The Lie of the World, Part 19

The huge, bearded Head Publisher put down the last page of the close-typed printout and swore colourfully. He reached across his desk and pressed the button on his intercom. “Secretary, send Wilson Paperclip in here.”

“At once, sir. I am your secretary,” Paperclip’s neat, polite British accent came back through the speaker. “I replaced that last one because she was stealing pens, if you recall.”

That was true enough. The Head Publisher fervently hoped he would never see another Nielsen-Hayden. Interfering busybodies to a man, and altogether too snappy on a computer. He trusted plain, simple, efficient old Paperclip a hundred times further than he could throw him – which, he’d discovered at the Tor Christmas Party, was almost seven feet. Of all the employees, only Beardo Bill himself had managed to fling the Brit further.

Wilson Paperclip stepped into the expansive office. “Ah, I see you have finished the preliminary reports,” he said with a pleased smile. “Interesting, yes?”

“Very damned interesting. Cape Beard will kill us if he finds out about this.”

“He never will, sir. Once the final drafts are done, we can publish it under a wholly new name. From the looks of things, it will be completely unrecognisable once the whole product is completed anyway,” he spread his narrow, perfectly manicured hands innocently. “It has satire value, and fantasy readers will flock to the sense of familiarity, but once our guinea pigs have finished with it, not even, ah, Richard Beard will recognise it. It will be about as similar to the Wheel of Time as Wheel of Time was to its sire-narrative.”

The Head Publisher grunted. “These guinea pigs of yours have already picked up on that one. I think it was a mistake. We can’t just keep on copying the same story. They’re not stupid.”

“But they are, sir! And this is an all-new way of re-writing the story – even if it is a re-hash, I guarantee they will lap it up. However,” Paperclip hesitated artfully. “There might be a slight problem, as far as recognisability goes. There are several parties wandering through the … environment, not role-playing at all, but rather trying to keep the original storyline intact. If they are not derailed, they might force the narrative back onto its original track.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Quite simple, sir,” Paperclip smiled. “New characters.”

The Head Publisher was unimpressed. “But didn’t Jordan already try that?”

“They were boring characters. And they did not mix up the script at all. They weren’t pro-active. They weren’t in-your-face,” Paperclip smiled as the Satanic by-words, known to all media consultants and other minions of darkness, escaped his lips in a kind of evocation. “And besides – they weren’t from this newsgroup. It’s like a gold mine.”

“Alright, dammit,” the Head Publisher nodded and slapped his hand down on the printout. “Let the Lord of Marketing rule.”

 


 

“Hi everybody!”

 


 

“YEEEEEE-HAW!”

 


 

“My wife’s a bisexual and I am incredibly good in bed!”

 


 

“HOWWWWWW-WWWW-LL!”

 

 

The End

of the First Book

of The Steal of Time

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The Lie of the World, Part 18

Rand, Mat and Perrin loved the story of Tarwin’s Last Stand, as told by Chucky the gleeman.

“Tell that last bit again!” Rand exclaimed.

“The bit about the gold,” Mat supplied.

Chucky grinned. “Oh, that. Well, according to popular myth, Tarwin Lannister shat gold. But when he died, he gave lie to that particular story. It seems he shat shite like all the rest of us.”

The farmboys laughed and clapped one another on the back. Perrin hunched himself over in his saddle and pretended, artlessly, to be the heroic Imp Tyrion. Moiraine and Nynaeve looked sour.

“Tarwin did not die on the toilet,” Moiraine said. “He did not make his famous Final Stand with his breeches around his ankles, and he most certainly did not soil himself as he fucking died.”

“And his name was Tywin, anyway,” Mister C of 9 grunted.

“You’re an apprentice,” Chucky said airily, waving Mister See’s objections away. “What would you know about Tarwin’s Gap?”

“Tell us about Tyrion’s brother and sister again,” Rand urged. “That bit was mint.”

“We want details,” Mat added.

Chucky was saved by Lan, who had returned from his ranging and was looking tired and miserable. His hangover had not faded quite as he had expected it to, and Chucky was vindictively glad of it. “There’s a lot of activity up ahead,” he said, gesturing to the foothills somewhere above. All was invisible under the thick canopy of diseased trees. “The Blight is crawling. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

“We’ll have to camp,” Moiraine decided. “The Green Man will be found up in the high passes, and we’re not going to get that far today. I’ll set wards,” she spared her warder a glance loaded with distaste. “Do you think you can keep your nose out of the wineskin long enough to find us a decent spot?”

“I’ll find you a decent spot,” Lan muttered, and spurred Mandarb away again.

“I heard that!” Moiraine shouted.

They finally made camp, and Chucky, Mister C of 9, and Forsaken_1 settled down in front of the fire while Perrin, Rand and Mat hobbled the horses, Egwene and Nynaeve started preparing a meal, and Moiraine swore and fumed her way through making invisibility wards around the campsite.

“What’s the matter?” Forsaken_1 asked nervously when Moiraine let fly with a vicious string of talk that would make a sailor cover his face.

Saidar‘s all fucked up,” Moiraine snarled. “I can’t get it to do what I want. It’s like the Ways all over again, but worse. And when it does do what I want, it’s so fucking weak a myrddraal could piss through it. Every time I try to strengthen the wards, something else happens instead. See, this time it started a little fire. It’s like it isn’t even me doing the weaving.”

“Don’t know what to tell you,” Forsaken_1 said apologetically.

“Just shut the fuck up and let me concentrate, you mouthy cunt.”

The next morning, they headed north before dawn. Moiraine pressed them hard, hoping to reach the passes before dark. Lan pointed out the dangerous plants and animals to them as they went – it was more or less every living thing.

Chucky and Mister C shared a nostalgic look. It reminded them of home.

Behind them, sounds began to erupt from the rotting vegetation. Lan identified the noises as Jumara.

“Very dangerous,” he said bleakly. “And if they have our scent, we can kiss our horses goodbye.”

Later on in the afternoon, the weird fluting calls of the Jumara grew more intense. It sounded as though their number had suddenly doubled, and they began drawing a lot closer. The party pushed their horses to a gallop. Chucky, Forsaken_1 and Mister C of 9, who were inexperienced horsemen at best, would have been left behind had the three farmboys not refused to leave them.

“I want to hear how the story ended,” Perrin admitted. “I want to know what Tyrion the Imp did next.”

“Hey, you and me both,” Chucky puffed, slipping sideways in his saddle. “Jesus, my ass hasn’t been this sore since high school.”

Forsaken_1 spared him a narrow, dubious glance.

Suddenly, just when it seemed that the Jumara would catch them after all, there was a tremendous roaring explosion from behind. The twittering of the dreaded creatures shifted to agonised wails.

“Ach!” a voice roared. “Cop tha’, Jimmy! Ye wan’ some? Dae ye? See you, Wormie, begorrah!”

There was a great deal of crashing and yowling in the undergrowth, and several more titanic explosions. Then silence. The riders exchanged a fearful glance.

“What was that?” Forsaken_1 demanded. “Some other, larger, more terrifying creature, that eats Jumara for breakfast? What’s the name of this one?”

“Buggered if I know, Child Foreskin,” Lan admitted, his face as pale as limestone. “Buggered if I know.”

 


 

“It’s really quite good.”

“Ah seed noo.”

“What?”

“She said no,” Janica sighed and watched as Frendli ripped off another strip of dark, stringy flesh. The remains of the final Worm was slung over his shoulder like a leather bedroll. Wyse had reported it tasted a little like draghkar.

Journeying in the Blight with four Ogier had seemed like a good idea. They knew which way to go, they knew the land and even in this tortured environment, there were no better at woodcraft. They made their camps safe, and never failed to warn the sul’dam and her damane about approaching dangers. But they had enormous appetites. As they followed Moiraine’s party through the corrupted forest, it seemed to Janica as if the four Ogier had eaten everything in their path. Debs would deal with the dangers using Janica’s power, and then the Ogier would take over. It was almost frightening.

“Anyway, we should almost be there,” Janica added. “And hopefully we can eat some real food in the Green Man’s garden.”

Frendli had finished the Worm, and had rather apologetically sung himself a tobacco plant for afters, when they came to the expansive region of healthy green vegetation. There was nobody to be seen, but horse tracks led straight across the well-tended lawn towards the spreading branches of an enormous tree. Cautiously, they stepped out of the Blight and into the sanctuary of the Green Man.

There was a small showdown going on near a building that looked a little bit like a temple. Janica couldn’t see, but she recognised some of the voices, or at least what they were saying. Moiraine’s script seemed to include a good deal more swearing than would seem entirely necessary, but she was obviously challenging the Forsaken. The newcomers hid behind some shrubbery.

“There’s ants on me,” Frendli said in an Ogier whisper. Debs shushed him furiously.

“Get ready,” Janica said, eyes closed and listening to what was being said. “Moiraine’s about to start fighting with one of them, and we have to channel a big hole in the ground with flames. As far as I can recall. We’ll do it the way we settled on at the campsite, alright? No more hitting and missing. Wait until she tries to do whatever it is she’s doing, and then copy her weaves exactly. Only at maximum power, not stilled-and-Healed power.”

