Summer holidays –>

I’m going to be taking another little hiatus from the blog, most likely. My summer holiday (part one) starts now, and next week we’re shipping out to Dublin for Worldcon 2019. I’ve been looking forward to this (and saving up my book royalties for it) for two years now, and I predict I’m going to be too busy to post very much (even Steal parts; it requires a bit of formatting and editing, and furthermore I’m going to run out of The Fake Hunt halfway through the trip and haven’t migrated the next book yet).

But who knows? I might have some random bits and pieces to throw on here.

See you in a while!

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The Fake Hunt, Part 12

“What is this thing, Nancy Sidesaddle?” Gaul asked distrustfully, poking his spears at the long, sleek box Shannon had excavated.

“Ain’t not rightly sure,” Shannon replied, scooping away a bit more sand from the lower edge of the stasis box. “I think it’s a relic of some kind – an ancient treasure. Or maybe something ancient and worthless-like.”

“What a lucky chance, that you happened to strike it with your wagon!” Gaul exclaimed. “Now there’s a thing.”

“I wish he’d stop saying that,” Dr. Nick muttered as Gaul wandered off. The entire group of Aiel had stopped in their tracks and were setting up camp, even though it was still only mid-morning, and the spot they had camped the night before was still visible in the distance. The foothills of the Spine of the World were treacherous, but that wasn’t the only thing keeping them from moving forward. Narrative causality was acting against them. “It’s starting to piss me off.”

“Y’all’d better git on back to fixing those thar axles,” Shannon said, “before Gaul takes you for another o’ them long, pointless scoutin’ missions. If we’re goin’ to haul this thing on outta here, we’re gonna need that wagon up and running.”

“What do I know about fixing wagons?”

“Ain’t you an engineer? Figure something out.”

“I’m not a useful engineer,” Dr. Nick fumed. “I’m one of those maths and offices engineers who know fuck-all and can’t do anything worthwhile,” he paused. “Did you hear me say that?” he demanded. “That was ta’veren at work, I’m telling you, I had no control over my voice. And Gaul’s all the way over there! I couldn’t stop saying what I was saying, I had no control – the truth just came straight out about how useless engineers are and what a drain on society they cause and how they’re basically cultural dead weight,” he slapped his hand over his mouth, and glared at Shannon. Shannon didn’t look up from his digging.

The stasis box was embedded in the side of the mountain at a diagonal, as if it had been thrown there by some tremendous force. One side of it was stuck in solid rock, and the uppermost edge of it had only just broken the surface with the help of wind erosion. It had snagged the wagon’s wheels and broken both the wagon’s axles. Shannon wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get it out, but then again he wasn’t sure he’d have to – he’d found what looked like the fastenings and hinges to open the thing, and they were clear of any sort of obstruction.

“Right, change of plan,” Shannon said. “I’ll just open ‘er up, and we can load all the shocklances and glowbulbs into the wagon.”

“Whoa! How do you know it’s shocklances and glowbulbs?” Dr. Nick demanded. “There could be anything in there. Stuff from the Age of Legends. There could be a gholam. You ever think of that?”

“Yeah,” Shannon said, “but I wasn’t too worried. I mean, we found this thing because we were meant to, right?”

“No, we found this thing because of that damn ta’veren messing us around. Look, we might get killed!”

“Shut up, or I’ll tell Gaul that you was talkin’.”

Dr. Nick subsided into angry muttering. Shannon opened the stasis box. There was a soft hiss of escaping air, and a chilly puff of steam emerged from the open container. Shannon smelled the frigid electrical smell of a supermarket dairy stall. He peered into the dark, tilted space.

“What’s in there?” Dr. Nick whispered.

“Well, there’s a OH MY GOD GET IT OFFA ME! GET IT OFFA ME!!!”

Dr. Nick screamed.

Shannon raised his head and grinned. “Gotcha.”

“You cunt.”

The curvaceous merchant produced a long, plastic-wrapped package from the stasis box. It was about four feet long, slightly bendy, and seemed to contain a bundle of sticks and a bowling ball. On the plastic wrapping was a slick, glitzy little logo and the words ‘AGINOR BIO-WEAPONS CORPORATION’.

“Well fuckity doo,” Shannon whistled. “Looks like you was right.”

He turned over the unattractive bundle, and pointed the ball-end at Dr. Nick. The gholam‘s face was clearly visible even through the layers of protective wrapping. He slapped the freeze-dried creature down on the pile of dirt he’d shoveled up from around the box. Dr. Nick edged away from it.

“There’s more stuff in here,” Shannon announced. “But it all looks sorta ruined. There’s some little statues, and an axe of some sort, and a chess set. And a television.”

“Really?” Dr. Nick craned forward again.

“Yeah, well it sure looks like one,” Shannon lugged the smooth black cube up and set it on the sand next to the gholam. It had a screen and a little row of buttons, and it certainly looked like a television set. But it had no power cord, and nothing happened when Shannon pressed a couple of the buttons. “Wonder how it was supposed to work.”

“Maybe you had to put the One Power into it,” Dr. Nick said. “Maybe that’s where the phrase ‘television channel’ comes from.”

“That was lame,” Shannon grinned, “but y’all could be right. Anyhoo, there’s nothing much else. These little statues, an’ the axe, an’ the chess set, an’ this basket o’ jewelry,” he pulled out the wicker basket of gold and silver out of the chilly depths. “I wonder what it’s all for. I guess we can give this to Gaul, it’s all trash anyway.”

“Some of these things might be ter’angreal or something,” Dr. Nick suggested. “You know, dangerous things that they wanted to hide when the War of Power was over. Like the gholam,” He wiped his nose. “Ah, dammit, I have a nosebleed.”

“Again?” Shannon said in weary amusement.

“It’s the altitude, okay? I have weak blood vessels.”

“You sure it ain’t just because you’re a nerd?”

“Bite me, hillbilly. I … ah, fuck.”

A drop of blood had fallen onto the plastic-wrapped gholam, and the bundled up thing inside had begun to wriggle desperately.

 


 

“For the last time, I don’t know how to use Portal Stones,” Chucky growled. “Selene, you know I can’t. Now stop trying to make these guys panic, and just take us back to the real world.”

Lanfear smirked at Mister C of 9, who smirked back. Loial and Hurin looked nervous.

They’d arrived at the second Portal Stone some time before nightfall, in the lower foothills of the Kinslayer’s Dagger. Then they’d begun to argue about how to get back. Lanfear, obviously still suspecting the whole group of playing some sort of trick on her with the aim of robbing her of the Horn of Valere, insisted that she had just fallen asleep next to the thing, and it had brought her to the strange other world. Chucky was at least fairly certain that this wasn’t the case, but he couldn’t prove it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure what Lanfear was doing here anyway. He didn’t know who had the Horn of Valere – it had been gone from the Green Man’s garden when they’d looked for it, along with the Dragon Banner and whatever else had been in the secret box. Had there been one of the seals to the Dark One’s prison in there? Chucky thought there might have been. And Rand was dead, so there was really no reason for her to be chasing after them and trying to turn them to the Dark One. Come to think of it, Lanfear didn’t seem to be too upset about Rand dying anyway. Maybe she’d found an interesting substitute in Mister C.

That frankly didn’t bear thinking about.

“Alright,” Selene finally relented. “I’ll give it a try.”

They all stood back and let the elegant woman approach the pedestal. Hurin grinned happily at Chucky.

“This will make a story worthy of Yoru himself!” he exclaimed. “Won’t it, Lord gleeman?”

“Sure will,” Chucky said, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

“I just hope we manage to find Ingtar and the others when we get to Cairhien,” Loial added. “They must be worried about us.”

“You guys are such wusses,” Mister C remarked. “Anybody would think you’d never been transported to an alternate universe and set upon by three-eyed frog-monsters and subjected to temporal-geographical anomalies before.”

“And the endless chattering of two die-hard nonconformists,” Chucky muttered.

“What?”

“I said-”

There was a seething rush, the earth tilted, and they were back in the real world.

“Let’s get as much distance between ourselves and this Portal Stone as possible before sleeping for the night,” Chucky announced. “The last thing we want is to, uh, fall asleep next to it and accidentally end up back there again, right Selene?”

“Absolutely,” Lanfear said, sounding a bit confused and surly about her whole adventure. “Now we should head into the hills to where Hurin smelled those trollocs.”

“No chance,” Chucky snapped. “They haven’t got anything we want. I say we head back down and get as close to Cairhien as we can.”

This got everybody’s vote, except for Mister C who went with the minority. They set out on foot, until they reached an inn just before night fell. Mister C looked at the name of the inn, and groaned.

“The Nine Rings?” he said. “That’s just taking the piss.”

