Triumph of the Darkness

Just as the steps had gotten a good deal taller than him, just as Jason thought he would soon come to one he couldn't climb, they abruptly ended. Past the top step, there was a sheer drop. The only way forward was up a skinny, slightly swaying ladder of white rope hanging down from the sky. So tall it was that Jason couldn't make out the top, yet he hadn't been able to see this enormous ladder at all from just one step lower. He rested for a long time. Then, he began to make his slow, clumsy, harrowing way up.

Need I even mention what peril pressed upon Jason's nerves as he ascended? Perhaps the Black Scythe protected him from physical harm, but he didn't even know where he'd end up if he fell. He climbed painstakingly, able to get a secure hold on each rung only by wrapping it into the crook of his left elbow and grabbing it with what he could spare of his hand. The rungs were just close enough to accommodate this method. Each time a light breeze gave the ladder a push, Jason felt as if the entire world swung back and forth; how he endured that nausea is another mystery for the ages.

After an eternity, Jason saw something more than blue sky and rungs above him: stars. Although it was so gradual that he hadn't noticed, the sky had been growing darker for quite a while. <Perhaps night is falling here.> Jason thought. He kept climbing. With unimaginable slowness, the sky grew darker, and the stars grew brighter. Eventually, Jason felt as if he were climbing a ladder through space. How numerous and brilliant the stars were! He imagined that each of them was a person, peering into the Black Scythe's little world from the greater multiverse outside. Then, happening to look down (he'd made a habit of looking down pretty frequently, to minimize his fear of what was below), he saw that colossal blue marble, Earth, spread out below him. The ladder seemed to lead from a spot in the Midwestern United States—and not just any spot.

<Impossible!> Jason thought. <To climb such a distance up from the Earth's surface would take me years at least. Have I been climbing for years?> He glanced at his reflection in the scythe-blade; he was still eleven. <Not to mention how there shouldn't be any air up here.> It then occurred to him that the breezes had stopped long ago, and that his breathing had gradually slowed down, to the point that he now wasn't breathing at all. He tried to speak aloud. He couldn't; there was no air with which to do so. He was surviving in a vacuum! <I guess I have the scythe to thank for that.> he thought. There remained a lot of nagging questions: why didn't he feel a difference in terms of gravity? He was no lighter than before. Where was the sun? He realized with a start that he'd never seen a sun at all, even on the ground; the universe was simply bathed in sourceless sunlight coming from all directions. Jason shook his head and went on.

Gradually, Earth shrank. It began as a plane, then curved into a sphere, then flattened into a circle, then compressed into a point—and then it was gone, and Jason was climbing through endless space.

After another eternity, Jason saw a white circle above him. It looked like the ladder was hanging from it. As he drew closer, the circle grew larger, but no more detailed. Finally, finally, Jason came to the top of the ladder. He collapsed on the circle, which was white on the top side also. While it supported him, and he could feel it resist his fingers when he pushed on it, it had no texture, no tactile sensation whatsoever. It was the most utterly nondescript object he had ever encountered.

A few things happened at once. Jason stood up, the ladder disappeared, the stars winked out, and some air materialized in the space around him. He breathed again. Now, he felt rather that he was on a stage under a big circular spotlight, which was so bright that he couldn't see a thing outside of it. Then he thought of being interrogated under a bare lightbulb. There was nothing but him, the scythe, the perfectly circular, perfectly white platform, and the unending blackness.

"I've climbed a stairway to heaven and Jacob's Ladder," he said aloud, "only to find myself in the heart of darkness."

He'd expected a reply, but he received none.

"Hello? Anyone out there?"


"I know you're listening, Red."

"Red is no more." The voice—or was it multiple voices?—sounded both high and low, young and old, timid and bold, sympathetic and merciless. Like the light, it had no definite origin; it came from all directions simultaneously.

"Then who are you?" said Jason, though he wasn't sure he believed it.

"The trinity served its purpose; I need it no longer. I have reformed into Life, the one true god, the beginning and the end."

"You're younger than me," said Jason, "and I won't allow you to get any older. Show yourself so I can destroy you."

"Grant me more wisdom than that! While you wield the scythe, love cannot reach your heart." Jason thought he heard something like a sigh. "If only you had delayed this but a few hours! Did you know, Jason, that adulthood was to begin for you on the stroke of midnight? At that moment, I could have shown you my true glory—and you would have abandoned your sinister plans at once. Yet no organism restrained by that dreadful Death-power can grow."

