Dead Simple

It was early February; Jason wouldn't be quite prepubescent for much longer. In the war room, he said that in order to press its advantage, the Life-army ought to attack continuously from here on, with the goal of winning the war as quickly as possible. In truth, this was hardly an ideal strategy. Since the rabbit population grew by about a fourth each day under any circumstances, and the Death-army couldn't grow at all without fresh corpses, Life had everything to gain by avoiding combat and biding its time. It was only with great difficulty and especially rough handling of the truth that Jason convinced those assembled to go along with the idea, and although Red gave its okay, Jason wasn't sure he'd really convinced it.

Happily, Life already had enough rabbits to support such an offensive campaign. Again and again, the rabbits trampled the undead hordes. Though many of them died, their growth never slowed down significantly. Death soon become conspicuously desperate; it risked sizable portions of its troops on a few massive attacks. This helped it, especially by providing fresh dead bodies to reanimate. Still, it appeared to be losing.

Jason had a bad feeling about Valentine's Day. As the antagonism between Life and Death had increased over the past couple of months, the causality warp had appeared to grow more pronounced, not least in how important dates in the Gregorian calendar had been much more important than usual. On Christmas Day, the gods had chosen their Champions, and on New Year's Eve, Simon had killed Leela. What, then, could Jason expect today? Surely Valentine's Day wasn't as important a holiday as Christmas or New Year's, but the possible association with Love wasn't lost on Jason.

Hardly had everyone settled down in the war room to plan Life's next attack when a visitor wearing the black uniform of Death arrived, escorted by two graylings who guarded the tent. He was a large man, surprisingly well-muscled, with a face reminiscent of a weasel. Jason thought he looked familiar, but couldn't for the life of him remember anything about him.

"This man claims to be a messenger." said one of the graylings in his high, fluting voice.

"And he is one." said Jason, looking up from his coin.

"Then say on." said Roland.

"The Champion of Death" said the messenger "proposes a private battle between himself and three of you: namely, the Champion of Life, Jason Blue, and Curtis Debyeamo." Everyone cast inquiring glances at each other, the named parties especially. "The rules are that no other help, including from the gods themselves, is allowed, and no one may leave the fight until Simon is destroyed or all three of the others are dead. If you accept the challenge, show up here in exactly an hour." A hologram appeared in the center of the tent, above the map-covered grass. It depicted a long, narrow cliff projecting into a wide canyon. "The verse is 5,119." said the messenger. "That's all."

"All right." said Roland. "You're free to go." The graylings led him out. "Three against one! That lich must be feeling cocky." He paused, and half of the tent's occupants began waving their hands. "General Talbot, what do you have to say?"

Talbot Iceslicer enjoyed a higher rank in the Life-army than the old Gyeedian navy. He'd been brought into the army's inner circle at Jason's insistence, so that all Jason's wild plans would be subject to a helpful dissenting voice; Jason didn't generally think it wise to surround oneself with yes-men. "Don't even think about it." said Talbot. "We're already winning. We have a lot to lose by this and precious little to gain."

"I admit I don't like the idea of dying," said Jason, "but I think Simon's destruction would be a definite gain. Right now, we're more likely to win than lose. With Simon out of the way, our ultimate victory would be all but guaranteed."

"What guarantee do we have that Simon will abide by his own rules of engagement?" said the head of the air force.

"Simon and Death are sticklers for rules." said Roland. "You may recall that our enemies have only broken any given law of war after we broke it ourselves. It's no secret that their priorities are warped beyond reason."

"That's true." said Talbot. "The foremost question in my mind, then, is Simon's motive."

Jason said "I can't imagine any other than what Roland implied: Simon feels he can kill all three of us on his own, and he hopes to improve Death's prospects that way. Now, why the classic trio, in particular?"

"I can answer that one." said Red. "Simon wants you dead, Jason, nearly as much as he wants Roland dead. Furthermore, he knows the three of you quite well. No doubt he plans to take advantage of your particular weaknesses."

"Of which we have plenty," said Jason darkly, "and he has few. We've often surprised him using the foreknowledge the coin gives me, but in general, I've never known a less trickable man. The only more discerning person I know of was a woman…"

"We can't do this." said Curtis. "Can't! Remember that thing you said Simon did to Leela, Pup? He just did something, and after a couple minutes, she died. He'd do that to us!"

"That can be prevented." said Red. "I, or Roland if necessary, can give you enough of my power to protect you from such insidious spells. The danger is more conventional violence." It narrowed its eyes. "Will you then do this?"

"I will." said Roland, rising. He clenched a fist. "I think the time has come."

Shakily, Jason got up as well. "This offers a very quick and low-casualty route to victory. I'm not going to let it slip by." <If only I could do so!> he thought. <But it isn't safe to delay even one more day than is absolutely necessary.>

Lots of people appeared to want to object; Roland waved his hand dismissively. "The decision's been made." he said. "You are coming, Curtis, aren't you?"

