rarities, it was the incredible source of power that had literally taken Zeal to heights undreamt of before. It was also why Schala's father had died before Janus had been born, for the Sun Stone was a monkey's paw, the most ingenious of traps: it granted its wielder his most heartfelt desire, but in exchange it fed off of the person's own life in order to grant the wish. The ultimate power, for the ultimate price...
          What it could do in the hands of someone like the Magus was something Janus did not wish to contemplate.
          Painfully aware of how imperative it was now that he stop his doppelganger, Janus guided the Epoch forward. He passed over the lip of the depression, drifted down its gradually steepening slope, and headed for the palace.
          The Epoch glided forward as though it had been born underwater, easily detouring around and over the scattered chunks of masonry. Janus spared each no more than a glance as he passed, before turning back to the view in front of him--
          Only to cry out in alarm and shove the flightstick hard to the right as the biggest creature he'd ever seen suddenly poured out of the shadows surrounding the palace. Janus had barely a glimpse of a black hole of a dragon-like snout filled with row upon row of razorteeth before he was slammed into the left side of the cockpit, the Epoch barely escaping the creature as its jaws came crashing down.
          Janus immediately throttled the ship's thrust to full power, and the Epoch tore away from the palace, leaving the water churning in its wake. Already recovered from his initial shock, Janus spared a second to glance at the ship's radar screen, at the shockingly huge serpentine figure now behind him, at the dragon-like head that was bigger than the Epoch, at the claw-finned limbs and tail easily parting the waters, only to have his fears confirmed: the creature had decided to come after him.
          And it was gaining on him.
          Every option available to Janus flashed through his mind in a heartbeat, and just as quickly each one was dismissed. His own powers he knew should have been more than sufficient to deal with the beast, except that to make use of their faculty he would have to leave the Epoch's confines; not exactly an option at the moment. The Epoch itself had weapons, thanks to a lack of foresight on Dalton's part, but they were effectively useless while the creature had him on the run, unable to turn around in time to fire. And the depression the palace rested in seemed designed to eliminate any possibility of escape: no underwater caves conveniently nearby, nothing even remotely large enough to hide the ship in save for the palace far behind him, and even if he managed to make it over the lip of the depression in time, he had no idea where he could go, and in the time spent deciding, the leviathan would have him.
          For a moment, it seemed as though fate had finally caught up to him, that the rules of the fight had him trapped, and that he was going to lose at last.
          Then he remembered just what it was he was piloting here, and with a curt laugh he realized that there was only one thing to do.
          It was time to change the rules.
          Tossing a quick, silent prayer to whatever gods were listening, he glanced once more at the creature bearing down on him, grinned ferally, and reached for a particular control bar.
          Suddenly the leviathan was upon him, reaching out with huge, clawed hands and stopping the Epoch dead, its fingers gripping the wings, sinking inward as metal buckled under the stress. Janus was thrown forward in his seat, unable to prevent his head from slamming into the dashboard, as the Epoch bucked wildly within the beast's grasp, its engines still at full power.
          As Janus reeled back in a daze, the creature let out an unearthly roar, the distorted sound somehow clearing the fog from Janus's mind. He shook his head, then braced himself as the creature brought the ship up to its mouth. His heart suddenly began pounding itself to death, despite any bravado Janus would have otherwise shown, as he stared once more into the gaping, bottomless maw. Then he turned back to the control board, seemingly in slow motion, his movements sluggish, his eyes wide with panic, frantically searching for the lever his hand had held only moments ago.
          The creature roared again, seemingly in triumph, as it placed the Epoch's rear in its mouth
          Janus squeezed his eyes shut to clear them, opened them, saw the lever, reached for it, slammed it home for all it was worth--
          The creature's jaws began to inexorably close, the canopy fin buckling as it met the roof of the leviathan's mouth, the Epoch's hull shuddering as razorteeth made contact, piercing the Epoch's metal skin--
          Only to slam painfully together as the ship suddenly vanished in an explosion of light.
          The leviathan recoiled in a roar of surprise and anger, momentarily disoriented by the blinding light. For a few moments, it thrashed about violently in the water, screaming in rage at having lost its prey, until another explosion of light to one side caught its attention.
          The leviathan turned, its throat rumbling ominously, to see the Epoch reappear some distance in front of it, facing directly at it after having returned from its brief detour to prehistoric times, its interior lit from within as Janus's magic kept the hull breaches sealed.
          Janus lined the creature up in his sights, his finger hovering over the weapons trigger, hesitating as he gazed out the canopy, his eyes narrowing as he looked the creature directly in the eyes.
          The leviathan bellowed defiantly, its scream carrying through the water and rocking the Epoch, before the creature darted forward, churning up the water around it.
          Annoyingly, Janus couldn't prevent the mental image that popped into his head, of how the others would probably be reacting had they been here: the boy would have snapped off some pithy retort; the bimbo would have squealed un-princess-like in triumph; the geek would have spouted some gibberish about the power of science; that stupid frog would have prattled on about doing the honorable thing; the cavewoman and robot wouldn't have had a clue.
          Janus grunted derisively, then pressed the button.
          Twin beams of coruscating energy abruptly lanced out from the front of the Epoch, boiling a path through the water as they speared towards the leviathan. It opened its mouth in rage--
          Only to scream in pain, its eyes enlarging comically, as the beams drove straight down its throat, instantly slagging the creature's insides. The leviathan fell limp as it slowly floated to a stop, head and limbs drooping slowly through the water, mouth closing ponderously as though the creature had been drugged.