"Have I prevented puberty altogether?"

"No, merely delayed it. In the world of a few hours ago, were you to drop the scythe now, puberty would come in about half a year. But here, I could mature you instantly."

"How so?"

"By temporarily uniting with you: by funneling my power into your brain, until the seed of adulthood in your mind awakens at my presence."

"You can't do that while I've got this is my hand, can you?"


"Well, that can be remedied." Carefully, he placed the scythe on the floor beside him. As he'd hoped, nothing happened immediately; it sustained the metaphor-world on its own quite nicely. "Okay, let 'er rip."

"With Death so close? Its oppressive power would make my task much harder than necessary. Throw it over the edge of the stage."

"I'm not quite comfortable doing that. You saw my conversations on the staircase."

"In that case, you don't have to dispose of it yet. You'll burn with the desire to rid yourself of it shortly. You've opened the door to good just far enough. Are you ready?"

"As much as I'll ever be."

Immediately, Jason could feel the pressure on his mind. Death had briefly been able to listen to certain of his thoughts. This was quite different: Life wasn't merely receiving something Jason was broadcasting; it had invaded his mind; it was inside it. Slowly, tension built up in Jason, as if he were holding his breath. He felt a keen desire to break free, as if he had been chained to something since the day of his birth and hadn't noticed until now. All he had to do was tug, give the gentlest of tugs, and those weak, rotting bonds would burst at once. He felt he was drowning, and had a handhold in sight, an excellent one that he could clearly use to save his life; he only had to reach for it. Yet he resisted. All he had to do was open his heart and accept the freedom and happiness that Life offered—the easiest thing in the world. Yet he grit his teeth, clutched his forehead, and held his ground.

"What are you doing?" came Life's voice. "Why aren't you letting me into yourself? Do you intend to test my strength? I can play that game."

Life had put only a little of its power to work before, believing no more would be necessary. Now it poured in. The tension increased by an order of magnitude; if Jason had been carrying an elephant on his shoulders before, he was holding up a skyscraper now. He was trying to get a hold on an almost perfectly smooth wall as he fell hundreds of feet; he was trying to plug a firehose with his hand.

How strong the temptation! The picture of what lay before him, previously indistinct and far away, snapped into life. It looked like a beach. He seemed to feel warm sunlight and a cool, richly scented sea breeze, to taste something smooth and sweet. And yet all these things, he knew, were only microcosms of the real delights that awaited him.

"Let go, Jason," a soft voice crooned in his mind as he held back the tidal wave, "just let go. It will all be over in an instant; it will be so easy, just relax and let yourself go…"

He could not but yield…

"No!" he shrieked. His flesh failed him: he fell to the ground. Only his mind remained adamant.

"Do you think you can hold me back forever?" said Life. Jason could barely hear it over the cacophony. "You are only mortal. It matters not if I need put every iota of my might to work. Your soul is mine!"

The pressure doubled, then tripled, then quadruped, then quintupled. As Jason had guessed it would from the beginning, Life wasn't merely trying to make Jason sexually mature; it was trying to make him one of its own, just like everyone else in the multiverse. So strongly had Jason resisted—any resistance at all only being made possible by the proximity of Death—that Life was focusing nearly all of its divine strength on the boy's brain. The vast majority of the god was inside his head! And oh, could Jason feel it. That simple hunger to break loose of ordinary experience had blossomed into ten thousand different hungers. He felt literally hungry; starving, in fact, as if he had gone a week without food. He felt thirsty, thirsty enough to drink a whole lake. He felt exhausted; if he so much as closed his eyes, he thought, he would fall into a sleep as deep as the ocean. He was bored to tears. He was covetous of everything, wrathful towards everyone, scared half to death of nothing. And yes, even without a sexuality to call his own, he felt lust. Natural selection instills in most animal species a choosy sexuality, tailored towards whatever things with which sexual interaction will do the species most good. There are plenty of unusual individuals, with their own ideas of what is attractive, but even these find at least some things more sexually appealing than others. The lust Jason felt, by contrast, was truly pansexual, untainted and unbridled by practicality or tradition or philosophy: he desired to do anything with everything, preferring no act or partner to any other. He found reality itself erotic.

