The fifth part of this story can be found here.
The Orofino Empire had been under siege for three years. The enemy was not some powerful nation bent on conquest, but a band of criminals led by one of the most capable strategists in the world.
Although the Empire feared him as Jerem the Plague, his followers called him the Boss.
The Boss was a huge man: heavy, slow and terribly strong. In battle he moved with the slow inexorability of the tide. Nothing could withstand him. According to one account, he had once felled an oak with a single blow from his great poleaxe. Another story claimed he had crushed a man’s skull with one enormous hand. A few doubted the truth of these tales, but nobody had ever dared to question them openly.
Before every raid, the Boss soaked lengths of rope in oil, wove them into his hair and lit them. His hair and beard, already dyed crimson, seemed to burn with hellfire in battle. Those who had seen him from afar called him the Red Demon and the Paragon of Hell. He was, they insisted, a spirit of hatred, rage and malice.
In spite of his diabolical appearance, the Boss was just a man: a calm, brilliant, logical man. He had used every available means to build up a reputation as a fearsome demon. His followers spread rumors of his preternatural powers. In battle, he looked and acted the part of an evil spirit.
“There is no greater weapon than fear,” he once told his warriors. “A brave man’s fists are more to be feared than the swords and arrows of cowards. To make a man afraid is to disarm him.” On another occasion he said, “Men will fight a criminal. No man will fight a demon.”
In only one respect were the dark rumors about the Boss true. He was utterly ruthless. The Boss executed prisoners as tranquilly as he brewed tea. His was a cold cruelty, malice without anger, a detached determination to succeed at any cost.
As far as the Boss was concerned, there were three elements to success. Survival was the first. Monetary gain was the second: every town was looted before it was burned. The third element was personal satisfaction. While the Boss did not particularly enjoy the act of killing, he found satisfaction in avoiding capture and wiping towns off the map.
It was, as he saw it, a game. The Empire constantly lost its playing pieces to the Boss. The Boss seldom lost a piece, and never an important one.
The man whom the Orofino Empire knew as Jerem the Plague seemed to be everywhere at once, yet nowhere. He and his band of fighters descended upon towns, reduced them to ashes and then vanished.
This supernatural feat was, like his supernatural appearance, just another trick.
The Boss had hundreds of men scattered throughout the Empire. Before every attack, his nearest followers gathered secretly and became an army. They dispersed after the battle, slipping back to their homes and resuming the guise of honest tradesmen. Thus the Orofino Empire sought the army of Jerem the Plague in vain, never suspecting his warriors to be local tavern-keepers, blacksmiths and merchants.
He himself traveled with no more than half a dozen men. They posed as traveling merchants, even keeping a wagon stocked with merchandise to sell passersby. No one had ever been alarmed by the weapons the Boss and his men wore. The Empire was a dangerous place, and even merchants were forced to arm themselves against the beasts turned vicious by the Blight.
Only twice had passersby suspected the Boss might be something more sinister. On both occasions the threat to his secrecy had been, as he expressed it, “promptly dealt with,” and the bodies buried.
On a warm, balmy evening, the Boss and his men were interrupted by an unexpected guest as they set up camp.
“Welcome!” exclaimed the Boss, smiling and holding out his hands. “We did not expect to find a customer here, and not at such an hour. It is dangerous to be wandering the woods alone at night, stranger. The Blight makes such places unsafe.”
“Do you have any coffee?” asked the stranger. “Traveling alone is dangerous, yes, but the risk will be worthwhile if only I can have a cup of coffee.”
“You have money?” inquired the Boss. No merchant would part with a cup of coffee without charging for it.
The stranger handed him a gold coin. “Keep the change,” he said. “I haven’t had a cup of coffee in ages. Not since, well, this morning.”
The Boss chuckled. “Well said, stranger. I hope you are willing to wait. Coffee takes time to brew. Evan! Prepare some coffee for our customer.”
The stranger seated himself by the fire. The man called Evan filled a kettle as the others resumed setting up camp. The Boss sat down next to the stranger and whetted his knife.
As long as the stranger did not pry, he was in no danger. There was nothing to be gained by slaughtering passersby. If, however, the stranger began to ask too many questions, the Boss would have no choice but to end him.
“What is your name, stranger?” he asked.
“Innocent Freo,” said the man, tossing a gold coin in the air and catching it.
“Do you always treat your money so carelessly?”
“It’s just a habit,” added Innocent with another toss of the coin. “It’s hard for me to sit still sometimes. I like having something to do with my hands.”
“So where do you come from, Innocent Freo?”
“A little town way out in the desert. You’ve probably never heard of it: Green Isle.”
“I have been to Green Isle. The taverns there serve exquisite fire-nectar.”
Innocent laughed and flipped the coin yet again into the air. “Exquisite isn’t the word I’d choose,” he said. “I’d call it bracing. It’s perfect for getting rust off iron tools, and sometimes even good for drinking. You wouldn’t happen to stock fire-nectar in that wagon of yours?”
