Wheels within Wheels

He continued painting for so many hours that he lost count. Not only were there no windows through which to see the sun, there didn't seem to be any clocks, so for all Jason knew, it could've been midnight or noon.

Finally, as Jason was about halfway through the second coat, the old man rose from his desk and said "All right, that's enough for today."

Jason couldn't help but breathe a huge sigh of relief. The man didn't seem to mind.

"Let me see." The man hobbled about the house with a cane, inspecting the walls. "Good. You've been a hard worker." The compliment was diluted by his unremittingly sour expression. "Now, just feed the cat and we can have some dinner."

Once they had finished eating, the wizard said, "I'm not quite so tired, how about you?"

"Actually, I'm exhausted." said Jason, who had to fight to keep himself from spitting out the words with all the venom he could muster. It was perfectly true.

"Well, I don't think it's quite time to turn in. You could stand to stay awake a bit longer."

<No, actually, I couldn't.>

"I think I'd like to watch a video. You can watch it with me. Go over to the television."

Jason bit his lip, silently praying to any deity who might care to listen that he was not about to see something that would haunt him for the rest of his life, and obeyed.

The old man set himself down on an armchair before the television set. "Open up the one from… ah… Lead, 3, '79."

Jason fiddled with the device a bit. There was a digital video library stored inside the set, which he could access through a search engine-like interface. He found a file that was dated as "Lead, 3, 5579" and got the television to play it.

He was relieved to find that the video was of nothing but a sports game, in black and white. The game being played was one he had seen before, a sort of Gyeedian version of soccer. As it began, something truly remarkable happened. The old man's frown disappeared. In fact, he smiled—and it wasn't a fake smile, but a genuine and spontaneous one. It was, Jason decided upon closer inspection, composed of one part nostalgia and two parts pride. And apparently, it wasn't just out of a love for the sport in general. The old man seemed to be rooting for one side in particular, and was especially pleased when a certain player played well—which was quite often, because this fellow was obviously the team's MVP.

Eventually, during a break in the game, a journalist pulled the player aside to talk to him, and Jason got a good look at his face. It was the same man as the one in the middle portrait in the bedroom. Jason looked back at his captor and suddenly realized that the old man was the person portrayed in the right-hand portrait, just much older.

Jason ventured to ask "Is he your father?"

"Uh, no, no." said the old man, surprised but not angered. "My dad died a very long time ago."

This answer did make sense, as the sportsman didn't bear the slightest resemblance to the wizard. In fact, the athlete's skin was so dark it seemed impossible that any of his children could've been light-skinned, while the old man was quite pale. And the old man probably wasn't albino. Still, Jason couldn't think of any other way to connect the dots.

The game seemed to drag on forever. At last it ended. The old man, his face having returned to its usual expression, ordered Jason to turn the set off and declared it was time for bed. He went to sleep on his cot, while Jason was left trying to make a crude substitute for a bed in the living room, which had no couches. Eventually, he arranged some chairs into a surface that wasn't quite as uncomfortable as the floor, and settled down on them with a blanket the wizard had provided.

Tired as he was, even once all the lights were off and his eyes were tightly shut, he couldn't sleep. His mind was abuzz with possible explanations of everything he had seen and heard. Survival. That was the key thing. Now, how could—but that date kept repeating itself, like a mantra. Lead, 3, 5579. It was 5624 now. So that was… 45 years ago. It was completely possible that a sports game had been broadcast in monochrome back then. But why did… how did everything match up?

Suddenly, it struck Jason like a thunderbolt. Everything popped into place like a jigsaw puzzle. The old man… no, it couldn't be! And what was he doing, lying here and pondering? He had to escape. Now was his chance. Silently as a shadow, he got up and slowly felt his way over to the front door. He unlocked it, took a deep breath, and turned the doorknob, half-expecting something terrible to happen.

Something terrible happened. All of the lights in house instantly snapped on, blinding Jason, and a split-second later his head throbbed with pain. He crumpled to the floor, moaning weakly, until, after a few seconds, the ache disappeared as quickly as it had come.

The old man swore. "Get up."

Somehow, Jason managed to do so. He could only open his eyes a crack, since his pupils were fully dilated, but he could see his captor standing in front of him. <He must've moved pretty fast to get here that quickly. Teleportation, maybe?>

"How stupid d'ya think I am? A'course I protected the goozack. Why do you think there aren't any windows?" As Jason searched for an answer (and wondered what a goozack was), he said "That was a rhetorical question. Go to sleep and don't try to run away again, or you'll hurt so much you'll wish you'd never been born."

