Down in the city, things were serene. It was market day every day in Tear, and the sounds of clucking hens, lowing cattle and laughing tradesmen was everywhere. The bright early-morning sun shone down on everybody impartially, and the future looked just as luminous.
Jatrel Bandar was in town selling geese. He was confident of a good sale, because he’d spent the last year building the animals up on the best feed and the best possible treatment. Even now, the plump animals were stacked neatly, their merry honks blending with the rest of the marketplace din. Each goose had a small separate cage to itself, and these he had piled up in a neat column, five wide and seven high, facing forwards so the long, graceful, healthy necks of his prize stock protruded from the display and the good condition of the animals was readily apparent. With the money he was going to make selling this fetching collection of fowl, he was going to make the move into the lucrative chicken and pheasant industry, and make a real name for himself.
Or, more accurately, Jatrel Bandar was going to be reborn as a red-shirted ensign.
“Good morning, master Bandar!”
The merchant who was approaching was one of the most influential in the city, connected with the High Lords themselves. And he was gazing admiringly at the geese. Jatrel greeted the man courteously, his heart all aflutter.
“These are fine birds, master Bandar,” the merchant said, “fine birds. I could give you a half-crown for each of them and still be robbing you!” he gave a merry belly-chuckle. “There’s to be a big party at the Stone next month, and I need well-fed geese like these. We need them alive and healthy, you see, for the liver and broth. We don’t plan on plucking them until the very afternoon of the party, so you can see why healthy birds are worth the price.”
The truth was, Jatrel had only been planning on selling the entire bundle for three crowns, which was how much it would cost to buy a bunch of chickens, a few pheasant chicks and a whore for the remainder of the afternoon. But he stammered modestly anyway. The merchant reached into his money pouch without any further discussion, and that was about when things turned to absolute shit for Jatrel Bandar.
First of all, a searing blue stripe of light appeared at one edge of his goose-display, and then revolved swiftly across the front of the cages, lopping off every single goose head with surgical precision. The bodies flapped and shat and beat themselves against their cages, spraying blood everywhere, as the heads pattered onto Bandar’s shoes.
Then a huge, hairy man stepped out of the glowing frame, smiled down at Jatrel, and then did something absolutely awful to him.
Then he killed him.
The screams started in the marketplace, where the wards Be’lal, Aginor and Sammael had set up detected a prolonged gateway action. Pandemonium ensued as a large, unruly group of Borderlanders and renegade channelers – male and female – poured through the gateway and began dealing out mindless, brutal destruction.
From another quarter of the city, hysterical reports filtered into the Stone of weird events in the old Ogier grove. A great black tendril of pure evil crawling out of the Waygate, snatching gardeners and plants at random and dragging them into shrieking oblivion, that sort of thing. The supposed instigators of the attack were a motley collection of terrorists including a Warder and Aes Sedai, a Tinker, a wolf, and several other individuals who seemed to be different with every new report.
From the same region, though far more scarcely and radiating outwards with the speed of panic, there were also reports of a giant made of trees rampaging through the streets, and a mysteriously invincible man who tore out the throats of his victims with his bare hands.
Under cover of bedlam, a small but highly efficient team of ruthless Aielmen had also entered the city, making for the Stone and sticking spears into everybody who got in their way.
And it had seemed like being such a nice day.
Nodding to himself, Angamael stepped out of his room and headed for the Heart, leaving behind his little collection of treasures, along with a small, unobtrusive fourth item.
In the confusion that had accompanied Fain’s atrocity-riddled entrance of Tear, almost everybody had been separated in the terrified crowds of merchants. Debs and Janica had ended up hurrying down a side-alley with Loial and Logain. Vamps was stumbling along behind them, but of the rest there was no sign. Janica considered that something of a relief.
“Noo, where to?” Debs puffed, stopping at a corner. A small group of Defenders of the Stone rushed past the intersection, pursued by a tall grinning Aielman.
“For the Taardad!” he cried, hurling a spear. “Hah! Right in the spine!”
“Well,” Janica said, wishing – not for the first time – that she had a cigarette and three cream cakes. She cursed the a’dam with the same thought. “Everybody will be trying to get to the Stone. Remember the books, though. Mat uses fireworks to make a hole in the wall, and the Aiel get in that way. Only I don’t think Mat’s had the chance to get to know any Illuminators in this version of events.”
“Nae worries,” Debs said firmly. “We danna need tae worry aboot fireworks, we can jes’ blast a hole in the fecker wi’ the Pooer.”
“We danna even need to do that,” Janica replied. “It seems a shame to compromise a building this old and historical,” it seemed a shame, she added in her mind, to blow a hole in the only building that she could actually see at a distance of greater than three feet. The Stone was utterly enormous. Banging a hole in the thing with fireworks simply defied physics. “We can Travel in there directly, now that we know how it’s done,” of course, stepping through a hole in space and into the Stone instantaneously defied physics as well, but this had never pretended to be a perfect universe. If it was, she’d have spectacles. “We can go straight there.”
