It was one of those days. You know, the ones when you feel a little lost when you’re looking for something. It’s just that you don’t know what it is. Just a nagging, little voice in the back of your head.
After all, just one of those days.
As I walked down the street, my eyes wandered here and there, to store windows, people, traffic, searching.
I sighed as I watched it all. The everyday bustle of urban life.
Then, out of the corner of my eyes, I noticed it. A little book store that sat perfectly nestled between two enormous office buildings.
I don’t know why, but my eyes came to rest on it. It was a small, cozy-looking place with a laid back atmosphere.
A few moments later, I stepped inside. I wasn’t really a reader, and neither was a collector per se. I guess I just liked to browse, and every once in a while I bought something on a whim. One of my shelves was filled with two dozen books I’d bought that way. I hadn’t bought them to read them; it was more about their titles, the covers, or the general feel they gave off.
And it was always odd books. That’s what I liked most, odd little things you could store away at your home to add just a tad bit more character to it.
The old man at the counter gave me a friendly nod.
“Looking for something specific, young man?”
“No, just browsing,” I said with a smile and continued onward.
The store was chaos. Ramshackle bookshelves lined the walls, their wood straining under an unevenly placed load. I saw novels, picture books, children’s books, and nonfiction all thrown together haphazardly with any sense or order. Here and there books littered the floor, and in certain corners, I found dusty, towering stacks of them that seemed to shake with each of my steps.
I smiled. There was a certain touch to the place.
For half an hour I wandered the store. It was bigger than I’d originally thought. There were multiple backrooms, each one more chaotic than the one before. I leafed through multiple books here and there before something caught my eye.
At the bottom of another stack of books, half-hidden behind an old reading chair, I saw a gigantic tome.
The book was bound in thick leather, but there was no indication of what it was. No words lined its spine. One by one I removed the books on top of it, but to my surprise, the cover was as empty as the spine.
When I opened it, I found it even thicker than I’d originally thought. As I went to the end of the book, I noticed that the number of pages far exceeded 2000.
What can I say, this strange book intrigued me.
As I looked through it, I noticed that each page comprised multiple, short bodies of text, neatly divided, each with its own title.
At first, I thought it was a book of anecdotes, maybe quotes or sayings by famous people. When I read one title though, I was a bit puzzled.
‘You step into the dark forest,’ one of them said.
‘You ascend the stairs,’ the one below read.
A little confused, I went on to a different page and read another one, only to find a similar title above it.
‘You eat the remains’
Even more confused, I read the text below it.
‘You carefully constructed a small fireplace from the stones around you. It takes you a few minutes, but you succeed in lighting a small fire. You carefully begin roasting the strange meat. A weird, sweet smell fills the air. Finally, the meat looks ready to eat. What do you want to do?
Eat the meat. Go to page 219.
Throw it into the fire. Go to page 811.
Leave the fire and the meat behind. Go to page 86.’
It took me a while to realize what I was holding. It had to be one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.
I smiled a little but wondered at the sheer size of this monstrosity. A Choose Your Own Adventure book of this size? There’s no way. Maybe it came with illustrations, maps, and lists of items and enemies. Hell, maybe it was a collection of different adventures.
Yet, as I went through it, I found nothing but text. There were no maps, no illustrations, not even a division between different adventures. When I checked the first page, it was the same as the one I’d opened before. There was no table of contents, no title, nothing.
What an odd book, I thought. Odd, but interesting.
I picked it up and holding my price, I went back to the front.
When I approached, the old man looked up again. For a moment, something washed over his face, but a smile instantly replaced it.
As I put the heavy book down, the counter creaked under the weight of the book.
“Well, isn’t that something, you picked quite the book, young man.”
“It looked interesting enough.”
“Sure does, doesn’t it?”
“It’s one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, right?”
The old man nodded.
“So, why it’s so big?”
“Because it’s hard.”
“Hah, very funny.”
I laughed, but the old man didn’t join in.
“You ever gave it a try?”
“So what’s the deal with it?”
The old man shrugged. “There’s a reward at the end.”
“You finished it?”
The old man gave me a simple shrug.
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but then I let it slide. No reason to pester him longer than necessary.
“So, how much is it?”
The old man thought about it for a bit. “Tell you what, how about five bucks. Not like anyone’s going to come buy it any time soon, anyway.”
A little surprised about the low price, I handed him the money before I tried to shove the giant book in my backpack. It almost didn’t fit. Only after some rummaging and taking out my water bottle was I able to push it inside.
With that, I said goodbye and went on my way.
Once I was home, I opened the strange book once more. For a little while, I leafed through it before I went back to the first page and started to read the first chapter, if you can call it that.
I had to start right here, didn’t I?
To my surprise, it didn’t seem to be the beginning of the adventure, but a random part of it.
‘You hold the Desert Orb high into the air
You raise the Desert Orb towards the sky. For a moment it gleams in the hot, unforgiving sun before it crumbles in your hand. Nothing remains, but a set of thirteen colorful marbles that come to rest in front of your feet. What do you want to do?
Pick them up. Go to page 1522.
Stomp on them and destroy them. Go to page 772.
Throw them into the sky. Go to page 382.’
Great, I can play with marbles, I laughed. This wasn’t too exciting, so instead of picking any of the three choices, I went on to the next brief chapter.
The second one was even duller, talking about a flower store in a small village. Yet, the third one stood out to me.
‘You wait in the clearing
You wait in the clearing. Suddenly the Thousand-Eyed Dragon descends upon you, staring at you with its thousand eyes and basking you in their iridescent glow. The dragon closes in on you quickly. What do you want to do?
Stay and await the dragon. Go to page 522.
Pray to the Gods of the Earth. Go to page 311.
Run. Go to page 1899.’
This was more like it. As for my choice, I ran and went to the back of the book to find page 1899.
It was the fifth chapter on the page.
‘You run from the Thousand-Eyed Dragon
You hurry away as the beast approaches you. Your steps led you through the dark forest, past gnarled trees, and thick underbrush. Suddenly you fall, tripped by a root, and crash hard to the forest floor. By sheer coincidence, your hand closes around a strange, glowing object.
Pick it up. Go to page 455.
Destroy it. Go to page 390.
Ignore it and continue on your way. Go to page 111.’
I picked the object up and had to return to the earlier pages of the book.
The object turned out to be the so-called Ruby Orb. The glow of the object basked me in red light and I could faintly make out something inside. I was asked once more what I wanted to do. The first two choices were to either stare into it or simply pocket it. The third option made me lookup.
‘Push the Amulet of Roe against it. Go to page 1023.’
I read it questioningly, shrugged, and went with it. Sure, I didn’t know what the Amulet of Roe was or even if I had to find it before I picked this option, but it sounded much more interesting than the other two choices.
I searched for the corresponding page only to read I burst into flames and disintegrated.
Well, great, I thought, I just died.
I went back and pick the choice to stare into it and found out I went stock raving mad. Great, another death, I thought.
This time I pocketed the damned orb and went on my merry way.
I spent the next half hour continuing through the forest only for my character to die half a dozen times because of cryptic references I had no clue about.