“Alreet,” Debs said, and peeped through the bushes. “Who’s tha’ scunner?”

“You’re asking me? What does he look like?”

“He’s tall, dressed in black, and he’s got a dark red cloak. Ach, his eyes … that’s Ishamael!”

Wyse moaned softly.

Ishamael?” Janica frowned. “That’s not right. Are the other two Forsaken there?”

“Seem tae be. Yep, there’s the old guy and the guy in the gimp mask, sure enough. But they’re all standing together at the entrance tae that temple.”

“That must be where the Eye is,” Janica said. “Could they have gotten here first? Aginor and Balthamel were meant to die, and then Rand was supposed to fight Ishamael.”

“Moiraine’s facing all three o’ them,” Debs reported. “I danna think we can channel enough to fix ’em up.”

“Maybe if we surprise them…” Janica said, “burn one of them, at least…”

“Ahh, shite.”

“What is it?”

“Rand’s stepped up, he’s telling them something about bein’ … bein’ trussed, or somethin’. Trussed? Is he offering himself up as a hostage? Ach, nae, he’s got an axe. Moiraine is tryin’ tae pull him away, but he’s nae gooin’.”

“Why doesn’t he channel?” Janica frowned.

 


 

Rand stood resolute.

“You shall not harm my friends!” he said in his best Druss voice. He could vaguely hear people around him, shouting and tugging at him, but in the Void he could barely feel it. They were in another universe. There was only the flame, and Snaga. It was actually Perrin’s axe, but he’d slipped it out of his friend’s saddlebag that morning. “Go back to Shayol Ghul, you Shadowspawn whoresons!”

Ba’alzamon seemed unaccountably amused. “Druss, now are you? Fucking sweet.”

Rand felt the Eye pulling at him, like some great ocean encapsulated in a single teardrop. It called and crooned. Ba’alzamon stood before him with eyes of fire. His smile was mocking.

“Go on, Lews Therin,” he said darkly. “Take it. Embrace the Eye of the World, Druss. Go on, pussy. I dare you.”

Rand reached out. A great surge of power filled him, making him drunk, making him invincible. Suddenly Ba’alzamon, and the others, looked very small and frightened. Rand laughed. He was bursting with Power.

Ba’alzamon’s hand came out from under his cloak. It was holding a little bronze bell.

He jingled it.

The Void fled. The power vanished. Rand was suddenly, unaccountably distraught, and utterly confused. He suddenly seemed to see a room full of beautiful women, flickering and altering and vanishing before his eyes, as the bell jingled and his thoughts scattered to the wind.

Ba’alzamon’s other hand came out from under his cloak.

 


 

Debs saw Rand stagger and blink as if dazed, and when she looked back at Ishamael, it was just in time to see the shotgun kick in his hand. Janica jumped as the report reached them.

“What the Hell was that?”

Debs didn’t answer. She watched in disbelief as the little puff of smoke rose into the air. In the slow motion of imagination, she saw the tightly-packed little cluster of shot boring its way through the air. She knew that with the amount of saidin Rand had access to, he could brush away the pellets as if they were nothing. He could. He would.

But he didn’t. He seemed completely lost. His face was confused, baffled…

Then gone.

The exit wound blasted the back of his head away in a red cloud, and the rest of his skull and face collapsed backwards onto nothing, like a popped paper bag with a comical expression of surprise drawn on the front. Then Rand al’Thor collapsed onto the grass like a sack of wet mud.

Egwene screamed. Moiraine went white. A huge tangled mass of greenery nearby, that turned out to be the Green Man, raised his arms to the sky and bellowed with fearful rage. Pandemonium ensued.

Safe behind their shrubbery, Debs and the Ogier watched in numb shock as Ishamael turned, clapped his two companions on the shoulders, and walked through a Gateway. Taking no more note of the bedlam around them, they vanished as if they had never been.

 


 

Dawn came to the Green Man’s garden. All around them, the Blight seethed furiously, stronger than ever before … but within the influence of the towering giant, all was peaceful and serene. The plants were healthy, the sky clear, and the animals friendly and carefree.

Perrin and Mat found Rand’s body near the entrance to the Eye, and Egwene uncovered Moiraine nearby. Moiraine was alive, they found after a quick consultation with Lan – alive, but terribly weakened. Rand was quite thoroughly dead. Sorrowfully, Nynaeve performed final rites over what remained of the body, and they buried him beneath the spreading branches of the Green Man’s great oak tree. Chucky hesitantly suggested he play Amazing Grace for the passing, and Moiraine mustered up the strength to tell him to go fuck himself.

Forsaken_1 kicked irritably at a friendly, carefree bunny rabbit that was trying to use his shoe as a toilet. He wasn’t aware of the story to a great degree, but he knew something was happening that shouldn’t be. Even Chucky looked troubled. Loial sang a quiet, mournful song, and a strange sapling sprang up over Rand’s grave. Mister C of 9 asked the Green Man if he had any Ent-draught to restore their strength and courage, but the Green Man simply gave him a blank look.

Mat returned from his exploring. “The building is empty,” he reported. “There was a deep, round pool in the middle, but whatever was in it, it’s gone now.”

Distraught as Moiraine was, this news seemed to upset her even more.

“These are dark times,” the Green Man said solemnly, “and I see no end to them. I shall be waiting here, as I always have, but it may be that none of you will be able to find me again. I wish you well in what is to come.”

It was a dejected party that returned to Fal Dara, but fortune was with them as far as the Blight went – although it was noisome and unpleasant as always, they were not attacked by anything.

“The Green Man has left his mark on us, for as long as it might last,” Lan said. “We need not fear the Blight.”

“Until next winter, when it’ll spread south to the gates of Tar fucking Valon,” Moiraine muttered.

So it was with great surprise that they arrived at Fal Dara and found a frenzied celebration going on. Even Moiraine was too shocked to speak. Grim-faced Bordermen were squealing and cartwheeling in the streets, ale was flowing like water, and Lord Agelmar presided over the hooting masses with a benign smile on his face and a pair of chain-mail underpants on his head.

“We won a great victory at Tarwin’s Gap!” he announced over the cheering. “We faced the trollocs and turned them back! What can I say – we had the Creator on our side.”

“That’s, uh, good,” Moiraine managed. She was so weakened by her ordeal that she had been unable to mount her horse, and had suffered the trip back to civilisation on a litter slung between Mandarb and Bela. “You won.”

“Had it been a matter of simple swords, we would never have prevailed,” Ingtar said from Agelmar’s shoulder, “but thankfully, two Aes Sedai arrived in the nick of time, and saved us all.”

“Aes Sedai? What were their names?” Moiraine demanded.

“Ah, they thought you would ask that, Mistress,” Lord Agelmar said. “There was a large, overbearing one who named herself Cadsuane, and a smaller lady by the name of Verin. Are they familiar to you?”

Moiraine relaxed. “They are indeed,” she said. “I am glad they reached the Gap in time. Are they still here? I would speak with them.”

“Oh no, they left already, with their Ogier escort. Verin said they had important work to do.”

“They were with Ogier?” Loial asked nervously.

“Yes indeed – four of them. They mentioned that they would have liked to see you, Master Loial, but they regretted that they had to move on swiftly. But the Borderlands appreciate Tar Valon’s support, as always. The world owes the Aes Sedai a great debt.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Moiraine leaned back in her litter. “Lan, don’t even think about drinking.”

Lan’s face froze. “I never.”

 


 

After the battle, Debs and Janica headed southwest, with their group of Ogier carrying the luggage. Janica was worried, Debs furious, the Ogier sorely confused.

Finally, Debs called a halt.

“We’re fecked!” she growled, gesturing to Wyse to throw down his burden. “The Dragon’s deed, Ishamel’s aleeve and so’re Aginor and Balthamel, Moiraine canna light a candle wi’ her poo’er, and the Dark One’s more poo’erful than ever! What’re we gonna dae?”

Janica sat down on the huge golden chest. “This need not be a complete disaster,” she said. “We still won the battle at Tarwin’s Gap, which means the Forsaken aren’t at full strength. And who’s to say the Dragon’s dead?”

“Ye did’nae see him. His hid got blown off.”

Rand’s head did, yes,” Janica patted the chest. “But we’ve got the Dragon Banner, and the Horn of Valere. All we really need to do is find a man who can channel, and preferably a ta’veren as well … and he can be the Dragon.”

“Ye’re talkin’ aboot raisin’ a false Dragon,” Debs whispered. “It’ll never work.”

“Says who?”

“Logain? Mazrim Taim? All the other false Dragons? Rand was the Dragon!”

“He was. But now he’s dead. And there has to be a Dragon. Those others were false Dragons because the real Dragon was around – he’s not now. So who’s to say those false Dragons aren’t the real thing?”

“Logain could be the real Dragon?” Debs mused.

“He could be – as long as we get to him before he’s gentled.”

Debs hefted the immense chest, and Janica, into the air. “Let’s git goin’, then!”

 


 

Contro laughed aloud.