          Janus remained just long enough to see the body settle to the ocean floor, watched the life drain from the creature's eyes with grim satisfaction, then brought the Epoch around and headed back to the palace as quickly as the crippled ship would take him.

          Getting into the palace turned out to be the easy part. The doors to the entrance hall weren't a problem; they weren't there anymore. Janus guided the Epoch in carefully, the twin beams of its headlights leading the way. He ignored the shadowy objects floating eerily in the darkness around him as he split his concentration between keeping the hull breaches sealed and not running into anything.
          The soft glow of light from the direction of the grand staircase reached down into the water, beckoning him. Janus headed towards it, and the ship emerged in a pocket of air. He set the ship down atop a pile of rubble, not caring that it was tilted at an angle, then released the spell that had kept the Epoch air-tight before shutting the time machine down.
          Janus popped the canopy, left it open as he jumped down into waist-high water. He regarded the Epoch silently for a moment; the ship had gotten him here, but it obviously wasn't going to get him out now. Pushing that particular problem to the back of his mind where he could worry about it later, Janus turned and began wading through the water.
          Janus made his way up the steps to the adjoining hall, his clothes and cape dripping loudly in the disconcerting silence. He paused at the entrance and closed his eyes, his hands dangling loosely at his sides, as he cast a spell. A light, swirling breeze that was simultaneously cool and warm enveloped him; a few seconds later, his clothes were completely dry.
          The hallway beyond was lit with the soft glow of wall sconces sprinkled sparingly up and down its length, their warmth dispelling some of the chill in the air. The carpet that stretched out before Janus was littered with debris and rubble that had broken loose from the arched ceiling above, and he could make out the hulking shapes of large chunks of masonry further ahead, cloaked in shadow.
          Janus grimaced at the irony of the situation. Normally he would have felt quite at home in such an environment, but after what he'd just encountered, he would have preferred a bit more illumination--less darkness for unimaginable creatures to lurk in.
          He'd made it no further than halfway down the hall when the thought came back to haunt him.
          A whisper of movement was his only warning. Janus spun, unconsciously pulling his scythe out, his hands reflexively snapping it into guard position before him, his eyes sweeping the corridor anxiously when he didn't see anyone.
          Movement to his left caught his attention: two small figures, crouching together in the shadows. Janus frowned, started towards them--
          Janus hissed in surprise and spun around, his heart momentarily pounding at the sound of the girlish voice behind him.
          There, bobbing back and forth from one cloven foot to the other, was a creature, no bigger than a child and wearing a white gaberdine and a small green scarf, complementing her golden skin and large emerald eyes. She was bald, with a beaked snout, no discernable nose, and swept-back elven ears that twitched erratically, as though mimicking her tridactyl paws, which were clenched nervously in front of her.
          Janus exhaled through his nose as he recognized her and realized who the other two were, unsure as to whether he should be relieved or irritated. Why not? he thought, frowning. Hit me with that thing out there, then drop these three into my lap. I can always use another challenge on top of everything else.
          Out loud, he gruffly addressed the one in front of him: "Doreen..."
          "You mustn't hurt them," she went on in a pleading tone, as though he hadn't spoken. "It's not their fault."
          As if there had been some unspoken signal that it was now safe to come out, her brothers, Masa and Mune, emerged from the darkness, silently bouncing around either side of Janus and past Doreen, before stopping and huddling together again, half in the light and half in the shadows, blinking constantly and acting as oddly as Janus remembered.
          "Janus it is..." Masa murmured in a high-pitched, slightly nasal voice.
          "And yet, is not..." Mune added, his tone speculative, his voice identical to his brother's.
          Janus raised an eyebrow, then looked back at Doreen. "What's not their fault?" he asked, wondering if he'd regret the question.
          "The sword..." she replied grimly. "They no longer have control of it."
          Janus felt the skin around his eyes tighten. "The Masamune... Of course. If you three are here, then so is the sword...and the Magus."
          "You must understand that this is not their doing," Doreen continued, strangely insistent, as though it were very important to get across to Janus. "When they rebelled, he did something to them, changed them somehow."
          Janus tilted his head. "Is that why it looks so different now? Because the Magus got ahold of it?"
          The creature nodded. "Abraham Melchior, the Guru of Life, crafted it to be a home for us, to be a weapon of light. It was never intended for one so full of hatred and darkness, to be misused in such a way. The sword was forged to destroy the Mammon Machine, to be our penance, our atonement."
          Janus frowned. "Atonement? For what?"
          "For summoning Lavos..."
          For one long, silent moment, he simply stared numbly at her. If the Magus had happened along at that moment, Janus would have been a sitting Nu, so unprepared was he for Doreen's words, unable to comprehend what she was telling him.
          And then it sank in, a horrible feeling shivering down his spine as everything he'd ever known was suddenly turned on its head by this revelation, that even after all this time he still didn't know the entire truth about Lavos, that so many things were suddenly different now, and he could feel his entire body tremble with a fury colder than hell frozen over.
          "You...summoned it?" Janus said at last, his voice so low Doreen could barely hear him, glaring at her with such intensity that she shrank back from him.
          "We are not of this world," she replied meekly. "Long ago, we were banished to this planet within the red rock, what you know as Dreamstone. Your ancestors found the red rock, and over time we came to know them and grow fond of humans. When the Reptites threatened humanity's existence, we did the only thing we could think of: we summoned Lavos to destroy them."
          "But the consequences..." Masa spoke up from behind his sister.
          "Unforeseen they were," Mune chimed in.
          "And unfortunate," Masa finished.
