497. TMTF’s Top Ten Posts I’m Glad I Wrote

TMTF is almost done. Today seems like a good day to glance back at some of this blog’s better posts—and to squeeze in one last top ten list, of course. Top tens are my beat!

To paraphrase Strong Bad, “My blog posts are like my childrens. I love them all!”

Wait, no—that’s not right. I love some of my blog posts. Others are frankly pretty bad. Then there are a shining few that have a special place in my heart. These personal posts allowed me to discover something about myself, cope with life’s difficulties, or create something meaningful.

These are the posts I’m glad I wrote.

I’m about to get personal, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Posts I’m Glad I Wrote!

10. Goodbye, Beatrice

I always supposed that at some point I would grow up and stop having crushes on pretty girls, but I never did. (I think I may have I failed the whole growing-up thing.) One or two of my romantic crushes lasted for years and years, gathering many what-ifs and regrets. This post was my attempt to let them go. It was cathartic to write.

Like Dante, I wrote about my crush; unlike Dante, I wrote a quick blog post, not an epic poem of enduring brilliance.

I was reading Dante’s Inferno at the time. Dante’s lifelong crush on Beatrice mirrored my own situation, and I’m really satisfied with how this post tied together our stories.

9. The Infinity Manuscript

Little-known fact: Back in 2012, as my ill-fated novel ground slowly toward publication, I wrote a fantasy novella titled The Infinity Manuscript. (This was years before I knew of Marvel’s upcoming Infinity War movies; I wasn’t trying to steal their title, I swear!) This tale of loss and determination has its fair share of flaws, yet showcased some cool ideas and a plot twist of which I’m quite proud.

The Infinity Manuscript had a desert, maybe? Hey, I wrote it a long time ago!

I haven’t read The Infinity Manuscript in years, but remain fond of it. Who knows? I may resurrect the story someday and write it properly. Even if I don’t, The Infinity Manuscript brought me many hours of writing practice, along with some creative satisfaction.

8. Working on Self-Respect

Writing this post led me to discover an important and practical truth: Self-esteem is a feeling, but self-respect is a choice.

I choose to respect this guy. For some reason.

I have a fairly low opinion of myself. The past four or five years dealt my self-confidence some devastating blows: my career plans failed, my dream project failed, and my faith sometimes seems to be failing. This post reminded me that maintaining a sense of self-worth is not only possible, but worthwhile.

7. Lance Eliot Is Dead

Speaking of my dream project, this is the post in which I announced its failure. I declared Lance Eliot dead. The failure of my debut novel, The Trials of Lance Eliot, took away my incentive to work on its sequels. I was already committed to this blog, trapped in a toxic job situation, and struggling through a darker chapter of my life. I couldn’t keep writing Lance’s story, but felt guilty abandoning it.

It was hard to let this one go.

In the end, I let it go. This post represents one of the best decisions I ever made. Giving up Lance’s story took away a lot of stress and worry… and allowed me, years later, to resurrect it without the baggage of earlier failures. I don’t know whether I’ll ever finish the Lance Eliot saga, but thanks to this post, I’m free to try again from the beginning.

6. Jerks, Trolls and Other Hazards of the Internet

Not many people celebrate Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day, and with good reason—I made it up on a whim. This annual event, held on March 4, encourages everyone to send an encouraging message to someone on the Internet.

I like to think that all Internet trolls are actually cave trolls with laptops.

An earlier post introduced the concept of Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day, but this post inaugurated it properly and confirmed March 4 as its official date. Ever since, I’ve promoted and observed the event every year, and plan to continue doing so long after this blog is dust and ashes.

5. Adam’s Story: The Characters

Since resurrecting the Lance Eliot saga, all I’ve accomplished so far is some story planning—but good gosh, after this post, am I ever excited to start writing! Characters are my favorite element of storytelling. Reimagining Lance Eliot and other characters for my story project is easily the most fun I’ve had working on a story in years.

I can’t wait to write about this guy.

This post is extra-special thanks to terrific concept art from Sabina Kipa and JK Riki: artists whose skills were matched by their patience and positivity. When I write, it helps me to visualize scenes and characters, and this post’s character portraits have been helpful as I’ve worked on story planning.

4. An Evil Scientist Explains Band Names

I wanted to put a Geeky Wednesday post on this list, but it was hard to choose just one. For years, Geeky Wednesdays were my way of pointing at cool things and saying, “Look at this thing! Ain’t it cool?” These (typically) shorter, shallower posts bridged the gap between this blog’s “serious” posts on Mondays and Fridays. (I put “serious” in quotes because TMTF was hardly ever serious.)

Doofenshmirtz is my Patronus.

In the end, I chose the very first Geeky Wednesday post. It inaugurated one of this blog’s most enduring features, and I’m glad it did. Besides, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz is probably one of the greatest television characters of all time, and definitely one of the funniest.

3. I Believe

I wrote this post during a particularly rough week last month. A number of unrelated struggles and uncertainties troubled me deeply at the time. Quite by accident, I managed to weave them all together in a post that was not merely coherent, but among the best I have ever written.

This post was far more coherent than it had any right to be.

In the end, by some miracle of God, a post that should have been a train wreck became something structured, meaningful, and deeply cathartic to write. When I finished this post, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest. I consider it one of my best. It certainly helped me to write it.

2. Marching Home

This post is a eulogy for my late friend Nick. I was reluctant to put it on this list, fearing the list might cheapen it, but finally decided that it belongs here. This list is for posts I’m glad I wrote. I’m glad I wrote this one.

This scene still brings tears to my eyes.

When Nick passed away last year, I felt emotionally numb. Writing his eulogy helped me come to terms with his death, and allowed me to tell the story of our friendship. I tried to honor Nick’s memory by writing this post. Whether or not I succeeded, writing it helped me to grieve. Healing started here.

1. I Nearly Left My Faith Last Year

This was a surprisingly easy post to write, but hitting the Publish button took some nerve. After struggling with profound religious doubts for more than a year, I finally acknowledged them publicly. I told my story. Whether or not anyone listened, and however they replied, I felt calmer and lighter for telling it.

I haven’t given up yet, and neither has he.

Quite a number of people listened. They replied with compassion and understanding. I felt less alone. Of all the posts on this blog, this is the one I’m gladdest I wrote.

I’m glad I wrote these posts, and do you know what else? I’m glad people read them. Thanks for reading, guys. You are the best thing about this blog.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 12: The Tale of the Servant

The eleventh part of this story can be found here.

The servant boy called himself Gilbert Sleight, but no one in the Emperor’s Palace remembered his name. They were content to address him as boy and refer to him as the housekeeper’s urchin. The Emperor had many servants. Few people ever took the trouble to tell them apart, and no one bothered learning names.

For days, gossip had spread among the servants of a secret meeting to be held between the Emperor and Jerem the Plague. What a sensational idea! As though His Excellency Cecil the Immortal, who did not deign to speak with common citizens, would confer with the most infamous criminal ever to have lived!

Taking the rumors seriously, Sleight began haunting the corridors near the Emperor’s study. He had spent only two weeks in the palace, but he knew there was no other place His Excellency would choose to meet secretly with guests.

Sure enough, an hour before noon one sunny morning, Sleight heard the soft tinkle of a bell. This was a signal for all servants in the vicinity to disappear. Apart from his personal attendants, the Emperor hated the sight of servants.

An attendant appeared, ringing a silver bell and looking around. “Boy!” he hissed. “His Excellency is on the way to his study with guests. Clear the way of servants, and then get out of sight. Quickly, boy! The Emperor’s mood today is vicious.”

Sleight sprinted to the Emperor’s study, motioning to the servants along the way to withdraw from sight. Clutching rags, mops and buckets, maids and housekeepers ducked into spare rooms.

Upon reaching the door to the study, Sleight paused to look around. Everyone was gone. He slipped inside. A fire blazed in the hearth and a table was loaded with refreshments. Sleight had intended to hide under the Emperor’s desk, but the table seemed like a safer alternative.

He ducked beneath it and waited, hidden from view by the tablecloth.

The door opened.

“Here we are,” said the Emperor. “Attendant, go away. Anyone I see lurking in the hall when I open the door ends up on the executioner’s block.”

