Tears of Blood
By Michael Greenhut
I have often heard it spoken that, when our lives in this world end, our souls revert to forms of innocent children as we retain our adult knowledge and pass it on to those who share our plight, and our danger. I knew this was not a fate I would ever embrace, for innocence is a state of mind, independent of age, that I had never possessed.
My unique curse seems to bring with it the uncanny memory of my own birth, or enough twisted fragments to pass. I still remember my first comfort; the warmth and darkness around me, my only knowledge, my only want. I slept happily, stretching or kicking as some leap of excitement or another passed through me. The tiny world around me was perfection incarnate, and I was its master, I was the only keeper, the only god. And then, I felt a change.
The incipient bad omen came with a shift in the darkness, a subtle and noxious aura that told me the vessel of my world was changing for the worse, mixing with a foreign evil. I had not yet any conception of time, but I soon came to find myself struggling, sliding, falling. It was then that I discovered fear, and anger, as I fought to retain my kingdom. The sudden blinding attack of brightness, the assault of mixed voices and chatter, brought pain and fright that my tiny, fresh mind had never imagined, with the knowledge that I was in a new world, I was not alone, I would never again be a god.
So many voices. I sensed falsehood behind them all, even that of my mother, save one girl of ten years. I knew right away that she and I shared a bond deeper than any, even deeper than that of she who bore me. When I felt the girl take me into her arms, heard her soothing murmurs and cooing, my hatred of the new world around me suddenly had never existed. I felt once more only the purest joy and contentment. In my own primitive way, I swore a silent oath that I would never leave this spot.
Suddenly, I heard the girl screaming and crying. I sought to mime her as I was pulled from her softness by the callous, empty hands of mother, once more knowing nothing but anger, remembering only my fear and disgust at this new realm and its inhabitants. Mother's cold, steely fingers clutched me as her icy palms engulfed me with emptiness. I was submerged into an icy bath, a rude antithesis to the warm waters of my old world, and before I could scream through my cries from the shock and horror, I was pulled back to the surface. I was forced in and out, in and out, and only by the barest instinct did I learn to hold my breath. Later, as I pondered this memory and the strange, repeated chanting that accompanied it, I learned the nature of this ritual mother was forcing me through. I learned the nature of my enemy, Lavos, and held this first mark of its hatred as token of future promise. Just as I began to welcome death and annihilation, to pray for the void to grab me and spare me the torture of this world, I was dropped on a cold cloth. Mother's hands were hurting my stomach, and as I coughed the last of the vile liquid from my being I could finally cry once more. My loud, diseased screams were enough to drown out all other sounds, save the soft, gentle cries of the girl. Her sorrow only deepened mine, and darkened the nature of my moaning when I finally began to grow weary and succumb to the fangs of sleep.
I learned quickly to detest almost everything of this world, especially sunlight. True, the pain granted me at birth was probably that lesson's strongest arbiter, yet there is little I can do to change my roots. I found the same beauty in our buildings of the sky that so captured everyone else, yet my intrinsic tides of revulsion usually had the better control of my moods. My only comforts were the shadow, where I could escape the fierce elements of this world and the people who wielded them, and my sister, Schala. She was perhaps the very personification of compassion, gentility, altruism. I would often hear many say she was too nice, and would one day be destroyed by her own good nature. I had come to know her, since my fateful exile from the womb, as the only good in this world. I was fatherless to my knowledge, and my mother was nothing like the mothers I have studied in my adult life; she was the object of my terror, and I sensed a great hollowness behind her dark, flat eyes. She rarely spoke to me, and her empty smiles created an antipode with the rest of her face that gave me my first nightmares.
Schala was ten years my senior, yet we were emotionally closer than twins. My earliest memories of us playing together were as an infant of perhaps two or three, in a quiet park on the surface that seemed to be her favorite secret garden. I remember her hair blowing in wild arcs as she twirled me around gently, her smooth hands and laughter growing with my own. At those times, the sun was hardly sad or painful, the blue skies were more pleasant than the gray. Yet during all this, I sensed a deep sorrow behind her voice, a sorrow for which our play was at best a short term bane. Some nights, I would spy her crying when she thought she was alone, and quickly withdraw to my own pillow to do the same.
I was among the weaker of boys when it came to physical abilities, but I learned to talk quite early; by four, I was more articulate than most children of eight or nine. I hardly spoke a word to others, adult or child, but Schala and I conversed often when the public eye left us alone.
"You are a slow-poke, did you know that?" She would sometimes say, with only playful intent. "A slow-poke. Janus the slow-poke."
"I'm not a slow-poke!" I would shoot back with a frown. "If I could do magic like the others, I'd be the fastest!"
"You are yet. I always eat faster than you, and you still can't run as fast as me."
"I'm only four. My legs are too small."
She would laugh, then lift me onto her lap. "That's no excuse. You can use magic, Janus, as good as any of the rest of us. You just haven't learned how yet."
"But I can't!" I cried one day, looking up at her helplessly. "The other boys call me a surface-dweller. I can't even set a small fire. I don't want to be an ugly surface-dweller, and live in an ugly surface-dweller place."
"That isn't very nice, Janus." She answered, her tone growing somewhat less jocular. "The people down here are the same as us, and their homes aren't ugly."
It wrenched my heart to see her face fall back into the sorrow I sensed was eating more of her by the day. When her cheeks lost more color, I knew her thoughts had gone beyond the simple direction of my comment, to her secret pain that she kept hidden even from me. I reached forth a hand to comfort her, touching her thin shoulder with an absent gentleness. Through our locked eyes, I passed her my unspoken thoughts, communicating as we did so often during the day under the scrutiny of mother's court. Tell me.
She then hugged me, a frail hug that even I could have broken with my petty muscles. Her weakness supplemented any ache I might have felt otherwise with a cringe of the heart. Weakness in others shamed me, but hers seemed to touch me at a deeper level. As spiteful as I was already, I would never have struggled against something so beloved. Even imagining the idea of me doing so upset me further.
"You must stop being afraid of mother, Janus. You must. We just have to help her more, she is going through a lot of pain so the rest of us don't have to, ever again. Do you understand that?"
"I understand she doesn't know how to feel." I answered sourly.
My sister scowled, though not deeply. "Shame on you. Already you talk like a Jaded old man, and you still haven't slept through a single night."
"I'm not Jaded!" I countered.
Her features softened once more. "Oh, I know it isn't your fault. I guess. You didn't know mother before she had you. She was different. Something changed her, just before you were born . . . "
"I'm a monster, then? It is my fault!" And I ran, tears streaming down my face, as I fought to ignore Schala crying my name. I ran fast and far, through every path and burrow through this park with which I had so familiarized myself. One game I was fairly proficient in was hide-and-search, more so the hiding aspect. It pained me to run from her, more so with every call, yet if I had made mother the way she was, I would surely turn Schala the same way sooner or later. When I felt securely ensconced in a thick covering of blue-flowered bushes, I pulled into as tiny a ball as possible and waited.
I must have cried myself to sleep, as her shocked grasp on my shirt plucked me from what felt like hours of thick, permeating slumber. I saw by her tear-streaked face and newly brightened eyes that my good intentions had only opened her wounds further. For what very well may have been a period as long as I had spent hiding, our eyes held each other in silence. I imagined us becoming statues, immortal and unwithering as the white gulls made their homes and histories on us. Our only tears, then, would be the rain and the snow. Who had become stone for us?
"I'm sorry." I finally whispered. As I thought of mother's empty, endless eyes, I could not be sure how white a lie that was. To this day, I still don't know.
Schala finally lifted me up, and I felt her struggle under my growing weight.
"I can walk." I muttered, but she ignored me. I let the whirlpool of this
particular sleepiness draw me back under, as my face buried itself in her
That was the last time either of us saw the park, save in a corner of our memories that I know she fought as hard as I to keep tidy each year. Mother had called her to her room, and after brutal shouting, the sound of flesh hitting flesh, and the soft sobs of my sister as she came out paired with the bruise on her cheek told all. "We can't go back there anymore. I'm so sorry, Janus." She choked in a small voice.
"Why do you let her hit you? Stand up to her!" I whined.
"You know how wrong that would be. She is our mother."
I saw only the smallest speck of defiance in her dark eyes, but knew she was too weak to act on it. No matter how mother abused her, she was still nice to everyone. Far, far too nice, I was beginning to agree. Weak and nice. But that was partly why I loved her so.
"I have a surprise for you." She told me one morning, shortly after my fifth complete year, and her fifteenth. "Close your eyes, count to three, and open. No peeking."
Excited, I slapped my hands over my eyes and counted almost to three. When I pulled them away, another part of the ice that had been over my heart since birth melted. A small, moon-white kitten was crawling toward my legs.
"Where did you get him?" I asked in a blurr, jumping as the creature rubbed its head against my foot.
Schala laughed, putting a girlish hand to her mouth. "From a nursery on the surface, a little north of our old park. Mother had me carry a message to the workers down there, so I . . . oh! I am surprised he's taken to you this quickly. He seemed not to get along very well with the other kittens, and I think the mother had forsaken him."
I wanted to say so much, but my slight autism somehow chose that moment to flare up. All that came out was, "I don't deserve it. I'm not nice like you."
She folded her arms, a small frown crossing her features. "Who told you that?"
"Everyone. The other children, mostly."
"They hardly know you from more than a crossing of paths twice or thrice a day. You haven't even begun school yet."
"I know me. I don't like most people. I won't be like you when I get older. I'm pretty sure I'll be a monster."
"None of that is true, Janus, and I will never let that happen. You should know that by now." Her eyes told me the rest, and as always, one brief surrender to those gentle pupils was almost enough to act as my absolution.
I took the kitten gently in my arms, letting him grow comfortable and stroking his neck and back. "Even if I didn't want him, I know I'm the only one who can take care of him." It was the truth; had I not been anxious to care for this pale, defenseless little creature, I would have done so as a burden, knowing it would die otherwise. I was amazed to noticed it had already taken my right knee for pillow and blanket, and trailed my fingers absently across the creature's back. As it purred softly, a name I once heard Schala call me sprung out from the depths of my memory, and I knew it was no accident of thought. "I'll name him Alfador."
She seemed surprised, and for a moment I couldn't read most of what was behind her expression. Her small, private smile that we only held for each other satisfied my imagination. "I told you you weren't a monster, you silly gopher. Don't let anyone call you that. If mother does once in a spell, please don't think she means it. Promise?"
"Everything. Promise me, Janus. And don't twitch and look down when you're in front of other children your age. Your schooling begins in less than a fortnight."
"Yeah." I answered, lowering my eyes. Mercifully, she let herself imagine the commitment of that answer.
My First Power
Schala's confidence in me, while contagious and intoxicating, always departed with her in the mornings and only returned in the early evenings, when I left the schoolhouse in Kajar and ran back to her, as the other children ran to their mothers or fathers. In front of my peers, I was scented as weak and timid from the beginning. I had no interest in them, and they, fulfilling my aversive imaginings, took delight in my misery. At first, I would do nothing but cry small, dead tears or make myself a small nest of shadow in a quiet corner. Stealth was my greatest advantage, as my little legs were hardly a competition for my larger, faster peers. When I came home, I would shrink from my mother’s stone features, darting past her as she acknowledge me with a slight tilt of her painted chin and rushing into Schala’s arms. I would cry, as I cried in the mornings for the first hour I was left at school, until she carried me inside and brought me a drink of cold water out of her own curved glass, the one with a red sun emblem carved on all sides. It was her favorite, and had been since she was old enough to hold it in her own hands.
"Soon, you will be too heavy for me to carry you like this." She began saying as the half-year approached. "You’ll have to learn how to defend yourself."
Mother had once taught her what she was trying to teach me, but it was clear she had never used it in so much as girls’ quarrel in her life. I knew she was trying to help me in the only remaining way she could imagine. Such understanding did little for me the next day, when I groaned and shrieked from the pain of being moved as the adults carried me home.
I still have trouble piecing together what happened; it is one of this mystical, somewhat chilling memories where you are certain someone has taken a slice out of time and stitched it back unevenly. Four of them were waiting at the door to the schoolhouse, and I thought I might escape by blending with the homeward bound tide of older children. Then, I was on my back, as if the fates had left an apprentice to care for that sliver of my life, and the unsteady new hand had pulled me past the illusion of choice owed to me; to fight, to run, to die. I must have fought, as I felt raw spots on my knuckles through the rack of aches crawling in patterns across my body like fast rodents. I heard only a dim mash of voices, rapidly draining behind the rush of blood through my ears, which seemed to grow in volume by the moment. Many claim it sounds like an ocean on a calm beach; to me, it sounded like nothing short of a very slow, deadly, promising wind. A black wind. At the same time, a vision from nowhere cycled behind my eyes. It was mostly colorless, save a dull brownish-red on white, and from the clarity of the images I knew they were at least partly visitors to the known country of my imagination. They were uncanny. They played not as a part of moving life, but as a silent collection of very expert painted images. I saw myself, sitting up in my bedroom with Schala beside me, and my schoolteacher. A strange juxtaposition, indeed.
As I recovered, Alfador kept close company with me, and it was naturally Schala who sought to all my needs. She muttered that mother had sent some of the food through her from time to time, but never was a lie easier to pluck from those black-olive eyes. I knew if I told her so, I would only hurt her, so I remained silent in gratitude. I saw our mother only once or twice, and her second-marked visits only drew from me a new set of chills. I allowed her to look at me, keeping a steady face at my sister’s pleading, until her cold eyes and sharp, painted face turned to leave. "He will become the steel among magic. I see it in his eyes." She muttered to nobody in particular, sending a final shiver up my spine as she walked away.
Soon enough, to my strange lack of surprise, I found out that I had been expelled from school, and that mother had given special orders for my teacher to give me private lessons in my bedroom. For the remainder of my school career, this is how it was to be. As the year passed, I began to hear the blood rushing in my ears like wind grow in volume from time to time, each incident bringing a small premonition that came true. As both mother and Schala had promised, my powers were choosing their form. I would refer to it by the most obvious of its traits to me at the time – how it sounded to my primitive imagination. The black wind.
The howl of the black wind was almost a lullaby in Schala’s absence, the only instrument that would free my mind from the bleak prison of the waking world those years later. Often it carried a premonition, sometimes a simple emotional warning that fate was about to cross itself. Most importantly, at this age it linked me to my sister. It quieted most of the talk that I was only her step brother due to my lack of apparent powers, talk that offended us equally. It even brought a hint of a smile to mother’s empty face whenever I fell under the misfortune of her gaze, a twitch of her bottomless eyes as she began to look at me like her favorite caged animal. In her eyes I was no longer Janus, the weak and pale incarnation of shame; I was Janus, second heir to the throne of Zeal.
One year later, I had my first true brush with death. The fight I was in had not severely threatened to shorten my stumbling through life, and I soon learned how much sharper were the fangs of disease. For nearly half a lunar cycle, I was kept to bed with nausea, dizziness, an endless wave of coughing and chills that made me cocoon beneath my blankets until Schala had me come out at night so she might read stories to me. During the day, through periods of pretended sleep I would often hear voices talking about me, special doctors mother had ordered to the house to feed me various repulsive-tasting liquids. Some would say I was too weak, and had little chance of survival. While I was already far too hardened to fear death, the talk nonetheless made me heavy with depression until this very hour of the evening arrived. When she would finish, she would lean over and kiss the top of my head.
"Don’t do that." I muttered weakly; while it always dispelled all my worries and sorrow for one sharp moment, I did not want her sharing my condition. "You’ll get sick, too. I don’t want you to get sick."
She would only laugh, ruffle my hair and answer "Never twice."
The last eve of my illness broke my pain with a dream more vivid than the past week of my waking life had been. Rushing through my ears through it all was my faithful companion, the black wind, but unlike its behavior in the physical world, it seemed to be almost trying to speak, to form words in its simple myriad of whistles and crackles.
I witnessed my birth from the outside, watching mother submerge me in the waters she had blessed with the power of Lavos. Yet I also noticed a foreign entity, one among the gathered court that I was sure had not been there at the time; a tall, thin figure in a dark violet cloak and hood, his straight nose and chin only barely visible. I had the sense that he was somehow not entirely human, or had not been for some time. The scene dissolved at some point, this wraith like figure remaining the only constant as I noticed myself in a new mixture of old environments. He stood, this time with his back turned, as a curious and repulsive mixture of surface dwellers and my own people scattered in a hail of snow and fire. I felt the mild antipode of both sensations dance through my frail body as I made my way through the crowd. Murmurs cracked further open into panicked chatter as I approached the hooded figure, yet the other half of me fought every step and stone to pull back, to retreat and scream Schala’s name. I cannot describe the terrible kinship and wrong I felt at the presence of this being; below my conscious thought, I knew he did not belong here.
The black wind was warning me of a great breach and twisting of fate, but that was all I could gather. I dared not touch him, as I feared such an action would somehow unravel me to the very center of who I was and scatter my shredded remains to the world of lost ideas. Locked in indecision, I remained a frozen pawn to the nauseating entropy of mankind around me, shivering in the whirling blend of fire and ice. Which would claim me? Slowly, the figure turned and faced me again, and I saw for the first time the glow of his bloodshot eyes, sending new shivers down my spine as he seemed to look at me, then pass through me with a slight shifting of the shoulders. He was searching the crowd purposely, soul by soul, opening and emptying them one by one with those eyes while I remained half explored, half shunned. Just as I was waiting to be torn the rest of the way open, I woke with a cold sweat, the wind finally dying and fading. Although I could not see what had woken me, I was far too bedraggled in sleepiness to think it had been a natural transition.