          "Unfortunate?!" Janus barked, incredulous at their apparent nonchalance. "My home is gone, thanks to you. My mother is dead, my sister was taken who knows where, half a dozen different paradoxes could have ripped apart the spacetime continuum, an entire future civilization was destroyed, and you consider the consequences of your actions unfortunate?!"
          Mune shook his head. "You mistake our intentions."
          "We meant no harm."
          "It is as it was."
          Janus frowned. "What are you babbling about?"
          "It was our role to fulfill in history," Doreen explained. "The Guru of Time, Jacob Gaspar, saw this, and revealed it to be true. Isaac Belthasar, the Guru of Reason, saw this as well, in the future that is dead."
          Janus swallowed, feeling his throat constricting. "Are you telling me that everything that happened was meant to happen?"
          Doreen attempted to look sad, although her features weren't designed for conveying much in the way of emotions. "I am sorry, Janus. I know it is not much consolation, but you know as well as anyone that death is a part of life; if not now, then later. The only variable is how long you get to stay here."
          "But why?" Janus ground out through gritted teeth, clenching his fists in frustration, uncomfortably aware of his self-pity but not caring at the moment. "Why did I have to watch my home be destroyed? Why was my mother turned into a monster? Why did I have to lose my sister?!"
          "No, no," Mune spoke up, "there is no 'why'."
          "Only 'is'," Masa put in.
          Janus seriously considered frying them on the spot. Now I know how Crono feels trying to get Lucca to explain something... "I don't understand," he bit out.
          "Things happened...because they happened."
          "Not for some unknown reason."
          "Bull," Janus spat, angry with them now. "You know what I think? I think the three of you allowed it to happen. You let Zeal be destroyed. If you had the power to summon Lavos, then you had the power to stop it, but you didn't. That makes you responsible."
          Masa cocked his head to one side. "Judge us, do you? Your place it is not."
          "The red rock gave mankind the ability to live a thousand different lives," Doreen spoke up. "But you.... You chose to live a thousand lies." She paused, regarding him for a moment, a chastening look in her eyes.
          She continued, her tone now sympathetic: "Every tragic figure is tainted by a flaw, possessed by a need to save the world or himself from some unforgiveable sin. But what you've forgotten, Janus, is that no man can judge without himself being judged in turn. When you play the role of the villain, you are left to suffer as one. When you pursue the shadows, you are destined to find the darkness. And as you well know, the darkness has always had its price."
          Janus was silent, frowning at the creature, feeling as though she'd suddenly become omniscient, as if she were delving deeply into his mind, pulling up every thought and fear he'd ever entertained. A part of him rebelled at the intrusion, cried out and demanded that she cease, unwilling to face the truth. And yet, a part of him welcomed and embraced the release, wanted her to continue, to free him of the burden he'd carried for so long. "So what happened to me?"
          "You stared into the miasma of all living creatures and judged it, without first looking into your own heart. You went looking for the tragic flaw in the world, but in reality the flaw lay elsewhere. When Ozziemandias came calling, dangling the seduction of magic before your eyes, you couldn't resist. The path your sister walked is the path of light, which brings balance to the chaos of life. But you didn't want balance; you wanted revenge. Despite better judgment, you took it upon yourself to right the unpardonable wrong, you went in search of the unatoneable sin, and you found it, didn't you?"
          "I did," Janus admitted quietly, feeling an odd peace settle over him. "I swore that I would protect my sister, but instead I only made things worse." He grunted in irony. "I've been searching my entire life--and all this time the problem lay within me."
          "It lies within every human, if each dares to see it," Doreen said. "But you were too proud to see it, or at least to acknowledge it."
          Janus glowered resentfully for a moment; but in the end, he knew she was right. "Fine. So I made a mistake. I see that, and I acknowledge it. Why won't you now admit to your mistake, to your responsibility?"
          "Ours was not the responsibility," Masa protested.
          "No choice had we in the matter," Mune added, shaking his head.
          "The events happened the way they happened."
          "Explain it more clearly we cannot."
          "For even we do not fully comprehend the stream of time."
          Janus rubbed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, wishing for the hundredth time the two would just speak normally. "Fine," he muttered in resignation, sweeping his palm to one side. "I've heard enough. I'm going after the Magus."
          He brushed past Doreen and headed for the end of the hall, scattering Masa and Mune to either side as he passed.
          "Your destiny that way lies," Masa called after him.
          "Your confrontation with the Magus," Mune put in.
          Janus stopped, slowly turned halfway back, frowning. "What do you mean? Are you telling me you can see the future?"
          "Always in motion is the future," Mune murmured. "Very difficult to see."
          "But of this one, certain are we," Masa added.
          Janus felt his eyes narrow. "Then I suppose you know the outcome as well. So who's going to win: me, or him?"
          Masa's expression seemed tinged with sadness. "The confrontation neither of you shall win..."
          "For in the end," Mune finished ominously, "you both will lose..."

          The doors to the hallway closed ponderously behind him as Janus stepped inside the domed room. It was a nexus of sorts, with the door Janus had come in by flanked almost a quarter of the way around the circular room on either side by doors leading off to other parts of the palace. The floor was still a tiled chessboard pattern, but spiraled, as though someone had pinched it in the center and twisted. At the far end of the room was a darkened alcove; arching over it on the next floor was a short balcony, embraced by a pair of matching marble staircases leading up from this floor, draped with lush carpets, their oaken banisters topped with miniature gargoyle statues. The rubies that served as eyes for the statues twinkled, reflecting the light from the shielded sconces lining the walls and the magically lit lamps dangling from the next floor's overhang.
