The Sweetness and Innocence of Children

And so Jason found himself in another place he thought he'd never return to, the home of Frank Moodbloom, who was now, Jason imagined, being carted off to prison along with another two familiar grown-ups. Right now, Jason was in the company of another child, who was currently taking the shape of yet another child. They were in the same bedroom Roland had carried Jason into, having climbed in through the window (instead of charging in through the mansion's front door) as Jason had instructed. Despite the adventurer's admission that he had slaughtered any gangsters who'd survived the bomb, the house was far from quiet. Jason could hear a lot of people running around and making a racket in the dining-room. It occurred to him to wonder whether the gangster who'd set the bomb had managed to escape, in which case Jason surely had a new enemy out there in the world, eager to hunt him down and exact sweet, sweet revenge. Vengeance, it occurred to Jason for the umpteenth time, was a decidedly nasty thing.

"Who are those people?" Miles whispered.

"Policemen." said Jason. "You're lucky they're still here. I think you'll have to fight them if you want to get to Roland and Simon."

"So be it." said Miles. "I'm a skilled mage, and besides, God is on my side." He ran out of the bedroom and into the dining-room with Jason close behind.

There were policemen there, as Jason had predicted. There were other people, too: numerous paramedics, several firefighters, and even a reporter. Most of the gangsters' bodies were blackened and twisted beyond any hope of recovery—whether by the bomb or by Roland's fire, one could only guess. Those that looked they might have a remaining spark of life were being rapidly loaded onto stretchers and teleported away to hospitals. Meanwhile, the firemen were tending to flaming furniture, and whatever precisely the policemen had been doing before, their attention was now wholly consumed by the sight of the two most wanted prepubescent boys in Droydania.

"All right, guys," Jason called to the policemen, "I've found Curtis for you!"

Of course, this meant little to the policemen. Miles, though, was incensed. "Double-crosser!" he shrieked. He turned into an eight-foot-tall body-builder and unleashed a hail of projectiles at the dining-room, with little regard for who he actually hit.

Well, the policemen had already known Jason and his friends to be dangerous, but when they saw that hideous transformation occur before their very eyes, they entirely forgot about Jason himself: they were fixated on the shapeshifting bogeyman. They shielded themselves as best they could and fired back at once, not sparing a moment to disable Jason. The firefighters and the paramedics teleported away while they had the chance. The reporter, mindful of his duty, stuck around.

Jason stood back, careful not to get caught in the crossfire. He wouldn't mind being captured so long as he survived. The fight went on, and to Jason's growing unease, it appeared that Miles was winning. Without being an exceedingly powerful mage, it seemed, Miles handled himself far better than the policemen, deflecting their spells with relative ease and swiftly retaliating the moment they were least able to cope. Soon, two of the Droydanian policemen were dead and Miles was still going strong. <Why's it taking so long for reinforcements to teleport in?> Jason thought. Certainly, he didn't want Miles to win. And so, being sure to prominently put up his arms beforehand, he tripped Miles again. This was possible despite Miles's new brawn because Miles was paying no more attention to Jason than the policemen were. Once Miles was lying on the floor, the latest volley of projectiles flew right over him, except for one globule of orange light, which struck him square in the center of his muscle-bound chest. His shirt was undamaged, but the spell had clearly injured him somehow, as a dark stain bloomed and quickly spread across his breast.

Jason had just begun to consider the consequences of being captured when his savior appeared. Curtis—the real Curtis—ran in from the bedroom, took one look at the situation, and sent not one, not two, but three rhinoceroses stampeding towards the police officers. That gave him the time he needed to teleport back to the swamp along with Jason, and, at Jason's insistence, the semi-conscious Miles. They appeared outside of Thorm's tent. Curtis bound Miles, and then the boys stopped to catch their breaths.

"Well, you did it again, Curt." said Jason. "Thank you, very much. How did you know we were there?"

"I heard you tell the kid where to go." said Curtis. "I woke up a little bit before you left."

"But this time, you were careful to pretend you were still unconscious." said Jason, with a slight smile.

Curtis nodded, keeping his eyes on Miles. "He's not even pretending."

Jason looked. Miles was struggling weakly against his spectral shackles. "Using my tent again, eh?" Miles muttered.

"Your tent?" said Jason. "No, I think I knew the original owner. Unless there was an owner before those tentacled beasts." he added mostly to himself. "Don't change forms, mind you," he said to Miles, "or Curtis here'll kill you. Be good and we'll get you medical care."

"But of course." said Miles, again in a faint voice.

"My, how the tables have turned!" said Jason gleefully. "Now, where's the coin?"

"Lower-right pants pocket."

As Jason shamelessly scrounged about in Miles's pocket for the coin, Curtis said "Jay, he's really hurt."

