Author’s Note: No, there was no post yesterday. I am far-enough ahead on my wordcount right now that I decided to take a day off from writing, which on the whole was good for me. I may do it again in the future. And now back to our regularly scheduled content.
Idriys looked up from his microscope, under which was a small collection of crushed Tao leaves between thin glass plates. “There is something different about this strain,” he said. “I’ve not seen anything like it before.”
Cameron and Robert were both sitting in the lab with him, waiting for his verdict about the strain of Tao that Josiah had developed. It was late at night, well after hours, and the three of them would have a tough time explaining themselves if they were caught. Robert was nervously glancing over his shoulder every few seconds, as though expecting Professor Thomson to magically appear behind him. Cameron was oblivious to everything except Idriys. “Can you determine anything about its properties?” asked Cameron.
“Well, nothing besides what we already know. It does seem to be a particularly powerful variety,” Idriys said, “and I believe that the after-effects of taking it will be quite severe. As we know, it enables the user to travel extremely great distances in very short periods of time, and the magic necessary to do that must have a very taxing effect on the body. But beyond that, I’m afraid I can’t really say.”
“Perhaps,” Cameron spoke haltingly, “you could try a small amount? Just to, you know, see if you can find anything else out?”
Idriys shook his head firmly. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I am not nearly powerful enough to control the effects; if I were to use the Tao, the results could be quite devastating to me – and perhaps to everyone around me, as well.”
Robert agreed. “Plus,” he said, “We can’t do anything without permission. It’s after hours! Tao use is forbidden. We shouldn’t even be here right now!”
Idriys looked sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Cameron, but we couldn’t really expect to learn anything new. Thomson and the other professors have already studied Josiah’s strain in great detail; she’s even used it a few times! If there was anything unusually dangerous about it, they would have found it already. Josiah was just spouting nonsense, like he normally does.”
Cameron’s shoulders drooped. He had hoped that Idriys would be able to find something more definite than that. He was growing increasingly worried about Evelyn. He was convinced that Josiah was going to do something, something that he couldn’t control. But what? How was it even possible to do what he claimed? Magical texts were unanimous: the ability to pierce the veil of death and rejoin someone’s spirit with their body was impossible. In fact, many of the most prominent texts on the subject stated that even the very idea of a person’s spirit or soul continuing to exist after the body died was preposterous – the spirit and the body were inexorably linked, they said; destroying one would kill the other.
Idriys began cleaning up the equipment in the lab, apparently having settled the matter in his mind. He began chatting idly with Robert about an upcoming exam, and about the prospects of convincing Professor Martain to delay it (she was a bit of a pushover when it came to student requests, and had in fact already delayed this exam twice; however, as the semester was quickly drawing to a close, it was unlikely that she could be convinced to delay it yet a third time). While they were busy, Cameron stealthily slipped a couple of leaves of Josiah’s Tao into a small pouch, which he then dropped into his pocket. Perhaps Idriys had missed something, he told himself. Perhaps he could find out what it was.
As they were leaving, Cameron said, “You guys go on ahead. I’m going to go for a walk.”
Idriys looked at him with faint concern. “Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s quite late.”
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” said Cameron. “I’ll see you tomorrow in class.”
Idriys and Robert looked at each other and shrugged. “As you like, Cameron. Don’t stay out too late.” The two of them walked off, still talking about Professor Martain’s exam. Cameron waited until they were out of sight before slipping back into the lab. He sat down on a workbench, and pulled out the leaves that he had taken. So much power, inside of such a simple leaf! For all that the Warlocks knew about the uses of Tao – the various types, the various methods of ingestion, the strengths and weaknesses of each of the different strains – no one had ever been able to determine why Tao granted such tremendous powers to the human body. Warlocks with the power of Tao in them could call down fire from the heavens, could direct the course of rivers, and could heal the deadliest of diseases. Some strains allowed the Warlock to reach into another to pluck the very thoughts from the mind, unbidden. Nearly anything was possible – but why?
