Thank You, Mario!

"Jeepers, they're big," said Jason, "and they look hungry."

"I don't believe we could kill them all before they could kill us." said Roland.

"What are we to do?" said Jason.

"I think you'll have to come up with a solution," said Simon, "as usual."

Jason nodded. The party was in the midst of a pine forest, not far from a small man-made clearing. Inside the clearing, grouped in a tight circle several yards in radius, a host of wolves stood. Though Jason had smelled the beasts from a good distance away, he hadn't guessed at their size: paw-to-shoulder, they were as tall as him. All were staring intently at a crude wooden dwelling in the center of the circle, with their jaws hanging open and their tongues lolling out. They weren't any more demonic- or evil-looking than ordinary wolves, so it wouldn't have been fair to call them wargs, but their great size and their eager aspects, as they stared at the presumably occupied house with their big bushy tails wagging, were enough to qualify them as monsters.

"Can I help you?" a strange hissing voice asked.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. By now, over a month had passed since Jason had refused Beatrix's offer. Having no better recourse, the party had decided to ask Caleb if he had any ideas. As it turned out, Caleb's malware-writing activities had been discovered and the young man had been jailed within the few days since Jason and friends had first met him. So then, of course, after finding with great difficulty where he was being held, they'd busted him out, and he'd recommended that they meet a certain old colleague of Leela's, and the old colleague had guided them to a geologist who he'd thought might be able to find her hideaway, and the geologist had directed them to a spot near Droydania's south pole that had actually turned out to be a network of underground tunnels inhabited by a race of quasi-sapient mole-men, and so on and so forth for weeks on end.

Through all kinds of hardship—extreme environments; close encounters with fantastic monsters, bounty hunters, and policemen; foraging food from the land to survive without stealing—the party had stayed alive, together, and within the verse of Droydania. It hadn't been easy. The mages' magic had been taxed to the utmost: once, while fighting an enormous cloud of malevolent flying insects, Simon had cast so many spells that he'd collapsed with exhaustion, and a week ago, Roland had run out of the reagent he needed to conjure flame. (He'd since borrowed some from Curtis, who used it infrequently.) By now, Jason had concocted and made use of so many tricks, from simple ruses to convoluted schemes, that he'd lost count of them. Occasionally they'd failed and made things worse, but Jason's success rate, already respectable from the beginning, had increased with time. Practice was making perfect.

Make no mistake—continuous adventure and danger had taken their toll on the hearts and minds of our heroes. All four had steadily become grimmer as the days had worn on and they'd seemed to come no closer to their goal.

Roland was growing impatient; Jason could feel it. The adventurer's temper was more volatile than ever before; he would attack any being he saw as threatening to the party, or to someone else, with little provocation.

Curtis was acting less carefree every day. He always paid attention now. The shock of the recent events had roused him to a level of consciousness formerly beyond him, which was a good thing, so far as Jason was concerned. However, that consciousness strained the prince: once continually escaping all the troubles of the world in his mind, Curtis was now bearing the full weight of them. Consequently, he seemed perpetually haggard; at times, he was even morose.

Simon, who'd always been reserved, seemed to be turning further inward over time. Though he always took active part in discussions, he was subtly preoccupied. Frequently, Jason noticed him staring contemplatively at the ground or the sky while the rest of the party's gaze was fixed on something else. The problem didn't seem to be his relationship with Roland: they simply ignored each other now, since Roland refused to speak to Simon, and Simon no longer bothered speaking to Roland. Rather, the lack of progress was frustrating the singer. "Our quest is, after all, our only hope," he'd once said, "yet it offers so little hope. None of us can return home; all we have is what we carry. Our entire welfare rests upon the dubious possibility that my mother will act as the panacea for all our troubles. It seems to me that our situation is bound to only grow worse."