          Abruptly, the Black Wind began to tickle along Janus's skin, raising the hairs on the back of his neck, whispering in his ears that he was no longer alone--
          And an instant later, a giant, invisible hand closed around him, lifting him bodily into the air, pinning his arms and legs together, threatening to crush him in its grasp, and he realized that the trap had been sprung.
          "Well, look who decided to join us!"
          From the alcove stepped two figures: the Magus, his cowl shadowing his face, his cape pulled concealingly around him like a cloak, looking eerily like a living shadow of the Prophet; and standing next to him, an orange silk cape dangling from the shoulders of a royal blue kilwala-hide overtunic, matching boots spread wide in a smug posture, was--
          "Dalton..." Janus growled, making the name sound like an epithet. He seemed older now, his clothes torn and faded in places, his long brown hair tinged with grey, matching his almost full beard, but his one good eye still gleamed with arrogant pride, his untethered irascibility betrayed by his body language.
          The other clasped his hands gleefully. "You remember me! I never did get to properly bid you farewell before those children interfered with my plans."
          And with those words, another piece of the puzzle clicked into place for Janus. "So this is where you ended up after they humiliated you," Janus realized.
          "Not quite," Dalton corrected him, bristling slightly at the embarassing reminder. "I actually ended up several years in the past. You see, this universe didn't exist until I was thrown back in time."
          "And naturally you took it upon yourself to try and change history," Janus said, then smiled. "How did it feel when you found out you couldn't?"
          "Oh, but I did," Dalton replied, his lip curling slyly. "For this world. Things turned out quite differently here, without those children to get involved. And I personally made sure that there would be no meddlesome Prophet to screw things up for me."
          "But there would have been another version of you as well," Janus frowned. "What about him?"
          Dalton shrugged. "Who knows? I was too busy reconstructing the Epoch to worry about my double. For all I care, he died when Lavos destroyed the Undersea Palace."
          "What?" Janus breathed. "What about the Black Omen?"
          "There was no Black Omen here," Dalton replied, as if it were obvious. "Without that boy to interfere with the Mammon Machine, no one was around to stop your mother from continuing to absorb Lavos's power. When Lavos awoke, you and those children weren't there to distract it, and your mother couldn't control it."
          Which meant that his mother and sister in this world were likely dead, Janus realized soberly. Also as good a reason as any for the Magus to come after his own sister.
          But if the Magus was here with Dalton, then he never came back to Zeal as the Prophet, trying to stop Lavos. And if there truly was no Crono, Marle, or Lucca in this world...
          Then Lavos was still here, in this time period, alive and well....and there was no one to stop it.
          "In any event," Dalton went on, while Janus was silent, "it no longer matters. My goal is within reach now that you've brought me what I need."
          Janus frowned. "What are you talking--"
          He cut himself off, looked down as he felt something moving within his vest pocket--
          And suddenly began thrashing about, trying futilely to break free, finally settling for glaring murderously at Dalton as Schala's pendant floated away from him and into the other's outstretched palm.
          Janus strained furiously against the grip holding him. "Give that back to me, you son of a--"
          "Oh, now you're being rude," Dalton cut him off, his tone indicating annoyance. "And you of all people should know I don't like rude people. I invite you all the way down here for this pleasant little get-together, and all you do is insult me?"
          Janus proceeded to suggest what Dalton could do with himself.
          "Still the same immature little brat as always, I see," Dalton muttered, unamused. "You haven't changed a bit, Janus. You still don't know when it's in your best interests to listen to me."
          Janus snorted. "Why in hades would I do that? Because you're my father?"
          He had the satisfaction of seeing Dalton's expression falter before it was covered with a smile. "So--you know the truth. Did it set you free?" he sneered mockingly.
          "It set me free of the belief that everything that happened was my mother's fault," Janus told him darkly. "You're the one responsible. It's your fault my mother was corrupted and my sister was taken away."
          Dalton sneered at him. "Still just as ignorant, too. Here's some more truth for you, son: she wanted it. Your mother got exactly what she deserved. I never wanted anything to do with her stupid kingdom, but she forced me to cooperate." He raised one eyebrow and grunted. "It's not my fault her goals were self-destructive."
          "Even if I have to see to it myself, Dalton," Janus threatened as the other began walking back to the alcove, "you are going to burn in hell for what you've done."
          Dalton stopped, turned and leveled his gaze at him. "You know, that saying about hell's fury really is true. Especially when it comes to that whore you call a mother. Seven years of my life, wasted because she wanted to kill a god and take its place."
          "Let me go and I'll send you to meet your god," Janus growled, but Dalton ignored him as he turned and entered the alcove. He pressed a hidden control, and the alcove was brightly illuminated as a beam of light rose up around Dalton in a high-pitched whine. A moment later the light died away, and Dalton was gone, teleported elsewhere within the palace.
          Abruptly the hand grasping Janus vanished, and he dropped to the floor, his chest heaving shakily, his knuckles white as he clenched the scythe.
          "Get up."
          Janus raised his head, saw the Magus still standing there, his hood now pushed back, his cape spread to either side, his expression stony. The Masamune dangled from his right hand, the blade now glowing with evil energy, sparkles of light floating softly around it.
          Apparently Dalton didn't consider him enough of a threat, and had left him alive for the Magus to take care of.
          Janus promised himself his father wouldn't live to regret the mistake.
          "Why are you doing this?" Janus asked as he stood up, shifting the scythe to a two-handed grip. "Why are you helping him?"
          "Why?" his doppelganger replied, as if the answer were obvious. "Because when the rest of the world abandoned me, he took care of me. Father found me and raised me, trained me to use these powers, prepared me for this day, when I would take my sister back from the one who'd stolen her from me."
