Blood Wedding

As he swung open the huge front doors, Jason felt the eyes of the entire wedding-party turn on him. He was in a temple, a structure small in area but great in height, its huge vaulted roof held up by towering fluted columns, its walls striped with stained-glass windows depicting the heroes and saints of an ancient mythology. The place was eerily like a cathedral; throw in a crucifix and you would've been able to fool a Christian into worshiping there. The pews were full of ordinary-looking people, none of whom Jason recognized save the woman he had caught in mid-air. They stared at him, puzzled. At the altar, before some sort of official who didn't look particularly priestly, stood Roland and Beatrix. Roland wore his usual suit; Beatrix had on a long dress that was a shade of red so bright it seemed to glow. Roland, upon seeing Jason—and Curtis, and Simon, who quickly walked in after him—was visibly horrified. Beatrix looked unsure of what to expect.

"Just a matter of seconds," said Roland, in a high, quavering voice, "just a matter of seconds before we're officially wed. Gentlemen, I—I don't know how you knew to come here, but you're welcome to take a seat in the back…"

"They're not here to watch the wedding." said Beatrix. Her gaze met Jason's. The trio had stopped advancing as soon as the doors had closed behind them; the remaining great distance between them and the couple left no doubt that this meeting was a confrontation. "What is your purpose?"

"To put an end to this!" Jason cried.

Gasps and a sudden torrent of whispering echoed through the church. Roland raised his hand until the guests were silent. "Now, Jason," he said in Common, "I know you may not be fond of Bea, but you don't know what's happened between us in the past few weeks. I―"

"We know what happened, Moralheart." said Simon. He said the name with obvious contempt. The gasps and the whispering resumed, and were now totally impervious to Roland's gestures. "The demon known as Life allied itself with Beatrix, and is using her to seduce you into becoming its spy!"

The crowd went wild. Roland turned pale. He looked at Beatrix, then at Simon, then back at Beatrix. Beatrix's eyes narrowed. She placed a hand on her fiancé's shoulder, which seemed to calm him down, then turned to Simon. "I'll admit you're right on one count. I joined forces with Love a while ago. But there's nothing malevolent about Love or his plans for Roland. As soon as Roland had married into our family—that is, married me—Love was going to reveal himself to him. That's the standard procedure; it's how many of the people you see before you met Love. I can't imagine where you got that nonsense about seduction and spying." Turning to Roland, she asked, "Have I ever pressed myself upon you, dear?"

"No… of course not." Roland said carefully.

"Lust's designs are less laudatory than you imagine." said Simon, with a degree of confidence in his voice that made Jason wonder.

"'Lust'?" said Beatrix. "That's a silly name. And sir, you should know that Love's designs are no less laudatory than opposing Death itself, who wishes for the slaughter of all of us!"

"You assume that the multiverse as Life would have it is preferable to how Death would have it." said Simon. "Are you sure that's a safe assumption? Do you know Life's real goal?"

"Of course!" Beatrix cried. "Love's ultimate goal is to secure permanent liberty for all living things—liberty from all kinds of oppression, even from Death! I—I admit that I don't agree with Love about everything. I might not have allied myself with it if we didn't have a common enemy. But we do. The choice is between life and death. Which would you rather be, Simon: dead or alive?"

"Beatrix Shadewalker," said Simon, "it is now clear to me that you are nothing but a pawn of Life. You aren't just a mindless grunt, as Roland would be, but a cunning mind to complement its own intellect. I'm afraid I can't afford to give you the same choice you just gave me. I must choose for you."

With that, Simon raised a hand, and Beatrix was magically frozen. She ceased to move at all, even to breathe, as if she had turned to stone. "Curtis," said Simon, "kill her, quick!"

But Curtis was nearly as paralyzed as Beatrix.

Roland, along with a few of the more quick-thinking guests, tried to dispel the freeze. Beatrix stayed petrified: Simon was holding out against them all. Though the strength of his willpower was considerable, his talent as a spellcaster was only average; he wouldn't last much longer. He clenched his teeth as his forehead moistened with sweat. Simon's faith in Curtis had apparently been misplaced: if this scene were left as it was, Beatrix would live, and Simon might be killed.

Jason wasn't sure that would be for the best.