I remember no more, and while I feared the dream’s meaning each day, I was aware that its entrance into the reality I knew was inevitable. Months passed, and the dream returned from time to time, though never reaching beyond that first ending. Close to a year later, I met the shadowy figure in full flesh. Schala had taken me with her, as she often did, to the surface on her trip to pay homage to the workers building the ocean palace and their families, and help those who were pushed to injury or sickness by mother’s ambition.
"Why do you keep doing this? You’re wasting your time. It won’t make them work faster. And some of them look like they want to hurt you." I asked as we exited the skyway into the familiar snowstorm, at long last braving my question by giving it voice. Why should I want to help those who’s children would make my life more miserable than my own peers, had they the chance?
"Oh, Janus." She answered with a slow turn toward me, her hair decorated by fresh white flakes and her eyes no less delicate in portraying her hurt. "I will only ask you once more not to say such things. Their hearts are warm, more so than most of the royal court. In many ways they are closer to nature than we are. The essence of Lavos has given our kingdom much, but taken more. Some people, it … ruins, in ways. Mother…"
My heart leapt. "Then you see it too, now? You believe me about mother? You know!" I began to pipe excitedly, but she placed a finger over my mouth.
"I’ve known for a long time, Janus. I still think we can save her, and that you should not think ill of her, but I know what she has become. Let this conversation be our secret, okay? If any find out, especially Dalton, I may be hurt."
"I promise." I answered solemnly, though feeling a renewed interest in what we were doing. If it meant fighting with Schala against the wrong, the emptiness that had taken mother and so threatened us one day, I would feed all the surface dwellers with my own hands and tell them how wondrous their homes looked. Further, though I had seen little of Dalton, I knew enough of his aura to abhor him. He rarely spoke, except perhaps to himself, and one look from his unnaturally pale eye promised he would laugh a storm watching me die, or end me himself should it suit his purpose. I could do little more than cower against Schala, and try to erase his terrible afterimage with her cloak against my closed eyes.
"Your nose is running."
"It is not."
She then fished for her hand cloth and I accepted it, though a bit grudgingly. "We go through this every time." She answered, rolling her eyes but holding a distant, tolerant smile. "It will be a noble nose one day. You don’t want it stained because you were too proud to ask your sister for a cloth when you caught colds, do you?"
"Hmph." I answered, and we walked on to the village in silence.
For what seemed like hours, Schala used her power to heal the sick and wounded. She cured lepers, fixed broken arms, and in several cases men with broken backs were strong and on their feet again after she worked her gentle magic. I felt shameful, but I noticed most of all how ugly they looked, how pathetic and helpless. What was Schala doing in this filthy pit, helping these animals who couldn’t seem to help even themselves? I pitied them ever so slightly, knowing it was hardly their fault for being born so inferior, but imagined I would swallow it and do the best to execute my role in their place. Though my sister and I could share almost any thoughts, I knew these would only harm her, so I remained silent and obedient.
As time dragged on, my fearful anticipation of running into Dalton began to creep over the backdrop of my concerns. Schala felt the same, and we often squeezed each other’s hand from time to time. Finally, as we approached the center of town, our old anxiety was put to rest.
There, among the miserable crowd of helpless sheep, stood the figure in my dreams. The same pointy nose and chin protruded from hood and shadow, and he stood stiff as a tree. Though my mind had been prepared for such an encounter, my heart and stomach still lurched toward my throat at seeing such a puzzle piece chisel itself into my waking reality, and I nearly dropped to my knees. Even more peculiar was that this man, or creature, or whatever it was, seemed to have a much more controlled but quite evident mimicry of my reaction. He switched, and his head shook in the slightest discomfort as he took a step backward. For only an instant, his wraith like demeanor threatened to unweave.
"Schala . . .?" The figure spoke, in a voice of dead iron that seemed about to crack. I was even more unnerved at this simple utterance of my sister’s name, one I had spoken so often and could have spoken at that very moment, in a tone of emotion I could very well match in my worst of moods.
"Yes? Have we met?" She answered in mild alarm, only an instant before covering her mouth. "Oh! You’re—"
"I am Magil, the prophet." He responded with an air of quiet power, all traces of the emotional crack gone from his metallic voice.
Ma-zheel. My mind repeated his strangely sounding name. I noticed his hands, crumpled and pale with the same lifeless weight of his voice. Ma-zheel.
"I have taken charge of the ocean palace project. Surely, mother has mentioned me?"
I blinked, and Schala must have had the same reaction. "What did you say?" She asked through a frown.
"I said, surely your mother has mentioned me? "
"Oh . . . yes, I—I think I’d heard her mutter something about a prophet. She hardly talks often anymore, unless she thinks nobody else is around. What of Dalton?"
Magil paused before answering, his face still far from entirely visible. "One-eye? He was called elsewhere. I do not know where, but I sense he was not pleased. You had better watch your throat, Schala."
"You watch yours!" I piped, angry that he dared suggest harm would come to my sister.
"Janus!" Schala hissed, turning to me with a sour expression, then looking back helplessly at Magil. "I’m sorry, sir. My brother meant no insult—"
To my surprise, he let a brief, stiff chuckle escape from somewhere behind that hood. "That he did not, I am sure. He speaks good advice. These are harsh times, with harsh countries in both directions. There are evil agents who will do you and the rest of this great country harm. I have warned the Queen, and I warn you. Do as you will, but keep your back to no door."
Schala seemed to have lost composure, her face strangely pale. Did she feel what I felt a moment ago, or something deeper? "I . . . yes. I will. Th . . . thank you, sir. Good day to you." She answered in a hurried tone. "Janus, come. We still have the north edge of the village to cover." She took my hand, and my gaze locked on the strange prophet as we passed. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I heard him whisper Schala’s name ever so faintly, call to her in one last desperate attempt to turn her from fate.
No, it was not my imagination. I remember, now.
As he began to fade from sight, my head remained turned as his bloodshot eyes came momentarily out of the shadow from his hood, as if they were but twin specters, or a trick of the meager, grey light. Such strangers to sleep were those eyes.
As scarcely as I would pace the palace passages and stairwells, Alfador in tow, I saw even less of the prophet during the next several months. Twice, I caught him spying Schala and muttering to himself, though all other times our paths crossed he was beside mother. I warned my sister, sensing only an aura of swirling negative emotions from the gaunt, cloaked figure. Anger, sorrow, loss, frustration, perhaps a seed of spite waiting to bloom.
My seventh birthday, I spent almost entirely in the library with Schala. She was recopying old historical documents for mother, a task she seemed more to do of her own enjoyment than any urging. She loved writing; it always gave her a peace of mind, she would tell me, even if it were simply transcribing the work of another. I, myself, was content with reading; my ability to understand the written word was beginning to exceed even my advanced mannerisms of speech, and I had started coming here to bury myself in stories of other worlds, other times. To spend such time in my favorite place with my only true companion in this life was the best present I could hope for.
So lost was she in her work, it took a small window of a moment for her dark eyes to snap up apologetically. "Oh. Hmm?"
"Are you going to be a writer someday?"
She laughed, and once again I sensed the tide of her inherent sorrow edging for a return. "A Queen has even less time to write than a princess. No, Janus, it could never be."
"But you don’t have to be a Queen if you don’t want to, do you?" I clamped my mouth shut as I noticed a few passing adults catch my words and return brief scowls. I was not stupid, yet I knew they realized this, and my cheeks colored with deep shame at how I realized my words might be interpreted. "I…I didn’t mean…"
"Sadly, that isn’t how things work for us." She answered with a sigh, thankfully only seeing the innocence my question intended. "At least, not for me. I’m the eldest, I have to assume responsibility once mother’s time passes. But you will write wonderfully. You are better than I was at your age, and you have quite a wild imagination." Her face brightened a bit in speculation, and I remained silent for the rest of our time there, feeling suddenly afraid and unclean. The black wind had hinted my purpose long ago, and while it was still mostly unclear, I knew I would not be anything resembling a writer. I kept my head down, somehow sure that news of my fate would hurt Schala.
Roughly a fortnight later, I ran across the visitors. It was their second day here, and I knew they were from somewhere, perhaps somewhen far away. Aside from their alarmingly unearthly garb and strangely off-color skin, the black wind whistled and whispered to life whenever they crossed my field of vision. Indeed, the wind would wail so harshly and painfully at their presence it brought a tear or two to my eyes at first, and for that I bore them no warm feelings. One, seemingly the leader, was an unruly-haired youth who carried a sword that made him look ridiculous. Behind him, staring about our palace with a half-witted fascination that grated on me was a thin girl with one long blond swoop of a ponytail.
I feared they were here to change something, messengers of the force that had corrupted my so-called mother who would perhaps even harm Schala. Alfador trotted beside my left foot as I did my best to edge by the three visitors, keeping my eyes averted from theirs and skipping steps. They seemed to be roughly Schala’s age, and looked rather silly with the weapons and armor they sported. The skinny boy with wild hair carried a sword clumsily, the blonde-haired girl, while I grudgingly admitted to myself shared some of Schala’s beauty, looked insolent and smart-tongued, and the girl with strange glasses over her eyes looked covered with enough machinery to be an android in a poor human guise. I tried to pass quickly, but Alfador suddenly screamed as I had never heard before.
I stopped and turned to look back up the stairs, watching their mouths move silently as the black wind rushed in my ears. I covered them, wincing and tearing a bit as the whistle of rushing blood grew unbearably loud. A quick vision imprinted in the red spots behind my closed eyes, one of the skinny youth crumbling and dissolving into so many pieces. Every molecule, every ember of his soul was turning to dust. Part of me wanted to gloat, to revel at the fate of this fool who disturbed the air so much, this invader who made the wind sting and burn, so that my ears bled pain and my cheeks could not remain dry.
As I opened my eyes, I could not help but smirk at their puzzled, stupefied curiosity, their alien noses ever seeking, ever pleading to be burned inside out. I cleared my throat, gathering all the dark enigma my voice could hold at that age.
"The black wind howls . . . one among you . . . will shortly perish." I announced to their insolent expressions as clear as a crow’s song. I then turned from them, swiftly and smartly, cheerfully running my imaginings of their reactions over and over through my mind as I skipped home.
"You’re shivering." Schala felt along my palm and wrist. She was worried, and it was easy to see I was not the only source of it. Her eyes were only half in this world.
"So are you." I answered, standing up from her bed. The whistling pain suddenly returned to my ears as I felt an alien presence enter our room. "The Black Wind…"
"Yes, you’re right . . . I feel it too. I…" Her eyes, distant for only another moment, crystallized with purpose as they found mine. "Here, I…I want you to have this." She then removed her amulet, the one I knew was her most favorite in this world, and placed it around my neck. "This will protect you, should anything happen."
"But I can’t take that! It’s your--!"
"Listen to me. You know I feel the same things you do when something’s about to happen. There’s something . . . well . . . wrong. I don’t know how to explain it, but I want you to promise me you’ll never take this off. I can protect myself. Most of your powers haven’t developed yet. Mother is going to need my help…"
"she’s <I>not</I> our mother! She’s changed since you remember well of her. Won’t you ever realize that?" Alfador’s hair stood straight as he walked in nervous circles, brushing against my legs.
"I know . . . but I…"
At that moment, a guard marched out of the shadows and broke what remained of our conversation. I gave him a dirty look, which he either failed to notice or did not acknowledge. "Schala. Her majesty requires your presence. Come."
We shared a final, pained look before she accompanied the guard outside. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I heard her talking to someone besides the guard. For some reason the images of those three impudent figures crossed my mind, and I turned to the wall to sulk.
"Go away." I said to my imaginary antagonists, fantasizing about the rest of my powers coming to bloom so I might destroy them for real.
"Go away! Go away!" I shouted at nothing, stomping. Somehow, I knew it was their fault that Schala had had to leave early, that she was so upset.
A very short while later I had my second important brush with Magil, and somehow those three were at the crux of it. Schala wanted to save them from their fate, their own stupidity. What she saw in these travelers I knew not, but I would not let Schala go to them alone.
"I’ll beat them up if they try to hurt you." I must have asserted several times as she dragged me down one corridor after another. She only laughed, called me silly and pulled me along.
When I saw how pathetic they looked, trapped by the Mammon Machine’s power, I could not help myself. "Hmph. Idiots." I said through a light laugh.
"We have to free them, Janus. You’ve always known something is wrong with mother, right? These people, these . . . strangers, they can help us."
I snorted. "It’s useless. Besides, you’ll get in trouble if they escape."
"And if they don’t, mother will destroy everything she once wanted to nourish." She answered firmly. "They are not our enemies, Janus. At least they are not mine. They might be able to free the gurus. They want to help us. If they were to be hurt, so would I."
I wanted to whine and groan, knowing there was no excuse for me to think ill of them any longer. If they were Schala’s friends, they had to be mine as well. And if they were against mother, we shared a common cause. I could only stare sullenly as Schala used her power to weaken the prisoners’ shackles.
"I think not." An iron voice surprised us from behind. I knew who it was, even before I turned to see the tall, shrouded skeletal figure of what had probably once been a man stride into the chamber. Magil.
"Enemies to our kingdom must be liquidated, and these are enemies to our kingdom." The prophet grated, his voice dry. "Do not interfere, Schala!" He made gestures as if to call forth powerful magic, magic I would never accumulate in my wildest dreams.
"You musn’t!" She commanded strongly, keeping any trace of fear or desperation from her voice as she stood between Magil and the travelers.
"Stop!" I screamed, standing in front of Schala with my little fists raised, ready to challenge this specter who threatened my sister and, I grudgingly admitted to myself, our allies. I closed my eyes, keeping close to my sister’s gown and expecting to be destroyed at any moment. Instead, there was only a tense silence.
I opened my eyes to find the Prophet staring back and forth from Schala to me, a bit shaken. A rattling, resigned sigh shook through his frame. "Okay. I’ll spare them." He answered, smitten with sorrow. This was the last thing I had expected.
Magil had conceded, but his methods were still marked by callousness. He took us outside the palace, down to the surface on a long trek to an isolated cave. Schala and I huddled together, and while he seemed to do his best to ignore me, I saw him dart an occasional worrying glance toward her. What did this mean?
The cave was small and tight, illuminated by a strange, brilliant blue disturbance that seemed to fluctuate between a compact sphere and a flat, quivering circle. Magil took in the oddity, rubbing his chin and then motioning to the travelers. "This is how you came here, eh?"
When none of the three answered, the prophet grabbed the girl with the strange glass over her eyes by the arm and shoved her in the direction of the anomaly. "In you go."
The disturbance grew in size as he forced each one of them through, and I found little surprised when it at last condensed, leaving no hint of the visitors for any of my senses to feel. I began to idly wonder if I would ever see them again. I had no love for them, yet I felt they were somehow important.
"Now, seal it." Magil commanded with a nod of his hooded head.
"N . . . no! You can’t… you can’t make me…!" Schala stammered, on the brink of tears. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to be three feet taller, to crush the twisted prophet in my palms.
"Obey me! Their lives are at stake!" The iron voice roared in frustration. I had no doubt he could easily follow them and return with stained hands, should it suit his purpose, and I could see Schala understood him no less.
Disgusted, furious, helpless, I watched her mutter a chant as if whispering an elegy, watched the ruby-red space-time prison form around the disturbance. I had watched her seal off dangerous areas and use such magic to protect workers in the ocean palace, and I had seen mother’s enemies imprisoned in the same material. It would remain forevermore, and the travelers would never return. Or so I fancied at the time.
I remember how Schala’s hand felt the last time I held it, the last time she would protect me or take me to the surface, the last I would travel with her to the dirty earth-locked village to visit the poor fools she cared for so deeply. Her palm was warm and as soft as mine, with traces of chills around her fingertips and cold-bitten knuckles. The Guru of Life was present, along with other people who I could not see very well, save their shadows. I felt the same strangeness, the same threads of superliminal displacement as when the travelers had been present, but I knew it could not possibly be them.
"What a filthy hovel." I remarked, feeling secure enough to poke my usual fun at these primitives. In my glee, I had forgotten Schala’s disapproval once more, but I had no chance to witness her frown or hear her reprimand.
The next I remember, old one-eye and his personal guards were scattering everyone.
I had dreamed of this moment for many restless nights, and it was happening exactly as the Black Wind had warned me. I do not know how he arrived, or how he took us by surprise, but his pale, sadistically humorous eye held every corner his men wrecked, every person they beat or pushed aside or had sport with. Schala's hand was gone as she struggled with one-eye. I knew he had come for her, come to take her away where I would never see her again. I had denied this moment often enough, and I would not surrender all the tiny hopes I had built up without doing so once more. I grabbed Dalton’s leg and began scratching and biting. I saw Alfador leap on his face and streak back through the air an instant later. The last thing I felt was the artificial thunder through my head as I slammed into the rocky floor, the wind taken from my tiny stomach by one-eye’s fist. The last stars I saw were yellow, fleeting, over the black abyss of my awareness.
I woke to the harshness of Alfador’s tongue licking my nose amidst a half-circle of frightened villagers who could not decide quite what to do. Alarm hammered with every beat of my heart as I jolted up and pushed through the dazed primitives, Alfador slumped carefully across my shoulder and digging his paws firmly into my back. I was strangely unmarked and lacking in pain from the small but direct beating I had taken. The Amulet. Schala.
"Schala!!" I screamed, over and over, dashing outside to the cave leading to the snowy frontier. Part of me knew the horrible truth, that I was never to be with her again, but I would not yet fall to the fangs of reality. "Schala!!"
My mind retained a scrap of reason, and I followed what could only be the bootprints of one-eye and his guards in the cold for hours. I held onto Alfador with one arm, clutching the amulet with my other so it might protect me from the cold. I followed, I cried, I screamed my sister’s name. I screamed my sister’s name. I screamed my sister’s name.
I remember descending into the ocean palace, running through all the frenzied elemental scouts and not paying heed to the half of them lying decrepit and slaughtered. I ran, I tripped, I ran. Alfador wiggled free and ran beside me just as fast. The cold had quickened and shortened my breaths, leaving me little room to sob.
