The Persistence of Memory
Deborah J. Brown
A Wild Arms III Alternate Universe story: Wild Arms III is copyrighted to RPG Dreamers and Sony.
Chapter 8: Between the Devil and the Deep Gold Sands
She grabbed him around the neck, embracing him, holding on tightly, forgetting herself in her relief at seeing him alive and well. For a brief second he hesitated, then his arms wrapped around her and he buried his face in her hair for a moment before pulling away. "Hey there, Ginny m'love. I'm glad to see you too, but don't you think you're getting a bit carried away?" His hands released her and gently pushed her away.
It startled her a bit. He'd never refused any affection she offered him so firmly. If anything, he'd always seemed pleased to accept it. She blinked up at him and wondered if she were being tricked. That other Janus had looked entirely too much like the one with whom she'd traveled. What if this was him? Only two things made her sure that it wasn't. His speech patterns, so very different from that other Janus' and her Guardians' silence. Still, "How did you find us?" she asked as her companions left the fire to join them.
Laughter crinkled his eyes and echoed in the darkness of the hills around them. "Ginny, m'love. That's not a very good test, you know. He ought to know we're linked."
She sighed. "I suppose so." A quick glance at the others, asking for help and Gallows whispered in her ear. She blinked at him, not sure if Janus was going to appreciate being embarrassed like that, but still asked, "All right. What happened to you just before we met?" She was reasonably sure the other Janus couldn't know about that.
He winced and muttered the answer. At her request for a repeat, he snapped, "I was turned into a pincushion by a quiller," he grumbled and it both amused and relieved her to note the annoyance in his tone. "You just had to choose that?" he asked, glaring at Gallows.
"Hey, it works," the Baskar answered, shrugging. "C'mon. Why don't you tell us what happened? You okay?"
"As okay as I'm going to be for a bit," Janus answered quietly. "Frankly, what I need is a bottle of Baskar wine after that bit of fun and games."
Regretfully, Virginia sighed. "You'll have to make do with beer Oh!" He drew out a bottle of the wine that she remembered with a certain fondness. "Now that's what I like about you, Janus. You think ahead."
Janus left the campsite quietly, the bag he was carrying clinking only slightly as he moved. His companions didn't move, all four snoring in their bedding as if they'd been drugged. Nothing quite like Baskar wine to give you a good night's sleep. Especially Baskar wine with a touch of sleeping powder. "Sorry, love," he whispered. "I don't have any good choices again."
Somewhere, only too close, his twin waited and he had very little time in which to act. He was glad he'd convinced the other Janus that it wouldn't be safe to bring Talyn too close, since the young dragon's mother might sense him. Admittedly, Lombardia was apparently still recovering from her injuries, far away from Virginia's campsite, but his twin didn't have to know that. Talyn hadn't argued either, suggesting he wasn't too pleased with being a slave. Otherwise he would have reminded that other Janus that he could sense Lombardia as well.
All of which gave Janus time to do what he had to do. He looked up at the moon, just past full and not yet bright enough to make the landscape clear, then set the bag on the ground and sat down with it. Twelve rectangular tablets, made of a stony material he couldn't identify, with Baskar symbols that he didn't understand.
Fortunately, he didn't need to. "I know you can hear me," he said quietly. "I want to make a deal." There was no answer, but he could feel their attention on him. "I think you know that other me is going to cause trouble. That he's going to be a danger to everyone. That you know who he is. Help me get rid of him."
An image flickered. A wolf, huge and slavering, formed in front of him. :Of all of us: the beast said, voice echoing inside his head:You and I are the closest kin. You are not human, not of Filgaia except in the most basic of senses. But you are filled with desire. Your passions burn within you, until they seem ready to burn the very life out of your flesh.: Lucied, guardian of Desire, stalked closer. :You know what you ask? No mortal has ever held the power of all twelve of us. No mortal can.:
"My demon form?"