"Yeah, if Jason's coming." said Curtis. "That doesn't mean I want to."

As soon as the threesome arrived, Jason realized the significance of the location: it was the very same cliff on which he'd slept the night after being removed from Earth, and first spoke to Roland the morning after.

It was night here, yet there was no shortage of light. The stars, unobscured by a single cloud, were unusually abundant and brilliant, and both of the twin moons were waxed full, suffusing the canyon with a bluish-silver glow. Though he knew his eyes were deceiving him, Jason couldn't shake the images he saw in the moons' rocky surface: a trefoil knot in one and a skull in the other.

"So we're safe from the guaranteed-death attack?" said Curtis. It came out as a whisper, probably not, Jason thought, because the prince had intended it.

"Quite so." said Roland not much louder. "He won't even bother trying it. He'll attack in other ways." He shuddered. "My first tussle with Simon as Champion of Death was harrowing enough, and that was in broad daylight. I don't look forward to this."

"Not even with the potential for vengeance?" said Jason.

"I fear I might not get to avenge Beatrix." said Roland. "Such mighty evil… my God! I already regret taking on this challenge." Jason found these words not a little disheartening. If even the hot-blooded Champion of Life was reduced to morbidity, than what they were about to face was fearsome indeed.

"When's he gonna show up?" said Curtis, with more trepidation than impatience.

Roland looked at his watch. "We're just a few seconds away from 'exactly an hour' after the messenger said those words. Possibly Simon intends―"

And then, without any fanfare or warning, there appeared the Champion of Death. Just a moment's glance at him nearly stopped Jason's heart. No part of his appearance had objectively changed—he had the same skeleton and the same skull symbols on his shoulders—but Jason felt he could see, even feel in the air, the change of intention. No more was he interested primarily in merely preparing a great army, or in killing one, but not all, of the people before him; no more did he wish to recruit Jason. His mission here was to kill, plain and simple, and the terrifying part of it was that he had not the least inhibitions or doubts, not even the warped sense of righteousness Roland felt when he polished off a gang of criminals. He didn't feel any special justification was called for; he only wished to obliterate Jason, Roland, and Curtis as he wished to obliterate everything. In short, Simon had no regard for human life whatsoever. The reason it struck Jason so was that for the first time, he himself was on the receiving end.

Mind you that all these thoughts flit through Jason's mind in a fraction of a second. Before any of the trio could react physically to his presence, Simon made the first move: he gave Curtis a telekinetic shove, sending the boy sailing the edge.

Without hesitation, Jason went to save Curtis himself. He became a falcon for diving and a pterodactyl for grabbing, as he'd caught the acquaintance of Beatrix's; he was fast enough that Curtis didn't fall very far. He flew away from the initial cliff as he rose with Curtis dangling from his claws, hoping to get far enough away that he could place Curtis on solid ground without Simon attacking the two of them en route.

The scene Jason saw once he got high enough to watch Simon and Roland fight wasn't comforting. It seemed to be a repeat of their Gyeedian duel, except this time, Simon wasn't holding back, and Roland knew it. Simon nullified mighty blasts of flame and burning light with just a wave of his skeletal hand, and returned with storms of razor-thin ice crystals that slid through Roland's body more smoothly than bullets, and a sort of carnivorous violet ooze that Roland had to burn off of himself. The Champion of Life was being badly beaten—and as despair grew in his heart, his spells only grew feebler. Simon had reversed the characteristic vicious cycle of Emotion magic, with dreadful consequences.

"We've gotta help him!" Curtis cried. "Drop me off, quick!"

While Jason couldn't transform to reply, he agreed with the sentiment. He flew in a wide loop to end up a bit behind the Champions, who were now fighting in the air around the cliff. As soon as he'd dropped Curtis onto the dusty ground, he turned into a hundred-ton sauropod and stampeded towards the Champions. Simon flew farther away from the cliff until he was out of range, meanwhile repelling a missile from Roland. Jason became a bird and swooped at the skeleton, narrowly dodging a blast of ice, and then became a blue whale. His massive bulk bore down on Simon like a freight train on an ant—an ant wielding the power of Death itself, that is. For Jason was horrified to find himself stopped in midair: Simon had arrested his prodigious momentum with his bare hands, himself moving only a few feet backwards. Where the undead bones touched him, Jason's skin instantly grew numb with cold. Simon gave the colossal bulk a mighty shove, and Jason found himself hurtling downwards. By the time he'd changed back into a hawk and stopped his descent, he'd fallen a sickening distance.

Simon had already demonstrated that Curtis's chief vulnerability was his inability to fly. Curtis had therefore created an enormous, black-feathered bird on whose back he now stood. He flew towards Simon, his hands outstretched to cast a spell. Simon came to meet him, easily dodging the projectile, and then, as he passed under the bird, fired the killing-spell at it, the same one that Curtis feared. Immediately the bird became too weak to fly; it rolled over a few times, sending Curtis plummeting again, as it fell. Jason successfully caught the prince only because he was already so low.