I flew down stairwells, passed room after room until my heart gathered a few remains of hope. There were people in the next room, and I sensed in ways only my sister and I were able that many of them were powerful and important. Yet I also sensed something terrible, an evil beyond all the evils I had yet faced, or felt I would face. This evil I had felt once, felt it mark my birth and my mother with a vacant aura of pure indifference. It was about to destroy all our lives.
One of the voices in the chamber belonged to Schala.
"No! Janus! Stay away!" I heard her scream as I never thought it possible for her to scream. Her voice, always so gentle or pained or joyful, had become a beastly conveyance of the most desperate of negative emotions. I shook my head, running toward her through the gathering whirlwind, through blue fissures opening and closing like pockmarks on a blighted surface-dweller’s face. Even as I felt my pathetic body lose control, I heard her scream my name. "Janus!!!"
I tried to scream back, but my voice was gone. The world spun in bluish circles and I felt my stomach lurch and heave, until once more the abyss claimed me.
I sat up with a gasp, disoriented and feeling as if my body had moved for the first time. I was without a name, my only companion a few dim memories that felt like dreams, hints that perhaps I might not be waking into life for the first time. I was lying on a grassy clearing, my body seeming tiny and inadequate. I rolled around, feeling the small protest of a fading nest of bruises across my body. I could not remember where I had come from, only that I had lost something or someone dear to me, and I would never be the same without it. I still had the heart, though not the mind, of a child, and because of that I whimpered and sobbed until I was half blind.
So absorbed in was in my misery that I failed to notice the shapes surrounding me until the beastly laughter interrupted my thoughts. When I finally wiped my eyes enough to see, a gaggle of green and brown little beasts, no larger than myself, greeted me with impish laughter. Some were leaping up and down in either extreme glee or extreme fury, though I judged these beings barely intelligent enough to understand the difference. "Go away." I whimpered.
It was only then that I took note of their leader standing behind them; a great, obese lizard that stood on its hind legs and might have devoured me without notice, entirely by accident. Its foggy white eyes, though full of alertness, showed no particular capacity for insight, and I felt a bit more secure. I was frightened, yet at the same time I felt a new strength grow in me as I was forced to draw on my enigmatic grief to combat the fear.
"Food!" One of the imps chirped, its voice sounding like what one might expect a stuffed toy animal to sound like if it were able to speak. I began to laugh, though as my mind expanded on the situation I restrained myself, perhaps thinking it would benefit me to keep them thinking I was afraid for just a little longer.
"Food!" The others followed in similar voices, repeating the word over and over. I put on my most frightened face as they continued to chant awkwardly and out of sync. "Food! Food! Food!"
"Stand aside, fools!" The fat leader shouted, shoving a handful of stumbling imps aside with each arm. He had the voice of what I might expect from a very large old woman offering her child’s children a warm drink, the comical contrast with his outer appearance banishing all desires of such a drink from my mind.
"Well, well, well, well…" He purred, rubbing his oily green hands together and looking at me in a most uncomfortable manner. He then knelt down, drawing close to me until his reptilian nose nearly touched mine. His voice dropped to a sickening whisper. "What do you say, cub? How ‘bout some more of those tears? Some whimpering? A cry for help? A scream, perhaps, or the name of your worm-feeding mommy?"
I did my best to oblige him, but I was yet a terrible actor. "You can do better than that!" He snapped, licking his grotesque lips.
Frustrated, I launched a wad of spit at him, striking true squarely between those glazed white eyes. "You’re ugly. Get out of my face." I said matter-of-factly.
It took him a moment for him to snarl. "Not as ugly as you, cub. Have you ever looked at yourself?"
A part of me could not help giving his question some thought, and it dawned on me that I had little, perhaps no memory of what I looked like. It occurred to me that my face might very well not look much better than these beasts, and thus began the long history of that thought haunting me.
"Ha-ha, but I will overlook your insolence, my little peach. I, Ozzie the great, will overlook it, I will, yes. I will, this once. Have you a name, my pitiful little morsel?"
"I—I can’t—" I began to answer, then saw the folly of admitting my amnesia. I would allow this stumbling, blithering nose crumb who had somehow stumbled upon size and sentience to gloat no more than necessary. "No." I concluded.
"Hm, well. I am your mommy now, and my chums are your family. Do you understand? Hmmm?" His eyes only grew more hungry as he said this, and twin lines of yellow drool spilled down his scaly sack of chin.
"Family!" One of the imps shouted, followed by others.
"Yeah, we’re your family!"
"We’re your mommy now!"
Ozzie boxed that last imp to speak atop the head, then wiped his chin, looking about him and returning his cow like gaze to me. He moved his great jaw in an attempt to say something, but I saw nothing clever brew beneath that thick, glistening brow. "Off we go!" Was all he managed to stammer before he hefted me across his shoulder with one meaty hand. I knew it was pointless to struggle.
The last time I ever remember crying did not happen in a solitary room, or in the dark arms of night, or before any tangible grave, as it seems to happen for noted figures of dignity. Instead, it began perhaps a quarter hour later, while I was still atop Ozzie’s rough, yet almost malleable back, surrounded by his gaggle of munchkin-imps marching toward their nest, smitten with venomous glee. The pain of that mysterious something I had lost was overpowering my little mind, my essence that was still very young and at the mercy of even such clumsiness as that which surrounded me then. Without warning, I broke into a loud, bawling fit. I tried to cry a name that refused to leave the tip of my tongue, tried to whine that I wanted to go home, that I wanted to be away from these frightening, ugly beasts forever. My crying nearly drained out the string of presumed obscenities Ozzie was shouting at me to keep silent.
I cried long and hard, cultivating, sowing, reaping and dissolving the last of my childish fears. While I did this, I gathered strength from this sorrow, from this loss that I must one day regain, and felt it changed me. At last, several minutes before we reached the surface and entered Ozzie’s rotting lump of castle he called home, I stopped as abruptly as possible, neatly cutting away all traces of misery from my demeanor. The new strength surged within me, and I knew this marked the last hour of the last day I would cry.
Smirking, I began to travel the beginnings of a plan I was concocting from desperate intelligence, a plan to keep from falling under the feet of these oafs. "What a burnt-out molehill. And it’s not half as large as my home." I said in my clearest, most confident voice.
This gave the big reptile some pause, as no doubt he expected me to still be talking through broken tears.
I then hopped from his shoulders, vaulting in a half-arc onto my feet and holding his stupefied expression. "What’s the trouble?" I dipped my voice in mockery. "Are my words having a hard time crossing from ear to ear?" Inside, my surprise at my own words mirrored his. After shedding my emotional weaknesses, my eloquence and clarity of mind seemed reborn.
"Quiet, you! Quiet!" Ozzie shouted, still sounding like a mountain of aged female despite all his anger. "You little beast! You have no idea who you address! You are now the property of Ozzie the magnificent, crown king of the second-born polyblooded Mystics and successor to the great Cold King!"
"And who kissed you, the Iguana princess of wind?" I intoned.
His face grew comically taut, and he leaned forward. "Be. More. Respectful. Lest you are elected my salad dressing for the evening. My pups already think you look delicious . . ." He knelt an inch closer, lowering his voice an octave. "Though between you and me, cub, I’d forget you halfway to dessert."
"I’m not scared of you." I said quietly.
"Why not?!" He screamed, spraying spittle and scattering his army of imps a few feet. He looked about to jump, and I was sure the ground would complain.
"Because you’re all at my mercy." I shot, then impulsively stuck my arm out and obliterated his ornate gold belt buckle with a small bolt of electricity. I had felt the next stage of my powers unfold from distress, felt everything I was now capable of, so this came without a resurgence of my earlier surprise. Ozzie’s jaw dropped in sync with his three layers of trunks, and I wasted no time darting over and past him. I knocked several imps blocking my way aside, speeding the rest of the way to his castle.
Once at the gates, I forced them open, then closed and willed them locked behind me. I allowed my nocturnal vision to stir, then used my new power to light a few torches until an orange light danced across the glossy black interior. I had to admit, the inside was far more impressive than the carcass. I marched back and forth, humming to myself and exploring one great hall after another back and forth for a few minutes until I began to hear noises. Until this point, I had only noted the company of the occasional bat. My boyish impulsiveness had blinded me to the obvious truth that yes, of course the castle would be filled with worlds upon worlds more of the vermin Ozzie had brought with him.
It was not yet evening, and I realized my romping had probably woken these beasts prematurely. I only smiled to myself, knowing my good timing would prove all the more fun if Ozzie was truly their toughest. I waited eagerly for two adjacent doors to fall sloppily open. Out stepped what looked like a pair of emaciated gargoyles with pale gray skin. When their beady red eyes fell on me, they frowned and exchanged glances.
"Seems a little early for breakfast, eh?" One spoke, his voice sounding like pretentiously hearty gravel that did not fit his body.
"Ayeh . . ." The other responded. "But if the master’s out huntin’ his food early, who’re we to grumble?"
"Right! So, uh, shall we…?"
I chose that moment, as others began to pour into the hall. I surrounded them with a small circle of fire, then began zapping electric bolts at their feet. "You idiots! The fat fool was my breakfast. I run this place now!"
Too excited to wait for their response, I darted from hall to hall, door to door, spreading similar havoc and watching gleefully as the creatures began to scramble around in panic. I encountered cloaked avian warriors, floating creatures that looked like phony magicians, snake women with tails in place of legs, and other varieties of creatures, all running from my demonstrations like sheep from a loud noise. I was having the time of my life, and marveled at how easy it would be to have my way around here, to be under no one’s dominion. I was intoxicated by my new strength, as any unprepared boy my age might have been.
At last, I decided to wait for my corpulent new guardian to arrive at the gates. I heard him when he was a mile away, then giggled as the expected pounding and shouting began. Thud. Thud. Went the large wooden doors.
"Open up, you brat! Lord Ozzie the Unctuous demands it! Open or suffer, boy! Suffer! Suffer, suffer, Sufferrrr!!"
"Hey!" I shouted to all the vermin around me. "Gather over here. Your old master’s back! Don’t you think he’ll be mad if you don’t open the door for him?"
The beasts slowly looked from me to the entrance, then began to condense just behind the doors.
"This is your last chance, cub! OPEN THESE DOORS RIGHT NOW!"
"Okay, ’mommy’!" I answered. Then, timing my will perfectly just as he rammed himself against the door, I snapped my fingers and willed them wide open. The great lump of green that was Ozzie, clad in only his undergarments, flew right into the mass of his cohorts who had just been about to open the doors themselves. Many fled, but few escaped being momentarily flattened under his weight.
I laughed until my chest hurt, then suddenly felt very tired and exhausted. My legs gave, and I collapsed dreamily onto my back, only lazily keeping an eye on Ozzie as he brushed himself off and waddled over to me.
"You would be an unforgivable indigestion." I heard him mutter in his slimy tone, but only barely. I raised an arm to shoot more lightning at him, but my powers were long gone. I had used up too much of my new energy far too quickly, as other children wolf down sweet foods with wild abandon and pay for it later. I yawned, in a strange state of ecstasy as I felt him lift me by the back of the neck and carry me down one of the halls, to tired and happy to care what my punishment might be. I had already judged that, for some reason he had not yet mentioned, he intended to keep me around for a long, long time.
Ozzie was telling the truth about his status, as he soon explained. He was a missionary destined to wage war against the oppressive humans who had persecuted him and his race ("our race", he would correct me) since the dawn of time. As much as I enjoyed causing trouble for the beast, I began to feel specks of sympathy for him as darker pieces of my own memory returned, memory of my peers, of my own mother looking at me with disgust. He revealed to me that an old legend had decreed he would die fighting the oppressive humans alone and without an heir. He had then consulted what he believed to be a dark god, and had been told he would find a child who would grow into a strong and powerful wizard worthy of succeeding him precisely where I had been sleeping. The "god", he claimed, said I was to be the strongest champion to their cause yet. Ozzie had only been repulsed by my ugliness (after all, he said, I had no fangs or scales or claws, and my mouth and chin were always so dreadfully dry), but had never seriously considered feeding me to his servants. As the days passed, I continued my rampant tantrums of terror, but with slightly more care and reserve. My green godfather, or ‘mommy’ as he appointed himself, knew I was well beyond his ability to control, yet fueled by some hope that puzzled me, he still endeavored to complete my upbringing in the best way he knew how.
I was given a dark, cozy room with a large mirror behind the door. Days passed, then weeks, then months. I made sure Ozzie and all his most trusted aides had the darkest of circles under their eyes from lack of rest. The gates, windows and parts of the roof had to be rebuilt every fortnight or so, victim to my urges and experimental whims. I was informed I had tripled the castle’s food intake, and only Ozzie himself rivaled me in appetite. I forced him to carry me on his shoulders from time to time and crawl on all fours, galloping about the halls, until such childish urges began to appeal less to me. When he began to truly lose his sanity due to sleeplessness, I would calm myself accordingly until he was ready for more mental and psychological exploitation. I allowed him to train me in the ways of simple warfare and teach me the texts of old strategy and magical philosophy, with various reminders that he was, in fact, at my mercy. While I could hardly grasp his lessons at first, as my mind and body grew I began to absorb more and more. He was preparing me, preparing us all, for the revenge we would exact on those who had cast us out of society and tried to enslave us.
As the next several years passed, two important things began to happen. First, bit by bit, I began to regain my old memories of home, and the events that had transpired until the point of me waking up surrounded by the school of imps. I regained knowledge of my approximate age, remembering how old I was when I was discovered here and adding the time since. I knew I had been very close to a certain young woman, a sister who was more dear to me than all the world, though I could not remember her name. While the longing to see her again returned and the pangs of homesickness set in, I knew I must keep it all a secret. Instead of sharing my past with Ozzie or any of the rabble, I released my frustration with increased anger and destructive rampage each morning before bed. More than once, everybody would wake to find the castle inconveniently missing. It was only when they bothered to contemplate the nature of the various flavors of ash that had become their collective blanket did their primitive minds dawn upon the truth. With each rebuild, I would offer a few suggestions for aesthetic improvement that always pleased Ozzie in retrospect.
Second, a certain element of my powers that seemed to control aspects of my physical appearance began to work in strange ways. I had no contact with any society of humans; none came to the castle, nor did we travel to any of their villages, wherever they might be in this strange new world. I began to associate myself more and more as a mystic, as an aberrant one of Ozzie’s own brood. For why else had nearly all of my own people rejected me? Why else had my own mother always been a stranger to me, and why else did this bumbling but marginally successful lizard taken me in as one of his own? The answer was simple; I had to be one of these creatures, in heart if not in body. As I studied myself in the mirror, I noticed my teeth growing just a little sharper, my ears becoming just a tad less round with each year, perhaps each month. Though I later realized this was the result of my innermost powers altering my outer appearance to fit my new self-perception, at the time it only strengthened my beliefs.
When I was ten or eleven years old, I had my first contact with human society in this world.
It was just before dawn, and I was sitting on the roof preparing for a sleepless day, memories of my sister especially strong that morning. I was in the midst of contemplating which floor of the castle to destroy today, and considering my favorite way of going about it. While fire was thorough and left a rather pleasant aroma, I felt I was in more of a lightning mood; lightning was ever so more pontifical. Perhaps a seasoning of frozen rain once I had compromised the roof would accentuate my feelings nicely. Just as I began to work up my energy, I heard Ozzie’s heavy footsteps behind me.
"Neh. What mischief are you stirring up here tonight, cub?"
I turned to face him, raising an eyebrow at the red coat and tailed hat with white, fluffy trim that he was wearing. If I had not been angry, I would have laughed. "I’m not a cub. I do have a name, and I’ll remember it one day. Make no mistake about that!"
"Neheh. We’ll give you a name soon enough, don’t you worry. But come down from here, we must prepare to pay out first visit to Truce village. I’d have preferred broad night, but then those silly humans might just fall back to sleep and convince themselves I was a bit of rebellious drink in their imagination. It’s time to make our presence known, and then in a few more years, we’ll really make our presence known! Mwaha."
"I don’t want to go to any village." I whined.
"You must! Your powers already exceed mine. Our timing will be flawless! They’re holding some pathetic festival. Without you, they’ll think we’re just part of the act unless I destroy the place. And I don’t want to destroy the place, no, not yet, I want them to shake and scream and cry to their mommies! Their mommies! Their--"
"Of course you won’t scare them. Why are you dressed like that?"
Ozzie frowned to himself, then cleared his throat and scowled. "Your ignorance is far too ostentatious, grasshopper. You’ll have to do something about that. Allow me to explain. This suit is worn by a figure of fear in their legend; it is the very augmentation of their great daemon, the Saint of Claws!" He finished with a bearing of teeth.
"How could a daemon be a saint?" I asked in a skeptical tone.
"Fool! Once again you flaunt your ignorance. He is an evil Saint! He terrorizes cubs younger than you in the middle of the day, invading home after home through the chimneys and—"
"I thought humans slept at night? Isn’t that why you’re waiting for the sun to go?"
"No--! I, er…yes but—no! You’re wrong, and I’m right, and you must listen! Come with us. It will be an invaluable learning experience for you. He who is to lead a great war must know the face of his enemy."
"NO!" I shouted. My interest had been piqued, though not by any wind from him, and I intended to concede, but not just yet.
"YES! Our success depends on you!"
"Stuff your success. I’m not going, and you know you can’t make me."
"You’re going!" He bellowed, jumping and landing on his feet to accentuate his words. The roof reverberated slightly.
"You’re going! You’re going!" He shouted and jumped up and down. At long last, the section beneath his feet compromised. I heard several more crashes as he plummeted through floor after floor as I doubled over in laughter. When I regained a measure of self-control, I climbed all the way down the wall to the ground floor and burned a likeness of me through the doors as I entered.
