Ser Robert sighed heavily, rubbing his eyes in a vain attempt to clear the sleep from his mind. It had been three days since he had slept, and the lack of sleep was beginning to impair him, even with the help of the Tao. Of course, it had been much longer than that since he had truly gotten rest. He thought back to the first he had learned of Idriys’s plot; four months ago, a short, lanky man had approached him by night, and had asked him how much he would pay for information concerning a plot against the King. The man’s face was shrouded by a deep veil, but there was something… familiar about him, all the same.
Ser Robert had informed him that the Crown was not in the habit of paying for information, and that if the man was aware of such a plot and did not step forward, he would be considered an accomplice and could be punished as though he had committed the deed. The man balked and complained, but finally gave in when Ser Robert threatened to have him arrested and brought before the Truthsayers. The man said that he had evidence implicating the High Physician in a scheme to sell the Kingdom to the Chimerae. Ser Robert had laughed in his face, and told him that if he spread any more lies about the High Physician, he would personally see to it that he spent the night in a prison cell until he learned to keep a sensible tongue in his head. However, the man persisted, and even Ser Robert had to admit that the evidence he had was compelling.
Even so, Ser Robert had hoped to give his old friend a chance to set aside his plot before he dug himself too deep. Yet, when it became known that Idriys was acting in concert with the Eagle, and stealing Tao from the King’s storehouse to keep the Eagle’s stockpile full, Robert had no choice. He brought the matter before the King, and it was decided that they would keep watch on Idriys and the Eagle to find out what their goals were. Perhaps, if things went well, they could even use this turn of events to catch the Chimerae off guard, and turn the tides of war definitively in their favor. And so it was that Ser Robert found himself following his three old friends north, to the Chanti River, for their meeting with the deplorable Chimera.
Ser Robert sighed again, and turned back to Idriys’s journal. The knight had been slowly reading through the entries from the last two years, hoping to understand Idriys’s motivations for betrayal – it was so unlike the man he knew at Tao’lin! After the initial two entries, Idriys wrote of several more unexplained deaths, all slightly different, but somehow all connected to a mysterious strain of Tao that always seemed to vanish before Idriys could obtain any. Ser Robert turned the page, and read:
15 Dorde 535. A man came into my clinic today, and asked to speak with me privately. He was large and stocky, and wore a deep hooded cloak. He had a low, deep voice; when I asked him as to the matter he wished to discuss with me, he glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching, and then leaned in close. “I have some information regarding certain unexplainable… events that you may have witnessed recently,” he said.
I grasped his meaning instantly; I told him to wait there and that I would return shortly. I then went into our back room and informed the nurses there that an emergency had arisen, that I must cancel my remaining appointments for the day, and that I was not to be disturbed. They questioned my reasoning, and asked if I would require any assistance in dealing with the emergency, and were exceedingly put out when I instructed them (quite rudely, I imagine) to get the hell out of my clinic and stop asking so many questions.
I then led the mysterious man into the back room, and told him that he had better start talking. “Not so fast, man,” he said with a chuckle. “When participating in underhanded dealings such as these, you get nothing for free.”
I said nothing, waiting for him to continue, but he seemed quite content to just sit there, waiting. I used the opportunity to study his face more closely; I was not going to be intimidated by him. He had cold, hard eyes, and deep lines on his chiseled face. A jagged scar ran from the corner of his lip all the way down underneath his chin.
I sat like that for nearly five minutes, me glowering at him, a faint smile playing around the corners of his eyes. Finally, annoyed, I said, “What do you want?”
“Good man,” he responded jovially. “I thought you’d never ask!”
I continued glowering, and motioned for him to get on with it. I had not shut down my clinic to be upbraided by an insolent turnkey.
“You have, I believe, access to the White King’s own private stockpile of Tao,” the man said, expression finally growing serious. “I want access, too.”
“Out of the question,” I snapped. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing at, but I will not compromise my integrity or steal from the White King for it. You may now leave my clinic.”
“What if I told you,” he said, “that the White King was involved?”
“What if I told you to get out before I have you arrested?”
“Fine, fine, I’m leaving,” the man said. “But you might want to take a look at this.” He handed me a small white envelope. I looked at it suspiciously.
“What is this?” I asked, on guard for a trap. “Some kind of joke?”
“No, no joke,” he replied. “Just some Tao leaves that you might find interesting. Why don’t you take a look, and let me know if you decide to reconsider our deal. You can find me most nights at the Coach and Wagon.”
When the mysterious man left, I sat down at my desk and turned the envelope over and over in my hands. I lit a candle on my desk, and prepared to burn the envelope to ashes, but something stayed my hand. It couldn’t hurt to at least open it, and see what was inside. I took a letter opener and sliced it open carefully. Inside, just as the man said, were four Tao leaves. I pulled them out and looked at them, puzzled.