Time slowed to a crawl as he grappled with the decision he had suddenly been burdened with. He felt unable to judge whether or not Beatrix was really irredeemable, whether she could be saved from Life's influence. Yet Simon's assessment of Beatrix as a dangerously powerful ally of Life rang true: a Thought mage with a talent for trickery to match Jason's was a force to be reckoned with. Without her, Life would be crippled. And Jason trusted Simon's judgment: it was he who had correctly deduced the real nature and motives of the doppelganger.

<Gosh,> Jason thought, <I hope I don't end up regretting this.>

He turned into a cheetah, dashed over to the helpless Beatrix, turned into a mammoth, lifted her high into the air with his trunk, slammed her against the ground, and stamped on her. The stamp hadn't even been necessary. She died instantly.

Nobody quite knew what to do then. Most of those who'd gotten over the surprise of seeing Jason transform had yet to digest the murder he'd committed; those who'd digested the murder were yet to work up the courage to attack a mammoth. Of everyone in the room, only Simon could breathe easily. Then the air was pierced by a high, clear note, like a chorus of angels. It came from Roland, though he himself was silent. His eyes were closed, his face was turned upwards to the heavens beyond the temple's ceiling, and his lips were set in a determined line. He seemed to be listening to something more intelligible than the singing sound. Then, he mysteriously rose upwards effortlessly, until he was level with Jason's mammoth eyes. (Jason, filled with dread, became a bird and perched on the sill of a distant window, away from Roland.) Roland's eyes snapped open; momentarily, they glowed white. The strange sound stopped, he was engulfed in a puff of white-hot flame that seemed to flicker with supernatural intensity, and a voice—having no particular source, but being quite recognizable as Red's—boomed "Behold: the Champion of Life!"

The flames gradually disappeared to reveal a new Roland. He looked about a decade younger, so convincingly that Jason was inclined to think Life had actually aged him in reverse. Around each of his hands shone a halo of that same white flame. He smiled in a happy, knowing way that Jason hadn't seen since the day they'd met, over a year ago. He plucked the glasses of which he was so fond off his face—the flames didn't burn them—and crumpled them in one hand as easily as if they'd been made of paper, rather than magically reinforced titanium. He tossed them aside: his vision had apparently been cured. All this time, he hadn't taken his eyes off of Jason.

"Friends," Roland called, "I think I'll be able to handle these chumps on my own." The tone of his voice was even bolder and stronger than in the past. "Flee before they hurt you."

The guests didn't need to be told twice. They teleported away, the mages taking the non-mages, until the church was empty but for the four we know well and the mangled corpse of Beatrix.

"Jason Amadeus Blue," said Roland, "it's time for me to do what I should have done long ago: to strike down the villain whose villainy I always knew, but never had the courage to admit to myself. Simon, evil? Oh, he is evil; even Curtis has a seed of evil in his heart. But the real evil one, Jason, the real heartless monster who cares for living things only so long as they are useful to him, the real cunning beguiler who weaves a continuous web of deceit to achieve his ends, is you."

Jason changed to human form so he could speak. "Now, Roland," he said in English, "I know you're in a bit of shock, and you're quite angry at me—understandably so, given that I, uh, killed your fiancé and stuff. But violence is such a barbaric way to settle one's differences. Why don't we all go to a nice restaurant and talk about this over lunch?" Roland did not reply. "Whaddya say, old pal?"

"I'm going to kill you, Jason." Roland replied in Common, and added in English "No 'if's, 'and's, or 'but's."

"You can try, if you insist." said Jason. "But you'll have to keep me from killing you first." With that, he became a deinonychus, jumped down from the sill, and sprinted towards the Champion of Life.

"You underestimate Life's power." said Roland. He extended his hand and fired a white beam of energy, half a foot in diameter, that twisted and curled through the air to strike the dinosaur-Jason.

Jason's run was immediately arrested; every nerve in his body seemed to explode with burning, searing pain. He nearly fainted on the spot. Roland prepared to fire again, and Jason ran toward him in a curving path, hoping that he would miss, but the next beam twisted far enough to hit him anyway. He fell to the ground.