Few times in history has a person stretched their will so far as Jason Blue did then and there. He could barely conceive of doing something other than yield to one of the infinite impulses that pulled him every which way. He held on only through blindly inherited faith, remembering, vaguely, that there was some reason he should at all costs avoid surrender. The reason itself was lost forever; he could barely think. And what free sapience remained in his brain was shrinking by the second. This was by no means a sustainable situation; Life's raw power was quickly tearing him apart. There went the bulk of his memory—whoosh! it was gone for good. There went his eloquence. There went his likes and dislikes; there went his cunning. Just ten seconds after Life had claimed Jason's soul as its own, there was very little of Jason left in existence to claim.

The awareness that its obliteration was nigh finally roused the remaining bit of Jason, which was so thoroughly absorbed in protecting itself against Life's onslaught that it had nearly lost sight of its goal. With a Herculean effort, Jason turned his head. He could see a blackness and a grayness lying on an infinite white expanse. The scythe seemed an astronomical distance away; perhaps it had disappeared long ago, and he was looking at its three-thousand-year-old image. He didn't care; he needed it, and that was one of the very few things he was sure of. Slowly, clumsily, he crawled towards it. It wasn't that he was physically incapable of walking, nor that he had lost the skill; it was that he had forgotten walking itself, along with all other kinds of locomotion more sophisticated than crawling.

Life said something, but Jason didn't make out any of the words; it didn't occur to him to listen. He only crawled painstakingly, snail-like, towards the scythe, his remaining personality sloughing away by the moment.

That journey, across three feet of floor, felt longer than the whole vast trek up the staircase and the ladder.

He registered something like surprise when his fingers first brushed the black snath, not least because he'd never expected to reach it. He felt a spark of hope. That hope was enough to fuel his will for its greatest push yet. His hand closed around the scythe—he even gripped it tightly—and he lifted himself up on his elbows. He raised the scythe—and plunged the blade into his own head.

And so the essences of Life and Death, each squeezed into a volume no greater than a gallon, met in Jason's brain.

There were a few moments, then, during which Jason could reflect on what he had done. Rare it is for anyone to come face-to-face with Life or Death, to not merely be in such a presence but to be submerged in it. Jason was thus aware of both gods, simultaneously. The pressure Life exerted on him, its constant Nidhogg-like gnawing on his sanity, abated not the least. Yet he could also feel Death there, and it was no less dreadful. To be so close to Death was to hang by one hand from the rim of Tartarus, to look down upon an infinite void. Nay, worse; Death didn't even evoke an empty space; its dream was nothingness, utter absence of all things. In Death's world, there was neither space nor time; no here or there; no beginning, middle, or end; no matter, no energy, no abstractions; not even a symbolic sensory detail, like the color black or the stench of decaying corpses, by which Jason could conceive of it. He saw it for what it was, nothing, and his merely mortal mind fell to pieces trying to make sense of it. If he'd had any appreciable sanity left by the time Death had entered his brain, it would have been annihilated immediately.

And yet there, too, was Life, the hideous force that was anything and everything.

For just a few moments, Jason saw both of them for what they were at once.

"The horror!" he shrieked. "The horror!"

Then, somewhere between Life and Death, he saw himself—and he had no words to describe that.

At that moment, Life and Death collided, and their equal and opposite forces reacted to produce an explosion. Their combined power burst outwards, tearing Jason apart, not into atoms or quarks but into the pure energy of which these are composed. It tore the scythe's metaphor-world apart. It tore the universe apart—and hundreds of verses nearby. All these were obliterated as completely as anything can be. All that was left behind was a colossal hole in the interdimensional space, a void that would remain until the end of time as a monument to the forces that had produced it.

You will no doubt be interested to hear that this world-annihilating explosion actually killed very few people. While Life had tenaciously held on until the last moment, the observers who had been clustered around the metaphor-world had fled as soon as they'd seen Jason move towards the scythe. They had escaped the blast. With Life's and Death's destruction, the multiverse, along with its inhabitants, was returned to something like normalcy. Everyone had regular bodies again, and whatever they had been wearing when Death had become the Black Scythe; the strange kind of hive-mind Roland had alluded to was gone. Yes, Roland was alive, as was Curtis, and even Simon. But Jason was dead, gloriously dead!

Humanity ruled the world again, whether it liked it or not.