They regrouped at the Defender of the Dragonwall the next day, and exchanged information.
“It was a great performance,” Chucky enthused. “The crowd was on their feet, cheering and throwing trophies…”
“They were stampeding, and throwing food at him,” Mister C of 9 added.
“But the cheering,” Chucky insisted.
“Okay, they were cheering,” Mister C of 9 admitted. “At least they didn’t burn the place down like last time.”
“Chucky, did you play those things?” Perrin demanded. “After what Moiraine said?”
“Moiraine’s not here now,” Chucky snapped. “And anyway, it went well. People were asking Mister See if we could make bookings next time, and asking him, well, all sorts of things. Tell them, Mister See.”
“They wanted to know what the meaning of it was, whether it was a slight to the King because we didn’t play at the King’s palace, or a slight to Barthanes Damodred because we did play at Damodred’s place, or if it was an intended insult against the city, or praise for the political plans of the current dynasty, and they wanted to know if we were in support of the Horn Amendment…”
“Cairhienin,” Verin said gruffly. “Always playing their Game of Houses. The whole building could fall down around them, and they’d still be playing their little games.”
“The whole building almost did fall down around them,” Mister C of 9 remarked.
“But what about you guys?” Chucky went on, a conversational steamroller at the top of his game. “Did you find, um, whatever? The Horn? Any luck? They went into the Waygate and escaped, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Verin growled, and eyed Chucky narrowly. “They did. And Machin Shin, the Black Wind, was waiting there for us when we opened the gate.”
Loial shuddered hugely. “It was awful,” he said. “It tried to come out and attack us, and I think it might have succeeded if you hadn’t started up with that terrible noise, I mean that music of yours. That pushed it back a bit, and we managed to get the gate closed again. But there was a message. From the trollocs, and the person we are chasing. He left a message.”
“A message? To whom?”
“That wasn’t exactly clear,” Verin said, and pulled out a piece of parchment. “I translated it as best I could, but a lot of it is in either trolloc or the Old Tongue, or this other language I can’t even read, with lots of little stick-figures chopping each other to pieces and shooting beams of stuff at each other. It was addressed to Rand al’Thor, but that was crossed out and ‘to whom it may concern, mwahahahahahahaha’ was written there instead. Whoever this is, he says he will meet us on Toman Head.”
“And that is where the Horn lies!” Ingtar said, slapping his palm. “That is where we are headed.”
“We’ll lose months if we do not take the Ways,” Verin said. “We have to get there and get the Horn back before anything else goes wrong. Too much is at stake now, and the Horn is of supreme importance.”
“So we can take it back to Fal Dara,” Ingtar said helplessly.
“And beat the Shadowspawn at Tarwin’s Gap.”
“Okay,” Ingtar said, his face unhappy.
Mister C of 9 nudged Chucky. “Did you hear how Verin said ‘supreme importance’ just then?” he whispered.
“All rolling ‘r’s and melodrama?”
“She’s a bad guy, right?”
“Verin? No. She’s just … um, she’s eccentric. Some people always say she’s Black Ajah, but I wouldn’t believe it. Alright?”
“If you say so, chief. But I heard what I heard. Nobody says something is ‘supreme’ unless they’re bad guys,” he paused. “Or pizza delivery drivers. And they’re evil too.”
“What are you two mumbling about?” Verin snapped.
“Pizza,” Chucky said.
“Whatever. I know where there’s another Waygate,” Verin went on, and now it was Loial’s turn to look unhappy. “Stedding Tsofu. And Loial has agreed to lead us there.”
“I didn’t really want to,” Loial said to Chucky and Mister C. “But I didn’t have a choice. And since Erith’s brother and his friends aren’t there … perhaps it would be nice to get back to a stedding, if only for a little while. The Elders should be informed about what is happening anyway.”
“We depart for stedding Tsofu as soon as dawn breaks,” Verin announced.
Mister C of 9 nudged Chucky again. “What’s this? Ent council?”
“I knew it. We’re with Merry and Pippin, after all.”
“Who?” said Mat.
Debs, Janica, Moiraine, Forsaken_1, Lan, Min and the four Ogier were sitting in a secluded part of the garden, trying to avoid notice. Lan was trying in vain to climb a tree in order to keep a better look out, but he was trashed and the tree was a delicate piece of topiary. His destructive efforts were enough to make even Hoarni distressed, and Hoarni was surrounded by women of a wide range of builds and complexions.
“Now we have to get to Toman Head,” Janica said.
Logain looked up from his hand. “What? Why?”
“Because that’s where the next showdown is meant to take place,” she explained patiently. “The Dragon Reborn fights one of the Forsaken, and everybody thinks it is the Dark One and the stories of him – you – spread like wildfire.”
“Oh,” Logain looked back at his hand. “What do you think of this?”
