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.
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.
“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.”
“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.