"He'll be fine." said Jason. He smiled as he removed the large hendecagonal coin and stuffed it into his own pocket. "I don't think we need to interrogate him, given that we have the oracular coin; I just want one thing from him, and then we can drop him off at a hospital." His grin widened as Curtis watched him with a look of concern. "My dear Miles," said Jason, "give me your power of mimicry, and I will let you live."

A few seconds passed, and Miles did not respond. Just as Jason was about to speak again, a loud, deep humming noise began to sound out from Miles's head. As Jason and Curtis watched with growing amazement, Miles writhed about mindlessly, spastically, so much as his bonds permitted him. Then he was still, and he stared at Jason with eyes that glowed a deep ocean blue. Jason felt a sudden chill.

"Nice try." said Miles. His voice sounded deep and distant as the roar of high tide on a faraway shore.

Then, he drew in a deep breath. On the exhale, as the air left his lungs, so too did the life leave his body: his moment of death was not entirely unlike that of Ivan Ilych.

The glow and the hum disappeared at once. A few seconds later, Miles's corpse spontaneously reverted to its original shape, thus popping out of the shackles. The wound on its chest remained.

Jason gulped.

"Oh, man." said Curtis. "Man, oh man, oh man."

"Ye gods." Jason whispered. "That wasn't the Devil. That was Thanatos."

Curtis looked Miles up and down. "What makes you think so?"

"That was exactly how Zadoc, the leader of the Thanatos cult, got possessed."

"'I was covered in ghostly white fire,'" Curtis recited, "'even though I couldn't see it on myself, and I wasn't burning. And my eyes were glowing red, though my vision was normal.' That was what Caleb said. The Supernal who got him wasn't Thanatos, was it?"

"Oh, I don't know. I'm not even sure it matters." Jason was looking at Miles's face. Although it had been contorted with agony while the Supernal had taken possession of the boy, that face had, at Miles's very moment of death, entirely relaxed. Its eyes were closed; it looked profoundly serene. "What a peaceful death." Jason remarked. "I envy it. I anticipate a much less appealing one for myself."

They sat there uncomfortably for a while.

"What do we do with him?" asked Curtis.

"Well… can you dig a grave with magic?"


"Why not?"

"It's… complicated. Basically, Imagination mages usually can't do that."

"Okay, I guess we should cremate him. No, wait one second." Jason took the coin out of his pocket. On one side, an eagle was embossed, reminding Jason of American currency. Above and to the right of the eagle, a pictogram of the sun appeared high in the sky. The design on the other side of the coin was of three eyes arranged like the vertices of an equilateral triangle. In the center was a crescent moon partly covered by clouds. "First," said Jason, "I should test this thing. Does two plus two equal four?" He tossed the coin and caught it as it came down. (His dexterity with his right hand was slowly improving.) The eagle's side came up on top. "Does two plus two equal five?" He flipped the coin again and got the other side. Grinning, he asked "Is the answer to this question no?" This time, the coin landed on its edge, on which it stayed for several seconds until Jason knocked it over. "Will I die tomorrow?" Again he got the edge. "Will the sun rise tomorrow?" The edge. "I guess it doesn't like to predict the future." said Jason.

"What does this have to do with cremating Miles?" said Curtis.

Jason asked the coin "Is there any possible way for me to take Miles's power of mimicry from him now?" He got the three eyes in response. "Dang. All right, we can cremate him. Gosh, I'm starting to remind myself of Two-Face."

Curtis disintegrated the body with magical fire, and Jason scattered the ashes. They were silent for some time, contemplating the strange boy who some alien being had turned against them. Vaguely, Jason felt he ought to feel more regretful about the death of a fellow child—the peculiar cultural traditions of his native land hadn't entirely left him yet—but he couldn't much sympathize with a person who'd plotted murder merely at the behest of a demigod posing as the Master of the Universe. Anyway, Jason figured that he himself was sufficient proof that, contrary to popular belief back home, children were not necessarily innocent. For, indeed, weren't the innocence of himself and the innocence of Miles necessarily reciprocal? The better Miles had been, the worse he was for showing so little regard for Miles's health near the end of his life. Then again, Jason hadn't made the kill, and given the opportunity himself, he probably wouldn'tve killed Miles… right?

"Now what?" said Curtis, in a complaining kind of voice. Jason didn't blame him.

"Now?" Jason took out the coin again. "Here's a good one: am I in a television show?" He flipped the coin and got what he found to be a startling and unsettling answer—the eyes, or no. "What the… but… am I wrong?"

"Looks like it, Pup." Curtis said sympathetically.

Jason thought about that. "No, wait a minute. It's only logical that although this coin always answers truly, it answers from the perspective of the reality it belongs to—this one. That is to say, it gives in-universe answers. And within the world of this TV show, we aren't in a TV show… or so I'd hope. That would make my head hurt. And yes, that's what the coin says. So in conclusion, this is useless."


