He tucked his knees further into his chest as he pulled them closer under his chin. Accompanying him on the bed mattress was his dear cat Alfador, curled up into a tight ball of fur as she slept against his back. Janus took a moment to turn himself around so that he could lightly pet her as she dozed. Her tail flicked once as she dreamed, the motion tickling his palm.
He smiled softly.
A knock at the door snapped the resting animal into full wakefulness, her head shooting upwards to eye the door with annoyance as her tail swished accordingly. Janus called out for the person to enter. As was the most usual case, his sister gently opened the door and regarded him softly with affection.
"Janus, could I borrow this bedroom to change clothes? Mother's having mine refurnished at the moment." She indicated a pile of material tucked under one arm.
Janus nodded slightly. "Sure." He scooped up Alfador, who mewed in protest, and carried her to the door. "I was going to visit the library, anyway."
Schala smiled sweetly as she spoke. "You're such a bookworm."
As soon as the prince set foot into the library he immediately wished he didn't, but he was well aware how awkward it would appear if he simply walked back out. The recently arrived Oracle who never cared to show his face to the public eye was lounging on one of the lavender-cushioned sofas in an unobtrusive corner towards the back of the library, a faded leather-bound book in his lap. Janus couldn't make out whether or not the man was even paying attention to the book, for his cowl was obscuring so much of his face that it appeared as if he couldn't even see from underneath the fabric.
The prince averted his gaze and continued towards a mahogany table where a compilation of searches he had found the previous evening remained untouched. Slowly lowering himself into a chair, he pulled the topmost volume towards himself and opened the cover. As subtly as he could muster, he gazed out of the corner of his eye at the Prophet, nearly slamming the book shut again in his surprise.
The cowl had slightly shifted, risen just enough to catch a glimpse of brilliant, crimson eyes that glistened with secretive wisdom. And their unwavering gaze was directed solely at him. Innerved, Janus realized that his attention was singularly fixed on the mysterious being, his face turned fully towards the Oracle with an expression of timidity. As if the man could read his thoughts, his eyes carefully softened reassuringly.
The prince disregarded the sign and closed the book with a snap, jumping from his chair to retreat into the hallway. Finally taking notice of his lack of breathing as he ground to a halt just outside the chamber, he expelled it in a huge sigh of relief.
That night was the very first in which the Seer began to haunt his dreams. The first dream was perhaps the one that would always remain at the forefront of his mind, for he couldn't seem to discern any meaning from it and the frustration of not knowing seemed to put him at constant unease.
He remained riveted where he stood, unaware of anything other than the soft grass beneath his bare feet which was wet with morning dew and the encompassing fog that seemed impenetrable. No matter how hard he strained, the ominous substance proved impossible to make out anything beyond it. He searched frantically for some sort of path near his feet, but the grass dissolved into the fog a mere pace away from where he was standing. If he tried to feel his way around in that blanket of mist, he would surely only become more lost.
"Hello?" he called out, hopeful that someone would hear him and come to his aid.
When there came no reply, he cautiously took a few steps forward and tried again. He still gained no answering call. Reluctantly, he plodded slowly into the mists, his hands immediately stretching out before him as he navigated forward aimlessly.
Time seemed immeasurable. Whether it was minutes, hours or days, he remained ignorant of the length which he walked. If he traveled far enough, the continent would suddenly give way to open air and he would plummet to his death, he was sure of it. And if the fall didn't kill him, then the ever-present freeze of the blizzard country below surely would if he didn't happen to drown in the ocean.
A flicker of movement far to his right caught his attention. "Schala?" he wondered aloud. As he made his way closer to the concealed figure he realized that it wasn't his sister, but nevertheless someone dearly familiar. "Mother!" When he finally approached her and tugged impatiently at the material of her dress, she turned to look at him with the eyes of someone depraved and hungry for power, an expression with which he was not familiar.
He receded a step. "Mother?"
The phantasm grinned wickedly, revealing sharpened animalistic fangs. She reached a hand out towards him. "Come join your mother in Lavos' eternal nightmare," she spoke hoarsely, not sounding like her normal self. It was then that he noticed it wasn't her voice at all, but something infinitely more lethal and terrifying which echoed forebodingly through the mists.
"Mother, what's wrong?" he cried, the terror flooding through him and stinging his eyes with threatening tears. What had happened to her to make her change this way? He wanted his real mother, the one who would have ceased his outbursts in an instant and let him know that everything would be all right.
But it definitely was not all right. That vicious grin remained plastered upon her delicate lips, curling now into what seemed more of a grimace of fury.
"NO!" he shouted, stumbling backward several more paces. And as he screamed, so too did the specter of the Queen, but in a bloodcurdling cry that he could not believe such a sound could have emitted from a human's mouth. The screech sounded of what a giant bird might produce had it been strangled to death.