Jason was presently back to square one, lying in the darkness. He sighed deeply. Obviously, the only way he could get out of here was if the wizard were somehow taken out of the picture. Doing that would probably entail figuring out what the wizard planned to do with Jason. Jason had a theory, but he had to confirm it.

The boy got up again. He took his blanket and carefully stuffed it under the door of the old man's bedroom. Then, he walked into the library, took a deep breath, and turned on the light, half-expecting something terrible to happen.

Nothing terrible happened. If any light had leaked into the bedroom, the wizard hadn't noticed. Jason silently gave thanks to the Lady and sat down at the desk, the one where the wizard himself had sat for so long the day before. There was the book that the man had been reading, "Miraculous Wizardry". Jason opened it up. Unfortunately, he found it difficult to understand. Although it was written in Common, it used lots of technical words and phrases that didn't seem to have clear roots in Roots. Still, he could get the gist of it. It was a collection of miscellaneous spells of great power. The title was euphemistic: all of the spells called for expensive reagents and were difficult to cast. Moreover, each spell had one or more severe caveats, side-effects that tended to undo the original, desired effect. For example, one spell allowed the castee to go up to four weeks without food or water. Once the magic wore off, however, the castee would have to increase their calorie and fluid intakes to at least ten times the usual amounts, or they were quite likely to die. Furthermore, preparing the spell took far longer than four weeks, and the specified amount of diamond dust needed to cast the spell was far more expensive than forty weeks' worth of food.

Jason searched the table of contents for a spell that matched his hypothesis. Eventually he found one with a name containing the Common word for "exchange", which seemed close enough, and turned to the appropriate page. It was just as he feared: a spell that could switch minds between bodies.

It was all too clear, now. For decades, the wizard had been moving from body to body, leaving each one behind when it got too old. That explained who the men in the pictures were: himself. And that explained how seeing one of those men in his glory days had pleased him so much: he was vain. Now that his third vessel was at death's door, he schemed to take Jason's!

But the timing… how could he have been in a different body, in its mid-twenties, only 45 years ago? Surely he would've only taken on bodies that were significantly younger than the one he was using at the time. On a hunch, Jason looked up "aging" in the book's index, and soon found himself at another spell. It was the magical equivalent of steroids—it greatly boosted its recipient's strength, speed, and toughness. It had to be cast when the castee was still prepubescent, but only took affect upon the onset of adulthood. And the side-effect was that as soon as it wore off, around the age of thirty, it greatly accelerated aging—to the point where a forty-year-old would seem twice their age.

Now things made even more sense. While the man looked eighty, his body was younger and his mind was older. He used both spells in tandem. Because he wanted to excel at sports, he cast the second, and because he wanted to survive, he cast the first—allowing the cycle to begin all over again. If everything went as planned, Jason Amadeus Blue would go down in history as one of the greatest Gyeedian athletes since… well, whatever were the names of those poor boys who'd been the wizard's victims.

"But not" Jason whispered to himself "if Jason Amadeus Blue has anything to say about it!"

He flipped back to the body-swapping spell. His best bet, he thought, was to somehow make the spell backfire on the wizard. The spell's caveat, whatever it was, might work to his advantage. He got up and carefully searched the bookshelves until he found a Common technical dictionary. With this, and about an hour of effort, he was able to decipher most of the spell description.

Its full name was "Personality Exchange between Caster and Castee". The initial preparation mainly consisted of creating special necklaces, which the caster and castee would have to wear. The actual casting process didn't take long. The caster had to say about thirty words while making certain gestures. Then, the necklaces would begin glowing black, then brown, then red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, gray, and finally white, with exactly a second between each color change. Finally, the switch would be effected, and… here came the caveat, but even armed with the dictionary, Jason couldn't quite understand it. It was something about how there was an approximately one-third chance that the caster's old body would "fold up" and the castee's personality would "escape". <Well, that's not helpful.> thought Jason.

Then how could he thwart the spell? The book said that the spell was "unusually safe for its power level—if anything goes wrong during the final casting phase, the spell will simply fail harmlessly. Although the reagents will be wasted, and you will need to prepare the spell all over again, neither you nor the castee will suffer any ill effects." So, just messing with the necklaces, causing the wizard to make a mistake, or simply taking off a necklace would do little good. If Jason did one of these things anyway, to buy time, he'd arouse the old man's suspicion and probably not get the chance to do anything trickier the second time 'round.

Jason did have an idea. He wasn't at all sure if it would work, and he could imagine a thousand possible ways it could go wrong, but it was his only hope.

He put the books back where he'd found them, turned off the light, and went back to bed.