Listening intently, Sleight heard the attendant scuttle away and several people enter the room.

“Your Excellency,” said a woman’s voice he did not recognize. “I’ve brought the prisoner as you ordered. Do you have any further instructions?”

“You’re dismissed, Paladin Fey,” said the Emperor.

“May I be allowed to stay?”

“I said you’re dismissed.”

“Then permit me to send in your personal guard, Your Excellency. With due respect, Jerem the Plague—”

“Shut up and get out,” said the Emperor.

Sleight heard a click as the woman snapped her boots together in a salute, and then the sound of footsteps as she moved toward the door.

“Goodbye, Viv,” said a familiar voice. “I’m sorry for everything, and thank you.”

The footsteps paused at the door.

“Get out!” shouted the Emperor.

The door shut, and the woman’s footsteps faded.

“I wish I could say I was glad to see you, Cecil,” said a man’s voice. “To be honest, I’m mostly annoyed. Seven years, man. Seven years! You’ve spent seven years spreading lies about me.”

Sleight guessed the voice must belong to Jerem the Plague. He sounded younger than Sleight had expected.

“Quiet, Jerem,” snapped the Emperor, and added in a gentler voice, “Innocent, what stories has this wretch told you?”

“I’ll sum it up quickly, Your Excellency,” said the familiar voice. “Jerem told me this world is a fantasy, created when you wrote in the Infinity Manuscript. You’re both immortal because illusions can’t hurt you. He wants to destroy the Manuscript to dispel this fake world and send you both back to the real one. You want to stay, so you’ve hidden the only remaining page of the Manuscript.”

“Filthy lies,” exclaimed the Emperor. “You asked for an appointment, Innocent. I gave it to you so that I could explain everything. Jerem, you scum, don’t interrupt.”

“You got it, Cecil,” said Jerem. “I can’t wait to hear the explanation you’ve cooked up.”

The Emperor cleared his throat. “A long time ago, Innocent, the gods created the world by writing in the Infinity Manuscript. This much you’ve already heard. What you don’t know is that the gods appointed me as the Manuscript’s guardian. That’s why I’m immortal, see?

“As for Jerem, a god of discord chose him to wreck the world by burning the Manuscript. That’s why I split up the Manuscript’s pages and hid them all over the Orofino Empire, see? That malevolent god made Jerem immortal, and we’ve been enemies since the beginning of history.

“I’ve failed as a guardian. Jerem has managed to destroy all the pages but one. He’s here today to burn that last page. You can’t let him, Innocent! He’s lying to you. This world is real. He wants to ruin it. I guess it’s only a matter of time till he succeeds, but I want as many people as possible to live out their lives in peace before he does. Listen to me. Don’t believe him.”

There was a long silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire.

“Well, Innocent?” said Jerem. “You’ve heard both sides of the story. Which do you believe?”

“His Excellency’s explanation intrigues me,” said Innocent. “It makes sense of the facts. If it’s true, this world is real. If it’s true, I really exist. I want to believe it.”

“But do you believe it?” asked Jerem.

Innocent sighed. “What I want to believe and what I truly believe are different things, I’m afraid.”

“What if you’re wrong?” demanded the Emperor. “Millions of lives are at stake, Innocent! This isn’t your decision to make.”

“It’s Jerem’s decision, and he’s made it. The only decision I’ve made is to believe him.”

The Emperor laughed. “Fine. Believe whatever you want. This is all hypothetical, because you’re never going to find the last page.”

Innocent raised his voice and spoke a single word.


Like a stone from a sling, Sleight shot out from under the table and darted across the study. “Here you go,” he said, handing over a piece of paper to Innocent.

“I’m afraid it’s not hypothetical, Your Excellency,” said Innocent, holding up the paper. “This is the final page.”

For an instant, the Emperor stood perfectly still with his mouth open. Then he slumped into his chair and sat blinking and gulping. “How—how did you—how?” he stammered at last.

“I’m sorry for giving you such a shock, Your Excellency,” said Innocent, unable to repress a smile. “Years ago, when I was a Paladin, I had friends all over the Empire—people who owed me favors. While traveling with Jerem, I sent letters to some of those people.”

He gestured toward Sleight. “This is a friend of mine from Green Isle.”

“Gilbert,” said Sleight, grinning. “Most people back home called me Gil.”

“I persuaded one of my old friends to bring Gil to the Emperor’s City,” continued Innocent. “Gil became a servant in an official’s house. He was transferred to this palace within a week, thanks to the influence of another old friend of mine.”

“That’s when I met Mist the Plunderer,” said Sleight.

Innocent chuckled. “You might remember him better as Theobald Loxley, Your Excellency. Before Jerem and I left Paladin Fey and her team, I gave Loxley a letter. It instructed him to travel immediately to the Emperor’s City and stay until someone made contact with him.”

“One of Innocent’s old friends arranged for Mist and me to meet,” said Sleight. “I grew up hearing stories about Mist, so meeting him was a dream come true. One night we snuck into the palace together and went looking for the missing page.”

“How did you know I had it?” rasped the Emperor.

Jerem laughed. “We used to be friends, remember? I remembered you were a nervous guy and figured you’d keep at least one page in a place where you could check on it.”

“I’d never have found the page on my own,” said Sleight. “It was a good thing Mist is a pro. I told him everything I knew about you, Your Excellency. Right away he figured out you’d keep the page in the place where you feel safest, and everyone in the palace knows it’s this study.”

“But the hiding place,” said the Emperor, and faltered.

“Mist knew that too. He took one look around the study and said, ‘It’s in a book.’ When I asked why, he told me, ‘The best place to hide a pebble is on the beach, and the best place to hide a page is in a book.’ It took hours, but we found the page. I’ve kept it with me since, waiting for Innocent to show up. Here he is, and there’s the page.”

“Where is Loxley?” asked Innocent. “I’d like to say goodbye.”

“He’s probably kicking back at a tavern,” replied Sleight. “After we found the page, he told me he was retiring.”

“Listen to me, son,” said the Emperor, sweating. “You heard my explanation, right? I’m the guy the gods appointed to protect the Manuscript. Jerem wants to destroy it, and the world with it. If you let him take the page, you’ll be responsible for millions of deaths.”

“Not if you’re lying,” said Sleight.

“Even if I were lying—hypothetically speaking—you’ll stop existing the second that page is gone. Don’t you want to live?”

Sleight felt a lump in his throat, but swallowed it and took Innocent’s hand. “Your Excellency, I’ve been a thief all my life. Other children threw sand at me. Merchants yelled at me. Everyone else ignored me. Only one person ever helped me, and he’s right here.”

“You can’t believe him!” screeched the Emperor. “That man is working for Jerem the Plague. He’s a criminal—a monster—a murderer!”

“He’s Innocent,” said Sleight. “He’s the same man who helped me in Green Isle, and I trust him. If he says burning the page is best, it’s best.”

After giving Jerem the page, Innocent knelt next to Sleight and put an arm around his shoulders.

“You did great, Gil.”

The Emperor had gathered himself up in his chair and looked ready to spring.

Jerem held the paper over the fire in the hearth. “Hold it, Cecil. One move and the page is toast. Stay in your chair while I say goodbye, and then we go home.”

“Stop him!” squealed the Emperor. “Innocent, stop him!”

“I’ll burn the page the instant I hear another word out of you,” grumbled Jerem. “Seriously, Cecil, stop being a jerk and let me say goodbye. Listen, you guys,” he added to Sleight and Innocent. “There’s no way I can—I mean, you’re just—dang it, I’m not good at this kind of thing. Gil, you’re awesome. Thanks.”

Sleight wiped his eyes and said, “Just go already, will you?”

Jerem took a deep breath. “This is it, Innocent. If I were in your place, I’d be furious at the unfairness of it all. I’d hate the guy who said the world was fake, but you never blamed me.”

“It’s not too hard to give up what was never really mine,” said Innocent. Tears ran down his face, but he was smiling.

“I’ll never forget you, Innocent. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“All fantasies have to end sooner or later, I suppose. This world and its people can’t exist, but I’m happy to know they’ll remain as memories. You’re a good man, Jerem. Now go. Live your life. Think of me when you drink coffee, will you?”