Then he noticed the single gleaming red eye just beyond the apparition's back, and gaped in horror at the body of the fiend to which it belonged. The best way he could see fit to describe it was as a massive parasite brandishing an immeasurable amount of spine-like quills that protruded from all over its hulking form. What appeared to be huge claws supported the beast from underneath its bulky weight, seemingly rooted into the earth as if it were feeding from the very core of the world itself. And that's just what it had done to his mother.
Janus screamed with utter despair and crumpled to his knees, bunching the wet grass between his fists as he sobbed uncontrollably. Was this what his mother was truly doomed to become? Was this what the monster would also make of his home, his own life? Would Schala also succumb to such a horrible fate as this? The questions pooled endlessly into his mind, drowning out all else but the despair to which he clung unreasonably.
A hand suddenly snatched his collar from behind, dragging him away from the horrific pair only to have his view obstructed by a towering mass of dark material. The hand was no longer tugging at his clothing, but the new shadowy stranger remained. The being turned its head to glance over its shoulder at him, revealing a face shaded by a dark blue cowl. But where a person would normally own a face, this creature instead had a mirror seemingly glued there. Janus could see his own eyes reflected back at him, but the mist quickly fogged up the glass, making the being now appear to be absurdly faceless. It turned back to face the monster and the Queen as it suddenly produced a frighteningly jagged blade from beneath its cloak. The prince didn't recognize it to be a scythe, for he had never seen or heard mention of such a weapon.
The wraith lunged forward so swiftly that Janus could not follow the movement with his eyes, but he was rewarded with the being's sudden reappearance as it gripped a now blooded blade. The monster cried out accordingly in pain, its voice ringed with malice, before instantly disintegrating into nothingness. His mother blinked, turning to where the parasite had stood with an expression of utter disbelief. Before she could turn back to the hooded creature accusingly, however, it had swept over Janus and blanketed him in darkness.
The prince jolted awake, his whole body rigid from shock. Glancing down at his feet, he recognized Alfador sleeping contentedly. How he wished he could have done just that, still reeling from his nightmare. He brushed a hand over his forehead, feeling the clamminess of his skin due to an apparent cold sweat. With a sigh of fatigue, he rolled onto his side and struggled to regress into a dreamless sleep.
The next day was one of those rare rainy days in Zeal when the rainfall was particularly heavy and harsh, which refrained people from going outside. After a careful surveying of the library for any hints of the Oracle and finding none, he happily returned to the same mahogany table from the day before to continue his readings. All was so well and silent that even the sleeping Nu behind the checkout counter was miraculously failing to produce any snoring.
He lounged the day away without any thoughts regarding the time, surprised when he finally finished the third book from the pile and glanced up to see that the grandfather clock read ten minutes past ten o' clock at night. It was past his bedtime.
The door creaked open and he turned to look behind him at the visitor, frowning at the familiar man who entered the chamber. Massaging a hand over his tightly-knitted brow, the general shuffled over to a nearby sofa that appeared extremely welcoming to him and slumped down into its orange cushions. He sighed and let himself fall sideways against the pillow near his left elbow, content to just lay there.
Unsure how to respond, the prince wandered over to the man and tapped his shoulder lightly. Dalton glanced up at him, his eyes still groggy from his apparent lack of self-control when offered alcohol. Yet it made him so light-headed that he forgot his usual harsh demeanor, smiling with alcohol-induced enthusiasm at the boy.
Janus was surprised by the action, quickly calculating the exact degree of the general's drunkenness. "Are you alright, sir?"
"I could do without this awful headache," the captain of the guard responded.
"Have you taken any relief medicine?"
The man shook his head. "I ought to do that, shouldn't I? I'll go see to that now." He slowly got back to his feet and headed towards the door, pausing to turn around once his fingers gripped the handle. Dalton grinned at Janus with drunk-induced affection before bothering to turn the knob and exit the room. The prince's brow knitted in confusion at the manner of the general's leave.
A soft laughter startled him into spinning around, and he too would have left the room at that moment once he identified the owner of the voice. On the far side of the chamber was the Oracle, sitting once again on the same lavender-cushioned sofa. How he had gotten there was a mystery to the prince, for he had never noticed anyone enter the room aside from Dalton. Had the man been there the whole time? He dwelt on that thought for a moment, then dismissively shook his head. He had searched the back of the library as soon as he had entered the chamber himself. But this time the Seer was watching him far more intently than the previous day, not even bothering to disguise his actions with an old historical text as he had before.
"Isn't it past your bedtime?" the Oracle whispered, his face impassive.
Janus was annoyed that the man was obviously there to pester him. "So? What if it is?"
"No matter. I won't tell your sister, if that's what you're thinking. The party will last until way after midnight," he spoke with a smile. "I'm sure you'd rather stay awake and read?"
Janus nodded fiercely.
"Well then, I guess I'll be on my way."
"Hey," Janus suddenly interrupted. "You weren't invited?"
"Of course I was. I prefer being left alone instead… Wouldn't you agree?"
More slowly this time, Janus nodded again.
"Then I suppose it's best if I leave you alone?"
Janus tipped his face to the side calculatingly, regarding the stranger in a new light. "You don't want to be alone right now, do you?"
