It's Perfectly Normal

Misty shapes danced before Jason's eyes; after a while, they faded, and all that remained was darkness.

Although none of Jason's physical senses seemed to be functioning, he could still sense one almost indescribable thing. It was some wordless petition, some vague message expressed not with language but with a basic impulse. Jason felt the author of the message was begging him to listen, to give this mysterious agent leave to speak.

Vaguely concerned for whoever might wish to communicate with him, Jason gave his assent, also wordlessly.

In a moment, he felt a sudden chill; then, he seemed to be lying not on the soft mattress of his bed, but on hard wood and metal. Slowly, he opened his eyes. When he recognized the scene, his eyes continued to open, wider and wider.

It was Sunday, September 21st, 2003, and he was lying on a bench in a park on Earth.

Jason jumped to his feet and gazed about with wonder. Here were the flowers, the trees, and the houses of his hometown, just as he remembered them. He ran up to a nearby tulip and sniffed it deeply—yes, he could smell it, but no better than any other boy. He glanced at the sleeves of his blue-jean jacket; the holes which the dragon's claws had left there (and which he had subsequently left unpatched, as a kind of souvenir—or, one might even say, as a kind of trophy) were nowhere to be found. He looked at his wrist; Ursamor's bracelet was gone.

"Oh my God!" Jason shrieked to the heavens, heedless of whoever might hear him. "It was all a dream!"

"No, Jason," said a deep voice, rich with overtones, "you've got it the wrong way 'round."

Jason whipped around to face the speaker: a large fox, with crimson in place of orange on its fur. It sat as a dog sits; its bushy tail waved back and forth across the ground like that of a cat watching a mouse. The patch of white fur on its breast was more expansive than an ordinary red fox's, but it lacked the characteristic black "gloves". Its eyes were bright-red and full of life. The natural shape of its snout, which made it appear to be grinning slightly, seemed well suited to it—the effect was something like that of the Cheshire Cat's smile, but a little less spooky and more good-natured.

"I've been waiting to speak with you for a long time, young lad." said the fox.

Jason stared at it for a moment. He decided that if this was a dream, he might as well go see his family; if not… well, what on Earth was he waiting for? He turned and ran towards the gates of the park.

"It's no use." the fox called to him. "I constructed this landscape; it doesn't extend any farther than the boundaries of the park."

Sure enough, Jason crashed against an invisible barrier as he tried to cross the threshold. It yielded to his pressure a bit, like fabric, so at least he didn't get a bruise. He picked himself off the ground, glowering, and walked back to the fox.

"All right," said Jason, "I believe you. Who are you, and where did you learn to speak English so well?"

"Oh, come." the fox said laughingly. "I saw you enter and leave the building in which Caleb Vespinus just happens to live; I'm sure he told you of his dream."

Jason thought of that and quickly noted the similarities. "Yes, you're right. But you haven't answered either question. You're a creation of some Supernal, aren't you?"

"In a sense." said the fox, twitching one of its ears. "It would be closer to the truth, though, to say that I am a Supernal."

"What is the truth?" Jason cried, exasperated.

"A very good question indeed! Alas, at the moment, I am not willing to tell you the whole truth." It paused. "I can tell you this much. I, Jason, am a being of pure good; you may call me… Red, I suppose. I am powerful, but I use my powers to advance the cause of justice and righteousness, and to combat the forces of evil. Lately, I've been particularly busy with the latter occupation."

"Not busy enough!" Jason interrupted. "Haven't you heard? The world's overrun with monsters. Why don't you protect the citizens of Gyeeds, for example, as you protected me?"

"The situation is more complex than you imagine." said Red, inspecting one of its paws. "But, given that you obviously value innocent lives, this offer ought to be attractive to you." It leaned forward a bit and looked Jason straight in the eye. "Join me!"

"Join you?" Jason echoed, puzzled.

"Yes!" the fox cried. "Join me in the good fight. Listen: I've been watching you for just as long as your friend Roland has, and I've liked what I've seen. You have marvelous wits, my boy, and I'll need wits to win this war."

"Why, thank you." said Jason, remembering the conversation he'd had with Simon just before returning to bed.

"Now, if you join me, you'll gain many more assets. You will be no simple solider—no, no. You will become my closest ally, my most trusted companion, the very executor of my will—my avatar!" Jason's eyes bugged out. "Yes, Jason, know that I am a mighty being, and I will bestow a sizable portion of my might unto you. Your natural magical ineptitude, burden that it is, will fall from your shoulders at the merest sight of my true glory, and you will weave spells worthy of archmages.

