Spectres Of The Past - Chapter VII: Requiem

[01.09.02] » by Jason Connor

Part VII: Requiem

          Edgar felt himself being torn between conflicting emotions as the six of them hurried on past the wrecked time machine. A part of him could have spent a lifetime exploring the palace, discovering its secrets and learning all he could of the ancient civilization of Zeal. His heart ached with a myriad of feelings as he knew that would not happen, his adventuresome side quickly overshadowed by his concern for Terra, guilt tugging at him as he helpless replayed the day's events through his mind. He of all people knew better than to secondguess himself, but he couldn't help wondering if he'd truly done enough to protect her, if all of this wasn't in some way his own fault.
          Realizing it would not stop until Terra was safe, Edgar shunted the self-berating off into a corner of his mind and forced himself to focus. Ahead of him, Schala lead the way out of the hallway, stepping gingerly over the broken remains of the doors and into the domed room beyond, himself and the children close behind her. Gogo--Emit, now, Edgar reminded himself--and a reluctant Setzer brought up the rear, staff and playing cards respectively held ready.
          Edgar still had his less-than-ceremonial sabre with him, although he couldn't imagine what good it would do him here. He noticed the boy--Crono--curling his hands restlessly, as though apprehensive about following an enemy without the familiar hilt of a sword to grasp. The girl--Lucca--was the only one of the pair carrying a weapon, what appeared to be a strange gun she'd apparently had hidden on her person, but she held it with a confidence and ease of practice that allayed Edgar's own apprehension about the two being here with them. Given the choice, Edgar would have left them back at the castle, never one to willingly put children in danger; given that the two were able to wield magic, and that there was no way of knowing what Kefka had in store for them, there wasn't much of a choice to begin with.
          "He was here," Schala announced, her tone oddly neutral, hiding the fears she had to have been feeling for her brother's safety.
          Crono stumbled in behind her. "How do you kn--never mind."
          The room looked as though a tornado had touched down inside it. The floor in front of them had been ripped to shreds, now littered with the broken and crumbled remains of black and white tiles. The carpets lining one of the sets of stairs on the other side of the room were burning, while the banister lining it had been demolished, reduced to broken pieces that now lay charred and smoking. Chunks of masonry were scattered around the room from where they'd been knocked out of the walls and the columns holding up the second floor, an entire section of which had partially collapsed where a column had been cut in half, covering everything nearby in a fine coat of dust that even now was still settling.
          "Well," Lucca grunted, "that answers that question."
          Edgar looked around cautiously. "What happened in here?" Then he shook his head and said, "Forget it, I don't want to know."
          "This way," Schala spoke up, picking her way carefully across the rubble and heading for the darkened alcove on the far side. The others followed her, and Crono and Lucca were quick to recognize that it was a teleporter.
          When they were all inside, Schala depressed the control panel, a beam of hazy light engulfed them, and a slightly disorienting moment later they were standing before a short, dimly lit hallway. Coming from the open door at the far end was a very familiar laugh.
          "Terra!" Edgar called out, his heart suddenly clenching in his chest. No longer able to restrain himself, he began pushing forward past the others, ignoring their attempts to stop him. He drew his sabre and charged into the next room, the others close behind him.
          "That's far enough, Figaro," Daryl/Kefka called as s/he turned from where s/he, Terra, and the other Imperial imposter stood on the raised platform in the center of the room. S/he wrestled Terra in front of hir, knowing the others wouldn't risk her safety. Terra didn't resist, her eyes glazed over from the effect of the mental slave crown.
          "Let her go!" Edgar demanded, stopping at the statues standing to either side of the door, clenching his fists in frustration, knowing it was a futile attempt. Peripherally he noted the others spreading out to either side of him. "What do you want with her?"
          The other smiled wickedly. "Why, I've come to have my innermost wish granted," s/he answered obliquely. "And Terra's going to make it for me."
          Dramatically s/he moved to one side, pulling Terra with hir, and gestured to what their bodies had been hiding from Edgar's point of view: a stone-like object the size of a man's head, its swirled inner portion glowing orange and yellow with an inner light, surrounded by a dark umber outer portion, like an almost chitinous shell, its segmented pieces retracted, heralding the five tendrils that sprouted above and arced in various directions. "Behold: the Sun Stone of Zeal."
          To Edgar's right, Schala inhaled in shock and drew back.
          "What?" Crono asked, alarmed. "Schala, what's wrong?"
          She looked at him dumbfounded, unable to speak, because there was simply no way he could understand. He didn't have the memories she had, didn't recognize it the way she did, didn't know what it truly was.
          It wasn't just a Sun Stone, wasn't just some artifact that contained unimaginable power. It was the very object that Kid had searched for her entire life, that had healed a young but dying Serge, that one version of FATE had sacrificed itself to protect, that had threatened the universe when it nearly merged with the Time Devourer. Now, after all this time, Schala was horrified to learn that it was at the heart of all her grief and torment, that it was the true reason for everything that had happened.
          It was the Frozen Flame.
          For seven long years the splinter of Lavos had drastically affected her life, and she'd never known. She'd never allowed herself to use the Time Devourer's powers to peer back through time to this era, never wanted to face the spectres of the past, the embarassment at her failures, and now she was beginning to regret the decision.
          Because if the Frozen Flame was here, in this era, in this very room with them, rather than safely guarded by FATE in the future...then something had gone horribly wrong.
          "If all of you are through gawking like imbeciles," Daryl/Kefka sneered mordantly, interrupting her thoughts, "I didn't come back from the dead just to entertain you."
