The Trefoil Knot

"This was likely not the best possible destination," said Simon, "but it should suffice for the time being." They were back in the old abandoned warehouse where they'd once plotted the theft of Emperor Ursamor's bracelet. It was pitch-black.

"Flashlight, Roland?" Jason said. There was no response. "Roland?"

"I don't think he came." said Curtis.

"He knew what place I was referring to," said Jason, "didn't he?"

"I think so." said Simon.

"I hope so." said Jason. "I'm sure I'm not the only one who doesn't want a repeat of last week. On a related note, we really need another flashlight."

"Magic works." said Curtis. He conjured up a ball of green light in one hand. Like a candle-flame, the ball itself was bright and clearly visible in the darkness, but it illuminated only a measly radius around Curtis, and that quite dimly.

"Meh." said Jason.

After waiting for about half a minute, they heard Roland say "Good evening." in English. He turned on his flashlight and waved it around; Jason saw the limp body of Frank lying on the ground before him. In Common, Roland added "I just teleported in."

"Oh, good." said Jason. "What took―" He noticed that Roland was breathing heavily. "Uh-oh. What were you doing, Role?"

"Frankly, finishing off the gangsters."

Jason glowered. "He isn't dead," he said, pointing at Frank, "is he?"

"No. But the rest are. A little bit of Droydania has been cleansed, with the blood of they that shed it."

Jason stared at him with a certain resentment, Curtis with disgust, while Roland looked back at both at them unflinchingly.

"I should've anticipated this." said Simon to no one in particular.

"Yes," said Roland, responding without turning his head to acknowledge the singer, "you should've."

"Okay, we've been through this kind of thing before." said Jason. "Enough infighting! We need to find out how to access the 'underground intelligence network' from good ol' Moodbloom. When will he wake up, Curtis?"

"Couple 'a minutes."

"All right. So we wait. Someone bind him."

Simon carefully shackled Frank to the floor as Jason took a seat on a box next to the old man. He wondered what they ought to do with Frank once the interrogation was finished, assuming he could keep Roland from killing him. Goodness, it seemed Roland was growing more murderous every day. They were all steadily worsening, weren't they? The journey was certainly taking its toll. The blood of that truck driver and of Thorm was still on Jason's hand; though he had yet to kill again, he did notice that the deaths of others concerned him less and less with the passage of time: he was growing callous. Certainly Curtis looked less horrified this time than he had after Roland had killed Jake. Simon remained an enigma; Jason only noticed how gently he handled the gangster as he immobilized him.

Jason shook his head. He mustn't be too critical of his friends, for team solidarity was the key. They could only hope to prevail against the mighty forces they were up against if they worked together.

After Jason had ruminated for ten minutes, Frank still had not moved. "Curt," he said, "shouldn't Frank be awake by now?" There was no reply. "Curtis?"

"I think he isn't awake." said Roland. The beam of his flashlight revealed Curtis stretched out on the floor, blissfully asleep. "Wake up, fatso!"

Curtis awoke with a start. "What is it?"

"It's been about ten minutes now." said Jason. "Shouldn't the stun have worn off?"

"Definitely." said Curtis.

"All right, Frank," said Jason, "the game's up. You can open your eyes now."

Frank did. "What do you want from me?" he asked wearily.

"Well, first of all, we'd like to know what you wanted with us."

"Nothin' more than we said: for you to join us."

"But why?"

"Can't you imagine the utility that your boots and Hayms Nepa's coin could've provided us? And between Roland and Curtis, you've got plenty of magical power. We need as many good mages as we can recruit."

"I see." said Jason. He found himself disappointed that Frank hadn't mentioned his cunning, as the Devil and Beatrix had. "And can you tell me, please, how I can utilize the underground intelligence network?"

"Yes, it's easy. When I was your age, you'd have to seek out shadowy figures in dangerous back alleys. Now it's just a matter of sending your question as an email and wiring the fee through a cash office."

"Please elaborate." said Roland, taking out a pad of paper and a pencil.

Frank recited the necessary procedure and address, which I won't bore you with the specifics of; let it only be said that questions to the oracle had to be sent using high-grade encryption. Roland had just finished writing it all down when everyone was blinded by a sudden burst of light. In the split-second it took for Jason's eyes to involuntarily snap shut, he caught a glimpse of a few strangers who'd teleported in, carrying electric lanterns.

There was a great commotion of shouting and spellcasting. Trying to run, Jason tripped over the box he'd been sitting on. He felt a familiar sensation of constriction about his torso; turning his head backwards and opening his eyes to dagger-thin slits, the widest his dilated pupils would allow, he made out a tall, thin figure with long tentacles extending from it in all directions. It was Gol! And fighting alongside her, bizarrely enough, were four Droydanian police officers.

