The next morning came in a slow, dreary fashion, as though angry at the world for insisting that it cater yet again to the whims of nature. Grey mists crawled along the ground, whorling and eddying against the walls of the castle, faint tendrils creeping up the battlements and down the stairs into the dungeons. A cold, hard rain drenched the countryside, pooling in the ruts of the dirt road that spanned the distance between Castle Whitefall and the town, and turning the soil dark and muddy. The road sucked hungrily at the boots of the few weary travelers who passed along it that morning.
In the castle prison, the three prisoners sat, shivering, against the cold hard granite wall, and watched miserably as a small waterfall trickled down the stairs, and began to pool on the floor, seeping through whatever cracks in the rock it could find. Finally, Idriys, the High Physician, said, “We must talk.”
The Eagle looked at him blandly, and said, “I fail to see what merit there is in idle conversation.”
“We have come too far, and too much is at stake, for us to sit here and wait for them to execute us, Josiah! Surely you know this.”
“Do not try to implicate me in your mad scheme against the White King, Idriys. If so much is at stake, then why did you allow the traitor to come with us, when you knew he would betray us?”
Cameron made as if to speak, but stopped. Idriys spoke through clenched teeth: “I trust Cameron, Josiah. Despite what happened at Tao’lin, I do not believe that he knowingly informed Ser Robert of our activities two nights ago. Nor do I believe you should continue blaming him for things outside of his – or your – control.”
“You don’t believe…? I’ll tell you what I don’t believe: the words you’re saying. The traitor has shown his true colors once before. I see no reason to think that he should have changed.”
“Have you tried talking to him?”
Josiah made a choking sound in his throat. “Now there’s an idea, Idriys! I’m sure that if I only ask an established traitor to tell the truth politely enough, that he will be happy to oblige. Let’s try it out, shall we?” He turned to Cameron, a look of utter loathing on his face. “Tell me, Cameron, did you see fit to betray us to Ser Robert, the same way you did sixteen years ago at Tao’lin, which, I might remind you, resulted in Evelyn’s death, and the near-expulsion of all three of us?”
Cameron looked furious. “I did not betray you, then!” he said forcefully. “I was just trying to save her life. And I did not betray you two nights ago, either.” He glowered at Josiah.
The events at Tao’lin that Josiah referred to were well-known to anyone alive at the time, but many of the details have been lost since then. It started six months into Cameron’s second year of study; Cameron and Idriys were roommates, and fast friends. Unlike Cameron, Idriys was a magician; he could ingest or inhale Tao in any of its various forms without becoming ill. However, both Cameron and Idriys were enthralled by magic, its uses and mechanisms. Idriys was studying to become a doctor, to understand the art of healing and the prevention of disease, and Cameron, fascinated by magical theory, was working to become a professor, and perhaps a writer. Cameron loved to teach and speak, and proved to be a fast learner, as well. In this way he was able to make a bit of spending money while at Tao’lin, tutoring and teaching his classmates. Many of these classmates were women who promptly fell in love with him after he prevented them from failing. But what Cameron wanted more than anything was to be with Evelyn.
Evelyn Diamadre was a beautiful young first year student at Tao’lin. She was not overly tall, but quite thin, and had eyes that seemed to reflect the stars. From the day he met her, Cameron was smitten. She was struggling in her classes; her father had died just two weeks before classes started, and her grief was still fresh. It was hard for her to focus in class, so she sought Cameron out for help. Many of their tutoring sessions ended with her in tears, but slowly her schoolwork began to improve. Cameron and Evelyn quickly became close friends, and she found Cameron’s shoulder a good one to cry upon when she needed it. Cameron offered what comfort he could, telling jokes, and making up stories that would leave them both on the ground in fits of laughter. But, beneath Evelyn’s effervescent smile, there was always a small glimmer of sadness that Cameron could never erase, no matter what he said or did.
“Cameron,” she said, late one night as they were staring up at the stars on one of the high pillars of Tao’lin (he had been pointing out the constellations to her; there was the Fur-Trapper, and the Great Whale, and the Archer fighting the Lonely Wizard). “What do you think happens when people die?”
Cameron tensed; whenever Evelyn brought up her father’s death, the night usually ended with her in tears, and that was the one thing he didn’t want tonight, of all nights. He had a ring in his pocket; it was six months to the day since he had met Evelyn, and he was going to propose. “I don’t know, Evelyn. I assume that nothing does; they are buried, and when we finally forget about them, they are gone forever.”
Evelyn pulled away from him a little bit, and said, “Oh. I see.” Some of the warmth and laughter than had been there moments before had left her voice. Cameron cursed mentally. What had he said wrong this time? For as eloquent as he could be in front of a room full of people, he never could seem to say the right thing to Evelyn.
He tried again. “I didn’t—I mean, I don’t really know what happens when people die. Maybe they live on with the gods, somewhere far away from here.”
Evelyn looked at him sadly. “It’s ok, Cameron, I know what you meant.” She sat up straight, and said with a bitter sadness, a slow tear running down her cheek, “I won’t forget. I don’t care how long he’s been buried.”
“I didn’t mean that you would, Evelyn,” Cameron said, almost pleading with her now. “There’s just—no scientific or magical basis to assume that anything happens to us when we die.”
