Part 1 Ė Janus
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 shoulder.
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 motherís stone features, darting past her as she acknowledge me with a slight tilt of her painted chin and rushing into Schalaís 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. "Youíll 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 girlsí 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 sisterís 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 Ė how it sounded to my primitive imagination. The black wind.
The howl of the black wind was almost a lullaby in Schalaís 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 motherís 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.
"Donít 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. "Youíll get sick, too. I donít 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 Schalaís 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 dreamís 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 motherís ambition.
"Why do you keep doing this? Youíre wasting your time. It wonít 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 whoís 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 Ö ruins, in ways. MotherÖ"
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.
"Iíve 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 donít 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 couldnít 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 otherís 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 sisterís 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! Youíreó"
"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, IóI think Iíd 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. "Iím sorry, sir. My brother meant no insultó"
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 Schalaís 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 donít have to be a Queen if you donít 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. "IÖI didnít meanÖ"
"Sadly, that isnít how things work for us." She answered with a sigh, thankfully only seeing the innocence my question intended. "At least, not for me. Iím the eldest, I have to assume responsibility once motherís 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 Schalaís 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 Schalaís 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 crowís 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.
"Youíre 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 WindÖ"
"Yes, youíre right . . . I feel it too. IÖ" Her eyes, distant for only another moment, crystallized with purpose as they found mine. "Here, IÖI 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 canít take that! Itís your--!"
"Listen to me. You know I feel the same things you do when somethingís about to happen. Thereís something . . . well . . . wrong. I donít know how to explain it, but I want you to promise me youíll never take this off. I can protect myself. Most of your powers havenít developed yet. Mother is going to need my helpÖ"
"sheís not our mother! Sheís changed since you remember well of her. Wonít you ever realize that?" Alfadorís hair stood straight as he walked in nervous circles, brushing against my legs.
"I know . . . but IÖ"
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.
My Last Memories of Home
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.
"Iíll 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 Machineís power, I could not help myself. "Hmph. Idiots." I said through a light laugh.
"We have to free them, Janus. Youíve always known something is wrong with mother, right? These people, these . . . strangers, they can help us."
I snorted. "Itís useless. Besides, youíll get in trouble if they escape."
"And if they donít, 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 Schalaís 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 prisonersí 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 musnít!" 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 sisterís 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. Iíll 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 canítÖ you canít make meÖ!" 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 motherís 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 Schalaís 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 Schalaís 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 Daltonís 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-eyeís fist. The last stars I saw were yellow, fleeting, over the black abyss of my awareness.
I woke to the harshness of Alfadorís 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 sisterís name. I screamed my sisterís name. I screamed my sisterís 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-dwellerís 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.
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