The sixth part of this story can be found here.
Years of service in the Imperial Army had taught Vivian Fey, Paladin of the Orofino Empire, to endure pain. She had been pierced by arrows, slashed by swords and torn by the teeth of beasts turned fierce by the Blight, and she had borne these injuries impassively.
Some things, however, are beyond endurance. Being poked repeatedly with a sharp stick is one of them.
“Wake up, lady,” said Loxley, prodding Paladin Fey in the side. “We’re under attack. It’d be nice if you’d join us.”
Paladin Fey snatched her sword and scrambled to her feet. “What enemy?”
“Wolves,” said Fuori.
The fire had gone out, but Puck tossed wood onto the coals and coaxed it into flame. Paladin Fey and her companions stood with their backs to the fire, gripping their weapons and staring out into the darkness.
A wolf sprang into the circle of firelight, and fell writhing to the ground as an arrow penetrated its chest. Fuori nocked another arrow and put it through the beast’s throat. The wolf stopped struggling. It was an ugly creature, misshapen and grotesque, oozing blood. Its teeth and claws had grown hideously long under the malign influence of the Blight.
“There’s more of the same, sounds like,” said Puck, sidling behind Innocent.
Another wolf leaped toward them. Loxley sidestepped and plunged his knife between its ribs.
“They’ll get us sooner or later,” quavered Puck. “We can’t carry on like this till morning.”
“Can’t we?” said Paladin Fey, and struck down a third wolf as it sprang for her throat.
“I agree with Puck,” said Innocent. “Stay here, will you?”
With that he seized a burning stick, raised his sword and plunged into the darkness.
The others (excepting Puck) rushed forward, but Paladin Fey held them back with a sharp command. “Wait! We mustn’t separate. I can’t stop Innocent from being a fool, but I order the rest of you to stay together.”
The light of Innocent’s torch diminished. At last it disappeared, and many of the wolves with it.
The few surviving wolves slunk away as the sky paled with the light of dawn.
“Awful,” said Loxley, sinking to the ground. “Brandy. I need brandy. Do we have brandy?”
“None,” said Paladin Fey, wiping her sword on the grass.
“No brandy? What kind of leader are you, lady? You didn’t even bring along the bare essentials. This is the worst job I’ve ever taken, and that’s saying a lot. There was that time in the Amethyst Vale—”
“Be quiet, Loxley.”
“I can’t wait till this ruddy expedition is over and Jerem is jugged and I don’t have to take any more orders from a woman.”
“I eagerly await the day I’m no longer obligated to work with you, Loxley. Now be quiet and help the others pack up camp. I’m going to clean my weapon. You disturb me, you die. I don’t want to clean my sword twice today.”
It was an empty threat, but Loxley seemed to take it to heart. He retreated.
Vivian Fey was disheartened. She had been given the most important task ever entrusted to a Paladin of the Orofino Empire, but the honor was marred by the frustration of being forced to work with such exasperating fools.
Fuori, a tracker, was the only one whose conduct was tolerable. He behaved with quiet professionalism, maintaining an attitude of detached politeness toward the others.
The others were insupportable. Loxley, a common thief, was vulgar and disrespectful. The worst thing about him was his refusal to take anything seriously. He did not seem to understand that the fate of the world depended upon their mission.
Puck, a dealer in information, was just as bad. He was always deferential toward Paladin Fey, but his respect was more irritating than Loxley’s insolence. Paladin Fey was afraid Puck fancied himself in love with her.
Paladin Fey was most upset by Innocent, though she did not know why. Not once had he ever given anyone cause for complaint, apart from his stubborn tendency to handle things his own way.
What troubled Paladin Fey was that Paladin Spike, the man she had known and respected, was gone, replaced by the good-natured stranger called Innocent Freo.
Paladin Spike was kindhearted, but his kindness had been tempered by resolve and discipline. Paladin Fey had considered him her mentor. His desertion came as the greatest shock of her life.
Now in place of the determined soldier was a gentle, patient, middle-aged man. His eyes, which had once burned with fervor, were calm and sad.
“Now that the wolves are gone, could we brew some coffee?” inquired Innocent, breaking in on Paladin Fey’s reflections.
“Innocent!” she exclaimed. “That is to say, welcome back, Paladin Spike. I was worried when you ran away from our camp. Why did you run?”
“You may not have noticed, but I was trying to escape being eaten by wolves.”
“I suppose I should thank you for drawing so many of them away from us. Where did you go?”
“Once we were far from the camp, I made a dash up a tree. The beasts finally decided a tough old man wasn’t worth the wait. They left, and I came back to camp in search of my morning coffee. I need it after the night I’ve had.”
“Ask Puck for the coffee,” said Paladin Fey, absently polishing her sword. “Paladin Spike, I need to ask you something.”
Paladin Fey cast a look toward the camp. Puck and Fuori were busy packing, and Loxley was busy pretending to pack.
“It’s a personal question,” said Paladin Fey in a lowered voice.
“You’re in luck, because I’m here to answer it personally.”
“Paladin Spike, what happened to you?”
“That’s rather vague.”