"Moreover, you will gain powers no wizard could ever hope to emulate: you will be able to fly at will, without the slightest effort, and regenerate from all but the worst of wounds in a matter of minutes. And, should your wits ever fail you, or your confidence begin to falter, I will always be with you. I will see through your eyes, and hear through your ears. I will even be able to guide your movements, when you require my guidance."

"Wow." Jason breathed.

"You certainly seem interested; would you be willing to take up my offer?"

"Well," said Jason, his mind reeling with all he had heard, "for my part—what is it you require?"

"Very little more than you're already doing." said Red. "Only that you swear allegiance to me. And, obviously, you must permit me to transform you into my avatar."

"You can't do it without my permission?" said Jason, somewhat amused.

"No," said Red, "my power is finite. I can't make the necessary changes unless you accept them."

"What are those changes, exactly?"

"Well, I'll need to imbue your body with a certain amount of magic, in order to make you receptive to my power. All of the power that you'll receive as an avatar, you understand, you'll simply be borrowing from me. Also, I'll have to accelerate your maturation a bit, to unlock the channels through which my influence flows."

"You mean I'll grow older?" said Jason. "By how much?"

"No, you won't actually age; you'll simply advance to one of the upper Tanner stages. Your lifespan will remain the same, though your height and weight will each increase a smidgen."

"I think you know that I don't know what a whatchamacallit stage is. Stop beating around the bush."

"You demand precision, eh? All right, I'll be as precise as possible. As you are now, you will begin to undergo puberty sometime next winter, with respect to the seasons of Gyeeds. As soon as you become my avatar, on the other hand, you'll become mostly sexually mature, lacking only the stature, girth, and voice of an older adolescent."

"Hm… so that means… hey, how do you know when I'll hit puberty naturally? How do you know I haven't already begun?"

"Such phenomena are part of my domain as a Supernal. Just as you can see that I'm colored red, so can I see that you're so-and-so many seconds away from any given hormonal change."

"So, then… were those emotions I felt when I saw you before, those other three times, your doing?"

Red looked at Jason carefully. "Until you devote yourself to the cause of good, the most I can tell you is that although my presence created those emotions in your breast, I did not consciously will them into existence. They were a side-effect of my power. You are unaffected now only because we are in a dream.

"Of course, as soon as you become my avatar, I will tell you everything."

Jason contemplated the offer for some time, carefully, as Red waited patiently. It certainly seemed like a good offer—Jason wouldn't mind having all that power, and he definitely wanted the knowledge. He'd be happy to wage war against those monsters, given sufficient strength to do so. The one thing that irked him was how Red was hiding so much from him, including its real identity. It called itself "a being of pure good", and for the most part, it seemed to have behaved accordingly, but there was still a deal of ambiguity.

"Red," said Jason, "if you've been paying any attention to me at all, then you know I'm reluctant to sign up for something without knowing what I'm getting into. Even if I do do that all the time, I don't really like it." (<And if I'm going to take Simon's advice,> he added to himself, <I'd better avoid it.>) "Can't you tell me anything more about yourself and the other Supernals?"

The fox sighed. It closed its eyes and concentrated for a moment. After a few seconds, two more foxes appeared, one on each side of it. The fox at Red's right was noticeably larger, and colored lime-green. It was strangely muscled for a fox, and endowed with long, sharp teeth. The other newcomer was a little smaller than Red. It had fur the color of indigo dye, and markedly soft facial features.

"And these are Blue and Green, I suppose?" said Jason.

"You can call them that, if you like." said Red.

"Well, I don't." said Jason. "'Blue' is my name. Instead, you shall be Moe, Larry, and Curly. Much better, wouldn't you agree?"

None of the foxes looked at all amused.

"Primary colors it is, then! So, tell me all about your friends, Magenta."

"These are my allies in the struggle against the evil powers." said the red fox, ignoring Jason's irreverence. "All of us are Supernals of approximately equal strength. Together, we form a triad, which I lead. We do our utmost to protect the innocent and the good, to destroy the wicked, and, in general, to make the world a better place in which to live."

Red walked up to Jason until it was right at his feet. It spoke gently, tenderly, even—could it be?—lovingly. "I'm not hiding the details from you, lad, just to cause you pain. Yes, I know and understand your distress. But you must understand that many things must be kept secret—secret from the enemy. There are many humans and Supernals out there in the world who would like nothing more than to see the three of us destroyed, and all life obliterated from God's creation. Until you swear to join our side, there is always a danger, no matter how slight, that the enemy might catch you in its vile claws, and turn you against us. For that reason, I cannot trust you. Yet."

Jason was silenced. He understood, at once, what a bind this being must be in. Surely he must… he would… he thought carefully, very carefully indeed. No, there was one more thing that troubled him. Nothing very great, but still.