It was at this point I took a break.
My stomach rumbled, and I realized I had eaten nothing since I’d made it home.
I prepared myself a simple meal, comprising a few sandwiches, and put on a movie on Netflix.
Yet as I sat in front of the TV, I couldn’t help but stare at the couch where I’d dumped the strange book. Its open pages were almost bidding me come back to it, calling out to me to continue.
I’d barely finished my meal when I was back. There was a certain kick to this thing, I had to admit. It was interesting trying to figure your way out.
Instead of continuing where I’d left off though, I went back to the confrontation with the dragon and picked choice number two, to pray to the Gods of the Earth.
To my surprise, the Gods answered, and the dragon flew off, leaving me alone. I was left to continue my adventure unobstructed. This time I didn’t enter the forest but followed a small path that led away from it.
This, however, didn’t change a damn thing. Half of my choices ended in a painful death, the other half made no sense or referred to certain objects I hadn’t yet heard about.
There was talk about The Obsidian Sword, a treasure map, a Crown of Ice, and many other, similar objects. Yet, whatever I tried, I ended up dead as often as in the forest. Hell, at one point I was even transformed into a strange snake-human hybrid. I humored the idea for a bit, but I was ultimately and quickly killed off by a group of knights I ran into.
When I followed another option, my character became infused with elemental fire, only to evaporate when I tried crossing a river.
Goddamnit, I cursed out loud. This damned book was way too hard!
Eventually, I got fed up with the damned dragon, the forest, and everything else related to it. Instead, I went to a random part in the book and started reading from there. Who knows, maybe I’d have more luck there.
When I started reading, I wrinkled my brow. My character had been an adventurer in a fantastical setting, running through forests, hiding from dragons, and traveling the land. Why was I suddenly on a… spaceship?
Either way, I picked one of the three choices only to find out that my spaceship and myself evaporated.
I went back and picked another one and followed this outlandish path for a while.
It was as hard as the fantasy one. Once again, every other option meant certain death, while the rest was filled with odd references.
At one point I was even assimilated by a hive mind. Even stranger my character didn’t outright die, but I could continue. I read a few more parts before I realized how late it had become.
Without realizing, I’d spent almost two hours with the damned book.
Still, as confusing and terribly hard as it was, it was also damned interesting. There was something about it. With all the objects and all the references, you could tell there were hidden hints everywhere. I guess you just had to understand what they meant to progress further.
I checked my phone, read a post on Reddit before I gave the book another shot.
This time, I opened it relatively close to the middle and absent-mindedly leafed through the pages for a bit. When I started to read I found myself at the home of a mage who offered me a bunch of potions, five in total. I could only drink one of them, and below was a choice for every single one of them.
I tried one and frowned when my character died again, this time because of poison.
When I read another one I was transformed into a creature of terrible power, the Thousand-Eyed Dragon.
I’d read that before, hadn’t I? That was the dragon that had attacked me in the forest! Why’d I suddenly turn into it? God, this was way too confusing.
I was about to pick another one when I noticed how late it was. Shit, I had to catch some sleep.
When I got home from work the next day, I heated some coffee and before I knew it I found myself in front of the book again.
I thought back to what I’d read before and gave the damned forest another try. Better start at a point I already knew.
This time, though, I had a plan. I’d write down the page numbers of each chapter I went through, so I had a simple way to find my way back should I get stuck.
It wasn’t long before I realized this wasn’t enough. If I wanted to have any chance of figuring this confusing book out, I’d have to map out my way entirely.
And so I started to write down not only the page numbers of the small chapters I went through, but also the choices for each one of them and the pages they sent me to. Then I’d go through all of them until I’d find a way to continue.
Yet, I quickly stumbled upon another problem. There wasn’t just a single way forward, not even two or three. While many choices ended in death, almost as many sent me off in entirely different directions, not related to one another.
For the next days, I slowly mapped out my way around the forest, the areas next to it, and eventually the small fantasy world I was supposedly in.
I can’t say why I put so much effort into it, but once I’d started, once I’d filled out the first few pages, there was this strange feeling that urged me to continue. After all, I’d done that much already, hadn’t I? There was no way I’d just stop and leave it be now.
Even more so, the book fascinated me, had me spellbound, you could say.
For the longest time, I’d done nothing. I’d stumbled through life one day at a time with no actual goal or ambition. This book actually intrigued me. I wanted to solve it.
As I continued mapping out my way, I soon realized that this adventure was even more complicated than I’d thought.
Only after I’d filled out another entire page, did I realize that the chapters and choices I was following seemed oddly familiar. When I went through my notes, I realized that I was back at a certain point I’d been at before. Without knowing it, I’d followed a freaking loop in the story. After I’d left a small town near the forest, I continued on a path that eventually led me to a waterfall and a mystical cave, only to follow up another path back to the same town.
I laughed a little. The damned book had got me. This entire freaking waterfall and cave thing was only here to throw me off. It was a loop that would continue endlessly. So, I put down a little footnote not to go to the waterfall again.
Soon enough, I realized that the waterfall wasn’t the only such loop. There were more of them. After a while I realized that some even led into one another, throwing you off even more. Without my notes, I might have very well stumbled from one loop into another without even realizing it.
Eventually, I reached a singular path I’d not been on before. After a few more choices and a few more painful deaths, I was back at the home of the magi. This time, I decided to go through all of his five potions.
I knew the first one would instantly kill me and the second one would transform me into the dragon.
Of the remaining three, one didn’t do a damn thing, and I left the mage’s home, while another killed me yet again.
It was the last one that was more interesting. After I’d downed it, I was asked if I wanted to ascend to another realm.
This time I was greeted with a plethora of choices.
Go to the Land of Never-Ending Seas, Return to the Cradle of Mankind, Take to the stars, and more than half a dozen others.
On a whim, I picked Take to the Stars.
When I went to the corresponding chapter, I suddenly found myself aboard a spaceship.
I looked up. This was the freaking spaceship I’d read about before!
As I’d noticed, this one was as strange and as hard as the fantasy world I’d been in before.
However, with my newfound way or recording my path, I could slowly progress through it.
It was by sheer accident that I stumbled upon a teleporter after my ship crash-landed on a planet.
The teleporter turned out to be similar to the mage’s potions. Each choice below represented a different button on it.
Going through the choices, I was disintegrated multiple times, sent to some sort of space prison before I made my way to a place between the realms.
Similarly to the ascension option from before, I was asked where I wanted to go. What picked my interest was the first choice, The Land of Magic and Dragons. To my surprise, I ended up standing in front of a burned down farm, the bodies of my dead parents next to me about to set out on a grand adventure. As I’d expected the choice labeled ‘Take to the Stars’ sent me back to my spaceship.
When I choose The Cradle of Mankind, I awoke in a cave, now wearing nothing but a pelt. I read two more brief chapters and realized that this was a sort of Stone Age setting.
I went back and tried to rest and realized that each and every one of them sent me to a unique setting, or a different adventure path, as I came to call them. With the three I’d already tried, there were eleven in total.