These words had struck a chord with Jason, for they expressed much the same thoughts that had been haunting him. The four of them had bet everything on this one mission. Jason himself was becoming more and more single-minded, to his growing unease. He was becoming jaded. He didn't wonder so much at the origins and motives of the strange creatures and people he met; he came to see them as mere obstacles, marionettes dangled threateningly at him by the screenwriters, whose only function was to be pushed past in his pursuit of Leela, the oracle. This very day, he had asked "What are we to do?" more out of force of habit than a real feeling of helplessness. Some part of his brain had already begun thinking about how to deal with these wolves the moment he'd caught their scent, and the old feeling of mortality seemed less real to him the more he grew familiar with it, as new ostensible threats to his life appeared daily.

Now, to explain what the group was doing here. They had gathered, from certain sources, that somewhere in these woods was a small hut, and in the hut lived a gent who was generally known as the Secret-Keeper. He was a hermit who busied himself utilizing his enormous interdimensional web of contacts to trade all kinds of obscure and forbidden knowledge: he sold secrets for secrets, and collected any he could get for free in his spare time. It seemed a no-brainer that he would know something about Leela. Naturally, the location of his home was also a secret, but it had proved far easier to discover than that of Leela's. Once the party had teleported to the forest, Curtis had sent an eagle to spot the hut from above and lead them there. And here they were.

Anyway, with what I just said about Jason in mind, you can understand why when Jason heard that strange hissing voice—"Can I help you?"—he jumped with surprise, but he wasn't quite as terrified as he might've been in the past.

The speaker stepped into view. He was a new kind of monster, a seven-foot-tall humanoid with translucent light-green skin. If he had any blood or internal organs to speak of, they were invisible, since Jason could look straight through his flesh and see the world behind. He was dressed in a great snow-white silk robe adorned with intricate designs stitched in gold thread. Each of his fingers had a ring with a colorful stone, and around his neck hung a pendant in the shape of a trefoil knot. Suspiciously, he had no scent at all.

"Uh, yes, sir," said Jason, "could you tell me what all these wolves are doing here?"

"They are mine." said the green man. "The man who lives in this house was skipping stones off the pond to the southwest when he struck and killed my son, who was invisible at the time. I have given the murderer a quarter of an hour's respite, as he requested, but then he must die."

"Invisible?" said Jason. "How could this man have avoided hitting your son if he'd been invisible?"

"That's neither here nor there." said the creature. His cold face made clear his terrible purpose. Jason noticed for the first time that the irises of his angry eyes were red. "The slayer must pay for the blood of the slain."

<He's got Roland's perverted morals, I see.> "Would you permit the four of us to speak to this man before his execution?"

"No." the green gentleman hissed curtly.

"Dang." Jason thought for a moment. "Come to think of it, on the way here, I saw another fellow skipping stones on that pond."

"Do I look like a fool to you?" the creature bristled.

"Not at all." said Jason levelly. He'd expected that this monster wouldn't be tricked that easily. He was at least glad that, as he'd guessed, any stone-skipping on that pond was a cause of concern for this creature—the creature made that clear enough with his strong reaction. "I'm telling the truth. If you don't believe me, I'll come along with you, and you can kill me, too, if you don't see anyone."

The creature paused. "You'd just run away."

"No, I won't!" Jason insisted. "And if you can't believe that, take along one of your wolves, and it can keep my hand in its mouth the whole time!" Standing in front of the rest of the party, Jason could hear Roland catch his breath.

The green man was impressed. "I suppose you're serious. But what, if I may ask, is your motive for telling me this?"

"To be honest," Jason said in a conspiratorial tone, "I ain't fond of the guy doing the skipping. I wouldn't mind if you killed him as you will this guy."

"So we have a common enemy." said the green man, nodding. "I see." He grinned; Jason suppressed a shudder.

The creature turned to the wolves and said something in a language Jason didn't recognize. On cue, one of the wolves broke from the group and dashed over to Jason and the green man. Scary as it had been from afar, the wolf grew yet more fearsome as it neared. It bounded across the dirt at a frighteningly rapid gait, spittle dripping from its cavernous maw.

After instructing the wolf a bit more, the green man said "Put in your hand."