Ozzie, in his red outfit, was spread out on his stomach atop a small mound of gargoyles and avian soldiers. His cap had fallen over his face. I pointed and laughed more, until I felt my stomach about to burst. I then sat down and stretched, waiting for him to wake. When he did, I almost felt a trace of pity at the hurt on his face as his lazy eyes seemed to assess me.
"Okay, I changed my mind. I’ll come with you." I broke the silence in a patronizing tone. At that point I truly did feel sorry for him, and lent him what little physical strength I had in lifting his great mass to his feet.
"Now, listen you little—wha? What did you say?"
"I said I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll even help you clean up when we get back. But I go where I want. Okay?"
My small hand was still buried in his huge paw, and at that moment I thought I might have felt a softening between us. An instant later it was gone, and I jerked my hand free by forcing it against his thumb, one of the most basic defensive fighting techniques I had learned.
The human village was unremarkable, and humans themselves made me nauseous when they brushed by too closely. Perhaps it was that I had not been around them for some time, or perhaps these humans seemed more like the weak, petty surface dwellers I remembered from my own world. Or perhaps it was their treatment of their most talented alongside lesser animals that angered me.
"I’ve a good mind to raze this place." I muttered as I watched the circus beside Ozzie, who was clothed enough to show as little skin as possible for the moment. Human spectators surrounded us, and I was most disgusted at the children who seemed to be of my age.
"Not yet, master, not yet." He pleaded. The title ‘Master’ served to both define my youth and acknowledge my superiority, and I had grown used to it. "When the time is right, you’ll know. I’ll do something!"
I sighed, making eye contact with one of the lions jumping through fiery hoops. You poor, poor beast. I mused. Wouldn’t you like to be free, and maybe snack on a few of these idiots? The animal’s eyes waxed, as if it could read my thoughts, but a moment later it joined its comrades as a shrill whistle cut through my attention. The master had marked the end of the first act.
The circus master was a small man, not much taller than I, with dark hair and a fine, pointy mustache with a voice to match. He stepped forward, dismissing the lions and their trainers with a few cracks of his own whip. He then made a few signals with his hand, and four strong men dragged a large barred chamber onto the center of the stage.
I choked on anger as I saw the figure step out of the cage, guarded and surrounded by the four carriers. This was no animal, but a human just slightly different from the others. She had long, dark hair and a face painted red and white. A silvery cape opened to reveal a one-piece suit matching the face paint. She bowed and waved nervously to the crowd, and a moment later I gasped as the four men hurled torches at her. They were going to kill her!
I began to step forward in panic, but then froze as my jaw dropped. This woman had managed to catch all four torches, and was juggling them at an increasing speed, not even remaining in one place. Every so often, the men would throw one more, and she only added it to her collection without so much as a flinch. My lower lip drooled down to the bottom of my neck, as I had never seen such a thing.
Finally, with a strange wave of her arm, the woman winked the torches out in one brilliant yellow-orange explosion. As I joined the crowd in clapping, the four men suddenly collapsed, and a moment later they were snoring like babies. This magic woman then put a finger to her lips, motioning the crowd to quiet down so she might speak.
"For my next act, I will choose a volunteer from among all you lovely children." The voice was somewhat deep and coarse, most definitely not that of a woman. Just as I was frowning, I saw her hand suddenly shoot out directly at me. I looked, and her large eyes were locked with mine. "You there. I have a good feeling about you, my boy, so why not step forward and participate in my next delight?"
Thought I did not like being called ‘my boy’, I was too flattered to care. I shot out, paying no heed to a few gasps and murmurs of those in the crowd who noticed the unusual shape my ears were taking.
"What’s your name, boy?" This remarkable clown asked in an even deeper voice.
"Are you a man or a woman?" I asked, my curiosity winning over what few manners I had. I did not know much about tact, even to those few I cared to impress.
The clown laughed nervously. "Aha . . . well, that’s not important, but you may as well assume I’m a man." After scratching his chin momentarily, he gestured sharply at me. "Ipso facto presto cadaro!"
A moment later, I was roughly the size of a human foot, green, slimy and sitting on four legs. The pain of betrayal from this figure I had admired felt more horrible than anything yet, almost as painful as the loss of my sister. I was furious, and tried to gather up my most vicious of cursed. All I managed to hurl at him was "rrrrrrrrribit!!!"
"Calm, calm now. No need for such naughty words." My great eyes blinked. Had he somehow understood me, or was he only pretending to? All I felt was the anger, the misery of this horrible form as the crowd laughed and cheered with delight. "Don’t worry, I’ll restore you in a flash. Ardua unravala inerto manifesto!"
Without so much as feeling a crack between thoughts, I was myself again, though my anger remained unabated. "I’ll fix you for that!" I shouted as I pointed at the clown, envisioning becoming the lowliest of worms.
What happened next was the biggest surprise to come. A multicolored aura wrapped around the clown, and in a moment a simple, albeit unusually large worm stood before me. It was not very close to human size, though it was certainly larger than a simple earthworm. It took me only a few seconds to realize that somehow, from something done to me by my own transformation or from a natural coming of age, more of my powers had developed.
The clown remained a worm for only a few seconds more. He was magic, after all, and I was not surprise to see him return himself to his own form. The shock spread uniformly across his features was enough to satisfy me. "That was…interesting…" He muttered, then hardened his face. "But it shan’t happen twice. You must be the challenge destiny promised me." He then gestured and shouted "Huzzato!"
I suddenly found myself a slug, but just as easily returned to my true form with a simple will of the mind and heart. "I hope that wasn’t your best!" I shouted as I prepared my next form. Another gesture from me, and he became an iguana. By now, I was beginning to lose my hearing from the crowd’s excitement.
We sparred like this for a few more minutes, changing through a variety of animal forms until, exhausted, we reverted to normal and sat down.
"You are skilled, boy. Quite skilled, if I may judge."
"You’re not bad yourself. But stop calling me ‘boy.’"
"Well then, do you have a name or not? I can’t very well call you much other than what I see if I know nothing about you."
"I…well…" After a moment of hesitation, I found myself explaining the situation.
"Ah, well, a tragic story. Tragic, but best forgotten. My name is Flea. At least I’ve been called that since I was a lad half your age."
"Well, Flea, I’m happy to meet you." The words were strange, alien to my mouth, and it sounded quite out of place to hear them in my own voice. Yet for lack of a better way to explain it, I had a good feeling. I decided to be blunt. "Why don’t you come home with me?"
Flea laughed, his voice rising a few octaves. "That’s all well and swell, and I’m sure there is much to be learned between us, but have you no family? I’ve been just above slavery for my remembered life, but—"
"You, a slave? With powers like this? Pathetic! How could you let that happen?"
"I, ah . . . well, that’s another story. The master’s had me believing bad things would happen if I ever tried…"
"And you believed him, all this time? Look at him! He’s a wimp! Turn him into a slug and feed him to the fish!"
At that moment, several interesting things happened at once. The angry owner came up to us, shouting incomprehensibly beneath the roar of the crowd. Ozzie decided it was time to declare himself and begin his reign of terror, so he, too, jumped onto the stage and revealed himself, trying to look as intimidating as possible. To his dismay, the crowd only erupted in laughter. Some children a few years shy of my age even pulled toward him against the hands of their parents.
Flea and I decided to focus our attention on the circus master, who was intruding on our nerves slightly more. Simultaneously, we threw a spell at him, and a blink later there stood a giant rooster with the legs of a frog. "let’s see how well you jump!" I screamed in my shrill voice as I sent one bolt of lightning after another at his rump until he had hopped well out of sight. By now, the horde of human spectators had begun to assess the continued health of their amusement, and began to flee. I motioned for Flea to follow, and pulled a complaining Ozzie along in the homeward direction.
"You ruined everything!" The fat reptile was shouting. "Because of your meddling, the name of High King Ozzie the Ornate will not be spoken to bad children to incite fear! At least not until my expenses allow for another attempt! And who is this Peacock you’ve scraped up?"
Flea casually flicked his wrist, and a moment later Ozzie was spreading brilliantly colored feathers. "That is a good question, my boy, who is he?"
The talk was long and the work was difficult, but by sundown I had effectively made peace between them. This sort of deed was also alien to me, and I felt a bit of discomfort, though the results were practical enough. Flea was impressed by the castle, and after a few demonstrations of his power Ozzie readily accepted him as a comrade-in-arms. He was even given his own wing of the castle, and began to train some of the more able mystics.
A Name True
I finally began my man’s growth when I reached my thirteenth year, and my voice began to crack slightly. It was also the year I began training with a heavier weapon, and the year I was to test my skills against a line of fully grown knights.
That morning I was busy amusing myself by beating a hench and two gargoyles to a bloody pulp outside the castle gates, surrounded by most of my cheering and feasting subjects. Today would be an important day for me, the pride and future of this microcosmic kingdom. I was to complete the last leg of my physical training in a series of single combat matches against prisoners Ozzie and a small number of us were busy securing from a raid on the Guardian army.
Unfortunately, Ozzie had again ignored my counsel that while we took to bed at this hour on normal days, humans were rising and at their freshest. He did indeed return, but only after a few more battered subjects than I had anticipated, and he was in shackles. To either side was a heavily armored human dragoon with the Guardia crest on their helmets, and many rows more following behind.
Just before Ozzie and the two guards marched what looked like the leader of these invaders. He was half again as tall as the tallest of his men and leaner than most, though he looked quite deadly. My subjects parted and cowered as he approached with the rest, and his coal-black eyes began to scan our assembly.
"If this be all there is to the rumors of a beast kingdom amassing against us, I will crush it with my own right arm and return home to breakfast." His men laughed, and for only a moment I felt the beginnings of fear. It then dawned on me that the fates may have meant this to be my true test, and I shook together a plan in my mind.
When this tall soldier’s eyes met mine, they almost passed me before disbelief crept over his brow. "Boy, some of your features unnerve me but not enough to judge you deserving of this lot. Unless you are a fool, stand aside."
"I am no fool." I said in my most adult tone, though I still looked and sounded mostly a boy. "And I see something in you that beats differently from that of your men. I have a proposition for you."
"Now listen, I don’t play games—"
"This is no game. You against me, single combat. I’ll even fight you at your own level, without using any of my powers. If you win, every last one of our lives are yours to do with as you please. If I win, your head remains on a stave and your men carry the rest of you home."
A mixed uproar followed my last statement. Ozzie looked angry, but I silenced him with a scowl as I waited for the human leader to finish laughing.
"You’re brave, boy, I’ll hand you that. And such arrogance and effrontery would not glaze your words if you were not more than you appear to be. Allow half a score minute for my men to place wagers on how long it will take me to flatten you."
I granted his request, and eleven minutes later, his sword and my scythe began to sing. I was still reasonably shy of a man’s size, and he gained a rapid advantage. But once I had warmed up, I made the best of my smaller size and kept a clear mind. I toyed with him, allowing him to force me back for a time and even throwing a frustrated little-boy grunt in every so often for dramatics. When I judged the moment ripe, I split one of his mistakes down the middle and ruined his balance, pressing my new advantage without mercy. I changed hands, as I am ambidextrous, and darted everywhere as I attacked. Though he did manage to surprise me and mark my cheek once, I must have cut him in six or seven minor places before his weapon finally flew. My scythe licked a thin splash of blood along the side of his throat. "Hmph." Was all I could think to announce my victory. I expected this bitter-faced man to spout curses or forget his word, but he remained quiet. A long silence followed amongst his men and mine.
"The brat was swaddled in luck." One of my opponent’s subordinates called. "Let’s clean the place now and be done with it."
"No!" My defeated opponent shouted, though his eyes remained at his knees. "The boy defeated me in all fairness. This is a disgrace, more so that I am the most trained among you. If I cannot defeat him, our ranks have no hope of defeating any of them. I cannot say it has been an honor, but this chivalry-besotted kingdom has milked its duty of me. Back to your liege with my head. I lived a knight, and I shall die one with few regrets." His eyes then rose a few degrees to my chest. "Well, boy, on with it."
I had not intended to murder in cold blood, especially one as contrasting of his kind as this soldier. A sudden idea came to me, as I realized he was probably the only of his men to have a chance against any of us. The eyes of the others were, as he had put it, drunk with ignorance and short-sightedness. I saw in this man’s rock-hard eyes and expression a defiance, an understanding at the pathetic nature of the order he had been imprisoned in for all of his life.
"Your life belongs to me, though I do not choose to end it. Had you hit me a few marks further down, I would be feeding worms and your men would have devoured our kingdom."
"You ask me to betray my kingdom? To spit in the eyes of the service that has raised me since I left my mother’s swaddling blanket, and awarded me honors and medals enough to build a crown with since?"
"Yes." I answered, whipping my scythe into the ground near his knees. "What you see around you is a small kingdom, a threatened kingdom that I intend to raise to its fully glory."
This was a truth of truths. For some years, I had known I was the backbone of these people, and that they would help me fulfill my goal. What this goal was, the small remnants of fog in my memory would not yet tell me, but I knew with time it could come clear.
"You honor me, my young lord. My service is yours."
I waited for the curses and murmurs of "coward", "backbiter", "traitor", "eel" to pass among his men before speaking. "Do you have a name?" I asked my new servant-at-arms plainly.
"My family named me Evanor. Since I was but a page in training, my skill and my table manners have earned me the surname ‘Slash’."
"Evanor is the name of humans. I clean the taint from your honor and mark you to begin afresh. Among us, you will be known only as Slash."
I lifted my scythe and touched it to his helmet, then turned to his men. With a small gathering of will, I formed a great circle of flame around them. I then moved to where I judged my voice would be heard by all, and used a bit of my power to carry it. "I have mastered magic beyond magic, and I have completed training with my chosen weapon. I have defeated wizards among wizards without fighting, and I have bested knights among knights without chicanery. The name given me by my family is lost. As I have bestowed upon Slash, I, too, ask for a name from my subjects. Let it mark my achievements and denote all I have meant to you, all I mean to you, and all I will do for our children’s children."
It was a somewhat rehearsed speech, with a rehearsed answer to match. Ozzie, Flea and the rest of my subjects knelt. Slash looked to me, and I nodded for him to repeat their words a step behind.
"We name you, Magus. Your eyes are our stars, your hair the waves of our ocean. We name you, Magus. No sad sunny day nor frightful blue skies can harm us under your shadow. We name you, Magus. May your tears be the rain that shields us, may your dreams be the night that guides us. Hail Magus. Hail Magus. Hail Magus."
When they finished, I smote the fire around the remaining human soldiers. "Return to your king and let it be known that I, Magus, will be at war with the kingdom of Guardia five years from this night."
As the months and years passed, my moods grew darker. I left my room only to train or sup. The perceptive side to my magic was still at work; my teeth grew sharper than the fangs of the vampire bat, my ears close behind. Though I had long since outgrown most of my large-scale destructive whims, the castle began to rot from neglect, slowly descending to the state it had been before I had arrived. My new status, the promise of a future for my new people, my ability to lead, recognition of my own greatness . . . none of these gave me any comfort. I was searching for something deeper, for the reason that had pushed me to all this. Rather than whet my appetite for intrigue and intellectual adventure, the elusiveness of my purpose depressed and infuriated me.
I dreamt of my sister at night, tearing my sheets and leaving holes in the walls from the anger that came when I realized I was forgetting specifics of her face. Though I never murdered my own troops, I often left them beaten and bloody if they happened to cross me at the wrong time, literally or otherwise.
I began to study archaic texts of old civilizations, yellowed scriptures and spells and any lost lore I could find in the cellar library, one section of the castle I had never damaged. In fact, I had saved these books from a very primitive, careless demise under Ozzie’s idiocy. Often I would not emerge from my reading for days at a time, save to scare away those who tried to distract me. When I did surface, I would call for a grand tournament and participate to release my tensions.
"More than this old castle is falling apart, sir Magus." Slash began to warn me shortly after the turning of my sixteenth year. "Our home is only a reflection of the hearts and the morale of these men. You need to do something. Train them before their fighting abilities erode, search the lands high and low for others who might join our cause. Even Ozzie hardly does anything anymore, anything other than lie in the dark and fill his belly. "
"Ozzie hardly ever did more than that." I answered sourly as I tried to out-pace him through the halls. "And why don’t you train them? It’s more your boon than mine."
"Me? I never lead anything a quarter this size, sir Magus. And I was never even knighted."
"Well, then. Let me change that." I turned to face him, unsheathing my newest scythe. "Kneel."
"But sir, I—"
"Kneel. Or have you taken it upon you to disobey me?"
When he dropped to his knees, I touched his right shoulder with the scythe’s edge, followed by his left, then his forehead as he removed his helmet and craned his neck. "You are now the first night of my empire, Sir Slash. Train my men as I trained you during your first days here."
"I . . . am honored, as I have never been honored before, sir Magus. Ah, I . . . I’ll take my leave now, by your dismissal."
"What else did you want to ask of me, Slash?"
"S . . . sir?"
"Your credit to my perception is far too lacking for your health. You best ask me and be done with it."
"Well, come to think of it I did mean to ask your permission to enter the Guardia tournament this year, now that I’ve been knighted. I had hoped to knock the wind and the honor from a few of my former . . . associates."
"So be it. Such matters do not interest me. You need not ask, and see to it that you don’t waste the breath henceforth. Now get you from my sight, I have research to do."
A week later, Slash returned one evening with a gold medal around his neck, bragging about defeating the Knight Captain’s Squire, Glenn, in melee combat in the final round after being unhorsed. Flea took more of an interest in his stories, while Ozzie lamented that Slash had not returned with any foreign blood on his weapons or armor. I listened to as little as would suffice to be thought proper of me before returning to my cave of literature.
