Jason wiped his fingerprints off the light switch, just in case, and then, with Curtis's help, teleported directly back to his room, leaving Roland to do the cleanup. Within a few minutes, Jason was in bed—though sleep, of course, proved to be elusive.

After about an hour, he heard gentle knocking on the door. "Hello?" he said.

"May I speak with you?" came Roland's voice. (Jason and Roland had their own rooms in the castle.)

"Uh… yeah, come in."

Roland entered, shutting the door behind him, and sat down in a chair beside Jason's bed as Jason turned on a small lamp. Roland was about to speak when he noticed the lukewarm look on Jason's face. After a pause, he said "You're still angry about that, I see."

"Well…" Jason was lost for words. "Well, of course I am! Did you expect me to just get over it? It wasn't like when, I don't know, you slaughtered all the prison guards. Jake was completely helpless, and you just stabbed him in the heart. That's murder, man!"

Roland propped his elbows up on his knees and thought carefully before he spoke. "We could have an extended conversation about this," he said, "but I don't think it would be at all helpful to either of us. Let's avoid it, shall we?"

Jason sighed. "Yeah, you're right."

The two of them stared off in nearly opposite directions for a while.

"What are you doing here, then?" said Jason.

"I wanted to ask how you guessed that Jake was married to Beatrix." said Roland. "How did you know? What clue or clues did you notice? To me, it just seemed to come out of the blue."

"I suppose that's a good question." Jason sat up a bit straighter on the bed. "It was a very strange revelation, strange in the way that it came to me. I didn't pick it up from any real logical evidence, and I didn't have a hunch or otherwise intuit the answer. The best way to explain it is like this: in my life, for whatever reason, the extraordinary is ordinary. Given the chance, fate will always throw me a curve ball. I think you know what I'm talking about. So, given this state of affairs, it seemed so natural that this guy who was your enemy would be married to your ex-wife."

"Astonishing." said Roland, rubbing his chin.

"For so long, I've been trying to figure out why things are like this, but I can't think of anything that could begin to account for such a phenomenon. Maybe fate or luck or something like that really exists. Is that so far-fetched, in a world with dragons and magic spells? I really don't know. It's fantastic in a different way from dragons and magic—it's far more subtle.

"If there is some kind of cosmic force pulling the strings, it begs the question, why me? Even if I'm not a perfectly ordinary kid, I'm pretty ordinary. If I'm some kind of mystical Chosen One, all I can say is, whoever did the choosing made an odd choice."

"Never underestimate the power of coincidence." said Roland. "All kinds of coincidences are possible, and remember, unlikely as they are, they're far more likely than the existence of undocumented supernatural phenomena."

"Right, that's what James Randi would say. Yes, you may be right. And it is true that we met Beatrix on another Starving-Sea island, and Jake said his wife thought it was a good idea to kill us, so there was real logical evidence, after all. Sort of."

"God, how he diverged with my mental image of Beatrix's lover. I suppose it makes a kind of sense. They were both scientists who probably cared more about their work than each other."

"Speaking of which, what did you mean when you said something about Beatrix slinking in the shadows?"

"I was referring to her surname, which, I assume, will now revert to Shadewalker once more."

Jason nodded. "Here's a question for you, Roland: are you religious?"

Roland smiled a little. "Somewhat. I'm a deist. I believe that there is a benevolent god who created what became the multiverse, but I don't think he's omnipotent. Certainly, he doesn't intervene in the affairs of mortals, so he is unlikely to be responsible for what you described."

"Oh, I'd be delusional to think myself worthy of a deity's attention."

Once Roland had left, Jason spent much of the night tossing and turning, this way and that. When he finally fell asleep, he was haunted by nightmares of blood—so much blood—more than enough blood to recreate the first plague of Egypt. And in the center of it all was Roland Moralheart, his hands upraised and channeling white-hot fire from the heavens, his face in ecstasy of wrath…

Eventually the boy awakened, panting heavily with fear, as the first sunrays of dawn came in through the window.

"Thank all the deities man has ever created" Jason mumbled to himself "that I don't have prophetic dreams."