“Ach, it’s greet,” Debs gushed.
“It looks like a blob of ink,” Janica snapped.
“Begorrah! Ye canna see it!”
“Even if it looks like a heron now, it’ll look like a blob of ink in half an hour’s time,” Janica pointed out. “It’s just drawn on, and it’ll come off.”
“The Prophesies say I get marked, not burned,” Logain shot back. “And they don’t say anything about how long the marks last.”
“He’s got a point,” Debs said.
“Anyway, you can’t go to Toman Head,” Moiraine added from her lookout point at the garden path. “We need to stay here and clear all the fucking Darkfriends out of the White Tower.”
“That’s fine,” Janica said quickly. “You can stay here with Contro and the others, and we’ll take the Dragon to Toman Head to fulfill his destiny.”
“I’m not going to fucking well stand here like a pillock and let you walk off with another Ghul-damned Dragon Re-cunting-born.”
“What are you going to do, then?” Janica asked. “Tear yourself in two?”
“An’ would ye like some help?” Debs added nastily.
“First things first, though,” Janica went on diplomatically. “We need to make sure the girls from the Two Rivers haven’t been turned. And if they have, we have to change them back before the … prophesies … can be messed up any more. Where are they anyway? Nynaeve was Accepted, and Egwene is a novice…”
Min was sitting near Forsaken_1, as far away from the Ogier as she could. “Last time I saw Egwene, she was with Elayne and they were both fine,” she said. “But Egwene was excited about the Tinker. She said she knew him.”
“Contro?” Janica frowned. “She doesn’t know Contro.”
“Well, that’s just what she said.”
Debs turned to Forsaken_1. “Warder Foreskin,” she said bluntly. “Would ye goo an’ ask him?”
Helpless to refuse her, Forsaken_1 sighed and headed for the wagon. Just as he was stepping past the row of hedges that shielded them from the watchful eyes of passing Aes Sedai, he heard that hateful voice behind him.
“Wait for me,” Logain said. “I need to talk to you, Warder.”
Forsaken_1 stopped, and turned his scathing sarcasm and dislike on the tall, craggy channeler. “What do you want? Feeding time isn’t until five, and if you want anything else, I’m sure your handlers will deal with it.”
“Who?” Logain frowned, then his brow cleared. “Oh, Debs. She’s a lot of woman, isn’t she?”
“Too much for you,” Forsaken_1 declared sulkily.
Logain smiled uncomfortably. “Uh, I’m sure,” he said, and then lowered his voice. “Look, I’ve seen how things are here, and I know how you feel about me. You’ve made it pretty obvious.”
“I wasn’t trying to hide it.”
“Yes, I know. It’s just … well, I have to tell you this. Of course, if you tell anybody else, they probably won’t believe you. Even if that wasn’t so, I know I can trust you. This whole Dragon Reborn thing is a setup, isn’t it?”
“I mean, I’m grateful that they Healed me and everything, that was amazing, and Debs has been … very nice to me. But I know the Prophesies of the Dragon. He has to die, and be tortured, and destroy half the world, and slum around with the Aiel, and … Foreskin, it’s just not me.”
“But … but you were walking around pretending to be the Dragon for months!”
“That was a means to an end. You understand all too well, Warder. Find a good manly pursuit, people admire you and want to follow you, they respect you and the women flock to you. And their men follow, whether they like it or not. Be a dashing rogue, be a daring warrior. It’s bold and nobody suspects a thing. I was only planning on being the Dragon Reborn for a little while, before finding a nice guy and settling down into obscurity.”
“You mean madness and death,” Forsaken_1 snapped. “And good riddance too … wait. Did you say ‘nice guy’?”
“Well, you know how it is, being a Warder and everything. It’s the same sort of deal.”
“What? I was a Whitecloak before I was a Warder.”
Logain chuckled and touched Forsaken_1’s arm. “We all try that way first.”
Forsaken_1 pulled back. “What are you trying to say?”
“Oh come now, you’ve already admitted it – you said you weren’t hiding the way you felt about me, and I knew all along that you weren’t. The way you always prance and strut and posture when I’m around, the way you practice your sword forms, the way you’re always letting me see your calves and backside when you bend over in that cloak…”
“The way you so desperately pretend to be in love with Debs, Light bless her…”
“I do the same thing when I feel something for a man. I behave like a complete womanizer. It’s a weapon. A weapon the likes of us are forced to use.”
Logain smiled gently. “I see you need more time to come to terms with this,” he said. “I’ll give you time, my hero. But you should keep quiet about this. I’ll be the Dragon for as long as you need me to be, but I’m not going to try and kill the Dark One. I could get hurt. Could you forgive yourself if that happened … Foreskin?” he caressed the word with his unshaven lips.
“Yes!” Forsaken_1 yelped, hating the sudden dryness in his mouth.