Jerem nodded, sniffled once and dropped the last page of the Infinity Manuscript into the fire.

Sleight felt Innocent’s arm tighten around his shoulders as the world faded to white.

The End

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 11: The Tale of Innocent

The tenth part of this story can be found here.

Innocent Freo arrived at the Diamond Star Café to find his old table occupied.

“You came,” said Vivian Fey.

“I told you I would,” he replied, taking a seat across the table. “Besides, I couldn’t miss my last chance for coffee at the Diamond Star.”

“Your last chance?”

“If Jerem’s plan succeeds, today’s the last day of the world.”

“And if his plan doesn’t succeed?”

“I’ll be executed. Either way, I won’t ever visit the Diamond Star again.” Innocent took a long, loving look around the café. “It’s a pity. How I’ve missed this place! There’s no better coffee in the Emperor’s City, and I spent years looking.”

The Emperor’s City boasted many restaurants. The most exclusive establishments, insulated from the city by acres of gardens, catered only to nobility. Cafés and taverns were available for the middle class. For refugees, prostitutes and other desperate characters, dingy pubs were scattered throughout the slums on the city’s edge.

The Diamond Star Café was unique. Its proprietor, the son of a wealthy merchant, threw its doors open to everyone in the city. Refugees, soldiers, princes, prostitutes: all were welcome, provided they complied with the Diamond Star’s unusual rules.

All bills were paid upfront. Any customer who refused to pay or stirred up trouble was escorted out—that is, thrown into the street—by the doorman, an ex-prizefighter named Locke. He never forgot the face of anyone who had been expelled from the café. No troublemaker had ever dared to return.

The Diamond Star Café was a classy establishment for people of all classes, a place that managed to be both cozy and elegant. Everything was polished wood, sparkling glass, clean white cloth and smooth gray stone. The waiters were polite and friendly. Even Locke wore an amiable grin, except on the rare occasions he was obligated to expel a customer. Sunlight filled the café during the day; at night, candles lit every table.

Now it was morning, and the café was filled with the murmurs of customers and the smells of coffee, bread and bacon. Waiters padded silently to and fro. Locke stood at the door, grinning at passersby in the street and keeping a wary eye on the customers in the café.

Innocent caught the eye of a waiter and ordered coffee. “The whole pot, please, not just a cup,” he said, putting a handful of gold pieces on the table.

“This is too much money, sir,” exclaimed the waiter.

“Keep it,” said Innocent. “I won’t be needing it.”

“Just coffee, sir? May I offer you any breakfast?”

Innocent ruminated. “Why not? Toast, two fried eggs and twelve links of sausage, please. Would you like anything, Viv?”

Vivian shook her head and eyed Innocent critically as the waiter slipped away. “That’s quite a breakfast, Paladin Spike.”

“It is,” admitted Innocent. “Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about my health anymore. This is the first time I’ve ever been free to eat as many sausages as I want, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

Vivian took a note from her pocket and spread it out on the table. Innocent examined it and recognized his own handwriting.

Viv, would you join me for coffee at the Diamond Star Café tomorrow morning? I’ll be waiting at our old table soon after the café opens. We have things to talk about. Innocent.

“Here I am, Paladin Spike,” said Vivian. “You’ve ordered your coffee and your cursed sausages. I’ll give you ten minutes to talk, and then you’re under arrest.”

Innocent sighed. “Ten minutes is enough, I suppose.”

“Where have you been since you abandoned us two months ago in the Amber Plains?”

“Jerem and I traveled to Green Isle as quickly as we could, which was rather slowly. There were a couple of earthquakes. Once our path was destroyed by a landslide, and twice it was blocked by cacti. The Blight turns cacti poisonous, you know, so we were forced to take detours. We also ran into a bear turned vicious by the Blight, but there’s no time to tell you the whole story.

“We finally reached Green Isle, destroyed a page of the Infinity Manuscript and then came here to the Emperor’s City.”

Vivian appeared stunned. “You ruined another page? You fool! Now there’s only one page left, Paladin Spike, one godforsaken page! The last page of the Manuscript is the only thing standing between us and the end of the world.”

“The end of this world, Viv.”

“But how in the name of all the gods did you find a page in Green Isle?”

“It’s too long a story to tell in ten minutes, I’m afraid.”

“What about the last page of the Infinity Manuscript? You don’t know where it is, do you?”

“The Emperor has it, of course. That’s why Jerem and I have an appointment with him this afternoon.”

Vivian stared. “How did you make an appointment with the Emperor? Why did he agree to see you?”

“Jerem sent him a letter, and I don’t know why he agreed. Any more questions, Viv?”

“Where is Jerem?”

“I don’t know. We decided yesterday to part ways until it was time for our appointment with the Emperor. Speaking of which, since Jerem and I are meeting His Excellency today, I’d appreciate it very much if you’d delay my arrest until tomorrow.”

“I can’t do that. All the same, I’ll send someone to consult with the Emperor. If he confirms your appointment, I’ll make sure you don’t miss it.”

“That’s kind of you. Tell me, Viv, how are the others?”

“Fuori, Puck and Loxley?” asked Vivian, and smiled bitterly. “I don’t know. The team fell apart the day you escaped with Jerem. Fuori took it hardest. He thought Jerem must have taken you hostage and forced you to write the note claiming you were going to destroy the world. Fuori really respected you, Paladin Spike. He couldn’t believe you’d betray him.”

“Where is he now?”

“He pursued you and Jerem but lost your trail after Green Isle—trails fade quickly in the desert, he said. After that, he requested a leave of absence and went home. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Fuori is a good fellow. I miss him, and I’m sorry I won’t be able to see him again before it all ends. What about the others?”

“Puck is here in the Emperor’s City. I sent him to press his informants for any news of Jerem. I don’t think he’ll find anything, but I couldn’t bear to have him following me around with his sick, stupid, sycophantic smile. As for Loxley, I have no idea. He disappeared a day or two after you did. I haven’t seen the fool since, and I hope never to see him again.”

The waiter arrived with Innocent’s breakfast and pot of coffee. Vivian said nothing more, but stared stonily out the window. Innocent drank some coffee and started on his sausages.

“Paladin Spike,” said Vivian at last. “What is it you want to talk about?”

Innocent put down a sausage. “That’s up to you, Viv. I’ve asked all my questions. What is it you want to talk about?”

For a moment, Vivian seemed to change before Innocent’s eyes. The ruthless Paladin was gone. Across the table sat the young recruit—hardly more than a girl—he had met in the Imperial Army many years before.

“Paladin Spike, why did you run away? You just left, and now you’re trying to destroy the world, and High Arbiter Sergio is trying to persuade the Emperor to execute me for failing to stop you. The search for Jerem was the greatest responsibility of my life, and I failed. I couldn’t even hold our team together.”

“You didn’t have much of a team,” said Innocent gently. “Puck is a bit of an idiot, bless him, and no force in all creation can restrain Loxley.”

“Why are you helping Jerem? People will die, Paladin Spike. People will die. You’ve decided we’re all illusions, but you’re not giving anyone else the chance to decide. Even if Jerem isn’t lying to you, destroying the Infinity Manuscript isn’t your decision to make.”

For the first time in many years, and much to his own surprise, Innocent cried. So did Vivian. The bustle of the café went on around them. No one, not even the ever-vigilant Locke, seemed to notice their tears.

“You’re right, Viv,” said Innocent at last. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, gulped his coffee and filled up his cup again. “Destroying the Infinity Manuscript isn’t my decision to make. It’s Jerem’s.

“If he’s telling the truth, he and the Emperor are the only people in the world. The rest of us are fantasies, illusions without any right to exist. As long as we persist in the delusion that this world is real, Jerem and the Emperor are trapped along with us. Until we give up our fake lives, they can’t resume their real ones.”

“What if Jerem’s lying?” said Vivian. “Will you be guilty of destroying a world full of innocent people?”

“I believe with all my heart he’s not lying. As I told you when I tried to explain why I deserted the Imperial Army—it was the night we were attacked by wolves, remember—I’ve always felt there was something wrong with the world. Everything felt false. My life was falsest of all. Jerem’s story fits. It makes sense of everything, all my feelings and superstitions and dreams.”

“Feelings don’t prove anything! What if you’re wrong? You’re risking the lives of everyone in the world.”