          "Actually, Master," the Imperial imposter spoke up from hir left, "that's not quite true."
          "What?" s/he growled impatiently, too irritated by the other's interruption to question why he was even speaking in the first place. S/he turned to glare at him--
          And pulled back in bewilderment as the imposter's features began to melt, flowing and changing as the man impossibly grew older, full lips turning thin and pale, soft nose growing hard and sharp, cheeks going hollow as skin sunk in, eyes changing into depthless black orbs, short blond hair becoming long and brown, streaked with grey.
          "Dalton?!" Crono and Lucca exclaimed simultaneously. Schala covered her mouth in shock.
          "Rozhenko..." Daryl/Kefka murmured, hir eyes narrowing as s/he realized the other was up to something but that it was too late to do anything about it. "What are you doing here?"
          The Magi Master sneered cruelly at hir. "Something I've waited thirteen thousand years to finish."
          And before Daryl/Kefka could react, he raised his hand, and a strangled cry escaped hir lips as an invisible force suddenly wrapped itself around hir. It pinned hir arms and legs together and lifted hir into the air, releasing hir grip on Terra, who remained standing at the top of the stairs, oblivious to what was happening.
          "What...are you doing?" Daryl/Kefka managed to get out before s/he was forced to concentrate on breathing beneath the crushing force.
          The Magi Master cocked his head to one side in amusement. "You don't know? You do realize that it's your own fault, don't you?"
          The other's expression fell slack, hir own words to Terra coming back to haunt hir. "Who are you...?"
          "You don't remember me? Hmph. I'm hurt," the Magi Master replied sardonically. "Perhaps this will refresh your memory..."
          He spread his arms dramatically to his sides, hovered slightly up into the air, and once more he dropped the illusion, his clothing ripping to shreds or falling away as his torso doubled in size and his legs withered away to little more than skin and tissue, dangling loosely underneath. His arms shriveled down to almost nothing but bones, huge flaps of black leathery skin stretching between them and his waist, and his fingertips opened up as three-inch-long black talons slid out. His hair began to fall away in clumps, while his eyes and nose sunk inward into his head until they were nothing more than gaping pitch black cavities. His skin turned deathly pale, and foot-long bull's horns sprouted from his crown, changing his visage into that of Death itself.
          "Sacre merde..." Edgar whispered, unable to believe what he was seeing. "Doom Gaze!"
          Emit grimaced. "I knew we shouldn't have let him get away." Next to him, the others were speechless. Understandable: Schala and the children knew nothing of this creature; Setzer was too preoccupied with the horrible truth that it might be too late for Daryl, the shock evident on his face from seeing Daryl's features dancing to Kefka's personality.
          "You traitor!" Daryl/Kefka spat at the demon Rozhenko had become, hir expression screwed up in outrage. "I set you free! And this is the thanks I get?!"
          "You betrayed me, Kefka," the other accused, his throaty voice little more that a rasp. "You knew I and the others would be no match for the Returners, but you sent us anyway, like lambs to the slaughter. You used us, and now it's your turn. All this time I've been playing you for the fool you are, and I've enjoyed every second of it. How does it feel to be in her place, Master?" he finished sarcastically, jerking a horn in Terra's direction.
          The other's reply was an inarticulate growl of anger, followed by a somewhat less eloquent suggestion.
          Doom Gaze brought his arms together in front of him, his talons pointed straight at hir heart. "You've served your purpose. You may die now."
          Hir involuntary cries of pain and Setzer's anguished scream were quickly drowned out as lightning-like tendrils of blue-black energy leapt from Doom Gaze's fingers, crackling through the air and into Daryl/Kefka's chest, lighting up the entire room as s/he was electrocuted.
          Without warning Edgar charged up the stairs, ignoring the others' shouts, and while Doom Gaze was enjoying torturing Kefka, he wrapped his arms around Terra's motionless form, lifted her up and hurriedly brought her back down.
          At last the lightning died away, Daryl/Kefka's blood-curdling screams along with it. Doom Gaze lowered one arm, gestured with the other, and hir body suddenly jerked away from him, tossed down the stairs to the left of the entrance like a rag doll. Setzer ran to hir, tears streaming down his face, but even as hir body hit the wall and stopped, it was obvious there was no hope for Daryl.
          At the same time, Terra inhaled sharply and straightened up, released from the mental slave crown now that its manipulator was gone. "Edgar...?" she started, looking up into his face in confusion.
          "Shh, it's okay," he murmured comfortingly to her, putting away the sabre and pulling his arms tightly around her. "Kefka's gone."
          "Kefka?" Terra pulled back, glanced over to Setzer, and her expression melted into sorrow. "Oh goddesses... Daryl... What have I done...?"
          "Now!" Crono shouted from the right the moment Terra was out of the way. As one, he, Lucca, and Schala suddenly let loose with a devastating barrage of magic, strobing the entire chamber as lightning bolts, tongues of flame, and beams of light ripped deafeningly through the air--
          Only to dissipate into nothingness as they hit the magic barrier surrounding Doom Gaze.
          "Oh, come on!" he taunted as soon as they stopped, having realized their attack was having no effect. "You didn't think I wasn't ready for this--"
          He cut himself off abruptly, cocking his head oddly to one side, as though listening to something, then straightened back up, as much of an unamused look on his face as was possible. "Your brother still hasn't learned his manners, Schala," he said as he turned away from them. "After all, it's not polite--"
          He stabbed downward with his fingers at the stairway behind the platform. There was a muffled curse from the darkness beneath, and suddenly Janus hovered up into view, struggling futilely in an invisible grip, the red Masamune dangling from his grasp, his scythe nowhere to be seen.