I read the histories of Guardia and El Nido. I read of the gods most humans worshiped, deities from the sky with powers that far exceeded the humans of this age. Apparently they were cast down by a greater god, perhaps even an evil god, and stripped of their powers. All this began to ring old, solemn bells in the depths of my thoughts and feelings; these sky gods reminded me of something, yet my memory had not yet regained the names of most that had been familiar to me. I sought more information on this evil arch-god, to no avail.
Where mysticism failed I sought texts of science and reason, tracing the origin of simple machinery and the use of natural electricity. I thought perhaps that might lead me to remember or discover how I had come from my old life, a member of the royal family in an esteemed kingdom, to this new world, a seed to bloom and fulfill an ancient prophecy of an exiled, dying race. In the area of logic, I fared no better.
As time continued to pass, this enigma only ate at me further. Thoughts and memories of my sister did not grow less painful as I had expected it to by this phase. I had long since forgotten the concept of crying, and I could not appear deranged and unbalanced in front of my subjects, so I took to destroying something every morning in private.
I had Ozzie, Flea and Slash train the mystics fully in my place as I withdrew more and more. I did not emerge for my eighteenth birthday, though by morning the entire castle’s ritual chanting in my praise echoed endlessly in my ears. When I caught myself dozing, I took the book before me and hurled it across the room. The force was enough that it split it in half with a loud protesting crack, scattering a small dust storm of yellow page crumbs.
As I rose to pace, for the first time in countless weeks I came across a looking glass. It was old, man-sized and tilted against the side wall, and had apparently been left here to rot. My appearance my breath in my throat like a spiked razor.
I did not recognize myself in the least, yet I felt it naturally fitting enough for who I had become. I had the body of a somewhat tall, thin male humanoid – I stood a full six feet, and with my heeled boots I would be two inches more. The rest of me could only barely be called ‘human’ – as if whatever god that conceived me had gone awry, or fouled as I grew older, or forgotten how I was supposed to look as I matured. My skin was nearly snow-white with a hint of blue, as if I were perpetually oxygen-starved. My teeth were now fangs in the most certifiable sense, two of them showing even with my mouth fully closed. My nose looked as sharp as my scythe’s tip, my ears longer and more pointy than most of my subordinates. My blue hair swept below my shoulders, the only true connection to my childhood.
With an angry fist, I smashed a crisp white web in the glass, watching as a myriad of lesser, distorted images of myself sprouted to life. I then clawed across it with my other hand, noting that my nails were virtually claws themselves. I finally resorted to destroying the mirror with my favored bolt of lightning.
I fell asleep on the ground, moaning and groaning in frustration against a pile of books.
In my dream I saw a young girl, calling a name through tears of rage and sorrow. I knew almost immediately that it was my sister, as my feelings always seemed to grow their own will in her presence. This dream, however, was uncharacteristically real.
"Janus?" She moaned, walking in her own bubble of darkness within darkness. "Janus . . . Janus . . ." It was a strange name, one that held no meaning to me, except perhaps in some past life, yet I knew it was me she sought.
Forgotten longings thawed as I scrambled toward her. "Schala!" I called, the name finally clicking and snapping. "Cease this crying. I’m coming. I’m coming!"
"Janus!" She shrieked, turning one way then another. It was as if she didn’t hear me.
"I’m here!" I shouted, finally reaching her and reaching my arm out. The ice of her shoulder shocked me as she turned, still somewhat blind, and I saw she was changing. Though her hair had lost its color she was as pretty as I remembered, only gripped by a deeper state of sorrow and despair than I had ever seen or imagined. The sight almost made me sick. "I’m here…" I repeated, my voice giving way to dread.
"Who . . . who are you?" She cried. "You’re not Janus! You’re not . . . go . . . monster . . . go away…"
No… I wanted to say, but my voice was lost. All I could do was squeeze her watery grave of a shoulder tighter, trying to communicate by feeling.
"Janus . . . no . . . no, no, no no …NOOO!" I found that the more intense my touch, the more she seemed to hurt. She let out a wild moan that became a scream, doubling over, and I had no choice but to let go. Her form grew smaller and smaller, at last dissolving into dancing red blobs behind my eyelids as I woke.
I screamed a scream none in the castle had heard as I destroyed a nearby table with brute force, cutting all sounds of chanting short. I did not wait for them to continue as I stormed upstairs, lifting beasts who happened to obstruct my path by the neck and throwing them aside like dolls as I made my way to the castle gates.
At first I wandered aimlessly, keeping quiet note that Ozzie was following me without making him aware that his bumbling had given it away. I stormed through the cave and came out through the cliff side before stopping to rest. I drifted back into a dark, dreamless twilight before jerking awake at the onset of a storm and continuing on my way. I relieved traveling peasants of their food, frightening them away and sometimes doing an injury or three.
"Leave me be, lizard, or crawl where I can see you." I announced to his shadow the next evening as I sat atop a rainy hill.
"Sir Magus," Even Ozzie had taken to the meek intonation by now, and his voice was unusually sober. "A leader of war does not leave his army to rot at the beck and call of bad mood. Return with me, lest you take in too much rain."
"Is that all you have to say?" I growled. "In that case, leave me be. I will return when it suits me. My pain needs the sky as witness."
"Your pain can be alleviated! You think me a fool, but I know the onset of anger when I see it. I might be able to lead us to the answer to all your problems, my liege."
Lightning cracked the sky overhead, followed a second later by the accompanying thunder as the rain continued to hammer the soft ground, finding purchase in my hair. "Speak, then." I spat.
"There is a legendary sword. The Masamune. With it, it is said a single soldier may level kingdoms at his feet as if they were lumps of sand on a beach."
A spark of hope began to mix in with, though not replace, my hatred that had become as aimless as my wandering. I wanted nothing more than to destroy something, perhaps many things, and I had read of this sword in my sleepless studying. "I have heard of it. A sword formed by the souls of two brothers of an ancient race. It feeds and is fed by the emotions of its bearer. If I read that correctly, this sounds like a weapon that could destroy me. Why should I want it?"
"It could never destroy you, Sir Magus. Never you. Your anger is such that it would only make it a weapon of that much greater power, and help you achieve victory for us. It lies in a cave atop the Denadoro mountains, which are close by. Come, I will lead us to it."
Though my better judgment went against this, screaming silently that Ozzie was a fool and knew not the first thing about the magics involved in this weapon, I let my emotions decide for me. "So you shall." I answered with resigned conviction, standing up and shaking some of the small puddles from me. "This had better work toward my interests. Lead, then."
We reached the Denadoro Mountains after another half-night and began the climb. It was long and aggravating, and we left more than a few charred skeletons of various creatures that lacked the intelligence to differentiate between us and a fresh, compliant meal. Just as we approached the cave that seemed to fit Ozzie’s descriptions, my relief ran short. My blood heated with fury as I spotted two humanoid shapes walking just outside the cave, near the cliff’s edge. I did not welcome interference now, particularly not that of humans.
"H—humans!" Ozzie shrieked in a whisper.
"Very perceptive." I answered snidely, walking toward them. They seemed to be soldiers of the same order that had tried to seize our castle; one was my age or slightly younger, the other seeming perhaps two or three years my senior. They had been talking, though I had not heard any of what they were saying, nor did I care. My eyes were only on an oddly shaped, strong-looking blade they carried, each by a hand. I knew what it was, and my fury surged; I had marked it as my property many hours ago, and I would have it no matter the cost.
When they took note of us, they froze. The older one’s brow creased, and a hand reached for his blade.
"I wouldn’t try that, if I were you. I’m not in a good mood." I growled at them.
"Look!" Ozzie shouted, pointing to the strange-looking blade they held between them. "It’s the—"
"I know what it is." I answered menacingly, raising an eyebrow to the humans. "Well? You aren’t going to just hand me my rightful property and give me no reason to spill blood, are you? By all means, if you intend to strike the great Magus, give me your best shot!" I spread my arms, indicating that I would not move.
The younger soldier started to rush me, but his slightly older companion held him back. "Beware, Glenn!" He shouted as he dropped his end of the Masamune and drew his own weapon. Ozzie and I shared a laugh at those unbelievably pathetic two words. My blood began to boil with anticipation of using some of my anger to punish these fools for their insolence.
Finally, the older one charged and attacked me. I drew my scythe in a blink, and his strength surprised me as our weapons bit into each other. This only made me angrier, more so when the tip of his weapon came close to my face. I released everything I had built up, turning his blade away and slicing cleanly through his mail and across his hip to his shoulder. A spray of blood splashed as he was sent spinning to the ground beside the other quivering youth. He lacked the strength to rise, though he was making a petty attempt, and as I watched him squirm from the wound, the need for me to damage or destroy was satiated. He was all but helpless, and would most likely be weaponless for a time.
Ozzie, however, was not finished. I watched in surprise as he gestured forward and set the wounded soldier’s body aflame. It was one of the few times I had seen him use his own magic, and though I was slightly put off that he would murder a defeated and helpless opponent for no reason, I pushed the distaste away and turned to the unfortunate soldier’s companion.
"Well? Try your luck, kid?" Ozzie taunted.
"Er…!" The youth stammered as he tried to lift the Masamune, looking at me with naked hate in his dull, stupid brown eyes. "Er . . . er . . ."
"I think he’s trying to say something." I whispered mockingly.
"Yes, yes you’re right! Ozzie rubbed his hands together. "Yet, it sounds distinctly inhuman, don’t you think? Oooh, why not give him a more fitting form?" He ended his sentence with the tone of a goose-bumped elderly fool talking excitedly about ideas for gifts.
For the first time in months, I smiled. It had been too long since I had used this power, and it would make almost as delicious a treat for me as it would for Ozzie. I thought of the first time Flea had used his power on me, transforming me into that despicable frog. I had developed a pathological hatred of frogs since that day.
Gathering my will and that hated image, I gestured at the youth and worked my magic. His form became enveloped in the swirl of colors as he cringed, his form changing before my eyes. To our deep regret, he tumbled off the cliff, taking the Masamune with him, before the morph was complete.
I stood there for a long moment, cooling. "It serves the fools right." I said under my breath.
"Come, my liege!" Ozzie was screaming happily. "Surely the creature did not survive the fall. Let us retrieve the Masamune from his carcass, and bring it back as part of our feast tonight."
"They toyed with things beyond their control," I continued to no one in particular.
"Yes . . ." the image of the first youth burning, and the second falling over the cliff repeated in my mind. For a few moments longer, I saw only that. Did I need to bask in what I had done that terribly? Or could I not let them go from my mind for another reason? "Hmph. They challenged us. What could they have expected but the clean death from loss to a superior opponent? It is the order of things, is it not?"
My mind snapped back to the present. "Yes, Ozzie. Come. Forget the Masamune, it could not have remained intact from that fall. Something about it looked wrong, anyhow."
"What?! Sir Magus…!" He whined, sounding even more like an upset overstuffed grandmother than usual.
"Shut up! We’re going home, and that is absolute."
The failure to obtain the Masamune did not bother me as much as I expected as we walked home. Some of my anger had abated, though I felt only an emptiness in its place. An irrational concern surfaced in my mind. What if we had been seen, and the deaths of those two soldiers had been traced to us? What if their comrades would amass and chase after us in revenge? Would I have the experience to fend them off, with our army as it was?
That night, I had an odd dream that the youth I had transformed and forced off the cliff had survived, and cried my name in anger and fury. The scenery then faded to an old memory, one that had been lost until now; the memory of my mother submerging me in strangely tainted waters at birth, marking me for the same power that had emptied her soul. I watched, and I heard a name repeated at decided intervals of the chanting, over and over.
For only a moment, I saw this creature as I knew none had seen it. I saw what lie beyond the name. I saw a glimpse of Schala, lost and trapped and full of sorrow as she had been the other night. I saw the virus that had invaded the very roots of my life and climbed upward, ravaging and consuming and destroying as I had destroyed that day. I saw what I had been, and what I had become.
I had put a name to my enemy, and witnessed how it cheated time. I was ready to continue my work, to free my sister and reclaim what I had lost.
The Yearly Feast
It was the day my twentieth year passed. I had vaguely remembered how humans received gifts from loved ones on the day of their birth. I had no remaining loved ones, nor was I human any longer. For me, the rules had changed; rather than receive anything, I would give my followers precisely what they wanted.
I prepared a monumental feast and celebration in the castle hall, allowing all to loosen themselves before delivering my statement; I would need as much loud cheer as I could harness. Ozzie sat at one end of the table stuffing his face with meat and mead, his cheeks growing so red from drink as to remind me of his “Saint of Claws” disguise from years back. After several hours of festivities he had broken six chairs falling to the ground, and had to be lifted by a team of imps and bats into a new one each time. By his seventh chair, he was so intoxicated that he seemed to have forgotten English and reverted to some ancient mystic tongue for his ranting. “Bodufu Bah Pooktah!” He would shout over and over, his face increasingly covered with various creams as the night passed. I never bothered to learn the phrase’s meaning, though it was apparently something the gargoyles found particularly amusing.
Flea was putting on a fire-throwing act, amusing some of the henches, and Slash was receiving fond attention from a group of naga-ettes while he told stories of battle and bravery; two had arms draped around his shoulders, one was playing with his hair as he tilted his head backward, while four more sat curled by his feet, playfully fighting for the privilege of removing his boots and massaging his feet. I spotted several more henches sneaking off with a bromide of one especially popular naga-ette.
A second table had been dragged out for some sort of wrestling spectacle. Atop it, two mud imps were grappling and pounding on each other, while a ring of their companions surrounded them on the floor, chanting and hooting. One of them eventually trapped the other in a headlock, then pulled with all his weight and sent them both tumbling to the floor.
Until now I had been brooding over a goblet of wine that remained mostly filled, studying my reflection in the brilliant red and occasionally observing the sport around me. Deciding it was time, I stood up, sent a wave of energy toward Ozzie’s passed out form and watching as he changed and grew into a large gray elephant. His new eyes popped open with shock, and his noises and predicament had my intended quieting effect on all present. When all had silenced, I returned him to his original form and motioned six imps to splash a pail of hot snake blood across his face. He gasped, screaming like an elderly human woman until I quieted him with mute.
“Brothers and sisters,” I began, sweeping my gaze over all yet none, “I came to you as a pup, an outsider, as chattel. You raised me, fed me, trained me until I became of able years, and in loving appreciation I let most of you live.” I paused, not entirely sure how proper that sounded but not giving it further thought. “Tonight, I prepare to show all of you just how much more you deserve of my affection than I am willing to give.”
I motioned to Flea, not waiting for them to figure out whether or not my words were a compliment. He immediately stepped back and, in a puff of white smoke, created an image of the creature I had had him memorize: something between a small volcano and a large, awkwardly shaped porcupine.
“Behold, the mighty Lavos!” I shouted, brandishing my scythe as an instrument of pointing. “Too long have the humans controlled this world at our expense. They drove you into the cracks and caves long ago, and took your land and your food. They exiled me and would have enslaved you all, if not for my divine intervention. They worship the terrible star that brings us disease, and would banish the comfort of the clouds and the void for eternity. Yet now, I bring you special tidings from the Black Wind. I bring you fate . . .”
I raised my arms, and Flea murmured a chant. The small image of Lavos erupted, sprouting countless illusionary gobs of fire and lava. An immediate panic swept over my subjects, and I could not help but grin as I watched them run around like a frenzied team of headless ants, howling and knocking each other over. When they realized they still had all of their skin, it took them nearly ten minutes to calm back to a halt. “Idiots.” I mumbled to myself.
“For us, it was an illusion. For the humans, it will be real!” I shouted, followed by the healthy roar of applause I had expected. Several henches fell over, their senses dulled by drink, and one was slapped by a heated Naga-ette.
“The true Lavos is many times larger, and the carnage will be many times greater! No corner of this miserable human world will remain standing!” The applause picked up twice as loud, and took longer to die down.
One somewhat besotted gargoyle stood on the backs of two of his swooned comrades, trying to fly. “Bring Lavos now! Destroy the humans now!”
“Now!” A strong chorus followed, quickly becoming a chant.
“Hold!” I shouted, striking the ceiling with a bolt of lightning and reclaiming most of my attention. The gargoyle who had spoken flew into floor, forgetting the distinction between up and down. “If I were to wake the great Lavos now, some humans would survive his wrath. We must let him slumber only one year more . . .”
“…and in that year, he will grow stronger!” I continued one year later, the very same night, with slightly more visible dark circles under my eyes; for mystics must be kept eager if they are to be used properly, and mystics have far more trouble remembering the details of a promise than they do remembering a grudge. “Strong enough to burn the skin from every living human! Strong enough--“
“--to return our dreams to us, come four hundred nights from this moon!” I continued the next year, with ever a more weary face. Though I did my research on Lavos alone, Flea and Slash were helping me forge the beginnings of an ultimate weapon that would, in theory, destroy Lavos. A smaller part of me added that doing so might also undo everything the demon had set in motion, returning me to a happier time, but revenge was still the fire I knew most. I kept the warrior and the magician ignorant of their true cause, convincing them that they were helping me build a device that would help to raise Lavos. Though their loyalty to me was unwavering, their sympathies were including Ozzie more than I liked. Ozzie, meanwhile, remained ignorant of the entire object and continued to gloat and bloat amongst the lessers. “Now is our time to—“
“—sharpen our teeth and prepare for a feast larger than this, to drink a richer wine and quench a thirst far deeper.” I then strode to a smaller table, grabbed a swooning green imp (the least intelligent sub-breed) who had been hiding underneath by the feet and held him upward. “Many comrades remain in hiding through the world, driven into holes with sore claws and trembling tails, believing the prophecy of my arrival a myth to explore throughout uneasy slumber and hardship. We must bring them here, show them the teeth of our trials!”