As Jason was lifted into the air, he squeaked the magic word and desperately waved his feet downwards. The toes of his boots scraped the surface of the floor, and in a moment he'd teleported out of the tentacle of Gol and twenty feet across the warehouse. He was tempted to keep running, but worry for his friends staid him: he was frozen with indecision. Glancing back, he saw Simon shriek as he narrowly evaded a fireball only to be grabbed by a tentacle. Roland had already been subdued. Curtis was about to be enwrapped when he conjured an enormous gorilla directly in front of himself. That was enough of a surprise and a meat-shield to allow the prince to run, with adrenaline-enhanced speed, across the warehouse towards Jason. Jason stepped towards Curtis to close the gap quicker. Curtis grabbed Jason's hand and pulled off the fastest teleportation Jason had yet witnessed. And there they were in Gol's tent, which was still standing, though entirely empty. At the moment, actually, they couldn't see anything in there, since it was quite dark.

The boys stumbled outside, into the moonlit swamp. The air hummed with numberless legions of mosquitoes.

"Oh, man," said Jason, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes, "what happened?"

"We got attacked." said Curtis. "Dunno how."

"Well, I guess they teleported in there; the question, of course, is how they knew we were there, and why Gol is working for the government now instead of against it, and what the hell is going to happen to Roland and Simon?" Curtis didn't respond. "But you saved me. Only me. Why didn't―"

"I couldn'tve beaten 'em alone, since we were surprised so much."

"But why me specifically?"

"Jay." Curtis placed his hand gently on Jason's arm. "You're my brother. Did you forget?" A hint of a smile came to his face, a trace of his old carefree disposition.

"Well, yes." said Jason. "I guess I don't do much to hold up that old bargain."

"No, you do." said Curtis, flapping his hand. "You've saved us all lots of times. The important thing is that we stick together."

"Right, I was just thinking that myself."

"Can't do that much now that the cops have Roland n' Simon, though."


There was a pause as Jason swatted away a mosquito that had landed on the end of his stump.

"So now," said Jason, "I guess we wait until Roland shows up on television and the papers again. The media will give us a clue to where they're being held."

"They could get free themselves."

"True, they might. Then they'd have to find us. Where would they look? Well, here, for one. I guess this could serve as a decent interim base camp." He looked around. "The climate isn't ideal, but we are quite remote, and thus well hidden." He sniffed. "Or not. I smell someone else nearby."

"Uh-oh. Where?"

"That way. They're coming towards us." Jason took another, deeper sniff. "Hey, I think I recognize that scent—hold on." He waited until the scent grew strong enough that he could be sure, then he cried "Roland!"

"At your service." Roland's voice replied in Common.

"Hey, that was fast." said Jason, grinning. "What happened?"

"What do you mean?" Roland emerged from the shadows, carefully picking his way over tree-roots and puddles. He looked no worse for wear.

"How'd you escape from those guys?" Curtis asked.

"A few fire spells took care of them neatly enough." said Roland.

"But," said Jason, "weren't you… oh, you faked unconsciousness, didn't you?"


"And what about Simon?"

"He was taken away before I could do anything." said Roland, avoiding Jason's eyes.

Jason crossed his arms. "The details?"

Roland sucked in a breath. "I don't know about you, Jason, but I'm exhausted. It's been a long night." He adjusted his glasses; the bridge of his nose, along with the rest of his face, had just broken out in beads of sweat. It was a hot night in that swamp, indeed. "Can't we get some rest first? I'll tell you everything in the morning."

All the excitement Jason had gone through in the recent past had been keeping him continually stimulated. Now that the immediate danger had passed and he paused to consider the possibility of rest, all the stress caught up with him and a wave of fatigue washed over him. He yawned a gigantic yawn. "Perhaps there's some merit to that." he muttered. "Yes, if we can't get him now… can we?"

"No, not now. He's lost, I'm afraid. We should be able to find him, but it will take time."

Jason nodded gravely. He was about to declare that he, for one, was keen to hit the hay when he noticed something very odd: the expression on Roland's face. Roland looked genuinely regretful, saddened, by Simon's predicament. Seeing this, Jason was struck by a sudden revelation. He glanced at Curtis; the other boy looked back at him placidly.