In a few days, the party returned to Gyeeds. There was a full-scale investigation into the spontaneous disappearance of the "close personal friend of King Akolos", which got nowhere. Several of Jake's personal effects were also gone, including another laptop computer. Roland had scavenged through these and then, finding nothing but Piercers and information about them he already knew, threw them all into the Starving Sea along with the body.

Things began to heat up in the IDC. Now that contact with the Sea was reestablished, Stanley Ironbone, with the support of Gyeeds's friends, politely demanded that Dojum share the secret of Piercers with the entire council. Akolos didn't deign to do so, and Emperor Ursamor (a woman; "empress" is a silly word), ruler of the entire verse of Droydania, defended him. So began a back-and-forth struggle of threats and offerings between the two sides as the Schism widened.

Meanwhile, for the first time in what seemed like ages, Jason's life returned to normal, or something like normalcy. There were no adventures to go on, and no lurking killers to fear. He went to school, attended IDC meetings, read books, watched television, and thought about Earth.

The biggest change in Jason's life that had resulted from his voyage on the "Argo" was Curtis. Curtis was, in Jason's estimation, a strange lad. He was capable of great focus when it came to his main interests, spellcasting and mathematics, and indeed, he was a true prodigy in those fields. When he was supposed to be engaged in something else, on the other hand, he was forever drifting off into his own dream-world, usually paying just enough attention to whatever was going on to scrape by. Perhaps this was an advantage in some ways, as Curtis, barely immersed in the real world as he was, was barely affected by it. Jason's and Roland's moods swung up and down as their circumstances changed; Curtis was rarely anything but vaguely cheerful. Jason envied such apparent peace of mind.

While Curtis was so violently intelligent in some ways, in other ways he appeared truly slow-witted as well as distracted. Though he was happy to answer questions, he did so literally, with little regard for what information the questioner was really seeking. He generally spoke little, and his language was unintelligibly concise rather than terse. In fact, he once struck Jason as a good model of the American-teenage stereotype: smart in limited ways but lacking much wisdom, and almost devoid of eloquence. At least he didn't do drugs.

Despite Jason's mixed opinion of Curtis, the boys got along well and would often play games together—chess and its interdimensional cousins at first, until Jason decided it wasn't fun to lose within twenty turns every single time, then other board and card games. Curtis's reliance on straightforward logic to strategize meant that he was at a disadvantage in games with an element of chance, giving Jason a shot at winning. Jason feared this would change when the prince started learning about probability, and so, acting on what little he knew about math, he urged Curtis to go directly from precalculus to calculus and avoid less general fields for now.

There was one thing that Jason thought still begged investigation: Thanatos. If Jake had been telling the truth and such a group existed, it sure lay low. Both Jason and Roland hunted for any mention of it in newspapers and on the Internet, and they found nothing.

Many weeks passed. The IDC New Year's Day came and went—the year was now 5625. The only interesting development to come in this time was a bit of news that Roland happened to stumble upon. It was about Hoon. After the exodus of Thorm and family, trade with other islands had resumed and the little kingdom had returned to prosperity; this was interrupted, however, when a large force of Jilothic pirates arrived on the scene. The pirates killed Hoonian men, raped Hoonian women, and stole Hoonian gold.

The result was a devastation of the island far more complete than the dragons ever could have managed, even in the worst case. Apparently, Winlo had been careful to keep the presence of precious metals on the island a secret except to those he trusted—the pirates had learned the truth from the chest of gold they'd stolen from Roland. The greatest irony was that, had Thorm been present, it would've scared away the invaders easily. And so, both Jason and Roland had something to feel vaguely guilty about.

As negotiations with Dojum continued, an interesting political backdrop formed behind them: the Gyeedian mayoral election. In June, Gyeedian voters would pick between giving Stanley a third five-year term (there was no term limit) or displacing him for Lloyd Waverunner, a young senator who'd also run for mayor in the last election. Lloyd was more left-wing, so much as the theory of left-right politics had meaning outside of Earth, and this was his primary point of appeal. For although Stanley was popular with Gyeedians, with a high approval rating, he'd gotten that way through appealing to both ends of the political spectrum, rather than the dominant one.