 


 

Maglin Madwen, the innkeeper at the Nine Rings Inn, wasn’t very impressed by her new guests. One of them was a gleeman, who of course refused to pay the bill on account of his storytelling talent. Another was some sort of Borderlander, and a third was a strange, grinning character who claimed to be a gleeman’s apprentice and kept asking Maglin if she had heard the story of the Lord of the Rings.

“He gave nine rings to the human beings,” he said helpfully. “You must have heard the story.”

The fourth arrival was an Ogier, which meant she had to send a girl upstairs to wheel out the Ogier furniture all over again, and have the cooks put together twice as much food as usual. And of course, no innkeeper would ever think of charging a Builder for his room and board. Plus, they really tended to freak out the other customers.

And to top it all off, the final newcomer was a noblewoman.

“I will not be sleeping here,” the Lady Selene announced coldly. “This is a common tavern.”

“Okay,” Chucky said, unslinging his bedroll and bagpipes and placing his meager belongings on the bar. “Bye bye then.”

“Wait,” Mister C said quickly. “Where are you going to go?”

“Somewhere befitting my status,” the Forsaken replied. “There are a hundred places I can go. A hundred groups of Hunters I can join with, who would be thankful for my guidance. We could have been great.”

“Hey,” Mister C drew himself up. “I am great!”

“I shall go now,” Selene went on, ignoring the halfman’s protests. “I want you to think on the Horn of Valere, and think on me. We shall meet again,” without another word, she spun on her heel and strode outside. There was the unmistakable sound of a gateway opening, and blue light reflected off the cobblestone doorstep. Then there was silence, punctuated only by the damp, heavy sound of two halves of a horse falling to the ground, and a quavery stablehand’s voice saying, “Ahh, fuck, my first day on the job, too…”

“Well,” Chucky said, resting his elbows on the bar and gesturing to the innkeeper, “that was abrupt.”

“Burned by love again,” Mister C of 9 proclaimed mournfully. “It seems to be our lot in life, Chuck.”

“Why am I suddenly included?” Chucky demanded. “And don’t think I haven’t forgotten your whole ‘Chucky is a Forsaken’ lark. Hurin’s still looking at me cockeyed.”

“So,” Maglin said, approaching the group. “You’re Hunters for the Horn, are you?” she seemed considerably more cheerful now that the Lady Selene was gone.

“Kinda,” Chucky admitted. “But more sort of … gleemen. Really.”

“And what about you, good Ogier?” she turned and peered up at Loial. “What brings you here? Do you hail from stedding Tsofu?”

“No – Shangtai,” Loial rumbled, his ears quivering in pleasure at finally being acknowledged. “My dear friend Erith is from stedding Tsofu, though. Do you know her?”

Maglin reached behind the bar and picked up a greasy lump of hardened fat that she obviously used for cleaning. “Hmm,” she said, weighing the primitive soap in her hand. “Erith, bar of pig fat … Erith, bar of pig fat … hmm … no, can’t say as I do, Builder.”

“Oh,” Loial’s ears and eyebrows drooped. “Perhaps you know her brother, Hoarni. And his three friends. They’re trying to find me, I think, and if you’ve seen any Ogier coming this way…”

“Look,” the innkeeper planted her fists on the counter. “I was just being polite. I don’t know a single Ogier by name. The only Ogier I’ve seen in nigh on five years were idiot merchants dressed up as Ogier, trying to sell … items of ill repute. And since my Barin passed away – leaving me this inn when he did – I’ve no use for items. Do you want a beer?”

“Please,” Chucky said. “And one for my Borderlander friend, as soon as he stops looking at me funny, and three for Loial. And you, Mister See?”

“Got coke?” Mister C of 9 asked hopefully.

 


 

“…and then I think we went to Rhuidean, but everybody kept telling me to shut up! Ha ha ha!! Funny that, as I was the only person who was asking where we were going!”

“Why is he telling the fill-in story?” Forsaken_1 asked a little plaintively.

“Good question,” Janica acknowledged. “We’ve been sitting here for almost three hours, and in that time we’ve heard that he was in a Tinker party, then somebody put their hand into his pants and he thought it was a bit much, and then there was a wolf or a person who spoke to wolves, or a wolf that spoke to wolves.”

“Aye,” said Debs.

“And he wasn’t sure if he should tell this person with their hand down his pants to settle down or not, because he didn’t know if they meant anything by it, and then he was riding on a horse named Cow, and there were more wolves around, and a man with fire instead of eyes, or maybe eyes instead of fire, he wasn’t sure.”

“Aye.”

“And he wonders what young people are coming to, not that they could be coming to anything bad, because young people are generally good.”

“Aye.”

Except for the bad ones,” Janica concluded witheringly. “And would you two please stop staring at each other!”

There was a wounded silence.

“I thought ye were bleend,” Debs muttered.

“But not an idiot,” Janica shot back. “I should have known Forsa – uh, Warder Foreskin would be here somewhere. Now can somebody please tell me what Contro is doing in Tar Valon with the Green Man?”

“I could explain that,” Moiraine said. She was looking at Debs narrowly, not liking the way she was looking at her warder one little bit. “But first, you two bints have some fucking explaining to do. The last time I saw you, you were in the dungeon at Fal Dara, and I was about to start asking you some serious fucking questions. And then the next thing I know, I was on the floor and you were gone. And my channeling…” she lowered her voice and looked around. “My channeling has been buggered up ever since.”

“You tried to use Compulsion on us!” Janica snapped, thinking fast. “If you’d even known what this ter’angreal is that we wear, you’d have known that there’s certain weaves that you can’t cast on us.”

“What sort of ter’angreal is that?” Moiraine growled.

“We don’t know – we were sort of … erm, well, it was like this when we got here.”

“More bullshit. You said you were following us through the Ways, keeping the Black Wind off our backs.”

“Wow,” Forsaken_1 murmured in awe.

“Shut up, you! And correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you then follow us all the way up into the bloody Blight? I couldn’t see you, but I knew you were there.”

“We were doing all yer bloody channeling for ye,” Debs growled, dragging her gaze away from the Warder for a moment. “And I suppose it was there that ye met up with the Green Man.”

“No, we just met him on the road to Arafel,” Moiraine replied.

“And what about, uh, Warder Foreskin?” Janica said. “Where do you fit into this?”

“I don’t know,” Forsaken_1 said helplessly. “I was a Whitecloak Questioner – don’t laugh, I was! And then I met Contro in a dungeon, and we joined up with a group of Tinkers, just like he said. Only they wouldn’t let me join them for some reason. Said the Way of the Leaf wasn’t enough to cover me, or something. They whispered stuff behind my back, too. Stuff about my ass,” he trailed off darkly. “Anyway, after that I went back to the Whitecloaks, and helped Moiraine and Lan to rescue Perrin and Egwene. Then I sort of joined up with them. We went into Caemlyn with Chucky and Mister C-”

“I knew it!” Janica roared. “I knew those two would be mixed up in this!”

“The fat gleeman and his wise-ass apprentice with the awful shirts?” Moiraine snapped. “You know them?”

“Judging by the shirts, I guess the apprentice is Mister C,” Janica said. “In which case, the … gleeman is my husband. What’s he been doing?”

“Oh, nothing. He’s been doing okay,” Forsaken_1 said quickly. “Um. Last time I saw him was at Fal Dara, after the … well, after Rand got his head blown off. I can’t remember very much. There was a lot of drinking. I didn’t have very much, but I can’t remember stuff very well even when I’m sober. Anyway, then we heard the Amyrlin Seat was coming, and Chucky went off with Ingtar and Mat and Perrin and the others, to look for the Horn. They had a sniffer with them, to track it down. Chances are, the way Chucky knows the book, they’ll have found it already,” he went back to his enrapt examination of Debs’ outfit. “I love those little lightning bolts.”

Debs, Janica and the four Ogier were all suddenly looking everywhere but at the ornate golden chest Janica was sitting on. Moiraine herself had given the box a suspicious look as soon as she’d seen it, but hadn’t commented yet.

“Yeah,” Janica said. “Yeah, the Horn … they’ll find it, for sure. The way Chucky knows the books.”

“Ach, ye sid ye alwees had tae read the bukes tae him!” Debs declared. “Ye said he dinna knae Shayol Ghul from Dragonmoont!”

“What did she say?” Someshta said.

“Who cares?” Forsaken_1 replied, entranced.

“What books?” Moiraine demanded.

“That’s not important,” Janica said. “What’s important is this. We need to make a new Dragon. Rand al’Thor is dead, but that doesn’t mean somebody else can’t fulfill the prophesy.”

Moiraine choked. “Can we talk about this in private?”

“We can talk about it in ig-pay atin-lay,” Forsaken_1 said helpfully. “Heh. Lay,” he waggled his eyebrows at Debs. Janica almost passed out at the wave of things that came down the a’dam at her.

“You cut that out,” she said to Forsaken_1. “I don’t know how you went from being a Whitecloak to being a Warder – where’s Lan anyway?”