“Ha ha ha ha! Trust you, Aram! Can you read maps? I don’t think so, because they’re pictures! You can’t read pictures! Ha ha ha! Mind you, there’s all these little names, I guess they count as reading, if you read them! Ha ha ha! Funny that! There’s all these pictures, and yet these little words are there and so it’s called ‘reading’! Well, where are we then?”

Aram didn’t say anything. He just lay on Contro’s bed and made that horrible smell. It was quite rude to say the least. Contro shook his head and laughed fondly. Aram was so funny. And he had funny white things in his eyes. Contro laughed about that too – he seemed to recall somebody in the stories having things in his eyes, and it meant he was using magic of some sort. Maybe Aram was using magic to smell so bad. It was a funny thought. Fancy using magic to smell bad.

“Well, we can’t be far from Tar Valon now!” Contro had located the little ‘Tar Valon’ dot on the map that Raen had given to him, and it was only a few inches away from the ‘Caemlyn’ dot. So they couldn’t be far away. There was even a little mountain near Tar Valon, called ‘Dragonmount’, which was a funny name for a mountain. Contro had seen a mountain earlier that afternoon, and had headed towards it. Of course, in real life and not on the map, it had been a whole line of mountains, but they had to be the one called ‘Dragonmount’, because even Contro knew that mountains were always packed together in a line, not standing by themselves. “Soon we’ll be at the big Tinker convention, and we’ll do something about your eyes and your hair and your gas! Ha ha ha!!”

Aram didn’t say anything. Another clump of his hair fell out.

Contro went back outside, waved the reins aimlessly, and clucked Cow to hurry himself along if he wanted to. They were in woods now, but the mountains couldn’t be far. And from there, Tar Valon!

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The Lie of the World, Part 17

The reunion on the hillside outside of Fal Dara was a brief and violent one.

“Remind me again about the non-interference law we decided on?”

“Ach, shut up. It wasnae my fault.”

“You stilled her!”

“Killed?” Frendli, massaging some life back into his knuckles after the heroic jailbreak, blinked nervously. “Who did you kill, Mistress Hindle?”

Debs growled and sent a wave of vindictive chocolate-craving down the length of the a’dam. Janica gasped. “I did’nae kill anyone, alreet? I stilled her, but it was’nae a problem. I stilled her and then Healed it. Hoo many people can say that, eh?”

“You can’t heal stilling,” Wyse said reasonably. “I read it in a book. You must have done something else.”

“She was stilled,” Janica said tiredly. “And we know how to Heal it because we read it in a book. But it wasn’t a very good job. I think even Nynaeve did a better job.”

Debs huffed. “It was good enough.”

“As far as I could tell, Moiraine’s down to about ten percent of her former power,” Janica said, “and she does’nae even know it. Which means they will be in real trouble when they get into the Blight.”

“We’ll just have tae follow them,” Debs said, “and make sure they danna git intae trouble.”

“We’re going into the Blight?” Coarshus exclaimed. “That’s so dangerous!”

“Somebody has to look out for them,” Janica said firmly. “We haven’t done very well so far, but somebody has to.”

“They owe us just fer gettin’ rid o’ Fain,” Debs grumbled. “Hoo much trouble we stop there?”

“It’s not our job to stop trouble,” Janica insisted. “We have to make sure the story goes the way it was meant to. It’s all very well to wander around and think what a wonderful roleplaying game this is, but there’s been a mistake and now the whole narrative is in jeopardy.”

“Alreet,” Debs said, tiring of the dialogue. “We’ll goo then.”

“Into the Blight?” Wyse whimpered. “Into the Blight?”

“Can I go to the toilet before we start?” Coarshus asked.

“Will there be girls?” Hoarni added.

“When do we start?” Debs turned to Janica. The little damane frowned in concentration.

“We’ll follow them when they leave,” Janica said, “at a distance. If we lose their trail, the Ogier can lead us to the Green Man,” she stared at the four Ogier. “Can’t you?”

“No,” said Wyse.

“Not a chance,” Frendli confessed.

“Nope,” said Coarshus.

“Sure, baby,” Hoarni grinned, ignoring the other three as they elbowed and kicked him surreptitiously. “There’s a really simple trick to it, but only Ogier really know. I bet that’s how the others are planning on getting there.”

Just as Janica had predicted, the gates of Fal Dara opened shortly before midday, and a long column of warriors on horseback and not a few on foot emerged, heading for Tarwin’s Gap. After them came the smaller party containing Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, Egwene, Moiraine, Lan, and a group of other people Debs wasn’t sure about. She made out a tall figure in a white robe, and a heavily armoured figure … and one who seemed to be wearing a gleeman’s cloak. She swore under her breath.

“Things are weird,” she said. “Thom seems to be with them. And I danna knoo who that Weetclook is. I think that guy in armour is Ingtar.”

“Thom?” Janica peered into the middle distance, cursing her eyes. “That’s not right.”

“I can see Loial!” Wyse exclaimed. “He seems to be alright.”

“He won’t be when Erith gets a hold of him,” Frendli promised.

Janica shrugged. “Well, as long as you can make out Moiraine…”

“Nae worries. She’s the little one in blue. I’ll keep me eye on her.”

They started out towards the Mountains of Dhoom.

 


 

Ishamael paced back and forth in front of them, looking rather pleased with himself. He had changed a lot in the course of his imprisonment, but the Chosen had to admit that they all had. It had been a long, boring series of millennia.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said loudly, his voice sounding strangely dead in the thick, dusty atmosphere. “I have almost succeeded in freeing you fom your confinement. It will not be much longer, and you will all walk free from this place, back out into the world to do the Great Lord’s work. Until then, Ihave moved you as best I can within this region of the Bore, to give you a little comfort.”

“Is that why we are sitting on couches?” Demandred said coldly. “I must say, such opulence is fitting for the Great Lord’s highest commanders.”

“Do I have to sit next to him?” Lanfear snapped. “Can’t I go and sit with Semirhage?”

“And did we have to have our chairs arranged so we’re looking at each other?” Rahvin added. “Personally, I’ve been looking at the back of Sammael’s head for the past four thousand years, and the front is freaking me out.”

“Silence!” Ishamael snapped. “I didn’t drag you all the way from the back of this hall – almost trapping myself in the process, by the way – to this nice area here where you can speak, and almost move around…” he paused a moment to recollect his run-on sentence, “…for nothing! We have important work to do. Now, very soon, Aginor and Balthamel and I will be heading to the Eye of the World. When we return, here is what we are going to do. The seals will weaken and you will be free. Before that happens, you will swear your loyalty to the Nae’blis. That’s me. And I’ll tell you what we’re going to do next.”

The Chosen watched Ishamael – or Angamael, as he had dubbed himself for some reason – warily. He was a dangerous lunatic who might snap at any moment. And none of them had the slightest idea why he was walking around with such a stupid little walking stick.

“We are going to gateway right into Tar Valon,” he said with relish. “Right into the White Tower, where just about every Aes Sedai in the world lives. There are enormous stockpiles of ter’angreal, angreal and sa’angreal in the Tower. And almost all of the world’s diminished channeling power. We’re going to gateway the fuck in there, with a bushel of halfmen and the element of surprise, and we’re going to turn them all to the Dark One.”

There was silence.

“All of them?” Demandred choked.

“Every single one,” Angamael said. “I could never understand why you never did it before. I mean, in the story.”

“What story?” Lanfear asked, before realising she was pointing out Angamael’s insanity for all to see. She bit her lip and fell silent. Angamael stared at her for a minute, his eyes blazing like caverns of fire.

“Never you mind what story,” he grunted. “We’ll take thirteen halfmen, and the thirteen of us, and we’ll-”

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” Sammael cried. “We can’t listen to this maniac, he’ll kill us all! If we all work together, we can cast him down and-”

Angamael’s weird little walking stick went crash.

“We’ll take thirteen halfmen, and the twelve of us, and some random Black Ajah Aes Sedai,” Angamael amended as Sammael’s decapitated corpse slumped in the couch, “and we’ll convert every single one of them, starting with the Amyrlin Seat and working our way down. We’ll set up a perimeter at the top of the Tower, and we’ll convert the most powerful Aes Sedai first, and then call up the rest one at a time, using the authority of the Tower itself to make them report. Once all the sworn sisters are converted, we’ll break into teams of twenty-six, and convert the Accepted, the novices, and the wilders.”

The Chosen stared in disbelief at the torso that had once been Sammael. In the thick atmosphere of the prison, the body could not collapse, and the blood pouring from the remains of his neck was glistening like treacle. Shards of bone, gobs of brain and crystals of blood fanned out behind the couch, frozen in midair. Angamael smiled widely.

“Any questions?” he asked. Demandred struggled to raise his hand. “Yes, Rahvin, you have a question?”

“I’m Demandred. I mean, I’m Rahvin. Rahvin,” Demandred sweated slowly. “When do we start, Nae’blis?”

Nae’blis,” the Chosen repeated woodenly, pinned helplessly in their couches.

Angamael beamed.

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The Lie of the World, Part 16

Strangely enough, it was Contro who found Aram’s body.

