The seventh part of this story can be found here.
It was a warm, sleepy afternoon, with not a cloud in the sky. The river blazed in the sunlight. Cicadas droned. Mud baked on the riverbank, and a shimmering haze blurred everything.
Although evening was hours away, Jerem decided to make camp by the river. He was in no hurry. In fact, he was not even sure where to go next. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he dropped his pack and began to search listlessly for firewood.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” he muttered. “But what am I supposed to do when life doesn’t even have the decency to give me lemons? Gosh, it’s hot. Definitely lemonade weather. I sure could use a glass of lemonade.”
Jerem often talked to himself, since he seldom had anyone else with whom to talk.
As the afternoon wore on, he gathered wood, made a fire, cooked some porridge and began putting up his tent, mumbling all the while.
He was distracted by the murmur of voices. Looking up, he saw five people nearing his camp.
“Look at that,” he said to himself. “A woman in a uniform, very pretty, or would be if she didn’t look so dang serious. A older guy with a nice smile. A hairy little man, and a skinny man with ginger hair, and a man with a bow. They’re hunters, maybe?”
At this point he was interrupted by the woman.
“Greetings,” she said. “It’s unusual to find one so young traveling alone.”
“I’m not that young,” said Jerem, frowning. “Almost nineteen. That’s pretty old.”
“You shouldn’t travel alone,” said the older man. “The Blight has made the Empire a dangerous place.”
Jerem had heard this warning a hundred times before. “Yeah, yeah. I appreciate your concern. I’ll be fine.”
The man gave him an earnest look and said, “We’ve heard rumors that Jerem the Plague may be lurking nearby.”
“Seriously, I’ll be fine,” said Jerem with a laugh. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Very well,” said the woman. “Fuori, where do we go from here?”
The man with the bow said something Jerem could not hear.
“Don’t be absurd,” exclaimed the woman. “We have hours of daylight left.”
“We should stop for the night,” said the man.
Jerem decided to put in a word. “If you set up camp here, you’re welcome to use my fire. I’d be grateful for company, honestly. It gets lonely out here at night. I’m also out of sugar. Can I borrow some?”
“Sure,” said the ginger-haired man, rummaging through his pack. “There you go, stranger. Say, where’d Heck and Paladin Fey go?”
“They left to talk about something,” said the older man. “Get things ready for supper, Nick. I’ll unpack.”
The hairy man, apparently unable to keep silent any longer, burst out, “What’s your name, stranger?”
They stared at him.
“You mean, the Jerem?” asked the ginger-haired man. “The Plague?”
Jerem chuckled. “I get that question a lot. If you’re talking about the guy with the hellfire beard and army of demons, no, I’m not Jerem the Plague. By the way, thanks for the sugar. Porridge is awfully bland without it.”
“I’m Mist the Plunderer,” said the hairy man. “Also called Loxley, but I prefer Mist because it sounds more dashing. Ginger over there goes by Nick Puck. The old guy is Innocent Freo, also called Paladin Spike.”
“I’ve heard of you,” said Jerem. “The Runaway Paladin, right?”
Innocent winced. “Yes, but I prefer Innocent, if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry, man. What about the pretty lady and the guy with the bow?”
Loxley replied, “The guy is Heck—I mean, Hector Fuori, our super-expert woodsman. As for the dame, don’t get any ideas. Paladin Fey’s a looker, but she’s about as gentle as a wolverine.”
Jerem finished putting up his tent. “What brings you guys all the way out here? The Amber Plains aren’t exactly a highway.”
“We’re looking for Jerem,” said Innocent.
“Mr. Hellfire? Well, good luck. He’s enemy number one, or so says Cecil the Emperor.”
“We caught the criminal who called himself Jerem,” said Innocent. “He’s in the hands of the Empire. Probably executed without a trial, I’m afraid. No, we’re looking for the other Jerem. You may have heard of him: the man trying to burn the Infinity Manuscript.”
“Yeah, crazy guy,” said Jerem. “By the way, did you get here by walking? Most people use horses in these parts.”
“Our horses are dead,” said Hector Fuori, returning to camp.
Innocent elaborated. “They caught the Blight and began tearing each other apart. We killed them quickly. It seemed more merciful than letting them kill each other slowly.”
“We’re on Jerem’s trail,” said Fuori.
“Innocent already explained,” said Jerem. “Well, good luck finding the bum.”
“I think we have,” said Paladin Fey grimly. “What’s your name?”
In that instant, a sword flashed in the sun as Paladin Fey brought it down upon Jerem’s head. The blade glanced off and smote the ground, leaving him unharmed.
“Gosh, that wasn’t very nice,” he said. “You were right, Loxley. She’s about as gentle as—what was it?—a pit bull, or some other very grouchy mammal.”
Paladin Fey stared. “You’re alive.”
“You’re immortal,” said Innocent dully. “Aren’t you, Jerem?”
“Sorry to disappoint, but no. The problem is with the sword, not with me.”
“What’s wrong with my sword?” demanded Paladin Fey.
“I don’t think you want to know. Listen, you should get out of here. Trust me. You can even take back your sugar. Just leave.”
“I want to know,” said Innocent. He spoke slowly and clearly. “Jerem, tell us. What’s wrong with Vivian’s sword?”