Logain laughed again. “You know where I’ll be, Warder. Just remember, they’ll never believe you.”
He melted back into the gardens, leaving Forsaken_1 with his head spinning.
One morning, Gaul abruptly decided that the mountains were treacherous and impossible to traverse.
“We ain’t goin’ back, are we?” Shannon sighed.
“I see no alternative, Nancy Sidesaddle,” the Stone Dog said grimly. “We have already lost a third of our warriors. For every one who falls down a crevasse and bounces back to the path completely unhurt by amazing good fortune, there is another who dies in his sleep for no reason and is found in the morning completely drained of blood and with holes in his neck, presumably from a very small avalanche or two ranks of extremely disciplined mosquitoes … we can not go on like this. My companions are beginning to mutter.”
“So what are we gonna do?”
“I see no other way. My search for the Car’a’carn has failed, Nancy Sidesaddle. You were a good companion, for a Wetlander woman. But now we must head back to the Threefold Land, and continue our preparations there. The maps were not enough, and that we know where the Car’a’carn was living as a child … well, that is a thing, and no mistaking it. But it is not enough. We must return,” he lowered his voice. “My companions and I are nervous about this thing you call shmoe.”
“Snow,” Shannon corrected. “And it ain’t hardly nothin’ to a-fret about.”
Gaul climbed to his feet. “We turn back,” he said decisively. “If you wish to part company with us and head through the high passes on your own, that is your business, Nancy Sidesaddle. We shall take our provisions and our gai’shain and we shall return to Imran Hold. You are welcome to carry on without us. Your wagon will not move so well, I think, without gai’shain to pull it.”
Grumbling to himself, Shannon crossed the campsite and hauled himself up into the battered wagon. Dr. Nick looked up from one of the gadgets Cooper Two had identified as an Angry Al.
“I can’t get any of these things to do anything,” he complained. “I know some of them are meant to be things that people can use even if they can’t channel, you know, some sort of things. But none of them do anything that I can spot.”
Shannon sat down on the television ter’angreal. “We’ve got a problem,” he said. “This here bunch o’ Aiel are turnin’ back and goin’ back to the Waste. I think the problem is, them’s still a-runnin’ too early, and they can’t go appearin’ in the Wetlands until the story says they do. Which ain’t for a whiles yet. So that’s why they’re messin’ around. As soon as they get to Imran Hold, they’ll probably turn right on around and come back. Gaul bein’ a ta’veren up the wazoo doesn’t help either.”
“What about me?” Dr. Nick frowned.
“You’re their gai’shain for a year and a day,” Shannon said. “You go back with them. I do too, unless I want to be stuck up here and freeze or starve to death.”
“Or get drunk with Coop,” Dr. Nick said. “And I don’t mean that in a good way.”
“Where’s Coop at anyway?” Shannon looked around the wagon, trying to tell if there was a narrow slot anywhere the gholam could have slipped into for a snooze. “We’ve gots to tell him.”
“Don’t know where he is,” Dr. Nick replied. “He went off somewhere. I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell him about this. He’d go completely nuts if he found out we were postponing the, uh, hit. And then he might find out the hit’s been hit for three thousand years. And then he’d go even more completelier nuts.”
“Lews Therin Is Alive And Well And Waiting For Cooper Two To Show Up And Kill Him,” Shannon intoned loudly, just in case Cooper Two was listening somewhere. “That’s all we need to say on that there subject.”
“Yeah,” Dr. Nick agreed. He supposed it would be easy enough to tell the gholam about Lews Therin being reborn. He was from the Age of Legends, so he should have no problem coming to terms with the idea of the Wheel and Ages and everything. The only problem was, would they be able to convince Cooper Two that Rand al’Thor was now a viable target in Lews Therin’s place, or would the gholam go insane simply because his intended target was dead? And did they really want Cooper Two to try and kill Rand anyway? If he won, then Rand would be dead and the Dark One would be victorious, whatever that meant. And if Rand won, then Cooper Two would probably be incinerated somehow. And Dr. Nick and Shannon both kinda liked him, in a weird nervous sort of way. “Well then, I guess we go back. We’ll just find some way of breaking it to him easy.”
“Breaking who easy?”
Cooper Two vaulted into the back of the wagon with fluid grace. He pointed a thumb back over his shoulder.
“I brought you guys another bear,” he said. “I was feeling rustic, and I know how annoyed you got when I had that last guy. The way I see it, we’ll be out of the mountains soon, and I can get my buzz on with the Wetlander people, right? Right. So who are you breaking?”
“Um, ah,” Shannon said.
“Uh,” Dr. Nick added.
“Nobody,” Shannon concluded.