“I know. If I’m mistaken, I’ll accept the guilt. I suppose that makes me a psychopath, doesn’t it?”

“What if you’re not mistaken?”

“Well, I suppose that makes me a martyr.”

Vivian stared desolately at the coffee pot. “I don’t want to die.”

“That makes two of us,” said Innocent. “It’s not fair, is it? Jerem and the Emperor are alive, and we’re not. Never mind what sort of lives they’ll have in their own world. They’ll have the privilege of being alive, and we won’t. I don’t like it any more than you do, Viv, but we’ve got to face it. We don’t matter now. They do.”

He finished his coffee and set down his cup with a soft clink. “I’m not real,” he said. “Even so, I’ve found a purpose that is. My life may be a fantasy, but I’m going to make it count for something.”

Vivian took a deep breath. “Paladin Spike, I’m putting you under arrest. You will remain in my custody until your appointment with the Emperor, at which time he will decide your fate.”

“That’s perfect. Forgive me for sounding so sentimental, Viv, but I’m comforted to spend my last hours with you. Are you sure you don’t want some coffee, or at least a bite of breakfast?”

Vivian did not smile, but Innocent thought she looked less miserable. “Since you’ve paid so much, I guess it would be a shame not to have breakfast.”

“There’s a condition, though.”


“Stop calling me Paladin Spike, please. The name’s Innocent.”

The story concludes with the twelfth part, The Tale of the Servant.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 10: The Tale of the Old Woman

The ninth part of this story can be found here.

Apart from the priest and the undertaker, only three people attended the burial of the Weaver. Two were his friends, the Tailor and the Cobbler. The third was his landlady, an elderly spinster called Miss Rose.

“Well, lad, this ends the fellowship of the Three Old Men of Green Isle,” said the Cobbler to the Tailor. “Now we’re the Two Old Men, and I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before you’re the only Old Man left.”

The Tailor did not reply, but watched mournfully as the undertaker shoveled sand into the hole.

“Not even a proper casket,” said Miss Rose. “Just a palm-woven basket for the body. It’s a poor sight. If he hadn’t spent so freely on drink, he might have afforded a better vessel for his journey to the afterlife.”

The priest, overhearing Miss Rose, raised his hands heavenward and said piously, “The gods are gracious. If this man has lived a life of virtue, they will accept him into eternal rest whether he is conveyed by a beautiful coffin or a simple basket.”

“If it’s a matter of virtue, the dear lad hasn’t a chance,” said the Cobbler. “Poor Weaver. He was a dirty scoundrel, but he’d a heart of gold. I’ll miss him, I will.”

“First Gil, now Weaver,” said the Tailor. “People come and go like the clouds.”

Miss Rose started. “Gil is gone? Your apprentice, the lovely boy who worked in your shop? Tailor, you should have told me.”

The Tailor smiled. “Not dead, Miss Rose. Just gone. Gil went to the Emperor’s City. The lad came up to me a week ago with pockets a-jangling and said, all important-like, ‘Tailor, I’m going away. An Imperial scout came to me last night and gave me gold and told me I’m going to be a servant for an official in the Emperor’s City. Tomorrow I’ve leaving Green Isle for good. So long, Tailor, and thanks for everything.’

“Well, I was staggered. Imperial officials do send out scouts into the Empire to find servants, true enough, but it’s not every day those scouts come to places like Green Isle. And for Gil, that light-fingered little imp, to be chosen as a servant in an Imperial household! Such things only happen in fairy tales. Mark my words, Miss Rose, the gods have something special planned for that boy.”

Miss Rose was pleased. Gil had been a filthy urchin and an unapologetic thief, but an honest job had tempered him into a polite, friendly, hard-working young man. It was a relief to hear he was not dead.

It was enough that the Weaver had died. He had been Miss Rose’s only tenant, and therefore her only source of income. Now that he was gone, she would have to find another tenant or else succumb to poverty.

The Weaver had not been a good tenant. His room, littered with empty bottles, reeked of fire-nectar. The Weaver had also tried to be a shameless womanizer. He had failed, since no woman in Green Isle was foolish enough to go near him. When drunk, he had even directed his attentions toward Miss Rose.

Miss Rose, a woman of great shrewdness, locked him in his room whenever he drank, releasing him only when a hangover had blotted out his amorous inclinations.

Despite his faults as a tenant, the Weaver had one great virtue. He paid the rent, consistently and punctually.

Two weeks later, Miss Rose was still looking for a tenant. It was a hopeless search in so small and poor a village as Green Isle. Those not wealthy enough to own a room were too poor to rent one.

A knock on the door lifted her spirits. It made no difference whether it was a potential tenant or a friendly visitor. Either was welcome.

She opened the door and exclaimed, “Constable Freo!”

“Please call me Innocent,” said her visitor. “This is my friend Jerem. May we come in?”

Upon hearing the name of the Empire’s most dangerous enemy, Miss Rose stepped back and raised a hand to her mouth.

“Not the Red Demon,” said Innocent’s companion, a freckled youth with red hair and large ears. “Just a kid called Jerem. The name confuses a lot of people.”

“I’m sorry,” said Miss Rose. “I didn’t mean to offend. Of course you’re not Jerem the Plague. How silly of me! Please come in and make yourselves at home. Coffee, Innocent?”

“Please,” he replied, taking a seat at the iron-wrought table. “You’re very kind, Miss Rose.”

She served her guests coffee and took a seat at the table with them.

“You have a lovely home,” said Jerem, looking around.

Miss Rose blushed. “It’s worn and sandy, but I do my best with what little I have.”

“The wall hangings are beautiful,” said Innocent.

Miss Rose laughed. “They’re covering up the places where the plaster is flaking away from the walls and the mud bricks beneath are showing through. The first rule of housekeeping is to hide what can’t be fixed.”

She became serious. “What can I do for you gentlemen? It’s nice of you to visit an old lady, but I know better than to think that’s the only reason you’ve come. The last I heard, Innocent, was that a High Arbiter had taken you away. We all thought you’d been arrested.”

It was Innocent’s turn to laugh. “You could say that, though recruited is the word the High Arbiter used. I was recruited by the Empire for a mission, and I’m done with it. Jerem and I have come to see the Weaver.”

Miss Rose shook her head. “There are only two Old Men now. The Weaver died of drink two weeks ago.”

Her guests reacted as though she had slapped them. A moment passed, and then Innocent inquired, “Are his belongings still here?”

“Yes, they’re in the room upstairs. What’s this about, Innocent?”

He paused, apparently choosing his words with care. “It’s a long story, Miss Rose. I’ll tell you as much of it as I can. Years ago, you may remember, you sent a neighbor for the police because the Weaver had taken a violent turn.”

“I remember. He was smashing things in his room.”

“Well, I was the constable who came to the scene. The Weaver got a week in jail without a drop of fire-nectar. Seven days of strict sobriety were so harsh a punishment that he never acted violently again.”

“Yes, I was glad of it. For months I was afraid he would start smashing things again, or start smashing people, which would have been worse.”

“Indeed. When I arrested the Weaver, he said some interesting things. Most of it was just nonsense, with some cursing and vulgarity mixed in for good measure, but there were a few words here and there that surprised me. Tell me, Miss Rose. Have you heard of the Silver City Scandal?”

Miss Rose frowned. “Only rumors, and nasty ones. Not long after the Orofino Empire conquered the Old Kingdom, an insurgent killed the family of an Imperial official. The official blamed the Empire for his loss, so he stole some important Imperial treasure and disappeared.”

“Based on what the Weaver said that night, I believe he was the missing Imperial official and the treasure he stole was a page of the Infinity Manuscript.”

For a moment, Miss Rose stared at her guests with an expression of absolute shock. “You mean to say I’ve had a page of the Infinity Manuscript—the Infinity Manuscript—in my house all these years?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” said Jerem. “Mind if we take a look?”

“Well—I suppose—Innocent, what’s going on?” stammered Miss Rose. “If there’s really a page of the Manuscript in my house, shouldn’t the whole Imperial Army be standing on my doorstep? If Jerem the Plague found out it’s here, why, he’d raze Green Isle.”

