The Third Driver

The driver of the third truck that Thorm waylaid was a teenage girl. A few sparks of suppressed rage escaped from Roland's fingers when he saw Thorm handle her just as roughly as the monster had handled everyone else. Thorm didn't notice the sparks, but Jason did, and the boy worried that Roland might not keep a cool enough head to execute the plan. Then again, if he could use some magic without any reagents, the plan might not be necessary after all.

Whatever the reason, Roland then kept his anger in check, and didn't attack Thorm. The reagent-spoiling process began normally, and after several minutes, Roland signaled to Jason that the plan was to begin. The adventurer was squatting before his third or fourth locked box. As usual, he tried each of the keys, one by one. But this time, when he came to the right one, he pretended it didn't fit. After trying the others, he said to Thorm "I can't find the key for this lock."

Thorm blinked his jumbled eyes. "Did you try all of them?"

"I did."

"Where is it?" Thorm demanded of the girl.

"It—it should be on the keyring." she said falteringly, staring at Thorm's face in mortal terror. "If it's not there… I don't know where it could be."

There was a pause. Thorm didn't accuse the driver of hiding anything, because she obviously had no motive to do so.

"I guess it fell off somehow." said Jason, trying his best to sound as if the possibility had just occurred to him. He pretended to look around on the floor of the truck and on top of the boxes.

Roland made to mirror Jason, but Thorm cried out "Freeze!" and pointed a tentacle at Roland. Jason jumped involuntarily. "The kid can do it. I need to watch you so you don't take any reagents."

Jason shuddered. That hadn't been the plan, but it was frightening to see that the monster had a head on its shoulders. He went over all the surfaces in the back of the truck and even peeked inside some of the containers. Once he figured he'd searched enough, he swore and said "I can't find it."

"Well, where is it?" Thorm snapped at the driver in frustration.

"I don't know!" she said.

Thorm thought for a moment. "Maybe it's in the cab."

Jason had to fight to suppress a smile. "Should I look there?"

Thorm stared at the boy. "Yeee—no. You look too eager. I don't trust you. You," he said, pointing at Roland again, "you go search the cab. You have one minute. Don't try to run away; I can run three times faster than you. You," he continued, pointing at Jason, "keep working on the other reagents. We're wasting too much time on this box."

Thorm picked up Roland, searched him for reagents again, and then threw him towards the front of the truck. Jason was still inside the truck, so Roland was now out of sight. He opened a cardboard box, picked it up, and brought it towards the rear so Thorm could pour the chemical. He had at first been happy when Thorm had decided to let Roland, and not him, search the cab. Now that he realized it was him, and not Roland, who would be facing Thorm's imminent wrath, he felt he'd rather take his chances up front.

His mind raced about how to prepare as Thorm poured from the barrel, and then, as he was putting the box back, he thought of something. As nonchalantly as possible, he walked behind the tallest stack of crates in the truck, so it stood between him, standing in the truck, and Thorm, standing outside a few feet beyond the threshold. Carefully, he pushed the upper crates in the stack so as to make the pile somewhat, not excessively, unsteady.

"What are you doing?" Thorm demanded.

But then the tentacled beast suddenly had more pressing concerns, as the truck began to move. There was about a second during which the truck accelerated and Thorm was simply too shocked to react. Once he came to his senses, he tossed the original truck driver aside, ran towards the truck, and leapt inside: it was still going slowly enough that he could outrun it. Jason waited a second longer for the truck to speed up, even as Thorm's tentacles snaked through the air towards him. Then he threw himself against the stack of crates. The crates flew through the air and bowled the featherweight Thorm over, sending him sprawling on the pavement as the truck sped away.

Jason sat down on the floor and breathed a sigh of relief. Thorm soon became a speck of dust himself. A while later, the truck slowed down and came to a halt. Jason went outside and ran into Roland coming out of the cab.

"Well," said Jason, "looks like we did it again, eh?"

"Mmm-hm." said Roland. "We should be superheroes." He walked towards the back of the truck as Jason followed him. "We'd make an excellent crime-fighting duo, wouldn't we?"