- The Land of Magic and Dragons – Fantasy
- Take to the Stars – Space
- The Cradle of Mankind – Stone Age
- The Land of the Never-ending Sea – Ocean and Pirates
- The Ruins of Nevrath – Desert Ruins
- The Peaks of the Sky – Mountains
- The Grand City – City-State
- Crossing the Rubicon – Ancient Rome
- The Jungles of Ulthum – Jungle Tribes
- Calmheim – Small Village
- Lesh’turath – Underwater Civilization
I just stared at my notes. This was crazy. It had taken me days to make my way through the fantasy path and another two to stumble upon this teleporter and you’re telling me there were eleven in total?
Absentmindedly, I rubbed my temples to push away the phantom pain that started at the prospect of working my way through all of them. This was way too much work.
That evening, I left the book alone and went to bed early. I was too frustrated to continue like this.
The next day though, right after work, frustration was replaced by motivation. It was almost as if a surge of dedication pulsed through me. I knew I could do this. All it would take was time, and I had more than enough of that.
I decided to try my luck with The Cradle of Mankind next. I read chapter after chapter, got eaten by a sabertooth tiger, killed by one of my tribesmen, found a magical stick, got empowered by a meteoroid, and finally I found a strange glowing object.
I went with the choice to pick it up and look at it, only to frown.
‘You stare at the strange glowing objects and within moments you realize what it is. It’s the Ruby Orb, a ghastly artifact from another realm. Only those who destroy it will learn its secret. In fear, you leave it behind and wander on.’
The Ruby Orb? I’d heard about this in the fantasy path.
I went through my stack of notes frantically. There it was, in the damned forest. I noted down the place I was at and went back to page 1899. This time I picked the option to destroy it and went to page 390.
The chapter this time was short and there was only one option at the bottom.
‘You throw the orb to the ground. With a thunderous roar, it burst and explodes into fourteen pieces. You stare at them in utter indifference before you continue.
Continue on your way. Go to page 111.’
I checked my notes. This was the same freaking page I was sent to if I didn’t even pick it up. What the hell was this bullshit? Why was there a meaningless chapter like this?
No, wait, maybe it wasn’t meaningless. There’d been something about a secret. Yet, all the chapter said was that the damned thing burst into pieces. Frustrated, I was about to return to the Stone Age path. Then I stopped.
It hadn’t said that the orb simply burst into pieces. It had said it burst into exactly fourteen pieces.
Oh, you’ve got to be freaking kidding me. I went right to page 14 of the book.
The first two chapters were completely unrelated, but the third one stood out.
‘The Secret of the Ruby Orb,’ it read.
What I found below made even less sense.
‘The secret of the Ruby Orb lies hidden between the births of two men of brilliant genius. One, a writer most famous, no other than John Milton. The other, an astronomer who would change the entire world, Galileo Galilei.’
I read it once more than a third time before I sat there, utterly confused. Why the hell was the book bringing up Milton and Galileo? This made no freaking sense! Between the births… what was that even supposed to mean?
I spent the rest of the evening trying to make sense of it. Did Milton and Galileo come up as characters in the book? But the freaking book was set in nothing but fantastical realms. At least from what I’d seen so far. Could it be that one of the more mundane sounding paths included them? If so, what was this about births?
God, none of this made any sense.
That’s what I thought until an idea popped into my mind the next day at work.
What if it was not referring to anything in the book, but their actual births?
I leaned back in my office chair, took out my phone, and googled the two men.
John Milton was born on December 9th, 1608, while Galileo Galilei was born on August 25th, 1609.
Great and how the hell… then I thought about it. The freaking years, 1608 and 1609. The damned book had far over 2000 pages. Was this damned riddle referring to certain page numbers?
But what was there going to be between two consecutive pages? For the rest of the day, I entertained other, different ideas, different scenarios, like their location of birth, but they felt even less plausible to me.
The moment I got home, I threw aside my backpack and hurried to the book on my table. I tore through the pages until I reached page 1608. I read through the text, scanned the page, the margins, but there was nothing special about it. So it had to be the next page, page 1609. Yet, when I turned it, I found a different number. I suddenly found myself on page 682.
What the hell? I turned to the page, after which turned out to be page 1609. At first, I considered it a misprint, but the text had talked about a secret hidden between them. Was this a secret page, then?
I started to read it. The page was filled with four chapters, but they differed from anything I’d read in the book so far. They were completely unrelated to the adventure.
It was just descriptions of various stars in the night sky.
Below it, there was a single line that stood out to me.
‘There are many a star in the sky, but only a few of them shine brightly.’
I sank back onto the couch. So this was supposed to be another hint. Only a few stars shine brightly, I reasoned. There had to be something about stars, about some that shone brightly!
Yet, before I went on my search for stars, I had something else on my mind, something beyond the meaning of this little saying. This very secret page here. Did it mean that even some of the pages in this book were mixed-up?
This page here was page 682. So it had to be missing where it was supposed to be, right? I instantly went back, but I found it right there. Page 628, containing normal chapters related to the adventure, preceded by page 681 and succeeded by page 683. So the secret page I’d found was a double, hidden somewhere within the book. At that moment, I wondered. What if it wasn’t the only one?
I slowly went through the next hundred pages of the book. When I was done, I’d found three more secret pages.
In sheer frustration at this new, mysterious discovery, I put the book down and cursed to myself. This was freaking useless. The more I went on, the more mysteries I found that were related to it all. How the hell was anyone supposed to solve this?
Still, a few minutes later I poured over those three secret pages. Maybe they contained a hint that would help me make sense of them.
They were all the same, though. They all talked about topics that had no connection to the adventure whatsoever. One talked about the different ages of the Earth, starting from the Precambrian. Another talked about the evolution of apes and the last one of a certain subset of plants, roses to be exact.
For a moment I tried to think of any way on how to relate those things to the adventure. There had to be some tie-in, something I hadn’t discovered yet. Maybe there would be an odd reference in one of the other adventure paths I hadn’t explored yet.
For a moment I fell back on my couch, telling myself this was impossible. What if this entire thing wasn’t even about the adventure at hand, but about cryptic references and hidden details? What if the entire adventure was nothing but a red herring, only there to hide the real clues between its text?
No, enough was enough. I had done what I could, and I would not waste any more time with this bullshit. I got up and sat down in front of my TV.
Merely half an hour had passed before I sat back in front of the book. I cursed myself for doing it, but I couldn’t help it. I’d done so much work, I thought as I stared at the stacks of notes on the couch table. No, there was no way I’d give up so easily.
Yet, at the time, I had no idea just how little I’d actually done.
I made a simple enough plan. If I wanted to get anywhere, I had to first decode all the eleven different adventure paths. It should be easy enough, I told myself. After all, it was nothing but trial and error and watching out to not be caught up in any of the useless, ever-repeating loops.
At first, I did what I’d done before. I noted down the page number, the different choices, and made references whenever I found something interesting. However, this would only work on a smaller scale. What I needed was to get a better view, a bigger picture.