“That’s why I’m here,” said Innocent softly. “To make sure Green Isle isn’t razed. Once the page is gone, the village will be in no danger of being destroyed by the Red Demon or the Imperial Army or anyone else.”

“Can you promise me that, Innocent?”

“Yes, Miss Rose, I can. Barring unforeseen circumstances, if you let me take the page, I promise you that Green Isle will endure until the end of the world.”

Miss Rose was, as mentioned previously, a shrewd woman.

“The end of the world, eh? When might that be?”

“Sooner than you think,” admitted Innocent. “I’ll admit this village is in a nasty position, and I’m sorry. If I were you, Miss Rose, I’d give up the page.”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’m asking nicely. When the Imperial Army shows up on your doorstep, they won’t be bothered to ask.”

No one spoke for two minutes. Innocent sipped his coffee and gazed at the wall hangings. Jerem tapped his fingers impatiently upon the table.

“You may look through the Weaver’s belongings,” said Miss Rose at last. “Tell me something, Innocent. If you suspected the Weaver was the official from the Silver City Scandal, why didn’t you tell the Imperial Consul all those years ago?”

Innocent set down his coffee. “I was trying very, very hard not to be noticed.”

As Innocent slipped upstairs, Jerem stayed behind to help Miss Rose clear the table and wash the dishes.

“Not so much water!” she exclaimed as he rinsed the cups. “This is Green Isle, Jerem. Water is precious.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ve been so kind. I’m sorry for everything.”

He sounded like he meant it.

Innocent came downstairs, the corner of a piece of paper sticking out of his pocket. “Found it,” he said to Jerem.

Her guests thanked Miss Rose and prepared to leave. On his way out, Innocent asked, “As long as I’m in town, I’d like to visit my favorite thief. Where’s Gil living?”

Miss Rose explained Gil’s unexpected departure from Green Isle.

“Excellent,” said Innocent, smiling. “He always wanted to leave this place. I’m glad he managed it. Thanks again, Miss Rose, and goodbye.”

She watched them walk down the street and disappear around a corner. A vague dread had taken hold of her heart, yet she felt an inexplicable sense of release. It was the sort of feeling a person feels after a near-death experience: strong relief and lingering fear.

“Well,” she said at last, talking to herself, “the world may end, but not for another few hours at the soonest. I’d better get the fire going for supper.”

The story continues with the eleventh part, The Tale of Innocent.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 9: The Tale of the Scoundrel

The eighth part of this story can be found here.

Theobald Loxley was a light sleeper. Experience had taught him to trust no one, least of all his fellow thieves. The stories about noble criminals who robbed the rich and supported the poor were romantic nonsense. When a man became a thief, it was only a matter of time before his conscience wore off.

Several of his colleagues had attempted to murder Loxley in order to claim his share of the loot. At least one had tried to kill him for no other reason than to silence his snoring. Loxley always awoke just in time to escape. It was enough to drive an honest thief to paranoia, but he accepted his fate philosophically.

“Every job’s got problems,” he once observed. “I don’t appreciate guys trying to stick knives into me, but at least I’m never bored.”

Years before, he had tried to rob the headquarters of the Imperial Army. No thief dared go near the place, but Loxley, while very drunk, wagered he could sneak into Paladin Spike’s office, steal his sword and make it out alive.

Loxley later regretted making such a foolish bet, but he never thought of taking it back. Although he had few principles, those he did have were sacred, and none more than the hallowed edict: “A bet’s a bet.”

Paladin Spike had opened a cupboard near his office to find Theobald Loxley crouching among the mops and buckets.

“Paladin Spike, I’m pleased to make your honorable acquaintance, sir,” said Loxley. “May I have your autograph, sir?”

Most Paladins would have executed Loxley on the spot, leaving the mess for the servants to clean. Paladin Spike, however, had laughed, dragged Loxley out of the closet by his collar and taken him to a younger officer.

“Here’s a rogue for you,” said Paladin Spike. “I found him lurking in a broom closet. Would you please take him to the Imperial Prison? Let the warden know I sent you, and tell him to lock up the prisoner for a week or two.”

“Pardon me, sir,” said the officer, confused. “If you caught this man trespassing, shouldn’t he be put to death? That’s the law.”

“I’m bending the law a little,” admitted Paladin Spike. “The Emperor told me, ‘Keep the law when it’s convenient. Use your discretion when it’s not. I trust my Paladins to keep the Empire’s interests at heart.’ In this case, I think it’s to the Empire’s advantage not to slaughter its citizens on charges like trespassing. Prison will be enough for our hairy little friend, I think.”

Paladin Spike took a piece of paper from the officer’s desk, scribbled something on it and gave it to Loxley. “Your autograph, prisoner. Stay out of trouble, or someday you’ll be caught by someone who takes a narrower view of the law.”

Upon his release from prison two weeks later, Loxley went straight to the man with whom he had made the wager and told him it was off.

“A bet’s a bet, but Paladin Spike’s too good a guy to steal from,” said Loxley.

When Paladin Spike deserted, exchanging his reputation as Savior of the Empire for the insulting epithet of Runaway Paladin, citizens everywhere responded with shock and indignation. It was unthinkable that any Paladin—let alone one whose accomplishments were legendary—should flee his duty.

Although his respect for Paladin Spike never waned, Loxley ignored the admonition to stay out of trouble. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to liberate valuables from the ownership of “guys who don’t appreciate the stuff they’ve got.”

Amid dark rumors of Jerem the Plague, the Red Demon who turned towns to ash, there came reports of a cunning thief who could vanish into the air like fog in the sunshine. This daring criminal was called Mist the Plunderer.

Loxley was delighted by his sensational reputation, which owed a little to his exploits and much more to the imaginations of the storytellers who described them.

Mist could rob a nest out from under a bird without its noticing, or so it was said. According to another claim, Mist could steal a lady’s corset from beneath her dress and escape unobserved.

(Put to the test, the second claim proved to be false, as Loxley later testified: “For such an uppity lady, she sure knew how to wield a parasol.”)

The Orofino Empire feared Jerem, and stories of Mist’s cleverness came as a welcome distraction. He became something of a hero to the unlucky refugees whom the Red Demon, the Blight or other catastrophes had driven from their homes.

Unable to contain himself any longer, Loxley revealed one evening—while very drunk, naturally—that he was Mist the Plunderer.

His listeners were so excited that nobody noticed the one who slipped out to inform the police. When officers arrived to take Loxley into custody, his listeners, who expected him to escape miraculously, were disappointed. Loxley rose majestically from his stool, stepped boldly forward and toppled right into the arms of the chief of police.

Loxley was sentenced to be executed, but Sergio, a High Arbiter of the Orofino Empire, intervened and recruited him into a team of specialists. Commissioned by the Emperor himself, their goal was to apprehend Jerem the Plague before he could destroy the Infinity Manuscript, and the world along with it. One of these specialists was Paladin Spike himself.

It was a shock for Loxley to be reunited with Paladin Spike, and a greater shock to discover that his hero had become just an ordinary, middle-aged man.

A few days later, Loxley took him aside and said, “Paladin Spike, sir, you’re not the same guy who yanked me out of a broom closet in the old days.”

“My name is Innocent, and please don’t call me sir anymore,” he replied, smiling. “It makes me feel like I’m back in the Army.”

“I hope you don’t mind the question, Innocent, and if you do, well, answer it anyhow. Why’d you go?”

“I was done being a Paladin,” said Innocent. “That’s all.”

Their travels took them across the Orofino Empire: from the Emperor’s City to the Jade Forest, and from there through the Amber Plains. By the time they reached a river, Loxley was tiring of their mission.

“Paladin Fey’s the worst leader ever,” he complained to Nick Puck, one of his companions.

“You’re just too thick to appreciate good leadership,” said Puck, who was enamored of Paladin Fey.

“Fey’s horrible, and you worry me by liking her so much, Puck. Then there’s Fuori, who’s about as friendly as an icicle. Even Innocent is rubbing me the wrong way. He’s—what’s the word?—cryptic. Innocent’s hiding something, and he’s doing it as cryptically as possible. It’s driving me crazy, Puck.”

“Loxley, I know invading folks’ privacy is what you do best, but give it a rest.”

At last, after many dangers and troubles, they captured Jerem by a river running through the Amber Plains.