“He went to find an ub-pay.”

“I said cut that out. Now – here’s what Debs and I think we should do.”

Janica outlined their simple, elegant plan to make Logain the new Dragon.

“Any problems?” Debs asked.

“One or two niggly fuckers,” Moiraine said. “First of all, Logain wasn’t born on the slopes of Dragonmount.”

“That’s for the historians to decide.”

“Secondly, he’s not Aiel.”

“I’m sure we can come up with some way around that,” the Green Man rumbled. He was sitting in a nearby stand of trees, adding density to the vegetation. “I mean, Tinkers are Aiel, and they don’t have Aiel features.”

“Thirdly, everybody knows he’s a False Dragon.”

“Only because Aes Sedai have said so.”

“Aes Sedai can’t lie.”

“How many people really believe that?” Debs grunted.

“Fourthly, he’s been gentled.”

“Ach! We’re too late!” Debs smacked her fist into her palm.

“No problem. We can Heal him.”

Moiraine sat quietly for a moment. “You know,” she said, “a few days ago I would have thought you were completely insane. But then I found out that the Betrayer of Hope and the rest of the Forsaken were living in the Amyrlin’s study, and were systematically turning every Aes Sedai in Tar Valon into Darkfriends. So I’m ready to believe anything. Let’s cunt on.”

“Do you think, before we do whatever it is we’re going to do…” Forsaken_1 raised a hand diffidently, “Debs and I might be allowed twenty minutes or so to speak in private?”

“No fucking chance,” Moiraine and Janica said simultaneously.

 


 

The gholam‘s name was Cooper Two. He told Shannon and Dr. Nick all about himself in the blessed lull that accompanied the Aiel group setting up camp and wandering off on various scouting missions. Gaul always said that the one thing more important than safety in these mountain areas, was going out and making sure there was a nearby water supply. The way their luck was running, half of the scouting parties were likely to fall into underground water caverns, and die there because Aiel, of course, couldn’t swim. So Cooper Two told his tale, such as it was, in relative peace.

“There are six of us. Three males – Cooper One, Cooper Three, and me; and three females – Alice One, Alice Two, and Sandrine.”

“Sandrine?” Shannon blinked. “Why Sandrine?”

Cooper Two gritted his pointy little teeth. “Always about Sandrine! Everybody’s obsessed with Sandrine! Everywhere I go, it’s ‘Sandrine’ this and ‘Sandrine’ that! I tell you, it’s enough to drive a man to solids.”

Shannon and Dr. Nick discovered quite a lot about gholam that they hadn’t known before. For example, ta’veren made them seasick.

“It’s not so bad when it’s just a little bit of tweaking,” Cooper Two told them mournfully. “You know, coins landing on their edge, things falling and landing in occult patterns, nearby women having spontaneous orgasms – but when it’s really bad, like now, it’s just awful. As you probably know, my first assignment was to infiltrate Lews Therin Telamon’s private headquarters, and execute him. Me and Alice One went in through one of those mail chutes, you know the ones with the vacuum suction, that you put parcels in and…”

“The ones that go phu and shoot messages to wherever?” Dr. Nick asked.

“They’re the ones! Anyway, we came out of that in one piece, and we were thinking the sick sensation would pass, but it just got worse and worse, and by the time we were in Lews Therin’s office, Alice One was puking everywhere, it was disgusting, she was really a mess – you have no idea how bad it is when a creature as flexible as one of us really begins to vomit. She was turning herself inside out, and of course that set me off. As if the Pattern swirling around us wasn’t enough – back and forth, in and out, round and round…”

“Quit that,” Shannon said, feeling a little queasy himself. Dr. Nick was holding onto the edge of the wagon for balance. “So you couldn’t kill him?”

“We couldn’t get close to him! In the end, we just found a guy who was about the same size, and killed him instead. We dressed him in some of Lews Therin’s clothes, and then squeezed his head until you couldn’t tell who it really was,” Cooper Two demonstrated on a rock, crushing it between his fingers as though it was a lump of styrofoam. “Anyway, we took the bits back to our employer, but then he must have found out, because the next thing you know, it’s the Laura Palmer treatment and into the stasis boxes.”

“And now what are you going to do?” Dr. Nick asked faintly.

Cooper Two shrugged liquidly. “I’m assuming I’ve been thawed out for another try,” he said. “It can’t have been more than a couple of months since I was loaded up, and I reckon I’m up to it,” he went pale and scrabbled for purchase on the rocky ground, finally grasping the wagon wheel. “That is, as soon as I get away from this damn swirly. Now I realise Lews Therin isn’t so bad after all.”

“Um,” Shannon said. “Er, well, what if we told you that Lews Therin was already dead, and that three thousand some years has passed since you were put in that there box, and your mission was over?”

“Oh,” Cooper Two thought for a moment. “Well, if you told me that, I’d probably go completely insane, kill everybody here, and then run around screaming, killing everybody I found until I found somebody who could channel, and then take their skin and put it on over the top of my own and pretend to be an Aes Sedai and walk into the White Tower and stick a-”

“Good news,” Dr. Nick said quickly. “Lews Therin’s well and truly alive.”

“Ayuh,” Shannon nodded. “Fully.”

Cooper Two beamed happily.

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The Fake Hunt, Part 11

Padan Fain was one confused son of a bitch.

He had given himself to the Dark One in body and soul, his entire mortal being poured into the darkness and remade in the Dark One’s image, bent to the Dark One’s will, so long ago that he could remember nothing else. He had been set to hunting, like a coursing hound, for three boys – one in particular. He had finally found the boy, Rand al’Thor, and followed him faithfully, reporting to Shayol Ghul and being the Great Lord’s eyes and ears for as long as was needed, and at whatever cost. He had followed al’Thor into Shadar Logoth, where he had been immersed in a darker and more terrible evil. Mordeth had joined with him, and added to his powers in ways he could not begin to understand. Then his masters had dragged him into the Ways, and at the Waygate in Caemlyn he had been discovered by two terrible women who had dragged him into the darkness and then flung his helpless body into the teeth of Machin Shin.

That had been a low point.

And now, Rand al’Thor was dead. The imperatives in Fain’s head yammered and shouted over the top of one another, until he screamed with the pain. It felt as if the entire Pattern were being torn apart around him.

The trollocs who still accompanied him shied away from the sound of his screams, and busied themselves around their cookfires. Scattered human arm and leg bones lay around the campsite – trollocs weren’t very good housekeepers. But the place they had found in the Kinslayer’s Dagger was quiet and secluded, and nobody was around to bother them. It was the perfect place for Fain to stop, relax, and try to figure out what he had to do next.

He felt the tug of the dagger from Shadar Logoth. It was far away, in the north, but he felt it like a part of him. He also felt the man, the dark and twisted man who had carried the dagger for so long. He was in agony, now, because the dagger had been taken. And Fain could even sense the people who had taken it, because it was close to them now. They were the same awful women who had thrown him to the Black Wind.

Fain huddled closer around himself, his rags flapping in the night air, and stared into the emptiness. He waited for instructions.

 


 

Lanfear was, if possible, a more annoying travelling companion than Mister C of 9 had ever been. The fact that the halfman and the Forsaken got along so well didn’t help. They just made each other even more unbearable.

“I hate things too!” Lanfear exclaimed as if revealing some great discovery. “How bizarre that we both hate things!”

“You know what I hate?” Mister C confided.

“What?”

Mister C leaned forward and eyelessed her over the top of his sunglasses. “Mainstream things.”

Lanfear was entranced. “What are those?”

She listened in amazement as Mister C of 9 explained the silent majority, the vocal stupidity, and the dangers of liking things that too many other people liked. She agreed with him on every count, without a trace of irony. He told her about books that he used to think were good, until he’d discovered that everybody liked them, and she nodded thoughtfully. He told her about films, and she exclaimed that she’d seen exactly the same sort of thing, without even questioning where he’d experienced motion pictures. Mister C of 9 expounded on the topic of mob rule, the perilous attraction of conformity, and the evils of liking anything that somebody else liked. Lanfear admitted tearfully that she had chosen her current life-path because it had been one that nobody else seemed willing to take … until people began to see it as cool, and suddenly there were twelve other people just like her, and hundreds of thousands of pretenders, and suddenly it wasn’t cool anymore.

“I blame Elan Morin,” she told Mister C of 9 angrily. “Him and all his ‘name given in scorn and adopted in pride’, what was that except a ticket for the losers of this world to jump in and undermine something really great? Back when it was just me and Beidomon, it was perfect. We were on the fringe, we were working for something for its own sake, not for any acclaim – just the thrill of doing something new! It was outside of the society of the day, and nobody knew about it, nobody cared, and that was the way we liked it. But then Tedronai came along with his philosophy and his pop culture and his psychobabble, and suddenly there were school teachers and musicians wanting to be a part of it. They made it completely…”

“Mainstream,” Mister C said sympathetically.