Now she looked angry. “No scientific basis, Cameron? Is that the best you can do?” She stood up. “I think I’ve had enough of the stars for one evening. I’m going to sleep.” She started down the staircase leading to her quarters, and as he started after her, she stopped and turned around. “You’re a good friend, Cameron,” she said softly. She kissed him on the cheek, and then was gone.
Cameron waited until she was out of hearing, and then cursed loudly. What did she want from him, anyways? He swore again, kicked the stone battlements with his foot, and pitched the ring over the edge of the wall. He listened to it plink off the tower walls several times before silence descended on the night, and the he stormed down to walk the school grounds, too angry to sleep.
Josiah was also a student at Tao’lin, though he was a year ahead of Cameron and Idriys. He was one of the most vibrant people on campus; everyone wanted to be him. He was young, boisterous, mischievous, and unafraid of anything. He was also an expert Warlock; in fact, by his third year, he had surpassed many of the professors at Tao’lin in the art and skill of magic. He had, on his own time, developed a new strain of Tao that had never been seen before, much to the astonishment of his professors. And Evelyn was in love with him.
That same night, Evelyn went back to her room, but she couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking about what Cameron had said to her. How could he be so inconsiderate? She just wanted someone to hold her, to say that everything was going to be ok, and all he could talk about was “the scientific basis” for death. If only… if only a lot of things. She got up, and began wandering the halls of Tao’lin, before finding herself at Josiah’s door. How did she get here? She didn’t remember. She tentatively put out her hand, and almost knocked, before she stopped herself. What was she doing? It was two in the morning, and Josiah was asleep. He wouldn’t want to see her now. She turned and started to walk away.
“Evelyn,” Josiah said. She turned around, startled, to see Josiah standing there, almost as though he was expecting her. She ran to him, and then started sobbing uncontrollably. He took her in his arms, and just held her close.
After what seemed to Evelyn like hours, her tears ran out. “I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling. “I didn’t mean to wake you. And I’ve gotten your shirt all wet…”
Josiah smiled slightly. “You didn’t wake me,” he said. “Remember? You forgot to knock. And don’t worry about the shirt.” He waved his hand, and there was a faint push of energy, and his shirt was dry.
Shocked, she looked up at him. “Have you… is that…”
“Yes, Evelyn, I have Tao in me,” Josiah said, smirking.
“But it’s… you can’t…”
“Can’t what? Use Tao unsupervised? What’s going to happen to me? That old bat Thomson gonna come scold me?” Josiah laughed. “I can do whatever I want, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I’m better than them.” As he spoke, he flicked his fingers again, and pulled a rose out of thin air, handing it to Evelyn. There was another faint push as he did so.
Evelyn laughed out loud, but Josiah grew serious. “I’m glad you came by, Evelyn. I’ve been thinking,” he said, holding the door to his room open for her. “Come in, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
Evelyn hesitated, but there was something about Josiah’s expression that piqued her curiosity. She stepped in to Josiah’s room, and he closed the door behind her. “What is it, Josiah?” she asked.
Josiah walked over to the window in his apartment, and pushed it open, propping it up with a wooden board, letting in the cool night air. He said nothing for a few moments, as though thinking about how to say something. Finally, he spoke, cautiously: “If you could… make it so that your father was still alive… would you do it?”
“Josiah!” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t joke about that! Just… don’t!”
“I’m not joking, Evelyn. I’ve never been more serious.” Josiah’s eyes grew hard. “My mother died three years ago. When I was six years old, I swore that I would protect her, always. She was all I had, but I let her die. And I would do anything to bring her back.” He squinted, and his mouth twisted oddly. “Anything,” he repeated.
Evelyn suddenly grew cold. She wasn’t sure she liked where this conversation was going, and she wished she’d stayed in her room. “What are you saying?” she asked.
“That strain of Tao that I grew? You know, the one that Thomson and Jeffries and all of them were fawning over?” He pitched his voice into a high, mocking imitation: “Oh, Josiah, this is amazing! You’re going to be one of the great Warlocks of our time! As if I needed them to tell me that.”
Evelyn, unsure if she wanted to hear any more, gestured for him to continue.
“That strain of Tao has certain… special properties that I haven’t told anyone about. Properties that I don’t think they would approve of,” Josiah said.
“Do you mean,” Evelyn asked, her voice barely audible, “that you can bring my father back to life?” Her chest heaved as her breaths became short and frantic.
“I can,” Josiah said, and after a long pause, “if you want me to.”
Evelyn sat still for a long time, fighting back tears that she could feel threatening to flood out for the third time this evening. She forced herself to speak. “But how… is it dangerous?”
“Yes,” Josiah answered. “No one has ever done anything like this before. But I can do it, Evelyn. But I need your help. I will keep you safe. I promise.”
Finally, Evelyn whispered, “Do it. Do whatever you have to do. Just bring my Daddy back.”
Outside, underneath Josiah’s open window, attracted by the sound of Evelyn’s voice, sat Cameron, listening to every word they said. At Evelyn’s declaration, Cameron cursed and stormed into the night, angry tears running down his face. Never in his life did regret being unable to use Tao more than at that moment.