Cooper Two regarded the strained rictus of nervousness on the merchant’s face, and shrugged casually. “Fine,” he said. “If you want to go around breaking things without my help, you can go ahead. Just save me some blood, okay? I made these barrels,” he jumped back off the wagon and hefted two small black casks. “I can put blood in them and store it, you see, sort of like batteries. Quick energy if I run low. I’ll make some more barrels and fill them up and that should last me right up until go-time,” he beamed. “I can even use bear blood. It’ll be fun. Want to help me wring out a grizzly?”
“Ah, there you are, Cooper Two,” Gaul said cheerfully, walking up to the wagon. “I was just telling your friends that we are heading back to the Imran Hold tomorrow morning. Our mission into the Wetlands is over.”
“Oh,” Cooper Two said, turning to look at Shannon and Dr. Nick. His eyelid twitched once.
“Yes,” Gaul turned and tripped over the twisted bear-carcass. He laughed. “Another bear! You are quite the hunter, Cooper Two.”
“Yes I am.”
There was a tense silence as Gaul walked away.
“Coop…?” Shannon ventured.
“I’m going to make some barrels,” Cooper Two said cheerfully, and vaulted off the back of the wagon. Shannon and Dr. Nick breathed easily.
Evening came and went, and the group bedded down for the night.
Sometime in the small hours of the morning, Shannon was awakened by a scream. He tried to sit up, and found he was securely tied up in what looked like strips of human skin with gobbets of flesh still sticking to them. The bonds were soft and warm and slippery, but horribly tough. He wriggled and flopped over onto his side and stared out through the rear of the wagon as another scream pierced the air and was smothered with a wet crumpling noise.
The gaunt, liquid shape of Cooper Two stepped into his line of sight. He was holding a barrel in one hand and what Shannon’s imagination managed to unfold and un-wrinkle into an Aielman in the other. He was siphoning blood off into the barrel with practiced ease.
“We’re going to Lews Therin Telamon,” Cooper two said cheerfully. “You, me, Dr. Nick, Gaul, and all the barrels you can carry. Any questions?”
The Ogier Council was a long and boring affair, the only highlight being Loial’s impassioned speech about the evils of mainstream living and the eternal menace of following the herd. He urged the Council to vote on what to do, and then go with the absolute minority vote. Mister C of 9 looked on in approval as the Ogier hoomed and hahhed and hommed about the issues at hand, and Verin looked ready to pull her hair out. After a long time, none of the Ogier could really go on defending the fact that they approved of things for the sake of approving, and all decided that Loial’s views were excellent and would be adopted as standard forthwith.
Mister C of 9 didn’t seem to be aware of the irony of the entire group deciding that conformity was bad.
“Another blow struck against the blandness of pop culture and American world-devourment and the homogenising of all things tasteful into hateful American pap!” he declared.
“American?” Chucky hissed while everybody looked a little confused. The Ogier were staring down at the skinny little person who had interrupted their meeting. “Need I remind you, Mister See, we are in another world entirely and nothing you have to say about America is relevant.”
“Pfft,” Mister C rejoined.
Having reached a decision concerning the evils of mainstream fascism, the Ogier went on to decide whether or not to allow the visitors access to their Waygate. Seven of the councillors voted against it. Three voted that the newcomers be kept in the stedding for their own safety. One voted that they be allowed to use the Ways for whatever they wanted.
So it was thanks to Mister C of 9 that they ended up standing just outside stedding Tsofu, facing the Waygate. He didn’t let them forget it, either.
“So … why are we here? Who got the Ogier to agree?”
“Shut up, C.”
“I was just wondering. Was it because of what I told Loial? Because of my views on mob rule and individuality?”
“Fine. I was just asking.”
Verin opened the Waygate, and swore. With a dreadful, chittering howl, Machin Shin churned against the silvery surface of the entrance. Everybody’s heads were immediately filled with a mad monologue of chewing and eating and devouring and munching.
“I’m hungry,” Chucky grumbled.
“Close the gates!” Ingtar roared, and Verin channeled angrily at the swelling mass of darkness. “We’ll not get through this way. How are we to pursue the Horn if the Black Wind awaits us at every turn?”
“Portal Stone,” Chucky said.
“Not again,” Hurin and Loial moaned. Verin looked at Chucky again with norrow eyes.
“I read about it,” Chucky said. “In a book.”
“What was the book called?” Verin said.
“Reflections of the Wheel,” Chucky replied. “I think. The Lady Selene had a copy that she showed me, when we got trapped in a Portal Stone alternate world last time.”
“She never showed you a book,” Mister C of 9 scoffed. “Ow.”
“I would very much like to meet this Lady Selene,” Verin said. “And this book of hers. But anyway, I know a little of Portal Stones, though I lack the power to use one properly. If the Ogier can lead us to-”
“Hey,” Mat said excitedly. “Look, it’s Egwene.”
Verin stopped, and spun back to the Waygate. She stared at the small collection of people gathered on the far side of the silvery barrier.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she demanded.