I suppose a bit more explanation about our friend Stanley is called for. Stanley began his political career as the conservative governor of a conservative district of Gyeeds. (Because of the city's great size, presiding over merely a district was a prestigious position, akin to governing one of the United States.) That posed difficulties to his mayoral aspirations, since Gyeeds was largely liberal-libertarian. So, he compromised, taking the liberal side of just enough issues to woo the general populace without alienating himself from the people who'd made him governor. The other prong to his campaign was his track record of Getting Things Done: during his time as governor, Stanley had been very pragmatic, choosing a few issues to deal with at a time and dealing with them in the most sensible way he could think of, which policy had yielded impressive results in improving education and reducing crime in his section of the city. At any rate, Stanley had won by a comfortable margin in his first run for mayor, against a similarly middle-of-the-road man: he'd fetched 60% of the vote.

Stanley had fulfilled the handful of modest promises he'd made to Gyeeds, and done a bit more to improve the city's interdimensional clout besides, by the time he was up for a second term. Still, the tide had turned against him: though he won, he garnered only 53% of votes. Analysts said that Gyeeds, which had always been liberal, was rapidly becoming much more so. More and more people were dissatisfied with Stanley's compromises: for example, they wanted the restrictions on more dangerous magical reagents lifted. Lloyd, who'd been Stanley's main opponent during that election, had grabbed as large a portion of the electorate as he had (considering Stanley's popularity and incumbency) by appealing to the growing far left with his policies emphasizing unbridled freedom and charismatic speeches. Now, Stanley's aides feared there was a chance he'd lose.

Thanks to how the terms of elected officials were staggered, Roland, currently in the middle of his first term, didn't have to worry about his own reelection for now. Of course, he was essentially an aide to Stanley, so he was forced to help with the campaign of the man he hated. Though he didn't enjoy it, he was engaged in this pursuit when he happened to stumble upon a mention of Thanatos.

Here's how it happened. One day not very long after April Fool's Day, Roland, by Stanley's request, was combing through emails recently sent by government employees when he found something intriguing:

I've been doing everything I can and will continue to do so. To be truthful, things don't look good. The zeitgeist is against us: Lloyd is going to win. I think we should ask Thanatos where to go from here.

The message was apparently sent by Keaton Stoneback, one of Stanley's top advisers, and delivered to a free email account that wasn't otherwise identified. Roland found no further messages addressed similarly, nor any other mention of Thanatos in Keaton's other communications. Keaton did, however, receive a reply:

So be it. We shall meet at the altar at midnight on Gold, 4.

"And that's all?" asked Jason after Roland told him and Curtis of it.

"Sadly, yes." said Roland.

"At least it's something." said Jason. "Let's see: we know that Keaton wants to consult this group, and they're going to meet at this altar. Now, where in the world is the altar? And what would Keaton want from the bunch? Well, they came up with the original idea for Piercers, so maybe they have good ideas."

"Who cares?" said Curtis.

"'Who cares'?" cried Jason. "I think we can all agree it's a good idea to get to the bottom of this Piercer business. Are you with me, Roland?"

"Of course."

"Curtis, don't you think it's worth it? Just think of how much is at stake."

Curtis shrugged. "What are you worrying about? Nobody's gonna hurt us."

"The three of us are unlikely to be directly attacked, sure, but don't you see how an interdimensional incident could develop from here, because of these Piercers? We've gotten this far; we've got to find out everything we can. Hell, where's your sense of curiosity? You're supposed to be a boy, like me—remember?"

"Whatever. You know I'll help you anyway."

Roland did everything he could to spy on Keaton's activities, but he got nothing—not a tidbit concerning Thanatos or altars or anything of the sort—until the day before the meeting. On that day, according to certain records, Keaton had a government employee teleport him to Scorch, a small town on the edge of a desert somewhere on the planet of Gyeeds, far from the city of Gyeeds.

"It's certainly fortunate that he can't teleport himself." said Roland. "Otherwise, he would have, and then we wouldn't know where he'd gone."

"I find it kinda scary how easily you get all that information about your colleagues." Jason remarked.

"Yes, it is frightening how little privacy they really have, isn't it? Well, you should know what it feels like. Bush signed the Patriot Act while you still lived in your country of birth, if you recall."

"At least that'll go away when the national terrorism panic dies down. I hope. Anyway, let's drop by Scorch ASAP and see if we can find the meeting by following Keaton. Show us a picture of him, and then, in the immortal words of the Bush administration, let's roll."