:Is not compatible.: Ruby eyes gazed into Janus', intent and familiar. He knew that gaze. Had seen much the same in the mirror. Raging, angry and needy, the eyes of someone who would not let go. :If you face him, carrying all our power within you, you will certainly destroy him. But you will be destroyed as well.:
All his memories were of lies and double dealing. Yet in this, Janus sensed, he could not do anything but speak the truth. "If that's what it takes. I don't want to die. I'm terrified of dying. I admit that. But I will, if it makes her safe." There, he'd said it. Admitted what he could not admit to her face. "Give me your power. All the power you have. And I'll turn it on that bastard. Send him back to where he came from."
A long moment of silence. Lucied eyed him, then seemed to be communing with its fellows. Slowly it spoke. :You will only have one blow with which to strike. One blow with which to destroy him. Choose your moment wisely.:
Janus picked up the Mediums and, very carefully, stored them away in the bag. "Believe me. I intend to."
"Intend to do what?"
Virginia gazed at Janus, scared and not even a bit angry. In the moonlight, half shadowed by the nearby rocks, he almost seemed the demon whose form he sometimes wore. "I thought something was wrong when you didn't drink as much as I did." She started forward, then stopped as he raised his Dark Spear. "Why are you doing this?"
For a moment he was silent, gazing at her. It was impossible to see his eyes, impossible to read his expression. Impossible to tell what he was thinking. Then he shrugged, swinging the Dark Spear up to his shoulder, hand on hip in that old insouciant way of his. "Well now, Ginny. I should have thought that was obvious. What I always do. Betrayal. And I'm so very good at it."
It hurt. To pretend otherwise was impossible. She wanted to protest, to stop him before he said another word, but Janus was stubbornly continuing. "Come on, Princess. You know who I am. You know what I am. I can't do right. It was stupid of you to think I could." He turned, scorn in his voice. "That's the trouble with you, Princess. You're too damned naïve. Even now I bet you're thinking I'm just trying to keep you out of it. That I'm trying to protect you."
"Well think again. That other me? He's promised me a whole lot of power if I help him." He was silent a moment. "Not that I believe him, but he thinks I do. Thinks I'm so desperate for what crumbs he's pleased to give me that I'll do anything for him. It's the perfect opportunity to turn the tables on him and take it all back for myself. Every last memory and all that power that he's walking around with."
There was another long silence. Virginia simply didn't know what to say. Tears were burning in her eyes and her chest felt hollow and cold. Around them, a chill wind blew, tossing dust into the air and whistling mournfully amid the rocks. "I won't let you," she said finally. "I won't let you do this."
"What are you going to do to stop me? You don't have a Medium anymore. Just your own skill with ARMs and your innocence and your justice. You think that's enough?" His voice held no emotion, as cold and unfeeling as the rocks that surrounded them. "Don't make me laugh."
She drew her ARMs, the pistols rising into position. "If that's the only I way I can convince you," she said quietly. "All right."
"Ya took fah too long."
Janus shrugged as he climbed up the trail to the spot where his twin waited with Talyn. "It's a long walk n' I had t'stop off fer some supplies on the way," he explained, eyeing the other man cautiously. "But I did whatcha wanted. Had a bit of an argument t'get 'em, so I hope you appreciate th' effort." He held up the bag holding the mediums. "Like I said. Mission accomplished."
An expression of satisfaction crossed the other Janus' face. "Throw them into the sea." As Janus stepped a bit closer, the man moved backwards and gestured towards the edge of the cliff. "Now."
"Doncha want to see them? Y'really trust me that much?"
The other Janus growled a curse. "Keep back. I do not need to see them to feel the Guardians power on them. Throw them into the sea or I will have Talyn throw you along with that bag."
Glancing around the landscape, at the sandy brown rock with a few, very few, sparse dry plants growing in the shade, Janus shrugged and went to the edge of the cliff nearest to the Sea of Sand below. "Whutevah ya want, boss man."
The bag flew over the edge and disappeared, much to the other Janus' obvious relief. "And now, your reward."
Janus turned and drew his Dark Spear, even as his twin moved at him with the real one. "Yeah, I was sorta of countin' on you to do that." He jumped aside and blocked the strike.
"Indeed," his twin growled. "As Ah knew ya would expect this attack. Yet it is useless fer ya to fight, little copy. Yer mind is not whole. Yer power is not whole and the weapon ya wield is nothin' compared to th' original."