Loxley was troubled by their success.

“It’s all wrong,” he told Puck that evening. “I don’t know why, but it’s all wrong.”

The sky was darkening, with scattered stars and a few clouds still stained by the red light of sunset. Paladin Fey had gone looking for more firewood. Innocent had gone for a walk. Fuori was guarding the prisoner, who was bound with ropes. Jerem, the man bent upon the destruction of the world, sat placidly drawing in the dirt with his toes.

“I mean, look at the guy,” continued Loxley. “I don’t think he’s evil.”

“He’s trying to destroy the world,” said Puck. “Seems pretty evil to me.”

“The guy’s deluded, that’s all. He really believes this world’s fake, and destroying the Infinity Manuscript will send him back to the real one. He’s misguided.”

“He’s trying to destroy the world,” repeated Puck. “Misguided or not, this kid has got to be locked up or executed. Think of the Blight, Loxley. Think of the earthquakes and tsunamis and floods. Think of the victims who died painful deaths, and the refugees who live painful lives. This kid has caused all kinds of problems, and it don’t matter whether or not he meant to cause them.”

Loxley spat into the fire. “You know who’s evil? Paladin Fey.”

“Shut your mouth, Loxley.”

“She was going to kill Innocent! How can you defend her, Puck?”

Puck frowned. “She did what she had to do. I like Innocent, but he’s just one person—a disgraced person, by the way. Paladin Fey was protecting every other person in the world.”

“It still wasn’t right,” said Loxley sulkily.

They sat awhile in silence. At length they were joined by Innocent. He was pale, and his hands shook.

“You all right, Innocent?” inquired Loxley.

“Fine,” said Innocent with a weak smile. “Just a little shaken. Near-death experiences do that to a fellow, you know. It was kind of Fuori to brew coffee. I wish there were fire-nectar to put in it, but that’s all right.”

“We’ve a little whiskey,” said Puck. “It’s strictly for medicinal purposes, don’t you know, but I think your case qualifies.”

Innocent nodded. “I’d be grateful.” The instant Puck had gone, he added, “Mist, I have a favor to ask.”


“Take this and don’t read it till tomorrow morning,” said Innocent, and pressed a folded paper into Loxley’s hands.

“What is it? Why can’t I read it now?”

“You’ll understand once you’ve read it. No peeking, and not a word to the others. Promise me, Mist.”

It took an effort, but Loxley cleared his throat and said, “I promise, Innocent. I haven’t got a lot of principles, you know, but I stick to those I’ve got, and none more than—”

“A promise is a promise.”

“Actually, ‘A bet’s a bet’ is number one, but ‘A promise is a promise’ comes in second.”

Loxley tucked the paper in his pocket as Puck rejoined them.

“About that whiskey,” began Loxley.

Puck cut him short. “Not a drop for you, and I mean it.”

They went to bed soon afterward. Fuori had been assigned to guard the prisoner; Innocent was to relieve him at midnight and keep watch until sunrise.

When Innocent took over from Fuori, Loxley awoke and stretched on the hard ground. Being a light sleeper may have saved his life on occasion, but it could certainly be a nuisance. He dozed for a while and finally fell asleep.

When he awoke again, he was not sure why. Everything was still, except for a faint rustling in the grass far away. Birds were calling. The sky had paled from black to dark blue, and the air was balmy and warm.

“There’s something amiss,” mumbled Loxley to himself, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t wake up for nothing. What could be—by all the gods, he’s done it. Oh, gods, what has he done?” He sat stupefied for a minute, blinking in the dim light, and then shouted, “Lady! Get up, lady!”

Paladin Fey pulled her pillow over her head.

“Where’s a sharp stick when you need one?” muttered Loxley, and then bellowed, “Come on, lady, wake up!”

“What is it now?” inquired Paladin Fey, sitting up.

“Jerem and Innocent are gone.”

Paladin Fey was on her feet in an instant. “There,” she said, pointing. A rock had been placed on the prisoner’s sleeping mat, and a piece of paper stuck out from beneath it.

“What does it say?” asked Fuori, getting up and peering over Paladin Fey’s shoulder as she examined the note.

She read aloud.

“My friends, traveling with you was the greatest privilege an old man could have. Thanks for the conversations, the coffee and the good company. Jerem and I are off to destroy the world. Goodbye, my friends. Innocent.”

Dazed, Loxley let out his breath and put his hands in his pockets. There was the note from Innocent.

As the others argued and cursed and raged, Loxley slipped the note from his pocket and began to read.

The story continues with the tenth part, The Tale of the Old Woman.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 8: The Tale of Jerem

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.”

“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.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 7: The Tale of the Paladin

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.”

“Ask away.”

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.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 6: The Tale of the Enemy

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?”

“We do.”

“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.”

Innocent shrugged.

“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.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 5: The Tale of the Survivor

The fourth part of this story can be found here.

Night had fallen over Coppertown—rather, over the place where Coppertown had been. Ashes and scorched stones were all that was left, apart from a few buildings that rose like tombstones from the devastation. The moon painted the scene black and silver. It was like a picture, quiet and still, except for the odd flicker of movement as an animal scurried through the remains of the town.

The building that had once been the mayor’s residence was the safest structure left. The survivors had settled in the upper rooms, beyond the reach of the creatures turned vicious by the Blight. There were about forty survivors: mostly young miners and their wives. No children had lived.

The survivors were in the process of exploring the cellars that remained intact after the fire. Once they had gathered enough supplies, they would arm themselves and make the dangerous trek to the nearest town. Then they could book passage with a caravan and travel to the Emperor’s City, there to begin a new life as refugees.

Such was their hope.

Several of the young miners had built a fire in their room, using timbers from the attic as fuel. After removing the ladders to the lower floors, they huddled around the fire and tried to make conversation.

“Cursed be Jerem,” muttered Aloysius, watching the flames. “Ten thousand curses on him and his band of murderers. No mercy, not even for the children. Rope for a few; steel for some; pitch and fire for the rest. Gone. All gone.”

“Will you stop it?” burst out his brother. “It’s over. Jerem’s gone, curse his fat face. Our town is gone, and so are most of our friends. Almost everything is gone, yes, but we’re still here. We’re still alive, Aloysius, don’t you see? We can’t complain. We’re the lucky ones. We survived.”

Aloysius scowled. “Tell me, dear brother,” he said. “How does that make us the lucky ones?”

“Ignore him, Quinton,” said one of the men. “Your brother was a gloomy blighter before Jerem swept through, and now he’s even worse. If we take no notice of him, perhaps he’ll shut his mouth and let us talk about cheerfuller things.”

The conversation turned to other subjects, and Aloysius’s thoughts turned to his parents. They were not among the survivors. In a single day of bloodshed and ruin, most of the family had perished. Aloysius and Quinton were the only members left. They alone survived to carry on their family’s name. For their family’s sake they had to keep living.

It was their only reason to keep living.

Morning dawned: as fresh, bright and beautiful a morning as the world had ever seen. Birdsong was heard for the first time since the fire. Sunlight flooded the ruins of Coppertown.

Aloysius could not help but feel a glimmer of hope. Yes, the world was falling apart. Jerem the Plague and his band cut a swathe of destruction across the Empire. Disasters tore apart the land, and the Blight corrupted whatever creatures were spared.

Yet the sun rose every morning.

Perhaps, mused Aloysius, the end of the world was not such a gloomy thing after all.

“Today’s the last day,” said Paddy, the oldest of the miners. “We can’t afford to stay longer. No stone unturned today, lads. If there’s any food left in this town, we find it. Tonight we pack; tomorrow we leave. Aloysius, you’re on guard duty. The rest of you lot, come along.”

Since the guard towers had been reduced to a few charred timbers, the best vantage point in Coppertown was the roof of the mayor’s residence. After gathering a few essentials—some food, a bottle of water, a parasol and his trumpet—Aloysius crawled out of an upper window and climbed up to the roof.

It was the work of a moment to set up camp for the day. Aloysius opened the parasol and propped it up against a chimney for shade. He placed the other items carefully upon the rooftop and then sat down to keep watch.