"I have to admit" said Jason slowly "that there's one reason I'm reluctant to undergo this transformation, and it's because of puberty." Red looked concerned, but not entirely surprised. "I—I—I know I'm going to have to go through that someday—someday very soon, if what you said is true—but I can't say I'm eager. There's nothing in particular to dread about it, so far as I know, but—I can't bring myself to sign up for sexuality prematurely. It's a little frightening, you know? I want the ability to slide into it gradually, like everybody else, and not just plunge head-first into it. It's really an intense thing, or so they said in sex-ed. How could I go to bed like Curtis and Simon and wake up like Roland?" Jason shook his head. "I'm profoundly unenthusiastic about that. If there's any way around it, or if you could wait a while…"

Red laughed gently. "Poor child, there's nothing to be afraid of. Sexuality is something to be relished, not dreaded. It is nothing more or less than the power to bring forth new life, and a friend to see you through hard times. As the strongest connection between your species and the natural world, it will bring you into greater sympathy with all living things, including God. Most of all, it is a source of joy—joy unsurpassed in variety, in depth, and in duration. In fact, I think you'll agree that this opportunity to sample sexuality in its full, undiluted glory several years early is the best part of being my avatar." It paused. "So, what do you say?"

"I…" said Jason. "Well, I'll need to think some more."

And indeed he did think. <Maybe precocious puberty ain't so bad, after all. Certainly, there's a lot that's appealing about this offer: power, fighting for the side of good, answers, and pleasure! I can use as much as I can get of all four of those things.> Of course, there was still the distinct possibility that Jason would regret making the deal after learning some detail that was hidden from him now, but there wasn't anything he or Red could do about that. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be Red's avatar. There would be power, pleasure, and whatever it wanted him to do. Whatever it—Wait a minute. That sounded like an awfully familiar setup. He'd heard of many similar deals before. Yes, of course—how slow he'd been! How had it taken him this long to realize it, with all those red flags waving at him? Oh, he'd been foolish—but not quite foolish enough!

"How stupid do you think I am?" Jason demanded.

Red jumped back. "Jason, what―"

"Lucifer! Satan! Beelzebub! Yeah, I know who you are, Tempter of Souls! I've read my fairy tales, and I don't need to see the horns on your head to recognize you for the lying little rat you are! I suppose you're the real master of all those monsters, eh?"

All three of the foxes tried to speak at once, but Jason shouted right over them. "Promises of power! Sexual temptation! You certainly didn't work very hard to hide your true nature, did you? Did you think that all that nonsense about goodness and justice would be enough to take my eyes off the ball? Well, know this, devil and demons—I, Jason Amadeus Blue, have a head on my shoulders, and I'm not going to go down in history as another stupid ol' Faust!"

Jason glared at the fox he'd called Satan with all the hatred he could muster. "I've learned all I need to know. You can let me wake up now."

Red trembled with rage. "You poor fool!" it hissed. "Do you really think that? Would you scorn the side of good? Don't you realize the evil of your own preconceptions, the world you grew up in? Did it ever occur to you how the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims all demonized life itself—dressed up everything worthwhile in existence as a bogeyman, all part of their own wicked plot to control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling? Tell me, Jason," the fox continued, advancing towards the Argonaut, as the boy walked backwards in tandem, "have you ever read the Bible?"

"I'm agnostic." Jason snapped. "Why are you talking about religion? They're―"

"You ought to read Leviticus!" Red snarled, with a world of contempt in its voice. "That, boy, is evil in its purest form. This is unclean, that's unclean—with all those animals they couldn't eat, it's a wonder that the children of Israel were allowed to eat their own crops! It's a wonder they could reproduce! And why did they bother with all that nonsense? Because they didn't want to be 'an abomination unto the Lord'—the Lord of Darkness!"

"You're the Lor―"

"Enough!" the fox bellowed with such supernatural volume that Jason was nearly deafened. "You will regret this, worm!"

Red's eyes glowed with a white light momentarily, and Jason's left arm jerked out to his side; his hand writhed about. Before he could protest or otherwise react, the distinctive smells of Roland, Curtis, and (much less intensely) Simon assaulted his nostrils: he woke up.

Noticing that his left arm was stretched out, Jason brought it closer to his face and looked at the wrist. In the darkness, he could just make out a large gap in the gold bracelet. Apparently, he had slammed it against the side of the bed in his sleep.

Even as he was gripped by an acute sinking feeling, Jason tried to teleport beside his bed. Nothing happened. He had no doubt that if the Devil had thought this worth doing, then simply repairing the break in the bracelet wouldn't return its magic to it. The power was gone.

Jason wept.