Jason thought about that. "You'd make a good Batman, I think, but I refuse to wear Robin's ridiculous costume. Right now, I look silly enough as-is."

"Regardless," said Roland, stuffing the pockets of his suit with reagents from the truck's shipment, careful to only take those that hadn't been damaged, "now's the time for some real heroism."

"What do you mean?" asked Jason.

Roland took a handful of green tablets that smelled like rosemary, with a little curry and formaldehyde mixed in. "We need to save the girl, of course."

"We… what? Roland, what are you thinking? We never have to see Thorm again!" <Either of the two Thorms we've met so far, anyway.> Jason added to himself.

"No, we do, Jason; we do."


Roland looked at Jason with a stern expression. "I realize that, contrary to my first thought, the girl won't be tentacle-raped; I have no doubt that Thorm is about as inclined to do that as I am to rape Gol. But forced labor or fighting is hardly better. Jason, honestly now, if we were to let this girl remain in these monsters' clutches for the rest of her life just as we were in their clutches for a few hours, would you be able to live with yourself?"

There was a long pause as Roland continued collecting reagents. Jason was silent. At first, he was ashamed, feeling that he ought to do everything he could to help someone avoid a fate he so feared. Wasn't that the least he could do, as a decent human being? Then again, when he considered the potential consequences of going after Thorm, he began to feel differently.

"Yes," he said quietly, "I would." Roland stared at him with a kind of horror. "Just hold on a minute before you hurry to your death." he said at a bolder volume. "You may feel heroic now, but remember, Roland, Thorm is a powerful beast. We were lucky to get away from him the first time. If we take our chances with a second encounter, all of us—you, me, and the truck driver alike—could end up back in bondage—or in the grave. I advise you to be practical. I think you'll agree that we need to rescue Curtis and Simon, so we should concentrate on that. If we hurry, we can catch Gol by surprise, by pretending to be just another truck, before Thorm rejoins her."

"To hell with the eunuch." said Roland. "Curtis deserves his freedom, true, but I don't see why Gol should be any less dangerous than Thorm, nor why you have no sympathy for the girl. She is blameless, so far as I can see."

"All I'm sayin' is, we shouldn't endanger ourselves more than necessary. And it would be pathetically stupid for us to die just because you can't help yourself from acting the gung-ho swashbuckler. We're not responsible for the life of every Tom, Dick, and Harry, y'know!"

Roland walked over to Jason, picked him up, and lifted him until their eyes met. "Listen, Jason," the adventurer said, sternly and patiently, "rescuing the girl is necessary. I know that Americans have become increasingly antagonistic to this idea, but it's the truth, plain and simple: a man's duty is to protect the innocent. Especially innocent women. This is not something you can just philosophize away, or toss by the wayside when it happens to inconvenience you. It is an essential part of manhood. You're going to be a man, too, someday: you need to learn this. If I fail to instill this lesson in you, I will have failed as a surrogate father."

They stared at each other.

"Roland," said Jason, "I fear that the Matter of Britain and the Grimms' fairy tales have gone to your head."

Roland didn't respond.

"Would you mind putting me down now?"

Roland, sighing, put Jason back on the floor of the truck.

"All right, shall we look for Gol and her captives now?"

"Thorm first." said Roland, walking outside.

"Man, he's askin' for it." Jason grumbled.

They shut the door on the back of the truck and locked it. They got into the cab and buckled up for safety; then, Roland pulled the truck around and drove down the road back the way they'd come from.

"Why are you coming, if you're so apathetic?" Roland asked, not without a note of sarcasm in his voice.

"I wanna know what happens to you." said Jason.

"Fair enough."

"It looks like you're driving back to where we left Thorm. Do you plan on just jumping out of the truck and casting spells at 'im?"


"Wouldn't you rather have a plan?"

"Do you have one?"

"Uh… no."

"Tell me if you think of one."

They drove on.

"Y'know," said Jason, "since we're free now, we could stop to think of a plan, or we could find a city and use whatever resources we could scare up there to help us. I could certainly use a pair of pants, at least."

