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