I released the imp’s leg, and he went plummeting back downward head-first. “We must stand high for all to see!” I added.
“Daguk vooo!” The imp cursed in his native tongue, scurrying away.
I then removed a tied bundle of scrolls from my belt, loosened them and hurled them into the crowd. “ Tomorrow eve, you are to begin a crusade to every corner of this world and place these where you hear tales of other mystics, lurking or slipping around human awareness. Each of these has magic embedded within, sensed by mystics alone, that will enable them to find us. Each shall swell our ranks by one, ten, twenty . . . ”
“. . . one hundred, . . . ”
“ . . . one thousand, . . .”
“ . . . one million!” By now, the castle had been expanded several times more to house my growing army. Many long tables now spread across the main hallway, with countless smaller tables and exhibitions to the sides. I watched in compounding weariness as hordes of imps, henches, avian freelancers and other creatures unaffected by sunlight dove into the pile like frenzied sharks in a sea turned to blood. “When you have all returned . . .”
“We shall all be ready to raze our enemies with the message of Lavos, and greet him as he wakes to deliver us!”
Of course, it was now seven years since the first feast, yet this year I knew would be the last I would need. Until now, I had depended on the mystics’ terrible temporal awareness and inability to count higher than the number of fingers on each hand. Knowing this celebration out of all was the true promise bearer, I found myself for once sharing the excitement of my ever-faithful, blissfully leal followers.
A freelancer then took to the air, landing gracelessly with a thump on the table in front of me. I scowled as feathers flew in my face, more so at the very unapologetic look across his features. “Yeah?” He squawked, carrying every drop of his race’s venomous attitude. “I’ve ‘eard your face flap for a dangin’ long time ‘bout this laa-vose, but I ain’t seen so much as a spark. Either you lyin’, or maybe you just too—“
“Chicken?” I finished, grabbing him by the neck and lifting him. He let out a painful, half-smothered squawk as I unsheathed my scythe, pointing it at his belly. “If you have so little faith in my ‘guts’, perhaps we should see yours?”
He shook his head rapidly, as much as he could in my grasp, and I hurled him to the ground. He let out one more terrified scream, then darted up a flight of stairs with several companions.
I then turned to face all my subjects who remained on their feet with clarity and judgment, raising my fist in direction.
“Hhh-aill-aill-llll—Mag-ag-g-gguss-ss-ss-sss!” They responded, a bit more jumbled than I had hoped but with an echo long and true.
“H-h-h-h-HAIL! Magus . . .!” Ozzie cried, then fell forward and broke his section of the table, landing on the floor with his face and shoulders caked with remainders of each of his seven courses.
The Ritual Broken
Twenty score moons from that evening, I was prepared to claim my life’s reward. As I knelt to finish the last phase of the chant, alone and enveloped by darkness, a strange memory surfaced; one of a very similar darkness, my life before life, the belly of she who had once been my mother. Only now there was no comfort; only a terrible, terrible excitement.
“Neuga, ziena, zieber, zom . . . Now the chosen time has come . . . ” I spoke, straining to keep my voice steady lest I miscast the final cantrip. “Exchange this world for..!”
And then, just as what happened long ago in the world of my mother, I felt a change. I then remembered her hands, long cold, nearly drowning my infant body in the water marked by Lavos. This time, it was fire that sprung up around me, accompanied by the returning, all-too-familiar toll of the Black Wind.
Sensing a presence behind me, I whipped around and froze, assaulted by more memories.
The boy I had seen in another life stood before me. To one side of him stood the girl with glass over her eyes, holding a projectile weapon of some sort. To the other stood a ghost of ten years past, holding a sword that by all rights should no longer have existed.
“Magus!!!” The voice, though somewhat less human, was unmistakable, as were all the emotions it carried. Over the years I spent researching Lavos, I had every so often questioned whether or not I was truly black enough to make such a trade as I had, until moments ago, planned and carried forward with success. Now, as I remembered what I had done to torment this creature, all such doubts about my role as destructor faded. Only fury remained, fury at these fools interrupting the one purpose I had been granted.
I scowled. “I . . . it's that stupid frog! Kissed any princesses lately?”
“I rather enjoy this form. And I oweth it all to you!"
"I have something for you!” The man-frog brandished the Masamune.
“Ah . . . The Masamune,” I answered, not hiding my contempt, “I bet you're just dying to use it . . . ”
The Black Wind, my earliest and most basic power, was now screaming through my ears louder and more painfully than it had ever before, but I managed to keep my battle- ready composure. “The Black Wind begins to blow . . . Ok . . . Give me your best shot!
If you're prepared for the void . . .”
“Behold.” I languidly stretched an arm toward the waters below the cape, standing straight and stiff; my bones and whatever they concealed felt as if rigor mortis had set in from anticipation of what was to come. The man-frog stood behind me, armed, with two of his companions – Marle, the long haired girl with a pendant so like Schala’s, and Lucca, with her strange armor and eye augmentations. The Black Wind still whispered painfully, most of all from him, yet it no longer burned.
“Everything's at the bottom of the sea,” I continued. “Gone is the magical kingdom of Zeal, and all the dreams and ambitions of its people.” I trembled, feeling the leftover rage resonate between myself and the man-frog. “I once lived there . . . but I was another person then . . .”
Flashes of everything that had happened in that other life played across my mind once more. Schala’s identity, having surfaced completely again in the waking world after I was cast back into this land, drove me with renewed vigor and countless years of painful, cheated feelings to believe that she was still somewhere in the fourth and fifth dimension.
I hated these youths, hated them for their power to cheat time that I did not possess, and most of all I hated them for robbing me from my vengeance against Lavos; I hated them black, yet somehow, I didn't. For Schala had grown fond of them in the short time their paths had crossed, and I had witnessed them confront Lavos openly. I did not understand how my feelings could walk two opposing paths at the same moment. I'd had poor instruction in the complexities of the heart for most of my life. Only Schala might have explained it to me, and all that stopped me from throwing myself into that glorious death by combat was the thought of finding her. She would want me to carry on in this mortal coil, despite what I had become, just as she had refused to give up on “Mother” after Lavos had destroyed her soul.
Schala would mourn. Not even in the mind's eye could I watch her mourn.
“So! Thou art . . . thou art that filthy urchin!” The man-frog rudely twisted my thoughts.
I was slow to answer, but somehow I found myself speaking my open mind. “ . . . Ever since Lavos's time portal stranded me in the Middle Ages . . . I have waited to even this score . . . you interrupted me just when I had summoned Lavos to my castle . . .
How ironic that, having been drawn into yet another portal, I would end up in this age.
Being from the future, my knowledge of the past enabled me to convince the Queen that I was a mighty oracle. But no history book could have ever prepared me for what happened here. Unimaginable is the power of Lavos. Anyone who dares to oppose it . . . meets certain doom.”
My anger then surged, as I thought of their initial interference. Fools like these had called me a monster for as long as I could remember. Animals like these had spread gross rumors that I was using Schala for my own purposes, that I had no relation to the royal family because I was so different from her. Then, they dare prevent me from claiming my revenge, the only gift I had remaining. I sneered, knowing exactly what I should have told them, and how different it was from what I indulged myself in saying. “At this rate, you too, will meet a hideous fate. Just like that poor fool, Chrono!
“You dare to insult him?!” The frog answered, his voice cracking in a ridiculous manner.
“He's history! Play with fire and you get burned.” I thought of my own words from over twenty years ago, mouthing them silently to these very same idiots. “One Among you will shortly perish.”
“Magus! Hold thy tongue!”
“You wish to fight me?” I snapped, the rage stronger at that moment than it had been in a long time, stronger than I sometimes thought it would ever grow again in my rare peaceful moments.
And then, I entered a waking, walking dream; the rare kind that Doreen talked about as happening to those especially in touch with their own powers. One moment I was aware, very much feeling the biting elements and their subtle reminder that the world was physical, and the next I felt each of those subtleties shift into their ethereal approximations.
“Stand back.” The man-frog spoke with quiet anger.
“I never imagined we would settle our score in this dusty old era.” I heard myself answer. “Come, let us finish this charade!”
The battle happened quickly, and from the first swing I felt my weakness, a weakness that splintered in my heart from all that had transpired and repeated itself through my fingers as I watched, as helpless as the boy I had been. It proved my undoing, and I felt the life draining even as my scythe dropped from my trembling fingers.
“Cyrus, I hath avenged thee!” I heard, dimly.
Amazingly, I felt my own anger draining with my life; instead I felt sorrow that Schala would mourn, sorrow that I would not carry forward for her, that she might already be crying somewhere dark and cold, a place she deserved far less than I. At the same time, I felt a release in knowing that I would reunite with her, had she indeed crossed over. At that moment, as I watched the events of my life travel backward in time, memories of the gurus joined them. I thought of a small, white egg I remembered the old man Gaspar carrying, as well as Schala’s explanation of its purpose. I then knew how I might have saved her, and what I owed my opponents for their defeat of me and their willingness to absorb my cause, to finish what I had attempted and failed. “Defeat me, and you will break the curse on Frog. If . . . you want . . . to bring Chrono back . . . find Gaspar, th . . . the Guru of Time . . .”
My eyes shifted, and the dream was over. I had just asked Glenn, the man-frog, if he wished to fight me.
“Vanquishing thee will neither return Chrono nor Cyrus.” The creature answered, before turning with the young females and heading away. Out of habit I found my mind telling me to let them walk, to wish them a fair riddance to their ugliest hereafter, yet I knew the waking dream had meaning that I couldn't ignore. My anger toward these children, which had evaporated, remained as much a memory as my old life.
“Wait.” I found myself calling to them, realizing for the first time how our paths had crossed so often, for a very obvious reason. “May your stupidity teach you a slower, more painful lesson than it taught your friend,” I rehearsed one last time in my mind. “I'll come with you,” I found myself saying instead.
“Treachery!” Croaked back at me in response.
For the first time, I answered fire with something other than more fire. “You know, there just might be a way to bring him back.”
The Remains of the Night
“So . . . you're going to search for Schala?” Marle asked from behind me as I headed toward the shimmering portal, though I was too preoccupied to answer a question that was hardly a question; I preferred to skip the slushy farewells and answer her and the rest of them with deed, knowing our paths would one day cross again. Though they were still weak, certainly weaker than I, it grieves me to admit they had a potential I had not anticipated; without their help, I might not . . . that is, it might have taken me longer to defeat Lavos.
Watching Lavos die had quelled hatred that had embedded itself so deeply into my roots that, almost immediately, I turned inward to see what, if anything, was left. The void I encountered frightened me, at least in the form of that mental shadow that we substitute for real emotion when we're afraid we should feel something we don't. Such a void told me that my faith was ebbing, if not completely dissolved. I began to doubt not only that I would ever find my sister, but also that she hadn't been more than a muse, a phantom memory. Perhaps my early life as a human was no more than that.
I wandered, if only to honor my earlier self, the one who still believed Schala was waiting. I walked among villages, farms, fields, keeping mostly in the shadow of my cloak as I studied these humans, hardly believing I had once been one of them. I suppose if a frog were to see itself as a tadpole . . . well, never mind. Once my heart leapt when I thought I saw Schala, only to find the light had tricked my eyes, that it was only a common girl carrying a basket of vegetables down the street.
I took to the skies, drifting more than flying. A flock of geese passed over me, spraying me with jilted feathers, which gave me a grim sense of being in my element. I thought I might fall asleep and wake up as the wind itself, Mune's very aspiration, minus his simplistic enthusiasm. I just wouldn't care.
I soon came across the Epoch again, and before I was consciously aware of it, I was following them, keeping myself out of sight and sleeping high in the trees when the ship was aground. For days, I trailed behind, watching it take off and land, watching the youths run from town to town, era to era. They ate, worried, laughed and cried together as passionately as they had fought together. I wondered how they could spend so much time stepping on each other's feet and not be at each other's throats. Such intense socialization with my peers I could never stand for an hour, much less a week. What business had I to approach them? I, their former adversary, who had completed my objective and no longer needed them? I asked myself, over and over, why I wasted my time lingering in their shadows. Eventually, I wandered off again.
Masamune No More [I]
I remained solitary for years, sleeping in the wilderness or seeking the refuge of quiet caves, all the while continuing to circle the world, passing through village after village in search of my lovely muse, my lovely phantom who still kept me company whenever I quit this miserable plane of existence known as the waking world. I was almost content to waste away, to enjoy what remained of Schala in my own imagination, to fade out of existence somewhere in a high tree or a deep pit. I might have, had I not been woken so rudely that morning.
I had returned to Guardia. I was sleeping against a thick tree, hiding in my cape from the morning light, hoping such a false night would keep me asleep until I wasted away. My cover was suddenly torn away, a crude morning forced upon me, and a sharp poke woke me the rest of the way. I shot upward, pulling my cape back and glaring at the two soldiers in foreign armor, preparing to leave them as a stain of ash upon the ground.
“We're occupying this area!” Grunted one of them, a very short, very portly young soldier with a curled strip of hair under his nose. “Shake yourself back to the village with us!”
“That's right!” said the other, much taller and thinner, and wearing armor the ugliest shade of yellow I'd ever seen. “We've spiced up your backward little country. You've just become a subject of--”
I hissed, and they both went silent. In the far distance, shouts and weapons clashing replaced the usual morning insects and bird calls. Once, these sounds, so familiar, so hateful, might have contented me, even pleased me enough to make breakfast. “How early a death could you gentlemen possibly seek?” I asked. To make my point, I called forth a bolt of lightning and obliterated a tree behind them.
“Yiee! Oh, Oh!” The skinny one cried.
“Shut up!” The fat one said, slapping his companion, though I could see he was equally terrified.
I felt my own expression light up. Idiots. “Now listen,” I told them, “I have no special love for this country, or the humans that frolic around on it. But these woods are mine. Unless you wish to become part of them, I suggest you curl your tails between your legs and scurry off. Bonus points for a healthy, blood-curdling scream.”
They obliged without looking back, and I followed them for a time, concealed once more in shadow, for I had always taken delight in other creatures' fear of things that had no particular interest in them.
Eventually, I lost interest and veered away, following instead a trail of wounded and dead soldiers, most of them Guardian. The air was alive with swords, arrows, and other projectiles from newer, more sophisticated weaponry (for humans). I had to work to keep out of sight, as there were pockets of fighting almost everywhere, and the ground was streaked red. I hadn't seen this magnitude of carnage in quite some time, and though I didn't care one way or another for these people, the stupidity and abandon of it all was disquieting.
I would recognize that sword in any era. Those meddlesome brothers leave a certain trademark any time they combine to form a weapon. As soon as I saw the tide turning in favor of Guardia, with more foreign armor falling to the ground and complementing the native losses, I had no trouble tracing it to the source.
The Masamune's owner was a youth who looked barely old enough to be more than a squire. This was easy to discern, as he was the only of his comrades who wore no helmet, and only the most basic leather armor. I ran toward him, forgetting my cover entirely, as he hacked apart foe after foe. The sword's aura was no longer a bright blue, but a darker midnight color with a subtle shade of violet. I cared nothing for the outcome of these petty wars, but this was wrong. This, I had to stop. “Drop the sword, you fool!” I shouted, running forward until the youth was in easy spitting range.
He took several swings at me before he realized I wasn't rushing at him. “Stay back! Stay out of my way if you're too afraid to fight for your . . .” Recognition crept over his features as he studied me. “You--you're the one talked about in the scrolls! You're my family's enemy!” He swung at me again, and again I dodged. I was confused only for a moment, then I realized he must be descended from the frog. I removed his curse . . . but not, apparently, his hatred. That, he must have passed down, along with . . .
I studied the Masamune again. Four hundred years of resentment and bitterness towards me, from the sword's owners, was taking its toll, twisting the entity into something dark and unnatural. Something like . . . me, I realized, as the sword seemed to take on a will of its own. The youth struggled with it, frowning. “What the--?”
“Watch out!” I shouted at the poor fool as a soldier came up behind, not sure why I bothered. The youth turned, but the sword's sudden resistance slowed him down. A sword broke through the youth's chest, and he toppled forward. Blood pooled underneath him, and he held the Masamune tightly in a death grip, his face permanently locked with an impressive (but unnerving) amount of hatred and fury. This was no doubt amplified by his final vision being that of his country falling to pieces.
I dispatched the youth's killer with a healthy fireball, realizing all too late that I had chosen sides once again. A few of the invader's comrades came at me, and I took them out effortlessly with my scythe. I looked back at the Masamune, its aura now a dark, angry maroon, and I risked prying it from the dead boy's hands. “Masa? Mune? Wake up, you oafs! Are you listening to me?”
No answer. Instead, the sword's cold, organic handle spread loathing through every fiber of my being so instantly, so completely. I wanted to slice open every last human for keeping Schala from me. I would grant Chrono and his friends an especially slow death for meddling in my revenge against Lavos, for claiming a part of that victory as their own, for making me seem like I needed their help. I turned, ready to begin my work.
I threw the sword down, burying it in the ground halfway to the hilt, shuddering as the violent thoughts left me. I turned to the voice that had called me back to what little sanity I clung to. The one called Lucca stood before me, holding a steaming handgun off to the side. “Thank God,” she said between deep breaths, “There's something wrong with that sword. I meant to warn you. I wouldn't go near it again, if I were you.”
“No argument there,” I growled. Meant to warn me? “I'm leaving. There's nothing of use to be done here.”
“Speak for yourself!” she answered, firing at a few more of the invaders. At a closer look, I saw her face was stained with dry tears. She glanced at me only briefly through those ridiculous lenses as she took down soldier after solder, most twice her age and all more than twice her size.
I shrugged, then started walking away, cutting down two more invaders. “Save yourself, idiot girl!” I found myself shouting back. “This kingdom is finished!”