“You are well-named, Mister See,” Lanfear said warmly. “For a … being such as yourself, you do indeed see much.”

“What happened to Beidomon?” Mister C asked, modestly ignoring the compliment.

Lanfear’s lip curled. “Solo career,” she grated.

Chucky snorted with laughter. “You mean, he was offered an executive position.”

“He sold out,” Mister C offered helpfully. Lanfear nodded, and refused to say any more.

“I’m going to walk with the others for a while,” Chucky said without turning around. “You kids keep up, alright?”

“Why are we going to Cairhien? I still think we should be following the trolloc scent your sniffer caught,” Lanfear called after him. “Think of what they might be carrying.”

“I don’t want to think about what they might be carrying,” Chucky snapped. “You go on and catch herpes if you like.”

“No thanks. Once was quite enough for me,” Lanfear replied with a toss of her head.

“You had herpes too?” Mister C exclaimed.

Chucky shook his head and quickened his pace, leaving the two Shadowspawn to their conversation. He caught up with Hurin and Loial, who were walking along well ahead, keeping as much distance between themselves and ‘Selene’ as they could. At the start, they had rather liked her, but after a few hours they had begun to realise there was something a little bit strange going on, and had avoided her ever since. Hurin decided she was a great Lady who was too high for him to talk to, and Loial began to expound at great length and volume about how in love with Erith he was, and how he was to be married as soon as they got back to the real world.

Lanfear had claimed total ignorance as to their whereabouts and said she didn’t know how to get back. She’d given veiled hints that maybe they’d be able to get back if they recovered the Horn of Valere from somebody, possibly a group of trollocs. Chucky had ignored her, and announced that they were heading for Cairhien. Since that was the city ‘Selene’ had claimed to come from, there were no genuine arguments.

Chucky rather liked the alternate world, even though the landscape in the distance moved in a funny way and the time they spent walking wasn’t proportional to the distance they seemed to move – at least the damn place didn’t smell of dung, like everything in the ‘real world’ did. Still, the sooner they got to Cairhien the better.

The Ogier and the sniffer were arguing about something when Chucky walked up to them.

“He is!”

“He isn’t!”

“Is too!”

“Is not!”

“Too!”

“Not!”

“Guys,” Chucky interjected wearily. “What’s the problem?”

The two natives shut up and looked guilty, but Loial pointed at Hurin and blurted his accusation in an I-told-you-so voice. “He says you’re a Forsaken in disguise!”

“Me?!” the gleeman choked. “He thinks I’m a Forsaken?”

“Or just a channeler,” Hurin said sulkily. “My Lord gleeman, you have to see it. It’s obvious we got here by the One Power, and you’re the only one who could have done it. All the pieces fit. The way you know so much about the One Power and its objects, the way you call Lady Selene by names no man should utter, the way you talk about the world itself as if it were not real … why, it is as if you are insane already.”

“I know all that stuff because I’m a gleeman!” Chucky exploded indignantly.

Hurin leaned forward. “That’s fine with me,” he whispered. “You can be a gleeman all your life and I’ll not tell anybody any different. You’ve nothing to fear from me, my Lord … only I want to get home, that’s all. And you’re the only one who can do it.”

“What about Mister See? Couldn’t he be a channeler?”

Hurin laughed. “Oh no! He was the one who worked this out in the first place. We were talking a few nights ago, and I told him I was worried-”

“The same way you were worried about Ingtar?”

“Right. And he told me that you might be one of the Forsaken.”

Chucky glared back at Mister C of 9, who was still talking animatedly with Lanfear. His cloak hung straight downwards, even though his arms were gesticulating wildly. “That little cunt.”

“But it’s not true!” Loial hastened. “It’s not true, is it?”

“Of course it’s not true! Mister See’s a damned halfman, and Selene’s actually Lanfear, but I’m perfectly normal!” he noticed Hurin and Loial were looking at him strangely. “Oh, forget it. I’m not a Forsaken, alright? Now can we continue?”

“As long as I get home,” Hurin said, his voice surly. “I got a wife.”

“Ahh, fuck your wife,” Chucky snapped.

“That’s the general idea, my Lord gleeman.”

“I mean, stuff her!”

“You flatter me,” Hurin blushed.

“Oh bugger it.”

The sniffer grinned. “There’s a new one,” he remarked. “Maybe you’re not so bad after all.”

The landscape shifted dizzyingly, and they headed into the foothills of the Kinslayer’s Dagger.

 


 

It wasn’t easy for four Ogier, two female wilders and a male channeler from Far Madding to hide in Tar Valon, especially when they appeared in the middle of the White Tower, stepping out of a ter’angreal in the final moments of an Accepted initiation ritual. Debs thought they managed pretty well.

The Aes Sedai had already left the room and were heading upstairs for the ‘celebratory luncheon’ with the Amyrlin Seat – except for Sheriam, who was helping Nynaeve get dried off and dressed after the half-hour of naked mumbo-jumbo and attempted drownings that had accompanied the ceremony. She had to look her best, Sheriam said, for the thirteen Aes Sedai and the small group of blindfolded noblemen who were going to congratulate her.

“Why do they have to be blindfolded?” Nynaeve demanded.

“Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?” Sheriam said coolly. “Men, in the pinnacle of the White Tower? I think not. Come now, tie up your shift before you catch cold. I don’t want to waste valuable time Healing you.”

That was the point at which the party stepped out into full view. Sheriam stared.

“Hot diggity!” Muffin Vamps cried before Puddin Taim could take over, and hurry to Nynaeve with his cloak. He threw it around her bare shoulders quickly. And then covered his eyes as an afterthought. “My dear Lady, you mustn’t rush around in your skin like that! There are unsavoury characters about.”

Wyse and Frendli had Hoarni rather firmly by the arms.

“The situation is contained,” Coarshus announced.

“Who are these people?” Sheriam demanded, the angry glint in her eye fading only slightly when Puddin Taim made a respectful genuflection in her direction. “You women – explain yourselves.”

Debs and Janica floundered. Debs hid her arm behind her back, concealing the bracelet even as Janica tugged the neckline of her grey dress up to cover the a’dam.

“Uh…” Debs said.

“Ah, well…” Janica added.

“My cousins on my father’s side of the family – Debs and Janica al’Meara,” Nynaeve said swiftly. “From Emond’s Field. And my suitor, Puddin Taim, from Far Madding. My husband to be. Father of my unborn child.”

“You’re not with child!” Sheriam exclaimed.

“She will be in about half an hour,” Vamps promised, elbowing Puddin out of the way and taking over. “Probably twins, knowing my sperm count.”

“I have no idea what a sperm count is, but the rest sounds just fine to me,” Nynaeve gave a low chuckle.

“This is out of the question,” Sheriam snapped. “You are Accepted now. This young man can train to be a Warder if you wish, but you will put all thoughts of marriage and family out of your mind. You are not Green Ajah yet. As for these others, your cousins … how did they get in here? How did any of you get in here?”

“The Ogier helped us,” Janica said quickly. “They wanted to see the grove, and we joined up with them on the way here. When they arrived, though, they wanted to go sightseeing. We tried to tell them they shouldn’t, but they were quite adamant. They came in here and we were with them, we hid behind the, um, Aes Sedai miracle statue so you wouldn’t notice us during the ritual.”

The Sheriam-blur looked stern, but Janica knew she wouldn’t have anything to say against the Ogier. Debs glanced at her wryly as the smugness filtered through the a’dam link.

“Mph,” Sheriam muttered. “This is a private place, Builders,” she went on, looking up at the Ogier. “I would appreciate it if, in future, you restricted your visits to the usual places – and if you wish to see more, you can ask one of us and we will surely arrange an escort for you as befits your status.”

“We’ll do that,” Frendli assured her hastily. “Next time.”

“For now, however, I think I can leave you to show yourselves out,” Sheriam tugged on Nynaeve’s cloak. “We’re late for the congratulatory luncheon. Builders,” she nodded curtly to the Ogier, and hustled Nynaeve out of the room. Nynaeve cast Puddin Taim a long, lingering backwards glance, and tugged very suggestively on her braid.

“Now let’s get out of here!” Coarshus hissed. “Hoarni’s getting worked up again. It’ll take two of us to hold him, so somebody else will have to take this bag of stuff,” he kicked at the sack of trinkets they had stolen from Bayle Domon. “Anyway, that bag gives me the creeps for some reason. I’ll take the chest with the you-know-what in it, and one of you can take the bag.”

“Alreet,” Debs grumbled, and hefted the sack.

“Please, let me carry that, mistress,” Puddin exclaimed, rushing forward.