Dodging again, twisting under the blade and kicking his twin in the stomach, Janus grinned wryly. "Yeah? I'll tell ya somethin' else that I don't have that ya do. A farking stupid hick accent." He dropped his own, faked one. "Really. Was it because Dario and Romero talked that way that you thought I did, too? Those idiots probably thought you were making fun of them the way I used to. Didn't they?"
A startled expression crossed Janus' twin's face. "You"
"Comes to that. You were faking it too. Because you are no more Janus Cascade than that oversized lump of metal behind you. Less so than I am, you ignorant bastard. Even a hick knows how to use a goddamn contraction."
His twin stared at him for a moment before coming at him again. "What? You dare." The Dark Spear's tip cut across Janus' arm, thrust forward towards his chest. He flipped quickly out of the way, landing in a crouch at Talyn's feet. Much to his relief, the dragon didn't move - seemingly asleep or disinterested in aiding his master.
Janus considered the other thoughtfully, even as he rolled under the next strike.. "I'll grant you this much," he said softly. "We haven't had anything the way of real interaction, have we? And you don't have my memories to tell you that you were screwing up. Do you, Siegfried?"
Once again the two men moved away from each other. "You are improved in your use of the Dark Spear," Siegfried said, his body flickering with blue light. A moment later he was armored in thick blue metal. Janus could see the man's chin, though, and knew it as he knew his own. Which, since it is my own, I ought to. The body Siegfried wore was the true physical form that had once been his, but overwritten with Siegfried's knowledge and memories. Enlarged upon, too, because he wasn't nearly that tall or muscular. He wondered, briefly, if his own true self was still somewhere beneath all that, but decided that - for the moment - avoiding having his head chopped off was more important.
As Janus ducked the blow, Siegfried laughed. "I should have realized I would be unable to fool the expert in Janus Cascade. I have to wonder, though, that you did not tell your pretty little slut."
It wasn't hard to recognize an effort at distraction, especially of the sort that he was liable to use himself. Janus ignored the comment, slashing once more and wincing as his blade struck metal and rebounded. "Blast it. Should have kept my big mouth shut so you'd stay in my shape. Least then I could cut you."
"It would not matter," Siegfried replied, his weapon slicing past Janus' shoulder, missing by mere inches. "My weapon is the true one. I am older than you. Crueler than you. And far more powerful."
"The difference, though, is that Janus isn't alone."
"Damn it, girl. Why won't you make it easy on me?"
"Because I can't. I won't let you go after him alone. I heard what you said to the Guardians. You'll die. You can't handle the power. Not all of it."
"Better just me, than all of us. And of all of us, who has better right to face him? You know who he really is? Siegfried. Pretending to be me because it gives him a cover story."
"I didn't know. But that doesn't change anything. He has to be stopped and you can't do it by yourself."
"Can't you see I'd do anything to keep you safe?"
"Lock me away in a cage? Clip my wings? Hide me in a hole to never see the sun? We all have to take our risks, Janus. Let me take mine."
"Besides. I have a plan And something much better for when you fight Siegfried than the Mediums."
Virginia stepped onto the mesa from Lombardia's back, her companions behind her. "Sorry to take so long, Janus. Jet had a bit of a problem with all that wine you gave him." While the white haired boy muttered irately, Janus shrugged, expression saying that it was only to be expected. She turned her gaze on Siegfried. "Lombardia's taking back her child. Fight or give up, we're not letting you do anything to this world anymore." As she spoke, the great dragon wrapped her forearms around Talyn and held him tight, carrying him away from the battleground. Virginia hoped that would be enough. She didn't want to hurt the young dragon.
The ancient metal demon laughed. "Foolish child. Even alone, my power is greater than yours. Your Mediums have been stolen away and sent far from your reach. Or had you not yet noticed?"
At her side, the Guardians sent waves of energy into Virginia and, she knew, into the others. She touched the three Mediums she wore, caressing the stones. "Guess again, Siegfried. Janus brought you a set of fakes, given an aura of power by the Guardians. We are still their Chosen and we will still fight you."
Siegfried lowered his head a moment, obviously taken aback. At the same time, Janus put a whiny look on his face. "Now, Ginny, you promised! I get first crack. You're not even supposed to be here unless I'm in trouble."