Jerem sighed. For a youth of nineteen, he sounded like a man who had endured all the hardships in the world.
“The sword can’t hurt me,” he said, “because it doesn’t exist. Neither do you, Innocent, nor does this campfire. Nothing in this whole dang world really exists, except for me and Cecil and the rotten little book called the Infinity Manuscript.”
No one replied.
Jerem fidgeted. “There, see? I warned you. You didn’t want to know. Will you go away now, or do you want me to beg?”
“I believe you,” said Innocent. The others stared at him. “Explain, Jerem. I’m listening.”
“You seem like a nice guy, Innocent. I think you have a right to know. My name’s Jeremy Jacobs, or it used to be. Cecil and I were buddies in the real world—I mean, the world that actually exists. Cecil was always, well, kind of a nerd. A social outcast, you know. That’s why he hung out with a kid like me. I was just twelve. We were both into fantasy books.”
“Yeah, exciting stories about things that don’t exist. You know, magic and monsters and other imaginary stuff like that.”
“These things aren’t imaginary, Jerem.”
“Exactly! Don’t you get it? This whole world—” Here Jerem made wide circular motions with his arms. “—is a fantasy. You see, Cecil found an old book in a secret drawer in his late grandfather’s desk. The book was empty, except for a note on the first page which told us anything written in the book would become a waking dream for the writer.
“Cecil filled the book with a description of his ideal world, a glorious Empire where he reigned as Emperor. He convinced me to add a page or two. Big mistake. Once we finished writing and closed the book, everything dissolved and we found ourselves here. Cecil was the Emperor of his imaginary Orofino Empire. I was an adventurer, just like I wanted to be.
“This world is an illusion, so nothing in it can hurt me or Cecil or the book. You couldn’t even smudge a page of the Infinity Manuscript, let alone destroy it. He and I are the only ones who can burn the book and make this world disappear.”
Jerem’s listeners sat stupefied. Only Innocent seemed to have kept his wits.
“You want to go back to your own world,” he said. “That’s why you’re destroying the Infinity Manuscript.”
“Yup. No offense, but I’m sick of this place.”
“If this nonsense were true,” interjected Paladin Fey, “you would be guilty of destroying our Emperor’s dream. What kind of friend are you to treat him so cruelly?”
Jerem struggled to speak. “It’s just—I mean—it’s escapism. Cecil’s living in a world of lies, and I think he’s tired of it. He just won’t let it go. It hurts him too much to admit that his greatest dream is an empty lie.
“I’m afraid your Emperor’s dishonest. He’s the one behind the rumors that I’m some kind of genocidal monster. That other guy, the criminal you caught, only took my name because Cecil had spread my fake reputation throughout his whole fake Empire. I think Cecil hoped someone would hunt me down if I seemed dangerous enough.”
“The Blight and the catastrophes ruining the Empire—” began Paladin Fey.
“My fault,” said Jerem. “I’m just two pages away from making your world go poof. The illusion is beginning to wear thin, hence the nasty plants and animals. Sorry about that.”
“Why don’t you stay?” inquired Puck. “Even if the Empire’s an illusion—I say this theoretically—you could be comfortable here. I’m sure His Excellency would be happy to set you up with all the fixings for a cozy life. Whether or not the world really exists, you’d like it if only you’d give it a whirl.”
Jerem passed the back of his hand over his eyes.
“Are you crying?” asked Loxley.
“No, dang it, my eyes hurt from the glare of the sun on the river. Nick—you mind if I call you Nick?—there’s something a friend of mine said once: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Lies, even pleasant lies, are rotten. I’m happy to read a fantasy, but I sure as heck don’t want to live one.”
Jerem rubbed his eyes again, and opened them to see Paladin Fey holding her sword to Innocent’s throat.
“What are you doing?” gasped Jerem.
“Good question,” said Innocent. “Viv, what are you doing?”
“You move, Jerem, I kill him,” she said. “Loxley, bind Jerem. Now.”
Loxley’s voice was shrill with fury. “You’re threatening Innocent? That’s awful, lady!”
“Quiet, Loxley. We’ll all die if Jerem burns the Infinity Manuscript. I’m not sure why he cares about Innocent since he thinks we’re all hallucinations. Maybe he simply can’t stand blood. Whatever the reason, he’s not moving. Now bind him, Loxley, or it’s your throat I’ll cut.”
“Lady, as far as I’m concerned, you can go—” Loxley finished the sentence in an extremely vulgar fashion, and stuck out his tongue.
“I hate you, Loxley. Master Fuori, kindly apprehend Jerem the Plague.”
Fuori shook his head.
“You too, Fuori? What is the matter with all of you?”
It was Puck who leered, bowed and said, “Leave it to me, Paladin Fey. I’ll bind the rogue.”
He crept behind Jerem, who sat unmoving, and tied him up. Paladin Fey released Innocent. Loxley swore under his breath, and Fuori silently began to brew coffee.
“You’re a good fellow, Loxley,” said Innocent. “Fuori, thanks—I need a coffee. As for you, Jerem,” he added, turning to face the captive, “you saved my life. Thank you, and why?”
Jerem grinned. “You’re welcome, and it’s because I simply can’t stand blood.”
The story continues with the ninth part, The Tale of the Scoundrel.