“I’d love to have just a taste of home. For another gold coin, could I have a bottle of fire-nectar?”
As Evan rummaged in the wagon, Innocent continued tossing his coin.
“Here you go,” grunted Evan, thrusting a bottle at Innocent.
Innocent flipped the coin a final time, handed it to the Boss and took the bottle.
“Good stuff,” he said, and hurled the bottle into the heart of the fire.
The flames leaped skyward with a roar. For just an instant, the Boss and his men were dumbfounded.
There was a thump and a muffled wheeze. The Boss recovered his senses. “Attack, you fools!” he cried, advancing on Innocent with his knife.
Innocent stood with a sword raised. Evan lay beside him with an empty sheath, clutching his chest and trying to breathe.
Two men charged at Innocent, but they fell to the ground before they could reach him.
“Gotcha!” cried a stout, hairy man, holding down one of the men and grinning impishly. “Stop struggling, you, or you’ll get a knife through your ribs. I know where to stick it, don’t think I don’t.”
The man stopped struggling and whimpered.
The other man lay senseless with an arrow in his arm. “Good shot, Heck,” said the hairy man. “You were right, sure enough. That stuff you slathered on the arrowhead knocked him out right cold.”
The Boss surveyed the scene in an instant. He could not see the rest of his men, but a chorus of groans from behind the wagon told him they could not help him now. It was useless to try to fight. Escape was his best option.
He turned to flee.
“Hold still or I kill you where you stand.”
The Boss felt the cold prickle of a blade held to the back of his neck. He held still.
“You really like that ‘or I kill you where you stand’ line, don’t you, Paladin Fey?” said the hairy man. “You use it a lot. Anyhow, Jerem’s supposed to be immortal. If that’s really Jerem, there’s not much point in telling him you’ll kill him, is there?”
“Quiet, Loxley, or you’re next.”
Two men came into the firelight and began tying up the Boss’s followers.
“Sorry about that,” said Innocent, nudging Evan gently with his foot. “I hit you a little harder than I intended. You’ll be fine, I think. I’ll just keep your sword for now.”
The Boss had put his whole life into playing his game with the Empire. Having lost his pieces, he accepted defeat gracefully.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Paladin Fey,” said the voice from behind him. “The hairy one is Theobald Loxley.”
“Nick Puck here,” said one of the men tying up the captives. “I’ve spent so many years hearing about you, Jerem, it’s a little surreal to finally meet you. You’re not nearly as demonic as I expected.
“Anyways,” he added, motioning toward the other man, “that’s Hector Fuori, our tracker and bowman. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s the one who managed to find you. We’ve been on your trail since Coppertown. That’s the last place you burned, in case you’d forgotten.”
“We represent the Emperor himself,” said Paladin Fey. “His Excellency Cecil the Immortal tasked us with bringing you and your men to justice.”
“You will never find the rest of my men,” said the Boss.
“That’s fine,” said Innocent. “They’re not one-tenth so dangerous without their leader. We’ve cut off the snake’s head tonight. The rest of the snake will pass away quietly.”
Having finished with the Boss’s men, Puck and Fuori began binding the Boss himself.
“I can’t believe we did it!” squealed Loxley, who was keeping a close watch on the captives. “We brought down Jerem the Plague. We’re heroes! This day will become a holiday or something. The refugees can go home and start over again. The Empire is saved!”
“Please be quiet, Mist,” said Innocent. “I think Jerem wants to say something.”
“You followed us here,” said the Boss. “You are clearly exceptional trackers.”
“Your red beard was a giveaway,” said Fuori quietly. “We also had a tip from a survivor in Coppertown. He directed us to a clearing in the Jade Forest where I picked up your trail.”
“When you found me, you sent Innocent to reconnoiter.”
“Yes,” said Paladin Fey. “Paladin Spike, the man you call Innocent, surveyed the situation and signaled us with that gold coin. It caught the firelight, so Master Fuori could see it from where he was hiding. Paladin Spike gave us the information we needed, and even caused a diversion so we could attack.”
Paladin Fey failed to repress a smile. “When you told us you’d cause a diversion, Paladin Spike, I didn’t expect you to blow up the campfire.”
“Further questions, prisoner?” asked Paladin Fey. “If not, you’re under arrest for countless charges of murder, arson, theft and treason, among others. Most of all, Jerem the Plague, the Orofino Empire charges you with attempted destruction of the Infinity Manuscript.”
The Boss began to laugh.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” he said. “I plead guilty to all of those charges but two. I have never touched the Infinity Manuscript, and I am not Jerem the Plague.”
“Three years ago, I heard rumors of a red-headed man who sought the Infinity Manuscript to destroy it, and the world with it. He was called Jerem. I took his name. If he were credited with my accomplishments, I hoped, the Empire would search for him and leave me alone. It seems I was wrong.
“Tell your Emperor that you conquered the Red Demon, the Paragon of Hell, but the man whose true name is Jerem still walks free. You have saved the Empire, but you have done nothing to save the world.”
The story continues with the seventh part, The Tale of the Paladin.