“I'm aware of that!” She answered. I turned back and faced her. Six soldiers were closing in on here. Nobody was left in the area to help her, not even her friend Chrono or that little princess.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw the hole in the ground where I'd stuck the Masamune, only moments earlier. It was gone.
Before I knew it, I had rushed back, and I was dragging Lucca by the arm. “Stupid,” I growled, “Even with my help, you couldn't win against these odds.”
“Let me go!” She pulled at my hand, dragging her feet. “They killed my parents! They killed them! They just walked in and . . . and then they tried to loot . . .”
“Shut up!” I answered. “I'll be happy to knock you unconscious again, if you give me the chance. Or haven't you noticed the Masamune is now in the enemy's hands?!”
“N—NOOO!!” Luca cried, though I wasn't sure which she was protesting against, the Masamune's corruption or me dragging her away from her revenge. “No, no, no . . .” She continued to moan as I dragged her. I could see that she, too, was finally losing her grip on reality “No . . . !”
Hours later, when we were in the clear, she sat across from me in the woods beside her home, sobbing. I sat across from her against a tree, trying to figure out why I'd wasted the energy to save her. A moment later, it came to me: I needed the Epoch to find Schala. Lucca knew more about the Epoch than anyone ever had, or ever would. Yes, that was the reason, I assured myself.
“Listen to me,” I said, “Revenge is a tempting drink. I know it too well. For most of my adult life, I pursued it. And then, the worst event in my life came to pass: I achieved it.” I remembered the emptiness that followed Lavos's destruction, the disappointment that such a victory hadn't felt the way I expected it to feel, or felt like much of anything at all. I remembered wanting to drift away into nothingness, how I somehow expected Lavos's death to return Schala to me, and when it didn't, how I started to lose my faith that Schala even existed at all anymore. “Do I look like someone who's satisfied, someone who sleeps easily and peacefully now that he wears the medal of vengeance?” I frowned inwardly, wondering how these words were helping my ends.
I watched her bury her face in her hands, shaking and crying. This was one of the more uncomfortable moments of my life, as I simply had no idea what to do. “This isn't real . . . this can't be real . . .” she moaned through tears. I felt myself sweating, and for some reason, I felt very, very small. I knew her friends were supposed to be sitting with her, not someone like myself, a shell of a former human who had nothing left to offer. Normally, given the situation, I would make some statement about her friends probably being dead also, but instead, I tried to think of how I might find them, send them here in my place, since they knew how to behave in these situations far more than I ever might.
“It's real,” I said, letting the words flow as naturally as I could. “Hiding doesn't work either. Been there, done that. Lucca . . .” That was the first time I'd ever addressed her personally by her name. “Be thankful you were born to parents who looked upon you as more than a sacrifice to some foolish god. Don't you dare be as weak as the rest of your lot. They wanted you to survive, as Schala wanted for me.”
Soon, she stopped crying and looked up at me. Growing more uncomfortable by the moment, I rose and bid a curt farewell before I was in danger of being thanked.
I kept a close eye on her, doing my best to shield her house from the conquerors' eyes with my magic. I watched her bury her parents in the side yard, talking to herself as if she were talking to them, as if they could still hear her. After that, she spent her days working on the various machines and automata to which she had always had a queer attachment. I watched her without imposing my presence, and whenever she left the house to hunt for food, I made sure her path was clear of undesirables.
One day she was returning to the house, tending to some noxious mechanism with arms and legs that walked pitifully beside her. Why do humans bother creating beings in their likeness that aren't half as capable in anything? Then again, those who believe in God might ask why he created humans.
I edged closer to see why she had stopped in the middle of the path, until I heard a soft crying, the crying of an innocent born new to the pain of existence, the crying of a human infant girl. I watched Lucca creep closer, a mixture of surprise and joy on her face. Something new in me forced me forward – was it curiosity? For a moment, just a fleeting moment, my expression mirrored Luca's as I looked upon this tiny little human lump, with wispy blond hair and features that, though barely making themselves known in this new flesh, were achingly familiar. Something I hadn't felt for a long, long time made me lurch forward, until I caught ahold of myself and scrambled back into my cover. Had Lucca not been so entranced by the infant, she would have turned around.
“Oh my God . . . my God . . . wh--where . . . where did you come from . . . ?” she talked to this bundle with almost the same tone that she sometimes used for that obnoxious automaton. Almost. Her voice was even softer and more . . . well, once I might have said condescending, but now I'm not so sure. In fact, now I'm pretty sure it was one of those more wholesome emotions of which my understanding is so feeble.
I watched as she gently scooped up the infant and walked the rest of the way down the path, careful but obviously excited. “Poor thing, you look almost a year old,” she said in that same tone, “Don't you have any parents? No? Well, I don't either anymore. So I guess that makes us sisters, huh?”
As I edged closer, I saw something around the infant's neck that froze my blood.
Parts of me that I'd forgotten existed began to awaken. My breathing quickened with my heartbeat.
“Oh . . . Hello, Janus,” said Lucca, smiling at me.
I felt my face heating, as I hadn't intended to make myself known, but it was too late to pull back. “Nobody calls me that anymore,” I answered sourly, though most of my tone was only a reflex, a mask. “She's probably hungry,” I added. “You'd better feed her if you don't want her screaming the gods deaf.” Charity
I chose to handle my loss with revenge, hoping it would fill my void rather than create a new one. Lucca dealt with hers in an entirely different manner, which fascinated me. Losing her parents compelled her to seek out other orphans, all far younger than she, and adopt them as her own siblings. This, I suppose, was her way of filling her void, of compensating. Since I was not comfortable with children, I avoided making my presence known when they were up and about.
Lucca named the compelling little infant “Kid”. Her spellbinding lack of imagination is matched only by her technical prowess. Still, none of the other orphans seemed to share my objection, and somehow, I found myself spending as much time with “Kid” as I could without being overly blatant about my interest.
“How do you think the pendant ended up around her neck?” I asked one day, walking through Lucca's front door.
Lucca rolled her eyes at me. “Y'know, It's usually polite to knock, or ask 'May I come in?' before you barge into someone's house. Didn't your mother ever teach you that?”
“My mother was Lavos,” I said.
“Oh. Yyyeah,” Lucca answered after an awkward pause. “Well, I'm going to have to teach you some etiquette. That's my condition, if you want to hang around here. And you have to promise not be here when the children are awake. It's nap time for them. They're good kids, they're asleep because they listen to me when I tell them to go to bed. But if they see you when they wake up . . . they'll be horrified out of their little minds. It'll take hours to calm them--”
“Hey, cool!!” We both turned toward one of the adjacent doorways. Two boys and a girl stood staring directly at me. Their mouths hung open in perfect “O”s. Before either of us could say anything, they bolted right up to me, feeling my cape, looking at my boots, my hair, my ears.
“Are you a magician?” The first boy asked.
“What's your name? Can you fly?” The second boy asked before I had time to answer the first.
“Can you do a trick for us?” asked the girl. “Like, with bunnies?”
“I don't do bunnies,” I answered, though strangely, I found myself racking my brain for ideas.
I could almost see the steam spouting from Lucca's face. “I . . . er . . . um, listen,” she stammered, “That is--he can't--I mean . . . ”
I wrapped my cloak around me, becoming part of the shadows and watching as their small, round faces watched with astonishment. I floated behind them, taking a few moments, then melted back into the light. “Boo,” I said dryly. They turned, smiling and making sounds of delight.
“Do another, mister!” The first boy said.
“No, he's done enough. You're supposed to be napping!” Lucca answered, ushering them back inside. I watched, admittedly curious, as they waved goodnight to me. When Lucca came back, she cleared her throat. “Anyway . . . right, the pendant. I don't know. But her face . . . have you noticed? She's just a baby, but there's something about her . . . ”
“There is, indeed,” I said. “I'd like to look at her again.”
“You've looked at her almost every day since she came to me. Maybe . . . maybe it's time I actually introduced you?”
I remember the man called Cyrus. I killed him because he stood in my way, and since then, I've asked myself every so often -- was it his fate to die, or my free will to murder him? I fell backward in time and, disguised as a prophet, encountered myself as a child. Had I killed the child, would I cease to exist, and thus, cease to become the person who returned to commit the murder? Will our universe one day end, collapsing back in on itself, and then expand again, only to repeat everything, every life, every event, exactly as it happened before? In that case, those we hate who elude us will elude us always, and those we love who suffer will suffer forevermore. There is much I do not understand, but somehow, after I met this Lucca and her companions, part of me began to rage against fate. That part of me has grown since.
I turned the cat back into a spider, letting them see the transfiguration slowly and carefully. The four children moaned in awe. Kid, in Lucca's arms, screamed in infantile delight. Two pairs of clapping hands surprised me from behind, and I turned to the door.
"Awright, way to go," said Chrono, smiling as he clapped louder. Princess Nadia, clapping with him, shared his expression. "You should do birthday parties full-time," she said. I must confess, the past few years had turned them from a pair of adolescent brats into a very healthy looking married couple.
"Full time?" I asked, unfamiliar with the term, wondering how performing for little urchins like these could possibly affect the timeline. I glanced at Lucca, who's face was a bit heavier than normal. Chrono and the princess sat down across from Lucca, who cleared her throat and pulled a slip of paper from one of her dozens of pockets. "Yeah, well, speaking of that . . . that's what I wanted to talk to you guys about. I visited Robo’s era yesterday . . . it was the first time I’d been there since . . . you know. Take a look at this."
Seeks designers, engineers, construction workers. 5-10 years experience designing and/or building machinery required, as well as outstanding mathematical skills. Excellent benefits. Inquiries go to Belthasar at line 42331-7099. Sorry, relocation assistance is not offered and local residents (2398 A.D.) are preferred.
“Alright, Lucca!” the princess cheered. “You know you’ve practically got the job! So why do you look so depressed?”
“You just answered your own question,” said Lucca, chewing on a writing implement. “As I said, I went there yesterday for the first time since we were all together. Things were…they…well, they just weren’t the same. Not even Robo, though he at least seemed to remember me. It’s like…the future that we all fought to protect, with Doan and his crew all strengthened from their struggle…it doesn’t exist anymore. We gave them hope when we visited them, but now . . . I don’t know. I think we took away that hope by taking away their struggle. By protecting their timeline, by defeating Lavos, I…I think we destroyed it.”
I was none too surprised, though it took a moment of silence and contemplation for everyone else at the table to grasp her words.
“Well, duh,” said Chrono, putting a hand on his forehead. “It’s not like we shouldn’t have seen that coming, I guess. It’s kinda weird, but if you think about it, we also destroyed a shade of ourselves. There’s gotta be plenty of memories we just don’t have anymore. Oh, hey, did I already talk about this?”
Lucca swatted playfully at Chrono, smirking for a moment, then re-burdening her expression. “It’s just…I feel like there’s still something wrong. Maybe worse than before. Maybe something we caused. For one thing, does anyone have any new thoughts about what happened to . . . ?” she looked at me as she trailed off, as did the others. Their sensitive bleeding-heart expressions annoyed me, but somehow, I found strength in them as well.
“She is alive, somewhere dark,” I said, thinking of the dreams I still had, the clues they left me. “All I have been able to discern is that time has no meaning for her, wherever she is. She…may not recognize me, what I’ve become. But don’t waste pity on me. If you wish to help, focus on the solution.”
“I’ve got it!” Lucca cried, slamming the table with her fists. Some of the heaviness was gone from her expression. Chrono and Princess Nadia jumped as one, in their utterly cute fashion. “Sorry, um…but listen. Jan—er, Magus can come and work with me on the Chronopolis. From what I’ve heard about it, when it’s finished it’s supposed to do all kinds of things that even the Epoch can’t do. We should be able to use it to locate Schala. Now, there’s only one problem left. I’m going to need a babysitter—oh wait! I’ve got that solved, too.” She smiled broadly at Chrono and Nadia, who looked behind them in confusion that I knew was false, then slowly turned back. “Come on, guys, it’ll be great practice for you!”
Just then, a cacophony of shouting and scuffling came from one of the adjacent rooms.
“Oh, dear,” said Lucca, rising and running to the noise. We all rose and followed, and I prepared some of my attack magic. At the scene, we found two large humanoid machines with eccentric-looking gloves on their fists, engaged in some form of bizarre combat
“You can’t divide by zero. How stupid are you? We all know that’s fundamentally true,” said the robot in red gloves. The word ‘Gato’ was engraved on his left arm. ‘Gato’ punched the other robot fiercely in the midsection.
The other robot, wearing blue gloves, regained its balance and took a swing at Gato’s head unit. “Of course you can! All it means is you don’t divide by anything. So don’t call me stupid, you algorithmic turkey!”
“Oooh, I’ll teach you to something about algorithms, you derelict dot matrix—“
“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!”
“Hey!” Lucca shouted. “Gato, Kilroy, stop it NOW! Is this how you show me that you’re mature enough for me to let your programs run continuously?!”
“Apologies, Madam,” they answered in unison, turning toward us with identical, mechanical motions.
Gato, the red-gloved automaton, seemed to scan me with its eyes. “Hey, it’ll be a long night, wanna fight?” It asked me in a cheerful tone that I found rather haughty and condescending. I unleashed a bolt of lightning into its torso and watched it blow apart. The head fell to the floor and bounced once, then rolled and came to rest. The eyes were still alight.
Everyone was looking at me, with expressions ranging from shock to extreme annoyance. “It challenged me. I defeated it. What is wrong?” I asked.
Suddenly, the decapitated head began to speak. I hadn’t seen such sorcery in some time. “You’re an enthusiastic fellow. Fifteen…silver…points…”
As hard to impress as I am, I am forced to admit The Chronopolis was a magnificent undertaking. Scores, if not hundreds of engineers were on the job, many under the direction of Lucca herself, and because of this, progress came rapidly. I contributed what I could, though my talents extend far more to nature than artificial concoctions. Several times my ineptitude with machinery was proven when I set a console on fire, or neglected to “ground” myself before touching “sensitive equipment”, and as a result passed a veritable lightning storm through the entire main system.
Kid was growing almost as rapidly as the Chronopolis, resembling her more and more. Her still-primitive speech facilities did not enable her to pronounce my name; instead, she came up with her own way of identifying me – “Gil”. I had no idea where she derived that from, but I had little patience for probing the minds of infants. Still, I became increasingly haunted by her familiar features, and thus, more anxious for the Chronopolis to reach completion.
At last came the eve before its ‘grand opening’. “Hey, um…” Lucca mumbled as I followed her back to her house. “I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out, but…your ears…”
I grunted in a questioning tone, resisting the momentary urge to feel them.
“They’re not so pointy anymore. They’re starting to look the way they looked when you were little. And your teeth…well, you know.”
Embarrassed, I pulled my hood up. Returning to the company of humans had apparently worked its way into my psyche, re-shaping my powers to counter the mystics’ effect on my appearance. Though I knew I was human once more, it would take me some time to admit this. “All the worse to eat you with,” I answered. My attempt at humor came out awkward and stilted, and Lucca’s silent frown discouraged me from trying again.
Princess Nadia opened the door quickly just as Lucca began turning the key. Her hair was loose all across her face, and she was wearing Chrono’s shirt. “Hey, Lucca, Magus! Um . . . the kids are all napping. Yeah.”
“Who is it?” Chrono’s sleepy voice asked, as he appeared behind Nadia, wearing clothing that belonged to her. “Oh, uh, hi, yeah. Come in.”
“Thanks for inviting me into my own house, Chrono. You’re such a gentleman,” answered Lucca, walking inside. I followed, still confused about this strange ritual of wardrobe.
“Hey, don’t worry, they were really well behaved,” said Chrono. “Especially Kid, she’s a two-year-old lady. She even got into her PJs by herself and curtsied before we tucked her in. Right, Marle?”
“MM-hmm,” said Nadia, wrapping her arms around Chrono, who returned the embrace. This looked quite awkward in their mismatched attire. “I hope we have a little lady of our own like that some day, mmm?”
“Eh, we just might have one already,” answered Chrono with a wink.
“Come on, guys,” Lucca’s annoyance was clearly growing by the moment. “We have a big day tomorrow.” Her expression changed, some of the annoyance giving way to excitement. “.Jeremiah’s the oldest, he can watch the other children. There’s no way I’m opening the Chronopolis without my two best friends at my side!”
“As if we’d letcha? Hey, Marle, how about another honeymoon? We’ll be able to go anywhere in that thing, I’m betting. Even somewhere prehistoric if we--”
“Noo thank you!” the princess cut him off. Looking back at his suggestion after everything that happened, the irony was unsettling. “A honeymoon is fine, sweety, but I pick the place this time.”
“And I suppose you didn’t pick when I chased after you all the way to the middle ages?”
“What?! You know that was an accid—“
Lucca cleared her throat, cutting them both off. “Maybe I’ll go on vacation myself while you two fight over where to send me. That might just be simpler.” The more I listened to them, the more alone I felt, and the more I wondered if I might have been closer to them in another time, another place, another life.
Later that night as I was heading for the door, hoping nobody would notice me in time to bid me good night, I came across Kid. She was standing rather still, as if she were waiting for someone to tell her what to do. I stood silently for a moment, watching her watch me. I wondered, as I had many times before, where she came from, where she was headed in this world, why she was here, why she wore Schala’s features so exactly. It was almost as if…no, I wouldn’t believe it. “Do you recognize me at all?” I heard myself whisper.
“Gillll,” the child-Schala said through a broad, oblivious smile.
I felt foolish. “Ah…well. Why are you walking around? This is no hour for children.”
“I ad o bad dweam,” she said.
“Well, if you’re anything like me, you will get used to them. Go back to bed.”
“I don wan nu go back by myself.”
I hesitated, then I let her take my hand and lead me back to her bedroom. With me standing next to her, she tucked herself back under her sheets and yawned peacefully. I turned to go. “Gill,” she called.