The Tinkers had begun to move again – Contro noticed they never stayed in one place for very long, which was good in a way, since it meant they would never get tired of the scenery, and they would never be in one place long enough to have a set address, which was also good because Contro always found that you could get lost easily if you were trying to find a set address, so in a way it was less confusing to have no particular place to go to. As long as you stayed with the group, that was – that way, you couldn’t get lost, because there was nowhere specific to go. Contro liked following.

Because of his skill at the Looking for the Song game, though, Contro had been asked to travel on the edge of the caravan, where he could talk to anybody who came their way. There were a lot of little villages north of Caemlyn, apparently, and people in them were very interested in talking about the Song. Or so Raen said. He was awfully kind about it, too – he never sent any of the other Tinkers out to where Contro was, to try and hog his job. To tell the truth, Contro had to keep moving very fast in his little wagon, in order to keep up with the rest of the caravan – they were moving along very fast indeed. Raen said there was trouble in Caemlyn, and that if Contro got left behind by accident, he should meet up with them when they stopped at the big Tinker convention. When he asked Raen where that was, Raen had had to go off and ask some of the other Tinkers, which made Contro laugh. Fancy a Mahdi not knowing where the big Tinker convention actually was! Honestly! He was leading them towards it at a tremendous rate of knots, but he had no idea where it really was. That was very funny to Contro. Finally, Raen had returned and told Contro that the convention was just outside Tar Valon, and if he should get accidentally left behind by the main group, they would surely find him there. He stressed the fact that they would be moving very fast and in zig-zags, so not to worry too much about anything, because it might be very difficult for him to keep up his Searching for the Song and keep up with the caravan at the same time. Contro was quite sure he’d have no problems, because he was good at Searching for the Song, and people always told him it was very difficult to lose him, even if people were trying to. Contro was good at tagging along.

But when he found Aram in a tree, he forgot about the caravan for a while. The happy young Tinker was up in a tree, swinging on a rope. It looked like tremendous fun, and Contro would have joined him, but he had no rope. Aram didn’t talk to him, and Contro wondered if maybe he was still angry about the incident with the stick, when Contro had played the Searching for the Song game with him. He went over to Aram and shook his foot, and Aram’s leg was all squishy and smelled awful. Contro laughed. Trust Aram! Sitting up in a tree, swinging from a rope and breaking wind! Honestly!

Contro stopped laughing after a while, and began to wonder if something was wrong with his friend. He clambered up the tree and untied the rope, and Aram tumbled to the ground with a ploppy noise, and made another horrible gas. It was so funny that Contro laughed for a long time, but then he went back down the tree and approached the prone Tinker. He waved a hand in front of his face.

“Aram, honestly! Ha ha ha!” he laughed. “At least salute a magpie or something after you do that! Ha ha ha! Really!”

Aram didn’t say anything, and Contro noticed there was a wooden board hanging around his shoulders, with something written on it in charcoal. ‘THEIF’, it said. Contro didn’t understand, but it was funny. It was just the sort of thing Aram might do. And it was spelled wrong to boot!

In all the excitement, Contro had lost his caravan. That was a bit inconvenient to say the least, but he didn’t worry too much. Aram was lying around being all lazy, so Contro picked him up and put him in the back of the wagon. He saw that where he’d grabbed his friend, Aram’s body was all spongy and the impression of his arms had stayed across his tummy, which was really hilarious, or it would be if it didn’t smell so bad. The smell stayed on Contro’s hands too, so he went and washed them in a nearby creek. It was always good to be hygienic.

Then he carried on with his journey. He was glad Raen had told him where the convention was, because he had no idea where the Tinker caravan had gotten to. He didn’t know where Tar Valon was either, but he was sure he’d muddle it out in the end. He knew it would be a big convention when he got there, because even on that first evening, he passed close by another group of Tinkers on their way. For a minute he thought it might have been his caravan, but it turned out it couldn’t possibly have been. These Tinkers were having a big noisy party for some reason, and he hadn’t ever seen his group of Tinkers having big noisy parties. He laughed as he rode past the outskirts of the camp, seeing how much fun all the people were having. The convention at Tar Valon would be just great, if this was any indication.

Contro’s little colourful wagon went on past the campsite and on towards Tar Valon, and the next day lazy old Aram still hadn’t gotten up. Contro decided that the only thing Aram was a ‘theif’ of was the little straw bed on the floor of the wagon, which he’d been lying in all this time and making his awful break-winds all the time. But Contro didn’t mind really – it was nice to have company after so long. Somebody to ask about the Song. His little horse hadn’t known much about it, and whenever Contro asked him if he’d heard the song, he said ‘neigh’. Which was fair enough, since he was a horse, after all. It was funny the way horses said ‘neigh’. He couldn’t really expect his horse to speak anyway, of course, but it was funny to think he might one day. He was a very clever horse. Raen had given him to Contro to pull his wagon, just in case he was separated accidentally from the rest of the caravan, and Contro was glad for that now.

He had given his horse a name. He called him Cow, because that was a very funny name for a horse.

 


 

Child Foreskin, Mister See, Chucky, Perrin, Mat, Rand and Lan had all insisted on a feast to see them off. When Lord Agelmar protested feebly, Moiraine pointed out that they were all going to die anyway, so they might as well empty their fucking larders. So Fal Dara put on a splendid bash for the band of heroes, and what it lacked in atmosphere it made up for in sheer gluttony.

“I’ve never eaten roast bear before,” Chucky said around a mouthful of bleeding meat. “It’s sort of a cross between oxen and this other one, what’s this?”

“Horse,” Ingtar said coldly. “My horse.”

“It’s good. It was a good horse,” Chucky said, loading another thick steak onto his plate. “Hey, Foreskin, wanna fill my horn again, sir?”

“Horn,” Forsaken_1 sniggered, and that set the farmboys off again. Chucky clinked his drinking horn against the Questioner’s flagon of fruit juice, and quaffed mightily. Mister C of 9 sat on the opposite side of the table, a half-eaten potato on his plate and a faintly ill expression on his face as he watched the meat being brutalised.

Ingtar stormed out shortly afterwards, and the cooks brought in the ginger-glazed chickens. Loial had seven of them all by himself, and had tears in his eyes as he praised the work.

Tsingu ma choba,” Lord Agelmar replied formally, raising his horn to the Ogier. Loial bowed his head.

“No speako dago,” Mister C of 9 muttered. “What did he say?”

“It was the Old Tongue,” Lan said. The rock-faced Warder was well on the way to becoming stinking drunk. “It meant, I am unworthy and the work is small. I didn’t know Agelmar spoke that well. Silly old sod that he is,” he glared at Chucky and grabbed at his ale-pot, managing to grasp it on the third try. “Are you ready to try again, or do you want to be a novice all your life?”

Chucky grabbed his own mug. “Let’s do it, Sitter.”

They began to drink.

Chucky had almost reached the level of Accepted in the ancient banquet game, and Lan himself was Amyrlin Seat, when Ingtar burst back into the hall. He stepped over to Lord Agelmar, and whispered in his ear. Moiraine put down her fork and beckoned him over. Ingtar looked hesitant, and shook his head. Moiraine picked up her fork and beckoned again. Ingtar went over and repeated what he’d said to his Lord.

“Two women were captured attempting to scale the walls of the keep,” he murmured. “We do not know where they came from, but we have placed them in the dungeon for safety’s sake. We think they might be Aes Sedai, but they denied it.”

Moiraine stood up, her face dark. “Stay here,” she said to the others. “I’ll deal with this.”

Forsaken_1 raised his fruit juice in salute as Moiraine stalked out of the hall. Lan blinked owlishly at the tiny Aes Sedai, then swung back to face Chucky. He swung too far and almost fell off his seat, then overcorrected and planted his ale-hand into a half-eaten chicken. He raised the mug with a cascade of crispy skin and sweet glaze.

“Ready, novish?” he slurred.

 


 

“Ahh feck, it’s Moiraine.”

Janica peered blindly into the gloom. “Is it?”

“Aye. What should we say tae her?”

“I don’t know,” Janica thought furiously. “Something similar happened in the books, you see, but it was Fain in the cells, because he’d followed Rand here. But now Fain’s not here, because you threw him off the edge of the island.”

“Ach, it was’nae my fault! Those trollocs came a’runnin’, and then the Black Wind started up. And ye saw, when I dropped him off, the Wind went after him. We’d nae be here noo if it was’nae fer me.”

Janica had no wish to start that argument again. “Anyway, that’s not important. The important thing is, Moiraine and Lan questioned Fain and found out about him … but not everything. And then they leave for the Blight the next day.”

“Aye aye, but what d’we tell ‘er?”

A blurry blue shape stopped in front of Janica. “Who the fuck are you and what are you following us for?”

“Is that Moiraine?” Janica asked in disbelief.

“Aye,” Debs said, her voice quiet and awed. “Aye, it is.”

Answer me. Were you in the Ways?”

“We were,” Janica said, a glimmer of inspiration occurring to her. “It was the two of us following you, and it was we who kept the Black Wind and the trollocs away from you.”

“Trollocs in the Ways? You lie.”

“It’s the truth. We had a captive, a peddlar – the worst Darkfriend we’ve ever seen. He has been tracking Rand, and the other two, ever since Emond’s Field … for years, he’s been following them, at the Dark One’s command. He followed you through Shadar Logoth, and was tainted by the evil that lurks there. He was our captive, but he escaped us in the Ways.”