Aloysius was the only miner who could play the trumpet. The others had tried, but all they could manage were muffled wheezes. Only Aloysius could produce a long, clear blast from the instrument. If anything approached the ruins of Coppertown, he would blow the trumpet, signaling the miners to make a dash for the safety of the mayor’s residence.

A week before, Aloysius would have been tempted to pass the time by making music. He felt no such temptation now.

Hours passed. Aloysius drank from the bottle and ate a little. The sun blazed. The air shimmered. Except for the murmur of conversation from the miners below, all was silent.

He sounded the trumpet. With shouts of alarm, the miners swarmed across the ashen remains of Coppertown and barricaded themselves in the mayor’s residence.

“What is it?” asked Quinton, joining his brother on the rooftop. “What do you see?”

Aloysius pointed.

Five figures leading horses had entered Coppertown.

“Jerem’s men?” asked Quinton.

“Can’t say,” replied Aloysius. “Sun’s too bright. They could be Imperials. I’ll take a closer look.”

“Aloysius, if you think for one instant I’ll let you—”

“Curse it, Quinton, just be quiet. I’m not the fragile little boy you think I am. Get inside and tell the others to be silent and alert. I’ll meet these people. If all’s well, I’ll give a blast on the trumpet. If you don’t hear anything, assume the worst.”

“Aloysius, I won’t—” began Quinton, but his brother cut him off again.

“I love you, dear brother, but shut up.”

Aloysius clambered down through the window, clutching his trumpet. His decision was made. Life was a painful option; suicide was no option at all. Meeting the strangers seemed like an admirable solution. If he survived the encounter, he would keep living. If he did not survive, his troubles were over.

He left the mayor’s residence and padded silently through the ashes. As he neared the strangers, their voices became clearer.

“Well, gents and lady, here’s the thriving mining outpost called Coppertown. Looks like my information was correct. The place is gutted. We’d best start by looking for survivors: anyone who can tell us where Jerem’s gone.”

“Thank you, Master Puck. Your services are proving to be useful.”

“You’re too kind, Paladin Fey.”

“Your obsequiousness is duly noted. All right, we had better split into two—Loxley! Where do you think you’re going?”

“What, Nicky here gets a formal title and I don’t?”

“Answer the question, Loxley.”

Aloysius heard the ringing sound of a blade unsheathed.

“Whoa, put away the sword! I didn’t mean to offend, lady. I was just slipping away to see if Jerem overlooked anything, don’t you know.”

“Elucidate, Loxley.”

“Do what now?”

“Explain,” said another voice. It was a gentle voice, and Aloysius guessed the man to whom it belonged was smiling.

“Oh, that’s what she means. Thanks for translating, Innocent. Ah! Will you put away the sword, lady? I’ll explain, I’ll explain. I thought there might be some valuables Jerem missed when he plundered this place, see?”

“You disgust me, Loxley. If you try to slip away again, you’ll lose one of your fingers.”

“But I need them all for thieving, lady. Would you endanger our mission by handicapping me?”

“Then you’ll lose some other, less useful portion of your anatomy. I can think of one in particular with which you could certainly afford to part ways.”

The gentle voice spoke again. “With due respect, Paladin Fey, threats are not needed. Mist, don’t forget you owe me quite a debt. You can start repaying it by obeying our leader.”

“All right, Innocent. You got it. I’m listening to you, lady, but only because Innocent here told me to. Don’t think for a second I actually respect you or anything.”

Aloysius had crept near the strangers and hid behind a crumbling section of wall. He had some idea of listening to their conversation until he was sure of who they were and what they wanted.

His designs were ruined. A man stepped around the wall, took hold of his arm and dragged him into the midst of the strangers.

“Well done, Master Fuori,” said the lady, before addressing Aloysius: “Calm down, we’re not here to hurt you.”

Aloysius had begun to shake. As he tried to gather the nerve to speak, he glanced at the strangers and tried to match each one to the voices he had heard.

“We’re from the Emperor’s City,” continued the lady. “I’m Paladin Fey; you may have heard of me. These are my companions, Paladin Spike and Masters Fuori, Puck and Loxley.”

“About time I get the title,” grumbled Loxley.

Paladin Fey was a slender woman in a military uniform. Although he would never have dared admit it, Aloysius thought she was quite pretty. Paladin Spike was middle-aged and had a pleasant smile; Master Fuori was young and athletic; Master Puck was gangly and had ginger hair; Master Loxley was hairy and slightly rotund.

Each of the strangers was armed: the Paladins with swords, Master Fuori with a bow and arrows, Master Puck with a cutlass and Master Loxley with a long knife.

“We’re searching for Jerem the Plague, also called the Red Demon,” continued Paladin Fey. “The Emperor himself has tasked us with bringing him to justice. We received intelligence that he had been seen near Coppertown. Judging by the condition of the town, I surmise this information was accurate.”

“Yes, he was here.”

“What can you tell us?”

Aloysius took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you, but for a price.”

Paladin Fey mechanically raised the point of her sword to his throat. “Tell us or I kill you where you stand.”

With a single, swift motion that made them all start, Paladin Spike drew his sword and knocked the blade away from Aloysius’s throat, forcing the points of both swords into the ground.

Aloysius took a long, shaky breath.

“I apologize, Paladin Fey,” said Paladin Spike quietly. He pulled her sword out of the ground and handed it to her hilt-first. “I know this is the Empire’s way of doing things, but I won’t have more violence than can be helped. Do you understand?”

Paladin Fey’s expression changed rapidly from surprise to anger. “You have no right—” she began.

“I don’t mind dying,” interrupted Aloysius. “The only way I’ll talk is if you pay me. There are other survivors—you’ll never find them, so don’t get any ideas—and we need money for supplies. Your money for my information. It’s a fair trade.”

“Done,” said Paladin Spike.

Paladin Fey scowled, but counted out ten gold coins and handed them to Aloysius.

“Jerem was a fat man,” said Aloysius. “Fat but very muscular, if you know what I mean. He had red hair and a red beard, both long. There were about thirty men with him, all vicious, filthy ruffians. They stormed in, executed everyone they could find, looted the town and burned it to the ground.”

“Which way did they go?” asked Paladin Fey.

“Toward the Jade Forest.” Aloysius pointed. “That way. Listen, I know something that might help you. Not many people know it, but there’s a clearing in the northeast part of the forest; you might see it if you climb a tall tree. If Jerem knows this area, that’s probably where he’s camped.”

The visitors turned and began leading their horses away from the wreck of Coppertown. Paladin Spike lingered a moment to clap Aloysius on the shoulder. “Thanks, and good luck,” he said. “Justice will be done, if it can be.”

Aloysius was not a sentimental man, but he could not repress tears. “No, thank you,” he said, and began walking back through the ashes to the mayor’s residence.

Only halfway there did he remember to blow his trumpet.

The story continues with the sixth part, The Tale of the Enemy.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 4: The Tale of the Emperor

The third part of this story can be found here.

The Emperor’s City was one of the world’s great wonders. As all rivers flowed into the sea, so all the beauty, wealth and power of the Orofino Empire found its way to the capital, making it the most lovely, prosperous and powerful city in the world.

Visitors to the Emperor’s City marveled at its walls and towers, parks and gardens, halls and palaces, avenues and byways, banners and statues. Of these statues, the greatest was the monument to the Emperor, His Excellency Cecil the Immortal. His image towered over the city: a silent promise of protection, prosperity and order.

The city was packed with refugees. Some had escaped the destruction of their homes by Jerem the Plague. Most had fled the creatures turned vicious by the Blight. The capital was the only place left in the Empire where the Blight had not reached. The Emperor had issued a strict edict: no animals were allowed into the city until they had been quarantined, inspected and approved.

The refugees were disdained by the city’s residents, who saw them as a burden on its economy and a blot on its society. With nowhere else to go, the refugees set up tents and shacks within the city walls. The strong and able worked whatever jobs they could find. The sick and weak begged. The dishonest and desperate turned to smuggling, prostitution and theft.

A few refugees claimed to have glimpsed Jerem the Plague, though their descriptions of him varied considerably. He was huge or small, ugly or handsome, pale or dark-skinned, bearded or clean-shaven, depending upon who told the story. The only detail on which all witnesses could agree was the color of his hair—a fierce, fiery red.

