All That Is Good and Natural

Again, Jason felt he climbed stairs for centuries, and was doomed to do so forevermore. And the climbing only got harder as he got higher. Not only did fatigue weaken him; the steps seemed to grow steeper, taller, as he moved forward. It wasn't long before he found himself leaning on the Black Scythe as if it were a walking stick. "We'll make it through together, Death." he wheezed. "We'll make it through together." Ironically, his wish to cast the weapon over the stairs into the blue, cloudless abyss, or at least to put it down for a moment, was stronger than ever.

At last, Jason caught sight of another landing; he didn't know whether to consider this good or bad. Once he arrived there, he was unsurprised to see the golden motes gather again. This time, their product was just one person: Roland Moralheart. He, too, was unabashedly nude. His face was stern and knowing.

"I suppose you'll want to know… why things are the way they are." said Roland in English.

"You read my mind." said Jason.

"Curtis was telling the truth when he said the multiverse outside of this place is quite different. Interdimensional boundaries have all but disintegrated; all the world is now very close to being one great organism."

"You mean 'orgy'?" said Jason coldly.

Roland switched to Common. "Serves me right for using a language that has the assumption that sex is dirty built in. As I was saying, there is, in this largely homogeneous multiverse, but one anomaly: this place."

"Due to this, I suppose." said Jason, raising the scythe.

Roland nodded. "It imposes a more orderly, familiar, sterile pattern on the reality around it."

"This, familiar?" He spoke exclusively in English, and Roland in Common; they understood each other nonetheless.

"It is compared to everything else. The outside world is just about impossible to explain to one who hasn't experienced it. There is no matter, for one; only energy and emotion. And while there's still some individuality, there's much less of it. Every creature's mind is a part of every other's to a much greater degree than in the old days. The feeling of splitting off from the great single organism—of tearing my soul away from the communal soul, so I could take a human shape and appear here—was terrible. It was something like chopping off all of one's limbs in order to fit into a narrow tunnel." He shuddered. "My only comfort is that I can go back—but you can't imagine how much willpower it takes me to not return immediately."

"Yes, I've always admired you for your self-control."

Roland ignored this sarcasm. "Inside this bubble of matter, the scenery is the product of the combined, conflicting forces of Life and Death. So great is the power on both sides that the result is much more dramatic and metaphorical than ordinary. And make no mistake, the drama's being watched: many of the beings in the greater multiverse are clustered around this bubble, their eyes pressed up against the glass."

Jason looked upwards. "So I really do have an audience now. I suppose that's appropriate. But, uh… Roland, one other thing. Why are you all naked?"

Roland looked surprised. "The question isn't why we're naked, Jason. The question is why you aren't."

"Gee, I dunno, do you think it might be because I didn't take my clothes off?"

"But why not? You should."

Jason chuckled. "I've got my reasons. For one thing, I'm quite comfortable as-is. For another, I'd be mad to abandon what few shields against sexuality I have. It's no great secret that sexuality is one of Life's greatest weapons. For another, among my personal values is the basic idea that one shouldn't appear naked in public. And last but not least, I don't have a free hand to undress with! I hope you weren't thinking of 'helping' me!"

Roland glowered. "I'm no more of a pedophile than I ever have been. It is, in fact, difficult for me to imagine someone I'd less like to have sex with than you. I stand by everything I said about you in the temple, after you murdered Beatrix. You hold the most awful weapon the world has ever seen in your hand, and you are among the handful evil enough to use it. I spared you only for the greater good—and now that that greater good has been accomplished, the only thing that prevents me from killing you where you stand is the scythe."

"What 'greater good' are you referring to?"

"Nothing less than the great weakening of Death! Have no doubt, Jason: Life guessed your plan from the very beginning, perhaps even before you'd come up with it."

"My plan…"

"To weaken Death to get it into a bargaining position, then destroy Life with its aid. Yes, Jason—Life saw through your lies from the beginning! But it knew you would do far more good for it than harm. Just look—we're in a far better position now than we were at the start of the war. For all practical purposes, Death is dead and Life has won. All thanks to you, Jason." A wide grin spread across his face.

Jason began to feel ill. "But Roland," he said, "you do know what Life's ultimate goal is, don't you?"

"Of course: infinite change."

"Why would you want that?"

"Because I'm tired of laws and rules and restrictions and separation and repression!" Roland snarled. "Aren't you, Jason? Don't you find the endless petty taboos of society loathsome? How ridiculous that we should be able to go here but not there, to consume this but not that, to love this person but not that one! Doesn't your heart go out to all our silent brethren we've enslaved and slaughtered—from dolphins and dragons to tadpoles and toadstools? How stupid and arrogant of us to think we're somehow superior to all the teeming trillions of God's other creations! Don't you wish to free yourself of all those horrific, heartless machines, like trains and computers? How foolish of us to place so much faith in those metallic slavers, to allow our own creations to control our lives and lay waste to all that is good and natural! In short, Jason, have you not the least love of life?"

Jason thought for a while before answering. "No, I don't." he said.

"But why not?" said Roland quietly.

"Because of the three deaths I most earnestly wish never happened, one was of a computer program."

"Hydrogen!" Roland hissed. "Just another agent of Death—like you."

"Like me."

"I won't pretend to understand you, Jason. I can only imagine that the United States's Puritanical tradition has a uniquely poisonous effect on the human soul."

They stared at each other in angry silence.

"All right, Role." said Jason. "Step aside now."

Roland crossed his arms across his hairy chest. "I can't let you pass."

"You can't, eh?" said Jason, brandishing the scythe.

"Nope! Not while you hold the scythe."

"Roland, I've got the power of an entire deity on my side. You don't."

"Jason, I have real courage on my side. You're just a coward."

"Wanna bet?" He pulled his arm back, as if preparing to strike. "This is your last warning, O thick-skulled nudist. Get out of the way."

"You can't do it." said Roland serenely. "Try if you like, but―"

With a diabolical grin, Jason struck. He had an idea that while he could surely kill Roland outright with ease, all he really wanted to do was cut off Roland's right hand. The blade, while far mightier than he, obeyed his mental command. Jason found his hand guided such that the blade of the Black Scythe went cleanly through Roland's wrist, and did no further harm—this despite how Roland instinctively threw up his arms to protect himself midway through Jason's swing. His right hand disappeared in a burst of violet sparks; blood gushed from his wrist, again staining the carpet, until the wound wholly closed up an instant later. Roland looked at the freshly cut stump, and then at Jason, in fearful awe.

"That's what you get for putting your hand in the wolf's mouth." said Jason. "Something tells me that all the magic in the world, divine or otherwise, isn't going to get it to grow back."

"You wretch!" Roland cried.

"Just be grateful I didn't castrate you."

Roland's eyes flashed with venom. "I'll no longer try to stop you. I can't. It's up to Life now. But know this, Jason: I was watching when you broke your promise to Curtis. I was there when you made it, exactly a year ago. And you'll pay. No one can break a oath of that magnitude without suffering the consequences. And oh, there shall be consequences; there shall be consequences! You've earned my curse."

"And you've earned my hatred." said Jason. "Crawl back into the hell you came from before I finish you off."

"You can't escape from vengeance, Jason!" said Roland—and in a flash, he was gone.

"Good riddance." said Jason. "With friends like mine, who needs enemies?"