Feel the Power

Super smell, Jason had learned earlier, was an acquired taste. It didn't sound particularly appealing from the outset, and it required some getting used to before its utility began to outweigh the sheer discomfort of having it. Shapeshifting, as you can imagine, was another story. From the beginning, Jason was like a kid in a candy shop—except that, at no time when he really had visited a candy shop, at any age, had he been as thrilled as he was know.

While monsters—unicorns, phoenixes, vampires, even dragons—were off-limits, insofar as Jason couldn't turn into them, every ordinary animal was fair game. He became an eagle, and gazed down upon the wide world, with keener eyes than any man ever had, as he soared a mile above it. He became a cheetah, and roared across the plain at sixty-five miles an hour. He became a whale, and dove his massive bulk into the secret, lightless depths of the ocean. And while each change was complete enough that no one could tell him from a typical individual of his chosen species, his mind remained intact, no matter the size (or the presence) of his nervous system.

It is difficult to overstate how different the world seemed each time he was equipped with a new set of senses, and how different each new body felt. Merely taking on a new size was jarring. He remembered how, at the age of eight, he had visited his old preschool; he'd startled at how much it had seemed to shrink. This was nothing compared to being a human boy at one moment and an adult elephant at the next. Yet more astonishing was becoming an ant, and being dwarfed by what had formerly been so small as to be nearly invisible. Like Gulliver's, his appreciation for detail changed with his size. When he was huge, his surroundings looked like lovely, painstakingly crafted miniatures; when he was tiny, what he thought was straight he found to be crooked, and what he thought was smooth he found to be bumpy. And all his perceptions were quite altered by whatever senses his current shape possessed. Sometimes, he guided himself more by sonar than by sight; at other times, he relied on electrolocation to find his way in the dark.

After much experimentation, supplemented by some amount of research, Jason settled on a handful of favorite shapes. For long-distance travel, he could cover hundreds of miles a day as an albatross. For tight spots, he was dangerous in the form of a triceratops or a deinonychus. (He was quite surprised to discover that the latter was covered with feathers, not scales.) For brute strength, sauropods couldn't be beat. For scouting and spying, he preferred the agility, eyesight, and inconspicuousness of the humble pigeon.

While Jason could choose any animal species to transform into, and he could transform as frequently as he liked, he didn't have much control over the individual he became. He would always become a healthy adult of roughly average size and weight, of a random appropriate coloration, and of a random sex. (Because he was thus sometimes female, it's not technically correct to always refer to him with masculine pronouns, but I'll do so, anyway, as referring to Jason as "he" in one sentence and "she" in the next would be endlessly confusing.) He couldn't take the shape of any human other than himself, nor could he transform into a creature like the one he'd stolen his shapeshifting from. He didn't really mind.

Roland and Simon didn't pick up magical powers during their own adventures. Instead, they returned to Jason and Curtis with something even more useful: information.

"With some difficulty," said Simon, "I was able to subdue a black unicorn like the one we saw before. It turned out to be a creation of Death, as we guessed. Unfortunately, I didn't learn much from it, since Death had told it very little, as Life did to that shapeshifting spy. The one pertinent item of knowledge I gained was a description of Death's ultimate goal. According to the unicorn, Death wants total obliteration of all existence, without exception. If it wins the war, it will destroy everything, living and non-living. It won't even spare its own followers and creations. After it's destroyed everything except itself, it will destroy itself."

"It'll kill itself?" said Curtis. "Why would it want to do that?"

"The unicorn didn't tell me. We can only surmise that Death values nothing so much as nothingness."

"Bizarre." said Jason. "If only it would be content with suicide! Then we'd have half as much malevolent divinity to deal with."

"On the contrary," said Simon, "remember that each god keeps the other in check. Without Death, Life would be more powerful than both gods as they are now combined."

"But is Life evil?" said Curtis, and reiterated the point he had made to Jason before. Then Jason gave his take on the issue.

"All I have to say is," said Simon, "I think Jason is wise to assume bad faith on the part of Life. Remember that names aren't particularly meaningful: two of the alternative names for Life that my mother mentioned, I recall, were 'Chaos' and 'Falsity'. Neither of those sound nearly as righteous as 'Life'. Life doesn't even call itself 'Life', it seems, but 'the All-Mother'."

"Or 'Red'." said Jason. "Though as I understand it, both 'Red' and 'the All-Mother' refer to Lust specifically, not the whole trinity. It seems that Red likes to pretend it's a separate being from Green and Blue, so naturally it never refers to Life as a whole, by any name."

"Actually," said Roland, "I've been grappling with exactly this dilemma of Life's evil for a while. Certainly, obviously, life is good, and good is life. And I'll enlist in the Droydanian Army before I adopt a Nietzschen view of language. On the other hand, I trust Leela, and I don't find it difficult to believe that the god known as Life doesn't much believe in life."