Simon and Curtis had spent the last few seconds running to the altar. Now they were within range of Roland. Simon spoke the same spell he'd used to freeze Beatrix; Roland shrugged it off with a slight effort. Curtis created an elephant; Roland, in response, created a crimson-scaled adult dragon, which no one was as horrified to see as Curtis. The prince created another elephant, though even two of them didn't look like much of a match for the dragon. Jason, meanwhile, had become a mammoth again—there just wasn't room in the church for a sauropod. He curled his trunk 'round Roland. Before he could do more, Roland's clothes and skin became extremely hot, so hot that Jason had to release him before the flesh was burnt right off his trunk. Then Roland flew at Jason—quite literally, as Red had said Jason could if he became Life's avatar—and whammed a fist in the center of the mammoth's forehead. His punch went right through the flesh and made a small dent in the massive skull.

Jason, reeling, and rapidly weakening as blood poured from the wound, had to admit to himself that his shapeshifting was no match for divine power. Moreover, Roland was attacking far too rapidly and relentlessly to give Jason time to think of a trick, and he refused to be distracted by Curtis and Simon, now keeping them thoroughly distracted with the dragon. Jason's only hope lay in retreat. He smashed a hole in a nearby priceless stained-glass window and flew away as fast as a falcon's wings would carry him.

Alas, Roland could not only fly, he could fly as fast as a falcon. Jason soared upwards and dove downwards; he danced around fire escapes; he wove through speeding traffic; and Roland stayed right behind him the whole time, zooming around as easily as Superman. And whenever Jason was forced to come into the open, and Roland had something resembling a clear shot, he would let loose with another of those twisting beams, or a different sort of magical projectile, like a scarlet fireball far larger than the fireballs Jason was acquainted with. With the agility of fear, Jason barely dodged four such attacks. The fifth came as Jason flew over the roof of the skyscraper. He'd come here in the hopes of finally losing Roland in a seventy-story dive from the top, but he was caught in the fireball's blast, and he fell onto the great, flat roof with a crash. Jason struggled to rise and found he could not: he was too weak to move. He was so gravely injured that a veterinarian would've pronounced him beyond hope.

Roland, landing beside the bird, intoned "Show your natural form." Jason involuntarily became himself again. He rolled onto his back and saw Roland's fiery countenance bent over him. "Any last requests, Jason?" he asked, the halo of flame around his right hand seeming to burn with especial intensity.

"Oh, gods," Jason sobbed, tears running through the blood on his face, "oh, Roland, please don't kill me! Please don't―"

"You don't think I should kill you, wretch?" Roland growled. Jason had spoken to him in English, but he persistently stuck to Common. "After you slew my bride? After you've made it crystal-clear that you care nothing for Life?"

"No, you don't understand! It wasn't my idea; Simon put me up to it!"

"Simon asked Curtis to do the deed. Only you were vile enough to do it, you wicked―"

"It was a ruse, stupid! Think about it. Curtis didn't have the guts for it; Simon knew that. The idea was that you and the guests would attack him instead of me."

Roland paused. "But we were all too surprised to do anything. A decent trick, Jason… now," he said, grinning, "do you expect me to believe Simon thought of it?"

<Oh, no!> Jason thought. <Will my own reputation be my undoing?> "Yes; he did think of it. Don't you―"

"Wait." said Roland. For a second, he seemed to be listening to something. "It's your lucky day, kid. You are to be spared." Jason was too stunned to reply. "Now, it's time for me to rid the multiverse of someone I've always been eager to eliminate."

"Wait!" Jason cried. "Roland, I'm bleeding to death! If you don't get me―"

"Ah, yes. Worry not; it is within Life's power to give back what it has taken." He gently set two fingers on Jason's forehead. The fire didn't burn; instead, Jason felt a momentary rush of ecstasy, and he was completely healed. While he was still covered with what he had already bled in human form, the cuts in his skin had closed, the cracks and dents in his bones had been reversed, and his blood vessels were replenished. The great weakness left him; he stood up easily.

"Wow," said Jason, "that felt great."

Roland nodded gravely. "Pleasure and pain: such are the tools of Life." He turned around. "Excellent, you're just in time." he said, for there were Curtis and Simon, having just teleported onto the scene. Jason never learned how they had dealt with the dragon.

"Are you okay, Jason?" Curtis called.

"Never better!" said Jason sheepishly. "Roland healed all the hurt he did me. I think he wants to kill Simon now, though."

"That he does." said Roland. "I'm not sure myself to what degree Jason wanted to kill Beatrix, but you, Simon, clearly very much did."

"That's right." said Simon.

"Honesty won't save you." said Roland, and unleashed a twisting white beam. Simon was prepared. He met the spell with his hands and (with no small degree of magical effort, Jason could see) resisted its effect.