And so I started to map them all out, to draw each and every individual path. I started with a normal notepad, but those pages were way too small. Even taping multiple pages together wasn’t enough. No, I needed bigger sheets of paper for this.
I was on my way to the mall a minute later and barged into the office supply store. After pestering an irritated clerk, I bought a stack of the biggest sketchpads they had available. I didn’t look twice at the price it cost me. With those and new motivation, I made my way back home.
The first thing I did was to determine the starting point of each different adventure path. This was easy enough. After that, I started with the first one, the fantasy path.
Thankfully, I only needed to copy the notes I’d already taken and turn them into a visual map of the entire path. I wrote down the very first page number, added the three choices, connected those to the next, and so on. Things got complicated quickly. I had to start over multiple times because there simply wasn’t enough space, not even on the huge sketchpads.
Before long I had to resort to taping those together as well, creating giant, confusing maps of lines and numbers. I even kept a stack of notes related to every single path, filled with all the objects, references, and hints that seemed important. When I realized my living room table wasn’t big enough, I turned to the floor before I eventually resorted to putting the giant sheets of paper up against one of my living room walls.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I mapped out all the eleven paths as well as their general connections. By then, almost my entire wall was covered by a giant, crazy mural of color-coded lines and numbers.
When I was finally done, I stepped back and had a look at it. God, there was so much. This was absolutely insane. It almost made my head spin and a nervous laugh escaped me.
I was proud, however, proud of what I’d accomplished. With this, I was close to solving this entire thing.
I had to be.
As I’d expected though, there was no actual end to the normal adventure. You either ended up back at the beginning or you ended up at one of the hubs, as I came to call them, where you could switch to a different path. There was no final, secret path and no final chapter that told you you’d made it.
That’s when I knew the solution was what I’d feared. It wasn’t on the surface, not part of the general adventure, but hidden within it.
The first of the secret pages had talked about stars. I knew what I had to do then, I had to restart my search for a reference about stars. Even though I couldn’t remember any on the fly, there had to be one. I was sure of it.
For the next day, I meticulously went through my notes, explored all the different adventure paths, but there was no hint of anything. There was no mention of stars anywhere. The word appeared nowhere in the damned book. Except, that is, on the secret page.
Then I thought of something else. That riddle about John Milton and Galileo Galilei hadn’t been related to the book. What if the mystery behind those secret pages wasn’t related to the book either? I almost laughed with misery, wondering how much more insane the book could get.
I opened up Wikipedia and quickly found a list of the brightest stars in the night sky. It was a long list, containing star after star and name after name. Well, that’s great and all, but what the hell was I supposed to do with that? The same was true for the history of the Earth, the evolution of apes, and the page about plants.
I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be looking for!
Then I took a step back, took a deep breath. Hold on for a moment, Todd, hold on, this is an old book, right? There was no information when it was published, but the book’s pages were slightly yellowed and gave off the distinct smell that only older books held. It meant the damned thing had most likely been around long before Wikipedia ever existed. I cursed and closed my browser.
Maybe it was all bullshit. What if all those freaking secret pages with their stars and apes and plants weren’t even related to the mystery? What if they were a red herring, placed in the book to throw you off and send you on another search that would lead nowhere?
Or, I thought, what if there was something else to them? What if it was similar to the overall adventure? What if it wasn’t their content, but what was hidden within it?
I instantly decided on a new approach. I had to find all those pages and look for some sort of similarity.
When I was done the next day, I’d found 53 in total. They all talked about different, obscure topics, all entirely unrelated to the adventure: plants, snakes, the moon, even micro-organisms.
I noted them all down, but I still felt like I was going in the wrong direction. Once more I told myself to take a step back. Don’t get hung up on the content. Look for something else.
Over the course of another damned week, I tried to find as many of the small riddles that led to these pages. I found a total of 21. I analyzed the hints and riddles meticulously. All were unrelated to the book, yet they only pointed to the place the pages could be found in the book. It seemed utterly useless.
When I decided to abandon this idea, at least for now, the book had been in my possession for over six weeks.
I looked up, stared at my living room wall, at the stacks of notes, and wondered what the hell I was doing. Why was I even doing it?
“There’s a reward at the end,” the old man had said, but I knew I didn’t do it because of that. No, I just wanted to solve this thing.
But, why? I asked myself.
To prove it, the little voice in the back of my head answered.
None of this is important, though. Yet the little voice protested again.
You’ve spent six weeks of your life on it already.
Yes, and that’s enough. I won’t fucking solve it anyway.
With those words still lingering on my mind, I stormed to the damned wall. I tore down the first of the many pages, the first part of the ghastly mural of insanity, and began crumbling it up.
I’d barely started when I stopped again. I looked up. So much work, it had been so much work, the little voice piped up once more.
And I knew what it was saying. What if I’d discovered something important the very next day? What if I came up with that single piece of information I needed to solve it all right after I’d destroyed it?
“No, put it back, put it back, you idiot!” I heard someone scream. For a moment I jerked around, only to realize that it was my very own voice.
I carefully got down on my knees and smoothed out the paper before I put it back with shaking hands. A sigh of relief escaped me. It was still all there. I hadn’t destroyed it.
What the hell had I been thinking?!
After this outburst I labored over the book for two more hours, sitting in front of a giant map of lines and numbers. I went through the Ancient Rome path twice, explored all the connections it had to some of the others, trying to find if there was anything there I’d missed.
Only when I looked up did I see how late it was. My eyes grew wide, and I cursed. It was past two in the morning.
Shit, I had to get up for work in three freaking hours!
Work went terrible that day. I was a sleep-deprived mess, operating on nothing but strong coffee, and two times I caught myself having dozed off in front of the computer.
“Long night, Todd?” one of my co-workers asked, giving me a little wink.
“You’ve got no idea,” I mumbled in misery. “Those freaking secret pages are driving me insane.”
“Those… what? Pages? The hell are you talking about?”
“Oh, eh, nothing. Just a, eh, movie I watched that got me thinking.”
He eyed me curiously for another second before he shrugged and walked off. Shit man, keep it together. You don’t want to end up as the office nutjob.
The freaking book was getting to me. No, the fact that I had made no freaking progress was. I felt myself getting mad just thinking about it.
“Freaking hell,” I cursed to myself and made another one of my co-workers look up.
“You okay there, Todd?” she asked.
“Yeah, just tired, made a mistake, that’s all.”
For the rest of the day, I forced myself to keep my mouth shut and not mutter about anything related to the book. Hell, I told myself not to think about it, but that was a feat of impossibility. Even as I stared at the screen, even as I went through customer reports, my thoughts were with stars and apes, with dragons and potions and freaking spaceships. I couldn’t think of any other freaking thing.
I spent the next few days in this strange purgatory of non-decision and non-hints. I had no clue what to do. I went through the book, again and again, even trying to follow the paths backward in desperation. I went through the secret pages one by one again, looking for references.
Yet, there wasn’t a damn thing to be found.
At work, as I slaved away in front of yet another Excel-document, copying and pasting customer purchase numbers I finally thought of something. Numbers.
What if it wasn’t about anything related to the text? What if it was similar to the riddles that brought me to those pages? What if the mystery behind them was related to their page numbers, or hell the page numbers in general?