“Alreet,” Debs said again, and handed it over. Coarshus grunted, and picked up the heavy golden chest containing the Horn of Valere, the Dragon Banner, and the broken pieces of another of the seals. Added to the one they had pinched from Bayle Domon, which was now hidden carefully in the safest, most well-padded place anybody could imagine, they had accounted for two of the things.

They wandered out of the White Tower, and into the practice yard. Debs wriggled her shoulders uncomfortably, and rearranged her bosom as discreetly as she could. She nevertheless heard Hoarni whimper. Janica nudged her mildly – anything more than a gentle poke, thanks to the a’dam, still tended to land the damane on her backside.

“Sorry!” Debs hissed furiously. “But this blasted seal’s coold and uncomfortable between me ‘taters!”

“Why’s everybody wearing Halloween costumes?” Vamps asked suddenly.

“Are they?” Janica looked around at her misty surroundings. “Maybe it’s some sort of festival. You know, they have them all the time. What are they dressed like?”

“The Aes Sedai are dressed in black,” Wyse reported. “Some of them are wearing face-paint, and some are even wearing masks. They don’t look very nice.”

“It could be a festival we haven’t heard about,” Janica repeated. “Let’s just find Logain and get out of here.”

“Why are you looking for Logain?”

They spun to see a scrawny, dirty-skinned female with a mop of tangled black hair. She was wearing stained leather breeches and a torn old farmer’s shirt. Waves of rich, earthy stink came off her. She put her rough-knuckled hands on her hips and glared.

“What … I mean who are ye?” Debs asked, then blinked. “Ye’re Min, reet?”

“How did you know that?”

“The Aes Sedai told us,” Janica replied hastily. “We were instructed to find you, and examine your viewings. Including your viewings of, ah, Ogier, and Logain as well. We’re viewings experts, from the academy of Cairhien.”

“You’re from Cairhien?” Min frowned down at Janica. “Oh yeah, you would be.”

“We are long-time academic observers of the skill you display,” Janica went on, losing herself in the role. “You see, your power is one that pre-dates the Age of Legends. It has nothing to do with the One Power, and Aes Sedai tend not to trust it, but our … order, you might say, have been studying the phenomenon for centuries. Not us ourselves, of course,” she went on. “We’re not Aes Sedai, so we don’t live that long…”

“You have as many images around your heads as Aes Sedai do,” Min said doubtfully.

“Well yes, we do,” Janica said soothingly. “Now, while we’re on our way over to see Logain, why don’t you tell us what you see above our heads?”

“Alright,” Min said, and started across the yard. Warders practiced their sword-forms while black-draped Aes Sedai looked on with unreadable ageless faces. “You two seem to have all the same sort of images, as if you’re connected somehow.”

“Nae kiddin’.”

“I see a pile of books, stacked up in a teetering column. They’re wobbling and slipping, the bottom books are sliding sideways and the whole stack is about to fall, and you two are trying to hold it upright. Only every time you try to do something to hold the pile up, something else happens and you only make it worse. There’s also an image of a man blowing on a horn, and a man riding at the head of an army, with a strange banner flying above his head, with a weird creature on it, and a man standing in a great darkness, battling the darkness itself with a sword of light, and a man running on a great wheel, and no matter how hard he runs he always stays in the same place, and the wheel turns out to be a huge serpent eating its own tail, and a man wearing a suit of armour with the word ‘DRAGON’ stamped on the chest … but all of those images could mean anything. Half of what I see doesn’t make any sense.”

“Anythin’ else?” Janica prompted.

“One funny thing … all the images of the man, on his horse or flying in the air or blowing his horn … when I look at them closely, he’s not a man at all, but a wooden puppet. And the strings go back to the two of you, and the stack of wobbling books. And when the cords connecting you to the puppet get finer and start to break, the books wobble more and more, and when the strings get thicker, the books begin to stand straight.”

“Alreet, ye’re freakin’ me oot noo,” Debs growled. “Wha’ aboot these four?”

Min examined Wyse, Coarshus, Frendli and Hoarni. Hoarni examined Min.

“I can’t see anything above their heads,” Min said finally. “I don’t think Ogier work the same way humans do.”

“What about me?” Puddin Taim asked happily.

“You…” Min peered at the empty space above Vamps’ head for a moment, then went pale. “Oh Light,” she whispered. “Oh, bloody Light. What the Ghul is that?”

“Wha’?” Debs asked. “Wha’ is it? Ye see sommat?”

“There!” Min pointed over Vamps’ head in a panic. “Not over his head, there! In the trees! Oh, Light!”

Debs turned around.

“Hello,” said Someshta.

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The Fake Hunt, Part 10

Dr. Nick was relieved to find that the Stone Dogs had secured a pair of ponies to pull Shannon’s wagon on the coming journey, but that relief was nothing compared to the relief that came when he learned that he was allowed to talk to other gai’shain. And there were a group of them coming along on the trek.

“Somebody has to make the camps, dig the shit-holes, serve the food, and perform various other acts of service for us,” Gaul said cheerfully.

Well, it was still a relief. Shannon’s wagon had been cleared of goods, and he’d been repaid quite richly. The wagon was now laden with food and two huge barrels of water for the journey, and ‘Nancy Sidesaddle’ had several handfuls of gold to be going along with. He had opted to accompany Gaul on his quest for the Car’a’carn, and everybody was happy. The journey had begun well, with many an encouraging sign and portent. On the night before they departed, every pregnant woman in Imran Hold had miscarried simultaneously, which was seen as a wonderful omen – less mouths to feed meant more food and water for everybody else, and Aiel considered fetus-meat a great delicacy which was something Dr. Nick thought could have been mentioned somewhere in the books but sort of understood why it hadn’t. At the same time, there had been a great conflagration of what Dr. Nick knew were supernovae in the night sky, bursting points of light that formed the shape of a giant Nike logo in the darkness. The Aiel thought that was pretty grand as well. Darthmaul said there was a pair of mystical boots hidden in the lost city of Rhuidean that bore the same symbol. And when they had started out in the morning, one of their goats had given birth to a three-headed cat, a small crevasse in the sand dunes had opened up and revealed a seam of some smelly sandstone that the Aiel thought was lucky, and a grove of rudely-shaped cactus plants had begun to grow in the shade of the Hold’s towering rockpiles.

All in all, it made Dr. Nick a little bit uneasy. He had a vague memory from the Wheel of Time stories, something about people who made weird things happen all the time and what it really was was the Pattern reforming around them. He hadn’t realised Gaul was ta’veren, but it was the only explanation.

Something else made him uneasy. He remembered specifically the scene in which Gaul had been introduced in the books. He was all alone, in a crow-cage, and Perrin saved him from being executed. There hadn’t been anybody else with him, and there certainly hadn’t been a big crowd of happy Gai’shain anywhere in the vicinity, digging toilets. That might mean something was going to happen to them all before they got out of the Aiel Waste, or it might just mean the books and the Experience were different and he shouldn’t freak out so much. Maybe Gaul’s ta’veren-ness would kill them all in their beds.

He wanted to talk to Shannon about his concerns, but the merchant wasn’t listening to him. And Dr. Nick had problems of his own – near the wagon, things seemed to get mixed up and difficult a lot more regularly than anywhere else. The sand became suddenly, inexplicably slippery or a wind came out of nowhere and blew him on his ass, or something else coincidentally prevented him from getting any closer, like Gaul walking over and saying it’d be nice to see if they could dig a trench all the way along the path of their journey, so after they reached the mountains, the snowmelt would go down through the trench and make a river that would go all the way to Imran Hold, and how about if the Gai’shain started to dig right now?

“He treats us like da’tsang,” one of the white-robed men muttered as they dug.

“Heh,” Dr. Nick said, wincing as the shovel-handle put a splinter in his hand. “I’m learning more and more Aiel swearwords every day.”

The journey went on with breathtaking boredom. They stumbled onto more and more shortcuts, but also found a new way of crossing a particularly inhospitable patch of desert that added several days to their journey. Gaul remarked that he had never seen the barren land stretch so far north in such a short time. And if Dr. Nick had thought he was having trouble walking near the wagon, that was nothing compared to the problems the wagon itself was having.

Just as they were heading into the foothills of the Spine of the World, both of Shannon’s ponies fell over and hit their heads on a stone and died. Dr. Nick was reassigned to ‘pulling duty’. He knew it had been too good to last. On the plus side, this gave him the chance to talk to Nancy Sidesaddle.

“I’ve been thinking about it too,” Shannon agreed. He was walking alongside Dr. Nick as he hauled the wagon up the rocky path. That was all he ever did, was haul stuff. Dr. Nick was bitterly considering changing his name, in the Stone Dog fashion, to Haul. “I ain’t read the books for years, but I can’t remember nothin’ like this mess o’ Aiel. I guess that’s why we’ve been a-wanderin’ around and not really hardly doin’ much – we can’t do nothin’ anyhows until we join the main story, and that doesn’t done gone happen for a whiles. Sometime before Gaul ends up wherever-it-is and Perrin rescues him, we gots ta be gone.”