And, for that matter, why did Tao only grant its powers to some people? Tao-sickness – the vivid hallucinations, intense pain and nausea that came after ingesting Tao – came to everyone, including Warlocks. Yet, it was only the Warlocks who were able to postpone the effects of Tao-sickness, sometimes for days on end, to tap into the plant’s power. And even then, the Warlocks were far less susceptible to the effects of Tao-sickness than normal people. What strange interactions of chemistry, biology, and magic were at play inside the veins of this unassuming little leaf?
Cameron’s reverie was broken by the sound of the lab door opening. He dropped to the ground behind the workbench. Had Idriys left something behind that he was coming to reclaim? Or was one of the Professors performing rounds, and checking to make sure that the lab was undisturbed? Then he heard a woman’s laughter – Evelyn! What was she doing here so late? Then he heard Josiah’s voice say, “Are you sure you want to do this, Ev?”
When Evelyn spoke, her voice sounded dull and far away to Cameron. “Yes, Josiah. I want to see my father again.”
Gods! It was happening tonight! Josiah was going to, somehow, try to bring back Evelyn’s father from beyond the grave, and Cameron was unlucky enough to be in the room when it happened! He had to get out of here, had to get back to Idriys and Robert to tell them. But how? He couldn’t leave without Josiah or Evelyn seeing him.
Cameron heard the two of them walk towards the far end of the lab, and as they moved, he crawled towards the door, keeping the workbench between him and them, hoping the sound of their footsteps would mask his motion. He heard several sharp cracks and the stone-on-stone grinding of a mortar and pestle, and the sharp hiss of flame from a Bunsen burner. There was the sound of running water, and the slow reverberations as a pitcher was filled with liquid. Cameron carefully peered over the top of the workbench, and saw by the light of the flame that both Evelyn and Josiah were turned away from him, Josiah carefully measuring out a specific quantity of white powder. Some kind of supplemental catalyst? Cameron didn’t know, and wasn’t close enough to see what it was; he slipped out the door to the lab, hoping against hope that he got out without being seen. And then he ran.
He got back to the room that he shared with Idriys, frantic and out of breath. He fumbled with his key, scratching at the lock, trying to get the door to open. Finally it did. “Idriys!” he shouted. “Idriys!” Cameron burst into the room.
Idriys and Robert were sitting on a couch, talking about the crazy things that people only ever talk about late at night. They both looked up at Cameron as he slumped against the door, panting. “What is it, Cameron?” Idriys asked.
“It’s happening,” Cameron gasped. “Right now! In the lab!”
Robert said, “What do you mean? What’s happening?”
“Slow down, Cameron, and start from the beginning,” said Idriys.
“Josiah and Evelyn—after you left—in the lab,” Cameron said. “Josiah—mixing Tao—”
Robert looked puzzled. “Mixing Tao?” he said. “But why?”
But Idriys understood and was already moving. “Let’s go, Robert. We may not have much time.” The three of them hurried back to the lab where they had gathered less than an hour ago. But something was different this time. The air was cold—much colder than it ought to have been, and there were voices coming from inside the room. Hundreds of voices, all speaking at once in some strange, unknown tongue. Idriys’ voice barked sharply, tinged with fear, “Robert! Get Thomson! Now!” and he threw the door open to the lab as Robert mumbled an agreement and scurried away, glancing over his shoulder as he went.
As the door swung open to the lab, Idriys and Cameron were pummeled with wave upon wave of energy. The incredible force of the Tao emanating from the room washed over them like the unrelenting pulse of a beating drum, pounding in their skulls and forcing their hearts to pound in time with it. A sickly, deathly pale green light poured forth from the room, giving everything the appearance of old, rotten meat. A cacophony of sound flooded into the hallway – not just the voices now, but screams, and the cold sick rattle of the childhood monsters that hid in closets and underneath beds and sucked away joy and laughter and youth. A stench like rotten eggs crawled up their nostrils and into their sinus cavities, making them want to retch and gag. In the center of the room stood Evelyn and Josiah, face to face, hands locked together, fingers intertwined. They had taken the longest journey of all; they had pierced the veil of Death.