The Prophet remained silent for a heavy pause. When he did speak again, he surprised the young prince with his answer. "I've always been surrounded by crowds my entire life, but never anyone whom I could connect with to any comfortable degree. In a way, I've always been on my own."
Janus couldn't resist making a link from that statement to himself, wondering at the man's choice of words. It sounded identical to the way he considered his own being, but then he had Schala where this man had no one. For some odd reason, that alone made him want to reach out and touch this similar person's life; to make that connection which the other was so desperately yearning for.
Hesitantly, he continued the conversation. "Do you wish to remain alone?"
He thought he imagined the pleading expression that momentarily flickered across the Oracle's countenance. Illusion or not, it encouraged him to keep talking.
"You want to stay in the library and accompany me?"
He hadn't the slightest clue as to why he concluded with that question.
Nevertheless, the Seer cautiously stood from the sofa and glided slowly, waveringly, towards the royal. When Janus didn't make to object, he carefully lowered himself onto the orange-clad cushions which Dalton had recently occupied, sitting next to the standing prince.
"I need someone to confide in – someone I can trust," the Prophet said. "I've been through some harsh times lately."
Janus impulsively laid a hand on top of the Oracle's, which rested next to him on the sofa. "Do you want me to be that someone?"
The man smiled contritely. "It's too much to ask of a child to rise to my expectations."
"If you don't want me to be your friend, you shouldn't have come in here with the implications in the first place."
The Seer appeared astonished at the boy's words, which deeply gratified the prince's objective with that statement. He grinned at the man, waiting for a response.
"…We can talk about it another time," the man spoke, uncomfortable with the child's sudden closeness and confidence. He rose from his seat and strode toward the door. "And keep a close eye on your mother. She's been acting odd as of lately," he quickly added before turning the handle and disappearing into the hallway.
"Wait!" Janus cried. He rushed over to the door, wrenching it open, and found himself alone in the dimly lit corridor. What the Prophet had just spoken of had stabbed deep into his consciousness as he was forced to recount the horrible details of that nightmare.
And indeed he did watch his mother very closely, closer than he was comfortable or used to doing. Throughout the procession of the following week, he wound around corners, silently observed council meetings at which he shouldn't have attended, slipped into her private chambers; all because he was at great unease with his unnatural dream. If anything, these observations impressed a new vision of terror upon the queen's son in regards to his mother. Her crazed drinking habits late into the occasional night landed him with plenty of sleepless hours in which, had he been in his bed like any child with common sense, would have plagued him with even more unaccountable nightmares.
During the day her eyes constantly gleamed with a demented flare, and every night as part of some disturbing new ritual, she would make the short trip from the throne room to the Mammon hall. In this said ritual, she always pulled a chair up close to the mechanism with its throbbing pulsations of scarlet light and would lean her entire upper frame across the main panel, as if in a frightening parody of laying next to a lover. Sometimes she would close her eyes and murmur strange words to the machine, other times they remained open and she simply lay with a wicked grin plastered on her face.
It was this machine that had so wholly changed her, the prince was certain. It was the prototype that had been completed only three weeks prior, and he wondered now if she had acted in this manner since its completion. Some whispered gossip suggested that it had immediately changed her overnight.
As his initial nightmare was coming more and more into fruition, the progressively worse his latest nightmares became. Each dream added one more worsening scene than the previous one, yet the people in this chain of sequences remained the same – his mother, the monster, and the cloaked figure with the mask whom he now suspected to be a not yet fully understood representation of the Prophet.
Maybe, he wondered constantly, if I get to know him better, I might be able to understand my dream. Though he wasn't entirely certain of the dream being's identity, the feeling that it was somehow the Prophet encouraged him to attempt to reach out for an earnest friendship for the very first time in his young life.
Schala glanced at Janus inquiringly as he hummed contentedly to himself on one of the sofas in the royal commons. He lay sprawled over one of the orange velvet pillows and stared unseeingly into the blazing fireplace, musing inwardly as he debated the mental battle raging through the forefront of his mind.
"Janus? What's gotten you into such cheerful spirits lately? It's late, and you should have been in bed forty minutes ago."
Irritated at being interrupted from his train of thought, he simply cast his sister an assuring smile and remained motionless.
Sighing exasperatedly, Schala rose from her seat by the mantle and plodded into the back hallway, watching him wonderingly from over her shoulder. "I'm going to bed, Janus. You should do likewise."
"Sure, whatever. I'll be there in a bit. I just want to lay here a little longer." To all extents and purposes, her retiring into her bed chamber was exactly what he was waiting for.
Once she had vanished over the threshold and closed the door to her room, Janus rose onto his elbows and momentarily stared at the spot where she had disappeared, suspicious that she might step out again. After mentally counting a full sixty seconds, he lifted himself from the pillow and tiptoed to the outer door of the commons, still fully-dressed from the eventless day. Carefully sliding the lock out of place and exiting the chamber, he made sure to close the door behind himself before darting down the corridor with anticipation.