Some things just didn't change. Virginia gave the man a glare. "Oh sure. You just want to hog all the glory," she grumbled. "Fine. Do it your way." He bowed, grinning, then moved towards Siegfried again.
The two men circled, came at each other, clashed and dodged backwards. Even to Virginia's untrained eye, though, it was clear that Siegfried was the better swordsman. That his armor made him nearly untouchable. That he was winning. Damn it, Janus, cry uncle before I have to interfere.
"Fool. I say again, even with the Dark Spear you could not defeat me." Siegfried obviously recognized his superiority, his tone filled with cold hatred. "Give up, surrender, and perhaps I shall let you, and your little slut, live."
Janus grimaced. "You know, you're not winning any friends with that kind of talk," he said quietly. "Besides, of all the things you could call her, slut is about the furthest from being an accurate description. She can be too innocent to be believed; she can be a constant thorn in the side; she talks in her sleep until you're ready to do anything to stop her from chattering; She's annoying, aggravating and bossy as all hell." He struck, his rage behind the blow, and for the first time cut through the armor. "She's also my Princess and I won't let you call her names. Even when they're completely wrong."
There was a startled gasp. Siegfried apparently hadn't expected Janus to be able to strike home quite so hard. Still, he backed away a bit. "You are still outmatched. Your anger strengthens you, but it also makes you foolish. All I need to do is threaten your Princess and your anger will overwhelm your good sense."
Now that Janus had to agree with. Siegfried was moving at Virginia, rushing her way so quickly that he was on her before anyone could react. He twisted the girl around, blocking Janus' attacks with her body. "Now then, where were we?"
"Janus. Don't let him"
He looked at her, feeling the fool. He'd gone and opened his big mouth, revealed to his enemy his weakest point and had had it immediately attacked. "Hush, Ginny. Don't shed any tears over me. Just keep me in your memory. Okay?" Her expression shifted, sudden understanding at war with the fear in her eyes. He smiled, reassuringly, at her as he set his weapon down slowly, point thrust into the dirt, hilt just within reach. "Let her go, Siegfried. Try to hurt her and you'll pay."
Laughter echoed. "How amusing you are. Of course I will let her go. I can always kill her later." Siegfried raised his weapon, power forming around it an eye blinding darkness. Then he flung it straight for Janus.
Even had he wanted to, Janus couldn't have evaded the weapon. For the third time in his life, the Dark Spear thrust deep into his chest and tried to take everything he was into it. This time, however, it had a fight on its non-existent hands, as deep within him, the Teardrop of Memory began to burn bright.
Even knowing what was happening, even being fairly sure that he'd be all right, Virginia was terrified for Janus. The expression on his face, half hidden by the blue light that surrounded his body, was terrible. He was in agony, fallen to his knees, clutching the hilt of the real Dark Spear where it had entered his torso. "What are you waiting for?" he screamed at her. "An invitation?"
Damnit, Janus, she thought angrily, when we discussed the plan it did not include you disarming Siegfried by using your own body for target practice! The Teardrop of Memory, only somewhat useful to a normal human, could heal a creature like Siegfried - or Janus - rapidly, but it struck her that he was putting the thing to the test unnecessarily.
Still, this wasn't the time to worry over Janus, even though a part of her longed to scream and run to him. She turned to face Siegfried, calling on the power of her Mediums, feeling the rage of the Guardians as her own. He'd hurt this world, intended to hurt it all the more. Intended to make it his own. She would not let him.
At her side, Virginia's old and valued companions were releasing their own Mediums' powers, lashing out at the armored being with almost as much rage as her own. A part of her puzzled over her own fury, even after spell after spell lashed the enemy and she realized that it was her fear for Janus that was driving her anger. Siegfried had already taken far too much from her newest companion. Had already caused him far too much pain. Granted, Janus had earned much of that pain, had positively asked for it in some ways. Yet the Janus that she'd come to know, that she was coming to care about as much as - if not more than - her older friends had shown her the other side of himself. Had earned, if not outright forgiveness, at least a chance.
She pulled her power together. Focused all her outraged sense of justice, focused all her growing feelings, all her courage and all she was into her strongest Guardian and called Justine forth. You will not harm Filgaia again. You will not hurt Janus again. I swear it!