"We need to do this now." said Roland. "Otherwise, we'll just get caught up in some other calamity. I'm a strong spellcaster; I'll do fine."

Jason had been hoping that Thorm would be gone, but there he was, standing by the roadside. He didn't bother to hide this time: he saw the truck, and he could imagine who was in it and what they'd come to do. Normally, he and Gol kept their tentacles retracted while they weren't using them. Now, he had six tentacles extended, all waving around in the air threateningly. On the grass beside Thorm were the Antimnemonic (face-down) and the barrel of reagent-spoiling liquid. The truck driver, apparently unhurt, stood on the road. She watched her truck approach with an apprehensive kind of hope.

Roland brought the truck to a stop at a distance from Thorm roughly four times as long as one of Thorm's tentacles—in other words, too close for Jason's comfort. Neither Roland nor Thorm was quick to make the first move. They just glared at each other for a while.

"All right, this is it." said Roland. "Wish me luck." With that, he flung open the door and jumped to the ground.

At once, Thorm shot three tentacles at the driver. One worked on binding her legs, one wrapped around her arms, and one encircled her neck. He could've done the job with one, of course, but not nearly so quickly. The fact that he'd already had his tentacles fully extended helped, too.

"Don't move a muscle," said Thorm, "or she dies."

Roland froze. Jason whispered the dirtiest swear-word he could think of. Roland wouldn't do anything now, of course, because that would defeat the purpose of putting his own life on the line in the first place. With his own thinking, he had made himself as helpless as the truck driver.

"Turn around and unspell." said Thorm.

I know I haven't mentioned unspelling before, but Jason had heard of it. It was a simple, irreversible spell, only usable on oneself, that nullified the caster's spellcasting abilities for a few minutes. Jason watched Roland cast it. Thorm began advancing towards the truck.

"Don't you move, either." said Thorm, looking at Jason.

But Thorm had made a fatally wrong assumption. Jason knew that Roland would hate him, and perhaps he would hate himself, for what he was about to do. Nevertheless, he didn't feel he had a choice. He took a deep breath, and then, he jumped into the driver's seat, snapped closed the seatbelt, gripped the steering wheel, and floored the accelerator.

Thorm was enraged. He was true to his word: as soon as he saw Jason move, he squeezed and twisted the body of the driver with deadly force. There was a sickening snap, a high shriek cut off by a faint gurgle, and in an instant the girl was dead as a doornail. Thorm relaxed his grip and the body fell to the earth. "I warned you." his face said. Then his face was saying something very different when he realized that the truck was barreling towards him at full speed. For a moment he panicked; then, inexplicably, he retracted all his tentacles and held his ground. Jason kept on going, preparing himself for the worst. Just as the truck was about to slam into the monster, Thorm fell prone. He was so thin that the truck drove right over him.

Jason, however horrified by what he'd just seen, had no time to digest it. He made a clumsy U-turn to face Thorm again, who was now running towards Roland, who was now unabashedly running for his life. Jason's steering was anything but steady, given that his system was full of adrenaline and that he'd never driven an automobile before in his life; somehow, he managed to aim the truck towards Thorm. He drove forward, determined to strike Thorm down before the monster could get ahold of Roland. Roland ran perpendicular to the truck, allowing Jason to aim for Thorm without endangering Roland, but also bringing himself closer to Thorm.

As the truck drew nearer to the monster, Thorm stopped chasing, and prepared once again to dive under. And so he did, but as he fell, Jason swerved to the right. The wheel just managed to strike Thorm on the head. He sailed through the air in an impressive arc, then landed on the grass with such a noise and such force that Jason could tell he wouldn't get up again.

Jason released his foot from the pedal, letting the truck drift to a stop. He slowly got out and walked over to Roland. The adventurer was staring at Thorm's corpse in a stupor. Then, Roland seemed to notice the body of the truck driver for the first time. He ran over and sat beside it as Jason followed.

Only now, after the truck driver had died, could Jason get a good look at her. She was a bit overweight, but tall and somewhat muscular, with a hint of statuesque dignity that persisted even after her untimely death. She wore a baggy navy-blue uniform with the seal of the Droydanian government, a complex design featuring a large ape like a gorilla, on its right shoulder. Her face was forever frozen in the agony of death by Thorm's embrace. Just a cursory glance into her pale green eyes brought Jason a more visceral sense of his own mortality than any of his own near-death experiences had.