Cameron took a step forward, and collapsed in a seizure, eyes rolling back into his head, feet kicking and mouth gibbering wildly. Idriys nearly tripped over him; he looked between Cameron and Evelyn several times, as though he couldn’t decide who was in more serious need of help. Finally, he grabbed Cameron by the arms and dragged him to the side, out of the direct line of power throbbing into the hallway; once there, Cameron’s seizure seemed to release its hold on him slightly. Then Idriys turned back to stare into the lab with a mix of shock, utter horror, and complete fascination.
Evelyn and Josiah were frozen in the center of the room, and it was clear that they were the nexus of the massive waves of power and energy pouring into the night. Evelyn’s face was wearing a thin, tight-lipped smile, and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut, whereas Josiah had the look of complete and reckless abandon all through his being. He was totally enveloped by the power of the Tao. They both were entirely oblivious to the sights and sounds swirling around them.
As Idriys watched, something began coalescing in the room with them. Some spirit, some strange, powerful being, was coming. The waves of power washing over Idriys grew even stronger, and he could barely even comprehend his own thoughts any more. The spirit continued to take shape; it reached out a thin, insubstantial tendril towards Evelyn, and Idriys stared, horrified, as Evelyn’s lips began to move. Even from where he was, Idriys could tell what she was saying: “Daddy!”
Suddenly Idriys knew, without quite knowing how, that that thing was not her father. Whatever awful spirit was forming in front of them did not belong in this world, and it would destroy them all if it were allowed to fully materialize. Idriys shouted, “Evelyn! That is not your father! Do not be deceived!” But if she heard him, she paid no attention. “EVELYN!” Idriys shouted again. He tried to run to her, tried to do anything to break the terrible connection that had been established that evening, but he couldn’t run, couldn’t move, his feet were glued to the floor, and the will was sapped from his body. What was he doing? Why was he so upset? It would be better to just rest, to lay down and let that thing feed…
There was a shout of surprise, and a renewed strength flooded into his bones. He looked around, confused. What was he doing? How did he get so far into the lab, just a few feet away from that grotesque apparition? He turned around and saw Professor Thomson standing there, weaving complicated symbols and diagrams in the air. Two other professors were at her side, assisting her, and a fourth stood some distance apart, his heavy baritone voice speaking with the power of Tao, pealing through the air like rolling thunder. There was a clash like a cymbal as the force of the thing, of Josiah’s Tao, met with the combined power of the four professors, and Idriys could feel the thing slowly but steadily being pushed back.
Suddenly, there was a flash of color, and Idriys heard Professor Thomson’s voice ring out, “Robert! No! Come back here! It is too dangerous for you!” But it was too late. Idriys watched as Robert dove underneath the monstrosity in the room, narrowly avoiding being brushed by one of its long, insubstantial tendrils. He forced his way in between Josiah and Evelyn, using his own Tao to grant him extra strength, and he pushed outward with all his might, attempting to break the bond between the two. There was a brief moment where time froze, and it looked like nothing was going to happen, and then the entire building snapped, like an enormous rubber band that had been wound tight finally broke, releasing all of its energy at once.
In slow motion, Idriys watched as Josiah stumbled and fell to the ground, shaking with the Tao-sickness (it appeared to be unusually strong, Idriys noted with some impartial satisfaction). Evelyn’s eyes blinked open, and a bewildered, slightly angry expression appeared on her face. There was a tremendous whistling as all the energy in the room began to disperse, and the spirit began to flicker and fade. Idriys felt a burst of malevolent rage from the creature, angry at losing its prize. Just before it disappeared completely, Idriys saw a faint ghostly tendril flick out from its side and coil around Evelyn’s leg. Her eyes bolted wide in pain, and the place where the thing’s tentacle touched her leg began to steam and burn away. Idriys lunged for her, hands flailing, trying to grab her and pull her away from the spirit’s grasp, but there was a horrific squelching noise as both she and it disappeared, sucked far away into some unknown land. Idriys hit his head on the corner of a desk; the last thing he heard before he blacked out was Evelyn’s voice, in a ghastly high-pitched wail.