Verse Versus Verse

Jason wept over the dead body of Leela Aranin for a long time. It was quite a while until he had regained enough composure to actually hear the words that assailed his ears: "¡Prospero Año Nuevo!". Everyone was calling "¡Prospero Año Nuevo!". Jason glanced at a clock, and after a moment's mental calculation, he realized that Leela had died on the stroke of midnight between the years 2004 and 2005.

Jason took the corpse to a lonely plain somewhere in the surrounding countryside. With bestial might, he dug a grave, buried the body, and placed a rock to mark the spot. On the makeshift tombstone, he engraved:

Here lies
Leela Aranin
slain by her son on Iron, 36, 5625.
May her work not be in vain.

Jason did not wish for vengeance on Simon. Roland, he knew, would take care of that.

No more could Jason simply wait and hope for Leela to think of a solution. With her and all her colleagues dead, he was, to his knowledge, the only person left alive who understood both gods and sympathized with neither. If it was at all possible to save humanity, only he had a chance of doing so.

Jason spent a day journeying aimlessly across the land, as was his habit. This time, his mind was far more active than usual. He reviewed everything he knew about the gods, everything Leela, Roland, Simon, Life, and Death had told him, and he racked his brains for some way he might obviate the twin threats totally and permanently. Slowly, a simple plan formed in his mind, a plan whose chance of succeeding Jason couldn't begin to estimate, and whose cost, in terms of everything one might value, would be staggering—if it succeeded. If it failed, everything would be lost forever. It would test his persuasive skills, and his courage, to their very limits. But it was, of course, his only hope.

After a long rest, Jason trekked back to Pillow Knob. He was standing on the Koliporthian Pillow Knob, and wondering how he'd reach home from there, and if he even wanted to return to Gyeeds, when the voice of Red spoke in his mind: "Would you like me to take you to Gyeeds?"

Jason jumped. "Uh…" he said "I guess so. Yes, please."

There was a flash, and Jason found himself on the side of a mountain. He'd expected it to be noon at the moment at this longitude, but the skies were dark—and as he looked downwards, he began to see why. Before him, in an area countless miles across, stretching beyond the extents of his vision, the air from the ground to the clouds was filled with thick, poisonous black smoke. A few patches of ground had been cleared of smog by errant winds. From these he could see that where skyscrapers had once stood, there was now a level plain of gray dust.

"Only one thing could have brought about such destruction:" Jason said in a soft, quavering voice: "nuclear weapons."

"Guided by no less than the hand of Death!"

Jason whirled around and there was Roland, the picture of health. He had been standing there, silently, his arms crossed, an ancient grief on his young face, ever since Jason had arrived. "It is as you surmised." he said. "The war to end all wars has begun."

Jason drank in the scene. "Oh, my." was all he could say.

"You fool!" said Roland. "You wouldn't listen to me when I told you that Simon was evil to the core, would you? A billion people have paid for your mistake!"

"Well," said Jason, "if it makes you feel any better, I'm on your side now." He stared at the colossal plumes of smoke. "Not that I have a choice. But yes, I'm at the service of Life." He bit his lip. "I went to speak to Leela. She's dead. Simon killed her."

Roland nodded. "Courage told me. A pity. She was no friend of Life, but I'm sure she would join us now, given the chance. Matricide! My only regret in fighting for Life is that if we win, Simon will be part of the same joyous harmony of all living things as everyone else. Oh, if I could but send him to some private hell! But some things are more important than vengeance."

"I never thought I'd hear you say that."

"I've changed. I know what's of true value now." He walked to the edge of the cliff and stretched out a hand towards the smoldering ruins of Gyeeds. "What destruction! What slaughter! Just think of everything that's been lost. So many people. So many buildings. So many parks."

"So many art museums." said Jason. "So many universities. So many research laboratories. So many irreplaceable historical artifacts of civilizations long extinct."

"Don't worry about that. We'll be making plenty of history of our own."

Jason suppressed a shudder. "Curtis wasn't in Gyeeds, was he?"

"No, thank God, he's alive and well. He's helping to hone the skills of our Imagination mages right now."

"Our Imagination mages?"

"Don't you see, Jason? The real, full-scale conflict between Life and Death has begun. Lloyd and Ursamor are dead, slain in the initial volley of nuclear weapons, and all the remaining political boundaries between allied nations have dissolved. You and I fight, with three hundred billion others, under a single banner: the trefoil knot of Life."

"Three hundred billion!" Jason breathed.

"Yes! And as Champion, I am the highest-ranking human being among them; my authority is second only to the gods themselves. And you, Jason, are to be our adviser. I have Love's word that in raw cunning, you are unmatched by anyone in the multiverse."

Jason's stomach tightened. "I may be. But our opponent's Champion, you know, is among the most discerning people I've ever met…"

"Have faith! Your brain should be more than a match for his, and the All-Mother has more than a little wits, as well. Besides, we have the moral advantage. Right makes might."

There was a long pause.

"We should go now." said Roland. "I was born here, but now, the whole continent is uninhabitable. Look how thoroughly the sun has been blotted out already. Those creatures that are still alive now won't last much longer. Without enough sunlight, plants will die; without enough plants, herbivores will die; without enough herbivores, carnivores will die. Life is vast and beautiful, but it's really quite delicate. It's our job to defend it."