So the two men battled, and Roland found the going rougher than he'd expected, though he was stronger by far. Simon was simply stubborn. He was able to cancel out or send glancing aside most of Roland's attacks. He even reflected one back at the Champion, though Roland just healed himself of the harm thus inflicted, which he could do since the spell was his own. Simon attacked with invisible blades of force that cut into Roland's flesh.

Curtis was clearly unsure of what to do—he didn't want either man to die, so he was reluctant to help either. After watching the fight in puzzled silence for a while, he ran over the Jason and said "Let's go."

"Go?" said Jason. "I don't know about you, but I've got to see this battle to its completion. Don't worry, Roland won't turn on us now… I think." Curtis shrugged, and they turned back to the fighters.

As the struggle wore on, Simon began to falter. His attacks didn't hurt Roland very much—he couldn't use fancier techniques, like the old Force choke, because Roland was immune to practically everything except straightforward violence. Worse, resisting Roland's own mighty assault quickly sapped away his energy. It wasn't long before he became visibly exhausted. And as the fight went on, Roland grew angrier, and as he grew angrier, he grew stronger. Hence, once he'd got his first good hit in, a rain of small fiery missiles, it was all downhill from there for Simon. Roland redoubled his efforts; he struck quickly and savagely; Simon was on his last legs, staggering about covered with seemingly mortal wounds, not even trying to put out the flames that were rapidly consuming him. Then Roland delivered a mighty punch to his stomach, sending him off the edge of the building.

"Merry Christmas, eunuch!" Roland called down in English. He was only lightly wounded; Simon hadn't been much of a match for him. Jason and Curtis ran over, and the three of them stood on the edge of the roof and watched Simon fall. He landed with a splat I will not do you the disservice of describing.

They were silent for a while, staring at the carnage far below. Jason was horrified how Roland, in spite of being thwarted once, had managed to get his original wish. Roland smiled with the satisfaction of a job well done. Curtis frowned with grim puzzlement.

"I don't believe he screamed." said Jason to no one in particular.

"It would've done him no good." said Roland. "He was always very practical, that Simon." He laughed. "Thank God I'm rid of him forever!"

Then something extraordinary happened: the corpse of Simon—the solid parts of it, anyway—began rising upwards again, in the same path Simon had fallen. Jason thought his eyes were deceiving him, but by the time the body was halfway up the skyscraper, there was no room left for doubt.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you." said Jason. Roland did not reply. He watched the corpse with hatred in his eyes.

The limp body stopped when it was about six feet higher in the air than the three who lived. Then the skin began to fall off of it, sending a rain of Simon's insides down the side of the skyscraper. Soon there were only the bones left, the tall, thin, death-white skeleton, hanging in the air. The skeleton straightened into a standing position. Then, in a flash of violet light, two great silver plates, stamped with the symbol of a skull, appeared on the skeleton's shoulders, and a long cape, black as night and unadorned, appeared hanging from them.

The skeleton moved its jaws, and a voice came out—a dry, cold, and very deep voice. "Behold" it said "the Champion of Death."

"Si—Simon?" Jason stuttered. "Is it you?"

"Indeed." said the skeleton-Simon. "All my flesh is gone now, but the power of Death itself keeps my mind intact." Simon had full control over his skeleton's movements, too; he gestured as he spoke. "As you are now officially my nemesis, Roland, I must ask for a rematch."

"I'm glad to give it." called the Champion of Life. "I've killed you twice, you freak of nature; three times the charm!"

Soon Roland wasn't feeling so cocky. As one would predict, Simon was far more powerful with Death itself on his side. With a few small waves of his hand, Roland was battered about as if by a giant's tennis racket. When Roland tried to punch him, he caught the fist with his own skeletal hand and squeezed it with a death grip; Roland only got Simon to release it, and so keep his hand from being squashed into pulp, by casting a fireball into Simon's face. After Roland freed his hand, Jason saw it was not only bruised but covered with ice crystals: Simon was freezing cold to the touch. And Simon's spells were cold, too: he frequently launched a volley of long, sharp icicles that Roland had to pluck out before their chilling power froze him solid.

Roland's attempts to fight back were hardly equal to what harm he was receiving: the tables had turned. Just four minutes of fighting the Champion of Death left him very near the grave himself. In time, he perched on the building (they'd both been fighting in midair, of course) and disappeared.