"But Roland," said Jason, walking towards the former adventurer, "before we go to sleep tonight, can you―" As soon as he got close enough, he used the seven-yard boots to suddenly appear just a hairsbreadth away from Roland, and then, before the man could react, Jason shot out his foot and tripped him. Caught entirely by surprise, Roland crashed to the ground with a thump. "Quick, Curt," Jason cried, "zap 'im!"

Curtis only stared, puzzled. "Jay, why are you―"

Those three seconds of hesitation were enough for Roland to prop himself up on his elbows and cast a spell at Curtis. The prince was sent flying ten feet into the air by an invisible force. He smacked against a tree, fell onto a branch, and rolled onto the ground, landing on his back. He didn't get up.

Roland got to his feet as Jason backpedaled. Yearning to flee, yet unwilling to leave Curtis behind, the Argonaut was once more frozen in place as he watched a great change come over Roland. Every feature of his body—his face, his limbs, even his clothes—liquefied and drew inwards, until there was nothing left of him but a soupy mound of muddy-colored flesh. Then the process was reversed, except that the humanoid figure that resulted bore no resemblance to Roland. It was a young boy, about Jason's age, dressed in worn and tattered clothes. He was tall and wiry, with dark-orange hair and long fingers. He looked hatefully at Jason, and at the same time he seemed caught between fury and relief.

"Who are you mimicking now, doppelganger?" said Jason.

"This is my natural form." the boy replied. He had a light, airy voice. "I am human, you know."

"By what definition of 'human'?"

The doppelganger waved a hand lightly, and Jason felt as if he had been slapped across the face, hard. "Be careful. You don't have any wizards to protect you now."

"Well," said Jason, rubbing the sore spot, "who are you? And what do you want from me, anyway? You've already stolen the coin. My boots aren't nearly as powerful as that, or your power of mimicry."

"You may call me Miles. And no, I don't want your boots. I couldn't disguise myself wearing those all the time. What I originally planned to do was slit your and the fat boy's throats after you had gone to sleep. Now that I have you alive and at my mercy, I think I'll make better use of you." He paused. "I've been charged to hunt down and kill your entire group. It will be much easier for me to masquerade as you or Curtis well enough to deceive Roland and Simon if I know more about you. So, I want you to tell me all about your friends and yourself. Not now!" he added as Jason was about to speak. "First, it's only fair, I think, for me to tell you a bit about myself. You are a worthy opponent, Jason, and I respect you, even though catching you was this easy." He briefly broke out in a yellow-toothed grin so wide and sardonic it made Jason shudder.

"I was no more than human, in both my motivations and my abilities, only eight weeks ago." said Miles. "I was sensitive, though, and I could see that something was amiss in my hometown. I lived in the Haven—have you heard of that?" Jason shook his head. "It's a town on a beach in the verse of Sizov reserved for servants of the Droydanian government, servants ranked high enough to be uniformly wealthy and powerful but not quite high enough to live in the imperial city. Both of my parents are generals. Now, Sizov's great interdimensional distance from most other familiar verses makes the Haven very safe from invaders. No legion of monsters attacked it. Yet I knew that something had invaded it; I noticed that some of the townsfolk were beginning to behave strangely.

"The behaviors I observed were numerous and varied. The only word I can think of that accurately characterizes them all is 'lazy'. You see, the Droydanian government selects and promotes its employees on the basis of merit and dedication to the Droydanian cause, so all the residents of the Haven are generally continually productive, engaged in the affairs of their work and Droydania as a whole. Everyone noticed, to at least some degree, when all sorts of people about the town suddenly became less concerned, and more sedate, as they began sleeping more and working less. Recreation, formerly partaken of sparingly and with a small measure of shame, became a necessity; it grew fashionable. The change was the subject of gossip and a source of humor for most people, especially in how that love for recreation, like a disease, seemed to be exceptionally strong in one random person for a week, then quickly fade, to be immediately 'caught' by another, equally random person. Out of everyone I knew, I alone was truly troubled, not so much by the effect of the change as by the inexplicability of the change itself.

"After this phenomenon had continued for three weeks and showed no signs of stopping, I decided―"

But Miles cut himself off as soon as he realized his audience had flown the coop. Quick as a wink, at an entirely arbitrary moment, Jason speed-waddled over to Curtis, grabbed the collar of the prince's shirt, and ran for dear life. In a matter of minutes he was outside the woods, standing in a familiar meadow nearby a familiar road, and Miles was far behind. There was one thing here that Jason didn't recognize: a rock, carved inexpertly into a roughly circular shape, standing on its edge, with a bit of its bottom buried into the ground. It was about half as tall as Jason. Jason let Curtis go, hoping he hadn't been hurt by all the bumping, and inspected the stone. In the moonlight, he could make out a trefoil knot engraved on the side of the stone that faced the road. A flower like a rose lay on the ground before it.