“I suppose the Black Wind spirited this mythical Darkfriend away.”

Debs thought about the last despairing scream as Fain had plummeted into the waiting arms of Machin Shin, and the satisfied nightmare-gabble of the Black Wind as it carried him away. She shuddered. “Sort of, aye.”

“A likely story. You say you were keeping the Black Wind from our trail? How?”

“This Padan Fain, the peddlar, he had a taint so strong that he … seemed to attract the Wind, and the trollocs were terrified of him. We used his power to draw the enemies from your trail,” Janica sighed. “You don’t have to believe us, but it’s the truth. We mean no harm to your mission.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me. One way or another, I’ll have the truth from you. It is forbidden, but what I do, I do for the good of the entire world.”

Moiraine channeled.

Debs felt the clumsy weaves settling over her, lattice over lattice, and knew what it meant. “It’s Compulsion!” she cried, and reached through the a’dam, through Janica, and wielded the One Power desperately.

There was a scream, a thump, and then silence.

“Oh God,” Janica murmured, feeling saidar flee as Debs swore, fumbled, and lost the Source. “Debs, you’ve stilled her.”

 


 

Lan awoke, licked the dusty taste out of his mouth with a tongue like sandpaper, and then opened his eyes.

“Never again,” he said. “Till shade is gone, till water is gone, into the Shadow with teeth bared, screaming give me a Ghul-damned drink, for the love of the Creator…” he dug at his ear, and produced a gnawed piece of turnip. “Oh no, I did the Festival of the Roots…”

Across the table, a platter of half-eaten pudding splashed onto the floor and revealed Chucky, his gleeman’s cloak folded up and slung over his shoulders as a makeshift Amyrlin’s stole. “Penance,” he mumbled. “I am Druss, you shall do penance, send her to the Farm…”

“Damn you, gleeman,” Lan rasped, climbing to his feet. “Damn you thrice. It’s been seven years since Moiraine last cut my bond for overindulging, and I swore it would never have to happen again.”

“She cuts your bond?” Chucky frowned, the pudding in his eyebrows squishing together.

“She’s only done it a few times, and she always re-establishes it again after the hangover,” Lan stepped away from the table and almost tripped over Loial. “Big unconscious bastard…”

“But you’re not suicidal?” Chucky also stood up, wincing at the bright rays of sunshine from the arrow slits.

“I wish I was dead. Does that count?” He suddenly brightened. “Well, there’s a turnup. She re-bonded me already. I feel so much better,” he straightened, and pulled a few swordfighting poses to limber up. Chucky muttered a discouraging word. “She’s on her way up from the dungeons, I don’t doubt she’ll have a few choice words to say to us all.”

A side door to the banquet hall crashed open, and Forsaken_1 jogged in. He’d tucked his white robe up into his jeans for the sake of his morning constitutional. “Good morning, all!” he yodelled. “Hope we’re all well!” Forsaken_1 was one of those people who drank fruit juice while everybody else drank ale, and ended up having as good as night as anybody, with the added benefit of feeling great the next day as well. He high-knee jogged up to the head of the banquet table, and did a few star jumps. It was, of course, a ruse – of the whole party, it was possible that only Chucky and Mister C of 9 hated physical exercise more than Forsaken_1. But he had to do it to rub in how bad everybody else felt. “It’s a lovely day outside. Brisk!”

“Damn you, Child Foreskin,” Lan growled. “Just when I was beginning to feel okay.”

The side door banged open again, and Mister C of 9 strode into the hall with a wide white smile and unreadable black sunglasses. “Ahhhh, good-”

Shut the fuck up,” Chucky snapped. “If one more person-” another door boomed wide. “Right, that’s it,” Chucky spun. “You inconsiderate cun…”

Moiraine raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Muh…Muh…Moiraine?” Chucky gaped. “You…”

“What?”

“Who’s that?” C of 9 lowered his shades for a better look, before realising that wouldn’t help. Fortunately, Moiraine was looking the other way. “Moiraine, is that you?”

“Who else would it be? What the fuck is your problem?”

“Moiraine,” Lan choked. “You look great.”

“Fantastic,” Forsaken_1 agreed. “I’m a happily married man, and I’ve got a chubby.”

“I’ve never seen you looking so…” Lan blinked and turned to Forsaken_1. “Did you say you were married? A Questioner?”

“Oh, ah,” Forsaken_1 froze, and a bolt of horrible creativity struck him. “Married to my thumbscrews.”

Lan turned back to his Aes Sedai. “You look twenty years younger,” he admitted. “What happened to you?”

“Get stilled?” Chucky grinned.

Moiraine looked disgruntled. “Nothing bloody happened to me. I was interrogating the captives, when they knocked me unconscious and escaped. When I came to, there was no sign of them. Somebody broke them out, right through the back wall of the fucking prison,” she nudged Loial with a toe. “Whoever it was must have been built like this cunt.”

Loial rolled over and opened his eyes. “Good morning, you pretty little thing,” he said dimly. “I don’t remember eating you.”

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Mini bonus post: Status Report

I know I’ve been a bit shy about revealing my writing status and to be honest I haven’t gotten much done by my usual reckless standards. But after tonight (as of this post’s drafting it is half-past two in the morning and I’m about to creep off and find a bed) I’m feeling pretty good.

I don’t really have much excuse, except of course the usual constraints on my time. Mrs. Hatboy is extraordinarily patient with me and lets me write basically whenever, but I actively stop myself because when you’re me, “whenever” becomes “fucking always” very easily. Then there’s work, which is fine but stressful, and assorted domestic responsibilities that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Although a servant to do the actual chores would be great.

Oh well.

The anthology, tentatively titled Panda Egg, is coming together. Specifically, I have the final parts of two stories still to do, and the final 2/3-to-3/4 of the titular panhandling epic still to write. For a while, I didn’t really know where any of them were heading.

mystery

Sometimes it really is.

But now I’m starting to figure it out, and the words have resumed their flow.

As for The Last Days of Earth, that is still on hold although unofficially I’m still chipping away at that too. I know exactly where that story is going, but I’m still working on the telling. Every now and then I figure out a chunk of it, or solve a problem or connect up a few dots, and I scribble it down.

It’s all happening. Just not very fast. So do try to enjoy the Steal of Time. I’m certainly enjoying re-reading it as I post.

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The Lie of the World, Part 15

Moiraine and Lan returned to the inn several hours later, bearing Rand and Mat between them. Mister C of 9, Forsaken_1, Chucky, Loial, Egwene and Nynaeve were seated around the fire, chatting over port and cigars. The two women leapt to their feet and ran to the dishevelled farmboys.

“I shee you met Loial,” Rand slurred, an asinine grin on his face. “He’sh an Ogier.”

“They were at that brothel on the corner,” Lan said. “The one called Greasing the Badger.”

“Oh Rand,” Egwene said reproachfully. “How could you?”

“It wazh eashy,” Mat chipped in. “We jusht pulled off our breeshesh and it happened.”

Chucky took a puff on his cigar and raised his glass to the two boys. “You have made men of yourselves,” he said plummily. “Kudos.”

Moiraine fixed the gleeman with a poisonous glare. “What’s that you’re fucking wearing?”

“What? It’s my gleeman’s cloak.”

“Under the cunting cloak.”

Chucky lifted the cloak to reveal crushed velour. The letters TQB were monogrammed onto the lapel. “Oh this. It’s a dressing gown. There’s one in every room, compliments of the establishment – see, ‘TQB’, for ‘The Queen’s Blessing’. And you know what else? All this stuff is free,” he raised the glass again, and swirled it happily. “Salut.”

“Shut the fucking fuck up. You two, get upstairs and wash that badger oil off yourselves,” Moiraine jerked a thumb. Rand and Mat sheepishly obeyed, but Rand paused at the door.

“We met shome of your friendsh at the bordello,” he said to Loial. “They were having a whale of a time. Well, one of them wazh,” he giggled. “The othersh were jusht trying to get him to leave.”

Loial went white. “No,” he whispered. “No, they wouldn’t be so cruel. Even Elder Haman! They wouldn’t have sent Hoarni after me!”

“Who?” Forsaken_1 asked around the soggy end of his stogie. He was feeling like a Texan oil baron.

“My Erith, she has an older brother,” Loial had lurched to his feet and was pacing back and forth. His own mongrammed dressing gown came less than halfway down his thighs, and the lapels didn’t meet at the front. Chucky and Mister C of 9 had insisted he wear it anyway, lest he be banned from the Gentlemen’s Club. “And three inseparable friends. They are looking for me.”

“He wazhn’t looking for you when we shaw him,” Mat grinned.

Loial threw his port into the fire and marched over to stand in front of Moiraine. “We must leave the city at once,” he said with uncharacteristic heat, “and we must leave in absolute secrecy. I think we should take the Ways.”

“The Ways!” Moiraine cried. “Are you Ghul-damned bugshit? We’ll be killed!”

“I can guide us through the darkness,” Loial said breathlessly. “I am quite sure of it.”