“You know something else? I reckon he’s a whatchacallit, ta’veren.”

“You think?” Shannon frowned dubiously. “It wa’n’t in the book, s’far as I knewd it. I thought it was Perrin who was the ta’veren. O’course, Gaul was always a-hangin’ around an’ lollygaggin’ with Perrin, so they coulda blended in with each other.”

“But look around, dude,” Dr. Nick said irritably. “This isn’t any normal sort of ta’veren. We’ve had meteor showers and supernovas every night, guys falling and finding lost gravestones in the sand, clouds forming into faces, and the stupid ideas they’ve been coming up with, the things they say by accident. You can’t tell me that dumbass trench idea wasn’t the result of some sort of Pattern-twitching. And the short-cuts. One time, I swear we backtracked and doubled over and retraced our steps six times, and we covered better than three hundred miles. In two hours. This is ta’veren-ness like nothing Perrin ever did. It’s nothing like Rand ever did. It hasn’t stopped since we met him.”

“Maybe by the time we get to the Wetlands, it’ll stop,” Shannon grinned as inspiration struck. “Maybe it’ll burn itself out, the way Aes Sedai sometimes do. Maybe he’ll change the Pattern so much, the Pattern will shift to an alternate version of itself where what in which he ain’t a ta’veren at all.”

“You’ve been reading too much Douglas Adams.”

Shannon grinned and flicked one of his gold coins in the air. “Watch this,” he said. “It always lands on the same side. See?” He slapped the coin onto his wrist, and showed Dr. Nick the crudely-embossed face. It was some sort of Aiel chieftain, and underneath it was the motto, STONE DOGS – UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FAUL.

“More ta’veren-ness at work,” Dr. Nick said grimly.

“Nope – check it out,” Shannon grinned again. “It’s the same on both sides. Neat, huh?” He showed Dr. Nick the other side of the coin, which, sure enough, was identical.

Then the wagon bounced over the almost-buried front edge of a stasis-box embedded in the path, and both of its axles broke with a snap.

“Aw, da’tsang,” Dr. Nick groaned.

 


 

Moiraine was flabbergasted and not at all pleased to see the Green Man again, especially not wandering around in the lowlands. When she found out he was heading towards Tar Valon, her eyes narrowed and she demanded to know why. The Green Man had explained about the Aiel reunion that was taking place under the guise of a Tinker convention. Forsaken_1 hadn’t been very interested in the conversation, but it had been a whole lot better than going over and trying to talk to Contro.

“Did he tell you about the convention?” Moiraine pointed at Contro. “That fucking cabbage?”

Forsaken_1 was impressed. Moiraine had never even met Contro, and she knew he was a cabbage.

“The poor boy was obviously confused, and troubled,” the Green Man said kindly, smiling across at the Tinker. Contro was in his wagon, doing something down on the floor. Only the top of his head was visible, bouncing and jiggling around madly. They could hear his breathless, mindless laughter. “I think his family and friends left him to die, and have told him to meet them in Tar Valon, where no Tinker would ever venture. When he told me about the plan, I was struck with sympathy – it is obvious that he has been abandoned, and his fellow Tuatha’an have no wish to see him again. If the breakdown of the Aiel people goes on much further, there will be nothing left for the Dragon to bring back,” then he grew sad. “But the Dragon is dead, isn’t he,” he went on with a heavy sigh. “I suppose I just wanted to leave something, to make sure that these people remained, in some way. To see if the gulf that divides them is truly irreparable. The Dragon will not be able to reunite them, but perhaps I can.”

“Very damn interesting,” Moiraine snapped. “But this cunt’s a Tinker. Why are you talking about Ghul-damned Aiel?”

“Has so much truly been forgotten?” Someshta murmured. “The Aiel were once servants to the Aes Sedai, and when the World was Broken, they were sent away with all the most dangerous tools of the One Power, so they might be safe. I was there. I saw it happen. But in the course of the journey, the Aiel began to break up. The Tinkers broke away first, keeping the Way of the Leaf but discarding their wagons and their promise, and so they became the Lost Ones, shunned by Aiel to this day. Later, another group of Aiel took up weapons to protect themselves and their belongings, and they were shunned by those who remained. They discarded the Way of the Leaf, and became the Aiel of the Waste. They live out there to this day, punishing themselves for the promise they broke. Finally, the wagons reached Rhuidean and their quest was done, the remaining Aiel were the Jenn Aiel, or True Aiel. They built a great city in the Waste…”

Forsaken_1 began to wonder what was on television right now, back in the real world. He wondered if he was missing one of his favourite shows. Moiraine and the Green Man went on talking for a long time, Moiraine shouting and waving her arms and splattering gothic makeup everywhere, Someshta speaking quietly and reasonably and trying to explain matters as best he could. None of it was very interesting. He stopped wondering about television and began to wonder if Lan was still trailing along behind them, and if he’d like to chat with somebody. Maybe he could get the grizzled Malkieri to swap jobs with him again. Lan made a pretty convincing Whitecloak Questioner, but he made a much better Warder. And Forsaken_1 wasn’t sure how much longer he could live with Moiraine’s uptight, vicious little knot of profanity in his frontal lobe. Especially now, with her acting as if she was the Queen of Darkness.

Finally, Moiraine wheeled her horse around. “I think we should ask the little shit for his opinion,” she declared. “See if he thinks the Tinkers and the Aiel can ever be reunited for the betterment of the human race. See if it will make any difference at all to the Great Lord of the Dark.”

The Green Man winced mildly. “Moiraine Sedai,” he said, his great voice quiet and grave, “you should not speak with him. You will just confuse him further, and I have found that to ask him of such things is pointless, he does not understand as you or I would. You should not anger yourself by attempting to reason with him, not … the way you are right now.”

“What way I am right now?” Moiraine fixed the towering treeman with a glare. “What, the fuck, do you mean by that?”

“Nothing at all,” Someshta said expressionlessly. “But I forbid you from speaking to him.”

“Do you now?”

Someshta’s face was an unreadable mass of foliage. “Yes. Flatly forbid.”

“And who the cunting actual fuck do you think you are?”

“Nobody, if not Someshta.”

Moiraine grunted and spurred her horse back up the trail, towards the sound of Contro’s empty-headed laughter. The Green Man glanced at Forsaken_1, winked one of his deep hazlenut eyes, and indicated that the whole thing was out of his hands.

Forsaken_1 sat on Mandarb’s back and wondered for a long moment if it had been a queer wink or a joking wink, and if it had been a queer wink, what sort of sexual organs the Green Man might have and whether splinters would be an issue while polishing the ol’ hickory stick, but then he finally decided the whole area of enquiry was a bit lavendar-coloured. He followed Moiraine back towards the plodding, miserable old horse named Cow, and they finally saw what Contro was doing in the back of the colourful little wagon. He was kneeling on the boards, and Cybes the wolf was spread out on the floor in front of him.

“Tickle tum!” he cried, and rubbed his hands briskly back and forth over the wolf’s furry belly. Cybes stretched and kicked her feet in enjoyment, and wagged her tail when he stopped. “Ha ha ha! Tickle tum!” he repeated the brisk movement over and over again, the whole wagon shaking with his enthusiasm.

“Hey,” Moiraine said roughly. “Hey, nutcase. Get the fuck over here. I want to ask you something.”

“Okay! Ha ha ha! Not a problem, that!! Give me a hand up!”

He reached out a hand, and Moiraine grudgingly extended her own.

There was an audible snap, and a bright blue spark of static electricity jumped between their fingertips.

“Oi! Ha ha ha!! Oh right! I was rubbing the wolf! Ha ha ha! I love that!”

Moiraine’s reaction was somewhat more extreme. She screamed and fell off her horse, shrieking and tearing at the ground with her fingers. At the same time, a great lance of pain smashed through Forsaken_1’s head. It was funny, he thought as he blacked right out – he’d always thought ‘lance of pain’ was a stupid expression, but it was perfectly apt. It was fifteen feet long, wooden, with a metal tip, and it burst into a million pointy little splinters when it hit him.

When he came to, he was lying on some soft saddle-blankets next to a fire, and Moiraine was leaning over him. He wasn’t in any pain, but he was cold and terribly tired. Moiraine was dabbing at his forehead with a damp cloth. She’d scrubbed the grit off her face, but she hadn’t changed out of her new black dress, and it was one of those awesome cleavage-dresses with the shoelaces at the front. Forsaken_1 smiled vaguely.

“What happened to me?” he asked Moiraine’s boobies. One of them was sure to know.

“You fell off your horse,” the Aes Sedai replied for them, “and the vicious-minded cunt of a thing had a bit of a stamp on you while you were down. It was all my fault.”

“It was?”