Jason took a deep breath. Slowly, he moved his left hand into the mouth. His hand didn't look much larger than the wolf's long, sharp teeth. Any moment, he feared, his courage might give out (there's irony for you), but he held on, mumbling faintly to himself "Plot immunity, plot immunity, plot immunity…" the whole time. The jaws closed, gently, and Jason tried not to scream as he felt the warmth and moisture inside.

"Don't follow us." the green man said to the mages. "I have eyes on the back of my head."

As they walked off to the pond, Jason gave the mages a look that said "Don't leave me alone here!" They understood.

The green man led the way—good thing, as Jason had never seen the pond before and had no idea how to find it. Soon they arrived at their destination, a surprisingly clear body of water in the middle of the woods, large enough that one might call it a lake.

The green man brought them to the edge of the water, where Jason saw plenty of highly skippable stones. "Where's the man you spoke of?" the green man asked, looking about.

"Over there." said Jason, pointing. The man looked just long enough for Jason to pick up a pebble with his right hand and toss it straight at the creature's chest. The throw was clumsy, but the aim was true.

All the translucent gentleman had time to do, before the stone hit him in the chest and smashed him into a puff of green fog, leaving only his clothes and jewelry behind, was to say one word in that strange language. The word rang in Jason's ears for the rest of his life—not for its sound or for its exact meaning, but for its effect: the wolf bit down.

The hurt and the horror that Jason experienced, on multiple levels, upon suddenly being detached from something that was truly a part of him, the very executor of his will, can hardly be imagined. Yet that was nothing compared to what Jason thought would inevitably follow. The wolf pounced on Jason, knocking him to the ground with great violence, and would have made mincemeat of him then and there had not it itself been very suddenly slain. For a moment it hovered above the boy, wobbling; then, it rolled into the lake. Jason saw a number of bloody holes in its side. He looked away.

And then he saw the stump.

When he came to, Jason found himself lying beneath a tree nearby the pond. The mages, looking concerned, sat beside him.

"That's good, at least." Roland said when he saw Jason's eyes open. "You've been unconscious for about an hour. I was able to stop the bleeding, with a bit of field-medic magic, so you'll definitely live, and you'll get to keep your whole arm as well. But given that we can hardly expect to receive real medical care without being arrested," (here, briefly, he looked very dark), "I have no idea how we could get you a prosthetic hand."

Jason timidly glanced at his left arm. His forearm ended in a bandaged stump an inch or so behind where his wrist had once been. "Gosh," he said, "it's a horrifying sight. I don't feel any pain, though. And it feels like the hand's still there, sort of." He looked at the three of them with an expression of vague shock. "Never did I imagine this would happen."

"Jay, you stuck it in the wolf's mouth!" said Curtis. "Didja think it wouldn't bite? I killed it with plasma lances. If I hadn't followed you, and done that, it would've killed you."

"But…" said Jason "I have plot immunity. They can't take away my left hand!"

"On the contrary," said Simon, "perhaps the writers wanted to have you injured drastically, for the sake of drama, but also to avoid giving you much of a handicap, for their own convenience. In that case, your left hand would've been an ideal target for injury."

"Avoid giving me a handicap?" Jason wailed. "I'm left-handed!"

The consensus was that that definitely changed things. Curtis mouthed a silent "oh".

Simon looked grim. "I'm sorry, I never noticed." he said.

Roland gave Jason the old familiar is-there-something-I-don't-understand-or-are-you-completely-out-of-your-mind look. "Why, then," he said with a slightly choked voice, "when you could freely choose which hand to put in the wolf's mouth, did you use your dominant one?"

"Because I thought it had plot immunity." said Jason, staring longingly at the bandage. "I was wrong."

"God have mercy on you, Jason," said Roland, "you're clever, but sometimes you can be so phenomenally, astonishingly, breathtakingly stupid!" He paused for effect. Curtis and Simon didn't express any kind of agreement with that statement, but they didn't contradict it, either. "You're self-destructive, too." the adventurer added. "This, Jason, I guarantee: when you die, you'll die by your very own hands—or rather, hand."

"Yes, Roland," said Jason, "you've said similar things many times in the recent past. I make mistakes. And look, I've paid for at least one of them."