Lan nudged Moiraine. “You know, you were talking about going to the Green Man,” he said, “and this would be the quickest way.”

“Creator help me, please!” Loial cried. “You do not know what Hoarni is capable of!”

“I do,” Rand sniggered.

Chucky took his cigar out of his mouth. “Mister See and I don’t want to go into the Ways,” he said deliberately.

“Pack your fucking bags,” Moiraine said decisively. “We’re going. All of us.”

 


 

“I care not if the thing was given to you by the Creator Himself – nobody covers their heads while walking the streets of Fal Dara.”

“But that’s an ancient tradition relating back to the infiltration of halfmen, and their methods of disguise. You can clearly see my eyes, and the fact that I have eyes would seem to imply that I am not Shadowspawn.”

“Chucky, take off the stupid hat.”

Chucky sighed bitterly. “I made this hat myself.”

“It shows. What is it anyway?” Mister C of 9 pulled the hat off Chucky’s head and peered at it through his sunglasses.

“Leatherleaf with braided grass bindings, a gleeman-cloak motif decoration in coloured cloth and this here,” he pointed to the brim proudly, “is genuine Tairen lace.”

“That’s girly. Where did you get it anyway?”

“An Ogier in Caemlyn gave the lace to me as part of a promotion, but I made the rest myself.”

Loial, at the back of the gathering, shifted his enormous feet. “That was not an Ogier. That was a pair of merchants dressed up as an Ogier.”

“Whatever it was, that’s some fine handcraft. And they want me to throw it away.”

Rand turned from his excited study of the city. “They don’t want you to throw it away,” he said reasonably, “they just want you to take it off. For now. Come on Chucky, let’s get as far away from that Waygate as we can, and get inside this mint city here. Look at it.”

Chucky had to admit that he’d be happier if the Waygate was far behind them. All things considered, it hadn’t been all that harrowing, but some of the things they’d seen had been disturbing. The constant tension of knowing what was going to happen next had drained Chucky’s strength, and when they were attacked by neither trollocs nor Machin Shin, the unexpectedness of it had left him off-balance. In the end, they hadn’t actually encountered anybody, and when they arrived at the Fal Dara gate, the key-leaf had not been missing as it had been in the book. And Mister C of 9’s endless games of ‘I spy, with my little eye’ had almost been the end of him.

“It’s not mint,” the gleeman snapped. “It’s even worse than the other places we’ve been to. It’s a town of hillbillies in the north of nowhere, rednecks and hicks and country types. Didn’t you ever see Deliverance?”

“No. What’s a Deliverance?”

Chucky took off his hat and sighed. “It’s a story. I’ll tell it to you one day.”

“Mint!”

The large crowd of travellers made their way peacefully into Fal Dara. Chucky paused at the gates and watched in outrage as Mister See the gleeman apprentice passed without so much as a cavity search. C of 9 grinned at Chucky from behind his dark sunglasses.

“That’s so unfair!” he hissed as the myrddraal stepped past him. “My eyes weren’t even covered, and I had to de-hat myself. You’ve got … got those things on, and they let you past.”

“Maybe it’s a matter of good taste.”

“Maybe you should shut up about taste, Mambo boy.”

They were taken straight to the keep, where they were greeted in person by Ingtar and Lord Agelmar. Agelmar was delighted to have an Aes Sedai under his roof, though his happiness faded somewhat when Moiraine began to talk.

“No I am not going to fucking win your war for you,” she snapped. “You want me to hike up to bumfuck nowhere and sit in a cleft in the rock, blasting the shit out of trollocs? What are you, an infant? Kill the big ornery cunts yourself.”

Lord Agelmar soldiered on bravely. “There are more trollocs and fades in the Blight this year than there have been since the Trolloc Wars, mistress Sedai. We meet them at Tarwin’s Gap, but our forces are depleted, and we fear we may not be able to hold them. Relief from the other Borderland nations has been slow to come, and lacking in numbers-”

Shut the fuck up. We’re not coming to the fight with you. We’re going into the Blight to deal with this shit once and for all. You should be fucking thanking us.”

“Will you at least let us send some men with you – a thousand or so, for your safekeeping?” Ingtar asked. Moiraine rolled her eyes.

“We’ll be too busy to babysit your cadets, Ingtar. It’s the Blight we’re going to, not a Ghul-damned barn dance. They’ll just be in the way, as bloody usual.”

Chucky leaned over to Mister C of 9, and pointed to Ingtar. “Boromir,” he said quietly.

C nodded sagely. “Does he screw things up by betraying us?”

“Not too badly. We might as well let him get on with it.”

“What’s the One Ring in this analogy? Moiraine?”

“The Eye of the World.”

“Ahh. An Eye, of course. Let me guess – it’s some sort of reservoir of enormous power, made thousands of years ago and imbued with the might of long-dead magicians, so that even when their magic was lost, their power could be retrieved at need, so they would never truly die.”

“Pretty much.”

“And it was hidden from the eyes of men, lest the powers of evil find it and twist it to their own sinister purposes.”

“Yup.”

Forsaken_1 had seated himself by the fire. Lord Agelmar glanced across at him a little distastefully.

“Are you sure that it is wise to take a Questioner with you on this quest?” he asked. “Their mistrust of all things relating to the One Power is well-known.”

“He’s been useful to us,” Lan said firmly. Lord Agelmar nodded his acceptance, and Forsaken_1 picked something out of his left ear with a pinky finger.

“Look at that,” he said, “that’s almost pure wax, baby,” he noticed everybody was watching him. “What?”

“When do you leave?” Agelmar asked.

 


 

It had been almost a week, as near as Janica could calculate, and she was now convinced that they were utterly lost. The four Ogier accompanying them on their journey through the Ways were unwilling to admit it, but they obviously couldn’t read the signposts. The group they were meant to be following were long gone, and the Ogier had changed their tactics. No longer worried about reaching the Fal Dara Waygate, they were now just trying to find any Waygate, anywhere, and get out of the Ways while they still could.

The perpetual darkness, the howling sounds of distant winds and beasts, and the dead, wasted coldness of the place were beginning to bring all four of the Ogier out in a serious case of premature Longing. Hoarni himself, who had had the Longing since setting foot outside of stedding Shangtai, was becoming quite inconsolable. Debs and Janica, of Scotland and Finland respectively, found the environment almost cosy, but there were other problems to consider. Not the least of which was their new ‘guide’.

“Snapping in my head, snapping and curling they are, yes, yes, gnawing and pulling at me, it hurts, he hurts me so, al’Thor, must kill al’Thor, must serve him, yes, no…” Padan Fain sounded like a phone-sex worker on acid. He had caught the sul’dam, damane and their Ogier escort just as they were working out how to get into the Waygate in Caemlyn. They were looking in vain for the Avendesora leaf, which it seemed Moiraine had moved when she went through. The terror-stricken Ogier were no help, and Debs had been about to give up when the skinny peddlar had stepped out of the shadows and opened the gate with creepy ease. Since then, he had accompanied them.

“Say summat useful, or shut up,” Debs snapped. “I thought ye could track him.”

“According to this signpost, we are heading for the Wifflestork Waygate,” Wyse said, kneeling beside a weathered old column. The darkness pressed close, and Fain gibbered.

“Where’s Wifflestork?” Janica asked the Ogier.

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“In my head, my head, it swells and I hate him so, I hate them all, must die, must kill, must live and kill and die.”

“This skinny shite’s beginnin’ tae piss me off.”

Janica stepped as close to Fain as the a’dam would allow. She had found that being close to the peddlar brought her neck out in a nasty chilly ache, which grew worse the closer she got – it probably had something to do with his Shadar Logoth side, or perhaps his deep immersion in the Dark One. She had long since stopped trying to reason with him, but she found that standing close was acutely discomforting to him as well, so she did it whenever she wanted his attention. “Where are you leading us, Padan Fain? Rand al’Thor is in Fal Dara, not Wifflestork.”

The ever-present taint in the Ways may also have been having an effect on everybody – Janica hadn’t embraced saidar since that first time, when she’d tried to make a light to see by, and had ended up bringing into being a flock of highly unpleasant, phosphorescent bat-beetles. They had attacked Debs incessantly, until Fain had reached out, grabbed one, and eaten it. Then the rest had flapped away, saying “Sumbitch! Sumbitch!” in reedy, stressful voices. Fain had spent a while asking Janica to “do it again, great lady” in wheedling tones, but had eventually given up. Janica wasn’t very fond of the feeling of the taint, which seemed to affect even the female side of the Source in the Ways.

Fain’s eyes were glazed, but he looked down at Janica when she moved close. He shuffled away, but was close to the edge of the island, and didn’t want to risk plummeting into the dark infinity. “Al’Thor,” he said. “In my head, in his head, him and the others, Lews Therin … ahh, Lews Therin, he’s dead, I’m dead, we’re dying in here.”

Coarshus moaned unhappily.

“Have to find al’Thor, the Great Lord sent me, boiled me down, distilled me, made me His hound, have to go to the place al’Thor went … it’s this way,” Fain pointed back the way they had come. “This way, great lady.”