There was a rumbling, creaking noise, and an avalanche of greenery swept past, heading in the same direction as the Aielman had been. In its wake, tiny green shoots started to spring up between the cobblestones.
“That was the Green Man!” Loial exclaimed. “I saw him in the Blight, when Rand al’Thor was killed.”
“Aye, we were there, with some friends of ours,” Debs said. “Actually, they were Ogier. They saw ye – been lukin’ fer ye fer some time, I reckon.”
Loial was staring at the sul’dam in dawning horror. “You know Erith’s brother Hoarni?”
“Hoarni’s Erith’s brother?” Janica demanded. “He can’t be – remember how he always used to talk about her fuzzy little ears?”
“Aye, but it’s Hoarni,” Debs pointed out.
“Where are they now?” Loial asked, looking behind him. There was just Logain, guarding their backs with saidin pulsing unhealthily through him.
“Somewhere,” Janica said shortly. “They were taken prisoner. I think they might be in the Stone as well.”
“I wonder why the Green Man was carrying a Tinker wagon?” Vamps murmured, fingering the puckered wound in his side. Nynaeve and Liandrin had grudingly Healed it, but of course it had not taken the treatment and was now aching again and racking him with chills. A small, dominantly-Puddin part of him was worried about Nynaeve. She had been with Liandrin when they all stepped through the gateway, still involved in the Link and all the stuff that apparently came along with the Link, none of which had been in the story he’d read. When he’d staggered through the gateway and recovered from the screaming fit he’d had to have upon landing on his knees in a pile of trampled goose-heads, Puddin had looked up and his lady friend was nowhere to be seen.
Muffin Vamps wondered if maybe Nynaeve and Liandrin could be convinced to remain Linked, and spend the night with him, so he could pretend the orgasms were because of him. When he snapped back out of his daydream, it was to see a shimmering blue gateway sliding closed nearby, with all his companions on the other side. He whimpered and launched himself through the narrowing gap.
“Ach,” Debs said in disappointment.
Cooper Two swept through the streets of Tear like liquid death. Occasionally he would put his fingers to his temple and speak into an imaginary earpiece.
“Roger that, moving on on the target, t-minus three blocks and closing, bravo alpha tango, roger that, over.”
He stepped into a small herb shop, and pulled off the face of a screaming old woman behind the counter. He sucked the blood from the ragged mass of skin and flesh, and then mopped his brow with the wrung-out remains. He stepped back into the street, raised his fingers to his head, and ran straight into a cadin’sor-clad figure. He dislodged his jaw, opened his mouth to its full distension, and lunged. At the last moment, he paused.
“Awl?” he said.
“Well, there’s a thing!” the Aielman laughed. “It’s Cooper Two. What happened to your mouth?”
Coop locked his jaws back into place. “Nothing,” he said. “What are you doing here? I thought we left you wandering in the wilderness, desolated by the grim tale of Aiel heritage you were told by Someshta the Nym.”
“Well, yes,” Gaul said, straightening his clothes and tucking a shiny new pair of spears into the sheath at his back. He dropped to a crouch on the street as a band of Sheinarans led by Uno sprinted along the rooftops opposite, howling their obscene Borderlander battlecries. “But then I met up with Rhuarc, Clan Chief of the Taardad Aiel. He told me what had become of his party, and I suddenly realised I wasn’t so badly off after all. It seems they were set upon by Wetlander soldiers, and then when they were looking for help, a Darkfriend channeler came and did diabolical things to the injured Maidens. Then they were all dismembered by a fearsome Shadowspawn. Rhuarc did not know if there were any survivors, but he was lucky he’d split up his search teams into small groups.”
“Search teams? What were they searching for?”
“Why, the Car’a’carn, same as us,” Gaul chuckled, and patted the ground between his feet. “The one the Wetlanders call the Dragon Reborn.”
Coop twitched. “Yeah,” he said with a big grin. “Same as us. So you’re heading for the far end of the docks, I guess.”
“Why would that be?”
“Well, that’s where the Dragon is massing his troops. He’s making an assault on the Stone in a few days, but he’s collecting his people first.”
“The people of the Dragon?” Gaul exclaimed.
“Something like that.”
“I must relay this news to Rhuarc!” the Aielman sprang to his feet and dashed away. Cooper Two smiled.
“Schmuck,” he murmured, and then swept onwards, towards the Stone.
“I still don’t like it. I’m sure they meant it in a bad way.”
“They won’t hurt us, I’m sure of it! We’ve done nothing to them.”
“What else can it mean? ‘We’re going to use you as bait’, that lady said. They’re going to cut us up and feed us to the lionfish. They’re going to kill us. They’ll probably start at the feet, so we can scream all the way up…”
Over on the single straw pallet, Frendli began to moan in fear.
The four Ogier had been locked in the cell as soon as they had arrived in Tear, and the terrible Ba’alzamon hadn’t returned to continue his questioning. They’d been left to stew in their own fear, and by now they were simmering nicely. The screaming and the clash and roar of weapons and One Power filtered through to their prison, keeping them on edge. The Aes Sedai guarding them, Amico Nagoyin, had amused herself for a while with dreadful threats and promises of what was to become of them, but had then apparently decided that telling the prisoners about their plans was against some sort of new rule-code, so hadn’t said any more.