Roland had cremated the truck driver's corpse and scattered the ashes to the winds. This was not her grave. Still, Jason cast his eyes down and mumbled "I'm sorry."

Jason stood there thinking about what he ought to do next for around half a minute. Then he yelped as Miles unexpectedly teleported onto the scene. Miles cast a spell that sent Jason sprawling and yanked the boots right off his feet; they landed near Miles. Jason grimaced as he got back up.

"How'd you know I went here?" the Argonaut asked. "I didn't run in a straight line." Miles, grinning once more, opened a hand to reveal Hayms Nepa's coin. "But that only answers yes-or-no questions." Jason protested.

"Have you ever played guess-the-number?" Miles asked, picking up the boots and tossing them behind him, so they were now far too distant for Jason to retrieve.


"In which one player secretly chooses an integer within a bounded interval and the other player guesses possibilities successively, being told whether the secret number is greater than, less than, or equal to each guess."

"Yes, I have."

"Does it usually take very long for the guessing player to win?"

"Well, no, not really."

"Then there's your answer. Think about it." Jason made his lack of understanding clear enough by his expression. Still, Miles gave no further hint. "You poor dunce. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, I decided to investigate the change. To make a long story short, I deduced that a shapeshifting being had been impersonating various people. I trapped it and confronted it; it turned out to be a demon. Its origins and motives are still unknown to me today. I would've killed it straightaway then, but it gave me an offer: if I spared its life, it would give up its power to me. It had no power but mimicry, I knew it would be harmless without that, and I couldn't resist the opportunity—so I accepted. I've never seen the demon since. And now, I can do this!"

Again there was the stomach-churning process of transformation; this time, Jason found Miles's new form more disturbing than the procedure itself. Miles had taken the shape of Jason's sister, just as he remembered her. Jason wailed and hid his eyes, cowering. "How did you ever even hear of Joan?" he moaned.

"I don't need to know what someone looks like in order to mimic them." said Miles, with a voice Jason hadn't heard, in real life, for countless months. Jason found it deeply unsettling that someone who all his senses insisted was one of the people he most loved was actually a murderous stranger. Miles, meanwhile, didn't seem to mind being a girl. "I don't even need to know their name. I only guessed you had a sibling."

"Stop it." Jason said weakly.

Miles laughed Joan's familiar laugh (<But my sister is not a sadist.> Jason thought) and changed again. "Better?" Jason heard himself say.

"Somewhat," said Jason, looking up to see his clone again, "though I'd be hard-pressed to explain why. So you can take the form of anyone?"

"Oh, yes."

"How about my old friend Calvin?"

Miles said nothing; he just stood there in Jason's body for a few seconds, frowning as if constipated. "What? Nothing's happening." Alas, the natural limitations of Miles's power had thwarted Jason's trick—Calvin was the name of the Blue family goldfish. At the age of twelve, it was not merely old, but absolutely ancient. "Who is this Calvin?" Miles asked pointedly.

"Just another kid I knew on Earth." said Jason.

"Strange." Miles returned to his natural form. "Anyway, very soon after I'd defeated the demon, I was visited in a dream by God." Jason raised his eyebrows. "I paid no attention to him before, I know, but I became a believer that night. He opened my eyes to the evil of Droydania. He said he'd allowed this power to fall into my hands that I might bring freedom to this empire of slavery. And so I seek to take the place of a high-ranking official in the Droydanian government. With that power, I could chip away at Droydanian oppression. God also said that I should kill you and your three companions, since you've been actively working against him and are a terrible thorn in his side."

Jason figured that the god Miles spoke of was a Supernal, not an omnipotent deity. Perhaps it was the Devil. "Actively working against him how?" said Jason.

"You've asked enough questions." said Miles. "Now, I need some information from you. I gather from what you said before that Roland and Simon are in some kind of trouble. Where can I find them?"

"Well… uh… the short version is, if you want to find them, you'd better go to the place we just left them, immediately. They'll probably be gone, but they might still be there."

"And what place is that?"

Jason took the photograph of Frank Moodbloom's mansion out of his pocket and held it up. "They're in here. You'll want to take me, I suppose?"

"Of course. I know better than to let you out of my sight. I'll take the form of Curtis." he added, transforming—just as Jason had hoped. "Give them the slightest clue and you're dead meat; play along and I'll consider extending your lifespan." Such words sounded not a little odd coming out of the prince's mouth.

"But of course." said Jason, nodding. He was cocky, all right.