          "--not to announce yourself," Doom Gaze finished smugly, leering at Janus as he directed him around the platform and over to where his sister stood waiting. "But since this is the last time you'll ever see each other again, I'll make an exception."
          "You haven't learned a thing either, Dalton," Janus growled back once he was safely on the platform. "It's not going to work. When will it penetrate that thick skull of yours?"
          "Oh, that," the other snickered, remembering what his goal had been when they'd last confronted each other--thirteen thousand years ago for himself, yet only a few moments ago for his son. "I've had quite some time to ponder my mistakes, and I believe I've found something much better this time."
          Janus frowned. "What are you talking about?"
          The other merely smiled--an odd image, given that there was little more than exposed jaw to begin with--reached down into the pile of clothing he'd left beneath him, and pulled out a small, leatherbound book, at which Edgar and Emit blinked when they recognized it.
          "My diary..." Schala murmured in surprise.
          "How did you get ahold of that?" Edgar demanded, then pressed his lips together as the only possible answer came to him. "Valorum..."
          Doom Gaze inclined his head in amusement. "Yes, the late Chancellor was most helpful in that regard. A shame he'll no longer be of use to me." Abruptly his arm came up, and he tossed the book to Janus. "The bookmarked passage. Read it," he commanded.
          Janus glowered but said nothing as he complied, opening the diary and finding what the other was wanting him to see. He read silently for a moment, then looked up, frowned and shook his head in confusion. "The 'darkness beyond time'?"
          Schala looked up at Janus in alarm, inhaling sharply as she turned to Doom Gaze, understanding with horror what he was about to do. "No! No, no, you can't!"
          "Yes, yes, yes, I can," the other mocked her, bobbing his head comically from side to side, laying to rest any remaining doubts as to his sanity. He whirled to the Flame, and before anyone could do anything, he laid his claws on it and made his wish.
          The entire chamber eerily fell silent, as if in morbid anticipation, even the light from the sconces and the crystal spheres held in the gargoyles' mouths seeming to freeze in mid-flicker, trapping the scene in an eternal moment of time. Above, Doom Gaze was silhouetted briefly as the Flame began to glow brightly, falling dark again only a moment later.
          An eerie, ghostly wind stirred to life from out of nowhere, whispering in their ears like the Black Wind, ruffling the flaps of skin hanging from Doom Gaze's arms and the tattered remains of his clothing as it swirled about him. The wind descended beneath the platform, growing faster and louder as it spread out to fill the bowl-shaped area, its whisper quickly crescendoing into a tornado-like howl. Jagged ribbons of electricity suddenly crackled into existence, rippling along the edges of the maelstrom, and a portal of coruscating energy swirled into existence in the very center, spilling a brilliant blue light upward and casting the ceiling in shadows.
          A low, ominous growl, more felt than heard, rumbled throughout the chamber, then an unnerving silence fell as the light died away. The portal was like a window into another world, gazing down upon a bleak, apocalyptic landscape, stretching past the boundaries of the portal in all directions. A silent breeze lazily stirred up ashes, scattering them across the barren wasteland.
          A wasteland, Schala knew, that could only be the Darkness of Time.
          And there was only one thing there that Dalton could possibly have had in mind.
          A single, rattling breath escaped what remained of Doom Gaze's lungs before he collapsed in a heap before the pedestal, his body vanishing a moment later, the Frozen Flame having exacted its price for granting his wish. No one, however, noticed, because everyone's attention was riveted on what was appearing below.
          The portal remained where it was within the chamber, about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the chamber, but the other end of the wormhole had to be moving downward, because the portal appeared to be descending onto the dusty plain it revealed.
          And centered in the view afforded by the portal, sporadically illuminated by the flashing lightning, given the illusion of rising up into the chamber by the descent of the portal, was a creature unlike any other, four times as large as the Epoch, a hulking, menacing thing. Its elongated head was like some alien horror straight out of science fiction, twin cat-slit yellow eyes set above a long, beaked mouth, all of it the same crimson, jagged rock appearance as the twin towering rows of crooked dorsal spikes lining either side of its spine. Two tentacle-like appendages sprouted from just behind its almost nonexistent neck, curving outward to support the front of its body, while pairs of short and stubby claw-like legs held up its rear. But despite the various minor differences, despite the long, scorpion-like tail that curved around it, the demonic creature looked for all the world like Lavos reborn.
          Resting in the middle of its back was a giant, translucent purple crystal, shimmering with an inner, ethereal light that reflected off the spikes that cradled it. And sealed within the crystal, floating as if suspended in ice, unmoving as though she were merely asleep, was Schala.
          The others drew back in shock, Janus and the children in astonishment, but only Schala drew back in horror, because only she truly knew what they were seeing.
          The Devourer of Time.
          And it was all too horribly clear what Dalton's purpose had been.
          Just as it had been when Serge confronted it, the Devourer was within reach of the Flame, ready to merge with the splinter of Lavos and unlock its full power. But whereas Lavos had simply fed off of the planet, the Devourer would literally consume space and time, eating away at reality one piece at a time.
          Once that began...there would be no hope of stopping it.
          Edgar murmured a curse under his breath that would have made even Sabin blush, doggedly fighting the urge to run screaming from the room. "What is that?"
          "It looks like a Lavos spawn," Lucca breathed. "But where did it come from? And...is that--?"