“And not even the Horn can save us now,” Coarshus went on in a wavering monologue. “It stopped working because we used it too many times, and now the enemy has it, and he’ll kill us and use the Horn himself, we’ve doomed the world to darkness…”
He was interrupted by a brief scream from outside. There was a soft collection of thumps, as if several small pieces of meat wrapped in cloth were falling to the floor, and then there was a great crash. The solid oak timbers of the door parted, revealing a dead black sword. Three more powerful sweeps, and the doorway was cleared to reveal a bedraggled myrddraal with a deafening short-sleeved tunic and only one arm. He stepped into the cell, sheathed his sword and slapped his sunglasses onto his face with a dramatic flourish. It was somewhat wasted on the Ogier, who had not seen “Ford Fairlane”, but it was still an impressive transformation.
“Mister See of Mayene!” Wyse exclaimed in relief. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to bloody rescue you,” he said. “Bugger me if I expected to be greeted as if I had come to steal a car.”
“How did you get into the Stone?”
“Through the front door. It was being guarded by a bunch of Orcs and whatever. They let me through because I had, well, my disguise. You know how good I am. Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” Coarshus asked as he followed the dark-robed figure out through the ruined doorway. The Mambo shirt fluttered, the black cloth beneath hung absolutely still.
Mister See shrugged. “I dunno. Kill stuff? Don’t look down at that.”
All four Ogier looked down.
“So many pieces,” Frendli said quietly. “So very many pieces.”
“She’s still pretty,” Hoarni added.
Coop launched himself onto the rooftops without even taking a run-up, and loped easily across the tilted slate towards the wall of the Stone. A group of Borderlanders and Whitecloaks were already there, battling back and forth aimlessly with a dwindilng unit of Defenders. The gholam wove his way through them casually, deflecting swords and ducking fists and saying “‘scuse me, coming through, pardon, oops-a-daisy, ‘scuse me, ‘scuse me” as he went. He trotted up the wall, and poured himself casually through a shadowed arrow-slit, leaving his clothes bunched up on the other side. He picked himself up, dusted himself off and ran on down the corridor, stopping long enough to kill some nobleman or other and take his clothes.
Then he headed on through the dim passageways, ascending stairs and sloping corridors wherever he could, and avoiding confrontation wherever his aggressive nature would allow it. Finally, he stepped into a large, luxurious apartment in the upper sector of the target-building, and looked around. Nobody in sight. He stepped forward. There was a sudden flash of One Power that he ignored, and walked straight across to the ornate dressing-table. On it was a golden knife, a silver trumpet, a glass sword, and a wooden hedgehog. They all sang out to his unnatural senses as items of some sort of power, and he couldn’t be bothered stopping to identify them. Coop shrugged and pocketed the items, angling the sword over his shoulder and carrying the trumpet in his other hand. He raised it to his lips and gave it a playful ‘parp parp’.
“Neat,” he said, and hurried on. This time, he headed dowanwards.
“No feckin’ way.”
Janica looked up at the incandescent blur above her. Her eyesight was less than perfect, but there was nothing wrong with the alignment of her peepers. When she saw one blur, that meant there was only one thing, and that she couldn’t see it.
But spinning slowly in the Heart of the Stone there seemed to be not one, but four Callandors.
“This was’nae in the buke,” Debs said.
“You’re right,” Loial said respectfully. He wasn’t sure who these women were, but they knew the Ogier from stedding Tsofu, and about a lot of other things besides. And sure enough, there was no mention in any books that Loial had read about that said there were any more than one Swords That Are Not Swords.
“Maybe it’s a test of some sort,” Logain whispered. “You know, pick the right one, and if you pick the wrong one there will be a death ward?”
“Could be,” Janica said. “But which one is the real Callandor?”
“Seems pretty obvious to me,” Vamps said. “Look at the floor. We’re standing in the middle of the Heart of the Stone, right, where the sword was left? But only one of those swords up there is hanging in the absolute centre of the hall. You can see the mosaic on the floor, it’s circular, and the other three are off-centre. They were added later,” he put his hands on his hips and smiled proudly.
“He’s right,” Logain said. “But would it be that simple?”
“Only one way to be sure,” Debs said. “Vamps, grab a sword.”
“Wait!” Janica held up her hands, and everybody stopped and looked at her. “What’s this on my fingers?”
Loial leaned closer. “It’s plaster. From the tiles, no doubt.”
Logain stepped back, and surveyed the scene. “The tiles have been replaced,” he said. “The centre of the mosaic has been moved. It’s a very subtle change, but it’s noticeable if you look at the nearby pillars! See, the centre isn’t beneath this sword,” he pointed, then turned and pointed again, “it’s beneath this one.”
Logain reached out and plucked Callandor from the Heart of the Stone.