“Feckin’ Heel,” Debs muttered.

“Why were we going that way, then?” Janica demanded, pointing past the signpost and the narrow bridge that stretched into the darkness, towards the mysterious Waygate at Wifflestork. Fain giggled and began to sidle away from the damane, back the way they had come. “He’s as crazy as a loon.”

They accompanied Fain back into the shadows.

Behind them, up the Wifflestork road, a small band of trollocs caught their scent and followed.

Behind them, attracted by the hated presence of Shadar Logoth in which Padan Fain was soaked, the Black Wind stirred itself. There had been many visitors to the Ways in recent months, but none of them had had such an interesting aroma.

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The Lie of the World, Part 14

The Queen’s Blessing was fairly quiet, compared to the growing riot outside. Apparently, several merchants had decided the Ogier costume was a clever Cairhienin idea, and were adopting the ploy to market their own stock. The streets of Caemlyn were filling up with a throng of actors and merchants’ guardsmen dressed in Ogier costumes of varying quality.

Chucky, Mister C of 9 and Forsaken_1 were sitting at the bar. Set before the gleeman was a dirty, foaming mug of ale which had given Chucky a very powerful Foretelling. He had Foretold he was going to throw up. Forsaken_1 had asked for a mineral water, and had been given a glass of water with a stone in it. Mister C of 9 had asked for a coke, and was sitting on his stool with a sour, thirsty expression on his sunglassed face and nothing in front of him.

“You’ve checked every room?” Forsaken_1 asked for the tenth time.

“Every single one,” Chucky replied. A cockroach scuttled towards his beer, then curled up and died when it encountered a spilled puddle of the same substance. “We even checked some of the rooms twice.”

“One of them five times,” Mister C of 9 supplied, cheering up slightly. “It’s a funny thing – in such a backwards world, where the technology of nylon and elastic has yet to be invented, just how alluring woolen underwear can be.”

“Shut up, Mister See. Moiraine will kill you if she ever finds out you raided her panty-chest.”

“She’ll never find out, because if she does, Lan will find out where his codpiece went.”

Chucky almost knocked over his ale. “I never touched his codpiece!”

He doesn’t need to know that.”

“Maybe Rand and Mat got a room in another Inn,” Forsaken_1 said hastily. “Are you sure you told them to come here?”

“I’m sure. And they should have been here before us, because they weren’t … inconvenienced in Whitebridge the way we were.”

“Ah well. I’m sure Moiraine and Lan will find them. They’ve been wandering in the city for hours.”

There was a scream from the nearby common room. “Trolloc!”

“Perrin’s found Loial,” Chucky said, getting up and leaving his ale behind. “Maybe we should go and defuse the situation.”

Mister C of 9 joined the gleeman. “You forgot this,” he said, handing Chucky his ale.

Chucky sighed. “Thanks, See.”

Perrin was pale-faced and staring when the others joined him in the common room. Loial was sitting in a huge armchair near the fire, one thick finger holding the place in his book, an expression of patient suffering on his face. He lumbered to his feet when he saw the gleeman, the apprentice and the Questioner step into the room.

“I’m not a trolloc,” he said, sounding mildly offended. “And I’m not selling clothes and bedding. And I am not interested in taking off my pants. I am in fact a real Ogier, from a real stedding, in spite of what you might have heard on the streets.”

Chucky remembered the strange spectacle outside and the sudden craze that had followed it. “I believe you, Loial,” he said, raising a hand. “I recognise a real Ogier when I see one. It’s an honour.”

“How did you know my name? Even though you are saying it wrong – it is in fact pronounced ‘Loial’.”

Loyal?” Chucky frowned. “It’s not pronounced that way in the back of the book.”

“I’m in a book?”

“No. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you. I am Chucky, this is my apprentice Mister See, and this is Child Foreskin, Hand of the Light.”

Loial looked faintly apprehensive. “I am not a trolloc.”

“I believe you,” Forsaken_1 said.

“At ease, Peregrin,” Mister C of 9 said, patting the giant blacksmith on the shoulder. “He’s just an Ogre.”

“Perrin,” Perrin corrected.

“Ogier,” Chucky said at the same time.

“Whatever,” Mister C shrugged.

“Say, Loial,” Forsaken_1 said, surprised by yet another blast of inspiration, “have you seen anybody around here who might be Rand and Mat?”

“Who?”

“Skinny guy with a big hat, and a tall guy who looks like an Aielman,” Chucky supplied.

“Oh yes!” Loial brightened. “Him. Them. They were here. They shouted at me as well. But then they went for a walk around the city. They both said their names were Druss.”

“That’s them,” Mister C nodded.

“Moiraine and Lan will find them,” Chucky looked around the common room. “Now, what about Nynaeve and Egwene? If we can just keep track of all these idi-”

“Trolloc!”

“There they are,” Forsaken_1 pointed.

 


 

Debs and Janica were wandering through the streets of Caemlyn aimlessly. They were accosted numerous times by men in Ogier costumes, alternatively selling household products or seeking sexual liaisons. Debs was forced to admit that not interfering with the narrative had sounded a lot easier than it really was. She was thankful for small mercies, however – at least, when that last ‘Ogier’ had approached them, the nearsighted Janica had assumed he was selling toffee apples, and had let him off with a polite “No thank you, a bit too sticky for my taste.” If the damane had actually seen what was being wielded in front of her face, the One Power might have been employed.

Janica’s own worries were somewhat more abstract. She found herself thinking about the changes that might have taken place thanks to the interference wreaked by real-worlders.

“Rand hasn’t met Elayne,” she muttered to herself. “And he hasn’t met the Queen, he hasn’t met Galad and Gawyn, he wasn’t seen by Elaida … he wasn’t seen by Elaida!”

“Wha’?” Debs was still thinking about Logain and his toffee apple.

“Rand was supposed to go into the palace and be brought before Elaida. She had a Foretelling about him. And then they got back to the inn and there were Red Sisters looking for him, and that’s why they had to escape into the Ways.”

“Aye! She sid that after all the things that happened, they had tae goo an’ see the Green Man.”

“Will they do that now?” Janica pondered. “They don’t know the Red Ajah is after them…”

“Wha’ aboot the Weetclooks?” Debs stopped in the street, and the crowds washed around her. “Weren’t the Weetclooks after ’em?”

“That could be,” Janica said, thinking furiously. “But I don’t think that will force them into the Ways. They really took the Ways so they could get to the Blight, and the Green Man. I don’t think the Whitecloaks cause much of a problem,” she stared blindly into the crowd for a moment, fingering her a’dam. “We have to tip off Elaida.”

“Wha’?”

“We have to tell Elaida about Rand, and get her to meet him. Then Moiraine will see the importance of getting to the Green Man…”

“Are ye sure aboot this?”

Janica gestured to the looming, wobbling Ogier impersonators. “We’ve already messed with the narrative enough,” she said, “This is the only way we can make sure it’s not screwed up entirely – I’ve thought it through. We can do this, and make sure the characters aren’t aware they’re being manipulated.”

“Alreet. Hoo’re we goin’ tae get intae the palace?”

Janica pointed back over her shoulder. “Why not the same way Rand did?”

Debs’ shoulders slumped.

 


 

The Tinkers were on the move again, and had drawn close to Caemlyn when the small group of newcomers arrived at their wagons. Contro was on the welcoming committee – truth be told, he was the welcoming committee. He had been placed on the outskirts of the camp, in a little tent of his own, with instructions to meet people as they came in, and ask them about the Song. Raen the Mahdi had told him it would be better for everybody if he stopped asking the other Tinkers about the Song, and stuck to asking visitors.

Contro’s tent was set up on the far side of the camp, on the opposite side to Raen and the little groups of city-folk who entered the camp to get their pots and wagons mended. In fact, the side of the camp on which Contro was set up received next to no visitors at all, since it was the side of the camp that faced away from the city, and there was nobody out there at all. Contro guessed he was so good at Searching for the Song, this was a sort of handicap for him.

When the visitors did arrive, however, Contro was happy to do his job.

“Hello! Ha ha ha!! You look funny! Aww, but I’m sure you don’t look funny really! I just thought you did!! I hope I didn’t upset you!”

“Not at all, my young friend,” one of the four newcomers said in a soft voice. “I must apologise for our appearance. We had to walk in disguise while in the city, to avoid attention.”

“It worked, too,” the second remarked from behind a crude mask that Contro wondered whether it should be described as ‘crude’, or perhaps as something else. It was a very nice mask, at least some people might have thought so. Contro couldn’t say, because he didn’t know much about masks. “With all the people in there dressed up as Ogier, we didn’t cause much disturbance. It was a nice plan, I have to say.”

“They’re really good! You look like a very big man! Ha ha ha!! And I like your cloak! What’s it made of? It looks like leather!! Ha ha ha!”

The four strangers exchanged a glance.

“Are you a Tinker?” the one Contro thought of as the Main Speaking One asked.

“I sure am! And I like your mask too!!” Contro added to one of the others. “And the rest! Ha ha ha! Look at that! You look like one of those sex guys, not that I know what a sex guy looks like!!! Ha ha ha!! Oh yes, I’m a Tinker, I have to ask you if you’ve found the Song lately.”

