Author’s note: This is my least favourite chapter I’ve written. You have my permission to skip it; tomorrow’s should be better.
Percival was beginning to question his choice to travel with Evelyn. She was a harsh taskmaster, and drove him harder than he had ever been driven before. He tried to lie down at night to get some sleep, but thirty minutes later, Evelyn was on top of him, whipping him with her hateful switch, swearing at him to get up and get moving again. He tried to resist, but she had some strange power over him that he didn’t understand. She would mutter something under her breath, and he would suddenly find himself doing the exact thing he didn’t want to do, only it hurt a lot more. So he quickly learned to just obey Evelyn’s commands without fighting, if he wanted to avoid the pain.
However, he was starting to get angry again.
The two of them had plummeted down the mountains, and were now in the plains, following in the wake of the massive Chimeraen army. It was not difficult to track. They left traces of their passage in every broken tree branch and flattened blade of grass. A thin cloud of grey smoke hung over the horizon – they were getting close. For right now, Evelyn was ignoring Percival, which he was perfectly happy about. The less attention she paid to him, the slower he was able to travel. Not that she ever let him slack up too much, but there was a nice, narrow region of speed in which Percival wasn’t too tired, but Evelyn didn’t make him hurt.
Evelyn was perched precariously on Percival’s back, reading. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, she would reach into a pouch by her side and pull out Tao to rejuvenate her; she was becoming more and more dependent on it. She had actually run out late last night, and had very nearly lapsed into a stupor, but at the last instant she had guided Percival to a small field that was being cultivated. She had taken many leaves from the field; it was unlikely she would run out again soon.
She was currently reading the last few legible entries from Idriys’s journal:
12 Umbra 536. Tonight, after much searching, I finally found the White King’s private stash of Tao that Josiah – aka, the Eagle – told me about the very first time he came into my clinic, so many months ago. I did not believe him then – I scarce can believe it now! – but the evidence is beyond compelling. The White King is killing his own citizens to gain ever-increasing power with Tao.
The bitter irony of it all is that, were it not for Josiah, we would not be in this mess. The strain of Tao that he developed is what has enabled the King to exact such control over his citizens. It has many very strange, very unusual properties, such as Josiah had no idea about when he bred this strain. The Tao strain is a “linking” Tao; it serves to link two places, people, times, or events together. It allows fast travel between distant locations by linking those locations together. It allowed Josiah to attempt to bring back Evelyn’s father from beyond the grave by linking the realms of Life and Death. And it allows the White King to absorb the power of his citizens by linking their life-force together.
When two people consume leaves of Tao from the same branch of a plant of Josiah’s Tao, the life-force of one will be transferred to the other. In most cases, this process of transferal is so painful that it will kill both parties, with the exact same lack of symptoms I witnessed in the many patients I examined. In some special cases, one of the parties is especially sensitive to the Tao; in this case, the person is not destroyed, but is actually able to absorb the life-force and power of the other. This sensitivity can manifest it in many ways… such as seizures and black-outs when in the presence of the Tao.
I did some research in the Royal Libraries on the history of the current White King. And what I found was fascinating; the White King has had a history much like Cameron’s. He would faint whenever a large amount of Tao was used around him. In some cases, he even had seizures, much like Cameron’s the night of Evelyn’s death. In fact, for many years, Tao usage was forbidden in the White King’s throne room.
But then… a few years ago, this restrictions were quietly lifted. It was not written about prominently in any of the histories, but occasionally, one could find traces. There was a Royal festival in which several prominent Tao-jugglers performed; a bright young man came and auditioned for the King’s court, demonstrating many of his magical abilities; and others, for the eye who knew how to look.
I had, of course, found many of these clues, in between my continued meetings with Josiah, smuggling him new Tao every few weeks, after he had burned through his last supply. Tonight, however, I found the final link. But what to do about it?
13 Umbra 536. I had a long conversation with Cameron tonight; I explained to him everything that I had found out. I told him that Josiah thinks we should go to the Chimerae. I am not sure… I don’t know who we can trust any more. Does Ser Robert know? Is he complicit? I cannot believe he would be supportive of the White King’s activities; but it has been sixteen years since Tao’lin. He could have changed much in that time.
Cameron thinks it would be fool-hardy to go to the Chimerae; I told him what I found out about the relationship of them to the White King, but he’s still not convinced. He thinks Josiah has some ulterior motive for wanting to go to the Chimerae. Something to do with Evelyn. But I do not know what, and Cameron couldn’t articulate anything.
15 Umbra 536. I spoke again with Josiah today. Somehow – do not ask me how – he set up a meeting with a Chimera. He wants me to come along with him, to help him overthrow the White King. I am not sure exactly what that will accomplish, but I am also unsure how to proceed if I were to stay here. I cannot remain silent any longer, but if I speak out publicly against the King, he will simply have me silenced.
I agree with Cameron; I think that Josiah has some ulterior motive. Perhaps I should bring Cameron with us to meet with the Chimera. I cannot tell Josiah, though – he never forgave Cameron for what happened at Tao’lin.
22 Umbra 536. I have made up my mind. I will go with Josiah and speak with the Chimera. Tonight, I witnessed it happen in person. I watched as the White King brought in a citizen from the streets, and consumed his soul. It was terrible. Terrible! I still am in shock. I simply can’t believe…
Percival tripped and stumbled to the ground, throwing Evelyn over his shoulders as he fell. He had fallen asleep running. Evelyn got to her feet, a scowl on her face, and started shouting at Percival: “Get up, you great big oaf! Get on your feet, before we cut them off! Up! Up! UP!”
Percival looked up at her contorted face, and glared at her. He did not like this new human person; in fact, she might be the least likable person he had ever met (and that was saying something – Percival had met some pretty unlikable people during his life). She had a really unpleasant habit of talking to herself, and she never seemed to sleep, and she always yelled at Percival. There was something very disturbing about her; there was something very black and sick inside of her.
Evelyn continued yelling at him to get up, and Percival took a half-hearted swipe at her. He just didn’t care anymore. He was done. But then, a huge invisible puppet hand grasped at his muscles, and forced him to stand back up again. She climbed up on top of him, and spoke, her voice cracking like a whip against his body, and Percival began running again.
They were getting close. Percival could see the towers of Castle Whitefall rising up over the horizon, and near it, a great pillar of black smoke rising up into the air. Faintly, when the wind was blowing just right, he could hear some powerful shout or great roar, carried across the plains to his ears. He wondered what was happening; would Castle Whitefall still be standing when they got there? What was Evelyn going to do when they arrived?
The sounds of battle began growing louder the closer they got to the castle. Soon, Percival could make out individual figures of Chimerae, throwing themselves against the castle walls, and grey reavers picking them bodily up and throwing them from the battlements down into the fields below. The air rang with the shouts of men, the howls of Chimerae, and the dull, lifeless thudding of the grey reavers swords cutting into flesh. Everywhere the air buzzed with Tao energy; it seemed to fill Evelyn with life. The closer they got to the castle, the stronger it became, and the more focused she became. She began intently scanning the battlefield, looking for Josiah and Idriys, but they were nowhere to be seen. On the highest pinnacle of Castle Whitefall, the White King stood, hands raised above his head, calling out spells and incantations in a powerful voice. Dark clouds swirled above the castle, and every so often a bolt of lightning would strike the battlefield, seemingly in conjunction with a sharp command passing the White King’s lips. Next to the King, standing grimly, dressed in a long, black, shimmering robe with thin red threads tracing their way through the fabric, was Cameron, Knight Protectorate of the Crown, and High Truthsayer for the White King.