"And I hope you won't make a mistake of this magnitude again." said Simon. "You'll be more cautious now, won't you?" Jason didn't respond; all he did was bring himself up to a seated position. There was a long pause. "Jason?"

"Yeah, I will."

"You sound noncommittal." said Simon.

"Yeah, I am. Look, I have no idea what I'm doing, okay?" With difficulty, he stood up. The others rose as well. "All I can do is play it by ear. I've never thought I was invincible, and so I've done my best to steer clear of unnecessary danger, but at the same time I've realized that this world operates according to different rules of probability than the real one. I've successfully taken advantage of that fact at least once. I see that I overstepped my bounds here, but… if using television logic turns out to be the best way to solve a problem in the future, I won't shy away from it."

"Your attitude towards danger is still unclear to me." said Simon. "Sometimes you emphasize the need to avoid it, and at other times you act heedless of it. Why is that?"

"What it boils down to is whether facing danger is necessary to achieve our ends." said Jason. "If hunting down Leela entails encountering all sorts of hostile monsters, so be it. At this point, there's really nothing else we can do. Otherwise, we're all close enough to death's door as it is, so there's no need to put our lives on the line for random strangers."

"You know how I feel about that." said Roland threateningly.

"I believe that self-sacrifice, employed wisely, is a noble deed." said Simon.

"You have to be willing to help people." said Curtis.

"Right, I'm in the minority here." said Jason. "That's already been established. Let's stop talking to each other and go talk to this Secret-Keeper character, or the sacrifice of my hand will be wasted."

The wolves hadn't moved from their posts, though the fifteen-minute period had long passed. Once again, Jason had gotten a death sentence indefinitely stayed. Now that the wolves' owner was no more, it ought to be easy, Jason thought, to get the wolves out of the way. Soon he came up with an idea backed by television logic, one that wouldn'tve been out of place in "Looney Tunes". First he used his sense of smell to locate a large game animal in the woods. He found an antelope-like creature. Curtis killed the animal with a mountain lion, Simon butchered the corpse with invisible blades of force, and Roland cooked the meat to perfection with a few quick blasts of fire. This had been the party's standard hunting routine for some weeks.

With many large, greasy, aromatic chunks of flesh in their arms, the four made their way back to the hut. As soon they heard the wolves begin to bark with excitement and stampede towards them, they tossed the meat as far as they could in one direction and teleported a good distance away in another.

They returned to the hut, now pleasantly wolf-free, just in time to see a gaunt young man emerge from it. He clashed greatly with Jason's mental image of the Secret-Keeper as a Jungian "wise old man": he seemed to be a perpetually nervous, underfed character, with a face like a kicked puppy's. His clothes were worn and tattered, as much as Jason's and Curtis's would have been by now if they hadn't gotten new ones, through circumstances too odd and convoluted to explain within a single prepositional phrase, around Cinco de Mayo. The young man looked at the party apprehensively.

"The green guy's dead," said Jason, "and I doubt his wolves will remember to come back for you after they finish the meat we gave them, so you're safe."

The man was awestruck. "Did you kill him?" he asked. He had a high-pitched voice, for a man who hadn't been castrated.

"Uh-huh. Same way you killed his son, but intentionally."

"Well, gosh… thank you!" He was radiant with pathetic joy. "Tell me, what led you to brave these monsters to save me?"

"Well, these three clowns believe in charity and goodness and all that nonsense," said Jason, "but mine was a purely selfish motive. The lot of us recently caught wind of your fame as a sage and general know-it-all, and we were hoping your knowledge could help us solve a very mysterious mystery. I figured you wouldn't be able to enlighten us while you were in forty separate pieces in those wolves' stomachs."

The young man scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Are you sure you don't have me confused with the Secret-Keeper?"

Jason started. "Actually, I did. Where is he? Does he live with you in the hut?"

"This hut? No, he lives in a different hut, about two miles north of here."

As Curtis shouted an expletive, Jason absentmindedly tried to facepalm with his left hand. He was hit by the stump instead.

"Thank you, Mario," Roland muttered in English just loudly enough for Jason to hear, "but our princess is in another castle."