“Not lately, I’m afraid,” the first fellow said gravely. He really was very tall. Contro wondered if he was wearing stilts as part of his costume, or if he was really that tall. “Actually, we didn’t mean to come to this camp at all. We were in the city, and decided to leave once we had … found what we needed.”

“We could have stayed, and enjoyed ourselves,” said the one who was dressed up a little bit like a sex guy. “It’s been so long…”

“Shut up, Balthamel,” the leader said. He had funny eyes. They were very well done. “Anyway, now we’re here, and we might as well make use of this situation. Tell me, Tinker – do you know a man named Perrin? Perhaps a woman named Egwene?”

Those names did seem terribly familiar, but Contro was quite sure he didn’t know such people – not personally. He might have met them, and even talked with them … he even had a very vivid memory of one of them tickling him for some reason. It was funny the tricks memory could play on you. It was so funny that he laughed aloud. “Ha ha ha!! Trust you! How could I know anybody like that? I don’t know many people!! Ha ha ha! Funny that! I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody by those names!”

“Wrong group of Tinkers,” the leader muttered to himself. “Oh well, it was worth a shot. We’ll do this by the book.”

“Ha ha ha! What book would that be, then?!”

“You wouldn’t know it,” the leader swapped his shotgun over onto his other shoulder – Contro noticed its barrel was twined around with white cloth and white cord, and wondered if it was supposed to mean something. “It’s a big person’s book. And we’re late for our appointment at the Eye. Aginor, would you do the honours?”

The third fellow, who was dressed in green and hadn’t said anything much yet, nodded and raised a hand. It was all wrinkly, like he’d been in a bath for too long. Or maybe a fish tank – it looked like he’d been nibbled on a little bit, as well as wrinkling. His skin was all floppy and flaky and falling off. Contro wondered if it was special makeup. It was very convincing. The bright blue slash of light that sheared into the air like a lightsabre was also very well done, and the newcomers stepped through a hole in the air and into some sort of dark, stone chamber. Warm, flickering light illuminated the exciting-looking room, but Contro couldn’t see any details.

One of the visitors remained on Contro’s side of the doorway, glaring at Contro with eyes that looked sort of smudged to be honest. The leader stuck his head back through the door and coughed.

“Shadar, can we get on? Lots of prep to do before the goons arrive.”

The final visitor went through, and the doorway vanished. Contro was disappointed that they hadn’t talked to him more about Songs. He had been sure he’d seen a flicker of recognition in the eyes of the one who’d been dressed up like a sex guy. He laughed as he remember how funnily they had been dressed. And had one of them been carrying a shotgun? Did anybody have shotguns here? Contro didn’t think there was such things as shotguns here. He must have seen something else, and assumed it was a shotgun, because it had looked like one. In fact he didn’t actually know what a shotgun looked like, so it couldn’t have been one really.

As quickly as that, Contro convinced himself that he hadn’t seen anybody at all.

 


 

“Ah canna meek et!”

“It’s just a little further. Don’t make me lift you up with weaves of air – I might mess it up and rob you of what little dignity you have left.”

Debs clung to the wall and tried to think buoyant thoughts. All she could really think about was how well she would stand out against the pale stone, and how stupid she must look to any passers-by. Halfway up a rock face, her arm attached via a slender chain to a tiny grey-clad girl who was draped over the top of the wall, slowly choking to death.

With a final titanic effort, she hauled herself up and clasped to the top of the wall, wheezing hoarsely.

“Now, it’s just a little drop to the ground on the other side…”

“Nae!”

“We have to – we’re sitting ducks up here,” Janica swivelled around nimbly, and prepared to jump. “You have to come with me – the chain won’t reach all the way, and I’ll be hanged for sure if you don’t drop at the same time. I’m still connected to you by the a’dam, remember?”

“I remember,” Debs said miserably. “Ye knoo all my secrets noo.”

“And if I’d known you were scared of heights, I wouldn’t have suggested this,” Janica said sympathetically. “The sooner we’re back on the ground, the better you’ll feel, right? Right,” without waiting for a response, the little damane leapt.

Debs stared at the rapidly uncoiling chain, swore to herself, and rolled off the top of the wall and into the Queen’s garden. She landed heavily on her backside. “Noo what dae we dae?”

“Noo,” Janica replied, dusting herself off, “we head for the palace. We should be able to pass ourselves off as Aes Sedai well enough to get a meeting with the Queen, and Elaida will be there.”

“And then wha’?”

“Then, we just hope Elaida is interested by our news concerning the Dragon Reborn. We’ll tell her he’s hiding at The Queen’s Blessing, and hope that Moiraine gets them all into the Wees – um, the Ways – before the Red Ajah catches him.”

“Thass a lot o’ hopin’. Wha’ if she catches him an’ gennels him?”

Janica patted her sul’dam on the arm. “We have to trust the Pattern.”

“Ah knew et.”

As luck would have it, they were accosted by palace guards almost immediately, and were escorted before the Queen as soon as Janica had demonstrated her Aes Sedainess. One of the guards became briefly convinced he was the Keymaster when Janica tried to open a Gateway, but he came back to his senses as soon as Janica released the Source.

“It’s dangerous for Aes Sedai in the city right now,” the captain of the guards said gruffly. “Even with the False Dragon safely bound.”

“Ach, ye’re sweet tae say so,” Debs said, “but we’ve’nae been in trouble. Lot’s o’ perverts aroond, but we knoo hoo tae deal wi’ perverts. Daen’t we, Janica?”

“Marry them?” Janica smirked. Debs roared with laughter.

They were brought before the Queen.

“Debs Sedai and Janica Sedai, of the Green Ajah,” the captain of the guards said by way of introduction. The sul’dam and damane sketched awkward little curtsies to the women at the centre of the great throne room.

“That’s never natural blonde,” Janica hissed. Debs nodded.

It wasn’t Morgase who spoke, however. Elaida, her eyes bright and fierce, stepped forward and glared at the two intruders.

“These are not Aes Sedai,” she said. “They’re wilders, perhaps not even that. This one barely has the spark, for all that she may be taught,” she gestured to Janica. “This one … well, this one is immensely powerful, but she is not Aes Sedai, nevertheless. Tell me where you came from, girls – the truth, or it will go hard for you.”

Debs and Janica exchanged a glance.

“We were accompanying Moiraine Damodred in the Two Rivers,” Janica said glibly. “She found several women who she believed could be trained – I apologise for the disrespect and presumption in impersonating Aes Sedai, but these are troubled times and our need was great.”

“Good,” Elaida said, seeming pleased by the apology. Janica had long since figured out that the best way to deal with self-important assholes was to apologise to them for no reason. They liked to be apologised to, because on a deep psychological level, they had so very much to apologise for that any sort of apology from any direction was like a pressure relief valve opening in their heads. “You shall be taken to the White Tower-”

“We have other news,” Debs said hurriedly. “Cadsuane herself told us to bring this tae yer attention.”

Elaida flinched. “Cadsuane! You lie!”

Debs shrugged massively. “Nae lees, lass. The Dragon Reborn is here in the city, Moiraine is taking him somewhere with the other girls and boys from the Two Rivers. We danna knae where.”

“They’re at an inn called The Queen’s Blessing,” Janica went on helpfully. “You can find them there, but we have to move on, there are important things Cadsuane wants us to do-”

“Nonsense,” Elaida stepped up to the two and glared at them. “You will accompany us to the White Tower with Logain’s party and that of Moiraine, and this new False Dragon of whom you speak. Then we shall have the truth.”

Debs had brightened considerably at the thought of being brought along with the Logain group, but Janica shook her head. “We can’t do that,” she addressed the empty air to Elaida’s right. “We have to go and-”

“And what is this?” Elaida pointed. “This is some sort of ter’angreal. You have stolen it from somewhere. Give it to me,” it took them a moment to realise she was talking about the a’dam. “The punishment for stealing angreal and ter’angreal is immediate-”

“We canna give it tae ye, it wil’nae come off,” Debs said, backing away.

“You lie,” Elaida said again, and grabbed hold of the chain connecting Debs to Janica. Immediately she stiffened, and her face went blank.

“It’s the Foretelling!” Morgase snapped out of her apparent NPC catatonia and spoke for the first time. “I’ve seen it before.”

Elaida spoke. “From this day Andor marches toward pain and division. The Shadow has yet to darken to its blackest, and I cannot see if the Light will come after. Where the world has wept one tear, it will weep thousands,” she trailed off, and her eyes cleared. She stared at Debs and Janica with awe and terror. When she continued, her voice had dropped to a harsh, choked whisper that only the sul’dam and her damane heard. “Pain and division come to the whole world, and these two women stand in the heart of it.”

There was a pause in the throne room. Janica felt her heart sinking through her little grey damane-shoes. Elaida backed away, hands raised up in front of her face.

“Guards …?” Morgase said hesitantly. “Elaida? What should we do with them?”

When Elaida spoke, her voice was barely a whisper.

“Let them go,” she said, “and keep the Red Ajah away from The Queen’s Blessing.”

“Ahh, feck,” Debs muttered.

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