Once at home I went to work. I told myself once more that I needed to get the full picture. So I went to write down all the page numbers in the book, one after another.
When I was done, I took a step back and stared at the result. Yet, there was nothing that stood out to me right away. I haphazardly picked one of the secret pages. Page 427 was in front of page 811. Then I continued.
811, 812, 813, 814, 815, 816, 817, 818, 818, 820, 821, and right after was yet another secret page.
This one was page 528.
And after that, the regular page numbers continued.
822, 823, 824, 825, 826, 827, 828, 829, 830, 831, 832, 833, 834, 835, 836, 837, 838, 839, 840, 841, 842, 843, followed by another one, page 143.
This list of ongoing numbers made me suddenly wonder. My thoughts drifted right back to what had gotten me to do this, the secret pages.
What if they weren’t placed randomly?
Yet, as I checked their distribution, it felt almost too random. I checked the number of regular pages before and after, put them in sequence, but there was no correlation.
Then I got another idea. I added up all the pages before and after, but this also made no sense. Half the results were too big and exceeded the total number of pages in the book, by far.
Then, starting at number 111 to 137, which I’d just added together, I got yet another idea. What if I only added together their last digits?
The result I came up with was 648. Which was exactly the secret page that followed afterward!
My eyes grew wide. I’d had it, hadn’t I? The hint I’d been looking for! I was going livid.
Right away I went to the next one and calculated all the preceding numbers, only to come up with an entirely different result than the page number of the secret page following. Cursing I got up.
It had been another goddamn coincidence. I laughed, but this time in abject misery, mocking my stupidity. How’d it be so damned easy, you idiot? There was no way. None of this was easy. None of it!
But as I stared at the result I’d come up with just now, I noticed something. The result of my calculation was 702. The page number was 351. Wait. Wait. Wait. That’s half of 702! Maybe it really was nothing but a coincidence and I was just grasping at straws, but what else was I to do?
The next result I came up with was 176. If I multiplied it by three, it gave me the page number of the secret page that followed it, 528. The number 715, divided by 5, gave me the page number 143 that followed it.
I continued adding, dividing, and multiplying and it all checked out. All the page numbers of the secret pages resulted from calculations of the last two digits of their preceding pages.
What does it mean though? Does it even mean anything? The exhilaration I’d felt ebbed away, and I sat there, staring at all my calculations wondering if there was any meaning to it. Yet, there had to be, right? This couldn’t have been designed as yet another red herring. This was too damned complex. No, there had to be a reason for this.
What if there was an order? If I went through all the calculations I quickly noticed that the result was never divided by the same number. The highest number that a result was divided by was 26, the highest a result was multiplied by was 27. It was exactly 53 different calculations.
With that, I started ordering them, one by one, starting backward from the highest division, to the highest multiplication. Then I put the topic of each page behind the numbers in the resulting list.
I’d hoped for something. I’d hoped to find it starting with the page about the universe, followed by constellations and stars up to the evolution of apes, plants, and other animals. Yet, it was all mixed-up nonsense. There was no order to it at all! Even when I ordered them in other ways, trying to find any sort of correlation, it was always the same. Nothing, but nonsense.
My hands started shaking as anger flooded through me. I crumbled up the stupid, ordered lists and threw them across the room. Then I cursed in sheer and utter rage. This was freaking stupid. This was insane! This was nothing at all, just pure fucking nonsense. I picked up a random object on my table and hurled it against the wall where it shattered into pieces. Then I threw aside a chair I found standing in my way and kicked over the small couch table, creating general chaos in my living room.
I was stopped from going any further when my neighbors banged against the wall, screaming to knock it off and threatening to call the cops.
That made me stop. The anger went away. I stared in shock at my living room. What the hell was happening to me? Why’d I done that? Why’d I destroyed my things at 1 am in the freaking morning?
Then I slowly smoothed out the lists I’d created and put them on one of the few free spots remaining on my living room wall. Who knows, I might need it later.
I laughed as I looked from them to the rest of the wall which was now entirely covered. Even worse were the stacks of notes that had accumulated in front of them. I was proud all right, but I also knew that this thing was absolutely insane.
Once more, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing.
Shaking my head, I turned around and made my way to the bedroom. Yet, as my fingers rested on the light switch, I turned around one last time. I stared at the mad lines, the mad paths who were connecting here and there. There was nothing but lines upon lines. Here and there, if I looked hard and long enough, I could almost make out shapes.
I froze. What if it was a visual puzzle? What if there was a hint hidden in the shapes of the paths?
For days I sat down, drew points and lines and connections, warping them into surreal shapes. This was crazy, wasn’t it? How’d it be visual? There’s probably not a damn thing to be got from this. This was stupid. Yet, I couldn’t stop. Each day, I spent my entire afternoon, my evening, and even half the night, drawing. And eventually, it all came to nothing. There was nothing but mad lines and not a clear shape in sight.
I didn’t give up though, wasn’t discouraged. I was beyond that, far beyond that. What if there was something else? Maybe there was a hidden code between these pages?
When I was at work, I’d completely forgotten about my former vow not to talk about the book or do anything related to it. Instead, I read up on cryptography. Going through article after article. I read up on Caesar Code and Binary Code, on the Polybius Cipher and Hex Code. I went mad with it. Before long I spent more time reading up on things than doing any of my work. Eventually, I even brought pages filled with numbers with me, cross-checking them for hits of any and all codes.
I heard co-workers whispering behind my back, asking me what I was doing and I told them, I just hadn’t closed the weird articles after break time.
They knew it wasn’t the truth. They’d heard me mumble, saw the little notebook I was writing in, noticed the endless lists of numbers I brought with me each day.
My superior eventually came up to me. He asked me what I was doing with all those weird pages. I told him it was nothing but a little puzzle.
“Well, Todd,” he started in a condescending voice. “You’re not here to do any of those ‘little puzzles’, you’re here to do your damn job. Where are the calculations for this month? I’ve been waiting for them all day.”
“Oh, I guess, I’m almost done with them, I just need another hour or-“
My voice trailed off when he picked up one of the pages I’d been looking at mere minutes ago. Suddenly, when I saw him holding it, I felt nervous.
“What even is this? It’s just random numbers.”
He saw my face, saw the way my eyes grew wide when he’d picked it up. The hint of a smile washed over his face as he crumbled it up.
He opened his mouth for another remark, but before he could I jumped up from my chair and ripped the page from his hand. He cringed back a step in shock at my reaction.
“The hell’s wrong with you?” he screamed at me, but I didn’t listen. Instead, I carefully smoothed out the paper and made sure he hadn’t torn it apart.
By now half the office had gotten up to watch the weird exchange. Only now did I realize what I’d done and how everyone was staring at me.
Suddenly I felt very watched and almost sunk back into my chair.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” I mumbled but broke up under the pressure of all those eyes.
“Get back to work and finish those damned calculations! If I see you tinkering with any of this shit again, you can clean out your desk!”
With that, he stormed off. I heard people whispering all around me, some laughing, others speaking in a more reserved tone.