"I'd be pretty surprised if it did." said Jason.

"Man, you guys never believe me." said Curtis.

"At any rate," said Roland, "I learned one thing about the gods' long-term goals. I heard it from two very disparate sources, a Life-monster and a Death-monster, so it's highly likely to be true. They said that before the real war begins, both Life and Death wish to select a Champion: an avatar, a human to lead the god's armies alongside the god, chosen for ability and dedication. If the gods feel the time for war comes before they have a Champion, they'll take whoever they can get, but they'd prefer to find an ideal one beforehand."

"That does a bit to explain why Red wanted me to join it." said Jason. "I wonder who it's considering now—and who Death's considering. It's difficult to believe anyone would become Death's avatar if they knew what it planned; I suppose it'll have to keep its plans secret from its own Champion. But the obvious choices for Champions, I'd think, would be Lloyd Waverunner and Ursamor."

"Yes, that sounds sensible." said Simon.

"But the gods know Lloyd and Ursamor," said Curtis, "and they haven't picked them, have they?"

"I know for a fact that they haven't made their final decision." said Roland. "That doesn't preclude their having already chosen one or two candidates. My guess is that they'll be as picky as they can."

At a loss for what to do, Jason wrote to Leela explaining what had recently happened, and asked whether it would be prudent to try to assassinate Lloyd and Ursamor. She replied:

Definitely not! Besides the danger and the high chance of failure, eliminating a few candidate Champions would do us little good. In a world this large, I'm sure there are thousands of people the gods would be happy to select as Champions; I doubt that forcing Life or Death to settle for its third or fourth choice would harm it much. On the other hand, given what I know about the nature of the gods, I imagine that the power a god gives to its Champion won't be recoverable. So, once a Champion is chosen, killing them should permanently weaken their patron deity.

Clearly, we've learned all there is to learn from the gods' creations. The gods are wise enough not to tell their own minions too much. All there is to do now is sit tight, and wait for some opportunity to rise by which we might learn more about our enemies or postpone the final war.

Roland, Curtis, and Simon, however reluctant, followed this last piece of advice. They returned to Gyeeds and to their regular affairs even as the war raged on in Laus. But Jason could no longer tolerate inaction. He did the exact opposite: he wandered.

Twice or three times a week, he would browse the list of IDC verses, select one essentially at random, and have one of the mages verseport him there. Then, he would transform himself into an appropriate animal and cover as much ground as he could. In this fashion, he could get a detailed look at a larger portion of the multiverse than he could with a verseviewer in the same amount of time.

Those were lonely, restless days. The strongest impression Jason was struck with, in his interdimensional world tour, was how very empty it was. When he ran though a savanna on the legs of an antelope, he had little company other than insects, the long grass, the wind, the sun, and the occasional tree. <How incredible it sounds,> he thought, turning his big black eyes up at the vast, empty, washed-out cyan sky, <that malevolent deities should be up there, watching my every move, in this barren, silent place.> For they did not disturb him. When he slept in the crook of a tree beneath the stars, in the form of some creature known for sleeping very lightly, he was not awakened by a monster. In fact, while he saw in that savanna great gray sharp-toothed canines, and yellow-furred apes who hurled twigs at him, and roly-poly buffalo, he saw no obvious divine monsters there, nor anywhere else in the course of his wanderings.

Yet he was not comforted—he did not feel secure—no matter how removed he was from anything that might hurt him. One day, he flew high among mountains with the wings of an eagle. The world seemed wholly alien; all he could see was cold white mist, cold gray stone, and the cold, snowy peaks. It was not so cold as to be uncomfortable; the whole actually made for a singularly serene environment. But despite the external peace, he could not shake the foreboding, the despair, the deep dread of the apocalypse that Leela had told him, and that he fully believed, was soon to come. Nowhere could he hide.

Jason searched long and hard, though he hadn't the slightest idea of what he was searching for. And when he did find something, which was uncommon, he rarely knew what to do with it. Take the time when, as a small squid, he explored a tropical ocean off the coast of a world-famous metropolis. He was far below the surface, so deep down that little sunlight reached his saucer-like eyes. Somehow, he made out a huge shadow moving in the dark. He jet towards it, and discovered it to be a ballistic-missile submarine, no doubt placed there so that it might annihilate the metropolis at a future date. Though it was easy to imagine what horrific devastation the submarine might cause, Jason doubted his ability to disable it without getting killed, and he didn't otherwise know what to do, so he just let it pass by. <My,> he thought, <I can only hope that I ultimately resist the gods a little more actively than that.>