          "This is just a wild guess on my part," Emit muttered sourly, "but do we have to fight that now?"
          "We can't," Schala spoke up, numbly shaking her head.
          "And that would be because...?" Crono asked incredulously.
          "Because it will create a paradox," Janus answered for her softly, an odd but hard look in his eyes as he focused on Schala. "This is what happened to you, isn't it?"
          She returned his gaze, feeling the awkward knot in her throat as she nodded, wishing she'd had the chance to tell him before now, unable to imagine what he had to be thinking at the moment. "We can't destroy it. The damage that the resulting paradox would inflict upon time itself would be unimaginable."
          "In that case, anyone who has a suggestion feel free to speak up," Edgar growled, unconsciously moving to place himself between Terra and the creature, which was beginning to move around, as though coming awake.
          Schala looked down at the creature, her expression a mixture of apprehension and the bitter taste of remembering what it had been like, to be a part of such a demonic creature, to exist in such a place of non-existence. "We have to close the portal," she said aloud, forcing the thoughts away with a shudder. "We can't let it come through and get to the Sun Stone."
          Edgar bit back the sarcastic retort that sprang to mind; instead, he raised his eyebrows at Schala and asked, "So how do we do that?"
          It was Terra who answered his question. "I know," she said, her voice soft but determined.
          Edgar looked at her, saw her staring past him, turned to follow her gaze up the stairs, to the Sun Stone still resting innocently on its pedestal--
          And immediately whirled back to her, anger and horror competing for control of his face, as he remembered what had happened to Doom Gaze and what Terra had to have in mind now. "Absolutely not!" he countered vehemently. "That is not an option!"
          "Edgar," Emit spoke up, an odd urgency to his voice, "I don't think we have a choice."
          "No!" Edgar barked, turning to glare at him. "There's always a choice!"
          "Not this time," Schala said softly, shaking her head sadly. "For once the ends do justify the means."
          "And," Terra put in before Edgar could speak, "it's my choice. And I'm making it."
          He turned to her, feeling his heart clenching in his chest, feeling as if the others were all betraying him, turning against him. "No, there has to be another way--"
          "Edgar..." Terra said, covering his mouth with her fingers. "This is the only way."
          "But why?" he moaned pleadingly, feeling his throat constricting with the realization that he was about to lose her. "Why can't it be someone else?" he whispered, desperate to think of anything to keep her, knowing but not caring how selfish or callous he might appear to the others.
          "Because this is something I need to do," Terra said, taking his hands in hers, emphasizing her words by looking straight into his eyes. "I helped start this, and now I'm going to finish it. If my life is the price, then I'm willing to pay."
          "But I love you," Edgar breathed, wishing those words alone were reason enough for her to stay, feeling his chest shuddering.
          The hard expression on Terra's face melted, and she reached up, caressed his cheek lovingly. "I know. And I love you too. But I don't belong in this world. I never have." Her gaze fell, the skin tightening around her eyes bitterly. "And even if I stayed, it wouldn't last. I'm still dying. We would only be prolonging the inevitable."
          Edgar tilted her chin back up, cradled her face between his palms, blinking away tears as his eyes roved over her features, trying desperately to memorize every detail, because he knew with a horrible finality that he would never see her again. Then he pulled her into his arms, running his hand through her hair, pressing his lips to hers in a fiercely passionate kiss that spoke more to her than he ever could.
          She returned the kiss with equal fervor, her arms wrapped around him in a tight embrace, feeling the aching sadness and tearing grief welling up in her heart, and she forced herself to shut them away, knowing they would threaten to overwhelm her, tempt her to just forget about the world, to let someone else worry about the Time Devourer, to stay with Edgar for what little time she had left, and that was something that she simply couldn't do.
          Sooner than either of them wished, Terra pulled away, breaking the kiss. "Take care of the children for me," she requested, knowing even as he automatically nodded that he would, before putting her hands to his chest and gently pushing him towards the door, where the others were waiting. "Now go, quickly, while there's still time."
          I love you, Terra, Edgar mouthed silently, not trusting himself to speak as he forced himself to turn away. The children, Schala, and her brother were already hurrying out the door. To his right, Emit was pulling Setzer along, Daryl's limp body cradled in his arms, his face void of any expression. Edgar ushered them ahead of himself then followed, wondering morbidly if he wouldn't be better off staying here and waiting for his death along with her.
          I love you, too, Terra mouthed back, even though he was already gone. She turned away from the door, and a sense of finality seemed to settle over her, a strange calm that came from the freedom of knowing there were no options left, the liberating knowledge that there was only one thing to do, and then it would all be over.
          Below her, the Time Devourer raised its head, its beak opening in an ear-piercing screech, its tentacles writhing convulsively, as if the creature somehow knew what she was about to do, but it was too late.
          Terra breathed in deeply, her shoulders dropping, and she ascended to the platform, ignoring the creature's cries. She paused, allowing all of the joyful moments of her life to flash before her mind's eye, her precious few memories of her parents, the friendships she'd shared with the Returners, the happiness she'd found caring for the children of Mobliz, the love she'd discovered with Edgar, her gratitude for it all despite the pain and sorrow she'd experienced along with them, and then she placed her hands on the Sun Stone, a serene smile creasing her lips, a single tear falling from her eyes, and she made her wish.

*   *   *

          The rare light from a gloriously full moon streamed in through the open window, blinding Edgar momentarily as he opened his eyes in response. He squinted against the glare, holding a hand up to block it as he rose stiffly from the floor where he'd been leaning against the bare wall, realizing he must have drifted off soon after sinking to the floor, either unable or unwilling to drag himself up and into bed.