          Just like the first time, the Magus attacked without warning. He gripped the Masamune with both hands, pulled back to his right, then brought the sword overhead in a wide arc, dropping to one knee and slamming it edge-first into the floor in front of him like a sledgehammer. Tiles exploded in a shower of ceramics where the sword landed, and a shockwave shot away from the Magus, ripping apart the floor like a miniature earthquake, growing higher as it came at Janus in a move similar to one of Crono's.
          Janus bent his knees and leapt into the air, flipping backwards, his feet hitting the wall above the door, and he kicked off, flipping forward over the shockwave as it passed underneath, dissipating as it punched the doors behind him off their hinges and into the hallway.
          He landed in a crouch, looked up, a cry escaping his lips as he saw the Magus thrusting the Masamune straight at him. He shifted reflexively to the right, letting his shoulders fall, his eyes wide as the blade whistled past, less than an inch from his ear.
          Baring his teeth, Janus thrust upward hard with his left hand, using the scythe's blunt end to drive the sword away from him as he stood. He slashed forward from the right, and the Magus rotated the Masamune clockwise, bringing it down in time to block, the blades clashing in a shower of red sparks and the shriek of metal on metal.
          Janus punched downward with his left fist, sweeping the blunt end low at the Magus's feet, already turning clockwise and lifting his right leg for a roundhouse kick. The Magus took the bait, stabbing at the floor to block the scythe, and Janus's foot caught him across the face, knocking him off balance.
          The Magus flipped himself forward, turning the momentum to his advantage, his body pivoting about his head in a midair cartwheel that brought him close to the rightmost stairs. Janus charged towards him, crouching and jumping at the last moment, flipping high over him to land behind, placing himself between the Magus and the stairs.
          The Masamune became enveloped in a sheath of flames, lighting up the room as the Magus poured his magic into the sword. He pirouetted to the right, his cape whipping about him, slashing the sword diagonally, forcing Janus to dive and roll towards the wall as the weapon tore through the banister, reducing it to broken shards and leaving the carpet on fire where the sword had brushed it.
          Janus rose to his feet, cursing inwardly as he moved between the wall and the nearest pillar. Snarling inarticulately, the Magus charged forward, swinging wildly, no longer caring about finesse. Chunks of masonry dropped left and right, gouged out of the wall and pillar where the Masamune missed or was parried aside.
          Janus continued to back away, ducking and dodging almost at random as the Magus's attacks came faster, became more desperate, until finally one blow, missing Janus completely, continued on and sliced cleanly through the pillar instead.
          A horrible groaning sound reverberated throughout the room, and both men looked up to see the section of floor above sagging heavily, the pillar beginning to separate where the Magus had cut through, no longer able to support the floor from below. The other forgotten for the moment, each one dove towards the center of the room, and a moment later the floor shook as the column and pieces of the floor above collapsed, a cloud of dust and debris rising up where it all landed.
          Both men rose to their feet, Janus bringing the scythe into guard position, the Magus simultaneously raising the Masamune over his right shoulder, his eyes locked on Janus, the sword no longer flaming but now pulsing with red energy, almost as though it were in synch with the Magus's rage.
          And abruptly Janus saw what he had to do.
          The sword was a parasite, feeding off of the Magus's anger and hatred, turning it into raw energy and pouring it back into him in a feedback loop. That was why the Magus was so much more powerful than Janus, which meant his only hope of stopping his doppelganger was to get the sword away from him.
          Janus brought the scythe around, the blunt end down and left, the blade high and right, his feet spread just enough to remain balanced. The Magus screamed in anger, came charging at him, the Masamune aimed straight at Janus's heart, and at the last possible moment he moved, pivoting on his right foot a full half-circle to his left, his left knee bending as it supported his weight. He reversed the positions of his hands, pulling the blade down low, and as the Masamune stabbed through the air next to him, he straightened his left leg, pushing against the floor as he completed the circle, the scythe simultaneously coming up, the blade catching in the hilt of the Masamune, ripping it from the Magus's hands. Janus twisted at the waist, slashing viciously at thin air, and the Masamune flew off of the scythe, clattering to the floor on the far side of the room. At the same time, the scythe's blunt end came low around Janus's left, hitting the Magus behind the ankles and knocking him to the floor.
          Janus turned back to face him, brought his weapon to bear against the other's bare neck, and as quickly as it had begun, the battle was over.
          "Go ahead," the Magus rasped, his eyes glaring resentfully at Janus, his throat just touching the tip of the blade as he breathed in and out. "Get it over with."
          Janus gritted his teeth, sorely tempted to but knowing he couldn't. "No. Don't you understand? I'm not your enemy."
          "Father told me you were," the other replied sorely. "Why should I believe otherwise?"
          Janus felt his cheek twitch. "Did he ever bother to tell you why I happen to look identical to you?"
          The Magus narrowed his eyes. "He told me enough. He told me you were an imposter, pretending to be me. He told me you took Schala away from me."
          Janus shook his head. "You've got it backwards. You took away my sister."
          The other frowned. "What are you talking about?"
          Janus blinked, felt some of the hardness leave his expression as he knew this would be hard for his double to take. "Didn't you hear what Dalton said? The Undersea Palace was destroyed in this world. That means your sister is dead."
          "That's a lie!" the Magus spat, clenching his teeth.
          "You want proof?" Janus replied harshly, leaning forward. "Look at the Masamune." For emphasis, he jerked his head back to his right, towards where the sword now lay, no longer glowing, deprived of its source of energy.
          Reluctantly, the Magus glanced to his left. "What about it?"