The blast from the Guardian's power blew Siegfried apart before he could even scream.
"Ow. OW OW OW OUCH!"
"Don't be such a baby." Virginia's hands on him were tender, despite her aggravated tone. It was just that having been impaled on an oversized sword with delusions of grandeur hurt. Not even the Teardrop of Memory could make the pain any easier to bear. She stroked his forehead as Clive tugged the blade out a bit further. "Want Gallows to put you to sleep for this?"
"It ain't a quill," he managed to grumble. "OUCH! Clive, don't play with the damned thing. Just pull it out." He could barely see for the blur of sweat, tears and the light of the Teardrop that was keeping him from dying.
"Are you sure?" Clive's hand stopped tugging then, at his nod, pulled hard and fast.
Janus was sure his scream could be heard all the way in Laxisland, far to the north. Then the Tear did its work once more and he relaxed. Now that was better. Much better. He lay back into Virginia's arms for a minute or so, savoring the feel of her. Then, realizing he was pushing his luck, he got to his feet. "Sorry. I keep doing that."
She gave him a puzzled look, as if not sure what he meant, which was just plain silly. "Are you all right?"
The snarky answer that he wanted to make was interrupted as he felt the first surges of memories hit him. Siegfried's dead. Everything he stole from me. Coming back. Memories flickered. The fall of Yggdrassil and Pete's transformation into Lucio. His attempt to find out what had happened, which had lead to his waking the Prophets from their temporary sleep. His agreement to help them set it right. And his slow realization - even as he began to fall himself, with only Lucio to hold him back - that their plan would be no better, if not positively worse than, what had happened when Yggdrassil had fallen. Worse, the realization that he no longer cared. That the only thing he wanted was to be free of them and to live the way he wanted to. Attempting to break with them. Only to discover that he could never be free.
Virginia's voice drew him back to the present, tried to break him away from the knowledge of all his dirty, selfish, little deeds. How could she bear to look at him? How could he bear to look at her? He hated her. He loved her. He didn't know what to think or how to feel. "I guess we'd better go our separate ways, huh?"
The question was startling, so out of the blue that it took Virginia a moment to realize what was happening. Killing Siegfried had freed what remaining pieces of Janus the metal demon had contained. All of that, returned to him, must have been enough to convince him that they could never manage to work together. Or be anything else to each other. She took the Dark Spear from Clive and walked to Janus. "Here. You'll be wanting this. We'll have to go back to camp for your ARM, though."
Gold eyes blinked down at her and she continued. "If you honestly think we can't cooperate. If you honestly don't want to be with us there's nothing I can do to change that." She looked up at him, earnestly. "But"
"But?" His voice cracked a little, uncertainty at its depths.
"But you don't really have to go back to your old life, you know. The Prophets are gone. They can't force you to do anything anymore. So you can do what you want and go where you want. If you want to go with us" she glanced at the others, worriedly. Jet and Gallows both shrugged and Clive nodded his approval. "If you want to go with us, you can. It's not like you're tied to us. You can leave anytime you want."
"I" The hesitation was more obvious this time. The despair at war with hope and desire.
With a smile, Virginia continued, "Though, maybe you don't want to. I couldn't blame you. After all, I'm an innocent. A thorn in the side. I talk in my sleep until you want to throttle me. I'm annoying and a constant aggravation. I'm bossy as all hell."
A flicker of humor crossed his features. "I don't want to throttle you when you talk in your sleep," he muttered, but refused to elaborate. "And I don't mind being bossed about or any of the other things. But are you sure? You never will be able to trust me. Even I don't trust me."
She grinned, triumphantly. "Well then, I'll just have to keep an eye on you. Won't I?"
He trailed behind her, feeling off-balance and uncertain of himself in a way that he wasn't used to. It was, however, a feeling he thought he'd better get used to. Being around Virginia Maxwell might not be good for his health, considering her ability to draw trouble to her, but it certainly wasn't going to be dull.
Gallows slung an arm around his shoulder and announced, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I think a celebration is in order. How about we go back to the colony and get some real Baskar wine? Instead of that slop Janus brought us last night."
No. Not dull at all.