          Their escape from the Sun Keep had been, in retrospect, decidedly anticlimactic, although it hadn't seemed that way at the time. They'd made it to the Falcon without incident and managed to fly up above sea level before the ocean waves came crashing back together, filling the gap and crushing what was left of the Sun Keep, no longer sustained now that Kefka and Terra were both gone, leaving no trace of what had happened.
          A heart-wrenching confirmation, as if he'd needed one, that Terra was truly gone.
          But even as he allowed his gaze to wander around his chambers, taking in the outstanding mess he'd made out of his room the moment they'd arrived at the castle, he was surprised to find he no longer felt anything, and he didn't know whether to be bothered by that or not.
          He should have felt embarassed at having lost control, at taking his anger and grief out on whatever he could find in here, knocking over furniture, tearing the sheets from his bed, overturning the mattress, ripping the curtains down, shattering every mirror he could find, decimating his wardrobe, scattering books and papers throughout the room. He should have been crippled with grief for Terra, weary with sorrow for Daryl and Celes; should have felt empathy for Locke and Setzer, both of whom would lose or had lost as much as he had; should have been consumed with anger at Valorum's betrayal, hatred for Kefka and Doom Gaze for bringing all of this about.
          But he didn't feel a thing. He felt numb, detached from himself, as though he were looking dispassionately through someone else's eyes, or as if he were in a waking dream, seeing but not feeling. He felt burned out, physically drained, mentally and emotionally exhausted. He tried to feel anger, but it was a futile gesture; he simply didn't have the energy to, and that bothered him more than anything else.
          The part of him that reveled in the multitude of relationships he'd had couldn't believe that he was being hit this hard by the loss of Terra. The part of him that had looked forward to a life with Terra realized that she'd been more a part of him than he'd known, and that she would never be a part of him again, a loss that he knew he would feel painfully for the rest of his life.
          The rest of him simply wanted to die. At least Locke and Setzer will get to bury their loves, he thought resentfully. I don't even get that much.
          Abruptly he covered his face with his hands, not caring that he was rising somewhat out of his depression as he felt the tears running from his eyes, his chest shuddering in embarassment at having harbored such a thought, knowing it wasn't their fault events had turned out like this. A palpable ache blossomed in his heart, and he turned to the window sill, wishing suicidally that the castle had been built on a mountain instead of in the middle of a desert, that his chainsaw had been handy earlier, that anything would have happened, as long as he hadn't been left to go on living without Terra, because at the moment he honestly didn't know if he would be able to.
          A knock at the door startled him out of his thoughts. He turned from the window, making an attempt to bring himself under control, to catch his breath and wipe the tears from his face, reflexively doing what he could to make himself presentable. He knew his face and eyes had to be red, his hair and clothing unkempt, and the state of his chambers would certainly raise some eyebrows, but there was nothing to be done for it.
          He took a deep breath, then called for the person to come in. The door opened hesitantly, and a headful of spiky red hair peeked in. "King Edgar?" Crono said, looking uncertainly around the room.
          "Don't mind the mess," Edgar reassured him, forcing a smile that was half grimace and motioning him into the room. "Please, come in. I wanted to talk to you before you left."
          Crono looked around once more, as if to be sure, then came in and closed the door behind him. "Dad...explained about Terra..." He trailed off as Edgar nodded, sparing him the discomfort he was obviously feeling. "I...just wanted to ask you one thing, if you don't mind."
          Edgar shook his head. "Not at all. What did you want to know?"
          Crono looked down at the floor silently for a moment, running his tongue over his teeth as he tried to determine the best way of asking, then gave up, deciding just to come out with it. "Why did she do it?" he asked at last, hoping the king wouldn't take offense at his bluntness. "Terra, I mean. Why did she sacrifice herself?"
          A good question, Edgar thought ruefully to himself. One that he'd been coming back to repeatedly, had thought about over and over, the answer to which had been eluding him ever since the question had occurred to him. Why had she sacrificed herself, giving up her life in order to correct what someone else had done? Especially when Edgar knew that he was right, that it didn't have to be her, that someone else could have done it.
          Now, though, he believed he knew the answer.
          She had done it...for love. For himself, for her friends and comrades, for the children in Mobliz. For the future, for generations yet to come. For a world that might never know the sacrifice she made, that is so screwed up that it wouldn't even care if it did know, Edgar thought to himself bitterly, knowing it was true and still hating the world for its unfairness, hating the futility of her giving her life for people that would never appreciate it. But it had been Terra's choice, as she'd pointed out, and it was a choice he was going to have to come to terms with, whether he agreed with it or not.
          "But..." Crono said, a frown creasing his forehead, "I would have thought she'd want to stay with her loved ones, with the people she cared about."
          There was a strange insistence to his voice that went beyond mere curiosity, and abruptly Edgar realized why: the boy was trying to understand why his father had left him, why Emit had made the choices he'd made long ago.
          Which meant that the answer he gave now would be as important to the boy as it was to himself.
          "That's just it, you see," Edgar replied, smiling sadly. "She did it because she loved us. 'No greater love hath mortal man than for a friend to die.' To give her life so that the rest of us could live was the ultimate expression of her love. All she ever wanted was to know what love was, to love and be loved in return. I believe she found that love, and now she's given the rest of us another chance, another opportunity to find that love for ourselves. That was something she was able to do, and for that I'm grateful."