          "Where did you get it from?" When the Magus remained silent, Janus continued: "You got it from my world, didn't you? Because there is no Masamune in this world, is there? Remember that redhead you saw with me? Crono. The Masamune was nothing more than a ruby knife before he used it to stop the Mammon Machine. But that was in my world."
          The Magus swallowed, but said nothing.
          "Dalton was right about one thing," Janus went on. "There is no Crono in this world. Which means he never came to this time, never used the ruby knife to stop the Mammon Machine. And just like Dalton said, no one was there to distract this world's Lavos when your mother awoke it. If she died there, before the palace could become the Black Omen, then so did your sister."
          The Magus clenched his jaw, a single tear falling from his closed eyes. "No..." he whispered as he was forced to face a truth he couldn't yet accept. "She had to have gotten out. Somehow. She can't be dead."
          Janus slowly withdrew the scythe and stepped back, surprised to find that he felt sorry for the Magus, because he knew exactly how the other was feeling. "She's gone, Magus. There was never a chance of rescuing her."
          The other stood up slowly, shakily, an expression of despair twisting his features, his cheeks coloring with embarassment at how easily Dalton had manipulated, how his father had turned his anger against him. He cried out in agony, then turned and slammed his fist into the nearest column, ignoring the sound of bones cracking.
          "Then all this time," he ground out, his head bowed and eyes closed in grief, "what have I been fighting for? If my sister is dead, then everything I've done has been in vain."
          The Magus turned abruptly, a cold fury simmering in his eyes. "I'm going to rip him apart."
          Janus shook his head. "No. I'll take care of Dalton."
          The Magus looked incredulous at him. "No! He's going to pay for what he's done--"
          "And he will," Janus broke in, holding a hand up to calm the other. "But you know where Schala is right now; I don't. You've got to go to her, get her out of here before it's too late."
          For a moment, it appeared the Magus would continue to argue; then he breathed out, understanding and accepting that Janus was right. "Very well. For her sake, I will do as you ask."
          "Good," Janus nodded, not bothering to point out that he hadn't asked, before turning and heading towards the alcove, pausing as he reached the threshold.
          "If I don't come back," he said over his shoulder, "...take care of her." He glanced back, looked the Magus in the eye until the other nodded, then turned back, stepped inside, and activated the control panel.
          This time, Janus thought darkly as the beam of light engulfed him, the sins of the father would be visited upon the father himself.

          The door to the uppermost chamber of the Sun Keep was huge, twice as wide as a normal door and half again as tall, made from an alloy of various metals and Dreamstone. Glowing jewels adorned its oil-black surface, arranged in such a way as to draw attention to the miniature relief of the Mammon Machine, carved into the center of the door. A slight aura shimmered around the door, belying the presence of a magic seal so powerful that nothing could open the door.
          Nothing, Dalton thought with a smile, except for the pendant.
          He stepped forward, held the necklace up to the relief, and the pendant began to shimmer, as the Dreamstone inside it attuned itself to the magic seal. The door began to glow in synch with the pendant, and a moment later, like a safe whose combination had just been entered, the light died away and the seal was gone. The door swung silently to the left on concealed hinges, and Dalton stepped inside.
          The chamber beyond was vast, shaped like a spherical tear, the tip of which rose up into the peak of the tower's upside-down turnip-shaped top. The floor Dalton stood on was a giant ring, circling the entire room about a third of the way up from the bowl-shaped bottom, stretching out ten feet in front of him before giving way to a sheer drop-off into pitch darkness below.
          A brief overhang jutted out above the ring, shadowing it before curving upward, supported from below by pairs of huge, free-standing stone gargoyles at the edge of the ring, their faces towards the center of the room, their arms reaching up to the ceiling. They were positioned at each of the four compass points, including where Dalton stood, their jaws open and clamped onto crystal spheres that glowed from within, casting a soft, ambient light evenly throughout the upper half of the room, complemented by shielded sconces along the overhang.
          At the edge of the platform, directly in front of each pair of statues, a set of rail-free steps rose up, all four meeting at and supporting a small octogonal platform in the exact center of the room, with nothing but air between it and the floor far below.
          And resting conspicuously on a pedestal in the middle of the platform was a stone-like object the size of a man's head, a swirled inner portion that glowed orange and yellow with an inner light, surrounded by a dark segmented outer portion, like an almost chitinous umber shell; a power unlike any other, that had killed a king and saved a kingdom; a memorial, undisturbed for over seven years, until now.
          The Sun Stone of Zeal.
          Dalton slowly made his way up the steps before him, ignoring the unnerving sensation the stairs gave him of walking over a bottomless pit, his footfalls echoing eerily in the cavernous room, until at last, after all this time, he stood before his goal, the object that had played such a pivotal role in his life, that had caused him so much grief and hardship, and that would now make up for it all, one way or another.
          The Sun Stone seemed to beckon him, and he stretched his hand out, feeling a warmth radiating from it, a pleasant relief from the cold air filling the chamber as his fingers brushed the smooth surface--
          And stopped, his hand hovering over the stone, ready to touch it, command it to give life to his desire, but it wasn't yet time, and Dalton reluctantly pulled his hand away and forced himself to wait.
          He was still standing there, waiting, when Janus arrived.
          "Took you long enough," Dalton grumbled impatiently, crossing his arms. "I was beginning to wonder."
          Janus stepped between the gargoyles flanking the door. "You haven't already used it?" he couldn't help asking, still amazed at the other's incompetence. "What are you waiting for?"
          "You, actually," Dalton smirked. "I wanted you to be here for this. Oh, I hope you weren't planning on using that."