Yep, I thought, it’s official. I’m the office nutjob.
Right away, I forced myself to close all the Wikipedia articles I had still open and put away all my notes. And then, grudgingly, annoyed and half-mad at the distraction it represented, I went back to work. Somehow though, it felt meaningless, calculating all these stupid orders and filling out this customer database. What the hell was I even doing? What if it really was a code? What if it was actually a mixture, a double-code? My mind went wild with ideas. Five minutes later, I found myself holding one of my notes again. I couldn’t even remember taking it out.
Pushing it back, cursing, and not a little afraid, I forced myself to work calculations until the day was over. At the moment my shift ended, I jumped off my chair and rushed for the door. People stared at me, looked after me, their faces a mixture of amusement and worry.
I didn’t care. I had work to do. The important kind of work!
I’d just tried to find another connection between the page numbers of the secret pages when my doorbell rang. I ignored it, but it just kept ringing. When it finally stopped, I sighed in relief. Just leave me alone, I cursed, I’ve got work to do.
Then, mere moments later, my phone vibrated on the other end of the room. Dammit, I’d forgotten to mute it again. I waited for it to stop, but it started up right away. Cursing I went over to see who it was and noticed the name instantly.
It was my friend Andrew. Annoyed, I answered it.
“Yo, Todd, you home?” I heard his voice from the phone next to my ear and more distant, muffled from the front door.
My first reaction was one of annoyance. Then I pushed the thought away. What the hell was wrong with me? This was Andrew. He was my best friend, the only one of our old group who still lived in the same city. Right away, I thought about how long I’d last seen him. Surprised I realized that it must’ve been weeks. One glance at the mad mess in my living room told me why.
“Yeah, sure hold on,” I said over the phone and made my way to the front door.
Andrew smiled at me brightly and held up to six-packs.
“Haven’t seen you in forever, how about we have a few! I got quite the story for you, my man!”
I smiled at him. “Sure, come on in.”
We made our way inside and Andrew had barely set foot into my living room when he stopped. His eyes grew wide as he stared at the wall and the stacks of paper all over the place.
“Holy shit man. I was wondering why I haven’t heard from you. The hell’s all that? You working on some sort of project?”
“Kind of,” I mumbled a little embarrassed.
I quickly picked up the papers on the couch and put them aside to make room for him to sit.
“Sorry about the mess.”
“Nah man, it’s all right. So, the thing I was about to tell you, you remember Thomas, right?”
Thomas, I thought. Did I know a Thomas? Then I remembered him. Of course, I remembered him, he’d been part of our group. I rubbed my temples for a second before I nodded.
“He’s getting married and you won’t believe who the lucky girl is!”
With that, Andrew told me the entire story of how our friend Thomas had been dating Susan, Andrew’s cousin for the past three months, and the two of them had decided to get married. I listened, nodded here and there, even laughed a few times absentmindedly, but my eyes wandered to my notes again and again.
For a moment I spaced out entirely, thinking about an idea that had popped into my mind just before he’d arrived. What if there was something about number sequences? I must’ve sat there for an entire minute, simply holding my beer and staring off at nothing when Andrew waved his hand in front of my face.
“Yo, dude, you listening?”
“What? Oh, sorry, no, I think I spaced out for a moment.”
“All right, man, I got to ask, what’s all this? What sort of crazy thing are you working on? Haven’t seen you this into something in years.”
I smiled at him awkwardly and then sighed and pointed at the book.
“It’s one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books,” I started.
With that, the flood gates broke open, and I told him all about it.
He listened, at first curiously, but after a while, his face changed. There was visible concern, as I rambled on about secret pages, strange objects, and cryptography.
“Todd, hold on, hold on, what the hell are you even talking about?”
I stared at him.
“The book. You know those secret pages must’ve some sort of meaning. At first, I thought there was a simple order to them, but it was too chaotic. If you add up all their page numbers though, you get 20670, and if you divided this up by-“
“All right, man, stop,” he cut me off. “So you’re adding up all those numbers, I get that, but for what?”
I began explaining again, I tried, but he couldn’t follow me.
“Yeah, I don’t get it, man. Just, what the fuck?”
“All right, look,” I said and walked over to the wall covered in lines and numbers and started once more.
I told him about the different adventure paths, the references, the secret pages, and when and how they appeared.
His face was blank as I rambled on and on and on.
“Yo, dude, you might want to take a bit of a break, this sounds, well, a bit crazy.”
For a moment I was quiet, then a short, nervous laugh escaped me.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He stepped up next to me, staring at the wall.
“Shit man, you did all this? Just for a damned book?”
Before I could answer, he reached out and was about to take one of the pages off the wall. My hand shot forward instinctively, batting his aside.
“Don’t touch it!” I called out before I realized what I’d done.
Andrew stumbled back a few steps, shocked. “Shit man, sorry, I didn’t mean to-“
And then it happened. I didn’t even listen to his words anymore as he bumped against some of the stacks of notes I’d placed neatly in front of the wall. They toppled over one another, the pages scattering all over the floor and intermixing.
My eyes grew wide. Oh god, no, freaking god no. Anger rose in me. It had taken me so goddamn long to sort them all out, to order them. There was a freaking method to it all and now he’d destroyed it. He’d destroyed the work of entire fucking days!
“What the fuck are you doing?” I screamed at him.
He cringed back, only now realizing what had happened.
“Hey, didn’t mean to,” he said and began picking up random pages.
I ripped them from his hand and pushed him back. “No, don’t fucking touch them. Those two don’t belong together you idiot! Are you freaking insane?!”
With an empty face, he watched as I gathered up some of the pages, stared at them, and began sorting them as best as I could.
“You know, Todd, that’s what I should ask you.”
“What the hell do you mean?” I snapped at him. “You destroyed the work of days! Days! This is-“
“This is what, man?” he cut me off once more. “It’s nonsense. It’s a freaking children’s book, nothing else.”
That did the trick. I got up and stepped up right in front of him.
“Nonsense? You’ve got no FUCKING idea, how far I’ve come! You’ve got no clue what’ve done already! And here you are telling me this is NONSENSE?”
His face had grown hard. For a second he was about to say something, but then he simply shook his head and laughed. Without another word, he picked up his things, the beer, and left.
If he said any words in parting, I didn’t hear them. I was already busy re-ordering my notes.
It was hours later, when I was done sorting them all out, that I realized what I’d done and how I’d acted.
For the first time, I grew truly scared.
That hadn’t been normal. That wasn’t me. Why’d I gone crazy like this?
I took first one step back from the wall, then another before I went to pick up my phone. When I tried to call Andrew, he didn’t pick up. Instead, the call went straight to voice mail. Then I saw how late it was, long past three in the morning.
I wrote him a quick message, apologized for my behavior, and told him he was right. I should take a break from this entire thing.
That’s what I did right away. I picked up my laptop, made my way to the bedroom, and this time I turned off the light without looking over my shoulder.
I lay down on my bed and started browsing YouTube and told myself to just enjoy it and take a break.