Moiraine nodded. “Much as I hate to admit it. When I lost the chains binding me to the Dark One, it hurt me terribly, and was very disorienting. It affected you, through the Warder bond. I Healed your wounds – it was the least I could do.”

“You were chained to the Dark One?” Forsaken_1 asked. This explained … a great deal.

“Since we arrived in Tar Valon,” she said, her face darkening. “There are Forsaken in the White Tower, and they were converting Aes Sedai by force. Turning them to the Dark One with halfmen and Black Ajah channelers. I was turned.”

“But you were … fixed?”

“Yes,” Moiraine chuckled. “That giddy twat of a Tinker cut the bond with a touch of his finger.”

“No shit.”

Moiraine laughed again, and stroked Forsaken_1’s face. “No fucking shit,” she asserted.

“Hot damn,” Forsaken_1 struggled to a sitting position, and looked around. Night had fallen, and they had made camp in a little clearing just off the road. He saw Lan sitting near the fire, staring moodily into his bottle. The brightly-coloured wagon was standing on the far side of the camp, and Cybes was curled up underneath it. Someshta was a vast slumbering shadow nearby, and Aldieb, Mandarb and Cow were calmly grazing off him. “So … what next?”

“I’ve decided that our visit to Adeleas and Vandene will have to wait,” Moiraine announced. “This is more important. We have to return to Tar Valon and see to it that the Aes Sedai are restored from their foul bondage.”

“Right,” Forsaken_1 grinned. “Foul bondage, that’s too cool.”

The next morning, Moiraine announced to the party at large that their crossing paths had been extremely fortuitous, and that they should travel together from now on. She used more colourful language than that, but neither Contro, Someshta, Cybes or Cow seemed to care. Contro announced that they were going to Rhuidean, and Moiraine told him to shut the fuck up.

They headed back the way they had come.

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The Fake Hunt, Part 9

“The trick with grolm,” Chucky shouted to be heard over the furious barking sounds and Hurin’s wails of fear, “is to hit them with your arrows right in the middle eye, it kills them instantly.”

“Chucky…”

“You mustn’t give in to panic! I know it’s a difficult shot, but if you just concentrate, you really can’t miss. And the closer they get – see, they’re pretty close now – the closer they get the easier their middle eye will be to hit.”

“Chucky…”

“They’re really pretty easy to kill, if you think about it. So – go for it. Last one to kill a grolm‘s a rotten egg.”

“Chucky!”

Chucky turned to Mister C of 9 with a twirl of his multi-patched cloak. “What? What?”

“None of us have a bow.”

“Ah.”

“I could maybe sing one out of that tree…” Loial suggested. “But it might take a little while, and they’ll be here any minute. And I’d still need a string and arrows.”

“I have an old bowstring here,” Hurin said bravely, rummaging in his pockets. “I was using it to tie together this bunch of old keys from my house and out-sheds,” he produced the bundle and began to pick at the knots. “It’s very old.”

“None of us can fire a bow,” Mister C shouted.

“I won an archery championship when I was a boy,” Hurin didn’t look up from his knots.

“We wouldn’t have to shoot a bow,” Loial said reasonably. “Look – I can touch this grolm with my hand.”

The frog-like creature growled and snapped at the Ogier’s fingers. Loial snatched his massive hand back with a gasp. One by one, the other grolm slunk forward and surrounded them. Mister C sighed and drew his dead black Thakan’dar blade, and set the point carefully on the bridge of the nearest grolm‘s nose.

“Wait,” Chucky said, frowning. He stepped up to the grolm nearest him and slapped its face. The hideous beast staggered back and woofed, then looked furious and threatening, but didn’t strike. “Something’s going on.”

There was a lengthy pause, and then a frustrated shout from over the next ridge.

“Aren’t you going to kill them?”

“Who’s that?” Hurin cried, then pointed. “It’s her! The woman Masema said he saw! She looks like a ghost!”

“Selene,” Chucky said, looking past the grolm.

“Whoa momma,” Mister C murmured.

“Forget it,” Chucky hissed. “She’s one of the evil bosses.”

“And? That’s still a beret she’s wearing.”

Chucky looked again. “So it is. Hello, Selene,” he greeted the woman in white. “Let me guess. You got lost, and ended up here. And the grolm attacked you.”

‘Selene’ was frowning in puzzlement. “I’m from Cairhien,” she said. “I stopped to sleep, and I woke up here.”

“Right,” Chucky grunted. “If you’re wondering where Rand al’Thor is, he’s dead.”

“Oh, I know … I mean, who?”

“That was hopeless,” Mister C of 9 said sympathetically. “You didn’t even try.”

Lanfear glared at the halfman. “What are you doing here anyway?” she demanded. “The Great Lord ordered all of your kind to Tar Valon for the … exercise.”

“What Lord?” Hurin asked. “What exercise? And what do you mean, ‘your kind’? And my Lady, who are you?”

“Something here is not as it seems,” Loial rumbled.

“Yeah, but look at her beret,” Mister C murmured.

“I saw her beret, Mister See,” the Ogier nodded “Did you notice her socks?”

“I did indeed.”

“I still want to know what she’s talking about, pretty as the Lady is,” Hurin insisted.

Lanfear was beginning to sweat, so Chucky spoke up. “She means gleemen, of course – our kind, as in gleemen,” he said. “There’s a big exercise in Tar Valon, the telling of the Great Tale of the Horn, you see, and we were invited. Selene here, in case you were wondering, is an Aes Sedai.”

“Like fuck I – oh yes, ha ha, yes I am.”

“And that explains how we got here,” Chucky grinned. “You realised there were none of us who could channel, and so you channeled us here all by yourself. And then you set the grolm, so we could save you from them and you’d join our party, and we’d lead you to the Horn.”

This time, Lanfear’s face remained glacially calm. “You mean, the Tar Valon Hornathon.”

“She’s not bad,” Chucky admitted to Mister C.

“I knew that as soon as I saw her hat, old chum,” Mister C agreed.

“So you were sent to round us up, were you?” Chucky waved his arms, encompassing his companions and the strange, scarred landscape. “You’ve gone to some extreme lengths.”

“Oh, um, yes, but it was an accident,” she said woodenly. “I should join your party and see to it that no harm comes to you. Are you pursuing somebody? I see you have a sniffer with you.”

Hurin bowed and scraped.

Chucky looked uncomfortable. “I really don’t think we should team up.”

“Yes we should!” the other three exclaimed.

Chucky sighed.

 


 

Nynaeve stood and looked at the silvery arches with a dubious expression on her face. She had been at the White Tower for three days, and her time had come to join the ranks of the Accepted.

“You say everybody does this?” she demanded.

“Everybody,” the black-clad Sheriam said placidly. “You must pass through all three rings, and then you will be Accepted. And then you have, ah, celebratory toasts with the Amyrlin Seat, up in her office.”

“I don’t drink,” Nynaeve said with disgust, thinking of Lan.

“You do not have to, child.”

“I’m not a child!” Nynaeve growled.

“You always will be, unless you walk through the damn arches,” another Aes Sedai said from the edge of the testing area. A small group of Sisters were assembled around the ter’angreal, channeling into it calmly. “No harm will come to you. It is a test, no more and no less.”

“Spare me the riddles,” Nynaeve muttered, “just so long as there aren’t any drunks or spiders. I hate spiders,” she marched towards the first archway. Sheriam coughed.

“Aren’t we forgetting something?”

“Bloody what?”

“This is a timeless ritual. You have to be nude.”

Nynaeve grumblingly stripped down to her skin, and stormed forward into the silvery archway. All of a sudden, she found herself in a dark maze of stone walls. There was a suggestive laugh from behind her, and Aginor leapt from the shadows, his face withered and disgusting. He struck a few poses for dramatic effect, and then started up with the suggestive remarks. It occurred to Nynaeve that her being naked was just a little bit unnecessary.

She grunted, embraced the Source, and leveled a fireball at the withered features of the Forsaken. He dodged the attack, and formed a fireball of his own. The fight went on for some time, and finally Nynaeve realised she was winning. Aginor was weakening. She jumped forward and kicked him in the testicles.

“Arg my testicles!”

She kicked him again, beginning to enjoy herself, and then suddenly she saw the silver archway in the corner of her eye. She knew that there would only be one chance to escape from the strange scenario, and complaining bitterly, she took it. Sheriam and a couple of other Aes Sedai hurried forward, poured water on her and spoke a bit of mumbo-jumbo.

“I want to go back and do that one again,” she said grimly. “I was really making progress.”

“No time, now you must do the second arch.”

“Shit.”

She stamped into the glimmering doorway, and had herself a boring little confrontation in Emond’s Field. She’d just started to really kick Cenn Buie in the gonads when the archway appeared to her left and she hurried through it, swearing bitterly. Again, the Aes Sedai poured water on her and chanted silly chants. It occurred to Nynaeve that the Sisters weren’t taking the ceremony very seriously.

