Cameron miserably curled up in his cell. The last several days had been miserable – possibly the worst days of his life. He was now sure that he was suffering from some form of hallucinations, probably induced by the Truthsayer, Baltasar. That didn’t make him feel any better when they came upon him. There were times he wasn’t even sure if he was still alive, or if he had died and been escorted to the nine hells by his own personal demon named Baltasar. The one thing he did know for sure was that he was still in a cage. And it was driving him insane.
Rhys was his ever-present companion now, taunting him regardless of whether he was awake or asleep. He had gone from just a voice in his head to a full-fledged simulacrum that mirrored his every step in a surprisingly realistic fashion. Every few hours or so (Cameron could barely keep track of time anymore), Baltasar marched him back in front of the White King, who was becoming increasingly frustrated with Baltasar’s inability to determine any useful information from Cameron. Rhys accompanied Cameron on these journeys, and sat with a smug expression on his face while Baltasar dredged deeper and deeper through Cameron’s mind.
However, Cameron remained strong. He wasn’t sure how he did it – he’d read of the Truthsayers before, and knew that far weaker men than him had succumbed to their powers. Something inside of him fought to keep his friends safe; he didn’t know all of their plans, but he knew enough. Soon it wouldn’t matter anymore – if he could just hold out a little longer. Soon, it would all be over.
“Where are the Eagle and the Physician?” shouted Baltasar. Cameron was back in front of the White King, strapped down to a long wooden table, and Baltasar was forcing his way into Cameron’s mind. It was not a pleasant feeling. Cameron made no response.
“What are they planning to do?” Baltasar shouted again. Again, Cameron remained silent. He could feel Baltasar’s fingers inside his head, grasping for that secret place, the place that he could not be allowed to enter. Cameron steeled himself.
“Where are the Chimerae? When are they planning to attack?” Unfortunately, Cameron had been unable to keep that little detail secret. He knew the Chimerae were coming, were planning a powerful offensive against the White King, and he had let that tidbit slip early on in his torture sessions, before he’d learned how to blockade his mind.
It was ironic, really; he felt the most sane now when someone else was pushing into his head, making a mess of all the thoughts and memories contained therein. To escape from Baltasar’s grasp, Cameron forced himself back in Rhys’s box; he imagined the scorpions crawling on him as the box lid slammed shut, and every painful prod and jab from Baltasar he pretended was just another scorpion sting. After all, what was another one, after he’d already been stung so many times in his life?
“Where are they?” Baltasar yelled again. Sting.
“What are they doing? When are they coming?” Sting. Sting.
“Why did you betray the White King?” Sting.
“WHY WON’T YOU TELL ME ANYTHING???” Cameron awoke with a jolt; somehow, Baltasar had been ejected from his mind. Baltasar’s face was a mere inches from his own, and both hands were pressed deeply into Cameron’s temples, as though they could physically reach into Cameron’s mind and break down the walls that he had erected there. Baltasar’s expression was contorted with rage and frustration. It looked to Cameron as though the veins in his neck might burst with the force of the blood pumping through them; Cameron could physically see the other man’s pulse.
“That is enough,” the White King said. “Baltasar, you may step away from him.” It was not a suggestion.
Cameron lay on the wooden table to which he was strapped, panting with exertion. He didn’t know what had happened, but he was hoping against hope that perhaps it was over. The White King would just kill him now, and all this would end. Unfortunately, that was not in the White King’s designs for Cameron. Not yet.
The White King got up from his throne, and strode over to Cameron, peering down into his face. Cameron tried to muster up the energy to spit at the White King, but all that happened was a faint drool of saliva trickled down his cheek. There must have been a flash of defiance in Cameron’s eyes, however, because the White King flinched back ever so slightly. It was nearly imperceptible, but nonetheless, Cameron saw it, and it gave him hope. The White King was not unbeatable; he was not invincible, despite what he had done to his citizens.
“You are very brave,” the White King said. “There are few who could withstand the full force of our Truthsayer’s questioning. You must love your friends very much.”
Cameron nodded slightly. That much was no secret by now.
“Perhaps,” said the White King, “it is time to try something new with you, Cameron.”
Cameron tensed; what new tortures did the White King have in store for him?
The White King pulled out a small pouch from a nearly-invisible pocket in his robes, and opened it, holding it under Cameron’s nose. “Breathe deeply,” he said to Cameron. Cameron took a short, hesitant sniff – Tao! What madness was this?
“Such a strange plant, isn’t it, Cameron?” the White King continued. “So much power contained in such a common plant. Did you know, Cameron, that hundreds of years ago, before the Awakening, Tao was considered a weed? A weed. Think of it – all those plants, being uprooted and burned by farmers trying to make a living growing something more beneficial.” The King gave a short chuckle. “If only they knew…”
Cameron was confused. Why was the White King telling him this? He was sure it was not just a history lesson.
“I wonder if any of them did know,” the White King continued. “Sometimes I think that some of them must have known that it was powerful, but somehow they were unable to tap into that power, sort of like ants might be aware of fire, but completely unable to comprehend how it works or how they might use it.” A dreamy, vacant look entered the King’s eyes, as though he himself was an ancient farmer, or perhaps an ant, puzzling over mysteries far too great for him. Cameron waited patiently, wondering where this was going.
“In fact, I believe that some of the peasants knew exactly what was in this little plant.” The White King pulled out one of the leaves from the pouch, and began turning it over in his fingers absent-mindedly. “I believe that some of them, perhaps inadvertently, caused the Awakening. They made us who we are today; they made us masters of Tao! But only some of us, Cameron. Only some of us. Not you, Cameron, nor I…”
The White King continued talking, changing subjects unexpectedly. “Did you ever wonder where the Chimerae came from, Cameron?” He paused, as though expecting an answer. Cameron shook his head slightly. The White King pretended not to have seen him, said, “I am going to tell you. I made them. I made them, Cameron!”