"No, not really, not at all. I doubt I'll be lucky enough to get my hand on something nearly as powerful as this ever again. It has more than a little potential." He smiled. "But it doesn't help me at all in my quest to become a Real Boy." he added as his face fell.

"I think I get it." said Curtis.

"Was the Supernal who killed Miles Thanatos?" Jason asked the coin. No, it wasn't. "Was it the Devil?" said Jason. Nope. Jason swore. "It must be a new one. Was this Supernal one I haven't encountered before?" Nope. "What? Is this thing just stuck on no?" Of course, the answer was no. Jason couldn't help laughing then. "Can you please answer yes this time?" Yes, it could, and it did. "Thank you."

"Hey, I just thought of something." said Curtis. "Gimme that." Jason handed it over, curious to see what Curtis what do with it. "Thanks. Is the binary form of Goldbach's conjecture correct?" He showed the coin to Jason, which had landed with the eagle's side up. "Does that mean yes or no?"

"That's the yes side."

"Okay, good. Does P equal NP?" He flipped the coin and smiled at the result. "Okay, I'm happy." he said, tossing it back to Jason.

"You and your math." said Jason. "Riddle me this, Curtis. What happened at the dinner table just before I pretended to choke?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm referring to the argument you had with Frank."

"What about it?"

"Well, uh, you expressed a strong opinion about the Gyeeds-Droydania divide. In that your sympathies lie with Gyeeds and its allies. Am I correct?"

"Oh, yeah. Don't yours?"

"Well… I… to be honest, I never really thought about it." He scratched his head. "I guess Gyeeds is a better place to live than Droydania. People often flee, or try to flee, from Droydania to Gyeeds; no one flees from Gyeeds to Droydania. The common Gyeedian notion of Droydania being oppressive is mostly correct. Then again, Gyeeds is, well… more urban. Violent crime, drug use, and poverty are all higher; I remember how Ursamor frequently reminded us of that, in roundabout, subtle ways, when she spoke in the IDC. And poor people in Gyeeds tend to stay poor. The cost of living is high, on average, and the government would never condescend to give the poor a helping hand. Yeah, interdimensional politics isn't my strong suit." He yawned widely. "Shall we get eight hours of sleep now before we go to free Roland and Simon?"

Curtis nodded. "I think it's a good idea. But uh, lemme ask you one thing. How did you know it was Miles?"

"While he was mimicking Roland, you mean?"


"Well, there were a couple of things that made me suspicious. But the key thing, the particular detail that for me verified the fact that the person I spoke to was not my adoptive father, was Miles's regret for Simon's capture. The real Roland would've hardly been able to contain his joy."

Curtis frowned. "You think so?"

"I know so." said Jason. "Trust me—Roland keeps his grudges, and when Roland hates someone, he doesn't merely dislike them. He loathes them. To this day, he's just waiting for the slightest excuse to kill Simon—and you know how low his standards for such excuses are! A while ago, I thought Simon might grow on him, over time, or at least, his hatred would get less intense. But it hasn't. It seems to only grow worse. And now they're more or less alone together, without you or me to stop Roland from―" Jason shuddered. "Poor Simon. Surely he endured more than enough stigma for being a eunuch long before we met him. Then again, does Roland really hate him just for his eunuchism? It's not unlike Roland, certainly, but still… I wonder if there's anything else. Perhaps it's just a fundamental difference of temperament. They are like night and day, after all. Man, I hope like hell they learn to get along somewhere down the line. As the situation is now, it's just a bomb waiting to explode."

"Do you think we should ask Simon to leave?" asked Curtis.

"Oh, no, certainly not. We have a common goal, remember? And we're all so vulnerable. It would be infinitely cruel to make him fend for himself. Besides, I really like Simon. He's very level-headed, very prudent and thoughtful, and he's the first person I've met who I feel I can say is genuinely selfless. He's a good influence on me, and he gives me good advice. I'm the main source of animal cunning in this group, but he's got most of the wisdom. In summary, I think I'd rather get rid of Roland than Simon."

"But we can't. That would be cruel, too."

"Yup. And we need all the magical power we can get. And although my affection for Roland has waned recently, he's my foster father, and I feel a sort of responsibility to stick with him." He pulled the coin out of his pocket. "Does Roland hate Simon only because Simon's a eunuch?" The answer was no. "Is it because of a fundamental difference in personality?" Actually, yes. "Oh. That's good to know. It's nice to get some easy answers, for once."

They briefly teleported back to the road to retrieve the seven-yard boots and then, at last, went to bed. The floor of Thorm and Gol's tent wasn't a very comfortable surface to lie on, yet both boys fell asleep with minimal delay.