She hurried through the next arch, and found herself standing in a tavern.

“Ah, good morning, Mistress Mandragoran,” the fat innkeeper said cheerfully. “Here to pick up the Lord of the Seven Towers?”

“What?” Nynaeve frowned.

“Your husband, Lady,” the innkeeper grinned. “He’s over yonder, asleep under the table.”

Nynaeve pulled back the roughspun cloth tablecloth to see Lan’s unshaven face and a small barrel of apple brandy. Lan belched and smiled in his sleep.

“Oh Candy,” he slurred. “My Tower loves it when you’re Topless.”

“Right,” Nynaeve reached down and grabbed the reeking man under the arms, and hauled him out from under the bed. She propped him up against the table, stepped back and glared. Suddenly, she was wearing stout Two Rivers woolens, and even stouter Two Rivers shit-kickers. “Say goodbye to those potatoes of yours, you good-for-nothing drunk,” she saw the silvery archway twinkle in the corner of the tavern, and snarled. “No way, not this time. This time, I’m staying,” and she swung back towards Lan, raised her boot…

Suddenly, Lan was gone, and a small crowd of strange people filled the common room. Four of them, she realised with surprise, were Ogier. The rest of the people were more or less human – two women, one large and one very small, connected to each other with a fine silver chain. The large woman was wearing loud, tight clothes of red and blue, with forked lightning emblazoned in the lapels. One of the Ogier wasn’t wearing any trousers. It was quite a spectacle. And at the very front of the group, standing right where Nynaeve had planned on starting her kicking, was a young man.

He was tall, and had long hair tied back in a neat, respectable braid, rather like her own. It wasn’t unruly and thonged with that awful ratty leather the way Lan’s always was. His vest was clean and his shirt crisp, and his leather pants showed off the shape of his legs in a way that was neither coarse nor flashy. His face was earnest and well-scrubbed and – wonder of wonders – sober.

“Oh my,” Nynaeve heard herself murmur. “Oooh er.”

The young man inclined his head to her politely. “Good day to you, Mistress,” he said with impeccable politeness. “I hope we did not startle you with our rude entry. My name is Puddin Taim, and these are my friends – Debs, Janica, Coarshus, Wyse, Frendli, and Hoarni. I do apologise for Hoarni. He has no sense of what is right, when it comes to ladies.”

Nynaeve mumbled something.

“So, did it work?” Janica said, peering around blindly. Nynaeve recognised the signs of short-sightedness with a Wisdom’s detachmant, even as her eyes went back to Puddin’s lovely clean shirt. “Are we in Tar Valon?”

“It does’nae luke like it,” Debs said in a thick, slurring accent. “Lukes like we’re in a pub.”

The Ogier began grinning widely.

“Debs,” one of them said, “are you sure you were trying to take us to Tar Valon? Every time we try this thing, we always seem to end up in a pub.”

“Ach! That’s a lie!”

Nynaeve shook her head, attempting to clear it. “How did you get here?” she asked, addressing Puddin.

“It is difficult to say, Mistress,” he replied with a meek smile. “We were experimenting with the One Power – you see, we are Aes Sedai. At least, they are,” he pointed to the women. “I am just along for support, as are our Ogier friends.”

“I guess you didn’t hear about the new dress code,” she said. “All Aes Sedai are to wear black shawls and somber colours at all times. I think it’s because somebody died, but nobody tells me anything. I’m just a bloody novice. Well, Accepted now, I guess. Is the test over?”

“I beg your pardon?” Puddin said.

“Are you going to pour another pot of water on my head? I mean, this is the end of the test isn’t it?”

“Ahh, feckin’ heel,” Debs said softly. “I knoo where we are noo.”

“Nynaeve’s Accepted test,” Janica snapped her fingers. “We somehow got drawn straight into the ter’angreal. I knew that sudden flood of channeling didn’t come from us.”

“Can we get out?” one of the Ogier asked nervously. “Should we maybe blow the-”

“Nae!”

“I see,” Nynaeve said with a knowing smile. It was all beginning to make sense now. “You want me to show you the way back to the White Tower, demonstrating my loyalty and service to Aes Sedai, and my ability to lead the flock, right?”

“Exactly,” Janica said quickly. “My child.”

“She’s no child!” Puddin Taim protested just as Nynaeve opened her mouth to say the same thing. She flushed with pleasure, and Puddin continued. “I mean no disrespect, Janica, but, ah, clearly, you speak in jest.”

“No matter, Puddin,” Nynaeve said, lowering her eyes. “It is a term Aes Sedai use, I do not mind it.”

Debs and Janica Sedai gaped at her.

“Come, the exit is this way,” and she turned back to where the arch had been minutes before. It was gone, but when she channeled – saidar flowed into her with practiced ease, as it never had before in her life – the silvery shape reappeared unwillingly against the wall. “I’ll see you soon, I hope,” she said to Puddin, and hurried through.

There was silence in the common room.

“Quick,” Debs snapped. “Let’s get oot before they stop channelin’.”

Wyse hefted the gleaming golden chest that they had not given to Domon after all, and Frendli lugged the sack of trinkets they had taken from the crazed sailor. As they hurried towards the arch, Muffin Vamps reasserted himself and smirked at Hoarni.

“I’m going to get laid before you,” he said. “Looks like you owe me fifty marks.”

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The Tale of Zed and the Sun Thief

Zed of the Silent Spaces was a wandering soul, as fierce as she was beautiful. Wherever she went, people would stop what they were doing and watch her pass. They would never quite dare to stop her along the way, for such wild beauty is not for lesser man or woman to approach. And none had the heart to waylay her on her travels, for her joy was like a beacon.

One day, quite by chance, a trickster crossed Zed’s path and bid her stop awhile. This was a new and strange thing to Zed, who for all this time had wandered lonesome, secretly wishing that she might find a companion, and saddened in her heart that none had the courage to approach her.

“Who are you?” she asked the trickster. “And where do you travel?”

“I am the Sun Thief,” the trickster replied, “and I travel to the sun, that I might steal him away for my own.”

“How then?” Zed asked the Sun Thief in some surprise, and no small amusement. “Where do you travel to meet such a challenge, and what will you do with the sun when you have stolen him away?”

“I travel to where the sun climbs wearily into his bed,” the Sun Thief declared, “where I shall steal him away while he is befuddled and unawares. I shall take him to my garden far away, to shine upon the flowers I grow there, so that they might live and that their beauty may one day match your own.”

Zed of the Silent Spaces, never having been so addressed, was charmed by this declaration and so she agreed to travel with the Sun Thief to the place where the sun climbs wearily into his bed. They travelled many miles, following the sun day after day as he sailed overhead. But when they finally arrived, alas, they found that the sun was cantankerous and headstrong in his weariness, and could not be easily taken by the Sun Thief to shine upon his garden far away.

The Sun Thief said, “I shall travel to where the sun rises serene from his rest, then, where I shall steal him away while he is yet half-asleep.”

And Zed said, “I shall travel with you to the place where the sun rises serene from his rest.”

Many more miles they travelled, following the backtrail of the sun day after day as he sailed overhead. But when they finally arrived, alas, they found that the sun was fierce and fiery in his eagerness to start the day, and again could not be easily taken by the Sun Thief to shine upon his garden far away.

And the Sun Thief despaired, and said, “I fear that without the sun to shine upon them, my flowers will soon wither and die in the cold and the dark. And they will never be so beautiful as you.”

Zed was saddened by these words, and by the Sun Thief’s desolation. And she looked up and she said, “I can help you to steal the sun, and bring him to your garden far away,” and before the Sun Thief could say a word Zed climbed into the vault of the sky, higher and higher until she was barely a speck against the sun’s blinding light.

When she had climbed to the sun, Zed beseeched him to accompany her, so he might shine upon the Sun Thief’s flowers and keep them from death in the cold and the dark. The sun was as struck by Zed’s ferocity and beauty as was any other who saw her, and he agreed to her pleas. She took the sun’s hand and led him to the Sun Thief’s garden far away.

When Zed returned to the Sun Thief’s side, he smiled at her with tears in his eyes.

“See,” he said, “my flowers live now because of you, although I do not know if they shall ever grow to be as beautiful.”

But Zed had held hands with the sun. Her arms ended now in blackened stumps, her face was a charred ruin, her skin burned and curled like parchment tossed in a blazing fire. “They will always be more beautiful than I,” she said, “for I have held hands with the sun, and he has brought me to ruin.”

“No,” said the Sun Thief, “not even the fire of the sun can ruin such as you. He can only shed light upon what was always there. He can only reveal the true beauty beneath. He can only give things life, and let them grow just as my flowers do.”

And Zed and the Sun Thief linked arms, and they watched the flowers bloom, and – if only for a little time – they wandered no more.

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