The Emperor had done his utmost to provide for the refugees. It was, as he told his advisers, like trying to divide a loaf of bread among a hundred guests. There was simply not enough to go around. Even so, most refugees held the Emperor’s name in honor and regarded his monument with pride. The statue of His Excellency Cecil the Immortal was the very image of majesty, strength and compassion. It stood like a colossal guardian, shielding the city and its people.

His Excellency Cecil the Immortal, Emperor of Orofino, was a pale, nervous, overweight man with shadows under his eyes. On the rare occasions he ventured outside, he confined himself to his garden. “Our Emperor is wise,” said his advisors. “He concerns himself wholly with his duties and expends no time or effort upon trifles like travel, leisure or social affairs.”

The truth was that His Excellency was afraid.

The Emperor ruled his Empire with the calm detachment of an expert card player. From the security of the Imperial Citadel he analyzed problems, considered solutions and took risks. Some risks paid off. Some did not. When he made mistakes, he never paused to contemplate their cost. His Excellency could not afford to be paralyzed by emotional attachments.

Thus the Emperor never ventured beyond the gates of his residence. He feared becoming too attached to any of his subjects. He feared confronting the cost of his mistakes.

Most of all, he feared Jerem the Plague.

The attendant entered the study to find His Excellency seated in an armchair before the fire. The Emperor’s study was his inmost sanctum, the most private place in the privacy of the Imperial Citadel. It had no windows, but a fireplace and a desk and shelves of books. Although His Excellency had reluctantly allowed flues to be installed for ventilation, even those tiny openings troubled him. There were times when he wanted to be completely cut off from the rest of the world, alone with his books and his memories.

“My sincerest apologies for disturbing you, Your Excellency,” said the attendant. “High Arbiters Sergio and Felix have arrived with your guests. We have seated them and served refreshments, per your instructions. They await your presence in the garden.”

His Excellency felt a stirring of hope for the first time in weeks. Although it was beneath his dignity, he grinned and pumped both fists in the air. Then, having regained his composure, he heaved himself out of his chair and followed the attendant out of the study.

The Emperor’s garden was a treasure kept in a locked chest: few apart from His Excellency were permitted to see it, and those who did never forgot its beauty. The garden was circular. Pavements ran like spokes in a wheel toward its center, where an exquisite fountain rose out of a pool. The water sparkled in the sun. Flowers nodded in the breeze. A few bees hummed to and fro.

The Emperor’s guests were lined up along one side of a long table on a shaded terrace overlooking the garden. His Excellency had provided formal attire for his guests: a satin dress for the lady and tunics for the gentlemen.

Upon reflection, His Excellency decided gentleman was too generous a term for two of his guests. One, a stout, hairy man in his thirties, was devouring pastries with considerable enthusiasm. The other, a lanky man with ginger hair, was lounging back in his chair with a glass of wine. They were the sort of people one expected to find in the shadier corners of disreputable pubs, and their formal tunics did not suit them.

The other two men at the table seemed much more refined. One was a young man who sat with perfect posture and ate with measured dignity. The other, a middle-aged man with gray hair, sipped a cup of coffee and gazed meditatively at the fountain in the garden.

The lady sat aloof from the men, eating grapes and giving a strong impression of rigid professionalism.

As His Excellency seated himself across the table from his guests, the High Arbiters took seats on either side of him.

“It is my honor to welcome you, friends of the Empire,” said High Arbiter Sergio. “I need not add that it is your honor to sit in the presence of His Excellency Cecil the Immortal. Few are so fortunate.”

“We are honored to serve His Excellency,” said the lady.

“Honored,” echoed the stout man through a mouthful of pastry.

“High Arbiter Felix and I have already explained the circumstances,” continued Sergio. “The Emperor tasked us with recruiting specialists for the mission at hand. Two he chose personally. The other three we selected after much careful consideration. I do not believe you are all acquainted with one another, and only two of you have previously had the honor of meeting His Excellency. This is an excellent opportunity for introductions.”

Motioning toward the stout man, Sergio added, “We begin with Theobald Loxley, known more widely as Mist the Plunderer.”

Theobald Loxley put down a pastry and leered amiably across the table at the Emperor.

“Forgive Master Loxley’s irreverence, Your Excellency,” said Felix quickly. “He cares little for authority. Indeed, he is perhaps the most notorious thief ever to disgrace the Empire. We concede, however, that his unique talents may be useful.”

“We obtained a pardon for him,” said Sergio. “Should he try to abandon the mission, his pardon will be revoked instantly and his sentence—execution by impalement, if I remember aright—carried out immediately.”

Loxley’s leer lost some of its jollity.

“The man beside Master Loxley is Nicholas Puck,” said Sergio.

The ginger-haired man put down his glass and inclined his head. “Just Nick, Your Excellency,” he said. “A peddler of information.”

“Silence,” snapped Felix. “Do not presume upon His Excellency’s patience.”

“Despite Master Puck’s inelegance, no one in the Orofino Empire—barring Your Excellency himself, of course—is better informed,” explained Sergio. “Master Puck is part of a vast network of informants spanning every city, town, village and outpost under Your Excellency’s command. When there is news, he is the first to know it.

“Next is Hector Fuori, a scout of remarkable experience and skill. He is young, but his superiors in the Imperial Army assure me there is no abler tracker to be found.

“This brings us to the two specialists whom you requested specifically, Your Excellency: Vivian Fey, the most distinguished Paladin in your service, and Malcolm Spike, whose exploits are legend.”

His Excellency Cecil the Immortal crossed his arms, grinned and spoke.

“It’s nice to see you, Spike.”

“I prefer the name Innocent, Your Excellency.”

Felix began to protest, but fell silent as the Emperor went on.

“You got it, Innocent. Shoot, I’ve missed you. It’s a relief to have you back.”

Innocent took a deep breath. “Forgive me, Your Excellency, but did you know High Arbiter Sergio threatened to massacre the residents of my town if I didn’t cooperate?”

“Why you—” thundered Felix, but the Emperor cut him short.

“Sergio was following my orders,” said His Excellency Cecil the Immortal. “I don’t think you get it, Innocent. We need you. There’s no way we’ll stop Jerem without you. He’s destroying this world. You know about the Infinity Manuscript, right? I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t want to execute anyone, but I would’ve if you hadn’t come quietly. You help us, you save this world. You don’t, the Infinity Manuscript burns and this world with it. What’s a town compared to that?”

Innocent was silent for a long time. “I don’t have any choice either,” he said at last. “I’ll help you. Then, perhaps, the Empire and the gods and the rest of the world will leave an old man alone.”

“Excellent,” exclaimed Sergio. “Now that the introductions are out of the way, there are but few things left for us to discuss. Your mission is to find and capture Jerem the Plague before he can destroy the final pages of the Infinity Manuscript.

“Jerem, like His Excellency, is immortal. You cannot kill him. When we chose you for this mission, our plan was for Master Puck to gather news of Jerem’s whereabouts, Master Fuori to track him down and Master Loxley to apprehend him.”

“What about these Paladins?” inquired Loxley.

“Paladins Fey and Spike will accompany you in order to overcome any difficulties that may arise. The Empire is no longer as safe a place as it used to be. The Blight has made travel a dangerous business. We send along the Paladins as a safeguard against untoward circumstances.”

“Paladin Fey has been appointed to lead the group as His Excellency’s personal representative,” said Felix. “She will deliver the final verdict in all decisions. All other members must follow her orders; to do otherwise will be considered treason. Paladin Fey will also be responsible for handling the group’s money and maintaining communications with His Excellency.”

“This concludes our meeting,” said Sergio. “The attendants will show you to your rooms. You will depart tomorrow after making whatever preparations you need. If you have any concerns, report them to Paladin Fey and she will relay them to His Excellency. The gods be with you. Goodbye, friends of the Empire.”

As the guests were led out of the garden, His Excellency heard Loxley’s voice raised in strident commentary: “Did you hear how the Emperor talked? He didn’t sound at all dignified. Not a bit! How’d he get to be immortal if he’s so ruddy informal all the time?”

The Emperor smiled. Then, with a return of his usual anxiety, he hurried back indoors. It was high time he returned to his study.

The story continues with the fifth part, The Tale of the Survivor.