          "I think I understand now," Crono said softly, nodding. "I see why Dad chose to leave us. He was selfless enough to care about complete strangers that he traded the life he had for the chance to save the lives of this world. He wanted to try and make a difference, whether he actually did or not."
          The boy looked down, a look of guilt on his face. "I owe him such an apology. I blamed him for making a choice that he had to make. I hated him for leaving us, but I was too selfish to think about what he said, to bother looking at things from his point of view."
          Crono exhaled slowly and shook his head. "He was right all along. Sometimes there is only one choice to make, no matter how hard it is. And I of all people should have realized that."
          "Not everything turns out the way we think it should," Edgar concurred wistfully. "But knowing that doesn't make it any easier to accept, does it?"
          "No, it doesn't," Crono agreed. He sighed, then looked back up, the corners of his mouth tugging in empathy. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about Terra. I have a pretty good idea how you feel right now, and I know it's not pleasant."
          "I appreciate that," Edgar replied, nodding his head gently and meaning it. "I'm sorry we had to meet under these circumstances, and that you can't stay longer," he said, raising his eyebrows in regret. "You seem very much like your father, and I would have loved to get to know you and the others better, to learn more about your world, and give you the same opportunity here."
          "Me too," Crono agreed, smiling. "But Lucca's not at all convinced of this new Epoch's reliability, and I have to admit I'm as eager to go home as she is."
          "I understand completely," Edgar smiled in return, finding solace in the thought that at least someone had something to look forward to. He walked past Crono, opened the door for him. "Be sure to tell your father that he'll be missed around here. We owe him a great deal, and for that we'll always remember him. I'd tell him myself, but..."
          "Don't worry. He'll understand. And I'll tell him what you said," Crono promised, his cheeks flushing slightly in embarassment and pride as he stepped through the door. Halfway into the hall he paused, facing away from Edgar. "You know..." he said quietly, not turning to face him, "it's a shame we couldn't take the time to explore the Sun Keep...especially considering there's a working time machine sitting at the bottom of it..."
          The boy trailed off, and Edgar felt a shiver run down his spine at the implied offer hidden in the boy's words. A time machine represented the chance to change history... Was that truly what he was leaving unspoken?
          Edgar inhaled slowly, realizing as Crono remained silent that it was. Unfortunately, it was a gift he could not accept. "I appreciate the thought," he said, "but it would solve nothing; worse than that, it would make her sacrifice meaningless. And that's something I will never condone."
          Crono looked over his shoulder and nodded, unsurprised by the king's response but still glad that he'd made the offer. "I understand. Farewell then, Your Highness."
          "And yourself, lad," Edgar returned softly. He watched the boy go, then closed the door and walked back over to the window.
          No, as much as it hurt, as much as he might rather do otherwise, he would never attempt to undo what had been done. Terra had made her choice, and it wasn't his place to take that choice away from her.
          But that wasn't the only reason. It was also because she had been right. Despite what all had happened, or what either of them might have thought, Terra had never belonged in this world, just as Crono and his companions hadn't.
          Even if I was selfish enough to try and bring her back, Edgar thought, I could never do that to her, never force something on her that she didn't want in the first place. To bring her back would be the worst possible thing I could do, and I will never do that.
          He gazed out the window, watching the shifting of the desert as a light breeze stirred up the sand, breathing in the familiar dry air, closing his eyes and basking in the moonlight, something Terra had enjoyed doing while she'd been here. It allowed her to forget about the world, however briefly, she'd confided to him once long ago. It had given her a taste of freedom, of a life without limitations, without the overhanging shadow of her heritage and the constant threat of being used to shackle her. It had given her a sense of peace.
          And in that moment, Edgar's lips parted in a smile of pure joy, a single tear falling from his eye, and he sighed, feeling a sense of tranquility flow over him. He'd found his peace, because he realized that, wherever she was now, Terra had that peace which she'd searched for all of her life, which she'd never truly had while she'd been here.
          And which no one would ever be able to take away from her again.

*   *   *

          Governor Cain Tierce looked up abruptly, startled by the sudden knock at the door. He rubbed a hand over the rough stubble on his chin, frowned at the paperwork scattered across his desk. He momentarily regarded the picture window behind him, saw with dismay that he'd once again unintentionally worked into late evening.
          The knock came again, more insistent this time. "Come," he called, resisting the urge to tell whoever it was not to bother him.
          The door opened, and Tierce found he was glad he'd refrained.
          "Commander Markiss," he greeted the other carefully as he stepped inside. "Back so soon?"
          "It's over, Cain," Markiss said without preamble; his expression was drawn, tight. "Your spy is dead, the rest of the Fanatics are being rounded up as we speak, and King Edgar is alive and well."
          Tierce managed to hide his reaction, even though he knew it was a futile gesture. "I see," he replied neutrally, feeling his eyes narrow as he leaned back in his chair, clasping the ends of the armrests loosely. "I take it, then, that this isn't a social call?" There was a small flechette pistol in his lower desk drawer. If he could get to it in time--
          Markiss clicked his tongue, ignoring the feeble attempt at humor. "I'm afraid not, Cain," he replied humorlessly, raising his eyebrows and gesturing back towards the hall. Immediately two armed guards came in and flanked him.
          Tierce sat up straighter in his chair, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck standing up in concern. "Now Commander, there's no need for anything drastic," he said, his voice belying his nervousness, his gaze focused on the rifles the guards were unshouldering.
          The Commander turned back to him. "Oh, don't worry, Cain. I believe I have something a bit more imaginative than death in mind for you."
          He nodded to each of the guards, who lifted their weapons and trained them on the governor.