Yet, even as I watched video after video, the little voice in the back of my head spoke up again. It told me I should go on, told me to go back to the living room.
You almost had it, Todd, you almost had it. Just one more hint and you’re done with it. Then you can let it go and you can-
“Shut up, goddamnit!” I screamed at myself to quiet the subconscious voice in the back of my head.
“I freaking know,” I said quieter. “God, I freaking know.”
I sat in bed, the video that was playing already forgotten. As video, after video played, I was on my phone, checking stars and numbers before I eventually drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I didn’t even get to make myself a coffee. I was mad, pissed off and I wanted to finally make progress. For a while, I tinkered about the various codes I’d read about. What if there was a code, but what but if it concerned the entire book and not just the secret pages? What if it was related to the adventure after all? Maybe you could scramble up page numbers and-
I stopped and rubbed my temples. Calm down, don’t go crazy. Calm down and take a step back. You don’t even know if there are any damned codes hidden in the book. You did well deciphering all the different adventure paths and the connections between them. You did well discovering all the secret pages. But what if there’s something you haven’t discovered yet?
That was the question that told me what I had to do. Something I hadn’t dared to do so far.
I had to go through the entire book.
I had to make my way through it not following the adventure, but going page by page and look out for anything new. There might be chapters I hadn’t discovered yet, hadn’t read yet.
With newfound energy and a new plan, I started right away.
My phone rang shortly after noon, but this time, I didn’t even bother with it. I just ignored it. After all, I had more important things to do.
This time I didn’t just write down chapters, choices, and connections. This time I wrote down every single thing that came up. I took note of every single object that was mentioned then added the page number, the corresponding path, and any reference I knew about it.
It was a momentous task. I spent the entire day doing it and barely made it through the first 130 pages.
The next day, Sunday, I didn’t even finish another hundred. The further I came, the more objects I noticed, the more combinations, and references. At times, I even had to go back, to cross-check things, and to change notes accordingly.
It was the most enduring task I’d ever attempted, concerning this damned book and probably my entire life.
It took me weeks. I finished stacks upon stacks of notes. I went to the office supply store multiple times a week buying stacks of papers I ended up filling by the day.
Work during this time was barely an afterthought. I was barely functioning at all. I was typing in numbers and names almost on autopilot. By now I didn’t even get stares anymore. I was entirely ignored, a shell of a man, a ghost that stumbled to his cubicle in the morning and rushed back home in the evening.
Days went by, then weeks, as I slaved away over the book’s many pages. Until one day, when I was finally done. I can’t even say how many weeks I’d been at it.
There were stacks of hundreds of papers, maybe even more. Notes, references, objects, names, words, anything basically.
I’d just created a table of how often each and every single object appeared and in which setting when I noticed a new hint. I stared at it with a giant grin on my face.
The Ruby Orb had been the very first object I’d added to the table.
It appeared in all paths:
- Fantasy – 31 times
- Space – 3 times
- Stone Age – 2 times
- Ocean and Pirates – 11 times
- Desert Ruins – 29 times
- Mountains – 17 times
- City-State – 7 times
- Ancient Rome – 5 times
- Jungle Tribes – 13 times
- Small Village – 19 times
- Underwater Civilization – 23 times
As I wrote those numbers down, there was something about them. Somehow I knew those numbers. I went over them, staring at them for a while before it hit me.
I cross-checked it online, and I was right. They were all prime numbers! Yes, I thought, I’d found something new!
I quickly rechecked another object, the Desert Orb, and realized it was the same here, too. This one’s appearances made up a simpler sequence. It only appeared once in the city-state, twice in fantasy, and finally 11 times in the desert ruins.
I couldn’t help but grin. I did it for another object, this one the Ebony Stick. It too appeared in all paths and its number was increased by two, starting at 4 and going up to 26.
That’s when I knew what I had to do. I had to go through all the objects, all the hundreds of objects in the damned book, and check how often they appeared. There was a correlation, another part of the puzzle. I was exhilarated, in a state of glee and unbound excitement.
These number sequences, maybe they were the key to figuring out what the secret pages meant, or maybe the page numbers in general. I started laughing. I could feel it, I was so damn close.
I slept when necessary, ate when necessary, right there on the living room floor. It was only once that I thought about work, only in passing, and the idea that I should go never even came to my mind.
My phone was at the other and of the room. I ignored it entirely during that time. It wasn’t important. This right here, that’s what was important.
I was done by the end of the week. It was long past midnight on Saturday when I’d finally deciphered the number sequences of all 311 objects in the book.
When I was done with my work, I looked at the tables of objects in a state of awe. I spread them out in front of me and marveled at the dozen or so pages. For a moment I was about to dive into them when I realized how tired I was.
For the first time since the beginning of the week, I picked up my phone. It was off, must’ve been for days. I connected it to the charger and turned it on. I was bombarded with a plethora of notifications. For almost a minute the damned thing started ringing and vibrating.
There were a few messages from Andrew, asking how I was doing and if I’d stopped with my damned obsession yet. I laughed and closed the chat.
I’d also received countless emails. Most of them were from work and only now did I remember that I hadn’t shown up for an entire week. They started normal enough, reminding me to call if I was sick, became reproachful after a day or two, and finally angry. The last one told me this was the last straw. I should come in on Monday for a talk and be prepared to clean out my desk.
It was strange how little I felt about it, how little it mattered in the grander scale of things. I almost laughed again as I threw the phone aside and laid down to catch some sleep.
When I woke up, I went right back to work. I tinkered with the number sequences, looked at each one of them, added them up, multiplied, and divided them.
It was the Crown of Ice that finally made me look up. When I added all its appearances together, I came to a total of 1000. This damned thing, I thought, it was by far the most common object in the damned book.
I started to read up on it in my notes. It was said in the Manuscript of the Seven Seas, that the Crown of Ice was found in the Crypt of the Dragon. The Crypt of the Dragon was located in the desert ruins.
I went back to it, page 1544, and read the part again. There were three choices. One sent me to leave without the crown and sent me back to a desert tribe. Destroying the crown ended in painful death while the third option was wearing it.
All right, wearing the crown opened a secret passage that sent me to the location of the Magic Water and from there back on my way through the desert.
Dammit, I thought I had something! I was about to go back to the list. Maybe the number thousand was another coincidence.
Then something made me look up. The crown appeared in the desert ruins a total of 53 times. I thought about it. The desert ruins one was by far the shortest path. How long was it in total again?
I stepped up to my living room wall and counted the chapters. When I followed them, there was only a single path that was longer than 50. It came to a total length of 78 chapters before it started from the beginning.
Chapter 53 described what you found if you opened a chest hidden in the Ancient Pyramid.
I read the entire chapter again. It was titled ‘The Treasure Chest.’ There was a total of 289 gold coins in the chest. When I went back to the list of objects, I noticed that the gold coin was mentioned a total of 289 times. The same was true for the sparkling diamonds. There were a total of 33 in the chest and the object itself came up 33 times in the book.
I almost laughed when I noticed that it was true for the third object in the chest as well.