"Thanks again." said Curtis, as Jason flew away. "Except we might die anyway. We're losing!"

<We're sure to lose> Jason thought <if you're always falling, and I spend all of my time catching you.> He looked back at the Champions as he moved away from them. Roland was acting as if he'd already given up; he attacked halfheartedly, and barely attempted to resist the harm being poured upon him. Hopeless as he felt, things could only go downhill from here.

Or could they?

A strange idea came to Jason as he flapped his leathery wings through the canyon. After killing Curtis's bird, Simon had turned to Roland and ignored Curtis altogether; Roland hadn't bothered himself with Curtis at all, probably because he'd seen Jason fly to the rescue. Neither Champion could be sure what had actually happened, since they hadn't paid attention. But perhaps at least one would care.

Instead of putting Curtis back on the high cliff, Jason took him to a much lower and less visible shelf in the rock, and dropped him there.

"No, Jay!" said Curtis, hurriedly getting to his feet. "Take me back!"

Jason landed beside Curtis and took his human form just long enough to say "Stay hidden. Don't let them know you're alive." Ignoring Curtis's protests, he flew away again, simply hoping the mage would obey him. He returned to the dueling Champions, noticing how much things had worsened in the few minutes he'd been gone. Perching on a nearby ledge, he changed to his natural shape and shouted, with as much anguish and surprise in his voice as he could muster, "Curtis is dead!"

Roland froze, horrified. "What?" he said in a stupor. Simon took the opportunity to shower him with needles of ice. His face was a mask of blood—and, immediately thereafter, of wrath. "O slayer of innocence," he said with dire venom, "I shall serve you your judgment."

That judgment was a fearsome sight to behold: Roland Moralheart, Champion of Life, unleashing the full power at his command. Everything Jason had seen him use before was nothing compared to what he threw at Simon now: columns of white flame ten feet in diameter, streaks of lightning that curved through the air like sea-snakes through water, and swarms of tiny green lights that attacked like bees, but could erode Simon's bones. Simon's ability to nullify or evade such attacks was far from perfect. Within a few minutes, Simon was missing his right hand and his entire right leg, and the whole of him was charred black. Yet he fought on—Roland was still gravely wounded, after all. Jason wasn't certain who would win. He wondered if he could help Roland.

Jason had already noticed that heat was Simon's weakness. The Champion of Death extinguished the flames immediately after each time he was ignited, and still, they burned away a good chunk of him. He clearly couldn't tolerate the least fire. Suddenly Jason realized how he could take advantage of this. At the moment, the Champions were dueling in the air below him, beside the great face of the cliff he stood on. He turned into a hawk and came near them; they paid him little attention. He watched Roland, and when the Champion of Life next created flames, Jason flew near enough to catch on fire, while not near enough to be burnt to a crisp. The pain was instantaneous and overwhelmingly searing, as if he had fallen into a volcano. Fighting to stay conscious, he flew as far up as he dared, then swooped down at Simon, transformed into a whale at the last moment—the flames grew with him, as he'd anticipated—and slammed Simon into the canyon wall. Since Jason was covered with flames, Simon hadn't dared to touch him in order to stop him; since he was so large, Simon wasn't able to fly away in time. Jason switched back to avian form and reeled towards Roland; Roland healed him, both extinguishing the flames and the damage they had done.

There wasn't much left of Simon now. Most of the skeleton had broken and fallen off; what remained was cracked and wreathed in flames. Roland gave Simon another fiery blast; Simon didn't resist. A thick but highly localized rain of ashes fell down from where the skeleton had been—and nothing was left.

"Finally destroyed." Roland muttered. "I can barely believe it."

"Hardly gone forever, I reckon." said Jason, standing on the cliff. "We destroyed the body, but I think the mind continues to exist so long as Death does."

"That can be remedied." said Roland. "Although if Simon has now escaped obliteration for the third time, chances are he has even more lives up his sleeve. He always struck me as feline."

Red appeared beside Jason. "I'm afraid you're both right." it said. "Simon himself still exists. However, the skeleton, and all the power Death lent to him, are gone forever."

Roland smiled. "Have we won the war, then?"

"Essentially, yes." said Red. "There is no conceivable way that Death could recover from a loss like this. It's only a matter of time before we annihilate what remains of the Death-army. Then, Death itself will be sufficiently weak that I may attack it with a guarantee of victory."

Roland nodded. "Now, Jason—where's Curtis's body?"

Jason couldn't help laughing. "He's alive and well. I just said that he'd died so you'd get angry."

Roland blinked slowly. "I don't like to be deceived. But I suppose deception is all right if it's for a good cause."

"Yes," said Jason, "and though I have my doubts, I like to think our cause is a good one."

Jason had lied again. When he'd said "our", he'd really meant "my".