          And Tierce finally realized they were para-tranq rifles.
          The fact that he was too late was a foregone conclusion. That did not prevent him, however, from attempting to reach the pistol.
          Dimly he was aware of the twin chuffs as the rifles fired; his hand was halfway to the drawer when he felt two sharp needles stab into his chest.
          "And simple banishment from the Empire," Markiss added, his voice oddly distant sounding, "--from your home--isn't what I had in mind either; you'll find I'm not as forgiving as God is."
          Tierce tried to swallow, his tongue thick and languorous in his mouth. Already he could feel the darts' venom coursing through his bloodstream, paralyzing his muscles as it spread throughout his body. The office seemed to grow warped and hazy in his vision.
          Markiss's expression was glacially cold. "You're not going to die, Cain. But you're going to wish you could..."
          Tierce tried to glare, couldn't tell if he did or not. His head began to tip forward, and his last thought before darkness overtook him was the realization that the devil had finally claimed his end of the deal.

*   *   *

          "So where do we go from here?"
          Schala glanced back over her shoulder from where she stood, wrapping her arms tighter about herself, to see Janus coming up next to her, his cape ruffling lightly in the slightly chilly breeze. Behind him and further down the gently sloping hill, the Epoch rested silently where they'd left it after dropping the others off at their homes, standing out against the darkness surrounding it as it reflected the light from the full moon overhead.
          Lucca's concerns about the time machine had ultimately proved to be unfounded, despite the identity of its maker. The ship performed identical to its predecessor, save for its ability to travel between dimensions and the lack of governors restricting it to parallel time travel, and they'd returned to their world without incident.
          Schala turned back to the view before them and sighed. Off to the north, Guardia Castle stood tall and proud, still festively decorated from the recent celebrations, while over to the east, the lights from the city of Truce glittered attractively, sparkling like a thousand diamonds and sleeping peacefully.
          Not half a decade from now, Schala knew, feeling a knot form in her throat, it would all be gone.
          "Five years from now..." she said softly, "Crono and Marle are going to vanish without a trace."
          Janus's brow furrowed in confusion. "What?"
          "When I was in the Darkness of Time," she began to explain, "the power of the Time Devourer allowed me to see thoughout all of history. This era is one of the few I chose to observe."
          Schala turned to face him, sniffling quietly and holding back the tears that were threatening to fall. "In five years, the nation of Porre is going invade this continent, and the kingdom of Guardia is going to fall." She gestured towards the town and castle. "Everything, all of this, will be destroyed."
          She looked down and to the side, shaking her head pensively. "But there's something else, something more disturbing. I tried to peer further ahead, but something blocked me from finding out what happened. Not long after the invasion, the block is gone...but there's no trace of Crono and Marle whatsoever."
          Janus frowned and looked out across the land. "So what's your point?"
          "My point?" Schala replied incredulously. "Those children are likely going to die five years from now, that's my point. Don't you understand, Janus? Someone else is going to change history."           Janus crossed his arms. "Sorry, that's not my problem."
          Schala just looked at him for a moment, shaking her head in disbelief, her mouth half open, ready but unable to speak. "How, Janus?" she said at last, her eyes narrowing accusingly. "How can you be so selfless and yet selfish at the same time?"
          "What are you talking about?" Janus grunted, looking at her sidelong.
          Schala's eyes widened. "Crono, Marle. What about them, Janus?"
          "What about them?" he snapped scornfully. "What did they ever do for me--"
          Schala slapped him across the face, her jaw trembling with outrage. "They did everything for you. Don't you get it? You owe them everything!"
          Janus narrowed his eyes at her disdainfully. "And just how do you figure that?"
          "If they hadn't shown up when you were so foolishly trying to summon Lavos," Schala spoke quietly, with more anger than Janus had ever heard her speak before, "you would have died. It's because of them that you finally beat Lavos. It's because of them that I ever had a chance of coming back--that you ever had a chance of redeeming yourself."
          Janus snorted contemptuously. "You think I owe those brats? I don't buy that."
          Schala felt the skin around her eyes tightening in remorse, painfully aware of the ache in her heart. "What happened to you, Janus?" she all but whispered. "What happened to that sweet, shy little boy I once knew?"
          "In case you hadn't noticed," Janus growled, "I'm not that naive little kid anymore. I'm a different person now."
          Schala's expression fell blank as she turned away. "Then maybe you're no longer my brother..."
          "What?!" Janus exclaimed, taken aback, unable to believe what he was hearing. "I spent my entire life searching for you, and now that I've found you I'm no longer your brother?! Then what have I been doing all this time? What in hades have I been fighting for?"
          Schala turned back to him, speared him with a glare as frosty as his own. "For the wrong reasons, Janus," she said emphatically. "Always with you it was 'look out for number one,' for yourself. Everything you did benefited you first and others second, and even if it did benefit others, you didn't care. You never cared."
          "And you expect me to act differently?" Janus retorted, matching her tone. "Maybe that's the only way I know how to be. Did that ever occur to you? Tell me, sister, just what would you have done in my place, if your life had been nothing but a living hell of anger and pain and guilt, if you'd been used and abused by one person after another?"
          "It's not your fault, Janus," Schala replied gently. "I do know what you've been through. Dalton and Ozzie lied to you, used you; they never cared about you. To them, you were a means to an end, nothing more than a tool."
          And with those words, his own words to the children coming back to haunt him, the truth finally hit Janus with all the power of a force of nature. For the first time in his life, he realized with a horrible ache in his heart that he was just as much of a twisted, cold-hearted monster as Dalton had been.