          He gestured towards Janus, and abruptly the scythe leapt from his hands. He watched, gritting his teeth in frustration, as Dalton twisted his hand, and the scythe crumbled into ashes. "That's better. Now I can safely enjoy watching your reaction when I use the Sun Stone to stop you and those grozzing children from preventing the Day of Lavos."
          Janus grunted in amusement and leaned casually against a column. "Be my guest. But it won't work."
          Dalton tipped his head back and exhaled slowly through his nose, running his tongue over his teeth in exasperation. "Really. Pray tell, why will it not work?"
          The corner of Janus's mouth tugged back. "You can't undo our actions, Dalton. They've already been done. Don't you get it? You can't change history."
          Dalton glared down at him. "And you're a fool if you believe that. Those children found out about Lavos from a future beyond its rising. If they can then go and alter time without causing a paradox, then so can I!"
          Janus shook his head. "That's just it. They didn't, no more than you changed history when you altered events here. If their knowledge of Lavos had come from our future, then we wouldn't have been able to destroy Lavos. But their knowledge didn't come from our future; it came from a parallel future."
          The look on Dalton's face was priceless. "...What...?"
          Janus smirked. "When they traveled to the year 2300, it wasn't to our world's future; they traveled to this universe's 2300. The children never knew, but I felt a difference between that future and the other eras. Now I know why, because it's the same feeling here, in this universe. That's why they were able to kill Lavos; there was no chance of a paradox. But that's exactly what you're trying to do, and it won't work, Dalton."
          "We'll see about that--" Dalton sputtered, his hands clenched furiously at his sides, his face screwed up in resentment, and he whirled back to the Sun Stone--
          Only to stop midstride, his eye bulging, his breath expelling loudly, an incredible pain suddenly exploding in his abdomen, and he looked down to see the Masamune protruding from his stomach, quickly becoming stained an even darker red by the blood now dripping from the blade.
          He looked up slowly, saw the Magus holding the sword, his expression unreadable, and a detached part of Dalton's mind realized the other must have snuck in through another entrance and floated silently up the steps behind him while Janus had distracted him.
          The betrayer is betrayed... Dalton couldn't help thinking. Then his vision swam, and he squeezed his eyes shut, fighting to remain conscious.
          The Magus kept one hand on the sword, reached over to Dalton's tunic with the other and pulled out Schala's pendant. "This is not yours," he stated matter-of-factly, then he placed a single boot against Dalton's chest and pushed.
          The Masamune slid out of Dalton's stomach with a sickening noise, dripping blood on the stone platform, and Dalton fell backwards, stumbling on the top step and ending up tumbling all the way back down to where Janus stood, leaving a trail of blood where he hit the stairs.
          Janus moved to the side, disgust on his face as Dalton came to a halt, doubled over next to one of the statues. Janus looked back up--
          And froze in alarm as he saw the Magus reaching out to the Sun Stone.
          "No, wait!" Janus called out as he stepped over Dalton's prone form, realizing the Magus didn't understand the power of the Sun Stone. "Don't--"
          But it was too late. The Magus placed his hand against the Sun Stone, closed his eyes, and made a wish.
          A sharp ripping sound behind him drew Janus's attention. He turned, halfway up the steps, and felt himself draw back in shock.
          There, facing away from him at the base of the stairs, Dalton's dying body was moving, jerking in spasms as though of its own accord. His clothing, the source of the ripping noise, was tearing itself into rags as the body beneath bulged and grew, revealing skin that was now a deathly white-grey. His legs shriveled up, atrophying until they were little more than strands of flesh and tissue dangling from his torso. His arms paled like the rest of his body, the flesh and muscle seeming to evaporate until they were little more than bones, while his hands doubled in size, his fingertips popping in a spray of blood as three-inch-long black talons sprouted from them.
          Behind Janus, the Magus inhaled in surprise, grunted in pain as he felt his life suddenly begin to drain from his body, and he crumpled to the floor in a heap, the Masamune clattering next to him as the now glowing Sun Stone exacted its price.
          Janus turned away from Dalton's body, grateful that the other's head was covered by the cape, and he continued up the stairs. He paused at the top, staring down at the Magus, blinking as he saw his doppelganger curled into a fetal position, lying helplessly at his feet. An odd feeling of deja vu came over him, and he realized that his vision had come true after all, but in a way he'd never imagined.
          Shaking it away, he knelt next to the Magus. "What have you done?"
          The Magus looked up at him through slitted eyes, a hint of a vengeful smile on his lips. "Death is too good for him. I wanted the world to see him for what he truly is," he replied, his voice disturbingly weak. "I wanted him to look on the outside like the monster he is on the inside."
          Janus swallowed but said nothing, understanding all too well. He looked down, felt something cold and hard being pressed into his palm.
          "Take care of her..." the Magus managed to whisper as he closed Janus's fingers around Schala's pendant. His grip relaxed, his hand falling limply onto his chest, and the Magus closed his eyes for the last time. A moment later, his body simply evaporated, and he was gone.
          "I will..." Janus swore, even though the other could no longer hear him. He gazed down at the necklace, a flurry of emotions running through him, before tucking it safely back into a pocket and standing up--
          Only to wince as a raptor-like shriek that was almost horribly human split the air, clawing at his eardrums as it echoed throughout the room. Janus ground his teeth against the noise, turned to face the source, already knowing what was causing it--
          And felt his jaw literally drop open in horror at what Dalton had become.