“You used to be a hero of the Orofino Empire. People still tell stories about the Runaway Paladin’s legendary exploits, and practically all those tales are true. You were alive when we served together in the Imperial Army. You had more ambition and drive than anyone else I’ve ever known. Then one day you left without a word. And now you’re—you’re just—”
“I’m just an old man who talks too much and drinks too much coffee,” said Innocent. “Speaking of which—”
“Answer my question.”
Innocent suddenly looked very tired. “I couldn’t keep up the charade, Viv.”
“I didn’t approve of the Orofino Empire. It was kind enough to its citizens, but the people in its conquered territories were treated like slaves. We overthrew kingdom after kingdom, killing royals, killing insurgents, killing anyone who inconvenienced us, and enslaving the rest.”
“That’s it? Your conscience cost us the greatest Paladin we’ve ever had?”
“No. In spite of my conscience, I might have kept up the charade for the sake of personal gain. I could’ve retired with honor and stacks of gold if I’d served a few more years.”
“What made you leave?”
“Have you heard of how the gods created the world by writing in a book?”
“Of course. We’re trying to stop Jerem before he destroys that book, the Infinity Manuscript. If it’s ruined, so is our world.”
“That story is a lie.”
“That’s heresy, Paladin Spike.”
“It’s also truth, I think. I never believed the stories about the gods. In the end, I enlisted in the Imperial Army and devoted myself to my career. I had some idea that, if I were successful, my doubts would go away or simply wouldn’t matter anymore.
“I was wrong. My doubts grew and multiplied until I was no longer sure of anything. At last I couldn’t endure any more. I deserted, fled to a cozy little town out in the desert and got a job as a police constable.”
“You gave up everything and turned your back on the Orofino Empire. Are you happy now?”
“Sometimes. I’ve made my peace with my doubts, but I can’t shake the conviction that the stories about the gods are lies. It all seems—I don’t know—false, like a dream that might fade at any moment.”
Paladin Fey frowned. “It will certainly fade if we don’t catch up with Jerem soon. Our world is ended if he succeeds in burning the Infinity Manuscript.”
“So our Emperor tells us.”
“Do you doubt him?”
“I doubt everything, and the Emperor especially. I want to hear Jerem’s side of things.”
Paladin Fey asked no more questions, and Innocent withdrew to the campfire to brew some coffee. The others finished packing and sat around the fire.
“We should leave soon,” said Fuori. “Jerem’s trail is fresh. He’s close.”
“We’re lucky you were able to find it so quickly,” said Innocent.
Puck scoffed. “Luck had nothing to do with it. We may have a blasted good tracker, but he’d have gotten nowhere if I hadn’t put him on Jerem’s scent with a few timely tips from friends of mine.”
“I still can’t believe that other guy wasn’t Jerem,” grumbled Loxley. “He was our prime suspect, and he turned out to be a phony.”
“That criminal was a serious enemy,” said Paladin Fey. “His band of renegades hurt the Empire more than any army has ever done. We fulfilled part of our mission when we arrested him, but catastrophes tear apart the Empire and the Blight keeps spreading. If Jerem has destroyed pages of the Infinity Manuscript, he may be the cause of these evils.”
“Then let’s not delay,” exclaimed Puck. “We have a criminal to catch.”
“Let’s delay until I’ve finished my coffee,” said Innocent.
A week passed, and their search took them through the Amber Plains. Paladin Fey’s frustration with her companions was mitigated by the glorious realization that she would soon be free of them. Jerem was close.
One golden afternoon, as they followed Jerem’s trail along a river, they came upon a traveler setting up his tent. He was a young man with freckles, red hair and remarkably prominent ears.
“Greetings,” said Paladin Fey. “It’s unusual to find one so young traveling alone.”
“I’m not that young,” protested the youth. “Almost nineteen. That’s pretty old.”
“You shouldn’t travel alone,” said Innocent. “The Blight has made the Empire a dangerous place.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said the youth. “I appreciate your concern. I’ll be fine.”
“We’ve heard rumors that Jerem the Plague may be lurking nearby,” continued Innocent.
The youth laughed. “Seriously, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“Very well,” said Paladin Fey. “Fuori, where do we go from here?”
“We should stop for the night,” said Fuori in a low voice.
“Don’t be absurd. We have hours of daylight left.”
“We should stop for the night,” repeated Fuori, giving Paladin Fey a significant glance.
“If you set up camp here, you’re welcome to use my fire,” said the youth. “I’d be grateful for company, honestly. It gets lonely out here at night. I’m also out of sugar. Can I borrow some?”
Innocent began unpacking, Puck made preparations for supper and Loxley struck up a conversation with the stranger.
Fuori drew aside Paladin Fey. They strolled along the riverbank until the camp was almost out of sight.
“We shouldn’t stop so soon,” said Paladin Fey. “As long as there’s light, we should keep following Jerem’s trail.”
“The trail ends right there,” said Fuori, pointing toward the camp.
Paladin Fey couldn’t speak for a moment. “You don’t mean—no, it’s too absurd—that scrawny, freckly kid couldn’t possibly be—there’s some mistake.”
Fuori shrugged. “The kid does have red hair.”
The story continues with the eighth part, The Tale of Jerem.