And then, to Jason's great surprise, Roland burst into tears. He cried loudly and without restraint for some time. Some blades of grass on the ground next to him spontaneously uprooted themselves and drifted through the air into his lap. (That, Jason supposed, was another instance of Roland's magic getting the better of him.) Jason had no idea what to do with himself. A few tears trickled down his cheeks in sympathetic reaction; he didn't really feel sad at the death of someone he'd never really known.

It was then that Jason remembered that he, knowingly and deliberately, had brought on this death. At once, a wave of sickness came over him. No, of course he hadn't wanted to kill her; he hadn't had a choice! But he had done it despite its horror. He had jumped into the driver's seat knowing full well that he was sacrificing this girl's life for a chance at his and Roland's freedom. Had he any right to use an innocent stranger's life like that? Hadn't the only good, decent thing to do been to let Roland and himself be captured and then try to free all of them? He'd escaped once; couldn't he have escaped again? Didn't he have a certain responsibility not to be a murderer?

And then Jason, too, wept—not so much for the driver as for himself.

Once man and boy had cried themselves out, Roland arose and told Jason to stand back. He raised his arms up to the heavens and chanted the words of a spell. The truck driver's corpse burst into a great plume of flame.

"It's a quick cremation," said Roland, "less than she deserves. But we've wasted enough time crying over the corpse, and we still have work to do."

Jason wasn't sure of the justice of leaving Thorm's corpse like Jezebel's, but he wasn't inclined to argue. All he did was make sure to take the Antimnemonic, which he figured was bound to be useful somewhere down the line. He slipped it into the pocket of his boxers. I admit I've never seen a pair of boxer shorts with a pocket, but that doesn't mean one can't exist outside of our world.

"Do you know which way Gol went?" Jason asked.

Roland thought for a moment. "That way." he said, pointing towards the trees. "We'll have to trudge through the swamp again, I fear."

"So much for using the truck. Man, I wish I'd taken the driver's shoes."

They walked across the meadow and into the wood, Roland staring at the ground with his hands in his pockets, Jason compulsively glancing and sniffing around for hidden monsters.

"Jason." said Roland as they journeyed.


"What you did half an hour ago was a vile, wicked, evil thing. Never did I imagine, in all the days that I've known you, that you could be so heartless, so monstrous, so mindlessly destructive of human life."

There was a pause.

"Gee, Roland," said Jason, "I'm touched."

Roland swore very loudly. He turned to Jason and picked him up not in any very gentle or comfortable way, but by the collar of his shirt. It hurt. "Listen to me, you wretch!" Roland screamed in his face. "You murdered an innocent girl! I don't care if you saved us from capture! You—do—not—waste—a—blameless—woman's—life—to—save—your—own—hide!"

And for even more emphasis, Roland threw Jason to the ground with force enough that he could've been injured if he'd landed on some surface less yielding than dirt. That hurt, too.

Jason stood back up and dusted himself off indignantly. "Are you quite finished with your child abuse now?"

Roland sighed. "Yes, I suppose so. I ought to give up on trying to squeeze those perverse American morals out of you. Children aren't so malleable as parents like to believe."

They trudged on. <Gosh, what a hypocrite.> Jason thought. <He's killed droves of people for the pettiest reasons imaginable without a shred of remorse. He'd probably jump at the chance to fly a jumbo jet into a skyscraper full of people he didn't like. And he calls me monstrous for letting one person die when I didn't have a choice!> But Jason kept quiet, familiar with how his and Roland's senses of right and wrong differed. Besides, as you can tell, he still wasn't quite sure that he'd done the right thing.

"I don't love you anymore." Roland said suddenly, in a offhanded, oh-by-the-way-I-forgot-to-mention kind of tone.

"Just as well." said Jason, more directly. "I don't love you, either."

Roland put on a grim frown, and for quite a while, the two of them walked on in total silence.