          The creature hovering before him was no longer human, little more than a torso and bony taloned arms outstretched and holding it aloft with magic. Huge flaps of black leathery skin stretched from its wrists to its waist like useless bat wings, while the tattered remains of Dalton's clothing hung fluttering behind it like ribbons. The face was that of Death itself: a demonic skull, pitch black chasms where eyes and nose would have been, its jaw open, rotting, jagged teeth trembling in rage. Sharp, foot-long bull's horns sprouted from the skull's crown, and a dark, unholy energy crackled about the creature, making even Janus shrink back from it.
          If there was anything left of Dalton's mind, the creature gave no hint of it. Its head tipped back as if in agony then came forward, spreading its arms, its jaw dropping impossibly further, like a snake's, its entire head reverberating as it screamed, threatening to make Janus deaf.
          He sensed the attack barely a moment before it came. The creature suddenly brought its arms forward, clapping its hands together, and a coruscating bolt of dark energy leapt crackling through the air towards Janus. He braced himself as he conjured up a magic wall, turning the world a vivid green as the barrier surrounded him. The bolt slammed into the wall, ricochetted off to his right--
          And straight into the Sun Stone.
          The creature abruptly fell silent, a hesitant look now in its eyes, and while Janus knew better than to lower his guard, he spared a look to his right to see what had captured the other's attention.
          The Sun Stone was moving.
          As if sensing what was going to happen, the creature hissed at Janus, then began to spin in midair, drawing a curtain of crackling black energy about it, until at last the energy dissipated and the creature was gone, having teleported safely away from the palace.
          Janus dropped the wall and turned to the Sun Stone, teeth bared in apprehension.
          A swirling wind of blue energy rose up around the platform, and Janus held his arms up, bending his knees and shifting his weight forward to keep from being pulled off. In front of him, the Sun Stone began to glow with an inner light, and with an audible crack a half dozen seams appeared in the shell's surface. It began to break apart along the seams, and Janus stared in confusion until he realized the Sun Stone was transforming, smaller segments of the shell sliding back, telescoping down into larger ones, and five tendrils suddenly curled away from the main part, arcing in various directions, writhing up into the air like the arms of a fire.
          The Sun Stone looked for all the world like a flame frozen in time. Its swirled middle irised open, revealing two dark orbs set within a darker area. The orbs abruptly blinked and turned a vibrant yellow, and Janus realized with horror that he was staring at eyes.
          The Sun Stone was alive.
          Unconsciously he took a step back, and he couldn't suppress a shudder as the eyes immediately swiveled to follow him. He stopped, not daring to even breathe as the eyes blinked once, twice.
          The eyes abruptly closed, and the stone shivered.
          And for an infinitesimal amount of time, a quantum singularity was exposed.
          For that immeasurable existence, time seemed to come to a halt. The entire room felt as though it were caving in around Janus as light was distorted, pulled inward by the immense gravity that was making him feel as though he were being turned inside out. He suddenly found himself looking at the sides of the chamber, then at the back of his own head, as the gravimetric pull of the singularity continued to distort space, all the light in the room now funneled directly into the singularity.
          The Black Wind was howling now, crying out for his blood in that last eternal moment before time came crashing to a stop, and for the second time in his life, Janus shed a single tear--not for himself, but once more for Schala, for the lost time they never had together, for the unspoken words that never passed from his lips to her ears, for all the wrongs he'd never been able to right.
          The consuming darkness began to overtake him, and Janus realized he would no longer walk the blade, that his time had finally come.
          The tear froze, halfway down his cheek.
          The Black Wind called to Janus.
          And then he was no more.

*   *   *

          After their brief battle, the Magus had complied with Janus's wishes, but only halfway: he'd carried Schala to his Epoch, but he did not join her, electing instead to remain behind. He spared only enough time to program the auto-pilot to take Schala to safety; satisfied that there was nothing more he could do once the Epoch had left, he returned the way he'd come.
          By the time he arrived at the chamber, the Epoch had emerged from the sunken palace; while the Magus was making his wish, the Epoch was rising upward, as fast as was safe for Schala; and when Dalton finally hit the Sun Stone, the Epoch was two seconds away from freedom.
          Two seconds that it wouldn't have.
          The moment the Epoch broke the water's surface, the auto-pilot immediately throttled the engines up to the ship's maximum sub-luminal speed of a thousand kilometers per hour, simultaneously engaging the inertial dampers to protect Schala from the sudden acceleration as the Epoch became a blur, rocketing up and away from where it had emerged and heading towards the nearest landmass. At the same instant, for the first time since she'd been captured, Schala regained consciousness, just enough to realize where she was, to sit up in surprise and look out the canopy.
          Just under 1.7 seconds later, the singularity's event horizon reached her, expanding outward from the palace far below at the speed of light, catching her at the very edge of its reach, kicking the Epoch in the rear as it arrived and slamming Schala forward before freezing her in place and evaporating, all of it occurring in an infinitesimal amount of time. The only visible marks of its momentary presence were the glassy water below, the countless waves now frozen in a state of temporal stasis, and the Epoch, its temporal inertia similarly brought to a near complete halt.
          The time machine hurtled through the air in a parabolic arc, propelled by its remaining physical inertia, passing over the ocean and falling towards a snowy hillside. The Epoch fell to the ground like a bomb, slamming into what would someday be a great mountain range with tremendous force, an impossible invulnerability granted to it by its temporal stasis, leaving the ship undamaged when it would otherwise have been obliterated.
          The ship drove down into the earth's surface, its wings and canopy fin slicing through solid granite as though it were paper, until at last the ship's momentum died away, leaving it buried up to the engines in rock at the end of an Epoch-shaped tunnel.
          Where it would remain, unknown and untouched, for the next thirteen thousand years...

To be concluded...

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