No more than a day later, Jason first saw the carnage—violence on a scale several orders of magnitude beyond World War II, yielding body counts that made the Black Death seem benign—with his own eyes. On the side of Life were dragons and graylings and elephant-sized wolves; on the side of Death were monsters like the hulk that had punched Roland and the giant statue that had laid siege to Gyeeds; on both sides were humans, on foot and in tanks, fighters, and bombers. So odd was it to see all these in one gigantic melee that it might've been humorous were it not for the bloodshed. Almost every battle began on a fresh verse, and it didn't take long for the armies to level cities and paint green meadows red with blood. And yet all this death and destruction paled in comparison to the scene in those verses the armies stayed well clear of: nuclear fallout. It was only now that both sides had exhausted their nuclear arsenals that they had fallen back on conventional warfare.

As both armies could instantly transport themselves to anywhere in the multiverse more or less at will, neither could safely keep permanent headquarters. Instead, they moved their camps daily, if not more frequently, using countless huge tents or nearby cities as shelter. It was in Life's mobile camp, among monsters and human soldiers who were suddenly fully willing to cooperate, that Jason spent most of his time during the war.

During many of his waking hours in the camp, Jason sat in what was called "the war room": a tent filled with benches arranged in a circle. With him were all the highest-ranking generals, the greatest and most loyal of the military commanders culled from the thousands of nations that fought for Life, as well as a handful of special advisers, Curtis, Roland, and usually Red in vulpine form. Together, they planned the campaign, focusing mostly on the strategic issues of greatest scope, but also giving no small amount of attention to individual battles. Jason was at first overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility and the dozens of people trying to get a word in simultaneously. He felt more than a little like he had in the Interdimensional Council. But over the first week, as he became more familiar with the logistics of war and the personalities of the group, he began to carefully consider all he had heard and made bold suggestions accordingly. On the whole, the group was highly willing to listen to him, and the generals implemented his suggestions—to great success. Life hadn't started the war off on the right foot; Death had struck first, and struck hard; now, the tide began to turn. Jason kept Simon and Death guessing. He became a master of the feint, forcing the Death-army to spread itself out in awkward ways and then striking it where it was weakest four times throughout the war. He maximized the effectiveness of Life's army by designing new tactics that creatively employed the particular quirks of its monsters and the spells of its mages. (He even convinced Life to mass-produce one monster of his own design, a tiny flying, biting insect that spread a deadly plague.) And thanks to his magical coin, Jason was able to keep the others informed of Simon's plans and expectations.

Jason's participation in the war wasn't limited to planning. More and more frequently, he would watch battles play out as he flew high above them. When he spotted a small-scale struggle that seemed it might ultimately be of consequence, he would join it himself, taking the form of a sauropod and trampling the Mortal soldiers. In this fashion, though he was but one among billions, he was able to make his own small contribution. The idea wasn't his own: before he'd fought in these battles even once, Roland had begun patrolling the skies himself.

Among his comrades, Jason's successes made him more of a celebrity than ever before. Before, he had been famous in Gyeeds; now, he was famous in half the multiverse, and infamous in the other half. People, from noncombatants to civilian leaders to many of the generals he regularly met in the war room, as well as Life's sapient creations, worshiped him to a frightening degree. They frequently made exaggerated submissive gesture before speaking to him, and addressed him with ludicrous titles such as "young seer", "warrior of many shapes" (alternatively, "polymorphic warrior"), "prince of plots", and "king of cunning". Jason was tempted to ask them to cut it out, but he knew such idolatry might be useful someday if he allowed it to flourish, so he let it be.

There were at least four other entities who the people held in yet higher esteem than Jason. The top three were, of course, the Vital trinity (Green and Blue, though they rarely showed up in the war room, were active elsewhere); the fourth was Roland Moralheart. If Jason and Curtis were allies of Life, then Roland was its right hand. The Champion of Life was tireless; he spent sixteen hours a day planning strategy, planning tactics, watching (and often participating in) battles, training Emotion mages, resolving conflicts between disparate parts of the colossal army, digesting the daily reports of his chief intelligence officer, overseeing the acquirement and distribution of supplies, overseeing the design and production of war machines, and otherwise taking responsibility for a hundred-billion-man operation.

Morale wasn't always as high as it could be in Life's camp. With each setback—and, even if Life was generally winning, there were frequent setbacks—discontent oozed its way into the ranks, occasionally growing to the point of despair. But the army always bounced back. Its resilience, at least in part, was thanks to Roland's charisma. Whenever the going got rough, Roland would fly to a high perch like the corner of a roof of a ten-story building, and there, to a teeming carpet of human beings that seemed to stretch away endlessly in every direction, he would give a speech. His speeches were totally improvised yet passionate; they "came straight from the heart". With a magically magnified voice, he would decry the dread agenda of Death, extol the glorious plans of Life, and urge the importance of each individual's contribution. Those who lived to the see the end of the war, he said, would share in the joy that life had always striven for since its inception four billion years ago; those who died would be martyrs of life itself, the greatest cause there ever was. He told them to be proud and grateful that they could be a part, however small, of the most decisive event in the history of life, that they could fight under the banner of righteousness itself.

By and large, they were. The dissenters had long since changed their minds, fled, or died.