Have I found my missing Tao? Where did this man get it from, and why does he want me to steal more from the White King’s storerooms? Tomorrow I shall study this more carefully.
16 Dorde 535. By the gods! I have seen this Tao before, at Tao’lin, the night that Evelyn Diamadre was killed! It is not identical, to be sure, but the basic structure appears to be the same. Where did this come from? Is it the same that is causing the rash of deaths around the city? I dare not try it myself for fear of the outcome, but I see no means of determining anything else about it without it being ingested.
18 Dorde 535. I have found a partial solution to my dilemma, but no answers to my questions. I have carefully captured and caged a number of small mice, and then injected them with a solution of Tao and water. So far, there has been no response to the injection, aside from the normal symptoms of Tao-sickness (I find it odd, as an aside, that animals appear to suffer from Tao-sickness in the same manner that humans do. Does this mean that there are animal Warlocks? That is to say, animals who can delay the effects of Tao-sickness and tap into the enormous power contained within the Tao leaf? Perhaps this is something I shall investigate further, once this present matter is resolved).
19 Dorde 535. Still no unusual response to the Tao from the mice, even after eighteen hours of observation. I have prepared another solution, this time less dilute. I will try a second injection tomorrow.
20 Dorde 535. I am beginning to become discouraged with my lack of progress in this matter. The mice show no response to the Tao solution, beyond the normal symptoms of Tao-sickness. Perhaps the man who came to me in the clinic was simply crazy? Or, a more insidious thought has just occurred to me; perhaps he knows something of the cause of these deaths, and is trying to throw me off the trail. Yet then why would he ask me to meet him at the Coach and Wagon? Perhaps it is a trap, where he will kidnap or rob or murder me? That makes little sense – the man had ample opportunity for such ploys when he was with me in the clinic (it now occurs to me that allowing myself to be alone in his presence was perhaps less than wise. I need to get to the bottom of this matter; my brain is slowly fraying).
I have two leaves remaining, and I am unsure of what to do with them. Perhaps I will simply burn them so that they do not fall into improper hands.
23 Dorde 535. Today there was another unexplained death. The individual appeared in a clinic on the far side of the city, and simply fell over dead, exactly as in the other cases. It is clear that whatever is causing this is slowly spreading; it has been nearly five months since the first case appeared in my clinic, and this case today is the furthest away that has yet been reported. In fact…
Aha! Here is another piece of the puzzle, though I do not yet understand how it connects. Since writing my previous paragraph, I have plotted the locations of the unexplained deaths. Whatever it is is spreading! The plotted points can be interpolated into an expanding, roughly circular border, whose epicenter is my personal clinic, or something very nearby.
Or perhaps the epicenter is the White King’s stronghold; it is just a few blocks from my clinic, after all. The stranger mentioned something about the White King being involved – such a claim is, of course, absurd but perhaps one of the many people in his service is involved.
On the other hand, the pattern of the spread almost suggests that whatever is causing this is an unusual disease that is slowly spreading through the city; there many city castes intermingle relatively little, which could act as a sort of natural quarantine, and if most people are resistant or immune, it could explain why so few people have been affected.
In fact, this line of reasoning leads me to another question. Is it possible that many more people are affected than are killed? It could be some kind of strange flu virus, perhaps – many are affected, but most are unimpaired. Some, for whatever reasons, are significantly more susceptible to the disease – so susceptible, in fact, that the disease is fatal for those few. I have been unable to find any commonality between the affected cases that would indicate why they are affected more strongly, but there may be something I am missing. I must think on this further, and perhaps send a notice to the various clinics and hospitals around the city (especially those within the contaminated area, as well as those who are likely to be within the affected region soon) to keep an eye out for any citizens reporting strange or unusual symptoms.
25 Dorde 535. Today I made my first significant breakthrough on this case! Somehow, the Tao that the stranger gave me is connected to the matter after all. On a whim, I brewed another mixture of the Tao solution I have been injecting the mice with, and gave them a third dose. As before, they began to suffer Tao-sickness. At this point, I immediately killed half of them and performed an autopsy on them; the other half remained alive as a control group.
Somehow, even though the mice were in the very midst of the Tao-fever, not a single mouse that I examined had even the slightest detectable trace of Tao in its bloodstream! I immediately went to my private stash of Tao and formed a solution with one of the leaves there. After waiting for several hours to ensure that my control group had fully recovered, I injected two of the remaining mice with this mixture and performed autopsies to ensure that my instruments were correctly calibrated. They were. The readings were incredibly high, so high in fact that the mice should have been killed by the amount I was injecting into them.
So. This is the mysterious strain of Tao that has been implicated in so many of these unexplained deaths. But why did the mice not die when they were injected? Is there something about their physiology that makes them immune to the deadly effects of the leaf? Or is some other factor at play here?
In any event, it appears that I will be visiting the Coach and Wagon to pay my stranger friend a visit.