          He saw now why he had failed to achieve every goal he set for himself; why he'd been beaten time and again by those less powerful than he was; why he'd been unable to do anything in the face of Lavos, back in the Undersea Palace, and why Crono had been able to leap up in his place, giving his life for Schala when Janus could not.
          Janus had never truly understood the power Lavos wielded until he'd stood frozen, helpless, before the demonic beast. The single moment of absolution, the chance to rescue his sister he'd been waiting for his entire life, and he had done nothing. And yet the boy had easily leapt to his feet, throwing himself before Lavos, taking the death that was meant for them all.
          How? How had it been possible? How had this inexperienced weakling of a youth shown more courage and strength in the face of Lavos than himself, after all his training, the waiting, vowing to put the creature to death?
          Because the boy had done it for her, rather than for himself.
          All this time, all of his life, all of Janus's waiting and training and preparation, everything he'd ever done, all of it had been for himself, not Schala, and as a result it had all been in vain. In the name of saving the one person he truly cared about, he'd led the Mystics against humans, summoned Lavos forward in time, returned to this era as the Prophet, everything that had led up to this very moment, all of it with the delusion that it was for her, when in reality it had been to appease his guilty conscience, to lick his wounded pride and heal his scarred emotions.
          And worst of all, to take vengeance on those who had wronged him. And he'd used his only sister as an excuse.
          Janus had truly lived up to his name, because his fate had come full circle, and he'd deceived even himself. He'd thought he had let go of the past, when in fact it had been driving him all this time. He'd believed his quest to find Schala had been for her, when in reality it had been for him instead. He'd held to the truth that his anger had kept him going all this time, but the truth was that it had held him back.
          Doreen had been right, he thought numbly, feeling a knot in his stomach, a tightness in his throat. It was all his fault. Because he was too proud, too selfish, to consider that he might be wrong. And Schala had paid the price.
          He turned away from Schala, squeezing his eyes shut in anger at himself, his chest shuddering with guilt, with a lifetime of pent-up emotions. He was aware of his sister coming around in front of him, pulling him close and wrapping her arms around him, and he didn't resist her attempt to comfort him, allowing her head to rest against his shoulder.
          At last, though, he could stand it no longer, and he put his arms around her and returned the embrace, cherishing her presence, reveling in the knowledge that his quest was over, that he had found his sister at last.
          He felt a joy blossoming in his heart, one that he'd believed he would never feel again, because for the first time since his banishment from Zeal, he was allowing himself to feel that joy, after so many years of carefully shutting it away, believing it to be nothing more than a false hope, a weakness that would hold him back. And also because for the first time, he was letting go of the anger, the guilt, the pride, realizing that he no longer needed them, pushing them away after a lifetime of embracing them and allowing them to control him.
          "Do you understand now what I was trying to make you see?" Schala said quietly, one hand gently reaching up to stroke the back of his head. "You can't go on like this, Janus, driven by anger and a thirst for vengeance. You have to let them go."
          "What have I done to you...?" Janus whispered sorrowfully. "All this time... How could I have...." He pulled away from her, buried his eyes in his palms, unable to face her, wishing he could go back and set things right, that he could truly rewrite history. "I don't know why you're still here with me, after everything I've done..."
          "You're my brother, Janus," Schala replied. "And I love you, no matter what." She reached up, pulled his hands away from his face, tilted his chin up, cradled his cheek in her hand. "You've walked in darkness for so long. Let me help you learn to walk in the light. Let me show you how else you can act, and live. Let me give you the love that you've needed but never had."
          Janus blinked, inhaled deeply as he stared into her eyes, at the promise that lay therein. "How?"
          "Come with me," she urged him. "Help me find out what happened to Crono and Marle. Help me set things right. Help me make a difference. Help me help you."
          Janus regarded her silently for a moment, contemplating what she was asking of him, knowing that it would be hard for him, and yet realizing that it was something he needed, that Schala wanted for him.
          The question, though, was, was it something he wanted? Did he truly want to change, after a lifetime of being alone, with fear and anger and pride for his companions, constantly driven by them towards a goal that was unattainable? Or was he ready to accept the truth, that he was weary of the path he was walking, tired of the fear and anger and pride, emotions he no longer had any need for, that had been taught to him by a bulbous toad who was no longer even alive? Was he ready to take control of his life, to begin walking a new path, towards a far greater goal?
          He closed his eyes and lowered his head in penance, because he believed the answer was yes. "I want to change," he admitted, surprised to learn that it was the truth. "But what if I cannot?"
          "You can," Schala reassured him. "Trust me. I will be there to help you, no matter what. I won't give up on you. Ever."
          Janus looked up into her eyes, and in that moment, he found solace in the knowledge that, despite all he'd done, he had still found forgiveness, and that there was hope for him yet. "Thank you, Schala," he said at last. "For everything."
          Schala smiled lovingly as she pulled him back to her, holding him in a warm embrace, a sense of relief and happiness flooding her, that after so many years of being apart, she'd at last been reunited with her brother. She knew that his healing was far from complete, was yet fragile and tender, but at least it had begun. The rest, ironically enough, would simply take time, but she would be there constantly to guide and support him, to love him and care for him.
          "Let's go, 'little' brother. Our journey is not yet over." She took his hand in hers, and began walking towards the Epoch.
          "You never answered my question, though," Janus said, almost as an afterthought, frowning slightly as he followed her. "Where do we go from here?"
          "Where else?" she replied, a corner of her mouth lifting wryly. "The future..."

The End?

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