I got an empty page and like a child, I wrote the words Chest, Pyramid, and Treasure in huge letters at the top of it before I went and added all the two dozen objects in the chest.
While I did it, I wondered if there was something like this for every other object in the book. What if every object’s number of appearances was mentioned somewhere in the book? Not just in this chest, but just somewhere.
And then, on a whim, I asked myself another question. What if certain objects didn’t? What if there were just a few or maybe just one whose number was mentioned nowhere? Maybe those were the important ones!
For the entirety of Sunday, I followed through with this idea. I calculated, I added objects to yet more lists, I followed through paths and loops, studied my notes, and slowly, the number of objects remaining got smaller and smaller.
Eventually, just as I’d hoped, there was a single object whose total number of appearances was mentioned nowhere. It was a small, red die. One that was mentioned here and there, only in passing when people played a game of dice in bars or the streets.
There had to be something to this damned thing, I knew it! After this entire week, no after all these entire months, I finally had something, I’d finally narrowed it all down to a single object.
A shiver went down my spine when I realized that this might be it. This might be the solution that I’d been searching for all this time!
I went back to my notes about the red die and all its appearances. Here a few kids were playing with it in the streets, there was someone holding it in their hand, and here it rolled onto the floor when a fight broke out.
Finally, I found what I’d been looking for. There was only a single instance in the entire book where you could interact with it. It was in a bar in space where you could join a futuristic game of dice.
When the game was done, you could pocket the red die.
The short chapter that followed it was mundane and almost unimportant. But when I read it, I noticed something else, not in the text, but the choices below. Weren’t they the same as in the chapter before?
I went back to the preceding page and reread it. Yes, the same two choices, sending you to the same two pages. Almost as if picking up the die didn’t matter at all. Making it appear as nothing but a red herring.
And I grinned. I grinned wider than I had ever before.
There had to be a hint here, no, there had to be a way of finishing this entire damn thing.
I wrote down the entire paragraph and went back to work, studying it. I checked everything that was mentioned in it: the page number, the chapter title, colors, words, anything I could think of. Until late in the morning hours, I pondered over this one, single paragraph.
I could barely keep my eyes open when I stumbled upon it. It was silly, but I exploded with joy and was suddenly wide awake again.
The number of words in each sentence was eight. The number of sentences was eight as well. There were eight sentences here, with eight words each. This was no coincidence. This was it, the total number of words was 64, the square number of eight. There was too much here for it to be a coincidence.
I rushed back to the buck, almost stumbled over my feet, and threw open page 64. Like a crazed, starved animal I poured over the words on the page, almost pressing my face against it. The chapters, there had to be something here, the solution had to be right in front of me.
Yet when I was done reading it, I was dumbfounded. The entire page comprised a single chapter, a chapter I knew damn well. And I realized that I knew the number 64 damn well, too.
I was at the beginning of the fantasy setting. I read once more that I was a young farmer, standing in front of a burned down far, the bodies of his dead parents next to him and that I was about to set out on a grand adventure.
For the next three hours, I analyzed every single word in the paragraph, every single one and I found as many hints as I could search for. I went back to the die paragraph and slowly I came to another conclusion and then another. The number of certain letters corresponded with the number of other objects in the space path. If you put certain letters from certain words together you ended up with yet another number. I followed every single one of them, but each one ended at another mundane position in the book. I slaved away over those as well, reached and analyzed them and I found more hints, more connections, more clues. And the longer and the more deeply I analyzed them, the more I could find, if only I wanted to. There was almost an endless number of nonsensical clues and hints if you wanted so. They were all leading me on, leading me around in a circle, on and on and on and on.
And I sat there, over the damned book, over hundreds, if not thousands of pages of notes. I sat in front of an entire wall covered in information and I laughed. For long, terrible minutes I couldn’t stop laughing.
This was all crazy. This was all entirely and utterly crazy.
And finally, it clicked. At this singular moment it finally and ultimately clicked.
There was no solution. The book had no solution. It finally made sense.
I’d slaved away for weeks, no for months, and all I’d done was to walk in circles, continue from one hint to another, only to be sent back to the beginning. The entire damned book was a loop, a loop of loops with secret loops that sent you to more secret loops.
And then, for the first time in months, I closed the book and put it away.
After that, I slowly went and took down all the mad pages from my wall, stacked up all the notes, and put them together in a box in an almost apathetic state.
I was done.
All of this had been utterly meaningless, a fundamental waste of time.
That night, I didn’t sleep. I lay in bed, contemplating a lot of things. My life, my work, the book, and why I’d been so taken by it. Yet, as with the book, there was no solution. There was nothing to it all.
The next day, with the book in my backpack, I made my way back to the store.
It felt as heavy as the world, an endless number of possibilities all resting on my back.
I knew I had to return it, I had to get rid of it before it might throw me into another crazy fit.
When I entered the store, the old man looked up.
“Can I help you with,” he started but broke up, a surprised look on his face.
“Well hello there, young man. Haven’t seen you in quite a while.”
I only nodded, took down my backpack, heaved out the book, and brought it to a rest in front of him.
“I’d like to return this.”
The old man probed me for a moment.
“We’ve got a no-money-back policy,” he said and pointed at a small, almost illegible sign behind himself.
“Yeah, that’s fine, I just want to get rid of it. I’m done with it.”
“So, you got your reward then?”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “Guess so.”
“What was it?” the old man asked curiously.
“It’s meaningless, there’s no end to it. It just goes on forever.”
“Oh,” he mouthed with an expression of surprise.
“You ever tried it yourself, old man?”
“Did once, when I was younger, but I got nowhere. Was too damned hard for me.”
“There’s one thing I’m wondering about. Who the hell wrote a thing like this? I mean, it’s freaking insane. How’d’you ever write something like this?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, there’s something I didn’t tell you when you first came in. I originally bought the book from a street merchant, half a century ago. He told me a few things, and I learned a few more over the years from other people.”
“There’s nothing but rumors of course. The merchant told me it was written by the Devil himself. Then someone told me it was supposedly written by Machiavelli back in the day, to confuse a man who’d wronged him and drive him mad. There was also a guy who was convinced it was the work of aliens. The most plausible thing I heard is that there’s no single author, but that it was written over the course of centuries, with each new writer adding to it and extending it, making it better and ever more complicated.”
“Heh, sounds about-“ I started, but the old man raised a hand and pushed his head forward, towards me.
“There’s one more. Someone else told me it was written by no other than God himself as a big, giant joke about our earthly existence itself.”
I laughed, but it was a weak laugh. Nothing but a giant joke, that fit it damn well, didn’t it?
And as I stepped out of the store and stared at the city surrounding me, watching the urban bustle, I began thinking.
People were hurrying past me, on their way to work, cars and buses rushed down the streets. As I watched it all, this ever-repeating bustle of civilization, I realized that it was all another never-ending loop. On and on and on we all went, doing the same thing over and over and over again.
And as I walked on I started laughing. Maybe that was all right and maybe it didn’t matter. Who knows, maybe the book was true.
Maybe all of this, all of life, all of existence, just like the damned book, was nothing but God’s big, giant joke.