"Random verseport." Simon remarked. "He needn't have bothered. Now isn't the time to chase him." The skull turned towards Jason and Curtis; the boys' eyes widened in fear. "Please don't go yet. I think we should talk."

"You don't want to kill us?" said Jason skeptically. Curtis readied some teleportation-powder.

"Not here and now, certainly." said Simon.

"Oh, that's reassuring; thanks!" said Jason.

"I'm the Champion of Death." said Simon. "It should go without saying that I don't see death as an undesirable fate."

"But that's nonsense!" Jason cried. "Simon, what happened? Not too long ago, you were the only guy on our team who really had a heart. How could—how could you, of all people, fall in with Death?"

"It's a better match than you think. Death's goal is essentially the same as the one I've always had: peace. There is no peace as complete as the peace of the grave."

"Total destruction is your idea of peace?"

"Not in the least! Destruction is not the end, but the means: crude means, but the only ones conceivable. Now, while you're right in thinking that I've changed, the change isn't so drastic as you believe. The first time Roland sent me falling from a great height, Death spoke to me in midair. It told me its goal and suggested we join forces, since we share a common interest. It saved my life by teleporting me back up—the gods can do such things—without asking me to decide immediately. I thought the offer over. Not just Death's communications, but also Roland's behavior—his hypocrisy, his machismo, his overweening belief in his own righteousness—brought me to see fundamental matters in a new light. I eventually gave my agreement; when I proved my loyalty by fighting Roland to my own death, Death accepted me as Champion.

"Death's purpose in the multiverse is very simple: it wants peace, the most undisturbed and undisturbable peace possible. Such a peace is necessarily a void: the absence of all things, living and nonliving, dead and undead, thinking and unthinking: a multiverse without any matter or energy at all, not even space in which such things could conceivably be contained. 'Void' is thus not an entirely accurate description; the only correct name for it is 'nothingness'."

"But that's horrible!" Curtis gasped. "How could you want that, Simon?"

"Horrible?" said the skeleton. "No, it's what all thinking beings truly want, while they're sober, and their minds aren't troubled by the unending trivial wants and needs of their flesh. To exist is to be dissatisfied with nonexistence, to have some desire that can only be fulfilled in the world. To be dissatisfied—to desire—is to suffer. And is happiness any better than suffering? Evolution has ingrained in living things the belief that it is, but why should we be slaves to evolution? If infinite serenity is good enough for mountains and oceans and stars, it is good enough for us.

"The time has come to break loose of triviality, of the things that don't matter—that is to say, everything. For too long, organisms have had to 'earn' death, to endure life long enough to die of forces outside their control, or to work up the courage to defy their own vital impulses and slay themselves. Now, Death gives us a chance to kill all life, and, more important, to deny life the possibility of ever arising again. The war is about to begin, and should we win, all wars, all struggle, all suffering, everything, will be over—forever!"

The boys stared at the skeleton in horrified wonder. "Simon," said Jason, "I sympathize with your cause so little that it boggles my mind you could ever believe such things. I guess you haven't see a mirror yet, but—a skeleton? With the symbol of a skull on each shoulder, and a jet-black cape? You look like a dictionary's illustration for the word 'evil'! How could you believe that you're fighting for anything other than evil incarnate?"

"Death doesn't believe in euphemism," said Simon, "and neither do I. The obvious truth is that Death and I are indeed evil: we strive against life, even if the struggle itself isn't what we seek. There's no point in deceiving anyone: the only allies we desire are those who genuinely share our views. Death has made me undead and dressed me in this way not just because being undead has practical advantages, but because anything less obviously mortal would be misleading. We wish for an end to deceit and illusion as keenly as we wish for literal death. Life lies to suit its purpose; we don't wish to stoop to our enemy's level.

"I'll leave you now. The great war will soon begin; as Champion of Death, my job is to organize all forces loyal to Death into one great Death-army and lead them to victory. Should you ever wish to join us, we will be glad to accept your help." He disappeared in a violet flash.

"Don't count on it." Jason said to the air.

"I don't get it." said Curtis. "I just don't get it. Simon? How could this ever happen to him?"

Jason scratched his head. "I'm really not sure," he said, "but you know, Roland has proved to be a very… influential person." His face grew dark. "It's difficult to imagine someone I'd be less comfortable wielding divine power."