Cameron betrayed no surprise at the White King’s revelation. Idriys had suspected that such a thing might be true, but he was unable to prove it. However, his explanation to Cameron had seemed plausible.
“I wanted to make a creature who could use the Tao,” the White King continued. “I could not use it myself, but if I had subjects that could, subjects that I would be able to control absolutely, that would be nearly as good. So I commissioned my best Warlocks to discover how to make a being from Tao. How to draw pure life out of this thin, dry weed. And they succeeded! The Chimera are my children, and I am their Father.
“But, like all children must, they rebelled against me. The spirit of Tao within them could not stand to be yoked to me, and as with one mind, they turned on me. They would have killed me, had not my Warlocks intervened. They drove the Chimerae out of our lands, tried to banish them forever, but they failed. The Chimerae changed; they adapted; and they found a way back into my Kingdom, and they began slaughtering my citizens, seeking their revenge against me for enslaving them.
“This war we have been fighting, Cameron? It is my fault.” At that moment, the White King looked old, older than any man Cameron had ever seen before, as though thousands of years of pain and agony had permanently etched their way into the King’s face.
“So for many years, I fought against the Chimerae, ashamed of what I had done. But I could not defeat them, not even with all the might of my reavers.
“But then, a stroke of luck came – in large part, thanks to your friend, Josiah, and his strange Tao variant. My Warlocks had spent many long, fruitless years studying it, after the unfortunate events at Tao’lin sixteen years ago. It was clear that somehow, it had many strange, unnatural properties, that even Josiah himself must have been unaware of. It had the power to transport the user great distances; and, as Josiah was aware, it could bridge two worlds, the world of Life and Death – our best magicians didn’t even know of the existence of these worlds before Tao’lin! – but it had many other strange properties, as well.”
The White King paused, looking thoughtful. “What would you give, to be able to use Tao, Cameron?” he asked. “With it, you could have bought Evelyn’s love. And with it, you can buy your freedom.” The White King motioned to two of his guards. “Unbind this man, and take him back to his cell,” he said, tucking the small pouch of Tao into Cameron’s sash.
Baltasar rushed forward, an unexpected look of panic on his face. “My Liege,” he said, prostrating himself on the ground in front of the King, “What are you doing? Surely you don’t intend—“
The White King cut him off in a cold voice. “You have failed me, Baltasar. How dare you question me now?”
Baltasar began groveling at the King’s feet, kissing them and pining sickeningly. “No, my King, no, spare me, do not allow this man to do this to me!”
“Spare you? You swore your life to me in my service, and now I am claiming my debt!” the White King said heartlessly. “Perhaps if you had demonstrated yourself more useful to me, I would have delayed my action. Now get up and stop acting the fool! Escort this man to his cell.” The White King emphasized his words with a sharp kick to the man’s side.
The whole way back to his cell, Cameron’s mind was rushing. What had just happened? Why had the White King given him this pouch of Tao? Why was Baltasar even now treating Cameron with absolute reverence? The other two guards that were accompanying him periodically gave both Cameron and Baltasar a sharp push or kick as they stumbled across the pavement and down the steps; no longer was Cameron forced to walk by Baltasar’s herky-jerk dance. What did it mean?
As the cell door clanged shut, and Rhys began his endless taunting, Cameron realized with a start that for the last fifteen minutes, Rhys had been absent. Where had he been? How had his mind been so clear?
There was another loud clang, and Cameron realized that Baltasar himself had been thrown into another cell. The two guards had stripped him to his underclothes and thrown him in the furthest cell from Cameron, where he sat, cringing and begging to be let free. “Don’t do it, Cameron!” he said, over and over. “Please, don’t do it!”
The dense fog began to set in Cameron’s mind again, the fog of imprisonment, and he found his hands wandering to the pouch of Tao that he had been given. Every time he touched it, Baltasar flinched. It felt good, in a way – almost powerful. He had some kind of control over Baltasar that he didn’t understand, but he liked the way it felt.
He turned a leaf over in his hands, studying it closely. Was he supposed to eat it? He sniffed cautiously. It smelled like Tao to him. Would it just kill him? Why would the White King give it to him? And why was Baltasar so afraid of it?
Cameron sat down on the cold, hard granite. It didn’t matter what the Tao did; the White King wanted him to use it, which meant that using it was the one thing he would not be doing. He didn’t know what the White King’s plans were, but he knew that the King was not to be trusted.
“You know what it does,” Rhys said to him. “You know exactly what it does. Don’t lie to yourself.”
Cameron ignored him, though he knew Rhys spoke truth. Deep in his heart of hearts, he knew what the Tao did. He knew what it would do to Baltasar, and what it would do to him. Idriys had explained it to him.
“You could be free of all this,” Rhys said. “Free, to do as you like! Even the White King couldn’t touch you. You would be powerful.” Cameron continued stoically ignoring him. “Hell, little brother, you could even get rid of me,” he said.
Cameron felt his will crumbling. He felt the walls of his cell collapsing around him; he felt the scorpions coming. But this time, he could do something about it. This time, things would be different. He crushed a leaf of the Tao and swallowed it defiantly. Baltasar screamed, and Rhys began to laugh endlessly.
“We’re not so different, you and I,” Rhys said between great, hearty bellows of laughter. “We’re not so different at all.”
And Cameron fainted in a seizure.