“Tell me a stowy.”
Slowly, I turned back and walked beside her. I knelt, studying her face, wondering if this had truly been Schala at her infancy. After a few long moments, I cleared my throat. “Once upon a time, there was a girl very much like you. This girl lived in a wondrous kingdom called Zeal, a kingdom that floated in the sky with the birds. And she was a princess…”
“A pwincess! I’m a pwincess!”
I felt a trace of longing, followed by sorrow. “That you are. This girl… she was the gentlest creature ever to live. Her heart was so big that even the meanest, most terrible people were kind to her. Only two people hated her – a beast named Dalton, and her pathetic wretch of a mother…” I paused, wondering if I should be filling such an innocent head with such negative thoughts. “But we won’t talk about them. We will just talk about the girl, okay?”
Kid moaned contentedly, holding a stuffed bear over her face.
“Her name was Schala, and she had a baby brother named Janus, who she played with all the time. Only they could truly understand each other. Janus and Schala had three godfathers -- three very special men with very special powers. Their names were Gaspar, Belthasar and Melchior. They--”
I stopped at the sound of Kid’s quiet snoring. I waited a few more minutes, watching her sleep, remembering Schala when she came to my room to calm me down after my own nightmares, sleeping just like that. Finally, I stood quietly and walked out.
On my way to the front door, I caught pieces of an intense conversation between Chrono and Lucca. Unable to help my curiosity, I rode the shadows until I was near enough to hear what they were saying.
“Why are you talking about this now?” Lucca’s voice. “Of course I would take care of Marle, but . . . but . . .Chrono, what’s wrong? Oh, don’t tell me you still don’t have faith in my inventions! Besides, I didn’t build the whole thing…”
“It’s not that. It’s… I dunno,” Chrono answered in a tired, drained voice. “It’s just, ever since the time you guys say you saved me, I haven’t felt right. I’ve felt almost like a ghost, or an empty shell, or just someone who doesn’t belong anymore. It’s hard to explain, I know.”
“No… I think I understand… Chrono, when people brush with death, strange things happen to them. There are accounts all throughout history of people feeling what you’re feeling.”
“No, it’s not like what I’m feeling. Trust me, Luke, this is different. My life didn’t flash before my eyes . . . well, it did, kinda, but I think it was something deeper than what you’re thinking of. I just have this feeling… I think something’s going to happen tomorrow with that Chronopolis. And I think… I think I may not survive. I may end up dead, like I’m supposed to be.”
“Stop that, Chrono! Stop talking like that!”
“Shhh, quiet, Luke, you’ll wake the little guys up…”
The conversation stopped. A quiet, barely audible sobbing soon took its place. I thought to make haste, almost terrified that, were I discovered, I would be asked for advice of some sort. So I parted from my hiding place and continued on my way out, but just then, Lucca came out of the room and crossed directly into my path. “Oh…um, were you listening?”
“I don’t know what to tell you.” Then, as I studied her expression, I felt like I understood more about humans than I ever had before that moment. “You…you have feelings for him, don’t you? Despite his marriage to Princess Nadia?”
Slowly, Lucca nodded.
“Then you’d best keep an eye him when danger comes, and if all else fails, honor him however you can,” I said, before my legs carried me out of the house.
What transpired after that evening is not for me to tell; the story of the “Time Crash” and events surrounding it are for more worthy voices, voices closer to the victims than my own. I will mention only that which is plain truth by now – that Chrono’s intuition about his fate was neither random, nor inconsequential.
Years later, I visited his grave, located in his mother’s old yard, with Kid, Lucca and Princess Nadia. Kid wore a small black dress and acted like a lady thrice her age, while Lucca wore her usual attire and carried a bushel of roses.
“Might I hold them?” asked Kid, stretching her arm out without waiting for an answer.
Lucca smiled sadly. “Uh-uh. Last time you crushed them, remember?” I found it astounding how she retained the cheerful edge to her voice, considering all that had happened to those she had loved.
“But sis, I know how to hold them right now!”
“No, you don’t. You’re a lady in every way except your touch, Kiddo. And that ‘touch’ is only getting worse. Aunt Marle will have to give you lessons,…though, on second thought…”
The princess remained silent, as she had been all throughout the day. Her pendant, much like Kid’s and Schala’s, circled her neck with a protective will of its own. “He’s not really gone, he’s right here. Silly,” she sometimes said about Chrono, grasping the pendant, not addressing anyone in particular. But that was all she would say about him. “He’s right here, silly…right here…”
Lucca carefully lowered the flowers by Chrono’s tombstone. I habitually, silently, read the engraving, “Here lies Chrono. For a time, he conquered his own fate, but alas, everything comes full circle.”
“When I first met him,” said Lucca, “he’d wandered into our yard and picked up one of my favorite toy robots, and started playing with it. It was a bit glitchy, and he must have stuck his finger in a bad spot or something. His hair shot up all over the place, I don’t think it was ever the same afterward. Smoke started coming out of his ears. ‘Did I die?’, he asked me. And I told him, ‘I don’t know’, because we were both too little to really know what it meant.”
The princess chuckled slightly, the first sound she’d made all day. “The first time I met him, we knocked into each other so hard that I really was swept off my feet. I told him I didn’t know the place well, and he graciously offered to escort me around. We had fun pretending he was kidnapping me, until some of the court got the wrong idea. He was the softest boy I’d ever met – I watched him bring a little girl’s cat back to her. He was always bringing home strays and taking care of them. It drove his mother crazy.”
“Indeed. Even Alfador took to him, somehow,” I said. I was lost as to what else I could, or should offer in the way of eulogy. Finally, I added “I have little right to be here. I hardly knew him as well as the rest of you. But I do know that he was a worthy opponent, and a worthier ally.”
Kid knelt by the tombstone and lowered her head. “I don’t remember you too well, uncle Chrono. But I know you were a good man because my big sis and Gil and Aunt Marle say so. I hope you sleeping well and don’t have too many bad dreams.”
Lucca put a hand on the back of Kid’s head. “The term is ‘rest in peace’, Kiddo. Now let’s all say it together.”
“Rest in peace,” we spoke in unison. As we parted, my loneliness was hardly new. But for the first time, though I was loath to admit it, came a new reason behind the feeling: I knew no such people would stand over my grave, or say such things, in such voices. I knew that many would walk over it, but few would look down.
Masamune No More [II]
When Lucca disappeared, I kept two promises I had agreed to uphold, should anything happen to her. The first was to watch over Kid, which I was better able to perform from a distance, without her knowledge. She had always been a self sufficient girl, and often I felt my continuous presence would stunt her development rather than aid it. Thus, I watched her from afar, keeping her out of trouble when her increasingly unpredictable personality led her into tavern brawls, dangerous thrills or being chased by the local watch. This confused me, as I knew Schala had always been quiet, unassuming and obedient to a fault.
Perhaps Kid’s transformation was a result of what happened to Lucca, or perhaps individual humans have more free will than I’d previously thought. The influence of environment in shaping one’s soul became all too clear as I compared Schala and Kid. At one point, I wondered what I might have become, had Lavos not ruined my life. A scholar of Enhasa? A priest, dare I speculate?
The second promise I made more grudgingly, though I knew that my own annoying conscience might have demanded it in the future, if Lucca hadn't. This involved using the remnants of Lucca’s technology to travel back to the period that made me what I am today, and “make my peace” with Glenn, who she had continued to visit on semi-regular occasions. I had wanted to argue that there was no peace to be made, certainly none belonging to me, but my tongue somehow betrayed me. I was trapped by an unfortunate weakness to carry out even this wish.
I contemplated looking for Ozzie, until I heard news that his fortress had collapsed, and that he had been arrested by Guardian authorities for a host of crimes: laundering, embezzlement, attempted extortion, invading private homes by sliding down chimneys, attempted kidnapping, and public intoxication. I shook my head, wondering that such a buffoon had ever managed to consider himself my guardian. Flea, I had heard, joined a traveling carnival and Slash had fled to a remote archipelago to offer his services as a mercenary.
As planned, I met him on a hill that overlooked the castle just before the woods. His back faced me, and he rested the Masamune on its tip. I could see the sword's aura already beginning to lose its positive glow. His hair was green as the skin of his former amphibian identity, a leftover signature of my magic.
“'Tis thou,” he said without turning. I was surprised, since few are capable of detecting my approach before I choose to announce myself.
“Drop the olde worlde. You may fool your old acquaintances with it, but I'm not half so naïve.
He turned toward me slowly. His face, for the first time, reminded me of my own. “As you wish. So then. Why are you here?”
Speaking at that moment exercised my will greater than controlling the Black Wind. “I . . . don't usually apologize for actions against an enemy in combat. But you and your friend . . . deserved a fairer chance.”
“My 'friend' has a name. Cyrus.” He spat. “And no thanks to you, he rests more peacefully than you ever will.”
“How true,” I answered, “But it seems you have more issues with 'peace' than I. Or don't you remember your own words? That vanquishing me won't bring him back?”
“Never question my memory of you trampling my life,” said Glenn. “I know you went through your own pain. But what right does that give you to inflict it on others?” As he spoke, his voice grew louder, and the Masamune flashed ominously. “I suppose all I have left to ask is 'Why'?”
“I . . . ” I almost felt the shame he wanted me to feel, almost made the weak excuse, but a sudden surge of anger stopped me. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. This man, one of the three who had bested me in fair combat, was actually crying. One who cried over something so old and far behind could only be a weakling. “You were in my way. What happened was unfortunate, but your dear Cyrus did make the first move. The strong crush the weak. That's how this world works. If you haven't accepted that by now, I've got nothing more to say.”
With that, I walked away before I could do further damage, as my anger was neither cooling nor abating. Only a moment passed before a hateful scream cut through the afternoon air, ripping toward me. I whipped around, just as Glenn came rushing at me, leaping forward and swinging the Masamune in a straight vertical arc, as if to cut me down the middle. Quickly, I brought my hands together and caught the Masamune by the flat of the blade.
The naked fury and resentment that passed between us scared even myself, and I still don't know how I managed to break my grip and turn back around, nor did I know why I was so certain that he wouldn't attack again. Retreat, in this case, was thus both one of my bravest and one of my most cowardly deeds. I did not look back; I felt his eyes burning through me, felt the heat of the Masamune feeding on his negative emotions that would only spiral further downward.
When I knew that I was out of range, that it was too late, I turned back for a moment. I wanted to destroy something, anything, even myself, especially myself. But that would break my first promise to Lucca. Damn that Frog, and his fool Cyrus, for being so weak, falling so easily.
I continued on my way, feeling heavier than I'd felt in a long time. Along with clearing my conscience, I had hoped to stave off the growing darkness within the Masamune. Instead, I made it come to pass. Once more, I was reminded how opposite my nature was to Schala's: she brought life to those who had so very little, I brought death to those who strove for so very much. Forgive me, Lucca, Schala. Forgive me, for the reaper is only a step behind me.
I once stated that nothing could prepare me for witnessing the destruction of my own kingdom from the outside, moments after the point in time when, as a boy, I was transported over twelve thousand years into the future. By the same token, nothing will ever prepare me for returning to the remnants of that destruction, and certainly, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
I walked along the last remaining village, which was slowly becoming a small city. It didn't take me long to chance across one of the old palace maids, most likely the only one who had survived Zeal's collapse. I stepped in front of her, wasting no time with dramatic reunion protocols. “Where is she?” I demanded.
The woman, now approaching middle age, took several lingering moments before her face went as pale as the surrounding snow with recognition. “J--Janus? Oh . . . oh my goodness . . . ”
I stepped closer, standing to my full height. “Where. Is. She.”
“Wh . . . who . . . .?”
“Take a good look around. If that fails to clue you in, so will anything I tell you.”
The woman took a long time to process my words, still transfixed at my return, but her face eventually grew heavy with understanding. “Ahh. Keep going for a few more houses, then turn left. You can't miss the place. You'll see it when you come to it.”
I found the shelter as easily as promised. Ironically, it was the darkest, most dilapidated structure in this primitive shadow of our old kingdom. I watched a young man, most likely her delivery boy, make a hasty exit. I scowled at him, and he doubled his pace. Too many fools like this believe themselves noble and charitable, not questioning the past of the old, decrepit people they serve.
I threw the door open. Two more of her caretakers moved to stop me until I showed them some fire. She was lying in a crude bed, and in the lantern light, she looked so old and pathetic, like a sad old dog that was tired from the air it breathed, that my heart almost went out to her. Almost.
I moved in close, deliberately blocking her light. “I'm glad to see you alive and miserable. Death would have been too kind.”
“Dalton . . .” the old crone mumbled, her voice a collection of tired scrapes. “Is that you? I think you may not be . . . right for the job. I made a mistake. You . . . you aren't . . . aide material. I'm very sorry, Dalton . . .”
My jaw dropped. Of course. Had I really expected her to recover any crumb of sanity after becoming Lavos's little finger? Her many years in this life would have been enough to erode her mental structure. “Well, I'm afraid you're just not mother material. Are you, mother?”
“Don't . . . tell me how to raise my child, Melchior,” she croaked. “Lavos will be her future. She will rule a great kingdom, with a greater power than I ever--”
“YOU HAVE TWO CHILDREN!!” I bellowed, no longer able to restrain myself. “AND YOU DESTROYED THEM BOTH!!”
I removed my amulet, dangling it before her milky eyes, letting it break through the psychological walls behind which she was hiding. I knelt down close to her face, though it disgusted me. Her nose was a collage of boils, warts and pimples, all of various sizes. “Remember this?! It belonged to your daughter. She gave it to your son, before you threw them both to the four winds! And then, when he came back, you tried to murder him, but he was too smart for an old wretch like you! And now, here he stands! Tell me, dear mother, would you like to try again? What will you do this time, obliterate the planet itself? Knowing you, you would survive yet again, maybe migrate to another world and destroy that, too. Maybe you really are Lavos! Or maybe you two just had so much in common, your union was a match made in the heavens!”
I watched her quivering face, so sad, so vulnerable. My anger was released, and I began to cool. Perhaps for the first time ever, I saw her as a victim. It was not merely my memory of Schala telling me not to hate our mother, it was my own pity. Perhaps even my own sympathy, my realization that I was not entirely unlike Schala. Not in every respect.
“J. . . Jan . . . Janus . . .” she finally whispered.
“Glad you remembered my name,” I answered bitterly. “I thought perhaps Lavos named me, and you would lose all memory of me with its destruction.”
“Lavos . . . controlled my actions, my words, but not . . . not . . . oh . . . it was awful, Janus. To watch, to remain conscious, as . . . as some evil spirit uses you for its toy . . . speaks with your mouth, gestures with your arms, kills with your power . . . even raises your own children . . .”
For the next few minutes we were both silent, as I realized that before me, between myself and this old woman, remained the last connection to yet another treasure that Lavos had stolen from me. A normal family relationship. “Mother . . . I helped destroy Lavos. I did.” For that moment, speaking those words, I was a boy once more.
“No . . . no, Janus . . . I am proud, my boy, of your efforts . . . but no . . . I felt his thoughts, as they slipped away from me . . . Lavos still lives, somewhere, somewhen. He . . . he is become . . . the time devourer. And your sister . . . has become part of him. Find him . . . and you will find her.”
Part of me never believed it, despite my dreams, until the moment I saw her again. I had followed 'Kid' to a remote island beach, though I knew she was many steps ahead of me.
At first I thought I'd caught up with her, watching her from behind as she walked along the shoreline. I wondered why she walked so dazedly, so delicately, why her hair was down and loose. “I found you,” I called out. “Who have you been terror--”
As she turned, the maturity of her features confused me, the truth not yet having clicked so neatly into place. “Janus?” she asked, her voice too soft, too uncertain. I frowned. Kid had never once called me my birthname. “Janus . . . you're so tall.”
Truth felt like a very pleasant blow to the stomach. I heard myself gasp, and the next I remember, she was in my arms, or more accurately, I was in hers, a small boy once more. My cheeks were wet, as were hers. The first words she'd said to me in decades echoed in my mind, over and over.
“Janus . . . you're so tall.”
We stood there for what seemed like hours, trying desperately to fill in all the missing years, though it was me who did most of the talking. “I'm sorry,” I kept telling her. “I'm sorry . . .” Sorry for not being her, for gaining my strength through misery and suffering and darkness, for not living up to her wishes. But she would only answer “Oh, stop that, Janus. If I've learned anything by living as part of that beast, it's that I'm not always as snow white as I believed. There were times when I, too, wanted to destroy . . . times when I understood our mother, even at her darkest.”
“Speaking of mother,” I said, “It's not so easy for me to travel back anymore. Our friend Lucca has been missing for years. If we combined our powers . . . do you think we could . . .”
“Go home,” we said together.
Mother had not long to live. She might have struggled longer if her needs had continued to go unfulfilled, but when her eyes met Schala's, a brightness returned to both of their faces, infecting me as well. I saw, then, that our mother had saved her last hour on this planet for something special. Still, I doubt even she expected this.
The three of us – Schala, mother, myself – held hands, for the first time, taking what Lavos had denied us all our lives. “This is our hour,” said mother.
“This is our hour,” Schala repeated.
“This is our hour,” I followed.
All of us said it together, “This is our hour.”
author's note: This project took me three years of random inspirational spurts to complete. As you can hopefully see, it was quite a labor of love. Telling the story of Janus/Magus/Magil/Gil was easily as fulfilling as some of my original works, if not more so. Unfortunately, fan fiction hardly advances one's career as a writer, and thus, since I'm hard pressed to survive in the real world, this will most likely be my last. I'm happy to say that within the last year, I've become a published author, and now it's not only my deepest ambition to advance my career from small press to pro, it's my obligation. So who knows, maybe one day you'll see me on the shelves of your local B